The Moment After

I was in the expected table at an expected Starbucks this morning, reading a short story: “The Shape of Water” by Mark Slouka, from his book Lost Lake. Distractions abounded. A girl with ash on her head stared vacantly in my direction. A man with a bike and an old boom box danced on the sidewalk to Jethro Tull—whenever the door opened, the notes of the song came in. He was not a good dancer. Babies in strollers knocked coffee beans to the floor.

But then I lost myself in the story. I read slowly, sentence by sentence, and when I reached the end I held on to the last word for a while and then—inexplicably—flipped back to the start so I could read the opening paragraph again:

Some say the soul tempered by fire—tortured true—is the better for the trial. Perhaps it is so. But I was born between the wars. My adventures were of the survivable kind, my tragedies ambiguous and undramatic, observed as much as felt. What formed me were anecdotes—often inconclusive, generally unheroic—connected to a particular forty acres of water. An unexceptional place. I did not choose it. And yet, if I could ever open myself, I suspect I’d find its coves there, its sleeping silt, its placental water smooth with algae… and the faces of those I’d known, revealed as clearly as if mine had been that lake of legend said to reflect the hidden heart.

I closed the book and sighed. I felt a little choked up.

“Are you okay?” the girl with ash on her head called over.

I said I was.

“Good,” she said. “I was worried. It looked like something terrible just happened.”

I didn’t tell her what had happened: it was the story, only a story, but the weight of the words made it seem like so much more.


  1. Although this is a comment on a fairly incidental part of your post, I can remember my first ash wednesday in college. I don’t know if perhaps I just didn’t grow up around many catholics, but I didn’t know what I was seeing at first. The first person I saw with the ash that day, I simply thought had a very unfortunate birthmark. And then I saw another. I couldn’t help but think, “What the fuck?” And didn’t find out what it was until I mentioned it to someone. My friend Jeremy called it “Zits for Christ”.

  2. It never dawned on me that the ash on the head might be intentional. How odd. Ain’t seen that in Germany. Or South Africa. Or England. Or maybe I don’t get out enough.

    Sounds like a beautiful story you were reading, though …

  3. About the ash on the head… I, too, first saw this as an adult. I think it may have been when I moved to New York City for graduate school. It was very confusing at first. Adam, your comment was very funny.
    And yes the story was beautiful. It was about fishing of all things! I’m a vegetarian, and on top of that am easily grossed out, so for a story about fishing to affect me in such a way shows that it must be DAMN good.

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