Jenny Magnus

On the theme of Attention:

"...It made me feel a little scared to think that maybe there’s a whole class of things that I'm unaware of. That I am un-self-conscious of. And that I'm going to be forced to pay attention to. I can't quite see how I'm going to stay in the present if there are all of these things I have to pay attention to.  It all goes by so fast, it’s confusing, and I feel like I'm not really in control of it. Like it’s sweeping me along and I only have time to pick up on a few things..." Cruise Control, The Willies, 1993


 They were girls.

They whispered around each other like there was a danger

of being caught.  It was important to both

to feel secret, together.

They are women.  They speak cheerfully to each other, knowing they are being overheard.  Their husbands listen to them talking, straining to hear for any private information being exchanged, or even for the melody of privacy.  Away from their building they only say hello and pass cordially.  Where they really meet is the front lawn, two perfect squares of grass bordered by sidewalk and a fence.  They lie in the grass, in the late afternoon, while their two daughters play on the sidewalk.  The sun is low in the west, shadowed by the building into distinct geometrical shapes of shade and sun.  The younger sprawls on her back with her feet dangling in the light, the older flops diagonally to her with only her face in the shade.  Their two little daughters run up and down, their urine-jelly filled diapers bulging and distorting their body shapes.  The girls pick up rocks from under the two decorative fir trees in front of the building, and throw them into the grass where they will later be found and spit by the lawnmower.  They throw rocks at their mothers.  The women loll.  They wince when the rocks hit them, but they don’t move away or caution their children.  The younger woman scratches at her dirty jeans, the crotch smell rising, a miasma.  The ice cream bell rings in passing, the train can be heard from blocks away, but the women don’t listen; they steam and wilt, melting into the grass silently together.  When the screech of the gate from the rear of the building signals the return of the younger woman’s husband, the women flutter their eyelids and roll onto their sides, coming to kneeling, for a moment like lumbering dogs awakening from a torpor.  They gather their respective children, all without speaking, and go inside.   

They participated in games, together.

The older felt secure on skates only when the younger held her

hand.  She would skreetch childishly

being whipped by her young friend

around a circle, her outstretched arm a moving

spoke in the wheel.  She also liked crawling

on her hands and knees while the skates hung

uselessly from her feet, wheels turned

by the wind.  The younger one would ride

on her back sometimes, facing backwards,

watching the wheels.

     One day, a political poster appears in the front window of the younger woman’s home, the window that overlooks the front lawn. It doesn’t even fill the whole window, just a small blue rectangle in the lower corner of the building. The women come outside with their children, and everyone takes their places, women on the grass, children by the stones.  This day, the older woman, hotter than usual, dressed in black polyester, must wipe the sweat off her face and neck.  An ant crawls across her arm, irritating.  As she shakes the ant away, her head turns slightly and the blue of the poster enters her peripheral vision.  So she looks at it.  This woman has political credentials from her past, but the vastness of the problems, combined with the tedium of relating to the kinds of people who are involved in politics, drove her into submission and apathy.  She never regretted leaving her righteousness behind.  The sight of the poster is an electric shock.  If the older woman had been speaking, she would have been rendered speechless.  She stiffens, suddenly aware of the younger woman’s proximity to her.  They are close together, close enough to smell one another. 


The younger one liked to work together.

She would stand up, legs and feet wide apart.  She would remove

her pants and revel in the stream of piss splittering

on the ground.  The older one would turn away discretely

while she took off her pants or put them on, but would watch

while she pissed.

One more piss?

 The children are playing badly on this day, fighting.  The older woman’s child is tender, sensitive, talkative, strange.  The youngers’: a pistol, yelling, pushing, resisting her friends proffered kisses.  They argue over the stones, who’s stone is whose, where to throw them, whether to hug.  This conflicted play is not unusual; this is their way.  The younger woman’s child throws a stone that hits the other child.  Tears, the flop, there is a cut.  This really would require the attention of the mothers, but the older woman is frozen in a paroxysm of unexpected emotion. The younger, who is pregnant, fries, placid, in the sun.  The screech of the gate signals the end of the idyll, everyone knows their part and they pair off into the building as they have done every other time.

 The world they believed in was very small.

Neither one cared to pay much attention to the other children,

their parents, school, or books.  Their only focus was on finding

space and time to be together.

 The older woman dreads mentioning the poster to her husband.  He has no tolerance for the other side; considers it a defining factor of character, supporting that villain.  She mulls it for a day and a night, surely he will see it soon.   Should she bring it up, or will he?  She thinks back over everything leading up to the sight of this horror.  The day the younger woman, then pregnant with her first child, knocked on their door in tears and asked, with no preamble, if the older woman thinks she looks alright in the evening dress she is wearing.  Her belly swells, it is beginning to be the fashion to wear revealing clothes when pregnant, but her husband thinks it makes her look fat.  The older woman likes the way it looks, she looks ripe and luscious, her long black hair and ample ass surrounding her belly like parentheses.  She is complementary, reassuring.  This is the beginning of a covert alliance, strengthened by the birth of the younger’s child, the older woman brings a lasagna, this is her ritual to all new parents, the hot meal.  The husband, good looking, young, stiff, all white teeth and crew cut, accepts the lasagna graciously but without warmth.  He is a youth pastor, the neighbors are not people of god, that is obvious, but they are kind and he can tolerate them.  The new mother is more grateful, she is exhausted by the baby and is comforted by the presence of someone who has been through it before.  She is not close with her mother, resents her litany of sacrifices, and likes the older woman’s off-handed practical matter-of-factness about the body, the baby, the world.  The older woman is easy about things, the early medical scare where the young couple’s car won’t start and the older woman gave them the keys to her car without hesitation, the shy but burgeoning sharing of babysitting back and forth for quick trips to the store, the way the older woman calls the youngers’ baby Beautiful, like a name.  A contentment with the slow growth of intimacy surrounds the two women like a glow, they are not friends, wouldn’t call it that, but they don’t really need to call it anything.  No one out in the world would know they knew each other, but they recognized something together: that they had stepped over a line, firmly drawn, and could never go back. 

 They avoided confrontation.

If a demonstration or protest ever spontaneously gathered,

they would silently agree to leave

and never re-visit that particular place.  No speech

would be exchanged, no looks, it was just known

and understood between them.

They played alone.

All this the older woman pondered, worrying over the poster.  She feels something has to be done, but can’t imagine what.  Should she mention it to the younger?  This feels so wrong, an intrusion, and not a part of the silent contentment they shared.  She considers putting up a poster for the other side, but she and her husband hate the other side as well, just not with as much rancor and rage.  She wasn’t for anyone, only against.  And in a way, she respected the young couple for caring enough to put up any poster at all.  The thoughts come in waves, she awoke in the middle of the night by the certainty that their support stemmed from a Christian perspective, unquestioning and dutiful.  This horrified her even more- they had a child and one on the way, how could they be so blind to the consequences of an election?  Were they only ignorant?  Or willfully bigoted?  A day later, she sits in her car as the thought comes: what can they possibly think of us?  They must hate us, distrust us, find us suspicious.  Are they judging us and even pitying us?  The older woman finds these thoughts so painful, she is taken by surprise.  The grief is sharp, she weeps.  Her husband has only contempt, he acts completely in character, with pronouncements of the end of the children playing together, he must protect his child from the inculcation of these revolting, conservative ideas.  The older woman argues for tolerance, a live and let live attitude that she doesn’t really feel.  Her husband’s mother comes to visit, she is even more militant than her son, she considers putting up a poster over the one in the window, climbing on a ladder in the dead of night, just wiping out the offending beacon of wrongness.  The older woman manages to steer her mother-in-law away from this strategy, focusing on the problem of just which poster could possibly replace the offending one, for whom could one proclaim one’s alliance?  There is no one.  Slowly the days pass, and the poster sits in the window, fading with the sun.  The election draws near, the older woman feels the tension stretch and pull, elastic.  She does nothing; only turns her back on the poster, like it is in a perpetual state of removing its’ pants, and she turns around only in time to watch the younger woman coming in and out of the building, growing large with the child inside her. 

No one really knew they knew each other.



The Dark Ages


She was washing a reeking chicken.  Taking a dinner party risk, putting the family in the pot along with the vegetables. Smelling wafters of putridity along with the spices.  She had certainly cooked a million of them, baked, roasted, boiled.  This one was most definitely over the line.  Even the washing didn’t seem to remove the nagging smell.  As she cooked, her long blue wrap of silky dusky blue was coming untied, like her plans.  Falling apart, going down the drain with the watery blood, down.  

She told herself that cooking it at the highest temperatures would help, believing that heat would heal and disarm, trump the passed expiration date.  She supervised the table setting, the water glasses, the napkins folded in a funny way by the kid in the family.  Tonight it was a diamond.  She thought, that’s the hardest thing on earth, a diamond.   Watching the outside of the chicken through the oven door as it cooked, as if that would reveal the rot; it looks fine, it looks good, it looks perfect, it looks fine…

The guest arrived, the chicken came out.  She sniffed it surreptitiously in the kitchen, carving it and sniffing it, serving it and sniffing it… Conversation, laughter, all couched, for her, by the waiting.  Waiting after dinner for the first sign of gut wrench and roiling nauseal upheaval, waiting with a morbid assurance that vomit will be the end of the evening’s activity.  She experienced a stretching out of time, her mind telling her that every moment is the last good one, now the storm starts, now, no, now…She watched each person closely, any sign of discomfort or a passing grimacethe beginning of it…she was sure…

The heaving doesn’t happen.  No one gets sick.  Except she was sick, with tension.  So, after all was said and done, she had to reconsider what she thought she knew about rot. 


She loved hotels.  Every few months she would book a hotel, and go sit in the room.  She wouldn’t need to travel anywhere in particular, often the hotel was near her own house.  She would tell her family, “So long, suckers!  I’ll be back when I’m back.  Take care of yourselves for a while!”  She said “See you soon, I love you…”  , really.  She thought that living in a hotel was like never having a real personality, a real life.  Every day, someone comes into the room where you've been living and cleans up your world for you.  She could pretend, every single day, that she hadn't dirtied herself or any others, and the evidence of her messes and her situations was always gone.  It was a fresh start whether she deserved it or not.  She may have debauched herself unforgivably the night before, but by the next afternoon, she was a clean-liver.  If it was bottles, they'd be gone.  Piles of food wrappers, gone.  Whole boxes of used sobby Kleenexes, gone.  If it was bloody sheets, gone.  So nothing ever added up to sully her name or give her a reputation.  The only people who truly knew her were the hotel staffs.  They became her conscience.  They'd been the ones cleaning up her crimes over the years.  It was because of them she could look at the moon through a clean window.  But once it was time to go home, suddenly it seemed like there was no cleaning up.  The evidences of her experiences had begun to pile high and follow her like toilet paper stuck to her shoe.  She couldn’t believe how quickly things got dirty.


She sat and stared at the pundits.  They seemed to speak directly to her, prophesying Babylon and mortuary fanfares, fancy hassle almost premiers, and riotous abject mass dismay wagons.   She heard really only one thing: its over its over its over.  Wake up and get ready for it to be over, get dressed and get ready for it to be over, eat quick, its about to be over, stop whining, its already over.  She wondered how they got to be pundits anyway, who licensed them for punditry, because she had a lot to say when it came down to it, she could lay it out on the self-important egg waggers who represented what?  Not her position, because if any of them were ever to find themselves in her position, she sure as shit would have no mercy, like none was done to her.  She squinted closer, her bad eye a melon splat in her vision, David Gergan already melon-headed to begin with and more so as she switched from Walgreens 4x magnifiers to dark glasses to nothing, restless to find her way back to real vision like it used to be.  It usting to be something else was a dead trap of grey parachute folding freefall dinge, because even if they all acted like they knew, facebooking and texting, shoulder patting and bump hugging, sympathizing and empathizing all over her, they didn’t know, they didn’t know at all.  They couldn’t know, and thus, by virtue of her knowing, she was the true expert pundit of righteous anger analysis and detailed sufferance cataloguing.  Get her on there with Wolf fucking Blitzer, she’d destroy them with incisive dissolving laser rayed deaths head precipice chickening.  They would hear and know, then, what real insight was.




They both heard the same music at the end


His little album recorded 2 years before his death

All arranged and accompanied professionally

His voice already weakened

Down a few notches from his peak bellow

But captured just in time

Standard love songs to her and

Dopey a capella originals

Skippable then but precious now

Revealing his sensibility in ways

Songs written by others never could

Playing on repeat

Over a stereo with speakers

Bought for himself

His own voice echoing to him

All the way- first down

Then up and out

As his body finally! Finally gave in


And she having no struggle at the last

Worn out over years of terror

More a deep sleep death

Everything retreating inward

Inexorable but slowly drifting

His album again on repeat

From the tinny speaker of an ipod

Lying on the blanket

Near her head so the volume could be kept low

So as not to disturb

The old lady not yet dying in the other bed

Finally they moved that lady out

And the volume came up

Because hearing is the last thing to go

They told me as if to comfort

No feeling of up and out that time

Just a weird last inhale never followed

By anything

So strangely subtle

It wasn’t obvious for a while

Until the ipod fell silent

Its batteries dying too