Go past the other high school on the hill, a half mile down, another up the next hill, turn right past two chipped and whitewashed gates, a hundred yards past overgrown tennis courts and an unmoored volleyball net, to the concrete parking lot adjacent to three rising stories of brick and decrepit ivy, then turn right down the steps and into the basement and further down the unlit hallway, the pipes clanking, footsteps drumming overhead in quadrants of thunder, to the swinging doors of the old kitchen and through them and there, by the Hobart mixer, her hair blown grey with flour, a towel wrapped round her waist like a pinned and empty kite, you’ll find her if you want her.
She looks up, her vision level with the grass-line bifurcating the basement window—a dichotomy of mysterious dirt and vague sky—a spider-web like a curtain sash, the grime of miscalculated years rubbing the edges of the glass pane opaque, unfocused. She pushes the hair from her face, pale and shadowed with freckles, shifts her feet inside her worn leather clogs. An abrupt bell, the fifteenth of the forty-four that will ring that day. She scrapes down the bread dough from the cavernous sides of the mixer. Her eyes scan the tops of the shelves, cluttered with vegetable oil vats, huge cans of tomatoes, cardboard government boxes of beans. There is nothing to read.
How she got here? Fourty-five years clicked around their impervious circle, some clockwise, some not. There was a childhood that belonged to someone else, years like water, repeating ghosts. Murie Cornish was born in a small town in Montana. No, Idaho. Her mother taught kindergarten, her father worked in an office, her sister came and left. Multiplication tables, bologna sandwiches in paper bags, boys with indecipherable eyes. She remembered crying into her cat’s striped fur in the hot afternoons while her mother moved in a separate universe of laundry and envelopes. I grew up, she says to herself, throwing flour across the old metal countertop and pounding the dough with the hard base of her palm.
Murie spoons out ground coffee from a metal can into the old Chemex carafe she’d installed in a corner near the sinks, pours boiling water over the grounds, waits, pours some more. Scalding hot, slightly bitter, black as tar. The familiar comfort of it carried a fine edge of asceticism, as if the bitterness were a necessary aspect of the ritual.
Through the swinging doors bangs the breakfast prep crew, a phalanx of disgruntled juniors and nervous freshmen. Purple hair, Che Guevara t-shirts, Union Jacks sewn across broken jeans. Inchoate dreams of Vassar and heroin, swimming pools and imaginary suburbia. Etc.
(Photograph: Olney Friends Boarding School, Barnesville, Ohio; circa 1876.)
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