We are talking about skunks.
It is their season, and they love Ann Arbor (I can’t blame them), and everyone in the group has a tale to tell about coming face to face with one, two, even a family of the striped creatures.
“We watch them walk across the golf course every night,” Jesse says. He tells our friends they’ve made a home in the wall of pine trees in our neighbor’s backyard.
One friend tells of a silver skunk that roams the neighborhood, and we all decide this is a legend in the making—an old, wise, silver skunk that sees all, knows all. If he could speak, oh! the stories of Ann Arbor he’d tell.
This place wasn’t always called York, nor did it have outside seating. Where we are enjoying our evening used to be a pathway from the parking overflow to the front of the store. When we first moved here, I would park in the back and walk through the gravel makeshift path to get a coffee and sit—for just a few minutes—before picking up my girls at After Care at the school they attended.
I felt guilty about this habit of mine. The macchiato I drank didn’t help. It was perfection and here I was enjoying it instead of taking care of my kids. I kept doing it, though. In the early evening, after driving from my job in Detroit, I’d follow this ritual: park in the back, walk through the sort of courtyard, and into the coffee shop then called Morgan and York.
It’s strange to call this a ritual, I suppose, but I was trying to soothe myself. Back then, I was scattered, unsteady, and I hoped that walking on gravel—even for a short time—would ground me. I hoped it would at least slow me down.
The barista at the time, who made the most gorgeous foam art to top off the delicious macchiatos, must have decided that I looked like I’d either been to war or dragged behind a bus because he often made a double and charged me for a single. I’d take my drink, sit by the window and sip for 15, maybe 20 minutes trying to push past my guilt for not grading papers, not getting my kids, not planning the next day’s lessons, but instead enjoying watching the evening come in.
Once, while I was waiting in line to order I noticed a poem hanging on the side of the cash register. It was a sonnet written in celebration of Morgan and York.
“Who wrote this?” I asked the barista who, by now, no longer asked my order. He’d see me, and lift a maroon mug from the stack and get to work.
“We don’t know,” he said above the hiss of the machine. “It’s a mystery poet,” he explained.
“Yeah.” He swirled the milk in the pitcher then gave it a light thud. “Whoever it is writes sonnets for shops all over Ann Arbor then leaves them on the door for the owners to find.”
He was silent as he poured the milk over two shots of espresso.
“Nobody has ever discovered who it is,” he said, sliding the mug carefully toward me so as not to disturb the heart that withered slightly from the movement.
Eventually, I stopped entering Morgan and York through the gravel path route. Part of it had do with the weather. It wasn’t worth getting my pants and shoes wet from snow and ice. Part of it had to do with the fact that I no longer needed that ritual. I was no longer in a position where I felt rushed and pulled in so many directions all the time.
I didn’t need to force myself to slow down, and so I entered the back door where alongside the entire wall was a blackboard for anyone to write messages and we often did, including my children.
One evening, everything was erased except for one note from the owner explaining that soon this place would be called “York,” and it would become even more of a gathering place. There would be music and art, more tables, and a larger menu.
The night I read the owner’s message, I’d come to work on a piece of writing that would eventually become the first chapter of The Teacher Diaries. I didn’t know that then. I just knew I was in love with the story I was writing.
I’m not going to say that what happened was because of poetry—or the sonnet—but I do wonder if something about words we enjoy more than we understand them push us towards ourselves and who we are are hoping to become.
York stayed open during construction, and so I would come there regularly to write. I felt a camaraderie with the owner—both of us were working on things that at times were a mess, at times we weren’t sure what the solutions were, but we believed what could become and so we did the work.
I’m not sure this is a story about “making it,” or arrival though. While York is now a gorgeous place that serves as a neighborhood gathering spot, and while I’ve written two books since those days walking along an unmarked path, I don’t think either of us would say we’ve made it. There’s still work to be done. There are still dreams to attend to.
Four years later, I am sitting with six great friends at the same spot I walked along each weekday afternoon, all of us adding on to our silver skunk story. We talk loudly, because we are sitting six feet away from each other, and we are careful not to reach out for our food or drinks at the same time. There is a carefulness to the night, as there has been since March, and we are attending to it, doing our best to enjoy each other’s company in this strange, new world.
We’re being ridiculous, laughing loud, our story growing more wild as the sky darkens.
Certainly we don’t believe this tale we are telling ourselves. I twirl the mask I now always have on my wrist when I’m not wearing it and I glance at my friends. But maybe there’s something true about this story that I can hold onto. Maybe there’s something relatable about a character that’s been around this place forever, and that loves the town in all the ways it’s changed, and will change as the people in it. Maybe it’s the laughter we share, and that strengthens our friendship.
The owner comes outside—masked—and waves hello. He asks us how we’re doing. We chat with him for awhile, and listen to his plans for York—a Tiki bar, food trucks, an art studio. I wonder what kind of art. My friends’ voices fade and I look over at the building the owner points to and I feel that mysterious sonnet pull again.
I don’t know what it means or what I’m dreaming. I just know I like the feeling of sitting with my friends, telling stories, and laughing, as we all work to pave our way.
Twirl is writing magic.
“This book is writing gold. This book, like all of Callie’s writing, makes me sit up and pay attention to my life. She reminds me why I write my own stories—fiction and non-fiction—to make sense of the world, my thoughts, my dreams, my reflection, etc. She reminds us that real life, our every day ordinary lives, are beautiful and worth taking a closer look. There’s always more to learn about ourselves and not everything has to have a bow tied on top. We don’t always have to arrive when we think we’ve reached the end, and TWIRL is such a beautiful reminder of that. There’s magic in this book.”
– Tracy Erler
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- Fiction Prompt: Chapter Four, Into the Gray with Campfire Pies - January 4, 2021