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The Big Idea

Lisa Schamess

We were the envy of the world. Men were men. The worth of a woman was measured by how she remembered birthdays. Most of us were mostly invisible, in ways large and small. Everybody smoked. Our towns and highways spooled out across the land that we severed, with permits and claims, from the people who had lived there, some thousands of years. Now their children did what they could to survive around mile markers and federal boundaries, overpasses and dumps. Diners were everywhere, with sleek aluminum sides holding unfathomable plenty, rising from the fragrant baptism of the deep fryer, or opulently seeping fruit filling or cream topping from glass cases. In the Big City, automats. A slice of pie behind a sliding window: was there nothing we couldn’t do? This was the decade of plenty between the unthinkable and the unimaginable. In this era of gold and gray, wandered Roy. He’d been a poet for five minutes, forming the edges of a bad habit, with a bathtub in the kitchen of his walk-up. Then he came to his American senses and made a place for himself in insurance. He was 35, and the actuaries assured him that he had at least 20 good years left. He got selling. He made bank. Never felt like enjambing anymore. One day he was crossing the Avenue against the wind to get his bus, coat flapping. Looked down, caught a glimpse of his face in his shoes. What am I? When he stumbled into the stranger walking beside him, the man’s neck radiated animal warmth. The stranger reared back and said, almost in wonder, Say! What’s the big idea? Roy felt maybe fatally transcendent, traffic heading toward him as he lingered, not ready to part from the way. Here came a leaf, falling from a tree across the street that he remembered his mother describing. Its three lobes were as red as a heart, a benediction and greeting: the sassafras tree. In its branches, two mourning doves moving. One stayed put just as Roy took a step. The other flew off, wings whistling in that high-pitched, unknowable sound of its flight.

Lisa Schamess is based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She is author of the novel Borrowed Light (SMU Press, 2002) and has had her fiction and essays featured in Glimmer Train, Creative Nonfiction, Defunct, TOSKA, and Baltimore Review, among other publications.