Rooms at the Hotel Montana, Chapter 7


The Hotel Montana lay between the Capitol and the river on the east side of the avenue, and was built in two long wings of attached buildings which faced each other across a central courtyard. The two wings were connected by another gable-roofed building at the end, were built from blocks of quarried stone, and were painted a soft crème for the spring. There were rose bushes and day lilies in the courtyard, while beech and plane trees budded out behind both wings. I had an apartment on the second floor of the wing which faced south towards the Capitol.

Now in that apartment Marceline and I dressed for brunch. Sunlight streamed through the windows, and I could see dust motes in the sharply slanted light. Marceline took black pleated stirrup pants from the overnight bag she carried, paired them with point-toe flats, and pulled a fisherman’s sweater over her head. The sleeves of the sweater came past her wrists, and I saw again that her arms were very slender. She tousled her hair and I watched her as she dressed. The motes swirled in the sharply slanted light.

We left the apartment. It was a fine morning for a walk: the breeze was still cool, but the day was already warm and the air was fragrant with the spring. Tomorrow was Easter Sunday. We walked through the courtyard and then turned right towards downtown. Then we were at the river. Far below the arched stone bridge, the river flowed swollen and muddy. It was spring and the river was swollen. It was much better to look at the sky and the downtown buildings which revealed themselves as we turned left beyond the bridge and walked down the hill into downtown. We worked our way through the streets to the brick-paved mall at St. Clair.

At the Duchess Café across from the Old Capitol we took an outside table near the jeweler’s clock and had coffee before ordering. In that air the fragrance of the coffee was wonderful and I breathed very deeply. Parents and their small children walked through the mall, and the children raced ahead and shrieked with delight before the fountains. It was pleasant to be away from work or thoughts of work, and I resolved to keep my thoughts with Marceline.

The waiter came back with our mimosas, and then someone else brought out a basket of warm rolls beneath a white linen napkin. The butter was from local farms and was drawn by metal scoops which left designs. It was all very Southern and very charming. We ate the rolls with the fresh butter and enjoyed our coffee. Then we sipped from the flutes and looked at each other across the table.

“My, aren’t we decadent,” Marcy said.

“I’ll say we’re decadent. This is grand and you were an angel to think of it.”

“I’ll say it’s grand.”

“Say it.”

“It’s grand. I’ll be damned if it isn’t grand.”

Marcy sipped her mimosa. “Were you ever married?” she asked.

“No. I lived with someone once,” I said. “It was very long ago.”

“I was married for three years, right after school. I thought it would ruin me.”

I waited, but she didn’t say anything else. Marceline was many things, but she was not ruined. I was the ruined one, in that moment and all moments afterward. In a moment the waiter brought fresh mimosas and cups of blueberries with sweet cream. The sweetness of the blueberries balanced the tartness of the cocktails. We ordered garden omelets with sour cream and toast and enjoyed sitting there by the fountains in the sun.

“It really is true,” Marcy said as we ate. “You don’t drive very much.”

“Why should I? We travel enough for work.”

“I’ll say we do. Really, why don’t you drive?”

“I really haven’t thought about it. I’m close to the things I love and I’m a part of this place now. I see things when I walk. I talk to people and learn about things and truly belong here. I suppose I’ve always wanted to belong.”

“You belong all right.”

“Eat,” Marcy said, buttering a slice of toast.

“It’s good,” I said, busy once again with the eggs. I touched the eggs to the sour cream and lifted them to my mouth.

“Everything is so very good today.”

“I want to know everything about you, Mister,” Marcy said. “Everything.”

“There’s not much to know.”

“Oh, bloody hell,” Marcy said. “Enough of that, already. You and your modesty.”

“Hubris, you mean.”

“You’re anything but arrogant, Joe.”

“You’ll see,” I said. “I’ll show you arrogance.”

Marcy smiled and touched my hand across the table. “Show me at home,” she said. “Be arrogant with me in bed.”

It’s a lovely thing on such a morning to sit at a table in the sun with the woman you love. Here in the mall we were sheltered from the breeze and the sun was very warm. It was pleasant to live in this town and have work that you truly loved. We had another coffee after we ate, paid the check, and then followed the rail line which bisected the street. Across the way families were spreading blankets on the lawn of the Old Capitol.

“Imagine this place as it was a hundred years ago,” I said. “People getting off the train and checking into a boarding house or hotel. No cars, no phones.”

“You’re from another time,” Marcy said.

“I’m sure it’s only nostalgia. Come on. I need to check in at the bookstore.”

We walked along Broadway and the old rail line and looked into the windows of all the shops.There were galleries with paintings and sculpture works from local artists and we passed a window display where a girl was arranging hats and spring dresses. She wore lace gloves and a hat herself and she was very young. I thought she must have been working in her mother’s shop. The buildings were all two-story in the Victorian style and were painted in soft pastels. The tall windows on the upper floors all had arches or other decorative touches. There were small round tables on the sidewalk where couples drank coffee and talked among themselves. This side of the street was cooler and deeply shaded. A man wearing an old fishing cap knelt in a doorway and carved from a block of cedarwood. The shavings from the cedar smelled dry and sweet and fresh. There were historic markers on the buildings, and it seemed that everyone looked at Marceline as we passed.

Poor Richards’s wasn’t far and I held the door for Marcy as we entered. The store was narrow and high-shelved, with paint-flecked wooden ladders resting against some of the shelves. The owner, Jason Turnbull, was a poet, a dealer in rare books, and a very good friend. He looked up from behind the central counter as we walked inside.

“Haven’t seen you in a week,” Jason said as Marceline and I walked over the creaking floorboards to the counter. His eyeglasses rested at the tip of his nose. We shook hands, warmly. I was usually in the shop every couple of days.

“You know how it is,” I said. “All I’ve done is work.”

“I have the book you wanted. It came in yesterday.”

“That’s grand.” I had ordered a signed copy of Robert Penn Warren’s World Enough and Time.

Jason reached beneath the counter. I held the book and looked at the dust jacket. Then, holding the spine carefully in my left hand, I opened it to the signature.

“He signed with his nickname,” Jason said. “He saved that for family and friends, you know.”

“I didn’t know. Marceline, look at this.”

“Red,” Marcy said, reading the signature. “I did read this once. Long ago.”

“Jason, I’m overwhelmed. It came so quickly, too. Thank you, my friend.”

“It’s nothing,” Jason said. He brought out a bottle from behind the counter and poured bourbon into stoneware mugs. “Let’s celebrate. But don’t tell Mother about this,” he said.

“Not a word,” I said. “What shall we drink to?”

“To literature,” Marceline said. “And to literary men.” We touched glasses and drank.

“Good to see you so happy, Joe,” Jason said.


Wandered: Pathless at Night


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There aren’t as many titles by Rilke on the shelves of the bookstores I frequent—unlike, say, twenty years ago, when I made my first purchases of the remarkable Stephen Mitchell translations and it seemed that translators and publishers  alike were fighting over the poet’s work. At Barnes and Noble this morning, I counted just three of Rilke’s works: Mitchell’s Ahead of All Parting in the enduring Modern Library edition, Macy and Barrow’s Book of Hours in a new paperback volume, and the 2013 translation of Letters to a Young Poet by Charlie Louth. There was nothing to buy. I have them all.

The paucity made me even more sad than usual, and I began to feel hungry in the way Hemingway described in his Paris memoir. The cappuccino I set on the shelves as I browsed increased my hunger, and I enjoyed the way the flavor mellowed as the liquid warmed my tongue. But it was no substitute for food, and no replacement for new books by old friends. How have twenty years passed since my first month-long dance with Rilke, when I picked up a Mitchell translation once a week before finally realizing how deeply and directly it spoke? Is Rilke out of favor now, or is his diminished presence merely indicative of the reduced inventories of bookstores today? I thought about asking one of the few booksellers, but I didn’t want to risk a possible lack of recognition. I was already sad enough.

But the grown man
shudders and is silent. The man who
has wandered pathless at night
in the mountain-range of his feelings:
is silent.

I couldn’t help but note there’s a new run on Bret Easton Ellis. Now in new Vintage editions: Less than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms, The Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, Glamorama. Some kid is discovering Ellis at this very moment, and is probably thinking cocaine and the 1980s are very good things. I remembered the long-ago, imaginary competition between Ellis and Jay McInerney, and swam into even deeper sadness. I found both of them in my early twenties, when they were both new authors and the novel of youthful dissipation seemed something to strive for. Have I mentioned yet that this whole thing made me feel very, very tired and very, very old?

Like you, perhaps, bookstores are my sanctuary. Even if, as I suspect, they’re not quite what they used to be. Suddenly, though, I didn’t want to be in the bookstore. It felt like returning to a city you love after an absence of many years, to find your favorite restaurants closed, buildings you treasured now razed, entire blocks shuttered, all inhabitants menacing, all gods dead, all wars fought, all faith in man shaken.

Yes, I glanced at the Fitzgeralds on my way out. I long ago gave my first edition of The Last Tycoon to my youngest son, and I’ve been wanting a replacement copy ever since. I found two Gatsbys in hardcover, multiple copies of The Beautiful and Damned, and—something entirely new—I’d Die For You And Other Lost Stories. There were three copies. My heart beat faster; somehow I didn’t know they were being published. How could I not know? I examined each of them by habit, looking for the comfort of the Scribner imprint on the spine, looking to the copyright page to see whether they were first editions. They were not. Even the dust jacket seemed to miss the mark somehow, with the obligatory art deco flourish around a rather grim-looking photo of Scott. For a moment I fancied stretching out my arms towards the green light; instead, I walked out of the bookstore, deep in my sadness, head down against the rain.

Between the Scylla and Charibdes


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I dreamed of my ex-wife again, although in the dream I never saw her face. I saw only her lovely, brunette, lovingly curled hair, symbolic, I’m sure, that the woman she was then—and the woman she is now—is forever lost to me. Truth be known, she’s been lost to me for a long time. We were probably lost to each other from the start.

I call these dreams nightmares, although nothing truly frightening ever happens in these dreamscapes. I merely see my ex and our two sons as younger versions of themselves, close, sometimes beside me, but always moving, never facing me, never attainable. I suspect the dreams wouldn’t be as upsetting if not for the part of me that always knows it’s only a dream, that always grieves at the sight of my young and lost family. I talk and cry in my sleep, trying to awake. As lovely as they are, and as good as it is to see them so young, I can’t bear to lose them again—or to be reminded again of how much I’ve lost. I’ve lost part of them every day for over twelve years now; I don’t need to lose them in my dreams.

Bloody Mary with an Olive Appetizer


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Having a Bloody Mary (with extra olives, as I’m a bit hungry) at some nondescript chain restaurant while trying to overcome the feeling that because of my present circumstances I should not be here. I’m dressed adequately, however, in a brown tweed sport coat and a checked, dark pink Nautica button down, heavy starch. My jeans are dark and tailored, with freshly polished penny loafers, no socks.


Obviously, writing in this journal is a part of my increasingly evolved defenses. I purposely appear busy and engaged huddled over this journal, and hopefully even more innocuous. My hope is that it looks as if I have a reason to be here.

I look up once, twice, three times, to find a woman looking my way. It’s the act of writing in a journal, I’m sure.

I feel embarrassed about this, but I might walk across the parking lot to Barnes and Noble in a moment for a vinte cappuccino. I have twenty-five dollars in my wallet, not enough for a book, certainly, but ,enough for a coffee and The New York Times, perhaps.

I feel that I have no right to be even in this place, although of course there is nothing even remotely remarkable about this or any other chain restaurant. I’m trying to remember my own advice: act as if you’ve been here before. Act as if you belong.

I should have brought along a book. I have a few with me on this trip. When do I not have a book?

I’ve had much better Blood Mary’s, of course. But I’ve enjoyed this one regardless. Or, more accurately, I tried to enjoy it as much as I could. We will leave it at that.

I’m in one of those desperate calculations which only the impoverished truly understand. I might have a cup of soup, but only if the barkeep asks if there’s anything else I need. I don’t have the confidence, or the money, to order anything else on my own.

The Word Gatherer


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I continue to write in my manuscript journal as I read, noting unfamiliar words and writing down their definitions. Instead of feeling that there is a shortcoming in my knowledge, I marvel instead at the richness of language. I feel rewarded that I still encounter new words even after a lifetime of obsessive reading, studying, writing, and reflecting on literature. The act of exploring newfound words, to paraphrase Hemingway’s meditation on hunger in A Moveable Feast, is good discipline.


Recently I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, about her exploration of and decision to write in Italian. “I acquire my vocabulary day by day,” she writes, “word by word.” Isn’t that true of us all? Vocabulary isn’t meted out in early life in a finite supply; its acquisition is a lifelong process, and like all forms of knowledge or wealth, some of us acquire more than others.

“I’m constantly hunting for words,” Lahiri writes. “At the end of the day the basket is heavy, overflowing. I feel loaded down, wealthy, in high spirits. My words seem more valuable more than money. I am like a beggar who finds a pile of gold, a bag of jewels.”

So we all gather words, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

From Lahiri I have gathered, among others:

  • Diaphanous: of such fine texture as to be transparent or translucent; characterized by delicacy of form; vague or insubstantial
  • Verisimilitude: the quality of appearing to be true or real
  • Lapidary: one who cuts, polishes, or engraves gems; of or relating to precious stones or working with them; a deal in precious or semiprecious stones; engraved in stone; marked by conciseness, precision, or refinement of expression

Obviously, we should all strive to write lapidary prose: concise, precise, refined. I’ve been working toward that ideal since even before my days as an undergraduate, since I was a child, since the time, not even remembered, when I first marveled at the majesty and movement of the written word. Without even knowing there was a word for it, I wrote for years in inchoate verisimilitude: hoping all my words were true and real. Perhaps, in continuing to record unfamiliar words in my written journals, I reveal that I have not yet mastered the English language. Perhaps true mastery–or at least the kind of mastery to which I aspire–isn’t even possible. But I intend to find out.

The American Carnage of Cormac McCarthy


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“Spectre horsemen, pale with dust, anonymous in the crenelated heat.”

Of all Cormac McCarthy’s novels, Blood Meridian: or The Evening Redness In The West is perhaps his most poetic, the most rhythmically and symbolically unrestrained, and the most unceasingly brutal. To be sure, death is always at hand in McCarthy’s novels, with killers who take as much joy in their methods as in their results. No use in naming names, or characters from his other novels: right now you’re probably thinking of a knife fight in a dusty street, a child threatened in chilled woods, or cold-blooded murder by the side of a desert road. Whether tracing the American taste for violence and brutality back to the lawless West, or projecting our blood lust into a lawless dystopia, the prospect of spilled blood is never distant in McCarthy’s work. Recall President Trump’s unfortunate vision of “American carnage” in his inaugural address? Blood Meridian is ceaseless carnage, carnage disguised as battle, carnage as retaliation, carnage for insult, carnage as instinct. McCarthy can never be accused of celebrating brutality, but its matter-of-fact portrayal in his novels illustrates one of the most damning accusations directed at Americans: that we are inured to violence.

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian. Click on the above image to order or browse at Amazon

Be that as it may, Blood Meridian also contains some of McCarthy’s most evocative and memorable prose. “At the end of the street,” he writes early in the book, “they came to a place with branches and trees where vultures huddled in foul black rookeries.” That’s poetic, all right; darkly poetic. It’s also a spare description, terse, lean, economical, conveying its dark portent with the help of only two adjectives. Two adjectives among twenty-two words, among eight nouns/pronouns and two verbs. Branches, trees, and huddled vultures. That’s what McCarthy wants us to see, and I, for one, see it as clearly as I’ve ever seen anything else in American prose. How can we not see it? It’s strikingly direct, threatening, dire, yet spare and artful. McCarthy wastes no words here (not that he ever does); he writes with precision, restraint, and above all, accuracy. They came to the end of the street. A place with branches and trees. A place with vultures in foul black rookeries. As a reader, what do you think will happen here?

Elsewhere, McCarthy’s word choice shows how only a couple of letters can make the difference between specificity and ambiguity, between explicit meaning and the meaning the reader brings to the work.

He sees a parricide hanged in a crossroads hamlet and the man’s friends run forward and pull his legs and he hangs dead from his rope while urine darkens his trousers.

Why “parricide?” I wondered. “Why not “patricide?” And what, if any, is the difference?

I had to consult my dictionary, but there is a difference, and a rather interesting one. Parricide is an inclusive word, referring to the murder of one’s father, mother, or other near relative. The more commonly known patricide is more specific and refers to the murder of one’s father.

Other than the hanging victim being a man, we do not know if he is someone’s father, or brother–or, in some murderous complexity known only to the author–both. The difference of a single letter between two similar words allows ambiguity to enter this particular scene. In my journal, I noted that McCarthy is too precise and masterful a craftsman to entertain such ambiguity by accident. As readers, all we know is that the man was murdered by family members for reasons left unexplained. Neither do we know how the character passing by, “the Kid,” intuited that the man was hanged as the result of parricide. It’s merely a given, as much of the natural order of things as the other acts of unspeakable violence which populate the book.

American carnage? Perhaps only by facing such cruelty, by staring down the vultures in their foul black rookeries, by facing the darkness within ourselves, can we reject it in favor of a less violent society.

Brooks Brothers and the “Girlfriend Shirt”


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Slowly I seem to be rediscovering the life of the mind, moving from melancholia to mental activity and the intense curiosity that I remember from long ago. I’m not there yet; it could all evaporate (and sometimes does) back into the incessant gloaming that is depression. Yet in the times now when I’m confined by sadness and panic and the lack of self-worth to this small bedroom I currently inhabit, sometimes I’m able to forget my circumstances and allow my mind to focus on literature, ideas, music, hopes, dreams.

Logically enough, it’s easier to write, to think, and to work when you’re not lying in bed in such a state of sadness that it’s hard to even open your eyes. In these moments only sleep can ease the pain, but sleep either will not come or is so light and fractal that it’s filled with frantic fever dreams which you can only escape by forcing yourself awake. I must force myself awake many times over the course of some nights, to escape the gloaming and the grief that follows me even into dream-scape. In those times I awake in a cold sweat, escaping the dream grief only to confront the waking grief. And somehow I hold on until I finally find true sleep or the grief fades enough for me to read, think, create, and live. But the grief always returns.

The last couple of nights, though, I’ve felt well enough to be able to concentrate on some of my old loves: reading, technology, making lists of my goals and the small luxuries and necessities of life. I’ve created a spreadsheet to keep track of my wish lists, and a database to track my decimated library and the quotations that I’m once again trying to record. It’s good work in that it forces me to re-familiarize myself with software I once knew well, and re-acclimate myself to working for hours on end at a single task. And it encourages greater organization as well.

On my wish list I was sure to add that I long for a blue or white Oxford cloth Brooks Brothers button-down (traditional fit, with the red lettering in the back of the collar), just like the one Tammy and I bought when Adam was a baby and we spent an afternoon shopping in downtown Cincinnati. That was the first Brooks Brothers shirt I ever owned. I had wanted one ever since reading a column in Gentlemen’s Quarterly about “the girlfriend shirt” that your lady friend would sleep in and wear around the house, presumably unbuttoned a bit and without any other article of clothing other than optional panties. Tammy wasn’t my girlfriend by then, of course; she was my wife. And she never wore that shirt, but she knew how important it was to me and how proud I was to wear it during my early years as a political adviser in the Capitol (many, many times with tasteful repp ties and silk braces). I wore that shirt every week, always with heavy starch from the cleaners, and I wore it until the buttons finally crumbled from the constant heat of the cleaners, like a piece of hard candy which you enjoy and enjoy until you finally bite down and it crumbles between your teeth. I could have replaced the buttons easily enough, but it broke my heart and I let the shirt go. But it’s always been my favorite, and I’ve always missed it like the myth of the great lost love.

Brooks Brothers Traditional Button Downs in Blue and White
(from American-grown Supima cotton)

Now in recent years I’ve been wanting another Brooks Brothers shirt more and more. I want one for the man I was then, as young and ambitious and sharp and as confident as I would ever be. I want one for whatever sort of man I am today. I want one because they are timeless in a way that I am not, and timelessness is perhaps one of the rarest gifts of our world. Time hurries, time avenges, and time does not wait. Sometimes if forces us to hurry a bit too much ourselves, missing truths and confessions and times of regret and love. We have no choice but to resist and to stall, to forge new symbolism and meaning from the accoutrements of youth. For me, the Brooks Brothers oeuvre links a young man’s conception of taste and elegance to credibility, simplicity, and masculine authority. It links the first inklings of maturity to eventual manhood, and provides the basic for a sound man, one whom who apparently learns style and taste without even trying. And that, it should be clear, is the basis for a lifetime of standout sartorial style.

“A Secret, Unknown Language”



Still busy with my masters program, with end-of-quarter projects, papers, and exams. I would really like, though, to read from a new book I picked up before my Wednesday night class: the trade paper edition of In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri. I certainly don’t have time to read much, but even a half-hour would be lovely. Anything to get away from all these deadlines.

Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words. Click on the above image to order or browse at Amazon.

In Other Words
is the story of Lahiri’s relocation to Rome and decision to write exclusively in Italian. It’s a book about immersion, which the author compares to the day she finally found the courage to swim across a small lake near Rome. “To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore,” Lahiri wrote. “Without a life vest. Without depending on solid ground.”

Other writers, of course, have set themselves similar challenges. Rilke wrote around four hundred poems in French near the end of his life. For some, writing in another language isn’t just a technical challenge: it leads to a new form of expression itself. Lahiri notes:

“To write in a new language, to penetrate its heart, no technology helps. You can’t accelerate the process, you can’t abbreviate it. The pace is slow, hesitant, there are no shortcuts.”

No shortcuts to another degree. No shortcuts to language. No shortcuts to life.

On the Dispersal of My Library

“Let other people see in what I borrow whether I have known how to choose what would enhance my theme.”


I’ve begun to admire the contents of my bookshelves again, even though my library now contains only a small fraction of the number of books I once owned. I sometimes tell friends that I’ll spend the remainder of my lifetime rebuilding my once substantial library, even though I don’t expect to ever come close to the number of signed first editions and other rarities which once graced my shelves. Fortunately, during my poverty-induced literary diaspora, I gave several signed copies and other first editions to my two sons, especially the ones acquired through my own journalism and writing.


Hemingway first editions in my library, circa. 2000

One inscription in particular, in Edward Stanton’s Hemingway and Spain: A Pursuit, makes specific and kind reference to my oldest son, Adam. I met the author for beer and appetizers to interview him for an article and review, accompanied by the infant and sleeping Adam in his portable child carrier. I gave Adam the book, thinking that his name in the inscription might one day be a source of pride or at least sentimentality. I learned from his brother a few months later, though, that the book quickly ended up in the closet. Literally. Deeply hurt, I was comforted by my youngest son, Aaron, who reported that he had rescued the book and given it a new home on his own shelves.

Edward Stanton, Hemingway and Spain: A Pursuit. Click on the above link to order or browse at Amazon.

“To a book collector,” wrote German critic and bibliophile Walter Benjamin,” the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.” Benjamin goes on to write of the attendant feeling of responsibility which library owners share, as well as “the most intimate relationship” the collector has with his or her books. And it is truly an intimate relationship.

Although my books have always been loosely organized at best, I can almost find a particular volume with my eyes closed. Each book also tells its own story of acquisition, of trips and vacations, and in many instances, memories of exquisite all-night reading sessions. Each book tells much more than the story within its boards.

I remember one Florida vacation when my ex-wife and I were still newly married, where I read a Paul Bowles short story collection while sunning by the hotel pool. Chased to our room by a thundershower, I left the book in the rain. A trade paperback (and therefore of little collectible value), it eventually dried in the sun. But the point is that leaving The Delicate Prey in the rain is now virtually my only memory of that long-ago vacation.

Paul Bowles, The Delicate Prey and Other Stories. Click on the above link to order or browse at Amazon.

I know that in all likelihood I’ll never again own the sort of library I still had only a decade ago. But I do have a library, however modest, and it is once again growing as much as my finances and taste will allow. It’s care and nurture will once again be my life’s work. And this time, I’ll never sell books out of poverty again.

Malbec and Macaroni After Midnight 


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Shortly before three this morning, I enjoyed the simplest and most delicious improvised meal: a bowl of homemade macaroni and cheese sprinkled with feta and shredded cheddar. With a glass of Argentine Malbec, it was something to savor and enjoy, one of life’s very small and unexpected perfections.

I wasn’t simply eating and drinking; I was living. I don’t often experience such pleasures these days, so every bite and every sip came as a new and delicate surprise. I paused for a brief and heartfelt thanks,  and wondered if I would also be blessed with sleep.