Buoyant Material

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Buoyant MaterialThe wine corks smell like sex. Like the game night a few years back when a friend dropped our youngest son on his head (an accident that resulted in neither deformity nor another invitation). They smell like six paint brushes resting in half a gallon of congealing egg shell white, like Trivial Pursuit(s), like signing on the dotted line. Like “Cheers!” And tears, of course. The corks smell like love, like depression before prescription, like a Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Like the morning the doctor called, his voice so benign as he talked about malignancy. Like surgeons scalping a breast. Like: “We got it all.” The corks smell like these moments and others we’ve forgotten, some on accident. We collect them like debt, like coupons, like clearance Christmas ornaments on December 26. Like memories.

We yanked most of the corks from three-dollar bottles of merlot, from 750 ml of $2.79 Pinot. We drained them in time, sometimes two at a time, and then dropped them in the recyclables, clanking against empty baby food jars and crushed boxes of diapers, atop piles of Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated and Women’s Health we don’t have time to read any longer because our tongues blaze through Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? instead of the sex advice column in Cosmo that suggests ways to re-eroticize what has been assumed to have gone banal.

We haven’t thrown out a cork in years.

They line the bottoms of vases and decorative bowls given to us as wedding gifts a decade earlier. They’re stuffed into the black wire cow that sits on a kitchen shelf next to the picture of our oldest son with chocolate frosting and a smile smeared across his face. The corks are piled atop one another like dehydrated thumbs-up (or thumbs-down, depending on the mood) in the candle holder next to the wine rack. Only a small percentage of the corks in our house are actually used for what they were intended.

Years and years ago, corks reminded us of what we couldn’t remember, cousins to the hickeys on our necks and the wrappers between our sheets. They were trophies of guilt a hundred ounces removed from the plastic trophies we were awarded as kids. Highest Bowling Average. Best Pitcher. Perfect Attendance. Those we earned; the corks we bought.

But now the corks are our Dickens, reminders of good times and bad. We do not label them like we label the backs of pictures. We do not sign them like we did the love notes we passed long ago. Like the marriage certificate, the life insurance, the mortgage. We don’t know which cork was pulled the night the man was murdered just through our backyard or which was popped the night a neighbor’s ex-boyfriend drove into our duplex. It’s unclear which corks memorialize the final nails in so many coffins or which trumpet the joys of promises kept. Our corks are mementos forever out of context.

They represent so much change, the metamorphoses from dating to marriage to parenthood. From “Come here and feel this” to cancer patient. Patient to survivor. Optimist to pessimist and pessimist to optimist with brief forays into nihilism sprinkled in like Who cares?. Now our kids use the corks for crafts, fashioning them into magnets and drink coasters and corkboard and flower vases and keychains. And suddenly wine corks, pulled because the kids have been in bed for five minutes, are heirlooms. That’s how we look at things now, isn’t it? What can we pass on to our children, physically and philosophically? We set the genetics ship on course long ago, and now all we can do is plug the holes; sometimes we use corks to do so.

We must remember this: cork is buoyant. It’s made from tree bark, the shield that protects the pulpy viscera from inclement conditions and uninvited guests. Once a decade, the trees are stripped of their bark by surgeons with the sharpest of blades. These trees are not cut down, uprooted, or killed. They live and, in time, grow anew.


Photo used under CC.

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About Author

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Matt Muilenburg teaches at the University of Dubuque. His creative nonfiction has been featured or is forthcoming in Southern Humanities Review, Southern Indiana Review, Storm Cellar, Superstition Review, Barnstorm, New Plains Review, and others. Matt, a 2018 Pushcart nominee, holds an MFA from Wichita State University and lives near the Field of Dreams movie site.

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