Five Micro-Essays

Nonfiction / Nicole Walker

:: Microbags ::

At Fry’s Grocery and Drugstore, the plastic bags are tinted brown. Thin enough to see through, they should be strong enough to hold at least three items. But the clerks at Fry’s dig their hands into the abundance of bags and love them for their singularity. Stacked like money, peeled like sawbucks, a bag wraps a carton of eggs. Another, for a half gallon of orange juice. Another for a pound of butter. Another for a quart of milk. A loaf of bread. You know the song. Each bag makes each item precious. How can I eat this butter now? I should preserve it in a cabinet of wonder, but by the time I get home the cabinet of wonder becomes merely a refrigerator. The loaf of bread. The quart of milk. Each item re-shelved in the icebox of my future—I now can make béchamel, French toast, Crème Anglaise, Pasta Carbonara, countries of recipes, thanks to bags of permanence and transportation.

The bags, emptied, do not realign. I cannot stack them. They do not fit in my billfold. I bunch them up. I crush them into the reusable canvas bags that I sometimes remember to take to the store. The bags live in the garage. Unlike the refrigerator, the garage is not airtight. Sometimes, I leave the garage door open. Sometimes, there is a wind. Sometimes the wind comes in and steals the plastic bags as if the wind had some groceries to make precious. The wind takes the bags, plasters them against ponderosa, wraps them around pinecone, flags them against a decaying stick. The stick isn’t going anywhere now. The ponderosas are preserved. The pinecones, seeding inside of the bag, with the benefit of a dusty rain, grow their own tree inside the bag. Inside the bag is a perfect microcosm. A hundred million individual tiny planets floating across the state, blowing their forevers across the highway, through the forests, across the ocean, establishing themselves as singular as continental cash. 

:: Microchip ::

Lays were her favorite. So were Ruffles. She didn’t mind Fritos. Kettle-brand organic were fine. She missed regular Doritos but that didn’t make her unique. Everyone misses regular Doritos. One thing you can count on, fleeing the Midwest for the west coast, is an ample supply of vending machines. Vending machines are portals toward freedom. They are the dial-uppers toward the next town. They do not store memories in their machines, just quarters of smudged fingerprints. No one can catch you, pregnant and sixteen, if you keep your feet to the right of the asphalt’s white line and your stomach pumped full of you-do-the-math: fourteen hundred calories per bag, each bag a dollar and a quarter. If you can multiply, your factor is the potato chip. Too much togetherness and you beget a product.

If she would have stayed home, she could have saved up those quarters, a dollar twenty-five a day, but it would have taken her half her life to halve her life and she didn’t have the right phone numbers.

She didn’t like calling the baby baby. She called it crunchy. She called it salty. She called it full of maltodextrin. She never thought she was hurting the potato. She never thought, as she hitchhiked through Idaho, that the road doesn’t always go west. Sometimes it turns south, toward Utah. Sometimes, the abortion providers, even in Mormon town, take one look in your eyes and give you a discount. She skips lunch the next day because, thank god, she’s not so hungry anymore. That night, she forces herself to eat a chip. She was afraid the chip would flounder. That it would fall soggy in her mouth. But it didn’t. It was crisp and salty and as nutritious as it had been the day before. Not everything changes. 

:: Microtrain ::

A regular-sized train can’t do it. The tracks crisscross in too many layers. There is not enough money in the world to build four million bridges deep. But if the train is small enough, fiber optic, microscopic, the tracks could bend and weave and thread. Instead of stopping at crossings for cars or for anti-abortion protesters, the veins could thread like those in a body. In that body, red could stand for oxygen and blue for carbon dioxide and the world would be happy to get and return either. In a body, the reliance on input and output would be a fair and reasonable thing. In the lungs, the carbon dioxide exchanges for oxygen with the justice of stoichiometry.  Transformation is always possible. The oxygen has persuasive arguments. The CO2 has its own. No cell changes its body, it just changes its mind. This body holds its power in its tiny mitochondrial engines—forward moving but not at anyone else’s great expense. This is a kind of country I could live in. One day, I will be small enough. 

:: Microsoccer ::

I tried to bring a book. I tried to bring a chair. I tried to talk to the other moms. I tried to talk to the dads. I tried to bring the team snack but failed, bringing carrots, which children do not consider a snack. I tried to get a sense of rules that say you can’t kick the ball first if you’re the one who kicked it off, but I think I have that wrong too. I tried to pull the grass and eat the milky ends, but there was elk shit all over and dog piss probably too. Really, there was nothing to eat except carrots and therefore I had a hard time paying attention. She didn’t kick the ball hard enough and when she did kick it, the ball went out of bounds. Sometimes, she kicked it the wrong direction. Sometimes, someone kicked it hard in the wrong direction and all the kids ran all the way out of bounds, offsides, down the hill, over elk shit and dog piss chasing a ball that would never come back. For me, it was good for a metaphor anyway—soccer balls as youth or boys or hungry members of the Cervidae family looking for edible grass on the other side of the mountain where perhaps the fire or the drought didn’t wipe all the grass out. Metaphor breaks all the rules. Unlike youth and boys, the ball comes back. Maybe edible grass too.

I apologize for the melodrama. But I need to stay here and think about the end of the world because I wasn’t going to get up off my chair or put down my book and join them in chasing that ball. I knew I’d never catch it and the team would never forgive me for getting in the way of a game whose rules have nothing to do with a lesson on how to eat the crumbs of broken metaphors.

:: Microsmooth ::

You have to sound hyped up. You have to sound breathless. You have to use words like “broadly-connected” and “an approach unusually taken.” You have to make it sound like this is their good news too, even though you’re the one going to be on TV. You have to believe that we all share in the wealth of the land, that we all share in the wealth, that we all share in the wealth of the wealthy land that is TV to make it clear to them that this is their good opportunity although they themselves will not be on TV. TV is where they offer microsmooth technology to cover up your micropores because if you are on TV the camera adds exponents to your skin, yours, not theirs, gratefully, since TV is not for everyone. However news is for everyone and you and they can stand together and hold hands, although you will be out in front and they will stand just a touch to the side, a little farther, and united in this endeavor. To insure, because that’s what this moment is, insurance in the wealth of nations, insurance that we will all go on sharing in the wealth of land and nation and TV,  this moment is as good as can be, you assure them they can let go and applaud. Just the sound of hands clapping sends good news right through your skin. 

 From the Writer

:: Account ::

When I wrote these microessays, I was working on a big essay project about microorganisms. These microorganisms did such amazing things: they could reduce pollutants in water by chemically engaging with the pollutant. They wouldn’t so much eat them as throw off electrons, changing the chemical make-up of say, nitrate, which is bad, into nitrogen, which is good. What I loved was the way microorganisms could adapt to their surroundings while simultaneously adapting their surroundings—just like humans. It made me think how everything adapts its environment to suit it. So does the writing. How could I write a big gigantic essay that tried to tell a very long story about the behavior of microorganisms? If I really wanted to tell a story about things micro, I should tell it microscopically. Or at least briefly. In these short essays, I strove for dynamism and adaptability. In brevity, you can duck and cover. You can wrap your mind fully around one idea. Like a camera, you can take a big idea, put a frame around it and make it small. Small enough to matter. 


Nicole Walkers nonfiction book, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, won the 2011 Zone 3 nonfiction prize (Zone 3 Press, 2013). She is also the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). She edited, along with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction, which was released by Bloomsbury in March 2013. She is nonfiction editor at Diagram and associate professor at Northern Arizona University