The Subterranean Calendar

It begins with Labor Day. Not necessarily on the day itself—sometimes it comes a little sooner, sometimes later—but it begins on that morning when you take your sons shopping for back-to-school supplies.

You are heading together to the front of the store, toward the checkout counter, and that is when you see the display, shelves of bagged miniature candy bars, surrounded by cardboard cut-outs of witches and ghosts and owls and black cats. Something inside you wakes up and sees what day it is: the day to buy the Halloween candy. The subterranean calendar tells you to buy these things now, on Labor Day; so you pile them in the basket on top of your sons’ modest back-to-school supplies. The subterranean calendar tells you that you are being prudent, farsighted, organized. What a sense of satisfaction, of security, to check this item off your list in such a businesslike, non-procrastinating manner. No matter what happens between now and Halloween—the stores run out of Nestle’s Crunch bars, you are called away from town unexpectedly—you will be prepared for the holiday.

What you feel, when you get home and stow those bags of Halloween candy on the top shelf of the pantry, goes beyond satisfaction, beyond a sense of competence, all the way to a nearly unbearable effervescent bliss of safety, of mastery. You did it. You made it. You pulled it off. It’s as if you have robbed a bank, or jumped aboard a moving train, or run into the house and bolted the door just before the blizzard roars in. It’s heroic, this untainted moment of domestic ecstasy. You have hauled home the goods and they are safe from everyone and everything, even from you. No one can take them away and you wouldn’t dream of touching them. It would be a violation. You are the shepherd, and they are your sleeping flock. 

You make tea, put on music, sit in the living room with a book, listen to the sounds of your children playing upstairs. 

For several more days, even weeks, you do the competent mother things (meals, reminders about homework, rides to school and from soccer practice and to and from piano and fencing lessons), and the competent wife things (listening, talking, sex, laundry), and the competent professional things (writing, revising, meeting deadlines), but all the while the subterranean calendar is hanging there, invisible to everyone but you. You forget about it for hours at a time, sometimes even for a day—but hardly ever that, and never for longer than that. You are always glancing at it, its grid of days and weeks. Each September day that passes is another day on which you have not touched that Halloween candy sleeping on the top shelf. Some days you go into the pantry—once, or several times—and look up at the candy, surreptitiously, as if you don’t want to wake it, or don’t want it to notice that you are checking up on it. All is well, all is well, you would think, if you were a watchman. But as you stand there, as you walk away, all isn’t quite well. It is almost well. It would be well, if only—if only—. If only something. You don’t know if only what.

Then comes a day that is not marked on the subterranean calendar but is somehow determined by it, like the day when the bears wake up from hibernation. This is the day when you walk—you’re not wandering, this is a purposeful walk—into the kitchen and pull the stepstool into the pantry and climb up and reach for one of the bags of candy. Just one. (It’s amazing, really, that you can enact this scene every year with utter innocence, amnesia: it is always the same and you cannot predict it or stop it.) You open the bag, take out one small candy bar and eat it, and put the bag back up on the shelf. That should do it, you think. And—briefly, deliciously—it does.

You forget about it for hours at a time, sometimes even for a day – but hardly ever that, and never for longer than that. Click To Tweet

But then it doesn’t. Some minutes later, maybe an hour, never longer than that, you are pulled back into the kitchen. You are compelled to go back, drawn not by the taste, not by the wish for more sweetness flowing over and dissolving into your tongue and throat—no, what makes you go back is an intolerable sense of asymmetry. Up there on that dark high shelf where the Halloween candy is stowed, one bag is open and three bags aren’t. The contents of that bag—say it’s the Kit Kats—are vulnerable now, at an unfair disadvantage. They are potentially yours in a way the other, sealed, bags are not. You could go back—face it: you would go back—over and over in the next few days and devour those Kit Kats just because their openness differentiates them from the others. What felt right, before, what felt perfect, exalted, safe, is marred. You need to fix it. One way would be to bring that bag of Kit Kats down from the shelf, to separate it from the flock, and share it over the next few days with your family. Deconsecrate the Kit Kats, normalize them. Sacrifice them, to preserve the sanctity of the rest of the Halloween candy. Let the kids have Kit Kats for an after-school snack, suggest them to your husband if he feels like having dessert. But no. You really don’t want your kids thinking that candy is a viable after-school snack. A piece of fruit, graham crackers, Pepperidge Farm goldfish—that’s what you want them to aim for. And also—the elevator is going to a lower floor now, a deeper, filthier subbasement—you don’t want to share. That Halloween candy belongs to the trick-or-treaters who will come to your house seven weeks from now, or six weeks, whatever it is according to the real actual Gregorian calendar. You want to protect it for them; and if you can’t (and you are beginning to admit now the slight possibility that you might not be able to), then it is yours. But no, no, you are not ready to admit defeat, to surrender the flock to the wolf that is you. It’s that damned asymmetry! That’s what has created the vulnerability and the danger. If only you could fix it, seal up the hole in the bag. But even that wouldn’t fix the asymmetry in the numbers. All the other bags are sealed and full; the Kit Kat bag is broken and one candy bar is missing. 

(Please note that while all this is going on you are a smart dignified well-liked woman in the middle of an ordinary business day; you work at home as a freelance writer and consultant, and in the hour before this crisis in the pantry—the hour that has passed since the subterranean calendar told you it was time to tear a small hole in the corner of one bag of candy—you have spent time on the phone with the state official who has hired you to write a report on the governor’s plans for urban brownfield cleanup and community development, you’ve called to set up a meeting with the ad guy who has asked you to write consumer-friendly brochures for a small investment firm’s mutual funds, you’ve talked to the woman with whom you run the used-books sale every fall at your kids’ school fair, and you’ve talked to a friend who is still letting out her breath after a breast cancer scare that last week turned out to be calcifications. During these phone calls you have been normal, bright, attentive; none of these people would have had the slightest suspicion of the opera being performed in your pantry during this same hour, with its arias, duets, and thundering choruses of lust and pillage, sanctity and violation, guilt and renunciation and longing. “Take care,” you said to your friend, when you hung up; and “I love you” to your husband, when he called—he has lived with you for more than twenty years and even he doesn’t know about the opera, the bags, what goes on in the pantry, what goes on in your mouth. He knows that you would like to lose weight and can’t, and he is sorry you are unhappy. He doesn’t know about the subterranean calendar. “I love you,” he says at the end of the little checking-in-to-see-how-your-day-is-going conversation, and he means it.)

What happens next is a foregone conclusion. The stepstool, the climbing, the reaching, the seizing. The full bags spread out on the kitchen counter and you piercing a quick expert hole in each with your little knife, like Gabriel Oak with his trochar bending over Bathsheba Everdene’s bloated dying sheep. One deft extraction from each bag: a Nestle’s Crunch, a Hershey bar, and a little package of M&Ms. You swallow them as if they were medicine—this is not a pleasure trip, it is a rescue mission—and fold up the corners of the bags, climb up on the stepstool, and put the bags back on the shelf. Everything is equalized again, back in balance. Relief.

Only not relief. Disorder. Unease, apprehension, a feeling of ruin. Damn it. You knew how this would feel—you knew the difference between the feeling of full bags in the pantry and broken-into bags in the pantry, and yet you broke in anyway. Fuck you, you jerk. 

And oh, the sadness, the predictable, almost choreographed squalor of what follows.

Many trips to the pantry, many unfoldings and ascents of the footstool, much rummaging, just one of these, well then one of each of the others to balance things out, okay two this time, but not the ones you don’t love, not those Hershey’s peanut things, but only the ones you are really craving because cravings never stop until you eat exactly the thing you want, there, see?, that was good, that did it, but no, you want more, you’re itching again, okay this time have the ones you don’t want because you can have those without wanting more of those, but it’s like scratching a mosquito bite off to the side of the bite, it feels like it might help, but in the end you have to go back to the center of the bite even though it’s raw and sore there, and do share with your children then, let them help you get this dangerous stuff out of the house, look boys look what we have for a treat this afternoon two each, but then when they’ve gone away with their two each to watch TV for a while before they start their homework you see what a dent that loss of four has made in the overall tumbling array in the big blue-and-white china bowl where you’ve decanted the remaining candy bars so that no one will ever see those ravaged bags, those poor ripped empty bags now buried in the trash, the china bowl makes the candy bars look civilized and delicate again, not like some whore lying back and blinking on a stained and crusted sheet, but the loss of four is definitely noticeable, and your younger one seems to have a particular passion for Kit Kats, both of the ones he took were Kit Kats, so maybe you should eat or at least hide the rest of the Kit Kats now, but what kind of mother would do that, take for herself the kind her child loves best, you will absolutely not touch another Kit Kat, in fact you should not touch another anything, you are the grownup here and you should be grown up enough to walk away. Look, you are walking away. The bowl is behind you, glowing in the afternoon sunlight coming in through the window over the kitchen counter. You tell your children it’s time to start their homework now. They don’t want to, but they do. You leave a message for a client, brush your teeth, look through the bookcases in the upstairs hallway to see if there’s anything you can cull for the school fair. Your kids finish their work and go outside to the little woods behind your house where they have made a pirate camp. Your client calls back. You ask her about the crisis that was going on when she called you two days ago. “Oh, that,” she says, “that’s fine, but wait till you hear this, we have a new thing now.” There is always a new thing with her, she always says it’s an emergency; she likes you because you’re calm. You talk for a while and hang up and look at your watch. Ten after five. Look at you. It’s been—what has it been, over an hour, almost an hour and a half, and you have not thought about the blue bowl. You really haven’t. You are free of the bowl. In that sense you are like your client, the one who just called, the emergency woman. She has a big glass goblet on her desk—it’s gigantic, like something on a piano bar in a restaurant, “Strangers in the Night,” for tips—and it’s full of M&Ms. She doesn’t eat them. She is tiny, maybe ninety pounds, and she smokes and smokes but you have never seen her eat an M&M. You’ve never eaten one either in her presence, you’ve never taken one from her bowl, and you wonder if anyone does, her co-workers maybe, but you think that she has the bowl on her desk as a test of willpower masquerading as a generous gesture: go ahead and take some, enjoy, but if you do, you will show that you are weaker than she. You’ve wondered about all this, sitting in her visitor’s chair discussing surgical instruments (that’s what her company makes, she is the advertising director), wondered if she secretly gobbles M&Ms late at night, after everyone else has gone home and she is sitting at her desk in a pool of tensor light alone with her newest emergency—but no, you really don’t think she does, you really think the point of the M&Ms is to be untouched, uneaten. They are there to be ignored. You could never work that way, you think when you are in her office, you couldn’t work with that bowl of brown and tan and green and yellow and orange bright shellacked clicking little candies staring at you in such abundance that if you plunged your hand in and came away with a fistful they would never be missed. Maybe she has anorexia, your client, and gets off on saying no, or maybe she eats M&Ms alone and replenishes the bowl from a big bag hidden in her bottom drawer and then goes into the ladies’ room and throws up, and that’s how she stays at ninety pounds, maybe she has her own subterranean calendar—but you really don’t want to think about any of that, the point is that she has that bowl and co-exists with it; the image you have of her is: a thin woman with a bowl of candy, a thin woman with a bowl of candy which she does not eat. You of course are not a thin woman, but you could be, maybe you could be, if you could figure out how to have a bowl of candy which you don’t eat. Peace. That is what you are after, the lion lying down with the lamb. And look—look again at your watch, it has now been just over an hour and a half—that is what you have achieved. Peace. The blue bowl is in the kitchen, and you are here in the living room not thinking about it. Elegance is refusal, said Diana Vreeland, or Coco Chanel, or the Duchess of Windsor, or someone—some little razor-boned raisin of a woman, who could be, who is right now, in your mutual disdain for and immunity to a nearby bowl full of candy, your soul-sister, your comrade. Look at all of you refusing. Your client with the surgical instruments, too. You can take it or leave it, and all of you are choosing to leave it. You are able to choose to leave it. Look at you, leaving it. But now, having left it, having proved that you can leave it, would it really be so bad to . . . take it? Just one indifferent morsel, as proof that a person who can take it or leave it might choose, occasionally, without catastrophic results, to take it? Elegance is refusal, you think again, gliding into your kitchen, and then your hands are in the bowl, taking and taking and taking it. 

It is the second week of September. The real calendar hangs on the wall of your kitchen, with its silvery Ansel Adams desert moonrise, its squares filled with neat notations of dentist appointments and concerts and a dinner party and a birthday party (buy present). The subterranean calendar, which does not hang but seems to float, to flap and wave like a flag, behind your eyes or in your throat or right in front of you or sometimes nowhere, sometimes it is just a sound, a sudden beep or clang or screaming that goes on and on—that calendar is smudged and blotched, full of wild crossings-out and gray erasures so violent that there are holes in the page, already, two weeks into the new year. Apples, it’s telling you now. Apple crisp, like your mother’s: chunky with cinnamon and brown sugar, silky with butter, served warm with thick yellow cream purling in the bowl. Fall, clear blue skies, your mother in a gray cashmere sweater, back to school, apple crisp: you want your children to remember what you remember. 

Beef stew, says the subterranean calendar. Beef stew, and buttered cornbread to go with it.

And: A different beef stew, with a biscuit crust, the way they used to serve it, from a blue willow-ware tureen, at the school where you were unhappy in ninth and tenth grades.

And hot chocolate, after you and your children get back from the public library with a stack of books, and it is raining. Cold, soft fall rain, and the year’s first fire in the fireplace, with the gray and orange afternoon darkening in the living room windows. 

And cookies. Chocolate chip, or oatmeal with raisins, or brownies. There should always be a cookie jar, every child should grow up with home-baked cookies. 

The subterranean calendar tells you what to do and helps you hide what you are doing. Its imperatives are secret and silent. They are unexamined and make perfect sense. 

Halloween candy again. You have put off replacing it for a week or so after the first debacle—the utter defeat, the debris, the stomach ache, the crumpled wrappers buried in the kitchen garbage under crumpled other things, paper towels, newspapers, so that no one would see them, not that anyone in your kind, normal, unsuspicious family would ever dream of looking (your mother would have looked, would have found, would have come into your room and screamed at you). But eventually you go out and buy more Halloween candy, a wiser and more somber woman than before. The same kinds again, the Kit Kats, the Nestle’s Crunch bars, the Hershey bars, and the M&Ms. Even the sound of their names is different, none of that old flirtatious sizzle, just a cleansed, flat, factual, morning-after weariness. You toss them in your basket. You are sick of them, sick of yourself. You are checking something off a list. Halloween is a month away, and you are prepared, again.

She is prepared too—the other woman who is filling her basket with Halloween candy a few feet away from you. She is huge. She is buying a lot more candy than you are, bags and bags, Three Musketeers and Junior Mints and Twix bars and you can’t even see what else, but bags of loose candy, too, nonpareils and candy corn—and she shoots you a look, a look that is made up of many smaller looks, and you instantly recognize every one of them: the look of casual fun (I’m giving a Halloween party!) combined with the tough challenging look (Who you calling a liar?) combined with the furtive, conspiratorial, guilty, pleading look (Please don’t tell anyone I’m buying all of this stuff for myself). You glance back at her—and who knows what is in your glance, it’s easier for you to understand her feelings than it is to parse your own mix of sympathy and shame and condescension and contempt. All you know is that she is bigger than you and she is buying more candy than you, two little scraps of comfort and dignity you try to wrap around your nakedness. 

You move away from her—you are done, with only four bags of candy, elegance is refusal—but as you walk away from her and from the shelves with their brightly colored cardboard witch-and-goblin borders, you know that what pulled that other woman—let’s just say it: that other fat woman—into the store today was the subterranean calendar. She has one too. And so, you realize, does the store. Those witches and goblins at the beginning of September, the Bethlehem stables that will show up in October, the hearts and cupids on January 2, the Easter bunnies in February: they are not for gift-givers, not for farsighted planners, they are signals to, lures for, people like you, who buy thinking one thing and then get home and do something else. 

But it is not just what’s in the stores. What governs and orders you is the Christmas cookies your grandmother baked, the flat bitter ginger shapes and the pale hazelnut rounds and the airy chocolate meringues that went from chalky to dark and sticky as you bit into them, and the hard little almond loaves that your grandmother always made at the same time (they used yolks and the meringues used whites, so that was very thrifty)—you had to make those, too, even though no one liked them. It’s your mother’s Christmas-Eve meatballs: delicious, but with a recipe you could never tell anyone because it sounded so gross, chili sauce and grape jelly, you ate them over rice, with potato chips and Westphalian ham and your grandmother’s beet-and-herring salad. It’s the saffron buns you bake every year to serve to your husband and children early in the morning of December 13, St. Lucia Day, a Swedish holiday you celebrate even though none of you is Swedish. It’s the chocolate truffles you used to make with your friend Jeri, who looked shocked when you asked her once to write down the recipe so that you would have it in case she died ha-ha. It’s days and dishes and feasts and festivals, and it’s places too—the hot chocolate you had in Bavaria when you were nine, and the cardamom bread you ate in Lucca, and the Paris chicken salad with corn, and the shepherd’s pie you had the summer you went to Girl Scout camp. It’s the way you understand and remember things, your medium, your fixative, your language. You are hunting something that is also hunting you; you believe that someday you will reach it, and you think you can outrun it. 

You walk around the store a little more, with your four bags of Halloween candy. They will remain sealed on the pantry shelf until five p.m. October thirty-first. You are sure of this, even more sure than you were when you bought those other bags a few weeks ago. You are not in a hurry to get home. You wander up and down a couple of aisles. It occurs to you that you might find some brightly colored foil-wrapped chocolate turkeys, to put at each place on the Thanksgiving table. You seem to be ahead of schedule here, apparently the stores have not put them out yet. Make a note, the subterranean calendar tells you. Watch for them. It’s time. 

Author / Ilustrator

  • Joan Wickersham's most recent book of fiction is The News from Spain (Knopf). Her memoir The Suicide Index (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) was a National Book Award Finalist. She is also the author of a novel, The Paper Anniversary (Viking). Her fiction has appeared in magazines including Agni, One Story, Glimmer Train, The Hudson Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, and Story, and has been published in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her op-ed column runs regularly in The Boston Globe. She has published essays and reviews in The Los Angeles Times and The International Herald Tribune, and has read her work on National Public Radio’s “On Point” and “Morning Edition.” She has received the Ploughshares Cohen Award for Best Short Story and has been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Arts, The American-Scandinavian Foundation, The Massachusetts Cultural Council, MacDowell, and Yaddo.

  • Anna Atkins (1799-1871) was an English botanist and, some argue, the very first female photographer, most noted for using photography in her books on various plants. She became interested in the cyanotype process which produced images through so-called sun-printing. The object is placed on paper which has been treated with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, after which it is exposed to sunlight and then washed in water, leading to the uncovered areas of the paper turning a dark blue. The process, known as blueprinting, was later used to reproduce architectural and engineering drawings, but Atkins chose to use it for what is considered to be the first work with photographic illustrations, namely her Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions(1843). Only 13 copies of the handwritten book are known to exist, some of which are in various stages of completion. Later, she would collaborate with another female botanist, Anne Dixon (1799–1864), in making two more books featuring cyanotypes: Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns (1853) and Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns(1854). Atkins became a member of the Botanical Society in London in 1839. From Public Domain Review