Serra’s Verbs

A woman’s friend buys toilet paper in bulk. Dozens of rolls line a section of wall in the basement, stacked hip-high and four deep, a snowbank against the stone wall of the foundation. The supply’s position, and its volume, makes it the first thing the woman sees as she descends the stairs, sent by her friend to retrieve a jar of jam and a bag of coffee beans. Her reaction to it arrives with an intensity that surprises her.

To buy so much—what it assumes!

A handwritten list of verbs: “to roll,” “to crease,” “to fold,” et cetera.
Richard Serra’s 1967 list of verbs.

In 1967, the sculptor Richard Serra made a list of 84 verbs (to roll, to smear, to open, to hide, to split, to lift), and 24 concepts (of nature, of friction, of layering, of tides) that served as both guide and manifesto for his work. I’m moving through his list and distilling each action and concept in a series of short fictions. The following is an excerpt from that project. —Nina MacLaughlin

To Dapple

A mother visits her son. She takes the train in the morning. She loves the train ride to visit her son. The surrender and the calm it brings: she need not do anything more than look out at the landscape passing. Plus every moment brings her closer and this is a fine feeling of anticipation. This morning, she does not have to share her seat. She unwraps her scarf and unbuttons her jacket and settles in for the journey. She likes to sit on the left side, where the views are better. The rise of the hills, the depth of the forest, and especially the lake at the midpoint. She knows then: now I am more than halfway there. If the lake has a name, she doesn’t know it. She has named it Midway Lake. Sometimes she wishes the train ride were longer. Some trips it feels like she’s only just sat down when they pull into the station and she has to collect her bags and exit the train.

Today, she has brought shortbread for her son and a pair of mittens that she knit. She made the shortbread yesterday and was pleased with how it came out, buttery and not too sweet. He liked sweets as a boy, but too much sugar makes his teeth ache now, he’s told her. She placed the pieces in a small container with parchment paper to fill the space so they wouldn’t jostle all against each other. She didn’t want to give her son shortbread crumbles. The mittens are dark blue and dark red and as she knit them over two weeks’ worth of evenings she held her son in her mind, his hands, holding a popsicle stick as a child, lips bright red from the juice, playing the piano, how he hated practicing, and how talented he was. Where does talent go, she wondered, if it’s not used? Why did he stop playing? And when? She couldn’t remember. She hopes he’ll like the colors she chose. When she’d asked him recently to pick wool for sweaters, he chose strange colors: lime, canary, lavender. Well, no, she thought. Not for these. Dark blue, dark red.

This morning she brought some knitting with her, and a book, an apple and a baggie of walnuts in case she got hungry or there was an unexpected delay. One bag holds the presents for her son, the other, her belongings for the visit. She leaves both bags below the seat and watches out the window.

Snow fell the night before, two inches, and the mother loves little more than snow, and a snowy train ride, well, I’m in heaven, she thinks. This morning, the hills are splotchy as patches of snow melts, and silent. It all looks silent. The sky remains the thick white-gray of snow-sky. The sky absorbs the hills, a less definitive horizon line, blurring where earth ends and sky begins.

At Midway Lake, dark and smooth, the mother feels something rush inside her, a swell between her lungs. She looks, frantic, up the train aisle. Her impulse: find the conductor, ask him to stop, please stop, let us look. She smiles at herself, impossible, and knows this is her only chance to see, that by her return trip later that day, it will be dark. Wide dark lake, black against the snow. A pure depthlessness to it, and the mother experiences a sense of dropping in. A memory surfaces: during the first bleary week of her son’s life outside her body, she held him to her breast. I am milking, I am milking, she repeated in her mind. And in one such moment milking she dropped back in time, she herself inside her mother’s body. When I was there, she thought, my body held the body of my son in me even as I was a body inside my mother’s body. She knew it wasn’t true, not in a biological way, but if her son was in her from the start, then she was in her mother from her mother’s start, which means her son was in her mother from her mother’s start, and back and back, no one beginning, all held within each other in untraceable origin, white milk, black lake, back and back, to animals, before animals.

Oh, can’t we stop, she thinks again as the train moves past the lake. She twists in her seat to look back as they pass. Eight geese stand on the bank at the left edge of the lake. Webbed footprints mark the bank in swirling trails of steps, temporary fossils. I am halfway there, she thinks, trying to settle herself. I am more than halfway there now.

She reaches below her seat to touch her bags to make sure they’re still there. The edges of the container that holds the shortbread. She retrieves her knitting, a baby sweater, a pattern of white and light blue stripes, with sailboats across the chest, for a friend whose daughter just had a son. She lets the needles and the yarn sit in her lap and continues to look out the window.

They draw closer to her own son’s city. More houses along the tracks. The backs of warehouses, loading docks, graffiti. On the underpass of a bridge, in massive spray-painted letters, the words I AM SHY, which the mother always loves, what a large way to say it, and knows it means six minutes until they reach the station.

She wraps her scarf around her neck and buttons her coat. She pulls her bags from beneath her seat and tucks the knitting away and feels to make sure the mittens are still there, and the shortbread. She bends to look beneath her seat to make sure nothing has fallen out. Over the intercom, the tinny sound of the announcer naming the station stop. They arrive.

She flows down the platform with the rest of the passengers. I’m here, she thinks, and always at this moment, a mix of excitement and nerves. She doesn’t know why: Why nervous to see her own son?

She walks eleven minutes to reach the place he lives, so convenient to the station. She knows he watches for her on the mornings that she visits, and as she rounds the corner of his block, she adjusts her scarf, takes a breath-mint from her bag and places it in her mouth, and pushes her hand through her hair. She makes sure her shoulders are back, she is proud, show him she is a proud woman.

He comes outside to meet her as she reaches the walkway to his place. He wears a salmon colored short-sleeve shirt.

“You’re freezing!” she says on greeting before they embrace.

He leads her inside. He takes her jacket and hangs it in a closet. She passes him her scarf and he tucks it into the arm of her coat. The place is warm. A brothy smell, maybe he’s made stock, and behind that, an artificial scented smell, like one of those thick perfumey candles.

The first discussion is what it always is when she arrives there at the round kitchen table: her journey, how it went. The beautiful snow, everything on schedule, a relaxing, pleasant ride. On the table, a vase holds a cluster of voluptuous tulips, white and yellow and light purple. One flower droops, and yellow pollen dusts the surface of the table.

She presents him with what she’s brought, the shortbread and the mittens.

“Put them on,” she says.

He slides his hands into the mittens and she watches his face. His eyes widen.

“So soft!”

“Rabbit fur, angora,” she says. “On the inside.”

He holds his hands out and she can see he’s wiggling his fingers inside the mittens. They look funny, the mittens with his bare arms in his short-sleeved shirt. She laughs.

“And shortbread.”

She pushes the container to him. He slips the mittens off and opens the lid and smells. He takes out a piece, breaks it in half, crumbs fall to the table, he holds half out to his mother, she smiles as she shakes her head no, and he pops the other half in his mouth. “Good,” he says. She is pleased.

Magnets press postcards to the fridge, sent from people she doesn’t know. There are no dishes in the sink, everything is tidy. He lives with a man. His shoes are next to her son’s shoes on a mat by the door. His shoes are larger than her son’s. On the refrigerator, a photograph of the two of them in suits on a lawn, smiling with their arms around each other.

“Where’s your friend?” she asks. He tightens and leans back from the table.


She used to call him his roommate. Now she calls him his friend.

He looks at her, and there’s a temporary effort behind his smile. “Mom,” and she feels as though she grows another lung to hear this word from him, “there’s good news.”

A promotion, a raise, a real step up, he explains, it had been in the works for months, he says, and it’s finally real. It’s what the flowers are about, he says. “Will you have some champagne?” As he asks the front door opens and his friend comes in, dark haired, dark eyed, his face flushed and glistening, taller than her son. He says hello, “I’d hug you but you don’t want this all over you,” he says, gesturing at his body, and meaning his sweat. He blows her a kiss.

“We’re celebrating, we’re having champagne,” she says.

Her son pulls three flutes from a cabinet. Popped cork, she laughs again. Her son’s friend says he’ll shower, go ahead without him, and as he moves by her son in the kitchen, he runs his hand across his shoulders. She knows. She’s known. And she looks at the pollen on the table because right then she pictures her son’s penis. Her son’s penis is in his pants right now. “Your little bird,” she used to call it, “your pistol.” He is a man now, his naked body, the words hard cock flare into her mind, she blinks and puts her finger in the pollen dust and the light comes through the clouds, through the window, through the vase and the water in the vase and the light lands on the table in small watery white footprints, on the table and on her arm as she touches the pollen and grips the side of her chair and then looks up again as her son hands her a glassful of champagne.

“I’m so excited,” she says. “I’m so excited for you. It’s wonderful.” She stands from the chair and they clink their glasses. What fun, she thinks, still morning, a party. She takes a sip. The bubbles dapple her tongue like the goose footprints by the lake. “I’m proud,” she says.

Their visit continues. When the sun is low in the sky it’s time for her to make her way back to the station. Her stomach feels empty and her cheeks feel warm.

“I’ve been thinking about taking up the piano again,” the son says as they move towards the hall. “I don’t know why, I keep thinking about it.”

“It’s so strange you say it. I was just thinking about you playing. I was trying to remember—why’d you stop?”

The son laughs. “I didn’t like the way you stood in the doorway and watched. I hated it.” He laughs again. “I could always feel you behind me.”

“That’s why you quit?”

“I wasn’t that good anyway.”

The mother opens the closet door in the hall and pulls her jacket from the hanger. She pulls the scarf from the sleeve and wraps it around her throat. “You should keep playing,” she says as she puts on her jacket.

They embrace at the door. She stumbles through her goodbyes, words accumulating on her tongue and jamming there. She’s not used to champagne. She kisses her son’s cheek and closes the door behind her.

At the end of the walkway, on the sidewalk, she turns back to the house, as is their ritual. Her son stands in the kitchen window and waves, and she waves back. She sees him there, he’s waving, waving, and he’s got his mittens on. She lifts her arm and smiles and waves back. And somehow as she does, her bag slips from her other shoulder and it spills on the sidewalk, the white ball of yarn rolls toward the curb, her book slumps open, her breath mints scatter, white disks with flecks of green. She bends, scrambles to pick things up, as if she does it fast enough it’ll be as if it didn’t happen, oh dear, the mints make a constellation on the sidewalk, she starts to pick each one up, then no, no, how foolish. She straightens, dizzy, blushing, and raises her arm to wave again, but now the window is empty.

Her heart thumps and she rushes toward the station. She finds a seat on the train, facing backwards, always on the ride home facing backwards, toward her son. She is having trouble catching her breath. She clutches her bag on her lap, and keeps her scarf and jacket on. It will be dark when she arrives home. She closes her eyes, the train lurches into motion. The lights along the track flicker and strobe inside her eyelids. She pulls her scarf over her face to mute them until there are no lights, just the forests and the hills and the smooth black lake.

To Remove

The horses on the hill can’t shoot the sheep themselves.

To Store

A woman’s friend buys toilet paper in bulk. Dozens of rolls line a section of wall in the basement, stacked hip-high and four deep, a snowbank against the stone wall of the foundation. The supply’s position, and its volume, makes it the first thing the woman sees as she descends the stairs, sent by her friend to retrieve a jar of jam and a bag of coffee beans. Her reaction to it arrives with an intensity that surprises her.

What’s fate? The woman doesn’t think she all the way believes in it, and the front of her mind rejects any notion of tempting it. Yet to buy so much—what it assumes! That you will exist to wipe shit from your asshole a year from now. That a disease will not decimate your insides such that your shit collects in a plastic pouch attached to you by tube. That on Tuesday at the bakery buying a dense loaf of bread with seeds on top of it you will not enter a conversation with a man who says, two months from now, move to Beirut with me, and you will say, I will, leaving your husband and two daughters. She assumes she will be here to wipe herself a year from now, the woman thinks, and instead of bringing comfort—the ongoingness of her friend—it makes her furious and sad.

You don’t know! she thinks. The thought arrives waving its arms in frenzy and bashing against her skull. Isn’t it clear to everyone that tomorrow morning something could happen to launch you spinning on a completely different trajectory? We don’t know what’s in store, so why pretend? How can a person feel it’s safe to assume that they will be lucky enough to reach behind them and wipe shit from their assholes, time after time, as many times as this hoard will allow? What math takes place in the mind? What measurements of time and use?

Obvious answers. It is not about math, the woman knows. It is about the comfort of there being a future to move into, of their being something instead of nothing. The illusion of solidity. The hoard makes her angry because it makes her scared: it reminds her: we don’t know, we never know. Any time comes the end. One minute, all different. We don’t know.

The woman pulls a chain, the ceiling bulb lights up and reveals shelves against another wall, stocked with jars and cans, sacks of rice, pasta boxes, oatmeal, olive oil, fancy  mustards. Dozens of bottles rest in a honeycomb of wine. A damp stone smell mixes with the linted background of lavender from the laundry. The drier rumbles in the corner and the button on a pair of pants clangs as it’s tumbled against the walls.

The woman finds the jam, sunset color, its handwritten label notes the jarring date, last summer, and finds a sealed bag of coffee beans. She does not live in as big a home as her friend, nor have the space to store this way, nor have as much money. She climbs the stairs back to the sunny glow of the kitchen where her friend has put out a wooden board with cheese, sliced peaches, butter on a plate, bread. The two white mugs are empty.

“How many times a day do you shit?” the woman asks. Her friend laughs.

“I like not having to think about it. It’s there. I don’t have to think about it.”

Yes, the woman understands. After all, she likes the way it feels having put the food away after shopping at the grocery. The fleeting, precious sense: I have what I need. But the gnaw remains.

It’s something similar with pain, the woman thinks but does not say. We build elaborate cupboards with thick walls and tricky locks. We load the shelves with hurt regret sadness shame. We misplace the keys and forget the combinations. We attach ingenious pouches in which to place stones so the cupboard sinks when we drop it to the ocean floor of ourselves. It’s dangerous to try to access it again. We think we’re clever, storing it all in the dark cabinets and closets, pantries brimming, we don’t have to think about it. But the ghosts escape, they come creeping to the surface, stealthy and unbidden, out of their pressurized storage, mutant, unpredictable, and they claw and pinch and choke and hiss, remember, please know, I live in you. We all have our hoards.

Don’t you read the news? All the crystal balls have shattered. I can only hope, the woman thinks, that fate allows me to wake tomorrow as I did today, to bend and stretch my legs, to warm the milk for coffee, to eat an orange, watch a goose, fuck, laugh, and move my bowels. What else? 

To Cut

 Some men have guard dogs, square-jawed pitbulls with thick shoulders. Some men have guns. Some men have muscles and wear their shirts tight so you know. The man with the tattoo of the axe on his chest has a bull.

You can’t eat the bull says the old lady on her chair on the street. Too many sperms.

The young mother in sandals stops to talk with the old lady on her way towards town. As they talk, the little girl crosses the street and ducks under the fence into the pen of the bull. She wears a dress her mother made her with ruffles at the sleeves. The little girl walks toward the bull, the dark gray bull, its anvil head and watchful eyes. It stands in the shadow and wetness leaks from its wide velvet nose. It hooves the dirt. The little girl gets closer. The bull’s tail lashes at a fly. Its boat hull ribcage swells and it huffs a breath. The girl stops and tilts her head at the animal. Its horns are thick and sharp. They are the man’s favorite part. He buffs them smooth as piano keys and sharpens the tips with a file. Take your full-of-shit intestines and put them on the ground in front of you, he has said as he mimes a smiling slice across the lower belly, and waves his hand over the imagined viscera. Your steaming shit pile guts, he says.

The bull knocks its head back and forth.

The old lady on her chair stops talking to the young mother and points at the girl in the pen with the bull. The young mother drops her bag by the old woman’s thick feet and rushes across the street and bends to climb through the fence. She does not notice that a twisted nail catches her shoulder. She hurries to her daughter, but does not run, she knows about animals and fear, she puts her child in her arms and turns her back to the bull and walks toward the fence. Children sense fear, too, and the little girl starts to cry.

The old woman takes the young mother inside and cleans the cut on her shoulder, dabs it with a soapy solution that stings. Three inches long, not deep, a thin track of blood, none gets on her dress. The old woman dries the woman’s shoulder and smooths an ointment over her skin. No scars, she says. No scars, says the young mother. She is angry at her daughter, so angry it feels like hate, and she is afraid.

That night, when it’s dark, the woman returns to the pen of the bull. It lies in hay in the corner, a mountain range of animal. The streetlight makes its eyes shine and its horns glow. The woman approaches the bull. She crouches in front of its head, she rubs her hand through the thick curls between its eyes. Do you want to eat my daughter, she asks? Do you want to take her insides out? Do you want to run those sharp horns into the middle of her? She is soft and your horns are so sharp. Tomorrow we will eat steak, rare as I can make it and I will cut it into tiny bites for her, it will be so rare she’ll barely have to chew.

To Scatter

There are laws. A body cannot be buried in a field. A body cleaned and changing colors, purple yellow gray, wrapped tight in a white sheet, placed deep in the earth by a willow tree, in a hole that took two days to dig, that stiffened the shoulders and blistered the palms of the ones who gripped the shovels, there, across the fence from the cows. The laws say no to this.

Propriety also dictates that the ashes of a body not be scattered on a public beach, to drift into the hair and lungs and striped towels of beachgoers, to drift into their sandwiches, into the gaps of bathing suits, bits of burned up body on lotioned skin. No one goes to the beach to be seasoned by the remains of a stranger. Wind kicking sand against skin is discomfort enough.

The group gathers. It is midday. The sun is high and bright behind ribs of cloud. The adventurer has died and her body has been slid into the oven and the flames turned her body to ash and the ashes were collected with a shovel and deposited into a vessel for the bereaved. The adventurer had wishes. When she had blood that moved, and light in her eyes, and a mind, and organs doing the work they were built to do: to be burned. To be turned to ashes. To be scattered on the sand of the beach where she spent summers as a child.

Six people assemble in the dry flat lot by the beach. Two former lovers. One brother. Three friends. Does anyone need sunscreen one asks. This is the solution, her brother explains. We cannot go down there and just pour a bucket of her ashes on the beach. Here, he says, passing each person a folded pair of pants. Put these on. The pants are soft, billowy, with elastic waists, pockets at the hips, bright colors, royal blue, bright yellow, red. Standing in the lot, the group removes what they have on, modesty has no seat at the table today, and they slip their legs into the pants. This is a different sort of day, and they do not question or give thought to what others see. They walk together in silence in the billowy pants, down the path lined with rosehip bushes, fuchsia flowers opened wide and fragrant, to the planked boardwalk that leads over a dune to the beach.

The brother heads left and the others follow. Seagulls, beach chairs, striped umbrellas, children digging holes in sand, making trenches for the ocean to travel up to fill the holes. People wading in the waves, a swimmer doing the breast stroke parallel to the shore, low tide, a rippling of water freckled with light marks a sandbar. Gray rocks with white rings, ridged shells, crab shells, shells that held the small bodies of soft creatures, empty now, pushed and strewn by wind and tide across the sand.

Once they pass the crowds and reach an empty stretch of the beach, near where the cliffs start to rise, the brother stops. The group, answering some unsaid direction, forms a circle.

The brother tells the group that he has made holes in the pockets of the pants. Each person puts their hands in the pockets and feels the holes with their fingers. The brother explains that he will put ashes in everyone’s pockets, and they will step so the ashes fall.

From a canvas bag, he takes a black box which holds the ashes and he takes a scoop, the same one he uses for birdseed at home. He opens the box and places the lid on the sand with a concentrated face, so that one can see the way he might have looked as a boy, focusing on a dead bird on the sidewalk. He reaches the scoop into the box and approaches one of his sister’s old loves, who holds a pocket open for him, and he pours a scoopful into one pocket, then the other. The former lover keeps her hands over the pants so the ashes don’t start to spill before everyone’s pockets are full.

The waves curl themselves onto the shore, more lap than crash at this moment in the tide, each one rolling with the quiet roar of an airplane taking off at a distance. A seagull cries out as it rides the air above them. No one speaks. All the pockets are full but the brother’s, he scoops the ashes into his own pocket.


And each person removes their hands and the ashes start spilling down their legs, out the bottom of their bright loose pants. The ashes tickle the skin of their shins, their calves, behind their knees, between their thighs, as it dusts down, hourglassing from their pockets to the sand.

One friend, in the royal blue pants, begins to bounce a little on his feet and then steps in place. The others see the ashes coming from his ankles and landing on the sand. Others start to move. One sways. One does gentle low kicks. Following an unnamed force they grab on to each other’s shoulders and begin moving in a circle, stomping on the sand, the ashes spill, they step on the ashes, mixing them in with the sand, this person who they loved, who days ago had lips and nipples and a wet tongue and eyelashes and a laugh, now they spin and the ashes tickle their legs, it is their friend, her bones, her skin, her body is ash against their legs, and some gets between their legs, into the creases, it’s gritty, this is happening, they go round, holding each other’s shoulders, ashes pouring from their pants, they stamp it into the sand, they are dizzy and they laugh and they cry out and they stop spinning and release each other’s shoulders and one starts jumping in place to get the last of the ashes out and the others start jumping, and they draw in closer until one of her friends falls on the sand and they all collapse in a pile on themselves, on the ashes on the sand, their legs coated, bits of grit between their legs, her bones, her very skeleton, between their cheeks, she’s there. A seagull dives and catches a crab and drops it on the sand and beaks its shell and flings its head back to swallow the soft meat of the crab. The group breathes, big heaving breaths. The waves with their right-there far-away roar.

The group untangles, begins to separate their bodies from the heap they’ve made on the sand. Here we still are, shoulders, thighs. The sun, above them, right above them, warms their skin.

When they walk back down the beach, through the crowds, a seagull thrashes an empty bag of potato chips for crumbs, a little girl brings the shell of a horseshoe crab to her mother in a beach chair reading, already the beach has gotten more crowded, the day is bright and warm, the sun is so high, the highest it can be, the sky light blue, endless. They reach the boardwalk and walk back over the dune, down the narrow path with the rose hip bushes and back to the lot.

They had talked of gathering afterwards, food, drink, conversation. All know, without speaking, they will not. What has happened has happened. Our friend who we loved, who we love, our friend is dead, it does not make sense, not yet, maybe never.

The group embraces, they are opened, frightened, sad, for now, shell cracked and touching everything at once. One by one, they depart, spreading out, moving away back to where they came from.

The beach, as day cools into evening, empties. The sun begins to set. The tide rises. The waves fling themselves higher and higher on the beach. They push, rise, swell, up beyond where the group had been. It draws and tumbles the small stones, the shells, the sand, the scattered dead.

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