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April 18th, 2014 - Hayli May Cox

I am at work in the basement of the university library, texting my mom. Tech office detritus lurks in corners: old keyboards, mice with the little rubber balls, empty cases for floppy disks, manuals for operating systems that died before I was born, cables for things nobody will ever use again. The walls are full of memes: one about a turning things off and back on, one with Gandalf as the wizard installing your software. Outside, more than a foot of snow lingers from a record-breaking storm. Lake Superior blows a freezing, glittering cloud from the boughs of conifers and across the campus’s sanded sidewalks, fat flakes shining bright enough to make you squint.


I’ve never worked anywhere quite like this—everyone close and kind and more like family than colleagues. Later we’ll go to each other’s weddings, fall in love with each other and watch each other graduate, hold each other together when we lose two of our own without warning and far too young. But for now, we are answering phone calls, resetting passwords, recovering lost documents, and helping students and professors rid their computers of malware while we try not to look at their browsing histories. They come to us frustrated, and we try to solve their problems. With any luck, we can make their day.


It's a slow Friday morning, and I can get away with typing out messages to Momma on my laptop now and then. We’re discussing how much fun we’ll have garage saleing when I come home for Mother’s Day. Neon paper signs are no doubt popping up on corners back home, 500 miles south and 60 degrees warmer. Because I do not use a regular phone service, I have records of nearly all my conversations since 2011. Today, these messages seem cheerful, but between the lines I know I am nauseous from ache and trying to hide it.


How are you, momma?!  :)


I'm good sweetheart:) hbu?


I'm alright :) I'm working, but it's sunny out :) M---- is leaving for Esky today, so I'll be     doing tons of homework and silly movie watching, lol


I need distraction from what my partner had said just nights before—all that stuff about not knowing if he loved me or if he felt the spark now that we’d moved in together. How he would fall asleep drunk in his chair, have sex without looking at or kissing me. How much whiskey he drank and how I’d lie awake hoping he wouldn’t stop breathing from the pills. How I’ve tried them myself.


I try not to burden Momma with the details. Yet between work, class, selling my plasma, applying for food assistance, and cleaning the apartment, I am communicating significantly more than I usually do. All day I check my phone to keep from discorporating into silence. I text my high school best friend about seeing her new apartment in two weeks. I text my favorite cousin and my old roommate. I call my sister and message my dad. I leave smiley faces everywhere. Because she is better at reading between the lines than I am, Momma continues to check on me.


I love you millions x millions x billions!! I'm here if you need your momma!! Always n forever:)


It’s strange to have these archives. Like my parents, I am an obsessive collector. Momma keeps garage sale finds like purses and boots, and Daddy keeps broken scooters and other things he never has time to fix. Hers in the house, his in the barn and in the basement. Outside, paint chips off everything and reveals the rot of 100-year-old wood. A storm window, slipped from its pane, rests in an overgrown flower bed.


What I don’t know yet as I text Momma is that my parents are on the verge of divorce. I’ve always been their confidant and consider them both my best friends. When I was a child, I used to draw crayon pictures of all of us, lungs black, and tuck them into the plastic sleeves of Momma’s cigarette pack—the same plastic she’d hand us, along with a quarter, to fill with candies from a machine at the grocery store. When Daddy made her upset and didn’t know why, I’d try to hint at the problem so he could fix it and she would come home. I never forgot the time they split up when I was a little girl, watching Daddy cry for the first time while reading her letters or hearing Momma’s shuddering breath through the trailer walls. I’ve always felt guilty for leaving my little brother to do what I had always felt was my job—to hold our family together.


The next day is Saturday, and Momma checks in again, asks what I’m doing. I say I’m painting and eating, snails and pizza rolls, and we laugh when she asks for clarification. I remember the long-ago nights in our trailer when Momma or I couldn’t sleep and she would pop a few rolls in the oven or we’d make homemade French fries to dip in mayo. We always seem to anticipate what the other needs. Maybe it’s because we don’t know how to ask. Minutes go by between messages. The TV is streaming Mulan or Matilda or The Iron Giant, and M---- is getting drunk at his desk as he raids dungeons with what were our mutual friends, headphones over his ears. The sound of his mechanical keyboard is soothing, and the last light of the day falls. My rats are stirring in their cage. I lick the tip of my paintbrush until it’s a perfect point. 


Hayli May Cox is a PhD Candidate studying English/Creative Writing and Women's and Gender Studies at The University of Missouri, though she's really a Michigander. She currently serves as Editorial and Publicity Assistant for Persea Books as well as Nonfiction editor at Doubleback Review. Her stories and essays have been published online and in print, and she is currently working on one story collection and two book projects. In her free time Hayli paints, builds with Lego, critter watches, and hikes around with a backpack full of field guides.

Hayli would love for you to learn more about the Indigenous Environmental Network at


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