Zachary Howatt




Zachary Howatt


I’ve been having a hard time telling people “How I’ve Been.” I’m too busy going down this path that never stops. I’m rarely stationary. I don’t take time to remind myself what my goals are. If it’s not about the journey or the destination, what is this period of my life about? It’s only movement. The constant movement is what occupies my mind. I’m not depressed. I’m not content. I’m stirring myself around. This poem is as close as I’ll get to telling you “How I’ve Been” before I keep spinning.

When I woke up today, the view outside my window was white. A coat of wet snow returned after the tease of spring. On my walk to work, a huge gust of wind blew the wash off the branches above me. I turtled myself into my hoodless jacket to combat the avalanche.

Everyone I greeted at work heard the story. I tell the people I serve about my walks because it makes the minutes between loading up a ticket and awaiting payment pass by less painfully. I couldn’t tell you what’s so painful about waiting. There’s always a next customer, a next order, a next story I bring to our face-to-face transactions.

It’s a small-talk cliché, but discussing the weather is actually a godsend. Last week, the story that lit up so many faces was the one about the sun and the bright skies and the warmth that we were blessed with. The weather came as a miracle to savor. For the very first time, my car stayed at the three-plex in North Fargo while I walked to work. It was early morning, a time when “day” is a misnomer and the sky’s charcoal outfit pays kindness to the eyes of its visitors. When I walk in I always smell fresh bagels, but they smell different when I’ve walked all the way from my bed to the apron hooks at the restaurant’s back door. It smells like part of my house. The whole world stays with me longer when I travel on foot.

Now that Kilbourne has developed another Mercantile across the street, the restaurant doesn’t get sunrises the way it used to, the way the sun on the prairie makes you feel like you’re receiving a private show. Now the sun comes up long after the lights in the Mercantile lobby have had their reign over the night, and it isn’t until 8 in the morning that the sun is the dominant light outside our windows.

I’ve worked here for the entirety of the Mercantile’s construction, from my first timid days when I was unsure my lateral jump into the service industry was the right choice, to the days coming soon when I will teach our newest front-of-house member how to fold a napkin around a fork and a knife—something I still take more pride in than many of the videos I make as a freelancer. Maybe I would take more pride in my videos if I had clients like Emma, a coworker who is so eager to learn about my craft. She took out her phone to take pictures of my silverware tutorial—I’ll never forget. When she joined our family in the fall, she didn’t believe I was almost as new as she was. It was around the time when the builders across the street were putting in the cornerstone. I only remember because a woman with white hair stopped me on my way to bus her husband’s dishes, beaming with wonder on my behalf as she told me: “Look at what they’re doing! In 20 years, you’ll be able to say you were here the day that cornerstone went in.”

There’s so little chance I’ll be in Fargo in 20 years. In 2 years or less, I’ll surely be in the Twin Cities. I’m excited for where I’ll be in 20 days. Let’s start there—next week or the week after that. Both ice and construction on the sidewalk across the street will be cleared, and I’ll begin enjoying what may be my last summer taking jogs up and down the sidewalks of Broadway, remarking each passerby not only because my anxious brain wonders what all people think of me, but because I imagine they’ll play a role in my next adventure.

There it is again—my fascination with traveling by foot on city sidewalks, the idyllic part of my life that always sounds so mundane when I share it with coworkers and customers. Where I’m from, walks in the city are a movie trope. Where I’m from, walks are what take you to roads that don’t intersect between city blocks but rather blocks of corn, blocks of soybeans. Since moving out of my hometown four or five years ago, I’m still mesmerized by the possibility of living in the middle of nowhere. How did I ever live in isolation, without the promise of a diverse community? Now that I’m in a city, that life is gone. My next life took my old life away. But if I put myself back in that place, the question twists on itself: How could I live with the unavoidable congestion of people? I see new people every day. New bodies with new paths. I’m in their way. I’m their pit stop. No story I share with them leaves a taste in their mouth. They don’t know anything about me except what I feel about the weather.

This isn’t the part where I lament the dehumanization of customer service. I care about the intimate details of their lives as much as I want them to care about mine. It’s by design that we don’t overwork our emotions. It makes the work pass by less painfully.

Amanda would disagree. A farmer in the warmer months, Amanda joined the family to save herself from her mind and from poverty in the cold half of the year. Recently, her dad passed away from complications due to COVID. How many days ago, I’m unsure—who counts days that lead back into the past? She went her last two weeks without taking a station other than the register. She put faith in mindless chit chat to distract from what had happened—or, more fairly, to forget that a future with her dad was now a canceled plan. Like our MVP, she cranked in a line of customers all day long, dexterously helping them get their needs filled without getting in their way. An example for us all: painless and marvelously unremarkable interactions. As I ran the wheel, plucking tickets off the printer and rattling them along the rail, she was the martyr who calmly went against instinct to deliver a consistently bright greeting: “I’m doing well, how are you?”

Last week, she ran from us as quickly as she ran toward. That’s called the end of a story, when the subject moves on to her next life. It’s a common story, much more common than the weather. Not worth telling a customer during a tedious transaction. We don’t like to be told about it. These people, these stories, these poems—they last just long enough for us to remark that they were here, then they get out of the way. Each one melts quicker than snow. Like a footstep, the only one that matters is the one that comes next.

Since the days before he could read, Zachary Howatt knew he loved stories. Telling them has since been his passion. In addition to poetry, he has written numerous short stories. He is currently working on his first novel, “Fissure,” a thriller that explores a dark blight of jealousy and revenge stemming from several stories within stories. He lives in Fargo and isn’t sure why.