Anthony Emerson

It’s Back: the McRib

Last year sucked. For anybody who isn’t a billionaire trying to colonize Mars, last year was filled with dread, fear, loss and painful reckonings. On more than one occasion I sat in the parking lot of a Walmart watching the multitudes of raw humanity spill into the lot like a faucet dumping poisonous water, while the interior of the store was filling up like a noxious basin of viral chemicals. Donning a mask my grandmother knit me, I’d buzz around the store with a trembling gait, navigating the aisles with an alien energy. I imagine we looked like bacteria under a microscope, crazed shoppers swimming round the petri dish searching for toilet paper during a plague that primarily afflicts the lungs. The choice of whether or not to shop at Walmart and put myself and my family at risk never got easier even as the state of my finances got worse. And for those of us on the side of sanity, the aisles were the front lines of a battle against a deadly virus and a culture war that is sure to leave our democracy gasping for breath.

On a personal note, I suffered the greatest tragedy of my life last year. My most consistent and loving, life-affirming companion succumbed to a disease nobody knew he had, and died unexpectedly after over nine years together. The grief from losing my dog was this kind of transcendent drug. I felt like an open wound, but it made me fearless. It made me think that suffering on that level, where the illusions of the world shatter like a stained glass window, was part of the process of self-actualization; that loss changes you, but it doesn’t actually empty you, it weirdly makes you whole. It was as if there was a room in the palace of my mind that I never knew about. Drugs and booze and childhood trauma suppressed the room, obscured it with a filmy plaque. Meditation, Zoloft and cognitive behavioral therapy chipped away at the plaque over time. The icey walls of the room were slowly melting and eventually the room would have appeared to me. But in the same way the virus put its boot on the throat of an already ailing society, the death of my dog expedited what was already in process; it excavated the room from the depths of my psyche and gave me back something I only ever had when I was naive enough to not realize I shouldn’t have it: optimism. It’s back, I thought. All of the sudden I could see more than three days into the future. It felt as if for the first time in my life the whole of my frontal lobe had come online. I saw that I had values, passions, skills, and a future that might actually make sense.

There are three reasons I feel the warm joy of optimism in my cheeks like the buzz from a cheap red wine: the pandemic, my dead dog, and the McRib. My entire fucked up life has been defined by chaos and anxiety so I suppose it makes sense that when the human race started experiencing what I endure in my body daily, I was released from the prison of self-consciousness. And something about my four-legged avatar—the uninhibited, aspirational, purest version of me— that contained all of my heaviest emotions vanishing from existence burned me up quick and hot like a brush fire—but it too set me free. I can feel the new-growth greenery sprouting inside of me, breaching the charred soil of self and emerging as something new. Ordinarily, I’d feel guilty about clinging to personal optimism while the world around me devolves into madness; or I’d feel self-pity that at the exact moment I am ready to succeed in the world… the world is shuttered, on its knees and bleeding out. But I know that everything will be ok, that America will once again be a beacon of exceptionalism, a moral lodestar on the world stage, and the triumphant hegemonic superpower we tell ourselves we already are. I know because we have made one glorious, bold, epic achievement during this pandemic: we brought back the McRib. The disgusting, glistening, gelatinous pork goo that symbolizes a uniquely American brand of capitalist prowess— whose intermittent existence has emerged like a horn in the fog—is back and here to bolster our faith in America’s ability to persevere. It’s back and we’re going to be ok!

Anthony Emerson lives and writes at the edge of the North Maine Woods. His poetry has been published in Visitant and Tiny Seed Journal. His essay on Katahdin and the covid-19 virus was published in the Winter/ Spring issue of Appalachia Journal.