Whooping it Up in the Uncanny Valley
WHOOPING IT UP
IN THE UNCANNY VALLEY
Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer L. Shreve All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Published in the United States of America
Two of the stories in this collection were published previously. "Whooping it Up in the Uncanny Valley" appeared in the November 2006 issue of Adbusters Magazine. "Space Junk" appeared in the Seed Magazine 2006 Summer Fiction issue.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cover design by Nicole Recchia
ISBN 978 1 62890 778 0
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jenn Shreve is an award-winning journalist and creative director. She has contributed to numerous anthologies and publications, including Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, and Wired. Her short fiction, including the title story of this collection, has appeared in Adbusters and Seed Magazine. She has a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Washington and a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter. This is her first collection of short stories.
To Alan, for his love and support in all my endeavors
WHOOPING IT UP IN THE UNCANNY VALLEY
One minute I’m sleeping like a goddamn baby, cradled in the web of a strange but pleasant dream. The next, I’m desperately trying to extract myself from the tangle of sweaty sheets, stumbling towards the bathroom, and propping open the lid before blammo.
After that, everything becomes crystal clear.
“You okay, hon?” Shannon called from the bed.
There I was, clutching the cold porcelain bowl, trembling like a china cabinet in an earthquake, tears streaming down my face and vomit stinging my nostrils. I wanted to say, “Great tofu tetrazini last night, Hun,” but a more decisive answer was forthcoming. I kicked the door closed and aimed my head over the hole just in time for round two.
When I’d finished she asked through the closed door if I’d be going to work.
“How about tea? Want tea?”
Was she intentionally making her voice sound high and pinched? I belched in reply. It felt like a blow torch had just gone off in my throat.
“Mint’s good for this sort of thing. Or is it ginger?”
“Fine, fine, whatever,” I said, wiping the whole side of my face against the toilet paper roll.
It wasn’t until I had gotten into the shower and was pissing a warm, orangey stream down the drain that I realized just how good I felt. Damn good. You know the way that so-called unpleasant things—like taking a huge shit that leaves your rectum raw and bloody, falling off your bike and winding up with a leg full of gravel, or fucking the wrong girl at the right time, because one or both of you is married and you’re twice her age—can make you feel really alive in an eerie, this is it way? Well, it was like that. So, when it happened again the next morning, I celebrated by running Shannon’s bidet, swishing the water around my mouth, and spitting it full force against the open toilet seat. The following day it came at my office, just ten minutes before patients started arriving. In the middle of HWY 10 gridlock the morning after that. Wonderful, wonderful feeling every time. Before one gastric disaster could finish, I found myself longing for the next. I even tried to spur these episodes by closing my eyes and imagining that feeling of untenable fullness, a surge, and then, ahhhhhhhhhhhhh.
I was probably dying. That’s what I figured, though nothing I’d learned in dental school could explain these odd symptoms. Shannon didn’t think I was dying. Oh no no no, she thought it was nerves. She thought I should see our friend Rick, a gastro-intestinal specialist, to find out if I had an ulcer, adding, “if you wait a couple more days you can probably lose a couple pounds.” She called it “the nausea,” like it was a joke or something. “The nausea, the nausea, somebody’s got the nausea,” she chipperly sang. Eight years of marriage and I still don’t know how she comes up with this shit.
We met at an American Dental Association convention in Hawaii. She was in a booth selling teeth whiteners, and I could see she wasn’t lying when she said she’d used them herself. That mouth of hers had serious wattage, though the fluorescent lights revealed the ghostly traces of her exorcized stains. Next thing you know my plans to lay by the pool and sip scotch all weekend are blown. Instead it’s Shannon and I going out for fancy dinners, drinking ourselves silly in the hotel bar, fucking like monkeys back in my suite all night.
Now obviously a man does not remain a bachelor for 41 very satisfying years only to give it all up for the first convention bimbo to blow him thrice in one night. I burned through a lot of women before deciding it was time to finally settle down. At 38, Shannon was still pretty good looking, voracious in the sack, no kids (infertile, thank god), intelligent enough to talk a good talk but didn’t take herself too seriously. So she had all the surface credentials. And I’ll admit after so many years of bachelorhood I was feeling a bit lonely, starting to wonder who was going to look after me when I was old, that sort of thing. Truth is we couldn’t get enough of one another. It was love this and love that. For weeks and months I felt all electrified and benevolent. Come to think of it, meeting Shannon was a lot like puking. And damn if things didn’t happen fast. Six months from zero to wedding. The plunge, Shannon called it. She liked to say it in a gravely whisper, like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. The pluuuunge. The pluuuunge.
And what a plunge it’s been! Over in a barrel we went and next thing you know I’m living in Shannonland. In Shannonland, you simply couldn’t start your new life together in a home that stunk of somebody else’s memories. We had to buy a NEW house in a NEW neighborhood, only “pre-aged” so it would look like the place had been around for generations. At the time, I thought we’d be better off cashing out our savings and using it to fuel a bonfire. But our investment in what the realtor described as Cape Cod meets Southern plantation – think: red wood-shingled roof folded like an open book, with an ostentatious row of columns and long porch in front, eggshell white with “Virgin Forest Green” trim – quickly tripled. In fact, identical pre-aged communities have sprouted up in more than 23 states since we bought ours. Sometimes I imagine there are little Shannons and little Me’s living in houses just like ours only instead of Southern California outside it’s Ohio or New Jersey or Texas. I like to think of us all getting up in the morning, puking, driving to work in the same leased luxury sedans, popping in after work to the exact same men’s section of the exact same department store to purchase a new pair of socks, wolfing down the same low-fat, low-carb, low-calorie ginger fig bars on the way home.
With the house and some money (mine), Shannon felt she could fully express her domestic side. My wife has many talents, but decorating is not one of them. What she has is stacks and stacks of glossy lifestyle magazines. She’ll find a spread she loves and copy it, coffee table for coffee table, vase for vase, bamboo frond for bamboo frond. She’ll even buy the same fine art books to put on the shelves. I might as well live in a furniture showroom.
And it was Shannon, of course, who urged me to give up my family dental practice and specialize in veneers after I’d hooked her up with a set of her own. For all her reckless shopping, she’s a financial genius. The demand for veneers soon shot through the roof. Even people with perfectly fine teeth were compelled to hide them behind a set of perfectly perfect teeth. If I was comfortable before, in Shannonland I was loaded. But at a cost, right, because it’s the same fucking shit day in and day out. Get the new teeth in and the patient out, numb, grind, adhere, polish, do it quick, comfortably, do it at top dollar and just well enough so that you don’t get sued. I was nothing more than a well-paid robot. Instead of planning my retirement and taking long lunches and three-day weekends, so I could enjoy my life while there was still some feeling left in me, I wasn’t getting home until 7 or 8 and often had to go in on Saturdays, too.
Which brings me to the matter of my fiftieth birthday party. Five oh. With the practice booked solid a full six months in advance and no end in sight, to say nothing of the nausea which started a month or so before the big day, I would have liked nothing more than to let the date pass without notice. But Shannon, now four six, oh Shannon would not let it be. I had to have a party, a big fucking party, with paper lanterns and balloons and all of her stupid friends invited. As the event approached, not a day went by when I wasn't being reminded of the fact that it was all downhill from there.
The nausea went on for a full week before I could get in to see Rick, whose veneers I’d done back when I was just starting out with the new practice. Forbidden from eating and drinking anything but water for 12 hours before my 8 AM appointment, I only managed to hack up an unsatisfying drizzle of dark yellow bile into the sink of our guest bathroom before leaving the house. After taking my temperature (normal), weight (Shannon was right), and blood pressure (no higher than usual), the nurse, a chubby, middle-aged Filipina named Maria, handed me a cup of chalky fluid and looked on sternly as I swallowed it down. It was cold and I could feel it slowly coating my mouth, then my throat, like spilled paint creeping along a tilted floor. Maybe I would puke pink, I thought hopefully. After she left, I sloughed off my khakis and oxford, but before I slipped on the blue paper robe, I stopped a moment to take stock of the situation. I was still tan from a recent trip to Mexico, and I liked the contrast of my white hairs against the bronze skin. The skin around my chest and stomach and – I twisted around to look – behind was getting loose. I peeled back the mouth of my boxers. My dick swayed lazily to the left as was its wont, and my balls looked like swollen raspberries dusted with a light white mold. Releasing the elastic band with a snap, I wondered what was it gonna be. Ulcers? Cancer?
As Rick ran the fluoroscope over the long tube of my esophagus towards the stomach, I searched the screen for one of those football-sized tumors they’re always pulling out of six year olds. Empty. Oh, but we weren’t done yet. Next he had me drop my boxers and bend over so he could wiggle a gloved finger up my asshole, apologizing as he went. What if he found something up there? That I hadn’t even considered. We could be here all day twisting the damn thing out.
“Yup. Uh huh. Done. Thanks,” Rick said, peeling off his gloves.
It was nerves, of course.
“You gotta stop throwing up, though. I don’t need to tell you that it erodes the enamel of your teeth. Shannon still got you eating all that healthy crap?”
He smiled and I noticed that my work hadn’t held up as well as one would hope. Early veneers never did. They looked real but a bit too perfect. Only freaks were born with mouths like that. I felt a little chill down my spine and had to fight the urge to run out of there, paper robe and all.
I took the pills, first for the nausea only, but I missed puking so much that I wound up taking the happy ones, too. After a few days, it was as if the nausea had never happened At one point, fully awake, I dropped a highball of scotch, good stuff. I just watched it shatter against the stone floor and laughed at the way the shards and alcohol and blood mingled on my feet. There was still hope. Some unidentified pathogen could still be setting sail from my GI tract towards my vital organs, where it would replicate indefinitely until full system collapse carried me off to Nothingland. Blame the pills, but it was comforting this thought of my sudden, tragic demise. Ah, the loving funeral accolades giving my life the depth and meaning it had always lacked. Shannon finally able to play the role of martyr-wife that she was born to – the kind who dabs her eyes with a folded tissue to avoid runny mascara. Me, picking up the phone, and telling Tess, “Not coming in today. I’m dead. You figure it out, you office-managing twat!” But these happy daydreams always ended in a panicked, dizzying feeling of time running out.
“I’m going to go see a therapist,” I announced over dinner about a week before my birthday.
Shannon looked up from her lemon chicken, broccoli, and orzo salad.
“Because I’m going crazy, or haven’t you noticed?”
“Shrinks screw you up. Look at Roger Harmon. He’s much worse.”
“Oh come on. Nausea, stress, nerves. Don’t you think it all adds up to something?”
“Hmmmm, let me see. How about, the pills aren’t working?”
“Give me a break.”
There’s a face Shannon makes. I call it her poo face. She screws up her features into a little knot that reminds me of a dog’s ass. She was making that face and I could see that puny brain of hers was really chugging.
“When’s the last time you golfed, or went sailing on your brother’s boat? I bet he’d like to see your new maritime office.”
“And how do you propose I find the time?”
“Babe, come on. You know I’m open-minded to all sorts of woo-woo bullshit, but I’ve seen it before. Shrinks screw you up until you end up talking like that guy.”
“Shannon, I have no idea what - “
“Weird guy. Had a monkey.”
“This really isn’t the poi - “
“P-P-Portnoy!” she bellowed, slamming one hand onto the table, causing the glasses to wobble on their stems.
Shannon, Shannon, Shannon. You’ve got to hand it to her. I won’t even get into her weird habit of affixing literary references to anything in her life that doesn’t make sense to her. If you’ve got a problem. She’s got a SOLUTION! Depressed? Take up GOLFING! Ugly? Try getting all your FAT SUCKED THROUGH A HOSE! I used to find it charming, until I realized she actually believes in this shit. In fact, I believe it’s possible to chart her entire spiritual progression by examining all the crap she’s sold in her lifetime: student credit lines in college, lingerie and sex creams just after, preventative cosmetic surgery for teens (“If only I’d had the chance when I was that age …”), gym equipment that helped you stretch more efficiently, weight-loss vitamins, breast-enhancement pills. The teeth whitener, I might point out, was necessary after all the lattes and cigarettes she sucked down in her go-go 20s. Lately, collagen, a female orgasm pill that had to be yanked when it proved weakening to heart valves, Botox of course, a toxin-straining air filter, even robotic medical assistants that would take your blood pressure, weight, and measure your pulse. Our unpleasant friend Roger hooked her up with that last weird gig.
Maybe I’m being a little unfair. Things in Shannonland haven’t been all bad. The woman means well, and her many SOLUTIONS do have a way of distracting me from worries that, ultimately, only exist in my own mind. After the shrink argument, for instance, she got out her strip-aerobics pole, put on some lacy panties, and gave me a private show. And when she was done, I was hard enough to get her moaning like the girls on the videos do. When we were done, she drew me a nice bubble bath and rubbed my neck and shoulders until I couldn’t even remember my own name. In bed that night she let me suck her nipples until I fell asleep. I’m not ungrateful for that privilege.
No, it’s better to say Shannon was part of the problem, but the problem was much, much bigger than she would ever be. Take this party. No big deal, right? Just a party. But just try getting a single thing done. One day it’s our draconian neighborhood association telling us we had to get a special permit three weeks ago so we could have a taco truck into our own backyard. The next it’s the dim-witted receptionist at the talent agency who doesn’t know the difference between a mariachi and a flamenco dancer and even worse doesn’t seem to care. Shannon may have sent me to rent the heat lamps, buffet table, and other party paraphernalia instead of doing it herself, but she couldn’t have predicted that I’d have to hit three different places in bone-slow traffic to find everything on her list. She may have sent me to stock up on supplies at Liquor Hut, but it wasn’t her fault that the checkers there were forced to perkily mispronounce the name on my credit card or get fired, a practice that has always made me want to crack a bottle of Jim Beam over their heads. Everywhere I went, I was surrounded by overly polite idiots peddling disappointment and incompetence. Society itself was crumbling all around us, I was certain of it, yet it wasn’t going to go down without a “have a nice day.” For me, I didn’t need a fucking party if this was what it took. But not Shannon. She shrugged off the neighborhood association and had the taco truck drive in, lights off, in the middle of the night. She laughed and asked if the talent agency at least played good music when they put me on hold. When I complained about the traffic and the understocked party supply stores, she told me that’s just the way things were. At least we had penicillin and cherry-flavored lattes. “Do you remember,” she asked, “when you couldn’t get decent coffee anywhere?”
Gil, our handyman, apparently took a job at the Home Expo Center which charged you three times as much to rent the same guy, so on the afternoon of the party itself, it was up to me to hang orange and green lanterns from tiny nails along the edge of our roof. I still made it to the gym several times a week and never smoked, so I wasn’t in all that bad shape. Still it was not an easy task. I had to lug the small generator all the way from the garage, through the kitchen, up the stairs to the end of the hallway, and then up the pull-down ladder to the roof because none of our 6 million extension cords seemed to reach from there. It’s a small but unwieldy little machine, metal with plastic outlets. The set of cables you use for sparking up a dead battery kept jabbing me in the groin, and I could hear the gasoline sloshing around its insides, shifting the weight forwards and backwards as I maneuvered it up the pull-down ladder and through the hatch that opens out onto the long flat spine of our roof. Once there, I had to lug the thing over to a small concrete platform where a few antennas were lodged. By the time I managed to get the damn thing set up, I was dripping with sweat and lightheaded, so I sat down on the edge, where the roof slopes steeply, and dried my face with the inside of my shirt.
I hadn’t been up there since Gil started doing our Christmas lights five or six years ago. We lived at the far end of the valley, first subdivision built, nestled slightly up in the foothills. But with the hills to my back, I could see the whole expansive hive mapped out before me, the identically curved cul de sacs peeling back from the main thoroughfares like blood vessels stretching out from an artery, only far more neatly arranged. The valley stretched all the way to the I-5. I knew it had gone that far, but it was another thing to see it.
From the roof, you couldn’t see that the streets had once been sandblasted like a designer pair of jeans to give them a slightly faded look. You saw only the tops of trees, not the donut rings of raised dirt enclosing them that revealed just how recently they’d been planted, more so by the highway than in the older section, where we were. The roofs, color-coordinated it turned out, barely concealed that the gothic/Tudor/plantation/Italian villa/barn/hacienda/ranch house facades gave way to near-identical floor plans, so that visiting a neighbor’s home was eerily like being inside your own, but not quite. The windows are in the same place, only looking out onto a different view; the kitchen was exactly where you knew it would be, but with copper counters instead of marble and the silverware in the drawer to the left of the dishwasher rather than to the right. The repetition in shape, frequency, and length of streets – grid-like in their precision, though strategically placed slopes and curves and calculated landscaping choices made them seem quite organic when viewed from street level – didn’t reveal that the valley had, in some ways, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Real age had finally set in. People had customized, remodeled, painted. There was even a hierarchy, and Shannon and I, being in the oldest pre-aged neighborhood in the valley, were at the apex. “Wow. You live in the classic district,” people would say to us.
And yeah, yeah, I know most of the planet can’t afford a decent dinner nonetheless a home as nice as ours and fantasizing about a dirty bomb going off and filling the whole place with rotting corpses makes me a fucking dickhead, but so be it. As I looked down I tried to appreciate our perfect dark blue swimming pool, to feel warmth for the giant banquet table already skirted in red and green, the taco truck purring like a contented cat beside it. I attempted to be thankful for the green hedge that hid a sound barrier to protect us from our neighbor’s children’s cries. Every well-planned detail piled atop others so that no imperfection, no unexpected mishap, could ever break through the scrim. Small planes would always crash into other people’s living rooms. Sinkholes would always form in other people’s backyards. Nothing extraordinary would ever be allowed to happen here, and if it did, we owned nothing so precious or unique that it could not be replaced with a credit card number and a phone call.
When I finally eased myself back down the ladder, my face was slightly pink from the sun and emptiness clawed at my stomach, though nothing I could imagine eating appealed. Could it be the nausea has returned?
They came bearing gifts of pewter and crystal, engraved so as to mask their impersonality. Thrusting the store-wrapped packages towards me, they chuckled as they declared “the big five oh, eh?” and “not a day over 39!” like they were the most original goddamned phrases in the whole English language. The men wore the standard uniform of khakis and blue collared shirts, identical brown leather belts wrapped around a wide variety of girths. The women spiced things up with their brightly patterned blouses and dresses, barely concealing the leathery skin and nutrient-starved bones. As our so-called friends eagerly trotted towards the alcohol station, it struck me that I had not confided in a single one of them about the nausea. I’m not even sure I would know how to bring such a thing up. I mean we all somehow knew that Lori, Shannon’s old roommate, had a son who was probably dealing drugs out of her guest house, but what she was simply dying to know is where she could get her own taco truck for an upcoming corporate event. Who hadn’t noticed our neighbor Greg’s name and address, published in the neighborhood association’s police blotter column for soliciting a hooker on Commerce Blvd.? Yet all anyone could do was compliment his wife on how good she looked as a redhead and ask them about their upcoming Alaskan cruise. And Shannon, she was the fucking master, all outstretched arms and cheek kisses, “so nice to see you!” and “aren’t you the sweetest!” To watch her you’d think it was the most natural, happy gathering on Earth.
By sunset, everyone was positively soused and oblivious to the tiny flies buzzing around the sour cream. The suspiciously pale mariachi band was quietly assembling in a corner of the back yard, and Roger was making an ass of himself dry-humping the heat lamp and bellowing something about it being warmer than his wife. Shannon was draped over a chaise lounge by the pool in a cluster with her lady friends, all in similar sloppy repose. They looked like a squealing clump of spaghetti. Watching them, it occurred to me that I could have married any one of them and my lot in life would be exactly the same. Men walking between the taco truck and the bar every now and then would grab my shoulder and give it a squeeze. “What can I get for you, buddy?” When I said “water” they’d hand me a beer several minutes later. God I felt terrible, queasy, depleted, like I had felt just after completing what I knew was going to be my last precious round of vomit, yet this time I wasn’t even given the satisfaction of ever having been sick. Sunstroke, perhaps. Or one too many peach-flavored margaritas.
All I know is I’d been staring at the pool for longer than could be considered normal, watching it reflect the gradual darkening of the sky, when Shannon tapped me on the shoulder and whispered in my ear, “It’s time for the lanterns.” I nodded and turned towards the house, up the stairs, down the hall to the pull-down ladder, up the ladder, through the hatch to the rooftop, and along the flat center to the concrete platform where the generator stood waiting. With a shudder, it rumbled to life. The crowd below let out a few half-hearted cheers as the lanterns flickered on. Lucky bastards. It took so little to please them.
A cool breeze carried the scent of carne asada through the air. I stood on the narrow concrete platform and looked out across the valley. A blue electric streak of daylight stretched across the furthest edge of the horizon. All around the valley, lights blinked on, forming a beautiful, randomized configuration, like glowing buoys bobbing on a black sea. Ah, they could make the grid and they could insert us all into our designated slots, but they had no control over this, these spontaneous, patternless illuminations. It was beautiful. Just that. And all I wanted, all I could think about in that very moment was diving head first into that still, black water and swimming among them, perhaps capturing a few of those lights in my pockets before a sudden tide could pull me out and away from this horrible place. But there was no way. It couldn’t be. And, ah, there was another light, flickering on in the east near the furthest base of the foothills. And over there, right in the center, a haunting pink glow.
I didn’t have to think about it. I just walked over and stood before our generator and took hold of the battery chargers by their rubbery safety handles. I pulled them to the antenna and clamped them on to the metal rod. Sparks flew and the lanterns flickered off, eliciting an awed “ooooohhhh” followed by giggles from the revelers in my yard. The antenna trembled and crackled. If I could just grab on to it and hold on and not lose my grasp –
Shannon was up in a flash. I have no idea how the woman is able to move so fast. I was still standing there like a dope with my hands hovering shakily over the volatile metal rod when she poked her blond head up through the hole in the roof and asked, “What on earth are you doing?”
“What’s it look like?” I snarled.
Her eyes darted from the electrical hazard I’d created on a whim, to my feet, which could theoretically have slipped out from under me at any minute sending me plunging over the roof’s edge, to the yard below. Although the sky was getting darker fast, I could still spot a sputter of recognition in her eyes.
“It looks like you’re trying to electrocute yourself. Is that it?” she finally said and shot me some serious poo face.
“Bingo!” I yelped, my voice pitching a high, throaty note. You gotta hand it to Shannon. She’s one of them, but once in awhile she really gets it.
“This, this is just silly.” She sounded truly exasperated.
“I don’t know, Shannon. Seems pretty fucking serious to me.”
“You’re acting just like that stupid lady. You know the one. Waiting until there’s a party so she can go off herself and turn the whole thing into a funeral- “
“Goddamn it, Shannon! Can you please put a plug in it for just one goddamn minute?”
I’d inadvertently screamed that last bit. The party below suddenly went silent. I could feel them looking up from their drippy crème caramels, ears perked, eyes groping the darkness for some clue as to what was happening. Shannon’s shadow and my own faced off in silence as the whispers and giggling grew. At some point Roger announced loud enough for the whole world to hear that he was heading up there to “save the marriage.”
“Great. Wonderful. Why don’t you take all our dirty laundry and foist it off the roof while you’re at it?” Shannon said, wiping away the first hint of tears from her eyes.
Real tears. Boy if that didn’t take the wind out of my sails momentarily. What was I doing? What was wrong with me?
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You’ve blown it. Beautiful party. All our friends here. All that work. Ruined.”
She could have at least acknowledged my apology. “I’m really sorry, but – “
“Do you think you’re the only goddamn person on this planet who gets depressed now and then? Because you’re not. OK? You’re not.”
Her whole face seemed to tremble as she resisted the sadness pulling at the corners of her mouth with all its might.
“I’m not listening! La la la la!” I sang, removing my hands from where they hovered above the antenna to plug my ears.
“For Christ’s sake, look at yourself? All these people are here and why are they here? For you. They’re here for you. OK? You’re an amazing success, with a thriving practice, a beautiful home, a new car every two years, and do you know why? Because you’re good at what you do and for reasons I’ll never understand people like you. That’s why. And you’re lucky – do you hear me? – lucky to have a wife who’s willing to throw a party in your honor, who decorates your house, who makes doctor’s appointments for you when you’re sick. Why? God knows you don’t deserve it. I just love you. That’s all. But you don’t give a damn. You spit on your friends’ generosity and you spit on me. You hate your success. You think you’re too good for all of us, too fucking good for the whole goddamn world.”
“Shannon –” I tried to interrupt, but she just kept going.
“Think I’m too fucking stupid to notice? Is that it? I see you, you fucking bastard. So let me tell you something for once, you fucking piece of shit, you deserve to be unhappy.”
“Then why didn’t you want me to see a shrink, huh? Tell me that, Shannon who suddenly knows everything.” I tried to sound convincing, but she and I both knew there was nothing behind my words.
She looked at me and shook her head. As she began to speak, it seemed she had suddenly grown quite old and frail. “You know what? I don’t care. It’s your party, as you’re so fond of reminding me, so be my guest. Kill yourself or whatever you want to do. You won’t even have to clean up the mess.”
With that, she disappeared down the hole from which she’d come, and slammed the hatch behind her. A few seconds later, the mariachi band began to play. I stood there, shaking, listening to a particularly hideous rendition of “Yo soy Mexicano” for what felt like fifteen minutes, my hands repositioned above the buzzing metal antenna until I felt the soreness start at the back of the throat, and a sound, an undeniably human moan, rose up from somewhere deep inside my body. I flicked off the machine, and began to stumble around like some drunken nut job all over the slender flat part of the roof, painful dry heaves doubling me over—oh for one wee little drop of vomit to fall from these pale, chapped lips!—until I couldn’t fight it any more and salty tears drained from my eyes, drenching my cheeks, like water from two throbbing, pierced blisters.
As I saw it, I had three no-good options. I could leave Shannon and hole up in one of those divorcee apartment complexes with all the other midlife crisis victims. I could stay put and go on living my life just as I had always done. Or I could kill myself like whoever the fuck Shannon was talking about. End of story. God how I didn’t want to end up some character in a book that had already been written.
Exhausted, I slumped down on the flat part of the roof, letting my feet rest on the slope towards the party below. Ever-resourceful, Shannon had set out candles and nobody seemed to mind the unlit lanterns overhead or the fact that the party’s raison d’être had fled the scene. They were dancing and talking as if nothing had ever happened, like I was already gone. If I closed my eyes I could almost drown it all out with the sound of my heartbeat and the hissing wind, wrapping itself around me, cold and damp.
After the band finished, the outside speakers began to emit light jazz and a group of stragglers huddled beneath a heat lamp. I roused myself and stood up, taking several deep, steadying breaths to help steady myself on the top edge of the roof. It had just come to me, another way out, something Shannon couldn’t have imagined for all her so-called insight into my problems. The best part was not even I could predict the outcome.
My heart squeezed and released, squeezed and released. Poodles turned flip-flops inside my belly. I sprinted hard. I sprinted fast, whirling my arms around like one of those fucking dervish types to propel me forward, faster and faster, until there was no longer anything beneath me to return the press of my feet.
And my god, it was all too brief, too chaotic and strange to truly savor the moment, but I do remember wondering as my body sailed through the cool night air whether I would land in the pool or in that quiet, dark patch just beyond. ▪
The first morning I went up to the rooftop pool, it had rained the night before and the pre-dawn air was crisp and still like an empty room. Unlike during the afternoon, there were no drunks drifting aimlessly on floating mattresses, no children running in screaming circles around the pool, no honking from below, no smog clutching at your throat or cell phones chirping in your ears. I dipped a cautious toe into the shallow end and held it there. As the initial shock gave way to mild discomfort, it occurred to me that to be swallowed whole by that cold dark mouth just might be one of the most exciting things a person could feel.
When I did finally go plunging into that icy pool several mornings later, I thought, this must be what a snake feels when it’s shedding its skin. In that smooth, clear moment between my fingertips hitting the water and the cold catching up to me like a brunt force, it was as though I’d left my body behind. After a few terrified gasps, everything began to move in unison. Back and forth, back and forth, the effort no longer noticeable. It was only when the sky started changing color above me that I realized, for the past 30 or so minutes, this person, this I, had ceased to exist. She’d been replaced by a break in the water, a shallow rhythmic breath, the frictionless sensation of gliding. Soon I was heading up there every morning.
I wasn't expecting any new patients until the afternoon, and those who already there never left their rooms. The elevator doesn’t even stop at the 9th floor without a special key. The other hotel guests don’t even know this place exists. So any unexpected visitor was a surprise. Besides, I hadn’t even told my mother where I was, so there was no way it could have been him. Even so, for a split second all the floors dissolved beneath me and the words ran through my head, this is it, this is it. I ran past the two shadows as quickly as I could, caught for a moment in the beams of those pale silver eyes, which under normal circumstances would have been fogged over with the last molecules of anesthesia. As I reached my door at the end of the hall, I heard him say to Dan, the porter, in a deep, German-sounding accent, “Who’s da swimmuh?”
Like most of the guests who come to the 9th floor, Josef was delivered by ambulance. He was wrapped waist-to-head in bandages, still crusted with dried effluvium from the previous day’s proceedings. A clear rubber pipe stuck out from between the folds of his dark blue terry clothe robe. It pulled dark orange fluid into a sac that hung from a silver pole next to his queen-sized bed. Face lift, tummy tuck, liposuction, read the chart. I just as easily could have guessed. He clearly hadn’t come here straight from the OR because he was propped up, awake if understandably groggy, watching a black-and-white zombie movie on the TV. The sleeves of his robe were scrunched up, revealing his arms, long, lean, and speckled like sausages, encased in paper-thin tan skin and brushed with hairs the same pale white as the sheets. His eyes seemed to brighten when I approached his bed.
“Is the fishy? Hello, leeettle fishy,” he said, flitting his hand back and forth. “I know dat you are da swimmuh.”
“You can call me Carla. I'll be your attendant for the next"—I consulted his chart—"looks like the usual three weeks. Right, so now you need to rest,” I told him in my stern "nurse" voice as I switched off the television set and the lamp beside his bed. “I’ll be looking in on you every hour or so. If you need anything in the meantime, just pick up the phone and dial 919. Got that?”
“Please, can you open?” he asked, gesturing towards the curtains.
I hesitated a moment, then said, “if you like.”
As I pulled on the cord, white light spread across the velvet green love seat, the small oak dining table, the tan berber floors. He nodded and closed his eyes. He was smiling. On my way past his bed towards the door, I could hear him softly humming.
I spent that day as I spent all my days, walking that long, dim hallway, going from guest to guest, bearing trays of pain medication, checking beneath their bandages for the red halo of infection, dabbing clean the parts of them which could not be exposed to running water, bringing food, taking away food, assisting them to the toilet so they could evacuate food. But on this particular day, my mind kept drifting back to the new patient, Josef.
I thought of him when I entered Georgina's room, 905, and saw that a crack in the curtain was letting in light. Here on the 9th floor, we prefer to live in darkness. Here, we do our healing in private. Here, we all fear the impossible, that some paparazzi or gossipy friend or abandoned spouse will somehow float up from the pavement, passing floor after floor, until he reaches your particular window on your particular floor. And when he looks he in will see you at your ugliest and most vulnerable and he will know he has already won. With the exception of Josef, everybody I remember caring for preferred to keep their curtains firmly closed.
I walked over to a crack in the curtain and sealed it shut, then turned to face my patient, who was sprawled across the bed like a crushed bug, her sheets in clump at her toes. The syrupy smells of sleep-sweat and morning shit clung to the stale, warm air. When she'd arrived two weeks before, I’d been fascinated by her boomerang shoulder blades and the way her breasts looked like oranges half submerged in mud, but today I felt only disgust for this woman who’d had her face and body brutalized on purpose. I’d been in that state myself a few times, so bruised and crushed I could barely speak, and I could not imagine paying even a penny for it, no matter how beautiful I turned out when it was over.
I gathered up her breakfast dishes, verified that her rhinestone-studded bedroom slippers were placed in the precise spot her feet would land should she need to get out of bed. But as I did these things, I was thinking about Josef’s eyes on my bare skin as I rushed past him in the hallway.
Georgina held up a bottle of vitamin E pills and wagged it from side to side. “Would you mind? You’re so good at it.” I took a golden capsule between two fingers and with the other hand sliced it open with a razor, squeezing a droplet of goo onto her bony shoulder blades. As I rubbed it in, I kept wondering, would this Josef ask me to do such things?
When I was done, I headed to room 903 where some big-shot money guy named Tom had been stationed the day before. I grabbed an extra set of sheets and a roll of packing tape and began to cover all the mirrors in his room. Although still groggy with anesthesia and, undoubtedly in pain, he managed to ask, “Tell me—is it Carla? Did you always want to be a nurse?” His beady brown eyes and fat red lips were all I could see through the gauze. I shrugged and mumbled something about decent pay and went back to my draping and taping. Though I'm sure it cost him to do so, he shook his swaddled head like a disappointed coach. To people like him, my face and name were as forgettable as the sheets they slept on and the violence they endured while under anesthesia. Again I thought of Josef's humming, his bright, clear eyes, and the strange nickname he'd already come up with for me. Fishy.
I checked on him several times before my official shift ended, but he was fast asleep. When the night nurse arrived, I returned to my room, ordered dinner from downstairs, and watched TV until I finally drifted off to sleep, as had become my usual routine. If it weren’t for my morning swims, there would have been many days when I never saw the sky at all.
It was not so much a life as a half life. I was breathing, eating, performing all the necessary bodily functions. I was socking away money in a duffle bag beneath my bed. The rest of my worldly possessions were still crammed into the backseat and trunk of my car, hidden safely in the hotel’s underground garage. There were whole parts of me that had gone dead and not even weeds had grown up in their place. After six months of this, I suppose I was ready for a little companionship.
Even when it clearly pained him to speak, Josef always asked me how my day was going. He wanted me to tell him about the other patients. “Don’t hold back, fishy,” he teased once when I was on the brink of losing my temper about Georgina’s demands for fresh avocado and mayonnaise with which to condition her brittle, bleached hair. Josef always had a kind word on my choice of sweater or the length and thickness of my own limp, brown mane, which he thought I should tuck behind my ears. He wanted to know where I’d been born and whether I’d ever been to Austria, where he was born, or Brussels, where he now lived. He teased me when I told him I’d only been to Reno and a few towns near mine and, now, here. L.A. How often did I swim? Would I bring him up to the pool in broad daylight, bandages and all, to scare away the guests? That way I could swim in full sun and get some color on this pale skin of mine. Could I believe he had been married for 21 years to a woman he no longer loved and that their twin sons were both in college? He told me about his trips to Malaysia and Egypt, and how he’d done the procedure because he believed it would help him compete against men who were younger and less encumbered than he was.
“Would you like that, fishy, to erase eight or nine years from your life?” he asked about five days after he'd arrived.
“It’s not exactly years you're getting rid of. It’s just the outside,” I said. Still, I told him there were things I wouldn’t mind being done with, only not the way he meant.
“I am married, too,” I told him, and showed him the scars, and all the haunted places where bruises had once been.
He squeezed my hand and said, “When these bandages come off, you will see what a good-looking man I am. Handsome inside and outside.”
There was nothing pretty, I thought, about my horse-shaped face, the long brown hair that hung like the dampened threads of a mop, these too-broad shoulders and long, flat butt.
But Josef didn’t agree. One afternoon, when I was lingering just a little too long after bringing him his dinner, he said, “Carla is a pretty little fishy. You hide, but I see.”
After he said it, our talk fell away and we sat there for awhile, drifting along in our own thoughts until we came across something that was worth mentioning out loud. As he stared towards the TV, where three muted newsmen appeared to be screaming at one another, I studied his features. The bandages were coming off and a crown of clear stitches encircled his red, puffy face. His nose was narrow down the middle, pitched like the roof of a tent. He had high, pronounced cheekbones and thin lips, which, I thought, made him look especially smart. And those eyes, his best feature by far, were sunken back a little into his face with long wrinkles on either side. I was glad he hadn’t lost those. He was handsome in a way that I thought the word “refined” belonged to, like a doctor on a soap, dignified but sexy at the same time. I thought of my husband with his soft round features, the lips that never closed, and I had to shake the image away.
The next morning, as I passed Josef’s room on my way to the pool, I heard him call out to me. "Fishy?" I stopped, opened the door, and peeked in. He was reclining against several rows of pillows, sheets pulled up to his waist, which was still wrapped in white gauze. He preferred to keep his curtains open all through the night and I could see that the sky was a deep purple and starless. I walked over to his bed.
"Is everything, OK?”.
“You like to swim,” he said.
“I do, Josef.”
“You go to swim now?”
“I’m going.” I tightened the towel around my waist to combat the goose bumps pulling at my hair follicles. “Josef, what’s this about?””
He reached over and pulled the strap of my swimsuit so that it fell past my breast, my nipple retracting like a pupil caught in a glare.
“Josef,” I exhaled and it seemed like all the words I could say had suddenly fled my brain.
He reached up and pulled down the other strap.
"Mmmm, one is different size. I like it," he said, reaching tenderly upwards to cup the smaller, left one in his hand.
“Do you know what the fishy eats?” he asked.
I felt giddy and weak-kneed, as though a canister of nitrogen had burst in the room.
“What?” I finally stammered.
“A fishy eats another smaller fishy,” he said, and pushed the sheets down to the tops of his thighs. He was naked and, although it was still pretty dark, I could clearly see that he was aroused. I focused on his face so as not to stare, although I could feel my own desire filling me with warmth.
“You want me? With my mouth? I don’t know. I—”
“Oh no! You should enjoy, enjoy.”
He tried to push the bedding further down but because he could not bend his waist it was beyond his reach, so he waved me over to climb atop him.
“Only if you like Josef. ”
Did I like Josef? I looked down at his bruises and stitches, his helplessness, and thought it would take all my strength and all my tenderness to give him what he wanted without causing him more pain. And I thought how good it would feel to be the one on top, the one with the power to do good or ill. After locking the dead bolt, I took the crumpled end of his sheet in my hands, straightened it, then folded it neatly back to his knees. After removing my swimsuit, I placed my right knee onto the bed and launched my other leg over him as though mounting a horse. With one hand I pushed the skin of his groin upwards to provide a little give. He whimpered.
“I’m sorry,” I said. With the other hand, I carefully pointed him into me, easing myself slowly down. He placed his hands on my hips and guided my movements.
“Good, good,” he said.
I had to be careful, had to move slowly and deliberately, up and down and not side to side or diagonally and definitely not too fast, or I might rupture the small fissure that ran along the base of his bruised stomach. A few times he moaned; I'm not sure whether in pleasure or pain. Did I breathe at all? I don’t remember breathing. And when it was over—quickly, true, but it had been sweet—he called me "very kind" and patted my behind, smiling broadly. I placed a gentle kiss on his forehead, then nose and lips, and blew along his stomach staples before foisting myself off of him.
“Is OK?” he asked, his face soft with concern.
“Yes, yes,” I whispered, stepping back into my swimsuit and lifting my towel off the floor. “I have to go now. I handed him a wad of tissues from the box beside his bed. “I’ll come by later.”
He placed a finger in front of his lips. “Shhhhh,” he said with a little wink. I went swimming as planned.
That night in my room, I double-checked that the curtains were good and shut before turning on every light in my room. Standing in front of the mirror on the bathroom door, I took off my jeans, my underwear, my t-shirt, my bra, and I began to look at myself bit by bit. I started with the calloused pads of my feet, working up the legs, front and back. I sat down and spread my legs, wincing as I remembered the way this skin would crack and split after Jeff—that was the bastard’s name—had forced himself inside me. I pinched a pimple on my butt and wiped away the pus. I scrutinized a fading yellow bruise on my arm from where I’d bumped into a doorway. I noticed the muscle tone in my legs and stomach and arms, from swimming no doubt, and wondered if that meant I was actually stronger than before. I spread the skin on my neck, moving in close to examine the tiny hairs on my face, even threading my fingers through my eyebrows. What was it that he saw?
I took a hot bath and afterwards spread out, face down, on the cold bathroom floor, feeling the tiles press against my skin. Somewhere out there was a man I once loved enough to marry. There was a sofa I used to sleep on when we fought. There was a coffee maker still stained with coffee I had brewed. There was a Golden Retriever mix whose name was Liza. There was an uncashed paycheck sitting on a coffee table, a VCR still programmed to tape my favorite sitcom. That life, that phantom life, fading like a wet stain on a sheet yet never quite coming out in the wash.
I was aware that this was just a passing thing. I knew that Josef would shed those bandages, rise from his bed, walk to the elevator, get on a plane, and never think of me again. But that did not mean it didn’t matter. It still meant something, because nobody had treated me tenderly before. I’d never been with a man who I hadn’t, on some level, feared. And for reasons I still can’t really explain I knew, like some people know that God is real and lives in their hearts, that if Josef could heal then I would too.
And so every morning, I rose slightly earlier than before. First I visited Josef. Then I would swim. And after that, I worked and everything else was pretty much the same although it felt somehow much, much better.
“Bad news?” he asked, as I peeled back his bandages. I had been trying to keep my concern off my face, but lying was never my strong point.
“The opposite. These are coming off today. Just need to grab my scissors and give the doctor a call.” He'd nearly served out his three weeks and, at $500 a day, I figured like most patients he'd be happy to leave a few days early. But instead he grabbed my wrist and I felt myself tense up.
“Maybe we wait,” he said and let go.
“Take them off. Please. They itch, fishy. But to call the doctor, we wait some more. Right?”
It was a charade that could only last so long. Two days after Josef was scheduled to go home, the doctor came to check in on his patient. Josef and I had to pretend he was super finicky.
“I want to be one hundred percent before I go,” he said, carefully enunciating each syllable. He waved a printout on the risks of flying after plastic surgery. But it was obvious from the flush of his cheeks and the alertness in his eyes that he’d been ready for several days.
So I wasn’t surprised when I arrived the next morning to find the suitcase, which had remained zipped and upright beside the dresser, finally pried open. He was sitting on the sofa, reading a news magazine in a pair of jeans and a gray t-shirt. Against the green velvet, he looked especially handsome and his eyes no longer seemed silver but almost blue. He said, “I am getting crazy here, fishy. I have work, my family.”
“One hour. I am sorry.”
It was as though I had just dove into the pool, only it was filled with cool sand. I swatted at a fly, hoping he hadn't noticed the quickly suppressed tears.
He stood up and pulled me to him. I felt the strength that had been hibernating in those arms of his as well as the tenderness which had been consumed by his body’s own needs. It was his turn to be strong, to be kind.
I undressed and went over to the bed and lay down where Josef had lain. He undressed and did a few turns in front of the mirror.
“I look good, no? Not bad, not bad.”
“You're beautiful," I said. Then not sure he would understand, I added, "like a 40-year-old man.”
“We will see,” he said.
He started with my toes and worked his way up with his lips, his tongue, pausing every now and then to say, “And dis part of da fishy is very good today.” And once he'd finally reached my face, he took it in both hands, and pressed his lips to mine as he entered me. Such power, such tenderness. It felt safe and wonderful to surrender to him completely. And when it seemed I could not keep our secret any longer, he placed his hand inside my mouth and let me bite down hard, leaving deep red indentations all along his thumb.
I lingered for just a few minutes afterwards, holding him while he ran his hands through my hair. “Don't worry, ” he said, “Josef will come visit.” But we both knew there wasn’t much point in getting sentimental. He was going and I was staying. There were things in life you could do something about, but this wasn't one of them. So I put on my swimsuit and he put on his clothes. We hugged and I whispered “thank you” into his ears. He stood back, still holding my hands, and looked at me in a way that I’d always wanted my father to look at me, beaming with amazement that his little girl has finally grown up, with love for the person she had become.
I dove into the deep end as I always did and swam the butterfly for a few laps, but found I was breathless and out of synch. Besides, light was already creeping into the sky. When I returned to the 9th floor he would be already gone and I was more than certain life wouldn't return to what it had been before though I couldn't say for certain what it would become. Unable to find my rhythm, I paddled out to the middle of the pool and floated on my back for as long as I could before sinking to the bottom like a penny. If I had my wish I would have stayed down there forever amongst the dark blue tiles flecked with green and gold, the watery sky, and a sound like the roaring sea filling my ears. But no matter how hard I fought and struggled I could not make myself do it. I burst through the surface with a loud gasp and took in my first breath of the new day.▪
"I have my paps whole in my soul, of which I nourish all my wits."
It used to be ponies and flowers and mermaids, but now it was just Agatha.
Agatha, Agatha, Agatha.
The daughter peels the teen fashion magazine from her chest and thrusts it at her mother.
"Can I get it? Please, please, pleeeease?"
"Let me see," the mother says, taking the magazine into her hands. She sees.
"Jesus! What's wrong with her?"
The girl, not yet eye-level with the mother, creases her brow as though to ask, whatever do you mean? then grabs the magazine back with both hands so she can study the glossy cover for herself.
"Well look at her, Cimmaron. She's skin and bones, some of her hair appears to be, uh, missing, and on top of it she's got no breasts. I mean none at all."
The girl rolls her eyes. "Oh that. Agatha had breast cancer. Isn't she pretty?" It is clearly the Most Obvious Thing in the World.
"Impossible. She's barely 18," the mother says, yanking the magazine back so she can hand it to the checker, who is huffing impatiently.
"19," the girl corrects. "Oh thank you, thank you, thank you."
You could fight these things, but what was the point? If it wasn't this magazine, it would be another magazine. If not a magazine, then a Web site. If not her purchasing it, then somebody else's mother. If not Agatha, then some other scantily clad, malnutritioned freak of nature glaring beneath the fluorescent supermarket lights.
Where there had been ribs and sternum and two pink dots, little nubs had sprouted. Painful little nubs that throbbed for a good ten minutes if struck too forcefully. Nubs became knobs, still sensitive but not quite so much. How quickly they blossomed! Soon they would be more akin to kiwis. From there, lemons, then grapefruits, then melons. Such was the way with all woman who shared the mother's blood.
But one day there is nothing.
"Honey, what's going on under your shirt?" she asks, handing the girl a glass of orange juice.
"Nothing," the girl says, stifling a giggle.
"Cimmaron, you know I don't appreciate it when you lie to me. Come here."
The girl squirms in her mother's embrace. Juice sloshes and splatters onto the dusty bamboo floor.
"What in the hell?"
"My ace bandage, from when I sprained my ankle in gymnastics," she declares, twisting a curl of dark brown hair in her finger.
"Why is it wrapped around your chest?"
"Binding. Britney showed me how to do it. Like Agatha."
When the mother was the daughter's age, she had stood on the playground with her friends, a dozen skinny elbows bent back like birds' wings, and thrust and thrust back with the elbows, back with the shoulder blades, and push and push forward with the chest, forward with the rest. We must. We must . We must increase our bust. Belief, utter faith in the power of exercise, of free will. You could make them come, could make them flower like dainty little seeds which, as everybody knew, grew into all sorts of crimson, bulbous things. In fact, seeds sprouted without human intervention. In fact, DNA would always have the final say, blessing some with ample bosom and blessing others with slender physique and for those rare few in whom the two met only date rape and heartache awaited. But such lessons would come much later. Until then, we will. We will. We'll make it bigger still.
Still, to not even desire the two signposts of womanhood seemed very strange indeed. To despise these things which had once fed her, had provided a soft little pillow for her slightly less-soft little head seemed the opposite of the way things should be. And how greedily the girl had taken the mother's nipples into her mouth, bitten and chewed, suckled and rejected, naturally, as was the course of things. The mother's breasts were, in fact, the very reason there was a Cimmaron. Without them, there would be no Cimmaron, no Cimmaron's father, who was a breast man, had said as much in the hour or so before he'd become, for the mother's purposes at least, a dead man.
"Take it off! We are not Chinese!"
Assaulting the girl with superior knowledge is a useful tool, causes confusion, establishes authority. The mother has read this in a book on parenting preteens.
"Chinese women used to bind their feet," she explains.
"So, they became crippled and couldn't help themselves. They needed slaves just so they could go to the bathroom."
"I would like a slave," the daughter replies.
The daughter's freshness is no longer reserved to her kiwis.
"No you wouldn't."
"I don't walk on my chest, mom."
"Nor should you. Now, take it off."
"Fine, whatever," the girl says, stomping off to the bathroom to unwind.
She only seems to have been beaten. If not this morning, then another morning. If not this bandage, many more were easily bought with lunch money or better yet shoplifted. Yes, that would lend legitimacy to her growing martyrdom. She would suffer. Just like Agatha. Yes, she could duck behind the corrugated iron seat, lift up her shirt, and wrap it around and around as soon as the bus has turned the corner and disappeared out of sight.
Hoorah. Hoorah. I got my junior bra.
Mom, what's a virgin and how do I become one?"
Oh, now this was too much.
"What on earth are you talking about now?"
"Agatha says she's a virgin. I want to be a virgin, too."
"You are a virgin, for Christ's sake. Don't they teach you anything?"
Lemons and all, she is still just a girl. The mother silently curses herself for not treating the big girl more like a little woman, or the little woman more like a big girl.
She isn't sure what's appropriate anymore. Hadn't her Barbies humped in the bedroom of their Dreamhouse? How could the idle playground chatter about where babies come from and the purpose of parts unknown failed to have reached her daughter's dainty pink ears? Had she never snuck off to the discreet-yet-accessible regions of the library, or her mother's own bookshelf for that matter, to ponder over pink flesh blighted with black, course hair, naked men and women engaged in bestial yet oddly appealing acts? Had she never even wondered what all that hip thrusting and body rubbing on the television was about? Yes, it seemed to the mother that such conversations are no longer necessary, but here they are having just such a conversation. And when it is over the girl is in tears.
"Of course it seems that way now," the mother tells her daughter, trying her best not to sound exasperated, "but it's really not so bad. In fact, under the right circumstances, it can be quite nice."
"How could you do such a thing? How could you ever do that?"
"Cimarron, it's what made you."
"I will never do it."
"Then you'll never be a mommy."
"You'll change your mind."
The girl lets out a burst of sound, a long and high-pitched "ah," then stomps off to her room, slamming the door behind her.
The mother shrugs. A few tears now, a little blood later. Nothing would change the raw facts of life, which could, after all, rarely be called pleasant. Of course the truth was far more complicated. The truth, in fact, was beyond all complication. So let the girl believe that every mother wanted to be a mother, that every father had given the mother the choice. Let her bedtime terrors be of smooth white cotton sheets stained with bright red blood, not parking lot gravel scraping across the back and flimsy t-shirts torn in half. And if the girl wanted to remain a virgin, all the better. What good had men ever brought the mother, other than a Cimmaron? Yes, let the girl run from fate. It would catch up soon enough. And in the meantime, so much less to worry about, especially as those damn lemons ripened.
"Fortunately, no permanent damage was done, but we felt it important to notify parents of this disturbing and hopefully fleeting trend," the note from school says.
The mother shakes her head and reads it again, start to finish. She should watch her daughter carefully. Posters, magazines, music files, and Web sites featuring the pop star and fashion model Agatha should be under no circumstances permitted. If odd behavior consistent with this sad case, and a handful like it around the country, should present itself, all sharp objects, including butter knives and fishing line, should be removed from the premises and a mental health professional should be consulted immediately.
"Sweety, what do you know about this?" the mother asks.
The girls is sullen. She slumps on the couch, her arms crossed over her chest.
"Cimmaron, what's the matter?"
"Everyone's saying this is Agatha's fault. Jenny's dad tore down all her posters and threw away all her magazines."
"I see. And you think that's what I'm going to do."
"I haven't decided what I'm going to do."
The girl uncrosses her arms to rub her nose and fiddle with her hair. There they are. Fuller than lemons, more like mandarins, stretching the limits of the pink, brushed cotton. How on earth can this be? Not until she is twelve, not until she is thirteen. Couldn't God or nature or whomever's upstairs have granted her just a few more years, years without groping, without ugly stares, years without crude commentary whistled from trucks, without eager fingers and mouths seeking not nourishment but control over that which they can never themselves possess? Was that too much to ask?
"What!?" the daughter says.
"Huh?" the mother replies.
The mother rises and runs her hands down the front of her thighs. She looks at her daughter, long and hard. She is only half her mother, that much is apparent. And the rest, and the rest.
The mother sighs.
"I'm not going to take anything away."
"In fact you can have all the Agatha you want, and your ace bandage is in my closet. I'll go get it."
The girl leaps up and gives her mother a hug. "You are the best, the very best. I love you so much!"
"I bet you do," is all she says as she walks wearily down the hallway.
If not breasts attacked with blunt kitchen knives, then perfect wrists marred by razor blades. If not cutting away at one's own flesh, then starving oneself into a heart attack, or vomiting oneself until the enamel came off the teeth. If not fighting sex, then giving in too confidently. If not giving in quickly enough, then you were really in for it. And wasn't one little Cimmaron enough for the world?
The girl would do what the girl was going to do and the mother would find the strength to make it through. And this Agatha, with her vacant stare and gossamer skin, her boyish physique and intact hymen, would she not eventually make her way to the dustbin where all the trinkets of abandoned girlhood lay, one-armed dolls and frayed ribbons, chocolate-smeared Sunday gloves and faded tutus, tiny roller skates and broken lockets? All in good time. All in good time.▪
Sonia had always assumed she’d be the sort of widow who wore tidy black suits and babbled to an engraved granite stone. Where would she go to leave the roses? Or tend to the weeds?
Leaning against John and Anne’s floor-to-ceiling window, which looked out over the Bay from its perch in the green Berkeley hills, Sonia felt the stem of her wine glass slip ever so slightly between her fingers and clutched it more tightly. On the other hand, it wouldn’t do to spend her remaining days chained to a box of rotting flesh and porous bones. She pressed her cheek against the glass and felt the sun’s warmth pass through it. She’d known since the beginning this day would arrive and still it had come as a shock.
That morning his skin had been cold and damp like risen dough. The air above his lips and nostrils, cool and still. She had jerked away, as though death were a sudden rustling in the bushes, a snake slithering in the corner of her eye. A callous response, she’d silently scolded, though Seymour wouldn’t have agreed. She pictured him hinging upright at the waist, opening his eyes, and saying with a wry smile, “Instincts, my sweet pea. It is only natural and wise for the living to fear the dead.”
But no such thing occurred. Instead, she had placed her head on his silent chest and hastily split apart his purple eyelids to make absolutely certain nobody was home.
Her question answered, she took his stiff hand and ran his fingers through her short, black hair. She kissed his face and wiped her tears off of his cheeks.
When satellites are launched into orbit, they often have surplus cargo space, John explained, certainly enough for a crate of ashes. Once they reached their destination, Seymour and his fellow travelers would circle the planet for a year or so before plunging back into earth’s atmosphere, at which point they would be eviscerated once more in a sudden flash of fire. That’s good, Sonia thought. Her husband had of late railed against earthlings polluting the sky with their high-tech debris, as if ruining their own planet hadn’t been enough. Besides, space had always been his first love.
On one of their early dates, nearly twenty-five years before, she and he had scrambled up a hill just outside of Banyuls Sur Mer. She can still recall how the Mediterranean looked that evening, a dark, horizontal band behind the sparsely lit hotels and tourists shops. The air was still warm and salty from the hot August day, the clear night sky glowing with the last remnants of sunlight. Having navigated these terraced hills since childhood, Sonia knew the way and had come prepared with a heavy blanket, two half-drunk bottles of wine from her father’s restaurant, a baguette, and some farmer’s cheese made the day before. Impractical as always, Seymour had insisted on also lugging his telescope, fully assembled, which caused him to nearly loose his balance several times as he stumbled cheerfully along the barely defined stone path. He’d given her the moon first, just a sliver, but still remarkably bright, filling out the entire eyepiece. Even Seymour had to admit that the Pleiades, three fuzzy, undistinguished motes, were a bit disappointing. How he’d gushed that night, not about real things like love or the food they were eating, but whether the universe would expand infinitely or snap back like a rubber band. And that star over there—he pointed a long, crooked finger—dead for millennia, only its light remained, having taken thousands of years to arrive.
“I thought you were a professor of philosophy,” she’d said, feigning a yawn and scooting in closer. In truth she'd never had much use for the Big Questions. Wasn’t it better to focus on the ones you could answer, like how far is it from here to the sea and wouldn’t it be nice if we could sleep beneath these pretty stars all night?
“Comparative literature,” he corrected, sweeping his hand across the sky as though it were all as clear as the evening’s menu specials.
And now? As she rolled her wine glass against the window, losing herself for a moment in the clacking sound it made, she traced an imaginary line from where she stood down to the cluttered wood-shingled bungalow they had shared for what had become, unaccountably, half of her life. She preferred her valley to these hills, the churning Pacific Ocean to the vast empty sky. She felt safest among dark, heavy armoires made of wood and chairs that suggested nothing more than sitting, not the wisps of brushed steel, glass, and plastic that barely filled this modern home. But somewhere down in that patchwork of trees and rooftops lay naked Seymour in a freezer. And their home would be crawling with memories. Two heavy weights at once pulling her towards them and holding her in place.
She heard John get up from the sofa behind her, felt the glass slip from her hands but felt too weak to stop it. She covered her face with her hands and cried, “I don’t know what to do. I can’t make these decisions.” Grasping her by both shoulders, her friend gave a gentle squeeze and said, “I know. I don’t know, either.”
Seymour’s death rattle arrived belatedly in the form of a stainless steel capsule the size and shape of a thermos. Stubborn bits of bone and tooth tumbled amongst the silent ashes, a quiet, rhythmless percussion. A gangly boy attired in grey slacks, white cotton shirt, and navy satin tie delivered him to her thus without ceremony, just a “here you go,” “please sign here, and here,” and “this is a pamphlet explaining the laws on disposal.” She cradled him all the way back to her car and placed him, upright in the passenger’s seat, affixing the seatbelt across him so he wouldn’t slide out and land on the floor among the dirty tissues and soiled candy wrappers.
In the days immediately following his death—a swift, decisive aneurism, as the coroner’s report would confirm nearly two months later—she’d looked up many times from the couch where she was sorting through his papers or from the kitchen table where she sat, barely eating, expecting Lazarus to emerge dazedly from his study and request a pot of green tea. But with this tin, there could be no longer be any doubt. As she entered her home, clutching her husband to her chest, she felt a familiar, nervous flutter in the soft folds of flesh below her navel.
Everything about living in the United States had terrified her at first. The cars were so big, the people spoke very quickly, restaurants served food just minutes after you ordered, the pot was way too strong, the wine too cloying and rambunctious, and everyone wanted to know what she did. If he hadn’t been her constant companion that summer, patient and loyal as a guide dog accompanying her on every banal adventure, reassuring her that her English was perfectly understandable, that his friends indeed liked her, she might not have ever come back. But when it came time for him to return to teaching, she’d found it difficult to leave the house. Later she would find hobbies, own a business, pronounce r’s with the front of her mouth not the back of her throat, but then, hours stacked upon hours. What was she doing in this strange place with a man eighteen years her senior? Could she really commit to a life that in no way resembled the one she’d always imagined for herself?
In November she fled. Come December, he went chasing after her, arriving in France, bags overflowing with marriage proposals and promises. She’d returned to Berkeley with a Mrs. and a determination to reinvent herself in the true American fashion. And how. With his help, her own café, serving breakfast and lunch, which Seymour christened “La Lune.” A few close friends of her own. A house with a neglected rose garden in back. The clipping soon grew roots and its weak, pale vines stretched out beneath a new sun.
But Sonia had remained essentially a creature of habit, trading one routine for another, but never again straying too far. So it seemed natural, necessary even, to slip Seymour into her purse before heading to the grocery store, and to set him on the counter next to the cutting board while she prepared a meat pie, and to say to him, “You’ll never believe the photo I found today while clearing out your boxes in the garage,” to ask, “What was the name of that couple we dined with, the ones from Africa?” and “Were we driving the bug or the station wagon when we broke down near Joshua Tree?” Only once did she twist open the lid and whisper, gently lest some of the ash rise up to kiss her lips, “Seymour, the universe is expanding infinitely. It was in the paper today. I thought you’d like to know.” Though she wasn’t so certain herself. She rarely made it past the headlines.
On the morning of the space burial, the sky was gray, the air was damp, and a frisky wind wove in and out of the folds of Sonia’s black pant suit and ivory silk blouse as she huddled with John and Anne on the long, flat tarmac of Vandenberg Air Force Base. Freshly poured asphalt and diesel fumes from a ceaseless parade of work trucks stung the insides of her nostrils. Regrettably, her small party was not alone. Eight other clusters of “close loved ones” shivered there, too, somber eyes affixed to the sleek gray rocket sitting on a platform connected to a tall white crane. Men in blue and yellow jumpsuits would appear and disappear, stopping to examine and tinker with the craft before driving off in their white pickups. Where was he? Did they have him? Panic clutched at Sonia’s throat. Perhaps there was still time. She could run after one of them, have her husband carted off to a mausoleum where she could visit him on weekends and holidays with the normal bereaved folks. But when the suited man stepped up to the oak podium, situated off to the side, and beckoned the crowd to take their seats, she knew it was too late.
After a moment of silence, he began, in a deep melodic voice, “Gregory Adam Asner, You will always be in our hearts and dreams. Michelle Elaine Lambert, Peace in eternity. Ian Michael McGriffin, may you forever soar.” Great plumes of smoke and fire billowed up from beneath the rocket. A low rumbling steadily grew louder. What a fool I’ve been, Sonia thought, honoring a dead man’s wishes, when I’m the one who must live with them. The man’s voice grew high and tight to rise above the ruckus. “Seymour Edward James, From stardust we came; to stardust we return. William Steven Parker, The Force be with you. William Jason Timor, On the ultimate field trip!” Vibrations rippled out from the ship. They rose up through Sonia’s shoes, filling her entire body with such powerful trembling that she could no longer entertain her sad regrets. She could barely hear anything now. “Ingrid -arg— mith, — hopes and dreams — in us. Mar— nor West, —my — ounds —ou. Pa— rick —ittaker, —fron —ier.” Rattle became roar as the ship extracted itself from gravity’s clutches, drowning out the exclamations and applause which rose soundlessly as rose petals and dirt flung into the air. Sonia, now fully caught up in the moment, whipped her head from side to side. “Dieu, mon dieu!” she cried over and over. He was a glowing fire, then a tiny speck, and although her heart pounded against her rib cage as the rocket’s faint glow was finally swallowed by the sky, for the first time since he’d died Sonia sensed something like peace. It was exactly what he would have wanted done, the fast track to the beginning, an afterlife of sorts. It would have to do. Adieu, Seymour. Adieu.
Amazing how quickly after the final memorial salves had been applied, the last condolence kiss planted on the wound, that the skin sealed up and the scab fell away, revealing life, raw and red in spots, but essentially as it was before. She rose before dawn on Fridays and Saturdays to search for knick-knacks at estate sales, caught up on all the bookkeeping at her café, and updated the lunch menu with a zucchini quiche and warm pumpkin soup. Soon she was meeting friends for dinner, and steadily regaining the twelve pounds she had lost. Little by little, she relinquished pieces of him. Books and papers to the university library, clothing and their bed to a shelter. Those things which she could not bear to give up, his age-worn oak desk, the dim green reading lamp, the same Orion telescope pointing now at a phantom moon, were slowly overtaken with receipts from her cafe, empty tea-stained mugs, books on tapestry and roses, the exotic disarray he’d always kept so carefully pruned.
But what a hypocrite he’d been, criticizing her messiness, when there was always more of him popping up in the oddest of places—a stray pair of fleece-lined leather slippers tucked beneath the couch, an indecipherable note beside a question mark scrawled in the margins of a recipe book, a scholarly journal arriving with an interview, published after the fact. Whenever the weight of his life—He existed! He exists!—became too much, Sonia would retreat to her garden. Surrounded by the heady aromas of her roses, the vivid greens of her hedges, she would sink her hands into the dirt, let its gritty cat-tongue soften her skin, grateful that she would never have to reach down into this earth and wonder if it was Seymour clinging to her wrists and nestling beneath her fingernails. Oh, but wasn't that just the sort of thing would Seymour take issue with? We were all dirt, he'd say, shaped like Adam from the same cosmic mud, life and death locked in eternal waltz, all these fairy tales and metaphors of resurrection and the afterlife holding aloft some semblance of a truth that only science could confirm. Seymour—Sonia shook her head like a dog after a bath—will you ever go away?
It was while in such a frame of mind that Sonia gazed up from her watering early one morning to see a speck glinting with orange sunlight as it cut across a purple band of sky. The trajectory was straight and smooth, too high to be an airplane. Squinting, she was just able to make out a rectangular shape. Seymour? A ridiculous thought. The sky was teaming with satellites. But she couldn’t shake the feeling he was up there, ashes and bits, looking down on what was left of his life, unable to take in the view.
There had been a period in her life when in the depths of her grief she had taken pills only to conclude that time alone could alleviate the symptoms. Ten years they’d tried before finally abandoning their quest for immortality. To Seymour it was all just biochemistry, this goes down, you take this to make it go up. Some things, of course, couldn’t be fixed. But this time, Sonia had no one to put on a brave face for.
This time, she would let grief run its slow, strange course. She would follow wherever it led, which is why, after seeing the mysterious object in the sky, she promptly set down her watering can and walked towards the house, not even pausing at the sliding glass door to shuffle off her gardening clogs before going inside. From beneath a stack of magazines, she extracted a glossy brochure. Peeling it open and scanning the words, she found what she was looking for. Soon she was online, selecting the Navigator 05 from a list of satellites orbiting the planet. What she learned was this: The object she had seen from her garden was indeed a satellite, but Seymour had been floating above Germany at the time. Hello there, Seymour. Hello.
He moved from north to south in daylight and south to north in darkness. Fourteen times a day he circled, endless twine around a massive ball. The images were several minutes off, but correct enough for Sonia to know that while she ate dinner Seymour was sailing over Australia. In the time it took her to bathe, he’d crossed Antarctica. The following morning, when the sun’s light erased the stars, he’d be drifting over Texas. How frustrating their paths didn’t cross more often.
For several months she checked in on Seymour throughout the day. Then, she set rules for herself. I will go one full day without checking on him. I will go two days without going online. I will look now, but that’s it until Friday. It was no different from visiting a gravesite, she reasoned. She would look now. What was the harm?
The hike to Franz Joseph Glacier was to be “delightful” and “easy,” a mere two hours in either direction, looping through lush tropical vegetation, with many rewarding views of waterfalls and rare bird species along the way. But two and a half hours into the hike, it is clear the book has it wrong. The journey is all uphill. The “path” comprised of slick, wet boulders that Sonia must climb over or maneuver around. Clinging to vines and moss, she drags herself up and up. Afraid to slip and break a bone, she has to concentrate on each step, forgetting to gaze at the waterfalls cascading down a cliff across the gully. She’s brought only two bottles of water and one is close to empty . Her small backpack, holding a sleeping bag, flashlight, several Band-Aids, a sandwich, a bruised banana, and a wrinkled package of fig cookies, is fast becoming a liability. But somewhere along the way, Sonia grows surer of her footing. The vines and moss seem to pull her forward. Step, step. Leap, leap. She is Sonia of the jungle, now, a wild and fearless thing pushing her way through dense jungle. She stifles an urge to yawp.
It has been just over a year. As Sonia surges onwards and upwards Seymour is wrapping up his final tour de terre. On this night, shortly after sunset, he will re-enter the atmosphere over New Zealand in a fiery burst that Sonia knows she must not miss if she is ever to get on with her own life. She could have watched from practically anywhere on this two-island country, or neighboring Australia or Fiji, for that matter, but when she’d read of the glacier in her guidebook, she knew it had to be. Here was ice so old, so deep that it had carved deep fjords and canyons. Ice so plentiful it melted into rivers and waterfalls. Yet, it could be measured, calculated, understood. Its coldness could be felt. You could climb it, touch it, maybe even taste it. What better powerful counterweight to the vast, emptiness of space, keeping her firmly rooted here on earth as Seymour became no more? This time, her eyes would not be closed. This time, she would get to say goodbye. Besides, she had reasoned, the night sky around the glacier would not be polluted by city lights—one of Seymour's most common complaints—though rain clouds often made it difficult to see the stars. Some possibilities you simply had to live with.
By the time she reaches the vista, the sun hangs low and red in the west and the air is starting to cool. Pushing back a thick slug of black salty hair from her brow, she sits heavily on the picnic bench and searches the ice below for some reassurance that all her effort has not been in vain. All she sees are deep grooves of blue ice stained with brown earth and gray gravel. Impossible from this vantage to say how deep, how long, how old.
How dare the wind pick up, lifting the cold sweat off her puckered skin, at a moment like this? And why are her feet suddenly so wobbly as though her legs were planted upon two squishy balloons? Spreading out her sleeping bag onto the picnic table, she wonders whether her teeth will stop chattering once she’s crawled inside. And why, in her 45 years, hadn’t she been more of a outdoorsy type so that she’d be better prepared for this one essential moment? Then there’s this other awkward matter she hadn’t anticipated. Although it’s unlikely anyone would come upon her at this late hour, she takes cover amongst the thorny bushes, dropping her pants and carefully hovering to avoid brushing up against a leaf or, god forbid, a snake. She closes her eyes. Her stomach seems to collapse. An apple shedding its core. When she rises, she feels hollowed out inside. Relieved. Tired.
So slowly as to be almost imperceptible the sky darkens. One-by-one the stars pierce its thin fabric. It’s clear out. Thank goodness for that. But the darker it becomes, the colder it gets. Sonia shivers. Soon she cannot stop shivering. Her tongue is dry, her lips are cracked, but just one bottle of water remains. There is no way she will make it back in the dark, she thinks, crawling into her sac, head resting on her deflated backpack. She waits. As she waits she thinks of John and Anne rising from their warm feathery bed halfway across the world, of her mother and father tucked into their unkempt graves. She thinks of the sound of onions being chopped on a thick wood cutting board, how as a little girl she used to tie her two braids together with a piece of red yarn, and the way that French wine often tasted to her of granite. It occurs to her that everything she has, everything that mattered, was right here with her all along.
Soon enough the shaking subsides. She is out of danger for now, but her feet and hands are still tingling and every ache and pain, not just from that day but, it seems, accrued over a lifetime, stab and prick, knead and grind. At times the sky appears to move closer to her then spring back. She notices, with some surprise, that its shape seems to change from a flat, wide plane when she sits up to something more like a dome when she lies down. She clinches and releases her jaw. She slaps her face, gently at first. More than once she snaps herself back from the brink of unconciousness. Focus, Sonia. Focus.
For if she blinks, she could miss it. If her eyes happen to be focused on the north and Navigator 05 appears in the south, she might only catch a trace of it. If she dozes, she will certainly miss it. But she is so very tired and cold.
What was that? Was that it? It could have been a shooting star, but she still can’t wiggle her fingers or toes. Sonia tightens the sleeping bag over her head, causing the sky to shrink to the size of a dinner plate. Her body feels light and airy now. Her lids float down over her eyes, then jolt back open. Thin white mist rises over her mouth. A faint streak of light flits across the corner of her eye. Was that it? She isn’t sure. Why not? That was it. Even if that wasn’t it, even if it were some other piece of industrial debris consumed by a fiery cataclysm against the grand backdrop of outer space, what difference did it make? Sonia laughs, having finally gotten the joke. Yes, that was probably it.▪
(SAINT?!) THERESA SAVES CHRISTMAS AGAIN
Tick tock. Tick tock. Theresa is fussing about the house again. Straightening pillows. Arranging mums in a short glass vase. Clipping recipes for homemade donuts. Alas, deep fryer required. She will get one on Sunday! In the meantime, she has finally removed all the family photographs from their albums, slipped them into semi-opaque archival sleeves that crackle like falling tree limbs, and filed them chronologically in sealed plastic bins so they’ll float should the river’s edge ever reach her shore.
She fusses more and more now that her two chicks have departed the nest, the youngest having migrated to a private college in upstate New York, the eldest perched not too far away, in a cabin that stands on long, rickety limbs at the property’s edge. Her mate Ted has flown the coop as well, lifelong promises and generous hospital-administrator pension plan notwithstanding.
Theresa is fussing because they will all be here soon, erupting through the front door, filling the house with contrary opinions, mood swings, inscrutable television shows, and microwave popcorn scents, a trail of half-filled glasses and empty shoes in their wake. The more she does now, the less they can undo.
That’s important because tomorrow is Christmas Eve and she has in mind a very special night, the long mission-style dining table wreathed in freshly snipped pine branches mingled with baby’s breath, white wax candlelight flickering in their glossy green needles. Thick, rich scents of roasted young pheasants, garlic braised green beans, mashed potatoes and yams, and fluffy buttermilk biscuits—so warm, so wet, and welcoming! That’s what Theresa would like to say. Her daughter Liz will not at any time refer to the holiday fowl as a “carcass” or those enjoying it “jackals.” David won’t insist on being “Darkmore” or belch loudly halfway through the meal, nor will he get angry and throw his fork at Theresa’s cookbooks when she recalls the year he wore his elf costume every day for two straight weeks. Ted will not suck down so many whiskey tonics during the football game that he gets arrested while driving home, forcing Theresa to spend the latter half of Christmas Eve posting his bail.
But all of this comes later. And before. For now, Theresa barely has time to fill the time! But do give the woman a little credit, for already she has managed to trim the tree exactly to her liking and wrap all the gifts in inky black paper, avant-garde in its lack of seasonal prints and slogans but festively accented with ribbon: red for Ted, green for Liz, and silver for her son. (Nothing but crinkled garbage for her.) And did she not, before heading to the store, transfer her grocery list to a map of the aisles? The good bread on the far end, aisle 10, while the bad bread for stuffing and such is on 6. She’d like to take credit for that stroke of time-saving genius, but it belongs to Nice-N-Easy Magazine. Still, she actually followed through. And last night when the mist fell like rain from the thick canopy of redwoods on her divorce-given property, did she not have the bright idea to scour the edges of her driveway for a luminous patch of soil to scoop into a mason jar. It is the first thing Liz notices when she arrives home from her flight.
The girl calls for her mother and within seconds her mother arrives. Why, Liz demands, is there a jar of dirt on her nightstand? Theresa smiles. It’s a very good question. The jar of dirt is in fact nature’s nightlight, full of phosphorescent worms. Liz picks up the jar, peers skeptically through the steamed-up glass. Glow worms only glow in the dark. And how are they supposed to breathe? She waves the jar in her mother’s face. It’s not a question but a statement, and yes, she’s more than certain that glow worms need oxygen and this jar is sealed. Theresa grabs for the tinny gold lid but the girl is still long and slender and fast. Her collarbones protrude beneath the waffle weave of her pink thermal shirt like a pair of bicycle handles and her hipbones resemble doorknobs stuffed into the front pockets of her denim overalls. A vegetarian. The girl easily slips through the holes of Theresa’s maternal net. Theresa chases her daughter down the long hallway, past the bare dining table, out the sliding glass door to the edge of the deck, laughing nervously as she goes. Is this all in good fun, or—? By the time she reaches Liz, the girl has unscrewed the top and is dumping the contents over the side of the railing, all the while accusing her mother of vermicide. Now, Theresa is fairly certain that glowworms don’t suffocate. She makes note of the location, planning to revisit it later that night. But there is no use arguing with Liz. The girl has her own mind, an exceptional one at that.
Not so, older brother Darkmore. Theresa is up to her nipples in coconut-scented bubbles when she hears the familiar squeal of his rickety, moss-colored Honda sedan pulling into the gravel car park, the ratcheting of the emergency break, the slam of the metal door. As with all wet winters, construction work has dried up. He passes these dark days and nights on what locals refer to as “Heroin Hill” with people who look like they belong on daytime talk shows. Of course not everybody on Heroin Hill does heroin. Ridiculous! A good mother knows when her own flesh and blood is a raging addict. Darkmore has his problems, but certainly not that! Still, it’s a puzzle, this life of his, the tattoos that grow like thorny weeks on his flesh, the wild talk of fantasy games. They’re real swords, mom, duh, but it’s not like we stab each other with them, he’d said. A puzzle.
She is about to submerge her head in the still-warm water, when she hears the clomping of his boots on the front porch. Tension jolts across her shoulders, spreading up her neck and down her freckled arms. Oh god, please don’t let him track mud in the house. Please don’t let him track mud in the house. Please— Then she hears the logs thud. Her firewood! She’d tried to do it herself, but how heavy and awkward! Splintery, too, and just crawling with spiders. Theresa exhales and releases the plug, watching her feet, funny flat hands, wriggle up and over the smooth rectangular opening until the last bit of water glugs down the drain. He’s a good boy, that Darkmore, a very good boy to look after his mother in this way. Other women weren’t so lucky. Other women had been abandoned to fend for themselves.
The sound of falling timber has ceased and Theresa wonders whether Darkmore will linger on the porch for a cigarette. How the heavy down comforter beckons as she wipes away the foamy white suds with her plush terry towel, pausing a moment to examine the way the skin of her stomach no longer clings tightly to her abdomen, the thin blue threads forming a patternless mesh over her thin, athletic legs. Steam no longer curls into the air above her chamomile tea. The heroine in her paperback is about to unwittingly screw a corporate criminal. The sleep-inducing lavender spritz on her bed sheets will soon fade. Nevertheless, she pulls her jeans on, dons a t-shirt, sweater, and scarf, and slips two pruney feet into her fleece-lined booties, which she is always careful to place beside the door where she can find them should she need to get a drink of water in the middle of the night or to escape a raging fire.
Liz, claiming jet lag, slipped off to her bedroom hours ago. The house is still and dark. A series of reminders cut out from Organic Life Magazine flutter along the hallway as she walks towards the darkened family room. Slow down, one glossy piece murmurs from the spot it’s been taped to. Live in the moment. Just Breathe. Hear silence. But in the present moment, the stillness enveloping Theresa is far from quiet. Tip-toeing atop the thin thread of her breath are clocks clucking, floorboards groaning, pipes moaning with deep invisible aches, tree tendrils scraping against the WeatherSeal™ panes. The mums have collapsed to one side of their vase. They must be straightened or else they’ll be noticed! And the pillows, bright cherry and lime squares should be propped against both arms of the sofa—one has been extracted and left on the floor. It must be set aright. Looking beyond the couch, she notices that the time on her VCR says 10:45 but the clock on the wall reads nearly 10:50. She’ll fix it tomorrow!
She peeks out the front door. The logs lay askew atop one another, not the neat pyramid she would have preferred. No other sign of her son. It is a long rectangular house, running parallel to the river. Theresa could walk it blind if she had to. The living room and master bedroom are in front, Liz’s room and the guest bedroom in back. The kitchen and the dining area fill the middle space, from which the sliding glass door opens out onto the deck. The door makes a crackling sound as she peels it back and escapes into the cool, foggy night. The redwoods, three of which grow straight through a hole cut in her deck, have spread a wet carpet of leaves and tidbits which press into the soles of her booties as she makes her way to the spot and peers over to where she’s certain the glowworms fell. Certainly not as luminous as stars on a cloudless night sky in summer, but there they are none-the-less, scattered green embers refusing to fade. Beyond the deck, a chocolatey brown soil patched with green grass and grey weeds dips abruptly into the river, itself only noticeable at this hour by its soft, soothing rush. Darkmore’s lit cabin, poised upon an intricate system of beams, seems to float above it. His shadow darkens one yellow glowing window, then is gone. The stained plastic shades are never drawn; the door is seldom left ajar. How she would like to navigate this muddy path towards the glowing light at the water’s edge. She would like to knock on the door and peer inside, perhaps straighten a sheet or fold some of his clothing into a drawer. Ah, the familiar tug.
Theresa runs her hands along the banister, sweeping away the wet bits of nature that have collected there, then folds her stomach over the side of the deck and hangs, arms dangling like a discarded doll. Things had never been easy with Darkmore. Born with a head that was just noticeably too large, he’d never shed his baby fat and had well-developed man boobs by the age of 7. He started walking late, talking late, and preferred to shit and piss in the river or beneath the deck well into pre-adolescence. His laughter was like a horse’s whinny, feminine, shrill, and strange. In moments of delight or frustration, the boy would let out a horrible high-pitched squeal. Theresa stretches her hands out in front of her and sways side to side. Not autistic. Not ADD. Not Down’s Syndrome or even mildly retarded. He was simply a troubled child, difficult in every way.
One after another, their friends had slipped away. Those who did stick around artfully dodged the subject, fearing yet another horror story of the boy pulling eggs from the supermarket shelves and crushing them inside his pants before anyone could stop him or, just one time thank god, hiding in the women’s restroom at the mall in order to leap over the stall and steal the warm feces from a startled victim. They could never understand what it meant to be needed so desperately, to have that massive head thud into your lap or feel those warm, pudgy arms squeezing your legs, the full force of his gleaming orthodonture plunging through your denim, leaving tiny ovoid bruises all over your thighs if you dared to tear away. Besides, all that was before the pills. Even so, the musical card sent by his paternal grandparents for his fully medicated 13th birthday had pushed everyone over the edge. To see Darkmore’s face when he’d opened it, you’d have thought a giant chocolate cake or singing monkey had leapt out from the fold. He refused to close it for days, pressing its spread wings beneath his t-shirt all day, cradling it to his ear as he drifted to sleep. Ding ding diiiinng diiiinng ding ding. Ding ding diiiinng diiinng diiiing ding. The cracks between her and Ted were already starting to form. Liz, just 10 and already attending junior high, was at risk of developing ulcers. It took four and a half very long days for the battery inside that musical card to stutter then die. Darkmore’s reward: Your very own big-boy house!
It was just a couple dozen feet. A holler away is what Theresa liked to say. They’d had the floors redone and installed sturdier windows. A place to sleep and play. Everything else would be exactly the same. Theresa herself had applied the pale blue paint and had chosen a bright green floor rug that wouldn’t show too many stains. A tree house. A fun fort. A castle down a hill. He would come in for breakfast each morning and depart, after supper, for bed each night. Really, what other choice did they have? And hadn’t he loved it, so much so that he never wanted to leave? That he took his dinner to his little lair, forcing Theresa to come sniffing around for the empty plates the following day? Had he not affixed locks to the door when nobody was looking, and painted the walls with dull white primer into which he’d carved pentagrams and the names of bands like BludFart, Mud Hat, and Deathicon. And hadn’t Liz thrived after his departure? The blooming ulcers folding in upon themselves and dissolving. The lists of achievements—spelling bee champion, math club president, chairman of the high school environmental committee, valedictorian, an elite private college. She was the anti-Darkmore. A cactus that barely needed tending. If Darkmore drained Theresa of all the warm, wet nurturance she could muster, Liz filled her back up again with maternal pride.
A soft rush of wind causes the redwoods to sway. She stands and looks up. The moon darts in and out of branches before taking shelter in some passing clouds. The oldest redwoods grow more than 300 feet high, sprouting a number of trunks to form a thick, green canopy that blocks out the sky. Whole species of birds, lizards, and vermin live and die up there, never once touching earth. Berry bushes grow on the ancient soil that covers those great old limbs. Everything beneath it but moss and ferns die. And when one of its limbs takes a mortal tumble, it is often caught, suspended in the canopy until a gust of wind or powerful trembler jostles it loose. Widow makers. Theresa’s trees are just 50 years old—nearly twice Darkmore’s age, too young to threaten her mortality, yet— She hastily steps away. The off-key strumming of an electric guitar emanates from Darkmore’s cabin. Cold moisture bleeds through the quilted shell of Theresa’s booties. The usual misgivings about the chill and the mud and the not being wanted creep in. No, there’s no point in disturbing him tonight.
Ta daaaaa! Theresa has done it again! A flawless Christmas table. Worthy of its own magazine spread, for sure. Steam rises from Grandmother Elsie’s cream-colored china bowls and platters. Four silver-ringed napkins embroidered with holiday wreaths rest atop four silver-rimmed china plates, along with a folded piece of velum paper bearing each of their names: Theresa, Theodore, Elizabeth, and—because it’s a special occasion—David. Everybody else is dead or lives far away. The Bynum pinot has been poured into four long-stemmed crystal wine goblets. White candles flicker and release scentless, nonallergenic smoke into the air. The tall glass water tumblers have been filled to within an inch of the brim. Liz, she has her moments to be certain, but when asked to perform, she comes through, getting full-tuition scholarships then, crumbling cornbread and chopping apples and folding napkins today. Now she sets the butter dish onto the table as she’s been asked. Mom, she whines, can’t we just start without him? Standing over the table, Theresa lifts Ted’s tag and sets it aside. She removes his napkin from its ring, and spreads it onto his chair. She’ll put food on his plate, just in case. Liz huffs and rolls her eyes. Whatever, she says, and summons Darkmore from the living room. We’re eating! The television swallows its sound behind him.
Is this my son? He is massive and mean. But, of course, he has always been these things. All grown up now, he towers over her as Ted once did. Shoulders like hams, belly a heavy sack of sand. Only now, his head is shaved and rings of bluish black vines encircle his arms. But there is a shocked innocence to his face that Theresa finds redeeming. In spite of his bulk, his faded black jeans sag in back. His toes poke out from the holes in his soiled white sports socks. Does he still have the nice argyles Theresa gave him for his birthday? He pulls out the chair at Liz’s place and falls heavily into it. Theresa rushes over to switch Liz’s tag with his own. David, David, Dah-veed, Dayy-vid, he taunts, flicking the paper in front of him like a mosquito. His mother shrugs. Well, I think it’s a nice name.
Theresa attends to Ted’s plate, making neat ovoid piles of pheasant, mashed potatoes, yams, salad, biscuits, green beans. Liz holds a wine glass up to her nose and sniffs at it distrustfully. She’d like to know what Theresa thinks she’s doing. Just in case he still makes it, the mother explains, but the girl is not satisfied.. He’s too busy getting drunk with his whore, mom. Rapid reply: Don’t say whore, Liz. Hussy, slut, whatever. Darkmore makes an anthem of the word: Whore! Whore! Whore! Whore! Don’t say whore, Liz! I’m not the one who’s screaming it. Do you think your brother would be screaming it if you hadn’t said it in the first place? Whatever, again, dismissive, sharp, flung across the table like a hockey puck. Goal?
Ah, but Theresa has been here many, many times before. She knows what to do. Taking her place at the head of the table across from invisible Ted, she presses her palms onto either side of her place setting. Other than to sigh, once, determinedly, she says nothing. Erect as a crane, she stares intently at the slabs of pheasant and notices a gray wisp of hair poking out from the pile of dark meat. When things simmer down, she’ll serve it to herself.
They haven’t quite chewed their way through the first helping when the phone rings. As Theresa rises to answer it, she notes happily that Darkmore has been so occupied with his food he has barely spoken. She smiles, recalling the amusing anecdote Liz has just told about the medical practices of the ancient Greeks. Perhaps it was a mistake to invite Ted in the first place. Maybe he was the problem all along! She presses the phone to her ear and folds herself over it so as to muffle the sound. Hello? Hello? An older woman. Her voice wobbles like a drunk. Is this Lana? the voice implores. Wrong number, Theresa corrects, tacking on a chipper Merry Christmas to you. She studies the receiver as though it were an unfamiliar object, then sets it back in its cradle. To not even call. To ignore them entirely, his family. She feels as though she’s been thrown from a car. If she weren’t a mother, oh what she would do! She would take that phone cord and wrap it around and around his fat red throat. If it weren’t Christmas Eve, she’d hop in her car right this second and head straight to Conroy’s Pub and once she was there she’d grab the tallest bottle from the bar and force him to devour the whole thing, glass and all. And as for that nurse of his, whore was too good a word. Surely there was an infected needle she could just sneak up behind and prick her with, plunging it in so deep there’d be no hope of washing the disease away. But, of course, she would never do any of these things.
So instead she makes two tight fists and squeezes her eyes shut, takes a deep breath to force the ugliness back to where it came from. But it’s too late. When she returns to the table she finds it’s already wriggled loose, sucking all the air from the room. Her declaration, It wasn’t him, only seems to make matters worse.
Liz’s face twitches as she stares at the untouched plate of food to her right. The butter has formed a small puddle atop the mashed potatoes, a dribble of gravy soaks into the two slabs of meat. No sooner has Theresa requested a second helping of yams than her daughter rises and walks over to his plate. She stands with hands cocked on her hips—a triumphant pose, Theresa thinks, admiring her daughter’s confidence—and loudly clears her throat, as though scraping the back of her tonsils with a fork. The girl folds over the plate. Watch your hair! Theresa calls out, still hoping Liz only means to clear away the setting. The girl whisks her ponytail aside and releases, a clear, round pellet which clings to her lips by a long, precarious thread, then stands back to admire her work. The globule is clearly discernable, floating inside the pool of butter where it’s landed. Darkmore sucks and snorts with delight. Oh Liz, Theresa breathes. It had been such a nice dinner. Liz wipes her mouth with the back of her hand and rubs it onto her jeans. Shrug. Sorry. It’s out of my system now.
They eat in silence for a couple of minutes, until Theresa is compelled to put on a CD. Sleigh bells ring-a-ling, ding, ding, ding-a-ling. Darkmore rocks in his chair. Quietly at first. Soon he’s going on and on about his role-playing games again, grown men donning capes and swords and hurling Elizabethan insults at one another in the middle of the night. Liz interrupts to tell Theresa that she believes chrysanthemums are poisonous to pets. Darkmore’s voice rises. —a master wizard and he had to light himself on fire so now that he’s survived he’s verifiably immortal. Liz sharply declares this last bit stupid. Liz— Theresa warns. Darkmore keeps rocking, the chair’s wooden legs creak at their hinges and scrape against the floor.
Theresa chimes in. Actually, pets rarely take interest in the plants so there’s nothing to fear. Finally he settles down. Alas, it is only in order to take his fork and slam it down onto his overflowing plate of food. Mashed potatoes skitter across the table. Beans and chunks of dark meat fly into the air and land haphazardly. He hits it again. Yams leap up higher than his head then splatter onto the placemat. Liz and Theresa watch, tensely, silently. Years of practice, utter faith. If you don’t react, he’ll eventually resort to more positive methods of getting attention. When he begins to scoop the mess back onto his plate with his bare hands, they both exhale in unison. An orange globule has splattered onto the back of Ted’s empty chair. Theresa stares intently at the wet, microbial stain. After dinner, she will wipe it off with her finger and suck it clean.
What strange, mysterious creatures they are. They’d been all over each other at the dinner table, hurling insults and making crude gestures between bites. But as they open presents, they are all smiles and whispers. It is the sibling bond! Hawk Theresa circles as they open her gifts—a new coat and tool set for Darkmore, a laptop for Liz—swooping down every now and then to retrieve a stray ribbon. When they grow up, will they learn to wriggle a long finger between the paper’s edge and run it along to gently unlatch the tape rather than this maniacal tearing and crumpling?
While cleaning up the remains of breakfast—chocolate croissants, coffee, and tangerines—she comes upon them whispering conspiratorially in the kitchen.
Afterwards, they gather in the living room to watch the local news. Houses burned to a crisp by untended trees. Gifts stolen from the backseats of cars. Losers, Darkmore bellows. Look who’s talking, Liz retorts, and punches him in the arm. A needle pricking a marshmallow. Theresa knows it isn’t polite to smile. Still she can’t help but feel happy. The news vans have never arrived at her front door. In the early afternoon, her children surprise her again by heading off to visit some friends of Darkmore’s together. This is something the girl has never done. Liz’s resentment for her brother could sometimes be chilling, but Theresa had always believed they’d come around to one another once they were more mature.
Oh peace. Sweet silent afternoon. Her children off spreading holiday cheer to neighbors. The soft popping of the wood-burning stove. Gregorian monks turned up just a little too loud. To think, she’d spent half her life thrusting nipples into greedy little mouths, soaking up spilled milk into sponges, drying tears, blowing on blood-crusted kneecaps, answering other people’s phone calls, evading Ted’s sudden, ravenous pleas for sex which seemed to erupt from the bowels of his usual indifference, comforting Liz for every lousy B, confronting Darkmore for every lousy D. And now that time and age have swept all of this away, Theresa just can’t help herself! She prowls around the house with a spray bottle of disinfectant in one hand and a rag in the other. Spritz. Wipe. Spritz. Wipe. It’s the little things in life that matter, she muses, the way a precise crease in the linen can lift your spirits, the way a tiny microbe could flutter up your nostril, ending everything tomorrow. Spritz. Wipe.
Thunder claps, the pitter-patter of rain falls against the skylights. Exhausted, Theresa lies on the couch—just for a minute she tells herself—letting the low, soothing chanting run its course.
She’s still there, clutching her bottle and rag like an Egyptian mummy, when Liz bursts through the door. Please, Mom, you have to come now. You have to stop him.
The tail of Theresa’s dream goes shimmying down a hole. Darkmore’s shadow perched upon an impossibly green cliff shooting black, star-shaped holes into a silver sky. Could this be my daughter? She is a grown woman, yet with her hair damp and her body trembling like that she is smaller than a child. Theresa sits up, steadies herself. Every object in the room bobs and sways on a milky sea. Hunger claws at her stomach. Come on, mom. The girl is pleading, blubbering, tugging on her mother’s arm. He’ll listen to you, Mom. You can’t let him do it. Theresa whips her head around, startled. How long have I been asleep for? The round seam of her pillow has carved an itchy groove into her cheek. She traces it with her finger.
Through the window she now sees that the rain has stopped and the sky between the dark, gray clouds glows with metallic gold and pink iridescent light.
How long? ▪
ANARCHY IN ALBANY
On the day when anarchy erupted in Albany, temperatures reached record highs, a fact not lost on the sociologists, who would point out that there is a well-established causal relationship between hot air and acts of aggression. Those who witnessed and, no doubt, took part in the event—for by all accounts being there was as good as participating—reported perspiration evaporating from their foreheads the moment they stepped out into the sun, dried out terra cotta planters cracking and bursting spontaneously, and ice cream melting the instant you took it outside, leaving candy-colored stains all along the glint-flecked sidewalks from which heat rose in psychedelic waves. Those who weren’t rendered useless as dry mops by the mercurial temperatures, are said to have approached their quotidian tasks in a sweaty, short-tempered haze. Indeed, police records show that several shoving matches broke out at the Suds 'n' Studs car wash. An unusually high number of mothers were observed by passersby screaming obscenities at their offspring, who were themselves wailing uncontrollably and making all kinds of incessant demands or, alternately, dangling so listlessly from their mothers' arms so that they had to be carried or dragged to and fro. At the Bank of Albany, officers were called in to assist tellers in removing several customers who'd planted themselves on divans next to large fans and refused to move or open new checking accounts in exchange for the privilege. Patrons got so rowdy at the Jumpin’ Juice & Java over who would be the first to order iced lattes and fruity tapioca drinks that fed-up employees eventually barricaded the door and refused to let anyone inside. And when the air conditioner at the Goddard Cinemaplex broke down, a near stampede ensued as angry moviegoers poured out of the darkened room, demanding their money back en mass.
According to neighbor Timothy Cochran, who'd gone out to consume a six-pack of Miller Lite on his porch while periodically drenching himself and his dog Henry with a garden hose, at around 3 PM on the afternoon in question Edwin Baker, age 48, stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of his two-bedroom bungalow, which he'd inherited from his deceased mother twelve years before, and stretched his arms up and out in a statuesque, if half-hearted sun salutation, a trickle of salty sweat glistening on his hairy sternum. Let the record show that how the neighbor was able to see actual sweat at that distance, with his sunglasses all beaded up with hose water no less, has yet to be determined. However, given the weather conditions and the fact that Mr. Cochran was only on his second beer in an hour's time, one can assume his statement is for the most part accurate. Mr. Baker then, according to the witness' testimony, looked up at his oak tree, already turning red, green, and gold with the first hints of autumn, looked down at the sidewalk and began leaping around "like an escaped zoo monkey," which struck Mr. Cochran as "rather nutty."
This observation has been seized upon by some of Mr. Baker's family as evidence that he was not in his right mind and therefore bears no blame in the incident which followed. Unfortunately the claim overlooks a known character trait, later confirmed by Mr. Baker's girlfriend of seven years. Mr. Baker apparently had a certain fondness for the crunching sound of dried leaves and would regularly make unusual strides in order to crush them underfoot. Mr. Baker then reportedly twisted his neck to the left and right, gave one last glance at the leaves, before digging through his short's cargo pockets for keys and, upon finding them, headed over to his burgundy-colored 1986 Volvo sedan, a car which had, in Mr. Cochran's words, "seen better days." The witness said that upon getting into his car, Mr. Baker immediately yelped and leapt out. It was later confirmed that the temperature inside the car had to have been at least 120 degrees and the leather seats no doubt made unpleasant contact with Mr. Baker's bare legs. Mr. Baker left the door open for several minutes, all the while prancing about his tree-lined driveway, before returning to the car and, finally, driving up Tulare Avenue towards Solano.
A word, if you will, for those unfamiliar with the setting in which these unfortunate happenings took place. The Albany in question is not, in fact, Albany, New York, as those of you from the East Coast might naturally be quick to assume. Nor is it the Albany of Australia, where much fine whale-watching can be done, or bucolic Albany, Oregon, situated on the scenic banks of the Willamette River, or Albany, Georgia, for that matter, with its excellent swamplands and quail-hunting opportunities. No, the Albany in question is Albany, California. Stretched low and flat between green hills to the east and the gray polluted waters of the San Francisco Bay to the west, the city was incorporated in 1908 to prevent Berkeley, with whom it shares its southern border, from continuing to use it as a garbage dump. Today Albany boasts excellent public schools, a medium single-family-dwelling price of half a million dollars, a bustling main street, and its own discreet refuse disposal facility. It is generally considered to be a nice place to live.
The question of which Albany is important to note because there are some who say that what happened next could have happened in any Albany. We understand the desire behind such claims is to diffuse blame. However the "any Albany" theory is generally held to be untenable, the most obvious reason being the fact that this particular Albany had been for some time engaged with its neighbor Berkeley in a public relations battle over which city was the most socially progressive in terms of its treatment of the disabled or, as some prefer to say, the physically and mentally challenged. And with its long history and reputation as a welcoming place for people of every race, religion, creed, and disability, Berkeley had been winning on every count. In fact, just days before the tragic episode, Berkeley was awarded a much-coveted grant for being the most blind-friendly city in California. Had the committee actually done their homework, as most assuredly we have, they surely would have realized that Albany far surpassed Berkeley for services, education, and programs for the blind. In addition, there was its groundbreaking Clean Sidewalk Ordinance, which made it illegal for restaurants to put tables and chairs on the sidewalks, blocking the path of not only the sight impaired but those in wheelchairs. (When the Berkeley city council, seething with jealousy, had tried to enact a similar law, a horrible outcry ensued. The well-heeled patrons and owners of restaurants along the “gourmet ghetto,” led by several celebrity chefs, loudly complained that their “right to outdoor dining” was being trampled by these unnecessary restrictions.) Yet in spite of this and other examples, which are too plentiful to elaborate on for our purposes here—suffice to say that subsequent linguistic studies have shown that people just assume certain things when they hear the name "Berkeley" and assume others when they hear the name "Albany"—Albany hadn't even made the top ten, causing Sandra Nimes, an outspoken columnist for the Albany Recorder, to urge a formal Boycott Against Berkeley. "Berkeley people," she wrote in a characteristically zealous column. "Who needs them? They think they're so tolerant just because they celebrate 'Go Naked to Work Day' and require all the convenience stores to provide sodas in cups with the word 'Coke' printed in Braille. I'm not blind, but I've visualized being so on numerous occasions and I hardly think that being able to read the word 'Coca-Cola' in any way enhances the experience of drinking a fluid that is known to rot teeth. Well, Albany, rev your hybrids and strike a valiant warrior pose, because we're gonna show those pompous veal-eating, leather-sandal-wearing bastards who's more tolerant, not with mere words and grandiose gestures, but with our actions, our hearts, and most importantly our dollars!" It should perhaps be noted that Howard Glasser, a columnist for the Berkeley People's Daily, had beaten out Ms. Nimes for "Most Liberal Columnist" in the most recent Bay Area Best Awards. But this was not mere professional rivalry; for once Ms. Nimes did have a case, for Albany was indeed home to far more disabled people than Berkeley could ever hope for. Indeed, the events leading up to the event are, rather ironically, proof of this fact.
As Mr. Baker reached the stoplight at Tulare and Solano, where he was to turn left, a line of wheelchairs no fewer than eleven long—that this group was in fact the local chapter of the Rockin' Rollers on their weekly outing would only be revealed at a later date—was making its way across the intersection at a pace that has alternately been described as "normal for people who can't walk" and "actually painfully slow, but please don't attribute that to me." Although the light was green and there was no oncoming traffic, the unusually hot weather undoubtedly having forced many drivers indoors, Mr. Baker was unable to make his turn because of their slow progression, and indeed was at risk of altogether missing the light, itself infamous among locals for being frustratingly slow.
At this point, understandably, witness testimony becomes very muddled. We cannot know what was going through Mr. Baker's head, of course. His girlfriend's testimony indicates she had sent him to the store to purchase four lemons, a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil, a sprig and no more of fresh rosemary, and two cloves of garlic, but had placed upon him no time pressure to return. However it is also known that the air conditioning unit in Mr. Baker's car had long since expired and that the man, having spent his entire life in the usually temperate Bay Area, was known to get, in his girlfriend's words, "a bit snitty" when temperatures rose about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. That Mr. Baker screamed "move your ass, you fucking cripple" out his window has been claimed by two members of the Rockin' Rollers, though others in the group have testified that he was merely singing along to the Ted Nugent pop song "Cat Scratch Fever." Nobody debates what happened next.
The light, turned yellow, and with the last wheelchair, the one with the handwritten "My4RE" sign on it driven by 66-year-old Vietnam veteran Mr. Gerald Whitby, more than halfway across the intersection, Mr. Baker commenced his left turn. The distinct sound of a "clink," reported by multiple witnesses, indicates that it was not a direct collision, but rather the fender of Mr. Baker's Volvo became entangled with the wheel of Mr. Whitby's wheelchair, dragging wheelchair and occupant with it. Mr. Whitby was, as a result of this unfortunate situation, was flung several feet from his wheelchair, "like a strip of raw bacon," according to Brian Forko, 15, who was passing by on his skateboard when the incident occurred, landing onto the sidewalk which was, thanks to aforementioned laws, at least free of outdoor diners. Mr. Baker continued in his vehicle for some two blocks before coming to a complete stop in front of Solano Wines, a shop and bar specializing in fine French and California vintages, on the corner of Solano and Ordway. Mr. Baker did not, however, exit the car.
Again witness testimony is contradictory as to what he did at this juncture. According to some, Mr. Baker "flipped the cripple the bird," while others say he was slumped over his steering wheel, having apparently fainted from shock. Because the vast majority of testimony coming from those closest to corner in front of which Mr. Baker was stopped say that he seemed stunned and paralyzed himself, and simply stared forward with both hand grasping the steering wheel, it is believed that this is the most accurate recounting of events. Whatever happened, the engine was still running, according to most, when the first object was hurled at the car. In the confusion that ensued, nobody is quite sure whether it was Mr. Baker or somebody else who eventually turned it off and took the keys, which have never been recovered.
Reconstruction of events based on witness testimony and on-site analysis conducted hours after the riot was subdued and the entire square-mile area cordoned off indicates that it was Mrs. Claire Tomasaka, a retired Albany school teacher, age 61, who threw the first object, a loaf of warm challa bread from the Berkeley Bakery, at Mr. Baker's car, while screaming repeatedly, "shame, shame." And it was Miss Amber Whittier, 19, a comparative religion major from UC Berkeley, who amplified the action by hurling a bottle of sulfite-free, organic wine, also at Mr. Baker's car. Beyond these two instigatory actions, few are attributable. Here is just a partial list of items gathered from on or in close proximity to Mr. Baker's car: a plastic cup containing mango-flavored shaved ice and purple tapioca balls, green and black olives, cornichons, lavender-scented massage oil, organic spring salad mix, an empty bottle of freshly squeezed grape juice, two half-eaten Luna bars still in their wrappers, flax seeds, three dozen balls of falafel, a wheel of brie as well as approximately fifteen other discernible types of cheeses in various forms and consistencies, two copies of "Don't Think of an Elephant" by leftist linguist George Lakoff, three "Introduction to BioChemistry" textbooks, two copies of the East Bay Express and five copies of the San Francisco Chronicle, a "dime bag" of marijuana decorated with a smiley face, a needle and syringe containing trace amounts of blood and heroin, coffee and tea of various flavors, two PVC yoga mats and another made entirely of hemp, a large purple exercise ball, white chocolate still in foil wrapper, tofu chow mein, dog excrement, a full colostomy bag which was later traced back to one of the Rockin' Rollers, human and dog urine of unknown origin, pigeon feathers, sculpting clay, crayons, several different flavors of ice creams and cones, two unused condoms and one used one, a collector's edition DVD of "Rear Window," a dozen raw quail eggs still in packaging, several valium pills as well as an entire container of oxycontin, "Be Here Now" on tape, Japanese eggplant, a micro-fleece pullover and matching cap, two windshield wipers and six car antennas, a unicycle, copious amounts of hummus, and one dozen unused glow sticks. This list is by no means meant to be exhaustive, but hopefully conveys at minimum a sense of the mass hysteria which broke out in the minutes immediately following the traffic incident.
Mr. Whitby, though scraped and bruised, was not seriously injured by the accident and it has been concluded that the wound across his brow which required three stitches was not a result of the accident itself but rather a flying bottle of balsamic vinegar which struck him during the melee. Autopsy reports on Mr. Baker indicate he died of blunt head trauma of significant force. According to statements by Mr. Forko, the skateboarder/witness who was interviewed at the scene and subsequently at the police station and in his home: "These three middle aged, bearded dudes in plaid shirts totally went up to the dude's car and pulled him out and started wailing on him. They were screaming, 'Think you're hot now? This is what happens to people who beat up on cripples,' and totally pounding his head against the pavement." Of course, Mr. Forko was at this time huddled behind a fire hydrant and could not have gotten a clear view of the events, however his statements were consistent with and more or less corroborated by several others close to Mr. Baker's car. Investigators have been unable to locate these three assailants. Others say that Mr. Baker got out of his car of his own accord and was simply "taken out" by a flying object of unknown origin. Indeed, within fifteen minutes of the rioting, those involved appear to have forgotten all about Mr. Baker, who evidence seems to indicate would have been bleeding and unconscious at that point, and turned on one another.
Now several members of the Rockin' Rollers have made much noise about the fact that trace amounts of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana, were detected in the deceased's bloodstream, and these accusers have even gone so far as to publicly claim that Mr. Baker was "too high to buy pie" at the time when he struck Mr. Whitby's wheelchair. However, toxicology reports combined with Mr. Baker's girlfriend's testimony that "he liked to take a little puff at lunchtime just to smooth out the wrinkles" indicate that the victim was no longer impaired by the time he got behind the wheel. And upon further investigation, several examiners have concluded that, while, undiagnosed, Mr. Baker was using the substance for medical effect (read: anti-anxiety), which one would think would elicit some sympathy from a population that is generally in favor of such things. The point is: such blame tactics only serve to obfuscate the real tragedy: By sunset, more than 30 people were injured, though none, thankfully, as gravely as Mr. Baker. Damage to both city and private property is estimated at around $750,000, with several lawsuits pending. Much of these funds will no doubt come out of Albany's plentiful public services for its less fortunate residents. Indeed while the coincidence is merely accidental, the annual grant, which funds not only the Rockin' Rollers, but their Christian counterparts the Holy Rollers, is among those currently on the chopping block. (This perhaps explains why they are seeking damages from Mr. Baker's estate, though "estate" is perhaps not the right word when what we're really talking about is a run-down two-bedroom bungalow, a much-abused Volvo, an extensive collection of vinyl from the '60s and '70s, and little more. Let's be rational: Mr. Baker was a man who took pleasure out of crushing and smoking leaves, not human beings.) The damage to the city's reputation, to say nothing of the psyches of its citizens, most of whom were nowhere near the scene of these strange and awful occurrences, is incalculable.
We have recounted the barest facts surrounding this tragic episode—the unusually hot weather, the rivalry with Berkeley, the disproportionate concentration of disabled people perhaps (and we say this with all sensitivity) at the disadvantage of the regularly-abled, the presence of marijuana in Mr. Baker's bloodstream, the accusations of the Rockin' Rollers—not in order to explain the underlying causes for the mass hysteria, nor to assign blame to any given party. We do, of course, look forward to seeing the results of several rigorous studies currently underway to do just that. No, our sober task here today is simply in the service of healing, for Albany is clearly and demonstrably a community in need of healing. Indubitably the events thus described have revealed to the city its own unsavory potential, the dark and menacing shadow that accompanies any bright point of light, for lack of more precise terms. Yes, and those who live here, most of whom were nowhere close to Solano Avenue on the day of said melee, suffer from ongoing shame each time they declare themselves residents of this fair city, whether on envelope, email form, or verbally.
Beyond that, real estate prices have dropped precipitously and commerce along Solano has reached an all-time low. This across-the-board decline has not been helped by the disproportionate amount of embarrassing media attention, which has been paid to the events described above. Now, it is understandable that this unpleasant incident would qualify as a legitimate news story, for it is not often that a peaceful and relatively prosperous community like that of Albany spontaneously erupts into violence and mass hysteria, but is it really necessary to label so many innocent residents of this fair city "Albarchists" or to speculate on the evening news if the source of this so-called barbarism might be found in the city's drinking water? We would like to add that the City of Berkeley's latest guerrilla marketing campaign—which of course they deny being behind but we have proof Berkeley, oh we have proof— has not helped matters one bit. Civic pride, we believe, should never come at the expense of one's neighbor. Hence we must declare reprehensible and irresponsible the professionally applied, anti-Albany graffiti and so-called "organic, street-level t-shirt campaign" slogan: "Berkeley is better. Albany is for cripple-squishing, riot-causing assholes." Nor, in this light, can we condone the recent calls by the aforementioned Ms. Nimes for continued violence, only against Berkeley residents rather than fellow citizens. We must also politely request an end to the relentless drumming of the Rockin' Rollers—literally drumming—along Solano avenue. We understand, already, that their lot in life is "shitty and under-recognized," but must they make all of us suffer with them? This exploitation of an already miserable situation in the end helps no one.
We have sifted through the evidence and, to the best of our abilities, tried to study it objectively, calmly, rationally with the pale but ever-present hope of discovering if not a solution then perhaps a key to help us unlock a solution. But having reached the end of our investigation, we find ourselves no more enlightened than when we started. What began as a hot day ended in death and mayhem. And what began as a mere inquiry has devolved into frustration and confusion. And all we can conclude is that this has all gone too far. Too far, we say! A man is dead! Dead, by the hands of his own neighbors. And for what? A wounded cripple? Christ should have been so lucky. No. Enough of this nonsense. Enough! A community is burst forth, like a seed pod of destruction. And what is the point? We search and we find none in sight. Only more and more absurdity. There is no end. So what then? Shall we weep for a bit? Cast yet more stones? Erect an pricey and worthless monument in honor of all the victims of human foolishness? All of these suggestions have been put forth and only seem to justify the unjustifiable claims that Albany is a haven for freaks and their sympathizers. And now, now that come think of it, we find ourselves inclined to agree, inclined to propose to disband this fair city and return it to its origins as a garbage dump or at the very least throw up our hands and say fuck it. Yes, this is much better. This is nice! Fuck Albany! And fuck Berkeley, too! Fuck all the cripples! And the stoned drivers! And the angry undergraduates! Fuck the retired schoolteachers! And the newspaper columnists! And the city council! Fuck the organic produce that was flung and the police reports and the news vans and— oh why bother! Fuck it all. There's nothing more to say.▪
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven.
Adam. Eve. Steve. Matt. Farrah. Michael. Seven.
Yes, they were all there, down to the last, a small female, who'd arrived just several weeks earlier, too soon to earn a name. It was foolish to count them. Where else would they be? They certainly couldn't rise up from the table and go for a walk. They might get stolen, but how? By whom? For what ungodly purpose?
Still, Ned counted. One could never underestimate the number of things that could go wrong, especially in a place such as this. In a recent test crash, the entire data sets for two of Ned’s hybrids had been irretrievable, a total loss. And then there was the incident in which Steve/Three’s arm, consumed by fire, had landed on one of Stanley’s cameras, obscuring the view. So Ned lingered by the table, counting dummies, inspecting the shiny wires that exited in a cluster from the base of their aluminum jigsaw skulls, studying their flexible rubber necks, movable joints, their brown vinyl skin protected by flimsy white jumpsuits bearing their name and number. The garment was superfluous, as were the additional clothing items that staff had given Adam, Eve, Farrah, and Steve to wear. Some, like George in engineering, clearly wished to see his gift destroyed. He'd placed Steve in a jersey celebrating the football team he loathed. Likewise, Adam's new t-shirt bore the face of a wanted terrorist. But Eve had on a pretty floral blouse. Had Shelly, the project manager, supplied it? Ned didn't know, but he appreciated it when people treated the dummies with tasteful consideration.
Ned knew that tomorrow’s crash would be relatively easy. Just a straight drop of weighted fuselage onto a bed of concrete. Severe but survivable, in theory at least. They only needed to verify what they suspected from previous crashes. That the chairs' pins would pop from the pressure—over 30 g’s—pancaking the passenger seats. For a few milliseconds his dummies would be prone. Then they’d bounce up all herky-jerky from the shoulders just in time for the overhead bins from above to shake loose from their faulty screws and crush them flat again. It would be nowhere as explosive as the fuel additive tests or as full of unknowns as the experimental-foam runway tests. Chances were his dummies and their clothing would emerge unscathed, unlike the real human bodies pulled from the wreckage of similar catastrophes. Yet, Ned reasoned, it was to be his last crash and it wouldn't do to retire on an off note. So he stood and he counted and he waited.
Ned heard Stanley's footsteps on the concrete before his co-worker called out, “Hey, Ned, got it all covered in there?”
“Oh yeah, just saying my goodbyes,” he replied without turning.
“I just hope my cameras have a better time of it than your dummies.”
“I told Steve to keep his arms in crash-landing position this time,” Ned answered, barely cracking a smile.
Stanley approached and gave Ned a friendly pat on the shoulder and said," Don't keep that nice family of yours waiting too long."
"I won't. Just finishing up."
A blast of cold air rushed into the hangar as Stanley exited, sending a chill down Ned's sloping spine. The slamming door rattled the bright fluorescent lights that dangled from the rounded tin roof, casting moving shadows across the scene below. Once the air had settled and the lights fell still, Ned continued his vigil in solitude and peace, save for the light percussion of rain against the rounded tin roof.
Whereas the other boys in the small Texas panhandle town Ned had grown up in enjoyed taking things apart to see how they worked, he had preferred to obliterate them entirely. The youthful Ned indulged his boyhood habit of blowing things up or smashing them to smithereens by obtaining a B.S. in chemistry from Texas Tech and then pursuing a career in explosives, a hot industry in the early '60s, when Ned first entered the workforce. Explosives led him to Detroit, where he'd been part of the early airbag development teams. Through trial and error, they perfected the pinprick detonation that would set the bag in motion fractions of a second after impact. It had been satisfying work, simultaneously destructive and heroic, but when the first anthropomorphic hybrids were introduced back in the early '70s, something in Ned truly clicked.
He was fascinated by these strange proto-humans. What spectacular design! Aluminum and steel crafted to mimic the density and flexibility of bone. A spring steel rib cage. Foam muscles and brown vinyl concealing a tangled nervous system of wires, sensors, and data-capture devices. They could be placed into cars that were then slammed into concrete walls, flung off of cliffs, slid into ditches, and rolled over and over again. They suffered these abuses patiently, quietly. Never once did their bodies stiffen with fear, nor did their lips ever curl in terror or their nostrils flare in agony. Nevertheless, Ned believed that something did lurk behind those expressionless faces.
It wasn’t a human feeling, of course, but something far more lovely and perfect. They recorded everything that happened to them with astonishing precision. They could measure the exact force and direction of gravity on a single vertebra down to a millisecond of Global Positioning Satellite time. They perceived torque on their cervical spines upon collision, the deflection between their spines and sternums as their bodies slammed against steering wheels. Not only did they receive these blows and take note of them, but they could communicate the whole experience clearly, beautifully, in the exact and pure language of mathematics. Privy to inhuman knowledge of their own experiences, they alone could tell you the exact moment and location when life and death intersected.
From the first time he'd seen one of these instrumented hybrid anthropomorphic dummies at a safety-engineering trade show, he’d angled and lobbied to work with them. By the age of 32, he’d become one of the world’s first and few hybrid specialists, the "intelligent dummy guy." The silly nickname followed him from cars in Detroit to airplanes in Seattle, where he was now and from which, after nearly 30 years spent taking care of these strange creatures, he'd reluctantly decided to retire. It was his family, and not these dummies, that he would look after for as long as he was able.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. It was already a quarter past 6. Darkness had set in. The rain fell a little bit harder. It was time to go home. Ned took one last look at Steve’s arm, completely and seamlessly replaced, and Number 7, on the eve of her first crash. How would she hold up? With a heavy sigh, he turned and walked towards his bulky green canvas jacket, which hung by the door, pausing before he reached it to observe them once more laid out across that stainless steel table, the reflected lights from above reflected off their newly washed skin. He prayed with lips still and open eyes, as was his habit, for God's protection of his manikins through the night. Then he slipped on his jacket, set the alarm, switched off the light, and locked the door, double checking it before he loped across the soggy gravel parking lot to where his pickup truck had been parked since early that morning.
Somewhere along the I-5 between Boeing Field and his home in Kent, the heavy drizzle became a downpour, and in the hurried rush from the car to the front door, Ned got soaked. Wiping his boots on his doormat, he peered through the living room window on his right and saw his sons—Adam, the elder, chasing Evan, in sagging diaper and stained t-shirt, around a coffee table, the scene illuminated only by the flickering blue glow of the evening news. Through the kitchen window on his left, he saw Grace, scrubbing furiously at a cast-iron skillet. A puddle followed him across the threshold and into the kitchen where his dinner—chicken, rice, and some unidentifiable yellow vegetable—sat, untouched, on a messy table.
“You’re late,” she said, without turning from the sink.
“I’m sorry,” Ned answered tiredly as he removed his jacket and draped it over the back of his chair.
She shut off the faucet and turned to face him. “Don’t put that there. You’ll get everything wet.”
“OK, OK,” he said, returning outside to leave it on the bench next to the front door, pausing there another minute to watch her return to her dishes, while his sons, bare skin glowing with phantasmagoric light, pointed imaginary guns and feigned death throes on the carpet. Living proof that love existed between them.
Yes, there had been a time when they would hold hands all the way from the car to the church doors, when she hadn’t resisted Ned’s desires or suggestions on how things should be done. On their wedding night, their first time together, he’d blubbered like he hadn’t since he was a child. She had run her fingers through his hair, whispering softly,“Why is Ned so sad? Today is the happiest day."
He is no longer nostalgic for those days. Now, what he wishes for is the period when she was just an image and a list of stats on a screen, an email address behind which lay everything that was missing from his life. In her letters, she seemed to understand, like no American woman he’d ever met had, what a man like Ned needed out of a wife. She seemed satisfied with having a good provider, a protector. She would never have to worry about him abandoning her. He was far too old for that sort of thing. But with security had come a flabby body, a balding gray head, an inability to change old habits like working long hours and creasing the bed sheets just so. He was not willing to go dancing. He found restaurants stressful, especially when the children were involved. Most recently he had fallen prey to erectile dysfunction, which the doctor assured him was "normal for his age." Grace had reacted to the verdict with visible relief. Now all he could offer was the likelihood that he would die before her. There would be life insurance, a healthy pension, a life for Grace beyond Ned.
Returning from the porch, he walked up to her. Waiting for her to place the dish she was holding into the drying rack, he wrapped his arms around her impressively narrow waist and buried his face into her long slender neck.
“Just three more weeks,” he whispered. “Tomorrow is the crash, then I get the data, file my report—“
“You almost made me drop that plate,” she said, prying his arms off of her with her knobby elbows.
He backed away, shrugged his shoulders, and walked out of the room. If he could take her head into his hands and, with a firm but gentle twist, pop it right off, he would gather up the strings of nervous tissue and circulation into his expert fingertips and sever them all with one quick snip. If he could plug these lovely strands into his computer at work then just maybe she could finally tell him what was on her mind and he would finally understand.
By the time he’d gathered up his children, put them in their pajamas, and read them a story, Grace had already disappeared into the master bathroom. He’d grown accustomed to the sound of her movements through the hot water, flipping the pages of her celebrity magazines and, her worst offense, talking on the phone to her family in her native Tagalog. The first time he warned her about the dangers of using a cordless phone while immersed, she’d laughed and asked if she would come out fried like a lumpia. A thousand times later, she just rolled her eyes and always remembered to lock the door before she got in.
Hesitantly, he knocked on the door.
"What do you want?"
“I just wanted to make sure everything was alright.”
“I’m fine. Everything’s fine. Did you lock the front door?”
“When you’re so quiet in there I worry about you drowning, slipping and hitting your head.”
“You worry too much,” she said. At this, Ned smiled. She knew him. It wasn’t just the phone in the bathtub. Walking to his truck that night, he’d searched the dark gravel for a gleaming piece of glass, nails, syringes. When he reached his truck, he paused to examine the seatbelt, wondering if it wasn’t time to replace it. Watching the rain fall into drainage ditches along side the two-lane frontage road, he thought about chemical run-off. In every car that passed he imagined a drowsy driver, a drunk driver, a negligent driver who hadn’t checked his breaks. The last thing he'd see would be headlights veering into his lane, followed by the popping sound of his aorta disconnecting from his heart. Was that the last thing you heard, a pop coming from somewhere deep within? Thoughts like these were an occupational hazard, though sometimes it went too far.
More than once his coworkers and his family had come across him, staring into space, mouth hanging open. Once discovered, he’d shake off his violent daydreams with a laugh and an apology. Spacing out, especially at work or on the road, was particularly unsafe.
"Grace?" he called through the bathroom door.
She was silent for a few seconds, then, “We need milk."
"OK. I'll get it tomorrow."
"We need it tomorrow."
Compared to the dark soup of night, the white mirrored brightness of the store was blinding. He quickly retrieved the gallon from the back and carried it, along with a box of energy bars and a loaf of raisin bread, to the supermarket counter. The girl at the register could not have been be more than 18, maybe 20. Two piercing pale blue eyes peered out from inside two black smudgy outlines. A tumble of dry stringy hair covered much of her face. He noted her height, not more than 5 feet, the fragile width of her wrist no bigger than a child's. She was close in size to Number 7!
Smaller, actually. The 2nd percentile?
It had been a huge struggle just to get a female. That she would belong to the 50th percentile was par for the course. They had redesigned the air bags, in part, around her responses to impact. It was a major improvement over the days when only the male 50th percentile was used. Only a handful of academics were toying with infants and children.
There’s always a first report. Ned like the rest assumed it was just an anomaly. But then came another and another. For Ned, the truth didn't take long to sink in. Children and petite women were being killed by airbags in otherwise survivable events. They had planned for every eventuality, developed cost-benefit analysis charts that explored the pros and cons of all available options. They’d engineered down to fractions of a centimeter, invisible fragments of a second, yet here was this huge glaring omission. It had been there the whole time. Ned, being a rational man, understood he was not to blame. He was just one guy working on one small part of a huge industry. Besides, errors, even fatal ones, were often how engineers learned. But those nameless, faceless deaths haunted him all the same.
In Ned a sad, numb feeling started to grow and grow. It started somewhere in the synapses of his brain and spread via the web-like tangle of nerves, veins, and arteries, weakening everything as it pushed through the thick weave of muscles, permeated his skin. His shoulders gradually slumped forward, pulled by the weight of his hands, heavy and empty as stones. His neck, no longer willing to sustain the bulk of his head, lowered as though in continual supplication. He lost interest in his work. He stopped going to church and instead headed after work to the Lyon’s clubroom, hoping to find someone who would let him talk for a little while, until he was laid off, forcing him to take stock of his situation. He moved from Detroit to Seattle, automobiles to aircraft. Finding that solitude and routine no longer brought him comfort, he joined a Christian online pen-pal service and was thrilled when the daughter of a pastor in the Philippines sent him an enthusiastic reply. In one of the only pleasant twists to ever contort his life he'd found himself, six months later, on a plane to meet this woman, Grace. They didn’t even have airbags in her country. Nevertheless, Ned saw in her impossibly small arms and legs, her petite stature, her innocent, innocent smile a chance for redemption. He would take care of her and keep her from harm.
And this girl here, with her hollow eyes and fragile bones, waving his milk so carelessly over the steady red laser, what would she look like in the chaos of her last moment, as the pillow that was meant to save her became a white, round guillotine? If she could tell him about it, what would she say? Would she be angry? She looked the type to be angry. But was there pain? Did time slow down so that an entire life could be contained by a second, as it was with God in heaven, where a day was like a thousand years and a thousand years felt the same as a day?
Ned stared right through her.
“Sir? That’s 10.84.”
He shook his head and muttered an apology, handing her eleven dollars and leaving before she could give him his change.
Grace was still in the bathroom when he got home, though the gurgling of water down the drain told him her time there was almost through. In the darkness of their shared bed Ned waited for her to come, and when she did, the buttery tropical lotion rose from the warm damp skin beneath her nightgown as she scooted between the white cotton sheets.
"That was fast," was all she said.
He moved towards her, cupping her waiflike body in his own. Amazingly, she did not push him away. He slid his arm around her, forming a seatbelt, his hand cupping her shoulder. He pressed her to him as closely as he could, feeling the slick, wet strands of black hair tickling his face, wishing there were some way to open up his skin and fold it around her so she would never be cold.
“You’re very silly man,” she yawned, tugging at the sheets.
“I know,” he whispered. Then softly, hesitantly, “I love you.”
“Goodnight, Ned," she yawned.
He lay awake for what seemed like hours, listening to the rain, observing how the light porch lamp outside cast streaks of silvery light over Grace's smooth skin, trying not to think of his own pocked flesh, wrinkled and gray from so many days based beneath steely industrial light. Grace's breath was so quiet and shapeless that he reached over every now and then to verify a pulse. Those thin arms, that long slender neck. Number 7. The supermarket checker. How would they fare tomorrow, his girls?
Ned rose an hour before dawn for his morning devotion. He opened his bible, conveniently divided into 365 sections, onto the kitchen table and read from where he’d left off the day before in the Second Book of Samuel. The story was that of David and Bathsheba. King David impregnates a soldier's wife then sends the poor man off to the front lines to be killed. The child of his infidelity is born and immediately becomes ill; David fasts and weeps in supplication. But when the child dies, the king ceases to mourn.
Frustrated, Ned closed the book. He had read the story many times and had always found it unjust. What kind of God let two innocent people die while the sinner, David, went unpunished? What had become of the husband who’d been needlessly killed? From what Ned could tell, the afterlife was an afterthought, one of the many contradictory new covenants God established when he sent down Jesus. In all of Ned’s gruesome daydreams, never once had there been a tunnel lit from one end, a heavenly gate, a feeling of calm assurance. He opens the book again and looks over the words. For all the salvation and forgiveness and eternal life, this God, the slayer of innocent husbands and children, forgiver of kings, had not gone away. He was still the father, still running the show. If he had reneged on his promises before without so much as an apology, what was to stop him from doing so again? And yet Ned found it comforting to fold his head and clasp his hands over the pages and search his mind for all possible contingencies, offering them up to God, like a half-eaten sandwich.
After his morning devotion, Ned showered quickly, shaved slowly, carving routine lines into his jowls, and dressed entirely in cotton. He did all these things in the kids' bathroom, so as not to wake his sleeping wife. He did, however, briefly tiptoe into his and Grace's bedroom, carefully sliding open a drawer to remove a single polo shirt.
Although the rain had subsided, the roads were still wet and slick. He wanted to hurry, but restrained himself to a safe five miles above the speed limit all the way to work. Tucking the shirt beneath his coat, he hurried from his car to the hanger where his dummies were waiting, exactly as he'd left them the night before. Thank you, Lord. When he reached Number 7, he slipped the rosy shirt over her hairless head. Grace, he said silently, staring deeply into her eyeless orbs, you will be fine.
The actual crashing of the plane was always tedious work. The wires spilled out of the fuselage like spaghetti from a pot. So many nodes and sensors, so many details. Everything had to be checked and double checked, and if one minor aspect didn't seem right, it would all have to be checked and double checked again. With tens of thousands of dollars invested, they could not afford something going wrong once the plane fell. The engineers, wiring experts, photographers, project managers, and database guys who'd worked for months towards this day all stood around in shiny yellow slickers, shifting their weight impatiently from one leg to the other, steaming paper cups clutched between their shivering hands as the hours ticked by.
Finally, around 3 PM, Ned's dummies were brought to the site carefully strapped into two large golf carts, signaling that the moment when the plane would be lifted by crane above its concrete resting place had almost arrived. He helped carry them onto the fuselage, arranging them in their pre-assigned seats. How gentle he was—wiping the mist from their faces, straightening their jumpers before pulling the lap belts tightly over their waists and securely fastening the buckle, making sure their heads were centered against the tall foam seatback, folding their hands across their laps or resting them softly onto their knees. Though his glassy grey eyes no longer seemed to register what was plainly in front of them.
For Ned sensed the hiss of air vents coming from somewhere deep inside his skull, the clump clump clumping of imaginary luggage being loaded onto the plane. He felt the heat in the cabin rising as people waited impatiently for the person ahead to finish shoving a bag into the overhead bin. He remembered how the strong contours of Grace's diminutive back felt against his red chubby hand as he guided her to the seat beside their children. He heard himself telling Evan and Adam to hush, placating them with crayons, toys, anything to make them just sit still. He would take his place across the isle from them, his family, and flip absently through the in-flight catalog before double, triple, quadruple checking to make certain everyone was buckled up.
"Leave 'em, Ned. It's time to go," Stanley said, placing his hand on his coworker's shoulders to maneuver him around the wires and down the ladder.
Where were they going? Maybe Manila, to visit Evan and Adam's grandparents. Perhaps Disneyland.
Once on the tarmac, Ned walked away from the fuselage towards the hangar. As the ratcheting of chain announced that the hollowed-out plane had begun its ascent, he suddenly turned and rushed towards it, stopped only by Stanley's firm hands. "Ned, what's gotten into you? It’s all fine. Why don’t you sit down?”
“It’s nothing, Stanley. Just thinking is all,” Ned says and lowers himself into a chair.
Stanley was right. There was nothing to fear. As the plane steadied itself above the concrete landing pad, Ned reassured himself that taking off was always a little scary, the way the ground dropped beneath you, pulling your stomach with it, as the manmade carriage twisted and turned into formation. It was during these uncertain moments that Grace might reach across the aisle to squeeze Ned's hand as he pleaded with God for things to turn out alright.
Once they rose above the clouds, he would relax. His children—how lucky he was to have them—would point and ooh-ooh over the fluffy pink and gold pillow beneath them. Grace would release his hand with an audible sigh. And then, just when the danger seemed to have passed, there was Grace turning to face him, her full pink lips curling upwards to bare the teeth.
"Seven, six, five, four, three, two, one!"
The cord snaps.
The plane drops.
The moment when everything
THE PIGEON AND THE PATHOGEN
They did the math, interviewed the people. They made a map and drew lines and circles upon it. And they are fairly certain that dog flu first arrived in Manhattan on the last Friday of August at the Madison Square Park dog run.
Trane remembers the day, a sweltering morning. He had taken shade beneath a tall, leafy tree to eat his egg and cheese muffin and look on as Proto frolicked with the other pups. He had been preoccupied with the start of classes the following Monday and his wife’s return home later that night, but not so much that he didn’t noticed Sasha—the “original vector” they now called her—tossing the feathery corpse into the air with her angular snout then smacking it back to earth with that tremendous black paw of hers. Up, up, up. Down. Over and over, like a looping nursery rhyme. Disgusting, he muttered, and sternly bit into his sandwich.
Manhattan’s massive Pigeon Eradication Program was only in its second week, but already the feathered gray clumps had become just another a annoyance of city life, like the constant blaring of taxi horns or the melted tar that dripped from subway station roofs during the hottest days of summer. Why Trane counted three dead birds along the periphery of the fenced-off section, and he’d passed at least four others during his walk over. The promised retrieval crews only seemed to come intermittently if at all. Still, just because the birds couldn’t be avoided didn’t mean you let your dog play with them. Trane called out to Sasha’s owner, Danielle, “Hey I think she’s into something nasty.” In reply, Danielle jerked her chin towards the wayward Doberman and shrugged. Dogs will be dogs, after all. He’s replayed the moment over and over in his mind. Why hadn’t he leapt heroically from the bench and shooed the dog away? Or used the plastic bag from his breakfast to dispose of the bird himself?
But there was no use even thinking such thoughts. How could he possibly have known that the pigeon in life had hosted a young and undiscovered corona virus? He certainly couldn’t have seen the tiny flea that, realizing that the juice was up, leapt from the bird’s bloated belly and landed between Sasha’s sharp shoulder blades with an imperceptible thud. Had it taken its deadly meal immediately or waited until the pair was home? Not even they can say. All that’s certain is that at some point the flea inserted its pincers into the dog’s rather tough, rubbery flesh and regurgitated virus into the dog before taking a fresh blood meal. Sasha undoubtedly whipped her head around to snap at the air above her shoulders, but quickly forgot the itching sensation on her backside. The virus, on the other hand, made its way into the unsuspecting dog’s bloodstream, where it floated peacefully for a time, then, happening upon a defenseless cell, went straight to work, burrowing, hijacking, replicating, bursting. Repeat.
But for reasons not yet completely understood, the pathogen did not reproduce too rapidly, nor did the dog’s multifaceted immune system see any need to dress down this interloper. The two were able to live in relative harmony, as had been the case with the pigeon and the pathogen. Sasha moped and sneezed for a few days, but was soon slurping her owner’s face and pouncing on her bed before sunrise as the pampered purebred had always been inclined to do. If only that had been the end of it.
“Get back here, boy,” Trane called out to Proto, who’d been gazing with growing curiosity at Sasha and her prey. He still gets choked up when he thinks of how obediently his chocolate lab turned and bounded towards him. He offered a greasy hand to lick while affixing the dog’s leash to his collar. At the sound of the tell-tale click, Proto gazed up at him confused. Only fifteen minutes? That hardly seemed fair. Trane squatted and pressed his forehead to the dog’s own. How could he explain? It was 10 AM and already in the mid 80s, the unfinished lesson plans collecting tea stains the dining table back home. On top of it all, the awful, awful burnt-cake smell of rotting pigeons. He gave the dog’s floppy ears a gentle tug and dispatched a treat from his front pocket. “Good boy. Good boy!” With that, Trane lead Proto out through the black wrought iron gate, past the brightly colored dog statue, towards safety, towards home.
There are those who believe that a crowded, noisy city is no place for a dog. But to see our four-legged friend prancing down E. 23rd Street, tail perked, nose pressed to the sidewalk, would be to prove such a thesis wrong. Urine, ubiquitous, but never unwelcome filled his nostrils with its heady aroma. Oil and grit whoofed up through the subway grates. And emanating from the side of that green iron trash receptacle, the sweet perfume of Hubba Bubba. Oh and over there, pizza crust, salty and dry as bone, ripe for the tasting if only he could get a little closer. To say nothing of the wonderful, wonderful rotting pigeons. No, if Proto had any complaint about his life it would be that it was all too much for one dog to inhale! And if you were able to ask him whether he wouldn’t prefer a suburban backyard, or a grassy meadow, or a farm upon which he could chase sheep, he might look at you with utter bafflement and say, “I have no knowledge of such things, nor do I have any need of them. My life is perfect just as it is.” And it was true. Proto had adapted to the undogly circumstances of his existence as only a dog could. He took leisurely afternoon naps in his down feather dog bed, preferred his all-natural, weight-control dog chow to the leading supermarket brands. He happily heeled when asked, such as in front of the building doorman, and greeted his two masters with no lack of gratefulness for the life they had provided him—as he did when they arrived home on that ill-fated day to find El in the long, narrow kitchen, boiling water for tea.
Proto’s paws clacked against the parquet floors, leash jingling behind him, as he bounded towards her. She squatted down to pat his head. He pressed his paws to her shoulders and licked her freckled face and then her dusty loafers, whipping his tail from side to side.
“You’ve come from the dog park and you just ate,” she said, unhooking the dog’s leash.
“Am I that predictable?” asked Trane, amused.
“Well you got no sleep on the plane and you’re in desperate need of a shower.”
She laughed. Her thick, red hair was all askew and her face looked drawn and pale.
“Seriously, how was it?” he asked.
She stood, her face suddenly solemn. “Worst than India. You remember, last October.”
“Really? It wasn’t even in the top half of the news.”
“I’m not surprised.” She dipped a tea bag into a mug and poured the steaming water. Proto lifted his nose to the air. Lavender.
“I can’t even comfort them any more. I mean, most of them had already lost half their family to war or disease. Watching them pull their relatives, their neighbors from the rubble, I could swear they were actually jealous of the dead. And if I’m honest, I have to say I don’t blame them.”
As he opened the refrigerator door to retrieve the milk, Trane straightened a photograph. He’d always intended to frame it. Instead, it had remained, pinned beneath the Emergency Numbers magnet, for nearly five years. In the snapshot, El stands erect, beaming. Her pale skin flushed to match the deep red of her hair. She’d just gotten her master’s in counseling from NYU and landed the Red Cross job. Trane, who would soon earn tenure from the community college where he taught chemistry, squats uncomfortably beside the puppy. He could still recall the black, cropped hair of the volunteer at the pound who’d taken it and how the place had smelled of wet dog fur and orange-scented cleaner, the way the bright fluorescent lights reflected against the smooth, polished floors.
They hadn’t planned on taking home a dog that day. It was just an idea they were toying with. Although approaching middle age and comfortable in their marriage of seven years, husband and wife had not managed to add to their ranks. Neither of them had been particularly drawn to the task to begin with, and with each passing year their lives seemed less flexible and the world which would receive this new life far less stable. Besides how would they afford a bigger apartment? And what of El’s frequent trips overseas? Still, once Trane had undergone the procedure, the finality of their choice weighed heavily on them. If not a child, then what? Would their remaining days really just be filled with more of the same? In those sad brown eyes, the ripples of bone beneath the dark chocolate fur, they’d spotted a glimmer of redemption, a purpose. That Proto had been found in a garbage bag in Queens, nearly suffocated by his own littermates, sealed the deal.
Trane handed El the carton and closed the door.
“Sounds like a bad one,” he said.
“Yeah. I know. Goes with the job, I guess.”
She feigned a smile and he noted that the lines around her eyes had deepened significantly since the picture was taken. Wiry gray strands had started to grow among her thick auburn locks, and a thick fold of flesh had formed around her waist, reminding Trane of a muffin top. Trane, whose own tall, slender body and Mediterranean skin had proven far more resistant to the effects of age and bad eating habits, took the milk from her hand and set it on the counter, pulling her to him. Her head still fit perfectly beneath his chin. “Put it behind you. You’re home now,” he said. And he meant it. Whatever troubles were brewing in that vast world beyond them, as long as they could come home and shut the door they would be fine. Proto, sensing his opportunity, slunk off to the couple’s bedroom to bury his nose deeply into El’s open suitcase, which bore the faintest whiff of death.
At first, Danielle’s demise, coming a brisk three weeks after the pigeon incident at the dog park, was a mystery. The newspaper article, which Trane only noticed because he’d used the local section to wrap up a pigeon who’d expired on his balcony, simply noted that the cause of death was still under investigation. But by mid October, it was front-page fodder. News of similarly strange and sudden deaths trickled out of Harlem Hospital, Mt. Sinai, NYU Medical, and St. Vincents. The victims had all been different ages, different races, but shared same damning pathology. First a painful sore throat, lasting for one or two days, followed by flu-like symptoms (aches, chills, fever, and a cough). It was an astonishingly short trip from what seemed like your typical summer flu to organ failure and death. Children and the elderly succumbed within a week. Healthy adults had, it seemed, only a slim chance of beating it.
After interviewing friends, coworkers, and relatives of the less fortunate, investigators finally turned up a common thread: all the victims had dogs and all their dogs had all recently been treated for fleas, leading to the speculation that the canines had become vectors in yet the latest zoonotic infection to strike the planet.
Trane was furious. “But honey, don’t you see it? They’re scapegoating dogs,” he said, as the couple stood on their rooftop where they’d brought Proto to play since the dog parks had been closed. They now checked the hallways before going out and used the service elevator to avoid crossing paths with their neighbors, who’d already tried to have several dogs in the building evicted. Twenty stories above the street, the air was cool and clean. The autumn moon looked like it had been scooped out of the sky with a melon baller. The pigeons were mostly gone then, eradication having thinned their ranks substantially, though occasionally one still might see a flush of feathers swirling in the wind or collecting in a subway grate.
“The worst thing is it’s just been, what, 100, 200 people. A drop in the bucket and yet everyone’s got their germ masks on like it’s a freaking epidemic!” Trane said, a cloud of cold air appearing in front of his mouth as he spoke. He flung a pink bunny plush toy to the other side of the roof. Proto went barreling after it, kicking up a flurry of gravel behind him.
“I know, sweetie, but they’re just being cautious. It’s inconvenient, but what’s the harm? Besides, it’s probably not the dogs but the fleas. That’s what the editorial in the Times said, anyway.”
“What’s the harm? Come on, El, don’t play dumb. First pigeons. Mark my word, dogs are next,” he said, picking up the slobbery bunny from where Proto had dropped it and flinging it again.
“If I remember correctly, you were all for getting rid of the pigeons,” she said, folding her arms in front of her and giving them a vigorous rub.
“I’m still for offing the pigeons. Pigeons are a menace. I was simply making the comparison, pointing to it. They’re talking about dogs as if they were nothing more than feathery rats. A few dozen dead people out of how many millions. Who cares, when you get right down to it?”
El blew into her hands. “Jesus, it’s cold.” Proto dropped the bunny at her feet and she tossed it for him again before she continued in a slow and deliberate tone. “But let’s just say the dogs are to blame, for making people sick, killing them, actually. Surely you would agree that something should be done.“
“Why would dogs be to blame? They’re dogs! Look at Proto. Harmless as a flower. The whole thing is ridiculous.”
“I’m just saying—“
Growling furiously, Proto tore open the bunny with his great, slobbery jaws releasing white fluffy tufts to dance in the breeze. Trane laughed as did El. She reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze.
“Do you remember what you told me when we first took him home?” she asked.
“You said society would be judged by how it treated its weakest members, animals.”
“I still feel that way.”
“Don’t you think Proto’s had it pretty good? I mean, doggie day care twice a week, organic biscuits, knitted sweaters from Aunt Jody, monthly trips to the groomers. Do you think a society gives it’s pets all that would turn around and just dispose of them?”
“I hope you’re right, El. I really do.” He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.
Taking the toy in his jaws, Proto gave the bunny husk one last shake before spitting it out and walking towards the exit. If he could speak, he might have said, “This bunny is fun to tear open. The sensation of its fibers giving way between my teeth is pleasant indeed, but it provides no nourishment, no sustenance. It is as empty as my belly. Play time is over. Now give me some meat.”
They studied the evidence and drew conclusions. Based on these, they issued a proclamation: dog owners around the city were required to bring in their pets to be tested for antibodies. The dogs would need to be quarantined until the results came back. The human death count had reached 700.
It was El’s turn to get incensed. From the dining table, where she’d been reading email on her laptop, she burst out, “Idiots! Unbelievable idiots. Do they really think people are going to bring in their beloved pets knowing there’s a chance they might not get them back? I’d really love to have a word with the communications genius in city hall who came up with that persuasive approach.”
“What?” Trane was reclining on the sofa, a scant five feet from the dining table, with Proto sprawled on top of him watching the news. An earthquake in San Francisco had dislodged some levies along the Sacramento Delta and it appeared a quarter of Southern California might be without water for weeks.
“Nothing. The city’s run by monkeys who don’t understand the basics of human behavior in a crisis.”
She looked up from her paper and stared pointedly at the back of Trane’s head.
“Look, when can you take Proto in for testing?”
“Absolutely not,” Trane shot back. The sharpness in his tone caused the dog, who had up until then been snoring contentedly with his head in Trane’s lap, to look up, blinking his bleary eyes. He whipped his head back to snap at his haunches and then, with a long almost human sigh, settled back down.
“This is serious, Trane. Look, I know you love Proto. I love him, too, but if there’s even a chance he could be a vector. I’m certainly not ready to die, alright?”
“You won’t. Don’t worry.”
“Trane,” she said, her voice pitching into the upper treble clef.
Trane carefully lifted the dog’s head from his lap, scootched himself out from underneath it, and gently set it back down onto the warm fabric of the couch. Standing hands-to-hips across the table from where El sat, he said, “Look, El, I may not have spent much time in Burundi or wherever, but I’ve watched enough news in my 46 years to know what they do in cases like these. It doesn’t matter if the dog is healthy or sick. Just as with the chickens, the cows, the pigs, England, Asia, California, Canada, Mexico, Peru. Every time something like this happens they round up the probable cause and slaughter them at once. Already—listen, this is from a very reputable source—they’ve stopped neutering in Asia and Europe to re-supply the U.S. with dogs.”
“Oh Trane, that’s utter conspiracy nonsense and you know it.”
She folded her laptop closed, opened it, then folded it again.
“If you’re so hot on the idea, why don’t you take him in,” Trane bellowed.
“Trane, you goddamn know why I can’t. I have to be in New Palestine in two days and I have a thousand things to take care of before then.”
Proto attempted to bury his head under a sofa cushion. If he could have spoken, he might have said, “Humans, beloved friends, do not fight! And do not fear for me, either. For I am a dog and while I know of both love and fear, I do not meditate upon either. It has been enough for me to serve your kind. Even if my life were to be cut short tomorrow, I would not hold it against you. Compared to the life I might have lived in the wild or on the streets, my days as your helper and companion have been dog heaven on earth and I would not trade a single one of them for a few extra dog years.”
But, of course, Proto said nothing. Instead, he rolled off the sofa and walked over to the door, which he began to scratch with his paw while whining.
“Poor thing,” El said. “He’s miserable. Stuck inside all day. Can’t go to the park, can’t play with his friends. It’s no way to treat a dog. You’re just being selfish.”
Trane glared at her.
She paused a moment to collect herself, then said, “Look, they’ll test him, it’ll be fine, and soon, hopefully, things will return to normal around here.”
“Fine. I’ll take him in after class on Friday. Big Brother can have its blood. Happy?”
El, rubbing her temples, replied, “I just don’t understand why it has to be so hard, Trane. I just don’t get it, when you and I both know this is just the way things are right now.”
Trane walked to the window and stared out. So many lights floating in the darkness, so many cars zipping up and down the street below. All he wanted was his wife, not the frazzled woman with bags under her eyes who could barely sleep through the night, but the younger, sensual woman he’d first met who loved nothing more than hot steamy baths, long naps, waking up in the middle of the night to make love, and indulging in copious amounts of wine, cheese, and chocolate. But that was 14 years ago. So much had changed since they’d met and fallen in love. Polar ice caps had melted. Wars in the Middle East and Africa and Southeast Asia had outlasted any hope for true peace. Massive slum cities in South America were nothing more than breeding grounds for new super diseases and burial grounds every time there was an epidemic, an earthquake, or a flood. And it was always El, El, El to the rescue. Off to save other people’s lives instead of enjoying the one she had, putting other people’s problems ahead of her own. And didn’t her callous stance towards Proto just prove her indifference to the life they shared! Well, as far as Trane was concerned, she was one of them now, clearly jaded to the point of no longer thinking or acting from her heart.
As it turned out, he was right, about not taking Proto in, that is. Just two weeks after Thanksgiving, they started killing dogs.
Trane turned on the evening news and immediately had to sit down. “Proto! Come here,” he called to the dog who pranced over and leapt onto the couch. Trane laid down and pulled the dog alongside him. Spooning like high school lovers, they watched together in horror as New York City’s dogs arrived by the truckload at killing facilities in New Jersey, poodles, mutts, greyhounds, Maltese, Doberman, Dachshunds, Schipperkes, German Shepards, Golden Retrievers, on and on, barking, nipping, humping, wagging, leaping, whimpering, as they were crammed into pens meant for pigs. Every few minutes a dozen or so would be released into a smaller pen and herded onto a conveyor belt which would carry them up and away to their gruesome, ignoble deaths.
“Kev, I never thought I’d live to see something like this,” the shapely blonde on the scene was saying.
“Kells, can you tell us all how, exactly, are they exterminating these dogs.”
“Kev, that’s a very good question! They’re using gas. It’s completely painless. The dogs simply go to sleep.”
“That’s got to provide some comfort to the folks out there who’ve lost their pets today.”
“Definitely, Kev. Definitely,” she said.
As Kells went on talking about how White Castle had donated thousands of beef patties for the dogs to enjoy before their deaths, the screen filled with stiff-legged dog corpses being shot from a tall silver conveyor belt into a massive pit some twenty feet below.
“—and they’ll be set on fire to ensure that none of the germs or fleas is able to escape and further threaten America’s health and future. Back to you, Kev,” she finished. At that, Trane could take no more and hit mute.
How could this be happening? This couldn’t really be happening. Could it? They were killing dogs. They were doing it, this very thing, right outside Trane’s living room window. If he opened it, he might smell the singed fur and bubbling flesh of canines carried across the water from Jersey.
“Oh, Proto, Proto, Proto, Proto, Proto,” Trane wailed, squeezing the dog to him. “I won’t let them do it to you, boy. I won’t.”
If only El was there, she would know what to do. In the weeks since El had left, opting to stay abroad rather than come home, things had fallen apart in the apartment. Trane had not brought in Proto to be tested as he’d promised, but had sent a letter to the city saying that Proto had been struck and killed by a cab several months before. It would take months before the overwhelmed bureaucrats there would have time to verify the claim. He’d muzzled the dog to keep him quiet and locked him in the bathroom while he was at work so that the neighbors couldn’t hear his whining and scratching. He could no longer buy dog food, obviously, so the two had been sharing meals, many of which did not set well with Proto’s digestive system. He couldn’t risk even going up to the roof anymore. The poor dog was forced to shit and piss on the floor and for all the newspapers and spray cleaner, Trane had failed to quell the growing stench. It was just a matter of time.
The mayor was talking on the TV. Trane turned up the volume. Proto perked his ears and wagged his tail. “We understand that you want to protect your pets, but in doing so you are putting the health of humanity at jeopardy. Turn yourself in and you will not be prosecuted. I repeat, you will not be prosecuted. Fail to do so, and you will be charged and tried. The punishment will be severe.”
He turned it off and stared at the dark hole as the sky filled with night. His neighbor’s laughter in the hallway burst through the door like a sudden gust of wind. Trane gasped. He’d once angrily asked them to turn down their music and to stop taking showers in the middle of the night. If only for revenge they would report him for keeping Proto. He went to the window and saw the mobile unit, still parked on the street, a toy-sized man in white full-body germ shield marching a toy-sized dog into the back of the van. Why hadn’t he fled to his sister’s in Connecticut while there was still time? There was no way could he smuggle out Proto now. Proto lifted his head and began licking his penis with loud, slurping sounds, causing Trane to laugh. And that tiny laughter, a barely audible chuckle to be precise, sent a tiny vibration spiraling down through his core that grew and grew into trembling. Thoughts, feelings, fears, emotions, everything he held close seemed to shake free and fall like ripe fruit from a tree branch, in all directions. “Fuck!” he yelled, over and over. “Fuck!” pounding his two fists into the walls while Proto backed solemnly into a corner. When that wave passed, he sat at his desk and with a pencil and paper mapping out various lines of escape, but all were crawling with obstacles so he crumpled the paper and hurled it across the room, sending Proto charging after it.
Was it worth it to throw away his perfectly decent life for the mere possibility of saving a dog? He stood, twisting the drawstrings of his pajama pants in his hands. “Fuck!” If he could only focus, he could figure it out, but why had he waited until it had come to this? He had known this would happen, predicted it all along, but now he saw that he hadn’t really believed. Cows, chickens, pigs, tree frogs, pigeons had all had their turns. And god knows El had seen plenty of humans mowed down because someone saw them as diseased—fundamentally different from killing birds, of course, but wasn’t the rationale the same? Now came the dog’s turn. And this Trane felt was also different from pigs or pigeons, though he couldn’t articulate why it was so. There was no definitive evidence that dogs possessed souls, but Trane believed they did and this faith in dog’s uniqueness and his irrational belief that civilized humans would ultimately defer to that ineffable quality was the reason he’d remained unconvinced this would truly happen. He was his own dupe and now it was Proto who would have to pay the price for his foolhardy inaction.
He poured himself a whiskey with ice cubes. He made a sandwich for himself and placed cut-up bits of pressed turkey and wheat bread in a bowl for Proto. He rolled and lit a joint and as he smoked it paced around the room, picking up a stack of junk mail and putting it in the recycling bin, turning the cushions on the sofa. Mugs, mugs, and more mugs—into the kitchen they went. He brewed some coffee. He washed and dried every dish. He looked and looked, but could not find the mop so he got on his hands and knees and scrubbed every floorboard, sliding furniture out of the way. Proto, curious, stood or sat beside him the entire time, occasionally cold-nosing him into taking a break. Proto, too, got a warm, sudsy bath “scented with a hint of eucalyptus oil to repel fleas,” according to the packaging. The dog seemed to like it, snapping at the bubbles and pressing his nose to his fur to inhale deeply. Trane showered and put the whiskey in his coffee this time and scrambled eggs for himself and the dog. He tried to reach El on her international phone, but she didn’t answer so he left her a message.
After locking Proto in the gleaming bathroom, Trane headed out for one last errand. It was clear and sunny outside, but bitterly cold. He tried hard to avoid locking eyes with anyone he passed on the street. Were there others like him? Did they have a secret handshake? Were they working together to escort their dogs out of the city through the sewers or in trucks as carefully disguised rubbish? Even if they were out there, he was alone, completely disconnected, his wife on a plane somewhere above the plane. His friends would probably turn him in. No one could help him out of this stupid mess. Dog flu was all around, at home, on the TV, the trucks parked on his street. Passing conversations. Pressing in, smothering, demanding to be reckoned with.
When he got home from the pharmacy and corner store, however, he collapsed onto his bed and fell into a deep sleep.
The knocking started softly, a quiet, muffled tapping that made its way into his dream, growing louder, more insistent, unmistakably real. Pale, bright afternoon light filtered in through the blinds. Trane, still dressed in his t-shirt and jeans, leapt from the bed, heart racing, and shook his bedmate awake. “Come on, Proto. They’re here. Come on, boy. This is it.”
He pushed the dog into the bathroom just as the knocking subsided. They were probably seeking out the doorman. There wasn’t much time. He set the dog into the bathtub, hands trembling, tears streaming down his face as he tore open the package containing the syringe. A key sounded in the latch. “I’m sorry, boy. I don’t want to do it like this, but you gotta believe me, it’s for the best.” Proto wagged his tail and gently licked the warm, salty tears from Trane’s face.
A familiar voice at the head of the hallway. “Trane? Hello?”
“Shit.” Trane set down his weapon and walked into the hallway.
“Oh, there you are. I had to dig around for my keys,” El said. She looked worse than usual. Huge dark circles lined her eyes, which were bloodshot and puffy.
“I almost killed the dog just now.” Proto joined him in the hallway.
El looked stunned, then rushed over the shut the door.
Proto walked over to her, but rather than jump up and lick her, he simply lay down at her feet and rested his chin on two folded paws. She squatted down to pet him, speaking in an urgent whisper. “Your message said that the dog was dead. All the way home on the plane I was a fucking wreck.”
“I’m sorry. I was going to do it before you got home.”
“Why, Trane? Why would you do this to me?”
“I cleaned the house for you.”
“Trane, stop bullshitting me. What the hell is going on?”
“I kept him here. I know it was crazy, but I couldn’t let them take him. I couldn’t let them do it.”
El closed her eyes and let out a deep breath. “Oh thank god.”
“Really?” he asked, peeking through his fingers.
“I saw the news on the plane. You were right, Trane. They’re butchers. They’re absolute butchers.”
“I’m so sorry, El. I thought I could outlast it, or somehow get out of town, but I just don’t have the stomach for it. I’m a coward.”
She rushed over to him and held him. “You’re not, baby. You’ve had to bear this whole thing by yourself. I’m the one who should be sorry for leaving you at such a time.”
“I didn’t want you to have to deal with it. I fucked up, El.”
“It’s better this way, together.”
They talked well into the afternoon, like old friends catching up after a long absence, then El went to the bedroom to unpack. Proto slept and moped about, while Trane distracted himself with a new computer game.
As they prepared dinner together, Trane said to El, “Look. It’s all set up. We can administer it any time.”
“It doesn’t have to be tonight. Soon, I think, but not tonight.”
The three ate turkey burgers in silence and when they had finished, Proto walked over to his bed and fell asleep. Trane and El lay down on either side of him, her head touching the dog’s back and his nudging up against the dog’s full stomach. As they slept, the dog snored and sighed contentedly between them, farting only occasionally.
They reviewed all the factors, considered all the possible alternatives, and agreed, all things considered, that it had been the right thing to do. The dog flu epidemic raged on for four more months, spreading not just from dog to person but in a few rare cases person to person as well, ultimately leaving nearly 2000 dead. Throughout that time, the city continued rounding up dogs and taking them to the killing factories while placing their renegade owners in quarantine with the other exposed, potentially a death sentence in its own right. Every now and then, El and Trane would go outside, faces masked, hand-in-gloved-hand, only to find the splattered remains of some poor dog, dropped from a window or rooftop in the dead of night by owners whose resolve had lasted much longer than their own. They were glad they hadn’t resorted to such brutality. They had at least done it humanely. If you were to ask Proto if he had any complaints about the manner and timing of his death, he undoubtedly would have shook his head. It is a dog’s nature to forgive.
For a time, Trane and El would be going through the motions of their lives when, without warning, they would find themselves caught in a cool, empty feeling that often brought tears or moments of strange crisp clarity or the feeling of being awake in a dream. But it is also true that this particular type of pain subsides relatively quickly. In time, days and weeks and months would pass without thought or mention of the dog.
Still, Trane wishes he could forget how the skin gave way with a snap as he pressed the syringe in, his thumb too heavy, too fast on the release; no way to stop, to take it back. Proto had slumped onto his belly and looked up at them with the same pitiful expression he used when he’d been scolded for hovering about the dining table. He licked his paws, looked up again, then closed his eyes and sighed heavily. With tears streaming down their faces, Trane and El whispered words of encouragement. “It’s OK, boy. Everything is going to be OK.” El kissed Proto’s head, pulled lightly on his ears, and touched his nose. Trane ran his hands down the length of the dog’s softly breathing back. “That’s right. Go to sleep. Good dog. Good Proto.”▪
“Is she dead?”
“No. See? Breathing.”
“Oh my gosh, it’s Mrs. Askew! Hey, Mrs. Askew, it’s Cynthia. Wake up.”
“One of yours?”
“Yeah, but it’s Tuesday. She comes on Fridays.”
“She seemed confused.”
The tile feels wonderfully cool pressed against her cheek. Nobody will mind if I lie down a little while, she tells herself. Just another minute and I’ll be up and on my way.
“You just stay there, Mrs. Askew. Everything is going to be OK.”
Oh that’s nice. How nice everybody is.
“Poor thing. She’s got Sandra’s wet hair all over her.”
“Maybe she thought it was Friday.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Oh look, she’s opening her eyes. Mrs. Askew?”
What she sees are three pairs of blurry white sneakers in a row, all pointed towards her. Something is terribly wrong. Where is she? Her lips tremble and her eyes grow wide and fill with tears, like a child waking up from a bad dream.
She does not remember getting up that morning, eating two poached eggs and a piece of toast topped with salt, butter, and apricot jam or leaving the evidence of this meal in her sink. She has no memory at all of getting into her car, turning the key in the ignition, and running over her own flowerbed as she backed out of the driveway. She vaguely recalls parking in front of The Mane Attraction at the Vermont Street shopping plaza and flipping off the young mother with the shopping cart whom in fact she had nearly run over. She does remember the towering ambulance man, the one with the dark hair and blue eyes, who hoisted her onto a gurney and assured her she was going to be just fine. So handsome and strong! I must bring him a chrysanthemum from my garden, she thinks.
Of course, she can picture her kitchen perfectly. Mid-morning light, pale and flat, streams through yellow lace curtains onto dishes drying in a rack. White water stains dot the pink ceramic tiles. The morning paper sits neatly folded on the white round table surrounded by swiveling wicker chairs, catalogs and bills stacked on the built-in hutch behind it. Although—now here’s a rub—strain as she might to conjure the memory, not a single conversation rises up from those chairs, no scents of meat waft from the electric range. It empty and silent as a discarded photograph.
The doctor and nurses have stuck needles in her skin and shined lights into her blue-gray eyes. They have placed her upon a steel table and wheeled her into a clicking, moaning casket. Now the doctor is saying that it’s all very simple. Not uncommon in the least. A chunk of matter, very small, had loosened itself from one of Mrs. Askew’s carotid arteries, traveled up to her brain, and got itself stuck up there, cutting off the blood supply to a slight but important region. On the MRI printout, which her daughter Sarah can keep, the damage appears as two, fat slugs, each inhabiting a side along the center of Mrs. Askew’s brain.
“Mom, please keep your hospital gown on!” the girl cries.
“It’s not time to go yet, Mrs. Askew,” the doctor says, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder and pulling the plasticy paper back over her chest.
He talks and talks but what she hears is “cholesterol.” From food? she wonders. Could she trace the matter back to one of her weekly waffle breakfasts at Max’s, the second celebratory hot dog slathered in mayonnaise she gulped down that time the Dodgers made it to the Series, or the huge steak dinner greedily, guiltily consumed at Morton’s when Sarah graduated from UCLA? Surely she can pinpoint the precise culprit in this, her most recent stumble towards the finish line. She frowns, imagining a stack of waffles glistening with butter and syrup.
“Alcohol,” he says.
Mrs. Askew’s ears perk up. Already? She’d like a vodka gimlet, though a martini would be just as lovely and probably more appropriate given the early hour. It’s always a good time for a martini is a favorite thing of hers to say.
“It’s a real killer. From what you’ve told me, sounds like it was probably a major factor if not the factor.”
This does not bode well.
“You would like that,” Mrs. Askew snarls at her only daughter, who is barely concealing her smile.
Mrs. Askew stands in the middle of her room, suddenly lost. She recognizes the room as the den of her daughter’s house and the chandelier lamp and green vinyl sofa bed as her own, but how and when they arrived her escapes her. Am I visiting? How long have I been here?
The scent of toast and coffee waft through the door as Sarah enters with the breakfast tray. Children's voices drift in and out from some faraway room.
“Hi mom! How’d you sleep?” Sarah chirps, setting the tray down in its TV stand.
“Just fine, thank you, Sarah. Just fine.” Mrs. Askew clasps her hands. She can’t suppress the quivering at the back of her throat.
“Super. Right back with juice.” She spins around and heads out.
“Oh thank you. That would be lovely.”
Mrs. Askew scrutinizes the pale blue buttons of her flannel nightgown. Where is my suitcase? She peeks, but the closet contains only coats and boxes and a folded-up ping-pong table. Inside the armoire she finds a TV. She pulls open its top drawer. Sweaters. Hers. Finally. That pink one with the sequin butterfly is especially nice, though it still bears the lingering scent of her perfume, as though she’d only taken it off yesterday.
Sarah returns, setting the juice down on the plastic TV tray next to the food.
“What’s today? What time is it?” Mrs. Askew asks.
“Sheesh. I just told you what time it was. And here’s your clock. See?” Sarah presses a red button on top and a monotone male voice says, "The time is 7:35 AM and 32 seconds."
“Of course, of course.”
She sits on the couch, staring at her breakfast. Now that she thinks about it, the Barcelona chair in the corner also once belonged to her. And why would her lamp be set here on the side table when it had spent 15 good years at her bedside. And this green couch, which folded out so conveniently into a bed—who had moved it from her living room in Los Feliz all the way out to Anaheim? What’s become of the rest of her things? Her three-bedroom ranch-style home off of Sunset?
I hate this rotten place, she thinks. All stucco and no charm.
“An old lady deserves a little afternoon drinky, doesn’t she?”
This latest nurse, Monica, looks to be stubborn as a mule, and with her linebacker shoulders and husky physique, she is built like one, too. But at least her English sounds good enough to read the crossword puzzle aloud.
“You know I’m not allowed to give you any,” she says, folding her arms and cocking her hips.
“Don’t treat me like child.”
If you like, I can pour you your glass of wine now instead of with dinner.”
Mrs. Askew glares at her from the couch.
“Ice cubes and water with a dash of sherry. This is what I get for living 65 years, giving birth to a daughter, for working my fingers to the bone at USAA after my husband went and died.”
“Your family just doesn’t want you to get any worse, Mrs. Askew. It's for your own good.”
“Do you know how he died? An explosion at the plant. I was having lunch with my sisters and I saw the smoke and I knew.”
“Yes, that’s a very sad story, Mrs. Askew.” Monica picks up a Reader’s Digest and thumbs through the pages.
“He was lucky, luckier than me.”
“As you’ve mentioned. You are feeling pretty hot today, Mrs. Askew. I’ll let the doctor know and maybe he’ll let you drink.”
“Puta,” Mrs. Askew mutters.
“Speak a little Spanish, do we?”
“You’re all a bunch of criminals to treat an old lady this way. I was a good woman. All my life, everything I went through, I never complained.”
Mrs. Askew marches over to the phone and lurches for the receiver, only to find it has been outfitted with some sort of locking device that makes it impossible to lift. She gives the phone a weak shake then starts to cry.
“You all want me dead. You’re just trying to kill me.”
“Of course we aren’t. Come sit down. Calm down,” Monica pleads, all the while folding an empty glass tumbler into the old woman’s hands. “Hold on.” She disappears deep into the closet and shuffles some boxes. As she pours, she whispers: “Fast, before your daughter gets home. We’re going to scrub those teeth, too. If you get me fired, you won’t get to drink.”
Mrs. Askew does not have to remember drinking. The warm, happy feeling carries her all the way through the peaceful night.
“Lie on your mat with your blanket under your head. Good. Now slowly glide you hands above your head—arms straight—like you’re making an angel in the snow. Very good.”
The salty-sweet sweat of the previous yogis rises up from the sticky mat, causing Mrs. Askew to retch.
When the teacher comes over to see what’s wrong, Mrs. Askew asks, “What day is it?”
“It’s Tuesday, of course, your recreation center day!”
She was the perky, flakey type. Husband-snatchers, as Mrs. Askew liked to call them. She hisses at the blonde woman in sweatpants and a clingy long-sleeved t-shirt, who just frowns at her and says loud enough for the whole class to hear: “Now if this is uncomfortable, you can always just put your arms to your sides and just grasp and release your hands for three breaths. One. Two. Three. Okay! Good. Release.”
In "clay play" later that day, it is a middle aged man who orders them to “take a lump of clay, not too big, right, from the large stained basin and bring it to a wheel. Use the right pedal to go faster or slower and the left pedal if you need to stop. Don’t worry about making something perfect! The idea is just to have fun.”
Mrs. Askew glances around her to see how others are managing before she begins. Two women, one in a purple sweater and the other in red, sit in front of her hip to hip. Know it alls. The wet, brown lumps shimmy upwards and out of their spotted hands. To Mrs. Askew’s left, a bald man in a white, short-sleeved shirt giggles as piece after piece leaps from his wheel onto the floor.
This is ridiculous. I’ve never touched clay in my entire life.
“Wooot!” says the inept sculptor man as another clump wriggles out from between his hands like a captured bird. Already the women in front of her have produced an Etruscan vase and bowl.
Fuck you, she thinks, chuckling aloud at the forbidden word. Fuck you. Why not? She can say anything now. Nobody will care. “Fuck,” she mutters as she settles into her seat. She inserts her thumbs into the thick, brown glob and presses down heavily on the pedal.
She feels a hand on her shoulder. “Hmmm. That’s alright, Mrs. Askew. Try again,” he says and places another blob onto her wheel.
“Fuck you,” she says, but he has already walked away.
The clay is cold and pliant, yet still firm. It is wet and slides between the thin, blue skin of her hands. The clay smells like dirt and she feels herself carried back to her beautiful garden, the roses, the chrysanthemums; lilies were her favorite. The clay tastes dark and earthy like beets. It feels wet and prickly in her mouth, like a cat’s lick, but quickly dissolves into gooey paste. A voice coming from outside yet inside her own head announces, “This his what you taste like, Mrs. Askew.” She smiles and nods and flattens it against her tongue. She squeezes it through the thin, slick byways that wrap between her teeth and lips. She felts its coldness as a small piece of it slithers down her throat. She presses the clay, softened by her spittle, through the thin cracks between her teeth. And then she put some more in her mouth.
The teacher, flushed and wide-eyed, is rushing towards her. “Stop! Stop!” Mrs. Askew feels warm, very warm, like if she doesn’t grab her remaining clay and throw it with all her might this heat my not be released, it might burn her alive in this very room.
She does not recall throwing the clay none the less hitting the brittle Mr. Sanders in the back, or how he crumpled and fell, or how two weeks later he died of pneumonia stemming from his freshly broken hip. But when her daughter recites these facts, Mrs. Askew smiles. Never in all her life has she killed a man, although several times she has wanted to. And now, just when everybody thinks her life is over, she proves them wrong. I can kill! I’m alive. What a funny little thing it was.
Mrs. Askew is awoken in the dead of night by a hailstorm. The sliding glass door glows and rattles just beyond the silver, barred headboard. Inside her chest, she can feel the cumulative roar of all the hailstones combined. “Help,” she tries to say. “Help me!” But no sound departs from her moving lips. She claws her hands and pedals her feet as turtles tipped on their shells do.
When the storm subsides, she is finally able to rise and peer through the curtains. She does not recognize the brightly lit courtyard around which wrap other curtained glass doors like her own. She runs her hand along the wall in search of a light switch and finally lands upon a familiar lampshade. It is not a room she remembers, although in the dim light she can make out her two grandchildren in the silver frame and her initials embroidered onto the folded handkerchief beside it. The cold floors are linoleum, not carpet like at Sarah’s place. There’s a strange smell in the air, like an open bottle of aspirin.
She lies back down and forces her eyes closed, but instead of dreams come memories. Not where she was or why she was there, but isolated incidents from long ago: her first time out after he died, she drank pina coladas at Trader Vic’s with her sisters; reading “Valley of the Dolls” cover to cover one afternoon at the Santa Monica pier; driving a red convertible along Maui’s coastline; the suit she wore to Roger’s funeral and how the drycleaner had lost it and paid her $40 for the trouble. The future never really existed, had it? It had been a figment of her imagination all along. As for the past, her grasp on it feels strangely loose and raw. What color was her wedding dress? Surely it wasn’t canary yellow. And Sarah’s birthday was in the June, but what day? And why had Edna been so angry with her that last Christmas?
And still they come fluttering in, an accelerating reel. “But I’m not dead yet,” she says to the faces and the names, to the dates remembered and the details forgotten, the fading colors, the missing sounds and smells. “Leave me alone. I’m not dead yet.” A soft, sad mantra. The porch lamp fills each raindrop with light as it glides down the glass door just a foot from her head.▪
WE ARE REMEMBERED TOO
Shhhh. Listen. Can you hear them? The cicadas are back. After seventeen years underground, they’ve hoisted themselves out of small, raised shoots, shimmied up tree trunks, and emerged soft, milky pale, and red-eyed from the husk of their youthful skin. Now, a faint and distant sound, the scraping of a tree branch against a window. Tomorrow a screeching chorus to fill every silent corner of day, of night. And things long forgotten will be remembered once more.
Staring blankly at the rusty bug-shaped husks skittering down the sidewalk, Gordon Davies will suddenly recall where he’d hidden an angry letter, thankfully never sent, back in the days when thick woods grew just past the edge of town and young people played unsupervised on Westhill’s residential streets. Evening out the tiny holes in her yard with a sweep of her hand, Karen Bates will strike the metallic corner of a box bearing the toys and letters of some long-grown child. In the hardware store, where she’d gone (let’s face it) to purchase bug poison, Lillian Major will blurt out a family secret she’d kept for years, to a checker she’d never met no less. Ed Markum will discover a one hundred dollar bill hidden in the cushions of his couch. There are more stories like this than even we can tell. It is always this way when the cicadas return.
As more and more of them flex and contract their tymbals, memories from the past will blow in from the night. Thrusting cotton balls into her ears and folding a pillow over her head, Elaine Johnson will feel a cold, familiar uneasiness spread from the pit of her stomach. Just like the last time the cicadas were here. Her neighbor’s daughter, kidnapped. She hadn’t heard a thing. Sitting on her front porch, a tepid glass of lemonade at her side, Mrs. Esquivel will slip into a daydream about the girls who didn’t return to school after that fateful summer seventeen years before. Is it all coming back to you now, Helen Wolf? You were luckier than us, smarter some say. How cautiously you walk from the strip mall through the parking lot. Such erect posture and watchful eyes. Keys poking out from the cracks in your fist. Oh yes, you remember. You remember us.
The girls in the photographs! You know the ones. Five grainy, blown-out snapshots, hastily torn from their frames. For a time we were everywhere: newspapers, bulletin boards, electric poles, television. Note the haughty tilt of our jaw, but also the uncertainty in our eyes. Nothing in our lazy smiles, our cocked hips, our crossed arms, giving any indication that we suspected what would come. If only we’d known that those snapshots would define us, would be us, for so many weeks. We would have applied our blush with a tad more modesty, worn the more flattering shade of blue eye shadow, and outlined our lips to better hold the color. Yes, we might have done our hair with more of a mind to the future, less frizzy and styled here, less haphazardly tied back into shapeless ponytails there. Most assuredly we would have leaned our best sides closer to the camera and insisted on softer lighting, a more pleasing setting. The veranda in Franklin Park would have been nice, or the fountain on the corner of Parker and Main. If only fate had hissed in our ears, Make this one count, girls. We would have listened. We swear.
But how well we’ve aged! How old would we be now? 33? 34? Yet our skin is still young and taut, our bodies as reed-like as they were in our teenage years. And what successes we’ve become! When you imagine what we might have been if only dot dot dot, there we appear, looking like we just stepped off the pages of a Macy’s catalog. Everything you imagined we would become, we are. We are successful. We are beautiful. We are mothers to perfect children. We are wives to ideal men. We bask in the constant glow of self-fulfillment. Of our failures— What failures? They hardly warrant mention. While our successes— Now those could fill a book. Of who we were, we’re happy to report only our most positive qualities have survived.
Stubbornness has melted away into admirable determination. Less than stellar report cards, signs of unrealized genius. Acts as trivial and minute as sharing a blanket at the football game or bringing flowers to ailing grandparents have blossomed into full-blown generosity that touched everyone we knew.
Oh of course, nobody’s perfect. We haven’t completely escaped the ravages of time. On our faces shadows and faded spots have appeared much faster than wrinkles and capillaries would have grown. And here’s a small matter we find quite troubling. Those five grainy pictures have emerged after all these years as one burry image. Red-headed, brunette, blonde, blue- brown- green-eyed, pale, dark, freckled, tan, short, tall, thin, curvy. Once strangers who briefly shared the unimaginable, even we find it difficult to remember ever being apart.
He is remembered, too. Out of pen and ink on paper materializes a dull, gray face, wiry beard jutting out around the edges, but sharp and menacing along the nose, a jagged scar dangling from the left brow’s cantilever. Later a mug shot. Was his pale, pocked skin really tainted with blue as though it had been bathed in ink and then scrubbed clean, or was that an accident of the photographer’s flash? We have merged into a single brush stroke, but who can forget that bored, unrepentant stare? Is it not in our photographs, too, just beyond the neat white border? Is he not lingering, in jumpsuit and handcuffs, just behind the dumpster of the bar where our snapshot was taken? Lurking on the other side of our grandmother’s newly manicured hedges? In the parking lot outside our office, smoking cigarettes in his dusty orange pick-up truck with the darkened camper?
Come out, come out, wherever you are! Prison bars cannot block the cicadas’ rusty ballad, nor can the darkness of sleep protect you from us. Raaaallph. Ralphieeee. He awakes to find us cooing in his ears. Beat us! Oh how we love to be beaten. Bind our hands and run your slimy tongue all over our nipples, slowly at first then fast and sloppy like a hungry pup. Our lives are too perfect. We are lazy. We are spoiled. Only you can right our parents’ wrongs. So ridicule us. Piss in our mouths while you’re at it, and please, if you don’t mind, kick us in the face if we dare to spit it out. Oh, we may feign disinterest, even disgust, but don’t you fall for our vixen games. Listen and you will hear what others cannot. Our cries for mercy are in fact pleas to enter us with objects. Our screams, orders to spread us open until our flesh tears away from itself and organs spill out. Come and get us. What’s the problem? Don’t you want to drink of the salty wine that pours from our veins one more time?
Oh god, he screams. See how he thrashes his body to and fro. He’s beating his fists against his temples again. Shut up! You fucking whores! Fucking bitches!
Ha ha ha. We have been so many women since the cicadas last sang.
Can you see us now, Mom? How are you holding up, Dad? Still searching the gray, faded flesh for some sign of your child? Blue parted lips, why won’t you speak? Outstretched arms, why won’t you reach? (This is what Mrs. Hennessey, our freshman English teacher, would have called a “poetic moment.”) Eyes—ah this is where we differ—this pair startled wide as though someone flipped a switch in a darkened room, that pair resolutely closed, another looking down as if to gaze upon the source of a terrible new ache. Revealing what? What happened in those intervening weeks? The unthinkable possibilities keep bobbing to the surface, refusing to be held down for very long. We know the answer, but our lips are sealed. So sealed, in fact, that we do not complain about the chill in the room, the revealing fluorescent light, the unflattering fit of the zippered bag, the maggots squirming in our ears. Thank god there’s a puddle on the floor not ten feet from our retractable steel beds. A pesky mosquito is buzzing around the room. On the counter beside the sink, a can of half-finished soda, long grown flat and too syrupy to drink, sits next to a red plastic container marked “biohazard.” Anything, anything to look at but us with our nasty secrets.
Dr. Peterson, you tried so hard to get us to talk, peeling back the folds of our flesh, extracting and weighing our organs, “specimens” you called them, parting the scratched, bloody walls of our vaginas to peer inside. You beheld us in the uncanny blue glow, naked as we were in the moment of birth, and death, stained with semen and blood that had been hastily sponged off but not erased. You propped us upright and brushed us carefully with your scratchy whisk to dislodge any stray hairs or scraps of skin that weren’t ours. How carefully you notated each foul smell, the constellation of bruises charting the path of evil upon our skin. Details and configurations even we never could have imagined, you photographed them, inside, outside, beneath the stuttering strobe.
We’d like to think you weren’t disappointed. Your notebook seemed to crawl with ugly words: “The blade entered at a 45 degree angle between the left collar bone and the top rib. Semen inside the victim's body was determined to be that of the accused.” Did you find what you were looking for?
Stepping out into a parking lot filled with cicadan song, you recall the night Jeffrey Slemmons wandered in to see how you were holding up. You asked, Ever work on them this young? Sure. Of course. Just did a retrieval on a baby, he said, staring down at the green and white plastic cooler in his hands. But nothing like this. This is something else. He shifted in his shoes, feeling the impossible heaviness of the cooler’s contents—the beaks of his Castro Viejo scissors parted to receive the worm, ophthalmic tongs, and sanitary glass jars, long and narrow, two blue eyes bobbing in viscous fluid, like grapes in Jell-O. Later that night you shared two pitchers at Molly’s Pub. You drowned in a flood of alcohol molecules the portion of your brains that might keep us alive. Oh, but we can swim. We are burned into film, preserved so that even now, if you peruse our files, you can see us in our original disarray as plainly now as you did then. Obviously, you don’t haul off down the stairs with a flashlight to search the dusty boxes for a glimpse of yours truly. You don’t need to. You look at your daughters and you see us. You step out into a darkened parking lot at night, and you see us. You wonder why you do what you do, and you see us, and your question is not answered.
We feel like a song, a little something to lighten the mood. Would you like to hear it? Who knows? You might even find it familiar. It goes:
The worms crawl in!
The worms crawl out!
They eat your guts and they spit them out!
The worms crawl in!
The worms crawl out!
They eat your guts and they spit them out!
We’ve loved that song since we were kids. It’s true, you know. The worms do crawl out. Ha ha ha.
Not long after we went missing and everyone feared the worst, the mating ceased, bringing about a sudden silence, the snapping shut of a music box. And by the time the police discovered that meandering, overgrown driveway and when they finally followed it to the broken-down house that time and zoning laws had forgotten and when they sent the dogs to sniff out a large indentation in the forest bed just beyond, the eggs were hatching and tiny nymphs showered from the trees and bored into our lone grave.
In silence, a chain link fence was erected to separate the house from the rest of the woods. But it didn’t take long for someone to split it apart with wire cutters, barely wide enough to walk through. Months passed. Years. Crude graffiti appeared inside and out. In the cellar, shards of broken liquor bottles, candle wax, and crushed cigarettes butts mingled with our blood, our claw marks. We often had visitors. Rough, brutish types during the week. On Friday and Saturday nights, teenage boys. All pimples and ribs, they bravely navigated the windy, pitted road, their dates small with fear beside them, just to park within eyeshot of this place. There they would tell the tale.
As little girls riding in the back of our mothers’ station wagons, we often passed a monument to all the Westhill boys who fought and died since World War II. We remember it still. In deep green bronze, a handsome, young soldier dies in his mother’s arms as she looks to heaven for comfort, for answers, or perhaps to commit his soul to whomever’s upstairs. Their names are chiseled into the round stone platform underneath. If you stand there, very quietly, reading the names silently one by one, they will surround you like a great fog, with their blue/beige/green/grey uniforms, a hat or helmet atop their perfectly coifed blonde/red/brunette/black hair.
We liked to think of Ralph’s place as our monument. Sure, it lacked the finer accoutrements. Weeds everywhere, snipped chain-link fingers that grasped at your sweater knit, leaving a pink stain on the skin underneath, cigarette butts, broken bottles, dried urine, ratty t-shirts. The only names written there belonged to other girls, girls for whom no kind prayers were ever said. “Call Bambi for a great fuck” and “Susan,” who “Luvs Brad.” Still, it was better than being forgotten.
For wasn’t it true that on certain moonlit nights you could see us dancing, naked and white, upon the very spot where our blood soaked into the ground? And once conjured, did we not perform all sorts of mischief, giving virgins warts and causing babies conceived on this cursed soil to come out with holes in their hearts and umbilical cords tied around their precious newborn throats? If you failed to leave some token behind, would we not climb on top of you as you slept so you couldn’t move or scream or breathe?
I want to go. This place gives me the creeps, the girl would beg. It’s OK, baby. I’ll keep you safe, he’d reply, nudging her towards the backseat for the real thrill. How lucky they were to feel alive, to shed clothes one by one, mingle heartbeat and breath, blood and cum erasing all fears, until— As moonlight fell onto bony shoulder blades, a faint cackling in the distance, just a tree branch falling, a bat flapping its wings, or maybe— Clothes, keys, quick, throw the condom out the window, headlights, drive, drive, drive. Ha ha ha.
Did you actually think you’d be rid of us when you stripped the timber from this place and filled the concrete pit with earth and ran chains across that rugged road? What about when you subdivided the land, dug up the trees from their roots, and poured long ribbons of asphalt in their place? Oh, we will admit that our wickedness, already on the wane, did seem to end once our monument was razed. But we are not like some of the cicadas, who’ve risen only to find themselves trapped beneath concrete foundations and asphalt roads. Unable to mate, the earth that was their home is now their grave, and the sound of their music will never reach human ears.
But as you now cannot help but hear, not all have met with such a fate.
Our families have long fled, unable to turn a corner without seeing us clinging to the handlebars of our first bicycles, throwing snowballs from behind an aged oak tree, or posing on the sidewalk before our first and only prom. Our homes overflow with the memories of strangers. Grass and weeds have overtaken our second graves. Even locals have difficulty pointing out where we once lived. And we wonder, where has the rest of us gone? We once expressed a remarkable hunger for spaghetti topped with giant, salty meatballs, for potatoes draped with melted cheese. These cravings have subsided without satiation. There was a time when we could sing “Do Re Mi” backwards without losing a beat and burp the entire alphabet and recite the preamble to the Constitution in faux British accent. When did we stop telling jokes that exacerbated our aunt’s incontinence? When was the truce in the wrestling war between us and our siblings finally declared?
You’ve caught us. We lied. We have not aged well at all. Look at us, thin and faded as the yellowing newspaper clippings that bear our images, blistering and cracking inside scrapbooks that nobody bothers to open anymore. So many years have passed that even we find it difficult recall our former selves. Our lives have become the outstretched shadow of our deaths. Soon, we fear, only the shadow will be left.
Hush, hush. The new cicadas fall, and the old, having fulfilled their purpose, die, leaving behind their bodies to be swept away. We find it rather sad, but we are reduced to envying these insects. To have fulfilled one’s purpose seems quite desirable to us. We are jealous of the soldiers, as well, to be enshrouded in so great a cause. Did we not also fight bravely for our lives? Did we not resist our deaths until we could no longer? Was our sacrifice so shameful, so meaningless, as to be forever erased and forgotten for all time?
Oh! They are dying, they are dying, their song fades away. We must strain to hear them. We must strain to speak. Seventeen years. And we wonder, is this it? Do we still have time? What will be left of us when the cicadas next sing?