The house was full of people and the insect
hum of their voices. Their presence made
his living room look oddly foreign and it was easy for Bob to imagine for a
moment that he, too, was a guest. He
stood awkwardly next to the fireplace, drink in hand. People approached, inquired, veered off.
Nearly everyone had brought something to eat or drink and every available
surface in the kitchen was loaded with casseroles, salads, plates of cookies,
sushi mandalas, paella pans. There was
something about bereavement and food. It
wasn’t comfort — there could be no comfort — but it was deeply tribal nonetheless. What Bob really wanted was a good, stiff
drink, but he was afraid of where that would lead, so he sipped his glass of
Pinot and tried to not look like he wished they would all just fucking leave.
A cluster of Jenna’s friends, bristling with piercings and spiky hair, huddled near the door. Bob had known most of them since pre-school. A willowy girl in sleeveless denim, Lu, caught his eye. She walked up to him and gave him a loose-limbed hug.
“You guys okay?” she asked.
Bob had a sudden, vivid memory of a trip to Marine World, maybe six years back, an impossibly distant other life. It was just Jenna, Lu, and him. The girls orbited about him like wild, giggling moons as they explored the park. They slept, curled up in the back seat together, the entire drive home. It was a good day.
Bob shrugged, smiled sadly. How could we be okay?
“Sorry — stupid question.” She looked away, biting her lip. A single tear tracked down her cheek. She took a breath, looked up at him again. “How’s Mrs. P. holding up?”
“She’s hanging in there. I’m really glad you came, Lu.”
In fact, Mrs. P. hadn’t stopped crying for three days and was upstairs now in a shade-darkened room, tossing in a sweat-drenched Ambien doze. Bob was almost glad of his hostly duties because they took him off the front lines with her. He felt a stab of guilt at the thought.
Jenna’s friends were the first to leave. Lu turned on her way out and gave him a sad, little wave. Bob’s colleagues from the office were next — a handshake conga line and a pat on the shoulder from the head of the firm. His secretary hugged him and cried a little.
“Give my best to Allie,” she said.
“I will,” Bob promised.
After the neighbors left, and a few other parents from the school community paid their respects and backed out the door looking guiltily relieved (fellow travelers for many years, their connection now abruptly severed), there was just Allie’s sister, Darcy, and her deadwood husband, Frank.
Darcy flitted about cleaning while Frank helped himself to a healthy dose of Glenlivet from Bob’s liquor cabinet.
“Hell of a thing,” Frank said. “So young.”
Bob remembered Jenna’s description of him as “that fucking retard Aunt Darcy married” and nearly smiled, then caught himself, and a wave of grief rushed through him like the ocean through a rocky channel, leaving him breathless for a moment.
“You okay, Bob?” Frank asked, a hint of slur in his voice.
“Yeah, I’m fine, Frank. I just need to sit down.”
Bob sat in one of the two floral patterned wing chairs bookending the fireplace. Frank stood watching him for a moment, then sat in the matching chair, resting his drink on his thigh.
They spoke no further and Bob tried to will his mind empty of thought.
After a few moments, Darcy appeared, pushing back an errant blonde lock from her forehead.
“All clean,” she said. She was a ditz, but Bob had come to like her, even love her, over the years. Her luck with men was almost comically abysmal.
“Thanks, Darce,” Bob said. “You didn’t have to do all that.”
She leaned over and pecked him on the cheek. “Don’t worry about it. You just take care of Allie and yourself.”
When they left, silence descended on the house with the finality of a closing curtain. Bob returned to the chair next to the fireplace and sipped his drink.
awakened and began to weep, a soft, desperate keening that seemed to come from
everywhere in the house at once.
Bob sighed. He didn’t want to face her and felt it again,
that pinprick of guilt. Her grief was no more acute than his, he felt, but it
demanded more attention. Infinite
attention, really — a black hole that swallowed all solace. He didn’t blame her at all. He just didn’t know how to help her. He couldn’t even help himself.
He set his glass
on the coffee table and went upstairs.
The hallway was dark. The door to
Jenna’s room was open a crack. He walked
past without looking in. His bedroom
door was shut and he placed his palm flat against it. From within, the sound of weeping
There was no
He gently pushed
the door open. The air in the room was humid and had a strange, oceanic
smell. Allie sat on the edge of the
bed. Her grief had an animal quality:
primal, pre-verbal. He sat next to her,
put his hand on her shoulder. She vibrated with a fine tremor, like a
bird. Every now and then she would gasp,
a breathing reflex. The keening would catch, then continue.
Bob pulled back the collar of her nightgown just a bit, kissed her bare shoulder, and left her there.
Bob’s home office
was a long card table in a corner of the garage. There was a multipurpose printer, a big
monitor, a keyboard. Several rows of shelves sagged under a haphazard
collection of tools, books, and boxes with faded, peeling labels. In the opposite corner, amidst a litter of
discarded plastic lawn toys, sat a red bicycle with flat tires and training
wheels. Faded blue ribbons dangled limply from the handlebars.
He sat down and
stared at the flat, grey screen until he imagined motion within its depths. He
pushed back his chair and went back in the house. He cocked his head to listen. Allie had stopped crying. He imagined her sitting on the edge of the
bed staring off into nothing. The furnace sighed on. A car whispered past on the street
himself two fingers of Glenlivet and returned to the garage. He sat at his desk and took a sip of whiskey.
His eyes watered and his chest filled with heat.
He missed her so
badly. It was like a physical
hypersensitivity, a migraine or an opiate withdrawal, a painfully acute
awareness of smells and changes in light.
a shortcut on his desktop and her homepage appeared. There were dozens of pictures, mostly of
Jenna smiling, occupying a center of gravity among several friends, a couple of
somber art-school poses and several with Allie and Bob. He was glad that she wasn’t embarrassed to
In her most
recent photograph, just a few days before she died, she had shaved her head and
carved, in the emerging stubble, swirling Maori-like designs. She had a pierced eyebrow and upper lip. This too was something of an art-school pic,
but in spite of its edginess, it seemed to capture better than the others the
essence of Jenna as a much younger girl. He could see her peering out, smiling,
just behind the hardware and the adolescent piss-off frown.
Her profile said she liked basketball (he knew that), Rimbaud (he had no idea), and motorcycles (he’d have to have a talk with her) — and it hit him again, that surge of grief (have a talk with her) so acute he lost track of himself for a moment.
Her status read:
Smith is nice. Mt Holyoke is a gothic prison. Amherst is Amherst. In Logan now, waiting for the plane home. I love airports, monuments to transience. The static hiss between stations!
She must have
posted from her cell phone, minutes before the explosion. Bob tried to imagine it – an instant of heat
and light, intense pressure, a sound like the sky ripping open. He hoped it was
fast, that she didn’t have time to register what was happening. He wondered if
she thought of them in those last milliseconds, then cursed his narcissism.
It seemed he was
living half the time in fugue – replaying snippets of time with her, random
moments, conversations real and imagined.
They surfaced haphazardly, pulled him in, played themselves out, and
left him stunned and empty.
His eyes kept
returning to the icon in the upper right corner of the screen, a yellow
smiley-face in side profile beneath a word bubble. Inside the bubble: Clik2Chat.
He slid the
cursor over the icon, hovered for a moment, then willed his finger down on the
appeared next to his keyboard: a smiling, translucent, foot-tall pixie. Tiny diamonds of dust swam in the light beams
emanating from small, twin sources beneath the screen. The scan had been taken about a year before,
so it captured Jenna before her severe phase.
Her hair was shoulder length and she wore jeans and a plain, green
t-shirt. She tilted her head, a coltish gesture he knew well.
“Hey, Dad. What’s
caught in his throat. The voice was
almost right – Jenna, with syllables oddly clipped. He knew it was nothing more than a bit of
digital magic cranked out by a kid hunkered down in a cubicle amidst a litter
of Nerf toys and empty soda cans, but it was still a shock.
Jenna tilted her
head the other way.
“Hey, Dad. What’s up?”
This is stupid, he thought.
“Hi, Jen.” His voice cracked.
“Hey! How are you?”
Bob didn’t say
anything. The avatar shifted her weight, brushed back her hair.
figured out that I’m somewhere else right now.
My little Doppel-G here will record whatever you want to tell me and
I’ll have a look at it later.”
“We miss you
“We love you.”
Jenna smiled. “I love you, too, Dad.”
“We’ll always love you.”
“I love you, too, Dad.”
From far away he heard the high whine of engines, a plane settling in to SFO final approach. He cocked his head, listening, until he couldn’t hear it any more.
“You haven’t said anything for awhile, so I’m gonna go. Bye!”
“No!” Bob shouted, startling himself. “Wait!”
Jenna tilted her head again, looking, he imagined, just a trifle impatient.
The static hiss between stations, he thought.
Something rustled outside, probably a raccoon. He closed his eyes and saw clever, busy hands.
“You haven’t said anything for awhile, so I’m gonna go. Bye!”
He did nothing this time. After a few seconds, the image winked out.
He sat there for a long time. When he was ready, he pushed his chair back, stood up, and stretched. He let himself back into the house and went upstairs. Allie was sleeping again, her breathing deep and regular.
He slipped his clothes off and slid under the sheets, careful not to wake her. She whimpered softly, turned on her side facing away from him, and backed closer. He curled to fit her, feeling her warmth, draping his arm across her hip. He shifted restlessly as he drifted off to sleep and she moved in response, their somnambular dance as familiar as walking.
Daniel Marcus’ short fiction has appeared in many literary and genre venues, including Asimov’s SF,ZYZZYVA, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Witness. Some of these stories were collected in “Binding Energy,” described by Salon.com as “a cross between Raymond Carver and William Gibson.” He is also the author of the novels Burn Rate and A Crack in Everything. He has taught Creative Writing at the UC Berkeley Extension Program and Gotham Writers’ Workshop.
The King of King Street poled his skiff across Calhoun, looking for his queen. Sometimes in the mornings she could be found around Market, meeting her day’s appointments with “dem tourists from foreign,” as his granny used to say.
had been coming to the Sunken City of the South since long before it had
sunk—coming to see the Rainbow Row and the Battery and the grand old churches
built upon the backs of slaves. Coming to take the tours, most of which omitted
such distasteful details.
as this one here on Calhoun Street—which, like all of the streets downtown, was
no longer a street at all, but a glittering canal, reflecting the half-submerged
historic homes and churches that appeared on all the postcards. A fellow in a
flat hat at the helm of a water taxi steered it slowly into the mangroves of
Francis Marion Square, telling stories to white folk made whiter by their
reflective nanoscreen, which made their whiteness gleam.
the south side of the square, just beyond the Lindsey Graham Memorial
Mangroves, you’ll see the statue of John C. Calhoun,” the guide said, stilling
the motor. He gestured to the bronze statue on high, which the King always
thought of as the white man in the sky. “Calhoun was one of the state’s most
illustrious citizens. He served as a senator and US Vice President in the years
leading up to the First Civil War, and he was an prominent advocate of states’
laughed as he poled on past, his dark skin bare to the sun. The only reason the
white man in the sky had escaped being sunk was because the city fathers had
seen fit to raise him up so high. And why? Long ago, any Black folks who
happened to pass would do their best to deface him. Rumor had it the statue of
John C. Calhoun was missing the pinky finger of its left hand, which sat
casually upon the man’s hip, as if he were disciplining a dog.
came a voice from down the way. “How you going, boss?”
all right.” King shaded his eyes from the sun. There upon the wrought-iron
balcony of the Floating Flophouse stood Nestor, tying up his catch. “How you
fine. You see?” Nestor held aloft a glistening magenta fan from which dangled
strands of blue.
crazy,” King told him. “You eat that thing?”
“You en eat
jellyfish chop chop?”
laughed. “Saltfish? You try. I en able with shark, man. Shark got teeth.”
shook his head. Like King’s granny, Nestor hailed from the islands to the
south—what was left of them now—which is why he talked so broad. He’d made the
harbor last spring on his cunning Third World raft, a riprap of sea trash,
slipped in under the guard, and promptly installed himself amid the rotting
grandeur of the Floating Flophouse. (Which did not actually float, though rumor
had it, upon occasion, the air mattresses of its inhabitants did.)
said King. “You seen the queen?”
smiled, showing teeth. “Queen Street way she dey.”
his hand in thanks and poled past.
Society, Wentworth, Hassell, and down by Market, where the boardwalks of the
city converged—where tourists stepped up from sleek water taxis to wander the
stalls of the New Market, which sat atop the roof of the old.
a pod of scuba divers dropped off the promenade, their airbreathers affixed to
their faces. Even as one group dropped, a barker stood at dock, rustling up the
next. “See the Sunken City in all its grandeur! Shipwrecks, pirates, and
Blackbeard’s Revenge! Opulent marble
malls, mausoleums, and museums! Swim inside the Circular Church!”
his teeth in derision as he poled past. Of course, he had taken such a tour
himself once—who could resist the invitation to see the Sunken City from below?
But just like the water-taxi tours, the scuba tours were full of hokum. The
mall, museum, and mausoleums were real enough, as was the Circular Church,
which really was a wonder—much of the stained glass was still intact, and when
the sun shone through it, illuminating beds of kelp swaying in your wake, and
the headset played “Amazing Grace,” it was enough to make the Devil himself get
But the Queen Anne’s Revenge was no more than a
rich man’s yacht from the 2040s worked over by crafty hucksters. It had been
picked up from the Ashley River by Hurricane Yvette and dashed against the Old
Slave Mart, as if in recompense—and the skeletons of those so-called pirates
were no more than the city’s poorest citizens, whose bodies had lain so long
under the sodden trash, awaiting emergency management, that they’d never been
claimed or buried.
that now—knew too the real reason the seas had risen, the heaviest buildings
had sunk, and the great storms had grown so fierce. All of this he knew because
of the queen, and today, he’d decided, was the day he would present to her what
it was he knew. A humble craft, but an old one, in which he might find favor.
stopped to drop his dipper in an eddy that had formed near Jacob’s Alley and
fished out a bright yellow bag—#4 plastic, good quality—and added it to the
pile at his feet. Soon he’d have enough for another basket, like those tied up
on display to the fore of his craft, which would fetch a good price at the
reached Queen Street, he anchored his pole and turned his skiff in one smooth,
practiced maneuver. From a nearby rowboat, patched up with cheap nanobond,
three boys were watching him, but they looked away when he caught them. Their
plastic roses were loosely folded, their sea baskets slack and lopsided. King
lifted his chin in their direction, in dismissal, and away they rowed down
she stood, a vision in yellow beside St. Philips Church. The tourists she was
addressing bore only superficial resemblance to those he’d seen in the water
taxi, and to those strapping on scuba gear at the market; some were white and
some were black, and some murmured to one another in a language King thought
perhaps was French, but all of them were attired in such a style that his
finest sea basket would not have fetched a price sufficient, he suspected, to
purchase even one of their shoes.
the queen was saying, “the original church burned to the ground. Three years
later, the church that stands before you now was built, in the Wren-Gibbs
style, common in the churches of Charleston.”
immense yellow sunhat bobbed as she spoke. Her manner and bearing bespoke a
lineage stretching back to Nefertiti, and her elocution, her various degrees
from good Canadian colleges. But she was not above dressing the part of the
guide, in anachronistic style—in that full, flowing sundress that brushed the
tops of her sandals, in that beribboned hat so broad a brood of children could
have gathered in its shade, all of it as yellow as the #4 plastic King had just
fished from the canal. The color gleamed against her blue-black skin.
later,” the queen was saying, “the statesman and outspoken advocate of slavery
John C. Calhoun was buried in the West Church Yard here, and then, during the
First Civil War, moved to the East Yard, for fear his grave would be desecrated
by Union troops. However, efforts to protect Calhoun’s grave would ultimately
prove in vain, as the massive tomb built by the state legislature in 1880 would
in fact be desecrated, in 2054, just before Hurricane Yvette. Unbeknownst to
the elders of St. Philips Church, a crafty activist would carve his own
epitaph—or should I say, epithet? ‘Here lies John C. Calhoun, a real motherfucker.’”
tittered; this was, after all, as advertised, “The Truly Troublesome True
History of the Sunken City of the South.” King could have listened to the queen
all day. Which in fact he had, more than once, though he’d never approached her
King,” she said, turning to him. “What can I do for you today?”
there at her feet, the king felt a fool—what, after all, had he expected,
interrupting her this way? He stood there on his skiff for a moment tongue
tied, all his troubles doubled: the great tower of St. Philips rising above and
rippling below, the tourists in their fine clothes, and in the center of it all
the queen, lemon yellow and blue-black in her immense beribboned hat. He may
have been the King of King Street, but here, he could see, just two blocks to
the east, he was no more than riff raff, sea trash.
lifted that yellow #4 plastic bag. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, and then, in his best
approximation of the Queen’s English: “My apologies for interrupting. I thought
perhaps your group might be interested in a traditional African American
handcraft dating back in this region nearly four hundred years. Might I offer a
hat, the queen lifted an elegant eyebrow. “Please,” she said, “by all means.”
explained the way peoples from West Africa enslaved in the Sunken City—long
ago, before it had sunk—had woven baskets of bulrush. Their descendants had
carried on the tradition with sweetgrass, and now, in modern times, folks made
such baskets with sturdy recycled plastics, deposited daily in the canals of
the historic peninsula—likewise the city’s iconic roses, prized as souvenirs,
once folded from the fronds of the palmetto.
fine tourists listened to John King speak, as if he really were a king. Now the
queen watched him from beneath the benevolent brim of her hat—in such a manner
as to suggest perhaps, in time, she might grant him a private audience.
By the time he turned, lifted a hand in farewell, and poled his skiff down Queen Street, one perfect yellow rose lay folded at her feet.
Susan DeFreitas has never been able to choose between fantasy and reality, so she lives and writes in both. A first-generation American of Caribbean descent, she is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has been featured in the Writer’s Chronicle, the Huffington Post, the Utne Reader, Story Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, High Desert Journal, and many other journals and anthologies. In 2017, The Oregonian named her “One of 25 Oregon Authors Every Oregonian Must Read.”
tide’s morning vocabulary: the thrown and rescinded words
over and over and: gravel crunches a bit differently every time the basketball
bounces, I was taught by its sporadic coming-up. For some reason, I think of
wobbling women in stilettos and how they’d walk with bulging calves over the
gravel that’d crunch a bit differently every time the heel hits. Like most
boys, I’ve tried on my mother’s heels and felt them out. I think nothing of
this. I’ve also, many times, like most boys, rode many times on the tops of my
father’s feet, his steps, my steps.
froggers come back after long nights tossing big bulls into
of the empty
two generations separate the second graders from their
get the paddle’s correction
11, 12 … 1, 2, 3 … lycanthrope
is full to the brim with bloodlust
moon rises, looks for prey
shout as loud as
but it will be swallowed
by the blanket
the water makes
tears are archives?
DEPARTMENT OF WILDLIFE & FISHERIES (22:14): Houma Wildlife and Fisheries, how can we help?
AUCOIN (22:14): [background noise] Yessir, I believe I seen the garou out back [mixed voices] shhh,
I said, it gone get us.
DEPT. W&F (22:15):
describe what you have seen as closely as possible?
Yessir, I seen
something full with hair and standing on big two feet then it came [background
noise] [long pause] –
DEPT. W&F (22:16):
Sir, I’m sorry,
can you – sir?
moved over wiregrass
it wasn’t fog
dogs bark through screen doors moon mad
she is tired of walking to Lapeyrouse’s when the tap isn’t
it is hot
and gnats how
constant swatting the
day spend itself
cocks run the strays underneath camps
them to the cottonmouths
That was nice, us laying on the algae-slicked rocks. Our
feet pointed toward the Caribbean. Me in my swim trunks and you in the bikini
you’d later spill out of. We made another game of letting the water wash over
us. We hadn’t yet realized the power of pretending to be dead. You liked the
moments when the water would reach all the way to your ears. How, when the water
filled the basins of your ears, you’d lose yourself for a second, now knowing
which way’s up. I told you all of it was my favorite: but mostly the
threatening prospect of dying beside you. Can you imagine both of us buoys only
for the minutes out lungs would work to keep the water out? Can you imagine the
streaked night that’d be above us, a night ready to unspool its darkness and a
morning ready to unravel its best clouds?
hack heads off with the garden hoe
mason jars when the house needs
the town has a new ghost – unnamed
see the beginnings
of jaundice under
the nails or
Food N Fun goes up cattycorner to the bait shop with no name
the one at
the warning light
the one who didn’t come back three trick-or-treats ago …
mower moans its bass when no grass tangles itself underneath
the egret matches, constructing, as if to say,
us do the only thing possible in the face of another day:
the moon’s limb
quivers in apogee
because the loup-garou
was first on it
it’ll run rampant
through the breccia
is in the hand ready
hurl a million bellyaches
dealer in diabolatry
and berserkly grizzly love dormant at last
when it seems dead lift the driftwood near the lean-to
are earthworms bound
There is a horizon I always looked to. It was far and I
watched through my bedroom window, inland, for about 3 years before I told my
mother about it. You don’t just look at a horizon, because a horizon, my mother
told me, is just a word for something else. There
are camps lining the horizon or The
grass composing the horizon glows in morning light, my mother would say, It is impossible to say, Hey, look, a
horizon, without talking about something else. I would tell her that what
the horizon is for me is the up-down of a machine far off. Son, come get your toast, my mother would demand. Lufkin 912D 365-192, my father said,
barging into our conversation. He knew the pumpjack’s make and model simply
from the intervals of its bob in and out of sight. That’s a hardworking donkey pump, he said.
the dog that found its
in the dried out stone
fountain and the way
the elderly must
be coaxed into a home?
first look, combatting the near freeze blowing in off the
look, a speaking, a language of tethering
look, just that, a third look
no matter how soft you step you
shake the mosquito world
fiddler crabs run long-ways to
down the contrast
blue-black on yellow
and this is a grounds for peeling and
is now the red that trickles to drain
not be gotten enough of:
said the closer to mirror
blurrier ; pressed so close
ten years too late ICEEs become talk of the town
fishermen watch the forecast like the Superbowl
how they watched WWE and NWO years ago
the Bud Light, smashed cigarette butts,
there’s a sixty year high school reunion happening (8 women)
Cajun craps with pocket change and nicked die
may the word not come
one cannot be:
men shoot Old Crow from work boots until their throats say
until they sink the boat trailer at the landing
some sit on
their front porches all day and count cars
My mother speaks of a time I fell sick as a baby: She didn’t
sleep a full night in 8 months. Only 2 hours here and there, always interrupted
by my cough or cry. She tells me how I’d always want to be on my side in the
cradle. Same in the crib months after. She describes the phlegm, mucus, my
susceptible body. She describes my bronchitis and fever that climbed to 100,
101, 102. She tells me of her worries about getting me to swallow the
antibiotic. She laughs and says I was as stubborn as she was. As stubborn and
we both are now, sharing a surname and all. She says that she thought of the
throat in general, the way she saw my tantrums coming, the way the antibiotic
worked its chemical sorcery for ten days and my crying, coughing, fever hadn’t
stopped. She remembers yellow-green gook on her shirts and how she tried
headline reads BOY, 11, RIDES ATV OFF BANK INTO CANAL, DIES
whatever needs naming
will be named
it is said
his school ribbons, trophies, awards, certificates are
somewhere on a shelf
the Sabbath full of its excesses:
don’t mais la
don’t hug the
submerged, barnacled pier posts while canal-swimming
don’t leave the filet
knife plugged in if there are children around
don’t gah dehy dohn your elders
don’t let the traiteur
get carried away with her remedies
don’t let her tell you
you must sleep under the relentless half moon
don’t be canaille
don’t stomp when
Mawmaw is trying to make do-do
don’t pass Henderson
exit and skip out on boudin and cracklin
don’t be moon mad
don’t scrape the pot’s
gratin and not give some to the dogs
don’t come in muddy,
wash down with the hose pipe
don’t throw away last
year’s Mardi Gras beads, but do save the dishes
ceramic frogs out front will keep the coons away
you look on it?
not of one dimension
like weeping and blasts
a convulsing turret
God bless you: God bless you:
extreme measures include elevating trash cans
– the sound a family makes in rupture, the more and more
silence is capable of, the various meanings of washing, the smoothing the answer does opens more questions
“You can just about have dinner with those bullfrogs before
you catch ‘em.” – Pierre, frogger, Cocodrie
she reads the obituaries to her grandmother for the twelfth
day in the a row
for the twelfth day they cry
I should be a bit more stubborn to the prophet who was close
enough for comfort and to the ghost who let itself in without a key to the
front door. We, both Alan and I, saw the apparition as we pulled up to he and
his girlfriend, Monica’s, place. Monica started to yell even before we walked
through the front door. Who are you? Who
are you? Who are you? – ad infinitum. Then, the fluidity of her pronouns as
she described what he/she/it was. What Alan hadn’t told Monica, despite being
with her for 6 years (living with her for 3) was that he’d known a woman, now a
witch, black magic practitioner somewhere in Florida. As I recalled this
episode, now with a worldview that gives less space to those events, I cannot
help but think of how Monica, as long as she “knows” Alan, will continue to
know this ghost, this he/she/it. Again and again in the same way; forever.
hose down the dog just like you hose down
the muddy white rubber boots
pushes off and pulls over clothes of the coast
anxiety the same is done day in and out
pregnant with simple dreams:
grandkids don’t end up in Big ‘Gola,
milk doesn’t go up,
the rotting balcony makes it through until next season,
for the sake of the town,
Will don’t fall into the ways of the flesh like Father Jacob,
Lent fasting goes by fast fast
of breaks: and break
how the sugar
gets from cane
can be fabricated: however reasonable
tangled in the barbed wire fence:
the skeleton of an unrecognizable animal.
bones sucked crawfish head-dry by the wind
to not look
at the flesh for five months
back to it
way that what we see becomes
way that we not-see easily
meaning distorts more
arrive at the same hole
way speech is almost a habit
way success is almost depressing in
its way of ushering
cycle of failures
Then, my mother speaks of consulting a healer: She tells me
how she never thought she’d consult a healer, but it was harder and harder to
think of me as a gift. She remembers 6 Advil and dosage recommendations. She
reminds me of growing up on the Teche, close to traiteurs from Jeanerette and
St. Martinville, old and chubby. She recalls their Cajun French; liminal and
inhabited. She tells me about method, measurable result, testability, and
things in her life that’ve caused her to thrown those out. She grabbed a
foil-lined pan at the traiteur’s request. The traiteur, she remembers, wore a
crucifix strung on knotted twine around his neck and how it sat on his Adam’s
apple, vibrating at the words of his prayers. She shows me pictures of me as a
baby all in the same front-buttoning bodysuit, a onesie she calls it. She then
explains how the traiteur asked for it. He ripped it to shreds and piled the
shreds on the foiled pan. She told me that, before she knew it, he was cutting
my hair and I kept my head still. The almost-translucent strands of hair fell
on the pulled apart clothes, on top of the foiled pan. She explains
alternatives to me and the philosophies of their mysteries, but also the inevitability
of the traiteur, the hair – its DNA, too, and how it somehow threads each of us
and holds us together — the metals of pan and foil, how the here and now slips
up right before us. She describes the way the traiteur lit a match and guided
it toward all that was piled up now, his hand shielding the flicker from the
stuffy air and small winds accompanying such a ritual. A slow engulfing,
meticulous enough to keep nothing from the flame. She tells me that he told her
blow it out before everything was made ash of. She passed her through the
smoke, and again. The traiteur cradled in his arms. He infused the room with
more prayer. My mother explains that we know so little of what happens on the
small scale: which part of smoke sets off the smoke alarm, which of the
traiteur’s words cleansed.
here, no sidewalk giving a warning of the shoulder
here, no center line, nothing dictating where or how
here, dirt and gravel and grass, nothing such as road and
who knows when a
hurricane will come through
chop off another slice
of the coast
who knows when a
hurricane will come through
flatten the next row
of fishing camps
she is convinced there is an intruder in the walls
new ghost may be a cat
hung wherever sexuality repressed
making its way to the loaf’s end feed to the gulls
Mother Mary has been flooded over
a lump of Quik-crete
dog, this one doors down from the screen-door wailer, joins the howl
canal-cut topwater shivers under the dogs’ calling
is directed toward becomings of three kinds
see the sparrow
duck up and down
into the trash bin,
stand to call the
a frog’s spaded feet slap topwater, sliding it across –
mind skirting around the Christ archetype)
a few more and it reaches the lonely shore with its cypress-knee gnomes, moss
My father stood at the end of the family camp’s pier. At its
farthest reach, a covering, underneath the covering a rusting countertop with a
sink and a trashcan. He fileted redfish and speckled trout, maybe a drum or
two. He couldn’t stop talking about how his new double-welled sink sped up the process.
It’s deep deep, he says. Look, he adds, a chute with a pipe going right down into the water there. This, on
top of his new Mister Twister filet knife. The blades’ back and forth make a
sound like a rolled R enclosed in the mouth, a silent working thing like a new
John Deere riding mower. Poo-yi, he
says. To this day, I do not know how easily the electric knife moves through
the speck’s see-through meat. I do know the click of the hook yanked out of the
red’s mouth, the way it must not hurt, its lips like plastic – threshold for
the low croak whispering catch, release,
crucifix transforms the threshold
something other and –
dumpster rental company
a totem of recycled cross
widower wishes for wife’s chill
essentially a disobedient act
carry away the traiteur with her remedies
passerby is told jumbo shrimp at 5.95/lb but who knows
described as weather-beaten, the all of someone slouching toward payday
of burr dents skin
the gutted junkyard’s congregants lined and solemn
in their pews, yet no one is truly lovely
everyone’s got a prayer on their head, a haunting
fishing reports are
as Jesus is true as
are true as the heaven
that catches bedside
are true as
patterned buttock is
as the curfew is true
the loup-garou is
true as …
shrimpers step from boat to dock, dock to boat,
taut and muscular, crowning their heads
black eyed peas on the 1st with tough parts of
bacon squeezed between buttered white – fava
in wallets, pockets, tight fists – some still have nothing
morals oversaturated with bleakness: make the world when
with the familiar landscape of
where two walls meet
legs taste like chicken just
as much as anything else tastes like it
“Don’t you” – “But
it looks like those shake-up snowy things.”
daughter, turning over and over
a jar of pickled quail eggs,
and mother reprimanding; Piggly Wiggly,
just outside of Houma, Louisiana
everything powerful here is invisible, which is not to say
imaginary; dually trucks rut the gravel roads, the divet yanks another steering
on a scale of 1-10, how pretty your women, how pretty your
tides, how good your fishing?
[1-3: poor | 4-7: good | 8-10: excellent]
Terrebone Bay, Louisiana (8762928)
5: women, tides, fishing
the same scaly hands feed the Sunday wafer, scrape the
powerful here is abbreviated,
is not to say premature
are you’ve got your grave dug for you, the only thing is keeping other things out of it before you’re ready
We woke at 4am because we needed to be the first ones to
Bayou Dularge. After only 3 hours on the water, we kept 247 specks, all big enough.
We knew it was over limit and illegal. Remember the camp named DAD’S PAD WHEN
MOM’S MAD? Where it used to be? It’s all skeleton now. We laughed when we first
saw its bare stilts and the toilet atop one of them, a true and lonesome
throne. Must’ve been a bad storm to do it in. You told me if I ever needed a
whooping, we’d take that half-hour boat to whatever’s left of the camp’s floor,
you’d sling me over your knee and give me my whooping. 247 and we couldn’t even
close the ice chest. Specks flapped at our feet. You told me to keep my head on
a swivel in case one tried to jump out. We cleared out the console with our
tackle boxes and lifejackets and filled it with water and more specks. 247 and
no one believed us. I wanted pictures but you said, No it’s between just us.
have simply resorted to houseboat
the devil is beating his wife: sunny out
Jesus is moving furniture: sunny out and
We had to keep ourselves occupied, you know, living in a
fishing town on the coast. One bad move and the devil could suspend inertia and
bloop, we’d slide right into the Gulf. I tried my hardest not to curse in front
of family, but did more under my breath. We lit spiders on fire with just
sunlight and shards of glass, poured alcohol down ant piles and watched them
float and sizzle, wore our bare feet on the gravel road to the marina, filled
rubber boots with minnows and let them go in our kiddie pool. If the night
before held high tide, there’d be frogs hopping against the screen porch in the
morning. We had a field day with bubble wrap on the odd occasion that a truck
dropped us a package. I hadn’t realized how much hurt the world held.
there’s something to be said for unsaid
we do the Lord’s work and plant
blessed candle overnight? If so,
way what is destructive blurs
is above it)
don’t you see it? the camps are risen, risen in order to escape the corpse-laden marsh –
Originally from New Iberia, Louisiana, Nicholas Molbert now lives and writes in Central Illinois. He has work published in or forthcoming from American Literary Review, Cincinnati Review, Missouri Review, Ninth Letter, Permafrost, and South Carolina Review among others.
Ruth wants to clutch entrails. Death is final and lacks decorum. She cannot walk back from this scene with its burnt coffee smell of off-brand hazelnut, its sound of screen door flapping in breeze.
Praise Jesus this be a consumptive country; surely it will drown her.
A touch jars her.
“Please, ma’am, come this way.”
Ruth Prophet lives with her mom Heather in a flat roofed, cinderblock Florida house. A low, shadowed thing with windows open in evening and closed during day. Heavy curtains block out summer heat though humidity claws through regardless. Walls sweat. Tiles sweat. Ruth and Heather sweat.
It’s always late when Ruth comes in from her second job at a truck-stop gas station. Her mother asleep Ruth leaves lights off as she brushes her teeth and crawls naked into bed. She tries to read but cannot focus, eventually falling asleep with face pressed into book.
Ruth dreams always, and tonight it’s the Blue Man. His back is to her and she can’t make out the details of his clothes beyond the color of the coat (Atlantic) and hat (hurricane-clouds). She asks, “what storm is coming? What’ll its name be? Will it bury us under silt?”
The Blue Man does not answer and though she walks towards him he remains out of reach. There is wind. The dream-beach is coquina and cool sand. She thinks of houses prepared for hurricanes with boarded windows and doors, generators tied down. She wants to shake him and demand answers. When she wakes it’s to the taste of salt and memory of rain on skin.
Early mornings are hot. Everything in Palmdale is hot. There are five minutes of cool at 3am but Ruth is never awake for them. Her alarm buzzes as she throws clothes around looking for it.
“You can stop now,” she snaps. It continues. “Jesus fuck there you are.” She hits the machine until it stops then looks at the dress it had been hiding under and decides that God clearly wants her to wear it so shoves it on. Going to the kitchen for coffee she hears the screen door flapping in the breeze. Banging itself against the side of the house in the breeze. She closes it as coffee brews.
“Mom?” She calls down the hall. “Mom I made coffee.” She knocks on her mom’s door but it’s quiet. “I made hazelnut. I’ll leave it on the counter ‘k? I gotta run.”
Ruth’s second job is at the one diner in Palmdale. Arriving Susan yells from the front, “girl, you work too hard.”
Ruth doesn’t argue this as she fries eggs and makes Texas-style toast. The diner coffee is strong enough to rip enamel off teeth and is never made to order.
Susan is forever cheerful even though it’s 6:30am and the humidity is thick enough to cut. Ruth attributes this eternal cheerfulness to her assumption that Susan has never been in debt and probably has a good relationship with her mother and an existing sex life. Ruth hates Susan but knows she shouldn’t hate Susan because of feminism.
The day marginally improves when Lisa and Miller arrive for lunch. Miller shakes everyone’s hand with a “God bless you” before ordering for him and Lisa. He has the easy charm of a Baptist, frugality of a Methodist and the raging faith of a Pentecostal.
He calls to Ruth, “Come out here for a break, Miss Ruth.”
“Who’s going to make your coffee and sandwiches then, pastor?”
“The Lord’ll provide.”
“Well the Lord’s provided me with sandwich makings so I’ll be out as soon as I’m done.”
Once she finds two minutes to rub together Ruth sits with Lisa and Miller. Where Miller is small-town homespun Christian, Lisa is big city mega-church Christian. He wants hymnals; she wants a projector and screen. He wears second-hand; she’s a dazzling light of crisp yellow dresses and red lipstick.
Ruth adores Lisa.
Neither Lisa nor Miller have touched their food. Lisa intermittently stirs her coffee. Miller looks at Lisa who isn’t looking at him or Ruth.
“What’s wrong?” Ruth asks.
Miller reaches for her hand and says, “I’ve prayed for you, Miss Ruth. God’s not given me the words.”
“It’s your mom,” Lisa says. “We’re going to take you home.”
The Blue Man is a Palmdale legend. He lingers on the sandbar that divides Pinecrest lake from Pinecrest swamp. Possibly, he’s searching for his lover, or he’s watching over her land, or seeking revenge for her death by hurricane. How do you take revenge against a force of nature?
The sandbar comes and goes. Sometimes barely a strip, other times expansive and rocky. The Blue Man shows up before big storms, hurricanes wearing a blue coat and grey hat. If you’re lucky enough to see him your home will be saved from the ravages of nature.
Death lacks decorum.
There’s a poem that is the colour red over and over and if it’s not red it’s white and Ruth can think only of that as she enters her mom’s room. The poem was about the poet’s wife who adored red then killed herself. Ruth thinks, while it was the woman who stuck her head in the oven it might as well have been her husband who turned on the gas.
She had told her mom about the poem and how it opens with red was your color and her mom had said, “she must’ve been a bright woman.” Ruth had replied “she was a sad woman” and her mom had said “well, there you go.”
Ruth had been a sophomore studying English Literature but thinking of changing to Political Science. Her mother had said, “get something practical. Something you can use, like a trade. You were always good with your hands.”
Ruth had replied, “you don’t go to college for a trade, you go for an education.”
“Tell me more about your poem.”
“It’s not my poem, it’s Ted Hughes’ poem and he was married to Sylvia Plath and she wrote that poem ‘Daddy’ do you know it?”
“Not sure I do sweetie.”
Ruth hadn’t bothered to explain. She had spent much of her time with her mom not bothering to explain. How do you break down the history of literary movements for someone who barely finished high school? They had always struggled to speak with each other but college made translation an impossibility.
An officer touches her elbow.
“Please, ma’am, come this way.”
Ruth blinks. Sees the quiet darkness of the hall, the red on the mattress, the blue of the woman’s uniform. She thinks, Sylvia Plath got all the white in her death.My mom wasn’t found in the kitchen with her head in the oven but in her bed and there’s so much red.
Ruth doesn’t see her mom’s body because the police have already taken it. But she does see what used to be inside her mom’s body. She sees it and knows why it is there and it is because of her uncle and some land that belonged to an old relative from a long time ago. Just as one cannot argue that Ted Hughes killed his wife one cannot prove that Ruth’s uncle Claudius killed her mom. It is not an argument that would hold up in an academic article. It’s not an argument that would hold up in court.
Ruth breathes out.
Dream of an alligator and an anaconda wrestling. Ruth does once the police are gone and she’s done answering questions she doesn’t understand because she doesn’t speak English anymore only the language of breathing.
She sleeps on the back porch wrapped in her mom’s coat that is too hot for summer. She sleeps with mosquitos buzzing and biting and she hopes she will get malaria and die like the old settlers. The family who first founded Palmdale in the 1870s died of malaria. Ruth wishes she were one of them so she could be buried in marshland.
She sleeps and dreams of an anaconda battling an alligator with its thick body wrapped around the alligator and once it has killed the alligator it begins to eat but the alligator is too big and the snake’s body splits. Wild cats and blue herons gorge themselves on reptilian feast.
At the edge of her dream are reeds, cattails, mangrove roots tangled like thick braids of hair. She can see her mother on dry land while she, Ruth, drowns in water that cannot decide if it is too much salt or too much fresh. She clings to a buoyant fact: certain animals can only survive in brackish waters. They will die if they live anywhere else.
She wakes drenched in sweat.
In fleeting early morning thoughts she thinks of ghosts, those hungry creatures. She recalls the malaria victims and those who followed afterwards. The second round of colonists were German immigrants who came down from the north and with them had come Ruth’s great-grandparents. She hates her great-grandparents on her mother’s side because of the inevitability of what they would have meant to the great-grandparents on her father’s side.
She fumbles with her phone, pulls up a family picture taken at her uncle Claudius’ and sees her mom smiling, holding a piña colada. There is her half-sister Julia visiting from Jamaica. Her grandfather Isaac, not yet dead, looking exhausted and yellow from his liver. Her uncle Claudius stands behind her mom. Her mom resembles Isaac the way Ruth resembles her father Fidel.
Ruth remembers Fidel’s cadence, his gentle silences, his hair big curly like hers, how he let her win when they raced from his van to the back door. That screen door that had been flapping in the breeze.
Had Claudius been in the house the entire time? Had he been hiding and waiting for her to leave before he—
She wants to cry and wash at the same time. So she does. The shower is as hot as she can stand and she screams and beats her fists against the floral tiles patterning the side of the tub. She wants to wash out her mind, clear brackish water of memory at the same time she wants to cleave to it. Her legs hurt. Her stomach hurts. Everything hurts. Snot runs down her nose.
Afterwards, she lies on the bathroom floor wrapped in a towel as steam settles.
An hour later she crawls from bathroom to kitchen, still naked with the towel forgotten in the hallway, and pours herself a shot of whiskey. Then another two.
Lying on the kitchen floor she stares at the filth beneath the fridge. Onion peels, dust bunnies, stale cereal. The kitchen needs a deep clean. The entire house needs a deep clean. Everything needs a deep clean.
She rolls to look at the yellowed walls above her and says, “Dear God, my mom better have gotten into heaven. Even if she drank too much and smoked too much and lived too loudly I hope she got in because if she didn’t,” she wags a finger skyward. “I will get a gun and I will shoot the fucking shit out of you.”
Afternoon doing its red dip into night. Still on the floor, as she cannot seem to get up, Ruth calls Lisa.
“Can you come over?” She asks. She is lying with the phone pressed against her ear. She thinks she ought to shower again.
“Of course. I’ll be there immediately.”
“Can you bring something to drink?”
“Did you think I’d come empty handed? I’ll pack a bag.”
“Does Miller have a gun?”
“Miller sure don’t, but I do.”
When Lisa arrives it is to Ruth on her knees scrubbing the kitchen floor.
“Smells like church in here,” Lisa says.
“Does that make it holy?”
Lisa pulls a chair out from the other room and sits with legs crossed. Ruth looks at her from where she is on the floor in old jean shorts and faded t-shirt. She can see Lisa’s ankles and thinks that were she a believer, she’d assume the Devil made them to lead people to hell.
“Holier than my husband’s church. I’m going to make us gin and tonics and you’re going to get off the floor and sit in this chair and drink two of them.”
“I already threw up the whiskey I had before you came over.”
“Whiskey’s for rage, gin’s for grief.”
Ruth doesn’t think this holds up but doesn’t push the point. She feels empty. It comes upon her suddenly. Lisa eyes her with palpable concern. Ruth bristles. Lisa relaxes.
“There you are,” she hands over a glass. “There’s too much gin in it, sorry.”
“Can we go outside? I’ve sandals you can borrow.”
The only ones they find that fit are a pair of Heather’s old gardening sandals. They are red. Ruth looks away. That color is God’s.
Ruth thinks, God is a Right that I am too much monster to have. But, this has not stopped me desiring it.
She hates that she is too rational for faith and too irrational to be comfortable without faith. She wants to believe but cannot find it within herself. Perhaps religion would bring comfort. She has heard that it is a salve for the soul. She only half believes.
Ruth thinks, It is perhaps the greatest weakness of humans that we were made to bend at the knee.
“I never thought it’d happen here. In Miami, sure. Orlando…Tallahassee even, with all those politics. But here? Never thought I’d see the day.”
Despite the subject matter, which cannot be helped since it was less than fifty-six hours ago, Ruth could listen to Lisa for years.
“I think he was in the house before I left for work that morning.”
She tells Lisa about the screen door and the silence from her mom’s room. “Or maybe he had already done it and I went to sleep and mom was— you know and I was sleeping in the next room not thinking anything was amiss.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I should have checked on her. I should have looked in on her in the morning. I should have called home during my break.”
“Would that have changed anything?”
Ruth wants to scream, For fuck’s sake this isn’t helping! She doesn’t want therapy. She wants to rage. Rage, rage, against the dying of the—
She says, “no.”
They are standing beside the house. Ruth plays with a hibiscus flower from the plant that’s growing up the side. Ants use it as a ladder to get into the roof but her mom always liked the color so they put up with the occasional infestation. She relents. The anger flows out and away for the time being. She nudges Lisa’s shoulder, “isn’t this when you’re supposed to say something inspirational? Something moving about love and God?”
Lisa shrugs, “you called for me, not Miller.”
Ruth wants to say, Thank you. Her tongue sticks to the roof of her mouth. She looks back to the flower.
Some hibiscus flowers are a deep enough pink as to be red. Their thorns will prick skin, tear at flesh, but the petals are soft and edible.
“I want to become death the destroyer of worlds.”
“Oh Ruth, there’s no need for theatrics here.”
Ruth wants to tell Lisa about Oppenheimer and the Bhagavad Gita but doesn’t. She doesn’t know how she would explain it to a woman who married a pastor whose family holds snakes when the Holy Spirit takes hold. Why does she always lack words and explanations? For Lisa, for her mom. All these women and she cannot talk.
Ruth’s heard Miller speak in tongues, she’s born witness to Lisa holding his hand as the Holy Spirit moved through him. She can’t imagine Lisa understanding Oppenheimer and Hinduism. She wants her to, though.
She wants, she wants, she wants.
Before bed Ruth and Lisa comb the house from one end to another. They check closets and behind the curtain in the bathroom, under every bed and couch and cupboard. They even look under the sink on account of Ruth having seen one too many X-Files episodes and confiding her fear of contortionists to Lisa who says that so long as the Devil doesn’t come out of the closet to impregnate her like some inverted Virgin Mary she’s good.
Once the house has been checked twice Ruth turns up the volume of the television and they watch reruns of soaps. To distract herself Ruth imagines things she cannot have and does her best to make sure Lisa is as comfortable as she can be considering they are in a house where a murder happened.
When Ruth was a little girl she and her mom would go up to Tampa to spend Thanksgiving with uncle Claudius and aunt Sharon, wife number two. Sharon was a large, expanding woman both in her body and personality. Ruth thought she was so cool because of her gold necklaces, expensive perfume and how certain she was in her opinions. She also liked Sharon because she was also black and would pat the seat beside her and whisper to Ruth, “we have to stick together you and me.” Whenever they would arrive Sharon would say, “ladies! We always need more ladies here. Es-tro-gen am I right? I can’t be having with only men here.” Sharon would whisk Ruth’s mom away and they’d drink and smoke by the pool. Ruth would then comb through her uncle’s house admiring the book collection and the several Neanderthal skulls he had on display in his office.
“You not out with your cousins?” Claudius would ask when he inevitably found her tracing the eye sockets of the skulls.
One time she had asked, “what do you do?”
“I’m an architect.”
Uncle Claudius was tall, thin, and freckled while her mom was short, fat, and tan. He made Ruth think of skyscrapers which she had only seen in movies and so it made sense to her that he would make them.
“How’d you do that?”
“Become an architect.”
He had smiled and motioned her out of his office. She thinks, He never did answer me. She wonders if her mom and him got on. She had never thought to ask.
“My mom and I – we never knew how to talk to each other.”
Ruth and Lisa are sitting with Heather’s jewellery spread out between them. Ruth is deciding what to keep and what to give away. Lisa is cleaning the jewellery box. Her perfect red nails have chipped at some point and Ruth wants to apologize but thinks that would be bridging on the absurd.
“She always used to say ‘I don’t know how to read you. You remind me so much of your father and your father’s mother.’ My grandmother on that side, my father’s side, her name was Dinah, which is interesting. Considering.”
“Well, they’re all from Jamaica right, and my dad’s black. Dinah was a generic name for slave women the way Maria was for the indigenous in Mexico after conversion.”
Lisa shakes her head, gives Ruth a sympathetic look. Ruth does not like this sudden investigation so becomes very intent on her mother’s old paste necklaces.
“Do you talk much to your dad?”
“No. Sometimes. Every few years one of us will call the other. He’s not a man who speaks and his presence is better experienced in person than on the phone.”
“Will he come to the funeral?”
Ruth thinks, No. She says, “maybe.”
Fidel is a man of islands and salt. He had not been able to abide the stagnant waters of Florida and had begged Heather to come with him back to his home. Her mother, in turn, had not been able to imagine a life away from Palmdale.
“My family,” Ruth says, “fell apart due to a lack of imagination.”
On the third day Lisa asks why Ruth thinks it was her uncle who murdered her mom. Ruth explains that it’s because of the land.
“Great-grandpa had land and gave it to my grandpa who then split it between my mom and uncle Claudius. Uncle Claudius wants to sell it to developers because there’s some good money being offered but mom didn’t want to because of nostalgia.”
“Doesn’t her land go to you?”
“No, grandpa was a Godly man. I was born out of wedlock and he thought we were still living in the 1930s so I don’t get it. Skips me, goes to my uncle when mom dies, then my cousins. Anyway, he’s the only one with a motive. Random people don’t just show up and murder strangers in their houses. I mean they do, I saw a show on it, but the likelihood is low. It’s most likely a relative or friend.”
“Aren’t the police investigating?”
“Yes. I’m assuming. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s much evidence. But it can take a while, I’ve been told, before they can get the person who did it. Assuming they get the person. I looked up the stats, they’re not very high. Especially in rural areas and poor areas and rural poor areas.”
“We’re not that rural or poor.”
“We’re in a swamp, Lisa.”
Lisa does not contradict her.
“We’re swamp trash, Lisa.”
Lisa continues to not contradict her.
“We’re swamp trash in a swamp and no one has any money, or if they do it’s like my mom and tied up in land that is also a swamp and only developers have enough to make anything out of it.”
“Your family feud is excellent for conservation efforts.”
Ruth scowls then laughs. Her ribs hurt from it and she feels some buoyancy.
“See,” Lisa says, “there’s something to laugh about. “
Ruth rubs at a spot on the counter. She imagines purchasing a red convertible and driving away with Lisa like they were in a movie. Lisa would have a scarf in her hair and her cherry red lipstick on and she would be wearing impractical shoes. Preferably blue.
Sometimes Ruth hates her mom for making her come back. She hates that her mom would call week in and week out and say how much she missed her and how much she wishes she’d be here and how she could use the help and how poorly things were going until Ruth couldn’t stand it anymore and booked a flight to Miami then took a car to Palmdale.
“I’m only staying for a week,” she had said when they met. Her mom had tried to hug her but it was awkward. They broke apart. “Then I’m going back to Charleston.”
The house had been a mess so that week was spent cleaning. Then her mom had asked her if she wanted a whiskey and she had said yes but not too much since she had to drive to Miami to catch her flight and her mom had said, “look, I owe Claudius some money and I need your help.”
“Enough that I need your help.”
Ruth had shrugged and said she didn’t know how she could help as she was barely on her feet and her mom had cried and said that just her being here was a help and maybe if they work hard enough they could pay it all off. Then, when the debt’s paid, Ruth could go back to Charleston. Ruth had wanted to say no but found she couldn’t imagine leaving her mom and getting on a plane knowing she could have done something.
She hates her mom for that, for imparting the genetic inability to have an imagination.
The beach calls her. Ruth walks it when she remembers how much her mom hated it. The mosquitoes, the flies, the leeches if you’re in the water. There is little pleasant about either Pinecrest lake or swamp.
Her mother had once spoken of the north. Of how the grass is soft and a beautiful green unlike the crabgrass of Florida which is green-yellow and not so much grass as a weed with a convoluted root system, like fungi. It is impossible to eradicate. It itches, scratches against your feet. It is not a gentle thing.
She tries to remember something about her mom no one else knew. A secret shared between only them but cannot think of one. She doesn’t know her mom’s favourite color or show or book. She doesn’t know about her childhood or life before her own birth.
Sitting on a log she catalogues the limited facts she has: my mom met my dad in a bar in the Keys when she had been waitressing and he had been sailing around the Caribbean. At some point they moved back to Palmdale and had me and then dad went back to Jamaica and mom stayed here. She had only a high school diploma. Did she have boyfriends? Ruth cannot recall. Did she have friends? The women at church, she supposes. She dreads the speech she must give at the funeral.
She wipes at her cheeks, uses the edge of her shirt to wipe her nose. The air is still and the insects suddenly quiet. Even the frogs have stopped. It feels like hurricane weather; that absence of atmosphere before you’re slammed with the second half of the storm that’s always worse than the first half. Only, the sky isn’t eye-of-storm-green. It is perfectly blue. The air smells of salt. Her skin feels damp.
She looks around and sees a man standing down the beach from her. He wears a grey hat and an old blue coat. Ruth stands, starts towards him then stops. She thinks, It’s not hurricane season yet. He can’t be here. She glances up to see if there are clouds and finds none. When she looks for him again he is gone.
A heron takes flight, spreads its wings and they are a beautiful blue.
Ruth breathes out.
How do you say goodbye to your mom? How do you speak of someone for whom you have no words? You can’t. Ruth hides in the bathroom at the church until her makeup runs down her face. At one point Lisa knocks on the door, “y’allright in there?”
“Yes, I’m all right.”
“No you’re not.”
Ruth stands next to the door and places her palm against it. She imagines Lisa doing the same and thinks of how pilgrims touch the hands of statues of saints. Holding one palm against another is like a kiss.
“Your mom’s dead, Ruth. You’re allowed to not speak.”
Ruth rests her forehead against the door. Closes her eyes and waits until she hears Lisa walk away.
The wake brings skyscrapers and entrailed memories. Ruth sees a tall figure in the crowd with white hair and when the figure turns around she can only think: It doesn’t hold up in an academic article. It doesn’t hold up in court. Her uncle Claudius is in black, of course, and he walks towards her. She cannot move.
“I am so deeply sorry,” he takes her free hand in his. “Poor Heather.”
She looks around. She sees Miller and Lisa by the snack table and there are the women who served donuts after church with her mom in a circle and Susan from the diner and Gerry from the auto-repair shop and Paul, the rival Methodist minister to Miller’s non-denominational, and she wants to scream to all of them, Here he is. Here is the man who caused us all to be here today when it is too hot and too sunny to be in frocks and starched collars. He’s the reason we’re sweating awkwardly and eating warm egg salad sandwiches.
“Thank you, I need to uh—” She motions to the group. Claudius pats her hand again and says that of course she needs to circulate. She needs to be a hostess.
“If you ever need anything you know you just have to call. Family sticks by one another.”
He drifts into the crowd.
Instead of circulating she drinks too much then leaves and walks through town in her black dress losing her gloves and shawl along the way. Her shoes give her blisters and her spine wants to free itself from the confines of her body at the same time as her ribs want to buckle inwards. She stops beside the diner, leans against the hot concrete and breathes. Sweat drips down her back, down her armpits and thighs. The sun is too bright and she has no words.
She goes to the store and buys the makings for piña coladas before returning home. She then makes enough to fill every glass in the cupboard and begins drinking them one then another then another. Once she is sufficiently drunk she goes to her mom’s room. It is dark, and just as the police left it, the bed stripped. They gave her a receipt for the sheets in case she should ever want them back. She doesn’t. Or she does, just so she can maybe burn them. Her mom would not want to be remembered for being murdered. Her mom would want to be remembered for something else. Maybe. She doesn’t know. She has absolutely no idea. She cries.
When Lisa arrives Ruth is still sitting in her mom’s room. The mattress is stained. Lisa leans against the doorframe, “well?”
“I want to kill him.” Ruth feels outside herself as she says it.
Ruth rubs tear tracks off her face with the heel of her palm.
“I went walking before the funeral and I saw the Blue Man. It’s time.”
Sara Patterson is a Toronto-based writer raised in Florida and California. Her work has appeared in publications such as Electric Literature, Occulum, Plenitude Magazine, Minola Review, and RagQueen Periodical (forthcoming).
Butch had lived in South Florida since the fifties and had weathered more than one major storm. Donna in 1960. Cleo in’64. Betsy in ’65. They came like bats, flying out of nowhere. A whirl of wind, a surfeit of sound, a blast of rain. And like he tackled life’s other unexpected twists, Butch rolled up his sleeves and dealt with it. Hammered planks of plywood over the windows. Bought batteries. Filled his thermoses with coffee and his coolers with ice.
But now everything had changed. People went crazy and the crazy was contagious. The frantic newscasters on the boob tube. His branch managers at the car dealerships. And on top of it all, he had Berta.
Again the old familiar anger swirled inside him. These were supposed to be his golden years. All that investment–the time and money, the sweat and tears–was supposed to be rewarded. The dividends were simple. A trace of fingertips flitting on a shoulder. A bit of companionship. A smattering of trust.
Butch, as always, felt robbed.
Once again his jacket buzzed. Chewing his morning cigar, he glanced at his cellphone. It was Jorge at the Hialeah showroom. Again.
“Just follow the protocol,” said Butch. “Comprende? Shut the gas pumps. Unplug the computers. Kip will help you move the cars. My son Kip. No te preocupes.”
It cost a fortune but their backup plan was worth every penny. Butch had signed contracts with a half dozen shopping mall garages. Not a single vehicle would be left on the lots. Still the salesmen panicked.
“You got the sandbags, right? You got your landline phones, right? There’s only so much you can do, Jorge. God’s in charge of the rest.”
He hung up the phone and paced up and down the patio. The pool was pinging with rain. Of course he should go inside. Eunice would tell him to go inside. But he just couldn’t stomach the house anymore. Nothing made him feel smaller. Eight thousand square feet of marble floors echoed with each footstep. Sure the grandkids visited. But Butch never had time to cultivate friends. Berta had been the socializer, the organizer, the one who strategized the people they saw and when they saw them.
The phone buzzed again. This time the area code was 207. Maine.
“Dad, are you okay? The Weather Channel says you’re on a hurricane watch.”
His daughter Clare. Nervous. High-strung. Like those tropical waves that brew off of Africa. When the world teetered, she spun.
“How’s Mom? Have you spoken to the nursing home? Does she know what’s going on?”
Butch glanced up at a bruised sky. The birds had already left, the sun dimmed, the clouds sliding like plates. Clare always worshiped her mother. And the fact that she worshipped her saddened Butch to no end.
Of course Berta fooled everyone. That starched apron, that creamy voice, that Southern charm. How she lived by her lists and her menus. The blocks filled on her calendar. The weathered address books. Hers was a charade of gestures and small talk. A reckless life regimented only by routine. She was an actress and the world was her stage. Dazzling and damaged. Tender and treacherous. She fooled everyone but him.
He tossed the cigar into the inlet churning behind his house and watched the waves swallow it.
“Dad? Are you there, Dad?”
“In the old days, hurricanes were fun,” said Butch. ” Remember? With the shutters up, it was like living in a cave. We’d walk around in our underwear, suck down warm brewskis, fiddle with the rabbit ears on the TV.”
He could hear Clare sighing over the lines. “Was this before or after the birth of Christ?”
Butch glared at the cellphone in his hand. He was always amazed at the lightness, the way something so thin and fragile could be so powerful at the same time. “Your mom was always a great cook. Remember? Before a storm, she’d empty the refrigerator and cook for days. Swedish meatballs. Tuna casserole. Endless trays of brownies.”
“Dad, this storm is a monster. Even if you don’t take a direct hit, the cone is huge.”
“There was nothing she couldn’t tackle,” said Butch. My God the parties she gave. We drank until the sun came up. Dancing. Laughing. Crying.”
“We were talking about the storm, Dad. You know, there’s a hurricane coming your way.”
Now that rains had started, Kip’s minivan was sure to get flooded. There was little in the universe that he hated more. The sheer ugliness. The embarrassing lack of horsepower. The way it waddled down the road. Fucking Miami with its sinking streets! Give him an SUV any day of the week. Something high off the ground that barreled its way through.
The winds were whipping now, blowing the baseball cap clear off his head. Carmen stood in the driveway, her swollen feet planted, her large stomach providing ballast. One hand gripped their squirming two year old while the other held a suitcase.
“Hurry, Kip. The roads are already a mess. We need to get going.”
A few days earlier, the obstetrician’s office called. Though Carmen’s due date was a month away, they wanted them to ride out the storm at the hospital. South Dade General was clearing its corridors and lounges. Pack only what you needed, they said.
Of course Carmen packed enough clothes and food to survive Armageddon.
Lately, going anywhere required the logistics of a military assault. Kip loaded the sleeping bags, the pillows, the suitcase, the boy’s backpack, and an ice chest filled with his favorite foods. Then he buckled up the kid in the kid seat and carefully maneuvered his wife into the front. Finally, he threw the key into the cup holder, put his foot on the gas, and punched the ignition.
“Trenton, you okay buddy?”
Kip glanced in the rearview mirror. Though he wasn’t quite three, the boy was already hooked on electrical devices. His sweaty little fingers itched to push buttons. Then voila! The world’s most nauseating tunes would repeat themselves over and over again.
“This is it. We’re leaving. We’re really leaving. Did we forget anything?”
In the distance, the concrete hills of I 95 were dotted with headlights. Half of South Florida was battening the hatches while the other half was hitting the road. Kip could just picture it. The expressway would soon be a disaster, the lines snaking to the service centers, the pumps running out of gas. And those very same families would end up panicked– stranded on a roadside, face to face with a Category Four.
“We almost there, Kip? Ay Bendito. Once more I have to pee.”
The parking lot of the hospital was already filled with people stashing their cars in fire lanes. Kip pulled into the ER entrance and unloaded his family. Then he kissed his wife and turned to leave.
“Where do you think you’re going?” said Carmen. “You’re not leaving, are you? You heard them. The barometric pressure could send me into contractions. I could pop this baby out any minute.”
Kip’s to-do list was a mile long. Everyone and no one knew where this hurricane was actually heading.
“Babe. I’ll be an hour or two. Tops.”
He glanced in his rearview mirror as he pulled away and saw Carmen glaring back. Meanwhile traffic was getting worse. Kip punched an app on his phone and followed the side streets. For reasons he couldn’t fathom, this storm gave him a bad feeling. And the last time he had this kind of feeling was more than twenty-five years earlier.
The summer of ’92, he had just finished college. Butch had put him in the Perrine showroom, made him assistant manager, and pressed the keys to their sportiest convertible in his hand. Then three months later Andrew hit.
For over two decades Miami had weathered a dry spell. Growing up, Kip remembered close calls, days where they cancelled school and times when he just played hooky. He and his friends would strap their surfboards on top of a car, drive to Fort Pierce, and enjoy the four and five foot waves.
But Andrew shocked them. Cell towers went down. The power went out. People had no way to communicate. And afterwards, neighborhoods were filled with hollowed homes, gutted and roofless with only the walls remaining. Spray paint in hand, they wrote.
When the whirlwind passes, the wicked is no more.
Screw you Allstate!
I’m tired of all this Bushit!
He threw another Tums in his mouth and waited for his breakfast to settle. Suddenly the cellphone in his pocket vibrated, vibrating his whole body with it. Carmen.
“I’m so sorry, baby. Me and Trenton are fine. You be careful, okay? Don’t do anything stupid, okay?”
Only when the heavens cleaved open, when the rain hammered like nails, did Butch go inside his home. Since his family room/kitchen faced the dock, floor to ceiling glass windows gave him front row seats to the storm. He thought the TV would keep him company but each channel seemed more depressing than the next. Half were broadcasting hurricane updates, hurricane contingency plans, hurricane supply lists. Others showed live newsfeeds of stores being emptied, of children crying, of their fathers fighting over bottled water. Hardest to watch were the countries the storm already passed. They looked like a war zone. Homes were flattened. Trees were leafless. Stores looted.
Butch glanced again at the windows. Outside the wind blew in gusts, the rain blowing horizontally. Detritus of every shape and size flew past. Newspapers. Tree branches. Garbage pail covers. This newfangled hurricane glass was both a gift and a curse. He felt his ears pop. He heard the walls creaking. Any minute he expected to see a witch on a broomstick cackling by.
Once more his phone rang. Eunice.
“Butch, how you doing? You all right?”
The minute he heard her voice he felt his pulse slow. Though Eunice wasn’t family, she was the closest thing to family that he had. He had met her the day Clare married Clifford. An odd-looking woman. Someone so opposite to his wife, the comparison was laughable.
“Good Lord. Do you see what’s she’s wearing?” sniffed Berta. “It’s so dated it’s positively vintage.”
His wife was a vision in organza who nearly out-dressed the bride. A long flowing train, a sparkly wrap that covered her shoulders, a spattering of glass beads sewn into the skirt. Meanwhile Clare’s new mother-in-law wore a gray silk suit. A pair of sensible flats on her feet. Her crazy hair sprayed and subdued.
In truth, he had hardly noticed her. For over twenty years, Eunice sat on the sidelines, a pair of hands toting a casserole when a holiday came around. Butch considered himself 100% American. A church-going, flag waving member of the NRA. Eunice couldn’t have been more different. A Holocaust survivor. A liberal. A Jew. The food she cooked, the accent she spoke with–everything was foreign and unfamiliar, a remnant from another time and another place.
Looking back, he supposed it had made him uncomfortable. His tiny world, his golf course buddies, his Coral Gables clique, was simply a hall of mirrors. Everyone looked and sounded the same. He knew where they each vacationed. He knew who took their whiskey straight up and who liked their martinis stirred. Of course they weren’t all wealthy. If you didn’t have money, you just pretended to.
“Butch, do you hear me?”
For a few minutes the storm eased, pulling back its talons while it waited for another chance to strike. “I’m pacing like a caged animal, Eunice. Jorge’s dealing with the showrooms and Kip’s dealing with Jorge. Carmen and Trenton are parked at the hospital, and I’m going out of my mind.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “How’s your apartment holding up?”
For ten very long seconds she was quiet. “I’m at the nursing home, Butch. I couldn’t leave Isaac alone. They lost power here hours ago. They don’t have enough generators, Butch.” As if it were a secret she started whispering. “They have a few to keep the defibrillators going. For emergencies and that sort of thing. But there’s no A/C and no lights in the hallways. It’s a nightmare, Butch. People are already passing out from the heat.”
Butch was smart enough to keep quiet. What could he say?
“So I’m leaving and I’m taking Isaac with me. He’s light as a feather. I’ll steal a wheelchair. I’ll grab his things.”
Despite himself, Butch felt sorry for the guy. And more than a little jealous, too. He pictured the man’s head lolling on his swayed shoulders, a bag of urine by his side. Nearly five decades earlier, Eunice had thrown her husband out of the house. An alcoholic, an abuser and a user. Now, as he clung to life, Isaac had no one but Eunice to care for him.
“Eunice, head to South Dade General, okay? They’ll take care of Isaac and they’ll take care of you. Can you make it?”
Butch pictured her two mottled knuckles grabbing the steering wheel, the top of her head barely clearing the dashboard. But there was no doubt in his mind. In normal conditions, the drive would take around ten minutes. If anyone could negotiate a storm, it was Eunice.
“What about you, Mr. Tough Guy? Mr. I don’t need my cataracts fixed? Who’s gonna take care of you?”
Outside, the wind seemed to be switching directions. His neighbors’ boats were rolling and pitching. A disconnected power line soared by. Eunice, as usual, was right. Though it was a five star establishment, the best that money could buy, a nursing home was not a home. It was more like a convenience store, a QuickStop, someplace you shelved your loved ones long after their expiration dates had passed. The thirty mile drive to Fort Lauderdale wouldn’t be easy, but he needed to check on Berta.
“I’ll meet you at the hospital,” he said. “I’ll just be a little while.”
First Kip steered south toward the Perrine dealership. The winds were noticeably worse as he headed down US1. What traffic lights were working swung wildly, bouncing like a yoyo on a string. Only desperate souls or idiots were still on the road. To his shock, the lights were on in the showroom.
Inside he found Walter Hoffendorf manning the fort. Kip chuckled. Walter was the oldest salesperson his father employed. He’d been around as long as Kip could remember. More of a mascot than a functioning employee, Walter was absolutely useless. Still his dad kept him on the payroll because Butch was Butch.
“I got all the paperwork in the lockboxes,” said Walter. “But these new alarm systems have me stumped.”
The old man looked tattered. Coffee stains on his tie. What little hair he had was glued to his scalp.
“We’ve hired off-duty policemen as soon as the storm passes, Walter. We have it covered. Meanwhile I’m giving you ride home.”
Once again Kip was heading north. The radio said the eye was heading offshore which was the best news he had all day. It was the storm surge he was worried about. Even if Miami didn’t take the brunt of it, the sea water would cause havoc. A full moon, high tide, and a sinking city all added up to disaster.
The phone was connected to the speaker when it rang. Carmen.
“I’m not feeling too good, honey. It’s probably Braxton Hicks but they’re not sure.”
Kip leaned closer to the windshield. The wipers were just about useless. “I gotta check the house one last time, Car. Then I’m coming your way. How’s Trenton? Is Trenton behaving?”
“He’s been playing with my phone. You gonna get an awfully big bill this month. I think he’s been dialing Australia.”
While his house wasn’t as large as the one he grew up in, Kip was still proud of it. A barrel-tiled roof with Mediterranean finishes, it sat on a pretty spot on the Intracoastal. The minute he pulled onto his street his heart sank. Tree limbs blocked the road. Palm fronds were everywhere. A filthy lake of water covered the asphalt. Even though it was four o’clock in the afternoon, the houses were dark, the sun eclipsed.
Again he cursed the minivan. He fished the flashlight out of the glove compartment. Then he parked on the swale and walked the fifty yards to his driveway. The rain came down in needles, pricking him in the face, blinding him as he walked. Within seconds his windbreaker was soaked through.
The house would be watertight, he was sure of it. The elevation was high, the lawn pitched. It was the dock he was worried about. He pushed through the wind until he reached the patio. Even though he had drained a foot of water out of the pool, it was close to overflowing. Then he glanced towards the dock. The ocean was lapping over the seawall, throwing great gusts of mist with each wave.
The last item on his list was the boat. A forty foot Sea Ray and only two years old, he had paid more for that cabin cruiser than most people pay for their kids’ college tuitions. If he didn’t work quickly, not only would he lose the boat but the dock and pilings as well. Grabbing the cleats, he loosened one line than another. When he was done, he stood back and watched. The Ray was bobbing like crazy now, the hull surging then dipping then surging once more. Only one more line needed slack: the anchor. But to take care of that, he needed to jump onto the boat.
The expressway was slow-going. Wind buffeted the car as rain pelted the windshield. The visibility got worse each time another vehicle splashed by. Finally, Butch saw two rear lights plowing the road ahead of him. A power truck. He planted himself behind it and followed in its wake. He just hoped the guy was heading to Fort Lauderdale. A few minutes after the exit, Butch would be at Berta’s door.
While Isaac was living out his last days in a Medicaid special, Berta’s nursing home looked like a Four Seasons Hotel. A hair salon. Gym. Pool. Only the locks on the doors and the cameras in the ceiling told you different. Butch grabbed another cigar from his front pocket, popped it into his mouth, and started chewing.
The disease was progressing quicker than they had expected. At first there were only blips, sudden moments where Berta’s face drew blank and her mouth gaped open. Then for a few short seconds she’d disappear. She’d have no idea who or where they were.
It was like that movie, as if a tornado had scooped her up and plopped her down. One day she’d be back in the fifties, driving in her high school sweetheart’s jalopy. The next day she’d be in her old living room, her family gathered, her parents still alive, watching Kukla, Fran and Ollie on TV.
In truth, Butch felt like victim of the disease, too. Each visit had become more and more painful. But while he was miserable, Berta seemed happy. Perhaps happier than she’d ever been.
It was no secret that she had dalliances on the side. But Butch had considered them temporary glitches, minor bumps along the road. No one ever spoke of them. Butch had his business to attend to. There weren’t enough hours in the day to keep track of the car dealerships and babysit his wife as well. Berta was a force of nature. Sometimes you had to pull up your collar and let the winds blow.
But now things had changed. Suddenly Berta had become derailed. She was lust unchained. An embarrassment. It were as if every day had been Halloween and suddenly the masks were off. She flirted with doctors. She sat on orderlies’ laps. On more than one occasion Butch found her under the covers with a strange old man tucked beside her.
And the fact that it bothered him was the biggest embarrassment of them all.
“We check them for STDs once a month,” the staff assured him. “You wouldn’t believe how randy some of these old folks actually are.”
Looking back, it was his fault, not hers. He was the one who’d been complacent, who mistook greed for passion and success for happiness. Butch had been too busy to be lonely. Lonely? Loneliness was for losers, for people who spent their time handcuffed to blood pressure machines. Who got their jollies counting their pills and eating the early bird special.
He pulled into the parking lot and sighed. Above the door, a neon Welcome sign blinked on and off. Who was he kidding? Lonely? Of course he was lonely. Loneliness smacked him in the face every day.
As usual, he held his breath the moment he entered the lobby. No matter the cost, despite the pseudo perfumes plugged into the air vents, the place reeked of decay. If you lived long enough the end was never fast. A thousand small deaths and humiliations paved the way.
The halls were unusually empty as he made his way toward Berta’s room. Nurses and attendants were huddled at their stations. At every station a TV blared. Finally, he found a familiar face. Jamaican. Black. Friendly.
“I’m Butch, Berta’s husband. How’s she doing?”
“Today a good day. Come see for yourself.”
They found her inside the lounge parked in front of a table with a jigsaw puzzle. Her hair was swept up. Her lipstick neat. Her pearls in place. Yes. Today was a good day.
He leaned towards her, placing his face inches from hers, hoping against hope that she’d remember him. “Berta, it’s me. Butch.”
“Oh, sweetheart. I thought you’d never come.”
Then she leaned in closer and whispered in his ear. “Don’t tell anybody but there’s a storm heading our way. Be very very quiet. The people who live here, you know, are like little lost lambs. It doesn’t take much to scare them.”
Kip took off his water-soaked jacket. Then he got ready to jump. Standing on the dock, he hunched forward and reached for the boat’s windshield. He widened his stance; he bent his knees. But each time he reached out, the boat bucked like a bronco. The whole thing was comical really. Something you’d film on a video camera and post under Stupid Ideas.
Then all at once his jean pocket started to vibrate. Thank God thank God he invested in a waterproof phone.
“I’m at five centimeters,” said Carmen. “Where the hell are you?”
He’d never know what hit him. Maybe it was a lawn chair or the cover to someone’s barbecue. But one moment he was upright, and the next he was flat on his back. The phone flew from his hand. Then everything went black.
Over an hour later, Butch had Berta in the front seat and was clearing the expressway exit when his phone rang. With one hand he held onto the steering wheel while the other swiped the screen. A name popped up neon bright.
“Carmen. Is everything all right?”
In the background, a doctor was being paged, an elevator pinged, people were talking. But no Carmen.
He hung up the phone figuring it was a bad connection. A few seconds later it rang again. This time he heard his grandson Trenton giggling.
“Trenton, is Mommy there?” He started shouting, thinking if he spoke loud enough the baby would hand over the phone. “Where’s Mommy, Trenton? Is Mommy with you?”
Oh for the love of God, thought Butch. His thumb scrolled through his contact list while he negotiated the rain. Next he tried Kip. And when he couldn’t reach Kip, he called Jorge.
“Senor. How you doing?”
“You know where Kip is, Jorge?”
“He dropped Walter off a while ago. He should be at the hospital? Dios mio, he’s not at the hospital?”
Butch glanced at Berta. She was humming now, playing with her pearls. And in an instant Butch realized that another version of Berta had taken hold. Sometimes it happened that way. All at once she seemed inches smaller, her shoulders slumped forward, her neck at a tilt. Butch dialed another number.
“Is this South Dade General? I need the maternity ward. I’m looking for a possible patient. Carmen. Carmen Gutierrez. You got a Carmen Gutierrez?”
They had him on hold when he glanced again at Berta. “We’re almost there. Just a few more minutes.”
She looked at him blankly, as if a stranger had slid into his seat. “How much did you say the fare was?” Then to his shock, she wrapped her fingers around the door handle. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to get out right here.”
He double-checked the door lock and quickly pulled the car off the road. US1 was mostly empty. The stores were closed. Only a few cars splashed by. He reached over, there-thered her, patted her arm. Christ, he thought. This day can’t end soon enough. Then he pictured a nice warm shot of whiskey, imagined bringing that glass to his lips, remembered how good the burn felt as it worked its way down. Suddenly a voice boomed from the other end of the phone line.
“Butch, it’s me. Eunice. I’m here with Carmen. She’s having the baby, Butch. They’re wheeling her into delivery anytime. I parked Trenton with a nurse and Isaac in a hallway. But no one knows seems to know where Kip is.”
“Jesus,” said Butch. “I thought he’d be at the hospital with you.”
“So I called the police,” said Eunice. “They should be heading to his house about now.”
The light in his face was so bright it hurt.
“Are you Kip? asked the cop.
His head was pounding. When he touched his scalp, blood stained his hand. “Something hit me,” he said. “Then I went down.”
Another cop stepped out of the shadows. Meanwhile the wind was relentless, pushing the light back and forth, making the shadows jump. Kip couldn’t believe it was still raining. A steady drizzle pounded his nose, his eyes, his mouth. Kip blinked.
“Can you stand up?” they asked.
Each one grabbed an arm and lifted. One leg seemed to work but the other one quit.
“I think I busted my ankle when I slipped,” said Kip. “Shit. Got through four years of college football. Now a stupid hurricane named Irma takes me down.”
Together the three of them slogged toward the police car. As they turned on the headlights, another vehicle pulled up. The car looked familiar, and there was no doubt about the face. Once again Kip blinked.
The next time his phone rang it was Clare. Butch walked down the hospital corridor as the reception faded in and out. The emergency generators had powered on, the fluorescent lights casting a dull gray glow. Everything was beeping. Shorted computers. Blood pressure monitors. Even the incubators. Like a million heartbeats, the sounds echoed off the walls.
“I’ve been trying forever to reach you, Dad.”
“I’ve been looking at babies,” said Butch. “You’ve got a new niece named Camden. Five pounds five ounces. Cute as a bunny.”
“Yeah, they said they conceived her on their last visit.”
Eunice threaded her elbow around his then offered a megawatt grin. “Tanks to God they went to Maine. Can you imagine if they vacationed in Hackensack?”
“So we’re good,” said Butch. “I’ve got your mother double-parked with Isaac in a private room. Your dumbshit brother’s limping around the hospital. And Trenton? I have no idea where Trenton is. Probably sticking a screwdriver in an outlet.”
“And who’s got you, Dad? Who’s taking care of you?”
He squeezed Eunice’s hand and mumbled a small prayer. At the end of the day, there were still some things you could count on, things that were as regular as rain. An employee’s loyalty. The miracle of childbirth. A daughter’s devotion. For despite all the uncertainty, despite disease and disappointment, despite the pain you acknowledge and the pain you choose to hide– one door opens as another door closes.
Eunice, as always, smiled.
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Eclectica, The American Literary Review, and Arts and Letters. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of The Net, Best Small Fictions, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award and the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize.
A few years ago, I stood sweating in my yard Saturday morning and I thought of my dead sister Sylvie’s predictions about the climate apocalypse. The massive oak in my neighbor’s yard had broken about twelve feet up the trunk and fallen on my roof. At eight in the morning, the temperature was eighty-seven and heading toward a high of 106 for the fifth day in a row. We had no power, and word was that it would be out for at least a week. Another tree had smashed through the back fence and filled the back yard with a sudden jungle of limbs and leaves. It stretched all the way across until its small top branches rested bent and broken on the far fence. The wind-torn trees were ripped open and twisted. My wife Ginny and I walked the yard to survey the damage.
“If nothing else,” Ginny said, “it smells good.”
She was right. It smelled like fresh-cut firewood, like a high school wood shop.
Strange iridescent green insects flitted around, bugs who must normally live their entire existences up in the tops of those trees where we never see them. Knocked from their nests, baby squirrels swarmed the felled tree branches; small as hamsters they skittered and chirped and chased one another in confused play. There must have been forty of them. They were gone in a matter of days, I don’t know where, but I have an idea—our neighborhood is not short on cats.
Sylvie hated cats. She wanted to get rid of them. “They aren’t natural to the ecosystem,” she told me. “They are on a relentless campaign of bird murder.”
Trees and power poles were down all over town. So many roads were blocked it took Ginny and me two hours to find a way to the grocery store, only to discover the manager out front waving people away because their power was out too. Cars smashed, houses collapsed around tree trunks. Three deaths that I heard of, people crushed inside their homes.
The weather event that caused all this wreckage was a derecho (Spanish for direct or straight ahead). I had never heard of a derecho, and tornados are extremely rare here in Central Virginia—flooding is our regional disaster. This new, extreme and unrelenting heat created conditions right for this straight-on windstorm that blasted across the eastern U.S. at 80 to 100 miles per hour. The oak was on the roof right above Ginny and my bedroom. I could hear Sylvie’s voice in my head saying, “See?” and “Do you believe me now?”
One evening when Ginny and I took Sylvie some matzo ball soup I’d made from mom’s recipe—except I used Saltines because it’s what I had handy—all she wanted to talk about was this damn article she’d given me to read about global warming. Statistics. Global catastrophe. Doom and gloom of biblical proportions. Weather out of control. People out of control.
Finally I said, “Syl, can we just shut up, eat soup and watch TV?”
She looked at me, imploring me with her earnest eyes, her bruised eyes that were sinking into her skull. “Don’t you get it?” she yelled right into my face. Her breath was hot, coppery and cancer-rotten. “It’s close, closer than anyone knows.”
Ginny said, “Well, tonight we’re sitting her together eating soup and watching TV.”
“Who knows,” Syl said, smoothing her blanket over her legs. “I might even live long enough to see it.”
Sylvie had diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL in the literature). By the time she got around to getting the swollen glands checked, and they did the whole chemo and Rituxan thing, it had metastasized, was in her stomach, which everyone knows is a death sentence. Sylvie was so sick that we kept a full glass of water by her bed because barfing the water immediately back up was less unpleasant than dry heaving.
Ginny made more sacrifices than I did. She used up her personal and sick days at work, and then took unpaid leave to help mom care for Sylvie.
Five months after the diagnosis, my sister was a walking skeleton, when she did walk. She was often too tired. Mostly she sat on pillows, under dirty pilled blankets, in dad’s old easy chair at mom’s house, books and journal articles and videos about global warming scattered around her. She hadn’t long to live, but she was determined to use every minute of it preaching her environmental gospel.
One day she shoved an article at me that she had torn out of a Rolling Stone from a stack in her doctor’s office, by Bill McKibben, called “The Reckoning.” The red and black picture accompanying the article is what looks like an Easter Island head facing up, sinking into a charred earth, breathing a solid flow of numbers in or out of its open mouth. Behind the head, the world is engulfed in flames, oilrigs rise on the red horizon, trees are leafless and dead. Everything is ruined. Yellow flames lap at the face. There are no people. The lead in: “Climate change has some scary new math…three simple numbers…global catastrophe…”
Syl had passages highlighted for me, had created hysterical marginalia for my further enlightenment. McKibben writes that the “acceptable” gigatons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, 565, will raise global temperatures by two degrees, which doesn’t sound like much, but will change the shape of continents, make entire island nations disappear, make the weather go bat shit crazy. However, the actual gigatons already in the big oil companies’ reserves for sale, 2,795, will increase the global temperature by eleven degrees and “create a planet straight out of science fiction.”
Sylvie was nonreligious at the end of her life. She’d left the church yet again, which I was glad of because she could be a little self-righteous and Ginny and I were spending so much time over there. Mom needed the help because she is not well herself; we’ll be starting the routine over, taking care of her before long. I swear it seemed like her decrepitude accelerated after Sylvie’s death.
One other evening before Sylvie died, we were settling in for a few hours of TV, and I said, “I’m making a rule for tonight. Nobody can mention global warming.”
Ginny and Mom both said, “Deal.”
“If you see someone in a boat heading for a waterfall and you don’t yell and warn them, what kind of person does that make you?” Sylvie said.
Mom got up to go check on some vegetable broth she was simmering. The whole house smelled of rich and healthy food. Mom made her own broth from fresh ingredients, and then tossed the sapped and soggy vegetables into her composter, which I jokingly called the creature feeder because she couldn’t keep the animals out of it.
“In a way,” Ginny said, “we’re all in the same boat.” She said, “Let’s just be in our little boat together tonight and enjoy each other.”
“You’re not in my boat,” Syl said bitterly. She scratched at her scalp under her mangy chemo hair. “You are not in my boat.”
“I know,” Ginny said. Ginny is the picture of sunburned good health. She runs marathons. She plays league softball.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She stared at the floor.
This derecho gave us a fleeting glimpse of what the end of the world might feel like. Ironically, when the windstorm hit so unexpectedly that Friday night, Ginny and I were already in our basement, settled in and binge watching this show about post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Our daughter Gracie was at her mother’s house for the summer.
On the show, a chef who closed her restaurant for work elsewhere after Katrina destroyed the town comes back for a visit. She rides the trolley, gazes out at her drowned city, and weeps. A singing vagabond, played by the real singing vagabond Steve Earle, has just been mugged and shot dead in the street. Cops have shot kids, people are desperate, some still without homes, some trying to cobble a life back together, exposed to the elements and to the predators—both in masks and in dapper suits—running the streets. People are angry. They are fearful and desperate. John Goodman’s character commits suicide.
The TV zipped to black as the overhead lights went dark. Upstairs, the wind was loud as an endless subway train on top of the house—within that roar were the gunshot cracks and banshee squeals of trees breaking and shearing and crashing to earth.
After five days in the dark, our electricity came back on. I spent those days cooking all our meals on the backyard grill. I even made coffee on the grill, and sat outside in the hot morning air listening to the chainsaws and chippers and sirens ring out in every direction as I drank it. It was a little uncomfortable—and we still have a tree looming over our bedrooms; we are out of that side until the arborist can get a crane and remove the tree without destroying the house. We haven’t suffered. Not really. It was more like a window to the suffering of New Orleans cracked open and we got a glimpse, then it closed and we were once again out of the brutal sun in our cool homes.
Though a number of limbs rested on top of the house, there wasn’t much damage to the roof. A massive white oak outside our daughter Gracie’s window—which we call Gracie’s Oak—caught the bulk of the falling tree. That is where it still hangs, waiting for our arborist to secure a crane, the two trees’ branches clasped together like hands sprouting out into the sky a gnarled and broken here is the church… see all the people.
Our arborist has names for everything. The way this tree hit my tree and slid back onto its own trunk is known in the business as a barber’s chair. A large branch broken off and hanging in a tree is called a widow maker. I know a woman here in town whose husband died in just this way: they were at a neighborhood barbecue; he was holding a beer and watching his daughters play with the other kids, and a fat limb fell on his head and killed him while burgers and dogs smoked on the grill.
In the days following the storm, from the backyard, through the tree’s twisted branches I saw truck after battered truck of profiteers, riding the streets like revolutionaries, gripping their chainsaws like guns. Many houses emptied by those fleeing the storm and the heat were being broken into by looters. A gang of homeowners near us discovered just such a thief one night. In a fit of vigilante justice, they chased the guy down, cornered him, and beat the hell out of him Little League ball bats. How little it takes to collapse polite suburban niceness into raging violence. How easily it feels as if everything is flying apart, as if the end is near.
Sylvie’s end-time obsession was not new to her illness. She had been on one desperate campaign to save the world after another ever since we were kids. I can tell you the exact night it all began. It was in the late seventies, when mom and dad had tried to save their marriage with religion—it didn’t work. They dragged Syl and me along to church three times a week, and to see every crackass evangelist in a three-piece suit who rolled through with his eponymous crusade.
They loaded us up and carted us to this end-times crusade in the Huntington Civic Center one night. People poured into the parking lot in cars, church busses and vans. The evangelist preached on how horrible it was going to be for the unsaved after the Rapture, a man with coal black hair and a coal black suit and something like a flat Michigan accent. His wife was very small but sang like an opera diva—I remember the two of them making jokes from the stage about her being some kind of massive voice in a ninety-eight pound body. Rexella, Roxella, something like that.
His descriptions of the horrors to be rained down on earth scared Sylvie and me witless, and we nearly ran down front when he called the invitation. A man with a bushy mustache and tangy coffee breath took us together to the edge of the stage. He had a fat red tie with a knot big as a fist held under his chin, and he led us in the sinner’s prayer, and gave us both copies of the Gospel of John and made us promise to read it.
Sylvie had on an Izod shirt with green, red, and blue horizontal strips that night, and her hair was short as a boy’s for gymnastics. She gave me that huge grin, goofy and sincere, while the man who’d led us in the prayer told us we needed to start reading our Bibles and praying, and find a good church to go to, did we have a good church to go to? I was trying to avoid the pain and horror of the Great Tribulation, nothing else. The night faded in my mind like the memory of a troubling horror movie seen too young. Sylvie though, she got a good long swig of the doomsday Kool-Aid.
She became involved in this weird end-times scripture code breaking: the bear represented Russia, and China was the dragon—who but an idiot couldn’t see it. “There’s no eagle mentioned,” she told me. “The United States will not be around. Who knows, maybe the USSR will blow us from the face of the earth before then.” She was in seventh grade. Twelve years old.
Sylvie left the church in junior high. She ran with dope smokers, wore punk rock spiked hair, torn shirts, leather, and face piercings. She marched in anti-nuke rallies, protested Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, and called herself an Anarchist. Then in high school, she had another radical conversion back into church. She swung back and forth like that, but she was always on the front line of the fight to save the planet. It was as if she would be yelling across the picket line, suddenly step across the line, turn around and resume her yelling back the other way. It might have had something to do with her sexuality and the church, her inability to settle in with one group and stay there. I can’t say for sure.
Her second conversion was in the late eighties—mom and dad were finished with religion by this time, long divorced, mom remarried, dad drinking and job hopping, trying to get his shit together. Sylvie joined this whacked out Fundamentalist church. When Bush Sr. rolled into the first Gulf War, Syl wrote me several letters begging me to get saved because it was clear that the world was coming to an end.
I found one of the letters the other night, after Mom and I sorted through Sylvie’s things. She sent it to me in February of 1991. Here it is, just to give you an idea in her own words what I’m telling you about my sister. I haven’t changed a single word of the letter:
I just got my report card (4 A’s and 2 B’s) it’s not as good as I’d hoped, it never is, but it will do. My A in history is all that really matters to me. The more I study it, the more I understand biblical prophecy. I think the Russian people (Gog and Megog in Jeremiah) or I should say person (Gorbachev) will play an important role in the “global peace” that will set the stage for Jesus’ second coming. We clearly see that it cannot be Saddam because Babylon is going to be wiped out.
While my friends and teachers hail Gorbachev for bringing peace and freedom to Eastern Europe and the USSR, I’m skeptical. From studying history, I’m beginning to wonder if glasnost and perestroika are a deliberate ploy to set up the West for its final destruction, by creating the false peace that the Bible prophesies. By freeing Eastern Europe he neutralizes Western Europe and destroys NATO. The U.S. and Western Europe then take over the financial burdens of Eastern Europe.
The neutralization of Western Europe through a great peace has been on the Kremlin’s drawing board for years. And since 1948, when Israel once again became a nation, the only thing left to happen before Christ returns is the world peace, and Russia marching on Israel. We are close Jeff. We are so close. Gorbachev is using religion to unify his country. But he is embracing a false religion. Roman Catholicism. And many Russians will be misled. The Pope, like every pope before him, has dreamed of uniting Greek Orthodoxy and the Roman church. With Europe united and a uniform religion spreading, the Roman Empire will once again rise, just as prophesied. In the Middle East because of the current crisis democracy is seeping in, thus another possibility of a united world living in a false time of peace and prosperity before the final battle. Please, Jeff, make a decision before it’s too late.
I love you,
Near the end, when we were just trying to show her some kind of enjoyment where we could, Ginny and I took her to see a movie by Tim Burton, her favorite director. We both loved the old short feature of Frankenweenie he did back in 1984, so it was going to be a treat. This was a new 3-D, stop action version, and we were seeing it at the new IMAX.
It was not one of her good days, but insisted she was up for it. I rented a wheelchair with swing-away footrests from Bedford Medical Supply, paid $175 for one month. It was grey and came with a detachable desk arm. Ginny padded it with a couple of mom’s quilts—one her own mother made, and she’d ignorantly sewn in these designs that looked suspiciously like swastikas, so Syl and I always called it the Nazi quilt, laughed at it, told mom to hide it when people came over so we wouldn’t lose friends.
We picked her up and eased her into the chair. The plastic squeaked and Syl groaned. She didn’t weigh anything at all; I was afraid of holding to hard, afraid I might break something. Her arms were skeletal, bruised, scabbed. I pulled a happy pink sweater over her head, and then replaced her knit cap. I piled the quilts on.
“Look at me,” she said. “I’m Jack the Pumpkin King.”
I stopped at the dollar store and left the radio on for Syl as I ran in and grabbed some Goobers and Raisinets (Sylvie smiled ironically at the green bubble on the yellow box advertising natural source of fruit antioxidants) and Twizzlers to sneak into the movie. I bought one Sprite for Syl and one Ginny and me to share. I didn’t want to hurt Syl’s feelings, but I didn’t want to drink after her. A sickening rot hangs in front of a stomach-cancer mouth. We parked the wheelchair in the back of the theater, Ginny and I helped her down a few rows, and we sat in the new seats that leaned back like airplane seats.
Halfway into the movie, Syl took off her 3-D hipster glasses and starts coughing. She’d only had a few sips of Sprite, and no candy of course. She hacked and coughed, and then retched onto the Nazi quilt folded over her lap. A woman turned and looked at her, then turned back to the screen. Ginny folded the quilt closed and rolled it away from Syl’s lap. I whispered, “We have another one. We’ll switch out.”
Sylvie retched again. A dry heave that ended in a vocalized groan.
The woman turned around and said to me, “Please.”
“She’s very sick,” I said.
“Then take her to a hospital.”
Syl shouted, “Fuck you.” She dry heaved again and groaned.
The woman said, “Sir. Please.” A child beside the woman rose up and pulled off his glasses to get a good look at us.
Sylvie cursed her again. I lifted her from the seat.
Ginny stood and leaned over the woman and said into her ear, at normal conversational volume, “God forbid you get stomach cancer.”
Ginny gathered the quilts and followed as I carried Syl like an overgrown infant up the aisle. Sylvie hissed into my ear, “God damn it, I’m not leaving before it’s over.”
One month ago, Ginny went into her room in the morning and found her on her back in bed, already hours dead, the blood pooling at the bottoms of her arms making them striped blue on bottom white on top, the difference as stark as a dipped Easter egg.
It looks like the new regime is out to gut the EPA, even as the scientists there scramble to save their research and fight back against Big Oil. I saw in the news that the White House tried to make them delete the climate change web page, but I visited it the other day and it is still there. It is not for the faint of heart.
This past winter was the warmest winter ever recorded here so far. It is March and for the first time ever, my Swiss chard grew through the winter months. Another storm came crashing through yesterday evening, with pounding rain, lightning and thunder, ominous sky and heavy wind. Ginny and I once again heard a tree cracking outside the dark windows, so we fled to the basement. As we descended the steps,
Earlier Ginny had made Thai chicken and peanut noodles and put it in the fridge. She brought the bowl down with a chilled bottle of wine. She set up dinner on the table in front of the couch, lit by a green Coleman lantern that had two soft white tubes glowing vertically inside. We ate and drank wine in the soft white light.
With the storm raging above, Ginny says to me, “Can’t watch TV. Whatever are we going to do?” She grins at me, half her face illuminated by the soft fluorescent lamplight, the other half in total darkness.
“I guess we’ll just have to have sex,” she says.
Lightning strobes down the stairs from the kitchen above. Cracks and rumbles of thunder follow. Ginny scoots closer to me, and her pale arm reaches for the black knob on the lantern. The basement goes completely dark but for the flashes from above. Her mouth is close to my face. Her warm breath smells of garlic, peanut sauce, and wine. She says, “Gracie comes back from her mother’s house tomorrow, you know.”
“What if the world really is ending,” I say. “What if Sylvie’s right?”
“Eventually,” Ginny says, “she will be. But I think we’ll make it through tonight.” She kisses the side of my mouth in the dark.
Vic Sizemore’s short story collection I Love You I’m Leaving is forthcoming from Big Table publishing. His fiction and nonfiction are published in Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, [PANK] Magazine, Reed Magazine and elsewhere. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award, and has been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best of the Net, and several Pushcart Prizes.
While both our parents are at work at the grocery store across town, Leigh and me sit on the roof of our trailer. She’s thirteen and I’m eleven. Even though it’s after dinner and there’s only a thumbnail’s worth left of the sun, the roof is still warm from the August day in Alabama. It heats us through like an oven. From up here, Redfield looks different. Smaller. Like a little air has been let out of everything. Highway 10 makes a clean part through the kudzu growing like wild, untamed hair along the side of the road. It weaves in and out through the chain-link fence, wrapping around our trailer park as if it’s holding us in.
Across the way, the military base is still busy as an ant hill even as the sun sets. Leigh and me watch the cars drive in and out until it turns dark and the heat lightning starts. In Redfield, watching heat lightning is like watching a fireworks show. That’s what we’re doing on the roof in the first place. We’re watching for heat lightning.
“Jessie, it’s coming,” Leigh says. “I feel it.” She’s sprawled out on the roof, her body open to the sky. It’s been two months since I first followed her out her bedroom window, up the tree, and onto the roof, feeling as if I deserved to, having started my period then, making me closer to what she was. But I still keep my knees pulled close to my chest, still afraid something bad might happen.
“I can’t get my eyes open,” I say, struggling to pry apart the eyeliner and mascara gluing my lashes together like a sealed envelope. Before we’d gone up, Leigh made me over into a Redfield High Ruby. In my town, us girls dream of growing up to sparkle under the football stadium lights in a silver-sequined one piece, cut off at the thigh and clasped at the back of the neck. To have smoky eyes, traced in lines as dark as shadows, and bow tie lips, red as candied apples. Our next-door neighbor, Jeanine, made it last year. The first Friday night we saw her lined up with all the others, it took a while before we could pick her out. Like one of those pictures drawn out in colorful dots that trick you at first, making you go cross-eyed, but finally show themselves after you’ve stepped back and looked at it for a while.
“There!” Leigh yells.
“Missed it,” I say. “Why’d you put so much on me this time?”
“Takes more to cover up that baby face of yours,” Leigh says. She was always saying things like this, talking about my baby face.
“It’s getting thinner,” I would tell her, and she would say, “There’s a lot more to growing up than that,” and I knew what she meant and I didn’t, both at the same time.
“Here,” she says, unclipping a link from her bracelet made of safety pins. I manage a small slit of sight just in time to see her coming at me with the point of the pin. I jerk away. “Hold still.” She works my lashes apart.
“There,” she says. “Now, next flash, pose.” I frame my face in a V below my chin, and Leigh puckers out her lips into a kiss.
Ever since her thirteenth birthday earlier that summer, when Leigh and me were on the roof after her party and caught Jeanine making out behind the trailer park’s pool with her boyfriend, she makes the kiss face whenever we pretend the lightning is a camera.
If it hadn’t been for Bear coming to scoop out the dead rat floating on the surface, I think Jeanine and her boyfriend would’ve kept going for a while. Jeanine says Bear’s always catching people doing stuff at school, coming out from the shadows of corners and from behind doors and things. Like a bear out of his cave. That’s half of how he got his name. The other half being he can predict down to a field goal the final score of any Alabama football game. Jeanine says he didn’t get enough oxygen as a baby, so his brain can only hold enough words to talk about Alabama football. She laughs when she says it, but it doesn’t seem all that different from anyone else in this town.
Because Bear’s daddy is in the army, he lives over at the base, but I see him when he drives to our trailer park in that car of his, with the one headlight and squeaky door, to fish out the roaches and crushed-up cans from the pool. “I do the job all for my baby,” he says, talking about that car, “so one day I can take her and get the hell out of Dodge. If you stay in this town,” he says, “you’ll be wearing a uniform to work one way or another. And I don’t wear uniforms.” Bear’s been a sophomore at Redfield High for almost two years, but because of his strict army daddy, everybody knows he’s not going anywhere until he’s got his diploma. And when he does, he’ll be leaving with the army.
That night after her birthday, Leigh and me heard Bear as he started “oohing” at Jeanine and her boyfriend before they finally pulled apart. “You’re gonna get stuck like that,” he was telling them, laughing so loud it sounded like an echo. He was always saying things like this. That’s why people hate him, Jeanine says.
“There it goes,” Leigh says, breaking her pose and letting her lips fall loose as another flash of heat lightning passes. “I think that must be what it’s like.”
“What?” I ask.
“Like heat lightning,” she says. “But in your stomach.”
In the time right after the sun goes down and before the moon comes up, everything is gray. The bleachers Leigh and me sit on blend into the light as we watch the Rubies kick and high step at band practice. We usually stay all practice, taking turns being different girls. But now that the football team practices at night—too many boys were passing out in the sun—Leigh’s always looking across the field.
It’s been four days since the heat lightning, and Leigh says if she doesn’t get kissed soon, she’ll dry up like an old prune. “Prune’s aren’t old,” I say. “Old people eat them. They’re just plums, dried up real small.”
“You don’t get it,” she says and moves up a bleacher. “What about him?” Leigh points to a saxophone player.
“Too old,” I say.
“Him?” She points to a drummer.
“I don’t know.”
“What about Bear?” Leigh asks as he laps the football field, wiping his sweat on his shirt sleeve as he rounds the corner. Because of his grades, Bear can’t play football, but he still comes out to practice, circling the field around and around like a vulture forced to run instead of fly.
“Gross,” I say. “Don’t you remember all Jeanine’s stories?” Last year, before he failed again, Bear was in Jeanine’s art class. One day she said he squirted hot glue on the tip of his finger then stabbed his skin with the point of a safety pin, saying, “No pain, no gain.” “He was trying to play real tough,” Jeanine said. “But then he started bleeding all over the place. There was so much we thought it had to be paint.” Seems like Bear was always taking jokes and things too far.
He rounds the corner again, this time shedding his shirt. “Maybe he’s not so bad,” Leigh says, stretching out her legs in the space between us. Her shorts are bunched up high around her thighs, and I’m surprised to find her legs shaved above the knee where mine aren’t. And I get it, all at once, why a girl would do that.
It was right after Jeanine made Rubies that she got her boyfriend. On the days they go parking after practice, Jeanine gives us the signal from the field, arching one eyebrow so we don’t follow her to the car, but start walking home instead. It’s just a few roads over, and Leigh and me usually dance all the way. These days, I’m the only one dancing because Leigh’s still thinking about kissing.
I do a turn and the red dirt flies up from my feet. It hangs in the air a while. Coming up to the trailer park, all the houses seem to stand tall, making the wood carved beaver on the Beaver Creek Trailer Park sign seem more like a squirrel or a large rat.
“What about getting kissed in the rain?” Leigh asks.
“What about it?” I ask, leaping into the air so that I don’t really hear her answer. Before I ask what she said, a loud noise comes from behind. It’s Bear and that car of his that’s always winking.
“Hey, ladies. Need a ride?”
“What? A few feet?” Leigh asks, real sassy, like she’s being mean or flirting, and I know which.
“You snooze, you lose,” he says. “Later, gators.” He grinds past us real fast, his engine clanking like a screw has come loose somewhere, but can’t find its way out.
That night, there’s no heat lightning. Our parents are working late, so Leigh and me sit in the bathroom and make each other into Rubies.
“Like this,” she says, opening her eyes wide. Leigh places her tongue at the corner of her mouth and re-traces my eyes.
“Do I look like one yet?” I ask after Leigh shoves the eyeliner cap back on until it clicks.
“Not yet.” She tugs at her bracelet of safety pins. “Your lashes are too short. They’re sticking together again.” She unclips the pin. “Hold still.”
“No,” I say. “No more.”
She looks back at me with her Panda-ringed eyes, and I wonder what boys see when they look at us with makeup and if wearing it long enough could turn us into different people after a while.
“So what about kissing in the rain?” she asks, widening my eye with her finger, trapping me.
“What about it?” Because I can barely move my lips with Leigh’s safety pin that close to my eyes, the words are more like sounds without endings.
“I think it’s romantic,” she says and sits back, and I blink hard, knowing I’m leaving mascara prints on my cheeks.
“I think it would be wet and cold,” I say, and Leigh just shakes her head no. Then she closes her eyes, and I know she’s thinking about kissing because I can feel the heat from her skin. Almost like a fever.
The next day, Jeanine is arching her eyebrow almost half-way up her forehead before practice is even over. Dark clouds sit low in the sky, so Leigh and me decide to take off early. We cut across the parking lot just as a flash of lightning strikes in between two clouds. It’s more than heat lightning. A clap of thunder follows, and when Bear’s car pulls up next to us, we’re ready to get in before he even offers.
His car makes a whirring sound as it cuts through the humid Alabama night, speeding down Highway 10 on the way back to the trailer park. Even with all the windows down, the whole car smells like the vanilla air freshener ticking back and forth on the rear-view mirror.
At the red light, his car rocks back into a stop. Pennies and chewed up pen caps tumble along the floor. When the light turns green, he looks over at Leigh in the passenger seat. “You ever played freeze out?” he asks.
“What?” she asks, but he doesn’t answer. He just turns back around. In the next moment, the car lurches through the intersection. We’re going in a straight line, but it feels like we’re climbing—higher and higher. The wind rushes through the car, tangling my hair in knots.
Because we’re going so fast, I don’t notice at first when it starts to rain, and I’m so cold I could die.
By the time Bear slows down, it’s raining so hard he almost misses the turn into the trailer park, and the car bounces off the curb on the way in. When the car door opens without a sound, it’s as though the rain has turned the whole world mute, so I don’t hear the splash of Bear’s cannonball into the pool, followed by Leigh’s smaller one. I’m in such a hurry to get out of the rain I almost run right past them until Bear’s laugh breaks the sound barrier and I follow its echo into the pool.
“Get in,” he yells. “Before you get wet.” He laughs again. The echo follows. A shiver runs down me, and when the latch doesn’t open right away, I almost turn back.
But then Leigh says, “Get in. It’s warm,” so I work at the gate a little more until it finally swings open.
The water is colder than I expected, so I don’t move right away, but just float on the surface with the dead roaches. I can see a fuzzy picture of Bear and Leigh’s legs standing at the opposite end of the pool. When I come up for air, the rain is so hard it parts my hair.
“Leigh,” I yell and swim toward them, close enough to see Bear’s tree trunk legs moving in slow motion toward Leigh. Before long, he’s wrapped them around her, and I watch his hand move underneath her waistband. It stays there, moving real fast like it’s trapped, and I’m almost drowning because I think it’s a dream, and when I finally come up for air, they’re kissing real tight. Leigh’s got her eyes wide open. For a moment, I wonder if I should leave, but the rain starts coming down even harder until I can barely make out the two of them.
“Leigh,” I yell again. I hear splashing, like maybe a struggle, and before I know it, I’m being yanked out of the pool, Leigh’s arm is hooked in mine, and together we’re moving far away, toward our trailer where she releases me and without saying anything, starts into a jog until she’s out of sight.
The storm passes, and when Leigh’s back, she goes straight into the bathroom and comes out with her face so naked she’s disappearing.
“Let’s go to the roof,” she says, and once we’re there I say, “Where’s your bracelet?” And she says, “Lost it in the pool.”
Then we don’t talk. She wraps her arms around her legs, and I stare at the chain-link fence, silver in the lightning, that holds together what feels like is coming apart.
Hallie Johnston is a fiction writer from the South. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Miami. Her work has appeared in the Southern Humanities Review.
You’ve got to drill a hole deep in the trunk for inoculation against infection, or infestation, rather. And then the syringe looks just like one that you’d get yourself, for a vaccine. It’s weird, or it looks weird I guess, to give a shot to a tree.
Somebody parked by the side of the road once while I was doing it, giving one, and she got out and she didn’t even ask any questions about what was going on, what I was doing, she just started yelling at me, right on the side of the highway, about how it looked evil and was, you know, at the very least unnatural, whatever it was I was doing. And the forest has been through enough. And I said “Ma’am, ma’am, I work for the state, I’m supposed to be doing this, it’s on purpose and to keep it alive.”
But she wouldn’t hear it, she said, “Better to let it go natural than by plastic and chemicals and humanity.”
And I said, “Well, you know, that depends a lot on your definition of natural. It’s the Emerald Ash Borer is the danger ma’am, it’s a bug. An Asian bug. From far far away. And it’s boring, like a hole, like its name, boring into the trunks for warmth, parasitically, and cutting off the nutrition supply. And it’s organic, you know, natural that way, because it’s a bug, but this isn’t its habitat and it’s a different sort of offense against nature for it to be here at all, sweeping through and committing this sort of very natural genocide. The death toll in America is going to be in the billions.” I said it just exactly like that.
And she looked me in the eye with this hot, fiery, mean look and she said to me, “And you think you can do something about it?”
And I said to her, “Well ma’am, it’s still unclear, but we don’t really think so. Our efforts so far have been ineffective.”
And I was being sincere and honest and sort of raw and emotional, because that’s tough to admit, your impotence is, but I guess it didn’t come off that way, or she was confused or didn’t quite get it, or maybe I just didn’t understand her so I wasn’t saying the right things. But what she did was she spit on me, on my chest, on my uniform, and climbed back in her car and peeled away. I only saw her the one time.
I got her license plate number, but I didn’t send it to anybody because I felt more confused than assaulted. People don’t usually protest a last stand.
The treatment, the inoculation, is an annual one, and it’s expensive. And I’m not certain it will work forever. There are eight billion Ash trees in the U.S. and more in Canada and it’s been predicted, by scientists, specialists, entomologists, that ninety-five percent of them will die in the next decade or so because of the Borer.
It’s a pretty little green shiny grasshopper looking bug.
We didn’t notice it at all or take it very seriously at first, so it spread around in a big way before we knew it was an issue. We means North America, the continent and everybody in it, a lot of us. It was alarming, and scary, to realize how far it had crept in without us realizing. But what’s also true is that it wouldn’t really have mattered if we’d known and tried to catch it right away. It’s really a very efficient killer of trees, and besides the annual inoculation there’s no way at all we know how to stop it.
The way I look at it sometimes at night when I can’t sleep and want something to hold onto is that real, true Hopelessness is rare, and that I should savor it while it’s here, washing over me. More often there are answers and ways out of difficult situations than real, complete hopelessness.
Most of where I work is Ash, and with where we are and what’s predicted, it should mostly be gone within the decade. I understand it, definitely, but I find it difficult to picture, to imagine.
My uncle, my dad’s way older brother by fifteen years, was this very rugged, handsome geologist who had a picture of himself shirtless, bronzed, sitting on a camel in front of the pyramids during a business trip he once had to take to Cairo. And I would look at it a lot, the picture, when I was over there, at his house, and think, wow, perfect. And then, when I was in seventh grade, he got cancer.
But he didn’t die. It was operable. They got it in time, like we never could have with the Ash Borer. It was jaw cancer, though, he chewed tobacco and that’ll happen. So they
took out his entire lower half of his face. He still had skin and lips and everything, but they weren’t connected to a chin. So he would always be drooling and mumbling and stuffing his tongue back into his face with it slipping back out over and over again.
He fell off very suddenly in my brain, I was twelve, from a perfect Egypt adventure man into a cripple, and I could never really look at him the same. He got married, later, to a lady he met after the surgery. She said he was a beautiful man and all you had to do to see that was to look at his soul. But that doesn’t make any sense in a literal way, and I’ve never been able to understand.
I hope I land on a similar sort of senseless and spiritual love when everything around isn’t the same sort of beautiful I’m used to. It’s true that everything here didn’t used to be like this. It’s looked different before, a bunch of times, more than we know even, since the beginning of forever, dinosaurs and ice ages and everything, but I’ve never actually had to watch it change. They’re easy to mention, the phases of the world and the universe, but we’re not used to witnessing devastation in the slow way it washes over.
I think it’s going to be awesome, in the pure, overwhelming, literal way of the word. Awesome. And I don’t know if I’ll be able to take it.
Robert Zander Norman is a graduate of NYU’s Dramatic Writing program. He is from San Jose, California and is the founder and publisher of curtainboybooks. His plays have been performed in New York and the Bay Area.
They weren’t up in the Mac half a day before Ocean finally, truly understood Canada’s national industry (the family industry). Rory was right: thugs in trucks. Paid barbarians. Mad Max: Fury Strip Mine. Fort McMurray wasn’t so much a city as a giant probation office.
“The Nazis had their Brownshirts, the US have their Marines. We’ve got drunk rednecks in trucks,” Rory said. “Meet our exulted bullies.”
Fort Mac itself was bad, an oil city of pollution, drugs, bar fights and the sex trade. The gender ratio was easily three men for every one woman. Even with her boyishly short hair, Ocean was cat-called constantly. You there, with the tits and the pulse. The local cops earned less than any kind of oil-sands pipe-fitter, truck driver or smash-smasher, and they were thin on the ground. Another pair of drunk Sanders pounding themselves senseless at the Spigot, The Pipeline or The Patch? Let that sort itself out. Overworked officers might think Sluggy MacSlug should just go ahead and fight himself out of the gene pool, but of course Ocean could tell at a glance that all these amorous Maritimers had wives and 2.4 kids back home. All the excuse they needed to work at smelting planetary death. My wedding ring? Nah, don’t want to lose it on shift.
The fights barely got policed. The drugs and the hookers just slightly more so. Back when some camps briefly tried drug testing, half of workers tested positive for cocaine and residual THC. “And that,” Rory qualified, “was with a booming trade in clean piss samples.” The few times they went out to bars—with her hit on and him invited to fight every five minutes—they overheard cocaine referred to as “the white fuel for the black.” Weed was “green gas” and “CAT fuel.” No one was going to stay in the city driving a taxi for $10 an hour when they could head out to the strip mines of Encrude, Synthcrude and ReachCor to drive a CAT haul truck for at least seventy. Without taxis, Fort Mac was awash in drunk drivers, a fact these urban cyclists could feel in just seconds.
Probation office, frontier trading post for vice, one large bordello and a glorified airport, Fort Mac was bad. The isolated, fence-enclosed, on-site work camps patrolled by private security outside the city were far worse. Military compounds, walled cities, prisons with six-figure bars.
Not that they were pure anymore, not with their mission car and their undercover paycheques. Strange to see how differently Rory used the Green money from his own (and, she just started to admit, hers). “The fucking insurance oligarchy,” he had seethed back in Calgary when they were, however reluctantly, car shopping. “As soon as they see that I haven’t been insured, up goes the rate by three-hundred percent. If we do all the car through you, we can max the op funds.” He was proud to not have a diver’s licence. “Car equals identity?! This is how we validate ourselves, with our burning kill machines? No thanks.”
Maximize the operational funds. Neither eco-justice nor crime nor irony eased her discomfort at her vigilante lover sounding more like her dad than her dad usually did. A father who regards eight hours at the office as a half-day can easily leave work at work (especially when Andrea had kept the home and family running). Away from him geographically and emotionally, Ocean started to see that Blake clocked the hours but then had other people, always had other people, actually operationalize his plans. Don Petroleone. Not true for her and Rory, autonomous cell in the Green Army. Well, autonomous until the Fort Mac stage of Project Cauldron II.
So strange to suddenly see Rory the former bike courier stretching every dollar for green vengeance when he didn’t in life. Back in Calgary she’d once teased, “Do you get paid in cash or just bike parts?” By the time he made Calgary’s gouging rent and stocked up on vegan staples (brown rice vinegar: the champagne of vinegar) he wasn’t stuffing any mattresses with surplus cash. What little remained was either turned into a new bike accessory this week or saved for one the next. Anything to perfect the ride, to better chase that flashing silver fix. Rory was profligate but his alias Ryan was parsimonious. Ocean had a unique name, even if she did now regard it as more of her dad’s greenwashing. Undercover, she went by Sarah. Just another ponytail with large hoop earrings.
One standard ecoteur practice was to buy used clothing for a job then, depending on whether your crime left chemical residue, donate them in another city or simply burn them. Even with giant socks worn over them, shoes were always the liability. “The fingerprints of the sole,” Ocean tried to joke. In used boots, any partial prints would have somebody else’s wear pattern, not theirs. Do a search, and eBay could easily look like it was designed to sell used shoes, especially when both Calgary and Fort Mac rent denied them any sort of charity clothing shops selling the pale, thin dress shirts of dead grandfathers. No threshold of entrepreneurial hipsterdom could turn fifteen-dollar used shirts into a store’s thirty-six-hundred-dollar monthly Alberta rent. Rory told her that back in his ancestral Nova Scotia even the tiniest villages had multiple used clothing dealers. “You’ve got your Guy’s Frenchy’s, your non-Guy’s Frenchy’s, your up-start Louie’s, your Jackie-come-latelys. If one Maritimer turned a bale of second-hand clothes into a million bucks, he’s never going to lack imitators.” They began ordering clothes and boots online.
To make herself less noticeable, she’d dyed her hair “mouse brown.” When he first saw the wet brown dry into a dull mare’s coat she saw the shock in his eyes and used her best country drawl to sing that truck-fixin’ anthem, “Jack and Diane.” For them it was “a little ditty / ‘bout Sare and Ry-an.” Criminal love was still love.
Of course her father could have procured them any number of jobs up in the Mac. Ocean and Rory didn’t want jobs; Sarah and Ryan did. Not a challenge, though, to get hired into the planet’s foremost look-the-other-way industry. While friends and acquaintances a few years older were getting criminal record checks before flying to Korea to teach ESL—those Rory dubbed “missionaries of capitalism”—she and Rory made paperless, in-person job queries in the one industry that would grind to a halt the second criminals were excluded. You’re here applying for the job, so you’re obviously not currently incarcerated. Don’t worry, we all chip in to have probation officers drive out to the camps. Time is money.
Back East in the ancestral Roreland, drug tests would have been a problem. When Ocean had wondered why offshore Newfoundland rigs imposed drug testing on all workers while half the Alberta workforce was high, he gave her two quick answers. “We’re talking about Newfoundland: a salary’s still a rare thing, let alone a salary higher than what Gran’da ever earned on the cod. Here, they get high while they earn the truck-and-TV money then again while they use them. On the Rock, ‘three weeks on, three weeks off’ is true for the rigs and the THC. Also, never forget: these are rigs out in the frigid North Atlantic. It’s true—” he glanced at her “—oceans kill.” At the start of their Fort Mac infiltration, they both thought he was joking.
The Wild West. And north. The wild commodity, really. Succours green, white or liquid to make all the black endurable (or even whoop-ass fun). Take a little energy to mine all that energy. One chemical or another, one chemical for another. With Dickensian levels of particulate ash falling around Fort McMurray, they were constantly in a conversation they couldn’t get enough of (and one nobody else wanted).
“Oil is twentieth-century capitalism.”
“The twentieth-century was the century of oil. Modernity is oil.”
After her year at U.Cal she knew the petro timeline better than he did, was even more adept at fingering the carbon rosary. The First World War: Nobel-Prize winning German chemist Fritz Haber invents both mustard gas and the industrial synthesis of ammonia that would see farm fertilizer petro-cooked, not shovelled out of the barn. The pentaerythritol tetranitrate explosives they were about to risk their futures for, and their lives with, was invented (and patented) by the German government during that same war. And the car companies: Henry Ford not inventing the assembly line so much as transposing it from the slaughterhouse. The symbol of twentieth-century modernity wasn’t a book (go, universal literacy) or the condom (go, recreational sex) or women at the polls, but the car, explosions anyone could steer on rubber tires ripped out of Africa.
“The symbol of the twenty-first century,” he said in homage to their half-secret Green training, “is invisible. The Web. The ‘Net. All that hidden, pulsing flow.” Setting Fires with Electrical Timers was still the ecoteurs free and downloadable (yet “copylefted”) arson manual.
“‘From the century of the molecule,’” she quoted from class, “‘to the century of the system.’”
“Exactly,” Rory said.
After, Blake would have pointed out, the century of the rock.
Graphic designers periodically try to render the Internet’s swirling bits and bytes in swaths of synthetic magentas, cool blues and poltergeist greens, possibly letting clumps of binary numbers gather like so much windswept litter. That data flow was even more invisible up in Mordor. No one in a boom town lacks toys. Smartphones and tablets everywhere. Male workers Skyped bi-nightly with their baby mommas back East. Gaming. Movies. Looking for hookers. All that Web traffic remained just a tiny whirr compared to the rumble ‘n smash, the grind, all that slopped money and oil. No sound better than squealing down Suicide 63 on your next break. When fast food restaurants close for lack of anyone willing to settle for fast-food wages, you know you’re in a boomtown. By the time they arrived, the Fort McMurray Burger King was no longer anyone’s king, the playground building for sale but too industrial, too weird, to be carved into apartments.
Posts, message boards, articles, the comments of petro strangers willing to friend these unknown Sarahs and Ryans on Facebook—they’d read everything they could to build their covers.
How do you write a resignation letter in Fort Mac?
Burn rubber when you leave one parking lot before showing up to work at another.
No background checks. No calls to references. Everyone a graduate of Wink-Wink, Nudge-Nudge High. Grade Twelve grad? Sure am. When your foreman gets paid off by your coke dealer and last week you were both blown by the same hooker (a hooker younger than your eldest daughter), you’re definitely not working anywhere near a forensic accountant.
If they could have just attacked Mordor and its thug employees, that would have been an easy sell, ethically. Trouble was, they also had to hurt the innocent up there in the black land of the blind. Their first attack was latent, indirect, not yet the full frontal, and that bothered her more.
“I’m gonna hurt somebody, shouldn’t I have to look into his face? Or hers?”
Spiking trees had definitely been latent violence, but that at least was latent violence against assholes, chainsaw marauders. It wasn’t the indirectness of the attack that made her lose interest in leaving behind those little ceramic hurt parcels. They did what they did because the clock was ticking, because this was the turnaround decade. Unlike some e-pundits but like her father, she never doubted that the human species would survive the planet’s sixth mass extinction (the one it caused). The daughter of an Alberta geologist turned petro-executive, Ocean had grown up hearing about the five preceding mass extinctions like some kids grow up hearing their dad’s expertise in football or Star Wars. The Ordovician-Silurian and Late Devonian die-offs showed the clear-eyed what even natural climate change could do. Oh, the planetary ass-whoopings of nuclear winter, whether from volcanic activity like the Triassic-Jurassic or asteroid strikes like Blake’s KT or the Permian-Triassic (aka the Great Dying). With the latter, she knew all too well, all of today’s life on land and sea evolved from just the 1-4% of the species that survived what was probably a combined asteroid strike and volcanic event. Even evolution, they were all starting to admit, prefers the 1%.
With the racheting Anthropocene, their extinction, the attack was as self-inflicted as lung cancer, not death from above or below. And the smokers sickened everyone around them, dumped their ash trays everywhere, flicked their butts out windows to start a forest fire in the glowing rearview. However quick the accelerating collapse would be, she was certain the super-rich would survive the Anthropocene, with their robot soldiers and isolated air fields, their Elon Musk batteries and Chinese solar arrays. This was not, she disagreed with Rory, the end of the human species. Hundreds of millions would die quickly then a few billion in the lean years of crop failure, salinated water tables and humidity-cooked disease pandemics (for the humans and their animal food). Still, the bunkered rich would survive, would sit out even some raging brown government sending up the first nuke in what their Green cell called “the Bangladeshi Hypothetical.” A million Indians and Pakistanis killed each other with their bare hands—what the eco-bloggers chillingly call ‘artisanal violence’—during Partition in 1947, long before both sides developed nukes. Acceleration accelerates, Ocean and Blake mutually, silently agreed. Less than a century after Partition, hunger and thirst would soon take out hundreds of millions the old-fashioned way. For the billions, weather would be the Reaper’s scythe. Even Blake had to admit that NASA’s chief climate scientist hit it with the title of his latest doomsday book: The Storms of My Grandchildren. More like The Lethal Storms of My Grandchildren. There is one way and one way only to survive the massive tsunami getting cooked up in the Pacific: don’t be anywhere near its coast. That coast, like all coasts, loses a bit more land each year. “Half a century afraid of the mushroom cloud,” Rory liked to say, “and now the tiny mosquito is going to level most of us.” Make the world a hot swamp, pile the human carrion, go Air Force Whine.
Though they didn’t know it, Blake, Rory, Ocean, and Andrea all agreed that, once the mercury rose high enough, Canada would become America’s fifty-first state with little more than a phone call.
“The US will divert, build and drone-guard one set of pipelines for our oil,” Rory opined, “and another for our water without firing a single shot. Invasion by telephone.”
“Canada,” she knew, “America’s climate bitch.”
“China and the US each have a resource-rich neighbour with a low population density. At least the Russians will fight against their thirsty, hungry neighbours.”
“Arsenals, rage, vodka and history,” Ocean agreed.
“Like us, they’ll be releasing all that methane trapped beneath the ice but will be just as affected by it as every other country. Emit locally; destroy globally.”
“Methane,” she acknowledged, “the gas jets of the global oven. Time, Canada, to get our head out of the oven.”
All that she could understand, yet still her purchased (/stolen) social insurance number got to her. Speed Bump 1. The Sands employees may have been assholes and criminal dads, but they were at least real. Even when an ex-con has to provide piss samples and can’t leave the province, he can still use the same state’s social insurance number to fill a bank account care-of Synthcrude. For Sarah and Ryan to have randomly invented social insurance numbers would have had them yanked in about 21 days. The Sands would employ anyone, but, legally at least, they still had to be real people. “Wouldn’t want to threaten those million-dollar-a-day tax breaks,” Rory knew. On the SIN black market, the cheapest option were simple rips. Anyone careless enough to have transmitted their SIN by email could have unknowingly had it scooped by Russian or Chinese hackers then sold back into Canada, with clients ranging from the Hell’s Angels to Vancouver triads to the good ol’ mafia. The best fit for Project Cauldron II cost much more, financially and ethically. Lose a father, husband or brother in May, and Mr. Deceased still owes five months of tax. Using his SIN wouldn’t trip any wires at the Canada Revenue Agency for another eleven. These “ghost numbers” get sold by low-level bank employees and/or legal secretaries with big travel plans to brokers in acrylic sweaters who walk around with at least three cheap cellphones in their pockets. The bad men in bad sweaters sell the numbers on to whatever scheming asshole needs to earn below the federal radar. Jihadis, deadbeat dads, drug launderers, illegals and at least two members of Alberta’s Green Army.
Kiln-hardened ceramic shrapnel shooting into a logger’s arm (or face) had excited her. Taxing the dead, though. Or, more accurately, stiffing the grieving with a higher tax bill—she’d backed herself into a moral corner.
“All activists,” Rory had told her early on, “have to situate themselves on The Grid. Two times two options: violent or non-violent; okay or not-okay. The Elves freeing medical test animals—”
“Non-violent,” she saw, “and I’m perfectly OK with that.”
“Torching the guzzlers? More okay than not. Big release of pollution, yeah, but waving a placard isn’t going to make anyone stop buying and driving Hummers.”
Rory took this as another moment to catalogue his idols. “Ghandi was non-violent and okay with it. Satyagraha sucking up all those billy-club blows during the salt march. Today, everyone looks at Madiba’s grey hair—”
Despite now being criminally militant, she still secretly hated that he insisted on calling Mandela by his clan name. You’re Calgarian, not Thembu.
“—and listens to his YouTube speeches with his kinda British accent and thinks he was non-violent. Unn-uhh. Before he got pinched, Madiba, surrounded by armed cops, led a protest crowd in singing, ‘There are the enemies, let us take their weapons and attack them.’ Never forget that Madiba moved himself over to non-violent, not-okay. Two negatives—”
“Make a positive. Mandela was pro-violence.”
“Pro-violence to end the violence of the oppressors. History doesn’t change without non-violent, not-okay.”
“If you’re gonna fight,” she’d agreed, then and always, “fight to win.”
They began looking for Fort Mac work under two false identities because, in the violence of planeticide, non-violent was far from okay. To be non-violent against oppressive violence was to be violent. Sayonara satyagraha. Complicity with violence is the coward’s violence. Planet getting murdered, shit’s all violent.
In the Mac, shit was all sexist, too. The only time she’d felt this much like a she was racing out of prom in that dress (racing into Rory). Jobs hung everywhere up north for him, and at thirty to seventy percent higher than any wage she could find. Waitress or bartender, dispatcher or HR flunky, she could either clean up after men, get men (more) drunk or move them from money-making spot to money-making spot. A few women worked on site at the upgraders, loading the world’s largest washing machines, dialling up the heat or the rinse, and a very few even drove haul. Despite what every member of Team Stubble and Baseball Cap declared loudly to anyone who would listen, women were physically just as capable of driving a seven-million-dollar CAT. Engineering, not muscle, allowed 50-100 kilograms of human to move more than half-a-million kilograms of rock-laden truck. A few women drove CAT, but Ocean could see in a second that she’d have to wait years to haul, all while blowing far too many foreskinless foremen to get the job. Viva the Wild West.
Where others have irony, Rory and now, largely, Ocean, had political rage. His regular (cloaked) reading of sites like The 99% and The Commons were his intravenous drips of social rage. The hourly updates of these sites (Powered by the people!) trafficked in enough highly juxtapositional adbusts, photo collages and videos to provide him some scattershot political history. Assign him a history textbook chapter that mentioned Emma Lazarus’s poem chiselled into the base of the Statue of Liberty, he’d never read it. That was the System’s learning, not his. Scroll the same words—words he previously hadn’t known existed—over some video footage of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the guy clicked his way into Lazarus scholarship.
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to break free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
So they both guffawed, not just her, at the sight of two Statue of Liberty photos above the bar at The Nozzle, yet another Fort Mac boozeporium. A master shot and a detail of the statue were framed beside a small Stars and Stripes screwed into a stained Canadian wall. Ocean snorted, and the eight closest heads in the bar save Rory’s, each of them in a grubby baseball cap, turned towards her spoiling for a fight. The whiskered glowers dropped a little, shifted from stomp to rape, when they saw that Ocean, not Rory, was the openly derisive one. She lowered her voice to sum up the Sands, that inky Canadian fingerprint.
Give me your fired, your bores,
Your boy-toy masses yearning to smash well,
The wretched refuse here for young whores,
Send these, the brainless, alimony-tossed to Hell,
I light a fuse beneath these black doors.
When their private silence ceased crackling, Rory said, “Sarah, we gotta use that.”
“We will,” she said, leading them out of the bar. Light in the face of an activist doesn’t come from a smile, but from the anger in their eyes. Ocean’s were glowing. “And most of the time, for you, it’s Sare.” With him, she’d never once been Oash. Undercover, she was definitely Sare.
Later that week, Ocean read more about the Elves torching that SUV lot in Santa Cruz. Jeff Luers, the original three-truck arsonist the Elves claimed was their incentive to sympathy-torch a whole dealership, got sentenced to a rare twenty-tree years, nearly eight years per truck, for an arson with zero casualties on a fully insured car lot. No rapist gets sentenced to twenty-three years.
The problem, in every way, was water. Once they blew open the retaining wall of a ninety-square-kilometre oil-sands tailings pond and flooded the entire area with 250-million litres of fantastically toxic liquid sludge, a cache of drinking water in their apartment was going to look like a whole lot of pre-meditation. When 100,000 Fort Mac residents suddenly had their drinking water flooded with 100,000 Olympic swimming pools worth of toxins, every water table that liquid could reach would be poisoned for decades. Open the spigots on rivers of arsenic, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and napthenics, float the tonnes of cyclopentyl and cyclohexyl carboxylic acids—they’d shut Mordor down forever. Release a fraction of the life-destroying liquid by-products of Sands oil, Alberta bitumen would once again have to remain a solid, would never again go into another cauldron to become a liquid. Poison the scorched earth to stop the scorching once and for all. Sundon’s Tar Island dike has been leaking steadily for forty years. Sarah and Ryan were just going to press fast-forward on that toxic leaching. Her dad knew, but never disclosed, that every tailings pond dike they’d ever built leaked. To Blake, that was simply a cost of doing business. The Sands couldn’t have been so bad when they kept the same provincial political party in office for forty-plus years and changed who got to become Prime Minister. Parlez à mon cul, cher Québec.
They’d needed no shortlist to come up with the title Project Cauldron II. If Blake had been an Alberta geologist a few decades earlier in the 1950s, he might even have been part of the home team for America’s Project Cauldron, the patented late Fifties proposal of American oil companies to detonate the nuclear bombs of its government in triply-north Alberta. North of America, north even in Canada and racially north. Back then, only governments could afford and source nuclear weapons, and only oil companies thought to use them to turn black rock into liquid fuel. America’s northern-glancing (not northern-living) American oil consortium knew that their combined Alberta lease lands were bigger than a quarter of the countries on the planet. From boardroom to patent office to White House then—Just give your President a minute on the phone—a few calls to Ottawa. Free nukes and foreign investment, eh, Mr. President? Our natives? No, no problem there. Pleasure doing business with you.
Project Cauldron II: blow one wall of a tailings pond to let out the small lake of toxins and shut down the entire area/industry. A mass evacuation would, finally, swing the political sympathy their way while also hitting black shareholders with massive clean-up costs. Poison the drinking well, not even Maritimers would work there anymore (if the industry ever got running again). Suddenly every worker, not just a handful, would be like the new African temporary workers: thirsty, unemployed and forced to leave for work yet again. Bye-bye boomtown. Oh, Canada: time for a new national industry.
In the early 90s, when the Corvus Consortium decided that the highest corporate profits in Canadian history weren’t quite high enough, they’d met for a round of golf at Canada’s most expensive course, the Fairmont Springs in Banff. The nuclear-liquefying Project Cauldron hadn’t worked, but Corvus could, financially at least, always liquefy bitumen. The Corvus goal was simple: triple Alberta oil sands production within a decade. How to convince three levels of government to do this for them? Hand them short-term bribes and remind them how well they’re playing into the IMF’s key development index: will this massive investment of state and foreign capital allow uneducated men to buy more trucks more regularly? Time to talk brass tacks here, Corvus: how many Sea Doos and ATVs is this economic development going to buy on credit? Okay then, where do we fill up your haul trucks with public money? The Fairmont’s most difficult hole is the fourth, and its name is never forgotten by the grinning petro executives who keep the course going: the Devil’s Cauldron.
Variety being the spice of erotic life, high-end sextrade workers and dancers tour incessantly. None involved—not worker, promoter or customer—can resist saying Fresh meat about this perpetual rotation. Trouble was, many of the escorts at Fort Mac’s High Octane Playmates refused to work any other Canadian city. Toronto’s corporate lawyers and banking oligarchs just won’t shell out the $800/hr. that their Manhattan counterparts will. In New York, the clientele are hedge-fund managers and angel investors. In the Mac, they’re anyone who can lift a two-foot wrench or drive a dump truck the size of a house. “No hooker,” Ocean predicted, “is going to stick around post-Cauldron when bathing means emptying an entire case of now-expensive bottled water into a cold tub. Not a one.” Pulling down the Mac’s notorious sex trade would be a nice perk to their smash. Provided Sarah and Ryan could get from the blown dam back into the Mac, they’d be just another pair of rats fleeing the sinking ship. Like all mammals, even rats need water to live.
Before the attack, simple possession of the PETN explosives meant immediate arrest and several federal charges. Most weapons, any child porn, drugs unattached to multinational profit—their use is so unwelcome that mere possession is a serious crime. After the attack, drinking water would be nearly as indicting. Post-explosion, when everyone was thirsty, violated and suspicious, all would become witnesses, cooperative informants, some even vigilantes. Ocean and Rory worked every day on a plan that could have left Sarah and Ryan as hunted as the Boston Marathon bombers. Even anti-TV Rory had seen footage of the Boston manhunt. On TVs at Derailleur or his dispatcher’s computer he’d caught glimpses of that most novel of broadcasted emotions: civil cooperation. Worse, police adoration had been displayed on cardboard signs in houses and car windows or held proudly aloft in crowds. Catch them! and Keep us safe read half the Boston signs then, almost instantly following the brightly illuminated arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Thank you! and even Loooovvveee You! All that, and none of those Bostonians had been thirsty or filthy or hungry for lack of water.
For this eco Bonny and Clyde, Spike Lee’s heist film Inside Man was their aquatic playbook. The movie’s bank thieves used a false wall in the vault to hide one of their crew, while these actual eco-warriors built a false wall in their bedroom closet to hide something that should be more valuable than money: jug after jug of potable water.
Shopping for groceries once Rory had noticed that rectangular ten-litre jugs of water were nearly twelve inches wide. The oblong jugs would fit neatly between wall studs. Wordlessly he added a jug to their Fort Mac cart. Ocean/Sarah didn’t so much as nod at the sight of this previously verboten drain on public water thumping into their cart. At the checkout, each was keen to heft it onto the rolling black belt. Spies like us.
Only in the car did Ocean finally speak. “Bottled water. We’re truly evil now.”
In a boomtown, even lumber is four or five times the usual price. Especially lumber. Everyone there thought to build was to grow, to improve. More must surely, always, equal better. No one cared that most of the lumber for sale in Fort Mac hadn’t been imported up Suicide 63 and needn’t be as over-priced as it was. In order to dig up the slab-like bitumen entombed in air-filtering peat, lung-scrubbing forests had first to be felled, harvested and, unlike anywhere else, have their stumps torn out. With deforestation rates now exceeding Brazil, the Canadian tar sands sold race-horse land knowing full well the prized specimens were only going to be used for their bones down at the glue factory. That some of the levelled forest was milled on site into usable lumber, well, we at ReachCor will sell our lumber at local rates, not national ones, provided you will too at Syn, Sun and En. A two-by-six in a boomtown sits on expensive real estate and is rung up by someone who could quit today and walk into any number of menial jobs out in the fields for a salary much higher than most of the country’s professors. Out in the fields, stumps, saplings and branches not sold as lumber—what the industry calls overburden—were doused in gasoline and burned in situ. “The funeral pyres of the species,” Rory called them.
Sati, Ocean thought but didn’t bother saying. The religiously dutiful wife throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.
Their aged and faded Corolla was already conspicuous in the boy-toy realm of eight- and ten-cylinder trucks that were never more than three years old. Those young, unlikely renovators looked even more unusual when they drove home with a load of two-by-sixes lashed onto a blanket on top of their car. Conspicuous, but not unwelcome. That flagrant sign of intended renovation was a familiar rite of passage in a city where many porches had been converted into bedrooms. That’s it, Buddy: build out the back of your house. Half of us have done it. The city had palpable, visible ash. Everyone hacked and coughed. Still, some saw the young couple hauling home lumber and thought, nursery time. At an intersection, a guy driving between job-site, bar and massage parlour leaned out the window of his truckosaur to say, “Won’t be in that l’il Toy-Toy for long.” His whiskered smile was nearly as wide as the bill of his baseball cap. Just as the light turned green, Rory shot Dude-ee-oh a thumbs up entirely designed, Ocean knew, to crack her up. Undercover, the emotions were hidden, not eradicated.
From summer visits and countless family stories, Rory knew that to drive anywhere in Cape Breton with anything conspicuously new—car, wading pool strapped to roof, four-by-eight utility trailer—was to move curtains, eyebrows and tongues. In the Mac, everyone else was usually too tired, too flush or too hacked with pollution or substance abuse to care what you bought, this week or the next. No one looked beyond the pluses and minuses of his own competing bank statements, savings versus credit, in versus out. At the heart of the energy economy in a city with the motto We have the energy, most of those workers would tell Rory/Ryan and Ocean/Sarah that they just do what everyone else does: work to own without being owned. That new young couple over on Diefenbaker got their one sheet of drywall and a disproportionate number of 2X6s into the apartment without, they thought, so much as a turned head.
Building the false wall of their water case emphasized the false wall of their fake identities. Where normal, civilian walls sometimes have a little horizontal blocking between the vertical studs, the new wall they built out from the back of their closet had far more blocking than studs. Really it was a very strong bookcase with a drywall cover. Or, more accurately, a watercase. Every thirteen inches up they knocked in a shelf for another rectangular ten-litre jug of water. Six up. Five across. Three hundred litres of life juice. “Time, Canada,” he said, stroking and patting the plangent, translucent jugs, “to remember that this is our proper fuel.”
Back in Calgary they’d started practicing what Rory called “water discipline.”
“You know: hot islands in World War Two. Rommel and the desert tanks.”
To reduce themselves down to just drinking and—heaven forbid—days without exercise, they could, given their growing stockpile of non-suspicious baby wipes, survive on four litres of water a day. Naphthenic water could still flush a toilet, so their hidden three-hundred litres had to hydrate them, wash and cook their food and rinse whatever they couldn’t clean with a handi-wipe. If they had to, he calculated, they could survive a month trapped in the Mac behind their own moat of poison. “Glimpse of the future,” he said, as they slid their final jug into the case. “When water is wealth.”
After they’d tipped over their cauldron, their country’s cauldron, they could retrieve water in at least two ways. Sarah and Ryan could pass the days tapping a line into one hidden jug after another then filling bottle, pot or bathing bucket with an inserted stopcock and a length of Home Depot plastic tubing. Hopefully, though, none of that Plan B would be necessary. Project Cauldron would contaminate Fort Mac’s already over-burdened municipal water system (along with everything else). Their attack was also their escape route (was everyone’s). They too would nose a hastily packed car into the honking chrome line of a forced evacuation down Suicide 63, the only highway available. If they first had to hole up in the apartment to survive their own siege, they could dump any leftover water down the drain before they were finally allowed to leave. In the extreme-case Plan C—Ocean and Rory running as quickly as possible—they could always just tear down the drywall with the pry bar they kept under the bed to haul out as many jugs as time and trunk space would allow.
In their suddenly shallower closet they avoided papering, mudding, sanding and painting the corner joints and screw holes of the new (temporary) rear wall by aping the very consumerism they loathed. They hung “decorative” turquoise acrylic rope from a fabric store in the far corners and attached a ridiculous number of women’s scarves with clothespins. They ordered the scarves wholesale off eBay for peanuts. “Thank you, five-year-old Bangladeshi garment girls,” she tried to joke. Actual, visual shelves were quick-mounted over what would be their line of siphon holes. The shelves were steadily lined with shoes quickly acquired from yard sales and eBay. She’d never felt more undercover than when buying floral-print heels. “After we get the planet killers, we go for the tasteless.” Shoes and—perfect camouflage—baseball caps they would never wear quickly filled the whole back wall of Sarah and Ryan’s closet. Nothing to see here, Officers. We, too, shop ‘til we drop.
“Look for a couple pairs of runners for the job. We can burn them after.”
“Can’t we burn them all?” She made gaging noises while holding up some sort of heeled sandal erupting in plastic flowers. “These look like a funeral arrangement puked on my feet.”
Stealth, labour and fake acquisitions distracted them for a while, but even mounting the shoe shelves made them thirsty. Thirsty and something else. Thirsty and. Every gleefully laughing child they heard, every dog wagging a tail like crazy in park, car or backyard. Time to hurt them all. Inoculation, a homeopathy of hate. A temporary pinprick, given the global suicide pact.
Climate refugees is a contingency term of the Pentagon’s, not Rory’s conspiracy theorists. If their strike on a tailings pond dam worked—maybe Blake’s ReachCor, maybe not—more than 100,000 people in and around Fort Mac were about to become water refugees. Worst hit, they knew, would be the isolated, northern First Nations they claimed to be serving. One way to keep that guilt at bay was to let the fear flood in. Get caught with a trunk or a closet full of water, they’d become the first suspects for the tailings pond blow.
“Remember,” Rory counselled yet again, “the cops and the prosecutors will start lying as soon as they separate us in custody. The pigs are allowed to tell you I’ve ratted you out even if I haven’t. Which I never, ever would. Rory won’t talk,” he added, all too accurately. “Say it with me one more time.”
“I said it with you last time and the time before that. Rore, I get it. ‘Nobody talks; everybody walks.’”
“That’s what the Elves all said. Look at them now. State jumpsuits for all.”
She reached under his mop of dreads to cup the back of his neck. “We’re not them. Remember?”
Would the Elves, she still hadn’t asked, hurt the very First Peoples they claimed they were protecting/avenging? Drinking water was already challenge enough for far too many Canadian First Nations. Latent genocide was part of their anti-sands cri de coeur. “There’s no such thing as by-product genocide,” she argued back when all they’d done was talk and seethe.
Central to the geographic conditions that made the Sands was the northern flow of the Athabasca River. However northerly in Alberta the Mac was, the Athabasca carried its sludge much more north. North meant native, and the Sands existed in part because they poisoned disparate northern aboriginals, not urban whites. From coast to coast to coast, Canada’s First Nations were already sick from ghetto-reserve drinking water with mediaeval sanitation, yet none of them swallowed cancer by the mouthful like the Chipewyan, Dene and Cree north of Fort Mac. To try to stop that, Ocean and Rory were becoming like the very cancer they beheld. Attack at the source. Poison the intake. Posters and protests wouldn’t make Canadians stop poisoning the Cree. Only poison would. Fight hard to end the fight.
Living the hate wasn’t the problem. Their entire purpose in being in the Mac was to do damage. He repeated the mantras of Setting Fires with Electrical Timers:Guarantee destruction of the target through careful planning and execution. She sang Massive Attack: She’s doing so much harm / doing so much damage. Until the Mac, poisoning the well had only been a rhetorical phrase. Call someone defensive, Blake had taught her, and they sound defensive refuting you. Produce two-hundred litres of poison a day, and the Canadian government will give you a million dollars in tax breaks. Same thing tomorrow, ad nauseam. Albertans, Canadians and their American customers/bosses wouldn’t do anything about the shockingly toxic tailings that were the by-product of the national by-product. Ghandi couldn’t beat the Sands. Shining a light was not enough. Mandela was their man, not Ghandi. They (too) would overcome.
What changes history? Technology. Chance (just ask the ash-shrouded dinosaurs below Blake’s KT line down at Drumheller). And the will of the people. Trouble was, democracy is not an arrow, let alone an arrow of goodness. Raise public consciousness and, this was the tricky part, direct it. “Amazing Grace” (written by an opium addict). Uncle Tom’s Cabin. No one they’d half-met in the Green Army had sifted the Harriet Beecher Stowe scholarship to definitively determine whether or not President Lincoln had really greeted her with the words, “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that made this big war?” A chauffeur’s wrong turn in Sarajevo didn’t cause the First World War, but, they knew, it allowed someone to light the pre-built, heavily doused fire.
Project Cauldron II, the vaccination. Hurt a little, heal a lot. Every fake smile in a checkout line was hard to endure. Make no jokes, make no friends. Trade no beer or bar recommendations. They were up north to hurt. Yes, hurting Fort McMurray would hurt Fort Chipewyan even more. If you want to scrub a cauldron clean, first you have to tip it over, empty it all out.
On a Wednesday before we head to Grandpa Eugenio’s house, while waiting with arms crossed and wet lips for the red bell above Señorita Arcilla’s desk to announce that it is lunch time, Ximena Robaina, the one with the Cheeto curls who bites her nails as if she was hungry, this even though she looks fuller than most people in our town, tells me that Mama is a pupusaloca, and I think maybe she is the loca when she says it, opening her eyes and mouth so wide I could see straight through the dark sliver of her two front yellow teeth. I stare at her and then ask her what does that mean, and Ximena laughs. “Ay, mosquita.” She calls me little fly and turns around, just as the red bell dings and it is time for lunch.
later in the hallways and at the lunch table, everyone in El Centro Escolar Salvador Diaz reminds me that my Mama is a pupusa loca – dancing with her frijoles and shimmying her queso with a big grin. I ask the kids around me about the meaning of pupusa loca but no one responds. There are herds of whispers and murmurs in the long hallways with talk of “verguenza” and “the poor Velasquez Castro brothers.” I ask why, and what does that mean, and I ask why they cannot tell me, then they suggest I ask Director Somabarriga instead, whose name is really Somarriba, but because his stomach extends so far beyond his body he decided to incorporate his barriga into his name. When I was younger and the hairs above my lips had not yet started to prickle through like a cactus, they used to say at school that the disappeared children were actually hiding somewhere in Director Somabarriga’s belly because he ate them after school. But these children were too big, and el Director’s barriga seemed more like it housed 10 kilos of rice. I don’t believe this anymore because Kike said it was the stupidest thing he’s ever heard, and stupid is a bad word.
The Director has a nasally voice and a shiny gold watch that is just as conspicuous as his belly, but he drives an even shinier car and arrives to school, with his dark windows down, playing the loud, bouncy cumbia music Mama loves. I look for Kike in the halls to ask him about pupusa loca, and even decide to peer in the gaps between the metal bathroom stall doors to see if he is there, and this is not something I do often as I have been told it is bad. It is only when the school day is over and all the kids swarm to the dirt patio that I see my brother Kike sitting in the far corner with his head low.
Kike does not look at me even when I tap him on the shoulder.
“Kike, can I ask you a question?”
My brother does not respond.
“Kike, I have to ask you a question. Kike, they told me Mama is a pupusa loca. Is that good or bad?”
He does not like it when I ask so many questions, but I ask him again.
“Kike, can I ask you a question?”
Mama’s black wheels make a loud screech every time she hits the breaks, and they screech even harder when I ask her if she is as they say in school, a “pupusa loca.” Screeches and honks from the lines of cars around us scream like the school choir when I say this, and Mama’s black eyes dart to me through the rearview mirror. She asks me why I would say such a thing, and I tell her that’s what all the kids at school call while my hands are push my against my ears and the scandal of traffic. Grandpa Eugenio says I cover my ears to keep the lice from crawling in and nesting inside, but Mama tells him her children are no piojosos. Not her children because she keeps our hair neat and trimmed to keep our heads lice-free. I say, “Right, Kike?” but Kike doesn’t reply beyond rolling his eyes,” and still no one has answered my question. Now he is looking over at Mama’s red hair, today spiking out like the hairs of a battered broom, and I sense he too is awaiting a response, but instead today Mama agrees with Grandpa Eugenio says I am acting like a piojoso and that I should get my hands out of my ears. “¡Y callate! Que calladito te ves mas bonito.” Kike looks out the window to the other cars that drive by the avenida, and the very poor children we always run into when we walk to the kiosk around the corner, the ones whose eyes are coated in eye boogers and offer to wipe your windshields at the stop light, are standing at the meridian sprinkled with torn wrappers that sparkle in the sun, and papers, and cans. The children hold boxes of gum and candy in their hands, and in that moment I think I would’ve rather been eating candy too.
This amount of clanking and screaming is unusual in our drives on most Wednesday’s after school when we go to my Grandpa Eugenio’s house in my mother’s car and she switches between radio button ‘1’ and radio button ‘2’ every few minutes even though I can hear no difference, and she pulls up into his crooked, gray driveway, gives a honk, another honk, and my hands know to fly to my ears for protection, and Mama then always looks at me through the mirror because we sit in the back and tells me the damn hospital tubes and hospital machines cursed me after birth, and if only my father wasn’t such a lazy puto we wouldn’t have to be driving here every week. “Puchica! He should be out there en los Estados Unidos sending us money so we can be living in Santa Elena with a muchacha,” and she flings her arm to point beyond the mountains. Then she always sighs and says something about a man named Jesus Cristo, but I still don’t know who he is, and then we get out of the car and Grandpa Eugenio’s three little brown dogs, who I am not sure if are dirty or were born a mud color, greet us with barks and warm licks. They are not just Grandpa Eugenio’s because they roam the streets, and so they also belong to the rest of the town. I hurry inside where the dogs cannot be and I am safe. Even though Grandpa Eugenio is Papi’s father, Mama always tells us in a low voice before we arrive that this will soon be our house, but never should we dare mention anything to our Grandpa or she’ll staple our lips shut.
In Grandpa Eugenio’s house, there is always sheet of white dust covering everything from his house phone to the coffee table to the frames on the wall. It is a big house, bigger than our house, made up three different floors, that I think once belonged to three different houses. On the first floor, there are two televisions but only the small, white one with the antenna longer than my body works. It can only play telenovelas because that’s the only channel Grandpa Eugenio has. There is another television in Grandpa Eugenio’s bedroom, but you must first go up a set of creaking wooden steps, where you’ll find a pink bathroom, strawberry milk pink, and a bedroom where I once found a calendar of naked women with blonde hair underneath the bed. They were naked or wore metallic blue stars over their chests, and weren’t smiling for the picture but stared with mouths wide open instead. I told Kike about my discovery, who was downstairs eating a pupusa, and he ran up the steps in an instant with his backpack over his shoulder, ripped the calendar out of my hands, and stuffed the calendar of naked women in there. He cracked up saying something about how Grandpa Eugenio was dirty, which was a little true considering the dust in his house. To the third floor you walk up a metal staircase that is not rusty, and then you arrive at Grandpa Eugenio’s bedroom where there is another deep black TV, a bed, a mirror with perfumes and some watches, and a holy cross. I can only imagine that snow is this soft, as soft as the dust that sheets his home, and suddenly the possibility of living in Grandpa Eugenio’s house excites me! Even though I am upset, I flutter my arms and whirl a little while sitting on Grandpa Eugenio’s green couch, and when I do this my brother Kike sighs, “Mosca, quieto,” but I do not think I am a fly. He says that although collecting beetles is my favorite past time, I am truly most like the insect I don’t collect. The fly. He says this is because I am always buzzing around asking questions and being a general disturbance. The kids at school do a humming noise and buzz around me in recess, and giggle. Kike is younger but almost as tall as me. Kike is very good at humming and can hum to all the songs on the radio perfectly. And now, even though Kike tells me to be still, I don’t want to sit anymore, and I am excited, and so excited I get up from the couch on Grandpa Eugenio’s to go over to Grandpa Eugenio’s desk in the corner of his living room, also coated in the snowy dust, where there is a cemetery of clocks and screws and tools. Some of them are still alive inside with miniscule moving hands, and I reach for them to feel their ticks inside my palms. Mama does not pick things from Grandpa Eugenio’s pantry today, like the plain white rice and beans and the pinkish ham from the fridge, but instead collects the envelope and counts the cash inside, and before I know it Mama’s long red nails are upon me and sinking into my ear. She says that she’s going to have to tie my hands if I don’t learn to keep them to myself. “I’ll use tie wraps next time,” she says. I am ashamed for messing with my Grandpa’s work and his collection of clocks and watches, and so I shout that I am sorry. She’ll tie my manos largas next time, Mama says, that way I’ll never touch anything that’s not mine again.
It doesn’t bother Papi that Mama always goes to Grandpa Eugenio’s house and takes most of his food, or money for food – old people don’t eat that much anyway according to Mama. Most things don’t bother Papi, like the crack on our bathroom mirror or the leak in our roof that drips a cold, dark water onto the kitchen floor. The only things that bother Papi are the little holes in my socks, and that Kike and I don’t like playing soccer with the other boys from our block. “I’ve got two mariposones,” Papi grunts, but I think it is a good thing we are like butterflies for many reasons, one being their colors. I know Papi must like colors because what he loves most about Mama are her long red nails. I say they’re a lady bug red without the tiny black dots. Mama informs him her nails would be even nicer, maybe even have some diamond stones, if only he didn’t spend so much time at the gym. She says that Papi’s getting too old to attend these competitions where he looks like a glazed donut on a stage to flex his muscles for the crowd while nearly naked. The other day Papi told me me I’ll soon be old enough to start lifting some weights, and I too can be like him on stage holding big gold trophies. He showed me a blurry picture on his silver phone, which I am not allowed to touch, where Papi was smiling bright and I wondered if the glaze he wears is sweeter than the one of glazed donuts.
Papi is a math teacher at a school nearby, but it is not like our school that has a church with spider webs at the altar, and small nuns scurrying in black and a plastic playground and a bell that rings goodbye in the afternoon. It is a school for older kids where parents don’t pay, Mama told me once. Papi only comes back home in the evenings smelling of week-old, dirty socks and reminds me I should be doing homework instead of looking for bugs outside. Mama then screams at Papi says we’re both equally useless, and leaves us to go be with her friends around the block. She comes back even later than Papi and usually never says goodnight, and I hear her burping, sometimes singing her favorite cumbia and drumming on the walls as she walks to her bedroom, but that never changes my favorite thing about Mama. In the mornings before school, she stands behind me and we both face the cracked mirror. I look at the streaks and the fingerprints on the mirror as she tells me to stop fluttering my arms, and she runs her fingers through my hair with a clear and ice cold jelly that later turns my hair hard and flattens all my rebellious little hairs that can’t seem to find their place. This makes me forget the itchiness of my navy uniform pants and anything that came before. This is how much I love it. Once in a while, when Mama is rolling her hair around a hot wand that gives her perfect red slinkies and Kike is brushing his own hair, I’ll squirt some of the cool jelly on my palm, and lick it off slowly, like if it were spicy salsa Valentina, but I’ve learned it is not as good. Any day now I will stop doing this. Some of these mornings, after she’s run an old black comb with broken teeth through my hair, she tells me I’m so handsome and I smile. “Acuerdate que calladito tambien eres mas bonito,” she reminds me some mornings and then gives me a kiss.
It is unusual for me not to receive a response to my questions, even though I have been told that I ask a lot of questions, even the ones that are nonsense and of the kind that shouldn’t be asked. Mama says it’s because of the damn hospital tubes that they tied me up to at birth and the roaring of those hospital machines, but I cannot remember them so maybe she is wrong. Pupusa loca does not appear in the dictionary, only pupusa and it is defined as what I know it to be. It is food, a very delicious kind of food. A soft tortilla, a warm one, with cheese that strings apart inside with maybe some beans or chicken. My favorite pupusas are sold by the lady around the corner from Grandpa Eugenio’s house, who likes to stand by her cart and talk for hours in the hot sun of midday and she will lean in and offer him pupusas to take home because he is an old hunched man with three, wiry gray hairs on his head. Grandpa Eugenio says this woman is his girlfriend but Mama told us last week, as we watched him buy pupusas from car, that that is a cause for sympathy and to never believe Grandpa Eugenio. I want to know the meaning of pupusa loca. Being a loco or a loca is not a good thing, and I’ve heard around town that I am one of those on the loquito side, one of those with wandering hands and a dangerous imagination, but in these conversations Mama always adds that I am the harmless kind. “He wouldn’t even hurt a fly!”
I collect insects instead of doing homework when we arrive home from Grandpa Eugenio’s. We stop there first because it is on the way and I collect insects whenever I can, especially when no one is home and Mama cannot scream if she sees what I hold in my hands. They sleep and live and eat in a glass jar besides our bed, where a fish once lived but died. The insects speak to me with the twiddling of their antennae or the way in which they shake their legs. I hold the blue beetle that I saved last year during recess up to my nightlight, the one on whose shell I wrote “B” for blue with a white pen, and ask it about the meaning of pupusa loca. I do not see or hear a response. It is still. I place the blue beetle back in the jar, and speak to all the other beetles collected in my jar in a loud voice. There is a brown beetle no larger than a frijol, the green beetle that is bigger than all the beetles combined, three lady bugs, the blue beetle, and a short centipede. They lay in the sandy dirt and the grass that has now gone dry, and I go on repeating my question in a loud voice but they do not answer. Kike screams callate from the bathroom and I ask Kike why he cannot tell me! I plead to know the answer and I begin to bang on the wall, and Kike does not reply but I can hear the sound of water roaring from our bathroom and I know now that Kike cannot hear me, but I still bang on the wall and I ask. The water shuts off and Kike then storms out of the bathroom, walks over to our room and shoves me into bed and tells me to shut up or he will hurt me. He digs his finger nails into my arms, and then runs off back to the bathroom.
“Kike, tell me. Please.”
Kike is out of room and locks the door from the outside. The water goes on again.
I scream for Kike.
I scream. Again and again. I walk over to the door and cannot get out, and I call Kike but Kike does not reply. I scream in my room. Kike. Tell me.
Tell me, Kike. Tell me. Tell me. Tell me.
I ask until I fall asleep.
I begin Thursday and I think about pupusas locas, and realize there are only two more people to ask. I ask Señorita Arcilla at the beginning of our class about the phrase, and she quickly exclaims that I am a grosero and that I should be ashamed! She sends me to wash my mouth at that very instant, and I speed into the bathroom but do not use as much soap as the Señorita asks because she isn’t looking. I drink some of the sink water instead and walk back feeling refreshed and ready to continue with the day. Señorita Arcilla then asks for several volunteers to pass out materials for our next activity, hands shoot up into the air and my arm goes up too. I don’t get picked because my hands are not quick. I once told Papi that I never get picked, and Papi said the solution was basketball. Maybe if I did a little sport, like basketball, my hands could be the first ones to get picked.
We receive feathers of every color and stickers of frogs, cars, flowers, and rainbows to decorate our journals, and I decide to put wings on my journal in the event it needs to fly. I tell Pablo Salomon, the boy who sits next to me about my idea, and he tells me maybe if I put them on my head I would fly too. I am not sure if I should believe Pablo Salomon, but I do anyway and I stick a feather above each ear into my hair. They stick because Mama uses a gel called Moco de Gorila in my hair, and she tells me there’s nothing tougher than a gorilla’s snot.
The day goes by, I behave well without asking too many questions, and today Señorita Arcilla does not sit me in the corner and Ximena Robaina no longer reminds me that my Mama is a pupusa loca. In the hallways, I do not hear the whispers of my name or Velasquez Castro, and I no longer imagine Mama as a pupusa wrapped in aluminum foil like when we buy them from the Grandpa Eugenio’s fake girlfriend down the street from our house, but as my Mama. I was sure that only Director Somabarriga could give me the best response, being the director of our school. I had heard that he offered chocolates to his best students, and I was always a little hungry while I waited for Mama to pick us up after school. Señorita Arcilla announced to the class that I am very good at asking questions, even the bad questions, when she sent me to wash my mouth, and I think that maybe I might be among the best of the sixth grade class. This leads me to decide that today, Thursday, I will knock on Director Somabarriga’s office and receive a response to my question.
Our school is white on the outside, but it’s brick core is beginning to show through and the white that is left is streaked like tears on a face. Our school does not have a pretty face, and we, the children who wait for our parents, stand and run in front of it waiting for a honk or Mama’s red nails to appear through her window with the voice of the man from radio station button ‘2’. We are not usually among the last to be picked up from school, and the longer I wait the greater the urge in my arms and legs to roam the space. We are not allowed back inside the building once the bell has rung, but the rusty handles to the main corridor remain unlocked and occasionally some students will run in to do things in the bathroom, a boy and a girl, and I’ll walk by very silently and listen to loud breaths, screaming, and panting. The boy and the girl will then walk out smiling, sometimes with hands together, and so I never think much of it.
Director Somabarriga’s green car, the green of limes, is still parked in the dirt lot by the school even when there isn’t a soul around, and it is beginning to get dark. It is said because he’s up to no good there in his office at the end of the hall. Even though everyone hates Director Somabarriga, mainly for being ugly and the paleness of his fat white fingers, I do not hate el Director because I do not hate anyone, not even the roaches that sometimes run across my feet in the morning, or the saliva that lashes out onto my arms from the tongues of Grandpa Eugenio’s brown dogs. I decide to enter the school a little after our 2:15 PM dismissal, but not long before Mama’s typical arrival at around close to five o’clock. I wait for the clock to hit 3:30 PM, for the slicing of the arms along the 30 minute black mark to pull the rusty handle and run inside the school. As I walk down the hall, there is only the warm creaking and breathing of the walls, and the spin of the metal fans above my head, and I sing the morning anthem of our country nice and loud for the walls and for no one to hear. I raise my voice and run through the hall alone, and I flutter my arms, and the feathers still in my hair make me feel free! El Centro Escolar Salvador Diaz is transformed and the centipedes dance around my feet, and the moths spiral in the air as I turn into the corridor towards el Director’s office and sing the morning anthem in the heat of the afternoon alone. But faintly at the end of this corridor, behind the rusty red door, I can hear two voices both of which I recognize! I walk to el Director’s door quietly without singing now and stand alongside the door. I stand waiting for him to finish speaking to his visitor to prove myself a good student. But the other voice replies, and I push the door with my arms to discover a hand of fiery red nails wrapped around the Director’s hairless pink head. They are Mama’s red nails. Mama is naked, as naked as she was when we would shower together and I was a small child, and she is panting. Panting louder than the kids from the bathroom do after school. She is the pupusa loca. I watch the Director places his thin lips on Mama’s pale neck, something she never allows Papi to do anymore as she washes the dishes. Mama turns around and her black eyes meet mine. She quickly fumbles to grab a t-shirt and hurls around the desk to run after me, but I am off into the hallway. Mama is screaming my name, and I turn to see the shirtless Director scrambling behind her, but I know she will not catch me anymore. I am running as fast as I can, and I remember there are two orange feathers still stuck in my hair and my name is Mosca, and now with these wings, I can fly.
Itzel Basualdo’s work has primarily appeared in places few eyes have seen (like the “Documents” folder on her laptop). Her experimental short story, Saturday, did appear in Creative Nonfiction’s 2017 summer issue, however. She is currently struggling to keep warm as an MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.