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.