A memorial for mankind (2)

[this is the second part. scroll down for the first if you have not already read it.]

Message in a bottle

 

Let me tell you what the thunder said.

 

Datta

When I was younger, my mother told me of Earth, but she called it La Terre.

She told me what thunder was. She told me about the mousson rains that would come to Pondicherry in the hot months.

She told me how the mousson began to fail more and more. She told me of cities swollen with refugees, of blue-helmeted soldiers handing out rations and water. She watched from behind the blast walls of the embassy, her own father rolling cigarettes nervously.

She told me of the dry thunder, when the rains did not come and the crops did not grow. She told me that whole cities could sometimes be destroyed in the blink of an eye. She would recite their names sometimes, like a prayer. Mombasa. Seoul. Jerusalem.

I’ve never seen a city with my own eyes. So many people all together! A pale blue ceiling that was infinitely high, swallowing up these huge glass buildings. The vision was unreal to me.

For her, this was the promise of Cybele. A world where war was unknown. A world where would be safe. She passed black beads between her fingers as she spoke. Justice for our lost children. Justice for my daughters. God, how could you let such crimes into the world?

We would sit together, after school-shift. She would read old poems to me and we would watch nature documentaries. There was this old man with a beautiful, clipped accent who narrated them. I used to think this was the voice of god, before father told me that god did not exist.

He ran his rough, scarred hands over the computer interface, and a human brain appeared. He pointed to a little spot in the temporal lobe. That was where god lived, he said. He could induce god with an electromagnet. Where he came from, rapture was a commodity. They gave it to people to convince them to blow up buildings and kill soldiers.

“Omar…” my mother cautioned him.

They argued through the whole night shift and we ate breakfast in silence. Later, after school-shift, we read poems and everything was normal. We watched a documentary about squid. Father was joking that we’d meet one on Cybele and it would try to eat us. Mother pointed out that he was a human medical doctor and didn’t know anything about alien squid. That was her field.

The narrator was a younger man with an accent almost like mother’s. I don’t recall what that sounds like anymore.

 

Dayadhvam

There was a girl in my secondary class named Li. She wanted to be a botanist more than anything, and it was incredible when you got her talking about plants. Her passion was intoxicating. She loved to sit in the oxygen gardens and meditate, and I loved to sit with her.

She was scared of the sky and how cold and black it was. She preferred the luminescence of the forest, and even when the lights dimmed there were algae that pulsed blue in the darkness.

We fell in love. We would walk together down the corridors of the medial drum, the broad sloping path that had always made my father so uneasy. A year later, we petitioned for our own communal living space and after a series of tests, we were granted it.

Father was too old fashioned to accept us, but he was a relic of a bygone era, a doctor in a world where machines could perform medical analysis with increasingly better accuracy. His scars, mother said, were the testimony of a world we had left behind. Still, he came in the end, standing statuesque in the back of the small crowd. He still loved me.

Not long after my wedding, he told me that he spent his last day on Earth at a hospital in Amman. He described to me a picture I could never have imagined. “Never forget.” He told me. “Never forget what we are capable of.”

I never have.

 

 

Damyata

When my father passed away, it was a surprise. He’d always been a survivor, from growing up on the streets of Haifa to now. The stroke that took him was sudden, immediate, and utterly random. By the time I had reached his quarters, it was far too late.

He and his belongings were mostly recycled. The constructs and attendants were picking over the relics of the past. They left little room for sentiment. He had brought a book with him, a beautifully bound text on human anatomy that was scanned, memorized, and then recycled. His clothes vanished before my eyes and soon the room was empty and silent. The interfaces where mother had showed me all those documentaries, the bedroom where Li and I had first made love. All of that was erased and sanitized.

I hated the constructs then, even if I understood. Images were cheap – but tangible reality was expensive.

Our world had strict tolerances. Waste was impermissible. On Earth they burned bodies or sealed them in metal cases where they did not biodegrade for decades or centuries. On Earth the air you breathe never emptied. The ocean was omnipresent, always rising.

 

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Let me tell you about my home.

You gave me all my memories of Terre. Let me give you one of the future.

Looking wheelward from the engine, tethered to the exterior in perfect weightless harmony with the ship’s momentum, the whole vessel seems so small and precious – a child to be protected and nurtured. Or a skyscraper, fragile delicate glass rising impossibly against the elements. A monument to be cherished.

I will protect it, whatever the cost may be.

Where my father healed people, I heal our home. I follow its latticework conduits and make the repairs that will make our journey possible. I have always felt comfortable out here. So many of us do not.

When I return around lightdown, Li is always animated, torn between concern and joy. Some night-shifts she cradles me in her arms, whispering my name like mother’s prayers. Other night-shifts she is excited. “Renée!” She bounds forward and grabs me bodily. “Renée you won’t believe what happened at work! We fixed the mold!” She humors me in her stories because I’ve never understood her plants, let alone her discussions of genehacking and mold on the aestivum.

This is what I fell in love with all those years ago.

Still other nights, Li tells me about the seedbanks and the gene vaults, entire silos of resources that will not be opened until we arrive on Cybele. She tells me about the safeguards and reinforced walls. The vault is the closest thing to holy on this side of the vacuum.

With the tools and materials inside we could recreate all the living things on Earth, and yet its door is locked until our arrival. Sometimes, when no-one is looking she stares at it and imagines what it would be like to have the door slide slowly open and pure possibilities to spill forth. She always described the miracles inside. I know she would give anything to get inside.

I try to remind her that this dream is impossible. We have our own miracle to care for.

Now, sitting on the brink of a new cycle, writing these words, I place Li’s hand on my belly, where the slight swell is just beginning to become noticeable. Our children will be the middle generation.

It was always an unspoken assumption that we would bring new life into the world. It was always our duty to perpetuate this story.

But the actuality of it is different. I can’t avoid being overawed and terrified at this responsibility, at the fact that the future has crept up some medical instrument and into me.

Then I remember my father’s words, the images of those last days in Amman that I can see clear as day. I have never told Li what he said that day, nor will I tell my children. I can spare them those images. I can spare them Pondicherry in the dry season. I can spare them Mombasa, Seoul, Jerusalem. I can keep for them the beautiful things.

 

Shantih shantih shantih

A memorial for mankind

This is where we are.

 

*

 

We are a single, luminous point in an emptiness so vast that the human mind cannot conceive of it if it tried.

We are a ship, and we are a city. In our cylindrical drum there is perfect gravity. In our garden there is food. Water and air are closed systems. Our reserves are barely tapped, but there is room for error.

Our destination is a world called Cybele. It has approximate .8 earths of gravity and the correct atmosphere for fostering organic life. Ahead of us, capable of decelerating at speeds that would turn us to pulp, ride the terraforming machines, self-replicating devices who never tire and never complain.

By the time we arrive, Cybele will be a garden.

Or so we hope.

 

In space, there is nothing to slow you down. In the absence of all things, our forward progress is inexorable.

We will keep moving until the ship is rotated along its axis and the deceleration ‘burn’ begins. I will not live to see that day. None of us will.

That thought has never bothered me.

 

If by some accident we do not begin the deceleration, if the engine fails or if the crew is incapable of performing the “turn and burn” then we will continue moving forever, or until we find ourselves captured by a sufficiently large gravity well. That is a less comforting thought.

The laws that govern our motion are immutable.

 

We have to pray that our descendants can turn the ship around and pull the trigger at the appointed time. We have to pray that nothing goes wrong. We have to pray that the world does not end before then.

Nothing much has changed. This is the history of humanity.

 

In my time, Earth was not one nation. By the time you read this, it may well be. In my time, the nations of Earth were engaged in colonial endeavors amongst the stars. Our various polities sent autonomous vehicles to mine asteroids and humans had begun, slowly and cautiously, to visit and live on the surface of other worlds, hostile though they might have been to organic life.

That’s no way to ensure the survival of the species. That’s just stalling.

As long as humanity remains confined to one system, to one world, we are vulnerable. To those who have said the stars are not for us, I say they must be. We were made to wander. To seek out new worlds. To adapt. To thrive.

 

I spent my last day on Earth at Sandymount Strand. I have chosen to remember it as it was in early morning. The air ways slightly chilled by a wind from the west. Clouds dangled in the sky, moving as if along wires. Their filaments grew darker to the west, anchored by the path of the jet stream.

By the time you read this, those words might be meaningless to you. Even in my time, the Strand was sinking beneath a quickly rising sea. Humanity lived in a paradise we were destroying. The forests were gutted, the oceans choked with refuse and poisons.

Seagulls flew in arcing paths guided by sharp breaths of wind. The crest of Howth Head rose like the back of a beached leviathan out of the foggy deep.

The Strand was vacant, quiet. In the distance there were smokestacks and glass towers. On a clear day you would be able to see them. So it goes.

 

We have raised our children here. It has been thirty years since any of us have seen Earth, but we preserve its memory. We have told them of Paris, of the cafes of Buenos Aires, of the Grand Canyon and the Yellow River. We have tried to describe rainstorms and wildfires. We have tried and failed to relate things that you can only understand through experience.

We have tried to preserve Earth, to make a memorial of a place our children will never know. We have tried to explain what we have given up.

However, there is one thing we do not discuss. It has become a ritual for us.

No-one else knows about my last day. I have never told Siobhan, the love of my life. I have never told my children.

We decided, through unspoken agreement, to keep it holy. The organization that sent us off granted us the freedom to choose any place in the world. It was a small cost compared to the trillions of euros sunk into this endeavor.

 

This is the history of man. You make a machine. You make a machine to make a machine. That machine builds another machine.

Your children outlive you.

 

How can you explain a sunset to a child who has only seen the sun on computer screens and VR sims? How do you explain to them that our world was dying? How do you explain that we lived in constant war with ourselves, with nature, and with all our creations? How do you explain that to a child who has never known anything but bright, sterile abundance?

I have asked myself that every day. I have sat in front of my classroom and pondered how to explain to the dull, sleepy children in my care the burden we all share.

I sit in front of my own children sometimes. When I was born I had a choice. I chose this life. I chose to imagine a new life on Cybele. I chose to defer that dream so that my children’s children’s children could live it.

I chose to make my life a memorial of humanity.

How can I ask them to make that same choice? Eoin and Maeve are watching the ocean again. They are sitting in my living-room, awaiting the test results that will decide their occupation for the next five years.

“It smells of salt.” I tell them. “The air has this scent of salt. It’s all around you. It raises the hairs on the back of your neck. And when you wade into it, you can feel the power. You can feel it rushing around you. It’s exhilarating.” Siobhan and I met by the ocean, one night clubbing in Barcelona. I don’t tell them that. I don’t want to.

They have never seen water in quantities bigger than a hydroponic hose can produce. If by some miracle my children were to see a horizon they would never understand it. They wouldn’t be able to anchor their eyes correctly – they’re too used to the gentle arcing contours of their world, to confinement and false angles.

 

The next morning, I was back in the classroom. Today we had to run evacuation drills. In case of depressurization of any portion of the ship, you have mere minutes to make it to a safe zone. In case of a fire, the doors begin closing automatically. These are the cold equations we have made.

Li was trapped behind the wall. When the alarms went silent and the ship was cold and bright and safe again, I took her in my arms. I told her it was okay, that it was just a drill. There would be time to try again.

 

Our ship has an observation deck, where there is no pull of centrifugal gravity. Few of our children ever come here. It is mostly silent. The emptiness of space is strange to most, the conceit that we would even desire an observation deck being a very… planetary choice.

I took Eoin to see it once, when he was very young, before his sister was even born. Siobhan was there, holding his hand as he floated in the blackness.

The human body depends upon gravity to survive. In its absence we need medicine and calcium supplements. Our muscles atrophy. Our eyes deform and our organs suffer.

My son vomited the first time he floated in the blackness. Small constructs with cleaning agents and a damp towel were by his side immediately.

“I’m sorry… we’re sorry.” But this is the world. This is what you were born into. Forgive me.

 

Last night, I imagined that the hard burn had kicked in, and the long, slow deceleration that marked our journey’s end was upon us.

Our grandchildren were unrecognizable. When they stepped, blinking, onto solid ground they soiled themselves and screamed and fled back into the safety of the vehicle.

I stood there, resolute. I was Moses on the mountaintop. I knew that the chosen land was not for me. I knew I would never step foot in the holy land. Eoin was there, his eyes wide. He was seven years old, floating as if on wires in the emptiness. Terraforming machines combed the basalt architecture of the world.

What could I say to these children? They fled into the brightly lit womb of the ship. Cybele was not their mother.

 

Later, I took him to the observation deck again. He was seventeen then. It had been ten years since he’d seen the future.

I pointed to a single, solitary dot in the emptiness, chosen for me by a computer overlay. I could only hope that he would understand.

 

“This world is yours. We died for it.”

New poem

(not yet titled)

Do you remember the stars, Habibi?
I almost don’t anymore.
When I try to tell our daughter about them, I struggle.
They were like the flecks of dust or bonfire ash
dancing on updrafts,
only
the stars were fixed and anchored.

They were little holes in the heavens,
and sometimes on a clear night
after the cities all went dark,
you could see them twinkle.
My daughter brings me a handful of crisp,
pure stars one morning,
and she dissolves when I realize that is impossible.

We have nothing to fear but the clear blue sky.
We have nothing to fear but a false star in the azure.

Now and then sometimes I drift
half into wakefulness
and I see a single, brilliant point.
It dangles like a jewel
and somehow I know
somehow I know everything
revolves around it.
When it gutters like a candle,
I know that I am not needed.
When it flickers out entirely,
I am back with my daughter and my wife again.

Fatima is tending the storefront.
There is an extraordinary implication
between her red lips.
She passes it to me.
She dissolves when our daughter comes carrying the stars.

The point snaps into agonizing focus. It swallows the horizon.

It’s our little secret

Love in a motorcade,
Just an old game we played
Passing the hours
Counting the cars

You’ll be my Monica
I’ll be your Bill
It’s all okay baby
You always will

Snow in Colorado
A flood down the Rio
Out of catastrophe
The tamarisks drink

Really makes you think
Sex was our loaded gun
Out in the sunshine
Nothing’s much fun

Feeling the atrophy
Lotus to consume
You always will leave me
We have to make room

Constituents

Let me tell you about constituents.

I never paid them much attention. I should confess that first. Still though, talking to them was part of the job, the lowest position on the vast totem pole of the Washington DC legislature. But sometimes, particularly when a bill like ASC-INTF was coming down the pipeline, we’d be all hands on deck. In those hectic times, when the grunt work was unavoidable, the whole thing took on the appearance of ritual self-sacrifice, with exaggerated sighs and dramatic gestures. Afterwards we’d gather and commiserate, drink beers and share the most absurd or pathetic stories.

I didn’t care. You wouldn’t either. You learn quickly how to smile blandly, to noncommittally defend your beliefs and promise radical changes all at once. You learn how to dismiss without being dismissive. You learn these things because you have to, because the alternative is being reduced to tears by some redneck asshole from Delaware who thinks his legislators haven’t done enough to drive the welfare queens to Canada where they goddamn belong.

You find yourself sitting in the room with the people who are simultaneously your only friends and worst enemies. You find yourself wishing for a coffee break as some idiot from Colorado fails to understand that your politician doesn’t even represent him. “When do I get my FEMA money?” He asks you in a gravelly voice ruined by cigarettes and age. “They said I’d be getting money from FEMA. For the avalanche. You know. I talked to a nice lady the other day about it. I want my FEMA money.”

Sooner or later, you’d just stop listening. You’d hear, of course. But you would be more Chinese Room Experiment than person. I just took it a bit further, hearing key words and modeling my responses off those. It sounds incredible, maybe. It sounds insane or terrible or reckless. But you’ve heard about me on the news. You’ve seen my face, you’ve seen the press conferences and the police lines and the body-bags. You know what they say about me. You probably believe it. Good.

That means somebody is doing their job. I don’t blame them for that. I can’t.

You have to understand I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t thinking about much of anything but my job, my real one. ASC-INTF was coming. I needed to work on subsection 3A. And then make a pithy tweet about it. That’s the real work. Mass media. Mass communication. Polling data analysis. The hoi polloi just don’t get it.

You would stop listening. I did.

Six in the morning, and the sun is just cresting the scattered lowrises of the DC skyline. I’m already pounding back coffee, looking over my trade commission notes. They’re useless now. I check twitter. I don’t have the password anymore. I check the news. No new crises. The world is quiet, or as quiet as the dull roaring traffic ever lets it be. I still notice it, even after a few years. I don’t think my guest does.

I have company, but I’m not acknowledging him yet. I have to tend to my pain first, the private crisis building in my skull.

Sometimes, I longed for a new crisis. Crises are excellent for careers, because they separate the wheat from the chaff. No matter who you are, if you play a crisis right, you can advance. It comes down to how politicians react rhetorically, whether aides remain calm under pressure, how the media covers the whole affair. Never let a good crisis go to waste, right, Rahm?

There’s no time for a life here. I took, and still take, pride in that fact. In a weird, neurotic, type A way, it’s what we all want, right? Unending days that blend seamlessly into nights, whole twenty-four hour cycles spent alternating between offices, coffeeshops and bars. All my friends are in politics now. I just missed my best college friend’s wedding and when she called me I forgot I’d even RSVPed.

It’s fun though. Over beers and coffee we confess the dirty secrets of our trade, bicker about whose politician is the worst, and sometimes, if we’re really at a low point, we might even ask each other for advice.

I’d drag strangers back to my studio apartment, apologize for the mess, make them a drink and fuck them. It was nice, I guess. I had a boyfriend or two, but they were like me. We talked shop for foreplay and when they left and my bed was empty again it became tough to remember their names or faces. They made about as much of an impression as I ever did. There was always the lingering notion that life used to be somehow different, but all my more juvenile experiences with love were tinged with heartbreak or eventual boredom or more commonly some combination of the two.

Besides, being a good lover won’t get you very far here. Ask Monica or any of the thousand nameless people like her. It just makes you a pariah. Laziness is the enemy. Shortcuts are one thing… but being dumb enough to be caught, to be known? Hell itself follows.

Still, companionship helps. It really does. Especially on those eighty-hour workweeks when everything is reduced to the simple inescapable facts of policy and politics. The machine. ASC-INTF. I don’t even remember what it stands for anymore. The vast proletariat mass and the talking heads alike called it the Family Freedom and Jobs Bill. The Johnson Bill, if you were feeling prosaic. The Dick Bill if you worked here.

If only I knew then how much the Dick Bill would fuck me, I would have ran home and gotten a job at Best Buy. Or some other real growth industry, like the Newspaper or a taxi company. But I was oblivious. We all were.

You have to remember that we knew we were the elite. We were where it happened. The movers and shakers, the silent engine that kept the government running while politicians smiled and promise and made their sexy backroom deals with cigars and brandy. Our mandates came down from on high, sure, but we made them work. We sanitized and massaged. We didn’t work in communications because our job was to explain. Half the time I swear we just made the incomprehensible even more incomprehensible, just to make sure the constituents never noticed. It was exhausting. It was stressful. But it was fun.

You don’t last in this job unless you’ve got a real passion for it. An addiction to newsfeeds and statistics, to keeping your fist clenched around the heartbeat of America. You don’t last in this job. It wears you out. It steals your soul. It steals your sleep.

Sometimes, when I got sleep, I remembered my dreams. I always remembered my dreams. The alarm somehow managed to hit right in the middle of a REM cycle without fail. I swear it waited and watched. It sensed my eyes fluttering blindly and it knew, oh it knew, to start screaming.

Last night, I confess, I slept fine.

It was tough to get any sleep until now.

A year ago, during one of those brief and pointless flings, I asked if it ever got any easier.

“The slog doesn’t end, love.” He said, fumbling around in the dark, rooting amongst old bottles and heaps of clothes for his underwear. I didn’t mention that I’d clearly tossed them in the opposite corner. Let him struggle a bit. “You want my advice? You can make twenty thousand more a year in the private sector. All it requires is compromise.”

“Compromise?”

“Yeah. You’ve got to give up the antiquated crusader mentality. DC isn’t a fortress. Your war isn’t holy. Get out. Move to the suburbs. Start a family. What are you waiting for here? Life is all those moments you’re missing waiting for your big break in a city that chews up little staffers like you.” He stood straight again, giving my room a glassy-eyed survey, taking in the contents. “Oh god, they’re on the windowsill!” He shook his head in a mockery of awe.

“Fuck that. Fuck this.” I grumbled softly, and rolled back over into the pillow. I don’t remember the rest of our conversation. I don’t remember if he tried to roll me over to plant a kiss on my cheek or if he just awkwardly said goodbye or if he laid down beside me and we cuddled for a bit. I don’t remember if I was stubborn or tractable. I don’t remember what I said.

I knew what I wanted after all. It wasn’t him, it wasn’t words with strangers. It wasn’t money or power or any sort of fame. I just wanted to be somebody. I wanted to be somewhere important.

I don’t know why I wanted that. I’m sure there’s a morning talk show asking that very question now.

It wasn’t about the crusade for me. It wasn’t about that for most of us. The diehards, the ideologues, they slipped away slowly. The pragmatism ground them down and the fled into the ACLU or the NRA, into the Sierra Club or the Brookings Institute. Good riddance.

I don’t remember a lot of the past few months. At some point it all became a blur, imperfections creeping through the cracks in my premeditated façade. The stress grew with each little trip-up, each slip only giving validation to my greatest fears.

The first sign was when I started confusing my dreams for reality, waking up and not remembering if a certain email or a certain panicked summary of a trade bill was memory of fantasy. Then later I couldn’t honestly tell you what I ate for dinner. I tried to keep track in little binders, writing ‘dear diary today I had shrimp’ and ‘remember to iron your pants’ but within a week or two they joined the endless trash pile absorbing my room.

I can’t tell you how many times potential fuckbuddies told me girls were supposed to be tidy. I can’t tell you how many of their faces I’ve forgotten.

The room is tidy now. The empty beer bottles packed into recycling beside the half-used notebooks. The clothes are neatly ordered in a way that speaks to a certain unique sort of neurosis.

The siege is external, but eventually it will end. That’s what they tell me. The reporters will get bored. The newscycle will turn over and then I’ll be forgotten, for a while at least.

That’s when the real war begins.

This is just a foretaste, and it’s already breaking me. I ate a healthy fucking meal yesterday. I sat and watched the sunrise from between the slats of my apartment blinds.

I don’t remember what was said that day. I wish I did. My family, and the rare coworker brave enough to listen to my story, offer sympathy. They seem to have bought into one of the more flattering media narratives, that of my complete mental breakdown. Some paid psychological consultants apparently have said that my voice seems indicative of someone under considerable pressure.

My coworkers, especially Aaron, just make jokes about the Dick Bill. They shoot me texts about how ASC-INTF is officially the most boring document anyone’s ever been killed over. They send me dirty jokes too. Here’s one: “The Dick Bill really blew up in Johnson’s face. They’ll be cleaning up the aftermath for weeks. Hey, did you hear he’s hiring a fluffer to bring it back to life in a few cycles?”

I guess we’re pretty far away from it all. We have that luxury.

It’s not long before there’s a new project. Some bill which will either take all the jobs and reassign them to immigrants or move them all to China. Probably both at once. Don’t worry, America.

I watch from afar until the texts dry up and the siege does not let up. I’m running low on food and beer. I can’t face the cameras. Not until I get the call, at any rate. Finally, begrudgingly, I reach outside of the beltway bubble.

A few days into the siege, a familiar face appeared at my door, squinting into the peephole. At first, I didn’t recognize him. It had been a while since college, and to tell the truth, I expected more family, and more of the barbed pity I’d grown overly accustomed to.

“Jacob Foster!” I gave him a quick squeeze and a little kiss on the cheek which seemed to leave him a bit flustered. He had bags, including a case of beer which I gratefully took from him and set on the countertop. He’d lost a bit of a weight. He looked good.

“I… um… brought supplies.” He said, running a hand over the back of his neck.

“Right you did. The siege is broken.” That got a brief, polite laugh.

He was looking around, cautiously exploring like a stray cat let into a new house. “Tidier than the last time I was here. What has it been, a year or two?”

“I’ve had plenty of free time.” It was tough to keep a strong face but I did. I think.

Still, he laid his hand on my shoulder in sympathy, and I took it slowly in my own. I didn’t really want to talk about it.

We danced around the subject for a while, almost too long. But in the end, we were already on the bed, and it was easy and comfortable. A few beers in and the world was comfortably blurred. He felt warm and safe and remarkably strong. I wanted him, and I told him that. He was better than I remembered from college. There was something different there now, an urgency that the cocky sophomore who left me years ago never had.

Later, Jacob Foster offered the narcotic of escape. His fingers ran over my skin gently and he tried to offer vague reassurance.

“Not everyone cares about this. Half the English-speaking world thinks this is all bullshit. And I have… some pull. Down the line? I can probably get you a job for a bit. Get you out of this town. Get you out of the public eye.” I think he was bragging. I guess I’ll never be sure.

There’s something desperate and mad in his expression when he talks about escape, about his own adventures across Europe. Still playing the world traveler, I guess. Still hanging out with the same superficial friends and going to the same boring parties.

In his salvation is the very thing I was trying to escape.

I’m sure you’ll use all this against me. All these confessions. You already think I’m a slut or a soulless D.C. bitch just trying to get ahead. And I am. Sure. I am what you say I am.

You’re predisposed to hate me, after all. You want to hate me because of what you’ve seen. It’s just what the media does. I think it’s some sickness in our culture. We need enemies. We need targets.

You picked me. That’s fine. Cause it wasn’t enough to focus on the psycho with the gun in the shopping mall anymore. Apparently there’s too many of those fuckers these days.

You had to take aim at the girl he called. You had to take aim at me.

And I can’t even offer a defense.

There’s a simple formula when it comes to mass shootings and politics. It’s not so different from any other issue. As with so many other crises of interest, it’s become a matter of mathematics. As a candidate, you invariably have to take a side, and that stand has undoubtedly be determined for you by a coalition of backers and constituents. The key is manipulating the rhetoric and the optics – not what you say but how you say it. The key is to come off at once as wise and statesmanlike and passionately angry. The people want to see epideictic rhetoric at work, those noble self-displays of virtue and tragic heartbreaking anguish, but they also want forensic rhetoric, the language of accusation.

They want to know who to hate.

Beltway chooses its targets in vast, unconscious patterns. The war of words, in some ways, is beyond our power to steer or manipulate. Our speechwriters might craft the buzzwords, the taglines, the lofty oratory that inspires the rank and file or dodges the execration of the other side, but all we really have the conscious power to do is become victims.

When I first came to work with the Congresswoman, I was nervous. The office seemed so huge, like an ancient temple. Her desk was an altar, and as she leaned across to shake my hand she only had one piece of advice for me.

“Politics is the art of avoiding fuckups.”

Just like every morning, it feels as if there is a nail in my skull. It feels as if my head is anchored to the bed and all the world is spinning around it.
As I drag myself out of my bed, past the sleeping body of Jacob Foster, I fumble with the coffee machine, jamming the little cup into the slot and punching the buttons.

He makes a joke about addiction as I groan into my mug.

“You drank half of that case you brought over.” I remind him. “Pot and kettle, bitch.”

His grin is the perfect combination of charming and sheepish. It helps that he’s naked.

In that moment, though, I can see right through him. I kind of want to take him up on his offer. I can’t, of course. It’s an illusion. There will be investigations and reinvestigations. Years of my life will be sacrificed to an invisible war that you, the voting public, will tire of before it even begins.

As much as I might want to forget this moment of weakness, I know that I won’t.

There is one other day I do remember, and for the rest of the world it was one of the deadliest massacres in American history. For me it was a warm summer Tuesday, and the world was ending one word at a time.

“Do you remember what was said?” The campaign’s director of communications was glaring through a pair of thin wireframe glasses. She had pale, icy eyes, and her breath smelled impeccably of mint. All else was a horrible blur. She spoke too fast for me to formulate a response. “Do you have a lawyer? Nevermind. We’ll get you a better one.”

“Take the day off.” Mike Stevenson says with a dismissive wave. “It’ll be better that way.”

Nobody’s said those words to me the entire time I worked here.

“How do you not remember?” They glare down at me, and I know there’s no escape. “How did you just forget?”

“There are certain textual ambiguities. Once the full transcript is released by the police we can use that to our advantage. But there are time delays…” Janet, one of the speechwriters, is already jotting down notes.

“Ambiguities?”

“It’s not clear exactly what the other speaker – the alleged gunman, intended.”

“What sort of damage are we exposed to?”

“It goes without saying that optics on this are terrible, ma’am. But we should be able to mitigate the worst of this pretty easily. News cycles move fast. None of this even happened in our district. We’re coordinating with people on the ground, and I’ve got Angela and Jan drafting a statement as we speak.”

“Good.” The congresswoman speaks finally. “It’s been a hard day for you, hasn’t it?” There’s no concern in her voice. It’s utterly affectless. “Get home before the media does. We’ll be in touch soon.”

This is all rehearsed. Preplanned with malice aforethought like one of the phone scripts I invented. It occurs to me how out of my depth I am, surrounded by these veterans. As I sit hunched in my office chair, they have me flanked, surrounded, a pack of wolves moving in for the kill.
They won’t hesitate to destroy me. I wouldn’t in their shoes.

I was almost in tears when I reached my studio apartment. My hand was shaking too much to get the key in the lock. I’d just stopped listening. It wasn’t even hard, really. They were all so predictable. So predictable, so normal, so bland.

It wasn’t a crime to stop listening.

Out of Space

There’s no room for children in heaven anymore
They took up too much space in our paradise
We had to leave them howling at the gate

We tried other things, of course, but it was fate
Forget nine hells, we packed all sinners into ice
Still no room for children in heaven anymore

Then, running out of options, we shut the door
On those we didn’t like, put them too in the ice
It was satisfying, watching them howling at the gate

Soon we began to fear it was much too late,
The angels all squeezed onto one pin, that was nice
Still no room for children in heaven anymore

Our gods should have seen this coming, therefore
We threw them out next, but it did not suffice
(We had tried all other things, it was only fate)
That we had to leave them howling at the gate

Whatever we tried, still the squeeze did not abate
And we had to make someone pay the price
So there’s no room for children in heaven anymore
We had to leave them howling at the gate

Jacob Foster (young)

[A draft of a draft – basically me working on building the backstory of a character that’s taken on more life than most of the characters I’ve ever written.

N.B. – this will make more sense if you read the Jacob Foster posts in chronological order.]

The summer of Jacob Foster’s junior year, he found himself needing work once more. Back then his life it seemed had been balanced on a razor’s edge. Without the benefit of hindsight, he did not simply thoughtlessly assume he would survive.

He stalked down the mainstreet under the sprawling cherry blossoms past brick facades and the cracking concrete river bridge. Jacob Foster can imagine his younger self, a scarecrow in a leather jacket, his face set in nervous confidence. He has never been good at asking for things. Even as a child. He has no memories of mother, no memories of pleading or prayer ever achieving any particular end. Bella’s Grill rejected him, as does the Starbucks down the road. You need specialist experience to work at the mine (obvious, in hindsight) or the bank (rather less obvious).

-You’re in college, let us know when you get a degree and won’t leave us in three months.

-No we don’t do internships but maybe at the corporate office?

-I can’t help you, sorry. Give Edith my regards.

Scowling, he returned home, tin roofed and overgrown with weeds. Green shoots strangle the gnomes he loathes. Good riddance.

In the end it wasn’t through his efforts that he found work. His grandmother had a woman who checked up on her sometimes. She had a brother who knew of a job in a warehouse he could take.

 

-Shoes, that’s right. Big distribution warehouse for the whole region, Wallace and Stone Artisanal Footwear. The manager is a portly man, with thick glasses. He wears his polo shirts tucked in tight.

-And you’re hiring?

-We are. You want it? Janine tells me you’re in college. We’ll take you on for temp work if you like. Eight dollars an hour. It’s a small facility, so here, let me give the walking tour.

Dimly lit artificial corridors have been formed by the accretion of boxes. Conveyors snaked between them like rivers in ancient canyons, like city streets carrying cargo by their own volition. They deposit their burdens as if at random, but there is a formula. The manager told him about it. Green labels go into 4A. Across the hall you can see where our summer collection goes back to Distribution. Oh this one here, that’s an Exchange. Most of those go to 9A, but sometimes you have to mark them, like this one. Michele can show you how that works. It’s not hard, right?

-No. Jacob tried to stifle a yawn, but found it difficult.

-Just a couple years ago this wasn’t automated. All hand sorted. We had machines to move the stacks. Next summer we’ll be getting new machines too. Hope to cut down on how many temps we need for rolling out the summer collection. No offense. It’s just business.

-None taken. I get it.

-You’ll do whatever we need on whatever given day. Michelle over there can train you… starting a couple days from now if that works alright by you?

Relief washed over Jacob Foster. He had been judged to be good people. The rest of the process was a formality, consisting essentially of paperwork and a trip down to Corporate for a five minute to have an HR woman glower down her oversized glasses at him and scan his driver’s license.

After his first day of work they gathered around him with the mock solemnity of impromptu ritual and dragged him down to the local bar, Flemmings, down the road by the sloping gravel rise of the traintracks. Weeds pressed up between sidewalk cracks, but the red door beckoned warmly. Pickup trucks and battered cars aligned themselves one by one like penitents awaiting communion.

-Beer and a shot down the line. Beer and a shot for the new kid. Having fun yet? Don’t worry, you won’t ever. Gotta get new shoes. Those boots, boy, they’re gonna hurt your feet in a day or two like a motherfuck and you’re gonna wish you bought sneakers with your first paycheck.

-New shoes, right. And you can wear a t-shirt, you know?

-Oh, I uh, I didn’t. Well, when I got there this morning, I didn’t. I do now, right.

Abner, an old man with a sly grin passed him the drink. Bombs away.

He gulped down the shot and swallowed the beer and when it was over and the burning taste was gone from his mouth he took another sip and tried his best to answer their questions, the sort of friendly interrogation which meant well but which left him feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Jacob Foster felt no pride in his heritage or his past.

-From down in Oak Creek, yeah. No, I don’t remember when they moved there. Probably in the late eighties? Why, did you know him?

 

In Wallace and Stone’s intricately crafted system there was an unmistakable sense of ceaseless and automatic motion. The flow of boxes allowed everything to become a blur punctuated mostly by voices and the ringing of various harsh electronic bells. The magnificent thing was the sense in which everything became routine after mere hours.

The human mind has a stunning capacity for mindlessness. The young Jacob Foster finds peace in this fact. As he slides the boxcutter across the tapesealed container he notices only the sticky satisfying sound. Its contents are emptied, categorized, understood by the computer. The clicker flashes twenty-four times. One missing. Again. The clicker flashes twenty-four more times. Still missing one.

He carefully, methodically packed the shoes back into their boxes. With exaggerated care he pressed the black marker to the cardboard. The first day, the clock had barely moved. Sometimes now it seemed to spin by without ceasing. Other times, when he found himself inside his own head, it did not move at all.

 

Down the line, Louis was considering his pile of unsorted shoes, all of them untagged. His brown eyes flickered, dancing from shoe to uniform shoe. Sameness is not an obvious thing. It must be assessed carefully before the tags can come down. Louis was one of the best people there. His hands moved nimbly and carefully over the boxes.

The ritual continued. The box, after being raised and cut was dumped unceremoniously and then a new box was made to fit its old contents.

Jacob Foster looked to the clock. Five minutes tick by. World enough and time. Visions and revisions. The next box will contain four unsorted, four. It is an insignificant yet frustrating number, aggravating for its closeness to none unsorted, that glorious state of zen where the mind can truly go blank and enter into the realm of fantasy.

He is in college, talking to Adriana outside of Stephen Mullen’s party. She is absentmindedly twirling her black hair, her dress slim and short. She lays a hand on his chest casually, then in a heartbeat she is pulling him close. Later, they lay in his bedroom, her naked body illuminated by his tacky orange christmas lights. In a few moments, Rajiv will knock on the door but for this moment anything is possible.

The fantasy was not, Jacob realized, in the remembrance but in the possibility.

Jacob Foster kept moving, until break when he could dangle a cigarette in his mouth and stare out beyond the chainlink fence thin with rust past the field unshorn and stonespackled creek. Past still the thinswaying trees with leaves like fire, beyond it still the bland uniform color of suburbia. The houses radiant with interior light in the thin paleness of dawn are a premonition of the closest thing to heaven that exists anywhere here. Cicada droned in the distance.

So Jacob Foster still believed, sipping his grandmother’s gin on the back porch, ashing his cigarette into a little ornamental frog. Escape, heaven, that is everywhere he is not. That evening he will take a small gun from the basement and shoot a gnome. Grandmother will not notice ever.

-Fucker. He said to no-one in particular, looking down at the broken body before him. It was split in three distinct pieces, sallow fragile porcelain cracked to reveal a hollow interior like bleached bone. For a moment he fancied himself Arius, and tried to reconnect it but there was no point. Once set apart there was no sense in it. He left the pieces where they lay and decided that the weather would erode them with enough time. The coating, after all, was only external.

 

The next day he was back at work. The whole morning nothing interrupted the peace that passes when boxes pass from conveyor to palette. For a while, sure, his mind wandered. For a while he craved the distance, the distraction. He sketched fantasies of Adriana and everything he wanted her to do to him when he next saw her. When he ran the clicker gun over the labels, he imagined her kisses softly descending the slope of his chest and her nails raking across his back. But the distracting sensuality of it all passed. In time the eroticism became almost grating.

Later that afternoon, he sent Stephen Mullen a photo of an absurd pair of shoes, lime green and red stitching. Stephen replied with a question mark, and looking back Jacob Foster could not have honestly said what he had found amusing about them. Without the context of a thousand other pairs of loafers, tennis shoes, and flip flops they were just another set of ugly shoes. The distinct humor was gone and he couldn’t recollect what had inspired it.

Without even the recourse of the absurd, he turned to his oldest game. Michelle was two aisles down, and through the break in the boxes he could see her snapping the tags from individual unsorted items, and putting them into a container marked B13. He watched her for a while, and decided that she had two children, who were mostly raised by their aunt. She liked to play the lottery, and knew that when she won she would move to Maine and travel the world with the Peace Corps. When she was not abroad she would live by the sea and her true passion was dancing, which she had never had the opportunity to pursue but would if her life would just be changed by some miracle that might allow her to live out her itinerant aspirations.

Abner was a veteran. As he operated the forklift his own mind dwelled on what he had seen across the ocean in another far hellish world. As a young man he had dreamed of becoming a boxer, but now those ambitions were impossible. Now he just wanted to retire. He was counting down the hours but to be frank he had no idea what he would do when the day finally came. It would be like coming to a precipice, and the fact terrified him.

For Louis, it was tougher. But deep down he assumed that Louis had the secrets he craved. The only obvious facts about him were his competence and his contempt for the supervisor. He had no wedding ring and dressed plainly. He drove a Ford and he never once came out to Flemmings on Thursdays for the two-for-one pitcher special.

Looking back, he never asked any of them about their lives.

 

One warm day in July, doctors will find the tumor rotting his grandmother’s tar-caked lungs. He will go to her bedside table once, she will ask him to pray for her. He lied to her then, as he often did. It was a simple ritual, and one he believed he would come to miss. He remembers that grimsmiling lie, brushing back brown hair long turned grey and giving her a ceremonial kiss on the cheek.

She smelled of old paper. Jake imagined she might blow away and, reflecting later, finishing the bottle of gin, he found the image utterly peaceful. He doesn’t yet fear death. Why bother? A last beneficence.

 

The funeral was quick, blessedly so. Poorly attended, compared to his late father’s wake. At the passing of Adam Foster’s jaundiced corpse they screamed drank and fought. Jacob Foster drank with them, a child with hollow eyes. He has since burned the photos that were taken, spread them out back with the ashes. He has no love for his father’s friends the enablers and the lackeys – their actions hastened his father’s end and though Jacob does not mourn the man they were and are murderers.

Here there was only silence and preternatural stillness with no sign of soul or memory. An aged man, a tattered shawl around some bones who recites some words. Hymns were sung and Jacob Foster did not speak. Halfway through he stepped out into the weatherworn courtyard in the shadow of that city in the hills. He watched the churchspired horizon as crows danced together on gutters. Crumbling brick edifices lined the opposing street, old shops which themselves were antiques moreso than their contents which were undoubtedly pilfered from the houses of the dead. It would be apt. Morbid but the elderly died alone here all the time and family cracked open the shadowed trailers all too late for last goodbyes.

What possessions did they have worth keeping? Perhaps an old set of silverware, as Edith Foster once had. A television, manufactured in the mid seventies. An elaborate knitting set, carefully maintained until arthritic trembling claws could no longer grip the needles. Half a carton of parliament cigarettes and a bottle of prescription painkillers.

The rest can be thrown to the antiquers of the world. The armoire and the kitchen stools. The creaking grandfather clock which gave him night terrors as a child. The contents of a life can be judged and disposed of with ease. Jacob Foster has learned this; now he cannot stop thinking of it. It troubled him at night when he returned to university.

 

Three days from now, the weekend will come. Jacob Foster will go to Carolina, to spread the ashes. One of his father’s old drinking buddies helped him sell the house, and handed him the check when the sale was good and done. Apparently the land, the rising woods that sprawled behind his grandmothers house for measureless distances could be developed. If Jacob Foster had ever returned he would have seen fat white houses with blackshingled roofs not made of tin or aluminum. Red white and green shutters, dogs and children playing. IKEA furniture unstacked out of minivans.

-Your pa was a good man, boy. You know that. Your ma I didn’t know but day of your birth I remember your dad, Adam he was so happy we were in the bar together you know. He got the call and oh how his face lit up. You’ll make him proud I know you will.

He did not mention old Edith Foster, though he did make a muttered sound of sympathy when he shook Jacob’s hand.

Jacob Foster tapped his fingers lightly on the wooden countertop. He said nothing, but took the heavyset man’s hand and shook it tightly. The door rattled on its decaying frame. He would leave tomorrow. For good. It was in motion now.

 

Everyone was gone. The last day in the house he sat alone amongst the gnomes and dreamed of metempsychosis. He remembered the feeling of loss and hopelessness, rising unbidden when he first learned of her death and the communal sense of funerary anguish which gripped him for a moment but it was only fleeting. Now is it done and taken care of. His hands were tired his feet ached from work but he would not have to go back – not for now. He would be reborn soon now. Any day.

That last day, he achieves nirvana. Standing amongst the labyrinthine stacks, knowing that it will end and that he will pass from this place and be forgotten is not so horrible. He has left no identifying mark except the scribble of letters and numbers on boxes soon to be recycled and his handwriting is not so different from anyone else’s as to be truly distinguishable.

There, scrawling across the boxes he has a revelation and yet no sooner is it grasped than the bell chimes and he staggers outside into the heady thickness of the southern summer. Time to go. Jacob Foster has no desire to be bound by the past.

His tired hands fumbled for a cigarette and he realized he needed plans.

 

Two weeks in Eric’s house and he begins to feel unwelcome. He has never been good at asking for things. Even as a child. With a shaking hand he dials Rajiv Sansotta’s phone number. Just fucking ask.

 

-Fire, Jacob Foster intones with the mock power of ritual or BBC documentary, man’s greatest invention since God. The cigarette in Rajiv’s hand blossoms into life.

-Thanks for coming. He barely knew Rajiv Sansotta back then. Everything had a veneer of unfamiliarity, of possibility. They shared a bottle of whiskey in the twilight shadow, the boat rocking slightly beneath them. The slosh-crash of water is the only noise.

-Thanks for having me.

-Hey it gets boring out here if you don’t have someone to drink with, I think. Don’t worry about it. Sorry to hear about your grandmother. Were you close?

Jacob Foster does not recall his answer. He does not really recall the boat, which Rajiv’s father sold the following year in favor of a newer, shinier boat. Time spent with Rajiv Sansotta is a blur, a drunken whirlwind, never boring, never sane. He cannot recall so much of it, this best time of his life. Strange, that fact.

 

 

Proof

Proof

There was something here a minute ago,
now it is gone, just as easily as dropping the filter
of a cigarette onto a footpath.

Shamefully, it deserved its fate too,
some ungainly island bird unequipped
to handle plague rats and dogs and agriculture.

I didn’t leave any proof or evidence
I cleaned up the shell casings from my delete key
and scrubbed the paper with bleach.

I’m kidding, I’ll always have the words I erased,
I didn’t destroy them, but kept them as proof
that this didn’t spring out fully formed, but

when it was all over, feeling self-referential
I dressed up a little mannequin to stand where it
should have been, and set it to greet the customers.

Sponsored by your local pest control service

Sponsored by your local pest control service

The papered daub of wasps, it clings to trees
in layered latticework, a veil to hide
uncountable barbs, all buzzing and unified
behind unconscious urges, quite like disease.
If yoked together with a common drive
they might build cities, soaring edifice
with their mouth-pulped mindless artifice
A commune, bound to consume all alive.

But we can kill this mindless foe with ease,
Despite their grand accomplishments and plan
wasps die simply beneath chemical breeze
Despite their commune concord, one human
can press their thumb against a switch. And so

end all their little artificial dreams.