Day 4: Robot

My sister, Emma, is building a robot. She says it will save the world.

Mom just wants her garage back.

“You said it would only be for an afternoon.”

Emma never said that. Mom made that assumption based on past experience. Like the time Emma started a band with Kelly and Kim. Or when Emma tried to learn how to juggle. But this is different. I could tell, but I’ve had more practice. I’ve been staring at Emma my entire life. When we were younger, it was to predict her moods. To know a moment before she did when the fun was over and she was going to insult me, and push me out of her room. Now, she was my guide, the senior to my freshman. She’s already everything I soon will be.

“I never said that.”

“Maybe, you can put your robot in the basement?”

“It’s not a robot, it’s a robotic flight suit, and once it’s finished, there will be no way to get it out of the basement.”

They have this discussion every night at dinner. Nobody has asked me about my history project. I got an A- (good!). Or my math test. C- (less good). I want to talk about the good grade, but not really the bad one, so I can’t bring it up.

“What if I wash the car this weekend?”

Mom considers. “Every weekend, until you’re done.”


“And the dishes.”

“A deal was already struck.”

“I’ll do the dishes.”

They both look at me. I don’t know why I volunteered. Maybe, I wouldn’t do them. Mom could lecture me about responsibility. Standing in my door way, while I reluctantly took off my headphones, and looked at her, surly and bored. I’ve been working on my surly and bored. Mostly just when looking in the mirror. It’s not ready yet. After a few seconds, I break into my I-have-a-secret smile, the one that Emma says makes me look incredibly punchable.

After dinner, I do the dishes. Then I rush to the garage. Emma is working on the thrusters. She downloaded the schematics from the internet. Discusses improvements with other teens on discord. There’s a guy in China who destroyed a meteor heading towards Chengdu. Emma says she knows him. Well, he’s in the forum. Commented positively about her modifications.

“He didn’t even ask for a pic. Guys are always asking for a pic. It’s fucking bullshit patriarchy. Not taking pics. You want to take a pic, take a pic. But nobody should ask you for that. You know what I’m saying?”

I don’t.

I miss Kelly and Kim. When they were in a band, or when they were hanging out coming up with names for their band, they would let me hang out. Kind of like what I do now, but when Emma was on a rant, Kim would make silly faces at me. She always brought what she called, “Mexican Coke, with real cane sugar” and give me my own bottle. I was still in junior high, and when I think back, everything seems more innocent. Back then, meteor showers were just lights in the sky. Nobody thought about them being stones falling from the sky. Back then, my sister wasn’t planning how to launch herself into space.

“Hey dummy, did you ever finish that history project for Mr. Callahan?”

“I already got it back. A-.”

“Not bad, dummy. He’s a tough grader.”

“Yeah… are you really going to save the world?”

Emma stops what she’s doing. She stares at me like I’m volunteering to do the dishes.

“The world can burn. I’m saving you and mom.”

I don’t know what to say to that. Soon after, she turns up the music. Neither of us meets the other’s eyes for the rest of the night.

Day 3: Lava

“Rule number one, do not touch the lava. Lava is very, very hot, and you have waived your rights to sue. So, if you die, or have to get a replacement limb, that’s coming out of your pocket.”

Nobody was listening. They talking loudly over me, taking selfies. One couple was making out. That happens often, but usually at night. Part of the draw of disaster tourism is that people feel their own mortality, choose to seize life, and then fuck like bunnies. It’s subtly written into the ad copy, but not too subtly. Our clientele is wealthy, but not all that bright. Which is why I was reminding them that lava is hot. As I mentioned, there’s no legal necessity for me to do that, but there are only so many times you can watch a person dip their hand in hot lava before it wears on you. I’ve put in for a transfer to a flood. Leslie worked floods for a while. She says that everything gives you nightmares eventually, but agrees that a change is healthy. Unless, you start working plague. Plague sucks.

“Anyway, if you’ll look to your left, you’ll see death and destruction. To your right, also death and destruction.”

That briefly caught their attention, while they decided which side was the death and destruction with the best lighting (the right). At this point, the boat is literally floating on a river of lava. It took me close to two weeks, 3 tours a day before I accepted that this was safe (enough). The tourists seemed to have no such doubts.

I wonder what it’s like to simply not believe that you’re going to die. To have to travel across the globe simply to look death in the face. I’d always thought death was everywhere, but apparently, there were gated communities where she couldn’t sneak past security. Not on the guest list.

Leslie was working concessions when we returned to home base. She sold snacks, and magnets and t-shirts and condoms. People asked both of us if we’d hold their phones and take selfies of them. One guy hit on her, but Leslie doesn’t play with tourists.

Finally, we sent them back to their hotel, and we could close up. Leslie can do it herself, but if I help, she’ll buy us dinner with her tips. Most nights, that means dumplings from a food cart, but once in a while, she scores big, and we can afford a restaurant.

“We could just buy some groceries, save money.”

“This is my own little way of seizing life. Did I ever tell you about when I worked Giant Robot Attack?”

GRA is a plum assignment. Dangerous, because robots actually want to kill you. Floods and volcanoes just don’t care if they do. Most people who live through a two-week stint on GRA retire or get assigned to the home office. So, no, she hadn’t told me.

“It was fucked up. But I made enough for my mom’s operation. Not that it saved her life. Anyway, my mom hated dumplings. Anything dumpling like. Ravioli, empanadas, samosas. It was weird. Like what was she afraid of? The unknown, I guess. I mean, I watched a robot smash a skyscraper, and she was worried that a tiny pocket might have beef instead of chicken.”

“My mom is afraid of spiders.”

“Yeah, fuck spiders. I’m never going to work the spider pits.”

The dumplings had pork belly that night. Delicious.

Day 2: Sunflowers

It started with the sunflowers. Those giant compound eyes sprouting everywhere throughout the neighborhood. Their heads slowly turning to follow the sun, guided by an intelligence we can’t hope to understand. Alien, demonic, mystical.

My dad used to say, “Never trust a flower.”

My dad never actually said that. If you want to make up a truism, put it in the mouth of an elder.

But people liked them. They’re yellow, and I guess we like yellow. Then there were the bees. Also, yellow.

People said the bees were dying out, but there were so many bees, more than I’ve ever seen. I’m not saying the bees aren’t dying. Just that it’s hard to get around your own experiences. When I was younger, I wanted to be special. I wanted my life to be the exception. It hasn’t been. Except, now I see bees all the time.

My grandmother used to say, “Better to bee stung, than to bee shy.”

There were other plants. Flowering vines. They crept up the wooden fences between our yards. Rabbits nibbled on them. If you walked slowly, the rabbits would even let you pet them. Children learned how to be quiet so as to not scare them. They became gentle, the children and the bunnies. Maybe all of us.

We didn’t know how to feel about the changes. Some of us were angry that we were no longer so angry. We’d fume as we cut back the vines with shears. We’d chase children off our lawns, running in circles until we were all laughing. The birds would wake us with their singing, and we’d refill the feeders.

It was just for a little while longer. We were promised an ecological disaster. If we held on, surely everything would die. Our beloved concrete would be returned to us.

My great aunt used to say, “Nature is the only thing in the way of perfection.”

Lydia was the first one to invite a bear into her house. She was a school teacher or a children’s librarian. The point is, she was used to dealing with wild animals. Professionally. The bear slept on her living room floor. Sometimes, she’d throw a rug over it like a blanket. It liked that.

Others copied her. It was the accessory of the season. My own bear liked to sing. Not all the time, just when it thought I wasn’t listening. When I was in the shower, or asleep. But I started wearing headphones, connected to nothing, and pretended I couldn’t hear it. I harvested honey, and left it for the bear on the table.

I told myself this was all temporary. Lydia told me about a city where it had been raining for weeks.

“It’s all part of the end,” she said as we lazed in the grass, entwining our fingers together.

April 1, 2020 NaPoWriMo?

It’s been over 25 years since I last wrote a poem, and that might be for the best. But I like the idea of producing 30 single sitting pieces (Poems with Legs as my friend Gillian Devereux is calling them). Here is the today’s.

April 1st: The Rains

The first day of the rains, we cancelled our brunch plans. We brewed coffee at home and returned to bed. Talked about when we used to get Sunday papers and read tweets out loud. We were warm and dry, just as we’d been for most of our lives, and expected we’d continue to be. We made pasta pomodoro for dinner, and we had no regrets, we’d see our friends next weekend.

It wasn’t strange that it kept raining. Who wants a sunny Monday anyway? We talked about it on the subway, drawn together by shared adversity. Buckets, cats and dogs, men, hallelujah. We ordered in lunch at work, and tipped well, outsourcing our discomfort. We had one drink at the bar. The rain might stop. What if the difference between wet and dry was just one drink?

By Wednesday, some streets were flooded. Those of us who could, stayed home. The rest worked half days until the governor announced that people should stay home. People exited in an orderly fashion, but still one person drowned on Central Ave.

Then it was just Maggie and me. We played board games, we sang duets, we made a fort, dividing our small space into ever smaller spaces. We both cooked our specialties, hers learned from her mom, mine from a stint as a short order cook. We learned the dances from Grease, and Dirty Dancing. We read the pile of New Yorkers. We circled events in the Goings on About Town section that we’d go to if we lived in New York, if they hadn’t happened over a year ago, if there were still events.

At first, we’d look out the windows at the grey and the rain. Sometimes, we’d see people outside, wearing the traditional yellow raincoat. We’d wonder where they got the rubber hip boots that allowed them to brave the flooding streets. Did they just order them, or were they prepared, always waiting for this moment? Then the water became too deep. We didn’t see anyone for days. Then a single kayak. We turned ours gazes inside.

“There’s nobody I’d rather be marooned with than you,” I said.

“Not Brooke Shields? Not Tom Hanks? Not Ginger and/or Mary-Anne?”

“Not all the tea in China.”

“Not all the other fish in the sea?”

“You’re the only fish for me.”

She knit. I played video games. We slept together, but slowly grew out of sync. She fell asleep early while I read. Then I’d nap in the early afternoon. Sometimes, I’d awake and she’d be taking a bath. I’d knock, and she’d say wait a minute, but it was never a minute. The apartment always felt damp to me. There was a leak in the kitchen. Condensation formed on all the windows. My showers kept getting shorter, there was enough water in my life. But Maggie would soak in the cooling water.

I washed the dishes. I swept the floor. I fixed the wobbly leg on the coffee table. She soaked. I sang songs sitting with my back at the door. She soaked. I washed the towels. Kept them in the dryer so they’d be so warm and fluffy when she emerged. I fell asleep.

I awoke to an empty bathroom. An open window. The rain had stopped, but it was too late. There was only the sea.