Great Auk

Pinguinus impennis

 

Once, flocks of great auks nested on the rocks

off the coast of the North Atlantic. The first bird

 

to be called a penguin, they were built to swim,

but slow, defenseless on land. Pairs mated for life,

 

nesting shoulder to shoulder in dense rookeries,

laying one egg on bare rock, taking turns tending

 

the egg until it hatched. Devoted parents, they cared

for their young even after they’d fledged;

 

adults were seen swimming, chicks perched

on their backs. In those days, a sighting of great auks

 

quickened a sailor’s heart, signaled landfall ahead.

Their end came when the Europeans’ love for featherbeds

 

brought hunters in search of down (after every eider

had been plucked, gone). To loosen their plumage,

 

auks were boiled in cauldrons over fires fed with the oil

of auks killed before them, since there was little wood to be found.

 

In 1830, a volcano erupted off the tip of Iceland, submerging

the last nesting colony on Geirfuglasker, great auk rock.

 

Refugees, the auks moved to the island of Eldey. There,

on July 3, 1844, the last pair was killed by hunters

 

gathering specimens for a museum. Here’s how one hunter

described the scene: I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings.

 

He made no cry. I strangled him.

 

 

Note: Great auk specialist John Wolley interviewed the two men who killed the last birds, and Sigurour Ísleifsson described the act; the words in italics are his.

 

“Great Auk” originally appeared in Passings, first published by Expedition Press in 2016 and reprinted by Wandering Aengus Press in 2019.

lady meet mr robinson

momma yell from the kitchen julius buzz her in.

buzz who

my ol high school chum dont you forget turn the hall light on

hall light dont work momma

hall black like the devils ass you open the parlor door get light down there

i done it momma

she call it a parlor goodwill couch goodwill chairs i hear this come up the steps high heels who wear them things

mr robinson watch at the door lady look scared i say he gentle wont hurt you none

lady wear cool clothes nice coat swag me out and she got big smile for me i say i am julius

i am seven keisha is five we sit quiet on the couch lady say please to meet you

mr robinson sniff lady she look fussed till he settle down by the door

momma bring in tea momma ask we wants tea or water no thank you momma

momma and lady talk been long time they got married divorced while lady cant help her self she sneak peeks at mr robinson she see he clean sleek long fur big strong dog

mr robinson he lay by the door thinkin what dogs think

lady and momma they do talk lots and us kids sit quiet to show we got good manners us listen we dont get visits much lady got plenty bones from city cause second husband killed on subway job momma pour more tea lady ask me why dog name mr robinson

i say grandpa seen jackie robinson in ebbets field long time ago i seen him on gray telvisin grandpa he gone now

lady watch mr robinson she think it funny us in east harlem sooty rooms on snap and welfare we got this big fancy dog he eat like we is rich folks she think we put on like we got dog show dog she dont say so

police siren go by fast be dark soon lady say she treat us to supper wheres a fine restraunt round here

i seen this place family up from new orlins they cook jambelia we never had none

we goin out the door mr robinson get up momma say they dont let dogs in restraunts

i say mr robinson you got to sit and stay

lady say fine handsome dog you takes good care of him

keisha say we dig brush him

lady say you likes a big dog

i say we need a big dog he keep the rats out

Everything that Happens

Robot Cities roam the baking deserts of the ocean beds like Baba Yaga huts. They strut about on titanic rusting legs so tall that to fall from the crotch to the ground takes a human 30 seconds. They sing songs, these Robot Cities, melancholic folk songs with introspective lyrics. They sing about shame and adoration, they sing about that sweet moment when love has found you out but your lover has not, they sing about becoming and not-becoming.

Humans infest them like lice. They forage on the cracked carapaces for petrel eggs, hunting wadi monkeys, scavenging for spare parts. They sing along with the cities as they work, as the cities stride about, they lose themselves in the words. They lose themselves under the searing white skies, enjoying the breeze and the infinite views, enjoying the beautiful music.

In the long evenings the Robot Cities squat on the precipitous decline of continental shelves, plucking the parasites from one another. They clean itching skin with gigantic, marvelously dexterous toes, catching between tungsten carbide digits the monkeys and the humans that lingered too long. Catching them and popping them.

“Everything that happens to me,” the Robot Cities sing, “has happened to someone else too.”

“Everything that happens to me,” they sing, “will one day happen to you.”

Much safer in the tangled interior, in the avenues and the streets through which the twisting wind creeps, the humans hide their children in shadowy places like spider eggs. They tap water from the pipes that cool the creaking reactors. The stolen moisture collects in them, in the humans, in their livers and their kidneys, in their blood, radioactive, congealing, concentrating into lumps and bumps and tumors, into the braille of survival.

“What do we do if it dies?” a child asks.

“If what dies?”

“Our Mamapapa.”

“The Mamapapas never die.”

The humans tell their children stories of how the Mamapapas once slept on the ground. They were reclining cities. But the humans proliferated to such a degree that their activities inflamed the skins of the cities and the cities woke. The cities stood up and became the Mamapapas.

They tell their children how the world used to be covered with water but the Mamapapas drank it all. The Mamapapas are cursed with thirst. They wander the desert searching for something to drink.

They tell their children visitors used to come from the other Mamapapas. They tell their children how the visitors climbed up and down the legs. How they traversed the wretched ocean floor, picking their way through the bones of the birds and the monkeys and the humans that littered the ground. They tell the children how the visitors brought a plague, a virus that killed thousands. How they shoveled the bodies out of the Mamapapas. Tens of thousands. The bodies fell through the air like rain and settled on the earth like dust.

The humans sing to their children: “Everything that happens to me, has happened to someone else too. Everything that happens to me, will one day happen to you.”

They teach their children to give thanks to their Mamapapa for food, shelter, and water. They teach them to love their Mamapapa. They teach their children to fear their Mamapapa.

The Mamapapas roam the baking beds of the ocean on their colossal backward-kneed legs. They sing songs to each other about the great ring of the horizon. About the arbitrariness of existence. They sing songs about incalculable loss. And humans infest them like lice.

When the Haze Descends

When the haze descends

upon this sun-speared land, already wet

with sweat and tropical rain, clouds are veiled,

and there is smoke

in the air. Everything is a dismal grey.

 

Beneath September’s scented moon

the flames of lanterns link

together like lovers’ hands. Ghosts

let loose for a day, rise

to meet the haze.

 

My heart turns wistful. Longing

for things I had once abhorred —the acrid blue

of spent crackers. The noise. The oil

of lamps defying a moon

mourning for the night.

 

I sniff around for autumn’s nip

right here in scoops of briny air.

My children are oblivious of my pain,

my friends aghast at my embrace

of the haze.

 

This polluting dust and smoke,

poverty’s export, falling

like toxic pollen on their children—

that’s their haze.

 

I walk under open skies tiara’d by

Singapore’s cityscape, and the static

of this wired metropolis hisses. I

walk on to meet the chins of street lamps

growing fuzzy beards of light.

The smell of insects roasting

in the dying embers

of spent fireworks. A dusk

hanging low in the sky. And a strange

wind murmuring, as if to itself,

a soliloquy about a land

that gropes in the sea for rock and sand.

 

 

Note: Around September each year, fires from vegetation burning in Indonesia affect Singapore’s air.

Ambient and Isolated Effects of Fine Particulate Matter

On Thursday the sun rose red and stayed red, and stared at us red and red through the shifting candlewax layers of sky. We sealed the windows and cancelled gym, and forbade the children to leave until their mothers came for them, and through lunch period they pressed their noses to the glass and left smears of rainbow oils there. Before their faces and ours the bloody halo crept through the silhouettes of our buildings, picking its way down the foothills, stealing hot and infected towards the wide soft swathe of nothing that had once been San Francisco.

In the early afternoon the children left in bunches and tangles, clusters of heaving minivans like lifeboats. We gathered in the teacher’s lounge and stood with our hands wrapped round our one o’clock coffee mugs and said quietly to each other and ourselves the air quality numbers in the neighborhoods to which we would be driving through the greyness: Montclair and Emeryville, San Antonio and El Cerrito, one-eighty-five, two-seventeen, two-fifty, two seventy-one.

Some of us had masks, and some did not. Some had the wrong masks—the flimsy kind, thin and cotton, with no wires at the top to mold over our noses and cheekbones—and we discarded these in the wastebasket, a growing pile of white leaves. Those who did have the right masks put them on and looked at the others with invisible mouths, invisible lips. There were no spares.

The school was a good school. The neighborhood was a good neighborhood. It was in the Oakland hills, and it perched over the Oakland flatlands, their density and cement and graffiti and barred windows, like a pale and decorous vulture. On its borders there was a cemetery, and the cemetery was Oakland writ small: the graves dappled down the hill, and at the top were great marble monuments, pyramids and temples and fountains, and at the bottom flat stones sunk into the grass. As children we had come to these stones and sat upon them and had picnics for our birthday parties. We had stared up at the angels of the rich, and they had stared sightlessly down at us. Beneath them, we had wondered, were the rich staring, too?

Now we stood by our cars in the teachers’ parking lot and prepared to pour ourselves down the stooped hills and into the low concrete mazes we called home. Our phones were already alight with emails: would the children have school tomorrow? Would they have school next week? Would they be allowed to re-take their tests, re-write their essays, would there be extra credit? We drove through the grey and the deep grey shadows of the trees. Surely, wrote the parents, even if the district forbade the schools to open, the SAT preparation night would not be cancelled? The college essay preparation night would not be cancelled? Through the dust gathering on our windshields we watched the streetlights shudder into life ahead of us. They knew the property values of this good neighborhood, the parents did not say. They knew the price of this good school.

We sat at our kitchen tables and listened to our husbands read to us in rough voices news articles about what had happened in Paradise. Fathers had run back through fire for their daughters. Families had stood by the side of the road praying for their cars to start up again with the heat beating at their faces. Dogs had survived, and not survived. We closed our eyes and tried to see it, but there was nothing behind our eyelids, only colorlessness.

On Friday the schools were closed all day. Those of us with masks pulled them on and walked out to buy bread, and fruit, and fish for dinner. Some of us hovered in the grocery store by the tall white shelves of bottled water; the great drought was a memory less than a year old. Many of us still had buckets under the faucets in our bathtubs, so that nothing should be wasted. In the grocery store we looked at the water and saw the plastic, stacks and stacks of it like shark’s teeth, cylinders huddled together, as if the water were afraid of loneliness and afraid of touching. Those of us without masks stayed home.

The parents began to write new emails: they would not be coming to the college essay night, they said. They would not be coming to the SAT preparation night. Their lungs were weak. Their chests hurt. They had been getting over a cold; now, they could not get over it. They could not breathe. They could not breathe. They could not breathe.

They were leaving Oakland, the parents said. They were driving to their cabins in the mountains. Some of their children were coming with them; others were staying behind. They would return when the air was clear. They would return, once the fire had ended. They would come back to the city once it had made itself clean.

Many of these families had cabins in the mountains. They would ski there in the winter and swim there in the summer. This was the great mountain range on which storms broke and died, the mountain range that had made a desert of Nevada and Utah when the world was younger; these were the mountains in which the Donner Party had sat under snow and ice and eaten the meat from each other’s bones. They were covered in blue lakes and green forests. If you walked into these forests, late at night, you could look up and see the whole Milky Way spilling herself from horizon to horizon, under billions of miles of clear and shuddering sky.

Whereas it was not possible to do this in Oakland even before the fire.

The newscasters began to ask when the smoke would clear. For each other they had no answer. The fire, it seemed, would need to die, or the wind would need to change; no scientist knew when either event would come. They cut to their reporters, wide-eyed young women mouthing muffled news through their own masks in front of a blurred horizon. The cool red circle of the sun stared at us through the television.

Schools were closed again all next week. The district told us they would open after Thanksgiving, regardless of air quality. The children could not miss school forever, said the district. We hunched into ourselves over our laptops at our kitchen tables and shuffled and re-shuffled our lesson plans. We walked up the avenues to run errands and ducked into buildings softened to haze. Beside and behind us moved the people of the city, their faces wrapped in blue masks. When they held the doors of BART trains for us and counted dimes and quarters next to us and put our groceries in paper bags their hands were deep brown and tan, scarred and freckled and wrinkled and calloused, but their faces were all paper-blue, pastel blue, as blue as the sky.

Beside the BART station a woman sat down on the ground and began to cough. A crowd gathered around her almost immediately, a clot in the streetflow, and watched her cough until her inhales rasped and sizzled. One of us asked if anyone had called a doctor. The woman said, in between coughs, that no one should call a doctor. She would be healthier without a bill, she said. We watched her until the light changed, and then we dissolved into passers-by, pushing beside her, through her. The smoke hung heavy overhead, and the train roared above like thunder.

The classrooms were emptier on Monday, and the students’ voices sounded too loud inside them. They did not seem to wish to speak. When we asked them questions, their answers trailed off into silence. When it was time for gym class, they ran laps around the inside of the theater, the only noise their sneakers thumping over the red carpet, up onto the creaking stage. It took us nearly half the period to realize two boys had gone missing; when we went to look, we found them on the lawn above the library, looking down the hill from which the previous month they had been able to see the whole San Francisco Bay. One of them was holding a joint in his hand; as we came up behind them, he dropped it, unlit, and began coughing hoarse and wispy into his elbow. Half an hour later, when his mother had appeared at the gates in her minivan with her face tight and plastic and afraid, he had still not stopped coughing.

The smoke began to press closer. The sky began to settle lower each morning. It had been difficult to see down the hill; now, it became difficult to see across the street. We woke each morning to a fine layer of grey on our cars, on our lawns. If we stood outside long enough, we found ourselves shaking grey out of our hair. The older women among us told jokes about old age; the younger ones said nothing, but cut their hair short, so that in the thick tangles of their ponytails and braids and curls the colorlessness no longer collected so clearly.

We wondered if the students would ask about this. Some of us even prepared lectures on the topic, clinical or comforting, biological or historical or philosophical, depending on our fields of expertise. But the students were coming to school less, now, joining their parents far from the city in tens and twenties. Those families without houses in the mountains continued to email us, more frantic each day. The district would cancel school again, they said. The district had cancelled girls’ tennis, and football. The district did not know when the fire would end. What was our plan for the children to keep their GPAs? What was our plan for the children to keep their scholarships?

Some of us, the ones who lived near enough to the good school in the good neighborhood, took the bus home. On the bus, we began to notice, the people sitting next to us had grey in them. On their hair, in their clothes, of course, like us; but also not like us. The skin of their hands was grey, and their eyes were grey above their masks. They said nothing to anyone—not the bus driver, not the teenage boys shouting dirty things from across the aisle, not the tired-eyed woman asking them for money. None of us saw the grey people leave the bus; our stops always seemed to come before theirs did. We did not mention the grey people to each other. We did not even mention them to our husbands. But we did not forget the way they looked, how they stared at the city rushing by out the window, as if it were invisible, as if there were nothing there at all.

The parents, from their cabins in the mountains, posted photos of the tall frosted pine trees, of their sons or daughters skating out onto mirrored lakes. In these photos the sun was yellow. The light it cast was as white as the snow.

It became difficult to see across a room. It became difficult to see our hands in front of our faces. We drove to school with our headlights on and watched the soft dust fall onto our windshields. In the teachers’ lounge we took to grading essays in brighter and brighter colors: purple, green, pink sparkling gel pen, as if we were the teenage girls we had once been. It did not seem to matter. We picked up each piece of paper when we were done and shook it, and watched the ash on it settle to the carpet. The writing below was empty of all color. Even the black printed ink was faded, as if it had been sitting in a room forgotten for many years.

That weekend, one of us had a date, a concert in San Francisco. We wished her luck. The local news did not report from San Francisco any more; sometimes they would drive out to Treasure Island and turn their cameras west, and we would watch the lights of the Salesforce Tower, visible through the haze for a few silent seconds and then gone again. No one had seen Coit Tower since the fire began. There was no word from the tech companies, though we sometimes still saw their buses, employees-only, easing slowly down the streets from our homes towards the South Bay. We saw no one at their windows; but then again, we never had.

A student who we had thought long-gone, one of the earliest to flee to the mountains, showed up in school on Wednesday. We said nothing to her, but we wondered: her face had gone pale as chalk. When she was asked a direct question, she answered in a voice so soft no one could hear her. One of us, who had advised her on her college essay and who knew something of her troubles at home, went to go find her during lunch. She was not sitting with her usual friends, who were huddled on the curled brown lawn slipping bites of sandwiches under their masks. She was standing by the gates, staring at the red eye of the sun. She was not moving. She was not wearing a mask. She was breathing slowly, shallowly, and the grey had settled into her eyelashes and the folds of her coat.

The woman who had gone into San Francisco did not come to school. When we called her cell phone, there was no answer; not even her answering machine picked up. Instead, there was a thin, rustling static, which, when we listened closely, sounded almost like voices.

That night, watching the news from New York and Washington, we did not recognize the sun in the sky behind the newscasters. It was not that it was yellow, or that its light was clear and good. It was that there was something foreign about these things; it was that these things did not belong to us. This sun had never come to our city. It was not Oakland’s star.

The next day the district cancelled classes again, and said this time they did not know when school would start up. That morning, as if by prearranged signal, we cleared our classrooms. Those of us who had children paid them a few dollars to help with the heavy lifting; the rest of us labored alone, unpeeling carefully taped posters and art projects, wiping stray ink from the whiteboards, packing pamphlets and textbooks into cardboard boxes that we piled in front of the gates and carried one by one to the trunks of our cars. Our children crawled under desks and unstuck cracked old gum from their metal undersides, laughing through the small blue masks we had fit over their faces. Somewhere in the midst of this cleaning one of us found a few others in the teachers’ lounge, and said what each of us had already known: she had called her grown-up daughter, who lived in New York, and there had been no answer. No answer from her brother in Boston or her parents in Los Angeles. The television had ceased to broadcast national news, statewide news, reality shows, soap operas; even the radio carried no voices. There was only the quiet whispering of the ash.

We appeared to each other in the courtyard like ghosts, silhouettes bursting into color and then fading again. We carried each other’s detritus and swept each other’s classroom floors. When we were done, a little before noon, we gathered by the gates, and clasped each other’s hands, and kissed each other on the cheek, lips touching thin blue cloth touching skin. We told each other how very good it had been to work together. Then we let go, and went to our cars, and rolled up the windows, and listened to the low cough of our own engines.

At home, around half past one, I startled: I had forgotten my favorite book at school. I said this to my husband, though I did not know if he was listening, and I tied my mask back onto my face. Then I drove up through and through the greyness, past the BART station and the cemetery, into the winding hills. The streets were empty; I did not even have to use the teachers’ parking lot. I unlocked the gates and walked down across the lawn, around the library, and into the building which housed the classroom where I had once taught.

My book was on my desk, just where I had left it. I picked it up, went into the hall, pulled my keys from my purse and locked the door of my classroom behind me.

When I heard my key click, I heard another noise, coming from the classroom next to mine. It was a soft sound; if I hadn’t been listening for the lock, I would never have heard it. It was not a sound of breathing or speaking. It was a soft rustling, like dry leaves. I took a step to the right and put my hand to that classroom’s doorknob—it was not locked—and eased it open, and put my eye to the crack.

They were there, all of them, every child whose parents had taken them away to the safety of the mountains. Each of them sitting at attention, with their faces faded as old newspaper. None of them were wearing masks. At the front of the classroom was the woman who had gone into San Francisco, and she was speaking, or trying to speak; her mouth was moving, but she was making no sound.

I opened the door just a little further. None of them moved.

I pushed it fully open and walked into the classroom. None of their heads turned. I said the name of one of the students; he did not look at me. I reached out to my fellow teacher and touched her hand, and I watched as her body shuddered and swirled and fell in clouds of soft fine greyness to the carpet below.

They stood, then, the Oaklanders who had reached the mountains, the Oaklanders who had escaped the smoke, the Oaklanders who had left our city for the higher ground without looking back. They stood and they pressed towards me, reaching out their hands, drifting through the desks and the chairs, and when they touched me they burst into grey, three of them at a time, five, ten, and I began to cough, and could not stop coughing. They would not stop coming. They would not stop dissolving, and yet they would not stop coming. I felt buried, buried under them, under their ash and their silence and their unceasing, limitless want. I felt like the city, vanished into endless softness. I felt like the sun.

After Erysichthon

The whole world is a feast of runaway craving,

of a curse that has outrun its uses.

Early on, our ancestors twisted up,

moved root through rock, spread fragile first leaves wide.

All land was new, mountainous, unsoiled.

 

The forests that grew have lasted so long,

spreading across the world at glacial pace.

We stretch and recede, grow up and move out.

Famine and war will parch your lips, drag you

below the Earth where we feast on your flesh.

 

What is breath but the ambrosia of trees?

You suckle our gaseous exhalations.

We wean you down to Hades at your death.

 

Who are these children who warm,

strain, and devour the wide earth,

cornucopia fraying,

desert bursting at its seams?

 

We are the trees who were once never wronged,

not axe-culled, not forced to grow through fences.

The Thunderer and those bright kin alone

touched us, burned us, but we claimed the wide land.

Forgotten myths say we gave birth to you.

 

We danced with Hermes on sloping mountains,

later with Pan whom my tall sister bore.

To me came Artemis’ strict retinue.

We ran in those places no man dared see.

Then your people grew up and tamed the wilds.

 

The gifts we brought you at your birth were myrrh,

frankincense, and storax, life-giving scents

beloved of gods, the sweat from our bark.

 

Erysichthon was condemned

as he felled that first grove.

Its nymph guardian begged, and

sap pooled at her feet like blood.

 

Forests fell back, expanding horizons.

When we seduced you, we brought you to groves,

breathed in the incense and breath you exhaled,

taught you secrets of bees and bitter plants.

You worshipped us alongside stone statues.

 

We know which of you swung the axe to cut

deep into the sap-giving arteries,

your grandmothers and sisters cut to stumps.

This is how we learned how to give curses.

Now all-consuming hunger binds us all.

 

Persephone opens wide arms to those

initiated into mysteries

shining like white cypress bark and gold leaves.

 

We punish with a hunger.

That murderer devoured

until he bit down deep on

his own tender flesh, ripped hard.

 

Our lives stretch so long that none can compare.

Curses work best when exercised lightly.

Torchers of nymphs, bearers of distress, you

smashed so many of us, pried open trunks,

carved once-sacred wood to ford the wide sea.

 

Rage boils thick in our sap when nymphs die.

We witness trunks uprooted, roots twisted

hard from a fall driven by gravity.

More often, they’re intact, dead from disease.

Dryads decay hidden in scrapped branches.

 

What you give the forest opens the way.

Here in mountain places, philosophers

found pathways in sunbeams mottled with green.

 

The hexed consume without end,

now without limit or death.

Their tools extract Plouton’s wealth;

all the world weeps out poison.

 

In perfumed shrines where our secret teachings

saturated air, ground, and cool water,

offerings blackened cave ceilings with soot.

We cannot suckle those who have breath, not

until your hearts root down in awe of place.

 

Make white cakes covered in sticky honey.

Go to the chamber of the ones who dwell

among the countless wronged dead, they who howl,

who listen to sapless whispers of shades.

Pacify them and be made whole again.

 

Come to the mountain, come to the gorge-nook.

The water we pull up through our roots tastes

sweet of nectar and metal, wilds and waste.

 

We repeat the dead ones’ names.

This world is old, the list great,

our curses worn like old silt.

 

We watch all in reflections

metal and glass leave, your eyes

searching, tamed lightning your guide.

 

You linger in pallid storefront lights, dark

patterns ghosting across your distracted

faces, forest yet close. Look up. See us.

 

Sooner or later, your meandering

steps will remember sacred rites once more.

Sooner or later, emptiness will tire

you—you will reach for the wholeness of yore.

Sky Suck

They hired me last Sunday to suck the carbon from the sky. I imagined the job might give my writing wings; I’d fly across the lower atmosphere with a vacuum strapped to my back like a forgotten character from the Ghostbusters franchise. But it turns out to be nothing like that. I was given the job mostly because my pilot’s license is still valid from the war.

Lee, the chief engineer, leads me to my plane. It’s nothing more than a small Turboprop a billionaire might take to an island off of what’s left of Belize, but she promises the plane has the propulsion potential of a spacecraft. “When you near a highly concentrated carbon pocket, the plane might shake a bit. The carbon is sequestered in an inner chamber filled with a high concentration of photosynthetic algae. There’s a photoelectric cell submerged in the water tank and a simulation of sunlight to drive the photosynthesis process. The outburst of oxygen propels you, once you get to a high enough altitude.”

“I could run out of carbon?”

Lee stifles a laugh at my question. “There’s an endless supply of carbon. We are beyond capacity. Your shift will be over long before the carbon concentration in an area drops to a level that will no longer sustain you. You are there to clean the sky.”

The tropical storm that wiped out the eastern Antilles only took three hours to move up in classification to a category six hurricane. It was the second to touch down after they added the new classification when Florida was swept up by 200 mph winds. Unheard of, but not unimaginable. We’d known where our weather patterns were headed for years, but people just raised their homes up on stilts and went on living their lives. Not that I blame them. Not that I’d want to move if there seemed to be a way to keep my life going with some normalcy if I could, but then again I haven’t lived anywhere for more than four months at a time since I left college.

I thought I was going to be a screenwriter before I got drafted. I bought pink sheets and a Breakfast at Tiffany’s eye mask I wore to bed each night. I thought this was the way you brought Hollywood to you, making routines in your life like you were already there.

I also had the idea you needed to work at a coffee shop at some point in your life to really be considered a writer. I jumped from coffee shop to coffee shop, but the same thing happened in every city I worked in: the workforce’s disposable income dropped, the cost of milk skyrocketed as dairy farmland dried up, a shipment of coffee beans from South America was blown up by a local militia, and the coffee shop closed up. I barely had enough time to get the down-on-my-luck-service-job experience I needed to become the writer I knew I could be before I had to find my way to another city and another open barista position. I felt like I had stumbled into my destiny, like finding those jobs was a sign I was headed in the right direction.

After I got my letter, I went to a psychic. It turned out to be the best thing I ever did for myself. I had the draft notice in my pocket as I sat across from her. I closed my eyes and shuffled the tarot deck like she told me to, letting the cards dance between my hands until something inside of me told me to stop. I hadn’t been around anyone before who honored that there might be something inside of you like that, never met someone who told you to follow that something.

I’d thought being a screenwriter and storyboarding in a room full of writers might be like that. Someone might laugh and riff off of a joke I’d written over the weekend as I sipped my soy latte at the corner of a coffee shop hunched over a worn notepad. But in wartime there’s no time left for dreams, and when the war is with the environment, dreams evaporate all at once. I smiled at the psychic as she took the deck back and pulled the first card, then another, lining them around the table into a cross.

“You are being called to an adventure, but not the one you’d thought you’d be going on. What you needed from the one you imagined you will find in the other instead.” A story by credit? An enticing character arc to really nail my studio pitch?

The psychic went on to say I was heartbroken and some other things I already knew about myself, like that I had a bad relationship with my sister. I left the shop thinking over what she’d said about my adventure, and I started to feel ripped off—not by her, but by the world. Who chooses war over being in a writer’s room? I certainly didn’t. I didn’t make a choice at all. And there was nothing to be done about my sister. She’d died the year before in an apartment fire set off by thermal radiation when a misfired hydrofracking blast triggered an earthquake, the tremors cracking a nuclear reactor three miles from her apartment in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. Her name was Sally Fisher. You can look all of this up.

You’d be right to think there were disasters happening everywhere. I didn’t have anyone to give my new bed sheets to when I was deployed, so I donated them, but I kept the eye mask. I thought it might come in handy.

I don’t remember much of my time as a pilot, based in Mexico, flying missions in South America. I spent several days a week in the shade of a canvas tent working on a spec script for The Simpsons in between my rations of bread and coffee. Sometimes I put my eye mask on and took a nap. The other soldiers were rarely around. I was the only pilot stationed there and essentially my own boss.

Usually, by mid-week, I was handed a map with coordinates. I’d enter them into the GPS system on my plane and take off for a few days, following my new adventure just like the psychic said. A cloud might look briefly beautiful, and I took comfort in this. When the GPS began to beep, I pushed my thumb against the thick red button to drop a bomb on whatever local militia was siphoning off water from a town’s water tank or committing some other infraction against the AGAST (Allies for the Global Alleviation of Storm Trauma) treaty.

I returned to what was left of the United States three years ago, and since then the sky has become more dangerous. The carbon particles that trap heat in the atmosphere are transparent, so it’s hard to measure in real-time what I suck up, Lee tells me. Most of the aerosols that make it difficult to see were artificially introduced by AGAST to bounce the light from the sun back up into space, going against decades of advocacy to clean the soot and sulfur from the sky. To simultaneously clean up the carbon and replace it with aerosols was the best they could come up with to try to stabilize the heat, but it’s only time before the next storm hits. Now AGAST is working on a proposal to mandate breathing filters for at-risk elevations.

Lee mentions that the pilot I’m replacing had an asthma attack last week before boarding the plane and hasn’t returned since. This doesn’t bother me the way it might have years ago. Death feels bureautic these days, more like the outcome of an assembly line than anything a god or enemy might’ve done to you in an era where death could be more creative, more Shakespearean. I’ve stopped mourning who I’ve lost, what I’ve lost, the Earth itself. The only thing I can’t let go of is my desire to see a story of mine told. I know the studio systems have long gone under, and book publishers shut down, but I keep writing with an overwhelming sense that my chance is just around the corner.

When Lee starts up the plane, the exhaust pipe coughs out what looks like a chunk of artificial particles. This is what’s meant to save us? I kick the piece of strange coal around before getting in the pilot’s seat. The dusty handprint of the former pilot is still on the door. Alarmed, Lee wipes this away and stands proudly, opening up the door.

“Go ahead,” she says, smiling. “It’s all yours.”

Thank You For Your Patience

I’m lucky because they replaced a bunch of chairs last month and I got a new one. A good chair is important when you spend ten hours a day in a cubicle talking to strangers about their problems. I’ve been here three years and worked on most of Westermorgen’s services which means I can with no thought help grandma set up her wifi. Or troubleshoot banking software. Or set up your cellphone plan or help you with some app designed to find your soulmate that nevertheless fills you with hopelessness.

(I can’t help you with the hopelessness.)

It’s nonstandard, but I’m Westermorgen’s floater, and Geordie or Keersty just drop me where the calls are heavy or turnover is high. On twitter I can answer questions within five seconds of some asshole in Toronto saying wtf my TV doesn’t see the house network. And I respond I’m sorry to hear that @TOasshole let’s see if I can help. I’m impossible to rile because I’ve heard everything, every possible stupid question, every strange request regarding lapsed policies and missed payments, every paranoid rant, every sort of impotent rage. The management is shitty and the customers are irritable, but there’s beauty in problem solving.

The really bad stuff started at the end of last month, when I had to do a 1-on-1 with Geordie, teamlead for the floor. I’d been fielding a bunch of questions regarding a recent patch that had broken everything. I had this rhythm hitting my 30s AHT and typing without thinking Mark here how can I help you. But 1-on-1 is a mandated interruption, so I listened to Geordie brainstorm about improving morale. They stopped having barbecues because it was too expensive even when the burgers were sawdust and soy. Also no one wanted to be outside because Detroit was still burning and the ppm up to something like Beijing.

“Listen to this. Westermorgen. Idol,” Geordie told me. “We judge three of the top ranked calls and we have a thing and someone walks away with a Timmy’s gift card. Like. Fifty bucks.”

Geordie said that like it was a good thing.

“What about a key fob?” I asked. We can’t get out without one after hours, but only management can hold. “Or the winner gets to wear jeans. Or keep their phone for a shift?” That didn’t rate an answer. The most frustrating thing about Westermorgen is that teamleads have to hold your phone, like you’re an untrustworthy teenager who’s been grounded. I feel like I’m lost in a cave or a space station. When I do a lot of overtime I arrive when it’s dark and I leave when it’s dark and while sometimes I go around the corner for coffee or McNuggets, it always feels like I’m just visiting the world. I don’t know what’s happened: if a government’s fallen, or an ice shelf has collapsed, if Detroit is burning again, or maybe California, or the Great Lakes are dying at a slightly faster rate than they were when I left for work.

Never knowing what’s going on outside, I sit in my good chair and say That sounds frustrating, to everyone, no matter who’s talking or what they want, let me see if I understand your problem.

“You could judge,” Geordie said, still talking about morale. “You’re impartial. You hate everyone.”

“I don’t hate everyone, Geordie,” I said reflexively, though to be fair, I hate a lot of people here.

After my mandated fifteen minutes with Geordie I saw that Misty had a problem with my documentation, which has been rough since they changed policy on me. She’s in the Philippines where most of the real work happens. Upper management is all in India. They only have us because they need Canadian accents on the phones, and they get tax breaks, bringing jobs to one of the more desolate parts of the country. Downwind from Detroit, rampant West Nile, and ninety percent of the province’s heavy metals processed at the plant out by the mall. Seventy percent of the babies born here are girls, something to do with residual BPA.

Misty is on the other side of the Pacific, in Legazpi, but you’d think she was right here, considering how aggressively she organizes us.

ur shit at filling the forms mark the write up is going to kill ur rank

We’re stack ranked every shift. It gets you points you can redeem which, honestly, is worth it for the grocery store gift cards.

Just tell me what I did wrong, Legazpi.

We were in the middle of a rough month. The flu hit everywhere at once and no one could afford to lose the work, so we had a bunch of people come in sick, coughs and juicy sneezes all over the floor, and half the time you got on the elevator and everyone was grey-faced and weaving.

I came in over the weekend to cover mobile because they lost half their staff, so I’d been on for eight days by Monday when Geordie was manic trying to call people in so he wouldn’t have to go on phones. He always says, when we’re smoking outside and he’s pointedly not looking at the place where the GM building used to be, “It’s not the extra fifty cents an hour, it’s the fact that I don’t have to deal with people.” He hated taking calls.

He offered me overtime, so I started coming in at six and leaving at ten, and I didn’t even notice the weekend. I do remember going home those nights and thinking how hollow my room felt, with my roommates playing CoD in the living room, and how my body seemed to vibrate. Caffeine maybe, or pseudoephedrine. I heard phantom time warnings and chimes, and when I closed my eyes I could see the screen and call after call flooding the queue. By Saturday Westermorgen was a haunted house, but I still wasn’t sick.

That sounds frustrating. Let me see if I can help.

I was dealing with this woman on Vancouver Island who couldn’t generate invoices. We’d been at it for two hours and I could feel her getting upset when I told her to wipe the whole system and start again. I can help you do that, but she was like no we’ll lose two weeks of work, and there’s nothing I can say to that, so we keep troubleshooting even though it’s pointless.

“Okay, I said, can you go back to the root invoice and try—“

“—oh,” she said, “what—“

And that was it, I didn’t hear anything but the line itself, which just went dead, that kind of absence you get when someone hangs up on you.

“Are you there? Ma’am?”

I called back but I got a re-order tone, not voicemail or an old-fashioned busy signal but the one that means the whole system is busy or blocked or down.

I dropped out of the queue then, which you’re not supposed to do obviously, and went looking for Geordie, who was chatting with Keersty about Westermorgen Idol. I asked if they knew anything but of course they didn’t and when I asked if I could at least grab my phone to see what was happening, Keersty did a kind of elementary-school-teacher sigh.

documentation for #3990180 ur overdue mark.

Caller dropped

saw that. explanation?

Happening across the board. Looks like the problem is at their end.

I didn’t find out until Mo came back from break streaked wet in the way you are if you’ve run out into that rain blowing in from Detroit because you don’t want it to touch your skin, saying, “Earthquake on the westcoast. You know anyone out there?”

I thought about the woman trying to get the invoice together for a tiny order of sea salt from some equally tiny place on Vancouver Island, her business so miniscule it all fit into our cheapest subscription. In my un-submitted documentation for Misty I had written that her voice sounded like a hopeful-but-slightly-overwhelmed Great Aunt trying to make the remote control work.

“No one. How bad?”

“Like 9.6. The worst since forever. For hundreds of years.”

“Jesus,” I said, “Jesus. Jesus.”

I’ve had similar moments on calls. When the shooting happened in Montreal—not Vieux-Montreal, but the one where the kids ran downtown away from McGill, and the photographer caught the girl as the bullet tore out her right kneecap—I was on the line with this dickwad in a coworking space on Maisonneuve who was asking to talk to my supervisor. Then—mid whine—he stopped talking, like he suddenly didn’t care about my attitude. I could hear his phone pinging.

“Sir, are you there?”

“Can you hear that? It’s happening on the street. I can see—”

A faint popping. Voices raised and doors slammed. Then he cut the call.

I kept in the queue. I helped someone update. I did a subscription renewal. The next person, though, needed a backup and that took forever so we chatted about hockey until she said, “Did you hear about Montreal?”

“No ma’am,” I said, thinking about that sound I maybe heard before his phone cut. Fire crackers. Backfires.

“Some guys shot up the whole downtown. I think it was terrorists. Who knows. FLQ? Or Muslims maybe. Red Power. Fifty dead but it was going up every time I refreshed the page.”

She kept going on like this while we did a backup and then I made sure everything worked and it had been like three hours at that point, and I kept thinking of the guy and his silence, and what was going on in the streets while we talked about his login and how unprofessional I was. I don’t have any friends in Montreal. I went there once to drink when I was eighteen, but that’s it. I just had that guy and the thump of footsteps fleeing the co-working space.

When I took my break the rain was falling again, the faintly grey kind that runs down the sidewalks and the gutters and when it builds up enough you can see that it’s a little milky because it’s full of ash. If you think too hard about what’s running into your eyes as you stand outside, smoking until your pack is empty, you go eat a twenty-four box of Tim Bits, or six Big Macs, or you stop for one beer on the way home and only leave when they push you out the door.

Geordie was outside. I gave him a cigarette even though he doesn’t smoke, either, and he said, “it doesn’t seem to be getting cleaner. Wasn’t it supposed to get cleaner?” He grew up in Detroit, though he was already over here when it burned last year.

“Maybe it’s safer. The hum is worse. I thought the hum was supposed to go when they sent in the cleanup crews.”

We watched the warm, ash-coloured water run down the gutters until it was ankle deep. The city is a wetland, and there isn’t far for water to go, so it ends up in people’s basements, all that ashy, bony water running through foundations and drains, a constant trickle in the background. Sort of like the faint pop you might hear while you’re on the phone with a guy in Montreal who wants to talk to your manager.

“Does it feel.” Geordie said and lit another cigarette.

“What, Geordie.” I hate how often he doesn’t finish his sentences.

“Does it feel like it’s happening more often? This kind of thing?”

I dropped my smoke into the rain water and shrugged, then said, “I wish I knew what to tell you.” Which wasn’t a real answer, and I used my tech support voice when I said it because I didn’t want to have that conversation.

On my first break after the earthquake I smoked and watched the rain and videos on my phone, someone livestreaming the moment it hit—boring talk about food or weather, then a strange look on their face, their eyes dart upward, then the phone falls. Overhead footage from helicopters of downtown Vancouver, all those green towers swaying and falling, and the bridge swinging until the cables snap like rubber bands. The worst in recorded history. Worse, probably, than the last megathrust in 1700. I just kept thinking of that woman, and the sort of quiet shock in her voice, her “oh—is that—” and then nothing, and I was standing out in the rain, but still warm, when it occurred to me that I might have heard her last words. I kept thinking about the texture of the silence after the call dropped and what had happened the moment after that, if that had been the worst of it, the shock of the whole world rumbling. Or if it had been worse for her after that, or right now, or tomorrow.

I only had ten minutes because call volume was increasing. My throat was starting to tickle, and the world—just suddenly, out of nowhere—started to look glassy, the light thick from the ceiling squares, and my skin prickled when I ran my hands over my arms, which were covered with goose bumps.

The floor was nearly empty except for Geordie running around supervising and not taking calls, and the queue was packed. My first call was from way north along the coast, Prince Rupert, a woman calling about a password reset. “I want Mark,” she said, “He helped me before. Can I talk to Mark?”

While I was documenting I thought, fuck it, I’m going to tell Misty what the woman told me while we were waiting for the password reset email, about how when you’re that far north you don’t notice time passing, and you feel good in an unimaginable way in summer, luminous and hopeful, and how in winter all you want to do is die and drink yourself into a coma, so you know, it balances out.

After that I reopened #3990180.

An elderly woman, I wrote, on a phone, trying to print invoices for locally produced sea salt, looks over at the rack of glass jars in which she keeps her stock because she hears a rattle, then another, then she says, “oh—is that—“ and nothing else because at that moment, the force of twenty-five thousand Hiroshimas lit the Cascadia subduction zone—on which Vancouver island rests like a cork on a bottle—centuries of continental tension released.

I typed that, then I hit send, then I added a secondary note on her file. At 8.32 PST a 9.8 hit the Cascadia subduction zone.

And Misty was right there on ChatHive, not telling me it was Inappropriate. She wrote, rest their souls and I was comforted by those temporary words, which surprised me.

my grandparents were on mindanao in the 1976 earthquake. u got anyone there?

No

I heard the hum from Detroit. It was, somehow, a relief to know that across the world Misty was in a similar room among people evaluating documentation for apps and ISPs and accounting software. People saying that must be frustrating, let’s see if I can help. Something occurred to me.

You hear anything about tsunamis?

no word so far

Do you have your phone? So you can get the alerts?

theyll let us know. we’re so bad im taking calls so i won’t be fixing ur doc until tomorrow

I wondered if Keersty would let us know, or if she would dither about it until all we could do was climb to the top floor of the building and watch a wave consume what was left of Detroit before it swamped us, too.

Five more calls and I refilled my water bottle—the one with the slogan on it, fueling small business with the tools to succeed, that some now-lost Westermorgen contract brought in—and I was looking at my skin reflected in the sink, which was the colour of those pale, lumpy smokers you see outside the entrance, the colour of a raw filet o fish. I felt adrenalized, like a moment before I’d been terrified, but I could not remember how or why. I wondered what it was doing to me, inside, all those cells now remade into virus factories, turning to goo and mush and sloughing off while the virus proliferated through my system, and I left traces on everything I touched.

The water ran over the top of the bottle. Clear. So far the ash hasn’t worked its way through the city’s water system. Or maybe it had and it was invisible like the microplastics in the lake.

“So you going to judge?” It was Geordie. “We’re going to do it next week. I was thinking we’d set a time limit. Like, five minute calls. You and me and Keersty judge it. I grabbed fifty for the Timmy’s card, too.”

“Man,” I said, “man.”

Geordie just stared at me. “You getting sick? You know what you need to do is . . . .” He went on about Echinacea or FluFX and I thought about the tsunami that was, or was not, traveling across the Pacific. “ . . . Or just hammer your system with anti-oxidants, and take a double dose of Nyquil—”

Without thinking I pulled my phone out of my pocket.

“—You know you can’t have that anywhere near the floor.”

I was already googling Pacific tsunami alert, and it was rolling rainbows and I stared at it so hard that it seemed to take over the whole world, and then I shivered, but Geordie was still talking.

“Don’t make me write you up. I don’t want to deal with it.”

“K.” I said.

“It’s about privacy for our users. They need to know they can trust our integrity, our word, and our system.”

The poster on the far side of the break room said Integrity, Word, and System. I saw that the alert had been issued for Japan. That’s when he took my phone.

“You fuck the dog, I have to write you up. I don’t want to write you up.”

Japan in six hours. Eight pm. I’d still be here, while very far away a wave crested on the seacoast, filling the river basins and the car parks.

I know you don’t have to surrender your phone, even if they can require you to leave it at home. I know they’re not supposed to lock you in, either, or let you smoke within three metres of the door, even when the ash is falling. They’re not supposed to pay you in points you can then exchange for grocery store gift cards, which you need because the new minimum wage doesn’t even cover rent. But I need a job.

The next call I got was farther south, closer to the epicenter. The first thing I did was ask about the earthquake.

“We felt it, and there’s the tsunami warning, but we’re far enough inland it shouldn’t be—”

“—Tsunami warning?”

“So when I try to log in—”

“—Tsunami?”

“—I keep getting the same error, it says my account’s frozen. What does that mean? I need to do some invoices. And yeah, I just got the text like half an hour ago. Landfall is like an hour.”

The account was frozen due to missed payments, so I pointed that out and the guy insisted no, he’d set up an automated transfer, and he kept me on the line while he chatted with the bank’s tech support on another line to sort out the direct deposit, and then I reactivated his account, all this time the tsunami traveling toward the coast, where the shallower bottom would raise the wave’s height by narrowing its length because the last time I’d been outside I’d looked at a gif on Wikipedia that demonstrated how tsunamis crest as they travel through shallow waters.

The last thing he said wasn’t thanks, it was “there it is, the tide’s going way out, I hope everyone’s out of downtown.” Then he was gone, and I could imagine it, the water running away from shore, like a huge exhalation, and then collecting into a rising wave that would destroy them all.

The tsunami warning? I wrote in ChatHive, hoping Misty was there.

Keersty responded instantly: That is not appropriate ChatHive is for important work stuff.

we havent heatd anything but were swamped so who knows what going on outside

CHATHIVE CHANNEL WILL ONLY BE USED FOR APPRORPAITE BUSINESS RELATED BUSINESS.

Maybe you should get out anyway.

CHATHIVE CHANNEL WILL ONLY BE USED FOR APPRORPAITE BUSINESS RELATED BUSINESS.

CHATHIVE CHANNEL WILL ONLY BE USED FOR APPRORPAITE BUSINESS RELATED BUSINESS.

I’d been there for sixteen hours, and I couldn’t remember the last time I slept a full night at home, when I hadn’t been buzzed on cold pills and exhaustion, and the sound of CoD from the living room. That week when I did sleep I kept saying This is Mark from Magnacorp or This is Mark from Wherever I Am Right Now, and heard explosions and the way voices carry over the river from Detroit, the screams and the crowds and the gunshots. Or maybe I was never actually asleep, maybe I was just off my head. I shouldn’t have washed the pills down with beer, but there’s that thing that happens when you stop in for a beer after work and the inertia of the whole thing, the job, the shitty beer and the fact that a person brings you food, even if you can’t afford it, that sticks you to your seat. It was bad last summer when we couldn’t afford to run the AC but the bar on the way home could, and it was full of familiar guys, broke and lonely and trying to avoid looking at what was left of the Detroit skyline, or the grey-green clouds boiling to the north, and the hail and the lightning storms every afternoon like clockwork. The summers are definitely hotter, and the mosquitoes are definitely worse, and last summer I noticed that the birds don’t sing anymore, all their whistles sound like videogame lasers.

I stepped outside for a cigarette and realized the doors had been locked and I don’t have a fob because I don’t rate a fob. Geordie was there too, setting up his stupid Westermorgen Idol, piles of bright pink and green and blue post-it notes all over his desk.

“I need to go out.”

“The doors are locked for the night.”

“I need to get out.”

“We lost another girl from Online. You’ll have to take over social media if we lose anyone else. Take your break here.”

I just kind of stared at him and my skin prickled like all the pseudoephedrine I’d taken had rushed to the surface and was blasting every single nerve ending in my body.

“I need to go outside.”

“You can’t. Like, you physically can’t.”

I kind of stood there and I’m ashamed to say I wanted to cry. Like a little kid who isn’t allowed to use the bathroom, or who just wants to sit with his Dad but keeps getting dragged away by unfamiliar relatives. The kind of crying you see on the bus at rush hour when some little kid coming back from the mall loses it and lies in the aisle wailing, cramming road salt in his mouth, and you just think you and me both.

I didn’t actually cry. I hate myself, because I just said, begging, “can I please can I have my phone back, please?”

Geordie looked at me like I was an idiot, him in the middle of all the post-it notes that read CONGRATULATIONS! or YOUR A WINNER! or WESTERMORGEN IDOL!!!

I didn’t say anything. I left. At first I just sat in the lunch room, shivering and nauseous, staring at a plastic solo cup leftover from the barbecues they used to give before the ash. There will be worse moments in my life no doubt—more pain, more sadness—but I can’t imagine anything so wide-ranging in its desolation as that moment. The only thing I could focus on was telling Misty to get her phone back and watch the horizon and be ready to escape.

A girl from Online staggered through, sweaty and pale, and I knew that Geordie would be here in a moment to ask for another eight hours, overnight, answering strangers’ questions so perfectly that they all treat me like a shitty customer service AI built to serve.

There aren’t a lot of choices in your life, are there? You can choose to have kids, or not, or leave your hometown or not. Or to stay in a terrible job you are, for some reason, very good at. But other than that, what is there? Just a lot of compliance and noncompliance. This didn’t feel like a choice. I said to the girl, “we need to get out of here,” and she nodded. Then we headed down to the lobby. The doors were locked and no one carrying a key was in the building and the girl looked bad, but when I went to the fire escape she still said, “no, we’re not supposed to!”

“We need to get out—“

“—they’ll fire us!” And I could hear the fear in her voice, and I wondered how badly she needed this job, that she was here in the middle of the night, so sick she could hardly stand.

“Tell them I did it,” I said, and hit the bar.

Only it didn’t move because it was locked, too. The next thing I did was stupid, but I don’t know what else I could have done. I walked back to the lobby and picked up a garbage can and began slamming it into the glass door. Behind me she was just coughing and coughing and said, maybe, “stop stop,” but so faintly I could ignore it. Then we were out, and she was staggering toward the emergency room on Ouellette and I was alone in rainwater the same temperature as my blood. Then I went looking for a payphone because the only way to sort this out was to call in, but I couldn’t remember which of Westermorgen’s departments Misty was assigned to so when I finally found the city’s last payphone—in the bus depot—I called them all, all the sad voices of men and women here and on the other side of the world.

“Welcome to Caiphas Business Systems, Jane speaking, how can I help you?” “Welcome to Tesla Mobility, how can I help you?” “Welcome to Roscommon Account Services.” “Welcome to Lighthouse Mobility.”

“I’m looking for Misty. She helped me before.”

“I’m sure I can help you. What’s your user number?”

“Misty. Misty knows,” I said, my voice querulous and elderly. “Put on Misty!”

I could hear the exhaustion in his silence, then the compliance. “One moment, and I’ll transfer you.”

“Hey Misty.” I said, “Misty. Misty. You need to get to high ground.”

“What? Who is this?”

“Just promise, k?”

“There’s no tsunami warning—”

“—it’s on its way. It’s passing Japan and Hawaii. It hit the Aleutians. California.” I hoped she didn’t mistake me for what I felt like, right then: a crazy old man, mad with loneliness, longing to hear a voice in the void, even if it was only to harangue them for the weakness of their service and the terrible nature of their product.

“Mark?”

“Another six hours to landfall. I know you’ll still be on shift. Promise.”

I waited for her to disconnect, which was okay because at least I’d told her. Then I think maybe she said, “Thank you, Mark,” or maybe it was just the noise in my head. I held the line another moment, then hung up. I felt okay because I’d got through, because I wasn’t in a cubicle anymore, because I could walk home and enjoy the silence before CoD marathons in the living room, enjoy the ashy rain falling across my slowly cooking skin.

I walked home hoping Misty said, “thank you, Mark.” It felt like I was slipping through a gap in the world, between noises, a kind of silent passage, the way kids slip along the abandoned rail easements in town, below grade, the corridors of grass and rats and squirrels and birds. Between the noise of the phones and CoD. Between heartbeats. Between cresting waves, the silence you hang onto for just a moment when someone hangs up, before you go onto the next call because there is, temporarily, a respite from the tyranny of the queue. The silence after a bullet connects, or a wave hits on the other side of the world. I just hoped, harder and harder and harder, that Misty would insist they unlock the doors and break the windows and they could escape before the wave arrived to wash the rest of us away.

on the nuclear porch,

asphalt in our sinuses,

sipping what we cannot

swallow. ghosts announce themselves:

the Tings, family of five.

youngest daughter likes watching

songbirds in her pleated skirt.

it’s not about pity, but some kind of

justice. parents do factory work, pipe thickets

to meet our needs until

the accident that is

no accident. it’s a feature, the inevitable

explosion when there are so many that stay intact

to pay for the lawsuit. the smoke powers

our lives, our lungs—how to choose one?

how to cast fault on the neighbors, sliced

and diced blocks on pavement with

sincerity, nothing more dangerous. to point fingers

at the designer, the engineer, the architect,

the people for living & breathing closed eyes, the sun

for stinging radiation. blame the ill

for malingering, blame the dead

for standing quiet

for whispers

for pathos

for not fading

Victor St.

I remember my first death

under dim lights. A smear of fur

and utter dark on the asphalt,

life stretched and flattened onto the killing plane

described by a singular yellow lamp of

suburban wrongness. I snapped

my neck away, blood-phantom-shard-pain

of seeing something terrible in the sublime.

oof, roadkill, my father said, as if we

should be described by how our murderers

twist the knife. All night I dreamt

of vengeance and the black serrated blade

until I was tugged in by the extended arm of my mother

who did not know the new changeling

in her daughter’s body shirking the

garish daylight, helpless to alter our

sun and moon elliptical orbit. Then round the corner

with not-yet-myopic eyes I could see precisely

nothing below new buds of the imprisoned

city pear, midday wheels heaving over

a lacuna blown on the negative reel

of my mind as if maliciously

imagined. I lingered. Here was a

vanished crime scene cleared

of all wrongdoing, not even a televised

sham trial. As my head lightened into her embrace

I could hear my mother’s sinewy panic above

all else, a pietà for the unborn

and undeserving.