Art Installation in the Time of COVID-19

Collaborators:

 

Wind, sunshine, water,

clouds, fruit, rocks

 

Text:

 

my son asks if I have an idea

of what happens when we die

 

I tell him I don’t know but yes

I’ve ideas, words, approximations

 

of concepts outsized by my

grasp—eternal, ephemeral,

 

what is essential work

in these days when luck

 

unluck has gone viral

and we cannot hold

 

hands to pluck hope, ripe

fruit needs to be washed

 

with sunshine, love, will

to create, postponing

 

questions past our certainty—

who are the gardeners,

 

what is the garden, I

ask him, what is essential

 

for creation, for life

growing, blooming, seeding,

 

he smiles. The wind uplifts

and we are cirrus high

 

where we marvel at how

much we see and don’t know,

 

hear and cannot understand,

hope and do not know how to

 

hold.

 

Music:

 

rocksplash of rapids,

your unswerving heart

 

—May 17, 2020

Niger Delta Blues

You don’t know what it means to live unknown,

to smile in the market square as a stranger

haughtily spills your mother’s name on a pig’s head

and you become a boil on Miss World’s lips.

This is how a mangrove lives without prop roots:

 

a branch is starved until its pregnant leaves become

ghosts of IDPs walking backwards to Oloibiri Well 1.

def.: Oloibiri is the longing of a surrogate mum

e.g.: She died birthing crude oil for the outsiders.

 

You don’t know how it feels when a foe

owns your child and you bow calling him, Lord,

while your neighbours cut your neck with snail shells;

 

you can’t protest because your life’s a nursery rhyme

of CH4 NOx VOCs SO2 CO2 PAHs PCBs HFCs

 

and the other poisons that eat me away daily.

Unnatural Selection

You must know Darwin—not any darwin

in forums with telescopes on his eyes

always singing the beard like a puppet,

or one having his tag by accident;

I really mean the God of chance—

he respected me, no, he deified me

not because I once mirrored his incubation

when we sat alone on HMS Beagle,

but that I surpassed him in jest—

 

this, too, he dismissed when I reviewed

the Origin long before it absorbed us.

I had asked as throes gripped him,

what he would be after the time—

My friend, he called, there is no death

but transmutation, and we laughed at sophistry.

So, Darwin never died as you presume,

and not only he, but every extinct thing:

 

do not compose elegies for Tiktaalik roseae,

dinosaurs, Raphus cucullatus and golden toads

or remind me of Suyá and Ostrogoth,

St. Helena olives and Sri Lanka legumes—

they have, indeed, been transformed—I know

he would agree wherever whatever he is,

that the Holocene extinction is natural selection.

 

He knew I detest praising friends privately,

I sing them loud as a thrush

I laud public approval, which he adored,

and I told him in undressed words

that I did not share his lust

and how he swore in the name

 

of greed and in its night-birthed misnomers

we give all the things that limp

backwards into the beautiful door of love;

the stubble smiled and laughed at me,

yet he did not stir my head

 

to make differently how we should live.

I never meant, friend, to distract you,

to cut new pathways in your mind

to discredit or credit the new whiskers,

 

and believe me, I wonder every day

as I walk across shacks and skyscrapers

how many of us daily go extinct

 

by our fatal greed and inverse love

that wet the long lungs of death—

 

and which of us, Malthus, is next?

Interview: D. A. Xiaolin Spires

Michael: How do you think the world will change?

D.A. Xiaolin Spires: I was listening to The World Ahead podcast on “Viral acceleration: Tech in the time of coronavirus” and I remember they said something to the likes of (and I’m paraphrasing here): in economic upswings, technology is created and in recessions, technology is adopted. I haven’t delved into the research that would support this adage, but it does seem that we have implemented some technology for these exceptional times (perhaps slowly becoming “the next normal” times?) that would have otherwise remained somewhat fringe or at least less prevalent.

Food delivery services (UberEats) and meal kit services (Hello Fresh, Sun Basket, etc.) have become more widespread. While meal kits have been criticized for greater plastic waste, one study has shown that they save on greenhouse gas emissions and have a smaller carbon footprint than grocery store purchases. While I think it’s hard to project so far into the future about the greater adoption of meal kit services, we can imagine a future where capacities of grocery shopping are limited to what you need that day and no further—efficiencies to limit food waste at the consumer level. No more throwing out five avocados that have all gone bad!

Personally, I still enjoy strolling down market aisles, encountering new food products you otherwise wouldn’t know about—and the social and leisurely aspect of it all, even as friends have confided in me, “Going to the supermarket feels like a war zone.” I do think new practices of food distribution may continue to crop up even as the pandemic settles down. It might feel less like a war zone, but some people might still want to hunker down in their bunkers.

As we hole up in quarantine, I personally have been in Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting, applauding, giving thumbs up and raising hands with a click of a button. Our relationship with screens has grown even stronger. Almost everyone I see is mediated by these pixels and the laptop has really been my social portal, transporting me, acting as a salon in which friends and I connect, drinking mismatched drinks from nonmatching glasses. This does mean less carbon emissions from driving to restaurants and pubs. But, I’m not sure how long this will last beyond the pandemic’s duration. If you assume that there will be a pandemic like this year after year, then maybe such camera-based tête-à-tête’s will come to stay. We can clink our glasses against the frame of our laptops, smiling as we say, “Cheers!”

But, I really do think the pull to meet in person is strong. It’s not just about sharing a drink and the moment, but sometimes it really is about the atmosphere, the din of a dark bar, the balancing on a stool as you sip a cocktail next to an old friend. The passing of napkins and olives. Patting a buddy on the back and hugging.

I think the world will change, but I think some institutions have a lot of traction and are very human.

 

—April 28, 2020

Coronavirus and the Digital Divide

Going into the gradual UK lockdown, two weeks ago, we expected to feel scared, worried for our relatives scattered across the world, and, after a few days of forced inactivity, bored out of our wits. We knew that there was not a lot we could do about the first two, but thankfully our core members had the luck and privilege to be well stocked of craft supplies, books and videogames. However we hardly had a chance to touch any of that.

In fact, most of us in the core team have the privilege to be able to work from home for most of our regular work activities and we have found that without a clear break between work and reproductive labour, the two blend in seamlessly in a continuum of tasks to complete, leaving hardly any interstice to sneak in an hour or so of creativity. This has been the source of a large amount of frustration among our members and we still haven’t found a way to build a new work-life balance. Perhaps time will tell, but we’re open to suggestions.

Like for most people, our social life has moved to the web. We’ve been using various video calls to contact family, meet with colleagues and organise with fellow activists and solarpunk creators. Physical distances have been simultaneously made impassable and immaterial. If all places are equally impossible or impractical to reach, there is no reason why collaborating with someone across the ocean would be any harder than doing the same with someone only a few miles away. Endless possibilities are open before us who have a good connection to the web: we can give seminars to faraway universities and collectives, attend lectures from esteemed colleagues five time zones away, reconnect with relatives we’ve not seen in a decade.

This is all well and good, however this crisis has highlighted how much of a privilege this is. For the people caught on the other side of the digital divide, the shift of all social life, education and services to the web is inevitably another source of stress as it becomes completely inaccessible to them.

When politicians and activists call for net neutrality or even for free internet connection for everyone, they are not trying to “pander to the millennial demographic”, but recognising that the internet has become an extension of the public sphere and an essential tool for daily life, and as such it should be treated like a common good with no access barriers.

Between this and the huge surveillance and data ownership issues raised by the recent controversies regarding most social platforms, there has never been a better moment to discuss and design a better way of building and managing the internet, one that centres people’s digital rights and privacy instead or profits and is built around democratic self-organisation, free open-source software and cooperativism.

Our hope for the future is that we will collectively learn from this stressful, exceptional experience and build a new, better digital normality.

 

—April 24, 2020

Billy Ray’s Small Appliance Rehabilitation

The community’s gardener, Mr. Ussander, tosses the clock radio on the counter and demands a refund. The radio looks holy to me. He tells me to plug it in. “It is Well With My Soul” belts out of the mono speaker and the clock glows the unmistakable blue of an LED.

“My wife wants to know why you are so intent on condemning us to eternal damnation.”

He won’t touch the thing, despite my assurances that we will finish the rehabilitation, so I count out the bills of his refund. He crosses the street, back to Revelation, the only Grahamite community in Toronto. Once the customer leaves, I slip into the workshop. David’s legs stick out from beneath a big wood-panelled hi-fi cabinet.

“That’s the third refund this week,” I say. He’s been working on the cabinet for days now, way longer than it should take to replace the digital amplifier. I count backward to the last time I filled his prescription, and I swear. “This is more than just a hi-fi rehabilitation, isn’t it?”

David slides out from beneath the cabinet, the sleeves of his Oxford rolled up. Purple blotches cover the exposed flesh. “I’ve made a great discovery, Billy Ray. This time it will be different.”

I slam the clock radio down on the workbench.  The last time he tried to build a time machine, he almost burned down the shop.  “The therapist warned against this kind of behaviour. The past only exists in your mind. You can’t go back there. You can’t fix it.”

“The Lord rewards patience.”

“I reward you for rehabilitating appliances, and you’re doing a shit job of it.”

I go back to my perch behind the counter. He can never go back there, but I can. I slip the Backflasher out from beneath the counter and press the cerephones to my forehead. I go looking for something, anything, that can save him. And I go back because that night is the night he took his first step out of their world and into mine.

I open my favorites and go back to that night fifteen years ago when David discovered his Shift.

Tuesday evening, the second to last week of Grade Ten. I wade through the filthy waters of Highland Creek. Diapers, tires, broken bottles, circuit boards, and the occasional bloated animal carcass line the bank. The creek flows toward a red brick wall, and at the spot the oil-slicked liquid flows through the culvert, I hold my breath, duck, and swim a short length of darkness.

David meets me in Revelation. I come out dripping and itchy and he rushes me along the bank of the reservoir full of discoloured water, past the water treatment plant his father built, to the plant’s outlet where the creek spills out clear and pure in the summer evening light. I wash off the industrial sewage and we go looking for the girls.

Two piles of clothing sit on the banks of Baptismal Pool Number Three. The girls call to us from the water. Anja and Rebecca. One for each of us, even though I am no more interested in Anja than she is in me. They bob in the middle of the pool, the white promise of their breasts hidden just below the surface. We duck under one of the weeping willows that line the creek and undress. The chastity vow I made when I joined David’s high school burns in my ears as I watch him peel off his uniform.

Warm slices of sunset dance across David’s hairless chest. I pretend my erection is for the girls. In that partitioned sunlight, I can’t be sure about the three purple spots I notice just below David’s left shoulder blade. I brush them with the tips of my fingers, the spots warm and sweat-damp. We find two more in a cluster on his right thigh. David recoils at the sight of them.

“They can’t be Bernie Blotches,” he says. He wets his thumb and tries to rub them off.

“What’s taking so long?” Rebecca says.

“The water’s divine,” Anja says.

David slides his shirt back on and buttons it up. “I can’t let her see this.” He trembles beneath the willow branches, shoes in his hand. “Please, Billy Ray. We have to go.”

“You owe me one skinny dip,” I say as I dress.

We steal the girls’ clothes. The two of them scream as we run down the bank. We leave their clothes on the picnic table by Baptismal Pool Number Four. David doesn’t want to go home; he can’t face his mother yet. I think he’s already decided she was the transgressor. So we call from the pay phone at the gas station. David’s father, Adam Mercer—or who he assumed until that night was his father—answers. David tells him that we are sleeping over at Robert O’Leary’s house, the first lie I’ve ever heard him tell his parents. I pick up my phone and glasses from the lock box. The booze-soaked guard at Revelation’s east gate doesn’t notice us duck past.

Outside the gates, a steady stream of cars, buses, and streetcars crawl by along the eight-lanes of Lawrence Avenue. David watches it all in wide-eyed apprehension. He’s never been out of the compound without a chaperone before.

We take the streetcar three stops, then transfer to a bus. A Brawny Baby is strapped into a wheelchair up at the front, her sitter immersed in a VR headset beside her. I try to pull David past the Brawny, but he stops at her side. She looks like a botched attempt at cloning a gorilla. Thick coils of muscle protrude from her triple-XL T-shirt and drool leaks past her bite guard. Every bare patch of flesh is marked by the same purple blotches I found on David’s white skin. David kneels beside her as the bus rolls away from the curb and places his hands on her massive forearm.

“The Lord still loves you,” he says.

She spits out her bite guard. Great dark eyes focus on David. She knocks him to the ground and shouts: “Drink.”

The sitter strips off her VR rig and crams a two-litre bottle of Enervade into the Brawny Baby’s sucking mouth.

“That’s assault,” the sitter says. “See if I don’t put in a claim for workplace stress and discomfort. Slip me two grand, I might change my mind.”

David reaches for his wallet.

“Make that claim,” I say. “And I’ll tell your employer you were jacked in when you were supposed to be sitting.”

“Drink,” the giant roars. She throws the empty bottle to ground. “Drink!”

The sitter searches her bag for another bottle. We hide at the back of the bus.

“You can’t go around touching people,” I say.

“That will be me. A giant strapped to a chair.”

“We don’t even know what kind of Baby you are. Most rational explanation is that your real dad was a Beautiful Baby who charmed her pants off.”

I don’t mean to say it, but I know he is thinking the same thing.

“The whore,” he says.

The next stop is mine. Mom is working the late shift at the restaurant so we have the place to ourselves. I try to get him to eat, but everything in the fridge is GMO’d or manufactured offshore. Eventually I find some dried apples from a Grahamite community in Cobourg we visited on a school trip last October.

“She witnessed for a year on the West Coast during her first Mission,” he says, jaw grinding the leathery strips of apple. “Met Dad out there and came back pregnant. Fooled him ever since.”

“We should talk to Pastor Kline tomorrow. He’ll know what to do.”

“’Come ye out from among them and be ye separate’. I know exactly what has to be done.”

David stuffs another piece of near-fossilized apple into his mouth. As I watch, a cluster of Bernie Blotches blossom on his cheek, the bruise from an ancient wound his body only now remembers.

The door to the shop chimes. I pop off the cerephones and slide the Backflasher into a drawer: Grahamites don’t like to see their service providers using forbidden tech. Into the fading memory of that summer night walks a gorgeous Grahamite woman, blonde hair sprayed into a golden mass on top of her head. She peels off thin leather driving gloves as she approaches the counter.

“That your Fairlane parked out front?” I say. She nods. “They don’t make them like they used to.”

“I understand you do make them like they used to,” she says. Her voice has that breathy quality leading ladies adopted in movies from the 1950s.

“Appliances, sure. Not automobiles.”

“It’s an automobile I’m after,” she says. “A ’57 Bel Air, to be precise. I’m told you’re honest, and that you do good work.”

I straighten up. Working on a car would be good for David. It could mean weeks of work. Maybe even enough to knock him out of this Fascination.

“None better in the province, when it comes to appliances. For automobiles, we usually ship from California or Cuba, but in special circumstances, we’ve been known to do the work in-house. What do you have in mind?”

She places her gloves on the counter and makes a show of looking at the clocks, power tools, toasters, and other appliances in my cabinet. Sweat rolls in small droplets to the low neck of her dress.

“It’s my twentieth wedding anniversary. I found the ’57 in Etobicoke. Thoroughly desecrated, of course, but once you make it pure, my husband will love it.”

“Won’t be cheap to fix a car like that,” I say. The refunds of the past week have taken a deep cut of our revenue and I have to make up the rent somehow.

She shrugs. “My husband tells me I needn’t worry about money. Name your price, I’m sure it will be fair.”

“I’ll have to see the car first.”

She writes down the address of the wrecker on the back of her husband’s card. She is Mrs. Robert Thrangle, from the Grahamite community in Kemptville, outside Ottawa. Long drive in one of those old cars. I promise to call with the quote. After the Fairlane chugs off, I walk back to the workshop.

David is soldering a vacuum tube into an electrical board. In the time since I last came in, he’s attached two chairs to the old hi-fi cabinet, abandoning all pretence that this is a standard rehabilitation. The LED-blighted clock radio sits forgotten on the workbench.

I tell him about the Bel Air. He keeps working. I tell him it will be enough money to cover rent for a couple months. He finishes the connection and places the soldering iron on the workbench.

“Might even be enough to pay for another prescription.”

He looks up from behind the electrical board.

“Those pills are nothing but shackles to confine my intellect. I won’t take them again.”

“Will you at least come with me to look at the car? They are airing game four of the ’59 World Series tomorrow. We could listen on the way back.”

“I’ll listen to it here.”

He picks up another vacuum tube and solders it in place.

It`s too late in the day to start the journey—the highway isn’t safe after dark—so I pack a few things and plan to leave in the morning.

David won’t come upstairs for dinner. I bring the soup down to him, and when I check before bed, it has congealed untouched beside the clock radio. During his previous Fascination, he only stopped eating at the very end. He might not want to take his drugs, but I’ll be damned if I will let this go any further. There is a pharmacy near the wreckers, and it is far enough away that they won’t recognize me there. I get out the Backflasher.

A cold Friday afternoon, two years ago, right at the end of his previous Fascination. David struggles to walk as we stumble toward the gates of Lakeshore Hospital.

“The machine will send me back,” he says as he struggles against me. “Let me keep working.”

Snow hisses underfoot. He weighs less than sixty kilos. I drag him through the gate like he is a sullen child. At the entrance to the main building, a man standing above a pile of rags shouts as we approach.

“Hear ye, hear ye, a pair of deuces and a pound of pudding. Step right up, young men, to this, the greatest show this side of the pond. Gift horses for all, mouths unexamined, we guarantee. No fillings, no funerals. Just good fun for the little ones.”

He wears a long overcoat and wool top hat. Above the thick scarf wrapped around his neck, his face is covered in purple blotches.

“I need help,” I say. “Can you fetch a doctor?”

“Don’t interrupt,” the pile of rags says. A woman is entombed within, her bare, blotchy hands trembling in the cold, yet still managing to write in a thick notebook.

“Interruptions are intolerable,” the man in the top hat says. “But how’s this for tolerance? No refunds!”

The woman in the rags writes down everything the top hat Baby says. She underlines words, circles others, and connects circled words to one another with thick black lines.

“Don’t lock me up in here, Billy Ray,” David says. “These people are sick. Let me finish my work.”

Dr. LaRose meets with us after I pay her five-hundred-dollar consultation fee. Five minutes of inspecting David later, and she tells me he is suffering a Fascination, a psychological break Brainy Babies often exhibit post-Shift. Googling has told me much the same. From the history I give her, she figures this is his fifth Fascination. The original Bernard’s Brainy Baby Serum was designed to stimulate neural development in children and create hyper-intelligent youth. At puberty, when the Shift hits, that neural development continues, old synapses restart and new ones develop, they short-circuit and invaginate, leading to the sort of repetitive, obsessive behaviour I was seeing in David.

“What can we do about it?” I say.

She writes out a prescription and hands it to me. I don’t take it. “Do you have anything simpler? He was a Grahamite.”

“We don’t look too fondly on electroshock therapy here.” She places the prescription back on her desk. “Why didn’t you bring him in earlier?”

“I could handle it.”

“We can handle it better,” she says. She slides a pamphlet across the table. “Thanks to the class-action settlement, once the patients are committed, you won’t have to pay a thing. We can book him today.”

“He’s second generation.”

Dr. LaRose leans back in her chair.

“A Grahamite who is also a second-generation Bernard Baby?”

“He was a Grahamite, until the Shift.”

“That must have been ugly. In any case, if he’s second generation, he wasn’t part of the class action. He can stay here, but it will be quite expensive.”

I ask for the prescription. When she hands it to me, I pause the Backflasher and forge a copy complete with the good doctor’s signature. Then I go back to the memory.

The nurse at the front desk sells me the pills. I make her help me hold David down to get him to swallow the forbidden technology. A little while later, he gets drowsy. The two Babies are still outside when we leave, the Brainy woman in rags chattering as she scribbles in her notebook. The Boisterous man in the top-hat shouts: “Come back soon, y’all. There’s so much left to see and do and you don’t want to miss a wink.”

As we wait for the streetcar, snow begins to fall. David leans against me, his body so thin beneath the layers I wrapped him in. I hold him while he snores and I look up into the falling snow and for the first time since he stopped eating I can breathe again.

Metal clatters in the workshop downstairs. David mutters a polite curse. I shut down the Backflasher and hold onto that moment at the end of his last Fascination, David in my arms, the cold air in my lungs. He so rarely lets me touch him. I let the memory lull me to sleep.

In the morning, I bring David toast and poached eggs from the only market left in Revelation, but he ignores me as I set it down on the workbench. At five-thirty, I check out a community car. All twenty-eight lanes on the 401 are full by the time I make it onto the highway. My autodriver does its best to find a lane, but so does everyone else’s.

Three hours later, I arrive in Etobicoke. The address Mrs. Robert Thrangle gave me was for a wrecker not far off the highway. I find the car at the back of the lot, the front end crumpled, that chrome maw deformed. Still, it is a beauty. The pinnacle of American automotive design. With that vehicle stretched out in front of me, I can understand why Grahamites consider the years between 1954 and 1965 to be the most holy in history, and why they choose to live like Americans of that era.

The car’s previous owner made a suite of modern improvements—auto-driver, climate control, HUD, immersion sound, electric drive—and they will all have to be stripped out and replaced with the sacred technology of the era before it will be ready for Mrs. Robert Thrangle. Just what David needs. The wrecker says he could get me the car later that day if I want.

I put the quote together on the way to the pharmacy. Over the telephone, Mrs. Robert Thrangle tells me the price sounds fair and offers to wire me an advance. Kind people, Grahamites. I thank her and put a call in to the wrecker just as the car pulls up to the pharmacy.

The woman behind the counter doesn’t take a second look at my forged prescription; she just doles out the pills and gives me the bill. The drugs are expensive, almost a month’s rent for a month’s supply, but with the cash from the Bel Air rehabilitation, we can afford it.

The car predicts another four hours to get home, so I take out the Backflasher and go back to the night David spent at my apartment, our first night together, as the two of us tried to figure out what kind of Bernie Baby had fathered him.

David does push-ups and squats until his muscles give out. I record how many he does and compare the results to the number he did an hour earlier. There is no improvement. It doesn’t look like his real father was a Brawny Baby. At least he won’t end up like the woman on the bus. He goes online, a rare transgression of Grahamite orthodoxy, and answers three different IQ tests. He’s always been bright, but he isn’t getting any brighter. The results rule out a Brainy Baby as a father. Though I think his spots are darling, he hasn’t gotten any cuter since the start of his Shift, and he was never really considered a good looking guy by the girls at school, other than Rebecca, which means he probably isn’t a Beautiful Baby either.

“Maybe they aren’t Bernie Blotches?” I say, trying to sound hopeful.

“The Shift happens at puberty,” he says. “The traits are amplified and warped then. Mine are just coming in; maybe we can’t detect them yet.”

By that point in the night, we are both up on our research into Bernard’s Syndrome. During the development of the drugs, each Serum tested so well on the children in the trials that the products were approved and put to market before the test batch of kids hit puberty. Hundreds of thousands of parents purchased Bernard’s Baby Serums for their progeny. A whole generation of children was born Beautiful, Boisterous, Brainy, Brawny, and other adjectives that stretched marketing alliteration to its limit. As the kids from the first trials hit their early teens, their Shifts started, and they went spotty. Bernie Blotches appeared on Beautiful Babies as readily as they did on Boisterous kids, but the Blotches were the only trait they all shared. During the Shift, the traits that made them prodigies and child celebrities were amplified way out of proportion. Praxit Inc., who’d purchased the Serum from Bernard in the early days, divested itself of the product line and pulled the Serum from the shelves. The damage was already done. Those same hundreds of thousands of parents were forced to watch as their children went from prodigies to freaks. Dr. Bernard killed himself. Dozens of lawsuits joined forces to suck cash from Praxit’s bleeding husk, a messy affair that took the better part of a decade. Only after the lawsuits were settled did anyone realize that Bernard’s Syndrome was inheritable.

My mother comes home around two that night. Bleary-eyed and stinking of simgarettes, she pours herself a cup of coffee and collapses on the couch.

“Why are you two up so late?” she says.

“School project,” I say.

She grabs my arm. Her halitosis makes me gag.

“This is what flunking out looks like, Billy Ray,” she says. She gestures at her polyester restaurant uniform. “I’m not working three jobs so you can flunk out. Study hard.”

She fades back into the couch.

David steps up in front of her.

“Can I tell you a joke?” he says. Mom nods a head that appears to weigh tonnes. “How did Delilah know Sampson’s door would be open?” Her shrug works just as hard to raise her shoulders. “Because she cut his locks off.”

She makes a sound that might be laughter and starts to snore.

“Guess I’m not a Boisterous Baby either,” he says.

We dig up articles on the rarer versions of Bernard’s Serum, like Belonging Babies and Blazing Babies and the other poorly marketed serums, and David tests himself against them as best he can. He compiles all the results in one of my school notebooks and looks for any single trait that stands out from the pack.

“Something has to stick,” he says.

Mom’s alarm goes off and she pulls herself off the couch, finishes the cup of cold coffee, and gets ready for work. It’s four-thirty. By five, she’s gone, and I am making breakfast. David is doing push-ups again.

“We should get ready for school,” I say.

He holds up a spotted arm. “They won’t let me through the gate.”

I dig out Mom’s make-up kit and go to work. By the time I’m done, all of David’s spots are concealed and I even paint some colour into his pale cheeks. He looks so beautiful I want to kiss him. We leave for school.

Sick crows fight cancer-ridden gulls over the contents of the apartment building’s garbage container. We take the bus and streetcar through Toronto’s crowded streets. The AC is broken on the streetcar, so I touch-up David’s foundation when we get off outside the gates to the compound.

“Promise me you won’t do anything stupid,” I say.

“’And touch not the unclean thing,’” he quotes.

We wait until one of the water trucks stops at the gate. It’s an old ’37 Ford, the back uncovered, the truck laden with crates of glass water bottles ready to be refilled. We jump in the back and duck under a tarp. Selling bottled water was one of Adam Mercer’s suggestions to help fund the water treatment facility he designed for the community. Water purified the old-fashioned way is a hit with the wealthy people still living in Toronto and bottled water sales are one of the two main economic engines for the community. The other is also one of Adam’s innovations: the tuition outside students like me pay to attend John the Baptist Secondary School.

The school bell tolls. At an intersection, we hop off and run through town. Wives in aprons bring in the mail. Husbands lug leather briefcases to their gleaming Plymouths and Studebakers. At the end of our fifteen-minute run, we come to John the Baptist.

The community might have been established to save the souls of the Grahamites who call it home, but that school is my salvation. After the fifth beating at my old high school landed me in the emergency room, my mother got me into John the Baptist. She took the extra jobs to pay the tuition. Parents pay good money for their children to attend a school system with zero incidents of mass shootings, stabbings, or poisonings. Mom’s hard labour lets those men drive their Studebakers, lets the women drink wine before ten in the morning, and it lets me sit beside David without fear of ever having a limb broken because of whom I love.

As we run toward John the Baptist with fear of expulsion whipping me on, I try to remember my vow of punctuality, but the words I had to speak on my first day of school—vows of obedience, chastity, punctuality, and charity—bleed together like a watercolour tossed into a lake. All I can remember is Kline’s deep, sexy voice and his Old Spice aftershave. And, how after the vows, he walked me to my classroom and pointed me to an empty chair beside this cute, old-school nerdy boy whose nostrils flared so much when I took my seat that I worried I’d stepped in something on the way in.

“David,” he said, and offered his dry hand for me to shake. “Is that Mothra?” He pointed at the giant moth stenciled onto the pencil case I’d placed on the desk.  It was. He smiled, his teeth blazing white in their fluoridated glory, and in that moment I knew this school was a good place.

The thought of losing that place, and the only real friend I have in the world, leaves me trembling as we run up the steps of the old school. I swing the front door open and halt. David slams into me.

In the front entrance of the school, David’s mother Linda-Jane Mercer stands with her husband Adam. Both look equal parts concerned and furious. Beside them, Revelation’s spiritual and political leader, Pastor Kline, gazes at his wristwatch.

“I knew it,” Linda-Jane says, looking up at Adam. “How often have I said that boy is a bad influence on our son?”

The car interrupts the memory to tell me we’ve arrived.

Concrete and steel towers rise above the red brick walls of Revelation. Cranes extruded new apartment blocks within the old footprint of the community. In the fifteen years since David was expelled, we’ve watched Revelation whither. Without water sales and tuition from outside students and the other innovations Adam brought to Revelation, revenues declined. The Grahamites within the walls sold off chunks of their land to pay for ever-increasing property taxes. Well-tended lawns became parking garages, the Brightwater was paved over, and John the Baptist Secondary School was sold off and turned into high-end condominiums.

Only a few hundred Grahamites are left within the remains of Revelation, and a good percentage of them are lined up in front of my shop holding cardboard boxes or canvas sacks. There is a sign hanging in the door that I can’t read from the road.

“There you are,” the last Grahamite in line says as I approach. He’s the telephone sanitizer from Revelation. He takes a typewriter out of the cardboard box. “This thing still has memories. Your man was supposed to fix it. I want my money back.”

The others are here for refunds too, and when I get to the head of the line, I see why they’ve all come today. The sign reads: “Closed 4 Business. Thanks for 15 Good Years.”

“I promise, we aren’t closing,” I say to the people in line. “A misunderstanding with my business partner. Come back tomorrow, please, and I’ll sort everything out.”

I lock the door behind me, take down David’s sign, and draw the drapes. I throw open the door to the workshop.

“Are you trying to ruin us?”

He wipes grease off his hands and steps away from what is no longer even recognizable as a hi-fi cabinet. Game Four of the ’59 World Series blares from a wood-paneled radio. His smile is the same one I saw under the willows, the partitioned sunlight on his blotched skin.

“It’s almost ready. After I fix things, you won’t need me here any longer.”

“Time travel doesn’t work. Even if it did, I still need to make a living. Think of me for a minute.”

He gestures to his machine. “I’ll leave you what I’ve created. You’ll be a very rich man. Then you’ll find someone who can love you the way you deserve.”

I put the pills down on the counter. “Take your medicine. Forget this impossible obsession.”

“Don’t you want me to be whole again?”

“We are whole. You can’t change what happened that day, David. You know where this all leads. I don’t want to send you to Lakeshore, but I will if you give me no other choice.”

That smile disappears. He backs away from me, touches his chest as if I kicked him. “That place is for sick people. I’m not sick. I’ve never seen more clearly.”

I slam my open palm beside the pill bottle. “Take the damn drugs, then tell me if you still see clearly.”

He nods as he reaches for the bottle. The safety seal makes a reassuring hiss. He pops a pill into his mouth and swallows. “No more talk of Lakeshore?”

I gesture to the clock radio from yesterday. “So long as there is no more talk about a time machine. Fix what you’re good at. Tomorrow, I’m bringing in the Bel Air. It will keep us both busy and fed for at least a couple months.”

“That sounds good. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked on a car.”

I watch him disassemble the clock radio. He works with the calm precision I’ve known from our years together. On the radio, the announcer for Game Four sounds like he is going insane: Chicago has just scored four runs at the top of the seventh, tying the game. The long-dead crowd roars.

The Bel Air will help, and so will the medicine. After my one and only visit to the hospital, I told myself that I would exhaust every avenue available before sending him to Lakeshore.

Music from the seventh inning stretch blares from the radio. David replaces the offending bulb with an old-fashioned incandescent and I slip out. The Backflasher is in my bag. I plop on the cerephones and start it up where I left off.

The lobby of Saint John the Baptist Secondary School. Pastor Kline gazing at his watch, Linda-Jane and Adam Mercer standing with him, both furious. I used to think Adam looked so old, but here, he looks exactly like the man I’ve worked and lived with these past fifteen years. The same grey eyes, receding hairline, strong jaw, sloping shoulders. Handsome, despite a weariness that reminds me of my mother’s. Unlike David, Adam’s skin is tanned a healthy bronze. Why didn’t we see it then?

“I stopped by Mrs. O’Leary’s this morning,” Linda-Jane says. “She didn’t see either of you all night.”

David doesn’t look at his mother. He keeps his gaze on the Pastor. “Dr. Kline, I didn’t see Mrs. O’Leary either. It’s entirely possible we missed each other.”

The Pastor looks up from his watch. “According to the Bible, which is worse: tardiness or bearing false witness?”

“Please don’t kick me out,” I say. “My mother will kill me, if the boys in my old school don’t beat her to it. Please.”

David squeezes my hand. “Billy Ray had nothing to do with this. Next semester we have to plan our Mission and I wanted to see the world beyond our walls to seek out my calling.”

“And you found it?” Pastor Kline says.

David nods. “My Mission is clear.”

“Are you feeling alright?” Linda-Jane says. “You look flushed. Did you drink any of the water out there?” She places a hand on David’s forehead. He flinches at her touch. “You don’t feel warm. How about rashes? Do you have any rashes?”

She reaches for the collar of his shirt. David steps away from her.

“To whom are you planning on Witnessing?” Pastor Kline says.

David smiles. “I have most of the details ironed out, but there are still a few wrinkles, and I would hate to present an incomplete thought. I’d be happy to submit a proposal to you by the end of the day.”

The Pastor looks down at his watch again. “Until the end of the day then. Now get to class, you are late enough as is. And Billy Ray, don’t let me catch you tardy again.”

He steps out of our way to let us past. Adam Mercer grabs David as we rush by.

“Think hard on your Mission, son, and pray your thoughts are true.”

David shrugs him off and we run down the hall. Before we go into Arithmetic, David pulls me aside.

“Ever since I was a boy, she’s been checking me for rashes and spots.  How could I have not seen this before?”

“My mom checks me for cancers and mega-measles all the time.”

He shakes his head and opens the door.

Anja and Rebecca sit between us and our desks. From the looks on their faces, the girls haven’t gotten over the fact that we stole their clothes last night. Anja hisses “queers” as we pass, but Rebecca just stares at David.

The lesson is on Real Numbers. Even though I go back to this memory more than any other, I still don’t know what I was supposed to learn that day. I spend the entire lecture looking at David, trying to make sure the disguise is working. He spends the entire class hunched over his notebook. When the bell rings, he shows me what he was working on: a web of interconnected names, his mother at the centre, and every man she’s ever met scattered in bubbles around her, the connections between the different people drawn in pencil crayon.

“Any closer to figuring it out?” I say.

“It doesn’t matter. Her sin must be revealed.”

In the press of other students in the hall, I lose track of David. I’m still looking for him as I dial the combination for my locker. Anja pushes me into the metal door.

“That’s for stealing my panties,” she says. It’s the first time anyone has rough-handled me since I transferred from the public schools. I flinch and prepare for the worst. “Hey, don’t piss your jeans.”

“I wasn’t gonna. Have you seen David?”

“Your boyfriend ran off into the woods, probably to make out with ’Becca.” Anja drapes an arm across my shoulder. “I’ve always wanted a queer friend.”

“We’re going to be late for Geography.”

I squeeze away from her and run to a window. Green grass and playing fields stretch out to the banks of the Brightwater. There’s no sign of him. Another bell rings for the start of class. I can’t miss another, not with Kline breathing down my neck, so I sit behind my desk and fail to concentrate on another lesson.

David never makes it to class, and neither does Rebecca. Anja passes me notes criticizing the teacher’s haircut. By lunch, the whole school buzzes with what has happened. I try to ignore the rumours. I want to hear it from my friend but they say he disappeared after it all went down. The afternoon stretches on for hours. The end of the day can’t come fast enough. When it does, I run all the way to the gates of Revelation and out into Toronto.

I find David on the curb in front of my apartment. Make-up and filthy water have turned his school uniform to rags. He looks at me, lost, and I lead him to my mother’s apartment.

I lean back in my chair behind the counter and breathe in the musty, stale air of the shop. The baseball game has ended, the Dodgers breaking the tie for the win, and now quiet hymns play in the workshop. He never went back to Revelation; he stayed with me from that day on. Our life hasn’t been what either of us wanted, but we aren’t hungry. We aren’t alone.

Maybe we should take some time off, I think. Go somewhere. One of the lakes in Muskoka the public can still visit, or Parry Sound. We had a lovely time last summer on the beach near Parry Sound.

I open the door and peer in at David. He is wiring the clock radio into what was once the hi-fi cabinet and doesn’t notice me enter. The pill bottle lies open on the workbench, empty. In the bathroom I find a single water-soaked pill floating in the centre of the toilet bowl.

“You flushed them? Do you know how much those pills cost?”

“They were poison, Billy Ray. I disposed of them accordingly.”

I stare at him, trying to contain my rage. For a moment, I wish Pastor Kline hadn’t seated me beside David. I wish that David hadn’t found the Mothra sketch on my pencil case so interesting. Why couldn’t I have fallen in love with another boy in high school, someone who could have spurned me, someone I could have forgotten?

I throw the pill bottle into the trash, stomp out of the workshop, and jog across the street toward what remains of Revelation. There’s an old pay phone just outside the gate.

I ask the operator to connect me to Linda-Jane and Adam Mercer.

“Which community?” she asks in a perky soprano.

“Patience, or whatever you call the one outside Sudbury.”

“Penitence. One moment please.”

I lean against the warm bricks of Revelation’s wall, waiting for the connection. I haven’t been to the other side in fifteen years. David and I weren’t the only ones who were expelled. Revelation’s congregation decided that everything David’s family had built was contaminated.  Linda-Jane and Adam were shown the door, as was everything they built for Revelation. They floated from community to community until they found a more forgiving congregation up North. All the outside students were forbidden to attend John the Baptist Secondary School. They mothballed the water plant. Even Pastor Kline was evicted, as he’d known about the Mercer situation and had been complicit in covering up their sacrilege.

Instead of facing down the angry hordes in the public system, David and I found an online school that granted high school diplomas, and the two of us finished our schooling a year later in Mom’s apartment. The cancer took her a couple months after graduation. She begged me to spend my meagre inheritance on university tuition. I used it on the first few months of rent for Billy Ray’s Small Appliance Rehabilitation instead. It was David’s idea, his way of helping Revelation rid itself of sacrilegious technology. We found an old computer repair shop across the street from Revelation and for fifteen years it’s been home.

The line connects. “Linda-Jane speaking.”

“I can’t handle it anymore.”

“Is that you, Billy Ray? Is David alright?”

“It’s worse than the other times. He really thinks he can go back. He isn’t eating.”

“What about the medication?”

“He flushed it. I can’t afford any more.”

There’s a muddled sound, muted voices, Linda-Jane holding her hand over their old-style receiver.

“Why don’t we drive down there? He’s our son.”

“We both know he won’t see you. It will be worse than last time.”

Another delay, as she relays what I said. An old Pontiac rolls through the gate in the wall and belches black smoke as it accelerates down the street.

“So why are you calling?”

“Lakeshore Hospital will take him,” I say. “But I can’t afford it. He’ll get good care there. They specialize in Bernard’s Syndrome.”

She doesn’t bother covering the receiver this time: “He needs money, to send David to that hospital.”

I can’t make out Adam’s response over the din of the traffic.

“If he gets the treatment,” she says to me. “Do you think he’ll agree to see us?”

“I think so,” I say. “Once he’s better, of course he’ll want to see you.”

She likes my little lie. It will take time, she says, to put together that much money. Another mortgage, and then they’ll have to get the Grahamite bank in Sudbury to make the transfer. I tell her I can cover the hospital fees in the meantime. All I have to do is get him there.

The hardest part will be getting him in the car. I phone Dr. LaRose to let her to know I will be coming; she doesn’t sound surprised. The afternoon sun bakes the asphalt as I hurry back to the shop.

David is putting away his tools. He smiles as I enter.

“It’s finished,” he says, and gestures to his creation. The hi-fi cabinet forms the heart around which the rest of the device has congealed. Two chairs are tacked to the front of the cabinet, and cerephones hang from the backrests of both chairs. The cerephones are wired into the mass of resistors, vacuum tubes, and capacitors tied in to an old telephone switchboard, at the top of which sits my Backflasher. “All I need is your help, and I can belong again.”

I nod, trying to be reasonable.

“The Bel Air is almost fit to drive,” I say. “It just needs a bit of tweaking. They should have it here this evening. We should really clear this out to make room.”

He taps the slim metal box of the Backflasher. “Aren’t you curious, Billy Ray?”

Curious doesn’t even begin to describe it. David isn’t supposed to use technology like the Backflasher; what is it doing sitting in his machine?

“The Bel Air will be here soon. Why don’t we move this out of the way and you can tell me how it works.”

He indicates one of the two chairs attached to his machine. “Sit, please. This won’t take long.”

The Backflasher controller is attached to the arm of the chair he indicated, but he’s tacked new controls onto it: they look like buttons from an old reel-to-reel machine. Play, forward, reverse, and a big red button that he’s drawn an X through.

“I just don’t see how we will fit the car in here,” I say.

“I’m not doing anything until I’ve made things right,” he says. “But I can’t do it without you. I’m forbidden to operate your Backflasher. With it, we can go back to the day I ruined everything, and you can make it disappear.”

“Backflashers don’t work that way; they can’t delete memories.”

“This isn’t a Backflasher. The past only exists in our minds, isn’t that what you’ve always told me? This can delete the past, therefore this is a time machine.” He pats the seat beside him. “Do this for me, Billy Ray. Let me belong again.”

I can’t stop staring at the red button with the X through it. Every option, that’s what I told myself. I sit in the chair. He hands me the control panel. I slip on the cerephones while he straps himself in.

“Take us back,” he says.

So I do, back to the morning after David’s Shift, as we file out of Arithmetic class.

Students crowd into the hallway of John the Baptist Secondary School. Up ahead, a younger version of me walks to my locker. I watch through David’s eyes, experiencing more than just David’s vision. I live his memory. He has contrived a way to share the Backflasher experience. That discovery alone could make us wealthy, but all I can think about is how the young David feels as he looks over at the young version of myself. He pities me.  After seeing where I live, and despite everything I’ve done to help him, he pities me, because I don’t really belong in his community.

When Anja comes up behind the younger me, David sneaks over to the door and slips outside, across the playing fields, toward the Brightwater. Thoughts rush in a wild torrent through his mind. Ideas and sensations and doubts and analyses shout in a cacophony that reminds me of the clatter in Union Station at rush hour. It’s only after half a minute of careful listening that I can discern dominant themes in his busy mind: righteous indignation and strong purpose. He’s convinced of his mother’s crimes and he knows exactly how to expose her.

As he reaches the bank of the Brightwater, I hear a disembodied voice speaking in my right ear.

“Every detail is exactly as I remember it,” the older David says. I open my eyes and see him superimposed over the willows that line the bank, the senior David strapped to his chair, eyes clenched shut. “I don’t know why you require this crutch.”

“It’s entertainment,” I say, closing my eyes, returning to his memories.

“This is where you start the deletion.”

The young David passes the Baptismal Pools and emerges on the neatly cut grass surrounding the water treatment plant. The gardener is a younger Mr. Ussander. He pulls weeds from beneath the roses and waves as David jogs past. David notices every detail as he runs: the number of weeds and the number of roses and the ratio of one to the other, an estimate of the hour based on the filtration plant’s shadow, a precise calculation of the flow rate of the water exiting the plant. His Brainy Baby mind is shifting into something unrecognizable, yet even with his enhanced powers of perception, he can’t see what he is becoming.

The treatment plant is two stories of red brick and grey concrete. David hammers on the main entrance door until an operator in coveralls opens it.

“Adam Mercer,” David says. “Bring him out here at once.”

“You’re his boy, aren’t you? Something the matter?”

“Just bring him here.”

The door clangs shut. David paces, rehearsing the accusation he’ll deliver to the man he is certain has also been betrayed by his mother. This close to the wall, the hot asphalt and urine stink of the city fills the air, but mingled with it comes the perfume from the rose garden and the cool scent of clean, flowing water. David walks past the ’37 Ford pickup being loaded with bottles to the dammed reservoir that marks the end of the polluted Highland Creek.

Adam Mercer steps out into the warm morning, his tanned skin dark against his white Oxford. David calls his name from the banks of the reservoir, and then he wades down into the filthy water flowing in from the city.

“What are you doing, son?” Adam says.

“All of this must go,” the older David sitting beside me says.

“She made a fool of you,” the young David says. His thoughts still rage, spilling the banks of their old channels, but he holds on to anything that feels like certainty. “And she made an abomination of me.”

He dunks his arms into the oily water. Make-up dissolves, revealing forearms covered in Bernie Blotches.

“Get out of there,” Adam says. “You don’t understand anything.”

Plant workers follow Adam to the banks of the reservoir. They line up behind him, watching the boy in the water.  Only then does David lend more weight to the currents of doubt flowing through his mind. In an instant he realizes his mistake.

“Go back inside,” Adam says to the workers.

The gardener drops his tools and joins more plant workers as they gather behind Adam. David’s father stares at the crowd for a moment, then slides down the bank. Adam rolls up the sleeve on his shirt. David already knows that the skin beneath will be covered in Bernie Blotches.

“You’re the one,” David says. He grabs his father’s hand. “You made me this.”

“I’ve learned how to live with who I am,” Adam says. “Let me teach you. We can still belong.”

David pulls his father into the reservoir.

As Adam rises sputtering, Rebecca rounds the corner of the filtration plant. She tows Pastor Kline behind her. Water streams off Adam’s face, taking the bronze tan with it, and revealing clusters of Bernie Blotches similar to David’s.

“See, Dr. Kline,” Rebecca says. “I told you something was wrong with him.”

Kline shakes his head. The plant workers gathered on the bank stare at the man who built the plant in which they work.

“This doesn’t change who we are,” Adam says to the Grahamites above him. “We are still faithful.”

David pushes away from his father. All the hatred he’s reserved for his mother doubles in intensity. They both did this to him. His mother didn’t have an affair with a Bernie Baby, she married one and snuck him into Revelation. They defiled him before he was born and condemned him to a life that guaranteed eternal damnation.

“You did this,” he says to his father. He faces Rebecca. “Tell them it’s not my fault.”

Rebecca takes the Pastor’s hand. “’Come ye out from among them,’” she says.

The workers seem to emerge from their mute amazement at the oft-repeated words.

“’And be ye separate,’” they say with one voice.

Rebecca turns her back on David and his father. The workers do the same. Pastor Kline remains, staring down at the father and son in the water.

“Please, Kline,” Adam says. “You knew this day might come. Help us go back to how it was.”

“’And touch not the unclean thing,” the pastor says, and he too turns his back.

“This is our home,” Adam says.

They walk away, none of them looking back at us. Only the gardener, Mr. Ussander, remains, shaking his head a moment, before he returns to his roses. David shudders in the tepid water. He knows what the ritual words of the shunning mean. He swims across the reservoir toward the culvert that lets the filthy stream through the wall.

“Son, please,” Adam says. “Let me help you.”

“Save yourself.”

David dives. He swims against the current, pulling himself along the ribbed walls of the culvert, until he surfaces outside Revelation. David blinks through the caustic liquid, the towers of Toronto an unnavigable maze in a foreign country. Then he remembers that there is one person outside Revelation’s walls who still loves him.

“Here,” the other David says, the one strapped in beside me. “Cut everything to here.”

I open my eyes and look at the basic controls he built. The young David drags himself out of the water, past a rotting cat and a rusting dishwasher.

“Do it now,” the senior David says. “Cut this out of me, Billy Ray. I’ll never belong if I remember what I did.”

“You belong here,” I say. I can still hear the birds singing on the other side of the wall. David’s whole life lies exposed before me, pinned to a table, and I am the surgeon tasked with excising the tumour. He’s wanted this for so long, how can I deny it?

“What’s the delay?”

“I was praying.”

“You never pray.”

I adjust the controls, I make the incision. David lets out a breath and slumps forward in his chair. His breathing is irregular, and he makes tiny whimpering sounds, a young child having a nightmare. In my mind, I see him rise from the chair only to find this hole in his memory, this absence around which he’s revolved for so long. The hole will become the pivot of a new Fascination. The Bel Air won’t be enough to keep his mind busy. David needs a project he can work on for the rest of his life.

One of the cerephones pops off David’s lolling head. I pluck the other off and sit back down in my chair. I would try everything before sending him to live at Lakeshore, but until today I didn’t know what everything entailed.

I place the second set of cerephones to my forehead and activate the Backflasher. My whole life stretches out before me, my surgeon’s tools still bloody. I stare at it for a long time, unsure of where to make the final cut.

David begins to stir. He looks so much like his father.

“Take your medicine,” I say, and I press the big red X.

Pine-scented wind sweeps the beach.

Little snow daggers cut my face at the streetcar stop outside Lakeview Hospital.

David and I push a restored icebox out of the shop and it slips off the cart and cracks on the concrete floor.

Thunderheads roll above the city as David shows me a machine he claims will undo his greatest sin.

Mom’s skin is so soft after she stops breathing.

Laughter on opening the envelopes that contain our high school graduation diplomas.

Willow-partitioned sunlight across David’s bare chest.

One Month

1,000,000. Number of Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. predicted in a statistical model published March 13th that assumed no social distancing measures.

 

154. Number of minutes on March 15th that I spent reading news media on my iPhone.

 

0. Number of states with “stay at home” orders on March 16th.

 

On March 17th I woke up at 2 a.m. I checked our bank account balances and mortgage. I estimated our average monthly budget. I calculated a budget for us without my husband’s in-come. I calculated a budget for us without my income. I filled a notepad with numbers.

 

349,000,000,000. Number of dollars the US government allocated on March 27th to a Forgivable Loan Program for small businesses.

 

100,000. Number of Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. predicted by U.S. officials on March 31st as a “best case scenario.”

 

6. Distance measured in feet to maintain between yourself and any non-household member.

 

On March 29th I woke up at 4 a.m. I read The New York Times. The Guardian. FiveThirtyEight. My local newspaper. The Washington Post. Vox.
I needed more. More facts. More graphs and charts. More ways to control the uncontrollable.

 

6,650,000. Number of Americans who filed a new claim for unemployment benefits during the fourth week of March.

 

5. Number of times I used hand sanitizer during a trip to the grocery store on April 3rd.

 

55. Number of diagnosed Covid-19 cases in my county as of April 3rd.

 

On April 4th I woke up at 2 a.m. to read the news. I read for hours. And hours.

 

6. Number of minutes within a timekeeping increment for my law firm.

 

70. Number of professional increments I need each day within a schedule that has become po-rous, overlapping math tutorials and skinned knees with PowerPoint slides and client consulta-tions.

 

13. Number of increments I spent on April 7th attending to my professional obligations.

 

17. Number of increments I spent on April 7th walking through the woods with my children.

 

During the night of April 8th I slept 9 hours and 40 minutes. I woke tired and slow. After breakfast I put the milk in the pantry instead of the fridge. I stared at my computer screen.

 

12,621. Number of deaths in the US attributed to Coronavirus as of April 8th.

 

21,919. Number of deaths in the US attributed to Coronavirus as of April 13th.

 

28,280. Number of deaths in the US attributed to Coronavirus as of April 16th.

 

I dream of a corps of poets, deployed to every news conference, stepping forward to the microphones. Come to save us from a world turned inside out. Giving us words to crawl beneath the facts. Words to hold our souls. Words to take root in the places where our stories live. Because those who habitually see the world inside out may be the only ones who can restore our equilibrium in the present moment.

#SayNiceThingsAboutDetroit

There’s a certain look people get on their faces when I answer the question of where I’m from. I go to great lengths to assure them I’m not the survivor of apocalypse they expect me to be. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more cities will start having to reckon with the torn social safety nets that failed to catch the people of Detroit.

I recently stumbled across the hashtag: #SayNiceThingsAboutDetroit. “We’re practically begging at this point,” I thought. A few years ago, the city announced they were closing seventy-two parks. The playgrounds and parks where I took my first steps are now paved over or overtaken by wild grasses. The people I loved with their beautiful copper and blue faces have since fled like refugees from their own homes. There are houses on the edge of the city that the land has reclaimed, vines and branches shattering windows, weeds, and cattails overgrowing the lawns. This is where the people who stayed began what the locals call “urban farming” when all the national grocery store chains left. This is subsistence farming. Survival farming. Only once we have our own land can we be free. The land may not be valuable, but the people of Detroit are free.

When I imagine moving back home, I’m afraid the city I knew will have been wiped away completely by the time I return. Before the pandemic, I dreamt that the house I grew up in was overtaken by vines, spilling from windows and shattering the glass. They grew, gripping the indentations between the bricks and down onto the street, filling the cracks in the sidewalks. The buildings began to topple under their weight, first crumbling, then sinking into the earth. In the back of my mind I thanked God that no one was inside, and with that thought, I looked around to find that there was nothing but silence and everyone was gone. No one skating in the park, no one buying hot dogs from the usual vendors, no one loitering on the steps of the library. Not even the police were parked in their usual spot at the intersection corner.

What happens when a city goes bankrupt? City services are cut down. Fewer trash cans, fewer cops, fewer schools and no one to put out the fires when people would rather burn down their homes and collect the insurance money than make another payment on a home that is falling apart above their heads. The government has given up on our recovery.

The Detroit of the future will be made up of the people who stuck it out, who defended their homes amid disaster. The people of Detroit are survivors of the failed experiment of the American dream, and they are the most beautiful people I have ever known. I know that someday after the world has its reckoning, I will return, and it will not be long before people have something nice to say about Detroit.

 

—April 14, 2020

Your Second Shift at the Factory

Once the doors shut behind you,

shift to saving yourself.

Try steam and chest percussions

to chase factory smoke out of

your lungs, you need to be a human

still. Which is hard to do with dioxin,

so get that out too, with ghee.

If it goes as far

as your liver

 

then a long shot is to blast

it by eating dandelion buds.

Also asbestos comes in like

a cloud of unseeable needles

and won’t like to leave but

while you are learning how long

you have left to live and they are pulling

the professional

 

smile down over their lips

at the clinic, look up

hydrogen peroxide

and hum that to yourself

along with vitamin C

 

until you can find a doctor

who doesn’t want you dead.

Oh, and Atlantic dulse,

a seaweed that strips out mercury, so

you can start filling up with it

all over again in the morning.

Alive Between the Bands

In a twenty-year temperature inversion

California walks in to me through

the windows of a hot car with no

air conditioning, it’s summer and

the heater is full-blast, it’s a hundred-

degree day, I am younger and California

is cleaner, the engine doesn’t self-

 

eject and it jets out oil all across

the country. This awful air of

ourselves, we have nowhere to drive

 

but down into it, the freeway

folding over and under, everything

settling which also means seething,

the old rocks with all the time

in-between them and the road

 

only a ribbon of exhaust

held harmless between the jaws

of a geologic age.