Thursday, August 6, 2015

Make the Mean Ones Cry


                   At school one day, a mean kid called Jeffrey an alkhol baby. He felt red and blue inside, especially when the other kids laughed. When it was time to line up for recess, he stayed in his seat. Ms. Jones asked him what was wrong, but he didn’t tell her. It made him want to cry to think about what was wrong. He followed her out to recess.
                   Then, at recess, the same mean kid named Louis called him “alien." Jeffrey tried to fight him, but Ms. Holly ran over and yelled at him, and took him to the principal’s office.
He didn’t get why Louis didn’t have to come too.
             While waiting to see the principal, Jeffrey’s face turned red and he cried, and he felt empty inside. The lady in the office gave him a tootsie roll, but it didn’t make him feel better, because his mom had told him never to cry in front of strangers. And he had broken the rule she had taught him. He saved the tootsie roll because he thought he might like it more later. He didn’t say thank you to the nice lady, even though he knew he was supposed to, because he was embarrassed. 
            
 He didn’t tell the principal what Louis had called him either, because he didn’t want to think about it anymore, and he didn’t want the principal to know. He didn’t quite know the word for it, but thought he felt shame (“shame on you”), and the best thing he knew to do was to shut that door in his heart, and lock it. He said he was sorry and looked at his shoes. The principal didn’t yell like Ms. Holly.
            
 Later on, walking home from the bus, he thought about those words, “alkhol baby.” The words wouldn’t go away. He wasn’t a baby; he hated being called that. He tried to think about all the ways in which he was a big kid. For example, his mom made him pack his own lunch. His lunch today was his work, and he was a big kid. Yesterday he made a peanut butter sandwich all by himself, even though it almost made him late for the bus. Even though his mom yelled at him. 
              He definitely wasn’t a baby.
            
 He didn’t know what alkhol was. He thought that maybe later he would ask his friend, the nice old lady named Charice who lived in his building. 
            
 Ms. Jones told him at the beginning of the year that he could get a free lunch every day if he wanted. But when he asked his mom, she told him, “we don’t take handouts.” But he knew that the groceries they bought were from a card that came in the mail, and that his mom got mad when the card ran out, and then they had to steal stuff. Last month she had told him he had to go steal a bag of chips so they could eat. She told him to act natural, and just walk out the door. It made him scared and he didn't want to do it, but his mom said that he wouldn’t get caught, and she was right. 
            
 He kept thinking about what an alkhol baby was. He wanted to know, but at the same time he didn’t. When he thought about it, a crawly feeling came up his arms and stomach and up his neck, and made him want to cry. So he tried his best not to think about it, which was hard because he still didn’t know, and needed to.
                    
He thought about trying to talk to his mom. She might have helped him feel better. When he was younger, they used to cuddle in her bed, and before he knew it he would fall asleep. But since he was bigger now, his mom said he was too bony and wouldn’t fit in her bed, and anyway she didn’t want him bothering her. He was a big kid now, she said. But he didn’t feel like a big kid. Or maybe this was what a big kid felt like, but he just didn’t know yet. Or maybe he really was still a baby.
                   He wished that someone could tell him how he was supposed to feel.
 He knew his mom would be in her room when he got home, and the door would be closed. He knew better than to ask her about dinner. There was macaroni and cheese in the freezer, and there was also a microwave that he knew how to use. It used to be on top of the fridge, but his mom had put it on the counter so he could reach it better to make his own food. She had wanted him to clean it last weekend, since he always made it so messy, but he didn’t want to. He had just ignored her and kept playing video games. He didn’t see why he had to do it. She was home all day.
            
 He got home, and unlocked the door, and went in. It smelled again. He’d better take out the trash. He thought about the time last year, when that kid Tim had called him trash breath. Hate him, hate Tim. He almost cried again putting his backpack down, and then he felt terrible. He wanted to cry because it would make him feel better, but he didn’t want to cry because he wasn’t supposed to. Something pushed on his chest and made him stop. 
            
 He remembered how, after Tim had called him trash breath, he had stayed up all night doing laundry. He didn’t have any quarters, and he couldn’t reach the top dryer, the only one that was open, so he went into his mom’s room and stomped on her bed to make her help him. She came, and he was happy that she did, even though she asked him why he wanted to do laundry so bad. He didn't want to explain it. But she only asked him once, which made him glad.
            
 Mom was in her room, and he could hear the TV and see its light underneath the door. He went to the kitchen and had a Capri Sun. The straw didn’t go in the hole at first, and he spilled a lot of it on the countertop among the pots and plates and wrappers, but then he sucked it until it was dry. He went and sat down in the living room to play Grand Theft Auto. The TV screen was small, so he slid down on the floor to get the game closer.  
            
 Through her door, his mom yelled at him. He paused his game and went into her room. 
            
 “I thought I heard you,” she said, sitting up.
            
 He didn’t say anything. 
            
 “The principal called, Jeffrey. You got in a fight? What did I tell you about that?” 
            
 Her voice was loud. He glared at her. Glaring at her always made her leave him alone. He also crossed his arms. 
 
             She talked more quietly. “Don’t let it happen again, OK. Close the door. Mama’s resting.” 
            
 Sometimes he felt glad that his mom stayed in her room so much. He got to do what he wanted. He knew that other kids at school didn’t get to play Grand Theft Auto. He felt tired and yawned, and then went and unpaused the game and kept playing. He stopped doing his mission and found a guy on the street, and beat him up with a baseball bat until he was dead, and blood was all over the ground and on the screen. Then he shot a lady with his gun, and she screamed and fell down and stopped moving.
            
 His mom called him again. He paused the game and followed her voice. She gave him a dollar and told him to go to the corner store for her. Her head hurt and she needed a Gatorade. He almost forgot his keys, but he remembered right as the door was about to close. On the way to the corner store, he said “keys” to himself, over and over. Repeating the word would help him remember better next time. 
            
 When he got back, he saw that Charice’s door was open. Charice sometimes let him come over and have enchiladas or chicken or mac and cheese. And the mac and cheese she made was better than what was in the freezer at home. He liked talking to her. She listened to him but didn’t ask lots of questions or tell him what to do. She also hugged him sometimes, which he liked. Her body was very soft, and she smelled good. 
            
 He peeked in through her door. She was in the kitchen, he could hear. He knocked on the wall, and she stuck her head out of the kitchen and waved at him. He went in and said hi. 
            
 She asked him how was school, and he told her about Louis. He didn’t cry this time. He didn’t even feel close to crying. She rubbed his back and told him he could cry if he wanted to, but he told her he didn’t like crying because his mom told him not to. But she told him that wasn’t true. He liked that she said that, but he still knew that kids made fun of other kids who cried, and he knew that he didn’t want to get made fun of. And anyway, his mom told him not to. He felt at that moment that if Charice was his mom, he wouldn’t ever cry again. She told him she was making spaghetti, and that he could stick around and have some. He nodded. She asked him how his mom was, and he said she was fine. Even with Charice, he didn't want to talk about his mom. He didn’t know if he would ever feel comfortable talking about his mom with anyone. He thought that if he talked about her now, it would make him cry. 
            
 When his stomach was full, he went back home. He remembered that there was homework in his backpack, but he didn’t feel like doing any. He went to give his mom her Gatorade, but she was asleep. Then he played Grand Theft Auto until the clock on the Playstation said it was 11:45. Then he climbed up onto the couch and fell asleep. 

            
 At school the next day, he felt tired. His teacher asked him if everything was OK, and he tried to smile. His heart beat hard when he sat down in class. Louis sat right in front of him. Jeffrey didn’t hear the teacher’s directions because he was looking at Louis’ back, and he had to ask the girl next to him about their first activity. She was nice though and she showed him what they were supposed to do. 
            
 When they lined up for recess, he was excited to go outside. While he was playing on the wood chips, a ball rolled to him, and Louis came up to him to get it back. Jeffrey gave it to him, and Louis said thanks. That made Jeffrey smile, but also he felt confused. He could feel his heart beating in his neck.
            
 At lunch another mean kid named Amir said, “you better not sit next to me.” 
            
 Jeffrey felt hot. He said “I wasn’t going to, shitface,” and some other kids laughed, and it made him smile as he walked away. But then the lunchroom person told him to watch his language. Jeffrey didn’t care. He thought his mom would be proud, and he liked hearing kids laugh when it wasn’t at him.
 
             At second recess Louis came up behind him and tripped him. Jeffrey said “hey!” but when he saw who it was he was quiet. Louis looked at him and said “you,” with his eyes wide. Jeffrey went over to the other side of the playground. Hazel was playing there, and he went up to talk to her, but she was busy playing with some other girls so he didn’t say anything. 
                   He went back to class when the bell rang, keeping his distance from Louis. He didn’t think Louis was looking for him anyway. He watched Louis, feeling heavy in his stomach and in his squeezed tight fists. When he realized he was squeezing his fists, he stopped and put his hands down. Louis stood in line ahead of him, laughing with some other kids and making faces. Jeffrey noticed his fists were squeezed up again, but this time he didn’t let them go.
                    The nice girl next to him in class, he thought her name was Hazel, but he wasn’t sure. He leaned over during an activity, trying to see if the name she wrote on her paper began with an H. She saw him and put her arm over her paper and stared at him. Jeffrey’s feet felt hot, and he didn’t hear what Ms. Jones said for directions, but this time he couldn’t ask hazel. He just looked down at his paper. His cheeks felt hot, and he couldn’t see what he was supposed to be doing. The numbers didn’t make sense to him. He remembered that the X sign was for timesing, but he couldn’t count all of a sudden. He felt like crying. It was harder than normal to keep the tears in his eyes, but he did it. He hated to think what crying in class would be like.
                   When he got home, he couldn’t find the key in his bag. There was a squashed tootsie roll and some pencil shavings, but no key. He knocked on the door, soft at first then hard. Then he went and knocked on his mom’s window. He knew she would be mad. If she tried to hit him, he knew he would hit her back. He didn’t like the thought of that, and it made him bite his lip and he tasted blood. He wanted to pound the window and break it. He kicked the side of the building, and then sat down right by the dent he had made, and cried, hard. It felt OK to cry, even as snot came out of his nose and saliva dripped onto his shorts. Between hiccups, he felt his body relaxing. He wondered where his mom was. Maybe he would knock on Charice’s door.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Morning News

             In the early morning on Friday, an enormous chunk of ice broke off of Antarctica. While no one was looking, it slipped quietly off a shelf of land and into the Southern Ocean. A Google satellite spotted it first, and the news hit the worldwide news circuit by mid-morning. International news teams tracked it down, and circled around it in boats and helicopters. I saw it unfold over breakfast. 
             They dubbed it “Antarctica Annie,” as if it were a hurricane. It was not the first glacier to go, but it was the biggest – an exclamation point, appropriately sized for a broadcast spectacle. I tried out a couple of different channels, and settled on CBNBC.
             The news anchor was a man named Steve. He was interviewing an archaeologist, who was thrilled at the thought of the new exposed land.
             “I’m chartering a boat in the morning!” the archaeologist shouted.
             “Exciting stuff,” said Steve. “Tell us something. Give us a little taste.”
             “Well, Steve, the ice acts as a preservative. There could be entire embalmed dinosaurs down there.”
             “Fantastic!”
             The network cut to an animation of dinosaurs striding the earth. It was exquisitely rendered – their eyes moved, their scales glistened, their breath billowed in the air. The footage was sponsored by the memory enhancement supplement Re-Knew. “Never forget,” hissed the voice-over.
             Next Steve interviewed a biologist, who wondered how this new calamity would affect earth’s animals. “What will we do for the jellyfish?” he asked. “And the tree frogs – they’re spontaneously combusting!”
             The camera zoomed in on his wide eyes. A tear slid down his right cheek. It was digitally rendered – I could tell because of the slickness of its path.
             “There, there, don’t cry,” said Steve.
             The biologist looked confused.
             “Coming up next,” said Steve, “the supervirus under the iceberg!”
             I was finished with my toast, but I didn’t move an inch. Nothing of this caliber had happened in weeks! I watched the commercials, and dabbed the crumbs off my plate.
             A booming car ad was first, drenched in red white and blue. Then a preview for the new Mantastic Five movie. Finally, one of my favorites: a yogurt commercial that was practically pornographic, with luscious strawberries, and heavy mammary undertones.
             …And the newscast returned, with a swooping satellite shot of the iceberg.                         ”We’re back! Here now is Joseph Prigoni, the world’s leading expert on viruses. Joseph, what is the real hidden threat?” 
             “This is a massive section of land,” said Joseph, ".....ancient land. As we all know, the water level in the ocean has been rising for years. The water got so high that it lifted the iceberg right off of Antarctica. When it had enough leverage, it simply floated away.”
             “Wow,” said Steve. “Now, tell us about the supervirus.”
             “Well,” said Joseph, pausing for effect. “Here is where I’m concerned. If there are dinosaurs preserved down there, the virus that killed the dinosaurs might be down there too. It could be unthawing in a dinosaur’s skull as we speak.”
             “Wow,” repeated Steve. “But wouldn’t the virus be dead? After all, it has been millions of years.”
             “Good question.” Joseph looked gravely into the camera. “You should never assume, with a supervirus. They’re not normal organisms. Under the right circumstances, anything is possible. The virus that killed the dinosaurs – ”
             “Now wait a minute… didn’t an asteroid kill them?”
             “Well, yes, good point Steve. But in studying extraterrestrial phenomena, I have concluded that most likely the asteroid was carrying an alien supervirus. There is no other explanation for why such a hardy species as the dinosaur could be killed off without any warning.”
             “There you have it folks: an alien supervirus. We’ll be right back.”
             I couldn’t wait. I hadn’t seen such a live TV event since Ghandi’s hologram cursed out those chicks on The View. I tossed my plate in the sink.

             From there, CBNBC went to a slower, more nuanced approach. I think they realized that they had all day, and had to pace themselves. The iceberg was visible from space, and the network satellites showed it in beautiful widescreen, creeping towards the tip of South America. Boats and helicopters buzzed around it like flies around a lethargic cow. The US Navy held the perimeter – Steve informed us that the UN had authorized its authority. Per the recent image retention laws, the Google logo lingered in the bottom right corner.
              “Sources tell me that this iceberg is the size of the knob of Puerto Rico,” said Steve. “That’s really big, folks. That’s, see-it-from-space big. This thing is a new nation waiting to be claimed! All someone needs to do is plant the flag.”
             “Won’t last long,” I grunted. 
             “Sure, it won’t last long, but while it’s here, let’s embrace it! It looks like it already has colonies.” The camera zoomed in on the boats, and Steve chuckled.
             I joined him – it was a gas. The face of the earth was changing.

             It occurred to me to wake up my roommate.
             “Quinn!” I shouted from the couch. It was 10:30 – he should be up by now. I ran upstairs to his room and opened the door. He was in bed with his covers askew. I told him what was happening, and he bobbed awake, and pulled himself to his feet.
             “Thanks, grandma,” he said, laughing to himself. He went into the bathroom. “You make coffee yet?” he asked through the door.
             I hadn’t. I went downstairs to put some on.
             When Quinn came downstairs, his eyes caught a FoxRocks commercial. “Man, you should have come to that party last night," he said.
             “Yeah?”
             “Yeah. So there’s a glacier loose?”
             “That’s it, right there," I pointed.
             “Huh.” He took a pull from his e-cigarro.
             We slumped symmetrically into the couch together, heads hanging off the armrests.

             When the newscast returned, Steve sounded excited. “Welcome back, folks. It’s a good thing you’re still with us – things are getting crazy! It looks like someone is about to board the vessel!”
             A helicopter swerved sideways through the air, and positioned itself above the iceberg. A rope lowered, and a man tumbled onto the surface. He stood up, but the wind almost knocked him over. Squinting, he waved all around, trying to catch all the cameras.
             Somehow, I could hear him clear his throat. He tapped a black dot at his collar and began to speak.
             “Hello. My name is Leopold Braxton. I am the CEO of GnomeAtics.”
              I knew him - GnomeAtics was on the cutting edge of robot companions. My parents had gotten the GumboGnome IV for grandpa. I leaned forward and turned up the volume.
             He flinched as the wind flared up, half expecting a podium to stand at. He ground his teeth and continued.
             “I am here for one reason – to protest. The tides are rising as I speak. Please stop driving your cars! Stop purchasing foods with those nasty cellophane wrappers! Somewhere, in the Pacific, there is an island of trash the size of this iceberg. Our backs are against the wall!”
              As he shook his fist, a chunk of ice caved off of the iceberg’s side. The ocean foamed, and a wave lurched out to sea. Leopold became pale, but he gathered himself, and looked forward resolutely, and shook his finger in the air.
             “Just like humankind itself, this iceberg will not last very long. I will ride it until it crumbles, and then I will go down with it. Do not even think about saving me."
             The camera zoomed out, capturing the scope of the scene. The blades of helicopters pounded the air with rhythmic menace. Steve knew better than to interject. CBNBC went to commercial.

             Next to me, Quinn chewed a loose thread on his collar. Lurching from his torpor, he demanded the remote.
             “Too bad,” I said.
             “Come on. I want to watch a movie.”
             I let him take it from me. There were several on-demand choices. 

The Helsinki ConundrumGerald Schnapp stars in this taut psychological thriller about a hostage negotiator who runs afoul of a Polish loan shark – who just happens to be psychic! Co-starring Gourmand D’Allesandri as a hot dog thief who makes the negotiator see God.

"A masterful look at a world gone utterly mad!"
 - The New Jersey Sentinel

Hold My Musket, Servant Boy
One of the eighteen finalists for this year’s Academy Award, “Hold My Musket, Servant Boy” is a scathing indictment of the culture of eighteenth-century dueling. Starring renowned British actor Crasnick Funston, this costume drama features a tunic-clad cast and a very acerbic script.

"Inarguably the finest docudrama of the 21st century."
 - The Roger Ebert Quote Generator™

Marching to the Apple Tree
A powerful indie drama from the producers of “O How I Love Thee, Yarbuckle.” The film tackles such major issues as erectile dysfunction, orphan child hucksters, and the fact that there is no God. Nominated for twenty-six Independent Spirit Awards.

“Confusing, but potentially very intriguing!"
 - The Grand Rapids Journal

InevitaBill
In this quirky comedy, an average Joe named Bill stumbles upon a book at a bookstore, which tells the story of the rest of his life! He tries to avoid his fate, but no matter what he does, the things in the book keep coming true! Before long, he’s InevitaBill! Starring Harley McFarley as Bill, and Garland DuBois as his nephew Gary. 


"Utterly inane. I left the theater before it even started.”
 - The Missoula Monitor


            
Quinn settled on “InevitaBill," which I had seen already. I slumped in my corner of the couch and took a quick nap.

             Around noon, I awakened. Quinn was staring at the end credits. I snatched the remote from him and switched it back to CBNBC.
             “And we’re back, with Leopold the bold. King Leopold, the monarch of the sea. But his vessel is shrinking, folks. When he embarked on his journey, it was the size of Puerto Rico, but now it’s just about the size of Key West. Here to discuss the dwindling iceberg is glacier expert Yolanda Pendleton.”
             “Thanks for having me on, Steve.”
             “Sure thing, Yolanda.” 
             “The iceberg’s rapid shrinkage suggests that it wasn’t very stable to begin with. Most likely, it had already experienced significant melting before it detached from land. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it collapses any minute.”
             “Any other factors at play?”
             “Well, yes, in fact. It’s drifting away from the Antarctic circle. As this happens, it’s entering warmer waters, which will only accelerate the melting.”
             “Thanks, Yolanda."
             The Spinnit roulette logo spun across the screen, leaving a trail of money.
             "Now it's betting time," said Steve. "Brought to you by Spinnit."
             Quinn bolted to attention. “Finally,” he said, reaching for his phone.
             The odds flashed on the screen.

             1:5 He drowns
             1:5 He chickens out and calls for a helicopter
             1:10 Hypothermia
             1:8 The iceberg makes it to land

            
“Are you gonna bet?” Quinn asked me. “I’ll bet you," he said, extending his hand.
             “Sure – I bet he gets hypothermia."
             Quinn thought for a second. “I'll bet the iceberg makes it to land. Next week’s chores?”
             “Sure.” 

             We shook hands across the sofa.
             Quinn started tapping on his phone. “I’m gonna hedge that he chickens out,” he said. “He seems like a total chicken.”

              For a while, there was no more breaking news. On the ticker at the bottom of the screen, we watched in real time how the Spinnit bets were trending. They broke it down by continent – Europe seemed to think he would make it to land, but Asia was betting on drowning. Meanwhile, the iceberg kept crumbling a little at a time, shedding slivers into the sea.
               During commercials, the broadcast kept a live cam on Leopold as he paced the iceberg. Once, when the wind died down a bit, he ventured towards the edge. I pictured a piece of ice shearing off – taking him with it, sucking him down through the iceberg’s undertow. But before he got too close, he jerked into motion and spun away, and scurried back to the iceberg’s stable center. The camera zoomed out slowly until the whole thing was in the frame.
             A wrapper skipped across the ice like tumbleweed. As it fluttered over the edge, I wondered where it had come from.
             CBNBC was running out of experts, but Steve was unfazed. He was a pro – he could talk us through the apocalypse if necessary. As the iceberg melted, he speculated about what might happen, and imagined what it would mean for humanity. If Leopold survived, it was just another page in the massive tome of our folly. If he died, it was a noble act that would resonate for centuries.
             “The only question now is what will happen to Leopold. We have received word that GnomeAtics vessels are nearby, ready to perform a rescue. This may provide us some drama – Leopold has made it clear he doesn’t want to be rescued. If they try to rescue him, will he refuse? Or will his survival instinct kick in, and reach for the outstretched hand?
             “Furthermore, what is his motivation? Is this just a cry for help? Is it a PR move? Is he a thrill-seeker?
             “We all know how these Silicon Valley types are.”            
             The camera cut to video of another tech luminary, Rod Milton, CEO of MindFace, being fired out of a cannon.
             “What a show, folks.” Steve chuckled. “We’ll be right back.”

             When the broadcast returned from commercial, the wind had picked up. Steve was excited – he informed us that the extra wind might speed up the dwindling iceberg. On the ticker at the bottom of the screen, the “iceberg makes it to land” bet showed a spike in popularity.
             The projections were now showing that the berg would crash on the tip of Argentina. CBNBC went live to an aerial shot of a pebbly stretch of coastline underneath a rocky bluff. A few ambling police officers were roping off the paths that led down to the beach. A handful of people stood on the bluff, clutching their mobile devices. The camera spun and looked out to sea, vibrating with the helicopter’s engine. The iceberg was in sight – a fat white dot on the horizon.
             The feed cut back to the iceberg. Steve estimated that it was now the size of a football field. A sheet of ice fell off from its front and splashed into the frothy depths, emerging in disparate pieces. The camera zoomed in on Leopold. His cheeks were flushed, and his eyes were full of energy.
             Cut back to the beach – the camera had located a group of penguins waddling through the mayhem. They strode like confident toddlers, unstable yet unaffected, sliding on the loose pebbles underfoot. One of them fell over and rolled sideways, knocking into another one. 
             “What silly creatures!” said Steve, and I laughed along with him. They really were silly – slick, chubby, expressionless creatures.
             For such a remote area, there seemed to be a lot of spectators. Dozens of people stood on the bluff above the beach. The boats and helicopters that had been following the iceberg were now idling behind, held at a distance by the Navy’s perimeter. The camera zoomed in on the penguins again. One of them had noticed the iceberg, and the others turned to look at it too. They babbled amongst themselves, trying to make sense of the scene. The waves nipped the webs of their feet.

            The iceberg was now extremely close to shore. About a hundred yards from the beach, its bottom ran up against land, and it crumbled into pieces. Leopold vanished into the spray, and then bobbed to the surface flailing his arms, grasping at chunks of ice. His eyebrows were knitted; his mouth was open and straining. Somehow, he managed to climb one of the chunks. Crouching for balance, he rode it like a surfboard.
             “What a stunt!” Steve exclaimed.
             As Leopold steadied himself, the chunk he was riding bumped the shore, and he fell headfirst into the shallows. He floated face down…
             …And Steve finally lost his composure. A jumble of words flew out: Hypothermia! Brain injury! Paralysis! I could hardly understand what he was saying.
             “It looks like…he could be…is this the end folks? No more – can’t breathe underwater – bone-chilling cold – unbelievable! Somebody call the undertaker!”
             Steve was caught in a mania, but I could tell that Leopold was just delaying the inevitable. Poor guy – I was starting to feel sorry for him. Slowly, he stood up in the knee-deep water, shaking the drops from his face. Water ran off of his elbows. His face was blank, but his eyes held relief and disappointment. The water’s sag through his clothes weighed him down, slumping his exhausted shoulders.
             A pair of GnomeAtics officials waded in to get him. He resisted at first, but before long he submitted. They ushered him off, guiding him gently by the waist, speaking covertly into their earpieces.
             The penguins must have scattered when the iceberg broke. The cameras scanned the beach for them, but the little guys couldn’t be found. Leopold had vanished too, into a bulletproof helicopter, perhaps, or a private jet with a hot tub. All that remained was the iceberg’s last pieces, moving back and forth with the fizzy drag of the waves. The people on the bluff started to disperse.
             The network played replays of the iceberg’s collapse – a slow-motion montage, from all sorts of different angles, set to various tunes. Steve was still wheezing with energy, but I needed a break. I muted him, and let the replays play without sound.
             “Double or nothing?” Quinn asked. “I’ll bet you they release the GumboGnome V tomorrow.”
             I shook his hand – Why not. That would be too coincidental. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Countdown to Takeoff

After some deliberation, I decided to end my life. I bought a one-way ticket to the sun.

             The one-way tickets are cheaper than the two-way ones. The two-way pods are way out of my price range. They have serious protection capacities. They’re made of transparent superplexiglas, which can withstand a million degrees. Spacecorp shoots you up there and back in a loop, and you get right up near the sun, really close. You get to look at it with these half-inch-thick sunglasses. They also make you wear a thick membrane over your whole body so you don’t get sunburned. It sounded cool, but that wasn’t the point. The point for me was to never come back.

             It’s scary, though, thinking about my own incineration. I probably won’t even make it to the sun. I’ll get burned to vapor way before that – my cells will simply cease to exist. It’s a strange thing to consider, sitting here, wiggling my toes and watching TV. I feel extremely alive still, especially when I stand up to go to the bathroom. And yet, it is easy to imagine getting incinerated. I’m a boy waiting in line at the fair for the roller coaster. I’ve bought my ticket, and I’m counting the days until Sunday.

             Saturday is here. I have spent the past week watching TV, debauching myself with food and drink one last time. No need to worry about my health anymore. I ate an entire pizza last night, and sat on the couch in a grease fog, letting the pictures wash over me. This morning, I ate a spoonful of mayonnaise, which is something I’d always wanted to do. It was just OK. Not as gross I thought it might be.

             Confession time: I sold my mother’s ashes for the sun-pod money. Not my proudest moment. My mother, you see, was a famous TV personality: Greta Fontini, of “Brunch with Greta” fame.

             I grew up on the set, watching her gab with celebrities. Her charm was unparalleled. She treated everyone with respect, even the errand boys and make-up girls whom everyone else ignored. People used to rub my hair, and say things to me like “lucky boy,” and “Greta’s good little guy.” I led a charmed life, back then. It’s probably because of her that I’ve never been able to find love. No woman could ever measure up. Not to Greta Fontini.

             She could bring even the proudest celebrity to tears. I’ll never forget the day Oprah wept with joy on the show, touched by the poignancy of life, and love, and her memories. She was eighty-three at the time, and her network had just gone under after years of waning success. Mom got her smiling, reminiscing about her golden days. I was there on the set that day. I looked up from my abacus to see Oprah on her knees on the green shaggy carpet, laughing and crying at once. Tears streamed down her taut, unwrinkled cheeks. Mom leaned in and rubbed her back, and the audience gave a standing ovation.

             Mom was in such a great mood that evening that she took me to our favorite restaurant, Terry’s Tropical Trough. I stuffed myself with pineapple pork, all I could eat. Mom had her usual spinach bowl, but that night she splurged and ordered flan for dessert. We toasted, me with my diet milk drink, and mom with her trusty chardonnay. Years later, I read a retrospective of her career, which suggested that Oprah’s tears were the single most magnificent moment in TV history. I wasn’t sure I disagreed. Mom brought so much joy to people. Most of all to me.

             Later on, her star descended. She was forced to take work doing shows like “Who Wants to Cram a Taco!,” and “Marry My Mother, Stupid!” Even though it was demeaning to her, she couldn’t bring herself to quit. We had plenty of money, but it didn’t matter. She just loved being in front of the camera. One night, I tried to convince her to retire. She waved her spoon at me, sending a scoop of flan to the floor. “It’s just a business, Eric. I’m still the fabulous Greta!”

             I couldn’t argue with that logic.

             Which leads me to where I am today, shoveling food past my teeth, watching “Greta’s Greatest Hits.” Thinking about my plunge into the ether. My dreams have been restless all week, so I’ve been watching highlights of mom to soothe my soul. Greta Fontini wasn’t her real name, you know. She was Bertha Johnson, from Des Moines, Iowa. She told me on my tenth birthday. I’ve been going by Eric Fontini ever since, so as not to blow her cover. I mean, I was always Eric Fontini, but after that day, I knew it wasn’t my real name. It beat being Eric Johnson, I was sure, and it definitely beat being Eric Tufbottom. That was my dad’s last name – may he rest in feces, as mom always said.

              But then as a Fontini, I hadn’t had much opportunity to make a name for myself. Maybe Eric Johnson or Eric Tufbottom could have been somebody. I will never know.

             It never occurred to me to sell her ashes, even though I was hurting for money. I sold some other stuff of hers: knick-knacks, baubles, the pillow she died on last year. But I never intended to sell her ashes. I didn’t think anyone wanted them.

             Then, a few weeks ago, a memorabilia dealer e-mailed me. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he wrote. “Perhaps we can make a deal.” The price he offered was too good to be true. I had spent most of my inheritance on a parade in her honor, so I figured it wasn’t being too crass to her legacy to recoup some of the losses. It had been a grand parade, attended by thousands, but then the money was gone. And once I read the dealer’s offer, it was very hard to say no.

              Of course, I immediately felt terrible. What kind of son sells his mother’s ashes? This wasn’t a family heirloom, like a locket or a lamp. I might as well have dug up her grave. It had been hard enough already, to go on living with my precious mother gone. I couldn’t bear this guilt. I started researching ways to spend the money by dying. 

             None of the death knells are cheap. One reasonably priced option guarantees that within the next calendar year, without warning you will be assassinated. Professional gunmen are deployed to end you. It’s the choice for the nihilistic daredevil. For an extra fee, you can request certain particulars. Some like to be chased – to jump a few hedges, get one last kick out of their hearts. Others like a quick shot to the temple at a traffic light.

             The shooting option seemed too mundane for me, however. I chose the sun option, the most daring possibility. An end that befitted a true Fontini. Tomorrow’s the big day. I’ll fall asleep tonight thinking of mom, hoping the ashes can finally rest, and that the jar has a view of the television. I wish she could have come with me. It would have been great to scatter our atoms together. A shining star and her son, hurtling towards the sun. That has a ring to it. I bet I could have been a writer. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Following the Trail


             My friend Jay is an avid hiker. Last weekend, while he was over playing Eviscerate, he told me that I had to touch a glacier before they all melted. I didn’t want to disappoint him, so we agreed we’d go on Friday.

             I woke up on Friday more than a little annoyed with myself. I had just unlocked the Stadium level, and was itching to get into it. Also, I hadn’t really ever camped. It was one thing to go on a hike; I had done that a few times, years ago. But not showering, sleeping on the ground, eating oatmeal for breakfast in the cold…

             Stuffing my backpack with clothes, I watched my TV out of the corner of my eye. News was slow since last week’s cave-in at the harbor in Hong Kong. I thought back to my last hiking trip, with my family when I was sixteen. My father was eager to show us Snow Lake, to instill in us a love of nature. He had lectured us on the sanctity of the outdoors many times. When we reached the parking lot, he was shocked to find vendors at the trailhead, selling churros and bottled water. The hike was a dusty climb with hundreds of other people, and dad couldn’t hide his frustration. He muttered under his breath, and spat emptily into the dry grass beside the trail.

            I had lamented this memory to Jay, but he swore that he knew a spot that wouldn’t be crowded. Verde Lake, it was called. He had all of the gear I would need, too, even the right size of hiking boots. I couldn’t easily say no. I watched a few minutes more of TV. At 10:00 am, I went outside and waited for him to arrive.

             We crept in traffic toward the edge of the city. Drivers jerked forward, honking, and buses sprayed soot from exhaust pipes. Everyone was frantic, and the cumulative effect was that no one could get where they wanted to go. Jay ducked off of the interstate, and we began to wind our way through an expansive, wooded suburbia. It was a long drive, but we had plenty to look at. I rolled my window down, and watched as the number of cars on the road began to dwindle. Lawns became sprawls of acreage, and electric lines cut through treetops. Eventually, Jay’s car wheezed onto a dirt road, and for the last ten miles, we didn’t see a single car.

             I hadn’t been exercising much, so as the trail started to climb, I breathed heavily, cursing my netTV. I hadn’t opened my fitApp in months. My backpack sat heavy on my shoulders, and the air stung the back of my throat. It was still cool in the forest; moss-covered trees rose towards the same singular point.

             As we climbed, Jay told me about a friend of his from high school whose parents owned a yacht. This friend was planning on sailing off for good, and living on the open sea. He was installing a rainwater filter on the boat, and stockpiling canned goods below deck. He planned to tour the world – to tie up in a harbor, sample the local flavor, move along to the next port.

Jay said he had heard worse ideas. “The ocean can’t get you if you’re floating on it,” he said.

          I thought about riding away like that – climbing on with a couple crates worth of supplies and never turning back. With the proper fuel, we could go wherever we wanted. The snow had permanently melted out from most of the mountains, and some rivers had begun to reverse, swelling inland from the sea. River shores were now saltwater marshes. I imagined traveling up a river as its water bled across the plains. The way the world was going, a boat seemed almost necessary.

             We hiked higher into the mist. My cotton shirt bloomed with sweat, and a ridge of salt framed the stain. We reached a plateau, and found a meadow of wiry grass and flowers to stop for lunch. I went to sit down, but Jay grabbed me, explaining that we shouldn’t trample the green. I wished I could sit on the soft green earth, but I listened. Etiquette seemed silly out here, but it remained what separated us from beasts.

             I was very hungry, and I ate straight through my sandwich. Jay wandered out of sight and then returned, and assured me that we had only a short descent to the lake. We got back to our feet, and heaved the bags to our shoulders. My knees knocked together as we moved down the trail. My shoe clipped a root, and nearly sent me staggering.

             Before we reached the lake, I saw it through some branches. Its color was a milky mineral green. When we reached its edge, Jay scooped some up; the water lost all color in his cupped hands. He let it run through his fingers. “It’s cold,” he said. He pointed to the head of the lake, far across the water, where a waterfall leapt down the rocks. The sun shone on the snow at the top of the mountain, and made the water glitter.

             To get to the glacier, we had to cross a logjam at the foot of the lake. We pulled our boots off and waded across, holding them in our hands. My feet were sensitive to the cold. Rocks that didn’t look sharp felt coarse and painful. I followed Jay’s path as he picked his way between the slick logs. The water pulled at my calves with surprising force. When we were close enough, we hurled our boots to the opposite shore. Jay’s landed standing up, and he hooted, and looked back at me. I gave him a smile of recognition. Mine landed safely too, but one of the boots bounced backwards, like a football might bounce, and nearly fell in the water. I hooted too, a shriveled echo of Jay’s triumphant yip.

             Our feet needed to dry, so we sat down on the other side. “You beat yet?” he asked. I shrugged, not quite sure how I was doing. My feet ached from the water. I stood up to keep myself loose, and flexed my fists to the sky.

             Jay went to the edge of the lake, and kneeled down to drink. I was surprised, and asked him if the water was dangerous. He shook his head. “I don’t think so.” I tried it too, and the water tasted wonderful – crisp, almost empty, devoid of the taste of pipe or chemical.

             Some of my hair got wet and clung to my forehead. I dunked my entire scalp, and took another sip. We threw our packs on and continued, a marching line of two. The trail continued with increased difficulty. We had to inch our way around a rock face, balancing on slivers and knots of granite that poked out of the water. The weight of my pack almost pulled me backward into the lake. Reaching the other side, we found ourselves on a pebble beach, and then at a steep embankment. Hand over foot, we grunted up its incline, using for leverage the sturdy ropes of roots. 

             
On a bare hill that overlooked the lake, we shed our backpacks at what looked to be a campsite. While Jay set up the tent, I sat on a rock and gazed around at the ridges that contained us. The sights were so large that my eyes couldn’t rest in one place. I brought my focus nearer, and felt the horizon broaden in the periphery. Wind gently rippled the lake, banishing surface tension. The water mimicked the breeze’s flutters, moving in big, unpredictable patterns. The sky flattened me with its pale, penetrating blue, which was only a tick away from the lake on the spectrum of the rainbow. I blocked the sun with my forearm and stared at the sky, trying to find a spot to fix my gaze. Fuzzy, tumbling atoms rained past my eyes.

              Jay kicked my boot, and urged me to my feet. I rose stiffly, kinked at every joint. He could see me wince. He smiled encouragingly, and reminded me that we still had a ways to go to the glacier.

             From far above us, the mountain had been hurling boulders for eons. Enormous rocks were strewn all around. Some sat above us on the mountainside; others had plunged into the lake. I imagined watching one fall – how loud it must have been! How destructive! How lucky we would be to see something like that. It was relieving, though, that they all seemed to have settled. We walked across them with long strides. I hopped from rock to rock with energy that surprised me.

             I hadn’t smelled such air in my entire life – even ocean air had always smelled stiflingly salty to me. This air was, like the water, so clear and fresh it entirely lacked context. A piece of cottony plant fuzz floated past me on the wind, and I swiped at it, making it dip and wobble. I noticed more of them drifting in the atmosphere. Up on the mountainside, bushes bloomed red amid a deep spread of green. Snowmelt had carved distinct paths down the mountain, little canyons that were clustered with plant life and mineral streaks.

             We still couldn’t see the glacier. It sat above us, out of sight in its own valley, the one it had carved while its drips were forming the lake. A cascade leapt down a crevasse from the glacier’s hiding place. Crashing between shoulders of rock, it cast a mist in the air above it, which trailed into the sky. There was no path to walk on, just broad, sun-bleached granite. We climbed; Jay looked back now and then to check on me, with a grin that his lips couldn’t hold. In places, thick bushes clung low to the ground. With deteriorating balance, I tried not to step on them.

             We went up the left side of the roaring waterfall. The granite was easy to traverse. When I used my hands, I found that the rock was like sandpaper, tearing at the top layers of skin. I took a moment’s breather and peered at the lichen, which decorated the rocks the color of seaweed. My body felt light without the backpack pressing me down.

             We reached a plateau, and the waterfall’s mouth became a river. It slipped past us, smashing its way down, carving the rock with a constant stream of tiny, ancient molecules. The glacier was enormous – it sat in the bottom of the valley, presiding underneath the empty space that it had created. The mountain swooped around it in a semicircle, cresting in a ridged peak. The air was suddenly cold. Not cool, as it had been in the forest, but so cold it made me shiver. It surprised me at first, until I considered the mass of ice in front of us. I clutched my elbows and kept my body moving.

             We had to hop across the river to get to the foot of the glacier. The river was wide and shallow in the flat basin, more of a creek really, and our boots got minimally wet. The glacier’s lip looked gray and rough from a distance, but up close, I could see that it was a wall of pure ice. The gray was actually a mass of gravelly rocks, embedded in the ice like concrete, dark and wet in the limitless ice. I tried to pry one out, but it didn’t budge. A smaller piece came off easily in my hand, leaving a dent where it had been. The glacier itself was glassy and severe, a ten-foot wall of ice in front of me. I pounded my fist against it. It felt like the thickest tree in the forest. I pounded it again, and then drew my hand back – I’d better not shake these branches.

             And then it creaked. It creaked like a giant’s door – a throaty, subterranean growl. Jay and I stepped back and looked at each other, then back at the glacier. It was completely still and silent. The wind whistled far above us. I realized that there wasn’t any life nearby. Not like before, down by the lake. No plants, no birds, no pollen in the air. A single cloud crawled the sky. I watched it slide out of sight beyond the ridge.

             Jay began to retreat. He shouted to me to hurry up. He didn’t have to tell me twice. We re-entered the blazing sun and began to descend without speaking, warming with every cautious step. In a few spots, we had to lower ourselves down with our arms like gymnasts. The water tore past us, quieting as we ducked out of sight between rocks, roaring again when in sight. The lake sat beneath us, smaller than seemed possible from down on its bank. It was an unearthly color, electric, like the garnish on a football jersey. Its milky green blue seemed artificially created.

             We reached camp. We still hadn’t seen a soul. The sun went down, and sounds and shadows crept out. The sounds were meek – the rustles of grass, and bugs that screeched thinly in hiding. But the shadows were bold, and when the moon rose, they sharpened. Streaking across the ground, they framed the edges of pebbles.

             We passed the time under the night sky. We ate oat bars, nuts, and chocolate, and gulped water that sloshed in our stomachs. We stretched at the campsite’s rocky edge, surveying the lake, our domain. The glacier was hidden again from view. Even so, it was powerful, physically imposing. The waterfall kept falling. I shivered thinking how cold it must be up there at the glacier; how ominous its creaks, without daylight to temper them.

             Jay produced a bottle of whiskey from his bag, and tossed it in my direction. I took a sip, and it tore down my throat and sizzled in my belly. We pulled our sleeping bags out of the tent and burrowed inside them, touching our feet to their bottoms, and passed the whiskey between us. The moon’s craters were faint gray orbs, set in the surface’s powerful white. It was moving across the sky, I knew, but I tried and failed to see if I could tell. It seemed to just hang there, keeping its orientation. I took another sip of whiskey and forgot.

             Succumbing to my body’s exhaustion, I fell asleep outside. It was cozy in the sleeping bag, and only my cheeks got cold. The ground was hard and oddly comforting.
 
             I dreamed of sailing the ocean on Jay’s friend’s yacht. The sky was dark blue, and the ocean was green with algae. It blanketed the water thickly, and crawled up the hull of the boat. A ways away, a school of whales labored, trying to breach through the algae. A small boat stagnated nearby, unable to move, and its occupants waved mutely for help.

             Our boat was powerful, though, and it tore through the water with ease. We skimmed across the water, bouncing through straits, slapping the glassy surface. After a while, we were the only boat on the water. We reached the Pacific coast, and cruised up a swollen river. The algae followed behind us, turning our churning wake green. People cheered us from the shore.

             We found our way inland to a sweltering lake, somewhere in the heartlands in a place that was dry and mountainous. Hundreds of people were there. Kids sat on inner tubes, spitting water on each other, laughing and shouting and flopping around in the shallows. Sunscreen sat like butter on their hairless arms. From their lawn chairs, parents looked at us. A woman plucked the hat from her head and fanned herself, looking at me vaguely. The air was heavy. Lifeguards slumped in their towers, tongues hanging out of their mouths. I touched the water; it was warm, like a heated pool. I dunked my head. Through the murk of human dander, I saw tiles at the bottom.

             I awakened to the shock of cold air in my lungs. I caught my breath and coughed, nostrils burning. It was pitch black outside and completely quiet, and it didn’t quite seem real. My arms were pinned to my sides in the hot sleeping bag. I unzipped it with haste to get some air, and sat up, clutching my knees and panting.
 
            Jay had gone into the tent. I thought about going with him, but my aching bones were anchors in the dirt. I let them sink again. As my eyes adjusted, I could faintly see the moon. A thick cloud dampened its shine. I looked at it for a while longer, seeing the depths of the cloud as it passed between. The wind picked up – an airy, wide-lipped whistle. It chased itself through the dark, swooshing around the walls of the basin. Coming and going, playing itself like an echo. It was eerie for a while, and then soothing, rocking me back to sleep. 

             Either I didn’t dream, or my dreams were inconsequential. I awakened clear and fresh. Standing up, I stretched my body head to toe, and rolled my head around on my neck. My mouth was dry, but a sip of water made it slippery again. The scene opened – mountain spires and sheer cliff edges, and the still and singular lake, a majestic body of opal.
 
             The sun came over the top of the mountain. It crept across the lake, brightening its color, penetrating the depths of the mineral fog. Standing between the sun and us, the mountaintop cast a stark line on the lake’s surface, a line that moved closer as the sun gained leverage. Before long, the campsite was rich with sunlight. It pressed down on my head and my forearms, bringing the day to my body. Jay stirred in his tent; I told him what he was missing. In time, he joined the spectacle. 

             After breakfast, we wandered over to an especially large boulder, a granite monstrosity with a haircut of patchy grass. I tried but failed to climb it – I thought it would be easy, but the angles were too obtuse. A tree was nearby, but not close enough to help.

             A snowmelt creek ran beneath the boulder, trickling heartily through a bed of fine gravel. At the water’s edges, wildflowers burst. We heard marmots whistling to each other, spreading word that humans were near. We scanned the surrounding rocks, and spotted one on top of a rock, looking right at us. It didn’t seem afraid, just cautious. It sniffed its own buckteeth and ducked out of sight, and then popped back up for another peek. It watched us until we turned back towards the campsite.
 
             It was hot in the sun, and cool in the shade. I could feel my stomach digesting granola. We made coffee on Jay’s portable stove, and sat a while more. But the car was a long way away, and home was even further. We collapsed the tent and heaved our packs on our shoulders. Saying goodbye to the lake, we hiked up into the forest. Step by step, we plodded down to the car.

             On the dirt road, the tires sounded like radio fuzz. The ride back home went slowly. We passed through the rural fringes, houses that sat on acres of land. Billboards started appearing, announcing available products. Sitting at the first red light felt a little bit funny; the engine rumbled beneath us. My legs were at rest, and unhappy. I shifted my knees from side to side, looking for comfort. People were suddenly everywhere: pushing strollers, biking on the sidewalk, peering from car windows next to us. The city’s vertical sprawl lay ahead. 

             Only one day later, I felt like I hadn’t been home in a week. When I stood up out of the car, my feet had fallen asleep. For a delirious moment, I wobbled and almost fell down. It felt like my funny bones were down in my ankles. Saying goodbye to Jay was easy, a shoulder hug and a promise to do it again. We made sure he had all the gear he had lent me. I went and sat down on the couch.

             For dinner, I microwaved some chicken bits, and shredded some lettuce on top. Through the kitchen window, I could see the sun setting. The buildings across the alley looked luminous, brushed with fading gold. I sat out on the balcony and ate, breathing the still, cool air. Night came, and the sky began to glow from all the lights.  

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Jugs and Jugs of Water


             Standing on a bridge over a Copper Creek one day, Ben watched the water rush out to the ocean. It was fresh water, and he was thirsty, and he pictured himself plunging his head into the calmest pool and drinking from it. He watched the water as it swirled around rocks, creating undertow and bubbles. It moved constantly, but its shape never changed. The current rushed in the same places, and bubbles frothed and dispersed continuously.

             Ben thought about the river snaking down the valley – splitting, joining back together, making its way out to sea. There would be a fresh water shortage eventually. He watched it sweep past him, so much so fast that he couldn’t fathom its quantity. The water headed to the Pacific Ocean, a drop in a bucket already brimming. The ocean would consume every drop.

             He retreated home. In the following months, he thought about the river frequently. He lived alone in a quiet town, so he had plenty of time to contemplate such matters. He thought about going back to Copper Creek, filling some jugs with fresh water, and storing them somewhere for later. He had a garage that he didn’t use, and he pictured it full of jugs of water. It was perfect in his mind: jugs the size of shoeboxes, which would stack tight and neat up to the ceiling, full of ice-cold water.  He could do what he wanted with them. As the world slowly expired, he would be OK. He took no pride in this thought, but a great deal of comfort.

             One day, he started to clean the garage. There wasn’t much stuff in it, but he wanted to make it sparkle. He got up on a ladder to scrape the cobwebs from between the beams, and swept the rough concrete as best as he could. He had to catch himself from doing more. It’s only a storage space; he told himself. But he had always been fastidious. Inside, the house was immaculate. It was easy to keep clean when he only had to pick up after himself.  
             Ben needed jugs. At the library, he found a wholesale deal online, but the shipping costs were almost the same as the price. He called, and they directed him to a place two hundred miles away where he could buy them in bulk. The jugs were cheap, and so Ben bought a bunch of them. He went in his Jeep to get them; the jugs filled the truck, and rattled the whole way home. Two sat in his lap, and one lay on the driver’s seat floor. Others he had strung on the roof, looped with rope through the backseat windows. He estimated there were seventy-five or so jugs in all. The ride home was exhausting – he couldn’t remember the last time he’d driven so far.

             All winter, he left the empty jugs in the garage. On his birthday in December, he went back up Copper Creek with a jug. The bridge was two miles up the creek, and the trail followed the creek closely. It periodically snaked off into the forest, but always turned back towards the sound of running water. Sometimes it got so close that water splashed on the trail.

             Ben stood on the gap-toothed two-by-fours, listening to the water’s muted roar. A leaf floated down with the current, rushing and pausing as the water pushed and dragged. Twigs piled up in tight places. He lowered himself onto the rocks and scooped the jug into a deep, calm pool. The water was cold to his hands, but in the jug it felt milder. He dried off the jug and put it in his backpack, and walked it out to his car. The jug looked lonely in the back of his garage, but he let it be. A problem with the pipes came that winter, and the jug proved handy on that cold, dry Sunday as he waited out the plumber.

             In March, Ben got a dog, the mutt of a neighbor who had died. A young boy with chocolate ears named Elmer, who had the temperament of his elderly owner. That spring, Ben endeavored to collect more water, and he took Elmer up the creek, with two jugs in the backpack. He was pleased at Elmer’s vivacity. The boy sniffed the trail feverishly, and strained the leash barking when animals rustled in the bushes. He paced back and forth on the bridge, skeptical of the scene beneath his paws. He yipped expressively – multi-toned, not the grating stab of his squirrel offensives. He wanted to climb down the rocks with Ben, but Ben was concerned he would hurt himself, and he tied Elmer’s leash to the bridge. Ben let him off the leash on the way down, curious whether he could catch a squirrel. But without the leash around his neck, Elmer seemed less concerned, and he paced alongside Ben the whole way. That evening, Elmer’s paws were cracked and bloody, but his tongue still wagged with enthusiasm.

             Ben never would have gotten a dog of his own volition, but he felt happy with his new companion. He hadn’t realized how lonely he was, how often he fell into ruts of memory. He didn’t have a lot to do most days, and with eager Elmer urging him up every morning, the garage filled steadily. He didn’t try to get too much done too quickly, and the trips felt meditative. He brought a sandwich, and took his time eating it on the way up, dropping the crusts for Elmer. He always brought a chocolate bar too. It amused him how badly Elmer wanted some. Then again, how could he know? Elmer wanted a taste of everything that he saw Ben eating.

             When the garage was full, Ben closed it. For years, he kept it full to the top with jugs. Elmer departed, and another dog came and went as well. The snowfall in the Cascades was heavy, and as other places in North America became arid and unable to hold life, Copper Creek continued to bubble and rush with the same gusto as before. The Disney Corporation bought vast swaths of land in the area, and tapped the rivers to swell their supplies of water.

             Ben noticed that while other companies – Nestle, Nabisco, Starbucks, Walmart – were selling bottles of water, Disney wasn’t. At the market one day, he stood in line behind someone who looked like a Disney executive. He got up the courage to ask the man why they weren’t selling any water. The man glared at him, and strode outside into the street. Ben laughed with the grocer at the man’s indignation, but his heart wasn’t in it. He had a dream that night about a corporate boardroom, where executives cackled about business strategy. They sipped water through straws, spilling it carelessly, flinging it off of the glass table with swipes of their hands. He thought about the dream the next day. He wondered what good it did shareholders to cling so tightly to the product, if mankind was going extinct. The company’s presence in town made him angry. Citizens sometimes organized in hopes of changing the new status quo, but Ben stayed away from the meetings. He knew they would just make him angrier.

               Ben could have shipped his water anywhere for profit, but he chose not to. A tarp lay over it in case of peeking hooligans. He liked having a secret, and he was glad he had done it when he did. The Disney Corporation now searched hikers at the Copper Creek trailhead, so it was impossible to take any water. If you had running water on your property, you could harvest it, but Disney employees now monitored all the land they had bought. The river was a water mine, in the way that the mountains had once been a source of copper and silver and gold. Pipes ran all through the concrete. Thankfully, they didn’t tear the land up. That was the beauty of mining water – the product came right to you. The bridge still stretched over the creek.

             Tap water was still free, and the town swelled with developments. Many times, people came knocking, inquiring about purchasing Ben’s property. He sometimes gulped at the price they offered, but always shook his head. When he was in his fifties, a woman entered his life, and he happily told her about his stash. She urged him not to let it go to waste, and they began to crack the jugs like vintage wines with dinner, sipping them, enjoying each one’s particular mineral make-up. The house needed a paint job, but Ben liked how homey it felt, rough edges and all. He still went up to the mountains when he needed to clear his head.