Summer 2014
things could have gone better

Tiny almond eyes squinted in the light. I cooed at her and nuzzled her fragile head swirled with tendrils of silken black tufts. I was in love—wholly, completely, instantly. Her desperate hands grasped my finger and I silently promised her a gilded future. My eyes radiated upwards and connected with his. This was our love, alive! This was our intention! My gaze hardened as it slid to the small girl in his arms. This time we had done it right.

Pang after pang of blistering tension pulsed through my frontal lobe. My ears were ringing. Her cries frayed every nerve ending that had remained intact after my first daughter. Nothing can quench nameless desire. She needs, she needs. Why isn't this different? I wanted this time to be different. I glared at the exposed pink brick wall of my cell. My mind was awash with toxic sludge—engulfing and welcoming—I let it have me. Once again, I'm trapped in this fucking monument to our love.

My thoughts seethed and roiled over the reality of motherhood. It's not all cute dresses and stroller walks in the park. How could I have let myself be conned into this indentured servitude? Why did I welcome these shackles? I poured a shot of whiskey for my sanity. Breathe. The door careened open under the weight of my guilt. Our eyes connected and mine shied to the bloated duffel bag on the floor. "The girls are asleep. I'm leaving."

The bus rolled into the station and expelled a noxious sigh of relief. Glowing with life and promises of gold, Sin City beckoned with open arms. I buried thoughts of pink teddy bears and soft giggling under the city lights, and collapsed into the comfort of a new start.

Before my enslavement, I had been a dancer. My days were long with ballet, Latin fusion, and street dancing. The tumbler cooled my lips. Two auditions this week, an invite to a marina party, and two auditions next week. One, two, pause and hold, and five, six... Every neon fruit was within reach, I just had to lift my hand and grasp the most enchanting. Chase your dreams. Don't give up on yourself. Don't settle. The mantra repeated as I rehashed my audition sequence. The dying echo of a baby's coo lingered in an empty corner of the bar. Brushing it off, I continued—seven, eight. Kick, step.

Sunlight dappled through a school of fluffy popcorn clouds. I smoothed my dress and simpered over the hull at the water below. To my left, a small gaggle of dancers were orchestrating dainty lines of coke on a platter. My eyes locked with a long legged, auburn. During my audition, she had glorified her 7 month love affair with cabaret. Oh I needed that love! In her southern, honeyed voice she offered the silver slat and I obliged. Moments later a velveteen bag emerged from a petite blonde's clutch. Rocks of varying sizes were divvied out. We mimicked a toast and bottoms up.

Every pore of my being was dripping pure, lava-like adrenaline. I was melting and melding with the ship. The world was open water. I inhaled, the ship heaved, exhaled, and ho. Opalescent streams trailing with pink ribbons—some in bows, some in knots, some knotted in bows in a little girl's curls—streaked across the deck. The tentacles slithered around my chest and snaked across my throat. Exhale. My body convulsed as I struggled against the constricting ribbons. White molten light blinded me, as the sun, set on bleaching the scum from the deck, flooded my vision. I surrendered to the light, but at least I drowned free.  

A challenging task came one morning when a box of marionettes arrived from Italy. Their strings were tangled to each other in a complex web. I grew frustrated quickly, trying to find the origins of the translucent lines. I picked up the bunch and hung them from the storage supply racks in the back room. Initially, I tried to focus on a single puppet, the one located at the center. As I unraveled, unknotted the string I noticed the tugs on the others. At times my attempts at unwinding would tug sharply at one marionette and the others connected would shake and twist as a result. I soon learned that the center marionette was responsible for the tangled mess. The knots and twists would take another hour to remove, so I cut my losses and clipped the strings one by one. I held the center marionette as I snipped the lines emanating from its appendages. The dependent marionettes would fling back when released, jostling the others in the bunch before they fell still and finally freed. I cut the final lines, which stemmed from the center puppet’s scalp. With this, the torso, the legs, then the head clattered, slipping through my hands like sand through a sieve. The strings I had clipped were the very strings holding the marionette together. I collected the strings and appendages. I covered the detritus with some of the other trash and hoped the store manager wouldn’t notice.

There is a light, and there is a button.

It is my duty to sit here, to sit here and guard the button: to look at the button but never press it.

Above the button is the light. Above the light, five tiny characters etched into a steel plate. The plate is bolted in with two grommets. The plate says ARMED.

Beneath the button is a machine. Its case is bolted together with the older sisters of the plate's grommets. It is painted blue and made of steel and the blue is flaking. Sometimes at night, when I am bored of all the machine's blinking lights, the circuits opening and closing, I peel away bits of the blue paint where it is coming off around the grommets.

I know there are other rooms in other places just like this one, watched over by other insignificant souls. But I do not know them.

I know that inside my machine, there are cogs and circuits. There are wires that carry information in and wires that carry it out. I am not in charge of the information; I am in charge only of the outside of the machine, of keeping it clean and safe, being sure the lights are blinking where they should blink and are steady where they should be steady. I am in charge of letting no one into the room but my relief and that is all.

But the button. This button. It is the most beautiful specimen of a button this insignificant soul could possibly imagine. It is the exact size, shape and color of the Player 1 and Player 2 buttons on an arcade machine I remember from my childhood, a Pacman, a Galaga. Though I have never pressed the button — I can never press the button — I know it will maintain the springiness of a Player 2 button. It won't have been punched so many times that its spring has weakened. It won't have been punched so insistently that it slides down into its slot, a little coward after all that. No.

This button will be firm and a little ferocious. This button will be springy. When I press down on it, it will press back equally. But I will not press down on it. I am not allowed. Also, it has a cage.

What a lovely cage. Soft wire woven, firmed. Soft wire woven so closely that it is in fact difficult to see the button at all. The cage is there to protect the button from mistakes and also, from lint. But one night, one night when I couldn't stand it any longer, I lifted the cage. There is an alarm for the cage of course, there must be, but it is a basic alarm. As long as metal is touching the flat plate on which the cage rests, the alarm won't go off.

So that night, that first night when I just couldn't take it any longer, when I just needed to see the button, I first dug around in the scrap pile to find an old knife switch, which I pried out of its holder and slid between the plates.

Then, with three fingers on one hand pressing down so hard, protecting me from the alarm, from the blare and the trouble, I eased the cover back. Like my very conscience itself, the hinges resisted and squeaked. But I didn't stop. I rolled back the cover, pressing so hard all the while, and then there it was!

I wanted to cry. It was so red: it was cherries, lips, clown noses, strawberries. It was a can of paint, shiny and deep. It was so clean and so beautiful, the arc of the button set against the collar. The top was just-a-bit concave and begged for the pairing of a thumb — but no. No touching. I closed the cover.

Of course I couldn't stop thinking about it. At home in my bed, where everything seemed so dull. At the market I would cruise aisles looking for a red that could ever begin to match. No berries were sufficient. I could test out every lip gloss I could find, but my lips never might match. Perhaps I was being ridiculous. Perhaps I should just look again. Nothing could be so lovely. It was a hallucination.

I had the metal plate in my pocket. I always held it there, a talisman, a reminder. I would look again. I did look again. I was not wrong. It was as I expected. And now every night, every night I come and I look at the button beneath the light, beneath the cover. Every night precisely at two I press down on the metal and pull back the cover, which slides quietly now on oiled hinges, I pull it back and I gaze for just a moment. It brings contentment when paint peeling pales in interest.

And now it is 1:58. 1:59. In the school-style clock the second hand sweeps around. I am holding the plate, my companion, my collaborator. In in goes, not too slow. I hold my breath. These last twenty-four hours I have missed my button, missed its enticing little dip. I fold back the cover and then—

ATCHOO! A sneeze. A spasm. How is this possible? The metal has clattered to the floor. The alarm is going. It blares. It is so loud. Trouble is coming. Trouble is definite. I will just rest my thumb here for a moment before it is over and I am taken. I will just lightly hold it here and think about the coiled spring and — ATCHOO! The spasm again. I have pressed it. The coil felt so right, but now, now it is much, much too late.

In the other rooms in the other countries, the lights on their machines will be flickering even faster. Their cages will be coming up, they too will finally know the pleasure of pushing. And then it will all be over.

The Pork King of South Carolina was more florid than his personal standard for four in the afternoon. F. Jimmy Denton held his fourth mint julep. His jowls shook as he hollered into the phone. “The hell with what you thought you were going to do with that pile. It’s goin’ on the next sulfur seeding run, headed north over New York tomorrow mornin’.” Jimmy parts the vertical blinds with his belly, moves onto the deck, and stares out at the beach.

“Don’t EPA me, those jokers are all for seedin’ these days anyway.” Jimmy chuckled, adding, “They might even quit hounding me over the hogs for a few days on account of me joinin’ the fight against global warmin’ an’ all.”

Actually, although Jimmy was interested in keeping his Columbia beachfront hotels on dry land, he wasn’t just your average robber baron bent on doing some charitable climate-altering. After a business trip to New York the previous week, he was bent on raining down brimstone (sulphur-based fertilizer) on the city in general, and in particular a certain statue of General Sherman in Central Park. He’d stumbled upon the monument to the Damndest Yankee last week on his way back to his hotel and ever since he had been apoplectic (to the point where his chief of staff had arranged to have him followed by an ambulance on standby). Sulfur melts statues, right? Jimmy thought he remembered something like that from science class.

It was the coldest winter New York had seen in fifty years. Under the leaden, streaked sky, the Hudson froze for the first time in anyone’s living memory. Gina Digitaldo, third generation corporate shakedown artist (part of the Capone family tree), was starting to realize that her short of Alberta natural gas might have been ill timed. In the fall, the plan had seemed brilliantly executed - gas prices had danced exactly to her whims and she made a quick $900M. She had bought the condo in Soho with a small part of the money. She hadn’t expected the late-fall price increase to trigger the Denouncement. Or the subsequent blockade from the Philadelphia homesteaders, which cut off the city’s gas supply.

Insult was added to injury when Pennsylvania gobbled up the gas to can the tomatoes from the balmy fall harvest, the warmest on record with no sign of next year being any different. The blockade had been spectacularly effective, by Christmas gas flows to non-critical infrastructure had completely ceased. Further insult was added when the pipes in Gina’s now un-heatable condo froze and burst.

All of this would never have happened if the homesteaders hadn’t been on the move back in September, fleeing drought ridden Albany for the greener pastures of brownfield lots in Philadelphia. Evan Aldridge, the spiritual, moral, and environmental leader of the homesteaders, would freely admit amongst friends that caravaning through Manhattan was slower than expected. Lured by offers in solidarity of housing by affiliate groups in the deserted suburbs of Long Island and the wilds of the Meadowlands, the multitudinous assemblage of bicycles and human powered trucks had careened its path through central Manhattan.

The caravan stretched through both morning and evening rush hours, turning business as usual gridlock into something that moved at the approximate pace of nearly-set concrete. Aside from the disastrous pace, things had gone pretty well, Evan thought. The closest brush with disaster happened when his security team, sadly necessary in these dark days, had tussled with a group of professionals guarding a sweating fat man in a pink shirt. This jowly man with his bowtie and smell of gin had carelessly doored a cyclist in the caravan, while getting out of a black car that had run out of gas as it sat in the gridlock. The cyclist wasn’t badly hurt but got up off the pavement yelling, full of adrenaline, and itching for a fight. The caravan’s security team, headed by an ex-pipe layer’s union woman named Arty, a quick hand with a length of steel, had channeled the energy of the riot that ensued into the destruction of the abandoned black car rather than a brawl with the security goons.

Evan still credits Arty’s quick thinking for his being able to make it to his scheduled speech in Giant’s stadium that night. It was there that the dogmatic groundwork for the gas boycott was laid. Evan came out against New York City’s natural gas use, in a textbook settler speech that invoked every argument from the tyranny of carbon, to Wall Street’s greed, to energy independence, to Jimmy Hoffa rolling in his grave. Few people noticed that the Philadelphia settlers quietly benefited from the cheaper power, or that Pennsylvania’s last coal plant shut down due to it’s inability to compete. Evan will admit, amongst friends, that he isn’t displeased by these unintended consequences.  


The first group of homesteaders had actually been on the West coast, not the East. They sprung up the lots of LA, after the division of California into six states had fractured the state’s water system into at least that many bitterly opposed fiefdoms. These factions quickly resulted in the abandonment of the desert-climate cities south of King’s River, due to complete lack of any potable water. LA remained populated the longest, but depopulated the quickest after the Colorado River swept away the aging Hoover Dam one wet spring weekend - taking the city’s last water source with it. That summer, as the city emptied, the small initial group of settlers were headed by Sylvia Castor, a one time folk singer, tea shop owner, and boutique weed grow-op expert. In semi-deserted buildings around the state of Southern California, she created a series of successful cooperatively-run indoor farms.

They were profitable enough that they were able to pay the premiums of water imported by barge from the independent Republic of Alaska. During this period they became a nationally cited permaculture model, inspiring similar groups in hundreds of other cities. In what has become tradition for the settlers, Sylvia was publicly a mystical, inspirational god-head for the movement, while privately being a highly pragmatic, quietly money and influence savvy leader.  But the LA settlers weren’t prosperous enough to pay the water bill and pay off the heavily militarized federal Department of Drug Enforcement, which destroyed the entire early Southern California homesteader movement in a single night ten years ago. Much of the movement remains unaccounted for, while the DEA claims the raid never happened. Old-timers in the desert now report Sylvia sightings with higher frequency than Elvis and UFOs combined.

Since then, the homestead movements have scrupulously avoided the “SoCal crop model”, or else have been even more scrupulous in the size of their DEA bribes.


In a biker bar in West Oakland, Bob the Belt Buckle Consultant set his bike under the bar and ordered a drink. A “Personal Portlander” style consultant working in the city state of San Francisco, he knew that no one would ever leave a bike outside, what with the acid rain and the roaming chop crews from the tall bike gangs. As he took the first sip, some hella wasted wiry little rider he didn’t recognize leaned heavily on the bar a few feet away, over a strange old bike he couldn’t quite place.

“Hey dude - are those brakes? Are you kidding?” the rider called from down the bar.

This deadly insult from a loud stranger, in front of a full house, could be properly answered only by a knife fight. Arty had taught him well in Philadelphia, and he could carry his own and more with a knife. He had already drawn his switchblade behind his back when something about the stranger gave him pause, made him think that fighting might be a mistake.

And then he recognized the bike and knew it was her. Bianca, the legendary courier of top secrets for Cascadia. He shuddered for a brief second as he closed his knife and realized how close to death he had come. And he smiled and shouted back the only possible response: “Is that a Huffy? Let me buy you a drink.”