39.1 Preview: Michael Beeman

A Unified Drone Theory

We built our first drone a month after the car crash.
You were having trouble walking because of your back, and I couldn’t sleep because of my head, so late one night I ordered us a kit online. Our first drone wasn’t much, just a frame the size of deck of cards, four plastic propellers, and a basket for cargo. I used it to send you things from the second floor and spare you the climb up the stairs. First, an old picture of us I found under the dresser. You sent back a dirty poem you wrote on the back of an overdue electric bill. Our drone hovered beside me while I grinned and penned my response: our initials inside a heart.
Our next drone was bigger, studier, able to withstand the bumps and knocks that sent our first drone to shatter on the floor. With some practice, we learned to fly it out the front door and circle the house. Winter had settled in by then. The cold outside always found its way through my hat and into my stiches, starting a migraine that could last all day. A recent fall on our icy walkway had set your rehab back weeks. We attached a small hook to the drone and sent it to the mailbox. Instead of risking the daily trip, we let our new toy fetch the mail for us. Watching the drone thrum through the living room window with our mail each morning, we smiled slyly to each other, as if we had just performed a magic trick.
We built dozens of drones as we waited to recover. A drone with a high-definition camera flew above our rooftop to show us our house, our snow-covered neighborhood, our wrecked car still sitting in the driveway where the tow truck left it after the accident. Nimble racing drones careened through our hallways: lithe and quick, they loop-de-looped and barrel-rolled, wove patterns around our furniture, spun pirouettes then stopped abruptly in place, all at the slightest flicks of our thumbs. We dog-fought battle drones over our front lawn each night, then collected the scattered pieces to rebuild again.
As we slept, a jet-black security drone patrolled our property, alert for any danger. It watched for trespassers, burglars, and murderers; the threats television had taught us to fear that had never come. If only we could have built a machine to warn us of ordinary disasters instead: balding tires, black ice, one drink too many. Although we agreed the crash was no one’s fault, that we’d both had too much to drink, that either one of us could have been driving, I was the one driving. It was my fault. You forgave me again and again.
Our health declined; our drones improved. Soon, they could do anything. Quarter-sized drones swept through our hallways in swarms, their formation tight as a squadron of fighter jets. I droned you your morning coffee when your back hurt too much to leave the bed. You droned me Excedrin all the way from the downstairs medicine cabinet, dropping the pills beside my water glass with a precision that made me smile through my headache. We droned each other love letters. We droned each other shopping lists. We droned each other curses and complaints. We droned each other reassurances and hope.
At night I dreamed of a unified drone theory, an alternate model of matter made entirely of miniaturize machines. In my dreams, drones shrank in scale, from miniscule to microscopic. Interlocking engines replaced our atoms. Drones too small to be measured drifted among the ether that even smaller drones composed. Passing through obstacles as easily as ghosts, they carried their cargo and messages onward without the hindrances of gravity, space, or time.
I don’t believe in a unified drone theory, of course. The machines we make are toys, no matter how complex. But at times, I wonder. I wonder about a unified drone theory when a migraine begins pounding in my temples, and all the medicine I take does nothing, and I know that I have hours of agony ahead of me to think about how I should have been more careful with the car, with you, with us. If only I had been more careful. If only I could undo it all, take everything back, and start again. I know that I deserve all the pain that is coming, and more.
How else can I explain what happens next? I open an eye, and from the bed I see you standing in the doorway. I have sent no message, but there you are all the same: out of breath, wincing from the stairs, a hand pressed to the small of your back, your own pain just beginning. You have come to lie down with me, to forgive me one more time, to suffer through the worst together.

 

 

39.1 Preview: LaTanya McQueen

And For By Grace an excerpt

For my mother’s family Sunday tradition meant Sunday prayer. For the first meal and the last they would gather together, link hands, and say a series of prayers—the Shepherd’s Psalm, The Lord’s Prayer, and everyone’s own selected Bible verse. Her father, like many of the men in the family, was a preacher and I assume this practice came from him.
After my mother was married and had started a family of her own, she stopped doing the prayers except for the few times she would drive me back to North Carolina. Our visits home were rare, every other year at most, and because of our distance and the amount of time we were always gone, our return always held a certain significance. Out of all the family, my mother was the only one who left. While a teenager she’d taken out a map of the state and circled colleges as far away as she could go. She picked one, and during her first year there she met a future Army man, married him, and then moved even farther away. “I wasn’t going back there,” she used to tell me whenever I asked her about this time in her life. “I would have done anything to get away.”
I watched her as she shifted in the driver’s seat, her anxiety becoming more visible as we got closer. “You should start memorizing a verse now,” she said. “Don’t embarrass me.”
Her father, a man I’ve never known, had long since died, but my grandmother had remarried another who was also a preacher, a man who could recite the entire Bible by heart.
“What kind of verse should I pick?” I asked, taking out my own Bible and flipping through the pages. I glanced at all the sections I’d highlighted from previous Sunday scriptures, trying to find something that would work.
“I don’t know, just pick one,” she replied sharply.
 ***
A painting hung on the wall of my grandmother’s kitchen where we gathered for prayers. The painting depicted a white-bearded man who sat at his own kitchen table. He was hunched over the table’s edge, his hands clasped together and placed in front of his forehead. His eyes were closed. He prayed.
On the table in front of him was a loaf of bread, a slice of it already having been cut, most likely from a previous meal. Nearby was a metal bowl of possibly soup or oatmeal to go with his bread along with a book, which one would assume at first to be a Bible, but was actually a dictionary. Next to this a knife lied flat.
A loaf of bread, a bowl of soup, a dictionary. The simplicity of it all made the image seem somber, poignant. The man prayed for his meager meal, grateful for what God had given him.
 ***
There is a story I must tell you, but in order to do so I must tell you another. It is that of Eliza Cook. While a slave to Dr. James H. Cook, Eliza gave birth to seven of his children. After slavery ended, James Cook’s wife wanted Eliza gone. Perhaps she was full of shame for her husband’s indiscretions, or maybe it was jealousy, or spite. Whatever the reason, she demanded her husband force Eliza off the property. Cook submitted to his wife and Eliza, a woman who found herself with nowhere to live, nowhere to go, and with seven children to feed, turned to the Freedman’s Bureau.
In North Carolina, the bastardy laws required every unmarried woman with a child to name the father within three years of the birth of the child. The law also required fathers to support their illegitimate children or face imprisonment. In Eliza’s case, she’d been enslaved during her children’s infancy and was unable to testify to their parentage. She argued that a new law be made to address situations like hers—women who’d been enslaved but now were free and who, according to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, should be entitled to the same rights as white women. With the help of the Freedman’s Bureau Eliza took James Cook to court to force him to support her and all of his children.
Within my family there’s been a story handed down through the generations. It’s of a black woman named Leanna Brown who, like Eliza, had a relationship with a white man. The relationship produced two, possibly three children. In the census records for 1880, she is listed with these children on a farm nearby his property. On the census, each of the children carries her last name, but somewhere between then and now something peculiar happens. The surname, at least for the boy, is changed to that of his father.
Eliza’s case brings forward the possibility that like her, Leanna did take the father of her children to court in the hope he would acknowledge them. Like Eliza, it is possible she showed a sense of agency during a time the world wanted her to have none, and so it is possible that maybe he did relent and claim them.
At least, this is what I start to think, but then I remember the rest of Eliza’s story. The court argued that the Civil Rights Act didn’t apply to her situation and thereby didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court. They refused to hear her case. Cook, having won, evicted Eliza and the children from his plantation and they were left dependent upon the Freedmen’s Bureau to survive.
 ***
My grandmother would eventually give the painting to my mother as a gift, but my mother didn’t want it so she threw it away without telling her.
“The picture depressed me,” she said afterward. “I couldn’t look at it. I wish now though I’d kept the thing. It could have been worth something.”
The name of the painting is called Grace and was actually originally a photograph taken by Eric Enstrom. After the photograph was developed and printed, Enstrom’s daughter began hand-painting copies in oils and selling them in her shop. Travelers stopping in the town of Coleraine, Minnesota saw the framed picture through the studio window and were taken with the image. One after the other got sold and the picture’s popularity increased. In 2002 the image became Minnesota’s official state photograph. Eventually Grace became one of the most reproduced religious images in the country. It is in homes all across the country—above their dining tables, on the living room walls, small photos placed in wallets and purses. What my mother hoped was rare, significant, was just a copy of a copy, reproduced hundreds, if not thousands of times.
 ***
No matter how much I practiced, halfway through the Sunday prayers I’d falter, forgetting the rest of the words. I’d mumble through the rhythm hoping no one would notice, then we’d finish and get to the verse and by then I couldn’t remember which one I’d picked. I’d stall, letting the others go, hoping during that span of time I would remember, but it would come to me and I would open my mouth to find I had no words to say.
“Jesus wept,” my grandmother whispered. “Just say Jesus wept.”
Jesus wept. The shortest verse in the Bible, said by Jesus after seeing Lazareth’s sister’s grief. Even though Jesus had come to raise Lazarus from the dead and there was no reason for his tears, he bore witness to Mary’s sorrow and was moved by it. Her pain brought on his own.
My grandmother said the verse again, urging me to repeat after her, but my mother interrupted. “No,” she said, gripping my hand tight. “She has her own verse. She can say it. Hurry up now so we can eat.”
Unrelenting, my mother would make me stand there until I said it, and the rest of the family would patiently wait, and so they all stood firm, silently still. I swallowed hard, glanced up at the familiar painting, and then somehow I remembered.
“For it is by grace—for it is by grace you have been saved,” I began.
 ***
The hymn “Amazing Grace” was written by a white, British man by the name of John Newton. Newton was a slave trader. The song was inspired from an experience Newton had while sailing his slave ship back home. During the night they’d passed through a violent storm and Newton had woken to find his ship filling with water. He prayed to God for a “great deliverance” to save him and his ship from the ocean’s depths. His deliverance came and Newton wrote the first words to his hymn from the experience.
Newton renounced slavery five years before the publication of “Amazing Grace.” He became an evangelical minister, of all things, and the hymn echoes his regrets over his involvement in the slave trade. The “Amazing Grace” spoken of alludes to God’s forgiveness of Newton’s sins. “I once was lost, but now I am found,” the first verse of the hymn goes. “Was blind, but now I see.”
 ***
During the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney there was a point where President Obama paused, then he bowed his head. A brief silence followed, and as he lifted his head back up he began to croon the first few words of “Amazing Grace.” The crowd roared in response. Never mind that later he would be criticized for using a hymn written to describe God’s forgiveness for a man’s participation in the slave trade. No one thought of this now, instead the audience stood. They clapped their feet and cheered as he sang to them the well-known hymn. In a moment of black pain it was a call to rise up. It was a balm meant to soothe a wound open for far too long. It was a way of saying—we will get through this, together we will come together and heal in the ways we’ve always done. We will exhibit God’s grace and get through and, and perhaps, forgive.
 ***
“What is the thing you couldn’t forgive?” my mother asked me once. “Like, how far do you believe forgiveness goes for a person? Because I think it’s not the same for everyone.”
We’d gone out for dinner, one of the few times in my memory when she had a little money to afford it. The question had come out of nowhere, and I supposed she asked it as a personal musing and had not meant for me to respond.
“Are you talking about dad? For leaving? For the divorce?”
“What? No, I’m not talking about your father.”
“Who then? Your father? Is this about him?”
I’d regretted asking her the moment I said it. She was always dodgy about her father, and the few details I knew about were always told when she’d let her guard down. I’d hoped that maybe this time she’d finally tell me everything. I settled back in the booth and waited for her to say the words.
“Just forget it,” she answered, then took a long sip of her coke before telling me she didn’t want to talk anymore.
A few weeks earlier, I’d sat on the opposite side of the bathroom door listening to my mother grimace in pain. “Are you okay? What’s wrong? Should I do something?”
“I am going to have my tubes tied,” I heard her say to herself. “No, I am going to have them taken out and burned.
It’ll be years before I’m able to thread this story together, before I fully understand the context of these events and their relationship to each other, and when I do I will be angry at everyone—at my father for leaving, at the man who would not leave his wife, and at my mother for all of what she never said.

 

 

39.1 Preview: Neel N. Patel

The Taj Mahal an excerpt

It was Mallory who introduced us in the first place: at the shopping mall, then her party.
It was winter; I was visiting from L.A.
“L.A.,” Mallory said. “Wow.”
There was nothing wow about it. The hospital had put me on leave—something about “indecent behavior.” As far as I was concerned, I was the best OB/GYN they ever had.
“You’ve unraveled,” Dr. Barnes said. “The rest of the staff feels uncomfortable around you.”
“On what grounds?”
“On the grounds that you exposed yourself to Dr. Rosenberg.”
“I did no such thing.”
“You offered him sex.”
“That’s preposterous,” I said, glaring. “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”
Then I took off my blouse.
It wasn’t always this way; in high school, Mallory was the adventurous one. Mallory was the one who got drunk off rum punch and Strawberry Boones. Mallory was the one with the tattoo; now she wore rust-colored sweaters and khaki-colored slacks, looking, at thirty-two, like the type of woman we swore we never would. We ran into each other at Target, on a Saturday afternoon. Mallory was pushing a shopping cart.
“Sabrina? Is that you?”
After high school, I had become glamorous while everyone else in my class had faded out of their glamorous time. Mallory included. She had a thick waist, loose skin; her blond hair had faded to brown. Meanwhile I was bronzed like honey, my hair the color of an espresso bean. I wore extravagant clothes, too. The night of Mallory’s party, I wore a raspberry cocktail dress from Neiman Marcus.
But it was meant to be a casual party.
I told her there was no such thing.
The party was typical: cheese boards next to a platter full of crackers and grapes. Mallory had strung up Christmas lights—colored ones, not gold. All night long she chased me around the house carrying store-bought appetizers and boxed red wine. She introduced me to her friends. They were the usual sort: the type of women who wore Christmas cardigans over stone-washed jeans. Their makeup was of the drugstore variety. Probably they were schoolteachers or nurses and probably they were afraid of me because I was a surgeon. A specialist. A God.
Sabrina lives in L.A. Can you imagine?
They couldn’t imagine. They couldn’t imagine that a week ago I had gone to a dive bar and popped a Klonopin into my mouth—then gone home with the DJ. His name was Yousif, and the next morning, four hundred dollars went missing from my purse. They would never understand me, these women, so I smiled at them, and nodded my head, and answered their questions about the traffic in L.A., and then, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I opened my bag and popped another Klonopin into my mouth. Then I started drinking. When I returned, Mallory had opened a bottle of champagne. Happy holidays everyone! I imagined spilling it on her floor. I wondered if she would get on her hands and knees to clean it up. I was thinking about this when Mallory’s boyfriend walked into the room, opening a can of beer, and suddenly, just like that, I began to think of something else.
I had no boyfriends of my own: I’d hoped Dr. Rosenberg could be my boyfriend. One morning we were sitting in the doctors’ lounge when I happened to show him a book I had read on giving really good blowjobs. Dr. Rosenberg had laughed, but later, when I showed it to him again, he didn’t seem so amused.
“I’m with a patient, Sabrina, and you’re being very inappropriate.”
Mallory’s boyfriend would have laughed. Mallory’s boyfriend worked for a tire shop called: Geeks on Wheels. He had a finely trimmed beard. There was something intriguing about him. He wore an Illinois sweatshirt over jeans. He had a dab of Brie on his chin. He stood near the cheese plate and avoided conversation. After a few moments, I walked over to him and spilled my drink on his shoes.
“Oops.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “They’re not fancy like yours.”
I laughed louder than necessary.
“I’m Sabrina,” I said.
“Mallory’s friend, right?”
“Classmate. We went to high school together.”
“Right. I’m Dave.”
“Dave,” I said. “The boyfriend.”
“Dave-the-boyfriend.”
“Well, Dave-the-boyfriend. I could really use a smoke right now. Know where I can make this happen?”
He pointed towards the kitchen.
“Back porch. You’ll see a life-size cutout of Santa Claus. You can’t miss it.”
“That’s where I’ll be.”
I could sense him watching me as I made my way into the kitchen, onto the patio beyond. When I stepped outside the giant Santa Claus was staring me in the face. The backyard was silver with moonlight and the branches were stripped bare. After a few moments, I heard the squeak of a door.
It was Dave-the-boyfriend. He was holding a beer. From an open window I could hear someone suggesting a game of Taboo.
“It’s supposed to snow tonight,” he said.
“I like the snow.”
“I guess you don’t see much of it where you’re from,” Dave said.
“Mm.”
We were silent a moment; then Dave sat next to me and stared at my cigarette.
“Want one?”
“I can’t. Mallory wants me to quit.”
“Mallory’s not here.”
He smiled.
“Aren’t you some kind of doctor? Shouldn’t you be condemning this?”
“I’m an OB/GYN,” I replied. “Are you pregnant?”
“No.”
“Then as far as I’m concerned you have nothing to worry about.”
He took the cigarette from my hands. His nail beds were dirty. I found this irresistible. After lighting up he exhaled a plume of smoke; then he closed his eyes.
“God, I needed that.”
“Remember,” I said, crossing my fingers. “It’s our little secret.”
We stayed like that for a while, Dave and I, until the cigarette was finished and the evening turned cold. Then he flicked the cigarette into the bushes and brushed off his jeans.
“I better get back inside. Don’t stay out here too long.”
I followed him inside. Mallory was in the kitchen, opening a bottle of champagne. She looked even larger than I had remembered; her waist had ballooned. “My god!” she said, pouring me a glass of champagne. “You’re shivering!”
The thing about being an OB/GYN is that everyone wants to talk to you about their vagina: how to get pregnant, how not to get pregnant, how to get rid of embarrassing smells.
“Your vagina is like a self-cleaning oven,” I said. “Stay away from harsh soaps.”
The women flocked to me. They admired my shoes and my bag. They asked me about my makeup—I told them it was my natural glow. Then Mallory linked hands with Dave and paraded him around the room.
“It’s supposed to snow tonight,” she said.
“So I’ve been told.”
“So what brings you in town? Are you visiting your parents?”
My parents were dead; they’d died in a car accident last year. Nobody knew. When the clinic put me on leave, the first thing I did was purchase a last-minute fare to Urbana, Illinois. Then I got drunk in my room. I planned on sticking around for a while, putting the house on the market. I did not plan on running into Mallory or Dave.
“I’m just home for the holidays,” I said. “It being Christmas and all.”
“I see,” Mallory replied, going back into the kitchen.
Dave was staring at her, narrowing his eyes. I wondered if he was in love. Then I realized that nobody who loved somebody would smoke a cigarette behind her back.
So I opened my bag.
“Let’s smoke another one.”
Someone had decided to play Christmas carols on the hi-fi system and there was a game of charades in the living room and so no one noticed when Dave and I slipped out through the back door. The night felt colder; Dave offered me his coat. His sleeves were rolled up and I could see the tattoo on his arm.
“I have a tattoo,” I said.
“Oh, yeah?”
“Yeah. But you can’t see it.”
“Why not?”
“Because it’s on my vagina.”
He spit out his drink. We sat down in front of the life-sized Santa Claus and Dave was looking at my legs. Suddenly I wasn’t so cold anymore.
“I hate Christmas,” I said.
“I’ve never heard that before.”
“That’s because you’re dating Mallory.”
“Which reminds me,” Dave said. “Back there, inside, you said that you and Mallory were classmates.”
“Right.”
“I asked if you were friends.”
I stared at him quietly, smashing my cigarette onto the steps. Then I narrowed my eyes.
“You’re not just a mechanic, are you?”
“I dropped out of law school.”
“Why?”
“Because I’m an idiot,” Dave said, putting out his cigarette. “And because I thought I was in love.”
He went inside to get more beers and we drank them one-by-one, crushing the cans. The music grew louder, and every few moments there was an undulating cheer. Dave was getting drunk; I could tell. His eyes had glazed over. Meanwhile I was barely buzzed. On a normal night I had a whole bottle of wine to myself. Sometimes I would get so drunk that a piece of forgotten memory would return to me in the middle of the night. Once, I had woken up wearing someone else’s brassiere. I was thinking about this when an idea suddenly sprang to mind. I grabbed Dave by the arm.
“Let’s get out of here. Let’s go for a drive. No one will know.”
“I don’t know…”
“I’ve got ecstasy,” I said, dropping my voice to a whisper. “And marijuana.”
Suddenly there was a loud crash from within the house. Mallory was screaming about the turkey. She began running around the kitchen and calling Dave’s name.
But it was too late.

 

39.1 Preview: Katie Cortese

The Ark an excerpt

The Network sends Abe and me to Arbitration separately, thank god. My red-vested producer is new, or at least I haven’t met him yet. “Ricardo,” he says, holding out a small hand with a strong grip. Dark-haired, pencil-lead beard, he’s polite and smiles readily enough, but doesn’t say much, or maybe I’m just talking enough for both of us. Abe says it’s one of my worst traits, babbling. I used to remind him about glass houses—smooth-talker that he can be when he chooses, but we both know that despite where I’ve ended up, my Bible game is weak.
Even though he’s not talking much, Ricardo laughs at my jokes as we stroll the length of Deck 13, which is gratifying. When you’re six months pregnant and about to get divorced on a floating television studio in the middle of the swollen and dying Atlantic, it’s nice to connect with someone, even a stranger. Still, we’re halfway through our brief walk before I realize why I’m enjoying myself so much. Producers can’t appear on screen, so any footage of us will be edited out. I can frown or swear or slouch or pick my nose. It’s a taste of the freedom I’d taken for granted back in Knoxville when Abe I and lived a different kind of life that seems now like it belonged to someone else. Someone in love. Someone who whistled as she took out the trash just to hear it echo in the salty, sea-scented air.
This new dose of privacy, like a return to my anonymous life, is so intoxicating that I can’t stop talking—about the shitty food on The Ark, my swollen ankles, unsatisfied candy cravings—and laugh until my gut hurts in a good way, clutching my rounded middle. I can’t help thinking as I stroll along the sunny deck with a beautiful man that it almost feels like a date.
Maybe that’s why Ricardo indulges me when I point to the elevator instead of the stairs. He checks the time on his tablet, purses his lips like one of the ducks in Deck 18’s menagerie, and shrugs conspiratorially. “I won’t tell if you don’t,” he says.
We squeeze in, elbows touching in the tight space. The lifts are small to encourage people to take the stairs, or so claims The Ark’s manual. “Baby Ruby’s exerting for both of us today,” I say, patting my belly. “I think she just turned a somersault.”
Ricardo gifts me a last lovely smile, flashing teeth white as quartz with one crooked canine, before the elevator dings on 15. “You’ll be fine,” he says, quick and heartfelt.
I step out of the elevator fighting the swell of tears. Out of everything I’ve heard over the last month as we hammered out this divorce, Abe and I, people have said a lot of things, but no one has told me I’d be fine. Not one member of cast or crew. I press the corner my eye until the urge to cry passes. “Thanks,” I say, as the elevator snaps shut, whisking him away.
Abe is already waiting outside Arbitration, which is also, ironically, his work assignment. Seeing me, he smiles for the cameras, which on the ship are every-fucking-where.
“Late,” my soon-to-be-ex says, “as usual.”
“Blame the elevators. They’re slow.”
He raises sculpted, blond eyebrows and reaches for my shoulder. “Could have used a climb, don’t you think, Laura? Your heart’s beating for two.”
My famous temper, another flaw according to Abe, draws my hand into a fist, but I know what Abe’s supposedly doing—playing the villain to keep us high in the ratings.
“Conflict sells,” he’d said two months ago, before confessing the calculated infidelity that sparked our split. We were both crammed in our tiny bathroom—the only place bare of cameras to hide my morning sickness from grossed-out viewers. “I did it for us. You’ll thank me later.”
“I thought you said ‘sex sells,’” I’d countered, numb before the anger.
He’d palmed my belly, barely noticeable early in the second trimester. “We already took care of that.”
Now, Abe opens the door, ushering me into a waiting room outfitted with stuffed leather chairs, wall-mounted bookshelves lined with leather-bound blank pages, and a few plastic trees. Soon Abe’s colleague, an attorney from Detroit who used to prosecute high-profile government corruption back on land, will open his incongruously large door, and my husband and I will take up twin fountain pens to rend our union asunder.
“Hot in here,” I say, fanning myself with a copy of the ship’s newspaper, The Arkives.
“Feels fine to me,” Abe says, marking up some pages he’d pulled from his briefcase. For the first time, I’m truly glad we’re breaking up. Whether he’s acting or not, The Ark has turned him icy as a polar vortex. Ruby jabs me gently behind my bellybutton like she agrees.
All I asked for in the divorce was to keep our cabin. The Network owns the rest of our assets anyway. Abe conceded, documents were drawn up, and after Marcus sent our signed paperwork to the mainland for expediting, the deed was done. Because the aftermath of our split is the focus of this week’s episode, Ricardo knocks before breakfast to bring me to the confession berth. My hair is shower-wet and I’m starving in a way that makes me salivate for the frozen bagels and O.J. from concentrate in the main galley.
“Good to see you again,” I say, before pleading my case, but he’s politely firm.
“Talk first, eat later,” he says, tugging at the red vest separating him from cast and crew.
“I’m not the only hungry one,” I say, patting the swell of my belly. Since we don’t need money, I’ve stopped carrying a purse and forgot to grab a GoodBody Bar.
He checks the time on his tablet, then sighs, retrieving a raspberry Helth-Square from his pocket, my least favorite. “You’re a life-saver,” I say anyway. It’s good to have friends in admin.
The confession berth is decked out like an old-time captain’s cabin. An electric chandelier sways over a ship’s wheel before a throne-like wooden chair. Along one wall, paper maps decorate a small desk, and a porthole seems to show the horizon beyond a rolling ocean, though it’s just a neon sign. There’s a Bible on the desk too, but that and the zoo on 18 are the only clue that The Ark is a replica of the one in Genesis. Most of the cast are atheist or agnostic, which is to say practical, which is to say survivors willing to embark on the “high-seas adventure of a lifetime” instead of waiting to drown on the dwindling landmass we came from. I miss my hometown, but the place I was born in West Virginia is growing barnacles at the bottom of the Atlantic now. There’s no going home again, even if I were allowed.
I flash the Helth-square’s label at the camera, and am so hungry the first bite is palatable, but by the third it tastes like sawdust again.
Be grateful, I think anyway. Smile. Make them like you better than Abe.
I don’t have anything new to reveal. Just the same old anger for the way Abe micro-managed our lives, never supported my art, and humped an infirmary nurse a half-dozen times last month, but our troubles are so ordinary as to be cliché. Or they would be off-camera. “I’ll be okay,” I start, “but I don’t understand how he could to this to Ruby.” One hand pinches the underside of my knee to jumpstart tears. Of course, he already explained his plan to me. I just don’t buy it. Or not completely. We were newlyweds in the pilot and the first to get pregnant. The first to divorce. We have to keep pushing the envelope, he says, if we want to stay relevant. We’re single-handedly sustaining ratings now, which means we get perks like en suite cabins, extra rations, and reduced workloads, not to mention confessionals, which earn us spots in the credits.
“We could be swabbing toilets, Laura,” he’d said that night in the bathroom. That, at least, is true. We belong to the Network now, for better or for worse. They decide how to use us.
Back on what passes for solid ground, what Abe hated more than global poverty and famine and rapidly rising seas was the way each tick of the Doomsday Clock forced us further into America’s interior. He’s old enough to remember a field trip to New York City before it was evacuated, where he’d watched the Atlantic lap at the city’s new sea walls from the top of the Empire State Building. “Why not coexist?” he’d rant with each move. “Just look at Venice.”
But Italy is now just series of islands in what were the Apennines. Venice, a fairy tale under the Adriatic Sea.
After my confession, I allow myself an elevator ride to breakfast, humming to my little Ruby Tuesday, the one thing I know is real in this made-for-TV boat. The elevator hums along, smooth, efficient. It was Abe’s idea to audition and while it landed us here in relative safety, it still hasn’t saved us from the worst thing. Not from ourselves.
The only thing I look forward to now is yoga. The teacher likes to show me adjustments for my delicate state, mostly, I think, because it buys her screentime—the same reason our Kardashian-lookalike OB cried when she announced the results of my pee test. Everyone onboard has to hustle for love.
I’m supposed to empty my mind and let thoughts pass like clouds during class, but the sequences are where I get my best thinking done. Today, we’re opening our hips. I squat with everyone else, sneaking peeks at the roundness housing my daughter, Ruby Ransom Haskell. Her name is all Abe and I agree on now. That and our eagerness to meet her when she arrives sometime before The Ark’s first Christmas, almost a year after setting sail from the port of Knoxville, dodging the occasional fishing vessel trawling for amberjack and flying fish and the few other species that have acclimated to the salty broth where we’ve landed them.
“Warrior One,” my teacher croons, floating toward me in harem pants. I assume the position while her fingers butterfly up my lifted arms.
When we first heard about The Ark, I couldn’t imagine trading privacy for a one-way trip designed to amuse a shrinking American populace, but the harder Abe pushed and the emptier grocery shelves grew, the more upside I saw to guaranteed meals (billed as organic), free health care (to exploit the drama of serious illness), 24/7 security (Big-Brother style), and a shelter impervious to rising seas (the only true perk). By the time we shot our audition tape, cameras seemed a small price to pay.
I pulled out all the emotional stops for that performance, building up to sobs over the fire that vaporized my parents’ retirement villa, my sister who vanished in the California earthquake, and a brief span of homelessness after the West Virginia tsunami. All that combined with my modest reputation in the art world and Abe’s good looks secured our spots in this “experiment in sustainable survival on the high seas.” I cried again when they called to tell us we’d made it.
“Belly breaths,” the teacher says, “find freedom in the pose.” We’re in tree, mid-sway from a nonexistent breeze. Her cold hands land chilly on either side of my expansive hips.
“Sorry,” I whisper as I lose my balance and almost crush her. “Clumsy.”
She pats my hair, smiles vaguely toward the ceiling toward one of those black domes—like the security cameras in King Neptune’s Loot, where I used to shop for refurbished treasures reclaimed from the sea.
“Yoga is a journey, not a destination,” she says, gliding off to correct another wobbler.
I watch her go, voluminous white hair like a shroud. She’s an extra from the lower decks and probably lives in a cabin that sleeps six with shared bathrooms and no natural light.
I’ve only been down there once, for the required tour—which didn’t include Decks 1-8, the underwater ones off-limits to both cast and cameras. Supposedly, they hold labs where vegetables are grown hydroponically, and waste is recycled into fertilizer, and meat substitutes are cultivated, but after the first month—which lured us into submission with fresh produce, decadent entrees, and desserts I dream of still—we’ve mostly been fed Helth-Squares, GoodBody Bars, Munchables, ramen noodles, and military-style field meals in four flavors (vegetable chili, beef stroganoff, chicken Kiev, and cheese ravioli). All manufactured by subsidiaries of the Network. Everything’s vitamin-fortified and free, but I bet the menu will get pretty old by the time I’m wrinkly enough for them to light my floating funeral pyre.
We haven’t had a death yet, almost ten months in, which I think The Network’s peeved about. After all, we air opposite Space Cowboys, the show set on Mars where two people died already. And that’s not even factoring in Abyss (set on a submarine, popular among North Korean War vets), or a third in the works about a colony of hot air balloons and zeppelins.
Whenever I get depressed about Abe—or miss chomping a fresh, crisp apple—I remind myself I could be back in Knoxville processing Floridian refugees, never sure if our sixth floor apartment would survive the next flood. Be grateful, I tell myself, again, then settle into Warrior Two and breathe and breathe and breathe.
It’s midnight on a Friday when Abe knocks on my door. “It’s your estranged husband,” he calls as I’m thumbing off the lock.
“I have water or Apple Joose,” I say once he’s ducked inside.
“Water,” he says, “and some Noodle-Roos.”
That’s my cue to throw two soup rations into the microwave to scramble the mics. Two Noodle-Roos give us seven minutes to whisper more or less freely.
“How’s arbitration?” I ask, handing him a glass.
“Biggest excitement was two drunks fighting over a girl who’s dating another girl, and a mother who wants to emancipate herself from her ten-year-old. Even in the middle of the ocean, people are shitty to each other.” Abe flops onto the sofa where Ruby was conceived.
Even if he was only screwing the nurse to up our intrigue-quotient, it’s hard to believe he didn’t enjoy parting thighs still taut as saran-wrap across a bowl, or fondling a flat belly. “Yes,” I say. “The world over, people are shitty.”
“Don’t be pissy,” he says, swigging half his water.
I take the armchair. In here, it’s easy to forget we’re circling the Atlantic on steam power from superheated sea water. The technology is state-of-the-art. If we run out of anything, it will be food before fuel. Unless there’s really a Garden of Eating tucked away on one of these decks.
“What do you want, Abe?” Waiting, I origami a copy of the week’s activity roster. My painting class is listed under the rehearsal schedule for Our Town. We all stay very busy.
“What, no foreplay?” he asks, reaching into a pocket to retrieve a bag of gummy worms, very verboten. The sight brings saliva to my mouth.
“It’s late. I teach at nine a.m.,” I say, making every effort to resist, but then he selects a worm and traps it between his teeth, chewing sensuously. I grab the bag without eye contact.
“Fine,” he says, winking as he swallows. “Maybe I want to reconcile.”
“Get back together? You’ve got to be kidding. We’ve barely been apart.” I fish out a worm and decapitate it, shuddering at the sugar rush. We’re supposed to eat in the main galley so they only give enough rations for micro-meals, and sugar is off-limits as it’s part of the luxury that landed humanity in our current pickle. Lawyer or no, though, Abe has a nose for contraband.
He grins. “Not now. Eventually, for Ruby’s sake. A touching reunion after her birth? Falling in love with her makes us love each other again?”
“I’ll think about it,” I say, chewing, savoring, wanting him just to shut up. But now he’s the pissy one, looking at me over the rim of his glass like it was me who had the affair.
It makes my stomach turn, the thought of sharing a bed again, kissing for the cameras, but it might be necessary. Unnamed cast only become valuable when one gets injured, commits a crime, or when a landbound relative takes to her deathbed and they’re summoned to the confession berth for a teary testimonial about wanting to go say goodbye. They can’t, though. No one can. It’s in the contract. If the ship goes down, metaphorically, and we get cancelled, we just become cogs in the Network’s other machines. Lucky ones might end up with a bit role on Shore Wars, remaking house boats to sell them for a profit, or we might don hairnets in a Helth-Square factory. On The Ark we’re sitting pretty, so we’re all motivated to keep the show afloat.
“What are you working on now?” Abe asks. “You’re so sexy when you’re painting.”
“I’m not very inspired these days,” I say. “Plus, there’s teaching—”
He snorts and it’s hard to blame him. My students are bored former housewives with no casseroles to bake, no children to homeschool since they all go to a one-room deal on 17, and no rugs to vacuum threadbare. We’ve been painting plastic fruit for three weeks. The Ark needed cultural enrichment, the head producer told us when he called to welcome us aboard. I’d made some waves with a series of underwater still-lifes of my now-drowned hometown painted from photos but glazed with a green lacquer so everything appeared submerged. They paid my half of the bills when Abe and I were dating, but he never got them. “Wow,” he’d say whenever I showed him a new canvas. “You really captured the way everything is fucking wet underwater.” He thought it was funny, but after a while I stopped showing him my work.
“You’re the love of my life, Laura,” he says now, dropping one of two remaining worms into his gullet, “no matter what this place makes us do.”
“So you say.”
He shakes his head so a hank of blond falls into his eyes. Early on, he’d seemed too good to be true. There were flowers and dinners, but worse, there were heartwarming elementary school productions of The Wizard of Oz. Outdoor retiree a capella concerts. Cooking classes. Ballroom dancing. Once, a chopper from Seattle to Vancouver, neither of which had yet been swallowed up. We camped for three glorious nights on the peak of the Golden Hinde. Anything I mentioned in passing, he made happen. I thought, here’s a guy who listens. Now I know that’s all he does, storing up information to subdue his victims.
“This girl is your only real competition,” he says, kneeling by my chair to rub my stomach in proprietary circles.
“She’ll know what you did. It’s all on tape.”
“Not if we reconcile,” he says. “I know it will be tricky—taking me back—politically, but I’ll have my image rehabbed before she arrives.”
I grip the chair’s hard padding. “Is that all you came to say?”
He chucks me under the chin, fondly. “Just keep being angry,” he grins. As the microwave dings, he plants a kiss on my forehead before I push him away to fetch the noodles.
Abe stares gloomily into the cup’s searing depths then. “You’re right,” he says for the mics. “I shouldn’t have come.”
“Abe—” I say, but he presses two fingers against my lips.
“You eat mine, for Ruby’s sake,” he says, dashing out before I can respond.
I stand with a Noodle-Roo in each hand and let my eyes close in a way that I hope shows inner conflict. Whatever he’s working on, whatever the new plan is, I know I should be wary.
It’s a month before Abe’s image massage starts to work, apparently at my expense. It’s eerie the way I can walk by any group of blue-hairs playing four-hand bridge without fielding even one question about kicking strength. We’re not allowed to watch episodes of The Ark, and I don’t want to appear a bitter divorcee, so I have to couch my questions carefully, starting with my yoga teacher, who seems vaguely Buddhist, and therefore friendly, or at least neutral.
“I hope Abe’s making new friends,” I say to her after a sunrise class, following Yolanda while she snuffs out the incense. “I don’t want Ruby to have an outcast for a father. What’s the saying, ‘An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind?’”
“Most people think Gandhi said that, but there’s no record of it,” she says, stacking blocks with her back turned. I watch with a hand at my throat until I’m sure I’ve been dismissed.
            I’m still looking for clues a few hours later when a shape separates itself from the wall by my door, causing my heart to double-clutch before I see it’s just my OB. It’s unusual to see her out of the infirmary, but not against the rules since she’s a named character now.
“Dr. Dewer,” I say, “is something wrong?”
“Inside,” she says, glancing over a shoulder like an amateur spy.
I usher her in. “Tea?” I have some mint and chamomile from a care package. We’re not allowed to receive mail, but occasionally a producer will throw us a bone. I don’t know who let this one through the filter, but Ricardo’s the only one who winks whenever we cross paths.
“No,” she says, knitting her glamorous brows. “I’m here on business.”
“What’s wrong? Is it the baby?” I clutch my stomach but no equal and opposite pressure leaps to my touch. It takes a Herculean effort not to shake Ruby into motion.
“It could have waited, honestly, but since you were anxious about the glucose test I wanted to tell you it’s normal. Everything is progressing well.”
I’m more confused than relieved. I wasn’t worried about the test. We have so little sugar onboard I never believed I was at risk for gestational diabetes, but then I remember the gummy worms. Of course, this new iteration of Abe does nothing kind unless it serves his own interests. The whole ship probably thinks I’m an unfit vessel for The Ark’s first birth by now.
“What a relief,” I say anyway, sinking into a chair. The real question is why Dr. Dewer tipped me off. During my appointments she’s never been anything but brisk and professional.
“I didn’t want you worrying. Stress can be just as dangerous as smoking or drinking,” she says, hugging me with one arm and pressing a square of paper into my hand with the other.
“I can’t thank you enough,” I say, balling the note in my fist.
Sitting on the toilet after she’s gone, I try to interpret her doctor’s scrawl. On a printout of the actual test results, which are, indeed, normal, Dr. Dewer has written: “He said you ‘cut him down’/drove him to cheat. Still loves you, but you won’t take him back. Plus, gum drops?”
Fucking Abe. I flush the note, making sure it disappears. Colluding could get us banished, so writing that note is no small thing. I want to trust her, woman to woman, maybe even friend to friend, but good will is only one of the things on this boat I’ve found to be in very short supply.

 

 

39.1 Preview: Jessica Walker

Mouth of the Canyon an excerpt

I got final Jeopardy! right—the answer was the Grand Canyon! I raced to my mother’s room to gloat and found her dead. I examined the items on her nightstand: a chocolate bar missing six squares, nine phlegm-soaked tissues and a Bible opened to Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, her shaky pencil underline stopping at verse 11.
I went back to the couch and watched a procedural crime drama, ate a TV dinner, took out my dentures, settled into the princess pink bed in my childhood room assuming my comfort position—left hand in underpants, right hand on the cool wall—just as my mother found me the exact moment before I knew shame. She’d busted me with a loaded diaper finger-painting the wall with my feces. I’ll always remember her screaming things. I’ll never know what they were.
Three days later, the postman mentioned the odor. So I did the obvious thing—filed a notice to stop mail delivery, bought a bag of lime to quash the smell and sprinkled it liberally over my mother. And I began baking again. Before my liver transplant, I had my own bakery, did cakes for weddings, birthdays, bar mitzvahs. Once I’d even placed second in a TV competition for my roadkill armadillo—red-velvet center, chocolate buttercream frosting, crystalized sugar drool puddling from its lips.
I settled into a routine—wake, bake, eat, sleep—until the furnace blew. I couldn’t smell Mom anymore, in fact the house had taken on the aroma of rotten roses, but I was still afraid of letting anyone inside, so I didn’t call our HVAC guy. Instead I distributed space heaters through the house and set them to high. Late on a blue-hazed night, a heater caught fire and the whole place went up in flames. I wrapped Mom in a sheet, buckled her in our Chevy and raced away.
The smoke billowing from our house gave way to fog as I careened down side streets to the highway, hoping to put as much space as I could between myself and the house before someone noticed and called the fire department. When I saw blue lights behind me, I felt relieved. It was finished. I rolled down my window for the officer.
“Ma’am, do you know why I pulled you over?”
He lowered his head to look in the car. And that’s when my mother spoke—her wavering, watery voice coming through a hole in the sheet.
“Young man, I’m about to have a stroke. Can you please let my daughter take me to the hospital or do you want to see me dead right here in this car?”
The officer informed me I had been driving without my lights on and let us go.
“I thought you already died.” I stared at the hole in the sheet but couldn’t make out her features, just her bushy mane of hair.
“You thought right,” my mother said.
“But you’re talking. You’re moving. The cop thought you were alive.”
“No one really notices if women my age are dead or alive.”
That logic seemed solid. So, as was my tendency, I opted not to argue with my mother.
 “So what now?” I asked.
“We keep going.”
“Where?”
“The answer is the Grand Canyon!”
Those were the only words I had spoken to my mother since I found her dead. And that’s the moment I knew she had been laying there observing me as I watched game shows, baked cakes and ignored her rotting body.

 

I drove the Chevy into the fog aiming for the blur where my headlights met darkness. My mother found a radio station that alternated between news and gospel. The Interstate was nearly empty—us, the semis and a few weaving drunks. When I could drive no more, I checked into a motel. My mother managed to propel herself inside. She shed the sheet and lay in the room’s only bed with her back to me. I considered getting under the covers with her like we had done when I was five and my father left. The first time, my mother slipped under the sheets with such fluidity that I barely noticed the disturbance. She whispered all the things that troubled her into my ear then turned to face the wall.
“Put your arms around me,” she said. “Like you’re holding all my parts together.”
My body curled around hers like a small husk clinging to an overripe seed.
When I was twelve, I leaned over to kiss my mother and she informed me that my breath stank. The next day she handed me a bottle of Scope. The first time I swallowed Scope it was for kicks, because some kids at school were doing it for fun and fun was something. When I was thirteen and my mother found Jesus, she stopped coming to my bed. I kept drinking the mouthwash, the nightly glugs warming the place where she had once lay.
The motel lamp shone on my mother’s lumpy form. I joined her in bed and brushed back her frizzy hair. I brought my lips to her ear and saw that it had blurred nearly out of sight. I walked around the bed. My mother’s face looked the same except for the ear. Three fingers on her left hand had also blurred. I found blankets in the closet and made a pallet to sleep on. I would buy my mother a muumuu the next day. Between her wild hair and a flowy fabric, we could hide the holes in her body.

 

I woke up to find my mother kneeling at the foot of the bed over a Gideon Bible. By the bathroom sink, there was a small bottle of Listerine. Not my brand of choice, but I took it. I didn’t drink anymore, but I still gargled from time to time.
We resumed driving, the green rolling hills I had grown up with smoothing to dusty flatness. My mother busied herself with the Gideon Bible she had stolen, not speaking until we pulled over for gas.
“There’s a young woman over there who needs a ride,” she said.
I looked at woman—a girl really, probably twenty or so holding a sign that said “AMARILLO OR BUST!”—and clocked in all the signs my mother would miss. The hitchhiker’s glossy blond hair was cropped short; she wore a camouflage tank top that revealed toned upper arms; her right bicep was tattooed with entwined female gender symbols; she was braless; her nipples were hard; her shorts ended where the muscle of her calf began; at her feet was a guitar case decorated with rainbow flags and a sticker that said: “My Body, My Choice.”
“Are you sure it’s safe to pick up a stranger?” I asked.
“Jesus has put it on my heart to help her.”
I wondered why my mother wasn’t already in heaven if Jesus was holding up his end of the deal but I plodded over to the girl and offered her a ride. Our hands brushed as I took her baggage. Her palms were soft, her fingers calloused. She hopped in the back seat.
“Thank God!” the girl said. “I gotta play my ex’s wedding and I thought no one was gonna stop.”
“Thank Jesus, indeed,” my mother said. “He had a special purpose for putting you on our path.”
In the rearview mirror, I saw the girl’s brow knit.
“So tell me about this wedding,” my mother said. “What kind of church is it at?”
“Oh, Mary and Sabrina aren’t religious. They’re doing it at the brewery where they met.”
My mother drew in a sharp breath.
“You don’t mind if I have my Bible study?” she asked. And without waiting for a response she read aloud from the passage I knew she would—Genesis 19, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
I tried to drive steady. When I had my bakery, I’d developed a thriving business catering gay events. I never told my mother. When our town had its first gay wedding I was hired to bake the cake. I always considered it my masterpiece—a paradise-themed cascade of flowers, fruits, and songbirds with a topper of the couple holding hands under an apple tree. I was wheeling my creation from my van to the reception hall when I saw the protesters.
They were singing hymns and holding signs. “MARRIAGE = 1 MAN +  1 WOMAN.” “GOD HATES SODOMY.” And there was my mother, with a hand-painted sign that said: “LOVE THE SINNER, HATE THE SIN.” The protest was on my path and I couldn’t risk ruining the cake by forging another route. So I lowered my head and plowed through. I had almost passed the group when my mother called my name. She dropped her sign and mouthed words I couldn’t understand. I looked down and tried not to stumble. After I got the cake to the kitchen and in the hands of the wedding planner, I obsessed over what my mother’s lips had been forming. I narrowed it down to three phrases—I love you. You disappoint me. I’ll pray for you—which I replayed on a loop in my head. Alone in the kitchen, I scrambled through the pantry until I found cooking sherry. I pressed the bottle to my lips and glugged.

 

We were making decent time across Texas. My mother had begun praying aloud, begging for forgiveness and mercy in a world of sinners. I checked my rearview. The hitchhiker stared blankly out the window.
“Anyone hungry?” I asked.
My mother kept praying. The girl said nothing.
“You know we’re going to the Grand Canyon,” I said to the girl. “I’ve never been.”
My mother paused her prayer. “Its beauty is a testament to the mighty power of God.”
“I grew up near the mouth of the canyon,” the hitchhiker said. “You think it’s gonna be some amazing thing, but you get there and it’s just a hole. Who gives a shit? I got holes, you got holes, we all got holes.”
My mother resumed praying, asking God to cast the demons of profanity out of her car.
 “I really am hungry,” I said. “It’s like I got a hole in my stomach.”
We were near Amarillo and I’d begun to see billboards for Big Daddy’s Steakhouse: “HOME OF THE BIG PLATE CHALLENGE. FINISH A 72 OZ. STEAK AND YOUR MEAL’S ON US.”
“Let’s try that steakhouse,” Mom said.
I took the exit and began rehearsing in my head what I would say to the hitchhiker as soon as my mother was out of earshot. Something like: She’s not really so terrible. She’s just kinda sad, and the Jesus stuff is like an antidepressant, but one with some weird side effects, like saying mean shit about gays, but if you really truly needed something she’d be the first to give it to you. But yeah, I know that’s some hard shit to take and I’m sorry you were stuck hearing about women laying with women and eternal damnation. That’s gotta make you feel real bad about yourself. Trust me, I know. I know.
I pulled into the parking lot of Big Daddy’s Steakhouse, popped the trunk and put my hand on the hitchhiker’s shoulder.
“Look, I’m really sorry about my mother. She’s old and set in her ways and I certainly don’t share any of her viewpoints. Truth be told, I, myself, am actually—”
 “Whatever. If you feel that way, the time to speak was when I was trapped in the car.”
The hitchhiker grabbed her baggage and headed across the parking lot to the busy highway. I briefly wondered what would happen if I slipped out of my own life and followed her to where she was going. But my mother was gliding up the stairs to Big Daddy’s Steakhouse, her floral print muumuu fluttering behind her. I plodded slowly across the sea of parked cars to the restaurant, fishing around in my purse, making sure my bottle of Listerine was still there.

 

A host with a handlebar mustache wearing fake six shooters and an oversized cowboy hat showed us to our table. The walls were covered in Americana and taxidermy animals—steers, buffalo, jackrabbits. I took a seat under a framed Confederate flag poster. The flag was missing four stars. I knew that because I made a Confederate flag cake once for a client who requested a scene depicting Johnny Rebs laying waste to a Union camp. I was in the middle of my second DUI case and needed the money. So I did it, but I gave each Confederate soldier tiny man-boobs and the Union infantry massive dicks under their blue pants. Then I spat in the frosting as the mixer churned the butter and sugar together. I got high praise for that cake, those assholes said it was the best they ever had. But the feeling I was looking for eluded me. A rebellion isn’t a rebellion, I guess, if no one notices it ever happened.
When the waiter took our order, my mother didn’t bother looking at the menu.
“I’ll have the seventy-two ouncer!” she said.
The waiter ran to the front of a restaurant and clanged a bell.
“Saddle up, cowpokes, this little momma signed on for Big Daddy’s steak-tacular challenge!”
The whole dining room hooted and cheered. I tried not to roll my eyes too hard when my mother ordered the steak well-done and requested a bottle of Heinz 57. When the food was ready, the waiter appeared trailed by three cowgirls chanting: “Eat, Eat, Eat.” They set a timer for one hour and left us alone with the slab of beef.
My mother pushed her hair behind her shoulders and I studied her face for the first time that day. The whole left side—the best side, the one she unfailingly favored in photographs—had disintegrated into a blur, except for her mouth which had grown redder and more defined as she gnashed steak with her teeth—all still her own and a gleaming testament to the benefits of clean living, unlike my own which had crumbled after my liver gave out. Other parts of her body—one ear, half her neck, her left hand—had completely disappeared. She suddenly stopped eating.
“I forgot to say grace.”