I walk to work under a dull gray sky. Last I heard, there was still blue sky somewhere above Alaska. My brother and his wife went there, to live off the grid. I am gridlocked, travelling the same two miles back and forth every day. Work, home, work, home.
Today, I’m walking to work when I see her. There’s a woman on the street, fat gray tears falling like wet ashes. People avoid watching them slide down her cheeks. It’s not uncommon. People are used to it, but you should never ignore the damage around them.
“Do you know me?” she asks. She approaches random strangers, her dirty fingers grasping at their clothes. “You! Do you know me?”
Soon she approaches me, clutching at my t-shirt. Her fingers leave dirty finger tracks. “Do you know me?” she asks.
I take my hands and gently remove hers, holding them and looking at her so she knows I see her. “I’m sorry,” I tell her. “I don’t know you.” I walk on.
I shower in the women’s locker room, turning the water as hot as it will go. They’re strict about cleanliness, but I don’t mind. The water in my loft never gets above lukewarm. The steam rises and I suck it in, feel things break loose in my chest. I always breathe easier after this.
I towel off, braid my hair into a long plait that I wind up and pin to my head. All around me, the others do the same. We press our thumbs to the reader beside the laundry bin and it dispenses our pre -shift pill. It’s a stimulant to minimize our appetite and sharpen our attention to detail. It doesn’t matter if you stock materials or invent drugs that allow people to reinvent themselves, we’re all just the same here. Bodies with filth and bacteria, scrubbed clean, disinfected, worker bees ready to enter the hive.
Well, the real bees are dead. Pesticides. My dad said there was a time people did care, didn’t treat their lawns and let dandelions as yellow as the sun used to be, their yards thick with brilliant greens and golds. But those days are gone, like Dad.
I dress in the cotton pants and V-neck shirt provided, tie a cotton surgical cap around my head. Place paper covers over my sneakers. I look like a surgeon, but I’m just an inventory technician. I stock raw materials in the large electronic drawers for the designers. Researchers. Whatever you want to call them.
The cure for diabetes came from this very research facility, twenty years ago. Another company cured cancer the next year. Five years later, it became law you could only produce one child. Disease being eradicated had a pretty significant effect on overpopulation. Now medicine’s about beauty, satisfaction, comfort.
None of which I have. I’m a drone, a worker bee, not particularly important or useful. I live in a box stacked on top of another box on top of another box. I pay rent. I subside on nutrient meals, just add water and BOOM! All the necessary ingredients to survive, barely edible. Nothing like the ones who are gifted, the researchers, the executives, the politicians. I’m sure it’s all steak and caviar. Well, maybe not caviar. The oceans are pretty much shot through with poisons. No one eats fish anymore unless they grow in a tank.
I’ve been employed here a year. I move smoothly from machine to machine, replenishing what the first shift used up. Most of the other technicians are like me, female and young, thin and smooth skinned. You can be poor or ugly today and get by, but not both. If you end up cursed with both, then you end up in the wastelands, wearing hazmat suits and sifting through burnt soil.
“You!” Phillip calls. He raises his hand and waves in a way that can only be described as frantic. “Do you have N-63-A?”
I don’t need to check. I nod and slide it from the bottom row of the court. It’s a red powder, with little purple crystals inside. It’s pretty but it makes my eyes hurt. I hold it up, because sometimes the vowels and numbers they give all the compounds get mixed up, and they ask for the wrong one and then chew half your ass off about it. “Bring it!” he says, impatient.
I carry it over to him. He’s tall and lopsided, stooped over from the sadness he carries. He fell from a third story window and broke most of the bones in his body as a kid. It was before all the cures, but after they could reknit bones and regrow bones. Before they perfected it, obviously. He still limps, and I’ve seen him grimacing at the end of the night, rubbing his knuckles against his bad hip.
My little sister died ten years ago because we couldn’t afford the surgery to remove the benign tumor growing in her brain. It wasn’t even lethal. We were just too poor. Mom went next, when she blew her aorta apart. It had been weak down one side and thin as an overstretched balloon for a long time, but we didn’t know. My father went next, removed after the protests.
“See that right there?” Phillip says. Sweat sits in fat drops on his forehead. “The gray scoop?”
“The quarter cup? Yes,” I say.
“Fill it,” he says. He’s stirring something with a whisk, that’s simmering on an open flame. It’s ugly, gray, thick mud, but most of the things we make start that way. They add the pretty colors later. “Exactly, please. Not a grain less or more.”
I can fill a goddamn cup, I thought, but I do as he asks.
“Pour it in slowly,” he says.
I do as I’m told, like a good little girl. He doesn’t thank me but keeps stirring. Then he turns the flame down and turns to me. “Thank you,” he says. His eyes pale as a cloudless day.
I nod again and turn to leave, and he says, “what’s your name?”
“Jack,” I say.
“That’s a strange name for a young woman,” he says.
“Short for Jaqueline,” I say.
He says, “thank you, Jaqueline,” and when I walk away I can feel his eyes sliding over me.
Later, I receive an envelope with the meal pill we purchase or break, instead of having to go pay for mine.
Jack/Jaqueline-thank you for your assistance-P.
Every Friday, I stop at a little stand that sells the old-time nacho cheese, served over stale tortilla chips. It’s cheap and it’s nothing like the calorie free shit today. I think somewhere there must be a man just as obsessed with the past as my father, hoarding cans and cans of nacho cheese stacked on industrial shelves, keeping his memories alive.
I sit cross legged on the bench on the corner of Fourth St and Brexit Rd, and I drink a lukewarm beer with it. I don’t splurge, ever, so every week I have enough to get drunk once. Saturday is my only day off, so it’s always Friday night. The beer is hoppy and requires a conscious effort to swallow. Until the third one. On the third, I lean my head back and let it fall against the back of the bench. The sky is dull gray, overcast with thick dark clouds. It might rain, and then they will sound the sirens, and everyone will disappear inside.
I remember being suspended for hitting a kid who called my dad a loony by our assistant director at school. The kid sat there with blood leaking around toilet paper jammed up both his nostrils and the principal lectured me while his eyes swam up and down my legs. When he opened the door and excused me, he kept just enough space so I had to brush against him to leave. I could feel his want against the back of my body. It felt like power.
I didn’t go home right away. I laid under a tree at the local park and looked at the patch of blue sky visible at the very top of the gray. I thought about the principal, at least three times my age and his serious face, one of the men my father abhorred. The go alongs, he called them, the status quo. His desire made me swell my own. I learned to come that day, hot and panting, under the fantasy of authority.
I’ve gotten loose on the beer, warmth rising through my body. I sat up, spilling my beer a little. It’s Phillip, standing just off kilter. Something so minor you wouldn’t notice if you’d never seem him limp at the end of the day. “Shit,” I say. I brush the amber drops off my thigh. I have to look up and squint against the sky to see him.
“Phillip,” he says. “From work.”
“I know,” I say. I’m feeling the beer and it makes me a different kind off kilter. I tug my shorts down a little, so old the threads show more skin between them. It’s always hot here, and my tank tops sticks to me, too. “Hello.”
“Are you drunk?” he asks. He’s trying to joke, but it doesn’t come out quite right.
“A little,” I say. I can feel the warmth of the sun from that patch of blue that day still, the way I felt hot and itching under my skin. It’s been a year since the last time I fucked someone, a librarian who reminded me too much of my father, books hidden beneath the floorboards. “Are you slumming?”
His eyes wrinkle at the corners when he smiles. I can feel the steady pulse of want, strumming away. It’s always like this, I’m wired up all wrong. I always want the wrong thing. “This isn’t a slum,” he says.
I laugh out loud. “Sure, I bet your place is around the corner.”
I can see you not looking at my legs, Phillip. I see you.
“Is that good?” he asks, looking at my beer instead.
“So good,” I say.
“May I buy you another?”
We sit on the bench, separate, the kind of separate where you both know the exact distance between touching.
“Do you like it at Klingler?” he asks.
“It’s a job,” I say. I am already halfway through my beer. Slow down, Jack. “Do you?”
“I suppose,” he says. “I’m good at it.”
“Yeah, but your job is important. I fiddle around with stocking things. It’s boring.”
“Do something else, then,” he says. “Model, maybe. Become a spokesperson. You’re very beautiful. I’m sure there are other things you can do.”
“It’s not that easy,” I say. “My fathers on the black list. He was a protestor.”
Phillip looks down, switching his beer from hand to hand. “Ah,” he says. I can see his discomfort.
“What about your dad?” I ask. “I bet he was a researcher. Or a doctor.”
Phillip laughs, shakes his head. “Politician.”
“They are the worst,” I say before I catch myself. A little bit of my father sneaks out when I’m not looking.
“Yeah, they are,” he says. “He never forgave me for falling out the window. ‘I spent all that money to fix you and you’re still not right,’ he used to tell me. I guess that’s why I went into research. I wanted to help people be perfect. No one accepts anything else anymore.”
“Yeah, well, only the rich are perfect. I can’t bloody afford a vitamin.”
“You look perfect to me,” he says. He’s staring.
I cock my head at him, and I don’t smile. I put the lip of the bottle to my mouth, and ask, “do I?”
Time is fluid when I’m drunk. It flows along, losing parts of itself. Yet it keeps tick-tick-ticking even when I’m stopped.
When I catch up, Phillip is underneath me, naked. I’m rocking on top of him, and his eyes are squeezed shut, his features written blank by what’s happening.
“Oh, God,” he repeats, stuck on a moment. Maybe it happens to him too, the slipping.
Men always cry to God at the height of pleasure. Not me. If there was a God, he’s long gone now.
After, I lay face down while he runs his fingers down the knots in my spine. “You are perfect. Your ass is perfect,” he says. “How did I get so lucky, for you to look at me?”
The truth is because I was drunk, and I’m also fucked up. I crave attention from men like Phillip. It’s a temporary reprieve from a permanent emptiness.
I don’t say anything, and I have already forgiven him when he leaves.
Work is still endless, but tonight, like all the other nights since I fucked Phillip, it’s punctuated by stolen moments. The brush of his hand on my back, the look across the room. That’s what does it for me. The wrong of it all. The shame I should feel, I do feel, that cannot outweigh the need.
Tonight, he comes to me after work, hungry. He is bigger than me, broad, tall. He encompasses me. In my mind, he loves me. He says he loves me. That we can run away one day.
In my mind, I’m waiting for the betrayal. How will it happen?
He drops his mouth to my nipples, and the shock wave sweeps over me, something new. I’ve never been much for sensitivity and I have to cry out, bite down on his shoulder. I come hard, shaking, trying to take more and more of him.
“Jack,” he says. “My God. You undo me.”
But I’m not listening. I’m counting the days in my head.
“There’s no goddamn way,” Dad said, when Mom told him it was time for the implant. “They’re not putting anything in my kid. It’s just another way they control us, these motherfuckers.”
He had a friend, a local doctor hovering on the edge of being disbarred, who faked the certificate, declared me infertile until the small foreign body regulating hormones disappeared.
Mom died before it happened.
Did he think about what would happen later? Every month, I stuff strips I’ve fashioned into plugs inside me. I carry sealed bags for work, so no one might smell the fertility on me. I wash them by hand in the stained sink with its rust orange circle and dry them myself, over the lip of the tub, under T-shirts and underwear to hide them. Just in case.
They came after the protest at the hospital. Dad circulated petitions with pictures of my sister and mother. DEAD BY THEIR HAND, it read, complete with a picture of the President, Vice President, and the Governor of our state. He was gaining support. The neighborhoods rallied. Strikes were called. Big men lost money, and then they came with guns and syringes full of liquid medicine.
He left drooling, one lip sagged open. “Let him go,” my brother said, holding my hand. “They’ll take us too.”
“Jack?” Phillip asks. “What’s wrong?”
“My father, he was not a fan of lot of things,” I tell him.
“He wouldn’t have liked me,” Phillip says in response.
“No,” I say. Phillip’s blood, mingled with mine, our DNA strands wound together. “I think-I think I’m late.”
“Late for what?” Phillip asks.
I touch my lower abdomen, close my eyes. I’ve been so stupid. And yet-is this the answer? “My dad never got me the implant,” I say softly. “He forged the certificate. Actually, a like-minded man did.”
Panic. I’ve seen it. It reflects back from my mirror every day, at the thought of all the todays stretching into tomorrows, life stuck on repeat.
Six months ago, I stole some pills. Easy to do when you’re invisible. One of the few female researchers left the newly minted pills loose, snuck out for a quick bathroom break. It’s a pill they use on men like my father. It erases memories.
“What?” Phillip sits up and the sheet falls from his chest. The hair on his chest is long and silver, soft like I imagine a baby’s hair to be. “What are you saying?”
Panic in Phillip’s eyes. “You can’t be serious. Why wouldn’t you tell me?” He stands up, grabs his pants, starts to yank on them. His bad hip catches, and I feel it. When you love someone, you feel everything. His foot catches on his pants, and he stumbles, falls. He looks so ridiculous on the floor puddled in his pants, I love him more for it. But he does not feel the same. Embarrassment stains him from the neck up.
“I didn’t think,” I say.
“Are you fucking stupid?” he hisses.
We all wear masks. Phillip’s has come off. But the thing is, underneath he is nothing like before. Most of us bear a likeness to our false face, but Phillip’s face twists him into someone I don’t recognize.
I could have said, but you said you loved me. But I know you can never make someone hear what they don’t want to. Instead, I say, “I didn’t think.”
He struggles up, pulls his pants up. “I always wanted to be with someone like you,” he says. “How very stupid of me.”
“Someone beautiful, someone who didn’t care about all the things the people I know do,” he says.
“The reason I don’t care about those things, Phillip,” I say, “is because I don’t have access to any of them.”
“You’re trying to trap me,” he says, and his eyes dart around like the hungry wolves that ring the edges of the city.
His gaze settles on me. “I can’t marry you,” he says. “you don’t understand my father.”
“You’re forty years old! He can’t control you! You are the loneliest, most miserable man I’ve ever met.”
“Have you ever met yourself?” he says.
I feel a wound splinter open in my chest. “Phillip.” There’s burning in my eyes. For a moment, it feels as if it’s raining in my eyes, but it’s just the salt of tears. I’d forgotten how they felt.
“I gave you a pill,” he says.
“I saw you. You think no one sees you, but we do. The men see you, at least. I bet most of them think about you, when they go home. Or one of the others, something young and pretty and free underneath them. You don’t know what it’s like, to be us. For me it was you, it was always you, with your hair creeping out from under your cap, and the way you were so disinterested in everything, and your body, your goddamn perfect body you never even tried before.” He stops short, shakes his head. “I sent you a pill once. Do you remember?”
I did. To Jack/Jaqueline. “What did you do?” I whisper, and my hands curve around my belly.
“I gave you the pill to love, so you would love me.” He puts his hands to his temples. “It’s not you, telling me you love me. It’s C-4, G5P, and a touch of N1. It’s nothing.”
I feel lead in the ass he’s praised so much, dragging on me down, until I find myself sitting on the bed. It surprises me. “You idiot,” I say. Something inside me is on fire. The smoke searches for air. “I’ve always loved men like you, since I was in school. You don’t control me!”
“You,” he says, buttoning his shirt, “are a lot more like your father than you think, darling.”
I have nothing left to say, so I say nothing. The door slams behind me.
The pill to forget sits in front of me. It’s blue like the sky used to be.
I have thought about this before. Forgetting forever. I could take this pill, and forget the splintered wound burning in my chest, exhale all the smoke in my body. I’m not sure what would happen to me, but would I care? Would I wander the streets, asking people “Do you know me?”
Deep inside, I have a core, like the inner crust of the earth. Liquid fire.
I’m not ready to forget.
I have a better idea.
I ignore Phillip and he ignores me. Sometimes, I can feel his eyes on me, waiting. He’s the waiting sort. Phillip isn’t brave enough to do anything on his own. Now that he’s exposed, I can see his whole life unspooled in front of me. Poor little broken boy, unloved by his father. His mother a silent witness. I know all about silent mothers.
High expectations, just falling short. Still, better than average. Good work ethic. Never going to be a lawmaker like his daddy but going places never the less. Growing older. He wants the women his father won’t approve of. He can’t find himself in any of the ones Daddy likes. A small act of rebellion, a heart guarded by limits. People like Phillip and I, we have our rules, things we impose on ourselves, limitations on the love we feel we shouldn’t receive. There is a common theme between fatherless boys and motherless girls, whether they were physically present or not.
Love me, love me, love me, but not like that, I told my librarian. I can’t allow it.
I walk home alone, still thinking about the pill. About my plan.
And my escape.
Phillip and I meet at the same bench. It’s two weeks since the night in my loft. I made him ask.
“Jack,” he says. He doesn’t know whether to hug me or not.
I sit beside him, equal distance from his body, and the edge of the bench. Even though I want to feel the warmth of his body one more time.
This is goodbye, but he doesn’t know it yet.
I have gotten him a beer, and me a lemonade. For the first time I’m glad that the beer here is lukewarm, because I purchased it an hour ago. Even that was cutting it close-the pill to forget doesn’t dissolve easily. I can’t stop eyeing the foam on top, the hue tinged turquoise. Will he notice?
He holds a small envelope in his hands.
“I’m sorry about all this,” he says.
No, but you will be.
“Ok,” I say. I don’t apologize.
I hand him his drink.
“Thank you,” he says. He takes a drink, looking out across the street. He holds the envelope in one hand.
“What’s in the envelope? Hush money?” I ask.
He chuffs. I’ve never heard anyone do it but that’s what he does. “No,” he says. “It’s a pill.”
I already knew that, but you never show your hand, Dad said. He was a poker man, won all sorts of bets. He didn’t collect half the time. None of his friends were any better off than the rest of us.
“Jack,” he says. He takes another drink. I watch his Adam’s apple rise, fall, rise again. “We can’t be together. And you can’t raise a baby on your own. You’re barely surviving as it is.”
He’s right about that. The only reason they let the people like us marry and have a child is to keep the ranks full. I think this and feel the strands of my DNA that belong to my father pull taut.
“You want me to murder our baby?” I say it not loud enough to be overheard, but loud enough to make him nervous.
He looks around. “Jack, keep your voice down.”
“But that’s what you want.”
He looks at me with his eyes, melancholy there but self-preservation casting a much wider net. I can see his happiness ensnared by the webs his father spun, that he continues to weave.
“There’s no other way,” he says.
I can see that he sees that it way. I feel sadder about that than anything.
“Ok,” I say. “ok.”
“You understand,” he says.
I start crying, and it’s not fake. Maybe scheduled, but not fake. I sound cold-hearted, I know, but inside there is so much that strains against my better judgement. I have the heart of a lion caged in the body of a woman who doesn’t matter.
The crying causes him to look away and take several swallows of his beer. It’s over halfway gone.
I take the envelope.
“I never want to see you again,” I say.
He hangs his head. He changes tunes like a professional musician. “I can’t bear the thought of that,” he says. He finishes his beer.
I stop crying. I have a switch inside. This I did not learn from my father, but my mother. When my father got on a roll about the various injustices our people endured, her face grew shutters that locked up tight.
It’s always been us and them.
“You don’t have a choice,” I say. I open the envelope. Inside, it contains a small white pill. It should be a different color, I think. Red or black or gray, any of the colors that are rage and passion and pain. I take it out and stare at it.
“You shouldn’t take it here,” he says. “It works quickly.”
I laugh. I can’t help it. It’s not at him. It’s all this bitterness that spreads wings above him, painting him the color of ash. “I’m not taking it all,” I tell him.
“Jack- “he says.
I interrupt. “How was your drink, Phillip?”
“What did you do?” he says. Perhaps he knows me better than I thought.
“Have you heard of the pill to forget?” I ask. I drop the one he gave me and take my sneaker, crush it into dust. I think part of my heart must be with it.
He went white, whiter than the moon used to be.
Before he can say that I didn’t, I tell him, “Yes, I did. I gave it to you. You might see me again, but you won’t remember.”
“You can’t,” he whispers.
“I can, and I did,” I say. I stand up.
He remains seated. He’s shaking. “You don’t know what you’ve done,” he says. “You don’t know how many people will die because of you!”
“Don’t be dramatic, Phillip. It doesn’t suit you.”
“I made it,” he cries.
“Made what, Phillip?” I lean close, because his voice is fading.
“The pill to live forever,” he whispers.
I straighten up and look above at the sky. To live forever in this place is something so close to hell I cannot properly define it.
“You’ve got it wrong,” I tell him. “I saved them.”
I leave Phillip on the bench. It’s a rule of mine. You can never look back.
The bus leaves at 9:12 AM. From Lake City, I’ll head to Detroit. The train leaves Detroit at 11:15 AM. I’ll go to the Canadian border, go off the grid. Maybe I’ll find my brother. There are colonies up there, they say, full of the men and women like my father and brother.
Perhaps I’m my father’s daughter after all.
I’m digging in my backpack for my bus ticket, when I hear his voice.
For a moment, my heart stops. There’s no air to be found.
Then I hear him saying, “do you know me? Do you know me?”
My hand finds its way to the tiny bump pushing my jeans down. The ending to the story lies inside me. Or maybe it’s the beginning.
Phillip touches my upper arm. “Please, ma’am. Do you know me?”
“I never knew you,” I tell him.
I walk past, my eyes on the future.
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