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Story — From the May 2017 issue

My First Car

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Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

The common room was dominated by an enormous washer-dryer and a large refrigerator. Pallets and cribs were scattered about. There were few toys. Mrs. B was not an advocate of structured play.

When she saw me walking by, looking all around and obviously a stranger to the community, she hurried out to ask if I would be willing to provide some assistance at her establishment. When I said I had no experience with babies Mrs. B said that was all right, I’d had the experience of being one myself once. Mrs. B explained she hadn’t been doing this forever, just for the past five years after she’d been abandoned by Mr. B and had to find employment. Mr. B had liked to say he wouldn’t ever leave her because he didn’t want to have to kiss her goodbye, though he’d always said this in a jolly manner. She’d never felt that they had any more problems than the next couple but he’d taken off anyway, become a missing person. Mrs. B said that while she could run her establishment with one arm tied behind her back she was beginning to resent the babies and that wasn’t fair to them. She had been praying for her resentment to cease but she felt she needed a little time off so she could pray more powerfully. She didn’t think it would take long if she could concentrate fully outside the babies’ presence.

Mrs. B said her feelings of resentment and despair had begun when she learned that her dream of visiting the Great Barrier Reef to see the corals releasing their trillions of swirling and dancing eggs and sperm under a full moon would never be realized. She said she imagined that a young person like myself might find it unusual that an old woman who hadn’t once left this tough, humble, actually quite squalid town would harbor such a wish, but she’d wanted to witness this phenomenon, this blizzard of aqueous stars, this mysterious rite of dazzling affirmation, ever since she’d read about it in a magazine. It wasn’t long ago they’d discovered that corals even did anything of the sort and boatloads of people were paying to go out there and bear witness. Mrs. B’s dream was to fly to Australia and take a seventy-two-hour scuba certification course and descend into the glory of it all. It was supposed to be a sight pretty much to end all sights.

Then someone told her that the Great Barrier Reef was dying. She could have strangled this person. She still would cross the street rather than greet her. The situation was that the Reef was still there but wasn’t alive. It was no more interesting than a kitchen countertop that stretched for hundreds of miles. All the little eyes on the surface of the coral — they didn’t call them eyes but that’s what they were — that knew when the full moon was bathing the sea in a blue voluptuous light had been extinguished. They were still keeping a few pieces of coral alive in an undisclosed location in the hope that they could graft them onto something hosty and, over time, on a smaller stage, re-create the spectacle that once had been, before sewage and pesticides had had their way with it. Those little bits of coral, which Mrs. B had read were actually colonies of individual organisms, had no idea they’d escaped death but were no longer alive in any significant way, but Mrs. B did know this and it made her mad.

She pressed the magazine into my hands.

“We are in a permanent state of destroying the world,” she said. “I wouldn’t harm a single hair on any one of these babies’ heads, but I’ve grown indifferent to them, and indifference leads somewhere, you know. It always does.”

As she spoke, the babies were crawling around on the carpet, paying her no mind.

One of the babies, she said, never cried.

“There’s got to be something wrong with that one. You gotta be able to cry. Eyes need tears to work right. I should pray for that one and I should pray for little Alice too, the quiet one there in the blue crib. Her heart beats only sixty times a minute. When her father, Rocky, told me that, I said, Why that’s awful, but how many times is it supposed to beat? And he said a hundred so you can see there’s concern there. It’s a heart valve concern. The mother’s practically made herself an invalid with worry. Doesn’t do anything but worry, in fact — that and keep the heat up too high in their apartment. Rocky works hard to keep her in that kind of heat.”

Mrs. B held Rocky in high regard. He was the only parent who actually had a job, riding shotgun in a helicopter, herding wild horses. He was generous but had an impractical streak. One week he brought an expensive box of heart-shaped chocolates to the Baby Village, and the next, little shirts and pants in a camouflage pattern for all the babies. His employer had required him to purchase tinted glasses, a necessary work-related expense — he already had a gun — because in certain circumstances on bright days, the rotor blades would strobe the sunlight so relentlessly that a fellow would get confused, disoriented, and wonder what he was doing up there herding horses and shooting the ones that stumbled and fell.

At each day’s end, Rocky would arrive promptly at the closing hour. He’d pick up his quiet tiny Alice and nuzzle her and cover her flaccid puppy tummy with kisses. He was always the first to retrieve his baby, just as the parents of Mateo and Fresco and Jordan and Kali took turns being the last.

I agreed to watch the babies while Mrs. B prayed. There was no reason not to. She once again assured me it would be a week at most, though maybe longer because she wasn’t praying for herself alone but for all humankind, for what if more and more people started finding babies not worth the candle? What if such disinterest spread?

She arranged for my lodging at a motel down the road called the It’ll Do. It had been around for some time and been known as the It’ll Do from its inception.

I had been caring for the babies to the best of my abilities for two days and there had been no obvious mishaps. In the evening I would return to my room and lie on the bed where I tried to do my thinking. I was not thinking reliably that evening, distracted by the sound of a radio in the adjoining room. A musician from a band I’d never heard of was being interviewed.

This is by no means a political album.

It isn’t?

No. But it is, among other things, a nostalgia album, a wartime album, a catastrophe album, and a recollection-of-innocence album.

A minty-green phone on the table began ringing.

“Shhh,” I said to the phone. I made that sound at Mrs. B’s. It was supposed to mimic the ebb-and-pull buoyancy of the womb when whispered correctly. Mrs. B had many theories about babies, like never ever vaccinate them, a vaccination’s nothing more than a tracking device.

But I picked up the phone finally and said nothing.

“Hello? This is Marilyn at the front desk. Cinnabar?”

“Hi.”

“I was wondering if you wanted to go to the Día de los Muertos parade with me. We’re going to have it every month now. Traditionally of course it’s the first two days in November but we all figured why wait, right, and why should just the Mexicans have it? There are floats and masks and altars on wheels and stuff. No bonfires because no wood, right. Tires are an unacceptable substitute.”

“A parade?”

“Yeah. People come from all over. It’s kind of addictive. Excuse me for a sec . . . Sir, this is the fourth key card I’ve swiped for you since you checked in and I won’t be permitted to do it again. Sorry . . . I’m back . . . hold on . . . It’s not that they’re worth their weight in gold, sir, it’s a security issue. Sorry, God, I can’t wait to get out of here. Anyway, you shouldn’t miss tonight.”

By the dumpster outside my window there was a cat with its head in a jar.

“You looked as though you needed a friend,” Marilyn said. “I don’t mean that in a bad way.”

“There’s a cat outside with its head stuck in a jar.”

“He’s been impossible to catch. Every effort has been made. I can put you in another room if you want. It’s sad, isn’t it? So I’ll pick you up in half an hour and we’ll drive downtown?”

Marilyn’s car was an immense faded Oldsmobile with a leaky radiator. She had to top it off with a hose before we left.

“You know how you can fix that?” I said. “You drop a raw egg in it.”

“In the radiator?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

Marilyn laughed. “I’m not going to do that.”

We parked outside a steel-shuttered bank and walked in the direction of drumming. None of the buildings were more than four stories tall but they loomed darkly over us.

“There are snipers up there,” Marilyn said. “Isn’t that spooky? They haven’t shot anybody yet though.”

We glimpsed the first grinning skeletons weaving among rolling altars, bearing flowers and burning candles. Huge papier-mâché heads, their faces locked in merry rictus, nodded atop wooden poles attached to the sides of marchers’ backpacks. There were coffins, and stuffed animals of every kind. The planet itself rolled by, fissured in red and plastered with Band-Aids, hauled by lean, glittering men on stilts.

“There’s Mother Earth,” Marilyn said, “which is pretty partisan, I’m surprised they allowed that in. You’re supposed to avoid making statements.”

Skeletons pushed strollers and towed wagons carrying sleeping children, their faces powdered white and their pajamas painted to express the cradle of ribby bones.

“There’s La Catrina,” Marilyn said, “with the hat of flowers. She’s death’s beauty queen.”

Skeletons bowed and preened. Some held aloft framed photographs of people posing beside giant sunflowers, dead bears, waxed cars, photographs of people embracing in waist-deep water, people amid rubble.

A skeleton carried a banner: the beginning is near.

For a while I allowed Marilyn to lead me but shortly we were separated and I walked alone. The crowds on the sidewalk started moving with the parade, passing empty lots sliced like slabs of cake from the windowless sides of buildings. A projector cycled some photographs of the dead against the walls. Some were younger than me. Had they died looking like that, spared the disturbances of time? Or was this just how those who loved them wanted to remember them? The older people looked less credulous and assured, but there was no impoverishment of spirit on display. I watched the projected images for a long time, the crowds streaming around me, so long that the images began repeating themselves.

Every morning there was free breakfast in a room off the lobby. Pastel-colored flakes in a dispenser. A pitcher of grayish milk. Guests could make their own waffles if they were over the age of twelve.

Marilyn looked at me resentfully. “Well you lit out didn’t you. That wasn’t very nice. You’d probably rather date one of those sniper boys, one of those goggled high-velocity boys.”

“Gee, no,” I said.

“You want some coffee?”

“Coffee would be good.”

“I’d have to make it,” Marilyn said, making no attempt to do so.

The complimentary breakfast room overlooked a dirt triangle encircled by spruce stumps in which fanciful faces had been carved. A man walked by swinging a machete.

“I hate that machete,” Marilyn said. “He knows I hate that thing and he likes to tease me about it. He says it’s just another tool from the toolshed that has its use from time to time.”

“Did he carve those stumps?”

“Planchette? An artist? He has no more artistic talent than that plate of doughnuts there. Oh, all the doughnuts are gone. You’re a late riser, aren’t you? What time do you have to go work for those babies anyway?”

“His name’s Planchette?”

“Yeah it is. Bobby Planchette. But that name’s no stranger than yours. I’ve never heard an odder name. How did you get it?”

“My mother gave it to me.”

“I bet you’re not all that fond of it. I like my name. It doesn’t give a hint as to who I am and frustrates any attempt to know me as a woman or a personality. Marilyn,” she said with satisfaction.

Bobby Planchette reappeared, the machete still dangling comfortably at his side. His other hand held the remnants of a jar. He stood at the window, waggling the broken jar at us and grinning.

“That was one lucky kitty, if I’m translating correctly,” Marilyn said. “Why don’t you come over to our place for dinner sometime? That would be nice. Do you want a magazine to look at while you’re watching the babies? I could loan you a magazine.”

Oddly, the magazine Marilyn entrusted to me was the same one that had come near to changing Mrs. B’s thinking, the one with the photographs of the corals and their milky cataracts of eggs replying to the moon. The magazine was seven years old.

There was also an article on apiaries, on the decorated wooden panels of apiaries that had proved highly popular with collectors because the loving beekeepers of distant and formerly superstitious lands didn’t paint them anymore. The original purpose of the panels was to guide the bees to their proper homes. When they made the mistake of entering the wrong hive they were considered alien intruders and killed at once, so for a few hundred years the beekeepers drew pictures for their safety and edification. Then they stopped, as if they no longer cared whether their bees made the occasional fatal mistake. A few fatal mistakes weren’t the end of the world.

There were photographs of some of the panels. They featured the sun, or trees laden with fruit. There was a beautiful woman with curly golden hair and a red devil with rubbery-looking skin and a beard and a pitchfork. Also described but not shown, because it was in the hands of a private collector who guarded it zealously, was a rare Islamic series that depicted the ten creatures who share paradise with Mohammed — the ant, the whale, the ram, the calf, the camel, the cuckoo, the ox, the donkey, the white horse, and the dog named Qitmir — each of which signified another true and proper home.

On the fourth day Mrs. B came out of a little room that was separated from the washer-dryer by a beach towel and walked unsteadily to the sink where she drank several glasses of water. She did not greet me or acknowledge the babies though she did raise one finger as if to say: Not yet.

Then she returned to the space behind the beach towel. I had never gone back there. I didn’t know what was there.

Rocky arrived promptly as always at day’s end and told me that he and little Alice and maybe his fiancée would be moving on as the job was finished. It was seasonal employment, and management hadn’t made that clear. Later there’d be predator control — hopefully wolves — but he’d have to reapply. More men wanted to shoot wolves than horses, you didn’t have to be a brain surgeon to know that. He nuzzled his little Alice like he always did and I gave him back what was left in the box of fancy chocolates, as I knew Mrs. B would want me to.

On the sixth day, Mrs. B emerged once more. “Poor old Rocky,” she said when I told her, “and that poor child. But I never understood why sixty times a minute was so bad. Your heart wouldn’t wear out so fast, you’d think. Do you know the heart has four chambers? Four chambers, it sounds so elegant.”

Mrs. B’s praying had been successful enough for her to return full-time to her duties, refreshed.

“Did you miss me, my adorable ones?” she crooned.

The babies looked at her noncommittally.

“They are who they are, and you’ve got to accept that,” she said. “I was just disappointed about the reef, the Great Barrier Reef. I was being selfish, I wasn’t looking out for my own kind but it made me feel funny with all those coral castles being gone. Now, I have a question. Did you have any trouble with the washing machine? Sometimes it just skips the rinse cycle and those little clothes come out stiff as boards.”

I sat in the back of the Oldsmobile. Marilyn was driving and Bobby sat beside her.

“This is the girl I was telling you about, who wanted to put a raw egg in the radiator,” Marilyn said. She raised her eyes to the rearview mirror, seeking me out. “Me and Bobby are common-law.”

“I would compare our love to . . . a little campfire,” Bobby said. “So, Cinnabar, what kind of terrorist-immigrant name is that?”

“She’s no immigrant, she just doesn’t talk much.”

“Barfly, bar none, bar the window, bar the door . . . You’re not even a redhead. How did you get here anyway? By way of the great desert? You didn’t come across Bishop Pike’s vibe, did you?”

“Bishop who?”

“Bobby’s got a boner for Bishop Pike, just want to warn you.”

“I’m merely interested in where faith and grief lead people,” Bobby said gravely. “Bishop Pike was a hipster cleric from the century before. His son was a suicide and the bishop was always trying to talk to him, to contact him. And at last through this medium, he did manage to get in touch with the kid. What was the medium’s name, dearest?” he asked Marilyn.

She sighed. “Miss Ena Twig.”

“That always slays me. So he got in touch and the kid kept saying the same things: I wish I could have worked out my problems in more familiar surroundings. I wanted a way out and realize there is no way out. The bishop couldn’t get any more out of him. He wanted to hold his boy in his arms again, not just to hear this same shit over and over, so he went off into the desert with the intention of finding him there and communicating with him on a clearer channel.”

“It was via a mushroom,” Marilyn said.

“He disappeared into the desert. But they found him after three days. It wasn’t as though he totally disappeared. They found his remains, his container, like.”

“It wasn’t our desert,” Marilyn said. “It was a different one.”

“She is so literal. That’s why she’s discontent.”

“I just mean,” Marilyn said loudly, “that it held more promise. It wasn’t sucky. It might have had oases. Things could happen there, not like here.”

“Exactly,” Bobby said serenely. He eased down on the seat and put his feet up on the wide dashboard. His filthy sneakers were dotted with paint or blood.

“You called it a residual puddle once instead of remains.”

“Yeah,” he said, pleased. “A residual puddle.”

“Oh, shut up,” Marilyn muttered.

The car seats were covered in a hard plastic in which there were flecks of fool’s gold. The land gaped at us as we rumbled along. Something long and furred was nailed to a post.

“I just mean what’s here has lost its dignity is what I’m saying,” Marilyn said.

“ ‘All the world is but a glass in which we see God,’ ” I said. “ ‘There is not so poor a creature but may be thy glass to see God in.’ ”

Bobby’s feet shot off the dash as he swiveled to look at me. “That is exquisite. That yours?”

“Oh, no, no. It’s John . . . ”

“But you said it so sincerely it belongs to you.”

“John . . . ”

“Who gives a fuck, right?” He resumed his position. “When do you intend to put on the turn signal?” he asked Marilyn.

“There’s nobody behind me.”

He reached across her and wrenched the slender wand, which was also flecked with glitter, upward.

“Don’t break it!” Marilyn screamed.

They turned toward a clutch of trailers under a single, violently bright light pole.

He said quietly, “You’ve got to get into the habit of using turn signals to indicate that you’re about to slow down and change directions, and it doesn’t matter if you perceive that there is no one behind you. Someone’s going to be behind you one of these days.” He said to me, “I taught her to drive.”

“No, he didn’t,” Marilyn said.

“In any case, someone is always back there, as you well know.”

“Bobby thinks Death’s behind us, an arm’s length back and to the left. And he says that’s a good thing because when you feel real blue and think everything’s going wrong for you and you’re being crushed and wrung out by life, like if you have to clean up the mess they make around the waffle maker one more time or you go flip the rooms and they’ve left glasses of piss all around the bed, if you think your life just hates you and is trying to kill you, you can turn to your death and ask him if this is so, that you’re crushed and wrung out and finished.”

“And your death will tell you that you’re wrong,” Bobby said in a melodic voice. “That you’re not finished because nothing really matters outside his touch. Your death will tell you: ‘I haven’t touched you yet.’ ” His face brightened and relaxed.

“Yup,” Marilyn said.

“I got my sources, too,” he declared.

The step up to the trailer was a block of cement.

“They say cement isn’t recyclable,” Marilyn said, “but we’re recycling this.”

“We’re not recycling it, we’re reusing it.” He pushed ahead of us into the stifling interior.

“I bet you’re thinking, ‘Gee, I’m surprised they haven’t killed each other long before now,’ ” Marilyn said to me. “Because sometimes I think that, that we have and now we’re just two chisos.

“Ghosts,” Bobby said. He had arranged browning slices of apples and bananas on a plate. He took three glasses from the sink, squinted at them, determined they were clean enough, and filled them with beer.

“When I first came here, I really hated it,” Marilyn said. “Now I just don’t like it.”

“Who else lives here?” I asked. None of the other trailers appeared to be occupied.

“Bunch of losers,” Bobby said. “A vast ganglion of the D.N.F. Nags broken down on the racetrack of life. The Did Not Finish, every goddamned one of them.” He refilled his glass. “So, Cinnabar, you toxic? After they ripped up the grassland they tried to mine ore around here for the mercury.”

“History enrages Bobby,” Marilyn said placidly.

“Cinnabar is toxic,” Bobby said. “It’s right up there in the top five. Maybe even number one.”

“Is mercury part of uranium?” Marilyn asked.

“You should feel right at home around here.”

“Mercury’s not part of uranium, right?” Marilyn said.

“They bomb, they bury, they drill, they mine. This whole area is designated a zone of sacrifice.”

“Oh, it is not,” Marilyn said.

He stared at her.

“Don’t give me that look. I didn’t choose to live here. I’m trying to make the best of it.” To me she said, “They suggested or recommended or advised that it be designated a zone of sacrifice but then it didn’t happen. Nobody uses the term but Bobby.”

“I love that term,” Bobby said. “And this is a fully realized sacrificial landscape. Right here where we are.”

“It’s quiet out here,” Marilyn said. “I like the quiet, but not too much of it. I’m not one of those people, though, who needs the white noise, like Hazel, who’s at the desk when I’m not, like now. She keeps the radio on real low and doesn’t turn it off when I come back on shift. I say, ‘Turn off the darn radio, why don’t you,’ and she says, ‘Oh, you can leave it on, I don’t care.’ ”

“All right now,” Bobby said. “Calm yourself. Don’t go off on Hazel.”

“I hate her,” Marilyn moaned. “She has this little child who plays with matches, but does she even notice? No. Sometimes I imagine this obviously disturbed child pulling one of those long wooden matches from the Diamond box while she’s sleeping and dreaming her pathetic dreams and then I see her in flames, literally in flames.”

“That’s literally impossible,” Bobby said.

“No, I do.”

“The world is rotting beneath our feet and you’re obsessed with the night clerk.”

“I’m the night clerk sometimes. She’s not the night clerk.”

“The belief in a boundaryless human future is dead. We have exceeded the limits of acceptable destruction and diminishment. The misfortunes we’ve brought upon ourselves will soon reduce this world to ashes, out of which a new way will arise. What is the only thing we know about this new way?”

Marilyn gazed at him.

“We know only that it will appear monstrous and terrifying to those whose wretched traditions it supersedes,” he continued quietly.

“It’s easier just to think about Hazel, I know,” Marilyn said.

“Gotta catch yourself,” Bobby said. “In your case over and over again.”

There was no more food or drink so Marilyn gathered together the plates and glasses. “Should I wash or pitch? I struggle with this decision just about every night. Now’s about the time you should say, ‘Thank you for sharing what you have with me.’ We’re like peasants in a Russian fairy tale. You’re the traveler and we accept you, we don’t hound you back into the desert or into the black wood, throwing bread with needles in it after you. We accept you but you can’t accept us because you’re a debutante. Isn’t she a debutante, Bobby?”

“Marilyn’s getting worn out. She loves socializing but it takes a lot out of her.”

I considered the possibility that they were going to leave me here, that this would be my life now, in this listing, stifling trailer, my journey interrupted. Easy as that, the exchange. It would be years before I could bewitch another to take my place. By then I would have forgotten that it was even possible.

“You could stay here and we would get to be the one who was traveling with no purpose,” Marilyn said. “That would be so inspirational.”

“You could exercise that looking-glass shit real well with the D.N.F.s,” Bobby said.

“I could,” I agreed.

“Oh you’re lovely, you really are,” Marilyn said. “I’m just messing with you a little because you’re so lovely.” Her face grew flat with suppressed tears. “I’m subject to mood swings,” she confessed.

Bobby was not to accompany us back to the motel.

“I won’t say adios,” he said to me, “but I will state the obvious. All action is going to be useless.”

“Bobby’s a thinker, and I love him to pieces,” Marilyn said as we drove away, “but he’s not very functional.”

The old car swept haughtily through the dark.

Marilyn didn’t employ the turn signal when she turned toward the It’ll Do.

“Why should I show Death where I’m going,” she said.

There was a ripped shirt and a discarded hypodermic needle in the space next to Reserved.

“Bobby’s supposed to pick up things like that as part of his janitorial duties but he refuses to, so there they sit. I don’t blame him. He’s a thinker. Human beings make him sick.”

A no vacancy sign dangled crookedly in the window, and the office was empty. Still, someone was speaking inside, a voice from the radio.

. . . is, among other things, a nostalgia album, a wartime album, a catastrophe album, and a recollection-of-innocence album . . .

“They keep interviewing those people,” Marilyn said, “but I never hear their music.” She unplugged the radio and threw it in a drawer. “I have the most terrific idea, Cinnabar. You must take my car. I want to give you my car but you must leave tonight, right away, it’s more dramatic that way. I need more drama in my life. You see, the way it is with Bobby, he doesn’t allow me any drama. This will sure surprise him, not to be able to complain about the turn signals. Our relationship will be shaken up. It might be irrevocably altered.”

“I will buy your car,” I said.

“No, I want to give it to you. It’s a gift. I’ll give you some eggs too,” Marilyn said happily. ?

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has published nine books of fiction, most recently The Visiting Privilege (Vintage).

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