(13) on Juneteenth

If, like me, you didn’t grow up knowing about Juneteenth, think about why that might have been.

Then check out:

today’s Google Doodle and the story behind it.

an astounding poem by Patricia Smith (about halfway down the page) (pay attention to the bolded words)

Priscilla Jane Thompson’s “Emancipation

student athletes (at one of my alma maters) narrating We Rose

Langston Hughes’ Let America Be America Again and I, Too

June Jordan’s Poem About My Rights

Claude McKay’s If We Must Die and discussion of that poem

George Moses Horton’s On Liberty and Slavery

and the Emancipation Proclamation

When the End Comes

Readers of this blog might recall that I was posting a poem a day during the first part of the quarantine, and then I stopped because I was writing “a longer piece.” I wasn’t sure what the piece was at first, but now it’s finished, and here it is. I didn’t know it was (kind of) going to be a short story. There is one small detail in the story that is from my real life, but the rest of the fictional part of the story is, as fiction tends to be, made up.

A request: if you like this piece, please consider sharing it with a few other people, and if you don’t already, follow me on this blog and on Instagram at kimberlyoconnorpoet. I have a book coming out in a year, and I am trying to grow my social media presence. Thank you.

I hope you enjoy this piece.

When the End Comes

When the end comes, we won’t know it for awhile—there’s no announcement—and it’s not like reading a novel where the story starts after things have fallen apart and a flashback shows you what led to whatever scene we’re in now: food scarce, people living in bands of survivors, shooting each other for remaining resources, trying to find a safe place to rest, the forests burnt or burning, the cities wastelands of empty skyscrapers or simply part of the ocean.

*

Once upon a time there was a vain emperor. Once upon a time there was an ugly duckling. An orphan child. A fairy ring. A trailer park. A dying man smoking a cigarette.

*

Once upon a time there was a forest fire.

*

Colorado’s Hayman Fire was started by a woman burning a letter. Or, Colorado’s Hayman Fire was started by a woman burning a letter? The truth is a difficult bird to catch.

*

Inside the trailer a white man is lying in a hospital bed that has been moved into the living room. The television is on. The man’s meals are served to him in the bed. He is always in bed now, except when the nurse or his son or his girlfriend help him to the bathroom a few steps down the hallway. In a trailer, nothing is too far of a walk. It is noon: the local news begins.

*

Where Colorado’s Hayman Fire burned now nothing can grow. There are no trees remaining close enough to fertile soil to spread viable seeds.

*

The man’s son is 16. All of his teachers except one agrees he is trouble. His woodworking teacher thinks he’s alright. In woodworking class the boy is making a wooden heart-shaped box for his girlfriend.

*

Once upon a time a band of gypsies set out to catch the bird of truth. Its feathers were blue and silver and its rare cry was the most shocking thing you’ve ever heard. Once you hear the cry of the bird of truth you can’t go back to the time before you heard it.

*

The white man in the trailer is dying. His lungs are dark pools. Still every day he finishes a pack of cigarettes the same way he has done every day for 41 years. His son doesn’t live in the trailer but he visits every day now to watch his father become a myth. Already memories of his father have taken on a sheen. They are in a canoe, the pale threads of their fishing lines the fine strokes of an oil painting. They are laughing at something on the radio, in the car. They are eating a hot fudge cake at Shoney’s.

*

When the end comes we would have suspected it was coming for awhile. Liberties would have been stripped away, forest would have been stripped away. The oceans would have been filled with the wrappings of processed foods. But it would have been easier not to dwell on these things. It would have been easier to go to the baseball game and drink extra-large soft drinks or extra-large beers. It would have been easier to go to the mall and buy a ball made of flexible plastic filled with liquid that splatted itself flat when you flung it at the floor.

*

How a certain fire starts is mostly irrelevant, though it’s poetic to think of a woman in a forest, on her knees, touching a lighter to a letter from her lover. Logic quickly clouds the issues, though, if the woman worked for the forest service and it was June. She would have known how destructive the fire could be. One school of thought about forest fires is to treat them more like earthquakes. If we accept that they are going to happen from time to time, perhaps we can mitigate their damage, and stop wasting our energy trying to prevent them or put them out.

*

One upon a time there were no more giraffes. The only way to see a giraffe after that was to search “giraffe” on your iPhone and select “view in 3D.” Then a giraffe appeared in your living room, and you could take its photograph.

*

The band of bandits (as they were in the original tale, which has been adapted over the years to gypsies, musicians, scholars, adulterers, addicts, beauty queens, tinkers, and vacuum cleaner salesmen) tracked and chased the bird throughout the land for 41 days and nights which became 41 months and then 41 years before it finally landed on the branch of a bristlecone pine. One of the beauty queens raised her net and crept to the branch and held her breath. Just then the bird turned and looked her right in the eye. It cried its cry for the first time in 41 years. The sound of it rang out across mountains all the way to the sea.

*

As a child the boy had loved giraffes. He had seen some at the zoo in the state capitol. They had driven the two-hour drive once when he was 8. That winter his mother had left his father and taken him to live with her mother down the road but he was spending that summer in his father’s trailer. His father was dating a woman who wore tight cotton v-neck t-shirts and whose fingernails were long and painted bright colors: pink, red, purple, blood orange. The woman had a plump daughter who was two years older than the boy. His father said he would take them somewhere special for the girl’s birthday and the girl, Tammy, had chosen the zoo in the closest city. The boy’s father had grumbled about this in the privacy of the trailer. He had meant somewhere special like the McDonald’s play place or maybe Skate-2-Day, not the zoo a two-hour drive away. That would take gas money. But to the woman and Tammy he bared his teeth and said they would go on Saturday.

*

The bees would have been of concern for awhile. Sentences like In the midwest and north-east America, the rusty patched bumblebee population has declined by a staggering 90% would have been common. The rusty patched bumblebee disappeared as its prairies disappeared. At some point disappeared drifted and settled from a cloudy idea into a concrete fact.

*

The Camp Fire began in Paradise.

*

Just yesterday the boy had been stung by a wasp. That wasps were out so early in spring proved something to him. The planet was fine. He had lifted the card table they had moved outdoors for the morning and he felt a flame in his palm. Holy fuck, he spat. The table thudded back onto the dirt. If his mother had been there she would have hurried for ice and meat tenderizer, but she was not there, so he cursed and kicked around in the dust for a minute and finally lifted the table again and carried it into the house where his father was waiting for it. He felt better somehow, reassured that spring would arrive and after spring, summer and after summer, a better future, vague and backlit with sunrise. The trailer’s screen door slammed behind him.

*

Tammy sat in the stained armchair beside the hospital bed. She was 18 now and had worked as a waitress at Shoney’s till everything got shut down. She was doughy and timid, her face dotted with pimples and her hair bright with oil even the day after she washed it. She was not a good waitress, and she did not miss her job. She was happy to sit with her stepfather, who was not really her stepfather since he had never married her mother, and watch television all day, from the morning local news to the morning talk shows to the noon news to the afternoon soap operas, the 4:00 news, the 5:00 news, the national news at 6:00, on down to Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune to whatever sitcom or cop show her stepfather chose.

*

A wasp is not a bee.

*

The band of vacuum cleaner salesmen stood as still as stone and not one of them could not draw in a breath. The bird spread its wings and alighted into the heavens. One of its blue and silver feathers drifted from its wake and landed at the feet of the beauty queen. The bird was never again spotted in her lifetime or the lifetimes of any of her daughters or granddaughters.

*

The boy sinks himself into the couch. There is barely space to walk through the living room, it is so stuffed with furniture: couch, armchair, card table, hospital bed. The air is half cigarette smoke and half whatever essential oil Tammy has decided to brew today in her plastic diffuser. She has heard that essential oils have healing powers. Frankincense, for instance, which is what they gave baby Jesus.

*

The cause of last year’s fire in the trailer park was unknown. Nine trailers had burned to the ground. The fire department was busy with other, larger fires and could spare only a single truck for the trailer park.

*

Outside the trailer window a blue bird lands on the porch banister.

*

Atlas Fire, Witch Fire, Old Fire.

*

Since most of the bees had disappeared there were few fruits or flowers. The tomatoes for the sandwich had been grown in one of the new labs built for the purpose of pollinating plants by hand. Scientists were working on robots who could pollinate plants. The robots were tiny, the size of bees. But so far the pollen was clogging their delicate inner workings.

*

Tomorrow, the boy has decided, he will drop out of school. All he has to do is return to the school, in person, where only the guidance counselor, the principal, the secretary, the nurse, and the cafeteria workers remain, and sign the forms. The boy has not been to school in nine and a half weeks. The only class he liked was woodworking and now the heart-shaped box sits unfinished in the abandoned woodworking room.

*

This is not entirely true. Since he is underage, he needs someone to sign the form for him. His mother refused, and his father does not leave the trailer unless it is to sit for an hour in the red dirt yard.

*

Lightning, drought, arson.

*

The blue bird sits in the smoke-tinged sunshine. The noon news today reports that 16 fires are active. That’s up two from yesterday but down five from last week. The newscaster is reporting from her home studio. The muted blues and browns of her living room contrast sharply with her hair, which is half blond, half black since hair salons have been closed nationwide.

*

The boy’s stepmother works at the meat packing plant, which remained open. Or, the boy’s stepmother worked at the meatpacking plant, until she died last week.

*

Smoke follows beauty was something his father would say as his stepmother coughed from his cigarette smoke.

*

What killed his stepmother was a fire at the meatpacking plant rumored to be set by one of the workers. Since the plant had been ordered open the workers were forced to work. The doors to each exit had been locked or blocked or both.

*

This new virus causes ear bleeding, a new and exotic symptom no one is sure how to deal with. Cotton balls are hard to come by, but those who have some stuff their ears.

*

Tammy sits in the armchair absentmindedly picking a scab on her ear. This scab is from a tick bite, not the virus. She had awoken the morning after her mother’s death with three ticks on her body: one on her scalp, one on her inner thigh, and one on her ear, nestled into the curved folds. She didn’t know how she got the ticks, where they came from. She had not been out walking in a forest.

*

The boy’s girlfriend had disappeared, so the heart-shaped box was no longer important, though he kept thinking of it, abandoned in the empty school. His girlfriend’s parents were from Mexico, and they had decided to go there after the latest virus had arrived. Their goodbye, like the rest of their relationship, had been brief. Mostly they simply held hands under their desks in U.S. History, which was taught by a football coach whose lesson plan did not vary from assigning students to read a section of their textbook and answer the questions that followed. He played Call of Duty on his phone while they worked. One day the girl, Irene, had scooted her desk closer to the boy’s by an inch or two and made a face at him, scrunching up her mouth and raising her eyebrows. Surprised, he had laughed out loud, and then he was even more surprised. He hadn’t realized how long it had been since he had laughed.

*

Once upon a time there was a love story.

*

Tammy shifted in her armchair and sighed. The boy had entered the room and sank onto the couch without her hearing him. She now became aware that he was looking at her. She looked at him. You’re 18, he said.

*

In a few days or weeks or months, the boy’s father will die and Tammy will be alone. The boy will have his mother to go home to, and she at 18 will be considered an adult and she will be on her own. She knows these facts are true and she has stubbornly set her mind against them. She has no plan. Her mother is gone, but the closet full of her mother’s clothes is untouched, almost as though it is waiting for her mother to return and pick something to wear out of it.

*

Tammy sighs and stretches her legs out in front of her. She is not aware of what she is about to say until she hears the word come out of her throat. Her voice is a voice from the afternoon soap operas. Okay.

*

Leaving the trailer requires waiting for the nurse and finding the car keys. On the drive to the school they pass three fires in various stages of burning: one surrounded by fire trucks, one being watched by volunteers, one a smoking expanse of ash.

*

Above the door to the school there is a poster of the president, as is required in all buildings that receive federal funding. It had been the habit of some of the students to spit each time they saw the poster, which was not helpful in preventing the spread of the various viruses.

*

The Great Fire, the Cedar Fire, the Santa Ana winds.

*

Dropping out of school is easy. The guidance counselor, masked, does not ask questions as he gathers the required paperwork. He fills out his part of the forms in silence, then pushes them across the desk to Tammy, who signs her name in three places. As he stacks the papers neatly and secures them with a paperclip, he speaks for the first time. Good luck.

*

They walk through the empty hallways toward the exit. The boy turns on his heel. Hey, says Tammy. Meet you at the car, mumbles the boy.

*

Once upon a time there was a war.

*

The door to the woodworking classroom is ajar. The scent of cedar and stain greets him, he feels better. He walks to his station where the heart-shaped box rests. It has been waiting for him.

*

He remembers the last day he attended school, the students abuzz with what at the time felt like coming freedom. Irene, as the bell rang to signal the day’s end, had appeared at his locker and stood in front of him. Good-bye, she said, looking straight into his eyes. She did not smile. With her eyes open, she leaned forward and kissed him on the mouth. Then she turned and walked away.

*

Once upon a time there was a plague.

*

The heart-shaped box was almost finished. On the last day of school, the boy had cut a heart out of velvet to line its bottom and coated the box with a pungent glaze, but it was too wet to take with him at the end of class, so he had left it in the workroom. He’d meant to collect the box at the end of the day, but spellbound by the kiss, he’d forgotten. Now he found a jar of glue and pressed the velvet heart into place.

*

On the summer day of Tammy’s 10th birthday, when they’d gone to the zoo, his favorite animal had been the giraffes. Their snakish, graceful necks were from another world. He’d watched them for half an hour while the rest of the group milled about, trying at first to wait for him patiently, then scolding him to come on, there were other animals to see.

*

When their own trailer burns, no one will know how the fire started. The boy’s father, dozing, a lit cigarette in his mouth? Tammy’s scented candle? A dish towel set on a hot burner?

*

When the end comes, how will we know?

*

The elegant, improbable giraffe, its face like a cow’s, its legs as long as its neck, stared at the boy as it chewed a mouthful of hay it had retrieved from a towering basket.

*

Once upon a time there was time.

*

Tammy has not gone to car but waited at the exit for the boy. She spots a piece of the sky on the ground beside her right foot.

*

A woman kneels, she lights a match.

*

The boy exits the school and the door closes behind him. As he walks past Tammy he pushes the heart-shaped box into her chest.