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A Kind of Extinction (excerpt)
Sometimes Fortune Hopewell still sees herself as THAT GIRL WITH THE LEG BRACES, running down the hill to her house at the bottom of it and they’re clunking and clanking, clankity clank, banging like cymbals as the knobs of her knees careen into each other, and in all the other little broken-down houses she passes, faces pressed against the windows, laughing at her. They put them on when she was five years old for what the doctor called severe in-toeing but what Fortune knows was just another way to say pigeon-toes. And that’s what the kids at school called her, pigeon-toes. Sometimes one still hisses it, pigeon, but not to her face or she’d smack him, and since she’s a foot taller and 30 pounds heavier than most they’re mindful of that. It’s what she’s got over them, she’s a big girl. That’s what Mum calls her. You’re A Big Girl! Mum says when Fortune comes wailing into their room at night after one of her bad dreams, Go back to bed. Like size has anything to do with being afraid.
Clanky, clunky metal torture racks attached to long black witches boots, snapped on and snugged tight with Velcro. Sometimes when she sneaks under the Beatnik’s window to check on what he’s doing she thinks she still hears them, clankity clank, and worries he’ll hear them too and come after her. Mostly he’s playing that shivery music on his saxophone, so smooth she imagines whip cream and butter and globs of rich vanilla ice cream, thick and cold. And she thinks of aquamarine, her color, swimming pools and oceans and icy glaciers, the sky on summer evenings and the best sea glass in the world. A friend of Mum’s once said: Fortune won’t ever be a pretty girl, not even close, but she has those beautiful aquamarine eyes. The way the Beatnik blows into that horn, what comes out of it is pure aquamarine.
Fortune’s Dad calls him the Beatnik On The Hill and Mum says, For crying out loud, there’s no more beatniks, you think it’s the fifties? Then Dad points out that he looks like a beatnik, with those billowy white pants and his pointed beard, and he wears jewelry, Dad says. Plus he’s a jazz player, which as far as Dad is concerned is no kind of music and certainly no kind of work. Their property abuts the Beatnik’s only his goes up the hill and theirs is flat downhill, which means the Beatnik gets the view of the Susquehanna River and the hills beyond while the Hopewell house is hunkered in the trees where not even enough sunlight beams in to melt the ice from their driveway in the winter.
Near the chain link fence that separates their properties, the Beatnik has a giant maple tree that drops its leaves in the fall into the Hopewell yard and Dad rants, Whose leaves are these? Then he mutters that they are the Beatnik’s because they came off his tree, so he should be the one to rake them. The Beatnik just nods and smiles and goes about his business, which isn’t raking the leaves, and Dad won’t rake them either, tossing refuse from his job installing windows and doors at their property line—old cracked window frames and busted doors from the houses he put new ones in, hissing, View that! And anyway, he said when Mum questioned it, schlepping that damn crap to the Salvage Yard costs a mint, that the old man who runs it is a bloody kike, if you get what I’m saying, his eyebrows flying up. You think we’re made of money? he whined. In this economy how many folks you suppose want new windows and doors? They want a job, that’s what. Fortune’s Mum just shrugged. She’s got her own concerns, she’ll tell you. First Officer of the local branch of the Tea Party, which is a spinoff from the bigger county branch, as in they’re none too happy about that one’s growth—Soon it’ll be just another kind of Big Government, you watch, Mum said.
Fortune wishes Dad would go to the Salvage Yard so she could poke through it for aquamarine things, china, toys, old machine parts—who knew what she might uncover? It’s like digging for buried treasure. The last time she was there she found a set of four bright blue wine goblets which she brought home to her Mum, but Mum said they weren’t worth the plastic they were made from. And furthermore, Mum said, drinking wine is what yuppies do, people who can afford to waste money on luxuries. This household shall be wineless! she proclaimed.
The Beatnik has an aquamarine shirt Fortune would like to own someday, she’s sure it’s a luxury, silk or satin, something whispery smooth that he puts on when he’s going out for the evening, Fortune peeking from behind the Christmas Berry bush snugged up against his bedroom window. She can almost feel the slide of it against her own skin; it would make her skin like his—sleek as a tiger’s with the knobs of his shoulders poking through. Its color would be like wearing the sea.
The local branch of the Tea Party meets bi-weekly in the Hopewell living room, starting their meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag Mum props up in a Folgers coffee can on top of the TV, then belting out the Star Spangled Banner, Mum leading with her deep, hard voice. Then they launch into how the bigger Tea Party movement is an embarrassment, whose founding principles the local one embraced but then decided its endorsement of giant corporal entities like Fox TV and even Glenn Beck (he’s become so mainstream, Mum said) was a threat to their commitments.
Their commitments, as far as Fortune can tell, involve being able to recite by heart at least part of the Constitution, the 5th Amendment and the freedom to bear arms, and use phrases like Big Brother and Newspeak, the Thought Police and Doublethink. The Bible and Ayn Rand are also important, and though most of the local Tea Partiers are not readers by choice, they’re literate and therefore instructed by Fortune’s Mum to read everything Mrs. Rand wrote. Mum threatened to make Fortune read these books too, if she didn’t behave, and given the heft of Atlas Shrugged Fortune does not want to be caught sneaking about the Beatnik’s property.
The local Tea Partiers are stockpiling gold, survival gear, forming armed militias, building shelters filled with canned food, ammunition, cleaning their guns, getting ready for the Big Show. You’re either with us or you’re the enemy, Mum declared. The latest to be added to the Hopewell stockpile are really ugly flannel clothes to keep them warm after the Big Show, when the textile industries are all gone since they’ve hired out their workers in foreign places like India and China, so they’re targets, Mum said. Fortune asked Mum to at least get her something aquamarine, even if it had to be flannel, but Mum said Fortune must not be picky. It’s pickiness that got us into this mess, Mum said. Fortune isn’t sure what this means or even which mess her Mum is referring to, but asking would only prolong the conversation and it still wouldn’t get Fortune a less-ugly stockpiled shirt.
One of Mum’s enemies is Mr. Diaz, Fortune’s Sixth Grade Earth Science teacher, whom Fortune would spy on if only she could figure out where he lives. Not in their neighborhood, that’s for sure. Every day when school is done he gets into his Toyota Prius and drives someplace, away from here. When Dad finally fixes Fortune’s busted bike she’ll follow Mr. Diaz home.
They’re doing a unit on global warming, which Mum claims is a hoax started by Radical Leftist Environmentalists and perpetuated by Democrats for their political gain. Yesterday Mr. Diaz showed a film about Alaska’s Columbia Glacier, how just this year it lost another half mile of ice, ten miles since 1940. It’s moving 50 feet a day, Mr. Diaz said, and it’s only a matter of time before Columbia withers away. Dead ice, he called it. The film zeroed in on a couple extreme surfers, surfing the waves spawned by the crashing ice-melt, and Fortune thought how she’d like to do that one day, ride those roaring waves. She imagined herself in the lip of one, where everything inside is aquamarine and all you could hear would be the rush of the water tumbling down. When they get to the sea the breakaway icebergs are taken by the tide never to be seen again. It’s a kind of extinction, Mr. Diaz said.
He told them glaciers everywhere are dying, and with them go one-sixth of the earth’s water, that glaciers are second only to the ocean for bearing our planet’s water. There’s an ice sheet in Greenland that moves 150 feet a day, he said, losing 150 billion more ice each year than it gains in snowfall. Coastal folks will be goners; the polar ice melts will flood the planet.
Mum dismissed this theory with a violent shrug, when Fortune told her about it. Anyway it would be good riddance, Mum said, since the coasts are where the yuppies and liberals live, radical bike riders, people who condemn cars and plastic water bottles, want the world to drink from metal. Far as Mum is concerned the best thing that’s come up the pike is the plastic water bottle. You can haul your lightweight water without wrecking your shoulder and when you’re done you throw the bottle away, and it’s guaranteed to stay in the world well over a hundred years from now. You cannot outlive the plastic water bottle, she said. Humans should be so lucky.
Glaciers are dynamic systems, always moving, Mr. Diaz said. As the ice melts it forms an aquamarine lake, which can suddenly disappear overnight with massive cracks, booms and pops like it’s declared war on itself. The water rushes out and in less than 40 minutes the entire lake is gone.
It’s Fortune’s color. Her eyes, and her pale skin too is blue in some lights, like the one in their shelter with Mum’s stockpiled stuff. It runs on a generator, hooked up to the concrete ceiling, a wide, thin light meant to illuminate the pure black of underground, or maybe the end of the world.
At first when she began taking things it was anything goes, notebooks from the school supply closet, bottles of paste with their shiny black tops, handfuls of pencils, some already sharpened and others the size of cigarette butts, juicy-fruit candy and Cherry Cola lip gloss from the Rite-Aid (which she picked for its flavor, not that she’d ever wear lipstick), even a tiny box turtle from Pet Mart. That one was tragic, as it managed to get itself lost before Fortune was able to steal a bowl for it to live in and turned up like a petrified turd behind the couch when Fortune’s sister Miriam Meth-Girl shoved that out in the middle of the room one day, searching for drug money. After this Fortune decided to limit herself to aquamarine things: marbles from Toys R Us, a blue grass welcome rug from Home Depot, wind chimes from the Dollar Store and sea glass from the Crafts and Hobbies shop. The sea glass is the best. Even though it’s just regular glass pocked and beveled to look like sea glass, she can stare at its riveted surface in the aquamarine color and imagine the ocean and those glaciers, far away from here.
Once she got caught trying to sneak a globe from her World History classroom—she liked its turquoise color from all the oceans and lakes and glaciers that covered its plastic surface. It was too big for her backpack though, which was a mistake, as it certainly didn’t fit under her jacket without making her look like she was going to have a baby. The principal called Mum in to talk about Fortune’s disturbing behavior, but instead of getting angry at Fortune Mum discovered they were teaching global warming and evolution and she got the Tea Partiers to leaflet the school with websites for more accurate information on these things.
Fortune Hopewell. A name like they thought she’d be someone. Her oldest sister’s name is Barbara, a practical name but she was the golden one. Then the next is Miriam, who knew why. Mum chose Barbara and Miriam, so Dad got to name Fortune. Once upon a time, before their first-born daughter became something else, her Dad was the sort who would pick a name like Fortune Hopewell.
When they first heard about THE GREAT BETRAYAL, the BMW Sport Maxi-Scooter bearing the school’s head cheerleaders on their way to a game, roaring around Kamikaze Curve, the Chenango River snaking below—only instead of taking the turn at the bottom of the hill to the stadium they shot straight down 81 (it will be rumored in high school lore that they flipped the bird as they blew by) and three hours later were starting new lives together in New York—Mum went to bed for a week and Dad hid in his basement shop, turning all the machines on, power saws, drills, things that whir and shriek and clatter. We’re so outathere! Barbara squealed, finally answering one of Mum’s frantic calls, and when Mum asked her what she’d use for money because she wouldn’t get a red cent from them until she came to her senses and came home, alone, Alyssa cut in, said not to worry, they’d try their luck at modeling. We’re tall, skinny and willing, she said.
Then the Hopewells hardened, refusing the outreach from neighbors, their church, even entreaties from the parents of the other. (It’s the 21st century, Alyssa’s mother said. They’re eighteen. We can’t choose who they want to be with.) We’ll handle this our own way, Mum announced. Eschewed all of it in favor of good old rage, at the school for allowing kids to travel on their own to sports events, too cheap to provide a bus, Alyssa Adams who was driving her dad’s motorcycle, without a lick of sense in that waste of a blond head, Mum said, and the county for championing football games in schools unwilling to fund them properly despite the criminal amount of tax money they get. Mum started the local Tea Party group, though she swore it had nothing to do with Barbara’s (probably coerced!) choices; she was just so mad at what their country had become, hijacked by Democrats and environmentalists and Obama lovers and Socialist college professors, yuppies and people like the Adams’ who would own a German luxury motorcycle in the first place in an area that can’t even support its American Big Dog franchise for crying out loud, and invited others who felt this way—Tea Party people sick of how big and bureaucratic their county movement had grown, birthers and the like, to unite.
Dad’s rage was more personal, erupting on whomever and whatever he came in contact with, from a driver who neglects to use his turn signal, to an unlucky squirrel choosing that moment to scamper across the street Dad is driving on, to a neighborhood kid’s forgotten toy that he trips on at the side of the road while getting the mail, stomping on it until it cracks in two. Whose leaves are these! he roars in the fall; come winter he will shovel them along with the snow, flinging all of it over the chain link fence onto the Beatnik’s driveway. Miriam and Fortune are left to their own resources, the older turning to chemical pursuits, and Fortune becoming a spy, which suits her fine.
It’s finally summer and Fortune has a job of sorts, which is to walk the mile and a half to Grandma Edna’s house, spying as she goes, the McGullys’, the Farnsworths’, Mister Blister, she calls the old man with the warty face and the blisters like bubble wrap on his nose, who refuses to recycle all his empties and they sit in a beat-up tin garbage can on the curb, a favorite stop for the county’s homeless and meth addicts since wine and beer bottles are refundable. Every fourth house has a For Sale sign stuck in its yard, yards with overgrown weeds and unmown grass, dying flowers, and houses with ivy smothered porches, the windows boarded up.
When she gets to Grandma Edna’s she does things like help Grandma Edna pull her diaper pants up, which is the worst, because she doesn’t like to look at her grandmother’s you-know-what, Fortune down on her knees and it’s staring at her like a vertical smile if a smile could stare—her grandma lost what hair she had there. Then she dusts Grandma Edna’s billions of knickknacks, her Pretties Grandma calls them, which is the best. Grandma Edna is a hoarder, Fortune’s Mum said, and Grandma Edna says she knows damn well that some think it’s irrational, Mum can spare her the diagnosis, but she just can’t bear to throw anything away, since she never could trust that somewhere down the line she might have use for the very thing she tossed out. Who knows what you will need in the future, Grandma Edna says.
So Fortune takes a feather duster she found atop the stacks of this and that and dusts, because Grandma Edna has allergies and the dust gets to her after a while, and if she has a sneezing fit she’ll also pee the diaper pants, which Fortune must then help her take off and place new ones on yet again, Grandma Edna using Fortune’s shoulders to steady herself as she steps into the pants, Fortune tugging them up. Grandma Edna broke her hip and when she recovered it was like she had turned into a Lego toy that couldn’t bend, could only be arranged into different configurations.
Fortune tries not to take much from Grandma Edna, but sometimes she can’t help herself, slipping a particularly brilliant aquamarine glass egg, for instance—that was yesterday’s haul, into the zippered pocket of her backpack. Faberge, her grandma said when Fortune asked her about it, costs a mint! Fortune knew that even though at one time the egg might have been worth something, it’s not now because it has a chip in it from being at the bottom of a pile of folding metal chairs, mismatched china and cakes of old soaps, half-used bottles of laundry detergent and an ancient iron with rust and lime deposits all over it. And she knows Grandma Edna won’t miss it, because on top of all her other ailments she can no longer see, with cataracts occluding both her eyes and no insurance other than Medicaid to do much about it. She ain’t going to the damn County Hospital! (which would take her Medicaid) Dad declared. Grandma Edna is his mother so he gets to say what will happen to her, unless, says Grandma Edna, she is of a different opinion, in which case she’ll do as she damn well pleases. They are in agreement on this: no state run hospitals, and no state-supported nursing homes; Grandma Edna will stay in her own damn house for as long as there’s breath in her body.
It’s a hot summer, the kind where you can see the air, filled with the humming and buzzing of insects, and Fortune helped Dad drag Grandma Edna’s bed right under the window so that if there’s a breath of breeze to be gotten Grandma would get it. Now Fortune props the hippo pillow behind Grandma’s back to help her sit up straight in the bed and Grandma rolls her cloudy, filmy blue eyes toward the window light. Gawd damn! she whines. Son of a bitch! Fortune replies, grinning. They like to swear at each other, it’s their secret code. Grandma Edna says she wants to feel the snow on her face one last time before she dies, though Dad said Grandma Edna isn’t dying. She refuses to, he said. Won’t be long now, Grandma Edna says, what do I got to live for? Now take me out so I can feel the snow on my face. Fortune says it’s summer and bloody hot, and Grandma Edna snaps: I know that but I’m pretending cause I can’t see for shit, anyway.
Gawd almighty damn, Fortune agrees, and she closes her eyes and imagines it, but what she sees is a grey, wet November, one of those indeterminate seasons, Mr. Diaz calls them, on its way to becoming something else. OK, she says, what the hell, I’m opening your window so the snow will blow in on you. Then Fortune climbs up on Grandma Edna’s bookcase where piles of books, old telephone directories, ancient newspapers and magazines and file folders filled with crumpled clippings are stacked a mile high. She’s made a sort of nest for herself, with an old ratty bedspread and some towels, and perches like a gawky bird, watching as her grandma tilts her chin into the hot blade of yellow sunlight blazing through the window. One more winter, Grandma Edna sighs, and I’m done for.
The excerpted story above appears originally in Wild Things published by BkMk Press, University of Missouri-Kansas City, and is reprinted here with permission.
Jaimee Wriston Colbert is the author of five books: the just-released Wild Things, a collection of linked stories; the novel Shark Girls, finalist for the USA Book News Best Books of 2010 and ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year; Dream Lives of Butterflies, winner of the Independent Publishers Award for story collections; Climbing the God Tree, winner of the Willa Cather Fiction Prize, and Sex, Salvation, and the Automobile, winner of the Zephyr Prize. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including The Gettysburg Review, New Letters, and Prairie Schooner, and broadcast on “Selected Shorts.” She was the 2012 recipient of the Ian MacMillan Fiction Prize for “Things Blow Up,” a story in her new collection. Other stories won the Jane’s Stories Award and the Isotope Editor’s Prize. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Binghamton University.