Andrew Sullivan's first book, All We Want is Everything, is now available from Arbeiter Ring Publishing. The short story collection will be launched tomorrow, Wednesday, June 26, in Toronto. We're reposting a story of Andrew's from Joyland's archive to celebrate.
“How many times do I have to explain this to you? Alright, number one: I don’t even work inside the plant. Can you get that through your head and then listen to me for one second?”
Janet is tossing cutlery into a big black garbage bag in the kitchen. Forks and knives are poking out of the bag, but she doesn’t notice. She pretends not hear me over the noise outside. Mrs. Gibbons is mowing the grass. Ever since her husband left her two years ago, she’s been doing all the household chores and going to yoga twice a week.
“Number two: I don’t even go inside there to go the bathroom. They’ve got this Porta-Potty set up, so I don’t have to duck inside the building if you don’t want me to, you know? I can just stand...”
Janet has moved onto plates now. Not the fancy wedding china. She took that in the third load last week. One of the old plates misses the bag and shatters across the floor. The motor outside cuts out and I can hear Ms. Gibbons singing an Old Spice jingle to herself.
“If all you have to talk about today is Porta-Pottys Luke, I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to listen. I don’t want to hear about the brochures either. What you need to do is pretty simple at this point. No one would hold it against you.”
Each word is terse. We’ve rehearsed this over and over the last six months. Ever since the Coopers’ baby was born with a third ear growing out of his left cheek. The doctors at the hospital said it was fully functional and otherwise perfectly formed. Cooper’s been in charge of reactor maintenance ever since I started at the plant. All I do is check their IDs at the gate. Six hundred feet from the nearest building, eight hundred from the closest reactor.
“I’m just trying to explain. Like I said before, they’ve got some real precautions in place, but everyone is just overreacting. Just because he works in the plant doesn’t really mean much, you know? We’ve got all this new kind of mixed concrete and you should see some of the stuff they’ve been doing on the inside...”
Janet slams another cupboard door. Dust is floating around us in the kitchen. It sits in a thin layer all around the house. She took all the cleaning supplies to her mother’s place in the second load. I don’t mind the dust so much. It reminds me where to put things.
“Alright, well how about this?” I say. “I read it the other day, at work, you know. They’ve got these girls down in South America, and they’re born, seriously, with legs fused together like mermaids. And they’ve got these Chinese babies in some mining town coming out with their eyes all covered up with calcium scales. And no one really knows why, you know? No definitive causes. Just genetics. You know how much of that stuff can go wrong. So I think you’re really just jumping to some pretty bizarre conclusions here, instead of weighing, you know, the facts.”
Another cupboard slams. Janet turns to face me. She’s got dust in her hair. Outside, the mower fires up again and sputters.
“I don’t need to hear any more of this, Luke. You know I don’t. I’m tired. Tired of your excuse, and your three titanium barriers, and your two hundred feet of concrete, or whatever you want to believe. It’s all just numbers to me and guess what, Luke? I’m tired, like I said. I’m scared. I’m tired and I’m scared and I’m not going to stay here. You can come with me, I would like you to, but I know I can’t make you. I am going though. And no one is keeping you here.”
Janet walks across the kitchen, dragging garbage bags behind her. The sun catches the dust spinning in galaxies between us before she slams the door. I don’t say anything. Outside the mower roars and the starlings in the old pines whine for their mothers. I look at my watch as Janet’s car pulls out of the driveway. I need to get to work.
I lean on the glass in the security booth and frown at the greasy mark my forehead leaves behind. Someone has been playing hangman with Post-it notes on the day shift. All the answers are dick jokes. Caplansky and Gerry are getting bored again.
“My dick is so big it graduated high school three years before I did.”
A sedan pulls up to the window of the booth, and I recognize Larkin’s wrinkled face.
“Same shit, same shit?”
“Pretty sure that’s not how it goes, Luke.”
“You get the sentiment,” I say.
“After today, yeah.”
I haven’t seen Janet in two weeks, ever since all the inside employees started getting tested for radiation before and after they show up at the plant. Everything is low-profile. No one wants to scare the herd and have property values plummet. No Hazmat suits. No clunky vans with onsite analysis. No lab coats. Just freshly pressed three-piece suits, blood tests, and urine cups.
“I’d just like to piss into something bigger than a coffee cup, you know?” Larkin says.
“Yeah, I hear you. Once you start, it’s hard to stop.”
“And the thing’s at most maybe a medium. Shit.”
“Oh yeah, that’s gotta burn if you’re running on a full tank.” I yawn.
“I’ll see you tomorrow. Maybe they’ll have a bigger cup.”
There have been two more babies in the last month. Larkin’s sister-in-law ended up with a kid with a tail. Not just a few extra bones, an actual tail. Doctor said if he cut it off the kid might never walk normally. Throw off his balance. Never drive, never play sports. At least this is what I’m told by the maintenance guy at the hot dog truck on break. They named the kid Evan.
The Tierney household only has to deal with two belly buttons on their newborn daughter. Side by side. Her name is Julia. All of this could be bullshit of course. Last summer, we convinced Adam Caplansky that there were teeth at the back of the vagina. A whole set, like the ones in a shark’s mouth. He believed us for a couple of weeks before his girlfriend found out.
Still, both fathers are on the inside of the plant doing whatever it is their salaries require. Tierney and Larkin’s brothers work deep inside. Out in the booth I know I’ve got some barriers in the way. I trust in what I can touch. Lead paint, titanium alloys, concrete barriers, monthly safety audits. Run your fingers over the digits and smell the metal in the air.
On the ride home, I notice For Sale signs that have sprung up along my street. Word gets around. The blinds at Mrs. Gibbons’ place leer open at me as the car bounces into the gravel driveway. The crabgrass I fought all summer is curling up in yellow and brown splotches on the lawn. Mrs. Gibbons has been dumping flyers for spiritual counselors and emotional audits into my mailbox each day since Janet left with both our crockpots and half the bath towels.
I open the door to the house, whistling for the cat. I never gave him a name. Growing up on a farm, I learned how foolish naming an animal could be. A calf steps into the wrong patch of ice and he’s gone. No Suckles or Jerome or Judith the Wise. Just a frozen side of beef, floating with its eyes open and unblinking under the ice. Wait until summer before you can pull it out safely.
I set the mail on the counter. Janet has been by again. She only stops in while I’m out now, slowly emptying her closet. The last few shirts lingering are stained with lime green paint from our kitchen reno. She’s grabbed most of her stuff, but she still sends these pictures. Postcards. Postcards I guess ’cause she started mailing them. We’ve stopped arguing. Her mother always denies she’s home, and I know Janet doesn’t want me driving over there. Last week I drove halfway and then turned back. Six hours wasted in the rain. The phone remained silent at home. No messages.
Instead of phone calls, I find these photos in the mailbox like postcards from Janet’s own personal apocalypse or something. Three-headed toads from the Amazon where Chevron’s been digging. Six-legged wolves stalking the ghostlands of Chernobyl. Indian children blind from birth, eyelids stretched taut over their sockets. African albinos butchered by tribal leaders for medicinal purposes. Most of the photos are grainy black-and-whites like she’s pulled them from the tabloids. No words on the back. Just pictures. I know what they are saying. It does not take a thousand words. Leave. Find me. Come home. Be safe.
I feed the cat which has grown fat in Janet’s absence. I still make too much breakfast in the mornings. I plop myself down on the couch in front of the TV. All the shades are pulled down. On the screen, Godzilla battles Hedorah over a miniature city, flames raining down on the citizens. With drooping eyelids, I listen to the crackling screen for Janet’s voice to make its way through the static. The television is muted. Outside, Mrs. Gibbons drops something in my mailbox and the starlings cackle.
The first doctor we went to said it might have been my sperm’s motility. I had to ask what that meant. Movement and speed apparently. I remember Janet staring at me like it was my fault.
The second doctor said Janet might be suffering from polycystic ovarian syndrome. She just glared at him, thin fingers smoothing invisible wrinkles on her lap over and over. I made sure to write that one down so I’d be able to repeat it next time her mother called. There was a history of it in her family, according to the doctor. Her mother called two days later to tell Janet all about her new niece, Ellen, six pounds, four ounces. Perfectly healthy and coming home in just a few days. I went out and bought the cat that afternoon.
The third doctor told us to just keep trying. He handed a prescription for steroids to Janet, and checked me on the spot to make sure I wasn’t wearing tighty-whiteys. Those things work like a pressure cooker on your swimmers. He told us not to worry. I went through a regimen of cold showers and avoided drinking after work. Janet bought a calendar and started plotting out her cycle. She gave up smoking and started chewing gum. None of it worked. None of it helped.
And a cat is just a cat.
Old soy milk bottles fill the overstuffed garbage can in the booth. I try holding my breath while scouring the Reader’s Digest for typos. The day shift must be on a health kick again. Two months ago it was bananas. Larkin pulls up to the gate. His face is thinner.
“No more piss taking?” I ask.
“Nah, we all checked out fine, Luke. People are always overreacting.”
“With two tails, they wouldn’t be swimming much anyway, would they?”
“Yeah really, I know, right?” Larkin says.
“So no more pissing in your coffee cup?”
“No, that’s over, thank God. Office was beginning to smell. Later buddy.”
In “Laughter Is the Best Medicine,” I find an “allgator” instead of alligator. I circle it in red pen and try to draw one in the margins.
The baby with the tail died in the hospital. The funeral was a mess of cameras and Larkin’s brother ended up charged with aggravated assault after he decked a photographer with the priest’s lectern. No press or protestors dare to come around here. I wouldn’t be able to do much even if they did. I can’t really run anymore, and I left that off my paperwork. Management never bothered to follow up on it.
When I was eleven, a bull shattered my foot. I went inside the barn to feed the heifers after dark. Dad had forgotten to lock him up. I just remember the smell of manure and a crack that traveled up my spine and exploded somewhere in my brain. They found me in shock on the floor half an hour later. My mother had to cut my boot off to bring down the swelling. Everything smelled like manure for weeks after. The bone never really knit itself back together like the doctor said it would. I can’t even handle stairs very well anymore.
I lock the gate to go on break. Even now, visitors are scared to go near the Larkin family. One of the maintenance guys tells me he’s heard about how contagious this stuff has become. The mothers bedridden, the older kids experiencing growth spurts in all the wrong directions. Talking bent dicks and ballooning eye sockets, man. He grins at me from under a mangy three-day beard like a stray that needs a good kick. He drenches everything in mustard. Even relatives are mailing their condolences, he says. The postman leaves them at the very lip of the driveway, a surgeon’s mask tied over his face. Florists refuse delivery. The maintenance guy bites into his sausage, mustard seeping into his moustache. He grins at me. I dump onions all over my hot dog and walk away down to the water.
I should be back in the booth. Rearranging pens or leaving some Polack jokes for the day shift to read in the morning. Maybe leave them the answers too. Caplansky usually needs that extra push to get the punch line.
“Why did the Polack cross the road?
“He couldn’t get his dick out of the chicken.”
There are fences down by the bay. I walk along the chain link and toss my tinfoil wrapper into the water. Sludgy waves smack against the heavy rocks they’ve lined the shore with to prevent erosion. Someone has cut a hole into the chain link. Kids used to come down here years ago to jump off the rocks till one cracked his head open on the way down. That’s why they hired me. I crouch and push my way through to the other side. The rocks are soaked. I sit down on the wet edge and stare into the water. I try to breathe and my mouth fills with rot. On the rock surface the algae seems to glow a sickly purple. I slide my feet down towards the water, heavy steel toes dangling into the muck. I look for a reflection. My feet are getting wet around the edges. Around me, the algae have lodged themselves. The fence is covered in small patches of it, like fur. I dip my feet all the way into the water. The cold seizes them. Closing my eyes, I imagine the purple working its way into my shoe, into my socks, into my flesh. Reknitting. The cold clenches my feet hard; the water pushes deeper in between the cracks. Rebuilding.
I shake my head and pull my feet up. Violet algae clings to the laces and squirms its way into the eyeholes. I scrape each boot off against the fence and worm my way back through the gap. I don’t bother marking the hole in the fence down in my log book. No one comes around here anymore. Not even the safety inspectors.
Back in the booth, I circle “asociate” on the contents page. I let my foot throb in rhythm with my pulse. I stick my head out of the booth to breathe in the air. My lungs fill with a sickly sweet smell rolling off the bay. The humps of the plant stare back and, in the breeze, they tremble.
Mrs. Gibbons is sitting on my porch when I get home. The fluorescent light makes her hair look dull. She smiles, but keeps her teeth behind her lips. The cat’s in her lap, licking her hands.
“What is this?”
She waves a photograph in my direction as I step out of the car. An ultrasound of a baby with four arms flaps in her hand. Find me. Come home.
“Who would leave this in a mailbox, Lucas? Is everything okay with Janet?”
I yank open the front door and flick on the light. The plate Janet smashed still sits on the floor swept up in a corner. I pull myself a glass of water from the tap.
“What does it look like to you?”
She dangles the picture far from her face like it’s rotting.
“Is she pregnant, Lucas? Is this hers? Is that why you kicked her out?”
“I didn’t kick anybody out and no one is pregnant. Jesus. You know she left on her own. She’ll come back here when she’s ready. When she realizes it’s safe. And it is safe. I don’t even work inside there, you know that. Shit, it’s safe inside too. All of this shit over nothing.”
The cat purrs against Mrs. Gibbons’ breasts. Her dress is a dark red spattered with flecks of dishwater. She isn’t wearing a bra and she’s shaking the ultrasound in her hand. Another postcard. Her nails look all chewed up.
“Mine didn’t come back. Jack left and I’m the one carrying the debt. The man had more credit cards than brain cells. He’s gone now. New name, new life, new wife, I’m sure, till he gets bored again. Not that I blame him now. It looks like everyone is leaving. They’re not even waiting for a sale anymore. And now we’ve got people leaving, well, this... stuff in our mailboxes?”
“One baby with a tail and the whole neighborhood goes apocalyptic. They’ll all come back when they realize how much money they’re throwing away. Wait and see.”
I turn on the television. Flicking through the channels, I find a baseball game I can ignore. The score is 13-3. You don’t come back from something like that.
Mrs. Gibbons leans in the doorway.
“Why don’t you just go? I mean, a job is a job, but you can’t really be expected to stay...”
I yank off my work boot and chuck it into the corner. I peel off the sock. Badly knit bone pushes at the skin around my ankle and the top of my foot. The old root is what Janet called it. Mrs. Gibbons takes a strong interest in the ball game as I massage the scar tissue. My sock still smells like algae. Most of my toenails flaked off years ago.
“I’m surprised they let me keep this job, honestly. First chance I have to run after somebody, they’ll have me inside stamping paperwork and sorting out the mail. It’s not like they do a physical or anything. We’re basically rent-a-cops, not marines. I don’t even get pepper spray.”
Mrs. Gibbons sits down on the floor by my busted foot. She doesn’t say anything, just lays a hand on the jutting ankle bone and turns her eyes to the screen.
“Plus, when you think about it, I turn and run, what’s that say? I know how safe the plant is, I know the codes, I’ve seen the blueprints, you know? We print all that shit in the brochures, and it’s no joke. We aren’t some crazy Russians translating an owner’s manual for the fifteenth time from Greek or something. I might not know how the atoms divide or how they harness all that power exactly, but I know what I can see. And I see half the seaboard lit up every night without fail. I see safety measures put in place, physical precautions put in place. I’m not relying on some divine intervention to save me because I can see these things. Know them. Confront them daily.”
Mrs Gibbons doesn’t reply, so I show her all the photos. The abnormal and the broken things Janet discovers each week in the tabloids. Ms. Gibbons spreads them out across the floor. She counts them, loses count, counts them again. Sixty-three photographs, each cut like a postcard. I lie on the couch with the television muted while she tells me about her husband. About the gun collection in the basement. The nephew he’d slapped at her family reunion. The bouts of erectile dysfunction. The videotapes he stashed under the mattress to give his future son. To teach him how to be a man.
“I made sure to burn all of those. Not that we had a boy. Just the principle, you know?”
Around the ninth inning she begins to drift off. Janet never could fall asleep before me. She liked to watch me, she said. Another home run and there are fireworks on the screen: 14–3. I stare at my foot, waiting for it to glow purple, for the cracks to fill up again like they did out there in the water. The fireworks dissipate. The crowd cheers. I wait to be whole again. Another player steps up to the plate, but the game is already settled.
Mrs. Gibbons is asleep on the floor with Janet’s photographs sprawled around her when I wake up. The clock reads noon. On the television, baseball has given away to a monster movie marathon. I watch Ebirah battle with Godzilla in the ocean, green blood swirling around the specks of people floundering in the water. I always liked monster movies. You know where you stand with someone like King Kong. He can’t escape, can’t hide. Can’t linger in your water supply waiting for you to brush your teeth. King Kong can’t sneak up on anybody.
Outside the door, I can hear the cat mewling to get back inside.
When I was a kid, my friend Chuck Borden snuck a snake into our tent at camp. Wrapped up in my sleeping bag, I lay awake convinced every shifting blade of grass was that garter — holding my breath, I lay parsing out the seconds till the inevitable bite came. I lay that way throughout the night, listening to the rise and fall of little chests for a hiss or slither to alert me. Every sound was a forked tongue probing my ear. In the morning, I found the snake in an old margarine container. Chuck had forgotten to poke air holes in the lid. I still prefer the bull in the pen.
The cat continues to whine outside. I pull myself off the couch, one boot still on my left foot. Mrs. Gibbons has used my coat for a pillow on the floor. I watch Godzilla falter as the sea monster gains the upper hand and muted foreign faces scream in horror. Mrs. Gibbons stretches out in her wrinkled dress and yawns.
Whenever a mouse got inside, it was Janet who tracked it down with the frying pan or the pizza slicer. I stayed off the floor till she gave me the all clear to come back down off the counter. She was the one willing to reach behind the fridge and pull it out by the tail and toss it into the yard. Or crush it under her shoe and throw it into the trash — still breathing.
I yank open the door. In its mouth, the cat carries a baby bird. Mrs. Gibbons mumbles behind me, clutching the photographs from Janet to her chest. The cyclops antelope. The three-tailed possum. I carry the ultrasound image in my hand, fingers crushing the four-armed wonder into a ball. A doctor’s address is scrawled on the back. Janet always had terrible handwriting.
Three titanium alloy barriers and two hundred feet of concrete.
The cat drops the bird out of its mouth. Pink and downy. It stares up at me with three purple distended eyes the size of marbles. The cat cocks its head at me and turns to go back outside. I follow his tail out to my car. The hood is splattered with little bodies glowing pink under the sun. I look up and wait to hear their mothers. The cat leaps up onto the hood and begins nudging the bodies with his nose. The birds don’t recognize their babies anymore. The trees remain quiet. The nests are empty. I push the cat off the car and start to sweep away the little pink splatters.
I still have to get to work.