The Midwest |

Eat Me When I Die

by Maggie Su

In the middle of my preserved rainforest, I watched a white-headed Capuchin monkey throw itself off the highest branches of one of the last walking palm trees on Earth, so close to the top of the enclosure that its head grazed the glass ceiling.

An act of faith, my daughter, Julianna, would’ve said if she’d seen how the monkey fell, only to catch itself ten feet from the ground, jerking its body up by its tail which had instinctually wrapped around one of the lower branches. But I, the scientist, said nothing. Just brushed a few crumbs out of my beard from my early lunch, a bacon and brie grilled cheese. I liked that some mysteries remained in my snow globe.

My “sick little experiment” was what Melvin had called the O’Neil Preserve before he left a week ago. He’d taken every opportunity to disavow my scientific pursuits, to throw his humanities Ph.D. in my face like there was something admirable about spending a decade masturbating in a library over old Beowulf manuscripts. It was possible that he’d stayed with me for five years for my book collection, twenty-two rows of priceless last copies of classics, from To Kill a Mockingbird to War and Peace. Most of the books I acquired before the Green World War, before the billions I made off the oil refinery, one of the last remaining. Now it was the only private library of that size left in North America. Maybe, at its current rate of destruction, the world.

“Your bubble is a fantasy,” Melvin said over our last breakfast of eggs Benedict and smoked salmon, eyeing me from behind his porcelain cup and saucer. “All you need now is natives to hunt.”

I said nothing though I could’ve argued. Melvin often forgot about my Chinese mother, although it was clear in my hair: pin-straight and black. My almond eyes. But my name, Henry O’Neil, seemed to supersede that difference. Same was true in college—my name synonymous with an Irish brawl and kegger.

“Think you’ll last long out there?” I’d asked.

Melvin had nowhere to go, and living on the streets was a death sentence. If the renegade militia or cannibalistic tribes didn’t get you, our planet’s increasingly temperamental Mother Nature would do the job and either roast you at 150 degrees or freeze you at -50 depending on the season.

“No,” he said. “But I won’t die guilty.”

The same pride that had first attracted me to Melvin now made me sick. I averted my eyes.

He left with his only real possession, a big red suitcase with a squeaky wheel. At the threshold, I kissed him on the lips first, then on his dry cheek that crinkled like newspaper. In his ear, I whispered, “You can never come back.”

You see, when global warming came knocking at our door, holding our past due statement, it wasn’t quite a Hollywood blockbuster. There was no Jake Gyllenhaal running up the Statue of Liberty with a line of ice chasing after him. Nature didn’t have an agenda, was oblivious to our games. It was always humans dooming humans.

The media loved to trivialize the Green World War. All the headlines read: Wall Street Kids vs. Hippies, or The Battle Over Plastic Bags, but what they forgot to mention was it was still a war. Fought the way all wars are fought, with guns and shrapnel. It came with the sudden feeling that we were no more evolved than the monkeys climbing to higher branches. The cheetahs being blown to bits by land mines.

Still, America had been united under a cause for the first time in decades—we needed oil. To power our lawn mowers, our cars, our plane tickets away from the rising coasts. I’d been young when I’d enlisted as a combat engineer, still bearded and lanky, dating a woman named Julia who pretended not to notice how I kissed her sideways like she was contagious.

The war lasted ten years and spanned three continents. I spent months clearing minefields behind the seat of a shredder, then went back to camp to tinker over new explosives. After the world’s supply of nuclear warheads had been depleted, it was unclear who’d won and who’d lost. In the years we’d spent fighting, the ice caps melted, the ozone layer disintegrated, the barrier reef was destroyed, and soon everyone, not just soldiers, was dead or dying.

It was a Sunday evening; three weeks after Melvin’s departure, when Julianna showed up on my computer screen, pushing the buzzer with one hand, gripping the top of my grandson’s head with the other.

“Dad?” she yelled into the speaker. “Let me in.”

I’d set up home security using techniques I’d learned from the war. The police had been disbanded a year ago. It was no longer safe for anyone, no longer fair to ask men and women with families to sign up for what meant certain death. I couldn’t blame them.

“Right, left, right, right. Left, right, left, left,” I spoke through the intercom. “Remember, Julianna? It’s paradiddle, paradiddle.”

Years ago, I’d turned the yard into a hopscotch grid of landmines; the only way to get through was to jump from square to square in the right order.

“I remember,” Julianna said, rolling her eyes.

Fifteen minutes later, she finally made it across the threshold, her face covered in sweat, on the verge of dropping both the luggage and the toddler.

“Would you take him?” Julianna pushed the squirming boy into my arms before I could answer.

Joey looked bigger than I remembered, his rounded arms reminded me of the Italian sausages I was defrosting in the fridge. He moved his finger from my cheek to my throat, leaving a sticky residue that I hoped was jam.

“You look good, Dad,” she said as she hauled the bags over her shoulder and dropped them at the foot of my stairs like Santa Claus.

I wanted to ask her to take off her muddy boots, it hurt to watch her leave a trail of soot on my white marble floors.

“You too,” I said, lying. Her face was covered with dirt and cracked from the sun. I assumed she’d been living on the street for a few days, maybe even a week. Julianna had always been stubborn. I’d framed a petition written in crayon she’d made when she was eight calling on me to save water by eliminating bath-time.

“Still have the preserve going, huh?” Julianna peered through the glass wall at the jungle. The monkeys had been quiet this morning, but the temperature and light readings were satisfactory. “You know it’s the fucking apocalypse, Dad. People are dying out there.”

I put Joey down, and moved to the fridge. I poured two glasses of orange juice, extra pulp.

“I know,” I said.

Julianna sighed, leaned her hip against the black granite kitchen island. Joey gurgled to himself on the floor, fiddling with his own hands.

Melvin had been the same as Julianna, obsessed with getting me to acknowledge what was happening “out there,” like it would make a difference. When the news programs were still running, Melvin had insisted on leaving the television on all day. Even our sex life had been punctuated by burning bodies and screams.

“It’s like a horror movie,” I’d said, one night after slipping under the beige silk sheets. “The Purge: Volume Three.”

“You think this is funny?” Melvin asked as he cleaned the lenses of the tortoise-shell frames I’d gotten him for his last birthday.

“No,” I said. “But what do you want me to do?”

The next morning Melvin had made a laundry list of ways for me atone. Recycle my water bottles or better yet, drink from the tap (“It’s full of disease,” I’d said. “Are you trying to kill me slow or fast?”). Give away my money to one of the pyramid-scheme charities that still existed to defraud the rich and senile. Get rid of my preserve and turn it into a waste compost center.

I played along for a few months to show Melvin that I could change. I stopped getting fresh flowers delivered and let my hair turn gray. It was a peace offering, an olive branch, but it hadn’t been enough. What Melvin really wanted was for me to suffer.

After Julianna put Joey down in the guest room for the night, I suggested nightcaps in the library. With the overhead lights off and just a dim lamp, I watched her pour a full-to-spilling glass of brandy.

It was easy to see where this was headed. The moral posturing, the pacing, the pile of five bags stacked haphazardly in the foyer. I’d been waiting for this day ever since she left.

“What happened?” I asked, sipping my own drink.

“Nothing happened. It’s just this world, Daddy,” she said.

I shrugged. She only called me Daddy when she needed money.

“It’s been hard, you know. Since Austin died,” she said.

Julianna’s husband had been killed last year in an environmental rally. The naïve idiot hadn’t just been fighting for the wrong side, but during the wrong era. Austin’s hippie protests had driven me crazy, which was why Julianna had married him. Another part of her never-ending rebellious phase.

“I was hoping we could stay here,” she said before throwing back her drink. She looked young as her face flushed red and her eyes glassed over, like a child again.

When I’d returned from the war, Julianna’s mother had been dead for years, a victim of a small bomb in a Whole Foods. Julianna had been changed by it, overnight she’d grown from a stubborn kid who wouldn’t eat her carrots into a socialist teenager. The night she’d left the house for good I’d been trying to get her to understand that the only problem with martyrs was that they always wound up dead.

“Of course, you can stay,” I said. “And you know, I won’t be around forever. Soon this will all be yours.”

Looking around at the dusty shelves, I knew I’d be happy to get rid of the library. After Melvin, the smell of books made me nauseous.

Julianna frowned and we drank in silence.

After her second drink, her head fell backwards against the soft leather of the chair and she closed her eyes and slept. She looked peaceful with the glass still in her hand, so I left her there and walked on tip-toes all the way up the cool wood stairs to my bedroom.

When Joey wasn’t in the guest room the next morning, Julianna wasn’t as alarmed as I’d expected.

“He’s a toddler. That’s what he does, Dad. He toddles,” she said, folding the sheets of Joey’s rumpled empty bed. “He couldn’t have gone far.”

“Just try to keep him out of the preserve,” I said.

But of course, thirty minutes later, that’s where we found him. Joey, easily eighty feet in the air, straddling a Kapok branch with his sausage legs kicking the open air.

“Joey,” Julianna yelled before I could stop her. The sound of her voice made the tropical birds anxious; they hopped from branch to branch like they were playing the lava game.

Joey looked down at the sound of his name, but only briefly. He was distracted by the monkey approaching him, its tail tucked between its legs. With nimble feet, the monkey stood on the branch and touched the child’s face with its finger pads. Joey cooed in delight, mimicking the action with his own small hands.

“NO.” Julianna’s face was a Halloween mask, her mouth making a perfectly round O. With her arms, she reached up and mimed her son’s rescue helplessly from the ground.

“Stop yelling, Julianna,” I said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “The monkeys are very gentle creatures.”

I was lying; I’d seen them tear the bark off a palm tree and claw at each other’s flesh for hours, but I saw no need to panic her.

“Do you have a ladder?” she asked, looking around the forest like we could fashion one from the sticks lying around.

“He’s too high up,” I said. “I don’t have anything that tall.”

“What do you mean?” Julianna turned on me, her huge eyes glistening, hands still grasping at empty air. “Don’t you have everything you need in here? Isn’t that the point of this place?”

I shrugged.

“He figured out how to get up there. Surely he can figure out how to get down,” I said, trying to sound optimistic.

Above us, Joey followed the monkey, moving closer to the center of the tree, along the branch until the leaves shielded him from view.

“Where’d he go?”

Julianna ran, tripping across the sticks and leaves, her head tilted up.

“Baby, baby, baby. Where’d you go?” she called up to the tree, her voice softer now.

Julianna spent the whole night like that, keeping watch on Joey in the O’Neil Preserve. I brought her a sleeping bag and dinner, lasagna with Italian sausage, but she didn’t touch it.

“I can’t lose him,” she said to me as she hugged her knees and rocked back and forth. She wasn’t crying, her eyes were dark and smooth. “He’s all I have left.”

“Julianna, go to sleep,” I said, rubbing my forehead. It was discombobulating to have foreign subjects in the snow globe. Their presence ruined the illusion. “Maybe if you close your eyes, Joey will be right next to you when you wake.”

But she didn’t sleep. I heard her calling up to Joey through the night.

The next morning, Joey was visible again through the leaves. The sunlight and the morning dew made the snow globe glisten, but the toddler was unmistakable. The boy was now cradled in a sling of vines that hung between two branches, snugly tucked into his new bed. Every few hours, a monkey would come by and hand him a piece of fruit, a bundle of leaves, an earthworm. Miraculously, the baby did not cry out.

“I wonder what it looks like from up there,” I said.

I was no longer annoyed, but in awe of the boy. He’d only spent one day in the snow globe and he’d cracked the code, found the escape I’d spent years searching for.

“It’ll rip,” Julianna said, staring up at the sling without blinking. “He’ll fall and I’ll catch him.”

But the basket looked too strong, even from that distance. The baby looked over the edge with eyes wide, his pale face a moon. I was too far away to make out his expression.