The Sidetracked Messenger
Rain caught people by surprise, so they turned their collars up, and looked at the ground as they made their way through the downpour. Nobody was paying attention out on the street, until the crash: a car sped through a light that had just turned red, colliding with a messenger on a bike. As the man toppled over, his front wheel hit a pile of rubble left from the temporarily abandoned construction site. The pavement was being torn up, but due to heavy rain, city jackhammers lay idle in a locked truck. Cordons intended to keep traffic away from the edge of the pit were flimsy, and the messenger fell through them as if they were ribbons. His twisted bicycle dropped into the ditch that had been dug alongside the curb, smacking exposed pipes and rocks. He had been distracted by the sight of a burned mattress left on the street. Rubber gloves lay curled in a pile nearby. Frantic blackened springs bent every which way, like skeletons of small animals caught trying to escape. The cloth that had covered the mattress lay in shreds. Discarded restaurant garbage scavenged by dumpster divers, then tossed again: seeds, cores, peels, veined ornamental cabbage, or kale leaves big as baby elephant ears. He had thought they would be slippery, and so swerved, just a bit, to avoid them. He had wanted to be the kind of person who would fly into hurricanes and tornados to collect data, who would wake up in an earthquake, write down the time, then go back to sleep. The rain was a typhoon, his messenger bag picked up signals from satellites; handlebars wrapped in gaffer’s tape were instruments that detected shifts in air pressure as he flew by instinct into the superstorm until the turbulence of air and water proved too much for his craft and his pilot skills and down into the earth he went.
The Occasional Sentience of the Inanimate
The ambulance driver had not done well in chemistry and biology, but he did remember a few things. On the textbook illustrations of molecules bonding and cleaving, he had drawn faces and sometimes added thought balloons. Four Nitrogens with black mohawks ambush Vanadium, sporting stick legs and boots, who grabs at Oxygen, three-eyed and tiger-striped. The internal mappings of the body, as it appeared in his books, launched phantoms. He couldn’t separate the illustrations of elongated muscles, floppy interconnected organs, and bones from the personalities that he imagined animating them, and the touch of the peeled-away skin that registered pleasure and pain. So he populated the world and failed a few classes. After high school he had a job delivering pizza by truck, followed by a stint as a janitor; then he manned an information booth at a state park that hardly anyone visited on weekdays, so he played a lot of Tetris while on the job. The park shut for the winter, and he collected unemployment. Then he decided to become an ambulance driver. This wasn’t the same as being a doctor, but neither was it high-speed pizza delivery. Most days began slowly. As he sat in a windowless fluorescent chamber between the garage and the emergency room, drinking coffee with the others, he checked the electric paddles used for restarting damaged hearts, the supplies of intravenous fluids, disposable syringes, tourniquets, antiseptic dressings, ampoules of adrenaline, and sedatives. As he cleaned and counted, he imagined what it would be like, for once, if no calls came in. No one hurt in the city that day. This never happened. The alarm would sound, the gates open, and he sped down the luge shoot. Each day was filled with accidents, injuries, fatalities. He saw children who fell while watching action heroes fly from fire escapes on a hot summer night, he saw burn victims trapped in high-rises, he saw heart-attack sufferers slumped into their plates in expensive restaurants just before dessert was served. Paperwork filled his glove compartment and spilled onto the seat and floor. He was transferred to the night shift, never saw his girlfriend, and pretended to be the kind of person for whom this didn’t matter. He drove past an army recruitment center. His thoughts: Somewhere petroleum was still sloshing around undrilled under tectonic plates, those liquid monomers hadn’t yet been tricked into joining duplicitous polymers. Eventually it would be drawn up, sent to a refinery, turned into a fluff resembling laundry detergent, combined with additives, then turned into pellets that would be sold to a manufacturer whose machinery would melt the pellets and turn them into jerricans, which would travel around the world to be used an improvised explosive device. But none of this had happened yet. The oil was still sloshing around deep under the Java Sea, or the Gulf of Finland, or Antarctica. No one even knows it's there, though some might already be searching for it, or at least its m.o., ID, signs and signals sent up to the surface. His partner in the ambulance smelled of Reese’s peanut butter cups and lighter fluid, and said nothing when he drove recklessly, nearly hitting children at crosswalks, made ridiculous turns on one-way streets, and once pulled out into traffic before a man who’d suffered a gunshot wound had been completely loaded into the back. After a while the driver dreaded the hour before his shift began, knowing that somewhere in the city were whole bodies that would not end the day without mutilation, followed by a trip in his vehicle. He pushed his girlfriend away. He didn’t mean to, but he couldn’t help himself. She saw other people and eventually dumped him. He imagined himself stationed in a jungle, bandaging wounds, but he was unable to get on a plane and go to these places, much less work when he got there. He had been the man with a mop, fistfuls of maps, a person who dreamed of flying in to rescue people whose injuries he couldn’t bear to actually see.
A Hopeless Romantic
The untouched food the restaurant threw out: served but uneaten bread, wilted lettuce, carrots frozen at the core, petrified rice, all went into a separate bin. She had an aunt, an early recycler, who grew up in great poverty during the Depression. Her aunt had never met a leftover that couldn’t be transformed. Melted ice cream from the bottom of the carton was poured into coffee, crackers were crumbled over potatoes, and children’s half-eaten sandwiches would be seen again the next day complete with bite marks. From the bin she would have made a feast.
She counted her tips, waiting a few minutes for a man who wasn’t going to show, it looked like. She didn’t know his name, but he came in fairly regularly at this hour, just before she left, and she thought if she timed it right, if he came in a little early and she dawdled, they could leave together. Last time in, he was reading a book about the Burgess Shale, a slab of rock that was discovered by accident, ignored for years in a museum basement, then rediscovered. The creatures preserved in it had lived at the bottom of a sea, and they were all set to decompose, leaving no trace, but a cliff (part of what would become the Canadian Rockies) fell on them and so perfectly fossilized all these wacko crustaceans, so strangely formed that they would later be given by given names like Wiwaxia, Priapulid, Perspicaris, Hallucigenia. All kinds of evolutionary dead ends made their Cambrian debut, he explained, only to fizzle out completely, as if Zeus were saying let’s test-drive this one: incisors like clusters of needles. Sounds lethal, but something went wrong, the creatures got eaten anyway and have been extinct for millennia. Evolution tells you to lose that tail, those flippers, that sharp overbite, get a bigger skull, figure out how to put nouns and verbs together in a string. Five eyes on a swiveling head, a breathing apparatus like a trumpet: these will be dead ends. He flipped pages, showing her images of the creatures so strange that they had no known links to anything presently living on the planet. He was designing a computer game based on these creatures, extreme predators in their own shallow sea. He told her she smelled like cinnamon Red Hots. What does this mean, cinnamon Red Hots, a candy that stained your fingers, lips, and tongue? Nostalgia for childhood? Maybe, though, the emphasis was on the second word, and they were getting somewhere, the two of them. Or maybe she was hanging on to nothing, and he’d was busy populating the world not with new humans but cyber-creatures, not giving her a second thought.
She could imagine a scene in a musical in which she would be wearing a narrow skirt, the kind that is hard to move in, and they would collide as she was leaving the Bus Stop Coffee Shop and he was entering it. He would pick his hat off the pavement, straighten his nonexistent tie. The pencil skirt, fastened with Velcro, would come off with a flick of the wrist to reveal silver shorts. They would twirl umbrellas and tap-dance out syllables: Oh, excuse me. Do I know you? Diners in booths would turn into musicians and dancers, too, jumping on tables and counters, partnering coffeepots and frying pans.
She can wait no longer and walks out the door into the street, colliding with no one. A man sits on the jagged edge of asphalt on the edge of an excavation, steam pipes, gas lines, crumpled newspapers, movie tickets, glass bottles, Civil War–era doorknobs, mastodon craps, and root systems that lead to no visible plants—layers of city life cross-section under his feet. An ambulance driver waves away a kid who is still holding up his phone, taking pictures, before the driver folds up his equipment. She goes back into work, pours coffee into paper cups without talking to anyone or explaining why. No one behind the counter notices anyway. She hands one cup to the driver, another to the man sitting on what used to be the curb, and walks away, saying to imaginary children, this is how I met your father, it was an accident, could it really be that simple? The warnings of stamped-out life forms and molecular choreography were what again? She could only hope.