I knew this place would exist someday, back when things the size of quarters came in boxes the size of shoes. So now there are manmade trash mountains, and now I emerge from my solar penthouse every sunset and watch the workers roving like machines over the heaps of bottles and cans. They do it so fast it scares me: There’s not much time, their movements say, and we know it. They take ten-minute lunch hours, apparently out of their own accord. It’s come to the point where murder is liable to be followed up with a finger wag, where suicide makes the survivors proud, so long as it’s not sloppy. And so these workers, perhaps the last workers in the world, scrape through the already-made, the discarded, hoping to find enough scraps and pieces to power our cars and lights and cities and lifestyles for a few more heartbeats. We have our fingers crossed for them, since their work determines our future, and so in my head I call them the Luckmakers.
The light bounces off them as they sift and filter in their silver hazmat suits, and I’m constantly dazzled. The brightness makes my rooftop garden go dark, and when it does I feel you there in the cave of my mind, looking hard at me. Perhaps you’re right to glare like that. Or maybe it’s just the dying sun in my eyes, my age driving me blind.
Sometimes, after a few glasses of a very nearly extinct Pinot gris, I get to thinking I should be a martyr. At least lionized, at least given a plaque: She kept love alive. Because really, how many people bother?
They say it about every child, but he was beautiful. Just like—exactly like—you: coal hair and diamond eyes, the beginning and the end of something precious all rolled into one. He was grown in one of those machines, incubated, kept warm. I’d spend mornings tracing my finger along the glass as he soaked in brine, alive but not quite, created from your hair and some sweat and semen that I hurried into a baggie one blazing night, years ago. (You said with your pinched accent, your precise island English, What in hell will you do with that? I said I just wanted something to remember you by, which wasn’t a lie.)
So eventually I marveled at the miracle of him, churning in that vat, being cooked up just for me. And I’d think of you, too, as the Interns fastwalked by, how when we met you were even younger than they were, and I was ten years older. I don’t know what you saw in me—if possible, I was even crazier then than I am now—but to this day I’m grateful for it. Now that you’re both gone it’s all I have.
The Interns told me at the very beginning that they don’t live very long. So I knew it, or should have known. But you can’t be bothered to care about death when you’re as excited as I was about life. The DNA goes bad nine times out of ten, it begins to rot, to twist in on itself. A snarl of hair, a tangle, is how one of the Interns described it. The technology is much better now. But you both died at thirty-one, what kind of coincidence is that, science or no? Sometimes, staring at the city through my handprint-smudged windows, watching the Luckmakers riffle and tinkle through the glass mountains, I think there is nothing but coincidence in the world. And only sometimes, like on full moons, do we creep out of ourselves to notice. Still! I thought he’d be the one time out of ten. And I thought you and I would have been the one in a million.
When he was four I started to really see the resemblance. I was looking for it, of course. I was still so in love with you, though you’d been gone for years. Every night to get to sleep I thought about how we met at the old frosted and crenellated hotel I always stayed in, how it was instant, though you were from another country and spoke an antiquated, clipped English. Your accent, the mornings waking up in the sand, the beach empty from the hurricanes, the houses broken and splintered. Everything we did together—driving in the car with the same song playing, my finger always on the repeat button; buying lettuce, cracking clams, chugging beer—became huge and mattered. Everything we saw jumped out of time as soon as we looked at it, as if we were already in the future. As if we had a future. I went wild with the idea of you—began spelling words your way, colour and grey and theatre. I made you tell me everything you could, from your first memory to what you thought when you first saw me (It was morning, on the beach, light flying off the waves and all in my eyes, you said, and then I realized it wasn’t the sun, but you. I snorted when I heard that, but tucked it away, just in case it was true.) Then after our three weeks were over, you went back to where you came from, made plans to meet me, spent the meantime hacking through a jungle with old friends, chatting up natives, buying me small presents made of banana leaves and the husks of beautiful beetles.
Your doctors said some weird strain of malaria. Some futuristic flu. That was when I first thought about sharing your body somehow; I wanted to find that tsetse fly and have it bite me too, give me the last little bit of your blood. Hence the sweat and semen in the freezer, the clipped hair in a Ziploc: I knew, I sensed.
So I watched him grow, but kept my distance. I treated him kindly. I gave him formula then milk, sandwiches then cookies. Soon I gave him prawns, which were your favorite, which you used to cook so expertly, slathered in garlic and chili, popping them into your mouth heads-on once we got around to eating. He hated them at first but I kept at it and soon he asked for them at lunchtimes. We played Scrabble as soon as he got old enough to spell, and he became even better than you, killing me once with a quagmire. My house was huge, so I kept him in one wing with his nanny. She was something like a mother to him, though she was young. Meanwhile I waited eighteen years, fingers drumming the windowsills and walls, playing our same old song over and over again, drinking then-endless bottles of this Pinot gris, wishing for you.
During that time there were other men, several, many. But only one you. Sort of.
One funny story is that I fired the nanny when he was fifteen. She dropped simple things around him, bent low to pick them up. I heard them laughing from my study once, walked in to find them play-fighting by the window, his hands tight on her wrists and her face red. I boiled over with jealousy, my heart like a lobster in a pot, and kicked her to the curb. But I calmed down and hired her back within a week. I didn’t want him to hate me. That wasn’t part of the plan.
Now outside the window something shines in my eye and snaps me out of it—one of the Luckmakers. His silvered facemask seems aimed in my direction, and he’s holding up something that looks like a tattered stuffed animal, a rabbit perhaps. It’s been so long since things like that were made, extra things, things just for looking at or clinging to. I shake my head at him and hold up my hands, so he gets the message: it’s much too late in the game for talking, for small gestures, for anything other than the mantra pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease, and then silence—what is there left to ask for?
Remember the first night when we were wrapped like dumplings in that ridiculously puffy down comforter and saw out the window that green pulsing light hanging in the sky? What was it? We were so hot, half asleep, slick and twisted like eels. You said aliens, I said a planet. You said magic, I said a firework gone wonky. You said the shape of things to come, I said dead light from long ago. Things like that.
As a child I never understood the idea that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. My father was a smart man—he was one of the first to start buying up the landfills—and when he’d say this to me as I sat outside his five-headed marble shower in the morning I would get angry. Then what, I wanted to know, was the point of a cake? As I saw it, the cliché was faulty at its core, for a cake’s essential element is its edibility. Now, however, I know that some things are best to look at, some things are best not to touch. Some cakes don’t taste like they should.
When he turned sixteen he did something odd in the kitchen. We were watching the cook slide a cake into the oven from the vantage point of our mahogany slab table. I was having wine, of course, and I’d just started letting him have beer around me. He had to get that tolerance up if we were ever to drink together the way you and I had. He said, Was I made like that? And pointed at the oven. No I said, you were made like the best ideas are made, you just came out of nowhere. And he reached for my hand across the table and held it. It was one of the first times I’d touched him as an almost adult. I shrank back, steeled myself.
Another time he asked me where he got his name. Ramon’s a strange name, he said, where’d you come up with it? I knew someone once, I said. And my face caught fire with the trickiness of it all.
Sometimes when I miss you most, I think of your clothes. Linen pants that swayed and breathed. T-shirts soft as feathers. Your grandfather’s old hat knocked into the sand. A paper-thin wallet full of tiny, beautiful coins. A leather wristband with a cracked watch snapped on. Your watch is broken, I pointed out. You looked down. It doesn’t matter, you said, I’m on your time now.
He must have known, I think. Toward the end. Because think how smart you were then, how wily. Once he found a fistful of hidden pictures, pointed at you and said, Why am I in this? I wasn’t born yet. Why am I holding onto you like that? With me and him, there were weighty pauses, long slow looks. Evenings spent by the fire, just thinking. Whereas you and I talked nonstop, because we knew about time, we knew that three weeks might turn into a lifetime if we let it.
And since you both have died, the main thing I’ve learned about time is: It’ll fuck you harder than anything else will.
The main thing I’ve learned about the future is that they never thought we’d be doing this with it. They probably would have put an end to it, dropped a world full of bombs onto it, if they had. Or maybe not; people don’t know when to say when, as I well know. I have to say, it’s almost fun to stand here on the roof and watch the decline. I admire the workers, the Luckmakers, their youth and nobility. If we manage to pull ourselves out of this shithole with any kind of justice intact, they’ll be our kings.
When he died, we’d been together, actually together, for about five years. It was fantastic. He knew some of your same tricks, almost as if you’d taught him yourself. For instance: that thing with the leg swiveling. And like you, he liked to flip over on his stomach afterwards, his arm pinned under his chest until it fell asleep, and stare out the window while I smoked or went for another glass of wine. Every time he did that my mind went into a tumble about the whole nature/nurture debate. For about a year before he died, though, it was all he could do to sit up. He looked older than you ever had. Older even than I do now. I gave him hot oil and stone massages hourly because toward the end, if his arm ever fell asleep, we knew it would never wake up.
And of course I wonder: was it really you? Was it you and not the time, was it you and not my relative youth, was it you and not the idea that love could go on that long, was it you and not some metaphor for the extension of life in general (which is apparently a little obsession of mine)? Were you truly that wonderful? Would we have lasted? Was it just the way the white sand made our tans look so Greek and golden? The general answers don’t matter, but my answers do. I found my answer in the etymology dictionary: “love” and “believe” were the same word way back when. That’s enough, that’s plenty.
But one question I never asked myself and never will: which of you I loved more.
Now it’s almost dark, but there’s a knock on the rooftop door. This never happens, since people are terrified of looters and everyone has guns. I have no guns, but I answer anyway.
It’s one of the workers, the Luckmakers. His suit is still on but his helmet is under his arm. He looks like he’s trying not to be afraid.
“I see you up here,” he says, waving the tattered rabbit. It’s patchy and piebald and tragic. “I watch you watching us.”
“How did you get up? They never let anyone up.”
He ignores this question but stares at me with eyes you didn’t have, eyes that have grown old from looking at the end of the world. Maybe they’re what your eyes would have looked like if you’d lived, I don’t know. I honestly don’t know what you’d look like.
This one, he’s younger than me, of course, but he seems just as tired and worn out. “Why do you watch us? No one goes outside anymore, but you do, everyday, and without a filtration mask.”
I pat for my pearls, but then remember I gave them away long ago, to someone just sitting on the street, blood in the cracks of her mouth, so I clutch my neck instead. “You have to have someone cheering you on.”
“But it’s dangerous, you know, especially on NOzone Days.” He keeps staring and I realize he is a little blind too, from the suit and the metal and the sunlight. Below us, the city shines like a star on its way out. “You could die.”
“Thank god,” I say. “That’s all I’m living for.”
Once, shortly after the malaria and your tsetse fly, after I was grieving for longer than I thought I ever could or should, someone I’d never met came to me. A girl, your friend. Maria with a funny accent like yours: Meleeya. She said, “He died but he wasn’t alone. You should know. It might make it better.”
“Who was with him?” I asked. I invited her in and gave her a gin and tonic that she downed before I could take the first sip of mine. I was gripping the edge of my chair and trying to be calm. If she’d looked at my knuckles or listened for my teeth she would perhaps not have gone on to say what she did. I made her another drink.
“Me.” Here she looked into my eyes with her stony brown ones and then stopped and dropped them like pebbles onto her lap. She drank more and said, “I tell you because he talked about you to me. He loved you. He wanted to come back to you, I think. Most of the time he did. I thought you should know. Perhaps it’s what he’d have given you if he were here.” After the drink was gone, there was nothing left. I never saw her, the lover at the end of your life, again. And honestly, I didn’t think about her, either. Not so much. I already knew what I was going do. I knew what I was up to.
Now the man on my roof, this other unwelcome visitor, hands me a greasy scrap of a flier, a reminder about the ban: No new metals. No new plastics. No new paper. No new glass. No new clothes. No new people. Watch for rain and put your siphons out in time. Always wear your filtration devices, even inside.
“Why are you bothering to save us?” I ask him. It’s almost black out now, so I light some candles. Candles are easy to remake and recycle. I’ve got tons.
He looks for a while at the sick city, turning in the direction of Old Cleveland Heights, Old Lakewood, Old Cuyahoga Town. He drums his fingers on his helmet.
“I don’t know what else to do.”
He is handsome, this one, though his face is slick with sweat and grime and slack with defeat. He is another someone I could probably spend the rest of my short life with. Instead I uncork my last bottle and pour him some Pinot gris. He spends a long while appreciating first the bottle then the stemware, tilting it this way and that, studying it in the candle glow, before taking his first sip. Probably his first sip of wine, period. I wish it were a Cab, but those are long gone and with the vitamins they mix into our water, all I can stomach anymore are whites. He slips the cork into his suit, perhaps to be a gift for someone he knows.
We look at the world together. I’d love to tell him, this silver stranger, everything. I’d love to show him what’s in my freezer—some blood and tears from the night he died—and tell him what I’ve arranged to have done with it after I’m gone, how much it cost, to explain how this time it’ll work. I’d love to ask him about love, if he thinks it’s the glue holding what’s left of our lives together or if it’s the most selfish thing in the world. I’d love to ask him who he’d rather save: me or mankind.
Instead I just top off his glass. Instead I just carry the half-full bottle to the lip of the rooftop, where building meets sky, where manmade meets nature, and I hop up onto the ledge as gamely as my old knees will allow and say: “Watch this.” We listen, and a few long moments later are rewarded by the faraway sound of fracture. I hope he doesn’t take it as a sign of disrespect. Nor what I’m about to do next.