Once Upon a Rush Hour


nautilus left on a sidewalk

A curious king of a small ocean territory once sucked a bunch of mermaids into an inland city.  Mermen went too—but just a few.  They couldn’t find each other.  Part of the deal was they lost their tails, which would have made them obvious to each other.  And they had nowhere to swim.  Community pools and public fountains weren’t allowed.  Even without tails they would have given themselves away in water.  By their force, their depths, their sheer easy happiness.  The modern times they found themselves inside might mint them mer maids-slash-men, but I’ll just call them water people.  It flows better.

The city was way too loud for the water people.  They went around turning off radios and TVs and vacuums and iphones.  They twisted the keys off in the ignitions of so many vehicles.  Because they had spent their lives swimming rather than walking, they knew the look of their hands more than land people did.  And now they often saw their very familiar hands resting on completely foreign knobs and dials and buttons and switches and keys. Then Here I am! crashed up hard against Where am I?, rendering them fuzzy and dumb.  When the water people missed the feeling of their tails slicing a sharp turn, or wistfully remembered the sight of a single pearl stabbed in an urchin, they were also just missing their own shrewd clarity.  Being in a new land, constantly stunned, softened their sharp wit to dust.  One land person, a very practical one, reported having the unusually strange thought that if he pursed his lips and blew into the face of a certain water person, her features would poof away like powder.

It was so dry, of course.  And busy—all motion on land happened at great speed.  And again, it was very, very loud.  Even when the electric sounds stopped, everyone on land kept talking.  The water people couldn’t do anything about that.  They didn’t much mind deep or dreamy talk, delivered from soft or slow-bouncing voices.  But mostly people spoke in rushed staccato about taking caution, about getting ahead.  The water people had no interest in getting ahead.  They had been taught from babies to trust flow and currents.  They liked to float.  They pushed deeper more often than forward.  They favoured detours and gliding into watery caves that they knew wouldn’t take them anywhere.  So when a land person asked them in one of so many ways, How much ground can you cover? the water people just blinked.  They lacked the momentum necessary even to lie about having momentum.  Another thing the talking asked, in so many ways, was: Aren’t you worried?  But worry didn’t belong to water.  It belonged to the sky.  Or rather to the signs and wires and lights and buildings buzzing in the sky.  Worry belonged to the pavement.  Or rather, to the cracks and litter adorning it, to the drills going into it.  To all the shoes pounding over it, late already.  Some people curled up on sidewalks or benches in the middle of this rush, and these people seemed more akin to them. The water people sometimes mistook on-drugs for dreaming, and plopped down to join.  Dreaming felt familiar as a way of swimming.  Swimming inside the head.

The land people could see these water people were no more useful than babies, and yet some were oddly mesmerized.  A few would even use the words fell in love—but only much later, when it was safe.  The water people did move in a flowing graceful way, and some of them sang beautifully.  The mermaids wore sequins and rhinestones even to take out the trash, which created a certain allure.  The mermen had broad shoulders and long eyelashes and no sign of a temper.  And the water people had very strange insights that admirers took for humorous, or even genius.  Some smitten land people drew closer and closer and then—upon realizing they wanted to get yet closer—turned and ran for their lives.  They knew the water person wouldn’t chase—that if they looked back she or he would be slumped, frozen in confusion, in the very spot where they had started running.  Still, they sped up.   There was a sense if you kissed a water person you would grow dark and lethargic, like the ocean bottom.  You wouldn’t hear anything, aside from occasional muffled chanting.  You’d no longer be able to even pretend to act busy, and you wouldn’t want to.  For although they were locked inside a city, the water people oozed endless ocean.  Even when standing in a crowded parking lot.  Even when smiling into their coat collars.  Even when sitting cross-legged on a bed in a basement apartment, saying, I haven’t actually been to the ocean.  What’s it like?  This really happened to a land person.  He began to gently caress a graph across the mermaid’s leg as he explained about surfing, about how when the wave summit was x you launched yourself y to follow trajectory xy, and etc. xyz etc.   She shifted and sighed and generally acted the opposite of romantic, until finally interrupting in a harsh, exasperated voice, But tell me about under the waves!  About way, way under the waves!   It could never work.  It never did work.  Which is a relief really, as the ocean king had not thought ahead to the consequences of interspecies, if the conception of such a thing was even possible from between temporary legs.  The water people grew less and less tempting anyway.  Their skin began peeling, leaving a small coating of snow on the insides of their clothes.  Their hair split and sizzled when it was brushed.  Their lips resembled two thin strands of ripped lace.   They progressively stood out—not for their watery grace and sheen, but for the opposite. They looked like husks of humans, like other bodies had crawled on and left these shapes behind.  And since they couldn’t effectively serve as undercover spies when all eyes were on them, the king had to call for their return.  He had people owing him favours on on all corners of the planet, as kings do, so it was no trouble converting a blown conch shell warning to a city air raid siren.

The water people got sucked back forcefully and suddenly, which meant they couldn’t carry any souvenirs.  Among the things they might have chosen to take were: flashlights, lip balm, wasabi, pillows, fillet knives, harmonicas, coconut water, Edna St. Vincent Millay poems, disco balls and tube socks.  Animal friends who had made their time less lonely could be heard whining and shrieking and mewing softly.  But they stopped as suddenly as they began.  Except for one favoured dove a water person had been teaching to breathe underwater, who cooed softly all through rush hour.  When the water people left it took the land people a long time to realize they were gone.  Then remembering them was hopeless, like trying at dinner to recall a dream from the night before.  But in certain pockets of the city–spots where the water people had vanished–the air seemed to thicken and hold a person in place.  A pedestrian’s worry would grow quiet inside one, and she would forget she was late.  Whatever small thing she happened to be looking at–a stoplight or a gutter or a mitten–would suddenly appear immense and original.  It would seem at once very close and very far away, like a thing lying all by itself on the bottom of an ocean.




A long time ago now I had a job at a low-income daycare center, funded largely by the state, for children not yet old enough to attend kindergarten.  I was hired as an aide for two boys in particular, who had been assessed as high-needs.  Every woman on the staff was called, regardless of marital status, Miss.  Followed by our first names.  I soon got so that I didn’t think of dead babies when the little voices called out for me: Miss Carrie!  Miss Carrie!  I have never in my life—before or since—been bruised as much, or touched as much.

Keeping an eye on my two charges could be difficult.  Many of the kids at the daycare were starved for love, and of course people starved for love are the best charmers.  Boys and girls alike would compete for my attention like crafty suitors, playing with my buttons, going out for long-bombs, asking about the dogs I knew.  They’d drape themselves over me and tell amazing stories, the kind I only strive to tell.  One might start out about a pony with its rainbow mane flying back, for instance, but then some detail from a crummy home-life would drift in uninvited, a dark shadow cast across a summer picnic.  My pony has diamond teeth.  It can jump higher than the storm clouds!  But if it goes too far away my mom has to drive it home and she is so mad she slams its hoof inside the glove compartment so it can’t move!  If it moves its hand will get sliced off!  I would want to believe the darkness in these stories was invented.  But usually the child’s voice would become more halting, and her eyes more drifty, on the innocent parts.   

Both my charges ignored me.  Well, they tolerated me.  One of them, I’ll call him O Hungry One—we weren’t sure if he got fed, except at school.  He was always sneaking out of the classroom and dashing down the hallway to the kitchen.  The woman in charge of the kitchen, Miss Rhoda, would feed O Hungry One endless snacks, but he had to work for them.  And when I peeked in to see him carefully arranging dough on a cookie sheet, or stirring a pot of soup, I froze.  I gawked.  This boy I didn’t know had O Hungry One’s haircut; he was wearing O Hungry One’s clothes.  In the classroom O Hungry One had no attention span for books or toys or other children.  He liked to systematically destroy crafts, in fact.  He’d sneak around and slam shut the books kids were reading.  But in the kitchen, in the presence of food, he was still and absorbed, completely lost and completely found.  Miss Rhoda treated him with the love and respect his kitchen behaviour warranted, and commented that he had a real future as a chef.  It seemed both a happy and pathetic prospect to me, that our success should be so utterly defined by a lack.  I would hide at length behind the silver industrial shelves full of pots and canned goods, soaking in this version of O Hungry One.  It always impacted me like that thing in books they call a vision.  And it was a vision I wanted to burn into my head clearly, so that later when O Hungry One was biting my hand or filling up my coffee mug with toilet water, it would help me act kindly and patiently.

My other charge—I’ll call him O Wordless One—he didn’t speak.  He squawked and yelled but with no discernible words.  His badly-cut hair had a grey cast, and his skin was greyish too, and he resembled an old man who was far too little.  He acted most like a toddler on the playground, where he wanted me to push him higher on the swings than anyone else did. He wanted to go all the way around the bar.  When I stopped pushing he would kick his legs backwards, towards my kneecaps, sometimes nailing them.  O Wordless One liked being dizzy.  He wanted me to spin him around and around by the arms, but he also didn’t want to be touched. The conflict this created was apparent in the way he would back away with his face down as he lifted his arms up to me.  When I was spinning him he laughed and laughed, seeming to forget we were connected.  I would spin him until I was past dizzy, and still he would protest when I set him back down on the ground.  Maybe sports equipment is a real possibility for reincarnation, I remember thinking.  Maybe in the last life he was—maybe in the next life he will get to be—a tether ball.

We were spinning like this one morning when I heard a pop and O Wordless One began to scream.  Unlike the other kids he never cried; but he suddenly had water rolling down his face.  He was holding his arm, which we noticed now hung at a funny angle.  I was scared of his mother already, but now if she beat me up it would be justified.  When she arrived I would start with I’m sorry I’m sorry and then gesture to the lesser side of my face, the left.  But the director of the daycare said:  Let me handle this.  I was sure I was going to lose my job.  And the first whoosh of remorse, surprising to me, was that I would miss the physicality of it.  At that point in my life I thought of myself as a rock.  And what do rocks need?  The touch of rain and sun and wind seemed incidental to them, not to mention the hardly-ever-happening touch of other rocks.  Yet here I was unable to catch my breath at the imminent absence of all the unthinking pats from little hands, and the heavy leans into me, which were more like trust falls.  The crying, heaving backs stilling inside my arms, the little fingers fiddling braids into my hair.  Within minutes I had another sorrow.  Namely, who else can I be around who will talk in stories, and show emotion so plainly?  But my first dread was for the loss of touch.  Perhaps right before dying, before departing this human body, it will be the same.           

O Wordless One returned in an hour.  His mother signed my accident report and dashed back to work.  The doctor had popped his shoulder back into the socket and presto, that was it.  I got down on my knees and tried to tell him I was sorry, but he wouldn’t look at me.  That was normal.  I told him I wouldn’t spin him around again, because I knew now that it was dangerous, and that we’d have to find something else on the playground to make him dizzy.  He was gone, walking away.  That was normal.  But then nap time arrived.  Every afternoon we would set out the cots, put lullaby music on the tape recorder, and turn off the lights.  Sometimes it took awhile for all the kids to lie quietly.  Miss Ginny and I would travel around the room sitting on the floor beside this or that cot, rubbing a back or shushing as needed.  I had a strategy that worked well:  I rubbed one finger across an eyebrow, gently and repeatedly.  With the grain for sleep; against the grain for waking.

Some kids always wanted me by their cot. They would ask me first thing in the morning— or, more often, inform me I was to be at their cot for nap time.  In a tone like they were drawing switchblades, which was funny in association with lullabies and blankies.  I was sitting beside one of these children, stroking an eyebrow, my own eyelids invariably getting heavy, when I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I looked around.  O Wordless One was standing in the dim light, backing away with his face down as he lifted his arms to me. It was so out-of-character for him to want anyone near him, especially before sleep, that several kids lifted up to get a better look as we passed.  Miss Ginny had to hiss at them to lie back down.  O Wordless One arranged himself on his cot like someone fearing an ambush—on his stomach, with his knees up and his arms flung over his head.  I was happy to note his one arm bent at the same angle as the other.   I lowered my hand slowly, until it touched his back.  He didn’t jolt at all.  Does he like me now because I hurt him? I wondered.  But it was too unbearable a thought, and so I thought nothing, nothing at all.  I pretended this—rubbing a child’s back—was just another required task, part of the job, and that my hand wouldn’t always remember this child’s shirt.  It was a grey-blue flannel shirt, worn thin, with little pills that bumped against my palm.



By mid-January I am over wanting alcohol, mostly, and over wanting anything in my coffee other than heat.  I’m over writing in favour of making small bad cartoons.  I’d rather play with lines than words.  Because words can be so bad, and words seem to have gotten worse since president-who-rhymes-with-dump took office, either more hurried or more boring or more full of poison, with more exclamation marks.  But drawn lines, even the most crooked, seem fun and friendly, and they stream out of the pen like a helium balloon slipping out of a hand.  They are the steadfast rebels—they won’t be directed.  We humans are all supposed to be activists now, but what type of revolution accommodates no group, no speech, no certainty that one is right?  I begin stuffing things into garbage bags.  The skin on my hands is what you’d mark on a form as white, though if I had to describe them by what they actually look like the word white wouldn’t occur to me.  Bony, orange, and freckled would; dry and wrinkly would.  I leave room at the top of each bag to tie triple knots, as a trap against looking back inside at the treasures.  I won’t peek back at what I made or collected, or at any reminders of what I did where.  And I won’t again catch a glimpse of my very soft, very ripped pajama pants with cowboys riding on them, or I will dive head-first into the bag to pull them out.  Some of the bags I label Trash, and some I label Thrift, and by the end of the week it is like a whole party of squat droids have infiltrated the house, from the Kingdoms of Trash and Thrift.  The droids from the Kingdom of Thrift radiate a perk, superior air, like they know they will have longer, warmer lives and be liked all over again.  The Trash droids seem to slur, in deep slumps: We’re gonna die, herea goes, we’re gonna dieeee!

A friend mentions making a run to the dump and thrift store in her big truck.  We will go off-island because the dump here is just a transfer station and charges steeply, even with my friend’s “blue-eyed gal” discount.  The guy at the dump really told her that’s what she got, which I know just made her big eyes even bigger.  The island thrift store we like—the magic one, where I once found a Mount Gay Round Tortola hat with salty lace around the inside where a sailor had sweat into the band—is dependent on over-worked volunteers.  So they seldom accept donations, and we don’t want to overload them.  So we will make a trip.  That’s what we call it, a trip.  But it takes a long time to go anywhere.  First my kids get sick.  Then her kids get sick.  Then I get sick.  Then she gets sick.  My ten-year-old is so much braver at throwing up than me, I realize.  I fight against it so hard I dry-heave even when my stomach is full.  I whimper and moan, leading up to it and during it and after it.  But my son lies very still and then rushes to the toilet and throws up everything.  It is strange to connect the word grace to vomit, but he goes about vomiting with a sort of grace.  Afterwards he lifts his small sweaty face and says It’s all yellow because I guess everything I ate today was either white or yellow.  I watch in awe, forgetting to hold back his long bangs.

When the day arrives that everyone is well and we can finally drive to the dump without cancelling for a fifth time, my friend and I feel a disproportionate giddiness, like we are headed rather to the airport, bound for Madrid.  One of my overfull garbage sacks splits in the parking lot, vomiting (the obvious parallel) a slew of broken toys, and I laugh so hard that even though I am doubled-over, I have trouble scooping them up.  That night when I pull off my boot, a red LEGO with a chewed-off corner will tumble out.   But now my friend slides a tube of Mr. Stanley’s dark chocolate nougat bar from her purse, which is like manna but instead of falling from the sky it drifts in by plane or steamer from a factory in England.  She fiddles with her phone and puts on a song we like, and when the angry part slows to the soft part the singer purrs, No I won’t bring too much of anything/ Maybe a little slicker for the rain… We are driving into August, towards Madrid, and on the back seat rests my leather satchel, with nothing in it but a swimsuit, three sundresses, and a toothbrush.  This fantasy is hard to maintain, as we are both wearing mittens and trash bags are oozing into our view, casting big black shadows on the front seats.  To distract myself from our lack of plane tickets I contemplate an enterprise manufacturing giant and very durable trash bags that come in pastels, in brights, in patterns, in metallics—in every single colour but black.  I would be that unicorn: a minimalist who mass-produces trash bags.  And I would have to prance from our striving-for-zero-waste island in the night, before I got driven off on stakes by outraged environmentalists.  But at least I wouldn’t have much to take.  Not even a rain slicker: I could use a yellow trash bag for that.              

As we approach the dump I feel guilty for having so much stuff to get rid of.  I say to my friend:  Let’s tell them that your dad is on life support, and he’s like a pack-rat, and we had to clean out his entire apartment.  She rolls her big blue eyes.  As it turns out we don’t say anything, because the truck gets weighed as we pull over the platform, and then it gets weighed again as we leave.  They charge you for the weight you leave behind.  Once we pull in the sky opens up gloriously in a way it can’t on our island, with all the trees.  It is a washed-out sky but very elegant, how it is spread so still and then suddenly cut through with crying seagulls.  In heaven it might be the opposite, is what I think.  They might reward you for the weight you leave behind, on earth.  I don’t really believe in heaven but a big sky could trick you into it.  At the free store I set down a box of trucks that my sons used to play with but don’t anymore.  My eye lands on a favourite one, the wooden cement-mixer with the rolling belly that their tiny hands pushed across so many floors.  For a moment it’s as if a pair of two-year-old boys are sitting in the cardboard box.  Their legs hang over the side, and they’re bouncing the heels of their little shoes against it.  Shoes that I can still choose, shoes that they don’t yet wear holes into within months.  Goodbye little kids, I don’t say.  And they don’t say goodbye back.  Maybe they’re offended at being called little, or maybe their mouths are busy making cement-mixer sounds.   It doesn’t matter.  The seagulls wheeling above the mud and grey sky look washed clean.  I’m still staring at them when a woman eases up beside me and begins rummaging through the box.  She lifts the green tractor and I think of something I can say about it, but I decide not to.  Her little kid will like whatever he likes.  She pries open the driver’s door with her fingers and then draws her open palm across its wheels, trying to gauge how far it will roll.