Fidget Spinners in the Anthropocene

Melissa Stephenson

You brew a second cup of coffee, choosing the Aeropress over the French press, though your boyfriend swears by the latter. Mid-morning and heat radiates already through closed windows. You remind yourself to try iced coffee for a change, but old habits die hard. You like the steam, the way the half and half swirls into black. Best thrift-store mug

in hand, you return to scraping boogers and glue off the walls of your son’s old room, the room he lived in for 5.5 years — half his life, exactly. You rub and scrub and use a non-toxic bleach replacement while wishing you hadn’t spent your first cup of coffee reading that doomsday article with the thumbnail image of a skeleton hand holding a water bottle, the article that took thousands of words to predict the earth will be too hot to sustain human life by the end of the century, the end of your son’s life — Done. Over. Your brain

assembles a list of solutions: buy less, recycle more, save up for solar, take the bus or ride a bike or walk everywhere. It matters, right? Or not.

Outside, another triple-digit day has you thinking, This is why we left Texas.

Texas, where you moved when your son was five weeks old. You recall him standing on your knees as you waited for the plane south, you holding his hands and strangers saying, He can’t be five weeks. He’s almost walking, his legs still bowed from the curvature of the womb and you sure that his physical prowess meant he was going places faster than the rest of us, someplace better.

Texas, where your daughter was born almost eight years ago in a rental home bedroom before dawn and here you are back in Montana, just past July 4th and the forecast for this weekend: 100, 101, 103. At least it’s a dry heat, they say. Still, too hot to camp. Too hot to do much more than be inside.

Upstairs there’s the window unit bought with an ancient Walmart gift card — a gift from your Indiana family, a gift it took you five years to use because that store gives you the creeps, makes you feel like you’re subsidizing the decline of civilization. You are working on deadline, turning your son’s old room into your daughter’s new room by tomorrow — her birthday. You bag up the boy rubble — Legos and GI Joe’s. Put on a movie to half-watch. Something not hot. Something with snow, like you used to do back in Texas — Christmas movies in July — because you needed to believe in something

opposite of what you had. If your mother were here she’d look over this room and say, Maybe we should just burn it down the way she once, on a visit, she remarked about your microwave, I’m not sure if I should clean it or just buy you a new one. So clean she was, so tidy. Everything in its place. It’s a mantra that began back in Indiana, as goods became cheap and your parents climbed up to middle class and always just got a new one.

Maybe that’s why your brother grew up to be a garbage man — a consumer rebellion of sorts. When he died you cleared out the place where he’d been living at the landfill, surprised at how nice it was: a double-wide painted all-white, furnished solely with items rescued from the trash. Still he put a bullet in his head one August Sunday, just after the century turned. Your parents this time could not just get a new one. Was their son, your brother, the ultimate environmentalist? Or a lost twenty-something? Who knows?

That is not a rhetorical question. Who knows? You do know (but never mention)

how much your brother looked like your son, who moved into his new basement bedroom last week, for his eleventh birthday, the one you went down to your last thousand dollars remodeling. Two summer babies. My two little Cancers! you like to joke. Both had heat rash as infants — little red dots in their neck folds and napes. You can still smell the yeasty milk of their bodies. The rash, you heard, was common, but you took it as proof that you were the kind of girl who never should have become

a mother. You reach for a rag, remember the mind-boggling article, and do the quick math: By the end of the century your kids will be — Stop it. Focus on the peach wall paint you should re-do but it’s good enough for now if you can get it back to clean. You can’t help it though: They’ll be 91 and 94 in 2100. Enough to live a life but

what will that life be like? Will they inherit this house, the window unit? The poor will die first. Will your kids help others, when they are no longer kids? Will they be beaten for the cool basement lair, the window unit? Or will they move north, dig an underground dwelling in the Yukon, and live like the Ingalls you grew up watching, back in Indiana, on your parents’ old Zenith cabinet tv.

You sweep the eighty-year-old hardwoods that could use a new coat of finish but you don’t have time. On your computer screen, Bruce Willis resurrects himself, bloody in the snow, to finish kicking some ass in “Die Hard.” This is the main floor of the house, hotter than the basement and the upstairs, where you sleep, with the Walmart A/C.

Outside, the grass fades from green to gold and that line you’ve loved since high school comes back to you, from the final paragraph of the James Joyce short story “The Dead”:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

If you had a choice, which you don’t, you’d prefer an ice-age. Death by cold. Slow. Numbing. Sleep. You’ve always been remarkably thin — a distance runner with bird bones, but still you prefer the cold. Heat suffocates while the cold erases you.

Recall George McGovern delivering your college commencement speech, thousands of you sweating as he recounted the long saga of his daughter freezing to death in the alley behind a bar in Madison, Wisconsin. His final message to University of Montana’s class of 1998: Don’t become alcoholics, and mind the cold. Will we have ice

for sweating cocktails as the heat overtakes us? No reason not to drink and drink and drink unless to defend one’s self against looters and villains, wandering bands of cannibals, like when your daughter was one week old and your then-husband handed you Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to pass the time while your nursed. Two chapters in you asked your husband, Why did you give me this? This death? You made him say if the boy lives or dies so you could bear to continue.

Outside, a curl of smoke rises over Lolo Peak — the first wildfire of the season, sparked last night by lightning and you close the blinds against the sight of it, the heat.

Time to mop, finally, then start moving in the girl’s too-many things. You have a bag for Goodwill, a bag for trash, and you feel almost guilty that you’ll cull her things without asking because letting go is too hard for her — the native Texan with a triple-digit temperament. You discard the unicorn with the broken horn, five dried-up magic markers, plastic party favors that are, or soon will be, or were maybe even born

trash. A knock on the door and the dog, rescued from the streets of California, goes off like an air raid alarm. Will there be alarms? Like heat index alerts? And shelters. Will they have shelters? You thank the UPS man for the packages and think how yesterday, before the article, you told your friend, I didn’t set foot in a single store for her birthday. It’s so easy to shop online, and hard to beat the free shipping. As you razor open each box you feel like an asshole, a prime example of your parasitic species the earth will shake off like a bad batch of fleas. You should have bought your daughter a self-defense class, survival skills. A map and a compass and a cache of dried beans, rice, vitamins. A bunker, perhaps, up 9 mile, with a hidden well — the gift that keeps giving.

In the meantime, here are the spoils:
          Box 1: a “tie-dyed” fidget spinner from China.
          Box 2: Books 1-4 of The Babysitter’s Club (all available,
                     you’re sure, at your public library).
          Box 3: A pair of red sandals, identical to your own. She’d asked, to be fair.
                     I want shoes just like you Mama just like you.

The dog pants and drops, belly-down on damp hardwood for an afternoon nap. You waited too long to walk her again — high nineties now, and climbing. You’ll have to bake the cake at night, when it’s cool enough to open the windows. And dinner — fruit salad and PBJ? Smoothies and grilled cheese? Does anyone care?

          Box 4. The big gift: a giant doll named Cyndi with your daughter’s same
                     color hair and eyes, which roll open as you lift her. She stares back at
                     you and you see immediately how this gift is wrong — another chunk
                     of Chinese plastic for the return pile. It is the one thing your daughter
                     shouldn’t have, after all. Something maybe you had no right to, either —
                     this doll. A baby. A child.

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