The Good Stuff

017. Dancing on Seventy-Fourth Street. Catherine Alexander

Manhattan 1962

A hot afternoon, my third day here. The studio apartment is small and scorching.  With a hammer and screwdriver, I chisel paint from the only window. Then with one great shove, I push the jam to the top and turn my head towards the unbroken line of brownstones.

Next door, my neighbors begin to fan out to the stoops where a brown-skinned baby curls its lip and arches its back before mama offers her nipple. In turquoise pants and clear plastic pumps, she sits cross-legged, dangling her shoes from her toes, a newspaper between her and the hot cracking cement. While the new one draws its milk, mama alternates between a thin cigar and a bottle of Cerveza. 

Papa in his undershirt swaggers out with a boombox in one hand and a toddler, dragging a broom, in the other. The tot begins sweeping the stoop, but changes its mind and strums the bristles instead.  Kitchen chairs are being carried out, along with six-packs of Tab, Fresca, and Corona.

Black beans and rice steam from the hibachi under the stairs. Mama ties back her brash red hair, plops the baby in a box from Gristedes Market and slowly begins to twirl, her hands on her waist. She stops, slinks over to her man, and with her knee nudges his thigh. Grinding to the sounds of the Caribbean, the pair dodge, twist and swerve. The child accompanies with a wooden bowl and spoon; his father smiles in approval—flashing a gold incisor. Bongo players expand along the pavement while the new one sleeps in a cardboard box.

And I, a girl of 20, a year out of Nebraska, watch transfixed. Suddenly papa with the flashing incisor looks up from the pandemonium to my window.

“Hey muchacha!”  he bellows. “You got a smoke?”

016. Into this World. Jacquelynn Lyon

The first baby ever born in Antarctica was delivered in 1978. An entire continent empty of the cry of children and empty of tiny feet until one small boy arrived to break its long history of rejecting our incursion. He was Argentinian and born to try and claim sovereignty over the white expanse at the bottom of our planet. Still, he wasn’t born for that. Not really. He was born to live, screaming, in freezing conditions. He was born to grace the first human life on a place covered by ice and rock and a place of never-night and always twilight, killing cold and biting wind. And yet still, he joined this world.

An alligator mother will place her young between her enormous jaws and swim them to water and safety in a cradle of one of the strongest bites on earth. A father emperor penguin will sit on his egg for two months without food. Giant octopus mothers die after when their brood hatches after six months of constant watch and caressing to keep them oxygenated.

In a mouth of teeth and a place of hunger and at the bottom of the ocean, they join this world.

Sometimes we say animals do not care in the same way we care. But how can you watch elephants mourn their dead, and fight off predators, and place their young in the center of a circle of protection and say they aren’t a mirror to ourselves? We cannot claim a monopoly on the concept of love. Alone and yet unalone on our planet.

Every month babies are born in cars and planes and trains because we can’t stop the process of trying to become part of this world. In the back seat of Volkswagens and on the side of the road, and aren’t we an impatient species that burst into being in convenience stores and hiking trails and in the in between of here and nowhere.

Oh, future children, we are a social species that feels alone in the crowd, and you will know hardship, and you will know want, but come and show yourself because we’re here to get through this together. Even as you look up and see all the black, empty night and wonder —how can we be so alone in the universe? How can life like us be so rare when we make ourselves so quickly and so dearly?

Babies are born in war zones and storms and forest fires that scorch the skin and earthquakes that shake buildings apart around us. And there is nothing to do but to try again to welcome them into this world and say, “Look, look, there is pain and a universe of emptiness above and emptiness below, and yet, here we are. Here we are to make it full.”

015. Last Time. Jon Fain

The last time I saw him, I had been out playing in the tent he had bought for my birthday and set up at his farm. I ran across the yard, dog barking and the barn cats scattering, and followed my grandfather as he went into the hay-smell. Inside the red building, past an unframed wall leading to a storage area, on a large shelf over a stack of chicken feed was a nest of blankets. Grandpa whistled me over.

He dropped a sleeping kitten into my hands. It was still warm. He reached in, grabbed two others by the back of their necks, and pulled them out.

“They have big litters,” he said.

The baby cats were dead, but I didn’t get that until I was outside, blinking in the sun, looking at the one I had been given. I thought we were going to bury them, followed my grandfather over to the deep drop between the barn and the dog’s pen, high above the pond below. When no one else was around I liked to stand close to the steep edge. You could see stumps, scrap wood, and even an old rusted tractor stuck halfway down the hill.

He threw his two out toward the blue sky, one at a time. After the second hit and bounced, he took the kitten I had.

I kept holding my hands out, as if waiting to catch it, if it came back.

014. Vault. Kevin M. Folliard

Zjyngourian explorers theorize that Earthlings captured their own behavior on magnetic strips and data drives. Underground sonic sensors reveal engraved symbols: B-A-N-K.

Spidery drones burrow through dense walls, bypass sacks of metal discs and bundles of paper, turning to dust.

They scan and scurry toward prism-shaped artifacts lodged in corners and under decayed desks. Coppery liquid strands extend and begin dismantling, copying, and preserving.

Soon otherworldly archaeologists will pore over priceless footage of cramped cubicles, stalwart beings in sleek attire, and frantic patrons. They’ll anguish over the meaning of handshakes, signed documents, exchanged bills, and pleasantries that passed too quickly.

013. Chekhov's Unicorn. Eliza Master

Flurries fell on the pebbled concrete of the New York sidewalk. The city was slow and quiet. Anna passed a shop she had not seen before. In the window was a photo of old Leningrad, next to portraits of famous Russian writers. Anna loved literature from the Soviet Union. Her breath fogged the glass as she peered inside.

The shop door was old and damaged. Anna fantasized that it led upstairs to a one room apartment. Inside was steamy and disheveled. Vladivostok was covered in Russian frost. She imagined a worn mattress on a metal cot in the corner. By the window was a lonely table. On top was a bottle of vodka and a half-eaten sausage.

The door groaned as Anna pushed her way in to the shop. A man at the desk made eye contact but left her to browse the merchandise. The shelf to her left displayed a new edition of a Nabokov’s Lolita. A creepy feeling formed in her navel and she turned away.

On a display case were different releases of Dostoyevsky. Anna ran her finger over a hard spine, while imagining his time in Omsk. He had spent four years inside prison walls. There, the voices of stories erected. He had penetrated into the darkest recesses of Anna’s being. She flushed. But she had spent too much time communing with him. She needed something else.

Outside snow was collecting. The city was bathed in a white glow.

There were lots of TolsToys in the shop. Sometimes he kept her awake all night. Somewhere between happiness and suffering. Anna missed that, but no.

“Can I help you?” The man from the desk appeared at her side.

“Umm,” said Anna uncomfortably.

“I think I might have something you haven’t seen before,” suggested the man. He got a box from a mantle behind the desk. “It’s Chekhov’s Unicorn. Spanking new and the perfect shape,” said the man as he opened the box.

Anna lifted out the device. The horn was pale pink silicone. G-spot was written on the unicorn’s mane. She pressed the On button. The toy vibrated with a soft purr.

“Perfect,” said Anna, handing over her credit card.

Anna pounded home through the snow. She couldn’t wait to please herself.