The garden is wilting. Kimberly, my father’s wife, is squatting over tomatoes and zucchini, spraying honeysuckle and prickly basil, telling me the bees are dying and if the ozone level plunges any farther down shit’s creek flowers won’t be able to pollinate and little metal flying robots will have to do it for them and then they will malfunction and there won’t be enough oxygen to go around. Machines can give us apples and blackberries but they cannot give us air to breathe.
Kimberly waves gardening shears in the air. She’s designed this garden in my father’s backyard, rimmed it with a big brick semicircle. Her hair, copper-colored and shiny, is clipped into a sweaty ponytail. It is August so it is really our last chance, Kimberly says. She pats down store-bought soil that’s the shade of play dough. I noticed when I got here yesterday the honey jars were scraped so clean the sides were scratched. They don’t even smell like honey anymore.
“Nothing built up in a laboratory, nothing made of metal for Chris-sakes, can replace actual nature.” She crouches down, rips out a strand of rotten strawberries. I imagine not Kimberly but my mother, streaked grey hair, long white arms and bony shoulders, fascinated not by flowers but by weeds she studied on the hikes we took. “And this is the least of our problems,” Kimberly says. “Global warming, dangerous, yeah, but without vegetation, how are we supposed to live?”
People stop living all the time, I want to say. There’s a series of pictures on my Iphone: dead seal, dead cow, fly-infested Big Mac at a garbage dump, Olympic swimmer dragged, unconscious, from a sparkling blue pool. Kimberly would not appreciate this. Kimberly appreciates optimism. She looks solid and strong in front of my father’s house, which is so big guests have gotten lost inside. The floors are so clean I go barefoot, otherwise I’ll slip in my socks. Kimberly smells like pine trees. When she hugs me the silver of her bracelet is so hot it burns.
We plant. We both sweat. According to NPR, background noise my father hopes will sink into his subconscious, it’s the hottest day on record in a decade. According the radio, we’ll start to really feel it around noon.
“Do you feel it?” I ask Kimberly.
“Try to breath normally,” Kimberly says. “Try not to think about it.”
“Breathing hurts,” I say, more of a complaint than the truth.
“Try through your nose then,” Kimberly says. She closes her eyes and shows me, yoga-style. My father shouts from inside that he’s going to work.
“It’s Saturday,” Kimberly calls, then goes back to breathing, clipping one nostril at a time with her brown thumb. I search her face for wrinkles, signs of sadness, wear around her eyes.
The first time we met her, at a sandwich shop in Sag Harbor, she was being yelled at, then stabbing the brioche she was supposed to be spreading with sun-dried tomato hummus. My father asked how old she was. She wore a tight turquoise tank top and a glittery butterfly around her neck.
“Old enough to dye my hair, put on sunscreen, and go for regular mammograms,” Kimberly had said, and he’d later decoded to 31.
Kimberly and I carry bins of pansies and lupines, bright as nail polish, out into the garden. We crack the dry, hard soil with green-handled gardening sheers. The flowers are shipped from someplace else.
This afternoon, there is a blackout. The houses in Oyster Bay get hit the worst. I take this blip of Kimberly’s distraction to walk a mile into town. On the way I pass kids playing tired hopscotch in enormous driveways, rinds of pastrami sandwiches and mustard on soggy picnic tables. In town, two hair-sprayed teenagers grope on a bench, next to a smashed watermelon ants have attacked. There’s a blow-up pool in front of the hardware store, a deflating oval dinky thing rimmed with smiling suns. The thin layer of water in it seems to be boiling.
In front of a Swedish bakery, pastries tinted grey and stiffly glossed, is the last pay phone in Nassau County. My father says it’s a matter of time before the pay phone and the bakery are both ripped down. I dial collect, an international call. My father has money and the hospice in Tunisia is the best money can buy. Lately I’ve begun to think in labels: my father is a successful doctor; Kimberly is a failed dancer; my mother is a cancer researcher who—ironically and cruelly, according to my father—has spent the last four months battling Lou Gehrig’s. At the end of this summer I will still be labeled by my age, fourteen. I wait for pimples, stare in the reflective metal of the pay phone, daring them.
My mother accepts the charges right away.
“I was wondering when your father would have you call,” she says.
“I took a walk.”
“How do you like your father’s house?”
“It’s big,” I say. “Kimberly is cheerful.”
“I never liked cheerful people,” my mother says. I ask how Tunisia is and she tells me about the iguana that sleeps at the end of her bed. She eats fresh fruit and chicken feet every day, spends afternoons ankle deep in the Mediterranean. They’re used to the heat in Tunisia. She’s become friends with a nurse who blows enormous glass dragons sold for pennies on the sidewalk.
Last summer, when I was visiting but not staying, a parade rode through Oyster Bay. There was a marching band, a float shaped like a pirate ship, a boy with an eyebrow ring singing Puff the Magic Dragon badly, basically kissing the microphone. Kimberly dared me to talk to him, but I’m like my mother, I don’t mix well.
“When you come out here,” my mother says, “A’idah will make you a whole family of dragons. You can pick the colors.”
“I hate the Hamptons,” I tell her. “The air makes my hair frizz.” Plus—I don’t add because my mother is a careful eater—the portions are too small.
My mother laughs. We stay on for a while but she doesn’t say anything else. Neither do I. It’s not necessary. Her breath sounds thin like the flute I abandoned, but there it is, all the way across the world.
“I thought I’d find you here,” Kimberly says, tapping on the glass of the phone booth, yelping when she burns her knuckles. Then she sucks on them. I breathe through my nose.
Kimberly drives us home. She decides we need a project, one we can do indoors, until the air conditioning blows. Which, she says, it will. We pass an abandoned stoop sale, an abandoned super soaker, a sign for fifty cent lemonade. All the kids have gone inside in the event that this power outage is something scarier than the failure of electricity. I imagine ghosts jamming the electric lines, dead bees attacking an ecosphere that didn’t think twice about them.
We spend the remaining hours of daylight on Kimberly’s project. Kimberly brings out construction paper, a multi-pack of crayons, so many shades of pink and gold and green and blue. Also candles, a portable battery-operated radio, a battery-powered laptop; if we need a break we can watch one of her last performances, in the touring company of Cinderella. We design environmental awareness posters, sketching with pencils and coloring in quickly. “They need to be bright,” Kimberly repeats. We are so intense with the crayons they break. From my father’s window I can see the flowers wilting, curling into themselves.
We are told to turn off the radio, but the announcer keeps talking. “Shocker,” Kimberly says, “like anyone listens to their own advice.” We are told if sun hits glass at too direct an angle it can, in rare cases, cause a fire. We are told the bumblebee population in New York state has dwindled to 300. We are told to consider unplugging the fridge.
“As if,” Kimberly says, pulling out a tray of these coffee ice cubes she makes. They’re melting. Behind her back, my father says they taste like mud and look like diarrhea. Cars are told to stay off the highway. Without stop lights there have already been four accidents.
At sunset, as Kimberly predicted, the air conditioning decides to stop. The safest place to be is outside. We grip the plants in bunches as though our cells, the oxygen we naturally emit, will keep them strong somehow. Kimberly spits into a tangle of lupines.
“Should we call Dad?” I ask. I’ve no idea what time it is. There’s a hollow feeling in my stomach that I like.
“A watched pot never boils,” Kimberly says, sounding stiffer than herself.
“That’s such a dumb expression,” I say, “because it actually does.”
“True, Sunshine, totally true,” Kimberly says, standing up. Kimberly does a plié; Kimberly stretches; Kimberly twirls. I like being seated, the center of gravity.
We wait for my father in the garden, in the dark.
When the lights come back, after Kimberly has fallen asleep on a bench next to azaleas, my father is already hunched over his laptop, elbows on the laminated dining room table, ignoring the mess of crafts we’ve strewn across it. He is playing online Solitaire, a card game he used to compete at with my mother.
“What did you girls get up to?” my father asks. He often tells me to keep my voice down, but he never tries to be quiet. My mother used to say he was the only public speaker who didn’t need a microphone.
“Lots,” I say. “Including Cinderella the ballet taped with a Samsung. And coffee ice cubes.”
My father laughs, looks out at Kimberly sleeping, shakes his head.
“We also designed posters,” I say, showing him. “Queen bee battles pesticides; the sunflower strangles the raccoon; the oak tree clobbers the machete.”
“Isn’t that something,” my father says. For a moment he stares off into space, as though trying to contemplate how an oak tree could clobber a machete. In reality. Then he walks out to the garden. Kimberly snores slightly, hair dull and tangled, spit at the corner of her mouth.
My father puts his hand on Kimberly’s forehead.
“She seem warm to you?” he asks.
“We’re in a heat wave, Dad,” I say. I touch her forehead. She’s cool, her skin is just a little sticky. “You’re paranoid,” I say. We go back inside, me to broken crayons, my father to his game of Solitaire, the satisfaction he gets from blankly shifting cards, not at all worried that the battery will run out.