THERE ARE GREAT FIRES that burned everything down that everyone still talks about at all the ruined remaining coffee shops. It’s all everyone still talks about. There are no more wild animals in the world, no more wild animals roaming the Earth, and purebred Dogs are more celebrated than God now. Every day I see there’s proof that things fall apart. Buildings are ruins and the ruins are buildings. The air is less like air, there are fewer trees around, and it’s hard to breathe sometimes. My wife wakes up at four in the morning to pray and she does so staring out the stained glass hallway window, and because I can’t sleep anymore, I have insomnia, I like to wake up with her, sit at the side of the cold bed, and watch her pray through the doorway. I smoke a cigarette and turn on our little box fan. I can hear her whispering to God in a sweet acapella that I try to mouth along to, but I never bother her until she’s finished. She prays for seven hours. I don’t believe in her God anymore.

She slips off her pants and walks back into bedroom with her eyes closed. She walks where the wooden floor doesn’t creak, arching her feet like a tightrope walker. Sunlight shines through the cracks in the blinds and it casts her shadow against the wall. I know one of her favorite things is shadows, I know she loves watching the subtle twin shadows in a room, peaking at a secret dimension at play underneath it all. The look in her eye is cutting, unblinking and focused, and it’s as though she’s watching an avalanche of blossoms approaching from behind me. She wants to fuck and have a baby. We have been trying and trying for months now, and with every failed attempt something dies, something crumbles a little. It’s not just happening ours, but in nearly every other household.

A documentary plays on the television in the background. The television is like a fireplace. The narrator on the TV says, Forests cover one third of all the lands of the Earth. Within them are half of all animal species on the planet.

But the documentary is decades old. All the David Attenborough animals are gone. No more old growth trees. No more great migrations. No more flocks, no more packs, no more murders, no more nouns of assemblage for any groups of creatures: they’re all gone. I miss murders in particular, I miss seeing crows on telephone pole wires. I miss walking through a forest, and I miss seeing a forest coming into view.

Although I like to make sure Emilie reaches climax first, that’s not the purpose today. It has not been the purpose for a few days. The point is to have a baby. A baby is a future we can believe in. A baby is something like a bright light guiding through a dank fog.

Emilie grabs my hair and it’s a beautiful, rare morning: we come together.

Clouds gather, and there is a stillness close to joy. I call in sick to work.

Emilie says, I want to name the baby Charlotte.

I tell her a little white lie every day, that everything is okay, that I’m doing okay.

Some mornings, I would say something like, Let’s wait and see, or Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

But today, I say, I want to name the baby Baltimore. Balto for short.

Emilie walks off smiling, creaking the floorboards, and goes off to turn on the bathroom faucet. She says, I fucking hate that. She packs her big knife and gets ready to leave for the day.

_____

I DON’T KNOW WHAT FALLING in love is. I don’t know what staying in love is. After ten years of marriage I am still not sure about my footing about anything. I keep my strange sick feelings to myself, I keep my mouth shut and clean, and I keep my dreams inside my dreams. There is a strong wind this morning, shaking the one redwood tree in the city. I ride the train to work commuting with hundreds of other people, everyone mostly with their eyes preoccupied and glazed over. I like looking at the reflections in the train car, watching faces looking through glass as the world passes along on the other side. I am not sure if I love Emilie anymore, I am not sure where my life is going, and the train car shakes. It shakes and rattles every morning. I have learned the rattle so deeply in my body the vibrations have tickled and settled so deeply in my bones I never have to hold onto the hand railing anymore.

Instead of sitting down to figure things out, instead of slowing down and carefully planning my hours thinking what good I can do for Emilie, I let the routine continue. I do the day in, day out thing, I go Monday through Friday, mindless and automatic.

I work at a nonprofit downtown next to the park. The park is bright green astroturf, ancient marble statues of crouching lions and tigers, all looking ready to pounce, mossy chain linked fences, and no trees around for miles. Our mission is about spreading the awareness and improving the wellbeing of the animals still out there: stray dogs, stray cows, and a wealth of exotic bird species that have been popping up in urban neighborhoods recently, like strangely enough, the toucan. Most beautiful things are dead and long gone but we still have the toucan population. We also monitor zoos and wildlife refuges, solicit donations from the poor and super rich, and fuck around all day, trying to make meaning from nothing, messaging and marketing. It all makes me want to die a little, the spin we do. All the spin.

I don’t understand how the crow has died off, but you can still find a toucan in the world. I am laid out limbs flailed out like a star on the office floor, staring deadpan into the dimming ceiling lights, my mind as empty as my stomach. I skip breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and I drink cups and cups of coffee.

Yeah, it’s random, Drew says. She slouches in her chair and squints her eyes at nothing in particular.

I remember birds on powerlines. I remember birds just chilling in trees. I miss birds in trees and just watching over us from everywhere.

The toucan, Drew says. There’s still the toucan.

Drew points to our Vision/Mission painted along the wall.

I say, I’m so sick and tired of toucans.

The wall behind Drew is covered in toucan merchandise, like hoodies, stickers, and large t shirts that will never move. I stare into the eyes of the toucan like it knows me and I start to feel demented. The office is cold because we’re saving on the heating bill. Drew is the only other staff member, and I may be falling in love with her. She likes to draw comics in her free time in a time when no one reads comics anymore. I have seen her draw. I think the attraction started with her hands, how they stopped shaking when she put pen to paper.

Have you heard of these pop-up zoos, Drew asks.

No.

They’re a big thing right now. They pop up near retail stores and it’s like, they’re just a single tent. Sometimes there’s a super rare animal in there that’s been recently discovered, Drew says, like the other day there was one with a real fox in it.

Oh shit, foxes are still around?

One at least, she says. But usually these pop-ups are just cows. And they take up a lot of our donations.

Drew is the executive director. I am everything else, every other department. I am HR, I am Admin. I am Payroll, I am Operations, I am Development. We both dabble in marketing.

I say, I would still go see a cow.

Me too, she says. Me too.

I would have a cow.

Don’t, she says.

I would have a cow.
_____

IT TAKES A GREAT AMOUNT of stupidity to be truly happy and free. Fuck reality. I’ve got a big amount of stupidity. I have been thinking about the things I’ve wanted the most in life at different parts of my life: comic books, video games, Michael Jordan’s black Chicago Bulls jersey, some time alone, an escape rope, all the animals in the world to survive and thrive on their own, and Emilie. On most days, I still want Emilie more than anything else, and life is fine, but I feel as though I am losing at something. I wake and sleep and there is no disturbance in my motions, my bloodstream under my skin mirrors the steady traffic of my easy commute. You are what you love, you are what you want badly. Sometimes I can barely find life in my hands, the simple will to do things with care, and I don’t want anything. Yet we do it: we go to work, we go automatic: we eat shit and die.

Drew tosses a gummy bear in the air with melancholy. She catches it with her mouth without making a sound. It’s her favorite snack and I see her with a new golden plastic bag everyday. On bad days, the bags pile and pile on her desk like bric-a-brac. I like finding out what comforts people, because it can be so easy to get lost in your way sometimes. What little buttons can you push to get you back to you, what little comforts? Drew has not blinked for a few minutes, and the computer screen reflects in her big glasses. There are some days Drew and I don’t speak to each other at all, and we’re both just focused working and making phone calls. We still keep paper calendars on the wall, the daily ones that you can rip the pages off every day. She throws a gummy bear at me and says, I like being quiet around you.

It’s funny you like gummy bears. Since all bears are gone.

That’s why I like them, she says.

We should do an event or something. Get them to sponsor.

No, Drew says. These are sacred to me.

Drew has a slow growing smile on her face with something like laughter under her breath. She defuses tension, whatever tension, by being comfortable around me. Her posture is horrible, and she slouches in her office chair in a whole new realm. For me, racked with anxiety, it’s ecstatic to see someone so comfortable.

What are you talking about?

These are sacred to me.

I leave work early, stare a moment out at the heavy traffic and briefly think about taking a step too far in. I lift a foot. I think about telling Drew I love her on a folded in half conflict of interest form. Fast cars in all colors rush in both directions, creating wind and glimmer among the layers of highways clouding the sky. Every city is a mega city and I could never afford to ever leave mine unless something kills me. There is a commitment I could feel in my fingers that I could taste in the air that prevents me from killing myself.

Emilie comes home with a hunk of raw meat strapped around her shoulders. I can tell that it’s cow by the way it’s cut and even from the color. Emilie’s hobby lately has been breaking and entering, into industrial farms in particular. It’s a part of her ritual for us to have a baby, and it helps with our monthly expenses. The blood drips on the floor and on her white sneakers. She points at me with her big knife, tapping the air.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Do you want me to guess? I ask.

No, I don’t want you to guess. I want you to know.

Emilie pours herself a glass of water from the old faucet and drinks the entire glass in a few gulps, slinging the bloody slab of meat thud over the shiny kitchen counter, and she needs the calming breeze from the open window. There is an echo from the neighborhood: screaming laughing teenagers chasing after one another down the street. She pours and drinks another glass, breathing a little harder than usual, her collarbones rising up and down from her dress.

Tonight’s not about having a baby, she says. Tonight’s about making love again. Emile puts down the glass and her big knife and she walks over to me with little red stains on the shoulders of her dress.

I need you to know that, I need you to know better, she says. I need a destroyer because I’m a destroyer too. I need you to know that I still need you.
_____

BEING TOGETHER IN A RELATIONSHIP, after so many years, is a slow time machine. I am transported punch drunk frozen and triggered all the time by the slightest of things sparking my senses, like walking down streets in certain weather in a special kind of light, and it takes me back to another time with Emilie. Everything usually reminds me of a time with Emilie, I cannot help myself. Getting off work from the office, I see a Chinese New Year’s parade walking home through the International District, and I feel Emilie next to me although I know she’s not there. I feel her because today is our anniversary: Chinese New Year’s. I remember seeing her for the first time ever through the gaps of the swift, moving limbs of dancers on a sunny day in the Chinese New Year’s parade. I remember seeing her face. I remember being drawn to the calm on her face, watching her watch fireworks on the streets and red lanterns strung along wet telephone pole lines. The sunlight reflects off the black pavement fresh from rain and off the silk clothing from the spinning dancers. She bumps into me looking annoyed and accidentally cuts me deeply with the sharp strapped machete on her shoulder and it starts everything, our whole history together. I learn that I’m a fast bleeder and calm under pressure, but that I get very lightheaded and weak at the mere sight of blood. My body tingles and tingles with needles but I try to not show any harm on my face.

Emilie catches me when my knees give and buckle. She has a brief look of shock and horror on her face which melts away quickly and then turns into affection. The way she stays with me when I am very vulnerable feels revealing to me still to this day. She takes care of me as though it’s a natural basic instinct, and because I am weak from blood loss, I am helpless in her hands, I pass out a few times. Emilie holds my hands while I’m unconscious at the hospital, and after a few liters of IV, I wake gripping her hands tighter in mine. I wake not knowing her name, not knowing where I am, and all my parts feel as though they could collapse and lose shape. I feel as though I could crumble.

She says, I cut you in the crowd and you passed out. I took you here. You’re at the hospital.

She squeezes my hand with the poked IV and says, Happy Chinese New Year’s.

I look around at the bright sterile room and tell her, It looks like a hospital.

Why do you carry a knife? A machete? I ask her.

I don’t like guns, Emilie says.

But why a machete?

She says, We live in a dangerous city. It’s heartless here. There’re a lot of horrible people here. They need our hopelessness, but I’m not going to give it to them.

A monitor beeps. The IV bag sucks empty into my arm.

I like to protect myself, she says.

Thanks for protecting me, I tell her.

I’m the one that cut you, she says, finally smiling. Her smile lights an already bright hospital room and warms my cold body, still sucking IV. I have never felt so safe around someone before.

Happy Chinese New Year’s to you too, I say.

I rush home in the rain to make our show because today’s our anniversary and we love to binge watch TV on our anniversary. There is a sense of a blood filled ticking clock time bomb following me around today, like there’s a judging eye watching me and hovering over me. For some reason, I’m feeling really anxious and desperate to be at home as soon as I can to see her, and the feelings nearly blind my vision. I don’t remember much on my way home but moving through crowds of people. All the cars and buildings might as well not be there, I can barely see anything. I am in a tunnel. But I can see my front door, see the familiar stone steps leading up to my front door.

I walk inside the apartment and Emilie is bloody from the waist down. She’s wearing her favorite black dress tonight. There’s a happy looking brown calf standing right next to her in the living room, eating a pile of cabbages from the floor, not troubled at all with my arrival. The cow eats and eats and almost hums. The air smells like blood, shit, and bleach, and the carpet is filthy with footsteps. The calf’s fur is so brown in the light, it reminds me of gold.

Emile looks as though she has been crying, the skin around her eyes has puffed up. There is no denying she has been through a long day.

She says, It’s not my blood. It’s cow.

I ask, Are you okay, Emilie?

She’s barely standing. I can see now that she’s petting the cow’s ear, quietly transported somewhere. Emilie doesn’t look at me, and the cow eats. I feel a little madness happening inside me, and the feeling is like something is trying to cave me in. I worry to the bone.

I was at the farm, she says, praying with my knife when I got a call from the doctor. I forgot the doctor was calling today. She told me we couldn’t have a baby. We can’t have a baby. All the tests were bad. It’s not happening.

I come closer and see the bloody machete on the carpet laid crooked next to the cow’s feet. Emilie is defeated, every bit of her. The cow eats and I see my anniversary present on the floor: it looks like a rolled up scroll with a red ribbon tied around it. Our show is paused on the television, the table is set with unlit candles.

Emilie finally looks up at me and says, I can’t look at you right now. I can’t be with you right now. I can’t look at you right now. I can’t be with you right now. I can’t look at you right now. I can’t be with you right now. I can’t look at you right now. I can’t be with you right now. I can’t look at you right now. I can’t be with you right now. I can’t.

_____

ALTHOUGH IT WOULD BE EASIER for one of us to leave or tear the walls down, we both stay in the apartment for days. I go to a place with no sound, no vowels, co-existing with Emilie, moving my body from room to room to sleep, to eat, to shit. I go limp as much as I go mute, and then Emilie leaves. She leaves with the door unlocked, with some clothes packed. The baby cow wrecks the apartment. When it seems like she won’t come back, I stop moving any muscles in my face and it’s as though everything is gone. I open all the windows to let the cold in. I imagine myself leaving the apartment for hours before I do: it’s Sunday night in the city.

I walk around aimlessly for blocks and bump into people, not looking up at anyone, no less the sky. Every step is freezing.

I call Drew under a streetlamp and listen to the ringing.

She picks up right away.

Is everything okay? Is there something wrong at the office, she asks.

No, I’m not at the office, I say.

Is everything okay?

There’s not a lot of noise in the background and listening to her voice is a blanket for me. It’s louder on my end than hers.

I close my eyes and ask, Can you talk right now? The tone in my voice is soft in a way I regret.

Not really, she says. Can it wait until tomorrow?

Of course, I say. The street lamp flickers above me and my face is heavy.

It’s like, she says. It’s like eleven at night. I’m with someone.

I think I lost my way a long time ago but I could not tell you when. My days are muffled and numberless and all the hours blend together. In my back pocket is the scroll Emilie gave me. I unravel the scroll, keep the red ribbon, and see that it’s a map of the city, with a route outlined in red. I know all these streets, but have never taken this route before. I have never traveled this far south.

The map takes me to a grove of dead trees and other dead shrubbery. Nothing grows, nothing thrives here. Some of the fallen wood bark is so old, it crumbles to the touch. The porch light from the last house of the neighborhood is many paces behind me, I can barely see it now. There are gray dead trees in my periphery, well above my head, and the crunch from my footsteps almost has an echo, it’s very quiet out here.

I keep walking south where the map takes me, and I think I see something.

It’s a quick movement in the grove. A fat dead tree falls down in front of me and startles me.

I see the quick movement again, and instead of chasing after it, it bounces towards me.

It’s a flapping movement. The bouncing thing caws at me: I see smart black eyes and a sharp almost blue beak: it’s a crow. It’s the first crow I’ve seen in years and I feel as though I’m losing my mind or that I could weep forever. I cannot tell what I am seeing, my eyes have no moisture, and I almost reach my hands out.

The crow does not fly but bounces along the path and I, of course, follow.

It’s not too long until the grove dips downhill and I see everything. At first, I think I see the ground moving, but then I see black eyes blinking at me, and bobbing heads quickly turning direction. I come to a barren field of hundreds of crows, all of them silent, except for the one leading me, cawing his song. It’s only a few seconds, a few paces into the murder, when they all start cawing wildly as I walk through them, among them. Black feathers float with consciousness in the cold air, and I look around in absolute wonder. The noise alone is a miracle to me. They could devour me, the whole murder, and I would not care.

The crow finally leads me to a great, dead tree stump. Because it’s so dark, it takes me a moment before my eyes can adjust, and I try to open them even wider. The dead tree stump opens its beak, and rises on its legs. It caws a perfect caw, and stands almost to me at eye level. It’s a crow the size of a man and its tapping my chest with its beak, looking me in the eye. The entire murder caws behind me but I can’t see them, I can only feel them. If I could, I would travel back in time, not to any specific time. I would travel back in time, slip out of my work clothes, and crawl back into bed and cuddle closely with Emilie in the dark. If I could travel back in time, that would be the first and only thing I would do.

Richard Chiem is the author of You Private Person (Sorry House Classics, 2017) and the novel King of Joy (Soft Skull Press, 2019). His work has been published in City Arts Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Fanzine, 3:AM Magazine, and Moss Magazine, among many other places. His book You Private Person was named one of Publishers Weekly's 10 Essential Books of the American West. He lives in Seattle.

2 responses to “Vile As I Am”

  1. […] short story, “Vile As I Am,” the first person narrative of a nonprofit office worker in a dsytopian near-future where most of the animals and trees are dead, and chances of having a child with his long-time wife […]

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