Whatever happens tomorrow, constants remain: aisle after aisle of empty shelves, all the nonperishables cleaned out of the store and stacked neatly in pantries and kitchen cabinets of suburban homes, cans of creamed corn and diced olives, loaves of whole wheat bread and gallon after gallon of drinking water, all gone. The voice on the TV tells us not to panic but the screen shows a reporter outside in nothing but a yellow storm slicker, wet hair matted against his forehead and blinking back raindrops as if they were tears.
On Monday, they’re predicting Mississippi. On Tuesday, they say Brownsville. On Wednesday, it’s us, the in-between. I’m in dance class when I hear the news, staring at that other girl in the mirror, the one with the alternate universe life who will turn around and walk away at the end of the afternoon, remembering it as nothing other than another ordinary day. The one who lives high up in the trees, makes nests out of Wal-Mart craft supplies, does pirouettes along the branches: the one who knows the secret to flying away.
On Thursday, classes are cancelled, but I never have class on Thursdays anyway. It’s dark on the roads at night, and in the parking lot of the H-E-B downtown, the street lamps are out. Inside, the rush of cold air hits me like a fridge door opening. There’s a man standing in line for the checkout counter, his shopping cart empty save for a quart of pistachio ice cream and a six-pack of beer. Giant neon letters float in mid-air when we stare out the glass windows, spelling out the acronym of an unknown phrase. That’s the thing about open spaces: we can pretend they mean almost anything.
I make book jackets out of wax paper and leave them lying on my desk like life rafts. Then I drive home. To boarded up windows and handheld radios and double-A batteries and that darkness again. It’s the kind of night where we read Tom McCarthy by a circle of light that shines on the page, our hands shaking, the kind of night where everyday insomniacs accidentally fall asleep before 2 am and wake to find the late morning sun on the carpet and a steady stream of water pouring into the sewer: a river hidden beneath the roads.
We’re out of focus for longer than I can remember. Red traffic signals blink at every intersection, on and off and on again, like eyes afraid to stay open or closed for too long. We throw open the windows at night and listen to cars driving past while we sleep. We sit in the dark and think about geometry: pyramids and cylinders and cubes and cones, as they appeared in the third grade mathematics textbook I used to keep underneath my bed. Three-dimensional shapes had fixed measurements, pre-defined volumes that anyone could calculate. There was nothing uncertain about them.
Another Monday, the white truck stops in the street and children scream. Electricity becoming something other than itself: a lifetime supply of ice cream sandwiches and orange dreamsicles. My sore throat goes away eventually. School starts again, the clock picks up where it left off. But what is this monstrous creation I now hold in my hands? Would I recognize its shadow if it stretched across my bedroom wall? Class, this is the day we learn that sometimes the most grotesque objects can leave behind the most beguiling of marks.