It Could Be a Happy Thing
Some 115 years after Albany, Georgia, was founded on the banks of the Flint River, the city fathers, possessing the “can do” spirit that typified post-World War II America, embarked on a downtown beautification project.
“Palm trees!” said the mayor during a brainstorming supper of meatloaf and lima bean salad with his wife. “They have that Hollywood cachet.” In the summertime, the mayor sauntered into Sunday services wearing a red bow tie and red suspenders with his blue-striped seersucker suit. He was a man who appreciated cachet.
“The coast is days away, and movie stars aren’t parading down Oglethorpe Avenue,” said his wife, a more practical sort who favored biscuit-toned cotton twill that she could accessorize with Jordan almond pink or green as the mood suited.
“Pshaw! We can have the glamour without those pesky actors mucking up the place. Besides, we’ve got a beach and a river. Fresh water, but it counts.” The mayor put down his fork and pointed his finger in the vicinity of her nose.
“You’ll draw back a stump one of these days, Ernest. A beach?”
“Promises, Belle.” The mayor flashed a grin but lowered his hand, flexing his fingers. “Twenty-three years of wedlock, and all my digits remain in good working order.”
“You, sir, are a rapscallion. Answer the question: What beach?”
“The dunes, Belle. The dunes are our sand, the river our water. That makes Albany beachfront property, perfect for palm trees. We’ll be a premier destination. Nothing will stop us.” The mayor picked up his fork and speared a lima bean.
The sand dunes east of town (and nowhere near the river) were the relic of a previous geologic era when, some scientists believed, a sea lapped the terrain that would birth landlocked Albany. The word “beach” was a mighty stretch, but the mayor’s wife adored his vision.
“Palm trees it is,” she said.
By the time you are a little girl growing up in Albany in the 1980s, the palm trees tower over you. Weekly Saturday morning trips to the downtown library include straining your head back almost to the toppling point to see the crowns hovering in the storybook blue sky. The nubby, creviced bark of these trees somehow reminds you of the savory crust of your mother’s pot roast, a delectation she creates by roasting seared hunks of beef in a speckled enamel pan brimming with Jack Daniels until the beef develops a crackled finish of char and crisp. You love to hear the glug of the whiskey bottle as she upturns it over the roast to impart tangy goodness to the meat. The feathered palm fronds too, they seem akin to the festive paper caps that frill the ends of the standing rib roast illustrated in full color in your mother’s copy of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook.
So you think of the palm trees as Sunday-best pot roast trees, elephantine meat pops, and how wonderful is that? Turning onto Oglethorpe in the family car one summer night, Daddy driving and Mama beside him, you are unprepared for your mother to turn her head toward you in the back seat.
“Why’s your window down that far this time of night?” she says. “Roll it up quick-like.”
“I’m hot, Mama.” Your syllables drag. You are sure you will die without moving air. Your cranks on the window handle are desultory at best.
“Roll it. Now, now,” she says. Your parents have shut their own cracked windows and are jerking vents closed.
“I’m trying.” Black shapes splat against the window glass. You turn faster. One of the black shapes zips inside the car, over your head, making the tiny hairs on the back of your neck shiver. Cockroach. Not a furtive, skinny German creature scurrying through the world because its brown heart knows its piddling limits. This is a real Southern cockroach: longer than your father’s thumb, bonbon plump, spit-shine glossy, aerodynamic, fearless.
Window-rolling duties forgotten, you scream and curl into the seat while waving one arm to forestall your use as a landing strip.
“Get it away! Daddy! Daddy!” you yell through the fingers of your other hand. God forbid that thing go in your mouth. You’ve heard stories.
Your father curses with his worst “Rats!” but continues driving. Your mother unbuckles her seatbelt, gets on her knees with her bottom facing the windshield, and lunges over the back seat to get that window up. You hear a crunch as the glass going into the door frame smashes an incoming roach. The one that made it inside lands and runs across the ceiling upholstery, so big and dark it remains visible in the murky streetlight. You point above your head. You cannot stop screaming.
Threat of additional intruders averted, your mother reaches behind her, yanks off her shoe, and swats at the roach. She misses. The roach takes off and buzzes your mother, skimming her scalp, tangling her long black hair at the roots. She screams too.
Your father swerves into a parking lot. “Quiet!” he says.
His hand becomes a flyswatter. Thump, thump, that’s disgusting, but it’s dead. Your father cradles the oozing carcass in his palm. The doors and windows stay closed. He drops the roach in the floorboards by his feet. Your mother hands him a tissue from her purse. Inside the car, silence. Outside, a low-pitched buzz. You’re in a cockroach storm.
“Why are they here?” Your voice is thinner than any roach. It’s mosquito-sized.
“They live in the palm trees in this part of town, sweetie,” says your mother. “They swarm and feed at night. Let’s keep the windows up, okay?” Your father starts the car.
You never eat pot roast again.
At the age of 43, living in the suburbs and working in the city, you put the cockroaches behind you long ago, aside from the fact that you always work early morning overtime to avoid downtown after dark. That’s when the roaches still hunt their prey. Over the decades, the city’s sporadic attempts at eradication ignored the final solution of cutting the trees, which officials deemed too charming to lose. The beach idea never caught on despite decades of marketing, so the roaches alone now imbue Albany with a distinction that generates no small measure of civic pride: Trolley tour companies sell t-shirts bearing a cartoon cockroach behind the wheel of a dune buggy to begoggled, slickered tourists. This entrepreneurship allows your fellow citizens to enjoy the swarms while ignoring the smaller groups that make routine forays into homes and businesses, searching for easy food and spreading mini-outbreaks of diarrhea, fevers, and asthma.
Despite such local quirks, you’ve retained your optimistic, even fanciful (says your husband) outlook. So when CNN reports that it’s raining glass vs. run-of-the-mill water in Poland, then Brazil, then Samoa, you think it could be a happy thing, turning the sky into God’s own mosaic of stained glass. News organizations are having trouble getting photos—worrisome, but you have plenty of prosaic worries already. You text your husband and daughter, and you all agree not to act out of fear. Sensible. You call your husband to follow up.
“Dave, are you sure we shouldn’t pull Violet out of school and go home, hunker down?” you say, gathering your presentation materials from the nooks and crannies of your desk.
“Sweetheart, they haven’t closed the schools, and mid-terms are coming up. She needs to be there; you said so yourself. Why are you panicking?”
“When did it all go wrong, Dave?” You settle into your chair and tsk into the phone.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You used to find my maternal side sexy. This is maternal worry; you should be drooling. Instead, you’re branding me a whiner.”
“But you’re a hot whiner, the hottest this side of the Rockies.” Your husband laughs and you picture his hazel eyes twinkling, the green around his irises accented by the rust-checked button-down shirt he wore today.
“Thank you, Davey, good save, and you’re right. We shouldn’t borrow trouble,” you say. “We’ll wait for the facts.”
You return to your mosaic fancy, slapping a vision of holy beauty into your mind’s eye, and go about your day. You find your coworkers milling around the TV in the break room.
“It’s time for the planning meeting, guys,” you say. “We need to focus, or we’ll miss projections.”
“It’s got to be a prank, like alien crop circles,” says Calista, the receptionist.
“Terrorist attack,” says Rob, head of marketing.
“No one knows for sure yet. Let’s focus on what we can control,” you say.
Everyone files toward the conference room, pulling up newsfeeds on their phones.
You read science journals like Nature for fun and relaxation, a holdover from the days when you watched black-and-white episodes of “Mr. Wizard” with your chemist father and then re-created his educational experiments in your personal garage laboratory, complete with test tubes and Bunsen burners. Unlike most people, you’ve at least heard of amorphous carbonia, a-CO2, but that type of glass has never existed outside of a lab pressurized leagues below deep-sea status.
In the real world, your world, a-CO2 reverts into plain old carbon dioxide molecules, unable to sustain its crystalline form. Consequently, you stay calm on your next coffee break when you hear the TV scientists say that some kind of space dust has combined with heretofore little-known chemical off-gassing from fracking, and that chance combination has ignited the plentiful carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere to form glass. Armed with your knowledge of a-CO2, you assume that the glass must shred the clouds but dissipate as it nears the ground, as benign as the gentle tinkle of wind chimes.
The first glass storm hits Albany. Communication flatlines: Cells, computers, landlines, everything is busy signals and digital denials. You can’t reach your family. The glass falls. It doesn’t offer the quiet reflection of a church window. The space dust somehow encapsulates the a-CO2, like a mini pressurizing “force field,” keeping the glass intact as it slashes downward.
The colors are the garish neons of discount-store Easter candy—toothy, bug-eyed YELLOW bunnies and squishy PINK protochicks—mixed with blood, but the hues pale beneath the weight of the sounds. Screams and crashes rule the day. It’s another swarm looking to feed upon the earth.
Some glass showers down as slivers, embedding by the thousands into skins living and not. Larger pieces lacerate everything from arteries to roofs. Still larger pieces mimic crushing low-altitude meteorites. Deep in the maelstrom outside your office, black dots bullet forth in all directions, and you swear they are the cockroaches seeking an escape. No such luck for your pot roast trees: You see them deconstructed, a pastiche of vegetal bone and gristle.
In the relative quiet of your office building, you sit on the floor in the dark away from the windows. Holding hands with your coworkers, you wait for a break in the rain, your phone, reduced to bauble status, in your lap. You do not, will not picture your husband and daughter carved by the sky, souls spinning free to chase the heavens. They are smart and tough. Dave will be Daddy and go for Violet. You don’t need a phone to know that much.
Your hands are cramping and your butt is asleep before the torrent eases to sporadic sprinkles. Deep breath, the glimmer of a plan. You pry off your coworkers’ hands with a gentle squeeze to show support and unfold from the floor. You head for the shipping department, colleagues herding behind you.
“You’re going outside?” says Calista.
You mummify your running shoes, pulled from your desk drawer, in reinforced packaging tape to help you navigate the vitreous dunes of this new world. Calista picks up the tape when you set it down on the shipping manager’s desk and starts wrapping her own shoes.
“That doesn’t sound smart,” says Rob.
You find a box cutter and pull up a rectangle of carpet and padding to wrap around your head and body.
“No, it’s not smart.” You hold out the blade to Calista. “But it’s a chance.”
“We should shelter in place,” says Rob, his voice firm with MBA-burnished leadership.
Technically, he’s right. You know that. But your brain can still see those cockroaches in survivalist mode trying—one by one by one—to outfly the storm.
“We need hope, not a bunker,” you say with your own managerial flair. “At least I do.”
Calista smiles and brushes your fingertips as she takes the box cutter.
You cover yourself in industrial beige low pile. You run for home. They will be there.
Caralyn Davis lives in Asheville, N.C., with her cat Henry and works as a freelance writer in the healthcare and technology transfer sectors. Her fiction and creative nonfiction appear in Fiction International, The Normal School, decomP, Bitter Southerner, Molotov Cocktail, Eclectica, Monkeybicycle, Superstition Review, BULL, and other journals.