By Mike Nagel
Recently someone started painting arrows on all the sidewalks in the neighborhood. At lunch, the dog and I follow them around. They take us down Royal Oaks to Princess Blvd. Then over to Camelot via Guinevere. They’re poorly done. Freehand. White spray paint on concrete. Some of them look like lower case r’s. Some of them look like capital t’s. I think if you’re looking for signs in your life you can’t be too picky about what they are. I think ⎯ if you’re looking for signs in your life ⎯ you kind of have to take what you can get.
“Well,” I say when I find another arrow. “Good enough for me.”
It’s May now. The tree pollen is moderate. The ragweed pollen is moderate. The grass pollen is high. Everybody I know is whacked out on Flonase and Claritin D. Even the dog takes a small dose. An entire city experiencing the common side effects of over-the counter antihistamines. Drowsiness. Fatigue. Irritability. Wednesday evening J and I go for a walk. We follow the arrows down Oak Grove and into a cemetery.
“Wait––is this a cemetery?” she said.
“It says cemetery.”
“On that huge sign right there.”
There are twenty-two cemeteries in Plano, fifty thousand cemeteries in Texas, one hundred and fifty thousand cemeteries in the United States. Wherever you’re standing, you’re probably standing in a cemetery. We walked around a little. The tombstones are all a hundred years old. Slab grey. Crumbling and faded. You have to put your face right next to them to see who it is.
BOWMAN, one of them said.
RUSSELL, one of them said.
BOWMAN RUSSELL, one of them said.
J stopped at a giant chunk of granite shaped like a human head.
“Sarah E. Gamble Chenault.”
J teaches American Studies at the high school down the street. She wears themed t-shirts depending on what they’re learning that day. On Tuesday it’s a Richard Nixon t-shirt. On Wednesday it’s a Roe V. Wade t-shirt. On Friday it’s a picture of an American soldier in Vietnam.
“War is hell,” his helmet says.
Maybe they all say that.
I don’t know very much about America. I’m not sure anybody does. The shirts aren’t helping. Yesterday she was wearing a shirt with a pineapple on it. This morning it was an atomic bomb. It’s a common misconception that because I live with a history teacher I have some idea what’s going on. I don’t. I just follow the arrows around like everybody else and hope they lead to something interesting at some point. At night the top of my mouth itches. My tongue swells up. My whole head feels like an over-inflated birthday balloon. It’s tradition around here that once a year all our heads explode. You get used to it. You can get used to anything. In the evening I drink organic allergy-relief tea out of Bulleit Bourbon mug.
“Mmmm,” I say. “Tea.”
I haven’t had a drop of booze for ten weeks but I have this stupid tea. It’s okay. Peppermint flavored. Anti-inflammatory. Tastes like potpourri. I once knew a guy who traded his eight-whiskies-a-night for a liter of Diet Coke and a porn addiction. A lot of things are interchangeable. I read they recently developed the technology to lop off a human head and swap it out for something a little more reliable. I hear good things about papier-mâché.
“Right on cue,” Ron says after the first heatwave hits the first weekend in May. 93 degrees. Overcast and sticky. A chance of rain with a certainty of being miserable. There’s some comfort in the reliability of it. Most lab rats prefer constant abuse to unpredictability. Yesterday I found a dead bluebird in the backyard. A victim of heat stroke and dehydration. The latest casualty of our warming planet. I put out an old Tupperware container filled with tap water and declared myself the interim minister of wildlife hydration.
“Just as the Lord cares for the birds of the air, so will he care for you,” the Bible tells us.
“I know,” I say. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
In the evenings I sit on the patio swing and watch TV on my laptop. I drink Guava Goddess kombucha. At some point the mosquitos come out. Asian Tigers. The ones with the stripes on their backs. I think they’re attracted to my screen. I don’t blame them. Lately I’ve been watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
The camera work!
The set design!
If there’s one thing I know about filmmaking it’s the importance of production value. I once asked a semi-famous cinematographer what his secret was.
“Point the camera at something good,” he said.
In the mornings I follow the arrows down Royal Oaks, past Monarch Drive, all the way into Bob Woodruff Park. In Italy all roads lead to Rome. In Plano all sidewalks lead to Bob Woodruff Park. I keep ending up here. It’s hot and green and smells like a Petco. Lately someone’s been leaving million-dollar bills on all the picnic tables. “Here’s the Million Dollar Question,” the bills say. “Will you go to Heaven when you die?”
The temperature rises. The pollen floats around. The mosquitos are fruitful and multiply. Well, I think, at least they’re having a good time.
Sondra tells me that Asian Tigers feed all day long. Blood thirsty alcoholics. However much they get, they could always use a little more. They live for eight days and lay 500 eggs. The latest prototype in the long history of mosquito evolution. Like me, they arrived on the scene completely uncalled for some time in the late 80s. And ⎯ like me ⎯ they are capable of drinking themselves to death.
“I don’t remember these from when I was a kid,” J says, smacking one against her ankle.
“Yeah,” I say, smacking one against my neck. “They’re new.”
Part or particle of God, Emerson became an all-seeing, never-blinking eyeball. Tuesday night I become a Panavision Panaflex II movie camera.
“The secret,” I remind myself, “is to point myself at something good.”
Lacking anything good, I point myself to the left, toward the cemetery. I’ve been back a few times. The final resting place of forty-three people who never made it out of the neighborhood. I check to see if I can communicate with them telepathically.
Hello? I think at the ground.
Is this thing on?
Testing testing one two three.
Are you there, Sarah E. Gamble Chenault? It’s me, Margaret.
Like you, I am open to the possibility that I am one special son of a bitch. Like you, I am open to the possibility that there has never been anyone else like me in the history of the world. I stand there between the graves until the mosquitos come out. Sometime after sunset, just before dark. A few at first. Then a lot. Then all of them. I’m a poorly functioning diabetic. 7.8 A1c. My veins are full of Hawaiian Punch. I hold my arms out like that Jesus statue in Rio de Janeiro.
“My blood,” I say. “Artificially sweetened for you. Drink it in remembrance of me.”
You can lose 3 pints of blood before you feel lightheaded. 4 pints before you see stars. 5 pints before your head floats off like a hot air balloon, up past the power lines, in the general direction of Costco.
On Tuesday J wears the Nixon t-shirt again. On Thursday it’s the pineapple. History repeating itself. A three-week laundry cycle.
“We’ve seen these ones before,” I remind her.
On Nextdoor I hear about a plan to release ten million sterile mosquitoes around DFW. Decoy fuck toys to keep these things occupied. An obvious-enough strategy, I guess. The day Politico leaks a brewing overturn of Roe v. Wade, my Twitter timeline is full of men vowing retaliatory vasectomies. Solidarity via sterilization. They post emojis of scissors and cherries.
Well, I think, it’s not like the world needs MORE balls.
That afternoon I follow the arrows past Queens Way over to Spring Creek Pkwy. Then I follow them back down Spring Creek to Royal Oaks. Then I follow them around in circles for a while. Then into Bob Woodruff Park. It’s 92 degrees. Sunny and clear. I’m out here sweating my balls off. It’s the least I can do. My eyes are bright red and itchy. My head is the size of a beach ball. I have ten million dollars on me. All cash.
When the sun goes down the fireflies come out. Lampyridae, they’re called. I remember because lamp. They flash around me like paparazzi. I’m famous. Me and my yellow belt. Me and my black skinny jeans. I pump my hips back and forth. I turn around and walk backwards. I give them a show.
Yesterday I Googled my own name and got five million hits. Later my head exploded. It happens every year. I’ve had thirty-four heads. This will be number thirty-five. They’re full of cotton balls and glitter and alphabet soup. Ticking time bombs. Rigged to blow.
Mike Nagel is the author of Duplex. He lives in Texas.