Something Must be Done!
I remember the one they called the Big One. I was apartment hunting at the time, seeing a unit in Greenwood. It was ugly—teal carpet, plastic bookshelf, but there was this old, wooden arm chair that I liked. I remember trying it out and running my fin over a lion carved into one of the armrests.
“Does it come with the unit?” I asked the landlady.
“You betcha!” she said.
She had metallic bluish scales and a beehive hairdo. I was thinking that if I didn’t get the apartment, maybe I could get a date.
Of the old gang, I was the longest to hold on, but now I too needed a place of my own. At first there’d been a gaggle of us aspiring types, Alan and Nathan and Susie and Drew and Tina and Tammi, a couple Jeffs. We rented an old house and waited tables, landscaped part-time, made latte foam art. We watched Romanian New Wave films and read our sound poems to one another. Rent was split equally, which is to say nobody paid.
But then, as if overnight, we got older. Jeff and Tammi and Jeff and Tina shacked up and wanted to procreate and buy new houses with fenced off enclosures to keep their young from escaping. So it went. Everyone got a job with a tech company or they ran away to the edge of civilization, or both. Soon enough I was the only sockeye left in that big house, just me and my ideals.
One day, I was watching a Dziga Vertov film and smoking French cigarettes when a notice was stapled to my front door. It said the building was going to be leveled to make way for condos.
“Hey,” I asked the Greenwood landlady, admiring her red velvet mumu and muscular pectoral fins, “Is there any way a guy like me, with no credit and a part-time job, might skip to the top of the application pile?”
She started wiggling her tail. Only it was less a wiggle than a vibration. Her fins sort of swiveled around. I’d never seen anything like it but I felt the situation demanded a response, so I tried doing it too, this mating dance, if that’s what it was. Only it wasn’t that at all, it was the earthquake getting started.
“What’s going on!?” the landlady shouted. She pressed her fins against her beehive hairdo to keep it in place.
“What do you want to be going on?” I asked back, having somehow not yet realized the magnitude of what was happening.
She reached out and touched my fin, then pushed me aside and hurried to a door frame. I crouched under a table. There was a cracking sound like a roar and out the window I could see trees ripped in half right up the middle. Buildings tumbled over like dominos. The whole apartment building crumbled around us and everything was pulverized, save her door frame, my table, and the old arm chair.
It occurred to me that the landlady and I might be the last two salmon alive.
“I can’t believe your hair is still perfect,” I said.
Only she didn’t hear what I’d said because a chasm had ripped open and we were hurtled away from each other.
“What?” she cried out.
“I said, ‘your hair is still perfect!’”
Magma oozed in cute patterns: a fern, a heart, the Amazon logo. I saw brunch spots, charcuteries, and tapas bars swallowed by earth.
Since the unit I’d come to see had been ripped apart, I immediately resumed apartment hunting. There was no time to lose! Too often they give the place to the first schmo who shows up. In fact the Greenwood apartment was the fourth place I’d seen that day.
The Smith Tower had been knocked sideways by the quake, coming to rest at a 45 degree angle against a pile of rubble. Seeing that the building looked abandoned, I took up residence in the penthouse.
The place needed redecorating so I started pilfering furniture: a couch from this condo, a laptop from an abandoned houseboat. I even returned to the wreckage of the Greenwood apartment to collect the old armchair, which, as it turned out, was some kind of antique. According to a plaque on the chair, it was a gift given in 1914 by the last Empress of China, Cixi, to the mayor of Seattle. It took a while to bolt everything down so it wouldn’t slide across the hardwood to the ground-facing windows, and even longer to get used to the pull of gravity as I cooked up breakfast, took a sideways shower.
Word got out about my new digs and, by the weekend, everyone wanted to see me. I threw a big party. The Jeffs and Tammi and Tina even drove in from the suburbs.
“Poetry is the ecstatic rendered into static,” I said.
“Property is the illusion of time as capital,” I said.
Everyone applauded. We toasted cocktails with fennel vinegar to cele-brate Tina’s new self-composting toilet, Tammi’s new job in HR, Nathan’s new haberdashery.
The next day I saw some other salmon come sniffing around the place, so I went out on the balcony and shouted, “Hey you! Yeah you! Scram! These are my digs!”
Others came by from time to mine. If hollering wasn’t enough, I’d slap my fins against my chest, or throw some garbage at them, or recite sections of the manifesto I wrote in college for a course on sustainable urban planning… Lichen for every rooftop! Kombucha mothers for every closet! Recalibrate root chakra from consume/decay to ferment/foment! We ARE the automaton!
Weeks passed, and my parties became a big deal. Every Friday night we’d dangle from ropes to keep from falling and drink and talk, looking down at the rubble below. But, at the end of the night, after the guests had left, there I would be, holding onto a support rope, all alone.
One day I saw the landlady wiggling her tail fin below my window.
“Yoohoo!” she said.
I ignored her and returned my attention to my crossword puzzle and bagel.
“Yoohoo-oo!” she said.
When I let her in, she said she wanted me to rent her a place in the tower. As the only occupant, I guess I was the de-facto landlord.
“How’s your credit?” I asked.
She touched my fin.
“OK, OK you can move in!” I blurted.
Her name was Shirley. We both loved Don Quixote and vaping CBD weed. She was a poet, and when she read to me I would become lost in her voice…“I met a fella in the reefs/Full caudal finned—a sprite most fair/His lateral line was long, his operculum was light/I even awed his nares.”
Shirley was good with a hammer. She went about fixing up the place, making new floors that were flat instead of slanted, filling in all the cracks in the walls.
Life was good. Sometimes I did get anxious and think about all the folks who had occupied the building before the quake, but why was the Smith Tower any more theirs than mine? Predatory capitalism? Typewriter and firearm magnate Lyman Cornelius Smith died before the construction of his tower had finished. I did hope all the old occupants weren’t dead, but I had no intention of giving up my penthouse.
Our days were leisurely. Shirley would write for a few hours while I diddled around in the kitchen, experimenting. I made all kinds of things with my abundant free time, Taiwanese plankton omelets, plankton mofongo, planklax cured with brandy and dill. After meals we’d stroll the avenues, or what was left of them, and talk about capital-A Art.
“BOMB Magazine has gone all corporate,” Shirley said one night.
“I know,” I said, “Tell me about it.”
I reached for her fin, and she squeezed.
But, as the weeks passed, Shirley grew distant. My affection grew and grew, but I wasn’t sure the feeling was mutual. Some nights she spent hours drifting around the penthouse as if in a fugue state. I hoped it was a poet thing.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her one night. She’d been gazing out at the landscape beyond the windows for fifteen minutes.
“Don’t you worry about them?” she said. “All those people out there.”
“Sort of,” I said, and then realized that wasn’t a very nice thing to say. It was true that not everyone was doing well after the quake. Some had no choice but to live in tents or caves.
“Something must be done!” I said.
We invited over my old pal Alan, who had also done quite well for himself. He’d taken up residence in the Kingdome and ate all the hot dogs and nachos he wanted. Alan and I put up flyers all over town, on telephone poles and coffee shop bulletin boards, in the windows of patisseries and brewpubs. We took out a full-page ad in the local weekly. It said, quite simply: “SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!”
We held our meeting in the Kingdome on the turf of the playing field. Almost everyone in town had turned up, even Susie and Nathan and both Jeffs and Tammi and Tina. In the spirit of camaraderie and togetherness, we sat in a large circle, seminar-style, and Alan facilitated the discussion. A redistribution of wealth was settled on, with, of course, a few exceptions. For example, the Jeffs and Tammi and Tina didn’t want to give up their nice new houses and I quite liked my penthouse. But I gave up all the other floors, on the condition I was made emperor, which, we all thought, seemed fair given that I had organized the meeting. All food resources were shared from then on. Some fished for plankton while others farmed zucchinis and kale or foraged berries. Others scrapped the rubble. We scavenged steel, which we used to make pedestrian bridges. Only it didn’t go so well. I picked the most elaborate, impractical designs and they turned out so flimsy that they’d crumble under the weight of a single pedestrian.
Shirley had a way of finding new problems.
“I thought you should know,” she said. “No one can find parking in Greenwood anymore.”
“Oh boy,” I said.
I imagined a great parking structure that rose to the heavens, and then remembered our flimsy pedestrian bridges. I was a lousy emperor.
Shirley left to go read. She’d been working through Proust. I wish I could I say I never had the patience for it, but I never even picked up the books. Shirley had thought we might read them together, but I told her it was baseball season.
Lapping back and forth across the living room, I looked from the lamp to the table as if they might divine what needed to be done. Trying to clear my head, I took a seat in my old armchair and felt a terrible shaking. Another earthquake, and this one was even worse than the last!
Or maybe I’m remembering it all wrong. Maybe the Big One didn’t hit at all until I lived in the Smith Tower, and the first was just an ordinary earthquake. Either way, my whole life crumbled in front of my eyes. I clung to a banister and felt that I was falling, that the whole building was resuming its journey from vertical to horizontal. When it was over, I found myself engulfed in a cloud of Smith Tower dust.
I set off with urgency to find Shirley, swimming through the rubble as fast as I could. I surfaced just in time to see Shirley dragged away by a pair of plate-armored geoducks.
“Where are you taking Shirley?!” I cried.
The geoducks took over the whole city, just like that. They’d been planning for eons, waiting for the right moment and now that the quake had freed them of the muck at the bottom of the Sound, the geoducks grew tall and strong, sprouted many limbs with which they grasped spears, shields, and pistols.
My empire lay in tatters and many of my fellow Seattleites had been taken as prisoners of war, destined for the work camps or the coal mines.
For days I scrounged for crusts of bread and slept in parks where fallen trees formed natural shelters. I never stayed in one place for more than a night. Alone, shivering, I’d hear a noise and hold my breath, unsure if the wind had shifted or a geoduck approached.
Soon enough, I was discovered, not by a geoduck but by Tina.
“Well, hello, stranger,” she said.
Tina was organizing a rebellion in shadows, joining together the urbanites with the fascists of the distant suburbs, who, I’ve neglected to mention, had established their own far bleaker society in the days after the first quake. If there was one thing we could all agree on, it was that we hated geoducks.
“I can almost taste it,” Dirk said. Dirk was the leader of the fascists, a Chinook with throbbing muscles sculpted by years of the paleo diet. “Grilled geoduck. Geoduck sashimi. Geoduck linguini.”
“In squid ink sauce!” I chimed in.
“Shut up!” Dirk said.
Tina patted my shoulder. “There, there,” she said.
I had to admit, they cut a fearsome duo, the two of them.
Dirk and Tina trained us for weeks at a makeshift camp, near Marysville, due east of the Walmart on 64th. In a grassy clearing surrounded by green belt, we learned to army crawl, to slit a geoduck’s umbo off clean, not to fire until we saw the whites of their shells. We ate nothing but hemp protein powder, slept for no more than two hours each night.
“We will prevail!” Dirk and Tina chanted.
“We will prevail!” we chanted back.
One night the wind blew open Dirk’s tent flap and I caught a flash of the two of them making out… but that’s neither here nor there.
The time came and we made our attack.
The geoducks had built a seemingly impenetrable cube-city in the old Pioneer Square, a three hundred-story superstructure where they all lived. Other land was devoted to agriculture or plundered for natural resources. The great forests of the North Cascades had been totally decimated—turned into bookshelves the geoducks sold to a foreign furniture company.
Assault rifles strapped to our backs, we rode BMX bikes from our camp to I-5 and hid under the overpasses, waiting for geoduck patrols to pass. On arriving in the city, we stopped at Discovery Park to rest, and Dirk and Tina brought out bottles of Syrah to enliven our spirits. We raised our glasses.
“Lock and load!” Tina said.
The plan was for some of us to head due east and then make camp on the top of Beacon Hill. When the time came, we would set out for the Cube just as the others rushed down from Discovery Park.
Only we never made it there. As we slurped the last of the wine, geoducks came at us on all sides.
Dirk fired round after round, crying, “Ahhhhhh!”
A spear shot through his midsection, and he fell to the ground. All around us, they slashed off fins and slit our gills. We were no match for the geoducks. I felt a blow at the back of my head and thought I was done for.
I came to in a prison cell. A single dull light bulb flickered on and off. I figured I must have been somewhere in the innards of the Cube. Soon, I heard someone approaching. The slot at the bottom of my cell door swung open, and there appeared the collected volumes of “In Search of Lost Time.” I picked up “Swann’s Way” and felt butterflies.
“Shirley!” I cried.
“Ssssssh,” she said. “Not so loud.”
I wanted so badly to see her face.
“Open the door,” I said.
“That’s not possible,” she said.
“Don’t ask too many questions. You wouldn’t like the answers.”
“Shirley!” I cried.
“Just know I’m doing all I can,” she said.
Her visits were infrequent, without pattern. Always she wanted to hear my progress with Proust, but, even in that horrible cell, I couldn’t muster the patience. I tried to lie my way through conversations.
“I just got to the part where they go bowling,” I said.
Shirley told me all about the geoducks’ lives inside the Cube. They didn’t go out much. They’d get up, drink a Rockstar and go to work (they were mostly programmers and engineers), then they’d commute up or down the Cube back to their housing unit, where they’d microwave a Hot Pocket for dinner and pass the night playing computer games and chatting with each other on something called Reddit. It disgusted me.
But not Shirley.
“How would you like to live in the muck? For generations?” she said.
“I thought they liked it there.”
“I’ve learned their language,” she said. “They speak in code. C++.”
I imagined them stomping around hallways, self-important erections in diaper shells.
“Good for you,” I said.
“I told you I’m doing all I can.”
“Oh,” I said. “Great.”
When Shirley next visited, it was to tell me there was someone else.
“All because I can’t stand Proust,” I said.
“Of course you think it’s all about you,” she said.
“How did you meet him?”
“Mortimer was my minder in the labor camp. Our first date was at the Red Robin on the 264th floor.”
“Why do they keep me here?” I asked.
“They don’t think you’re fit for the mines,” she said.
“And you? Why have they spared you from the mines?”
“I swore allegiance to the geoduck way.”
I was speechless. In fact, I took a vow of silence. I went on a hunger strike.
Shirley next visited with Mortimer. When I saw them entering my cell, side by side, I had to admit he was a handsome geoduck. Certainly better looking than I.
He said he could arrange for me to swear allegiance.
“Never!” I shouted, and then blushed because I had accidentally broken my vow of silence.
The punishment for refusal was execution.
Guards dragged me into an ornate chamber filled with the skeletal remains of other salmon. A small crowd had gathered. Most had snacks—popcorn, tortilla chips, soda. Shirley and Morty sat next to each other. They at least they had the decency not to eat.
I was put in a stiff chair—my old antique chair. My fins were cuffed to the armrests and I was gagged.
The death squad raised their spears and pistols. Shirley broke out sobbing.
The chamber doors flew open and Tina appeared, guns blazing, with the forces of the rebellion behind her.
“Eat lead!” she cried.
Dirk charged in, too, a knife in each fin. Somehow he must have survived.
“Sashimi-time,” Dirk said, spitting in various directions.
Or maybe that was when the Big One hit, right after they’d put me in the chair and the cavalry arrived. I remember everyone sort of stumbling around, not sure if they should still be fighting. But, come to think of it, maybe it was all one long earthquake, maybe we’d been shaking the whole time… regardless, their city was swallowed by the depths not a moment after I slipped out the backdoor.
The quake pushed Seattle up on a tectonic ridge where it drained of water. On Yesler Way Orcas flopped from side to side. A giant squid slapped anything and everything in reach with his enormous tentacles, and Dirk got stuck to a suction cup. I watched in horror as the squid pulled Dirk into its mouth, chewed once with a loud crunch, and swallowed.
From wide seismic fissures, I saw emerge figures the horrors of which the surface world had never seen. Their gnarled appendages sprouted into five digit clumps, two of which had opposable thumbs. They had reeking belly buttons holes. And their ears! Gross!
Before I could ask these monsters what they were called, I was pulled away by the riptide of a seismic tidal wave. I waved goodbye to Seattle for good, and hello to a passing humpback whale, which sang its greeting back at me. I had no idea what she was saying.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Four.
Alchemy, Chelsea Dingman
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore with Alex Davis-Lawrence