Fiction ยท 07/08/2015

The Lookout

Even from one hundred feet up, the air smells of dust and dirt. The sky is bone-dry blue and relentlessly mocking, sheltering land as barren as burned flesh. In the orchards, the fruit trees are pale and skeletal. Industrious farmers scurry over the fields, hand watering their crops with the last of the reservoir water. Pine trees break the horizon like crooked teeth. The lookout scans the inside of the pine observatory, adjusts the baby on her hip.

Windows run nearly the length of the walls on all four sides. Nestled in the one corner of the observatory is a small kitchenette with a toaster oven and a hot plate, its base covered in black drips. In the adjacent corner hangs an old pink shower curtain that hides a flush toilet. The lookout is supposed to call the scientists and inventors from a rotary phone on a table in the center of the observatory if she spies anything resembling a cloud, so they can seed it. To seed the cloud, they will shoot rockets filled with silver iodide into the cloud. The iodide will wrap itself in more and more moisture, until it can no longer hold onto all that water and then it will burst, unburdening itself of all that water as rain. This is what they tell her anyway.

No television. The radio mostly comes in as mumbling and static. The baby cries with hunger, cries that fracture the cool silence inside the observatory. She reminds herself that she should name the baby soon, but for now, she sits down by the window and latches the baby to her breast. She searches the horizon for clouds. There are binoculars next to the rotary phone to help spot faraway clouds in a pinch, but most days all she witnesses from the windows are shades of blue: a bright blue, a powder blue, an eggshell blue, a grey-blue, a lunar blue, a midnight blue, Delft blue, aquamarine. She grows so attuned to the subtlest differences she does not need the binoculars, and as days pass, the minute shifts in blue become a kind of drama. If she stares too long, she starts to perceive differences in the blue of the southern sky and the blue of the eastern sky. Other times, she is certain the changes are just her imagination finding ways to create and articulate differences, the way a couple with all the same interests and similar personalities eventually, through the depraved power of monogamy, start to believe they are wholly different sorts of people. Sometimes she thinks she should write a long poem about all the shades of blue with which she becomes acquainted, but soon she realizes the kinds of blue outstrip the words. Some days a hawk floats by or a crow smashes headlong into the glass windows. Passerines circle the observatory, hovering on the wind with their wings raised up. Perhaps they are searching for a perch. The lookout likes to think they find a home on the top of the observatory where she can’t see them.

The baby learns to sit up and cloud gaze. She wobbles and squishes her nose flat against the glass for hours. Then she learns to crawl and day-by-day her laps around the periphery of the observatory increase in speed until she is crawling the length of the four glass windows as fast as she can, crawling as if she is looking for some means of escape from all the blue.

Every week, one of the scientist’s assistants climbs the staircase that winds its way to the observatory with a sack of groceries and the local newspaper. He pauses to huff and make breathless small talk for a few minutes, and then trudges back down the steps, carrying away garbage and recyclables. At first the lookout can count on two or three hothouse apples in the sack, but eventually, the produce stops coming, and there are only powder mixes for Wacky cake and bread and corn muffins, and the eggs and oil with which to make them. The newspaper carries profiles of weathermen terminated due to obsolescence, and an article about how the old weather station has become a factory that produces waterless bath powder. Eventually the newspaper stops reporting the drought.

A year passes with no clouds.

The baby learns to toddle. She learns to sing lullabies, eliding the Ls and Ws. Every night, she counts stars and although the lookout doesn’t know the names of any of them, she starts to point out the same ones, noticing their different arrangements against the sky. The baby stops nursing, and the assistant starts to bring glass jugs of milk. The milk is bluish; it doesn’t taste the way the lookout remembers.

Sometimes she unlocks the door and stands at the top of the staircase with the baby, looking down from a vertiginous knotted pine step. The air is still, smelling of dust and dirt. She imagines what it would be like to walk all the way down these steps to the yellow weeds and brown earth below, find her ex working at the local Ikea and tell him about the baby, whose name she realizes is now officially Baby. She imagines his possible banal responses and wonders whether time or sobriety would change them:

Dude, no way!

You sure it’s mine?

I’ll take care of you forever and ever.

I thought you were getting an abortion?

The solo sound of a hand hitting her head hard.

Baby claps her cheeks with tiny palms and says imperiously, Inside, Mommy!

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While the lookout is making Baby a sandwich one afternoon, she sees something white whirling by the glass.

Later, after she has called the head scientist with the coordinates, they hear the rocket rumbling below. This is it, Baby! she says.

This is it, Baby says. This is it Baby!

Baby takes her peanut butter and jelly sandwich apart with the absorbed curiosity of a mechanic. She pulls the edges of the white bread this way and then that on her plate. A cloud.

Around twilight, something smacks the glass. A drop of rain and then many and fast. They crawl into the puffy sleeping bag on the futon, but the warmth and the synthetic scrunch of the fabric is not comforting. Lightning strikes a nearby skeletal tree and a bare branch flies off and thwacks the rain-coated window. Water swirls on the glass and oozes away. Through the water, blue moonlight. A crash — the world cracked open.

Late that night, masses of people congregate in the violet darkness of the fields below. Baby listens carefully to the horns and noisemakers. Cheering and dancing as thunder roars. The glass drizzles away, leaving only the pine platform in the wind. The lookout puts her arms around Baby, and all through the night she sings songs of dust and dirt.

Remember?

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Anita Felicelli is a Bay Area writer who longs for inclement weather. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Salon, SF Chronicle, Los Angeles Review of Books, Juked, Strangelet Journal, Blackbird and elsewhere. Two of her stories were finalists in the Glimmer Train contests. She tweets @anitafelicelli.