The marbles roll
on a patch of dirt–
shine in the afternoon sun.
She watches carefully;
her big brown eyes
roll with the little marbles
deft fingers on small brown hands
shoot each marble toward the hole
in the center of a circle–
there is hope
in the square room
that sits unevenly
under a metal roof—her home
built to stand
but sure to fall
under the monsoon rain dance–
one can only lose,
without a chance.
© Neetu Malik
I found the rooftop garden because of Captain America. We’ve become close friends, he and I. He depends on me for fresh greens, and I depend on him to keep me from taking the last step off the ledge.
The electricity blinked off citywide five weeks ago, but the evenings aren’t as dark as you’d think. There’s the residual glow in the sky long after sunset, and the ants that crawl along the windowsill in the kitchen give off a greenish hue, like those plastic glow sticks kids wear around their wrists at birthday parties—or used to, before. The Captain is crepuscular, so he rustles around just at dusk, but then falls fast asleep as I watch the clouds on the horizon with wide eyes, such an unnatural pink against the faint sprinkle of stars.
Except for me and the Captain on the sixth floor, no one else is left in this building. Before, I sometimes had to turn on my white noise app to mask the street traffic and my neighbor Javier’s blasting salsa music. Now the only sounds are the distant whine of a massive piece of machinery spinning into oblivion, fed by its emergency generator, and the thumps and rattles of my building, trying to decide how much longer it will remain upright.
The evening is my favorite time of day now. Before, I lived for the morning, up before the alarm, out the door, at work in my cubicle in the financial district a few minutes before eight. Daytime reminds me of everything I no longer have–that the city no longer has. Maybe even beyond? It’s hard to say. With no juice to charge my phone, it’s been dead since four days after. That hardly matters because I lost coverage after a day. My parents live in Florida; maybe all is well there.
For some freakish reason, the plumbing still works. When life was normal, leaky faucets and cold showers were the stuff I commiserated about with my friends. Now, I wake each morning worried that the toilet will at last stop cycling or my kitchen tap will run dry. But they keep on filling and pouring.
Once they do quit, I’ll need to leave this place. I’ve been living on canned food, heating it on my tiny balcony with the mini Weber grill I hardly ever used, before. Without electricity, my fridge isn’t much help to store perishables. In the beginning, I helped myself to the romaine and tomatoes and strawberries at the corner market; with no one around, there was no use letting it go to waste. But that has long rotted, so my visits now are to fill my cloth grocery bag with whatever cans I can carry in one trip. It’s decidedly creepy to crawl through the rubble of a dead city—no cars passing, no people yelling into their phones, no trucks trudging to collect the garbage left decomposing at curbside.
The Captain isn’t mine. Captain America isn’t his real name either. He lived on the fourth floor, and I found him in the first few days after. Guinea pigs whistle when they’re hungry or need something, and he was setting up a racket I could hear from my sixth-floor window. I went searching, taking the stairs, of course, since the elevators ran on the energy grid. He was sitting in a 2-foot wire cage, looking at me with big, soulful eyes (and big teeth), and I picked him up, his tawny fur as soft as a kitten’s.
“Hello, there, Captain,” I whispered.
It was another living thing, not counting the immortal ants and roaches. But what did I know about guinea pigs? A city branch library is about three blocks from my building, so I went looking for a book to tell me, a tough hunt given that the online catalog was offline and the lights were out. If you need to know, guinea pig books are in section 636.9—with books on other small mammals like rabbits and hamsters.
Before, I liked looking out onto the courtyard between my building and the next one, where an older fellow named Pete raised tomatoes and squash and tried to keep the squirrels from taking bites out of them. Now the courtyard floor is buried in debris, and Pete and the squirrels have vanished along with the pigeons.
Just after I brought the Captain home, and desperate for some kind of greens for him, I located the entrance to the building roof. As I popped open the steel door, the earthy scent of soil washed over me and there it was: Three long aisles containing flat after flat of lettuces, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and more lettuce. I stood for several minutes, not believing my find. The wind picked up and a pelting rain fell, the first since before. I felt both drenched to the bone and refreshed, watching as the droplets ran down the lettuce leaves and dripped off the ends, exuding a faint bluish glow even by the light of day. My arms and legs—and likely my head—also glowed faintly in the dampness.
Later, with the Captain asleep and night descending, I pondered this new world where the sky was pink and the rain was blue. A line had been drawn for humanity. What I would find when the Captain and I finally struck out from the city? Would we meet masses of people who had fled … or no one? Or maybe, I thought, I’m crazy, and the world is still normal, but I just can’t see it.
It is now day forty after, forty empty days and forty empty nights. I am harvesting more romaine leaves and anxiously watching the new shoots I have planted poke out from the soil. Then I hear someone. They are walking on the street below, whistling. I slip to the roof edge to listen—it’s an old folk song, “For the Times They Are A-Changin’.”
Despite our catastrophic reality, a sense of humor.
“Hey,” I shout, but he doesn’t look up, doesn’t seem to hear me.
I run for the stairs—eight flights to street level—will I make it before he’s gone? I take the steps two at a time, then three. The Captain and I are not alone after all.
Hope, like the horizon
glimmers in the distance
my eyes grow weary
as I watch it burn
then cool in the twilight
each day until
over the edges and I can see
only to repeat when I wake
once again, clinging to
fine rays as they
emerge in luminous shades
above sleepy slopes
there is no end
© Neetu Malik
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