‘Watering the Machine,’ short story from Jasmin Johnson

‘watering the machine’

“Never out my environment, cause I am my element”-Derek Mitchell (@derekm_)

We don’t forget where we’re standing when the ground below shifts. Instinct says that something has cracked the sky and earth all at once; fleeing for a final time. I am never still when any of this happens.

When it was my dad I was crossing the threshold of my mother’s bedroom studying the face of the only parent I would have left. My whole world in front of me tucked beneath a cloud of covers. When it was my grandmother I’d woken up in the middle of the night fighting the air to breathe minutes before getting the call. Another, I heard screams piercing through all the lights in the house; punching a hole into my stomach. I was 10 years old and jumping on the bed then. I was bound to land on that which lied beneath

We are promised gravity and, in some measure, a landing. But it is difficult to understand or apply a child’s imagination of landing as an inevitable return to soil while they stand closest to it. As a child I filled my hands with dirt and cupped fireflies in my palms as they climbed around my fingers like tree branches.

Two years ago I could not write this all down. I felt unequipped to hold sobbing prayers or rosary beads of disbelief that swelled my chest; clogging sentences into syllables and suffocating those into mumbled leftovers. I was not nearly as creative as I thought I should be to filter tears into a sea of glass or a punchline. I could not gather the words and place them in any order that would direct me to you, instead of a period. This burial of hope made language an economy that was no longer worth the investment and communication became a foreign god that asked for more life from me than what felt

That April night two years ago, stumbling out of an Uber, numb and loose, you appeared on my phone screen at 3 AM. Your smile wide as a billboard, the scattered words below read, “Was this your friend?” “Come to Philly.” “Through the window!”

Liquor stained the back of my throat as stillness felt like a blur that I wanted to bulldoze through. In front of my apartment door I thought about your body raptured by wind and held my arms out in front of me; opening and closing my mouth a few times as I waited for a name or maybe a god to crawl out.

The truth is that tomorrows felt inevitable then. On the other hand, death, like taxes and alcohol, was only for adults. And I remember being 11 years old sitting shoulder to shoulder with you on a field trip. They’d taken our 6th grade class to see a vintage version of Pocahontas or something very cowboys vs. Indians themed in traditional white liberal nature. But we were kids then and there was enough material about savagery that filled our bellies with laughter tinged with fear. We ate the words up and pointed fake guns at one another. For my life I cannot remember what you whispered that made me burst out in laughter and earn a striking glare from our teacher during a presumably sentimental scene.

Wiping my eyes with the back of my hands, your eyebrows shot up and a wide grin spread across your face as if you were never funny until that moment. I pretended that I was crying as an alibi to our loud outburst. You turned to other classmates announcing that the movie bought tears to my eyes as you whispered down the aisle for a Kleenex. I pinned this back on you as we soon carried this playful joke on the bus all the way
back to the classroom in fits of giggles. Years later we would turn 19 and come home from school for the summer.

You’d meet me at my internship and we’d walk Broad Street before settling behind an abandoned building hidden from the busy street. You’d pull out a bottle of peach flavored Amsterdam from your backpack along with a black lighter and rolling paper before we tore into our lives like our last meal. Your eyes fixed on the gum stained sidewalk, you’d confess you should’ve just gone to Brown when the door was open; but home felt like your grandfather’s chest. And we’d curse all the words we could find
for how that story ended. After a few swigs of silence we’d resort to imagining, future, soon, someday, into our palms as we admitted how much of the world was missing from them.

After a while we’d just settle back into the casual rhythm of the block. Lil Wayne’s Drought 3 mixtape usually poured from your phone’s speakers as we watched cars peel through the alleyway. Just North Philly-bred kids wondering what hid behind this city that often felt like a curtain. Leaning your back against the gate, flickering the lighter to
watch the flame disappear and reappear, a small smile tugs at your mouth when I resurrect our joke remarking that you should not to turn to crying again. “It gets you nothing but tissues.”

I knew your silence well but could not imagine it lying flat on a freeway. I asked as many questions that could fit in my mouth, a child all over again tugging at her mother’s hem, until they sounded like your name. “Did it hurt,” “Did you feel it?” “Did you know? “Do you know” I ask as if you are here beside me with a halo of smoke billowing around your head. We’re sitting by the water at Fairmount Park again sharing sips from a bottle, feet swinging from the edge of an abandoned balcony, eyes tilted at the sun sliding down the walls of our city. Calls rushed in to explain, to cry, for company, and I locked myself in a closet, covered by a veil of clothes hanging above me. Baptizing my phone in tears, I could not face death outside as inevitable as trees that shed in the winter.

But it was spring and the Alabama air felt thin. Light entered the room without pulling back a curtain and the earth’s scent became smoke from charcoal grills and the barbecue that surely decorated them. However, I wanted to remain in the night, in the shadows of a closet and pause time like a machine. My phone worked for me but a person felt more impossible. Facing a machine was different than facing a friend who could not be resurrected by an outlet.

Grief felt like a desert and I couldn’t water a thing. My love could not hold my friends tight enough for they’d all slip through the cracks as they were born through them. I’d refresh his Instagram account and barely touch the screen like it was an open casket or a newborn. Like I could dent something. Soon I opted out of the whole circus by not looking altogether. It’s like when Lebron throws a blind pass, pretending his peripheral isn’t there when that’s really his aim. I looked away from the screen and stayed away from the funeral while hoping that chronology would bend on his behalf. The algorithm would somehow intercede on itself and none of this would be true. This wouldn’t have to be written.

Extreme accessibility provides us with both the shock of death like a permanently lost signal and the overconsumption of it in a single scroll. The graveyard can now be as active as social media where Instagram captions turn into epitaphs overnight. Proof that they were once here and just that quickly not.

But the question that springs us from embrace to isolation is always where does all that warmth go? How do those bones live once we’ve buried them? Should they even? I accept that the phone I hold in my palms today will likely outlive the firefly I held those summer nights. I know that all things pass away and crumble into nothing. I also know that there are little lives on the way, some already here, tilting their heads back and watching us closely.

I’ve pressed my back against blades of grass while pointing at the sky until it was the tip of my finger. None of us knows the measure of life. But what the hell was and is the
point of it all? There are people that need evidence to believe. I needed reason to be. I needed beauty to exist for a reason. I needed death to happen for a reason. This was the payment for my serenity and the nursery for my logic.

But there was once where Derek told me he volunteers at an anarchic bookstore. He brings it up casually and goes, “A few people do it, we just go and sign in. Make time when we can.” He shrugs, “ And yeah, there’s no pay, it’s not for that forreal and nobody makes us come in…We make us, if anybody.” Then after a while he adds matter of factly, “Plus no one knows who the hell’s ever in charge, so there’s also that.”

I’ll keep it a bean.

I thought he and everyone apart of it was nuts. I truly did. Who has time to make time anymore? I also envied them all the way to admiration. Derek was a working full time student but he insisted on being endless. I wanted to speed through everything. I thought I had to keep up with seconds and I thought even those were limited. But he seemed to hold time in his palms by not even bothering with the thing or letting
the thing bother with him. This was also the guy blasting Lil Uzi while never noticing the white women in neighboring Subarus that stared at us like we were the obscenities pouring from our cracked windows.

When really above that volume he was likely yelling something about a philosopher he was studying like a song he couldn’t get out his head or a short story he couldn’t stop reading. I should tell you, I wasn’t raised this way. I was raised to believe eternal life was a location and that there was a pre-destined path to get there. And so nobody really tells you when you’ve become a backslider. After long absences, I’d return to careful gazes and hugs that held the question of what distance had carved out of me.

Who was this strange tattooed woman with a piercing now sprouting from her nose?
Spilling out impossible ideas of gender, politics and religion. Coloring outside of pre-sketched lines. I was raised to lick my wounds before something cracked the sky. Before a choir of trumpets descended from the heavens over mobs of hanging jaws and bended knees. Or something like that. So I was raised to “save” my life from fiery flames, and go to the altar. If I was an even better Christian I would have brought all the
“worldly” lives like Derek’s to that watery grave.

But I didn’t become that Christian and I wasn’t given a life where it was easy to be any Christian. I was given a black life, a queer one where the God I’d heard in sermons was not my friend but instead was often the gun to my temple. So when Derek and I talked about God he wasn’t on the throne, he was in some alleyway off Broad Street, behind the McDonalds on Girard. It’s all gentrified and presentable now but back then it was abandoned enough where we could cover his name in a veil of smoke and no one would notice. It was ugly and honest enough where God had to leave the throne for the hot seat. And that was probably the first time in a long time that I’d been to
church in a long while. Although, the one that baptized me was just a few blocks up.

At the time that Derek and I reunited we would try to meet up during breaks and catch up on everything that was driving us crazy about school. For him it was often whiteness. For me it was the Bible.

I attended a historically black Christian university in Alabama. Over there religion was a game of Russian Roulette. They thought of it as a bullet and used it as such. Like any church kid I had been given fear as a prelude to love early. I knew terror well and maybe that’s what locked me in a closet, holding my breath like it was time itself, because I thought of survival as a savior. Death was our neighborhood and not the
highway we took to leave it.

A part of me figured that if I could stabilize a sense of linearity, I couldn’t be flung from its embrace and I could grow old. And that meant something because so many of us hadn’t.

When graduation came we all scurried into the nearest building to secure this dream and avoid whatever it was outside killing us. That outside varied for each of us. The building we ran into did as well. We would die a metaphorical death that sent us to the White House, Hollywood or Harvard. Not the physical grave. Not this early. But if I am to end having said anything about my friend it is that he didn’t die before he died. And I’ve seen this happen. If I didn’t make it home that spring night it would’ve happened to me.

I was more heaven than alleyway. I wanted to be a street paved with gold and this often meant vomiting my appetite while rent hovered over my head like a ceiling. This also meant insomnia and loads of it.

Worry spilled over the brim of my life and a smile that felt like a grimace tugged at the corner of my lips when anyone mentioned the miraculous weight loss, the black girl magic degree. I was a flower that had more data than water. From the abyss of that spring air, I stumbled out of an Uber expecting the night to stay young. And there is something about not being able to catch a friend when they fall from the night.

Suddenly you want to remove all the buildings blocking the sun. You want to reverse time or push it to the very edge of itself. There was a moment where I realized all of the closets in my world. I’d hid myself in a closed corner with more outfits than people. So I decided to make my friendships infinite in more ways than a number. Maybe this is the crack in the sky. Maybe we must believe in our special ability to bring warmth to other lives even after ours has gone cold.

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