After Hope put little Kitty to bed and was sitting on the couch with a glass of red wine and a bowl of wasabi peas, writing comments ( Do people really talk like this? ) in the margins of a student’s story, her brother, Karl, who lived downstairs, came up with the news, inconceivable and heavy, that the Tomato had won the election. Worse, Karl reported, was that his followers, the Blue Toes, after voting, had risen up out of the Midwest, the South, suburban Boston, Staten Island, and a county called Orange, as well as many other places, and had taken to the highways, heading toward the city, the city where Hope, her mother Ruth, her daughter little Kitty, and Karl lived.
“We can watch them approach,” Karl said, flipping up his laptop. Usually at this time in the evening he’d be with his girlfriend Minerva, but they’d fought because Karl hadn’t bought her a toothbrush when he’d bought one for himself. He was a Buddhist schoolteacher, so pessimistic he was an optimist.
The livestream camera fixed on the side of the road showed the Blue Toes moving thick and fast. Hope saw a young woman in a red, white, and blue bikini and cowboy boots holding the hand of a little boy in a Spiderman T-shirt carrying a toy sixteen-wheeler. A man in a van with an eagle airbrushed over its doors spit brown tobacco juice toward the camera. A chubby lady had affixed a taxidermy deer head to the front of her riding lawn mower. Men in camouflage vests, rifles against their shoulders, marched with hunting dogs at their heels. There was a legless man driving a speedboat hooked to a pickup truck flying a Confederate flag. A large sunburnt man carried a chainsaw on his back like a cross.
“You know what Ma would say?” Karl asked.
“Will you please check and see if people are making love in my bathroom?”
Her mother, who’d had a stroke six months ago, now lived in a nursing home. On some subjects, like Karl’s intimacy issues, she was sharp, but on others, like politics, her grip on reality was wobbly. She hallucinated about working with the opposition movement, telling Hope about secret midnight meetings and their plans for a Canadian outpost, based on the Transcendental commune Brook Farm. She often asked Hope to check to see if there were amorous movement-members in her bathroom or under her bed.
“No!” Karl said. “She’d say : Look what happens when you defund education.”
As a schoolteacher, Karl had had low points, like the student who’d thrown a garbage can at his head, as well as successes: LaTonya, who’d gone to MIT, was close to a cure for bone cancer. He expressed the usual inner-city-teacher complaints, the endless stupid paper work, parental apathy, that his class set of Toni Morrison’s Beloved had pages missing and swear words written in the margins.
“Listen to this guy!” Karl said as the solemn voice of a disembodied newscaster came on over the patriotic music. He was saying we were watching a historic moment. That, after years of oppression, it was finally the Blue Toes’ time. The newscaster admitted he felt guilty, as they all should, for so consistently denigrating the Blue Toes, making cruel jokes that their kids’ first words were Attention K-Mart Shoppers, that they hit deer with their cars on purpose and considered fifth grade senior year. The Blue Toes were suffering, many had dental challenges, the younger ones acne, and the older ones showed signs of diabetes, swollen ankles, even gangrenous feet. Each had a failed relationship with life and, like scorned lovers, were filled with melancholy and rage.
Karl shut his computer in disgust.
“I guess it was bound to happen eventually,” he said.
“What do you think they’ll do?”
Hope was afraid. She and Karl lived in a small wooden house, and she often had the irrational fear that a Blue Toe with an ax could hack right through the clapboard. Also there was little Kitty, who was turning into the kind of goofy brainiac kid that the Blue Toe youth despised.
“They’ll probably burn down a few buildings, shoot some people with their hunting rifles, but then that will be the end of it,” Karl said.
Hope could not sleep. Every time she tried to close her eyes, a Blue Toe girl in her pink pageant dress swelled up under her eyelids like a water-soaked earthworm. She grabbed her phone from the night table and read the latest. The grateful Tomato, who was also a real estate baron, was promising to empty out his high rises and hotels so his faithful followers would have beds, and not just any beds but memory foam mattresses. He was also considering building a NASCAR track on Central Park’s Great Lawn.
She jumped up to check on little Kitty, who was sleeping in the room across the hall with her legs akimbo, holding tight to her stuffed cat, Prospero. She was a loving, dark child, obsessed with tsunamis, global warming, and the horror of Abu Ghraib. In her journal, which Hope perused regularly, little Kitty made plans to repair the broken world. In her first-grade scrawl, she wrote about a house made of ice she’d build for the polar bears surrounded by a Lego wall to protect it from giant waves, and the magic show she planned for the victims of torture. Hope nudged her daughter back under the covers and turned off the night-light, blackening the stars on the ceiling.
Back in bed, she read the student story that was up for workshop this week. It was about a group of marauding prostitute zombies. Imaginatively written but lacking sensual detail . The zombies, she advised, needed to long for the taste of human flesh the way starving people wanted a hamburger. Her eyes kept unfocusing on the page. Would there even be a place to hold her class? On her phone she read speculation that the Blue Toes planned to burn down all the city’s universities, as well as Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and each and every museum starting with the New Museum on Bowery and working their way uptown.
Her eyelids kept sliding down, rooms going dark one after another in the back of her brain, but then a Gator Empire guy with his long ZZ Top beard pulled Little Kitty away from her and she jolted up.
It wasn’t only little Kitty she was worried about, but also her mother, who couldn’t get out of bed anymore. Her mother’s head was like a dinosaur bone against the pillow and her body a fallen tree limb under the blanket. Today when Hope visited, her mother had grabbed Hope’s hand and said she’d never thought she’d get to the point where she’d have no hairstyle at all. It was true. White hairs sprayed every which way out of her scalp.
“Just tap very lightly on the bathroom door,” her mother had instructed. ”I think people are making love in there.”
Hope had opened the bathroom door to a toilet with handles on either side, and a sink low enough to be used by someone in a wheelchair.
“There is no one,” she’d reassured her mother, who turned her head away, only speaking again to ask for sips of water from the Styrofoam cup with the straw. Her lively eyes receded into her great bony head, mud brown, circled with gray, the eyes of an amphibian creature, alert but unreachable.
It was late. Hope had to get up early to retrieve the car from the mechanic’s shop. She put headphones on and clicked the file on her desktop labeled hypno . The gentle British voice spoke about the infallibility of her unconscious mind and how easy sleep was, how delicious. He described someone falling asleep on a train. How the car rocked back and forth and how the sleepy person’s eyes slipped down. At one point his voice broke into two, she followed the first voice talking about how babies drift off easily into refreshing sleep while the other unfurled just outside her hearing, a ghost voice underlaying the first. Now and then she made out a phrase the split-off voice was saying. Everyone knows what time it really is . Just before she sunk down she saw the scene from the workshop story: one of the zombie girls, distraught over her rape in a truck stop bathroom, overdosing on a hunk of warm and bloody flesh.
Her phone went off in the dark. The mechanic was urging, in his Russian accent, that her car was ready and she must come immediately to pick it up. She jumped out of bed, pulled on her jeans and sweatshirt. When she went to wake little Kitty, she wasn’t in her bed, but curled into the bottom drawer of her dresser, a creature surrounded by balled up tights and tiny pairs of underpants. She carried the drawer downstairs and placed it gently on Karl’s couch with a note asking him to get little Kitty’s breakfast and, if they were having school, take her.
Outside, the dark was so insistent she assumed that the Tomato had shut down the streetlights. The asphalt was broken up, and she walked on soft and fragrant dirt down Flatbush, then Parkside onto Coney Island Avenue. She expected to see worried urbanites in apartment windows kneeling on their hardwood floors, and others, in alleys, huddled around trashcan fires. She’d seen enough end-of-the-world movies and read as many apocalyptic novels to know how it was supposed to all play out. But the windows were dark and the street deserted. People were still waiting for a brain-eating pandemic or a giant asteroid, not the Blue Toes with their disarming mix of bravado and vulnerability.
Inside the mechanic’s shop, she walked under cars held up on jacks like golden calves. Dark oil stains bloomed over the cement floor and sent up an opioid fragrance. In the back of the shop, hovering up near the ceiling, was both a school bus and a subway car. She didn’t see her mechanic, an elegant older man with light blue eyes and a constant expression of ironic intelligence. She went into the office, which held a life-size clown figurine and an Elvis blanket thrown over the couch. A gray tabby slept on the King’s forehead. The secretary, who always acted like everything was impossible, threw her keys on the counter and said to go through the little door in back.
She’d never noticed the red door, which lead into a large room with walls covered in black velvet and, up on a jack, under a beam of light, her 1993 green Subaru wagon. On the bumper she saw the co-op and green market stickers, the dent from the time she backed into the hydrant. Her car looked no different but, like a friend in love, was completely transformed.
“You like?” The mechanic was suddenly standing beside her.
Hope nodded. Of course, who wouldn’t want their car to have a respiratory system? It was almost imperceptible how the Subaru’s hood rose and fell, more animal than human but clearly alive. She felt she should be grateful to the mechanic, whose nametag read Igor. Despite his age, Igor was a handsome man, and Hope realized her attraction to him was why she could never hold, in her mind, the particular features of his face.
“By now, you must realize what’s going on?”
“The opposition movement?”
“We are grateful to your mother, Ruth.”
He explained that her mother had organized clandestine meetings held in the back of a Ditmas Park flower shop, which included, beside himself, Marxists, a Muslim imam, a Hatha yoga instructor, a brain surgeon, an organic butcher, a hospice nurse, and a robotics expert. There, in the wee hours of the morning, they had made plans for a new resistance movement as well as all future civilizations. But first, with the aid of the enhanced car, Ruth and her family would drive into the city to unmask the Tomato and try to flip the Blue Toes over to their side.
Driving up Bowery, they watched urbanites pulling suitcases and carrying tote bags. Her mother sat in the passenger’s seat in Igor’s lap, with little Kitty between Karl and Minerva in back. On the street there were no rich people, because they’d all made deals with the Tomato and were headed by helicopter to their homes in the Hamptons, Aspen, or Montana. Two stylishly dressed black men walked with their little girl between them. A lady in tight jeans pushed a stroller laden with plastic grocery bags. A woman in yoga pants screamed into her cell phone. Men with long gray beards wearing prayer shawls moved with their wig-wearing wives and many children. An Asian man on a delivery scooter carried his dog inside the milk crate adhered to the back. A young man with a waxed mustache made his way alongside a girl with bright green hair holding a guitar case.
His hotels and towers were not enough room for the Blue Toes, so the Tomato, who had gained control of the police, was evacuating the city one neighborhood at a time. First the East Village, where the Blue Toes already seemed at home in the barbecue joints and bars with jukeboxes filled with country classics. They loved the bearded bartenders, who reminded them of their Confederate ancestors. Karl had heard that the Tomato, using smoke bombs, had driven the Westchester deer below Houston, and as they paused at the light on Broadway, a deer bounded in front of their car, followed by a Blue Toe in an orange hunting vest. Inside the bodega doorways, skinned deer hung on meat hooks from the ceiling.
“White people!” Minerva said. “They cra cra.”
“I’m excited,” little Kitty shouted from the back seat. “Mom is going to stop the Tomato.”
“Why bother?” Karl said . “Charismatic morons like him have been mixing it up for eons.”
Hope looked over at her mother, who had on the red silk bathrobe Hope had given her for her eightieth birthday. She and Igor were busy making out. It shouldn’t have surprised Hope that her mother was the head of the opposition movement. In her early years she’d been a Jewish radical, practicing free love in the West Village, and later she was the first, in her children’s books, to write about a racially diverse classroom.
“How are you going to get him?” Little Kitty asked.
“I don’t know, sweetie,” Hope said.
Naturally her daughter wanted Hope to destroy the force that threatened them. But Hope was worried. The only thing she was good at was telling stories, and she wasn’t even that great at that. She hoped the car had some sort of weaponry, that rubber bullets might come out of the headlights and tear gas from the exhaust pipe. In a perfect world, she wouldn’t get out of the car at all. The faceoff with the Tomato would be mental, not physical. He’d accuse her of being on the rag, a bimbo, a gold digger, a fat pig. He might call her a piece of ass and insist that her corporeal form was the only thing important about her. She, in self-defense, would smite him with her feminist brain waves.
A block from the Met, they saw a tall pile of paintings in heavy gold frames burning on the steps of the museum. Smoke reached up to the top of the columns and dissipated over the trees of Central Park.
“Ah well,” Igor said, coming up for breath. “On to Plan B.”
“What’s that?” Minerva asked. As principal of the school where her brother taught, she was a practical person. Plus, she was pregnant. Still in her first trimester, but anxious to know the details of the world their baby would be born into.
“Canada, O Canada!” her mother said, as the hood pointed up and the car lifted off the ground like a plane. Sheaves of crumpled tin foil pushed out from each side of the car, and spread as smooth as triangles of calm silver water.
“What’s in Canada?” Minerva asked.
“We’re in a flying car,” Karl said. “Can’t we just stay in the moment?”
“Installation artists,” her mother said, “shrinks, hairdressers, funeral directors, teachers, sex workers, poets, theologians, investigative reporters, mothers, truck drivers, sanitation workers, civil rights lawyers, plumbers, baristas, and of course MFA students.”
“MFA students?” Hope said.
“Who else do you think we can trust to keep the opposition movement dynamic?”
She’d always felt badly that only one out of every ten MFA students ever actually published a book. Now, though, that hardly mattered, because the new world order would be modeled on their crushed and beautiful and alive and striving hearts. Their stories were the key. Particularly the ones written by students who’d left Blue Toe territory and come to the city: There was the story about a girl who worked at Dollywood getting fired for making out with her girlfriend in the staff restroom, and the myriad hunting stories, where her trembling male students tried to explain what it meant when your father gave you your grandfather’s gun. There were stories of struggling single mothers working three jobs just to feed their kid Vienna sausages, and the lyrical masterpiece about a pregnant teenager, with an angel tattoo, living under a highway underpass. These would serve as the opposition movements declaration of hope.
The car flew above the West Side Highway toward the George Washington Bridge. They saw the Blue Toes streaming into the city from the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel, and sullen New Yorkers exiting, disappearing down into the dark hole.
“Grammie Ruth, are we ever going to see Brooklyn again?” Little Kitty said as she looked down at the city below.
Her mother sighed. “Probably not, sweetheart.”
“I blame Wall Street.” Igor said.
“That’s part of it,” Karl said, “but it’s not only greed that got us here.”
“What else is it then, Mr. Smarty-pants?” Minerva asked.
“We could never see them,” her brother said. “We could never see the Blue Toes.”
Hope looked over hoping her mother might have something wise to say, but she was back at it again with Igor, eyes closed, her face shining.
“At least it’s cozy in the car,” little Kitty added, laying her head in Minerva’s lap.
It was true. The car was warm, the air scented with lavender, and before long Hope was the only one awake. She plugged the GPS into the cigarette lighter and out of the speaker came the voice of the hypnotist advising her, in his lovely British accent, to follow the Palisades Parkway and then branch off onto Route 6. His voice split in two. The first one listed the landmarks she’d recognize from the air: the gold dome of the Vermont state capital, the Erie Canal, the waterfall in Adirondack State Park. The spirit voice, just below her hearing, said Don’t be sad, take comfort in the fact that all things pass, and remember that you have everything you need for survival in the world to come .