The End of a World

Isaac Black

I reached for my phone before I opened my eyes, a motion that had become automatic. It felt something like morning, and my awful little screen confirmed.

“I’ll get her,” I said.

“C.I.O.,” Kim rasped into her pillow. Cry It Out: a crib training method that had become a partial joke for when we did not want to deal with it, starting with the baby and evolving to include things like the news. She said it the other night about the pizza guy at the door, and I laughed.

“I gotta get up anyway.”

I bounced the baby in my arms, and she didn’t take too long to settle down. I think my own early morning stupor helped relax her. She fell asleep in my arms, and I laid her back in the crib—a good twitch confirmed that this sleep would take until Kim could get up to feed her.

I made coffee. At first we had all these super fucking New Age plans for the baby. Home birth, co-sleeping, cloth diapers, making all her food. Little of it stuck. I couldn’t sleep with the baby in the bed between us. I was like a dog popping up from a nap at any noise. Every time she wiggled, my brain reacted like she had flopped to the ground. I sampled the coffee and it sucked, but that’s what creamer is for, I guess. I poured it in my thermos and ate a muffin wishing it was a donut.

My commute is pure dogshit. I started coming up with a theory about how morning rush hour was implemented by design to deaden us to frustration beyond our control, to break us in before we even walked into the office. Evening rush hour? That happened organically, maybe. We put up with it because we had already accepted morning rush hour. Yeah.

I spent half my typical workday posting. Posting at this point in history had become an activity not constrained to just one platform or medium. It was a cascade of micro-decisions that were all entirely meaningless and unfulfilling. Should I leave that typo? I wondered, pretending out of necessity that anyone would notice. Reading posts was an eternal sift through a trash dump to find any cognitive object that might help you survive the day. There are no upsides, and the only significant outcomes are bad; family members, for example, really come out of the woodwork if you imply that America is cruel or inadequate or evil. I did manage to read an interesting article about Siberia, a setting so remote from my own that it refreshed me. With the help of Siberia, I powered past noon, taking my lunch at a respectable 12:35. 

It was after lunch that I got riled up—digestion got me so goddamn tired that I needed more coffee. I thought about going to the coffee shop and getting a latte or something but decided I would just drink the office swill and save myself and my little family four dollars. Sometimes there was a little bit of coffee left in the pot in the afternoon, but usually I was the one making it. I don’t mind. It’s a nice, mindless five minutes listening to the hot water going through the machine’s little ducts.

I drank it too fast and had to walk a tightrope between letting myself zone out and keeping my brain from shaking out of my skull. I tried to force myself to finish the project that I had been working on the day before, but the more I tried to focus the more I got distracted. I’m in a group message with other communists with similarly worthless day jobs, and it took all my willpower to stay out of it until I had a meeting at 3:00.

I read an article once, long enough ago that at this point I’m probably misremembering it. It described how your brain experiences “decision fatigue”—a neurochemical gets depleted every time you make a decision. At some point you’re just done and can’t think anymore. 

I made a solid effort to be attentive in my meeting, but then I had to settle for appearing like I was attentive while my mind wandered. My instinct was to reach for my phone, just like it had become when I woke up first thing in the morning. It was an extension of myself, and at some point I would need to decide how I felt about that. Society constantly reminds us how lucky we are for our technology while shaming us for using it. I took notes on paper so I could doodle (pens and paper are technology, too). I drew a big boot. We first learn how to behave during business meetings in elementary school, where an authority figure enforces a particular posture and arbitrary rules—no hats—while the subordinates smile and find furtive ways to rebel. It only feels natural because we’re conditioned over decades. There has to be another way to act “professionally” without buying into the assumption that I am a spastic child. 

I knew that was the power dynamic in a work meeting, but it felt strange to refer to myself, even privately, as a subordinate. By and large I benefited from the misery of disenfranchised people. I was complicit in that larger system. I had privilege that, while I knew it was there, was invisible to me.

After the meeting I felt so heartened that there was only an hour and a half left in my workday that I was able to finish my project. It felt better to actually do my work and get it off my mind than to fuck around for half the day, but guess what? I would be doing the same thing again the next day. 

The article I had read about Siberia was about the tundra. Permafrost—something I learned about in grade school for whatever reason—got me thinking about geology. I hit a lull in traffic and did a quick Internet search on my phone for an image of the earth’s strata. I never really appreciated how thin the Earth’s crust is. It’s an eggshell. Here we are, little mites, scratching flakes of minerals off the earth’s dead skin, the oceans puddles teeming with watery creatures—glorified sea monkeys, all of earth’s animals bumping around on a microscope slide. 

Traffic started moving for a minute and then froze up again. Probably for no reason, too. More often than not when I drive past the congestion point there’s no discernible reason. All of us in a car, each car carrying an engine block that can produce enough fire to shoot it a hundred miles an hour across the surface of the planet, and here was an army of them just idling. Where does all that energy go? 

Where does all my energy go? The molten iron and nickel in the earth’s core churns around while all creation lives on the exhaust. I’m not a dust mite. I’m a flower, in bloom on the planet’s richness for a short season. I’m richer than most, potentially one of the most beautiful flowers, the sophistication of a hundred thousand years of language channeled into my person, shielded from all the violence of nature and humanity, to produce a few dozen spreadsheets before I wither. Most of my energy siphoned off into meaningless decisions, neurochemicals produced but not harvested. Most of the fuel spent making more gas than the planet can absorb. Why would we create this infrastructure just to let most of our energy—the cream of the most fertile planet in the galaxy—get burnt off in social media comments? That can’t be the case, I joked to myself; capitalism is too efficient.

I got home and we ate dinner and I talked to my wife about my day, a practice that helped me be not so much “in my head.”

“I am exhausted,” she said. “The baby missed her nap, and she’s been fussy all afternoon.”

I was exhausted too, man, but not in the same way. I told her I was so grateful for what a good job she was doing with our daughter. I ate my ice cream quietly while I tried to put into words what I was feeling. 

“Do you ever get tired, but it’s because you haven’t been doing enough?”

She laughed at me. “You’re feeding the baby tonight when she wakes up.”

The baby refused to sleep even after dinner when Kim put her down, crying raucously while we watched TV. It was a network sitcom that my wife loved and that I had learned to appreciate. Everything about the show was so tight—engineered as cleanly as an internal combustion engine. I could just sit there next to Kim, my arm around her back, but I had been meaning to go on more walks. To clear my head, to use my legs. I didn’t want to go at that moment, but I knew I would feel good about it afterwards. And the baby would like it. 

We were a little self-conscious about our habit of calling her the baby instead of using her name, but she was still just the baby, indistinct from the lump of dough in Kim’s uterus that we hadn’t needed to name. She hadn’t become a person yet, really. But I could see myself in her. 

“I’m gonna go on a walk with the baby.” 

We work and we consume. Even sleeping we consume—our mattresses, our pillows, our nighttime routines; sleep is high stakes when we barely have eight hours carved out for it. Do we ever rest? Feeding ourselves, gassing up our cars, watching TV, going to the movies, going out to eat, getting dessert, posting, reading a book, listening to a podcast, two or more of these things at a time. Consumption is a micro-conquest—taking a little piece of the world and claiming it. Doing my part. My money is an aspect of myself, and if it isn’t making anything mine, am I doing anything? We’re terrified of doing nothing.

There was a little park a couple blocks away, smaller than some backyards, just a little parcel set aside for grass and a jungle gym. A college student was there tossing a Frisbee with her border collie. The dog paid no attention to me and the baby, even when I greeted the human. The baby was crotchety and gave up some hoarse sobs now and then. I took her out of the carrier and bounced her on my knee. I pointed her at the doggy, but she didn’t like that. She could crawl, but when I set her on the grass she flopped on her belly in anguish. She would be walking soon, if she had a mind to. 

If it got dark one of us adult humans would need to clear out or else it would be awkward, but it was the season when that moment was in no hurry to arrive. I lifted the baby up over my head and blew a raspberry on her tummy through her onesie. I hoisted her again and tossed her just a little bit, just enough to let her armpits go free of my hands.

A warm, humid breeze blew from the west, and it made me feel like I was at the beach. I loved the beach, loved being that close to the end of the world. Swimming out past where you could touch, imagining the land shelf dropping off miles below you, you could play with the thrill of getting carried away by the currents—helpless, lost, nothing left to want. I put the little frog back in her carrier and walked. She croaked about her discontent. 

An alleycat walked up to us. I assumed a cat’s desires were comparable to the baby’s—eat, sleep. I wanted to do nothing. Doing nothing was a luxury, I wanted to tell her.

“Doing nothing is a luxury,” I said to her in the singsong voice that babies understand.

I wanted the end of desire, but here was my child choosing something over nothing. I probably passed that on to her, if we’re being honest. (Something to work on: “passing” something on felt too linear, too beholden to the metaphor of the “bloodline.”) I knew she would not continue on according to some trajectory that I started for her. No. She would adapt to a new world within a decade, and I would still be here, but I would be at a loss.

I had to work tomorrow. I pictured a cross section of the globe and imagined the sterile gravity at the iron core weakening as it pulled through the thousands of miles of metal and rock in the Earth’s mantle, becoming tender enough at the crust that it let us walk upright, let a baby float for a blink, that it could lose a dandelion seed to the breeze. On that cross section we were at the end of the world. If all went well, the core would release its hold on me before it did the baby, and I didn’t know yet. I didn’t know if leaving would be a sacrifice or an indulgence. I didn’t know if we were being carried or being tossed. ♦

Isaac Black is a historian and writer living in Salt Lake City. His short fiction has appeared in apt, Foliate, Oak, and The Macguffin. In these trying times, he is raising a dog and a vegetable garden and attempting to reverse engineer what it means to go “Viking Mode.”

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