Mary is fifty pounds overweight. The building she works in is forty-seven storeys tall, but she only sees the lobby. She has calculated how many people work in a forty-seven storey building. It must be hundreds, but she never sees any of them, because her time behind the security guard desk is a night shift.
She unwraps a granola bar. It tastes like shit, and an éclair from the bakery on Dunedin Street would be so much better. She’s had those before, and imagines sitting at a booth, the éclair before her, a steaming coffee to the side, mostly thinking about how, after she finishes eating this first one, she could make it okay to order a second. The granola bar touches her lips. She chews.
Through the windows of the glass building, she can see the world. It’s empty. Quiet. The granola bar goes down her throat, the first one of the five she’ll eat during the night, one every two hours. It’s almost a relief when she drinks water and washes the taste out of her mouth.
She opens a browser and starts to type. When she’d turned thirty-eight, her mom had called her. “Got a boyfriend yet?” “Nope.” “Girlfriend? That would be okay with me.” “No mom, no girlfriend.” “Well what the fuck are you waiting for? You can’t hang around your house all day, alone, and do nothing. At least take up baking.” “I did, mom, and I got fat!” “Well, then… stop baking! Get a dog. Go on a vacation. Just do something!” So she had, enrolling in community college, ‘Master of Arts’, a program that was designed for librarians. She could picture herself in a library, emptying her bowels every few hours because that’s what happened to her when she was around too many books.
“I’m going to be a librarian,” she says to the lobby. She can imagine a tall, well-dressed man at the glass doors, knocking for her attention, stunned to see this overweight gem guarding forty-seven storeys by herself. She laughs. But then she realizes that the knocking is real.
At the windows, she pushes her face against the glass. There’s no one out there. On the way back to the desk, the knocking comes again. Mary spins, but the night is empty. “Don’t open the door,” she tells herself, remembering the first rule of security guarding.
She sits on the chair, staring outside. She’s got a hand on her club.
Behind her, an elevator dings.
Mary spins out of the chair and into the hallway for the elevators. “Hello? Anyone there? Everyone’s supposed to be out. You can’t be here.”
A rumbling starts to her right. A light flashes, and the elevator comes to a rest. She holds on to her club. The doors open, but there’s nothing there. No one inside.
Behind her, someone knocks on the front doors.
This time, Mary grabs her keys. The door opens to a spring night. “Who’s there? Stop messing with me!” When she can’t think of what else to say, she continues, “I’m studying to be a librarian! You’re messing me up!”
The calm air swirls. The wind enters the lobby, like it doesn’t need permission. Like it’s been there all along.
By the time Mary gets back to her schoolwork, it’s time for a second granola bar. This one, too, tastes like shit, but at least it has a tinge of chocolate.
She starts typing up her report for ‘Annotations of History’. Her topic is the history of the Earth’s name – not the history of the planet itself, just its name. So far, she’s come to understand that before the fifteenth century, Earth wasn’t called Earth. There had been no name for the planet, because people back then hadn’t fully realized they were on a planet. Mary often wonders if they’d been overweight, too, those planet-ignorant people, and if they’d had some early version of the granola bar that they’d used in their dieting, too.
Most of the planets in the solar system were named after Roman gods, but not Earth. The earliest recorded meaning of Earth meant ground or soil, a fact so uninspiring to Mary that she’s wondered how those people could have been so unimaginative. “Hera,” she said, testing her own new name for the planet. “At least that’s named after something, not just ground.” The further she’d gone into history, the more different names she’d discovered for what people had called the planet before ‘Earth’. Pachamama (mother earth), Bhuma Devi (the goddess), Joro (mother of Thor), Geb (wife to Nut).
She types on the computer, getting hungrier. She could go for a steak, a marbled piece of rib eye that she could eat alone so that no one would see her cutting off the fat first and stuffing it into her mouth. Over time, she’d gravitated to the most marbled pieces of meat that she could find, so that she could perfect the art of cooking the fat. Often, the rest of the steak went into the fridge, saved for breakfast, as she sat satiated on her couch, watching television alone. In her stomach, a fishbowl of fat had swirled, anxious for a way out of her body, but destined to remain.
Tellus mater (another goddess).
Bhoomi Devi (menstruating world).
The second granola bar finished, Mary types all the different names into her report, discussing each, but a question lingers in her mind, so she writes it on the screen.
Who got to choose the name of our planet? Who made that important decision?
Mary gets a coffee and sucks it back, to make the last pieces of the granola bar disappear. Her stomach grumbles with the desire for steak and éclair.
“Why do we have to keep a name someone invented hundreds of years ago? All it means is soil or ground.”
She looks out the glass. “Why can’t I rename it right now?”
She types names for the planet, some taken from history, others just jokes. This is where she’s going to take the report, she thinks, from an analysis of how the world was named straight through to a convention for how to pick a new title, and what that might be. After all, she thinks, one day an alien race will visit this planet where, as far as Mary knows, she might be the only person left, and they’ll want to know what this place is called.
“Why do you have to live your life like such a fucking loner?” comes her mother’s voice.
“I don’t know. I don’t know, mom,” says Mary. “Ambi. It’s a beautiful name, isn’t it? It means cow dung. Cow dung, mom. Cow dung. I bet you didn’t know that.”
“Of course I didn’t, you dumb heifer,” comes her mom’s reply.
Someone knocks at the door.
Mary looks up. There’s no one there.
“Dan Ian,” she whispers, staring at the door, her heart thumping. “No, not English names. Chinese. It means pale blue.”
Again, a knock. She stands up. This time, there are people at the glass.
She hits the intercom. “Yes? Hello? Can I help you? We’re closed.” But before they can respond, she adds, “Gola. Ball. That’s Sanskrit. Why didn’t Indians name us first?”
“Hello?” replies a man’s voice. “This is not an emergency.”
“Okay. Well, what is it, then?”
“We don’t need help.”
“We? How many of you are there?”
A pause, like they’re counting. “Five.”
“So what do you need?”
Mary stands. “There’s five of you. Talk amongst yourselves.”
“To be honest, we come this way at least once a week and see you sitting here. We just want to talk.”
A primary rule of security guarding, thinks Mary, is never to get close to people. The job is to keep them away. She tucks a granola bar into her pocket and goes to the front door. There are five shapes out there. They’re young, dressed for clubs, every one of them thin, each one an athlete, or so she thinks.
She opens the door. The five kids enter.
“You see,” says their leader, a blond kid with a tattoo on his cheek, “we’re well-educated. Or at least on the way to a good education. And we’re respectful. But it’s been a bad night, because we were minding our own in a club down the street when these boorish bouncers decided that it would be better if we had our fun outside of the club, know what I mean?”
“I don’t do much clubbing,” says Mary.
The blond kid looks her over. “You’re not exactly the right shape for a security guard.”
“All I have to do is sit at that desk. Walk the lobby a couple of times.” Once again, Mary’s stomach grumbles, and it’s almost like the five of them can hear it.
The blond kid smiles. “Anyway, you can imagine what happened next. We’d paid entrance fees to get into that club, and dropped good money on drinks. So we tried to get back in. We weren’t gentle with the bouncers this time, and we’d be the first to admit that things got a little out of hand.”
“A little?” asks Mary.
“The next thing you know, the police showed up! We have the greatest respect for authority. In fact, we intend one day for us to be authority figures. Leaders of industry, titans of business, that kind of thing. You know? One thing led to another and we were forcefully told to leave the premises of that place where we’d spent our hard-earned money.”
“You mean the hard-earned money of your parents?”
He laughs. “Sure. Sure sure. But now we find ourselves in a predicament. We do love authority, but have to admit to a current disaffection for those in uniform, at least on a temporary basis.”
“It’s not that kind of uniform,” says Mary. She pulls out her club, but someone pushes her from behind. She’s thrust forward, and just like that, a fist cracks her in the jaw.
“It’s not personal,” says the blond kid. A knee hits her in the ribs. Mary flails with her club and feels the satisfying crunch of it hitting bone. One of the boys yelps. Two fists hit her in the stomach, one in the back.
“Pacha,” she breathes.
“What’s that?” grins the blond kid.
“Incan word for world. They had the right. They should have given us our name.”
He considers, “I can’t say I disagree with you.” He slaps her across the face.
After that, the blows come. Mary is pushed from person to person, and while she lands a strike with her club here and there, it’s not enough. Soon, she drops the thing. Eventually, she falls, and the kicks come. She cuddles into a ball. “See mom,” she thinks to herself, “if I weren’t overweight, this would hurt a lot more.”
“Get a man,” says her mom. “A life. Almost forty, overweight and alone, this isn’t any way to live.”
“Seikatsu,” groans Mary. In ‘Key Words from Other Languages’, she’d learned that it was the Japanese word for ‘life’.
When the boys are done, they spit on her. The door opens and they’re gone. Mary’s bleeding. She stays in her ball on the ground. It’s been a long while since she’s been around people, she thinks. A long time since she’s opened the door and let them in. For a while, she’d come to believe that the world had been emptied – that everyone had left, gone off-world without telling her. But they’re all still here, she thinks. Still populating this planet Earth, as it’s called now – but once, it didn’t even have a name.
“Gaia,” she says, coughing blood. “Mother of all life.”
Out of her pocket, she draws a granola bar and thinks about the bakery on Dunedin. In there, behind a display case, there is a rack of eclairs. She can choose any one that she likes. It’s not expensive. It’s not hard. On the table, a coffee will be steaming next to her, and when she finishes the first, she’ll have that second. She unwraps the granola bar. It’s snapped in multiple pieces, beaten almost to dust. When she puts it to her mouth, she closes her eyes and tries to imagine that it’s the sweetest taste she’s ever experienced, the greatest thing that people ever invented on this spinning orb, this pale blue dot.
Yesterday’s story felt a bit too much, too out there. But I’ve definitely been writing more these days and have the time, so I am. And the ideas just keep coming, like they have to come out. I look back on the stories I’ve posted in 2020 (it’s not all of the stories I’ve written this year, by half, just a few), and I feel like I can’t stop. What’s that all about? This new story was written this morning, 1.5 hours total. Just came spewing out, did a quick edit, posted it. I imagine it’s slightly more accessible. Best enjoyed with a coffee. And maybe a pastry.