In the Era of Smoke and Night Shifts

It’s late November, and it should be raining, but it isn’t. Fire rages in the north, coloring the sky an ominous charcoal that would tell us that the earth is more powerful than human beings and our limitless hubris, if anyone were listening. The air tastes like a groggy morning after too many cigarettes, minus the memory of the nicotine rush. Soon we are told that it isn’t safe to go outside, for now. People in town scramble to buy breathing masks before they run out. I am out of town for a conference when things get really bad and miss out on my window to snag a mask. When I return, the university campus has closed due to the air quality, or lack thereof. First one day, then two, then the whole week. Email after frenzied email promises that the administration is doing everything it can to open campus up soon. A vague mention of not losing momentum is made. I try to imagine what the university might be doing to put out a 85,000 acre fire a hundred miles away, what they are doing to clean the air in our hazy valley town, what they could possibly do to reverse the effects of a century of burning fossil fuels. I come up with nothing.

So I stay inside, grateful that with my teaching duties temporarily lifted, I am free to work from the relative safety of my house. I burn candles to stave off the heavy scent of burning homes that lingers outside my window. I try to keep my cat inside, to no avail. In what passes for consolation, I question if my thin walls and single-pane windows are enough to protect our lungs anyway, and blink back unexpected tears when I remember how many people have lost so much more than their air quality. Nobody says the words “climate refugees” on the news, but here we are. I think about buying an air purifier, but they sound expensive, so I will join my human kin and try to gild over my demons rather than uproot them. Eucalyptus oil is powerful stuff, you know.

I try to work normal days despite all the upheaval, and come home at 10 pm after an evening meeting to a silent house. Nighttime has a strange ephemerality to it now, the smoke scattering the streetlights, making it never feel completely dark. Upstairs in the eery stillness, my partner and my cat are fast asleep, and I crawl into bed with them, grateful to still have our tiny family, fragile as the world may seem these days. We are warm and whole together for an entire hour, until an alarm clock shatters the tranquility and Erik wakes up for work. I stumble to the bathroom where he is getting dressed, kiss him goodbye and put on my pajamas, and then go back to sleep a few degrees colder than before. He works the night shift as an EMT in a casino that doesn’t care about human health so much as protecting its own bottom line. He is expected to exist, but not much else, for fear that the casino might be liable if he provides medical advice in his capacity as a medical professional. I wake up the next morning shivering with my cat pressed close to my body, bitterly wondering why a casino needs to be open for 24 hours a day anyway, why my gentle partner has been reduced to disposable protection against lawsuits, instead of providing medical care like he has worked so hard to be able to do.

I make coffee while my cat chirps for her breakfast, drink it while I write at my desk. I read a story about workers suffering tragic miscarriages while working at Amazon warehouses and worry that my sleep-deprived, forced-nocturnal partner will die in a car crash on his way home from work. Erik returns home, crash-free, a little after 9 and gets back into bed, falling into a restless slumber while my keyboard clicks. What with at least one of us being asleep at almost all hours of the day, I am never sure what time it is anymore, and it’s just as well, since the sky remains a bland, timeless gray, and we still can’t go outside. More and more, I wonder if the apocalypse is really here, this time. I am not sure if people know the apocalypse is happening while it’s happening, or if that’s just something you know in retrospect. Over and over, I question why we keep insisting on burning carbon to the benefit of nobody, why we pretend that fires getting worse and worse each year are a coincidence or somehow the result of this generation’s poor forest management. I mourn the fact that Erik’s job treats him and every other employee like an object and haphazardly assigns night shifts whenever it is convenient, without regard for the disruption and the health risk. The fires, the casino, the warehouses, it all feels the same. We wring people and the planet for all that they are worth, and here we are, unable to venture outside without breathing masks on but still demanding two-day shipping on air purifiers, while our country pulls out of the climate agreement and insists that there is no problem. I am not even certain what I should be grieving for anymore.

I type on in the dim morning light, searching for words, hoping for rain. When it finally comes, it comes in sheets, and desiccated fall leaves clog the storm drains, flooding the downtown streets.

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