The man in the apartment next to mine has come here from another planet to destroy civilization. His mission is to go to that facility in Arizona where the government keeps all the really deadly viruses and steal some to release at different points around the globe. Thanks to our modern, international transportation system, they should spread rapidly, killing off the human population in a matter of weeks. Then, when the human beings are all dead, he and his people will come down and colonize the ruins we have left behind.
He tells me this when I stop by one afternoon. For several days there’s been a strange noise coming through our shared wall unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. A grinding-shrieking-gurgling-electronic sound, something like you might get if you tried playing viola with a screwdriver deep underwater. It isn’t loud to start with but its volume gradually increases as the days go by. Plus, it stops and starts at odd times. This makes it difficult to concentrate during the day. At night, it keeps my four-year-old daughter Beatrice awake.
I know someone has recently moved in next door. I decide before I call the landlord to complain I’ll go and introduce myself and ask the new tenant, politely, if they can please be a little quieter. The following afternoon, when I’m done working, before I pick Bea up from day care, I go next door and knock. I wait. After a few moments, I hear footsteps approaching from inside.
A sandy-haired white man of more or less average height wearing jeans and a t-shirt opens the door. As soon as I see him, I know there’s something strange about him. It’s his expression, which is weirdly fixed and blank. Then there’s how he speaks. He sounds like his mouth is full of small, round stones.
“Hello,” he says. “How am I able to help you?”
“Hi,” I say. “I live next door. I think we have a problem.” I explain that I write advertising copy for a living and work at home most days. The noise from his apartment is making it hard for me to think clearly and for my daughter to get sleep at night. “Could you maybe keep it down a bit?” I ask.
At first, he doesn’t answer. I wonder if he’s understood, since clearly English isn’t his first language. But then he says:
“Yes. It is possible that I can make less noise.”
“Oh,” I say. “Well, good. Great. Thank you.” I didn’t think that it would be so easy.
“You are welcome,” says my neighbor. We stand looking at each other and all at once I’m overwhelmed by curiosity about where he has come from, how he got here and what, after all, is making the weird noises I’ve been hearing.
“Hey,” I say. “Where are you from? I mean, originally.”
He pauses again. “To explain that would be complicated.”
“Well, can you tell me what that noise is at least? I’ve never heard anything like it…”
“No,” he says. “I cannot tell you. Your language has no word for it.”
“I see,” I say, though actually I don’t see at all.
“However,” he says, “I can show you. Would you like to come inside?”
“Sure,” I say. I wonder if this is a good idea. I don’t know this man at all. On the other hand, I am intrigued. I follow, and my neighbor leads me down a short front hall, just like the one in my apartment, to the living room. The whole space is completely bare except for one large object in the middle, which is hovering about three feet above the floor. This object is about the size of a refrigerator and looks like it’s made out of giant bat wings fused together. Patterns of red, blinking lights move all across its surfaces, and from it comes the wailing-grinding-electronic noise. Up close it sounds like feral code, instructions for dismembering the world, a love song sung by heartbroken machines.
“What is that?” I say, pointing at the bat-refrigerator-thing and turning to my neighbor who stands placidly beside me. “Who are you and what are you doing here??”
This is when he tells me.
It turns out, on his planet, which is much older than ours and which orbits an enormous blood-red sun, they are running out of time. They are an ancient civilization that learned long ago to live in harmony with their environment, using only what they need and managing their population voluntarily. They value not material wealth but spirituality and learning, appreciation of the arts and nature. However, in spite of their advanced, enlightened culture, their planet’s lifespan is now drawing to a close. Its molten core is cooling. Its sun is fading out. My neighbor’s people have decided to move somewhere with a younger, warmer sun. Earth perfectly fits the bill. The only problem is, it’s full of homo-sapiens. That infestation must be cleared out before migration can begin.
“You’re going exterminate us,” I say when he finally falls silent.
“Unfortunately, yes,” he confirms with a nod. I feel like I might faint or throw-up, like I’m pitching headfirst into space, falling, tumbling down a dark shoot that has no end to it. I reach out for the wall to steady myself.
“Why?” I say. “Couldn’t you just share the planet with us?”
“We studied the electro-magnetic signals that your culture sends out into space. We concluded coexistence is impossible. The evidence suggests that you would panic and attack us.”
“You don’t know that!” I say, but my neighbor shakes his head.
“You do not even have much tolerance for humans who don’t look and act like you. In my natural form I am a dark architecture of interlocking, jointed plates, resembling the more elaborately constructed members of your order Coleoptera, or beetles. My exoskeleton is black marbled with emerald green. The span of my diaphanous wings is greater than that of your largest bird.”
“Okay,” I say. “You’re right. People would probably be a bit upset when they first saw you. But they’d get used to you, I’m sure, especially if the alternative was total and complete annihilation. I thought you said your society was compassionate, enlightened…”
He shrugs. “It is indeed regrettable but – I think you have a saying in your language, something about a cookie and the way it crumbles…”
“What if I told you I was going right now to the police and tell them what you are about to do?” I ask.
He shrugs again. “They would not believe you.”
“Alright,” I say, unhappily because of course he’s right, “but how are you going to get past security at the facility in Arizona? I don’t think the government let just anyone walk in there.”
“Oh, that is easy. I have a weapon embedded in my forehead that fires an intense beam of heat and light, which I can trigger with my mind and which can vaporize anything in its path.”
“So we can’t really do too much to stop you.”
“No,” he admits, “you cannot. The situation is far from ideal. However, on a cosmic scale, we have concluded it is ultimately for the best, given the many ways in which our civilization is superior to yours. Just our space-travel technology alone would take you thousands of years to catch up with, never mind our philosophy or our mathematics or…”
He goes on but I’m not really listening. My mind is struggling to grasp what I’ve been told: that everyone I care about will soon be dead, my daughter, both my parents, my sisters and their families, all my friends and me. Everyone I don’t care about, too, and several people about whom I’ve felt occasionally that I would like to jab a fork through their esophagus, like my ex-husband George and my boss Howard at the copy-writing company. All of us have only a few weeks to live, apparently. I stand there staring at the floating machine in the middle of the room and this is when it suddenly occurs to me that one part of what my neighbor told me doesn’t make much sense.
“If you’re going to Arizona,” I say, interrupting him, “what are you doing here? That’s more than a thousand miles away from where we are right now.”
My neighbor pauses.
“Well, I have one task I must complete before I carry out my mission.” I wait for him to go on. “Before the termination of your species can commence, I must spend a period of time exploring. I must look around and document what I discover, just in case I can find anything here worth preserving, anything for which we do not have a far superior equivalent. It is in our protocols that we cannot destroy a species that contributes something genuinely unique or irreplaceable to the culture of our galaxy.”
“What happens if you find something like that?”
“I will go home. We will try to find another planet we can colonize.”
“So, all you have to do is find one truly exceptional thing human beings have done or made and then you’ll let us live?”
“That is correct.”
“Oh, well…” I say, “in that case…” I almost laugh out loud from sheer relief. There are so many remarkable things that humans have accomplished over all the centuries: art, literature, religion, science. Right here, in this city where I live, there are examples of our greatest architecture, commerce and engineering. If I’ve understood right, most of what my neighbor knows about us comes from the TV signals that escape our atmosphere — not a medium that always shows us in our best light. It shouldn’t be that difficult to find something to convince him, something that he’s never seen before, something exclusive to us. All I have to do, to save myself and everyone I love, is figure out what that could be.
“How long will you be staying here?” I ask.
“I will be in this city for one more week. I must recover from my interstellar journey and become acclimated to your gravity. I am not accustomed to this body yet. Having only one pair of eyes is so annoying. I do not know how your species manages…”
“Look,” I say, “I can help you with your research, make sure you see as much of our culture as possible in the time you have left here.”
My neighbor thinks about this for a moment.
“Alright,” he says at last.
“Good,” I say. “Okay then. Can you read?”
“I can read thirty-six of your earth languages: English, Farsi, Russian, Spanish, Urdu…”
“That’s great,” I say. “That’s plenty. I think I have an idea where to start. Why don’t I come by here tomorrow around 1pm?”
“That will be fine.”
I’m just about to leave, but then I hesitate.
“You should probably tell me your name,” I say, “assuming that you have one…”
“Of course I do,” my neighbor says. “My name is…” and he makes a series of sounds which I can’t pronounce or even adequately render in any writing system I’m aware of. If I have lingering doubts that my neighbor is exactly who he claims to be, this instantly dispels them. The sounds he makes are not remotely human. They’re something like metallic whale-song, the screech and clang of a vast, complicated engine. They go on for almost an entire minute.
“Okay,” I say, when he falls silent. “Nice to meet you. My name’s Sarah. I’ll see you tomorrow, I guess.” I show myself out.
That night, the mournful shrieking through the wall has stopped, but I still can’t sleep. I get up and go into Bea’s room, trying not to wake her. Her soft hair is jumbled on her pillow and her sweet, childish breath fills the air. I often feel an ache of sadness when I look at her because of how the world is, what we do to it and to each other, but what I feel now is much worse. What if I can’t persuade my neighbor to leave us alone? I don’t usually pray, but now I say a prayer then to whoever might be listening out there. Then I go back to my own room and try to get some rest.
The next day I take my neighbor to the great, iconic city library, the one with marble lion statues outside and an entrance flanked by columns. Since my neighbor claims that human science and technology are primitive, I decide to focus on the arts. I take him through the wood-paneled front atrium and upstairs to the reading room with its high, vaulted ceiling. I explain to him that this is free for anyone to use.
“I have heard this word ‘free’,” my neighbor says. “It seems to mean so many different things to different people that I have great difficulty understanding it.” I tell him that in this case it means ‘free of charge’ and then, since he still doesn’t seem to get it, I explain what money is, how paying for things works. He seems taken aback. “Do you mean,” he says, “that some people cannot have the things they need because they lack this money?” I have to tell him yes.
We wander through the rare books room where first editions and medieval manuscripts lie open in their glass cases. We look at intricately detailed drawings of dragons, birds and vines. I tell him these were all copied by hand by someone who took years to do it so they could preserve the knowledge they contained for future generations.
I find him a seat in a corner of the reading room and tell him to wait there. I go over to the literature shelves and start to look at all the spines. What should I bring him? I have to choose one work to represent world literature for all time. What should it be? For some minutes, I’m paralyzed with dread. Eventually I settle on The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, volume one. I heft the book down from the shelf and bring it to my neighbor.
“Here,” I say handing him the tome. “Look at the sonnets. Then maybe check out Hamlet if you have…” and I stop speaking because he’s opened the book and started turning pages so fast, they’re a blur. His eyes zip back and forth along the lines of text so rapidly it doesn’t look, well, human. I glance around to see if anyone has noticed, but everyone’s absorbed in what they’re doing. After about two minutes my neighbor looks up at me and says: “That was very interesting. Is there any more?”
Over the next hour I bring him works by Homer, Dostoevsky, Dickinson, Rabinadrath Tagore, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Ralph Ellison and Proust. He reads them all at the same frantic pace. All the time he’s doing this, I keep watching for signs he’s moved by what he’s reading, but his face retains its impassive expression and nothing but the oscillations of his eyes show there is anyone alive in there. I wait until he’s gone through what seems to me like a good chunk of humankind’s great literature. Then, finally, I ask:
“So, what do you think?”
My neighbor shakes his head.
“What?” I say. “What is it?”
“I did not realize how depraved your species truly is!” he says. “They seem to do nothing but make war, betray each other, murder one another, lie and feel unhappy. What was the one where the man kills the old woman just to prove he can?”
“That’s Crime and Punishment. But the whole point of it is he’s redeemed at last through grace…”
“But if he did not commit the crime in the first place, he would not need to be redeemed. Would that not be better?” He shakes his head again. “Also, I find human languages to be extremely clumsy and unsubtle compared with the language that my people use.”
“Oh, really? What’s so great about your language?”
“Well,” my neighbor says, as if preparing to explain it to a child, “there are many things. Take our writing system, for example. It is three-dimensional. Our texts are holographic and in the background of each word are additional symbols indicating mood and tone, irony or earnestness, certainty or doubt. In our speech, this second level of discourse is generated by the coordinated clicking of a pair of horned appendages that each of us has on top of our heads. There is also the element of smell, contributed by pheromones that we secrete, that functions something like the grace note of a chord. For us, really, there is no difference between language and music. Compared with this, your languages all seem so … flat.”
“Flat?” I say. He nods. “Okay,” I say. I’m crestfallen. My opening attempt to save the human race has backfired; if anything, my neighbor thinks we’re less worthy to live now than before. I try to keep the disappointment from my voice, however. I tell myself this is only the first thing I’ve shown him. I can’t expect to get it right first time. He is an alien after all, and he will see things differently from me. I have to stay calm and think carefully. If our literature is too full of human flaws and our language is too flat and one-dimensional for him, what else might he find more appealing? Of course, I think. I check my watch. There is still time. I touch my neighbor’s sleeve.
“I think I know something you might prefer. Come on. It’s only a short walk from here.”
The Museum of Fine Arts is on the east side of the city’s largest park. Its collection spans centuries, from ancient Egypt right up to today, and they have artefacts from all over the world. If humans had made anything that would impress my neighbor’s sensibilities, I think, we’ll find it here.
We wander through the halls of ancient Babylonian carvings, medieval triptychs, African split gongs, and Greek and Roman statues. I show him the Japanese Buddhist temple the museum brought and reconstructed with its fearsome temple guardians and image of the bodhisattva Kannon painted gold. I tell my neighbor Buddhists think we’re all working our way to enlightenment and that we’ll get there if we’re only given enough time, but I’m not sure he gets the hint.
After this we go upstairs to where the European paintings are kept: Rembrandts and Vermeers, impressionists and post-impressionists. I tell him how these painters realized for the first time that all we ever see is light and for this reason the same object seems completely different depending on when you look at it. I tell him how they saw the beauty in the ordinary world. I think I’m doing pretty well making my case, given the circumstances, but my neighbor is unreadable as ever.
We stop before a painting of some women wearing only underwear and stockings sitting on a sofa. My neighbor peers at it, intently.
“Why are they dressed like that?” he asks.
“Well,” I say, “they worked as prostitutes.”
“What is this?”
I do my best to tell him. A couple standing near us move away. When I’m done explaining my neighbor stares, again, intently, at the painting. “So people paid them money for…”
“Yes,” I say quickly, “yes, they did. Do.”
“This practice still exists?”
“Yes, it does.”
“When we are interested in fornicating,” my neighbor says, “we just talk to one another and find out if the feeling is mutual and if it is…” I notice the guard giving us the side-eye and speaking into her museum walkie-talkie.
“Mostly that’s what we do, too,” I say. “This is just for when people want to fornicate without having to talk to anyone…”
“I see,” my neighbor says and after this, we’re silent for a while. We go on, through the modern and contemporary galleries with their globular and angled sculptures, their agglomerations of tires, newsprint, paint and glass and string. The loudspeaker tells us that the museum will be closing soon. We make our way to the front door. I go to the restroom and when I come back, I find my neighbor staring at the trash can by the entrance to the café, which is full of paper plates and cups and soda cans. My heart sinks.
“That isn’t a work of art,” I say.
“It is not?”
We walk outside.
“I don’t suppose that any of those things that we saw made you want to let us live?” I ask.
My neighbor does one of his characteristic pauses.
“There were many interesting things,” he says slowly, “especially that last one by the door. But they were all, how can I put this? Very static. Frozen. Not alive.” And he goes on to tell me about his culture’s great artistic form, the name of which translates roughly to “inhabited choreography” or “lived grace.” It’s an interactive spectacle that lasts for days and seems as far as I can tell to be the combination of a sculpture, a play, a science experiment and a carnival.
I don’t know how I should respond. If nothing we just saw has moved my neighbor, what else can I show him? I tell him that it’s time for me to go pick up my daughter. He asks if I will come with him again tomorrow and I tell him yes, although obviously, I’m discouraged.
Later that evening, Bea and I are having dinner. I must look upset because Bea, who has been telling me about the lesson she did at day care that on what happens to our trash after we throw it away, says suddenly:
“Mommy, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, sweetheart,” I lie. I tousle her hair and smile at her as best I can. She smiles back and suddenly I understand that I don’t have a choice: I have to keep trying to find some way to convince my neighbor to spare us, me and her, but mainly her with her huge, dark eyes and sweet-natured concern for other people’s feelings. I start making a list inside my head of places I can take my neighbor. I will not give up until I run out of time. I make this silent promise to my daughter.
Since painting and sculpture are too static for him, I take my neighbor to the opera. I think this might be more his taste, the grandest and most sumptuous of all our arts, full of life and sound and movement. But afterward he tells me how much richer and more complex the drama of his culture is.
The day after that, I take him on a tour of our greatest architectural and engineering marvels, towers and bridges, buildings shaped like strange metallic flowers. He tells me about how, on his world, all cities are vertical and built into the sides of massive trees. Because they are constructed from a living substance, their inhabitants are healthier and more energetic than humans but also calmer, more patient and kind. They don’t have crime or violence and all their settlements are shaded by the city-tree’s enormous, heart-shaped leaves.
I take him to our grandest public park and he asks why in our city all the plants are confined to just one place. I take him to a courthouse to see our justice system at work. I take him to the natural history museum, the university where my ex-husband teaches, a session of the legislature and the zoo.
His attitude to all these is the same. For each of them his people have long ago figured out how to do the same things better. His lack of enthusiasm for the human race and our activities begins to wear me down. Is it possible that we can’t be defended on the basis of our virtues or accomplishments? That we’re must either be valued just because we are alive, here, experiencing things or not valued at all? I consider suggesting this to my neighbor, but I don’t think he’ll understand.
Over the days we spend together, my neighbor asks me questions about myself and I tell him about my life, the town where I grew up, my family, how I came to have Bea, and how her dad and I split up when she was still a baby after he cheated on me with one of his graduate students. He asks how marriage and love work in our society and I tell him they usually don’t, though he doesn’t, of course, get the joke. My neighbor then describes how, when his people come of age, they each choose to morph into one of three genders, each of which is subtly different but equally respected and how they enter and leave relationships freely without feelings of bitterness towards each other. He says he finds the possessiveness of human beings toward each other one of the most mystifying things about our species of the many strange habits we have.
Nothing I show or tell him seems to make any impression besides deepening his sense of us as unsavory vermin. By the end of the fourth day, I’m feeling totally defeated. We’ve visited the stock exchange, which I have to admit may have been a bad idea, but I’ve run out of any others. We’re walking along one of the gray, canyon-like streets nearby, when suddenly I’m flooded by a wave of glistening rage.
“I think you lied to me,” I say. “You never had any intention of calling off your plan.” My neighbor looks at me with the quizzical, bemused expression that seems to be his only alternative to having no expression at all.
“Oh, no,” he says, “we do not have this ‘lying’ thing. What would be the purpose of deliberately saying something incorrect? No, in fact, I am deeply conflicted about my mission. I wish I did not have to carry it out. But what can I do? My people are depending on me to find them a new home.”
I look over at him and I think I see a shadow cross his face, something I can recognize as sadness or regret. But I’m too angry to care and anyway after a moment it is gone. We continue our way down the street.
“So,” my neighbor says after a minute, “will we meet again tomorrow?”
“I don’t think so,” I say. “If I’m going to die of some hideous disease next month, I can think of better things to do with my last days on earth than this.”
“You are upset,” he says.
“Of course I’m upset!”
“Even after all I have done to explain to you how much more my people deserve to be saved than yours.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” I say. “Not for us, anyway.” I check my phone and see it’s later than I thought. “I have to go and get my daughter,” I say.
“Can I come with you?” my neighbor asks.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
“Please. I would like to see the place where your daughter spends her days.”
“Fine,” I say. “It’s not like I can really stop you, anyway,” I think: what harm can do? Or more, what difference does it make? I let despair settle in my stomach cold, wet and heavy like dying sea creature. We take the subway to the closest stop and walk the two blocks to the daycare center. The children are all outside in the small playlot adjacent to the main building, waiting for whoever will come pick them up. The yard is full of motion and the sound of their small voices as they call out to each other, racing around on their boundless energy. I feel a clenching in my chest at the sight of them, these innocents I’ve failed, and I think I might start to cry. I turn away to try to stop myself, and as I do, I see my neighbor, walking next to me, has an expression on his face of almost curious attention that I haven’t seen before. I think perhaps I am mistaken, but no, it’s definitely there and when I follow his gaze, I see it points toward the children playing up ahead of us.
Is it possible I’ve been thinking about this whole situation wrong? That instead of showing him the things we think are great and important I should just have brought him here to see the lovely ordinary exuberance of children playing in the sunshine? We go up to the fence and stand there, looking in. There are kids skipping rope and playing on the slide and drawing on the pavement with enormous sticks of chalk. And then I notice, over in a far corner where the staff on duty can’t easily see them, a group of kids have pushed over a big trash-can so its contents are all strewn across the ground. They are playing in the profusion of wrappers, food remnants and empty juice boxes, tossing them like they’re confetti and throwing them at one another like they’re snowballs. One of these children, I see to my horror, is my own daughter.
I’m just about to shout her name and then to go in and tell the staff how absolutely unacceptable this is, when I feel my neighbor put his hand on my arm. I look at him and see the same intense expression on his face as before.
“What is that?” he says, pointing with his free hand. I realize he is speaking of the garbage, not the children romping in it.
“It’s…” I manage but I can’t think what to say. “I…”
“It is remarkable. I have seen it in many places around the city but always it has been confined to a cylindrical container. Not like this, where it is free…”
I stare at him convinced he must be joking but then I remember that he doesn’t have a sense of humor I’ve been able to detect.
“Really?” I say. “You think that is…”
“Beautiful,” he says. “Yes.”
I watch him watching the kids for another minute, while I try to take in what he’s said. I feel hope rearing up again inside my chest and, much as I try to tamp it down, I can’t prevent it taking hold of me again.
“Tomorrow,” I say. “Perhaps I do have one more thing to show you after all.” And then I go inside to get my daughter.
The journey takes two hours on the train. When we come out of the station, which is the last stop on the line, we are immediately enveloped by the smell of rot and burning, putrefaction, rust. The street ahead of us is lined with warehouses and vacant lots and it is empty apart from us. My neighbor halts and sniffs the air.
“Where are we?” he asks.
“Come this way,” I say and set off down the street.
As we go, the smell gets stronger. I try to breathe just through my mouth, but even so it’s almost overwhelming. By the time we reach a set of tall, black metal gates, set in a chain-link fence that stretches out of sight in both directions, it’s almost too much for me to bear.
My neighbor on the other hand is positively glowing with excitement. Beside the gates, a sign reads: Far Point Municipal Waste Management Facility. My neighbor gazes through the diamond lattice of the fence. I think I see him almost smile.
“What is this place?” he asks. I shrug. We go in through the gates, telling the guard on duty I’m a writer doing research for a story I am writing. Just inside is a huge open shed and under its corrugated roof are huge conical piles of green and brown and clear glass bottles shimmering and winking. There are stacks of cardboard, dumpsters full of paper, more dumpsters of crumpled aluminum cans, light sliding down their brightly-colored folds. Old cars pancaked one above another, jumbled tires coiled into each other like knotted, blackened snakes.
We pass these, round the corner, and there, before us, lies the landfill itself. It’s a stew of everything imaginable you can throw away: plastic bags, appliances, old clothes and shoes, bedding, kitchen waste, bits of plywood, things too decomposed to know what they once were. Away to our right, a banana-yellow bulldozer pushes part of this mountain back to make room for more stuff to be added. Above, the gulls, like arcs of bleached bone, dive and circle, hard cries echoing.
I stop at the edge but my neighbor goes right on ahead. He wanders around for a while climbing and descending the great mounds of refuse, sometimes sinking into them up to his calves, stopping to bend down and pick things up, examine them closely and then put them back. When he returns to me after some minutes, I say:
“You don’t have anything like this, do you?”
“No,” my neighbor says. “There is nothing comparable to this on our world.” He pauses and inhales deeply. “This has all the things your other creations lack,” he goes on, “movement, the integration of the living and the non-living elements, nature and technology together. It appeals to all the senses. You can enter it, absorb it at your own pace…Why did you not bring me here immediately?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I should have.”
My neighbor nods. Then he looks back at the receding waves of garbage. It’s late afternoon now, and a tired, golden light sinks down the sky. Violet and indigo shadows ooze and pool in dips and troughs. For a moment, I almost see what my neighbor sees in all this. For a moment, it looks almost beautiful.
“So,” I say, “does this mean that you’ll let us live?”
He looks at me. “Well,” he says. “I will need to do some more investigation. Is this the only one of its kind…what do you call it?”
“It has many different names,” I say, “and no, it’s not the only one. There are many of them all around the world, some much larger than this.”
“I would like to see the others,” my neighbor says solemnly.
“Well, they shouldn’t be too hard to find. They’re usually out at the edge of cities, in places where people with a lot of the money stuff we talked about don’t tend to live. But if you discover they are as remarkable as this one, do you promise that you’ll go away and leave the human race in peace?”
“Yes,” he says. “I will. I promise.”
When he says this, I feel a flush of relief so powerful my knees almost give way. Seeing this, my neighbor reaches out and takes my arm to steady me. We look at one another, then, and I thinks I see something in his eyes I recognize, something familiar and comprehensible, something that sees me, too. But then whatever it is vanishes and his eyes go back to being flat and impenetrable once again. I take a deep breath – which is a terrible mistake.
“Can we go now?” I say when I recover.
“Yes,” he says. We walk back to the station with his hand still holding gently onto my elbow.
He leaves a few days later. At my advice, he’s purchased a ticket to Rio de Janeiro to see the famous Granacho waste dump there. On the sidewalk outside our apartment building, we meet so we can say goodbye.
“I think we will not see each other after this,” my neighbor says.
“No,” I say, “I don’t think that we will.”
“I do not know what your people say on such occasions. We say something that means approximately that we wish for you and your children, biological and/or spiritual, to have life and health in perpetuity and to always continue to develop their understanding of their place in the universe more deeply.”
“We just say ‘goodbye’.” I say, and so we do, me in the normal human way and he in the manner of his people, a process which requires about seven minutes. Then he gets into a cab and in a few minutes is out of sight.
For a while, once he’s gone, I feel elated. I’ve triumphed against all the odds. I’ve saved the world from imminent destruction. I’ve preserved the human race to go on doing all the things we do. I feel a new appreciation for the preciousness of ordinary things and everyone around me seems to shimmer with a kind of inner light that comes from being very nearly gone. I find I am more patient with my daughter and even that I can be nice to my ex-husband. Or nicer, at least.
But then some time passes, and a different feeling starts to creep in. Each time I read the newspaper or listen to the radio, I can’t help thinking about the way my neighbor’s people would have handled a given problem differently and better or how it might never have arisen for them in the first place. I think how if this planet now belonged to them there would be no one sleeping in the street or going hungry or being hurt for fun; no one would be damaging the oceans and the air and the soil and the rivers and the climate. When I close my eyes, I find myself picturing the vast fields of trash that are there just outside the city, a whole landscape of unwanted and abandoned things. I remember looking out across it, all those piles of rotting stuff stretching out to the horizon and I think about my daughter and I wonder what exactly I have done.
Emily Mitchell is the author of a novel, The Last Summer of the World (Norton, 2007), and a collection of short stories, Viral (Norton, 2015). Her short fiction has appeared in Harpers’, Ploughshares, The Sun, Alaska Quarterly Review, the Chicago Tribune and elsewhere. Her non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, New Statesman (UK) and Guernica. She serves as fiction editor of New England Review and teaches in the MFA program at University of Maryland.