Texts he read but never responded to. Texts he responded to in less than two hours. Texts he responded to in more than five hours. The average of photos responded to versus simple word texts. The number of phone calls while he was at the Salton Sea filming his documentary. The number of phone calls after he returned to LA. The silence after she told him she was pregnant.
Exhibit B: Octopuses are confusing.
She keeps a tally in the back of her notebook, behind the birds. She plans her next communications methodically, based on what has worked, what has failed.
She approaches life like she approaches death: systematically. Frankie visits Madame Jacqueline in Slab City. Her trailer sits in the middle of a dirt lot. Layered over it: white mandalas, Confucius quotations, kanji. Frankie knocks and waits. Madame Jacqueline opens the trailer door with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, blue sunglasses shaped like stars covering her eyes. She is a small woman, her shoulders crouched into her body, her boney edges jutting out of her skin.
She has long gray deadlocks that retain the black coloring of her youth at the ends. She keeps them wrapped up on the top of her head with a dirty scarf. Madame Jacqueline pulls open the curtains, letting light into the trailer.
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She is a graveyard of particles. She wonders if her baby feels them in her, sharing space. If her baby eats them too. Madame Jacqueline sits in the booth, her knees facing out towards Frankie. She lights another cigarette and leans her elbow on the table. I need to know where he is. He stopped responding to my messages and I need him to help me. She lifts her other hand. She closes her eyes.
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Madame Jacqueline releases her hands and takes a drag on her cigarette, the smoke moving between her teeth, out her nostrils. Madame Jacqueline follows her to the doorway, watches her get in her truck, and flicks the cigarette filter into the dirt. Frankie pulls out of the lot and onto the road. They have a house, an income. They can do it together. They are already a family. They had moved seaside when they were kids. Frankie was four, Ashley was seven. Their parents brought them here with promises of boogie boarding, sun-kissed shoulders, rainbow umbrellas and mildewy beach towels.
They said children should grow up by the water, that water determines who someone will become. The whole area is an ancient sea, the land now risen, dried, cracked. As a result of a mechanical error with damming the Colorado River, a lake was born. In the midcentury, realtors saw it as an opportunity: a second Palm Springs. They built houses, resorts, restaurants, ice cream shops, hot dog vendor carts, everything a beach town needs. A dying lake.
Exhibit A: Octopuses are weird.
Nearly everyone packed up and moved away when the stench of rot inhabited the water. Now, an abandoned lake, forgotten amongst the sand dunes and empty motels and piles of garbage. Frankie and Ashley stayed because their parents left them the house when they died and they had nowhere else to go. She speculates that the baby is a girl—only a girl would know not to kick when someone wants her to.
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Her belly is the world. Some mornings, Frankie gets a sharpie from the junk drawer and draws the continents onto her blank Earth. She always forgets how Europe connects to Russia connects to China. She draws two dots in Southern California. One is herself. One is Jeremiah. Compared to the rest of the world, they are right next to each other. Their edges touch. It is a Saturday afternoon, a few hours before Ashley has to go to the bar. They are sitting on the couch in their living room, the old TV playing a local news channel. The clarity fades in and out as the signal adjusts. Ashley wants to take care of the baby.
Firstly, because, as her sister, she loves Frankie. Second, because if Jeremiah answers his phone, if Frankie goes to LA to be with him and her new family, Ashley will be here alone. Frankie knows this. The one in Slab City. I drove down there the other day to see if maybe she could help me get in touch with him. And I was right to.
Ashley stands up. She thinks she will text him again today. After Ashley leaves for work, she consults the tally in her notebook and considers sending him a picture of the sunset over the lake. Frankie learns about the Orphan Bird while scrolling through digitized pages of medieval bestiaries on her phone.
She pinches and pulls to zoom in on the illustrations, the perfectly imperfect handwriting of the scribe, the ornate gold gilding, the imaginations of people long dead from far away. It has the beak of an eagle, the feet of a swan, and the body of a crane. She tells her that her brains are going to rot. Frankie can afford a phone because of her job at Game and Fish.
They know everyone they need to know, where they live, where they work. They walk over and knock if they need something. Frankie holds her phone as if it is something sacred.
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She learns that the Orphan Bird lays its eggs in the sea. The bad eggs sink to the bottom of the sea and hatch there, eternally condemned to darkness and grief. Ashley keeps her hair long so she can flip it. This is where Frankie met Jeremiah. He ordered a Jack and coke. Frankie was sitting on the last bar stool, her face lit from beneath by her phone. Jeremiah was dressed like someone from a city who is trying to fit into a small town. He had blue jeans and a button-up shirt patterned like a bandana, pearlescent buttons gleaming in a row down his chest. Ashley brought Frankie another vodka water.
Frankie only drinks things she can see through. One part vodka, two parts water, four ice cubes. She will force precision with observation. Ashley performed her tirade, the one Frankie has heard so many times, about the government covering the place up. A free sewer, she calls it.
Everyone loves an apocalypse story. He told her about the warehouse he lives in with ten other artists, artisans, and craftsmen.