I had been meaning to let Smitty convince me about one of his schemes for a long time and now it had happened. We were going to go up to Sea Ranch together, for about two weeks, and we were going to build a house out of Death. We had a lot of things to get done. The first thing was to call Cassandra. She didn’t pick up so I left her a voicemail.
Then I went to my parents’ place. They lived in Malibu, in a twenty-foot sloop that rested on cinderblocks in the yard. It did not seem extremely code-compliant, but the sea level was supposed to rise any year now and the Homeowners’ Association had other things on its mind. My parents had moved everything out of the house and into the sloop. They had ordered an aquaculture kit with kelp seeds and a fish-attracting device that had been advertised on television. They were going to float up twenty feet, whenever the sea came, and that would be that.
“Where are my old CDs?” I asked.
“There’s no point going all the way up to Sea Ranch when you can just get a boat and stay here,” said my father. “There’s room on our boat.”
“We have a kelp kit,” said my mother. “We have eight easy kelp recipes for everyday use. We can lure saltperch from a distance of eight miles, using magnetic pulse technology.”
Eventually I found my CDs in their black foam binder. They were in the old garage, in a cardboard box. They were full of my childhood. On my way back out to the sloop I watched a slug try to cross the driveway. It got about halfway before the sun fried it. It curled up like a fern and then the Death oozed out of it, a black sizzle on the hot driveway. There was a mast in every yard in Malibu.
“You were just going to let my CDs float away!” I said.
“We had to make room for the waffle iron, to make the kelp waffles,” said my mother.
I went back to the garage and got the spare mortar and pestle. I called the LA Times to tell them that my parents had left my old CDs in a box in the garage, where they were just going to float away. I was supposed to tell them about Smitty’s scheme, but the CDs felt more urgent.
The next day Smitty and I left for Sea Ranch. We spent the whole ride up drinking Orange Zaum and listening to the CDs.
By this point Smitty had been scheming for a long time. None of the schemes had worked out, but that wasn’t the sort of thing that stopped Smitty. “Actually I like being a hobbyist schemer,” he said. “There’s less pressure. I can do whatever schemes I want.”
Smitty’s last scheme had been about pop music. Surf Pop was coming back, he’d thought, because Surf Pop expressed everyone’s optimism about living near a body of salt water, and expressed that it could be an instance of fun leisure. The only difference was that Smitty thought the new Surf Pop would need extremely dark lyrics. He had tried to convince everyone we knew to start a dark Surf Pop band, but it hadn’t worked out. “These are some of the best schemes in the state of California,” Smitty said. “It’s time for me to be recognized for my schemes.” This time, the time of proper recognition, had lasted for about the past five years, through the dehydrated-milk scheme and the golf scheme and the pet-nightingale scheme.
Now Smitty had changed the way he was approaching schemes, and he thought that things were going to be different.
“I realized that I was scheming about the wrong things,” said Smitty. “I was naive. It didn’t matter how good the schemes were.”
“How do you know this scheme is going to go better than the pet-nightingale scheme,” I asked.
“Now I’m thinking about the appropriate circumstances for scheming,” said Smitty, “and the appropriate type of scheme for each circumstance.”
“If the problem with the past, with yourself in the past, is that you were naïve—”
“The best scheme starts with a group of people who have decided there is only one way to do things,” said Smitty. “It is best if those people are wrong.”
“How do we know we are not still naïve about whether we are naïve?”
Sea Ranch is on the California coast. The people there live in vernacular modernist housing, which means that they live in comfortable houses made out of materials from the nearby area. Sea Ranch is on a cliff, and most people there are very wealthy, and when the sea rises they think things for them will stay exactly the same.
“But now death is the vernacular,” Smitty explained. “So we’ll build a new house, out of Death.”
“That sounds very meaningful. I want to feel that the actions I take every day matter,” I said, “and that I am the only one who could take them.” I was trying to be more direct about my wants. Smitty felt that this would help me make progress towards fulfilling them.
“Once we have a reputation as death entrepreneurs,” said Smitty. “We’ll be well-positioned. We’ll be in demand. We’ll be invited places, to give talks.”
I felt that Smitty would never convince anyone else of this scheme, and that’s why I came along.
Cassandra and I didn’t go to school together, but in separate years we both went on the same field trip to see the nuclear reactor at Diablo Canyon. On this field trip you walked down a lot of hallways and were not allowed to see anything interesting, and then a man with a mustache did a bad job answering your questions. The power plant was composed of two big white domes over a brown building, and from the school bus it looked like something your mother would use. It looked like it had something to do with laundry.
After the meltdown, when everyone in Diablo Canyon was in quarantine, someone in the containment zone decided to become an artist. He had given himself decorative radiation burns on various parts of his body, and each day he hiked to the Press Interface Zone to do interviews. He was a big hit, and sometimes Cassandra and I watched him on television.
“How does he know,” I said. “How does he know what shapes to do?”
“The ones on his calves look like they would hurt the most,” said Cassandra.
Eventually the artist died, and then he wasn’t on television anymore.
Cassandra lived on a street with trees, the kind with the purple flowers that make the road look like a trashy carpet, and some of them were dying. Trees take a long time to die and, unlike an animal, don’t die all at once, in between one breath and the next. Cassandra would go over and give them a pat, like maybe they just needed to know somebody appreciated all the flowers, somebody other than the bees, who appreciate everything.
Cassandra and I worked together at a restaurant, with a lot of confident people who thought they could tell. They thought they could tell what kind of drink somebody would order based on the way they walked, and how they’d like their steak based on their haircut. They thought they could tell what they were meant for in the world, and that it was going to be fun and glamorous. It seemed like that was very helpful for them.
In Sea Ranch, everything is bright blue. You can’t tell the difference between the sky and the ocean, and the cliff means that the sky reaches down underneath you. It feels like you have a big blue mother who is going to gather you up, unless there is fog, and then it feels like there is nothing at all, like there is only you, and the sound of crashing.
We drove down streets lined with linden and eucalyptus, looking for the right spot. One of the rules in Sea Ranch is that you don’t do very much to your yard, so it looks like your house is a spaceship that just landed there in the meadow, in the scrub. There were a lot of trespassing signs and that made us worried that people in Sea Ranch wouldn’t like our scheme. People who are willing to have a conversation about a scheme don’t put up that many signs about trespassing. Many people had large blue boxes in their front yards, and we saw one or two scooping Death into the boxes, from fallen branches or patches of grass that had withered.
“Are those recycling bins?” I asked.
“Recycling is miserly,” said Smitty. “Everyone here is a miser.”
Things had been dying for a long time, and probably for a long time the Death had been oozing out afterwards, black and slimy and desperate to stain, but until recently everyone had been very ashamed about this, and had pretended not to notice. It was only recently that people had begun to do Death paintings, to provide makeup tutorials or cooking tips incorporating Death. Smitty knew a place on Sunset that sold a chalky substance you could mix with Death to produce something like clay. You could mold into little sculptures before it hardened. Smitty’s idea was to make bricks instead.
“They look like they have locks on top,” I said.
“My friend says soon there will be a Death economy, and you will be able to buy things by trading Death,” said Smitty.
“It’s only by accident that the world turned out this way,” I said, “and not some other, different way.”
After a while we found a cul-de-sac where we thought we couldn’t be seen from the adjacent houses. We pulled the car behind some bushes, and made sure the ground was reasonably flat, and then we went off looking for Death.
For about the first hour all we could find were some sticks.
The sticks were handsome, like lawyers, and we broke them off of their trees, but then they were sticks, and there isn’t very much Death in a stick. The whole world was obnoxiously alive. We crossed 101 and went uphill, to the east. It was a big pine forest and we found a fallen pine, but we couldn’t figure out how to move it back to our site. That’s when Smitty had the idea of looking along the roadside, where we found three dead rabbits in just twenty minutes.
“They’re not very fresh,” I said. “Most of the death leaked out already.”
“If something is happening accidentally, and you want it to happen on purpose, that’s a good place for a scheme,” said Smitty.
We spent most of the afternoon trying to lure rabbits into crossing the road in front of oncoming traffic, but the rabbits were too stupid to be lured. When we came back to the site we only had the three original rabbit corpses, plus two lily-of-the-valleys that Smitty had yanked out of the ground. We wrung out the rabbits for a few last drops of Death, and then we mashed that up in the mortar and pestle and mixed it with chalk, and that was enough for about one brick’s worth of death.
We wanted to do the lilies-of-the-valley, but they weren’t dying very quickly. They weren’t dying at all, really. They just sat there on their side, with their roots hanging out, still alive, probably expecting that at any moment someone would stick them right back into the ground. I’ve always felt that it’s more affecting when stupid or helpless things come to harm, because it isn’t their fault, but in the end we had to build the house. We had made a commitment to our scheme.
We went down to the beach. A large group of elephant seals were there. The arrangement among elephant seals is that they look like dumplings and they all love to nap. It is best to nap in a large group of other elephant seals, preferably right at the center, but the elephant seal moves mostly by flopping, and it is difficult for any given elephant seal to nap while another is flopping over it towards the center. Smitty and I sat and watched them for a while, thinking about how much Death they each must have had inside of them.
One seal came in from the water towards the group, but two other seals chased it away, flopping on the beach and trying to bite the first seal’s tail. It wriggled away and lay down in the sand. We got hopeful that it might be dying, so we sat in the rocks and watched.
“Do you think it has a name?” Smitty asked, “Do you think it dreams?”
“When the sea level rises it will have lots of new places to explore,” I said. I was becoming jealous of blubber, and of the deep red scars on the backs of the largest seals.
After a while the seal looked pretty close to dead, but then one of the Sea Ranchers jogged down the path. He was wearing black shorts and a white polo shirt, both made out of technology. He waved at us, and then he jogged right past the elephant seal, which barked at him and wriggled back towards the surf.
“Hey!” yelled Smitty. “That was dying! We had dibs!”
The Sea Rancher couldn’t hear us over the sound of the surf. The seal was so fat that when he got to the water he stopped wriggling and waited for the waves to come and gather him up. On the way back up to our site we passed two more joggers. They had bibs of sweat, and they were looking at their little watches, in order to tell whether they were running any faster than they had been the day before, which was something that they felt mattered.
Meanwhile we were sleeping in the car. We had cleared a big flat area to build the house in, and we had drawn lines in the dirt to indicate where we were going to put the kitchen, the living room, the dining room, and the stuffy closet where people could put things of which they were ashamed. We were trying to bring the house into existence by doing everything in the area of our future house where it would properly occur. When we were eating we set up our camp chairs in the dining room, and when it was time to talk about the project we picked up the camp chairs and went into the living room. It was most convenient to step right over the future walls, but Smitty preferred that we did not.
My job was to attract attention to the Death house we were building—to do publicity. This was part of the scheme.
I called Cassandra and left her a message. “Smitty and I are in Sea Ranch, and we’re building a house out of Death,” I said. “It’s going to be a two-story Victorian, just for a change.” There was a silence where I imagined Cassandra’s reactions. “I want you to agree that the choices we make matter, even if they don’t lead to anything happening or changing, or any other kind of difference.”
Smitty was sticking the lawyerly branches into the ground to build a spider farm. He went into the woods with an empty Orange Zaum bottle and collected spiders to transplant into his spider farm. The spiders would catch lots of small insects and we’d be able to extract their Deaths to help build the house. This scheme was about delegating work you’re not able to do yourself.
I called the Guinness Book of World Records and left them a message. “Smitty and I are building a house out of Death,” I said. “It will be the largest Death-edifice on the west coast.”
“There’s no food here in Sea Ranch,” Smitty said. “I’m going to drive into Gualala and get something from the Taco Trap. Do you want anything?”
“I want someone to reply to all of these voicemails I’m leaving,” I said.
“It’s no good to want things from other people,” Smitty said. “You don’t have any control over them. It’s healthiest to only want things from yourself.”
“It wouldn’t make any sense for me to reply to my own messages,” I said. “That isn’t the point.”
“I’m leaving for Gualala and I’m getting you two quesadillas,” said Smitty.
I moved the camp chairs into the rectangle we had drawn to indicate a porch, and watched the spiders building new webs between the sticks. They seemed to have a good attitude about things. They were less naive than the lilies-of-the-valley had been, but they didn’t seem troubled either. They had a plan for whatever situation they found themselves in: build a Web, and then see what happens.
Smitty called a planning meeting. He was concerned that we had arranged the rooms unwisely.
“I wonder if the kitchen should be in the south-west corner,” he said, “for the light. Once the press attention comes together we will want to have very good light, for the photographs.”
“Shouldn’t we have this discussion in the living room?” I asked. We were sitting on our camp chairs in the dining room.
“This is the living room,” said Smitty. “We’re having the discussion in the appropriate room.”
“I thought the living room was down the hall,” I said, “through that wall.”
We both looked around and discovered that the boundary between living room and dining room had blurred. There had been the original line in the dirt, but we had stepped on it several times, and even dragged the camp chairs across it once or twice, and now there was no longer a sense of clarity between the two rooms.
A porous border had also developed between the kitchen and the guest bathroom, which seemed like a concern.
All in all we had been in Sea Ranch a week and we had only managed to make eight bricks out of death. They were stacked in a row on the west-facing dirt line, which was going to be the front of the house.
“This isn’t working,” said Smitty, “we need to accelerate the scheme.”
“The joggers never have to deal with anything like this,” I said. “I want to knock down all the walls inside their houses so they get confused about which room is which.”
“That is a very good want,” said Smitty, “It could even be a scheme. But for this scheme we need more death. We’ll never be recognized for nine crappy bricks.”
I was using one leg of a camp chair to try and restore clear distinctions between the rooms.
“Tomorrow you should go get some extra gasoline,” Smitty said. “In Gualala. We can try starting a wildfire and scooping up the death afterwards.”
I had met Smitty in a year with unusual wildfires, or with wildfires that seemed unusual at the time. At that time every year’s wildfires had seemed unusual and terrifying, until the next year, when new wildfires made the previous year’s wildfires seem reasonable and ingenuous. Barely anyone had died in the wildfires last year, everyone said, not like this year. Those had been wildfires we could relate to.
Smitty’s scheme at the time had involved a wildfire attraction. “It’s like one of those escape the room operations, except with a wildfire instead of a stupid combination lock,” Smitty said. It was going to take place in a large paddock filled with little huts set up to look like a suburb. The paying customers would file in and start doing whatever, and after a while Smitty would set fire to a large pile of brush in the corner of the warehouse, and then the customers would have to make decisions about whether they wanted to flee, or stay in one of the huts and hope the wind blew the other direction, or try and hide in the pool until there was nothing left to burn. At the end the staff would give out little happy-face stickers to people who had made the best decisions, and everyone would have the chance to pay twenty dollars for a photograph of themselves fleeing from the flames.
“You have to give people what they’re most terrified of, but make them feel safe anyway,” Smitty had said. “That’s what people want most.”
“What if they actually die?” I asked.
“The thing is I need to recruit more firefighters,” said Smitty. “What are your strengths and weaknesses with hoses?”
I asked Cassandra if she wanted to also be a firefighter at Smitty’s wildfire operation, but she didn’t want to. She said she didn’t think it was a constructive response. I said it depends what you’re trying to construct. We ended up having kind of a fight about it, and that was hard. We’d drive home from work together and she wouldn’t want to talk about anything interesting. She’d just ask if my firefighting gig was going to happen. Whenever I saw one of the trees with the purple flowers I’d think about how much I missed talking to her.
Eventually Smitty couldn’t get insurance, and then things were okay again with Cassandra.
In Gualala there were three restaurants with porches on the west sides so people could look out over the ocean while they ate. The porches looked like white tongues that had been infected by lunch. I drove through Gualala, all the way past Taco Trap and through to the north, where there was nothing but more California.
On the way back south I stopped at a store that sold jogging supplies.
“Can I help you,” asked the store attendant. “What is your jogging profile?”
“Jogging unnerves me,” I said. “My head shakes up and down when I jog. Have you heard about the Death house we are building in Sea Ranch?”
“There is beautiful jogging here in Gualala,” said the attendant. “If you go on the trails to the east there is incredible wildlife.”
I picked up a shoe that was grey with pink panels. It looked like it was displaying itself as a potential mate for another shoe.
“The California coast is God’s country,” said the attendant. “It’s one of the richest biomes in the world.”
“What does jogging have to do with death?” I asked.
“Jogging is one of the healthiest things you can do,” said the attendant. “It’s one of the best ways of postponing death.” It was clear that he meant death, the phenomenon, and not Death, the substance.
“I think my ideal relationship with death would be personal and sweaty,” I said.
I stopped at Taco Trap and got Smitty a Number 6, with lemonade. Then I got the extra gas and drove back. A light rain had come in from the pacific. I felt that I had learned something about joggers, which was that they were trying to chase their own death away, into the future. It seemed hard to chase away something that was waiting for you. I made myself a promise that if I ever decided to believe in something I would make better choices than the people in Gualala had made.
I brought Smitty the extra gas.
“This is no good anymore,” Smitty said, “nothing will ignite after the rain.”
“I went into a jogging store in Gualala,” I said. “The shoes looked like exotic birds.”
“Maybe we can still use this,” said Smitty. He poured some of the gasoline into our mortar and pestle. “Gasoline is just stale Death anyways,” he said. “It’s Death that’s had time to ferment.” He addressed the gasoline with mortar and pestle but it turned out that the gasoline was too stale to make structural materials.
“We need large-animal Death,” said Smitty.
“The problem with the elephant seals is that they’re impervious,” I said. “You can’t even leave them a voicemail.”
“This is a bad situation,” Smitty said, “we need to kill one of the joggers.”
“I don’t think jogging is going to work out in the end,” I said. “I don’t think it’s going to work out at all.”
“Really we’d be incorporating them into a ground-breaking project,” Smitty said. “It would be a great opportunity. We could put their name on a plaque in front.”
I called the Mendocino County Chamber of Commerce. “Smitty and I are in Sea Ranch, and we’re building a house out of Death,” I said. “All of the spiders are dead. My parents have a kelp kit and they think that’s going to make a difference. In general, measures are growing more drastic.”
That night we slept in the car, due to the rain.
The first few times Cassandra gave me a ride home after work, we didn’t say very much. But one day she pulled into an alley behind a strip of fast food restaurants. She wanted us to dig through the dumpsters looking for food. We found a two-kilogram bag of shredded cheddar cheese with only a small hole in its side. After that she always had some activity in mind. We were always fleeing through parks together, or building lean-tos alongside paths. Then we’d drive home and watch movies.
On the third day the spiders died, all together. This was probably because we’d ground up all of the bugs they caught for the house, but I preferred to imagine that some kind of signal had passed between them, that they had decided to die, that it was some kind of a revolt. Smitty said that the spiders weren’t necessary, since we had the webs now, it just meant less competition.
Cassandra and I weren’t in love. We were never in love. We’ve never even kissed, actually. I’m not sure if we will. It’s not about that. It’s just that, when the sea level rises, everyone will want to have some idea of who we prefer to die with, and before that, an idea of who we’d like to flee with, who we’d like to break our ankles with, who we’d like to starve with.
The next morning Smitty and I woke up very early. We went down to the beach and hid in some rocks. Smitty almost stepped on an elephant seal that looked a lot like a rock but turned out not to be, and turned out also not to be dead. Then we were sitting in the rocks. Since the sun hadn’t made it over the cliffs yet, it was awfully cold. There was also the sound of the crashing.
The first jogger who came by looked pretty spry, so we let him jog by. The next joggers were a couple, and we hadn’t schemed for a couple. Finally there came a slow jogger, a broad handsome man in a sweater advertising a university.
I stepped out of the rocks, pretending to limp. “Can I help you?” asked the jogger.
“I have an opportunity for you,” I said.
Then Smitty jumped out and hit the jogger on the head with a medium-size rock. He fell over and we dragged him into the rocks with us. We had schemed to carry him back to the car at night when there wouldn’t be other joggers on the path.
This part of the scheme went well. The elephant seals were not aggressive, and we only had to hit the jogger on the head twice to keep him asleep. It was important that he not die until we were back at the site, so that we could get the good fresh Death. When night fell, we took him between our shoulders and carried him up the hill, where we tied him to a sturdy-looking tree and sat down to discuss.
“It’s too dark,” said Smitty. “All the death will leak out.”
“I want to take credit for all my good decisions,” I said, “and feel that all of my errors have been planted in me by malefactors.”
“That’s an excellent want,” said Smitty.
“I used to have a clearer sense of who was a malefactor,” I said. “I think I’m beginning to lose track.”
“It’s extremely clear who’s a malefactor and who’s not,” said Smitty. “I’m going to Taco Trap.”
We tied the jogger to the tree, and then Smitty left for Taco Trap. There was still a little grey in the sky, like an eyebrow. Before bed I called Artforum and left them a message. “Smitty and I are in Sea Ranch, kidnapping people. It’s very meaningful.” Then I called my parents and left them the same message, and I called Naomi, who I used to sit next to in middle school, and I called Ansel, who I’d been supposed to have a drink with for six months, and I called the charity Seal Rescue United, and I called Greenpeace, and I called the Secretary of State, and two of my old soccer coaches, and I called Cassandra twice, and I left them all the same message.
In the morning we were all awake, even the jogger. Smitty and I were awake because the jogger was yelling. Smitty was going around looking for a rock, but we had left all of those at the beach.
I picked up one of the heavier sticks and walked over towards the jogger, who was still yelling.
“I want you to stop yelling!” I said, lifting the stick.
He stopped yelling.
“Can you untie me?” he asked. Smitty came over.
“We can’t untie you,” Smitty said. “That isn’t the scheme.”
There was a yelling phase, and then a threat phase, and then a bargaining phase.
“You can’t kill me,” said the jogger. “I’m Norman Philips.”
“You should be clearer about your wants,” said Smitty. “How would you like us to use that information?”
“I want you to let me go,” said Norman Philips.
“I want to call Cassandra,” I said.
“That’s a bad want,” said Smitty. “You’ll never go anywhere with that want. You’ll just end up calling Cassandra. You should pick a want that’s more demanding.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s good,” I said. “It’s what I want.”
“I’m disappointed,” said Smitty. “Usually you have better wants. What happened to the malefactors? We have a malefactor right here.”
Norman Philips looked at us. “I’m not a malefactor,” he said. “I’m very valuable. I’m more valuable alive. I control major corporations. Actually, I’m a benefactor. A major benefactor.”
“You’re clearly a malefactor,” said Smitty. “We’re going to use your Death to build a house.”
“I own seven percent of Orange Zaum,” said the jogger, who had plainly scrutinized our campsite at some point during the yelling. “I sit on the Taco Trap Board of Directors. I own floodproofed property in four states. I’ll give you stocks! Bonds! Collateralized debt instruments!”
“We’ve committed to building a house out of Death,” said Smitty, “and frankly, the kidnapping was kind of a hassle.”
“I’ll give you a house! A whole house! Made out of wood, not Death!”
“He’s a malefactor,” said Smitty. “Hit him with the stick.” I lifted the stick.
And that’s when the sea level rose.