A Luxury Like Hope’, Aimee Ogden

Illustrations © 2021 Toeken

 [ Interstate © 2021 Toeken ] Her first night outside Charlotte, Dix camped beside the interstate. It was cool even for February, the temperature nestling deep down into the 40s, but she had a good sleeping bag, and she didn’t want to splash out for a hostel this early in the trip northward. When she was a kid, there hadn’t been much money for vacations, but she remembered one trip to Florida and the cement-block motel they’d stayed at, its floral-scented shampoo and cigarette-scented sheets.

That place had probably been underwater for years, now. Dix locked her bike around a sturdy-seeming red maple—probably unnecessary, but city habits died hard—and climbed the same tree to secure herself for the night.

Before she hung her backpack on a nearby branch, though, she made a careful nest in her lap and opened the top flap for one last look at the treasure inside.

Lemons, lemons by the dozen, winked up at her, some mottled green and some sunshine-yellow. Heavy, and expensive as all fuck, and absolutely worth it. She latched the backpack up and chose the most solid branch she could reach.

The need for sleep wrestled the throb of her overworked muscles to a stalemate: a light, often-interrupted doze. Dix had been doing physical work all her life, but spending a week on a bicycle burnished all those years of levee work and building decon to a nostalgic glow in her mind. She was too old to throw herself into this kind of adventure

She was too old not to. Once they put her in the ground, she’d be flat out of second chances.

Her eyes closed, though her lashes still stirred against her cheek. There was sleep, and then there was rest. She’d take whichever one she could get.

One more week until home.

When Dix flicked back over the years of memories, she sorted them automatically by fights: the ones she’d won, the ones Liz had, the ones that had lasted for days of stony silence, the ones resolved by a brief burst of sisterly understanding.

One of the worst had started over a swing, of all things. The bus had just dumped Dix at the bottom of the hill after a day of hauling sandbags in the Neck. She’d trudged up the last hundred yards home only to find her sister pushing Mae on this stupid jury-rigged swing. Liz had built it out of scrap twine and an old piece of siding, and hung it from one of the apple trees that filled the backyards on this block. “Aunt Dixie!” Mae shrieked. She took a hand off the rope to wave, and tumbled face-first into the dirt. She came up with stained knees, still grinning. “Look what Mama made!”

Dix didn’t remember exactly what spark had lit her heated words. The risk to the apple tree, maybe—they needed that fruit. A solid toehold into anger, a rational-feeling one.

She did remember putting one hand out to turn Mae aside. She remembered marching straight past her, up to Liz. She remembered that Liz wasn’t looking at her. She was saying to Mae, “You have to kick your feet straight up to the sky next time, honey. Like you’re going to fly.”

She remembered where the argument ended, too. “You’re always wasting time,” she’d screamed into Liz’s face, “and no one’s got time to waste anymore!”

Liz had lifted Mae off the swing and settled her onto her feet. Mae wasn’t crying, but her face was blotchy and her lips crimped. Dix remembered that too. “If you want to talk about this later,” Liz said, “we’ll talk.” She looked down at Mae again. “I have to be at the wharf for secondary testing at seven tomorrow.”

“… I know. I’ll watch her.”

“Thank you.” She lingered a moment by the door before disappearing inside. “Hope is a habit, Dix.”

A bad habit, yes, a dangerous one. Hope had shaped this foundering world into what it was. The trees creaked, and Dix’s bones echoed.

Mae tried to work one sticky hand into Dix’s clenched fist. Dix couldn’t open her hand, not yet, couldn’t let go of the feelings she had no name for. When her attempt at a handhold failed, Mae grasped Dix’s wrist instead. “Auntie,” she said. She sniffled, once, and wiped her nose on her bare arm. “Eat dinner, and then you can come push me on the swing.”

Outside of Greensboro, snow started falling. Dix coasted to a rest on the interstate’s broad shoulder the first time her tires slipped. Snow would hide the potholes; the last thing she needed was to go head over handlebars and break an arm. She’d barely seen another cyclist since leaving Charlotte, and only twenty or thirty cars a day. An injury would leave her well and truly fucked—and a broken bike wouldn’t be any better.

It would be a long walk yet into the city proper, but she could see an old freight depot from the road. The building still had a brown-gold logo on the side. PSU, Dix read, then amended in her head: UPS. Rows of semi-trailers stood in front, cabs nowhere to be seen. Years of sunlight had faded the rainbow of paint colors, but they looked well-maintained. A corrugated tin sign hung from one… vacation? Vacancy. Dix hesitated—you never quite knew who you were going to meet in the Bible Republics—then wheeled her bike over. She’d chance some fire-and-brimstone for a night indoors.

An older black man hefted the roll-up door at the back of the trailer when Dix knocked. He looked her up and down. “You looking for a room?”

“Yeah.” Dix gave him a similar once-over. In his fifties or sixties, but moving well enough. Missing a couple fingers on one hand. A relic of retrofitting these trailers, probably. A curtain hung just inside the roll-up kept her from evaluating anyone else who might be inside. Most folks were all right, even these days, but it would’ve been nice to know what she might be up against in case these weren’t most folks. “You take barter?”

“Depends. What you offering?”

“Labor, if you need it.”

His mouth pulled into a scowl. “Nah. I got a son and he got a husband. They still young and healthy enough to do what I can’t. You offering anything else?”

Reluctantly, Dix unshouldered her backpack and opened it. The lemons on top had mottled green and yellow skin, like dragon eggs in a kid’s story. She’d pushed all the ripest ones, the pure gold, down to the bottom when she’d repacked. She wished she could remember how many she had, how many she could spare. She’d counted them enough times but the numbers always flitted out of her head as soon as she was done. All she knew was she hadn’t even gotten out of North Carolina yet and she had a long way to go. “You can’t have them all. But I could spare, uh. Five.”

“Ah, put that away.” The old man snorted and shook his head. “We get a truck up from the coastal plains where they grow all that stuff, once a month. Lemons, oranges, avocados. The works.”

Dix’s face reddened. Of course they did. “Sorry.” She fumbled the flap closed. “We don’t get them back home.” Someone probably shipped citrus that far north, but they weren’t selling it at the street markets where Dix shopped.

“Yeah?” The old man’s jaw softened. “How far you come? “

The weight of the backpack pulled familiarly at her shoulders. Dix let it bow her neck forward, too. She was used to the embarrassment of pity, though usually for different reasons. “Most recently? Charlotte. Boston, if you go all the way back to the beginning.”

“Well. Mmm. Guess you ain’t looking to pawn the bike, then.”

Her hands tightened reflexively on imaginary handlebars. “No, sir.”

Air whistled in his nose when he leaned against the truck frame and heaved a sigh. “Then you willing to drop off a letter in the city for me tomorrow? Save me and the boys the trouble of walking. Got better uses for them around here anyhow.”

It was a generous offer already and he sweetened it with a lopsided smile. Dix looked up at the gray-swabbed sky, at the fine layer of snow that had already piled up on top of the trailers. “Sure,” she said. “I could help.”

When Dix and Liz were kids, winter brought snow, sledding, hot chocolate. You couldn’t get chocolate anymore—not unless you had a lot more money than Liz made, working on the eco-remediation team at the People’s University. A few of the save-the-world corps had come knocking on her door with their opportunities—rich folks were still out there, throwing money at their problems. Hungry for the old kind of world, where they’d have someplace to spend all that cash of theirs again. But she’d always turned them away. “This is home,” she said. “And I’m doing good work here.” These days, if snow fell on Boston, it fell sparse and soggy and was gone by the morning. The only reliable indicator of the season was a fight about Dix going south for better jobs.

“We couldn’t even visit you down there,” Liz said. Her eyes flicked to Mae, who had just turned fourteen and asked out the Yang girl from down the street within the hour of Liz lifting her injunction on dating. She stood over the stove, tossing golden rice back and forth in the pan. Dix had tried to get a job picking that rice down on the Neponset River floodplain farms, but they hadn’t needed her. The workers got a 5% discount if they bought rice straight from Riverlife Incorporated. “I can’t take Mae into the Bible Republics. Besides: you belong here.” Liz always said that, as if there were anything here left to attach a life to. “You belong with us.”

“I belong where the money is.” Money could buy a better place, where Mae and Liz wouldn’t have to share a room. And Mae would need new shoes again soon, not to mention cloth for new clothes, the girl grew like bamboo … Dix thumped an old duffel bag into the middle of the kitchen table. She hadn’t put any clothes in it yet, nor any of the supplies that she would need on the road. But having the bag there, waiting, was a comfort somehow. Even empty. “In the offseason, that’s south of here. West, maybe. I don’t know.”

“No, of course you don’t know. Why wait for a parachute before you jump out of the plane?” Rice flew out of the pan and ticked down in between the range and the countertop. Wasted food. Dix grimaced, but Liz didn’t seem to notice. “We can coast by for the winter, Dix, really. We’ll tighten our belts and be okay! But if you’re going to insist on treating this family like—like an accountant’s ledger, you could try again for a job on campus. Custodial work—”

“I can’t pass the fucking application exam!” Dix yanked the zipper of the duffel bag. It stuck until she pulled the fabric with both hands instead. Then it sang shrilly to the end of its line. “Even the janitors there have to be able to do calculus.”

“Don’t exaggerate.” Liz pressed again, as stubborn as ever. “I could help you study this time.”

“It’s not because I’m lazy!”

The tension spilled out of Liz’s shoulders. She set the spoon on the counter. “I know,” she said. “I know that you’re not. I’m sorry.”

The kitchen chair groaned when Dix leaned on it. “I’m too stupid for saving the world, Lizzie. All I’m here for is keeping you alive, fed, long enough to do it.”

A sharp double click: Liz’s wrist, and the gas valve, turning in unison as she extinguished the flame. “Dixon. Don’t you realize what it means to me that you’re here? Helping me raise her? Don’t you realize what it means to her?”

Liz’s outrageous calm opened a valve too, piping away Dix’s rage, storing it somewhere for later. A last wisp of it squeezed between her clenched teeth: “Then why are you such a bitch about me trying to teach her to live in reality?”

The wooden spoon cracked against the counter where Liz set it down. Liz never raised her voice. Almost never. “Please put your bag away,” she said. “It’s dinnertime and it’s Mae’s turn to set the table.”

There was no exit 29 off I-95. Dix had cousins in Ashland who’d said she could crash with them once she made it past Richmond. The sun pounded heat mirages into the asphalt, but she’d had her eyes peeled for miles now. The numbers had jumped straight from 24 to 31 and not an exit ramp in sight, not a single sign that looked like it could spell Ashland.

Dix dismounted and leaned her bike against the guardrail while she checked the paper where she’d scribbled her travel plans. Exit 29, in her own crooked handwriting!

She’d bartered for a secondhand road map of Virginia and the Carolinas. It unfolded grudgingly across her lap, well-worn creases parting to create a gaping trench of nothingness in the Atlantic Ocean, to divide the Smoky Mountains in half from east to west.

It took her the better part of ten minutes to trace I-85 out of Charlotte, follow it along to I-95, then work her way up the tiny towns crowded in alongside that thick yellow line. Finally she found Ashland, checked it against the version scrawled on her notes, confirmed it must be so. The little blue number beside the interstate didn’t match, though. 92, not 29, though when she blinked it tried to jump back. 70 more miles before she could rest a spell with family. She squinted up at the sun.

Five hours, probably. She could still make it today, if she rode hard.

It would have been stupid to think the fights would end after Liz was gone. Mae was her mother’s daughter in every painful way.

When Dix got out of bed the morning after the funeral, Mae was already awake, nibbling on stale sympathy bread from one of Liz’s coworkers. She had an old photo album spread on her lap, one of the ones Dix and Liz’s aunts had recovered from the old house before it went under. Crumbs pinged against the glossy plastic pages. Despite the reflection from the rising sun, Dix could make out two identical smiling faces hunched together over a bright yellow cake. Twelve candles—six twice over. You couldn’t have told who was who but for the gap in Dix’s grin. She’d lost her front teeth first. The only time she’d ever beaten Liz at anything. “It should have been me,” she said, and swallowed a sob.

“Aunt Dix.” Mae set the book on the table with a rap of cover against wood. The pages fluttered, turning themselves to a well-creased point: Liz’s college graduation. By that point the symmetry had long since broken: Liz’s hair buzzed short, Dix’s long and braided; Liz in her black cap and gown and Dix in a borrowed dress. The smiles still matched, though. “Have breakfast with me. There’s bread left, and Mrs. Tremblay’s mulberry jam.”

Dix’s stomach lurched. Without Liz, the algal carbon sequestration project was doomed to founder. Dix couldn’t fix that, no more than mulberry jam could fix her. “I’m not hungry, Mae. Food is … just too normal to think about right now.”

“Yes. It is. And we have to anyway.” The crack in Mae’s voice stole the strength from Dix’s legs. She crashed against the kitchen doorjamb and caught herself on the knob to keep herself upright. “Because my mom’s dead and my dad lives in fucking Osaka now which might as well be the dark side of the moon and if we can’t sit here and eat toast I’m going to lose whatever’s left of my shit.” Mae stood and threw her empty plate into the sink. The shatterproof Corelle sang shrilly, then clattered to a rest on top of last night’s dishes. Mae folded her arms and hunched against the counter. Like her mother, she spoke in an easy conversational tone. Liz had never sworn at Dix in her life, though, and the heft of the words struck the wind out of her now. “Eat something. Or don’t. I’m going to take the bus out to Franklin Park—”

“No. No! Wait, Mae.” Dix squeezed her eyes shut. “You have exams next week. You can’t be wasting time screwing around at the zoo right now. It’s up to you now to—”

“I’m going to take the bus out to Franklin Park,” Mae continued, talking over Dix’s last few words, like she did any time Dix talked about exams or going to college. Any time she tried to stitch their fraying present to the broad unknowable canvas of the future. Mae didn’t want to be the thread that held it all together. She shouldn’t have had to be. But the world was what it was, and what choice did any of them have but to live in it as best they could? “I need some fresh air,” she went on. “I need to see Lena. I need to get out of the house. I need—I need—I need something else. I don’t know. It’s not here.”

Dix found herself scraping the chair over the curling linoleum tiles, sliding to a seat. A pillar of shadow fell over the table: Mae, with the sun rising through the living room window behind her. The bread was in front of Dix, and a dirty knife too. She picked up the knife and wiped crumbs from the serrated edge. “ … Be home in time for dinner.”

“I’ll see you tonight.” Mae’s footfalls echoed one another all the way out onto the porch. The front door banged shut, and the sound of her departure was cut off altogether. The knife clattered to the table in front of Dix and the empty house keened in the wind from the water.

Dix stopped on the George Washington Bridge for a look down into the city. Late morning sun sparkled on the water; dark moldering buildings cut up through the surface like the spines of some resting leviathan.

Liz had gone to school somewhere down there. The university’s name had slipped away from Dix sometime when she wasn’t looking, over all those years. She scanned the surviving buildings, trying to pick out ones where Liz might have lived, worked, attended classes. No way to know, of course; not even to make an educated guess.

Dix picked her favorite one, a tall skyscraper. Either its remaining glass had been tinted faintly blue-green, or it had captured the light reflecting from the water. One tall spire still thrust skyward despite the waves lapping insistently at its sides. The view from inside must have been amazing, once.

Or still was, maybe. People lived stranger places these days. Dix raised one arm to wave, just in case. Then she pushed off and pedaled around the half-dozen cars that had been stripped but not yet pushed off to clear the bridge.

 [ Lemon cake © 2021 Toeken ] It hadn’t always been fights. Had it? Or were they just too far back, taken wing alongside the names of old colleges and friends’ birthdays and streets where Dix had once lived? When she scraped the limits of memory, she came up with matching dresses and matching rollerblades. Paired stuffed animals—a teal dragon and a purple monkey. Liz reading to Dix, and later, doing her homework; Dix teaching Liz to ride the bike they’d always had to share. Always sharing: shared toys, shared bedroom, shared birthday cakes.

Always a lemon cake, with homemade buttercream frosting. Five or nine or thirteen candles, but the cake underneath was always the same. Lemon was Dix’s favorite. Liz liked chocolate, but she’d started lying to Mom early, and never stopped.

“We should have your favorite this time,” Dix pressed most years, when July rolled around. But she never pressed hard and Liz always pretended not to hear.

Spring construction had just been getting off the ground when Dix set off for the south, but the Blue Hill Avenue Bridge over the Neponset had the attentions of a work crew when she passed over. They were laying down dirt to lengthen the bridge northward; still, Dix had to ford what had once been River Street with her bike and its sensitive cargo hefted painfully on one shoulder and one pedal chafing the back of her head. The crossing only soaked her as high as the knees—no need to stop for a change of clothes.

The Gladeside Field still slept under a coat of winter mulch, waiting for seedlings, but the rooftop farmers and kitchen preservers had come out for the morning market anyway. Beeswax candles, the last shriveled winter potatoes, hand-knit plastic nets, crusty sourdough loafs. Dix lingered by a battered card table where a scrawny kid was hawking glass jars of jelly—a touch of sweetness would pair so prettily with sour, bold lemon. But she didn’t know how many lemons she would need, nor how many attempts, to get everything right. To make everything right. Reluctantly, she handed over two lemons to the dairyman for a half-pound of goat butter, three more to the miller for fine-ground flour. Then she pushed her bike through the slowly accumulating crowd.

It felt strange to knock on the door of her own house. Was it still her house? No one answered, and the key turned in the lock when she tested it. There were too many pairs of shoes inside the door: she recognized a pair of Mae’s, but there were several pairs two sizes too small to be hers, plus one set that looked far too big. Roommates, then. Or maybe Lena had finally moved into Mae’s room and brought her brother with her?

She moved into the kitchen, opening drawers, putting spoons and cups on the counter. The mixing bowls weren’t where she expected them to be, but she found them on top of a high cupboard.

Things moved around on you, when you weren’t there to keep an eye on them.

The entire time Liz was pregnant, Dix forced smiles, a skill at which she became well practiced, and inquired regularly after Liz’s health. When the baby arrived, and Liz asked for her help while Davy went back to work, Dix resolved to make herself useful. If she was anything at all, it was useful.

But seeing that pale scrawny thing swaddled up in Liz’s arms, the mewling cries, the dark blank eyes and grasping fingers—it was too much. “I don’t know how you could do something so fucking selfish,” she’d said, banging around in the cupboards for the makings of a meal. She didn’t raise her voice, not in front of the baby, but the bowstring-tight tension in her jaw made arrows of her words. “I don’t know how you could bring a person into a world like this, on purpose.”

“A world like what?” Liz sheltered the baby’s face with one hand while she nursed. She ate for half an hour at a time and then slept to eat again two hours later, a life of constant need. The schedule had taken a toll on Liz, who had aged five years in the baby’s first two weeks. New channels marked her forehead, and around the sides of her mouth, carved by the rivers of worry and exhaustion that constantly flooded their banks. “Tell me what the world’s like, Dix, that I can’t have something to hope for.”

“Hope is a luxury. You can go look for it at a grocery store in 2029, and bring back some chocolate and coffee while you’re at it, thanks. Oh, and tampons. The kind with actual applicators.”

Luxury.” The baby’s soft sucking sounds became louder, and she grunted in dismay. Liz rearranged her with a shift of one arm and the steady, easy rhythm resumed. “The kind of luxury you can afford to dole out for yourself, and everyone else can just scrape along doing without?”

Dix banged a pot into the sink and turned the water on. The faucet coughed once, then grudgingly obliged to fill the pot. “What exactly do you think I have to hope for these days?”

“Me,” said Liz, as bitterly as Dix had ever heard her say anything. Dix turned to face her, the angry words sliced out of her by the jagged edge of Liz’s hurt.

Liz looked back at her, face still, mouth set. Neither said anything. The pot of water filled, then overflowed. Water flowed freely over onto Dix’s feet; the livid wounds between her and Liz stayed dry and bloodless, refusing to scab over.

Something had gone wrong with the mixture. The solar oven smelled sweetly of lemon, but it huddled in the bottom of the pan and refused to rise. When the edges started to blacken, Dix panicked. She scrutinized the recipe, re-reading the measurements, the instructions, the extra notes Liz had once scrawled in the margins. She’d been so careful to check teaspoons against tablespoons, 1/2 and not 1-2 … she must have just skipped a line somewhere too. She should have marked them off. She dragged one sleeve under her nose, along the rough patch of old tears and snot she’d worked into the cuff on the long trip.

The screen door banged against the side of the house—the pneumatic closer had broken last fall and Dix never had figured out how to fix it. She hitched her shoulders up to hide her face.

“Did you come back for the project launch?” Mae asked.

“I was trying to—what?”

“The project launch.” Mae shifted from foot to foot; the aging deckboards complained of the movement. “That team they brought in from Aga Khan have been working on the scaling problems. Solving them, I guess. Lena says. But she’s just a clerk. I don’t know.” She shrugged helplessly. “They’re launching broad-scale sequestration in the Atlantic next week. Apparently.”

“I didn’t think …” Dix focused on the white curl of steam threading through the seams in the oven. “No. I didn’t know that.”

“How long have you been back?”

Dix’s legs quivered, and she put out a hand to the ground to hold herself up. “I had something I had to do.”

“What? Hide in the backyard? Clean the oven? Compost the garden, paint the deck?” The door shut, more gently than it had opened. “You said you were going south for work. For some reason I thought you meant farther south than behind the house. God! I had to bring in roommates, Aunt Dix.” Mae half laughed, half sobbed. “You can’t have your bed back but at least I kept the roof over our heads. At least I did that.”

“You did a good job. You did the right thing.” Soft steps on the deck. Dix let herself drop to a sit in the stiff, damp grass. “And I went. I did go. For work. But … it’s a long way down. I had a lot of time to think.”

“Yeah?” Mae’s legs cut a tall dark pillar into Dix’s periphery. Between her and Dix, the backpack huddled, its secret cargo still hidden. Dix’s fingers twitched. “Think about what, exactly?”

“About … what’s important.” Dix lunged for the backpack. “I’m sorry, Mae, you weren’t supposed to see me yet—”

Mae was young and fast and full of anger, and Dix was none of those things anymore. She tore the backpack out of Dix’s reach, and lemons spilled free like stolen sunshine.

Two school papers, once marked all over in red, the other nearly pristine. “What I Want To Do When I Grow Up” printed on the top in a serious black font. I want to de a seintist or an engnere, the first one began, and petered off a few more hard-earned sentences later. I don’t know what I want to do yet, started the other, printed in a sturdy teenage hand, but I know what I want to be, and that’s happy. I’m not stupid. I can see the world around me. I know it’s going to be hard and that’s okay too.

Lena had indeed moved in when Dix left, and two of Mae’s co-teachers from the neighborhood crèche as well. Between the four of them they scraped together enough flour and butter and sugar, and a pair of brown eggs from the chickens Lena had installed in the backyard. Dix, stumblingly, read the recipe aloud, and ran her fingers over the deep lines where Liz’s pencil had once pressed. They decided the electricity levy was worth it, and as the oven heated, the kitchen filled with warmth and sweetness.

It was dark by the time the cake was done, but one of the teachers put out a lopsided beeswax candle that her crechies had helped to make, and Mae started a pot of sassafras tea. Someone found a jar of jam in the cupboard, and they slathered it on each slice to sweeten it, to stick fallen crumbs to a searching, scraping fork. Dix cried when she took the first bite, but Mae’s head leaned against her shoulder and the tears didn’t linger.

“Mom made this for my birthday once, when I was little,” she said, and sighed into Dix’s shirt. “When the trucks still ran. With jam and everything. It was so good. I never thought I’d have another. Do you remember that, Aunt Dix?”

Dix did.

Together they held back the darkness and weariness with a wisp of candlelight and sweet golden cake. “Tomorrow we can make lemonade,” said Lena wistfully, and Mae squeezed her hand.

A hope for the future. Small, yes. But people made more from less all the time.

© 2021 Aimee Ogden

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