On The Balcony Ledge
The basil is wilting. “Oh no,” I say to my cat, who doesn’t care. “The basil is wilting.”I laugh, give it more water to steel itself against the next day of a heat wave. An ordinary heat wave: mid-high 90s here in Brooklyn, while the Pacific Northwest has its extraordinary heat wave. 115. 116. Lessons on instagram on how to stay cool if you don’t have an a/c. Dip your feet in ice water. Turn on the fan. Drink water, have your salts. Salts are important! Millennial pink deepening into burn.
My neighbor shows up red-faced with a bag of raw chicken. I venmo him 25 bucks, put a plate of peach cobbler in front of him. He’s sweaty from his bike ride into East Williamsburg where he buys his weekly meat from a butcher shop there — best in Brooklyn, if not the whole dang city. Can I get you anything? Six-ish thighs. Offer: to pick up some number of meat. Request: check on his cats over the Fourth of July weekend.
I text my two neighbors who have the balcony next to mine: peach cobbler, please come by and take. Even if I feed three neighbors peach cobbler, there is enough for me. Pass Tupperware across from my balcony to theirs, hope the plastics don’t leach BPA into all those gooey Georgia peaches bright to the teeth. I feed not just for them but for me: a 9×13 pile of cobbler feels cloying when it’s just you, a fork, a Pyrex dish. I don’t know how billionaires manage all their excess without feeling something close to emptiness, long dark hallways of ruin.
In The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes about the commerce of matsutake mushrooms. Typically, matsutake grow at the edge of destruction like where land is scorched by fire. Or you’ll see them where deforestation upends native trees, supplanted by pine for profit — but matsutake love the pine. And the relationship between tree and mushroom is symbiotic. The mushroom’s vast underground mycelium network offers water, nutrients to the tree. And in return the tree gives the mushrooms a steady diet of carbs. So, the matsutake grows where the pine overwhelms, and are sold at a premium in the market.
Tsing posits that we can imagine these spaces where capitalism has made a mess of the land as not necessarily salvageable, to be reverted back to what they were (it might be impossible), but as new opportunities to imagine a new world: “To live with precarity requires more than railing at those who put us here (although that seems useful too, and I’m not against it). We might look around to notice this strange new world, and we might stretch our imaginations to grasp its contours.”
This sounds nice.
I say, “Yeah, sites of precarity!” And sit down to my laptop, where I work putting together presentations to show people how to sell my company’s products as if the world isn’t on fire.
I check my basil again, see it has bounced back, spicy and warm, a canopy reviving itself. “There you are,” I say. “There you are.” Soon the storms will come, offer an onslaught, and two days of mysteriously cool weather. My thumb turns by degrees green as my wildflower seedlings straighten their backs, my mint turns its face, the two basil plants expanding like lofty queens gathering their skirts, not in competition but in gentle formation.
In Alabama public schools I first learned about the greenhouse effect, how a car on a scorching day will trap the heat and turn your car into a little oven, much hotter than even the hot air outside. That, children, is what’s happening to this planet. Now that you’re ten years old you must simply go home, write a letter to Al Gore who also cares about this, and tell your parents.
“Oh, okay, Miranda,” my mom replied, sipping on tarry bitter Folger’s. “Whatever you say.”
She left bright pink lipstick on a Virginia slim. Business as usual. It won’t be years later, after we’ve both left Alabama, after the storms intensify to infrastructure-rattling behemoths, and after the land has begun to sink, that my mother concedes maybe I am right. A generation of Cassandras battling their parents the second they learn to read, and then the generation that follows, boycotting school in favor of protest, as exhausted adults say, “The kids are all right.” Their work is done because the kids (also exhausted) are taking up survival as their mantle, their battle cry, feet stamping the (also exhausted) earth.
A spare key opens up a world of cats: three mewling curious creatures, who accept me as one of their own immediately even though I do nothing but pet them while their owners are gone. A pothos grows leggy against the wall, snaking to meet where my neighbor hangs a fine array of weapons, dull glimmers against deep navy. The binary between plant and weapon is not always clear; a plant can be a weapon, but a hatchet is an unlikely plant. If I were a different sort of person, I’d say here is the masculine, here is the feminine, pitting the knives and brass knuckles against the pothos, the aloe, the army of potted plants I do not know the names of. But I’m not that sort of person. This is a home of one person who loves plants, one person who magpie-like collects weapons, unified by their love of their three cats who curl into empty Amazon.com boxes, making homes out of anywhere as cats are wont to do. Instead of a binary let’s adopt this: if everything is in the same room together, it lives together. Context shapes the narrative, but the narrative may not reflect the nuance. The nuance is a feeling; you are in the room with me, and I am describing to you as best as I can that I am comforted by the axe on the wall.
Simply put: my neighbors seem like they’d be good in an emergency.
My neighbor brings me a new pasta shape to thank me for watching his cats. Cascatelli. Little waterfalls of pasta. Designed to hold whatever sauce you throw at it. I take the red sauce from a previous batch out of my freezer, saute some mushrooms, and select some basil from my balcony garden. The basil seems strong again, ready to give what I will take, and then grow back bushier, more fragrant, a bold friend withstanding the summer. The full strength of the sun ringing in your head, like hands deep in the soil, like knowing how to pronounce terroir without choking on the word. Leftovers for days. So this gift begets another gift: self-sufficiency, ease, convenience, and a persistent warmth.
Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass writes, “A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved to you without your beckoning. It is not a reward: you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet it appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present.” Kimmerer was writing about strawberries, and other gifts from the earth, as re-imagining — or reverting to — a world where the market economy isn’t our default economy. Imagine, instead, a gift economy. You recognize what the earth has gifted to you, and you give to the earth not expecting anything in return. You simply share because your default mode is giving, sharing, and learning how to receive. At first when my neighbor gave me this fancy pasta I had a mild panic of what gift can I give him to thank him for when he watches my cat in a few weeks, and then I remembered: this isn’t the point, for us to trade gifts until we die of gift-anxiety. The point is when there’s a thing to be shared, a delight to surprise, an exchange of cats, you make do. Billionaires will still space-race to the moon, leaving behind choking plumes of smoke. You can share a peach, some mint, time, energy, a light touch behind a lonely cat’s velvet ears.
No one is enjoying the way the smoky west has sent its haze over to us, turning the sun red and making the clouds a sickening storm color, where no storm comes. I’m too uneasy to look outside, so I close the blinds. The blinds were left behind from the previous tenant, handsome wooden blinds that make me feel sophisticated and thoughtful, a bachelor with a cigar, the kind of person who owns a leather couch. It’s a treat to close them, to block out the outside world which has made me increasingly nervous. Lately my dreams are of floods that meet snow right outside the window. I haven’t been right since the videos of the subways flooding during a downpour, how I had to venture into the city that day, riding the J train and breathing deeply to not panic, the lights under Essex street bright enough for moths, unblinking and cold.
My mother calls me to let me know there is smoke from the west here in the east, though she is free from it deep in Florida. “If you looked outside and didn’t know what was going on,” she explains. The news made it look worse than it is, which is why, as always, she offers her home for me to evacuate to. Which was what she angled for the entire first six months of lockdown during the beginning of the pandemic. As if I’d take my elderly cat down to Florida and stare at the man-made pond which all the other houses circle like wagons.
The red sun is not permanent.
At least not yet.
Ida, oh Ida, you blast into my city after already having left New Orleans powerless, heatstruck in the dark. The subways turn to waterfall. Cascatelle. You deliver the delivery drivers sodden pants leg, then waist, then chest. Neon kayak holding the one New Yorker who knows not to step into water mixed with sewage, pollutants, the entire risk of sepsis. The city lit with toxicity, in some neighborhoods more than others, as the Ubers and Lyft flood their surcharges to the point going home is an exercise in extortion. Everyone texting me asking how I’ve fared, as if I would venture out into dangerous weather, as if I don’t live on a hill, on the fourth floor, with a view.
The subtropical Alabama of my bones has no half life, but is perpetual, signals to me when tornado is coming, and is right. My entire history of living in the boggy South has prepared me for this, has prepared me to watch and wait, rain making impressionist art of my window. A friend texts me she’s hiding in a closet, unable to differentiate the difference between tornado watch and warning. What are you doing in there? It’s only a watch. I sound more cold than I mean to, only trying to say that maybe just maybe there is no need for panic. Not just yet. And yet.
The next morning I pour buckets of water out of my balcony planters, my basil singing.
If we want to survive this, we have to boldly look at the stories that say we won’t. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report in August signaling “code red for humanity,” and suddenly, the internet had opinions, ranging from embracing nihilism to flagrant disbelief to the insistence that the report shared what we already knew. But I know it’s more complicated: we have to look hard at what’s in store for humanity and admit that some of us are not getting out of this alive—especially for those who sit at intersections that do not allow easy movement in the world. We do not have a rocketship to the moon, to Mars, to beyond. What do we have? Metaphors of mushrooms, strawberries, basil that withers and blooms.
But in the metaphor there is a reckoning, an unleashing of imagination which posits there are other ways to live.
So let’s start with a new narrative:
It’s another hot summer day, as oppressive as the last, all of us tiring of the summer like a houseguest who will not leave. My balcony neighbor comes to my door because she has locked herself out of her apartment, and now she needs to climb from my balcony to hers. My instinct is to instead set her up at my kitchen table with iced tea and a good book to read, but she has to be at work at 5, slinging drinks to the city which steps out in an attempt to be revived after too much time indoors. So, I let her circus her way from my balcony to hers.
She’s long-limbed, tall, a neat calculation prime for surviving this moment. So I make way, move an empty planter from my balcony’s railing that sprouts only a single weed, watch with a tensed readiness to try to catch her if she falls. She straddles first my balcony, and then hers, the fake bamboo lining her balcony in a bid for faux-privacy poking into her. Girl, that’s gotta hurt. But she finds her footing, makes it cleanly to the other side, victorious in her fist pump and shrieking into sweaty afternoon. I place her shoes and other items into a takeout bag and pass over to her. Close my door, and laugh.
There is still room for the deep, primal joy that only well-executed mischief brings, the kind that comes with a little bit of pluck, a little bit of fight.
Even if it is precarious.
Even if you think, I never want to do that again.
Miranda Dennis‘ essays have been published in Granta, Witness Magazine, and Hypertext Magazine. Poetry has been previously published in storySouth, the Hollins Critic, Meridian, Cold Mountain Review, and others, with poetry reviews in the Hollins Critic and Quail Bell Magazine. Miranda studied at Hollins University and the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and currently resides in Brooklyn and works in digital advertising in a remote world, with an elderly cat underfoot.