(Originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of the Nassau Literary Review)
When the bamboo crossed the Delaware River, sprouting in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania by the dawn of Day Seven, CRISIS gave the Narrative Committee twenty-four hours to tell a good story. Helicopters hovered blind above Morris County, the cover of emerald forest hiding cracked highways and McMansions pulled apart. Rangers with flamethrowers bore a hole through the bamboo thick in Somerset County to liberate the Jets quarterback, held for ransom by the staff of a Route 22 QuickChek to secure their own rescue. Hedge Funds in Manhattan operated in the absence of their CFOs, who lay dying on their lawns, their front doors lost through the deadfall. CRISIS statisticians called the sprouting’s rate of growth exponential; New Jersey congealed into bamboo forest.
When CRISIS ordered Mid-Atlantic evacuation, America’s questions turned angry, desperate. The Interview Team talked to survivors. The Extraction Department assigned to the Bamboo Neighborhood project probed the recovered brains of the dead to find whatever memory feeds were still intact. The researchers streamed data into the Writing Center, where grad students paged through tablets listening to the voices of victims in their ear buds. They send story sketches to the Narrative Committee for approval, stories that would answer the questions the right way. Four hours in, MFA candidate Emma Tanzer tugged the buds out of her ears and interrupted lunch orders.
She said it was a love story.
The directors of the Senior Passport to China program hired 朱全忠 as chef for the cruise of the Pagoda Fantasy on the condition that he changed his name to Sam. For dinner on Day Negative Ten, Sam cut onions thick and green bell peppers in long strips. The passengers liked to pick out the vegetables. It was Thursday of the cruise’s second week, which meant the day began with sunrise tai chi and that the terra cotta pottery studio was open from noon until three. Sam cooked with his beard tucked under his apron and a cigarette tucked behind is ear. Margaret Blake, unmarried and aged sixty-eight, sat legs uncrossed on a bacterial kitchen counter clicking her sandals together in a silk sundress she bought in a Beijing airport. She plucked Sam’s cigarette and lit it on the burning stove. She drew deep and remembered diner breakfasts after homecoming dances. She asked Sam to say his real name again.
“朱全忠,” he said.
“朱全忠,” she repeated. Smoke crept out of her mouth with each contour.
“Good,” he said. His smile was small and hidden behind beard and wrinkles and stir-fry steam but Margaret knew he was smiling. She smiled too. She was missing her calligraphy workshop.
The Pagoda Fantasy steamed through the wide Xiling Gorge, bending down into the Wu Gorge that the cruise itinerary had labeled “mysterious.” Sam peeled bamboo shoots. The cruise directors told him that their passengers had no taste for authenticity, but he wanted to give Margaret something real.
At dinner, Margaret gorged in the dining hall, sitting alone under a swaying chandelier, watching Sam standing at the headwaters of the buffet line, shaking hands of bewildered retirees. He had been instructed to bow graciously. At the buffet for a second helping, Margaret slid her hips past Sam, tracing her fingers across the tied strings of his apron. She told him how hungry she felt. Dishwashing in the kitchen, Sam knew he had something real to give her: a bamboo seed in a Styrofoam cup above the sink that drank in the rice paddy haze from an open porthole.
In Chingqing, on Day Negative Two, the Pagoda Fantasy moored and wives packed padded coffee mugs of terra cotta clay glazed red into their luggage. Their husbands knelt in bathrooms, vomiting American Chinese food and forgetting to wash their hands. Margaret wrapped the Styrofoam cup in her silk and squatted among the trash bags behind the dining room to share one more smoke with Sam.
Margaret’s flight home laid over three hours in Paris before landing in Newark. She did not leave Charles de Gaulle Airport. Margaret crossed her legs and closed her eyes in a wide comfy chair in front of a TV playing CNN. She saw a young garden. Sam had taught her to meditate.
When the taxi found her exit and took her to the far end of a cul-de-sac on the night of Day Zero, she unlocked her garage and found a dirt-caked trowel. In the sprayed green backyard of her clean empty house she cupped the Styrofoam in her palms and trusted the seed was ready. She said 朱全忠 soft like Chinese tobacco smoke and offered the bamboo sprout to fertilized New Jersey earth. Sam had given her something real and she told herself she had reached nirvana. The rangers found her body there, under husks shed by the growing bamboo, Point Zero for Bamboo Neighborhood.
MFA candidate Emma Tanzer ran down the hallway from the Writing Center, using her hip to push open the glass doors into the Extraction Department, tablets stacked in her arms. In high school she had written script treatments for primetime police procedurals and medical dramas in the margins of lab reports. She’d always written herself into the role of a dedicated nurse or insightful forensic assistant. Emma spun into the Extraction lab and called out too loudly for the technician who probed Margaret Blake’s mind. One man worked in the lab. He sipped cold decaf and clicked through scenes of memory projected onto the white office wall. Emma Tanzer pitched the Margaret Blake storyline for the technician. He told her it was a beautiful beginning.
“That’s all, though. She ends there. That’s all I have,” she said.
“Listen to this,” he said. “Walter Sampson. Words from the conscious of an old poet.”
The computer read out the dead man’s thoughts with surround sound speakers:
“Power washed pavement cracked and asphalt crumbled, the new loamy soil of this new fertile day. Telephone wires were tangled and torn by the blades of young bamboo branches. Stretching stems shadowed streetlights. Floorboards warped and opened in obligation to deep-rooted basement sprouts eager to meet their sun. Nodes pushed eager limbs through windowpanes and the whispered apologies in the rustle of morning breezes.”
The scientists in HAZMAT suits found the memories of the old poet Walter Sampson pooled in a bed of soft stilt grass at the edge of the Day One growth. When the Medical Team had isolated brain from body, the technician had inserted the fiber optic syringe into frontal lobes to find what images remained. Peleliu, September 1944, blared with vivid frames. Walter had landed with the 1st Marines on the eastern beaches, pressed inland and held back tears when he lobbed grenades. He’d wandered alone through bamboo deadfall, calling to his patrol in a voice too hushed and thin. He found his bunk brother shooting dead Japanese through their heads because Japs were known to be tricky like that. Before they slept Walter would recite haikus he’d written about atrocity and shame and his bunk brother would tell him he’d heard something just like that before. The technician spent long hours with the mind of Walter Sampson.
Three weeks after his wife’s cremation, Walter Sampson had moved into his son Richard’s house in Millennium Acres. For three years he slept in the second living room at the back corner of the second floor and sat in the basement during the day, watching Peleliu in his eyes while YES played back the best home runs in the history of the game. He ate what his daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, served him and didn’t ask his grandson questions. The Extraction technician told Walter’s story to Emma Tanzer with assuredness, intimacy. The technician struck the right neural connection in the hippocampus, and Walter’s Day One images pixelated and refreshed into clarity.
Emma pulled up the development plan, completed in 2000, for the thirty-six home Millennium Acres community from the Allsen Brothers Realty Company database. The website advertised the development as a “community of private islands in a green lawn sea.” She pinned the home of Margaret Blake. The Sampson Family lived next door.
“This works. I can connect this. Get me the family,” Emma said.
The technician pooled these memories with the recovered data from son Richard Sampson’s Extraction and the interviews of grandson Tyler Sampson. Emma buzzed the Storyboard Team to sketch out Day One, Sampson Family.
The morning sun of Day One fell strained through the skylights designed to gently wake the members of Millennium Acres. Awakening came instead from battery alarm clocks blaring fuzzed radio signals, commuter talk shows struggling to carry their tinned laughter through the cover of thick bamboo. Richard Sampson sat at the foot of the bed and breathed through his nose. Richard found bamboo in the kitchen, in the dining room, climbing up the steps. He pulled the covers off his wife and told her they would have breakfast upstairs.
The pantry was overgrown, but their teenage son had wound his body around the stalks and brought back peanut butter and whole wheat bread from the cupboard. Elizabeth Sampson insisted her father-in-law sit on the bed to eat. She would clean up the crumbs. Walter licked smeared peanut butter off Egyptian cotton sheets. Tyler Sampson asked his father if he would be taking the train to the city today.
“This is Chinese sabotage. They’ve been warning us for so long,” Richard said. “I’m working from home. Hold down the fort.”
“Good. Let’s all be together today,” Elizabeth nodded, tore little bites of wheat bread and pressed them warm between her fingers before dropping them down her throat.
“I think we’ll need a machete. For bushwhacking, and self-defense,” said Tyler.
“I’ve never killed a man with a machete before,” replied Richard.
“You’ve never killed anyone, Richard,” said Elizabeth.
“Fight or flight, Mom. This is natural selection.” Tyler was currently maintaining an A in Mr. Harding’s AP biology class.
“We don’t own a machete, Richard.”
“The Silvermans do. And the Novaks.”
“Mom, you’ve read Lord of the Flies, right?” Tyler was currently maintaining an A in Mrs. Herbert’s AP Literature class.
“We aren’t stealing, Richard. We aren’t going anywhere. Please.”
“Elizabeth, I think you have to reassess the current market prospects here.”
“I think people are going to start killing each other for food.” Tyler was almost smiling, eyes wide as he spoke.
“Michael Silverman is a big man, Richard.”
“You’re right. I’m going to rob Perry Novak.”
“That’s what they do in the book, right? The little kids?” Tyler had read the Sparknotes of Lord of the Flies.
Richard Sampson put on his yard work jeans and tucked in his white undershirt. He pulled on starched Nike gym socks and his running shoes with gelled insert soles.
Walter Sampson did not speak. He wrote a haiku in his head:
“Climbing toward the light
Bursting through yesterday’s self
Looking back at dirt.”
Richad Sampson: Memory Extraction
Bamboo stalks pierced the aluminum door of the Novak garage. The bamboo had yanked the door from its scaffold and hinges. The forest wore it like a hat. Richard Sampson tripped in garage darkness and spilled nails across crumbled concrete ground. Perry Novak was fond of owning landscaping equipment. He spent whole Saturdays in Home Depot and let his hired landscapers try out his best purchases. He hung his tools on a corkboard wall, laminated labels facing out.
Richard Sampson ran his hands over the steel and fiberglass and polished wood handles in the dark when Perry Novak shoved open the door that led to the mudroom. He wore boxer briefs and a bathrobe. He dropped the bathrobe from his sweaty shoulders onto the stoop leading down to the garage floor before he dropkicked Richard Sampson.
Their bodies beat back on bamboo. They breathed heavy and wasted nothing on words, their hands ripping through fragile branch stems and their teeth gnawing on each other’s straining necks. Their knuckles found soft bellies and their wedding rings clinked on ribcages. Their fathers had told them to get’em in the gut first. Too many novice fighters would go for the hard head. Gut first, the head’ll follow. It is known for certain that Walter Sampson came home drunk in 1972 from the trucking company, dragged Richard into the backyard, pulled off his polyester leisure suit jacket, and told his son to hit him hard. Richard cried with his father, and they lay down in the grass while Walter recited “In Flanders Fields.”
When Richard did not get up, Perry Novak tried to roll him out of his garage, but his body was heavy and rectangular and the bamboo was too thick. Perry grabbed Richard by the ankles and dragged him into the sun. His bloody bitten tongue ran over his dentist-whitened teeth. His canines felt sharp. He’d never noticed the hairs on his forearms standing so erect.
Richard Sampson twitched his broken fingers and cracked open swollen eyes on the third hour of Day Two. He stumbled over hunks of concrete sidewalk. He fell, and closed his eyes again.
Elizabeth Sampson: Fabricated Narrative
Expedition Team 1 reached the Sampson House on Day Five. No trace of Elizabeth’s body or mind could be identified. Elizabeth Sampson is unknowable. She is the blank page on which Emma Tanzer of the Narrative Division drafted resiliency, empowerment, and self-reliance. When her husband never came back home, Emma wrote that Elizabeth Sampson put on her yoga pants and moisture wicking running jersey and left the house with the emergency go-pack she maintained since she moved in with Richard. She pulled her hair into a tight bun and she remembered a summer after graduate school spent in Zion slot canyons. She remembered how it felt to slide her body through tight red rock, trusting that the world would open up again. When her feet felt sure she began to run, darting through bamboo stem slalom courses. She closed her eyes and let feet feel her way through the deadfall.
She stopped at the edge of Day One growth. Elizabeth stepped out from the shadow of the dense young forest, into the old farming fields the township bought up to protect. Infantile bamboo tickled her ankles. She could watch them push up from the turned loam. Elizabeth came to believe the growth would never stop. She’d never seen life this vivid, aggressive. In the distance the farm met the highway, strung across by police cruisers and news vans. A trencher machine rolled across the field, cutting earth and digging distance between the highway and bamboo.
A family of four, mother and father and two young daughters, fell out of the bamboo a few hundred yards down from Elizabeth and began to run towards the highway holding hands tight. They reached the trench and called out across the stockade. Officers in HAZMAT suits stumbled out to the edge and answered with a megaphone. Elizabeth was too far to hear what words they spoke. The father let go of his daughter’s hand and jumped the trench. The police officers forgot that their guns were zipped away on the inside of their HAZMAT suits. The father ran towards the highway news vans. All cameras streamed live as an officer ducked out from behind a police cruiser and shot the father through his right thigh. Elizabeth thought she had met him at a New Year’s Eve party, once. He’d made her laugh out loud, and blush.
The granite ridge of the Highlands stood behind Millennium Acres, an uninterested bystander. Elizabeth turned away from the highway. She laced her sneakers again and ran toward hills, feeling the world opening up. Emma Tanzer submitted this version to the Narrative Committee to complete the report. They ran it by Tyler Sampson in the refugee shelter. He told them he never knew his mom liked camping. Emma smiled when she read Tyler’s comments. She wrote his mother well.
Tyler Sampson: Interview Report
A rescue helicopter found Tyler Sampson shimmying up a sturdy stalk at dusk on Day Three. Bamboo had crossed the highways. The onboard mission therapist wrapped him in a space blanket and allowed his silence. She motioned for the auto recorder when he began to speak, but watched him with sorry, listening eyes.
“Everything will be green,” he said.
“We have no idea how long this rate can be sustained,” she replied.
“Do you know any ecology?”
“We have people who do.”
“I know that the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze can generate twenty gigawatts of energy. That’s the best we can do.”
“That should seem like a lot, right?” The therapist knew how to sound engaged, encouraging.
“The sun gives Earth one hundred and seventy five pettawatts. That’s fifteen zeroes, pettawatts.”
“That’s a lot more.”
“But it’s not for us. It’s for everything. Everybody needs it.”
“When we get to the center I can introduce you to our Environmental Sciences Team.” The therapist laid her hands on his shoulders.
“The bamboo wants a try. They want to see what it feels like to take everything. It’s their turn.”
“We have geneticists tearing apart this species and building it back up. We are going to understand.” The therapist gave Tyler a squeeze. She felt it appropriate.
“The bamboo asked the Earth for permission and the Earth asked the Sun and they all said yes. And why not?”
Tyler looked down at the metal floor and listens to the chop of the copter blades.
“I’ve never been in a helicopter before.”
The Storyboard Team submitted Day One, Millennium Acres to the Editor of the Narrative Committee for publication. MFA candidate Emma Tanzer earned chief writing credit. When the Extraction technician thumbed through the final draft, he found the final memories of Walter Sampson cut from the report. The Narrative committee favored instead a final image extracted from the memory of the Silverman Family’s nine-year-old golden retriever, trotting through the bamboo forest. The thrill of the wild fades to weariness, then fear, then desperation, collapse. She lets her legs buckle and the soil feels soft. She can vaguely recognize that where she lies was once a parking lot. She closes her eyes on the growing green. Emma Tanzer submitted this ending. Audiences could understand a dying dog. In coming days, when bamboo crept up on Manhattan and marched through the Pine Barrens towards Cape May, the public did not ask how the bamboo could grow so angry. They asked how sixty-eight year old Margaret Blake could fall in love with a Chinese chef, how the Sampson Family could dissolve so smoothly, how a golden retriever could command such dignity in death.
The Crisis Team assigned to the Bamboo Neighborhood project was allotted rest from three to six in the morning. The Extraction technician didn’t sleep. Watching the projected screen on the wall, he played back the life of Walter Sampson. When the memories ran out and the screen went black, he pressed rewind and played it again from Peleliu. The Extraction technician knew Walter was the most beautiful ending to the story of Bamboo Neighborhood. He buzzed for Emma Tanzer. He wanted her to watch this ending closely. She was gone, flying to Hollywood for interviews and movie deals. He watched alone.
Walter Sampson pulled on his windbreaker and went for his daily walk after breakfast on Day One. No one saw him leave. He walked with unsure shuffling steps and did not try to know where he was going. Cold faces peered out of broken windows at the old marching solider poet. Each house was like an island in a green sea. Each face was a castaway who had unlearned how to use words to express humanity.
At the edge of Day One growth, Walter saw soft sprouts climbing up the Highlands ridge and hurrying towards the highways. Sometimes after midnight in the Pacific, his bunk brother would wake up screaming and yanking at the cot above him. Walter would hang half his body off the side and grab the boy’s arms and steady him into consciousness. Bamboo torture gave his bunk brother nightmares.
In the noon light of Day One, Walter Sampson thought he was standing on the edge of bamboo forevers. He smiled because he knew the war was over. He understood rhythm and syllable and when to end a phrase. He lay his body down on the sharp tips of virile, hopeful stalks and waited for the world to keep working.
Image Source: bamboo cane, darwin Bell, https://flickr.com/photos/darwinbell/