Natalie was pulling the slot machine lever, dropping in coins from a little yellow purse she held in her lap. I was drinking my fourth daiquiri, which was also yellow.
“This honestly tastes like real bananas,” I said.
We were standing near the one window in Game Room Twelve, which was tinted dark but still showed the red desert going on outside, the same for miles, thousands of miles, I guess. Jermy, who works janitorial on our floor, told me once that the desert led to a massive sinkhole, that magnificent quantities of sand were pouring into the sinkhole day after day, and that eventually we would pour in, too, all of us, the casino and the games and the residents and everything. But that is ridiculous. There might be one sinkhole. But we can’t be surrounded by sinkholes, not in every direction. Statistically, we’re going to turn out fine, in the long run.Complete story available online at Electric Literature
I’m always interested in how a not-quite-reality-based story cues the reader in that they’re not in Kansas, or in this universe, any more. There are hints in these opening paragraphs, but I’d assumed the sinkhole talk was the desert variety of an urban legend. But then we get to the excitement over a tomato plant. And a scrawny tomato plant, at that. But when you haven’t seen a tree, or eaten a peach, in years, well, any tomato plant looks pretty good. And when you’ve been eating a thousand varieties of starch and sugar for that long, a forthcoming real tomato is eagerly anticipated.
We don’t get a lot of backstory here. Apparently the world has turned to sand, and the casino is a kind of shelter where at least you won’t starve. The details of what went wrong aren’t spelled out; it’s more about the tomato. If that sounds weird, well, I have a serious sweet tooth, but if all I’d eaten lately is cotton candy and lollypops, I can imagine the lengths I’d go to for a taste of that sweet/sour juice, the pop of skin, the squish of pulp, the feel of seeds on my tongue.
It’s a sequel to the earlier “Miracle Fruit”, focusing on the human elements of desire for what has been lost in a setting of the wrong kind of plenty. And a lot more has been lost than fresh vegetables:
The thing is, in the casino you tend to get into a routine, and it makes time go weird — you’re walking past a bank of video poker screens when you realize a week’s gone by without you really noticing. So at some point around last year I started holding on to leftover bits from meals, just to remind myself: time is passing, time is passing. This is your life. It really is.
They’ve been in the casino, located some place in Kansas, for four years now. There’s really no place to go; it’s the only building for three states. There’s constant entertainment – gambling, movies, a laser corridor, a pool party, the pool filled with Marshmallow Fluff, twice a year – and ingenious ways of turning sugar into dinner. Winning the tomato plant is the equivalent of a Powerball win, and they become a celebrity couple. They fantasize about the eventual tomato. The casino chef suggests they candy it. Because, what else does he know?
Maybe, like the robot story before it, this is just a fantasy, a what-if, and any similarity to our current lives – lived by the light of smartphones running the latest apps, fretting about trivia while ignoring as best they can the sands piling up all around us – is a coincidence. Maybe we need to get outside the casino once in a while, before there’s nothing out there. Or maybe it’s too late.
The story concludes with, sadly, the truest possible expression of human nature. There’s a scene that reminds me of the end of The Day After, with Jason Robards wandering around the charred ruins of what used to be his home, telling the lost and distraught man who cowers there, “Get out of my house!” until he’s offered an onion. There’s loss. And there’s escape – to what, isn’t clear, but at least it isn’t about sugar and slot machines.
At first, I thought this was an odd choice for the final word from XLII. Then I thought back to the first story, “Catacombs”, and its themes of devastating loss and obsession. And I thought of Richardson’s opening words in the Introduction, a brief dedication to President Obama: “We miss him.” And I think of the gathering sands all over the world. I think it’s the perfect ending for this particular year.