The House: Victoriana of the dunes. Sepia is the word that comes to mind. Unvarnished wood in the way of a commercial for antiquity. The sky orange at the horizon from the fires turns the windows glowy. From the right angle, the windowglass looks coated in butter. Someone has managed to coax a flowering vine around a trellis. A little cloying, yes. Maybe not real. It doesn’t matter, though, fake or real, no one cares.
The House Manager holds auditions, which means there are so many Jos, strident, marching across dunes, full of proclamations, all those glinting brass buttons. The Amys flounce and have demands. A few of them sit in an idling Escalade for a full thirty minutes while using pink foam sponges to dot highlighter on the skin below their eyes. It is easy to separate out the Megs; they make lists in the Notes app on their phones and wear hats to protect their skin from the sun, which isn’t closer but feels closer, hotter at least.
A handful of sad Beths stands in line by the portable toilets. They are getting their periods at the same time, and they find Diva cups so complicated, which they say to anyone who will listen.
Beyond LittleWomenHouse, Houses spool out across the desert, rising out of green patches of grass that shouldn’t grow on sand but are kept alive by trucked-in water. Inside those houses, people, mainly teenagers, film themselves, and other teenagers in Boise or Lemont or Sacramento sit in bedrooms or stairwells or on buses and watch their phones as House teenagers brush teeth, text boyfriends, flop back on beds with friends, do dances they’ve all agreed are good and should be done by everyone.
It is the end of everything (species, previously infallible trees, ease, acceptable sea levels, edible fish, computers as human-dominated plastic boxes), but no one wants to admit it matters. Scientists drop ice blocks heavy as a hundred wooly mammoths into the cold waters at the poles to make them colder, immediately after which there’s a sigh, a moment of okay, but it doesn’t last for long. So they pretend; anyway, what are their options?
The House Manager, LittleWomenHouse, tires of the auditions. She smokes at the place where the sprinklered grass meets the sand, where a lizard glares at her from a rock. “I’m done,” she says out loud to the lizard and no human, and she settles on one of each: one pretty Amy, one industrious and independent Jo, one practical Meg, one sad and always-dying Beth.
Amy in the mirror. Amy by the pool. Amy in a bathing costume meant for someone in the 18somethings even though it was the 20somethings. But she works it anyway. She makes it look hot. At first, she’s all preening and painting. She insists on being filmed in the most obvious poses. Even though it’s profoundly un-19th C, she does her nails gradient in various blues. She leans out open windows during golden hour, so her corset catches her breasts up a little higher and there’s that loose shake and flutter of flesh that makes you want to watch and then watch again.
On a Friday, Amy sits by the pool. Her bikini, un-19th C, cuts sharp lines two-thirds of the way down her tits, so the bottom third is skin and the rest stretchy hot pink. The Meg flanks her, and they both put their feet in the water, which, like most outdoor water, is no longer cold. Meg is tolerable, but mainly because she is useful. Amy can say, “Pass me the sunscreen,” and Meg passes the sunscreen, even though it’s almost empty, and Amy assumes Meg will feel virtuous for having sacrificed her own skin to the desert. Amy doesn’t care. Put whatever label you wanted on it. Narcissist. Sociopath even. She still doesn’t care. She does not care.
Even though her role is to look pretty, to be mainly delicate and picture-like but then sometimes acceptably tempestuous, even though followers might describe her as “feminine,” which somehow is a thing that still exists even though gender has been laudably chipped away at, still, still she is more of a boy in her head, though that’s not a thing she will say out loud.
Before LittleWomenHouse, she worked in a restaurant, and she felt most at home and alive in the dirty basement of the restaurant smoking Lucky Strikes on an old couch with the cooks, all men, who talked about cars and cunts and all the hard-edged things that made her feel rough herself and with nothing little or pliant about her.
At night, it’s Content, and The House Manager brings a vanload of boys in, men really. They film on the front porch, which The House Manager calls the veranda, in the living room, which The House Manager calls the parlor.
Amy sits on the couch, which is plum-colored and velvet, and looks around the room like she can’t will her eyes to focus on any one thing. Many of the men, The House Manager will insist on calling them gentlemen callers, bring her drinks, and it’s boring but not the worst way to move through a night, which The House Manager insists on calling an evening.
Still, she lets her mind wander. Or she wanders, her whole self. Semantics, an English teacher memory says, but she’s not listening. She’s out of the corset on a Friday. She’s rolling in the sand fucking, and you can’t call it anything else. It’s the end of the fucking world, she wants to scream but doesn’t because she feels like her mouth isn’t a thing anymore or at least it’s not hers. She’s urge and movement only. She’s out of body. Or she’s so much her body that’s all she is. Take your pick. It doesn’t matter; it’s over.
Jo at the writing desk. Jo in replica 19th C military jackets over vests and shirts. Jo on a Friday, striding, which is hard to do in sand, but if anyone can do it, Jo can. Her brass buttons catch the light, which is glinty and relentless because it’s the desert.
When she gets back to The House from her walk, early evening, before the men, her boots are full of sand that she dumps in the fire, which appears real but isn’t. She looks at the fake flame and wonders at not feeling more special than she does. She carries a candle powered by tiny batteries up the stairs to her room where she unrolls parchment and furrows her brow, thinking, as Jos do, about a lifetime of Impossible Choices. She writes a few lines about bleakness and wanting until the night sky is dark fur with punches of stars in clusters that scream out: there are Other Places, very far away.
TBH, the Jo story is a harder story to tell in the 21st C when they are all supposed to be all the things: pretty, productive, artistic, assertive, funny, submissive, in charge, living, dying, all of which Jo resists. Elsewhere, pretty girls post palm-sized poems about the leaves or wind, and people comment things like, “ur so deep, girl.”
Before the Friday van comes, The House Manager enters Jo’s room without knocking. She puts out a cigarette on the stone slab where Jo’s fake fountain pen sits. She holds her phone in front of Jo’s face and says, “Can’t you post something like this? A short little poem? Something pretty?” It angers Jo that there is so little effort in it, that it is so soft and easy, but then her whole life is a defensive posture, the striding, the writing, the avoidance. It’s part of why she came to The House in the first place. A string of nothings in a middle state where she did gig work and rode a vintage bike through cemeteries on the weekends and tried not think about the future. There, she had looked long in people’s faces. Her fingers twitched when she walked from Point A to Point B, and things, the smallest things, had made her sad: a woman carrying a plastic-wrapped tray of sandwiches cut into triangles into a church building or a sign trying to lure people into a new business that sold tea in bulk bins, the man looking at her through the glass as she walked by. All the human striving up against so much world dying, human dying. Sometimes, she made herself a ball in the cemetery and felt the name ghosts, the once weres, descending on her and wanted, herself, to be gone. Then she would get up, get back on her bike, and say out loud to herself and no one: “you, my friend, are ridiculous.”
When the van rolls up to The House, Jo stays in her room and lets Beth talk her into ridiculous henna tattoos of vintage typewriters up and down her forearms. She animates her face. She makes her mouth a smile.
Later, when the van goes, Jo still alone, lonely, sits on her bed and looks out the circular window, and, nothing herself, beholds: the trio of scorpions flashing tails at each other on the patio and the crook of the moon over the desert, all of it like a stock image on a web site, all of it far more endless and boundless than she.
Meg spends Friday doing what now might be called crafting but in 18something would have had no special label. She does cross stitch. She quilts. She churns fucking butter, and who knows where The House Manager got the cow-fresh milk and the 18th C churn, but The House Manager can work miracles. Within an hour, the video of Meg churning with the top buttons of her lace-edged floral dress unbuttoned while sweat gathers at the place where her chest meets her neck becomes one of the most-oft-viewed videos.
The House Manager says to Meg, “You’re the sleeper, the underdog, no one expected it, but look at you go.”
A Meg isn’t supposed to care because Meg is Meg, pretty enough but kind of background. But there she is, the unexpected star of the butter churn.
She’d spent high school strategically not eating until her limbs were tissue over twig. But all of that withholding, all those quiet baby steps around the lunchroom and vomit splatter wiped away with brown paper in the communal bathroom, hadn’t done anything for her, so she stopped. She went to college at a state school where there were hundreds of her. She worked the drive-through window at a coffee place and let the manager fuck her in the utility closet because she didn’t think she deserved to say no. She ate everything: the donuts and cinnamon rolls in the walk-in. She pooled excess, let flesh make rings around her, hoped for protection.
Now Meg sits waiting in the living room on a Friday, that time between day and night that makes her feel like she’s dying of sadness. The House Manager sits next to her and eats mango out of a plastic container. She tells Meg, “Jesus, look at you, the translucence, the fucking tendrils, the goddamned milkmaid tits. You’re it.”
When they show up, the men circle Amy at first, and Meg waits by the fireplace, which is always on. She waits and they come to her. Stop hovering and grabbing and taking, she wants to say to them, everything is dying, I’m dying, stop, but of course she doesn’t. It’s too easy to get them to want her, and it’s probably not even what she wants. For so many years, she worked to pull herself in at the boundaries so she wouldn’t press against clothing or spread on bus benches or brush against other people. But people had still come for it, her body, men had, and as much as she hated it, hating it wasn’t protection. It doesn’t matter; she can take it.
Beth is always dying. She is dying in The House, on the sand dunes, by the pool, in the grass that spreads only about fifty feet out from The House. She is dying in September and then October. She is dying near rattlesnakes that she can hear but never see, and maybe they could kill her more goddamned quickly, so she wills them forward, toward her, close, but then: nothing.
Before The House, she played bad piano songs at a restaurant that was the kind of place people chose for Valentine’s Day. Everyone there was either in love or unexpectedly breaking up, and she was in the background. She would play, and people would lean over tabletops to kiss even though others were watching, and Beth, even though she wasn’t, was never, one of the kissing people, her throat would turn pink from the collarbone up to the chin. A fucking hurricane could come, though, and the rain would turn the restaurant windows as opaque as inside a car wash and still they would keep on, the declarations, the lean-over-the-tables, the single red roses, the soft boxes stuffed with jewels.
Before the men come in the van on Friday, The House Manager sets down her mango container and leads Beth over to the piano in the room with the fireplace and sits her on the seat, which is a stool covered in a quilted covering, and says, “Play something quiet and easy on the ears,” and Beth does. It’s evening all goddamned afternoon.
Sure, she is a good person, which is something just about anyone can do if they try, so it feels inconsequential, but still. She is so good. She will die. But then they all will. No one can muster great sorrow. Instead, they keep on, eating, sleeping, recording, as if one of them will not take ill on a random Thursday. (It will be Beth, everyone knows.) She would prefer dying on a beach to dying in bed, but almost no one gets to say. Still, the sky around The House does its pretty sky things almost every morning and evening, so she films herself in front of the sky or at the piano, and the comments are things like “gorg” and “beauty” and “ily bethie.” It hurts to be her, but that’s something she’ll never say out loud because of the vanity of it, the overwhelming silliness, when so many people are suffering before death and for all the years and for her, death will be the main suffering. But there are people in any group who carry some collective pain for the others, and she is that person and always will be.
She smiles while she sits at the piano, her hands fast spiders, before the men come in the van, before she goes to paint henna on Jo’s forearms, while the sun is still up and she can look shiny and full of wonder, and the others say, “Look at Beth, Beth is so good, Beth is the very best of us,” and she hates them, but she can’t help herself; she loves them, too.
Friday night is Content, so they perform. The House Manager eats and smokes and eats and makes demands: lean, soften, lounge, not like that like this. That’s what it means to be a woman in the world. Put a lot of justs in your sentences when talking to boys, to men, even if your idea is better; you don’t want to look shrill or undermining. Say I’m sorry. Say it again while you’re looking down and then laughing a little but under your breath because not too loud ever. Check your DMs. Look pretty. Not too pretty. Everything is going away, but don’t worry.
A small waterfall near the pool forever recycles the same few gallons of water. Work out in the windowless room with the ellipticals. Don’t worry. Meditate by a window with a single candle lit so you look like a person who knows how to be peaceful. Have women friends. But also, people should want to fuck you. But not the ones with girlfriends whose girlfriends you know and maybe have coffee with and run with because you are supposed to run, right? Run in those tights with patterns on them because your ass should look fuckable but not so much so that a stranger would slap it while you are minding your own business on a busy street or in a living room where the fireplace is always on, but hey, if you put your ass out there like that maybe people won’t be able to resist that ass, and you should be okay with that because isn’t being fuckable supposed to be a goal?
Walk to the edge of the grass that rings The House. Don’t think about the end of the world. The man van leaves at 2 AM, and The House Manager pours drinks and disappears to who knows where. Then it’s Little Women in the hot tub. Tilt the champagne flute. Act drunk even if it’s just ginger ale. Laugh in a way that brings to mind a bell. Let your toes drift up to the waterline so your pedicure shows. Sit until you’re pruned and dizzy, until desert birds, fucking insistent sometimes, divebomb you in the chlorine water.
Climb out. Enrobe. Hold hands with your housemates and walk beyond the grass circle out into the desert in starched cotton Victorian nightgowns because isn’t that a vibe? Saturday now, early early, so it’s dark and where are the stars, are there stars, is it 2 am or 4 am? Time doesn’t matter. Time, Jo might say, is a construct. It’s all a spiral, a gyre, Jo might say to sound quotable for once. Beth is wan. Beth is hallowed. Beth is disintegrating. Aren’t we all, Meg might say, the practical one, the one to take two truths and hit you over the head with them because she really can’t help herself.
There in the desert moonlight is the globular outline of Meg tits unmoored under cotton. Meg feels the tick tock of them and hates it. The body the body the body, something and then nothing. Everything, something and then nothing or something and then something else.
Amy is beyond lip gloss for a moment. She’s feeling the sand beneath bare feet, which was a stupid way to go out into the night desert, but it doesn’t matter. My feet are getting scraped to shit, Amy might say out loud to sound tougher than she really is. It would be so funny, Amy wants to say, for you to be able to see what your body becomes post-death. For example, for the soulhead of Amy to look on as the body decays, as the matter that was once Amy matter transmutes over time into other matter, a duck or a goddamned trailing vine hanging off a stupid decaying wooden house when humans are long gone, and maybe trees had memory this whole time and we refused to see it, so maybe only the trees remember humans, trees in some place far from the desert, full of majesty, standing taller than before, leaning with more glorious abandon than before, flutter their leaves, shine in the morning light.
They emanate tree thoughts to whatever resilient animals make houses in their branches or sleep on the dried grass in the shade they make. Tree thoughts that say to whatever parts and pieces in the landscape that were once human, name ghosts, Little Women soulheads that were once sorrow and pretense and stabs at joy and are now something else because humans did themselves in, and the trees, no, they weren’t kind old bark-sided gentlemen, they were always always awaiting our departure, so much so that they lean and flutter and look on at our once human matter now non-human, now something better and think only: humans, good fucking riddance.