Emerson by Jon Natzke

Briar Josephine Renault is an actuary for the governing arm of the state of Illinois. Her focus is on risk in the cross contamination of groundwater and the logistics between the harvesting of nitrous rich soil to be taken to be used to reclaim in drought heavy areas on the edges of America. She spends the majority of her days in the shapeless gray actuary vestments. She makes average credits, like most of the women in her caste class, and each day she is thankful she doesn’t live in New Orleans or Seattle where there is so much calculation to be done, between seawater contamination and contact with business reps about how much action can be taken in erosion across the sea-line. She is thankful for Chicago, because the groundwater and circle of lake that the city hugs is mostly a chemical drip. Lake Michigan has been treated extensively as a freshwater reserve and while the water is now too nitrous to be potable or sustain life it can be easily converted back, and now pushes away external toxins into easily scoop-able pools of pitch black “gunk” that are taken away by a division of natural resource preservation. “Gunk” was her buzzword, and it tested really well with local populous. Her superiors had taken it to PR and she had been given three months of freshwater conversion tablets, filters, and shower privileges for free. Briar is thankful for that luck; she is thankful to be an employee of a state that is relatively quiet, that she has been able to meet her social quota so easily these past few months, and for Emerson.
During her work week she tries not to think too much of Emerson, it doesn’t do a modern girl good to get too dependent like that. But she does, especially at night when everything is too quiet, and she would love something to look at. There are too many nights where the synthesized version of “green crickets in an Ozark plantation” through speakers just can’t quite soothe her the right way. Sometimes she gets restless and creeps out of her resting chamber and into the hallway. The smooth concrete of the floor echoes as she cinches the blinds closed as tightly as they will go before delving into the hallway cloak closet and kneeling in darkness. She will pause and stop breathing and wait until she can confirm that the silence is truly silence and not veiled silence with the faint hum of a recording device in the vents or with the slight scuffing of boots just beyond her door. Briar has never encountered either of these things living in her third level caste apartment in Chicago. These things happen more in Philadelphia and Boston, states with bigger cross sections of industry workers living in building with higher castes. She is thankful for that, but still she waits until the silence feels natural and digs her hands into the pile of actuary grays across the bottom of the closet. Emerson waits in a neon orange pressed plastic milk crate with six VHS tapes. She hefts the weight to her chest, then gets up with it cradled, huffing a bit before setting the whole package down on the living room coffee table. She goes very slowly to make sure that nothing is damaged. Everything here is precious. Emerson is taken out first. She cups her hands around the thin plastic sides of the TV/VCR combo and sets it facing her. She runs her fingers over the cool glass and raised letters of the unit’s name set in silver block font “Emerson”. Next come the six tapes, which she sets in a tower just to the right. All of them are her mother’s, including Emerson and the crate itself, and the tapes read out:
“09/18/2004”
“Apple Orchard”
“Jamie’s Birthday”
“Christmas”
“Papa and Mama-Jane”
“Goodbye”

Through state sanctioned will allowances Briar has been allowed to keep these specific possessions of her mother. She has signed multiple agreements that state if she shows the items, their messages, or their concepts to friends, family or the public, they will be confiscated with force and without warning. This is why she has closed her blinds and does this so late at night, because if any other member of her working caste level were to see the items across the complex windows there could be consequences. Briar is just so thankful that she has been able to keep them for so long. Another member of her caste, Brenda, had a similar situation, a doll given to her by her sister made from materials not sanctioned by the state – porcelain is seen as a luxury and can lead to dissension between caste members. Brenda had shown it to Briar, Katryn, and Jackson last year during off hours, and Jackson had told HR. Briar is thankful she was never really close with Jackson. Brenda, due to the duress of the forceful removal of the doll had been given a stipend of 3 weeks shower water free. Briar was thankful that the state cared in its way for all its members.
There are orders to watching the tapes: one that Briar has made as close to chronological as she can figure from ages of those involved, one that has a focus on her grandmother, and one that she likes the most. She turns to this last three tape order when she cannot sleep.
Briar turns on Emerson with a press of its largest button beneath the mouth of the VCR. A static like snow lights up the room and she turns up the volume, three buttons right, just enough to hear the white noise. The tape labeled “Apple Orchard” goes in first, Emerson eating it with an tunk, and then a whir internally. The static ends, a blue screen with a timer appears and then a green world replaces it.
There are leafy trees in the shot, and the camera sways as her grandmother holding the camera walks between them. There is a man in a neon orange windbreaker walking with a little girl, her hair in pigtails. No talking until the little girl stops at a tree and her small hand goes to a fruit on a lower branch, just within her reach.
From behind the camera her grandmother says, “Richie help Frankie get it.” He does, still holding her hand he crouches and guides the small girl’s palm up to the fruit and with his hands cupped around hers they tug it off together.
“Ah,” says her mother, Frankie, Francis to most,”Ah-apple” Both Richie and her Grandmother laugh a little. There is more cooing from Frankie as the camera sidles closer and then bends down, shaking, catching a blur of sky and then ground and then facing the other way. Frankie has the juice of the apple on her lips and cheeks and Richard and her grandmother come close and kiss their daughter on her temples in a gesture that they seem to have done forever, and have done so well each time Briar watches the tape. Frankie giggles and waves to the camera.
Briar has never eaten an apple, but has had juice from concentrate. Today there are too many risks in fruit bearing trees that are not grown inside labs. A sickness born from the groundwater took too many lives in the past. Briar slides the tape away and the static fills the room again.
“Jamie’s Birthday” is next. There is a moment of warping, sliding lines, and then in a snap there is clapping and candlelight on the screen. Cheers from a small gathering of people. In the shot are four people. Those that can be seen are her grandmother, now older, with crow’s feet and streaks of gray, her mother, a late teen, the bodies of two other members of the family that never sit down enough to see their faces, and finally her uncle Jamie, still a boy. They have just finished singing a song for him and as was the ritual he takes in a large breath and blows out an arrangement of ten small candles on a large confection. His green eyes are bouncing to people above and beyond the camera and someone unseen asks, “Did you make a wish?”
Jamie nods his shaved head up and down. When he speaks there is a slight lisp from missing teeth. “Yeah I wished that I didn’t have to shower with Dad anymore. I want my own bath for my birthday.” He is still smiling, but Briar’s grandmother and everyone else kind of wince, there is a noise that isn’t quite sadness, but caring is the way that Briar would describe it. Briar’s grandmother kisses the side of his head like in the last video. “We will see what we can do then kiddo.”
Briar takes a beat to listen to the static again in between tapes. Last is always Goodbye, no matter what order she watches them in. She takes three deep breathes before placing in the tape. The blue screen with numbers and then there is movement, the camera swinging, looking at the linoleum ground and walking sounds. There is a shout from somewhere far down the hall and the walking goes faster and faster. There is a huffing noise that overpowers the shouts and then the opening and then slamming of a door. More huffing as a lock is put into place. The camera pans up to a hospital bed behind hanging strips of plastic. This a quarantine chamber before the newer ionizing ones were figured out. The sickness that took over the population and made the state take over was never airborne anyway. Always in the water. The camera moves closer, and white overhead light makes everything look sterile. Briar’s grandmother lies in the bed. Her eyes watch the camera. A small voice from beyond the frame says “Mama-Jane.” Briar mouths these words to herself as the camera comes closer to the old woman who is tearing up.
“I told you I would be here.” says the voice behind the camera, Frankie, her mother. “I said I would see you one more time and bring Briar and I’m here Mom, I’m here.”
Briar’s grandmother holds up a thin arm with dark red splotches up and towards the camera. A young girl with red hair is lowered down gently into frame. The young girl watches Mama-Jane as the older woman’s hands hold her small ones. Young Briar tilts her head so that Mama-Jane can lean forward just a bit and kiss her temple. There is a noise like “mmmph” or “mm-hmm” from her mother behind the camera as hammer fists begin at the door behind them. All heads turn towards the door then and the camera is to the floor and then then blackness.
On the floor of her apartment Briar tries to remember what that room was like, what her grandmother’s hands felt like. She never can. Sometimes she is thankful for that.
There is little noise every time she packs up Emerson and all of the other remnants back into the crate. She sets it back in its hiding place and covers it back up with her actuary grays. She is thankful that she can see her Grandmother in this way. She is thankful for Emerson. She hopes that one day she will be given a breeding permit to have a daughter of her own to share secrets with. That hope, as it always does, carries her away finally, finally to sleep.


Jon Natzke is a writer, performer and general nerd from Chicago. He is a graduate from Columbia College Chicago. He is a co-host for Reading Under the Influence, an ensemble member of Solo Crowd Chicago, and co-founder of the upcoming Monsters & podcast. He has a cat named Bakery.

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