The following is a story by Tommy Orange, featured in literary journal, McSweeney's 58: 2040 A.D. Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, won the 2018 PEN/America Hemingway Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. He was born and raised in Oakland, California.
My niece Tina was visiting us from the mountains for the summer and couldn’t understand that we just walk in water now. It’s not a big deal, but Tina is young and entitled and one of these new mountain elevation people who don’t see eye to eye with us sea-level dwellers, we the coastal flooded. The first day she was here her socks got soaked and she sneezed excessively in the evening to the point that I thought she was trying to make us feel bad.
“You can’t make yourself sneeze, Herold,” my wife Dolorothie said to me. “You can if you yank nose hairs out, that makes me sneeze,” I said.
“She wasn’t yanking nose hairs out with tweezers while we weren’t looking to make us feel bad,” Dolorothie said, looking out the kitchen window like there was something wrong out there, but what was wrong was in us, was me.
“You don’t need tweezers, you can do it with your fingers, you just have to simulate tweezer-grip by putting your fingernails together and yanking.”
Dolorothie was right, of course. Tina’s feet had just gotten too wet, and the cold in Oakland seeps into your bones, the moisture gets through, she’s used to high mountain air, thin against human skin it can’t penetrate, so yes, Tina had maybe caught the beginning of a cold, but wasn’t she emphasizing the sneezes in an unnatural way? This made me distinctly upset, this not knowing if she was leaning into her sneezes or if she really was getting sick.
I should clarify about how much water we walk in. It’s not as if we always walk in water, it’s that the tide has risen, comes higher when it comes. There’s not always water we have to walk in but it’s there more often than it’s not. We’d wanted to leave, but couldn’t aﬀord to just up and go. We got used to it, got used to the storms and floods and the heat, got used to knowing the end of the world had finally arrived not with a bang but a whimper, or a series of minor disasters. Actually too many people call it the end of the world when the world, the earth, would be just fine without us, better oﬀ actually, give or take an era or eon or age or whatever amount of time the world might need to get over us.
We hung Tina’s socks out on the drying line in the backyard, and I told her she’d be better oﬀ not wearing socks outside during her visit. Tina’s my estranged sister Valerie’s only daughter.
“I’m so many things I’m not even a thing,” Tina told me and Dolorothie regarding her background, her heritage, or her blood, because I’d asked her if we were from the same tribe.
“But are you enrolled in our tribe? It’s not about blood, it’s about having citizenship in a sovereign nation. That’s what it used to mean, anyway.”
“Citizenship in a sovereign nation?” Tina said, with a distrustful look in her eyes. “Your mom didn’t explain any of it to you?”
“It’s that my dad is Chinese and Thai and Italian and other white things. I can’t even remember all of them.”
“I’m not even sure the tribe’s still together and organized in Oklahoma anymore,” I said. Tina wasn’t the least bit interested in what I was talking about.
“I’m sorry, Herold, if we still believe in goodness, and don’t want to let the ethical murkiness that got us into this mess flood our lives with ruin.”
“So what do you do when your feet get cold?” she asked my wife, avoiding my eyes. Most people around here don’t wear socks, and not even shoes either but porous rubber clogs. There’s a saying from Hammon, Oklahoma, the small town where my dad grew up, and it goes, “It’s Hammon, man, no socks.” I’m not sure what sense it made for my dad, or for my Cheyenne relatives in Oklahoma, but here in Oakland, in the year 2040, it makes utter sense. We live wet lives but our feet need not stay wet with socks. There are wood-burning stoves to warm our feet by and socks inside—we wear socks in the house, we’re not insane people. The future turned out not to be as futuristic as everyone thought. The weather slowed everything down. Anyone who could leave left for higher, stormless ground a long time ago. Tina was born in the mountains, so this is her first time down to the coast. Everyone’s gotten so used to it here we don’t even talk about it anymore. The water. People walk their dogs in it, their babies in strollers with aquadynamic design. Jogging is doable most of the time. Sometimes it’s so shallow that if the light hits it right it looks like we’re walking on water. No one even talks about Jesus anymore. The end of the world came and went too many times and Jesus failed to show, or it was because science proved to be right about climate change, and had always stood diametrically opposed to religion. Or we lost the need or ability to have faith. I don’t really know.
Down from the mountains, Tina brought word of a New Jesus. At first I thought it seemed like lazy naming, New Jesus, but then for the books it’s just the Old then New Testament so it makes a kind of sense. My dad always used the word Creator. This was often the Native stand-in name for Jesus. He would use Creator, God, or Jesus interchangeably. Christianity had been shoved down the throats of Native people since contact but in worse and worse ways; the tighter and more normalized the government’s grip became, the more eﬀectively Christianity through colonization exercised its control. That’s why I would never be a Christian, had never considered it. Even though my dad believed that when he died he would be in heaven with Jesus. The old one. Indian stuﬀ is complex.
“New Jesus lives in each of us and is our action,” Tina said. No one had asked her to elaborate on New Jesus. “New Jesus is our cooperation with each other and with the earth. We all become new in New Jesus when we take care of and love one another. The whole world is New Jesus waiting to be realized.”
“Gobbledygook,” I said without meaning to say it out loud. Tina didn’t back down or get her feelings hurt like I thought she might, she came straight for me.
“I’m sorry, Herold, if we still believe in goodness, and don’t want to let the ethical murkiness that got us into this mess flood our lives with ruin.” She really said that.
Flood our lives with ruin. I laughed and Dolorothie looked at me with something nestled between deep concern and pity.
“Why does it have to be Jesus again?” Dolorothie asked Tina. I liked Dolorothie’s line of questioning.
“Yeah, and what makes New Jesus new?” I asked.
“We aren’t waiting for him to come back anymore. We’ve redefined his holy location. It’s here. It’s like he talked about. The kingdom of God is here. Now.”
“All this talk of him, and kingdom, it feels so . . . outdated. Why give god gender at all?” Dolorothie said.
“That’s the beauty of it all, and part of why it’s New Jesus—it’s matriarchal. And by still using Jesus we’ve been able to recruit people we wouldn’t have been able to recruit before. It’s like how Christians adopted pagan rituals to be more appealing. A belief system needs to be big enough for there to be community. We need each other.”
“Interesting,” Dolorothie said. At that point Tina and I both said, “What is?” in an overeager way. We were both worried about which side of interest she fell on. I didn’t want the conversation to continue.
“Remember we have that thing tomorrow, early, Dolorothie, we should get some sleep,” I said, and gestured with my head toward the stairs leading up to our bedroom. We really did have a thing. We were helping friends pack up their house; they were moving. I wasn’t looking forward to it. They were more Dolorothie’s friends than mine, but it worked as an excuse to leave Tina in the kitchen alone with her New Jesus.
We left Tina at home to help our friends move. We found out that day that they were moving onto a boat to try their hand at seafaring. This was something people are doing, living on the water. Fishing for sustenance. It makes a kind of sense. One of the first movies I ever saw in the theater was Waterworld, with Kevin Costner. It was right after I saw him save so many Indians in Dances with Wolves, at which time he was briefly a hero of mine. Our world is not like Waterworld, with pirates and filtering pee for drinking water and white girls with dreads, but more and more people are living on boats and dependent on sustenance from fishing. This also means fish is one of our main sources of protein, is more often than not the only meat to eat. Dolorothie felt bad leaving Tina to herself all day so we took her out to dinner when we got home. Mainly it was fruit and seafood, a combination we’ve come to master, which it seems strange now was never a thing before, it pairs so well. Raspberries and salmon, tuna and mango, strawberry trout, it just works. Tina didn’t trust the fish so she only ate the fruit. Blackberries. When we went for a walk after dinner, Tina continued to complain about the water, this time about the murkiness, how she didn’t like not being able to see what she was stepping in. “Too much water breeds bad life,” Tina said to us.
I felt a kind of softening in my heart for Tina, who had been raised up Christian, too, and was so many things she wasn’t even a thing.
“What kind of bad life do you mean?” I said. “This bad life,” she said, pointing all around us.
“Now that’s going a little too far, from someone who . . . We’ve invited you into our home, now you take that back, Tina,” I said. When she didn’t I called her a hillbilly. Dolorothie really didn’t like that I said that, felt that I’d stooped to outdated insults. I went upstairs, afraid I’d say something worse, afraid I was undoing our life by opening my mouth, by letting Tina get to me, by letting my insecurities get to me about what Dolorothie might really think about the way we lived, whether she thought of it as good or bad.
After sulking in the bedroom, trying but failing to read, to focus enough to comprehend anything from the several novels I keep on my desk, waiting for Dolorothie to possibly come tend to me, I went downstairs and heard Tina and Dolorothie talking.
“It’s really all about finding a way to love everything,” Tina was saying.
“I don’t know if that’s healthy,” Dolorothie said.
“You have to rethink your thought patterns, you have to redo thinking altogether, you have to become New,” Tina said.
“What does becoming new do for you?” Dolorothie said.
“Everything, just everything, Auntie,” Tina said. I’d had enough.
“D’you care for some coﬀee or tea, dear?” I said to Dolorothie, strolling into the living room. Tina seemed startled, then recovered.
“I’d love some,” Tina said to Dolorothie.
“No, thank you,” Dolorothie said to me.
“Which one?” I asked Dolorothie about what Tina wanted.
“Tea,” Tina said to Dolorothie. I went and made her tea. Their conversation about New Jesus did not continue that night, but over the following weeks, if I left the house, whenever I came back the two of them would go quiet around me like they didn’t want me to know they had been talking. Could this have been paranoia? The thing about paranoia is that as soon as you start getting paranoid about paranoia you’re lost. You have to follow through with conviction. But Dolorothie had become quieter about Tina. Less vocal about Tina’s presence, with her ideas about life in the mountains.
“You’re not really buying into this New Jesus business, are you?” I asked Dolorothie in our bedroom before bed one night.
“Buying in . . . business . . . interesting,” Dolorothie said, keeping her head down in a book.
“What does that mean?” I said. “What book is that?”
“None of your business,” she said.
“Tina’s leaving in a few days, I was thinking we should have some friends over and give her a farewell party.”
“You sound ridiculous,” Dolorothie said. Something was wrong. Further along than I thought. Dolorothie had always been a little sad, a little susceptible to beliefs requiring faith, but these had been related to her garden, or to aesthetic theories regarding interior design, never religion, and never like this.
Lying there next to my wife that night I got it into my head to tie Tina up in our flooded basement, to convince her she was wrong about how much better life was in the mountains, and to tell Dolorothie she had changed her mind and come around to see things the way we see them. I would get her down there by convincing her to come see the family of albino smooth newts that had showed up one day to stay, probably because it’s so cool and moist down there. I would use the albino smooth newts, claiming they were poisonous to make her promise she’d have one of her talks with my wife, only this time to convince her that we had the good life and that mountain life was the bad life and that she was leaving immediately to go get her stuﬀ and move down here and renounce New Jesus.
“You’re going to have to do something about the roof,” Dolorothie said to me before turning out the light to go to sleep. There was an audible drip in the corner of the room. That I was going to have to do something about the roof concerned me. We normally used the royal we concerning the house, anything related to the life we lived together.
End-of-the-worldly people like Dolorothie and me would never have been accepted up there.
“There’s a new sealant I heard about that’s supposed to be pretty long-lasting,” I said. But she was already asleep.
The next day I slept in until noon. I never sleep in, much less that late. I suspected them of drugging me right away. But how? Had I stayed up all night worried in bed? Yes, but I must have gotten some sleep at some point. That I didn’t know should have worried me more.
I checked the closet and found Dolorothie’s clothes mostly gone. I borrowed a neighbor’s car and headed out for Copperopolis, the town where Tina lives. It was two hours away. We’d only been there once years ago for my sister’s wedding. I remember Dolorothie saying more than once that she loved it up there. I hadn’t thought of it again until then. We were maybe not the happiest couple, not the happiest people, but we had our life together and it was not a bad one. I’d never imagined her wanting to leave. My neighbor’s car had no radio so I was stuck with my own head and the sound of the wind moving through the car, the low rumble of the road. I searched my memory for clues about Dolorothie’s unhappiness. I knew she didn’t like the storms and the floods and that she was palpably happier when the sun was out. Had I ever asked if she wanted to move? Never mind that we couldn’t aﬀord it. Though maybe that’s why I’d never asked, why the subject had never been broached until Tina came down and made it all possible. Tina’s mom had a nice piece of land up there. Just a trailer on the land but land nonetheless, with oak trees and wild horses, chickens in a coop and wandering deer. Turkeys. But Jesus. New Jesus. She would have invited us up when the shit started hitting the proverbial fan years ago but for that she knew I wasn’t and would never be a believer. As much as it was supposed to be new and about love, it was still a sin to live with worldly people, even if they were family. End-of-the-worldly people like Dolorothie and me would never have been accepted up there.
I was maybe halfway there when it started raining. Hard. Out of nowhere. I swore the sky’d been cloudless, blue. Maybe not. Either way it came down so hard I had to pull over. Where I pulled over was not ideal, as it was next to a ditch and kind of sunken in even where I’d parked. The rain was so loud and relentless. It was coming down in sheets. Gallons of rain pounding the car. It’s not like I hadn’t been in a heavy rain before. It was how loud it was against the roof of the car, it was being so alone and desperate, it was feeling like someone or something from above was telling me something. Did I think it was New Jesus? Not at all. But after half an hour of relentless rain, I was afraid. What if it didn’t stop? What if there was nothing but rain now? There were places that got weird weather like that and ended up underwater, non-coastal towns. I felt bad for being in a car. I’d sworn them oﬀ after everything that happened had seemed so based on cars. Cars and cows and planes and men. The rain kept coming at the same rate and volume. Dumping. And I’d been dumped. That’s what had happened. Taking your clothes and leaving and not saying anything was dumping someone. Did I think I would save her? She was being saved by New Jesus. I told myself that if the rain would just let up, I’d do the same, I’d turn around and go home, let Dolorothie do what she wanted, come home or not. Dolorothie didn’t need me saving her any more than Indians ever needed Kevin Costner types to save them. I could let go of the fact that I wouldn’t get closure if she didn’t come back, that we wouldn’t have our last words together. If this was about god, about New Jesus, who was I to interfere? But the rain didn’t stop. At one point I got out of the car and fell to the ground from the water pressure. That’s what it felt like, like weight pushing me down. I couldn’t see five feet in front of me in any direction. The rain was roaring. I got back in the car and thought about who I would pray to if I were to pray. Help from where? I closed my eyes and leaned my head against the steering wheel. I remembered my first time seeing the ocean. My dad brought me to Half Moon Bay and told me that the first time he’d seen the ocean he was already a father. I couldn’t believe how big it was, how vast, and how it came at the land with such force, such power, the waves. I asked my dad what made it do that. He told me Creator.
As the rain continued to pour down I felt a kind of softening in my heart for Tina, who had been raised up Christian, too, and was so many things she wasn’t even a thing. She was Indian, too, even if she was so many things besides, even if she wasn’t enrolled. She didn’t know better. I couldn’t blame Tina. Dolorothie was bigger than that.
I’m not sure how much time passed. It seemed like the rain couldn’t possibly keep up its intensity for much longer, which made time seem to pass impossibly slow, or not pass at all. At one point I opened the car door again and saw that the water was almost a foot up, that the rain had collected in this sunken area along the highway along the Altamont Pass where there used to be windmills as far as the eye could see. When I closed the door I thought I felt the car slip a little. Was it sinking? I thought of the ocean again, and of my dad, and his belief. Then I did something I’d never done before. I wouldn’t call it praying, but that’s probably what it was. With all the windows rolled up, I said, almost as if to the car, I said, Thank you for what I’ve had, how I’ve managed with what I haven’t been allowed, and thank you for getting me this far. I’m sorry I haven’t done more. It felt good. Like I’d done something good for someone I loved. Not for myself. Some bigger body I’m a part of. I half expected to be thanked, for the rain to let up a little, or altogether, but it didn’t. I don’t know what it was about the fact that the water was rising and I didn’t care that it was. I’d never felt such a sense of dread and possible freedom at the same time before. I laughed a laugh that turned into a cry that made me so sad I wanted to fall asleep. Something had been wrong for a long time. And it was me.
This story is excerpted from McSweeney’s 58: 2040 A.D., a collection of near-future climate fiction made in collaboration with NRDC.