Humans Are Not Important, novel extract by Shane Jones

Art: Flickr

At Daisy Lane Care Centre there was a cat that would sit at the end of your bed for the remaining twenty four hours of your life. Her name was Black Buddy and it was fitting that when the cat took her position the nurses would say, “Black Buddy day for Gertrude better text Jimmy.” This prophet cat had only been wrong once, to Annabel, who upon waking and seeing Black Buddy staring at her, sitting on her chest, said she was going to sue the nursing home including the cat for false medical services. A nurse paid Annabel a dollar and she went zip. The residents of Daisy Lane spent a majority of each evening watching Black Buddy slink back-and-forth past their open doors. Sometimes the cat would pause at an open door, the person in bed would gasp, and then Black Buddy would lick a paw before moving on. Black Buddy had a sense of humor.
Since arriving at Daisy Lane Pearl had suffered a set-back in her hip and in the ambulance ride over suffered some kind of mini-stroke, they weren’t sure what exactly. Three weeks at Daisy Lane became three months. There was no timetable for Pearl’s return home but her health insurance would expire at the end of four months so she had no choice but to improve. She was lonely and her daughter had sent her a card that when opened played “Firework” by Katy Perry. Inside the card her daughter wrote that Austin was thriving living with her and Royal. A photograph included in the card showed Austin holding a football, both knees grass stained and bleeding, while Royal stood in an aggressive tackle mode next to him grinning. The card made a promise to visit but they hadn’t in three months.
“Scrub-a-dub-dub one old lady named Pearl squeaky clean in the tub.”
Pearl was struggling to hold herself up in the shower while Cory washed her legs. Cory had begun work at Daisy Lane on the day Pearl arrived and he believed that people at their foundation were good. He sat on a plastic stool and moved a soapy sponge into Pearl’s lower back. When he asked her how she felt, was the water too hot or too cold, she said she wanted to drink her apple juice.
“Just like Jesus,” said Cory.
“Who raised you?”
Cory smiled while cleaning Pearl’s armpits. “When J.C. was on the cross he was suffering badly. I mean, really bad, like pain we’ve never felt in our life. And he said some very important things through his suffering but one thing he said that people forget was, “I’m thirsty,” and then he died.”
“I don’t like that story,” said Pearl biting her bottom lip.
“Neither does J.C.”
Cory turned the shower off and wrapped a towel around Pearl. He liked carrying her to the bed like a baby even though Pearl insisted he didn’t and it was frowned upon by staff. His religious views Pearl had allowed but the baby routine was a bit much. Depending on how her hip felt she would decide what to say to Cory as he went to lift her. For the past three showers she had been able to walk on her own, each step anxiety ridden, and today she felt triumphant that her independence from Cory’s cradling had continued.
It was a yoga day so Cory dressed Pearl in red sweatpants and a gray New York Knicks sweatshirt with PATRICK EWING in delicate script across the chest. Behind Patrick Ewing was the New York skyline with the twin towers. It didn’t make sense, thought Pearl, because Patrick Ewing was larger than the twin towers, but maybe that was the point. Because Pearl didn’t have clothing of her own it was taken from the general bin. She didn’t complain. She figured it was better this way, this recycling of clothing. Buying clothing had always depressed her.
Together they walked down the hall, Pearl without her walker for the first time in days. She felt good because the warm water of the shower had given her bones some temporary strength. On her way to the yoga room Pearl looked into one of the resident rooms. A silver helium balloon with the number 95 floated above an empty bed.
“Sharon got Black Buddied,” said Cory sadly. “She’s with the man upstairs now.”
Someone screamed from down the hall.
“Mean Liz is next,” he said.
Pearl sighed.
“Mean Liz shits on top of the toilet seat,” Cory whispered into Pearl’s ear. “That’s why I don’t like her. She likes watching me clean it up. The devil is everywhere you know.”
Pearl stopped and cocked her head. “Are you serious?”
“Yes,” said Cory. “Haven’t you seen how people are nowadays?”
Pearl couldn’t argue with that so she continued walking toward the inevitable embarrassment of a yoga class.
The yoga room had recently been painted pink. The staff routinely scolded the residents not to hit the walls with their wheelchairs, walkers, and canes, which was unavoidable do to the poor design of the room. Through the windows summer light illuminated the rubber floor and two pound weights. A long mirror ran the entire length of the far wall and it had been shattered multiple times in multiple places by falling bodies who couldn’t keep up with the routine. Cory walked Pearl to her preferred spot in the room – the back corner.
“Mountain pose everyone,” announced Yogi Louise and no one moved. “Today my mother asked me why I didn’t included a fifty dollar bill into a birthday card for one of my nieces.”
Yogi Louise was paid an unbelievable amount due to some insurance arrangement with Daisy Lane. She had a basic understanding of yoga but wasn’t qualified to lead a class of the elderly. But she was friends with one of the nurses. This is how all jobs work. If you don’t know someone you just don’t have a chance. Yogi Louise wore huge pants. She devoted a large amount of time complaining about her family which was her favorite activity.
“It was the first time a relative didn’t include a fifty dollar bill in the history of my family. Can you believe that? Years of passing a fifty dollar bill around is what love is to my family. Well, I said enough is enough, witch Madison only gets a card this year.”
Mountain pose was just standing in place. Sometimes, if Yogi Louise got the residents distracted enough with stories about her family she would push them into garland pose because she thought it was funny. But most of the time if she tried anything exceeding raising their arms above their heads or trying to touch their toes they would need tremendous assistance getting back in place and by then the class would be over. So it was just easier to put them in mountain pose, lengthening their spines, centering the soul, being aware of the moment, listening to every human flaw her family possessed, carefully catalogued for decades.
All the elderly residents of Daisy Lane stood in their comfortable clothes.
“My mother,” continued Yogi Louise rolling her shoulders back and lifting her chin to the ceiling. “She asked me, after I didn’t include the fifty dollars, why I had abandoned the family.” Yogi Louise snorted. She had a beautiful throat. “This coming from a woman who would fly to Aspen so she could go skiing alone. She would leave for days, no explanation besides that it was “mommy ski time.” She said that if I wanted to stop giving the fifty dollars I should have begun on the first of the year, my other nieces birthday.” Yogi Louise instructed the class to take a deep breath by overly exaggerating how to breathe. “I’m probably adopted,” she said.
“Yogi Louise,” said a withered man from the back of the room. “Can I have permission to speak?”
Yogi Louise rolled her eyes, moved fluidly into Warrior Two Pose which made everyone gasp, then snapped upright with her hands in prayer position. “Go for it, Earl.”
Pearl moved so she could easily see Earl. He couldn’t stop shaking. He held onto his cane for dear life. Two nurses were always ready to catch him. That was their main job, keeping Earl from the floor, and that was Earl’s future, there wouldn’t be any other way. Earl continued, “A great poet –”
“Oh Jesus,” said Yogi Louise.
Pearl drank her apple juice.
“The poet said he loved his family,” said Earl. “But that didn’t mean he wanted to live with his family. I always found that very funny.” Earl blushed and smiled with his lips closed.
Yogi Louise stepped forward. “My family has done every birthday party and each holiday exactly the same way my entire life. They have never once, not once, done anything besides sit around staring at each other. No one has ever enjoyed one minute of being together in my family. It is nothing but duty and obligation. And they will continue doing what they have always done until my mother dies because my sister and I function on her guilt. This is our entire existence.”
Everyone was silent. A few residents tried twisting and groaned.
“Who wants cake,” interrupted Cory.
“Great class,” said Yogi Louise.
It was Corporeal Gary Simpson’s seventy fifth wedding anniversary and the staff wanted to throw him a party. So everyone was moved to the dining hall. Gary’s wife had died years ago, also in Daisy Lane, at his side. He had been adamant about not having an anniversary party but the staff pinched his cheeks and said it was no bother, they wanted to. When he insisted that it would only upset him they said he was being too humble. They said he deserved a celebration. The cake had a frosted painting of his wife’s face from 1956 on it. Corporeal Gary Simpson stood over the cake. His wife looked like a Neanderthal. Her hair was lit candles. Someone put the string to a balloon in Gary’s hand and curled his fingers around the string.
Pearl ate her cake alone. Cory sat across from her with his hands folded into a temple, elbows on the table. “You don’t look up when you eat,” he said.
“Is that so?”
“You eat with your head down like this.” Cory put his face an inch from his plate, eyes down, and pretended to chew. “It’s a sign of depression.”
“Agreed,” said Pearl still looking at her plate.
That night Pearl couldn’t sleep. She thought about eating without looking at her plate of food. It seemed irresponsible and dangerous. She read the paper for the first time in years and learned that the worldwide spider population had decreased by fifty percent. The article was one hundred words long and pillared by ads for a rib shack and pool floats. Pearl closed her eyes.
Black Buddy was out in the hallway rolling around on the floor. She had a collar with a tiny bell and it got closer to Pearl. Upstairs the cancer kids were running back-and-forth. One of the cancer kids had been granted his make-a-wish foundation of harpooning a whale off Nova Scotia. Complex arrangement were being made. The boy was so excited his health was improving. He could run all night. Before September the whale would be bleeding out in the sea at the hands of the boy and the boy would be dead by the hands of… it wasn’t God. The parents would have to believe it was God. Black Buddy jumped on Pearl’s bed and sneezed.
“You think I’m scared of you?” said Pearl waving her hand in front of the cat’s face. “I’m not scared of you.”
Black Buddy curled into a ball between Pearl’s legs. The cat immediately became heavier.
“Get,” said Pearl. “I’m not ready for this. Come on, shoo.” She lifted half the cat’s warm body but the cat appeared already asleep.
Pearl considered ringing for Cory but instead wildly kicked her legs. The cat still didn’t move. That was the problem with cats, they didn’t really care how you felt. Dogs were different. Dogs had been cemented in folklore by acts of great courage and compassion. People who had cats liked to love something that couldn’t love them back. Owning a cat was opening another door to suffering. Owning and loving a dog was easy. Pearl’s sleeping pills kicked in like a bolt of lightning.
When she woke in the morning Cory and the other nurses were standing around her bed. Pearl thought about the last words of Lady Nancy Astor who woke briefly before dying moments later and asked if it was her birthday. To Pearl a final scene like that was the perfect end, full of humor and immense sadness.
“You should fire that cat,” she said yawning and dramatically stretching her arms but only one of the nurses laughed.
“Tell her,” said one of the administrators. Pearl then noticed all the residents standing in the hall, looking into her room. Corporeal Gary Simpson was shaking his head in disgust. The others looked frightened.
The head nurse took a stern deep breath. “Black Buddy died last night from a previously unknown condition. We found him on your bed last night.”
“Oh my,” said Pearl. “You think?”
Cory made the sign of the cross and fell to one knee. The other nurses followed suit and together they prayed. The nurse who had laughed began to cry. A big summer sun was climbing the sky. Pearl nodded once at the philodendron hanging in the window.

Before water aerobics class the lifeguard saw, at the bottom of the pool, a chunk of meat. The lifeguard attempted to lift the chunk of meat from the water with a skimmer but it wouldn’t budge, the chunk of meat just smeared across the bottom of the pool and a muddy color lifted into the water above. The air in the pool was thick with chlorine. Everyone looked puzzled.
“I’m going in,” the lifeguard said to Cory dramatically pulling his shirt off. “You wait here. You wait here with a bag and a towel and I’ll be right back.”
Cory scrunched his face. “Where would I go?”
“I don’t know. Just don’t go anywhere. I’m going in now. Okay, here I go. Wish me luck.”
No one said anything. The lifeguard made a big production of diving into the water. Pearl and several other Daisy Lane residents stood at the edge of the pool. Tiny Gertrude moaned as the lifeguard’s blurry body swam around the meat. Cory assured the class everything would be okay as he massaged Tiny Gertrude’s calf which felt like a brick. Pearl looked at the crotch of her bathing suit, which was several sizes too big and thought about drowning.
“Shut it down,” said the lifeguard. From the deep end he somehow lifted himself from the pool in slow motion. “Shit in the pool,” he said. Cory shrugged and Tiny Gertrude whimpered.
The lifeguard came out of his office with a huge bag of powdered chlorine mixed with other chemicals he didn’t know anything about and he began walking around the edge of the pool and pouring it in. A white fog rose from where the chemicals hit the water. It appeared to be boiling. The lifeguard choked, covered his mouth, and kept going. At one point he lost control of the massive bag and the remains, roughly five pounds of chemicals, were dumped directly into one spot. So the lifeguard used his skimmer to mix it up. Pearl and the others watched, expecting the shit to vanish, but it didn’t.
The other nurses and staff at Daisy Lane came into the pool. Most of them laughed. The lifeguard was given a five dollar bill on top of his eight dollars an hour as a tip. They just felt so bad. Pearl asked Cory for permission to use the bathroom.
Once dressed in her Patrick Ewing sweatshirt and red sweatpants Pearl walked to where the yoga room was and exited through a back door. No one noticed her departure because someone had shitted in the Daisy Lane pool, the event of the year. It would be the main story among staff for years. And no one would own up to it even though they had a good idea it was Corporeal Gary Simpson getting back at everyone for that dumb party. He did have a point. He was the only person who didn’t go to the pool to see what all the commotion was. Through the rec room window he gave Pearl a thumbs up as she walked to the main road.
A half mile later Pearl was stopped by a police officer because it was illegal to hitchhike on a thruway on-ramp. Because she was old and white and seemingly harmless with a slight limp the officer drove her to the bus station where he helped her find the most direct route to her home. He instructed the driver not to charge her. But his kindness didn’t move her. It was a weird world. How you looked either added or subtracted your second chances. Pearl gave him a hard candy which she knew would just put him over the top when he later told his supervisor about the old lady he had helped.
Pearl had never taken the bus before. Her husband had always driven the car, a verbal demand he made early in their marriage when Pearl was twenty, and before that, she rode a bike for years. So the bus was a new and odd setting for her to view the humanity she wished to be obliterated from the earth. The bus drove onto the ramp Pearl had been picked up on by the officer. She settled into her seat and looked out the window.
Lately, she had been having a dream of a new animal species rising from a blinding-green horizon. The new animal species was horned and didn’t care about people. It roamed wherever it wished. But so far the dream hadn’t receded into reality. For now there was a huge man wearing a suit sitting in a wheelchair, the wheels locked by little chains to the floor directly behind the driver. The man took up so much space it was hard not to stare. His face was perfectly shaven and shellacked in sweat.
“That’s The Body,” said the woman sitting next to Pearl. “I’ve ridden this line for five years and The Body hasn’t once said a word. I’ll tell you one thing, if I was in as bad a shape as him, I wouldn’t go to work, that’s for sure. I guess it’s inspiring? And I’m not sure if it matters or not but The Body is part Mexican.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Pearl said quietly looking at her hands folded on her sweatpants. “But I don’t want to talk to you. It’s nothing personal, I’d just rather not use words on another person, or have to look at another person’s face when they talk and pretend to enjoy the conversation. I find life to be more honest this way. I’m going home now. I’m feeling like myself again.”
The woman laughed cruelly. “No you’re not,” she said. “No one who takes the bus is going home. Maybe an apartment, maybe your kid’s place, maybe the mall, maybe the park, any number of places to waste your time, but you can’t look around and say these people have homes.”
The Body clenched his fists and his body became rigid like he was being electrocuted. He grinned in pain for a few seconds and then relaxed. Pearl made a fist.
“He does that,” said the woman. “Like you he doesn’t talk to people. It comes out in strange ways. You better watch it.”
“I’m Mexican,” lied Pearl.
“Well,” said the woman pretending to be surprised, “you certainly don’t look Mexican.”
“I know,” said Pearl. “We’re getting sneaky.”
The bus didn’t go anywhere near Pearl’s neighborhood. The last stop was the mall. When the bus pulled up to Dave & Buster’s a man in the back of the bus who hadn’t spoken for the duration of the trip started clapping his hands over his head.
“Save you energy Johnny,” said the driver. When the trip first began the driver had pulled a shower curtain across and around where he sat so no one could see him. It was a clever contraption that Pearl admired. The shower curtain was light blue with little slants of white rain. On the floor below the curtain was a ring of garbage.
“I told Jeff to get me a party sub platter and Jeff is,” said Johnny still standing and clapping over his head. “I told Jeff to substitute the black forest ham for more roast beef and Jeff did it for me.”
“Good for you,” said the driver.
Pearl looked around the bus for another seemingly sane person, maybe someone closer to her age, but there was no one.
An unspoken rule on the bus was to let The Body unchain himself first while everyone else watched. It was a real procedure. Nobody seemed to mind much. After The Body was off the bus everyone followed through a short channel of hot summer air mixed with exhaust air, then into the air conditioning of the mall. The last time Pearl was at the mall was twenty years ago when her husband insisted on returning a coffee maker because he said the coffee didn’t get hot enough. This wasn’t entirely true but that didn’t matter. Her husband wanted to spend his time returning the coffee maker and the store manager didn’t mind because people were always buying things at the store.
Pearl had to find something to eat at the mall. She hadn’t eaten in two days. The food court was impossibly clean and huge and a single man, no one else around, sat directly in the middle of the tables and chairs. When Pearl walked by him he was saying, “He drove a forklift in a carrot factory. His entire life, just driving these pallets of carrots onto a truck. You would never think about a man with an entire life driving carrots around while eating a carrot.”
None of the food appeared safe and you had to order by number. Pearl decided on what appeared to be a sandwich shop but on closer inspection, too late to turn back thought Pearl, it sold gourmet grilled cheese. A young boy was the sole worker and his t-shirt said COOL STORY BABE NOW MAKE ME A GRILLED CHEESE. Pearl asked for the simplest and cheapest grilled cheese which she paid for in loose change. The boy took a three second video of her on his phone which he shared with three hundred strangers, five of which responded that they liked it. Pearl sat across from the old man who was still talking about carrots.
“I’m going back home,” she said quietly.
A homeless man was in the mall. He waved at Pearl and called her Marshall.
“After my father died,” said the old man, “I couldn’t even look at a carrot without weeping. In the war my friend Chuck stole carrots from the zoo after we shot all the animals. Chuck thought I was crying because of the dead giraffes. You ever seen a giraffe go down? A horrendous site the way the neck just collapses. But what I was really crying about was the carrots Chuck was lugging on his back. He was very strong, Chuck.”
On the old man’s tray were pennies and sand. Pearl could understand the pennies but not the sand. Maybe they had a little beach in the mall now where people could let their children go swimming under a simulation sun. She wasn’t sure if that was possible yet but it probably would be.
Whatever Pearl said to the old man he responded to with carrot talk. She told him an unbelievable amount of personal things she hadn’t even shared with her daughter. The old man didn’t register even the most scandalous details of her life. Maybe his name was Marshall. She had to admit it felt good to talk.
“I could say anything to you couldn’t I?” Pearl said childishly.
“A person who orders a carrot muffin when blueberry is available should go to prison,” said the old man. “But you probably already know that because everyone knows that. What’s that you’re eating?” The old man leaned forward and inspected the sandwich. He looked up with only his eyes. “Who told you to bring that spider factor in here? It’s illegal during times of war to own a spider factory. Unless Chuck allowed it? Tell me, darling, did Chuck give you the code for spider factory clearance? Up to his own tricks again.”
“My daughter died,” said Pearl. She took one bite of her grilled cheese and stopped. There was a single large mushroom in it and it tasted like a tire.
The old man jumped in his seat. “Oh, that’s not supposed to happen,” he said, “a girl dying before her mother, no, no.”
“And then I broke my hip and had two strokes,” said Pearl looking around at the mall. A janitor was cleaning the tables but they were already clean. He didn’t have anything else to do but he still wanted to get paid and not sent home by his boss. “According to my research I have a seventy five percent chance of death in less than three years,” said Pearl. “Because of the broken hip.”
“So? I once saw a German shepherd on a hovercraft.”
“I want to do reckless things before I die,” said Pearl.
“Chuck called sex P touch. That’s what he would say to the women in Berlin. Hello my sweet, would you like to play a game of P touch with me?”
“A chance of death,” whispered Pearl.
“After my father died I poured an entire carton of orange juice on my neighbor’s cat,” said the old man. He lowered his head close to his tray, even closer to Pearl’s face. “And I liked it,” he whispered.
“When the world ends,” said Pearl leaning forward even more, “plants will take it back. Isn’t that comforting to know? That this entire mall will be a garden. But do you know what will remain the longest?”
The old man sat back and trembled a little. He sucked on his bottom lip and made a fish noise. “Gladys was six foot seven and never spoke.” His eyes widened. “That’s my wife you’re talking about.”
“Millions of miles of pavement,” said Pearl. “It will take the longest to disappear. All our roads and parking lots will remain for a very long time. That’s the only thing I don’t like to think about when I think about the future.”
The old man stood up very abruptly. “But what do you want from the world right now? Hell, you can’t wait for the future, darling.” His fists were clenched.
The question caught Pearl off guard. She thought maybe he did understand everything she had told him. It was unlikely given his eyes but still, a possibility. She decided to leave the mall as quickly as possible and find her way home on an empty stomach. She put the earlier fear of passing out on the side of the road behind her with the old man.
She got lost inside the mall. She stood at a dead-end where construction was taking place for a new clothing store that specialized in clothes for large babies. An entire wall, bare drywall, had been covered in flyers saying to vote for Diane. A white outline of a woman’s face, presumably Diane herself, was delicately traced over North America which was completely filled with the American flag. On the edge, North America’s purple glow bled into the oceans. Diane had big hair.
“Short cut this way lady,” said a construction worker in a hardhat who was short and had opened a short door in the drywall. Pearl ducked under the door and was suddenly outside in a parking lot. She had no idea which way to go so she just started walking. The construction worker went back inside and continued building the store for the big baby clothes.
A second police officer picked Pearl up when she tried crossing a congested highway. Inside the car he asked her if she felt okay and she pointed to his gun and said no. They drove in silence until the police officer went through a Burger King drive through and ordered a coffee. Pearl thought drinking coffee was one thing, but choosing Burger King coffee was alarming. He also ordered a large order of fries which Pearl reluctantly ate several. I’ve bottomed out, thought Pearl.
Then Pearl was at her house again. She didn’t know what to expect when she went inside. The path leading up to her house was completely overgrown with weeds and wildflowers and the windows appeared to be painted black. In front of the door on the ground were dozens of vote for Diane flyers. It would be impossible that Austin would still be inside but she imagined him running into her arms once she hit the kitchen. Her exhaustion and hunger and hip pain and fear of death had made her sentimental. She wanted the tub filled with plants again. Austin at her side again.
More than half of her plants were dead, the floors wind-swept with brown curled leaves. The potted plants in the dining room had been smashed against the fall wall where they lay in a slanted grave of dirt and vines. Plants with intelligence and courage had grown to the windows where they blanketed the glass in a desperate attempt to harvest sunlight. In her bedroom someone had made a partial attempt to clean-up. The Stewart plant still remained in the window and Pearl cut it down and walked to the kitchen and placed it in the freezer.
That night Pearl climbed to the roof of her house. One nice thing about owning a house was covering every inch with your body. But she had never been on the roof before. It took a long time for Pearl to get situated on the roof but the perspective was worth it. She sat with her feet dangling over the edge of stuffed and cracked gutters. She still wore the big sweatpants and the EWING sweatshirt. Her sneakers were the bright white of the elderly. She sighed. The town had installed lamps for the sidewalk. Trees had been sawed into wood chips to accommodate new sidewalk pavement. A man jogging in neon spandex exhaled loudly through his nose while bobbing his head forward like a chicken. What did she want from the world? Such a question. Pearl stood and clenched her fists. An empty field with no one in it.


Shane Jones is the author of the novels Light Boxes (Penguin, 2010), Daniel Fights a Hurricane (Penguin, 2012), and Crystal Eaters (Two Dollar Radio, 2014). Fiction and non-fiction has been published by The Paris Review Daily, Washington Square Review, VICE, LIT, Portland Review, The Believer Logger, and DIAGRAM, among others. He lives in upstate New York with his wife Melanie and son Julian.

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