THE OBSERVATIONALIST by Alexander Cendrowski
by Alexander Cendrowski
We are called watchers, though last I heard we were petitioning for a name change. It’s not so much that watcher is an inaccurate title. But it’d be like calling composers listeners or chefs tasters or sculptors touchers—not quite wrong, but certainly a lazy way of going about it.
And I don’t think it’s unfair to say that God has gotten lazier these days. He used to be fairly active, for a god, and while we watchers didn’t always appreciate His activities, we’ve since grown nostalgic for the days when high water levels followed higher tempers, or when He rained fire from the sky and turned that woman to salt, or that one time He got all those people to paint their doors with lamb blood, just for the hell of it.
We miss cool God. Now all He does is sit in His recliner and watch Seinfeld reruns and send the angels out for teriyaki chicken and orange soda. Gabriel says he’ll sneak our petition into God’s fortune cookie if we stop watching the angel break room for one hour next week, and I think we’ll take him up on it, once we get enough signatures.
My assignment is an eighty-seven year old human named Amelia Maria Hummel. It was my duty to see her birth, and it will be my duty to see her death. And then I will be assigned to someone new—perhaps a bumblebee, or a penguin, or an oak tree. I’m saving my veto for the off chance that I’m assigned to a horse. When Amelia turned seven her adoptive parents, Markus and Katrina Hummel, drove for three hours so she could ride horses at the state fair, and it took her nearly eleven years more to shut up about them.
Currently, Amelia is drying a navy blue coffee cup with a green and white striped dish rag. She has been at it for over seven minutes, and her hands are beginning to ache. The text on the cup’s side is too faded to read, but I can tell you that it used to say Nova Metallurgy, Inc. The cup didn’t always belong to her, but I suppose it does now.
Four years ago Amelia’s husband, Edward O’Hara, said his last comprehensible word.
Three years, fifty-one weeks, and six days later, Edward’s watcher was reassigned to a newborn mealworm in a San Diego pet supermarket. As far as I know, the mealworm is a happy change of pace. It certainly would have been for Amelia.
My previous assignments include three modestly successful men; sixteen slaves; two members of royal houses, one of whom was assassinated; hundreds of rodents; nearly a thousand now-extinct types of fish; thousands upon thousands of insects; and over six billion nematodes. Of every animal currently living on Earth, four out of five is a nematode.
Specializing in nematode watching is considered highly respectable in some circles. It is seen as a kind of community service. Somebody, as they say, has to do it.
Three blinks of His eye ago, Markus and Katrina Hummel moved the family cross-country in an attempt to save their failing marriage. Amelia was eleven years old. She told the children at her new elementary school that she was twelve, but this was a lie. She had just that month received her first birthday easel, and thus I’m sure of it: she was eleven.
The Hummels’ new home boasted many improvements over their previous residence, none of which involved Katrina Hummel’s sex drive or Markus Hummel’s workload. These improvements were primarily noticeable to a young girl of eleven, who claimed she was twelve, whose every move I watched.
Amelia preferred the new house’s smell, for one. She shouted it as she ran through the place, touching every wall, exploring every room: “Florida smells better than Ohio!” By this she meant that the Hummels’ new Floridian home, which had been cleaned of nearly three-quarters of the dead rats in its attic before it was put on the market, smelled better than the Hummels’ old Ohioan home, which had the faint but persistent odor of cat piss, even nine years after the family’s last cat had been hit by a car. She did not mean that one state as a whole smelled better than the other state as a whole, though it certainly did.
Amelia also preferred her new bedroom, which had slanted walls so that she could touch the ceiling on her tiptoes, a previously impossible feat; the new backyard, a wide slice of uncut grass that scratched pleasantly at her ankles; and the small, round window in her private bathroom, through which she first saw their new neighbors’ eldest son, Steven McCormick—his pimpled face, narrow shoulders, and a whole lot else besides.
We are to report anything extremely out of the ordinary to Gabriel, who in turn decides if it’s important enough for Him to look into. The last time Gabriel decided that something actually was important enough, it took Him nearly twelve years to get out of His recliner, by which point six million people had already died and begun filling out the necessary paperwork to enter the afterlife.
More recently, a watcher decided that he’d skip the middle man and report directly to God Himself. When the watcher burst into His room, God was wearing fuzzy pink bunny slippers and a spotless white bathrobe. He was holding a tube of modeling glue just beneath His nose, which He fumbled with before pocketing.
“Oh,” He said, eye twitching, “you’re not Gabriel at all.”
God then proceeded to pretend the watcher didn’t exist, plugging His ears to the watcher’s claims that He needed to step in, that He couldn’t stand by as these people did these things in His name, and going so far as to marathon three full seasons of Seinfeld before the universe caught up with His imagination and the watcher ceased to be.
“This is the pinnacle of comedy,” said God, taking another sniff.
The backs of Amelia’s hands are well-wrinkled, veins popping and pulling at excess skin, but her palms are surprisingly smooth, the result of consistent moisturizer usage. The trick is that the moisturizer was almost all intended for her face—an acne problem that persisted for nearly two decades—but through the process of spreading it, her palms and fingers absorbed enough moisturizer to permanently smooth a dozen palms. When she finally puts down the coffee cup, it is these hands that wring out the dish towel, these hands that lock the door behind her, these hands that squeeze the wheel of Edward’s Mustang as she swings out on the street.
There is talk of a walk-out alongside the petition. A strike, with hopes of encouraging the name change. I am considering participating, but then where would that leave Amelia? Of course, I can’t expect the rest of the watchers to wait for her to die before I walk out, or else they’d want to wait for their assignments to die too. It’s only fair. The issue is that some of the other watchers are currently watching hydra, creatures Amelia learned about in a Marine Biology class before she dropped out of the university entirely. These moving tubes and tendrils don’t actually die of old age—her professor called it biological immortality. Then we’re not waiting for 80 human years, or 150 tortoise ones, or a blue whale’s 200. We’re talking every goddamn hydra on Earth dying out, solely from predation, before we can do this thing.
When Amelia was twelve—actually twelve, not eleven-twelve—she was walking home from the school bus stop, and Steven McCormick fell into pace beside her, rather than hanging back with the other fourteen year old boys, who were discussing the optimal way to kill a man if disallowed tools. So far, sharpened fingernails were winning, though surprise strangulation was putting up quite a fight.
“Hey, you okay?” said Steven.
Steven was referring to the fact that Amelia’s nose had been wet and red and puffed up all day, and that she’d been wiping repeatedly at her eyes the whole bus ride.
“Allergies,” said Amelia.
Amelia was referring to the fact that she was allergic to the great outdoors, which was a damn shame, because otherwise she tended to prefer being outside. But less so, I suppose, in spring. Also, her father had just moved back to Ohio, returning to work for the contractor he’d left behind on the first move. He had promised her he would rent a condo in the nearby town, would come down the last week of every month, so long as she would stay with him while he was there. Her mother refused to talk to her about these conditions without a lawyer present.
“I want to show you something,” said Steven. “It’ll make you feel better.”
It was only visible, he claimed, in his bedroom, and only with the door locked. His was the first she had ever seen in person. It was hot and fat and noticeably short, compared to the diagrams she’d seen in Health. When she pushed down on its head—she thought it impolite to decline the invitation—it sprung back and spat up on her skirt. It did not make her feel better.
They usually don’t.
Occasionally a watcher will attempt to quit, usually citing empathetic insanity—what the humans have taken to calling PTSD—as the catalyst for their inability to perform any further. Gabriel usually talks them out of it. On the instances that he can’t, the watcher is forcibly assigned to the nematode watching department, the species least likely to result in further harm. Maybe in a thousand years the watcher will be allowed to return to an interesting species. We are not employees. Quitting is not in the handbook.
Amelia is speeding, which seems ill advised considering she hasn’t had a license for nearly fifty years. She runs several stop signs on the way out of her neighborhood, knocks over a mailbox, and only just dodges a train while swerving around the track guards. Miraculously, she pulls into a parking lot without being pulled over, though her parking job is similarly criminal. As she walks into the art supplies shop, a teenager with a backseat full of ink and nibs and Bristol board backs into Edward’s Mustang, takes a quick glance at the damage, and pulls away.
Inside the store, hers is the face of a child before the world has corrupted it, when things are still flawless and fresh and worthwhile. Despite the wrinkles surrounding them, her eyes are switching rapidly about, focusing on one section, the next. Then, like a river overcoming a dam, she flows through the store, filling one cart and another, grabbing every watercolor imaginable, every oil, every acrylic. She buys them all with Edward’s old Nova Metallurgy, Inc credit card—for business transactions only.
As watchers, we were created with incredible abilities. These abilities include: controlling the urge to blink, discerning the assignment’s voice in large, noisy crowds, and experiencing every single thing the assignment is experiencing simultaneously. In order to optimize a collective omniscience—and optimize we must, as is the watcher way—it is necessary for a watcher to be tuned in, so to speak, to their assignment’s world at all times.
Then again, we watchers are not exactly forced to experience everything. We are free, at least partially, to make a choice—to pass over. I passed over Amelia’s first time painting, for instance, and her first panic attack, and the birth of her sole child, an eight pound, six ounce boy who would have been named Phillip, had he survived. It’s not that awe or terror or emptiness are experiences that I like to shield myself from, though they certainly are. It’s that some things in life, I’ve found, are best experienced alone. Necessarily so, even.
Amelia met Edward her sophomore year of college, while she was still studying to become a marine biologist and he a metallurgist. Her dorm room walls were covered in various paintings of eels and dolphins and seahorses, the last of which had replaced her fascination with the larger land model. When she first invited Edward into her room, he knocked one down—an abstract oil swirl, the mere suggestion of a seahorse, but a seahorse nonetheless. The frame broke on impact, the canvas speared on a wayward heel.
“Sorry,” he said, before crawling into bed.
She felt as if her comforter was swallowing her whole, starting with her chest and moving to her hips, under his weight. She breathed in his cologne, an over-applied musk of something like pine, one of her allergens. When he kissed her neck she shuddered, and this only served to send her deeper, until she had been reduced to a single arm, slapping once, twice, three times at his back, before sinking away too.
Despite himself, he would have made an excellent father.
The walkout is scheduled for next week, at the exact hour Gabriel wants us to avoid the angel break room. We will meet in God’s room and tell Him that we are walking out, as otherwise we’re afraid He won’t notice. And then we will close our eyes and ears and minds until He finally makes a change. We will be blind and deaf and dumb to the world, and the world will undoubtedly languish in its loss, for as long as it takes for Him to do something about it. And then we will return, and everything will be exactly as it should be.
Amelia is standing on a chair in the center of her carpeted living room, her tools bundled in her hands. Her clothes are strewn across a plastic-covered couch, her bra hung from the ceiling fan. She begins with a deep, true purple, of royal variety, a few short dashes for each finger before she runs them through her hair, winding between over-permed curls. She paints her palms teal and smacks the fan, the chair, her cheeks. She traces the veins on the back of her hands with a lemon yellow and follows them up the arm until they disappear just behind her elbow, which she caps off with two bright red targets. Her kneecaps get a similar treatment, but she leaves the veins in her calves as they are, uneasy with their distance.
As she readies the chair, the rope, she traces watercolor through her eyebrows, lime green for the left, traffic-cone orange for the right, and her lips receives a smear of light violet, bubbling with each breath. On her stomach, she lays a backdrop of deep blue oil, plants a few strands of green, adds flurries of eggshell white breaking around her breasts, and sprawls out a vibrant swirl of pink, a swirl to end all swirls, building out from her center until the line is rearing back and neighing, its large, black eye staring directly into mine.
If her child, the boy who would have been named Phillip, had survived, his favorite color would have been the orange-pink of an unwilling evening sun falling between clouds. His favorite food would have been mush peas, at first, then corn flakes, then onion rings. He would have grown up to be an Olympic pole-vaulter, sustain an injury at nineteen that would stunt his career, and be nursed back to good health by the combined efforts of his mother and a lovely young nurse, whom he would later marry. They would have two beautiful boys together and, after the boys had left the nest, would adopt a newborn girl, whose single mother would pass during childbirth. They would dote over all three children, but especially that little girl. They would dote over her to the point of insanity, the point of deification, the point of leaving her unprepared for a cold, uncertain, misinformed world.
But as we know, Phillip’s umbilical cord wrapped around his neck a full five times in utero. Amelia’s doctor wouldn’t detect his asphyxiation until the trace of the baby’s heartbeat had long faded, his magnificent clock halted forever.
The walkout was initiated just seconds after Amelia drew her last breath. When I left her, her mouth was a circle of choking pain, but the swirl remained on her stomach, in her eyes.
Over twenty quintillion watchers gathered around His door. And we watched. And we waited. Then, as if a single body, we entered. But before we could say anything, God had stood from his recliner. He was wearing a torn Nirvana T-shirt and gray sweatpants, and His fingers were coated in cheese dust, though we could tell He’d been expecting us. Then and there, as if it were the simplest question in the world, He asked what we’d prefer to be named.
But we had no idea. Not a single watcher among us had a clue. Neither, He said, did He. He asked if there was anything else. If, perhaps, we’d like the ability to act. If we wanted, He said, we could be allowed to interfere, as much as we wanted. We could fix the watched.
But no one wanted that.
When I return to Earth, I will be assigned to a newborn girl, whose single mother will pass during childbirth. On the girl’s stomach, I will feel a magnificent swirl of pink, building from her center. In her chest, I will hear a magnificent clock, ticking in absolute rebellion. And through her eyes, I will see the most magnificent things—waiting, waiting to be found.
Alexander Cendrowski is a lemonade, cartooning, and ocean enthusiast pursuing his MFA in fiction at the University of South Florida. His favorite animal is the octopus, and his favorite color is none of your business. His fiction has recently appeared in Word Riot, Perversion Magazine, and Crack the Spine. He enjoys being harassed on Twitter @CendrowskiAlex. Alex is a Cleaver Emerging Artist.
Image credit: Mindy Olson on Unsplash