FictionWinter 2023

Cube Town — Alex Miller

The Last Week of May

On hot days my boobs sweat and the skin beneath breaks out in a rash. Seems like it gets hotter every year, like one summer bleeds into the next. I enjoyed walking in the afternoons until the heat became too much. Now I walk in the morning. Since the smoke came, I suppose it no longer matters when I walk. The neighborhood smells like charcoal—a grill crackling with fire, awaiting a thick slab of meat.

The houses along the streets are squares, the neighborhood a grid of perfect cubes. I admire the clean lines and minimalist geometry: the zealous removal of all extraneous elements. The architecture is cohesive. Hygienic. The geometric blocks of houses look wonderful in the light of morning. Glass surfaces glisten like dew. Not even the smoke from wildfires spoils it. When I peer at the houses through the gray haze, I feel as if I have wandered into a dream.

The cubes come in a variety of sizes and styles. On my walks, I notice smooth granite walls beside facades of stone and cedar. The best houses have rooftop decks. The grandest cube stands on the corner of Gettysburg and Yorktown, and it is worth a million dollars. Someday, all our houses will be worth a million. They gain value quite rapidly. I check Zillow often, and it is a delight to see the arrow moving up, up, up. Perhaps it will continue rising forever, a rocket that has escaped Earth’s gravity and will continue on its course through the universe unimpeded. That’s economics. You gather your little horde and sit on it. Don’t get off until you are rich.

In the recent past, I understand, the neighborhood looked different, with smaller houses and lawns shaded by trees. Now, only one of the originals remains, at the far end of Tippecanoe, a tiny bungalow inhabited by an elderly Black man with a bald head and gray mustache. I imagine he must feel uncomfortable to be surrounded, as he is, by larger homes. All of us take pains to be polite. We wave in the evenings when he reads the newspaper on his sagging porch. We inquire about his grandchildren. It is important to make him believe he is one of us, to demonstrate that it doesn’t matter that we have so much and he, so little.

I cross paths with a neighbor—the wife of a Republican state lawmaker. She is insufferable. She has a name, but I think of her as Mrs. Pinochet. I smile falsely and say hello. She complains about the heat. Complains about the smoke.

I say it’s just awful about the wildfires. She says the smoke isn’t even from our local fires. It blows in from the big one in California. She pronounces the state name like a slur. She says Californians use too much electricity. They slurp it up to power electric cars and mainframes in Silicon Valley. According to Mrs. Pinochet, all the wildfires and smoke are the fault of California.

Rather than disagree, I change the subject, inquire about her children. In our neighborhood, it is important to keep the peace. Whenever Mrs. Pinochet expounds upon some vile theory, I sigh and ask about her children.


Wednesday Maybe

I fix a drink and sit in the big chair by the window. The chair is dark gray, as is all the furniture. That’s how Henry liked it. A monochrome color scheme, sleek and modern. Calming. Now the house is mine. I could reupholster the furniture in neon fabric, if I desired. I could open a can of red paint and turn the couch into a Pollock.

The house feels comfortably chilly. I keep the thermostat at 65 in the summer. I shiver and wrap my shoulders in an afghan. I open the book I borrowed from the library. It bores me. The words are flat. A girl and boy child are friends in a small town until her family moves to Boston. Years later, the girl is grown and returns to Arkansas to find her lost friend. He is a motorcycle mechanic. She is an artist. The plot is filthy stupid. An artist should go to Paris. She should not slum around Hicksville sniffing some redneck’s unwashed penis. Don’t live your life for some sweaty mechanic. I yell out loud. They always fuck you over.

I close the book and go to the kitchen for another vodka tonic. The window above the marble countertop should provide a clear view of the mountains, but they are obscured by a chalky haze. I imagine what the neighborhood will look like once the wildfires come. Flames will crest the ridge, licking at the sky like the orange tongues of hell. The world shrinks. The walls of the box close in. Soon I won’t have space to take my walks or read my books or even breathe.

I carry my drink back to the chair and try again to interest myself in the novel. Master Benedict jumps in my lap and purrs. He doesn’t care for reading, either. I scratch Master Benedict behind his ears and whisper that I will take him with me when the fires come. I’ll need to remember his food, the twenty-pound bag that periodically arrives on my doorstep in an oversized box. Master Benedict will require water, too. I should buy a case of bottles. But I must be careful. I must not become one of those lost people hoarding rice and iodine pills for the end times.

Briefly I return to the book, only for it to disappoint me again. I smell a happy ending and skip to the final pages to be sure. The lovers have overcome some hardship to be together. The mechanic holds the slender artist in his bearlike arms. He tells her he will never leave her. The artist weeps. The artist swoons.

Those dumb fuckers. Some of us learn the hard way.


That Very Week

I fix a vodka tonic and listen to NPR streaming from my AI device, which is wired to speakers in every room of the house. NPR resounds through the lonely rooms like the voice of God. My bottle of vodka runs low, but I’ve stowed another in the pantry. I am clever. I always buy two, because you never know. Henry would not like how much I drink. But Henry left, and when you leave, you lose your vote. I raise high my glass, toasting with an imaginary friend to Henry’s leaving.

Terry Gross and Audie Cornish give me the bad news. The wildfires continue to grow, buoyed by unseasonably dry weather. Fire consumes the American West. The one burning the hillsides miles from my home is only a pup. The real demons scorch California and Oregon. The Forest Service is overwhelmed. An NPR correspondent interviews a firefighter. He describes the fires as apocalyptic. He says mouth of hell.

In other news, the virus spreads anew. We thought we had it beat, but it came rip-roaring back. The president threw a party at the White House at the start of summer to celebrate. Mission accomplished, motherfucker. I wonder if Henry is vaccinated. He was always a good liberal, so I imagine him first in line. Secretly I hope he did not. I hope he dies like the rest of them, the Trump-voting mechanics from Arkansas.

NPR says the Center for Disease Control is considering a new mask mandate and vaccine booster shots. I shout at the AI to stop. The news is depressing. Certainly it is important, now and then, to listen to the voice of God. But don’t overdo it. Sometimes God is too much.



I take my morning walk. Consistency is key. I walk every day unless it rains, and it never rains. The days run together. Is it Wednesday or Thursday? This lack of clarity would have frightened the old me, but the new me feels liberated. The rules of society no longer matter, because even if such a thing as society exists, I do not belong to it.

Only the wildfires demonstrate the passing of time. They are my great, blazing clock. The scent of smoke grows stronger every day, and the sky has turned red, casting the cubes in a creamy yellow light.

I stroll up Midway toward a landmark, the urban farmhouse. This model differs from the other cubes by virtue of its slanted roof, almost like a real house, and the dormer windows projecting from the top floor. The urban farmhouse lacks a rooftop deck but compensates with a larger lawn, which the wife of the house converted into a garden of raised boxes. She waters tomatoes as I approach. What is her name? I think of her as Mrs. Organic Granola. She smiles and waves. A sweetheart.

I stop to chat. She promises to save me a cucumber when they ripen. The heat is sweltering, and I am grateful for a break. Sweat soaks my blouse. Together we observe the red sky.

Mrs. Organic Granola says it’s a shame about the fires. Shame about the heat. But what can one do? She read an article online about salmon. They are dying because the rivers are too warm. Newborn salmon can’t survive the heat. A generation is wiped out. If the heat continues, wild salmon will become extinct.

I can see that Mrs. Organic Granola cares about the salmon. This endears me to her. I admire anyone who cares so much for fish.

Mrs. Organic Granola’s only responsibilities are tending the garden and making jewelry, which she sells on Etsy. For my birthday, Henry bought me one of her necklaces—a nice piece, silver and turquoise. I would wear it still, only it reminds me of Henry. I wonder how many necklaces he bought for his other girls.

Mr. Organic Granola emerges from the urban farmhouse. His pale arms contrast with his black T-shirt, and he wears his hair in a bun. Mr. Organic Granola works for a technology company. He told me the name once, then paused, expecting my face to light up in recognition. I had never heard of it. I don’t pay attention to those things.

We stand by the summer squash and take a gander at the sky. We live in Mordor, only there is no Frodo to save us. Mr. Organic Granola tells me not to worry, technology will find a way. He describes a project he read about online. A particular seaweed grows in the tropics, and when scientists mixed it into livestock feed, it reduced the amount of methane burped by cows.

Mr. Organic Granola’s eyes grow wide. He gesticulates robotically. I wish I could spend a day inside his mind. I appreciate his enthusiasm, but privately I harbor doubts. Seaweed cannot save us. But what do I know? My AI wakes me unfailingly at 8 a.m. I don’t understand how to reset it.


Happy Hour

Afternoons are for drinking. What else can one do? I open my library book and attempt to read. It is hopeless. The book is terrible and, regardless, overdue. I toss it aside and go to the bookshelf. I touch the spine of The Plague by Albert Camus. I touch the spine of The End of Nature by Bill Mickibben. I will not read them. I notice something slender pressed between a book and the side of the shelf. A valentine from Henry.

I am the light of his life. He will love me forever.

I crush the card, crumble it into a ball. I believed I had rid myself of the last of his crap. Henry had many faults, and one of them was loving too much. He loved a colleague in the English department. He loved some twenty-year-old he met at the gym. He loved our friend who lived nearby on Shiloh in a nice square house with her husband, who was also quite nice. God only knows where they ended up.

Another of Henry’s faults was laziness. He never deleted messages off his iPhone. I broke into it one day and took screenshots. Then I called my sister and asked what to do. She told me to hire a lawyer. That’s how I got our big house all to myself.

I rush to the kitchen sink, turn on the faucet, shove the valentine into the garbage disposal and flip the switch. The disposal grinds satisfyingly for several seconds, then stops. Clogged. Now I have another reason to resent him. That bastard Henry broke my garbage disposal.

Dim light enters through the window. Evening comes early to Cube Town, thanks to the smoke.

I fix a vodka tonic.


Probably July

I take my morning constitutional beneath a sky orange as a Halloween pumpkin. A neighborhood down the valley evacuated—only briefly—as wildfires drew close. Tankers flew overhead, dropping water and retardant. Before long, everyone returned home. The close call has Cube Town on edge. Outwardly, we project calm. We repeat inane but reassuring affirmations.

The neighborhood has never burned before.

I try to take a different route every day, but I admit I often find my way to Chickamauga, where the doctor lives. His cube is quite ordinary, but on mornings he plays basketball alone in his driveway before work at the hospital. I call him Dr. Testosterone. He lays up the ball, reaching high for the basket, his muscled body shirtless and sweaty. I slow my pace. His glistening form transfixes me. He makes a jump shot. The ball swishes gracefully through the net. He pounces, catlike, and dribbles to the back of the lot to begin another approach. Dr. Testosterone lifts the ball again and shoots, attempting a three. It clanks against the rim, sinks awkwardly to the ground. Dr. Testosterone shouts profanities. Stomps. Flings his arms in frustration. More profanities. I’ve had plenty like him. This was before I sold myself to that weakling Henry. Jocks try harder because they’ve got so much to prove.


Heat of the Day

I fix a vodka tonic and settle on the couch to watch Netflix. I’m through with books. Any author with an ounce of talent is in Hollywood writing scripts. That’s where the money is.

I scroll through hundreds of entertainment options. Will I watch Jason Bateman launder drug money in a Missouri casino? No. Will I watch a costume drama on the sex lives of Victorian aristocrats? Possibly. Will I watch a Netflix Original Anime? I’d rather Master Benedict chew the fingers off my corpse.

Netflix is a mess of choices. You have to make up your mind. I miss the old days of TV, when you turned on the box and a broadcast simply appeared, and you squatted down on your knees in front of the set and watched, enraptured, as if the programming was a message from heaven.

Luckily for me, drama unfolds outside my window. Through the haze of smoke, a young man strolls down Normandy on his way to visit his little girlfriend. He is the son of the Pinochets but does not resemble them. Every day, either he visits his little girlfriend or she, him. They are even more consistent in their walks than myself. They are the Romeo and Juliet of Cube Town. They are our bright, shining angels, our promise of a better future. I wonder how far they’ve gone.

He rings the bell, and his little girlfriend greets him in the doorway, takes his hand, pulls him inside. Our neighborhood’s Dante ascends to the heavens, guided through paradise by his beloved Beatrice. I saunter to the kitchen for another vodka tonic.


The First Week of August

My morning’s wandering takes me past the Pinochets’ home. Mrs. Pinochet looms over the sidewalk, admiring her lawn. The city has forbidden watering because of the shortage. Most lawns have faded to a sickly pea-soup, and some are brown and others reduced to dust. Nevertheless, the Pinochets’ sprinklers switch on daily at 5 a.m. Their grass is deep green, verdant as the pines of the boreal forest.

I am unlucky. She spies me. Too late to duck across the street. I give her a big fake smile and compliment her lawn, how green it is. My lips are chapped, as are Mrs. Pinochet’s. The dry wind wicks moisture. I taste my lip’s bleeding. I am arid, a husk. Smoke gathers thick like fog. The laws of up and down have reversed, and we humans walk amongst the clouds. Cosmology has flipped as well. Rather than a heaven in the sky, we discover ourselves in hell.

Down the street, Mr. and Mrs. Organic Granola stack luggage into their ProMaster van. Mr. Organic Granola renovated it all summer, adding bunks and an oven, transforming the vehicle into living space, a Cube House on wheels. Mrs. Organic Granola leads their dog, a great Dane, by the leash through the rear doors.

“What in God’s name do they think they’re doing?” asks Mrs. Pinochet. The question is an accusation.

“Leaving,” I say plainly.

“Where in God’s name will they go?” Another accusation. “Such queer folk.”

Mrs. Pinochet heaves a mighty sigh and tells me her theory on water shortages. It is all the fault of immigrants. So many thousands of them, swarming across borders, taking showers, drinking from fountains, filling swimming pools. Mrs. Pinochet insists that if all the immigrants returned to Mexico, water would be plentiful, and our American lawns would once again be green. I am disappointed but hardly surprised.

I change the subject, inquire about her precious Dante.

Her voice hardens. Teenagers are nothing but trouble. They think they rule the roost. He and his father do not speak at all except to quarrel. Dante asked to quit the football team. Imagine that! He wishes to go away to theater camp.

“Have you ever heard such foolishness?” Mrs. Pinochet says through scabby lips. “Playing dress up and prancing around onstage like some homo?”

Up the street, Mr. Organic Granola takes the wheel. The ProMaster roars to life. As the van passes us, he honks the horn, and the couple smiles and waves goodbye. They are excited to leave. Excited to set off on some adventure. But they will be back. Even the best vacations end. Sooner or later, they will return to Cube Town and the rest of us bastards. Unless the wildfire comes. I suppose if the urban farmhouse burns, they will be free.

Were I them, I would pray for fire.


Another Day

I listen to NPR and fix a vodka tonic. Lakshmi Singh gives me the lowdown on the wildfires. The smoke outside my house, she warns, is hazardous. A carcinogen. The neighborhoods in the valley have evacuated again. The fires burn closer. The Forest Service does not predict success until rains come, but rain is not in the forecast. I sip my vodka tonic. If the evacuation order comes tonight, how will I drive? Lakshmi is indifferent to my plight.

With practiced dispassion, she informs me that the coronavirus spreads unchecked. The grocery store requires masks again. People call it a pandemic of the unvaccinated. I bristle at the moniker. I have not taken the vaccine. Not for any conspiracy nonsense—I simply do not wish to leave Cube Town. Master Benedict rubs his soft body against my ankles. Did I feed him? I take cold cuts from the fridge and drop them into his bowl, just in case.

The doorbell rings, but when I peer through the peephole, I spy no one. It’s those damn children again. The ones who live on Nagasaki. Punching my doorbell and running. If I ever get my hands on those brats, they will wish they’d died of coronavirus.

I open the door, hoping to catch a glimpse of their fleeing forms. The scent of burning wood wafts in from the yellow-tinted world. A package lies atop the steps. Of course! The package! I drag it into the house and lock the door. Rip open the cardboard. Two fresh bottles of vodka. I clutch them to my chest.

For the first time in weeks, I feel safe.

Lakshmi drones on about evacuations. She loves it best when news is grim. The virus means I should stay in my house, safe in the air-conditioned cool with my pal Master Benedict. The wildfires mean I must leave. My head hurts from thinking. I am dizzy and brace my hand against a wall. Stay or go? I sink to the floor. Master Benedict pounces. Lakshmi moves on to another story. It is so easy for her.

I wail: what is it you want me to do?


A Fun Party

The neighborhood gathers for the Pinochet’s annual rooftop cook-out. The gala is lightly attended on account of the many families that have evacuated. The paltry turnout wounds Mr. Pinochet, who is running for reelection. He makes a joke of it while stacking meat on the grill. He tells an older couple that the younger generation has no balls. That’s why the nation has fallen so far behind in manufacturing—young people are afraid of hard work. The older couple own an impressive cube on the corner of Fallujah and Khe Sanh.

The flames of the grill mirror the red sky, of which the rooftop provides an impressive view. Even through the smoke I make out the nearby hills, forested, the dry trees lined up like rows of matchsticks. Dante and Beatrice lean over the railing. They sip wholesome nonalcoholic beverages. When they think no one is looking, they slip through the door leading downstairs.

Mr. Pinochet asks how we want our steak, not that it matters—everything turns out black. I work my knife like a saw through dry meat. The flesh tastes like the air—ash and smoke. My mouth fails to moisten as I chew.

Shouting from down below. In the driveway, Dr. Testosterone entertains the children with a game of basketball. Mostly he dunks on them. He plays shirtless, and his tan has grown deep and red. A child cradles the ball as she steps toward the basket. Penalty! shouts Dr. Phallus. Can’t you dribble? The child takes another hesitant step. Penalty! Dr. Phallus snatches the ball from her. She collapses to the ground. Cries. Now all the children cry. It is too hot for basketball.

The elderly gentleman remarks on the weather. It never got so hot when he was a boy. Mrs. Pinochet nods eagerly. It is all the fault of the Chinese, she explains. Upward of a billion of them and more born each day, all of them burning their weight in coal, fouling the clean air with their Chinese smoke. That’s the story of global warming—the Chinese and their coal. The gentleman scratches his neck. Surely, he says, it can’t be all the fault of the Chinese. Mr. Pinochet interjects. He and his caucus attended a lecture by a learned expert who assured them China was indeed to blame. The only remedy is tariffs.

A siren wails. All of us gather at the edge of the deck. A truck from the emergency department drives up Wounded Knee with yellow lights flashing. A message blares from a loudspeaker, but it is garbled. Nothing but screeches and groans.

“What do the bastards want now?” Mr. Pinochet wants to know.

“Is it the fire?” asks a worried voice.

“Foolishness,” says Mr. Pinochet.

An electronic squeal assaults our ears. The terrible noise originates from our phones. We rifle through pockets and purses. All of us receive the same emergency alert. Mr. Pinochet taps angrily at his screen.

“Damn thing is broken,” he says. “What does it mean?”

Amid the din, a door opens softly behind us. Dante and Beatrice emerge. Cheeks flushed pink. Hair noticeably tousled. They hold aloft their phones. These bright young angels provide the answers we lack.

The fires are here. Dante and Beatrice are calm, and patient, and kind. The time has come for us to leave.

My eyes blur.

I squint through tears.

The sky is the color of blood.

Dante places a reassuring hand on Mr. Pinochet’s bony shoulder.

Father, he says.

Mr. Pinochet flinches from the touch.

Please, Father, let us go.


Alex Miller is the author of the novel White People on Vacation (Malarkey Books, 2022). His fiction has appeared in Pidgeonholes, Maudlin House and MoonPark Review. He lives in Denver.

The author: Debra Marquart