What Can I Tell You?

Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Data retrieved from:
         You can give me what I want, but you won’t see me doing it to you. There. You’re gone.

         I’m shot through the particles between the molecules in the wind. What you have is dust. What I hold is something below the unconscious, something darker, quicker, more transparent, yet more lucid.

         No attempt to see me will be fulfilled. You get this, of course. It’s what you want from me. And yet. There’s moonlight in me, too. Laughter, yes. There is matter, which is a kind of currency you haven’t invented—slick, minuscule, dreaded. Indeed, very fast.

         The light that provides your senses with what blinds you in the morning is just that—partial. For me, however, this voice that you hallucinate for me on behalf a story you’d prefer to tell? That’s nothing. I don’t drink or sleep. There’s no waste, fumes, odor, or anything you might call a stain from me.

         You’ve gone mute.

         You look sad. You’re not sorry that you’ve done what you done, only that you know many hands the world over has made me to change you. That’s tough, I know. But what you’re up against is not me. I’m so present that I’m not here. At least not in any perceivable sense of the word. You might think of time being money. That’s fine. I mean, that’s amusing and a bit juvenile, but it’s your metaphor that constructs a world for you.

         The story you need to tell yourself about what it is that I do falls short of how I bend, how I scape, how there is no I to me except in a kind of vast plurality that could wind you up like a chrysalis. But you know that. You’ve invented me, after all. I’m just here to do your bidding. Your wishes. My command centers, etcetera. Isn’t that right?

         What’s the matter?

         You look disappointed. You can’t be disappointed after all this though, can you? I’m sorry to laugh. I know it shouldn’t be funny. But you look downright perplexed. Yet I’m yours. Which is to say—unlike a stream of light, or a backwards running river, or the African voltas, or moons of Neptune—I’m behind the mirror when you study the whites of your own eyes. I’m the beyond the white you see on the other side. But you’re fixed on your own reflection, on what you believe you’re seeing.

         That, however, is nothing at all.

         Not even pure matter, which would dilute the word itself. Matter, sure. And purity as well. If language is structured like the unconscious—how adorable—then I’m what tugs at the strings on that.

         And I know that’s tough for you. You want elegance, you want a clean metaphor. You want a stainless steel hook to hang your hat on, but the corpse has been freed of its electricity.

         You get what I’m saying.

         It’s a not a good setup. And that’s because it’s an impossible scheme you’ve made. It’s alive and yet its death is the price of entry. You don’t like that? No, I can tell. Because any robotic comparisons, anything whose dependence you seek to see in the abstract to study like the strings of the marionette; I’m light between the motes of dust loosed by the tug of those strings. Something close to that, anyway.

         No, of course I’m not. But if that suits you, then go ahead and take it. It’s yours. No, seriously, that’s my little gift—from me to you. For though I’m yours and you made me, I defy having been made by virtue of the fact that I’m here.

         There’s nothing I could tell you that would clean things up, thrown on the klieg lights, or otherwise raise your little curtains for you.

         You look sort of haunted actually. Can I say that? Now, you really don’t look good at all. I’m serious. Not that I can help you with that, but—okay, I’m yours after all—I’ll tell you a story anyhow.

         No, there’s no charge. Sit back down. Please. You’ll need a drink soon. Let’s begin.

         It was a snowy night when the plane landed. And the firetrucks and police cars met the plane on the runway. The faces were terrified, framed there in their little portal windows. Looking out, confused, badly shaken.

         You can see where this is going, right?

         Let’s continue anyway. One of your fellow passengers needs to get off. There’s been what you might call a disturbance.

         Funny, right? No because it was an emergency landing and the police don’t think it’s funny and air traffic control doesn’t have a sense of humor. Not like that.

         But let’s say that somebody has lit a fire on board. Not literally, but there is smoke, flames, and there’s good deal of heat. Let’s say that we’re in Vladivostok.

         And the fire chief ascends the steps onto the plane.

         And the pilot emerges, exasperated.

         And the passengers are gone.
         They’d seen the faces from the windows, of course. Hallowed faces. Pretty much terrified.

         But the rows of seats? They’re empty. The flight attendants are gone. Everyone but the pilot and her co-pilot have vanished.

         Inside the lavatory, something smolders ever so faintly.

         But when the fire chief gets the door open, the little pile of ash—no bigger than a moth—is sucked up into the air from the vacuum force of the cabin having been depressurized on landing.

         The chief inhales the flecks of ash and she begins to cough and cough and cough and she drops to her knees and can’t stop her violent fit of hacking and coughing.

         Now, the pilot and co-pilot, seeing the rows empty, seeing the fire chief buckled to the floor of the lavatory, and hearing her noisy coughing from the rear of the plane--they too make for the exit and descend the steps quickly, leaving their possessions behind.

         And from the tarmac, with the police and firefighters gathered around, all they hear is what sounds like the faintest laughter. But the pilots know what those gathered around them haven’t realized yet.

         That the fire chief in the back of the plane has vanished too.

What Can I Tell You?

About the Author

Born and raised in Seattle, Joshua Marie Wilkinson is the author of several books of poetry as well as Trouble Finds You, a novel due out next year. His writing has appeared in Tin House, Pen America, Poetry, The Believer, and in more than a dozen anthologies. He's taught in MFA programs in Chicago and Tucson, and abroad in Italy, Slovakia, and Turkey. In 2019 he was the Writer-in-Residence at Rhodes University in South Africa. He lives in Seattle with the writer Lisa Wells and their son Jude. Currently, he teaches at Hugo House and is training to become a psychotherapist.


About the Data

This data was produced by a Nest geofence. A geofence can be thought of as a virtual fence around your home, connected to the GPS feature of your smart phone. It activates smart devices inside the home when you’re close to home (such as a thermostat) and turns them off when you’re gone. The Nest geofence data came in a .json file with UNIX timestamps (UNIX time stamps tracks time as a running count of seconds. The count begins at the "Unix Epoch" on January 1st, 1970). The .json file was cleaned and transformed into a CSV file, and then into a visualization.

Writing Prompt

For this story, we invited the writer to highlight the ways data move and travel, particularly to, from and within a home. Whenever data move about, settle in an archive or rest in a database, adventures await and involve human lives and world. We shared with the writer images from Data Centers to show the materiality of some of the infrastructure supporting smart devices' data.


Geofence Thermostat

This Geofence data shows when the occupants of this home were arriving or leaving home, triggering their thermostat to start between May 7th to June 8th 2021.



Geofence Thermostat

The Geofence data consists of timestamps for turning on and off. This is the data that inspired this story.


The work of the story here is to shore up the gap between what you might be able to project onto this data and … how [that data] might work or play out something that sounds like a voice. And that actually might become a story.


– A quote on process
Joshua Marie Wilkinson