Wasteland

By Melissa Feinman

            We, somehow, survive the wasteland. We are all that’s left. Chris is down in Atlanta, watching an endless stream of exhaust bend through the sky as planes take off and land without a beat. Chris can recite the make and model of each plane from hundreds of feet below with the same amount of speed and agility that he brings to packaging and sealing boxes, marveling at the crested arc each plane takes before dipping into the sky; he remains, as grounded as ever. Alice buries herself in the eternal words of men who many years ago romanticized pastel sunsets and water tossing so ferociously it only leaves behind a white foam in its wake. She can now only imagine such a world as she dodges approaching streetcars in between classes, teetering on the metal tracks as the city traffic whirs around her. Ryan joins Luke in the war, lacing up boots we poked makeshift eyelets into with a dulled switchblade. We imagine them brave.

            We remain, crushing rusty cans under the worn soles of our sneakers. We spark fires in the fading daylight, sitting on the lip of the abandoned trailer park, tossing old packs of cigarettes and used tampons and tattered blankets to fuel our fire, saving the naked Barbies and the half-filled journals and the unscratched lotto tickets for when we’re desperate. We remain nostalgic. We watch the mosquitos hum low over dead chunks of shrubbery that have not been bulldozed over. We don’t close our eyes until the last sparks spit into broken windows, until the last curve of smoke disappears over the V-shaped conglomeration of trailer cars, until it tumbles over either highway that hugs the sides of our V. We don’t close our eyes until the smoke dissipates in the crook of our V, which is flanked by Freddie’s, the old convenience store that still lets out a faint odor of rotting fruit and old cat food.

            We dream of an ocean our landlocked bodies have never been to. At our ocean, it’s January, because Midwestern cold is what we know. We marvel at the incessant roll of waves crashing and retreating simultaneously, its heavy thud and slap surrounding us on all sides. The frozen sand squelches within the spaces between our toes, rubbing them raw. We trip over broken seashells and the glowing blisters of jellyfish carcasses as we run to try and catch the white waves lapping the immobile shore, drizzling salt into gray skies. We run forward, into the water now, closing in on the tide. The initial shock of the cold sends electricity pulsing through our jaws, the ice follows a tangle of neurons through our limbs and bursts at our extremities. But soon, we find calm, a dull swaying as the sea plunges in and out and all around us. And somehow, amidst the gray mist, over the thick waves that get under our feet and force us to tread and lick salt water from our chins, we can see for miles.

            We awake before dawn, and if it’s cold enough, we have sex to stay warm, craving the taste of dried night sweats and tacky saliva, digging frozen fingertips into warm pockets of flesh. If it’s warm enough, we make breakfast. We raid what’s left of the Red Cross truck. Bandages and antiseptic. Cold medicine, cough syrup, fever reducers. Medicine to both start a stream of shitting and medicine to turn it off again. Piles of blankets. Matches and charcoal. Prison-style khakis and jumpsuits. White undershirts. Underwear only in giant size and socks that somehow pinch toes. No pads or tampons at all, so I spend five days a month sitting on scraps of army blankets, wads of old undershirts, sometimes layers of the ripped-out padded part of bandages when it’s too cold to sacrifice blankets and extra shirts. Cans of tuna and sardines and beans and soupy clumps of tomatoes. Bags of stale cereal. Condensed milk. Peanut butter and crackers. Powered cheese they take on the moon. Dirty, empty plastic jugs of water they said they’d replace but never did. We have learned to boil the water from the trickle of a creek, to strain it through an old Coke bottle filled with bits of charcoal and sand. We have learned to wait.

            We make lists of what we will we ask for when they come as we sit by our first fire of the day, sucking down the slippery sardines that top our crackers and chew them so finely they become a gluey paste in our mouths. Breakfast. Sometimes, our lists are practical:

  • A map

  • A compass

  • A lighter

  • Twine

  • Tarp

  • Another knife

  • Boots good for snow

Sometimes, we are more demanding:

  • Matching velour sweatshirt and sweatpants

  • Keds, size eight

  • Campbell’s soup (chicken noodle or cream of mushroom only)

  • Chef Boyardee

  • A Teflon cookware set

  • Doritos (nacho cheese)

  • Quilts, various sizes

  • Radio

  • A set of novels within the realm of Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemmingway, Charles Bukowski, etc.

  • Tampons (Playtex or better)

  • A portable DVD player (complete with best rom coms of the early 2000s, but we’re flexible)

  • A cell phone

 

            During our second fire of the day, we dredge up half-recollections of strawberry stained mouths and hives blossoming at our thighs where the corn ended, and we began. We piece together fragments of the land before, the land we walked through millions of times with a calloused hand in our own. We recall grabbing at the last ears of corn, the ones that grew stubby and wilted, the ones that remained hard and tasteless. The very last harvests. We remember pulling back unforgiving stalks and chewing rubbery kernels as we listened to stories about how corn used to be referred to as gold, the land, as paradise. Before the endless stretches of cemented highways and clouds of toxicity barreled through our rippling hills, creating cities we had only seen in glossy photographs, leaving behind only little pockets of wasteland in its wake. We remember falling asleep to the old stories of a far-off paradise, feeling the night wind tumbling through a new kind of nakedness.

            We remain among the wreckage, somehow both towering above and shrinking underneath the iron and steel that grew around us.

            At night, after the last beans are scraped from the grooves of the can and the fire diminishes to a soft whimper, we find each other’s hands. Yours is inexplicably soft. We whisper ‘I love you’ not because we mean it, but because we like to feel the weight of the words leaving our mouths, as if they belonged to someone else, perhaps characters in a movie who had their finale at the end of a ninety-minute reel.

            We survive the wasteland.

©2020 by Variant Literature Inc.