We’re just getting off the ground again here on Word Salad, first with the seven-part short fiction series “Submerged.” If you’re interested in other works, check out another series “Memoir Insert Grandiose Subtitle Here”. This two-part story focuses on the drama of the Snyder family, all precocious writers with different agendas and ideas about storytelling. This might be the first look into their family drama, as I plan to write more using these characters.
Check out this excerpt:
A few days ago, my brother threw a vintage typewriter from the second floor window of the public library. The window a circular feat of glass-engineering, stained green and bubbled-out like a submarine porthole. The typewriter an indulgent gift from our parents, a rusted antique that had been meant as a decoration. My brother, however, could not be convinced not to loudly pound on the stuck keys.
You can also find a short story called “Bait for the Dammed” at Vergelive.com, where I published a short story a few months ago. Check out last June’s issue.
Lastly, I’m leaving until the end of May, which means Word Salad might look pretty dead for the next two and a half weeks. I, however, will be busy studying in Cuba. I’ll write extensively about that trip upon my return. I’ll be taking the trip with ten other International Scholars from the College of Charleston and spending most of my days in Havana. Look forward to hearing about adventures, though I won’t be updating as I go (limited access to the internet).
Until June, readers, have a wonderful summer.
General Bates let us sleep in a tent with Jaime, though we used our own blankets. The summer air clung so fiercely to our skin, though, I could not keep covered. Instead, I lay shirtless against the ground, studying the seams along the interior of our shelter.
“You’re angry, aren’t you?”
“Maybe. Just disappointed. I just– what are we going to do?”
Ethan shuffled. “We can give them the seeds, the medicine. Some of it. We don’t need it, and then we can go back to our island. We can just–”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“About what?” He breathed heavy beside me, and in my side-vision, his chest rose and fell rapidly.
“About needing to register. What were you running away from?”
“I– if I were living like that, where they accounted for everything you did? You don’t know how nice you have it out there in the marsh. You’ve never lived in a city, not like they’re like now. We’re all rats, scrambling on top of each other for some sunlight. And men patrol the streets and beat you if you say anything to them. That’s what passes as police.”
“That’s why you left?”
“I left because I had heard about something else, something simple. I thought maybe if I stole that boat, rowed out to sea, I’d find something better. And I did.”
I resettled against the ground, soothed by the crescendos and decrescendos of Jaime’s snoring. “There have never been simpler times. Never civilized either. It’s always been difficult: existence. Whether you’re stuffed in a polluted city, mired in poverty, or stuck out on an island, rooting through the ground for a vegetable to eat, something to kill and clean. No life is simple, and it never has been that way.”
When morning came, I tracked down General Bates and showed him half of our supplies. If Jaime might return us to our island, I told him, he could have our supplies. Some of the stronger medicines and the seeds too. Hemp seeds and corn, though I kept the majority of the rice seeds– I could plant rise in the marsh, harvest every year. I kept a lot of the allergy medicine as well and a pocketful of pain-killers. The general took the rest gleefully, shuffling from the tent to wake up Jaime.
Jaime waddled crankily from his tent. “You want me back on the road again?”
“Sure, sure. Take these two back where you found them. Or wherever they might want to go.”
“Do you have a boat?” I asked. “We could also really use a boat.”
The general shook his head. “We need all of our boats. Now, get out of here before I take the rest of the stuff you hid from me.”
Once loaded back into Jaime’s truck, we sped down the road, crisscrossing through empty highways and abandoned interstates. He allowed me this time to sit in the cab, leaning against the window, my forehead pressed flat.
“Still torn up, thinking you was going to be a rich man?”
I ground my teeth, watching the pine trees as they vanished behind us, the truck picking up speed. “Rich? No, maybe not. Maybe so. Not so sure I ever believed that plan could have worked– I should realize the world has changed. It also changes, even when you’re not a part of it, and it keeps churning on. All that time away, you don’t realize what happens, what happens to everybody else, the whole world. Places disappear, and people do too. Entire societies collapse, and new ones rise. Back when I was a boy, we never thought we’d live like this, constantly at war. Sometimes, it’s not just land that gets submerged, but the past and your perception of the present. If you think you know what’s going on, pretty soon the water’s up to your neck, and you don’t know anything anymore.”
He nodded along politely.
As the hours passed, I scanned the trees for our boat, a way to get us home. I prayed to encounter none of the soldiers Jaime described, a barricade along the highway. Looking back through the window, I could see Ethan wiggling his head in the wind– only the second time he’d ridden in an automobile, so he told me. And then I kept watching the road, dreaming of my island and my home and my marsh and that little boat, about paddling back out to Charleston and exploring the city lost. I didn’t belong in the land of the living, but instead at the bottom of the sea, in that city of ghosts.
The truck woke me, its trembling motor roaring in my sleep. Again, the underwater dreams, those lucid moments beneath the surface of consciousness, drowning in the ceaseless churn of a storm. Then I could make out above the hollow crash of waves a burping, mechanical clatter that unglued me from sleep and sent me bolting upright, staring into white-bright headlights.
“What the hell’s goin’ on here? Why you sleeping by the road?” A man stared back at us, his lips puckered at a peculiar angle and his eyebrow cocked. His skin was black as the soil, his clothes tattered. He stood beside a shuddering, rusted truck.
I clawed my throat for words, but none came. Ethan spoke: “Is that a truck? You driving a truck?”
The man reached into his cab, turning off the motor and flipping off his headlights, leaving us into the dim illumination of early morning. “It’s my truck. Personal business. None of your concern. Who y’all fighting for? Soldiers?”
Clearing my throat, I stood up, pushing the blankets off of me and limping toward him. He was a massive man, though old, wearing a broad plaid shirt and jeans caked with mud. “We’re– we’re headed to Atlanta.”
“Alright, so what? You’re gonna walk there? Where are y’all from?”
“We live not so far away. On an island.”
He nodded. “How long?”
I looked to Ethan. “I’ve been there, well, about eight years now.”
“Then you don’t know– it’s illegal to live out here now. Radiation zone, they’re calling it.”
“I– I haven’t seen any radiation.”
“You can’t see radiation.”
“But I never felt it or nothing. I mean, there are fish. Birds and snakes.”
The man snorted. “Best not tell them that, they’ll come root you out of your island. It’s been illegal for more than three years ago.”
Slowly, the gears of mathematics churned in my brain: how long had Ethan lived with me?
“You never told me that,” I said, turning to him.
He shrugged. “What do you think I was running away from? They wanted to register everyone, otherwise you’re not considered a citizen, don’t got no rights.”
I thought about this for a moment. “You said there was some sort of soldiers?”
“Couple, running around these parts.” He shrugged. “The Continental Army, sweeping through pretty often.”
“Another rebellion going on?”
He nodded. “I’m running guns to an encampment fifty miles up the coast. Stole some canisters of gas, so we have a few trucks making trips through roads where the army left alone.”
“We need a ride, if you can spare it.”
He gestured to the bed of his truck, where a pile of black guns lay. “You can ride back there. Got any way to repay me?” I rifled through the bag and tossed him a bottle of Oxycodone. He checked the label, then watched me, startled. “This stuff real?”
“Pretty real. Can we get a ride?” He nodded to his truck, and we gathered our blankets, stuffing them into a bag and hopping aboard.
Five hours we bounced against his back windshield, metal guns sliding across the bed beneath us. Guns made me nervous, though the smugglers carried guns for protection; men would kill each other with these weapons, to claim sovereignty over land that was being slowly covered by the ocean. Their military encampment looked like a small village of pop-up campers and trailers shipwrecked on concrete blocks. The man driving us, his name Jaime, stepped out of the truck and approached a tent big enough for a circus show. A moment later, a stocky man with iron-gray buzzed hair stepped out, wearing shredded Army greens and old combat boots.
“You the stragglers he found on the road?”
“We’re on the way to Atlanta,” I explained.
“You don’t want to be traveling the roads. There’s a war going on.”
“But there’s always a war going on. Isn’t there someone to buy what we have to sell?”
“Sell? With what? What do you want? Food? Guns?”
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling incredibly naked in front of the men filing out of the tank. “Money.”
“What’s the use of money? Jaime says you live in a swamp.”
“‘Spose that’s true.”
“You live in a swamp, and you don’t know what’s happening.”
“It doesn’t matter, damn it. I just– I just–”
Another man spoke up. “He said you gave him medicine. What do you have?”
“I– I don’t have anything. Nothing I can give away for free, I mean.”
The Army guy grinned, knuckling the toe of his boot into the dirt. “You can’t just come into a rebel camp, say you got medicine, and not share it. Why would you want to go to Atlanta? That’s dangerous.”
“I have things to sell– more medicine. We’ve been living on an island, but we wanted– we thought–”
“No one to sell it to.” He paused. “I’m Bates, by the way. General Bates, if it please you. Commanding officer of this outfit for the Free States.”
I began to grow frustrated. I didn’t care about their petty rebellions and lurches for power, their killing and bombing and gassing. Once I sold the seeds and medicine, I could buy a new boat, return to my island. Get as far away from this disaster as possible.
“Alright, General Bates. Just point us in the right direction; we’ll be on our way.” I began to back away from the truck, eyeing Ethan, clutching the duffel bag tight to my chest. “Which way to Atlanta?”
“Told you, you don’t want to go near Atlanta, less you want to die. Whole place is devastated. That’s why we moved out to the coast, the Continental’s have closed in on us. And Atlanta– that was blown apart a year ago. Nothing left but radiation and a black hole in the ground.”
My grip on the bag loosened as his words sunk in– the war. Because of the war, there would be no one to shell out millions for seeds. We wouldn’t sell a thing, and everything we’d hoped for had been destroyed by a nuclear bomb twelve months before we began searching.
Corn. Rice. Apple. Hemp. Soybeans.
The seeds from some of America’s greatest agricultural movements, sitting on the shelf next to my bed. When I awoke from hallucinatory nightmares, in which I tumbled endlessly beneath the sea’s surface, I fumbled with the bottles, but didn’t screw open the cap tops. Instead, I shook the seeds inside and prayed these would be my salvation. But if the smugglers had crashed their ship near Charleston, then there would be no one to buy the seeds.
When the storm died three days later, we assessed the damage: half the containers we’d set out to catch water had been tipped over or blown into the marsh. Ethan waded into the muck to collect empty tin cans and plastic pitchers that were now full of mud. We poured the containers into ten-gallon jugs we had collected months ago, from where we could draw water for cooking, drinking, and on occasion, bathing.
In the aftermath of rain, mosquitoes clung to my legs until I walked pocked with red all over, sores itching with needling wrath. The heat swamped my lungs, and even as I breathed, I felt as if gulping mouthfuls of salty water. Still the dreams haunted me, even while awake, of drowning, of drowning in that city of ghosts.
We lugged the battered dinghy from the shore and cleaned its hull before paddling with haste back into the Charleston bay. “Down here, this is where you found the ship?” I could see already its bulking black shadow as I zipped up my wetsuit; Ethan would not go diving again, if he couldn’t keep tied to the boat. “Keep watch of that winch. We don’t want a repeat of the other day.”
When I dove, I sank quickly toward the shipping vessel. Nearing the end of the month, the smugglers docked in the marsh and leapt onto our isles. We haggled near the shore over copper wires, glass Coke bottles, unopened cans of green beans, steel plumbing pipes, and other valuables. We didn’t want money, only supplies: tools, fresh food, fresh water, and medicine. This was what I dove after: medicine. They kept bottles of pills in a cabinet inside the captain’s cabin.
Their ship’s three masts rested against the concrete wall, the middle and highest splintered into shards that now floated around me, spears of wood threatening impalement. Fifty feet long, the boat laid on its side, probably smashed against the jutting portion of the wall when the terrible storm came. I hovered above the wreckage, trying to remember the layout of rooms, of compartments. A few foam safety rings rested suspended above the ships’ deck, still bound to iron rungs in the wood. Snaking through the grappling ropes, I found the lower deck, where a door lead to the main cabin.
Once I reached for the door, I tugged and found it locked– or at least sealed closed by the immense underwater pressure. Crash. I elbowed the window, slivers of glass rising peacefully past my face like throwing knives sailing at me in slow-motion. A great surge pulled me against the window, my body smashing the window frame apart as I tumbled into the cabin, sea water crashing in after me. I fumbled with my oxygen mask, breathing deeply as water filled the cabin to the top, and then I drifted confused among the wreckage.
The medicine cabinet. I tore it open, and orange pill bottles spilled out. Aspirin and stronger opiate painkillers. Suppositories in a massive mason jar. Sleep-aids. Ritalin and other forms of speed. Allergy medicine. Locked in a metal box, I found sealed capsules of even more powerful medicines– surgical opiates and anti-psychotics. A few unmarked vials and a clean, sealed syringe.
When I reached the surface, lugging my cloth bag of medicines, I tossed them aboard the boat. “Don’t open any. We can sell these.”
“You sure we can’t use them?”
“Use them? What, you have allergies? Or do you just want to pass out from drugs? Look, help me up.” He hefted me from the water, and I collapsed on the floor, shaking off water and breathing heavily. “If we can find someone to buy these– and the seeds? We’ll be set for life. We can buy our own boat, a huge cruise ship if we want. Or we can hike out into the mountains, purchase a mansion on a hill. We won’t have to live on a forsaken island in a swamp.”
Ethan nodded slowly. “But– but– right, maybe you’re right.” He smiled, but grimaced at the same time. “Sure, we’ll be rich. But if the smugglers were at the bottom of the sea, who do we take these things to? Who would buy them?”
“Who would buy seeds?” I considered this. “The farmers in the cities might. They plant engineered crops, things invented in laboratories, but how long as it been since– since someone saw real seeds? Actual seeds?”
Ethan shrugged. “We have to travel to the city, then. Atlanta? It’s close enough.” I nodded frantically, and then we embraced. I gathered the medicines and puts them in a cooler we strapped to the back of our boat. We would be rich, I knew it: we would survive.
After two hours, Ethan collapsed against the side of the boat, dropping his oar over his lap. “I can’t– just keep going. Where are we? Do you know?”
I glanced left and right, peering through the thick trees surrounding the marsh. “I don’t know. I’m just trying to find– some land or something.”
Once we realized we had almost destroyed Earth, the federal government passed stringent laws to drastically lower carbon emissions. Personal vehicles were outlawed, though no one could afford the gasoline to run them. Most of the country’s population traveled via magnetized railways, zipping east and west across the continent, but no rails reached south along the east coast, unless you traveled deep into Georgia. Near Atlanta.
“We just have to– have to find a highway. It’s say on this map– here–” I unfolded the map and tried to flatten it against the boat’s dashboard, and the breeze ruffled it from beneath. “Come, here. There’s a– if we can find this highway seventeen, we can–” A gust of wind bloomed beneath the map and levitated it above our heads, then the map crumpled into a ball and splashed into the swamp. “Well, what are we supposed to do now?”
We floated aimlessly for another hour, before pulling the boat ashore. Our feet sank up to our ankles in rich, black soil, but I kicked it against a tree trunk as he laid the boat to rest. We hiked through the muck, pushing vines from our path, when we stumbled across the black asphalt. “We start here, try to find someone with a mode of transportation. Use the seeds to pay people, or the medicine.” We carried our bounty in a duffel bag with our clothes. Night fell, and I laid out thin blankets I’d taken from our house. Then we fell asleep underneath the stars, the sky’s muggy breath pressing against our cold necks.
I clawed through the water, sinking only ten feet beneath the surface before crawling back up from air. Gasp. A wave sprayed my face with stinging flecks of water. “Ethan!” No sign of a head bobbing above the surface, only a black expanse constantly displaced. “Ethan, where are you?” But he couldn’t hear me, even if he swam twenty feet away, because the wind howled, the waves crashed against each other like war chariots, and my mouth filled again and again with salty water. “Ethan!”
Turning my head, thrashing through the water, I searched for anything. A sign. Where was the boat? I spotted it rising on the crest of a wave that had pushed it three hundred feet in the opposite direction. I furiously swam for the boat, wind-milling my arms, pushing through the black though the tide sucked me away from underneath. Another wave washed over my head, and I spun, clutching for something, anything. Climbing for air, reaching for the thin, drizzling light. But I couldn’t find the surface, I felt so disoriented, like someone had hung by upside down by my toes and beat me like a piñata.
A hand clasped around mine.
The city rose up to swallow me, and through the ruins under the sea, I could imagine the city as it once had been. There, that strip had been an old market, where tourists bustled past each other to buy straw-woven baskets. A great grass square I passed on my days off, before a saw sliced off my hand. Young people, still delusional with visions of grandeur, rested without anxiety beneath the warm sun, rocking in hammocks, or sunbathing on beach towels.
There– there had been some sort of old prison there, a dark creepy place they said was haunted. Always stories about haunting, though in a way the city had become just another ghost story.
Floating high above, I could see everything. The whole history splayed out, the myths of a thousand ghosts floating in an underwater dream. The green glare of the past pulsated to the surface, the houses rebuilding themselves, then crumbling. In my dream, I could see the birth and death of a city, and it seemed now, like the life of any person, nothing significant.
He slapped my face with the back of his hand, then pressed his clammy hands to my throat. Still, I spewed water as I lay on my side, the sea escaping from my strained lungs. “You’re alive. I thought you might be dead.”
I opened my eyes, staring at the side of our boat, as Ethan leaned over me, checking my vitals like I had taught him. “Where were you? You– the rope.”
“I’m right here now. I’m fine. I’m fine. You cranked the winch too fast, and the rope caught on a rusty nail down there, snapped the rope clean in two. Took me long enough to find the boat. Then there you were floating face-down in the ocean, I thought you were dead. You were dead, nearly.”
“But I’m not. Where are we?”
“We’ll need to paddle back to the island.” Ethan stood, shaking the salt water from his pants legs. The boat had flooded, and as Ethan rowed us in the right direction, I found a bucket to toss the water from our interior, though the rain made it impossible to keep dry. The rain died down by the time we reached our island, bumping against the marshy silt and hopping onto the shallow green platform surrounding our house.
“I need to show you something,” Ethan said, covering his eyes with one hand as he scanned the waves. “No one’s around. The smugglers– I don’t think they’re coming back.”
“What do you mean? How would you know?”
“I saw them. I mean, I saw their ship. They must have tried sailing into Charleston, but they crashed against the wall. Their whole vessel lies at the base of that wall.” He reached into his cloth bag and dumped a pile of gold jewelry on the table, chain necklaces and sparkling engagement rings. Then a rusted can of what must have been petroleum.
“Holy– you took it all?”
“Not all of it. There was a lot. They lost everything down there, at the bottom of the sea. But I found something even more important.” He reached into his pocket and removed orange medicine capsules, the kind they used to give out at pharmacies before people learned to print their medication for cheap at home. “That’s no Advil in there. Those are seeds.”
I picked up the capsule and studied it warily, reading a sticker label that had been hastily written on: Corn.
When it began raining, we brought buckets, pots, Tupperware, flower vases, trash bins, and plastic cups outside. Anything that could catch water, we hauled outside. Then as the sky puked its guts like a binge-drinking frat boy during finals, we paddled off in our rickety dinghy. Work to do, beneath the shifting sea.
Irregular, to purchase fresh water in this part of the country, most of the land underneath the ocean, but rain came every few weeks; we collected every last drop. Ethan struck his paddle into the water and pushed our vessel away from a shallow mud bed. We floated between two strips of land into the open sea, where the waves crashed violently against the edge of our boat.
As Ethan changed into his rubbery diving suit, I took the paddle and furiously beat against the waves. Our island stood several miles away from the bay where Charleston lay. In the islands near the coast, a few people still lived, either too criminal or too poor to survive in a city. Most people lived in cities, because the federal government had invested billions to protect the patches of urban growth, the places where money came from.
They built walls and glass ceilings that filtered the sun’s UV rays; farms only existed in blooming skyscrapers, seeds sprouting in clean, white laboratories. Everything wild eradicated. And below the gleaming banks and offices with sterling views lay the waste of society. Slums strewn in the underbellies of luxurious hotels, these houses made of rotting wood and trash. The garbage was often unbelievable, sometimes flooding the streets. Sewage leaked into the streets, where children sifted through the muck that reached their knees, collecting trash to sell in local markets. For them, anything could have value, anything at all. Though we were no better, diving beneath the sea to strip garbage form forgotten cities, selling it to modern pirates.
Though the smugglers had not come, not for weeks. Before, they sailed the islands once a month, docking near us to buy whatever we had found. Sometimes copper, sometimes old car parts they no longer manufactured. Once, they paid us a fortune for a pack of unopened Coke cans. I wanted badly to let Ethan try drinking one, since they didn’t make sodas anymore– you needed water for that, but we sold every last can. All unopened, not too badly damaged. We had found them floating inside one of the abandoned houses underwater.
Ethan pulled the mask over his face and mumbled, “Ready.” Through the frothing waves, I could make out the dark patterns of Charleston’s streets.
“Stay close. We’re looking for more copper. Copper would be great.” He nodded, then flipped backwards out of the boat. I cranked the winch backwards, the rope snaking into the water slowly. The boat bobbed with each passing wave, the rain splattering against the brim of my hat and trickling down my neck, cold as death. Grasping the rope, I let it run against the edge of the dinghy, burning my palms raw. Rain made it slippery to grip, and Ethan kept tugging, traveling further and further from the boat.
Another wave crashed against the boat’s bow, water spraying onto the deck. The next onslaught fell heavier, crashing against my legs and nearly knocking me to the ground. The smugglers– they never came. What happened to those damned pirate bastards?
Not far from where the top of the wall still jutted from the ocean’s surface, a broad white sheet as grandiose and strong as the Hoover Dam. I sighed, bracing myself as the waves crashed harder against me. A foolish idea to row out in the middle of a storm, but we would have been stupid not to– only a few copper wires, and what was that worth? There must have been more, under every house here.
Lifting the rope, I pulled as tight as possible. Ethan, how incompetent– had he not found a suitable house by now? I felt a tug in the rope, a sign to begin cranking. Turning to the crank, I clutched the handle and turned it wildly. The winch whizzed loudly, even against the pounding of rain, the rope disappearing into a thick hemp spool. A minute later, the end of the rope rose from the water and whipped limply onto the boat deck.
Collapsing against the boat’s side, I clawed through the water. “Ethan?” Now I shouted his name. “Ethan.” But no head came bursting from the water. I tipped out of the boat, plunging my head beneath the sea. Bubbles escaped my mouth as I called out his name again, and again. Then I rolled over the side, plummeting through the waves.
I had never lived in a city and never imagined one so antique like the kind you saw in classic movies. Like a tropical snow globe of pastel-bright houses and business men in flip-flops. But I arrived downtown in a traffic jam of shuddering cars, languid tourists, and horse-drawn carriages. All a mirage of simpler times, when no one worried the sea might kill us all.
Still, the reminder loomed clearly from many miles away, the wall half-finished. It would be over nine hundred feet tall when finished, a bleak white spectacle. In downtown Charleston, residents and visitors tromped around like nothing was happening, like the world wasn’t changing. At least someone had learned to ignore the inevitable.
I parked my truck by the docks where the man told me. Others waited anxiously, some without vehicles. Most looked like burnt-out college grads like me with too much stubble, and others looked unluckier. A man approached us wearing a bright-orange hardhat and holding a plastic clipboard.
“You’re the ones here for a construction job?” He chewed on a piece of gum, glancing at the wall thirty feet away, which struck out of the water solidly, a concrete barrier. “Follow me, and we’ll get you set up with jobs.”
We all needed jobs here, I realized, all of us desperate and drained of ambition. Lining up behind the hard-hat man, we followed him up a set of steel stairs to a stark office where a fat man in a red tie assigned us, seemingly randomly, to different crews.
“Top of the wall, block placement.”
“Top of the wall.”
“Crane duty. Danny’ll teach you. Just head over there.”
“Look like a good cement hauler.”
When I approached him, he glanced at me only briefly before announcing “Cement cutter.” Before I even knew what that meant, I was ushered off with the other men and women assigned to cut cement. Really, the task seemed pretty easy after a burly black man explained it to us at the base of the wall. Some other people created these massive concrete blocks a few miles away, then the cement haulers brought the huge blocks to the wall, where we would cut it into smaller blocks depending on what the foreman wanted. Then we loaded the blocks onto palettes, which were moved by massive cranes to the top of the wall. There, hundreds of men shoved the block into place Egyptian-style. It seemed very crude to me, it being almost the twenty-second century, but I could hardly complain about scoring a job.
The next day, after sleeping in dorms the construction company provided, I walked down to the docks where other men began climbing onto the backs of the flatbed trucks. One of the supervisors handed me a portable concrete saw and indicated the freshly drawn black lines running down the length of the long cement blocks. After cranking the saw until it vibrated violently in my hands, I pressed the blade against the concrete. I could hardly hold the saw still as I attempted to trace the black line, and sparks spat from the blade as I jerkily cut.
Pulling the saw away from the block, I nearly fell over, weighed by the saw’s immense mass. “This is not as easy as I thought,” I muttered. The black man from the day before stood beside me, wearing safety goggles and calmly cutting. He turned to watch me as I reapplied the saw.
“Careful there, now. Wouldn’t want that saw to drop down, cut into your foot.” I shook my head, that no, I didn’t. But it was certainly one more thing to worry about.
Six weeks later, exhausted near the end of the day, I collapsed against the concrete block, and the saw veered from its path falling on top of me. But before the blade sliced through my chest, I grabbed it hard with my left hand. The blade sliced clean through my thumb, and as I fumbled with the saw, screaming, the blade fell against my wrist. Blood spurted from the stump as I crumpled to my knees. It took nearly ten minutes before the supervisor decided to call an ambulance.
And all I could think about as I blacked out, red lights blinking around me, men shouting, some jeering at my stupidity– now I was useless, truly useless, even for this sort of job.
“Twenty-seven grams of copper wire,” Ethan told me, sliding the twisted wires off the scale and into a plastic baggie. “When are the dealers coming back to the island?”
“I don’t know. They haven’t been here in weeks. I just don’t know.”
I retreated to my room and lay down on my cot which sagged low, almost against the dirt. Sliding my watch off, I traced the seam between my flesh and prosthetic sections of my arm, and then I twisted my left hand forcibly until it detached. A full day, and only twenty-seven grams of copper to show for it. I needed things to sell, anything I could scavenge from the sea.
Everything on our island was very green, the grass and trees and thick foliage. It rained often enough to keep plants and ourselves alive, unlike other parts of the country. When I was a child, people still populated the arid Midwest. They lived in clean mansions atop red dunes, and elaborate pipes beneath the earth carried water from a basin hundreds of miles away. Today in the cities, they would charge a fortune for modern plumbing. The basins and aquifers and trickling streams dried up as the climate changed– the people left, and the desert consumed their lives. Buried their sports cars and leveled their massive houses. Everything just gone.
Fifty years ago, everywhere was either drying up or drowning.
When Ethan and I found the island jutting from the sea so far from the coast, we rejoiced. Other islands existed, but closer, the rare higher-lands that had become low-lands just as the low-lands had become the ocean floor. We built a lean-to from cypress wood, but storms successively knocked our shelters down. We lucked out during a non-rainy season and built a ramshackle cabin with three distinct rooms using fallen Palmettos and pieces of scrap metal. One wall was the hull of a luxury yacht that had crashed on some rocks a mile east, mostly rusted now.
We had no artificial lights except a fire we kept in the pit of a Cypress grove. Inside our house, the light filtered through slats in the trunks, but it was still too dark to see most of the time. Our doorframe came floating to us intact a month ago, and I still felt pride pushing open that wooden door. Those little things that reminded me of how life used to be.
Ethan sat by the shore, perched on smooth rocks as he scrubbed his feet with a sponge. Still cared about hygiene, though he’d have to swim thirty miles to west to find any females to impress. He looked across the rippling march tides. The marshes surrounded our island, one of the last green places, though that meant poisonous snakes lurking in the depths and clouds of bugs that clung to your face, until you had to spit them out and wipe them from your eyes. But at least we didn’t live like everyone in the cities, crammed into towering high-rises, pretending to feel safe.
The day I met Ethan, he canoed past me in an non-functional motorboat. I called out to him, and he warily rowed over. Not every day you find people who trust strangers, especially crazy, bearded, old ones like me. Ethan grew up in the city, but he ran away, though he never told me what he was running from. These days, everyone was running from something. He had a boat, and I showed him the old diving gear I found years ago. We could make money, I proposed. After all, most of peoples’ lives got lost beneath the water, and imagine what was waiting down there, ready to be found. Treasures, submerged.
Still young enough to think I would one day turn into an adult like a caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly, I fumed as I climbed into my car and drove away from the restaurant. Some damned fast food joint, the kind where you could approach the counter and type in your order into one of those LED screens. You know the kind, the kind that automatically upgrade your order to extra-large if you don’t track back and edit. What a joke, the owner emphasizing with me as he told me I was over-qualified. That was the problem. Everyone was either not qualified enough or too qualified– no wonder machines fried our fries and grilled our burgers. It was pointless.
As I whipped onto the freeway, I mused about the angry old people I had seen protesting on television. Every time I glanced at my watch, the news showed some pensioners marching with picket signs: We Want Our Labor Human. Maybe they were right; maybe I needed to join them, start screaming at news anchors about how technology had stolen our jobs. I remembered once watching a classic movie my grandparents loved called Terminator, where machines enslaved humans and destroyed humanity, and I chuckled as I realized maybe that vision had subtly become reality.
I drove until night fell, and I was unsure I’d ever pull over– the gas tank would run low first, though my car traveled eighty miles for every gallon. Crossed the border into South Carolina, where there were no metropolises, only miles of barren pinelands. Pines and miles of gated suburbs, spotted with industrial Walmarts and horrific parking garages. When the sun began to rise, I stopped to piss, though I could not afford gas. A man stood at the corner of the road in a ramshackle booth, waving a sign proudly. One of these Machines-Took-Our-Jobs protestors, probably.
When I hobbled from the bathroom, the man stood by my car, grinning widely. “Son, you ain’t from around here? You from–” He read my license plate. “North Carolina?”
“I’m not from anywhere.”
“Well, then, where you headed?”
“Not to go to the wall, to help build the greatest feat of architectural finesse South Cackalacky has seen since… since… well, the greatest. You ain’t heard? It’s in Charleston. A wall big enough to stop the sea.”
“The sea?” At the time I lived a life consumed with personal thoughts, giving little time to notice the events transpiring around me. “What’s wrong with the sea?”
“It’s getting higher, every year getting higher. So they’re searching for boys. That’s what I’m here for. Been all around the state, recruiting able, young persons to come help construct this damned wall.”
“I’m just passing through.”
“You don’t need no job? Ain’t likely. I seen a hundred or so boys like you– all pissed off, and ain’t no one your age can get a job anymore. Hell, this job ain’t even much.”
I swallowed. “I might be interested. Is there a number I can call, or something?”
He rifled through his pockets and licked his puckered lips, then produced a creased business card. “Got all the information you need right there.”
I stuck it into my pocket and drove away. Thirty minutes later, I pulled over again, the card in my hand, punching numbers into my cell phone.
Through the greenish glass of the goggles, the houses no longer looked like houses, only rotten skeletons. Some without four walls, some with punctured roofs, others wholly decimated with only a few stark wooden beams standing to show what once had been there. I swam past a street sign and rubbed a layer of algae from its surface. Crumpled at its edges and indecipherable, its blocked lettering had peeled away years ago. To my left I found a property where a house once stood, though now I hovered above only a smooth white platform. Years of sea current had polished it smooth, the only standing structure a stone staircase crumbling with age. Underneath, a hole where the door to a cellar might once have been.
Swimming toward it, I placed my hands at the edges of the door and pulled myself down. The concrete gaped like a stone-teethed scar where I entered. Adjusting my headlight to shine brighter, I proceeded into the cellar. Cans of preserved food bobbed against the ceiling, which I pulled into a cloth bag I wore attached to my waist. Rusted tools floated like flotsam around me. Behind a busted washing machine was a circuitry board– Jackpot. I retreated from the cellar and looked to the sparkling surface.
I tugged at the rope, and it grew taut until I rose through the water like an angel ascending. Above, Ethan cranked the winch furiously– my invention, since we could not afford enough gasoline to run our machinery. The city shrunk below me until it was only a ruined maze of uneven streets, deteriorating buildings, and abandoned cars.
It had been twenty years since the sea finally broke the levies, the wall fell, and the city drowned. In the distance, I could make the jagged outline of the wall we had built fifty years ago. Just out of college, pissed at my fortune, I signed up with other gullible young men for a grueling construction job. As the sea rose, the beach eroded, and islands flooded, the Charleston city council voted to build the wall, back when they still believed they could be safe.
I burst through the surface.
“How are you on oxygen?”
“Running low, but I have enough for another trip down. No need to switch the tank. I found an open cellar down there, and there may be something we can use.”
Ethan leaned against the battered dinghy, skimming the water with his hands. “Seeds?”
“No.” We needed seeds like we needed oxygen. If we found seeds, we could travel somewhere fertile, live off the land. Or sell them and buy a defunct cruise ship we’d populate with exotic women. But what might be under the house could be better, at least financially. “There might be copper.”
“Pipes? No, well, wires.”
“That’s nothing. It’s not worth it.”
Clambering aboard the boat, I strapped a heavy sledgehammer to my hip and heaved a portable concrete saw onto the boat’s ledge. “It’s worth it.” I nodded. “Are we all clear up here?”
“I haven’t seen any boats, no. Good you remembered this place. I didn’t expect much to be here. How’s it look down there?”
“Different than last time, to be sure.”
“Don’t know. Different, I suppose. No people for one, and the whole city’s fallen apart. Some fish still lingering down there, which is surprising. Figured the water would be too polluted.” After the oil fields of the world dried up, frantic energy corporations bored holes into the ocean floor. Species died out, the sea filled with goopy black oil, and we slowly came to realize we were fucked, truly fucked, and had been for longer than we had known. We still believed oil meant life or death. Then we began running out of water.
The North American continent solidified into a single nation, but what territory you lived in, that changed all the time. Local, secessionist movements sprang up every five years, and some asshole would come around, asking you to fight in their ragtag army. Then the continental nation would regain control, and this happened too often for people like me to keep caring. It no longer mattered where you lived, as long as you figured out how to live.
“You sure you can do this?” Ethan eyed the concrete saw, then peered through the ocean surface at the ghost city.
“Sure. I’m fine. As long as no government boats don’t come up here and fuck us, we’ll be fine, kid.”
“I can go down there, you know. You should trust me.”
“You don’t have enough practice. Maybe when we’ve practiced more.”
“But– but we can’t practice if you continue to not let me dive. You’re what, seventy?”
“Yes, but you’re only fifteen. Maybe next time. Now, start cranking that winch backwards.” I slipped off the edge of the boat, and I sank fast, the saw and sledgehammer weighing me down. Down into the submerged city.
The rope unraveled behind me as I guided my descent toward the vanished house. Through the hole, into the dark cellar. I chose a place a few feet away from the washing machine and place the saw against the concrete floor, revving its electric engine. Whirring, screaming, spitting bubbles at my face. If I had not been underwater, the saw might have thrown sparks into the air as the blade sliced smoothly through the floor. I cut a block shape, then swung the hammer against the square repeatedly until cement chunks and grainy particles choked the water.
But every poem does.
Don’t be fooled by the peach fuzz:
I swear like a sailor,
Still scarred like a failure.
The sacred won’t always do,
But the profane sounds perfect.
Because sometimes life stinks like shiitake mushrooms.
Sometimes, you fudge up.
Guillotine’s pressed against your neck.
Everything’s darned to heck.
Everyone you know is a bloody boat-licker,
Lick-spittled, tarnated butt-kicker.
Language shapes thoughts which forms actions
Which reflect reactions, cause gee wiz
Ain’t those rules just Cheez n’ Crackers?
Egad! The moral pressures of Catholic school
Have us screaming in the streets, wondering
What the Dickens we should say
In polite company, in a polite way,
Around the dinner table.
Sometimes, we’re not able to express ourselves
But by thundering blasted obscenities
At the top of our lungs.
Confound it, I’m done with the doggone bull-hockey!
Nothing you can say will shock me.
Just tell me your stories and your truth,
And it won’t matter what buggered words you use.
“A Savage Yawp” happens to be the first poem I ever published (in the 2011 Poetry Matters anthology). After looking through old poems, I decided to rewrite it in my modern style, a more spoken-word-laden piece concerning the public education system and the notion that tests can determine futures. Listen to both versions and give your thoughts below.
I hope this offers some insight into particularly the philosophy of education expounded by South Carolina public schools.