Category Archives: culture

“Pursuit of Happiness”- Derek Berry

A new slam poem.

Derek Berry Discusses Hip Hop and the Phenomena of THE BEST RAPPER EVER

download (7)Now, I’m by no mean a “hip hop artist,” though my art form shares roots with hip hop, IS the root of hip hop. The reason I don’t say I make hip hop is firstly because I don’t make music or beats to poems, and I also don’t participate in hip hop culture. Understand, I mean positive things when I say “hip hop culture,” as in using art to create solidarity within black communities and spread messages of defiance and love.

But I’ve been open-mic-hopping for years, and what irks me is rappers who take hip hop out of context. They realize they can rhyme “life” and “knife” and suddenly assume they’re “THE BEST RAPPER EVER.” Like, you made a mix-tape with your older brother in the garage, and now you’re “ON TOP?” What does that even mean? On top of what? You’re not even the best performer at the open mic, so I don’t know why you’re accusing me of being a “hater” because I point out you’re an amateur. It’s okay. I’m an amateur, too. We’re all amateurs, and we don’t have to pretend to be anything else.

Offensives include dissing on famous rappers you don’t even know, rapping about how much money you don’t actually have, and objectifying women. These are not actual staples of hip hop, only the version of hip hop that has been force-fed to this generation. Albeit, there are some really great artists out there talking about some real shit, but too often, we are exposed to those who glorify violence, hedonism, and apathy. Apathy isn’t as cool as you think. You’re not going to earn anyone’s respect rapping about how many one-night stands you’ve had, because I frankly don’t care.

For example, though, if you’re trying to argue that Lil Wayne’s a better artist than Notorious B.I.G., get out my face.

Alright, check out this video in which I go ham on some fake hip-hop artists, bam…

As the Tab of Yet Another Click-Bait Article Concerning “What Every 20-Year-Old-And-Five-Months Should Achieve Before Turning 20-And-Six Months” Loads Slowly on The Browser

After meticulously reading

an online review of Taco Bell’s “secret menu,”

which includes potato-stuffed burritos named after superheroes,

without brand loyalty to either DC or Marvel,

I pushed back my chair and questioned

my predisposition to tell people that I am awfully busy

in order to avoid events and affairs unpleasant or boring,

considering how I had just whittled my lifeline

for the sake of taste bud analysis for the critically-acclaimed Queserito.

 

Perhaps journalism’s dead, but keeps excavating the crucial mysteries of our time,

such as the quality of Frankenstein dishes at a fast-food-belch-haven. Dead in the same way

Bruce Willis had been dead throughout the entire movie, but he kept

digging at the paranormal crux of his own demise. Maybe everybody’s a journalist these days,

even I worked in journalism for awhile, despite my linguistic

idiosyncrasies and dismissal of grammatical authority.

In other words, perhaps yoga pants do not accentuate each person’s

ass in a flattering light, as yoga pants market themselves to do,

though who decides who does or does not wear yoga pants?

“Yoga pants” might be a good term for successive breathing, quick and deep, quick and deep.

Not counting persons who actually practice yoga, (evidently the minority

of yoga-pants-wearers), no one dictates that sort of non-dress-code.

Just like how the Internet’s become a Wild West of bullshit-masquerading-as-truth

or Taco-Bell-reviews-feigning-to-be-news. Because for every blurb

intricately spoiling every single damn hit tv show on television

exists a well-argued essay in pristine prose

about the degradation of American culture

posted on some obscure blog that nobody’s gonna fuckin’ read.

Notes on a Long Island: The Spot

{Stories are 80% true, according to Long Island local Matthew Harberg, my roommate and King of the Sea. Having interviewed him on various subjects from the Long Island area, I have transcribed a series of stories exploring the culture and atmosphere of the island, though I have never visited there and know nothing about it. This particular story deals with a surf-shop owner from Long Island with a list of eccentricities.}

On the news, Snake watched the news anchor dead-pan as she explained how the police tackled a drunk millionaire earlier than day. “Local millionaire Ronald Artt is bringing charges against the Long Island Police Department for police brutality after they chased him into the street and brought him forcibly to the ground. Moments before, Mr. Artt had been standing in downtown Manhatten, wearing a suit and pink dress gloves, shooting a water gun wildly into the air.” She shuffled her papers and looked to her co-anchor, who took over with a stifled hesitation.

“Yes, well, reportedly Mr. Artt claims that the gun was obviously a toy one, that the officers were quick to jump on him because—”

Clicking the Tv off, Snake lowered his head and looked across the counter at Carston. “What do you want?” He was seventy-years old, but often visited clubs with middle-aged Guido’s. He tagged along with them, telling ridiculous stories and pumping his fist half-heartedly to techno-rap.

Carston looked to Danny, glowering from behind his orange-tinted shades. “Man, just the—you know, whatever you sell.”

Snake shrugged. “Surfing board wax? A wetsuit?” The two boys stood in a shack just off the beach, a piece of beach the man behind the counter claimed to own. Though condos and houses crowded against the strand, the beach belonged officially to Snake—dread-haired geriatric owner of The Spot. Though he ran the joint ostensibly as a local surf shop, The Spot made the majority of its revenue in the local drug trade. Surfer dudes shopped there for small items, buying ounces under the counter—rumor had lead the boys through the glass doors plastered with advertisements for local club events months-past (Day Glo, Pirate Theme Night, $2 Jell-o Shots), across the sand-strewn tile, and to the front desk.

He sat like a regal Buddha on the steep wooden stool, his pointy elbows propped on the un-sanded counter. “Boys, are you paying any attention?”

“Sure, but we heard you sold—um, more than just surfing supplies?”

“Oh, oh!” He waved his arms, sliding off his stool and wheezing, guffawing. “I’m being a bit loopy, huh? I know the days come and go like they do, don’t you know?”

“Sure, we know. So, how much?”

“For the emu? He ain’t for sale?”

“Emu?”

“It’s the last one I got, go look at him, if you want.” He hastily unlocked the door behind him, waving his arms for the boys to follow. As they trailed quietly after him, however, he did not lead them into a secret vault where he kept his stash of drugs; rather, he lead them into the backyard, fenced in with cheap vinyl fencing units—and in the center of the sand-and-grass lot was an emu tied to a wooden post.

“What the hell is that?”

“That’s the last one, wouldn’t you know?” Snaked shrugged, his dreads rolling off his shoulders, and he bore his red-cracked eyes into Carston’s. “So, what about it?”

“Uh, I didn’t come here to buy—an emu? What about the—you know, the stuff? The chronic?”

download              “I ain’t gonna sell this emu, anyhow,” said Snake, his face cracking like a broken public fountain. “He’s the last I got. The first one, he died. A sad occasion. We put together a funeral for him, a whole affair with all my closest friends—his two emu buddies too. Then not a week later, one of the others escapes. This one’s named Sunshine. Probably just mourning Birdie’s death. God, we all loved Birdie, but Sunshine, he couldn’t take it. He just broke out. I don’t know how.”

“I’m sorry, sit. I—um, I didn’t know?”

Beside the emu stood a large white van—Snake had always wanted a VW van from the seventies where he could take local ladies, but he settled for something infinitely creepier—a windowless van spray-painted with comical signage. Peace emblems, color-faded flowers, and the paint-stenciled image of Bob Marley.

“Used to love animals, take care of them? Had a whole menagerie—wouldn’t you know? Alligators, dogs, snakes as big as your arms, as long as a car, and even tamed squirrels. But they came and took them? Wouldn’t you know the police are always sticking their nose into business ain’t their business.” He snuffled, then wrapped his arms around the emu, which shuffled awkwardly and pecked his shoulder in violent defense. “But then this emu escapes and it—well, it falls right into the bay. Runs out in front of cars, across town, down to the pier, trots down its length, and jumps headlong into the sea. Damn emu’s dead. It swam around a while, until the fire department came and scooped it out the water.”

“It—it died?” Carston began to back up, grabbing Danny’s shoulder. “I think we came to the wrong place.”

“The damn emu died,” Snake said, wiping his tears. “I love Sunshine—he was like a brother to me. Loved him more than anything I ever loved.” His raspy voice died down. “All the fault of the fire department—if they had been more careful, that’s what killed him. They didn’t take their time getting him out of the bay—they killed him.”

Danny shrugged. “Guess that sucks. Well.”

“Of course the police couldn’t side with me, considering they didn’t realize I had any emus in the first place, but a man’s got to do something with his life’s work.”

“Sorry.” Carston looked at his feet, clearing his throat. “Guess we really just wanted surfing wax after all.”

Once Snake sold them an overpriced bottle of wax and given them half-off coupons for entrance to the Karaoke Party at Senor Frogs (which had occurred the weekend before), Snake returned to the back yard, rubbed his emu’s neck softly, and called his lawyer seventeen times. His lawyer never picked up the phone, not to hear Snake complain again about the emu incident—he had already been on the television. Returning inside, Snake turned the mounted Tv back on, hoping he had not missed his televised interview.

Vignette: Cigarettes in the City

images (22)Everyone in the city smoked cigarettes, the orange-bright ends illuminating every stoop, park bench, and window. If we shut out the lights, cut the electrical lines, we might still be able to read by the glare of a million burning cigarettes, their ashes spilling into the crease between the pages. Many treated their cigarettes with ritual superstition—practicing traditions passed down from the Great War, from the Native Americans, and from the study-abroad semesters in Bulgaria. Each secreted upside down sticks in their packs—the lucky cigarette—absconding white lighters and lighting up with the ends of each others’ cigarettes. When finished, they tapped out the cigarettes in overflowing ash trays, some plastic, others glass.

The smoke, meanwhile, floated above their heads in lazy spirals—smoke took on a life of its own, an animated beast rising and swaying like a drunk ballerina in flats not yet broken in. The bearded man with glasses, reading Kant with a mix of pretentiousness and a sincere desire to understand, the freckled girl with a glinting nose ring—hell, the Catholic Father with his black shirt unbuttoned in the simmering summer heat. Here they sat, sharing communion: rather than a reminder of life, they acknowledged death, welcomed it into their lungs with breaths deep as love.

The priest took a drag on his cigarette, and I wonder why he smokes, if there is reason at all or if it seemed something to do when there was nothing else to do. Some of the people in the city, they rolled their cigarettes. The heathens of the Holy City smoked everything they could stuff into rolling papers, fitting their filters sloppily to the end.

Perhaps he liked smoking for its symbolism, its thematic properties. Cigarettes reflected the American desire for death, the necessity of it with our lives, because without death, we would not be able to justify our wasteful lives. If we were to live forever, then we would be forced to do something, but death had become our ultimate cop-out, our greatest excuse for failure. We could try, try to do something good and impactful, but then too late—you died too soon, oh well.

The embers died out, crackling like a campfire in the jumble of ash trays, and the city grew dark as the smokers fell one by one to sleep.

“Starving”

We’re all hungry for something more

And not just enough jumbo-sized pizza

Or calorie-rich milkshake from McDonald’s

Or another side of cheese-and-bacon fries.

 

But instead for the light at the end of the tunnel

That was foreclosed in the recession,

for the fingertips that brush our hair back

When we fall asleep in the passenger’s seat,

and for the words no one ever says

That could disrupt the void of silence

Fill the aching pit our stomachs reveal

When we realize we want something else, something more.

They say the whole country’s obese,

So the question is:

For what are we so desperately starving?

Adventure, Socialism, the Embargo, and Salsa: The Basics of My Recent Cuba Trip

A view of the Capitol building

A view of the Capitol building

To attempt to convey what I learned and experienced in the past few weeks would make my head explode, maybe yours as well, so I want to keep this post basic. I returned yesterday from Cuba, where I stayed for most of my days in La Habana, though I visited also Cienfeugos, Trinidad, and Santa Clara. Naturally, I must get the obvious out of way:

Yes, it was difficult to get there, and we needed special student visas.

Yes, Cuba is a very poor country, but the people and culture are immensely rich, and these people deserve a lot more of our attention. Most Americans, when thinking of Cuba, think only of Fidel Castro and the vague term of “Communism,” but Cuba might not be as foreign as we pretend, the people sharing some of the same intense passions as us (like baseball, rap music, and good beer).

Yes, the rum and cigars in Cuba were superb. If you go to Cuba and don’t try the rum and cigars, then what were the doing the entire time?

havana-city-2More importantly, however, are the questions that United Staters don’t ask when I tell them I just returned from Cuba. On its surface, its a land of bad gas mileage, a land of salsa, a land of making out in public. But the people transcend those stereotypes, like all people, expressing a deep love for each other. Most of Cuba’s population suffers from crippling poverty, and most don’t have cell phones or access to the internet because of this, but it brings people closer. They must build communities in a way most United Staters cannot.

Then comes other misinterpretations, like the inane idea that these people suffer because of the evils of “Communism.” Certainly not. They suffer because of the United States reaction to their socialist revolution, and they suffer because of their own government’s stubbornness to compromise their ideologies with neo-liberal policies. But when you see the track record for US corporations or IMF implementations in Latin American countries, who can blame Cuba for holding out from joining the system? (See: Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile)

The embargo certainly affects more than just Cuban-US relations which could be quite healthy if we did not cling to Cold War ideals and fears. We sanction other countries for even attempting to trade with our island neighbor, and this creates an isolated economy, struggling to reform but still adamant to resist joining the current world system. My opinion of this has change drastically.

What anyone must understand is that despite the poverty and the deteriorating buildings and smog choking Havana’s air, the people persevere. Each day, they find ways to survive, no matter how destitute or desperate the means. Some drive taxis, others sell rejected cigars to unknowing tourists; some go to university, but far more drop out of school to prostitute themselves in the streets, even kids as young as 13 or 14. And our self-made-man society, our American Dream culture, may scoff at that, call them lazy, call them whatever we like, but in the end, we’re the ones hurting them.

I will write more about Cuba in the following months, but I felt compelled to depict at least this much about it. What I’ve written in no way captures Cuban culture, and definitely, my experience could not capture the totality of Cuban culture. Even if I visited for a year, I doubt I could truly understand unless I had lived there, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to understand, from trying to understand. So, first, what must be said about Cuba is that our policies toward them are antiquated and, in the light of our relations with China, highly ridiculous.

I encourage anyone even slightly interested to study Cuban history and our relationship with them, and I challenge you to learn with an open mind and heart and to not emerge from this study disillusioned and indignant.

A view of the Melacon and of the Havana skyline in the distance.

A view of the Melacon and of the Havana skyline in the distance.

The trip include adventure, swimming in mountain pools under water falls, lunching with a German diplomat, studying museums, singing at the top of my lungs at the Melacon (Sea Wall), learning to salsa, going to concerts, meeting locals, and staying up till 6 am with philosophers discussing life. But despite the experience, I learned some practical things, things that will affect me and things I hope to fully believe six months from now. Though I learned hundreds of things, perhaps the most important lesson was the following idea, something simply conceived and so simply true I’m not sure why I had not considered it critically before.

The privileged of the world have the full power and ability to alleviate the suffering of the underprivileged, but only if they choose to surrender the comfort of privilege. Therefore, the only real choice anyone must make is whether to live for others or to live for oneself. Once that choice is made, the others come easy.

 

 

Submerged: Part Four

{Start at the Beginning}

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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!”KXR_Centaur_swimming_storm_

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.

Submerged: Part Three

storms-at-sea-i-marilyn-muller

 

{Part 1}

{Part 2}

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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.

*

2086

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.”

“Filling cement.”

“Cement cutter.”

“Cement hauler.”

“Top of the wall.”

“Crane duty. Danny’ll teach you. Just head over there.”

“Cement hauler.”

“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.

Submerged: Part Two

{Read Part One Here}

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“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.

tidal-marsh-on-roanoke-island-greg-reed

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.

*

2086

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?”

“Nowhere.”

“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.

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