Way out in the middle of the open water about as far from land as one can get lurks the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s thought to have started in the late 70’s or early 80’s; our globalized, mechanized, consumerized societies here in the US and in Asia teach us to toss away our trash with little thought to where it goes, assuming that once it’s out of our hands, it’s gone. But our world is really a closed loop feedback system. Nature has been secretly storing all our thrown away garbage, mostly plastics, in a peacefully austere location in the middle of the ocean where the winds blow both together and at cross breezes, creating a trapped area of calm in the center of all the circulating currents. A no-man’s-land where our trash is piling up, breaking down, overflowing and densifying at the same time.
Our problems pile up, too.
Childhood traumas real or imagined, adolescent hurts never soothed, adult needs and wants unmet, gaping holes unfilled, hungers never fed, pressurized obsessions never released, broken things unfixed.
Itches desperately unscratched.
One of the most interesting features of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is that much of it is unseen. While there’s more than enough visible trash to impress anyone who cares to look, though we usually don’t, most of the plastic has degraded and dispersed, so the water around the Garbage Patch looks clear but is actually infused with plastic particles. This soupy plastic water poisons its way up the food chain, getting into the unsuspecting plankton which get eaten by small, unsuspecting fish, which get eaten by bigger unsuspecting fish, until it reaches unsuspecting humans who should really know enough to be suspicious.
The whirlpooling repository of our garbage is also out of sight but definitely not out of mind. Our problems slowly infiltrate ourselves until the self isn’t the same self it had once been, the cancer starting from the outside and working its way inside, hiding in plain sight, going from outside us to inside us until it’s become … us, us transformed, transfigured, mutated, like the plankton that don’t, can’t, know any better. Like a mugging victim who discovers later that the whistle, the mace, the handgun, the powerlifting routine, the karate lessons, the cash in the shoe, the bars on the windows and the debarked attack dog have all blended into seamless, perfectly reasonable seeming parts of their lives.
Despite its appearance, hitting a big, obvious piece of pinpointable plastic like a bottle or a wrapper is relatively rare in the pervasive plastic soup of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Hopefully most of us have had only a limited amount of big, obvious trouble in our lives like a sexual assault, a car wreck, the untimely death of a loved one or cancer; something which changes our lives for the worse in a pinpointable singularity.
We’ve got the thickening plastic soup, instead.
The overdue bills in various shades of yellow and pink left sitting on the kitchen table, the fight with the wife that ended with grim mischievous satisfaction taken in her tears, the cold food delivered late which elicited a nasty call to the manager, the coworker who takes another donut even though he’s already consumed two and we haven’t had any, the phantom electrical problems in our cars, the leaky window we rattle until it cracks, the pushy ethnic neighbors who play their music too loud until we start wondering if the other millions of people in their country are the same way … all slipping into the relatively calm stillness out at sea after the vortex of stress is over, forgotten but not gone, dispersed into the thickening soup and slowly poisoning everything up the higher-functioning ladder until we drink too much or hit the kids or shrug at the suffering of others or go on a Columbine-style rampage after things reach the point that our diffused plastic soup has congealed into someone else’s pinpointable plastic bottle or statue of liberty, like a gradually gathered snowball hurled across a parking lot at an unsuspecting classmate who ends up with frigid dirty snow melting down the back of his shirt.
Whether god or science created the ocean, it wasn’t meant as a repository for our waste; our minds, our limbic systems are designed to deal with occasional hungry tigers or enemy tribesmen on the plains of the savannah, not the petty inhumanities of life in an apartment measured in square feet, in airplane seats priced on the inches of personal space we can afford, in deciding whether to order off the dollar menu or to splurge on the supersized option and then throw away the wrappers which eventually make their way to the Garbage Patch.
Some people’s garbage dump is a dry, dusty desert where things petrify and fossilize, while others have a dank, soggy swamp where fungus takes hold and grows. Rats and roaches and germs thrive on our waste, as do cynicism and disgust and eventually hatred. Who knows what Ebola or ISIS are evolving, waiting for just the wrong time to achieve critical mass and explode.
Is there a solution? Happy moments remembered and savored, a visit to a shrink, a weekend at a hot springs spa with detoxifying mineral water and a deep tissue massage included in the package deal? Someone invented a membranous maw to catch microplastic particles; someone else started recycling them. We can apply the effort to turn ugly events into harsh lessons learned. But the trick is to invest that ounce of prevention now, before a pound of cure becomes necessary.
Alexander Jones has short fiction and poetry appearing in Akashic Books, Bastion Magazine, Crack the Spine and DASH, among other publications. His nonfiction was recently anthologized by 2Leaf Press and an essay he wrote won GoRail’s 2012 contest. He has a BA in English/ Creative Writing and is pursuing a second BA in History. He works as a metal fabricator and lives with his family in New Jersey.
“Garbage Patch” first appeared in the journal Prometheus Dreaming.Continue reading →
Like usual, Walt stayed under the covers until he heard twittering from the earliest birds. By the time he’d used the bathroom, made his bed, changed into clothes, and fixed coffee and toast, the first blush of dawn had just begun paling the eastern sky above the neighborhood’s rooftops. He brought his breakfast outside and took his regular spot on the front step with it. As he ate, the silhouettes of newly-budded tree branches nodded in the yard on the small breeze. Gradually, he could make out the crosswalk fifty or so yards down the street that linked the elementary and middle schools. Her crosswalk. The one she’d guided elementary students across every hour during the day for P.E. classes at the gym they shared with the middle school. No one was out. Except for the birds and the occasional passing car or barking dog, it was quiet.
When Walt finished his breakfast, he returned to the kitchen, washed his dishes, and went into the bathroom again. He stared in the mirror as he brushed his teeth, the stubble on his head more salt than pepper, the skin under his tired eyes loose and sagging. It had grown more so since he’d retired from the library down the street beyond the schools a few years ago. Walt blew out a breath, then used the back door to go into the garage. He pulled the string on the tin-shaded lamp over his workbench and a cone of light lit the pieces of the bird feeder he’d been making. He blew away sawdust, turned on the old radio to his classical station, selected a hunk of sandpaper, and started smoothing the section of roof he’d left off on the previous afternoon.
Walt finished the feeder a little before eleven. Its design was simple, basic: a hollow house with wire on top and a wider, drawer-like bottom to hold the seed and provide a perch. He filled it with birdseed, turned off the radio, and carried it through the back gate and down the sidewalk towards the crosswalk. The replacement crossing guard, an older man like Walt, sat in a folding chair on one side of it. Flowers, cards, and candles were clustered against the fence that separated the elementary school playground next to him. Someone had even placed a framed photograph against the fence; she was young in it, perhaps thirty, about the age Walt had been when she’d started there as the crossing guard.
The fence was made of iron bars three inches apart that were joined by crossbars along the top connected to brick pillars every dozen feet. The playground was empty, though Walt knew it would soon be filled with students frolicking during their lunch recess. The replacement guard raised a hand to Walt as he stopped in front of the collection of remembrances. Walt returned the gesture then fitted the feeder’s wire over the bar in the fence directly above the collection. The replacement guard regarded him as he straightened it against the bar.
“I’m told she used to feed birds here all the time,” the replacement guard said.
Walt looked at him. “That’s right.”
“Did you know her?”
Walt felt a heat rise behind his eyes. He said, “Just to nod and smile.”
The replacement guard did both those things. He pointed to the collection at the base of the fence. “I guess she was someone special, though I’m told she lived alone.”
Walt nodded. He said to himself: like me. He thought about passing her each day on his way to and from the library all those years and never having the nerve to say a word to her. Those eyes, that quiet, gentle manner. Regret overwhelmed him.
“That’s a nice bird feeder,” the replacement guard said. “Nice way to remember her.”
“You going to keep filling it with seed?”
“Good for you.”
Walt felt his lips purse. He nodded again and said, “Take care.”
Walt turned around and headed back to his house. He fixed himself a peanut butter and banana sandwich, poured a glass of milk, and made his customary trip with them out onto the front step. By then, happy shouts from students rose from the playground. A pair of orange-breasted robins flew by overhead in that direction. Walt watched them swoop down to the perch on the feeder, watched the replacement guard follow their descent, watched him chuckle and shake his head. Until a week earlier, Walt had eaten his lunch there almost every day and watched her scatter birdseed at her feet on the sidewalk. Not anymore.
Walt took a bite of sandwich and washed it down with milk. He didn’t know what he’d do with the rest of the day; now that the feeder was finished, he had no plans. Really no idea either how he’d fill the days and years ahead. Nothing but time lay before him. He watched one of the birds on the feeder lift off and fly away. A moment later, another replaced it.
William Cass has had more than 190 short stories published in literary journals including december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a couple of Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.Continue reading →
Lina could not take Jake to England to get him set up at university, so I went instead. While away I bought gifts to convince myself I was returning to home as it had always been. Spending money for no reason is what you do when you’re on vacation, so I thought if I did that, it would mean I was vacationing (as opposed to deserting my wife to help my son). Kind of like dressing for summer to encourage warmer weather while knowing the next season was winter.
I always bought a duty-free bottle of O de Lancôme because, if my other gifts were not up to par, at least I had gotten one right. That was her perfume and I was grateful I no longer had to remember Chanel numbers. But it turned out that had stopped being her favorite years ago while I wasn’t paying attention. And what the hell was she going to do with perfume anyway? The pretty green and white box sits unopened on a basement shelf.
But the earrings, oh the earrings, I was right about those. She still liked pearls and she put them on each morning and removed them each evening, even if there wasn’t much else she could do that day. At least until the 3 A.M. when she took one with water, mistaking it for one of the bedside pills whose purpose was to make her feel that she could still be cured.
Was ingesting an earring reason to put her through another trip to the hospital? We had made enough trips already, and the act of getting off the couch, let alone up and down the stairs, was torture to everyone involved. But research was done, and although the search results mostly had to do with toddlers, this type of earring just passed right through. I think that was our last shared moment of gratitude. You were terminally ill but at least your esophagus would be spared perforation by an open clasp; your intestines would not be destroyed by an MRI sucking metal out of you.
But you were back in the hospital soon after, and I’d like to think the pearl ended up as a nurse’s reward for tending to the needs of my now infant wife.
Michael Olenick lives in Brooklyn with his daughter, son, and wife’s ashes. He had a promising start with a story appearing in Journeys: Prose by Children of the English-Speaking World when he was ten and then put writing aside to focus on the usual sensible adult things. Since his wife’s death, his inner English major has awakened, and he has started writing again as a way to forget and not to forget. His poems have recently appeared in Euphony Journal and Offcourse Literary Journal.Continue reading →
“Why are you always so cynical?”
It’s a surprising accusation, flying up as if out of nowhere, as I drive him down the highway to his weekly viola lesson. Surprising because, well, first of all we weren’t having that kind of conversation, but mostly surprising because this accusation is coming from him—him—who acted like a hard-boiled forty-year-old at age twelve and at least a decade older than that at fifteen. Nothing but straight blackness out of his mouth then; nothing but the same color in his wardrobe. Hair dyed so dark a brown it might as well have been pitch. Black socks; black Vans, black wristbands. The dark sounds of screamo shouting at him through his ear buds. You get the picture. Thankfully, he’s started—started—to come out of all that over the last two years. But, still, I’m the cynical one?
I’ve always thought of myself as naïve, bordering on ridiculous. The kind of person who dares think well of people, almost always thinks well of people, until they prove otherwise; and sometimes even after they prove otherwise. A mid-Atlantic bred, lapsed Catholic, twenty-to-twenty-first century Akaky Akakyevich; the kind of guy who stumbles his way through life and keeps to his self-styled recreations, while the world keeps after its own, only vaguely aware that behind his back—and sometimes to his face—he is being ridiculed. And when aware of it, not sure what to do about it. The kind of guy who, at age 22 or 23, did not appear to be on any kind of track that might lead to marriage, home, family; to say nothing of gainful employment. You get the picture. Except that through a minor romantic miracle, occurring on or about the month of March in the Year of our Lord 1997, I found my way to all those things, and way sooner than anyone had a right to expect.
Thirty years ago, when I was a junior in high school, as he is now, I carried around inside me a global, uninterrupted sense of all that there was in the world I didn’t understand. Most problematically, people. People I understood the least. I felt like barely a person myself then. I could not have explained myself to myself. So how could I explain all these other people around me: in my high school, in my neighborhood, in my life? Where did they get their strange notions? What brought on their compulsive behaviors, their destructive alliances, their ugly decisions, their pointless risks? Where they did they get all their bizarre, dark-worldly knowledge? What kinds of homes must they have grown up in to become these kinds of people, to earn that sort of knowledge? Homes not like mine, that’s for sure.
“What do you mean?” I say.
“All you do is gripe about people.” He’s staring out the windshield at the road ahead, as if it might disappear entirely without his help. His cell phone is in his hand, but he’s not looking at it. He’s not looking at it. Normally, that’s all he does in these car rides.
“I don’t gripe about people.”
He laughs. Not a real laugh. It’s not a real laugh. “Are you kidding? You gripe about me constantly.”
Do I? Is that what he thinks? How could he? I make suggestions to him, sure. I admit. Sometimes strong suggestions. But, honestly, with him and me it’s like Akaky Akakyevich taking on the Kremlin; or, rather, a tepid stream of water lapping against a brick wall: the limited force taking on the immovable object. I can’t bring him down in one fell swoop, so I try to brush up against him regularly, at sustained intervals, trusting that eventually I’ll break through a barrier. That’s not griping; that’s love in daily maintenances.
“You tell me I don’t dress right. You tell me I don’t eat right. You complain about my room. You tell me I need to try listening to this kind of music—because it’s your kind of music—though you don’t ever listen to my kind of music. You were especially bad a couple years ago. It’s better now that I’m listening to more classical, but a couple years ago all you did was make fun of it.”
I did? My recollection from a couple of years ago is that at all times I was desperately trying—and trying successfully, let me say—not to express how dearly I hated his screamo. Even though I did hate it. I hated it so very much. He never fathomed the depths of my hate for it, because, as I saw it, I held back the storm. Heck, didn’t I buy him a couple CDs one time?
I choose my words carefully. “Well, you know, those are classic complaints that parents bring up with their kids. All parents. The music. The food. The room. It’s like in the rule book.”
He frowns but says nothing. He isn’t giving me that out.
“Hey,” I say, “you’re lucky I didn’t bitch about your friends.”
“You did bitch about my friends.”
“When? When did I do that?”
“Dad.” He turns to me, his face caught in an expression mid-way between exasperation, befuddlement, and disgust. His mouth is hanging open, but he’s not able to push out any words.
“Which of your friends did I complain about?”
“C’mon, Sutton Parrish? Ryan Turpen?”
“I liked Ryan.”
“You said his family was like holdover hominids from the Stone Age. You said they reminded you of nomadic peoples hunkering down in the caves of Northern Europe 20,000 years ago. Except, you said, they weren’t good enough to paint horses on the walls so the tribe would have kicked them outside to go hunt woolly mammoths.
“I never said—”
“But, you said, they were so stupid they would have ended up squashed to death beneath a big, hairy foot.”
“Did I really say all that?”
I consider this for a moment. I think: That was pretty clever of me.
“Well,” I say, “they were fairly primitive.”
He raises his hands to the sky.
“But I never disliked Ryan. And you have to admit that Sutton Parrish was a washout.”
“Sutton’s father was in jail. Their family was having a really hard time of it then.”
“No. No guess, Dad. They were.”
“Is he still in school?”
“He’s not even in the state. They moved to Texas like a year ago.”
“I’m pretty sure I told you that.”
“Maybe you did.”
“I did,” he says.
I drive. He stares. He squints. I drive.
“Okay, so I’m sorry for being kind of rough on Sutton and Ryan. But the other stuff—the food, the room—isn’t that all true? Are you going to tell me your room doesn’t look like a war zone?”
“But you are always going on about it; like it’s all you can think about. Like your life can’t be right if my room isn’t the way you want it.”
“But your room is really sloppy. I mean really, really sloppy.”
“See?” he says. “See?”
He’s pushing back now on his seat, his neck straining, his right leg pressing forward, as if imitating a braking motion. Except that traffic on the highway is moving normally. The closest car is several lengths in front of us. And he hasn’t even learned to drive yet. Why is he doing the braking thing?
“See what?” I say. I’m looking with double attention at the road, wondering what I’m missing.
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about. And, no, other parents don’t go griping after their kids all the time.”
“They do too,” I say. Then: “Sometimes.”
“Dad, I know other kids. I go to school with other kids. I know other kids’ parents. They’re not always griping to them about their rooms. Or how they eat.”
“Well, maybe those kids are willing to taste a vegetable once in a while; maybe those kids clean their rooms.” If he’s thinking of his girlfriend and her parents, I happen to know that she does eat vegetables—plenty of them—including broccoli—also that she keeps her room hypo-allergenically clean. Her room is probably cleaner any four hospital rooms combined. I know her parents. They told me.
“See?” he says, his neck straining again, his leg braking once more. “Don’t you see?”
“What?” I say. I check the road again. “See what?”
“Sometimes, I think—I really think this—I think that for you guys being parents is like purely an administrative duty or something. Something you have to do, like taking out the trash, doing your taxes. Something to get out of the way. Something you have to do, but you’d really rather not do it; you’d really rather wish you could be let off the hook.”
“Is that how you feel?” I say. I’m not even trying to keep the hurt and exasperation out of my voice now.
Is that how he feels?
“I mean,” I say, “is that how I seem to you? What makes you say that?”
He turns his face, looks out the side window for several moments, as if studying the trees in the distance for some school-enforced botanical survey.
“I’m not sure I should answer,” he says.
“But I’m asking you.”
“That doesn’t mean you want an answer.”
“What do you mean? If I ask you, I want an answer.”
“You might want an answer, but it doesn’t mean you want a real answer.”
I chew on this for a bit. Can it be true? And, if yes, what does it mean? I mean, what does it mean for the entirety of our relationship, the seventeen-year living history between him and me? Have I been existing inside a bubble of illusion all this time? Some phony, happy idea of what I was—or at least could be—as a father, and he was as a son? How long had he been holding back? And what did it mean for us now or going forward? What would it mean next month? Next year? Eight years from now? If he’s finally lost his patience and proceeds to cut, what will that new reality look like? What will I be?
I hold my breath. I watch the road roll past beneath the burden of my car. “I have a feeling there’s something you want to say to me,” I say. “Maybe you should just go ahead and say it.” He stays silent. He doesn’t look at me or out the window anymore. Just ahead, at what is coming. I see something like worry—but not actual worry—pass across his eyes. “I’m a big boy,” I say. “I can take it.” Then: “I should take it.”
He breathes a sigh through his nose, his heavy lovely cheeks sag—as a baby, even as a six-year-old, he had the chunkiest cheeks you’d ever seen, and there’s still, even as a teenager, a residue of that fleshiness in his face. His head dips the tiniest human measure. He still doesn’t look at me, yet I feel him looking at me.
“That’s okay,” he says. “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”
That’s probably exactly what I would have said to my own father, at his age, in this situation, in a closed automobile, driving at highway speeds. That is, if the man had ever begged me for the truth—which he never did. And never would have. But that’s exactly what I would have said. Because I would have known the truth and would not have wanted to hurt him with it. To unsettle him. To unseat him. To break apart his precious, heart-beholden delusions. I think to tell him this, as he sits there next to me, frowning at the windshield. I should tell him. I should say it: That’s exactly what I would have said to my own dad at your age. But I don’t. I don’t say it. I keep driving and, finally, eventually, he begins looking at his phone. I like to hope he understood, he understands.
John Vanderslice teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Central Arkansas. His stories, poems, essays, and plays have been widely published, including in such journals as Sou’wester, South 85, Laurel Review, Crazyhorse, and The Pinch. In recent years, he has published two books: Island Fog (Lavender Ink, 2014), a linked story collection, and The Last Days of Oscar Wilde (Burlesque Press, 2018), a historical novel.Continue reading →