Letter From America
Sips coffee. Yawns. Phone rings. Walks. Answers phone.
“Hey Elle, how’re you doing, hun?”
“Oh c’mon, it’s David.”
“David. British David. Long distance relationship David. The David that bought your first ice cream.”
Waits. Swallows. Sits down.
Gasps. Sips coffee. Exhales.
“I’ve been worried, Elle, you haven’t called in three weeks.”
“Well I, uh, I’ve been busy.”
“So how are things in New Haven?”
“Things are good, everything’s good.”
“Hey, do you remember those plans we had for you to move back over here and teach at Cambridge? I miss you, Elle.”
“Would you do that for me? It’d be as if we were never apart.”
Blinks. Taps feet. Cracks knuckles. Chews lip.
Closes eyes. Lowers phone. Sighs.
“Elle, I’ve gotta tell you. I bought plane tickets. New Haven to Cambridge. I even spoke to the guys at the uni and they’d love to have you teaching there.”
“Didn’t you get my letter?”
“Letters still exist?”
“No letters here.”
“Just… Please, when you get it, read. I…”
“Of course Elle, anything.”
“I’d just prefer it if–”
Phone flatlines. Freezes. Drops phone.
Hand trembles. Releases button. Puts phone down.
Bike outside. Click swoosh. Letter box opened.
Wipes eye. Straightens. Leaves for work.
Walks to front door. Stops. Picks up letter. Opens. Reads. Crashes. Falls. Breaks.
Seven other students were working in the immediate area, while their professor walked between them, checking on their progress and addressing any questions they might have. The abandoned school buildings at the edge of the scrubland lent a desolate air to the site. Raldi tried to imagine boisterous young children playing where she knelt, but bringing life back to the area was too difficult, even in her imagination.
The Global Environmental Assessment Committee had declared the school and its grounds safe for excavation only the week before, and it was quite a coup for the university that they had obtained first access rights. All the students wore state-of-the-art radiation sensors at their wrists, and they would evacuate at the first sign of danger. For the time being, though, they were revelling in the opportunity to break ground that had not been disturbed in nearly two hundred years.
A few feet away, Raldi’s friend, Meral, gave an excited shout, and everyone looked up from their work. Professor Catratti hurried over and knelt next to Meral for a moment, then abruptly stood again, and gestured at the other students.
“Gather round, everyone,” he called, a strange tension in his voice. “Meral has found something!”
Raldi climbed to her feet, a little more slowly than the others. Of course it had to be Meral who made the first discovery. He was the teacher’s pet of the class, and smug about it. If his find was significant, he would be insufferable for the rest of the year. As the other students clustered around the still kneeling Meral, Raldi joined them, edging into the crowd so as to be able to see.
Meral was brushing dirt from what looked like some kind of container. It was made of a dull metal, with a hinged lid and neat writing inscribed on the top. Meral brought it fully out of the hole he had dug around it, and placed it reverently on the ground beside him. Everyone leaned in for a closer look.
Professor Catratti was practically bouncing on the balls of his feet, his expression stretched into a manic grin, but he managed to restrain himself and remember his role as teacher.
“Can anyone translate for the group?” he asked, suppressing his reaction to the words he had presumably already deciphered himself.
This was where Raldi came into her own. Meral might be the class expert on history and geography, but Raldi was the best when it came to languages. Several of the other students were already looking at her, and the one directly in front of her stepped graciously aside so she could get a better view of the box.
Raldi inspected the inscription carefully, wanting to make sure she got it right, before she spoke. Then, she read slowly.
“Letters from America, to The Future. Princeton Elementary School. Class of 2016.”
A collective gasp from the group went up at this last part, and Professor Cattrati nodded at them all approvingly.
“You’ve grasped the significance, then?” he said.
Meral spoke up, eager to reassert his superiority and his claim over the find.
“2016 was the beginning of the Great Collapse, in what used to be known as America,” he said. “If there are documents inside this box, they may provide valuable information about the state of the country just before everything started to go wrong.”
“Yes, very good!” the professor exclaimed. “So little is known about or has survived from that turbulent period. Any artifacts we can recover will be eagerly received by our historians. This could be a major find!”
Raldi dredged up her knowledge of the relevant vocabulary. She wasn’t sure that letters written by young children would really be of that much use. She supposed, though, they might contain some colourful insights into the lives of ordinary children before the Great Collapse. It was a shame they wouldn’t be able to open the box then and there.
Sure enough, Professor Cattrati was already instructing one of the others to run to the transport for a re-inforced container. The box would be sealed tightly away, to be opened by experts in a vacuum, so as to better preserve whatever material might be inside. Raldi and her classmates would be lucky if they got to see the contents at all, let alone be able to examine them.
She turned away from the group, and looked to the horizon. The blasted landscape had an ethereal beauty about it, and it was quite an experience just to be standing there. Regardless of what turned out to be inside the box, this would still be a story to tell her grandchildren. Perhaps by then, humanity might have repopulated this area and she would be able to bring them to this very spot to describe what it was like in her youth. She hoped, one day, that children would play here again, and that the school’s existence might come full circle to achieve the vibrancy and activity of its ancient origins.
There was always hope.
You ask me why my letters are getting shorter, if I am still quite alright. You say that I don't sound like myself, that my words could be anybody's, the way they fall like stone onto paper.
The truth is that I barely know myself any more, mama, my own language grown stale under a swarm of phrases I half understand. Our language: sometimes I speak it to myself in the mirror at night, just to know that under the layer of smog I'm still there. But our language sounds like an old door now, and sometimes the yellow light flickers in the sirens and my own reflection starts to look like a cracked screen.
Feet crammed full of concrete until my soles feel like they are made of neon: bright and cold and numb.
This isn't how it was meant to be.
But this is how it is, buddy so keep walking keep walking.
These walls thinner than a flag, streets made of spit, stars made of plastic. Tick, tick, tick. I can't breathe, mama, and I am afraid.
Are buildings grown from the sky or falling from the ground? Not that, not that.
Fuck you man. Fuck you buddy.
Work. I'll do it. Yes I'll do it. Anything. I don't care. I'll sleep on the windows of buses. I'll sleep in the space between bending down to pick up a box and standing up with it in my arms. I'll sleep in the blinks between conveyer belts. I'll use the cold halo of antibacterial spray as my pillow. I don't care I said, I said I don't care.
Hope like a herb. Sprinkled on a pizza; eaten by a toothless man; and burped out with a pepsi stain on the wall. And then shitted out. Into a system of metal lines which aren't magic, just a feat of engineering.
I heard a woman crying for hours like her heart had been taken siege. Walls like a flag, mama, a voice like yours. I didn't comfort her. I hid my head under the blanket. You think I want to get shot? You want me to get shot? Shot things don't make money, mama! How d'you like that?
But you know that, why am I telling you this? Sorry, mama sorry, I didn't mean to shout. It's just that everyone is shouting here.
Once I saw a man eating dirt and I didn't stop to help him but no one stops to help here so it doesn't matter. Any one of these people could be kind, but not me, just in case.
In the subway there are crazy people.
You aren't meant to look them in the eyes.
Maybe I'm one of them.
Maybe I should throw myself under the tracks.
Fuck you man. Wake up. Don't be stupid. Your family needs you, man.
Fuck you. Fuck YOU! Crawling. Crawling. Crawl in.
Take the money, mama. Eat it. Feed it to the little ones. Frame it and put it on the wall next to your father's picture; make yourself a dress of stars and stripes. But please, whatever you do, just don't worry about me. I cannot do it all. I once thought I could. But that was before I came to America and things are different now.
Mama? Are you there?
Of course not, of course not.
This is the sort of letter that can never really be sent.