She is standing. There used to be a bench here, a place to sit and contemplate. Declared a superfund site, this park has been closed for over a decade. Its grass now overgrown, the thicket of green comes right up to the shore of the lake. It feels familiar but also foreign. The light is gray and hazy today. The dim, foggy sky has a cast of sodium yellow. There is a smell of something rotting; algae, something decaying. This is the place she used to come to feed the ducks as a child. Her father brought her here. It was a place they used to come together; on weekends when her sister was away; during the week when her father was supposed to be at work; or days when he let her stay home sick from school, a wink and a nod to her sore throat or throbbing head. They’d usually arrive in the late morning, with a loaf of stale bread they’d picked up at the market on the day-old rack for seventy-nine cents. White bread that should have been able to last a century. A loaf that could survive a nuclear holocaust. It never made sense to her that it was always on sale. The ducks loved it.
The day-old bread has never seemed more necessary than it does right now. All around her she sees markers of wealth. Fancy cars driven by fancy people with fancy clothes and fancy dogs. They are not the only ones, of course. Their displays of wealth may have become commonplace but the crust and patina of the way things used to be is still everywhere. It’s just that not everyone has to see it if they choose not to. This is what ultimately drove her father away. Drove him mad like the sound of a dripping faucet that could not be fixed. The insidiousness of the drip drip drip was like a tonic he couldn’t live with. The constant ranting did not impress his employer. His steady job became some odds and ends he tried to cobble together. And then those slowly dried up too. The last straw was when his disintegrating Geo Metro died and he could no longer make deliveries for YumBrigade or Uber Eats. His livelihood, like so many others evaporated. Soon enough, he became completely untethered. When the medications became too expensive or sporadic, he simply disappeared. Occasionally he would reappear in her life, but those times were rare. Like an apparition in the mirror he would show up on her doorstep or in her voice mailbox. Always unannounced, unexpected, ill-timed. Though she missed him, she too sometimes wished she could choose not to engage. She understood why the disparity tortured him. But she also wished she could turn away. To look to the next shiny object and ignore the plight of those who had no choice.
As she stands here today, she can’t remember the last time she talked to him. The water still and only a pale reflection of the sun on its glassy-green surface. She is older now. She hasn’t been here in years. No one has. The ducks still come sometimes. They never got the memo that the water was toxic or that its fumes were noxious or that the foliage they munch on would make their eggshells thin. The insects that gave them sustenance and allowed them to store fat for the long flights south were crammed full of this brain-altering substance. Its fat-soluble residues would seep into their bodies and stay forever, disrupting their endocrine systems. It was as if everything nature had spent so many eons creating was being undone in a blink of geologic time, making a mockery of the whole process. The ducks had no choice. No one did anymore. Adaptation or extinction. They took their lot and did the best they could, just like everything else. The birds and the moths they ate still endure. At least some of them. The frogs had less fortune. It seemed so unfair to her that one species’ karmic jackpot was another’s downfall. It made no sense at all that as humans made their lives easier everything else had to work harder, trying to equalize the balance, their own lives and futures in the scale. Was this the idea of karma she believed in?
She’s come here today empty-handed. The market her father would send her into, a handful of change from the ashtray clutched tight in her palm, his busted-up Oldsmobile idling outside, no longer existed. It too was a casualty of the uneven vestiges of an economic deal that was stacked in the house’s favor. When she woke this morning, the radio man was telling her it was going to be another hot one. “Better turn up those air-conditioners” he’d said. “It’s not going to be nice out there. They say this is going to be the hottest one on record.” Blissful and apathetic, his desk was nice and cool. “And with high temps forecast for at least another week,” he continued, “there’s no sign this will let up.” She’d driven here today in flagrant disregard, her windows down, the newswoman warned that the air quality was low. “Elderly and those susceptible to illness should stay inside.” She had no intention of heeding the warning. And why should she? Wasn’t this the new normal? She could no more expect things to change than the ducks could.
Everything about her today was in opposition to what she was supposed to do, what she was supposed to believe. This morning, her weathered old Chevy, with its oxidized paint roared to a start with a plume of blue-gray smoke belching from its exhaust. Modern cars didn’t do this. Modern cars didn’t have eight chugging cylinders or catalytic converters whose contents had been gutted for the meager value of the platinum inside. Some days she felt a modicum of guilt for this. Today she harbored only a veiled concern for the damage she‘d done and was about to do. She hit the highway, hard and fast, winding out second gear as long as she could. Her foot to the floor, the engine’s throaty thrum pulsed through her. The pale blue-gray mist trailing out behind her almost invisible against the gray brume of the sky. It was certainly a hot morning. She couldn’t say she hadn’t been warned. But somehow it felt like it always did. The breeze blowing in her hair, whipping her cheeks and clouding her vision. Her sunkissed arm hanging over the open window’s ledge, she pushed on. The heat did not bother her. It was the sky that felt like it was weighing her down. It was always like this now; gray and hazy and diffuse. As if the light had no direction. No more could anyone step outside and have an idea of the time of day based solely on the shape and direction of the shadows alone. Most days, there barely were any shadows at all. Still she put her sunglasses on. In part to help her see beyond the glare, but mostly as an affront to the idea that this was the new normal. Summer without sun. Heat without light. It was like the world had gone infrared, the visible spectrum void of its full wavelength.
The humid air now had a certain charred quality. It smelled of smoke and burning plastic, as if a tire fire or medical waste incinerator burned just beyond the horizon. As it churned through the inside of the car, it filled and thrashed her lungs, the density of each breath felt as if she were taking a heavy drag off a cigarette. But there was no fire. There was no incinerator. This was just the cost of modern life. If you were lucky enough to reap its benefits—the exotic varieties of fruit at the local supermarket and the sophisticated synthetic thread that made up your t-shirts or the condenser that controlled the climate in your bedroom that kept you cool and drowned out the noise of the 4:00 a.m. garbage trucks so you could sleep—if this was your life (and let’s be honest here, it is) then you had no place to comment on the cost you paid in the cleanliness of your water or the particulate in your air. It was with this in mind that she peeled off the expressway toward the park. It wasn’t that she didn’t care. She cared deeply. It was just beyond her control. Perhaps this was her karma: to see the world for what it was and to participate in all the greatness it had to offer but to also understand that for all the benefits she gained, someone or something else would pay the true cost.
Despite the injustice of that, she believes in divinity. Divinity is all around her. It is unimportant that she can’t always see it. She’s knows it’s there. And it was divinity that brought her here, to the park that is no longer a park. The park, whose lake had once been a beautiful azure blue, its water so clear she could see all the way to the bottom. Its soft, loamy sand gathered like silk between her tiny child-sized toes. And the ducks, they loved this lake too. This park had been a gift. A rare amalgamation of corporate land and municipal stewardship. The lake was man-made, and it was only after years of lawsuits revealed to the public that this beautiful blue lagoon was little more than a tailings pond to store the coal ash from the nearby power plant. Why had she come here today? To feed the timid mallards she hoped would be here? Or the squawking geese that used to chase her, fighting each other off for whatever crusts and crumbs laid broken and dry at the bottom of the bag? She came because it reminded her of a different time. A time when her cares could be easily washed away by splashing at the water’s edge with the sun reflecting in her eyes. Or watching the birds gather around her, slices of stale bread in her hand as if she were a roadside preacher dispensing the gospel, and they were her needy parishioners.
As she stands here now, she finds a total lack of all the things that brought her here. There are no birds today, nor is there any sun. Crestfallen, she waits. Closes her eyes and waits. Taking in a deep breath, she is reminded of a vision she had as a child. Less prophecy and more an idea, or a fantasy. Once she’d though it the first time, she wished it every chance she got. On every birthday cake and every clock whose numbers read 12:34, she wished she could be on another planet. A planet whose proximity to other stars was closer than ours is to its nearest neighbors. Perhaps in another galaxy or with binary suns or someplace deep in the heart of the Milky Way where solar systems were close together like cities, unlike ours which is out in the most rural wing. She wished she could experience a place where the night sky is so filled with stars that even when the sun has set, it is still almost light out. Where the sky is a riot of flickering lights on even the dimmest nights. Imagining this, she stands with her eyes still closed, wishing with all her will that when she opens them, that the shore she is standing on is more like the one she remembers from her childhood, and less like the one that it was when she stepped out of her car moments ago. She takes a deep breath. And then another, this time opening her eyes with her exhale. Looking intently, she sees exactly what was there moments ago. Nothing. No insects, no birds, no sun. Just stillness and absence. She is not disappointed. She would have been foolish to actually expect something different. Taking in the scene, she sees the same indistinct and colorless sky hovering above the same pale, almost-colorless lake. She sighs heavily. But then, just as she is about to leave, she sees something. A tiny speck moving on the horizon, it is coming toward her. She is peering now with squinted eyes into the distance at some thing that is flying but not quite taking shape. It is approaching, its wingbeats fast and steady. Her breath now bated, she is leaning in, straining to see. The mallard is flying toward her, nearing the shore, it circles around and skids to a slow sail on the surface of the water.
Josh Fredman is an artist, writer and photographer currently splitting his time between Seattle and Lisbon. He holds a BA in Environmental Communications from Antioch College. His forthcoming novel should be out next fall.
featured photo by Josh Fredman