the final days of a falling empire

by Katie Hufnagel, SUNY Cortland, April 23, 2008

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Zipping around in an automobile in the final days of a falling empire: in fact, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. So we all hop in MarMar’s rickety station wagon for a pleasant little ride to the lake – one last trip before the smoky-leaf/ fallen-apple smell disappears and the sky fades to a dismal instead of a crisp toasted grey. Before I left, my friend Laura typed me some staticky emergency political garble in an instant message online, something like, “America’s falling apart right now don’t you know we’ve outsourced everything and keep taking out loans from Asia – our entire country’s going under! Not to mention what we’re doing to the environment... anyway, we're doomed. Ten years, max.!” to which I said, “Don’t call me Max, lady! Well I gotta go k bye.” I was in a bit of a hurry – I didn’t have time to discuss the debt crisis and the end of the universe as we know it. Plus, I had such an enjoyable autumn car ride to look forward to – we pumped up the jams, smoked some Menthol Lights, tossed our garbage leisurely into the weeds – possibly conking a raccoon between the eyes with a bag full of aerosol cans thrown out the passenger window, and busting up a party at a anthill with a Mountain Dew bottle sprung from the sunroof. An 18-wheeler shipping who-knows-what in a hurry toppled our way on a tight curve, nearly sending us all (himself included) right off the road in a heap. Of course we’re doomed, I thought. How can a nation that plows like a firecracker through everything they ever do possibly be anything less than doomed! It’s been our destiny to explode in a life-altering sizzle & pop since we came into existence, and now it’s only a matter of time before it actually happens. I guess I’m worried. I mean, not emergency-style worried like some people are but sometimes I wonder if I should do something drastic like maybe it’d be a good idea to just remove myself from wasteful silly society and move into a cabin in the woods at the top of a long mountain trail, maybe start up a jug band with all the wilderness creatures and build things only using sticks & leaves & twine. I feel like that would help save us somehow. Maybe about ten of us could live in a cabin near a creek would stay there for just a few days, like our own little community. It’d be perfect: cooking lunch over the fire in the lazy afternoon, then washing out our mess kits in the creek where a water spider might jump in a soapy dish. And after lunch: a game of kickball in the hayfield, where we’d run for hours in the hot sun. Some days I’d feel like I could live that way forever. But I know at one point I’d go through withdrawal – maybe rocking back and forth in my sleeping bag, eating my secret stash of Taco Bell sauce packets I’d kept as a souvenir from the outside world. I’d miss too many things, fun things like smoke from the old factories downtown, and air-conditioned buildings, and watching Scooby-Doo with a huge plate of microwaved food on my lap. When we get to the beach, we each go off on our own to think: about pool parties last month when it was still warm enough to swim in a backyard, villages we built in the forest in July so the elves would have a safe place to live, all the memories from when things were still electric and alive. Here, sandcastle cities lay in ruins, the lifeguard chair is abandoned; we’re actually the only ones around. I figure at least maybe I can collect some nice seashells, but every time I think I spot a pretty one and go to unbury it, it turns out to be a fish skeleton. Some exhausted-looking seagulls stumble by, still coughing from their complete breakfast of rotten Cheetos and beer tabs. Looking out across the water, I imagine a turtle and a duck falling desperately in love when they are caught together in the same plastic 6-pack ring and float happily away through the sludge. Maybe all is not lost.

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