By Ruth Midgley
Imagine how hard it is to break up asphalt with a pickaxe. Now imagine it's not even a very good pickaxe. And you've been doing it for days. The sun, hotter now, makes the sweat bead on your face, itchy like a bug landing on you. Sometimes enough water escapes your pores to form a little stream that carves a path down the black dust on your face. And it tortures you that your body is letting such a precious resource just drip onto the ground. Unretrievable.
This has been my existence for almost a full moon. Me, my pickaxe, and the pavement. My hands have carved grooves into the handle as the handle has chiseled callouses onto my hands. I worry my arms won't know how to do anything else by the time I get to stop. Will they remember how to hug? How to hold?
I don't want to tell you how much more asphalt there is to go.
Sometimes, I get to use a shovel to heave the crumbles of concrete into the circulating wheelbarrow. It comes past my plot every hour or so. They say a change is as good as a break. I would like to state for the record that it depends on the degree of change.
They didn't have a plan for removing the concrete jungle, the people who poured it out and put it up. It always grew bigger, never smaller. Engineers only thought about how to lay it down, not about who was going to have to pick it back up. That’s my job now. To rip it up to reveal the earth underneath, all pale and wrinkly like skin under a cast that has been on too long. And if they had thought about it, they would never have imagined doing it with a pickaxe.
They didn't have a plan for any of it. If they had, I wouldn't be here.
I can stop at any time. This isn't a prison sentence. It's more like penance. No, that’s not quite right because it’s not my sin I am trying to atone for. More like a damage deposit for my existence. For everything that I will take, I must first give something.
I see my fellow pilgrims scattered across the hot mirage of black flatness, multicolored spray-painted lines designating each person’s plot. Some have left their posts and are sitting in the shade of the trees by the roadside or have gone into the Mall to lie down on their mats. But I turn back to my pickaxe. It helps to imagine the sweat on my back as if it was cool grass or the wet wall of a dark cave.
I don’t join them. I don’t rest. I'm on a time limit. It’s hard to know when my time will be up, when the biological clock that is on the Mainland will run out.
Now I’m working by the full moon and there are no clouds. Enough light to work in the blessedly cool darkness. I have to take advantage of these nights so I haven’t slept in two days.
Every time I put down my pickaxe, I feel the fear. The fear that I won’t finish in time. That I’ll be so close but that it will be too late. I imagine being able to see the finish line and then getting word that it’s too late. And that the finish line has moved or disappeared. And if I’d only kept going and not took that break, if I’d swung a little harder, shoveled a little faster, I would have made it. And our lives could have begun.
So, I pick up the pickaxe. Lift it and let it fall. I have to sleep soon.
My plot is bigger than most since I’m unpaving for two. “This is how it starts," my wife told me when I volunteered to unpave for both of us. “This is how patriarchy restarts. I can do it with you. Women can -”
I put my hand on her arm. “Plenty of women unpave. You know this isn’t about that.”
“It is always about that.”
“It’s not worth it. If something were to happen… It’s not worth it.”
We had made it to the Coast a few days before. Between bike repairs, scavenging for food, and avoiding bike gangs as often as wild animals, it had taken us longer than we thought. We set out from the Prairies as soon as we estimated there wouldn’t be any threat of snow in the passes. It was not an inevitability that we would make it. I imagine the people in the Before and how certain they could be that they would make it to their destination. They probably didn’t even think about it. We were constantly reminded by the shapes of bicycle skeletons, abandoned by the roadside. God only knows where the skeletons of the riders are now.
But it had been more certain that we would die if we spent another frigid winter on the Prairies. It was clear when we got there that we weren’t the only ones to risk a dangerous journey with the hope of ending up somewhere better. People had been waiting so long to cross, a small village had erected itself in the ferry terminal.
By the time it was our turn, my wife had already told me the news. She would try to keep it secret for as long as possible but we decided I would have to cross alone.
And so now I am here and she is there, with a sea between us until I finish.
I shovel chunks of the scar I have unstuck from the Earth into the wheelbarrow. The young girl who is pushing the cart today smiles at me and says, “The Earth thanks you,” as she moves away. She must be new. It’s what people say to each other here in the Parking Lot. It’s supposed to be encouraging, to remind us that this is a great service. But it just sounds like words to me now.
You don’t realize how much concrete there is until you need to grow your own food. When there aren’t any cars to park on it, the black flatness looks so impotent.
The monks who run this Parking Lot and Mall, which is now their church and where the pilgrims sleep, sometimes walk the plots to preach to us.
“As we break open the asphalt and renew the crust of the Earth, so too shall we renew ourselves and be found worthy.”
They’re keeping the useful pavement of course. The roads and the bike paths. More practical minds will only let their unpaving crusade go so far.
“Like weeds through the cracks of asphalt we will persevere and you will be born again into this new world, this Paradise.”
They often remind us about the Paradise. This Island where people don’t go hungry. The Island where the homes can heat themselves. The Island where no one fights over the scraps of the Before. The Island where there is enough. And we, the lucky ones, will be able to be part of it. We will be given a bicycle and a home and a plot of arable land. And safety.
We just need to break up some concrete first. It’s only fair.
I’ve had a setback. I woke up inside the Mall, my head splitting. Apparently, I collapsed from dehydration. The monks say they will only let me work for so many hours a day now. They don’t want a death on their conscience.
They won’t let us out of the Lot so I am stuck pacing the perimeter. I don’t know what to do with all the extra time. It’s time I don’t want to be spending. I can’t afford it.
I ask newcomers if there is any news from the Mainland. My wife said she would try to send letters with pilgrims who cross. There is never any news. I hope she’s still alive.
I am close now. The resting may have actually done me good and I am making progress. I plead with the monks to let me work more of the day. I contemplate sneaking out at night but can’t risk censure. I can’t be sent back when I’m this close to finishing my plot. I can taste more than just the dust of the asphalt now. I can taste the Paradise, it’s so close to being ours. I can taste my wife. I fantasize about her lips and her skin and her belly, almost not seeing the black pavement I’m ripping up, just feeling my arms lift and lower as my eyes see only her face. Up and down, up and down, up and down. Day after, day after, day after -
“Hey, woah there, stop for a minute. STOP!”
I realize there is a monk standing beside my plot.
“You have a wife on the Mainland, right?”
I blink stupidly at her, trying to clear the sweat and my wife from my eyes. Finally, I nod.
“She’s had a baby.” The monk says flatly. It is not a congratulation.
My pickaxe falls as my knees crunch into the pavement. I wasn’t fast enough. I didn’t make it.
“Is she alright?” I search her eyes.
“She’s still alive and the baby is too.”
She looks at the small square of unbroken asphalt that is all that is left of my plot. She takes a can of spray paint out of her pocket and shakes it.
“Babies are expensive for the Earth, you know.”
I watch as she draws a new line around me. It is impossibly large. She caps the bottle, touches my shoulder, and says, “The Earth thanks you.” She starts to walk away.
I stare at the pavement around me, unbelieving. My arms feel full of gravel.
“Wait!” I feel myself cry out, staggering to my feet. “Is it a boy or a girl?”
The monk looks back at me as if it’s a silly question and I’m not sure she is going to answer.
I have a daughter. I have a daughter and she deserves Paradise.
I pick up my pickaxe.