Fatama, Alabama, June 2044Working on fence posts was my grandfather's work, my
father's work for some time, until the winds and sand came in from the coast, and the sky opened up a wound over southern Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, a blinding eye swirling, burning until everything in the Deep South became too dry. No crops would take, and then my father became a clay miner who told me, "Clay rocks are good for nothing but the money. And there's not much of that, Mathew, except for the government, what they're willing to give to keep us here." But money or no money, my father would have stayed and died just as he did.
When I think of him, I see him standing, the stance of an old dancer, his chubby hands positioned as if ready to go into step—one, two, swirl and swirl. My Uncle Wayne called him a graceful pig because my father was not so tall, though he learned the routines perfect. When I think of him, he spins me across a field he's talked about—green with a ceiling of blue and thick-shouldered clouds I've never known. All I've held is this desert Alabama wasteland. My father takes me round and round, lets me go, lets me fly.
Working on fence posts was my grandfather's work. He put up fences for anybody in Coffee County and counties around. "Ten dollars for every six feet of post," my father told me, some still hanging on, the barbed wire torn and twisted on itself, snapping in the wind like lion tamer whips that come howling. It was my father's work, my uncle's work for some time.
But then the earth turned crazy, and the ozone opened up like a wound, giving the sun permission to burn off every field, devour even the trees—oaks, swamp cypress, and pines that had survived for years with roots clear to the ocean, down to the red-hot core-the sun scorched out that preserved life, splintered branches and trunks into bone, "And it was finished," my father said. "Every town in a panic after years of drought and heat, the government saying to stay calm. The earth let go of itself. The wind pushed the black grit on top of us and pushed, and when it stopped, people fled to Birmingham, Atlanta, and further north—" The Saved World, we call it, too crowded even before we arrived, so the government sent in the national guard to keep us back. What followed—heavy rains in winter, parching droughts in summer. Nothing will germinate, will take root, all of our food brought in from the Saved World so we won't starve.
A string of checkpoints now stands north of the desert, just south of Birmingham and Atlanta, stretching to the Mississippi. This is a marshaled land, a separate land, disappearing as quick as my father's dance steps in the kitchen. But with enough money you can purchase a visa, emigrate, ask for asylum at least and hope the government will grant it. We just choose to stay, they tell us—our community of miners pocketed along the rivers, our existence a contradiction of mud and snakish water engulfed in all this blowing sand. I work the Tensaw and Alabama and Coosa like my father, my uncle. River people, river trash, clay miners, no one's people. We start in Mobile after the spring floods and chase the dwindling channels north, pumping water to the sites where we dig and dig for clay rocks, "For nothing," my father assured me.
There is other mining in the Deep South—mining for real things like limestone and kaolin, granite, coal—what the Saved World can't afford to lose. But us, we dig to keep ourselves here, to keep busy until death, living in a time warp of old things—trucks from the turn of the century; fire hoses bursting along the skin; scratched-up tools, clothes, and dishware that have already seen one life. We string all of it together, packing and unpacking each item as we move along the river to keep us human.
It was thirty years ago, 2014, 15, when the winds changed direction for good, the sky opened up and killed out the life here. Thirty years since everyone tried to escape the dust storms and couldn't. Thirty years since I was born and my mother hemorrhaged. Thirty years of emptying ponds and lakes for clay rocks at Dothan and Sumner's Hill, then following the shrinking and swelling of the Alabama and Coosa until the dust and dirt now live in our beds when we sleep. There is no escaping, no damming the sky. Scientists have tried tricks. Politicians have made promises, all of them afraid that the wound will eventually open more. I've uncovered their fear in my dreams—the belly of the sun growing hungry, fire coming down as I take a mining rope tight, climb and climb, clinch the rope with one hand, trying to seal the sky with the other, slip its skin back together until the sun has had enough and burns through me, through us all. "And what will matter then?" I had asked my father. "What will happen to us then?" But he wouldn't answer.
Four months ago, in February, the very center of our winter, we came to a sign that read Birmingham, 35 Miles
. A little further stood the junk and waste of a landfill, its red crossbones posted in sand with the Saved World's beautiful green just beyond, just out of range in those ridges of chert and sandstone.
Birmingham burned into that rusted sign—all we had read about in school, had talked about on our work breaks—the Saved World was now tangible. We felt it most in the cool shafts, our hands mudded with rocks and water, tearing out clay, thinking we could dig that 35 miles under the checkpoints on our own. We could taste it in our food, and dream it so clearly in our dreams: blue sky, full, wet grass, running and breathing, an authentic life.
Some miners defected by the second evening. The rest of us counted bodies, wondering who would be missing tomorrow. We wondered if they would make it or be caught by the patrol squads, labeled deserters, brought back, and imprisoned. And after hours of digging closer to Birmingham, I pulled myself from a mining shaft and found my father plunked down on a bucket, all the grace of his dancing subdued under layers of red clay.
I told him, "Maybe now, maybe now I'll go. Take Jennifer. But will you come with us?" For years my father had tried to convince me to leave the desert.
"I want you to," he said, his voice fading, his body hunched over. "But I can't leave where your mother is, my father, Wayne, the farm—"
"All dead," I tried to convince him. "All swallowed up in sand."
"I know," he said quietly, and his eyes, those flecks of blue I had watched and watched and waited on, those eyes focused on a hung lantern behind me, black smoke swaying up, splitting the curl and fall of wind as if this was the place to travel, this was where you became the pure black nothingness over the light, escaped the desert, or at least yourself.
My father tangled his fingers through his silver beard, short like the end of a barber's brush, then roughed the wet clay deeper into his swollen face. He kept silent, and I left him, went home to Jennifer, telling her nothing of what my father and I had said.
That morning he didn't come home. He stayed at someone else's house, someone else's trailer—surely that's what he did. But in the evening, I found him asleep in his truck, his body crumpled and dirty. "Get up," I told him. "Get up."
We had made it to the gates of Birmingham like Moses overlooking his promised land after years of wandering and searching, like an army ready to enter. Then spring came in March and the rivers flooded; we were forced back to Mobile to begin again, the roads we had dwindled along—Highways 32, 28—washed and broken, the holes we had dug from the year before already full with sand and mud, disappeared. And on the way to Mobile, my father died.
I keep thinking of that sign and the landfill as I pull my rubber trousers up—waders, fly fishermen call them up north. Here, they're for survival, protection in the mining holes. The trousers are flexible like a fish body, a mermaid's fin slipping from my hands, slapping coolly at my legs. The June sun has been down since 9:00. It's almost 11:00. I have to be at work by 11:00, but I can't get myself going, and I don't care about the hurry of minutes, the routine, the constant fall and push of wind beating on the trailer's body.
Tonight it's the landfill outside Birmingham I keep thinking of, the steel beams that pointed fingers at us when we first arrived. Someone spotted a yellow-white dog, its carcass hung on a beam, spinning round and round until its yanked arm tightened and the animal spun in reverse, only to coil tighter. The skin and hair on its muzzle were singed black, exposing a flash of white teeth. The ribs had bowled out, a long tunnel, bottomless where the guts had fallen. And when I first saw it, I wondered whose mutt it was, who brought it here? Had the dog always been fierce and angry? Leathered and broken? Surely someone had once fed it and offered kindness.
The longer we watched, the more the junk seemed to rise and twist into something useless, waiting until dusk to be remade into something else. That's when the plastic bags and wires breathed like a single body, a dragon's head with the yellow dog's muzzle ready to lurch forward into our camp and gobble us into its rust.
In front stood the Birmingham sign—35 miles
—and I had asked my father, "Will you come?"
He didn't answer. He just stared at the lantern's flame shooting up through the black behind me, the wind driving north dusting our mudded clothes with sand.
As I reach over to smother the flame, the lantern isn't here anymore—it's just another dream.
"Focus on your work," I tell myself, and loop the heavy suspenders across my shoulders. I grab my hard hat, check the switch. The light flickers and fails, red clay shimmering on metal like diamonds.
When my father came home from work, that same clay used to glitter on his skin, his body half-asleep, but his hands, his face alive with mica. And later when he danced in the kitchen, I stood at my bedroom door with a sliver of light, enough to watch him step around the table, hold the air as if it were my mother.
I've already had breakfast. There's only one thing left to do, and still I'm hesitating. I glance at my watch again, the pointer clicks one-two, one-two like Father's steps, their slide across a kitchen floor when I was ten and eleven and supposed to be sleeping. In the watch's face, I notice my reflection: high cheekbones from Mamma's side, our brown summer skin, my forehead broken at the center, two broad plates descended from my father, his eyes and my eyes holding up the same ridge of eyebrow and bone. In winter, as his red skin turns pale, mine does the same, holding the same flash of sulfur. And in the reflection, his face now, the curve of his arm building and swaying where I've locked his ghost out.
Shutting my eyes doesn't help. Making fists and threats is no good either. You have to wait, so I wait until the eggs and coffee come up in my throat mixed into vinegar—a taste that is strong enough to overcome my father, his spirit.
"Get out of here," I choke, saying the words that my father used to say, an edge to his voice. I dry my lips, and the trailer's narrow hallway stares at me openmouthed, waiting.
A strong gust ambushes the tin walls, hits them so hard that surely the center of the earth has boiled up and spilled over Alabama for good.
"Out of here." The wind trails off with Father's warning, but there's one thing left to do. I put down my hat and slowly walk through the hallway.
Our trailer is tiny, just two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, and a kitchen, all paneled in dark wood that the heat has buckled in waves. But the trailer's roof and siding are bolted down strong, have weathered these years well in Fatama. As we follow the Alabama River northeast from Mobile, we use the houses and trailers people left behind when they fled for the Saved World thirty years ago. It's quite a spectacle to see all of us pull up in our battered trucks and equipment—Blacksher, Eliska, Sardis, and Fatama, those signs rusting on highway posts. We step out like carnival workers, like thieves in a ghost town searching for someplace decent. Because we have to use generators, we can't take on a big house—just something small, something big enough to squeeze inside, to make meals and light. And we have to be cautious, be ready for when a dust storm comes on sudden, or a hurricane, or a rare lightning storm shaking the sky loose with steaming water. It's important to inspect roofs and ceilings for damage, to push and kick on the walls, make sure there aren't too many windows the sun can creep through, and especially take note of how much sand has already sifted through the floors. It took us all night to find this trailer two streets over from Main.
"Efficient," Jennifer called it.
"Tiny," I said. I can walk the hallway in less than ten steps, and I'm trying to walk slow, but I reach the bedroom sooner than I want. I lean close to Jennifer, her perfume, the smell of greasy food, noodles with mandarin sauce that she likes, sweat that has dried into the sheets. Her shoulders sink down with my touch. My hands are freezing. Carefully, I draw them down her back, press against the small blades, hoping they will open like butterflies, monarchs my father told me about, yellow and black, speckled, mustard and orange, told me how, when he was young, he pinched the shuttered wings as they slanted in and out of his father's purple and pink azaleas, nervously trying to escape.
But instead of opening, Jennifer's blades tense. In one move she turns, wrapping around my neck and pulling me to the beige nightgown her mother sent, the perfume mixed with sweat, the warmness of the bed, as if she knows exactly where I am, as if she has kissed me good-bye this way many times. Most evenings, she continues to sleep, her shoulder blades concealing her body underneath the air conditioner barking cold and loud. And for a moment our bodies seesaw on the mattress. Maybe I will fall or she will rise enough to pin me. There is even a smile before our bodies balance into familiar shape, the stiffness in our arms returning.
Excerpted from Birmingham, 35 Miles by James Braziel. Copyright © 2008 by James Braziel. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.