I’m slowly turning into steam and floating up through a manhole cover. People walk through my vapor talking on phones, walking dogs—bullshitting about things that don’t matter, or maybe they do. A cop is directing traffic; his white gloves point and wave through me and I scatter and curl in the air. If I had stayed here long enough, I might have gathered up into a cloud and rained down on all of you, but I don’t. Instead, a Gatorade smacks me in the chest.
“Are you good back there?” asks the man under shade.
I shrug. My soggy shirt clings and drags up my body when my shoulders lift with my ambivalent reply.
“The fact that you aren’t sure tells me you are,” he says as he starts the backhoe’s engine. It chokes and vibrates back to life. The hood is loose and trembles and shivers so violently that it makes a sound like a low whistle.
“Drink that and let’s get on to the end of this.”
I do as I’m told to the single-note tune of the hood. This is the fourth Gatorade I’ve had in the last hour. Probably eight since we started three or four hours ago. Where are they all going? I drag my sweat-saturated shirt across my wet brow, and, unable to soak anything up, the shirt pushes the new sweat to the edge of my face. It runs down the side of my neck. That must be the Gatorade from half an hour ago.
The man in shade starts to dig up the trench with the backhoe. The trench walls go as high as my waist, which comes in handy for support when my head decides to go light. I start clearing out the loose dirt and roots. Some of the roots don’t break off completely, and I have to finish them with my shovel. One is three or four inches thick. I look up at the closest tree, an oak about twenty-five feet away. Could this root be from way over there? The tree and I have a moment. The heat is shimmering and making everything wavy. It gives the tree the appearance of more life than a tree normally has. I circle around some kind of odd understanding. My belly feels warm and empty, even minutes after the last Gatorade. Everything feels warm and empty. I look down at the root, lift my shovel, and, with four plunges, I lop it off. It rests on the ground like a wooden tentacle waiting to be petrified.
I pick up the root and hold it in front of the waves of heat. The root dances in the illusion like a living squirmy thing. I put it aside. I lift my hands in front of my unsteady surroundings and watch my fingers flow with the undulations of heat in unnatural ways that make my head wobbly and my stomach tight. Then, my fingers start to slowly evaporate into hot plumes. I watch the steam that used to be me float toward the grate above.
My mind sees cars bearing down on the road. High-beams lighting the way to the end of the path, to the end of the next path, to the end of all paths that lead to a cold, empty parking lot on the south side of a Ford dealership. I have visions of saving money. Then I’m in a house. I see a new washing machine, sparkling, electrified. The spin cycle turns like the Earth bringing me back around to something singular, dirty, and manual. If it was the same, I’d be upset; if it was different, I’d be afraid. I’m nearly half sure that joy rules all. A pile of clothes from the dryer is on the couch. Heat rising makes the TV screen unwatchable. The shows are the commercials, and the commercials are the shows, and they caress my eyes. It’s all entertainment. I shave my face while I watch. The razor is cold and not like the hot clothes on the couch at all. I slide the razor across my face and drain the television advertisements down the sink with the used shaving cream. It all ends up in the ocean somewhere.
I put on a warm shirt and jeans. I step outside, and a cold wind nearly blows me over. I stand and lift my thumb. A Ford crashes safely down the highway and stops to pick me up. We hum and cough toward the horizon line, leaving the burned remains of street signs and forests behind us. We light up new identities and put them out as casually as cigarettes. Flicking old names into burned out ditches, where all forgotten titles float down with decades of ash. Maybe, in five thousand years, a geologist will find me in several layers of earth and be puzzled.
Something smacks me and knocks me back into a solid state. A bottle of water is in the dirt at my feet. The man under shade is staring at me.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asks.
“I think I feel sick.”
He takes a drink of water and squints up at the sun. “So you ain’t good?”
I feel the cycle spin.