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The Road to the Sun

Dystopian themes abound in popular culture. In a world wracked by climate change, war, mass migration and a growing gulf between the super-rich and everyone else, imagining the worst has become its own industry. But what might it feel like to live and work in a future society that has begun to heal a damaged planet even as people continue to be their messy, imperfect selves?

Nicholas Powers Sep 19

Issue 228

U.S.–Mexican Border

“People are dying,” the reporter’s voice cracked. At his feet, skeletal families raised thin arms. He pointed to the refugees around him, tens of thousands, panting with cracked lips, dying in the dust. Their eyes gazed north, to the soldiers and the great wall barring their path.

“Heat waves have destroyed Mexico’s crops and left a nation on the move,” the reporter said, kneeling beside a father cradling his child. “These refugees camped here along the border are seeking entry into the United States, or simply food.” From the other side of the border, the chants of American protesters echoed.

The father stood on shaky legs and walked to the wall. Border guards aimed their rifles at him, hollered for him to stop. He held his baby up to them. More parents lifted their children, limp as dolls. They pleaded loudly until the father, in a spasm of a tears and grief, threw his baby over the wall.

Reflexively, a soldier aimed his gun at it as if it were a clay pigeon. Horrified screams followed as someone in the crowd on the American side caught it.

The reporter tried to talk but broke down. Within minutes, a photo circled the world of a U.S. soldier, aiming a rifle at a baby flying through the air.

New York, 20 Years Later

Kisses flew like butterflies. Lorenzo caught one, winked at the couple who blew it and handed it to his boss, Annie. She took it and pretended to powder her cheeks. Confetti swirled around their hard hats. Crowds cheered.

“This is incredible,” Lorenzo yelled over the noise. She nodded and pointed to the heavy tractor, nicknamed The Beast. It looked like a house on tank treads. The Governor sat on top and blew the horn. Lorenzo knew they depended on that damn thing. Dozens of road crews were following the tractors as they stamped new solar panels over old highways. His team was going from New York to the Mexican border, bolting and wiring panels to soak in sunlight and churn out electricity.

“That your girl?” Annie asked and Lorenzo saw Nefeesha’s big Afro and wide eyes as she waved.

She tugged her black shirt with the white question mark. It was her favorite piece of clothing. In bed, she stretched it like a trampoline between her knees. They both were undocumented and the shirt expressed what she felt, that nothing was stable in their lives. Nothing. Until the Green Deal. On the news, the President said if they stop carbon emissions, they can stop the heat waves. The government needed millions of workers and offered citizenship in return for service. Lorenzo signed up for a road job. He didn’t like being away for months but in the end, he’d be a citizen and his girlfriend would not wear a question mark to bed each night.

Pennsylvania

Every day, they stepped into a rose-colored dawn, leaned against The Beast, quietly drank coffee. Lorenzo knew their names: Leo the wrestler turned engineer, Stanley the pimpled, opiate junkie turned electrician. Politeness separated them. They didn’t know each other, except for Sage, who never shut up.

“It is sacred work to save the Earth,” he chimed this morning, patting each of their shoulders. His large eyes and round face made him look like a six-foot-tall child with a dog-eared copy of Walden crammed in his back pocket. “Sacred work,” he repeated.

A line of judgment passed through their eyes. He was a Road Freak. One of those workers who talked about the solar highway as if was the Second Coming of Christ. It will stop the hurricanes that battered the coastal cities. It will temper the heat waves that baked the land. They shrugged at the lectures, almost feeling guilty for not sharing  his politics. Lorenzo just wanted his papers. Most of the crew just wanted to make money. And drink their coffee in peace.

Annie climbed down from The Beast, her cornrows frizzy, her freckled face still sleepy. Sage patted her shoulder and she scowled. When his back was turned, she squatted and pretended to pee on the solar panels. The crew laughed. Sage shot around and saw Annie nonchalantly checking her nails. When he turned again, the others pretended to piss on the panels to. She doubled over and again he turned, seeing them casually sip from their cups. They bonded over this serious, political man being spun by their laughter.

West Virginia

“So, how’d we get here, Pimples?” Leo jabbed at Stanley. It was night. Orange cones blinked like party lights across the new highway. Spools of cable hung over their shoulders. Stanley turned his collar up to hide his acne.

“I mean, how did two white guys fall so low,” Leo said, leaning in to whisper, “stuck here with illegal spics and a dyke boss? Was it drugs?”

“Yes,” Stanley said through a tight jaw. “Opiates. I crave ’em bad. Every day, I have to say, ‘Don’t do it.’” He stared at Leo, “But I’m lucky, bad as it’s been. I’ve never been hooked on what you’re hooked on.”

“What’s that, Pimples?” Leo sneered.

“Hate.” Stanley, walked aways, said louder, “You’re addicted to hate.”

Virginia

Lorenzo woke early. He leaned over the rail of The Beast and stared at the highway, knowing that somewhere at the end of it was his citizenship. On the road he saw a young black woman with thick arms covered in tattoos, calligraphy stretching up to her neck. She leaned on a shovel and rubbed a monitor attached to her ankle.

“Hello,” called Lorenzo but she shot him a dirty look and walked further off. He shrugged but when the crew came out, rubbing sleep from their eyes, he asked Annie who she was.

“The President is panicked we won’t get the highway done in time,” she said. “The scientists are panicked the world’s gonna burn up. They need more labor. They offered early leave to nonviolent prisoners if they work on the road. This one’s name is Andre.”

“You sure she’s nonviolent,” Lorenzo teased.

“Who the fuck knows?” Annie laughed, climbing on The Beast, boots clanging on the ladder.

Leo sidled up to him. “Who’s the gangbanger?” he asked. Lorenzo could smell the alcohol on his breath but he kept his gaze on Andre. She stared  at the highway’s horizon. He knew what she was looking for and how far away it was.

North Carolina

“Get the hell away from me,” Andre shouted and pushed Sage back. Everyone looked up. Oh no, here it is. She’s going to pop.

“I don’t want to hear that shit,” she panted, as her hard hat rolled on the ground. The crew giggled as Sage held his book, face red as an apple. Annie stopped The Beast. It shuddered to a halt, its tank treads steaming. She climbed down, scooped up the hard hat and thrust it back to Andre. She pointed at the road that never seemed to end.

They began exchanging words but the others couldn’t hear what they said. It was like a strange pantomime of empathy. Annie made a motion as if holding bars, she tapped her finger against her head then pointed back to Andre, who nodded. Andre put her hard hat back on.

Annie walked back to The Beast, told Sage to knock it off with the preaching and climbed back into the driver’s seat. Curious, the men looked at each other. Lorenzo scaled the ladder and asked, “What did you say to her?”

She stared at the road. “I told her I was once in jail too.”

South Carolina

The crowds between cities grew thin; one or two supporters who used their “Solar Hope” placards to fan themselves in the heat and then no one. Just road.

Annie drove The Beast up hills and into valleys, around mountains and through towns. The road seemed endless and the distance sapped their strength. At the end of their shifts, they would all climb the vehicle and look up and down the new highway that glowed like gold at sunset.

They were worried. Only a few test runs had been done. If the solar road didn’t turn on, they’d be laughingstocks, the president voted out and the Green Deal done. The Conservatives would regain the White House. Lorenzo’s citizenship offer, cancelled. Andre thrown back behind bars. But it was Sage who stared at the new highway the longest. “The planet,” he’d mutter. “The planet.”

The Beast moved across the land; it squatted, gears squealed and when it rose again, new panels were stamped on the cement. The road crew kneeled like monks; Stanley and Lorenzo bolted the solar cells. Andre ran cable to the grid. The interconnected system would fuel the electric, self-driving cars and buses, even some of the small cities by the highway. 

Bolt. Wire. Cable. The rhythm of work hypnotized their bodies. They woke at dawn. They sweated. They pulled muscles. They cursed the sun that toasted their arms and necks until, at night, when they undressed, they looked like zebras.

Leo, showed his tan to Andre and asked if it made him “black.” Stanley told him to shut up but he kept at it until Andre came over, grabbed his crotch and said, “Nope, not yet.” They howled at Leo who ironically said, “I’m so racist.” His laughter sputtered and he stood silently, seeing himself through their eyes, and left.

Stanley looked at his pocket mirror. His face was clearing up. Earlier he wanted to quit and call his dealer. But now the craving for drugs was a faint echo in his body.

He asked Lorenzo about the citizenship-for-service deal. “It was a better deal than my parents got,” he responded in a flat, monotone voice. “They died at the Massacre at the Wall.” The crew flinched. A heat wave had burned crops in Mexico and starving people piled at the U.S. border. The president at the time ordered soldiers to shoot anyone who tried to sneak across. Desperate parents threw babies over the wall. Others gave their kids to charity workers; some of them, later, were adopted by Americans. One of them was Lorenzo.

“It is an odd feeling, my friends,” Lorenzo said. “To work so hard, to save the life of a nation that destroyed my family.”

Andre rubbed her ankle monitor. “Tell me about it.”

Georgia

“Hey mi amor,” said Nefeesha. She was glowing. Lorenzo cupped the cell phone to his face.The rest of the crew was asleep. He kissed the screen, “What’s going on?”

She showed him a pregnancy test. Positive.

He dropped his phone. “Oh, my God. Oh, my God!” He picked it up.

She smiled, “I know. I know. Are you okay? Are you ready?”

Lorenzo left the trailer on wobbly legs, heart pounding, and stood on the road. The moon overhead was bright. It cast his shadow like a compass needle that pointed back to New York City.

He held the phone up to the moon. She was on the screen, rubbing her navel. “You’re going to be a father.”

Alabama

“The craving’s gone.” Stanley touched his chest in wonder. It was the first morning he woke up and did not want drugs. Tip-toeing out of the trailer, he rode his skateboard in the early light off a highway exit into a small town.

This looks like my childhood, he thought. Yep, the soul-killing suburbs of America. He stared at the nice homes and remembered swallowing pills in his bedroom while his friends got jobs putting solar panels on roofs. They moved up in the world. He fell behind. Even digging through trash for food. Embarrassed, he ran away.

He sat on the street and hugged the skateboard. Rocking back and forth, he let himself imagine he was coming home after a long trip. 

Mississippi 

“Did you see this?” Sage showed Annie his tablet.

On it a man wearing an American flag as a mask said the solar road was a threat to the nation. He yelled it was the first step in a totalitarian New World Order. The country was going to change its currency to the Amero and fuse with Mexico.

“True patriots will never surrender.” He cocked his rifle and aimed it at the camera as the video cut out.

Annie sighed wearily. When the crew woke, she showed it to them. A deep chill settled in their limbs. The work rhythm was off. Andre smashed her finger with a hammer. Leo tripped over wires and skinned his knee. Everyone was looking at the tree line.

“I don’t want to get my head blown off,” Leo complained. The next day a big-bellied sheriff gave them bulletproof vests. But they were too bulky to work in. By evening, the National Guard patrolled the roadside and surveillance drones flew in circles over their heads.

Arkansas

A boiling wind rolled through Little Rock. The road crew sweated as crowds cheered from one side of the street. On the opposite sidewalk were protesters, calling them traitors and spitting racial epithets.

They laid solar panels on the city highway. Huge night lights beamed down, they looked like actors on a theater stage. Sage was signing autographs and giving the finger to the protesters.

“Hey, Hollywood,” Stanley shouted. “Want to help us out here?”

Sage kept on autographing a solar highway pamphlet for a fan, but when he turned darkness swallowed the city. Screams. Buildings draped in shadows. Eyes of shock. Eyes of fear. Eyes of rage.

People used cell phones as flashlights. Cars slowed to a crawl. Annie was on her walkie-talkie, gesturing furiously. “I say yes. Pull the switch.”

She hung up. “The heatwave knocked out grids from here to Baltimore,” she said. “The mayors are panicked about riots. They want us to turn on the solar road.”

Scrambling, Andre plugged cables. Stanley and Leo read the meters. Annie shouted through a megaphone at the crowd, “Get ready!” She put her cell phone into the mic. Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” blasted a rolling bass and snappy drum. She gave Andre a thumbs up. The solar road brightened like a heavenly path. People awed, stepped on it lightly at first and then firmly. Some jumped. Annie bobbed as Michael Jackson played from her megaphone. People began to boogie. The city became an ethereal dance floor. Leo moonwalked for the pointing crowds. Lorenzo felt Nefeesha’s call. He picked up his phone and saw her in New York, belly large. In the background, people danced on a bright solar street. Stanley, fingers trembling, called his sister, who stared in shock from the screen then smiled. He panned the camera to show his old friends on the solar road, dancing in the light.

East Texas

“Welcome to Texas,” Annie shouted. The road crew didn’t answer, the sun ground them down to a rueful forward motion. Bolt. Wire. Cable. They worked with grim faces, scanning the trees out of the corners of their eyes. No National Guard. The silence of the land was as heavy as the heat. The Beast backfired and they all ducked.

Slowly, they stood and laughed at their paranoia until Sage began to teeter. Blood sprayed from his neck. He tried to walk, left a dark red handprint on the vehicle and fell. Andre screamed. The crew surrounded him but more gunshots rang through the air. They scattered.

West Texas

The National Guard kept the reporters behind the orange cones. They shouted questions, waved microphones and pointed cameras. The road crew squatted by The Beast, staring at the open road. Who’d be next?

The old cement highway stretched like an open grave before them. Sage. Sweet, pain-in-the-ass Sage. They felt the weight of him on their shoulders. Andre got up, took one of the spray cans and palmed the space next to his bloody handprint. She sprayed her handprint next to his. “Sacred Work,” she scrawled, then passed the spray can to Stanley and Lorenzo. They made their mark and gave it to Annie and Leo. Crawling over The Beast, they covered it with handprints. Andre climbed into the cab with Annie, who revved the engine. The crew picked up their tools and drove away to finish the job.

New Mexico

The sun set on the highway. Weary and proud, they lugged their tools in. Annie called to Andre, who came with a panel under her armpit. The crew circled them, smiles on their faces. Annie gave her a folder. “Today you worked your last mile. Here are your release papers. You’re free.”

Andre palmed her face. Leo popped a bottle of champagne and foam fizzled out. Andre drank and let some roll down her shirt. She reached into her tool bag for her pliers. The monitor around her ankle fell to the ground. She picked it up and hurled it. Walking slowly, she flung her arms out and then ran as fast as she could. They watched her become a faraway dot inside the setting sun.

Arizona

Arizona was an oven. Lorenzo had a sonogram image of his child on his hard hat. Leo’s beard was thick as a bush; Stanley’s face was a thin arrowhead of cheekbones and eyes. Andre was riding with Annie in The Beast, cornrowing her hair.

The sun was low and hard as if they worked under a tanning lamp. Sweat streamed down their necks and arms. They stripped off their shirts. Gripped water bottles that flashed like icicles.

The Beast laid panels on the dusty highway. Bolt. Wire. Cable. They followed it through desert and sunburnt rock, up slopes and down hills. Behind them, far behind, new cars and buses were being propelled by the energy of the road itself. The Green Deal was a success. They were joyful but that world was far away. Out here, another heat wave cooked them into jerky.

Dark clouds made a charcoal smudge in the sky. Cool wind ruffled their hair. Storm shadows swept over the land. A few drops of rain sweetened their mouths. More drops and a hard rain fell. 

They turned their hats upside down like buckets and drank from the sky. They splashed each other’s faces. They felt all the miles of work washed from them as if by nature’s holiness. They yelled Sage’s name.    

U.S.-Mexican Border

They all rode The Beast to the Mexican border. A tornado of rose petals flew. Parents lifted children to touch the handprints on it. Crowds cheered.

Mexico’s solar road crew greeted them. They hugged the haggard men and women,  shared stories and cases of Tecate beer. At the ceremony, an environmental scientist took the microphone and said, “We have done a great thing here. Carbon emissions are plummeting. The Earth has turned a corner!”

Lorenzo left early. Nefeesha was due and he was catching a flight to New York that night. But he felt a strange memory pull at him like a magnet. He strode down the highway, walked over new solar panels, trying to pin it down.

Where? What?   

He turned onto a small path that ended in dust. The memory slid into place. He was here again; the Massacre at the Wall, where his mother and father died. Following the faded images of the past, he entered an abandoned building.  He touched the door frame gently.

His phone buzzed. On it he saw Nefeesha, her face exhausted but happy. “I have someone I want you to meet,” she said. Lorenzo stood dizzily between two worlds, the old and the new, cradling the phone with his child’s face in his hands. The newborn’s screams echoed through the ruins.

____

Illustrations by David Hollenbach.