Breaking Up at the CCC
Loose branches lay in neat piles. Dry, dead wood gathered by hands in stained gardening gloves. Thick chunks of rotted trees are marked with red spray paint for the chainsaw crew to dismantle tomorrow.
When Mark began working on the clearing team he would grab the plants hesitantly, suspecting any number of forest insects may lie in wait to crawl up his arms. Now he rips and throws organic refuse indiscriminately, stopping to flick a pill bug that makes its way up to where his t-shirt meets his bicep, right where the farmer’s tan ends.
The clearing crew completed 4.5 acres today, a huge improvement from the initial 1 acre per day goal they initially struggled to meet. Exhausted, the crew drags their dusty feet, lazily tossing the tools in the back of a trailer before getting on the bus.
On the ride home to the barracks, Mark picks off bristles and prickly weeds stuck to his worn-through Wrangler jeans, holes appearing in places he’d have paid extra for as a teenager. The Performance Series regular fit in dark indigo are now a muted grayish blue, with ever-growing looseness in the waist, making a belt necessary. The jeans hang slightly in the knees from repeated bending and kneeling. He doesn’t mourn the ruination of these fast-fashion pants, unlike his previous pair of much more expensive APC Japanese Raw Denim jeans which held up slightly better but caused Mark psychic damage from seeing how quickly they became undone. After a single week of clearing, Mark ended up getting all new work clothes at the local Walmart, everything he had brought with him was of no use out here.
Mark glances around the yellow school bus and sees the other dozen or so people exhausted, leaning their heads against the windows or just laying down completely with their legs casually in the aisle. The whole scene makes him think he is on a high school drama club field trip to go perform a reformation era drama about day laborers. The wardrobe coordinator was a little too spot-on with the messy hair, deep tans, soiled and ragged clothes. Mark notices one of the legs hanging in the aisle has a single big toe wiggling out of torn up brown New Balance 991s.
Mark jerks awake as the bus comes to a stop and he realizes he dozed off, his mind feeling cloudy and compressed as he half-opens one eye, grabbing his backpack from under the seat in front of him, and stepping off the bus into the afternoon heat. He scrounges in his backpack for a lighter and his Marlboro Lights then smokes underneath a nearby tree waiting for Amy to get back.
The “compound” as the workers call it is just a ring of old, green painted, wood buildings set between some trees in a dusty, rocky terrain. A newly built dining hall towers behind the circle of outdated wood structures, white canvas stretched over metal beams to create a modern, translucent shell reminiscent of something Buckminster Fuller would have made on a tiny budget and tinier timeline.
He lights up his next cigarette, the chemical taste makes his sleepy brain feel dizzy. The wind blows the smoke back into his face, burning his eyes. A clumsy affair.
As he finishes his cigarette, he puts the butt in his pocket. Newly formed sweat drips down his forehead, the dirty and salinated water burns his dry eyes. He stands and rubs the sweat away, giving up on waiting he trudges to the shower for some relief. Amy will understand.
Mark joined this project after the startup he begrudgingly spent 3 years at IPO’d, now giving Mark more money than he would probably ever need, but definitely not more than he’d ever want. His girlfriend, Amy, was a student at U.C. Berkeley working on her masters degree in environmental science while working at Mark’s startup as an office manager when they met. Mark’s casual rant one night at a drinking party about how environmental terrorism was a moral necessity made Amy laugh and led to their first drunken hookup a couple of hours later. More than a year into the relationship, Amy’s parent’s vacation house in Napa Valley burned down (a week before she and Mark were going to go). This really hit home for them, the reality of the consequences of climate change. The project, California Wildfire Prevention Brigade, was part of the Federal Government’s Climate Change efforts. With Amy having difficulty finding a job after finishing her degree and Mark with a full bank account and plenty of burnout, they decided to join up. The process moved rather quickly, Amy with relevant skills and experience was placed on the survey crew while Mark, who was a product designer with a degree in graphic design from CalArts, was placed on the clearing crew.
Mark stands under the low-pressure lukewarm water from the shower head, letting the fat droplets focus on the top of his head, streaming down his face as he leans slightly forward with his palms on the wall. A rare moment of peace, the water lulls him into a trance where he imagines absurdities in the comfort of his wet isolation.
“Hey Mark, you jerkin’ off in there or something?” his buddy Paul yells from outside the shower stall, startling Mark. This was not an absurd accusation as the shower was about the only place you could “jerk off” in the barracks but at this occasion Mark was too exhausted to even think about it.
“I’ll be out in a sec.” Mark replied grumpily, grabbing the soap to actually begin the cleaning part of the shower.
Mark puts on a fresh white Hanes t-shirt, his washed but scarred APC jeans, and a pair of Teva Terra Universal leather sandals. Grabs his phone and cigarettes and walks to see if Amy has arrived yet. As he walks down a dirt path born from common trips from the barracks to the car park, he notices her short, brown hair in the distance and texts her.
He sees her grab her older model iPhone from her simple black Jansport backpack, look at it, and put it back in the front pocket. He walks back to the barracks and sulks on the front porch, other guys walking in and out making small talk, nodding heads at each other, some crude personal jabs.
An emptiness coils around his stomach, the feeling when someone doesn’t want you.
Amy responds. A hesitant, but welcome sense of relief as he tosses his cigarettes back on his bunk and walks to the dining hall.
The iPhone autocorrecting his “omw” into a weird, overenthusiastic comment.
“Ewww. That place looks so gross, hahahahaha” a shrill vocal fry escaped out of Amy’s bunkmate’s MacBook Pro speakers. “Do you, like, sleep there with all of those people in one room?”
The Zoom calls and FaceTime calls have been growing more numerous, and invasive, as the work has dragged on for the third month straight. Now in the oppressive heat of the July, the aura of sanctimony and camaraderie has dissipated into the energy of dozens of bored children left alone too long at a sleep away camp while their parents vacation in Florida.
Amy might have been in bed already but she was lingering in the bunk until 10:00p.m. to meet up with Mark. They had an awkward dinner tonight and he asked her to meet her at their usual spot by text afterwards, probably hoping for sex. The spot, behind a utility shed on the edge of the compound was where they had frequent, passionate encounters, at least when they first arrived. Now the shed was used mostly for bickering and bitterness rather than softness and companionship. She knew tonight the shed would be used for coldness and sadness.
On her night off last week, Amy and another member of the survey team, Joel, hooked up in the bathroom at the local bar. Both of them pretended they were drunker than they actually were, it was more or less the culmination of a couple of months of flirting and longing. Of course Amy felt guilty but she also felt relief. Joel was attractive and charismatic, well, perhaps not as attractive or charismatic as Joel himself thought. The appeal of Joel was mostly that he was there and paid attention to her - something she had craved for a while, even before she and Mark came to work on the project together.
Mark was stable and easy, at times fun and kind. His symmetric face could be confused for handsome and his clothes confused for stylish but after a while Amy found his looks to be dull and his style contrived. His nightly video games, the late hours during crunch, the leftover dishes which he promised to wash in the morning. Amy felt that Mark wanted a mother more than a partner.
It’s not like being on the project had made things easier. On the survey crew, Amy started and worked later and was away from the camp longer, sometimes overnight. Mark was always too tired to do anything social past 8 p.m. Their days off never overlapped. Their friends in the compound didn’t know each other. Their connection was outside of the compound, but inside it felt more like a burden, an awkwardness.
Now Amy had to end it with Mark, ideally a clean break, well, as clean as possible for two people who have to share the same space for the next 3 months. He must know this is coming, she thinks.
Amy left the women’s barracks earlier than she planned, tired of hearing about localized gossip that she had no context to even begin to understand.
The night was cooling quickly. An uncommon cricket chirps close by, pausing their song when Amy approached, beginning again when she got far enough away. Amy walks slightly off the path to enjoy the feeling of the California Fescue on her bare feet.
As Amy approaches the shed, she spots a cinder from Mark’s cigarette glowing in the sparsely lit night. Smoking was a disgusting habit she hated that Mark picked up since moving to the compound, but she supposed it wouldn’t be her problem for much longer. She steeled herself and approached him with a soft “hi.”
She didn’t expect Mark to break down sobbing, something she’d never seen anything close to before. She cried too but mostly in sympathy for Mark, who she did love at one point, perhaps deeply.
On her way back to the barracks a sense of relief washed over her and the chilled air left goosebumps on her exposed legs. The moon dimly lighting the trees, a barn owl calling out in the night, reminding her for a moment of the natural beauty of this area and why she is out here in the first place. She dried her eyes with the bottom of her shirt before walking into the building. All of the lights were off except for phone screens lighting up some faces in the dark - a ghoulish impression, dead eyes and rapidly moving fingers.
She crept quietly into the shared bathroom, brushed her teeth, then climbed onto her second story bunk. Rolling on her side, to her own surprise falling asleep quickly.
Mark focused on the noise of some bird calling in the distance to calm himself down. He grew cold and reached for his pack of cigarettes, determined to make himself feel worse from nicotine than he already did from being rejected. He fumbled around inside of his pack of Marlboro Lights and then chucked it into the woods nearby when he realized it was completely empty. He felt guilty, knowing the box would take at least a year to decompose while the cigarette butts near his feet would take ten times as long. He also felt anger at Marlboro Lights for abandoning him in his time of need.
He opened his phone, scrolled through Twitter, Instagram, even LinkedIn, just to keep his mind occupied. The inane content washed over him, his finger flicking upwards faster than the posts could load. He thought about texting friends but honestly didn’t want to talk about it now. He just wanted to kill some time to let his puffy eyes dry out so he could sneak back into the bunk without being berated by questions or possibly taunts, though he was mostly sure everyone was asleep at this point.
The next morning, Mark rode on the yellow bus to the clearing site, again piling branches, hacking away at dry brush with machetes, and putting litter in bags. He had slept only a few hours, most of the time spent torturing himself with good memories or running through scenarios where he said something mean or clever, moments that would never come. The ache in his stomach was more punishing - no, more persistent - than the hot sun, more biting than the cut that re-opened on his right hand.
The crew finally wrapped up this section of forest early today. The survey crew wouldn’t have finished the next section until the end of day anyway, so they took some time to clean up the area to make the work easier for tomorrow’s collection crew before ending their work day.
Mark walked to the edge of the forest, where they had started several weeks before. He grabbed a cigarette butt from the ground and put it in his pocket. The cleared forest looked clean, orderly, and sanitary. He knew the work they did here was important, it would save lives, protect wildlife, just keep us all going for a little while longer.
After chatting with his bunkmate Jeff during lunch, Mark decided he’d stick out his contract. Jeff’s kind hand on his shoulder when Mark failed to hold his tears in meant a lot to Mark. Seeing Jeff’s kindness emerge from his crass exterior made Mark realize he’d not taken the time to get to know the others in the compound, which was a regret he now had the power to remedy.
Taking a brief break against the shady side of a sprawling old oak tree, Mark looked down and laughed out loud. A new sprout was emerging from the forest floor in a sunny spot. The metaphor was so obnoxious he felt ridiculous seeing such a profane thing.