How to Make Paper When the World is Ending
There was a path beside the ocean. She used to go for walks along it—sometimes with Jack, the family dog. The path wound along a bluff. You could look down at the beach, the children running barefoot and building sandcastles and rock sculptures, and you could look out at the deep-blue water, which seemed to stretch outward infinitely. The horizon a blurred union of ocean and sky.
Today is Family Day at the transfer station, which means Erin has to work on a Saturday. Rolfe is still sleeping when she leaves the apartment. She doesn’t kiss him goodbye because she doesn’t want to risk waking him. This early on a Saturday morning, she can’t bear the sarcastic curl of his lips as he holds in some patronizing comment about her job. She grabs her daypack and her reusable mug filled with coffee and wheels her bike outside.
Early morning in mid-September, and already the asphalt of the parking lot shimmers with heat. It seems like the depths of a July afternoon—at least what a July afternoon used to be like. Now, nobody ventures outside this time of year. Temperatures are at least twenty degrees warmer than average. This is the new normal. She needs to suck it up and get used to it. After all, going backwards is impossible. Their only option is to stop things here, prevent them from getting worse. No, not even stop things, she isn’t holding out hope for that—she isn’t naïve, despite what Rolfe says. Their only option is to slow down the inevitable end.
She swings a leg over her bike and pushes off toward the street. Still dozens of gas-dependent SUVs in the parking lot. She thinks about what Rolfe always says: “People don’t want to change. They don’t want to feel like they’re sacrificing anything. It’s the American way.” She tries to ignore his cynical voice in her head, tries to ignore the stream of SUVs barreling past her on the road, tries to focus on her day ahead—the sustainable oasis of the transfer station, the wide-eyed innocence of the children. “You can only do what you can do.” Her mother’s words, those. But her mother isn’t here anymore to say them.
There was a path beside the ocean, winding along a bluff. You could look out the deep blue water. The horizon a blurred union of ocean and sky. She held Jack’s empty leash in her hand, drumming a slow beat on her hip as she walked. Eventually, she looped back and sat on a bench, watching the surfers. She could almost see Jack out there, scampering in the sudsy surf, his black fur matted with saltwater. A Labrador, he had always adored the water. “C’mon, Jack! Let’s go!” she would call after a while, and he would bound up to the hill to her, sand coating his jowls like an old man’s grizzled beard.
Without Jack frolicking on the shoreline, the ocean seemed a lonelier place. She let herself cry a little, sitting on her favorite bench with Jack’s leash, watching the surfers skim the waves in the slanted yellow sunlight of late afternoon.
That was the last time she walked along the path.
Alice is running late again, so Erin begins setting up their paper-making booth by herself. She lugs out the tub of pulp she made yesterday, equal parts shredded office paper and water, blended together into a goopy mush. She stacks the small wooden frames in a lilting tower. Readies the pile of old newspaper. Waves good morning to Robin, her boss, who is flitting around the transfer station, making sure everything is in place. Family Day is a big event for them. “An opportunity for us to have a real presence in the community,” she recalls Robin saying. She is hoping for a large turnout. There was an announcement about Family Day in the local newspaper, which is a good sign, even though no one really reads the paper anymore. Erin doesn’t. Perhaps families do.
In addition to paper making, there are booths where kids can turn plastic bottles into birdfeeders, plant flowers in recycled egg cartons, and decorate aluminum cans to make pencil holders. “Perfect for back-to-school time!” Robin had exclaimed, going over the event details with the employees. Erin volunteered for the paper-making station because she’s always wanted to learn how to make paper. When she was a girl, her Aunt Beth had given her a fancy stationary set of handmade paper. Erin loved that paper. She loved it so much, in fact, that she could not bear to write on it. It sat in its pretty box in her desk drawer for years. Twelve thick sheets of paper, untouched. Destroyed, now. Gone. For some reason, when Erin thinks of that unused paper, it makes her so sad she swallows a lump in her throat. It’s funny—the little things that sneak up and ambush her. The tiny losses. Those can be the hardest to carry.
“Sorry, sorry, so sorry I’m late!” Alice exclaims, breathless, slamming her recycled hemp bag onto the table. Her leg bumps the tub of pulp and the water sloshes. She seems impossibly young—fresh out of college—her shiny hair pulled into a high ponytail, her wide eyes clear and alert even without coffee. No crow’s-feet. No forehead wrinkles. Erin has a permanent worry-wrinkle above the bridge of her nose; sometimes, standing in front of a mirror, she presses against it with the tips of her fingers, trying to smooth it out.
“What can I do to help?” Alice asks.
“I think we’re pretty much set up.” Erin hands her a mug. “Wanna practice before the kids come?”
Here is how to make paper: dip the mug into the pulp until it is full. Pour the mushy mess onto this screen tacked inside the wooden frame. Hold the wooden frame over a plastic bucket so the water has a place to drip, so you don’t soak the table. Try to spread the pulp in an even layer. There, that looks good. Now flip the frame over onto this piece of newspaper. Give it a good shake so it comes off the frame. That’s normal for it be a thick, goopy mass with a few holes. Carefully use a sponge to smooth it out, filling in the holes. Dab the soaking-wet pulp with the sponge to soak up the moisture. Wring the wet sponge out in the plastic bucket. Dab some more. As the pulp dries, apply more pressure to flatten it out. You don’t want it too thick; it would take forever to dry. Keep dabbing with the sponge until you aren’t soaking up much water anymore. Good job. Carefully bring your piece of paper over to the drying table, over there in the sun. It will need to dry for a day or two before you can write on it, but be sure to come pick it up from the table before you leave, okay? Enjoy the rest of Family Day!
The morning passes in waves—slowly, then quickly, then slowly again. Groups of unruly children bombard the paper-making station while waiting for the bus tour to begin. The bus tour takes them around the transfer station, most notably to the landfill—“The Pit”—where the children get to walk single file across the catwalk over the ocean of garbage, squealing and pointing at the dump trucks, which are all on duty, showing off. So rare to have an appreciative audience.
The parents send their children over to the paper-making station to keep them busy for a few minutes before the bus rumbles over to take them to The Pit. Erin sends Alice into the office for more newspaper. She tries in vain to roll up a little boy’s sleeves, but his jacket gets covered in paper pulp despite her best efforts. She glances over to the bus tour line, wondering if his parents will be upset. Parents are talking in little clusters, sipping the coffee that was provided in biodegradable cups, enjoying the fleeting calm while their children are occupied. Just when the tour is about to leave, the parents run over and drag their kids off to board the bus, leaving half-finished mounds of wet paper congealing on soggy pieces of newspaper.
During the quiet periods, Erin works on these abandoned paper mounds, flattening them and soaking up the excess water with sponges, then laying them out in the sun to dry. She knows most of the kids will forget to pick up their homemade paper before they leave. She knows the landfill is the main attraction, oozing rotten smells. Plus, at The Pit the kids are required by law to wear hardhats and safety vests, which they find thrilling. She knows much of the work she is doing today is useless, easily forgotten—and yet, what if it isn’t? What if even one of these children is inspired to stop mindlessly throwing away paper, to instead make her own paper, to recycle and reuse more instead of wasting. Is that something? Is that enough? There’s Rolfe’s voice in her head again. “Nope, we’re all fucked, darlin’.” She pushes away his negative apathy, plunges a mug into the goopy pulp, smiling as she helps a little girl pour the pulp onto the frame. “Here we go!” Erin says. “You’re doing great!”
There was a path beside the ocean where she and her mother used to go for walks sometimes, when she came home to visit. They would look down at the beach, at the children running barefoot and building sandcastles and rock sculptures. Lately, unspoken words nestled between them about children and grandchildren, fertility and adoption, the closing-in tunnel of her late thirties. Disappointment. Love. Worry. Two months ago, she had broken up with her boyfriend, the one her parents had been certain she would marry. The one she had been certain she would marry. Two months ago, her mother had driven the six hours inland to Erin’s apartment, the one she used to share with the boyfriend. Her mother had swept in, scooped her out of her listless sadness, and drove her the six hours here, to her hometown, and sat beside her on this bench, holding her hand like an anchor. Looking out at the deep-blue water, seeming to stretch outward infinitely, she felt tiny tendrils of relief. The horizon a blurred union of ocean and sky, like a blessing in another language. She felt it even though she did not understand the words.
Erin had not expected Rolfe to attend, but suddenly here he is, sauntering toward her. He is tall and tan and wearing another one of his lumberjack shirts. He looks out of place in the middle of the transfer station, like a cowboy in a shopping mall.
“Hey there,” he says, smiling at Erin as he surveys her booth—a total mess, water and pulp splashed everywhere. “What we got goin’ on here?”
“We’re making paper!” a little girl shouts, sticking her hands directly into the wet pulp.
“Here, sweetie, use a mug to scoop it out,” Erin says, trying to wipe the girl’s hands with a towel. “Then pour the pulp into this frame, see?”
Alice rushes over and drops another armful of newspaper onto the table. They are flying through their stash; for each sheet of paper the kids make, the pulp soaks through multiple layers of newspaper. Alice immediately latches onto Rolfe. “Are you another volunteer?” she asks, sidling up and touching his arm. Erin notes the arm touching, but doesn’t say anything.
“I’m happy to volunteer, yeah,” Rolfe says. “But I came by to visit Erin.”
“Oh,” Alice says, stepping away. Her voice raises two octaves. “Erin, you didn’t tell me you had a boyfriend!”
Erin just nods, helping the little girl spread the paper on the frame with the sponge. There is paper pulp in the girl’s hair, on the front of her shirt—probably on her face, too.
“Actually, if you wouldn’t mind. . . ” Alice peels off her apron. She brought one to protect her clothing from the mess. Erin did not.
“Could you take over for me?” Alice asks Rolfe. “I hate to ask, but I just got a text from a friend of mine and it’s, like, an emergency.” She glances at Erin. “What? There’s only, like, an hour left. Not even an hour. Besides, there’s not that many kids still here.”
And just like that, it’s done. Erin has not even finished helping the little girl spread her paper smooth, and already Alice has passed off her apron to Rolfe and fled.
“All right,” he says, winking at Erin. “How do we do this? Teach me your ways.”
One night, there was an earthquake far out in the ocean. As the people slept, a giant tsunami roared down upon the little town. It swallowed up the path beside the ocean. It swallowed up the streets and shops, the cars and the houses. It swallowed up her parents. Now there is an entirely new coastline. Her hometown is gone, wiped off the map, as if never there at all.
Erin first met Rolfe at Whole Foods. It was one week after her family dog died and five weeks after her boyfriend moved out, and she was standing before the display of gourmet cheeses. She took the plastic-wrapped blocks into her hands, studying the colors and textures—some with fruit and nuts inside, some with names she did not recognize. She imagined she could smell their tang and sharpness through the plastic. She would smear this one on a cracker. This one, she would slice and nibble slowly, delicately. After a moment, she put them back down in the display. In her cart: spinach, carrots, apples, turkey. She was doing a special diet that month, a cleanse to expel toxins from her body. From her life. No gluten, no sugar, no dairy. No cheese.
Eventually she noticed a stocky, broad-shouldered man a couple paces away, also studying the cheese display. His hair was shaggy and he had a thick beard and wore a plaid shirt, dressed like a lumberjack for Halloween. A parody of a lumberjack, but still sexy. So different from her tall, freckled ex, he of the leather belts and the cable-knit sweaters and the responsible, trustworthy aura—except in the end it turned out she couldn’t trust him at all, because he broke up with her out of the blue on a Saturday afternoon when they were supposed to be going to a potluck with friends, his friends, nice people she no longer talked to because deep down they were still his friends and it would be too awkward now that he had wrenched his life apart from hers.
The lumberjack, who would turn out to be Rolfe, noticed her noticing him. “Which of these cheeses, do you think?” he asked, as if they already knew each other intimately, as if they were shopping together.
“None,” Erin said, mirroring his tone. “I’m not eating dairy at the moment. What about you?”
“None for me, either,” he said. “I don’t like cheese. I just came over here hoping to talk to you.” He flashed a boyish grin, his eyes green with flecks of blue. He was just what she needed—a rebound.
A one-night stand turned into a week, two weeks, three. Her cleanse ended and he surprised her with a platter of cheeses. It turned out she actually liked him, and not just in bed. Cynical, ironic, irreverent—so different from anyone she had dated before. She kept dating him because it was nice to choose someone from want, not just from need.
Then came the tsunami, and she couldn’t fall asleep without dreaming of drowning, and she wanted him there when she startled awake in a panic at four in the morning. So he kept staying over, and then after a few months he moved in.
Their family dog got cancer and her parents had to put him to sleep. The news of his death sent her back to her hometown for the weekend, to walk along the path beside the ocean and help her parents bury his ashes in the backyard under the orange tree. He used to stretch out in its shade sometimes, in the summer when it was too warm in the house. The orange tree had never produced fruit. Her father said, partly joking and partly not, that maybe now the tree would become generous. Jack was such a sweet dog, he would even be able to coax oranges from their stingy tree. It was Jack she thought of as she hugged her parents goodbye, hurriedly, anxious to get on the road and beat the traffic. Backing out of the driveway, she glanced instinctively for his doggy head at the upstairs window, but of course he was not there. She rolled down her car window, called goodbyes to her parents, that she would see them for Thanksgiving, blew a couple kisses, and drove away. She did not look back in the rearview mirror. She did not take a mental snapshot of the house, the street, her parents waving from the front porch. It would be her final visit to her hometown—to what she still found herself thinking of as home—though of course she had no idea of this at the time. She merged onto the freeway and steered herself toward her adult life, waiting for her three hundred miles inland.
“If it’s any consolation, I’m sure you’ll see them again before long,” Rolfe had said about her parents. The initial weeks after the tsunami are blurry in Erin’s mind, but she does remember him sitting down beside her on the couch, feebly patting her back as she stared, hollow eyed, out the window at the apartment parking lot. “This planet is fucked,” he continued. “We’ve fucked it up. And there’s nothing more we can do except wait for the end.”
And yet, here is the same man, running after a flurry of homemade paper when it is blown off the drying table in a sudden gust of wind. Here is the same man, bending down beside a little girl, listening intently to her questions, and carefully explaining why composting is important, how it saves methane from leaking into the atmosphere, how methane is even worse than carbon dioxide at accelerating global warming. Here is the same man, helping a little boy detach the frame from the newspaper without ruining the layer of paper pulp the boy has spent a long time spreading with the sponge. As if this task is of utmost importance. As if he cares. As if this—all of this, any of this—matters.
The water was a brick wall slamming into the house. The tree that never produced any oranges was ripped out of the soil like a stray weed from a garden. They had buried Jack in the soil, but now his ashes mingled with the ocean. The tides embraced him, an old friend. He had always adored the water.
Rolfe describes polar bears and penguins to a boy, maybe six or seven years old. “Imagine a big giant grizzly bear, but pure white,” he says, his voice thick with magic. “And little birds that stand on two feet and waddle around, like this.” Erin smiles as Rolfe waddles in a small circle, imitating a penguin.
The boy laughs. “You’re lying!” he says. “You’re making that up!”
“Of course not! I wouldn’t lie to you.”
There is a slight pause. Then the boy asks, “But how do you know?”
“How do I know what?”
“About the animals.”
“I saw them,” Rolfe says.
“You mean they weren’t extinct yet?”
Erin’s heart constricts as she realizes these children learn about polar bears and penguins in the same way she learned about dinosaurs and wooly mammoths—pictures in a textbook. Fantastical creatures that never seemed quite real.
Rolfe bends so he is eye level with the boy. “I saw both polar bears and penguins in person, with my own two eyes, when I was a boy like you.”
“You did?” The boy’s eyes widen.
Suddenly the boy kicks the tub of pulp with his small sneaker. He stomps the ground. “Not fair! Not fair! I want to see them too!”
“I hear you, little man,” Rolfe says, standing. “But we can’t go back in time. Only forwards.”
Erin pats the boy on the shoulder. “The penguins and polar bears might not be here any longer,” she says. “But we can still talk about them and remember how they used to be. That’s how we keep them alive—in our stories.”
The boy sniffles. “But I don’t want stories. I want to see them for real.”
“I know,” Erin says. “I know. But sometimes stories are all we have.”
She and her father liked to walk together on the path beside the ocean. When she was maybe four or five years old, a beachside ice cream stand opened during the summer. The breeze carried the sugary scent of waffle cones baking. Her eyes lit at the array of flavors beckoning from the wide-open awning. “Please, Daddy?” she asked.
“All right,” he consented. “A small scoop. Just don’t tell your mom—she’d scold me for spoiling your appetite.”
He handed her a scoop of vanilla topped with rainbow sprinkles on a sugar cone. She liked the crunch of the sprinkles, the way their bright colors smeared the vanilla. Her father asked if she wanted to sit on a bench and look out at the ocean as she ate her ice cream, but she shook her head no. She wanted to keep walking. She was a big girl; she could manage it.
But after only a few minutes, she stumbled on a crack in the path and yelped as she lost her grasp on the cone. It soared away from her, landing cream-first on the sandy ground. Smashed sugar cone bleeding rainbow sprinkles. Her father would not let her get another. “We have to go meet your mom for dinner,” he said.
She cried, but it was not really for the loss of ice cream. It was more for the inevitability of time—the way moments could never be spun back, unraveled, relived. One moment, she was holding her ice cream cone, its taste right there on her tongue. In the next moment, her cone was ruined, a broken wreck on the pavement. She could not patch the cone back together. She could not scoop the ice cream back onto the cone. She could only go forward, never back. She could never, ever go back.
Finally, all the families have left. Finally, they are cleaning up. Rolfe sets a stack of newspapers down on the table. “I found these in the trash. Thought you might want them.”
“Thanks. Newspapers should go in the recycling.”
“These aren’t just newspapers—they’re paper. The paper the kids made.”
Erin runs her hand over her face. She is tired. She has lugged the giant sloshing bin over to the compost pile and dumped out the leftover pulp. She has washed and dried the frames and the plastic buckets and stacked them in the office. She has swept up the hardened bits of paper pulp scattered all around the concrete patio area. She has cleaned the bathrooms, because today was supposed to be Alice’s turn but Alice left, and somebody has to do it.
“Robin!” Erin calls, waving one of the still-damp papers. “Why were these in the trash?”
“Oh, they weren’t in the trash. I put them in the compost bin.” Robin looks unconcerned. “What? The kids didn’t pick them up before they left. I told you that often happens.”
The tiny losses.
“I’m sorry,” Robin says, catching Erin’s expression. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Sometimes for Erin, when the devastation is too much to bear, it is the tiny losses that get her.
“No, it’s fine, it’s just . . . the kids spent a lot of time on them, you know? They worked hard making this paper today, and I just hate thinking of it all tossed away.”
“Not tossed away. It was composted,” Robin says.
Erin sighs, pressing her fingers to her forehead, smoothing her worry wrinkle. “I hate to think of it just . . . decomposing.”
“Let’s take it home,” Rolfe says. He turns to Robin. “I mean, if that’s okay with you.”
“Sure, whatever you like.”
Rolfe helps Erin carry the abandoned paper to his car, an all-electric Volt. It occurs to her that perhaps Rolfe isn’t as apathetic as he pretends. After all, if he truly believed they were all screwed, wouldn’t he be driving an SUV instead of this small electric vehicle that can’t even fit her bike inside?
“Are you gonna bike?” Rolfe asks. “Or do you want a ride home?”
Home. She nods. She wants to sit in the car beside him as the engine awakens without a sound and they glide like ghosts down the city streets littered with debris, just like so many streets in so many cities. So much waste. Perhaps theirs is a doomed city, just like her hometown. Perhaps it will be a gargantuan earthquake that destroys them, or massive wildfires, or a tornado or hurricane or snowstorm or flood. Perhaps there will be food shortages and famine, ever-rising temperatures and disease epidemics. Perhaps it will all lead to extinction, as Rolfe has predicted—a planet that has given and given and given and given, until one day it simply has nothing left to give.
He helps Erin attach her bike to the car’s roof. They climb inside. He rests a hand on her knee. And she does love him, she realizes. As natural as breathing. As natural as waves crashing and receding along the shoreline. Love has crept up within her, like the temperatures slowly but steadily rising all across the Earth. The knowledge engulfs her completely, undeniably.
“Thank you for coming today,” Erin says. “You were a lifesaver when Alice bailed. And besides, it meant a lot to have you there. You know, supporting my work.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it,” Rolfe says. He keeps his eyes on the road, but squeezes her knee softly. “You can only do what you can do.” For once, his tone is straightforward, not a hint of sarcasm. Erin smiles. She lets her hand rest on his.
Yes, they may be doomed, but they still have today. They have the drive home. They have tonight. Hopefully, the world will not end tonight.
Tomorrow the handmade paper will be dry. She will gently pry each sheet from the newspaper and stack them carefully in a pile. She will take the pile to her desk, slip it into her drawer. And this time, she will not save the paper for some indeterminate future that may never arrive. No—she will write on it now.
The horizon a blurred union of ocean and sky. The water seemed to stretch outward infinitely. You could look down at the beach, the children running barefoot and building sandcastles and rock sculptures, and you could look out at the deep-blue water. The path wound along a bluff. She used to go for walks along it—sometimes with Jack, the family dog.
There was a path beside the ocean.