The Wasteland is a novel excerpt from my first novel, Nefas. This excerpt was published in Gravel Magazine.
The Wasteland

Everything stunk. The apartment had turned into a nest of beer and liquor bottles and open pizza boxes like mouths poised to vomit fetid bread. Cans of energy drinks attracted ants and roaches into Joe's fifth-floor studio because even the mindless insects were aware that something was dying, and it had to be taken apart. Flies woke him, and he batted at them and cursed that they existed at all. Joe rolled over and rubbed his forehead. Joe spat onto the carpet and stood up before walking to the kitchen and browsing an empty refrigerator as if it would grow something right in front of him. It didn't, so he dressed and went out the door.

              The second he left his apartment building, a big red plastic cup was shoved in his face. Behind the cup was a black man with cataracts in his eyes and gray stubble around his chin, and in that milky white of the man’s eyes was Joe's reflection standing like he was in the midst of heaven. He wanted to keep watching, but the cup came closer and closer until the dream broke up and wasn’t anymore.

              Got any change? the man said. He jingled coins inside of the cup and shook it in front of Joe like a voodoo rattle, and Joe pulled the only quarter from his pocket and shoved it into the cup with the hope that whatever curse was being cast would fall on someone else. Joe pushed past the man, and the man turned as Joe went.

              Joe went down the street, and suited men and women passed like he was in some sort of tunnel made from them. Flyers advertising strip clubs and escort services were strewn across the ground, and it made for a sinful chapbook of poor men’s daughters caught up in something they didn't understand. He saw it on their faces, in their uncertain smiles, a sort of desperate callousness.

              Cables ascended into the sky around Joe like veins being ripped out of the earth itself, and they went to things that Joe didn't understand the purpose of, each a part of a dark mechanism that kept the city standing. He wondered if the whole thing would come down flat like a cardboard backdrop if enough of those veins were severed. Horns honked around him, and they were such a natural element of the city, like concrete or metal or fluorescence, that Joe couldn't hear them anymore.

              Coffee shops were tucked into corners, and people sat in them alone, staring out windows with nowhere to go but down into the froth plume their barista had made for them in the hope that they’d see something beautiful and near-natural that day. Still, the froth image would bubble away or be drank up like the city drank away anything real or natural.

              Barred-windowed businesses offered loans with no credit checks, huddled together in the commercial district in competition, and armored like they knew some scammed wretch would come at them with pieces of the pavement. Joe knew cheap loans made slaves, so Joe kept his head down when he passed those institutions.

              Joe walked into a sandwich shop he'd seen advertised on everything. He stood in line behind people just like him, and he shuffle-stepped forward. The people in line stared at their cellphones, and the grim progression went on, pause step stare, pause step stare, pause step stare, like carrion on meat hooks. When Joe reached the counter, an employee stared at him like he wasn’t another person at all and immediately asked what kind of bread he wanted, and Joe didn't know right away. He felt he was wasting time, not knowing. He said the word blue because it was the first thing that came to his head, and the boy behind the counter stared. Joe said white, and the boy went to work.

              Dressing? the boy asked.

              All of it, Joe said.

              You want every kind of dressing? That’s mustard, mayo, chipotle mayo, honey mustard, ranch, jalapeno mayo, spicy mustard, and thousand islands. You want all of that?

              Yeah.

              The boy painted on the bread with ropes of colors. He was careful. He seemed excited making that sandwich because it was different than every sandwich he’d made before it. When he was done dressing the sandwich, it was as pretty as a maypole, and Joe smiled and said that he wanted turkey and no cheese, and the boy was unhappy again. Joe shuffled forward. He paid and stepped outside with his bag and went back down the street.

              People went into and came out of alleys and terminals around him. The homeless lined any public space that didn't have a door or metal spikes sticking out of the concrete, hugging walls under a sliver of a roof. Their ingenuity in crafting personal spaces was an engineer’s work. Their faces each had a special sickness for other people, but their mouths ran like hill people speaking tongues and words like money and children and feed and hungry and help and help and help cast out toward the passing people. They said God a lot and no one was listening.

              Joe heard, Sous les pavés, la plage?

              What?

              Got any change? the blind man said as Joe passed him again.

              Joe stood there in front of him and that cup came toward his face. The tunnel moved all around him. Help, help, help. Pictures of pretty girls flew in the wind. Joe handed the man his sandwich, and he said, Have something beautiful.

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© 2020 Joshua Aaron Crook (I probably don't have the money to sue you.)