Every morning we woke up and headed out to work sorting through the piles of wreckage. The city had been destroyed, and all the buildings had been leveled. There was nothing taller than the piles, and the piles went on and on, farther than anyone had the strength to walk to find out where they ended. We came out of our holes wearing whatever clothes we had salvaged from the wreckage, the soles of our shoes reinforced with folded pages of newspaper, the holes in our shirts and pants stitched with mismatched scraps from other shirts and pants of different colors, all of it bleached from the sun and blended together under the same chalky white dust that covered everything else.
My work area was set up next to the pile I was currently sorting through. It consisted of an old wooden desk and a collection of rickety shelves and bins clustered haphazardly around it on the uneven, rocky ground. The faces of the desk drawers and the edges of the shelves and the front of the bins were all inscribed with labels that I had scratched into them with the dull point of a dusty nail. There was a drawer for “bottle caps”, a shelf for “water pipes” another for “curtain rods”, a trio of rusted coffee cans for “nuts” and “bolts” and “screws”, a deep plastic bin filled with various broken “eyeglasses”, and so forth.
I worked out in the open, under the clear blue sky. The noonday sun beat down on the little bits and pieces of debris as I sifted through them in my hand, using the dried out cracks in my palm as lines to separate them. Now and then, I would stop to tilt my hand back and forth, trying to get the harsh light to catch on the occasional spots where the metal was still shiny. And everyone around me passed the day in same manner, contemplating these pitiful handfuls, and it was quiet again on the Earth. We were ants toiling in a catastrophe that was of a magnitude we could no longer even conceive of creating. So, in a sense, there was peace.
I had a radio on one the shelves next to where I worked. It still picked up a signal from somewhere. Some days, when it got to be too quiet, I would switch it on and listen to it while I worked. They were all old broadcasts from the world that was gone, somehow still bouncing around in the atmosphere. There was a wire running from the radio and it was coiled around a metal post that I had planted into the ground to try to boost the reception. Sometimes I would have to twist the pole to get something to tune in, and the static and the dry dust and grit seemed to grind together into a single noise.
One day I turned on the radio, and it came on in the middle of an interview from a morning show of some sort. There were a bunch of voices talking back and forth, talking over each other and getting excited like people used to do back before they had these vast reserves of silence and time on their hands. Suddenly one of the voices let out a string of curses and epithets, just saying every awful hateful ugly thing that was possible to say. I dropped the handful of debris that I was sorting through and I lunged for the radio, quickly jerking the dial away from the station.
I looked around, hoping maybe no one else had heard. But people from the other work stations around me were already looking over at me. One man at the pile across from me poked his head out from the tarp that covered his area. He was saying something to the woman he was working with and pointing a finger in my direction. He shook his head and looked at me with absolute contempt. I thought I heard him say something like, “I guess that’s the kind of people we have to work with. Some things never do change.” He glared at me and went back to his work, still shaking his head.
I kept working the knob up and down the dial, trying to find something else, anything else, trying to give the impression that I had just stumbled across the broadcast as I was scanning through the frequencies, trying to distance myself from the ugliness that had come out of the radio. I didn’t want to be held responsible. I didn’t want to seem like I endorsed what everyone had heard the voice saying. I didn’t want them to think that I was a regular listener of the show or a fan of the person who had said it. But it was my radio. It was on my shelf. I was the one who had turned it on.