Sitting on the edge of the old concrete dock where folks tied up boats in the days when people other than tourists had boats to be tied, Tiger and Millie stared across the river at West Virginia.
“I think I see someone,” Tiger said, rising off her elbows.
They squinted hard against the sun and could barely make out a woman dragging a lawn chair to the middle of a backyard.
“Enjoying the view?” Tiger asked as the woman removed her shawl to reveal a bikini.
“Nah, she’s like … such a mom,” Millie said.
“How do you know she’s not a lesbian MILF?”
“Don’t know, don’t care,” Millie shuddered.
On the other side of the river was suburban West Virginia. If you thought only hillbillies lived in these hills, you haven’t seen the houses along the Ohio River. But Tiger and Millie lived on the Ohio side, miles from the riverfront. They’d only come downtown—if you could call five mostly empty blocks “downtown”—in the hopes of getting summer jobs. The old single-screen movie theater had closed three years ago; they were too young to work at the bank or take a swing shift at the bar; too clumsy for the one-time tourist haven of an antique mall; too impatient for the daycare; and too cool to work at the Jesus coffee shop that felt more like a front for kidnapping teens than a café. And their parents had been burned too many times by the cash-advance place for them to ever consider working there. They tried seeing if the food pantry, where they’d both gotten food from now and then when things were tight at the end of the month, would pay them to bag groceries. But the food pantry folks only took volunteers. The irony that perhaps if folks were paid to bag the groceries, they might be able to afford to buy food was apparently lost on them.
Tiger and Millie tried the Dollar General, knowing the manager Carl used to work with their dads at the potato chip factory before it got shut down. He looked pityingly at them.
“I’m going to level with you, girls. There are too many adults, like your daddies, who need the few jobs we got in this town. It’s nothing against you, but I can’t be bringing on teenagers in these conditions.”
They tried McDonald’s, remembering Taralynne was their age when she got a job there last summer and kept it through the school year. She even skipped class when her coworkers called in sick so she could take their shifts. She looked sharp in her uniform: the black visor trimmed in red and the black polo shirt, both embroidered with the golden arches logo, the tip of her ponytail swishing the edges of her drive-thru headset. But there was a sign on the door, crudely handwritten, stating “We r NOT hiring!!!!!!! Dont ask!!!” Every one of their fifty-eight classmates must have thought to go there first.
“Carp!” Millie hollered, jerking her feet out of the river. Tiger followed suit.
“They’re toes, not food!” Tiger yelled pointlessly at their gaping mouths, tentatively opening and closing.
“Like creatures from the deep,” Millie said under her breath. “Swimming in the koi pond of hell.”
A while back, Millie’s dad thought he’d catch fresh fish for dinner, making it sound like a luxury and not a product of his injury at the potato chip factory where his arm had been nearly ripped off and his worker’s comp claim denied because the foreman said he was “behaving negligently with what he knew to be dangerous machinery.” His disability check was late and the food pantry wouldn’t open for a few more days. It wasn’t hard to catch the carp—the tourists threw them bread, which meant they’d come right up to the riverbank when they saw you standing at it. Millie’s dad scooped a long, fat carp out of the water with a net and brought it home. He skinned off the fish’s many tumors as though they were regular fins and scales, ignored the green tinge of the flesh, and cooked it anyway, only to be laid out sick in bed for the better part of a week.
“Can’t trust anything that can survive in this pollution,” Tiger added, shaking her head.
“Well,” Millie sighed, standing up and unrolling the cuffs of her capri pants. “I guess we could try the diner.”
“Why bother?” Tiger said, dusting off the front of her cutoff shorts. “The coffee is seventy-nine cents and a plate of biscuits and gravy is two dollars. The tips have to be shit.”
“Yeah … and the old men always get snippy when their waitress doesn’t bring them a saucer with their coffee so they can spoon out each little sip to cool down before they drink it like little babies,” Millie added, folding her hands under her chin mockingly.
“The barber shop?”
“No good. Chet’s grandson is six now and likes to ‘help’ so he’s got the runt sweeping for free.”
“Stupid kid. Can’t compete with that.”
They knew better than to even consider the arts collective. It was started with a bunch of grant money to “bring exquisite culture and art into a deprived region.” The people who worked there lived in the college town nearly an hour away and commuted to work. They spent the majority of the grant money bringing in other hippies from out of town to do “botanical interpretive dance” and “galaxy sound baths” and “blindfolded culinary experiences with foraged local morsels.” They put on plays in old English and Latin that no one could understand and made sculptures out of trash collected from the river with little plaques that read: River Pollution II: Meditation on Red Solo Cups and Camel Menthols. They sold paintings that cost a third or more of the yearly income of anyone in the town. The only people who came to the exhibits and performances—“innovative artistic experiences,” they were called—were from out of town. As far as Tiger and Millie could tell, the only thing that appealed to the arts collective organizers about Martinette, Ohio, was the cheap rent.
Two weeks into summer vacation and already things felt hopeless. No job means no money. No money meant two long months of boredom. There were only so many times they could sing along to the same scratched CDs. Only so many times they could buzz each other’s hair with the clippers. Only so much PBS they could stand because they didn’t have cable and the video rental place had closed along with most everything else. Only so many stray mama cats they could lure to their porches and only so many squealing kittens whose bellies they could stroke. They’d grown out of folding themselves inside tires to roll down hills and become too disgusted with the river to swim in it. The swing sets in their backyards had rusted and long ago tipped over in a storm. They’d gotten too tall for their bikes and their buckled knees jutting outward made them inefficient vessels.
They made their way home, approaching City Hall, a building whose grandiosity now mocked the town. Martinette was founded in 1845 and at one time was a port city, bustling and thriving despite the Civil War. There were safe houses throughout the town since it was, for many enslaved people crossing the river from West Virginia, the first stop on the Underground Railroad. That was mostly what tourists came to see. In the century and a half that followed, Martinette prospered. Factories moved in, drawn by the convenient proximity to a port, and the factories drew families, and families drew more business. Then the factories left, taking their operations overseas. Everything else left too.
“What do you think’s in there?” Tiger asked, toeing the edge of a bronze plaque set into the ground that read:
To be opened 75 years from now, on March 25, 2048
Presented by The Junior League of Martinette,
The Rotary Club of Martinette,
The Martinette Elks Lodge
“Probably some Victorian snot rags,” Millie scoffed. The walls of her living room were covered not in family photos but in daintily embroidered vintage handkerchiefs bearing the initials of everyone in her immediate family. Like a sick and sad family tree.
They arrived at Tiger’s house where they’d spend the night. They lived at opposite ends of the same street and alternated between houses. Tiger’s bedroom was in the attic, small with a slanting ceiling, so you had to watch your head. The room was painted a deep purple, and one of the sloping halves of the ceiling was entirely collaged with cutouts of Hot Topic ads and pop punk bands—From First to Last, Death Cab for Cutie, My Chemical Romance, Green Day, Paramore, Taking Back Sunday, Alkaline Trio, and Linkin Park. They’d stolen all the magazines from the Dollar General, slipping a couple of magazines under their hoodies and buying a small bottle of Pepto Bismol or tube of Alka-Seltzer tablets so they could clutch their stomachs without arousing suspicion. When that gag got old, they started buying Midol. No one questioned why they were sick all the time and whether they’d seen a doctor. They got the money for their decoy purchases by roughing up the drink machines at their high school. They were the old kind of drink machines—the kind that wouldn’t even take dollar bills. Millie had strong arms, and Tiger was good with a pocket knife.
“So … let’s assume we’re not gonna find jobs,” Millie began.
“We’re not. We’re dead. We might as well sleep the summer away, stay up until three a.m. and sleep till noon. Try to make friends with someone who has cable so we can watch MTV in the meantime.”
“That’s it? There’s got to be more to our last summer than this.”
Millie said it, the words they’d been trying not to think. At seventeen, this was their last summer. After their senior year of high school they’d be forced to get jobs—full-time jobs, not part-time summer gigs—commuting several towns over with cars they didn’t have, expected to take care of themselves.
“I mean … we could collage my wall some more?”
“No offense, but if I have to cut out Sonny Moore and Gerard Way’s faces one more time I’m going to puke.”
“You can cut out Hayley Williams’s face!”
“I’m sick of that skinny bitch too.”
Tiger gave Millie a half-hearted hiss. They lay on the bedroom floor, feeling the joints of the plywood under the cheap carpet, elbowing each other for prime real estate next to the box fan. Tiger’s black lipstick chapped her lips and lines of pink peeked through. Millie dabbed at the sweat under her boobs.
“I’ve got it!” Tiger shouted. “It’s going to be a long night, Mills. We better sleep now.”
They told Tiger’s mom they were taking a nap after dinner because they got so worn out walking around in the sun all day looking for work. She nodded sympathetically and wished them better luck tomorrow.
Around two a.m. Tiger nudged Millie awake.
“What are we even doing?” Millie asked, yawning.
“You’ll see when we get there.”
“Just trust me,” Tiger said, exasperated.
“Look, if you want to go to the barge, that’s cool. No judgment. I don’t even care what loser you want to bang.”
The old coal barge had crashed into the riverbank in the 1950s. It was too beat up to be worth saving and they stopped using steam-powered coal barges on the river, so it was left there, half-sunk. With all the cabins where sailors once slept, it became the local makeout spot. Sometimes you could even hear moans carried downriver, howls of the teenage mating call that small children mistook for ghosts.
“I know I owe you one from that time you covered for me with Stella,” Millie said. “If you want to sneak out and have me cover for you, I got you. Or if you want me to go and make sure no one gives you shit about being there, I will but …”
“We’re not going to the barge,” Tiger insisted.
“Well, at least tell me how I’m supposed to dress for this adventure.”
“All black,” Tiger said, grinning.
They crawled out Tiger’s small attic window, Millie cursing the whole time, and shimmied down until they reached the near-flat roof of the garage. Tiger climbed down the ladder propped up against the eaves and held the ladder for Millie. Tiger took off toward the back of the house and came back with two shovels, one for each of them.
“Are we going grave-robbing? I assumed at some point in your gothness you’d need some ingredients for spells, but this is a fucking leap,” Millie whispered, frantic.
“Shhh!” Tiger hissed. “We’re not messing with the dead.”
They walked silently down the sidewalks, not bothering to hide because there wasn’t anyone out and there were no streetlights. If they took the long way around the bar and dodged any cars, no one would see them.
The shovels—full-sized, not small garden trowels—weighed on their biceps, the uneven distribution of weight making them difficult to carry. Once, Tiger let the metal end of her shovel clang on the sidewalk and Millie whisper-yelled a rebuke. They wound their way around Martinette for the better part of an hour before Tiger led them to City Hall.
“You want to break into City Hall?” Millie said, incredulous. “I mean, I’m kind of into it.”
“No,” Tiger replied. “We’re going to dig up the time capsule.”
The moon was a hangnail sliver, barely a crescent, and there wasn’t much light to see by. Tiger and Millie jabbed their shovels blindly around the bronze plaque, approaching from an angle so as not to clang the shovel against the surface.
“What are we going to do with the time capsule anyway?” Millie asked, shaking the stiffness from her arms.
“Sell the shit on eBay.”
“And do what with the money? I swear to Jesus goddamn Christ if you say buy magazines …”
“You know I ain’t ever bought a magazine. We’re gonna get us a car,” Tiger huffed, flinging a shovelful of dirt. “One to share.”
“I like the way you think. Somebody’s always got an old Ford with a ‘for sale’ sign along the side of the road. I could go for a truck.”
“Then we’re gonna get the hell out of here.”
Millie and Tiger didn’t despise Martinette, though they were tired of living in the shadow of the town’s past. Tourists came every summer for the museums on the river, to relive the bustling days of the port, but nobody had any plans to hire their daddies, and Tiger’s had gotten so eaten up with the rejection that he skipped town. Now she only saw him twice a year: on Christmas and her birthday.
“You got a name for the eBay store?” Millie asked, slinging dirt.
“Yeah, Holler General,” Tiger replied, breathing heavily.
They had to run for the bushes alongside City Hall when two cars drove through, but otherwise only the crickets and owls made their presence known.
Around four thirty in the morning, they’d dug down far enough to loosen the corner of a copper box, its patina glinting in the weak moonlight. Millie wedged the tip of her shovel behind the box and jumped on the handle to pry it loose. A brief but echoing wrenching sound bounced off the stone walls of City Hall—a sound like when Millie’s dad had pounded a dent from the door of his pickup where it’d been kicked in one night at the bar—and the box was free.
Tiger leapt upon it, hands roving for a clasp.
“Fuck, I think it’s rusted shut.”
“We’d better get it back to your place before Martinette wakes up.”
They hoisted the box from the hole with their shovels and bent to pick it up. It was heavy, with sharp stabbing corners, and the copper made holding the box aloft with sweaty hands difficult.
“Shit, it’s heavy!” Tiger grunted, the weaker of the two.
“Better be something good in here,” Millie barked, trying to scratch an itch on her nose with the inside of her arm.
“Wait,” Tiger said, stopping suddenly and causing Millie to heave the box into her ribs. “We have to take the shovels.”
“We can barely carry the box!”
“What if the five-O dust for fingerprints?”
“You in a database I don’t know about?” Millie asked, readjusting her grip on their ill-gotten gains.
“I don’t know, we had those Ident-A-Kid IDs made in like third grade. You don’t remember smudging the ink on your face?”
“We’ll have to come back for them. Now, move,” Millie urged.
They took the most direct route on their return trip, keeping to the alleys as much as possible, their footsteps echoing on the old cobblestone streets. Aching and exhausted, they made it back to Tiger’s house, pulling back the white plastic lattice under the front porch to stash the box.
As they crept up the ladder to the flat roof over the garage, they heard Tiger’s mom’s radio clock turn on—her morning alarm. They froze on the roof, counting to a thousand, figuring that would give Tiger’s mom time to get in the shower, where she wouldn’t be able to hear them creaking and scuttling across the shingles. Tiger pushed open the window for them to crawl inside.
“The shovels …” Tiger whined.
“We can’t go back.”
They took off their soil-covered shoes and collapsed into Tiger’s bed, still wearing their all-black getups. When they woke at nearly three in the afternoon, they felt clumps of dirt in the sheets, clots pressed into the thin jersey knit. They left their dirt-flecked clothes in a pile on the floor and changed into old county fair T-shirts and ratty denim shorts, the crotches worn nearly through.
Still groggy, they raided the fridge for Go-Gurt tubes, cheese in a can, and sliced cheese so they could squeeze the canned cheese onto the cheese slice and make a cheese-on-cheese rollup. Millie had read somewhere that pre-sliced cheese had so many chemicals in it that it wouldn’t melt. Tiger took her mom’s lighter from the ashtray on the kitchen table and clicked on the butane flame. The corner of the slice turned black and bubbled from the heat, but it didn’t melt.
Filled with sustenance, they plodded down the rickety front steps and crawled under the front porch where the box was concealed. Enough sunlight pulsed through the lattice that they could see, and Mille and Tiger hacked away at the edges of the box with their pocket knives.
“It was supposed to be buried for 75 years and they were going to open it in 2048 …”
“1973,” Tiger answered, anticipating Millie’s question just as the tip of her pocket knife lodged in the box and broke off. “Shit.”
Millie, with her freshly sharpened switchblade, hacked for nearly an hour until the lid popped free.
Their spoils revealed themselves: A stack of love letters from WWI. A retirement pocket watch from the steel plant, long gone. A bag of locally made potato chips from Rivertown Potato Chip where their dads used to work, the husk of the factory now a glorified birdhouse. A T-shirt with “1973 State Champs” emblazoned on the back, from a time when the high school had more than fifty-eight kids and a team that could compete at the state level instead of bombing in their county division. A Coca-Cola and a Budweiser, each in a glass bottle that had somehow exploded, staining the T-shirt, ruining the pocket watch, and disintegrating the copy of The Martinette Times from the day the time capsule was buried. Two old wheat pennies and the bag of potato chips survived.
With each item they removed, their faces fell. Worthless. Nothing sellable. The good stuff ruined, the boring stuff, well, boring.
An envelope with “PREDICTIONS” typed on it was taped to the inside of the lid and was unmolested by carbonation.
We the Martinette High School Class of 1973 have the following predictions for what life will be like in 2048:
- Flying cars
- Little green Martians living on Earth
- JFK will be successfully cloned and he’ll be President again
- Erich Segal will be the most famous author in the world
- Holograms and robots everywhere
- Janet Greene and Barbara Douglass will have married Dick Coker and Bill True
- Food will be grown in labs, not on farms
- The second coming of Christ will have already happened so anyone that’s left to read this didn’t get Raptured (except for Kennedy)
- Everyone will own their own rocketship
- Martinette will be even bigger and more prosperous than Cleveland and Cincinnati put together
“Ha!” cackled Millie, jabbing her finger at the last bullet point. “They were doing alright till then.”
Janet had married Dick and Barbara had married Bill. They own the diner together and are all still best friends.
“At least we’ve got time for the rest of the stuff. Here’s to hoping,” Tiger said, raising the bag of potato chips in a toast.
She popped the bag open and tossed a chip in her mouth as Millie watched, wincing.
“How is it?” Millie asked, but Tiger only held out the bag to her.
They weren’t thinking about how that morning in downtown Martinette must have gone. The employees of City Hall arriving at their posts at seven a.m. to see the bronze plaque knocked cattywampus and the time capsule gone. The cops called over their walkie-talkies, slow to report to the scene because they hadn’t finished their breakfast at the diner. Officer Bobby toeing the broken handle of the shovel, as if it would reveal its secrets. Officer George, when asked by the mayor if there was anything special about the shovels that might lead to the apprehension of the perpetrators, responding with the joke that the shovels are “garden variety.”
Millie took a chip, surprised that the salt and vinegar had preserved them as well as they had.
“Well?” Tiger prompted.
“Not half bad,” Millie shrugged, reaching her hand into the bag again.
For once Tiger and Millie weren’t looking forward, only looking back.
Mandy Shunnarah is an Alabama-born, Palestinian-American writer who now calls Columbus, Ohio, home. Their essays, poetry, and short stories have been published in The New York Times, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Entropy Magazine, The Normal School, Heavy Feather Review, and others. Their first book, Midwest Shreds: Skaters and Skateparks in Middle America, will be out from Belt Publishing in fall 2022. Read more at mandyshunnarah.com.