Nobody ever thought much about aliens until there was talk about launching our trash into space. Then, you couldn’t turn on the TV or radio without hearing some expert on Inter-Galactic Communications saying, “Well, there’s no way to know for sure, is there?” or a NASA scientist discussing the number of years (a numberless number) it would take for the trash to reach another inhabited planet, assuming there was such a thing and assuming it could even make it past our own galaxy’s various gravitational pulls (he likened it to a salmon swimming upstream to spawn, which made us laugh). Even the commentator on NPR said, in her living room concert voice, “It appears that, once again, we Americans have asserted our individuality in the universe.”
It wasn’t hard to imagine a planet like ours, with people like us, though with different governments perhaps (“Maybe,” said Jaime giddily, “the world is ruled by only one!” and we told him to shut the eff up), and perhaps at varying stages of civilization. If they hadn’t discovered the wheel yet, a meteor of magazine inserts and empty prescription bottles wasn’t going to make much of an impact. That’s what Lise said, “make an impact,” and then she waited for the rest of us to get it.
It was the end of summer, and we were so bored and antsy and wholly resistant to the idea of school starting again (in fact, if we’re being honest, we refused to believe in it) that the Trash Comet, as one AM radio host called it, became our great assignment. What was Mr. Jacobsen’s sixth grade science classroom to us, with its omelet walls and stand-alone sink in the back for excessive hand-washing, when there were other beings who might someday be holding Lyle’s mom’s collection of twisty-ties and saying (in their own language, of course), “Oh, for the love of Christ, Jane, put these somewhere, would you?” Lise pointed out that they probably wouldn’t have a Christ, which opened a yawning black hole that threatened to inhale us all as we stood around a picnic table in the park, suddenly unsure, feeling (every one of us, we’ve discussed it now) as though we were stuck upside down, two hundred feet above ground in the Kamikaze that we’d all just paid our parents’ good money to ride on five times in one night at the State Fair. Then Hanna said, “God, guys, I’m sure they’ll have something,” and we let out our collective breath, easy once again.
It was far from certain whether the Trash Comet was even going to happen. Congress wasn’t in session, though Lyle—whose dad worked for State Farm, and by virtue of the name alone, knew things about the inner workings of the government on all levels, we whispered reverently—said it wasn’t a question for Congress, that it would probably be a simple business transaction.
Well, that got us going. If we had known that there was money to be made in trash, we’d be millionaires. Jaime especially wanted in—he said that his sister alone was worth a bundle, just with her discarded eye shadows and loofah mitts. And while we were all well aware of Randall Twims, whose parents both worked for the city’s Waste Disposal Unit, driving the trucks that rumbled past our houses every Tuesday morning ingesting our trash indelicately, we were old enough to draw a vital connection between the missing button in the middle of Randall’s plaid shirt—Hanna said she’d once seen hairs sprouting through the gap over his bleached belly—and the work his parents did. We thought about Randall’s Payless basketball shoes and knew there was no money to be made in Waste Disposal unless it was on the cosmic level. (“Payless shoes!” cried Hanna, and we added it to the list that we were compiling by then. If the aliens hadn’t invented shoes yet, we decided, they’d be grateful. If they had, though, they might look at a bundle of plastic espadrilles and flimsy tan loafers and draw the wrong conclusion about our way of life, our integrity as a people, as Lise put it. Lise, who was the oldest of all of us by ten months, having been held back in Kindergarten because she was so small, was always able to pin down our conflicting emotions, both in terms of how we felt about our locker partners and the way we comprehended our national identity.)
We’d all heard about Dumpster Divers, and even knew a few, and we understood them to be children of good families that were in the very process of falling to ruin and disrepute. The Dumpster Divers were descendants of once-splendid houses whose lawns were freckled with dandelions and whose elaborately tiled bathrooms had succumbed to mold, the neighborhood scourge that our parents struggled against on oppressively boring Saturday afternoons. The Divers didn’t care about deli sandwiches and new jeans; their passions were more subtle, nebulous as waving fingers of algae in the deepest sea.
We knew that we could just as easily follow their faux moccasin-clad footsteps into a parking lot and over a peeling blue lip to what would be thrilling adventure and self-satisfaction for us and an abiding shame for our parents, who would not be able to pretend we were dead but would have to talk about our activities at cocktail parties as though they were a lark. Jaime’s brother’s second-best friend had traveled this road, and had eventually moved to Portland or Seattle, we weren’t sure which, where Jaime’s brother said he was working an artisan cheese stall at the farmer’s market.
When the Trash Comet suffused our free time, we set aside our fears of making irreparable lifestyle decisions and realized that the only way to know how we would be received in the next world was to get in there and have a look. We decided unanimously that we didn’t have to actually dive, that we could start smaller, with the contents of our parents’ home offices, the bathroom wastebasket. (“Diving can come later,” Lise said decisively. “Maybe when we’re taller.”)
At first, we were disappointed for the aliens. What use would they have for pens without ink, bent staples, thin slivers of lavender-scented soap? (“They may not even have skin,” said Hanna, and we humored her, even though we knew better.) We couldn’t imagine what they would make of broken calculators, wine corks, cigarette butts, a white plastic visor from a charity run that said “State Farm” in bright red lettering. Jaime found a condom in his parents’ bathroom bin, and Lise offered the opinion that, as our parents probably wouldn’t be around by the time the trash was launched (we all felt the Kamikaze swinging up, up, up, and she spoke more hastily), there would be little use in analyzing their personal waste. Jaime was relieved, though ashamed (ashamed forever, and rightly so) to have found solid evidence that his parents were promiscuous with one another.
We spent little time in our kitchens, sagely concluding that bits of food would never make the cut. And anyway, Lise’s family composted in their backyard, and she said that everyone would be doing it soon, that it would likely be mandatory by the time we reached ninth grade, and we couldn’t argue with that because we literally could not imagine ninth grade. Non-perishable items only, then, for our aliens (though Lyle brought up an interesting theory regarding avocado pits, and we spent an entire afternoon contemplating the joy and care with which they might cultivate their first avocado plant before Lise said that they probably wouldn’t have jelly jars to grow it in or bagels to spread it on anyway and would be discouraged). For we were starting to think of them as our aliens, and to imagine the trash that we would so tenderly loft their way a precious, ideally useful (if not lovely) gift, a communiqué (Hanna provided the word, surprisingly) from our world to theirs.
We hadn’t heard how the trash would be packaged (the scientists hadn’t gotten that far, it seemed, which troubled us), and Hanna suggested we place it in the empty suitcases that we sometimes saw in the dumpster outside of the Salvation Army thrift store, buckles broken and lining escaping heroically from its seams. They could easily be secured, she said, with the remnants of duct tape that we’d found folded in on itself in Lyle’s hallway bin, and we realized with embarrassment what we’d never seen before; namely, that Hanna was a clever girl.
By this point, we could see the beginning of the school year approaching in the distance like a fungal cloud, and while we still didn’t believe in it, we knew that, like other things we refused to concede (ninth grade, the condom), it was nonetheless a probability. We felt, then, a surge of momentum on behalf of our aliens, a need to finish cataloguing the items as we’d seen our parents do, scrupulously listing the contents of brown packing boxes when they moved our grandparents from their large, porcelain-filled dining rooms (don’t touch, don’t touch, we chide ourselves even now) and into nursing homes, and moved the boxes into first, our garages and later, the trash.
We walked the streets of our tidy neighborhood, eyes alert to the presence of unlidded bins and shades tightly drawn. We looked for items of definitive and profound merit, and though we never touched any of them and relegated our search to only what was openly presented (digging, Lise stated, would be too close to diving), we were able to catalogue a diverse sampling of what we might offer the aliens.
Adjustable rubber watchband with a tear (only slightly noticeable, and easily mended with the duct tape) through two of its five holes. Silver sink faucet. Hooded Oregon Ducks sweatshirt, a large grey stain leaking through one sleeve. Brown paper bag with three whole lightbulbs resting together in a pyramid. Gold sink faucet. A rock, which Jaime was tempted to reach in and grab, if only to set it down by his parents’ patio (an oasis of slate in an ocean of multi-colored pebbles), but which he wisely left untouched when we pointed out that it was a rock in the trash. One toaster oven, toast crumbs and a gravelly raisin just visible inside its clear door.
We felt the toaster oven to be especially representative of the kind of trash we hoped to send. It was dignified, and carried with it an aura of classic utility, of family breakfasts around built-in kitchen nooks (Hanna grumbling here about always having to sit in the angled corner of the bench and Lise telling her to stop interrupting), of ease and freedom and dietary intelligence. (And also, Lyle declared triumphantly, the ability of each of us to cook for ourselves, should the need arise. Lyle was the last of us to be deemed too old for a babysitter.) Hanna pointed out that the aliens might not know what it was for, of course, as they might not recognize the crumbs and raisin as food, and we sank under what we were increasingly understanding to be her good sense. Lise suggested that the aliens might make a home of it, that they might be quite small, actually, and we knew she was thinking of her first round of Kindergarten, and how she used to hide in a cubby during recess until she was finally held back and was more or less the same size as the rest of us, and we agreed, though less enthusiastically.
We had begun to feel the familiar despair of purchasing a Christmas gift for our mothers, when we would walk the aisles in Target with twenty dollars from our fathers stuffed in our back pockets and the paralyzing sense that we had no idea who our mothers were, really, and what they would want for approximately eighteen dollars before tax. (When we were younger and were given only five dollars, we always chose red lipstick. Now that we knew our mothers to wear shades with names like Sugared Honey and Coralfusion, we stuck to scarves.)
We were ashamed to think of the aliens looking at our trash with raised eyebrows (or whatever they had in place of eyebrows; maybe nothing, said Lyle, who never saw the point of them and who, as the year progressed, would show increasing signs of having only one), saying things like, “Oh, this is great, I needed another one of these,” in a resigned voice while looking around carefully for the gift receipt and finding none. (Though we noted that they’d find plenty of receipts, of course, which would probably make it all the more frustrating.) We hated to think that they might not want the suitcases we had so lovingly packed.
But by then it didn’t matter. The Trash Comet started to lose traction. Having circled around the television and radio circuits, making its way to Lyle’s dinner table, at least (he reported that his mom said, “Are they really going to just fling it up there?” and his dad said, “Simmer down, Jane, it’s a bullshit theory, and what do you call these noodles, anyway—mai tai?”), the comet slowed, stalled, and finally disintegrated into vaporous talking-point particles that sank harmlessly into the ocean. The radio and TV stations were eventually silent on the subject. When Congress started up again, they didn’t mention it, and Big Business (for that’s what we’d heard it called, though we couldn’t imagine a business bigger than Target) never even acknowledged a potential transaction. We thought for sure that Richard Branson and his celebrity spaceship would keep the idea afloat, but even he turned his attention to more lucrative endeavors.
We wondered why, of course. Looked at our lists (and even, in Jaime’s case, a well-tended pile in the back corner of his closet) and wondered where it would go, if not to the impoverished, deserving aliens. For we knew now we wouldn’t meet them, would never receive a reply to our communiqué. Even as we laid out new jeans and studiously casual shirts on our beds for the first day of school (no denying it now), we couldn’t help but turn back toward our aliens once, like passengers on a cruise ship as it pulls away from some humid port, and smile regretfully that we couldn’t give them something to remember us by. And we swore we could almost see them there—tiny, eyebrowless in expensive shoes—before we finally allowed ourselves to look away, allowed ourselves to be carried off onto the buoyant sea.