The Last Tourist – Mark Parsons
October 11, 2022
It’s hard to tell apart the children who
Arrive in the half light and file
Past where I’m sitting,
My legs spread
In a “v” on the floor.
Each child pauses
Long enough to crouch
Down, lean forward, and speak
Just above a whisper
Into the wrinkled pate of my combover:
One word per child: cut, block, hide.
It’s difficult to see their lips moving outside
My bubble-curved visor.
Dance, fire, sound. Each word
Draws me like water through a stem
To a thought blooming inside their minds.
I feel a spot, no two, of cold on the back of my head,
Like the seal on my helmet has been breached,
But the air still tastes like resin.
Some of the children refuse to participate.
One spits on my visor, metallic
Splinters flashing in bloody mucous.
I want to tell him it’s okay
When another, a girl with pigtails and bangs
In her eyes,
Squats in his place
And wipes off where he spit
What I think was collapsed alveoli,
Damask glitter streaks across her face.
I try not to look up her skirt.
I feel like I’ve seen her before.
The gauge on my codpiece
Fills up with foam
That breaks off the needle
And cracks the glass.
Counters on the suit blink on and off.
My nipples ache; warm milk
Plasters the ribbed cotton wifebeater fabric to my skin.
“Kenji,” she says, “Kenji, why did you come here
Where streetcars never ring, nor the cries of children playing
Drift through the park, nor the Ferris wheel
Entice with its cascade of yellow baskets against a blue sky?
Here to this cold and arid land
Where it’s always night,
Or just before, or just after,
Where the sun never shines
Nor the clouds ever lift
Or break open with moisture or light?”
“Who’s Kenji?” I want to ask, but cannot
Because my hazmat doesn’t have a mic.
As if in answer to my question
She stands and clutches her pleated skirt.
Keeping her hands over her thighs,
She draws the hem up past her knees, and past
Where the skin turns white from the shorts she wears during p.e.
She widens her stance to show me
A pixelated strip where shiny inner thighs
Meet without underwear.
I look up to see her
Leering at me with an open mouth
Like I’m what she just left curled and twisted
Around, floating in a toilet bowl.
Foam leaks from my codpiece,
Picking up grit on the concrete.
The girl squats down once more,
Takes the foam and rubs between her legs.
She doesn’t look angry, but thoughtful.
She looks away, she looks
Like she’s listening very hard, like she can hear
Something besides the wet rhythmic sound
Coming from where her hand disappears between her legs.
I can’t remember now
How long ago it was
I sat down here to rest,
This rubber suit so heavy
And hot, too, the layers
Insulate, make me sweat.
How long have I been here?
A day, two days, a week?
My mouth is dry
And tastes like plastic.
The children come at dusk
When the shadow this building casts
Dissolves in the line of pine trees
Across a field of dark and sandy loam.
It’s late, the line of children
Winds through the room of worktables;
Metal legs of upside-down stools
Above the children’s heads
Silver like clusters of reeds in moonlight
Pouring in where there used to be a wall.
I think this building was once a school,
Although for students much older than these
Whose heads don’t clear the worktables.
Saw-tooth ridge of treeline dark against the moonlit sky,
The children likewise
Become no more than silhouettes
As their words continue to detonate one after another
In the foam-padded confines of my helmet.
I try to recall the industry
That supported this place before the disaster,
But cannot. Perhaps I wasn’t told.
There was so much information in the beginning
That now, far advanced in my journey,
It’s difficult to remember.
I should have written it all down.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter what I was told
Or whether or not I remember,
The disaster now supports this town,
Has drawn me here with its dream of survival
And disease, of chromosomes damaged
And victims powerless not to go on living,
Of the people who fled
And the ones who stayed behind.
I’m the new tourist,
Others like me will follow,
Are now marching past emergency vehicles
Abandoned in fields along the road
After the last checkpoint:
Yellow hazmat suits crimped at the elbows and knees,
Black boots and gloves gleam in the sun.
Counters and gauges monitor vital regions.
Children walk between their parents, holding hands.
The closer these people get to this
Abandoned husk of new energy city
The smaller they become,
Smaller and smaller
Until, like me, they are no more than dolls—
We will be an army of dolls
Overrunning this nuclear ghost town.
Riding in the laps of workers
And standing on seats in buses
Going to and from the plant,
Held in the arms of locals
Posing for pictures
In the settlement outside of town,
Taking readings of empty doorways,
Old women and their pets,
Trying to understand.