Letter from 2035 

Looking after the children

John Rember

Dear Great-Grandkid:

By the time you are old enough to understand this letter, you will have heard stories about my generation--the Baby Boomers--and they're all true. Yes, your great-grandmother and I owned our own home, and that home had several rooms. Yes, we had a car powered by gasoline, and we could buy gasoline without the danger of being caught and sent to the potato fields. Yes, your great-grandmother and I both went to university and could choose our occupations. We could have become mining engineers or tax officials or even officers in the military, but we studied literature instead. Literature used to be an honorable profession. People were paid to study it and even to produce it.

As it happened, neither your great-grandmother nor I got rich at literature, which saved our lives during the wealth redistribution campaigns of 2021, when so many of our fellow Boomers perished. True, we were educated, old, and had canned food in our crawl space, but we weren't bankers, politicians, lawyers, or corporate executives who had moved jobs offshore. Our location in a rural community saved us from summary execution by the Hoarding Police--we had always lived modestly, and even during the Great Famine there were better pickings elsewhere.

I have always been amazed at how long America held together after capitalism started cannibalizing itself. The three generations prior to the Boomers worked to accumulate tremendous wealth, and the salvage economy based on that wealth carried into your grandparents' generation, allowing them to live their lives in front of screens, playing videogames.

That's what happened to your grandparents. As things got worse in the country, they retreated further toward the limitless internal horizons of virtual reality, and starved to death at their game consoles.

As was the custom in those days, your great-grandmother and I took in our children's children--your parents--and raised them. We were not able to afford to educate them, however. As soon as they were old enough to work in the fields, we rented them to Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland, and so were able to hang on to our house for a few more years, until the Great Chinese Foreclosure.

A good many of our fellow Boomers still see the foreclosure and the incorporation of the American West into the Han Empire as a catastrophe. But your great-grandmother and I have fared well as naturalized citizens of China. We have enough to eat. And even though we aren't very fluent in Chinese, we are respected because of our age and education, and have been given an entire room in an Autumn Residence, the Chinese term for what were known as assisted living communities.

We have been able to make small sums explaining idiomatic English to Chinese historians, who study us as a cautionary example. "We do not want to end up like America," they tell us. "Where did you go wrong?"

They know where we went wrong, but it amuses them to hear our answers. "We stole from the future," I tell them, "and then the future moved into our house." It's a phrase that translates into elegant Chinese, I'm told.

I am delivering this letter by bicycle courier to the potato farm where your parents supervise the chain gangs of black-market gasoline sellers, captured Canadian resistance fighters, and the descendants of hedge-fund managers. Considering that they started out as virtual slaves, your parents have done well for themselves. It is an indication of how well they've done that they were permitted to have a child.

Our legacy to you will be necessarily small--a few books, money for a year of school, and our photo album. The house in the photos is real, made out of real wood. It even had air-conditioning, but there were whole years when we only needed it in July and August.

Our smiles? Genuine. And you won't believe it, but we used to drive that car 50 miles just to see a movie. We even flew in airplanes, and once we visited the Chinese Homeland, if you can imagine that.

Try not to blame us for bequeathing you a world so different from the one we were given. When we were born--this sounds more stupid than it seemed at the time--we didn't realize actions had consequences. Citizens were referred to as consumers, and we didn't understand how voracious we were until we devoured everything in our world and yours. Even when we knew we were overheating the atmosphere and acidifying the oceans and destroying most of the creatures that shared the planet with us, we kept at it until what little we hadn't consumed went to pay the bills.

Your parents may be able to finance more than a year of education. If they don't consider it a waste of your time and their money, you should study English. It of course won't be of much use to you growing potatoes, but it was a language that gave rise to a literature that's a joy to read in the original. Over the years, our books have given us constant pleasure in inconstant times, and your great-grandmother and I would be pleased if you could read them. That way, when you're tempted to think we left you next to nothing, you can share with us at least one small part of a world we thought would last forever.

Good luck with this year's potato crop. I paid to have this letter translated. I do hope you're reading it and not having it read to you.

Your great-granddad,

Jou-Jou Xhin

Honored Scholar of Pre-revolutionary Literature and Economics

(Adapted from A Hundred Little Pieces on the End of the World, a work-in-progress by John Rember.)

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