Fall 2019Non-Fiction

Everything I Know About Plastic Bags – Kaely Horton

When towns ban plastic bags in grocery stores, cashiers experience the fallout.

Expect the question, “Would you like to buy a paper bag?” to be met with attitude. Expect customer responses like, “No, I’ll just carry my groceries outside in my hands like a hobo!”

The town of Corvallis, Oregon, banned plastic bags in grocery stores in January 2013.

Plastic bags are precious to cat owners. If you live in a town that has banned them, you may find yourself digging through closets and drawers, hoping to find one you overlooked as the litter box clumps beg for attention. You needed those grocery bags, dammit. You had a use for them. And what better way to deal with trash than by filling it with more trash?

You won’t want them around anymore after your cat dies.

They won’t protect you from the winter months of grey drizzle. But if you must go out in the rain, plastic bags can keep your borrowed books, your student papers, your folded manuscript pages from withering into papier-mâché.

Below the lighthouse where your parents got married, plastic bags lie strewn on the beach like sand-caked corpses. Their colors glare from the muted coastline: construction-work orange, generic brown, bleached translucent white.

Plastic bags make good booties if you walk through the Oregon wetlands at sunset. They may make the difference between getting stuck in the parking lot and wading across the boardwalk past the tumble of wild roses to the view.

If you or anyone you know should happen to break the Septembeerfest pint glass you left on your dashboard by accident, a plastic bag can keep you from getting cut.

A plastic bag holds your crumpled blouses, your stray socks, the teaching slacks you hate, your sweatpants stenciled with “Oregon” on the left leg. Each time you dash across your parking lot in the drizzle, the straining laundry bag over your shoulder, you imagine looking like a soggy and beardless Santa Claus.

A plastic bag can carry almost anything. The faded clothing you’re taking to Goodwill, the frying pans that don’t fit comfortably in a cardboard box, the jagged pieces of a broken lamp.

According to American Beauty, the sight of one suspended in midair should evoke reverence and introspection, a reminder of the fleeting loveliness of life.

It’s easier to ruminate on the fleeting loveliness of life than it is to sit there and wonder, Should I go pick it up? Should I go pick it up? Should I go pick it up?

If the seals who frequent Newport Harbor fifty miles west of Corvallis encounter plastic bags, it could very well mean the end of them.

Your goodbye present might come in a plastic bag. Inside the bag, a Styrofoam container might cradle a piece of chocolate cake. Amid laughter and hugs and fought-back tears, you might find yourself sealing the cake back in the bag, because you want the reminder for later.

Plastic bags carry warnings: “This bag is not a toy. Keep away from babies and children. Do not use in cribs, beds, carriages, or playpens.” They say nothing about seals.

If you smash them with gusto, they will fit in the gaps between cardboard boxes in the backseat of your car.

Even if the plastic bags come loose and block your rearview mirror, you can still drive across the country using only your side mirrors. Truck drivers do it all the time.

If, at a grocery store in your new East Coast town, you say, “Thanks, but I don’t need a bag,” the cashier will say, “Are you sure?” He will stare at you as you pile the apples on the yogurt container, tuck the beer bottles under your chin, and carry your groceries outside. It would be easy to pretend this behavior was motivated solely by concern for the environment. It’s a way of saying I come from somewhere and we do things differently there and I have not forgotten.

But you might find yourself sticky and breathless as you carry your groceries home in your hands, because Dover, New Hampshire, is hotter than normal for this time of year. You must take other people’s word for it, because you don’t know the weather and you don’t know the landscape and even if you had accepted the plastic bag, you wouldn’t have known how to use it, not here. You have no cat to care for. You have no papers to protect. You haven’t found the wetlands, though you haven’t stopped looking, haven’t stopped chasing each green patch on Google Maps, only to watch it blur into a dusty baseball field at the edge of a dirt road.

Occasionally you forget to plan. You put too many things in the basket and you know it’s impossible to carry them all. You accept the brown membrane with chagrin. The bags pile up in an indiscriminate bundle beneath the sink.

You will mourn the loss of green space when you leave the West. You go hunting for parks and find cemeteries instead. More people have died here. More people have lived here. You feel a prickling awareness of their lives, their creations, their waste. You feel a prickling awareness of your own.

Plastic bags jam up the machinery in recycling stations. Their strength and their downfall lie in their ability to cling to what surrounds them.
“There should be a box over there,” the Market Basket cashier says when you ask. You walk past the beeping checkout lines and jam the crinkled bundle into the recycle bin. It hovers for an instant like a jellyfish before settling into the pile.

A plastic bag knows what it means to be attached. It becomes toxic when it is unable to let go.

A plastic bag is much smaller than the rainbow-striped tote bag an excited parade-goer presses into your hands at Boston Pride. The rainbow tote bag is large enough for you to stand in. It will be a constant exercise in learning how not to carry too much.

“Thanks, but I already have a bag,” you say in the checkout line. You open the rainbow tote bag, wincing as it flaps like a bird trying to take flight. The cashier laughs as you load the apples and the yogurt and the beer bottles into the canvas. Perhaps she understands a tiny piece of what you are trying to do. Using this bag is a way of coming home. It is a way of saying I lived somewhere else once and we do things differently there and I have not forgotten and I will not forget. It is a way of saying, my parents’ beach has suffered enough. It is a recognition that Dover is hotter than normal for this time of year—that everywhere is hotter than normal, that normal has changed and you must too. It is a way of ensuring that your plastic membrane will never find the wetlands, even if you never do either.

Still you don’t stop searching for the wetlands. You take long walks in the twilight, pausing to read the historical markers, watching pink tinge the sky behind the chain stores. You keep waiting for the moment when the chain stores end. A drawstring bag hangs loose off your shoulders, just in case.

Kaely Horton holds an MFA from the University of New Hampshire. Her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Stonecoast Review, Isthmus, Citron Review, Gone Lawn, and others, and is forthcoming in Hobart. She currently lives in Oregon. You can find her on Twitter @kaely_horton.

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