The Crypt of Civilization

“It’s the size of a swimming pool,” I said, “and locked in stainless steel. Locked for six thousand years, in fact.” I was telling my son about the Crypt of Civilization, a time capsule in Atlanta. We were in the basement, sorting his toys into piles. An overdue project, because now he used electric razors; he studied for the driving test. I picked up a tiny plastic mare and her tinier plastic foal. I asked, “Do you want them, your Horse and Baby Joe?”


He shook his head. “Sounds ambitious,” he said, “that thing in Atlanta.” He was burning through the matchbox cars and the doll that looked like a businessman, the Lincoln Logs and the book in which the bear is forever snoring on. Discard, discard, discard.


“These are in there,” I said, holding up a log the size of a finger. “In the Crypt of Civilization.”


“Why save a bunch of sticks?” he said.


I kept talking. Other items in the crypt: recorded birdsong, aluminum foil, ashtrays, the form of a woman’s breast, a “Negro doll,” a piece of soap in the shape of a bull.


“Jesus,” he said, taking a pterosaur from my hands and tossing it with the discards. “Are you kidding me with that list?”


I shrugged. “It was 1940,” I said. “Not a great year for time capsules.” I didn’t say: As if there have been so many other, better years. Our hopes and our hubris, the human experiment laid bare, thanks to the Crypt of Civilization.


His class did a time capsule once, back when he was in the first grade. A moment in time, or, as the principal said, a moment in conversation. “What will we choose?” she’d asked. We were gathered in the gym on parents’ night, the thick heat of September rolling in through the propped-open door. “Will we choose something that says how far our civilization has come, like light bulbs, or will we choose things from today, from here in 2010?”


Later, his dad and I joked. Let’s put in some guns. A bottle of DEET. A white guy billionaire, maybe Jeff Bezos. But our coal hearts burned away when our son chose to add his stuffed lion. Other kids picked the yearbook, mechanical pencils, a photo of Phillip Stanning, the third grader who’d died of leukemia the year before. His parents gave the school their permission.


“Why tell me this now?” my son asked when I reminded him. He glanced at the clock, wanting to go upstairs, but I was thinking of stories unearthed. Of conversations between a dreamed-of future and the best and the worst of our past.


And what of the forgotten capsules? Conversations never had, conversations still in the earth, magnolia roots pushing against old tin boxes, letters in bulldozed attics, bottles left floating eternally at sea, through storms and under scorching skies. A metal ball orbiting the earth, the silence of that, its secrets tucked in like a heart.


“Mom,” he said. “Let’s be done. Let’s give it all away.” It was like this more and more with us. He looked forward, to the car he’d soon drive and the girls he’d soon kiss and to more distant visions—college, roommates, drugs, maybe—while I held his Horse, his Baby Joe and said, let’s build ourselves a capsule.


I scooped the discard pile my way. “I’m saving these,” I said, the Legos and the frog blanket and the board book with a dollop of oatmeal on it, long hardened into milky cement. The toys that came later—the stacking robots, the sticker sheets. He knew it would end this way, and I did too. An hour used or wasted, depending on who you asked.


“Time,” he said, standing up. “You always talk about time.”


As if this was so boring. As if time didn’t start and stop and shift to the left, didn’t corrode and make you whole. Didn’t change little boys who cried as they buried their lions into bigger boys who thought that Lincoln Logs were sticks, discard who they were for who they would become again and again and again.


And what of Phillip Stanning’s parents? Sometimes I wondered, across the hurried years, as the elementary school collected artifacts from one class and then another, moved from one principal to the next. As the Crypt of Civilization sat in its deluded wait. What did time become for them that April afternoon when they put their boy into the ground, when they tucked away that last thing with him, that final conversation, that favorite plushy bird?