There was an opaque layer of Pepsi at the bottom of the bottle, and Carola tilted her head all the way back to drink it. She put the bottle back on the table and screwed the top on. She hoped it was clean enough.
Ms. Halifax was shouting over the general chaos of the museum cafeteria, saying they would be late. Carola trotted over to the trashcan with her tray and looked around. There was a place for garbage and a place for the tray. Wrinkling her nose, she slid the wrapper from her sandwich into the trashcan and kept the bottle.
She lined up behind the other children and Ms. Halifax counted them all. “Carola, throw your trash away,” she shouted. Carola shook her head.
“I’m gonna recycle it,” she said.
“Huhhokay,” the teacher said jadedly, and herded the class out of the history museum and onto the street.
The quality, but not the volume of the noise changed when they went from inside to outside. The city was white-hot and smoking, filled with the sounds of engine breaks and bad mufflers.
“Find a buddy,” yelled Ms. Halifax, like it was a threat, “and talk about what you learned in the museum.”
She transferred the Pepsi bottle from one hand to another and grabbed the hand of the boy next to her. His hand was sticky with green popsicle juice.
“I liked the thing in the gift shop that pooped candy,” he said. “Why are you keeping that bottle?”
“I need to find a recycling bin.”
Carola squinted at the city.
“I don’t know.”
There was a trash can on the roadside and she detached her palm from his and bounded over to it. It was just one big trash can and there were bottles in there, mixed in with paper plates and cigarettes and flies.
“Carola!” Ms. Halifax howled. “Where is your buddy?”
Carola slunk back to the sticky embrace of her buddy as they reached a stoplight. The class pooled around the teacher, who pointed across the street.
“That’s the capitol building,” she said. It was big, roundish, and decorated. “When we go in I want you to be absolutely quiet and respectful, and while you’re being quiet you can think about what you’re going to ask the Congressman.”
The light turned green, and the children oozed out into the crosswalk two-by-two as the traffic to their right lurched to beat them to it. Out in the middle of the crosswalk, the city roared and steamed. Sweet and salty smoke hung predatorily above their heads. The heat rolled between the buildings like water in a waterslide. The only thing that kept the bolt of afternoon sun from hitting the pedestrians square in the face was a billboard with an image of a smiling man photoshopped badly next to a black car. It was on a billboard like this that Carola had seen, not so long ago, the words Sign the Pledge: No More Plastic Bottles, and a link to a website. Well, Carola had used a plastic bottle. She wasn’t sure exactly who she was beholden to if she signed a pledge, but it seemed an awful serious commitment. So to ameliorate the harm she had done to the world and stave off the guilt, she would bring this bottle to its rightful resting place.
She stumbled over a tin can and a foil bag in the middle of the crosswalk. She wondered if she ought to pick them up, but the inexorable grasp of her buddy tugged her ever forward, and she watched the rubbish over her shoulder with a guilt that stretched painfully as she moved away from it. A lumbering old truck coughed a cloud of exhaust and Carola slung her arm over her face. When she did so, the bottle slipped out of her sweaty fingers and hit the pavement with a sound like a flute on a low note. Carola gasped and stopped in the middle of the crosswalk like a spooked horse. The buddies behind her collided into her and then began the tricky maneuver of getting around her as a single unit. Her own buddy’s arm was tugged nearly out of its socket and he complained as she pulled their arms into a stiff angle and kicked the bottle back into the crosswalk and out of the road. She squatted down to pick it up. It was slick from her sweaty fingers and the color on the label was wearing off.
“Carola, I won’t warn you a third time,” Ms. Halifax’s voice reproached from somewhere through the thick air.
“You should ask the Congressman why there aren’t any recycling bins,” her buddy said, rubbing his shoulder.
“Yeah,” she said fiercely. “I’m gonna ask him.”
When she walked into the lobby of the capital building the aircon slapped her. She became unpleasantly aware of the sweat on her back. Everything was white and square and echoey. They walked down a long hallway punctured with big wooden doors and came out into another lobby which had a potted tree and a painting of a valley.
“The Congressman is just finishing up his lunch and then he’ll be right with you,” said a smiley woman in a pencil skirt, and then she left them to wait. Carola, one of the smallest children, was reeled in to the front of the group so she could see. With one fingernail she plucked at the wrapper on the bottle, causing a regular dunk dunk sound.
“Carola, you cannot have your trash out when we meet the Congressman. There’s a trashcan right over there.” Ms. Halifax pointed down the hallway.
“I’ll put it away.”
“Okay, then put it away.”
Carola slipped her bright yellow backpack off her shoulders, unzipped it, and deposited the bottle between the folders and loose pencils. Just as she slid her arms back through the straps, a door closed in the hallway and footsteps approached. She heard the sneakers of the little girl behind her slap the floor as she jumped to see the Congressman who was coming into view. He was wearing a white shirt and black pants. The shirt was ironed and he was smiling. His hair was clean and slick, and in the fluorescent light his teeth were gleaming and so was the silver seltzer can in his hand, and as he walked towards them, he tossed the can in the trash and brushed his hands off on his pants.