He was crustier than the rest of us. A raspberry chunked his face. A draft filtered through shuttered windows. Someone I didn't recognize wrapped him in a blanket and pulled a chair to the center of the room. Warmed by the blanket, the man sat in the chair and said in a quiet voice:
I'm really glad to be here tonight. I mean, I'm really glad that I'm not out there with all those dead. And by all those dead, I mean all those people outside of here who are dead, all of them. All of them are dead, and thank God (or you know, whoever) that I'm in here, after all this time. I'm sure you're wondering what's it like out there now—oh, whoa, water to drink; great; I am thirsty of course and I'm relieved to even just imagine that this is potable—I don't know how long it's been since any of you were last outside or when was the last time you've found anyone to let in. It's like you'd expect, I guess—acrid, gray and silent—but worse, too. It was a long trip to get here, quite by accident, coming to this last—is this the last?—refuge. I'd like to tell you my story, which like Solzhenitsyn in the gulag I memorized as I wandered among the carcasses of the dead, the offal of our neighbors. Hopefully we can examine it to determine anew what, you know, matters. We'll see about that—I don't want to be grandiose.
But it was on a chilly winter morning, this was before it all, it all it all, I was hanging poems on telephone poles in Fells Point. This was when there was still poetry. I was with my friend, and together we came upon a newspaper box that had been covered over in a thick coat of graying paint so it was clear that, from this stand, nothing was for sale anymore. There were still newspapers then, but not in this box—nor had there been, it seemed, for a long time. It did have a coin slot that looked functional, though, so I thought it would be worth the few cents to open the box and see if it held any sort of prize. My friend joked that inside could be a human head and I made sort of a funny face as I dug into my pocket for a quarter. I had none; moments before I'd given my small change to a man on the street who needed bus fare in order to get to a job interview, he said, though I suspected that this was a game on my confidence—probably he already had a job as a bricklayer or something, I thought, because his hands and his clothes were chalky with old dirt. Standing now at the box, I turned, palms up, and my friend laughed and said no, it would be a waste of money. I suggested that if he would just give me two quarters we could maybe find a treasure map in the box or an unfinished patent, but I didn't press him on it because it was a joke after all, and his money after all, and we were about to eat breakfast finally. This was when there was still breakfast. So I shrugged and then said, "Okay, but mark this location, because if society blows up and the phone lines and cell towers don't work anymore, then I'll leave a message in this box telling you where to meet." This is a prescience I hadn't had before.
Because it was soon after that society blew up.
My anecdote is meant to illustrate that even while I had a schoolboy's inclination to dream up impractical contingency schemes, I really didn't believe things would erupt as quickly and destructively as they did. As a student I had a poster that said, "I'd prefer to believe" in block letters. And I frittered hours away late into the night, arguing with my pre-millennialist pals about the second coming of Jesus. In fact, my friends and I developed a detailed survival plan in the event of a catastrophe, dividing ourselves into two groups with different rendezvous points, each team with a conceptually broad-hipped woman designated as our "Eve," who would take on the task of bearing forth the new human civilization. We had a codeword—it was Eagleforce Five (it doesn't matter if I tell you this now, since all my old friends are dead)—and for years I waited to hear the phrase squawk through my telephone, instructing me to begin my trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where we would launch our boat through the St. Lawrence Seaway and onto a difficult but enriching new life. I kept a backpack packed with canned meats for the eventuality. Also therein I kept nice slacks: pants I wouldn't wear in my current life but that in post-life would show me to be a qualified and well-appointed leader.
That's sort of the way I imagined things—a quick phone call and a duffel by the door—but of course by the time the severity of the global climate rose up to us all phone systems were wiped out. It isn't that the communication infrastructure toppled quickly (as, I know, you know) I think the problem was that none of us realized things weren't going to get better again by the next day. Who hasn't been frustrated by the response time of our utility companies, back when there were utility companies, or companies at all? Ultimately, though, I believe my slowness in the face of real disaster indicates all of my interest in eschatology was just an abstraction, a concept of time conceptualized to pass the time, an academic game I liked to play. And when the energy reserves depleted, and our Western states collapsed and sunk into the Pacific, and when unconsidered missiles were brought down by methane bubbles, I still wasn't ready to believe that this thing was really that thing, and from my private eschaton hope drained. After all, for years I had thought the apocalypse would derive from some minor insurgency, a few radicals with an unstable chemical and a dream of Jews and Gentiles. But enough—what happened has happened, with great complex bursts of silence it came to pass, and this was not the gag I had for so long joked.
There was no brouhaha. No—this was a fire that burned without burning up, a gnashing of teeth, a splattering that curdled beyond John the Revelator's night terrors. Forget seven-headed beasts; this was the skulls of babies carried on sticks. . . . Which you know, I know, of course, although your descriptions might vary.
So the second thing I did, I went to find my son. Certainly I never imagined this course of action in any of my apocalyptic schemes, but in the turmoil I found I had a need for family. I went by bike, nearly two hundred miles. The trip took a day and, since it was too dark to pedal through the night, and too scary then, another day, and then a misadventure. I rode hard, burning out my already feeble legs, and was set upon at each village. The attacks were typically half- or quarter-hearted, the last lunge of a wounded cripple puddled in the road. But one harrowing part of the journey nearly stopped me for good, when a gang of hale nine-year-olds came after me on bikes of their own. At first I thought they were only pranksters or vandals, but their vehemence shook me; I could not shake them. My legs, as I said, as old as me, were burned through at this point of my trip, and their adolescent muscles were fresh. They swung at me with sticks and the novelty became unfunny so I stopped laughing. When I couldn't outrun them with strength, I went risky with my pedaling. Careening off the road, I sought refuge among the trees on the steeply pitched slope. I whizzed past low branches that lashed my face; I bottomed out in ruts and jostled over roots. I took to the air more than once, but avoided overturning. My hips, always tricky that past decade, went unbroken.
My pursuers did not fare as well. As I glimpsed one boy gaining on my right shoulder, I shifted my direction an inch. The feint worked; the boy spun out and collided with a tree. Three remained, or four—if I don't remember, it's because the chase was blurred in its velocity. What I remember vividly, though, is the acumen with which I applied my unpracticed maneuvers. I edged another child into a tangle of roots and caught briefly how he launched up, up, and the way he moved out and down from his bike. I was a dozen yards away before I heard the baritone oof of his landing. Then I made so as to drive my own bike into a bush and, at the last second, held back. The boy on my tail couldn't repeat the movement and went over his handlebars into a rock. I turned to see what was left to lose and there was nothing. No one was behind me. The last boy had stopped to check on his friend so, a safe distance downhill, I jammed my brakes and skidded through the wet leaves to a stop. I looked up the trail and surveyed the wreckage. A yard sale: boys and bikes drastically reduced.
A short distance back, I saw the last boy holding in his arms the one who had gone into the bush. The wounded one was prone across his villainous friend's lap, and I was quiet, and I listened. "Not you, Walt," the unhurt boy said. He slapped the supine one on the cheek. "Come, and not you, and not you, Walt." I thought his empathy was uncharacteristic, so crouching there in the crunch of loam and its sweet smell, I tuned in to his small voice. Tears cut a river through his dirt-mashed face. "And not mother, and not dad, and not Mr. Big-the-Turtle, and not school, and not Old Man Curtis at the deli. And come, Walt, and not you, and not you." And then a few minutes later he spoke lowly, "You are dead. You are dead, you are dead."
At this point, the man broke off his retelling and stared over our heads. He was quiet for about a minute. Although he had made constant asides to say that he knew we already understood what he was talking about, I could tell none of us really did. After another minute, he began his monologue again, more sedate now, saying:
Of course I won't say that I was above the killing, no one was after a while, but this was my first direct action in that new game. How did it feel? Perhaps there are those of you here who haven't experienced it, who came to hiding before encountering that taste. The taste, the taste. How did it feel? Intensely sad—a sudden bottlenecking of serotonin—the evening after another debilitating drunk approximates those first sensations, but the metaphor diminishes everything overall. The metaphor is paltry. How did it feel? I was Pompeii. Vesuvius erupted in my chest and I was mired in that spot where for the next half hour I heard more of the boy's tearful monologue. I learned that their town bit hard; they were brothers and neighbors whose parents were of the first ones gone; they ganged together for survival, and I gathered that they took to the violence after all the adults in the town had died or gone ugly. Neither are children immune. I was not the first wayfarer they attacked, I learned, though I was the first to elude them so successfully. All of this was recounted to dead Walt, and then one last boy came trudging down the slope to meet them in their wretched pile.
"Hey Timothy," he said. Timothy didn't look up, but he broke off his abject monologue. "Not Walt, not Walt still in his flowering and not Isaac up the hill too." Maybe he didn't say the bit about his flowering.
"Well, help me get him up, then," Timothy said, and leaving their bikes, the two boys hoisted up Walt and lugged Walt up the hill, and I watched as they dropped Walt here and there and fell beside him. When darkness came they were long gone with Walt but I was still there, immobilized on my hands and knees, and I began to hear sticks breaking. And I said "Walt" and hearing my voice was quiet again. There was a rustle of wind. Gradually I returned to myself and my bicycle anew and I pushed it up the hill. My muscles working inspired a new host of emotions, an exhilaration, a wormy high before the hangover. To keep with the insufficient tropes, I was jazzed. That's how it felt: this killing, the abruptness of staccato, the kicking sad of blue notes. There is not jazz now, of course, but there is still the swing of it. Back on the abandoned highway I swung my leg over my bike and kicked it hastily to my son's house. He had a wife and small boys of his own. I rode now with reckless disregard of the night.
The city where Anthony lives is a small one, but it is famous for anyone who has made a study of death. Auburn, New York is the "home of the electric chair"—its penitentiary the first place electricity was used to correct uncorrectable souls. I didn't think about this historical chestnut until I arrived at Wall Street—an avenue that shares nothing in common with that giant of the financial district (when there were finances). For several blocks, half of this county seat's Wall Street is in fact just that—a concrete fence fifty feet high and the width of an Oldsmobile wagon. There are turrets at regular intervals on this Wall, superstructuring the panopticon within. Without, as I pedaled past, I considered again the ambiguity of this modern legal trick, for as the houses on the neighboring blocks stretch out there is an apparent reverse entropy. In other words, the homes nearest to the Wall, just across the street, are dilapidated renters, their own walls always about to crumble over. The houses a block away from the penitentiary are in slightly better repair, and three or four blocks back are the four-storied homes of dental surgeons. The effect is that Auburn is crushing like a wave onto the breaking Wall. That thought occurred to me in the silent morning as I neared my Anthony's home. What had happened in recent weeks on one side or the other?
For the most part it was like the other towns I'd ridden through: bodies heaped on the street in varying degrees of death, most of them still moving but only a little at the curdling of their own marrow, their vacant eyes rolling back and their fingers stretching like cat's paws. This horror would continue for blocks and then there would be a clear mile, a haunting and terrible tranquility permeating the nothingness. And after a moment I was able to name that which I found most uncanny, most distinct from the waste laid in the other towns. It was that I knew these streets. I knew the houses through their pillaged disrepair, and I knew the faces on the bodies that grasped at my pedaling feet. One bearded man I recognized as a colleague from the public school, the high school pariah who taught Latin and wore the same blue suit every day. He had dismembered a girl and was gnawing at her cheek. My legs felt like wood and I heard a metallic ring in my ears and my bike wobbled as I drove over something wet. I passed the house where I quit taking piano lessons. Mrs. McCarthy, grown very old, hung from her willow, her hands chopped off and twitching on the ground below her. I pedaled on. And I was within shouting distance of my old home, where Anthony had taken up residence since I'd moved on.
As a boy I would walk to Mrs. McCarthy's house every Saturday morning and sit at her piano, ashamed of my poor progress. I could cross hot buns well enough, finally, but there was no hope for me at any sort of recital. And I would trudge back home in dejection, absently plucking the Christmas lights from trees and lampposts to pop them on the sidewalk and incomplete the circuits of the suburban decor. And my own father had walked that same sidewalk every morning to his job, and my brother on his paper route was now in the faces of all these dead, and I still would gripe if I had to help him carry the papers on some afternoon that a Little League game was scheduled. I was in shouting distance now and now I shouted to home, Ollie Ollie, just like mother used to shout for me when dinner time came, or bath time, or time for prayers and bed, Ollie Ollie in come free. I rounded the corner of my old street, passing a newspaper box that was sprung open and a telephone pole that had collapsed beside it. Overturned next to them was an empty minivan. There were no bodies in the street to navigate but that of your dog, your sandy retriever, and there across the lawn once mowed by my father and then me and now Anthony Anthony was bent across the balustrade, his hand reaching to his own son below him who seemed to be reaching up and whose legs had been separated at the knees, their eyes locked eternally.
My heart, what heart I had, did a little turn in its cavity and shriveled a bit and I said, "You are dead. You are dead, you are dead" as the bicycle collapsed from under me and I toppled over the front wheel, smacking the pavement with my face and dragging with it no small number of pebbles, and I stayed there.
The man clammed up. He pulled the blanket tighter across his shoulders, signaling that he was done talking. The rest of us there stayed still. I considered his story, wondered about some unanswered questions (he still hadn't said how he got here), but overall I had the sick impression that this was the truth, and if we were let outside I would find everything to be as bleak and hellish as he described.