“You might remember my husband – he was on the committee that organized the barrier in Arbor Heights.” She detaches herself from a group of women, holding blankets and quilts in her hand. That she looks my age – an age where anything attractive we once had diminishes in favor of asset or status – is not lost on me. “He always spoke highly of you. That you were a solid comrade; that you looked to what would benefit the most for the greatest number of people…despite the decisions that needed to be made.”
“And what was his name…?”
“David Douglas. You might not remember him by name. I know there was a sense of urgency at the time, that names were unimportant and quickly forgotten.” She looks about, measuring the distance of people for reassurance that no one but the two of us can hear: “He set out with two others to go east. This was in May, and he hasn’t returned. Phaedra and I…we are so terrified. It’s been seven weeks since his promised return.” I tell her that I can ask after him. I can get an inquiry to the bootleggers who commerce in information as well as contraband - but it does little to mollify her anxiety. “My daughter and I have gone over this a thousand times. He is not coming back. Either he is dead, or he has found a better life and left us behind to feign for ourselves. He left us with this…he left knowing the risk, and he wrote the date on a rock and told us many times that should that date pass, we need to begin a future without him.” As she spoke, she pushed her bundle to me, in a suppliant application.
I ask her, “Isn’t this for the boy? For Horace?” She looks away from me.
“No, it is for you. Just so that we can have some kind of consideration. We live in the same division – three blocks over, though we’ve never met – and we don’t have the fortune of having a garden. We have to get by on trade. This, this we can spare and hopefully, we can establish a rapport of sorts…I’m not sure what we will gain by it. Possibly your goodwill. Or protection.”
I’m taken aback. Nobody could have anticipated my coming out and joining this cold afternoon, and I cannot recall the last time I participated in any gathering dedicated to levity. I look past the woman to her daughter – a wispy twenty-something who could be beautiful if life were not so hard, if we could all be well-fed and didn’t need to consider how we spend each calorie of expendable energy. And I think of how long it has been since I’ve been with a woman. I’ve never felt comfortable with my position in the community; I’ve mostly wanted to be alone, and I would partner with others only as the need arose or whenever I saw fit. But I’ve remarked the faces about me today, seen how no one will meet my eyes, and I can feel it: they respect me as a necessary evil, a key to their own survival.
“Please. Give what you have to Horace – I suspect this is what you intended. I appreciate your gesture. You can come to my home anytime; we can discuss in private what it is you need to improve your circumstance. I am not here today to barter services or material necessity.” I shift my head and eyes about to let her know the conversation is finished: “Now I must try and find Mikal…”
I break away from her. I know I have given her the impression of a man obdurate, but I am secretly flattered – she is offering a validation I never thought I needed. This idea that the people might see me as their own warrior, even if it is a mantle I do not necessarily accept. I see Mikal at the center of a group of people, and they disperse at my approach.
“Well done, Mikal. Or should I commend your wife? I can’t envision you going door to door and inviting all these people.”
His smile is sheepish. “You know how I feel about this. She does it out of spite. The boy is lame; he cannot lift a thing. Look at him. The only thing working is that mouth of his.” I pat Mikal on the shoulder. “It is different for a woman. You might put the food on the table, you might be her support, but the boy is the apple of her eye. Their existence is more entwined than your marriage, even though you are the father.” Now it is my turn to lower voice, and I lean into his ear: “Is that what today is about? Did you have the talk with her?”
Mikal’s pause is drawn out, and he barely moves his lips to mutter. “It did not go over well. What am I to do? I feel terrible about the accident, but I don’t know if we could handle another year like the last one. We are still young. Times can improve – I believe they will! But this is too much. Oh, the days I went without eating.” He inhales deeply and releases a dramatic sigh. “Entire days.”
I feel so bad for him. I cannot imagine the joys or the grief that become a father. I look at Horace: the boy with the crooked arm. His right arm, broken several years ago when he and some other boys were playing in the quarry. When we arrived at the scene, it was folded like an accordion holding its air, swinging about when we removed him from the rubble. We tried to set it back in place. The boy’s screams were harrowing. We didn’t do a very good job, and the arm didn’t heal straight and apparently there was some nerve damage. He could eventually move his fingers, but he could feel nothing with them. When he reached the age that bring the young into toil, the men were frequently interrupted with Horace’s dropping and breaking things. He will forever favor the hand that is not naturally adept, his full potential will be a scepter haunting him.
I sit down next to Mikal and we watch his son together. I try to make him feel better. It is a tribute to the occasion. “Well he is full of happiness today. And you are right - things might make a positive turn. There’s no use worrying about it now, we have a planting soon, food won’t be a concern, and who knows? There might be something the boy can do to make your family’s life easier.” Mikal gives me one last smile before looking to the ground in contemplation. But I know we are thinking the same thing; it is the way anyone of us who has survived these past decades will think - or we would not have survived at all. We are thinking about what we will do if the situation worsens.
I’m already contemplating and bracing myself for what might fall upon my own hands, when I think of Genghis again: the statistic that sits in my mind as a nuisance. I had never factored that I could be the cursed numerator in a novel, insidious statistic.
I kneel down on the floor next to her spent frame. I set a large bowl next to her filled and overflowing with ears of corn and potato and carrots, and my heart is warmed as her eyes widen to take it all in. “Take this home for you and your mother. And this:” I present her with a 30-06 and six shells. “You surprised me when you said you had no weapons.” Businesslike, I make exaggerated movements to draw her attention: “You load it like this.” I put the cartridge in place and cock the rifle. “…and aim. Now, don’t go out and kill anyone with it, or we’ll hunt you down. I will hunt you down. And I’ll make sure there are more of us than there are shells I’m giving you now.”
Her eyes do not move from the rifle as I hand it to her. “How many people have you killed with it?”
I tell her she doesn’t need to know. “People can get by without killing anyone at all; aren’t you are proof of that? First rule: consider this a tool to warn intruders off. Rarely do they act alone anymore…if a group attacks, a warning shot might be all you need to distinguish your home as one that shouldn’t be invaded. Killing should be a last resort. Always a last resort.”
She is adjusting to the weight and feeling its density: “But there’s so much we could do with it.”
“No. You are too young to remember. There was a time when killing for food was unacceptable. A taboo. I know this will be a difficult transition, but there are those of us who want to bring this time back. For the community. Even for the people who threaten us…it needs to be something that we never consider or accept. Ever again.” I offer her my hand and lift her to her feet.
I lead Phaedra to the door. Though I tell her to call on me should they need anything, I want that they will be sufficient and I will not hear from them again. I feel it as a resignation and guilt over my actions. There is an allure in the supplicant, an allure that awoke a sleeping libido – it was further fueled knowing she was a child, 30 years my junior. It was enflamed when I could tell she was getting no pleasure from any of our coupling, and I was soon overwhelmed, mouth-breathing all my future sadistic plans for her to the back of her ear. I am able to better see the transaction for what it was, now. Now, that I am fully engorged.
Not that I wouldn’t do it again. With a different woman. But I don’t have an unlimited supply of rifles.
I have forty-seven of them – an assortment of automatics, specials and game-hunting fare - minus this one bartered away. It is an odd assortment, many taken from a looting grab-ass spree when two dozen of us ventured Northing in the earliest weeks of the famine. When we knew we could call it such, when circumstances were begging a name to attach to the pestilence. We raided like locusts: piloting stolen shopping carts, shattering shop front windows as we berated bystanders waving our baseball bats and voicing hostage-scenario threats. It was a successful route. Many of us absconded with carts loaded with tin-canned imperishable. Two of us came away with a small arsenal. “Haven’t they heard the old parable about teaching a man to fish?” The other asked me. I could only smile as we watched the others congratulating each other for their plunder. They measured their success in their immediate need, for them and their families. “Perhaps we forgot our aphorisms and parables when our stomachs became empty.”
I become nostalgic when my thoughts are redirected to those first several months. It was a time of rampant adrenaline and collective ambiguity. In a short amount of time I went from being nobody to approaching someone untouchable. It was a time where many of my shortcomings were reinterpreted as strengths. A time where the bar of success became an irrelevance, and old subjective values lost their density. When I awoke each morning, the anticipated drudgery of a former life was displaced by a new reality – a notion that I could possess more prominence and leverage before my head hit the pillow at the end of the day. I can think of no better way to explain it: the world’s end marked my new beginning.
Nobody can point to one single event as the downfall. Certainly, there are as many root causes as there were once attention-seeking pundits, but I hold it to be true: the disparate, cataclysmic events were unrelated. Every claimed root cause will find a series of perpetrators. Some caused by humans, some caused by policy, some caused by nature.
I was born at a time when the ‘energy crisis’ – or the existence of such – was coming to the forefront of world debate. Our own country seemed to be the last to reach a consensus that it was deserving attention; that it needed to be addressed in policy. Ours was a country with a long history of division. The country as a whole was divided, and you could take any large parcel of land within it and find more division therein. Still it was a rich country. We were all well fed, so our tensions were comprised of pettier things. We had so much, yet were so unappreciative of it. All of our citizens had so few worries, so many conveniences, that we valued our opinions – ideological, traditional, and culture-edifying – as something more valuable and true than natural law. We saw politics as a casual dissipation: not something that needs constant attention and internal pressure, but an intermittent event where having a voice becomes an electuary compulsion. And within this framework, we had dissension that an environmental or ecological problem existed. Within this framework, there were even still, deep seated resentments that would interfere in fixing it.
We were a strong, but slowly-progressing country. A country rooted and obsessed with its own unique history. A narcissistic, central and self-referential country as well. Debates would culminate in arguments invoking our constitution and within our temporal frame of reference, attempts to interpret the intentions of our forefathers. We became a country of two opposing mindsets: to take risk or stay pat. To create a utopia for all, or allow each individual to pursue their own best interest unfettered. To provide guarantees, at a national level – or to make each person responsible for their own life. A country frozen in its bipolar identity; a government that encouraged only the two loudest and majoring voices. With a political structure that allowed the perpetuity of only two parties, our way of life was subject to a game of constant tug-of-war.
There were many signs at the end of the century, so many warning signs. Signs that humanity was negatively affecting the global climate. Signs that we were losing our competitive advantage on the global market. We looked to our fathers and mothers and envied them their bounty of opportunity and opulence; believed we should have the same even if it meant borrowing against our children’s future - so that we could possess it in our own turn and validate our own efforts. There were some brave enough to cry out against a consumption that came naturally to a status-minded public, but their warnings were discredited. Their facts and evidence were dismissed as selective attention and self-fulfilling prophecy. A natural apocalypse was reduced to a matter of faith by the same interest groups who professed that the faith they offered would culminate in a supernatural apocalypse…
The wealth of our nation, even as it devolved into farce, still drew respect. And resentment.
People often inquired about Blake Island. It was a former tourist attraction, just shy of a square mile, resting in Puget Sound. When we were a metropolis, people would board from Elliot Bay for Tillicum Village: spend an afternoon being served lunch and beer while being entertained with tribal dancing. To our knowledge, the island never had more than a few, to no, residents. Now it was hard to tell. It looked no different from our shore, to those of us who could remember from our youths. A bountiful mound of majestic pine trees. The potential for wood resources and farmable land. An advantageous outpost. Several families wanted to inhabit the island, seeing it as a place of safety and privilege. Getting there by kayak would be possible, as the island lay but four or five miles from our shore. For many months, we spoke with wonder and what ifs and we brainstormed how we could get a couple dozen of us out to the island and back. We spoke big with our words, and we collectively dreamt a lodge that would house us and protect us before moving on to the peninsula where true game might be found.
The expedition had to wait, however. In my own neighborhood, all the men’s days were focused on breaking rock. Food was the greatest priority, and we were still trying to undo the progress that had become a hindrance in the new world. The neighborhood would awake these winter mornings to the peal of a sledgehammer breaking up street concrete - Clark had an internal clock and skittish hypertension that sounded our daily work bell – and screen doors slammed as we joined him, still aching from the previous day’s labor.
We broke up the sidewalks and the street. We created a rock quarry at the southern downhill side of the street, tacitly agreeing on a wall where none of us felt we had relationships with people we would miss. The women and children would join us, herding up any object that could be put to use breaking rock and putting their backs to the wheelbarrow or carrying away of rock and sediment. As the sun set, we cajoled Clark to give it a rest: the end of his workday would herald our own. It took a good solid month, this setting free to the soil.
When we took on this work, I would say that a third of us were still present. Many left with the hope that prosperity could be found elsewhere. Some left quietly, with resignation, looking about them and knowing that they did not have the heart to compete against their own neighbors for food. A few – individual members of families – simply disappeared. There was a woman, Samantha, who would sing aloud to fill her own ears with the sounds she missed from her iPod. She would take long walks, sharing her melody with anyone who wanted to invite a little joy into their heart. Whenever I recognized her tune, it would bring back all the memories I had attached to it and I would find myself humming it for hours. Then she was gone. She was one of many, and nobody, not even her family, suggested that we go looking for her.
It was agreed that it made the most sense for our downsized community…plant our food outside our front doors where we each had equal opportunity to guard over it, and guard against each other. Anything grown on each individual’s property, in our own yards, we would retain as our own. It was an agreeable mix of the communal and the rights of individuals to put forth an extra effort to gain a surplus.
After the spring planting, our focus returned to the expedition. We took inventory and found we could muster a half dozen kayaks or small boats to accommodate twenty-two people. It would take that many to carry them the mile to shoreline, but we agreed that only eighteen of us should go to Blake Island: we did not want to risk not having enough room should a boat capsize. Reuben and I brought guns; Clark and Mikal, in separate boats, would drop fishing poles. After all the work in getting the boats to shore, we didn’t want to waste such an opportunity. We were each anxious with our own private expectation at what we might find! Almost a year had passed since we banded together into some unknown venture - and despite our many talks leading to this day – we knew we could not have visualized every possible contingency.
None of us had made this journey in the prior life. With the weather and the water at calm, we guessed at how long it would take…I thought ninety minutes. At midpoint, both shores looked like impossible swims and the rolling currents felt like Mother Nature’s muscles posturing in flex and extension. The salty air brought out an affected ribaldry and we shouted quips across our vessels, making light of our threatening surroundings. It was as though we were channeling the spirits of ancient sailors or triggering a latent gene. We quieted our merriment as we neared the east shore of the island, the first to arrive taxiing until we could group a hundred feet from shore.
Our boats met in an uneven starfish shape: “There’s a landing dock on the north side – we could reach it in another fifteen minutes,” Conrad said in a low voice, barely strong enough to carry over the hum of water. I disagreed. “If there are people on the island, we don’t want to use the front door. I say we land here.” The others nodded in agreement, but inside I felt sick that we had never discussed such an important detail. When this played out in my mind, we were landing at the southern tip of the island, but the northwestern currents steered us to the eastern side. My mental scenarios were being upended by the reality of the moment, and doubt and second-guessing were invited into my decision-making process.
We hit the shore, a tight little ledge that blossomed immediate into a coniferous wall. The boats were secured to the trees, flopping from side to side in the wading water, with plenty rope to spare. We broke into six groups: as many groups as we had guns. We felt like we were back on plan. We would advance about a hundred yards branched apart from one another, canvassing the tiny island.
I led the eastern shore-hugging party, bracing my automatic ahead of me. The first leg of our journey was a cumbersome incline, manipulating our feet through ferns brushing our waists. The absence of trails was interpreted as a positive sign, and every few minutes I reminded myself to never let the east water completely disappear from my sight or I might lose my bearing. This has to be a safe place. If there were a threat, we would have felt it by now. If there are people here, they have to be more frightened of us. I did not know we were making slower progress than our neighbors. As we heard Randall yell, we broke into a run.
“A Chinaman! A Chinaman!”
No thought was given to what might attack our legs below the ferns; I am amazed none of us tripped and fell. Our threesome reached the scene of the standoff. Not twenty yards ahead of us, there were four of them, their hunched statures making like disembodied busts above the sea of ferns. They did not appear to have any weapons. One of them shouted: “What do you want?”
“We’re just checking out the island! We are not here to harm anyone.”
It was my voice again, taking control of the situation. Though normally reserved among people, it takes only a few moments of ambiguous suspension to draw me out. I navigated myself towards them, aiming the automatic to the sky. I was almost upon them and I could see their visible shaking - they were, indeed, more afraid of us than we were of them.
They were a family. Korean. They reached the island as we did, departing from Alki Point - not several miles from where we debarked, but four weeks prior. As both of our groups converged in this small clearing, I continued to probe them with questions: “Is there game on the island – how do they eat? How many are you? Why did you leave the mainland? Have there been other visitors like us?” But these were the questions that they would not answer. They would look at each other and demur.
Rueben leveled his gun at them. “You don’t have to talk. But you’re going to lead us to your camp. Now.” They lowered their heads and turned to walk, and Rueben lowered his arm as they acquiesced.
They did not lead us far before we broke into a clearing. Though the trees enclosed the island in an illusion of unaffected permanence, the unkempt grass reminded me of what happens when society breaks down, just how much our old world needed constant care and maintenance. An asphalt trail was lined with benches half-swallowed in the overgrowth. If there was any game on the island, it wasn’t of the grazing sort.
I directed Reuben to stay outside with the family while several of us trekked to the performance hall. It loomed disjointed against the landscape, a majestic log cabin. Inside, we milled about like insects: surveying the kitchen, looking for sleeping quarters, walking about the stage and pretend-commanding over the large room. It was an eerie novelty in this unlit setting…but I wasn’t getting any of my questions answered. The looks on the others queried the same thing: where is the food? How did they make it a month on this island?
“It’s out back!!”
We followed Clark’s voice. Ruling out edible game and the limited containment of the island, I think I already knew. Emerging onto the back deck, I took in the fire pit and several refrigerator units hugging the backside of the lodge. Clark was walking towards us from the edge of the woods, waving a bone in his hand. It looked like a femur.
“There’s a rat’s nest of them back there,” pointing to the trees. Clark breathed heavily, carried by a frenzied enthusiasm. “They’re human. I found a couple heads. We need to get out of here…it might be a trap.”
I looked at the fire pit for some kind of evidence but none was divulged. I looked again at the refrigerators. “We aren’t going to open them!” Phil froze in midstep, and then slowly backed away from the metal tombstones. “I don’t care how curious you are. Leave them be.”
We rejoined at the clearing. I asked that the island inhabitants take us back to our boats, for we had seen all we needed to see. The looks on their faces were defensive and shameful, and I tried to sidestep the taboo issue. “We are not here to fight or conquer…I’m sure you understand our curiosity to see whether the island was inhabited or not, and we have our answer. Let us part without issue.” I warned Rueben, in quiet convoy, what we found: my fears that we don’t know how many others might be on the island, and that we need these men with us as hostages. They managed to take the island once, so they must have had some hidden means – despite how harmless these few appeared. But we were returned to our boats without event or ceremony. We didn’t feel completely at ease until we were rowing a good hundred yards from the shore.
The others began talking and I withdrew in quiet. A part of me wanted to see what was inside the refrigerators, but this ruthless, practical part of me, knew that the weather was too warm to open them. That whatever was inside could spoil. Those doors would be kept open as we gaped and gawked at dismembered body parts; the boys wouldn’t be satisfied until each cut had been held up and displayed in morbid curiosity. And it would all go bad, down to the last cut and chop. It would be useless and pointless.
I could not judge what these people had done. It is possible they only displaced a band of people who dispatched another band of people the same way, who in turn did the same. The island might be a microcosm of our world today, repeatedly eating away at itself, inheriting the shelter of the old world but having to reevaluate what is truly necessary to survive. And when they saw us, they probably thought their time was up – they would have offered what was in those refrigerators to buy another day, only to have us leave. Withdrawal seemed the most mutually benefitting option, and I had to avoid such an awkward parlet. I’m not ready to see people I know arguing whether we should barter in such a thing as human flesh. Suppression and avoidance sometimes has its place in human interaction.
Perhaps we can return in a year, better knowing what to expect. Perhaps there will only be one person left when we return: a reluctant king, an embittered victor.
Our city, like any other metropolis, had an identity all its own. It was the only city I ever knew, and I wanted to grant it at least that much! As a child I would visualize the city as a sprawling, supine body in human form. A ghost overlaying the landscape. I would try and see the body in my mind, but it escaped me in a transparency because it was its moving parts that were the thing that mattered. Tiny cars making their way along vein-like streets carrying the blood in and out of the heart, the heart of a thumping shopping center. People were like blood cells. Some existed to move, some existed to heal, and some existed to transcend the needs of this fanciful, hypnagogic vision. The heart beat in the shopping malls, the mouth consumed in the most elite neighborhoods, and somewhere in the south – we’ll call it Tacoma – the remainder that could not nourish was unceremoniously deposited. All that I took in, I took in as indicative of the actions of something greater. I could never take the intensive or individual and see it for what it was. Many people generalize from an extensive point of view, and make their judgments against the individual in light of it. I believe I worked in the reverse; I took in the smallest parts and wondered their place...how they forged their place, into some greater whole. What greater purpose did these tiny motes, or their actions, serve in the movement of this mighty beast?
I may have been right in my vision. The metropolis was an audacious entity, a noble monument…but against nature. It would have its rise and fall; its birth and heyday and sad decline. It would contend against other like entities, and they would eye each other’s interests suspiciously as they sought what the one could get from the other; just how far it could trust the other and what metrics sounded an alarm when the other was a worthless dead weight or becoming a potential threat. All these great cities. Accelerating their passage of blood and reinforcing their own metabolism: posturing and affecting a hopeful individualism as they all equally petitioned a central government for favor. The Federal government acted like a head cheerleader plying each social clique, granting favor to any confidential ear who could keep it private, promising everything to everyone who would vote her homecoming queen. My young mind would despair in disgust. It saw the world in this superficial schema, became bound by it, and hoped little for it.
I don’t have the answer. I have my moments where I feel I grasp it, but it eludes me. Like many others, I want to have a single cause I can point my finger at. Some act that I can point at, and with all the others say: ‘we’ll never make that mistake again!’ But it isn’t that simple. It is more gasoline fueling the argument, as we take exception to what the other believes is the problem. I’ve had many fireside chats with the others. We hold many of the same disagreements we had before. If I could separate them into different corners, they would fall between carrying a sense of responsibility to something greater than the self - opposed to a petulant, selfish expression of individual will. My phrasing may give away where my sympathies lie.
Our country was already over-extended when we elected a politician who would promise much more in the way of what rights were guaranteed to each citizen. It all sounded very good; his like-minded Congress echoed his sentiment and healthcare was added to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” His opponents gratingly called it the Nouveaux Deal. With hindsight, I can understand their criticism. Once we embrace, or have implemented, a well-meaning social program – it is never easily eradicated. Not even when it has outlasted its usefulness.
And as it is with any other social program, it created division: some people truly needed it; some people felt like they couldn’t take advantage of something they were funding unless they were sick or dying. I created mutual suspicion that the services were abused, and I see this as a natural reaction. I applaud those who paid their tithe and kept their mouths shut; they compete with the saintly. This did not stop universal health care from creating a new generation of people who saw death and sickness around every corner; who self-diagnosed them into emergency wards and critical care. It is a metaphysical rebellion; some people wanted to tax the system that laid an unfair tax upon them.
For the wealthy, the true leaders of the country, the new path was made apparent. They serve a higher, intangible power: share holders, some unknown and some highly vested and vocal. Enabled by advancements in communications, four of the five largest corporations were able to re-establish their executive branches outside of our country’s borders. Any debate or red tape challenging the plumbing our own country’s natural resources was deftly silenced as the perpetrator shifted locale beyond jurisdiction. Elder statesmen and retired CEO’s could be seen on television beckoning the second tier to join them in this exodus, to relocate to the new safe havens scattered over the established countries of the old world. Even third world countries put aside their envy of America’s long-standing wealth and stature to unfurl their red carpets, attracting away prominent business owners and giving them the keys to their diminutive kingdoms.
Tax penalties were applied. New laws and restrictions were passed to coerce away this trend. It was to no avail. Where possible, the jobs followed the executive to their new homes. I don’t think anyone has the answer to whether any of this was unavoidable…the government responded as expected to an event that could have happened regardless of the party in power. Some will say a very fine line was crossed with the burden of too many social programs. Others spit a raspberry at the deserters - who needs them, we can get by, by wanting less for ourselves.
The jobless rate climbed into double digits. Prices for anything you could name skyrocketed. People adjusted their needs, but the economy was in freefall. The pundits called it contraction, and graphs and variables reinterpreted our land’s aggregate product and blooming population in new paradigms in an attempt to interpret why we had time to watch this all at home on our television. I remember looking forward to Sunday morning, because I would splurge for an Americano at my coffee shop. It was the last one surviving – probably because it was not part of a global chain - and it too eventually disappeared as the world I couldn’t control continued to adjust its bottom line.
People continued to doubt global warming. Even after the third flooding of New Orleans. Even after everything west of the San Andreas Fault slid into the ocean. Skin cancer cases rose like the cholesterol levels of people who prefer bathing in the light of their television sets, but it seemed as though no one was going to change their behavior. There were many campaigns to enlighten people, but people still drove their cars to work each day, watered their lawns, and pushed every watt in their electrical box until a breaker told them enough was enough.
The terrorists became less choosy about their victims. Or maybe, they only became smarter about targeting them where they hurt. Domestic dams were targeted; oil wells abroad were set afire and burned for months. Several I recall, burned for years. So I am told. I only heard that their fires expired by way of testimony, from travelers who say it is so. Electricity had become sporadic amongst the rolling blackouts; we had slowly regressed from being an age of immediate and cheap information, to one rating information’s value low on a scale of what’s crucial and edible at the same time...
We were contentious with China. Fifteen years into our freefall, they had accumulated almost half of our country’s debt.
Debt to pay for their product. Debt to bail out our companies, only to see them leave. Debt to keep our health care, our social security, our welfare: debt to maintain a notion that America should transcend natural, financial laws, to implement a utopia. Debt accrued as we were told that consumption was a duty. The debt that aggregates when you aren’t as competitive as you would like to believe.
It is an age-old, self-criticism: we Americans are obsessed with the other; the other beyond and the other within our borders. Even the other that lives on our own street. What, you don’t believe in unfettered Capitalism? You are the Other. Any religion other than Christian? The Other. You’re the only Democrat or Republican on your street? You are the Other.
Our collective ego bought into it this notion: You are not an American? You are the Other. It never occurred that we could be this “Other”. That there could be a bigger player in the game, a more robust power - that we could be the nuisance, or something to be swept aside. For there to be an other, requires identification with a false, subjective sense of entitlement – whether it is ethnocentric, ideologically centrist, and even geocentric.
China dumped our debt on the global market because they could; they were that strong.
China dumped our debt because it was increasingly likely we couldn’t pay it off.
China may have declared war on us as they did so, but communications have been sporadic ever since.
Gas eventually became cost-prohibitive. People had always complained about the price, invoking it as some belle-weather mark of the economy’s health, but it still took many years before people stopped paying the price and investigated other alternatives or made the sacrifice of not driving at all. It was this - people adjusting their behaviors and demand – that prompted the providers of gasoline to seek other means. I remember the words of the people: they would go with another alternative when it was equally convenient and powerful. It is ironic to think when it became financially inconvenient enough, they were able to adjust and it was simply too late to make a difference. The public was too set in its ways; gasoline was like a variable in an equation that gave the city’s infrastructure a motion. It’s ectoplasms of existence.
When the combination of terrorist attacks on oil rigs, increased population, and reluctance to change met head on, the government stepped in to make private consumption of gas all but possible. It was reserved for the delivery trucks, mass transit, planes, and our armed forces. People gnashed their teeth at it. So many cars became useless; a ton of metal and plastic that could only be used at best, as a second shelter. A third or a fifth, in some cases. A few had electric cars, but the price of electricity followed that of any other resource…it became a luxury of the very few, and most would sooner spend what money they had to light or heat their homes at night than charge a car battery.
We didn’t know it at the time, but the S. S. Epiphany would be the last cargo ship to leave our port. Speculation about when another ship would arrive - when the trains would return from distributing their imports inland – bubbled on everyone’s lips. Nobody would say aloud that we were cut off, because salvation could come any minute. When shipments stopped coming in, when grocery stores didn’t receive their deliveries, store owners kept mum and unceremoniously raised their prices while they quietly horded away anything not perishable.
And there was so much buzz. Wild theories about an imaginary border that was determined at the Federal level, amputating away the remote northwest. That possibly, the federal government didn’t exist at all anymore. That China had decreed an embargo against the states. That the richest people in the world had boarded a rocket aimed at Mars. Nobody knew for certain. Between the rolling blackouts, we tried to get as much as we could from the media, but there was no news. The internet ceased to exist. If one could get a television signal, they would come across a couple dozen channels showing reruns, or worse, a lunatic broadcasting pirate television from their basement – espousing conspiracy theories about what was going down. Either way, we finally achieved an age bereft of commercials, an age where information and opinion were synonymous.
There were community groups, dating from my youth, that promoted green living and responsible consumption. These were good people; so socially minded. They were unfortunately a tiny pioneering portion of the population, their sound and logical initiatives no match for the barrage of salty, appetite-whetting grist and image that lures the population at large to seek a quenching in more material, or superficial, manna. As noble as their ideal of how the world should work, they were often very naïve about the animal in our human natures. They projected their own willingness toward good intentions upon the population...on the one hand not giving themselves enough credit; on the other giving the world at large too much Not everyone is ready to forego their interests to defer to the good of all people. When mutually existed conditions worsened, the conflict between communal acceptance and self-preservation was further divided by perceived, assumed risk: every endured sacrifice was viewed askance. The joy one sees on their neighbor’s face can only result – in their mind – from the neighbor benefiting at their expense. I don’t know of any organized communal network that survived the famine. Perhaps if all bought in…if we had all enjoyed a sense of community when we could afford to…the transition may have been different.
Instead, we had – forgive the sense of irony - la bella confusione. Several weeks of rising anxiety and misinformation, experienced privately in each home and apartment. At what point, we asked ourselves, do we stop waiting and give up hope? When do begin breaking shop windows? When I visualize this passing, I see every family looking at each other with distrust while equally summing up who could be trusted to be complicit in breaking the law to survive. And I bless those who had the foresight to flee; they are nameless heroes, true transcendentalists who took the greatest risk, made the greatest sacrifice of all they earned, to spare their families of the urban famine.
I cannot bring witness to it, being a suburbanite. Though the transition for us was an immense weight and readjustment, we had just enough resources to provide ourselves food. We had gullies and parks and arable property: we had enough to take us over that bridge of doubt and the temporal suspension between not knowing if we would be delivered, and resolve that we must take our fates in our own hands. The lay of the land - rotating hills and flatlands stepping down to the water – provided a natural demarcation between neighborhood communities. It was conducive to communal living. We had shared experiences as we withdrew from the world, by simply withdrawing from the metropolis but ten miles distant. We had all, at some point, stopped paying our mortgages in quiet, only to find there was no one to come collect. We all had the same problem of trash removal; we all lost our electricity at the same time and needed to band together for protection; we found the importance in sharing the same heat and fire. We may have hungered, but I believe a tiny part of us knew deep inside that the bleak future posed a challenge igniting an inspiration long atrophied.
But I can only imagine the city. Its tangent bureaus and compressed glass, steel, and human flesh. The city, where you will have to make your way past a thousand souls before you find a vending machine or grocery store. Where a hundred people or more may live on a quarter block. Where the supremely rich, the barely scraping away, and the homeless make contact with one another on an hourly basis. Where human activity is soldered between the service industry and a dream that your art will pay for itself someday…
I can only imagine what it was like. Did they all pour forth from their condo towers and apartments and riot in the streets? What happened when they ransacked the grocery store or corner deli to only come away with a bag of Sun Chips and a packet of head cheese? Were the off-avenue homes burned to the ground? Did they band in large groups? What happened when a thousand, perfectly functioning alcoholics, realized the problem they didn’t know they had was abruptly solved for them? I play it over in my mind, but it is more romantic in there: I see them rushing Broadmoor and throwing a party in the largest mansion. I see them inhabiting the shores of Elliott Bay and Madison Park and taking the boats to a better world – even though I know there is no fuel. I try to see the streets fill with dancing, below a DJ’s monolithic speakers - all economic differences put to the side to celebrate the Armageddon. But I know no one would use electricity for that, or put a surge at risk.
I remember a city full of life; a place where entertainment was only a short walk away. Where there were so many choices of events, resulting in stacked scheduling conflicts, which I would need five of me to take in on any given Friday evening. A complete immersion in consumption; each five of me would sell my soul to make room for a second stomach to digest it all. It was supply-side entertainment too: there were so many attractions in this circus, there were even markets for the esoteric or lovers of amusements provided to the tiniest of crowds. There was a fine line between performer and spectator – I could never tell who the flatterer, who did the humoring, was or whether the point was simply to drink and have a memorable night. Even as you obliterated the memory.
I knew a Thomas, who said he had been there. He said that many fled. That it was not a good place to be – there was general hysteria and unwillingness to give up a free, libertine lifestyle. There were hysterical mad dashes for any bar that still had a little booze to serve - that it was bartered for random utilitarian items, sexual favors bereft of any artistry, and empty promise notes for future preferment. If I am to believe him, our first outbreaks of cannibalism were in Belletown and up on the Hill. It was saddening to hear, but when he reported on it, I could only shrug. It made sense.
Mikal went for fresh water and never came back.
He isn’t the first to make south for the reservoir and not return. Mikal joked about the several who did before, heckling those who would abandon us like this. Where was my mind when he volunteered? Nobody volunteers for anything they don’t have to. The reservoir is several peaceful communities away; nobody is attacked on their way to the reservoir or the Ocean-side. I thumped the palm of my fist to my forehead. Mikal was surreptitious in letting me know his intentions.
I made a promise to Mikal and Gelsomina: I would watch over her and the boy should anything happen to him. At the time, I was picturing myself a savior to a family tragedy – not a smoldering anger at his betrayal. To me, to her, to the boy – to his responsibilities. You think you see clearly what you would do in a situation that you have promised yourself to, but the reality hands you a distorted rendition that dampens your enthusiasm. I don’t want to do it. Not if this is about him screwing me over in securing a promise that alleviates his conscience. But he is gone now; I cannot slay a ghost; I am the least victimized in his wake.
Gelsomina and I sat at the table and had an honest discussion over our new situation. I told her about my doubts about Mikal, and in her wired state, she agreed. She was full of emotion, and it was better for her to hate him alive than to lament him in death. Perhaps she was only choosing the option that gave her the most hope. Living without knowing an answer draws away our energy. Hating an enemy, even a loved enemy, has some therapeutic release.
We agreed to maintain our separate homes. I will be a father figure to the lame boy, Horace. I would convince the others that the two of them will continue to get the same share as though they had Mikal about to perform the needed work.
It is a carry over from the old world: despite all the promises we make in stride, we want to believe we will never be called to deliver. We want our lives to be lived with little upheaval; we want our tomorrow to look the way we chose to live today. I want to find some path where I can juggle these inner needs and social obligations, and this arrangement – though imperfect – approximates my want.
“Why don’t you just take them into your home? They should consider themselves so lucky. And Gelsomina has aged well. You should consider yourself so lucky…”
Clark is hitting on the wrong nerve today. We are pulling up stalks of corn. Whole, entire stalks. We are attempting to get a second harvest before fall, something we’ve never attempted. And this is not the first time I’ve been questioned about this. “We received your agreement on this. I’ve no interest in Gelsomina, and I have no interest in sharing my home. I don’t want the boy breaking my things.”
A few minutes of silence, and I can read in Clark’s face his wanting to say more, before he breaks into his plaint. “But it isn’t just Mikal. Glenn passed from old age, and there’s only ten men left who can handle the hard labor. You both have beautiful homes that anyone would envy, and if Gelsie moved out, we could attract a new couple in. It could be a good fortune, if you would only consider it.”
I answer with a smoldering look and turn my back to him. But I know he is right, and I know he is only voicing the ideas of the others. So I spend the next several months working like I am two men. I awake before everyone and at the end of the day I reaffirm myself as I see each of them quit from exhaustion. I do it to strengthen and justify my own sense of protracted entitlement. I do it to put myself beyond rapprochement, and it has its intended effect: I quiet any suggestion about how I should manage my affairs.
But it taxes me, maintaining this tangential second home. Clark is right about Gelsomina; she is a comely woman whose passion is rebirthing. She did not mourn Mikal for long; I suspect there may have been internal trouble and Mikal’s disappearance was affirmed as abandonment and not a tragic loss of life. When we were at first anytime alone, she would play the woman inspired with starting a second life - succumbing to passionate lovemaking. A lovemaking reinforcing her liberation and youth, a fire borne in spite at her own betrayer. I wondered if Mikal had been a misogynist – or not misogynist enough – because Gelsomina wanted to be defiled, disrespected and she enticed me with the depths of masochism she would creatively suggest and endure. My long work days were ghosted with an adrenaline barely pulsing enough to please her. But I would always want my own bed away from her...it was the last frontier of privacy in my life. My own bed and my unconscious, fervent imaginings.
And these disparate, unrelated parts of my life would converge upon me.
In these mental wanderings, I discipline the men into an adept fighting unit. We take neighboring communities by force. We kill the strong-willed and resistant and make an example of them, welcoming in those motivated and sensible enough to know that joining us is in their best interest. We grow stronger as a collective.
I delegate the large responsibilities, like food management and water patrolling, to those I trust the most. I have to. I cannot be responsible for all the needs of a thousand people: I determine who I can trust, and those I am on the fence about, I play against one another. But I become the leader and the last word, and I make final decisions with a forbearance that will inspire the trust of the people. Because I have to be sensible about many things that matter to them before I tell them that we are continuing to move our border south.
We succeed by expanding – taking and destroying. I galvanize the emotions and take command of a constantly growing army of men, and we survive by increasing our influence and largesse. It becomes a machine that I have no control over. There is no stop button. No way to stop or idle. It exists because it expands. Yet I am satisfied that this is simply the way it must be; if it were not I it would be another to put such a human machinery in motion. I only had the foresight to see this is so; it is better to eat than to be eaten. When you are attacked, you do not want to be the one on the hinterland of the kingdom; you want to be at its core. Let thousands perish before they reach you.
It is a fantasy I accentuate in my waking hours. Perhaps it is the exhaustion brought by the labor. I elaborate and try to fill in the cracks in my vision to make it complete. It usually ends with another community taken down, women paraded before me as I gesture to my second who is worthy of being my concubine. I and the men are threateningly formidable and half naked, brandishing our weapons. Ritualistic fires are burning to mark the ceremonious occasion. We joke whether we really need the crops they labored over, whether we should just burn it all to the ground, in a show of menacing force. We take in their fear. Their fear and complete helplessness is the most rewarding moment to putting life at risk in war; it is the complete realization of our victory. And I am never moving about in this fancied culmination of effort. I’m in recline, brought to the front by a rickshaw from which I demurely forego to alight. Because this entire scene is old business for me, and there is always another community awaiting us beyond. The parting image of the modern barbarian, the leader who lets others bloody their hands for his practical, sensible agenda.
It is an obsessive compulsion, this fantasy. Does it come from this re-emergence of my libido as I find women petitioning me because of my status? I think that is part of it. And this sense of entitlement and advantage I have against the other men in our community, it comes from that too. Fear as well. A fear that we need another Kahn to survive. A fear that I am the only man who can see beyond our tentative borders that we must act or eventually react. A fear, and a realization, that another heartless, selfish individual is needed to insure the life of others. I try to find ways in which the barbarians of the dark ages could have been simply…misunderstood.
As I work in our field, I frequently catch myself standing up, stretching my back, and looking towards the South. Somewhere in that rolling landscape, there is one such as I, one as desperately prisoner to his work as I, one who sees being a prisoner to his own interests a more appealing option – an escape from his immediate oppression. Such as I.
“Uncle T-----! Uncle T-----!”
My legs are so exhausted from my trek that waiting for the boy is a welcome stopgap. But it is strange seeing Horace this far from home: did he come out to greet me? Nonsense. Gelsie would have been expecting me from the East, and she would not have agreed to let the boy venture this far alone.
The fall was upon us, and I had an entire day to myself. I have no memory of the last such day, nor can I recall what I did with it. There was likely nothing memorable about it; I probably read from sunup to sundown and cleaned my guns not knowing how precious a day it would be.
I didn’t want to spend the day at my home. Gelsomina wanted to hike to the north beach and spend an afternoon together, but I had reached a point where no time with Gelsie could feel like an escape for me. I told her I needed this time alone to recharge; that I would likely head east to watch the skateboarding youths on the great concrete bridge and do little more. I tried to mitigate her and Horace’s disappoint, telling them they would not enjoy themselves with me today.
Only, I did not go there. I’ve seen it before - the great bridge to the metropolis. It was strange in those early days, to be upon it - gone bald with the death of the automobile. In the general anarchy of the time we treated it as a perilous slope for our skateboards. A single ride was enough, for we didn’t want to lug our boards the half mile to the top again. I hear there are sentries there now, claiming it equally for west and east communities. I hope they let the children play upon it, but I don’t know if they do.
I broke through her hemming and hawing and Gelsie was persuaded. I grabbed my rifle and backpack and headed north alone.
We are not the only neighborhood to uproot their street, and I found the alleyways a more direct route as I made my path. When I walk through these neighborhoods converted to condominiums, it feels like disadvantageously making one’s way along the bottom of a canyon. I crept slowly and cautiously, eyeing the windows and the roofs for any threatening contingency.
I abandoned this route for the main arterial, and as I did so, people were waking and descending from their homes. I was stopped and asked many questions, for I was an unfamiliar face and therefore an object of suspicion. We would do the same in my own neighborhood, and most times there is no cause for concern…I’m just a person taking a long walk! Shouldering a rifle as I do is only an indication that I mean to return from my journey.
The walk that once long ago took an hour, took three. When I reached the beach and felt the sand under foot, I collapsed in a pile. I could go no further, and acquiesced to the natural border trumping my pioneering ramble.
Those who made their living on the shoreline were too occupied to pay attention to me. I planted the butt of my rifle in the sand, and the landscape swallowed it like it was shipwrecked driftwood or orphaned pile. I surveyed the landscape and saw no one within a hundred yards of my self; I submitted to the white noise of the reaching waves and let my body relax supine. I even closed my eyes for a moment, lulled by the wall of noise. It was a background static I missed from my younger years, the loud hum of a world in motion.
“What are you doing here? Don’t tell mom! She doesn’t know we came here…”
Horace’s words draw me back to the present. I am only away for a quarter day, and my thoughts are swimming in an inattentive reverie. When his words shake me to, I react with a survey of the landscape. A jarring reaction to invisible human threats, chased by the notion that there are no witnesses about.
“Who is this we? There is no one but us about.”
The boy’s eyes fall away from mine. “OK, I come here alone sometimes.” He raises a tablet for me to look at, a picture book of drawings he has collected of penned landscapes and faintly recognizable faces. He hands it to me like it is an excuse and a confession all the same. His is a face of shame, and I feel compelled to encourage him: “These look very good. You do well with that bum hand of yours. Is this where you come to draw?” I try to look enthused; this may be all the boy thinks he is good at.
“I come here sometimes. Sometimes I draw when mom goes to your house. Here is best. I haven’t gotten caught yet.
Nobody noticed you were gone, I think. You know this and this is how you deal with it. While the other boys your age are at work with the men, you hide and you draw because you surprise yourself with your talent. You shock yourself that you have this ability, and it separates and distinguishes you and it makes you feel full at once. Here you are making beautiful art with your mangled fist in private, in a world that has no use for it. I can only imagine. Perhaps when you look through your book you feel as though it excuses you as the others labor. Perhaps. Do you know how valuable time is, when all the effort is needed to put to the dirt to make yourself fed? Oh, to have the time to scribble so. This could be amateurish and it would amount to the same.
“…but it is good. Very good.”
Horace’s eyes light up. The fears dissipate like a fog, and his face shines like a sun. He has feared this moment. I want to believe he is acknowledging the burden he has been to me these past months, but I know this is not the case. My approval validates his sneaking away and not contributing to the community; his only realization is that his anxieties were as private as his shame.
“You know mom won’t let me…”
“This will be our secret. Just like your pictures.”
I let him carry the uncocked gun as we head in the opposite direction. My heart’s pace races, though my mind ambles with a steady hum. “We’ll go to the gully. Don’t rush ahead of me…we must be cautious. Horace. Hold up.”
He runs run ahead, but stops where the street ends and turns into an overgrown, a black descending trail. I talk to the boy in soft tones. “We always have to be careful. There may be people down there. Even at this time of the day, when it is still light. Do you think you are ready?” Horace gives a tight-lipped nod.
As we huddle beneath the low branches and make our way down the trail, I think about my return. I’ll head south from here. I’ll overshoot the reservoir by a half mile, turn east, and return from where I said I would. It is a long, roundabout trip, but it will confirm what I said I would do this morning. And the long hike will fill me with ideas, ideas and stories about where I was that can fill an entire day – a day that accounts for where I was as I lay upon a sandy beach and gave myself over to a relaxing nothingness.
“Shh!” I raise the back of my hand to halt the boy. I draw his attention to my feet, and how I carefully avoid the branches that will snap underfoot and make a warning noise. I point to the nettles and mime a cautionary prohibitive gesture and affect a heavy brow. I stick my tongue out to make sure he gets that they are to be avoided.
The gully is more inviting, and it correlates as no surprise – more dangerous - than the parks that were left behind by civilization. Here, you feel like you are lost in an oasis of wild nature… opposed to the tailored trails of levy-sponsored governmental maintenance. One is fought against, one is well groomed. In one, you might find the occasional wild animal. In the latter, human Diasporas hide at night because it is familiar and safer. I do not know how these places came to be, how these places managed to confound civilization. Sometimes it is just the lay of the land, land that we ran out of time conquering.
I ask the boy for the gun. Horace is charged with a sense of wonder at the moment, knee deep in a carpet of ivy and gazing at the canopy of branches blocking the afternoon light from the sky. Artists can be such dreamers, subjects to their environment or muse. He is oblivious as I eject the shell from the rifle.
I hand the gun back to him, and we tread at a slight incline until we reach a clearing. It is bare, a floor of dry dead branches and hardened dirt. “I would come here as a child. We found a cave once, but its recess was barely an adventure. We travelled a few feet and were attacked by bees. You just don’t find anything like caves in the city.”
“What’s a cave?”
“Well, it is a hole to the underground.” No, that’s not it. How can I describe a cave? “Not the underground. Into the earth. Like a tunnel, but it just goes deeper. I don’t know how they’re made. Some are manmade, they would use dynamite to tunnel into the earth…man made caves were in search of something, like coal. But caves were also made by nature, and they gave early people shelter from the weather, a place to create warmth with their fire.” The boy comes of a generation that inherited abandoned homes; he is not going to understand. Horace has already lost interest, pointing his gun and aiming at the homes atop the bluffs. It is sad and comical. His askew forearm causes him to support the butt of the rifle in feminine pose.
“Here.” I take him through the steps. To load. To cock. To aim. To pull the trigger.
I set him with his legs pinioned shoulder-length apart. “You only need to pull the trigger,” I tell him. “Everything else is set. Just wait until I give the go ahead.”
I back away several steps. “Until I give the say.” Horace holds his pose. The moments are protracted and I know that all his thoughts are diluted to a single verbal impulse; it was like this when I made my first firing. Only then, the bullet and the kick were real. And I was alone. There was no one there commanding me to fire, and I only awaited a voice in my head telling me to do so.
The seconds continue to race, and I watch him as he shakes, retightens his grip against his own perspiration and I watch the subsequent moments as he wonders if he ever got back his complete bearing from all that shifting. It is a tortuous temporality, where the beginning is borne of an event with unforeseeable outcome and the end never comes and the space between is all pricked nerve. It is enough time to look about on the ground, and find the perfect size rock, a battering ram larger than my fist but not so large it could not be wielded as such.
Because I could not see a bullet wasted.