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Lookin’ for love at the Gourmet Cafe

A short story by Kimberley Jace.


In the early 2000s, I had just been discharged from the Marines and I was bouncing around central Florida looking for two things: gainful employment, and someone to love.

It seemed to me restaurant work held the most promise, because of the free food and the waitresses. I thought, if I washed dishes, I’d earn a few bucks and get to know a few waitresses, and maybe one thing would lead to another, more interesting thing. That wasn’t exactly how it worked out, but it was my plan at the time.

The first place I applied was Marcy’s. When I met Marcy, I thought she might be sort of hard-bitten, with the tattoos and gold teeth and everything. But she was actually pretty nice. Her husband, an ex-convict named Ed, was the problem.

My troubles with him began the first day.

“OK, when can you start?” he asked. ”

Um, tomorrow?” I said.

“Why not right now? What are you doing right now?”

That was not what I had expected. And anyway, I was driving this old Ford Escort at the time and the starter was going on it, so I never knew if it was going to start again. I had left the Escort running in the driveway of Marcy’s.

“I can start right now if you let me go turn off my car,” I said.

“Planning a quick getaway?” he snarled, flashing this ugly smile at me, like he’d made a few of those getaways in his life.

I just chuckled, and went out and parked the car and turned it off. Of course, I had to get one of my neighbors to come jump me later, when I got off duty, because that was the day the starter went out for real. But I also knew I’d have a paycheck coming.

Ed could be hard to deal with when the place got busy. He’d come in screaming, “Where’s my dishwasher!” and half the staff would be out in back, cigarettes hanging from their lips, cell phones pressed against their ears. I’d be the only one in the kitchen.

“Dammit where’s my dishwasher!” he’d scream, and I’d raise my hand and wave it a little.

“Well why are there so many goddamned dishes in the sink and no goddamned dishes to put food on?” he’d ask, and I had no answer for that, because I’d be up to my arms in suds, scraping and rinsing as fast as I could.

Ed was sweaty and smelled like rotten teeth, which was not that different than the smell of the meat in the freezer. But Marcy meant well.

The big problem there was health inspections. The inspectors made Marcy nervous, and with good reason, since there were quite a few fire hazards and whatnot in the storage area.

When the inspector was on the way — for some reason in Florida, there were no real surprise inspections — Marcy and Ed both would go into overdrive. She’d be marching around with her hands on her plump hips, gold teeth flashing as she shouted commands. He’d be stinking. It was 105 degrees over the stove. It was almost hell.

The waitresses at Marcy’s were mostly young and not that bright, but there was one girl named Lucy who had a sort of hot body, except she’d lost a leg in a motorcycle accident and had just a metal stick with a shoe on it on that side. She’d stuff her tips into her cleavage, and the combination of pity and lust made her the top tip-getter in the place.

Sadly, she didn’t want to have anything to do with me.

I quit Marcy’s the day I heard there was an opening down the street. I told Ed, and I gave him two weeks notice, but he made me leave immediately. I mean, he didn’t even give me time to say goodbye to Lucy or get my jacket or anything, just heave-ho out the door. He was angry, and the anger made him smell worse.

“Well thanks a fucking lot,” he said, literally holding the shoulder of my cheap white t-shirt that said “Marcy’s Fine Sandwiches and Grill” on it, holding it up so it dug into my armpit, which I guess was supposed to make me walk faster.

“I’ve enjoyed working here,” I lied, and Ed said, “Yeah, fuck you.”

“I’ll be back to get my check on Friday,” I said. Ed just laughed.

My last check was only supposed to be $84, and they had taken out $40 for “breakage.” When I asked what that meant, Ed said, “You know, breakage, like when somebody breaks your nose because you’re a smart-mouth little asshole.”

By then, I was already working at Donna’s.

Donna’s was a little bigger and a lot cleaner than Marcy’s. I thought Donna might be a problem, with her dyed black hair and the tattoo on her neck. But she was actually pretty nice.

Her husband, a Vietnam veteran named Frank, was the problem.

Frank could seem pretty calm and intelligent, but he had these “triggers,”‘ as Donna called it, that made him somewhere between agitated and psychopathic homicidal. The real problem was, the triggers changed all the time.

After I’d worked there a couple of weeks, a shipment of pumpkin pie came in. Frank started screaming at the truck driver. “It’s squash!” he shouted, as the delivery man scrambled backwards into his truck. “How can you call this pie? It’s made of fucking squash!”

I watched as Frank paced back and forth, back and forth, like a caged hyena in the little kitchen area. Waitresses who came into the kitchen and saw him just walked out again. A couple of them gave me sideways looks, like saying, for God’s sake get out of here. But I was still fascinated.

“Don’t like pumpkin pie, Frank?” I asked as gently as I could.

When he heard that, his face froze in this weird contortion and he started beating himself in the head with his own fists and crying.

Donna came in just then, and she looked at me with her accusing little eyes. She had the smallest eyes I’ve ever seen on a living human being, and both of them way around on the sides of her head, so it made you wonder if she could read or drive or anything. Her eyes gave her a fish-like appearance, and her fleshy lips didn’t help. And the tattoo of an anchor on her neck didn’t help either.

“Why don’t you leave him alone?” she asked.

“Hey, I didn’t say anything,” I said. “The delivery driver set him off. Something about the P-I-E-S .”

Donna put her arm around Frank and made him sit down, although he was still punching himself and crying. “Damn, he’s never going to forget about those pumpkins,” she muttered.

I didn’t ask what she meant. My shift was over anyway.

Well as you know, I was trying to meet women, which was the main reason I’d been taking these cook jobs instead of like construction or something. You don’t meet women on construction jobs. Not many straight women.

There was one cute waitress at Donna’s, a girl about 19 named Mona. She was kind of skinny, but always flirting with all the men in the place, customers, even me. Mona had that skin disease where there was no pigment on part of her face, which gave her sort of the look of a spotted puppy. The white spot was in the shape of lopsided lip prints, right on her cheek, and she stayed real tan all the time, so the white looked even whiter.

I had a crush on Mona for a long time — well, for all three weeks I worked there — but I couldn’t quite get up my nerve to ask her out. Then one day I decided this was it, now or never. I knew she was working late, so I left at my regular time and then came back at closing time.

The restaurant seemed empty. All the customers were gone, and the kitchen was dark, but I could hear little noises coming from the store room.

When I opened the store room door, the first thing I saw was that little white spot on Mona’s cheek, and then the surprised look on her face, and then the fact that she was sitting on Frank’s lap. Which wouldn’t have been so bad except they were facing each other.

Which wouldn’t have been so bad except they were both naked.

I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I grabbed my eyes and pretended to be stumbling around. “I got soap in my eyes!” I said, bumping into the door. “Is anybody here? I need help!”

I heard Mona giggle and say, “Shhh” and Frank said nothing, and I kept up my charade all the way out the door and into the parking lot. Where I said, “Shit.” Because I knew what was going to happen.

The next day when I showed up, I was fired.

“Just don’t need this many cooks,” Donna explained. “Frank’s been doing some trimming.”

“Yeah,” I said, and I thought, if that’s what you call it. “OK. I’ll be back on Monday for my check.”

I didn’t want to rat out Frank, because I could tell it would make Donna sad, and the idea of little tears coming out of her tiny, tiny eyes was just too pathetic for me. And I didn’t want to get Mona fired.

When I picked up my check, it was almost $60 short. About half my check.

“What’s this?” I asked. Donna explained that the cost of my special t-shirts that said “Donna’s Gourmet Grill” and my special non-skid shoes were being deducted.

“But I never got any special shoes!” I said.

“Well we ordered them anyway,” Donna said, shrugging. Frank sat in a rolling desk chair behind her, looking smug.

“OK,” I said. “I’ve enjoyed working here. See you around town, Donna. And Frank,” I said, “I’ll see you around the pumpkin patch.”

I thought I could hear him starting to scream, but I was out in my car. By then I was driving that crappy Mustang with the loud muffler and you couldn’t hear shit inside that car.

So the next morning I applied at Susy’s Bagels and More. I thought Susy might be a problem, with her super-high high-heel shoes and her upswept blonde bun on her head.

And I was right. Susy was a flat-out bitch.

Bagels and More was actually the nicest Florida diner I’d worked at so far, and it smelled good, like fresh-baked bread, even though they actually brought in the bagels from a bakery somewhere. One of my jobs was to meet the delivery truck at 4:30 a.m., that’s 4:30 in the morning, the 4:30 that’s entirely dark and weird and too early for any valid human occupation.

Sometimes Susy’s husband Jimmy would be there. He was a pretty nice guy–kind of whipped, if you know what I mean. But pretty nice.

“You know, you learn this stuff and some day you could open up your own place,” Jimmy would say to me. “I never thought I’d have my own place. But here I am.”

I knew Jimmy had gotten his own place only because his wife Susy had the money to invest in it, and I thought, what were the chances that I’d find myself a rich girlfriend? Especially if I kept working in these restaurants?

But in fact, I fell in love at Susy’s. With the cleaning lady, Jessamine.

Jessamine was from Bulgaria or Hungary or something, probably undocumented, and she had curves in all the right places. She had this bad stammer, where she’d get stuck on one syllable and keep saying it over and over and over. Plus, she barely spoke any English. So in some ways, she was like the dream date.

I was the first one to get to Bagels and More in the morning, of course, and I didn’t have a key to get in, since they didn’t trust me yet. I had to watch the delivery guy unload the bagels, and then just babysit them until someone unlocked the door.

Jessamine was the second one to get there, at around 6 a.m. She had a key. She always seemed so happy to see me, and she’d try to talk to me.

“So early you c-c-c-c-c …” she would say. I smiled and nodded a lot. I really liked Jessamine, but I was too shy to tell her that.

Once, when she was stammering, I touched a finger to her lips to silence her. She froze and we stared at each other. There was something there, allright, some kind of chemistry. I thought maybe my plan was going to work, and I was going to find the girlfriend of my dreams at one of these cheesy central Florida eateries. But that was not to be.

I tried to cover my bases at Bagels and More. When I first started there, I told them I planned to stay indefinitely, perhaps even make a career of greeting the 4:30 a.m. delivery truck and then waiting on the little loading dock for the beautiful Jessamine to arrive. I didn’t want them to think I was going to bolt as soon as I found a job offering 5 cents more an hour, although I probably would have.

I also scoped out Mr. and Mrs. Bagel to be sure there was no hanky panky going on that was going to put me in a compromising situation, like the Frank-the-veteran’s hanky panky had at the last place. As far as I could tell, nobody in their right mind was going to hanky or panky with Susy, the Ice Queen. And her husband Jimmy … he seemed preoccupied with the business, and not very confident. Like, for instance, he didn’t seem to even notice Jessamine.

She did notice him, however. She tried to tell me about it one early morning as we sat on the loading dock, huddled in the cool morning, bagel-scented air.

“I see Mr. Jimmy early morning with b-b-b-b …” she said.

“With bagels?”

“No,” she shook her head.

“With beer?”

“No no no,” she said, smiling.

“With badgers? Bouncy balls? Bandoliers? Boxer shorts?”

Jessamine’s laugh was like the silver tinkle of bells in a little chapel on a hillside in Bulgaria, or Romania, wherever her homeland was. I could never remember. But I loved to hear her laugh.

“I see Mr. Jimmy at night with b-b-books.”

“You see him reading?”

“No, the money b-b-b- …”

“I thought Susy did all the bookkeeping for Bagels and More,” I said, still not getting it.

“But Mr. Jimmy, he does secret b-b-b ..”

And then I got it. Jimmy was skimming money from the books. It explained a lot. His wife was constantly complaining about how they weren’t making any money, despite the steady stream of regular bagel customers coming in and huge volume of the chewy, fresh-baked treats going out.

Was Jimmy saving for secret retirement? For a secret escape from the Bitch Wife? Did he have a gambling habit? I never found out.

Not long after Jessamine told me her secret, I showed up for work one morning to find the entire Bagels and More building was just a smoking hole in the ground. The fire truck was there, and so was Susy, her bun slightly askew, her face smoky and tear-streaked. Jimmy was there too, looking kind of embarrassed, like he was trying to look more upset than he really was.

“Looks like the electric ignition for one of the ovens stuck in the ‘ON’ position,” the firefighter was saying. Susy sobbed. You could almost feel sorry for her, although she was generally the most unsympathetic woman I’ve ever met.

Jimmy put his arm around her. “Thank God I got the records out,” he told her. “Got here just in time.”

There under his arm were the b-b-books Jessamine had spoken of. And presumably the real books were gone in the ashes, never to reveal how much money had been siphoned off for Jimmy’s own, unspecified purposes.

“I’m so sorry this happened,” I said to both Jimmy and Susy, as she cried and he comforted, and the fire engine’s red lights flashed in the ocean-wet air.

“Looks like you’re out of a job, buddy,” Jimmy said.

“Yeah, I know. But I feel bad for you guys. Your whole business is gone.”

“Oh, we had insurance. We’re gonna be OK. Aren’t we, Susy?” Jimmy said.

“Shut up, you wimp,” Susy said.

“Shhh, she’s just upset,” Jimmy said to her, and to me.

“Um, Jimmy? Today was supposed to be payday. I don’t suppose …”

Jimmy shook his head sadly. “All the payroll records went up in the fire.”

“But you know I’ve worked here all week, right?” I tried.

“Sorry, no way I can help you,” he said.

“Come on, why don’t you just write me a check?”

“Why don’t you just fucking GET LOST,” Susy offered.

I tried to leave with my head up. I walked with some dignity to my car, not cursing or weeping or anything, and I got in and tried to drive away. But by then I had that crappy Pontiac Sunfire with the bad fuel pump, and it wouldn’t start. So I kicked the passenger side door a few times and walked home.

I never saw Jessamine again. I could never figure out how to find her, or if she just got spooked when she saw the building was burnt down, or what. I thought she’d turn up at another restaurant somewhere, some day. I still look for her whenever I go to restaurants in the greater Central Florida area.

When I think of Jessamine, my heart feels a little like a bagel–puffy, with a hole all the way through the middle.

So after that, I stopped working at restaurants. I tried telemarketing, then janitorial work, and then finally got a job here at Pet Palace. It’s a puppy mill, for sure, but I like the animals and they like me. Although the store chimp did try to bite me once as I changed its diaper.

At least I get a paycheck from here every week. And I live close enough to ride a bike over, since my last car, that old Corolla, burst into flames one day on the expressway.

There are no datable women at Pet Palace, but when the puppies lick my fingers through their cage bars, I feel less lonely.

And for a while last January, I had the privilege of reviewing my romantic history of Florida restaurant work every day when the mail arrived. I had a letter from Marcy. One from Donna. One from Susy.

These were the ladies of my past, and apparently they remembered me well enough to write–or at least, to send my W-2 forms.

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After the Cloud

Light filtering through the green leaves, one pale leaf dancing back and forth in the breeze, showing its silvery underside, mesmerizing, soothing, the pulse of life. The wind sweetened by the scent of the trees, the wonderful rustling whisper of the branches … a shot rings out.

The explosion is so loud, my mind reels. Then I hear another, and another.

I awaken. I hear the sound of knocking.

“It’s me, Doc. Open up. Please!”

There were five locks on the door. The brass deadbolt and key locks, the chain locks, the wooden crossbeam. I always slept with all five of them secured.

I wanted those few hours of reassurance. I wanted peace, to dream of trees with leaves, to remember.

Joy no longer locked her door at all. “It’s doesn’t matter, Mom,” she said. “They will come if they want to.”

“We all have the same amount of nothing now.”

One night the month before, exhausted from trying helping a woman give birth, after neighbors had carried away both the heavy body and the tiny one, Joy had fallen asleep at my kitchen table, her head on her folded arms. And I had locked all five of my locks, locked her inside with me. I had slept well, knowing my own baby was as safe as I could make her, for one night.

I opened the door to a familiar face. Hank Hayes, carrying a limp bundle wrapped in a floral print sheet, holding it draped upon his arm as tenderly as a bridesmaid holds her bouquet.

It was his son, Hiram. I knew without asking.

“Tree got him, Doc.”

I understood. Almost immediately after the cloud, every tree in Garden Grove had died instantly. And Garden Grove had once had a lot of trees.

People on the street had also died instantly, their bodies dissolving within minutes. People who had been in their homes died more slowly, poisoned at a speed determined by their amount of exposure.

But the trees. The trees died all at once, down to their deep roots, slaughtered where they stood, transformed into brittle, hollow giants, so that the next windy day might topple them, the next climbing child might send their massive corpses crashing down.

Trees now haunted the city they once graced.

The good people of Garden Grove had pushed down most of the trees in the main part of town, even burned many for firewood in the first winter after the cloud. The fire smoke, contaminated with blue-green dust as it was, had killed so many survivors.

But kids were likely to find the few trees that still stood, on the outskirts of town. Climbing a tree, something my own Jonathan had enjoyed just a few years back, had become a deadly danger for the young ones now.

Every time I heard one in the distance crash to the ground, with that ungodly rolling echo, I shuddered.

I unwrapped the blanket and lay 7-year-old Hiram on the table. He was unconscious. I could see many broken ribs, a broken jaw, a mangled arm.

He had lost a lot of blood. His heartbeat was a quivering whisper in his pale, crushed chest. He would not survive. This town never had a hospital, and there was no way to get him to another town.

Hank read the diagnosis on my face. “There’s nothing we can do, is there Doc?”

I shook my head. “Just try to keep him comfortable.”

Tears began to drip down the big man’s face. “I’m not taking him up to Lookout, Doc. I won’t do it! No member of my family …”

“Of course not, Hank,” I said, putting an arm around his broad but bony shoulder. “Don’t you even think about that now. Just make him comfortable.”

I didn’t say it aloud, but we both knew: we’d all seen so many people die. It made the moment no less tragic.

Hank would bury his son in his own backyard, and the next-door neighbor would help him dig the grave. I knew. That’s how it had become in Garden Grove, when children died.

“Thanks, Doc.” Hank tenderly lifted his unconscious burden, and walked to the door, his head down.

I felt bitterness surge within me. Some help I am. Some doctor.

“Wait.” I took a book from the bookshelf, pulled a tiny box from behind it, shook the pills out into my hand. There were eleven left.

“Here,” I said, giving him one. “If Hiram wakes up, and you can get him to eat or drink anything, try to get this down him. It will help him feel better. I … wish I could do more.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Hank said, tears on his ruddy cheeks. “I mean it.”

Locking the door after him, I thought: it would have taken 10 of those white pills to kill me, when I was healthy. Perhaps only 8 now that I was down to my high school weight again.

And now there were 10 left.

That day, that decision, would have to come soon.

I got dressed. I had taken to wearing Joy’s dresses, because my pants would no longer stay up around my waist. The dresses flapped around me like sheets on a clothesline. After years of fighting to reach a healthy weight, I had found a diet that worked: starvation. I chuckled.

When the cloud had arrived, at 3 o’clock one Sunday afternoon in July, the little green town of Garden Grove had turned blue-green, and then brown. Every fine tomato plant in our garden had shriveled instantly, every crimson hollyhock in the side yard, and every blade of green grass on the lawn.

Nothing would grow in the soil, ever again. It was like that as far as the eye could see.

I had worked at the Wal-Mart, ever since my husband died, many years before the cloud. It had never been enough to support all three of us. So in the last year, I’d been taking classes at night school to become a pharmacist.

The college was in another town. It might as well have been as far away as the yellow full moon that glowed over Garden Grove that night. But I was glad for the little medical training I’d had time to receive.

The town had once had four real doctors; they were gone now. Missing, like half the people in town. No one knew if they were killed at once by the cloud, or crushed by trees like little Hiram, or if they were slowly dying of the poisoning, holed up behind locked doors. Or maybe they were up with the ghosts on Lookout Mountain, already dead and gone.

I was the closest thing Garden Grove had to a doctor. But I was weary. There was so little left inside any of us.

I thought about climbing up to the roof, but sank back into my bed instead, idly fingering the oak headboard. I sifted through my thoughts, searching for something familiar and hopeful.

There was still a voice there, one voice in the mind chorus, which believed life could return to normal.

But it was such a soft voice now.

Light filtering through the green leaves, one leaf dancing back and forth in the breeze, showing its silvery underside, mesmerizing, soothing, the pulse of life. The wind sweetened by the scent of the trees, the wonderful rustling whisper of the branches … water trickles from a nearby waterfall. Begins splashing louder.

I awaken.

I heard the sound of running water. The old whiskey barrel in which I stored my well water had burst, spraying and spilling across the polished wood kitchen floor, surging in a sparkling flood to the very edge of my bedroom rug.

An everyday catastrophe. I smiled.

I spent an hour up to my knees in wet towels and sheets, mopping and wringing into a bucket, dragging the bucket to the bathroom with the last of my strength. The floor had not been so clean in a while.

A tap on the door. I knew Joy’s knock, polite but insistent. Followed by her high voice.

“Are you in there, Mom? It’s time for a meeting.”

Unlocking the five locks, I was already arguing with her. “Oh, please, you know I hate those meetings. What’s the point? We all know the score.”

Three more locks gave way, and I slid the beam from its holder.

“Frankly, I don’t care how many more days of food there are in the community can collection.”

Joy was doe-thin, her cheeks hollow. Yet I was always amazed at the first sight of her beauty, the candor in those eyes, her father’s perfect coraline lips.

“Yeah, but it makes people feel better when you’re there, Mom,” she said. “You’re the town doctor.”

We both laughed.

“Oh, I think maybe you’re the doctor, baby,” I said.

“It’s good to hear you laugh again, Mom.”

For the first months after the cloud, I cried, I worried, I worked. Joy was at my side, learning everything I ever knew, taking out books on permanent loan from the abandoned library, before people had burned the rest of the book collection for fuel.

After I sent Jonathan away, I didn’t work as hard, but I cried and worried more.

The following spring I began to let myself smile again. Because I knew it didn’t matter.

There was a certain freedom in that.

The neighborhood meeting was a dozen gaunt people collapsed onto folding chairs in the school basement. Shadows from the three huge beeswax candles scampered across the pale green enamel-painted walls. Markham, a man with a serious-sounding cough and smudgy glasses, presided.

“Thank you all for coming,” he said, with as much formality as he could muster.

Some of those in the audience did not seem to know where they are. They ran their hands through dirty, too-long hair. Some stared at the floor for the entire meeting. One woman appeared to be crying softly.

“We have 62 days of food left in the common can collection,” Markham said. “That means we’re in pretty good shape for now, but 62 days in not really a long time. Food remains our biggest concern.”

Markham had written notes on blue index cards, having prepared solemnly for this meeting. He was our leader, although no one knew his first name. He was the new mayor, in much the way I was the new doctor.

“As you all know, we used the last of the gasoline in town to fuel the earthmovers that put roadblocks in place at the ends of Route 24 and Dixie Highway. This has significantly reduced the number of marauders, and those we have seen in town appear to be weak and not much of a threat anyway.”

The roadblock was made of abandoned and donated cars and trucks. Not much point in owning a vehicle, once the gas was gone. My own Buick was in the pile at the south end of town. Jonathan’s new purple Pontiac, the one he bought with his grease-stained paychecks from the fried chicken place, saving all though the summer before his senior year in high school — the Pontiac stood upright, wedged between the video store owner’s Cadillac and his principal’s old Volvo. My son’s old car helped guard the east end of town.

Some bicycles, those that had been stored safely in garages when the cloud hit, still sailed down the main streets during daylight. Other bicycles, their spokes entwined with blue-green goo, lay discarded in the ditches.

People in the audience began to chat quietly about marauders they had seen, how they had scared them away, deadly traps they had set around their supplies.

“People!” Markham said, to restore order. “Please, people. I know you’re interested in how we’re doing. Let me finish my report.”

He shuffled his index cards, coughed ominously, and leaned closer to the candle on the long table before him. In the shadows, the circles beneath his eyes grew, giving him a skeletal and somewhat more commanding affect. The audience grew silent.

“We remain without electric power or telephone service. Bill Watson, who was a ham radio operator, is missing, and no one else in town has been able to figure out how to operate his radio equipment. If any of you knows anything about radios, or someone who does, please contact me at once.”

After the cloud, when the trees came down, so did the power lines, and the phone lines. People had rushed about to repair them, but by the next day, there were not enough healthy repairmen to do the work. The only real progress Garden Grove made was in the first 24 hours. After that, almost everyone who had had direct contact with the powder became nauseous, sweaty, had seizures. One by one, and sometimes four and five at a time, they had dropped dead.

The living dragged the dead up to Lookout Mountain, where the sheer volume of blue-green dust provided a way to cleanly dissolve the remains. There were too many to bury, too many to burn.

Markham scanned the room again, growing breathless. His official posture was exhausting to this man, who had perhaps once been handsome, with clear blue eyes behind the bleary glasses, and a trim mustache. He fought to finish his stack of index cards.

“Do not trust the tap water, and do not drink from the river.” He pointed vaguely to a poster on the wall that listed these rules. “Do not burn the contaminated wood for fuel. Wash everything that touches the blue-green powder before you use it. I cannot emphasize that enough.”

I had known instinctively not to touch the powder, to keep it off the food and the dishes, to wear a cloth over my nose and mouth when I went outside. I still had a huge supply of latex gloves, which I washed and reused until they wore ragged.

I pumped my own water from the well in the yard. Without water from the deep artesian wells, the town’s survivors would have died in a few days. Instead, we had been privileged to struggle through months, slowly starving.

A shrill voice suddenly spoke, startling me from my reverie.

“Is there any hope at all?” It was a pasty middle-aged woman with large, bulging eyes, her face flushed, angry. Her expression was that of a desperate walrus.

Markham tried to be soothing. “Of course there is hope, Mrs. Ingerson,” he said. “We have the hope that there is still life outside Garden Grove and Middleport Township and Iroquois County. We have sent crews to check.”

“But nobody ever comes back!” the woman squealed, standing for emphasis.

Markham turned to me, as I sat next to Joy at the rear of the room.

“Doc, what about your son and his friends? Any word from Jonathan?”

I shook my head. “I’ll check again tonight,” I said.

The walrus woman turned to glare at me.

“He’s probably dead, you know,” she spat. “I couldn’t have sent my son out there to find out how bad it is.”

I felt her words like a physical blow to the soft place right under my heart … but I did not react. “If Jonathan was your son, you couldn’t have stopped him either,” I said.

She would not be placated. “Why aren’t you as sick as the rest of us? You and your daughter. You have some pills you’re taking that are keeping you alive, don’t you? Pills you won’t share with the rest of the town? Don’t you, Doc? Don’t you?”

By this time, she was standing just a few inches away, shrieking in my face, her sad walrus eyes rotating wildly. But I was too weak to fight.

“I had a well-stocked basement, and I happened to be in it, listening to my daughter practice her flute, at the time the cloud hit,” I said.

“That’s my whole secret. And I knew enough not to touch the powder, not to burn the wood. I wash everything. I might not have been exposed as much as you were.”

She missed my last remark She had sunk to the ground, and was having a seizure. Markham walked over quietly and put a folded jacket under her head.

Joy and I left without saying goodbye.

In the school lobby, with only the moonlight coming in through the cracked glass doors, I held Joy’s slim hand in mine, and we stood quietly for a moment. “Mom, I had something else I wanted to ask you,” she said hesitantly.

“I knew it. I knew you didn’t invite me here just because you wanted me to get more involved in my community.”

She waited, afraid to meet my eyes, then spoke. “Do you have anything left to use as anesthetic? I want to do a procedure I’ve never done without anesthetic. I don’t know if I can keep him … still enough.”

I thought of the 10 pills I had left, my assurance of a swift, painless death. I nodded. “I can let you have a few Vicodins.”

“That’s all we should need,” she said, relieved.

Joy was 16 now, but probably as old as she would ever live to be. She had planned to be a nurse. Now she was like the rest of us: she could be whatever she chose.

She had claimed an empty house on my block, and converted it into a sort of hospital. She had scrubbed and cleaned every speck of blue-green dust from it, filtered the air, filtered the water, had worn the latex gloves.

She’d washed her patients and her house with betadine, from the last cases of the disinfectant I could find. She had set up three beds in her apartment, and in each one, someone was dying. Two of her patients were the children of friends, one brain damaged from a tree accident. She gave them antibiotics, shared her food with them.

“I know you think what I do is pointless, Mom,” she said softly. “I know I can’t really save anyone. My patients all die.”

“No, it’s not pointless, not at all,” I replied, lifting her chin, so her eyes met mine. “My patients all die, too. I just don’t know how you can stand to watch them die.”

She shrugged her thin shoulders, like the teenaged girl she was.

I was proud of both my children, more than I could say aloud, without bitter tears tightening in my throat.

At high noon the following day, I visited her during the surgery. A man was strapped tightly to her kitchen table, positioned beneath the skylight, grimacing as he bit down on a towel. Old Carmen, a deaf-mute woman who lived next door, wiped the man’s forehead with cool water.

My daughter Joy, who at one time could not bring herself to cut up a raw chicken for the barbecue grill, was amputating a leg.

A tourniquet had squeezed off the blood supply to the man’s thigh. A turkey carving knife stood nearby, which she had used to cut through ligaments at the knee. I felt relief at having missed that part of the operation.

I had no stomach for this. I could dress wounds, prescribe pills. But Joy had gone way beyond that, and now tried anything she thought would work.

Only the really desperate people trusted her. There was plenty of desperation in town.

She had left a skin flap, had used my precious betadine to disinfect, and was placing the last of the silk sutures on the main arteries. She frowned in concentration over her paper mask, consulting a medical book she had carefully disinfected and wrapped in a plastic dry cleaner bag. She would try to stop the bleeding, wrap the wounded area tightly in a bandage, and hope for the best.

When the drugged man was untied and allowed to retch in a bucket, I took her aside, giving her a hug.

“Why do this, Joy? Why put this man through this, to live a few more weeks?” I asked. “The chance of infection is so great, the pain he’s going to feel without any drugs when he wakes up … ”

“Oh, I know, Mom,” she said. “But I wanted to help him. It’s Mr. Talman.”

I looked at the grimacing, sweating face, surrounded by the sheets we used as surgical drapes. So it was. Mr. Talman, her 6th grade music teacher, unrecognizably thin now, like everyone else.

Back when she and her brother were in school — back when there was a school — neither of my children had been high achievers. But Jonathan had been much worse, getting into trouble so often that his guidance counselor and the assistant principal and I were all on a first-name basis.

“He’s just so … full of himself,” I remember his high school principal saying. As if that were something bad.

Only Mr. Talman had liked both my children, had recognized and appreciated their native talent. Of all their teachers, only he was proud of their accomplishments. Only he had said to Joy, “I hope you are just like your older brother.”

The thought of Jonathan brought a stab of longing. I could not believe I would never see him again. I told myself I would have the courage to check for a message that night, when it was dark again.

Jonathan, in the summer before his senior year, had been playing guitar in our garage when the cloud hit. He had heavily insulated the tiny wooden space with carpeting and old mattresses, to keep the neighbors from complaining about the noise.

I had noticed later that blue-green dust had somehow filtered into the garage through air leaks around the door, had covered the drum skins with a fine blue-green glow, had settled on the rafters. But he was the strongest of our family. He’d showed no signs of poisoning, although his weight began to drop after weeks with little food.

Jonathan’s friends Stosh and Joey, part of his tight clique since elementary school, had been in the garage too. After the cloud, I had made each one shower and scrub and throw away the clothes they had been wearing, giving them some of Jonathan’s clothes from the dryer instead. Stosh had walked home to find his parents dissolved in their car, parked in the driveway. Joey’s mother had never been heard from again.

The three had stayed in Jonathan’s room from that night on, roaming the town by day, looking for work they could do in exchange for food. Within a few days, their duties had consisted mostly of hauling dead bodies up to Lookout Mountain.

They’d done what children do: they had adjusted. But sometimes at night, through Jonathan’s bedroom door, I could hear Joey crying.

About a week after the cloud, I had knocked on that locked door one night. “Would you guys want to help me do something that’s sort of … illegal?”

The town’s two pharmacists were dead or missing. Looters had already broken in and stolen all the mind-altering drugs from the drugstores on Main Street, and I didn’t want to see the antibiotics go to waste. The boys had nodded with guilty glee.

All that night and into the dawn hours, they’d trudged with me down the side streets of our town, carrying hefty bags filled with medicine, ointments, gauze and tape. We had managed to climb through the huge, smashed out windows and grab what was left at the Wal-Mart pharmacy, fighting our way past looters shoving snack foods and blankets and soap into carts which would be walked past the checkout counters and into the night,

10 items or more, no waiting.

After that night, the boys had called me “Doc.” Now everyone did.

I left Joy’s house, and checked carefully for marauders before I walked the 50 feet to my door. In the far distance, there was a crash like thunder, followed by a rolling, rolling sigh. I knew it was not thunder. It was another tree.

When the sound had stopped reverberating, I heard a faint, exquisite melody. Joy, her apron still spattered with blood, up on the second floor, sitting at Mr. Talman’s bedside, playing Mozart. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. A little night music.

I had to step around a dead body on the sidewalk, which had been decomposing for several days now. An elderly woman, I thought, as I passed, holding my breath against the stench. All of Garden Grove smelled that way. Eventually, the living had almost stopped noticing.

Some survivors sprinkled the dead with blue-green powder, to speed their decay. I couldn’t make myself do that.

As I turned into my doorway, I noticed I was not alone. At the entrance to the alley, a man stood, his back to me. He was smoking a cigarette.

A cigarette.

I stared at him in disbelief, and he turned and grinned a gap-toothed grin, acknowledging the unusual moment. There had been no cigarettes in Garden Grove for months now. I quit smoking five days after the cloud, when the last of my rationed smokes ran out. So did everyone else in town.

It had been easy. I felt so sick most of the time anyway.

The man was clutching a whole red and white pack of Marlboros, and gleefully waved them at me. I didn’t even ask where he found them. I gratefully pulled one from the pack, pressed the tip to his lit cigarette, and inhaled deeply. The pungent smoke touched a place deep in my lungs that had longed for that special caress.

We stood together, watching the sun glow indifferently as it settled in the hazy western sky.

“I had given up on finding these again, my friend,” I said to him finally, as the cigarette burned down to the brown filter paper.

“Sometimes you have to give up,” he replied solemnly. “And sometimes you have to stop giving up.”

We stood a few more moments, smiling, smoking.

I climbed the trellis to my rooftop, one shaky step at a time. Walking was harder every day now, and climbing was hardest of all. The Marlboro had made me dizzy and giddy. But the rooftop was the only place I could get word from Jonathan.

I hadn’t been up there for many weeks. The sky was black and silent, but sounds floated up from the street, people sobbing, swearing, glass breaking. It was always like that at night. I crouched low, until I could smell the still-sunwarmed black asphalt under my ragged Nikes, not wanting to be seen.

I peered inside the wire coop. Nothing. Just the faint odor of old feathers and droppings, and a handful of seeds scattered undisturbed, in the same configuration as when I first dropped them.

The night before the cloud, Jonathan and I had had a huge fight about the pigeons.

“They don’t like it in the house, and they don’t belong in the house,” I had told him sternly.

“Oh man, it’s so hot tonight, Mom. And Malta just laid an egg.”

“Get them back on the roof before you go to bed. I mean it,”

But the birds had secretly spent that night in the air-conditioned comfort of Jonathan’s messy room.

If he had obeyed me, the birds would not have lived more than a few moments after the cloud.

When Jonathan had set out with Stosh and Joey, he had brought along his four pigeons, housed in a little canary cage.

“I’ll send you messages this way,” he had said. “Check the coop to see if they’re back yet. Look for a blue capsule attached to a bird’s leg, like this. And when they get back, don’t forget to throw in some seed and change their water once in a while.”

“They know their way home. When I release one, it should be back within a couple of days.”

The boys had hatched a plan. Stosh and Joey had built the raft of PVC pipe and nylon cord, available for free now at the Kerner’s Tru Value hardware store. The perimeter of the raft was ringed with plastic milk jugs half-filled with clean well water. They could replace the drinking water with river water, as they traveled, to keep the raft stable.

The highways were far too dangerous, they had decided — but April had been dry, and the river was at the bottom of a steep ravine. It was almost a straight shot through to the next state. Maybe there was still civilization there, maybe fuel. Maybe food.

They had known there would be places where trees had fallen across the river, blocking the path. “You might have to portage at some points,” I’d warned them. “You might have to drag some dead branches out of the way.”

“I know. But the water is still flowing, Mom. If the water can get through, we can, too.”

The raft was lightweight and waterproof and strong. They could sleep on it, taking turns to keep watch for marauders. They could travel for a few weeks like that, living on the canned food I had held back out of the community can collection.

“When the food and drinking water are half gone, you have to turn around,” I had told them. All three looked sheepish.

“I held back some cans, too,” Joey had said.

“I’m on a diet,” Stosh added. The other two had punched him good-naturedly. This was an adventure for them. At 17, they were too full of life to die, just yet.

Jonathan had let me hug him for a long time, pressing my face against the flannel of his shirt, once more before he left. We’d both known it might be the last time ever. But the boys had been eager to set forth and save the world. I had always known I would have to let him go some day. And I’d known I couldn’t keep him safe at home-no one could, with so few days of food left.

After a sleepless night, I had decided to let him go. His odds were not good either way. He had already lost so much weight. He might as well go down fighting, I’d thought, before he became a walking shade like everyone else in Ghost Town Grove.

“Please,” I had whispered under my breath, watching the three of them disappear around the bend of the river that day. “Please watch out for the trees.”

The first pigeon had arrived back home just nine days after the boys left. Inside the blue capsule was a message, scribbled in Jonathan’s cramped handwriting. “We are fine. Looks like lights up ahead. We will be careful.”

He had known just what I would ask, what I would say.

The second, pigeon had come back after another month. “We are fine. People here want to help us.”

My hands had begun to shake, reading that message. What people? Healthy people who heard about Garden Grove’s plight and had decided to try to get help through? Or hungry, desperate people who would murder the naive boys in their sleep, to steal their remaining rations?

How far could they have traveled, to have made it outside the zone of the cloud? Or had they?

For the next several nights, I’d climbed to the roof and sat hunched in the darkness next to the empty coop, scanning the skies for the sight of a pigeon. Nothing. Planes no longer flew overhead. It must have been a very wide cloud.

Three months had passed before the third pigeon returned, on a cloudless October night. Bloodied, with a broken wing, the thin gray bird barely had the strength to clear the parapet and land on it’s coop.

The message capsule on its leg had been empty. Empty.

I had screamed in rage, clutched that injured bird to my chest, and then twisted its neck. I don’t know why.

I’d sat on the roof, crying, and pulled the feathers off the bird’s little body, one at a time. Then I had taken a red, varnished bookshelf Jonathan had made for me one Mother’s Day, and smashed it to bits, and made a fire on the roof.

I’d cooked the pigeon there on a spit. I was so hungry. Joy would have no part of the greasy meat. My body had reacted badly the next day, unable to digest the bird.

But I’d felt stronger. I had known it was finally over.

The final pigeon would not return. Neither would my son. I had stopped climbing to the roof to check.

Sometimes you worry so much, that when you give up, it comes as a relief.

I can’t explain why, but I knew at sunrise that it was going to be my last day. I knew by the way my arms shook when I tried to unlock the door, and I decided that I would lock it no longer.

I knew when I looked at the remaining Vicodin pills, and decided to give them to Joy, to help her ease someone’s suffering, instead of ending my own. She had known as I handed them over that it was my last day. She allowed me the dignity of not having to say a real goodbye.

I thought of Joy, and how she would carry on. Not forever, because her own strength was fading fast. But she would survive me. As children should survive their parents.

The thought gave me satisfaction.

I thought of Jonathan, and was at peace with the fact that I would never really know what had happened to him.

My hope … our hope … I was ready to concede now. It was over. I was ready to let it be over.

I walked the path up Lookout Mountain, smiling faintly at the way we still called the stubby glacial ridge a mountain. Dust under my feet turned from gray to blue-green, as I got closer to the central contamination site. Just a few people stirring. A woman sitting in a pit, crying, praying.

A man in a pit mumbling to himself, the dissolved bodies of his family members at his feet.

I chose a pit that had no recognizable bodies, although I’m sure there were some there, clotted piles of blue-green material, now dried and rubbery. Ashes to ashes and dust to goo, I thought with a smile.

There was a boulder at the edge of the pit. I set my camp chair there, leaning against the warm pink granite, and rummaged through my bag of provisions. My wool shawl, my old harmonica, a canteen of well water, a picture of my children years ago smiling from the window of their tree house. A book, Walden Pond, because of the courage, the beautiful imagery. Thoreau’s words seemed the right note to end upon.

I would not lie down in the chemicals of my own free will. I didn’t know if it was painful. I didn’t want to know.

When my time came, I would die sitting in this chair, or topple from it, and my remains would dissolve as they touched the blue-green powder, wherever I landed.

I would eat nothing. It might take days.

Meanwhile, I would sit in the gentle spring sun, inches above the contamination, smile at my memories, listen to the river coursing by, and be at peace. I had tried. I had done all that I could do.

It felt more than peaceful. It was almost beautiful. The last beautiful thing.

Light filtering through the green leaves, one leaf dancing back and forth in the breeze, showing its silvery underside, mesmerizing, soothing, the pulse of life. The wind sweetened by the scent of the trees, the wonderful rustling whisper of the branches … a bird lands, then another.

They begin to chatter to one another. Soon, another bird has landed. Their song is like laughter, and then they are laughing in human voices.

I awaken. I hear the sound of laughter.

A small crowd stood at the edge of Lookout Mountain, in the safe zone just where the earth changed back to a ruddy brown color, talking in an excited hush. I walked up behind them on leaden feet and peered between their shoulders.

Mayor Markham was swooning near the edge of the cliff, waving his glasses, rubbing his eyes. “Do you see? Can you see?”

It felt like a dream. But it was not a dream.

A pigeon flew straight down the ravine, about eight feet above the water.

Behind her, five rafts, made of PVC pipes lashed together, were tied end to end, forming a long barge. The rafts were piled high; under the clear plastic tarps, I could see boxes of what look like bananas, canned food, toilet paper, boxes marked with red crosses. A lithe, sunburnt figure with a recognizable face stood at the fore of the first raft. Stosh.

It was not a dream.

My heart leapt. My eyes darted to the middle raft, the slender dark-haired boy sitting atop a small mountain of fuel containers. Joey.

I was awake. I touched my hands to my face, felt my breath against my fingertips, felt my tears.

“Oh my God,” I said. “It’s not a dream.”

I slid down the rocky ravine and ran along the mahogany earth of the riverbank, stumbling, breathless, shielding my eyes against the sun, as the last raft came around the bend.

And there, standing tall and thin as a sapling, smiling, a battered straw hat on his head … using a tree branch as a longshoreman’s pole, to help him navigate the curve …  was Jonathan.

*****

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