Fiction, Vol. 2.4, Dec. 2008
In the mornings he felt like Tom Joad huddled in a canyon, his optimism rarely daunted, his love of family the great motivator. He drank his coffee and sucked down three cigarettes dwarfed by the Rockies, humbled by the distant peaks and colossal pines, the sound of whishing water and oblivious birds. It was only near noontime when anxiety nibbled at him and, more so, irritation with his prospects, his responsibilities, his children’s gradually fading peace and serenity.
Unfortunately, noontime always arrived quicker than he anticipated, and by then he had little to do, even though he still considered himself a roughneck farmer, a woodsman who made use of the land as countless before him had, as those who first tramped over those magnificent mountains had been forced to do: die or rustle up food, find clean water, fish from dawn till dusk or perish and lay for eternity in the open, without even a pauper’s grave, waiting unconsciously for nature to dwindle material essence to nothingness. He had never learned to cultivate the land, however—he often thought with a wry smile that he had cultivated scant else besides—and by now his patches of tomatoes were shriveled and his attempts to grow potatoes and lima beans had fizzled as his more ambitious corn plots had before them. No mountain man survived without a horse, he told himself often, a sentiment that led him to negotiate, and then to beg, the Withertons to give him one of theirs, but they only had four left, invaluable resources, they claimed, even as they cowered in their mansion day after day with only a cousin, bereft of immediate family himself, to tend to them, ride them each once a week, and plead for the stallion to mount one of the mares, despite his clear reluctance.
It had been almost four years. The sun, a soft orb in the sky yet potent enough to scorch his skin if he stayed out long, caressed him as he trod across the field in front of his white two-storey house, an early twentieth century dwelling—”rustic” would have been the term pinned to it five years ago in the realty section. Every time he approached in this direction on a clear day he noticed the absence of animals, the scurrying cats and devoted dogs that he equated with such an existence. Nothing stirred, and he reached the stairs to the porch without a change having been educed upon his surroundings.
In contrast, he hadn’t set a foot inside the house, having only swung open the screen door, before he heard voices addressing him.
“Pop, can we go out? No one’s around. Please?”
“Julie smacked me, Pop; she hit me hard just because I beat her at shot-ball.”
“Can we go out, Pop? We’ll be careful.”
“I’m hungry, Pop. Mom had to go early and all we got is that cereal, and it’s gone all crusty. Can you fix us something?”
They swarmed around him, his three children, waxen-faced and spindly yet full of vigor. The moniker “Pop,” his choice, which stemmed from his desire to segregate himself from the masses of “Dad”s, from the never-ending stream of those who could and did become fathers, now struck him as an unwanted and unwarranted burden. Each time he heard it, he cursed himself for insisting upon it even as Sonja had explained her desire to let “Dad” stand as a nod to tradition, for they both had called their own fathers “Dad” and it seemed almost injurious, not to mention disrespectful, she argued, to buck that legacy. No, he had insisted, I’m a “Pop,” and a “Pop” he became; only now it seemed to impose upon him a greater onus than he might have otherwise had.
“I’ll make something,” he said stoically, choosing to answer the last and easiest question. They continued nonetheless, unabated, and he walked through the entryway, took a right, and stood in the kitchen, only to face an overwhelming sense of incompetence. It wasn’t too long ago that no question intimidated him.
There were eggs in the refrigerator, and he expertly cracked all five into a bowl, mixed them, and poured them in a skillet. The whole process of making eggs embarrassed him—years ago, that had been his job, what he could do, his contribution to the domesticity of the household, and he had boasted of it when Sonja chidingly mentioned that he couldn’t change a tire or oil, paint a room, or tinker with a garbage disposal without increasing the eventual price a professional would charge them. But eggs, he gloated, he had a monopoly on: nobody in the Bay Area could scramble a better egg.
He absentmindedly scraped them around with the spatula, the monotony of the exercise never clearer. Anybody could cook an egg.
“Pop, can we throw the football after lunch?” Kyle asked.
He looked down on his eldest son. “Let’s decide that after lunch,” he responded after a pause.
Minutes later he scraped the eggs onto three plates, deciding to forgo lunch himself, and set them on the table. A desperate scrabble ensued, with all three children jostling around the table to eye each serving in order to ascertain which held the most heft. For once, an argument was avoided, and the eggs were wolfed down with a rapidity that would have made one suspect that some grand and arduous adventure waited on the agenda for the afternoon.
He watched the scene with detachment, the sight of famished children, his children, no longer mortifyingly painful but rather merely able to evoke a physical helplessness, a near atrophy in his limbs and a cramping in his finger joints. Lighting another cigarette, he prepared to wash the dishes, another chore he once presumed to help Sonja with twice or so a week, on days he arrived home from the office early enough not to feel the entitlement of the bread-winner, despite the fact that she had worked, too, as a nurse, with a longer commute at that, only with a substantially lesser salary and some fewer hours. It rankled him that she was not there to chip in on this job, that she never was, even though he knew she was likely soaping or drying dishes at that precise moment less than a mile away, down the overgrown, cracked road that she walked every day twice a day, a road that he never traveled without his shotgun, an entirely understandable precaution, but also without a familiar yet emasculating sense of alarm swamping him and with a tendency to flinch at every rustle of the trees and chortle of a distant crane.
“Pop, what do you say? Can we go out to throw the football?” Kyle asked. “It’s stuffy in here. It always gets stuffy in here after lunch.”
Rarely did he assent to such a request, it being a hassle, a task that required him to gather the full resources of attention and cognizance and vigilance that sapped his faculties for the remainder of the day. But they hadn’t been out in quite some time, at least a week.
“Put on some pants,” he said. “There are mosquitoes out there.”
Kyle dashed off and up the stairs, hollering as he went to his siblings.
The dishes had been stacked in the rack by the time the three children appeared back in the kitchen; they bounced about, yapping, with enthusiasm spread upon their pallid faces. “What did I say, Karen? Get some damn pants on. The mosquitoes will kill you out there.”
“Pop, I didn’t hear.”
“Well get them on. You should know.”
“We never go out, Pop.”
He wanted to soothe her, to apologize, but his desire was no match for the nibbling exasperation. “Just go put them on, Karen. It doesn’t require conversation.”
“Where are we going to go?” Kyle asked when Karen had disappeared.
“Where do you think we’re going to go? Outside, in the yard.”
“Oh, can’t we go to the field?”
“Do you know how far away that is?”
“It’s not far. Five minutes. Please let’s. We can kick field goals then.”
“You don’t need to kick a football. Be happy with some exercise. Must we always want more and more and more?” He stopped, then strode to the stove, nabbed his cigarette pack, and swiftly lit a butt. “I’m sorry, but, Christ, we can’t go over to the field; we just can’t. You’d realize that if you were me. It’s just that . . .”
He couldn’t go on. There was no way to elucidate the danger to a twelve-year-old, and no reason to besides, no reason beyond cruelty. And it struck him that part of the justification had to do with his own fears, and he had additional reasons to keep those quiet.
The cigarette scalded his parched lungs, and he stubbed it after three drags, an unconscionable waste considering he didn’t even attempt to salvage the remaining two-thirds. Kyle and John stared at him in seeming distress, silent.
“Let’s go, guys,” he said, trying to infuse his voice with vivacity. “Bet I can still whip that old boy farther than you, Kyle.” He walked over and swatted the football out of Kyle’s hands, precipitating a mad scramble into the entryway, both boys pursuing the ball as if it were a critical fumble at a critical moment in a critical game. John emerged with it, but not for long: Kyle yanked at his brother’s scruffy, shoulder-length blonde hair, forcing the younger boy to screech and catapult the ball out of his hands while simultaneously already beseeching his father to enact due punishment. “That’s John’s ball, Kyle, fair and square. You were flagged. Toss it back.”
Kyle grimly underhanded the ball to John, who cradled it against his chest and ceased to protest.
Soon Karen stampeded down the stairs, having changed not only out of her shorts and into UCSB sweatpants but also out of her raggedy T-shirt and, unaccountably, into an equally raggedy purple blouse. “This better?” she asked, and her expression was so guileless that he grinned unreservedly and gave her a nod. Before they left the house he kissed them all on the top of their heads, disregarding and not caring a lick about the matted, dirty state of their hair, and then stooped, with a return to his previous disquiet and doldrums, to pick up his trusty duffel bag from beside the door, where it sat disguising its contents while remaining easily accessible.
The sun had become more potent with the hours, and he had to shield his eyes when he set foot underneath it. The children had bounded down the steps ahead of him, and they bolted in separate directions across the overgrown yard, seeming to set out for the area with the low-lying grass that allowed for relatively unencumbered movement. They did not stop, though, and rather dovetailed before the path that led to the field before vanishing down it. Instead of calling out to them, warning them to stay near, he clasped the duffel bag tighter, as if a firmer hold could preclude the unknown. Immediately he rued leaving his cigarettes behind, parched throat notwithstanding.
A speed walk brought him down the path and to the field shortly after the children had began hurling the football through the air, it wobbling with each throw, caught only about once in every five attempts at first, the most evident sign that their outdoor excursions were less frequent than they should have been, than they once were. Already the heat and foreboding and pointlessness of the endeavor had brought to him a headache, and he stood watching the antics (John attempting to repay Kyle with a flying arm tackle; Kyle sloughing it off and stomping on John’s back; Karen scooping up the apparently forgotten football and punting it to no one in particular) with barely a movement. Never had he had patience for an unstructured sporting activity of any kind; even watching, even when the boys were four or five years old, he had inwardly seethed at their refusal to keep score, their complete lack of interest in tallying up points to satisfy what he believed should have been their natural competitive instincts. But now, while he could sense that seething, he no longer had to fight the need to intervene, his defiance having been sapped beyond its natural reservoir.
It took at least fifteen minutes for any of the children to remember his presence, and it was Karen who said, “Pop, you wanna play?” She beamed, and her crooked teeth castigated him, clashing as they did with her beautiful, near-white blond hair, her symmetrical features and becoming freckles; those environment could not destroy, even as it cast a pallor over her skin and allowed her new teeth to scrunch against one another, thrusting one of her canines on the top row outward at an angle that almost ensured future difficulties chewing food and marred a face he loved.
“Well, do you want to play a game?” he asked.
“What kind of game, Pop?” she replied.
He kicked at the grass and peered up into the pale blue sky, the clouds rolling surreally across it like something out of a movie, those scenes when the film is speeded up to denote time’s passage. “A football game, Karen.”
“But we’re playing a football game already.”
“You’re not really playing a game; you’re chucking around the football. We can play an actual game if you want. Keeping score. You know, like playing cards, or shot-ball, where somebody wins.”
“Oh, yeah, I hate that.”
He sighed, and Karen trotted off toward her brothers, who had taken her temporary absence from the game with not a thought. Lightheaded, he squatted, then sat, stretching his legs out in front of him and hooking one foot around the other. Instilling a love of competition—his love of competition—might, he realized, be detrimental, and his mental, if not verbal, insistence that his children conform to whatever long-held but now long-obsolete notions about how to survive and thrive and conquer in the world might just be a sign of atrocious rather than conscientious parenting, and the dearth of specialists, whatever the true quality of their wisdom in the past, left him without guidance, without even the guidance that he likely would have once reviled unless it was in harmony with his beliefs. Now he had no clue, had not even the assuredness that came from authoritatively rebutting the experts, and neither did Sonja, and they admitted as much, she openly, with tears sometimes, despite the fact that she never cried in response to anything else, only about their children, and he with frustrated detachment, attempting as he always did to embody some persona that he wished were genuine but knew could never be.
The shout reached his ears seven seconds before he sprung up, and thereafter he couldn’t figure why it hadn’t spurred him into gear immediately, the only explanation being that he was encoiled in the past, thinking of what he urged himself never to think of. “Heeeey boy,” it came, ricocheting, it seemed, off the walls of the canyon, and soon he had leaped to his feet. His first movement was toward the sound, a darting six steps before he swiveled and sprinted back toward the field, his eyes wide, sweat pouring down his face already.
John was in the midst of tackling Kyle, for no apparent reason considering that Karen held the football twenty feet away, when he screamed, and what he screamed he could not recall, but he knew it was incomprehensible because his children’s stares alighted on him with merely the faintest flash of concern before Kyle pounced up and kicked John in the stomach, not hard enough to elicit a groan. Karen shrieked with joy and punted the ball in the opposite direction from her brothers.
He had by then regained a degree of sanity. “Go, go, go, run!” he screamed, and then louder: “Go, now… Karen, for God’s sake forget the goddamn football and run!” He surged across the field and reached the boys, swooped down to lift John off the ground and in the same motion yanked Kyle’s shirt before stumbling and releasing both of them to catch himself on the ground. “Run!” he screamed again, using his knee to push himself upright and then shoving indiscriminately with both hands at the boys. “Run that way.” He pointed toward a thicket of shrubs seventy or eighty yards away. “Run and keep going; don’t stop.” Then he remembered the duffel bag, but a glance told him he was too far away to safely retrieve it.
The boys were staring at him. “Pop—” Kyle started.
“Fucking run!” he screamed again.
He saw John’s expression, and even in the midst of panic he felt a stab of guilt, of remorse, not because he was responsible but because he could have it no other way, because the world had conspired to turn his children into quailing fugitives whose mere existence necessitated the terror they were now experiencing, and because he knew they would never experience anything again without that terror lurking now that they had confronted it once.
“John, run,” he pleaded, and John scampered after his brother across the field, allowing him to turn toward Karen, who was jogging toward him while looking over her shoulder. “Karen, don’t look—run. Please.”
He held out his arms and beckoned toward her, and she moved so slowly in his mind that he felt that the world had been frozen in some primitive state in which human beings tracked one another with the quarry permanently shackled, with the hunters profiting through a handicap that was imbued in the pursued through the mere fact of being prey. He scooped her up when she reached him, but she was so heavy, despite her emaciated appearance, that he could move her no faster than she had been moving, so he let her onto the ground and tried dragging her, but his first yank brought her down and prompted tears and a howl.
“Jesus, Karen, we have to move,” he said, and he heard his voice crack.
“Pop, I can’t,” Karen squealed. “I can’t.” The last contraction was drawn out in a manner that reminded him of her younger self, of the whining that would occur when her brothers would snatch a toy from her, usually good-naturedly, or when Sonja would announce bedtime, or when a final uneaten piece of squash remained on her plate.
“Oh, please, Karen,” he said, and then yanked her roughly to her feet. Behind him he heard a shout and then horse’s hooves, and he ventured a look before sprinting away, frantically hoping Karen would follow.
“Hey there!” he heard behind him. “Hey there!”
He didn’t stop but slowed. The first pitch of shame swept through him, and he almost tripped again as his legs, tensed unnaturally long, relaxed.
“Hey there!” And he heard the horse break into the open field, just as he was about to reach the shrubs. He stopped and turned.
On a chestnut roan, George Langford sat casually, his horse loping across the field. “I got the supplies,” he yelled.
Karen had stopped, and he could see sobs cascading through her frame even though he could no longer see her face and the tears that doubtless accompanied them.
“Damn it,” he muttered. “God damn it, son of a whore.” Sweat had drenched the front of his shirt. “God damn it.” He swiveled back away from George and Karen. “Boys, false alarm,” he called. “Nothing doing.” He listened before calling out to them again, to no avail, it seemed.
“What’s going on here?” George asked, and the nearness of his voice provided another jolt.
“Not a thing, George.” He tried to smile. “Gave us a run, so to speak.” He walked up behind Karen and took her shoulders in his damp palms. She swung around and hugged him, the strength of the embrace nearly bringing tears to his eyes.
“Jeez, has somebody come up on you all?” George asked. He took his decrepit baseball cap, a mesh Astros hat that looked like a long-ago Little League scrap, and swept his forearm across his brow.
“Just you.” He tried to smile again. “I freaked. Don’t know what’s wrong with me. Should’ve been expecting you. Sent us all scattering.”
George’s auburn hair stuck up in lopsided tufts all about his head, the result of an apathetic shearing. “I’m sorry, bud.” He opened his mouth to continue but seemed to find words hindered by his surprise and discomfiture.
“Don’t be.” Karen quivered beneath his hands.
“Let me get your boys,” George offered. “Can’t be far.” He galloped off before waiting for a response, and soon he returned with the news that he had located Kyle and John. “Weren’t gonna go far without you,” he said, and clapped his shoulder from above: a compliment, evidently.
“Had nowhere to go. Come on back to the house.”
They waited for Kyle and John and then traipsed across the field in silence, George in the lead, still on the roan. When they reached the house, the children scuttled inside, suddenly eager for that dour sanctuary, while the men stood outside, sharing few words. After the horse was tied, he invited George in, and they both went, the heaviness of the mood not lightened with the acceptance and neither perceiving how to lighten it.
“Hungry?” he asked when they had both unburdened themselves of the sparse groceries George had brought.
“Stan fed me back in Chivington,” George replied.
“How is Stan?”
“Holed up, what you might expect. Got that double-barrel pointed at the door, and I’ll be damned if you can’t hear that mother click when you grasp the doorhandle. Said that crazy Mexican hinted last time back it might be his last trip.”
“Should be.” He shivered. “What you gonna do if it is?”
“What will you?” George laughed, however uneasily, and reached for a smoke in his breast pocket, snagged one, and offered the pack.
“You just brought me some,” he said in response, then chuckled to acknowledge the generosity.
“Boy’s always hinting it might be his last trip. Don’t expect he gets by any other way. Else why would he have stuck with it this long?”
“Hard to know. Circumstances change.”
“No crap. I got you this.” George reached into one of the two sacks and slid a newspaper on the table: the Los Angeles Times. “Big city news come to Chivington.”
He shook his head. “The inventory expands directly before he gives up the enterprise? Spark of hope. Chivington, Jesus. No God in this world when the only town left operating in Colorado is the one named after that man.” He eyed the newspaper with trepidation. “
“Hardly call it a town. And it might be sweet justice, after all this time—probably better to be empty at this point than inhabited by one sad sack, his wife, and a gun. Even Black Kettle’s folks might be better off than those two.”
“Grant you that.”
“Well, I got to get back. You take care out here. Sorry to put that fright into you.”
He blushed, the first explicit reference to his frenetic behavior, and what he figured could be perceived as rank cowardice, having struck him as both piercing and almost uncouth. “Never know what might be creeping out there.” He shook his head rapidly. “With kids . . . it’s different.”
“I hear you.”
He led George through the entryway and outside and stood watching while he swung up on the well-fed roan. “Thanks,” he called, but the belated gratitude for the supplies probably had not reached the intended recipient. For near ten minutes he watched the mountains and the sky behind them, blue and clear and distinct beyond the reality of existence, before remembering his children.
Inside, he bellowed, “Boys, Karen, what are you all up to?” The lack of a response propelled him up the stairs, his heart beginning to throb before he realized that whatever danger he had sensed an hour ago had entirely dissipated. On the landing he immediately spotted all three, sprawled on the ground with the ouija board opened but not set up in front of them. “What’s going on, guys?”
Stares settled upon him, and he stared himself, at gaping eyes tinged with agitation, the smooth skin of children but vilely pale, and prematurely stringy hair. “Are you using this thing or what?”
“Where’s Mom, Pop?” John asked.
He bristled but fought it. “You know where she is: she’s at the Wilbertson’s. Isn’t she there every day?” He softened his tone. “She’ll be home before long. Dark is coming.”
As he moved closer, he could see from the fresh tracks on her face that Karen had been crying. John’s eyes were red; perhaps he had been, too. “Shall we have some dinner anyway? I’ll eat with Mom later.”
The children slowly gathered themselves to their feet and then followed him down the stairs. He fought an urge to admonish them, to tell them that whatever they had gone through, whatever fear they were still battling against, they had no right to clam up and allow him to feel responsible, that when you truly considered it they were lucky, when you considered the children of those who could not protect their loved ones from such forces as he had thus far subdued, whether the Turks or the Germans or the Hutus or the Serbs, whether Pol Pot or Stalin or Pinochet or Ceausescu, and that was only in the last century—for centuries upon centuries before that the children of Chinese peasants would have given thirty years of life for the security his children were granted, and yet they frosted upon him looks of accusation, as though somehow he were not doing all he possibly could to guarantee them what stability could be guaranteed in a world beyond the horrors that anyone with any acquaintance with decency and civility and kindness could imagine in their worst imaginings.
When they reached the kitchen, he emptied the two bags George had brought on the counter and then methodically lined up each item on the edge as if a deliberate removal would make the meager contents more valuable than they were. The booty totaled three cartons of eggs, a loaf of bread, four packs of cold cuts, two cartons of cigarettes, one can of coffee beans, six boxes of cereal but no milk, six boxes of saltines, five packets of sliced cheese, ten cans of soup, eight cans of tuna, and six cans of blackbeans—a week’s worth of provisions. He lit the propane camping stove, brought a pot out from underneath the sink, and opened two cans of soup and poured them in before reconsidering and opening two more and adding them to the others.
“Pop, what do you do?” Kyle asked.
He turned; the children were sitting around the table like dogs looking up at their master. “What do you mean ‘what do I do’?”
“I mean, Mom works for the Wilbertsons. What do you do?”
“Save your ass,” he mumbled. Then he swiftly ripped open a box of saltines and slung it on the table. “Start on ’em. We’re gonna eat today.”
Even as he stirred the soup, his back to the table, he could envision the frenzy over the unexpected crackers as he heard the groping about for the cherished morsels and then the crunching as three mouths hemmed in on them. He opened one of the cold cut packets and took out a slice and stuffed it entire in his mouth. The soup soon boiled, and he filled three bowls to the brim and placed them on the table. The saltines were finished, so he opened a second box and divided them equally among the three. None of the children had spoken a word since he had flung the first on the table.
Soon he had consumed the packet of cold cuts and had another four cans of soup on the stove. Nobody spoke, but when he looked back at the children he noted that they had the eager expectation, the sense of hope but of likely impending disappointment, that he associated with majestic holidays, with Christmas or birthdays, times when what was supposed to occur seemed too wonderful to be possible. He dished out more soup, and they set to it without delay and, too, the additional allotment of crackers he provided them from the third box. A second packet of cold cuts had only touched a slumbering voracity within him, and he lit into a box of generic cereal without milk, which was unavailable in Chivington, still conscious enough to be mindful of not spilling any. When the children had finished their soup, he dumped the remainder of the cereal into their bowls.
Finally, Karen spoke, and he found it counterintuitive that the youngest would be the most astute. “Pop, why are we eating so much?”
A response—and, more pertinently, the reason—eluded him. “You’re my daughter,” was all he could come up with, and he followed this by walking over, bending, and kissing the top of her head.
Within thirty minutes they had finished more than half of the food, and the children sat, sullenly, he thought, eyelids drooping, at the table, with no energy for their customary after-supper banter and then bickering. One by one, first John, then Karen, then Kyle, rose and plodded off with barely a word—Kyle did offer a “thank you”—and disappeared up the stairs to do whatever they did to kill nights. The paper awaited, and a sense of déjà vu swarmed over him as he recognized the anticipation with which he had been waiting to view it, a remnant of those days during election seasons when a political junkie such as he looked forward almost with angst to perusing the internet in the mornings or after busy stretches at work, when it seemed as though any news could have broken, any massive and game-changing event could have already been batted about on countless gabshows, only this time the angst seemed more justifiable even though he knew the news was weeks old, which once would have made it archaic but not now, not in a stagnant world where progress had been replaced by the constancy of human versus human and city versus city.
“Sanchez to the Pen” blared the headline, and he could only chalk it up to justice that Ricardo Sanchez finally had to pay for his sins, no matter the integrity of those who were incarcerating him and would certainly soon, if they had not already, bleed him dry. The Times was only ten pages, and he had to flip to page eight to finish the story, written by who-knows-who, obviously someone well-connected, one of the half million or fewer residents of Los Angeles, the, from what anybody could ascertain, largest city remaining in the country and probably the world. Sanchez stood accused of “embezzlement,” whatever that meant anymore, he thought, and his cronies had joined him in the penitentiary, although their crimes were not enumerated. No mention throughout the paper was made of the racial violence that had been all the buzz up north when disaster originally struck and that had filtered through the word-of-mouth network in the succeeding years, but he did note that Sanchez’ replacement was Albert Eagleton, a name he recognized he knew not what from—the world of law or business, he supposed, although academia was a possibility—so he could at least hypothesize that it continued in some fashion.
Most of the paper was filled with absurd stories he generally chalked up to propaganda or pipe-dreams: the revivification of some education center in West Hollywood, a good Samaritan taking in a wayward child and sheltering her in his well-fortified home, tales of what might be happening in the vast unknown to the north and south and east and even overseas. He saved for last the only opinion column, written by the old standby Kilbert, chief of police when chaos ruptured docile life—if you could ever have termed life in Los Angeles or around the world docile—the de facto mayor during the tenures of the first Eagleton, then Williams, then Sanchez, and presumably whomever had gone unmentioned for reason of distance in Chivington and its environs, and just as presumably during the tenure of Eagleton II, whom he realized now that he couldn’t accurately ascertain whether he had heard of, considering that he was doubtless related to Eagleton I and his memory told him he had only heard of one of them and didn’t know which.
Kilbert’s columns had always struck him for their honesty, at least compared with the rest of the Times, and with the understanding that he had no way of distinguishing honesty from deceit. But this one struck him the same way, particularly in its contrast with the rest of the paper: “The Cardinal Van Roeys Are Dead” the headline, in small font, read, and while he had no idea who Cardinal Van Roey was and Kilbert chose to let historical erudition stand without explanation, he could figure from the stories of children murdered in the streets, and men bleeding their wives until death came upon them, and marauding groups hopelessly laying siege to the most impenetrable houses in the city, that he must have been a courageous man in some way. Despite, Kilbert wrote, Los Angeles’ superiority over the world, its citizens turned their wrath and greed and dread upon one another; despite their collective strength, they preyed upon the relatively weak among them.
He balled up the paper and then stuffed it back into one of the grocery bags. Surveying the scene, he, for the first time, felt a wave of contrition rush over him—he had wasted, out of a similar but lesser sense of contrition, the food they counted upon to keep them not alive, necessarily, but human, for who knew what he was capable of to acquire sustenance?
By the time Sonja arrived he had discarded the remnants but not the contrition. When he heard the door, he started, the unusual quantity of food in his stomach having made him drowsy, and then he staggered to his feet and lurched into the entryway. “Home?” he asked, ridiculously. She gave him a quizzical look. “Work good? Solid, I mean?”
She dropped her bag by the door and then shot her head up. “Where’s the duffel?”
“Oh Christ.” And before she had a chance to add to the questioning, he was past her and out the door, and he felt himself sprinting across the yard, down the dirt path, and into the field. There it lay, in the dwindling sunlight, where he had left it, and he snatched it up and slowed to a walk, returning to the house. On the porch, he paused and searched his pockets for a cigarette before giving up and entering.
“What happened?” Sonja said as soon as he walked in.
“Forgot it. We went out to toss the football. My bad.”
“What happened to the food?”
“Ate it.” He walked by her slender, withered figure in the entryway and turned into the kitchen, where he grabbed and lit a smoke.
“You ate it?” she asked, having followed him.
He presumed it was rhetorical. Her coarse, brown hair, he noticed, was unusually disheveled, even for one who cut her own hair, and the purple gauges underneath her eyes appeared deeper and purpler and more indicative of exhaustion than they usually did. For the first time in months he wished to kiss her, and not on the crown of her head, as he did once or twice a day, in the manner that he kissed his children, but on her cracked, full lips, the lips he had years ago lusted after as much as he had any other part of her anatomy, even her little breasts that she had always augmented in the most pleasing way with designer bras and tight T-shirts and a shoulders-back posture that in leisurely moments, at home sitting on the couch watching television for one, seemed a satirical imitation of some harassed Catholic school girl fearful of reproach from a steely-eyed nun. But months before when he had tried she had pleaded something—tiredness, busyness, or illness, he could not remember—and he had given up on that.
“How could you have eaten all that food?” she asked. “That’s our food for the week. That’s the food for our children.”
“Oh, well, they ate it, really. I ate more or less my regular portion.”
“They ate it? And what in God’s name, then, were you doing at that particular juncture? They ate our food for the week and the man whose only responsibility is to make sure they don’t do stupid shit that leaves us all dead like eating all the food we have to keep us alive for a week claims ignorance because it was they who did the damage.”
He felt his hand shaking, the cigarette lurching up and down between his fore and middle fingers, and before he could restrain himself he had picked up the French press from the counter and slammed it to the ground, sending shards darting about the room and his cigarette skittering toward his wife, who, he saw, did not recoil, who looked at him as she might have once done a recalcitrant shooting victim at Oakland Medical Center who refused to name his assailant.
“Are they upstairs?” she asked, without the emphasis this time.
He found his chest was heaving and it took him a couple of seconds to draw in the breath needed to respond. “Yes.”
Before he could apologize, before he could think to apologize, if that was what his next mental step would have been, she strode forward, pulled out a chair, and slumped in it. “Marty died today.”
He heard himself gasp. “He died?” She did not respond. “He died.”
Slowly he began retrieving pieces of glass from the floor. His violent impulse now seemed to him so inane that he wanted to cry, and he knew that second impulse was not exacerbated by Marty’s death, as tragic as it was considering the pain the boy must have undergone and the circumstances, how by mere fact of being born into a family with the largest ranch in Colorado he had been fated to become the provider of power to a world no longer moored to the old, positive, progressive technological advancement but to one so regressive that the end, inevitable as it was, dodged everyone’s consciousness until it occurred, and even after perhaps. He was thinking of Franklin and Marie Wilbertson holed up in their house justifying everything, seeking some seed to plant in their minds that would convince them their son had not died as senselessly as the six or more billion before him. Yet he had not known Marty Wilbertson, had only seen him once, and those were unusual circumstances to say the least, considering that at the time he was holding a gun to Marty’s father’s temple and insisting that, while the Wilbertsons could live with power and use his wife to supply it, that was the only service they would be receiving from his family. Coffee was real, coffee would announce its absence the next morning, and for weeks thereafter and probably longer considering the unlikelihood of George procuring a coffee maker in Chivington, and it would continue announcing its absence even after the caffeine dependency retreated, for the need for coffee fulfilled not only that dependency but also the need for routine, for something, something tiny, to look forward to.
“Tell me,” he finally said.
“He screamed. Once. He knew it. He didn’t scream in pain; he screamed at me, at his parents, at everything. Only two years older than Kyle. But he knew much more. He knew everything.” She straightened on her chair. “Why was man cursed with mind?”
This time it appeared she desired a response, despite the unanswerable nature of the question. “Without one, would we have the story of someone like Cardinal Van Roey?”
“Who is he?”
“I’m not sure. A brave man.”
“Why do we, why do we, what’s the cliché? ‘Clutch to life’?”
“‘Cling,’ it’s usually said.” He used to adore these signs of her distant immigrant past, the sporadic reminders that she had been born in Eastern Europe and moved to California at the age of six. To friends, he had abashedly lobbed the term “exotic” out, particularly to friends from college whom he rarely saw and who thus could not have the implications of that word dashed by his then-girlfriend’s perfect grammar and syntax, her American fashions, and lack of an accent.
“Cling. Why do we cling?”
“First, because we were cursed with mind. Second, because our history has taught us that we don’t regress; we always soar forward.”
“Certain quixotic history analysts may teach us that; history does not.”
“How so?” He lit another cigarette, sheepishly, not because it was the best sign, his nicotine reliance, that he did not wish to cling to life but because of what had happened to his last one.
“Did not the Greeks after the Mycenaean period revert to the Dark Ages? Do we not refer to ‘the height of Rome’? I don’t suspect Merv advanced a great deal after the Mongols butchered its inhabitants.” She wiped her eyes—he would have thought she was drying them, but she had not shed a tear. “Why did you let them eat all our food?” Her voice was soft and resigned, barely audible.
“George rode up on us outside as we were playing football. I lost it.”
“Scattered like Dain Waris’s crew under ungodly fire.”
She laughed. In the early days, they loved swapping literary allusions, and she, an English major, had stumped him continuously, until he had given up and instead sought to reference classics that would impress rather than confound her. “I think they’re going to blame me.”
“When your son dies, you don’t need a ‘for.'”
“I could—we could—blame a lot of people for a lot of things without a ‘for,'” he said, “but one would have to be insane to blame you for the death of a boy they sacrificed to the god of human consumption.”
“That’s not what they did.”
“Perhaps they could have tried living like us.”
“And how would we have lived then?”
“That is not for them to worry about. No jury in our distant land would have condemned you. Only the most unscrupulous trial attorney would have brought a claim.”
“They’re going to ask for Kyle or John. Or Karen.”
He took the last drag on his smoke, fiending for alcohol to go with another one. “They won’t get any of them.”
“And what will we do?”
“Fight them to the death, as they say.” He thought of the duffel bag he had recently retrieved from the field. “They know where they can stick that.”
“And what then?”
“Then we set up a government, and then we bring together the remnants of the country under one flag, and we strike down all opposition, lashing out against the power of L.A. in a way they would never expect.”
“I’m not asking you to be facetious.”
“Even Jefferson and Madison and Henry and Mason would realize now the importance of a centralized government. There have to be some people left with a little book-learning.”
She rolled her eyes. “You can’t even avoid sounding facetious. ‘Book-learning.’ Right.”
“Let me make you something to eat.”
“Even more facetious. I think I’d better leave the scraps for the rest of the week.”
He got up, shuffled toward her chair, and kissed her on the crown of her head.
“I’m going to go up and see what they’re doing,” she said, and rose with surprising alacrity, then marched out of the room. He followed.
On the way up the stairs he could hear squeals and chants, and he almost wished he could not. Sonja reached the open doorway, and he paused outside with his view obscured, listening only to his children’s chitchat, some foolishness about pirates, based, doubtless, on some equally foolish story he had related to them in one of his better moods, and then Kyle screeched something and John objected and Karen broke from character to settle whatever meaningless dispute had erupted, and all their make-believe seemed as real as their lives, and he knew then that one by one they would go like so many children washed away into the delta and then the deeper water after a devastating storm in a shanty town, but in this case slowly, agonizingly, and it all struck him as about as real as the notion that he once worked among computers and genial colleagues and lived in an expensive house in Noe Valley and walked his dog and drank chichi coffee and did whatever else he did back when his children had no need to pretend they were alive.
And still they quarreled and mediated and carried on, as if the only world that had ever existed sat inside that rustic two-storey somewhere in the Centennial State.