“Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down/Darkness be over me, my rest a stone/Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee” Nearer, My God, to Thee – Sarah Flower Adams
They stopped taking garbage about two weeks ago. There was still a Public Works Department in the sense that the building they house the garbage trucks is still standing, and if you really wanted your garbage collected you could probably figure out how to get the truck started and if you were really lucky enough, no one had thought to siphon the gasoline from the trucks, so you just might make it to your house and back provided you didn’t hit a skid of garbage juice and careen the truck into someone’s home. They, the public works people, weren’t coming back. The summer kids, all fresh out of high school, were making $8.50 an hour at best and the salaried workers weren’t doing much better. And yet people had still put their garbage out, though some rebellious types neglected to put on stickers. It was the little things you missed. You didn’t realize how much you needed sanitation workers until the streets filled with garbage ooze; an olive-green liquid squeezed from spoiled meat, cat food, and baby shit. To add to the list of things you take for granted; your nose. These smells never went away, you just get used to them.
I left my work clothes out to dry on a clothesline I installed about ten days ago. I went outside to get them in pajamas, which was overdressing. A good percentage of the population, upon hearing the news, marched outside in the summer sun and got sunburn in places that have never seen natural daylight. I had a fleeting urge to do this but reeled myself back in. I had an oxford shirt and khakis draped over the line. I got dressed inside, in my bedroom. I fixed the sheets and put all of the useless pillows back in their place. Breakfast was whatever was left in the pantry; a box of Blueberry Frosted Pop-Tarts and canned peaches. I chose Pop-Tarts. I never liked toasting Pop-Tarts, and if I wanted to I wouldn’t be able to. I was lucky.
The fuel gauge hung precariously above E. I didn’t know how much was left in the tank but I knew it would take up about 22 miles of fuel, round trip, and my 2001 Kia Rio got 25 mpg (City). All driving was city driving. I had inadvertently prepared for this. I went to the garage through a savannah. The grass was already pretty high beforehand, but the hurdling rock of death in the sky, which was about the size of a period and could be seen by an amateur astronomer, gave me ample reason to cross lawn mowing off the to-do list. The gas can was heavy. I drained it into my car.
I was aware of the puddles of garbage pooling in the road as I was aware of the legions of cats picking through the solid garbage. Every day this week I was awoken by hissing. That and plenty other reasons are why I stopped keeping the windows open. For every gluttonous cat determined to die where they collapsed there are ten frail, scruffy cats taking what they can get. If you idled too long they’d come to your windows mewing and begging. I heard a rumor about a woman who tried to help a hurt cat, but the cat was faking hurt, and the woman was pulled away by a pack of cats in some initiation ritual. You heard two responses to the story. The one response is the altruistic response. The second response was that the woman should have never got out of her car in the first place, that there are tens of thousands of cats and that the world will be kaput in a couple weeks’ time. I mean, who could blame this fictitious woman? I saw a cat, tiger striped, staring at me like he knows me. I saw the top of another cat’s tail, stalking through the high grass for a robin, another cat rolling on its back, scratching it against the concrete. There were many smells but there aren’t many sounds anymore besides chirping, meowing, hissing, and the patter of little paws kneading against trash bags.
A police car appeared in front of me as a blur, lights flashing and sirens blaring. The bwee-you bwee-you carries on down the street. The driver, or at least the person steering the car, was at most an 11 year old boy. He looked as though he were standing and yet could barely see over the dash. I guessed he was standing on another boy of equal dimensions who manned the gas and brake, and the pilot would indicate whether he needed to gas or brake. My other guess was that the demands were singular. This used to be a two way stop sign and perpendicular traffic had the right of way, so I was fortunate the sirens were left on. As for the signs, they disappeared the moment teenagers got the hint that there was no police force. The police had no use for the police cars, the firemen had no use for the fire trucks. The EMTs didn’t get off so easy, but I imagined getting assistance was akin to going into a restaurant five minutes before close and expecting your food to be fresh.
I didn’t need the signs. I could recall this drive by heart. The intersection of Dorrance Street and Joseph Drive was the two way stop sign, and I wouldn’t hit another stop sign until the intersection of Rutter and Dorrance, and if you remember taking your learner’s permit, you will recall that all broken traffic lights should be treated as stop signs. The speed limit until Rutter and Dorrance was 25 and it increased to 30 once you were on Rutter, but I always hovered five over. There were beautiful homes along this drive still being maintained; lawns mowed, hedges trimmed. I saw a man outside watering his grass. I saw a woman sweeping trash into their neighbor’s yard, a more par for the course yard. These same people promptly scattered when they heard a group of middle schoolers coming down the street. There were five of them. They wore NIKE shirts, NIKE shorts, and NIKE flip flops with high black NIKE socks. They carried aluminum baseball bats and smoked cigarettes and wheezed when smoking said cigarettes. They called me a faggot as I passed them, yelling it with the unbridled spontaneity of a growing brain unable to separate what it thinks and what it should say, and one of them chucked a rock and my back window, perhaps missing intentionally.
Heat. The feeling of being too close to something hot. The gas station was on fire.
At a traffic light, I did the pat of the body everyone does when they have forgotten something, even if that something is not on their body. I searched the front seat, digging through Pop-Tart wrappers and coffee cups. Nothing. It wasn’t until I looked in the rearview mirror that I saw it, my briefcase, politely sitting in the backseat. I nodded my head.
Main Street likely resembled your small town main street, though mine was called Wyoming Avenue. It was a portion of a longer state road that lead most of the way to the bigger cities. Near what we all have determined to be the end, it became very easy to leave town but very difficult to return, as traffic coming in was backed up all the way to the off-ramp of I-80. It got to the point where cars sat idle or even died in their trek and their owners discarded them where they idled the way they would have a frail horse some hundred and fifty years ago. I never liked traveling. I had a home and an internet connection. I had simultaneous access to suburbia and a fifteen minute drive would put me in the middle of nowhere. There were a dozen state parks within an hour’s drive. We even just got an IHOP. And in this town I had a partner. Before we lost the internet, I saw she was tearing through the Midwest. I didn’t know where. It got to a point where all the pictures looked the same, fields on fields on fields, with the occasional tornado rolling through.
Wyoming Ave was like any main road in a town. It was an artery of fast food joints, grocery stores, retail stores, and car dealerships. Benco EuroMoto’s lot had been plucked. Most of its inventory had been wrapped around phone poles or had been slammed into each other head on in some form of automotive intercourse, the result of the conception being two very dead humans and $130,000 of useless metal. It used to be unsafe to drive. I pulled into Price Chopper. I still had my member’s club card and I came here weekly, though my trips have become sparse once the perishables, well, perished. I found a spot close to the entrance and pulled in so I wouldn’t have to reverse when leaving. The grocery store was fortified by a chain of carts linked around the entrances. Someone at some point made their own entrance by driving an SUV through the front of the store. I went through the hole in the wall, narrowly avoiding a piece of glass I disturbed by taking the entrance. The SUV had made it as far as through the second set of automatic doors that acted as a decompression chamber separating the outside from the store, and ran itself aground at checkout aisle 16. The store’s interior was lit naturally. There was always natural lighting, but it was complimented by blasting white light, making all the food look better than it actually did. There was something spooky about natural lighting being the only lighting. It didn’t get all of the store. There were patches of nothingness. I saw clouds of dust reflect off the light. The whole place was coated in a fine layer of it. I could make out little footprints.
“Halt!” Someone yelled, their voice cracking. I halted. A young boy aimed a pistol at me. He had been here long enough that a film of dust had accumulated on his glasses. He was tattered.
“Hey, Maurice,” I said.
“Oh, hey sir,” Maurice said. I don’t feel I’m old enough to be called ‘sir’. I think he forgot my name. “My dad needs to see you.” He lowered his weapon.
We lived in a world of bluffs. I couldn’t tell if the gun this kid had was the real thing or if it was an airsoft gun. I know you can tell if a snake is poisonous or not by checking the shape of its head, but I’m not going to get close to a snake to find out.
I was escorted to the snack food aisle by Maurice, a neighborhood boy who, only a few weeks prior, thanked me for not running over his wiffle ball. I helped jumpstart his father’s car on more than one occasion, and he tried giving me a $20. The boy peeled away from me and stood at attention at the base of a throne. His dad sat on a throne of 12 packs of soda; Pepsi, Dr. Peppers and Orange Crushes. He was in the process of bargaining with a woman over a pregnancy test. His request to her was simple but degrading, and she stormed off. He said that if you wanted democracy to try the Wizard of Wegmans down the street, and her elected counsel. He said this as if he had told a joke. His minions, all children no older than his son, chuckled.
“And what brings you to I, The Chopper of Prices?” He tried bellowing, but didn’t have the bass for it. He used to be a tame guy, the type that would ask how’s it going? when you saw him out. The Chopper of Prices had a name, which was also Maurice as dictated by his Price Chopper badge; Maurice and in italics, Assistant Manager.
“I just need a pack of frosted blueberry Pop-Tarts.” I figured since I was already out. No sense going later.
“We all want things, Mister…”
“Mister Munley! Of Reynolds Street! What do you have to offer in return?”
I untucked my shirt and went to lift it up.
“No! Something to trade, to barter. It’s a new old world now.”
I still carried my wallet. I had no credit or debit cards, but that was a personal choice long before the shit in the sky hit the fan that me and everybody else lived on, just my photo license which needed renewal and a crinkled five dollar bill.
“I’ll take it!”
“The license?” I asked.
Maurice Jr took the money and handed it to his father.
“This five dollar bill has meaning if we give it meaning. Therefore, I declare it is worth something,” Maurice Sr said, holding the five dollar bill the way his son would hold a five dollar bill.
“Could I get $1.50 back, then?”
“I also deem Pop-Tarts are valued at five dollars.”
The guards, Maurice Jr and a few neighborhood boys, still had their guns on me. Maurice Sr. tapped his fingers on his throne of sodas. I bowed. They retrieved my box of Pop-Tarts.
“Umm, these are unfrosted,” I said.
“No returns!” Maurice Sr. yelled.
I had to drive a few miles over to Sawyerville, a town consisting mostly of porch-sitting geriatrics who all served the same singular purpose of being sentries, reporting anything queer in their little town to each other. Most of the time, the queerness came from one of them, and it became a circle of whispers and outdated racial slurs. My grandmother became a resident of Sawyerville the day she retired, giving me the home I have now and moving into a skinny two-story, one bedroom home with a lawn so tiny it had to have been a mistake, and to cover the mistake they built a home around it. I rounded the bend on Wyoming Ave, going a cool 50 in a 35. I had to slam on my brakes because of a couple dozen assholes were around the bend. Twenty-four raw, pinkish eyes all staring at me incredulously. The twenty-four eyes belonged to twenty-four people, all on their knees crouched down as if doing yoga, in child’s pose. I honked my horn a couple times, but it made me look ridiculous, for my Kia Rio’s horn was a party blower. It emitted a flaccid spewing sound.
“Excuse me,” I said to the assholes. I had to get out of my car to address them. “I don’t mean to intrude on your ceremony or impromptu yoga session, but…”
“Would you care to join us?” One of the assholes quivered
I decided not to look, and engage them as a crowd, eyes scanning for a horizon. “No, thank you. I need to be somewhere.” I checked my watch. 3:00.
“We are to remain here until we are relinquished from this earthly rock,” Someone said.
“I can’t hear you. You’re talking into your knees.”
“We are to remain here until we are relinquished from this earthly rock.”
“I respect that.”
“Do you believe it’s a sign?” The person, who I assume was a girl but I based this more so on her voice than the shape and overall asshole cleanliness, gestured her head up to the sky, to an object about the size of a penny if you were able to see it. Perhaps if you squint hard enough.
“A sign of what?”
“Entropy. Each generation gets worse than the last. Each generation we stray further and further from the glorious creatures we once were. We have become repulsive. And now He has decided he has had enough of us.”
“It seems a bit on the nose to me.”
“We deserve this.”
“Absolutely,” She said.
I got back into my car and inched it closer and closer to the outstretched rows of butts. I chickened out, stopping about a half car’s length in front of them. I opted to lay on the horn for about ten seconds, and the crowd parted, shuffling on their hands and knees to the side of the road.
I took turns hard, cutting the corners and clipping the rumble strips. I performed rolling stops through red lights and stop signs. I had to cut up the lawn of a realtor company because the road was blocked by an artisan fence, composed of old plywood and bald tires. Fashionably late.
The shop had been gutted. Every window on the face of the building had been broken clean, the shards pulverized into sand. I pulled into a spot adjacent to the building parking. I grabbed the suitcase from its seat and went into the trunk and pulled out a washrag or two, a portable butane cooker, and a tire iron. The sign above the brick building had faded, but it wasn’t a recent occurrence. It read:
DON T HO E
In alternating maroon and forest green. The doors, also once made of glass, had been obliterated. When they announced it on the news that it was coming and nothing them and especially me could do; when Congress got a head start by packing themselves underground and the billionaires made off to their private islands with their private armies; when death cults became in vogue and thousands gave up to spread themselves for the sky; when the middle schoolers reclaimed the suburbs and there was no room for negotiation, I thought it wise to take a trip to the Shoe Depot and by a sturdy pair of boots. These boots give me a three inch lift, though I wouldn’t classify them as business casual.
The cash register had been overturned and was laying on the floor, pennies emerging from the wound. A soda machine lied prone. A hand stuck out from underneath the machine with a bottle of Coke clenched within said hand. I set up on the other side of the shop, using one of the dishrags to wipe glass of the booth. I set the butane cooker down on a neighboring booth. The Donut House had just about been stripped bare, even the xxxxl graphic t-shirts that read There’s No Place Like Donut House were gone. There were a couple things left; a plain donut and a half-empty pot of cold coffee. I dropped the donut on the floor and it made the satisfying crashing sound of rock on rock, shattering into several pieces. The cold coffee went on the butane cooker.
I faced the holes in the walls where the windows would be and waited. I kept the suitcase at my side and out of sight. 3:34. Cats came in droves. Coming here was a familiarity. They knew that some donut maker had a sweet spot for street cats and that he or she would leave some food or some milk. That person isn’t coming back, but they could hope. I never cared for coffee, but everyone I met did, so I made sure to like coffee, too. I always suggested The Donut House as a meet point. Hell, I half-expected to find a fresh glazed here, lighter than air, softer than clouds, and sugary enough to make me consider running again.
Mr. Foster drove an electric car. I almost didn’t hear him. He pulled into the parking lot timidly, shining a flashlight into the darkened interior of The Donut House. He drove slowly along the front of the building, surveying the contents, swinging his head as if saying no while going back and forth between the shop and my car, before finally deciding to pull into a spot. He parked one spot over next to me. I waved to him. He walked side-stepped, scuttling toward the building with a shotgun buried in his shoulder. Bill Foster was red in the face.
“Boo! Scat! Go Away!” He told many cats. He sniffled
He did the same thing that I did when he got into the shop, the only difference being that he had a shotgun and recoiled more at the hand. I put my hands up.
“William Foster?” I asked.
He spun with the grace of a figure skater and six eyes were trained on me. I dry swallowed.
“What is your name?” Bill asked. He wanted a reason, he wanted me to give him a reason.
I nodded. “Pete Munley. We spoke on the phone. I’d get up to formally greet you, but my legs have stopped working.”
He dropped two of the eyes. He was soaked, sweat dripping down into his eyes and on the bridge of his nose. He slid his glasses up.
“Sorry for the delay,” He said. We shook hands. “I hit an asshole committee on the way here. I almost thought I was gonna have to convert.”
“They’re everywhere,” I said.
“You gotta wonder though. Who’s the asshole? Those crazy fucks spread out on pavement or me, the guy telling them to get out of the road? What does it matter?”
“It shouldn’t. I think the road is a masochist sort of thing.” I always wore shoes and socks. I never let my bare feet touch hot pavement. My feet were always silky smooth, albeit constantly sweaty.
“Coffee?” I asked.
“Creature comforts. Not many of those left. Yes please.”
I got us both Styrofoam cups and poured out the coffee.
“There’s no cream or sugar,” I added.
“It’s always something,” He said. I agreed.
We sat in the booth. He set his gun down and I brought my suitcase up. I kept an eye on the outside, in case someone unscheduled showed up.
“I’m surprised you came,” Bill said.
“I always try to honor my appointments.”
“Shit, I can’t believe I came. I guess it’s just hard to really sink in, you know? The end?”
“That’s what they’re saying.”
“They said it’s shaped like a boot. Ever since I heard that I’ve been having the same dream. I’m back in my parents’ house but I’m micro-fucking-scopic, and I’m running along their kitchen floor when I see this darkness coming up. So I try to outrun it and I’m outrunning it but I never think to look up at the thing until the very end, and when I do it’s always the same. It’s my mother’s high heel coming to stamp me out like an ant. Maybe those assholes had a point,” Bill laughed. I chuckled.
He continued, “I just expect to wake up tomorrow and see it, my mother’s heel, coming at me.”
The collision will happen thousands of miles from here in the Yucatan Peninsula. Before the marching band’s rendition of ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ played and we lost television, there was an estimated crowd of about two million who made the pilgrimage to the Yucatan Peninsula, mostly to Cancun, to be at approximated ground zero for The Final Blow. We likely won’t see it, but I’m told we will notice it.
“Do you wonder what the fuck we’re doing here?” Bill asked.
“Cosmically, sir? Or…”
“Not even. We. Handsome you and paunchy me, trespassing on this beautiful day.”
“You look good.”
“Stop,” Bill blew hot breath on his glasses and cleaned them with his polo. “You have your fighters, your guys who are thumping their chest at that rock just begging for it to come down here so they can give it hell. You have your flighters, our fucking mole-people government and those shit nose Libertarians out foraging and using branches as suppositories.”
“Then there’s us,” He continued. “You remember 9/11?”
“There were people that stayed behind in those towers. They weren’t jumpers. They continued working, taking phone calls, filing papers after a goddamn airplane went through the building. I’m sure they hated this as much as you hate this now, yet they persisted. There are types of people who try to keep to the routine, even if all hell breaks loose. That’s us.”
“So what’s stopping us?” I asked. “What’s stopping me from dumping this hot coffee on your face?”
“And what’s stopping me from grabbing my gun, getting you on your knees, and waxing the floor with your blood?”
“I guess what goes around comes around.”
“Look around. We’re not coming back.”
We sat still. I tapped my fingers against the table. Bill took a sip of his piping hot coffee. We made small moves, waiting for the other to make a big move. I watched his other hand, expecting it to make a move to the gun. If I was fast enough, I could slap his coffee into his face. It would disorient him enough that I could grab the gun and make a decision. Bill set down his drink. I played off a trembling leg as tapping, as if there was a song playing on the electronic jukebox that only I could hear. Bill moved and I made a move for my coffee, ready to scald his already reddened face. From his polo pocket he drew a black pen.
“So, William Foster. Is the following correct; DOB 05/22/79?”
“Correct,” He said.
“Permanent address 195 S. Pearce St?”
“As permanent as permanent can be.”
“Are you looking to start a Term plan?”
“I read that you offer Whole Life Insurance coverage.”
I kept novelty scented candles in the kitchen. Tonight was a Pepperoni Pizza night. I lit it and set it on top of the stove, and just basked in the smell. It’s just so on point, you have to wonder how many pepperoni pizzas the company made to get the aroma right; how much seasoning they must put on their pizzas. Last night was chicken wings and tomorrow will be Alfredo. Candles kept the billowing garbage, so smelly you could see green stench waves emitting from it like the fluid air waves above concrete on a hot day, sort of at bay. At night my stomach would fluctuate somewhere between hunger and revulsion.
The basement was where I kept all the food I had tried to refrigerate. Most of it spoiled and is out there on the curb, but some frozen food was durable enough to be used as weapons, which I shamefully admit was the case one time. I dug a hole and in the hole I had a refrigerator I had filled with ice. The ice had turned to water and the content of my fridge, waterlogged, sat at the bottom; a box of off-brand garlic pierogis. I already had the butane cooker fired up. All the pierogis had to do was float.
Knock Knock. The knocking synced up the pierogis splooshing into boiling water. No one knocks, they just come in. I picked up the pepperoni pizza candle. There was something outside. There were mountains of garbage and cats upon cats, both growing in numbers by the day. There were teenagers, marauders, and cultists. All of these things existed before, but there was also electricity and lighting. The candle gave me flickering sight for about four feet. It gave whoever was on the other side of my front door my exact location, to which I was confused about their still knocking, because clearly I was heading to the door. I opened it. The impenetrable blackness rushed into my home, latched itself around me, and was giving me a hug. Shampoo. I took it all in.
“How was America?” I asked, sniffing her hair. I hadn’t smelled this shampoo in months.
“Overrated,” She said.
We stood in the doorway hugging, clutching each other like Pompeii fossils.
“I got pierogis on the burner. Let’s shut the door before the cats smell them.”
We ate unbuttered pierogis under candlelight, nothing heard but our forks scraping plates, chewing, and the mewing and scratching of a hundred cats at my door. We finished our food. We talked. I asked her about America. She told me that she went to ground zero for a time, but didn’t stay long. The people there all looked to sky with their mouths agape like turkeys waiting rain. She went to the west coast. She entered a raffle for a spot in a bunker, but took her name out of the running when the owner of the bunker became adamant about the survival of the human race. She found herself back here. We caught up.
“I was scared. I was given the exact day I would die, and I panicked. I never wanted to die, let alone know the exact day I would die. I’m sorry,” She said.
“It’s okay. I wished I had went. I had concrete shoes.” I said.
“Do you want to see something?” She asked.
She opened up my bedroom window, which led to the roof above the back room. We went out onto the roof.
I did. There were thousands of stars in the night sky, some still and some shooting. For a view like this, you had to drive two hours before you could see half of what I saw.
“You never really knew how much is up there, back then,” She said. “I think we made electricity to distract us from how tiny we really are.”
The neighborhood, or those that remained, were already gathered on their porch. I could see their candles, their outstretched silhouettes, reclined, looking upward to see it, about the size of a pea.
“So, what did you do on this, the last day?”
“I went to work.”
“Are you serious? Sweetie, I love you, but this is it.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But what if it isn’t?”