Pull down your blinds, Samantha purrs.
Richard is taken aback. He knows that they are playing their ‘game,’ but he has not heard Samantha speak that way in months. Two months and sixteen days, to be exact; he knows since he has not torn off that last day from his wall calendar yet, and cannot imagine he ever will.
And so her sexy tone comes out of left field. For the first two weeks, the two of them had whispered to one another, like they were frightened that they would make the roof collapse in on them if they spoke with a normal volume. It is not rational to think that way, but reason is lost until the dust settles; and in their case, it took approximately two weeks for all those swirling dust mites to fall to the floor and to get out of the way of a weak, but visible, late afternoon sun shining through a vent.
They did not realize just how subdued they had been until both of them, almost simultaneously, cried out in exaltation at the first sign of the sun. Their cries could have been heard aboveground, if there had been anyone there with ears to hear, as the Good Book says.
The roof did not collapse upon them, and so they spoke normally to one another from that point onward. Normal in tone, but distant, professional, as if by their apparent unfamiliarity with one another they could erase somehow the affair that they had been carrying on these past few months.
What a strange reaction, Richard had thought at the time. He had taken to looking at their relationship down there in the bunker in essentially a clinical manner, as if this had been planned all along as his most elaborate sociological experiment yet. He nearly believed that he and his fellow professors had called in the ‘big guns’ to arrange what had happened just to spend the next weeks or months observing what makes his test subject click.
Talk about an absurd fantasy, Richard had muttered more than once. All this by my own devise because I am the master of my own little universe. What shall I imagine next? That I am the inspiration for Mickey Mouse? That all along I had wanted to lure Khrushchev to Disneyland so that I could one-up Tricky Dick by planting two fingers in his chest? Sure, that makes about as much real sense.
Richard could not be too hard on himself, though. It is a normal function of the brain to believe that somehow it is a cause of the crazy world into which it is mired. If it is a partial cause at least, then it can figure out a solution; and that is its chief objective, especially when there is little else to do, but to wait for the all-clear siren to warble through the thickened air beyond the vent. It is a lot easier for the mind to imagine that it is a partial cause of a ‘big detour’ in ones life plan, if it can wallow in guilt for the kind of real or perceived sin that, no doubt, had given God the green light to release His fire and brimstone. Sin is the occasion of divine punishment; but first and foremost, it is that mechanism by which man reminds himself that he is the cause of much of his own hardship in the world. Take away sin, and man is no more than a yelping, injured victim.
Old Testament bullshit, Richard would remind himself almost as much as he would kick himself for indulging his ‘master of my own universe’ fantasy. Oh yes, we can unleash miniature suns on our own planet, radiate everything back to the stone age, but we still follow the same psychological roadmap we human beings used back when we were howling incantations into bonfires. There is an awesome thinking mind inside every one of us, some more capable than others, of course, but even the flimsiest one able to stride untold leagues beyond what a beast can handle; but this part makes up less than five percent of our minds. The rest of it is subconscious mind, dreams, instinct; and that part forever digs in its heels and refuses to learn. As far as our fears and our guilt complexes are concerned, we may as well be living still in small caves and trembling from the sight of comets. This is why Richard thinks that religion is going to stick around in our craniums a lot longer than our technological advances should justify. The hocus-pocus is just too intransigent, like those Japanese fighters stranded upon South Pacific islands, who are still waging war in their minds for their Emperor seventeen years later. Maybe, religion persists to remind us that we are not too far removed from the other mammals in the bush, that we should fear the light shining down from the sky and the sound slushing up from the deep. Maybe it is keeping us in check as much as it is ennobling us. If so, then it has some actual sociological value, Richard thinks, when the topic enters into his mind, which is a lot in those first several weeks. Nevertheless, what a huge price must be paid for the luxury of retaining in our modern minds this quaint religious sensibility…
And that price is guilt. Richard saw it in Samantha’s eyes all those weeks they spoke to one another like they had never shared a kiss. For Samantha, the Old Testament is not bullshit. Neither is the New Testament for that matter. In the weeks that they shared together in the bunker, though, she had her mind in the pages of the Old Testament almost exclusively. There was little conception of mercy, forgiveness, or hope. Judgment ruled her mind in those darkest days.
Fire and brimstone in retaliation for what precisely? Romantic getaways, when he could arrange to be off calendar for several hours; sex in dingy motor lodges; knowing glances across the university lounge; yes, every incident a very clear and present violation of his marital vows; but does any of it justify all the death and destruction aboveground? The short answer is ‘no,’ at least so far as Richard is concerned; but that does not mean that God holds back his ferocious flames. Just ask Job. Or closer to the point, just ask those sodomites in togas in Sodom and Gomorrah what they think about God’s willingness to play ball with us in step with our view of justice. For someone whose mind is stuck still in the pages of Leviticus, there can be no other answer: God plays ball with us, but in this game He is the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers, except that in this version He walks off the World Series diamond as the victor. Feels like the game is rigged; and if that is the case, then why the down faces? Richard would respond if engaged in repartee with this Old Testament disciple. But people hold onto their guilt still no matter the intercession of reason, and Richard had started to think that that would be Samantha’s cross to bear, so to speak. After all, Good Friday is about the only part of the New Testament that really rings true to an impressionable, young woman stuck somewhere in Leviticus while waiting for an all-clear siren.
That started to change, though, the day they heard the all-clear warble off in the distance. They were not as ecstatic as when they had viewed the sun weeks earlier, but it was a close second. The all-clear meant no more bombs in the sky; but there had not been a blast since the first or second night (too hard to recall the horrors back then to be all that specific about time and duration), so something else must account for why it took so long for them to give the few survivors permission to crawl out from their ant holes. Perhaps, the fallout had been worse than anticipated. Perhaps, it had taken that long for the filthy wind to blow the radiated soot down south for the Mexicans to breathe. It would not be the first time we had exported our madness to the people who pick our fruit and shine our shoes. Radiation fallout is the white man’s tip to the server class in the southern hemisphere. We help to defoliate their jungles and to cut down their populations; in essence, a twentieth century version of the syphilis Cortes and his buddies introduced to the New World.
At that moment, Richard did not give much thought to where the fallout had gone. Let someone else sweep up the confetti, after we all sing ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ It is evolution. The strong get to blow everything up to smithereens, and the weak get to clean up the mess left behind. If the tables had been turned in this instance, then do we think that they would have done anything differently?
That is what Richard thought anyway, when he first surveyed the beaten landscape. He saw the endless stretch of fallen trees and buildings, civilization charred back into the earth, gurgling clouds overhead partially veiling a distant sun. He imagined Times Square at around 1:00AM on New Year’s Day, except he erased the skyscrapers and smashed the billboards on the asphalt.
He had looked at Samantha by his side. He had expected the same dark, brooding guilt to be etched on her otherwise pretty face. Instead, he had seen the first flicker of her old self. God had started to lift His judgment, the look in her eyes said. Just the fact that we have emerged from that hole signifies that.
Richard looked out over the rubble, and he saw the 1960s version of the White Man’s Burden. Oh, the torments we shoulder, so that a better world may arise like the phoenix from the ashes of the old. Samantha too looked out over that world, but she saw God’s mercy.
Both frames of reference should have been future oriented, and yet they remained tied to the past now shown to be forever gone. They practically could feel its long shadow hanging over them from behind, a shadow with a sad voice creeping in and out of the gathering winds. The voice told them that they could never go back, not completely anyway, though no doubt they would attempt to do so, especially when the nights grew so dark they actually forgot that the sun would rise again. They would attempt to do so, because experiencing yet again what it feels like to lose the past is the first and final prerogative of a survivor.
Neither saw the possibility of rekindling their affair. So much of the real, visceral allure had been their shared dance on the dark side of the moon; all of the deception involved; the lies told to explain where they had been; the false names signed into the registration book at the front desk; even the subtle ways that they had started to lie to one another. They would act differently when in the throes of their ‘game.’ The young, proper, religious, office assistant turned herself into a sultry whore, when he pulled down the blinds. He turned himself into a more dashing, wealthy, cosmopolitan version of himself. He was not just a low level sociology professor in an unremarkable university, but a much loved and respected ‘visionary’ in his discipline; the next Max Weber, except without his glaring eyes and pointed beard. They did not make love in remote rooms, so much as they played parts in an elaborate show all their own.
Now, with the storm clouds gurgling over a wasted landscape, and a lone mailbox door off in the distance flapping up and down in the wind, they sensed that there was no longer a bright side of the moon to be distinguished from the dark side. They could circumnavigate the moon and never see the sun. Perhaps the sun had been snuffed out. More likely, they had managed finally to remove themselves from its reach, as if the first generation of amphibians had drowned themselves to escape the glare for all times of that radiant ball in the blue sky.
And so Richard remembered her sultry voice, but he had consigned it to that part of his mind reserved for dead things. Since emerging out from his ant hole, he has had to consign a lot of things into that space; really, a great world that once had meant so much to his self-worth. It is a miracle that he finds this voice so fast amongst the vague impressions and disconnected memories tossed into that junk heap in the weeks since they escaped like Lazarus from the hole.
But find it he does, and so he pulls down the blinds, and gives her a faint semblance of the debonair smile he had perfected before that night. He senses his own awkwardness; but as soon as he sees the same unease in her eyes, he is calm. Indeed, they are in this together, even if they cannot go back to the past life that they had carved out for themselves in the stolen moments. The loss is the same for both of them; and judging by the look on her face, so is the terror of even trying to live as they had. Their bond is their awkwardness together, at least for now; and while this may not seem like fertile soil for passion, it has at least the virtue of being real in a world marked by lingering shadows and crying ghosts. If pulling down the blinds is as close as they can get to playing their old ‘game,’ then they will do so with as much gusto as they can, for the alternative is acknowledging that slow slide into death that is all the rage since that night.
You are so much the dame, Richard offers in his Humphrey Bogart voice.
That’s because I’m a little kitty in your arms, Samantha purrs.
The lines are sophomoric; the acting atrocious; but the sentiment can be found still, and that in itself is remarkable. Richard lets his smile widen a little and then walks away from the master bedroom window. He embraces his ‘little kitty’ at the foot of the bed he used to share with his wife in his prior life. That life is almost forgotten, as he lowers her frisky body to the comforter and takes off his belt. Maybe, he senses or recalls his wife’s distinctive perfume hovering like a ghost over the sheets; but even if so, he cannot quite recall the label, as he ravishes his ‘little kitty’ with kisses, and dances with her into the long night.
* * *
Richard cannot fall asleep this night. It is two months and sixteen days, since the world as he and Samantha had known it came to an end; and although he is snuggling closely with his ‘little kitty,’ his mind keeps wandering back and forth, like it cannot quite figure out where it wants to remain indefinitely. Yes, he has relegated much of that past to his mental junkyard; but for all the filth and disorganization, a junkyard is still a place one can visit and, in a rather odd frame of mind, find enjoyable, if not irresistible. Think of the peasants trolling their flea markets. They are not just bartering there. They are living, breathing in the air of their culture, sharing in a look or a gesture the secrets no outsider can ever fully understand. The world is now predominantly a junkyard, the vast flea market of the past, and there is something strangely compelling about that place. Therefore, Richard’s mind is restless, as the hours slither towards dawn.
He is sure what had set his mind off in this direction. Before that night, even when the blinds had been drawn like they are now, the streetlamp would impart a faint, yellowish glow over the foot of the bed. It had suggested a neon breaking through the darkness of a squalid hotel room in downtown somewhere or other, even though he and his wife shared a home in Suburbia, U.S.A. Deep down, Richard had liked the intrusion of yellow street light, though he had kept this opinion to himself for fear of offending his wife, Mable. He had envisioned a solitary, inner city, studio apartment existence for himself ever since he had started to read the beatnik literature born in the commie red cafes and pervert tenements out there on Telegraph Hill. His marriage and his professional career ambitions stopped him from going in that direction, except in his imagination in the dead of night. Mable had hated the light. She circulated a petition now and then to pressure the city council to take it down; but her efforts had not found success as of yet, when the streetlamp and the city council disappeared in fire.
Anyway that had been then. Tonight, and for every night yet to come on the scene, there is no light shining through the thin spaces in between the shut blinds. There is nothing to suggest a vibrant, suburban land of overworked dads and gossiping housewives. There is no sound of squeaky bicycle tires, as a child sneaks out passed his bedtime to engage in some mischief or another (usually a few sips from a bottle shared with a wino beneath that notorious bridge outside of town). Neither is there the sound of adolescents returning home in their big, loud, muscle cars, after having spent the last few hours dragging the main with their sweeties and trying to score a double while parked in a drive-in. Not even a hint that Officer Wilson is making his late night rounds through the residential neighborhood, pulling over Negroes who happen to venture this way for D.W.C. (‘Driving While Colored’) violations, and reminding the white kids that it is high time to get on home. Out there beyond those blinds JFK is no longer President, and the teens are no longer doing the ‘Mashed Potato’ on American Bandstand.
And Mable is no longer sleeping beside me on this bed, Richard thinks in a cry of grief for his wife he had hoped he had buried with her. Strange it is the phrases we use. ‘Mable is no longer sleeping’ implies that she is dead; but in its literal sense, it means just what it says. She is not asleep; and, indeed, that is so very true, because she remains very much awake in every aspect of this dark bedroom. First and foremost, it is totally dark in here, just the way she wanted all those years. She got her petition request, after all. Then, there is that soft, floral, perfume smell hovering over the sheets. No doubt, Samantha must have spritzed some of Mable’s perfume in here since then. The fragrance cannot stay so long as to be from the times Mable used it, not that Richard is any expert on the matter. Still, even if Samantha is playing wifey here, it is Mable’s perfume.
And then there is the headless form that Richard glimpses now and then in this same bedroom. He knows rationally that it is a phantom conjured by his memory and his imagination; the memory giving way to the fantasy a bit more every time he sees it; the headless form actually becoming more ghoulish each time, like it is melting from an atomic heat source lodged inside its dead heart.
Richard and Samantha had stared out at the desolate landscape for some time, before Richard had noticed out of the corner of his right eye that indeed his home remained, more or less, intact. The atomic furnace wall that rumbles through a town acts so unpredictably as almost to suggest that it has a mind of its own. Perhaps, it does. Who is to say that intelligence cannot be born out of so much energy? Who is to say that there is no laughter deep inside the roar of an atomic blast? Regardless, the furnace wall sweeps through the town wholly, but it levels one building and leaves alone its neighbor. It eviscerates one man, but allows the man lying five feet away to suffer the slow, agonizing demise of his flesh from third degree burns and radiation poisoning. This could exemplify the chaos in violence, but Richard senses that there is more intelligence behind what goes up in flames and what stays behind than we are led to believe. He is careful not to identify this intelligence with a deity. He cannot totally toss out the window the antitheism of his past life; but there is life, mercurial, devilish, but alive, somewhere deep inside that atomic fire. Of that Richard is certain in his mind, even while the woman by his side is seeing God’s mercy in this scene.
Richard had stepped away from Samantha on an impulse. He had to get inside his house and find out if his wife is fine; and he had to do that just then. Of course, this is completely irrational. If Mable had survived the initial blast of atomic heat and power, then of course she would have taken her key out to the underground bunker in their backyard. Mable knew the risks of radiation poison after an atomic explosion. Even if she suspected that her husband was down in there two-timing with his dame (wives always know in their sixth sense, before they hear about it on the party line or find incriminating receipts in the pocket of their husband’s trousers), she would not risk her life simply to avoid catching the two lovebirds in the act.
So Richard knew in his rational mind that Mable had to be dead, but that did not stop him from breaking into an outright sprint about midway there. Off in the distance he heard Samantha calling out to him, but that did not stop him either. He had not been in love with Mable for years; but at that moment, with all the life left in him, he loved her and wanted so much for her to be alive and well. He wanted that life they had had together; how she had pestered him for drying his hands on her bathroom towel; how they sat side by side on the couch with their T.V. Dinners watching The Huntley-Brinkley Report. He even wanted to sign her damned petitions and to go with her to those civic meetings in town where Average Joe Citizen could learn how to beat back the Communists. Give him another chance, and he would stand by her side forevermore. There would be no Samantha; no secret trips out to the ‘Stag Club,’ nothing but that lasting love that comes from real marital faithfulness in the good times and in the bad.
And if I ever have to use that bunker again, I’ll be down there in that sad darkness with Mable, Richard thought. Heck, the bunker had been her idea. She had heard about it at one of those John Birch meetings. She had started the dig and had christened it ‘Freedom Bunker,’ as in ‘freedom’ from reds, pinkos, and all things un-American. She should have been down there; and if ever there is a necessity to use it again, I’ll make sure she is down there. I want nothing more.
All those images and promises literally screamed through his head in the twenty seconds it took him to run from Samantha to the backdoor of his marital home. He did not even notice that the door had been blown off its hinges, thus leaving the doorway exposed. Neither did he notice how almost everything they had owned together was in a shambles on the floor, nor how ravenous raccoons growled viciously at him from behind upturned chairs and scattered, torn, sofa cushions. Even the squealing rat that almost bit his left ankle made no mark on his frantic mind just then. If the rat had made contact, then no doubt he would have noticed; and by now, he would be dead from rabies. But nothing managed to distract him from his pursuit for the wife he had forgotten he actually loved.
Richard turned the corner into their bedroom, and then he stopped dead in his tracks. Mable never made it passed that night. The blast had blown in the master bedroom window, while she was sitting up against the headboard in her nightshirt. She had propped her grandma’s pillow beneath her right elbow, thus elevating her arm to make it easier for her to hold up the novel she would read until well passed midnight. The flying shards of glass cut her everywhere. Most likely, she had been killed instantly.
Richard could not tell if the glass shards decapitated her, or if the beasts gnawed it off in the weeks that followed. No doubt, they had eaten off most of her limbs. He could see the teeth marks on the blood-smeared stubs still barely attached to the torso. He also saw the cavity where her belly had been and the raccoon hissing back at him from inside her open stomach.
Richard had been too stunned to scream at first. He saw that her James Michener novel had been trampled underfoot by the beasts. They had smudged what looked like her right earlobe into the bloodied pages of the book. Richard could see the back cover torn off from the pages. It was Michener’s Hawaii, her favorite, and so presumably she had been in good spirits at the very moment he and Samantha were fucking inside ‘Freedom Bunker’ and the A-bomb exploded.
He imagined a sick collage of the philandering husband and the mistress in one corner, the loving wife with a novel in another, and the mushroom cloud in a third. With that collage in his mind, he finally broke free from his spell and screamed holy hell. He stumbled backwards, and almost tripped on what little remained of his wife’s severed head. Something squealed and scampered out of her open skull just then. Mercifully, he did not see it, as he struggled to regain his balance and to exit from the bedroom.
Samantha took the lead in cleaning out the house. Her soft femininity in fact turned out to be just another one of her numerous stage characters, for in the days that followed she jettisoned her ‘girly girl’ persona and became a real trooper. She exhibited plenty of grit and elbow grease. She liked to say she was doing ‘God’s work,’ since ‘there is nothing more godly than a happy home.’ She scavenged replacement furniture from nearby homes. Some of these homes had been relatively unfazed by the blast. The partially melted skeletal bones found inside these homes, though, suggested that the occupants had been very much fazed by the long weeks of radiation fallout.
Things will get better, Samantha said often. God’s making His comeback.
Richard did not believe that God would be strolling down their deserted lane anytime soon, but he appreciated her faith. Samantha was the bright light that kept him sane, while he tried to forget what he had observed inside of the master bedroom and, even more so, what he and Samantha had been doing just as Mable met her Maker. He came to understand better than ever the old time wisdom that says that there are no atheists in foxholes. He did not think every guy in there had to be a believer; but he figured that they all would benefit for the duration if one of them had faith. Faith can continue to inspire, when logic breaks down, and when reason starts to sound suspiciously like the duck quack heard by the pond. Samantha and her ‘God’ kept him from breaking altogether.
Finally, when Richard had the mental wherewithal, Samantha assisted in digging the grave out back and presided over the burial of what scant remained of Mrs. Richard Sullivan. She had found a 1928 Book of Common Prayer inside of a vacant home and had studied the burial rite in her free time. She offered the prayers to the same ‘God’ that damned their town with fire and brimstone; and though Richard felt sick to his stomach, like somehow they were paying the guy who had just robbed them, he kept his silence.
And he is silent still tonight. Oh, he is happy enough to talk about all the other topics, even though most of them no longer matter now that civilizations around the world are crumbling back into the earth (or so Richard presumes, as a result of the fact that the electrical grid remains down still and absolutely no news in any form has been delivered). But Mable and God are topics he prefers not to entertain. Samantha never mentions Mable. Indeed, since burying Mable, she has been acting as if she always has been by his side. Samantha does talk a whole lot about God, though. Richard does not like it; but thus far, he has kept his cool, if only because he realizes this ‘God’ is nothing more than her coping mechanism in this tough time. Better ‘God’ than taking drugs or killing animals.
* * *
Richard winces from the early morning sun. Apparently, he had managed to fall asleep, but with so little sleep for the night he feels then like he is being awakened into a dream rather than out from one. Everything appears much too bright, like it is its own source of radiant light and heat.
‘Miniature suns on our own planet,’ Richard thinks almost aloud, as if for the first time, though deep down he knows that he has used that same phrase a number of times since that night.
What he sees in fact is the white polka dots on yellow dress that his wife had worn on many occasions. It is being bathed in that early morning sun; clean rinsed by sunlight for another day of use, while pushing a shopping cart in town and baking a casserole for the Bircher meeting later. The woman wearing it has pulled up the blinds and so is temporarily lost in the dreamlike play of the new sun with the dress. Richard can almost grasp Mable fading in and out of all that light; her head and her limbs poking out from the holes in the dress almost long enough each time for him to see his wife there.
Then, just as suddenly, the illusion passes. It turns out Samantha has the dress on this morning. Richard remembers that it cannot be otherwise, because Mable is a pile of chewed up bones buried in his backyard, and Samantha is the woman he had taken into the ‘Freedom Bunker’ just an hour or so prior to that first A-bomb strike about ten miles away.
Good morning, sweetie, Samantha says with a big smile.
Good morning, Richard says evenly. You’re up early.
I thought we could go into town, Samantha remarks, while stepping over to the foot of the bed.
Are they serving onion soup at Woolworth’s for lunch today? Richard asks playfully. Because if not, I think we should stay home and indulge our everyday cuisine: black beans and spam, the breakfast, lunch, and dinner of champions…
Like all of Richard’s stabs at humor since that night, this wisecrack also falls flat. He squirms on the inside, but he tries not to show it.
Samantha does not seem to notice. Maybe, it is her penchant for seeing God where most everyone else would see a total wreck. Richard believes that it is that quality of hers that had attracted him to her in the first place.
We never did celebrate Christmas this year, Samantha says coyly, as she walks around the foot of the bed, and sits on the side.
They never brought out the Christmas decorations, Richard jokes.
Samantha takes his hands into hers. She stares patiently into his eyes, as if time alone will break down his defenses, and he will realize how much sense there really is in going Christmas shopping today.
Well, I suppose I could start up the Olds, Richard says with a dashing grin and a wink. So long as we are back in time for The Match Game.
Oh great! Samantha shouts while fast clapping her hands together.
She walks over to the closet, and retrieves his one semi-formal outfit not torn to shreds by the raccoons. She hangs the jacket, shirt, tie, and trousers on the hook on the backside of the bedroom door.
I’ll make some breakfast, Samantha says cheerfully.
Can’t wait, Richard responds.
Samantha is about to leave, when she stops, turns around, and looks him straight in the eyes. Her smile is lovelier then than he can ever recall observing before, yet there is a mad twinkle in her eyes that discomforts him. The feeling passes, and he is again able to focus in on just how young and pretty she is. Not too many others crawling out from their ant holes (assuming there are others in fact) are as lucky as he is to have a housemate as beautiful as Samantha. It is a shame he cannot leave his old life behind and enjoy completely what she brings to the table, but even the most enchanted sunrise casts long shadows.
I love you, Richard, Samantha says.
Richard wants to respond in kind, but he cannot. ‘I love you’ can be said in the context of the ‘game,’ but Richard does not believe that Samantha right now is in character. She is being brutally open, honest, and raw; and he senses that, whatever she feels about him, her motivation now is to force the issue, so that he will be compelled to bury Mable’s ghost. He may get to that point. If he does, then it will be about the same time that he rips ‘Detonation Day’ off that wall calendar in his office, along with all of the other days in between that one and the present. Until then, he is not sure that he can move actually beyond all the awkward, hit or miss, ‘game playing’ they do together, such as their tepid, and from his perspective not too successful, stabs at lovemaking just last night.
It’s okay, Samantha says with a smile after an uncomfortable pause. You do not need to speak.
I do, Sam, Richard finally says. Just not right now…
‘Or ever,’ Richard thinks behind his sheepish smile.
Get ready, sweetie, Samantha grins. Don’t forget to clean your whiskers, before coming to the breakfast table.
* * *
Samantha had done an admirable job in restoring the home. The various, stolen furnishings are mismatched; and the raccoons manage still to invade the living room, now and then. Nevertheless, they have a complete living room and kitchen set, including a Zenith T.V. she had hauled over from next door (makes up for the previous T.V., which those raccoons somehow had cracked open and turned into a makeshift nest of tubes and wires). There is no electricity to turn it on, though Richard senses that even if they could they would view nothing on the three channels but test patterns. Watching T.V. thus consists of waiting for just the right shadows to be cast onto the screen from outside. These shadows form the backdrop. Richard provides the characters in the form of various hand puppets and cartoon voices. Samantha announces the sponsor at the beginning; the telecast invariably brought to them by the ‘Jesus Christ Playhouse,’ or ‘Old Saint Paul’s Missions,’ or that real crowd pleaser, ‘Saint John’s Revelation.’ For the most part, she lets him perform, while she rests the back of her head upon his lap, and looks up at his face in teary eyed adoration.
The lack of running water is a real inconvenience. There is a lake about a mile and a half out of town, but Richard and Samantha agree that that water is probably too polluted by fallout to be safe for bathing or cleaning clothes. So they have reverted back to the hygiene that had prevailed in the West until the nineteenth century: perfume or cologne, in lieu of soap, airing out clothes on a line all night, and picking off zits or scabs with their fingernails. Richard has no choice, but to grow a beard. Samantha insists she likes his facial hair, although it is so slow in coming it is little more than stubble. She thinks he looks like one of the ‘prophets.’ He is not sure if that is a good development for their sex life.
The gas stove works, because Samantha had found an unopened barrel of propane during one of their trips into the town. How it managed not to explode during the A-bomb blast is anyone’s guess. Whenever she finds a spice rack in a neighbor’s house, she carries it back to her kitchen. Once, she even had to use a hammer and a crowbar to free it from a wall. There must be a half dozen old spice racks in the pantry. God only knows how many bottles of spice there are; but Samantha covets each one, and spends ample time each day experimenting with them on the beans and the spam she cooks over the stove. It turns out she has a real knack, for when done the beans and the spam are never over spiced.
From the dresses she pulls out of Mable’s closet, to the way she pins her hair, everything about Samantha’s appearance of late has been homespun. She is too young and pretty to be a ‘schoolmarm,’ more like the young teacher who is not that far removed from the farm on which she grew up. Still, for all that, Samantha puts on Mable’s long eyelashes (Mable’s one concession to the youth fashion culture centered on all things Jackie Kennedy) and just enough makeup on her cheeks and lips to look a bit naughty. She looks like an adolescent girl in the boudoir who is still as innocent as the angels, but who is also just beginning to push the envelope with her sexuality; far from Salome, let alone Jezebel, on the whole more like a girl in a Jane Austen novel trying to impress a boy for the first time. Indeed, ‘impress’ is the operative word, since almost everything she does is meant to impress the man that she loves.
God loves a woman who loves her man, Samantha often comments when serving the spiced beans and spam to Richard.
And so she comments the same this morning, when finally Richard strolls into the kitchen wearing his semi-formal outfit. The hot plate is already on his place setting. Samantha stands expectantly beside the table. She has her hands folded in front of her waist. There is that insane look in her eyes again, though as before it is gone soon after Richard notices it.
Richard smells the aromas. Samantha almost manages to turn beans and spam into a gourmet dish. The fact that she can never quite reach that status is not a reflection of her abilities, but rather of the few tools at her disposal. It is a wonder she does what she does given the death and destruction outside; and, when first smelling her dishes, Richard has to concede in his own mind that the faith of a young, impressionable woman is indeed a great power. She is fearless as a result, willing to try her hand at anything, and open to new possibilities. In a way, the junkyard world outside is like a mishmash of ingredients just waiting for someone like Samantha to come along and to cook them together. Perhaps, the madness in her eyes reflects the fact that she too is becoming aware of her unique talent in this regard. Perhaps, she is happiest now that the competition, literally, has been buried, and the limits on her talent have been burned away.
Breakfast completed, Samantha wipes off the plates and the pan with an old towel. Richard spends that time in the garage, checking to make sure there are no oil or water leaks in the Olds.
Until someone turns on the electrical grid (assuming the lines themselves have not been so totally destroyed as to require a whole new system), it is not going to be possible to fill up the gas tank. Luckily, Richard had filled up his big car around noon on ‘Detonation Day,’ because he had planned a little weekend getaway with his wife. He had invited Samantha to check out his ‘hideaway’ on the same night in part to make up for the fact that he could not be with her at all that weekend. Thus, he can drive the Olds; but since he cannot know when, or if, he will be able to refill the tank, he keeps the journeys short, and checks on the parts ahead of time to make sure that there is nothing going on that will make the car burn more gas than necessary.
Richard pushes the Olds down the long driveway to the residential street at the end. He breaks a sweat every time, but he shrugs it off as much needed exercise for a professor getting too soft in the belly.
He leans on the horn when he stops the car. He leans back on the trunk, and watches Samantha from a distance emerge from the front door. Her pretty hair practically glitters in the sunlight. Her hips sway lazily, like a swing that is hanging from a tree limb atop a hill. There is much sex appeal, to be sure; but, even more so, the sun hair and the swing hips together suggest the whispering, undulating ripple of wind across a wheat field. It is homespun, but it is pastoral too; the harvest yield about to be realized, the new life begging to be born out from so much death.
Richard wonders if she is pregnant. That thought neither starts nor ends in his mind, but rather flows across his chest as an iced cold wind coming out of nowhere. He is frightened by the implication; indeed, almost paralyzed; for he cannot conceive of a worse development than trying to parent a child after the world ends. Oh, sure, Samantha would do the bulk of the job. Women do, even in normal circumstances. Nevertheless, he could not in good conscience totally shirk his role, and that would mean trying to set a boy or a girl straight within a world handed over to chaos and governed by a mad fiend. That child’s real dad would be the A-bomb, even if no other A-bombs were ever detonated within his or her lifetime. That child’s moral example would be the vast ruins everywhere slowly handed back to the earth. That child’s intellectual example would be all that knowledge in so many disciplines scorched by flames that reached from an old, trembling earth to an even older sky. He or she would not have a chance in this new world, unless they threw aside whatever humanity had been passed on to them and learned to roam a dead landscape as the raccoons and the rats do.
* * *
Richard parks the Olds in the same space every time. They are parked in the lot of what used to be the only car dealership in town. The A-bomb wall of fire had eviscerated most of the cars on display, leaving only three burnt shells on their backs in the center of the lot. Every now and then, the wind streaming through the shattered windows of these upside down cars puts enough pressure on the horns to wake up the dead.
He retrieves the shopping cart he hides behind one of the upturned cars. Hides from whom, precisely? Richard cannot say. Deep down, he senses that he needs to act as if there may be someone else in this dead place besides the two of them. He is a sociology professor, after all. Two makes a couple, and three makes a society. Perhaps, then, he hides the shopping cart because that allows him to imagine that he must keep it secured from that ‘third person’ out there.
Richard pushes the shopping cart down Main Street. Samantha is beside him. She smiles broadly, and keeps turning her cheerful face from one sidewalk to the other. The only thing she does not do is to wave at the adoring fans that she imagines along the two sidewalks. If she did wave from time to time, then she would be the image of a young rodeo queen riding down Main Street, U.S.A.
Notwithstanding her poise on the parade, Samantha has a hard time with the shoes she borrowed from Mable’s closet. Mable had put on too much weight before the end. She had never been a pear; but she had been ‘bosomy,’ and if she had lived another half decade she would have been ‘jowly’ as well. Still, as a lot of women do, Mable had kept her dresses from when she was slim; and all of those cute ‘keepsakes’ fit Samantha just fine. The shoes are another matter, though. Even when slim and cute herself, Mable always had had large, ungainly feet. As a result, her shoes are a couple of sizes too big; and Samantha’s small, delicate feet too often are lost somewhere between the heel and the platform.
Every now and then, Samantha will wrap her arms around Richard’s right arm, while Richard continues to push the shopping cart. There is a lot of love in the gesture, but this is also an opportunity to hold onto Richard while regaining balance and poise. But for Richard’s right arm, Mable’s lovely shoes would have dropped Samantha to the ground on several occasions.
Richard and Samantha seldom talk to one another during this specific leg of the trip. The red stained rubbish swirling in the air like tumbleweed forever draws their eyes, even though there is no sign of life in that mess, apart from a ravenous rodent or, on one occasion, an emaciated bitch mutt followed closely by her blind, scrawny puppy. Then, there are the charred and discombobulated remains of once great, historical, brick buildings. Most of the buildings are just dark burn stains on empty lots; but once in a while, there is a building only half toppled. The enormous blast hole in each of these buildings resembles the open mouth of a crazy man. The exposed, internal windows are all shattered; and at first glance, they look like the malformed, sharp teeth inside that open mouth.
Much to see, little to say, as the ruins seem to extend forever down the two sides of the street. Nevertheless, they are silenced by more than just their appreciation of ruins. They had spent a lot of time on this very street, although never together, lest too many prying eyes bring a premature end to their secret ‘game.’ They can remember still what the buildings had looked like, where the panhandlers used to congregate, how the restaurant signage used to rattle in a strong gust. For them, this trip down memory lane is a dance with the past. All those ghosts with their sad moans and rattling chains are there, even when the wind dies down, and the ruins remain still. Those ghosts are their secret dance partners. They remind them that they too will be joining their ranks sometime.
And yet, in spite of those ghosts hanging over the scene like a heavy pall tossed over a corpse, Samantha keeps that broad smile on her face. Richard has no idea if she is smiling in her eyes just as much, since he only sees her profile at this time, but he suspects so. He again speculates that she may be pregnant. After all, that is what women her age do. They practically are oozing the baby-making hormones. It is evident in the flush of their cheekbones and the sway of their hips; fertile waves shimmering from their brains to their wombs, and just about begging the man at their side to seed them.
Moreover, even though their last attempt at lovemaking had been pitiful in his estimation, they had gone at each other like rabbits before and including that night. The consequences play themselves out it seems, no matter that the world ends; and Richard wonders if, perhaps, in a dark recess of his mind all of this death and destruction had been embraced by him in the childish hope that now, finally, he had stepped beyond where the results of his past decisions can affect him. With ruins everywhere, maybe he is now beyond reproach, but for a lot of guilt he still carries along with him like Jacob Marley’s old ball and chain. Overcome the guilt, tear that last date off of his wall calendar, and, voila, easy sailing. If Samantha sees God’s mercy in the ruins, then maybe he sees the end of any moral absolutes; a kind of limbo where his life can be however he works it out in his own mind. Enticing for a man professionally trained to conduct fine tuned social experiments, where these variables over here are taken out of the consideration, and those variables over there are minimized in the assessment, or handed over to the psychology department, and the world that remains then fits nicely inside the observer’s petri dish. Does a baby fit into that scenario at all? Or is it another ball and chain clasped to his other ankle? Richard knows the answer, and thus he lowers his chin and pushes the old shopping cart in silence.
* * *
It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Samantha asks, as she tugs at Richard’s right arm.
Richard looks up from his doldrums. They have reached Woolworth’s on the corner of 9th and Main. The A-bomb blast had ripped the marquee sign from the front edifice. It had blasted inward the storefront window. It had burned to smithereens the kitchen and the lunch counter, leaving only one tattered table upstanding in the dining room. It had left much of the retail space beyond that dining room untouched for God knows what reason. The critters have torn a lot of the products to shreds since then. The remains of a man who had died slowly of radiation poisoning can be found in the kitchenware aisle. Presumably in the weeks after he had died, a banner fell down from the ceiling and draped much of his body like a bed sheet. It reads ‘Woolworth’s Wonderland of Toys’ stylized above two columns. In each column are pictures of toy trucks and toy buses for little boys. There does not seem to be anything for the girls in this wonderland.
It’s the same, Richard says with a shrug.
Except that it is not. They never have been here this early before noon, not since that night anyway, and the sun rising into the blue sky shines an aura about the edges of the battered building. With all of the other buildings on this block razed completely, Woolworth’s practically glistens in the sunlight, like an awesome monument to endurance. Before, Richard had regarded it as simply a place in which to fill up his shopping cart, but eyeing it in this amazing light he cannot shake off completely Samantha’s enthusiasm.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, Richard sings out with a loopy grin, while reaching out with his right arm to pull Samantha nearer to his chest.
Oh, you see it, too? Samantha says with all the cheer of a child staring at a Christmas display in a storefront window.
Yes, I do, Richard lies. It’s the Spirit of Christmas, even if we are several days late.
In fact, Richard cannot see anything like ‘the Spirit of Christmas,’ but he does not want to throw water on Samantha’s enthusiasm.
The sun moves higher in the sky, and the aura disappears. Samantha still glows from the vitality burning within her own heart. Richard feels her warmth, and he turns her so that they are facing one another.
Here’s looking at you, kid, Richard says like Humphrey Bogart.
Samantha purrs, and the two survivors embrace in a sweet kiss.
* * *
Richard pushes his shopping cart down the aisle. It is a slow effort. Some of those critters had knocked a lot of canned vegetables off of the shelves. The mess is everywhere and stinks to high heaven.
He turns a corner and discovers what looks at first like semen squirted in all directions. He imagines an enormous, prehistoric elephant squatting low and having the greatest orgasm ever recorded.
Talk about pregnancy on the mind. Richard chuckles under his breath, as the mental image of a squirting elephant indeed is funny; but as soon as ‘Adult Dumbo’ fades from his mind, he is overcome with fear.
What in the heck should he do, if Samantha tells him that she has missed her period the last two months? He envisions so many other men learning that a girlfriend or a mistress is going to have a baby. They may say the right words at the time, but the next thing she knows he is a cloud of dust near the horizon. If abortion ever makes it out of the dingy alleyways, then it will be because of all those men getting together to find a solution to their common ‘unwanted child’ problem. It is either that or the shotgun wedding; neither of which is welcomed notwithstanding the night of passion that brought them there in the first place.
Richard slaps himself. He is thinking in the way that he would have prior to that night. In fact, abortion performed by a back alley butcher with at least some idea what he is doing is a thing of the past. Richard is a sociologist. It is a big deal for him to check the tubes and wires in his Olds. Trying to do the same with Samantha is out of the question. As for a shotgun wedding, he senses that that has happened already, except that the ‘shotgun’ had been fifty kilotons of TNT. He has not yet let go of Mable, but he and Samantha will be living out this nightmare together for the long haul (or as long as they can hold out physically from whatever levels of radiation are in the air). He will not be leaving her in a cloud of dust to try her hand with some other man. Yes, he may hide his cart at the car dealership lot; but deep down he doubts anyone else is out there, or in any condition anyway to replace him in her life. He is simply not callous enough to do that, and that means shouldering the responsibility of caring for his child.
Richard sighs. He is about to move on when he observes several emptied squeeze tubes of Coppertone sun lotion. The elephant semen is sun lotion some critters squirted all over the place. He lets that realization sink in, and then he laughs out loud harder than he can recall doing since that night.
Samantha hears him. She approaches from another aisle. She has several folded sweaters, which she puts on top of the Jolly Green Giant cans piled high in the shopping cart.
What’s so funny, Bogie? Samantha asks, alluding to his playful alter ego.
It takes a moment, but then he gets control over himself. He stares into her eyes, while searching for the right words. There are no ‘right words’ he can say, not at that moment, anyway. He decides he will wait for her to tell him he is going to be a dad. Then, he will tell her whatever seems proper at that time.
Sometimes, the best-laid plan is no plan at all, Richard thinks.
Just a funny thought, Richard finally says. Why don’t you walk with me a while? Perhaps, we can find our Christmas present together.
‘Our Christmas present’ is as near as Richard will get in urging Samantha to come clean about the baby in the oven. He no longer has any doubt that this is the ‘Christmas present’ she has in store for him.
Nevertheless, Samantha does not take the bait. Instead, she responds to his request with a coy smile, as if somehow searching for our Christmas present together is part and parcel of the ‘game’ that resumed last night. She pats him affectionately on his butt, wraps her arms around his right arm, and kisses him.
* * *
Richard practically hears the headline screaming up at him from a soiled and wrinkled newspaper on the floor. It is partially hidden under a crate full of Oreo cookies that had been torn open by rats. Richard needs to kick that crate aside, in order to retrieve a newspaper almost mildewed into the floor.
Strange, Richard thinks. I’ve been back here by the carpenter’s tools too many times to count since that night, and I do not recall ever seeing this crate of cookies, nor this newspaper. The rats tore into the cookies, but they did not haul this heavy crate out from the back room.
Richard does not pursue the obvious explanation. Instead, he hears that headline once more screaming up at him. He holds the newspaper in his fingers like it is priceless parchment unearthed in the Holy Land; and, indeed, given all that has happened, it is an artifact already that belongs properly in a museum. Of course, he can say the same about himself and Samantha; but he decides to avoid the thought of radiated bones hung from hooks and posed beneath lamps.
Khrushchev Removed in Kremlin Coup, the headline cries. It is the top of the morning edition of what will be known to Richard and Samantha at any rate as ‘Detonation Day.’ The newsprint is so soiled it is hard to read, but Richard is able to get the gist anyway. He had been following the Cuban Missile Crisis with real interest in the preceding few days. He would have read this paper on that day, if he had not been distracted that morning with making plans for the little weekend getaway he had planned for himself and Mable. Based on what he had known then, he would not have been surprised to learn that hardcore elements in the Kremlin got rid of Khrushchev. Much of the Kremlin brass had determined that JFK was a paper tiger, and they had figured that Khrushchev by now would be mopping the floor with Kennedy’s hair. The fact that Khrushchev was not no doubt infuriated them. They saw missed opportunities everywhere, and we may presume that they did not want to lose whatever opportunities the Cuban crisis presented to them. So the long faced gnomes send Khrushchev back to his plow in Kalinovka, and put one of their own on that hot seat as tensions bubble over.
Tsarnaev Vows Will Break Cuba Blockade, a smaller headline reads about midway down the top half. Richard vaguely recalls the name. His friend, Simon, who taught in the Russian and Oriental Studies Department, had mentioned this Tsarnaev fellow a few times in passing. Simon regarded him as a real terror and prayed her never advanced beyond KGB hit man and midlevel, Politburo, knife thruster. Apparently, Simon’s prayers went unheard, because Tsarnaev got hold of the throne and proved just how mad a man with power could be.
King Herod murders the children, and Premier Tsarnaev murders the rest of us, Richard remarks, while setting the newspaper aside.
Forget about him, Samantha says with a grin. He can do nothing to us, so long as God is in charge.
And so long as he remains dead, Richard says irritably.
How do you know Tsarnaev is dead? Samantha inquires.
Look around you, Richard snaps. This is madness. No one survived this.
We did, Samantha says without dropping her grin at all.
Richard is speechless. Samantha is right. We survived; and if we crawled out from that ant hole, then others did as well. As Richard had surmised at that first moment he laid eyes on the world above his bunker, the phoenix arises out from the ash. Nevertheless, if there is the same proportion of good souls to sick assholes among the survivors, then the phoenix will be more like the crow that had scavenged our souls before that night. Of course, Samantha does not see it this way. In her eyes, the fact that we survived is a sign of God’s mercy; and in time, we shall see His self-revelation in ourselves. So now we survive under the crow, or under the dove. Richard is sure in his mind which one; so is Samantha.
Come on, Richard says after his irritation passes. Let’s go into that back room and find us a Christmas present.
Richard pushes his cart through the swivel doors. Samantha remains near to his right side, since it is so incredibly dark inside the dusty room full of huge crates and workman’s tools. Richard’s first order of business whenever they are in here is to let the sunshine in; and so, with Samantha squeezing tight his right arm, he feels his way over to the garage door. He pulls up the greasy chain that is hanging from the handle, and the door creaks up to the level of his forehead.
This is where Richard does most of his shopping most times. He uses one of the crowbars scattered about the floor to lift off the tops of the crates; and, before they leave, he is careful to reapply the same tops. He wants to keep all those damned critters from digging into the treasures packed inside. While they have several months worth of food and water in the bunker, and can find more scattered about the wreckage of the town, they have a mother lode back here. There must be enough to feed and to water them at least a year; and if by that time they have not been rescued, they either will head on down the interstate, or wait for starvation to take them down. All that assumes that indeed they are not cut off at the knees by radiation well before then. It is impossible for them to know how exposed they are to that poison, until they fall victim to the sores and the cancers that ravage their bodies all of a sudden. Until then, the two of them will take their precautions as if long-term survival is a distinct possibility.
The sun shines into the room. Richard scans the floor for a crowbar when suddenly he hears rats squealing off in the far corner. Apparently, they are not at all fond of being awakened by the sun this early in the day.
Richard loosens himself from Samantha. He needs to check on this alone.
He walks slowly to the far corner, passing by crates that are as tall as he is, and knocking up dust with the heels of his boots. The sun barely extends this far; so that it is a wonder the rats notice it at all. Moreover, it is so cold he can feel the dusty air back here literally biting into his skin. Sweat breaks out from his forehead. He looks back at Samantha to get some encouragement from her, but she looks as frightened as he feels just then. No help there; he will need to deal with these ravenous, red eyed beasts with his bare hands, if he is not able to find in the meantime a crowbar or another potential weapon.
He finds a crowbar leaning against the crate closest to the far corner. He also sees that the top had not been refastened. The top is about six inches over the edge of the right side, which means that the left side is exposes. So that is how the rats got inside. They must number in the dozens, since the heavy walls of the crate buckle, now and then, from the sheer force of all those pissed rats scurrying about whatever is in there. Moreover, with Richard so close, that loud squealing rises into a high-pitched screech. Whether angry or scared, those rats are first and foremost insane; rabid, drooling fangs in clumpy rat fur; dead eyes bulging out of snarling rat faces, as the creatures bite and scratch one another in their own nightmare world. This is not speculation on Richard’s part. He can smell the rat blood sloshing about the inside of that crate.
Richard is so sickened by the sounds and the smells that he does not see Samantha approaching in slow, but firm, steps from the other side of the room. He jumps forward a step, when she embraces him from behind.
Let’s see what’s inside, Samantha says calmly.
Richard turns around and looks directly into her face. The fear that had been etched into her eyes just minutes ago is gone. Instead, there is a serenity in her look he finds absolutely terrifying; her expression so incongruent with all the squealing mayhem as to suggest briefly in a dark corner of his mind that his Samantha in fact is the Queen of the Rabid Rats coming around to check on her subjects. He blinks that image out of his mind, but he remains discomforted by the ease with which she handles the situation before them.
I don’t think that’s a good idea, Richard mutters.
God’s ways are not always our own, Samantha remarks with the knowing grin of someone who is in on the ‘big plan.’
That strange grin of hers disarms him even more so than her calmness so close to chaos. It is as if he had heard the audible click inside of her mind when she smiled, and now he is standing next to a young woman who is not all there. Surely, he needs to stop her from taking a peek inside; but he is too stunned to try to stop her from taking his crowbar and using it to push the top totally over the side. Neither can he do anything but to watch in frightened amazement, as she climbs to the top, steadies herself on the ledge, and then looks down at all those squirming rats inside. He finally comes to his senses enough to hold up his arms, in case she tumbles backward; but her balance and form appears perfect up there. She is like an angel in a polka dot dress floating over her small world.
Then, unexpectedly, she breaks into tears. She folds her hands, and she bounces them gently against her heart. Whatever she sees down there has now moved her in such a way that Richard fears for her safety. He wants her to get down from that ledge, but he cannot give voice to the actual words stuck deep in his throat. Instead, all he can do is to climb up there and to steady her. He is aware in the back of his mind that he may not do anything more than to knock both of them into the pit of rats beneath her gaze; but he just cannot stand to do nothing, while her knees buckle, and her tears stream down her soft cheeks.
Richard edges over to Samantha. He puts his arm around her shoulders in a firm, but also loving, manner. He will protect her until she comes back to her senses, which he prays is sooner rather than later, since he cannot imagine this thin ledge holding up both of their weights that much longer.
Richard follows Samantha’s gaze into the crate. He observes the rats, all as rabid and mean as he had imagined; but what surprises him is that these rats are not fighting over torn bags of grain, nor broken cans of fruit, but over what scant remains of a small family. Below their necks, the parents are mostly thin, chewed over bones. The faces are intact enough for Richard to identify a young mother about Samantha’s age gazing into the eyes of a much older father. They died with each other’s face as their final comfort. Now, those same faces are a horror show of peeling skin, cracked lips, and squished eyeballs. Moreover, rats had pulled out their tongues. Perhaps, they wanted to open their dead mouths as much as possible, so that they could burrow into the backs of their throats in order to give birth to their litters. Regardless, they did not manage to yank out those tongues completely, but rather to elongate them so that now the tongues look like chewed over snakes writhing out from their respective mouths. Indeed it is accurate to say that the tongues writhe, because the rats squirming below the extended tongues cause them to undulate feverishly into one another. In a macabre trick of the mind, mother and father are French kissing one another to the sound and the smell of ravenous rats squirming in and out from their bones.
Nestled in between the two parents is a dead baby. It is a newborn babe swaddled in a cloth. Its little arms reach upward still, like it desires to embrace whatever looms over its small, bluish, stiff flesh. What is remarkable is that the newborn is discolored, but has yet to show much decay. The only exception the two of them can see is its fingertips. The skin has peeled away there, and tiny, brittle bones poke out through the holes. At first glance, these bones look a lot like fingernails that have not been clipped in a while; but then the observer has only to shake his head once to realize that indeed those are pointy finger bones stabbing the air an inch or so above the corpse.
The baby has a curious, calm expression. Its eyes are shut, but not in the tight manner normal to newborns. It does not look like it is clenching in fear. It looks on the contrary like it is mature beyond its years and contented to be the apple of its parent’s eyes (though the parents are looking at one another rather than at the newborn nestled in between their waists).
Perhaps the radiation poisoning had been a kind of formaldehyde for this newborn, Richard thinks. Perhaps it has been pickled by that same A-bomb dust Sam and I are breathing into our lungs.
Richard glances over at Samantha. The tears have subsided in place of a kind of anguished joy that Richard suspects is peculiar to people who have seen the face of God or have gone mad. Samantha is mouthing something. Is she now transfixed in prayer? Or is she recounting a distant memory or dream? Whatever it is, it is a very private moment for her. Richard almost feels he is invading her space, though he will not leave this ledge without Samantha closely by his side.
Sam, we have to go, Richard mutters after a while.
Samantha does not respond. She continues moving her lips. Now, it looks as if she is responding to something that newborn had said to her.
A iced cold chill shivers down Richard’s spine. He attempts to nudge her in his direction, while he takes his first step down from the ledge. She pays him no attention. The conversation in her head is immeasurably more important, at that moment anyway, and perhaps for all times to follow. Richard is not certain one way or another, except that he knows that Samantha had crossed a private Rubicon of sorts. She never again will be that young, pretty woman with whom he had exchanged smiles in the university lounge. He can toss that memory into the filthy junkyard of lost moments and forgotten dreams he stores in his head.
Sam, come on, Richard says more sternly.
Not without the boy, Samantha says as if awakening from a thick dream.
We’re not taking a corpse with us, Richard snaps back.
Not without the boy, Samantha repeats, while stomping her foot down in the manner of a petulant child. I swear to God I’ll jump into that pit of rats, if I do not get to leave with that boy in my arms.
The ledge cracks. In only seconds, he and Samantha will be falling into a rat stew, if he does not calm her down. He stops nudging her, and instead talks to her in the same affable tone he would have used when dictating a letter. He thinks it sounds entirely fake, especially in this circumstance, but he decides to forge ahead with his pleasant alter ego.
Of course, sweetie, Richard says. We are not leaving without the boy. No man is an island, especially in this new world in which we find ourselves. We all need to stick together.
All of us, Samantha says emphatically.
Yes, sweetie, not just the two of us, but all of us, Richard agrees.
Samantha stares a moment longer into his eyes. She studies him, like the two lovebirds have never really known one another before this moment. There is another audible snap, as the ledge starts to slide downward; but Samantha is not going to move until she figures out the man by her side.
All of us, Richard insists. I promise.
Samantha lets down her guard. She breaks into a smile. Her cheeks flash rosy red; and for a second, Richard fears she is going to faint from all that color and warmth suddenly flooding into her face.
Help me down, big man, Samantha says in her former, playful demeanor.
Richard is relieved to help her down from the ledge, but he does not feel that he is entirely out of the woods. Samantha is smiling like a girly girl, but all that insane intensity in her eyes suggests that she remains a very different lady than before she had laid her eyes on that creepy baby. Indeed, ‘lady’ is a good word here, because Samantha seems not only more intense; she seems older, in a way, like a well seasoned mother used to taking care of her own in her world.
Once the two of them are back on the floor, Richard searches for a long, wooden shovel. He finds it, climbs back up to the ledge, and slides that shovel under the baby. The rats go wild. A few climb up the handle, and Richard uses the crowbar he had in his other hand to knock them back into their pit. This is a tough task under any circumstance, but especially when attempting to steady that newborn on the blade at the same time. It is a miracle he and the baby do not fall into the heap of squealing, gnawing rats that seem to be everywhere at once. If there is a hell, then surely a dark pit has been set-aside for these guys.
Richard removes the shovel. He imagines an Italian pizzeria owner taking one of his pies out of the oven. Surely, in his mind anyway, the baby is a thing, not a person; and yet he handles this thing with all the care of a pizzeria artist.
The reason is the mother figure standing below him. Samantha twirls her fingers before her waist, like a mother staying up late to see if her son actually comes home in one piece. She tries to smile, but her eyes reveal how scared in fact she is. Indeed, Richard never saw so much fear concentrated in such pretty eyes. That fear conjures an almost chivalric resolve on his part to protect what she holds most dear; and so for that reason, he cares for the baby as if his own.
* * *
Richard pushes his shopping cart down Main Street. He tucks his chin into his neck and stares at the handle. The left front wheel creaks, and it drags the cart in that direction. This is actually a good development, because this means that Richard has to focus on keeping the cart on a straight path. As a result, he cannot look over to his side and watch how Samantha cradles the dead baby in her arms. It is all so macabre, Norman Bates like, and yet Samantha otherwise does not seem removed from the real world. Is madness really so near and dear to our hearts that we can dabble with it without forsaking the rest of our lives? Can we share sweet moments with insanity, like lovers losing an hour of two in a dingy motor lodge, and still keep our normal lives and respectable fronts with the rest of the world? Apparently, we can, because even as Samantha cradles a dead baby in her chest, she also seems quite capable of rearranging the spices, and cooking the beans and spam, later this same evening.
They reach the Olds. Richard packs the goods, while Samantha watches.
Richard glances at her against his better judgment. Now, she is carrying the dead baby against her left shoulder, like she is going to burp it at any time. The baby’s stiff arms continue to reach out in a ‘V’ shape, like it is hugging the ruins behind us. Its blue, cracked lips are very close to Samantha’s left ear. No doubt, from time to time, it whispers its dead baby talk into her ear. Oh, sure, she imagines all that ‘conversation;’ but with the actual baby so near, is it not likely that Samantha slips, now and then, and actually thinks that the baby has the wherewithal to speak? Or maybe she does not slip into insanity any more so than a woman accidentally becomes a married man’s mistress. Maybe, like the proverbial mistress, she knows damn well what she is doing and actually desires to dabble with madness. If so, then there is a moral implication to all this dead baby focus of hers, a calculating embrace of self-destructive behavior meant to do what? Call attention to herself? Force God out from behind His veil to come to her rescue? Richard does not know. He is afraid, and more than a tad peeved at her, but beyond those emotions, he really has no idea how to react to any of this. So like most men he digs into his cave. He does his duty, keeps his silence, and looks at the world around him, like a cave dweller staring into a telescope.
Samantha pats the dead baby’s back, while Richard accelerates up a hill and out of town. He had scavenged a lot of goods this time. As a result, the car rides low and feels every single bump along the way.
Samantha does not mind. She is moving her lips again. This time, Richard cannot look away, notwithstanding how much attention he needs to be focusing on the road just then. He senses that she is mouthing a lullaby. He almost asks, but then decides to stay silent. Better not to know just how mad she can get as that might color how he regards her the rest of the time.
Normally, when they get back, Samantha is a ‘trooper’ and helps Richard carry the goods into the house. This time, she watches him unpack those goods, while she strokes the back of the dead baby’s head.
She follows him inside when he is carrying the last load. She takes a seat on the sofa, and proceeds to pull her left nipple out from behind her polka dot dress. Her smile is angelic. Her cheeks are rosy. Everything is motherhood bliss.
This crosses the line for Richard. He tries to look away, but cannot shake it. Time to reel Samantha back from her insanity, before he too gets sucked in. Although Richard knows that insanity is not an infectious disease, that indeed a man will not be ‘sucked into’ another man’s mental illness, he wonders if there is a new kind of insanity since ‘Detonation Day.’ Maybe, radiation poison beats down a man’s moral and intellectual foundation as much it riddles his flesh and blood with sores and cancers. Maybe, madness really is ‘in the air,’ when there is not much else in the air, but radiated dust, bone fragments, and ghost wails. Madness seems to be most at home where everything else is death; and if that is the case, then who is to say it will not mutate into something communicable?
Sam, what do you think you’re doing? Richard asks in irritation.
The boy needs his milk, Samantha says in a matter of fact tone.
No! Richard screams, and then pounds the top of the Zenith.
That startles Samantha. She wraps the cloth protectively about the baby and looks back at Richard with an expression that is equally scared and peeved.
I am lactating, sweetie, Samantha says as calmly as her emotions allow…
I don’t care, Richard interrupts her. This has got to stop.
Sweetie, you don’t, Samantha blurts out before stopping midsentence to consider a light bulb that just went on inside her mind.
Richard watches the gears in her mind move, while he massages the hard knuckles he had pounded onto the Zenith. He regrets having been angry at her. He tries to tell himself that this dead baby is just her coping mechanism, like a prisoner of war caressing impulsively a rabbit’s foot. It is weird; and when that period of torment ends, the dead baby or the rabbit’s foot must be left aside in order to embrace the return of civilization. Still, at the time, the impulsive act can be one way that a mind blocks out the horrors that are everywhere. Like an illicit sex act behind drawn blinds, it can be a way to step out from a cruel and senseless world, even if only for an hour or two in the middle of a horrible day.
You don’t want me to be indecent, Samantha offers with a knowing grin.
What are you talking about? Richard asks.
Samantha responds by standing up and carrying the dead baby into their master bedroom. She pulls down the blinds in there, sits on the foot of the bed with her dead baby cradled in her arms, and removes her left nipple. She does all this in the fast and steady manner of an experienced mother confident of all her duties.
Richard watches her in horror from the open doorway that leads into his master bedroom. He feels like a Peeping Tom in his own house, though instead of watching her in order to excite his prurient interest, he does so to figure out just how far she will go. That is his sociological mind working. It is that portion of his mind that, in the past, he would have used without any emotion one way or another for or against his test subject. This time is different, because he has no choice but to be horrified with what he observes, and because he is not sure who is the professor and who is the test subject in this matter.
Samantha holds the back of the dead baby’s head. She gently caresses it back and forth, so that the dead baby’s bluish, cracked lips rub against her left nipple. The milk dribbles out at first, but then it flows like a stream. Some of it flows into the dead baby’s mouth, but most of it misses altogether. Soon, there is mother’s milk all over that dead baby’s face. It drips from its chin and to her lap. She seems not to notice; and for that matter, neither does that dead baby.
* * *
Richard sits on the foot of his bed. He still can feel Samantha’s fragrant, sweet, breast milk on the comforter beneath his butt. It has been six or seven hours since that feeding, and it still has not dried off completely. He wonders if this is normal, or if breast milk somehow takes longer to dry since that night. It is not likely that he ever will know the answer to that question; and so he looks down at his dusty boots, and nervously rubs his tired hands together. What else can he do, when there are so many unanswerable questions in this world full of burnt books, smashed diplomas, and one mad woman?
Nothing, Richard mutters. Nothing, but rubbing my hands together…
Samantha appears in the doorway. She does not have a dead baby in her arms. Richard should welcome that development, of course; but it is such a big departure from her preoccupation that he is worried. Something bad must have happened. The despondent look on her face just now suggests as much.
What’s wrong? Richard asks.
It’s time, Samantha whispers. God’s ways are not our ways…
Samantha lets that last comment linger a moment, while a solitary tear flows down her left cheek. She does not bother to wipe it away. She lets it fall off of her chin and onto her shoe.
Richard walks over to her. He studies her sad face the whole time. There is so much innocence there, like a rose retrenching the first time it is burnt by an especially hot sun. When the rose blossoms the next time, it will be wise to the late afternoon sunlight. It will protect its petals by growing towards a cool, grey shade, if there happens to be one nearby. If there is no shade, then it will stop itself from opening too much in the first place. Either way, it will do what it must not to be burned again, even at the cost of that floral innocence which had made it so beautiful with which to begin. Oh, the price paid just to survive in our cruel world! But the price is paid, and an innocence is lost in due course.
Richard embraces her. Samantha plants her face into his chest, and cries out the rest of her tears.
When she is done, she looks up at Richard with swollen, wet eyes. She is so frightened her whole face trembles, and yet she reaches deep into herself to find that courage that she will need to do God’s work in this matter. Richard is amazed to see how that courage literally stops the trembling in her face, colors her cheeks, and dries up her eyes.
This time, you do the honors, Samantha whispers.
Richard understands her at once. He retrieves the dirty shovel from the garage, and heads out to the backyard. Samantha picks up the dead baby from the living room sofa, tightens the swaddling cloth, and sways it in her arms as if trying to lull it to sleep. She follows Richard out into the dark, clear, still night.
He digs the grave, while she watches him work from several paces away.
A slight breeze breaks the stillness, just as he is finishing the dig. It is an unwelcomed breeze, even though it wipes the sweat from his brow, because it carries within it the sour taste of recent death. Richard realizes that indeed he and Samantha are not alone. The town at the bottom of the hill continues to be well populated. The difference is that now the population consists of dead men and women, dead babies, dead pets. Only the critters stare out from the black shadows with their radiant, red eyes. Everything else is dead; some very recent deaths, like this baby; some dead since that night; but all of them demanding, screaming to be felt and, like tonight, actually smelled. So indeed they are not alone, but they can expect any guests invited to a bean and spam barbecue will be clammy and cold to the touch.
Richard steps aside when he is done. Samantha drops to one knee, says a quiet prayer, and lowers the dead baby into the earth.
She stands up, lowers her head, and folds her hands before her waist. He follows her example, though because he has a shovel in his hand he cannot fold them in front of his waist. It is no matter. They are both the perfect image of a couple of mourners standing before an opened grave.
Samaria shall become desolate, Samantha mutters. For she hath rebelled against her God. They shall fall by the sword; their infants shall be dashed into pieces; and their women with child shall be ripped up.
Richard recognizes that this is a verse from the Old Testament. He is not knowledgeable enough about the Bible to know which chapter and verse of this or that book; but no matter, the point is clear enough.
These are the end times, Richard agrees in his own mind. The phoenix is going to arise from the ashes of old, but the old first must be trampled down in every respect. There must be weeping and gnashing of teeth, and then silence.
* * *
Sit with me for a while, will you? Samantha asks.
Richard looks across the living room to where she is sitting on the couch.
It has been three days since the burial, and in all this time Samantha has said no more than a half dozen words. Moreover, she has been crying herself to sleep on the couch each night, and letting Richard prepare his own meals each day. The distant, anguished look on her face seemed not to alleviate at all, and Richard started to wonder if perhaps he had lost her for good.
Now, though, she is sitting on the couch with her pretty knees bent up to her chin, and her hair hanging wildly over her shoulders. She is staring into the darkness outside. The candlelight on the coffee table flickers grotesque shadow faces off her fine profile. There is every reason to think that she remains mad, staring blankly outside in the hours before dawn, and conversing inaudibly with the ghosts streaming in and out of her own mind.
Nevertheless, her voice right now is eminently normal. She obviously had heard Richard getting up to fetch a cup of bottled water from the kitchen, and had made a point to set her daydream aside long enough to sound normal when calling out to him. That is a step down the slow and painful path of leaving her grief behind, or so Richard hopes when he stops in his tracks.
Of course, Sam, Richard says with tears rolling down his eyes.
He sits on the couch beside her. She continues to look out the window at total darkness, sadly, contemplatively, her whole body made as tiny as possible in how she curls up her knees and curves down her head and shoulders. Richard is not sure if he should put his arm around her. He is afraid that he might spook her and that, as a result, she might recoil from her timid outreach to him now. Thus, he decides just to lay his right palm on the back of her neck, tentatively, at first, like he is testing a hot stove.
It gets so dark at night, Samantha observes dreamily.
Yes, Richard agrees. I suppose it will be for a while longer.
I don’t think those lights are ever going to be turned on again, Samantha whispers, while a tear slides down her left cheek. I think that’s all over.
Richard agrees, at least for the remainder of their lifetime; but he hates to hear this pessimism dripping from the lips of a woman of faith. He feels like a soldier in a foxhole full of atheists. He shares the sentiment of the group, but all at once hates that there is not one, irrational, foolhardy optimist within the whole bunch of them. Still, Richard does not contest her statement, since he is sure she would not believe him. He simply remains silent, and follows her gaze.
I used to think that life was like a ship bouncing along the waves at night out in the middle of nowhere, Samantha reflects. There is nothing to see in any direction. Neither moon nor stars in the sky, no tiny islands in the distance, not even the flicker of a cigarette smoked by the night watchman. Then, suddenly, like a thief in the night, there is a shudder up ahead in the blackness, followed by a pinprick of light. The ship sets its sails accordingly, moving into that small light, which grows larger with every passing hour, and in due time reveals itself to be as bright and as large as the sun. Soon the sea is as bright as the daytime, then, as bright as the heavens, because God breaks through the darkness. He is there all along, and He reveals Himself in such a way as to make everything we have said or done just right. We are no longer ashamed then, no longer holding onto guilt, because in that light we see everything as it is and know our rightful place in the world. Now, I no longer think that’s the case. I think the ship stays in the darkness; and we continue to muddle around in the shadows, learning to be satisfied with the crumbs that fall from the table, while the ships tosses this or that way. It’s not much. It’s never enough, but it’s all we get. True peace is learning to smile with our lot in life, and giving up hope there is anything more.
Richard reaches around her shoulders, and nudges her into his chest. His gesture may be more than she wants just then, but he goes ahead regardless. It is the two of them against the world, a man and a woman forced by man’s self-destructive nature to grovel for what little joy they can get out of the shadows every now and then, a couple bonded first and foremost in the sins they shared with one another before that night.
At that moment, Richard loves Samantha; but even more so, he despairs with and for her. He is reminded that he is all too human, that the world really cannot be forced wholly into a petri dish, that there are aspects of human love and life that cannot be quantified for sociological analysis; and he is reminded, indeed forced fed, all this due to the existential pain he endures alongside her.
So what are we going to do? Richard whispers after a while.
Samantha turns away from the window. The candlelight flickers upon the front of her face now; and for a split second, Richard observes neither the soft, pretty mistress he had taken into ‘Freedom Bunker’ that night, nor the mother figure who had cried for that dead baby, but an even darker, sadder beast, the only kind of life that really can live for very long on the edge of the abyss. Yes, she speaks of being contented with the crumbs; but the ghoulish, flaming eyes tell a very different tale. Those eyes speak only of revolution, if God or fate or chance offers much longer a steady diet of hard breadcrumbs and morbid tears.
Just kiss me, Samantha whispers.
Richard hesitates a moment. The ghoul is still there, etched in her face by the warm candlelight, but it is fading with every passing second. He waits in suspended animation, until once more he sees the pretty girl with whom he had shared a smile in the teacher’s lounge in a previous lifetime.
He gently touches the side of her face, and pulls her lips into his. She is blushing like a virgin by the time they kiss. Indeed, the warmth and the passion they share with one another just then are as otherworldly as first time sex. The kiss lingers long after their lips separate, and they have no choice really but to stare wordlessly into each other’s eyes until that sublime moment finally fades.
He takes her by the hand, and leads her into their bed. This time, there is no shared awkwardness, for they know one another as completely as any two people can. The sadness, the loneliness, the loss, all that despair binds them in an embrace they only partially intimate in their more tender moments of silent lovemaking. They feel spent afterward, every tear duct opened and emptied in the orgasmic thrust that brings an end to their dance. They hold one another in the hours to follow, watching lazily as the morning sunlight bleeds through the space in between the blinds, and hearing now and then the despair in the wind.
* * *
Richard stares at the wall calendar. Up there, it is still ‘Detonation Day.’
Nonetheless, since conceiving a child with Samantha about three months ago, ‘Detonation Day’ has been receding in every other respect from Richard’s world. First and foremost, Samantha has been happy, perfecting her spice rack, and developing a near gourmet dessert from the canned fruits they cart back to their home every other week. Her small feet still swim inside of Mable’s shoes, but otherwise she is a prettier and softer version of his wife decades ago. Even her voice and speech patterns have changed subtly to sound more like Mable in her prime. Of course, Samantha did not know Mable then. Richard wonders if in a way she is tapping into Mable’s ghost. He is not comfortable with the thought to be sure. It is so very irrational, if not altogether superstitious; but he cannot think otherwise, when he faces Samantha, but sees Mable grinning back at him.
Then, there is the bar set that Richard had found in the rubble. It is very nearly untouched. Again, he senses that intelligence inside the atomic firewall. It scorches every book in the public library in town, but leaves behind a bar set of liquors and shot glasses. First, we kill off the Indians with venereal diseases, that intelligence chuckles. In this case, we have radiation poisoning rather than syphilis; but the effect is much the same physical deterioration, followed by an ugly, suicidal madness. Then, we finish off the rest with firewater. Turn all the survivors into blithering, pickled idiots. Instead of that Bureau of Indian Affairs, we shall have the Bureau of Atom Bomb Survivors, in both cases, a bunch of red skins on the dole. So bottoms up, you damned, contemptible, unclean survivor.
Richard is happy to indulge, even though he knows that the liquor is not going to help in his long-term survival. While he never again will be the cocktail maven he had been before that night, he can feel a bit more like a gentleman, and less like a refugee. Moreover, the liquor puts him to sleep faster; and while he enjoys making love to his pretty girl (not really his wife yet in his mind, but surely more than a mistress), he loves his dead sleep even more. This is one of the signs of getting older, but he welcomes it, because it is the kind of sign he would have recognized in himself and his colleagues before the shit hit the fan.
Finally, Richard has organized his private office at the university. There is not much of a university left, no faculty of which to speak, and no permission granted as of yet for a new round of classes, but his office looks and feels like a respectable hideaway for a man of letters. His papers have been catalogued for posterity (most likely the rats that will gnaw on them, after he has died the sad and torturous death that comes from radiation exposure). His wall calendar has a prominent place beside his several diplomas. His American Flag still hangs on a pole placed prominently beside his file cabinet before that night. He had had the desire then of disabusing anyone who questioned his loyalty, since naturally it had been assumed that any young, sociology professor with a presumed fetish for beatnik novels must be a closeted Red. Today, HUAC, McCarthyism, the Bay of Pigs, the Missile Gap, all that has been replaced by debris floating in the hot winds, rain kicking up red dust that may or may not be radioactive, and corpses showing up where the week before there had been nothing. In this context, the flag is the past; and Richard thinks that he will take it down the same time that he rips ‘Detonation Day’ (and all the days since) off of his wall calendar.
He almost does that this afternoon. He even puts his fingers on that wall calendar and thinks about what it will be like just to rip those pages off in one, strong movement. He can see the wastebasket by his side. It would be so easy, so damned fine, just to crumple up those calendar pages and to deep six them.
But he does not. He lowers his hand, and sighs.
He glances at a small chair in front of his desk. That is where Samantha used to sit when he would dictate a letter. She fawned over him, as so many of the young interns and office assistants were prone to do; and from the start, he would smile at her much more so than any of the others. That spark always had been there. It seems the fates really set up the chessboard, and we move along the squares this way or that based on the preordained rules. It is best to be the queen, of course; but Richard senses that all along he had been a pawn like the vast majority of other men in his position before him.
Still, while he smiled at Samantha, and later took her to bed more times than he wants to admit even now, he always bought flowers for Mable. He had a routine: Dictate the last letter of the day, smile warmly at his favorite office assistant, and head over to the street side florist.
He cannot let that go. He cannot rip off those dates on the wall calendar even after that has happened since. He cannot even break his routine of buying a bouquet for his beloved once a week. Of course, the street side florist is long gone; and his beloved is in the ground. There are still roses in the earth, and he has a woman in his life that he may love someday like he had loved Mable. It is a shadow of the real thing, but at least a shadow is something.
There is a student quad outside his office. It has been overtaken by the weeds and the rats, and Richard tries not to stay there longer than is necessary to find a handful of roses in the mix.
He exits the university grounds with a bouquet. He knows that the roses should not be in bloom. Perhaps, they mutated in the radiation; or perhaps the temperature is warmer as a result of all that poison in the air. He cannot recall a winter as warm; and he senses that it would be a lot hotter but for the storm clouds bursting open with torrential, monsoon-like rainfall every now and then. It is like the atomic bombs pushed the U.S.A. south of Honduras. For all he may know, the dead bodies that appear on the scene once in a while may be Central American Indians falling like flies before the Atomic Sun. The bodies usually are so charred or covered with sores as to make it next to impossible to distinguish them racially. So who knows? Maybe, they are Mayans once more succumbing to the ‘White Man’s Burden.’ It is a mad idea, but insanity is all the rage, is it not?
True, but as Richard walks back up the long hill toward his home, where Samantha no doubt is putting the finishing touches on this evening’s fine dinner of beans and spam, he feels light enough in his mind and his spirit to whistle an old tune. It is Camp Town Races. It adds a spring to his step he had figured long gone. He does not feel any more as stooped and sick as he has since that night.
There is a loud scream from his home. Actually, on second thought, it is more like a despondent wail that starts in the guttural tone and ascends slowly to a high-pitched cry. The agonizing sound feels like it is slicing through the air and puncturing Richard’s heart; and, at first, Richard senses not so much a real sound as a bomb blast rippling through his flesh in slow motion. He does not get a hold of his ears, but rather his stabbed heart; and he finds that he cannot do anything else, but to wait it out.
The scream or the bomb blast trails off, and Richard starts to run up that long, steep hill as fast as his feet will take him. He drops the bouquet along the way. He clutches at a sick, throbbing pain in his chest, but does not slow down.
The screaming resumes, as he approaches his home. This time, it is quite clearly a sound. It is also coming out from Samantha’s lips, though it sounds too much like the wails of a frightened, senseless beast. It is her voice, no question about that, but it is like Samantha somehow has reverted back into that animal soul she had had when still inside her mother. There is no reason, no fine spark of humanity, nothing that would suggest that she is any more rational just then than a beast with blank eyes and sharp claws flailing madly at its dark shadows.
Sam, I’m coming, Richard yells when he is nearer to the front door, even though he senses that she is in no position mentally to understand him.
He storms through the front door. He first sees the trail of thick, clumpy blood leading from the stove to the living room. The blood trail is the width of Samantha’s butt. Obviously, she has been dragging her butt on the floor, while gooey blood has been slurping out of her.
Richard runs into the living room. He continues to clutch at his heart.
Samantha is kicking her heels against the living room rug. The fabric has slowed her retreat apparently, and she is kicking at it like a small girl caught in a spider’s web might flail at the stickiness restraining her. She is sitting upright on that same rug, her knees far apart, her heels kicking forward; and in a brief moment of disorientation, Richard imagines a ghoul with wild eyes and sweaty, stringy hair pushing a baby ghoul out from its womb.
The smell is overwhelming. It is not blood, so much as a thick, menstrual discharge reminiscent of a swamp at sunrise. It is organic mulch, gurgling feces sinking back into the depths of still, gunky water, at its core, a primordial stew slurping up and down in rhythmic time with the tug of war going on between an ancient earth and her moon. It is the odor of nature’s cycle, senseless fate just playing herself out as always between desolation and harvest; a terrible force, much like a storm or an earthquake, that has no empathy for whatever falls to its ruin in her path.
Richard’s instinct is to grab her off the floor, but a quick look at the sick madness in her eyes disabuses him of that idea. She is quite capable of tearing off his limbs, or chewing off his face, no doubt from irrational fear, but Richard suspects from spite as well.
Samantha screams again. Her head rolls back. Her neck quivers from the sheer force of that guttural cry pushing through her windpipe. Her chest heaves higher than would be expected with a normal breath, and Richard fears she will literally explode if this continues much longer. Still, he does not approach that undulating, crying body of hers, because he senses on a deep level that this is a drama that no man really can understand, let alone comfort. It is a drama that must play itself out, until the last of that bloody discharge has slurped out from between her legs; and even then, he suspects that the woman must be alone in her own tears for a while. Any why must he leave her be? Because he caused all this drama, somehow; he made this happen with his dick, his missiles, his HUAC interrogations, his U.N. resolutions; and yet she is the one left with a throbbing pain in her womb. She is the one with sticky blood clutching into her legs. And, yes, she is the one who has to imagine a baby’s face in her own blood trail now staring back at her. All that mess and madness is her lot, since he insists in that petulant manner peculiar to little boys on playing with his toys.
There is another goopy popping sound, vaguely reminiscent of a belch at the tail end of a long beer binge; and then the discharge fans out from inside of her legs. Richard thinks he sees a tiny finger in this blood stew, though he may be imagining a distinct, human shape in all that formless gunk spreading across the living room floor. The tiny finger seems to be writhing in electric pain, like the brain of a fish just going bonkers when exposed to the air above the surface of its natural home. This is actually what makes Richard look away. He feels an unctuous wave of nausea flowing up from his bowels, and knows that indeed he will vomit if he continues to watch this horrendous scene.
Richard waits a moment for the nausea to pass. Then, he staggers slowly back into the kitchen. He holds himself up on a counter when he nearly slips on the blood trail. The kitchen spins, and he has to remain there for a few seconds to let everything settle back into its normal place.
Run away, you bastard! Samantha screams back at him in that deranged, guttural tone that calls to mind a beast from the underbelly of the earth. Don’t look at what you did to me. Keep on running. Back! Back! Back to your asshole!
Richard is surprised that Samantha has the wherewithal to state anything at all. He looks back, while still holding himself up on the counter. Samantha is bending forward, and turning her face toward the kitchen, so that she can look straight at him with a face contorted by focused hatred. Her dark lips pull back to reveal bloodstained teeth, like she has been reaching down and trying to eat back into her soul some of the baby parts she sees or imagines. Her eyes glower at him. They are insane, ravenous, the eyes of a cannibal just before she slams her teeth into the warm flesh. Those eyes scream out: I shall not kill you. That would be too merciful. Instead, I shall hurt you, chew away at your warm flesh one mouthful at a time, savor your anguished tears, your hurt pride; and smile back at you the whole time. Smile like Mable had smiled. Grin like that whore…
Richard screams. He sees Samantha’s hateful eyes, but he hears Mable’s voice. He drops to one knee. He clutches again at his heart. The kitchen spins, grows darker about the edges, collapses in on him from all sides, while his mind flows back to the last time he had seen Mable. He had told her he was going to tinker in the bunker. He had chuckled to himself then, since ‘tinker’ had had a double meaning in his mind. Mable had told him not to be too late, because she had wanted him up early to perform one of the items on her ‘honey do’ list just before work. He had agreed. Then, Mable had smiled at him, and said that she looked forward to going away with him for the weekend. Just like the good old times, she had said. He had smiled back at her before heading out to the night.
The next time Richard saw Mable there was a rabid raccoon sitting inside her open stomach. The raccoon hissed at him. It looked at him in the same way that Samantha is glaring at him now.
Richard falls backward. He is not sure that that is happening, but then at once he feels the back of his head smash into the kitchen floor. He slides to the edge of consciousness. He hears what sounds like a whoosh of wind falling over an imagined cliff. That wind is his life; and it is falling into an abyss, where it is going to be lost in disjointed memories and misspent passions.
Richard screams again. He flails his hands erratically at the raccoon that he observes on his bed. It is just one of those disjointed memories. He knows as such on one level; and yet, regardless, there it is poking up from inside Mable’s open stomach. At the same time, it is also floating in the air above his eyes. No doubt about it, that is a raccoon face staring down at him, while he is writhing in pain and confusion on the bloodied kitchen floor.
Or is that Samantha standing over him? Maybe, that is her face glowering down at him. Maybe, in spite of all that sick blood discharged from in between her legs, and the anguish that has overtaken her soul, she has had the mind and the strength to climb back up to her feet and to walk over to him. She can be a strong woman when she wants to be, a real trooper, an indomitable force with a keen mind. Add enough insane anger into the mix, and she can be very deadly to him, and perhaps to herself as well. Richard had never feared her until now. He had felt sorry for her. He had been burdened with her. But he had not had a reason to believe that she could harm him, even if she had had a mind to do so.
But look at how she stands over him (Or is she? Perhaps, this is all taking place in his head.) Look at how that blood still flows down the inside of Mable’s dress. Look at the insane intensity in her face, the hatred, yes, but much more so the determination. The determination to do what? To kill him, while he is an old dog squirming in bitch blood on the floor? To injure him, sadistically, for all of the times he had smiled at her in his office, or had observed her lovely form in the teacher’s lounge, or had come inside her pussy beneath dark, threadbare sheets? To sacrifice him, so that somehow she can undo this mess that we have wrought? Is this all about making right what has been so wrong since the two of them first laid eyes on one another? Richard thinks so, though he also thinks his guilt may be coloring his perception. He cannot let go. He cannot rip off those dates from his wall calendar. ‘Detonation Day’ is still up there on the wall. It is staring down at him, just like Samantha, real or imagined, is picking apart what little remains of his soul with her intense eyes.
* * *
Thunder clashes, and then it rolls. That is the sound of a torrential storm brewing over a dead world. It is enough to awaken the corpses from their dirty, shallow graves. It is not Resurrection Power, to be sure; more like the power to spring Lazarus out from his tomb and to give him a short lease extension on his former life, before he experiences a second death.
Still, that is enough to open Richard’s eyes. He sits upright too fast, and the sudden nausea forces him back down to the floor for a few minutes. He has his mind, though; and so he knows that he is lying on the kitchen floor in Sam’s (Mable’s) dried up blood, that it is dark outside, and that Sam (Mable) very well may have crossed into a mental space from which she can never return.
Lightning flashes through the closed blinds. It is like an invasive spotlight bleeding through the thin cuts in the veil. It rips those thin cuts open just a bit more every time it flashes, so that Richard practically can feel the penetrating eyes breaking through his defenses.
Breaking through his defenses, tearing down his walls, making known the secrets intended to be taken to the grave, that is what a torrential storm does, when unleashed with a wink and a nod from the fates on high. How Biblical the sound and the fury, Richard thinks. Not all that scientific, not an insight that is able to be quantified and defined in an academic paper; but in what other way can he describe the madness he practically can feel on his fingertips? What else can he do, but to admit that when the dread is bad enough even a doctrinaire, know it all atheist will revert back to the superstition of that drooling ape-man trying to make sense of thunder and lightning.
Richard thinks about his affair with Samantha. So much of the allure had been in the fact that they had to close the door and to lower the blinds, before they could eat one another alive. They had to be private; and, in a way, all the preparations undertaken to keep their privacy had reminded them that indeed they are human beings, notwithstanding how they ravaged one another like sick beasts under the sheets. Beasts do not care about privacy when they hump one another. Human beings do. Take away a man’s privacy long enough, and in due time he will descend into a raving lunatic, maybe even let himself do what any man afflicted with cabin fever will be inclined to do to the other person in that small space. Maybe, he too will cross into a mental space from which he cannot return. Maybe, he too will be determined to make right what has been totally, maddeningly wrong from the first time he caught her glance with his fair smile.
Richard manages to stand up. He leans against the counter, and another lightning flash illuminates the queer look on his face. He slowly slides open the drawer to his left. It creaks, and in the silence of that late night he imagines it is loud enough to rattle the walls. Surely, Samantha must have heard that loud racket, even if right now she is lost in her own dread.
But Samantha does not step out from the shadows. She is close. Richard is sure of this, although she is not in this kitchen, maybe not even in this house.
Richard removes the knife, while the thunder clashes overhead. He looks up half expecting the ceiling to cave in on him. It does not, but he just cannot shake the sense that everything is breaking down and that, before too long, his secrets, his guilt, all the crap he has stored in his heart will be laid bare before what? A dead world? No, not a dead world at all, but a world conjuring up new corpses every other day, a world governed by the sadistic intelligence that had directed the atomic firewall to eviscerate this man but to leave his brother five feet away to suffer the slow and agonizing death from radiation poisoning. That intelligence is laughing at him now. Can you not hear it in how all that thunder rolls just so? Imagine how hard it will laugh when he is naked before its eternal eyes. How then will he be able to lay claim to even the vestige of his humanity?
Richard closes the drawer. It creaks again, but this time Richard is not at all worried that Samantha will hear. He has figured out where she is. Samantha too intends to right what is wrong. Sure, the most she can accomplish is a half-assed imitation of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, a lame stab at reversing the misfortunes of time, which invariably will call to mind Frankenstein instead of Lazarus; but what else can she do? The reason, the self-limitation, the moral restraint, all that has washed away with the discharged fetus. There is nothing left but the shell, determined, focused, to be sure, but no more than a cracked edifice of the soft, young, religious woman he had romanced once upon a time.
Richard walks over to the living room blinds. He pulls them aside enough to peer into the darkness. There is a flicker of light outside, as he had assumed would be the case. In fact, as he observes longer, it is not a flicker, so much as a fan spreading out from a point. It is his flashlight, lying on the ground in that portion of his backyard designated as the makeshift graveyard, and illuminating what Samantha feels that she needs to see in order to right the grievous wrong.
Richard steps out the backdoor, while lightning again flashes off his mad face. His grin is now wider than it had been even a few minutes prior, probably because he knows what he has to do and has the tool in his right hand to do so.
* * *
Samantha tosses aside the shovel, and kneels before the hole she dug in the earth. For the most part, she had been emotionless while working; but now the emotions surge up from her bowels. There is a strange brew of fear and joy clutching at her heart. There is also self-loathing, because a small, sane part of her personality still recognizes that this is an abomination. Mostly, though, she feels a clammy, cold despair, which she imagines is what the body feels just as it is slipping into death. She despairs over what she had done in her moment of weakness. God had given her a family, notwithstanding her unworthiness in sin; and she had buried it. Hid the light in the darkness, covered it over with earth, and attempted to replace that light with one of her own making. Oh, the sheer vanity of a woman! How she mothers judgment in her very womb!
Samantha reaches into the hole, and removes the baby. She wipes off as much of the mud as she can, though much of it is baked into the baby’s brittle, discolored flesh. What is remarkable is that it has so much flesh still. The flesh around its fingers has receded a bit more, so that the finger bones are exposed down to the knuckles. The finger bones arch downward like sharp claws digging into their own palms. Also, the baby’s face seems a bit more droopy, like it is a corpse of a boy who had been born with Down’s syndrome. It looks as restful as before, though; and Samantha thinks that it will look as good as new when it is doused with bottled water. Even the swaddling cloth wrapped around its waist, now caked and stiffened by mud, can be salvaged with just the right amount of soap, water, and elbow grease. It will be such a pretty outfit when she is done.
Is that a footstep she hears behind her? Surely, it is not Richard. She had found him lying on the kitchen floor, iced cold to the touch, his skin pale blue, his blood fanning away from the back of his head and blending indiscriminately into her discharge. She even had put her ear to his chest. No breath, no heart, nothing but the silence of dead flesh.
Samantha cradles the dead baby in her chest. She stands up to see if she can find out the source of that sound.
* * *
Richard does not hesitate. He is only a few feet away, as Samantha turns to face him head on. He sees the madness in her eyes. Her pupils are mercurial pinpricks of fire in a dreamy stare. There is life in those eyes, but it is the kind of life that will never clutch at his right arm as he is pushing the shopping cart, nor smile expectantly to see how he likes the beans and spam, nor snuggle into his chest, while candlelight etches ghoulish facades over their contented faces. It is the kind of life that will find its satisfaction only in murdering the vestiges of humanity out from his soul. It is the kind of life that will cannibalize his guilt until there is nothing left for him but a vague, unsettled sadness without cease.
Samantha looks like she may be about to ask a question, but Richard will not wait to hear what it is. He thrusts the sharpened point of his knife into her abdomen, until only the handle is poking out from her wound. He steps back to watch, as she falls to her knees, and her eyes roll into the back of her head. All the time, she clutches that dead baby; and when finally she dies, staring into a gloomy, night sky with those mad eyes of hers, widening her lips into an insane grimace, she looks like she is about to nurse feed her soul into that tiny corpse.
* * *
Richard spends the next few hours digging a hole where they had buried Mable. It is so very dark, but for the intermittent lightning floating off towards the horizon; and his flashlight loses its battery power long before he is finished. Nonetheless, it turns out that his instincts are much better tuned in to corpses, ghosts, and ghouls than they had been back when he viewed the world through the eyes of a dispassionate sociologist. He has tossed science and reason to the wind; and as a superstitious ape-man, he has done a fine job in finding Mable’s disjointed bones and collapsed skull amidst the interlocking tree roots.
He grabs a hold of Samantha’s ankles, and drags her to the hole. He sees how she is clutching still that baby that had been pumped so full of radiation as hardly to have decayed thus far. He feels a wave of jealousy wash over his sick heart; but though he is sorely tempted, he does not rip the baby out of her two arms and punt it into the stands. She wants the damned thing, and without it in her lifeless arms she is liable to be a pain in the ass into eternity. And, anyway, is it not true that a baby completes a family? So long as she takes care of it on the whole, he supposes he can learn to like the ugly, little tyke with the claws.
He shoves Samantha and her adopted baby into the hole. As anticipated, Samantha’s head ends up beside Mable’s skull. Someday, the two skulls will be almost indistinguishable.
Richard returns to the kitchen, grabs a hold of his own corpse, and slides it out to the hole. That takes quite a bit of time, because he weighs a lot more than Samantha. He can see the first rays of sunlight breaking out from beneath the horizon, when finally he drops his own corpse into the hole with the others.
He covers up the family grave, while a soft dawn transitions into a warm morning. He can feel the sweat on his brow. It is not from exertion. It seems as if work is not all that hard for men in his condition. Rather, it is from the vague fear that someone may see him shoveling dirt into this hole. Prying eyes all too often turn into gossiping lips, and there is no surer way to destroy a good man’s privacy than to have him be the center of a salacious gossip.
He covers up the baby’s hole, returns the shovel and the flashlight to the bunker, and retreats to his house in time for a lunch of beans and spam. He has no appetite. Apparently, men in his condition lose their hunger as well as their exhaustion. He eats only because it is something he used to do. Keeping up the old routines preserves the past. The memory fades, but the ritual persists, until the days are no longer chronological, but rather one, eternal loop of repeated, mundane activities. Then, when that happens, the ritual is so ingrained it is no longer recognized as a ritual any more so than breathing or sleeping. It is what it is, and the man living on autopilot has no reason to think differently about it.
There is one thing that Richard does throughout the day that is not likely ever to be done in a thoughtless or mechanical manner, and that is his practice of checking to see that the blinds are drawn. He craves his privacy. It is his last firm link to humanity. There needs to be one part of his life that even the atom bomb cannot penetrate; one, little secret that the prying eyes can never learn; one scandalous affair that stays hidden even from God.
He has reason to worry. Though he has not encountered another survivor since that night, he recalls all too well the cops in this area. They had had real mean streaks in them when it came to the vice crimes. Even that good-natured Officer Wilson had been known to arrest men for the crime of adultery. Yes, he knows that it is insane to think that adultery will matter at all to whatever law enforcement exists out there; but reason has little cache in a dead world; and, for all he knows, perhaps there is a deranged cop wandering the streets with an old bee in his patrol cap about adultery. So Richard will peek through his drawn blinds from time to time and covet whatever he can hide away from the glaring sun. His preoccupation may be insane, but it is a way to pass the dead seasons.