“A Hand to the Plow,” Red Rock Review, 2022—Red Rock Review’s nomination for the Pushcart Prize
No one came to my grandfather’s wake. Moriah wasn’t a big place—unincorporated, the county roads screamed, like some sailor’s warning—but even so, I had never been in St. Mark’s when it was empty. Only Grandpa could keep the faithful away, the way he used to set fires in the backyard to keep out mosquitoes. But there was no one at all. No greeter, no minister, no organist. Not even my grandfather’s body. Just candles melted to nubs, giving creamy winks of light.
My brother, Noah, told me over the phone there would be no eulogies. It was one of the few things grandpa wrote in his will: no eulogies, knowing full well he’d lived a life of damning post-mortems. But I intended to make one all the same. I’d even slicked up my throat with tea and honey that morning, whispering to the waitress at the highway diner, saving my voice for forgiveness. Making sure I sounded real sweet.
A janitor knocked, then wheeled in a mop bucket. “Ope,” he said. “Bible study?”
“I came here for the wake. Ezra Sanders?”
He gave me a funny look, like I’d asked a ten-dollar question.
“I’m Adrienne Sanders,” I said. “Adie.”
He eyed me, drinking in the incongruity of me in this place, my black tats, my thigh-highs. If he lived here all his life, he’d only seen someone who looked like me on TV. He reminded me of grandpa in the eyes, the way they crowned under his eyelids like eggs trying not to be laid. I expected them to go big, or maybe tighten as he recognized me. I was the Adrienne Sanders, yes, one of the few who got out of Moriah. I got my first credit card when I was still technically seventeen, and I learned the mailman’s routine so I could run to the box before Grandpa saw any of my envelopes from Mastercard. Grandpa never let me get a job, so on my eighteenth birthday, I ran to the train station and started my life seventy-four dollars in the hole, plus two for a whoopie pie from a convenience store. I ate it on the train and didn’t make a wish. There was nothing left to wish for.
But the janitor only looked at me and stretched his back. “Welp. Sorry for your loss, ma’am.”
“He wasn’t a good man,” I said.
“It might be he didn’t want no wake—”
“I hope they didn’t cremate him. I wanted a proper funeral, to forgive him with. Send him off. Isn’t that what funerals are for?” I thought of the ancient Egyptians and the trinkets they’d leave their pharaohs for the afterlife, onyx statues and mummified dogs, to keep the dead company. Or the Greeks, with coins on the eyes for the ferryman.
The janitor gave a shrug. “I don’t think the dead care too much.”
He let the mop slap the floor and got to soaping tile.
Grandpa died in the old house on Fox Den Lane. By the looks of the place, he had taken the easy way out. It was a shotgun house, and I remembered it being strong and vibrant, robin’s-egg blue. Now that blue had yellowed a shade towards jaundice and half the roof sunk in, cupping a puddle that stewed in the sun. Wasn’t much of a lawn either, except overgrown spots of ryegrass, with no flowers to speak of except ones that didn’t belong, those purple Kudzu blossoms. “Not much in there,” came a voice. “My boys already picked the meat off.”
I’d stared so long into the living room I never heard Noah pull up in his truck. He stood with his hands in his jeans, his way of warding off hugs. His goatee was half gray-blond now. It added twenty good years on him, instead of the ten it had been.
“I’m not here for any of his things,” I said.
“Wasn’t much anyway. Pots and pans. Coupla army things the boys liked.”
“He leave you enough for a funeral?”
“Funeral? He’s already cremated. Didn’t say where he wants himself scattered. Don’t think he cared.”
“Well, we gotta have a funeral, right?”
“Naw. People don’t gotta do anything.”
“I do.” My tongue thickened, turning my Is into Ahs. Every time I talked to Noah, it was the same way, slipping right back into Moriah. “I’m here.”
“And you drove that ole scrapper all this way?” Noah clicked his tongue at my Ford Pinto. “Anyhow, you being here makes one who wants it. D’you need money?”
The Pinto needed new struts, but that wasn’t worth blushing over. “No.”
“Drugs? You’re skinny.”
“Then why’re you here, Ade?”
“Real nice. If I were callin’, you’d ask when I was gonna visit. Now I’m here, I might as well be a bug.”
“Didn’t mean it like that. Thought maybe now Grandpa’s not here, you might be thinkin’ of movin’ back. Diner’s hirin’.”
I walked up the porch. A tube-style TV sat in the corner of the living room. It was the same one Grandpa used to watch every night before he came up to my room, frying himself in the wan glow of the TV. Noah said that’s how he died, a widowmaker while watching TV. Was it a violent thing? A struggle, him collapsing to the floor, fingers clutching his chest? Or was it like falling asleep? I wondered how afraid he was. If he had time to beg God not to take him, to fold his hands and plead for forgiveness.
“I’ll bet you don’t feel better, seein’ it again. People think lookin’ at the past washes it. But that ain’t no mop for the soul. You want to know what forgiveness is? It’s burnin’ things down. That’s the only way people forgive.” Noah fancied himself a poet-philosopher and spoke in axioms. Maybe one out of ten made sense.
“Maybe we should have a proper funeral,” I said.
“The man’s already ashes.” Noah shrugged. “You want those? It creeps Maeva out, having an urn in the house. Like a pair of eyes.”
“I just want a—boundary.” The word sounded wrong. “Between that life and this one. Something. Thought there’d be a wake today at St. Mark’s. The janitor looked at me like some mental patient.”
“Fine. But you do the arrangin’. And it’s comin’ outta your end. You got a place to stay? We got a room.”
“I ain’t poor, Noah, so don’t ask.”
“Whatta they pay you at that pet shop?”
“That’s the same as askin’ if I’m poor.”
“You ever think maybe I was askin’?”
“Either way, I think I’ll stay here tonight.”
“We got a nice bed. This place is a shithole.” He threw his head to the side and spat. “And you might see Caleb here. Is that what this is about?”
“Would that be so wrong, seein’ Caleb?”
“Wrong for him. Wrong for you. Wrong for everythin’. He don’t like you, to say it plain.”
“Just don’t complain if you end up carin’ for him. I’m checkin’ outta that.”
“If you say so. I’ve been going to this church group, and all they talk about is forgiveness. Forgiveness this, forgiveness that, oh, the power of forgiveness. And, I don’t know. They seem happy, like they know what they’re doing. Like it puts a bow on things.”
Noah chuckled. “Your life here was such a gift, you wanna wrap it up in a bow?”
“It’s the ugly things need bows.”
“I don’t get you.”
“That’s fine,” I said. Fahn.
He left me to stew in that same sun. I dragged myself to the mirror in the bathroom. Grandpa didn’t allow any other mirrors in the house except that one, which he kept for shaving, though he only did that when he felt chipper, which meant most days he had a beard. I rinsed my hands. The faucet coughed out yellow muck before clearing to water. That was one reason my boyfriend stayed behind. But his real reason, Rick said, was that it would be like picking a scab. It heals if you let it alone, but if you go on scratching, it goes on bleeding. And besides, Rick said, women already bleed enough.
The phone shook on the nightstand that night. Rick. When was I coming home? A year or two ago, I would have made a joke of it—oh, don’t wait up, Rick, I’m going on to the Golden Isles to take up with a cabana boy—but now the thought stirred up something like vinegar in my belly. Two nights plus the drive, I replied. Tryin to convince Noah to have a proper funeral.
Get your ass home, he said.
I found a box in the living room and started throwing junk in it, but grandpa didn’t keep much. A pile of chipped paint, some old TV dinner trays. It had been different in my head. I was going to rent a dumpster, don some latex gloves, and scour the place. All night, if I had to. But aside from some old phone books and stacks of porno mags from the 90s, there wasn’t much to scour. I’d brought a box all the way from New Orleans. I’d marked it SENTIMENTAL. There had to be something worth taking, a photograph somewhere, a refrigerator magnet from before grandma died and grandpa became what he became. I could find a fossil of it somewhere like one of those dinosaur diggers, brushing away the forgotten earth. But there was nothing.
At the very least, I’d hoped for a memento I could bring back to Sadie. She was Rick’s daughter by a woman he no longer knew. Sadie—rhymes with Adie, I liked to say—was who kept me moored to New Orleans. By itself, leaving Rick wouldn’t be so hard. I thought of that often. Leaving Rick would be as simple as changing my address on the credit card and driving the Pinto up to Baton Rouge or Mobile, somewhere on rivers or gulfs where I could still be connected to the blue veins of the world. But Sadie. On the nights Rick didn’t come home, which was most, Sadie and I stayed up on the couch watching documentaries. Sadie liked baby orangutans and their stringy troll-doll hair. I showed her the adult orangutans and asked if she liked them too, but Sadie rolled her eyes and said—with that certainty in being wrong that only children have—no, that’s another species. I preferred the Apollo missions. I liked the idea of controlled burns. When your rocket needs to get right, you aim the tip, align it just so, and fire up the engines. It only takes a moment or two of gas, but that’s all you need. That’s how you get where you’re going, I would think on those nights, Sadie’s head resting under my chin. Moriah would be a controlled burn. Long as I aimed myself right, maybe I’d get happier, and maybe me getting happier would make Rick happier. I used to think that with grandpa, too, but I told myself Rick was another species. Like the orangutans.
It was about midnight when a tap-tap on the front window woke me up. I’d fallen asleep on the beat-up old sofa in the living room.
A tall, slender figure approached, uncertain under the staticky streetlight. Caleb had one last growth spurt since I saw him last, but there he was, stretched out, a few extra frown lines at his lips.
“Ah, shit,” he said when I opened the door. “What’re you doin’ here?”
“Go home, Caleb.”
“Ain’t never been nowhere else. You were sleepin’? That house is haunted, hope you know.”
There was more meat under his skin, at least more than he had as the scrawny teenager of ten years ago. He was the family looker, more so than me, but he looked puffy and pink and snotty, like maybe he was allergic to the world. Some people are like that. Even moonlight stings them.
“Lemme in,” Caleb said. “I sleep here now.”
“What do you do all day?”
“Never you mind.”
“You been drinkin’?”
“A guy needs money to drink.” Caleb splayed out on the front stoop and rubbed his belly with a fingertip. “Nah. Nah, not a drop. Six months.”
“Where you been, then?”
He pointed at the sky. “I seen a meteorite.”
“Not in Moriah. I don’t think stars fall here. Anyway, I’m just rememberin’. I forgot to make a wish.”
“God,” I said. “It’s like talkin’ to a wind-up doll.”
“I woulda wished you back. I woulda wished you never left. Now I woulda wished you never came back, so I’d have a house to sleep in.”
“How many drinks you had tonight, Caleb?”
“You gonna let me in or not?”
“If you’re sober.”
“I been sober. I told you. Six months. Why you care, anyway?”
“I came back for you,” I said. “You can come to New Orleans, with me. Rick won’t mind, we’ll put you up a while. There’s jobs there, odd jobs too, so you don’t have to work for anybody you don’t want.”
His brow furrowed. “I’m a country boy.”
“I was a country girl. The city changes you. Changes everything.” I wondered if he saw my eye twitch.
“You’d take me there?”
I closed the door and pulled the chain through. His face was half in shadow as he walked through. He was half a foot taller than me, but bowed, his spine worn and curved like steamed wood.
“The city treatin’ you right?”
“Of course.” I twitched. “Glad I went there.”
“Noah says he wonders about Rick. Says he’s a big strong guy, stronger than grandpa ever was.”
“I look beaten to you?”
“I can’t tell. Been a while since I seen you otherwise.”
“Well, I’m healthy now.”
Caleb finally smiled. “Tell me about Nawlins.”
When I left Moriah, Caleb was just sixteen, the next one up to the plate. I hadn’t thought of that. I had been so fixated on my Greyhound ticket, squeezing it like it was a pass to heaven, I couldn’t see anything else. I used to wonder how some mothers could leave their infant children in front of firehouses, not knowing what would become of the baby. But then I knew. A person can do almost anything if the flames are hot enough. Those first few years in New Orleans, I remembered going to payphones and dialing up the old number, letting my finger rest above the nine at the end, dreaming of all the wonderful apologies I would make. I never pressed it. I was too afraid maybe Caleb would really pick up. So I said nothing and let him hate me.
Now, with him looking at me with a smile in his eyes, I finally told him about New Orleans. Told him everything people had told me, how life in a city changes you, how cities don’t have memories like these small country towns where people chip your sins into stone. Told him about Rick, made him sound as gentle as I could. Told him about Sadie, the little red-haired angel, and how Sadie would love Caleb. And I told him everything that wasn’t true, how I hadn’t been fired from the pet store for stealing cash right out of the register for Rick’s poker money.
Funny how Caleb looked at me. Eyes glinty and shiny, pinpoint pupils. Like my words were so bright.
“I like the way you talk about it,” he said. “Why didn’t you take me with you?”
“I’ll take you now. Tomorrow, I mean. If you’ll come.”
“But why didn’t you take me then?”
“I don’t know. I was eighteen. All I could think about was gettin’ out myself. And you were strong. I didn’t think he’d—”
“You was wrong, Adie. You wasn’t just wrong. You was way off.”
“That’s why I’m back. I want to—I don’t know—fix things.”
“Some things ain’t fixable.”
“Don’t say that,” I said, feeling my voice weaken. “You said you been sober six months. That true?”
“I’m so happy.”
“Why do you care?” he asked.
“Because it means I didn’t ruin you.”
“You couldn’t ruin me,” he said. “Some people are just dead souls.”
Now that he was inside I could see the face I recognized, the way the shadows cut across his cheekbones as he frowned, dicing the years away. I watched that face without listening for a while, and when I came to he was asking about tool and dye jobs in New Orleans—surely those big city factories were better than the seasonal work he got an hour up the road from Moriah. I didn’t know. I only knew how kindly he looked at me now, how hopefully. So I found myself responding as if I did know, smiling and nodding and making up stories about people I had met, important people or spouses of important people. People who could help him get set up. It didn’t matter who I knew or didn’t. Once he was there, we could find someone, and all would be forgiven. “It’s New Orleans,” I said. “Dead souls are our chief import.”
He laughed with that ravenous energy of people who usually laugh alone.
Later, we sat on the couch together, watching local TV on the antenna. I thought Caleb slept, so I put one of grandpa’s old blankets on him. He stirred without opening his eyes.
“You don’t sleep too good?” he asked.
“Can’t remember the last time I slept through the night,” I said. “I thought bein’ here would help. But it just makes it worse.”
“Grandpa ever beat you?” he asked. “That’s why you left, right?”
“Sure,” I shrugged. “Same as Noah.”
“He ever rape you?”
I said nothing.
“The fact I gotta ask—”
“It’s nothin’ worth askin’ about,” I said. “It’s done.”
“A rape ain’t never done, Adie. It goes on and on.”
The house was so silent I could hear the air whispering through the vents. “Moving changes a person. You get to have a whole new story. In New Orleans, I’m Adie at the pet shop. I smile a lot. Smilin’, sometimes, if you force it, it’s as good as the real thing. People think I never met an unkind person.”
“Those scars on your wrists. They still there.”
I looked at them in the half-light, cobwebs of puffy skin. “I tell people a cat scratched me up. Had to put him down. It was real sad.”
He still hadn’t opened his eyes. “Why is it when you get to pick your own stories, they’re still sad ones?”
The next morning, I gave myself a long look in the mirror. It had been a few weeks and all the fluid under my eyes had drained away. There was no way for Caleb to know about Rick. And maybe having Caleb around would settle Rick some. Rick was always better when Sadie was around, or when I brought some friend from the church group to eat my famous mac and cheese, which was really just the boxed stuff plus onion powder. Rick would bristle at having Caleb on the pull-out couch, but so what? I’d say it was only for a day or two, and we’d stretch it a few weeks. A few weeks of daylight. That might last me until a new month.
There were a few texts on my phone, all from Rick. When you comin home? Sadie’s a pain in the ass.
I started punching in a long paragraph about Caleb—he’s coming home with me, but he’ll just be on our sofa a few weeks, I promise—but I thought better of it. Rick might let him stay if Caleb were a surprise I brought with me. And with Caleb already there, Rick would be on his best behavior.
We drove along the skinny road to Noah’s house. It was the dry season. Power lines shouldered over the big sky like giant sentinels and the land was scattered with horseweed. It reminded me of our childhood trips out west when we would sit in the back with bare feet hanging out of grandma’s ’94 Roadmaster wagon, clean air washing through our toes. Grandpa would go on about how we had to be quiet, or else we’d waste his favorite thing in the world, a perfectly good afternoon. Every lost opportunity was a perfectly good afternoon to him. Nothing ever lived up to the potential of a perfectly good afternoon—either you were wasting it by running around outside or spending too much time indoors. Eventually we would kick the seats, and then each other, so grandpa would play the only tape they had in the car, Beach Boys. Summer Days and Summer Nights. I still remembered some of the words. “I wish I could see outside / but he tacked up boards on my window.” Even grandma would sing along, so out of tune she was closer to singing harmony than getting the pitch right, but the effect seemed to please her. I liked the Beach Boys. I liked how they could sing about tough things and still fill up the car up happy.
Noah was already waiting for us at his porch. Or maybe he just stayed out like that most mornings, half-hanging on his front stoop with a steaming mug in his hand, proud to scan his whole acre. Truth be told, if I had an acre, I’d probably stand out like that, too.
“Golly,” he said when we got out. “Look at this. Sanders family reunion.”
“I was wondering if we could take the urn up to the park,” I said. “Bury it someplace decent.”
“Well, it ain’t like we want it.”
“I was thinking maybe you’d come with, to say your goodbyes.”
“Caleb,” Noah said, “funny seeing you ridin’ with her.”
“Adie says she’s gonna get me situated in New Orleans,” Caleb said.
“Situated. Ha. She ever tell you how well-situated she is?”
“I’m well-situated,” I lied.
“You ran away from Moriah just to go to the same place, only you can’t see it.” Noah spat. “Now grandpa’s dead, only reason you’re back here is because you got an itch to scratch. Itchin’ gets at you no matter where you’re livin’. I don’t call that well-situated. If you was well-situated, you’d be gone forever and you’d forget about us because you’d have so much goin’ in your own life. You know how I know when someone’s really moved away someplace? When I ain’t see them again. My buddy Jack Beauregard got a job in Silicon Valley, and look at him. He’s got six figures now, and we never hear a peep outta him. But look, here y’all are.”
“Well, we’re goin’ now,” Caleb said. “This place is a trap. I’m like a mouse, pinned in a trap.”
“Yeah, real trap. You and Adie, y’all’s the same. Thinkin’ everything’s about the place you are. You know she only takin’ you home because she feels guilty about you, right? There ain’t nothin’ for you there you can’t find here. Meanwhile I got a house and two kids, right here in Moriah. Y’all even have a bank account?”
“Fuck you, Noah.”
Same as last time I’d seen them. Fuck you might as well have been good-bye, see you tomorrow.
I waited by the porch.
“You’re still here,” Noah said.
“Grandpa’s ashes. I’ll take ‘em, even if you ain’t comin’.”
He called inside for Maeva, then turned back to me with his mouth open, loosening a cramp out of his jaw. “You want him, you can have him. Just don’t dump him in the sewer or anything like that. It’s bad luck. Even on grandpa.”
“No. A park or somethin’, or if I can’t do that, someplace nice.”
“Never you mind.”
“That Bible group’s got you all twisted, Adie. There’s too much voodoo in that town. Too much humanity. How many problems people ever solve by people thinkin’ about ‘em? Usually makes it worse, far as I figure.”
“Let me process it in my own way.”
“That’s that city talk.” He turned and spat again. “You avoided home so much, but now you’re here, that fix anythin’? That itch been scratched yet, or what?”
“Fuck you, Noah.”
“That’s more like it.” He smiled and went inside.
Maeva set the urn in my hands without a hello. The urn felt heavy in my fingers, like it wasn’t full of ashes but blood. I looked at Maeva. After ten years, her hard frown-lines were like chipped marble, sculpted into the reality of her face now. “He’s all yours,” she said.
I tried to tell her it was nice seeing her, but she’d turned back into the house.
I drove up to a row of dead grass and gnarled old oak trees next to the diner lot. It wasn’t a park exactly, at least not with any name, but it was the closest thing in Moriah. I got out and Caleb rolled his window down, saying he didn’t want to come. I told him I understood, and if he wanted to go to the gas station and get something to eat, he could have my credit card. Fifty-fifty it’d get declined, but that I didn’t say.
Want anything? he asked. We ain’t eat breakfast.
No, I said. I looked at the urn. My belly was still burning.
I took the urn in two hands—it wasn’t heavy as all that, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of dragging a body—and found a dried-up creek bed somewhere out of sight. The puckering dirt made me think of grandma’s funeral all those years ago. It had been dry then too, and we all walked home in the wordless, rainless air, all of us tranquil and silent like on a Sunday. Noah asked grandpa if we could go for ice cream and grandpa threw a dime at him. I asked Noah if I could have it, and of course Noah couldn’t do anything with just a dime, so I took it and stuffed it in a sock. I started collecting the change he threw at us. I bought all sorts of ice creams.
I dug a little bit into the earth, but the dirt was hard and ungiving. I felt Caleb’s absence behind me, so I brought the urn back to the car. The sun was straight above now, hot on my hair and shadowless. But Caleb wasn’t in the diner. The waitress crooked a painted eyebrow at me and said he’d never come in.
So I drove around looking. Funny how a place like Moriah suddenly feels big when you’re looking for someone. The bar at the big corner—which wouldn’t be more than a dive in New Orleans—seemed to stand over me now. It was the obvious place, but Caleb wasn’t there, either.
Maybe an hour later, I pulled into the gas station. Grandpa was in the urn. I’d packed him in with a seatbelt and told him don’t you fidget back there like he used to with us. I filled up half a tank, then thought better of it when I patted the back of my jeans. Caleb had my wallet.
Then there he was, just around the corner of that gas station, a wet paper bag in his hand. He threw it back and leaned against the wall, brazen as you like, like he thought he was invisible. Last night’s same allergic look was already puffing up in his cheeks. It was nine o’clock.
When he finally saw me, he cringed into a palm. “Ahh, shit. Busted. I wanted a lil’ goodbye-somethin’-somethin’.”
“Six months dry, Caleb?”
“Real funny. You lied to me. Did you even want to come to New Orleans? Or were you just anglin’ for cash?”
“I’ll come to New Orleans if you want. If it makes you feel better.”
“This ain’t about me.”
“It’s all about you, Adie, you and your Goddamn conscience. That’s why you came back, right? What’s all this shit about burying grandpa? The man didn’t even wanna burial. And now, what, you gon’ fix me? I’m a beater, Adie.” He laughed at his own thoughts. “One of those un-fixies they crumple into cubes.”
“You don’t wanna be fixed.”
“Same thing, ain’t it?”
I went to the front seat, pulled out the seat belt, then took the urn over to Caleb. He had saddled down next to the wall of the gas station, halfway to nodding off. A fresh plume of grandpa’s ashes woke him up well enough, though. He kicked awake, patted at the dust like he was used to it, maybe thinking it was another dusty morning for Caleb Sanders. But when he saw me standing over him with the urn, his skin went white.
“Adie? What the hell you doin’?”
“You already dead, right? Be with your own.”
The Pinto coughed a start, but that was all it needed. A half tank of gas could last me as far as Louisiana. That had been the idea, but as I drove out of Moriah, turning the mirror away so I wouldn’t see Caleb, I knew I was driving to Georgia instead.
Soon it was afternoon, the air going crisp and salt-scrubbed. I liked the humid tang of it, the way you could taste Moriah so thick under the tongue that you could tell when you were free of it because the air got clean again. I felt good, like I could drive all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. My name wasn’t on Rick’s lease. It wasn’t anywhere in Moriah. And the pet shop wasn’t the only minimum wage job in Christendom.
By the time I needed a stretch that evening, I’d made it all the way to Dothan. My card didn’t work at the pump so I used up the last of my cash for the gas money, but that meant counting my change at the counter just to get myself a bottle of Coke. The clerk emptied out the take-a-penny tray, and even then I didn’t get to one-twenty-five.
“Here.” He slapped a quarter down for me. “Call it even.”
“All right,” I said. “Even.”
By the time it got dark I had crossed into Georgia and I knew there would be no motel for me, so I pulled into a park ‘n’ ride where there were always other cars, then grabbed the space blanket and curled up in the back seat. It wasn’t so bad, not like people say. It killed my neck and I had to use a sweatshirt as a pillow, sure, but even so, I slept straight through till dawn.
“Tickleneck,” Spotlong Review, 2022
Esophageal cancer is the worst way to go. Most people my age aren’t even aware of their esophagus—just that we have a system of pipes inside us and all we have to do is make sure air and food pass through the correct ones—until the circuitry of swallowing doesn’t work. My father was sixty when he learned what a hiatal hernia is. It’s when the stomach pokes through the diaphragm and up into the chest, something akin to a kink in the hose. He spat up blood a few times. His stool had gone the color of char. When doctors took a closer look, they found the hernia, sure, but they also found the reason he’d withered off thirty-three pounds from his one-hundred-and-seventy-five. By the time he went into hospice, he was down to one-fifteen. Stage four. Now swallowing his own saliva makes him wince. I shouldn’t make light of anyone else’s suffering; maybe there are worse ways to go. But this man was a New York City firefighter; a single mother trapped on 9/11 still sends him Christmas cards from Great Neck because my father had the muscle to drag her out of ash and steel. And this is how he dies. Like a permanent fixture of furniture, nailed to the ground. I spend many of these mornings the same way, counting wall tiles, tapping jazz rhythms into the linoleum floor, wondering whether there is a single molecule of mercy in the world.
This morning, I take a long walk from my father’s hospice room until I encounter a pale blue clock hanging on the wall. Its plastic edges curve into a silhouette of a silly-grinning hippopotamus. Baby-blue, two-tooth smile. We’re on the same floor as the children’s ward where you tend to catch these little glimpses of levity. Balloons, for one—there are always balloons moored somewhere. People leave cupcakes with rainbow-colored frosting on the nurse’s counters. But I wonder about that clock. I don’t see the appeal. Does a grinning hippo really do anything to cheer a child with metastatic bone cancer?
My phone buzzes in my pocket. A text from my editor, Jane Lemore. How’s he doing, hope you’re well. “But if you can get away,” the next bubble says, “I have an exclusive.”
Don’t know how much time my father has, I text. Can I have another personal day?
Is he conscious? Do you need to be there?
Then you won’t want to miss this one, Jane says. Then she tells me who’s giving us the exclusive.
An hour later, I am driving through Elmsford on my way to see him.
No one has seen Thaddeus Harles in public for thirty years, but everyone agrees on one fact: he is alive. If he is as old as Jane thinks, he was born on January 31, 1897, making him the only human alive who has touched the 19th century. Conspiracy wackos think he’s already dead, and every so often I find myself agreeing with the message boards, but then the odd donation comes in with Harles’ signature on it—a new wing at Sloan Kettering needing fresh letters to decorate its doors—and as if nourishing himself on every groundbreaking ceremony that thanks Thaddeus Harles, who couldn’t be with us today, he lives another ten years. At least on paper.
On the way up through Westchester, I mentally sift through the five Ws. The Who: Thaddeus Harles III. The What: Jane came across an old photograph of Thaddeus’ Harles’ grandfather, Thaddeus the First, shaking the hand of Al Capone, and now Harles’ estate is so alarmed by the revelation that they invited a journalist to help clear the air. The Where: Harles’ sprawling estate in Tickleneck, New York, a town on the east bank of the Hudson and not far from Sleepy Hollow. The When: Modern Day, and maybe Prohibition, and maybe the year Harles was born. If I can find out that much, Jane gets her headline. As to The Why? That gives me something to ask. A good journalist is half a beggar—needy and drinking too much, always prodding for just-a-little-help to get them through their day.
I stop at the gate, tell the intercom my name, and pull up a half-crescent driveway filled with black sedans. Harles’ personal secretary, Drake Dobson, greets me under the portico. He is slight and narrow-shouldered with a handshake like a wet towel, but his eyes bear into me with the strength a man gets from deep-gutted contempt. As a journalist I am used to this. Dobson leads me to the great hall, where I’m to stay put while he checks on Mr. Harles. To my surprise, Dobson walks past the bifurcated staircase that dominates the room and simply slides through a first-floor entryway. I imagined Harles laying up in a bedroom, dungeoned in the labyrinth of hoses that keep him alive.
When Dobson returns, he is wearing a surgical mask. “I’m afraid Mr. Harles is very tired at the moment. Perhaps you can come back another day.”
“You invited me. I came up specifically for today. On a personal day.”
“You understand. At Mr. Harles’ age—”
“I left my father on his deathbed to be here.”
This is obviously not the right thing to say; Dobson peels off the surgical mask and leans within spitting distance. “Anything for a story, you people. Your own father. And you know you have all the time in the world with Mr. Harles.”
I’ve met personal secretaries like him before and I think I know what delusions he’s suffering. It’s a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. His whole world, his status and his livelihood, is Thaddeus Harles. It’s not that he doesn’t believe Harles will die one day; it’s that he’s never given the matter any thought.
“I just mean I can’t drive back yet,” I say. “Not without speaking to Harles. Or, if you like, we can run a half-assed story later today and tell the public what we already know without any of your input. I’m here because Jane wants to be courteous to you. I think you should extend the same.”
A bluff. Jane told me no such thing. But I see it register in Dobson with a click in his jaw. He loops the surgical mask around his ear, a slow and procrastinating movement, like a scuba diver putting on oxygen before plunging into the deep. When he returns, he nods the go-ahead and hands me a clean mask.
“Since now you know our secret, I trust that you’ll be prepared for what you see.”
This comment strikes me as odd—having a grandfather who knew Al Capone should not have a physical manifestation, a leprosy you can see—but before I even load a reply in my chamber, Dobson turns and leads me through the entryway.
The Harles library is a womb of books and comfort. There are lamps on the end tables, but they remain unlit; a funereal, late-October gloom brings the only source of light through the windows. Rhythmic ocean sounds pump from a bluetooth speaker in the corner. And like a womb, there is no furniture lining the walls; there is only the person in the middle. I can’t see Harles behind the aide who keeps dipping into a jar of coconut oil, rubbing it into the back of a withered hand. An IV drip hangs above him. But there is nothing else like a hospital—no heart rate monitor, no doctor in the corner, frowning over his stethoscope. There is one machine, but Harles’ free hand isn’t hooked to it; he only holds a black signal device. “Mr. Harles,” Dobson calls. “The reporter.”
I’m prepared for an old voice, something like the creaking sighs of a 19th-century whaling vessel, but there is only clicking. A screen by his hip shows Harles cycling through autosuggested words. He works through it with practiced speed. Then a voice stutters out of the machine, fast and synthetic, the same lifeless murmurs that read websites for the deaf.
Offer him drink.
“Anything?” Dobson leans in and, knowing how much Harles can and cannot hear, he doesn’t bother to whisper. “His mind works, but he can’t speak.”
“Nothing, thank you.” Then, loudly: “Mr. Harles. I’m Ken Thurgood. Jane Lemore sent me about the picture. Is this still a good time for an interview?”
Click, click-click, tap, clickety-tap. Leave us alone. You too, Gail.
At first, I assume this is meant for me. But the nurse who must be Gail stands and leaves, giving me a full view of Harles. It takes conscious effort to keep my lips connected. There was once an Indonesian man named Mbah Gotho who claimed to be a hundred and forty-five; I remember because his face was so pruny and suffocated and molten with age, you were startled enough to believe him. When reporters asked him what he wanted for his hundred and forty-fifth birthday, he said he wanted to die.
Harles looks like that. The skin around his eyes puckers in bruisy lines, so vacuumed-in you think there must not be eyes in there but lemons. His ears are saucer-sized, gray and flat and wrinkled like medallions of pork. This morning, I thought 124 years old was a stretch. But looking at him now, I gauge that as the minimum.
He tries to sit up but winces. Every movement is obvious agony.
“Let me help you,” Dobson says.
A quick click of the repeat button. Leave us alone.
Dobson throws a sour-lipped look at me as he leaves. He has already decided who I am. A reporter, an enemy, a Manhattan Jew—which wouldn’t be a bad guess, though my mother’s family is specifically Ashkenazi, sons and daughters of gypsies of Yiddishkeit who wrote nothing down. But I write everything down. Perhaps that is what Dobson hates, because when I pull out a recorder and tap it to Harles’ desk, he gives the door a slam.
“Is it all right if I record this?” I ask. “For my notes.”
Tap-click. No video, no pictures.
“No. Just audio.” I beep the recorder awake. The key is to do this before the warm-up; people are more comfortable with a blinking red dot if you firmly establish it as a presence in the room. “It’s a really nice library. Must have been a lot of work.”
Click-click. Not throwing books away? Done harder work than that.
“What line of business were you in?”
“But you have so much money—”
The clicks come fast, but he’s patient to get every sentence in correctly, like he has all the time in the world. First job, I was boy. Collecting leeches for doctor. I’d hike up my trousers. Stream by the schoolhouse. Pick them off my legs. Good money. People always leeched then. My favorite job was lamplighting. That was before the bulb. Bulb did away with us. I inherited some money after that and I invested it. Smartest thing I ever did. Compound interest.
“That’s a lot of compound interest.”
Lot of time.
I laugh, though he doesn’t. Perhaps he’s self-conscious of the age jokes. Leeches. The bulb. Even he wouldn’t remember when the bulb was newfangled technology. My grandpa used to make jokes like that, saying of course, back then—in the Bible days—we all wore sandals. He loved Mel Brooks’s old tapes, The Two Thousand Year Old Man, and stole all his jokes from it.
“So I like to start these things with a confession of my own, if it helps,” I say. “I’m an alcoholic. Recovering, eighteen months sober. I was married once—her name was Lauren—and she said if I didn’t go to rehab, she’d divorce me. I went to rehab and she divorced me anyway. Maybe I deserved it.” It is an old journalist’s trick, sure, but I always thought there is something inherently commercial about giving up a secret to get one. Usually I would stop here, but Harles doesn’t raise his fingers to reply, and something in his obvious mortality makes him seem like the ideal confidant. “I would never hit a woman. But I said some things to her back before rehab. Just to argue, I guess, because if you argue the point, then that’s the sign that some part of you is still healthy. But I went too far. Some of the things I said were probably worse than if I slapped her. She was right to divorce me.”
Harles clicks a few times. Tell her that.
He is still clicking.
Thing about getting old. No one alive can forgive you. All dead. You know that poem. Water, but not a drop to drink. That’s me. Harles sucks in air, winding himself like a trebuchet. Secrets. 1936. Berlin games going on. Thought Hitler was all right. Didn’t know who he was. But there are letters. Wrote some awful things. A man judges himself harshly. Imagine living so long you get to see what history thinks of you.
“There you go. A recovering alcoholic and a Nazi sympathizer. Nice pair we make.” The way Harles laughs—leaning over and hacking up so dry I expect there to be blood, and then of course there is some blood, flecks at first but eventually something more resembling a spray. He doesn’t seem alarmed by the rust-colored stains on his wrist, doesn’t even wipe himself off.
“I’m sorry. Should I get the nurse?”
Hurts to laugh. Everything hurts. This hurts better.
I would hate to see what hurts worse—this I leave unsaid. The ocean sounds wash between us as he waits, the white noise of gulls and foam. I imagine this unseen tide at its apogee, about to turn, mimicking us.
Click-click. So. You know.
“About Al Capone? Yes. But we don’t know the context. We were curious if you had a reaction or any explanation.”
Didn’t know him.
“Al Capone? Or your grandfather?”
Capone. Gangster. One photo and everyone thinks you’re in cathouse.
I stare at the text on his screen for a minute. “You mean cahoots?”
Machine tries to spell for me.
Was this man the Harles in the picture? Thaddeus the Third, the man in front of me? In the 1920s he would have been a young man; the picture was in some Chicago speakeasy, a crowd of people in zoot suits around them, all slick with body heat and moonshine. He could have been anyone. But the photograph shows an old Harles.
“How did your grandfather earn his money? You mentioned inheritance.”
A cobbler. London. It was him came over.
“Cobbler? Well, he did well for a former cobbler.”
Penniless. Died before I was born.
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand. That’s him in the picture, isn’t it? Thaddeus Harles the First. Unless we have that wrong. Is that Thaddeus the Second? Your father, maybe?”
You don’t know?
He turns away. The tap of a button on his nightstand rings a chime, which brings in Dobson, who carries in the same stormcloud face, the same desire to end the interview prematurely. I might as well ask it.
“Mr. Harles,” I say. “What year were you born?”
And then Dobson is in the room, rushing to bedside, clicking off my recorder, flicking it my way, attending to Harles with a hand to his forehead and holding the IV drip up to the dim light of the windows to see its level. Morphine? I don’t know what morphine drips look like, let alone if they make a man believe he met Al Capone as an old man.
Dementia, then. Dementia—making this interview useless, the trip up to Tickleneck nothing but time away from my father.
“I’ll escort you to the great hall, Mr. Thurgood,” Dobson says. And then he does. All the while I am rewinding through the words I had with Harles, the picture, the date, curious why I didn’t study harder in basic arithmetic. Of course it was impossible that Harles was that old. Of course it was. No one had ever been that old, unless you ask my mother, who takes Methusaleh’s nine-hundred-and-sixty-nine years in Genesis as literal. Even Mbah Gotho had claimed to be half a century younger than Harles would have to be.
But he seemed so lucid. Even Dobson said his mind still worked.
Before Dobson can shove me out the door, I click the recorder on and plant myself in a seat against the wall, fortifying myself, making myself un-shoveable. “Why does this man believe he’s over two hundred years old?”
“Nevermind what you heard.”
“If you don’t tell me, I’ll run with the story as-is. Harles has lost it.”
I expect Dobson to point at the door and say get out.
Instead, he answers the question.
The afternoon at Harles’ Tickleneck house is familiar territory. Sitting against that wall and playing 8-Ball on my phone, I might as well be back at New York Presbyterian, waiting for a moment or two of my father’s consciousness to bring light to the sensory deprivation chamber of my life. At least Dobson was amusing, as insulting as his story was. After he finished his run of cliches—eastern Europe, Budapest or Bucharest or one of those, Harles wishing for immortality from a gypsy’s mother straight out of an Edgar Allen Poe short—I decided to indulge him and ask for a birth certificate as proof. Of course a midwife in 1809 wouldn’t know what a birth certificate was, Dobson replied, but he showed me a record of the christening. Thaddeus Jefferson Harles, Baptized this Day the First of August, In the Year of Our Lord 1809, Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns.
If it was a story, at least they hadn’t improvised it.
Dobson retreated back to Harles, where he is now, and they are undoubtedly discussing me. My feet bob up and down, heels tapping the floor. I want a chance to speak with Harles, if only to see what he thinks is true; that Thaddeus Harles is succumbing to dementia is a story in its own right.
Dobson opens the door. “There won’t be a third chance.”
As I tap the recorder, Dobson brings in lunch. Celery broth and boiled carrots for Mr. Harles, whose stomach has gotten too sour for onions and garlic, and a bright, raisiny chicken salad sandwich for me. Looking at Harles as Dobson spoons tiny spittles of broth to his mouth, I’m not sure how I could have been so wrong to imagine Harles could be as young as a hundred and twenty-four. He is plainly older than that. How much, I don’t know. But older. Even in the places where there should be no wrinkles, Harles’ skin is a lacework of canyons and gorges, ancient like the forgotten waterways of Mars. It’s as if Harles has aged eighty years between sessions. I know that change comes from me, not him. I find myself thinking of those videos I had to watch in Psych 101: even when we hear identical sounds, if we’re presented with videos of mouths making different noises, we will hear the sound our eyes tell us to hear. Bah becomes fah, and vice versa. It must work the other way: we see what our ears tell us to see. We think we can trust our senses, but we cannot. Human beings are not clear-headed creatures with the occasional blind spot; we are cave bats, always groping through the oceans of our blindness, numb to entire universes around us.
Thought I was story of the millennium, Harles says when Dobson is gone. The eternal man.
Let me determine that. This I don’t say.
Thought you knew. You had the photo.
“I thought I was here for the skeleton in the Harles family closet. Now you’re telling me there is no Harles family. Every Harles has always been you. The man in the photo—also you.”
That why we asked you here. Don’t tell anyone.
“I’m not even sure I can. My editor might not go for it. Sounds like something for supermarket tabloids. The President impregnated me with an alien baby, that sort of thing. Thaddeus Harles immortal! Whatever you say will probably die with us in this room.”
Good. Nothing else does.
His chest falls. My answer eased him. Something like hunger pangs ring inside me—my journalist’s instinct, desperate to speed him along to the secrets he must carry, even if he is a man without any speed. But talking is a mistake. Silence is a vacuum into which people must pour themselves. It is better to fight instinct, dig my fingernails into my palms, clench my sphincter, let the blood pressure inflate my insides before I blink first.
It feels like fifteen minutes before Harles starts clicking again. You don’t believe me.
“I looked it up before I came here. Before you, the oldest human on record was Jeanne Calment. A French woman. A hundred and twenty-two. Born in 1875, died over twenty years ago. Dobson told me you were born in 1809.”
Click-clack. Yes. No believe?
“I believe you believe that.”
Good. Why not leave?
Because Thaddeus Harles believing he was born in 1809 is story enough. I don’t say this either. I am thinking of a time on the lower east side when I interviewed a pizzeria owner who won Best Pie in Manhattan. The man was at least seventy with exposed, hairy shoulders that reminded me of the strands in a well-worn sponge of steel wool. When he finally won the attention of a journalist, he didn’t want to talk about pizza. He’d been baking all his life, he said, the implication being now that he’d struck it big with a newsman, it was time to tell me all about how he had it on good authority that Nancy Pelosi was a lizard from Zeta Reticuli. This he said without any irony. I left with a better story—not Nancy Pelosi’s extraterrestrial origins, but how a pizza could be so good that customers would put up with the pizzeria’s eccentric old man and his blathering about interstellar conspiracies.
In talking to the steel wool chef, I had never once questioned him. I learned long ago it is better to indulge a lunatic’s fantasies, to be agreeable and curious rather than judgmental. The sound bites are better that way.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t know what a two-hundred-year-old-man looks like.”
“All right. Then let’s talk about what it’s like to be two hundred years old.”
For the first time I see him click a button that brings up numbers instead of letters.
Two-hundred and thirteen, the synthetic voice reads.
Perhaps his mind is not entirely gone.
Harles dances around my questions about the origin of his immortality as if it is the least interesting part of his story. When I press him—thrice—on what powers could possibly grant him immortality, he says he knows as little as I do. Then he sighs and works on the speech machine with more dedication than any other sentence yet.
Do you remember what you were doing in November in kindergarten?
“No,” I admit.
Most people remember one or two things only. How long ago?
“I’m thirty-seven. So thirty-odd years.”
What you’re asking about—150 years ago. Memories are shreds of shreds.
“But that day changed everything for you. Those sorts of memories should stick.”
Spirit willing. Flesh weak.
He makes sure I am watching, then taps a finger to his temple, drilling the point home.
As we go on, Harles continually brings up potassium cyanide. In the golden age of the space program, he says, NASA would give their astronauts small capsules of potassium cyanide. He’d read up on cyanide poisoning, learned that cyanide’s mechanism was to interfere with respiration by binding to a hemoglobin precursor and simply inhibiting its action. If you can’t metabolize oxygen, your remaining years turn into remaining minutes.
Look it up, Harles says. Cyanide poisoning. See how fragile we really are.
I ask him if he ever thought about taking cyanide pills.
Those don’t work.
“Then you’ve tried killing yourself. That sounds awful.”
“Not on me, no. Sorry.”
No teeth now. Just remember liking how it felt on my tongue. Like silk and earth.
A wave of simulated sea-foam washes up in the white noise machine. There are no seams in the sound. It is not playing a tape on a loop; its sole function is the permanent heartbeat of sound. The heavy roll of the ocean, the sizzle of froth washing down the sand.
“You were born in Tickleneck?” I ask.
His answer is one of the pre-saved options on the screen. Yes.
The artificial voice pronounces it in earnest: Question mark.
“I mean to be this old and end up back where you started. I can’t even imagine what Tickleneck looked like back then.”
“What do you remember? How far back?”
Mother told me how town got its name. They buried a man. Criminal. Rapist, maybe. Up to his neck. Tickled him for torture. Tortured him to death. That stayed with me. People making torture out of anything.
“I’ve never heard that.”
Imagine all you haven’t heard.
“Why don’t you have them cremate you? You can’t possibly survive that.”
Afraid what happens if I do.
“Then you’re still afraid of death.”
Worse. Afraid life keeps going in the ash.
“Everyone wants what you have.”
What do I have?
Whatever he types, it takes a long time, but he does so with the inevitability of something he has thought long about. People want comfort. Not life. They don’t want to think about death. That’s all. What good is eternal youth? In a hundred years, everyone you loved—dead. In a billion. The world gone. In a trillion. A quintillion. Universe goes cold and dark. But there you are. Trapped in the meat world. Floating. Can’t breathe. But still no death. Eternity loneliness. Quintillion quintillion years. Still no scratch surface of forever. No know if afterlife. Where loved ones are. You trapped yourself here. Miserable meat world. Oh but your teeth are white. Smooth skin. That I give you.
“Don’t you fear hell?”
Not after this. Would rather take my chances with God.
The inside of my mouth turns briny. I feel my lips smack. I am not in Tickleneck; I am a child again on the Garden State Parkway up from my mother’s parents in Toms River, lulling myself into hypnosis by the pulse of passing streetlights. There only had to be one or two stars in the sky, but for city kids, they were enough to make the entire world seem lit. I would rest my head against the glass and think about Heaven. How could anyone enjoy eternity? Ten years old, I thought, seemed like a lifetime. What’s that against ten thousand years?
“That sounds like torture.” I say it with inevitability. We are both attending a funeral for something already passed. “I’m sorry.”
Only two hundred and thirteen years in. Still have body. Still have a face. Be sorry in five hundred years. Thousand. Oh but you can’t. You will be gone. You are so lucky. All my wealth, to be you.
The ocean swishes, that seamless noise. I click the recorder off.
Whichever story I have—an immortal man or a deluded one—it is already in there.
When I leave, the conga-line of black sedans has vanished, though I had never seen anyone else in the house except for Dobson and Harles and Gail. I don’t ask about that. Dobson escorts me all the way to my car, a rented Honda Civic so old it still has a crank window. Before he lets me leave, Dobson waits outside, so I have to pump it down to hear him ask me for my card. He takes it and reads it with both hands, balancing it with the horizon as if he has to be the steadying force in my life.
“I’ll watch your website,” Dobson says. “If the story is not up by tomorrow evening, Mr. Harles would like to send you a check to express his gratitude.”
“Would fifty thousand dollars suffice?”
Then he really believes it, too. I think of my father’s estate, his shitty insurance, the expensive days in hospice. I’ve already seen the first bill. “There’s a GoFundMe for my dad. Dale Thurgood. I’m sure he’d appreciate an anonymous donation.”
Dobson allows a smile. “In that case, let us part on good terms, Mr. Thurgood.”
“Once I see the donation.”
This gets a final frown out of him, but I have peeled off before he can speak.
I’m at a busy intersection in Yonkers when my phone buzzes. Lemore has always had a providential sense of timing.
What’s the story with Harles? she asks. Can she count on a thousand words by this evening?
It’s pouring outside now. Rain coils down the windshield. It makes me think of how rivers look on a long enough timeline—same antsy movements, bending around new corners when they’ve eaten enough earth, leaving oxbow loops where the old river had been. Wait long enough, and even those dry up.
It couldn’t have been dementia, I decide. He was so lucid. But I don’t know how else to explain it and I’m not going to write a National Enquirer story.
A bunch of bullshit, I type. Denial denial denial. And the guy’s so old he only talks nonsense. I think he has dementia. All we have is a picture of a handshake. I’m sorry.
Worth a shot, Lemore says. I’m sorry about taking you away from your father. I’ve filed a request for time-and-a-half.
Thank you. Sorry there wasn’t more.
Worth a shot, Lemore says again.
Back in New York by evening, I pick up quesadillas from Ha-Ha Baja without thinking of why I got two servings—maybe my sister will be there tonight, she likes anything piled with pico de gallo—and forget I can’t bring food into this section of the hospital. I leave the styrofoam boxes with the nurse. I haven’t eaten since lunch, but I have no appetite. I wander the halls. The sounds of ocean and foam linger with me, bile-bitter, like the bite of overextracted coffee still under the tongue. I head for the swing doors of hospice when I see a familiar man in scrubs walking out. He looks startled to see me.
Mr. Thurgood, he says, I am so sorry. We tried to reach you.
He takes a breath and tells me my father passed that afternoon. Then a hand is on my shoulder and a few hugs from people I barely know pass under my armpits and my legs feel surprisingly good, since everyone knows that when your hero-father dies, your legs are supposed to flounder and give out and pull you to the floor or it means you didn’t care about the deceased, but I find myself trying to concentrate on what the nurse is saying, as if squinting at his lips will sharpen my hearing and tune me into all the details of death—what we will do with the body, who has been contacted, when I can see him. But I don’t go into the room to see my father. My father is not there.Rudderless in the world, I start wandering, which brings me back to the children’s ward. It’s as if Harles’ white noise machine is still in my head, submerging the real sounds, the mollified conversations, the gasping of respirators, the nurse intercoms paging Dr. Bhavsar. In a waiting area, a woman who must be a mother has worn a tissue down to a wrinkled mess. She wails like someone with an open wound. It’s a sound I should be making. But a Hippopotamus above the hallway—baby-blue skin, two-tooth smile—ticks on. There is even a little tail wagging with each tock, a curly plastic tube I didn’t see this morning. The fact that someone had to think of that and then fashion it out of plastic makes me laugh. What a gorgeous little mercy.
“Seen,” Every Day Fiction, 2020
“What if I cheated on you?”
Hattie always came at Tom with wild scenarios: what if you found a prettier girlfriend, what if I cheated on you, what if there’s a nuclear winter and the survival of humanity depends on you hooking up with Barbara Palvin? He’d told her he liked Barbara Palvin once when she was watching the Victoria’s Secret runway show. Once. And she’d asked in the first place. He loved her, all right, but she returned that love like a hug with its claws in your back.
“Then I’d break up with you,” Tom texted back. Put his thumb over the wink emoji, thought it was funnier if he didn’t. Drier.
A gray checkmark winked. Sent. Delivered: 12:39 a.m.
He fell asleep waiting for the response.
There are two lines that matter. The first is the Control Line. It’s crisp and red. It’s there so you can see if the Positive Test Line looks stark enough. If it’s not, it could mean anything else: you’re early in the pregnancy and you’re barely producing hCG, you didn’t pee on it long enough, you drank too much water that day…
Hattie’s was crisp and red.
Tom once described his family as “traditional.” Hattie had taken this to mean they would disapprove of her on sight: the nose stud, the pink fringes in her hair. Tom introduced her at Aunt Rita’s birthday party, promising it would be a piece of cake, since they were all such nice people. Hattie imagined a coven of withered women who would cast spells with their eyes. She wore a sweater over the tattoos.
But Tom was right. The women of the family Martin were huggers who squealed when someone they loved—which was everybody—entered the room. They only spoke in jokes and quips, all through smiles the size of pumpkins. They hugged her with big meaty arms.
Then Aunt Rita singled her out after dinner. “Hattie, darlin’. What’s that tattoo of yours say?”
“There on your wrist.”
“Oh. ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’”
Aunt Rita considered that a minute, then pulled her sleeve own back. A black scribble rested between wrist and elbow. “Rage,” she read. “Rage against the dying of the light.” Her husband elbowed her. “What? I was young once.” That brought Hattie immeasurable relief.
After they sang the birthday song, Tom gave Hattie’s nose a little honk and asked, “piece of cake?”
“I’m surprised,” Hattie said. “It really was.”
Tom looked at her, wondering what “it” meant, then turned and showed the sliver of Oreo cake he’d plated for her. Did she want any? Hattie turned red and said yes. The women Martin all ate cake, after all, and they were happy. That was when she decided that she could be a Martin one day. And just as happy.
Hattie tossed the pregnancy test in the trash. She grew a heightened sense of things in the bathroom. When life changes that fast, you start noticing things you didn’t notice before: the heat humming in the laundry room, the crisp red hue of the bottle of Drano.
She’d texted: “what if I cheated on you?”
Her phone buzzed. Then I’d break up with you. 12:41 a.m.
No winkie face, no emoji. Her reply remained gray, never turning blue, which would indicate it had been seen. She skipped the texting and called him back. No answer.
But she knew how to wake him up.
Tom woke the next morning to nine missed calls and the police at his door. That was when they told him.
They brought him to Hattie’s. He didn’t have to look at Hattie, but there were plenty of uniforms there. One was a chatty woman wearing rubber gloves. She was full of information: Drano has a pH of 14 because it’s basically liquidized lye, she said, which means it’s strong enough to eat copper piping if it’s old enough. And, well, a human esophagus isn’t strong like copper.
One of the investigators pulled up a pregnancy test wand in its plastic sheath. “Guessing you didn’t know about this?”
“No,” Tom said. Then, though no one had asked: “I would have forgiven her.”
There was milk spilled in the kitchen, so the investigators guessed Hattie had taken a capful of Drano, read the label and saw you were supposed to get a cup of water or milk in you and then call 9-1-1.
Tom asked if Hattie had suffered. But he didn’t have to listen for the answer. He knew it was a stupid question once it came out.
Hattie’s mother—another Hattie—still lived in the trailer of Hattie the Younger’s childhood. Tom delivered the news. Hattie the Elder had the far-off look of someone doing all the calculations on the spot.
“She didn’t mean it,” she said finally. “Bet she thought she’d call 9-1-1 and they’d pump her clean. Then guess who feels really bad for her? Visits her in the hospital?”
“I don’t think she wanted to die in the first place.”
“No. Not that one. I used to slap her up and down and she’d get in the bathroom and cut herself. On the outside part of her wrists. She claimed she didn’t know how to do it. Still threatened to do it for real next time. Never did. Never would.”
“How do you know?”
She held up her wrist, showing scars as thin and white as liquid paper. “Because she’s me. You can take the trailer park outta the girl…”
On the way home, Tom thought about the last message he’d sent to Hattie—his Hattie. He’d sent it so obviously as a joke. Didn’t even need the emoji. It would be funnier that way. Drier. “Then I’d break up with you.”
It was dry all right. Ha-ha.
“Then I’d break up with you,” he’d said.
He checked it. Overnight, its checkmark had turned blue.
Everything else was gray.
“Sunset 9037,” Strangelet Magazine, 2013
Sunset 9036 was mostly blood-red and everyone digested that in their own way. Aunt Gilly stood out in the road and prayed, which had me grateful most of the neighbors had already gone. Mom couldn’t be bothered with sunsets. She wandered out to the Bakers’ farm field, holding her cell phone up to the sky in hope of a clear signal that wouldn’t come. Uncle Fritz sat in a saggy old lawn chair on the porch and eyed the sun with a vague wince that could have been either anger or despair. I snapped a photo of the whole western sky. I’d taken to documenting all of humanity’s remaining sunsets. Photographs of the previous twenty-nine were uploaded to an external hard drive I kept in the old guest room upstairs. Of course there was no real reason to keep them. But once everyone heard about the asteroid I tallied how many sunsets had passed since I’d been born, leap years and all. That had been the night of Sunset 8948. When this one finally slipped under the pine trees and the sky went purple, I counted, 9036.
Only one left.
Dad was more optimistic. “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight,” was his refrain, even though he’d never been a sailor. The town of Kettle Moraine, Wisconsin was fifty miles from the Lake and a thousand miles from the nearest ocean. “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.” Some axioms you hear so much they become true, the same way you absorb secondhand memories from family stories. That was the case here. I didn’t know how true the sunset nonsense was but as an adult I’ve always reported it as fact to anyone who would listen.
Dad found me and Uncle Fritz on the porch and slapped his thighs in a strange, exasperated joy. He was tall and gangly, with a purposeful, toothy grin. These days it was meant to look reassuring.
“You know, Evan, I think it’s a good sign. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”
“Yeah, I know, dad.”
Aunt Gilly followed him up the single porch step, and most of her sunflower moomoo followed her like a cape. “I have a lovely prayer written down,” she announced in that loud, nickelodeon baritone. She had red Dizzy Gillespie cheeks that looked ready to burst every time she spoke. “I want us all to hold hands.” Uncle Fritz stood up in resignation, and she twisted her fingers into his. “Hold hands. Evan. Rich. Botha ya. Where’s Irene?”
“She’s in the field,” Dad said. “Looking for a signal.”
“Well. We’ve got four of us,” Aunt Gilly said. “That’s double what Jesus needs. Let us pray.” She produced a folded piece of paper from her breasts and held it under the porch light. “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. We got a big comet a-comin’—”
“—asteroid,” I had to correct.
“Shut up, Evan. We got a big comet a-comin’, and they’re some who say it’s gonna blow us all to smithereens, and some say we’re all of us gonna die in the aftermath when the plants get no sunlight. Some say we’re all gonna die in the blast. I say you can change its path. I say you will not let us go hungry, and you will not let the world go dark, and even if things get rough, you will protect us from the looters and the marauders and other evil men. Because I got that faith in my Lord, and if you do these things, I will forever sing your praises. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
“Amen,” dad said.
“I’ll hear you say it, Evan.”
“Amen,” I said.
“Evan,” dad said. “Help me finish the shelter?”
We went to the garage. Dad said Aunt Gilly’s prayers were working because Sunset 9036 had been a sailor’s delight. I told him it didn’t matter, because everyone knew the asteroid was going to hit the southern Pacific Ocean on the night of Sunset 9037, which would be in the early hours of Friday morning, our time. I meant to sound plain and casual about the facts. Credible. But he just beamed at me. “You’re smart, Evan. But there’s a difference between intelligence and preparedness,” he said. “I prefer preparedness. Now let’s go. I have a whole garage full of toilet paper to unload.”
For months dad had been working on a bomb shelter just underneath the garage. When I first came home I told him that building a bomb shelter was missing the point of how big the asteroid was, but by then it was already half-filled with first aid kits, bottles of hydrogen peroxide, cans of creamed corn, spam, green beans, plastic jars of honey, toothpicks and empty jars, and insulin for Uncle Fritz.
The rest would be toilet paper. The shelter didn’t have a toilet, but dad called the toilet paper the dollars of the future. “Supply and demand, Evan. Low supply makes any old mundane thing seem better, beautiful even. Everyone’s loading up water bottles. No one’s thinking about toilet paper. We’ll be the Rockefellers of the post-apocalyptic world.” I hadn’t been able to get him to call it an asteroid, which is what it was. And there would be no economy, I protested, because 99% of the scientists said this is The Big One. Dad wouldn’t hear of it. To him, the sun was just going away for a while. If the world had gone to hell—there was looting everywhere, even our town drug store when the owner washed his hands of it and told his employees he was going to spend his last days in the Virgin Islands—the facts didn’t register with dad. I told him as much.
“Evan,” he said, wagging his finger in the air, “I went into town yesterday and had a quarter pounder with cheese and a small fry. You think I could get a quarter pounder with cheese and a small fry just a few days from the end of the world?”
“You think I’m crazy, but all the neighbors have been asking about my shelter and my well. They don’t think I’m so crazy.”
It was hopeless, to be sure. But it didn’t hurt anyone, either, least of all dad, so after my routine complaints I loaded the toilet paper all the same.
“Excuse me?” A tall man with red hair combed over a prematurely high forehead poked around the side. Todd Eames had been one of those easy smilers you know in high school who seemed destined for great things because he had friends in every class. I was one of them. It had been young Todd Eames who took pity on me the very first day of freshman orientation and introduced me to everyone as his “friend,” though at that time he really only knew me from living down the street. I made most of my high school friends in that class, and once I even thanked him for the kindness. That confused him. Generosity like that was so routine for Todd Eames he didn’t even remember doing it.
“Todd Eames!” my dad said by way of greeting. I gave my casual hey.
“Hey,” Eames said. “My dad said you guys have a well?”
“Sure do,” dad said. Eames came inside, towing a used old milk jug in each hand.
“Could we—could I?” Eames said, holding up the jugs.
“Yeah, you’re welcome to it,” dad said. “You can come back in a few days’ time and fill up again when you need to.” Eames gave a half-crooked smile and sighed through his nostrils, relieved of the shame of asking. “Oh,” dad said, “and tell your dad I said hi.”
Eames stopped. “My dad—” That whispered voice cracked, and instead of finishing the sentence, he walked out the back way.
“Poor kid,” dad said. “Too ashamed to do the asking. You think his dad sent him over?”
“Could be. You’re not worried about them drinking all our water?”
“Good seeds like the Eameses? I know his dad. They’ll take what they need, no more.”
“They’re going to need more than two jugs.”
“I know. Can you believe it, though? The bank president is so desperate for water he sends his son to—off all people—the patent attorney. Strange times ahead.”
No times ahead, I thought, but all I said was, “yep.”
The Internet failed a week prior, and only two kinds of television channels remained: empty off-the-air signals and live news broadcasts with “Breaking!” scrolls on the bottom. The ones still on the air said the asteroid might slip through a narrow band of space and miss us, though it was mostly the talking head televangelists who claimed that. Everyone else said the idea had no credibility at all, that any such “window” had long since come and gone. The Aunt Gillys of the world dismissed those people as pessimists and went on hoping.
Mom marched in the front door, having found the signal she was looking for. “Maura, it’s your mother. We want to talk to you before tomorrow night. The phone companies are going to be down and there will be no way to reach you. Call me back when you get this.”
“You already left messages,” I said.
“At least five,” she admitted. “But I don’t know if they’re getting through.” She didn’t look like she’d been eating, but that was old news. She’d always been thin and sinewy, with hard dyed black hair tied down in a ponytail. The hard wrinkles between her eyes were the deepest and blackest I’d ever seen.
Aunt Gilly came through the front door. “You get a holda Maura?”
“No,” mom said. “When I went out on the Bakers’ field, I got through to her voicemail, and that’s all. No rings, just straight to voicemail. Still. The only reception I got all night. Evan, your sister doesn’t love us anymore.”
Maura did, to be sure, but she’d gone to spend Sunset 9037 with her husband’s family in Minneapolis. Ever since I came home, mom had been on the phone half the time, complaining that missing a Thanksgiving every other year had been a tolerable compromise, but missing the final sunset altogether broke the fifth commandment. Skype had been enough for a while, until the Internet went. Then it was all phone calls. Finally Maura couldn’t bear say I love you and goodbye anymore and probably threw away her phone entirely. That was logical. It didn’t make sense owning a phone anymore. But all I said was, “she does. She just can’t be in two places at once.”
“She’s with her husband’s family,” she said. “She should have chosen her real family.”
“Maura has two kids, mom. She’s with her real family.”
“But you’re here, Evan.”
“Well, I don’t have a wife. Or kids.”
Aunt Gilly pounced on that. “That reminds me, Evan. I met the cutest little brown-haired woman at the comet prayer group and I told her all about my handsome, single nephew. Her name is Sara Kleidenheffer. Or Klopfensteiger, some such. One of those long Germanic names. Should I ask for her number?”
“I don’t have a phone anymore.” Neither would Sara Kleinespeicher.
“What? Why don’t you have a phone?”
“Evan believes those scientists,” mom said. “The comet’s going to kill us all, don’t you know?”
“Poo,” Aunt Gilly said. “We still have electrical power. For Heaven’s sake, some of the TV stations are still on. Would the TV stations still be on if the comet was going to kill us all?”
“Yes. Dad got a quarter pounder in town. It doesn’t mean you’ll be able to get one tomorrow.”
“What’s that one-and-a-thousand chance window they keep talking about, Evan? Just you watch. The thing’ll go right where it needs to go. One-and-a-thousand is all God needs to send that comet away.”
“Oh, poo to your science words,” Aunt Gilly said. “Evan, you don’t pray enough.”
“He’s never been like that Eames boy,” mom said.
“Todd Eames,” Aunt Gilly remembered. “I always liked him. So courteous. Well-bred. You know once he helped me with the groceries, without me even asking? Didn’t even know who I was. He’d take Sarah Klosenpepper’s number. Why can’t you be more like Todd Eames, Evan?”
“It doesn’t matter now,” I told Aunt Gilly.
“That’s an excuse,” Aunt Gilly said, to mom. “Evan was the same way before anyone knew anything about some silly-ass space comet.”
“Don’t talk about me in the third person,” I said. “I’m right here.”
“More than I can say for your sister,” mom said. “You know what Maura’s doing to my heart? Evan, look at this. Here’s what she’s doing.” She had a golf-ball sized avocado in an outstretched hand but when she squeezed it, it didn’t burst. “Oh, cheese-and-crackers!” she shouted, without irony. “This one is all pit.” Mom had a cache of paltry home-grown avocadoes she meant to put into brownies somehow. The last thing she’d seen online before the Internet went down was a recipe that said avocadoes were nature’s butter.
Uncle Fritz came back indoors, though no one paid him any mind until he reached for the cookie jar above the fridge and Aunt Gilly slapped his hand. “Check your sugar first,” she said, so instead Fritz walked into the living room Lay-Z-Boy, wrapped a frilly plaid blanket around his waist, and settled into a deep, pulpy sleep.
Dad came in and picked some of mom’s avocados out from their brown wooden bowl. “These are perfect for the shelter,” he said. “We’ll grow them in jars, just like you’ve been doing. I’ve got canned tomatoes. A drum of garlic salt. Eternal guacamole. How do you translate that? Guamoles et aeternam. Where’s Evan? He would laugh at that. Evan!”
“Right here.” I raised my hand, sure no one was looking.
“Those are for brownies tomorrow,” Mom said. “Put those back.”
“Brownies? You don’t make brownies from avocadoes.”
“I’m going to try. Put them back.” He did, bottom lip extended. “Don’t pout. You know that Mr. Eames, down at the bank, I’ll bet he never pouts to his wife.”
It was much the same that night, dad listing his reasons for optimism (now, he said, he had a “deep gut feeling” about the asteroid skipping off the atmosphere), mom yelling about Maura, Gilly slapping Uncle Fritz away from the skillet of beef and noodles. His cholesterol. I saw some more reports of rioting on the news and asked dad if we should open up his gun locker and test out the old hunting rifles. “Evan,” he laughed, “enough with the riot talk. I have a bat. We won’t need any guns.”
Gilly laughed too. “I prayed about the marauders, Evan. We’ll be okay.”
Before bed I uploaded the photograph of Sunset 9036 onto the external hard drive and wondered how long the things really last without human beings to maintain them. Ten years? A hundred? If they lasted a thousand and some alien civilization came upon the welted Earth and found them, would they know how to use it? I laughed at the thought with wet eyes. Pictures of sunsets were a silly thing to worry about. It didn’t matter anymore. None of it did.
When I woke up, I’d missed sunrise 9037, and dad was shaking me.
“Evan,” he whispered. “Evan. I hear noises at the Mueller place.” The Muellers were the next door neighbors who’d gone to spend sunset 9037 in St. Simon’s. They’d left a furnished house, a full pantry, even a refrigerator (running, as long as the power companies were), but dad had asked and received permission to scour it all clean. Now it was just an empty fossil of western civilization. “I’m going to investigate.”
“Take a gun with you,” I said.
“Nonsense. I won’t need the gun. Where’s your baseball bat? I’ll take that.”
“It could be looters with guns.”
“Pish-posh. Looters with guns. I’m not going to go hunt for people like they were a herd of deer. If they’re looters, they won’t find anything in there, anyhow.”
“That’s what makes us a target. All the stuff in your shelter.”
“Pish-posh,” he repeated. But I must have scared him, because he went out through the deck in the back so he could sneak in the Mueller place through the woods. Mom and Aunt Gilly were already wearing robes, watching dad through the window, sipping what might have been the last of the coffee. The TV in the kitchen was on, muted, but at least we still had power.
“He should have brought the gun,” I said.
Most people don’t shrug verbally, but Aunt Gilly always did, with a sound that was half sigh and half the word “well.” She gave it now. “Well. He’ll be just fine.”
“How do you know?”
“All your dad’s going to find in that Mueller house is your Uncle Fritz. He’s been shuffling about in that house every morning since we got here.”
“What’s he doing?”
“Darned if I know, Evan. The poor man’s succumbed to depression, no matter how much Jesus I give him. He’s been like this for months, ever since he heard about this whole space comet. He quit his job that same day, do you know that? I told him that was rash, but he’d already done it.”
“Don’t you think we should say something?”
“Oh, sure. I tell him all the time,” Aunt Gilly said. “I pray. The answers are God’s to give, though. Your uncle will get his soul back, don’t you worry. Once the comet passes.”
“Asteroid,” I had to correct again. It was true. They couldn’t see anything that was happening, but I’d at least get them to name it right.
That was when Dad came out on the Muellers’ deck, waving at us. Uncle Fritz followed with that slovenly, defeated posture of his.
“I told you I wouldn’t need a gun,” dad said after he slid open the deck door. His voice equal parts victory and relief. “It’s just your Uncle Fritz.”
Fritz explained that he had been using the Muellers’ hot tub every morning. Only this morning he couldn’t get it to work. “A hot tub?” Aunt Gilly asked. “That’s why you’ve been worryin’ us with all your strange behavior?” Fritz nodded and said, yes, and he would have invited Aunt Gilly if she had ever liked hot tubs. “I don’t have the body for hot tubs,” Aunt Gilly admitted. “Water displacement, don’t you know.”
After breakfast I took out the newest rifle from dad’s gun locker and all the ammunition I could. There was a pistol there too, the old cheap one dad bought me when I passed hunter’s safety at eighteen. The shelter was already full, so I had to wipe away half a dozen first aid kits to pack them against the wall. I left the bullets right next to them. For convenience.
The power was still on at dinnertime, just ahead of Sunset 9037, so mom cooked up a beef tenderloin dad had bought. He had frozen the rest of them, without regard to where the power for the freezer would come from, but at least some of them would get eaten. After that, Mom brought in a pan with a thin pale crust of what might have been brownies, though she didn’t announce them. When Uncle Fritz reached for it first, Aunt Gilly snapped.
“All that sugar’s going to give you a heart attack, Fritz. Eat this delicious salad. The dressing is fat-free and sugar-free.”
Uncle Fritz frowned, complied.
Mom checked her phone for messages and sat down. “Nothing, again. Your sister won’t even bother to call us tonight, Evan.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“I want you to explain why your sister loves us less than you do. Did we treat you better? Did we love you more because you’re the baby?”
“She loves you. She told you that a thousand times. She said it on Skype, then on the phone. She and her husband had to be with one family, they had to be together. There was nothing to be done.”
“Well, there are ways to experience it all together. Her phone worked the last time I spoke to her, you know.”
“She couldn’t bear it anymore. All the goodbyes and explanations.”
“You know who can’t bear it, Evan? A mother can’t bear it. That’s my child!”
“Yeah,” I said. My face was hot. “And she’s just as dead as the rest of us. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“If you think this is our last dinner, then you should be even madder than I am.”
“It doesn’t matter if I’m mad or not. None of this does. We’re lucky if we’re not dead this time tomorrow.”
“Don’t you say that! Don’t you say family doesn’t matter at a time like this! I made brownies!”
“You don’t make brownies from avocadoes!”
“You can, and they’re going to be delicious!”
“Now let’s both of you just calm down,” Aunt Gilly said. “Say, Rich, wasn’t there going to be news all about that window, that one-in-a-thousand chance?”
“Sure,” dad said, pouncing on the notion. “That should be any minute.”
Breaking, the TV scroll said. Asteroid misses window.
No one said a word.
Something crashed inside of the Mueller’s house. I stood up, put my ear to the open window. There were sounds like glass shattering, damp pounding like entire book cases and entertainment centers slamming to carpeted floors.
“It’s probably just your Uncle Fritz again…” Aunt Gilly said. Uncle Fritz tapped her on the shoulder as if to say I’m right here. “Oh,” she whispered.
“Let’s not panic,” dad said. “Evan and I will go and check out the Mueller place—everyone else hide.”
“Where?” Aunt Gilly asked.
“Outside,” I suggested. “Behind trees? All the valuable stuff is in here.”
“Okay,” dad said. “Gilly, you hide behind the trees near the Bakers’ field. Irene, you hide behind the mound. Fritz, you watch us in that house, and if we need help, you charge in. Evan.” Dad coughed to clear his throat. “Maybe it’s time you go get that gun.”
By the time dad and I searched the Mueller place, no one was there. But they certainly had been. The bookcases in the library had all been upended so you had to walk over books, and all of the kitchen cabinets were left opened. They had even upended the water cooler and left the empty jug on the floor. I led with the pistol around every corner, imagining screaming looters that never showed.
“They’re gone,” dad said when we’d reached the back porch.
“They’ve moved on,” I said. “Maybe to our house.”
I waved across yards to our dining room, where Uncle Fritz was staring behind the window like some half-obscured phantom. He gave a gentle wave back.
“We should check the property, at least.”
“Okay, I’ll check the garage and front yard,” dad said. “You check the backyard and the well. Is that thing loaded?”
My heart came up in my throat. “Hell yeah, it’s loaded.”
“You be careful, then.”
The back “yard” was really half a lawn, a mound strewn with wildflowers and tall reedy grass, a thin elm forest that went a few acres back. In the forest was an old fire pit that we hadn’t used in years, and the well.
There, a man held a knife to mom’s neck.
He held a finger to his lips to shh me, but he didn’t need to. I had already frozen. “The gun,” he whispered, and I set it slowly to the ground. “And show me your hands, and your mom won’t get hurt.”
“Evan!” she shouted.
He reeled, and squeezed his elbow tight around her neck. “Shut up, you old bitch. You fight back again, I’ll cut your fucking throat.” A sigh went through his nostrils, and his eyes filled with apology. “It’ll be over soon.”
“You guys have a well. You have a shelter, all stocked, right? The drug store was already empty by the time we…” He trailed off into mumbling, but the tight desperate energy around his eyes finished the sentence well enough.
“What do you want? We can’t give you a well.”
“I don’t—I don’t—” He screamed. “I don’t know. I’ll need water! My dad, his girlfriend, they went up north—”
He wailed, and fell to the ground.
Dad had the bat. He hit him again, so hard we all heard the leg crack. Mom ran to me in tears, dad shouted to grab the knife, and somehow Todd Eames found his way to one leg and hopped off, and dad jogged after him, holding the bat over his head like a lunatic, all frantic rage. Aunt Gilly and Uncle Fritz had come outside when they heard the screams, and Gilly took mom in her arms.
“The boy left a trail of blood,” Gilly said, to no one specific. “Did you get a look at him, Evan? Who was it?”
Dad’s war cries were distant howls by then. They were moving fast. Eames must have been skipping quickly on one leg to outrun dad, or maybe dad let him go and only meant to scare him away. It must have worked. I’d never heard dad howl like that.
“It was Todd Eames,” I said.
Aunt Gilly paled. “Todd Eames? From down the street?”
“Todd Eames from down the street.”
Mom sobbed quietly into Gilly’s big elbows. Dad had stopped shouting, so there was only the white noise of crickets and katydids. The evening had a strange windless silence besides that, not even the familiar hum of leaves and air. Uncle Fritz leaned his arm around Gilly and patted mom on the top of her head while Gilly whispered shh, shh. Eventually Dad returned, red-faced and huffing, and for once he wore no smile.
“Is he gone?” Gilly asked.
“He’s gone,” dad said. “But I stopped at McKinley. There was a truck—in the back, people with guns. Rifles. I didn’t want them to see me. I think they drove straight west, though.” Dad picked up the gun where I’d left it and inspected it was if it was something completely new he had never once considered. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s eat that dinner your mom made us.”
No one enjoyed it, not judging from the silence that prevailed at the table. At one point Aunt Gilly whispered to herself saying Todd Eames, I couldn’t believe Todd Eames… Eventually, dad had enough of the silence.
“Okay,” he said. “If no one wants to say anything, I’ll turn on the TV.” He pressed the remote and the TV flicked on. Then he snorted, ready to laugh that the power was still on, but all of the stations had gone to static, even the 24-hour news stations that had uniformly promised to document the apocalypse live.
Gilly said, “oh.”
“’Oh,’ nothing. Time to live.”
The high, quivering voice belonged to Fritz. He leaned over the table, grabbed the big butcher knife, and carved himself out a brownie. It was a huge corner piece, and he chomped into it without a plate.
“Fritz…” Gilly said. “…check your sugar?”
“I could give two shits about my blood sugar right now, Gilly. If I die, I’m going out fat and happy.”
“Well—fat, anyway,” Gilly said.
Mom burst into laughter over that. So did I. We all took some for ourselves, leaving half the pan, until Fritz cut that into quarters and served them out to fill the plates. “Come on,” he said. “If Evan and all the scientists are right we’re not going to be able to eat the leftovers.”
When the laughter died down and we were talking in the living room, the lights went out and the soft blowing of the furnace downstairs fell silent. My ears rang a little. I never knew how comforting the sound of hot air had been all that time.
“Power’s out?” I asked.
“Power’s out,” dad said. “That’ll be the last of it.”
Gilly tugged on my sleeve. “Evan,” she whispered. “This asteroid of yours—it’s really going to kill us, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, Aunt Gilly. Maybe tomorrow, maybe not. They don’t know how quickly. But quickly.”
She nodded softly but perked up straight, as though the solid weight of all her pending prayers had turned to mist. “Well. I suppose I’ve been looking sideways at death all this time. Don’t you ever listen to your old frightened Aunt, Evan. We all have to die, right? If it’s not an asteroid, it’s a car accident, or slipping in the shower, or cancer, maybe. Even old age, for those who don’t give up. But even then it eventually comes, doesn’t it?”
“Well. No point bargaining with God, then.”
“Why are we inside?” Fritz said. “It’s about to be the last sunset, and I wanna enjoy it. Evan, you wanna watch?”
“Let’s all watch,” dad said.
There was still some daylight to burn, though, so Gilly gathered us all in a little group in the front yard and prayed.
“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. That’s a good prayer, Lord, and I’m sorry it’s not the prayer I’ve been making these past weeks. Now I know, Lord, that your people have been despicable these past eons ever since—well, the Flood, ever since. And now that your Judgment has come we’re just gettin’ worse. Men—good, honest men—have become what they once were not. Thieves, looters, and maybe worse. We know your asteroid is going to hit—“
“’Asteroid’!” I said. “Well done!”
“Shut up, Evan. Anyhow, we know the asteroid’s going to hit, and there’s nothin’ we can do to change that. But even without that comet we’re all sort of doomed to mortality in our own way, so now I see that praying to you to change the fact about us dyin’ was—well, that was in vain. So I don’t ask you to change the comet’s path anymore. I want you to change our path. Give us the discipline to ration our food even when we’re hungry. Give us light in our hearts so that when your sun goes out, we still have enough. Finally, give us the wisdom to see the bad men from the good. And when that wisdom fails, give us ice cold blood in our veins and sound aim. Because we have food to protect, and a fat lady’s gotta eat. And if we die tonight, let it be with laughter on our lips, because all of the prayers I’ve got, well, they’ve all been said. In Jesus’ name.”
“Amen,” we all said, and most of us were relieved, except mom was crying.
“Oh. Maura, my baby,” she said, waddling over to me. “Does she know, Evan? Does she know I love her?” She squeezed me as tight as her scrawny limbs would allow. I hugged back extra hard, for Maura.That was the last of it; the rest of the evening was watching Sunset 9037 in uncontested silence. It was gorgeous. Supply and demand, dad had always said. And it was gentle on the eyes, the sun in its Tennessee orange. The clouds were thin, long arrows at the horizon, pink and red, and willowy like the impossible threads of giant feathers. Dad pointed at a hawk scouring the northwestern sky, its wings still and the air carrying it aloft, until it dove behind the pine trees. That comforted me some. As long as predators still had prey, the strange violent order of the world had preserved. Dad went on about the migratory patterns of hawks for a while, and I thought about uploading a picture to the hard drive. I thought better of it. I had enough pictures. Soon, no one spoke. Maybe we hoped the silence would slow the moment. It didn’t. The clouds thinned after the last cap of the sun slid under the horizon, and just after we spotted the first star of the night, Dad asked me with a wink what color the sky had been all evening, and though it had been purple and red and orange and gold all I said was, red.
What Readers are Saying
- “Outstanding. Really shook me.”
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- “Strong work. Captures essence of Cafe of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano.”
- “One of the best I have ever [read].”
- “That’s a [five-star] if ever there was one.”
- “I just finished reading Tickleneck by @danielkenitz on @SpotlongR and came here to say that Dan is an INCREDIBLE writer.”
About Daniel Kenitz
Daniel Kenitz is a freelance writer and the author of several published short stories, including the Pushcart Prize-nominated A Hand to the Plow (2022, Red Rock Review), Tickleneck (2022, Spotlong Review), The Cycle (2021, Evening Street Review), Seen (2020, Every Day Fiction), The Parent License (2020, The Virginia Normal), and Sunset 9037 (2013, Strangelet Magazine). His nonfiction freelance work has appeared in blogs like Skillshare (Here’s Exactly How to Start a Story), Atlassian (Empathy is the Antidote: Conflict resolution at work), and Big Cartel (Don’t Be Like da Vinci: The Pitfalls of Losing Your Focus). To the Wall Street Journal, he is an expert on apostrophes.
From winning the New Yorker Caption Contest to co-winning the D.A.R.E. Essay Contest in fifth grade, Kenitz loves words in almost every form. But long-form storytelling is his true ambition, which is why he’s hard at work on his debut novel, a thriller. He is represented by Ronald Gerber of Lowenstein Associates.