It’s the End of the World As We Know It

An excerpt from Tucson author Kimi Eisle’s new post-apocalyptic novel The Lightest Object in the Universe

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO
Courtesy Photo

At the end of a long and narrow street not far from the sea, right around the time of the spring equinox, the sun rose as a sliver between two skyscrapers. Carson Waller could see it if he stepped out onto the tiny balcony of his apartment at precisely the right time. One morning in mid-March, he woke just as the light was shifting, the beige color of his bedroom walls warming to yellow. Time to rise. To admire the light and to tend to the tasks of this strange new life: fill water buckets, forage for food, track down supplies. In a few days, he'd leave this apartment—this whole city—behind.

He rolled onto his back and exhaled. The inhale came of its own accord and, with it, a surprising and fragrant tang. Sweetness. The smell was unmistakable. Citrus. Oranges. How was that possible here, right now, near the end of winter? He breathed in again. There it was.

He thought immediately of Beatrix. Her smile, her auburn hair, her hands, the sound of her voice. Closing his eyes, he inhaled again and imagined her next to him, the weight and warmth of her almost real.

He lay still. The cold morning fell over him. When he opened his eyes, the light had shifted and the smell of oranges was gone. All that remained was a cavern inside his chest.

Shivering from the cold, he dressed and went to the bathroom sink, where he scooped enough water from a bucket into his hands to rinse them. Since the rooftop cisterns had emptied, he'd been hauling water up from the street.

He toasted two pieces of stale bread over the gas flame of the stove. Another temporary luxury. It would probably go soon as well. He sprinkled some salt over the dry toast, cut up a mushy apple, and carried his breakfast into the living room.

From the window, he could see the vendors below setting out their goods on the sidewalk. This was part of the adaptation: you could simplify and run to the country, or you could buy and trade and sell. The marketplace was immortal, but it, too, had changed. Now the collections were random and personal, spread across blankets on the ground. Coffee makers, monogrammed towels, heirloom tea sets, little motors that no longer turned, tangles of useless electrical cords. Even a good find carried a certain bitter aftertaste. And yet there was no telling what might become suddenly useful. An extension cord made for a new clothesline. Large Tupperware storage bins could hold gallons of water.

He held binoculars to his eyes. One of the vendors was on all fours, reaching across the blanket to arrange pots and dishes and utensils into tidy rows. She was portly and blond and encumbered by a long, heavy coat. A small dog curled up near her feet. She placed clothing into piles and arranged books by color. At the far corner of the blanket, she'd put the things not easy to categorize—a game of Trivial Pursuit, a stack of file folders, a computer keyboard.

A bulky man in a leather jacket moved swiftly along the sidewalk, and Carson tracked him through the binoculars. It was Ayo, one of his building's doormen, before the layoffs six months ago.

Ayo, a Nigerian, had immigrated to the States with his wife nearly a decade ago. He was an educated man, once a student activist. "It is not always a good idea to advertise one's political ideas, but sometimes it is necessary," he once said.

Carson had crossed paths with Ayo a few weeks ago on the street—the first time he'd seen him since the layoffs.

"Mr. Principal!" Ayo had called out from half a block away. "It's you! I thought maybe you had dissolved in a solution of vinegar. You are holed up in your apartment like a mouse?"

"I have not dissolved, no," Carson had said, smiling. "It is nice to see you, Ayo."

"Every day is a blessing, yes," Ayo had said.

Ayo was a hustler now, with access to the new black market, where he could get soap, butter, coffee, meat, flour, batteries, fuel, and almost anything else. "Run by Africans," he had explained that day. "That is why they call it the 'black market,' sir. We Africans are quite adept at adversity. Or maybe, sir, because we are such good con artists." He had laughed and jabbed an elbow into Carson's ribs.

With the supermarkets stripped and dark, it was a lucky and necessary thing to have a supply man. The shipping containers had become bloated whales stuck up on the sand. It was vendors like Ayo who kept people fed, rolling shopping carts up and down the streets, selling canned beans and stale rice they'd hoarded, or vegetables they'd somehow grown or gleaned from farms outside the city.

Carson tracked Ayo from the window, watching him flow down the sidewalk.

On the other side of the country, in the back of a wagon, Beatrix Banks felt as if she were on a choppy sea, as if all she had to do was yield to circumstance. But what circumstance was this? No metro rail to shuttle her through the city and over the bay; instead, horses. When she'd left the US nearly two months earlier, no one had yet thought to attach a horse to a cart and haul passengers around. At this moment, despite the bumpy ride, she was grateful someone had.

Exhausted and disoriented, Beatrix dug in her backpack for her cell phone. She should call her housemates, Hank and Dolores, tell them she was on her way. But the phone, of course, had been dead for weeks. She held it in both hands, like a fragile, lifeless bird.

Across from her in the wagon, a woman, about fifty, wrapped in a purple shawl, gave Beatrix a sympathetic frown.

"You can kiss that phone goodbye," said a man next to her. He coughed once, and Beatrix stiffened. Was there still flu here?

"No phone service at all? Landlines?" she asked, inching away from the man.

"Only if you're willing to saw off an arm and a leg," the woman in purple said.

There was some murmuring among the other passengers about radio communication and solar power. "What about the almighty generator that preacher uses?" someone said.

Beatrix put her phone back.

She watched the sun inch higher into the sky. Things here had unraveled quickly. No more phone service. Intermittent power. Horses on the highway. She felt panic rise inside. Just get me to my people, she thought.

The wagon dropped Beatrix a few blocks from home, and as the sound of the horse hooves receded into the distance, she felt herself relax a little. Despite her fatigue, she walked quickly. Her house glimmered like a beacon, sunlight bouncing off the windows and warming the front porch. Beatrix headed up the walkway just as a tall man with shaggy hair came out the front door carrying a bicycle. Her downstairs neighbor—Joe, was it?

It took a moment before he recognized her. "You're back. Where were you?"

"Mexico City," she told him. "A fair-trade convention. Or what was supposed to be a fair-trade convention." It dawned on her that what she'd maneuvered— flying south across the border in the midst of a global meltdown—was more of a miracle than she'd realized.

"That was brave of you," he said. "Or just dumb." He looked up from the bicycle and held out his hand. "Beatrice, right? I'm Dragon." "Beatrix, with an x," she said. "So how did you get home?" "A complicated hitchhike," she said, explaining how the airlines had folded, and then the bus lines, and how what was supposed to be a ten-day trip had turned into six weeks, until she'd finally found a cargo trucker with enough room, fuel, and business smarts to transport her, along with a tired diplomat and a handful of US soldiers, to Tijuana. "As soon as we crossed the border, they all knelt to kiss the fucking pavement."

"Well, that was lucky," he said. Beatrix nodded, feeling grateful. "Isn't your name Joe?" "Yeah, formally. I go by Dragon now. A resurrected nickname. Fiercer, I guess," he said, lifting one of his eyebrows and making it disappear behind a dark curl on his head.

She had the urge to pull him into a hug. But they barely knew each other. "It is good to be home," she conceded, picking up her backpack.

"You know they're gone, right?" he said as she started up the stairs. "Your roommates."

"Hank and Dolores? What do you mean?" "Yeah. They went north." "North?" Beatrix said, feeling like she'd just been punched in the stomach. "A whole group went together," Dragon said. "They loaded all their stuff into a wagon and headed toward wine country. More fertile, I guess." He scoffed a little as he said this, then shrugged.

"What? You don't think it's safe?" Beatrix asked. "I mean, if everyone's going."

"If everyone were jumping off a bridge, would you?" "So you don't think it's a good idea. To go north." "I just told you what I thought," he said, and turned back to his bicycle. Beatrix went upstairs, the punch to her stomach now a grip in her chest. Maybe everything had been a bad idea. The going away and the coming home. All of it. Everyone had advised against the trip in the first place, but the convention had been the perfect opportunity to strengthen the chocolate market in Ecuador, which she'd been working on for the last three years, a time for coalition building with cooperatives in Mexico and Central America. She hadn't even considered that the other twenty delegates might not be able to get there.

She'd felt a clinging obligation to keep up the fight, even though clearly the fight for fair trade had dramatically shifted by then, if not altogether dissolved. The walls Beatrix and her colleagues had worked so desperately for years to tear down had toppled under their own weight.

But there were larger lessons to be learned from their friends in the Southern Hemisphere. They knew what it was like when the cost of milk and corn and movies and everything else skyrocketed, when all the gold flew out of the country and into a secure Swiss bank, when you had to live on very little. "At the very least, they can show us how to prepare for the worst," Beatrix had said.

Now, she felt a sense of relief entering the apartment. Home. Her belongings gave her a measure of comfort. The artifacts from her travels: The balsa wood toucan from Ecuador. Some pre-Columbian pottery replicas. A contemporary mask from Guinea, West Africa. The photographs: Beatrix at a protest in São Paulo. Hank and Dolores in Chapultepec Park. Beatrix on the Fourth of July in a T-shirt that said INDEPENDENCE, MY ASS!

Beatrix found a note from Dolores on the kitchen counter:

Beatrix, love, if you are reading this, then you're finally home. We've been so worried. We're closing down the office and getting out of here before something even more terrible happens. We've waited for word from you, but nothing. We found a place. Brightbrook Farms. 150 miles northeast of the capital. I don't have directions. You're good at that. Come as soon as you can. Please come, B. We'll be waiting for you. We love you.

—Dolores and Hank

Beatrix had met Hank in a college course on modern Latin American history. Beatrix and Hank had believed that the world, particularly America, needed a new revolution. Something to cauterize consumer greed, expose the true cost of goods, even out global trade imbalances. After class, at a bar, they had planned their first action—a zombie parade.

"But there already is a zombie parade," Beatrix had said, remembering the red paint smeared across mouths and hands, the stiff-legged walk, the raggedy clothes she'd seen the previous Halloween.

"This is different. These will be zombie shoppers, zombie consumers, zombie numb-heads," Hank said. "Just in time for the Christmas season. We'll get a bunch of TVs and line them up all along the campus mall. Then we'll sit there and stare at them, just like real people do."

Students from all across campus had joined the parade. They'd made the front page of the student newspaper, the clearest mark of success back then. The year after they graduated, they met Dolores, an activist who led "reality tours" along the US-Mexico border, where she set up interviews with factory workers, then pointed to the shacks on the hillside, the chemical sludge running in the wash. "Free trade hasn't meant frijoles in these parts," she'd said. In Dolores, Beatrix had found a friend, and Hank had found a lover, and the three of them had taken on the world.

Now, Beatrix stood alone in the middle of their apartment, her heart beating too fast. She read the note three more times before dropping it on the counter. What the fuck, people? They'd abandoned her for some hippie farm? She wished she'd never come back.

Trembling, she opened the fridge, and a warm and horrific odor wafted out. Nothing was salvageable. In the pantry, she found two cans of beans, a half-emptied bag of rice, a jar of lentils, and—thank the Lord—a healthy stash of yerba mate, her favorite morning beverage, courtesy of some Argentine friends. She tried the stove, but there was no hiss of gas.

She went to her bedroom, which looked different somehow—out of proportion or as if someone had come in and redecorated in her absence. But nothing had changed. Her bed hadn't moved, nor the framed photo on her dresser of her and Hank in their senior year of college, each raising a beer bottle and a fist. The desk was in the corner, her laptop where she'd left it.

Her heart jumped. There must be email from Carson. They'd been calling and texting and emailing for nearly a year. She ached to hear from him.

When his school had closed after the government shutdown, he'd written: I'm concerned for King High. For all the schools actually. Mostly for the students. I feel like Victor Jara, with his broken hands.

Yes, Beatrix had thought. Like Víctor Jara.

In the last email, Carson had said, If for some reason everything implodes and the shit really hits the fan and we can no longer send words or speak to each other, I'll come find you.

Had he meant it? She opened the laptop. Its dead gray screen stared back at her.

From the closet, Carson unearthed his old camping gear, pleased with himself for having kept it all these years. He packed sleeping gear in the backpack, a few items of clothing, a tent, a water filter, a small axe, a cook pot, matches. In the top pouch, he put a pocket-knife, three notebooks, a bundle of pencils, and the Field Guide to the Edible Plants of North America. A few more things from Ayo, and he'd be ready.

Carson thought about the word "ready" and how far from it he felt, even with a small axe in his pack. Nothing was predictable. Who could ever be ready? And ready for what?

He thought about how it might be explained one day. He thought of the corncobs in Chaco Canyon. The purple robes of the Phoenicians. The Egyptian tombs. The Mayan pyramids. The moai of Easter Island. Athens and Rome and Pompeii. The Reichstag. Britain and Spain. Potsherds and buried churches, catacombs and notched bones. Here, too, there would be a history to interpret, an arc of demise to be charted.

He had begun to record his observations.

Buckets of water on the roof, peddlers with megaphones in the streets, candlelight. The city returns to its origins.

MacGyverize: to fix a thing with whatever you have, after that late-'80s television show.

What happens when the last of the canned beans is eaten?

He did not know if the notes would amount to anything. Maybe decades in the future, they'd find his words, and history teachers would assign it as reading to their students.

During Carson's early teaching years, his students had flashed gang signs and symbols at one another, instantly reinterpreting the histories he taught them. At twenty-five, residually adolescent himself, he studied their codes. He was hungry to learn, and they offered him plenty. Later, as principal, he tried to impart this kind of curiosity to other teachers; so many of them just hauled around a textbook, regurgitated the same lessons year after year, presented themselves as the exclusive holders of knowledge. No wonder so many kids didn't give a shit.

His final moments at King High School haunted him. The afternoon light angling through the windows of the west-wing classrooms, the empty hallways, the utter of discarded papers across the floor.

In a perfect world, the public schools would have been the priority, Carson believed, not the sacrificial lambs. Closing them hadn't done a thing to save government expenditures. And what did any of it matter? Three months later, they'd been plunged into darkness.

Ever since then, protesters had gathered at the city water plant and the phone companies, outraged about the lack of access, the deadness of the internet and cell phones. Just the other day, a teenager had hurled a concrete block and hit a fellow protester. Someone threw a rock back in retaliation, and the protest turned on itself. Six people were killed; thirty or more, injured. People seemed unwilling to accept that the companies had gone belly-up and the executives had fled. There was no one left to protest against.

Beatrix would have disagreed with him on this. "Protests matter," she would have said. "People need to act." But maybe she'd be irritated, too, by what it had taken to make people pay attention. In any case, protesting was preferable to hopelessness.

He opened a window, and the smell of smoke infused the room. Outside, the new homeless—the transient—lit fires on sidewalks and in parks, to keep warm, to cook. It was hard to believe life in the city could be any more public than it had once been. But it seemed every act imaginable now played out on the streets. A woman in pajamas sat on the curb and brushed her hair. A man knelt down on the sidewalk to wipe his baby's bottom with a newspaper. Another man propped a mirror on a park bench and shaved, a small cup of water his sink.

Carson watched a man standing at the blond woman's blanket, pointing to something round and red, with patches of yellow. Some kind of toy. Maybe a gift for a child? The woman held it up like a question, but the man shook his head and moved on. The woman tucked the object under her elbow and watched the man walk away. Carson could not see her face, but from the way she held her body, he could read this woman's sorrow. Her grief reached thirteen stories up.

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