Americana!

The man smooths over his mustache like it accentuates his Americanness, which it sort of does, and lifts the brim of his old Portland Sea Dogs cap to show his forehead, which I suppose he considers to be authentically American, like it has a mark of the treasury on it. He has the stim-marks behind the ears that tell me he’s a junkie, for splug, or wobble, or germ. Which is why he’s selling his rifle, I’m sure.

From north to south, the border runs some 660 miles, and it’s 400, give or take, west to east, which means we live in 264,000 square miles. That sounds like a lot of space because it is. Our population’s under a million, which means each person has, all things being equal, 0.264 miles of space each. Of course, all things being equal is one of those sentences like at the end of the day, which means nothing at all; worse, is one of those sentences like liberty and justice for all, which are by now downright offensive. The New Michigan river runs from the Canada sinkhole in the west to Acadia in the east, and all along the river are clusters of affluent enclaves, and pirate otter-holes.

I’m telling you this because my world is different from yours, despite yours creating mine. My existence is the absent-minded doodle of yours. All of this will become clearer later on, so for now just go with it, all right?

Mr. Pim, my employer, runs a tight ship. You know it’s a tight ship because he tells us all, every night, that it’s a tight ship. That always reminds me of the national anthem, I’m proud to be American, where at least I know I’m free. It’s always struck me that other nations don’t have to sing about their freedom to remind their citizens that they have it. In the same vein, Pim’s ship is loose as a moral. We’ve been doing our best to steal from our customers for so long that they almost expect it: the Pim tax added on to prices we’ve already inflated to match their scarcity. 

Occasionally that scarcity is inflated too—we’ve had forty-five jars of olives in the stock room for years, while their value skyrockets to the point of absurdity. One of those olives could buy you a month’s worth of protein rations in the less popular flavors, or three months if you take it plain gray. The older heads talk about a time when gray was just a color, not yet a flavor, and they might as well be talking a different language. Gray is everything.

There’s an old man at the counter, somewhere in his late fifties, haggling with Pim over the value of a rifle. I can’t tell yet if he’s buying or selling, but Pim’s doing some of his finest work, an exercise in retailsmanship, conveying the very effective idea that Pim is doing the man a favor. 

There are two things to remember in retail. One, you have all the power. Two, the customer is probably a schmuck. We have an ironic sign hanging over the men’s toilet that says, The customer is always right, and we take turns adding tags to the end of it, as in The customer is always right to be really fucking grateful, which isn’t witty, but is cruel, and those things are kind of the same.

Eventually, Pim asks for the man’s immigration status. 

He stands bolt upright and says, What does that matter?

It matters because I as a legitimate citizen wouldn’t want to be caught doing business with an illegal entity, which would then jeopardize my status, to which I’m mightily attached. Thing is, you’ve got something of an accent.

The man smooths over his mustache like it accentuates his Americanness, which it sort of does, and lifts the brim of his old Portland Sea Dogs cap to show his forehead, which I suppose he considers to be authentically American, like it has a mark of the treasury on it. He has the stim-marks behind the ears that tell me he’s a junkie, for splug, or wobble, or germ. Which is why he’s selling his rifle, I’m sure.

Pim loops me in, calls me to him with a bark, and I saunter over like I have the confidence of someone capable in the womb of convincing their mother to birth them here. I throw a thumb through my belt, which shows masculinity, and raise an eyebrow, which suggests that everything is somehow amusing. 

What do you think of this? Pim asks. His little black eyes wiggle like scales. I take the piece and hold it up to the light like the gun might be somehow see-through. I’m not going to learn anything about it at all; I know everything about it already. I’ve killed people with every kind of gun imaginable. You’ll hear more about that later, too. You’ll see some of it.

It’s a pea shooter, I say, and drop it on the counter. Unmodified, bolt-action, 22 cal. 

It’s a killer, the guy says.

Frogs, I say, and shake my head. Slow gophers. 

He pulls the Sea Dogs cap off and slams it on the counter, rattling the collection of junk Americana Pim’s most proud of, keeps in pride of place. Pim catches a glimpse of the guy’s hat for the first time and points at it.

Is that authentic?

The hat’s swept up in hairy fingers. Not for sale.

That’s a shame, Pim says. He turns away and starts talking to me about a stocktake, which is something we’ve never done. Stocktake, Pim always says, is for people without eidetic memories, which he has. 

Wait, wait, the guy says. He pushes the gun toward us with the tips of his fingers, looks up from beneath the brim of his hat, and says, What about this?

We don’t need it.

But I need the money, I—

We. Don’t. Need. It. Pim says. You understand that? You don’t speak American? We don’t need your gopher popper.

The guy scoops up the rifle. His mouth starts to move without a sound coming out, and his lower lip trembles. He runs the back of a fingerless glove across his nose and turns to leave.

Come back about that hat, though, Pim says. Any time.

The guy stalks out. I put a hand on the shotgun we keep beneath the counter, in case he gets ideas with that rifle, but this isn’t the kind of guy to rob anywhere, because you need hope to commit a crime, even foolish hope, and this guy is hopeless.

§

I once recorded a suicide note, though I didn’t write it down. I spoke into a camera, watched my lips move, and my puffy cheeks shake, and my hair sags limply over my eyes that were dim, and chilly. Mostly it was just apologies. Apologies to my dead wife, apologies to my dead kid, apologies to the world in general, to everyone for the most part, except for myself. There was a whole section of just the word ‘sorry’ over and over and over again, but not even one of those blank apologies was for me. Thing is, some people don’t feel like they have the right to kill themselves. Suicide’s for the rich. Some of us just keep going. 

Pim sits on a cardboard box full of dog food, pulling the cans out one by one and tossing them over to me, where I cross out the word pupper and leave the word chow

What flavor are these? I ask.

Desperation, Pim says. He sticks the knife he uses for boxes through the lid of one, and reels back at the stench. We’ll mark ‘em half off, he says.

Our stockroom is a cavern. Not in a metaphorical sense. Pim set up a store in front of an old cave system, places a lot of stock on the value of adhering to the natural way of things, living in caves, rising with the sun, eschewing vaccinations. He’s never married, calls it unnatr’al, but there is a steady flow of women into and out of the apartment he keeps above the store. Access to food is the ultimate aphrodisiac. I wonder sometimes if incels unleashed the famine to up their odds romantically, but then I remember, those people were never doers. 

There are hundreds of stores like ours. Mostly they’re the only kind of stores left. Specialty retail went the way of the pigeon, and in their place rose the pawnshops, like Easter Island heads made up of broken roller skates, old watches, and, in the earlier days, bags of flour. Pim says before my time people kept bags of flour in their kitchen cupboards, unguarded for years until the powder went sour and filled with beetles. What’s more telling is that people didn’t greet the beetles with delight, as in, oo, look at all this free and mostly defenseless protein.

We keep things neatly organized. You might be imagining a cave of wonders, but it’s more like a rural outlet store, sparse as a stomach, unimaginatively lit, stocked with nonsense. We’re the last store in an old strip mall outside Kennebunk, in what was Maine, once upon a time. Behind the counter, we have three bars of chocolate in a booby-trapped safe saved for the time some princeling stumbles in looking to impress a catch. The country’s full of princes now, and earls, and oligarchs—private dukedoms run like countries since the total decentralization of government. The Duke of Decatur came through once, a half-dozen guards in his Yankees-striped uniforms keeping watch at the door, but even he couldn’t afford the candy, threw up his arms in mock outrage when Pim told him we didn’t accept paper money, not since it became legal to print your own.

Food, drugs, or land, Pim said. Shove your cash up your ass, your highness.

Down the street, a shantytown sprung up around a freshwater source that, as far as we can tell, remains safe to drink. That remains to be seen, but none of us have yet grown extra limbs. Most of our customers come from there. I rigged my tent up in the woods a mile in the opposite direction. Some people move into the old abandoned houses, hell, there’s enough of them, but that’s just something I can’t seem to stomach.

I can’t stomach this pupper chow either. I chuck the cans in a cart and stock them in our pantry section, beside a row of expired paprika.

Perhaps you’re reading this and wondering if you might pick up some wisdom, and if there’s any wisdom I can offer, it’s that paprika, in the right quantity, can make anything taste basically of paprika, which is a better taste than a lot of the things you might be seasoning. Most other spices can’t manage that. Cumin won’t cover the taste of old eggs, but paprika, basically, will. Of course, I might be lying to convince you to buy some of the expired paprika. Am I your protagonist, or your shopkeeper? 

There’s a bag lady milling around outside the store, sometimes waving her fist at one of the crow-rats, with their bald little tails and nagging beaks. She’s wearing a wool hat, and I recognize a 2023 state fair logo beneath the grime, the Portland lobster bathing over a winking mermaid, and I go outside before Pim sees it, tell her to shove it in her pocket.

He’s killed people for less than a hat like that.

But it’s just a hat, she says.

He’ll murder for a taste of history, I say. First, he’ll try and buy it off you, then he’ll take you out back and can you.

More honestly, he’ll have me do it, I think. I’ll talk more about murder later. I really will. Wait and see. It’s a big part of the third act.

This lady doesn’t have any teeth left, and I struggle to picture her as a young woman, gamboling through the Portland State Fair like Bambi in the trees. I’ve seen old stock photos of funfairs, of carnivals. All those lights.

Can you imagine those? Rows of colored lights. Blinking, just for fun. Like private constellations.

Sometimes, when I think on things like that, I wonder if I was born into some kind of after-heaven, except the people before me didn’t realize where they were. Maybe that’s what hell is? A land where we wasted the heaven we had? Maybe we made hell. Maybe Pim’s the devil.

Maybe I am?

I help the woman hide the hat in the pocket of one of her coats. She looks bewildered, keeps saying it’s just a hat, and I ask if she has anything to trade. She points at her cart like it’s an overflowing pantry, and I root through it for anything Pim might take. 

What’s your name? I say.

Don’t have a name.

I’m Eddie, I say.

I’m nameless, she says.

I find a radio, which is useless, but discover its full load of batteries in the rear compartment, and hold them up for her to see. Batteries we’ll take for the acid, which Pim uses in fertilizer. Sometimes he talks fondly of Venus as if he’s been there, for the naturally occurring sulfuric acid in its atmosphere. Imagine, he says, the carrots you could grow in a place like that.

I lead her inside and start extracting the acid we’ll refine from the batteries, offering her an inventory of everything she might get in exchange. I point her toward our pantry, but she shakes her head. Instead, she asks about a bobblehead beneath the counter, of President number 48, Valery Stefanik.

Could I get that? she says.

I do a quick value-proposition in my head and nod. If these batteries come out okay, you can.

I retrieve it for her from under the glass, and she holds it reverentially to the light. Stefanik’s head, still on its ancient spring, bobbles back and forth.

Were you a fan of hers? I say.

She, in answer, drops the figurine and, with exaggerated care, crushes it beneath her duck boot.

I’d spit, she says, but I don’t want to soil your store.

With that, she turns with her cart and heads out into the lengthening afternoon. I sweep the bobblehead into a dustpan and dump it in the trash. When I leave that night, I find the old lady asleep in the parking lot. The next morning, still there, I recognize her for another dead body. Pim has me wheel her cart into the store, where we pick it over.

§

They’ve found magazines in the wilderness. Hundreds of them, in the basement of a colonial manor which somehow avoided an ultimate ransacking. Pim hears about it from a militia contact, who heard about it from someone who was supposedly there when it was found. Thousands upon thousands of magazines, booklets, instruction guides, and newspapers. 

Think of the sports pages, Pim says. Just think of them. 

I haven’t seen a magazine in years, I say.

Pim squeezes protein from a foil packet into my coffee and stirs it with his middle finger. I look into the thickening liquid and suppress the sweet bile that rises in my throat like a tennis ball.

You’ll need the protein for the trip, he says.

What trip?

To get the magazines.

They belong to the state, I say. Under the Finders Keepers Act.

I sip the coffee which has been drained of all taste by the gray squirm that oozed out of the packet like baby shit. That’s what gray tastes like. Like a sucking absence of flavor.

Don’t be a fucking idiot, Pim says. Get out there with the truck and haul as much of that as you can get. 

Do we have the fuel?

Enough for this. He grabs my hand as I raise the mug for a second regretful sip and stares into my eyes with a look that I imagine he thinks imparts a sense of urgency, but which actually makes him look like he’s been taking mushrooms and looking at what stars you can still see through all the smog.

Besides paprika, here’s another piece of advice. It doesn’t matter what the zeal is for, anyone who cares about anything enough to look at you with that kind of intensity, who deals in any kind of absolute, has the potential to get you dead. It doesn’t matter if it’s politics or crushed ice, if someone cares that much about any one thing, you turn and you run from them as fast as you can, and you don’t look back until you’ve crossed a body of water and changed your appearance.

Instead of running, I nod and take my second sip.

I’ll see what I can do.

§

Before the famine, people didn’t kill each other a lot, or if they did, it was noteworthy, at least. Sometimes that feels like a fairytale, like pixie dust mixed with swamp water, like a story you tell yourself about some kind of good times. But I think it might be true. 

Thing is, I’ve killed plenty of people. Before I got the job with Pim, I killed people with more than me, to eat what food they had and steal their clothes. Since I got the job with Pim, I kill wannabe thieves in the store, and I kill anyone who has something he might want. I understand my value as a protagonist was already shaken earlier by the paprika thing, but the honest truth is that there’s worse things you can do to people than kill them, and most of those things have been done to me, and I’m still here, still living, and if I can do that, you can read about a guy with questionable ethics. That’s just my thought, is all. Stop reading if you’re so minded.

The drive into the wilderness only takes me forty minutes. Roads are self-policing since the staties folded two years ago, which means the speed limit is whatever pace I can go at. Anyone driving slow is likely to be hit by highwaymen anyway, particularly driving a truck like mine. A big truck promises a lot of stuff on the inside, and a lot of stuff, no matter what it is, is a lot of potential. You see a truck without knowing what’s inside and it’s like the night before Christmas, which is so much better than Christmas itself. Christmas Eve night is a whole night of promise, and so, right now, is my truck. It being empty, I think, just ups the metaphor.

There’s a half-dozen other trucks all converging on the spot from other pawnshops around the area. I know most of the guys driving them, tip my hat to them on the highway. One or two hit me up over the radio, a guy named Joe Bein says things like, Eddie! My man! How’s it going?

And we have these normal conversations where we ask about rations and mull over the local wildfires, and not for a second do any of us acknowledge that we’ll murder each other in an hour or so if we get in each other’s way. Murder’s a funny word, though, a human word, and without laws, I wonder if it’s a word that still exists. Killing exists. Murder’s a concept.

§

The house itself is beautiful. If you squint your eyes and look at it from the right angle, you can almost imagine being in it a century ago, when people went to grocery stores, when people flew in planes whenever they wanted, when people, every now and then, would vote, or so Pim tells me not vote at all, exercise their right to not care, to just know the world would favor them no matter who ran it. Those people were rich enough to just die when the famine hit, when the electricity became a trickle, they could just lie in their fancy beds, hold fancy hands with one another, and take the medicine that sent them wherever they go next. People like me don’t have that option. Suicide is for the upper class.

I stop squinting. There’s no use in doing that. 

I see the house for what it is. It’s oddly free. 

The wraparound porch is a mighty thing, below a range of steep, many-gabled roofs, suggesting a warren of floors, rooms, and hidden alcoves. There are sheaves of wheat carved around the doorframe. I step onto the porch and see its multilayered, a second-level porch existing on the ocean side of the house. When it was built, I think, the ocean must have been far enough away to be a feature and not a threat. Now it laps up into the garden, and in a few years this place will be another coastal Atlantis, and all those magazines Pim’s lusting after will rot. I hear people in your time love that smell, the salt in the water, the fish shit, and isn’t that funny? How that smell to me just means drowning?

A man behind me cocks a rifle, and I raise my hands, palms forward, and sigh.

Willy Dutts? I say.

Hey, Eddie.    

You going to shoot me?

Mr. Chunk says there’s some kind of old memorabilia in here. 

Mr. Pim wants it too, I say. I turn slowly, rotating in hesitant steps until I’m face-to-face with Willy Dutts, a man who does my job, working in an Augusta pawn store I’ve been to once or twice. I ask Willy what he’s planning on doing, and he says nothing at all, provided I back away from the house, and I use the same trick I always use, the one that works on everyone, where I lower myself to the floor and hang my head like I’m about to sob, and when Willy wonders for a second if he can afford a little compassion, I pull out a pistol and shoot him twice. 

The ethics of this are this. Willy Dutts was not at all a bad person. I killed him because that’s what survival is, it’s killing people who maybe don’t deserve to die. You can judge me for that because you live in a world where you just read about things like this, but I live in it. I live in this world. I live in this world.

I push open the front door with my boot and smell the old house air that’s mostly dust but also the decay of things we forget are there. There’s a staircase to the basement, where the magazines supposedly are, and I walk down it carefully enough. I pull a solar flashlight out of my belt and shine it around. There are magazines on racks like they’re for sale and plastic cases with movies inside. There’s enough old shit down here for Pim to retire. 

Before I left, he told me why people love this stuff so much. It’s like me squinting at the house. You can read a magazine from 2028 and it’ll tell you all about which movie star is dating which, and it’ll make it feel like their dating is important somehow, and you can squint at that magazine and it’ll make you forget how hungry you are for a second. 

I walk back upstairs and take a look out a window that’s oddly clean. There are three more trucks in the yard, three guys like me pointing rifles at one another. I recognize one of them, the guy who brought his rifle to the store. I can see him trembling even from here, from thirty yards away, and I think he’s going to be the one to watch because he’s a junkie. He’s still wearing his hat, the Sea Dogs cap he wouldn’t sell, wouldn’t sell it even to get high.

You see that? You see how powerful that is?

I call out the door and wave my plain blue cap around before stepping out myself. The guys in the yard don’t know which one of them should point their gun at me, so all of them do. I hold mine above my head and grin.

I think you guys have the wrong house, I say.

Bullshit, Eddie, one says.

You’re Joe Bein, right?

You know I am.

And you’re Randy, from Linda’s place in Brunswick?

Randy nods. These two guys are both like me, are both like Willy Dutts, are people who live in the real world. The other guy, the junkie, shouts something unintelligible at me, and I say, What?

And he says, I bet you wish you’d bought this now!

And I shoot him through the chin.

Such is the kind of person that I am, and Randy and Joe Bein are, that no more shots are fired at all. Those people who lived in a house like this one, who took their quiet suicide pills and went to silent sleep, would’ve spooked and started shooting, and we all would’ve been dead, but neither of these two guys even blinks. That doesn’t make them tough, not in the traditional sense, it just makes them over-seasoned. Like they’re covered in paprika.

I ask these two paprika guys if they’d be interested in a three-way split, and both of them nod.

I’ve got protein rations in the truck, Joe says. If anyone’s hungry?

I shake my head. Randy just starts for the house. He’s shaved his head and started a mustache that isn’t sure if it wants to exist or not yet. He asks if I shot Willy, and I say, Of course, and he nods. The three of us head down to the basement, each wondering if one of us is going to shoot the other two, and we start looking through the haul. There are thousands of magazines. The Lawn Chair Review, Boy Howdy, The Dandy Circle, The Organic Juicist, Wandering Hippie Monthly, The Quarterly Republican, and dozens of others. Randy, Joe, and I sit around the magazines and start to negotiate. Each of us lays a gun on the floor, pretending that we don’t all have more than one, pretending that we don’t all know that we each have more than one.

And then I think, if magazines were edible, maybe it would actually be worth me being here.

I should get more than a third, I say, for letting you all in.

Bullshit, Joe says. I could’ve shot you and taken half.

I could’ve shot you both, Randy says. And taken it all. 

So thirds each? I say.

We look around the rows of magazines, DVDs, and VHS tapes. Joe looks at me and shakes his head a lot. None of this is worth anything, he says.

Bullshit, Randy says. Y’all don’t know—

That’s my cue to shoot Randy through the throat. If you’re imagining that at all, you’re probably imagining it wrong. Shooting people doesn’t leave neat holes, it leaves big, open canyons of torn skin. Randy’s head is half off. I show Joe Bein my second gun and put it down with the other. He nods and holds his pistol steady at the level of my gut, which is a wicked way to put a man down.

What do you mean it’s not worth anything? I say.

You can’t eat it, he says. Can’t drink it. Can’t grow anything with it, can’t insulate with it. What are we out here doing this for?

It’s the nostalgia, I say.

And he says, Fuck the nostalgia, which is like someone from your world saying something like, Fuck all of this money!, but, you know what, maybe people from your world should have said that more, and then maybe I wouldn’t be shooting people over copies of Greetings! magazine.

Right now, what if you said it. Fuck all my money? Go ahead. Try it. Try it out loud. I don’t give a shit where you are, I don’t give a shit who might hear you. And besides, none of them who hear you will care either. Do you understand that? None of them will care what you say.

I ask Joe what he wants to do, and I clock it a second before he does that he’s about to shoot me, I realize that he’s going to shoot me before he realizes he’s going to shoot me, so I do something unexpected.

I punch him. I punch him hard in the temple, and that doesn’t knock him out because that’s not how punching works. It dazes him though, enough for me to drag him up the stairs and dump him on the ragged lawn, where I can kick him in the head, which does knock him out. In the back of my truck, I carry spare gasoline, and in my pocket, I have a lighter. That’s where this goes. That’s where this is headed. I cover those magazines, those movies, this whole porch in gasoline. I think that your world did this to mine, and the more of what’s left of it I burn, the better mine might get. I flip the lighter and throw it on the house. I hold a copy of some magazine called Oh Damn that’s advertising vacations to countries that are underwater, to parts of California that have been nothing but ash since the day I was born. I toss it on the blaze and watch an article on Cutting Calories curl into cinders. 

I watch it burn with Joe Bein, who wakes up and glares at me.

I was having similar thoughts, he says. You didn’t have to do that.

I pat him on the shoulder. I took his guns while he took his involuntary nap, so I feel a little more at ease. He grabs the junkie’s Sea Dogs hat and tosses it onto the flaming porch, and I think, Man, maybe someone else understands.

Here’s what a house on fire really looks like:

First, the outer layer, whatever it’s made of, will start to distend, like the house has gas like it needs to burp. Little specks so small you only notice them once you stare real hard will fall away, like dust becoming fire when it hits the high atmosphere. Things won’t fall apart all at once: The flames will emerge from the structure in disparate channels, like rivulets of tearing, flickering, orange water. Now the smoke, deep gray to ash-white will pour from the channels like itinerant, wandering clouds, fleeing to the safety of the sky. The roof will come down in segments, and it’s the sounds that’ll occupy your senses. Cracking joists, creaking old bones, the structure’s howling lamentations. Finally, it’ll gasp, like it’s parched for water as the air comes swishing out, and only then will it implode, falling inwards like a singularity has opened in the basement, to suck it down.

The smoke stings my eyes a little, but Joe Bein does what I do, opens his eyes real wide, and watches the pyre.

What you going to tell Pim? he asks. That man’s a devil.

Nuh-uh, I say. I don’t think he’s the devil. I think he’s the other guy. 

You think?

I shrug. I’ll tell him I burned it all, I say, and then I’ll shoot him.

How about I meet you back here afterward? he says. After I do the same. And then we’ll burn the rest.

The rest?

All of it, he says.

And I say, Yeah.

Let’s burn it down.

When I get back to Pim’s, the homeless woman’s still lying there in the parking lot, lying in state in all her coats, and as I stalk past her, her lips twitch up into a smile, and I think, I could be the devil. I could be the devil.