The battery is a big one, a nice big red one, enough to run the ceiling fan and the turntable at the same time, as long as the fan is on low. And that’s fine. It’s enough of a breeze and doesn’t kick up too much dust that way. Ash, his wife called it, we’re covered in ash. He thought the word lacked a certain creativity.
He listens to One More Kiss, Dear, over and over, while he stares at the bottles in rows on the table. The song has a sadness he feels is appropriate. It’s also the only song that plays all the way through without skipping. It’s also the only record he has. And thank goodness for that. Even if it still worked, the CD player would be too tacky. He rubs his hand against the side of his head. The bottles are empty, except for two full of water, and three of mold. A thick, dull-green mold. He should clean them, really, for health’s sake, but they look so authentic, so desperate.
The fan the battery powers plays its game with daylight and shadow on the wall. The flick-flick of the fan’s light, the record’s swelling scratch, the empty, moldy jars, everything rotted, everything in its place: a perfect dystopian moment. He sighs a contented sigh. No, wait though, no. It’s not a dystopian moment, is it? No, he reminds himself, it’s no longer dystopian. There are no more dystopian moments. They’ve come and gone. That dystopian stuff is old hat. And, come to think of it, those moments weren’t like this at all. Those moments, which seemed so bleak at the time, were good, really. As it turns out. All those screams he hated hearing through his closed, curtained, window, the dull thuds and muffled crashes. It was painfully hot with the window closed, stretched on the floor with his wife, both naked, in opposite corners of the room, as far apart as possible, out of each other’s heat bubbles. It was hot, but all that crying and screaming–couldn’t open the window to that. And the pleading. That was the worst. All that pleading for mercy. He imagined they were on their knees when they begged like that, but he never raised the blinds then, not even an inch, so he was never sure. How he longs to hear them scream again. The screamers were dying, or were about to, but they were alive, and someone else must have been about to do the killing, and that meant at least two people were out there, alive. But he never peeled the curtain, not one light-letting inch; they could have seen him then, and then he’d have been the beggar. No thank you. Dystopia is best viewed from a distance.
What he has now, what he is experiencing now, he reminds himself, drumming the table for emphasis, is a perfect post-apocalyptic moment, not a perfect dystopian moment. It’s an important distinction, and he marks down his confusion in his notebook. He’s lately been trying to track his mental decline. It’s not as visually detectable as his physical decline. He’s been tracking that one for a while. It was quicker, and obvious. Lord, but those first blisters were frightening. The mental-state notes are incomplete, but they still show a quick drop, too. Quite a quick drop. There was a day he even forgot his name. (He soon remembered it again and wrote it down as prevention. Tarries.)
The fan and music are holdovers from the dystopian moment, he reminds himself, but the jars of water, the pills, and the sores are part of the p.a. moment; that’s what he calls it now, p.a., in lowercase–cool. Stands for postapoc–that’s what they called it then. It’s what he called it, anyway. Other people, had there been any, would have called it that, too. The postapoc. Could be Indians. The Postapoc Indians, from Postapocaquage, Connecticut. That’s funny, so he writes it down.
The flinty sun is up again, reheating the bricks. Not that they cooled much in the night. Nice to have the window open, though, now that there are no screams to block out. He closes the window and lowers the blinds, to trap the cool air. Flips on the fan. It plays again with the sliced light, like a train flashing past his window. The same never-ending train. Who could possibly be riding a train? And to where? Then, of course (of course!) he realizes there’s no one on it, and it’s not going anywhere because he remembers it’s not really a train, and he takes his morning pill, which leaves seven. He notes in his log that there’s no train. He turns off the fan.
He’s already cut back from three pills a day to two, and the sores are worse. And the diarrhea. What a good thing there’s no one outside the window. He can’t go down to one. There’d be no point in that. It might make them last a little longer, but it wouldn’t matter because he’d be too sick to eat. With three he only had sores in his mouth and a little one inside his nose, but with two he’s got them on the undersides of his eyelids, the tip of his penis and around his anus. Sitting is a pain in the ass. That’s funny, so he writes it down. And he’s tired, too. Like there’s a tax on every movement, little demons in his muscles siphoning off a bit of go for themselves. He’s got food still, sure but, no matter how much he eats, he’s tired all the time from reducing the pills. Feels better the less he eats, actually, less to shit out that way, less to irritate those sores.
He wonders why he really got all this stuff together, the water, the batteries, the tuna. He must have known that if it really happened, tuna wouldn’t be enough. Did he think he was going to rebuild his town, or go searching for some magical far away place, carefree and un-ionized? He could have bought a boat and caught every last tuna in the sea, bought a canning factory and canned every last tuna in the world until he had a tuna stockpile larger than he could ever eat. Wouldn’t have mattered. The pills were the thing. Even adding his wife’s to his own didn’t give him a large collection, neither did scouring the other apartments. The one time he’d had the nerve to. There was only one apartment he had found that hadn’t already been picked over. Mrs. Perchman’s. It had a hard-to-find door because it was an illegal apartment. Fighting for space. What nonsense. The whole building was empty now. True p.a. living.
He must have known, somewhere under the surface, that he was doing it for the experience. The experience of sitting here rocking slowly in this chair with the split cushions, listening to this thin recording, watching the dancing train on the ceiling–it’s gone–no, he turned the fan off. He must remember these things. These things are the experience, and the experience is the reason, and he’s the only one he knows of who is experiencing it. That’s a good enough goal isn’t it? To be the last one, the last human being hanging out on the planet? The only person who knows how the light looks now, filtering to the old, hum-drum red and yellow and, on special nights, a little purple accent, a little secret brush stroke, just for him. Maybe for someone else, too, but, well, no way to know if that’s the case. And on nights like tonight, it casts lavender on the windowsill, a lovely–it’s gone. Dark. Must be nighttime. Pill-time. That leaves
* * * *
Six (Not very many. The end is near. No, nigh. The end is nigh.)
* * * *
Taking the morning pill leaves five. It jogs his stomach. He washes it down with peaches and tuna and the tiny bit of bread remaining after he slices the mold off. This is all very silly, he thinks. Why bother with the pills? He knows he’ll run out. He almost has already. He was the one who said it, of his own plan. He said, “What’s the point?” He said, “I have food, a power source, water and water purifiers, the filter kind, the UV kind, iodine tablets, and tablets to remove the taste of iodine, a utility knife, a hunting knife.” But the point of all that stuff, all that fancy stuff, is to help you survive for a little while, just long enough for someone to find you, or for you to find someone. That’s it. All the clever gadgets–the water filters, the five strike-anywhere matches, the weather radio–aren’t for the long haul, aren’t for rebuilding the town, aren’t for testing soil or planting crops. So why do it? “Why bother with tuna if the pills will run out?” That’s what she asked, and everyone else. “What else could you do?” he asked back. “Get a gun and off yourself as soon as things got uncomfortable?” That’s what he said and that’s what she did, and wasn’t the only one. But he’s got them now. He’s got them all now. He’s here. And where are they? Dead. That’s where.
He replays the conversations, as he drools into the sink. It hurts too much to swallow. The sores in the back of his throat are irritated by choking back the pill that’s still scraping his stomach. This drooling, really, is the perfect postapoc moment, spitting out the blood that seeps from the sores in his throat and mouth. Not yesterday’s rocking in the chair with the fan and record and train-light, that was kid stuff. This bloody drool is the perfection of post-apocalypse chic. Postapoc sounds like an Indian tribe. From Postapoganset, Rhode Island. That’s funny. So he writes it down. For posterity.
He throws up the morning pill, but fishes out what he can and forces it down again. He could have done what she did, that’s what else. That’s what else he could have done. The sun doesn’t care. It warmed her up so she was rotting when he found her. On the roof. He left the record out last night, and must have slept too long; it sat in the sun. It melted, and warped. It won’t play. Just like his wife. Isn’t that touching? Ha! He writes it down. He dumps some old, fetid tuna from a bowl into his water jar, and runs it through the filter just for the fun of it. Shame to let such a fancy filter go to waste.
He has an uncommon urge, an urge he hasn’t felt in a while: to masturbate. But the first touch coaxes only blood from a sore. Wanting to write a warning to himself, should he ever feel the impulse to try again, he looks for his notebook but can’t find it. He sits back in the chair. Dozes for a while, and comes to, coughing, remembering that the book is in the refrigerator, but he can’t record the information because he can’t find the book. Back to sleep.
He holds the last pill in front of him and twirls about the room with it, serenading it, with love songs, promising a golden tomorrow. He won’t go to the roof as his wife did. He’ll stay inside, make sure the drapes are closed, the sun blocked, sit in the shade, and keep cool. Real cool.