He walked alone through the deserted streets kicking bits of fallen building out of the path. He carefully made his way around an old rusty Ford, the original color might have been blue or brown or black it was hard to tell. He looked inside the shell of a car to see if anything of interest had been left behind by other scavengers, nothing, it was stripped clean, like everything else in this town. He knew it was time to leave but this was his home, he had grown up here and even though there was nothing left it was hard to leave. He kept walking. Some of the brick or block buildings still stood, none had glass in the windows, none had intact doorways. He stopped at the entry of what once had been a bank on the ground floor with six stories of offices. He looked in seeing what had been left behind. There were thousands of paper bills littering the marble floor. He could pick them up and become a millionaire, at least according to the numbers on the bills, but the paper was worthless, well it had a use but he had no use for it right now. He chose not to enter the bank but continued walking down the street, being watched by no one and seeing no one. The thought occurred to him that he might be the last person in the whole city. This thought reminded him of his hunger. There was a reason the few that had survived were gone. The people left for places that promised clean water and fish, or rabbits and berries, or nuts and birds; places where life existed without pumps, or generators, or factories. When the people left they piled cans and sacks of food on wheelbarrows and skids, taking all they could find to the next place leaving this place void of necessities. He had stashed his home with all he could find; a pile of pork ‘n’ beans kings would covet, in the before time it would have been called an attractive nuisance. When the time came he had known better than to try and defend it. He had watched from the burned out home next door as a group of leavers had loaded up his forethought and become its new owners. Now he stashed his finds over a wide area, a little here a little there never enough to get killed over. Remembering the pile of pork ‘n’ beans reminded him of a can stored not far from here. He hid himself and watched the street for a full fifteen minutes, watching for any sign of another straggler like himself. When he was assured of his loneliness he started a winding, zigzag course to the can of beans, his hunger demanded a straight line but he still maintained some sense. Away from downtown the damage dispersed. Some of the homes had been damaged only by time and neglect. The once green lawns were dirt. Bushes were piles of brown dry sticks. Paint curled and wood cracked but a few trees, those with deep roots and meager appetites still showed bits of green. He entered a home that had not been overlooked, fire had taken the roof but several walls still marked where the children had slept and where the people had sat in comfort watching the latest television shows. He knew it was the right house but he had to pause before he remembered where his morning meal had been stored. He made his way through the front room, stepping over burned rafters and joists, careful of nails and broken glass. The beans would be in the master bedroom under a pile that was once a queen size bed. There were no other footprints, the footprints he had made before had been carefully removed, he grew more and more intelligent as time continued. It was a small thing, but it caused his eyes to water, next to the beans a can of small sectioned oranges and tube of onion flavored Pringles. He had only remembered the beans. A problem; a meal fit for royalty should be eaten at a proper table with a plate and fork. He had planed to lean against the blackened wall of the bedroom and push the cold beans down into his screaming stomach but, in spite of the danger, the memory of dinners around a proper table with a moment of prayer followed by casual conversation between unhurried bites forced him to gather his find and risk the trip home. He filled the pockets of his jacket and pants with food and made his way home, stopping at every corner, always watching behind, beside and ahead. He listened for any sound in a city without sounds. The trip took time but time lay everywhere and its passing was just another success. Home, an intact roof, walls, from the street it appeared as dead as the rest of the town, the front room covered with debris, the hall and bedrooms left to degrade but the kitchen was swept clean, the dust was not allowed to build here. He wiped the table with a dry rag, poured precious water from a tin can into his favorite cup, opened the cans with a proper opener, scooped the contents of the bean can onto a clean plate and poured the oranges into a clean bowl. He sat at the table, said a short prayer of thanks and then pulled the metallic cover from the Pringles. A proper sucking of air announced a proper seal and the smell of onions filled the kitchen. He dipped a chip into the pile of beans and popped the whole thing into his mouth at once. The chip still had a good crunch; the beans were as fresh as the day they were made. He took a drink of sweet water from the bowl of oranges; it was good to be home.
He wiped a bit of beans from his mouth and made sure he had drained the last bit of water from his cup and then, with an almost clean, damp cloth he wiped clean the plate, cup and bowl and placed them back on the shelves in their proper places. He walked from the kitchen into the front room of the house. Litter; clothes, paper, and discarded food containers filled the floor of the room, the walls were covered with multi-colored spay paint graffiti. An oversized flat screen television, looking very out of place, had somehow escaped the looting and some of the vandalism of the first days of chaos, he stared at the white peace sign spayed across the screen, without electricity or UHF it was still almost as entertaining as it had been in the time before. He, once more, resisted the urge to clean-up the mess, strangers looking through the front door should see just another abandoned house although strangers were less and less a problem now-a-days. He looked at the ceiling and smiled, no leaks, the house still had a good roof and all of its walls. Three bedroom, two bath, air conditioned stucco home, near schools and shopping. Only the baths were useless, the bedrooms were trashed like the front room, the schools were empty and not a single shop remained open, he figured the AC would work if he could get power to it. He walked into the bedroom that had been his since the day he was born. His bed frame was still in the corner by the window but the mattress was on the floor in the kitchen where he slept.
Enough of this, there was work to be done and the walk to his place of work would take time. Instead of walking toward the town he walked through the tracks of homes, following the zig zagging of the residential streets until they ran out of empty houses and into what had once been irrigated fields. Cotton and alfalfa and corn and potatoes had grown green and productive here but when the water had stopped the plants had turned brown and then, for the most part, blew away. Brown ground with brown winter grasses covered thousands of unused acres. He walked toward a one-hundred-sixty acre rectangle of walnuts trees, a clearly marked border of a straight line of trees, now just dry trunks with leafless branches but they were still a thick forest that provided shade and privacy. He walked into the deceased woods being careful not to walk where he had walked before, creating no path, he came to his place, far from the edges of the trees. His tools were where he had left them. He picked up a sharp chisel, a hammer and went to the spot where he had stopped yesterday and began to carefully chip away bits of walnut. The tree no longer had the shape of a tree, it had the head of a man six feet off the ground the branches spreading from the hydrocephalic head, the handicap necessary to keep the branches intact, the branches were his uncombed hair, his body was only roughly defined and was the task of the day and several more days to come. He worked carefully until the sun made long shadows, put his tools in their place, swept wood chips from the base of the tree. Three people, who had once been walnut trees, watched patiently as he cleaned up and ended his work. He nodded to the people trees and made his way back through the forest remembering a stash of canned goods that would make a proper dinner as he walked back toward town.
The problem wasn’t food; the problem was water, there was none. When the looting began he had taken food in foil pouches from camping stores. That food and been taken from him. In the meantime most of the stores had been emptied. A can of beef stew could be found under a display case or once he had found a whole box of spaghetti o’s pushed up against a wall by an abandoned fork truck, and in those days there was still competition by other people, some of them expressed there desperation in violent ways, but most did their best to get along. As the people left they left behind what they could not carry and this became a source of food in abundance. He started the diverse hiding places during this time and if he could remember all the locations there would be plenty of food for a long time. But he had no way to create water. Looking back he knew he should have stashed bottled water. He hadn’t. At first water still came out of the spigot in his kitchen, slowly, without pressure but the water was there. When the water no longer came from the pipes people would form lines at the three giant storage tanks on a hill just north of the city. The water tank gave water for such a long time he almost thought they would continue to do so forever. The lines of people grew smaller and the water continued until the day the water in the tanks no longer reached the outlets. First one tank was declared empty, that day was a boon for food hunting. People had left the town in long lines. The lines shortened and it was a long while before a second tank emptied. Someone unbolted an access point on the tank and six inches of water was found covering the bottom of the tank, with the population greatly reduced over ten thousand gallons of water should last forever but forever is, as they say, a long time. All three tanks were empty now. He searched his own hiding places, not for cans of food now but for soups, and juices, and sodas, anything with moisture, but it was never enough and he accepted constant thirst as a new part of his life.
He remembered a hiding place in a basement after a hard day of finding people in walnut trees and found his way to what had been one of the finer houses in town, a three story redwood sided home, painted white. The entry way was at the center of a ten foot wide front porch that ran the full length of the front of the house, the roof of the porch was supported by six white pillars that stood three stories high. In the olden days he would have never been allowed to approach such a house. Even today he approached carefully just in case someone considered this their property.
“Is anyone here?” he shouted. He leaned into the entryway and shouted again, “Is anyone here?” he waited and listened. The house was empty. He remembered the way to the basement and in minutes was digging through a pile of canned goods looking for some that might contain water. He found a box of kool-aid envelopes and started laughing uncontrollably. And then he saw the blue tank in the corner of the room. It was a commercial sized water heater. He had found water in water heaters before, they were more convenient than going to the city water tanks, and most had been drained long ago. He went to the spigot at the base of the tank and as a show of faith he placed a plastic bucket someone had left in the basement under the outlet before he turned the knob. Water. At first it came out dark orange, filled with rust but then it cleared. He set the rusty water aside, he knew from experience it would take the rust several hours to settle. He went up the stairs and into the kitchen of the massive house, found a pot he could boil water in and returned to the hot water heater, one hundred twenty gallons of water, six months of life! In the back yard of the huge house he built a fire in the bar-b-cue and watched the pot come to a boil, tonight he would have tea with his dinner but tomorrow he would have kool-aid.
The ground was covered in black and white, bright sun and dark shadow, odd angles, lines crossing and re-crossing, he stood with his arms around her thin waist, his hands clasped behind her back. He swayed slightly right and then slightly left his feet barely sliding from side to side in the soft dirt while the music played in his head. She stood perfectly still, her arms to her side, her long dress reaching the ground, her hair trying to find its way to the sky. Keeping one arm around her waist he reached the other to the back of her neck and pulled himself closer to her. Remembered the effort in the curve of her chin, the tiny chips removed to form the eyes that looked but did not see. He reached into the branches that protruded from her misshapen head but refused to think of her as a tree. He said her name softly into her wooden ear, gently, tenderly, believing she could know. They stood in the half darkness until the slant of the shadows changed and the light began to dim. He told her he needed to go. They had one last dance. He kissed her lightly on her cheek and then made his way back to his dwelling. The sun became an orange ball floating just above the earth as he entered through the back porch door of his childhood home. He lay on top of the blankets that covered the mattress on the kitchen floor. The quiet filled every inch of space making the air hard to pull into him self. When darkness came he closed his eyes but sleep stayed away. His mind filled with people. People he had loved that were no more. People singing, and dancing, and laughing, and playing, he felt a trickle of moisture as it tickled along the side of his nose. And then sleep took him and he found rest for another day.
It had been a long time since he had seen another human, and the last few he had seen had been scared, jumpy things, more like wild animals than people. The last people, mostly men, had jumped out of corners or from under burned out cars as he approached, their eyes wide, heads moving rapidly from side to side, screaming words he did not understand. He wondered if his turn would come. Not today. Today was a beautiful day. A breeze blew from the west, coolness was in the air, fall was coming. He had not seen another person for a long time. He looked toward the small fireplace in the front room of his home. He noticed, once more the clutter on the floor and the writing on the walls. He had not seen another human for a long, long time. He decided. First he swept the trash out the door and let it spread across the front yard. He borrowed a rusty red wagon from his next-door neighbors and went into town shopping for paint, patch and tools. The paint store remained almost intact; the looting had taken different directions. “Five gallons of your lime green interior,” he said aloud to the paint store.
“What’s that?” he listened.
“No the one without primer please,” he answered the paint store. He pulled the top off of a five gallon bucket of white paint and dripped a little green color, a little black and just a dash of yellow into it and stirred until it became the desired color.
“There you go sir,” he said to himself.
“Will you need brushes and rollers?” he nodded
“And some patch, “ he said as he loaded the materials into the rusty red wagon.
“Yes, please,” he answered as he loaded a sack of fast drying joint compound onto the rusty wagon.
“I’m in a hurry,” he added to reveal his need for the fast drying kind. And then he hurried out of what had once been a glass door but was now just an aluminum frame.
“Thank-you!” he shouted into the empty shop as he and the wagon exited to the street.
The work took very little time. After years of fighting to keep himself from cleaning up the mess in the front room it turned out not to be such a big mess after all. By the end of the day he had not only cleaned, patched and painted, he had shopped at the neighborhood houses and up graded his furniture, placed a small carpet on the mopped floor, and hung a picture he was sure was worth a good bit of money. Last, he rubbed the spray paint from the screen of the flat screen TV. He sat on his sofa and watched the blank screen for a while, picturing various sit-coms he had watched, he even laughed at some of the jokes. He remembered the last news show and clicked the clicker at the screen, he had remembered enough for one day. As night came he lit the wood he had placed into the fireplace. He knew the chance he was taking by putting a plume of smoke into the sky, but he hadn’t seen another person in a really long time. It wasn’t quite cold enough yet for a fire so he opened the front door and slid up a window. He lay on the carpet in front of the fire and pretended life outside hadn’t changed. He pictured a couple sitting in front of their TV, holding hands, children being sent off to their beds, giggling under the covers, an old man reading a thick book in the light of a single bulb. He fell to sleep lying there on the carpet with the door wide open, the light from the fire sending a glow out into the dark streets.
Light lit on the tops of the mountains to the East. Cold, spilling into the open door, running across the tiled floor, he tried to pull his blanket over himself but there was no blanket. His eyes opened. Where was he? And then he remembered. He found a blanket in the kitchen and returned to the newly reclaimed front room and sat on the sofa curled up in the quilted blanket. He was warm. He stared at the bits of black at the bottom of the fireplace and did what he spent most of his time trying to avoid; he thought.
“Am I alive?” he asked the silent room. He waited for an answer. None came. His gaze turned to the open door. He waited until the sun had completely cleared the mountains and the chill ran to the West. The blanket was pushed aside but he stayed curled up on the sofa, rocking gently back and forth, humming a haphazard tune he had never heard before.