Was I Your Lover?

                         

                           by Michael Carroll

 

—DEAREST,

 

I saw your book in the window of Three Lives.  The glass had collected dust but no one had broken it.  It made me think of you.  We were all getting out of the city, or hunkering down.  The hurricane was just one more thing, but it had flooded the west side three blocks in and a lot of the east side.  I was walking home to Brooklyn maybe for the last time asking myself if I’d go upstate.  It was a lonely feeling, and I wanted to enjoy it, which is so me.  Of course they hadn’t broken the glass yet.  It was still early, and who’d break into a bookstore?  Looking for what?  Food?  It was terrible for a time and I finally left, with whatever gas I still had in the car.  The craziest stories were going around with people, conspiracy theories.  I heard something about vampires in Long Island City where all the tech bros were bugging out.  I wondered where they were going.  I heard stories about the people who worked for the big firms going to compounds, but they could only speculate where.  What we had was myth.  A kid tried to explain to me on the Merritt Parkway how vampirism was possible.  It was digital technology.  It wasn’t religious or supernatural.  It was the pulling of blood from victims out in the streets who were alone and too weak.  The blood was brought back to highrise apartments, or wherever, SoHo, Hudson Yards, where the blood could be cleaned and processed for the ultra-rich who’d uploaded their brains digitally into young bodies who’d been kidnapped or sold to relatively humane bandits for money for their surviving families, indigents and the elderly, the loved ones who might not understand the new ways.  Young people today, they might not have seen what was coming, or they might have, but something made them understand or foresee, is my thinking.  I’m so tired I don’t even know what to think.  But I drove north, not knowing if my house would be occupied, or locked down, but when I got there, I arrived safely with memories.  And very little gas.  I walk over the hills every few days for food to trade on my subscription.  No one knows what’s happening or is going to happen.  Do you?  I pick berries and I planted a garden and there are things coming up from this rain.  The sunsets are spectacular.  I wish I had another person to share it with.  I have nice neighbors but we’re all equally spooked.  Sometimes in the middle of the night I hear noises outside downstairs.  I remember you said Stevenson was your favorite nineteenth century writer, because he wrote unashamedly of adventure.  Only Wells and maybe the odd London could have done justice to a crazy tale you but I couldn’t believe, avant garde me.  Until maybe now.  The situation is weird, because even though I do have freaky nights, I am calm.  I always asked you how your dreams were.  I have dreams of these biorgs, which is what they’re calling the rumored mythical creatures, if that’s what they are.  Something scratching on my window that’s probably just an animal.  We have mountain lions and coyotes and they say bears.  A mountain lion makes little whistling sounds.  A coyote or wolf sounds more mournful.  I haven’t seen any bears, but the syrup farmer running lines through my property says, “Yupper, black bears.  Grizzlies now too.”

This was before V. one day while I was chopping wood (I was freezing into July) went out of sight.  I was sweating in the freezing weather and dealing with a headache.  At times I had to stop because I was seeing white.  Then I’d breathe and keep going.  V. never came back.  I went looking all over the hills, but it was getting dark and the sweat was drying inside my layers and I was freezing and hadn’t finished with all the wood, and I was crying.  I stayed up putting logs on the fire with the porch light on.  I put my sweaty clothes out to maybe attract him and, hungry, I fell asleep on the sofa.  I didn’t think I could take care of us both if I got sick.  I woke physically all right when the light came up but realizing that he was probably never coming home.

The next few weeks were about acceptance and guilt.  What if I’d kept him inside?  But then when I left him inside he’d howl and claw at the wood doorframe, and that was distracting and also heartbreaking.  I’d thought I had to take the chance.  I ate but wasn’t hungry but had to eat.  I walked over the hills to the fair.  I needed to know what was going on.  I knew I needed to find out what was going on, for survival, but part of me thought I’d learn something unbearable.  Locally grown food was available.  And I was using the last of my money while learning that our credit was being converted to Arkoin, and that I had to apply for my subscription.  I dragged my heels.  I didn’t want to be a part of anything I couldn’t understand, and that I thought was going to put me in some situation, but already I didn’t have anything to barter.  Out of depression and shellshock, I hadn’t started my garden.  My father had tried taking me out to hunt, and I’d killed a few things back in Arkansas, but my gun is a .22 and I didn’t know what I could kill with that, much less how to strip and dress it, if these are the right words.  I could fish, but I didn’t have the rod and tackle.  I’d have to use all my credit against my subscription.  A man from the feds came by and told me that the syrup farmer had died.  My lines would stay there, but the man had died intestate and a new Supreme Court ruling allowed the federal government to take over intestate properties to keep supplies in the economy flowing.  The agreement I’d signed leasing my maples to the farmer still held.  I was entitled to points toward my subscription but they wouldn’t add up much what with the deflation we were having that I hadn’t been aware of.  Of course, in order to protest the deal, signed by the previous entity, I’d have to go to the town hall and make a citizen plea, which involved making a pledge for citizen security under oath.  In order to declare myself a Quaker, who could not swear oaths, I would have to make a plea and say a pledge involving an oath of correct conscience.  I’m sure everybody all over has had to make this plea.  I just wanted to survive.  Luckily the Silver Hill market was closer than the county seat, Dumfries, and I could continue to go over the hill and get beans.  I’ve eaten a lot of beans, which for a long time were cheap.  I was so skinny my clothes hung off me, my face skeletal.  If you ever loved me for what you called my boyish looks, I am certain you will have judged by now they’re gone.  My beard is full gray.  I just let it grow.  I leased my syrup and went over the hill to work in the greenhouse.  I’d eaten all my stores friends and neighbors gave me in jars.  I have wood heat and had all the wood I needed on my property, all ten acres of which are mine as long as I remain on the syrup grid and don’t abandon my property (or else it will revert to the feds) and continue to work in the greenhouse.  Forever, I was almost too weak to work.  In the time it takes me to get back over the hill I’m done for the day and sit by the fire.  I go to bed early, because the electricity hasn’t been turned back on, since I can’t afford it.  They’ve beaten us.  I’m afraid to say anything to anyone else, my coworkers or neighbors, and yet the village of Silver Hill was founded by Quakers and built up by hippies and Buddhists in the sixties.  My house was built by a crazy bunch of spiritual alternatives who thought the world was going to end much sooner!  Then one week I was moving some furniture in the basement and found stacks of old dollars in a crock jar, and they bought me beans and kale.  I’m still pale but my skin has never felt softer or moister, at least as an adult.  So I don’t have to buy moisturizer, which I couldn’t afford anyway.  I quickly ran out of hippie bucks buying food and hardware supplies, but I have neighbors.  The greatest revelation is the women, who are so resourceful, and kind.  Annie was never married.  She said that every once in a while she gets a toothache and has to pull a rotten tooth, usually a molar whose fillings gave out, with pliers.  I opened up to her.  She told me to come over down the road and see her dog and her cat.  The dog and the cat live together harmoniously, an old husky and an old blue-haired something.  The house smells good, old-timey.  The first time I went over I smelled the most heavenly odor.  She’d baked muffins with her own blueberries (they grow wild, but she has a sunny slope where they especially thrive), and flour she’d made from cassava, which is tapioca.  It’s an irritating and tedious process to make a batch of the flour, involving washing and pulping and squeezing and setting it out to dry.  I won’t say that they were the most delicious muffins I ever had, but they were satisfying and rich and I couldn’t have more than two.  She laughed and said that’s part of what makes them so good.  She was a missionary in Haiti and it only dawned on her later before the crash that she might be able to raise the cassava roots on her slope starting in July.  The land had not been worked for a long time.  She asked if I could help her process the stuff and I agreed.  

I’d gone home that night after talking to her and petting Gnome and Nile, feeling better, and realized that if I had only one goal while I was waiting for work, it was to stay alive.  And I had to get involved more closely with others (you know how hard this is for me) in order to save my own life.  And I instantly really liked Annie.  She entertains me with her pet stories and rough living and wild animal stories.  After the mission in Haiti she came here, no longer believing in her religion, after the earthquakes and all the other disasters, and became a midwife (Annie is a licensed nurse, but would have to travel too far from here to practice, or move, which she would never do).  She can do anything, it seems like.  She knows everything about plants and she knows which mushrooms will kill you, and which places in the lakes and rivers to swim in and avoid the cottonmouths which have migrated up here.  Annie has packets and jars of things she’s raised or picked wild for every kind of illness.  She knows how to make thin soup taste savory. 

When I think of us, and don’t take this the wrong way, dear, when I think of us all down in New York running on a currency of favors to get ahead, but not gaining real sustenance—hoping to meet a man who’d help us and make us feel better about ourselves, because we wanted a love but somehow kept losing one, two steps forward and three back, so that we were always getting dizzy while getting old—I wonder what it was all for.  The cultural markets were falling apart at the same time the economy was.  Or were inflated, so that everyday ordinary people could never participate, only gawk, like it was this Ozymandias we’d sold our lives to, at the same time all of us were becoming addicted to our screens and the information streaming over them, so we were no longer capable of thinking even, which was art’s original purpose, a challenge, not a feeding of ideas we’d do away with as soon as we clicked off.  I remember the night the gallery closed.  The rich people were lined up.  Their yachts were tied up at the Chelsea Piers.  That was when I knew something was turning around forever probably.  They had their people and it was snowing and they were buying this shit up, shit mostly, though some of it I saw value in, although I knew that mostly the value for the rich people was purely monetary.  They were going to take it off, to their jets, their compounds.  They were talking about South Dakota and Utah and the abandoned salt mines and the other mines in West Virginia and Pennsylvania where companies constructed underground luxury fortresses.  Getting out on the streets was dangerous.  They went from yacht to helicopter to airport.  When it was over, there was not a single square inch of art left.  It was almost like my job and the gallery and its contents and the whole field had never existed.  Then I had to walk home, going through Chelsea with a bowie knife, through the Village, which is when I saw your book in the Three Lives window, and the books of some other friends, and the books of people I’d read and admired, making my way down to the Lower East Side and the Williamsburg Bridge walking so fast my breath was like steam from an engine going at full speed, just wanting to see V. and scoop him up, V. the last friend in the world I could be sure of for now.  The reason I’d worked all night the week before as the hurricane was hitting to help move the art up to the second floor—the one I’d thought of going home to in the next few hours so I could pick him up shrieking and trembling.  I was tired, and there was no rational reason to be tired.  Art had never personally thanked me, and so I was torn crossing and recrossing the river every day, except that I didn’t really know when the final blow would hit, or if it actually would hit—although you know me, son of a lay preacher and dutiful son who’d signed up for conversion therapy voluntarily.

I knew I’d never see my employers again.  My bosses were darlings of the rich collectors and were tagging along to these armed underground compounds.  I’d always been a functionary of an industry.  My thoughts and ideas and appreciations didn’t mean anything anymore.  Once I had been asked to give an opinion, based on my education and longtime art-dealing background.  But now I was a discarded clerk.  I was cool, people liked me.  It wasn’t that.  A hurricane is one thing and a blizzard is another, but one followed by the other in quick succession—in five days, by which time you couldn’t get back to the city, is the setting for a disaster that understands what nature was trying to say, which was get out.  There’s nowhere to go, but leave.  Go as fast as you can to get away from as many people as you can.  There were drums in my blood and starting in my head but V. was calm.  I tried to call you but knew you were on the island and between storms the reception I think had never recovered.  I tried to call Trace.  You know that I always preferred live voice, but an electronic voice told me the party wasn’t reachable.  I began to text, and trying to send was told that it failed.  I tried several times, always with red exclamation marks saying it couldn’t send.  I picked up V. and carried him around as I packed.  My hurrying made me want to pack light but an instinct said I better not take a chance.  What if I was never coming back? 

My building was quiet.  When my icemaker rumbled and dropped its hard payload, then I startled.  I heard the negligibly sane woman upstairs yelp and scream, but I’d heard this so many times in the night before.  I’d heard her scream when I closed my front door too briskly.  Once, I put the lid down tightly on the recycling bin in front of the building and heard an injured yelp on the stoop and looked up to see her barefoot in her pajamas and cardigan sweater standing in the glass front doorway looking insulted and worried.  Once I had heard her body thud on the floor above me and I waited.  There was no shriek or yelp, which worried me.  The next morning, she was downstairs in the vestibule checking the mail in a fancy gown but barefoot, when in fact the mail never came until three.  I could always count on V.  The coyotes upstate worried him and he whimpered through the night.  But V. never reacted to the woman upstairs and was always right.

And then I was in the car with half a tank of gas, holding V. in my lap although I’d never before let him ride in my lap.  It was three in the morning.  Negotiating Brooklyn with its detours and construction changes had always been hectic and unpredictable even with a computer voice.  But the satellites weren’t working.  The snow had stopped and there were helicopters crossing the East River back and forth.  At first there was worrying little traffic on the Queensborough Bridge and then after the Queensborough Bridge in every direction there was traffic backed up, and my next thought was, I should start worrying.  I’d been worrying all along but now there were pulses of it, panic points.  Cars suddenly pulled over with their flashers going.  I remembered Amazon-enabled cars, the newest thing that, self-driving and defensive of their clueless passengers, could sense trouble in a traffic situation and suddenly pull over onto the shoulder and immediately self-disable.  Amazon described it as a glitch when the media picked up on it.  News reports showed people standing next to their cars telling reporters there wasn’t a car in sight when it happened, and that wreckers were helpless to disengage the drive train to haul each vehicle away.  Now the cars pulled over imperfectly at different angles, clogging traffic and causing drivers to get out of their vehicles and estimate their clearance.  Their emergency flashers made everything confusing in the mist, and driving was still slippery.  To save gas I turned off my car but stayed in my lane.  V. whimpered and I wondered if I’d panicked and made a mistake.  We comforted each other and I had to turn on the engine from time to time to heat up the inside of the car again.  I fell asleep with V. sleeping against my chest and the engine running and dreamed this was all because of a bomb the Russians had dropped or were planning to drop and had given us warning about.  As you might have guessed, or it’s my point of view anyway, the Russians had been announcing their plans to threaten the east coast, to scramble logic in our leaders’ and population’s minds, and to cause mass cognitive dissonance and give us just enough time to make more concessions in our global interests, so that the markets were on constant alert.  This is how I see it and how folks at the gallery were describing it, anyway, and now I saw they had reason to understand the conflict and the class conflict (call it what it is), since they themselves were waiting for the signal from their clients who were going to sweep in and clean out our holdings at the last possible moment.

I understood all this and it was the unspoken narrative as my mind imagined the flashes of the emergency lights from the vehicles all around us as the dropping of bombs.  The Amazon vehicles had been warned and were heading off even more chaos.  The Asian front had not given anyone warning and had sent their missiles across the Pacific in the middle of the night while the people in the Western State slept.  It was my understanding from my employers, who said this all coolly and with eyerolls of disbused patience with little me, that the Western State was on its own and that everyone, the Russians, the Chinese and Washington, D.C., had “lost heart” convincing the Western State that its economy should be reintegrated into the rest of the American economy to balance negotiations and end the war.  The media seemed to be underscoring this by now, too.  Since my bosses had been explaining and highlighting the events all around us appearing as the top stories in the twenty-four-hour news cycles, and all of them had friends in the highest places of power and the highest economic echelons, I had no reason to doubt them.  Mentally I cringed and bit back.  It wasn’t the narrative carrying me through my childhood.  Whatever you say, my folks were decent.  I don’t believe they ever meant to hurt me.  They believed in a goodly system.

As you probably know, the real point was to keep the world moving toward a Realpolitik of culling and cleansing, alignment, integration, clear black lines all over the world—as I see it.

I had left the dash radio on for when the satellites came back on line and was having my annihilation reverie when I heard: REMAIN CALM AND DO NOT LEAVE YOUR HOMES.

That woke me up.  A woman in a parka with a safety-yellow vest fastened around her and the parka hood with its trim of fake fur framing her face knocked on my driver-side window.

I didn’t roll my window down.  I thought I had maybe fifteen seconds.  I looked around the expressway and saw that most of the cars had been cleared, and that there were no cars in the passing lane.  She mouthed something urgently but all she was holding was a flashlight and a walkie talkie, and I started my engine and I heard her holler and I eased out of there.  I told V., “Make something good happen,” and he growled and yawped and sang.  We were listening to New Order, which always got him going singing and whimpering melodically.  I stayed on the expressway until I got to the parkway.  There just weren’t enough personnel.  They hadn’t had time to be mobilized, was my guess.  It had happened too quickly, the orders.  I remember you calling him our figurehead, and I remember saying, having said very little that was wise since I never wanted to add to the noise and either get it wrong or augment the paranoia, “He doesn’t do anything according to plan.  Oh, he makes plans, then at the last minute he changes them.”  

For a long time, of course, I said this to console myself, not look wise, though secretly I hoped I was right.  Because otherwise we’d be lost.  Looks like one of my instincts was right.

You’ll never get this.  There’s no surface mail, only encrypted official messages.  I hear there’s an internet but that no one like us can afford it.  I found some of my blank notebooks in my cramped office (you know how messy I am, but one good thing is I’ve had plenty of time to organize it).  I’m writing this, adding to my notebooks, and I’m thinking of marrying Annie.  It’s better to build one fire for two than two separate fires.  It’s half as much work.  And in the winter up here the work is crippling.  We’ve got two separate gardens now, more than enough to feed us through the cold.  I remember how hopeful you were in hinting that you’d like to have a place up somewhere to have a garden, and grow tomatoes.  You said you’d do all the work.  This had been your dream since growing up in the pitiless annihilating Florida sun with salty sandy and useless soil near the coast.  And here I am a greengrocer in the market over the hills.  I have incredible arms and shoulders, finally.  I am a grower who thinks how much fun it would be to call myself a gentleman samizdat farmer.

If only I could get my written words out.  I’m not sure how original my experience is but I do think I have style.  You always said I had style—if only I had a little more time to write.

I can write this, knowing the unlikelihood of anyone coming to seize my notebooks.  But I hope there is resistance not just in people’s hearts but that there are people actively working on it somewhere.  Maybe some of the tech bros I used to make fun of for taking over my neighborhood.

I do miss you.  I miss you and I hope, though do I dare hope, that I see you again one day.

You might call me St. John de Crèvecoeur of the Adirondacks, Postapocalypse Edition.

Michael Carroll  is author of Little Reef and Stella Maris: and Other Key West Stories