I broke through the window and started to reach for the can of beans sitting on a hot plate, when I saw the bare wires. Hmm. I followed them up the wall to a marine battery on a shelf. They wouldn’t leave them bare if they were using it to power the burner. They would have at least taped them down, but they were dangling loose.
Nasty little trap for the looter? Was there a clacker ready to spark a surprise? I should have known. Nobody showcases a can of beans like that. Not in the window of an trailer. Unless it’s rigged to something loud and bright.
“Dude, give me your crutch.”
Marko gimped over and handed it to me. I pulled off the rubber skid plug and took a hit.
“Sssssweeeet Satan’s asshole, that buuurnsssss!”
Liquid fire scorched its way down. Artichoke brandy. Gnarly shit. We had come across a flipped-over truck full of artichokes. The driver was dead and didn’t seem to mind us helping ourselves. We gorged on artichokes for days. We didn’t want to waste fuel boiling them, so we just ate them raw. I was crapping out fuzz for weeks.
Anyway, after we got sick of eating tough, spiny leaves and fur, we decided to make shine. Marko had set up a rig and cooked up a batch of choke-brew. We used pieces of broken laminated furniture, and bags of dried dog shit we had collected to fire the still. The final product was a little disappointing in the taste department, but scored high marks in the effect department. Special effects actually. We agreed there was a slight hallucinogenic quality to it. Above and beyond the pinch of Jimsonweed he added.
Some mild, color enhancement. A pleasant vibratory blur. Time donuts. No big deal. But, a nice little extra. Who would of thought?
“I intuit the can is rigged. Probably a load of Jolly Time,” I told him, “You think I should give it a poke?”
Marko peered in.
“They’re using a lot of juice. Might not mean anything though. If it does, that plate is pressured, for sure.”
“I think I should give it a poke.”
He uncorked the crutch, took a hit and handed it back.
I took the crutch and poked. As soon as the can rolled off the hot plate, it blew. I felt the blast flatten my face. I saw white light. Then some flashing, lilac shapes that looked like those Christian fish. That’s all I saw for a while. What is this? Why is this? When I opened my eyes I saw Marko’s screaming face surrounded by white puffy clouds of smoke. He’s in heaven, I thought. He made it.
My ears were ringing and I felt something hot in my cheek. I was holding half a crutch with blue flames dripping off the end. Marko cupped both hands around his mouth and yelled at me.
I wasn’t sure, but didn’t want to look like a pussy so I smiled and tried to give him a thumbs up.
That’s when I saw I didn’t have a thumb.
This whole Apocalypse thing was turning out to be a major drag.
Marko and I were much more prepared for Y2K, or what we both now referred to as The Great Disappointment. Society was supposed to collapse because people’s computers couldn’t go to eleven. We were psyched. A world gone mad was right where two dudes like us belonged.
We began to arm ourselves. Pretty much ten years earlier, but now, we had even more reason to pick up some pieces we felt we needed. You know, to fill the holes in our collection. When you catch a gun sickness, there’s never enough. There’s always one more you need.
Over-under .410 derringer? Oh hell yes. Just the last resort back-up my imagination could see myself desperately needing. Some riverboat card game gone south. For those times. The camping survival rifle that folds up in your lunch box. Check. These two semi-autos just for flashing in front of the bathroom mirror while playing Taxi Driver. Check and check. You looking at me?
They all make sense. A Japanese carbine that takes ammunition that doesn’t exist anymore? Of course. In case you ever run across a surplus. You’ll have the gun to shoot it. Blunderbuss? Trench mortar? Gatling gun? The answer is always the same. Oh hell yes. After all, you never know. Pretty soon it’s time for bigger gun safe.
Marko and I built up a pretty good collection. We had some other supplies, but we didn’t worry too much about that. We had enough guns and ammo to get more supplies. We grew up on the Mad Max movies. We knew how you parlayed power in a society that is reduced to eating it’s dead. Gone is the glass ceiling that held maniacs like us down. We’d finally have some room for advancement.
Unfortunately for us, society didn’t collapse in 1999. Little by little, over the years. we pawned-off our armory for beer money. By the time the Great Shit Hit, we were caught flat-footed. We wound up with nothing but a .22 caliber target plinker, and a ceremonial sword that was used for Freemason rituals. We decided to take turns carrying the gun. I’d get the pistol on odd days and on even ones, I got stuck with the sword.
It really sucked. It wasn’t like we had pictured. In fact, this whole End of the World deal, was not what we were hoping for. Sure, being able to smash into a vending machine to grab all the tasty cake snacks and gum you can carry is fun. But you never realize that you might be doing it while a tooth rots in your head, or a cyst, that simple antibiotics could get rid of, is starting to fester. Making your underarm smell fetid.
We soaked a rag in some Angostura Bitters from a bottle we scavenged from a looted drug store. All the other booze had been carried off, but people tend to overlook Angostura Bitters, because they were considered just a drink condiment. Something to tap out a few drops of in order to add character and depth to the flavor of certain mixed drinks. They didn’t think of chugging down three bottles in a row on a vacant stomach. Or carrying the bottles in a bandolero. To have them handy during particularly hairy shoot-outs. To calm the nerves. They didn’t know how awesome Angostura Bitters could be.
Lucky for us they didn’t. In fact, that was the luckiest thing to happen to me and Marko since the world really shit the bed. It’s been pretty much bad luck, unabated, since. So every time we found a bottle, while rooting around some smashed up grocery or liquor store, was met with great joy. Great joy over bitters. Bitter dregs.
I wrapped my hand with the rag and embraced the burn as best I could. What a waste of 40 percent. Bitters was a rough buzz, but they did the trick. Drinking straight bitters was to drinking, what smoking bong tar was to weed. A head-achy, murky buzz, but a buzz nevertheless. And, in an extreme emergency, you could put a few drops in to flavor a whiskey sour, or to fight off infection from a blown off thumb. Pretty versatile shit.
We had carefully gone through the still-smoking trailer. There was nothing really in there of value, besides the marine battery and a deck of Bettie Page playing cards. Whoever had been there had moved out and on. They left the beans under black powder and ball bearings just to be dicks. I didn’t get that. I mean, what good is me having a disposable thumb going to do them? Except to make them feel better they’re not me. I guess I kind of get that.
Total waste of beans, though.
We hiked up our back packs and continued our trek west, to the sea. We heard the ocean had turned red, just like the Bible said it would. There was also talk about bodies of mermaid people washing up on the shores. We had to check that shit out. If we could get there without too many more body parts getting blown off, it would be a nice get-away. Surf and sand. Fun and sun. Not to mention barnacles, sea weed and sand dollars to feast on. Funny how you crave minerals and nucleic acids when you go without them for a few years. You just crave kelp.
Something to take the edge off the radiation sickness.
We had this dream of one day opening up a seafood shack/trading post, featuring sea-gull on a stick. Marko would run the bar, and I would put on a nightly show featuring my wry comments and oddball observations on everyday life in hell. Maybe a woman or two would show up. Someone we could bribe with our barnacles and bird on a stick. Use food to buy human comfort. Maybe someday start a sex cult.
Big dreams alright, but we were still outside Castorville, CA., so they would have to wait. We had decided to cross the Central Valley of California on our march to the sea. The abundance of agriculture, even when left untended, would sustain us through the trek. We would be like The Gleaners in that old French painting. We’d stuff ourselves vegan with kale and beets. After that, it was just a matter of plinking-off rodents and birds for protein, and drinking water from the radiators of abandoned cars. Marko had these PVC pipes packed with charcoal that would filter the water, as he put it, “pretty okay.” Pretty okay would have to do.
My big invention was the stick sack. I devised a way to hang a sack off my belt. I would pick up sticks for firewood, and put them in the sack. The stick sack. The one I invented. So we were both adding our own particular skills and knowledge to this partnership. This grand endeavor.
“How’s your ankle, bitch?”
“I am very happy about it.”
Marko was using a plank as a crutch. I could see his boot all swollen out. He rolled the ankle about a month and a half ago. Just trucking through a parking lot of some mall ruins. Crunch. It was one of those things that could’ve happened even in normal times. The problem was in normal times you could lay up a few days until the swelling goes down. We didn’t have that luxury. We had to remain moving targets. Lots of different marauding bands out here.
All kinds of urban street gangs were migrating out to rural environs, and mutating into their own brands of evil. There were cholos in mule-drawn low-riders that were big into Aztec human sacrifice. Black gangs into medieval torture. Escaped prisoners. Biker gangs. Vigilantes. Sex-slavers. All the basic characters of an average Bethesda video game. Bad eggs. One and all.
Then there were the Pappy Parkers. They were the scariest. Gun nuts. Survivalists. Outdoorsmen. These fiends had been salivating at the thought of society blowing out a colon. Sound familiar? They had been preparing for this for a long time. And they didn’t sell off all their cool shit at Pawn City. Yeah. We envied them. They could pan for gold, fish, trap, and hunt. They always had huge stockpiles of ammo, supplies and food. Gas masks. K-rations. MRE’s. Soviet army trench shovels. Those little pellets you light to heat up a cup of water. Instead of pieces of tire, like Marko and I used.
Their thing was to take you out with a black powder musket or cross-bow. They did it for sport, and to save the real ammo for something more significant. If they managed to wound you, they’d drag you back to their camp and make you guest of honor at their picnic lynch. Then have some taxidermist mount you. With everyone else in line behind him.
Fuck those guys. I was itching to catch one of them on the clavicle with my 33d Degree Grand Master’s sword. Bring down the wrath of Jachim and Boaz. Maybe while he was taking a piss at night. Outside their circled RV compound. I’d take all his cool shit. Get me a Confederate hat or a German helmet. Goggles. Cowboy holster. A real gun.
That was a pipe dream. We gave those fuckers wide berth. The best you could hope for was to come across a pile of them after a government gunship torched them into beef jerky. Pick through the smoldering wreckage for souvenirs. That’s how I got this compass with a whistle. It was all there was left. It was never much of fight between the government and those dudes. When it comes down to guns you bought from Big 5 sporting goods or a gun show at the fair grounds, against a battery of Hellfire rockets, well…
Being good at paintball and Civil War reenactments, hardly qualifies you as a force to be reckoned with on the modern battlefield.
It gave me a strange comfort that somebody else had their Apocalypse fantasy turn to shit. That’s one thing I learned about fantasies. They can only exist, if you don’t think them through. You never picture yourself being chop-sawed in half by a hot blade of depleted uranium while your pop gun dangles its cork. Why would you even entertain that? It would be a drag. So having an A-TK M230 chain gun rip up a dirt road, spitting bullets through their crotch, wasn’t what a lot of those dudes were expecting. Not when they were having their Red Dawn dreams of glory.
Anyway, just because they didn’t pose much of a threat to government forces, didn’t mean they didn’t pose a threat to our sorry, unprepared asses. We tried to avoid them as best we could. In fact, later that day, we got caught in a huge open field, and had to lie in a drainage ditch for almost an hour, waiting while one of their long convoys of horse-drawn Winnebagos and Airstreams clopped by. Probably on their way to find a suitable oasis to set up one of their flea market tented cities. A place to trade crafts, and establish a new religion. One that allows marrying children.
They did have women though. Pale and chubby creatures with floppy freckled breasts. Women who quilted bandages and crocheted warm camouflage ponchos and lap-warmers. Women who baked cinnamon rolls and bundt cake for the men. We could see them working in the kitchens inside the RVs and trailers as they passed. We could smell their sweet buns. I quietly rolled over to Marko.
“Hungry?” I whispered.
He smiled and indicated something with a nod. I looked over and saw a large woman through one of the trailer windows. The rough road was jostling her around. Making it all shake and jiggle.
I raised an eyebrow and grinned. I turned back to Marko and nodded. Me too. I rolled over and went back to being invisible…and smelling cinnamon buns. Funny how you crave dough…after you haven’t had it for a few years.
Night was coming. We decided to stop and set up camp in a dried river wash. Marko took a look at my hand. He said I would probably live long enough to regret more stuff, then washed the wound with the last of our precious bottled water. He wrapped another bitters-soaked bandage around it.
“Do you want some aspirin?”
My hand hurt like hell, but we only had three left.
“Nah,” I said, “Let save it in case one of us gets really hurt.””
“That’s what this is for,” he said, pointing the pistol to his head. “Come on, dude, take one. I’m serious. ” He held one out in his hand.
I looked down at it. A simple aspirin. Now looking very much like an Morphine drip. A shot of Demerol. But only one of three left in the entire universe. Do you do it? Or save it, and have something to live for? The pain is now, but later pain could be worse without it. Is some less bad now, worth more bad later? What if he winds up needing it? The ankle. I’ll feel like shit. Jesus, I don’t know.
“We’ll find more, dude, c’mon.”
He was being righteous. I took it out of his palm.
“I’ll hold on to it.”
We had picked up a few pockets full of Brussels sprouts earlier that day. We poked them through some car antennas and toasted them over small fire. We leaned back against some big rocks. The sky was clear, and the stars were out. We ate our burned bulbs in silence.
“These things taste like farts,” I told him, “I always thought that about Brussels sprouts.”
“Taste this,” Marko said, lifting a cheek and gassing one. “See if it tastes like Brussels sprouts.”
He did his evil guffaw. I always loved hearing that. I had set him up for it this time. I knew he’d take the bait. We stared at the fire. Really quiet. No helicopters out tonight.
“You know what I really miss?”
“Hot buttered cinnamon buns, stuffed in mom jeans,” he said, spiking another Brussels sprout on the antenna.
“Besides that. No, fabric softener. I miss fabric softener.”
“I just started using it a few months before everything went to hell, when I figured out you could pour it into that… thing in that compartment, in the middle of the machine. I always thought you had to wait for the rinse cycle before you could pour it in. So I never wanted to deal with that bullshit.”
“Uh, in the middle of the thing that spins back and forth.”
“Yeah, there’s a place to pour it in, so the softener gets dispersed during the rinse cycle. You don’t have to stand around and listen for it.”
“No shit. I didn’t know about that.”
“Yeah. I had some really fresh-smelling laundry there for a while. It smelled like how they always talked about in the commercials. ”
Marko looked tired. He was barely holding his eyelids up. I had seen that look before, plenty of times, but this was just out of exhaustion.
“Anyway, I really miss that smell.”
He lifted his cheek, but nothing came out. I could see it irritated him to miss the cue. Great time to ask something like, “Do you miss this smell?” But he whiffed. One more try.
“The smell was very artificial, but in a pleasant way.” I went on, “The smell of laundry softener is one of those rare, man-created things that didn’t totally blow.”
He didn’t even try that time. He must be fading.
I didn’t want him going to sleep just yet. He was my entertainment system. He was the only person I ever talked to these days, besides myself. And I was pretty sick of listening to myself.
“Hell, dude, sometimes I even miss standing in line at the D.M.V. I mean, even though you were surrounded by terrible people, at least they weren’t trying to turn you into a skin drum set, or sell you off into slavery. They were just awful to look at. Small distress when I think about it now. And at least being there meant you had a vehicle to deal with. Even if it was trying to get it registered with no proof of ownership. Right?”
He was out. Cold.
It was back to just me for a while. I felt my mood dip. I had nobody to distract me from the pain in my hand. I tried to watch Mexican television in my head. I imagined long-legged Latinas jumping around in bathing suits while a guy in a dog costume played the accordion, but I always wound up thinking about gangrene and amputation instead.
I broke down and took the aspirin. We will find more. Have faith in things unseen. I popped it with a hit of bitters. I punched up my sleeping bag and climbed in. I looked up at the stars and did what I always did, searched the night sky for UFOs. I’d lie there and think. C’mon, dudes. Get us off this fucking thing. I want you to teach me about inter-dimensional travel. I’ll teach you how to make a stick sack.
Most of the time, I just saw the stars, but they were comfort enough. I was glad they were still there. Looking exactly as they did when I was a little kid. They made me feel good back then, and they still did. Sometimes you have to look to eternity for any sense of stability. I felt my eyes start to close.