It was freezing outside. Charlie had filled his coat with scraps of newspaper he picked out of the trash, and his fingernails were black, splitting from the skin. I needed to get him off the street. He looked at me and gave a laugh that turned into a cough from the depths of his lungs, concussive. He’d been gone since August.
He called me on a Sunday afternoon, said he was going to leave his house and wasn’t sure where he would go. He wouldn’t stay at home. The house reminded him of his daughter, and every time he walked into the kitchen he felt a pressure in his chest that his ribs could barely contain. He told me not to worry. It would be better if I just left him alone.
That I found him when I did was a fluke. We’ve got a big enough city. People don’t run into each other unplanned. I’d taken an early lunch break from the language center where I teach English part-time. A pair of Portuguese siblings had given me some cookies, and I carried them with the bread I’d bought that morning from the bakery. The classrooms were always overheated so I didn’t mind sitting outside with the frost for a while.
As I discarded my trash I noticed a man sitting, meditatively, in front of the peace bell at the other end of the pond. He sat with his hands outstretched as if he were practicing for the upper half of a crucifixion. Other people were looking at him. I saw a long beard, windswept hair and then his plaid jacket. He’d done a good job ruining it; nobody would have known it was Burberry, that it cost more than my first car. His wife Olivia gave it to him for their first anniversary.
I walked up to him, but he didn’t open his eyes. “Want some cookies?” I asked. He glared at me. I must have roused him from something warm, a graceful memory, or perhaps a glorious vision of the future.
“Too bad,” he said. “You found me,”
“You smell like wet dog.”
“That’s just Bam-Bam. He runs around here sometimes. Don’t pet him. I think he’s got mange. He likes to break open the ice on the puddles. I enjoy that, too. It’s nice to disrupt things. The water should be set loose. It gives life, after all.”
“Not that water,” I said.
I sat down next to him and, despite the spittle and vomit on his clothes, gave him a hug. I was never afraid of his fluids, even when we were kids. He took a swig from a bottle and handed it over. I couldn’t tell what it was from the smell, but I sipped anyways. I held the cookies in my hand, trying to warm them up a little bit so he wouldn’t break his teeth because who knew when he’d last brushed them. I wanted to see him eat something. He stared at the sky as he ground one down, swallowing the clumps like castor oil. A squirrel crept near us. Charlie tore off a little piece and threw it, but ended up hitting the animal in the face. It stared at us, snatched the chocolate chip, and stalked off.
“Just trying to be nice.” He shook his head, as if he were trying to wake from a daze, and put the rest of the cookie in his pocket. I tried to hand him the others but he pushed me back.
“You need to eat,” I said.
“I’m doing all right. There are worse things than hunger. I used to give money to folks like me, street people. I didn’t realize how hard it is, swallowing people’s pity.”
“I don’t pity you.”
My editor had recently assigned me a feature story, about sex and love at the end of the world, an overview of how people were faring under their post-fallout sheets. I’d gathered all sorts of random information. For example, divorce rates had plummeted. The city wills office told me they got twelve filings last year, and one of the secretaries, who’d been working there long before the internet stopped, said that she remembered years when it was in the thousands. Even with the population drop, that’s still a huge decline. Charlie and Olivia, as far as I knew, hadn’t divorced.
I found sexual support groups for all sorts of problems: radiation syndrome, PTSD, sarcoma. I spoke to a bunch of transgender refugees at the abandoned airport. They seemed totally happy, and they said not much had changed in their sex lives, but I wondered if they were merely better at adapting than most people. I conducted my own study, too. The guy was in his thirties, a native of East Falls, like me. I met him at the butcher shop. We went to my apartment, and when we finished I asked him what his sex life was like before the bombings, and he told me that it was way better, that people were much less discriminating with their lovers. That made me smile. In the history of humanity it had never been so easy to talk about sex. It wasn’t something to be ashamed of anymore. My twelve-year-old self would have been so confused. Even when Charlie and I were kids and unbothered by nakedness, we never talked about our bodies in that way. Stripping down was something you did to keep your church clothes unsoiled. You never thought about it any deeper than that.
I had boyfriends in college. I began dating a man right after I graduated. We got married. Lincoln. He said he was my soul mate, that he would do anything for me; I said the same, though it was more an instinctive reaction, a young person’s catch and release. We got an apartment near my childhood house and we were both content; we turned our noses up at the big city gays and vowed never to leave East Falls. I never told him about my feelings for Charlie, even though we said we’d forgive each other for anything. Three years was not enough time to tell him my secrets. He took a business trip to Houston, city number six. I think in the beginning the hostiles were going in order of GDP, though it could have been by population. I can’t remember. It was pointless to go looking for him. There was nothing left of that downtown.
A piece of trash blew into up into Charlie’s hair. I plucked it out and looked at his face. He had something on his eyelid, a wart, a pimple, perhaps the aftermath of shingles or a burn. He kept poking it and then touching all manner of things, the ground, his ears, his beard.
“You need to get that looked at,” I said.
“This? It’s fine. It doesn’t hurt as much lately. I’m on the mend, can’t you see?” He fluttered his eyelashes as if he could blink away everything that had happened.
“Come home with me. Just for the night. Or let me rent you a room somewhere. You need indoor rest.”
“You know, I always thought about what would have happened if I’d gone abroad with you for that gap year, if I hadn’t gone to college and met Olivia and gotten that job, if I’d given Jane my share of the radiation pills. She needed them more.”
I had to play his game. We’d debated this a million times.
“If you had gone abroad with me,” I said, “you would have died from dehydration. There was no Cherry Coke in the Andes. And the government told you how many pills to give Jane. They’re the ones who did wrong, not you.” He smiled, so I took the opening. “You have to stop this, Charles. Go home.”
“I told you, I’m not going back.”
“How about you go to the airport?” I asked him. “They’ve got beds there, and the people are kind. It’s going to drop into the 20s this week. Or I could sneak you into the newsroom. The supply closet’s pretty big.”
“No. I don’t need handouts.” He pulled out a wad of cash. In a past life he was a CEO with homes all over, including here. “I told you I’m fine. If I wanted to be indoors, I’d be indoors.”
“Come to my apartment. You can stay in my bed and I’ll take the floor.”
He shook his head. “Not going to steal your bed, Martin.”
“Okay, fine, you take the floor. I’ll pull up the carpet and leave the window open. It’ll feel exactly like this. You won’t even know you’ve left. I’ll even spring for some charred newspaper and empty bottles. We’ll dress it up good.”
“Heh, thanks. You’re always the problem-solver. But some things don’t have a solution.”
“Well, how about prison?” I asked, not sure where I was going but sticking with the impulse. “Think of it. You’d have a real bed. And you would still be homeless, sort of. And you wouldn’t have a choice, you’d have to be indoors, so you wouldn’t be going against your principles or whatever the fuck is possessing you to be out here.” I hadn’t planned on suggesting it; the words just spilled out. Many people had done it for the daily meals, for the place to sleep. Some people thought prisons were better protected against the fallout, that the thick concrete and decades of stagnant air played in their favor. There were worse things to give up than freedom of movement.
“In any case,” he said, “my record is clean, go figure. Not even a parking ticket.”
“You could always do something.”
“What, something illegal?”
“That’s usually the only way to get imprisoned, yes.”
He stroked his beard, taking a few hairs in his fingers and twirling them as one would a handlebar mustache. He stood and looked at his reflection in the frozen pond.
“There’s a thought. Just sit in a box all day, time to think. Like being in a monastery. You know I thought of doing that? Going to Nepal, sleeping on a straw mat, not talking to anyone.” He brushed some leaves off his jacket and looked at me. “But then I realized I could do the same thing right here. You know I’ve always hated flying.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. “Just so you know, there are no women in prison. Hope that’s all right.”
“You would like that, you queen.” He laughed and coughed again.
“We need to get out of here. Let me take you to the library.”
“I’m used to this. If I get warm it’ll be worse when I go back out.”
We discussed the kind of crime he might commit. Most business owners would no longer prosecute for theft, the requisite time and energy not worth the potential recovery of property. Anything under a felony would net a slap on the wrist and a fine; there was no need for minor league convictions. Charlie had no desire to harm anyone. He could handle himself—he’d always been stocky since we were kids—but hadn’t a single aggressive bone in his body. He didn’t want to set fire to anything. He could yell at a cop, but that would only give him a night’s reprieve in a cell not much warmer than the underside of the River Bridge.
“How about this,” he said. “I run naked around City Hall, then spray paint a giant biohazard symbol on the door?”
“You don’t want to get even more frostbitten than you are now.”
“What’s one more finger or toe?”
“And how about your cock?”
He paused for a moment. “Hmm…yeah, good point. I’m depressed, but not that depressed, you know what I mean.” He smiled. He’d lost a tooth near the back.
“I got it,” I said. “You can beat me up.”
“I said I wouldn’t harm anyone.”
“No, listen: I’ll draw a pint of blood from myself beforehand, we can spread it around a bit, I’ll roll around in the mud and give you my wallet. You got a big one there, assault, or even attempted murder, and you can even call me a faggot if you want, a little hate crime to top it off.”
“I would never call you that.” He closed his eyes. “It would break my heart.”
I was getting chilly. Charlie offered me his coat, but I suggested we should walk a little bit, past the pond and up towards the highway. We stumbled on another homeless man who he recognized. The two of them talked about the incoming winter blast. The man did not look at me. I wondered if he even knew I was there.
“That’s Wendell. You and him are the only people who’ve talked to me all week. It’s been wonderful.”
“I wish you would tell Olivia where you are.”
“She’s fine. Let her move on. She can sell the house and go to Santa Fe. She always said she wanted to do that when we got older. Totally away from the worst of it, unspoiled soil, wild animals galore. It’s perfect for her.”
For months after they married, I’d get texts from Charlie about something he said or shouldn’t have said to Olivia, some kind of argument or impasse that they couldn’t seem to break. He worried that she’d think less of him if he wasn’t a success, but that often meant he worked late and forgot to do the things she asked. I gave him the same answer every time: do whatever it takes to be at home in your own skin. If you don’t have that, you won’t be comfortable around anyone else. After the initial retaliatory bombings in the big metros, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, people in small cities like ours got all chauvinistic. Many felt justified by their decision to stay in flyover country. I didn’t feel as smug. I felt like I’d survived a plague, and all of my friends but one were gone.
The sunset lit up the clouds like rust. A gust swept through and Charlie winced and reached for his thumb. He huffed a warm breath on it, but that seemed to make it more fetid and blue. Now that I’d been near him a while, I could smell him more fully, and it was gross, worse than any of the carcasses he’d pulled from under the porch or the time he fell into the sulfur stream by my house.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “Fine. As long as I don’t have to hurt you. And I’m not calling you that name.”
“Done deal. I have a deadline at four tomorrow. I’ll come here after.”
“Has anyone called you that before?”
“What, a faggot? Of course. It’s happened to everyone.”
“Who? Who was it?”
When we were in high school, another boy had gotten wind of my infatuation with Charlie. He pulled me by my jacket into a hallway corner and asked if I wanted to suck Charlie off, if I liked doing that to guys. I shook my head. He said he knew I was lying. He would tell our classmates, he would tell Charlie. I couldn’t stand the thought of that. I met him in his car behind the parade field. Everyone had gone home or to sports practice. Charlie, I knew, was at a Calculus Club meeting, and we’d planned to go for pizza afterward.
I wanted Charlie to be my first, but if I had embarrassed him, if those at school had found out and he never spoke to me again, I would have never recovered. It was necessary, that boy down my throat. When he finished, he took the sleeve of my shirt and wiped himself off. I sat up. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do.
Get out of the car, f—.
“Martin?” Charlie waved his hand in front of me. “Who called you that?” He was angry. The anger was for me, a gift. I savored it. I tried my best to look sad, to let the moment linger as if I had to whisper a name that pained me to say aloud. It’s true that I avoided the boy for a while, but after a few weeks I went back to my routine, and whenever I saw him I felt a queer satisfaction over the secret caught between us. I never had anything like that with Charlie.
“Peter,” I said.
“Baseball Peter? Why would he say that to you?”
“Charles, it was 20 years ago. I’ve accepted it.”
“How come you never told me?”
“It was just a word. He didn’t beat me up.” How odd that in forty years I’d not once received nor thrown a punch, never taken that adolescent right of passage.
“I would have killed him if he did. I’ll still knock him out, if I ever see him again.”
“So, problem solved, then. I’ll bring Peter here, you’ll punch him in the face and get sentenced to at least six months, probably more, because he’s surely some bigwig with money and lawyers and an infantile temper.”
“If he survived,” Charlie said and laughed.
“Will you be here tomorrow?”
He breathed deeply, then nodded. It’s not easy to be homeless in this city, which is now chilly year round. The panhandling laws aren’t strict, and people aren’t averse to putting change in cups, but there just aren’t many good places to sleep. There are no warm subway grates, and all the decent charitable organizations took a hit when credit cards systems disappeared and physical cash became king again. Charlie should have opened a shelter, put his savings to good use. That seemed a more logical penance than sleeping in dirt.
“I’ll bring the supplies,” I said. “Take care of yourself until then. Find some undergrowth or something to curl up in. Try to sleep.”
Jane was two months old when the first bombs dropped, on Tianjin and then Los Angeles. Charlie and Olivia had made so many plans for her education, baptism, retirement fund. They grew a garden of carrots to puree when she got old enough for real food. When they moved back to East Falls, after everyone realized the Chinese didn’t care about the state of Wyoming, I offered to look after her when Olivia went for job interviews. How hard could it be to ensure she burped and shat? I was so eager to help out, and it was easy enough for me to work remotely. We had a funeral for her. Charlie and Olivia asked me to give the eulogy, and I thought for days how to describe what the world meant to a two-year-old. I didn’t want to do it, but Charlie had done it for Lincoln. I wanted to repay him for the kindness; I just hate to use words in that way. I wound up talking about her fascination with tree bark, how she used to pluck bits off the trunks and stack them up like a Lego set. She never needed fancy toys. If she’d survived, I think she would have become an arborist.
My professional life, I’m ashamed to admit, got a lot better when things fell apart. When the government decentralized and news became harder and harder to find, people started paying for it again. As the national stories dried up and the publications that weren’t obliterated got shut down, the windfall trickled to the local papers. At first we wrote our stories out by hand and sold those copies on the street. Then when the electricity came back we printed and copied locally, newsletter style. Now that we’ve got a functional lithograph and a local computer network again, the paper looks nearly the same as before. My boss was thrilled. He told me over drinks that he’d been planning mass layoffs. Now the paper was relevant again; we all were.
I drew six vials of blood to ensure we had enough. Too much, I knew, but I’d be fine after some pinto beans. I was good at taking blood by myself. When the chaos had muted and we all began to recombobulate, I subscribed to a radiation testing service. Send a vial and they’d send the result. Imagine my surprise being told, month after month, in their succinct template letters, that I was normal. Their words, not mine. All I did was take my daily pill.
Work the next day came easy to me, knowing I’d help Charlie. I slept an undisturbed seven hours and woke up feeling light and happy, as if I hadn’t dreamed at all. When was the last time that happened? In the afternoon I submitted my finished story (which I titled “Sex In The World We Live In”) and went to the park. I brought the vials with me in a Ziploc bag. Charlie would have to dispose of them somehow. I told him he should fill the bag with dirt and bury it.
He was there, as promised, and we were lucky that the sky was overcast and the city a bit sleepy. Nobody would care; nobody would think much of what we were doing. Perhaps they’d figure us a performance art duo, Charlie painting my face with corn syrup or cherry puree. I looked up the prison where they’d send him, a pitiful place forty miles north, right on the edge of the restricted zone. It would take me three hours on the bus to visit him, two on a sunny day. I could make the trip once a week, if he wanted.
“Look at you,” he said to me as I entered the park. “All dressed up and fancy.”
I wore my suit, the one I used for interviews with the City Council or other bigwigs passing through, people who still cared about pretense. “It’ll seem more sympathetic if I look distinguished. Who would want to punch a man in a tie, right? Have you ever seen a more trustworthy face?”
“I can’t remember the last time someone looked me in the eyes.”
“Couldn’t have been that long. When’s the last time Olivia looked at you?”
“She couldn’t do it. She said it made her think too much about what Jane would have looked like.”
She’d probably be better off avoiding mirrors, I thought.
“After Denver we spent a year giving Jane those pills. If I’d just gone with my gut, maybe…”
“Maybe is a shit word. It means nothing. Same thing with actually. Stop using them. They’ll only lead to an early death.”
“Maybe actually maybe actually maybe actually.”
“See, this is good. You made a joke.”
We walked deep into the park, under a cover of branches, and found a flat area to sit. I showed him the bag of vials. I could have sold them for a decent price and treated us to dinner, but then I remembered the asshole waving his wad of cash in my face and was more convinced I needed to do this, to get him someplace where he would see how stupid he was being. He took a vial and turned it in his fingers, watching the blood go plop, plop, plop on the ends.
“Haven’t seen one of these in a while.”
It made the most sense, I said, to smear it all around my neck and down my shirt. I didn’t tell him that I’d have to cut myself under my chin, that there had to be a wound somewhere or else the cops would think I was the one doing the pummeling. I had an exacto knife in my jacket. I bought it years ago, when the officials weren’t sure if the electricity would come back and I felt an urgent need to scrapbook the times of my life before the boom.
You never heard birds anymore. They were still there, the droppings, the fluttering, the random specks moving across the sky, but they didn’t chirp. It only bothered me sitting in parks, made me think there was something wrong with my brain, that I was having an experience which I knew consisted of A through Z but for some reason was missing the K and Q. A lost piece. I guess we all lost something, though I wasn’t sure what had left me.
I took his hand and was surprised it was so soft. I figured the cold would have hardened everything, that his skin would have tried to protect itself, curled up into a ball like so many of the charred people they’d discovered. His fingertips felt as if nothing had happened, like we were once again kids playing in a tree house.
I opened the first vial and flipped his hand over, pouring gently across his knuckles, down the side of his pinky to his wrist.
“Now, like I said.”
He wouldn’t look at me. He made a fist and dragged it gently across the side of my jaw, down the collar of my white shirt. He brought his thumb across my neck, over my tie, pressed it against my chest. I smoothed another layer of blood atop his hand, unbuttoned myself, and from my shoulder past my ribs I traced a line that he followed, leaving red streaks like the first coating of a vase. It tickled a little. If I was eighteen and a man had touched me how Charlie did, I would have had an orgasm just from sitting there. At forty it didn’t cause much of a stirring, but I still didn’t want him to stop.
“Now the other side,” I said, opening another vial. “Let’s be real, who would assault only the right side of a person?”
“A leftie,” he said.
It was like this: when we were kids, Charlie used to get himself into situations—up the chimney shoot, wedged under his parent’s porch. I followed him most of the time, but I always waited outside the worst places, in case he needed help, in case he needed to be cleaned up or saved or pointed out to paramedics. I was always better staying in the background. One day we were playing a game on the swing set down by the creek. Get as high as you can, then let go and fly as far as possible. Charlie made it almost to the pavement, and in that moment I wanted to beat him, to be him, intrepid and calm and free. I pumped my legs wildly, and when I hit peak height I let go. I looked down at him while I was in the air. He had a smile on his face, but then he didn’t. I remember hitting the concrete, and I remember him standing over me.
If there was pain, the memory of it has diminished. I only recall his shouting, the emergency room, the cast that he and our schoolmates signed. I’d flown farther than him, yet Charlie was the one who had to help me hobble home and into the back of my mom’s car. He told me, as we dragged my body down the sidewalk, that we would never play that game again.
I looked at him and saw him as he was, standing over me, trying to make sense of what I’d done, how I managed to do something so foolish. My leg healed quickly. He brought me Skittles and peanut butter cups while I was holed up on the couch. We built a house of cards. When I’d wince from the pain, he told me I was fine. I wanted to hear those words, to see him like that again. I couldn’t unsee his face.
His fingertips stopped at my belt buckle. Not good enough. I made a choking motion, fingers across my windpipe. You have to want to kill me, I told him, it’s true rage we’re going for, but when I said that he froze.
“I can’t, I don’t want to keep doing this.”
“You want me to put up a fight, do you?”
I pushed him onto the ground and jumped on top, tugging at his hair, dry skin and dander flying off him like an early snow. I pinned him down, my arms and legs like thumbtacks, my face an inch from his. He resisted none of it.
“Did you really think this would work?” he asked.
“It would if you did it for real.”
“Fuck you, Martin.” He pushed me off and got up. “The only real thing about this is that you’re an asshole.”
He walked away. I followed him. He had a wicked temper his whole life, though I’d never seen him lose it. He said that of course he got angry—I heard stories of him raging on his parents, his brother, other classmates—but he would never get that mad in front of me. I wondered what made the others so special.
“I used to fantasize about you, every day after gym class. I drew your name on the shower stalls.”
He kept walking. I trailed him like a stringed-up tin can, clomping my feet, clearing my throat as loud as I could to make sure he knew I was behind. “Come on, wait for me,” I said into the wind. I started to jog. The sweat and the blood made my body itch.
“I kept thinking that you and Olivia would split up, not right away, but five years, seven years, whatever that figure is when most couples jump ship. I told myself that I would wait that long. Did you ever think about when we were in high school, what it would have been like for me to jerk you off?”
“Stop it, stop it, stop it. I’m not going to hurt you. I know what you’re playing. You’ve done it since we were kids. It’s like a game to you.”
“Please, Charles. Just let me help you.”
“Don’t follow me.”
I could never stand up to him when he told me to do something. At some point I stopped hearing his footsteps, and I sat down by myself for a while.
The park was pitch black. The streetlamps were busted, no moonlight sneaking past such heavy cloud cover, only a handful of high-rise windows lit up. I took the exacto knife from my pocket, flipped down the safety switch, and touched my neck. I felt for my pulse, for the patch of hair that I never seemed to catch when I shaved. I made a knick with the blade and felt a warmth trickle down, falling over the dried remains of Charlie’s fingerprints. It was deep enough for what I needed. It didn’t hurt very much. I could have forced it in more, but I would never do something like that. When you see so many people die on TV, hear their gurgles on the radio, it makes death scary again. I thought of suicide often when I was a kid, like most closeted guys. I would have done it then if my parents had owned guns, or cyanide, or something I knew would do the job. But now it seemed such a waste of energy, too simple and easy. Nowadays, we all had something to prove. We were still here.
I circled the pond. When I was satisfied with the spot, I dug out a little hole in the ice, put the knife in the bag of vials and dropped the whole thing down. It sunk like a treasure chest. By the time I got to the police station I was woozy. I tried to staunch the gash with my tie, wrapping it around my neck as if I was a mangled Christmas gift, but it didn’t help. Some chimes rung as I entered. It was like magic, except nothing good appeared.
“Jesus Christ,” the man at the front desk said.
“Not quite,” I said. “Though he did share a resemblance.”
I felt a chill on my leg. My pants had ripped down the side. The guy got a first aid kit from a cabinet and taped a bandage to my neck, but after a few minutes the whole thing was wet. He put another bandage over that one, and he sat with me and pressed his palm over the cut, and I could hear him say shit, shit, shit.
I watched as the snow started falling like pollen. The first winter after Denver, people wondered if the rain had turned acidic, if when they walked outside during a shower they’d dissolve into just teeth and fingernails. Even after the scientists said everything was safe, that the mountains and wind currents were shield enough, for a long while people stayed inside when things fell from the sky. A lot of people thought that nothing good could come from those clouds. But it’s different now. Even nature can remake itself, fool itself into forgetting what happened. We all have that gift.
The chimes sounded from the door. Charlie stood there, his hands and beard still red. Wherever he’d gone off to, it must not have been far. Maybe he was following me the whole time. Maybe he’d watched me do it. He knelt in front of me and started screaming what happened, what had I done, what the fuck had I done. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. The officer told him to sit with me while he went for help. I kept hearing Charlie yell. I lay down on the bench. At some point I felt his hand on the back of my head. He kept telling me to look at him, but there was no need, I knew he was there.
I figured it out, why he closed himself off. It wasn’t the baby, or Olivia, or the bombs. He’d been lost since we were kids. I kept telling him he should leave me behind, that he had better things to do, better places to be, but he never did. I knew where he was supposed to go. I always knew what was best for him.
I picture him in his prison cell, counting the tiles on the ceiling. He isn’t allowed a pen or pencil so he digs his fingernails into the stucco. He writes about the things that happened right before the fallout. The doctor visits with Olivia, the elections that everyone knew didn’t matter, the last Olympic games, the astronauts coming home from Mars, one final triumph of human progress. He writes about how he could have saved the world, if only he’d chosen differently. He eats his meals alone. He’s safe, and he doesn’t think of me at all. That makes me smile.