They passed through the city the day following. He kept the pistol to hand and held the boy close to his side. The city was blackened, burned to completion. No sign of life. Not a hobo nor trollop, tourist nor knishvendor. Cars swimbled with ash, heavy with parkingtickets. Never to be paid nor contested, no weary fist shaken at the judge’s vacant robes. A corpse in a doorway dried to fruitleather, yellowed newspaper still in hand. Reds lose, five to two. Springtime gardening tips. Ten cents off salsa. He pulled the boy closer. Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. Not like the things you put into your mouth. Those fall from your bottom.
But you forget some things, don’t you, Papa?
Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget. Sometimes you remember what you want to remember, but you have to write it down. He knelt, held the boy’s frail shoulders. I cannot stress that enough.
The boy looked down the avenue, pointed towards a bench. Another corpse. Its head had been long ago removed, feet sawn clean at the ankles. Left arm gone, right gnawed to the elbow. A desperate feast.
Will I remember that? the boy said.
The man regarded the ruined figure as they passed, tousled the boy’s hair. Yes. That’s exactly what I meant.
They bore on in the days and weeks to follow, working deeper into the scrub and barren southlands. Solitary and grim through the raw hill country, a fiddler’s cribbled nosegay. In the ruined and empty shoppingcenters, Perkins gave way to Shoneys, PathMarks to Krogers. They passed flimsy aluminum houses, wracked and sagging trailerparks. Rusted truckparts in the sideyards, a longdead satellite dish. Faded beercans, flypaper porches. Remains of a deer. What was it like here before, Papa? the boy said. Was it much different? The man thought for a moment, passed a roadsign riddled with bulletholes. No, he said. Not so different at all.
The blackness he woke to on those nights was blind and impenetrable, a ditchdigger’s bunglet. Often he had to get up. No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees, his softly running pee. He stood tottering in the chill and bleakened air, arms outstretched, eyes closed as his mind calculated its browngreen trigonometry. How to know what lay in the truncheoned dying inkwell? Beelzebub’s snowsuit. To whisper in supplication. A fearsome slant, a sleekening wampum. He counted his steps as he trod the pitchdark wood, the nameless outer. Who was its grumble? Something unfound in the night, beagled and harpy. To which he owed a debt, a skimbled arcane gratitude. Rockhard Easter Peeps, a turnip’s mad prerogative. As the great pendulum in its orbit sweeping through its movements of which you may decline an invitation or respect its velvet welcoming. Half the time he didnt know what he was talking about.
In an old slumpboard smokehouse they found a ham, hidden away in a high and dusty corner. With his knife, he cut into the rockhard porkskin, finding the meat pink and salty. Rich and good. They fried it that night over their fire, the thick slices simmered with a tin of beans. From the few things that remained in their satchel, he made a spinach sidesalad with dried cranberries and bluecheese, candied ginger almonds. Balsamic vinaigrette. Skewers of Portobello mushroom and Vidalia onion, rockshrimp and red pepper. A side of rice pilaf. Crème Brulee for dessert, the boy’s favorite. He stared into the embers as they ate the simple meal. It wasnt much, but it would have to do.
In dreams he found his bride in a warm and dewy lea. Breasts flangent in the soft purple air. Legs white and long. She wore a dress of cream-colored silk, her dark hair to her shoulders. Breath even and sweet. She smiled sadly as the clothing fell from her, revealing to him God’s bounty, the longitude of rivers. When he woke, it was snowing. Icebeads hanging from the trembling branches above. He had a big ol’ boner.
He mistrusted all of that. He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the reaper’s call. Yet he dreamt of skipping through a marshmallow cozyland where chipmunks knitted sweaters and carebears sold cottoncandy to put their cubs through Montessori school but he was learning how to wake himself from just such siren worlds. Staring towards the sightless bottomwater sky, the boy asleep at his side, he would curse himself for the lapse. He preferred the one where he had to give a presentation but had again forgotten his pants.
They plodded on in the wet and sodden cold. At the broan of a hill was a curve and a break in the trees. They walked out and surveyed the valley where the land swumbled off into the dreary gray fog. A lake down there. Dead and still. A leviathan’s idled crockpot.
What is that, Papa?
It’s a dam. It made the lake. Before they built the dam that was just a river down there.
How did they build it?
They put pieces of concrete one on top of the other.
They lowered them on wires from helicopters. I told you about helicopters, didnt I? The boy nodded. Then scubadivers guided the blocks into place. For the higher ones, they used ladders.
How did the pieces stay put?
Little nubs on top. Like Lego.
Did they need glue?
No. Large nails. Damnails.
What about the fish?
They helped too.
The boy took it all in, looked up at him. How do you know so much, Papa? About everything?
He smiled at the boy. I know what I know, he said.