“Life is a shared experience.”
He used to say that all the time. And he meant it too, not in some bullshit, existential way, not in a “none of us are special, we’re all going around on the same fucked-up rock” cynic’s way. That last bit, I guess that would’ve been more like me, like something I’d have said back then. No, he thought sharing your life was living, that charity began at home, and that the definition of home was great, and broad, and far beyond the sidewalk that lay before his front step. The neighborhood was home. And we disagreed about this, and everything about it, vehemently, endlessly to the point we’d rile each other into petty fights. We had simple, opposing views: “Life is a shared experience” versus “We live like we die – alone.” Equally heavy-handed, and with no respect for the reverse of our competing beliefs. They offended us.
He was probably my best friend.
It’s the way of things, or he’d have said, it was my way of things. As an adult, you really don’t think about such titles. After 2nd or 3rd grade, such distinctions don’t always cross your mind. Maybe maturity, you begin to wonder what you’re even measuring. And even if it was something you determined, what good would it ever do to vocalize?
We talked about this happening, actually. When we weren’t bickering, I mean. Which sounds fucked up now, talking about the end, the end of everything, the end of the world, but it was the style at the time. It was trendy back then, in a way it hadn’t been before, and people had plans. Yes, there were folks who were actually planning for something like, though not this, specifically. There was no seeing this coming.
But computer crashes, nuclear meltdowns, race wars, bird flu, the Rapture, and a “Zombie Apocalypse” (seriously), these things were frightening and fashionable, and people would argue about the best places to hide. Mostly, it was silly, but some got scary serious with it. They’d buy up flash-in-the-pan survival guides, or make millions selling them. They’d hoard guns, and food, and Stockholm their kids into believing it all too. And when the shit got in everything, maybe they had a laugh at all the rest of us.
I’ll ask if I ever find some. Instead of what I do find, a lot of weapons gunked up with pitch, and plenty of free food.
When we talked about it, we weren’t so extreme. And even though what we claimed to be on about was the end of everything, mostly, I think we were just enamored, like a lot of people, with the prospect of a new beginning. A way to sort things out into a world that was just a bit simpler, a bit fairer, a world that made sense. We were talking about a back-to-nature thing, as appealing as it was horrifying to us. A disaster that would return things to a Golden Age. We agreed on that – not the specifics. But we knew we didn’t want it black, or gray, or brown. Gold.
Certainly not this world. Not the world that the shit got in.
My friend though, he believed in people, in a better world, far more than I did then, and to messianic proportions as compared to how I believed in them now. He thought deep down that people were good, and kind, and in moments of great duress, of great crisis, that was when we were at our best. And those of us that could be our best, well, we’d band together, and the worst of us would finally be outnumbered, and they’d threaten and cry and scream, but in the end, we’d win them over. Or at the least, he’d occasionally concede, the best of us would persevere.
That was just the kind of guy he was. His house was the house all the kids wanted to hit at trick-or-treat, and his was the house all his family would pile into each Christmas. If something was happening in the neighborhood, he’d probably be hosting. He had barbeques in the neighborhood – not just for holidays, real no-reason parties, weekend get-togethers when he thought us suburbanites were going just a little too far in the direction of American Beauty. He fancied himself a salve, or at least a reminder, that we were in a community together.
Despite this, he lived alone. Maybe that was the reason for his outreach. Or maybe all the outreach left him little time to connect with someone in a family way. Chicken or the egg, either way, it meant there was no hen in the henhouse, or even a rooster for that matter, though I never really thought of him leaning that way. And for someone who was alone, he never seemed lonely, hell, as big as that house he lived in, it was rarely ever empty. He had guests regularly, some family, some friends. I even stayed there once, though I can’t recall anymore why.
We stayed there, actually. I shared my place at the time, the time before it all went… like it did, though honestly, I probably felt as solo then as I do these days. Thinking about running into the others at home, actually – the parallels to now are kind of uncanny.
Anyway, back when it all started, or rather, right after, when it was all going down, there was still some green on the trees. And sometimes, those ashen clouds would part just enough, and we might get to see some blue again. The government was still on the radio, and people were only starting to believe they wouldn’t be safe in their homes. That’s how I got left. More or less. These were the early days, when it was clear it was serious, when things straightening out no longer felt like a foregone conclusion. There was still hope. So I thought I’d cross street, and go see him.
I’m not proud of this. That hope, I mean. It just seems so naïve now, so embarrassing, like walking into school and thinking everyone’s going to be your friend. But I wasn’t the person then that I am now, there was still some part of me closer to believing things weren’t as bad as they seemed. That my friend was right, and the best of us could all work it out. That we’d all band together, and things would be better and fairer and fine, and certainly, that would include me.
Then I didn’t know I could back up all that talk, or know I was actually the kind of person that he’d so often deride. Someone out for themselves, the kind of person who’d take clothes or food off a dead man, who ignored cries for help because the chances it was a trap were higher than that it were sincere, or kill an unpleasant travelling companion with a rock. Maybe I wasn’t yet. Maybe I was still the kind of person who hoped – or had hope – that he could be wrong. That everything I’d said before had just been nihilistic bluster. That my best friend was right, and that I could happily eat crow.
Or maybe I just remembered his pantry, spending a whole summer helping him organize his overstocked cellar. So much self-canned food, grown fresh from his backyard garden. Gas, and water, and tools, and the two generators he’d bought just in case, just for the two elderly residents of our neighborhood, who he knew needed to run oxygen machines, but couldn’t manage it during the rolling blackouts from the years before. Noisy, smoky, and a little bit dangerous left unattended, we’d stayed up for days together watching them, the fumes keeping us remarkably civil. And the house, he treated it like a castle, and it could so easily have been a fortress, a stone basement, corner rooms with views on two sides, big wooden doors like you couldn’t by anymore, and thick storm windows, perfect to keep in the warm, and damn near unbreakable.
I pulled on a coat and stuck my head out my door. It was probably night – probably, though it was starting to get hard to sort these things out. I went unarmed, the last time I’d do that, until I broke my bat to get out of that damn school (its last stand, but not mine). The shit had already begun choking the air, the pitch making even crossing the street a dubious proposition. But I’d walked that way so many times before – midnight card games, leaving there to go home, drunk off my ass on Christmas Eve. No stranger to trips in the dark.
So trusting my feet was easy. Trusting my ears was harder. I stopped three times before I made it to my friend’s gate, absolutely certain I was mistaken, that I was heading the wrong way. I heard screams, and a siren – the security alarm sounding – what? Do those have a battery back-up? And that sound, like an army of lawnmowers, certainly he wouldn’t – no one would run those generators’ and not shut off the alarm.
I remember being slighted by the stupidity, by the waste. A hippie, bullshit, save-the-world kind of thing. Which is funny now to think of now, or perhaps laughable would be the better way to put it. Something I did, for a girl. So serious once, I stopped eating meat, avoided preservatives, kept raw stuff, mostly, and so kept very little food at all. Local as we could manage, which wasn’t really, but she said it was important to try. Yeah, solar panels, and that, and one shower every other day. I changed habits for her, habits that I thought keeping up would have made it more likely for her to come back.
Well, not now. Obviously.
I guess that means she was also the reason there wasn’t any savable food in the house. And looking back it’s hard to believe there was ever even an option to shower more than every other day. That there was an option for a hot shower at all.
Of course, there were also sirens, screeching things that at the moment were coming from my friend’s home, part of a trio with those almost rhythmic screams, a generator chorus. Shrieking safety, another one of those trappings of the old world that I don’t miss, even as bad as things are now. Hated them then, and even if it signaled an end to the shit, even if echoing alarms were the heralds of a turning all this back, I can’t say I’d necessarily be glad to hear them again.
My friend hated them too, hated that the neighborhood voted that everyone should have them, hated we lived in a world where a community-issued panic button was needed to make those who he loved, who he threw parties for, who he talked well of, feel safe.
But those screams. Raspier, breathless, and hoarse, had the pitch crammed the back of their throat like it did? Or was it a sign of duration, of how long this had gone on? Had this been happening while I cowered at home? Under it all, under that louder commotion, I could hear other things too. The occasionally crash. Something popping, and sputtering – those generators? Heat wafted towards my face in a nigh-silent roar. It all sounded so surreal.
I felt the curb rise up to greet me. The pitch never failed to trigger tears back then, and as they flushed my eyes the best they could, and my vision started to adjust, I finally made out the fence. Most used fences to keep others out, but this gate never closed, and there was no lock to fasten. It was merely aesthetic, like all his home improvements, a project he tackled alone, even though he could have gotten others to help. But that was him. He never wanted to disturb, never dared to ask. Even seemed to want to tackle it alone; like everything else, something nice for the neighborhood. A homey touch to make his house that much more our home.
I stepped past it, into the yard, where the grass had already started to turn gray. I noticed quickly I didn’t feel safe, more jarring as it was the first time such a feeling had ever happened here. I smelled smoke, and saw familiar sparks, what had to be the generators, now moved into the living room. For ventilation, we’d had to put them there too. But that was to run small machines, across the street, these seemed not to be powering the whole house, and I make out a steadying brightening, then a slow dimming as they struggled, overtaxed, to keep every light in that house on.
The pitch kicked up again, but just a few moments too late; I’d already made out the broken windows, some of them that refused to shatter ripped right off their frame. And that door, that safe, beautiful wooden door, so heavy and strong, snapped in half and torn right off its hinges. A make-shift battering ram just as damaged, its pieces scattered across the threshold and the living room floor. And inside, I could almost distinguish faces, in that way you can’t that’s part memory, where you don’t need the whole face, or even a good look, to make out the who.
I recoiled, back behind the fence, back onto the darkened sidewalk. The smell of smoke left with my vision, but in its place came that smell, that antiseptic odor that the shit brings with it. Like sewage, or rot, subtle enough then to bypass a nose and move immediately to coat the back of the throat. Something strong, like death, but also empty, as if death were fixed to have no smell at all.
This house was the pride and joy of my friend, a monument to how much he loved where he lived, a home he’d shared so often, and would have – planned to – share with any who’d have asked. This could have been a haven, yet here it was, in front of me, cracked open by the fearful and the desperate and the wicked, none of who appeared as strangers to me. I had seen them when my sight had cleared, twisted through the shattered windows, and knew, not just by hunch of memory trick, that these were our neighbors. And this house had been they’re pillar, and even though things were not as bad as they’d eventually get, this pillar had already fallen.
I stood on the sidewalk and looked towards the sound, wishing the pitch might let up, hoping my sight might improve again, all the while sincerely glad it didn’t. Not the last prayer to go unanswered. So not wanting to be here anymore, I turned to leave, and, nearly tripping over him, noticed my friend sitting there on the ground. He sat crossed legged and watched through the blinding filth what he couldn’t, and didn’t want to see. His faith turned on him. His testimonial consumed.
I leaned down next to him, hoping with such a deliberate motion the right words might come. It all felt so wrong, so rehearsed, as I reached down and patted until I found his shoulder, and gave it a squeeze. It would have been memorable, even had he not swiped it away, numbered among some of the last nonviolent contact I’d ever initiate with fellow human being. Heartbroken or defiant though, it was a gesture he refused.
Words. My mouth felt dry and gummy, unable to summon them. My mind meanwhile raced, wanting to drag him to his feet, drag him home, save my friend like he no doubt would have saved me. Scream, and shout, run down this thing he’d just lost, like bad-mouthing an ex to help the heartbroken make it through the night. But this needed to be something just a little more.
“This doesn’t mean I’m right, you know.”
I think he nodded. Or maybe I just imagined it, to ease a guilty conscience about how quickly I was leaving. But I had to go, because I thought it was a lie, and for him it was a truth he needed. The two of us could never survive in the same way.