The steel front door almost closes behind me. It's the one Ron installed a month before the divorce, and it never closes properly. It squeaks when shoved into its place and I think of his stupid polo shirts every time I kick it like a mule and yell for the kids.
"Get down here and help bring in these groceries!" I shout. Linda answers first and I listen to her steps on the rotting floor boards, up in the attic. She temporarily leaves her post to wake up her brother.
"Mark! Get up! Oh yeah–those dreams about Liz from Biology are never gonna happen, you mutant freak!" I hear her yell. She has my sense of humor. The buttstock of the shotgun knocks on the ceiling above his bedroom, her hair draping down through the opening in the hallway ceiling.
"He's sound asleep, Linda. Earplugs! Just get down and do it, please," I tell her. A jug of vegetable oil lands on the kitchen table like I was lugging my bowling bowl back to the rack. Two bags; backpack and frontpack. It's like carrying another kid around. I fill them with the things nobody wants, the off-brands, or more accurately, the no-brands. The leftover regime over in Albany made a deal across the border with Ontario. Most of the basics are in both French and English. Needless to say, I home-school the shit out of Mark. The countless food labels get us most of the way through French class, but I'm still putting the pieces back together for History. Mark was still potty training when it happened.
There's only five of us still working at FoodPlus so it goes without saying that I get first dibs when an old federal supply truck happens to roll through town. All the labels look exactly the same, leaving desirable condiments and spices hiding in the cracks of high-fructose corn syrup nourishment.
My friend–eh, more like an acquaintance from high school, Rita–works there with me. Work is a strong word for someone who mostly stares at the people in the bread-line. She pecks her comments at them like a seagull. Customers know it's her when they see the outdated gas mask from Vietnam and the yellow dish-washing gloves. She always tells me, "No power, no gas. I'd hate to heat a pot of greasy oil over the fire just to have something different to eat. Gotta stay fit and healthy these days, Patty." When she relieved me at the end of my shift tonight, she looked down at the oil and then back up at me, the dark lenses of her gas mask staring back, dead inside.
I told her to get over it. I wanted to say, "I hope your family is eating something with enough taste, something that isn't government issued," but then I remembered her husband and two daughters were in Florida when it all went down. An entire marching band competition – gone.
"Look, Rita," I said. "Mr. Fredericks turned the freezers off months ago, almost a year before we lost power. So, those pigeons we've been eating – they taste just like chicken when you put your mind to it,” I told her. Again, a dead stare from the non-functioning gas mask. She hisses and wheezes like Darth Vader. More and more every single day–I want to jam a can of Cheesewhiz in the fitting where the air filter goes.
I take my backpack off and lower it onto the table like when I was still changing Mark's diapers in this house. Ugh. This really used to be Ron's house. He bought it before we met. He never took care of one part of it. Not one gutter. The nice part is he's not here for me to verbally lay into. My effort of bringing up tasks that needed doing was once futile, and is now never questioned because I am, in fact, Mark and Linda's mother–and they have to do what I say. I can tend to my house and he'll never have any arbitrary input about something he will never lift a finger for anyway. Win-win.
Inside the pack is a ten-pound bag of rice–rice obtained in a trade for toilet paper. Don't ask me. It was Linda's idea. She always says she saw it coming on Instagram; the panic. I turn up the lantern in the corner and look outside at the grill. I've used it and cleaned it more times in the past year than Ron ever did in our twenty years of marriage.
Upstairs, I hear Linda pump the action on the shotgun and yell at Mark again. Outside on the deck, I make a neat pile of coals on the tray of the Weber. I can't help but imagine my ex-husband spending an entire Saturday and a whole bottle of lighter fluid, trying to get it lit. He has to be dead by now. Dead, or someone's sex slave. I haven't decided yet.
I'd like to believe Mark's not like his father. I like Mark. Ron bought him a stupid pellet gun for his birthday before he disappeared two weeks later. Something straight out of A Christmas Story. I'd really like to shoot Ron's eye out right now. Good thing is–Mark gets a lot of use out of it, and it basically puts some form of “poultry” on the table. Mark hunts, I cook, and Linda shoots at any potential looters creeping around the house. We have a good system. We have the luxury of living a nice, long walk down the road from FoodPlus–but if someone saw the amount of Comfort-Soft piled up in our basement–we'd be dead.
My son trudges down the stairs in some size elevens he doesn't quite fit into yet. Bootlaces covered in dirt fall under the step of each foot, taunting me with the threat of sending him crashing down the stairs.
"Tie your boots, Honey," I tell him. "And go brush them off outside."
"Pigeons, again? Mom, come on. Please!" he whines. His index finger digs for crust in the corner of his eye as he yawns the second word, sounding more like, "Ah-yen?" Linda runs down behind him, skipping the last few steps and stomping her feet at the bottom. She sticks her head over his shoulder, using the shotgun to lean against his back.
"We could eat you instead..." she whispers.
Linda helped me fry the pigeons while I tended to the ears of corn on the grill. Her little brother took over watch, and we listened to him talk to himself out of the open transom window, the sound gliding down to us in the kitchen. We kept stopping to smile and breaded the pigeons with stale crumbs we'd been collecting in a jar. But – not the kind my mother-in-law would dry out on purpose, using a loaf of Italian bread. They're just crumbs from the last month. I sent her upstairs to sneak in a nap before sunrise. We're driving to Pittsburgh tomorrow to see about a lead on a generator. Kids need to do homework, and Mama's out of candles.
I open the window above the sink the rest of the way and scrub the bottom of the pot with steel wool, looking down the road at the stop sign that turns onto the state highway. A rusty square rod of uni-strut still holds it up, the red octagon riddled with bullet holes. Not the kind some good ol' boys made with a shotgun while driving around drunk at night. No one drives drunk anymore, or even gets drunk unless it's off home-brew. No one drives at night either. The stop sign barely shows the S or the O anymore. I still laugh every time it reads back to me the letters, ‘T...P’.
I think of the Charmin stockpile in the basement and what happened to the last soccer mom who thought she was being sneaky, her minivan looking more like a cheese-grater than an automobile. I traded two comfort-rolls to Rita for a pack of cigarettes her husband doesn't know about. For all Rita knows, they came from the half-dozen allotted to each person back when the National Guard still made rounds to each county.
The lighter I use for the grill sits on the window sill, its plastic wrapper more red than the rusted sign outside. I light the cigarette, trying to pull it while at the same time, trying to let out some sort of sigh for that woman. How many times did they shoot the van?
And then all the other collateral damage in the neighborhood; Mrs. Wallace's lawn jockeys or our neighbor Cindy's stone bird bath. All of it crumbled apart like someone left the sprinkler on, a sprinkler that shoots eight-hundred lead rounds a minute.
I remember that night, screaming over the gunfire outside, telling Mark and Linda it'll be okay. I wrapped my arms around them, holding on to the twenty-gauge, the barrel restricting them like the safety bar on a roller-coaster. I thought about the stop sign and just kept yelling that word when everything else sounded too ridiculous to be happening to us.
I look down at the sink, draining slowly because of the grease, and back up at the sign. Tomorrow, we're not stopping. We'll bring the toilet paper. We'll just keep going until there's something to eat, something to trade for besides rice and pigeons.
To be continued in the next issue
By Andrew Wiechert