This Is The End

“’The end is my beginning.’ Who said that?” Sam looked up from his crossword at Janine.

She was staring out the wide expanse of window, all the while twisting a lock of brown hair. “T.S. Eliot.”

“T.S. Eliot. Yeah. That fits.” He paused. “Funny thing to say, don’t you think?”

“Do you think when we die, we become part of the earth or start over?”

“I dunno. No one really knows. I suppose either way we start over. If there’s nothing after death, we become part of the earth again—fertilizer for growing things, and if there is something after death, we start over again.”

“What about the earth? There isn’t much earth left.”

“You know that’s not true, Janine. There’s plenty of land left in Kansas and Nebraska, and that place we bought in Philadelphia is beachfront property now. Beachfront. We made a killing.”

“I’ll miss New York.”

“I know, darling, but think. It’s a smaller world, but that’s good. Less people to feed. Since the plague, the population’s only a fraction of what it could have been.”

Janine plucked at her sleeve, and Sam noticed how pale and thin she’d gotten. Food rationing had been difficult. Janine was always picky eater. She wouldn’t touch the cans of mystery meat the army handed out in the early days. Now, of course, she had no choice. They were trapped in their apartment. Thank God he had connections. The helicopters could land on the roof and drop supplies, though the flights had grown less and less frequent. He didn’t relish the thought of foraging in the streets for himself and Janine. He doubted it was possible.

Still, things were getting better. He was sure of it. They had intermittent electricity now. And Internet. The army still controlled the city, but the daily death toll had leveled. Soon, he thought, they could leave.

He stood and walked to the window. The streets were empty now. The dark water was still high, well over eight feet. Too high to escape the building. They should have left with the first wave of people, but he hadn’t wanted to panic.

Janine sighed. “It’s a prison, isn’t it?”

“A prison? Of course not. Look at where you are.”

She turned to him and gave him a hollow smile. “Look at where we are: A cement mausoleum. You can’t eat your money, Sam. You can’t buy our way out. We’re going to die here. The end.”

“No.” Sam had never faced a problem he didn’t think he could solve. “We’ll figure it out. I promise.”

Janine turned away. “Our end. It’s beginning.”

Awakening

The deep rumbling sends pebbles skittering as the hard ground begins to shake and a small fissure opens in the rocky soil> It widens as the rumbling grows to a crescendo. The woman’s head and shoulders emerge from the newly formed crater, lush green against the grey stones and brown earth.

When she pulls her arms free, she tosses seeds into the air, and shoots of green begin to spring up through the earth. Saplings rise and turn to trees. She laughs and water begins to pour from a dried stone fountain.

“Live again,” she says. She runs her fingers through the water and lets it pour through her palm.

A single tear trickles down her face. It lands in the water with a tiny splash, and she watches the widening concentric circles with satisfaction.

A phoenix rises in a flash of light.

She nods. “Fly, my child. You are free. The age of man is over.”

Coming Home

I walk down the polished floors of the hospital with a heavy heart. After five years my father’s kidney cancer has come out of remission with a vengeance and spread to his bones, liver and lungs. His doctor is talking aggressive chemotherapy to give him an extra six months, but Dad’s been marking time here since Mom died.

He loves me and his grandchildren, but his heart belongs irrevocably to Lily, the woman to whom he had been married for forty-nine years.

She died a month before their fiftieth. He still hasn’t gotten over it. “The first time she was ever early for anything,” he always says.

Now I slip into his room to kiss him. His skin has grown as papery as the skin of an onion, and his veins are purple snakes twisting up his arm. We talk of simple things: the warm June weather, baseball, Mom’s roses. I tell him that the kids are starting summer camp in a few weeks, and take a breath.

“The doctors want you to take a course of chemotherapy. Is that what you want? Or do you want to come home with us? We have plenty of room.”

I tell him this knowing he has already given me power of attorney and knowing he doesn’t want any extreme measures taken.

“Oh, no, Lily. We discussed this,” he says and shakes his head. “Don’t leave me here.”

“No, Dad, it’s me. Susan.”

He just smiles. “You’ll do the right thing.”

I think about that conversation when I argue later with his doctors who tell me my father was in full agreement with their chemo plan. We bring him home anyway, and he dies peacefully in his sleep on Father’s Day morning surrounded by his family.

“It was a gift,” my husband tells me. “You brought him home.”

All I can hope is that somewhere he’s sharing a drink and laugh with his beloved Lily.

The Refrigerator

Darkness all around. Freezing air seeps from a small crack near her feet. Not much, but enough to revive her, and Alex stretches out her arms. Her hands touch the smooth surface of a door, the notch where a shelf should be. She tries to shift but realizes that she can’t turn her body in the cramped space. Oh God, it’s a refrigerator.

She’s inside a refrigerator.

Alex doesn’t know how she got here. The last thing she does remember is walking to the library on campus. Now she’s trapped in this box. She knows she’s in her underwear, and she’s freezing.

She tries to access. The refrigerator is dark and lifeless. Her knees are pushed up against her chest, and her body aches. The back of her head feels sticky, and she wonders if whoever put her in this box thought she was already dead or wanted to prolong her agony.

How long has she been here? Her mouth feels dry, and her breath comes in small gasps. She tells herself to get a grip. Take a deep breath and find the air source. When she strains to look between her feet, she sees a tiny shaft of pale light.

Early morning or evening?

Where is she? She’s so cold she wants to curl into a ball and sleep, but she knows she can’t.

She has to escape, but she doesn’t have the strength to push open the door, even when she puts her shoulder into it. Her head throbs, and a round face smiles at her. His eyes are colorless and his thick red lips curve into a cruel smile.

“I follow you home every night, Alex.”

Please, she thinks, someone help me.

She tries to stand, but there isn’t enough room. Still it gives her an idea. She braces herself against the sides and tries to push back and forth. Despite the cold, sweat runs down her back, and she grunts from the pain when she realizes one of her arms is probably broken. It doesn’t matter.

“Help me!” She screams with all the desperation she can muster and throws herself backwards. The refrigerator rocks, then slides, then tumbles down an embankment, the door catching on a piece of steel.

Sunlight floods the interior along with cold air and the putrid smell of rotting garbage. Sea gulls fly overhead. Alex crawls out of her coffin, shivering in the cold. It is early afternoon. Down below garbage trucks are bringing their hauls. She drags herself to her feet, and is about to make her way down the hill when she sees the note taped to the door.

It reads: “Congratulations, Alex. You win Round One.”

Good Vibrations

Aunt Rue loved the Beach Boys. She owned at least three copies of every album they made, and though she bought the collection on CD, she always maintained that nothing beat the original vinyl. She’d tear up when she explained the intricate vocal arrangements on California Girl or talk about the brilliance of Brian Wilson.

I’d just smile and nod. My mom and I visited Aunt Rue every summer at her cottage on the lake. She had never been to California as far as I knew. She wandered around in brightly colored 100 percent polyester caftans, with multicolored bangles jingling on her wrists as she belted out Surfin’ USA or her absolute, number one favorite: Good Vibrations.

“Doesn’t that just make you feel great?” She’d say. “Carl sang lead on that. He was terrific.”

Sometimes I wanted to tell her that she should move on, but Aunt Rue always made me laugh. Going to her lake cabin was my only vacation, and it was there that we went after my dad walked out. It was a tough summer, and I wasn’t in the mood for Aunt Rue and her Beach Boys.

“Music always helps,” she said. “The right sort anyway. Not that depressing crap you listen to. Open up your heart. Thing’ll get better in time.”

I didn’t want to listen to Good Vibrations, but it was hard to ignore when Aunt Rue played it full blast and sang along.

She was right, of course. The pain faded slowly. I adjusted to my parents living apart. I met my first boyfriend on the lake that summer.

We lost Aunt Rue this summer. She died of stomach cancer that snuck up on her so fast, she didn’t have a chance to fight it. She left me her collection of albums, which at first I wasn’t going to take, then I thought of all the good times. The good vibrations.

Sometimes I hear a Beach Boys’ song on the radio, and I smile.

The Fool’s Dance

“At least you clean up well,” Beth said when they walked toward the senior partner’s mansion in Gladwyn, “Just try not to embarrass me, Ken.

She’d taken to calling him “Ken” after his first T.V. appearance, but he just smiled.

“Come on, Barbie, let’s go party.” He watched the corners of her mouth twitch, either in aggravation or in an effort not to smile.

Since the place was the size of a small museum, Danny had figured he could escape to the many side parlors so as to avoid the inevitable political debates. He’d hold his own against them, but it always led to an after-party fight with Beth.

“You can’t call my father the standard bearer for toxic waste in Pennsylvania,” Beth had said after one gathering.

“Then they shouldn’t ask my opinion.”

Beth had the big money, but he had the celebrity, even if it was of the minor sort. He’d just published a book on the growing social divide in America that had received critical praise and decent sales. At parties her friends didn’t know whether to slither up to him or treat him like a rabid socialist.

It had become simpler to hide.

He’d consumed his third glass of club soda and was pretending to study the painting with the bright geometric patterns of color in the music room when she’d appeared at his side, the blonde with sympathetic smoke-colored eyes. She placed a hand on his arm and nodded toward the picture.

“You like Kandinsky?”

The most he knew about Kandinsky was that he painted abstracts. “Sorry, I’m not an art expert.” He should have added he wouldn’t know a Kandinsky from a can of worms, but thought it sounded snarky.

“You were staring at it like meant something to you.”

He wanted to make up some lie but couldn’t do it. “I was just faking it.”

“You mean you were wishing you could escape.”

“Wishers were ever fools.”

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” She’d shrugged when his eyes widened. “Okay. I was showing off. I was an English major before law school. Please don’t hold it against me.”

“Harvard?”

She gave him a wry smile. “Yale.”

They spent the rest of the evening talking literature and politics, and he’d felt like he’d been starving, even more so when she slipped him her card. For the first time in years, the night had seemed too short.

Beth sulked in furious silence until they’d reached the driveway.

“That bitch latched on to you because you’re my husband. You embarrassed me in front of our friends.” Beth kneaded her evening bag like it was bread dough.

“Nothing happened, Beth.” He didn’t understand her fury. He wasn’t looking to wander; he was hers. He had always been hers, but so much had come between them.

“Do you think no one noticed?”

He pulled into the garage, and she sat still for a moment before she lunged at him, and began to beat him with her fists. “You bastard! I hate you!”

He caught her wrists, pinned her back against the seat, and for a moment they stared at each other. He watched the pulse pounding in her throat, her breasts straining against the deep red silk of her dress with every breath, and Christ, he wanted her so much his insides bled.

In the dim light her eyes had looked black, then they’d changed as if a fire began to simmer in their depths. Her mouth had begun to sear his, her impatient hands ripped at the studs on his tuxedo.           

They hadn’t cared about anything but that moment. It was always that way, a dangerous dance.

And he was very much the fool.

Adventures

Andrea was lying on the floor writing a letter and watching her mother prepare supper. Her mother used to work on one of those TV cooking shows, and she liked to present every meal as if it was some special gourmet treat, whether it was something as fancy as lobster salad on a bed of fresh butter lettuce or just plain old boiled eggs, everything had to be just so. She’d liked her job a lot because she said every day was an adventure.

After Andrea and her sister were born she quit and confined her cooking to home, but she liked to think of every meal as a creation.

Not that anyone paid much mind. Dad just came in from work and throw his keys in the basket by the front door and changed into his old maroon and gold rugby shirt and a pair of black sweats. He would chomp down his dinner without admiring the salmon with special bourbon sauce and a sprig of fresh cilantro.

Her sister Charlene, the little monster, wouldn’t even eat half of Mother’s creations. Every night she demanded peanut butter and jelly.

“I don’t want quail’s eggs,” or “That lamb looks weird,” she would always say.

At length Mother gave up on the subject of trying to persuade Charlene to eat anything at all. She’d make her the sandwiches and let her go off to play with her puppets.

And then it happened. That evening as Andrea lay on the floor, she called into her mother to ask what was for dinner. She was looking forward to something special, perhaps a nice plump goose or a rib roast. She was hungry and the winter winds were roaring outside.

“I’m making spaghetti,” Mother said.

“Oh I love your homemade spaghetti and sauce,” Andrea said. She jumped up and ran into the kitchen.

A pot full of water was just heating up. Where was mother’s pasta maker? My goodness, was that a jar of store bought sauce on the counter?

“I’ve decided to cut down my workload,” Mother said. “Nobody really cares about my meals anyway.”

“I do,” Andrea said. She felt a little forlorn.

“You’ll get used to it, dear. I hear that some store-bought meals can be quite tasty.”

“Not like homemade.”

Mother smiled. “Well, no, but think of it as an adventure. You should always look for adventures.”

Two weeks later Mother ran away with a Sous Chef from Le Jardin. She wrote a letter to Andrea telling her not to feel sad. “I’m off to have an adventure!” she wrote. “Someday you’ll have many of your own.”

Andrea folded the letter and put it in her treasure box.