Dean and Gina from across the street are the first to arrive in the grassy island in the middle of the cul-de-sac. Gina is hauling two folding chairs and Dean pushes a portable grill that looks like a robot trying to fly. I watch from my living room window as they stake their territory. Dean used to be a history professor. He would take students to European battlefields every summer and then submit fraudulent receipts to the study abroad office. I know this because I used to be the study abroad director, and when I asked about the receipts he said something about an affair with a woman in Normandy. Something about never doing it again, even though he did it again. They seem cheerful, Gina and Dean—well-adapted to off-line life. "Ignorance is bliss," Dean actually said to me the other day, and I said, "Until we're rounded up and shot," and he scowled.
"Dad." My daughter Lorna is standing in the middle of the room wearing the pink shorts and halter top her mother bought for her fifteenth birthday. This is apparently a "fun outfit," so I've refrained from saying she looks ridiculous. "I'm not eating a dead deer." She puts her fingers on the window, leaving smudges; in the other hand she's clutching her iPhone, which hasn't worked in months. Outside, Tom Reardon is pulling a deer carcass on a red wagon, his shotgun slung over one shoulder. "Plus, all we have to bring is canned shit like beans. God damn it. Where can we get corn chips?"
I don't bother scolding her for language, or remind her how lucky we are that we still have so much canned shit. "First," I say, "build a time machine." This is our joke, whenever we realize we're out of something we never realized we loved so much: Entertainment Weeklys, Gatorade, contact lens fluid, Altoids, toilet paper, corn chips. There are other things, I know, that Lorna misses and doesn't tell me about. And there actually had been corn chips until a week ago, when I scavenged them from the back of the cabinet in the middle of the night. I went outside and ate the entire bag myself, staring up at the amazing sky. Electricity is sporadic now, maybe two hours a day. The stars are so bright, and there are so many of them. I stared into the Milky Way as I selfishly crunched, feeling like a terrible person for denying my daughter her corn chips, yet unable to stop. Then I threw the empty bag over the fence to where the Morgans used to live, before—according to rumor—they left for the Alabama border. All four of them: first the teenage boy and girl, then the parents.
"What if we already did build a time machine, and this is where we ended up anyway?" Lorna asks. She looks worried, as if this is an actual possibility.
"Look on the bright side," I say. "This will go down in history as the most disastrous block party of all time."
"In all of human history," Lorna agrees.
"I'll tweet about how awful it is. As if summer in Mississippi doesn't already suck, now it sucks even more."
"I'll post on Facebook how much it sucks."
"I'll post Instantgrams—was that it? I'm starting to forget."
Lorna shrugs. She stares down at the dead phone.
I try again: "I'll text you if I get stuck in any awkward conversations."
"Okay." She looks up. Her hair is too long and hangs in her eyes and makes her look like her mother did at her age. "I'll come to the rescue, I guess."
"And then Mittens will show up, and we'll be like, wait...this isn't so bad."
Lorna stares at her phone again. "Let's not talk about Mittens."
"No," I say. "Let's not."
It was Joe and Martha Dwyers' idea to have the block party. They live two houses down, an African-American couple of early middle age with grown children who used to arrive for summer visits in Subarus with California license plates. Joe is tall and bald, a former cop, and when I saw him standing on my doorstep last week, I thought: Shit, he knows about the notes. But he was smiling in a way that suggested he didn't, so I pulled open the door.
"Why, hey there, Matt," he said. "How goes things?"
I told him things go fine, considering, and he nodded as if this was profound information. "You got your girl here, still?"
"Lorna," I said. "Yeah, she's here. Her mother's still in Boston."
He opened his mouth and then seemed to decide against whatever he was going to say. I considered asking after his own probably-dead family in California, but instead I said, "What's up, Joe?"
And he told me he and Martha were organizing a party for Saturday, for everybody who was left on our block. "Just a time to relax and fellowship with each other. Grill up some veggies, eat some perishables before they go to waste. Tom Reardon's going to shoot that deer keeps eating his greens."
I don't like it when people use fellowship as a verb. But I said, "Sounds good, Joe. Thanks for the invite. We'll be there on Saturday." It was a moment later that I realized I didn't know what day it was, and hadn't known for weeks.
These are the people left on our block: Dean and Gina, Joe and Martha, Wayne Jenkins and his son Josh, and Tom Reardon—who is about my age, but as different from me as it's possible to be. Beard, big white pickup truck with NRA and Confederate bumper stickers. We occasionally exchange tense words about whose turn it is to mow the island. His wife—according to Wayne Jenkins—left him a few years back. "Can you blame her?" Wayne said, and we both chuckled. This was before Wayne's son Josh broke my daughter's heart. Josh is seventeen, moon-faced, both thin and soft. A boy who wears visors inside. A boy who, last year, put a big sign in the island inviting one of the Morgan girls to the junior prom. She accepted, apparently: I remember seeing the two of them walking hand in hand a few times. According to Lorna, Melissa Morgan is (was?) a slut and a psycho, and Josh never loved her and only dated her because he felt sorry for her. When she and her family left for the Alabama border, he was glad.
"Okay, that's interesting," was all I could think to say.
MM would rather die than date Josh Jenkins!! Maybe she'll get her wish!!!
That was the note I wrote, folded into a neat football-triangle, and launched across the street, into the yard of a 70-year-old man named Bill who had a Prayer is America's Only Hope sign in his yard. Earlier, I'd written this note—If Prayer is America's only hope, we are fucked—and launched it into the Jenkins' yard.
I found this immensely satisfying, almost as satisfying as posting anonymous comments on blogs and right-wing websites. Almost as satisfying as being awake at one, two, three in the morning, engaging in word warfare on my computer while my wife Renee slept in the other room. But then, of course, she walked in on me while I was telling some complete stranger that he (or she) was too stupid to live, so go ahead and throw yourself in front of a train, you goddamn piece of shit.
"What are you doing?" Renee murmured behind me. "Good God. Who do you hate so much?"
"I have no idea," I admitted, and she started to cry.
"That smells good," Martha is saying, when I make my way out to the island with my bowl of cold baked beans. She's referring either to the yellow squash on the grill or to the smoldering venison in a make-shift fire pit. I put the beans on a card table next to a pile of tomatoes and cucumbers. Tom Reardon is relaxed cross-legged in a folding chair, his shotgun atop his lap, flanked by citronella tiki torches. He looks like a hillbilly on a front porch, with his self-righteous smile. Fellowshipping. His smile dims a little when he sees me, the Yankee with the Obama bumper sticker.
"Looks like somebody didn't get around to mowing, am I right?" he says, and pulls a cigarette from his front pocket.
"Well, I guess I was thinking it was Bill's turn," I lie. Bill disappeared a couple of weeks ago. So, oddly enough, did his Prayer sign. He left his house unlocked, a note on the kitchen table: Please take everything. God Bless. But—as I saw for myself—there was nothing really to take. No bottled water, no canned goods. Just a useless TV, a cat-clawed sofa.
"Bill's turn is over," says Tom, and something about the way he says it makes me wonder if he's the one who took all the canned goods.
"Good to see you, Tom," I say, as if this is just a regular block party and he's just a regular asshole, and I turn toward the sound of Wayne and Josh's jubilant voices carrying over the lawns, along with what sounds like eighties pop music.
"Anybody call for entertainment?" Wayne says, and this is apparently Josh's cue to heft a battery-powered boom box above his head, like a love-sick kid in a teen movie. I don't think either Josh or Lorna has seen this movie, but I see him turn to look at her shadow in the living room window; I can feel the weight of her eyes as she stares out. Then she's gone, a ghost vanishing. I see Josh's face flush, and Paula Abdul—for this is the cassette blaring from the boom box—is begging straight up now, tell me, which now seems less like a frothy pop song than a challenge, or a dare, or a command.
Lorna hasn't left the house in weeks. "There's gunshots outside," she told me, and I told her she was wrong. "Or yes, there's gunshots," I amended. "But it's people hunting rabbits and squirrels. It's not Mittens."
"Shut up about stupid fucking Mittens," she said.
I tell myself I'm being a very good parent, in light of the circumstances. In Boston, Lorna was starting to get in with what Renee called "a bad crowd," meaning kids who skipped school and drank. I reminded Renee that we were the bad crowd, once upon a time. I reminded her of those nights I drove us around drunk in my mom's Rabbit, the time we drove stoned to Foxborough in a snowstorm to see INXS.
I didn't remind her of what I have come to think of as my "rotten years," after my ten-year-old brother died. I was twelve. She didn't know me then, when I punched a kid for saying Timothy killed himself. She didn't know me when I put rotten eggs in mailboxes, sent death threats to classmates. A day on Lake Winnipesaukee, Tim and I set out in a rowboat. A storm swept in. I saved myself but couldn't save my brother. So I was the kid who sent threatening letters to the principal, signed with the names of other students, kids who used to be my friends. I was the boy whose family had to move from New Hampshire to Massachusetts, to get away from the rumors and from my own dark heart.
Renee and I split up three years ago. We congratulated ourselves on our impressive run—almost thirty years as a couple—and then I applied for jobs and ended up here. I went to Boston every Christmas, and Lorna came to visit me for a month every summer. I thought of dating again, then thought better of it. And at some point, Lorna and Josh started "hanging out," as she called it. I'm not sure what happened between the two of them, but it happened—whatever it was—when I was still biking to the university to try to pretend everything was normal. Even though summer school was cancelled; even though the internet was out, and the IT team—who I feel extremely sorry for—had abandoned their offices. "Did he hurt you?" I asked, when I found her crying at the kitchen table, writing FUCK YOU, JOSH over and over on a piece of notebook paper. "Did he kiss you?" And she got up from the table and slammed into her room.
That's when I began to feel the itch and burn again. I hadn't trolled for almost a year, but now I wanted to tell the entire world to fuck off—starting with Josh and with Bill and his prayer sign. When I'd told Bill what I did for a living, he'd said, "I would not care to go abroad. Too many Moslems."
So I launched the note meant for Bill into the Jenkins' yard, and the note meant for them into his. It seemed safer that way. But I had too much to say, so I started filling a cardboard box with notes, folded in tiny squares, and hid the box in my closet. Mostly, the notes I write are just plain immature. God is an Ass Clown. You are all religious nut-jobs. You're too stupid to know how stupid you are. Really dumb stuff. Get back in your redneck pickup truck and drive off a cliff, you moron.
Statistics show that most guns are used on their owners. Here's hoping.
I am not this person, I tell myself in the middle of the night, as I write Are you too stupid to know your husband is fucking a woman in Normandy, or are you too smart to care?
My heart pounds. One more, I think. One more. The box is almost full. I used to crave the thrill of someone writing back, horrified, calling me an evil, vile human being. Now, nobody writes back, and the box gets fuller. I have suggested that children are better off now that they won't have to go to school. I have said that Christians are fools, that southerners are ignorant. But I'm a good person, I tell myself. This isn't hurting anyone.
Tom Reardon is staring at the boom box like he wants to shoot it. I have some old Johnny Cash tapes somewhere. The thought briefly occurs to me that I could get them and put an end to Paula Abdul, but I decide against it. Gina and Dean have started grooving next to the grill. Somehow, there's beer, and Wayne hands me a bottle of warm Michelob.
"Here's to good friends," I say. "Tonight is kind of special."
"That's so true," he says, seriously.
"Or was that Lowenbrau."
Lorna has appeared in the yard, holding her phone in both hands. She seems stunned to find herself outside, blinking like a sleepwalker. I see Josh swivel in her direction.
"Hey, there," I call to her, but she doesn't answer, just heads around the side of the house, probably to pick some wild strawberries. Josh watches her go.
Wayne has started talking about the rumors. Gina sidles up, chewing on a carrot. Then Joe and Martha. Tom, Dean. We're all standing in a circle on the grassy island as if it's a life raft about to sink.
We'll be completely out of water by next week, Wayne says. Electricity—which we have sporadically now—will be gone. And has everyone noticed the way the animals keep disappearing? The dogs have run off. Even the squirrels: aren't there fewer of those? There have been explosions near Columbus, Mississippi. An entire eleventh grade class was seen marching down highway 82, waving black flags. Or were they American flags? The university burned. Churches are locking people out—or in. Which is it?
Before the internet blackout, we watched footage of helicopters burning, troops marching—but whose helicopters and whose troops? There used to be a news reporter who came around on horseback. He was blonde and wore a pink tie. This is how we found out about Mittens at the Alabama border. Or was it the Tennessee border? Or was it our own government, come to rescue us? Then came the looting. The sound of gunshots in the night. Fliers appeared in mailboxes, a simple message in black and red: YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE IF YOU JOIN US! And people began to disappear.
"Damn," says Dean. "I never thought I'd say this, but I wish I had a gun." Dean: at least he's studied battlefields. Even without a gun, he knows more than I do about how to stay alive in a war. Strategy. What can I offer? I can show you Oscar Wilde's grave at Père Lachaise; I can tell you the entry fee to the British Museum. I can tell you about my honeymoon in Venice with my twenty-year-old wife, how we dared each other to jump in the canal. How it all seemed so dangerous.
When I first moved here, I was braced for everything I'd heard about Mississippi: the racists, the ignoramuses, the disregard for common sense and healthy eating habits. I fended off a few offers to attend church, and maybe a few people smirked at my Prius. When I told Bill across the street—after about three inquiries about my "home church" and my marital status—that I was a divorced atheist, he didn't gasp and scream hellfire; he just patted my arm and said, very sadly, "I will pray for you."
Even Tom Reardon helped me tear down a rotten dog house in the back yard when I first moved in. Gina and Dean had me over for drinks, and we talked about the best bars in Brussels. My colleagues at the university welcomed me. Everyone has been kind, in their way. Which is why I feel even more awful about the things I think and feel and write on tiny pieces of paper.
Lately, I've directed some comments to myself: What is wrong with you?
You are a terrible father.
How can you protect your child, when you don't believe in any of the things you need to believe in?
"We're safest if we stay put," Joe is saying.
You are vile, a bad person, bad bad bad.
"I've got a shotgun you can have," Tom tells Dean. He nods in my direction. "You, too."
I don't bother telling him I've never fired a gun in my life. I say, "Thank you," because I am grateful.
"We could pray every day, make our own church," says Gina. Nodding heads.
Really, the only person I hate right now is Josh, with his goofy smile and his backwards baseball cap. This is a terrible thing to admit, but I wish he would just leave. Disappear. He pops out Paula Abdul, pops in Wham!. These cassettes must be his father's. Or his mother's. What happened to his mother? I realize I never knew.
"Anybody want another grilled squash?" Dean says. The fire pit is dying down. The baked beans are gone. Wayne is eating from a box of stale Wheaties. I discovered the other day that I have wild wheat growing in my yard. Could I make bread? Yes, I decide. We can survive this, until some switch flips the world back on again.
I think of over-hearing Lorna a few weeks ago, talking in her room. "Yes," she was saying. "He's fine. He's very nice." Long pause. "No, of course not! Geez." A longer pause. "He says it's all in the Bible anyway, nothing to be afraid of."
I rapped on her bedroom door.
"What!" she shouted.
"Who are you talking to, honey? Who are you talking to about the Bible?"
She opened the door, held up her dead phone. Her eyes were bright. "I'm talking to Mom," she said. "Are you happy?" And then she slammed the door in my face.
Fine, I thought. Do what you have to do. If she wants to believe in an imaginary person looking out for her, that's fine. Maybe it's good.
"We can boil the water from that pond behind the development," Martha is saying.
"My generator'll work for a few months," says Wayne.
The cassette tape clicks itself off mid-song, and no one flips it. The cicadas and the crickets are a riot of sound; everywhere is the rustle of shadow creatures: rabbits, squirrels in their nests. The sun is gone; the street is dark, and the mosquitos are out in full force, despite the citronella torches. I can see the whirl of galaxies above, a small fire far away. A bonfire, perhaps. Another block party. Or something else.
"Let's not call them invaders or beheaders," I suggested a couple of months ago to Lorna.
"Something less scary. The least scary thing you can think of."
"Like Mittens?" She laughed. We once had a cat named Mittens, a white rollie-poly kitten who grew fat and lazy. She'd curl up at your neck while you slept.
"That's it. There's no reason to be afraid of Mittens."
She laughed again, then grew sober. "Mittens got hit by a car."
"Let's bow our heads," says Joe now.
I bow my head, close my eyes, and try not to think of the study abroad students who were in the air when whatever happened happened. I try not to think of the students deep in the Paris metro when everything stopped. "Have faith," is what people say. Believe in what you can't know for sure.
The fire in the pit is flittering out, everyone fading to shadow. The two beers—my first in months—have made me feel calm, benevolent, even hopeful. Inspired.
"I'll be right back," I say, and I dash into the house, into my dark bedroom, and pull the box of notes from the closet. I'll burn them, burn the whole box. See? I will say. I have something to offer after all.
"Kindling!" I call, as I carry the box out to the island, to the sputtering fire. The dark sky is growing darker; there is a smell of rain in the air.
Joe is still standing in the middle of the island, tiki torches burning around him like in that TV show Renee and I used to watch. "Whatever our differences, wherever we come from." Joe looks at me. "We have the greatest chance of survival if we're in this together." Yes—Survivor. That was it. I feel myself grinning, even though I know nothing is funny. "We can't have any more of our people, especially our young people, running off to the border."
Josh and Lorna are shadows in the bushes, but I can tell they're holding hands.
It's them, I realize, and my heart feels like a grenade, the pin in Lorna's hand as she moves away, into the darkness. They're the young people planning to run off. And here I was worried about him kissing her and breaking her heart. Now I remember something else I heard her saying on the phone to her imaginary Mom: It's all going to be okay if we stay on the right path. We can make a difference!
She never fucking talked like that before.
The fire is almost out. I squat next to the fire pit with the box, scoop a handful of paper into the dying flames. There's a spark, a flicker of new flame. A gunshot in the distance. I add more paper, create more light, stand and scan the yard for my daughter. "Lorna!"
I feel a sudden gust of wind, and then the notes are in the air, some still folded, some on fire, some falling like sparks, some rising like snow.
"Fortune cookies!" says Martha, chasing a piece of paper into the street.
"Lorna?" I call, and I head across my lawn, but even in the firelight I can't see where she's gone. Another gust of wind whiffles the shrubs; a piece of paper drifts by my face.
First, I think, build a time machine.
Everyone is laughing, even Tom, as the notes fly and burn and flutter, as if I've brought them party favors, a reason to celebrate. I make my way around the house, past the sweet-smelling jasmine bushes and wild strawberries, all the way back to the island and its torches and fire. "Lorna!" I shout. But she doesn't answer. The stars wheel above me, and the laughter of my neighbors trails into silence as they catch hold of those falling scraps of paper—no one's fortune but mine—and unfold them, and begin to read.
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