It was like this. In the early days, if you had paid attention, you would have noticed the things left undone. Driving down the highway, the sign at the side of the road, the one that says, “Akron 12 miles,” would become obscured by honeysuckle and wild roses and the leaning branches of walnut trees. You might have thought, “Why don’t they cut that shit back so I can see the sign?” But the state no longer had money to pay for maintenance of minor highways. You’d see the road kill—possum, deer, raccoon, skunk, cat, dog—decomposing along the road, as the rendering trucks no longer picked up carcasses. Each day, on your way to work, because you still worked then, you drove past the same buck in the median, picked at slowly by swooping vultures until, over a month or so, the rib cage arched toward the sky, like the vaulted insides of cathedrals.
In your tidy small town, trash piled up outside Victorian homes, first neatly in Hefty bags, then packed into plastic grocery bags, then thrown into the open—empty boxes of frozen dinners, empty jars of applesauce, paper towel tubes, toothpaste, diapers—with hopes that someone would pick it up as weeks passed.
It didn’t happen overnight, the collapse of services. It gradually disappeared as the town, engulfed with fever and malaise of the unnamed virus that drew the sweat from foreheads over a month and more, slowly—
and you imagined that the grocery store clerk at the IGA whose name was April disappeared in May, dead in her apartment on Shalimar Street because no one knew (or cared) that she died. Maybe you cared. Maybe you asked her coworker Bob, remembering how Bob and April joked together as she scanned soup cans and he bagged the bread and eggs; maybe you asked him where she was and Bob shrugged and wiped his brow.
Then it was like this. Things collapsed. The townspeople began burning fires to heat food and water. The neighborhood smelled like wood smoke in summer, which maybe made you long for winter when wood smoke was welcomed, a harbinger of the holidays and cinnamon and pumpkin bread and hot buttered rum. But now it was July and steam gasped from the sidewalks, littered with ash from the burnings.
You may have wondered if the houses across the river had lost power. And then you may have wondered when the wood would run out; knowing it was more accessible along the river bank and the metro parks, you rode your bike with the cart trailing behind, filled with fallen limbs and the leftovers of trees chopped by those with greater survival skills than you. Where did you hide the wood from the others?
In the early days, flags were still flown and the people bonded over grief and hope, much like the days after 9/11. September 11th’s goodwill didn’t last long either, remember? But the “new new normal” of the Dying Off —that’s what it was called—was nothing like 9/11.
In the early days of the Dying Off, towns set up phone-charging stations supported by deafening generators so that you could still reach family three states away, even though by then you couldn’t drive your car and you couldn’t microwave a hotdog and the water was bitterly cold. At least there was still water. And family.
But the images on your phone—were they heartbreaking? Did you see your brother and his young son, losing hair day by day? Most of the bigger cities had been bombed at that point by terrorist groups with alliances to darker forces in unnamed countries. Those in the exurbs, out of reach of ground zero but close enough to soak up radiation and weakened by fever, spoke slowly, measured their words carefully, teaspoons of gratitude, of goodbyes, as they Skyped in the shadows.
When the charging stations died, people unlocked the security codes on their cell phones and left them by their sides, hoping they would be remembered someday. Some videotaped themselves; others collected images from friends on archived Facebook pages. Still others left behind soundtracks—Beyoncé, MC5, Rage Against the Machine, Beethoven, Béla Fleck.
All that talk about civil rights, about justice and global warming and gun control. All that protesting in the street. In the end, it was for naught. It was like this: We reverted back to our tribes. The mythy, damaged part of our brains that kept us alive in the days of mastodons, that drove us upright so that we could climb out of trees. That ancient brain lit up again, and we fled, fought. Survival drew us together and drove us apart. Neighbors met, street by street, formed small groups and shared coffee, offered reports on the living and the ill, who was picking through trash and who had boarded up their windows. You could tell, then, who was starting to break by their shaky hands as they sipped their coffee.
Those who belonged to the NRA fared best, at first, with their guns and ammunition. They held onto their restaurant-size cans of beans and stayed inside, taking turns guarding doors and watching the house across the street that had not drawn dark curtains in their bay window. More often than not, those NRA types shot themselves in the head. It was a mercy.
The hissing of summer lawns comes from real snakes now, six years hence, hiding in tall grasses that turn the walkways of ranch homes and split-levels into prairie trails. As it should be, perhaps. This was all prairie before, the trees came later, after Europeans settled and planted them. And before the prairie it was ice. Soon it will be desert. All that we were will decompose, except for plastic and radiation. Imagine a land of sand and swing sets and tampon applicators and vacuum cleaners. And the beloved cockroach that became a delicacy in the few gathering places where alcohol could be drunk.
It wasn’t like a scene out of Mad Max, by the way. It was never like that. It was more like the fall of Rome, failing to act, incapable of fighting invaders, like a weeping wound without antiseptic, oozing and red, then necrotic and detaching, falling away. You still wear jeans and t-shirts, you may spend daylight trying to teach yourself principles of electricity, you maybe walk the streets with a new best friend, singing “Hallelujah.”
Books. Books can still be found, though like everything else, contaminated. Some people buried them. Others used them for fires. Once in a while, you’ll find someone in the middle of the town square, reading poetry by Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck, and asking what was to be found there, deep in the water, scuba diving. And a child of five will ask, what is diving.
Not everyone died, of course, from the virus or the bombs. The wisest of them still grieve, for it is a human thing to do. Grieving. Seeped in humanity. Grief remembers what the world was before the Dying Off. Grieving means love is still in the world. What part of the brain contains tenderness. What part of the brain forgives. The older people ask this. The old ones remember. It was like this, they say.