I remember when I couldn’t seem to find contentment. Contentment, now a distant luxury, a concept you couldn’t explain to children, though I haven’t seen a child in awhile, not since the baby passed.
Life was so easy then; with yoga classes and three square meals a day and a comfy bed and floral pillows. Lovely weekends, filled with cleaning and food shopping and laundry and gardening and cooking,; but even so I’d often be at loose ends, wandering from room to room. Maybe I’d cook some more, make homemade potato salad from my mom’s recipe, the one with the cider vinegar on the hot potatoes, with my addition of cilantro from the window box. Maybe I’d make my signature dark chocolate banana bread., Or I’d go for a long run on our country road and come back and do some weight lifting; and read the latest short fiction in a magazine; band yet I could still find myself staring into space with an inexplicable malaise. Now I see what I have lost; now that my fear is real.
And life was easy that last summer, so warm and sunny. The strawberries were a brilliant deep red, ripening early, and each bite had an explosion of flavor, of sweetness, of red juice flowing. The farmer’s market was always bustling; I can close my eyes and still see the piles of patty pan squash in brilliant speckled green and yellow, the mountains of lettuces and green beans, the brilliant shades of the gladioli. I took photos of the bounty and posted them and all my friends liked them; that is how we were back then. I googled canning and made strawberry preserves and felt so proud when they were lined up on the shelf in the new mason jars in my little storeroom in the barn.
One Saturday at the outdoor market there were no squash, just gourds. I had always loved gourds, I remember my mom buying them in September or October for her fall displays. I loved the unusual colors and the bulging warts, protruding oddly and different than I had ever seen.
“Why don’t you have any more patty pan?” I asked the young farmer, who, like many of the farmers affected the bearded overall style of the latter day hippie.
“I think the compost I used got degraded, its never happened before, and I think the gourds are early this year anyway…. you can’t eat them but they are sure pretty. We call then bi-racial because of all the colors!” He guffawed, a bit self-consciously; perhaps he had been using the line all morning. I smiled and bought a bag full. It was strange they were so early, and they had never been such n a brilliant red and burgundy. They looked pretty in my Mexican bowl in the entryway.
It was such fun for the young people, that summer, we’d see them headed out to the lake with their jet skis every day. They started having dances at the meadow that surrounded the old mine mansion, with solar Japanese lanterns; we could hear the music faintly as we waiting for the sun to leave us for another day. I imagined the girls were wearing tiny summer dresses, as I once would have done.
Our public pool was stuffed with people daily, and the city council voted to up the cost per swim. People worried about sicknesses from the pool, which was so jammed with people. It stayed hot until 10 or 11 pm, in fact it didn’t really ever totally cool off, not like it used to. And old folks had to be checked on, and there was a new program to get swamp coolers to the poor, and cell phone kept going out. Oh, we heard tales of twin tornados and the fires in the south were terrible and they had to ration the water, but we were on a well so we kept watering, and the tiger lilies had never looked better.
One of our shrubs, which had never bloomed before, suddenly had tiny white blossoms. It was pretty, but it became infested with tiny flies with shiny copper eyes, you couldn’t walk by the plant without being in a cloud of flies, and we started leaving the house by the other walkway to avoid them. The shrub is outside the window of the storeroom, I can see it, or what’s left of it, through the dust and cracks in the window. I can see it from the far corner where I wait for them. The storeroom is where I hide now. I’ve lost track of how long I’ve been here, could be three weeks, surely not three months.
Back then our chickens kept sitting on eggs, and we had more chicks then we knew what to do with, but they kept dying. Joe found one with its eyes bleeding, and then more of them were floating in the horse trough. We had a little plant of marijuana, since it was legal and we liked to smoke in the evening, and that formed giant buds way before the season usually ended, and the weed was so strong we just had one or two hits and were set for the evening. When we sat in our chaises and took in the sights, it was like we were looking through a iridescent floating bubble, and all the trees and flowers looked soft and inviting, and we heard the low buzz of the insects throughout the night.
Joe started to get extra tired daily, even though he loved to garden; the days were just so hot. Our old dog Parker was always miserable and panting, and could barely climb the stairs, and Joe usually left him in all day with a water bowl that he had to frequently refill.
We used to watch the news while I made dinner, we had the top floor of the barn converted to a loft and I could chop at the kitchen island and watch the giant flat screen TV, and the news and the weather just seemed more and more ominous each night. We were having power failures frequently, and sometimes the cable would go out.
“Why would terrorists shoot down a plane? What good would it do them?” Joe asked one evening, reacting to a war event, there was always something lurking in some part of the world.
“It shows the world the injustice of the powers that be, I guess.” I answered.
“Things have always been unjust, though, haven’t they?” Joe asked.
“I’m more worried that they shut down the borders of a whole country, because of Ebola!”
“Ebola will never get here, though.”
We switched to the local news; the mountain lion sightings, the city council elections, much more calming. After all, there had been a terrible world event in every year of our lives. I was always railing about injustice back then and taking the side of the underdog; our little debates, so silly now. How arrogant we were, to think that our opinions mattered.
The heat was unrelenting as summer wore on. Even at nine in the evening, as I sat in my chair under the heavy flower baskets we had hanging, I couldn’t believe how much I would sweat. There was often sweat pooled in the hollow of my throat and my scalp was damp, and there was always a film of sweat on my face. I had to slather myself with Buzz Away all the time, and the odor of it was always on my hands.
Joe and I were typical old folks, complaining of fatigue, and there were tales of other elderly fainting in public, or passing away alone in overheated apartments. There were even wholesome ads on TV , with the phrase: “Weather, we are all in it together. I saw it on billboards and grocery bags.
The cell phone coverage kept fluctuating, I didn’t understand the technology, why would heat affect satellites, but they said it was solar flares, or maybe solar storms. The price of water kept going up, but Joe and I were on a well with a windmill, so we kept watering, but Joe worried that eventually the ground water would run out if it didn’t rain. In town there was a reward if you saw people watering or spraying off the sidewalk, which used to be routine, and the penalties got harsher, jail on the second offense.
And then it got hotter than the records had ever shown, and it was almost September. It seemed like all the leaves were dying, not changing, We rented out a modular home on our property to a young couple, Jared and Renee. I didn’t talk to them much, I wanted them to have their privacy from a on-site landlady, so I was surprised to see Renee making her way over to our side with baby Avery. I hadn’t see either of them in weeks. They used to barbecue outside with friends, and throw a ball for the dog, but they had been staying in all day lately.
I could see the dust Renee’s flip flops made as she walked, and even from the second floor window the baby looked listless and pale. I cranked up the fan and poured us ice tea, and took the baby from her as we sat at the kitchen table. Avery looked dully at me and seemed so quiet.
“I can’t get her to nurse, do you think I should switch to rice cereal?” Renee asked.
“I think she is too young, you should hold off until five or six months.” I said, stroking the baby’s sweaty head. Renee looked sickly too, soaked with sweat and wearing the same stained denim shorts and tank top she had worn last time I saw her.
“Did your kids have diarrhea in the summer when they were little? Did they ever not want to eat at all?” she asked. “The pediatrician says she isn’t thriving.” Renee said, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Oh sure, kids are always losing their appetite in the summer, or having the runs, or getting prickly heat on the back of their necks.”
Renee nodded, gratefully, but I was frightened to see the baby so thin. It was odd to see gnats in Avery’s eyes, and she had no energy to brush them away.
“Maybe you could fill the baby pool and …” I started to say, but she was already shaking her head no, I guess they didn’t want to spare the water.
Before we knew it, it was Labor Day, and there was no sign of the heat passing on. They tried to say it was Indian summer, but I wasn’t sure.
Joe and I weren’t watering anymore, we were afraid the well would run dry, so we filled water bottles and stored them by the washer dryer. We tried to do as little laundry as possible, and wear the same shorts and tanks for as many days as we could stand.
They shut down the farmers market for the season because it was so dry and dusty by 9 am and the vegetables weren’t thriving anymore. The grocery stores cut their hours, too, not wanting to use the power to be open all night.
A lot of the kids in town got a stomach flu that wouldn’t leave them alone; and the talk returned that the dirty pool water caused it, or maybe it was the runoff from the manure, or maybe the river wasn’t clean anymore. The water looked different, and there was a smell; not chemical exactly but strange when you turned on the tap. The water stopped running in the local ditch and the fish were dying in the lake, no one knew why.
When they said we couldn’t use the air conditioner anymore, too many people were using power, we didn’t care, we had always thought it was bad for the environment, and we were used to lying on the bed at night, sweating, hearing the fan turn. Then electricity costs went up so we went for no fans as well and we started sleeping out on the porch. I wasn’t that much cooler. We moved the chaises upstairs and slept separately, it was just too hot to bump into another sweaty body at night. The store sold paper fans now, and I remember as a child the fans in church during services, I hadn’t thought of those in years. Maybe we were returning to a simpler time. How foolish a thought.
“Just think how the settlers had it, back in the 1800s. They didn’t have electricity or refrigeration at all, and only took a bath once a week.” Joe said from his lounge,
“I guess we can get used to this, huh? At least I don’t have to wear the dresses they wore back then….”
“I like the hats the men wore though, and the suspenders. And my feet have to be as dirty as theirs were!” Joe said. “ He wiggled his crusty brown toes. Joe could always get me to laugh, and I feel asleep watching the stars. They looked cool up in space, glowing like ice in the night sky.
We started thinking we had better save some food, the market was so picked over, so I got sacks of brown rice and dried pinto beans at the coop, and we decided to solar dry our veggies, but the veggies were so withered they looked dried before I even put them in the rack. I got a lot of canned food at Grocery Outlook, but I had to be so aggressive in grabbing things I was a little frightened; people used to be so much nicer, now it was all elbows and dirty looks. All the bottled water and batteries were out of there, and I had to get Vienna sausages even though we hated it. At least I could give it to the dog.
I still tried to keep up my old routines, I still went running, but now I went at first light to avoid as much heat as I could. I still went to the place I always went, but I started walking halfway there, it was just so hot.
One morning I heard a terrible rustling and grunting in the Manzanita growth. I stopped dead in my tracks, it was an awful noise that I still can hear when I concentrate, or maybe I am thinking of the sounds I hear in the next room as I wait here, its all mixed up now.
Then I saw it, about 30 yards away, a mountain lion pursuing a wounded deer, and I saw it pounce and the deer screamed and I smelled blood. I turned and ran for my life, imagining claws on my back, and I never went back. I can still see its muscular tawny body stretched all the way out to pounce on the scrambling, bleeding deer. She didn’t have a chance.
I switched to walking on the road and then it was too hot for that, and it didn’t seem safe. People from the city were coming up more and more, and I didn’t want anyone following me back to the house. There seemed to be strangers living in the woods.
Joe and I went to the city council meeting, just to see what the plans were, with the stores in town shuttering and the mail delivery down to twice a week and all the new people in town. Our town had always been divided with a conservative tilt, but now the Tea Party had a strong voice, as all their nay saying and fears seemed to be coming true.
I was shocked to see an old man carrying a picture of a coffin, saying the government was going to leave us to die.
Joe approached him with a smile.
“Aren’t you exaggerating a bit there friend?”
The old man turned and looked at him, taking in his long hair and farmer’s feet, and the anger was so fierce and sudden.
“You’re a fool if you think that, and you’ll deserve what happens to you.” The old man almost spit at Joe, spittle was on his lips, and I pulled Joe fiercely to get him away.
Joe had always been a pacifist, he was a conscientious objector in the war three wars back. I think he was shocked at the venom, but then it got so much worse.
They was a lot of talk about the guns for sale after the meeting, that did scare me. but for me the worst part was the open discussion.
“Back in Washington, they don’t care about us. They don’t care I went and fought in their war, and they don’t care if we run out of water and gas either.” A young veteran said, his voice rough and husky with emotion, and all the people around him patted him on the back.
We left the meeting early and I didn’t like the feeling of the eyes on our backs . I was relieved to get in the car, and locked my door the second I got in. Gas was up to $7.00 so we decided to come to town even less.
I sat on the deck to look at the moon that night, and I wondered what we would do if they came over from the highway to our place, we had big glass windows, perfect for the valley views but I felt vulnerable.
Then our son, Wade, living down in the city, lost his job. That was bad enough, but he was also worried about the sea level. He heard rumors that they might evacuate the coast and his place was one block from the beach. Wade said the fog was changing, it used to roll in daily in the summer, so there was just a few hours of sun each day; but now the fog was rare and had a yellow cast.
I had taken to turning my phone off, now I turned it on twice a week, I used to scroll through silly pictures constantly, but now I worried it wouldn’t be charged if the power went out. When I turned it on I saw a message from Wade. It was three days old.
“Hi Momma! Hey, it’s getting kinda hairy about here, and Stef and I want to come up and stay for a while. They are going to evacuate and I don’t want to be part of that mess. I’m gonna bring my guns, might be good to have some security up there. Might take us a couple of days to get there. ” He laughed, but the dread in my stomach felt like a punch.
“Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll make it. Put a jar of jam aside for me, okay? And some eggs? Love you!”
And then it was over, it got bad so fast. Now I know that the fabric of civilization is a fragile mesh. it seemed like it took three days for us to be on our own but I guess I am exaggerating. I remember reading what people went through in the Holocaust and the Reckoning but I never saw it happening to us. I just didn’t expect the lawlessness. I didn’t think the government would just go missing. I didn’t think neighbors would turn on each other. I didn’t think of the terrible violence. I didn’t think hungry people would binge on meth.
We became people who lived behind boarded up windows only venturing out when desperate for water or food. Then we lost even that, when they invaded the house.
We ended up in the little storeroom downstairs, along with some of the neighbors they had rounded up, and our tenants and their baby. That was rough, but Joe had it worse.
Joe had run out of medications he took for blood pressure for quite a while, and wasn’t himself; he had always wanted to be the husband and caretaker and he just couldn’t stop the way things got. He hated being powerless, they wouldn’t listen to him, they struck him more than once and I hated to see him old and helpless, and when they shot Parker Joe didn’t recover. Then the baby passed, and we helped them bury her at night in a dresser drawer wrapped in her favorite blanket.
Then Joe had another stroke, after they broke his nose with the rifle butt, and this one was bad, his face drooped and he couldn’t use his arm. The last stroke he had been in the hospital for a week with physical therapy and 24 hour nursing, this time he lay on a pile of old rags we had in the barn. He couldn’t speak either though he tried. I kept telling him I loved him and we would get through this, but his eyes were filled with fear, and he would work his mouth but only sounds would come out. Then one day he was just gone, and I didn’t tell them but when they brought the water but they saw and took him. They dragged him, and his head banged on the concrete floor. Mary covered her face with her hands but I kept looking.
I hated them so much. Once they had to be young people, probably at the dances, and I don’t know how they learned to be so cruel. They had to be the people who I used to see, selling tires, having families, but they had changed.
Then they took Jared and Nick away, and we women were alone. Renee had been catatonic since the baby, but Mary was always on the edge of hysteria. They took Renee first, she was the youngest and prettiest and when they took her she didn’t struggle. I don’t know what they did to her; I only know she didn’t scream. I could hear them laughing. They drank a lot, and I guess meth; they always seemed so wired and so cruel.
Mary was next, and she screamed and cried and struggled, and I sat numbly alone in the room. I was almost sixty and I guess they didn’t really want me. They forgot the water for a day and I hoped they would forget me. I could sit and remember, but the fear made the memories jumbled, and I guess not eating too. Nature used to always soothe me, but I didn’t ever hear birds chirping and the sky wasn’t blue very often.
I found a few tablespoons of jam in a jar hidden under a crate, that jam I made in early summer, and I ate a half of it. I felt sick but I kept it down. I held some under my tongue like I used to do with candy when I was young.
Then they came for me. I still had the taste of jam in my mouth when they grabbed me, and they pulled me out of the room into my barn. They dragged me to the stairs, and suddenly I thought of the deer in the woods months ago. I might as well run. I could run up the hill toward Mary’s old place. Maybe I could live back in the woods where I used to run. Maybe somewhere there will still good people.
I sagged and pretended to faint, and they loosened their grip. Then I burst into a run, still tasting the summer berries, and I started up the hill. I ran like the deer, I ran as fast as I had ever run. Maybe this time the deer will get away.