By Juan Ersatzman
“If someone wrote about us — back in the day, I mean — do you think they’d call it post-apocalyptic?” asked Marie. She was reclining against a slouchy pile of their backpacks, boots stretched out toward the fire. Jelly, deeper inside the rooftop shack, using his boots as a makeshift seat, looked up from his plate and raised an eyebrow, sufficiently surprised by the thought that he stopped licking his plate clean.
Marie ran a hand through her hair, spreading her fingers to clear the tangles. “I mean, you remember how they used to write books, and make movies about the end of civilization, climate change, nuclear holocaust … the whole thing.”
Jelly nodded, and went back to licking his plate, still listening.
“And here we are now, and it doesn’t feel like those stories did, you know? The dread, the terror, the … the — you know — that feeling.”
“Wouldn’t’ve thought of it,” Jelly said, setting down the plate, and settling his steady gaze on her.
The long fingers of firelight played across Marie’s face, rolling on the gentle curves of her forehead, cheeks and chin, resolving to bright lines on the fine edges of her lips, and shining in her curious eyes. Her hair was cast in silhouette, black against the sunset. Neither one said anything for a moment. Then Jelly, setting down his plate, asked, “Offhand, what made you think of it?”
Marie shrugged. “I don’t know, it just occurred to me today.”
Jelly said nothing. He picked up his plate, and finished cleaning it, then sat, running his knuckles rhythmically across his jaw.
“Nothing in particular made you think that?”
“I guess,” said Marie, “I guess maybe it was this afternoon. I was out on the far side of the roof, collecting water from the rain-bin, and checking the corn, and I was thinking about how…” she hesitated, collecting her thoughts, “… about the water. You know, it used to be easy — just turn the tap — and …”
Her voice caught on a splinter, and trailed into silence. Jelly closed his eyes and bent his head. His hand became manic, rubbing at his beard in a mechanical frenzy, the only easy outlet for his thoughts. The fire crackled languorously in a slow descent to embers.
“Hey. Jelly, Come on, now,” said Marie. “Quit that. You’ll scratch your face off.”
Jelly looked up. Marie was leaning forward from her seat on the packs and smiling at him, though pools glistened in her eyes.
“Like I said, I remembered how life used to be — and what we thought back then of what life would be like, if things ever got the way they’ve gotten, now. And — here’s what hit me — it doesn’t really feel different. It isn’t like we thought it would be, at all.”
She slipped off the packs, and knelt down beside her husband, nestling up against him, under his arm.
“We work hard now, but we worked hard, then. I mean, I don’t pretty women up in a salon, and you can’t work for the state agriculture board. Those things aren’t really options, now, but … it’s not like rooftop urban farming was really an option, then.”
“Not too sure about that. It might’ve been,” he said. “Never really looked into it.”
He tucked his arm around her back, and rubbed his chin into her hair.
“You know what I mean,” Marie said, and rolled her eyes. “We didn’t use to camp out on a roof, barricade the stairs and hide our fires at night, but we used to lock our doors, and worry about crime stats. People didn’t use to use knives and bats a lot, but it just seemed like everybody owned a gun. Everybody took those classes so they could walk around with little cannons under their coats … Life was hard, and life was dangerous. That’s no different. You know?”
After a moment, Jelly said, “Used to have doctors, and nurses and hospitals, though.”
Marie looked up at him. Jelly was staring into the fire, but his arm resumed its restless rhythm, up and down her spine, his fingers distractedly exploring the contours of her back. Marie followed his gaze into the glow of the embers, the final flames dancing for what little life remained to them, and her mind was mired there, revolving the myriad elements of her world with the motion of the fire, in inadvertent meditation. Finally, she spoke again,
“I know. I know, but what I mean is … it just … I guess getting the water made me think. You know how we think it’s the water, or it’s the radiation from the bombs, or it’s the food, or the stress, or … whatever.”
She paused. Her words were tumbling out too quickly, sharp edges untrimmed.
“And there’s no doctor to tell us one way or the other,” she went on. “That’s true. But maybe it’s not those things. Maybe the world changed, but the plan didn’t. Maybe it’s just like life isn’t that different. Maybe we were never going to … to have a baby, in any world.”
She stopped. Jelly’s arm had stiffened around her back. His jaw clenched, and unclenched.
“Maybe,” he said, and breathed hard, and deep, three times, and each time, his torso heaved against Marie, and his granite muscles trembled. He turned his eyes down to her, but slowly, as though by force against a great reluctance. Orange light dimly reflected off the downturned corners of his lips.
“Does it help?”
“A little,” she said. “As much as anything can.”
Jelly resumed his silence, now staring over the dying fire into the gathering darkness of their shack, his arm still climbing and descending Marie’s back like an automaton. Outside, the city was quiet as sunset became twilight, and twilight sank into gloaming. No birds, no cars; just the wind, rustling through the verdant darkness of Jelly’s small patches of corn and beans and vegetables.
“Speaking of hiding our fires …” said Marie.
Jelly nodded. She slipped out from his arm, and climbed to her feet. Jelly rose stiffly, wincing at the gravely rattle of cartilage in his knees.
“We closed up the barricade when you came home, didn’t we?” she asked as they crossed out of the open wall. Jelly, padding along barefoot, glanced down at the spot on the floor, where he made a charcoal mark each day when they closed the barricade, and rubbed it out each morning when they opened it. There was a mark. He nodded.
He used his foot to shove their backpacks into the shelter. Marie pulled the tarp out from its spot next to one of the two shelves positioned along the far wall. One side of the tarp was still a faded electric blue, but they had smudged the other side black with charcoal. They stretched it across the open wall that faced east. Both walls at the sides of the opening had metal eyelets protruding from them at the floor, the roof, and two points between. Some of the eyelets, Marie had scavenged from the ruins of a hardware store, some Jelly had fashioned from wire. A short length of shoelace was looped through each eyelet. On their separate ends of the tarp, Jelly and Marie threaded the shoelaces through the grommets on the tarp, pulled them tight, and made a knot.
When they finished, the hut was utterly dark, but for the faint glow of the embers. Marie reached up and ran her hand along the roof until she came to one of the three small exhaust vents they had made for the fire. She pushed the flap of shingle all the way open, until she felt the cooler air on her hand.
Her eyes were still adjusting to the darkness, but she could hear Jelly unrolling their pad, and the sleeping bag they laid unzipped across their pad for a blanket. They undressed in the dark, and in silence. The tarp stirred and rustled, compelled by the breeze.
Jelly, as he always did, climbed into their hard little bed first, and, as always, took the side toward the wall, away from the warmth of the embers. Marie piled her clothes on top of the packs, now stacked between the head of the bed and the tarp, and crawled in beside him. She reached out, found him in the dark, and curled up against him.
“Hey,” said Jelly, wrapping his hands around her waist and pulling her tighter, “you might be right. Things might not be that different than they were, back in the day.”
“But I’ll say this,” he went on, letting go of her waist, and tracing her shoulder with his fingertips in the darkness. “You’ve got a bunch more knots in your back than you used to.”
Marie giggled in the dark.
“’Cause I’ve been married to you for a whole lot longer than I used to be,” she said, shoving him in the dark. “Don’t go blaming the apocalypse for something that’s your own damn fault.”
They both laughed, and settled deeper into the bed. After a moment, the only sound was regular, uninterrupted breathing. They slept, surrounded by the silence of the ruined city.