He sits, almost collapses, on his bed and stares across the efficiency-apartment at the computer screen. For several seconds, he cannot move. There is nothing to hide behind, no objects, no memories, nothing but unflinching actuality.
He flings his slight self off the bed and seizes a beer from the refrigerator with no respect for the refrigerator. Filling himself with beer, that is the surest, simplest thing. He pries off the bottle-cap, tosses it on the otherwise spotless counter, tips back, swallows hard. Then he recovers the cap and deposits it in the black Rubbermaid can beneath the sink. There is a Wilco lyric that is refusing to quit his mind—What was I thinking when we said hello?—which makes him think of Cassie, his girlfriend whom he must call. He must warn her. He must protect her. He scrolls down through the slim address file in his cell phone until her name is highlighted in dull orange, then presses call.
He met Cassie not long after leaving the supermarket; he was tutoring ESL students in the community building next to The Millhouse, an old stone tavern where she bartended. He sat in the amber dimness, revering how she elicited those in her social circle, how she counseled servers and busboys trapped in miniature marijuana and pregnancy crisises, reproved marriage-wearied customers for choosing vodka over confrontation—she was an ear, a moral compass, a didactic princess. How you related to her was through her eyebrows, those downward-sloping eyebrows, ink-brown and barometric, which broadcast an unspoken opposition to her melancholy childhood; her Dad had run off to California leaving her Mom with a mortgage and three retail jobs and no time for Cassie or her brother. Later, when she becomes a social science major, you make the connection; you understand why each month she drives from the Philadelphia suburbs to Oswego, New York to visit her Mom, or why she volunteers for Blooming Glen, an organic farm that helps poor families. He asked if he could move in on the third date. There was something in her that he needed to isolate and protect, to enshrine, something he could not get enough of. But Cassie had been married before, her ex-husband ran off with her credit cards and her Jeep Wrangler, and so she told him she needed to move slowly, cautiously.
Phone pressed to his ear, he tells her he needs her but refuses to explain, she protests for less than ten seconds, saying that she has finals but will of course come over if that is what he needs. He clip-shuts the phone, sets it on the bedside the mouse on the mouse pad, and takes five big swallows from his beer. It could be imagined, he supposes, that wheat and corn will be rationed, pens and legal pads too, enabling him to keep writing and philosophizing, maybe even reading his stories in a kind of neo-Dickensonian local square. But where would the bread and corn come from? And water? It is not going to be a Depression, it will be an ever-fracturing Devolution, a long cold slide into a post-industrial winter. Beginning in his hometown, in all hometowns, and spreading from east coast to west, from the United States to Europe to the World.
He imagines gangs of Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Latinos, AK-47s, bandannas, thin mustaches, shifty eyes, he sees them being leeched out of the inner cities to bleed the suburbs, he can feel the cold gun barrel against his stomach, the hot booze-breath on his face—All your money, now! And he’s never admitted it to himself, his racial and class anxieties. His suburban middle class has its place and the lower class has their’s. But soon all the coiled segregation that has been crimping since civilization’s beginning is going to explode in patterns that only fractals can understand. He sees soldiers, white, football-faced, in Kevlar and camouflage, he can see the cold gun barrel against Cassie’s sloping eyebrows—Curfew’s sunset, get inside! The power-grab, no longer hidden behind the curtain of politics.
His head turns from the mouse/cell-phone to the refrigerator, then to the computer monitor and the bed; he glowers at these things as though they have been conspiring against him, leashes masquerading as arteries, of which he is both beginning and end. He should have seen it earlier: without fuel, the center cannot hold. Not being able to write is the least of his concerns. I have to worry about staying alive. In one uninterrupted motion he hoists and drains his beer.
He must prepare, he must use his dresser and nightstand and kitchen table as a barricade, he must convince Cassie to sell her too-expensive condo, the sanest thing is her moving in with him. He needs grains, canned food, Sterno, candles, water, he googles ‘survival rations.’ First in the queue is Mainstay Food Supplies, whose vacuum-packed foil pouches are guaranteed to ‘maintain freshness for five years’. He scans his room for storage space, the ceiling is high, boxes can be piled upon boxes. But what happens when the rations run out? He springs from his chair, flings open the drapes: the windows, tall and rectangular, he can hang plants around them! Tomatoes, carrots, peppers and potatoes! Cassie can help, Cassie has agricultural experience! Back to the computer, almost-smiling, he googles ‘indoor vegetable gardens.’ Cucumbers, beans, Endive and Swiss Chard can be harvested indoors. He scribbles frantically on a legal pad, making preparatory notes he himself will not later be able to read, he stops. Rain and sleet prattle against the drapeless window, the cold conduction that has been seeping through the floorboards since mid-November is now reminding him of winter, how proximate it is, never further than two feet of stone, insulation, some glass and fabric. How will vegetables grow in the cold? He hops out of his swivel chair, jogs into the bathroom, and pisses. How will the toilet flush? How will I shower without clean water? And how could a dresser-and-nightstand-barricade possibly thwart gun-wielding Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Latinos, Marines? Back at the refrigerator, he opens another beer and tries to imagine how his refrigerator transforms warm air into cold, which of course he cannot. He runs back to the computer.
He cannot remain in his efficiency-apartment, he must leave and convince Cassie to join him. Friends of his have lived in ecovillages, whom he once ridiculed for living outside of civilization, but now he is shamelessly entering ‘ecovillages’ into the Google toolbar. Hundreds of results, from Florida to Maine to Nova Scotia. Ecologically sustainable villages that incorporate principles of communal living and traditional farming; sowing seeds under the sun, writing under the moon, he’ll be a postmodern Henry David Thoreau, the first irrepressible literary conscience of the New Era of Limitations. Human ingenuity cannot be stifled, he can still possess a furious hope for his own fulfillment, pleasure, and conquest of the abstract! Each night he’ll sleep with Cassie, spooned against her civil back, knowing right where she is, both of them on a bed of straw or hemlock boughs in a teepee or a yurt or whatever it is in which ecovillagers sleep. “It doesn’t have to end, it never has to end.”
He begins to furiously tap out an email to Twin Ponds, a Tennessee-based ecovillage, he stops. Leaning back in his swivel chair, he rakes his beard, then takes three large swallows from his beer. He will not be safe there either. The horde, starved and insane, will raid the harvests, plunder the water, murder and enslave the villagers. And if not the horde, than the military, siphoning the remaining foods to the privileged and the powerful. So where is he to go? He stands up, seizes the beer and chugs. Where can he go?
Out. Off the grid. He sits back down and googles ‘USA Population Density,’ in search of someplace cloistered, arable, far from reach. And the answer, ranking fourth in landmass and 44th in population density, is Montana. Into the backwoods he must go, poisonous and nonpoisonous mushrooms and berries must be discerned, hunting and trapping and fishing must be mastered and exacted with ferocious intent. His hand knocks over the first, now-empty beer bottle, spilling three amber beads onto the mouse pad, which, using his shirtsleeve, he blots up. He must wean himself off of writing and concentrate on fire-starting, water-filtering, shelter-building. He must then sell his things and move to Montana. Cassie will resist. Cassie will not want to leave. He can count on her to listen, but he knows that she will remind him of his flirtation last year with 911 conspiracy theories, his on-again-off-again agoraphobia, and his taste for apocalyptic intoxication—she will be inclined to perceive his perceptive abilities as more crucial than the facts on the ground. And yet she must be persuaded. Not convincing Cassie means having to go alone.
Never would he have considered abandoning his life of social possessions had it not first threatened to abandon him, and though he feels a hint of barbaric romanticism in the prospect of becoming a hunter-gatherer, it is mostly apprehension, a glacial and disorienting apprehension that he almost-feels, and for the first time he finds himself questioning whether it is necessary to live. There is the possibility that it is better to die. For one thing, not living would require a lot less measured appropriation of his passions. But this question, the existential question, seems to answer itself: he must live, he possesses his own revolution and must continue to fuel it, arrangements must be made posthaste, his Money Market Account should be turned into water filters, survival books, antibiotics, a backpack. And a gun. He decides he needs a gun. Having opposed guns since becoming politically conscious, this is the starkest concession he has ever made, but there will be no judiciary in the future, no court system, nothing but real-time arbiters, Latinos, Blacks, Marines, armed and conscienceless. He rises and moves to the window sill, the window sill through which, minutes earlier, sunlight was to shine upon the magical vegetables that were to sustain him and Cassie happily ever after. He wishes he could punish himself for having surrendered his labor potential to writing, something so unessential. How could I have been so blind? Hours wasted teaching his ESL students how to conjugate verbs. Months frittered on writers’ conferences and character sketches and peer feedback groups and Homer and Aeschylus and Aristotle and Socrates. He takes hold of the beer bottle and chugs, but there is not enough beer in the world to blunt the rearrangement of the world. For the second time tonight, he suspects that his things are conspiring against him, causing him to perceive himself somehow less than human; hanging on the wall above the computer is a print of Apollo; one of Dionysus above his head and to the left; their frames purposefully match the burgundy drapes, though, once again, in the cool-lunar light such colors are no more important than a pathetic pond-gray; the digital clock on the oven, alien-green, blinks the wrong time, several hours too late, these things, these simulacrum, which now have more mass than people, are also, paradoxically, less massive and permanent; modern humans have been led to believe in the permanence of tools, in the idea of the ever-expanding tool, so that now life minus the tool is unimaginable, making one so small and insignificant as to disappear into the latticework of leashes masquerading as arteries, concealing the movement of crucial events, and threatening to reduce all that is to a heap of fatalism. The door opens. It is Cassie.
He shudders as though being woken from a dream, then moves to his girlfriend and half-hugs her, his neck and shoulder muscles tense with decision-making. The smell of cigarettes and Dove shampoo in her hair focuses his sense-of-self in relation to his perception of her-sense-of-him, and then he immediately but silently apologizes that he is so clinical and selfish, and another Wilco lyric trumps his mind—What was I thinking when I let go of you?—and then realizes that his nonstop thoughts are crowding her out, so he pulls back.
And here she is. In curvaceous jeans and soft-russet suede coat which she removes and tosses on his dresser. As far as Cassie Manetta can tell, there has never been a reason to hang one’s coat in the closet, because a coat is an undeserving, unfeeling thing. And there are billions of similar undeserving, unfeeling things, the metaphysics of which she is not compelled to contemplate because back behind her, stretching back to her melancholy childhood, is her personalized gravity, the sum of all her proudly unhurried actions. “So what is it?” she asks him, her eyebrows sloping toward her temples. He leads her to the glass bistro table and sets a beer before her that she will not finish, and for several long moments he assembles his thoughts and strokes his beard, a ritual that she has come to associate with his objective aloofness and sometimes-comic self-righteousness. Though she understands that this is his crisis, it is her self-ordained responsibility to resolve all such crises, and so she leans forward, and opens her face to him. He tries to loosen his neck, shoulder, and back muscles, because he knows his nervousness elicits her skepticism. He is not thinking how reluctant he is to leave her, but it is there nonetheless, in his deliberateness and self-possession. He helps himself to another beer and tells her everything he knows.
The first thing Cassie asks is: “You expect me run away with you? To Montana? And quit school and leave my mother?”
“I know, I know, it sounds crazy, but you must trust me—college will be a thing of the past, there will only be sheer survival. And around here, in the suburbs, it’ll be brutal.”
“My Mom lives in the suburbs. Everyone I know lives in the suburbs.”
He sits down and straightens his spine. “Maybe there’s someplace she can go,” but he does not believe it, and for several long seconds he tries to feel intellectually remorseful.
“How can you be sure that a collapse is even going to happen? I mean, isn’t it a little slippery to make predictions based on a single documentary?”
“Cassie. Look around. Even if resources aren’t becoming increasingly scarce, it’s clear that the center can’t hold, the law of entropy predicts it, all our infrastructure is based on it: everything cycles from life to death—even civilization.”
Cassie tucks a cigarette between her loose lips but does not immediately light it. “Alright, it’s obvious that you’re wedded to this idea, so I’m not going to argue the technicalities, we both know how that ends. But it seems like you’re running away, again. Maybe you feel trapped, in a rut with your writing, maybe this is more about you finding an ideology that pushes you into a new direction. It wouldn’t be the first time.” Cassie Manetta says ‘It wouldn’t be the first time’with an cautious empathy. “But how does buying a handgun and running away make sense? There’s plenty of starvation, hypothermia, infection, broken bones, and death in the Montana wilderness too. Not to mention there’s no intellectual fodder-—no hipster culture, no more writer’s workshops, no more getting high on Saturday nights and philosophizing. Have you thought about that?”
“Let me ask yousomething: When the Titanic started to sink, did the people onboard concern themselves with philosophizing?” He swats at the cigarette smoke. “Or finding a way out?” He makes a small show of fetching an ashtray and setting it before her.
“But there is no way out. We were born into civilization. And although we didn’t ask for commercials and cars and wars and computers, that’s what we got. And now those things are us. You think there is some utopia where we could seek permanent sanctuary, some magical bower that isn’t owned, that capitalists haven’t pissed all over. But there isn’t, it is all gone. Even if there were, how can it possibly”—she points to the computer and then the oven—“efface the only mode of living we’ve ever known? All we understand is dozens of robot-slaves working for us—heating our food, propelling our car, siphoning information onto a computer screen. How could we ever be happy living in the woods?”
“Cassie. ‘Running away to Montana’ isn’t an aesthetic decision, it is a survivalist decision. Most likely, it will be the last decision that we’ll be able to make before all decisions are foisted on us. The final pleasure, the smallest, most precious pleasure—is dignity, maybe even smaller than free-will, but not so small as to be uncatchable. At least not yet.”
“But what about the dignity of your friends? Your Mom and Dad? Brother and sister? Your students? Have you even thought about them? What about my Mom?” She shoos a plume of smoke away from his face. “Maybe you should stick around and educate people. Or write editorials for the local paper. Organize an action group. Promote renewable energies. If you think civilization is really coming to an end, isn’t it better we die together?”
His eyes fix on hers for several long, poignant seconds. “I don’t know. I’ve never died before.”
“Look, Aaron, maybe you’re right. Maybe oil and natural gas are at peak production. Maybe decline is inevitable.
But they’ll come up with something, the scientists. Things will get bad, people will riot, and the governments will start subsidizing solar and wind technologies. The human organism isn’t as dumb as you think.”
“If history is any indication, the human species is unforgivably dumb. History is the history of the repercussions of warfare. And there is no reason to believe that the future will be any different.”
“But that’s no excuse to run away. People need to hear about this. They’ll need help making the transition.” She grinds out the unfinished cigarette.
“I could stand on top of the world and shout it till my lungs bleed, but no one would listen. No one wants to acknowledge that fossil fuels power the consumerist illusion. Hope is sustained through thousands of short-term biological gains and it’s not till privation happens that someone’s perspective begins to change. Perhaps I’m just another pessimistic fatalist. But unless you are dealing with infinites, how is fatalism not inevitable?” He is picking at the beer label and wishing he wasn’t. “My point, Cassie, is that we should go. The suburbs aren’t safe without oil.”
She stands, takes the back of his head in her hands, kisses his forehead, and holds him. “I love you Aaron. But I’m not quitting school. And I will not leave my mother.”
Then there is silence, numinous silence, the cool-lunar computer and the russet walls, the ceiling, the beer bottles, the fluorescent oven light, Apollo and Dionysus—these things are large and distorted—and then, the refrigerator switches on and the silence is dead; buried in the folds of Cassie’s sweater, the space between her breasts, he cannot look into her eyes which are surely wide-open. Her firm words are reaching his stomach, transforming it something of a chronic machine, a vacuum striving to suck his loud brain through his throat into pitchperfect digestion. Cassie lets go and gets her coat from the dresser. “Call me tomorrow,” she says, her keys chinking in her coat pocket. “When you wake up.”
“Maybe you could stay the night?” he asks. He is rubbing his stomach. Cassie hesitates. His pain is real, she can feel it herself. Inside is an almost-muscular urge to comfort him, but she also feels an indignation that she has had to force herself to sustain, an indignation based on the very antagonism which is the linchpin of their relationship. “You need some space.” she says. “To think things through.” “Come on, Cass, please?” But she is already letting herself out.
The refrigerator runs for five, six minutes before sputtering into inertia and then there is nothing but the sound of sleet slapping at the windows; listen hard and beneath the sleet you can hear the traffic, something between a purr and a roar, so omnipresent that you cannot fall asleep without it. He picks up his cell-phone and scrolls to her name, but does not press call. Running his fingers over its smooth edges, he studies the phone, he presses the photo album icon and looks at his favorite picture—Cassie lying on his bed in her blue-checkered pajamas, smiling unguardedly. He fingers the phone again, teases the call button, but does not call her.
He will heed her advice and call her when he awakes.
Because there is nothing else, he sits in front of his computer. From the MP3 library he selects Radiohead’s, Exit Music for a Film, to harmonize his mood. It comes on chilled, slow, his vacuous stomach welcoming it erotically. Into the kitchen, pockets of cigarette smoke still hang in the fluorescent light, not enough to fill the apartment, not ever, though he now wishes it could. He wishes, in fact, that her cigarette smoke could fill the world. This is the most familiar thought that he has had all night, and he laughs. He opens a Microsoft Word document. He writes: Now, in the end, he understands the double entendre: he himself is the Film, he regrets that his consciousness has been so slow in the making, each successive epiphany unveiling the devastating consequences of one million missed epiphanies, each more all-encompassing than the last.
He writes: He has reached the Bottom, this is what his literary heroes have been encouraging him to find, the pitch-black Bottom, the Absorber Of All Light, to which he must cling absolutely, no matter how the strata tremble and resist. He cannot leave Cassie. For the same reason an individual must go where society goes. Call it love, if love is the sum of all beautiful cohesion.