The roadside hedges were gone to rows of black and twisted brambles. Burnt matchstick limbs, frail and carcassed treetrunks. A gray pond lay near the low bomus of a sorghumfield, its yieldless surface oily and wan. Ruminant bones in a shallow rocky ditchrun, faint scattered nothing. In a sunlit patch of green, a mother robin fed its chicks, a fat worm at her beak. Oh wait, check that. Sorry. All was dead.
The boy stood in the road with the pistol while the man climbed an old set of limestone steps and walked down the porch of the farmhouse, peering in the windows. He pushed his way in through the kitchen door. Lucy, I’m home, he shrieked, the Cuban accent poor from disuse. Trash in the floor. Broken saucers, a heap of old magazines. He looked them over. Jen’s Revenge. Kendra’s Baby Bump. J.Lo’s Booty Wars. The shelves bare save for a chipped Garfield mug, two rough spots where its handle had been. I too hate Mondays, he whispered. He went down the hallway, regarding himself in a broken woodframed mirror. The eyes haunted and sunk. Weatherbeaten cheeks, a matted gritty beard. He looked like Viggo Mortensen.
In the parlor, a television set in the corner. Beneath it a Sega Genesis, Battletoads still inside. Arrayed Ikea furniture, brittle and sagging as always. He climbed the stairs and walked through the bedrooms. Everything covered with ash. In a child’s room, a Tickle Me Elmo on the dresser. He went to it, lodestar of plush, the crimson jape. The man squeezed the doll and a thin laughter filled the room. Remains of joy discaptured. He took out his pocketknife and stabbed at the toy until it was no more than scrap and fluff. Breathing hard, he watched as a plastic eyeball rolled slowly across the floor and settled against the moulding. Then he went to the other rooms.
He emerged into the gray with three good blankets and the J.Lo magazine and laid it all in the cart. The boy handed him the pistol.
Was it okay in there? the boy said.
Yes, it was okay.
Were you scared?
No, the man said. Theres little left to be afraid of.
They set out along the road again and the boy looked back at the shinglefallen house that receded into haze. There wasnt anything scary inside, Papa?
There was no basement dungeon thing?
No. There was no basement dungeon thing.
Okay. The boy was silent for a moment, then looked up at him. There were no people locked in an underground room? With a secret hatch? And they were eating each others feet and hands and things?
The man frowned at the boy. No. There was nothing of the sort. Where do you get such ideas?
The boy shrugged.
They trod on, and after a time the man smiled. There was a Tickle Me Elmo though.
The boy brightened. There was? May I have it, Papa? he said.
Oh. I’m sorry. He scanned the cart, feigning concern. I must have forgotten it.
The boy tried to hide his disappointment. Thats alright Papa, he said. My rusty beancan is better anyway.
Later in the day the boy turned to him. Can you tell me about apostrophes?
What do you want to know about them?
I dont know. Where did they all go?
I dont know, the man said, and it was truth. He didnt know where all the apostrophes had gone.
In the gray and cloven coldstunt they came upon a supermarket. A few old cars in the lot, the windswept bleary goam. The man pushed the cart towards the cartstation nearest the entrance, nesting it with the others, and went inside. The boy gripped his hand. They walked slowly up and down the aisles, hoping to find something that had been overlooked. A bottle of water. A can of soup. Craisins, even. In the dustfilled refrigerator case he came upon a warm stack of Lunchables. With his hand, he brushed one clean and looked it over. The ham, cheese, and crackers each sat in its individual station, looking suspiciously fresh. The man’s eyes narrowed as he inspected the pink roundlet of ham, the tiny orange cheddarblock.
Is it okay to eat, Papa?
I dont think so, he said, laying it back with the others. There’s something not right. We’d best not take the chance.
By the door were two softdrink machines that had been tilted over into the floor and opened with a prybar, the work of colascavengers. He sat and ran his hand around inside the gutted machines and in the second one found a cold metal cylinder. He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Mountain Dew.
What is it, Papa?
It’s a treat.
Oh. What is it though?
He frowned as he looked at the garish can, its mad red typeface. I cant really say. High fructose cornsyrup. Yellow number five. A few other things. It’s good. Try it.
The man slid his thumbnail beneath the aluminum tab on the top of the cylinder, squeezing the ringside opposite with his forefinger. Leveraging at the rimple, he pushed upwards, springing the lidsheath below. There was a crisp popping noise as the ovoid sheath lowered into the canchamber, releasing the fizzing sugardrink. After flattening back the tab at the rimplejoint with his thumb, he handed it to the boy. It’s more complicated than it looks, he said.
The boy sniffed at the can, eyes batting at the fizz. It smells kind of funny.
He looked at his father uncertainly and then tilted the can and drank. An odd look crossed his face. It tastes like pee-pee.
Yes, a little bit. Sweet, sweet pee-pee.
You can have it, Papa.
I want you to drink it.
No, it’s your treat. Drink it.
The boy took another sip and they sat in silence, each in his own thoughts. The man recalled an old television show whose title now escaped him though he felt certain that two characters had been called Roz and Bull. Such happiness as he had never known. Madcap wheelings, a sundrous reverie. The judge’s sly magic. After a time, the gray light outside began to fade. We should go, the man said, lifting their knapsacks. Did you like your treat? The boy nodded and managed a weak smile. Yes, Papa. It was very good. Thank you. The man waited until the boy’s back was turned and bent to heft the can. It was still full.