The world ended this week.
But these days, the world ends every other Tuesday, and most Fridays, and sometimes, the world ends seven days a week.
She lives under a bridge. But not out on the street like a lot of other people who haven’t quite given up yet. Sleeps on those crochet blankets someone’s grandmother made, the colorful ones that used to hang by the dozen in second-hand stores for sale, cheap and reeking of moths and no-longer-wanted love. Sleeps inside an old warehouse that was probably too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer even before all this. A warehouse built into the bridge, so that one of its walls supports the arch of the old roadway. She sleeps under the bridge, but inside a warehouse. A warehouse that in the good old days used its chill to store flowers, its ghost sign suggests in faded yellow on red brick, when flowers used to grow, when flowers were bought with money. When daisies and other wild flowers grew in fields.
She has a key that fits the door and that matters still. To her.
She lives under that bridge. The one where back in the day, those old, old days, they hung Black men and sometimes women, and once a child, at least that’s what the man who lives in the basement mutters.
Langston Hughes, he says, like that name means something to her now. Langston Hughes was born in this town, here in 1901 or 1902, depending on what old book you ask.
Further north, before that, they hung 38 of her relations.
Now on the land they hang whomever they please.
The streetlamps cycle on and off, block by block. For a few nights, she is bathed in light. Useless, damned light. Can see the remainders—plastics discarded by wind on street corners, still mostly firm, only discoloured, waiting. Other nights, she lives in the dark. Someone runs the power plant, she imagines. Someone still has coffee. Someone still has greens, delicate and bitter and wondrous.
It’s nicer to imagine someone living there, locked in, with a pantry that never empties rather than some system, running, running because it cannot stop. Because no one can reach it, can silence it.
Because the waters at Lake of the Ozarks have spread wide. Because the flood.
Hunger is earth-ending but continues ceaselessly. Thirst too. The last can of baked beans gone wrong, likely seal punctured, insides just fresh-smelling enough to suggest they were okay, but proving fatal to the dog who used to roam with her. Having fevered her. Having sweated her. Having gripped her.
He’d been called Dog, or Hey You, or when she was feeling more like the child she used to be, Ross, named after another dog, named after the one who brought the dog, milk-breathed and wormy, home when he shouldn’t have. When the baby had just died, when another mouth to feed quietly taxed the land.
When home was a place out miles from the city lights. When they still managed to grow corn and soy and sometimes tiny, perfectly-misshapen tomatoes in the back garden, fenced with razor-wire to keep out the animals hungry enough to bleed themselves, to leave tufts of fur caught against the metal, to keep the food safe. When they still had seeds to plant. When the dried seeds still grew with water and sun and good dirt. When the memory of sky and wind and storms of sharp-toothed-ferocity were still only beautiful.
Lighting strikes, and for a moment, there is echo on the retina, a photographic plate.
What you exchange when you have nothing but your body is your blood. This used to be painted on a sign, on the highway, next to the dust road that would lead to her family’s land. A death cult, one of the first to spring up like grass breaking through the ground. But like grass, they came, first one blade, then many. As the grass burned down brown, as the grass failed to sprout, they came.
What you exchange when your blood is gone, your life. The next mile, another sign.
And a mile later. Your life to nourish the land.
Before, she’d driven this stretch when she still had the old Ford, when the old Ford still had gas, when the pumps still pumped, when the trucks still trucked, when the oil rigs still rigged, when the tailing ponds still killed the birds, when the cannons still fired, when those songbirds didn’t care.
Every time it ends, the world ends slowly. With numbness that aches worse than hunger pains, until they renew.
She wishes for sun. She wishes for rain. For dirt that grows. Or, if that’s too much, if wishes can’t do that heavy work now, she wishes for a stash of cans, the vegetables still crisp and full of color. Waxy like childhood. At a SPAM label, she would fall to her knees and pray. Fall to her knees and cry.
Now, they laugh. They praise scurvy and dysentery and cholera and typhoid fever, all those Oregon Trail diseases, now returned, now served without irony. To pray, to cry, that would be a death sentence now.
The building is blocks away and has been combed through too many times by too many people. All the lower floor windows broken. Once a department store with those wonderful large panes of glass. The concept fading even when she was young. All those family names and bankruptcy. That museum of American Art she visited in school, gone now too.
This is the museum now. She is an artifact now.
The streetlamps haven’t cycled on in weeks. Someone has maybe freed themselves from the pattern. Someone has maybe made a choice. This has put her in a mood, a giddy, floating lightness creeping around her vision. A weakness like joy deep in her cells. Her liver, her lungs, her stupid-still-beating heart.
She climbs over the rubble—red brick and glass worn smooth from other shoes—in the darkness like home.
Last night, the man in the basement died.
She climbs the stairs, into old apartments, long looted. Even corn, she knows, she’d cry even at corn. She climbs the stairs, slow. She climbs the stairs, high. At the top, she climbs further, up the old fire escape, though it creaks, though it won’t stay welded to brick long; though the plastic will outlive us all, she climbs.
Even if the streetlamps were to ignite. Even if the dog were here. Even if the man in the basement still spoke of poets, of histories, of Langston Hughes, Langston Hughes. Even if the rains returned, the winds calmed, the plastic sunk back to the earth where it belongs.
Her blood pulsing in her temples, iron-rich. Her blood like salted water.