Last year there were about 200 million of us. At least that’s what Nate told me, but the numbers change all the time. I’d bet it changed today. I know it changed yesterday---I saw Lorabel’s demise in a way I can’t bring myself to describe.
I remember grainy images on Nate’s screen. It’s hard to remember even though it couldn’t have been that long ago. Nate told me about his new normal. It’s not so big when you’re living in it. Sleeping outdoors is harder, but it’s not that hard to find a soft place to lay your head. I still spend much of my day wandering. I’ve seen a lot more than I ever had.
The Old Man
I met an old man today. He’s down on his luck. Nobody counts on luck anyway, so you can’t say he was expecting much. I helped him out. I didn’t have much to offer but psychological help, but that’s better than nothing. Everyone needs a warm friend. I know I do. It’s been hard since Nate left. He just left one day. Usually I never knew if he was coming back. But one time he didn’t. Eventually the landlord came and emptied out the place, and me with it.
The old man told me a story---a long story. I fell asleep for part of it, but I remember a bit. He said he remembers a time when the headlines in the paper read exactly as they do now. He said that was every year. Nothing had changed, he said. People are interested in people he said, so that’s what they write about. And people don’t change. So the stories don’t change, just the names. I’d heard that before.
I finally saw the real city. It wasn’t like what Nate said. There was plenty to eat, especially if you found the right spots. Behind the large house with the red door was one spot. The extras---and there were a lot of extras---went out to the road. Sure you’d have to share with others who’d never had a home, but there was still enough. I never saw food or people go in or out. I don’t know who lived there or where they got it.
There’s less need to get defensive crossing the roads. It was busy, and I remember a lot of carnage. There’s less now. The cars that go by make more noise than they used to. And they smell bad, like when Nate would burn his food.
Nobody takes the trash any more. Sometimes I see smoke where it’s on fire. It smells awful. The rats and mice love it. While that means there’s plenty to eat, they’re still leaner than they used to be. I need to eat three meals before supper to keep hunger away.
Supper is a special time---the only time each day like it was. When the mosquitoes come out we know it’s time. I join the others and head up the hill past the grassy car lot. There are about twenty of us including four big scruffy old dogs, a few small loud dogs, and some cats. We know each other well enough to keep a respectful distance.
There aren’t many like Mariel. Why give me food? She spent years raising those fish. I could catch them myself, but we have an agreement with her. She gives us the fish without asking, and we don’t take what she doesn’t give.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had a job to do other than searching for food. But I found one. I don’t know how, but I found one. I wasn’t even looking for one. I was resting on the bench one day next to the old man, and a big man in a bigger coat approached us. He didn’t say anything---just nodded his head. One look and he knew I didn’t have anything to do. I followed him.
The people in town have set up an arrangement. The store with the biggest car lot had closed just a few years after opening. That was a long time ago. Nobody bothered to do anything with it. When the leaves fell this year, they decided that they would reopen the store, but not to sell food like before. Instead they were going to store food there. It had everything they needed. My job was to help with security. I kept the vermin out and the food in. For it I got a share.
When I was leaving the store yesterday, Mariel approached me. I didn’t know she was one of the Perms. She asked me why I hadn’t come around for supper. I hadn’t been to her house in weeks. The others were new to her, but I was special.
I lived with her years ago. Her house looked out over a large pond that was next to a creek. She had a system that kept the pond alive through the year. I never figured out how it worked. Along the edges otters would gather and catch fish. I always wished I could join them.
She wasn’t one of the Perms. Too cult like, she said. But they grew great squash, and it was nice to eat something other than fish sometimes. She heard they had a good crop this year and were willing to trade. She gave me a small fish. I didn’t deserve it, but I took it anyway.
The siren three days ago startled me. I don’t remember the last time I’d heard it. I guess it was about a year ago. But I’m glad someone is still running it. I don’t know where they get their information. I guess it doesn’t matter.
The storm came fast. The old man and I found a place in the tunnel. They don’t run the train when ice is falling, so we didn’t worry. Five others huddled with us. He piled broken branches at one end, and that cut the wind. The old man lit the rest on fire and that kept us warm. I didn’t know how to manage a fire. It’s good he did.
We’re the exception. There are plenty of houses around, with black smoke coming out of their chimneys. The ice doesn’t have much it can damage; the last few big trees are maintained by the town. I climbed one once, and saw further than I’d ever seen.
There’s nothing better than napping in Central Park. The old man told me that a few years ago the park was a busy road, actually, many roads. But it wasn’t being used enough, so the town never repaved it. Grass and plants started growing, and the Perms suggested that they could make it a park. The town voted, and agreed. They put in grass and plants and fruit trees. The stores that remained started to do better; more people were walking in the town center. And napping, like me.
I like the waterways. From all the low spots there are water paths at eye-level. When the rainwater starts flowing from the buildings, the ram pump helps it to feed the plants. And it’s a nice place to get a drink too.
One day years ago Mariel let me go fishing for the first time. It wasn’t a happy occasion. They had dumped something in a local creek and Mariel heard it was headed towards us. The fish were going to die one way or another. I didn’t like the turbid water but grabbed them as fast as I could.
What if the fish never came back, Mariel asked. The one thing she could count on was those fish. I was eating more than my share already. And a week later the last few fish were washing up. Not just at Mariel’s, but everywhere. She came up with a new system, the one she has now. For a time, it was separate from the pond. The fish were small, too small for the two of us. She had been feeding others as well, but the lines stopped forming. I had to move on.
Autumn doesn’t take any getting used to. Maybe it’s because the world still feels alive. There’s plenty to do and to eat and to watch. The rain isn’t that heavy, so I don’t mind being outside. The Perms get busy in Autumn. I’ve been helping. They start loading the store. The floor inside has been stripped to concrete. It’s better that way. Each freezer is filled with fruit, each bin with squash, each fridge with eggs. When they fill one, they put a label on it. The system works well. They eat from the store all winter. And they trade if they have extra of something. The chipmunks are stuffing their cheeks full, and their burrows. They’re not that different.
I’ve been spending more time at the store. While the concrete keeps the floors cold, the freezers keep some parts warm---warmer than outside. Last week they failed, and some of the food had to be gobbled. The word spread through town and people came. That was when I realized I can’t stay here.
The New Old House
Yesterday the old man was telling me a story, and I fell asleep. When I woke up, a reporter had joined us on the bench. The old man replied that he had heard that the bank had taken back the property. Even the landlord didn’t own it any more. The reporter said that the bank had taken back many houses, even from big people. They didn’t do anything with these houses. They were just empty.
After the reporter left, the old man decided that we’d explore the houses. If nobody is using them, maybe we could. What would anyone do to us if they found us? Probably nothing. Nobody was going to come looking.