From Quonset to Cadillac

Paul Cezanne, Pyramid of Skulls
The five remaining men lived in a Quonset greenhouse, the windows of which were greased black from the smoke of the generators burning outside. They ran the machines for six hours per day. If they didn’t find any more fuel during patrol in the upcoming month, they would scale back their hours on the machine to five per day. And if they lost any more men on patrol, they wouldn’t go out at all, any more. The generators were never run past 6pm, for fear that the light might draw attention from any one of the marauding bands roaming the countryside.

Each of the men had slowly become a prisoner of the habit which had helped him pass his time up until now, and they rarely spoke to each other, because it led to fights. They could fight about anything, from how to tic days off the calendar (some favored an ‘X’, the rest wanted a checkmark), to questioning the reasoning behind even keeping a calendar anymore. There was nothing to look forward to, and if money had lost its value, what the hell was the point of time?

But the men persisted in their isolated illusions, and avoided each other to keep their respective bubbles from popping under the weight of objective scrutiny. Brent and Devin got along the best, and if a reason had to be given as to why they got along so well, it would have to be that their activities kept them outside for the greater part of the day, while the other men remained inside. Brent was a pothead and Devin was a fitness freak. Brent kept his cannabis plants secreted within a patch of waist-high reeds that shielded them from plain view, but not from the sun.

His red eyes and trembling hands were fixed upon a cluster of weeds bent backwards, stomped into the ground by a human foot. It only remained to be seen whether it was a meddler from Fallout (the nickname they had given their shack) or from an outsider, which meant there might be trouble some time in the near-future.

Brent did his best to mat the reeds back into place and walked over to a disused couch with the trundle bed pulled out, a busted cabinet model TV at its foot. He lay down and pulled a hog’s leg from his breast pocket, lighting it with a T-Rat match. He flicked the match-head, reveling in the sulfuric pungency before taking a deep drag, sending out a festive cloud that billowed up and over his shoulder, toward his friend who was doing suicide regimens of close-hand and wide-armed pushups.

Devin’s back flexed, marbleized as he strained his core to hold the position; he coughed as the smoke hit his face. “Goddamn, man. Can’t you do that somewhere else?”

Brent coughed, laughed. “Apologies, man. But you know,” He said, standing, and then walking around the side of the bed, taking a supervisory position over Devin. “This stuff is good for the lactic acid in your muscles.”

Realizing that he would have to budge, Devin merely shook his head, hopped up, and walked off. Brent laughed and continued smoking, thought he heard the first helicopter to break the flat blue plain of the sky in some years; he looked up, saw nothing, and dismissed it as an auditory hallucination brought on by a finely-pollinated and cured strain of the Creeper.

On the other side of the glass panes, reverberating under the strain of the generators, Dallas played video-games on a battery-op TV, while Porter, behind a wall of army rations, read verses from the New Testament, softly and to himself. They were sitting pretty since they had stumbled onto a disused National Guard armory. They had taken what they could that night, loaded it into the bed of the pickup which would die on them a couple of weeks later, and still sat dead on the other side of the greenhouse. They had made off with four M-16s, two crates of spring action 30 round mags, and an ass-load of ammunition.

They hadn’t had cause to use any of it yet, but it gave them all a nice sense of security, a warm and fuzzy feeling to know that they wouldn’t have to make due with only the bolt-action Winchester they had taken from the hands of an old man, whose oxygen tank had failed him where he lay in his trailer, cold and dead underneath the antlered head of a deer he had felled some decades ago.

Carver was the resident Armorer, and at fifty-five he was the oldest man in the group, and the only one who held out any hope of some day being reunited with his estranged family. He could be heard at the other end of the room, fidgeting with his weapons, the click-clack of a receiver sliding back and forth, well-oiled and ready for action, waking one from NBA dreams and another from his Psalms.

The front door opened, bringing with it Devin and Brent. “Din-Din time.” Brent said, under the spell of the munchies. The seated others looked up at him, all with looks of something like resentment. At some level, they all felt he enjoyed living like this, and had probably anticipated the collapse of civilization, as if it was the ultimate form of de-criminalization.

“We need a guard dog.” Devin announced, panting and sweaty. Carver entered the picture, his shoulders covered with slung weapons, missing only a bandolier. “I haven’t seen a living animal in over a year.” He said. “And I don’t think they migrated. Something’s up. If we had to rely on them for food, we’d all be dead. Brent!”

He shouted his name sternly, but Brent was too busy tearing a box of MRES, foraging for his favorite meal, the Burrito Chili-Mac combo. His rifling through the plastic disturbed Porter’s cross-legged liturgy. He looked up. “Do you mind?”

“Not at all.” Brent smiled, and continued digging. Dallas was still catatonic with his video-games. Devin looked from him to Brent, then at Carver, telepathically letting the old man know that he was establishing, via eye-contact, a route between the two weakest links, and that, if it came down to cannibalism any time soon, these two would be the first to go, and whatever parts of their bodies weren’t eaten would join Caroline in the ground, next to where the garden was supposed to have been planted.

“Brent!” The old man shouted again.

Brent turned around, smiling with a mouth full of crumbling pound cake. “Que pasa?”

Carver sighed, then spoke. “How are the crops coming?”

“You want to know how my garden grows?”

Devin, his massive arms crossed in front of his chest, said, “If he can’t smoke it, he won’t grow it.”

That got a small laugh from Dallas, otherwise dead to the world outside of his games. “This is serious.” Carver said. “These rations aren’t going to last us forever.”

“I know.”

“Dallas, turn off those games.” Carver said. Dallas’s mouth was open, and his hands did little ergonomic flickers of muscle memory, the only part of his body which hadn’t yet atrophied.

“Turn it the fuck off.” Devin said. Dallas looked up at Devin, then looked back at the screen. Devin looked at Carver, commiserating. “This is what we waste our electricity on?” The old man could only shrug. So far, midday muster was a disaster. They could usually avoid this because the roster clearly stated who had guard duty when, but Sunday was a wild card and they were supposed to draw straws. Porter was out of the running because he was a Pentecostal and refused to work on Sunday, and they had no desire to fight him on that point, since otherwise he was a good worker, and good on foot patrol. But, if the signs cut at the edge of Brent’s plants were any indication, there was good reason to take guard detail seriously once again. Everyone had been slacking lately.

That was something else they needed to talk about. Devin, the natural leader, sometimes deferred to Carver on the basis of age, but he felt like having his say right now, and would have spoken, if the TV hadn’t interrupted them. And not the TV with the blip-blip, abrasive video game sounds that gave everyone but Dallas a headache, but real TV, the stuff that civilization, helicopters and planes were made of.

The voice coming to them wasn’t necessarily the sanest. It was tinged with an orator’s showmanship, could have been anything from a priest to a president, but it was enough to shut them up. This was first time someone had been on television in at least five years.

The man stood in front of a shaky camera, blinkered in and out on some low-fi satellite feed. “Ladies and Gentlemen.” The man said. He was an old, white haired, red-faced hustler from the Deep South, the last vestige of a society that had sunk as surely as the makers of the pyramids had disappeared. “Although I mean to speak only to the gentlemen, since what I have to say concerns them most.”

Everyone listened. Devin and Brent joined Dallas on the couch. Even Porter came around from the hiding of his mini-monastery. “I know your pain, and I feel your pain, and I want you to know you’re not alone. And that I want you to join me.”

“Bullshit artist.” Devin muttered, but he kept listening. The man was partially hidden by whatever he was selling. Or, since currency had collapsed, bartering. Whatever it was, it was arranged in boxes, stacked in front of the man about chest high.

“Recently,” the man explained, “I requisitioned a batch of a very potent medicine, which cures a problem that ails us all. This commodity is as rare as the sight of the squirrel flitting across a meadow. As rare as a woman. And,” the man stepped from around his stack of modern day snakeskin oil, the shoddy camerawork struggling to track him, “as surely as I will find a woman for myself, I know that I will be ready for her, thanks to this.”

For those too dense for his euphemism (Dallas among them) the man made it plain for all to see what he was selling, as he stood, in spite of his seventy-some years, with a massive erection bulging against his tweed pants, as obscenely sinister as the tongue of the crimson tie bulging underneath his vest, drenched with golden pocket watch. Who the hell dressed like that anymore?

“Gentlemen.” He said, basking in the propulsive weigh of his pride, “if you are receiving this signal, then you are within walking distance of my magic cure-all. I urge any and all interested parties to seek me out under the water tower you see on the horizon, due east, west, north, or south of your present location. I am currently in possession of some five-thousand pills, available for trade. I will entertain offers of trade on any and all items, from the humblest to the most sumptuous.”

The man squinted and hissed, a pained gesture that burst capillaries on his already red face. A hand from off-screen reached out with something, which the old man summarily took in his own hand. The camera shook briefly as the second hand reclaimed it, and the old man balanced on the cane, with a golden talon for him to grip at the top of the staff. “Razorblades, canned goods, livestock, if you have any. And, gentlemen.” He shook his head wistfully. “I would trade my fortune for a woman.” His eyes misted, and he gazed toward the ceiling of the shack where he was broadcasting, as if he were staring upon the face of God. “A woman in any repair. From age twelve to sixty. From the dainty weight of one-hundred pounds, to a fertile queen of more than two-hundred kilograms. Beggars, as they once said, can’t be choosy. And we are all, in these dark times gentlemen, beggars.” The man, lost in the poetry of his own words, shook his head from side to side a few times, then stared off to the side of the screen, where his camera man-cum-cane-lackey said something that was inaudible from this end.

“My colleague here informs me that our battery’s life is near its end. And thus I must conclude this transmission. Be at the Tower, gentlemen, at Nine AM tomorrow morning, with serious inquiries only. And, oh…one more thing.” The man’s paternalistic smarm evaporated so that the hustler’s shell was revealed, total alligator animus. “I can only ask you politely. Do the Christian thing, and don’t attempt to tip the scales in your favor. I shan’t be taken for a ride gentlemen. Attempt to rob me of my goods, and you will find yourself robbed of life. Good day.”

His image disappeared, and video games returned. Dallas continued playing basketball, and the four, slightly closer to sane men looked at each other. They were quiet, but only for a moment. Devin, with his arms still crossed, said, “I don’t need it.”

But they knew it was a lie. The only woman in their collective had been a pretty, independent spirit worth at least three of the lesser men. And she had rebuffed them as deftly as possible, but had finally caved to her own urges, and shortly less than a year after the last of the condoms they had found in what was once a guidance counsellor’s office at the local high-school had been used, she had given birth to Devin’s baby, and died in the process of childbirth.

None of the men had made good midwives, despite their best efforts, first to search the countryside for another woman, and then to attempt to birth the baby on their own. Her cries had almost shattered the glass of the Quonset, but the baby had been silent, and stillborn, and was now buried on top of his mother, next to where Brent now claimed tomatoes were growing.

After she had died, and thoughts and memories of women had drifted from them, their abilities slowly faltered, and had probably abandoned them. They hadn’t tested them in so long. There wasn’t much privacy, and above that, there wasn’t much reason. Now, since it had been so long, any one of them might have been scared to even try, afraid of even their own touch, and terrified to voice the fear. The best any one of them could do was sit with arms folded like Devin, and lie.

Even bible-thumping Porter wanted in on the action, and they huddled until the sun passed over their glass hut, and dipped west, toward the water tower in question. Firstly, it was a matter of personnel. Devin volunteered himself as spearhead, Carver spoke up on the strength of his position as Armorer, which left Porter to bicker with Brent, while the other two began feeding 5.56 mm rounds into magazines, because they had very little to barter or trade, and they needed those pills, even if they were salt peter. A prolonged, guaranteed erection would be more valued than gold, even without a woman. Just to be able to walk with one would give any of the five men a restored sense of pride.

They packed a rucksack with three sets of T-rats, chem lights, and extra ammo. “Don’t kid yourself. You’ve fried your sperm already.” Porter chided.

“There’s no conclusive evidence that marijuana reduces your sperm count.”

“Ha.” Porter scoffed.

“And I wonder what God would have to say about you setting off on a pilgrimage, in search of the ultimate chubby. Somehow not as benevolent as the quest for the holy grail.”

“Be fruitful and multiply.” Porter went over to the arms corner, drew himself an M-16, tapped a pre-loaded mag against the side of his head, and stalked off with the other two, standing in the doorway. Neither one raised an objection, and all three stared back to Brent with harsh eyes.

His mouth was open in disbelief. He was trumped by both age and ability, and probably only now regretted his horticultural specialty. “I can’t believe you’re going to strand me here with Kid Catatonia.”

But they did just that, turning away from him, heading around the side of the house with the trundle bed, over toward the grave, passing Caroline and the unnamed baby. The distance between here and the water tower was flat and unchanging.

They hadn’t bothered to designate a guard between the two that they were leaving behind, to preclude quarrels between them while the men were away, but the bottom line was that they were expendable, and if neither was there when they returned, assuming they made it back, no one would be surprised, and honestly, no one would have cared.

Their minds were elsewhere, on penetrating the growing darkness, their sudden rebuke of the rules they had lived by until now. No patrols after dark. And they didn’t even have a light-source, apart from the chem lights and the lunar white water tower, which had once borne the name of this small town on its face, and now only bore the graffiti of warring factions who had used all their mental energy to scar the superstructure. A black, spray-painted swastika dominated its surface.

Vandalism was constant and rampant, and took on forms that slowly picked apart the sanity of any wayfaring traveler. Signs had been uprooted, changed and swapped from state lines and waypoints, so that Welcome to California signs could be spotted as far east as Arkansas, the result being that no one knew where they were at any time, and the most any one of these three men could say was they were somewhere in the Midwest. It didn’t matter anyway.

They crossed a stream, kept their weapons at the low ready, tried not to wantonly make noise but couldn’t help crunching leaves underfoot as they went. They scanned, abided by a personally worked and reworked system of hand-signals that had seen them in good stead thus far. They had been involved in some minor altercations with a group of bikers active in the area, two of whom they had killed, and one of whom had given Devin a surface wound to the shoulder with his service revolver. That was when they had the one Winchester between them. If they ran into those men again, post National Guard armory, the outcome would be a foregone conclusion, and they would have their own fleet of motorcycles to rove on, sans the indiscriminate sense of destruction those brutal Huns rolled with as their only abiding philosophy.

A couple of clicks out from their destination, and a full sun away from the next day, the men set up a bare bones camp along the backside of a rotting log. Devin shimmied out of the rucksack and threw it between his legs, digging into it for one of the T-Rats, which had probably become Z in the intervening years. The eggs were brown, but he ate them.

Carver stroked his weapon, just outside the trigger well, cobalt and smelling of cordite. Porter bowed his head in grace before taking his share of the food. “You know what I want, more than a woman?” Carver asked, breaking the silence that had lasted most of the hike.

“What’s that?” Devin asked.

“A cigarette.”

“Amen.” Porter said, without a trace of irony. All three men looked up at the stars, pondered the galaxy within the limits of consciousness, since too much spacey thought could lead to dreams, and three slit throats. The stars twinkled like jewels unrelated to the madness below. But maybe, Porter thought, staring, when God had brought the rapture below, he swapped Sirius and Betelgeuse like he swapped California and Arkansas.

Four hours of light sleep later, the three men humped it to within shouting distance of the tower, approaching solemnly, as if a king or a prophet lived there, and it was their job to shout up unanswerable questions, and his job to shout down riddles. There was no spot to recon from, set up and give themselves the advantage until the old man approached, which was Devin’s initial plan, so they stood, waiting. And when their legs hurt, they sat.

While waiting, Porter watched a dark mass some fifty feet away, which he was sure only he saw. But Carver finally said something. “What the hell is that?”

“You see it, too?” Porter asked. They were in the process of getting it confirmed by Devin, a third sounding board who would make the mirage real, when the demands of something sure and moving on the left periphery caught their attention.

“On our nine.” Porter said, warning Devin. “I see it.” He responded. All three weapons shifted. Their potential enemies mustered in the dark, two deep, with a shotgun between them. One of them was a woman, the one not holding the weapon.

Devin looked to Carver. Both were worried. “Shit.” Devin said, giving voice to their fears. If the woman was part of the bargain, they had the upper hand at the negotiating table. But, if they could manage to kill the old man, secure his pills, and overpower this woman’s companion, would she have the misfortune to service them as long as the supply of 5,000 pills lasted? Were they above rape? Devin sometimes thought that the last of his humanity had died with Caroline.

If the woman was reasonable it wouldn’t have to come to rape. Force wouldn’t even have to be insinuated. Her options were brave the plains alone, or select a mate from one of the five, and do what humans had been doing from the dawn of time until now, whatever year it was.

The three men watched the two through their rear-sight apertures, debating whether or not to fire. The couple didn’t see them, and seemed to be fixated on the dark mass in the distance that had occupied everyone’s attention, minutes ago.

It revealed itself when the sun came up, and the heat made it stink, a pyre of dead dogs stranded, stinking quadrupeds wrapped around each other, fetid and matted, grey bristled fur like the hides of sewer rats, or pinkish opossums; it stank badly enough for the woman to keel to her finer sensibilities, and double over vomiting, as the man with the shotgun patted her back. Now would have been a prime time to blast them both, but the men waited.

“What the hell’s that all about?” Carver asked.

“It’s an abomination against God.” Porter said. Devin stared at it, spoke after thinking. “Maybe something they use to scare off intruders. I don’t know.”

An ancient Cadillac, white walls stripping around hubcaps, burst into view on the horizon, and it had to be the old man, an anachronism driving an anachronism. Both groups of strangers walked forward to watch it, beyond the wall of dead dogs, and in doing so came upon each other.

There was a catch of disbelief in each group, a registering of the weariness of battle, a case of hail stranger, well-met, two civilian militias in a world of pirates. “Hello.” Carver said.

“No ingles.” The man said. He wore a long-sleeved flannel and lumberjack overalls, an unseasonable wool hat pulled over his head. His wife wore a wide, Aztec striped Baja, intricate and garish pink patterns tiled across the blanket. She smiled, blankly, her black hair as thick and coarse as horse hair.

Devin watched the woman, but with nothing like lust in his eyes. He seemed to detect something in her that neither of his friends saw. Carver spoke to him, but he didn’t take his eyes off the woman. “You speak any Spanish?”

“A little. Hola.” He said to the couple.

“Hola.” The man said. The woman said nothing. The Cadillac pulled off the road, into clearer view, with the lumbering physics of a hearse, revealing its fishtails in a dusty figure eight before straightening up to show a set of bull’s horns mounted on the hood, and two men riding in the front. The shotgun hopped out first, wearing a cutoff wife-beater and mesh breathing John Deere hat. He took up a firing position on the hood, giving pretty good coverage to two groups spread at a seven-ten stagger. It was red carpet security for the satellite celebrity, none other than the old man, who dowsed the ground with his cane first, before stepping out himself, and walking into the center of the two groups, where he stood and spoke:

“Well,” He began, smiling with dimples that age hadn’t withered. “Never underestimate the power of advertising. Who wants to go first?” He held out the bottom tip of his cane, as gold as the prominent talon he gripped. He pointed to the two Mexicans. “Ah, tu esposa? O no?”

The couple smiled, and he turned to the three men. “Well, boys. Unless you’re sitting on an atom bomb or some super model pussy I’d say you’re about out of luck. Because women are as scarce as mercy in these parts.”

“Lift her wig.” Devin said. “Or her skirt. Either way you cut it, that’s not a woman.” He spoke with certitude. All weapons were lowered, with the exception of the hill jack leaning on the hood, but the Mexican man brought his shotgun up as a retort to the blasphemy of his offering, and he felt the sting of the shot, which hit him full in the face, rotting his skull in a brief elapse. His wife turned to run, and her Baja powdered with red dust on the second shot. The hillbilly spun his weapon back to the three men without missing a beat. All of them were pretty hardened by the times, but none approached this man for sheer, unflinching murder.

“Well, now.” The old, nameless man smiled through the cloud of gun smoke. “Let me just have a gander at her particulars to make sure your statement holds water.” The man sauntered over to the body of the wife, some twenty meters from the husband. He flipped it with his cane, and lifted the Baja, then returned to his sentry in front of the Cadillac. “Well, unless she’s as flat-chested as Susie Plain and Tall I’d say they were trying to take me for a ride. Round eye’s round eye but don’t cut me a porterhouse and call it filet mignon. I thank you kindly for the head’s up.”

Devin nodded, thinking, two more to go, hoping his comrades were thinking the same, but he could feel Porter trembling from here, and knew both of these sadists wouldn’t miss the smallest hint of fear. “So.” The old man said. “Lay your chips on the table, gentlemen.”

“The product first.” Devin said. Carver joined Porter in flinching on that one. The old man reddened, and his boy choked up on his still-hot weapon, but the snakes slithering under the surface of the old man’s skin finally cooled enough for him to say, as he went around to the back of his truck, “Well, every showman’s inclined to demonstrate the efficacy of his product. For all you know I could be selling rat poison. Well, boys…”

They heard him digging, foraging through his car’s hold. He returned a moment later with some knockoff, generic Viagra. He undid the safety cap, displayed one pill between forefinger and thumb. “To health.” He swallowed, turned to his shotgun. “Man alive. That’s hell without water.” He turned back to the three men and smiled. “Now, I should warn you. Don’t take this stuff if you have a heart condition, diabetes, history of stroke in your family.”

His humor was lost on them, but his tactics weren’t. It was a waiting game. The man loosened his brass belt buckle with the state of Texas brandished in a massive oval. “Now, I don’t want you boys to be offended, but none of you are my cup of tea. When you see Mr. Happy stand up and dance, will you, my good friend, be convinced of my product’s effectiveness, finally?”

Devin nodded, but his eyes were on the distant pile of dead dogs. The old man seemed rankled by his lack of reaction, and felt compelled to explain the pile, if only to bring Devin’s attention back to his own powers as a wordsmith.

“My friend here.” The old man nodded toward the double-murderer. “In addition to being handy with a shotgun, is also a creator of objets de arte, if you will. As demonstrated on the caddy.” He tapped the hood, but was almost certainly referring to the bull’s horns. “He intends to build me a shack composed entirely of dog skulls, some time in the near future. These are his raw materials.”

Devin shuddered. This man was making it easy. “So, now that your curiosity is satiated, and we are only moments away from…liftoff, what is your offer? You men seem a little light in the ass, if you’ll pardon the expression. They say to beware of men bearing gifts, but I find it more practical to beware men who come empty handed, that is, say except for three M-16s. Is that your offer? Arms for pills?”

“Something like that.” Devin said, before firing the weapon he had slowly raised by degrees, with enough subtlety to throw off the shotgun until now, the first succinct, close to point blank clap that threw the man of words against the caddy where he was impaled by one of his own bull’s horns. The crony fired, triceps flexing as he absorbed the kick, and Porter went down, right before Carver raised, aimed and fired, hollowing out the man’s right eye and putting an orbit’s worth of brain on the windshield behind him, before he hit the ground.

Both of the remaining men trembled, switched their selector switches back from burst to safety, and slung their weapons. They scanned the immediate area for backup, gagged on the smell coming from the dogs, folded their dead friend’s arms in lieu of a more Christian burial, and went to the trunk, where they found two scotch-tape sealed boxes, a third open and full except for the bottle removed by the old man for demonstration purposes. They left it all in the trunk, because in addition to the shotgun, the Cadillac was now theirs too.

“If we follow the tracks back we can find out where they keep the gas for this thing, and the satellite they broadcasted from in the first place.” Devin said.

Carver nodded, and walked around to the front of the truck, to the spot where the dead old man was laying, and standing up.

Joseph Hirsch was born in Ohio in 1982. His previous credits include 'The White Hole' and 'Instant Ghetto', both published in 3AM Magazine, and he was a finalist in Glimmer Train Magazine's recent Short Story competition. He currently lives in El Paso, Texas, where he is serving out the remainder of his contract with the US Army.

© 2007 Underground Voices