Mean, Old Bastard
Memorial Park is quiet this morning. Brown leaves, dislodged by the wind, rain down on our heads and crunch beneath our feet. A single jogger huff-puffs towards Will and me, gives us a nod, and carries on. Behind him is Mrs. Bennett and her yappy Pomeranian. Downtown’s skyscrapers fill the landscape on the other side of the Bow River.
“I swear if that little runt tries to pee on my leg again I’ll boot-kick it into the river,” I say.
Will chuckles. “Come on, Jack. You wouldn’t be that cruel.”
“Like hell I wouldn’t.”
“Morning, Mrs. Bennett,” Will says.
She stoops to pick up her dog, walks by without saying hello and gives me an evil stare.
We usually cross the bridge and head downtown for coffee, but today there’s a chill in the air and the wind is picking up. We make a U-turn and head back home.
Will says, “Did you hear another earthquake hit Yellowstone Park this morning? That makes over fifty major quakes in the last month. They say something big is on the way.”
“I heard. Some know-it-all, fear-mongering geologist said we better be prepared, and then something about fault lines and seismic waves.”
“Sounds pretty serious.”
“I’m sick to death of all the doomsday predictions. They’ve been talking about the end of time since the beginning of time.”
We stop at the corner and wait for a guy on a Harley to roar past. He parks down the road behind my Buick.
“Talked to my sister down in Billings. She says the people there are scared to death,” Will says.
“It’ll pass. Always does.”
We pause at my next-door neighbour’s place and take a long look at the Harley.
“That damn biker. He revs the engine on this hog so loudly it makes the dishes in my cupboards rattle,” I say.
“Me, too,” Will says.
“I told him one time to keep the noise down and the jerk flipped me the bird. Maybe I could give it a good hard kick, knock it to the ground.”
Will laughs, slaps me on the back. “I wouldn’t put it past you, Jack.” He takes deep breath and eyes one of the new buildings under construction. “Maybe Barb and I will sell, move into one of those condos.” He points with his head, his hands buried in his pockets. “She doesn’t want me shoveling anymore once winter comes.”
“What about our agreement to never sell out to the developers?”
“She’s afraid I’ll die of a heart attack or something.”
“Remember when this was a nice, quiet neighbourhood, forty years ago, when we were raising kids? Now, all the old places are being bought up and torn down. New condos everywhere. Hammering, sawing and drilling all damn day.”
“Things change, Jack.”
All my memories are in my house. The kids used to spend hours playing in the back yard. They’d come running into the house, yelling their heads off. I’d yell at them for yelling. Annie’s dresses still hang in the closet, nine years after her death. My curling broom sits in the corner by the front door. I haven’t touched it up since the night before she died. She asked me not to go out that night, said she wasn’t feeling well. I told her to go to bed and went out to the Legion with my buddies anyhow, then woke up beside her cold body the next day. If it was possible for a person to die from grief, I’d be dead.
“Talk to you later,” I say, before Will can start complaining about his gout or arthritis. I have my own problems and his yapping gets on my nerves. Besides, Barb probably needs him to wait on her. She’s a cranky old shrew, even when she isn’t laid up with a bum knee. I give him a wave and he walks across the street.
I plunk down on the couch and switch on the noon news. Earthquakes are shaking the ground from Montana down to Utah and Colorado. People’s homes are destroyed. The folks on T.V. are wandering around, looking confused, women screaming and crying. The streets have jagged cracks running down the length of them. They’re loading the wounded onto ambulances and helicopters. Death count is in the hundreds. I feel bad, but there isn’t anything I can do about it. The Red Cross will take care of the people; provide food and shelter and the like.
I put my feet on the coffee table and pick up the brochure from the travel agency. Will has been talking about a trip to Hawaii for the three of us once Barb’s knee is healed. Annie always wanted to go to Hawaii, but I kept putting her off, complaining about the expense.
I toss the brochure aside, switch off the television and recline for a snooze on the couch, but I’m interrupted by the doorbell. A couple of kids from the local school are raising funds for the folks down south.
“The US is a rich country. Let them take care of their own people,” I say, just to get the little buggers off my back. They take off and I poke my head outside. It’s a cloudy, dreary day. After the wind this morning there’s a mess of leaves.
I run the rake across the front lawn. Before long, I’m working up a sweat, but I have a good pile. My kids used to love to jump in my leaf piles, spread the damn things all over the yard after all my hard work. A good smack upside the head put an end to that.
“Jack!” Will is waving frantically at me. He hurries across the street and comes to stand in my doorway. “Jack, did you hear? The worst quake in a thousand years is on its way! They say a volcano could erupt.”
“There’s no way they can predict something like that.”
“Been trying all morning to get a hold of my sister.” He rubs his hand across his stubbly chin.
“She’ll be all right.”
“I’m pretty worried.”
A gust of wind starts a branch knocking against my front window. I think, for the umpteenth time, that I ought to prune the damn thing. “Relax. Calgary’s a thousand kilometers from Yellowstone.”
“I sure wish I could get my sister on the phone.”
“Don’t worry. I’m sure she’s fine.”
“Wish I was as confident as you, Jack. Had lunch yet? Come on over. Barb’s just mixing up some tuna for sandwiches. I’ll put a pot of coffee on.”
“No, no, don’t worry about me.” I leave him standing in my yard and scurry back inside, then peek out my front window and watch the back of his bald head as he crosses the street.
I switch on the six o’clock evening news, a plate of spaghetti on my lap. Sure enough, there’s been a huge volcano eruption at Yellowstone Park. Dust, gas, and ashes are spewing into the air. Thousands more are dead. People are caught in traffic jams trying to high-tail it out of there. They say the ash is being carried by the winds in every direction, including towards Alberta. Air travel all over North America is grounded. The anchorman tells everyone not to panic, but to stay indoors. I lose my appetite and throw my spaghetti in the garbage.
As the evening wears on, flakes of white stuff start falling from the sky, reflecting off the street lights. I don’t pay much attention. It’s not unusual for us to get snow in October, but Will is out there picking the stuff up in his hands. That’s when I realized that it isn’t snow. I remember the Mount St. Helen’s volcano in 1980. Will, that crazy old man, is out there staring up at the sky, his mouth hanging open like he has no idea what’s going on.
My neighbours across the street are throwing suitcases, their kids and dog into the car. I feel like going out and telling them to get back in their house, that they can’t outrun it, but figure, their problem, not mine.
I’m not going anywhere. I gather up wet towels and stuff them all around my doors. Then I plug the vent of my hood fan and go down to the basement. I have a hell of a time pulling the dryer out from the wall. I stuff that vent with wet rags, then do the same in the bathroom and switch on the air purifier.
I have enough food and water to last me a while. Annie used to make fun of me for buying too much stuff. I picked up the habit from my parents. They went through some hard times during the Great Depression.
Will calls, asks if I’m okay. I tell him yes. We agree that everyone should just stay inside until everything settles down. Sirens blare in the distance, somewhere.
“Barb’s having a hard time right now with her asthma,” Will says.
I hear her coughing in the background. “Stop up all the cracks with wet rags.”
I call my kids, Dave and then Meg, but just get busy signals. Neither of the kids have called me in weeks. I wish they wouldn’t ignore the old man, especially now.
Annie used to get after me for not spending enough time with the children. “I’m a working man,” I used to tell her. “When I get home, I’m tired.”
“Soon, it will be too late,” she said.
I didn’t see my kids often after their mother died. They never liked me much anyway. I was the strict one, never much for cuddling. Might have smacked them around from time to time, but my dad was the same with me. Maybe there’s trouble with the phone lines.
The anchorman on the eleven o’clock news says, “Stay indoors. Toxic gasses can burn the lungs and cause respiratory problems.”
Outside my living room window birds drop from the sky. My front lawn is littered with sparrows fluttering around on the ground or lying there with their beaks hanging open. I put my hand over my mouth, remembering stories of how people used to bring canaries into the mines, to see if the air was okay to breathe.
The power goes out. I feel my way to a drawer and pull out a flashlight. I hope the electricity will come back on before all the food in my freezer melts. The house is getting cold without the furnace blowing heat. I put on my winter coat and boots and go down to the furnace room to turn off the gas. My battery powered radio gets nothing but static except for one station transmitting out of Toronto, but it just repeats the same message over and over. “Emergency. Stay tuned for further instructions.” I check my watch -- Midnight.
I don’t want to waste the batteries in my flashlight, so I light a candle and peer out the window. The sky is obliterated. A blur of white swirls into the air and settles again on the ground. Ash is falling thicker than ever. Nothing moves, except for tree branches – tap, tap, tapping, against my window.
I see something, out on the street, can’t be sure, but it looks like Will, coming towards my door, probably attracted by the light. My mother told me that in the old days you’d light a candle for people lost in a snowstorm so they could find their way home. What the hell is he doing outside? He looks bad, stumbling, grabbing at his throat. He has a cloth pressed against his face. He looks at me, tears streaming down his face.
“Let me in, Jack!”
I’m paralyzed. If I open the door, the toxic gas will come in. I shake my head. “No. Go home.” I wave him back.
Will’s face is bright red. His eyes bug out. He takes away the cloth. “Please. It’s Barb.” He points at his house.
I panic, extinguish my candle and huddle in the corner so he can’t see me. It’s foolish of him to be out in this mess. The stupid old man keeps pounding on my door. I’m not letting him in. I’m getting out of this alive. Every man for himself! The pounding stops. Good, he’s gone home. I hope no one else comes knocking – wanting to eat my food and breathe my air.
Minutes later, I’m still cowering in the corner. Can’t stop trembling, like a dog that’s been kicked. I wish someone would come soon and rescue me. I struggle to my feet and peek out the window. There’s Will, face down on my front porch. He’s not moving.
I pin my arms across my stomach. What have I done?
Hours pass. I sit on the floor eating out of my fridge. I eat three oranges and half a loaf of bread with peanut butter. I finish a carton of yogurt, but barely taste it. I can’t seem to stop. I’m as jumpy as a nervous poodle, listening to the creaking house. If Will was here we could’ve waited it out together. His chatter would’ve been a distraction.
I smell sulfur, like when Annie and I went to the hot springs in Banff, so I make a face-mask out of a tea towel.
I hear tapping. “Will!” Maybe he’s okay and wants to come in. I run to the window, but I’m a fool. It’s just that damn branch knocking against my window again.
My eyes burn. I sit down at the kitchen table, same one since the day Annie and I got married, a present from her parents. She called me a cheapskate because I wouldn’t ever buy a new one.
I wander from room to room, feeling my way – the couch that Annie and I bought together, the wood carvings she picked up from a market down in Medicine Hat, pictures of the family on the bookshelves. My hand tips one and it falls to the ground and smashes. My fingertips skim the hallway walls until I get to the bedroom. The dresser, where her clothes are still neatly folded. The bed, where we made love. I sit down, my heart pounding.
I think about Will, dead on my porch. He was a good guy, first one to greet Annie and me when we moved into the neighbourhood. We had some good times, sitting on the front porch with cold beers, sharing a few laughs. He and Barb took care of me when I went through that rough patch after Annie died. They brought me food and kept me company. I knew him over forty years. I keep thinking about his face just before he died, the way he looked at me like he couldn’t believe I wouldn’t help him. He was the only friend I had in the world.
My nostrils sting. I cough until I retch. Will, it killed fast, me, it’s taking it’s time. My eyes hurt so bad I want to gouge them out of my head. My lungs are on fire. I lay flat on the bed in my coat and boots and wait for death. Maybe I should step outside, take a deep breath and get it over with. I should pray, but I don’t know how. I see their faces in my mind; Annie, Will, Dave and Meg.
I never thought I’d live. I wake up still wearing my winter coat and boots. The air smells cleaner. Must have been the strong west winds that blew the fumes away. To be honest, I can’t help but feel disappointed that I didn’t die. My head pounds like a bad hangover, the effect of breathing semi-poisonous fumes all night. I take a swig of water to try to wash the ache from my throat.
An explosion shakes the house. All the windows in my place shatter and books spill from my shelf. “Damn!” Someone didn’t turn off the gas in their house. My ears are ringing.
I must get out of here! I jump out of bed and run to the front window. Flames shoot into the sky, eating up Will’s house. Sparks fly to the roof of the house next door and it starts on fire, too. I hear screams and crane my neck to the left and right looking for any signs of life. Not a blessed soul to be seen outside except for Will. He lies on my porch, completely covered in white ash, like a napping snowman.
I run around the house, filling shopping bags with food, flashlight, a blanket and an extra set of clothes. As I step into the backyard flames lick my roof. Volcanic ash puffs up in front of me with every step. I’m out the back gate and down the back alley, away from the fire, as fast as I can go.
Flames burst from rooftops, lighting up the autumn night. My neighbours and I scramble towards the river, coughing and gasping while the furious fire leaps from house to house. Black smoke masks the moon and stars. Intense heat burns my face and singes my hair.
I’m in decent shape, for an old guy. Other people run too, including a lady with two kids, still in their pajamas, and a young couple, hand in hand. Everyone’s skin has an eerie, red glow from the fire. I nearly trip over some old gal who has fallen on the sidewalk. It’s Mrs. Bennett. The Pomeranian is limp in her arms.
She reaches out her hand to me. “Help.”
My arms are full so I step over her and keep running. All the scurrying feet stir up the thick ash, making me cough, so I wrap my scarf around my face. The whole herd of us stampede towards Memorial Park, elbowing and nudging each other down the paths next to the Bow River.
My house is nothing but a pile of ash. I spend my days tramping around this God-forsaken city looking for something to eat and avoiding the gangs. At night, I try to find some place warm, or at least out of the wind, to curl up for a few hours.
I’m hungry. There should be lots of food and supplies to go around with the reduced population, but gangs bully us oldsters and hoard whatever they can get their hands on. The best of everything goes to the young. Young people say that fogies like me take up space and valuable resources; that they’re the ones who must re-build the country.
Sometimes I get lucky and find a few items remaining in the burnt-out shells of houses – or shops like Walmart and Safeway. I struggle each day to survive. Abundance of food is only a vague memory for me. I can’t just jump in my car and drive down to the grocery store like before. I drink straight from the river, pounding a hole in the ice with a rock. At night, I try to find an abandoned house, someplace warmer than out in the open. I scrounge for food, blankets, anything I can find. Usually, the gangs steal everything. I let them take it. If I resist, they beat me up.
I wish I knew what’s going on in the world. No radio, television, nothing. With no electricity, it’s black as death at night. I sold my flashlight a while back, traded it for food. I have no more candles.
Mostly, it’s just way too quiet. Funny how I miss the same things I used to complain about – kids screaming, construction, and that jerk down the street with his Harley. I miss fresh fruit, vegetables, bread and meat. I miss Annie’s cooking. She used to make roast pork with mashed potatoes, baby carrots and lemon meringue pie for dessert. I can almost taste it.
I have nothing left but regrets. It’s a wonder Annie put up with me all those years. I should have been a better husband to the sweetest woman on Earth. She died because of me. I should have let Will in, wouldn’t have made a difference. I’m just a mean, old bastard.
Hell, I can’t think too much of my old life, just gets me depressed. I’ll head down to Safeway when it gets dark and see if I can sneak past the guards or find one who’s feeling generous. If you have something to trade, like work, goods, or sex, you can manage. That’s why I’m so hungry.
Night’s coming and the temperature is dropping. I find a place out of the wind, gather some wood, start a small fire and hope it doesn’t attract the gangs. I open my last can of food and place it on the hot coals to heat it up. I’m looking forward to a few hours’ sleep.
From behind the trees a skinny old lady appears, her hair sticking up like a crow’s nest. “Hey, Jack, can you spare a bite for a starving woman?” She’s using a branch like a cane.
I invite her to sit down.
She plops down beside me on the log with an “Oomph.”
“That’s me. Call me Mag.” She pulls a spoon from her pocket, and we share the can of vegetable beef soup.
“What’s the date?” Mag asks. Steam puffs from her mouth as she talks.
“Can’t say for sure. The days are getting longer, though.”
“Perhaps folks can get a few crops in the ground once spring comes and then the hoarding and bullying will stop,” she says.
“Maybe. All we have left is hope.”
She pulls a blanket from her pack and wraps it around both our shoulders.