March 9, 2013 by bradcharlesbeals
“What are you doin honey?” asks my wife.
“Writing a novel,” I answer.
“Ok,” says my wife.
Happily for all, that on-going, two-year-long conversation has come to an end. The novel’s done, edited and proofed, and in paperback form (hardcover can wait until my energy returns–back-flap blurb, front-flap matter, I just can’t think about it right now).
The images to the right are all live links. I believe Amazon Prime loans all 3 ebooks for free.
Here’s the Amazon description, followed by the first two chapters. You read. I’ll go take a nap…
Poor Josiah. Poor, filthy, illiterate Josiah Mench. Not even Liam, the closest thing he has to a friend, can stand to be near him. But friendship of any kind becomes a matter of survival when pandemic tears the world to pieces. Now, the survivors–children here and there, untouched by the plague–must hang together or die.
Catastropolis is a book of endings. When a single generation is lost, the structures of society fail–utterly, maybe forever. But there are beginnings too, visions of what life in a new future might hold for those willing to fight for it.
It is here in this new, primitive age that Josiah finds his voice, and a new people find a prophet to lead them out of the wilderness. But it is also here that heaven and hell will contend for them first.
My neighbors see this work as a chartered undertaking, a sanctioned effort. They want to be a part of it, and rightly so, for this is their story. So at all opportunities they encourage me with helpful offerings. I try to accept them with grace.
Dori Kelso’s funeral last week brought me this: Max Gailey whispering in one ear that I must remember the corn blight of ’28, his grandson in the other that I must not forget the tornados that took houses on three straight days in September of ’42. Three straight days!
Noah Street, who boards our cow and delivers our milk in the morning, is a walking catalogue of obituaries filed by year and cause of death. His wife, who accompanies him on alternate days, manages the births, and from them both I receive faded bulletins at no fee.
Even the children bring me scraps of history, some stretched in the telling of their elders beyond all recognition. At these I smile and say, “A tale for your own hearth maybe.”
Be it calamity or bounty, war or truce, signs in the heavens or signs at our feet, all of it, according to my neighbors, is to have a place in this chronicle. And yet, as broadly cast as the fragments are, there is one memory that recurs in us, in all of us from that first generation. At the conclusion of an interview or following a relived bygone that simply must have its own chapter, my New Alaiedon neighbor will go wistful and nostalgic, or steely-eyed and amazed, and he’ll remember him. He may share a story, or he may go quiet for a time at the recollection. Sometimes a hand will rise of its own impulse and touch lightly the forehead, as if in blessing. But eventually, they’ll all say something like, “And of course you’ll have to tell them about Josiah. Josiah Mench, I mean.”
“Naturally,” I will reply. “We would have no story at all without Josiah Mench.”
He liked to say that the new age was about living life in the vertical. As this history unfolds you’ll see what he meant by that. But as I commence to writing, I’m struck by a different kind of vertical life. All that we own makes a claim on us, and we have been constrained to tie ourselves to fewer things. We have learned to pull things in more closely to us, to fill up the open spaces high on walls and above our heads so that we are hemmed in by shelf and hook. This cutting away is partly a function of necessity—we have so little time for extravagance—but it is more a reflection of who we’ve become. Our grip on lesser things has grown loose.
The room I sit in now demonstrates this. It is small in dimension—14’ by 18’ between the walls—but weighty in content. In the old age, we called it the reading room, though today it would shrug off such a name as deficient, for while we do read in it, we also conduct most of regular life here as well.
At my elbow, on the small desk on which I write stands a lamp burning tallow wicks. It gives off a messy light and black-ens the stone above it, but beeswax was hard to come by this season, the gatherer falling to rabies summer last. There’s an opportunity there if one of the young ones would take it up. My grandson Henry comes to mind. Perhaps I’ll bring it up with his father.
I sit before the west wall, and from it hangs the kitchen gear. Early on in the time after, a pine tree came through it during a windstorm. We patched it as good as we knew how, but it made for a drafty winter. So the following spring we added a stone-and-mortar wall on the inside, and it’s served just fine. It also fit well with the rest of the house’s rambling character, at least until the fire came.
The wall on my right is shelved in all manner of plank, added through the years as need arose. One shelf holds a rank of Calvin commentaries; another boxes of patches, caps, a tin of black pow-der and a jar of 30 cal’ balls for squirrel and rabbit. The one below it holds bundles of traps, greased and wrapped in linen. The rest of the shelves are loaded well but without scheme, and it strikes me as I look it over that I’ve little here I would term junk, that parting with any of it might have real consequences to qual-ity of life.
But cluttered is the wrong image if that’s the one I’ve painted. It’s a well-packed space with no idle surfaces. It’s not cluttered. Some of us have had problems with that (Davey Alvoord comes to mind) with grabbing hold of anything that might one day serve the smallest purpose. But early on, the wiser among us found that such ways don’t serve or guide, though they promise both.
It’d been an old school house once, dragged behind oxen on a great sledge to this very spot from two miles off. The family who moved it added rooms in stages until it was twice its size and then some, the new subsuming the old, though not very con-vincingly, as the result was a house with a joint in its middle, like a thickness over healed bone. The effect of old and new together was a nooked and cornered jumble of odd spaces.
A dozen years into the new age, lightning struck the big maple on the east. It stood dead and dry (our mule Antigone had girdled it out of a general malice toward living things), so it went up like a torch. In its burning, it lay over and spread the fire to the house. A rainstorm followed the lightning and slowed the destruction enough that we could douse it from the inside, but not before most of the newer parts of the house were gone. We live in the old now, the original eastern walls again clad in cedar as they might have been in their school-house days.
At the commencement of this writing, I search the space around me for inspiration. I am looking for a starting point when, on a high shelf over a closet door, my gaze lingers. And then it is caught. The shelf holds an odd-and-end assortment of books, but squeezed between Owen’s Mortification of Sin and Malgainge’s Operative Surgery is a slim chip of plastic and metal, a music player, the engineering of which is a kind of magic to us now. It seems a dream to me as I think back on it, but I tell the truth—there was a time when I could push a button and listen to entire bands performing, full orchestras, hours of music whenever I chose. It was a freedom in leisure that has no counterpart today.
I hold it under the shifting light and wipe the dust from the screen. As far as I know, the songs are still in there, locked away. I run my thumb around the little circle beneath, feel the faint clicks within. The ear pieces for listening are long gone, but absent-mindedly I put it next to my head. It’s not made a sound these fifty years. What does come is a long parade of memories. I stare down the line of them, but none is the starting point I’m looking for. I watch my thumb spin round the little wheel and try to picture what might have scrolled down. Nothing but old and wispy images arise, and each sits squarely in the old life, in the time before. There is no bridge between the ages, as I had hoped there might be.
But then I see the black beneath my nail, and a memory does come to me. I think of Josiah Mench’s father whose palm creases and fingernails were permanently lined with motor oil. Then I think of the trailer and the possum, the window and the bubbling blood on his lips. Then I remember that he was the first I’d ever seen, the first of thousands.
I knew it would end with Josiah. It makes sense that it should start with him too. I should have thought of that. I should have listened to my old neighbors from the beginning, that I must remember Josiah Mench.
It’s been cold the last weeks, but this night a warm wind pushes the frost right out. Great clumps of damp snow are falling, hitting the drive and the porch roof like lobbed snow balls. I stand at the window and watch it, not thinking real hard, and half wondering at how strange the sight is. Just as I realize it’s snow being blown from the pines that tower over our house, Josiah’s face, white and surprised, is there in the window. I let out a shriek.
“What’s wrong with you?” asks Mom. She is in her usual winter spot, on the floor by the woodstove reading a book.
“It’s Jo. He scared me.”
“Jo Mench? Outside?”
“Well let him in.”
I open the door and stand aside to let him know he’s invited in. Mom waves to him and runs upstairs to put on a robe. He wears a heavy flannel jacket, and as he stands next to the stove, the snow on his shoulders and sleeves begins to melt. The coat warms and gives off a stench of cigarettes and sour sweat. He was never clean, and wasn’t encouraged in such things at home. But Mom always acted like she didn’t notice, like he was just a neighbor. Mom also thought Jo was some kind of genius.
“You’re whiter than usual, Josiah,” she says as she takes up a spot by the heat. “What’s wrong?”
“Dad’s sick,” he answers and pushes a lock of slick, brown hair out of his eyes. Though we were born just a week apart, he is shorter than me by a head, and lighter than my little brother.
Mom looks him over for a moment and seems stuck for words. “Sick how?” She asks, finally. “Sick like last year, maybe?”
“No, not like that. Worse this time. There’s something ain’t right, Miss Taylor. He don’t talk right. And he’s bleedin…”
“Bleeding where? Is he hurt?” She takes a step back and looks up at the ceiling like she’s checking for cobwebs. “How much blood?” she says to the ceiling.
“All over, Miss Taylor. Blood comin out… from every…Not a lot though, it’s thin, like…like…”
“Like sweat,” says Mom.
“Yeah, like sweat.”
Mom smiles quickly at us both and steps into the kitchen. I stand next to him but am listening hard to what’s happening in the next room. No sound comes, and I know then that she is crying or praying. I know now that she was also struggling with whether to go with Jo or to send him back alone with an armload of gauze and pain killer. She goes of course. She tells me to stay back, to watch the littles, but I don’t stay back either.
Jo lives with his dad in a trailer on Dobie Lake. It’s not more than a quarter mile away, but there are only the deer trails to follow, so it’s slow walking. I hold back just far enough to keep them in view, which isn’t hard. I can see them against the snow, and the westerly wind covers the sound of my walking.
At the trailer, I stand on an empty dog house, just out of the window light. I can see into the bedroom but the window is small. I get glimpses of Mom and Jo worrying over the old man, moving from one part of the trailer back to the bedroom. Occa-sionally, I hear Mom give a command to Jo, who runs down the narrow hall, his feet thumping like he’s in a race.
It is warm for January but still pretty cold for standing stock still in the wind. I decide I want to see Mr. Mench, so I climb down from the dog house and move a 5-gallon pale to the window. I come at an angle so I can see the back corner of the room, and so Mom won’t see me. His head is turned to the wall away from me, and Mom is just taking a wet rag from his head. I can see her arms.
He turns over. His face looks like someone has wiped wine over it, and his pillow is splotched with pink as if his sweat is bloodied. His eyes are pointed at me, but are unfixed, like they’re not plugged in to the seeing part of his brain. They go big for a moment, then close.
Just then, the lit eyes of a possum come around the front of the trailer, and I catch myself from yelling out. It waddles through the yard, sniffs at the dog house, and is gone. I look into the window again and can now see blood on Mr. Mench’s lips—dark, thick blood, like engine oil. There are just bubbles of it at first. Then there is more. He opens his eyes wide, and the black blood rises up thick from his open mouth, falls like a solid thing to the floor.
His body goes stiff and jerks hard on the bed. I have a gloved hand against the trailer for balance against the wind. I can feel the vibration of his shaking, and I pull my hand away like I’ve touched a live wire. When he does finally go still, Mom’s hands reach for his head, but I don’t know what she does with it. I am off the bucket and running home by then.
The dying is here now. It won’t stay in the cities or pass us by as we thought it might, and there is nothing left to do but to watch it take whomever it will. It will take us all, just about. And with it comes a fear. Not the fear of death or even of the dying part of death, but a fear without shape or name, as big and as fixed as the sky.