listen to this story
Through the window blinds, Hank eyed the honey locust tree being blown back like a limbo dancer. His folks, watching Everybody Loves Raymond reruns from opposite sides of the couch, didn’t even notice the lights flicker. He knew if the wind decided to have its way and tear the house from the ground, they’d be swept up without ever realizing what hit.
The village tornado sirens sounded just before the house went dark. “Let’s get to the basement,” Hank said.
He hovered over his parents, cell phone lighting their way, as they plodded down the steps, one at a time, hands gripping the rail. “Why are you herding us down here like cattle? Let the Lord’s will be done already,” Mom said.
“Just be careful, Ma.”
They took cover under the stairwell, Mom resting atop the box storing the Christmas tree and Dad, eyes shut, holding himself up by a water pipe. They waited there in silence, ears perked, for permission to go back to their lives or maybe some sign that the world was indeed coming to an end.
When the worst had passed, Hank crept out into the night. “Holy shit,” he uttered. It barely lasted ten minutes, but the storm had rearranged the neighborhood’s unblemished suburban face. Tree limbs were sprawled on lawns like battlefield corpses. The honey locust had been split in two, its better half spread clear across the street. Nelson, the neighbor, stood in his driveway with a flashlight clenched between his teeth, revving up his generator. “I’m guessing we’ll be without power for a couple days at least,” he said.
“A couple days, huh?” Hank made out his parents pressed against the bay window. He raked his hand through his hair. “What am I going to do with them? They’re going to go nuts without TV.”
“This is nothing, man. Count your blessings. I could name you about a hundred worse scenarios that would wipe us all out in a heartbeat. Google it.”
The next day, Hank hid in his work cubicle and researched end-of-the-world predictions. He had his back to his cubemate whose fingers were fumbling between Fantasy Baseball and a box of Popeyes chicken. As it turned out, a modest twister had touched down, missing Hank’s house by only a few miles. Nelson was right, it could have been worse. And it would be, if Hank believed the hype he was reading on the web about December 21st, 2012. It was the last day of a 5,125-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, which many believed marked the end of the world as Man knew it. There were a multitude of fears: the mysterious Twelfth Planet Nibiru colliding with Earth, alignment of the December solstice sun with the Galactic equator triggering massive earthquakes and other global upheaval, solar storms that would pummel the Earth and decimate power grids.
A help request came in from a partner of the firm. “My fucking computer doesn’t work,” it read. Hank’s cubemate turned to him. “You got this one?”
Hank closed the browser. He pointed his middle finger at the back of his cubemate’s office chair as he walked away. He hated the guy. He hated his job, the people he worked for. He hated the fact that he was too afraid to quit.
“What’s the problem?” Hank said when he got to the partner’s office.
“I told you already, didn’t I? My fucking computer doesn’t work.”
On the desk was a picture of his wife on a giant stallion, decked out in equestrian attire. His bookcase was loaded with bestsellers he’d probably bought at airport gift shops. He had a “2007 Top Accountant” trophy that looked like something he’d been given by the kids for Christmas. Hank ducked under the desk and started playing with the cords. When he gave one a light yank it fell into his palm.
“I don’t have time for this shit,” the partner said. “Fuckin’ technology. Damn computers.”
Hank cracked his head on the way up. He plugged the cord in and started the computer. “There we go. Your power cord must’ve popped out.” The partner lifted his gaze from his Blackberry. “And your battery died.”
A guy like this, Hank recognized, with all his worldly might wouldn’t have a chance if the universe decided to attack Earth. That was the thing of it all. As long as the world was intact, this guy could yell at his computer all day long, f’ing this and screwing that, treat hardworking people like dirt, and be considered king. He could go home to his four-car garage and his 1200-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets and kick his dog. But if the world got knocked on its ass, see, he’d be curled up under the wet bar of his 2000-square foot basement wondering where in hell his housekeeper kept the canned tuna. And guys like Hank, with faces resembling the surface of Mercury but brains that rivaled those at NASA, would be the fixers, the saviors. Guys like Hank would be the seeds of humanity’s next great chapter.
Dad’s forehead was pressed against the vision screener. Hank had taken him to the DMV to get his license renewed. It was all the old man had left. He couldn’t work anymore; didn’t have the energy to do house projects. He couldn’t even smoke – doctor’s orders. But he could still drive himself and Mom to the produce store or post office on weekday mornings if he chose.
“Read line four,” the examiner said, a woman probably close to his age with platinum blonde curls and painted fingernails reaching out like a hawk’s talons.
“L, E, P, V…”
The woman shook her head, chin rested in her palm. “No, no, no, no, no. You’re missing all sorts of letters. Try the next line.” And more head-shaking. “Do you wear glasses?”
“He only wears them to read,” Hank interjected.
“Mm hmm. Let’s try again.”
“B, K, Q, S…”
“That’s enough, sir. There’s no way I can pass you today. You’re going to have to come back and take it again. Maybe get your eyes checked in the meantime.”
“Please, ma’am,” Hank said. He felt the collective glare of the mob waiting behind them. “He’s a good driver, trust me. We’ve been sitting here for an hour. The fluorescent lights probably got to him.”
“Sorry, hon. No can do.”
Hank let Dad drive home. His big head hung over the steering wheel. He blew past a stop sign as they weaved out of the strip mall. “They discriminated against me,” Dad said, “I can see perfectly fine. I got all those letters right.”
“I know, Dad, I know.”
“They can’t take away my license just because I’m old. You take away a man’s license, you take away his dignity. Might as well put me underground.”
“You’re right, Dad. I know, you’re right.”
Hank sat under the light bulb in his makeshift basement office, beside a stack of old comics and a case of bottled water. He was working furiously on a new website he’d decided to create – “How to Survive the End of the World.” He envisioned it being a life boat of sorts for people just like him, a modern day ark. The door squeaked open and Mom hollered down the stairs, “Dinner’s ready. Are you coming up?”
“Go ahead without me. I’ll come grab something in a bit.”
Hank worked on his first post about essential survival items. He’d been doing his homework. Humans only needed about 1500 calories a day to live. Canned goods had a short shelf life, maybe a year tops. The best bet for survivalists was freeze-dried, nitrogen-packed food in #10 heavy-duty lined cans. Those suckers could last thirty years, perhaps more. Unfortunately, they were out of most people’s price range, including his. 2500 smackaroos for a one year supply. Yeah, canned goods would have to do: beans, dehydrated potatoes, condensed milk, some fruits and veggies for a little variety.
Hank wasn’t convinced that 12/21/12 was doomsday. But if it was, he wanted to be prepared. If another tornado blew through town, only this time down Hank’s street, he hoped to be ready. If nuclear holocaust broke out, if there was a terrorist-delivered smallpox attack, if an asteroid struck the Earth (actually predicted to happen in 2036), Hank’s plan was to survive. The basement wasn’t an ideal bunker, he knew that. An underground blast-proof shelter was preferable, of course. But he figured the basement was at least a decent option – lots of pipes overhead, a fair amount of ductwork.
“As early as December twenty-first, my friends, there may be nothing left,” he wrote. “And we’ll have to give rise to an entire civilization from scratch.” He added to his growing list: windproof matches, bleach, garden seeds, chicken wire, a can opener.
Hank already had one blogger who “liked” his site: Pam Martin. Her profile picture was a self-take apparently using the bathroom mirror. The camera’s flash exploded across half her face. Hank clicked on the photo. From what he could tell, she looked to be in her early forties like him. She was fairly attractive. Attractive enough, but for the Kate Gosselin hairdo circa ’08. She blogged about coupon clipping – how to be a couponer, coupon lingo, hot links for coupons. Resourceful, Hank appreciated that. She was the kind of woman who’d have a puncher’s chance at weathering a plague. He commented on her blog: “Good stuff, Pam. Any coupons out there for magnesium fire starters or chlorine dioxide water-purification tablets? Lol.”
Hank went back to his site and waited for Pam’s response. He continued with his post: “There are so many different catastrophic scenarios that something is bound to happen eventually. My hope is that this website helps you survive, friends. My hope is that this website saves you.”
Nelson, the neighbor, was a Sales Specialist in Home Depot’s Electrical Department. He’d been bugging Hank to stop by one of his Do-It-Yourself workshops. It finally seemed like the right time. He took Dad along. The workshop was titled, “How to Build a Solar Panel.” Hank sucked in the sawdust-laden air; it made him feel like a man.
Nelson had a pencil behind his ear, his orange apron covered in grease and metal shavings, plywood and pegboard resting on his construction boots. “Today I’m going to show y’all how to build a solar panel that can deliver about sixty watts of power in bright sunlight. In layman’s terms, that’s enough to charge your laptop or run one light bulb.”
“That’s all?” someone said. “How much would it cost me to build enough solar panels to power my whole house?”
“Well, houses vary in size. I’d say anywhere between ten and eighty K.”
Four of the seven people there turned around and disappeared into the hardware aisles. What didn’t escape Hank was that if the end days arrived, the first thing to go would be power. He figured it a good idea to brush up on ways to generate it on his own. He’d been reading about solar energy, not to mention wind turbines, diesel generators, and using stationary bikes to juice up batteries.
Nelson knew his stuff. He’d been an electrician in the Army and had helped Hank and his family with some home projects changing outlets and replacing burnt fuses. He dabbled in other trades too, though, like plumbing and flooring. The guy would a great addition to any survival community.
Nelson screwed the pegboard to the plywood frame. Dad leaned in towards Hank. “Who’s this guy again? I know him.”
“It’s Nelson, Dad.” Hank turned and stared at him, confused. “You know Nelson.”
“Oh yeah, Nelson.” He was silent for a moment. “He’s Aunt Ruth’s friend.”
“No, Dad. Nelson’s our neighbor. He’s lived next door to us for twenty-five years.”
“Hmph.” He nodded his head. “The neighbor.”
Nelson was holding up solar cells and saying something about tabs and polarities and voltage, but Hank lost focus. He watched his dad who was staring off into the distance. The old man was losing his mind. He was losing it and Hank didn’t know what to do.
The lawn was buried under dead leaves. The basement was slowly being buried by survival gear. There were mouse traps, a hand-powered grain mill, sleeping bags, fishing equipment, shovels, toilet paper, a crossbow. Hank’s prized possession was a box of Cuban cigars – Cohibas – that he’d gotten from Dad on his fortieth birthday. There were only eight left because they’d smoked two of them that night. He’d pick the right moment to appreciate them during the end times, when there was reason to celebrate or when all hope was lost or when there was reason to celebrate that all hope was lost.
Hank sat on his computer and played with the wording for a Craigslist ad. He was satisfied with the website, but he wanted to take it further now. He wanted to attract a community of people with various skills and talents who would join together when catastrophe struck. So the ad was intended to generate a little buzz. “Recruiting for a Chicagoland survival community,” he decided on. He kept the exact location secret so as not to be inundated with vagrants when the final days arrived. He already had four followers, although one – Ashish – lived in India.
Hank and Pam Martin, in particular, had grown chummy, commenting back and forth on each other’s sites, exchanging barbs. They had a lot in common: both lived in Chicago, both Virgos, both obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The relationship evolved into phone conversations and what Hank hoped would be more. From the basement headquarters, he called her. “Hey, I was thinking we could get together for the Eve of 12/21/12?”
“Yeah, sure,” Pam said. “That’d be great. We can call it a ‘Doomsday Party.’”
“’Doomsday Party.’ I like that. You never know, right?”
“You never know. Are you going to invite the rest of the group?”
“Yeah, I might. I’ll probably do that. Except for Ashish, of course. We can order some pizzas. You like Salerno’s? If all hell breaks loose, we won’t be having Salerno’s again anytime soon.”
“I love Salerno’s.”
That night, Hank lay in bed thinking about Pam. He fantasized about them becoming lovers when the end of the world arrived, procreating, beginning the next phase of humanity. They would be dirty and sweaty and hardly even have the energy, let alone the privacy, to make love. But they would give in to their carnal desires because they couldn’t hold back any longer and because it was good for Man anyway. He’d wanted to make love to her all along really, since the calamity unfolded, but he was too concerned with keeping himself and the other community members alive. This often happened in high-stress, traumatic situations – individuals fell madly in love with each other. Maybe it was the adrenaline or the high cortisol levels. Hank suspected women would be especially prone to falling for the leader. What he would only come to find out after they’d made love, actually over and over again, was that Pam had wanted him from the start too. That even before the disaster, she’d wanted to be the mother of his children.
Hank paced with his coat pressed to his chest. He chewed on his fingernails. Mom and Dad were sitting out in the lobby. The doctor was scribbling notes down on a chart. “So you think we’re looking at Alzheimer’s?” Hank said. “Dementia?”
“Let’s see how the blood tests and urinalysis come back. We’ll take it from there. Order some brain scans if we have to. Bring in a neurologist.”
Hank leaned back against the exam table; the paper crinkled under him. He looked up at the wall covered in diagrams of swollen prostates, osteoporotic hip bones, arthritic joints. The bleakness of it all was offset by a picture of three happy old ladies doing side-to-side twists with exercise balls. “What can I do to help him?” Hank said. “To fix it?”
“Nothing you can do. Unfortunately your dad’s getting older. Things start to fall apart a bit with age. Nature’s course. Any family around that can help out?”
“No. No one but me.”
The doctor pulled out his pen and jotted something onto a script. He handed it to Hank. “Here, this is the info for a good therapist. It might benefit you to talk to someone. This can be a hard thing to go through.”
Hank put it in his back pocket and shook the doctor’s hand. He thanked him; for what, he wasn’t sure. The guy, with his infinite schooling, could run his tests and slap a name to Dad’s constellation of symptoms. But he couldn’t save him, couldn’t freeze him in time or reverse the effects of his aging. That was the thing with geriatric medicine. The doctor could fill his day with back-to-back appointments, old folks complaining about insomnia and back pain, and maybe he could patch them up, push them back out there to fight the good fight. But in the end he couldn’t save them no matter what he tried.
Hank’s cubemate was playing Tetris on his laptop. He’d just been promoted to Manager. Still, it wasn’t a rash decision Hank was making. He’d been contemplating it for months at least. Only now he finally had the nerve to do it. He cleaned out his desk drawer deciding what to throw out and what office supplies he could potentially find alternate survival uses for. A paperclip, for instance, could be used as an emergency fish hook, a splint for minor toe and finger injuries, or a makeshift antenna for small electronics.
His boss called him down to the office. “You wanted to talk to me?”
Hank had been with the company for a decade-plus, but the job was getting more demanding, not less. Fewer employees, longer hours, emails day and night. He was even starting to get grief about taking time off for his dad’s appointments. It wouldn’t be long before they replaced him with someone younger and cheaper, easier to push around. Do you have any idea who I am? he wanted to tell his boss.
“So what do you need?”
“I’m quitting,” Hank said. “I’m putting in my two weeks.”
“You’re quitting? Why would you do that?”
He thought about it for a second. “I don’t know. I guess because I can.”
On the Eve of December 21st, the forecast called for mild temperatures, light p.m. snow showers, and winds northwest at thirty miles per hour. Nothing Earth-shattering. Hank was nervous, nonetheless. He didn’t even sleep to his alarm. A gamma ray burst, for one, could occur without any warning at all, cooking the atmosphere and destroying the ozone layer. Plus, Hank was anxious to see Pam Martin in person for the first time.
He was in the basement headquarters, setting up some Doomsday Party decorations – confetti and streamers, posters of mushroom clouds, R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” cued up on the stereo – when he got the call.
“Hank? It’s Pam.”
“Pam. Hey, what’s up? Wait ‘til you see these ‘Party Like There’s No To-Maya’ shot glasses I picked up. Hilarious.”
“Look, Hank, I can’t make it over tonight.”
“O – kay.”
“There’s something you should know too. I realize I’m the only female in the community. I don’t know how to say this, so I just will. I’m not capable of having children, Hank. I’m infertile. Which, when we’re talking about continuing humanity, kind of makes me expendable.”
“Yeah, I mean, that’s, you know, whatever, I didn’t think – .”
Hank felt embarrassed, like Pam had somehow infiltrated his secret fantasy. He reminded himself, though, that they were part of a survival community and, as such, each had a special role. Being the only woman, Pam had obviously assumed hers, although she certainly must have had other useful skills. Hank listened while she explained premature ovarian failure and how it left her barren. How her mom had it too, even though she was lucky enough to pop out a kid first. How it was a black mark on her family that she couldn’t manage to avoid. Hank told her that stuff like that happened with no rhyme or reason. That he had male pattern baldness that could be traced to every male relative on his dad’s side dating back to at least the 1800s, though it didn’t seem to provide Pam much solace. She sounded like she was about to cry when she said she’d talk to him later. She told him to have fun with the rest of the group, unaware that nobody else was coming, and hung up the phone.
Hank spent the night alone in the basement. He polished off a liter of Dr. Pepper and a large Hawaiian from Salerno’s on his own. He watched Rocky 4 on basic cable. He hoped that 12/21/12 didn’t mark the end of the world, because it certainly was no way to go out. After the nightly news and the newscasters mocking the notion that this would be Earth’s last day, Hank made his way up to bed and checked in on his parents. He cracked open their door. Mom was resting on her side, mouth ajar, arm hanging over the bed. Beside her, though, the sheets had been pushed away. Hank stepped into the room, opening his eyes wide. Dad wasn’t there. Dad was gone.
He looked around the house – in the bathrooms, the kitchen, the closets – but his dad was nowhere. He checked the doors. The front was unlocked. Hank ran outside. The neighborhood was illuminated by Christmas decorations. He could make out the glow of the television in Nelson’s living room. He considered knocking and asking him for help. Nelson, the Army Vet, the Man’s man, but he decided to keep going on his own. Hank ran down the block and then turned around and got in his car. He crept down the quiet streets, passing nativity scenes, inflatable Santas, and plastic reindeers. Finally, in the distance, Hank saw a figure. It was Dad, near the playground, about three-quarter miles from the house. Hank jumped out and jogged towards him. His dad was in his blue pajamas, his feet bare and white.
“Dad, where are you going? What are you doing out here?”
“I’m going to buy a pack of cigarettes,” he said.
When Hank was just a kid, they’d lived in an apartment in the city. There was a convenient store, Hank recalled, that his dad would walk to every night to pick up his smokes.
“C’mon, Dad, get in the car.” He wrapped his arm around him. “I’m going to take care of you. I’ve got something for you. Just come on with me.”
When they got home, Hank went inside and clomped down to the basement headquarters. He knew what to do. Beneath a pile of tents and maps and mosquito nets, the Cohibas he was saving were tucked away. He took two from the box and headed back up. He slipped his sneakers over Dad’s cold feet and threw his winter coat onto his bony shoulders. They sat outside on the front stoop and Hank gave the cigars a light, Dad’s first.
“Nothing like a good Cohiba, eh Pop?”
He nodded. “Now we just need a little cognac.”
What was left of the honey locust hung over them, its branches reaching down like they were threatening to scoop Hank and Dad up, like they were planning an abduction. Hank drew in a puff of smoke and held it for a minute. He savored the taste – its woody flavor, a hint of vanilla – before opening his lips and letting it out. “Watch this, Dad,” he said. Hank blew smoke rings at the sky, out to space. He blew them at the giant black holes waiting to swallow Planet Earth, at the asteroids preparing to slice through Earth’s atmosphere. He blew smoke rings, small ones then bigger ones, at the next great disaster inevitably on its way.