Coming around after a night like that (like what?) is neither waking up nor regaining consciousness. You’re not really awake, your consciousness is buffering at best, and let’s not even talk about the senses: the eyes that can’t see because the light pains them, the nose rendered useless from all its mucus, the ears hearing nothing but the inner groans and whimpers of your body somewhere (where are you?), the dry tongue a gutted chub on a shore, swollen from breathing through your mouth all night, snoring. Your snoring makes her feel so pissed off at you, sharp elbows in the middle of the back all night despite your being unconscious when you do it.
You are diagonal. Going diagonal: that’s what she calls taking over the whole bed as soon as you get up in the morning to take a piss, making sure you don’t sneak back in, which means the heat will be turned on, NPR on, that the roar of the grinder will foreshadow caffeinated bliss coming her way. It’s seldom you are diagonal in this way.
You swallow, and it’s like those sphincter doors on spaceships that close with a click. You try to summon some spittle but all of your moisture seems to be elsewhere in your body. Muscle memory takes over and you succeed in shakily moving, tendons a-creak. Your arm drops off the side of the bed in search of a seltzer bottle that exists there most nights. No such luck this time.
Head pain makes itself known to you: not a throb or a pierce but a sizzle. You gag on something, try to swallow it, gag again. You open your eyes and the sizzle goes shhhhhhhh, like static. You do a horizontal pull-up to look over the edge of the bed and see a liter bottle of Pepsi Light lying empty on its side. Pepsi Light hasn’t been its contents for at least six months, since you came back from Bosnia. It’s the bottle you smuggled your dad’s homemade slivovitz in.
You would call her name but you can’t with this throat. Keeping low to the bed you swing your legs to the hardwood floor, launch yourself through the doorway and use your lizard brain to avoid the familiar obstacles and find the passageways. You thud across the house to the kitchen sink, turn the first available knob on the faucet, cup your hand, and gobble. The water is cold at first, then tepid, then lukewarm, and you remember your elementary school teacher in Bosnia saying if you put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly bring that water to a boil the frog will let itself be boiled because it’s not very good at detecting incremental changes in its surroundings. This horrified you as a kid, this notion that something can be all around you, killing you, something you could get yourself out of if you could perceive its presence, yet you have no apparatus to do that. You think you’re fine because your eyes can’t see it, your nose can’t sense it, your . . . and then your throat yelps. You pull your face from the faucet just before the scalding water gets you.
Swallowing still proves a problem.
You look through the window to the world outside. Next door is the pale yellow house of a widowed psychiatry nurse who keeps to herself, wears nothing but pastel scrubs, doesn’t say hello unless she’s cornered and even then only mumbles about the weather, mooning over sunshine and bitching about the drizzle—mostly doing the latter as you live in Portland, Oregon. A terra-cotta pot with some leaves coming out of it is overturned next to her basement window.
Your white pickup is parked a little down the driveway and its wheels and undercarriage are so muddy that a thought collapses in your mind with the ferocity of God making himself known to a sinner.
Your wife is dead.
Your eyes burn at once. The water you just drank has not yet been distributed to your tear ducts but they keep shooting their blanks, inflaming the tissue. She’s dea . . .
You’re on the floor now, in head pain. You’ve never seen the kitchen from this angle, in these colors. You’re sure she’s dead, but you don’t know how. You don’t remember how you can be sure.
You remember last night (or was it the night before?) reaching into the cabinet over the refrigerator to grab the special-occasion slivovitz—not because it was a special occasion but because it was bigger than the other bottles? Because it was the only one full?
You remember driving through a dead city, windshield wipers windshield-wiping on the highest setting.
You remember the emergency room, the carpet of its seating area and the tiles in the area where gurneys go to and fro, gurneys from which blood may fall to the floor, because bleed is what people on gurneys tend to do. You sat looking at your balled up hands, your dirty white socks farther down on the carpet. Before you’d stepped on the carpet you’d taken off your mud-caked hiking boots and left them on the tiles. Never understood how Americans can walk around their houses with shoes on—over carpets, rugs, furry dead animal skins. It’s way easier to clean the tiles or take your shoes off. Also, in Bosnia it’s a custom, a sign of respect.
All night a clock on the wall had its hands spread-eagled, cutting its face in half, or shamelessly on top of each other, becoming one in the act of coitus, or in some other precarious position, and the cans of soda clanged and tumbled out of colorful machines when people pressed buttons, and nurses called out and mangled strange last names and families corresponding to them rushed to the doors.
—She’s still critical, the doctor said, and you thought he meant critical of you.
You remember how peculiar the chopper looked up above, how strident and formidable at eye level, how viscerally it hovered, dismissing the powers of everything around it, even the planet, and how quickly it became just a buzzing insect on the horizon above the gorge, taking her away. You were sitting in the mud on the side of the trail and the rangers in olive green uniforms kept saying all these A words like airlift and affirmative and accident.
You remember a gasp, a sharp, tinny intake of air. You remember a flash of white to your left, black atop the white. You remember the blur of her being erased by the cliff’s edge. The smudge of her.
You remember your crisp, outstretched hand.
Your powerless outstretched hand, reaching.
You lift your head off the floor but it resists as if it had shot forth minute roots into the grouting between the tiles. When you’re on all fours you see a starfish of blood staining the floor. Shhhhhhh, goes your head. Finally you stand, hug a bowl of fruit from the table, pick it up. In the fridge is a six-pack of Safeway seltzer. You pick that up too.
Back in bed you stare at her mid-century walnut dresser, the neatly stacked pillars of folded clothes atop it, and you eat five apples, stem and core and all. You’ve always done the laundry, folded her tank tops with the tank tops, sweaters with the sweaters, balled up her socks. You even folded her underwear, and the only thing you refused to learn was where they go in the dresser. You felt she should do at least part of the job. Now, like always, she’ll never manage to put her shit away.
Tears finally streak down your cheeks.
From your nightstand drawer, you take a box of Lexaurin, something else you smuggled from Bosnia, because there one can purchase it without a prescription. Bromazapem, six milligrams, thirty tablets. You always took a quarter when you had a panic attack or shot awake after that recurring nightmare you started having when you immigrated at eighteen. It’s a sunny, bird-chirping day in Portland, and you hail a cab, get in, and a black cabbie asks you where, and you say home, and he starts down the hill, puts on a blinker, then makes a right into wartime Albin Herljevic street in Tuzla, and the sirens are shredding the night, and metallic explosions crescendo in your direction, and the cabbie is going Go, go, go.
You take a whole six-milligram pill with a can of seltzer water and go diagonal.
You come around, and this time the knowledge is immediate. You spread yourself all over the bed. The cool parts of the bed feel good on your hot skin. It makes you feel guilty, forlorn. Running your hand under her pillow you touch something squishy—a neon green earplug of hers. You bring it to your face, looking for a remnant of her: a bit of earwax, a flake of dandruff. You smell it. It smells like foam.
You’re now very determined to find a piece of her and you start digging through the sheets until you come up with three long black hairs. You arrange them on her pillow according to size. It’s something.
Somebody waddles by the window, darkening the closed curtains, which are . . . one of those in-between colors you don’t know the word for yet but which she’s so fond of . . . was so fond of. Whoever it is shushes through the plants, scratches the wall, then stops. Mailman? Why is he not using the path?
You scooch up and peer through the curtains. He’s gone now and your street is dead, as usual. The sky is homogeneously gray. In the house across the street a shadow keeps popping up and vanishing from the bottom of the dining room window, the only perceivable movement out there.
The neighbor’s native plant garden is immaculate. You look at the weedy, overgrown clusterfuck that is your own front yard and remember how you gave up a perfectly priced and perfectly placed apartment in northwest Portland because she wanted a house, a yard to plant vegetables in, an outside barbecue area, some currant plants and a thornless blackberry bush to remind her of home.
You decide you need a shower. You jump up and instantly swoon. You touch the crusty back of your head and feel your heartbeat in there, hear it. Slowly, you inch to the end of the hallway, scraping the wall with your shoulder like a movie drug addict and rattle down the hallway to the bathroom.
You dare not look in the mirror, just take off your pungent clothes and step into the . . . inside-of-an-avocado green tub. Water comes out cold, and you put your head under the current. You try to figure out the color of the water streaming off you. What do you get when you mix pink-lemonade bloody water with inside-of-an-avocado green tub? Is there a word for that mix? You wouldn’t put it past this crazy language.
You don’t use the shampoo, nor the conditioner, nor the soap. You don’t shave, you don’t put that fancy Moroccan oil in your hair, you don’t brush your teeth or put on deodorant, because . . . she’s dead.
You do take a piss. It’s dark and incendiary coming out, like you’re trying to piss wood glue.
You towel off in the bedroom and put on the first thing out of each drawer. In your sock and underwear drawer, you find a rock—smooth but irregularly shaped, bigger than a fist, gunmetal gray with a white line around its equator. You pick it up. Gunmetal gray? How did you come up with gunmetal gray? This rock must hold some significance, because it resides with your unmentionables next to an old bag of weed. You try to remember but can’t. You put it in the empty fruit bowl on the nightstand. You’re starving.
When you look in the fridge, there’s just condiments: an array of partially eaten jars of mustards, chutneys, relishes, ajvars, bottles of ponzu, soy, hoisin, blackbean, oyster sauces she used two tablespoons of for a recipe years ago and never touched again, bunches of cilantro and mint and fresh thyme, and nothing to put it all on. Cheese drawer is full of little building blocks of hardened cheese rinds she was saving to put in a risotto, which neither of you had had in years because of the carbs in the rice.
A white cloud transpires from the freezer when you open it. When the cloud dissipates you see unmarked bags of ancient leftovers. The only thing you recognize is a big Ziploc bag full of Dungeness crab shells and a smaller one of shrimp shells.
Seafood risotto sounds yummy to you now.
You empty the shrimp bag into a stockpot. The crab shells you dump on a big kitchen towel, wrap them in it, then shatter them into shards with the dull edge of a meat cleaver (you’ve learned lots of tricks from her along the way). Into the stockpot they go, and you start filling it with cold water. You stare out as you wait.
The psychiatry nurse’s back screen door screeches open, bangs shut. She . . . hobbles out into her backyard, stands between her compost and recycling bins with her back to you, stiffly. She raises her right arm, then lurches farther out into the yard, disappears behind the corner of your adjoining garages. What the fuck is she doing?
You wait for her to reemerge but your stockpot is now full. You carry it to the stove and light up the gas.
—It’ll charcoal anything on medium, let alone on high. She loved in the beginning to use nouns as verbs to confuse you. Then you’d ineptly do the same at a party and the Americans would nod and politely smile, not wanting to hurt your immigrant feelings.
Something about what you saw moments ago from the sink window seemed off. You look again. The nurse is still meandering about her yard, doing God knows what. She’s rustling, groaning. Then you realize the sky above her house is darker than above the house across the street. You walk to the nook to see it from another angle. It’s not a dark cloud. Something is burning in the distance. A trail of smoke leads to its origin. You don’t remember hearing sirens.
You flip on the radio and it screeches and whirs, in need of an exorcism. Emergency broadcast system. You know you should be alarmed, but there’s an instant calm about you. Whatever it is it can’t be worse than the war years in the motherland. Anything can be survived.
You walk across the living room, open the curtains, and survey the street. That same movement in the dining room of the house across the street persists. Maybe Tim or Diane or one of the kids is reading in their rocking chair.
—Worrying is like rocking in a rocking chair, your wife used to say. It won’t get you anywhere. Pure Beckett that. That coming from the woman incapable of turning off her brain to sleep or make love, lest, God forbid, she lost control over what was real to her.
You decide to step outside and are greeted with a faint odor of burning wood. Winter is here but not cold enough for fireplaces yet. Through the trees in various stages of striptease you see that something for sure is burning out there, something big.
You look at the yawning metal mailbox affixed to the wall by the front door, put your hand inside it to confirm what your eyes and brain are telling you already: that even though you heard and saw the mailman’s shadow come, no mail is there. Your head starts to sizzle a bit.
You walk down to the street in your socks, looking up and down it. Red, brown, yellow leaves cover the asphalt, the roofs and hoods of neutrally painted sedans; they pepper the green lawns, swim around pothole ponds. Everything looks cold and clammy; if you leaned on any surface for longer than thirty seconds you would come off sodden. But nothing stirs anywhere.
Going back up those few mossy stairs to your front door you can’t help but pick up your pace. You jog up in your damp socks. You don’t understand why you’re doing it but something in your body knows to. That you don’t know why tells you you’re not to be trusted, you’re not all there—what you hear, see, smell is not to be trusted. What you think is not to be trusted.
None of this is right.
You become aware you’re stirring a pot, that it’s really important to stir the pot continuously. It’s her voice in you that reminds you of this. You look at the rice grains growing and glistening in a shellfishy soup. Then you stop stirring. You find yourself feeling wretched about those abandoned loveseats on the sides of roads in the miserable mizzle of early mornings, their waterlogged cardboard signs purporting that these loveseats are somehow FREE. But the vision is brief and so is the feeling, and you take the plate of cheese rinds in varying stages of desiccation and drop them into the risotto, ladle another serving of stock from the stockpot, keep stirring the pot.
Her voice in you says you’re almost done. You stir until the goop is creamy, then turn off the gas. You stare at the pot. When, after a while, you surmise what to do with the stuff and bring some to your lips, to your tongue, it’s far from being hot. But it’s good and you finish it all standing there.
You wake to the whir and clamor of an automatic garage door being opened, then closed, opened then closed. It’s so eerie this early in the morning, the repetition of it. Usually, if you are even awake to hear it, the psychiatry nurse opens the door, backs her Dodge Avenger out, scrapes the crest of her downhill driveway with the bottom of the car, and is down on the street when the garage door mechanically drones itself shut. Now, though, it’s just the door in motion. You try to ignore it but the rhythm is maddening.
You sit up and put your feet on the floor. With your back to her side of the bed you imagine her lying wrapped in the comforter, her orange knee pillow cushioning the bone-on-bone contact which, according to her, bruised her knees and kept her awake at night. You have other ideas why someone would be keeping a pillow between her legs in bed with a spouse. You dare not turn around lest this image dissolve, though, so you walk into the kitchen.
The motion-sensitive light above your neighbor’s garage, a light so sensitive even mice can goad it into coming alive, is off. Yet the goddamn garage door keeps sliding up and tucking itself under the garage ceiling ’til it clangs, then sliding back down. You lean over the sink, press your head against the glass, and, staring out into the dark, you discern the figure of the psychiatry nurse against her dark backyard. She’s standing frozen in front of her garage door. In her hand she’s holding down a button on a clip-on remote.
You saw a girl die once. You were a junior in high school and like all the cool kids you picked what classes you went to. In times of war, they couldn’t demand your presence in school if they couldn’t guarantee your safety. You were ditching Latin and sitting with a group of other cool ditchers in front of the atrium, out of sight of most of the school’s windows. All of you would’ve smoked if only there were cigarettes to smoke, or money to buy them under siege. You were speculating about Krist Novoselic, the bass player from Nirvana, whether he was born in the country disintegrating around you and emigrated to America as a kid, or whether he was American-born. You all heard the distant discharge of a mortar, and you hunched your shoulders and hunkered down as if expecting nothing but rain to come from the sky. You waited for it to drop. What else was there to do, dive?
It hit across the river in the parking lot, conjuring up a great cloud of gray smoke, and more than a second after it hit, Sandra Banovic, who was squatting maybe two meters away from you, sat on her butt, leaned gently on the graffiti-covered wall. The skin behind her left ear had sprouted a small black hole that looked like a birthmark. You watched her face and saw the exact moment she died, the exact moment her mere unconsciousness became non-consciousness, when her body lost its ambulatory potential and started to immediately decay.
You’re remembering this because that’s exactly what your neighbor in the driveway lacks now: ambulatory potential. But she can’t be dead out there. This is real life.
You squeeze the sink counter with your hands, feel it dig into the flesh of your palms. This is reality, you think. Nobody can be that still, you counter. You watch her not move. You watch her hair not move. She looks like an ineptly dressed mannequin. Everything inside you screams for you to stay hidden, but the part of you that keeps believing in the reality of things—the solidity of the sink counter you’re abusing with your hands, the hum of the refrigerator you’re hearing with your ears, her vague silhouette, which you wish were more clear to your eyes—that dumbass part of you turns on the kitchen light.
She does move then. The motion-sensitive light picks up her movement and comes alive. The suddenness with which this makes her real is panic-inducing. She doesn’t turn her head, but sort of waddles in place like a duck until she’s facing you. When you see the whites of her eyes contain no irises, no pupils—yet you somehow know something inside her can see you, is staring right at you—you scramble to switch off the light, hit the floor.
You understand there is no understanding what you just saw, that something is wrong with your eyes, ears, skin, nose, tongue, that something is wrong with your central processing, both the gray cells that are its hardware and the clouds of possibility that are its software, the mind, the unique you that separates you from other things, that because your information-gathering apparatus is lacking then what that apparatus perceives is dodgy, and there isn’t a zombie in your backyard, banging on the back door now, there isn’t because there are no zombies. But your real ears detect the sound of banging, which floods your real brain with adrenaline. The pattern-seeking part of it runs circuitously over the given information, and being unable to classify it—put it in a box, rationalize it, fit it into an existing narrative—it simply powers down.
Interrupting a clogging thicket of a dream in which your wife keeps turning her back to you in the midst of a verbal skirmish are otherworldly noises, like a throng of crazed consumers bursting through a mall store entrance at midnight, and you come around on the kitchen floor to hear the nurse still groaning, still tugging at the backdoor doorknob, still banging on the glass. It’s daylight now.
This time around you’re not bothered that zombies do not exist. It’s not a conscious effort; it’s more like a defense mechanism, like somebody else made up your mind for you on the subject of what is real. If you can see it, it’s real, and it needs to be dealt with. Your hands are pressing against the tile and you feel like a character in one of those first-person shooter games you stayed up playing in your youth. You can almost see your hands conjuring up weapons: a crossbow with a scope, a Colt, a Kalashnikov, a fucking plasma gun. And see a bar on the lower right corner of your vision showing a pulsing red cross next to health 78%.
The backdoor window finally gives up and collapses, bigger shards of glass slipping to the floor to shatter, smaller pieces clattering down the basement stairway like scattered rosary beads.
This is real. There’s no other way to think about it, you observe yourself thinking as you go to your bedroom, looking for a weapon. A gag gift decorative katana behind the dresser? Is there enough room in the stairway to wield it effectively?
You decelerate, stop moving altogether. That you can both perceive your body and track your thoughts’ progressions makes you heady. Part of you thinks you’re in a Romero movie, an old fantasy of yours. The other part thinks: if you can perceive your body and your mind, who is doing this perceiving? Using what?
You hear the nurse, still in the back of the house. There’s rhythmic scraping, muffled thuds of flesh-covered bone on wood, wet gurgling. And out of the blue you remember the origin story of that gunmetal gray rock in the fruit bowl on your nightstand. A night of camping on the beach with some junior college friends when, naked, in your tent you told her everything and she told you everything; when, later, a hammered Derek Banister unzipped your tent in the dead of night and crawled on top of both of you and gave you that rock almost as an offering to pass out between you, like a petrified child in between his parents. Still, you’re quite surprised watching yourself take off one of your socks and slip that very rock in it. How easily you dismiss this memory and transform that sentimental souvenir into something useful in this new world.
In the kitchen, holding the socked rock like a mace, you push open the door to the stairway. The nurse is stuck in the backdoor window’s frame, flailing her arms mechanically, some rolls of her midsection fat on the inside and some out. Her mandible moves in inhuman ways, like that of a ventriloquist’s dummy, snapping one moment and coming agape to expose a curling black tongue the next.
You can’t believe how many times you have to bludgeon her upside the head before she’s stilled.
You spend three hours squatting with a headache next to the living room window in one sock, peeking out through the curtains, worrying if whoever is making that repetitious motion at Tim and Diane’s is . . . in the same condition as the psychiatry nurse was.
Your stomach is bitching with need, churning, and you tear yourself away from the window to go look in the fridge. Its light fails to light up, and like that you’re back in Bosnia at sixteen, and the flashback surprisingly doesn’t make you panic, but instead gives you a surge of élan, a sense of purpose that comes with being cornered, having no choice but to fight. You survived four volatile years of wartime siege with erratic electricity, heat, water, food; the memory of what to do is in your muscles. Your body seems to move of its own accord, commandeered by no one.
Water still comes out of the bathroom faucet, and you scoop up a pinch of curlies and skin scum from the avocado tub, give it a quick once over, plug the drain, and let the water run. In the kitchen, you pile every available receptacle that can hold water and start to fill them, bottles and jars, salad bowls, creamers, everything.
The stovetop sparks and sparks when you lean into the knob, but all that clicking is in vain. The oven is dark, bereft of its pilot light. You glance at the living room fireplace, survey the furniture for its caloric value. A chair in the breakfast nook: would that be enough wood to boil a pot of water?
The tub overflows, of course.
You barricade the front door with a behemoth of a hutch full of her hefty cookbooks and rarely used dishes, decorative milk glass. It takes you fifteen minutes to inch the sucker across the room. The stick-on protective pads at the bottoms of its ornate legs come off and their metal tips scratch deep beige scars in the hardwood floor. You swear in frustration until you remember she’s dead and that you don’t care.
You seal yourself from the nurse’s cadaver and the basement by pushing the fridge in front of the kitchen door. The remaining square of dirt, dust, dead insects, and dust bunnies where the fridge used to sit would’ve made her gag. You turn away, and it’s instantly out of your mind.
You duct tape guest sheets and duvet covers over all the windows, burning strategic little holes in them at eye level so you can survey outside. You take every foodstuff out of the pantry and carry them to the living room floor where you organize the items into groups. You do not open the freezer because it will still keep frozen for at least a day, and you need to eat the perishables out of the fridge first.
You discover what, because you were mad, you were too blind to see before. Your wife did have food in there: five eggs, half a quart of half-and-half, and a tub of sour cream, which, judging by the channels on its surface, someone had last eaten with a fork. All the fresh herbs and scallions look marginally wilted in the salad drawer. Your stomach sounds again but you have to build a fire first.
You open the fireplace’s flue. Beside the fireplace, in a wicker basket there’s one EcoLog and enough firewood and kindling to have a single fire. You put aside the EcoLog for later and build the fire the old-fashioned way. The cover of an old New Yorker in the magazine rack is a cartoon Santa Claus with a Taliban beard. Shuffling its pages you notice all the pages are blank: no articles, no advertisements. A printing mistake?
You lay some crumpled blank pages in the fireplace, construct on top an elaborate structure of wood from the basket. It takes a single match to light it.
When the fire is hot enough, you put two logs parallel to each other and balance on them a cast iron pan. In the kitchen you break the eggs into a bowl, pour in half-and half, add salt and pepper, whisk it all with a fork. It takes a long time for the butter to melt in the pan so you pour in the eggs and return to the kitchen, chop the herbs and scallions into a heap of green on the butcher block, season them heavily with salt, scrape them into another bowl, add the sour cream, and mix it all with your hand like your mother would do when making satrica, a thing that, if ever your wife saw you do it, would’ve driven her bananas.
Because and not in spite of the circumstances, this meal is your favorite ever.
There’s nothing like a quiet day in time of war to nudge a man into madness.
The stillness is astounding and dull, yet the potential of danger, and knowing this danger can manifest at any time, outfits you with elevated levels of adrenaline, which your body doesn’t know how to handle in such stillness. Even escaping into a book is out of the question, because you can’t concentrate in this quiet peril.
You slide from window to window, a meat cleaver stuck in your waistband, your makeshift mace dangling from your hand. You stare out of burned holes in the sheets, see the unchanging sights: the empty street out front, the nurse’s house, the backyard, the eastern property’s green wall of hedges, a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon sticking out of the thicket, mouth agape. For weeks she’d been asking you to recycle it. For weeks you kept saying, Next time I have my shoes on.
Unless the memory is a good one, thinking about her is harrowing. Remembering a rare knock-down-drag-out or a look of pained blame and reproach for the way things were between you two this last year—for the stress and depression she felt you brought into the relationship, souring it—you tremble with guilt. You make yourself think about instances of love and tenderness, memories honed into unflawed fiction by constant retelling, the narratives couples repeat to each other in order to stay together. But without call-and-response the tactic seems faulty and instead you remember the last barbecue of the summer, as you were waiting for folks to show up.
“When was the last time we were truly happy together?” she asked.
“You Americans. It’s not like there’s a fucking happysphere and all you need to do is climb a mountain and stay up there in the happy zone forever. Life goes up and down. My grandfather used to say if you wake up feeling happy put a stone in your shoe.”
With each wiseass remark, her lips got tighter and tighter. When you were done, she said: “That was not the question.”
“I love you,” you said.
“I love you too. That was never the problem.”
“What do you want?”
“I want you to be happy.”
You rolled up the newspaper and slammed this baton against the coffee table over and over, until you were wiped out and sopping with sweat.
She sat there rigid, looking away, her knees together, her shoulders slightly hunched from the noise.
“Hello?” A trim blond called from the front yard. He was from her work, wearing a polo shirt tucked into his khakis and carrying a growler of beer. She shot you a blistering look and ran to intercept him, giving you enough time to scramble, picking up shreds of newspaper, getting rid of the evidence.
You wish there was another zombie to deal with so you could inhabit guts and muscles instead of replaying the tapes of a shoddily remembered past.
That movement at Tim and Diane’s continues and you contemplate going over to see if they’re alive like you. The shadow at the bottom of their window keeps popping in and out of existence.
You go to the bookshelf, pick out a paperback, Hamlet. You shuffle its pages like you would a deck of cards and a prickle originates in your shoulder blades, then overruns your body as you stand there unable to open the book again. Pinching its covers closed, your thumbnails turning white, staying white, you’re more terrified than you’ve ever been.
One time, it’s a printing mistake; two times, and possibilities tumble into oblivion.
When your fear ebbs some, and your nails turn pink again, and your hands protractedly pry the pages open to find them still empty, you think of your mother who’d packed you a plastic bag full of pastries and a single book called Ugursuz the day you escaped the siege. In it, days later, you’d discovered a note from her to you. Her tiny, frugal scrawl covered almost nothing of the page, two barely squiggling parallel lines near the top.
“You’re alone,” it said. “Love, Mother.”
Flipping the pages, mechanically now, you discover a single page containing some words. You’re too stunned to even feel good about your discovery. You know they say To be or not to be, That is the question, etc. But you don’t need to read them because they’ve been engraved in your mind since you took Intermediary Acting at a community college and practiced ad nauseam in front of the mirror.
Holding a copy of what was once Hamlet in one hand and a rock inside a bloody sock in the other you start to pray.
All these strings of Arabic syllables flow trippingly from your tongue. You don’t know what they mean but here they come with confidence. When you were a boy they helped you fall asleep, woke you up from nightmares, kept the jinn away. They gave you courage when you had to knock on new doors, go into the unknown. They held you for an extra few seconds of hunger before a meal to teach you that, fuck you, it’s not all about you.
Where is this religious shit coming from?
Oh, of course.
You go through your entire library, and none of the books contain any words in any combination you don’t already know by heart. Most are blank; some are sprinkled here and there with familiar couplets or short passages of prose. Your Bosnian–English dictionary is mostly intact, with fewer blank portions on the Bosnian than on the English side. Some of the definitions are blank too, on both sides. You try to manifest some new knowledge, stare at blank spots and make words appear. They don’t. How many of these blank spots used to accommodate words for in-between colors?
You wonder how much more comprehensive the knowledge in your library would be if both of you were there, joined, and you realize every pixel of what you see in this house is saturated with the memory of her.
You know you can’t stay.
You watch your bedroom slowly materialize out of the annihilating darkness, just the way you remember it. The two-dimensional shapes of its furniture fade from black, monochromatic until you start adding color, livening up the grays. This endeavor adds another dimension to the room, makes it more real, until it is really real, until you’re in it, until you’re in pain in it, until its details just plain hurt because you know them so well.
You say goodbye to all these inanimate objects. Zbogom, you say over and over again. Go with God.
There He is again. God.
All you take from the bedroom is her three hairs, a photo of her from high school days, and a sturdy old carry-on she felt was too pretty and too expensive to actually be taken on any trips. You fill it to bursting with cans of food from the living room. You bring your copy of the Koran too, the only book. You pack it quickly so you’re not tempted to open it.
From the kitchen, you take a boning and a bread knife—bread knife because of its serrated edge. It might come in handy as a saw. You put on some thermal undergarments, choose judiciously between all your clothes, pack only two changes. You take the EcoLog and the giant matches from the fireplace mantle, a coil of wire, all the fever reducers and pain and sleep medication.
You do remember the can opener.
Truck packed, you summon enough courage to glide across the street and look through Tim and Diane’s living room window. Their youngest is dead and dry in the rocking chair. She’s holding a stuffed animal—a fancy sheep—her muscles somehow still firing, forever rocking her back and forth. You consider slipping in and forever stopping it but decide against it. Who can you help?
—Zbogom, Serena, you whisper and turn around.
You don’t have it in you to look at the house you lived in with your wife. You don’t. Looking down at the asphalt like a good minder-of-your-own-business you get into your truck before you glance at the garage door, the crummy wire fence into the barbeque area, the clump of ferns near where the water hose is coiled next to the chimney, and you put the truck in reverse.
You have no idea where you’re headed.
The only people who don’t know what zombies are are the characters in zombie pictures. They encounter one slowly clomping up the alleyway towards them, and they scream and fuss and act as if they are completely clueless about what to do.
Out of the truck window you watch them loiter in front of businesses, shuffle around like the elderly at a public library, puzzled and jealous that others can move in a speedier fashion. The spritely ones meander, moving their arms as if they were children pretending to be robots. The desiccated ones just lie there like overturned statues, wasting away, growling at ambient sounds, biting at the air, chewing imaginary flesh—going through the motions.
You ditch surface streets, get on 84, head east out of Portland, and it’s nothing like any zombie flick you’ve ever seen. No graveyards of abandoned vehicles litter the freeway. Whatever caused this zombie apocalypse seems to have happened at once, in the middle of the night, to everyone except you. You’re doing a steady sixty-five, safely.
She was a bit of a speed fiend, hated when you drove the speed limit just as much as you hated when she drove at all. After long car trips your right calf would ache from phantom braking if she was behind the wheel and hers from phantom accelerating if it was the other way around.
In the rearview mirror it’s north Portland that’s on fire.
Columbia River Gorge.
You watch yourself exit the freeway. (Habit? Need? Fate?)
In your mind you see yourself willing yourself past the exit and continuing inland but that’s just wishful thinking.
No, you’re on the exit, then you’re on a road leading to the parking lot to one of her favorite trails—the trail. You cross a mossy bridge over a creek, turn right onto a dirt road, your pickup grumbling.
Ahead, the parking lot is deserted save for a metallic Mitsubishi Eclipse parked by the johns, which claim to be closed for the season. You pull into the same space like that day, like last time.
You turn off the engine.
—Here, you say, like last time.
She’s there with you, like you’ve hoped. Feared.
She groans with theatrical exhaustion, can’t wait to get out of the truck. You sit there staring at your knuckles on the steering wheel until she, in her white snow jacket, gets her bulging backpack from the back.
—Come on, Grandpa. We’re late already.
She implies you’re late because you’re a slow driver and not because she spent three hours making two sandwiches and took thirty-five minutes trying to find a local IPA sold in cans—because she didn’t want to carry that extra weight in glass—though she had no problem bringing a jar of pickled banana peppers, a tube of horseradish sauce, homemade ketchup, and three kinds of mustard. Not to mention the real ceramic plates and metal utensils. For her, that’s roughing it.
—We can’t be late when it’s just us.
—If we get up there and our favorite spots are taken, I’ll kill you. Come on.
—Kill yourself then. It’s you who took your sweet-ass time this morning.
—Don’t be a curmudgeon, she says, and marches up the trail without you.
You’ve never cared about nature. There are people who see a sunrise or the Milky Way on a dark night and feel God is communicating something important just to them. They stand in awe and stare, humbled.
When you stare at a sunrise you feel not included. You just look at all the colors and the mixes of colors you can’t yet name. You want to take it, own it, decipher it. You want to translate it, capture it forever, be able to reproduce it for yourself or others on a whim. Knowing it’s impossible to do is what makes you have no interest in them. It’s a defense mechanism.
Though you call out for her to wait for you she retains the distance of two switchbacks between you at all times until the trail levels out, until you’re both on top. For a while you follow a creek up a side canyon and have to jump over where the flowing water eroded the trail. She takes pictures of plants and slugs, rocks and bugs, clear water in a continuous act of tossing itself from slippery stone cliffs down into pools of churning whiteness and violence. It’s so loud one can’t hear oneself think.
She answers her phone somehow, giggles and laughs with a forefinger in the ear she’s not using, walks ahead so she can hear her interlocutor. You ask her if he’s good in the sack. She doesn’t hear you. You ask her if she loves you. She doesn’t hear you.
—I love you, you say a little louder.
She turns around, still on the phone, screws up her face in a “what?”
—I love you, you scream against the sound of water bursting into foam.
—I love you too, she mouths, returning to the conversation but keeping an eye on you.
—Happysphere, you say next time your eyes meet. She gives you thumbs up, keeps on listening to the voice in her ear.
You both plod ahead, testing every step. Hiking boots sink into increasingly wetter mud. You focus on making progress. You figure the noises ahead are her doing the same. Not until he’s almost upon you do you realize one of the living dead is hobbling down the trail and that she’s gone.
—No, you say, not out of fear but out of frustration.
This hiker-zombie in shorts and fanny-pack probably couldn’t have hurt you had he been alive, let alone now. He’s tall and stooping, long white hair in a ponytail, bone-skinny everywhere except the midsection, his veiny hand gripping a veiny walking stick of the same thickness. He doesn’t strike you as someone who would drive a Mitsubishi Eclipse.
He snarls feebly, almost politely, cocks his head sideways as if about to initiate a first kiss. You step to the side and give him a gentle push on the shoulder. His upper arm has the texture of oak bark and a kind of hollowness, a brittleness, that makes you feel sorry for him. You could hug this guy into powder.
He loses balance, shuffles maladroitly to the edge of the trail, teeters there a bit, then, gently, falls off.
You stare at your crisp, outstretched hand and his blurry absence behind it and realize you’re at the very spot where . . .
You remember a gasp, a sharp, tinny intake of air. A flash of white to your left, black atop the white. The blur of her being erased by the cliff’s edge. The smudge of her.
You remember your crisp, outstretched hand on that day, and you see the one before your eyes right now, and you know why you brought your mother’s Koran. Know that despite people succeeding for one and a half thousand years to keep the Holy Book unchanged from when mankind first uncovered it, now the only words written there—among pages of whiteness, pages of lost knowledge, history, and poetry—are the words you know by heart. You take out your boning knife and start carving it into a tree.
You feel profound but futile guilt. The tears it causes are inevitable but useless. The love you feel is wasted on you, and so is the hatred of yourself. Your soul accuses itself in front of itself and in front of everything else, though your heartbeats tick away.
As you lunge off the cliff you remember the second part of the Koranic verse that echoes the one you carved into the tree, the one that says: “. . . whoever, on the other hand, saves a single man, it’s as though he had saved all of humanity.”
Are you remembering it right? Is the quote in your mother’s Koran, and in the Korans all over the world right now writing itself in English and Bosnian, appearing out of the blue, stirring nothing? Does it count if you save yourself? But it’s too late for that now.
Time is slow going down and all the details of the world beneath you are clear, vivid. The fall is pushing air up your nostrils, and you remember how beautiful it sometimes was to wake up next to her in the morning and watch her sleep, to breathe the morning in and take that first whiff of real atmosphere with chemicals and shit particles and dust motes, and how sweet it smelled, this real air, this reality.