This is a quick piece of fiction I wrote during a moment of free time. I hope you enjoy it.
There are all kinds of broken things in the world, but broken people are the worst. Broken people are tragic. Not like a broken toaster or vacuum cleaner. There’s nothing tragic—or even a little bit sad—about a broken vacuum cleaner. You fix it, or you toss it. Even a broken lunch box or action figure isn’t tragic. Well, maybe a broken toy is a little sad, especially if you’ve got some emotion invested in it. But it passes. Hell, even when a loved one dies, eventually it passes. Even if that’s pretty damn sad.
But a broken person? Goddamn if that doesn’t just do me in every time.
There are broken people everywhere now.
I knew it was coming—most of us did. Shit, everyone knew, if we’re being honest. They even told us it was coming. Of course they didn’t know exactly what it was going to look like, but damn if they didn’t tell us right from the start. But a lot of folks didn’t listen. Or didn’t want to hear. Ends up being the same thing. Denial. “‘Da Nile is a river in Egypt,” as my Pop would say. No denial now, I don’t think. This is realism on fucking steroids.
I remember seeing a homeless dude in New York this one time. This was back when I was a kid, maybe 14 or 15. Mom and Pop had taken us up to the Big City to see the Christmas lights and snow (god, Emily—my little sis—had totally freaked when she saw snow for the first time; we had just come out of the restaurant in the hotel lobby (we got in late as shit the night before after driving for three days from Tallahassee) and there it all was, floating down from the sky like big dandelion spoors) and as we were walking down one of those huge, wide sidewalks, there was this guy—maybe Pop’s age—sitting against a building, wrapped in old blankets and trash, just staring. Mom dropped a dollar bill into the old tattered box lid next to him (it was the only paper money anyone had given, and it floated down on a thin pile of mostly dimes and pennies—can you believe it? Pennies, I shit you not) and the guy didn’t even say so much as “Thank you” or nod his head or try to smile. Nothing. Just a vacant stare.
I think about that homeless dude a lot now. ‘Cause a lot of people look like him these days.
We’d had it coming for a long time, I think. We’d already broken most of the things in the world by the time I was 20. We broke the economy when the corporations got so greedy that the majority of folks (“The 99 percent,” my Pop called us) just didn’t have buying power anymore. We broke the environment, even though my whole family recycled and didn’t use plastic and stopped giving gifts at Christmas (which, come to think of it, probably had more to do with the economy, but whatever). We broke the government. And that was probably the first domino to set off everything else that happened. Because when there’s no more government people start to take the things they need (or want) instead of using the system that was in place. You know, commerce and society and all that. Well, that led to the wars. And that led to the desperate release of all the nuclear weapons. Something both Mom and Pop said just wasn’t possible anymore. Well, welcome to possible, guys. And once that was done, then came the rest of the shit, including (you guessed it), disease, famine, and the hard scrabble life of just surviving. We broke just about everything.
The only thing left to break was us.
I’m walking again today. It’s kind of my meditation. When Emily turned 18 (shit, when was that, like, five years ago already?) she went to this Zen retreat up in Tennessee (which I totally told her was probably a cover for a cult or something) and came home different. Staring at all these broken people around me I can definitively say she was the opposite of broken. But she was definitively different. She was whole in a way that I can’t even describe. She wasn’t all holy-and-pure or anything, but she seemed more at peace with herself and everyone else. She still got mad and she still had her flaws (hey, don’t we all, right?). But she had this way of getting outside of herself, looking at what she was feeling and reacting to it in a way that took the fight out of her and everyone else. Man, I wish she were here. Is she broken now too?
Anyway, she told me one of the things they’d shown her up there in the Tennessee Mountains was something they called “walking meditation.” She said you just had to go and walk a path and try not to think about anything. And any time your brain wanted to start to think (which it does all the time and all by itself), you just observe the thinking and let it go. Sounds easy, right?
So, that’s what I’m doing now. Or trying to, anyway.
It’s tough because there is a broken person, like, every ten steps in any direction. And I have to step over them, which completely fucks up my pace and sends my brain in all sorts of thinking directions.
Take this lady, for example. I’ve passed her every day for the last month. She’s standing (thank god, because she’s so fucking huge I’d have to walk around her instead of over) and staring at the sky, her jowly mouth sagging open, spit drooling down all over her royal blue polyester blouse-dress thingy, and her eyes all opaque and gluey-looking (because I think the sun has literally, like, burned her eyeballs or something). Her chest isn’t moving (her humongous tits are perfectly still), so I imagine she’s dead. But how can dead people stand? And it’s been, like a whole month! And she’s still there. Like everybody else.
Across from her there’s a guy lying on his stomach. As I step over him, I can tell he’s not breathing either. But, like everyone, there’s no decay. No bloat. No stink. I mean, I’ve never seen a dead body before (unless you count all these fucking people, which I don’t, because…I don’t know, they just don’t seem dead), but isn’t there supposed to be some kind of smell? Like, rotting animal smell? I mean, maybe it takes a while. But a fucking month?
And you see? There goes my brain, thinking. So, I think (I am thinking) that Emily was completely full of shit.
Holy fuck, they’re gone! Everybody. I went out for a walk today. Just thought I’d give Emily’s bullshit another try, and there are no broken people anywhere. Let me rephrase that: there aren’t any people anywhere. Not a body. Not a soul.
I run up every single street and down every single alley. Did they go inside? I start opening doors and after a mile (which seems short, but is fucking long when you’re opening literally every front door on both sides of the street) I just give up. Because they are gone.
I wander down to the coffee shop—because, hey! who doesn’t love coffee!—and light the camp stove I’ve set up. They have this awesome old-timey hand-powered coffee mill and tons of beans and a whole shelf full of French presses and fancy mugs. I throw on the green apron and start moving shit around on the counter like I’m the barista and it’s busy as shit on a workday morning (even though it’s late afternoon and I’m pretty sure it’s Saturday).
“Double low-fat mocha latte! Coming right up!”
“Hey, buddy, I’m going as fast as I can!”
“Suzy (I know, Suzy, right?), we need more whole milk from the cooler!”
When the water boils, I pour it into the French press with the French roast grinds and take it and a white mug with the Eiffel Tower printed on it (I’m in a French mood today, fuck you) and take a table by the window.
While I wait for the coffee to brew, I look out at the way the sunset turns everything gold and red at the same time. My gaze wanders up the street, the cars parked, all of them covered in a layer of grime, the windows opaque. I just now realize I have not tried to drive a single car. Can you believe that? It’s been, what? Six months? If I think about it, it’s probably because there were literally bodies (the broken people, remember?) everywhere—even in the middle of the road. And, though I was positive they weren’t alive, I was pretty sure they weren’t really dead, either. Yet.
Pouring the coffee into a nice vacuum-sealed double-walled travel mug, I step out of the coffee shop and start wandering up the street, admiring all the cars. I let my empty hand drift over the surface of them, trailing clean finger lines through the dust and grime, wiping the dirt off, absent minded, on my jeans.
Shit. There are literally no keys in any of them. And no people anymore to check pockets. Shit! Then I remember there’s a used car lot a couple of blocks from here. Hurrying down 11th Avenue I break past the intersection and almost stop, thinking about traffic. Then I laugh—remembering, hey! it’s just me! all alone!—and sprint across the street. Another block and I come around the corner and see “McMurty’s Used Cars” caddy-corner from me. Nothing original there. Just some dude named McMurty and his used cars. But I guess if you’re selling used cars, that’s as good a name as any.
The lot is a mix of shit and garbage out front. A junky Saturn, tons of Honda Civics, and an emerald green Ford Taurus. But: there’s a little showroom in the front of the building and, after pulling the sleeve of my sweatshirt over my hand and rubbing in a circle, I can see a beautiful old convertible Mercedes 560 SL. Bright white. Tan leather. Top down.
I have to smash the window with a brick (which I kind of feel bad about for a second), but once I’m inside I find the key box without any problem. The Mercedes key is easy to spot. I do one lap around the car, just admiring the beauty of it, and then open the door, slide into the leather seat, and push the key into the ignition.
What a beautiful growl. And the tank is absolutely full to the top. Leaving it running, I pop the floor locks on the garage door and slide it up. Getting back into the car I start to pull on the lap belt, but then—fuck it! it’s just me! and I’ll be careful—decide against it.
I slip the automatic shifter into Drive and ease the car out of the showroom, through the little side alley, and onto the road.
After a week, the empty fuel light finally came on. I was cruising down by the beach and not really paying any attention. It was such a gorgeous day. Sunny, some high, wispy clouds out west over the water. The sun dropping into the Gulf and Green Day blaring on the CD player (which didn’t look original to the car at all).
Anyway, I stopped at a gas station and realized I didn’t really have any idea how to get a pump working without power. I was trying to remember if I had seen it done in a movie once, but nothing was coming to mind.
So here I am, scratching my head and staring at the pump (as if that would help), and then I see something. Something moving. I haven’t seen anything moving (except, like, things blowing in the breeze) in months. Maybe I didn’t see anything, because it was gone, whatever it was. But I’m pretty sure I saw something. Maybe an animal? But honestly, after seven months not seeing even a single bird? I can only guess it was a piece of trash blowing by.
Even though there isn’t any wind.
Shit. How do you work a gas pump? I kick the pump, definitely not thinking. Wait! I could siphon gas out of another car! I run into the station and grab one of those red plastic two-gallon gas cans and scrounge around until I find a length of rubber hose that was part of a drink machine. Armed with my siphoning tools, I take off down the road on foot. I had seen some cars parked at a restaurant a few hundred yards back the direction I had come. In half an hour I’d be on my way again.
The sun disappears into the Gulf and the light turns that beautiful hue of mixed red and gold and dark blue. I pick up my pace because I do not want to be doing all this siphoning shit in the dark and end up spilling gas all over myself.
I get to the restaurant and cut across the grass toward the parking lot. I’ll just try the first car I come to. Then I see something moving again. I turn to look for it, and then I see more movement out of the other side of my peripheral vision. I snap my head back around.
It’s a person. No, people. Two of them. It’s getting dark, but I can see them strolling slowly across the parking lot about a hundred feet away. People. Moving! It kinda looks like they’re doing Emily’s walking meditation. Nice and easy. They aren’t looking in my direction.
“Hey!” I shout before I can stop myself, waving my free hand in the air. They both turn, slowly, as if I’d interrupted their thoughts. And even from here I can see.
It’s the broken people. And they aren’t dead after all.