by Tom Meek
"We did this to ourselves," Jonesy said sliding bullets into a tarnished old .38. Besides an aluminum baseball bat and a barn full of rusted farm implements, it was their primary means of defense, one they had yet to use, but the expectation was that things were to only get worse. It had been eighteen months since the ban went into effect, fourteen since the MOAB was dropped on a so tagged hot-spot in the Middle-east and five weeks since the dirty bombs went off in Boston and New York.
Stan watched Jonesy cautiously in the rearview as he guided the dinged-up Dodge Charger along the roadway marred by frost heaves and years of neglect. He knew little about his passenger other than he was elusive when it came to questions but seemed to know much about the western hills of Massachusetts and Connecticut and how to get the most from the woods. Just five days earlier he had drifted out from the tree line under the weight of a large backpack. Stan was prompt in his effort to dismiss the intruder and felt he had matters in hand until Echo appeared on the back porch with a bottle of pop in hand.
"Maybe he can help with the generator?" she interjected casually, "We might need that hunk of junk after all."
Stan wished to protest but knew his wife was probably right just like his mother was when she had the massive crate delivered to the farmhouse in the tense months following 9/11. "If anything like that ever happens again," the matriarch chortled while drinking a saucer full of cheap scotch when she could easily afford better, "you kids just jump in the car and head to Weathervane Farm. I'll have everything there for you." Stan found the notion of buying a farm in Western Massachusetts when his parents lived in Connecticut a complete waste of money, though Church View did turn out to be a good central place for Worthington holiday gatherings. His sister lived in Chicago and made the dutiful trek east twice a year with her ever-growing brood. It was perfect while it lasted and now, his mother's paranoid ramblings about the future of mankind boomeranged back from the beyond as shards of prophetic wisdom. Stan's only regret being that he wished he had set up the generator back then when she had wished it.
The car hit a pothole and a bullet slipped from Jonesy's hand. "Steady mate," he said cooly as he retrieved the projectile, "Be a shame if Bulla put a hole in your seat."
That coy air of amiable aloofness bothered Stan. He knew he was alone in that regard. The others taking refuge in the place his mother had so affectionately rebranded 'Manure Manor,' didn’t share his scrutiny. Little Jade was delighted by the coins pulled from her ears at dinner that first night, and afterward Jonesy toiled under Echo's direction in the kitchen, sharing wine and laughs late into the evening. Even crabby old Rosemary appeared susceptible to his charms granting Jonesy great deference before launching in with her bristly opines and demeaning insistences. Each morning, Stan expected the man hidden behind aviator sunglasses and a fine beard, to disappear back into the woods, but at night, when dinner was served, he was there at the table as if he has always been. The tenor of the manor had shifted. There was less control, more spontaneity and things got done. Jonesy was fit and able, a rising commodity as networks fell and the availability of shrink-wrapped sustenance waned.
"How much we got?" Stan asked.
"Sixty, maybe seventy last I looked," Jonesy replied. "But who knows if we'll need it."
The sky blue reimagining of the American muscle classic that Stan's father had insisted on buying over a decade ago, but hardly ever drove, drifted down and out from the cedar cover. The engine still purred with masculine intensity but there was that intermittent ping that concerned Stan. In the forelaid a stretch of furrowed fields and molted pastures, each side of the road dotted by a huddle of weather-worn barns and a lone white farmhouse. Near the vanishing point, at the base of the cascading green hills, loomed the object of their mission, the telltale yellow ovoid of a Sunoco sign rising up from a copse of trees.
Jonesy laid the gun on the seat and began to sort through a thick stack of small bills and loose change. "Seventy-six, four-five," he declared and slid the money back into the frayed envelope.
Off to the left, two mangy cows grazed nonchalantly while a third laid near the road, its belly ripped open and entrails strewn down the grassy slope of a drainage gulch. A swarm of flies buzzed in through the open windows. Stan swatted haplessly at the air and cursed. Amid the unkempt furrows to the right, a withered old man struggled to glean ears of corn from broken stalks. On the stoop of one of the farmhouses, an observant yellow dog sat nearly motionless, its ears up and alert as its nose slowly drew in the scent of demise.
Stan eased off the gas as the Charger sailed through the thicket of trees. The sweet, cloying smell of birch and elm trickling in atop the dank humidity. The parking lot was empty except a mud-splattered Mercedes with New York plates and Old Mac's stoic John Deere that had been running flawlessly since Watergate broke. Of the three broad glass panes that formed the storefront, one had been replaced by an expanse of plywood and a second, cracked outward from an ostensible projectile strike, was held firm by a web of gray duct tape. The intensity of the mid-day sun flashed off the sport coupe's hubcaps and caused Stan to squint as he pulled in. One of the two fuel pumps was entwined in yellow caution tape.
Stan killed the engine. "Gas, oil and anything in cans, right?"
"Smokes too," Jonesy said passing forward the grimy envelope.
The younger man exited the car, the butt of the gun protruding from his waistband and pulled two red containers from the trunk. Stan slipped between the pumps and headed towards the mirrored glass door that separated the bay of garage doors from the minimart.
Bells along the back of the door announced his entrance. It had been more than two weeks since Stan had last paid a visit, and while he wasn't surprised by the depleted shelves, he did take notice of the store's overall poor state. Wrapper shards, crushed chips, and spots of dried soda dotted the aisles. In the bread section, a few of the bags were torn open, one unfortunate loaf was flattened and smeared across the speckled linoleum.
Stan pulled a plastic shopping basket from the stack. A smattering of pistachio shells swirled aimlessly across the latticed bottom. Through the reflective glass he could see Jonsey filling up the containers, then there was a faint flush from the rear of the store. Stan froze and listened. A door slammed and a tall gaunt man in a flannel shirt and tattered Bowling Green baseball cap appeared. Stan had never seen the man before but was struck by how much he looked like a reliever who hurled sparingly for the Red Sox over four seasons, including that miraculous 2004 World Series run. The player's name eluded Stan.
"Not much left, but have at it," the man said in a twangy drawl further muddled by a wad of something set deep inside the crease of his cheek.
"I can see Old Mac's been slacking off," Stan said with a head gesture and a weak smile. The man made no reaction and Stan set off down an aisle to fill the orders of those waiting for him back at Weathervane Farm. Small juice boxes and Oreos for Jade. Cheetos and veggie sticks for Echo, though he briefly reconsidered the puffy bags of hydrogenated snacks knowing well his wife would spend time agonizing over the health risks of all the artificial ingredients listed in fine print on the back, and then, as an informed result, would only eat a small meted amount and curse the junk food for its rich addictive flavor. Stan loaded up on Campbell's Soup cans and Spaghetti-Os, and grabbed the last two bottles of cooking oil, which had proved useful beyond its kitchen-wise intent.
At the register, Stan added three Heath bars to the basket for Rosemary. He knew Mac's wouldn't have the old English styled toffee his downstairs neighbor from 45 Cranwell Street had requested, but did what he always had when the woman caught him in the Victorian-styled foyer and lectured him about the affairs and rules of the stately brownstone they each owned a share of, which was to nod and smile and move on. When they moved into the desirable Cambridge neighborhood in the wake of the shocking election result, paying well over market for the privilege of an 02138 address, Echo was initially drawn to the statuesque senior who she described as 'fiercely independent" and encouraged Stan to remain civil even after he scoured the condo docs and other legal documents and couldn't find many of the official orders that Rosemary had proclaimed and reiterated in email, shaming him to the other residents of the building. When Stan confronted her about such absences during a condo meeting, Rosemary dismissed him with patronizing efficiency. "I don't know Stan," she said in her languorous Blanche DuBois intonation that Echo often mimicked over a glass of Pinot Gris, "it's how we've always done things here. We're a harmonious anomaly, why tinker with perfection?" The other residents just shrugged and acquiesced.
Such minor indignities became a way of life at 45 Cranwell Street, and throughout it all, Rosemary continued to ask Stan do little things for her; the clogged drain, a heavy bag of groceries and that hard-to-get-at piece of tin foil blown back behind a rose bush in the garden. He did them all reluctantly, spurred on by Echo's encouragement and the promise that sustained good will would eventually pay returns. For his effort, Stan was routinely subjected to long boastful tales of a son and daughter who prospered on the West Coast, though Stan found it odd he had never seen either of them visit. One night when Stan was coming home with Styrofoam containers full of sushi he found Echo pulling the normally dormant bottle of Tito's Vodka from the freezer and pouring a shot. "Read your email," she said knocking back the glass emblazoned with the insignia of their alma mater. "Rosemary Pegram's a two-faced bitch," she added and slammed down the glass. Stan poked around on his iPhone and found the long missive from the woman downstairs requesting "the residents of Unit 6 to respect the building's quiet time policy and cease their unruly offspring from running about the place like a herd of wild buffalo."
"Just yesterday," Echo said, "she patted Jade on the head and told her she'd dig up her children's books in the basement for her. Woman's arrogant, entitled and crazy. Batshit crazy."
Stan kept scrolling through accusations and admonishments. Echo handed him a cold shot. "Clearly, the residents of Unit 6," Rosemary concluded, "do not know how to abide civilly." She never mentioned any of them by name specifically and CCed the rest of the building.
In the inglorious aftermath, tensions abated slowly. Stan used the back entrance to come and go. No more inflammatory emails were slung as the tenor at 45 Cranwell Street returned to its natural awkward calm. Then the bomb went off in the Seaport.
"She's got no one," Echo said emphatically when Stan made a face.
"She's got kids our age," he protested.
"You know as well as I, she's probably pissed them off and they don't talk, and probably haven't in years. Maybe they don't even exist?" She shrugged. "Besides, they're all over there and the airport's totally fucked, right?"
Stan nodded. "What about the Thorntons, she has dinner with them all the time, or Suzie down in 1?"
Echo rolled her eyes and it was done.
Stan tossed in a few Almond Joys for himself. "Could I get a carton of Winstons too?"
The man was preoccupied with his cellphone. "Can't get shit no more," he said and spit some juice of whatever it was in his mouth into a Styrofoam cup. "The whole world's going to hell," he added before poking around lazily down under the counter. "Ain't got no Winstons."
Stan took a quick look over his shoulder as the man seemed to be staring at something behind him, but there was nothing there. "How about Lucky Strike?"
"Nope, all I got are these," the man said as he dumped five packs of Marlboro on the counter.
"Okay," Stan said and waited for the man to begin punching away at the register, but he never did. "Uhmm, how much?" Stan, finally asked. "We've got twenty gallons of gas too."
The man spit again. "How about we call it a hundred?"
"Shouldn't we ring it up?"
Stan took another glance over his shoulder and then, studying the man's coarse face, realized the man had a lazy eye, the glaring asymmetry between the ever-wide and probing dominant eye and its inert and feeble counterpart being the cause of his sudden distraction. "Uhmmm because Old Mac's a stickler?"
"Aw, he don't care. Nobody much cares anymore."
"Anal Old Mac? I don't believe it. Where's the old coot anyhow?"
"He's not feeling so good."
"I hope it's nothing too serious."
"He didn't much say, just that he wasn't in a right state. How much you got there?"
"And Sweet Ellie's not around either?"
"Hmmm,” Stan pondered for a second. "All I've got is seventy-six and change," he announced and wished he had pulled one of the tightly sealed plastic packages from behind the loose cinder block in the basement, but Jonesy had been too close and he didn't want him to know too much, too soon, not until he knew more about his new house guest.
"That'll do," the man said and pointed to the leather pouch on Stan's belt, "I'll take that too."
Stan didn't want to surrender the Swiss Army knife but knew he had to sweeten the deal somehow and dug down into his front pocket. "How about these?" he said producing a pair of demure diamond earrings. "And we'll fill up the car and take some bread and a few jugs of water too." The earrings weren't worth much Stan figured, they were just some of the random evening accouterments his mother had accrued over the years that made their way into the safe at the farm. He paused for a moment and thought about putting them back in his pocket. "Don't be foolish Stanley," he could hear his mother say, "this is why I bought Manure Manor, now be a good boy and do as I wish."
"And the cash too," the man said.
"Just the earrings."
"They're purdy, but I ain't got no use for them."
"They're diamonds. You could sell them. Got to be worth a grand or so," Stan said cheerily as a flush of red raced across his face.
"Who knows what anything's worth anymore?" the man said placing his palms on the countertop and leaning in toward Stan. The tang of wintergreen tickled Stan's nostrils as the looming eye probed behind him. The culmination of sensations had a disorienting effect. Stan's inclination was to cough or retract but he held his posture. Then the man, without so much moving anything but his lips, let a long viscous dollop of brown saliva descend delicately into the cup. Stan dropped the envelope on the counter and left.
Outside Jonesy squeegeed off the windshield while Stan loaded the water jugs onto the floorboard of the front passenger side. "Something's not quite right," Stan said in a low voice. "Store looks like shit and Old Mac's not there, just some random guy."
"Nobody works twenty-four, seven, right?"
"Old Mac runs a tight ship, has a conniption if a bit of dander sits around too long. Plus I asked him about Sweet Ellie and he seemed to know her but didn't."
"You're speaking in riddles mate. Back up and begin again."
"Sweet Ellie's Old Mac's wife who died three years ago. He didn't seem to know that."
"Hmmm," Jonesy purred and glanced back at the mini-mart.
"We've got the gun."
"Bulla," Jonesy corrected and placed a hand on the butt of the pistol. "He might have one too. You have to consider the possibilities."
"That may be..." Stan began, his next thought knocked aside by the distant growl of a Diesel engine that punched the air. The two men straightened. From the patch of firs at the base of the foothills, a military personnel vehicle emerged. Jonesy shifted the gun from the front of his waistband to the back. Stan went to take a step towards the road, but Jonesy caught him by the elbow and pulled him back gently. The two exchanged a quick sideways glance as the surging power of the engine rattled up through their knees and fill their chests. The vehicle roared by without a concern and left the men in a choking swirl of dust. Through splayed fingers, Stan could make out a huddled mass of boyish faces looming out from the rear canopied compartment, all uniformly stoic and blindly dutiful.
After the vehicle disappeared beyond the fields and the humid still returned, Stan turned to Jonesy and gestured with his chin toward the mirrored door.
"Sometimes," Jonesy said, "not knowing is best. Don't let what you can't make sense of consume you.”
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, the WBUR ARTery, Paste Magazine, The Charleston City Paper, The Rumpus and Thieves Jargon. Tom is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow Tom on Twitter @TBMeek3 and read more at TBMeek3.wordpress.com.