a man, a cat, and the beginning of life as we know it

“Time for me to get my supper,” Vern said as he reached behind him to turn out the light in his office, really a closet he shoved a desk into and called his office. “You got this?”

“I got it,” I answered, not looking up from the paperback I was reading.

He mumbled something I couldn’t make out as he stepped outside, the bell over the door jangling, and that was the last time I saw him.

A grand total of three people came into the store that night, and that was heavy traffic for a Monday night in our little town. All of them came in before nine o’clock: Susie Wexler, who bought cigarettes, a six-pack of lite beer and five gallons of gas; Alfonso Pugo, who stopped in for a candy bar, and Mark Nofflinger, who topped off his gas tank on the way home from work.  Susie was the only one who wanted to chat a bit, but all we talked about was her dog, a lab with three legs who sat at her feet happily whapping the floor with his tail while we told him again and again what a good boy he was.  Alf and Mark were dead tired from working twelve-hour shifts at the sawmill. 

I finally turned out the lights and locked the front door at eleven-ten, set the burglar alarm, and went home. Sat up in bed reading a few more chapters of the book I started at the store before turning out the lights around midnight.

I didn’t notice the power was out in the morning because it was the middle of June, so when I stumbled bleary-eyed into the kitchen at quarter to six there was already enough daylight to see. Didn’t even reach for the light switch. Honestly, sometimes I don’t when it’s still dark. A wind-up pendulum clock, my luckiest flea-market find last summer, hung on the wall in the dining hutch, ticking away. I made a pot of coffee on the gas stove. Had the LP tank out behind the house filled the week before. Perfectly normal morning so far.

After sucking down a hot cuppa and filling a travel mug, I shambled out the door, crossed the back yard and ducked through the hedge row to come out on Depot Street, hung a left and walked down the hill to what we locals referred to rather grandly as the beach, a stretch of grass about twenty yards from end to end along the shore of the mill pond. Didn’t see anybody along the way, but that wasn’t so unusual this early in the morning.

The Neidermeyers had a canoe they usually left turned over on the beach with a paddle underneath.  I think I saw them take it out just once, the day after they bought it.  They left it there for anyone to use but, as far as I knew, I was the only one who regularly took it out for a paddle. Dick Neidermeyer bummed beer and cigarettes off me all the time; it evened out.

That first morning seemed unusually calm, although I have to say I enjoyed it. The quiet wasn’t spoiled by a fisherman’s outboard motor roaring across the pond, or by the blatt of tractor-trailers on the county road downshifting as they came off the hill into town with a full load of fresh-cut timber. The only sounds were the whirr of blackbirds bouncing on the reeds along the shore, the splash of fish coming to the surface of the water to nab a may fly for breakfast, and the occasional gurgle I myself made as I lifted the paddle a little too quickly from the water.

I was out paddling a little less than an hour, and I came back in only because I had to offload all the coffee I drank. When I climbed out of the canoe I knew I wasn’t going to make it back to the house, so I whizzed in the big lilac bushes at the end of the beach. It’s not exactly a secluded part of town, but it was still early, I didn’t see anybody around, and I was suddenly very desperate. When I was done, I pulled the Neidermeyer’s canoe up onto the beach, turned it over, shoved the paddle underneath, and strolled back up Depot Street toward the house.

Now it was about seven-thirty and the morning began to feel a little off. At this hour I would’ve expected to see someone on their front stoop having a smoke, or heard a muffled conversation through an open window. Didn’t see or hear a soul. It was odd not to hear “Morning” at least once.

I walked four blocks up the hill, kept on walking when I got to my yard and didn’t stop until I got to the corner store, where I usually poke my head in the front door to say “hi” to Vern. The store was dark and the front door was locked. It wasn’t supposed to open for business until nine, but Vern was always there around seven to stock the shelves, tidy things up and put the coffee on. And why were the lights out? I glanced over at the door alarm, and that’s when I noticed the power was out.  No glowing green lifesign on the readout.  I shaded it with my hand, just to confirm it was dead.

Dug my keys out of my pocket, unlocked the door, went behind the counter to stick my head in Vern’s office. No Vern. There was no dial tone on the phone when I picked it up, so if Vern had been here, he probably went back to his place to use the house phone. He didn’t have a cell phone. The electric clock on the wall was stopped at half past twelve. So the coolers would all be getting warm, and the ice in the ice chest out front would start melting soon. I didn’t have my cell phone to call the power company, so I locked the front door on my way out and headed back home.

Gagnon’s black lab Yeller was running up Depot Street toward me as I walked back to the house. He’s normally a friendly dog, likes to play catch and always picks up a stick as soon as he sees me, but he wouldn’t come near me that morning. He froze in the middle of the street, watched me warily as I walked maybe a hundred feet or so toward him, calling his name, then started barking and running around in circles. I stopped, thinking for some reason he had rabies, a stupid idea because Charlie Gagnon would never have done anything to hurt that dog, much less skipped his annual shot, but the way Yeller was acting was so unlike him that an electric shock of terror ran through me. He wasn’t growling or baring his teeth, just acting crazy as he gradually moved away from me. Then he took off across someone’s yard, and I never saw him again.

Back at home I found my cell phone and flipped it open. It was dead. Plugged it into its charger but got no sign it was taking a charge. Flipped on the nearest light switch, looked up; no light. Cussed. Took the cell phone out to the car and plugged it into the charger, waited for the display to light up. Nothing. Cussed again. Put the key in the ignition and gave it a turn, but the car wouldn’t start. Wouldn’t even turn over, and the dashboard lights didn’t come on. Dead battery. Cussed long and loud. I bought that battery just last fall.

Jim Essinger lived in the house next door. He’s even more of a hermit than I am, but I knocked anyway because he’s usually up early. He didn’t answer my repeated knocks, though. Neither did the Strausses across the street, or Billie Jean Kitzmiller who lives in the bungalow cattycorner from my house. When I knocked on the kitchen door of Dell Harlan’s house, it swung open a little bit. The hinges even made that long, slow squeak that makes everyone in the movie theater yell “DON’T GO IN THERE!” when it’s in a horror film.

But I wasn’t in a movie and it was morning, not night, and the morning sun was shining into Dell’s kitchen. I could see the drapes over the sink swinging in the breeze that came through the open window. “Dell?” I called through the door. “It’s Osborn. You in this morning?” His car was in the drive, same as at the other houses, but he didn’t answer, same as at the other houses. I pushed the door all the way open, stepped into the kitchen. “Dell?” Picked up the telephone receiver from its cradle, listened; no dial tone. All the land lines were dead? “Dell!”

Back at Billie Jean’s, I walked in without knocking. Had to go in through the front door; the back had an old-fashioned dead bolt I couldn’t force open. Walked through the living room calling, “Billie Jean, it’s Osborn! You in?” Got no answer. Flipped every light switch I passed; all dead.  Picked up the phone in the kitchen; dead. Turned her radio on, a battery-powered weather alert radio that sat on the kitchen counter, but got nothing, not even static. Couldn’t tell for sure it was turned on.

It wouldn’t be unusual for Jim Essinger not to answer his door, but for both Becky and Connie Strauss not to? Either one of them would get up out of bed to answer a knock at their door. Dell Harlan was seventy-two years old and never went anywhere. Billie Jean would’ve come charging out of her safe room with one of her shotguns. And if the power was out in a town as small as that one was, all I would have to do to find someone to talk to would be to sit on my front stoop and wait for someone to come by to ask, “Power out at your place, too?”

Just to make sure, I went downstairs to check Billie Jean’s safe room. It was right at the bottom of the stairs. I could see the door was open from the top of the stairs, but when I was down at the bottom it was too dark to see into the room. There was a flashlight clipped to the wall in the stairway but the batteries were dead. Called Billie Jean’s name even while I felt stupid doing it. Why would she be in there with the door open? And if she was, she would be able to see me, even if I couldn’t see her. She would’ve said something. Most likely it would’ve been, “You’re trespassing. Get out of my house.”

Back at home, I popped the hood of my car to see if the battery leads maybe came off the terminals, or were corroded, but they looked fine. Jumped into the driver’s seat and tried the ignition switch again. Still nothing. Under the hood with a wrench, I disconnected the battery leads, cleaned the insides of the clamps and wiped the terminals with a corner of my shirt, then reconnected them. While I was tightening the nuts on the leads, I fumbled the wrench and dropped it so it laid across both terminals. Instinctively, I jumped back, throwing my hands in the air, but instead of the shower of sparks and the sputter of a short circuit that I expected, nothing happened. The wrench just laid there. I poked at it, even wiggled it a bit. Nothing.

Jim Essinger always left his keys in the ignition. His truck wouldn’t turn over, either. I dropped the wrench across the terminals of his battery and discovered it was dead, too. How do the batteries in two different cars go dead on the same morning? And the battery in my cell phone? And in Billie Jean’s flashlight? Were the batteries in her radio dead, too?

I fast-marched across the yard to her house one more time, went straight to her kitchen and fiddled with the dial again. Nothing at all. Turned it over to open the battery compartment, but it didn’t have one. There was a hand crank on the back, though. Of course. It was an emergency weather radio. Cranked the handle a dozen times, fiddled with the dial. Got a faint hiss of static, nothing more. Cranked it a couple dozen more times, still got nothing but static. So I could generate some power to get it working again, but I couldn’t seem to find a station that was on the air.

When the nickel dropped, I ran back to my house so fast I think my feet touched the ground twice. The car I drove then was an old Honda Civic I practically stole from the previous owner because it had so much rust around the back wheels that it lost the rear quarter panels long ago. All old Honda Civics looked like that. They all had great engines, too, that would run to the moon and back. But the guy I bought it from seemed to think it was on its last legs; he almost begged me to take it off his hands and, in the end, I nearly had to shove a hundred bucks in his shirt pocket so I’d be able to live with myself later.

The Honda was such a tiny little thing that I could easily move it by myself with the gearshift in neutral. I pushed it out of my driveway and onto the road, lined it up so I could coast downhill, and gave it a shove to get it going before jumping into the driver’s seat. I waited to gather a little speed before pushing the clutch in, shifting to first gear, then popping the clutch. The engine jerked once before coming to life. I drove to the corner, braked to a stop, and checked my cell phone. The display showed a double dash instead of the time. I flipped it open, but the screen was just an empty battery with a sliver of red at the bottom. Totally drained.

I drove around town, leaving the car at the middle of each block with the engine running while I knocked on doors to see if anybody was around. More accurately, I didn’t knock so much, just barged right in, shouting a lot. I don’t remember very clearly what I was shouting, but I do remember I didn’t find anybody, or so much as a clue where they had gone.

I drove to the next town, about twenty minutes up the road, and broke into about two dozen houses there, too, some of them a little frantically. Like, actually broke down doors and smashed windows. At some point I gave up feeling frenzied and took up feeling tired, went back to the car and sat down heavily in the driver’s seat. Laced my hands behind my head. Checked the cell phone again. It had enough of a charge for the display to light up, but it said “NO SERVICE.” Reception could be spotty in this neck of the woods, so I kept checking it from time to time as I drove further up the road to the next town, but the phone never did find a connection. And I didn’t find anybody in the next town, either.

About that time I noticed my car was down to about a quarter-tank of gas. I don’t remember driving back to Vern’s corner store, but there I was, letting myself in through the front door. The gas pumps at Vern’s were old enough that I could open them with a key from Vern’s desk and turn the pump with a crank from his office. I’d seen Vern do it before and it seemed easy at first, but I tried to do it too fast, got tired, and had to stop and rest a couple times to finish. Took about ten minutes to hand-crank enough gas to fill the Honda, and my arms were shaking when I was done.

It was about noon. I hadn’t eaten anything since I’d gotten out of bed. The deli meat in the cooler still felt cold. I ripped open one plastic envelope of sliced beef and threw the whole wad on a hamburger bun, slathered it with mustard, and wolfed it down standing at the counter. Licked my fingers clean, then went back to the cooler and grabbed another package of lunch meat, ham this time, made another sandwich just like the first and took it out to the curb with a bottle of ginger ale, where I sat down to think about what in hell was going on, eating a little less like a wild animal this time.

An entire population does not magically disappear in one night, leaving behind no clues to their absence and one survivor to wonder what happened. And yet, there I was, the featured performer in a classic episode of the Twilight Zone. Couldn’t have been more Serlingesque if I spent a half-hour talking to clothing store mannequins and ended with the camera drawing back at a high angle as I threw my arms over my head and shouted at the sky, “ISN’T ANYBODY OUT THERE?”

It was such a surreal situation, I had to wonder if I was dreaming, or even hallucinating. I felt like I was awake, but I’ve had lucid dreams that felt as realistic as this or any other waking experience I’d ever had. But they were usually weirder. Not that this wasn’t weird, but even my lucid dreams were disjointed scenes that featured talking dogs or dead relatives. They felt real, but they clearly weren’t real.

I’d never experienced a hallucination and knew less about them than about nuclear physics, so I had no idea how a hallucination might compare to my situation.

But the other explanations I could come up with, like the one that everyone was playing a cruel joke on me by hiding just over the horizon, or that space aliens collected everyone but me for some inscrutable reason, made less sense than the explanation that this was all a dream. Just as importantly, the explanation that it was a dream at least offered me some hope. If it was a dream, eventually I’d wake up.

I had eaten about half my sandwich when one of the neighborhood cats came trotting across the street and sidled up to me, purring and rubbing its head against my elbow. I pinched a bit of the meat out of my sandwich and offered it to her, and she accepted it eagerly, snapping it up in two or three bites. We both finished off the sandwich there at the curb, then she cleaned her face while I drank the last of the ginger ale.

Dream or hallucination, there wasn’t going to be any deli meat or, even more importantly, cold ginger ale at the end of the day. Grabbing a styrofoam bait cooler off the shelf, I scooped an armload of deli meat into it, set it on the passenger seat of the Honda, then went back for a case of ginger ale, a bag of hamburger buns, and a bottle of mustard. The cat watched my every move with wide eyes. I could almost hear a narrator asking, “Would he go back for the tuna?” Not wanting to disappoint my inner narrator, I bagged all the canned tuna and took it to the car, but when I stepped back from the open door to invite the cat along for the ride, she turned away and pretended not to be interested. I’m not the kind of guy who begs a cat to do anything, so I shut the passenger door, hopped into the driver’s seat, and drove off.

Made a quick trip to the hardware store to pick up a generator, a heavy-duty extension cord, and a gas can, then went back to Vern’s to fill the gas can and the tank on the generator. The cat was still hanging around the store and still looked interested in what I was doing, following me back and forth from the store to the pumps. She jumped straight into the car when I opened the driver’s side door this time, climbing up onto the back of the passenger seat so she’d have a good view. Digging her claws in for stability as I pulled away, she hunkered down as I headed up the street to my house.

The generator, set up on the back stoop, took a few pulls to get going, then chugged steadily.  I plugged the extension cord into it and ran the other end through my kitchen window, went inside, pulled the fridge away from the wall, unplugged it from the wall socket, and got a satisfying hum from the compressor after it was connected to the generator.  I figured I’d give it as long as it needed to get good and cold, then shut down the generator every other hour to conserve gas, or whatever worked best.

Dumped all the deli meat and the hamburger buns on the middle shelf.  There was still plenty of room for more.  I had never been what anybody would call a foodie.  I mean, I like good food, but I can eat anything.  Even so, I wasn’t planning to eat sandwiches from now until whenever this long, strange trip ended. This was just to get me through the day and maybe the next day. But I didn’t have much more of a plan than that. I needed to think. So I brewed a pot of coffee, filled a travel mug and headed for the beach. The cat trotting along beside me. 

After I drug the canoe into the water and hooked the handle of the travel mug over the gunwale next to the back seat, I sloshed back to shore to get the paddle.  The cat sat at the edge of the water, looked down at the gap between dry land and the prow of the canoe. Then she looked up at me with big watery, pleading eyes.  I grabbed the paddle in one hand, the scruff of the cat in the other and set them both in the canoe. Then I settled onto the back seat and went for a paddle.

The water was as flat and calm as the mill pond gets at mid-day, so it didn’t take long for the cat to find her sea legs. As I paddled slowly away from shore, she explored the bottom of the canoe, climbed onto the front seat for a look around, then jumped onto the little triangle of varnished wood that spanned the bows and settled onto her haunches to watch the world go by.

Saturday, February 1st, 2020 at 1:10 pm CST
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