A strong onshore wind blew respectable whitecaps across the rolling surface of Lake Michigan. It was a welcoming chill, a summer kiss that blew away the radiating heat of the morning sun. They sat on the second floor of a concrete parking structure that was half submerged in the lake. Waves lapped at the pylons that held up the thirty floors above them. There were no signs of cars, but they hadn’t explored the upper stories. Seth imagined a rusting Ferrari on the topmost deck, its front seat the home to a nest of owls, bearing a vigil of decades over the silent gray sentinels, and peering with squinted windshield at the azure lake.
Across the city they had walked through streets of empty-windowed townhomes like hollow-eyed Easter Island monoliths. The buildings huddled together in a chorus of forgotten stoops and bent front gates. Coyotes could be seen skittering across the raised gravel ridges of L tracks traversing the city. They loped hungrily along the railroad ties, giving the steel rails a wide berth as if in obedience to some distantly-inherited collective memory.
In the trendy Lakeview neighborhood, weeds earned purchase between tiny cracks in the pavement, and water freezing in the spaces between wedged the streets like a seasonal crowbar. The years of freezing and thawing jackhammered the sidewalks, and the roots of boulevard median separator trees peeled the asphalt back like the thinnest and most inconsequential eggshell. From a shining gray belt, to a cobblestone way, to patterns of rocks in the grass between skeletal buildings; the new fossil record of humanity became the rusted parking meter, the exposed rebar.
Seth thought that the city had seemed even emptier before than now. The suburbs of old Chicago were the clan hold-fasts of a dozen different studies in the same subject. That side’s yours, this side’s mine. Mow up to the parkway, keep off the lawn. Chicagoans hurtling down the Kennedy in German cars yammering into their cellphones had given way to a far quieter but more insistently alive city. The insular disconnection of bogus interdependence had evaporated somehow. He remembered the food riots and fuel rationing lines, and it occurred to him that even a moderate amount of suffering was insufficiently galvanizing to make people realize how hard their fates were adhered to the fates of everyone around them.
“What are you thinking about?” asked Marvin.
“Nothing,” Seth replied.
Sometime before the worst part of the crash, Seth and Jolene ran out of money to fill their gas tanks with. They both had good cars with hybrid electric engines, but even then if a fuel station could be found with gas still in the tanks, the prices were prohibitive. He began taking the long, arduous bicycle ride to work every day, and he sold his own car. Many businesses had closed and the unemployment rate was high. People willing to work for nothing or close to nothing were ready to step forward and fill any vacancies. Pay cuts whittled their income down to barely enough to buy food. When gas could be had, at any price, it was a question of fuel or food.
“We urge you to please be patient and strong during this difficult time,” said the national newscasters. “The representative from United North American Petrochemical Producers has been in contact with us and they have stated that they are working diligently with their affiliates to bring ethanol production on line to meet demand. UNAPP says that the current arable land under cultivation for fuel crops is sufficient to meet only approximately ten to twelve percent of national demand. Much of the ethanol being produced is earmarked for governmental…”
On the last day they had driven their car, Jolene and Charlie had been singing songs in the back when he stopped at a gas station to see if he could purchase a gallon or two.
“I remember when this shit was only nine bucks a gallon,” said an older man filling the tank of his motorcycle. The price per gallon was nearly four times that now, and the mixture was more than 60% ethanol.
“They can’t be getting much of it out of the ground,” said Seth.
“Heh,” the man replied, “it’s all coming from the ground. It’s just not from oil anymore.”
“How much longer do you think they’ll try to get away with this?”
The man smiled, shaking his head. He didn’t reply. After half a gallon, the pump shut off. A small intercom built into the pump crackled to life.
“Sorry for the inconvenience sir, but our tanks are empty. We take deliveries on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month and we may have some then. If you want to…”
Seth ignored the canned apology and settled for half a gallon. It was enough to get them home, to take him to the hospital when Charlie got the first bout of the flu, and to get them back within pushing range of the parking lot. Aside from that, their station wagon never again moved of its own power.
After a few months, the tires went flat, and Charlie took to playing in there using the back seat as a mountain for his action figures to scale. Every so often he would inadvertently plant an elbow or hand on the steering wheel and the sound of the horn blasting would startle him into a crying jag. A few months later, the battery died and the horn fell silent. Seth suspected Charlie may have left an interior light on or the glove compartment open, and one of the small bulbs drained it slowly hour by hour.
“Are they serious?” Jolene said.
“I think so,” replied Seth. Along the lines of people waiting with full carts of groceries to check out at the two open counters, a pair of teenagers in blue store-logo overalls were walking with price-tagger guns, re-pricing the food in the carts. There was tension and joylessness around food. Everyone had begun looking a bit yellowish-green around the edges lately. No one had enough to eat. Seth wondered if he had to stare at food all day the way these cashiers did if he wouldn’t eventually break inside like a dry, brittle twig.
They had ceased using the conveyors and barcode readers months ago when the power had become spotty. Each aisle instead boasted a slightly jaundiced-looking cashier with a solar-powered calculator. As they stood in substantial lines, listening to the click and stick of the taggers, a scuffle ensued when an elderly woman attempted to prevent the stocker from sticker-ing her food. She was escorted out by a gun-carrying security guard.
When they got to Seth’s cart, he watched closely. Oranges at $9.99 were put up to $11.99, canned tomatoes that had been $6.99 five minutes ago were now $8.49. He took the kid’s wrist. The young man looked up, ready to call for security again. Seth hissed at him.
“Look at me.”
The kid stared blankly at the wall.
“Look at me!” Seth commanded.
He did. The kid’s eyes were slow and distant, and behind them was the sort of unblinking lack of sympathy that came from weeks and weeks of the same scenario over and over.
“Everything you put a sticker on means this person gets less to eat.” He used a thumb to indicate Charlie.
“I’m just doing my job, sir…”
“Yeah,” the kid said. The security guard was watching them now, aware that the re-pricing had been halted. If this continued much longer, none of them would eat. Seth gestured welcomingly at his cart. The kid stared at him for a second, and continued.
“Do you remember your parents letting you go hungry?”
“I’m hungry now, sir.”
“When you were little, I mean.”
“No, I guess not.”
“Well that’s my job.”
The stocker stared blankly at him again, taking a small box of animal crackers already half eaten out of Charlie’s hands and changing the $4.99 to $7.19. He handed back the box.
“Rot in hell, you motherfucker,” Seth said to the kid, who slumped his shoulders and moved on to the next cart.
When he returned home, Seth called his phone provider and told them to disconnect him.
He shifted his weight from left to right in an attempt to warm his feet. It was only late September, but the morning was chilly enough to sink into him after an hour or two standing motionless on line. His face felt puffy and stiff. He had forgotten his jacket.
The line to the grocery store’s front door stretched around his block, past his front door and down Sheridan road like the procession of faithful to the Golgotha, or ants toward a distant, discarded cupcake. A shifty-looking man in a yellow shirt with a bowl haircut attempted to jump ahead in the line by talking to someone he knew.
“GET THE FUCK BACK!” someone yelled. It was louder than anything Seth had heard in days, and certainly louder than any sound he could make. He felt like his lungs wouldn’t expand far enough anymore to scream.
The man in the yellow shirt glared back at the line, searching halfheartedly for the person farther back who had chastised him. His face showed the sort of concern that suggested he was more worried about gauging his probability of success in a confrontation than genuinely caring what anyone had to say about his breach of line etiquette.
To Yellow Shirt’s lasting regret, the Good Citizen’s voice was echoed by the cold stares of hundreds of other hollow-eyed, starving Chicagoans. A hand took his shoulder and he brushed it off, whirling to face the offender. It was a small woman with wispy, unnaturally yellow hair. She hissed at him and pointed a finger in the direction away from the line.
“Move it,” she growled.
He grunted and looked away.
This time it was four sets of hands that clawed out at Yellow Shirt, and not as gently as before. He pulled backward and the collar of his shirt split and tore open. His chest was sunken inward above an edemic belly. He thrust his arms in front of him and pushed off, but one of the people that had a hold on him rushed forward and bulled him over. He went down hard and the line thickened at that point, swallowing him in a dimpled swarm of fists and boots kicking. The gunmen at the door leaned over to see what was happening and at a whistle from one of them, the security bars rolled down from the ceiling across the main door.
Some people at the front of the line tried to hustle forward anyway. One man attempted to roll under the grate as it fell and was pushed back with long broom-handles from the shopkeepers inside. The shotguns came up, and their butts shattered the cheekbones of those not fast enough to retreat. The crowd around Yellow Shirt stopped and looked forward. The cry went up.
Shouts of anger on both sides ensued. A man wearing a gray scarf around his neck and sunglasses taunted the guards, and brazenly walked into their path, daring them to shoot him.
“Fuck you, you whores. What the fuck you gonna do?”
“Back off,” one guard said lowly, though still clearly enough to be heard by Seth halfway down the line.
Gray Scarf didn’t back off. Instead he walked deliberately straight into the barrel of the shotgun, unflinching.
“What the fuck you gonna do?”
“Back away, now.”
“It’s a free country, bitch!”
Seth looked past him to the others closest. Their own boldness was growing and they advanced as well with hunger or murder in their eyes. A heartbeat passed, the wooden gun butt socked tightly to the guard’s shoulder. Seth didn’t see Gray Scarf fall, he saw instead the guard’s eyes squint an instant before the sound of a balloon popping. The line of customers drew in a breath in the cordite after-pause of the shotgun blast.
A surge of humanity ground forward toward the door in a rage. Seth knew what would come next and attempted to turn around. A man the size of a bear pushed him forward, twisting his right lower leg under him painfully. He ducked, and for a moment was pulled off of his feet by the crowd. By some fortune he was dumped to the side and scrambled away toward the opposite curb. He limped along the sidewalk on his torn ankle till he reached his front door. He had enough time to pull out his key and unlock the lobby door before the line became a swirling mob. He closed the door to banging fists and shouts. Someone had pulled out a kitchen knife and was waving it in the air. More hollow-metallic shotgun blasts could be heard over the roar of the crowd, and shouts turned to screams. Four or five more shots went off, and then nothing remained but the outraged howl of hungry teeth and empty bellies.
He clawed his way up to the top of the landing and into their apartment. None of the other doors were open, and Seth could hear nothing from the stairwell. His neighbors had been in the crowd on the street along with him. Jolene took his arm and as soon as she saw him her eyes went wide. She went to scoop up Charlie and hide in the bathtub as they had planned. For a wonder, nothing came through their walls or windows but the smell of gunfire and the sound of inarticulate madness.
When Seth heard the shuddering clatter of chains pulling loose the frame of the grocery door and the security gate falling to the pavement, he closed his blinds and put furniture in front of his windows. They sat huddled in darkness in the mid-morning and waited for the end.