After All

Richard Lange

Their second day of walking, Bunny said to the Bear, When we gettin’ there? and the Bear said, Shit, this is nothin’. I once went a week for half a case a cream corn. Yeah, Bunny said, but I told my ma only a few days, not a week. The Bear snorted. You get back with full pockets and yer ma won’t be cryin’ sad, he said, she’ll be cryin’ happy. Bunny put that picture in his head and ignored the blister plaguing his toe. Good shoes were coming, and good food. He and the Bear wore masks against the dust and hoods against the sun, and they walked.


They were chasing the Bear’s dream. Back before everything, his great-great-grandpa lived in a town that was swallowed up by a government lake. The old man couldn’t bring himself to leave, so when the water began to rise, he sat in the cellar of his house with a coffee can full of Krugerrands and waited to drown. What’s a Krugerrand? Bunny wanted to know. A gold coin, the Bear said, and a hundred a them’s a treasure. The Bear’s dream was that the lake had dried up. I saw it clear, he said, and it gave me great joy, that old-time town risin’ forgotten out of the water. He didn’t ask the peddlers who passed by the lake or the soldiers on patrol what they’d seen for fear they’d wonder at his interest, and he only told Bunny about it after swearing him in as his fifty-fifty partner. Bunny could barely sleep that night, thinking of it. I mean, who besides the Bear used words like dream and joy and treasure? Nobody, that’s who.


They followed the road but kept off the pavement. Nothing up there but trouble. The path they took through the brush had been stomped into existence by the feet of countless other cautious travelers, some of whom had carved their names into the trees: Beano and Wiseass and Clint. Go Home Fool! someone had written, and Fuck All. Bunny didn’t know letters, so the Bear read the words out as they passed them. The map they were using was in the Bear’s memory, in case of desperadoes. Yer my boy if they ask, he said. And we heard rumor of payin’ work in Kernville.


The Bear talked like he’d forgotten he was Bunny’s father, something Bunny knew because his ma had told him, then tried to say no, not really, then said so again one night when she was drinking. Having no kin—or at least none he claimed—the Bear lived out in the scrub with the other loners. This was an old rule from right after, meant to protect the women, but it’d never worked—new bastards were born every week. Nobody was much moved to change anything, however, because everything had changed too much already. The first time Bunny saw the Bear, both were in line for a free lunch some preacher was serving. The Bear gave Bunny a butane lighter for his ma and half a hacksaw blade for himself. They never ever touched on the truth, understanding that it’s sometimes better to let things lie. As far as it went was Bunny once mouthing Pop behind the Bear’s back and the Bear carrying Bunny to the clinic after the boy broke his leg falling off a slag heap. He had to leave the room when the doc set the bone, the kid’s screams too much for him.


Toward night they quit the trail and stealth-camped wherever they found cover. Dinner was FEMA grub: protein bars and vitamin cookies. They never built fires—you didn’t want to announce yourself—but were warm just the same in their coats and bedrolls. Bunny hadn’t slept out before, and the night sounds spooked him. Swallowing his fear, he said he wished they had some music. What do you know about music? the Bear asked. One time a show come through, a man on a guitar, another on a pinano—piano, the Bear said—piano, Bunny went on, drum, horn, every damn thing. I remember some of the songs. Sing one, the Bear said. Why don’t you love me like you used to do? Why do you treat me like a worn-out shoe? My hair’s still curly and my eyes are still blue. Why don’t you love me like you used to do? The Bear clapped softly when Bunny finished. Later that night snapping twigs and rustling brush woke them both. They clutched their knives and held their breath. The moon showed a doe and two fawns high-stepping across the clearing they were camped in. Well, I’ll be damned, the Bear whispered. Boo, you old ghosts, boo.


The Bear did a little of everything to get by. Digging, hammering, hauling. What he mostly was, though, what he called himself, was a picker, one of those some said resourceful others said ghoulish men who ventured into blast zones to scrounge the ruins for trade goods. Pulling his cart behind him, he trekked deep into sectors that’ll still be toxic a hundred years from now and came out with tools, boots, scrap metal—whatever he could get at with his shovel and pry bar. His hauls set him up pretty well—he had a small trailer to bunk in, a bicycle, a nice woodstove—but he paid for every bit of it with lost sleep. Those who ain’t seen what I have can’t imagine, he said, thinking of the family of skeletons he found huddled together under a bedspread, the blasphemous farewell of a priest scrawled on the wall of a church, and the newborns at the hospital shrunk to totems of leather and bone and hair. He was burdened with the final moments of towns full of corpses, bore them like a curse of constant pain. For this reason his most closely guarded possession was a gun he’d unearthed on one of his forays and carried with him everywhere, hidden in the bottom of his ruck, a revolver so hot it set off Geigers if he wasn’t careful. Just one round rested in it, the bullet the Bear called his last meal, his ticket out when the dead babies and radioactive-dust storms finally broke his spirit.


They watered up at a spring the next day, topped off their bottles and drank their fill. A clatter coming from the road flattened them in the dirt, then drew them up the embankment on their bellies to see what was what. A squad of soldiers, regular Army, was passing by, twenty or so grunts and a couple wagons drawn by bony horses. A cuffed and hooded figure sat slumped in the bed of one of the wagons, head bobbing with every pothole. I’ma ask for some food, said Bunny, who’d grown up begging off soldiers in town. The Bear, with a longer memory and a smile-shaped scar from a rifle butt on his forehead, held him back. Keep yer mind on what yer doin’, he growled. Bunny scoffed at his wariness, pulled away, and scrambled out onto the pavement, where the grunts swung their guns his way and yelled for him to stop. Making no mention of the Bear, he told them the Kernville story and came away with a beef-stew MRE and a handful of Patriot hard candies, each wrapper printed with the picture and description of a wanted terrorist. The Bear wasn’t where he’d left him, nor down on the trail either. Bunny couldn’t think of what to do but keep walking and hope to catch up. He didn’t get a hundred yards before someone charged out of the bushes and took him hard to the ground. You go against me again, and I’ll send you back to Bako, the Bear said. He wouldn’t eat any of the stew and told Bunny the candy was for snitches.


Bunny was hurt by the Bear’s grousing but did with him what he did with his ma when she was down on him: He imagined him laughing. He thought of the night he hiked the hour from his house to the shantytown in the scrub, for some reason yearning to see where the Bear lived. He found him and a dozen other men circled around a bonfire, a bottle glinting as it moved from hand to hand. Their howls and scuffles and shady reputations kept Bunny hidden in the bushes, but when he remembered it later, it was as if he’d been right up there with them, waving smoke, spitting at the flames, and roaring after a tug on the jug: Jesus Christ, someone call the doc, I think I been poisoned. The talk was of the old days, this geezer pining for hot water, that one going on about his dad’s truck to people who’d never seen one running. Some got sad and some got bored, so it was a relief when a big bald ape called for a song. Dirty Dick sang a silly one about two Irishmen digging a ditch, then someone else told a joke about a picker who fucked a farmer’s daughter. Bunny looked across the fire to see the Bear laughing like a man who’d needed to, his mouth haw-hawing and tears running down his cheeks. Thinking about him like that now, in their cold, dark camp, made Bunny smile all over again. The Bear still had some happy in him, he was sure of it.


On the fourth day, the trail dropped into a deep canyon while the road ran high above, clinging to the canyon’s sheer north wall. A trickle of water snaked along the bottom of the gorge, where Bunny and the Bear hopped from boulder to bone-white boulder. The Bear told Bunny how it used to be a river full of fish and frogs, good eating all. Then he said, But, see, what’s bad on one hand is good on the other, ‘cause drought down here proves the lake up there is likely dry too, meanin’ my dream now has the blessin’ of science. Just before the trail began its long climb to rejoin the road, they came upon a cabin standing vacant in a grove of cottonwoods. Everything useful had been stripped from it, but the Bear nonetheless went to work with his hammer and screwdriver and in no time was stuffing twelve feet of wire, some tiny springs from a toaster, and a couple of door hinges into his pack. You know what that is? He asked Bunny about a dusty, broken something lying on the floor. A TV, Bunny said. What about that? the Bear asked. Computer. And that? A whatchacallit, fan, for hot days. A clearing out back held two graves, one long, one short, no marker on either. If you weren’t here, I’d dig those up, the Bear said. No, you wouldn’t, Bunny replied. I surely would, the Bear said. I’m just too ashamed to do it in front of you. Bunny laughed. You’re full of shit, he said. It took the rest of the day to hike out of the canyon. Bunny was glad when they were close to the road again. He trusted the pavement more than he did the dirt.


The Bear got no rest that night. He told himself it was excitement about reaching the lake the next day, but he hadn’t been excited about anything in years. He stared at the stars until his eyes burned, then rolled over and watched Bunny sleep, envying the boy’s peace. This mess, the after, was all the kid knew. Life was tough for him now and would be tough for him forever. It sometimes seemed worse, though, for old dogs like the Bear, who had memory, however faded and fading, of what it was like before. There you’d be, marching along, doing OK, when a childhood recollection of an ice-cold popsicle on a hot summer day knocked you all the way back to mourning again. The Bear spent the rest of the night pondering how many times a man could start over and calculating the dragged dead weight of the past. He’d come to no conclusions by dawn but was cheered nonetheless by the start of the new day, the rosy reappearance of the world being a wonder that never failed to sweep away his gloom and fill his sails with enough wind to get him moving.


I already got my share spent, Bunny said. Oh, yeah? Yeah. I made a list. They were drawing close to the bridge where they’d first catch sight of the lake and see once and for all. The cool morning had given way to a swelter, the murderous sun scorching even the air they winced into their lungs. Me and ma can do a lot better than the old roof we got now, Bunny said. Bitch is so rusted out, the rain dribbles right through. And I want a bicycle, like yours, only with chrome. There was also a dude stopped by the other week who said electricity’d be back soon and he could wire us for it. Said his rate’d be cheaper now than then, when everybody’ll be after him all at once. The Bear paused in the narrow shade of a dead pine and reached under his hood to swipe the sweat off his face. Peddlers been runnin’ that scam since I was a kid, he said. Ain’t no electricity comin’. Bunny bent for a stone, tossed it. You don’t know that, he said. A grunt told me he saw lights in houses in Frisco. The Bear started walking again, couldn’t stand the stupidity. If so, it was a rich man, he said over his shoulder. Richer than you no matter how many Krugerrands we find. He and Bunny plodded in silence for a bit, through the heat, through the dust, thorny shrubs tugging at their pant legs. Then Bunny said, You ever meet a rich man? I’ve seen a few, the Bear said, and it looked as if they died just like the poor ones. Better pickin’, though. Well, Bunny said, lucky for us all the body’s just a shell our souls moan through.


Where the lake had been there was now nothing but a mud-flat dried so hard it’d take a pickax to get through. Out in the middle lay the ruins of the town Bunny and the Bear had come seeking, half-sunk in the crust, a dun hump against the horizon in which the only signs of the hand of man were the straight lines and right angles of the concrete foundations and crumbling brick walls that remained. That it? Bunny asked after he and the Bear had stared awhile from the bridge. He’d expected houses and stores, derelict cars, and faded billboards. The Bear was disappointed too, but didn’t show it. The water ate up most of the iron and wood, he said, but gold don’t rust, so grab your gear and let’s go. They walked out onto the flat, heat rippling around them. Bunny raced ahead, determined to reach the town first. When he got there he slapped the wall of one of the buildings and shouted, Mine! Peering into the structure through an empty window frame, he saw more mud, clumps of dead weeds, and a few fish skeletons. Flies hovered over the mess, and the smell made his nose wrinkle. The Bear tromped among the ruins until the footprint of the town became apparent to him. He pointed out to Bunny where the main drag had run and the narrower residential streets that branched off it. They found a corroded gas pump lying on its side and a couple of truck tires embedded like fossils in the dried muck.

305 Willis was the address that had been passed down in the Bear’s family, the location of the house where Grandpa Pete died clutching his fortune. There were no street signs to consult, and all the mailboxes had floated away. The Bear was reduced to walking around with one arm held out in front of him like a dowser’s wand, counting on some ancestral polarity to lead him to his kin’s remains. He gave up after an hour and started barking orders. We’ll camp here. Be ready to work at first light. Stop whistlin’. They fetched water from a creek at the edge of the flat and ate dinner in silence. Not that there was any need to talk. Bunny found answers to most of his questions in the Bear’s downcast eyes and muttered curses.


The Bear was already busy when Bunny awoke. Kneeling next to the husk of what was once a house, he broke the dried mud that surrounded it with his screwdriver, then scraped away the dirt he made with his free hand. When he reached the foundation, he began to move along it, jabbing and digging, in search of passage into the basement. As soon as Bunny approached, he tossed the kid a chisel and said, Pick yourself a house and go for it. Bunny went to the next ruin and followed the Bear’s lead. Stab, twist, stab, twist, scoop. Stab, twist, stab, twist, scoop. They kept to the shade, working on whatever side of the houses the sun chased it to. The Bear unearthed a faucet that still had a hose attached and called Bunny over to look. A short time later, he showed him a plastic flower, part of a thing to feed birds.

Bunny didn’t care much about the junk. He had a blister on his finger, and his back hurt from bending. His progress slowed after a while, and finally whenever he knew the Bear couldn’t see him, he quit digging completely and sat against the wall and stared out at the mountains rising hazed in the distance. The Bear was flagging too, until his screwdriver hit something that made a hollow sound. In a few frenzied minutes he’d scraped away enough dirt to reveal the remains of a wooden door. Hey, he called, hey! eager for Bunny to know they weren’t wasting their time. The kid came running, and they yanked at the rotten boards until they gave way, but all they got for the effort was more mud. The basement was full of it, up to the ceiling.

The Bear had built up so much momentum by now, he couldn’t stop. He and Bunny worked together, him breaking ground, and the kid carrying off the muck. After an hour of this they’d exposed only the first two steps of the stairs leading down. Bunny took a break, went up and sprawled on what had been the porch of the house. An object half-buried in the mud got his attention, its color a brilliant blue that flashed against the infinite drab surrounding it. He wiggled the thing free and dragged it back to show the Bear, who, even after he pawed the sweat from his eyes, didn’t see the meaning of the mangled sheet of siding until Bunny pointed out the numbers painted on it: 412. You got the wrong place, Bunny said.


The Bear bugged then, started punching the mud and screaming Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! He kicked the siding out of Bunny’s hand and stomped off to another house on another street and knelt to dig there in the full sun, stabbing wildly at the earth. Bunny returned to the porch and watched him give up on that ruin and move to another, then another. The wind rushed in, and with it the dust, which stung like bees when it hit bare skin. Bunny took cover in the crevice he and the Bear had excavated. He hunkered down with their bedrolls and rucks and struggled to keep them from blowing away. A moaning filled the air, violent gusts threw their arms around the vestiges of the town, and the light of day was choked down to almost nothing. The Bear welcomed the storm. It gave him something to do battle with. He was half-crazy and knew it, digging here, digging there, first with a gambler’s determination to turn his luck, and then, finally, merely in defiance of the blow. He swallowed mud; he made his hands bloody claws; he flew from ruin to ruin, stabbing, scraping, and growling. And when the wind ceased and the dust settled, he collapsed in such a broken posture that Bunny worried he’d died. He lay where he’d fallen until the first stars showed themselves. Bunny ignored him when he finally limped into camp, sat with his back to him and sucked on the last of the soldiers’ candy. You didn’t know how it’d be, the kid said without turning around. Ain’t no shame in that. The Bear stretched out on his blanket and fell asleep tasting the dirt and sweat on his lips and counting a coyote’s yips. Bunny sat up in the busy dark, pretending he was alone, testing how it felt. It was nothing he’d choose, he concluded, but something he could tolerate.


They both woke raw and peevish, as if their dreams—the Bear’s of the past, Bunny’s of the future—had butted heads all night, warring to a stalemate that left the dreamers stranded in the dreary present with neither nostalgia nor expectation as a balm. After a polite breakfast, the Bear gathered his tools and made ready to go to work. Bunny rose to follow, the muscles in his back and legs groaning, but the Bear waved him off. You take it easy, he said, and walked by himself to the town’s main street, where he ducked into the first structure he came to and began to probe the dried mud that covered the floor and to chisel at the walls. Bunny got bored sitting by himself, got hot, and eventually scuffed over to join him. He found the Bear pulling wire out of a hole in the ceiling. The Bear showed him how to coil it by laying it across his palm then wrapping it around his elbow again and again.

They went from ruin to ruin in search of salvage that had survived the flood. Bunny had no eye for it, so he waited for the Bear to point him to a spot. If it was a wall, the moldy plaster gave way to reveal a length of pipe. If it was the floor, there, hidden under six inches of dirt, was a stack of plastic funnels or some lead sinkers. It was as if yesterday had never happened. The Bear had his magic back. They scrounged the gas station, the grocery store, and the little Baptist church, then started on the houses. The heat was against them again but didn’t seem so awful today, with all the booty they were piling up. Still, Bunny worked himself dizzy and had to lie in the shade for a while. He woke from a surprise nap, and the sun was sinking fast. The Bear was crouched in the street, sorting the haul and stuffing the best of it into Bunny’s ruck. Go on and gather some wood, he said. We’ll have a fire tonight. Is it safe? Bunny asked. You don’t trust me? the Bear said with a laugh, then tossed Bunny two cans of chili he’d hauled all the way up from Bako. They were supposed to be the celebration when they found the Krugerrands, but they’d squeezed enough something out of nothing today to have earned a feast.


The Bear chucked more wood onto the fire, and what was already burning snapped and sparked and spit. He’d just told Bunny he wasn’t going back with him the next morning, and tending to the blaze was his way of avoiding any discussion. But the kid wouldn’t be bullied. Why? he asked. What’s wrong? The Bear opened his shirt for an answer, had Bunny feel the lumps under his arms and on his neck. Picker cancer, he said. It came on quick and’s been getting worse every day. You ain’t seen it kill a man, but I have, and I won’t do that kind of suffering. Bunny was stripped of words. He sat there and toed the dust, shaken by new vistas of sorrow. I’d hoped to leave you and yer ma something, the Bear continued. The gold’s a bust, but what’s in that ruck’ll trade for a new roof. You can have my bike, too, and the trailer and everything in it. And yer gun, Bunny said, hand that over too. Ha! the Bear said, lifting the pistol out of his pocket just enough that Bunny could see it. I appreciate the sentiment, but I got my mind made up.

The flames leaped for an instant and caught the two of them staring into each other’s eyes, but the flickering darkness soon returned, and Bunny was alone on his side of the fire, trying to reconstruct his world without the Bear in it, while the Bear on his side batted away a few regrets. I don’t know what to do, Bunny wailed. It’s simple, the Bear said. You follow the road back to Bako. You get a job in town, something regular, no picking. You meet a girl, get married, have kids. You get a house. You get electricity. You hope. Simple. Bunny fell asleep eventually, wrapped in his blankets by the fire. The Bear smiled, remembering what it was like to be that kind of tired and to wake in the morning a clean slate. The flames died, and the last of the wood burned down to pulsing embers. The Bear saw castles in them, jewels, and dancing girls. At dawn’s first pinking he struck out across the lake bed for the high mountains to the east. A day or two and he’d find what he was looking for, a prettier place to put an end to it.


On his way back, Bunny stopped at the cabin at the bottom of the canyon. The graves were shallow, and it didn’t take him long to dig them out. He found nothing in either but bones, bones he dodged in his dreams that night, bones that clicked and clacked and kept coming for him. The second day he got it into his head that he was being tested, the Bear spying on him from the bushes to see how he did on his own. Show yourself, he shouted when he could no longer stand the feeling of being watched, but not a leaf stirred and no silver-bearded mug appeared. Bunny walked on, whistling away his disappointment with two Irishmen, two Irishmen and Why Don’t You Love Me? and savoring a vision of a hot meal, a soft bed, and a once-dark room livid with incandescent light.

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