Footprints on a Hapless Moon
The train station was ten minutes from Jack Rigby's house, and the only things he’d come back with were two bags and a coat he wasn’t wearing.
He wanted to walk down the tracks and cross just behind the train, but he thought someone might yell at him. So he took his things to a sun-heated stone bench and waited. Other passengers wandered into the parking lot, greeting family members and friends who were there to take them where they were going next. No one looked at Jack. Three Amtrak employees, each responding to some signal from the lead car, picked up their yellow stepping stools and got on.
He wondered what it would be like to work as a train jockey. Wake up one morning, take a bus to Union Station, get on a train, ride for four or five hours, get off, get on a train headed back to Chicago. As infuriating as the delays were for the passengers (at one point, they’d come to a coasting halt just short of the Kalamazoo stop while switches were unglued) Jack couldn’t imagine dealing with stoppages every day, all while trying to placate every red-faced passenger demanding news about when the train would be running again. At least it was a job.
There would be no jobs for Jack this summer. He'd applied to more than a few retail sales positions, the kind they seemed to give to just anyone, and hadn’t heard from any. He’d only been brave enough to call back four of them. He didn’t like the way his voice sounded on the phone. One stutter, one gulp, and they’d know he wasn’t cut out for retail. He didn’t want to be cut out for it. His Linguistics degree, his green cap and gown were useless in retail. Maybe he was just another victim of the economy, and he just had to get out of Michigan. The thought didn’t make him feel any less inconsequential.
Another minute and the train was gone, bells and red lights clogging traffic across the road adjoining the station parking lot.
As he stepped across the tracks and looked back West, toward Chicago, he thought about his mother.
Three days ago she called with a hitch in her voice. “I’m having surgery tomorrow morning. On my neck. They have to replace one of my discs to release a pinched nerve, and then fuse my two vertebrae together.”
He’d been riding his bike, but he had to stop and get off so he could think.
“They go in through the front,” she said, “and push my esophagus and windpipes to the side, so they can get back to where my spine is.”
They go in through the front. Jack shuddered. If the surgeon slipped, if it was different in there than he’d thought...
But the surgery had gone well. The next day Jack surprised her with a vase of flowers and a kiss on the cheek. The train from Lansing only took four hours, and he’d found a cheap ticket. Now he was back.
Across the road from the train station was the grocery store where he’d parked his bike, a Schwinn Varsity racer from the '80’s that he’d bought from a kid for seventy dollars. He settled the duffel bag across the crotch bar and got on, balancing it gingerly until he got up to speed.
Three minutes later, he was home. The house was a modest white two-story box, reminiscent of the modular housing kick of the fifties. The neighborhood was nice too, like something straight out of the picket fence era. One of the neighbors had, instead of a trim and tidy lawn, an impressively groomed parcel of dirt.
There were two cars in the driveway - his and Marcy’s. He liked Marcy, more than he wanted to because she was obnoxious. She bragged about things she cleaned, or painted, and was always complaining about the latest boy who had loved and left her. Toward Jack, she was either warmly engaging or closed off and suspicious, keeping him off balance. She pricked him with comments about his wardrobe or hairstyle, and he did his best to riposte, pretending it was a game between them. But he never knew for sure.
Branson was in Ann Arbor babysitting his brother’s kids, Jessica was in Europe with her boyfriend, and Erin had just moved out. It would be him and Marcy until his lease ended and he moved to Chicago for good.
So as he locked his bike and carried his bags to the door, he was both excited and wary. He would take his things to his basement room, and if he heard her in the kitchen, he might come up and try his luck at small talk. If that didn’t happen, well - he was in the midst of a hardcover anthology of short stories, which were perfect for his ever-waning attention span.
His room was a cement square in one corner of the basement, a cubicle with a door. Cool in the summer, and the sunken windows let in just the right amount of light. They let in other things, too. Rain, if he left them open. Stray cats. Frogs. One cat, a brown and white tom, was Jack’s friend. One day, after a long afternoon bike ride, he found it sitting on the chair in front of his computer. He asked Marcy and Branson if they knew where it had come from, but neither had seen it before. Jack let it out the front door, but by the time he got back to his room, it was sitting on his chair again.
Since then, they’d established a routine. A meow at the window would wake Jack sometime around three in the morning, after which he’d let the cat in, feed it cereal, snuggle with it for a few minutes, and put it back outside.
He named it Spaghettio.
Ten minutes after he’d carried his bags inside he heard Marcy in the kitchen. He gave himself a cursory look in the mirror and walked to the bottom of the stairwell. He was about to go up but saw she was standing there, at the top, looking at him.
“Do you have time to do me a favor?” Did he have time? The question supposed he had a schedule. He wasn’t even going to ask what the favor was.
“Come smoke with me. I hate doing it alone; it makes me feel like a stoner.”
This was the first Marcy had wanted to do anything with him alone, even if it happened to be drugs. Jack agreed.
In her room, she produced a sandwich bag with a bud of dried marijuana. She picked it apart meticulously and packed the pieces into the bowl of a glass pipe.
“I don’t get high,” Jack said.
Marcy stopped what she was doing and looked at him.
“You said you’d smoke with me.”
“That’s not what I meant. I’ll smoke with you. It’s just never gotten me high. I’m immune.”
She grinned. “This is potent weed.”
“Someone always says that.”
He lit the bowl and let the smoke gather in his lungs. He let it out. Contrary to his conviction, the drug did its work on him.
“I told you it was potent. It’s a new plant - a hybrid of marijuana and peyote. A cactus weed.”
He stared at her in horror until she busted up laughing. He’d been preparing himself for a vision quest. What would it be? Would he have an animal guide? But there was no peyote in the pot, and now she was trying to get him to play video games.
“I don’t think I can,” he argued, explaining he felt he was already a character in a video game played by someone on a different plane of reality.
“I’m a glove, and someone’s hand is wearing me. Only it’s not a perfect fit. The fingers are too thin. I can’t play video games while I feel like I’m in one. It’s too…recursive.”
She laughed, and he realized what he was saying. The bowl was out. Marcy told him she was going to bed, that she had to be up for her summer statistics class in the morning.
Jack went to his room in rough shape, nearly tumbling down the wooden staircase and sprawling on the concrete. He caught himself, giggling, and made it into his bed, where the dark spun around him. The basement was muggy, air stagnant and full of moisture. He gagged on his breath.
The windows were just below ground level, sitting in little wells cut from the soil. Jack wanted to open them, kept picturing himself rising to do the job, but his body wouldn’t let him. Wait, his body pleaded. Just a few more minutes.
A few more minutes and the voice sounded like a cat outside his window. Spaghettio was out there. Jack pulled himself upright and went to the window, feeling like he was on stilts. He pushed the window open, and the cat launched itself at him, landing on his shoulder. Jack staggered but managed to stay upright. Spaghettio ran under his bed.
“Why are you acting crazy, kid?”
The cat didn’t answer and didn’t come out. Jack pulled the window shut. He didn’t trust himself to walk back to bed. He took two steps and jumped. Spaghettio yowled from somewhere, and Jack held on to the bed’s sides, aware that the way everything was spinning he might be bucked off any moment.
Rushing water, roaring winds. Had he fallen asleep? The dark still spun, but now it was punctuated by white stabs of light that penetrated his eyelids and thunder that ripped into his head. The thunder was distant yet immediate, and shook the house ten seconds at a go.
The wells would be filling now, his windows would be half underwater, and Jack was glad he’d let Spaghettio in when he had. He was glad the windows were shut, despite the nauseating thickness of the air. He pushed himself off the bed and knelt on the concrete.
He vomited in rhythm with the rocking of the house. It sounded like a bomb going off, felt like a shockwave rolling through him. Jack was covered in sweat when he finished, so he peeled off his clothes and crawled back in bed. A sudden chill took over him, but at least he felt better.
The storm slackened.
The door at the top of the stairs opened. Marcy's quick steps startled him, and then she was in his room. Even in the dark, he could tell she'd been crying.
“I had a bad dream.”
He got up and went to the closet before attempting to console her. He threw a towel on the puke so she wouldn’t see, and went to her.
“Are you all right?”
She shook her head. “I can’t go back to sleep. The storm…I dreamed something bad happened to my sister’s little boy. I can’t talk about it.”
“Here, come over here. I can’t stand very well.”
He fell to his knees beside the bed. She stood there for a moment and then knelt down by him.
“Did you…it smells like vomit in here.”
“The cat did it.”
“Under the bed.”
As if to prove Jack right, Spaghettio made a deep purring noise, nearly a growl.
She put her hands on his forearms and pulled them gently upward. He pushed himself off the ground, and they both sat on the bed.
“I know you’re the one with the bad dream, and I don’t know how you feel about me, but - would you lay with me?”
Marcy nodded in the dark, and Jack let himself go limp in her arms. It felt good, being this close. He shivered against her warmth.
“Jack, you’re sweating, but you’re so cold. I’ll get you some water.”
“No. No water. Just…lay with me.”
Another few moments and he was out again.
He dreamed he was with Marcy on the side of some Western mountain. Wyoming, or Nevada. They climbed without urgency, without fatigue. She was in front, and he watched her lithe body move - she was an elk, he was a goat. Every so often she looked back and smiled at him. Finally, they reached the top. Marcy took off her pack, and then each piece of clothing she had, one by one. Jack stood there, unable to move, unable to look away. She was nude. She came to him.
“It may seem terrible, but everything's all right. It’s time for a change, you know that.”
“What do you mean?”
She pointed behind her, to the horizon. In front of it was a rocky steppe that came to an abrupt end. Marcy turned away from him and ran toward it. Jack wanted to cry out, warn her, but couldn’t. He got his legs working, running after. He caught up to her just as they came to the cliff’s edge, and then they were falling.
“Kiss me,” she said, and Jack woke up.
Marcy’s face was less than ten inches from his. She had turned toward him in her sleep, and her head was tilted back like she was about to tell him a secret. Her face was pale and freckled in the dim light from the waterlogged windows, and her lips were pulled forward in a pout that made them look like soft pink pillows.
He leaned toward her, unaware that he was doing it, unable to bring anything to his mind but the dream of falling. The girl in his bed who had so often annoyed him in her loud way, jousted with him over unwashed dishes and dirty bathtubs, looked peaceful here. A still life.
Jack kissed her forehead.
Her eyes ever fluttered open, until she came awake. Spaghettio meowed. The cat had come out from under Jack’s bed and was sitting near the door, looking at them.
“Is that that cat?”
It was. “I named it Spaghettio,” Jack said, “It hangs out in here sometimes.”
Marcy rolled over and pushed herself out of bed.
“It wants to go upstairs,” she said. Jack felt her absence. He was cold. Marcy opened the door, and the cat shot through the opening. She followed, but just before her head was out of sight, she looked back at him and gave him a guilty smile.
“I’ll come back after I pee.”
Jack put his face in his pillow. He’d never been attracted to anyone he lived with before. When she came back - what would she expect?
As it turned out, he needn’t have worried. Not about impending cuddles, or the job market, or the economy. When Marcy came back it wasn’t to crawl in bed with him again, but to whisper with wide eyes about an orange sky and black snow.
He walked outside with her and held her hand because she asked him to. They took battery acid breaths. A cough collected in the back of Jack’s throat, but when he tried to expel it all he could manage was a wheeze. He went back for hand towels and wet them with toilet water. There was no electricity.
They put the towels over their faces and began to walk, marveling at the damage. The ground was covered in three inches of ash, each step they took stamping a perfect shoe-print in its canvas. One small step. Footprints on a hapless moon, he thought.
It was ten or eleven in the morning, but the sky was still dark and tinted a bloody orange like after sunset.
They didn’t talk until they walked a quarter of a mile up the road, to Michigan Avenue. They didn’t comment on the streets filled with empty cars, or the men who staggered from the west like zombies, clothes melted to them. Amid the screaming and sirens, they communicated with hand squeezes and wide eyes.
They came to Harrison and Michigan Avenue, scarcely recognizable under all of the ash that still fell, and looked downtown, toward the ever-visible Capitol Building.
Gone. In its place was a tower miles high, feeding black ash into the clouds. Nuked the Capitol, Jack thought.
He tried not to think about his mother in Chicago, tried not to imagine a country where every major city had been blown to kingdom come.
Marcy looked at him. “What do we do now?”
“I don’t know. We could go home.”
Marcy shook her head and looked back downtown.
“I want to see where it all went. Where it all came from.”
She stepped forward. She kept going.
Jack stood in the road in boxers with a wet towel over his face. His skin, warm like he’d been doing early afternoon yard work under a summer sun. The ash that fell on him tickled and stung, and the screams and sirens kept on.
He watched Marcy for almost a minute, her lithe body moving toward the bomb. She was an elk. He was a goat.
He got his legs working.