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TUESDAY, JANUARY 1
So here I am, starting another journal. Though in my head I’ve cataloged everything I need to write down, even after sitting here for five minutes I haven’t been able to construct the opening sentence I want. All I’ve done is gather steam. I’m beginning this today not because of a New Year’s resolution, but because January 1 seems like a logical point to start. Since no one makes calendars anymore, a journal will help me keep track of the time. Besides, writing fills hours as well as pages, and I have an entire winter to while away.
When I was in college and very deep, I kept a journal. One day, I was certain, scholars would comb it for clues to what had propelled my remarkable life. In its pages were turns of phrase so elegant, observations so crystalline, even the most casual reader wouldn’t be able to help but see the first glimmers of my novels, tales fervent enough to envelop readers a hundred years after they were written. Before you get the wrong idea, I should be clear even I knew this was beyond pretentious. I was trying to create depth with a pen whose stroke barely nicked the paper. But Lord, did I have a sense of history then. Did I understand the importance of artifacts. I had a twenty-year-old’s faith in dreams and sheer will, and a child’s stubbornness in the face of reality. I hate to remember even thinking this way, but there was a time I truly believed I would do something exceptional with my life. And by “exceptional,” I don’t mean simply survive, simply not get sick.
Of course, now I wish I hadn’t thrown those notebooks out. I came across them when I was moving from the house and spent barely five minutes leafing through before burying them in a bag of trash. They were nothing but bad, affected writing, melodrama about my father not understanding me, soft-core pornography about girls I knew. Though I can’t reconstruct them, I still see the pictures I was trying to record. When you’re twenty, the strangest things have a way of leaving an impression on you. I remember one morning, at two or three o’clock, walking along Saint Mary’s Street in Boston, where it crossed the trench of the Massachusetts Turnpike. In those days, the neighborhood around BU was marginal, and I scanned every shadow for the slightest movement. Halfway along the overpass I accepted that no assailants lurked in the gloom, that the streets were truly empty, Saint Mary’s Street and Commonwealth Avenue behind me, Park Drive in front of me, the Turnpike underneath me. For the duration of a breath I had Boston to myself. Then a car turned the corner and washed me in its headlights, and the running lights of a truck appeared above the Allston tolls and raced toward the air beneath my feet. Looking back, it was a moment as ordinary as the rest of my life, bearing only the kind of meaning a kid with no trauma can invest. Still, all these years later, the shadows, the lights of the Prudential Center, the mild chill of the air remain clear in my memory, journal or no journal, words or no words.
Before Shar and I split up, I kept a journal to chart the fractures in our relationship. When I couldn’t bring myself to do that, I wrote long descriptions of my commute to work. No wonder I got bored. In those days, people said writing down your worst fears, your deepest desires, could be liberating. Maybe. Certainly, it forced me to think things through. But if Shar didn’t understand me, recording the details didn’t make me feel any better. If anything, it made me crazier. Every morning before Shar woke up, I got out of bed and settled at the kitchen counter to examine all the empty paper I was supposed to fill. I’d sit there and recall the conversations I wanted to describe, but before I could record anything, a sense of betrayal seeped through me like a chill. My mind filled with images of Shar asleep, of Shar working in her garden, or reading the newspaper with an expression both alert and curious. I’d scratch out my first sentence, compose my second more carefully, then abandon the tirade I’d imagined, replacing it with observations about the weather along Route 1.
Anyway, here I am. Welcome to my diary. Today is January 1 and overnight we had the season’s first real snow. Until now it’s been chilly but mild, like a long autumn. Yesterday seemed like any other day until late in the afternoon, when the sky turned gray and the air stilled itself. As the woods lost their color, I stood on the back steps and listened, sure that if I could hear the rumble of ice against the river bank from a quarter-mile away, snow would fall before midnight. There’s no science to that, I know, but I remember from the time I was a kid that dark skies and cold, still air foretold a winter storm. All through the evening I paced to the window, even went out onto the porch a couple of times, hoping to spot the first flakes as they drifted through the trees. Each time, I found the sky and woods black, the snow still a promise. While building the fire, I considered how moronic it was to look forward to a storm in a house with no furnace, but when I crawled into bed I was as content as I’ve been for a long time. At some point during the night, I woke to a nearly perfect quiet, disturbed only by the faintest scratching against the window. When I woke again, the sky had turned pale gray and there were three inches of snow on the ground, with more falling. Alex likes to tell me I don’t take the weather seriously enough, that instead of getting romantic about the quiet of a snowfall I should count the weeks from Thanksgiving to spring, when the temperature will moderate and the river will thaw and we can get around more easily and think about planting vegetables. He’s probably right, but for now, today, I love the fact there’s snow outside.
For all his sober regard for the weather, Alex was all enthusiasm when he pounded on my door just as the snow was tapering off, ready to break his cabin fever by skiing the ten miles to Lambertville. He lives three doors up from me, in the house he shared with his family, a wife and son now buried behind the garden. Before the virus, he was a lawyer specializing in intellectual property. I always find it hard to imagine him in an office, in a suit, preparing depositions and cease-and-desist letters. Physically, he seems too big for that. He’s six feet tall, with wide shoulders and thick biceps, legs that seem perfectly formed, and an air of impatient strength that makes me think if he got bored enough he’d dig a new branch of the canal just to kill time. He calls himself an outdoors guy, spends his summers hiking and kayaking, his winters skiing or snowshoeing. He’s the kind of man who is completely engaged in whatever he’s doing, even if it’s just reading or sitting on his porch, watching birds flit through the trees or deer slip past a hedge across the way. In the year or so that I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him truly down. I’ve seen him sad, and I’ve seen him tired, but I’ve never seen him morose or black in his heart. When you think about it, that’s quite something.
Alex is probably the least fearful person I know. The notion of surviving without supermarkets or electricity simply doesn’t worry him. It’s like camping, he says, only on a different scale. He tells me I’ll get used to the empty woods, dark houses and cracking roads, and I suppose he’s right. Certainly, I’m more apt to sleep through the night now than I was a year ago, and seeing nothing but snow and trees for days at a time doesn’t set my mind on edge as it would have last winter. Still, I’m not like Alex, who’s going to ski twenty miles round trip just to poke through a deserted town and maybe bring back a case of canned stew. Though he asked if I wanted to go, I couldn’t face the notion. I’ve gone with him to Lambertville before, but sometimes I don’t have it in me to pass all of its dark houses and imagine what’s behind all of its closed doors.
In these matters, Alex rarely pushes me. On any given day he selects his approach according to his reading of my disposition and, though I hate to think of myself as high-maintenance, I do appreciate his consideration. He’d never set out without asking me to go along, although today I sensed he was just as glad I chose to stay home. If nothing else, we all pay close attention to each other’s moods now. At night, we all look out our windows into perfect black, and we all know how it feels to contemplate the ten miles separating us from the next person as if they were infinite space. Aside from ourselves, Alex and I don’t know of any people who have settled close to one another, or re-created villages along the rivers or old highways, or re-inhabited any of the places where living would be more convenient, if not less lonely. I suppose this is because of the way things happened, the way people got sick, no matter what medicines they took or where they hid.
Supposedly the virus had a short lifecycle. No one had dealt with anything quite like it before, so we all learned together week by week, epidemiologists and administrators, emergency room doctors and plain old people like me. Just before CNN went off the air, one of its reporters interviewed the director of the Centers for Disease Control. He had no doubt a cure could be found. “The problem,” he said, “is we won’t have enough time.” By that point, we were about a month into it. People had stopped going to work, the airlines had stopped flying and the reporter on television was someone I’d never seen before. She asked, “Aren’t you afraid a statement like that will cause panic?” In response, the director shrugged. “I don’t think anyone who’s watching is surprised to hear it,” he said. “At this point, we all know nature is going to take its course.” The reporter wondered where that course would lead, and the director shrugged again. “Ultimately, I don’t know,” he told her. “It might be over already, or we might have another round or two to go. The truth is we can only do what everyone else is doing: wait and hope.”
“And pray,” interjected the reporter. Sometimes I wonder if they taught that kind of crap in broadcast journalism school.
“Pray if you want,” said the director. “Me, I’ll just hope.”
Anyway, Alex is obviously looking forward to wandering around at his own pace. He always packs plenty of supplies and carries a good sleeping bag, so he can stay out for a week and remain as happy as can be. He said he might ski across the bridge to Pennsylvania and look in on the Benedettos’. Sal and Marianne and their two sons, Jon and David, who took up residence at the outlet center in Lahaska just after the virus cleared. After he left, I swept snow off the porch and brought in enough wood for the night. I read for awhile, War and Remembrance, by Herman Wouk, then heated a can of soup in the fireplace for dinner. When that was done, I washed my dishes and settled down to write this. Now I guess I’ll go to bed.
Wednesday, January 2
This morning I killed time until the day warmed up, then trudged outside to shovel a path from the back door to the wood pile, around the house and to the end of the driveway. The snow was light and loose, sparkling along its surface and, though the air seemed still, a swath of high cumulus drifted steadily east. Something about it captured my attention — the way the clouds floated silently, their edges contorting in slow motion, trailing wisps of vapor that glowed as they curled into the rays of the sun. I stood watching until the cold worked its way through my parka and into my arms and shoulders. When my fingers began trembling, I cursed and hurried inside, imagining a cold festering in my lungs. I rested by the fire, made lunch once my hands had stopped shaking (soup again, with a can of cold peas), and went back outside to dig a path from my driveway to Alex’s.
With the shadows lengthening and the sky losing color, the neighborhood looked as it must have after a snowfall back in the day. Our street, River Way, runs between the river on one side and the old Delaware and Raritan Canal and State Highway 29 on the other. Before the Civil War, some sort of way station was built here. Over time it evolved into a cluster of houses for people working in Princeton or the office parks near Flemington. Wide and overhung with branches of maple and pine, it’s lined with houses that are bigger than those built after the war and sturdier than the boxes slapped together in the nineteen eighties and nineties. The yards are deep, and in spring and summer the lawns will turn to meadows.
My house belonged to a contractor who renovated old mills into offices and stores. He was married to a history teacher at Lambertville’s high school, and Alex says they were a nice couple. It’s funny — I’ve been sitting here trying to avoid writing their names, as if that would violate some confidence. More likely, I just don’t want to admit I live in the home of strangers. But, for the record, their name was Wezdecki — Robert and Linda Wezdecki. Their son was named Joe, after Linda’s father. Linda was one of the first to get sick, and Robert took ill the week after her funeral. Joe was a freshman at Columbia, and Alex assumes he died in the city.
Most of the houses here are colonials, though mine is a ranch, slung across the gentle slope that rises from the curb to the canal’s embankment. I grew up in a ranch so, surveying the street on my first afternoon here, I was drawn almost instinctively to its wide rooms and high ceilings. Standing in the bedroom, I imagined listening to rain pound the roof with a sound I hadn’t heard since boyhood, back in Massachusetts, lying in my original bed. In the living room, picture windows admitted enough light to dispel the shadows an overcast day would impose on other houses. Following along, Alex was sure this was the wrong place for me. The house wouldn’t hold heat very well, he said, and I’d have to hang curtains around the living room to conserve whatever warmth I got from the fireplace. Logically, I knew he was right. But the way the living and dining rooms combined into one long space and the bedrooms were clustered behind the kitchen brushed me with the barest whisper of satisfaction. Once I moved in, I couldn’t bring myself to drape off the living room. It would make the place seem makeshift, too much like an emergency shelter, and I spend enough energy convincing myself this is home. On a night like tonight, when I’m vaguely tired and the fire’s going, I can pretty much pull that off.
It’s dark now and I’m assuming Alex isn’t coming back tonight. I didn’t really think he would. He’s too social to be stuck in one place all winter, with only one person to talk to. Of course, now I wish I’d gone with him. It would have been nice to see other faces and hear other voices. My instinct is always to stay put, but I’ve got to get better at fighting that off. The next time Alex says let’s go, I’m just going to say yes.
Friday, January 4
Today, everything seems gray — the sky, the snow, the air. All through the night I heard a strong wind blowing, and when I got up the fire was nearly out. More snow had fallen, and all of my paths were half-buried. I pretended not to care as I rebuilt the fire and boiled coffee.
Last night, the quiet tricked me into believing I was home. I awoke sure that the creaking of trees and shaking of windows were sounds of a typical morning gaining momentum. Though she seemed unusually still, I was sure Shar was next to me, her warmth melding with mine beneath the quilts. The pace of her breathing matched my own as I opened my eyes. In the gray first light all I saw were the vague shapes of our bureau and dresser, the window beside the bed, my old clock-radio on the night stand. Before my mind could navigate the gulf between sleep and consciousness I was home, years ago, before Shar and I fell apart and September was merely a month. Then I blinked and the silhouettes around me took form as the Wezdeckis’ old easy chair and their farm stand by the bed. I felt the cold against my face and thought, shit, the fire’s gone out.
The snow stopped before noon, but all day the sky remained the color of steel. Whenever I stepped outside, the cold pressed into the meat beneath my skin. I’d intended to clear the paths again but couldn’t bring myself to stay outdoors. In the end, I spent the afternoon reading. At some point I fell asleep, and it must have been deeply asleep, because when I woke up the windows were dark and the fire had burned down again. I coaxed it back, lit candles, went to the porch to check for signs of Alex but found none.
Saturday, January 5
Still no Alex. I’m sure he’s fine, but I can’t help but wonder what’s keeping him. If he broke a ski halfway to Lahaska, all he can do is hike to the Benedettos’, get warm and try to find a new set. If he got sick, he can only wait it out, I hope with Sal and Marianne and not by himself in Lambertville. There’s no one around to plow the roads, and no one’s got a car to give him a ride home. I don’t know a lot about skiing and camping, certainly not as much as I should, but I understand how simple things can become complicated when you’re out by yourself, and how complicated things can become dangerous. Probably that’s why I don’t go exploring as much as Alex does. Wandering around with nothing besides a backpack, a sleeping bag and a tent is second nature to him. To me it’s like dropping a canoe into the river and hoping to get through the rapids without capsizing. I’m better off cataloging my supplies in the basement.
This afternoon I caught myself snapping at Shar. One minute I was reading on the couch, the next I was raging at a woman I haven’t spoken to in fifteen months. I don’t remember my words, only that I barked them with enough force to startle myself breathless. It was one of those moments when I saw Shar, her eyes, the set of her mouth when she frowned, the way her hair slipped in front of her ears and drifted toward her eyes no matter how she set it. The image wasn’t so different from those I dreamed after I first met her, during our last year of college, except that when she was young her eyes had an easy glint and her jaw was rarely set with any sort of tension.
The last time we spoke, Shar called from Pittsburgh to tell me her sister had died. By that point our conversations were cautious and deliberate, each word picked for effect, sometimes to enrage, sometimes to placate, most often simply to navigate the ensuing five minutes with the least possible emotion. Shar sounded dull, but that was the least I could imagine her feeling after losing Chris, who was two years younger. In the background I heard the television droning, then Shar coughed. “Are you sick?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I’m just tired. I’ve been arguing with people all day and my throat is dry.”
By that point, Shar had been in Pittsburgh a week. It was mid-September and the first reports of a severe, fast virus were a week old. Authorities were just beginning to connect the deaths around the country, and on the street people had only begun equating a hard sneeze with any kind of danger. When Chris said her chest was tight, Shar packed and drove across Pennsylvania to Moon Township. The next day, she left a message that the hospital had given Chris an antibiotic and sent her home. I remember standing in my kitchen, relieved as I always was when Shar decided to speak to my answering machine rather than call me at the office. Our tones were easier when we communicated by proxy. The next afternoon, she sent an e-mail saying Chris was worse. I called her cell phone, then Chris’s apartment, but got no answer. That night, the news on television said the death toll was moving into the thousands, and I sensed the story breaking like an abscess. The network anchor was flushed as he described rumors of bio-terrorism.
“How is it back there?” Shar wanted to know. The hospital had been crazy, she said, and the medical examiners and funeral homes were so backed up, they didn’t know what to do. She’d heard one doctor talk about quarantine but another said things had already gone too far.
“Out here,” I told her, “it seems like everyone’s sick.”
No wonder I feel off today. I spent all afternoon rehashing that shit. There’s no sense in being pissed off at Shar, though I suspect it’s natural to be angry at dead people. When my father died, I used to walk around the house seething at him. Now, I wander around this house that isn’t mine, cursing Shar, my friends from high school, college and work — everyone I can think of. Fuck all of them.
I’m sitting here and it’s dark and the fire’s getting low. It’s not very late — about seven o’clock — but I’m thinking I’ll go to bed. Alex is still out somewhere and I’m tired of reading and don’t feel like doing anything productive around the house. It’s getting windy outside and I think we might get more snow.
Though I have to ask: Who the fuck is “we”?
Sunday, January 6
Just another day. Still no Alex. The cold spell seems to have broken. When I went out to get wood I didn’t even need a coat. I was going to do some housecleaning but in the end I just read. Finished War and Remembrance, and decided to read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I’ve heard of it but never read it. It’s a nice, thick book and it should take me a while to get through.
Monday, January 7
The flip side of going to bed early is you wake up in darkness. Last night I was asleep before nine and woke every hour after midnight, blinking at the faint glow from the window, which coated the bedroom in gray and blue. Lying on my back, I passed the time worrying the bottom sheet with my fingers, pressing my palms into it until the cloth turned warm. Only the popping of wood in the fireplace broke the quiet. Outside there wasn’t a hint of wind to set the trees to creaking or the snow to dropping from limbs to ground. I gave up on sleep just as the eastern sky showed a smudge of gray, like the glow of a city at night, except, of course, cities don’t glow anymore.
I’m just as glad to have the night behind me. Whenever I slept, all I did was dream. It’s been years since I’ve dreamed, so now, when I do, I wake up breathless, frozen until the pressure in my chest settles down enough for me to face the day.
In my head last night, I was still married to Shar. We were living in a house that was a strange contradiction to the reality of our modified cape. Instead of small rooms with walls painted in creams and pastels, this house had wide rooms and high ceilings, bare walls and sheer drapes the color of fair-weather clouds. In the family room, its walls washed by a sharp sun, Shar slouched on the sofa, absorbed in the television and unconcerned with my pacing. Upstairs lay Allison, a neighbor’s cousin, who we saw just frequently enough to stir a casual friendship. She was curled in the guest bedroom, shivering and pale, a cold sweat beading on her forehead. She was pretty, as pretty as Shar but thinner, with dark hair and slight shoulders, the kind of body that seems at once lithe but brittle. I was annoyed she was so ill. When I went to Shar, I was relieved she was focused on the television. Shuttling between them, all I could think was how much I wanted to sleep with them both.
Today the canal is skinned by gray ice, not a hint of water showing, even in the shallows by the bank. After lunch, I trudged for a mile or so down the path alongside it, looking for signs of Alex’s tracks. All I found were the prints of raccoons and squirrels, rabbits and deer. Through the bare trees I saw ice moving in the river, lumbering along with the current, scraping past rocks with a stateliness that seemed deliberate. No matter how hard I concentrated, I heard no sound besides the wind, the river and the ice. I stood there until my nose began filling up, then came home to sit close by the fire.
It’s funny how often I run to the fire, as if sitting on the hearth can save my life. If September’s first symptom hadn’t been a head cold, I wouldn’t be so paranoid, but I can never quite shake the thought that it’s hidden in my blood, lying dormant until some little thing sets it off. This afternoon I was actually proud of myself, because when I sneezed I didn’t assume the virus was unraveling in my lungs. Of course, now, eight hours later, I can be nonchalant. My nose isn’t running, the sneezing has stopped, and I never developed a headache. I was outside, the weather was cold, my nose got stuffed and I sneezed. No drama there, and I didn’t even try to manufacture any.
I’ve been pacing for an hour, too restless to read, talking to myself again, or rather with people who are dead. I don’t know if this is a symptom of craziness or a sign of sanity. I have this tremendous urge for conversation. Without thinking, I talk to friends from work, or women I admired and imagined sleeping with. Tonight, I’ve been talking mostly to Shar. I’ve been standing in the back bedroom, looking out the window but not seeing much beside her face, her expression all sadness. When I confront her in my mind she doesn’t cloud up with anything like hurt, doesn’t scream back at me loud enough to drown out my words, and I come away believing the end wasn’t my fault. Emerging from the bedroom I felt self-conscious and melodramatic, and suddenly feared that Alex had come into the house and heard me shouting. Of course, he hadn’t, but I went outside anyway to look for signs of him. I found only woods, stars, cold and snow. I came back inside and here I am.
Wednesday, January 9
Didn’t write anything yesterday, though I’m not sure why. I was going to say I didn’t get around to it, but that seems odd since I didn’t have anything else to do. There are always chores to be done — melt snow for water, put firewood by the door, carry cans of soup and stew up from the basement and stock them in the pantry. Yesterday I did nothing but read and force myself to take a sponge bath. When it’s cold, you really have to be motivated for one of those.
Late this afternoon, I heard footsteps on the porch and jumped up from the sofa, sure Alex had finally come back. I advanced on the door, shouting, “It’s about damn time,” and swung it open to find Jillian, her face red from skiing ten miles, her jaw set as she considered whether I was safe to be around. “Is everything all right?” she asked. I stared at her for what seemed a long moment, frozen stupidly before I motioned her inside. As she unlaced her boots, I told her Alex had gone exploring and I’d expected him back days ago. She listened without comment.
Jillian is better with the cold than I am. Instead of sitting on the hearth for half an hour, she stood by the fire for barely a minute, rubbing her hands loosely. Like Alex, she doesn’t worry about her survival. On the other hand, she doesn’t tackle every day as if it’s an adventure. Before September, she was an engineer focused on the design of roads. I’d never known there was such a specialty, but, as she says, “There used to be.” She’s a tall woman, broad-shouldered and strong, always moving with an air of confidence. I can see her clomping around in the dirt, shouting over her shoulder to men on bulldozers, indifferent to the mud caked on her pants and the sweat adhering her t-shirt to her skin. For fifteen years she’s lived in Frenchtown, rehabbing an old house near Race Street, unleashing perennials into a back yard she’d filled with bird baths and rock gardens. As the town died around her, she checked on neighbors and helped the rescue squad bury the dead. Looking back, she says, the oddest thing was that she never believed she’d get sick. Even before the ranks of the National Guard dwindled and its members took it upon themselves to go home, Jillian turned her engineer’s mind to planning a stockpile of canned goods and bottled water. Well before the last slide, she figured out money was going to be worth nothing and goods worth everything. She cashed out her savings and bought whatever she could carry home from the warehouse store. She got plenty of liquor, a few guns and ammunition for them. The only thing she didn’t anticipate was how thorough September would be.
After I told her Alex was MIA, Jillian sat silently. While I brewed tea, she analyzed every possible scenario. In my head, I had only vague pictures of empty Lambertville, empty New Hope, empty Ivyland. In hers, Jillian was tracing Alex’s route, imagining where he might have gone and considering what might have happened once he got there. That engineer’s mind again. Finally, she decided he would never have planned to leave for a week without warning me. I suppose this was stating the obvious, but she said it so definitively I closed my mind to the hope Alex was only dawdling somewhere. For another minute, Jillian frowned to herself. Then, she said we had to go look for him.
“You’re not surprised, are you?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I think it makes sense.”
“Are you up for going?”
“I think I would have decided the same thing in another day.”
She smiled. “You probably decided it days ago. You just needed someone to kick you in the ass.”
To that I had no answer, so I poured tea. It’s odd talking to people now, even people you’ve come to know a bit. Alex and I see Jillian more than we see anyone else, because she lives relatively close by and because in warm weather travel between River Way and Frenchtown is as simple as a bike ride. When we visit, she shows us her gardens or the cairns she’s constructing around the village, neat piles of stone by the road side, meant to signal that somebody lives there. Whether we like it or not, there’s precious little to talk about that doesn’t lead back to the past, whether it’s September or people we knew or stories from our old jobs or schools. They all seem like fables now.
Anyway, it’s late. We’ve agreed to an early start. We’ve put together a couple of backpacks with food, sleeping bags, water and a first-aid kit. I’ll carry the tent and a camp stove. Jillian thinks we may find Alex somewhere and will have to carry him home. I don’t know whether I should be grim at the idea of Alex gravely injured or admire her optimism in thinking we’ll actually locate him. It’s a big world out there, after all.