A Can of Beans
by Jeffrey Greene
It was hardly an hour after dawn and already the death bells were ringing. The morning fog had combined with the greasy smoke of funeral pyres to form a noisome smog that shrouded buildings and rolled through the streets strewn with rubble and the charred skeletons of cars.
Laboring through this ashy pall as if through a viscid medium was the day’s first funeral procession. Behind the horse-drawn pickup truck that served as a hearse, the mourners kept a distance from their dead: five pairs of feet protruding from a bundle of torn garbage bags jostling on a wooden pallet in the truck bed.
Most of the mourners were silent, being either emotionally spent or too preoccupied with their own real or imagined symptoms to shed many tears for the deceased. Walking in single file and keeping a healthy space between one another, they followed the contaminated load that had been their loved ones on its winding way to the fire pits. People sitting in fifth-floor windows overlooking the street could barely see the procession through the haze, but even at that height, some covered their mouths with gauze masks, taking no chances.
The funeral passed the fire-gutted remains of a Cadillac and disappeared into the smog. Curled up for the night on its spacious back seat, Francis Mooney twitched and mumbled in the throes of a dream. It was a dream of sounds and textures rather than images: he breathed a broken music through the smelly hole of a paper mask, repeating the same chorus over and over, trying to lure the one person who was meant to hear it into the darkened room where he waited.
A somehow dreadful hand, connected to a memory instead of an arm, twisted a doorknob. He awoke with a start, bumping his head on the armrest.
The plastic sheet he had spread out on the seat crackled when he rose up on one elbow and began to cough with a rending hack. He sat up, feeling in the same moment the tilt and slide of the dream into forgetfulness. He vainly tried to hold on to some shred of it, and it occurred to him that he regretted the fact of his failing health less than this automatic amnesia, his own sneaky, internal censor that stole his dreams and left him only the husk of an image or an untranslatable phrase in the language of sleep. Why this conspiracy of one, this clandestine aligning of one’s parts to the poles of night and day?
He glanced to his right and was startled by a soot-streaked face with bloodshot eyes over a dirty surgical mask peering at him through the broken car window. With stunning quickness the face pulled back from the window and was gone.
Mooney relaxed and began to rummage through his pockets for the cigarette butt he thought he’d saved from the night before. There was no butt, only his rusty pocket knife, a book of matches and a worn bottle cap that had been in one pocket or another for months and now functioned as a sort of charm against the White Sickness. He gripped it tightly between thumb and forefinger whenever he passed a house or apartment bearing the white-painted X of quarantine. The deep imprint it left in his thumb was for him an imaginary inoculation scar, proof against the rose-shaped blotches that bloomed on the skin of the afflicted, bleaching to a bone whiteness even the darkest skin.
Digesting the unpleasant fact that there was nothing to smoke, he climbed out through the window and stood on the sidewalk, brushing ashes off his already-filthy overcoat. Rancid, mismatched clothes hung loosely on his wasted frame, and his shoes were stuffed with cardboard. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his face, noting with dismay the black smudges on the cloth, then buttoned his coat against the morning chill.
Nothing stirred in the streets, not even a dog. But even as he stood in a listening attitude, savoring the silence, there issued from an apartment somewhere above him a deep, horrendous moan, steadily rising to a protracted scream. His fingers closed on the bottle cap, pressing it into his thumb until it hurt.
He began to walk, with the halting, tentative gait of a scavenger, his eyes seeking the unlikely prize: an article of clothing, a shoe, a pair of glasses, anything he could take to the Trader and exchange for a can of food. His stomach growled at the thought of the colorful stacks of cans filling the vault of the bank that the trader had made into his store: cans of spaghetti, beef stew and soup, slender, feminine tins of sardines, actual crackers in sealed plastic tubes, which one might cover with thick squares of cheese or great knife-loads of peanut butter.
With his own eyes he had once seen the Trader eating peanut butter and crackers. He was sitting near the vault in a long-dead bank president’s chair, surrounded by armed and well-fed stooges, crunching and smacking and covering himself with crumbs while he, Mooney, had stood swaying with weakness in a long line of half-starved scarecrows like himself, gripping a bottle of wine dregs he’d taken from the pocket of a dead wino and praying the Trader wouldn’t spit on it.
He was that rarest of sights, a fat man, and rarely showed himself, preferring to remain in his “sterile” back room, the air of which only he had breathed. But sometimes, in an expansive mood, he emerged from his sanctum to chat with his wretched customers. Like most survivors walking the streets between the Scylla and Charybdis of plague and starvation, Mooney both hated and envied him.
Passing under an open window, he stopped, thinking for a moment he had smelled coffee. No, he decided, sagging a little, no coffee. Anyone who had it would brew it in the dead of night with their doors and windows sealed. Coffee had been one of the first things to go, and there was a distressing number of people willing to kill for a pound of it. How long had it been since his last cup? A year? Or was it two?
He leaned against a wall and drew a battered cigarette case from his coat pocket. Inside was a snapshot glued to the back, its edges cut to fit. It was a little piece of winter: bare trees and a wrought-iron fence behind a snow-covered park bench. Facing the bench was a woman in her early forties with dark blowing hair, her hands buried in the pockets of a fur-collared overcoat. She was looking back over her shoulder toward the camera, her hooded eyes narrowed in an expression of mild reproof.
“Olfactory hallucinations,” he said to the picture. “Thought I smelled coffee. A symptom, surely, but of what? First fever of the Sickness, or terminal nostalgia?”
He heard a scrabbling of nails on the pavement and looked up to see a dog on the other side of the street, running for its life from a pack of wild children armed with sharpened sticks. The dog was bloated from feeding on corpses and ran poorly; the children were thin, swift and eerily silent, their tattered clothes flapping behind them as they gained on their prey.
Mooney watched them warily, prepared to feign delirium if they approached him. When they were gone, he slipped the cigarette case back into his pocket and began walking quickly in the general direction of the Trader’s store, hoping to find something on the way. A stab of hunger twisted his entrails, and his lean, bearded face moved in a gap-toothed grin.
“Fear and hunger, fear and hunger,” he intoned in the rhythm of his footsteps. “Life so simple: fear and hunger.”
Once upon a time, he had walked briskly down a street such as this, carrying a briefcase stuffed with graded papers, strands of higher need raveling out from his eyes to curl around a passing thigh, then arcing ahead to the thought of a certain female student in his morning class at the city college, and finally drawing tight around the phrase of a poem he’d been struggling with for weeks. His head in those days had been as crowded with thoughts and plans as the street was with people and, now, thanks to Occam’s Plague, as he called it, he had the streets to himself and nothing on his mind but fear and hunger.
On Adams Street he spotted a half-smoked cigarette rolling toward a storm drain and snatched it up with a little yelp of joy. Using one of his four remaining matches, he lighted it, and his eyes closed in pleasure as he puffed.
A breathless voice behind him said, “Hey, mister.” He spun around, ready to run, but there was no one there. Then, from the recessed doorway of a burned-out travel agency, he saw a pair of hands sheathed in black electrician’s gloves. One of them beckoned, the other held a can of pork and beans.
He stabbed out the cigarette on his sleeve and stuck it in his pocket, pulled up his gauze mask and tied it behind his head, then moved cautiously toward the doorway. He stopped a good twenty feet away, one hand gripping the pocket knife in his pocket, the other squeezing the bottle cap.
Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey Greene