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       The Road, p.10

           Cormac McCarthy
 
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  In the night he was wakened by the muted patter of rain on the mattress over the door above them. He thought it must be raining pretty hard for him to hear it. He got up with the flashlight and climbed the stairs and raised the hatch and played the light across the yard. The yard was already flooded and the rain was slashing down. He closed the hatch. Water had leaked in and dripped down the stairs but he thought the bunker itself seemed pretty watertight. He went to see about the boy. He was damp with sweat and the man pulled back one of the blankets and fanned his face and then turned down the heater and went back to bed.

  When he woke again he thought the rain had stopped. But that wasnt what woke him. He'd been visited in a dream by creatures of a kind he'd never seen before. They did not speak. He thought that they'd been crouching by the side of his cot as he slept and then had skulked away on his awakening. He turned and looked at the boy. Maybe he understood for the first time that to the boy he was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed. The tales of which were suspect. He could not construct for the child's pleasure the world he'd lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he. He tried to remember the dream but he could not. All that was left was the feeling of it. He thought perhaps they'd come to warn him. Of what? That he could not enkindle in the heart of the child what was ashes in his own. Even now some part of him wished they'd never found this refuge. Some part of him always wished it to be over.

  He checked the valve on the tank that it was turned off and swung the little stove around on the footlocker and sat and went to work dismantling it. He unscrewed the bottom panel and he removed the burner assembly and disconnected the two burners with a small crescent wrench. He tipped out the plastic jar of hardware and sorted out a bolt to thread into the fitting of the junction and then tightened it down. He connected the hose from the tank and held the little potmetal burner up in his hand, small and lightweight. He set it on the locker and carried the sheetmetal over and put it in the trash and went to the stairs to check the weather. The mattress on top of the hatch had soaked up a good deal of water and the door was hard to lift. He stood with it resting on his shoulders and looked out at the day. A light drizzle falling. Impossible to tell what time of the day he was looking at. He looked at the house and he looked out over the dripping countryside and then let the door back down and descended the steps and set about making breakfast.

  They spent the day eating and sleeping. He'd planned to leave but the rain was justification enough to stay. The grocery cart was in the shed. Not likely that anyone would travel the road today. They sorted through the stores and set out what they could take, making of it a measured cube in the corner of the shelter. The day was brief, hardly a day at all. By dark the rain had ceased and they opened the hatch and began to carry boxes and parcels and plastic bags across the wet yard to the shed and to pack the cart. The faintly lit hatchway lay in the dark of the yard like a grave yawning at judgment day in some old apocalyptic painting. When the cart was loaded with all that it could hold he tied a plastic tarp down over it and fastened the grommets to the wire with short bungee cords and they stood back and looked at it with the flashlight. He thought that he should have gotten a couple of extra sets of wheels from the other carts in the store but it was too late now. He should have saved the motorcycle mirror off their old cart too. They ate dinner and slept till morning and then bathed again with sponges and washed their hair in basins of warm water. They ate breakfast and by first light they were on the road, wearing fresh masks cut from sheeting, the boy going ahead with a broom and clearing the way of sticks and branches and the man bent over the handle of the cart watching the road fall away before them.

  The cart was too heavy to push into the wet woods and they nooned in the middle of the road and fixed hot tea and ate the last of the canned ham with crackers and with mustard and applesauce. Sitting back to back and watching the road. Do you know where we are Papa? the boy said.

  Sort of.

  How sort of?

  Well. I think we're about two hundred miles from the coast. As the crow flies.

  As the crow flies?

  Yes. It means going in a straight line.

  Are we going to get there soon?

  Not real soon. Pretty soon. We're not going as the crow flies.

  Because crows dont have to follow roads?

  Yes.

  They can go wherever they want.

  Yes.

  Do you think there might be crows somewhere?

  I dont know.

  But what do you think?

  I think it's unlikely.

  Could they fly to Mars or someplace?

  No. They couldnt.

  Because it's too far?

  Yes.

  Even if they wanted to.

  Even if they wanted to.

  What if they tried and they just got half way or something and then they were too tired. Would they fall back down?

  Well. They really couldnt get half way because they'd be in space and there's not any air in space so they wouldnt be able to fly and besides it would be too cold and they'd freeze to death.

  Oh.

  Anyway they wouldnt know where Mars was.

  Do we know where Mars is?

  Sort of.

  If we had a spaceship could we go there?

  Well. If you had a really good spaceship and you had people to help you I suppose you could go.

  Would there be food and stuff when you got there?

  No. There's nothing there.

  Oh.

  They sat for a long time. They sat on their folded blankets and watched the road in both directions. No wind. Nothing. After a while the boy said: There's not any crows. Are there?

  No.

  Just in books.

  Yes. Just in books.

  I didnt think so.

  Are you ready?

  Yes.

  They rose and put away their cups and the rest of the crackers. The man piled the blankets on top of the cart and fastened the tarp down and then he stood looking at the boy. What? the boy said.

  I know you thought we were going to die.

  Yeah.

  But we didnt.

  No.

  Okay.

  Can I ask you something?

  Sure.

  If you were a crow could you fly up high enough to see the sun?

  Yes. You could.

  I thought so. That would be really neat.

  Yes it would. Are you ready?

  Yes.

  He stopped. What happened to your flute?

  I threw it away.

  You threw it away?

  Yes.

  Okay.

  Okay.

  In the long gray dusk they crossed a river and stopped and looked down from the concrete balustrade at the slow dead water passing underneath. Sketched upon the pall of soot downstream the outline of a burnt city like a black paper scrim. They saw it again just at dark pushing the heavy cart up a long hill and they stopped to rest and he turned the cart sideways in the road against it rolling. Their masks were already gray at the mouth and their eyes darkly cupped. They sat in the ashes by the side of the road and looked out to the east where the shape of the city was darkening into the coming night. They saw no lights.

  Do you think there's anyone there, Papa?

  I dont know.

  How soon can we stop?

  We can stop now.

  On the hill?

  We can get the cart down to those rocks and cover it with limbs.

  Is this a good place to stop?

  Well, people dont like to stop on hills. And we dont like for people to stop.

  So it's a good place for us.

  I think so.

  Because we're smart.

  Well, let's not get too smart.

  Okay.

  Are you ready?

  Yes.

  The boy stood up and got his broom and put it over his shoulder. He looked
at his father. What are our long term goals? he said.

  What?

  Our long term goals.

  Where did you hear that?

  I dont know.

  No, where did you?

  You said it.

  When?

  A long time ago.

  What was the answer?

  I dont know.

  Well. I dont either. Come on. It's getting dark.

  Late in the day following as they rounded a bend in the road the boy stopped and put his hand on the carriage. Papa, he whispered. The man looked up. A small figure distant on the road, bent and shuffling.

  He stood leaning on the handle of the grocery cart. Well, he said. Who's this?

  What should we do, Papa?

  It could be a decoy.

  What are we going to do?

  Let's just follow. We'll see if he turns around.

  Okay.

  The traveler was not one for looking back. They followed him for a while and then they overtook him. An old man, small and bent. He carried on his back an old army rucksack with a blanket roll tied across the top of it and he tapped along with a peeled stick for a cane. When he saw them he veered to the side of the road and turned and stood warily. He had a filthy towel tied under his jaw as if he suffered from toothache and even by their new world standards he smelled terrible.

  I dont have anything, he said. You can look if you want.

  We're not robbers.

  He leaned one ear forward. What? he called.

  I said we're not robbers.

  What are you?

  They'd no way to answer the question. He wiped his nose with the back of his wrist and stood waiting. He had no shoes at all and his feet were wrapped in rags and cardboard tied with green twine and any number of layers of vile clothing showed through the tears and holes in it. Of a sudden he seemed to wilt even further. He leaned on his cane and lowered himself into the road where he sat among the ashes with one hand over his head. He looked like a pile of rags fallen off a cart. They came forward and stood looking down at him. Sir? the man said. Sir?

  The boy squatted and put a hand on his shoulder. He's scared, Papa. The man is scared.

  He looked up the road and down. If this is an ambush he goes first, he said.

  He's just scared, Papa.

  Tell him we wont hurt him.

  The old man shook his head from side to side, his fingers laced in his filthy hair. The boy looked up at his father.

  Maybe he thinks we're not real.

  What does he think we are?

  I dont know.

  We cant stay here. We have to go.

  He's scared, Papa.

  I dont think you should touch him.

  Maybe we could give him something to eat.

  He stood looking off down the road. Damn, he whispered. He looked down at the old man. Perhaps he'd turn into a god and they to trees. All right, he said.

  He untied the tarp and folded it back and rummaged through the canned goods and came up with a tin of fruit cocktail and took the can opener from his pocket and opened the tin and folded back the lid and walked over and squatted and handed it to the boy.

  What about a spoon?

  He's not getting a spoon.

  The boy took the tin and handed it to the old man. Take it, he whispered. Here.

  The old man raised his eyes and looked at the boy. The boy gestured at him with the tin. He looked like someone trying to feed a vulture broken in the road. It's okay, he said.

  The old man lowered his hand from his head. He blinked. Grayblue eyes half buried in the thin and sooty creases of his skin.

  Take it, the boy said.

  He reached with his scrawny claws and took it and held it to his chest.

  Eat it, the boy said. It's good. He made tipping motions with his hands. The old man looked down at the tin. He took a fresh grip and lifted it, his nose wrinkling. His long and yellowed claws scrabbled at the metal. Then he tipped it and drank. The juice ran down his filthy beard. He lowered the can, chewing with difficulty. He jerked his head when he swallowed. Look, Papa, the boy whispered.

  I see, the man said.

  The boy turned and looked at him.

  I know what the question is, the man said. The answer is no.

  What's the question?

  Can we keep him. We cant.

  I know.

  You know.

  Yeah.

  All right.

  Can we give him something else?

  Let's see how he does with this.

  They watched him eat. When he was done he sat holding the empty tin and looking down into it as if more might appear.

  What do you want to give him?

  What do you think he should have?

  I dont think he should have anything. What do you want to give him?

  We could cook something on the stove. He could eat with us.

  You're talking about stopping. For the night.

  Yeah.

  He looked down at the old man and he looked at the road. All right, he said. But then tomorrow we go on.

  The boy didnt answer.

  That's the best deal you're going to get.

  Okay.

  Okay means okay. It doesnt mean we negotiate another deal tomorrow.

  What's negotiate?

  It means talk about it some more and come up with some other deal. There is no other deal. This is it.

  Okay.

  Okay.

  They helped the old man to his feet and handed him his cane. He didnt weigh a hundred pounds. He stood looking about uncertainly. The man took the tin from him and slung it into the woods. The old man tried to hand him the cane but he pushed it away. When did you eat last? he said.

  I dont know.

  You dont remember.

  I ate just now.

  Do you want to eat with us?

  I dont know.

  You dont know?

  Eat what?

  Maybe some beef stew. With crackers. And coffee.

  What do I have to do?

  Tell us where the world went.

  What?

  You dont have to do anything. Can you walk okay?

  I can walk.

  He looked down at the boy. Are you a little boy? he said.

  The boy looked at his father.

  What does he look like? his father said.

  I dont know. I cant see good.

  Can you see me?

  I can tell someone's there.

  Good. We need to get going. He looked at the boy. Dont hold his hand, he said.

  He cant see.

  Dont hold his hand. Let's go.

  Where are we going? the old man said.

  We're going to eat.

  He nodded and reached out with his cane and tapped tentatively at the road.

  How old are you?

  I'm ninety.

  No you're not.

  Okay.

  Is that what you tell people?

  What people?

  Any people.

  I guess so.

  So they wont hurt you?

  Yes.

  Does that work?

  No.

  What's in your pack?

  Nothing. You can look.

  I know I can look. What's in there?

  Nothing. Just some stuff.

  Nothing to eat.

  No.

  What's your name?

  Ely.

  Ely what?

  What's wrong with Ely?

  Nothing. Let's go.

  They bivouacked in the woods much nearer to the road than he would have liked. He had to drag the cart while the boy steered from behind and they built a fire for the old man to warm himself though he didnt much like that either. They ate and the old man sat wrapped in his solitary quilt and gripped his spoon like a child. They had only two cups and he drank his coffee from the bowl he'd eaten from, his thumbs hooked over the rim. Sitting like a starved and threadbare buddha, staring into the coals.


  You cant go with us, you know, the man said.

  He nodded.

  How long have you been on the road?

  I was always on the road. You cant stay in one place.

  How do you live?

  I just keep going. I knew this was coming.

  You knew it was coming?

  Yeah. This or something like it. I always believed in it.

  Did you try to get ready for it?

  No. What would you do?

  I dont know.

  People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didnt believe in that. Tomorrow wasnt getting ready for them. It didnt even know they were there.

  I guess not.

  Even if you knew what to do you wouldnt know what to do. You wouldnt know if you wanted to do it or not. Suppose you were the last one left? Suppose you did that to yourself?

  Do you wish you would die?

  No. But I might wish I had died. When you're alive you've always got that ahead of you.

  Or you might wish you'd never been born.

  Well. Beggars cant be choosers.

  You think that would be asking too much.

  What's done is done. Anyway, it's foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these.

  I guess so.

  Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave. He lifted his head and looked across the fire at the boy. Then he looked at the man. The man could see his small eyes watching him in the firelight. God knows what those eyes saw. He got up to pile more wood on the fire and he raked the coals back from the dead leaves. The red sparks rose in a shudder and died in the blackness overhead. The old man drank the last of his coffee and set the bowl before him and leaned toward the heat with his hands out. The man watched him. How would you know if you were the last man on earth? he said.

  I dont guess you would know it. You'd just be it.

  Nobody would know it.

  It wouldnt make any difference. When you die it's the same as if everybody else did too.

  I guess God would know it. Is that it?

  There is no God.

  No?

  There is no God and we are his prophets.

  I dont understand how you're still alive. How do you eat?

  I dont know.

  You dont know?

  People give you things.

  People give you things.

  Yes.

  To eat.

  To eat. Yes.

  No they dont.

  You did.

  No I didnt. The boy did.

  There's other people on the road. You're not the only ones.

  Are you the only one?

  The old man peered warily. What do you mean? he said.

 
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