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       The Road, p.11

           Cormac McCarthy
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  Are there people with you?

  What people?

  Any people.

  There's not any people. What are you talking about?

  I'm talking about you. About what line of work you might be in.

  The old man didnt answer.

  I suppose you want to go with us.

  Go with you.

  Yes.

  You wont take me with you.

  You dont want to go.

  I wouldnt have even come this far but I was hungry.

  The people that gave you food. Where are they?

  There's not any people. I just made that up.

  What else did you make up?

  I'm just on the road the same as you. No different.

  Is your name really Ely?

  No.

  You dont want to say your name.

  I dont want to say it.

  Why?

  I couldnt trust you with it. To do something with it. I dont want anybody talking about me. To say where I was or what I said when I was there. I mean, you could talk about me maybe. But nobody could say that it was me. I could be anybody. I think in times like these the less said the better. If something had happened and we were survivors and we met on the road then we'd have something to talk about. But we're not. So we dont.

  Maybe not.

  You just dont want to say in front of the boy.

  You're not a shill for a pack of roadagents?

  I'm not anything. I'll leave if you want me to. I can find the road.

  You dont have to leave.

  I've not seen a fire in a long time, that's all. I live like an animal. You dont want to know the things I've eaten. When I saw that boy I thought that I had died.

  You thought he was an angel?

  I didnt know what he was. I never thought to see a child again. I didnt know that would happen.

  What if I said that he's a god?

  The old man shook his head. I'm past all that now. Have been for years. Where men cant live gods fare no better. You'll see. It's better to be alone. So I hope that's not true what you said because to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing so I hope it's not true. Things will be better when everybody's gone.

  They will?

  Sure they will.

  Better for who?

  Everybody.

  Everybody.

  Sure. We'll all be better off. We'll all breathe easier.

  That's good to know.

  Yes it is. When we're all gone at last then there'll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He'll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to. He'll say: Where did everybody go? And that's how it will be. What's wrong with that?

  In the morning they stood in the road and he and the boy argued about what to give the old man. In the end he didnt get much. Some cans of vegetables and of fruit. Finally the boy just went over to the edge of the road and sat in the ashes. The old man fitted the tins into his knapsack and fastened the straps. You should thank him you know, the man said. I wouldnt have given you anything.

  Maybe I should and maybe I shouldnt.

  Why wouldnt you?

  I wouldnt have given him mine.

  You dont care if it hurts his feelings?

  Will it hurt his feelings?

  No. That's not why he did it.

  Why did he do it?

  He looked over at the boy and he looked at the old man. You wouldnt understand, he said. I'm not sure I do.

  Maybe he believes in God.

  I dont know what he believes in.

  He'll get over it.

  No he wont.

  The old man didnt answer. He looked around at the day.

  You wont wish us luck either, will you? the man said.

  I dont know what that would mean. What luck would look like. Who would know such a thing?

  Then all went on. When he looked back the old man had set out with his cane, tapping his way, dwindling slowly on the road behind them like some storybook peddler from an antique time, dark and bent and spider thin and soon to vanish forever. The boy never looked back at all.

  In the early afternoon they spread their tarp on the road and sat and ate a cold lunch. The man watched him. Are you talking? he said.

  Yes.

  But you're not happy.

  I'm okay.

  When we're out of food you'll have more time to think about it.

  The boy didnt answer. They ate. He looked back up the road. After a while he said: I know. But I wont remember it the way you do.

  Probably not.

  I didnt say you were wrong.

  Even if you thought it.

  It's okay.

  Yeah, the man said. Well. There's not a lot of good news on the road. In times like these.

  You shouldnt make fun of him.

  Okay.

  He's going to die.

  I know.

  Can we go now?

  Yeah, the man said. We can go.

  In the night he woke in the cold dark coughing and he coughed till his chest was raw. He leaned to the fire and blew on the coals and he put on more wood and rose and walked away from the camp as far as the light would carry him. He knelt in the dry leaves and ash with the blanket wrapped about his shoulders and after a while the coughing began to subside. He thought about the old man out there somewhere. He looked back at the camp through the black palings of the trees. He hoped the boy had gone back to sleep. He knelt there wheezing softly, his hands on his knees. I am going to die, he said. Tell me how I am to do that.

  The day following they trekked on till almost dark. He could find no safe place to make a fire. When he lifted the tank from the cart he thought that it felt light. He sat and turned the valve but the valve was already on. He turned the little knob on the burner. Nothing. He leaned and listened. He tried both valves again in their combinations. The tank was empty. He squatted there with his hands folded into a fist against his forehead, his eyes closed. After a while he raised his head and just sat there staring out at the cold and darkening woods.

  They ate a cold supper of cornbread and beans and franks from a tin. The boy asked him how the tank had gone empty so soon but he said that it just had.

  You said it would last for weeks.

  I know.

  But it's just been a few days.

  I was wrong.

  They ate in silence. After a while the boy said: I forgot to turn off the valve, didnt I?

  It's not your fault. I should have checked.

  The boy set his plate down on the tarp. He looked away.

  It's not your fault. You have to turn off both valves. The threads were supposed to be sealed with teflon tape or it would leak and I didnt do it. It's my fault. I didnt tell you.

  There wasnt any tape though, was there?

  It's not your fault.

  They plodded on, thin and filthy as street addicts. Cowled in their blankets against the cold and their breath smoking, shuffling through the black and silky drifts. They were crossing the broad coastal plain where the secular winds drove them in howling clouds of ash to find shelter where they could. Houses or barns or under the bank of a roadside ditch with the blankets pulled over their heads and the noon sky black as the cellars of hell. He held the boy against him, cold to the bone. Dont lose heart, he said. We'll be all right.

  The land was gullied and eroded and barren. The bones of dead creatures sprawled in the washes. Middens of anonymous trash. Farmhouses in the fields scoured of their paint and the clapboards spooned and sprung from the wall-studs. All of it shadowless and without feature. The road descended through a jungle of dead kudzu. A marsh where the dead reeds lay over the water. Beyond the edge of the fields the sullen haze hung over earth and sky alike. By late afternoon it had begun to snow and they went on with the tarp over them and the wet snow hissing on the plastic.

  He'd slept little in weeks. When he woke in the morning the boy was not there and he sat up with the pistol in his
hand and then stood and looked for him but he was not in sight. He pulled on his shoes and walked out to the edge of the trees. Bleak dawn in the east. The alien sun commencing its cold transit. He saw the boy coming at a run across the fields. Papa, he called. There's a train in the woods.

  A train?

  Yes.

  A real train?

  Yes. Come on.

  You didnt go up to it did you?

  No. Just a little. Come on.

  There's nobody there?

  No. I dont think so. I came to get you.

  Is there an engine?

  Yes. A big diesel.

  They crossed the field and entered the woods on the far side. The tracks came down out of the country on a banked rise and ran through the woods. The locomotive was a diesel electric and there were eight stainless steel passenger coaches behind it. He took hold of the boy's hand. Let's just sit and watch, he said.

  They sat on the embankment and waited. Nothing moved. He handed the pistol to the boy. You take it, Papa, the boy said.

  No. That's not the deal. Take it.

  He took the pistol and sat with it in his lap and the man went down the right of way and stood looking at the train. He crossed the tracks to the other side and walked down the length of the cars. When he came out from behind the last coach he waved for the boy to come and the boy rose and put the pistol in his belt.

  Everything was covered in ash. The aisles littered. Suitcases stood open in the seats where they'd been lifted down from the overhead racks and rifled long ago. In the club car he found a stack of paper plates and he blew the dust from them and put them inside his parka and that was all.

  How did it get here, Papa?

  I dont know. I guess someone was taking it south. A group of people. This is probably where they ran out of fuel.

  Has it been here for a long time?

  Yes. I think so. A pretty long time.

  They went through the last of the cars and then walked up the track to the locomotive and climbed up to the catwalk. Rust and scaling paint. They pushed into the cab and he blew away the ash from the engineer's seat and put the boy at the controls. The controls were very simple. Little to do but push the throttle lever forward. He made train noises and diesel horn noises but he wasnt sure what these might mean to the boy. After a while they just looked out through the silted glass to where the track curved away in the waste of weeds. If they saw different worlds what they knew was the same. That the train would sit there slowly decomposing for all eternity and that no train would ever run again.

  Can we go, Papa?

  Yes. Of course we can.

  They began to come upon from time to time small cairns of rock by the roadside. They were signs in gypsy language, lost patterans. The first he'd seen in some while, common in the north, leading out of the looted and exhausted cities, hopeless messages to loved ones lost and dead. By then all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell. The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.

  Long before they reached the coast their stores were all but gone. The country was stripped and plundered years ago and they found nothing in the houses and buildings by the roadside. He found a telephone directory in a filling station and he wrote the name of the town on their map with a pencil. They sat on the curb in front of the building and ate crackers and looked for the town but they couldnt find it. He sorted through the sections and looked again. Finally he showed the boy. They were some fifty miles west of where he'd thought. He drew stick figures on the map. This is us, he said. The boy traced the route to the sea with his finger. How long will it take us to get there? he said.

  Two weeks. Three.

  Is it blue?

  The sea? I dont know. It used to be.

  The boy nodded. He sat looking at the map. The man watched him. He thought he knew what that was about. He'd pored over maps as a child, keeping one finger on the town where he lived. Just as he would look up his family in the phone directory. Themselves among others, everything in its place. Justified in the world. Come on, he said. We should go.

  In the late afternoon it began to rain. They left the road and took a dirt drive through a field and spent the night in a shed. The shed had a concrete floor and at the far end stood some empty steel drums. He blocked the doors with the drums and built a fire in the floor and he made beds out of some flattened cardboard boxes. The rain drummed all night on the steel roof overhead. When he woke the fire had burned down and it was very cold. The boy was sitting up wrapped in his blanket.

  What is it?

  Nothing. I had a bad dream.

  What did you dream about?

  Nothing.

  Are you okay?

  No.

  He put his arms around him and held him. It's okay, he said.

  I was crying. But you didnt wake up.

  I'm sorry. I was just so tired.

  I meant in the dream.

  In the morning when he woke the rain had stopped. He listened to the slack drip of water. He shifted his hips on the hard concrete and looked out through the boards at the gray country. The boy was still sleeping. Water dripped in puddles in the floor. Small bubbles appeared and skated and vanished again. In a town in the piedmont they'd slept in a place like this and listened to the rain. There was an oldfashioned drugstore there with a black marble counter and chrome stools with tattered plastic seats patched with electrical tape. The pharmacy was looted but the store itself was oddly intact. Expensive electronic equipment sat unmolested on the shelves. He stood looking the place over. Sundries. Notions. What are these? He took the boy's hand and led him out but the boy had already seen it. A human head beneath a cakebell at the end of the counter. Dessicated. Wearing a ballcap. Dried eyes turned sadly inward. Did he dream this? He did not. He rose and knelt and blew at the coals and dragged up the burned board ends and got the fire going.

  There are other good guys. You said so.

  Yes.

  So where are they?

  They're hiding.

  Who are they hiding from?

  From each other.

  Are there lots of them?

  We dont know.

  But some.

  Some. Yes.

  Is that true?

  Yes. That's true.

  But it might not be true.

  I think it's true.

  Okay.

  You dont believe me.

  I believe you.

  Okay.

  I always believe you.

  I dont think so.

  Yes I do. I have to.

  They hiked back down to the highway through the mud. Smell of earth and wet ash in the rain. Dark water in the roadside ditch. Sucking out of an iron culvert into a pool. In a yard a plastic deer. Late the day following they entered a small town where three men stepped from behind a truck and stood in the road before them. Emaciated, clothed in rags. Holding lengths of pipe. What have you got in the basket? He leveled the pistol at them. They stood. The boy clung to his coat. No one spoke. He set the cart forward again and they moved to the side of the road. He had the boy take the cart and he walked backwards keeping the pistol on them. He tried to look like any common migratory killer but his heart was hammering and he knew he was going to start coughing. They drifted back int
o the road and stood watching. He put the pistol in his belt and turned and took the cart. At the top of the rise when he looked back they were still standing there. He told the boy to push the cart and he walked out through a yard to where he could see back down the road but now they were gone. The boy was very scared. He laid the gun on top of the tarp and took the cart and they went on.

  They lay in a field until dark watching the road but no one came. It was very cold. When it was too dark to see they got the cart and stumbled back to the road and he got the blankets out and they wrapped themselves up and went on. Feeling out the paving under their feet. One wheel on the cart had developed a periodic squeak but there was nothing to be done about it. They struggled on for some hours and then floundered off through the roadside brush and lay shivering and exhausted on the cold ground and slept till day. When he woke he was sick.

  He'd come down with a fever and they lay in the woods like fugitives. Nowhere to build a fire. Nowhere safe. The boy sat in the leaves watching him. His eyes brimming. Are you going to die, Papa? he said. Are you going to die?

  No. I'm just sick.

  I'm really scared.

  I know. It's all right. I'm going to get better. You'll see.

  His dreams brightened. The vanished world returned. Kin long dead washed up and cast fey sidewise looks upon him. None spoke. He thought of his life. So long ago. A gray day in a foreign city where he stood in a window and watched the street below. Behind him on a wooden table a small lamp burned. On the table books and papers. It had begun to rain and a cat at the corner turned and crossed the sidewalk and sat beneath the cafe awning. There was a woman at a table there with her head in her hands. Years later he'd stood in the charred ruins of a library where blackened books lay in pools of water. Shelves tipped over. Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row. He picked up one of the books and thumbed through the heavy bloated pages. He'd not have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation. He let the book fall and took a last look around and made his way out into the cold gray light.

  Three days. Four. He slept poorly. The racking cough woke him. Rasping suck of air. I'm sorry, he said to the pitiless dark. It's okay said the boy.

  He got the little oillamp lit and left it sitting on a rock and he rose and shuffled out through the leaves wrapped in his blankets. The boy whispered for him not to go. Just a little ways, he said. Not far. I'll hear you if you call. If the lamp should blow out he could not find his way back. He sat in the leaves at the top of the hill and looked into the blackness. Nothing to see. No wind. In the past when he walked out like that and sat looking over the country lying in just the faintest visible shape where the lost moon tracked the caustic waste he'd sometimes see a light. Dim and shapeless in the murk. Across a river or deep in the blackened quadrants of a burned city. In the morning sometimes he'd return with the binoculars and glass the countryside for any sign of smoke but he never saw any.

 
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