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       The Road, p.9

           Cormac McCarthy
 
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  Okay.

  Come on, the man said. Everything's okay. I promise.

  But when he bent to see into the boy's face under the hood of the blanket he very much feared that something was gone that could not be put right again.

  They went out and crossed the yard to the shed. He set the bottle on the bench and he took a screwdriver and punched a hole in one of the cans of oil and then punched a smaller one to help it drain. He pulled the wick out of the bottle and poured the bottle about half full, old straight weight oil thick and gelid with the cold and a long time pouring. He twisted the cap off the gascan and he made a small paper spill from one of the seedpackets and poured gas into the bottle and put his thumb over the mouth and shook it. Then he poured some out into a clay dish and took the rag and stuffed it back into the bottle with the screwdriver. He took a piece of flint from his pocket and got the pair of pliers and struck the flint against the serrated jaw. He tried it a couple of times and then he stopped and poured more gasoline into the dish. This may flare up, he said. The boy nodded. He raked sparks into the dish and it bloomed into flame with a low whoosh. He reached and got the bottle and tilted it and lit the wick and blew out the flame in the dish and handed the smoking bottle to the boy. Here, he said. Take it.

  What are we going to do?

  Hold your hand in front of the flame. Dont let it go out.

  He rose and took the pistol from his belt. This door looks like the other door, he said. But it's not. I know you're scared. That's okay. I think there may be things in there and we have to take a look. There's no place else to go. This is it. I want you to help me. If you dont want to hold the lamp you'll have to take the pistol.

  I'll hold the lamp.

  Okay. This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They dont give up.

  Okay.

  He led the boy out into the yard trailing the black smoke from the lamp. He put the pistol in his belt and picked up the spade and began to chop the hasp out of the plywood. He wedged the corner of the blade under it and pried it up and then knelt and took hold of the lock and twisted the whole thing loose and pitched it into the grass. He pried the blade under the door and got his fingers under it and then stood and raised it up. Dirt went rattling down the boards. He looked at the boy. Are you all right? he said. The boy nodded mutely, holding the lamp in front of him. The man swung the door over and let it fall in the grass. Rough stairs carpentered out of two by tens leading down into the darkness. He reached and took the lamp from the boy. He started to descend the stairs but then he turned and leaned and kissed the child on the forehead.

  The bunker was walled with concrete block. A poured concrete floor laid over with kitchen tile. There were a couple of iron cots with bare springs, one against either wall, the mattress pads rolled up at the foot of them in army fashion. He turned and looked at the boy crouched above him blinking in the smoke rising up from the lamp and then he descended to the lower steps and sat and held the lamp out. Oh my God, he whispered. Oh my God.

  What is it Papa?

  Come down. Oh my God. Come down.

  Crate upon crate of canned goods. Tomatoes, peaches, beans, apricots. Canned hams. Corned beef. Hundreds of gallons of water in ten gallon plastic jerry jugs. Paper towels, toiletpaper, paper plates. Plastic trash bags stuffed with blankets. He held his forehead in his hand. Oh my God, he said. He looked back at the boy. It's all right, he said. Come down.

  Papa?

  Come down. Come down and see.

  He stood the lamp on the step and went up and took the boy by the hand. Come on, he said. It's all right.

  What did you find?

  I found everything. Everything. Wait till you see. He led him down the stairs and picked up the bottle and held the flame aloft. Can you see? he said. Can you see?

  What is all this stuff, Papa?

  It's food. Can you read it?

  Pears. That says pears.

  Yes. Yes it does. Oh yes it does.

  There was just headroom for him to stand. He ducked under a lantern with a green metal shade hanging from a hook. He held the boy by the hand and they went along the rows of stenciled cartons. Chile, corn, stew, soup, spaghetti sauce. The richness of a vanished world. Why is this here? the boy said. Is it real?

  Oh yes. It's real.

  He pulled one of the boxes down and clawed it open and held up a can of peaches. It's here because someone thought it might be needed.

  But they didnt get to use it.

  No. They didnt.

  They died.

  Yes.

  Is it okay for us to take it?

  Yes. It is. They would want us to. Just like we would want them to.

  They were the good guys?

  Yes. They were.

  Like us.

  Like us. Yes.

  So it's okay.

  Yes. It's okay.

  There were knives and plastic utensils and silverware and kitchen tools in a plastic box. A can opener. There were electric torches that didnt work. He found a box of batteries and drycells and went through them. Mostly corroded and leaking an acid goo but some of them looked okay. He finally got one of the lanterns to work and he set it on the table and blew out the smoky flame of the lamp. He tore a flap from the opened cardboard box and chased out the smoke with it and then he climbed up and lowered the trap door and turned and looked at the boy. What would you like for supper? he said.

  Pears.

  Good choice. Pears it is.

  He took two paperware bowls from a stack of them wrapped in plastic and set them out on the table. He unrolled the mattress pads on the bunks for them to sit on and he opened the carton of pears and took out a can and set it on the table and clamped the lid with the can opener and began to turn the wheel. He looked at the boy. The boy was sitting quietly on the bunk, still wrapped in the blanket, watching. The man thought he had probably not fully committed himself to any of this. You could wake in the dark wet woods at any time. These will be the best pears you ever tasted, he said. The best. Just you wait.

  They sat side by side and ate the can of pears. Then they ate a can of peaches. They licked the spoons and tipped the bowls and drank the rich sweet syrup. They looked at each other.

  One more.

  I dont want you to get sick.

  I wont get sick.

  You havent eaten in a long time.

  I know.

  Okay.

  He put the boy to bed in the bunk and smoothed his filthy hair on the pillow and covered him with blankets. When he climbed up and lifted the door it was almost dark out. He went to the garage and got the knapsack and came back and took a last look around and then went down the steps and pulled the door shut and jammed one of the handles of the pliers through the heavy inside hasp. The electric lantern was already beginning to dim and he looked through the stores until he found some cases of white gas in gallon cans. He got one of the cans out and set it on the table and unscrewed the cap and punched out the metal seal with a screwdriver. Then he took down the lamp from the hook overhead and filled it. He'd already found a plastic box of butane lighters and he lit the lamp with one of them and adjusted the flame and hung it back up. Then he just sat on the bunk.

  While the boy slept he began to go methodically through the stores. Clothes, sweaters, socks. A stainless steel basin and sponges and bars of soap. Toothpaste and toothbrushes. In the bottom of a big plastic jar of bolts and screws and miscellaneous hardware he found a double handful of gold krugerrands in a cloth sack. He dumped them out and kneaded them in his hand and looked at them and then scooped them back into the jar along with the hardware and put the jar back on the shelf.

  He sorted through everything, shifting boxes and crates from one side of the room to the other. There was a small steel door that led into a second room where bottles of gas were stored. In the corner a chemical toilet. There were vent pipes in the walls covered with wire mesh and there were drains in the floor. It was getting warm in the bunker and he'd taken off his
coat. He went through everything. He found a box of .45 ACP cartridges and three boxes of .30-30 rifle shells. What he didnt find was a gun. He took the battery lantern and walked over the floor and he checked the walls for any hidden compartment. After a while he just sat on the bunk eating a bar of chocolate. There was no gun and there wasnt going to be one.

  When he woke the gaslamp overhead was hissing softly. The bunker walls were there in the light and the boxes and crates. He didnt know where he was. He was lying with his coat over him. He sat up and looked at the boy asleep on the other bunk. He'd taken off his shoes but he didnt remember that either and he got them from under the bunk and pulled them on and climbed the stairs and pulled the pliers from the hasp and lifted the door and peered out. Early morning. He looked at the house and he looked out toward the road and he was about to lower the hatch door again when he stopped. The vague gray light was in the west. They'd slept the night through and the day that followed. He lowered the door and secured it again and climbed back down and sat on the bunk. He looked around at the supplies. He'd been ready to die and now he wasnt going to and he had to think about that. Anyone could see the hatch lying in the yard and they would know at once what it was. He had to think about what to do. This was not hiding in the woods. This was the last thing from that. Finally he rose and went to the table and hooked up the little two burner gas stove and lit it and got out a frying pan and a kettle and opened the plastic box of kitchen implements.

  What woke the boy was him grinding coffee in a small hand grinder. He sat up and stared all around. Papa? he said.

  Hi. Are you hungry?

  I have to go to the bathroom. I have to pee.

  He pointed with the spatula toward the low steel door. He didnt know how to use the toilet but they would use it anyway. They werent going to be here that long and he wasnt going to be opening and closing the hatch any more than they had to. The boy went past, his hair matted with sweat. What is that? he said.

  Coffee. Ham. Biscuits.

  Wow, the boy said.

  He dragged a footlocker across the floor between the bunks and covered it with a towel and set out the plates and cups and plastic utensils. He set out a bowl of biscuits covered with a handtowel and a plate of butter and a can of condensed milk. Salt and pepper. He looked at the boy. The boy looked drugged. He brought the frying pan from the stove and forked a piece of browned ham onto the boy's plate and scooped scrambled eggs from the other pan and ladled out spoonfuls of baked beans and poured coffee into their cups. The boy looked up at him.

  Go ahead, he said. Dont let it get cold.

  What do I eat first?

  Whatever you like.

  Is this coffee?

  Yes. Here. You put the butter on your biscuits. Like this.

  Okay.

  Are you all right?

  I dont know.

  Do you feel okay?

  Yes.

  What is it?

  Do you think we should thank the people?

  The people?

  The people who gave us all this.

  Well. Yes, I guess we could do that.

  Will you do it?

  Why dont you?

  I dont know how.

  Yes you do. You know how to say thank you.

  The boy sat staring at his plate. He seemed lost. The man was about to speak when he said: Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff. We know that you saved it for yourself and if you were here we wouldnt eat it no matter how hungry we were and we're sorry that you didnt get to eat it and we hope that you're safe in heaven with God.

  He looked up. Is that okay? he said.

  Yes. I think that's okay.

  He wouldnt stay in the bunker by himself. He followed the man back and forth across the lawn while he carried the plastic jugs of water to the bathroom at the rear of the house. They took the little stove with them and a couple of pans and he heated water and poured it into the tub and poured in water from the plastic jugs. It took a long time but he wanted it to be good and warm. When the tub was almost full the boy got undressed and stepped shivering into the water and sat. Scrawny and filthy and naked. Holding his shoulders. The only light was from the ring of blue teeth in the burner of the stove. What do you think? the man said.

  Warm at last.

  Warm at last?

  Yes.

  Where did you get that?

  I dont know.

  Okay. Warm at last.

  He washed his dirty matted hair and bathed him with the soap and sponges. He drained away the filthy water he sat in and laved fresh warm water over him from the pan and wrapped him shivering in a towel and wrapped him again in a blanket. He combed his hair and looked at him. Steam was coming off of him like smoke. Are you okay? he said.

  My feet are cold.

  You'll have to wait for me.

  Hurry.

  He bathed and then climbed out and poured detergent into the bathwater and shoved their stinking jeans down into the water with a toilet plunger. Are you ready? he said.

  Yes.

  He turned down the burner until it sputtered and went out and then he turned on the flashlight and laid it in the floor. They sat on the edge of the tub and pulled their shoes on and then he handed the boy the pan and soap and he took the stove and the little bottle of gas and the pistol and wrapped in their blankets they went back across the yard to the bunker.

  They sat on the cot with a checkerboard between them, wearing new sweaters and socks and swaddled in the new blankets. He'd hooked up a small gas heater and they drank Coca Cola out of plastic mugs and after a while he went back to the house and wrung the water out of the jeans and brought them back and hung them to dry.

  How long can we stay here Papa?

  Not long.

  How long is that?

  I dont know. Maybe one more day. Two.

  Because it's dangerous.

  Yes.

  Do you think they'll find us?

  No. They wont find us.

  They might find us.

  No they wont. They wont find us.

  Later when the boy was asleep he went to the house and dragged some of the furniture out onto the lawn. Then he dragged out a mattress and laid it over the hatch and from inside he pulled it up over the plywood and carefully lowered the door so that the mattress covered it completely. It wasnt much of a ruse but it was better than nothing. While the boy slept he sat on the bunk and by the light of the lantern he whittled fake bullets from a treebranch with his knife, fitting them carefully into the empty bores of the cylinder and then whittling again. He shaped the ends with the knife and sanded them smooth with salt and he stained them with soot until they were the color of lead. When he had all five of them done he fitted them to the bores and snapped the cylinder shut and turned the gun and looked at it. Even this close the gun looked as if it were loaded and he laid it by and got up to feel the legs of the jeans steaming above the heater.

  He'd saved the small handful of empty cartridge casings for the pistol but they were gone with everything else. He should have kept them in his pocket. He'd even lost the last one. He thought he might have been able to reload them out of the .45 cartridges. The primers would probably fit if he could get them out without ruining them. Shave the bullets to size with the boxcutter. He got up and made a last tour of the stores. Then he turned down the lamp until the flame puttered out and he kissed the boy and crawled into the other bunk under the clean blankets and gazed one more time at this tiny paradise trembling in the orange light from the heater and then he fell asleep.

  The town had been abandoned years ago but they walked the littered streets carefully, the boy holding on to his hand. They passed a metal trashdump where someone had once tried to burn bodies. The charred meat and bones under the damp ash might have been anonymous save for the shapes of the skulls. No longer any smell. There was a market at the end of the street and in one of the aisles piled with empty boxes there were three metal grocery carts. He looked them over and pulled o
ne of them free and squatted and turned the wheels and then stood and pushed it up the aisle and back again.

  We could take two of them, the boy said.

  No.

  I could push one.

  You're the scout. I need you to be our lookout.

  What are we going to do with all the stuff?

  We'll just have to take what we can.

  Do you think somebody is coming?

  Yes. Sometime.

  You said nobody was coming.

  I didnt mean ever.

  I wish we could live here.

  I know.

  We could be on the lookout.

  We are on the lookout.

  What if some good guys came?

  Well, I dont think we're likely to meet any good guys on the road.

  We're on the road.

  I know.

  If you're on the lookout all the time does that mean that you're scared all the time?

  Well. I suppose you have to be scared enough to be on the lookout in the first place. To be cautious. Watchful.

  But the rest of the time you're not scared?

  The rest of the time.

  Yeah.

  I dont know. Maybe you should always be on the lookout. If trouble comes when you least expect it then maybe the thing to do is to always expect it.

  Do you always expect it? Papa?

  I do. But sometimes I might forget to be on the lookout.

  He sat the boy on the footlocker under the gaslamp and with a plastic comb and a pair of scissors he set about cutting his hair. He tried to do a good job and it took some time. When he was done he took the towel from around the boy's shoulders and he scooped the golden hair from the floor and wiped the boy's face and shoulders with a damp cloth and held a mirror for him to see.

  You did a good job, Papa.

  Good.

  I look really skinny.

  You are really skinny.

  He cut his own hair but it didnt come out so good. He trimmed his beard with the scissors while a pan of water heated and then he shaved himself with a plastic safety razor. The boy watched. When he was done he regarded himself in the mirror. He seemed to have no chin. He turned to the boy. How do I look? The boy cocked his head. I dont know, he said. Will you be cold?

  They ate a sumptuous meal by candlelight. Ham and green beans and mashed potatoes with biscuits and gravy. He'd found four quarts of bonded whiskey still in the paper bags in which they'd been purchased and he drank a little of it in a glass with water. It made him dizzy before he'd even finished it and he drank no more. They ate peaches and cream over biscuits for dessert and drank coffee. The paper plates and plastic tableware he dumped in a trash-bag. Then they played checkers and then he put the boy to bed.

 
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