Blood, it seemed, had soaked into everything. The police, however, said it was the bullet that had proved their theory. That morning, Marianne had noticed the newspaper article about a murder in her hometown. There’d also been a picture of the bullet in the paper. Black and once cylindrical, it had supposedly hit the wayward lover’s bone. Then it had traveled through his live body and come out warped and ugly.
Marianne drummed her fingers on the desktop. She stared at the telephone, then looked away and tried to begin on her paperwork, an endless assortment of papers, papers. She hated the familiar saying, “another day, another dollar.” From the corner of her eye, the office phone seemed to present itself to her.
“Jess, did I wake you?” she asked after dialing quickly.
“Marianne?” The man not only seemed to recognize her voice, he seemed to be glad she’d called.
Marianne was relieved. She still wasn’t sure it was all right for the woman to call the guy, at least a guy she didn’t know all that well. Yes, yes, she knew the philosophy she was supposed to believe. She lacked self-esteem.
“I’ve got a question I thought maybe you could help me with.” She proceeded, she thought, to babble about the fence around her house, how she wanted to make it stronger.
Fortunately, lo and behold, Jess seemed to think he was needed to work on some iron pieces Marianne might like to consider purchasing. She explained how she felt that since she lived alone, she needed more protection, but didn’t really want to turn her home into a fortress either or having it going off in the middle of the night with alarms.
Marianne could picture Jesse’s smile. She fiddled with her pen while she talked. Her job in legal papers, plus account and billing letters got boring, and she, like others in the department looked for distractions.
“No, these wouldn’t make the fence look too off-putting.” Jess replied. However, he added, “Marianne, can you get any reception there? My radio and TV have gone down. I don’t have a dish and can’t get internet out here. My computer screen is staring at me.”
“Sorry,” she truly was. “We only get piped-in music here. The company wants our minds on the job, which obviously, mine isn’t.” She laughed. “I’m trying to avoid turning my computer on. I already know what’s there!”
She’d just met Jess, who was becoming the new Mr. Natural in her life. He was a man who was into carpentry, gardening, and ironwork or welding of all things. He could forge and weld, and he had his own shop beside his home. He ate natural or fresh foods.
A guy in the hall yelled, “The news just went out on my car radio. Has anybody heard anything?”
“It’s a national emergency!” Marianne covered her receiver end and joked back. She was trying not to think about what Jess looked like or that he wore blue jeans and soft cotton or flannel shirts. Also, he had a forge of his own; he knew exactly the heat he had to get a piece of steel to. The man could then bend iron into a smooth curve. Looks shouldn’t matter so much, Marianne chided herself. Mainly though, she just didn’t want to be the one to make the first move. Not her. Miss Cool and You Don’t Have an Effect on Me, Cool. She’d rather die.
Marianne smiled almost bitterly. The letters reminding customers to pay now or else on her desk threatened to engulf her.
“And these particular pieces, though of cold iron, my lady, are as if for a garden. They can be used on benches, fence work and the like.” Jeff laughed, “They’re lacy,” he teased. Such a nice guy. Too nice?
Marianne noted the man’s voice was fading in and out. Still, she felt happy. She hadn’t turned her computer on yet, but evidently the internet or power was down because people were beginning to gather in the hall, complaining loudly. It must be the internet, she decided, their private company network on so far, the lights still blazed. Maybe she should’ve pulled out her cell and texted Jess, but she cradled the company phone now to hear his voice.
“So I’ll talk with you later?” Jess was saying. “I’d like you to drive out to my shop and see my work. I’ll call you in a few days, and we’ll work something out. Okay?”
Good grief. Marianne’s mind was back on the hallway. The imbeciles evidently couldn’t exist without their daily electronic hit. Marianne stopped herself from picturing Jess working over smoldering embers, stripped to the waist. She agreed to meet him and was about to hang up when she thought maybe the phone had gone dead.
She tried, but couldn’t get another dial tone. The sound was like the line was still there, but nothing was happening. Otherwise, she thought she might have tried to call her friend, Sandy, where she worked. So, maybe this Jess liked her? Just maybe. Of course, she chided herself, she was not a teenager and had heard all this sort of “play” before. What was it exactly he wanted—just for her to buy something? What was it exactly she wanted? She still considered pulling her cell out, against all work rules.
Larry Swanberg, the company’s crack salesperson, was hailing people in the hall, telling them not to worry. After all, he was in town today, and so he would tell them all the news from the road. He could even entertain them if they liked. All was well.
Marianne frowned. She knew Mr. Gladhander would, as usual, breeze in here at any moment to give her his customary spiel on how she ought to go out more, meaning with him, she gathered, and have a good time. “Hey, Mary contrary—just lighten up!” That was what he always implored.
His Mary decided to stab at him with her pen this time. That would be a worthwhile hint. God, what was she coming to anyway? Here she was, not only disturbing her own work, but thinking of disturbing Sandy’s too! And all for this “natural man.” Men!
She turned and tried to concentrate on her letters. She had the big accounts and had to tell people in a nice way that they were just a little past due, but look at how much they not so goddamn owed!
Of course, then all the power failed. Lights, the buzz and clack of scanners or copy machines here and there. Everything stopped. Whirring, and then no noise or electricity at all. Marianne threw her pen onto the desk and put her hands to her eyes.
She recalled her own face in the mirror that morning. Without makeup, her judgment was, Mary looked terrible. Circles under her eyes, her skin all washed out and puffy. Yes, she looked definitely “over the hill” these days. Still, didn’t men ever want kindness in a relationship too? Consistency and continuity? Evidently not. They wanted excitement, and she remembered her face as if turning into a skull in the mirror; she just didn’t feel she could provide it anymore. Not anymore. To hell with variety.
Marianne took her hands from over her eyes. Lord, it was getting dark in here. Nevertheless, it seemed that everyone but her was now up and buzzing about. God, it was even darker outside her window. And it was morning!
“No, it doesn’t get dark like this when there’s a tornado,” Sally, the boss’s secretary, usually timid, tried. “The sky gets green,” she added, as if the color revolted her.
“Besides, there’s no rain!” Someone else piped up.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean anything!” Marianne recognized the voice of Dick, one of the managers, all white shirt and tie. A three-piece suit.
Marianne felt a chill. Maybe she was just catching a cold? Going to her cubbyhole doorway, she noticed some of the women had donned their sweaters.
“Glad I’m not still out on the road,” Swanberg, the sales guy, winked at her.
When considering Jess as a new lover, Marianne had wanted to ensure that this time there’d be a real relationship, that the two of them would talk and spend time together. Maybe he’d even really like her? Of course, she worried also, even this early-on morning that any relationship would only end. All love affairs ended, and she didn’t think she could take that again, so why start another. A one night stand? Okay, but why really try again? Why try?
“Hey!” One of the men in Inventory Control shouted at his dead phone. He must have been trying to reach home.
Finally then, there was a siren.
Only then did Marianne know what “it” was. The fact dawned on her though she immediately wanted to dismiss it as foolish. She looked from Sally to Dick to Larry to all of the coworkers for whom she usually held no serious regard. She was seeking reasons to dismiss her idea. No one looked back at her. They were all discussing whether they could go home. Well, she didn’t even have a home nearby, at least not with anyone there.
“You know, “one of the vice-presidents pulled another aside, she presumed to “discuss the situation.”
Marianne almost smiled, wondering if they wouldn’t like to call a meeting to discuss plans for an evacuation. At least there was only a ground floor to consider!
“I’m going home,” Wanda, the head office assistant, finally announced.
Marianne couldn’t hear her own heart; rather she felt it thumping, though, inside her chest. She had already grabbed her purse and jacket, and was amazed that she’d found her car keys so easily—a miracle how they seemed to appear in her hand from the usual mire at the bottom of her handbag.
Old Mr. Sommers, the almost-retired President of the Company, remarked, “Thank God, nothing hit here” as she was leaving. He’d lived through some old wars, had lived to witness bombings. When he was a boy, Marianne thought, bombs had been shaped like giant bullets dropping from the sky. The holes they made were limited craters.
Outside, the roads were not even crowded yet. Marianne braked at a broken stoplight. Everyone else was doing much the same thing. People were being orderly and behaving as if they were coming to a four-way stop at each intersection. Each car took its turn.
That morning after reading through the murder story in the paper, after reading about all that jealousy and rage and how the ending had all been “a terrible accident,” according to the perpetrator, Marianne had wondered if this event right now was some example of an act of violent passion. Was it not odd that there seemed so much peace around them now?
Then someone honked, followed by someone else. Someone cried out then, and it wasn’t a baby. Right now Marianne was in front of the supermarket. She resisted the urge to cover her eyes and kept her hands on the wheel. Even during ancient days, she remembered from school, earthquakes had been sent by the gods as punishment. She figured this might be worse than an earthquake though.
Marianne had worried only that morning that people didn’t seem to get close anymore. Of course, considering the relationship between her own mother and father, and even her grandparents before them, she wondered if people had ever gotten all that close, or was it they just could not stay close? The ancient god Thor of the underworld was the force behind storms, thunder and lightning. Marianne glanced at the skies. Jess worked with fire, acetylene torches, and she thought even a forge. He seemed gentle to her though. That’s how she liked her strength, gentle.
A glance around told her that most drivers now had their car windows rolled up, intent on a destination. But then Marianne smiled wryly. Closed car windows would not keep radiation fallout away. No more than the trains traveling out of Hiroshima or Nagasaki so long ago. What was it that happened to you then? Marianne tried, but could not remember exactly. Burns, she thought. Didn’t your skin peel off or something? Maybe she needed to get underground somewhere. She couldn’t bear the thought of something happening to her skin.
Jess’s eyes had these crinkles, crosses around them. She had wanted to live to smooth them. Touching suddenly seemed a very important thing to her. Touching someone. What if she disappeared, just evaporated? Would she make “the death toll” then?
Leaving the city limits, Marianne tried to remember how much time it was survivors were supposed to have. Of course, that would probably depend on where the bomb had hit and/or the blow up had happened. The word, the concept of “bomb” seemed unreal to her. Maybe a plant had blown up somewhere not too far off, nothing nuclear after all. Marianne thought that if she just turned her mind off and on to automatic, she’d end up safe, at home, as usual. More boring T.V.
Suddenly, there was a wind blowing up. Heat. A wild wind. Her hair was slapping around her face.
Then she recognized Jess’s shop—a kind of shed really, and Marianne cut the wheel sharply and turned off the road. She checked to make sure, but yes, this was his address. She was suddenly frightened; was he gone?
“No!” Marianne suddenly wanted to yell, but the word was lost in the storm blowing up around her. Goddamn bastards, did they even know why they’d pushed the goddamn button? Not to mention, where were all the T.V. and radio announcers now who were supposed to be getting to the bottom of things and getting the word out? Would anyone ever know whose fault it all was? And, what if they did?
Marianne thought about praying. Any answers there? Then she suddenly became worried about dysentery, of all things. She thought she knew what dysentery was anyway. Also typhus came from water, she thought, and she bet there was probably like a fever with it or something. Couldn’t all sorts of diseases happen after the initial big bang? Even though she’d heard the word thousands of times, she had no idea what cholera was. There wouldn’t be anything like smallpox again, would there? The plagues of man. Nuclear fallout caused these, and good God, a nuclear explosion burned people into shadows, didn’t it? No fingerprints to identify anyone with, no DNA.
Still, Jess was here, not blown or burned away. She saw Mr. Natural Man moving toward her. Marianne avoided looking into his face, she didn’t know why, and concentrated on the ease of his movement in comfortable blue jeans, the softness of his hair. She looked at his hands. She’d always liked the looks of them, the life lines in the palms, and now the feel of his fingers as they caught up her own hand, and then her face was pulled into his shoulder.
Marianne could look over his shoulder at what remained of his forge-like fire. It smoldered. They’d have to find more wood or more charcoal. Whatever. Coal, she remembered. She didn’t know if Jess had an environmental position on fuel or energy. Had never asked.
She held to the man and he held her. Together, they waited. Where had the mushroom cloud been, the resulting crater? How far off? Wasn’t there supposed to have been a fireball somewhere? Was it around what was left of the turning world? Was that why they couldn’t see much? Were the two of them even still turning?
Propped in front of a stone wall on the grass was what must have been a gate. Maybe Jess had decided to get it ready for her after she’d called. A creation he’d wanted to show off to Marianne—a garden gate. Now unhinged.
The man and woman breathed together as ash and sand in the air edged toward them. Inexorable winter. They curved into one another, like twins in a womb.