No Alarms and No Surprises
Art dies sometime in the night, quietly and peacefully. His body is frozen solid by the morning. A thin layer of frost covers him and the ground, disturbed only by John’s attempts to pry Art off the floor of a boxcar with a branch. Son of a bitch might as well be glued there. Even his thin overcoat is stiffer than sheet metal. John eventually gets the branch wedged under, and with a cracking noise like walking over a frozen lake, Art’s body loosens and topples over.
“Didn’t even seem that cold last night,” says John to himself. He kicks around at the ground near the train tracks. Too hard to dig. No way to bury the poor bastard. Not here, at least. So John instead wheels up the discarded shopping cart they use for their personal possessions, and heaves the body in. He’s in there awkwardly, frozen legs jutting out, like he’s a piece of flat pack furniture that’s slightly too big.
The thing to realize about Art is that he probably deserves this dignity.
“I was the first one to know Stalin was dead,” he had told John once. “First one. The commie son of a bitch was dead, and I was the first to know he was rottin’ in Hell.”
“I thought Johnny Cash was the first one to know,” said John. “I read that in his autobiography. It was a pretty good book.”
“Urban myth,” said Art, spitting out a thin trail of chewing tobacco as he spoke. “He was there ‘n all, though. Me ‘n him served together. But it was me, not him. An’ I gave him the idea for that song too, y’know? I did shoot a man in Reno.” He shoved another plug of tobacco under his lip. “It weren’t to watch him die, though. He was one of those subversive hippy types. Thinks he could have changed the world with reefer smoke and fuckin’ Ginsberg.”
The shopping cart jostles over a rough patch of ground, the sticky wheel on the front right squealing in protest. It’s started to snow, settling on Art’s body as if someone is dusting a cake. Though this is not the first time John has had to bury someone, transporting a body is new to him. He doesn’t really know where to go with it—though who would? The ground is too hard to dig without a proper shovel, but leaving him lying on the ground seems too inhumane. Likewise dumping him in a lake or river—not that John knows where one is around here. Maybe take him to a hospital, let them put him in a morgue somewhere then send him off to be cremated. But then there’s questions. Someone will ask what he’s doing, or how he died.
“I shot him with my service pistol,” Art had told John. “Figured I’d do the country a good turn, get rid of a pinko commie.”
“You just shot him in the street?”
It was a Tuesday, because on Tuesdays they made the walk into the city and got some food from the mission. This particular Tuesday it was cheap cans of donated chili, the kind that’s basically just chuck in spicy tomato sauce.
“Yep. Right there in the street. No-one came for me the next day. No cops, no you-have-the-right-to-remain-silent, nothin’. I figure they either thought I did good, or else they didn’t give a shit about no dead reefer addict.”
He snorted, and spat out a wad of brown mucus before slurping straight from the bowl.
John has now reached the outskirts of the woods, where it all opens up into farmlands on the outskirts of town, where you can hear distant traffic, though you can’t yet see any roads. Just follow the railway tracks right along. Despite the snow, Art has now thawed enough to at least bend his limbs. To an onlooker, he would probably just look asleep. No-one would want to investigate closer, not one bum being pushed by another, even if one of them, even from a distance, seems too young and too neat to really be called a bum, with his overcoat that seems clean and face that’s only lightly shaded with stubble. But these are hard times for everyone, I suppose, and Harvard graduates rubbing shoulders with dead McCarthyist veterans isn’t outside the realm of possibility.
Art was born Arthur Clarence Welling. Second son of Maria and Henry Welling, though if you would have asked him, when he was alive of course, he wouldn’t have remembered their names.
“Missed out on Dubya Dubya Two ‘cuz I was born too late. Never forgave ‘em for not havin’ me sooner,” he had explained to John one evening. There was a smell of burning wood in the air, and the leaves had just turned red enough to be picturesque. “Entered into the service to fight the gooks, ended up bein’ chucked away in a box to listen in on what the commies were sayin’ about us behind our backs instead.”
“That’s better than going out to die in the Pacific, though, isn’t it?”
Art had squinted at John.
“You a liberal socialist? One of them ‘peace be to all mankind’ pinko shits or somethin’?” This autumn, Art had taken to chewing on long straws of grass like he was Huck Finn, though the one he had hanging off his lip was yellowing with brown tips. “Anyways, there was me and Cash, stuck in a box for hours a day just listenin’ to the commies yabberin’ on in morse. I swear, even in those beeps you could hear they were Red. ‘Privet tovarishch’ an’ all that.”
“You speak Russian?”
“I speak American. I unnerstand Red. Know your enemy, y’know.” He took out the grass stalk and stared at the end. “Hours an’ hours we used to spend there, me and Cash, headphones on. There was somethin’ about that man. I ain’t a queer or nothin’, but there was somethin’ about him.”
John has only just realized what today is. In another place and time he’d be taking his wife out to dinner tonight. The white band on his ring finger, which has never really faded away properly, begins to ache. He has to stop and think about something else for a few minutes.
Art had never married. Never had kids. He never spoke about his brother, though John later learned he had died in the war, the one Art regretted never being a part of.
The Welling family tree had ended in an abandoned boxcar on Valentine’s Day.
As you may recall me saying, this isn’t the first time John has had to deal with death. The previous guy who died, Ortez, a huge Mexican guy who had always called him Johnny, dragging the last syllable out (Johnneeeeeeeee) had died of a heart attack in an alleyway behind Sears. The guy before that, whatever his name was, car accident, but that was only a few days after John met him so I don’t know if he should really count. There are a couple more, but you get the idea. For now, just remember that all seeds grow underground, in the dark.
He encounters another person just as the roads are coming into view and the sporadic farms give way to country homes. It’s a young boy, maybe ten or eleven years old, though it’s hard to tell as a scarf and wool hat cover him tightly. He’s standing in the front yard, next to a pile of snow that might become a snowman later. It’s snowing fairly heavily now. Every few minutes John has to wipe the flakes that have settled on Art’s face using the back of his sleeve.
The boy backs off as John wheels the cart closer. Both stop. Both uncertain.
“Hey, kid,” says John. The boy doesn’t respond. He only stares at the cart with his dark eyes for a few minutes, before turning and running back inside. The snowman won’t be built today. The sticky wheel squeals again as John bumps up a curb and continues on.
Art had once told John that people like the winter. “Brings ‘em closer together,” he said.
“Were you ever close to anyone?” John asked him. Art just snorted, a liquidy rattle, and spat out the open door of the boxcar. They had been staying there for little over a month by then. John knew of a place in town that they could have gone to, but that would involve calling in a favor, and John isn’t the kind of guy to call in favors. He could have taken him to his house, but John hadn’t been there for a few years, and wasn’t ready to return. Still isn’t, I guess. Art made it through most of the winter, anyway, so John’s conscience feels clear.
“You were married, weren’t you?” asked Art. “You keep rubbin’ your ring finger like it’s been stung by a bee.”
“I never liked to take it off. I used to hate taking showers. If I didn’t take it off, the soap would make it slip off anyway. Made me feel detached, like I was suddenly offset from the world.”
“All us bums are offset from the world.” Art scratched at his own ring finger, as if in another life he too was married. “I ain’t had a shower in months.”
The snow has turned into sleet. It’s getting hard to move, hard to see, and John is thinking about abandoning Art and walking away. But he pushes on, reaches the outskirts of the city. At least the weather will have cleared the streets of people. Cars occasionally pass, though none stop for the dead man in the shopping cart. They all have somewhere better to be. And I guess some people just plain don’t notice the invisible men in the streets.
Sometimes John would wake up and Art would be fighting imaginary people in his sleep. Sometimes he’d be fighting imaginary people when he was awake, too. Sometimes he’d fight real people, including John, although there never seemed to be any force and effort behind it, even when he was jabbing at John with a broken bottle. It was like a bored kid playing with a toy he didn’t like. Art had told him that he sometimes thought he was fighting in WW2, that he was in the Pacific invading small islands.
“You dream about something that never happened?”
“Ain’t that the point of dreams?” said Art, taking off his tennis shoes that may have once been white. “Get all the shit you want but can’t get.”
“I thought that was your philosophy anyway. Take what you want, when you want it.”
Art grinned. Teeth that also may have once been white.
“That’s America’s philosophy. Nothin’ to stop one man getting what he wants. Money. Food. Girls. Anyone who says no when you try just ain’t an American at heart. If they fight it out, whoever’s the strongest wins an’ takes the prize. Simple as that.”
“Survival of the fittest, huh?”
“Survival of the fittest.”
It’s no good. John has to stop now. He moves Art against the wall and takes refuge under a storefront awning. He’s out of the sleet, but it doesn’t really protect him against the wind. It’s bitterly cold now. No people in sight. No cars in sight. Nothing. No lights on anywhere, no stores open. But this is the wrong end of town, where there are boards across most windows. Maybe he and Art are the last people left alive, though. The sun must have gone out or something. Everyone else vanished, like the Rapture, leaving him alone, with no-one but a dead bum for company as he freezes in the wastelands.
Art always claimed he’d die fighting the communists when they inevitably came back. “Cold war’s not over,” he claimed. “They just played possum for a while, then snuck back in when we weren’t lookin’. Commies in the White House, next they’ll be makin’ us work in camps. I tell you, I been on the streets since Reagan, but I ain’t never been gladder that I ain’t in their systems as I am right now. You, you’re probably in ‘em. They got your fingerprints and DNA and who knows what else saved ‘n recorded ‘n analyzed by some guy who’ll say you’re not Red enough because you dared to fuck more than two girls in your life, an’ take you out cold.”
It isn’t letting up. John has to let him go. He needs to find proper shelter. Somewhere safe. Somewhere indoors, at least. The sleet is freezing the sidewalks, the roads, the awnings. Everything it hits. This is the sort of weather they would do flash alerts about on the news, telling people to get inside and stay safe. Maybe it really is the end of the world. Art is already covered with a thin layer of ice. He looks embalmed. The awning is doing little to shelter John. Wind is blowing the sleet in almost horizontal, and he’s lost all feeling in his hands, even though they’re tucked deep inside the sleeves of his overcoat. He wheels the cart into an alleyway and leaves it there as he tries to pry boards off a door. He can’t grip. He can’t pull, he can’t even feel anything anymore. Even if he got the boards off, that door looks solid. And so he slumps down against the wall, rubs at the white band on his finger, and lets the ice come.
He’s standing in a park now. It’s warm, and he’s barefoot and can feel the soft grass between his toes. Myriad boats float across a lake that expands out to the horizon. Behind him he can only see trees. It’s a perfectly clear day.
“Guess this is a dream,” he says. “Either that or I’m dying.”
“Somethin’ like that,” says a duck with Art’s voice, or maybe it’s just Art’s voice and the duck is in the way. “Maybe you’re dreamin’ of dying.”
“I used to come here as a kid,” says John, walking to the water’s edge. “I used to feed the ducks, only I’d make them work for it. Throw the bread out as far as I could, then when they swam out to get it, drop some more in the shallows so they’d come back. I never knew if that was cruel or honest.”
John watches a rowboat pass. The oars are moving, but no-one’s there to push them. Aside from the ducks, he’s alone out here, though he can hear the sounds of people.
“I’m sorry you died, Art.”
“I was about ready, anyway.”
“Still kinda shitty.”
The duck ruffles its feathers and quacks. It waddles into the water and swims off to join the rest of the flock.
“This would be a good place to bury you, I think,” John says.
“I left you in an alleyway. It should have been something more dignified.”
“I ain’t there to give a shit. Only thing left is the meat. If you want to do anything, it’s ‘cause of what you want, not ‘cause of what I want. I ain’t doin’ any wanting anymore. I ain’t doin’ much of anything.”
“Well, if this is your dream, it’s about what you want. An’ I don’t see much going on here. Where’s that wife of yours?”
“I haven’t dreamt about her in a while.” The ring is back on John’s hand now. He rolls it in between two fingers. “I used to have dreams of finding her on the streets someday, and taking her back to our house, our real house, and we’d eat take-out while watching sitcom reruns, and sometimes go out to dinner to restaurants that serve fresh seafood. Then I’d wake up and every part of me would ache and everything would smell of ash.”
“What happened to her?”
“An’ what happened to you?”
“Would you change that, if you could?”
John turns from the lake and walks towards the woods.
“Least you’re honest.”
“Remember when we used to fight?” says Art, his voice now coming from random trees that John passes. “You used to get this silly ass look on your face like you were gonna shit yourself. Always made me laugh.”
“If I tried anything you’d have probably hit me with the bottle. You were harmless, but broken glass could still slice me up.”
“Your body too precious for scars or something?”
John eventually reaches a clearing. Railway tracks lead on, and after a few more minutes he comes across the boxcar that him and Art called home for, oh, a long time. There inside is the man himself, though he’s frozen in place and there’s something not quite right about him, like he’s a figure at a waxwork museum. He looks like he’s in mid argument, mouth open, face twisted into a sneer, hand gesticulating and pointing. The voice still comes from somewhere else around John, which makes the whole scene feel like a ventriloquist’s act.
“So I got a question for you,” he drawls out, his voice interspersed with the wet squish of chewing tobacco. It sounds like a swamp. “Why am I here?”
“I don’t know. I was pushing you around, so I guess it’s just proximity. You’re the last person I saw.”
“That ain’t it. You ain’t really speakin’ to me, you’re speakin’ to your idea of me. An’ if it’s your idea, you can really speak to whoever the hell you want. So question remains, why me?”
John climbs into the boxcar and sits down against the wall next to the opening, where he always used to sit. He says nothing. Art’s motionless body does nothing but sneer and point. Everything just seems to stop for a while.
“Here’s ‘nother question then. Why didn’t you do anythin’ to help? You got money and a house, an’ yet here you are, hanging out with old bums. You a queer or something?”
John swings his legs over the side of the boxcar. The woods are quiet. No birds can be heard, although he’s not really that sure if he heard any birds around there in the real world. Maybe it was always devoid of life.
“I’ll answer for you, then,” says Art. “It’s ‘cause you’re a parasite.”
“Fuck you,” says John after the longest time. Or maybe he says it straight away. It’s hard to track time here.
“An emotional parasite. You can’t feel, so you figure if others feel for you, that’s enough, ain’t it? Hang out with a murderer and a rapist an’ see if he’ll rub off on you.”
“I said fuck you.”
John crawls over to Art and grabs his coat, shaking him roughly. Nothing happens. The solid body doesn’t even move.
“Here’s the problem with that plan, though, Johnneeeee. Everyone you picked is as emotionally dead as you. All of us. Numb animals that do nothing but sit around and wait to rot. All you found were slabs of meat already dead, they just didn’t know it yet. An’ you know what else? You were one of us. You’re a numb slab of meat too, just waitin’ around to rot. S’why you didn’t feel anythin’ when your wife died, ain’t it?”
John’s hands close around Art’s neck. He squeezes until his fingers start to turn white, but it’s like strangling a shop floor mannequin, all strength and no result. So he relaxes his grip and leaves the boxcar. The sun’s shining, but John doesn’t feel warm, at least, not on the inside. It smells of pine here, though there’s something artificial to it, like air freshener or handwash—a chemical interpretation of the real thing. Art’s voice has stopped, at least. John walks deeper into the woods until he’s completely lost. His hands tingle, and he doesn’t know if it’s a good sign or not. Maybe he’s warming up, getting some feeling back. Maybe he’s in a warm, clean hospital bed right now, and he’ll wake up to the smell of fresh linen and chlorine. Or maybe he’s getting frostbite and his fingers are turning black and necrotic. Whatever. He keeps on going. Then he remembers that it’s impossible to get lost in a dream and ends up back at the boxcar again. Art’s waxwork has gone, and John thinks he can hear birds this time. Just like his still tingling hands, he doesn’t know if that is a good sign or not. He climbs back into the boxcar and settles back against the far wall. He rubs the white mark on his ring finger—the ring must have fallen off somewhere, I guess, either that or it was never there to begin with. Maybe just the idea of it was.
“Home,” he says, with all the grace and softness of a snowflake. He closes his eyes and falls asleep against the wall of the boxcar.