The Last Generation
By Joe Nazare
Ecclesiastes lied. The sun never rises. Not since the dirty bombs detonated nationwide, spewing smoke and ash and blanketing the sky with a gray haze that persists to this “day.” Even more abjectly, the bombs radiated an invisible scourge throughout the country, and now the landscape teems with the ostensible dead. But all that horror is out there, and we’re in here, in this seaside casino that serves as our private resort.
We’ve chosen the largest of the five indoor pool areas as today’s playground. Brett’s alone in the water right now, swimming topless as usual. The nipples capping her pillowy breasts skim the surface like pink lily pads as she performs her leisured backstrokes. No one seems to be paying her much attention. Not that hers isn’t a spectacular beauty, but we’ve all seen her naked before. Some more recently than others.
Even Robert faces away from her at the moment. He stands off to the right curling a pair of black metal dumbbells. His sleeveless t-shirt allows unobstructed view of the extra pump the workout has given to his leanly muscular physique. Engorged with blood, his biceps bulge impressively.
Mike, meantime, busies himself poolside gathering our empty wine bottles. He lines them up in a triangle pattern, and when he staggers over to the edge of the pool and scoops out the volleyball, I grasp the game he has in mind.
Rarely far from Mike’s side, Bill occupies one of the padded lounge chairs encircling the pool. He strums the Gibson he pulled down off the wall in the Hard Rock Café housed here in the casino. The guitar was signed by Bon Jovi, but Bill is currently in a Springsteen phase. Appropriately enough, he begins playing “Atlantic City.”
I’m distracted by Brett’s siren song before Bill gets through two verses. “C’mon in, Jake,” Brett calls to me. “The water feels so nice.”
I wave off the offer. I just want to sit here soaking up the scene, smoking today’s brand—Pall Malls. My goal is to sample every type of cigarette I can get my hands on, and hopefully after that, move on to cigars.
So here we are: Jake and Brett and Robert and Mike and Bill, with Count Mippipopolous expected shortly. Lucius Greene, that avowed Hemingway buff, christened the lot of us before passing on. I think I might have read the source novel in college, but that was a lifetime ago and these days I can’t be sure if I ever even attended college.
We all welcomed our new names, everyone except the Count. Sensitive about his own rotundity, he perceived some slight at first, fretted that Mippipopolous must be Greek for hippopotamus. Until Bill assured him that hippopotamus was Greek for hippopotamus.
Forgetting about bowling, Mike now joins Bill in tipsy duet. Mike and Bill, Bill and Mike: they might as well have been dubbed Mutt and Jeff. Bill is a short, fair-skinned Irishman, Mike a big, broad-shouldered Negro. They do have matching potbellies, though, physical badges of their camaraderie. I wonder how long before Bill starts sporting a buzz-cut hairstyle and untrimmed beard like Mike, who’s professed that life is too short to be a slave to daily tasks of personal grooming.
When our group first banded together, we weren’t sure where to turn. Bill originated from Chicago, and Robert had come north all the way from Sarasota. Both men bore tales of devastation and desolation identical to what had transpired here in Jersey. It was Mike who first suggested that we sequester ourselves in this casino. He sold us on the idea of penthouse suites, five-star restaurants, ritzy boutiques. (Hell, he reasoned, we might as well enjoy the spoils before everything spoils. Who knows how long before the power grids stop running on autopilot.)
So we came here and cleared out the human wreckage, then washed our hands of the apocalypse. Focused on enjoying the casino’s various amenities. Ironically, though, we never bothered with any of the glowing, chirping slot machines. Potential jackpots held no allure now that civilization’s collapse had utterly deflated the American dollar. So we devised our own forms of gambling, like the time Robert proposed the paintball shootout: last one standing got to demand any personal service from the splotched losers. I was eliminated early on, shot in the crotch as I skulked through the labyrinth of slots. Robert, who has it in his head that he and I are best friends, stepped forth and apologized profusely. He was ashen with concern that I might consider his bad aim in poor taste.
I just told him to forget about it. Really, who shot who was a moot point anyway. The game’s outcome was pre-determined by the fact that none of the guys were going to have the temerity to target Brett for a Pollock blast. That night she had the rest of us pamper her in the second-floor luxury spa. As I massaged cucumber-smelling cream onto Brett’s face, I wondered how much simpler life would be if Frances represented our group’s lone female. Frances, with her shark-fin nose and bony frame.
“That felt so good,” Brett announces with a slight slur as she climbs from the pool and grabs the plush white rectangle stretched across the nearest lounge chair. While toweling herself dry, she wonders aloud what’s taking Mippi so long.
I wait until she’s donned and cinched her terry cloth robe before looking directly at her. “Should be any minute now,” I say.
She pecks a kiss on my cheek as she joins me at the marble table. Together we watch Robert as he completes his exercise and sets down his dumbbells. He wiggles his arms, bounces on his toes. He’s obviously feeling good, no doubt awash with endorphins. He beelines toward Bill and Mike, who’ve finished their song and now sit chuckling and passing a bottle back and forth.
“Hey guys,” Robert calls enthusiastically, “how about we get the gloves on and go a few rounds?”
“Anhh. Rather be boozers than bruisers.” Bill holds up the wine bottle and arches his brows, inviting Robert to join the club.
Unsurprisingly, Robert declines. He favors frozen drinks, as in protein-powder-and-pomegranate-juice smoothies. No, nothing intoxicating for this teetotaler. Robert was the only one who remained unstoned that time Brett found a brick of hash stashed in a shoebox in a guest room on the tenth floor.
“Live a little,” Bill encourages Robert. “Think all those muscles’re going to help save you from ending up like those wretches outside?”
“I feel like sparring,” Robert persists, deaf to Bill’s words. Robert has been even more insufferable since learning that his Hemingway analogue was a boxer. To his credit, though, he hasn’t forgotten the First Rule. At least he’s asking Bill and Mike.
“C’mon, you lazy bums.” Robert gives Bill’s shoulder a playful jab, which nonetheless causes the wine to slip from Bill’s tenuous grasp.
“Ohjesuschrist,” Mike grouses, as the unshattered but capsized bottle gurgles a burgundy puddle onto the poolside cement. He sits and eyes the spillage as if it were the last libation in the world. “Hey Robert,” he says. “Do us a favor and go drop dead.”
Robert flinches as if lashed. The playfulness drains from his face. “You take that back.” When Mike offers no such retraction, Robert shoves him in the chest and demands again, “Take it back.”
“That’s it,” Mike declares, hauling himself to his feet. “You wanna fight? Then let’s fight.”
Robert steps back and drops into a crouch. Mike measures him, and they circle each other a few times. Then Mike seems to tire of the dance and simply rushes ahead and bear-hugs Robert. Mike works his arms down to try to pepper Robert’s kidneys with rabbit punches. But Robert muscles free from the clinch and blasts Mike with a single right to the gut. Emitting a whooshing oof!, Mike drops to his knees and then onto all fours.
A tacit ten count finds him still grounded, groaning. Robert jogs in place, and throws his arms up triumphantly. “And still middleweight champion of the world…”
“But a new contender emerges!” Bill rushes him from behind, clipping Robert in back of the head near his right ear. But Bill is too drunk to muster much force, and Robert instinctively turns from the blow. He launches his own roundhouse left that accordions Bill.
“Uggh.” Brett turns to me rolling her eyes and shaking her head.
Suddenly I’m conscious of my own fists clenched atop my lap. I quickly unfurl them, run my palms across my thighs. I needn’t have worried, though, because Brett is distracted by Mippi’s timely arrival.
“Dinnertime!” the Count proclaims. He’s pushing a steel cart loaded with the imminent feast. Tonight’s offering from our resident chef, Renaissance man par excellence: roast beef with brown gravy, cheddar and bacon mashed potatoes, buttermilk biscuits, French onion soup, a towering carafe of sangria. And a tall bottle of Evian for Robert.
“Thank goodness,” Brett says as she slides around to face the table. “I’m starving.”
Before inverting my own chair, I watch Robert shower “sorry” after “sorry” upon Bill as he helps him to his feet. Bill just jokes it all off: “Looks like your title’s safe,” he says, grinning and rubbing his jaw. Robert likewise extends a hand and an apology to Mike, who ignores both as he moves to answer the dinner call.
Our table is circular, yet Mippi seemingly sits at the head. As always, he’s neatly dressed, in a Hefneresque smoking jacket and black slacks. We gather around, and Mippi deals out plates and cutlery. Once the food’s been dished, we dig in heartily.
I’m not even halfway finished when Robert reaches for seconds. The champ must have worked up quite an appetite. “Please Robert, it’s not a race,” Mippi gently reprimands him. “You should learn to chew your food.”
Mippi, with his gray pompadour and perfectly kept goatee, truly relishes his elder statesman persona (Although I might argue that we’re all identically aged, tracing our point of origin to the day the dirty bombs went boom). “We ought to savor the taste of our meals,” Mippi sermonizes to us, a Socrates for the survivor set. “The flavor of our wine. All this unpleasantness that’s been thrust upon us doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our appreciation for life’s finer things.”
“Mippi’s right,” Brett adds, those two words sanctioning his entire speech. We all start to dine more methodically.
When we’re finally done eating, we still have to determine who’ll be on cleanup detail tonight (which means bagging up our dirty plates and other refuse and tossing everything outdoors). Brett proposes playing the Rap Game to decide—first one with three falters loses. We follow tradition and let Mippi initiate things. “Alright.” He sits pondering for a moment, then his eyes brighten as he seizes upon a word. “Flotilla,” he says, pointing at Bill.
“Sarsaparilla,” he immediately rejoins, slinging the rhyme at Robert. “Gorilla,” Robert challenges Mike. Unfazed, Mike grins and spouts “chinchilla.” He’s pointed back to Mippi, who targets me with “Camilla.” I involve Brett with “villa.” I think I’ve stumped her, but a split second later she nods to Robert and speaks “vanilla.” Robert loses the round when he stammers and fails to come up with a prompt enough response.
Brett starts us up again. “Humane,” she says to Mike. Mike to Bill: “Coltrane.” Bill: “methane.” Robert: “membrane.” Brett: “insane.” Me: “quatrain.” Robert: “refrain.” Mippi: “ascertain.” Mike: “cocaine.” Robert: “m-maintain.” We keep this verbal variant of Hot Potato going, until finally I lose out when Bill hits me with “disdain” and I go blank.
“Shit stain!” Mike proclaims a second later, as if the round is still going, pointing of course at Robert. We all can’t help but laugh, while poor Robert blanches and scowls.
The sangria grows scarcer with each game break. Bill kicks off the next round with “phantasm.” Mippi comes up with “protoplasm,” Mike says “orgasm,” Brett suggestively retorts “enthusiasm,” and then Bill tries to get away with “macrochasm.” When we break into cheer, he insists he hasn’t faltered. “It’s a word. Means a large fissure,” he says straight-faced.
“I think you’re talking out of your own fissure,” Brett teases him. She turns to her right. “Mippi, tell him that that’s not a r—” Her gasp cuts off the request.
We all stare in the same direction, abruptly sobered. No doubt we’re entertaining the same disconsolate thought. Not him too.
Mippi has slumped forward, planting his face in his own dinner plate.
“Mippi! Mippi, get up,” Brett exhorts him. “Please, this isn’t funny.”
Not at all. The festive air has been vacuumed right out of this vaulted room. As we sit gawking, it seems like several more people are suddenly absent from our table.
Mippi lies there with his mouth open, as if mimicking a pig feeding from a trough. There’s no ingestion taking place here, though, only the slow soaking up of brown gravy by Mippi’s goatee. His right eye is buried in the remains of his mashed potato mound. The indignity of his demise as much as the fact of it sickens me.
I always figured that the Count would outlast everyone else in our group, but apparently I figured wrong. His borrowed time has come due with a vengeance.
Like the rest of us revivs, Mippi spurned death once, but it’s doubtful he’ll be coming back again.
Now Mippi’s no different from all those others outside who have slipped into lifeless stasis. The millions who literally dropped dead on the spot when the airborne plague unleashed on Detonation Day wafted over them. The fallen who haven’t so much as twitched a muscle since then, seemingly devoid of any impetus to resurrect themselves and wander the blighted countryside.
I don’t want to credit too much ambition or foresight to whichever fanatical group first triggered the devastation. Because maybe the bombs alone hadn’t caused all this. Maybe the Earth herself, appalled at this latest atrocity perpetrated upon her, finally decided that too much was enough. Promptly shut down humans and animals alike in a single cataclysmic sweep, buying herself the time needed to recover from the collective strain life had placed on her. Her apocalyptic logic: The world is dead. Long live the world.
In any event, the original cause of catastrophe is much less interesting than what’s happened afterwards. Or rather, what hasn’t happened. Even after all these months, the unmoving, non-breathing bodies of the fallen haven’t rotted in the slightest. No maggoty skin or moldering flesh, no bellies bloated with the fumes of inevitable decay. Looking more like the discarded toys of some gargantuan child, the bodies lie in a strange state of suspended animation.
Which isn’t to say they’ve all managed to escape harm. The ones caught in especially compromising circumstances by the prostrating fallout did quite a bit of damage both to themselves and their surroundings. Freeway speedsters who slumped like narcoleptics onto steering wheels while their cars (briefly) played demolition derby. Construction workers and window washers who ended up pulping themselves on the sidewalk following unintentional swan dives from skyscrapers. Keeling surgeons whose still-buzzing tools made hamburger of supine patients. The list of awful toppling goes on and on, but I won’t. The pseudo-sleepers who dropped intact are eerie enough to behold; I don’t even want to think about the ruined forms of the less fortunate.
Maybe someday the metaphysical pause button will be depressed, and all the relatively unharmed fallen will climb back to their feet and pick up right where they left off. But until then, we “survivors” remain America’s (if not the world’s) only real inhabitants. With an inspired bit of euphemism, we refer to ourselves as revivs. The Z word is verboten in our circle (Brett is especially insistent that we not talk rot, or even hint at it. She rebuked Bill severely that one time he cracked a drunken joke about the nightlife of the living dead.) We refuse to embody some shambling pop culture cliché. With the unending reminders outside these walls of the frailty and fleetingness of humanity, we are dead-set against committing violence against a fellow living creature.
We’re not mindless hulks, not tabulae rasae a la Mary Shelley’s Monster. We possess language and knowledge, yet no memory of how we acquired either. We have no recall whatsoever of our personal identities or histories prior to the bombings. Our own bodies feel vaguely unfamiliar, as if each of us wears a stranger’s clothes. Mippi’s theory is (scratch that—was) that our respective souls might have been knocked free of their own mortal coils during the chaos of D Day, and we somehow managed to reincarnate in the corpses of the recently deceased. It all sounds like some cosmic game of musical chairs to me, and an unfun one at that (It’s not very comforting to think that I’m an unwitting expatriate from my dearest homeland.) But much as I might like to, I can’t deny the plausibility of Mippi’s theory. When our little group first met up and shared our abridged stories, we soon discovered that we each “came to” on D Day only to find ourselves stretched out on a gurney in a hospital morgue. This wasn’t shocking news to Brett and me, since we two had actually revivified at the same locale, in the bowels of Morristown Memorial.
Meeting under such curious circumstances, and no doubt marveling at the site of each other’s abundant nudity, neither Brett nor I realized initially that we had sloughed our prior identities. Had we been a little more circumspect, we could’ve achieved some small measure of self-awareness. But we weren’t alone in our folly. Of all the revivs, only Lucius Greene had the wherewithal to stop and check his paperwork, to verify himself before departing the premises.
Lucius reclaimed his name (or at least the one attached to that particular body), but otherwise was just as amnesiac about his own past as the rest of us. And for all of us, our death states proved as blank as our previous lives. No one could report having glimpsed a beckoning white light at tunnel’s end, or pearly gates ensconced on billowy clouds. Nada. Perhaps the prerequisite of life is the absence of any definitive knowledge of the Beyond—either because it is too vast a mystery, or too maddening a void.
So basically we have no clue of who we were, or where we’re ultimately headed. But what really ups the ante on the old existential angst jackpot is our indeterminate second lifespan. A reviv, as we have seen all too often in the loss of our few companions, can drop dead again at any moment. Lucius was the first to go, only a few days after we arrived at Atlantic City. We found him in the bathroom of his suite, with his razor gripped in his fist and his face half-fluffed with shave cream. At the time we thought he’d had a heart attack, but altered our diagnosis two weeks later when Braddocks instantly deadened while singing karaoke to Elvis’s “It’s Now or Never.” Last month Francis dropped right in the middle of scolding Robert for something he had or hadn’t done, her diatribe dying mid-sentence, as if someone had just hit [mute] on a TV remote. And then tonight, Mippi’s inglorious expiration.
There’s no rhyme or reason to who goes, or when. It’s as if the fickle hand of God—or some other execrable superior—had failed to sufficiently wind our clockwork selves back up. Had neither fully nor equally recharged our batteries when attaching the ethereal jumper cables on D Day.
Given our perennially perilous state, it shouldn’t be any wonder we’re so determined to cram as much sensation and experience as possible into our days. Hedonism, not cannibalism, is our driving impulse. Our insatiable appetite is for pleasurable living, not wanton ravaging.
The inescapably carnal desires of a reviv lead to a different kind of fleshly pursuit. Night after night, the group launches into furious orgy, heedless of outmoded concerns like sexually transmitted diseases and societally sanctioned norms. They’re going at it right now over in the Honeymoon Suite, no doubt working hard to forget about Mippi. While I lie here in my own suite, turning over the same tiresome thoughts.
Not that I’m the stag excluded from the group’s reindeer games. They’ve always encouraged me to join in, to lend a helping hand. Or at the very least, to come watch their exertions. But I’ve always refused. It would all just be too masochistic for me.
I’ve raided every pharmacy in the city and popped enough Viagra to raise the Titanic, but I’m still left with so much dead meat dangling between my legs. Seems one key component of this body didn’t get the resurrection memo on D Day.
I keep the door leading onto the balcony ajar, not to let putatively fresh air in, but in the hopes that the ceaseless pounding of the night surf will drown out any cries of passion from down the hall. But it’s a useless gesture; my imagination proves damned vivid anyhow when it comes to picturing my friends in the Honeymoon Suite. I can see Brett taking turns with the men (or taking them all at once). Considering how chummy Mike and Bill have grown, I can also envision new permutations to the gaiety.
Honestly, I wish I could blot out every last pornographic image. At this late hour I would welcome sleep, but that’s something that doesn’t come easy for a reviv. For us the fiesta/siesta ratio is grossly disproportionate, and we catch only the few hours of rest each night needed to remain functional, but even so, it takes time and courage to settle into slumber. It’s awfully easy to go around proclaiming carpe diem in the daytime, but at night—when there’s a good chance you’ll be closing your eyes for the last time—it’s another thing.
I must’ve dozed off nonetheless, because I’m wakened by Brett as she slips under the sheets. Irony of ironies, Brett takes our whole gang to bed every night, but I’m the only one she ever sleeps with.
She spoons up against my fetal curl, her DD breasts pressing spongily against my back. I can sense how flushed she is; the heat from her body radiates through her silk pajamas and my own t-shirt and flannel bottoms. Automatically I imagine that I can smell the sex on her. I wonder if she’s trying to torment me with reminder of what I’ve missed out on. Maybe she’s hoping to magically arouse me, to somehow overwhelm me with pheromones. Either way, at least she has the decency to keep her right arm draped above my waist.
Seeing me stir, she whispers, “Oh Jake.” The utter misery in her voice is unmistakable, and suddenly I’m wondering if I’m really awake, since I seem caught in a recurring nightmare.
Her chest begins its familiar heave. Here it comes.
“I—I wish we could…” The sentence trails off limply. “I wish it was you,” she confesses a few moments later. “Only you.”
She carries on in this manner, sobbing and stammering her way through her nightly litany. I pay little attention, since I’m now busy silently irrigating the folds of my pillowcase.
I tell myself it’s worthless to fret, that it shouldn’t bother me because nothing really matters anyhow. We are all alone, and all our frolicking is ultimately in vain. The plague must have spread worldwide, because no one has come to investigate, to rescue us or even quarantine us. And barring some miraculous return to life of all those who dropped, there is unlikely to be any repopulation. Because copious screwing has borne out only the sterility of revivs. Just like Frances’s, Brett’s accommodating womb has remained barren. Even if Brett did manage to become pregnant, odds were she wouldn’t live long enough to carry a child to term. Seems we’re not meant to be the sovereigns of this wiped-out world; revivs have merely moved to the top of the endangered species list.
All of us, the few of us…we are the last generation.
“You don’t have to do this, Jake,” Mike presumes to tell me as I stand at the edge of the concrete with my bare feet planking out over the abyss.
Earlier this morning, we loaded ourselves and our favorite toys into the Hummer and headed out of A.C. on one of our day trips. These excursions tended to be an amalgam of reconnaissance mission, scavenger hunt, and family fun day. We’d been planning our next outing for over a week, and after last night, this seemed like the perfect day to get out of the casino.
Robert sat between Brett and me in the back seat, tirelessly working a handgrip. Bill drove. Mike rode shotgun, with the assault rifle perched in his lap. Not that we really expected to encounter any unfriendlies at this point. We faced no hostility other than the dead world’s indifference.
It was a slow ride, the antithesis of the drag races we sometimes conducted on a cleared strip of Atlantic Avenue. With the Hummer’s headlights beaming out into the diurnal gloom, Bill navigated the impromptu obstacle course created on D Day. He steered around the stalled and crashed vehicles, maneuvered past the unstrung marionettes who’d momentarily escaped their cars before toppling. He didn’t bother to avoid any of the dropped birds. One look at their mangled bodies was enough to realize that they would never be taking wing again. Despite the pound of the Metallica CD, we could hear the hearthfire crackle of slender bones beneath the Hummer’s tires.
We moved from the Expressway to the Parkway North. Pine trees walled us on either side for mile after mile. In the cars we passed, the same old same olds looking like they hadn’t aged a day. No growth of beard signaling ongoing life, no elongation of fingernails as was customary in death. These myriad figures caught in the same listless limbo confirmed my suspicion that we wouldn’t be discovering anything new in the state of the world today.
Perhaps the lack of prospect spurred my nodding off. Next thing I knew I was in the middle of a dream in which all of the fallen came back to life. They picked themselves up and dusted themselves off, happily embraced one another. My mixed emotions while viewing this spectacle distilled into absolute horror when I realized what was happening to me. Rampant decay stripped me of clothes and skin and then flesh. It was like watching some gory scene from a horror movie in fast forward. Actually, no, this was a far more immersive experience; I could feel and smell my putrescence. I sensed a dull ache and the reek of overripe bananas as my useless manhood turned leprous and finally sploshed to the ground between my feet.
I jolted awake to find that we had traveled nearly a hundred miles up the Garden State. There in the distance loomed the familiar humpbacked structure, looking like the fossilized remains of some prehistoric beast. The Driscoll Bridge, spanning the Raritan River and forming the symbolic transition point between southern and northern New Jersey. Spotting the massive arch, I came to a swift decision, and made Bill stop when the Hummer reached the bridge’s apex.
So now here I stand at the edge with my toes wiggling in the air. Way down below, the fish float on their sides, as if stunned by depth charges. The river is gunmetal gray, appears ready to freeze into a steely surface the second I make my leap.
“Don’t do this, Jake. It’s crazy,” Brett speaks up from a few feet behind me. “Please, baby.”
I hate when she calls me that, especially in front of the others.
Robert stands close by Brett’s side. “You sure about this, Jake?” he wants to know.
I’m not sure about anything. Seems to me that the very concept of certainty was rendered obsolete on D Day. But I will jump from the bridge regardless. “I just need to do this now,” I try to explain to them all, glancing back over my shoulder. Robert gives me an understanding nod as he buries his hands in his coat pockets.
I try to focus. The dome of murk forever filtering the sunlight prevents this summer day from being very seasonable, but it’s nerves more than climate (and the fact that I’ve stripped down to undershirt and shorts) that has me shivering. I discover that I have a phobia about bridges, heights. Great.
No more delay—I dive headlong. My eyes bulge despite the rush of air smacking across my face. For a few seconds I fancy that I’m flying rather than plummeting. That I’m hanging there motionless while the river hurtles skyward.
Just when I think that gray plane is going to slam into me, the bungee cord around my ankle snaps taut, snatches me back from harm’s way. My stomach does somersaults as I bob midair like a human teabag. Eventually the kinetic energy peters out, and I hang suspended a good twenty-five feet above the water.
My ankle and hip throb from the initial recoil, but I hardly care. As my jackhammering heart delivers the adrenaline spike throughout my body, I realize I’ve succeeded in scaring myself to life. Taking this dive, I’ve made a stand against my mortality. Because right now I feel truly revivified. Totally, thankfully alive.
In hindsight, it was such a simple act: when you felt like hell, you just needed to find some way to bounce back.
Dangling there, I pump my fists and whoop my exhilaration. But barely have I begun reveling in the moment when the giant watery paw shoots out the river to swat at me.
Incomprehension still stuns me as the guys haul me back up. Climbing atop the bridge, I see Brett screeching and flailing at Robert.
“What the hell?” I ask anyone who can offer explanation.
Once more, Mike doesn’t leave me hanging. “Crazy bastard tossed a hand grenade down after you.”
“YOU COULDA KILLED HIM!” Brett roars. Bill struggles to pull her away from Robert.
“What the hell, Robert?” I can feel my nails chewing into the pads of my palms. Where’d he even get hold of a grenade in the first place?
“Oh c’mon, what’s the big deal?” Robert says. “Jake obviously needed a jolt. I just figured I’d help him out.” He shrugs his shoulders and smirks. “Give him some more bang for his buck.”
I’m starting to wonder if Robert wasn’t the kind of kid who used a magnifying glass to help warm ants on the sidewalk. “Yeah, well, you damn near tore my head off,” I tell him as I try to ruffle the water out of my hair.
Robert suddenly looks stricken. “No. Jake, I would never do that to you.” My ears still ring from the blast, so maybe I mishear an emphasis on the last two words. “I threw it well past you,” my alleged best friend swears. “I knew it wouldn’t be able to do any real damage.”
He might sincerely believe that, but he can’t be certain. No more than I could have been sure, really, that I calculated a short enough length of bungee cord, or that I could get away with tying one end to the bridge’s stone railing. So maybe I’m not one to judge. I’m about to announce that we just forget about it, when Bill speaks up.
“This is serious, Robert.” The softness, the uncharacteristic soberness, of his voice arrests all of us. “You totally flouted the First Rule—you don’t put someone else in harm’s way without their consent.” As I watch Brett nod fervent agreement to this, I think of Bill sucker-punching Robert last night. Guess that didn’t quite qualify as violation of taboo. “You know this,” Bill admonishes Robert. “If you can’t abide by the Rule, then you don’t belong with us.”
“He’s right,” Mike chimes in the second Bill breaks off. “So why don’t you just get lost and leave the rest of us be. I’m sick of your whole act anyway. All that healthy living, like you’re some damned Olympic athlete in training. Why can’t you just cut loose and get wasted like the rest of us?” Mike scowls as if he’s ingested something unsavory. “You’re a killjoy, and truth is, none of us can stand having you around.”
“That’s not true.” Robert darts a look at Brett, whose cheeks maintain a scarlet flush. She doesn’t meet his gaze.
“None of us,” Mike reiterates, seeing where Robert is looking. “What, you think you don’t get under her skin, too? Think you actually make her happy? That she won’t be able to make it through her nights without an unhung, two-pump chump like you?”
As Mike’s scimitar tongue keeps cutting, Robert appears wounded to the point of tears. His mouth forms an open O, but no words spill out. He casts beseeching glances around the group, his eyes settling on me for final appeal. He seems so pathetic, so insignificant right now, I’m tempted to come to his defense. But I don’t.
“Fine,” he says when he sees I’m going to keep silent. Bitterness hardens his voice. “If that’s how you feel, then I’m outta here. To hell with all of you. See how you get along without me.”
With that, Robert turns and stomps away, heading north along the bridge. He doesn’t slow or look back once.
“Good riddance,” Mike mutters as we all track Robert’s movement down the sloping roadway.
“What’s he doing?” Brett asks moments later in a tone that is more pained than impatient. “How’s he going to live out here on his own?” Before any of us can even conceive of an answer to that, she chases after him. “Robert! Wait!”
I can sense Mike and Bill frowning, looking to me for comment, but I stay focused on Brett’s desperate pursuit. She catches up with Robert soon enough. He hasn’t turned around, so she hugs him from behind. Her breasts press into him the same way they pillowed my own back last night. I wonder, has Brett stopped him because she knows our group wouldn’t be able to cohere without its two-legged scapegoat? Or maybe she just can’t stand another loss—coming right on the heels of yesterday’s—to her male harem.
“We’re not killers,” we can hear her asserting tearfully. Her emotion makes it hard to discern if she’s scolding him, or apologizing to him. A fitful breeze rustles her hair as she clings to his rigid body. “We’re not killers,” she keeps repeating, softer each time.
Just like that, Robert is brought back from exile.
We move on.
We head up to Newark airport. Mike and Bill get to play pilot there, taxiing their own jets around the network of runways. I wonder how tempted they are to speed up and take off, to go find if the world still exists somewhere out there. If it does, it’s not answering any of our radio signals from the control tower.
We stop to refuel after pushing ahead to Secaucus. Bill siphons out the gas himself in a parking lot of a retail complex. He likes driving the Hummer, and doesn’t want to exchange it for another vehicle.
We all tromp inside when we see that the complex sports a Wal-Mart. Time for another shoplifting spree, for picking up whatever new tool or toy suits our personal fancy. Apparently more eager in their greed, my cohorts branch out through the store wheeling blue plastic carts. I don’t bother with one, knowing there is but a single item I’m determined to pocket.
As I walk past the electronics department, I happen to glimpse a display stand featuring the DVD for the latest edition of an old Harrison Ford sci-fi flick. I instantly realize I’m familiar with the movie, must have seen it in my former life (where, when, or with whom are contextual details all lurking beyond my ken). Recalling the movie’s plot—in particular, Rutger Hauer’s climactic speech—I think how easily Lucius Greene could have shifted genres and dubbed us Roy and Pris and Leon and Rachel and Deckard instead.
When our consumerist urges are sated once more, we load up the Hummer and hit the road again. According to Mike’s new Timex, it’s now after noon, so we swing onto the Turnpike and head back south. We have to get to the major stop on our itinerary, in Jackson, New Jersey.
So here we are, five revivs trekking out to Six Flags, lured by the titular promise of Great Adventure. Arriving there, though, we don’t head straight inside the theme park. We decide to partake of the whole package (what the hell, we have free passes) and drive first through 350 acres of Wild Safari. Not unexpectedly, D Day has turned it into a gross misnomer. The only thing wild here is the riot of lifelessness that has swept over these faux junglelands. Every specimen we encounter—bears and giraffes and lions and kangaroos and elephants and so many more—lies keeled over on the ground. The still-unspoiled carcasses give new meaning to the concept of a preserve, and we can’t help but note the terrible irony of the omnipresent signs imploring us not to feed the animals, and to always give them the right of way.
At one point Mike leans out the open window of the passenger-side door, squinting as he aims the assault rifle. A spurt of gunfire gouges a red crater into the striped hide of an already-dropped zebra about fifty yards off-road. Blood seeps rather than pumps from the wound.
“If you look to your right, ladies and gentleman,” Bill announces in mock tour-guide voice, “you can observe the Great Black Hunter as he shoots fish in a barrel.” The bit elicits some chuckles from the backseat, but Mike is uncharacteristically humorless. He just stares off at the zebra, chagrin curling the side of his mouth.
We all tire quickly of this animal wasteland, recognizing this safari as just another exercise in fatality. Nothing unique or interesting to behold here. Bill stomps down on the accelerator, disregarding the posted 10 M.P.H. speed limit.
Minutes later, we pull right up to Great Adventure’s front gate. We fall out of the Hummer and jump the turnstiles. Mike, seemingly his old self again, launches into an off-key rendition of Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do.”
There’s so much to take in. Majestic fountains, arcades and midway games, gift shops galore, not to mention the hulking marvels of the rides themselves. Of course there are fallen humans strewn all over the grounds, but we treat them like the urban streetdwellers in the former age of the world and do our best to ignore their presence. We’re so willfully blind to everything except our own potential amusement, it takes us awhile to notice that Robert has gone missing. He’s slunk off on his own, perhaps still moody from the confrontation earlier today. So be it.
Mike, Bill, Brett, and I traipse through zone after zone of the theme park. When Brett makes it known that she’d really love to ride a roller coaster, we naturally move to comply with our lady’s wishes. Despite the many modern, steel wonders to choose from, we settle upon an old wooden model. Judging from the psoriasis of the white paint on its trellised framework, it has stood here for some time. The relative ricketiness that we sense in this particular coaster, though, only makes it that much more attractive as a thrill ride.
When we mount the loading ramp, Bill heads over and experimentally prods the coaster’s control panel. I half-expect the thing to refuse to be coaxed out of its dormancy, but apparently these rides, like us revivs, have some juice left in them. Getting a handle on the controls, Bill launches the vacant cars on a test run. No sooner does the circuit complete than Brett scampers into the front car. She slides all the way to the right of the two-seater, and looks back at us. Mike and I eye each other uncertainly for a beat, but then Brett removes any need for a decision. “C’mon, Jake!” she calls, grinning. “Don’t you chicken out on me.”
So I climb in beside her. She shifts in her seat, giddy with anticipation as we lower the lap bar into locked position.
“Have fun, boys and girls,” Mike sends his wishes from where he stands peering down into the car. Then, looking toward Brett and winking: “You and me will have our ride after.”
“Just remember, you’re in the hands of an untrained professional,” Bill shouts as he sends us on our way. The train of cars lurches into motion, and we tilt backwards as we begin our slow ascent of the giant parabola.
Brett snuggles up against me, as if this is some misshapen Tunnel of Love we’re heading into. She must have daubed her throat with perfume back in Secaucus. I can’t place the scent, but whatever it is, it smells maddeningly good on her.
We feel as much as hear the rhythmic metallic clank beneath us as the machinery churns us uphill. Halfway through the climb, we’re suddenly bombarded with a new noise, like a concussive blast from a nearby cannon. Brett gasps, then nudges my ribs and points off to our right. “Jake, look!”
For one ecstatic instant, I think there is someone else out there signaling us. But then I realize it must just be Robert, playing with some new toys he’s sniffed out. Again and again the fireworks burst open, distinguishing themselves against the slate backdrop of sky.
Maybe these more innocuous explosions represent a symbolic apology on Robert’s part for the earlier grenade launch. I can’t fault him for trying to dazzle us with the great sparkling asterisks. But what strikes me most as I sit watching is the transitory brilliance of fireworks, these skyflowers in bloom so briefly before winking out and sending their ashen spores drifting down onto the land of the dead.
The display seems to have stoked Brett’s own discontent. When she presses herself more firmly up against me, it’s not just because we’re nearing the apex. Brett drops her head onto my shoulder and sighs. It takes her a few seconds more to voice her troubled thoughts.
“Oh Jake,” she says, lacing those two words with as much frustrated longing as she possibly can. “The two of us could have been so damned good together.”
Her words only serve to bring everyone else to mind. Suddenly I’m thinking of Robert, our restless pugilist who we resent perhaps not because he is the least self-destructive one of us but rather the most unabashedly aggressive. I think of Bill transmuting fallen birds into indisputable roadkill, of Mike taking target practice on that hapless zebra. I think of Brett clutching Robert atop the Driscoll Bridge, chanting her mantra about reviv civility. I fondle the long wooden shaft of the claw hammer secreted inside the left pocket of my windbreaker, and I think of Brett. Think of using my trusty tool to gut her like an old house, making a removable feast of her every last organ.
“Yes,” I answer her as our car momentarily levels atop the coaster’s peak. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”