To Jed Berkeley, Carmel had seemed an appropriate place for watching civilization die. He did
not hear the radio broadcast announcing that China had launched a nuclear strike on the United States.
He learned by overhearing a conversation on the street, on his way back from the cheese shop. Back at
Tor House, he turned the television on and watched CNN cover the end of the world live. They bombed;
we bombed. Some Russian state came into it on China's side; Iran attacked them. Libya went for Israel.
Satellite photographs showed the black desert of New York, a new Dresden.
Perhaps the spirit of the house inspired his tranquility. He was twenty-seven, childless, estranged from his family, and passionate in his post-adolescent misanthropy. That surely helped. The bombing, after all, had an abstract quality. The nearest strike he heard about was on Portland, despite the rumors about Fort Ord. Many months later, on a wide patrol, he learned from gypsies that Los Angeles was not radiated and San Diego was. And that Los Angeles was, nonetheless, killed. From this he surmised that it was a vector for the death flu. The Reaper.
He had stayed in the house after the first couple of days, watching the end of the world on TV. CNN covered the Leveler riots in Pasadena. Then the stations stopped broadcasting. He listened to the radio until it went too. The looting in Carmel, before the Reaper, made him nervous. People were abandoning their stores, fleeing--where? Others took what they wanted from the neglected stores. Windows of houses were broken, and garage doors wrenched open.
He had a gun. After the first week, he took to wearing it when he went into the downtown area. He always looked outside before going out; the small windows and angular walls made checking difficult. Two weeks into the changes, a few days after the radios said the Reaper was reported all up and down the Pacific Coast, he went out on his bicycle, planning to get groceries to hole up with. He paid fifty dollars, cash, for a bag of basics that would have cost ten two weeks ago, then he bicycled to the cheese shop. It was closed. He rapped on the glass. Steve looked out from the back, saw who it was, and came to the door.
"Hi, Jed. We're closing the shop."
"Can I buy a little kasseri?"
"Well, we're closed."
"If you have some?"
Steve sighed and opened the door. Walking back to the cold chest, he said, "Mom's sick. We're thinking of leaving."
"Where would you go?"
"That's what I said." Steve had the surfer look: sculpted tan, bleached pale orange hair, thickness in the shoulders. Jed hadn't paid much attention to him at first, beyond basic politeness. Then one day three weeks into his grant, Steve said, "You're the Tor House writer, Berkeley. Right?"
"I guess so."
"I saw your book in Brentano's, couple of days ago."
"Yeah? They had a signing when I first arrived."
"I was there." He pulled a copy of The Breaks from the shelf of cookbooks behind him, flipped it open. It was signed. "I like the landscape poetry, and the stuff about track and field. You must've been a runner."
"High jump. And pole vault."
"Yeah? I ran for Carmel High. Third in state, my senior year, two-twenty. That was back when Eastwood was mayor. Clint Eastwood."
"I remember. Would you like me to personalize it?" He took the book and added a note: "For another guy who knows the taste of the last gasp, fellow strider, brother in the good pain. And Steve has the best little cheese shop in California. Abrazzi!"
Steve smiled when he read the inscription. He set the book down. "You're from Montana?"
"'The Breaks' is a good poem. It reminded me of Yellowstone."
"Actually, it's north of Gardner."
"There are a lot of cuts like that, up and down the Yellowstone, as well as along the Missouri. Great for deer. How is the sea affecting your work?"
Jed hadn't thought that through. He'd tried a couple of sea poems. They didn't work. He walked Carmel Beach a lot, and hiked Point Lobos. Point Lobos worked. Turning back toward the land worked. "I've written a little about it."
"That's not what I meant. It must be strange, coming from Montana, to see the land stop like that. I look at it, and I see an eternity without man."
"That's pretty good. It's Jeffers' ocean. I don't want to mess with it."
Steve grinned. "You think you get to choose?"
They had talked about hiking, hunting elk, their conversation rising and veering around the steady but thin traffic in the cheese shop. Steve Berman had hunted bison with his father, down in southern Wyoming, a few miles outside of Evanston, and got a bull that cost his dad nine thousand dollars. Jed had lived with his uncle in a cabin, twenty miles out of Red Lodge, three consecutive summers. An adult, he realized they lived by poaching. His uncle called it "taking back what's ours."
"Was your uncle part Indian?"
"Plains Cree. Maybe a quarter. But it was the important quarter," he added, mimicking his uncle's tough tone. Steve smiled.
"My mom says we're part Cherokee. One of my history professors at Davis said everybody is."
Jed laughed. Steve had majored in history. With his BA, he came back to join his dad in real estate. "My dad is handling the place next to Jeffers' house," he said. He hated selling land. His wife Susan loved it. She joined the firm. Steve retired to help his mom run the cheese shop.
In the seven months they'd known each other, Jed had met Mrs. Berman, Steve's mother, and Susan. He'd never seen Steve's father. Once a man came by to show the house next door; he might have been Berman. Now Berman was dead, down in two days when the Reaper hit Carmel. People were leaving town. No one Jed knew, so this was the first time he'd gotten to ask where they would go.
"We're so isolated here. And Mom's afraid. This town stands for privilege. It's a prime target for Levelers."
Levelers. They appeared in Dallas and spread quickly, springing from metropolis to metropolis. Their propagation was one of the last media events. Ever? Maybe. They were guerrillas, class-war terrorists. Their leader was a Marxist history professor at a small private school in Texas. Or had been. The Reaper had no respect for high calling.
"We're about as safe as anywhere. Unless there are Levelers in Monterey."
"Haven't you heard? Monterey is contaminated. Some kind of nuclear accident at Fort Ord. People have been swarming down Highway One for two days. It's the only way out. They can't go north to Castroville or Salinas."
"I stay in most of the time. And my TV is on the fritz."
Steve laughed. "It's true. Hideous radiation levels. Most of them are so panicked, they don't think we're far enough away. The Sierra Club sent a guy up to Highway 68 with a geiger counter, and he didn't get any reading to speak of. So the mountains are protecting us, it looks like. But a lot of folks split anyway. I don't know where they're gonna go. Los Angeles?"
"I'd take my chances with the radiation."
"Well, we're waiting for the roads to unclog. Then Susan and I are going to take Nicky and Abby and Mom up to the cabin up the Palo Colorado. Dan Siddons says the Monterey people are heading up the Carmel Highway, towards Grenville, most of them. Even so, I expect there'll be a lot of traffic on Highway One, too. Here's your kasseri." He handed Jed the whole chunk, a quarter-round plus.
Steve laughed. "Ten thousand dollars. I can take a check." Then he sobered. "Just take it. We can't take the stock with us. The place'll be looted after we leave. Rightfully, I guess."
"The rules are changing."
"What's money, Jed? Cards are no good; checks are no good; what good is cash? Shit, you can't even barter. What isn't there excess of?"
"I don't know. In a few months, if it's really that bad, live things will be precious--cattle, lettuce, children."
"That's one reason we're going. I don't want Abby and Nick to see that."
"You think it's going to be that bad?"
"Is anybody doing anything? I was at the Ocean barricade yesterday. Dan set it up to keep some order in the Monterey traffic. I talked to a trucker. He came home to Monterey, then took off when the radiation leaked. He says it's dead from Salt Lake to Chicago. Nobody. He took gas by stopping at abandoned stations. The ones that aren't abandoned are guarded. There are cars on the freeway with whole families rotting in the seats. The Reaper."
Jed looked at Steve's troubled face. To have children now. The burden. Steve's eyes were puddled, gleaming. Jed looked away. He read the cookbook titles. He said, "It can't last. We'll have a new world in a few weeks. If you can stay clean for a year, you'll be all right."
"Yeah." Steve rubbed the side of his nose.
"Is Susan OK?"
"Yeah. And the kids. But Mom..."
"Steve, maybe you should leave her."
"That sucks, Jed."
"I know, Steve. I said it so if you were thinking it, you'd know someone else has thought it. I can't tell you what to do. I don't have any family to speak of--a sister in Miles City. My mother was still alive a couple of years ago. I think about what I would do, if I had to choose between abandoning a mother I loved and jeopardizing my children's health, and I don't get an answer that doesn't suck."
"I'll work it out."
"Good luck. I'm going to stay. If I make it, I'll see ya."
Jed started to walk away, but Steve called after him, "No offense." Jed waved from the door.