The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 11, No. 2


by Andrew Sean Greer

What were they like the first day?
The way we all were.

What was the first thing they did?
What we all did: opened the window. Helen opened it, the bedroom window: the lace curtain fluttered out into the cold air like a waving handkerchief, and they saw.

What did they think it was?
A mistake of their clock; a power outage in the night; the work of Louise's diabolical sleeping pills (which felled her nightly like an ax to a tree, making her into a sleepwalking clock-changer); a cloud. They spent half an hour trying to figure out if they had lost their minds; they were old women, so it was not impossible; each of them had lost things before, had spent a secret hour in a hotel room searching for keys, only to discover them right in her pocket. But very soon the radio told them they had not gone insane. The sky had.
     "How could particles in the air do this?" Louise wanted to know. She sat on the sofa, perhaps too frightened to look outside again. Every light in the house was on, a parody of morning.
     Helen sat bravely by the window. "They say it happened after Krakatoa, all those years ago," she said. "The ash was so thick that for three whole days it was utter darkness."
"But nothing's happened. They don't say anything's happened."
     "They said it isn't dangerous. The sun just isn't out."
     "Are you going to school?"
     "I don't think so. Were you going to work today?"
     "I don't know."
     Helen stared out at the gloom, shivering. All down the street the young people wandered beneath the still-unlit streetlights, some with flashlights or lanterns, laughing. No old people out on the street at all, not in this kind of confusion, not with the sidewalks as loud as a carnival and the crash of police lights everywhere. In the apartment across the street, Helen could make out a couple sitting down to a candlelit breakfast. And below, in front of the building, stood an old Russian woman and her son, hand in hand, nearly indistinguishable in fur hats, looking straight up at the sky.
     It was nine o'clock in the morning and as dark as the inside of an eye.
     "It's nothing, I'm sure of it," Helen said. "It isn't time to worry yet."
     But she looked over at Louise on the sofa, her dear _Louise, her sweet white-haired girl, rubbing a spot out of the coffee table; and though it was not time to worry yet, she began to cry, because there was no helping it.

What did they do the second day?
Called friends. They could not be alone—Helen said it felt like her grandmother's house in the war, with blackout curtains and the roar of military planes along the California coast and the threat of something happening—and so they invited friends over for lunch and made what they could from the pantry; for some nameless reason they did not dare go outside, though the city had put the streetlights on and the throngs of young people had lessened with the dimming novelty of it all. Louise made pasta by dropping eggs into the crater of a flour volcano. She did this in silence, flour puffing into the air as if she had burst the seeds of a milkweed. Helen thawed and roasted a chicken. Then, her hostess's instinct intact, she thawed and roasted another.
     At noon, she heard a rattle from the living room, which was Louise drawing the curtains. She understood; they were not Aleuts; they could not bear constant night. Then she heard—like an exhalation of relief—the sound of a match. Candles.
     Only two people came: an elderly colleague of Helen's at the college and a kindly, nervous painter Louise had met at an artists' colony. They were good, intelligent talkers at a party; neither was suitable that day. They had clearly come out of loneliness. Helen and Louise found themselves smiling and dutifully filling wineglasses and listening for a doorbell that never rang. What was meant as an afternoon of solace had become one of duty.
     "I hear they are turning to rations," said the colleague, a professor of Victorian realism with a waxed gray mustache.
     Louise wanted to know what kinds of rations.
     "Gas," he said. "And fresh food and meat. Like in the war." He meant World War II. "Who knows? Maybe nylons, Helen."
     Helen would not have it; "Ridiculous," she said, regretting the company of this pompous man. The curtains blew open to reveal the unearthly blackness, like the Roman servants who marched beside victorious generals and periodically reminded them of death.
     Louise said she could not remember the war.
     The painter spoke up, and what she said chilled them: "I think they've done something."
     Helen quickly said, "Who? Done what?" Louise gave her a look.
     The painter winced at her own thoughts, and her jewelry clanked on her wrists. "They've done something and they haven't told us."
     The old man salted his chicken. The optimistic second chicken still sat in the kitchen, glistening and uncarved. "You mean a bomb?"
     "An experiment or a bomb or I don't know. I'm sure I'm wrong, I'm sure—"
     "An experiment?" Louise said.
     Just then, they heard a roar. Instinctively, they went to the window, where in her haste to open it, Helen knocked a little terra-cotta pot over the sill and into the afternoon air, which was as red-dark as ever, but they could not hear its little crash above the din: the streetlights had gone out and now the city was alive with cries.

Why did the streetlights go out?
It's unclear. Perhaps a strain on the system; perhaps a wrong switch thrown at the station. But it was a fright to people. That was when the blackouts began, the rolling blackouts, meant to conserve electricity. Two hours a day—on Louise and Helen's block it was at noontime, though it made little difference—with no lamps, no clocks, just flashlights and candles melting to nubs. It was terrifying the first few days, but then it was something you got used to. You knew not to open the refrigerator and waste the cold; you knew not to open the window and waste the heat. "Temporarily," the mayor said. "Until we can determine the duration." Of the darkness, he meant, of the sunless sky.
     When he said this over the radio, Helen glanced at Louise and was startled. As a child, she had noticed how sometimes, in old-fashioned books, full-color illustrations of the action would appear—through some constraint at the bindery—dozens of pages before the moments they were meant to depict. Not déjà vu, not something already seen, but something not-yet-seen, and that was what was before her: a woman in profile, immobile, her hair modern and glacially white-blue, her face old-fashioned as a Puritan's in its fury; her eyes blazing briefly with the demonic retinas of a snapshot; her hand clutching the arm of the chair in a fist; her lips open to speak to someone not in the room. A picture out of sequence.
     "Louise?" she said.
     Then it was gone. Her girl turned to her and blinked, saying, "What on earth does he mean by 'duration'?"

Why did their good friends never come?
They were afraid. They were all waiting for someone to come to them. They sat alone in the darkness, reading by candlelight, panicked as pigeons, waiting for someone to come, and yet they would not stir an inch. Young people will never understand this.

When did they decide to leave?
After the riots, about two weeks later. Louise and Helen were out to dinner that night, Midtown, only the second time they had gone out to eat since the first day of the darkness, and they were still unsure if they were right to do so—if it was frivolous to be seen in a room with chandeliers and mirrors and poor people fussing over wealthier people. Louise felt everyone should be in mourning.
     "The mirrors should be covered," she said to their dinner companions, who were Louise's agent, her husband, and their friend Peter. "Our garments should be rent. Don't you think? Shouldn't there be wailing somewhere?"
     "If you covered the mirrors we'd have nothing," Peter said. He was an antique sort of comic type still seen only in old movies: the amusing bachelor. Despite his fastidiousness and absolutely secret private life, he seemed convincingly heterosexual; and despite the gray in his conical Victorian beard, and the lines now permanently tooled across his forehead, he appeared all the more boyish, as an adolescent actor appears all the more innocent costumed as an old man.
     The agent shook her head. Light gleamed off her glasses. Light gleamed everywhere: off cutlery and plates and crystal, sequins and earrings and pearls; it was indescribably beautiful. Perhaps like the aviary of some rare bird, the last of its kind.
     "We have a blind friend," the husband said. He was a scientist, a physicist working with lasers.
     Helen found herself laughing. "Oh I hadn't thought about the blind! Aren't they lucky?" She absently drank from Louise's wineglass and Louise gave her a look.
     The husband went on seriously; he was a very serious, very emotional man. "She says she can't help it but it's satisfying. She says she hates herself for feeling it, but it amuses her that the rest of us think the world is going to end. Because it's the same world for her."
     "It can't be," Louise said. "She can tell there's no sun, and the plants—"
     "For her, it's the same world."
     Peter raised an eyebrow.
     "That's stupid." Louise said. "I'm sorry, Frank. But it is."
     Her agent put her hand on Louise's wrist. "Louise, don't be a bore."
     Louise turned to her lover. "Helen?"
     A moment later there was glass all around them in great shards and a hundred, much more than a hundred young men running down the street, and . . . it seemed like torches, and lanterns, and certainly things were already set on fire in the street before the awestruck diners had the sense to stand up and run to the back of the restaurant. It happened all at once and yet took an extraordinarily long time; there was no way to remember it right. All Louise knew was that, when she awoke from the scurry of action, she found herself against the wall with Helen and all of them, her napkin in one hand and her fork in the other. Like the net and triton of Neptune, she would later say to others. I am a useless woman, she told herself.
     They spent the night at her agent's place on an inflatable bed. Peter slept on the living room couch. Outside, they could hear the low moan of the rioting streets as if a monster were being tamed. "It feels like intergalactic warfare," Helen whispered, kissing her lover.
     "I've never felt so much like an old woman."
     "Enough. You're five years younger than me."
     "Do you know the Byron poem?"
     "Get some sleep. We'll see how things are tomorrow. If they've suspended classes, we can drive out to Nathan's." This was Louise's son.
     "'I had a dream,'" Louise said quietly, "'which was not all a dream. The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars . . .' Something. I can't remember."
     "Hush now."
     "'I had a dream, which was not all a dream . . .' Oh, what is it?"
     In the morning, things were no better, and so they left.

How did they meet, Helen and Louise?
They met twice before they fell in love. The first time was when they were very young, in their twenties, and they both taught at an all-girls school in Connecticut; they had the brief kind of passion trapped young women have, kisses in the back room of the library, then it was forgotten. The second time was many years later, when Louise was married to Harold Foster, the composer, and they saw each other at a fund-raiser for Helen's college; Helen wore a black spangled pantsuit and stared at the woman in the pink dress who, although clearly in the midst of an argument with a tall, sour-looking man, smiled merrily; Helen stared at this woman as if called upon to perform a feat of memorization, and at last Louise turned, startled, and met Helen's eyes for a breathless moment—it was almost, for Helen, as if she held something bright and fantastic in her palm, a thimble of mercury—until the president began to speak. When it was over, Helen discovered that her former colleague had been taken home by her husband because she had not been feeling well. Only the sour old man remained.
     The third time was on the street in New York City and it was winter, the air as cold and tense as the skin of an apple; the leaves had already brightened and browned and fallen, so the trees that had shaded the avenues in summer were now invisible—and this is how Helen thought of herself as she walked down Second Avenue, the kind of woman who could not seem to hail a taxi, was always leaping out of the way of trucks, getting knocked aside by young people racing down the street; this is how she thought of herself: an invisible old thing in a brown plaid coat.
     The light changed; a car leapt right for her, and she braced herself. And then there was Louise.
     She did not see Helen at first. Louise was standing on the corner in a long white wool jacket, with embellished little buttons, holding a bouquet of out-of-season irises and trying to hail a cab. Short little Louise, her tiny hand dangling from that great coat sleeve, like a butler ringing a dinner bell in a too-loud room, so hopeless.
     Helen said her name.
     Louise did not hear her or, more likely, didn't consider that anyone on Second Avenue could be talking to her.
     More loudly: "Louise. I found you."
     She turned. Astounding how life is, how it will shift ever so slightly and reveal something in the fold of its garment that you hadn't noticed before, something there all along, how it will turn just like a person turns and show you a face you once had memorized amid the chatter of a tedious party, memorized as if for a test, and here it comes, years after you expected it: the test.
     "Helen," she said. With no surprise at all. A pale, polished face with the craquelure of age, that haughty upturned nose, the brightly colored lips no longer full as a boarding-school teacher's, and all of her gone soft with a little fat, a trick photograph of the woman to whom Helen had made a promise so many years before. She would no longer have cared to meet that young woman, that foolish young woman who turned away from her in a snow-bright room, married an older man, and wore a pink dress to a formal party like a fool; Helen was too old to care about a woman like that. But of course that woman no longer existed. Only this woman existed, Louise, here on the sidewalk with a bouquet of flowers and no surprise in her face at all: "Helen."
     "Who are the flowers for?"
     "For me." She laughed. "No good reason."
     A month later she moved into Helen's apartment. They did not explain themselves to anyone; when friends asked, in private, how they had met and joined their lives so suddenly, each acted as if it were something that had been decided long before.
     And in these memories, of course, they would always later place one more object in the scene. Ridiculous to have thought of then; almost like remembering that your lungs filled and emptied themselves of air each moment, or that your heart dutifully pumped its ration of blood. Glowing dimly in every memory: the sun.

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