What We Were

When the last ship vanished into the sky, afterburners flickering briefly in the dense black cloud ceiling that shrouded our world, there were fires. There were more of us then, and we poured, angry, through the streets, a human pyroclastic flow, burning indiscrimi- nately. There were car fires from Molotovs, one or two apartment buildings set fire, dumpster fires. One guy, someone’s kid brother, set fire to himself in the streets like that Buddhist monk so many years ago. The monk, if you believe the writers from back then, never made a sound while he burned. The kid brother screamed, long and loud.

When they left us it was a time of fires, but there was never a fire like this.

We don’t know who began building the pyre. One day, one of us noticed an olive green sofa, the kind you buy because you know the color will conceal the mold when it eventually grows moldy. This one had journeyed well past that phase of its existence; it stank of ancient urine and beer. We found it in a field facing the city. Some of us sat in it and watched as the generators gradually died and the lights in the buildings that comprised our meager skyline went out by sections. It was the reality show of us, live broadcast.

Not too long after, there was an expensive-looking leather recliner, piled on top of the sofa, and a jug of gasoline sitting nearby. We found John, who always wore suit jackets and ties even after the last ship left, standing there and looking through the sofa and chair. His black blazer too clean for the end of the world, his arms folded, five years of beard growth obscuring his face and spilling over onto his tie. We never asked, but we knew the recliner was his, and the gasoline.

Maybe John was the first to realize it, or whoever’s moldy sofa it was. Probably we should give credit to Nate. Whoever realized it first, it doesn’t matter. With the sofa and the recliner and the gasoline, it finally became obvious to all of us. The ash-black sky, the failing crops, the dead livestock and dying game, the empty river. Sometimes a thing is just over, and all you can do is let it be over. So it was for us. This realization, and the recliner, gave us a last purpose.

Having a purpose again, after so long, was drug-like. A direct infusion of cocaine, so long after the last dustings of the real stuff had been rubbed into our gums. We carried off office furniture, rolling chairs. Sofa beds, futons, kitchen tables, desks, TV stands. Eddie and Mannie, who became brothers after their real brothers left them behind for Mars, spent a full week in the movie theatre with crowbars. They ripped out every single seat from each of the eight different theatres, leaving nothing but blank screens and emp- ty rooms. Angela, the bank teller turned bartender, contributed bar stools. Angela, who had tended bar not because currency still had relevance, but because we all wanted someone to complain to about how terrible a place the world had become. Angela, who took the job because nobody else was willing. That was before the beer ran out. With some help, she pulled the booths from the pub as well, dragged them off to the pyre.

All of this we piled on top of the moldy sofa. Some stacked the furniture gently, balancing heavy armchairs on upside-down desks. Others heaved it on, careless. It ascended slowly, a volcanic island rising out of an ocean of scrub grass. We had to climb it to contin- ue to build it up. A small mountain composed of the places we had slept and sat and cradled each other’s withered bodies. Stuff that, like us, wouldn’t fit into the shuttles. We of all people don’t believe in miracles, but we would say it was almost a miracle nobody fell to their death trying to drag a futon up a hill of chairs and desks.

When we weren’t building it up, we sat, all of us in an arc around it, sharing a cache of individually wrapped gourmet cookies and tiny peanut packets that someone had found abandoned at the airport.

This reminded us of Nate, who had tried to fly a Boeing 727 to Mars, to follow where he was unwelcome. We all, including Nate of course, knew he would fail. We aren’t crazy, we know enough basic science to recognize that a 727 would stall out long before it ever escaped Earth’s orbit. Still, we hoped for him. Hoped for something. We cheered when he took off. A few of us held burning lighters like we remembered doing at concerts, before. We mourn- ed when, mere moments after vanishing like the shuttles into the dark ceiling above, his plane re-appeared, spiraling downwards and smoking. It seemed as though the black clouds had invaded his plane and destroyed it from within. Those evil clouds that were killing us all slowly, they killed Nate fast and then fled in streams out the engines.

The 727 hit the mountains in the distance, the explosion no more than a tiny flash of light, a candle sputtering, impossibly small – too small, certainly, to be the finale of such a grand gesture.

John, whose home had always been filled with calendars, insisted during one of these peanut-sharing moments of respite that Nate’s death had been only three months ago. We knew that he was right, that the weather had only grown less cold, and not until it grew more cold again would it have even been a year. Yet three months felt like three years when we tried to remember how Nate’s face was different from ours, how it was something more than pale, drawn, and indifferent. And on the other hand, three months felt like three days when we tried to forget how much braver he was than us, the courage of his last gesture and that candle-sputter explosion. When it came down to it, three days or three years, time was irrelevant. Eating peanuts, any given day, with our thumbs and forefingers jammed awkwardly into the miniscule foil packaging, getting more salt on our fingernails than peanuts in our mouths, we cast our eyes skyward and cursed the clouds that took him.

Nobody measured the mountain of furniture when we were fin- ished, but it was generally pyramid-shaped, just about three stories high at the apex. At the crown, resting at the top all alone, was an antique. An early 20th century sofa, ornate to the point of absurdi- ty, with carved wood and purple cushions sewn in gold lining. Not something we had ever sat on. Something left behind by someone who could afford a ticket to Mars.

When we had finished building, we gathered flammables. Contain- ers of lighter fluid, butane, and whatever half empty car tanks full of gasoline we could find. Of course we had John’s jug of gasoline from before. All of the booze was gone, but there was still rubbing alcohol. Mostly empty aerosol containers. Anything with a warn- ing label to keep away from open flames. Artificial logs designed

to make a one-step fire in a cozy hearth, boxes of matches. Paper: books, newspaper, notes, logs, journals. The solid stuff we wedged under the pyre as best we could, trying to keep an even layer of flammables at the base. We remembered this element of fire build- ing – kindling at the base – from our Boy Scout and Girl Scout days, from when these organizations still existed, when we camped happily in the woods. We poured on gallons of lighter fluid and gasoline and rubbing alcohol and it wasn’t enough. We’d long ago used up all the bullets, hunting or shooting beer bottles or shoot- ing windows out of abandoned storefronts. But we found an old fireworks store, still well-stocked, and we broke those apart and col- lected the gunpowder in large pans. When we were done we seeded the pyre with the gunpowder.

This would be enough for the pyre to burn. But still we were not satisfied; it did not seem enough. We did not want a lackluster end, like the screaming kid brother who burned himself when the end began. We still remembered how it had been nothing like the Rage Against the Machine cover art, nothing like the media accounts of Thich Quang Duc. The monk had media to document his great sacrifice, the monk had sat quietly while everyone cried around him. The media was all on Mars by the time the kid set himself on fire, and it was just us watching him scream. No one else cried but him. We couldn’t have our end be like his, and so we needed more. A bigger flame.

And then Mary reminded us of the airport. Mary who had been Nate’s lover, and who had refused every peanut, every gourmet cookie she was offered,whose skin held loosely to her bones like an afterthought, and had not once looked up in the sky since she had refused Nate’s invitation to join him on his final flight. Who had found the purple sofa, and whom we found dragging it down the street inch by inch, sweating and crying, knees bleeding from half a dozen falls. She reminded us about the other airplanes, and the rest of us hiked there and back with empty milk cartons, water bottles, and buckets, siphoning jet fuel and relaying it back to our mountain.

It took two days, and all of our last reserves of energy, but we man- aged to lace our pyre with thin lines of jet fuel all the way around. We started from the top. Angela made the climb, with her two Nalgene bottles full of jet fuel, and doused Mary’s purple antique sofa. And we worked our way down. The left behind bits of human civilization, culled painstakingly from our city, soaked through with fuel and stacked as far into the black sky as we could reach.

We waited until night. It was the perfect night: totally dark, clouds obscuring every star and the moon. And Mars. The fire would burn that much brighter in the absence of their light. The perfect night, which would have been a miracle, except that every night was the perfect night, here in this place of perpetual darkness beneath ash- en clouds. For once we were glad of the dark.

Mannie had a Molotov cocktail saved up, one he’d made when the shuttles left us, but never used. John had a Zippo lighter with a bit of fluid left in it, one with playing cards on it. He said that you had to know when to fold ’em, and lit Mannie’s Molotov. Mannie heaved it as hard as he could. It landed about a third of the way up, on a beer–stained pub bench. It caught right away. Before long, the patches of gunpowder were popping, and canisters of butane and almost-empty aerosol cans of hairspray. We thought of how fireworks were, before. A faint memory. The flames climbed up towards the purple sofa. Explosive tendrils of fire snaked the entire mound. Futons went up. Semen-stained hotel beds. Computer chairs flared, their plastic wheels liquefying. Pennies and nickels, long ago lost in the cushions, melted into burning love seats and recliners. And finally, that hideous purple sofa flash-fried in jet fuel, its purple cushions turning black and curling, its seams popping. Leather crackled and shriveled, wood smoked, and the whole pyre sent up a massive plume into the black sky.

There is no fire like this. It has burned for two hours at least, cast- ing invisible tidal waves of heat unrelentingly into the cold of the night. We take off our hoodies and windbreakers. Some of us take off our shirts, to feel the waves of heat breaking on our skin, to feel them crashing on our chests and washing over our shoulder blades and dripping down our backs.

If a satellite happens to train an infrared camera on us, it will see our last gesture. Mannie and Eddie’s brothers will see. All of those who abandoned us will see. We hope for this without really caring whether it happens. We fantasize that it is happening, as we watch the flames lick orange and yellow into the blackness, illuminating even the clouds above. This fantasy gives us comfort, even though that is not the point. None of us really knows the point, except that sometimes a thing is just over, and there ought to be an outburst, a finale, for something like what we were.

As it burns, nobody dives onto the pyre, although a lot of us think about it. Mostly we are too tired for anything that grand. Instead, we lie down. We use our windbreakers and shirts as pillows. Our ribs cast strange shadows on our bodies. And then, by ones and twos as the fire begins to dim, we close our eyes.