My father says it’s time to lay in provisions. At least a month’s worth. His voice has traveled out of the woods a long way. The way, he has said on other occasions, we must travel if anything happens: bomb, drone, wave, fire, a great poisoning of the well. Humans testing their species in this largest of North American cities. We are not wasps, built for the hive. Get in the car and don’t look back.
His garage is larger than his living space. Bundles of meticulously coiled nylon rope in the rafters, a society of tools below. There is more than one of everything-hat, life vest, can of stew-at least a breeding pair. The case of pilaf, when we visit, has gone off.
My husband and I, we are unafraid. We have chosen density and signed the social contract. We offer ourselves like a gift to the universe. We press cell phones to our ears, allow cameras throughout the city to capture our comings and goings. Our first aid kit has been pilfered and not restocked. We do not have chlorine tablets, a fire ladder, or waterproof matches, do not kick the car tires. We have not saved, do not save, will not be saved. On an afternoon drive, we picnic happily among the plastic periscopes of a seeded landfill.
But my father’s phone calls persist and the idea of storage captures our fancy-nonperishables as art. We draw plans for the shelter we would build if we thought we needed sheltering: there would be lead walls and a billiard room, an infinity pool-why not? Then, in caricature or homage, my husband and I work for weeks in the hours after the baby is asleep, marking grains of rice, barely speaking. We inscribe a tiny segment of the architectural lines on each grain. Brown rice because it is more nutritious, at least a month’s worth.
We begin in the hallway, that placeless place, the way out, and affix grain after grain with wheat paste, until the walls are covered. We sit back on our haunches to appraise and we are pleased. All those tiny lines, the shelter an open secret. In the low light of the hallway, you wouldn’t know. Maybe it’s wallpaper, maybe stucco, maybe a fungus.
You really shouldn’t be riding the subway anymore. That’s how they’re going to get you; that’s how they’re going to bring the city down.
Our upstairs neighbor has come for a visit, no she has come to ask about a whir in her floorboards/our ceiling. She didn’t want to say anything, really it’s no big deal, she begins, and then trails off. She’s staring at the wall. The neighbor leans toward their nubby surface and then looks at us. That is to say, she takes us in.
An art project, we say. Art project. We move toward each other and link hands, as if our proximity might comfort her-the appearance of benign domesticity.
We see in her eyes a sudden tabulation of the trust we must daily offer, uncountable if we’d like to think beyond our survival. She has passed us many times in the stairwell; we say enough to facilitate a pleasant feeling and then swift forgetting. But we haven’t been out in days. We notice, now, the smell of trash hard upon us, and we notice her noticing that she’s standing in our space, her back to the door. The disorder of our bookshelves could conceal almost anything. Our walls are just below her walls and help to hold her up. We see her recalibrating to a new set of threats.
The whir, she says, is not so bad. No really, don’t worry.
She is gone and the hallway dampens the noise of the closing door. And in the persistent quiet of the coming days, we hear her footsteps from one end of our ceiling to the other. Her muffled voice funneled into a cellphone.
Would you like me to get you a shotgun? Everyone should have one. Just in case.
We have many walls to go, but we take a little rest, lay flat on the floor while the baby stumbles between us. If the walls shake down now, we will be surrounded. Plaster, layers of lead and acrylic paint, horsehair and sawdust stuffed into the hollows of the old apartment walls. But also rice grains, each bearing a line that might connect to another line. We will eat them by the millions to survive.
Our neighbor won’t survive. Why should she? “Shouldâ€ won’t survive.