A friend of mine, whom I first met when he was a student in my poetry class, was writing a post-apocalyptic novel. There’s nuclear fallout; civilization crumbled. A few people who haven’t yet caught the sickness are traveling together, fantasizing that they could restart the world.
When the bombs fell, governments collapsed. Not immediately, but within the year. The idea of government is predicated on people getting things done: fire fighters who might rescue you, police officers who might protect you, agencies who maintain the roads and ensure the water is safe to drink. All of which requires money, which the government can print, but those slips of paper don’t mean much if no one will accept them in exchange for food or a safe place to sleep.
“Hangrith,” that’s a beautiful word. It’s archaic, means a realm in which you can expect security and peace. Literally, “within the grasp of the king’s hand.” While you are here, the government will protect you.
My friend was skeptical of the concept. The king’s hand wasn’t cradling him, nor wielding a protective sword to keep orcs at bay; instead, my friend felt the gauntlet at his throat. We’d met in jail, where he’d landed for addiction. We volleyed emails after he left, while he was working on his novel. And then he was in my class again. Failed check-in. Once you’re on probation, you’re given numerous extra laws to follow – people on probation don’t have the rights of other citizens, and minor transgressions, like missing a meeting or late payment for a fine, can land you back in jail.
And so it wasn’t difficult for my friend to imagine a world in which there was no government to rely upon. To reach their destination, his heroes have to barter. Which meant that, suddenly, my friend’s skills might be treated with respect.
After all, what would people be most willing to trade their food for in a world where waking life was a ravaged nightmare?
“I took a patch with me underground when shit hit the fan. Grew it hydroponically. Cared for that shit like a baby. Gave me something to do while I was in that shelter. Weed is my money.”
Rampant economic inequality, fractured communities, and the spread of attention-grabbing toys that prevent us from making eye contact with one another – these have all contributed to the increase in drug use and addiction in contemporary America. But the world could be worse. After the blast, everyone would share the stress and trauma that people in poverty currently weather.
Methamphetamine lets people keep going despite crushing hopelessness and despair. Meth use is widespread in many hollowed-out towns of the Midwest. It’s a problematic drug. At first, people feel good enough to get out of bed again. But methamphetamine is metabolized so slowly that users don’t sleep. Amphetamines themselves are not so toxic, but lack of sleep will kill you. After five, ten, or twenty days awake, vicious hallucinations set in. The drug is no longer keeping you alert and chipper enough to work – static crackles through your mind, crustacea skitter beneath your skin, shadows flit through the air.
They walked on, their path lit by the moon, among the wreckage of cars and piles of trash and useless electronics that were heaped up until they came to a concrete slab with a manhole in it.
“This is my crib, where I sat out that day.”
After the fall, experience in the drug trade lets people carve out a living. And experience on the streets lets them survive. All the ornate mansions, people’s fine wood and brick homes, have fallen into disarray. Their inhabitants caught the sickness, or else died in the initial blast.
The survivors were people who slept outdoors, protected by thick concrete. Not in bunkers; the blast came too suddenly for that. Beneath bridges, tucked into safe alcoves, or down on dry ledges of the sewers.
My friend understood what it meant to make shelter where you could find it.
“After Pops gave me the boot, I had to find a way to support myself; that’s when I learned my hustle. And Penny here was one of my biggest customers.”
“You used to be her dealer?”
“Damn, dude, you make it sound dirty. Weed ain’t no drug, it’s medicine.”
The heroes plan to go west, aiming for San Francisco. When I was growing up, I had that dream too – I’d read a little about the Merry Pranksters and failed to realize how much the world might have changed. People living around the Bay Area are still interested in polyamory and psychedelic drugs, but that doesn’t mean they’re nice. It was heartbreaking to see how racist and ruthless the people there were, especially since I’d expected to find a hippie paradise.
And so my spouse and I moved back to the Midwest.
But I understand the dream – we’re surrounded by a lot of retrograde cudgleheads, here. The only problem is that people are pretty similar everywhere else.
“An agrarian based society. Where everyone works to grow what they eat. The soil might be okay. We won’t know all the affects of the radiation until later.”
“Well, I know for sure it’s mutated animals near the hit zone. I’ve seen all kindsa freaky shit. People too. It’s like the wild west again, where we’re going.”
The actual “wild west,” in U.S. history, was horrible. Racism, genocide, misogyny. But the ideal – a lawless land beyond the hangrith where a person’s ingenuity reaps fortune instead of jail time – might be enough to keep someone going.
And it worked, for a while. My friend carved out months of sobriety. He was volunteering at the community food kitchen. In the late afternoons, he’d type using a computer at the public library. He was always a very hopeful person; while he was in jail, he asked me to bring physics textbooks so he could use the time productively. You can get a sense of his enthusiasm from his poetry:
“BIRD TOWN, TN”
by Brett Wagner
Picture this young boy
whose favorite color was the blank white
of a fresh page. We went running once
on the spring green grass.
As I’ve heard it said,
“There’s nowhere to go but everywhere”
so we ran anywhere in this
jungle gym world.
Somewhere the clouds didn’t smother us
and the hills didn’t exhaust us,
where robins, blue jays, and cardinals sing
like boddhisattvas that have taken wing.
But then he slipped. A first drink led to more. He’d been in sober housing; he was kicked out, back onto the streets. A friend, another New Leaf volunteer, gave him enough money for a few days in a hotel.
We had several cold snaps this winter. Two nights after his hotel money ran out, temperatures dropped.
We’d made plans for my friend to join us for a panel with Dave Eggers, where we’d discuss storytelling and incarceration.
Instead, at 29 years old, Brett Wagner froze to death. His novel is unfinished; his heroes will not build a new agrarian society.
They had grim odds. Nuclear fallout is a killer. But my friend was felled by the apocalypse that’s already upon us.
Header image for this post by akahawkeyefan on Flickr.