Today's Reading

He lay still. The cold morning fell over him. When he opened his eyes, the light had shifted and the smell of oranges was gone. All that remained was a cavern inside his chest.

Shivering from the cold, he dressed and went to the bathroom sink, where he scooped enough water from a bucket into his hands to rinse them. Since the rooftop cisterns had emptied, he'd been hauling water up from the street.

He toasted two pieces of stale bread over the gas flame of the stove. Another temporary luxury. It would probably go soon as well. He sprinkled some salt over the dry toast, cut up a mushy apple, and carried his breakfast into the living room.

From the window, he could see the vendors below setting out their goods on the sidewalk. This was part of the adaptation: you could simplify and run to the country, or you could buy and trade and sell. The marketplace was immortal, but it, too, had changed. Now the collections were random and personal, spread across blankets on the ground. Coffee makers, monogrammed towels, heirloom tea sets, little motors that no longer turned, tangles of useless electrical cords. Even a good find carried a certain bitter aftertaste. And yet there was no telling what might become suddenly useful. An extension cord made for a fine clothesline. Large Tupperware storage bins could hold gallons of water.

He held binoculars to his eyes. One of the vendors was on all fours, reaching across the blanket to arrange pots and dishes and utensils into tidy rows. She was portly and blond and encumbered by a long, heavy coat. A small dog curled up near her feet. She placed clothing into piles and arranged books by color. At the far corner of the blanket, she'd put the things not easy to categorize—a game of Trivial Pursuit, a stack of file folders, a computer keyboard.

A bulky man in a leather jacket moved swiftly along the sidewalk, and Carson tracked him through the binoculars. It was Ayo, one of his building's doormen, before the layoffs six months ago.

Ayo, a Nigerian, had immigrated to the States with his wife nearly a decade ago. He was an educated man, once a student activist. "It is not always a good idea to advertise one's political ideas, but sometimes it is necessary," he once said.

Carson had crossed paths with Ayo a few weeks ago on the street— the first time he'd seen him since the layoffs.

"Mr. Principal!" Ayo had called out from half a block away. "It's you! I thought maybe you had dissolved in a solution of vinegar. You are holed up in your apartment like a mouse?"

"I have not dissolved, no," Carson had said, smiling. "It is nice to see you, Ayo."

"Every day is a blessing, yes," Ayo had said.

Ayo was a hustler now, with access to the new black market, where he could get soap, butter, coffee, meat, flour, batteries, fuel, and almost anything else. "Run by Africans," he had explained that day. "That is why they call it the black market,' sir. We Africans are quite adept at adversity. Or maybe, sir, because we are such good con artists." He had laughed and jabbed an elbow into Carson's ribs.

With the supermarkets stripped and dark, it was a lucky and necessary thing to have a supply man. The shipping containers had become bloated whales stuck up on the sand. It was vendors like Ayo who kept people fed, rolling shopping carts up and down the streets, selling canned beans and stale rice they'd hoarded, or vegetables they'd somehow grown or gleaned from farms outside the city.

Carson tracked Ayo from the window, watching him flow down the sidewalk.

On the other side of the country, in the back of a wagon, Beatrix Banks felt as if she were on a choppy sea, as if all she had to do was yield to circumstance. But what circumstance was this? No metro rail to shuttle her through the city and over the bay; instead, horses. When she'd left the US nearly two months earlier, no one had yet thought to attach a horse to a cart and haul passengers around. At this moment, despite the bumpy ride, she was grateful someone had.

Exhausted and disoriented, Beatrix dug in her backpack for her cell phone. She should call her housemates, Hank and Dolores, tell them she was on her way. But the phone, of course, had been dead for weeks. She held it in both hands, like a fragile, lifeless bird.

Across from her in the wagon, a woman, about fifty, wrapped in a purple shawl, gave Beatrix a sympathetic frown.

"You can kiss that phone goodbye," said a man next to her. He coughed once, and Beatrix stiffened. Was there still flu here?

"No phone service at all? Landlines?" she asked, inching away from the man.

"Only if you're willing to saw off an arm and a leg," the woman in purple said.

There was some murmuring among the other passengers about radio communication and solar power. "What about the almighty generator that preacher uses?" someone said.

Beatrix put her phone back.

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