“Nightfall” by Nancy Smith

∴∴∴

 

The sun is dead. They say the world will go completely dark in eight days. We believe them because the sky has gradually dimmed over the past few months. At first we didn’t really notice. Then, slowly, it was perceptible. Some of us went to the doctor to have our eyes checked, wondering if we had developed glaucoma. Some of us drove around with our bright headlights on all day. I complained to Rosalyn that I was feeling cold all the time. We lived in Los Angeles and it was June. Rosalyn told me to put on a sweater. I slipped on an extra layer and all of this went on for several more weeks until all of our eyes checked out just fine and they told us what was happening.

The sun has run its course. We can stamp an expiration date on anything. Redwood tree: 2,000 years. Ladybug: 6 weeks. The relevant number associated with our sun is 4.5 billion years. Eight more days seems like a joke in comparison.

The sun will flicker and turn itself off. Or maybe it won’t flicker. The light will just stop coming and it will just go black, like pulling a light bulb chain. Maybe it will explode and engulf us in light, like a bomb. I don’t know. Maybe the scientists know. I think it will flicker, though, at least as a sort of warning. The thought of instantaneous darkness is unbearable to me. I am trying to get used to the idea of eternal nightfall.

Upon hearing the news about the sun, Rosalyn tells me she’s been having an affair with our next-door neighbor, Héctor, a pleasant, middle-aged man from Chile who grows apples, tomatoes, and apricots in his backyard. During the ten years Rosalyn and I have lived in Laurel Canyon, he has handed handfuls of fresh produce over the fence, showering us with neighborliness.

“Him?” I ask, shaking with disbelief.

“Yes, I find him very attractive,” Rosalyn says.

“Héctor?” I choke.

She sits quietly at the kitchen table, nodding, peering into her lap.

All I can think of are the apricot pies that Rosalyn made over the years with Héctor’s apricots. Tarts. Muffins. Jars of jam. There are apricots sitting in the bowl on the kitchen table. I pick one up and roll it around in my hand, faintly fuzzy and soft.

I don’t want to know how long it has been going on.

Rosalyn packs a bag and scoots out the door before I can say goodbye. Or wait. Which is what I really want to say. I say those things after the door slams and then I sit on our green parlor couch, numb for several hours, staring at an old black and white TV that isn’t even on. The rabbit ears are uselessly askew.

The house is eerie-still until Tucker trots through the kitchen doggie door, his jangling tags busting the silence. He sits in front of me, unaware of Rosalyn’s abrupt and heartbreaking exodus.

His golden tail whaps the floor.

“Looks like it’s just you and me now, pal.”

He cocks his head to the side, raises his flappy ears, and dutifully puts his head on my lap. I scratch the soft top of his head and mull over the possibilities.

∴∴∴

 

Shutting off the alarm, stepping into the bathroom, like always, there is an unexpected sense of normalcy when I wake. In the shower I squirt the shampoo into my hand and it is every other Monday morning I ever had. This can’t be true, though. I’ll cry if I think about it any longer, so I don’t think. I just scrub and rinse and stay in for nearly twelve minutes.

The whisk in the top right-hand drawer is missing and I suspect that Rosalyn pilfered random kitchen utensils as she scurried out the door. I scramble the eggs with a fork and wonder what else is missing.

The familiar thud of the newspaper landing on the porch never comes, so I toss a scoop of chow into Tucker’s food bowl and head for work. He comes running at the clang and scarfs half of it before I even get out the door.

The highways are barren, weirdly traffic-less, abandoned strips of concrete that seemingly lead to nowhere. I turn on the radio. There is a jabbering panel of sun experts. The head of NASA is explaining what will happen to the earth after it goes dark. Plants will die. Animals will die. We will die, etc. I flip to another channel. They have a different panel of sun experts. The American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Nature Conservancy. The Ecological Society of America. I try a third channel. More experts.

I pull into the dusty lot and park in my usual spot, the lone car in a row of empty spaces. I walk toward the warehouse and Kevin approaches, his blue shirt tucked into his blue pants.

“You’re late,” he says.

I look at my watch. Ten minutes early.

“I’m just kiddin’ ya. You’re actually the only one who showed up today.”

He punches me in the shoulder and exudes something between a laugh and a grunt.

“Where is everyone?” I ask.

“Guess they decided not to come to work because of the whole sun thing. I mean who needs ice cream if we’re all gonna die?”

This strikes me as the ultimate theoretical conundrum.

I feel a little stupid for showing up today.

“Oh,” I finally say.

“You’re welcome to run your route. Safeway and Nelson’s already called and said they’re closing down. They are all out of food anyway. I guess you can hit Winston’s and Galleria if you want.”

I nod. It isn’t as if I had other things to do. I’ve been delivering ice cream for almost twenty years. I am a man of routine.

After checking the stock and marking my inventory, I pull myself into my giant blue truck and lurch on down the road. I make the rounds faster than ever before. The joy of driving through near-empty highways in Los Angeles is something I’ve never known. The human-sized green leaves on the palm trees are beautiful for the first time. The buildings, all quiet now, mostly dark, stand like an empty movie set. There are a few people milling around, glancing up at the sky, and there is a couple sitting at a bus stop, waiting for a bus that will never come. Everyone on the road is more polite than usual, signaling lane changes, keeping to the speed limit, and nodding occasionally to the other drivers as if they were neighbors, not strangers.

A pair of gangly stock boys at Winston’s pick up the usual haul of chocolate and vanilla. They tote pints of ice cream into the store, wandering in and out with baffled, mechanical sluggishness.

It isn’t that we are scared or worried or sad. It’s that we don’t know how we are supposed to feel.

No one shows up at Galleria and I am left with a pile of undelivered ice cream in the back of my truck. In the middle of the asphalt parking lot, I climb into the back, pull a plastic spoon out of its plastic wrapper, and pop open a carton of peppermint. I lean against the cold metal wall and eat the entire thing. I miss Rosalyn.

∴∴∴

 

The next morning, Kevin leaves a message letting me know that I needn’t come into work anymore. I stand in the kitchen listening to his awkwardly paused farewell: “Hey buddy. I guess you might as well stay home today. I’m going to close up shop here. Have a great da—uh, it’s been nice working with you, I mean. I hope you have a—Well, take care.”

I step into the backyard. Tucker runs around the yard, smelling, inspecting every corner as if something might have changed or moved or been altered behind his back. Dogs are always preoccupied with how things are and how they have been and if the two match up.

I glance over at Héctor’s two-tree orchard. His place looks deserted. I pull a green apple from his tree and munch.

My own garden is a sorry rectangle of weeds. I allow them to live because they are like flowers, tricking me with their tiny white and yellow blooms. Their beauty has convinced me not to kill them, but season after season they just take over the entire yard, choking out my sunflowers and blue buttons.

I chuck the chewed apple core into Héctor’s yard.

I lean over the other side of the fence, surprised to see my other neighbor sitting on her deck, camped out with a pile of books and papers around her. It isn’t uncommon to find her in this exact position, but the neighborhood has mostly cleared out and I just figured I was the only one left.

I don’t really know where everyone has gone. To be with their families. To be alone. I imagine them all flocking toward the beach for one giant party. Or hiding away in the tiny places they loved. I don’t know. Maybe they are robbing banks and burning down churches. The stores have already been plucked empty, so there isn’t much left to rob anyway.

I clear my throat.

She looks up, equally surprised to see me.

“Karl,” is all she says, like she’s questioning my actual existence.

“Hi, Atsuko.”

We smile at each other in a way that is neighborly. But now every smile carries more weight than it did before.

“What are you doing here?” I ask.

“I’m working on this book.”

Atsuko is a translator. She speaks seven languages. Her shelves are full of bilingual dictionaries.

Tucker jumps with his front feet on the fence, his head just barely able to see over.

“You should come over,” she says. “I’ll make you a cup of tea.”

I nod and walk to the back gate. Tucker trots behind.

I am pleasantly satisfied to see that her backyard is in an equal state of disrepair, perhaps even slightly worse off than mine. Her grass, more reminiscent of hay, is almost up to my knees. Tucker joyfully searches for new things to smell, new things to dig.

“Have a seat, I’ll be right back with some tea.”

Atsuko runs into the house.

I survey the papers. Everything is in Japanese. I can’t make out a thing.

We’ve been neighbors for a long time. We’ve always said hello over the fence, like neighbors do. We’ve commented on weather and yard conditions. I picked up Atsuko’s mail when she was out of town. She took care of Tucker when we were out of town. We traded cookies at Christmas. Well, Rosalyn did. I stood there while they chatted, divulging a year’s worth of information, grinning with shiny cookie plates in hand. Atsuko and I had tea together every so often, intermittently between weeks and months, and she was one of the few people whom I suppose I could call a friend.

She returns with a tray of tea. Green and white china. Cups the size of plums. A jar of honey with its tiny dipper.

The steam hovers when she pours it.

“Where’s Rosalyn?”

“She left me.”

“What?”

“She left me.”

I don’t really know how else to phrase it, or if I am supposed to give details.

“God, why?”

“She was having an—well, she and Héctor,” I point across the yards—“were having an affair.”

“Héctor?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s surprising. How strange.”

I drip honey into the tea, and take a slow sip.

I thought of it as cruel and selfish. But maybe it is strange. It’s all just strange.

“What book are you working on?” I ask.

Atsuko gathers up a few of the papers and organizes them into piles.

“It’s called The Boy Who Stole Souls. It was written about a hundred years ago and no one has ever been able to translate it. They say it’s untranslatable.”

“Untranslatable?”

“Yeah, because there are so many concepts that don’t exist in English. So many things that don’t have an equivalent. If something doesn’t exist in a language, you have to spend a lot of time describing it so that people can understand it,” she says.

“So if it’s untranslatable, why are you doing it?”

“I don’t think anything is truly untranslatable. It just takes more time. More research. More attention to detail. More pages.”

“What’s it about?” I ask.

“It’s hard to say for sure. Some people think it’s about a boy who invents a machine that transfers souls from one person to another. Some people say it’s about a boy who steals souls and keeps them for himself.”

“What do you think?”

Atsuko laughed.

“I don’t think it’s about stealing souls at all; I think it’s about making your own.”

“What about the sun?” I ask.

I vaguely raise my hand to the sky, as if that explains it all. It’s like the word sun has taken on a new meaning. It has become interchangeable with a new set of words: end and death and dark.

Atsuko shrugs, “What about it? I’ve been working on this book for ten years, and it’s almost done. I can’t stop now.”

I cradle my teacup in my palm. Tucker bounds onto the deck and collapses into a heap under the table. I sit while Atsuko continues to work, and she doesn’t seem to mind the intrusion.

∴∴∴

 

Over the next couple of days, my life starts to revolve around Tucker. Dogs live by routine, which is what I crave more than anything. We awake as the first pale light seeps into the window and take a long morning stroll every day. There are only a few days of light left and everything seems wilted.

As we circle the neighborhood, I determine that not everyone is gone. Some people are just holed up in their homes, like me. I run into the Browns who are also out for a morning walk and they say that they have been whiling away their evenings playing Scrabble. They kindly invite me to join them. I say sure, even though we all know that I won’t come. It’s too much of an imposition for me to intrude on their last days.

I see Greg half-bent over the hood of his Mini Cooper. He’s been tinkering with that rusty old thing for years. The plates are small, white, British. A bottle of whiskey sits atop the roof of the car. He waves at me and pats Tucker on the head as we pass.

Jenny and Jenny, blonde-haired, same-named roommates at the end of the block are standing on ladders, painting their entire house red. I stand watching, curious. Jenny One climbs down and explains that red is said to bring good fortune. Jenny Two yells from the top of her ladder, “and fuck the neighborhood association.”

Tucker and I mosey our way through the canyon.

The Krysinski Family is sitting on a blanket, just off the trail. Two moms and two boys sit in a circle eating muffins and orange juice.

The older boy asks if I want some breakfast.

I say I’ve already eaten.

The hills are already starting to lose color, fading to a dull tan. We track up storms of dust as we make our way around the canyon loop and head back. Tucker finds an especially appealing stick, carries it all the way home, and buries it in the backyard under the forsythia. I stop watering the yard, because there is no point in trying to keep the grass alive. The forsythia, usually bright yellow all summer, is pale and sagging. It will die soon, probably before the sun.

There is a brown paper package on the porch when we get home.

At the kitchen table, I tug gently on the tiny bow and the string splays itself across the table. The brown paper opens up and I slide it off to discover Atsuko’s translation: a smooth stack of clean, white paper, dictionary-sized.

The pile of paper sits heavily in my lap as I flip each page over and rest it in an upside-down pile on the table next to my favorite chair. It takes me two days to finish. As I turn over the last page I sigh, a deep, full-lunged breath, my hands folded in my lap, I am filled with a kind of sadness. It is a sort of grief for everything we have yet to lose.

I continue to sit in my favorite chair, under a single lamp, and I watch the hovering moon through my window. Perhaps, we can learn to live under the moonlight. Maybe all of the plants and animals could simply adjust to function under moonlight. All the colors will turn to the deepest shades, and everything will feel like satin and smell like rain. Wouldn’t that be lovely? It doesn’t cross my mind until later that the moon won’t glow without the sun.

I search Rosalyn’s tidy desk. A stack of freshly sharpened pencils in a cup on the top. Bills filed away in card catalog drawers. I can only find one pad of paper. At the top is printed from the desk of Rosalyn Parker. I look again for something else, but that’s all there is. I scratch out Rosalyn and write Karl.

A note: Atsuko—Thank you for the book. You’re right, it seems it wasn’t untranslatable after all! And how wonderful that you were able to finish it. Perhaps I could have you over to my place for tea next time? —Karl

I feel like a teenager, awkward and giddy, as I traipse across the moon-soaked lawn and stand on Atsuko’s porch. I wonder if it is too late to ring the bell. I think that it is, though it is getting more and more difficult to tell time. I have no idea if anyone else is bothering to keep a regular schedule anymore. I slide the note into her mail slot.

I go home and wait. There are only two days left.

∴∴∴

 

“Well, what did you think of the book?” she asks as I pour peppermint tea into tan mugs with etchings of mountain goats and buffalo. Rosalyn and I picked them up in Yellowstone National Park last year.

“It was one of the best things I’ve ever read,” I say, immediately realizing my inability to articulate anything interesting about the book. I was never good at conversation.

“You really think so?”

“I do. It would have been a shame if it had been locked away from all of us non-Japanese speakers.”

Atsuko smiles.

“I’m so glad I was able to read it,” I add.

“You and I are the only ones.”

“You haven’t shared it with anyone else?”

“Who would I share it with? My editor has gone to San Francisco with her sister. My brother lives in Detroit. I can’t send it to him. None of my friends are left.”

We drink our tea and take comfort in the old habit.

My finger traces the outline of a buffalo. Where is Rosalyn? I don’t know where she and Héctor have absconded to. I guess I should be glad of that.

“It seems unfair that you and I are the only ones who have been able to read this,” I say.

Atsuko just sighs.

And then we come up with a plan.

∴∴∴

 

We go to Atsuko’s office, a small publishing company in West Hollywood. The door is locked, so Atsuko kicks in a window. She laughs as her booted foot goes through the glass and shards fall to the ground. Everything sounds so loud in the empty city. She climbs through the tiny hole and opens the door from the inside. I hold the giant stack of paper in the crook of my arm.

We find a copy machine in a dark hallway and stick the book into the manual feed. Atsuko loads the tray with paper and presses the button. Sheets fly through the machine and a replica is cranked out every three minutes.

We bundle the hot stacks of paper with giant clips and carry them out to my ice cream truck. We fill up the chilly compartment with piles of books.

We spend the whole day.

We dig through the recycling bin and salvage all of the useable paper.

We steal giant clips from other giant bundles of paper strewn about the office on desks and shelves, in binders and folders.

We use up every piece of paper in the entire office.

By the end of the afternoon, we’ve amassed a truck full of books, a refrigerated container of English translations.

I slide the truck door down with a clatter and flip the lock from left to right.

“Where should we go?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

We hadn’t planned that far ahead.

“I guess we’ll just drive around.”

So we drive. And we deliver.

We shove the book into mailboxes. We toss it onto porches. We feed it into slots. We slip it into open windows. We leave it on tables and chairs and bus stop benches. Sometimes we place it directly into the hands of an unsuspecting someone who just happens to be within arm’s reach.

One book at a time we unload our cargo and it feels like tossing wads of money into crowds of people, only no one is there.

We drive around West Hollywood, Inglewood, Lakewood, Glendale. We make a giant circle, weaving through the neighborhoods, delivering our goods, bit by bit. One bundle at a time.

We end up back in Laurel Canyon and slowly hit every house on our street. I leave two copies with Jenny and Jenny.

By the time we make it back to our houses, the truck is empty. Success.

We sit on my porch steps, tired and leaning up against the side of the house.

Tucker roams around the front yard, his golden color starting to blend in with the dry grass.

“Do you think anyone will read it?” she asks.

“Sure.”

I try to sound reassuring. I have no basis for what I am saying, but what does it matter? We’ll never know either way.

“I’m sure they will. I’m sure someone will read it,” I say more confidently.

Atsuko smiles and laughs a little.

Her laugh sounds the same way honey tastes.

We stretch out on the steps and wait for the sun to fade away.

Sunsets over Los Angeles have become slight and clear, not the deep murk that usually settles over the valley. I’ve become accustomed to those dark smears of color. I’ve watched so many sunsets from my porch; the industrial orange-pink that closed each day has become as familiar to me as Rosalyn’s face, as Tucker’s bark. As I watch the sun sink for the last time, I have the feeling that I will forget the old sun, that this last pale light, as strange and foreign as it seems to me now, is all I will remember of Los Angeles and everything that came before.

∴∴∴

 

Nancy Smith is a writer and designer in Bloomington, IN. She received her MFA from the University of San Francisco, and is currently working on a PhD at Indiana University. Her work has been published in The Believer, Midnight Breakfast, Seattle Weekly, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, Paper, and Your Impossible Voice. She can be found at her website somequietfuture.com and on Twitter @somequietfuture.

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1 Comment

  1. Laurel K

    I’ve heard about the 8 days from the scientific perspective before, but this is a really interesting look at how people react differently to deadlines.

    Reply

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