[Editor's Note: The following is Part II of an unfinished short story that the author and BlockRadius have chosen to publish in serial form, until its expected completion in Fall 2019].
PART I - Click here
Anyone who has ever outgrown his or her youth in the City of Brotherly Love remembers a time when nights out drinking concluded with night-caps on the porch among friends. And anyone will tell you that it is here that companions, once tied to one another merely by circumstance, become true friends. Real friends. Good friends. But it is also here that silence becomes your friend. And not everyone will tell you that.
At some point on the porch, in the warm, late spring pre-dawn hours during just such a silence, I looked out at the dark rowhomes across the street, and the few scattered lights among them, red white and blue, and remembered, as if it was what I had been trying to remember all along, the half-moon shadows in Montreal. As usual, we had been discussing the apocalypse: specifically, why the collective “we” tend to avoid talk of the apocalypse, if we can help it. In another state of mind, this would certainly have struck me as ironic; but here on the porch, it only reminded me of those enigmatic French Canadian shadows. I was just about to bring this up, when, turning to my friends and locking eyes, it became apparent to us on the porch together, within that silence we had shared, that we had failed to bring up, or even failed to notice, the fact that there were four police cars and an ambulance idling across the street, lights flashing silently, and that they had been there for at least the past half hour. That’s how long it seemed; of course, none of us could recall them showing up, we admitted to each other. We had been too involved in our own conversation, not the current one about the apocalypse, but the much longer conversation that had led up to it, a story about the fight that had taken place earlier that night.
Two of us, my friend and I, had witnessed this fight and been recounting it to our third friend. This friend, our single audience member, had been with us earlier that night, but had gone home before the action had really begun.
We left the bar, we began. Like how so many stories begin; or rather, like the reverse of how so many jokes begin. We had been walking west on Walnut, between 18th and 19th, we said, when we heard the sound of an argument, coming from up ahead, but out of sight, around the corner. We picked up the pace. At 19th, we peered right, and there we saw the source of the sound. A girl with a buzz cut and t-shirt, her back to us, was hollering back and forth with a group of girls. These girls, it seemed worth mentioning to our friend on the porch, were all in black cocktail dresses and heels. Suddenly, the buzz cut girl began to approach the cocktail dress girls, appearing to zero in on one girl. But the group of girls quickly mobilized, instinctive as any herd in the natural world, four of them forming a barrier around the targeted girl. Seeing this barrier, the buzz cut girl charged.
My good friend reacted decisively, to his credit; I had hesitated for a second, dumbfounded. He caught the buzz cut girl before she hit the barrier of cocktail dress girls, and at first, it seemed that he had broken up the fight. While continuing to holler at the buzz cut girl now in my good friend’s arms, the cocktail dress girls boarded a special bus – not a city bus, but a bus just for them – of girls (surely twenty or thirty of them) all in black cocktail dresses. We left the buzz cut girl to herself and continued on. But only for a few steps; one of the girls in cocktail dresses (at this pace of action, they would have remained indistinguishable to anyone, any stranger, not just me) had re-emerged from the shelter of her special bus, and was now shrieking at the girl with the buzz cut, and the buzz cut girl turned to charged again. This time, we were too late. Buzz cut girl ran up to the shrieking girl in the cocktail dress, and within seconds, after a single blow to the side of the face, the girl with the buzz cut had been knocked to the sidewalk.
As the victorious cocktail dress girl was led back onto the bus by half a dozen others of her kind, the girl with the buzz cut and t-shirt remained down. We went over to her. She was bleeding badly, rubbing blood all over her face, from a wound that looked to be just above the eye.
A cop pulled up in his car. “Everything alright?” he said.
“Yeah,” we said. “All good.”
The cop hesitated before nodding. “Alright,” he said, mistrustful, but also grateful – a rare and, as such, a remarkable combination.
The buzz cut girl was covering her face with her hands, tears mixing in with the blood. My friend and I didn’t know what to do. We had just told the cops all was good, or all would be good; in other words, we had taken responsibility.
We told the girl to come with us, to get off the main pedestrian street. Then we told her to sit. We needed napkins. McDonald’s was our best chance. I ran. I got a handful of napkins. I ran back. My friend was sitting with the girl on a dark stoop. Her hands were still all over her face, far bloodier by now. We offered her the napkins. She refused. “Why were we helping her?” she might have been thinking. “What did we want from her?” We insisted she take the napkins. Again she refused, this time with an arm bar. She had too much pride. We told her she’s bleeding. We told her to take the napkins and wipe her face so she wouldn’t get stopped by the cops. And this worked, to a point; reluctantly, she took the napkins, the whole stack of them, and wiped her face for a few seconds. Then she stood up, threw the bloody stack onto the sidewalk, and stormed off, careening side to side, drunk and concussed, back into the heart of the city.
Now back on the porch, back home, we watched the team of police officers carry out a chair from the rowhome across the street. Seated on the chair was our neighbor – a neighbor we had never met, but nonetheless our neighbor – passed out with his head drooped down to the side, bobbling like an old and broken jack-in-the-box. We poured whiskey and watched the pallbearer policemen load the ambulance and drive off. Bringing up the half-moon shadows from Montreal seemed totally irrelevant, now. Instead, we watched the woman from across the street, our neighbor’s wife or girlfriend, who we had also never actually met, walk into the street, walk back up her steps, walk back into the street, walk up and down the block, walk back inside, walk back outside, get into the car in front of her home, and drive off into the darkness.
The next night, we saw both of them back home again, on the porch across the street. Man alive, and woman. Observing, we talked about how we had no idea what in hell, the previous night, we had observed.
On the last day of class, in which I was one of only five students, I asked my professor, point blank, what he thought the global population would be in the year 2150.
“Twenty fifty?” he said.
“Twenty-one fifty,” I said firmly. This was graduate school, the final class, my last chance.
He leaned back in his rolling desk chair, hands interlocked behind his head, the desk chair ready to roll. He glanced at the young Assistant Professor auditing the class. She said nothing.
He looked me right in the eye. “One billion,” he finally said, firmly as I had asked him. And yet, also with a hint of dream. He glanced over at his colleague again.
She again said nothing.
“Thank you,” I said. I appreciated his honesty. One billion people. Both a pessimistic and optimistic guess. Lots of suffering. Lots. Utter catastrophe. Unprecedented suffering. A 90% loss of human life. Ten billion, expected by 2050, down to just one billion by 2150. But at the same time, one billion still alive. One billion, the population back to what it was roughly at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. One billion, the homeostasis to which our species will inevitably return. One billion, from which we will continue to push the limits of our biological and environmental constraints, aiming for the ever-receding Kingdom of God, via an evolving genetic and moral code of conduct, shaped endlessly by trial and error and great acts of unity in the face of what we may only ever comprehend as utter catastrophic chaos.
One billion of us. A chance for our grandchildren, mine and yours. A chance.
PART III - Click here