Won’t You Smile

(a filk to the tune of Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby, which goes way back!)

Won’t you smile for me, lady
Won’t you smile for me, lady
White teeth shine and she sure looks fine
but she’ll never be your lovin’ lady

Won’t you smile, pretty lady
Won’t you smile, pretty lady
Eyes through the smoke so thick you choke
on the curse you wanna tell that lady

Won’t you smile for me, lady
Won’t you smile for me, lady
She’s gone away where the red scarves wave
taking all us unrepentant ladies

In Stock

“She’s getting pretty good at waiting.” Chris adjusted the fraying grip on his baseball bat as we approached the gas station.

“The sounds scare her.” My shotgun was loaded; the ammo belt was starting to feel light, but this minimart looked promising. “I think she’s beginning to figure out why we make her wait, you know?”

“Had to happen eventually.”

“But we’re not teaching her to shoot yet.” We crouched behind a bullet-pocked concrete barrier across the street and squinted at the minimart.

“Jane, she’s got to learn sometime. It’ll be safer in the long run if –“

“Think they have binoculars in there?” I interrupted.

Chris sighed. “A new set would be nice, yeah.”

I looked over my shoulder. The top of Lena’s lime-green hood was barely visible over the bramble we’d instructed her to hide in. Guns may have taken on a new necessity that I’d had to reconcile with my gun-averse upbringing, but I wasn’t ready for our six-year-old to learn to handle one.

“Let’s go.”

We darted across the weed-choked parking lot. The gas pumps had been emptied, later smashed; most of the shop windows were shattered. I went first, shotgun ready, with Chris at my back. Our footsteps crunched over broken glass. We checked between the ransacked shelves, in the bathroom, the storeroom and the musty office: the place was deserted.

I returned to the entrance and whistled, our signal to let Lena know it was safe. She popped out of the bramble and ran, the fluorescent green parka bouncing like a laser pointer against the gray afternoon. She leapt into my arms, giggling, and I spun her around.

“Gold star for hiding, baby girl.”

“Thanks, Mommy.”

I let her slip to the ground – she was too heavy to carry these days. “What do you want to find in here?”

“Umm…” She tapped her chin, an adult gesture of thoughtfulness she liked to mimic. Finally she looked up at me, brown eyes sparkling. “Peanut butter!”

“Peanut butter?” I teased. “Boring! I want to find a pony…or a unicorn.”

“Or a dragon!” She freed her hand from mine and flung her arms out like wings, growling.

“Hold hands, please,” I reminded her. I could hear Chris in the storeroom sorting through boxes. I collected what little I could find out front: a few protein bars past their expiration date but still sealed, boxes of raisins, two cans of beans that had rolled under the shelves.

“Careful,” Chris said as we entered the storeroom. The beam from his headlamp danced over us. “Chopped liver in the northeast corner.”

The storeroom was almost pitch black aside from our headlamps, and I was relieved I didn’t have to see what Chris had found. ‘Chopped liver’ was our code phrase for something unpleasant, usually human remains, that we didn’t want Lena to see. Luckily, the box Chris was searching through had her distracted. I looked over his shoulder and saw a tangle of wires, batteries, remotes, and other electronic parts that had been obsolete even before the collapse. Looters had overlooked it, but I could see what Chris was after: hidden underneath was some fairly sophisticated survival gear.

Lena’s chubby fingers gripped the edge of the box as she strained to peer inside. Her eyes widened. “Are those from the 80s?”

Ever since we came across a Pac-Man machine in the back of a laundromat, Lena had been obsessed with the decade of her parents’ birth. Any technology she didn’t recognize from before – chunky flip phones, shop-vacs, PCs – must have originated in the 1980s, the furthest back in time she could imagine.

“No, sweetie,” Chris chuckled, “this is new stuff. Look: flashlights, a solar charger…”

He didn’t point out the taser, but handed it silently to me to pocket. We also took a fresh pack of batteries and an unused first aid kit. Chris had already found some canned chicken and, amazingly, peanut butter. We packed it all into our still uncomfortably light satchels.

“Mommy!”

My heart pounded – I thought she’d found the body. But Lena was crouched over a soggy cardboard box.

“Toys!” She held one up: a superhero figure still in its packaging. Relieved, I knelt next to her and helped her rummage through.

“Lena, look!” I held one up. “A dragon!”

She gasped, delighted. I pried it out of its packaging and swooped it into her hands, like playing airplane with her baby food. Holding it aloft, she ran out of the store, roaring into the daylight.

Creation

Lay out the bowls –
the largest fits cupped in your palm –
smallest to largest,
a bit like planets.
Place a very large bowl
at the end.
Pour in the flour, scooping and leveling
carefully
so as
not to
compress it.
Fill the others with
baking soda, cocoa,
sugar, baking powder.
Let the gravity of the largest
draw them, one by one,
glucose and alkalinity
and calcium and magnesium
and carbon dioxide
all activating
like primordial life when you
mix.
Add salt: a sprinkle
of minuscule asteroids
cratering the powder.
A second bowl, not as large.
Combine eggs, oil, and milk.
In the first bowl, make a well
and then there is water,
and it is good.
Pour into pans and
bake.
Breathe in the fragrance.
Creation takes time.
Allow it to cool.

(inspired by these ancient poem-recipes)

The Real Thing

Margo wasn’t surprised to see the visitor hunched on a stool at the card table, breathing deeply, his large hands curled around a chipped mug of coffee. She hadn’t asked his name, and he hadn’t asked hers. She wanted to think he had kind eyes, but actions, not eyes, were what counted these days. Besides, the vote had been taken: the visitor had to move on.

“This is great,” he said, raising his mug. “I haven’t had real coffee in ages.”

“It’s not real.” Margo realized she was scratching her head – she was embarrassed, and pleased. It felt good to have someone compliment something she’d made. They were all so used to flavorless rations that compliments were rendered artificial, so no one bothered to make them.

“It’s just the powdered substitute,” she explained. “They used to give it to the soldiers, to keep them awake longer.”

“Wouldn’t that cause psychosis?”

“Oh, it did. But I don’t drink that much.”

He chuckled and one corner of his mouth lifted. Margo tried to ignore the way her heart fluttered. Nice to know it was still possible, she decided, though it could have picked a better time.

“I drink it, too, when I can find it,” he said. “Guess it tastes better because I didn’t have to make it.”

“Like breakfast in bed.”

“Like breakfast.” He laughed, and Margo did, too, watching the way his smile cut like a sunbreak through his black beard, how his breath made the rising steam dance.

She poured her own mug and sat across from him. The rain had let up; aside from the acidic puddles and maybe a couple mudsnakes, he’d be safe to move on, wherever he was headed. She didn’t ask that, either.

She wished he could stay one more night, now that she was more certain of him. The hidden cameras could capture his smile, his expressions, his words, but not him, the way he radiated help and ease and comfort. If they had – if the others had seen what Margo saw – they’d never have voted him out.

For a moment, she entertained a vision of herself unlocking the door to the basement, throwing open the hatch, and having him meet everyone. They’d like him. It wouldn’t be like last time, when Elle thought that woman seemed sweet and matronly, and then she tried to steal their solar panels. She hadn’t gotten far.

“Well,” he said, and reality asserted itself. “Guess I should get out of your hair.”

“Yeah, I need to…” The usual excuses wouldn’t come to mind. She kept hoping Cooper or Elle would burst through the locked door, announcing he’d been cleared, that he’d been voted in after all. “I should check the roof for rain damage.”

“Need a hand?”

“No, I…I’ve got it. Thank you, though.”

He hesitated only slightly before smiling amenably. In the front hall narrowed by stacks of crates, he pulled on his patched jacket and shouldered his road-stained pack. A blue enamel mug hung from one of the straps. It gave Margo an idea.

She ran back to the kitchen and returned with a tiny tube – a film canister, an antique even before the bombs fell – and held it out to him.

“What’s this?”

“You’ll have to make it yourself next time.”

He popped the lid and breathed deeply. “Sure smells like the real thing.”

“I wish it was.”

“You’d still have given me some?”

“I would.”

He tucked the coffee into the breast pocket of his shirt. She watched his eyes: sea-green and surprising, the contrast even more breathtaking in shadow. He stretched out a hand to shake hers.

“Thanks,” he said, that smile peeking through.

She took his hand and pulled him into an embrace. The pack strap dug into her cheek, but she didn’t care: his back was warm under her hands, and she could feel his, broad and comforting, around her shoulders.

Margo pulled away and opened the door.

#

Cooper was waiting at the bottom of the ladder, shotgun over his shoulder.

“He’s gone?”

“Yep.”

“Never tried anything?”

“Nope. Just needed a dry place to sleep.”

“Wasn’t scoping the joint?”

“No, Cooper.”

“Just checking.” They went down the tunnel, Cooper’s flashlight beam leading the way. “Too bad. He seemed nice.”

“Yeah.” She pictured him down the road, alone, popping the lid off the canister to breathe in the smell and maybe think of her. “I think he was.”

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Chaos Terrain

“You’re serious.”

“Of course I am.”

He wouldn’t take the pamphlet from her hands. She folded it to her chest.

“It’s one-way,” he said. “Why would you go?”

Her footprints in iron oxide dust; her name writ in discovery’s legacy; new stars, herself among them.

“Because,” she whispered. “It’s Mars.”

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Spring, keeping her head down

Spring, like me, dragged herself out of bed this morning
We each went about our days, her with half-done flowers,
me with yesterday’s eyeliner and day-two
hair that, like the gray branches finally tinged green
and the winter-weary trio of pines beyond the fence,
looks better windswept. Spring obliges
Sighs gusts down the street that
carry off our garbage cans and shred
the maple blossoms
new and lacy
from their twigs.
How much sun did they get to see?
The magnolias hold out,
holed up in pink fists clenched
against the overstayed chill
lesson learned from the daffodils, their uprising
too soon, once-proud petals
slowly going ragged. I see their wilted crowns
bruised to sepia shadows, penitents’ cloaks
framing still-hopeful faces
when I, ragged too, return home in the silver evening.