We Eat Plums
We didn’t know at first that the world was falling apart. We thought maybe it was just us. We had just moved into a new house. A little rental a few blocks on the right side of that invisible line between “up and coming” and “down and out.” We had been in trouble. Time came when the decision had to be made. Are you in, or are you out? So instead of breaking up, we moved in.
It was a spur of the moment thing. She knew someone who knew someone whose landlord needed to rent out a house quickly. Bad tenants. We met one of them, the girl, when we took the tour. She was frantically picking fleas off a gray cat that meowled and raised its hackles like a Halloween decoration. I noticed a weak spot on the hardwood floor, loose fixtures hanging from the wall in the hallway, a broken step in the attic staircase. But, “Oh, honey, the cabinets,” Geneva said. So we took it.
If I could get a moment’s peace, it was in the shower. This was before. I would just stand there, switch the hot water to cold and let it wash over me. I’d shiver. I would breathe in deeply, over and over, until the water started to leak into my lungs.
And then, after twenty minutes, maybe more: “Honey?!”
After, we took nearly all of our showers together. She would clutch at me so tightly, holding on as if for dear life. She would cry into the wet flesh of my chest.
We’d pretty much lived together already, in my old apartment. So what was the difference? Her place gathered dust across town, and her roommate was left to deal with the fallout: the spoiled soymilk, the withered house plants panting for water.
I haggled the landlord down on the rent about two hundred bucks by offering to make the repairs myself. I was between jobs, living off a few thousand in severance after being laid off a few months earlier in a big corporate downsizing.
We stacked the boxes under the stairs, hooked the little TV up on a crate in front of them. We would get to unpacking once we got the place ready, we said. We would. Always we would, we will. We would.
The first thing was the flies. Hundreds of them.
“Oh, a few got in while we were moving stuff in,” I told her. “Doors hanging open. Once we kill them, that’ll be it.”
Wrong. They kept coming. You’d kill three or four, and think, “Certainly, this is the last of them.” But more always came. Half a dozen at a time. Like a leaking faucet. I began counting. I kept them in an ashtray by the picture window in the living room. Twenty. Thirty. Fifty. A hundred. That was the first day.
“They’re like an army,” I said. “Sending in reinforcements. Just trying to keep the regiment full.” Of course, I was only joking.
Once, I used a rolled up magazine to swat a particularly fat and sluggish one that had landed on a lamp. It fell to the table. Its abdomen had burst open, was wriggling with larvae. Yearning to be free.
Whoever had slept in our bedroom before—maybe one of the girl’s two roommates—had gone crazy. He had written on the walls. Poems. Prayers. Incantations. It was hard to be sure.
That was one of them. They were in marker, or black paint, or grease pencil. They wouldn’t wash out, although I scrubbed until my hands chafed. I tried painting them over. White paint. Then primer. Then another coat of white. Later, even three coats of black. No matter how many times I tried, they would reappear after about a day. Bubbling up from the bottom. Bleeding through like blood from an ancient wound.
Once, when it came bubbling through an inch of plaster and lead paint, Geneva began to cry. We were in bed. I didn’t try to comfort her.
“What are you thinking about,” she said to me. We’d been there for about four days, and I was trying to fix one of the stairs, but didn’t have the right screws.
“I’m thinking that I wish I had the right screws for this job,” I told her.
“Why don’t you walk to the hardware store?” There was one not three blocks away.
“Too hot.” It had been 100 all week. We’d done our best to stay out of the heat.
“Why won’t you talk to me?” she said, after a pause.
I shook my head. It was such a typical man-woman conversation. I couldn’t stand it. We should be better than that. I had the drill centered on a screw I’d put in at a bad angle. The staircase was so close to the wall that it was impossible to get leverage.
“Fuck!” I yelled. I’d stripped the screw.
It was later that night when we found out. We didn’t have cable hooked up, but I found an old TV antenna in the attic.
“Here,” I said, “let’s take a break.”
The news was the first thing we found. I got some tin foil to wrap around one of the prongs of the antenna, which got the picture to stop doubling. She watched while I got a beer from the fridge.
When I got back, she had already started to cry.
“Geneva, what is it now?” I said. She just pointed to the TV. There was a newswoman there, pads lifting her bright yellow shoulders heavenwards. Behind her, a weather map devoid of all cloud. The temperature readings for next week were all through the roof. 500 degrees. The sound on the TV had gone, cut out into static that was high-pitched with screaming. I jumped up to adjust the antenna. But the screaming didn’t stop. And anyway, it had switched to a commercial. Soap.
So, two months earlier, she’d been staying with her mother and I’d gotten drunk at a bar around the corner and brought a woman home with me and slept with her. I don’t even remember her face. She was blonde, I think. I remember the tight grip of her thighs around my waist, the way I felt empty after I’d filled her.
Geneva came home. We always called it home, whether it ever was or not, regardless of whether or not it felt like it. She had a bag of salad and a bag of rotisserie chicken from the grocery store. I didn’t know what to do, so I just told her.
I thought she would explode. Throw the chicken at me, the salad, cover me in oil and leaves. It’s what I wanted. But she just stood there. She didn’t even cry. Not there. She did later, in the shower. I could hear her all the way in the other room.
When she came out, pink skin wrapped in a pink towel, she said, “Let’s make it work.” So we moved in.
We were out of food. We’d been living off the pantry dregs we transferred from the old house. Chef Boyardee. Campbell’s condensed soup. Green Giant spinach. Rice-A-Roni. It was strange, to measure your life in cans of Swanson broth. Such a simple calculation to determine the end of all things.
I walked to the store in nothing but shorts and a tank top. The radial thermometer nailed to the wall beside the front door read a hundred and eight. Geneva put her hand on my shoulder. Her hand radiated.
“Are you sure it’s safe?”
“It’ll be fine,” I said. “Any requests?”
She shook her head. She smiled at me. I went.
It felt like touching fire.
The grocery store was an eruption. Panic. Women screamed. Children bawled. Men shoved and tackled. You know: wailing and gnashing of teeth. The canned goods were overrun. Bottled water. Pasta. Dried noodles. But I was sick of all that. I wanted something real. I wandered over to the fruit.
Before all of this (whatever it was) had started, plums had gone into season. Now, they were heaped up in massive overripe pyramids—monuments to waste. Fruit flies hovered over them in clouds. Sticky juice leaked onto the floor. Nobody wanted them. They were perishable. Weak. Useless.
They were pennies a pound. A simple calculation. Food for days. I began to fill the basket. Stopped. Went to the front of the store to get another.
Geneva began weeping when she saw me. I let the plastic bags fall. Plums rolled out across the kitchen floor.
“What’s wrong,” I asked. This time, I wanted to know.
She pointed. At me.
I looked down. My exposed arms and legs were erupting in boils. Real horror. She came over, gingerly lifted my shirt over my head, unbuttoned my pants. Something green and thick was leaking from the ends of the boils, which came to sickening purple and white heads.
That night, Geneva bathed me with a sponge. We put gauze and tape over the boils. Not because we thought this might help them heal, or because it eased the throbbing, but because I couldn’t bear to look at them. The sight of them, the thought of them, the feel of one of them scraping against the denim of my shirt or the khaki of my pants, it made me weep.
As she wiped them clean and bandaged them, she gave each one a little kiss overtop of the clean gauze.
“No,” I said to her. “It could be infectious.”
She smiled at me, stroked my head and hair. “Shoosh, you.”
And then came the fire in the sky. A warm red spreading from the west. Sunset in reverse. Sunrise. But slower. And darker. As if, as the ambers and bloods of the sky-fire spread, they blotted out light rather than creating it.
Everyone seemed to know. This was it. The news stopped reporting on anything else. The weathermen still promised 500 degrees, but it hadn’t come yet. They weren’t sure when it would. The instruments didn’t lie. The calculations were correct. It was only a matter of time.
Our street was almost deserted. Geneva and I watched as they packed their cars and poured out into the streets. As if they could outrun it. As if there was some escape. As if it could be 500 degrees in Atlanta and 70 in Sri Lanka. As if they could dive down deep into the sea to cool off. Just sit there curled up in a ball beneath the silt. And maybe you could. But what was the point? How would you ever hold your breath?
We eat plums. They drip juice deliciously down our chins. They taste like roses. Like the mucus that lines a lover’s tongue. Like the sweat that you lick off of skin. They hang from a hook in the pantry, one laden plastic bag that is beginning to split at the bottom from the strain. We kiss their skin, devour their sourness, kiss them into our throats. We leave the pits in a pile for the flies. It keeps them off my boils. Keeps them from biting at the dried blood on my bandages. Keeps them from feasting on my flesh.
We were sitting side by side on the couch. We were holding each other. Outside, there was a sound as if the earth may have been boiling. But we didn’t know. It could have been anything. We kept the curtains closed.
“What do you think will happen?” she said. It was the first thing either of us had said in hours. Maybe days.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t care.”
It was true. But she took it the wrong way.
“What the fuck, Elliott? What are you, stone? Look outside.” She began to cry. She was waving her arms like a child having a tantrum.
I took her by the wrists. “No,” I said. “That’s not what I meant.”
I kissed her full on the mouth. And then she was kissing me.
We used our tongues.
It’s funny. As I kissed her, I felt my stomach leap. My spine tingled. It was a feeling I hadn’t had since I was a teenager standing in suspense after ringing a doorbell, holding my breath while I waited for my date, Janice Laurasia, to come to the door. I could taste Geneva’s tears. It seemed like her mouth was full of them.
I had forgotten her smell. When we first began dating, I had saved it for a week in a t-shirt she’d left at my apartment. I would hold it against my face so I could fall asleep with her there, even when she wasn’t. But had you asked me the day before, “What does Geneva smell like?” I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Kissing her then, I got the smell back. It put goose pimples on my arms, raised the considerable amount of hair on the back of my neck.
I felt trapped. And I know that’s nothing new. It’s what everyone always says, as if that makes the fucking up okay, somehow. But I was. That’s what it was. Every day, having you there every day, cooking, cleaning, sleeping. I wanted to run and run and run. Space. Change. Time. All of the old sitcom breakup clichés, but somehow all true.
And now? Now? Now that there is nowhere to run. Now that I am literally trapped. Now that space and time are being burned to a cinder. What do I want? What do I feel. Somehow, unaccountably, I love it.
“Is it worth it?” This is what she said to me as I hung a piece of flypaper I found in the closet across one of the windows in the living room. I thought for a moment about asking her to clarify, but I knew what she meant. All of it. Everything.
How could I tell her? I didn’t know how. So I just said, “Yes.”
Outside, every tree had begun to bloom. But the blooms were not flowers so much as faces. But lifeless. All immobile eyeballs and bulging veins. We watched them pluck starving birds from the sky. The sky-fire, still spreading like a bruise, had begun to sprout tentacles. Long scaly lengths of red, yellow, green, and blue. They had feathers.
She was in the kitchen baking some of the plums into some kind of tart.
The house had become my project. Our last line of defense. Or was it? Sometimes I couldn’t decide if it was protecting us or somehow slowly eating us alive.
“Geneva,” I said, as we sat eating the tart, “I love you.” It was delicious.
She smiled. So sadly. “I know.”
No, I thought. You don’t. And then, because, why not, I went ahead and said it again.
We are lying in bed. We’ve just made love for the first time since before. She is running her finger up and down my arm gingerly. When she brushes against one of my boils, it quivers with pleasure. If it weren’t for that, it would feel like nothing had changed. Or, better, like everything had.
It feels like we are alone. I’ve nailed a heavy board over the writing on the wall. The paper seems to be taking care of the flies. I can hear her breath.
I feed her a plum. I clean the juice off of her mouth with my lips and my tongue. She giggles. She pulls me tight against her.
“Do you remember when you took me to the beach?” she says.
“I do,” I say. “Of course I do.”
We had been seeing each other for a few months. I had knocked on her door one night, told her to grab her bathing suit and a change of clothes. She’d followed me, and I’d driven her all the way south to the coast, six hours. We reached the water just as the sun began to rise. The gulls sang to us. We made love in the sand.
And I can see it. The blue sky. That deep blue of dawn. The sunrise playing across the water, glimmering in her eyes. Looking into them, and hearing her laugh when I try to pull her into the water, or when I try to splash her. We stopped at a small produce stand for food. I want to say that we ate plums, that I’d fed them to her as the sun came up and bathed us in light. But I don’t remember.
We fall asleep in each others’ arms.
Geneva is sleeping now. Her breath is the only music left on Earth.
In the living room, the flypaper I hung twelve hours ago is black and wriggling. The black writing of the madman has bled through two two-by-fours. If I close my eyes and grit my teeth, I can hear the boils on my body whispering.
The call is coming from inside the house.
In a few hours, once I have packed the suitcase with our bathing suits, once I have gathered the last of the plums, I will wake Geneva with a kiss. The sun has not yet risen, but the sun is an afterthought now. The fire is all.
We will go south. We will make for the water. As fast as we can. We will make love. Not just have sex, although we will do that too. Love. We will actually make it. We will see the water. We will eat plums. We will throw the pits into the abyss.
In a moment I will lean over and kiss her. She will taste like being born.
All rights reserved to Matt Sailor.
Illustrations by Meghan Murphy.