Scott D. Pomfret is author of three recent novels (The Second Half: A Gay American Football Story; The Hunger Man; and Only Say the Word) and a collection of short stories You Are the One. Past published works include Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir, the Romentics-brand gay romance novels, the Q Guide to Wine and Cocktails, and dozens of short stories published in, among other venues, Post Road, New Orleans Review, Fiction International, and Fourteen Hills. Scott is lucky to be able to write from his tiny Boston apartment and even tinier Provincetown beach shack, which he shares with his partner of fifteen years, Scott Whittier. He is currently at work on a Know-Nothing Novel, a sequel to The Hunger Man set in antebellum New Orleans.
When Customs Were Different
by Scott D. Pomfret
In hope the air up high might prove more pure, some climbed eighty-seven stories. They shattered the windows with office chairs to let in the fresh winds, and great guillotines of glass rained down on the walks below and took their share of unlucky victims.
Anderson’s family took refuge in a modest, dilapidated dwelling that suffered only mild damage in the unrest. They were not alone in the building. From its windows streamed filth, piss, offal, occasional household scraps, and a corpse or two. The corpse might remain upright against the wall until either the dogs tore it apart, or, after first searching the pockets and hems for valuables sewn up inside, some neighbor had the decency to lug it closer to the curb, where the corpse collectors would be more likely to add it to their load.
To date, Anderson had largely protected his wife and child: no rapes, no beatings, no starvation, and, above all, no trace of infection. He rarely raised his voice, and had only had to murder two men in front of them. He kept no photos of the time before the plague. He developed a system for gathering food and making it last, and he stuck to it religiously, convincing himself that if only he kept doing things the same way, over and over, the outcome too would be the same. The family washed whenever water became available. His wife and daughter rarely if ever ventured into the street, and Anderson and his brother joined the others who ejected from the building anyone who became infected, no matter how hard the victim tried to conceal his symptoms.
Nevertheless, the streets around his building became picked clean. Anderson counted again the family’s existing supplies and translated them into short days. The supplies weighed heavier on his conscience as there was less of them, as if the diminishment of their volume contributed to a corresponding gain in mass.
When the time came to forage well beyond the blocks that surrounded their one room, and perhaps even to seek out those rumored paradises where plague had not set its mark, Anderson’s brother demurred. He believed the close world would yield if they were patient with it. Perhaps they would be rescued.
“Rescue isn’t in the cards,” Anderson argued. “You know that.”
The great institutions that had required collective belief and a small reverence to sustain them had fallen. The plague had unleashed a certain lawlessness. What was left of the central government was toothless. Armed gangs to keep a kind of rough order, and some limited commerce remained, though coins were never taken from the buyer’s hand but always deposited instead into a pot of vinegar on the merchant’s table.
Before he left, Anderson hugged his wife and daughter tight. At the appointed hour, without his brother, Anderson headed into the streets alone. He walked freely. Unmolested. He walked for one day and then another farther than he had been since the plague struck.
He caught no disease. He was crushed by no falling object. He wondered why he had ever worried. Why he had not dared to go further earlier and perhaps thus bring back richer rewards for his wife and child.
These streets in the more distant districts were overrun with crowds: flagellants, hookers, dice players, cantors, pimps, dealers, high rollers, beggars, vendors, paid plagueworkers, body collectors, fishmongers, priests, lunatics, preachers, hobos, hippies, protesters, buskers, ass bandits, junkies, jugglers, street kids, rent boys, thrill seekers, cross dressers, drunks, cutters, goths, fire eaters, sausage cart vendors with suspicious meat, true believers, soldiers, soapbox philosophers, ranting evangelicals, drummer boys, and one guy who doused himself with gasoline but didn’t have the courage to light the flame. Most seemed bewildered to be still alive, yet were flush with freedom. They put aside any qualms, did what the day required to get through it, and consulted their holy men for relief from whatever pangs of conscience hard decisions entailed.
Among the streetwalkers, the origins of the plague were endlessly debated. Some speculated a genetic mutation. Others blamed chemicals for weakening immune systems. Still others recalled a scientist’s long campaign to bring back to earth a space probe to the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko and speculated that the offending organisms rode in on the probe’s coattails (or contrails, as the case may be).
In some places well beyond the pale of Anderson’s neighborhood, people had arranged their affairs in pale imitations of how it had been before the plague. They dressed in fine clothes, ate from matched china, and conducted services for a God who had abandoned them. A certain formality was maintained; one knocked at thresholds that had no door to cover it. One asked permission to speak to the residents clearly visible through the holes blown in plaster and masonry. Anderson’s cautious approach to such places woke a dim suspicion in lowered eyes, but none challenged him, and they answered his questions, each hoping perhaps Anderson would take a room alongside theirs and participate in the older ways, too.
Certain of the streetwalkers openly envied Anderson’s safe passage. Others inquired how much he had paid for his mojo. The infected wanted to slit his throat, drink his blood, and live. Anderson never saw the men who beat him and left him for dead.
Within hours, plague took hold of his brokenness. Three days, Anderson flirted with death. At dawn on the fourth, Anderson woke with tongue swollen, lips scared and flaked, throat made not so much of flesh as hard metal plates scraping against one another without benefit of oil.
Someone small and cramped was watching him — a bald hunched homunculus of uncertain age and sex. The homunculus suffered from a strange palsy and a skin condition that left him pocked in places and elsewhere sprouting tufts of fine white bristles. Its arms and legs were short, but the barrel of its chest was a man’s size.
Anderson hauled himself upright. He stumbled toward the rising sun.
The homunculus followed, as if it were a betting creature curious about the likelihood of Anderson’s continued survival.
When Anderson did survive, the homunculus introduced itself. In a soft feminine tone, it assured Anderson it had neither been involved in Anderson’s attack nor witnessed it. The homunculus represented that it was healthy, and produced a sterling silver letter opener, which did not lie. It was well-known that silver had particular sensitivity to the virus and tarnished in its presence.
Anderson acknowledged the homunculus’s representations in the customary fashion that signaled trust: he touched its shoulder. The homunculus shivered with unabashed pleasure.
“I will go with you,” it said.
“You don’t know where I’m going.”
“That doesn’t matter as long as we’re together. It seems you won’t die.”
“The dead cart’s not taken me yet,” Anderson acknowledged cheerfully, “but it will be back next week.”
Electricity had long since died in these remote regions. While daylight persisted, survivors scurried about with cloth wrapped round nose and mouth. The dying lay in the thresholds begging for miracles. Darkness returned desertion to the streets, which surrendered to predatory elements–thieves, murderers, rapists, and thugs. Great bonfires of bedding and dress lit the nights.
Anderson trudged through the darkness as if he had immunity not only against the plague but against all the forms of violence man could unleash. He and the homunculus made their way back to the squalid warehouse where Anderson’s family had dwelled in just three days and nights.
His wife was gone. His child was gone. Others had taken their places, among them his brother. Anderson suspected his brother had betrayed his wife and child and got a price, but he didn’t air his suspicions.
His brother, a doctor who had largely forgotten his arts when the disease took hold, said he hadn’t slept in days. Anderson understood his terror: Doctors had been the first to die or be killed by those who thought they hadn’t done enough to fight the disease.
After one look at Anderson’s injuries, the doctor promptly amputated his right arm.
“Needlessly,” said the homunculus. It proposed killing Anderson’s brother forthwith with the silver letter opener. “We’ll read his heart.”
“You have no understanding of blood,” cautioned Anderson, flexing his one good fist.
“True, I have understanding only of rogues and cowards.”
But Anderson would be tempted to no vengeance. He believed the experience bound his brother closer to him.
“My wife?” he asked. “My child?”
The doctor pointed out into the darkness and shrugged.
Anderson pleaded for a better lead.
The doctor suggested climbing to the top of the towers, where so many had gone in search of uninfected air.
The homunculus objected immediately.
“No child, no woman alone would survive the towers. They throw people from the highest stories.”
Anderson nevertheless thanked his brother for his service. He extended his one good hand.
Seeing Anderson had suffered the infection, his brother shied away. Those, like him, who never caught the disease were suspected of having created it, but they were also deeply suspicious of contagion. Those who were infected and died were generally supposed to have reaped their just desserts. Those like Anderson who caught it and lived felt in their core like an appointed few, but they were unwelcome to those who hadn’t been touched.
When dawn broke the following morning, Anderson and the homunculus set out.
At the nearest tower, the four faces of which were riddled with jagged edges of broken glass, Anderson consulted with derelict characters clustered at the stairwell’s entrance. They were strange sentries. They appeared to be led by a child of no more than six years of age. The child’s skin was pure except for a mustache smudge above the top lip. The child never spoke aloud but rather whispered in the ear of a lumbering woman with a meaty face drawn by hunger who spoke the child’s wishes aloud.
The child said no woman and child had passed, unless they had been slaughtered for food and brought to the top floors in an insulated cooler. The child warned against further passage, but his other utterances were so obscurely oracular that Anderson decided he could not be trusted, none of them, neither the child, nor the woman who gave him voice, nor the other desperate sentries. Indeed, Anderson was unsure whether the whole lot of them were real or just residue of his fever. The homunculus didn’t express an opinion one way or the other, but allied itself firmly with Anderson. Though it maintained an air of aggrieved nobility that occasionally gave way to whimpering when he slept, the homunculus never complained.
On the forty-third floor, just beneath the one from which unwanted visitors were customarily flung (and they were all unwanted), Anderson found his wife and child. They reported that a mob had set upon his wife as soon as Anderson was gone on his errand. The trauma and grief had driven her mad. She did not recognize him. She kept looking for the missing arm. Anderson pitied his wife for not having more tolerance of ghosts, like the child, who had other adventures to relate that he could not bear to hear, but clearly knew him as most of the pieces of her father.
The homunculus slipped behind Anderson and pushed his arm under Anderson’s stump. Anderson’s wife was delighted with the change. She danced a pirouette beneath the outstretched arm. She gave no notice to its shortness or its crookedness or its pocked hairlessness or the difference in color from its match. She kissed Anderson. She wouldn’t look at their child.
For a toy, Anderson gave the child a knotted rag in the shape of a doll with a bright bottlecap for a hat. The child thanked Anderson with a gravity and formality that seemed to come from an age hundreds of years before theirs, when customs were different and the world full of comforts and shiny things.
Illustration by Mina Ghosh.