Portland writer Anne Mendel has penned a dark, and darkly hilarious, story about her city in the year 2020, which also happens to be mid-apocalypse. Concerned with all manner of things — including manners — the heroine of the story has a complex world to navigate. And that's all before she starts to solve a murder mystery.
It all raises the question: if the world was coming to an end in minutes, who would you call? Why wait?
Read the first full chapter below, and prepare yourself for the near future in a very different Portland than the one we know and love today.
“Murder,” Bertrand whispers. He leans into me, nods, closes his eyes for just a second. What to say? So, what’s new? Life is murder? Murder most foul? I can’t have Bertrand going off the deep end, rowing with one oar or, worse, both oars on one side of our figurative Noah’s Ark.
“Anyone special?” I ask.
He nods three times. “Oui.” Enthusiastic for Bertrand.
“Bertrand?” Bertrand’s head slumps onto the plush brown velvet sofa in my mother’s living room. The fabric reminds me of the hard crust on crème brûlée.
Silence. We haven’t really been close for a while. Way before 2020, when ash blotted out the sun in most of the world. Even before the earthquake. We weren’t really close before the water wars forced us to leave Miami six years ago. The good news is that all that Pre-Apocalypse guilt I felt about lack of intimacy seems ridiculous in 2023.
Bertrand and I talk only about our daughter Sasha, food, melanoma, that sort of thing. Before I can ascertain his mental health, his walnut-, maybe pecan-colored eyes, lashes thick and black, flash open.
“Women,” he whispers, “are getting their hearts cut out.”
Our thirteen-year-old chooses this moment to return from one of her frequent visits to see Reno, the only other girl in our building who’s anywhere close to Sasha’s age. She slams into the condo, then more or less snarls, “This is the most fucked up end of the world, ever!” A scrawny, squirming animal in the crook of our daughter’s arm claws her backpack strap. It looks too tiny to claw deep into her skin. I hope.
My mother, forever taking in her designer clothes to accommodate her ever-diminishing size, stands in front of the giant, gilt mirror that’s in her ostentatious hallway. You can always count on her for etiquette tips. “Sophia dear, will you remind Sasha we don’t say the F-word in my home.”
My focus is still on the creature in Sash’s arms. It’s a bizarre being, bald save for a tuft of orange hair running from its forehead down its back. Sash bangs her backpack on the floor and kicks the front door shut. After that, she ignores all of us, including our two pit bull puppies, who cock their heads at her as they try to smell the butt of the kittenish thing they assume she’s brought them. The animal makes pathetic petite bleating noises.
For three years we’ve had earthquakes, volcanoes, plagues, looting, violence of every kind, starvation and death, then death again. Sash is a little pissy about it. I’m thinking about saying to my daughter that we have not lived through any other end of the world, so we actually don’t know if this is the “most fucked up.” Dialogue is currently not my daughter’s preferred mode of communication, so I keep this observation to myself.
Bertrand flickers back to snooze. I will choose to believe his statement was just a metaphorical murder moment. These days, silence seems the best response to most of my family most of the time. I move over to my mom’s intricately carved, purple elm breakfront bar to check the drug inventory for tomorrow. The bar cabinet divides the kitchen from the great room that my mother created years ago by taking down all the inner walls at the front of her condo. My daughter looks at me, impassive.
On my way, I walk directly behind Lulu. My mother’s fingers are touching her neck, I think maybe to check her pulse, make sure she’s still alive. It’s a tic that maybe signals that, at the moment, her wheel is spinning but the hamster’s dead. Not dead really — comatose. If Sasha heard Lulu, I imagine it made my daughter go eyes-to-sky with disdain.
“How was school?” I hear myself asking but not really expecting an answer.
“Are you speaking of my inane one-room schoolhouse?” She stomps past me into the kitchen on her tire-tread sandals. Sash’s large Oreo-dark eyes scan the room and then along the eleventh-floor windows that overlook the West Hills and the starlit multimillion-dollar houses (now worth zero) that dot them. Scratching her inch-long black curly hair, her eyes land on the roadkill jerky that’s laid out on the kitchen island. Her fabulous white teeth and full lips wordlessly shape, Shit. I want to tell her that roadkill jerky is a big step up from watery termite soup.
For at least a year before Sasha’s older brother Max died, Bertrand and I secretly referred to her as our own little Heart of Darkness. This could refer to her skin, of course, which is the exact creamy color of the inside of a Snickers bar. My chocolate-covered-raisin of a husband isn’t a fan of my describing skin color in food terms, but skin is just one of a million things that propels me into what my family has come to call FoodWorld:
yellow rain slicker = lemon curd tart
squirming worms = black licorice whips
the chicken on our roof = baked, fried or barbecued
Alas, darkness in this case refers to Sasha’s emerging personality. Adolescence and Apocalypse form an unfortunate convergence.
Sash heads back to the hall, plops down on the rug and nuzzles her pathetic, mange-ridden kitten. “About the cat…” I start, trying hard not to mention eating or skinning it. I hope it will be dead by morning so we don’t have to have a showdown. Sash just leaves her face buried in what’s left of the kitten’s non-fur. “My little Anna Caterina,” she murmurs. Naturally she would name a pet Anna Caterina. She’s a born scholar, sadly in a world with no use for scholars. Me, on the other hand, I’m very useful in this world: I’m a drug dealer, thanks to my brother Mitchell’s genius. I sell our very own Mitchell Laboratories drugs — antibiotics and mild painkillers, which we have brand named Mitches. They’re more than aspirin, less than Vicodin. My daughter isn’t much interested in pharmaceuticals, taking or selling. She’s talked about training for a number of growth careers: blacksmith, beekeeper, undertaker. (The person who finds a male and female ox will be the next Bill Gates.)
Trying as always to engage my progeny, I say, “You can always quit school and go into business with me.”
“Sophia,” Lulu says, “Sasha isn’t going into business with you. She’s going to Harvard.”
I could try and explain that Harvard, like most of the rest of the world, is as anachronistic as the dinosaur — both frozen to death by sun blot. But Lulu speaks in a language others no longer speak.
Lulu has finished pinning her skirt, but still stands at the mirror. She slides her arthritic hand over her hipbone, down her seventy-year-old thigh. “Sophia, did you know that Nancy Reagan wore a red Chanel suit just like this at Ronnie’s inauguration?” She has her other hand at her neck, three fingers firmly placed on the pulse point.
My mother and that first lady would have been identical twins, if Nancy Reagan had had a large, slightly crooked Jewish nose and wore a blond pixie wig. On the other hand, I look exactly like Michelle Obama, if she were white, had short-short medium-brown hair, was 5’4”, and had bland features that could be used as statistical averages. (Inch-long hair isn’t just a fashion statement. Long hair = lice threat.)
Lulu beams at her first-lady image, leans over and shimmies to force her pancake-floppy breasts into her Victoria’s Secret push-up bra. She insists it’s the best-engineered bra ever made. My yuck factor is tempered every time I remember that this life isn’t easy on Lulu either. Lulu’s vision for her twilight years was traveling to exotic places — not living with her children and grandchildren in this relative Garden of Eden, which just happens to be in Hell.
With nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, Sasha rolls over to her mat next to the hall mirror.
It’s Lulu’s old exercise mat. (A used mattress would surely be under bed-bug assault.)
“Sasha sweetie,” Lulu says, “those jeans are filthy and as big on you as this skirt is on me. I certainly hope that isn’t the style now. You need some Calvin Kleins to show off that gorgeous little figure of yours.” Same world, different universe.
Having or not having a “gorgeous little figure” is not yet in Sasha’s inventory of things to hate about herself. Pre-Apocalypse, Sasha’s self-hatred focused on not being black enough, not being white enough. Because we’ve recently moved from near starvation to desperately hungry, she’s put on just enough weight to sprout breasts. But, thankfully, my mother can’t whisk Sash off to Nordstrom and have her fitted for a padded training bra. (I myself dealt with this in therapy years ago.)
“Mom,” I say. Lulu gives me that blank, who-are-you-speaking-to look. “Lulu,” I amend, “I’m going to finish preparing food for tomorrow.”
In a voice most people reserve for Shakespearian tragedy, she says, “Sophia, I need, need, need a tailor.” Twisting in front of the mirror, she says, “But, I have lost thirty pounds.” She gives herself a wink. Her sallow skin is the color of Baskin-Robbins’ butter crunch ice cream, blushed cherries on her sunken cheeks. “Clothes fitting properly are so very important. I’ve told you since you were Sasha’s age to pay attention to your presentation. But look at you, you look like one of those women who push a grocery cart full of garbage.”
I no longer let her disappointment that I will never, ever win Best In Show get to me.
After all, now there are much more important things to irritate me. And tonight, I should be thankful that Lulu, Bertrand, and Sasha have made it through one more day and we are safe for now. Night is reserved for bandits, rats, and crazed coyotes now called wolfotyes. Even though looting, rape, and murder are downtrending, I have to remind myself every night at this time to stop holding my breath. Bertrand works where he worked before 2020, nine blocks away at Good Samaritan Hospital. During the day, within a half-mile radius of our apartment, everyone knows each other, watches out for each other. We’re the “take chocolate chip cookies to the neighbors because they’re the folks you’re going to need” people. We’ve become a neighborhood watch, banding together to protect each other from everything — Anomie to Zombies. But, if he can’t get home before dark — and he usually can’t — Bertrand is escorted home by the Angel Avengers, the local vigilantes who maintain some semblance of order. I assume that in exchange, Bertrand doctors them from time to time.
I move from the kitchen back to a stool at the bar to work on turnip bean dip. When we have food, it’s mostly seasonless vegetables that make for cigarette-sized dumps that we turn into fertilizer. No matter what anyone tells you makes life worth living — God or marriage, children or work you love — it’s really butter, salt, and sugar. Anyway.
I try not to think about the hope that everyone felt just a few years ago. We were so close to perfecting the solar chip that would jettison fossil fuel forever. And then there was the rather timid (5.5 on the Richter scale) earthquake. The faults that run on both sides of the Willamette River shifted. Of the ten bridges that connect east and west Portland, the Steel Bridge was the only one still standing. We assume it’s because, well, it’s steel. The concrete bridges, long overdue for infrastructure updates, collapsed, leaving millions of tons of debris in the now mostly unnavigable Willamette River. Building bridges around fault lines was a bad idea. We thought it would be months before things got back to normal. And then, the caldera blew.
At the time of the earthquake, Bertrand, Sasha, my now-dead son Maxim (our Max), and I were at a dinner my parents gave in honor of my brother Mitchell’s once-a-year visit. Before 2020, I thought getting trapped at one family dinner would have been sufficient to make me chew my leg off. We had no idea we would be marooned for good on Lulu Island. Even if going back to our house after the earthquake had been an option, we would never have left my parents in the ensuing chaos, and they would never have come with us. My brother Mitchell gave up the guest room and moved into the empty condo downstairs, till he could fly back to Boston. Dad died that first year of a heart attack while walking up the ten flights of stairs to the penthouse. Everyone who had preexisting conditions died early on; Dad had already had a triple bypass. Max died in last year’s cholera epidemic. Two out of billions dead.
Lulu stands in the foyer using stuffing from an eviscerated teddy bear to push up her push-up bra that promised magical cleavage.
Sasha, with her little book light (which she solar charges every day), prefers Tolstoy’s drama to ours.
Bertrand is dozing on the couch after doing his seventeen-hour-a-day doctor thing. Before 2020, after 2020, it makes no difference.
I think about the rumored sea salt coming in from the Oregon coast. I do not allow myself to think about our house in the last world with the screened-in front porch; our calico cat named Cow; my mint green, natural-gas Prius (fracking for natural gas was another really bad idea but I didn’t connect the dots); my best friend, Clu, who was just three doors down; or my easy going, playful son Max. Never Max. Old normal has flown away like the dodo.
I am devoted to creating new normal.