The End’s Not Near, It’s Here

The End’s Not Near, It’s Here




For Charlotte

“I have been to Abilene
The spirit world rising
I have seen in Abilene
The Devil has Texas.”

—Daniel Johnston

Tenderfoot

I call my boyfriend, Doug, a tenderfoot because he’s all white-collar, despite being a Mississippian born and bred. Years spent roaming concrete jungles, first as a journalist and then as a lawyer, has gradually chipped away at his country upbringing, souring him to soil. By the time I got to him, he had forgotten how to labor manually in the world.

I don’t know if it was moving to Texas or becoming a homeowner that eventually reignited Doug’s blue collar/laborer spirit. Probably a little both. In Texas, you must be prepared for every malevolence Mother Nature throws at you. Wildfires, cedar trees, all the venomous snakes that you can shake a stick at. Even our pretty flowers like bull nettles can kill you or maim you for life.

Also, of course, are the thunderstorms and hurricanes. Sure, our large patch of semi-desert hell on earth is dry most of the year. But when it’s not, it’s not.

Two years ago, when Hurricane Harvey hit, our backyard flooded and drowned a pregnant cat queening under our porch. With a neighbor’s help, Doug dug a hole beneath the wooden planks to retrieve the body. “Don’t come outside,” he warned me.

Shortly after, Doug came around to playing farmer. Growing peppers, specifically. I will never understand what makes men want to eat something that burns their mouths on the way in and lights up their rear ends on the way out, but Doug loves them and grew quite a selection in the old bookshelves that we had laid flat and repurposed as vegetable gardens: Anaheim, bell, Jalapeno, Serrano, Poblano. As late as early February, we still had some blooming at the stem, eager for longer daylight hours and a chance to be reborn.

Then, a week before President’s Day, winter storm warnings began flooding the airwaves. We didn’t really pay attention. Doug’s snarky comment, “There’s an eighty-percent chance of snow Sunday night, which means we’re getting nothing,” was met with my laughter. We took great joy reveling in the weatherman’s occupational ineptitude.

Oh, hindsight.

Proof

“Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it.”

I think of this Watership Down quote as I corral the feral cats that live in my backyard into my house for the night. Our other backyard resident, a teenage raccoon we’ve named Skinny Pete, follows closely behind them. I slide the door shut before Skinny Pete has a chance to step inside. Dejected, he paws at the door, his fluffy, banded face pressing into the glass. Light from the kitchen reflects the desperation in his eyes. He knows, he knows. My heart cracks. “What if..?” I begin.

“No,” Doug says curtly behind me. He may have embraced his inner pioneer, but potentially rabid, wild animals, he drew a line at.

Sickness & Darkness

I wake on the morning of President’s Day with an achy throat, swollen limbs, my nose clogged as if an invisible Kleenex has been stuffed into its cavities.

I lean over and turn on the lamp. Only, nothing happens. I make a mental note to replace the bulb, then attempt to flick on another light. Still, nothing.

Then it hits me, and I groan.

“What is it?” Doug asks groggily from the bed.

“The electricity is out.” I pause, and add, “Also, I think I have COVID.”

Tenderfoot No More

On a vacation to Wyoming last fall, Doug decided to push his winter-driving skills to the limits. He rented a four-wheel drive—a big bulky number that only Bubba-types drove back home—and headed off to elevated grounds. It was dodgy at first, but he got the hang of it.

On President’s Day, my former tenderfoot’s new winter driving skills becomes a life saver when we realize our power would stay out for a while. Earlier, Austin Energy had tweeted, “Per ERCOT, controlled outages will likely last through tonight + into Tuesday as ERCOT works to restore the electric system to normal operations.” Translation: “Y’all are shit out of luck.”

So, Doug and I decide to head out into the wild, blue yonder and bag some supplies for the rough days ahead—even if scoring said goods would be a crap shoot. We have no way of knowing if anything was open. By this point, our cell service is shoddy, the network overloaded because everyone else’s internet is down; half of Austin is using cell data too. The only option is to drive by and see.

The Unfamiliar Familiar

My first impression of our winter-stormed city: it’s still Austin and yet it isn’t.

Gone is the clear, blue sky and yellow sun; gone are the sun-soaked buildings framed by dried landscapes and backdropped in pigments of a perpetual summer.

Instead, muddy, gray clouds smear the sky. Snow and ice pack the sidewalks. Snow caps the tops of cactuses and twentieth-century plants, ice coat their prickled skins and long, while sharp icicles line the trim of snow-coated rooftops and corners of street signs.

The roads are mostly empty, chafed in places by the odd tire tracks stenciling mud into the snow, and Doug finds driving easy. “Everything is easy, after Wyoming,” he says.

We drive past pedestrians in wool caps and heavy coats lingering at street corners below downed traffic lights, and parking lots dotted with parents helping their children ball up snow, our eyes searching for lit Open signs that do not exist. Everywhere is closed—the gas stations, the dollar stores, the grocery stores.

We are about to give up when I remember the Target on Frontage Road, north of Brodie Lane. One of my favorite Sunday Funday hangouts under normal circumstances. I don’t know if it’s open, but some internal, white woman instinct told me that it is.

A Map of the World

Honestly, I don’t know which is scarier—living without heat in freezing temperatures, or sending a man into Target by himself. In ideal circumstances, I wouldn’t have to choose either. But today is not ideal, and I have no choice. I have COVID. I can’t go inside. Doug will have to shop solo.

Doug isn’t thrilled about being the designated shopper either. I mean, we’re talking about a man who hasn’t been inside a brick and mortar store in seven years, thanks to a girlfriend who loves him and the miracle of Instacart. I help ease his anxiety by drawing a map on a napkin, listing what we need and where he can find it. Batteries, Aisle Nine. Flashlights, Aisle Thirty-Two. Candles and lighters, Aisle Twenty-Three. And so on.

Doug stumbles out of the car and into the parking lot like an unseasoned soldier storming the beaches of Normandy. But to his credit, he comes back an hour later with everything but the milk. “They aren’t selling produce,” he says. “They’ve taped the fridge and freezer doors shut.” He says inside is spooky, Armageddon-like. He describes the eerily half-stocked aisles with dimmed lighting (electricity had gone out there too; they were using generators). Only self-checkout counters are open, and the line to check out went down the shampoo aisle. In the bottled water aisle, which had been picked over by early shoppers, a woman had been crying.

We’re about to leave the parking lot when an SUV squeals by us and hydroplanes into the curb. Another car cannonballs into its side, ice flying, smoke puffing miserably from the exhaust pipes. The two drivers hop out unharmed, and Doug waits until he knows they’ve worked it out before pulling out onto Frontage Road. “Thank you, Wyoming, thank you,” he keeps repeating, over and over until we are almost home.

At the corner of our street, we notice our neighbor in her front yard, standing beside a tent where she sells plants. She’s wearing old sweatpants and wool boots shoes and is cradling a small, dead houseplant, its brown, wilted vines dancing in the wind. Doug puts his mask on and stops to see if she needs help. She says no but thank you, she’s just sad and surveying her losses. She’s lost $30,000 worth of plants. The blackout knocked out her greenhouse and took the plants with it. Her boyfriend, Neil—our neighborhood handyman and a good friend of Doug’s—walks outside and gives Doug a terracotta pot for turning into a small heater, like we had seen on social media. Neil tells us to keep it as long as we need it. He looks down at the dead plant in his girlfriend’s hands and adds, “We can do without it for a while.”

Neil and his girlfriend’s plight sobers our mood, and we stay silent rolling into our driveway. We park, grab our spoils and carefully head inside, sidestepping chunks of ice. Although it’s only six o'clock, it’s already dark, and the darkness, made thicker by the cold, blurs every detail with its ragged veils.

Once inside, a kind of manic urgency takes over us. The Weather Channel said it would be ten degrees tonight, and this time, Doug and I believe them.

When the Long Night Falls


I create a tiny heater out of the terracotta pot and twelve tea candles. Doug collects blankets around the house and lays them on the couches in the living room—the most central room in the house and our designated bedroom until the heat comes back on. We push the couches close together. Doug cooks soup using a hand lighter to light our gas stove while I read my slow-loading Twitter feed on my phone: rolling blackouts that weren’t rolling, seconds and minutes away from a months-long blackout, ERCOT unable to turn on electricity at this time. Republicans predictably blaming green energy. Liberals predictably blaming Republicans. Outrage over affluent neighborhoods bearing the smallest outage burden. Austin Energy asking its residents with electricity to use it sparingly (Echoing my thoughts, one person responded, “People with electricity aren’t reading this shit. They’re sitting in a warm house watching Bridgerton on Netflix.”)

After dinner, I make chamomile tea with honey for my COVID throat. On the way back from the kitchen, I focus my flashlight on the back porch, where Skinny Pete is notably absent. It was concerning; this was usually the hour he begged for scraps.

“He’s a wild animal, he’s used to the cold,” Doug reminds me.

“Not this kind of cold,” I mutter.

We snuggle into our ten layers of blankets and twenty layers of cats. I’m drifting into sleep, dreaming about microwaved popcorn, when Doug brings up an excellent point, “At least London and Kaya aren’t with us.”

Usually not having my kids is a bad thing, but this time, I couldn’t agree more. The kids are spending the week at their dad’s house in West Lake—a rich suburb in northwest Austin. Their electricity is on, as is the case with most affluent areas in Texas (per Twitter). Social justice warriors are having a field day about it—as was I—but the mom in me couldn’t help but feel grateful my kids were safe and warm.

Exhausted from the war going on with my white blood cells, I go to sleep immediately, and stay sleeping until early dawn.

Spirit World Rising

I wake slowly. From the window, I see a slit of sun appearing in the east, staining the dark sky pink and speckling the wisps of cloud with stolen gold.

A cat cries above me. Charlotte, our senior tabby, our Lady Lazarus. Eighteen-years-old this month, and won’t make it to nineteen, if her current condition is an indicator. She’s already scared us multiple times. The vet wanted to put her down last month, but we declined. “She’s eating and drinking,” I had argued. And she still appears to enjoy life—at least, as much as a cat enjoys anything.

Charlotte had been curled on top of me all night—the brittle bones of her, the paper thin skin and unkept fur sticking to the spiked arches of her spine, her snarled paws with the perpetually detracted claws striving to find a hold on top of my blue nylon jacket, with its slick surface thwarting her at every turn. Her purr is not so much a purr but an elongated sigh, and emitting from the rest of her are the strangest sounds, like the whistle of air slowly being sucked out from a balloon, or the creak from an old house under the slightest breeze, or the receding motor of a wind-up toy winding down, winding down, winding all the way down. Her eyes are saucers, her pupils are dark mini-planets within green-gold galaxies. She looks tired. And hungry. “Is it snack time, Charlotte?” I try to move, but everything hurts. Overnight, a burning, wet cold had crawled inside me, seeping into my bones.

I stand up shakily and note that towels have been spread out across the couches. “I put the towels over the cats,” Doug explained to me later. “They looked so cold.”

Other States

“I can’t believe what is happening over there. Texas is a mess,” my dad says over the phone. “You wouldn’t be without electricity if you were back in Mississippi.”

My dad is always trying to sell Mississippi to me, even though I hadn’t lived there in twenty-five years and have no plans to return. If a Metro bus ran over me on Congress Avenue and crushed my guts and I died, my dad would probably say at my funeral, “She wouldn’t have had her guts crushed by a bus in Mississippi.”

Overnight, my employer, a state agency, sends an email, “Please do not report to your work site and limit telework activity in order to conserve electricity.”

Waffles

I’m outside in my car, charging my phone. A masked Doug is next door talking to our neighbor whose name we’ve never known. I wonder if Doug is going to pretend like he knows his name, or just come out and ask. We know his wife’s name. Angela. It’s engraved in the tag of their cat’s collar. The cat’s name is Waffles. We call him the Hustler of Fentonridge, because he’s always going around to people’s houses, begging for food, even though from what I can tell, he gets more than enough from home. We can hear him from a mile away too, thanks to his tag clanging against his collar. Oh, here comes Waffles to eat us out us of house and home. Still, we can’t help but love the little freeloader.

The neighbor is standing in his driveway, wearing Ziploc bags on his boots and shoveling ice and snow from his driveway with a steel broom-scooper-thing. I can hear him tell Doug, he’s taking his family to a friend’s house in Walnut Creek for the night. His sons are getting restless. He has two of them. The younger one has special needs and keeps to himself; the older son, I’ve had more interaction with. We buy caramel popcorn at $8 a pop when he knocks on the door, fundraising for his Boy Scout troop. He can often be seen wandering around the neighborhood, calling out for Waffles. The kid—I can’t recall his name—is like a throwback to the 1950’s. He is the type of son that I always imagined I would have if I had a son. All wide-eyed wonder and dirty knees. Not like the son I ended up with—the gamer who locks himself in his bedroom and yells out newly constructed words like “noob” and “hacker” to his equally loud and obnoxious friends on the other side of the screen, this gangly byproduct of the anti-social social media world, equal parts of exaggeration and apathy, whom I nevertheless worship and worry about and love unconditionally.

A Twitter notification pops up on my phone. Austin Energy. “Customers should be prepared to not have power through Tuesday night and possibly longer. The situation overnight could once again get worse depending on generation + energy use + weather.”

I dismiss the alert and scroll through Spotify until I find Band of Horses’ “The End’s Not Near, It’s Here.” Ben Bridwell’s tenor fills the car as I hunch forward with a hacking cough.

Blackout Love in the Time of COVID

I can’t smell, so I have zero warning before I walk into the puddles of cat pee that my stressed-out cats have left around the house like booby traps. Because of the pee, and the snow that we keep tracking into the house, it’s become impossible to keep socks dry for long. I’ve used up almost every pair that we own, and am now down to Kaya’s “shark socks”—named such because they’re illustrated with the faces of sharks, which are open-mouthed and pointing upward, as if to bite off the legs of the person wearing them.

Doug joins me in the candle-lit kitchen. “Wanna make out?” I ask, pointing to the shark socks.

Doug pretends to consider. “Only if you throw in that cat shirt my mom got you for Christmas.”

“Done.”

Doug laughs. “God, I can’t wait until I can do a load of laundry.”

“Can I write that down?” I ask. Doug has, shall we say, a very well-documented commitment issue with laundry.

“No, and if you post something on Facebook, I will murder you and any of your friends who comment on it.” Doug sighs. “Is spaghetti okay?”

It has to be, I think. Food-wise, we’re running out of options.

Before I go to bed, I shine the flashlight onto the back porch. Still no sign of Skinny Pete.

The Long Night Has Ended (Sort of)

Doug wakes me in the middle of the night. “Do you hear that?”

I open my eyes and listen. A continuous roar is coming from the walls. The air conditioner—or heater, rather—has rejoined the living. Probably the best sound that I’ve ever heard.

My hand finds the back of Charlotte’s jagged spine. I fall back to sleep a happy camper, but Doug stays awake for hours, marveling at the sound.

Trade-Off

Wash dishes. Run a load of laundry. Play on the computer. Vacuum. Watch TV. Theoretically, the options are endless.

But Doug and I strive to be good citizens (most of the time, anyway). Austin Energy has asked us to conserve energy, and that’s what we’re doing. All the lights are still off, and we’ve got the thermostat set to 68.

A Twitter notification pops up on my phone. Austin Water. “There are NO plans to disrupt water service. Our plants are operating normally.”

An hour later I’m in London’s room pillaging for fresh socks when Doug walks in and announces, “The water is about to go out.”

“But Twitter just said—”

“They’re talking about it on our neighborhood Facebook page,” Doug interrupts. “They’ve already turned off water for the people two streets above us.”

As if to prove Doug’s point, the drip-drip sound of the faucets that Doug had running to keep them from freezing suddenly stops drip-dripping. Efforts to curtail the impact of not having electricity are quickly redirected to managing loss of water. We gather snow from the backyard and fill up the tub as much as we can.

A neighbor who is a retired Marine posts a picture on Facebook of what looks like the worst Tupperware party ever with the caption, “This has been our toilet tank water collection method: plastic containers and a screen door cloth for filtering large dirt/debris, buckets.” He added in the comments, “The screen works well enough to capture leaves, twigs, and small debris. Fine dirt still gets through, but it's much better than putting larger particles down your plumbing.”

Cruz to Mexico

Our esteemed Senator has abandoned us. Pictures pile up on the internet. A dad-bod Ted Cruz complete with a rolling suitcase standing in line at the airport on the way to Cancun, his wife and kids surrounding him.

Meanwhile, Beto O’Rourke, the man Cruz defeated not by much in the last senatorial election, is hosting live events to get help to the elederly and other vulnerable in the community.

Meanwhile, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a U.S. Representative from New York, is raising money over Twitter for the millions of Texans affected by the outage. By midnight, she had raised over a million dollars.

The Human Cost

Reports of fatalities begin to roll in. An 11-year-old boy from Honduras after a day of playing in the snow. A dialysis patient in San Antonio on his way to treatment. An elderly man in Williamson County. An Abilene man after three days of no heat. Two dozen people in Harris County. All of hypothermia.

Fatalities by other causes include: winter storm-related traffic incidents, carbon monoxide poisonings, house fires.

The Next Day

A post from neighborhood Facebook group: “City Pressure for water is now at 30% and rising, to allow restoration. By the end of the weekend, many homes will have water; although the pressure may not be maximum. Pressure will be restored incrementally.”

By night, the water is back on. A scratchy throated memory-recording of President Ford floats my membranes, My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Fuck that, I think. We’re still in Texas, after all.

You Trade Their Pain For Yours

At two in the morning, I wake up from some unknown spirit and go into the bedroom. Charlotte is on the couch, her eyes wide open, but she’s not moving. I call out her name and her eyes search for me in the darkness. I find her treats and lay down a few at her feet. She takes a bite of one, ignores the others. I lay down beside her. A moment later I hear something thud to the floor. She’s gotten up. I turn on the light. Charlotte is moving from the living room and into the hallway, which can only mean one thing. I scramble into the bathroom and grab the toilet paper.

Then I hear the cry—no, not a cry. A piercing wail.

I walk into the hallway. Charlotte has crumbled to the ground. Hard excrement dangles from under her tail, but Charlotte no longer had the muscle strength to push it out completely, or to stand and move away from it. She is paralyzed.

Her eyes ask a silent request, and I understand. Last month I had asked my Facebook friends when they knew it was time to put their cat down. One reply had stuck out to me: “You just know. You look into their eyes and you know, and you trade their pain for yours.”

You trade their pain for yours.

I gently pick her up and carry her into the bathroom, discarding her excrement into the toilet. I wrap her up in a towel. She stares at me, unblinking. Those crocodile eyes. Those eyes that stared out from a cage at a pet store and from the car window from Mississippi to Texas and from my kids’ cribs and from my lap for eighteen years. Eyes that took in every little nothing was now lost and saw nothing in everything and God, how am I going to live without her?

I wake up Doug.

“It’s time.”

The emergency clinic is ten minutes away. This is the last time she leaves the front door, I think. This is the last car ride. This is the last—

We don’t dilly dally. In the car, I cradle her in the towel and sing her a Dolly Parton song, one my mom had sung to me as a kid and her eyes are so clear, so untroubled. “You will have my lap, always, always,” I whisper.

Doug takes Charlotte inside and the vet technicians usher him into the exam room. The vet comes in shortly after and gives her two injections. One to put her to sleep. One to put her to sleep forever.

Doug stumbles out of the parking lot with a receipt and a towel, now empty. He wanders off into the street and wails. I hunch over low in the seat and let the earthquakes of grief consume me. After awhile, Doug slides back into the car and reverses into the street. Behind us, the lights of the vet clinic showcase our grief. Ahead is the dark, broken world.

---

We’re driving to West Lake now, because I need to tell my kids in person. It’s seven a.m. They should be waking any minute for school. I keep calling. No one is picking up. Doug asks if I am hungry and although I am not hungry (I have never been less hungry in my life, in fact), I say sure. Because I need to see my kids and I don’t want to go back home because Charlotte is not there. I think of all the cleaning I will have to do in a house without her. After five days of no heat or water. The slimy wood floors and dishes piled up in the sink. The blankets covered in cat hair and COVID. And no Charlotte.

Doug turns into the HEB parking lot. A warm yellow sun begins to rise from above the buildings. Birds are chirping from the nearby Mexican Buckeyes. The parking lot is slick but clear of snow. The weather app says it will get up to 78 degrees today. Doug walks into HEB and comes back sometime later with tea and crackers. We eat slowly while I keep trying to call my kids. London, then Kaya, London, then Kaya until the tea is drunk and the crackers are gone and the hum from the air conditioner like a cat’s purr carries us into sleepless dreams and the earth warms around us.

—E.P., February 2021


Powered by Blogger.
×

Latest Posts