The sun was setting on a forest of low scrub, gray and bare, eking out a living on a soil of dun-colored sand. It was cold, near to freezing, and looked colder, because the November winds had already blown what few leaves had fallen into sparse piles deep in the forest, leaving most of the open spaces barren.
A man walked along the path through the forest. He was in his 30s, moderately tall, nearly six feet perhaps, but he walked with a shamble of weariness and disappointment that took an inch or so off the total. And he was gaunt, nearly to match the malnourished woods through which he walked. His bare head revealed a shoulder-length expanse of brown hair, ropy and unkempt, and a similarly tatty beard reaching to the base of his neck, all framing a grimy tan hatchet face with a slit for a mouth, a beaked nose, and two hazel burnholes for eyes. His right cheek was deeply scratched, and bleeding. His clothes – red flannel shirt, blue dungarees, brown hiking boots – hung loosely on the skinny frame. They were tattered, stained, and reeked faintly of wool wet with pond water, wood smoke, and body odor; the man was grateful for the cold wind even as it chilled him to shivering. In his left hand, he carried a bucket and a fishing pole. On his right side was pinned a piece of what looked like a thin sliver of aluminum house siding.
After a few minutes, he turned left off the path into a small clearing, in which sat a dilapidated white-sided mobile home. Missing slats along the short wall nearest the path were similar in their size to the sliver that he carried. Smoke arose from a metal cylinder, about two feet high, just in front of the main door, perched midway along one of the long sides of the house, with two rough, decaying wooden steps to the equally rough ground before.
The man walked, almost reluctantly, up those two steps, and rapped on the door: two short raps, a pause, then three more raps. A woman’s voice from the other side called “Speak!” He answered, “Friend”. There followed the rattling of chains being disentangled, and then the door swung open a crack. An older man looked through the crack, saw who was there, and then swung the door open with a shout of “It’s about time!”
The older man was gray-haired, about 60 years of age; behind him was a 30-something woman and a girl of about eight; tokens on the interior wall behind her suggested that she had once had sisters and brothers. Both the women had mousy brown hair below the shoulders, ropy like the man’s. All wore similar clothes, in style, repair, and aroma, to the man, and all were similarly gaunt and haggard-looking. The woman grabbed at the bucket, looked in it, and then at the man in anger and horror.
“Is that all?!?”
The bucket contained a single 12″ yellow perch.
“Daddy!“, screamed the 8-year-old. “You’re hurt!!”
“A scratch”, replied the man. He lifted the aluminum siding slat. It was maybe a foot and a half long. It had a wooden crosspiece nailed to the base. Its tip had been filed to a point, and its edges sharpened. The point and edges were black with dried blood. “The two yahoos who jumped me, trying to get at that fish, were not so lucky.”
“You didn’t kill them?” demanded the woman.
“Didn’t do enough damage. They ran off.”
“Incompetent fool!” the woman snarled. “We could have eaten them!” She started to shove him out of the doorway, so she could take the bucket with the fish in it to the fire and start cooking it – but then she froze. As they all did.
Out from under the interior wall of the home, directly opposite the door, a single palmetto bug crawled, antennae waving anxiously, aware of its peril in the presence of the four humans, but driven to take the risk by the smell of fish, the smell of food.
The girl was closest. She waited, immobile, while the insect crept closer, crept past her, intent on the prize the man had brought home. She waited … waited … then with a sudden, practiced snatch, grabbed the roach with her right hand and, in a single smooth motion, jammed it into her mouth, crunched, and swallowed.
“Great!”, the woman cried out in bitter rage. “One of us gets fed tonight!” She then did leave the house, brusquely, and not entirely accidentally, squashing the man against the door jamb in the process, and then slamming the door behind her. She would take the fish, gut and fillet it, grill the fillets over the wood fire, and return the four meagre portions to her family. She would then take the remainder (skin, bones, guts, head) and boil them. They would all drink the boiled broth in the morning.
The man picked himself up after the drubbing, and stood downcast, looking out at his wife, while she prepared what passed for their meal, through the small, grimy window, with its rotting sill, beside the door. After a moment, his daughter, who had gone into the kitchen and returned with a wet rag, beckoned him to sit in one of the rickety, soiled living room chairs, sat on his right, and began to clean the cuts on his cheek.
“I love you. Mommy does too. Sometimes”, she stifled a sob, “she even remembers.”
The older man – his father – came over, silently, and put his right hand on his son’s left shoulder. A portion of the arm stuck out beyond his sleeve; the skin of that arm was six sizes too large for the arm itself. The son’s mind wandered into the past.
“They called me sick,” the father had said. “Diseased! Back when those things worked!” He had pointed to a pile of boxes and what he had called ‘screens’, stuck in a closet in the home they used to occupy. That was before the drone strikes wiped out the neighborhood, and they had fled to this remote scabland in a desperate attempt to get out of the warzone. In the equally desperate hope that the nearby pond would sustain them, and would only have to sustain them and not the hundreds of equally desperate others that had since shown up.
“You, they said, are part of the obesity epidemic. You, they said, are fat! We’ve got to stop this! What are you going to do about it?
“Buy all of your fancy pills and prescriptions and plans that don’t work, and fatten your damned wallets and egos so you can live as high on the hog as you think you need to, at my expense. Of course. Not! Look, I told them, food is more plentiful and cheaper now than at any other time in the history of the planet! Of course people are going to eat it! Especially if you keep selling it! You sell food, you sell diets, you sell food, you sell diets. Nice racket if you can keep it legal! As if anyone in these Untied States cares about ‘legal’ any more. Unless you’re Mexican or Arabic. Of course.
“Hey idiots, I said, you want to fix the obesity epidemic? I can do it real fast for you. All you need is a good famine. Peeps in Europe were really fashionably skinny after World War II. You think they did that by fancy diets? They did that because none of the farmers could plow their fields without hitting some unexploded bomb and putting themselves beyond all cares! They didn’t eat food because there wasn’t any to eat! ‘What am I doing to stop getting fat?’ What are you doing to make sure we don’t get massive crop failures? Or wars that wipe out swaths of global food production? Or control ocean fishing before we wipe out all the fish?!? Huh? Trust me, brother, you get one of these food calamities going, you’ll be looking at this ‘obesity epidemic’ like a golden age of civilization and we ain’t never had it so good! Amirite?!?”
“You were right”, the son said aloud.
The father patted his son’s shoulder. A thin smell of grilled fish wafted into the decrepit home.