Two days later he got his first customer.
She was half gone already, her face a mass of pinkish sores, one of her eyes pure red and swollen nearly out of its socket. She came out of the north, staggering drunkenly between the ranks of stopped cars, moving with the hitched, staccato gait of creeping atrophy.
Hello! he cried, and jumped up, waving frantically, then rushed onto the road and wended his way through the dead cars, toward the woman. He stopped in front of her, panting, smiling broadly, and held out a hand. Welcome to Jimmy's Roadside Cafe. I'm Jimmy.
The woman stopped, swayed, put a hand on the side of a Corolla to steady herself. She was wearing a man's trenchcoat over sweats, sneakers at least two sizes too big for her, a pink floral top. She studied him for a moment, then said: I need help.
Of course, said Jimmy, smiling broadly. Come inside.
It was a grey day, threatening rain. He took her by the arm and led her down into the median and through the cafe's canted doorway to its only booth, the backseats of a Buick and a Lincoln flanking a small table. He bustled away and came back with a Scooby-Doo glass half-filled with brandy, and a donut that clattered like cutlery when he dropped it on the table.
House special, said Jimmy.
She looked at the donut, but made no move toward it.
Don't worry, you'll be able to keep it down, said Jimmy. You just need to have the brandy in you first. He raised the glass to her lips. Trust me.
She made a face, but drank. Tentatively at first, then in long drafts.
Jimmy sat down across from her and snapped the donut in two, handed one half to her, and started on the other. It tasted like sweetened cement, hard on the outside and chalky on the inside. But he chewed and swallowed, downing it like medicine, and eventually she followed suit.
What's your name? said Jimmy.
I'm very pleased to meet you, Margaret.
I'm looking for my husband, she said.
Jimmy frowned, didn't answer. Her words dropped into the silence, like coins falling down a well.
His name is Nabil. He's Lebanese. He's a lawyer.
Jimmy held up a finger, and went behind the bar—a long board laid atop two towers of stacked cinder blocks—and pulled his drawing pad and pencils out of a cardboard box with the word Basement scrawled on its side in red marker.
All right, said Jimmy. What was his head shaped like? Thin and tapered?—he drew a wedge—or plump?—an oval—or square-jawed?—a trapezoid.
Plump. But not that plump.
Okay. He drew a narrower oval. Nose?
Biggish. Wide nostrils.
He drew it. Like this?
She shrugged. I guess.
And they worked their way through it, building the dead man's face, feature by feature, until they had a portrait. He sketched in a thicket of short black hair, curly and tousled, and a thick neck with a prominent Adam's apple, then spun it around. Like that?
She nodded. That's him.
Jimmy spun the portrait back and wrote Have you seen this man? along the bottom, then went outside and nailed it to the wall beside the curtain. He looked up and down I-95, so thick with dead cars that it seemed paved with them. He went back inside.
Margaret was studying herself in the full-length mirror mounted horizontally behind the bar. The face that stared back at her was ravaged, bewildered, numb. Jimmy said: So hopefully we get some news. Do you want more brandy?
She nodded, then coughed, a long wracking heave that spattered blood and mucus on the table between them. Jimmy leapt up and came around and put an arm around her shoulder and held her until the spasm passed.
She was crying. It hurts, she said.
I know. He produced a lozenge. Try this. It helps a little. He rose and unfolded his bed, a portable cot with a thin foam mattress, then helped her onto it and drew a woolen blanket up to her neck. Try to sleep, he said.
He knew she wouldn't, though. The disease ate sleep, and left dementia and demon visions in its wake. He thought about giving her morphine, but there wasn't much to spare, and she'd need it later.
He waited until her breathing slowed, then went outside, drawing the curtain shut behind him, and eased himself into his lawn chair. He looked out at the empty world.
His second customer appeared out of the north as well, pulling a large red wagon with two children inside, a boy and a girl, both laid neatly out and dressed formally, as if for a wedding, the boy in a black suit and a little red bow tie, the girl in a frilly blue dress with lacework at the sleeves.
Hello there! said Jimmy, scurrying up the bank to the road. This new visitor was large, bald, and broad-shouldered, and wore a charcoal Giants jersey and a pair of blue sweats, torn at the knees. He slowed, but did not stop, and fixed Jimmy with a hard glare.
I'm Jimmy, said Jimmy. Welcome to my roadside cafe.
The man glanced over at the shack. Is this a joke?
No, said Jimmy, and frowned. Is what a joke?
The man took in Jimmy's uniform: the carefully pressed chinos, the long white apron, the little tie. The nametag. He said: Why aren't you dead?
Can I interest you in a donut? said Jimmy. On the house, of course.
What are you, crazy? Are you out of your fucking mind?
No, said Jimmy. A shadow of uncertainty flickered across his face. We have brandy, too.
The man snorted, and picked up his pace. He was leaving. Jimmy felt a thrill of panic. He said: You have lovely children.
The man stopped, dropped the wagon's handle, and, in one fluid motion, spun around and slammed his fist into the center of Jimmy's face. Jimmy heard his nose crack, and the world went dark. When he came back to it, he was on the street, and the man was straddling his chest, hitting him and hitting him. Every blow was seismic, the pain monstrous, and then incomprehensible. A gentle thrill of peace passed through Jimmy's body. He felt sure that he would die soon.
And then there was a voice, low and rasped, barely audible. The man paused, and looked over at the cafe. Margaret stood framed by the slanting doorway, stooped and leaning against the wall, wrapped tightly in Jimmy's blanket.
He looked back. Is that your wife?
Jimmy swallowed the blood in his mouth, licked the blood off his lips. No, he said. That's Margaret.
Margaret, said the man, and, after a moment, planted a hand on either side of Jimmy's body and pushed himself to his feet. He wiped the sweat out of his eyes, bent and offered his hand.
Jimmy took it. His left eye was already swollen shut, and he thought that one of his cheekbones might be broken. He swayed for a moment, waiting for the dizziness to pass. Can I offer you some brandy? he said, spitting out a tooth. On the house, of course.
The man's name was Patrick Cramer. He'd moved to New York with his wife a year before the plague, and was on his way back to Florida now.
New York was my wife's idea, he said. She wanted the kids to grow up in a city. Museums and plays and culture and shit. But we never got around to any of that, so it was just a really expensive place to live in a really small apartment.
They were sitting outside the cafe, all of them. Margaret had begun screaming during the night, so Jimmy gave her a couple of doses of morphine, which had done wonders. Even though it was only temporary, he was glad to see her better, smiling, her face a lovely echo of what it had been before the plague.
Jimmy had gone scavenging the day before, and came back with two more lawn chairs and a bag of beef jerky, teriyaki-flavored. They were eating the jerky now, Jimmy tearing it into thin strips for Margaret to swallow. She couldn't chew very well anymore; her teeth were coming loose, swimming uncertainly in the pink soup of her gums.
I went to New York City once, said Jimmy. I was seventeen. We were going to look for prostitutes, me and my friends.
Did you find any? said Margaret, smiling.
Jimmy nodded. Lots of them. Big ones and small ones, fat ones and thin ones.
Margaret laughed. They sound like they're from Dr. Seuss.
Horton Humps a Whore, said Patrick.
I chickened out, though. I went to a diner and waited for my friends to get done. That's where I met my wife.
I have to tell you, Jimmy, said Margaret, still smiling, that isn't the most romantic story I've ever heard.
I met my wife that night I couldn't find any hookers, said Patrick, and chuckled quietly to himself. The wagon with his children in it was parked close by, under a cloud of flies.
Jimmy said: For me, the best thing about New York was the crowds. Lots of people don't like that, the crush, but I loved it. It's hard to be alone in New York.
Patrick snorted. Easy to be lonely, though.
Oh, you can be lonely anywhere. I'd rather be lonely in a crowd. He squinted off into the distance. I liked the hot dogs, too. Is that a hawk?
Margaret shaded her eyes and looked westward, into the diffuse light of evening. An osprey, maybe?
I don't think there are any ospreys in this part of Maryland. Mostly they live around the bay.
It's a fucking bird, said Patrick, without malice.
My husband was really crazy about birds, said Margaret, still squinting at the wheeling speck in the distance. We were going on a birding vacation next month. To California.
No. Just looking.
Patrick stared at her. Seriously? You drive around looking at birds?
No. My husband drives around looking at birds. I stay at the hotel and get massages. She glanced at Patrick, caught him rolling his eyes. So what do you do for fun?
He considered. Spending money is okay too, I guess. But it's just the cigarette afterwards, you know?
No, said Margaret. I don't. I like that cigarette.
They'll kill you, said Patrick, too quickly to stop himself.
Jimmy frowned. He'd been enjoying the conversation, but he didn't much like the uncomfortable silence it had become. He said: My favorite thing about California is the sunsets.
Margaret closed her eyes, and Jimmy saw her eyelids flutter with a spasm of pain. That's what I wanted to do most of all, she said. Watch the sun setting over the Pacific. She paused. My husband was on a business trip, down in Texas. Do you think the plague got down there too?
Jimmy got up, and said: Let me get you some more brandy. He disappeared into the cafe. The sounds of bottles clinking together came faintly from the open doorway.
Man doesn't talk about what he doesn't want to talk about, said Patrick, after a moment.
Margaret managed a grin, and bundled herself tighter into her blankets, and stared off into the west.
The next morning dawned bright and crisp, alive with bird chatter. Leaves rustled gently against each other in a clean autumn breeze. Jimmy bent over Patrick and shook him gently, whispered: Time to get up.
Patrick opened his eyes, blinked. The air inside the cafe was close and warm, faintly redolent of decay. He craned his head back and glared. Who says?
Jimmy held up a shovel, and smiled. Come on, he said, and went outside.
Patrick groaned, then struggled cursing out of his sleeping bag and went to the window and looked out at his children, still in their wagon, drawn up against the side of the cafe and covered now with a burlap tarp. When he turned back, Margaret was staring at him with wide and bleary eyes, her head turned sideways against the cot. It seemed detached, somehow, a separate thing laid down beside her body.
Hundreds of them, she whispered. Thousands.
Patrick blinked. What?
They're made of eyes. Just mouths and eyes, floating around like newspaper. Everywhere. There's nothing they won't eat. She paused and drew a long ragged breath. They're so hungry.
Jesus fuck, said Patrick, a shiver crawling up his spine. He inched sidelong to the doorway and out into the open air. Jimmy was waiting for him. I think Margaret's lost it, he said.
Not yet, said Jimmy. He held out a shovel. We'd better get started, while it's still cool out here.
Started with what?
Jimmy pointed across the northbound lanes, to a small stand of trees. In there, I think. That's a good place.
A good place for what?
Jimmy cocked his head. To bury them.
Patrick stiffened, and his gaze turned to stone. They go in the ground when we get to Florida.
You won't get to Florida. Florida's a long way away.
Let me worry about that.
But they want to finish dying.
Patrick didn't answer. A muscle worked restlessly in his jaw.
If you were a dead person, would you want to be in a wagon right now, rotting your way down to Florida? Jimmy shook his head. I sure wouldn't. I'd want to be in the ground, where I'm supposed to be.
Patrick grabbed a handful of Jimmy's apron. Shut up. Shut up or I swear to God I'll kill you.
You're being irrational. And you're scaring away my customers.
You don't have any customers, you fucking lunatic.
Well of course I don't. There's a wagon full of dead children at my front door.
Patrick let go and stepped back, his eyes wide, and started laughing: hard mirthless barks that erupted out of him like thick gouts of earth. He crossed his arms over his chest and held his sides and laughed. Tears spilled out the corners of his eyes. He bent over at the waist, went down on one knee, planted an arm on the ground for support. Laughing.
And then he lurched to his feet and grabbed a shovel and stepped onto the highway and swung at the windshield of the nearest car, again and again. When the windshield shattered, he pounded the hood into a warren of dented canyons, and struck off a rearview mirror with the thin of the shovel blade, then swung the flat against the driver's side window. The car's alarm sounded, a bleating horn that rose from a mild whoop to a stuttering scream. He tore open the hood and started on the engine. The alarm cut off.
Jimmy watched the birds while the car died beside him. Many of them were drab and uninteresting, but there were a few blue jays and robins, snatches of color fluttering between the vehicles, picking at what remained of the desiccated bodies inside. Before the plague, he'd never thought much about birds, except when they crapped on his car, and those had been uncharitable thoughts.
Finally, Patrick threw down his shovel and staggered back. The car was a crumpled, shattered nightmare image of itself, sitting dead and canted in the center of a halo of broken glass. He collapsed heavily on the tarmac, slumped forward, breathing hard, head sunk into the hollow of his shoulders.
Jimmy picked up the shovel and held it out to him. It's getting late.
It's the boy's birthday today, said Patrick, quietly.
Dead people don't have birthdays. Only alive people.
Patrick looked up. You're a fucking monster, you know that? But he said it without conviction, or heat, and a moment later took the shovel.
They steered the wagon between the rows of frozen traffic, to the opposite verge. The trees in the cluster Jimmy had chosen were denuded and emaciated, and managed to throw only a patchwork skein of shade on the earth beneath them. Three plywood headstones poked out of the ground, like numbered chits from an ancient cash register. They said: Audrey, Frances, Kevin.
Someone's already here, said Patrick.
There's room, said Jimmy, and plunged his shovel into the earth, stepped on the blade to drive it down.
Aren't you curious? About who these people are?
No. He levered out a clod of dirt. I know who they are.
Patrick waited, but Jimmy had nothing more to say on the subject, so he bent to the work.
Two hours later, they had a broad, short, deep grave. Patrick threw down his shovel and wiped the sweat out of his eyes and went to the wagon and drew off the tarp. The little girl stared blindly up at him with red, swollen eyes. He lifted her, then dropped to his knees and lowered her gently into the hole. Laid her legs straight, crossed her arms over her chest, smoothed the hair away from her face. Then he did the same for the boy. As if he were putting them to bed.
Do you want to say something? said Jimmy, after a short silence.
Like a prayer, maybe.
I don't pray anymore, said Patrick, and began to cry, quietly.
I prayed, said Jimmy. When I buried Frances, I said Please God give her the pony she always wanted. And when I buried Kevin, I said Please God let him play with boys his own age, because he didn't get to do that much when he was alive. And when I buried my wife, I said I'll miss you forever. Which wasn't a prayer, I guess. He paused, considering. Well, maybe it was a prayer to her.
They stood for a while. Patrick said: Go away, Jimmy.
Okay. Just call me when you're ready. Jimmy put down the shovel and stepped out of the circle of trees and wandered for a while between the cars until he found a cache of magazines in the back of an old Nissan. He climbed onto the roof of a nearby van and lay down on his back and opened a Reader's Digest.
He was just finishing an article about the many benefits of fiber when he heard the sounds of labor from the copse: the hiss of a shovel, the dry skitter of falling dirt. He put down the Reader's Digest and looked up at the sun, just cresting the apex of its arc, then down at the river of cars that stretched southbound down 95, into the day's bright and empty horizon.
Margaret batted at the air. Her left eye had darkened into an angry shade of purple, nearly black. Her skin was white and marbled with capillaries that stood out against the pallor like a skeletal roadmap. Her hair was falling out in clumps, exposing patches of white scalp.
Jimmy caught up her hands and held them. He said: Nothing you're seeing is real.
They're eating me. She spoke in a cracked, guttural whisper. They won't stop eating me.
No they're not. Come on, I have something to show you. He knelt and put one arm around under her back, the other in the joint of her knees, and lifted her. She was fragile as a bird, and weighed nothing at all. A papier-mâché doll of a woman.
The air outside had turned chill. The sun hung just over the tops of the trees, red and purplish, tinting the sky in fading orange strata. Jimmy climbed onto the highway and made for the van he'd sunned himself on earlier, moving quickly. Patrick was waiting on the roof. He handed her up, then scrambled after.
You should leave her alone, said Patrick, his lips pursed in a prim expression of disapproval that seemed wildly out of place on his broad, rough-hewn features. But he helped ease her into the low beach chair they'd brought up earlier.
Jimmy knelt down and shook her, gently. Time to wake up, Margaret.
Margaret let her head loll to the side. Her good eye, pink now, rolled toward him. You're on fire, she said.
I'm not on fire. Wake up now. There isn't much time.
But she shook her head, and kept shaking it, a gesture that shaded from refusal to anger to despair. Jimmy put his hands on either side of her head, steadying it, and brought his face close to hers and waited until her darting eyes slowed and found his.
Good, said Jimmy. He swung around to sit beside her, draped an arm over her shoulder, and pointed at the cars below, a frozen river of metal and glass flowing endlessly southward. Now watch.
Patrick frowned and shook his head, said something, but Jimmy wasn't listening. He was staring westward, at the setting sun. As he watched, its lip touched the top of the treeline and spread instantly across, limning the rich dusky greens in red and gold. He turned back to the road, and said: Okay, here it comes.
A wash of brilliance exploded up out of the highway, the slant of the sunlight reflecting up from thousands of sloped windshields, and suddenly the road below them was a sparkling, blinding sheen of narrow white light, hemmed in by the trees on either side. A brilliant path laid suddenly down on the surface of the world, plunging southward into the heart of the far horizon.
Margaret caught her breath, and whispered: Where are we?
We're in California, said Jimmy.
Her hand found his, grasped it tightly. Her breathing eased, and her tensed, knotted body began to relax.
Oh, Nabil, she said, at last. It's beautiful.
Of course it is, said Jimmy.
They sat watching until the sun dropped below the trees, and when Margaret closed her eyes Jimmy tucked the blanket about her shoulders and kissed her gently on her forehead. Goodbye, Margaret, he said.
They buried her the next day, in the graveyard copse, beside the drawing of her husband. Jimmy said a few words when they were done, and then, after a moment's silence, they crossed the highway and settled into their lawn chairs.
I'm thinking tomorrow we should go into town and pick up some Cheerios, said Jimmy. Cheerios don't go bad, ever. You can't kill Cheerios. They're the cockroach of breakfast cereals.
I'm leaving tomorrow, said Patrick.
Jimmy looked over. Really? Where are you going?
Down to Florida. I've got family down there. He shrugged. I'm immune to this fucking thing, and I'm not the only one with my genes.
Jimmy nodded. It would be nice if you stayed, though.
You should come with me, man. There's nothing here for you.
There's my cafe. And there was Margaret, and there was you.
That's over now.
That is, sure.
They lapsed into silence, and watched the birds wheel and dance over the dead rows of cars.
The next day, Jimmy found a big hiker's backpack and stuffed it with donuts and beef jerky and a two-liter Coke bottle filled with fresh creek water. Be careful, he said, handing the pack over. Stay near the highway. Sleep inside cars at night. Wild things are starting to come out, now that we're gone.
Patrick nodded. Thanks.
Come back and visit if you can. We're always open.
Patrick grinned. It's been a pleasure, Jimmy, he said. They shook hands and he turned away, moving down the shoulder, southward.
Jimmy watched him disappear into the early morning haze, then went back into the cafe and tidied up a bit. He took Margaret's sheets off the cot and burned them in a little pyre. He rubbed the window clean, swept the floor, polished the table, tidied up. Then went outside and settled into his lawn chair, and waited.
Four days later, a stuttering, puttering sound came down off the highway. He jumped to his feet and ran up, peering north. A scooter was winding its way through the cars, dragging a small makeshift wagon behind it. An Indian woman sat hunched over the handlebars, navigating carefully. The man in the seat behind her lolled against her back. His skin was pocked and white, his eyes vermillion.
They were very close before the woman saw him. She started and braked hard, and the sharp squeal of her tires pierced the morning's stillness like a needle. A small boy with tousled hair and large round eyes popped his head up from the wagon, and said: Are we there yet, Mommy?
The woman clambered carefully out of her seat, then turned to catch the man behind her, who was listing hard to the side. Jimmy rushed over and took his other arm, and together they eased him onto the street.
Thank you, said the woman, warily. The boy clambered out of his wagon and hid behind her, peeking shyly up past her skirts.
The sky was a soft shade of blue, the sunlight bright and crisp. A breeze blew through the cars, carrying with it the stench of decay, the bouquet of morning. Jimmy smiled. Welcome to Jimmy's Roadside Cafe, he said. I'm Jimmy.