Easy now. Pace the hundred and twenty three step perimeter. Say fifteen Hail Mary’s, check the beet plants. Beets—the perfect energy source, grown with the light of the sun, run down a fifteen foot cable to power miniature grow lights. Ambient energy, captured, refined, percolated, and repatriated as blood red nutrients. Waldo’s hamster died last night. He could see where this was going. The creature was less of a vermin—in fact, she was his only friend—than it was a canary in the mine, a harbinger of Waldo’s goose being shuffled gingerly into the oven.
How many days, how many months had it been? Shortwave radio lost reception almost at once, even the old Russian number station Waldo used to fall asleep to. The slavic woman’s voice, the last voice of the fairer sex, four, twenty-nine, eighty-six, silence. Transmission ended: world fucked. World fucked, beets, Mary-Lou the hamster, stacks and stacks of water bottles, piss filters, ambient collection tanks, soil, MRE’s, a small incinerator for absolute emergencies, shortwave radio, stacks of books, stacks of legal pads and pencils. One hundred and twenty three paces of a full grown human male.
Out of yellow legal paper, match sticks, the cardboard from a seeding planter, Waldo constructs a casket for little Mary-Lou. Hunched at his small desk, jeweler’s magnifier in one hand, paintbrush in the other, delicately embossing her name and a portrait of the America Flag, fifty-two stars individually drawn and colored white. The box fit just in the palm of his hand, but it was perfect. The design was similar to a puzzle box: one panel needed to be depressed with just the right pressure to allow the end to spring open and accept the little hamster body.
What to do with the wheel and the cage lined with sawdust? Perhaps it could be repurposed as some sort of recreation device? For now it was draped in black, the color of mourning, and red white and blue book covers (the best Waldo could do on short notice). Laying in state, Mary-Lou was the image of peace and dignity. Waldo found himself shedding the first tear of his unfortunate exile. A crowd has gathered. A few dozen Benjamin Franklins, some Ulysses Grants and a few sallow Andrew Jacksons. All the best men, the other heroes, come to pay respect to a fallen patriot.
Waldo’s eulogy was short. Nobody ever said he was particularly good with words. He thanked Mary-Lou for the time she had here on Earth and in this place specifically, and he released her soul to God’s grace. He pressed play on the Allman Bros cassette he had cued up for the moment. Mary-Lou’s favorite song. He could tell because she always ran faster when he put this tape on. She went into the puzzle box and Waldo carried her across to the small incinerator. The door closed, the gas flame lit up and lifted Mary-Lou’s earthly corpus to the heavens above. Rest in peace little one, Waldo said, feeling another few tears coming up.
Mary-Lou, in one of those coincidences life throws in the laps of superstitious people like Waldo McCarthy, shared a name with Waldo’s elementary school neighbor and first crush, Mary Wilkerson.
In the school yard one day, some time in the spring of fourth grade, Waldo put some thumbtacks (the silver ones with the flat round backs) point up in the dirt. The idea came to him earlier in the day after a particularly infuriating episode. Waldo, speed walking to biology, found himself followed by a maddening click click like a pebble falling down a flight of hardwood stairs. The culprit was found by a helpful someone who suggested, uh, maybe Waldo had a tack in his shoe. Embarrassed, Waldo claimed he knew that, stupid, and snuck off to the bathroom to take the villain out. This proved harder than anticipated, his mother having clipped his nails just the night before.
The idea grew from there. Place tacks upright in the dirt in the schoolyard, then five, maybe six if luck had it, clueless chumps would find themselves locked into unwilling partnership with their new silver tappers.
Things did not go as smoothly as planned as Mary Wilkerson ran by in her summer flats. Compared to Waldo’s chunky department store sneakers, her inscrutably feminine ballet shoes were an easy target to pierce and Waldo soon found himself explaining why exactly it was that Mary needed a round of tetanus shots to an unimpressed assembly of parents, teachers, administrators, and legal counsels.
For Mary Wilkerson’s part, she began to take more seriously her mother’s warnings, between puffs of a Newport cigarette, that young men should not be trusted with sharp objects, or indeed, with almost anything. This event also spurred her to, several weeks later, sneak up on an otherwise occupied Waldo McCarthy and dump a handful of dirt and thumbtacks down the back of his t-shirt, an event which, in turn, caused Waldo to remember his own mother’s warning that nobody holds a grudge like a woman scorned. The word “scorned” meaning, young Waldo guessed, something along the lines of “stabbed in the foot with a thumb tack.”
Use your head, one exasperated instructor told him at the end of the meeting. And Waldo listened. He made plans, and contingency plans, and backup contingency plans. Some things, however, can’t be planned through before they happen. Such was Mary-Lou’s death. Waldo could not have planned, for instance, for the sudden auditory apparentness of the beet water dripping through recycling tubes. Without the hamster wheel and scuttling feet to listen to, the small shelter was suddenly much noisier. Waldo did not plan on what to do with Mary Lou’s ashes. He considered scattering them in the potting soil, but something about the idea that he would be consuming them in a few weeks’ time was unsettling. For now they remained inside the incinerator.
For Heaven’s sake, Waldo thought. So much work to do.