An. Ray Norsworthy Boise, USA
Because the sun kills the improvident, and the cookie man is nothing if not provident, he always comes into town about an hour before dusk, his elongated shadow preceding him down Main Street. The only sound is the wind whistling the day’s last fevered breath. No dog scampers out to meet him and bark; no birds fluster and take flight. The dogs have all been eaten, every last Poodle, Pomeranian, Shih Tzu, & Lab, along with every other animal that could be hunted down. Except for a few crows and vultures, all the birds have fallen from the sky, littering the ground with wings and feathers of every size and color. There are still rats and mice, but their numbers finally seem to be dwindling. I feel more like an oversized rodent now than a human being, although I used to be the mayor of this charming little town called Quail Springs. Now I am just one of seventeen surviving residents who hide among the ruins in our choice of half-fallen and abandoned buildings, waiting for the cookie man.
The cookie man knows we are here and that we are his friends. His path from the crumbled outskirts down Main and then Pine Street to the city park is well trodden, some of the debris cleared away during early days after the disaster. Back then, when the word hope still had meaning, some of us even buried the dead if we knew them or if they were in the way. Many buildings and vehicles had to be sealed up like tombs.
When the cookie man reaches the designated picnic table underneath a massive dead
maple, trunk stripped of bark, limbs white as bone, he unloads the cookies from his backpack. After we went into hiding four months ago, we began leaving him personal objects belonging to different ones of us every day. It began almost by accident, with modest intent. Our idea was simply to remind him of our gratitude and that we are still fully human and once led normal lives. At first it was mostly photographs of some family member or important event, a newspaper clipping, a keepsake with sentimental value, a favorite dish or antique saved from the devastation. But as time went by and some of us became more and more desperate for any form of beggarly salvation, the objects of reassurance and curiosity became like offerings to a god. Collected valuables of all kinds dispensed piecemeal, left with a photograph and sometimes an attempt at a personal note so the bestower would be identified. Diamonds or precious jewels that had obviously been embedded in a piece of jewelry, gold and silver coins, even stacks of money. To my great surprise (and everyone else’s, I believe), he never took anything with him, yet he always took the time to look each object over with the eye of a grateful appraiser. After Mrs. Hufnagel, who owned a jewelry shop, left a small mound of glittering multi-carat diamonds, the cookie man left a note saying,
Bribery will get you nowhere, since I have nothing to give you but these cookies. But thanks anyway; they are very pretty stones.
When he leaves the park, his path is by necessity less direct. Between rusted burned-out automobiles, over dunes of trash-littered sand banked against concrete slabs and piles of rubble, under the lightless signal light swinging at the intersection of Pine and Les Bois Avenue, he moves without hurry, in a shambling gait, not looking around, not even up or down, until he passes the school bus full of shriveled child-sized corpses—there he always bows his head until he turns the corner on Cherry Street.
When I could still hobble around like Quasimodo, I would weave my way through the debris and the dead, up the steps at Town Hall to the clock tower so I could watch him appear on the horizon and leave the same way, almost walking in his own footsteps as the dusk closed in around him. My friend Erwin asked me why I did it, why I expended all that energy to watch a man slouch across an empty wasteland the same way every day and with the same meaningless purpose. I told him every act has as much meaning as we give it. Not long after that conversation, I was with Erwin when he died. His last words were, —This means nothing. I didn’t feel like arguing with him.
When I first laid eyes on the cookie man it was on the shore of Lake Edie almost a year ago and at that time I was not timid about him laying eyes on me or my fellow travelers. Five of us had ventured out of town on the old highway to Kishagowah with the intention of crossing the desert, then the mountains, traveling all the way to the coast if need be. We stopped at the lake for water and to rest in the shade of the cliffs. We had gone less than five miles and were already exhausted and weak. The stranger waved and called out from somewhere up in the rocks. Micki looked up, waved, and yelled hello. The rest of us were too startled. He scrambled down the cliffside, but approached with caution, although the closer he came, the more he realized he had little to fear. We were slightly more alarmed. He was covered with desert from head to foot, but the grit and grime could not disguise his tall, broad-shouldered physique. His clothes may have needed laundering (as did all of ours), but the pullover shirt and khaki cargo pants looked new, perhaps salvaged from a store. A wide-brim canvas hat was pulled down low, but his long, wavy brown hair hung lower. Like an old-time Native American, he wore moccasins with no socks. On prominent display was a large pistol
snugged under an Army belt. A canteen of water and a sheathed hunting knife were clipped to the same belt. He wore the same backpack he now carries the cookies in. The most startling aspects of his appearance were his lightly tanned, undamaged skin, and his seemingly superhuman health and vitality, as if he’d been completely unaffected by the catastrophes that ended human civilization as we knew it.
He had just crossed the desert from the east. He said it was good to see some humans who still acted human. He had traveled at night when he could, and during the day he wore a reflective tunic like a high tech Bedouin. We were amazed that the traveler was real and not a figment of our wandering imaginations. He was just as amazed that we were attempting to travel east across the desert in the shape we were in. He persuaded us of the folly of such an attempt. It didn’t take much persuasion.
— Until I crossed the mountains I hadn’t seen the sun in six months, he said.
— And the only people I saw I didn’t want to see. Two of those generous pilgrims gave me this decoration. He lifted up his shirt. A jagged perpendicular scar, still red and swollen, ran down his chest as if he’d had open heart surgery with a chainsaw. —And another one did this. He took off his hat and turned. The top half of his right ear was missing. —I had to clean up his artwork with my knife. Hurt like hell. And a woman who traveled with me for a while went insane and almost flattened my head with a tree limb. I just had to run off and leave her.
The stranger didn’t volunteer his name. Twice people asked and twice he changed the subject in a subtle way. —Call me whatever you like, he said, finally. —I’ve had temporary amnesia since I almost got my head caved in. I introduced myself and the others followed. —How many of you left?
—Not that many, Dan Rollins told him. —Few enough that I know all their names.
Without being asked, docile Dan rattled them off. He had been a real estate salesman and had a good head for details. When he was through, the stranger asked if he was sure that was all the survivors. All five of us reassured him that it was as far as we knew. The man’s whole body seemed to slump, as if just realizing how exhausted it was. He sat down on a nearby rock and hung his head.
Mary spoke up. She used her soothing voice. —I’m sorry. Were you trying to find someone?
Without looking up he just shook his head. —Way too late for that, he said.
If he was disheartened, so were we. Besides unwilling spirits our flesh was weak; Dan, Mary, and Al needed to recuperate before making the trek back to town. There was no way we could make it back to Quail Springs before nightfall. We shared some months old trail mix with the stranger and fanned ourselves in the shade. We could hardly believe our eyes when he dug a seine out of his backpack and waded into the shallow lake. He dragged out dozens of fish from the turbid water, some sickly looking and nearly dead, but several alive and flipping. With the dam breached and the river dried to a viscous trickle, Lake Edie was not really a lake anymore; just a spring that fed a pond the size of a cloud’s shadow. He said most of the creatures left in the lake were bottom-dwelling fish, freshwater mussels, and a few snakes and turtles. I was surprised the lake water was able to sustain any life at all. It was surrounded by death. The national forestland surrounding the lake was a graveyard of trees that reached way beyond the horizon. The desert was in all directions and none of us knew where it ended. He offered us a dinner of fish ka-bobs and we eagerly accepted. Using
sharpened sticks for skewers, he alternated the pieces of fish with smaller pieces of mussels and cattails. It was the best meal we’d had in months. While we were eating he mentioned that his flashlight batteries had died, so we gave him some of ours. He seemed grateful. —I almost walked straight off that cliff last night, he said.
That night was spent in the large cave he discovered along the shore while out scouting around. The cooler air of the cave seemed like a luxury. Our host was polite but reserved. If at first I was startled by the fairness of his skin, I was equally startled by how terribly it blistered under the intense red sun that day. By the light of the campfire, he smeared cool mud on his face and arms. Mary, gaunt and jaundiced, yet still clinging to vestiges of her beauty and charm, laughed at his appearance, and he laughed with her when she handed him her mirror and he saw his reflection in the firelight. —What happened to your reflective tunic, she asked him. —Yesterday the wind borrowed it, he replied. —Maybe tomorrow she’ll return it. The next morning Mary stayed behind when the other four adventurers dragged ourselves back to town, heads bowed not only from the sun, but in defeat and embarrassment after the previous morning’s enthusiastic sendoff by the remaining townsfolk.
A week after that first meeting, when the two cave dwellers visited town, Mary told me the smearing of mud had become their morning ritual. —There is so much clay in the mud the slough is gradual over the course of the long day; it’s like you’re shedding your skin, she said. Once the sun was down, when the few stars still visible would twinkle dimly in the sky, the two of them would rinse each other off in the water. Then they would sit together in the cave’s mouth and talk while the red moon rose.
Because she was losing her long auburn hair he wove her a bonnet out of reeds. I
couldn’t resist asking her his name. —I don’t know; I call him Adam as a joke, she said.
—He calls me Eve. Funny, huh? Some of the residents talked about trying to make the move out to the caves, but only Micki and I attempted it, about a month after the cookie man arrived. We made it more than halfway before the relentless oven-hot wind suddenly increased in savagery, blinding and choking us and stirring up so much dust a seed could have germinated in mid-air if I could have gathered enough saliva to spit.
Micki, who I thought was in much better shape than I was, collapsed, and I had to carry her on my back the rest of the way. I became so disoriented and delirious it was a miracle I ever reached the lake. Yet somehow I did, and according to Mary, fell unconscious at their feet with Micki still wrapped around my back. When I awoke, Mary was dribbling shellfuls of water and some kind of soup down my throat. From the look in her eyes I knew before I even asked that Micki was dead. After I said goodbye to her, the cookie man dug a grave during that raging duststorm and buried her for me. Micki was my seventeen year old daughter.
By midsummer, Mary became too weak to walk, so the cookie man salvaged a wheelchair from the ruins of a nursing home in town. Her health deteriorated quickly and one day about six weeks later he showed up without her. When we looked in each other’s eyes the question was asked and answered. His nod added an appoggiatura.
On the knoll outside his cave there would now be two crosses of dead tree branches with names etched with limestone chalk. In the early fall, around the beginning of what should have been football season, the twenty-seven of us left decided by unanimous consent to stay out of sight during his visits. The horror in his face had become too obvious, although he did his best to hide it. A few times he even gagged when he
approached too near someone. Compared to us, a leper colony from long ago would seem like a health farm. We all made sure to avoid seeing any reflection; some of us were already having trouble remembering what we looked like before we became post- apocalyptic freaks. Our eyes were acutely sensitive to the light, anyway. I left a note for him on the table and weighed it down with the beetle-encased paperweight I’d been given by Li Chen, my Chinese interpreter. Since I had little use of my fingers, it took me most of the day to write. Despite the cookie man’s clownish appearance, the mud smeared on his skin gives him an aboriginal air of menace. Sometimes he presses odd little bits and pieces into the mud coating his face: dried insects, translucent snake skins, mouse bones, shiny chips of quartz and obsidian, spaghetti-like streamers of yellowed newspaper. When he fixes his gaze on an object, the stark whiteness of his eyeballs leaps out from under the brim of the dirty brown hat. The cookies he leaves for us are not exactly Oreos. These cookies are made out of flour, a little clay for filler (abundant in the cliffs), salt, cattails, some vegetable shortening (from a five gallon bucket that he found in the ruins of Harry’s Bar and Grill) , and whatever crawly or squiggly creatures he can find. Crawly, if on land, squiggly if in water. Mary gave him the idea and helped him get started. She knew we were all starving, having run out of food that could be harvested from the ruins. The first time he brought them it embarrassed him to hear our joyful cries and whispers of gratitude, as if we were giving thanks to a god. —After you taste them, you may want to make a big cookie out of me, he said. We knew the cookie man could not save us, but at least he gave us a filament of hope that we could stay alive long enough to…to what? We didn’t know the answer to that question. It was an irrational hope, no doubt, but what hope isn’t? As in the Chinese
proverb, the cookie man handed us a hollow reed so the ones drowning could breathe for a minute longer.
His ritual has seldom varied. The first day he came into town I followed him across the railroad tracks to the west side even though I hated exposing myself to the sun’s burning red glare. His destination turned out to be 1809 S. Cherry Street (the address is still visible painted on the curb) where a spacious middle-class house once stood. All that was left were the front doorframe and the walls of a single large, rectangular room. I watched him clear enough debris to climb the porch steps and stand exhausted at the threshold, hesitating as if he were getting up the nerve to ring the doorbell or trying to remember where he left the key. He fanned his mud-clotted face with his hat and then shouldered aside the oak door that hung by a single hinge. After crawling over collapsed walls and debris, he reached the doorway of the room and squeezed through it. Using my binoculars, I had a good view from the hillside, even though the room was kept shadowy in the late afternoon by a jutting truss from the uphove roof. It must have been the den, since a large rock fireplace, partly-collapsed, was built into the outside wall. His footsteps stirred up a cloud of ashen dust that rose above the missing ceiling and hung softly in the air, shining reddish gold in the sunlight. By morning it would have alighted and then be swept away by the first violent gust and replaced by the second. The cookie man took off his hat and kneeled to one side of the fireplace and then fixed his stare on some kind of picture or painting within a tarnished gold leaf frame hanging on the wall. From my angle I could not see whatever magic was framed. When I climbed to a higher perch and zoomed in close I could see he was mumbling as if carrying on a conversation. I saw a tear or two join the sweat rolling
down the cracked mud on his cheeks. After a few minutes, he got slowly to his feet and left, his head hanging noticeably lower than when he came. My curiosity got the better of my exhaustion, and when he was gone I made my way down the hill to take a look at whatever it was that so devastated the cookie man. It took me twice as long as him to negotiate the ruins, but I finally reached the doorway to the room. Once my eyes adjusted, to my great surprise, inside the large gold leaf frame decorated with angels playing their harps there was no painting, no picture; there was nothing but a crack in the wall.
Today, I sit like a deranged Buddhist monk in a rag cloaked heap at the base of a dead giant oak outside the ruins of the Pioneer House Museum near the park entrance. While waiting for the cookie man, I ponder the terrible strangeness of our lives in the shadows. Of the seventeen Quail Springs residents left now, three, maybe four, will be dead within a week. The strongest of us is Roscoe, the young insurance agent who weighed three hundred pounds before the disaster hit. He has a cat, the last one in town as far as we know, who catches mice. He roasts the mice and feeds the both of them. Sometimes he has enough to share a bite for each of us. We still let him have his share of cookies. Of course, if he wanted to take them all we couldn’t do anything to stop him except offer meek protests. I have no more protest left in me. I hope to die soon, perhaps today. But before I do, I have one last question I would like answered.
When the cookie man passes by I call out, my voice raspy and weak. He stops and looks in my direction, obviously surprised. —Humor a dying man, my nameless friend, I say. —Why do you go to that house and kneel in front of an empty picture frame? It’s none of my business, I know. But I guess my curiosity will die when I die.
—I’ll tell you, mayor, he says, doffing his hat and wiping his brow with his sleeve.
He takes a few steps toward me. —That house belonged to my parents. The frame used to hold a picture of my wife Salestine, my son Abe, my daughter Abby, and me. My wife died of cancer three years ago.
—I’m sorry. That explains a lot.
—It’s okay. Truth is, when she died I turned to shit. No sense in sugarcoating it. I turned to shit and I didn’t give a shit about anything. I was a geologist for the state, but I wasn’t doing my job so I took a leave of absence. Thought a trip might help so I went to the New Jersey coast. Got into a fight with a loud Texan in a casino and when I hit the guy, the guy went down and stayed down. Permanently. They said he had an aneurysm burst in his brain. A freak accident. What was I supposed to do? The guy threw his cards at me and then punched me in the damn neck. Even the dealer said, please knock that asshole on his asshole. None of that mattered to the cops. I was convicted of manslaughter and sent to a private prison in Virginia.
—Yeah. It killed me having to leave my little boy and girl. No, me not being here to protect them was much worse than if it had only killed me. I went crazy in prison. Got thrown in the hole a lot. That’s where I was when hell broke loose. I was in one of the safest places on earth, four stories underground. Guess that’s why I didn’t get sick. The only time I was glad I popped a guard in the jaw. During the riots all the cell doors opened. I managed to escape.
I start to speak but the words hang in my throat and I’m overcome by a fit of coughing. My heart pounds so hard it seems to rattle my rib cage. When I can speak, I say, —so you came back to find out about your children?
—I knew there wasn’t much chance they were alive. It hit me hard when I saw what was left of my parent’s house. When they sent me away, my parents took the kids. Abby was nine and Abe was three. I know that’s our family photograph because of the frame. When I look inside that frame I can see their little darling faces and the face of my beautiful Salestine.
—I wish you would have told me this when you first came. I wish that more than I wish I could live a while longer to eat some more of those special cookies of yours.
—I’m sorry for your suffering. What else can I say? There’s so much death… He looks up suddenly, squinting in my direction with renewed interest upon realizing what I just said. —Why did you say you wish I had told you?
—I can’t tell you for certain, but I’m almost positive it was your children I saw alive about a week before you arrived. A little boy about that age and a cute little girl. They left town with a couple; they were part of a large group traveling in golf carts. The couple looked too old to be their parents. The man had a long walrus mustache and the woman was unusually tall and sort of exotic looking.
—What? That’s them! That’s my mother and father! It has to be them! You mean they’re alive! They’re long gone, aren’t they? Of course they are! But they’re alive? I can’t believe they’re alive!
I read his eyes, and although my face is covered by a scarf and a hat is pulled down low on my head, and even though I am sitting in dim shadow, I know this time it is
my nod that adds an appoggiatura. I swear the cookie man–so much leaner than when he arrived, yet still amazingly sturdy–almost topples over. He takes off his hat and throws it down, walks around in a circle with his hands balled into fists on his hips, then opens them to claw in anguish at his mud-caked face, all the while kicking at the rippled dust.
—Like I say, they only left about a week before you arrived.
—Going which direction?
—Northwest, I believe. I think their idea was to follow Interstate 80 all the way up to Lake Strindberg. I think Al-Hamidiyeh was their destination, but I can’t say for sure.
They were with a group of about eight. I thought it was a good idea myself, but my wife was too ill to go and Micki didn’t want to leave, either.
—How were they…I mean physically?
This is more words than he’s spoken in the entire time he’s been here. And this is the longest conversation I’ve had in months and I’m exhausted and my throat so raw I can barely hear myself speak. The visitor steps closer when he hears me try to retch up the words. I hold up my withered, rotting hand and bow my head.
—No…please. I catch my breath and the last words I will ever speak to him come out in a choked rush. —The kids looked fine. Your mother strong. Father okay, I think.
You have long way to go. Good luck, friend.
—Same to you, he says to me. He picks up his hat and slaps it against his leg to shake off the dust before he fastens it to his head. —I’m sorry I can’t stay until… I wish there was something I could do.
I wave for him to go on. He knows what I mean.
—By the way, my name is Paul. I didn’t mean to treat it like it was a secret, but I didn’t think I deserved a name. Goodbye. I watch him walk away, and for the first time, I see spring in his step, life in his carriage. Now he has a purpose. Now he has meaning. Now he has hope. Regardless of what happens on his journey, he is leaving this town a richer man. His family—the two kids, the grandparents—are dead, of course. I knew them from soccer league and Little League baseball. Good people, his parents. Salt of the earth. Some of the first to die as I recall. The children went to live with someone else in town, but I don’t remember who, and it doesn’t matter since they’re all dead, anyway. Paul, the cookie man deserves more than an empty frame. I’m proud of the lie I told him. It will give my dying some meaning and purpose, too, since hope is out of the question. Giving him a lie to believe in is the only way I could think of to repay him for the cookies. I hope he can pack enough cookies for the hard journey across the