By Alex Sherman
In an apocalyptic, depopulated city, a young man named Bhu struggles to feed his ailing dog Lucy. Phan, the local pizza parlor owner, takes pity on Bhu and provides the meat Lucy needs so she can survive. But what exactly is in the meat? And how far is Bhu willing to go to save his dog?
Bhu walked his dog five times a day and this demanded his full attention. An overweight bulldog crossbreed, she spent much of her time splayed sluglike on a small leopard-print pillow, breathing in and out in shallow, gulping snorts. Always he needed to be careful not to overexert her when he lifted her onto the wheeled prosthesis that supported her back legs.
Her name was Lucy.
There was no need to keep her leashed as she squeaked up and down the cracked sidewalk, though Bhu kept a vigilant watch for the black dogs that roamed his street, aggressive strays that worked in packs and barked with intelligent diction. They stood in the grass of vacant lots between boarded buildings, in the shadowed awnings of long-shuttered storefronts. They followed Lucy with their eyes and muzzles as she worked her way to a place that suited her refined olfactory palate—never the same place twice—where she relieved herself, at length, and with difficulty.
Bhu had to make sure that the door closed securely. Sometimes it hung open, and Bhu didn’t feel safe knowing anyone—or even the dogs—could walk right in.
The beef gave off no odor; instead the kitchen smelled perpetually of the wax that he used to make candles in case the power went out.
Bhu lived on the first floor of a now mostly-empty co-op. The last thing the super told him, before she went on an indefinite sabbatical, was that Bhu could take any apartment that he wanted, if it was empty. Eventually he relocated to a place on the first floor because he got sick of carrying Lucy up and down the stairs. No one else lived on the first floor. All the shuffling old ladies who took great care to avoid him went up and down the stairs without complaint.
Most of the lights in the hall had burned out. Every time Bhu changed one, another would go dark the next day.
Bhu’s cough worsened. Five-foot-two and always wiry, his cheeks hollowed and his hair fell out in tufts. Bhu often ran his fingers along a patchy goatee which was the only place that his facial hair grew at all, reduced to the essentials, much like his life. Work, sustenance, personal hygiene. The care and comfort of Lucy, above all. He spoke to her at length about his days, his thoughts, the things he saw in this festering city. He did often not think about what he would do when she died. It hurt too much. He liked to think, given the state of things, that the world would end long before she did.
Famous Signoretti’s Italian Bistro had operated without a single day off for seventy-five years. No catastrophe of any scale had ever kept its shutters from opening, and this slow-looming cultural decay that Bhu felt in his marrow didn’t seem likely to be the first. Customers still trickled in throughout each day and filled the tables during the dinner rush.
It was not unusual for a cough or sneeze to slip out unexpectedly, drenching a plate as it went out to a customer, or even a whole pie that Bhu pulled steaming out of the wood-fire oven. Bhu found ways not to care, ways to justify his lack of caring, but one reason won out easily over the rest: Bhu wasn’t going to get anyone sick, because everyone was already sick. He saw the symptoms everywhere. In the customers’ heavy, bloodshot eyes, in their puffy lips and cheeks, the swelling in their necks and fingers, the sweat that coated their hands and the damp bills that they passed to him when he worked the register. He wore blue gloves for when he handled the bills, and at the end of his shift the fingers were stained and corroded, the latex pocked with small blisters. He told this to Phan, his boss, who took the gloves in his own hands, touched them, sniffed them, and told Bhu that there was nothing to worry about. People got sick because of bad energy, Phan said. Phan had never been sick a day in his life. As he said this he coughed and raised a bent cigarette to his lips. Phan’s eyes bulged anxiously. The thick crescent lines of his fingernails were stained a nicotine yellow.
Bhu researched contagion and sanitation. Temperatures higher than 140 degrees slow or stop bacterial growth. He stood near the oven and bathed in its purifying heat. Phan noticed this pattern of behavior and took this to be an intellectual interest in its workings. He spoke to Bhu about it at length. The mystical aspects of its form and structure, the temple shape of the dome, the holy vortex of the internal flame. An engineer by trade, if not philosophy, Phan married into an Italian restaurant family. When his wife inherited it, he took it over, replacing the smaller and more efficient gas oven with the bulky and inconvenient wood-fire oven. He did this largely on his own, using simple tools and materials, what he called the methods of the ancients.
Phan talked about energy and sickness in his slurred Chicago growl. He had designed the oven to be a generator of positive, healing energies. On the wood-fired bricks that he shaped and baked with his own hands he had inscribed a lexicon of powerful signs and sigils: harvest prayers from ancient Slavic carvings, healing passages from Babylonian tablets, Greek hexes that predated Homer by three thousand years. Buddhist prayers in a dozen languages, Chinese ideograms, his favorite mathematical figures, the names of all the players on the 2016 World Series–winning Chicago Cubs.
“It’s a universal lexicon,” he said one day. “You take the sides of all those bricks, you unfold them like so”—he demonstrated with his hands, turning them back and forth—“and it all fits together. I planned it for years, the placement of every mark in perfect, universal harmony. I thought it might help. I thought that this oven might change things for the better. Refocus the world’s energy, just a little bit.”
As Phan spoke a customer doubled over in a fit of violent coughs on the other side of the fiberglass panel that separated the checkout line from the kitchen. Bhu and Phan turned to watch. The coughing man fell to the ground and spat up a mouthful of blood and bile. Phan shook his head.
“And now, look.”
Made confident by Phan’s attention, Bhu worked his lips in a silent question, then repeated it out loud. He asked if Phan had any raw meat that he might be willing to sell cheaply. Bhu thought that Phan didn’t hear him because the spry old man rushed away, vaulting clean over the register to attend to the sick customer, who now held his hands to his throat, choking.
But Phan heard, and he didn’t forget. He called Bhu over at the end of his shift and asked what his question was. Bhu had to think for a moment, to center himself, before answering.
Bhu wanted meat. Raw meat, as fresh as possible, the cost of which would be taken out of his wages, whatever the cost may be.