She lucked out, that's all. They say the laziest man is also the most efficient, and in her case this was not just a truism but true. Because she was one of those people who never prepare for anything, not tornadoes or hurricanes or blackouts or Christmas. She was one of those people who, every once in while, started to wonder why she or anybody had to work. You work to pay the rent , a voice would come to her from far away, and that would settle it, until she started to wonder why you have to pay the rent, and on and on like that, until eventually the voice sighed and went away. In short, she wasn't the kind of person who would build a bunker.
How did she end up in someone else's bunker? Well, when she wasn't talking to the voice, she liked to listen to the radio, and one day she was listening to the radio when she heard that some terrorists had taken control of an underground Russian nuclear missile storage facility. She didn't hear the rest of the report because she was reminded of the bunker at the end of her street that this guy and his sons had been working on ever since before Y2K, and she decided to wander down and check it out. She was interested in other people's preparations, even if—or perhaps especially because—she never made any of her own.
Of course, she didn't think the missiles were going to go off right then—nobody did—but she was down in the bunker looking around when the sirens started up, those gurgling old air raid sirens from WWII. Unlike usual, they kept going, so she decided to close the three-foot thick steel door, just to be safe. Then she sat and waited for the builders to come. She would have opened up for them, or so she told herself, but she never had to stand the test because nobody came, then, or ever.
Sometimes she had to pinch herself to make sure it was all real. I mean, who would've thought? Who would've thought fourteen-foot concrete walls could actually withstand blast and heat and radioactive fallout? Who would've thought her neighbor and his sons could really stockpile a year's worth of food and water? Who would've thought the generator and the cistern and that weird toilet arrangement they'd dreamed up would actually work? Who would've thought she could manage to survive, day after day, with no human contact? She had always been a loner but not that lone. Not nuclear holocaust lone.
She felt sorry for the people who had readied for the other catastrophe, the biochemical attack, the ones who had stored away flashlights and three days worth of food and water and lined the baby's room with duct tape and plastic sheeting. Preparing for the wrong disaster is worse than not preparing at all.
But the last president, the cowboy president, had convinced them it was a whole new world they were living in, a World of Terror. In this new world, everybody had to go it alone, especially Americans, and the only language anyone understood anymore was the language of force and intimidation. As if the old world hadn't been a world of terror, too. As if the world hadn't always been terrible and terrifying but somehow people had managed to keep their chins up and be decent and even found a republic or two.
If it had been her caught out like that, she would've gone up on the roof to watch the missiles land, like they used to do with the A-bomb tests at Vegas casinos. Stay up all night drinking and catch one really good last show. Turn to the others and say, when your number's up your number's up. This was not just a truism now, but true.
Oh, did she feel bad for humankind. Ashamed, too. She knew she would feel that shame her whole life, even if it only lasted a few years. You know how something can be bothering you without your really being aware of it, a mistake or a problem looming over you like a shadow, but when you turn and face it head on, it turns out not to be half as bad as you thought? Well, this was nothing like that.
She had been hanging out in the bunker ever since that first day, listening to country music. It seemed like as good a way as any of getting through a nuclear winter. Her favorite song at the moment was “Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” especially the way Willie Nelson switched it at the end to say “Mamas Don't Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to be Babies.” Because it was baby cowboys or cowboy babies that had gotten them into this mess, but Willie could make you chuckle about that, or at least shake your head and sigh, instead of moaning and rocking back and forth, or sitting frozen day after day, thinking about the world that had blown away like snow.
Her thinking about the world took certain paths, since it's a big thing to think about all at once. Sometimes she thought about bridges and vaulted arches. Other times she thought about sidewalks and carpets, and how once people had cared where they put their feet and had had feet to put there. She thought about mathematics and physics and natural science—in a general way, because she had never understood them, although she had always known they were there. She thought about paintings— again, not specific paintings, because she didn't know much about art, but just the fact of painting. She thought about shoes. She thought about coats and watches and spectacles. She thought about tea kettles and space heaters and mandolines. She thought about books. She thought about books a lot, because she liked to read. She thought about bookshelves, and other kinds of furniture, such as ottomans. She thought about suitcases, especially the ones on wheels. She thought about sports, which were supposed to replace war, but didn't. She thought about newspapers. She thought about businesses, like restaurants and dry cleaners and pet stores. She thought about houses, all through the ages. All through the ages there had been houses, and now there were only bunkers.
She thought about coffins and tombstones. She thought about bottles and cans. She thought about brooms, buckets and vacuum cleaners. She thought about boats and ships. She thought about all of the great inventions she had learned about in junior high: the steam engine and the airplane and the cotton gin. She still thought the best one was the traffic light, which was invented by a black man, who also invented the gas mask. Three colors, three commands, and nobody gets hurt. So much better than the color-coded terrorism alert system. She thought about telephones, and the Internet. She thought about alcohol and drugs, and wished that she had some.
She thought about the rest of the world, but being American, she didn't have a real clear picture of it. She thought about all of those different societies with their different histories and textiles. Different kinds of music, and ways of treating the mentally ill. Oh yeah, and different languages. She thought about all of the people who had fought to be free—not just in the American way, in their own way. That was as far as she could go with that.
She also thought about animals. She thought about them all the time. On one level it was okay that there were no more humans or human creations—after all, humans were also responsible for things like toxic waste and television and, of course, nuclear missiles. But that there should be no more dogs? Or horses? Or cheetahs? That there should be no more coyotes or hawks or lizards? No more elephants? No more lions? No more dolphins? No more pigs? No more piglets? No more lambs? A world without chickens? A world without fish? A world without cows? A world without robins, sparrows or pigeons? A world without trees?
And then sometimes she forgot about it all for days at a time. Or maybe they were nights. Stretches, she forgot about it for stretches. During those stretches, she made her way through the builders' cd collection, which was mostly country, and their books, which were mostly ham radio manuals and biographies of Donald Trump. There was one on metalcrafts, too. Metalcrafts are things like horseshoe wine racks and tin can soap dishes. She thought the bunker showed a much better use of their time and energy. It was (apparently) soundly built, with a wide-open plan—one big room with a galley kitchen and a bathroom off to one side. They hadn't gotten around to painting the concrete walls or carpeting the floors, but that made it more spacious chic even, in a lofty kind of way, if you overlooked the fact that there were no windows.
The illusion was further compromised by the three plaid La-Z-Boys in one corner, but she didn't mind. They were extremely comfortable. She did feel a little guilty for lying around in the builders' chairs all day, though, when they had obviously been such hard workers. Anything but lazy boys. It was like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, except without the Three Bears.
Or Goldilocks. She couldn't remember the last time she had washed her hair. Bathing was hard, psychologically. At first it made you forget about everything, that elemental contact with water, but then it made you remember. It made you remember something you couldn't possibly remember, which was being bathed in the kitchen sink as a baby. And that made you think, why didn't I just drown?
But if she fell asleep without remembering, she would wake up crying. Gasping, to be more precise, and clawing at the air. To avoid this, before she went to bed in those stretches she called nighttime, she would repeat to herself three times: the world is gone and you are all alone, the world is gone and you are all alone, the world is gone and you are all alone. Then she'd weep quietly until she nodded off to sleep—for the monkeys, or the oceans, or all of the people she would never see again. Sure, she wept for her mother and father, who had bathed her in the kitchen sink, but she wept for other people, too, sometimes people she had only ever seen once, in passing, who had looked like they might be nice. She wept because now she would never know.
It wasn't all weeping, though. There were days when she actually felt happy. Like the day she realized there were no more celebrities. Or reality TV shows. Or hidden cameras. Or dating services. No more malls. No more tract housing. No more oil companies, drug companies or timber companies. No more Walmarts.
There was the day she realized she would never have to learn how to care for her coffee beans. Not only that, but she could eat out of cans for the rest of her life. She had never thrown a dinner party, and now she would never have to.
Now she would never have to get a real job. She would never have to live up to her parents' expectations. She would never again wander out of the supermarket without paying and have to go back and face the checker.
She wouldn't have to wonder anymore why she formed unhealthy attachments, when she formed attachments at all. She would never again stand at the window in the middle of the night, next to a sleeping stranger, watching the cars go back and forth down on the highway. She could stop working on herself, working on relationships, working period. How great was that?
But the next day or stretch she was sad because she had no one to play with. Bunker life has its ups and downs. Rooting around in one of the builders' trunks, she found a photo album. She figured it must have belonged to the older son, since there were lots of pictures of him with his wife and little girl. She hadn't known the builders except to say hi—they all lived together in the father's house at the end of the street, a falling down place with a double lot. She had heard about it when the older son got divorced, though, heard about it because he and his wife had a screaming fight and all of the windows were open.
You could tell from the photos that all was not right. There was one picture of him—he had long stringy blond hair—looking at the baby—who had short stringy blond hair, a look both proud and distrustful, as if he knew she looked like him and wasn't sure he wanted to know any more people who looked like him. Ambivalent, you could call it. The baby herself was anything but ambivalent—she was smiling and waving a spoon in the air. Somebody had dressed her in a furry pink thing, but it didn't appear to cramp her style. She was what babies should be: upbeat. The mom, on the other hand, looked tired and shifty-eyed, like she was having an affair or was about to have one or was thinking to herself that she ought to have one.
It was funny to look at that photo and know that those people had been once and weren't any longer. Funny in a stomach-turning kind of way. There was a photo towards the end, after the wife and baby had disappeared, of the older son with the other builders, his father and brother. The father looked like a total lunatic, she had always thought that about him when she passed him on the street. With his long gray beard and beady black eyes, he was obviously the man behind the bunker, the man who had capitalized on his older son's distress and loneliness. “Forget that bitch and come round back,” she could hear him saying, “we've got a bunker to build.”
The younger son she had always kind of liked. He smiled at her whenever they passed, a joyful, loving smile that took her breath away. “Don't mind him, he's autistic,” the father told her once, gruffly. “He's not smiling at you, he's thinking about something else.” He had that same smile in the photo, which looked like it was taken in the bunker. She wondered what the something else was the son was always thinking about, the thing that made him smile, and felt sad because she would never know. Then she realized she never would have known anyway, and that made her feel better.
One day or stretch she decided to take herself in hand.
You can either lie around here moping, or you can figure out how to use that ham radio over in the corner.
I want to go outside, the voice came from far away.
Hey , she replied firmly. That is not an option.
So she taught herself ham radio, as best she could. She got as far as understanding how to listen in, to tune into the frequency and all of that, but she couldn't figure out how to transmit. She thought there might be a piece of equipment missing.
Still, she sat in front of the receiver, listening to crackles and pops. She did this each day for a long time, in between breakfast and dinner. She ate lunch at her desk in the corner. It was the closest she had ever come to real work. When she was a temp, she used to take two and three hour lunches. Sometimes she wouldn't go back to the office at all. Nobody ever seemed to notice, whereas if she stayed at work, she invariably broke the copier and everybody noticed. They would tell her it wasn't her fault and then they would ask the agency to send somebody out to replace her.
But this was different. This work was meaningful. She was searching for life in the void. She recorded all of her findings, which were zero, in a little yellow notebook.
The yellow notebook was almost full before she heard anybody speak. It was a man's voice, and it said, “Is anybody there?” She waited for a long time, but nobody answered. That night or stretch she wept long and hard before going to sleep. She wept because now she knew someone else had survived the end of the world, too. In some ways, this was worse than bearing it alone.
Later on, she started to hear place names. She had read in one of the manuals that this is what hams spend a lot of their time doing—identifying where they are. One time she heard somebody say “Yucca Valley, California.” Another time she heard “Chico, California.” Then it was “Waimea, Hawaii.” “Carpinteria, California.” “Hilo, Hawaii.” She wondered if anyone had survived outside of small towns in California and Hawaii. Once she heard a woman say New York, but it was more of a question than a statement. “New York?”
There were never any two-way conversations. It was as if only she could hear them all. Sometimes she thought this was a terrible thing, and sometimes she thought it wasn't so bad. Maybe everyone just needed a little time away from each other before things started up again.
She had a weird dream one night or stretch (it could have been a vision), after eating a particularly brightly colored meal (the builders were big fans of processed cheese). In her dream or vision that night or stretch, she had left the bunker and was heading for Hawaiiafornia in an old Model T Ford. Just to explain Hawaiiafornia: in her dreamworld the only two states in America to be missed by missiles (after the U.S. fired back at the terrorists, and Russia retaliated) were Hawaii and California, which had now formed their own union. That union was made easier by the fact that Hawaii had floated a lot closer to California, until they were almost touching. People went back and forth between the two states in glass-bottomed tourist boats with the glass covered over. Nobody wanted to see what was in the water.
On the way out to Hawaiiafornia, all around her black dust swirled, blotting out the sun. Every now and then she would pull the car over and get out to inspect a piece of straw that had been drilled through a tree trunk by the blast. That's when she knew it was a dream or a vision, because that was in the film about nuclear bombs she had seen in ninth grade civics class.
When she got to Oklahoma, she started to see other Model Ts heading in the same direction, with people in them wearing bandanas over their mouths. There was something heavy in the air besides the dust, something that weighed down on you and burned your lips and eyeballs. She figured this was radiation.
Oklahoma must have been a lot closer to the coast than it used to be, too, because she made it there in no time. Literally no time, because it was a dream or a vision. When she got to Hawaiiafornia, the dust and the heaviness disappeared, which is how she knew she had arrived. That, and the fields of poppies and the sunlight and the leis people would string around her neck at intersections. They all seemed to be musicians, those people, there was music being played everywhere, all along the route, and homemade preserves and bags of pecans and crocheted slippers changing hands. When she asked someone about it, a woman with her mother's face, the woman smiled and said, this is what we do all day long. It's a new new world.
And then, because somehow in the new new world she was someone very important, she asked them to take her to their leader, the Governor of Hawaiiafornia, and they did. To her delight, he turned out not to be Arnold Schwarzenegger but Willie Nelson.
“What are you planning for this new new world, Willie?” she cried. In her dream or vision it was like they were old friends.
“We're going to build a bridge between Hawaii and California,” Willie said, taking the red, white and blue bandana off of his mouth and wrapping it around his head, “and make a lot of music.”
Walking with Willie toward the spot where the bridge was going to be, she could see a beautiful pink cloud shimmering on the horizon.
“That's Hawaii,” he said, in his honey-colored, twangy voice. It sounded like the beginning of a song.
“Boy, this is great,” she said. “What a world, huh Willie? What a world!”
Willie nodded and tossed his red braids over his shoulder, giving her a joyful, loving smile. He strummed a few chords on his old guitar, which sounded better than ever.
But then they heard a terrible ruckus, a howling and a whooping with some gurgles thrown in.
“What's that noise?” she cried. “That's not music!”
Willie pointed to a field nearby, where a bunch of babies were riding horses and waving guns.
“Oh no!” she said. “Not them again.”
“That's right.” Willie shook his head sadly and sucked his teeth. “Cowboy babies.”
When she woke up back down in the bunker, she was weeping again. First, because she wasn't all the way awake, she wept for the fact that there were still cowboy babies in the world, even after all that had happened, and because she missed Willie Nelson. Then she wept because she would never see her mother's face or even a woman with her mother's face again.
She wept because sometime soon she would finish all the food and water and have to leave the bunker. Then she would get sick and die. She wept because there was no way, absolutely no way, around this.
She wept because she didn't want to end.
She wept because she thought she was starting to go a little crazy. She could swear she had heard a car start. And the sound of a barking dog.
When people use the expression “bunker mentality,” they're trying to say you've turned your back on the world. They're trying to say you think everybody's out to get you. And it's true, this was the mentality that had built the bunker, and this was the mentality that had caused the series of events that put her, an unprepared sort of person, down there. But once you're actually in the bunker, your state of mind is completely different. You want nothing more than to get out. You want nothing more than to face the world, and give it one more chance. That is the one thing you want, and that is the one thing you can't have.
Once you've accepted the situation, though, you can live in the bunker for a very long time at least, until your food and water runs out. Your mind may play tricks on you, but that's all it is. Humans are wired to need other humans, which may be part of the problem. Other humans take advantage of that sometimes.
She thought about writing a manual about living in a bunker, now that she had been doing it for some time, but she realized that everybody who would ever need it was already living in a bunker. So instead, and to drown out the shouts and the pounding on the door by the men she was sure were not there, she put on a little country music and lowered the recliner.
Janet Sarbanes teaches in the School of Critical Studies at the California Institute of the Arts, which houses an MFA Writing Program dedicated to hybrid and experimental forms. She has published short fiction, cultural criticism, and more recently, hybrids of the two. She is currently completing a collection entitled Army of One.