Fire and Rescue

“So how many bodies have they found?”

“About 1100,” Kelly said. “But there are probably hundreds more in the parts of the city they haven’t excavated, thousands in the surrounding countryside. People who were on the road when the surges hit.”

Donald removed his glasses and began wiping them with a small blue cloth. “What do you mean, surges?”

“Pyroclastic surges. Huge walls of ash and gases and molten rock. Super-hot and super-fast. Nothing would have survived them.” She sliced the last of the cucumber into rounds and slid the pieces into a large bowl. “The surges hit Pompeii the day after the volcano erupted.”

Donald put his glasses back on and frowned. “I don’t get it, the lag time.”

Kelly put down her knife and looked at his lanky frame sprawled on her sofa. His balding head shone under the ceiling light.

“It happened in stages. First there was the explosion, around noon, then this huge mushroom cloud that shot up 20 miles into the sky. That’s when the pumice started falling. It fell for hours. Buried Herculaneum and Pompeii.” She picked up the knife and reached for the radishes.

“Anyway, the pumice started to let up around dawn the next day and that’s when lots of people who hadn’t escaped earlier tried to leave. They thought the worst was over―it wasn’t. What happened was, the mushroom cloud finally collapsed and sent these surges down the mountain, six of them. The fourth one reached Pompeii.”

“That’s awful,” Donald murmured. “I wonder if there were any clues that the volcano was going to erupt.”

“Oh there were clues. Lots of small quakes for weeks, even months, beforehand. Problem was, tremors were common in that area. A few people probably got nervous and left, but most of them didn’t.” Kelly tossed the green radish tops into the trash and pulled some salad tongs out of a drawer. “They thought that everything was run by gods back then. Maybe they figured that if they prayed hard enough, sacrificed enough innocents, the gods would save them.”

She held up two bottles. “Ranch or blue cheese?”

 

Kelly herself did not believe in deities―one or many, just or unjust. Clearly, a god who sprinkled the world with both butterflies and botulism could not be credited with reason. Prayers or no prayers, we were on our own. This was a world of staggering wonder and we knew just enough about it to forge a blind path through.

If she were careful, Kelly figured, very careful, her money would last four more months. She’d already dumped her Cobra health insurance, her cell phone, her chiropractor, her hair dresser and Netflix; food costs she’d adjusted with lower expectations. Rent, utilities and car payments were non-negotiable.

How quickly it had happened! There she was, elbow-deep in whole wheat flour, and then she wasn’t. The day she was hired at the Big Dog Bakery, the owner of the shop, a well-dressed woman named Bonnie Pride, had said, “We get busy here. How are you under pressure?” Kelly had assured her that pressure was no problem, that after 20 years of line cooking and private catering, there wasn’t a kitchen in the world she couldn’t tame. And indeed that was the case. Rolling out peanut butter biscuits and carob cat cookies for Piedmont’s pampered pooches was nothing compared to the hellish muck of restaurant cooking. And how much more gratifying it was to feed dogs! Their thumping tails and eager tongues, their ardent whimpers and unbridled worship. Kelly took to the Big Dog Bakery like a spaniel to a duck pond. She loved the wholesome smell of it; the bins of tiny training biscuits; the toys and rainbow leashes; the photos and watercolors: golden retrievers running on beaches, blue tick hounds leaping over fences. Inspired by the fun, Kelly created daring new treats, outrageous mimics of human food: cheesy éclairs, applesauce cupcakes, oatmeal donuts, mini garlic pizzas. As the menu grew, so did the clientele, and Bonnie, who understood money and was generous by nature, rewarded Kelly handsomely. Sixteen months after Kelly was hired, Bonnie cut the ribbon on a second Big Dog Bakery in San Francisco and plans were made for a third shop in Carmel.

It was stunning what people spent on their dogs; you could be offended if you wanted to. Kelly thought her customers were wonderful: each day she was reminded that in this savage world there were people intent on bringing simple joy to animals―more people in fact than you could imagine. The Piedmont and San Francisco stores both flourished, with sales well in excess of target profit margins.

Who could envision an end to it? Who could have guessed that, one soy milk bone at a time, sales would taper off? People who shopped at the Big Dog Bakery were immune, or so Kelly had thought; the idea that they were tightening their purse strings, that they had to, made her woozy. As the weeks grew leaner Bonnie was obliged to shelve the blueprints for the Carmel site, and then to close the San Francisco store. At last she bid a teary farewell to most of the staff in Piedmont, keeping only Kelly and Deirdre, the girl who made deliveries. For a time Bonnie worked the register and even helped out in the kitchen, learning from Kelly how to make the bestsellers, which was all at that point they were bothering with. Bonnie wasn’t a natural baker, neither organized nor quick, but by then it didn’t matter. A few months later she closed the shop. Losing sight of the bakery, Bonnie and each other, Kelly and Deirdre floated away.

 

Kelly tried to picture the scene, to understand as best she could. The volcano spewed pumice all afternoon and through the night. Fires flared on the mountain and lightning flashed above it. The sea pulled away from the shore, stranding creatures large and small on the ash-covered sand. Boats in the harbor slammed into pieces. Earthquakes heaved the streets, cracked the buildings. Under the weight of volcanic debris roofs began to collapse.

People stumbled in the dark on the mounds of pumice, blankets tied to their heads. No one knew where to go. Those in houses ran into the streets; those in the streets took cover in buildings; people in boats rowed madly for shore; people on the shore sprang into boats.

Many, searching for loved ones, cried out to them. Some railed at the gods, others begged for mercy. They all must have thought that the world was ending, that hell had broken loose.

 

“Things are going to get a lot worse before they get really bad,” Trish said. “Did you hear about that Tent City near Sacramento? Now they’re laying off the goddamn garbage collectors.”

“What?” said Kelly. “What’s going to happen to all the trash?”

“Apparently we’re not making enough. Especially businesses―they’re not filling their dumpsters.”

Of course, Kelly thought, struck anew by a casualty she hadn’t considered. Of course the dumpsters would be empty.

“And people aren’t getting their teeth cleaned. That’s what Emily said yesterday—she’s my hygienist. I told her to cheer up, that all this neglect means a big payoff later. I told her that when this mess is over they’ll be up to their molars in money.”

Kelly laughed. “What did she say?”

“She said that by then lots of people would need oral surgery instead of fillings. Emily is very serious about teeth. Hey, what are you doing next week?”

“Not much.”

“We’re going to Belize. Carl has to meet with some macho. Do you want to house-sit?” Trish and Carl had a home in Piedmont complete with tennis courts and a Roman-style pool.

“Sure,” said Kelly.

“Great! Figure out what you need—we’ll leave a check on the bar.”

“Trish,” Kelly sighed, “I should be paying you to stay there.”

“That’s not true. You’ll be feeding the dogs.”

“I love your dogs.”

“So water a couple houseplants if it makes you feel any better.”

Trish used to shop at the Big Dog Bakery. She came in every week and bought a variety of treats for her two greyhounds, Lily and Cleo, who sometimes accompanied her. Unlike other dogs that had to be restrained or scolded, Lily and Cleo always entered the store gingerly, like well-behaved children, looking all around, eyeing Trish for guidance. Both were rescue dogs who had spent their first three years muzzled, shunted in and out of cages, on and off race tracks. Perhaps their gratitude ran so deep they could not recover from it. It was a feature of greyhounds, she had learned, this abiding courtesy.

Trish was one of their few customers who shopped till the bitter end. Money was not an issue for Trish, nor was it likely to become one. Carl, her husband, brokered military food and sold to countries all over the world; as long as there were wars, coups, guerillas and gangs, Carl would do fine. Unable to help herself, Kelly once asked Trish how he could justify his livelihood. Trish shrugged. “With Carl it’s strictly business—find the food, find the buyer. But you know, he does gobs of charity.” Certainly Trish made plenty of donations. On the counter at the bakery there used to be a box for ASPCA contributions. While most folks tucked quarters, ones or fives in the slot, Trish offered checks, one of which Kelly caught a glimpse of: $5000.

 

Some of the victims were found clutching keys to houses they would never return to. Many had taken jewelry―silver necklaces, gold rings; some had seized their spoons and goblets; others fled with figurines, gods or goddesses they hoped might help them. A few carried modest amounts of money.

Eighteen bodies, some with their arms around each other, were found in a small room in the gladiators’ barracks where they must have taken cover on their way out of the city.

One unlucky slave still wore his iron leg bands. Donkeys, tethered to mangers, were trapped inside a bakery. Tied to a post, curled in agony, was a forgotten guard dog.

Hunched inside houses were the sick and the old—those who were free to run but couldn’t.

In the homes, in the streets, on the roads out of town, nearly everyone perished. Only the very canny and swift would have made it out in time.

 

Driving over to Donald’s place, Kelly wondered if she could manage without a car. The east bay bus system was pretty good; she could get to Donald’s with one transfer. Jobs might be a problem though, especially on the weekends. Or if she had to work nights, god forbid.

Donald lived in the remodeled garage of a house in the Oakland hills owned by two gay men. Having lost his job early on, Donald had become proficient at finding ways to save money, a few of which he imparted to Kelly each time they saw one another. Insider knowledge, was what Kelly called it, stock tips for the poor.

Today he advised her to shop for groceries when she was in a hurry and to stick to a list. “Buy oats,” he added. “They’re cheap, they’re filling and they’re good for you.”

Donald knew a lot about food―what was good for you and what wasn’t. Having worked in a health food store, he could advise an herb or supplement for whatever ailment threatened, and he talked easily and at length about cytokine production, macrophage activity and CoQ-10. Kelly wasn’t sure that working at Renew had been a good career move for Donald. He had taken a job there after leaving Kinko’s, where he’d been worried about the smell of ink and how it was affecting his liver. Before that he had worked at the Gap, where he became convinced that the lighting was harming his eyesight. He was thrilled of course to have found a job in a health food store, but Kelly thought it might have fanned the fire. With all those potions at hand it was just too easy for someone like Donald to imagine a need for them. Now that he’d been cut off—no more employee discount; no more Renew, in fact—he felt unprepared for the harm that might befall him.

Kelly looked at the struggling young bird in Donald’s hands. He was chirping, a tiny constant tweet.

“Ferd looks bigger.”

“He’s gained two ounces,” said Donald proudly. Ferd was a pigeon that Donald had found flapping on the sidewalk. Like most baby birds, he was ugly―bald and gray-skinned. Donald was trying to feed him pellets of brown mush but the bird, wobbling on the newspaper, kept dodging his fingers. “He’ll find it in a minute. It takes him a while.”

“Does he always chirp like that?”

“Only during the day.”

“What are you going to do when he grows up? Are you going to keep him or give him back to his kin?”

“I don’t know,” said Donald. “I don’t want to think about it. I hate the thought of him eating fast food his whole life—dropped French fries, dirty pieces of donut.”

Donald adored Ferd. “We’re birds of a feather,” he had told Kelly. “Homely and alone.” Donald made frequent swipes at his looks, lamenting them good-naturedly. He said that being a homely gay man was “just plain wrong.” Kelly didn’t consider Donald unattractive; he had a long nose and a long face, but she thought it made him look Victorian. She saw him in a cloak and top hat, using an elegant walking stick.

Kelly’s eyes swept the cozy room: the maroon velvet quilt she liked so much; the scarred armoire Donald had bought for a song; the altar he had made—a redwood shelf on which he had placed crystals, a votive candle and a small statue of St Francis; the tidy kitchen nook with its glass jars of bulk grains. How many times had they sat at this yellow Formica table and talked and laughed while Kelly slowly spun the Lazy Susan and watched the salt, pepper and sugar go round?

“It’s nice and warm in here,” she said. “I’m keeping my place at 59.”

“Well, I’m keeping it warmer for Ferd—I don’t pay utilities here.” Donald had a sweet deal. Dale and Richard probably didn’t even need the nominal rent they charged him. Dale owned a swank antique store in Berkeley and Richard worked in San Francisco. Kelly wasn’t sure what he did, but it must have been lucrative, judging from the clothes they wore, the cars they drove and the three houses they owned.

“Trish thinks we shouldn’t have bailed out Wall Street,” said Kelly. “What do you think?”

Donald gently lifted Ferd, who was still cheeping, and put him back in his cardboard box. “I don’t know anything about high finance. I only know low finance.”

“She says we should have castrated them instead.”

“Ouch.”

“I guess she and Carl have lost a lot of money—not, you know, that it matters.”

Folding up the newspaper, Donald shook his head. “I don’t know what you see in that woman.”

“Donald, she’s not the enemy because she has money.”

“I know, but look who she’s married to. All those donations she makes? That’s blood money.”

Kelly shrugged. “Yeah. Well. Someone’s got to give―god knows the government isn’t. Did you hear our idiot governor wants to tax veterinary services?”

Donald stood up and walked into the kitchen. “Tea?” he asked, holding up a tin. Kelly shook her head. “Let’s talk about something else. Tell me more about Pompeii.”

Kelly leaned back in her chair and reflected. After a moment she said, “Well, they had this creed, this slogan they lived by: ‘Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die’―ironic, huh? They decorated their drinking goblets with little skeletons to remind themselves.”

“Clever,” Donald said, nodding.

“And they were pretty bawdy. They had plenty of bars and brothels, lots of graffiti and risqué art—little satyrs with big erections, that sort of thing. Phalluses were all the rage. They carved them everywhere: on the houses and shops, on the fountains, on the stones in the streets.”

Really?” said Donald, smiling from the stove.

“Yeah. They were supposed to symbolize power and fertility, good fortune. Almost like lucky charms.”

Donald turned off the tea kettle. “That’s how I’ve always thought of mine.”

“Let’s see,” Kelly murmured. “There was no end of bloody entertainment in the Amphitheatre. Talk about extreme sports―but I won’t go into that. Oh yes, the baths. They all went to the baths everyday. Big social thing.”

“I miss the baths in San Francisco.”

“I thought you said you never went to the baths.”

“That’s why I miss them,” he sighed.

“Well, you might not have liked these. People actually used them for bathing. And remember, no chlorine back then. If you went in with a cut you were likely to walk out with gangrene.”

“Ugh,” Donald shuddered. “What about the food? Did they eat good?”

“Better than most of us,” Kelly said. “Bread, fish, olive oil, cheese, fruit. Bad teeth though—no toothbrushes.” She paused, trying to remember more of what she’d read. “The streets were dirty too. People tossed their trash out their windows. There wasn’t any trash pick-up, no one scooping up the donkey doo. In fact, one of the things they had the slaves do was clean the guests’ feet before they came inside.”

Donald brought his tea to the table and sat down. “Well, that was pretty civilized. So lots of slaves back then?”

“Half the population. They did all sorts of things. They lived with their owners.”

Donald shrugged. “We have slaves too, only we call them personal assistants and we pay them cash instead of room and board.”

“True enough.”

“When you think about it,” he said, “we have all kinds of slaves. Office assistants, janitors, dishwashers, fruit pickers, yardmen.” He sat up straighter. “I’m going to be a slave myself.”

Kelly cocked her head, waited.

“Dale and Richard are letting me clean their house. Fifteen bucks an hour. Not bad, eh?” His eyes widened then and he clapped his long thin hands on the table. “Oh! Speaking of yardmen, you have to meet their new gardener. She’s Norwegian or something. Tall, blonde and butch—everything you like. Drives a big red truck.” He grinned. “And she wears a tool belt.”

Kelly rolled her eyes. “Romance is the last thing on my mind right now. And what if I did meet someone I liked? At some point I’d probably have to take my clothes off and I don’t think I can do that anymore.”

 

If she got this job, Kelly thought, she could take public transportation. She could walk three blocks to BART or she could take the bus. And unlike the education specialist position at the Oakland zoo, this was a job she was qualified for: creating upscale salads and picnic fare. No line cooking, no late night catering, just simple kitchen work she could do in her sleep.

Kelly changed lanes, glanced to her left at the rooftops of West Oakland. She never drove the Nimitz Freeway without thinking about the day it collapsed, killing six of the seven nurses who were in a van on the upper deck. The sole survivor was a friend of hers.

Pompeii was struck by a large quake too, sixteen years before Vesuvius erupted. The city was still being rebuilt on the day it was destroyed for good.

She recalled the conversation she’d had with Donald, what he said about modern day slavery. He was right. There were countless things that people would rather not do for themselves, things that could easily be shifted to others. At least the Romans took care of their slaves, kept them fed and sheltered even after they’d outlived their usefulness.

How she wanted to go back in time―to see the ancients in their houses, to hear them speak! For all the research that had been done, so little was known. Between bombings, earthquakes, clumsy excavating, shoddy renovations, periodic looting and the heedless relocation of objects, countless clues had been lost. How were meals prepared? Where did the children sleep? How did the merchants maneuver their donkey carts on those narrow, rutted streets? Were there really so many brothels, or were some of those masonry beds simply places for the poor to rest?

About one thing we knew too much: the horrific way they died. There was something evil about those plaster casts, Kelly thought, those man-made ghosts. We should never have laid eyes on them, should never have seen the grimaces, the eyebrows, the belt buckles. Not skeletons, not mummies, they were not corpses at all. They were the living dead, prized from their hidden pockets in the earth, crouched between this world and the next.

 

Kelly folded the newspaper and set it on the glass coffee table. She looked over at Lily and Cleo, curled up on their beds.

“47,000 foreclosures,” she said, “80,000 layoffs last month—and that’s just California.” The dogs looked up, regarded her gravely. “And that job at Harvest? I didn’t get it.” Lily, concerned, rose from her bed and walked over to the sofa.

It had been a hideous experience. For one thing, Kelly had no idea that they were interviewing five other applicants that day. They were sitting on stools outside the office when she arrived. Kelly perched herself on the last stool and cast a sideward glance at the woman next to her, a blonde wearing a close-fitting red jacket, a short black skirt and black high heels. She glanced at Kelly with a mixture of disdain and pity, then looked away. Kelly scanned the others: two Hispanic men, one Hispanic woman and one other white woman in a stylish blue suit. None of them looked over the age of 30.

The first question she was asked was why she left the catering business to make “dog food.” Kelly did not tell the truth: that she felt she had more in common with the family pets than the owners; that trying to make seared salmon for twelve on a flat-top stove without adequate venting was a challenge she’d grown weary of; that days starting at 4:00 am boning chicken thighs and ending at 2:00 am in a van filled with dirty dishes were days she didn’t miss.

Throughout the interview Kelly smiled and listened politely, evincing as much false cheer as she could stomach, agreeing to every disagreeable condition. Sure she could lift 50 pounds. Absolutely she could work any shift. Her biggest plus, her resume, the interviewer scarcely glanced at, preferring to pose a series of inane questions. Why did she want to work at Harvest? In what ways did she see herself contributing to “the Harvest vision?”

“Do you want a treat?” Kelly asked. Cleo immediately got to her feet and approached the sofa. Both dogs wagged their thin tails uncertainly.

“C’mon, girls.” Kelly led them into the kitchen, which looked more like a large study than a room where food was prepared. The refrigerator was hiding behind a slab of mahogany; the stove burners were covered with a glossy black panel; the oven she had never found. Kelly slid open a deep drawer and pulled out a jar filled with organic dog biscuits. Lily lifted an exquisite paw.

“Bet you miss my cheesy éclairs, don’t you?” She unscrewed the lid, pulled out four biscuits and offered the first one to Lily whose narrow muzzle opened gently. Cleo, her lustrous eyes fixed on the next treat, waited her turn.

When the dogs had finished their biscuits and retreated to their beds, Kelly went to the pool room, her favorite place in Trish’s house. It was a long, high-ceilinged room dimly lit with sconces. The walls were deep gold, stenciled with ivy and filled with figures from antiquity, perfectly rendered, the paints cracked and faded: a woman in a red toga reading to a child; a naked athlete throwing a discus; a man selling loaves of bread; a young girl with a stylus pressed to her lips; a series of flying cupids, their bows drawn. But the most impressive feature was the long rectangular pool of emerald water, in the very middle of which was a mosaic of three leaping dolphins. Donald, who had been here once, said it was the most pretentious thing he’d ever seen. Kelly nodded agreement. “Do you like it?” she asked. “I love it,” he said.

Driving back to her apartment, Kelly noticed all the For Sale signs that had appeared just in the last week. They looked like warnings. You couldn’t forget; you couldn’t ignore the fact that people were leaving in droves, or trying to. Some were fleeing in the dark, deserting the homes they could no longer afford, turning entire developments into wastelands pocked with weeds and stagnant swimming pools. In Detroit there were homes selling for a dollar.

 

A stray cat appeared on Kelly’s porch. It was a yellow tabby, underfed, under- loved, determined to be rescued.

Much as she liked cats, Kelly had never considered keeping one here, a block from Telegraph Avenue, in a house cut up into four apartments, hers on the upper story. She could not let it roam at will, not with the cars, the kids, the occasional loose dog; nor could she bear keeping it inside, dooming it to a litter box and a window. The cat was not concerned with these things; he wanted only a place to rest and something to eat.

After the first couple days the cat began to eat normally, not in that gulping way that made his shoulders lurch. It was clear enough he wasn’t going anywhere so when the first bag of food was gone Kelly bought an economy size sack of Friskies with a coupon Donald had given her. The litter box she kept in the bathroom under the sink, an arrangement that seemed fine with the cat, who used it discreetly. Occasionally, seeing him staring out the bedroom window, Kelly would raise the lower pane—there was a broken branch in the oak tree onto which he could easily jump—but he just sniffed the air and declined. With all the hazards out there, who could blame him? There were plenty of people content with armchair travel—why not a few cats?

 

“Dale and Richard are splitting up,” Donald said. “They’re selling this house and the one in the city.”

“Wow,” said Kelly. “I thought they were the perfect couple.”

“Me too. In all the time I’ve lived here I’ve never heard them fight. They don’t even raise their voices.”

“So who told you?”

“Dale, of course. Richard hardly talks at all. Dale came down this morning and told me that things have been stressful for a long time. He said they want to simplify their lives―I think they might be in over their heads.”

“If they’re selling two of their houses, I’d say you’re right,” said Kelly, twining the phone cord around her finger.

“He said the antique business is really slow, that people don’t want to play fair anymore. He called it ‘a yard sale mentality.’ And I guess things aren’t much better where Richard works.”

“I know he works in the city but what does he do?”

“He works for a securities firm—he’s a financial analyst. Anyway, they’re laying people off and I guess his job is on the line too.” Donald paused. “So basically I’m screwed. No way am I going to find rent this cheap. Or free WiFi.”

“Don’t worry,” said Kelly. “At the rate houses are selling, you’ve got plenty of time.” She looked over at the cat, asleep in his wine box under the window. “Come over for dinner, meet my cat. I’ll make spaghetti or something.”

 

In one of Pompeii’s larger homes the remains of three people were found, two adults and a child, equipped with a pick and hoe. Some believe that they lived in the house and were trying to find a way out as the pumice rose higher and higher. Others imagine that this was a party of looters who were killed when their tunnel collapsed.

In the weeks and months after the eruption, many tunnels were dug into the city. Robbers and treasure hunters—maybe a few surviving residents―risked their lives to take what they could: bronze, lead and marble; tools and trinkets, anything of value. By the time they were excavated, some of the grandest homes were found nearly empty, their walls scarred with holes.

 

Grating a chunk of cheese, Kelly wondered if she and Donald could live together here. It would be close quarters―one of them would have to sleep in the living room―but it would save them a lot of money. The armoire might not fit. And what about the pigeon and the cat?

She remembered a story then, a show she’d seen on TV about pet rescue. It was after a big flood and a van was going through the ruined neighborhoods picking up the animals that had survived. When the van stopped, a drenched dog or cat would scramble in and lay right down; they actually made room for each other. They forgot they were natural enemies.

She and Donald, the bird and the cat, maybe the four of them could figure it out.

 

When Donald arrived Kelly opened the wine and told him all about her interview at Harvest, the five other applicants, the questions she was asked.

“What a bitch! She really said ‘dog food?'”

“Yes. You should have seen her. Self-important twit. And she was a child, they all were.” She paused. “It used to be so easy, Donald, getting a job—I’d just walk in and start cooking. Not anymore. Now I’m 53. I’m invisible.”

“You don’t look your age,” Donald said.

“Do you think I should color my hair?”

He shrugged. “Why not?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “It feels like I’m betraying myself. It feels…morally dangerous.”

Donald rolled his eyes. “You are so dramatic. People have been marketing themselves since they started walking upright. There’s no shame in it. You wear mascara sometimes, I know you do. It’s the same thing.”

“It’s not the same thing. Mascara washes right off. If I color my hair now I’ll have to do it forever.”

“Not forever. Just till you get a job.” He smiled. “Get a job, then let yourself go.”

The cat, having finished a snack in the kitchen, stopped to sniff Donald’s pant leg before crossing the room and leaping into his box.

“Have you named him?”

“Of course. I call him Julius, for his golden color and the nicks in his ears. But I think his days of battle are over. He’s resting on his laurels now. How’s Ferd?”

“Good. He’s a little bigger, starting to look like a pigeon.”

“You’re a good father,” said Kelly. “Making that bird baby food every day.”

“Thank you.” He took a sip of wine, looked around the room. “What’s this music? I like it.”

“It’s a CD Trish gave me. Dinner in Tuscany. Accordion music—who knew?” Kelly leaned back in the chair, propped her feet on the coffee table. “You know what I read in the paper? People are trashing their own homes. Well, not their homes, the banks’ homes―people who’ve been foreclosed on. Anyway, they’re so angry at the banks that they’re yanking the appliances out before they leave, even the countertops, and selling them. Some of them are marking up the walls and ripping up carpet just for the hell of it, just so the banks have a harder time selling the houses.”

“That’s awful.” Donald shook his head. “We’re awful, aren’t we? Vandalism. Greed. Waste. War. And now look what’s happened.” He turned to her. “It’s like Pompeii, isn’t it? Do you think the gods have abandoned us?”

“No. I don’t think they were ever watching us.”

“Well that’s pretty bleak,” Donald said.

“Is it more comforting to think that we’re being punished? That the people of Pompeii deserved what they got? Look at all those temples they built, all that worshipping. Where did it get them?”

“Maybe they were as corrupt as we are. It sounds like it, from what you’ve told me.”

“I’m sure they were. People are flawed, they always have been. We’re flawed and we’re vulnerable.”

He blinked. “So that’s that? Faith is pointless? No one is looking out for us?”

Kelly lifted the bottle, poured them more wine. “Donald, I’m making Spaghetti alla Carbonara. It’s going to be good. Julius has a bed. Ferd is gaining weight. What do you want from the gods?”

Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Other Voices, Pleiades, The Summerset Review, The Massachusetts Review, Blue Lake Review, damselfly press and EarthSpeak Magazine. Nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize, she has also published a novel, Lost Sister. A collection of her short stories, Survival Skills, will be published by Ashland Creek Press in April 2013. Please visit her website at http://jean-ryan.com.

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