Station Eleven (Page 21)
“Why Israel?” Arthur said miserably. “That’s the part I don’t understand. Of all places.”
“Wasn’t she a history major in college? Maybe that’s what she likes about it, all the history in the place.”
“I think I’ll have the duck,” Arthur said, and this was the last they spoke of Elizabeth, actually the last they spoke of anything of substance. “I’ve been indecently lucky,” Arthur said later that night, on his fourth martini. It was a line he’d been using a great deal lately. Clark wouldn’t have been bothered by it if he hadn’t seen Arthur use it on Entertainment Weekly a month or two earlier. The restaurant was one of those large, under-lit places that seemed to recede into shadow at the periphery, and in the murky middle distance Clark saw a pinpoint of green light that meant someone was recording Arthur on a cell phone. Clark felt increasingly stiff. He was aware of the whispers that had sprung up, the glances from other tables. Arthur was talking about an endorsement deal of some kind, men’s watches, his gestures loose. He was telling an animated story about his meeting with the watch executives, some kind of humorous misunderstanding in the boardroom. He was performing. Clark had thought he was meeting his oldest friend for dinner, but Arthur wasn’t having dinner with a friend, Clark realized, so much as having dinner with an audience. He felt sick with disgust. When he left a short time later he found himself wandering, even though by now he’d oriented himself and knew how to get back to the Tube station. Cold rain, the sidewalk shining, the shhh of car tires on the wet street. Thinking about the terrible gulf of years between eighteen and fifty.
DIALLO: I’ll ask you more about Arthur Leander and the comics in a moment. Perhaps I could ask you a few questions about your life first?
RAYMONDE: You know me, François. We’ve been coming through this town for years.
DIALLO: Yes, yes, of course, but some of our readers might not know you, or the Symphony. I’ve been giving copies of the paper to traders, asking them to distribute it along their routes. You’ve been acting since you were very young, isn’t that right?
RAYMONDE: Very young. I was in a commercial when I was three. Do you remember commercials?
DIALLO: I do, regrettably. What were you selling?
RAYMONDE: I don’t actually remember the thing itself, the commercial, but I remember my brother telling me it was for arrowroot biscuits.
DIALLO: I remember those too. What came after the biscuits?
RAYMONDE: I actually don’t remember, but my brother told me a little. He said I did more commercials, and when I was six or seven I had a recurring role on a televised … on a televised show.
DIALLO: Do you remember which show?
RAYMONDE: I wish I did. I can’t remember anything about it. I think I’ve mentioned before, I have some problems with memory. I can’t remember very much from before the collapse.
DIALLO: It’s not uncommon among people who were children when it happened. And the Symphony? You’ve been with them for a while, haven’t you?
RAYMONDE: Since I was fourteen.
DIALLO: Where did they find you?
RAYMONDE: Ohio. The town where we ended up after we left Toronto, my brother and I, and then after he died I was there by myself.
DIALLO: I didn’t know they went that far south.
RAYMONDE: They only went down there once. It was a failed experiment. They wanted to expand the territory, so that spring they followed the Maumee River down past the ruins of Toledo, and then the Auglaize River into Ohio, and they eventually walked into the town where I lived.
DIALLO: Why do you say it was a failed experiment?
RAYMONDE: I’ll always be grateful that they passed through my town, but the expedition was a disaster for them. By the time they reached Ohio they’d lost an actor to some illness on the road, something that looked like malaria, and they got shot at three times in various places. One of the flautists got hit and almost died of a gunshot wound. They—we—the Symphony never left their usual territory again.
DIALLO: It seems like a very dangerous life.
RAYMONDE: No, that was years ago. It’s much less dangerous than it used to be.
DIALLO: The other towns you pass through, are they very different from here?
RAYMONDE: The places we return to more than once aren’t dissimilar to here. Some places, you pass through once and never return, because you can tell something’s very wrong. Everyone’s afraid, or it seems like some people have enough to eat and other people are starving, or you see pregnant eleven-year-olds and you know the place is either lawless or in the grip of something, a cult of some kind. There are towns that are perfectly reasonable, logical systems of governance and such, and then you pass through two years later and they’ve slid into disarray. All towns have their own traditions. There are towns like this one, where you’re interested in the past, you’ve got a library—
DIALLO: The more we know about the former world, the better we’ll understand what happened when it fell.
RAYMONDE: But everyone knows what happened. The new strain of swine flu and then the flights out of Moscow, those planes full of patient zeros …
DIALLO: Nonetheless, I believe in understanding history.
RAYMONDE: Fair enough. Some towns, as I was saying, some towns are like this one, where they want to talk about what happened, about the past. Other towns, discussion of the past is discouraged. We went to a place once where the children didn’t know the world had ever been different, although you’d think all the rusted-out automobiles and telephones wires would give them a clue. Some towns are easier to visit than others. Some places have elected mayors or they’re run by elected committees. Sometimes a cult takes over, and those towns are the most dangerous.
DIALLO: In what sense?
RAYMONDE: In the sense that they’re unpredictable. You can’t argue with them, because they live by an entirely different logic. You come to a town where everyone’s dressed all in white, for example. I’m thinking of a town we visited once just outside our usual territory, north of Kincardine, and then they tell you that they were saved from the Georgia Flu and survived the collapse because they’re superior people and free from sin, and what can you say to that? It isn’t logical. You can’t argue with it. You just remember your own lost family and either want to cry or harbor murderous thoughts.
SOMETIMES THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY thought that what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night. At other times it seemed a difficult and dangerous way to survive and hardly worth it, especially at times when they had to camp between towns, when they were turned away at gunpoint from hostile places, when they were traveling in snow or rain through dangerous territory, actors and musicians carrying guns and crossbows, the horses exhaling great clouds of steam, times when they were cold and afraid and their feet were wet. Or times like now when the heat was unrelenting, July pressing down upon them and the blank walls of the forest on either side, walking by the hour and wondering if an unhinged prophet or his men might be chasing them, arguing to distract themselves from their terrible fear.
“All I’m saying,” Dieter said, twelve hours out of St. Deborah by the Water, “is that quote on the lead caravan would be way more profound if we hadn’t lifted it from Star Trek.” He was walking near Kirsten and August.
Survival is insufficient: Kirsten had had these words tattooed on her left forearm at the age of fifteen and had been arguing with Dieter about it almost ever since. Dieter harbored strong anti-tattoo sentiments. He said he’d seen a man die of an infected tattoo once. Kirsten also had two black knives tattooed on the back of her right wrist, but these were less troubling to Dieter, being much smaller and inked to mark specific events.
“Yes,” Kirsten said, “I’m aware of your opinion on the subject, but it remains my favorite line of text in the world.” She considered Dieter one of her dearest friends. The tattoo argument had lost all of its sting over the years and had become something like a familiar room where they met.
Midmorning, the sun not yet broken over the tops of the trees. The Symphony had walked through most of the night. Kirsten’s feet hurt and she was delirious with exhaustion. It was strange, she kept thinking, that the prophet’s dog had the same name as the dog in her comic books. She’d never heard the name Luli before or since.
“See, that illustrates the whole problem,” Dieter said. “The best Shakespearean actress in the territory, and her favorite line of text is from Star Trek.”
“The whole problem with what?” Kirsten felt that she might actually be dreaming at this point, and she longed desperately for a cool bath.
“It’s got to be one of the best lines ever written for a TV show,” August said. “Did you see that episode?”
“I can’t say I recall,” Dieter said. “I was never really a fan.”
Kirsten shrugged. She wasn’t sure if she actually remembered anything at all of Star Trek, or if it was just that August had told her about it so many times that she’d started to picture his stories in her head.