When my mind finally went it was not the sonic boom I’d always expected. Instead it crumpled up like a blank sheet of paper and blew away, scraping softly along the Street of Cosmonauts, the result of a head packed wall to wall with empty space. That spring the fires were raging yet people in our town pretended like nothing was happening. We even took solace in this nothing, clinging to it for what our lives were worth, merely acknowledging that the burning was elsewhere, in cities far away and irrelevant. As guardians of the remote, we were left to hang on, inhaling the tired wisps of smoke in tenements sinking into desuetude.
Shortages were general across the country, and the meat trucks had already stopped passing through our town, though we didn’t believe the meat seller on our street when he swore he had nothing to sell. He had a lifelong reputation as a compulsive liar, but in the end there was little we could do. Soon the paper mill shut down for an undetermined period, and the youngest and fastest and strongest among us fled to those infernos we called our great cities. There they would secure their hunk of ham with a higher education and a corner office in the stream of paper and power flowing down the corridors of their heavenly towers. And if they failed, which seemed likely, they would fight it out down below in crowded filthy streets.
My brother knew better, at least that summer, and while I resigned myself to a palate sickened by a strict diet of omul from the lake, he observed that even as the crisis raged, the meat seller on our street grew fatter. There must have been a black market, he speculated, some clandestine system of late night sausage deliveries to the big men left in our town, since we’d never seen the world work otherwise.
When the great lake began to unfreeze and leaves were appearing in the trees, the belief that the meat seller was hoarding became my brother’s quiet obsession. The days grew longer and the eager green in his eyes intensified, serving as an uncanny contrast to the darker turn our circumstances had taken after our father had cracked up and run off.
The Tower was the name we’d given to an abandoned attic space at the top of our building, and it was there I found my brother on the last day of school, just staring out the window in the general direction of the lake. He had green stains on his jean from rolling around in wet grass. I remember that in the face of an overcast sky and the darkening dust-coated walls, my brother was laughing, laughing with such persistence that several minutes passed before he could explain what had happened.
It had all started when instead of going to school, he’d gone drinking with some friends by the railroad station, a small brown wooden building with a look of sad abandonment. Who should he find there but the meat seller’s daughter in a crowd of slatternly shrews. She was ugly to the last drop, rude and spiteful, yet my brother sensed nothing less than the opportunity of a lifetime. Steeling his resolve, he cut through the flab and the almost tragic shrillness, and with the help of more homemade spirits, managed to pry the hideous meat seller’s daughter away from her friends. He led her through a path in the pine trees and across the old highway and when they had escaped the others, he swallowed his pride.
That afternoon my brother saw in the eyes of the meat seller’s daughter a sign that if he played his cards right, he would earn a great reward. So when his peers headed off into the low green hills to find work, or else returned to the land to live off onions and potatoes, he decided to remain in town. As for me, I took a part time job renting out paddle boats down at the carnival grounds, but lethargy stifled much of the summer enthusiasm and with so few tourists, there was nothing to do. I spent most of the time bumming cigarettes from Larissa, the older woman who operated the small carousel, and just staring out across the sun dappled waves, toward the green hills on the other side, or the great big nothing all around us in the sky.
By mid summer meat was the stuff of some long-ago dream. Our meat seller’s promises of future deliveries rang hollower by the day. Yet not a week passed without a rumor or two. Like when my aunt smelled what she swore was beef stewing in carrots and potatoes as she stood outside flat # 32. Or when my sister found rib bones in the skip. And, of course, there were those living somewhere out there on the land who had livestock, but mostly it was for personal consumption. Occasionally we heard talk of deals made, but always for ungodly sums and subsequently eaten in paranoid seclusion.
It never ceased to amaze me how my brother avoided dragging his reputation through the mud during his courtship of the meat seller’s daughter. People trusted his instincts. Either that or they hardly noticed. Three weeks after that fateful last day of school I found him in the Tower staring out the window. He spoke with extreme confidence about his rendezvous that night. About how the meat seller’s daughter had been making subtle promises. About how he was going to dive down deep.