sam berman – the new world history of wife
The Earth had been on fire for years as he sat on the rug that fit the basket perfectly. Later he’d catch a pigeon, snap its neck and eat. Sometimes in the birds’ bellies he’d find dimes or pennies. Once he’d found a tube of lipstick: bright pink. His balloon was a tartan patchwork of eagle feathers and the t-shirts he’d once wore. Also, there were license plates he’d sewn into the canvas himself, from back in the day when the people still fired their guns into the air in attempt to bring down his balloon.
It was a mystery to him how the balloon still floated; he’d run out of methane years ago. He guessed maybe the hot air rising was enough to keep him up, but he wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter. No. He no longer asked questions of his existence. Just floated. Just floated. On occasion he would imagine himself crashing into the molten surface below. Then he would feel guilty. He’d been spared, he sometimes would think, and should be more grateful for that.
He would also sometimes think that maybe he was the last miracle on earth.
Now, not having been shot at in years, he missed the excitement of old-world violence. There were no more excitements while he floated; no more people below holding signs with the number of survivors, watching him bob gently towards the horizon. No more knife wielding Nazis throwing their spears from the tip of the presidents’ noses as he passed over the top of Mt. Rushmore. No. No. Just the endless breadth of fire: smoke-signals dillydallying towards the top of the earth, and giant buildings folding atop their smoldering bases, and mountains glowing red like the way they would in a cartoon version of Hell.
Things had stopped changing.
For the most part.
Occasionally he would drift over a shitty black ocean.
Squalls and hundred foot tidal-waves would crash against the fire-eaten beaches.
As he carried over the darkened coasts he’d remember what sand used to look like. And he’d remember his wife with sand falling off her butt, eating a sandwich the ugly way and kicking seaweed back into the ocean. He’d remember her brown hair and the afternoons turning hot, the sun in her eyes and their gentle blueness when pressed against the bright light. Her slight underbite. Her unread book. He used to love the sand, the beach, the Wife.
The sordid circumstance of Wife’s death would often come to him in his dreams. In his dreams: he’d be sitting on their bed, pale legs hanging from his boxers. Wife would be raking her hair in the mirror and talking about what co-worker was contemplating an affair or who in the office was considering a facelift. Then Wife would laugh her out of nowhere laugh. And he would laugh. And they’d both laugh until suddenly, outside the bedroom window, from the sky that looked like a toddler painted it by hand: four indigo asteroids would tear through the clouds. The smallest one would fillet the neighbor’s house.
The neighbor, Jack Ontario.
Poor Jack Ontario, he would think.
Jack had always lent him DVDs.
And had always smiled when pulling in (or out) the Silverado with the POW sticker on the bumper and shiny cow-balls dangling from the hitch.
Jack Ontario had been nice but was eaten by fire.
Then in the dream: him and Wife would run down the stairs and open the door to see an endless slate of indigo asteroids smashing through the upper atmosphere. A thousand end-of-time style rocks coming right for them.
Wife would scream.
He would scream.
Then Wife would scream again.
“The balloon, yes!”
“Not such bullshit waste of inheritance money after all, huh?” He’d feel proud.
“Don’t be a fucko, it’s still a tremendous waste of money! There're fucking airplanes in the world, and cars, and fucking bicycles! Why would anyone buy a hot-air balloon?”
He’d always thought it was cute when she said “Fuck.”
“I guess for the end of the world?” He’d reply.
“Don’t be fucking cute.” She’d say.
Him and Wife would run into the house grabbing cans of soup and filling bottles of water, they’d grab the tribe of significant items that might represent them in The New World.
In the dream, this part is exciting.
He runs into the backyard and lights the pilot. Soon the balloon is taking form. At first it looks like a potato sack, then it turns into an erect ball of hot air–something like a basketball. Wife is tossing cans of soup out the kitchen window towards the basket. They ricochet off the just-mowed lawn, hitting him in the ankles. It would have been cute, if time was so not of the essence, but it was still pretty cute. The asteroids are getting close, and he can feel the heat.
Soon: Wife runs out of the house with a real Persian rug, the one she got on vacation with her sister.
“Leave it!” He yells.
“Fuck no!” It’s cute every time.
She throws the rug and then herself into the basket. She hands him a steak knife she’d grabbed from the kitchen. “Ready?” He asks. They stare at each other with big wet eyes, like after the first time they’d made love: ready to start anew.
The New World wouldn’t be so bad.
He cuts the rope. Wife smiles. Then beautiful asteroids, born from the furnace of the universe, begin to scorch the earth.
Giant cracks open in the ground around them. The lawn turns to flames.
He hates the next part of the dream.
When: Jack Ontario–who is on fire at this point–grabs Wife from behind and rips her from the tethers of the new world. From their new world: the one in the sky, with the Persian rug Wife got with her sister on vacation.
Jack pulls hard and drags her back down into the fire.
He grabs for Wife’s legs as she goes over the side of the basket.
Wife screams, “Fuck!”
It’s not cute this time, just really fucking sad.
Wife and Jack Ontario are eaten alive.
Wife’s once iridescent vitality is turned to ash.
She becomes an extension of scorched earth.
And somewhere the Universe is holding its head low, shameful like.
He begins to rise and the world below him begins to burn. All he can do is watch.
He wakes up sweaty and hot and cold, bobbing slowly through smokestacks that vein from the charred surface below, feeling so lonely he could die.
He could jump and die. Well, more aptly: jump, then fall, and then die. If the Universe wanted him alive, there’d be an intervention. A second miracle. Cosmic prying. Sort of like with the asteroids: the odds of the first plane in four years, flying by in that exact moment he decides to jump from his balloon; a daring pilot extending his hand, catching him–the pilot’s dashing leather pilot glove wrapped around his wrist; the odds of that happening had to be at least close to the odds of smoldering plum space rocks gobbling up everyone he’d ever known. Gobbling the pumpkin patch Wife had enjoyed visiting in Octobers. Gobbling Wife’s college fencing gear. Gobbling the porno tapes that Him and Wife would watch when they got stoned.
It was only him.
He was the one left to remember Wife; the pumpkin patch Wife liked; deviled eggs Wife made on his birthday; all the Wife things, the things to him worth remembering. He didn’t even really miss the other (non-Wife) things like: Egypt, rainy Sundays, soy sauce, and baseball. They were just, to him, things like Mammoths. Things that existed once, but not even in his lifetime; things he wished he didn’t remember, because he felt they took up critical Wife-Memory-Storage, or, storage better used for Imaginary-Wife-Memory-Storage: imaginary scenarios where Wife is sitting across from him on the Persian rug, rubbing his feet and him rubbing hers, and the two of them guessing what fire-eaten monument the other might be thinking of. Or the one with the two of them sitting back-to-back, on the day they’d guess was Christmas, counting down from ten, then surprising one another with handsewn presents. He’d put a tiara made of pigeon bone around her olive shaped head, and they’d make love between the drifting grey particles that’d once been known as Texas.
He made a dreamcatcher out of his dead hair some years ago.
A bird had stolen it some years ago.
That’s not to say birds in The New World are bad. Quite the opposite. They’re good. They are breakfast, lunch, and dinner good. They’re good. A boney pigeon face may be on the dollar bill of The New World. If he ever found a place–a place people still were, and he and those people were deciding what to put on The New World flag, pigeon would have his vote. Well, actually, Wife would have his vote. But he guessed she wouldn’t mean much to any of the other survivors. He would have to regale them with stories of Wife. All the classics. The one when Wife said “Fuck” at the Vatican–when a local who offered to take a picture of them ran away with her camera, and praying Catholics dropped their rosaries, and stared with a nettled shock, like: You can’t say that here! The Pope is like, literally, five hundred feet away, and Wife (pissed) stomped away towards the gift shop. It was the cutest thing he could remember happening in the The Old Word.
It was the cutest thing he could imagine ever happening in The New World.
He just missed her so bad sometimes, and sorta all the time, too.
When he didn’t dream about how everything ended, he would sometimes dream about how it began. He would dream of Wife in the box suite. The one Lewis’ church gave him as a wedding present: Lewis, who he always liked, but not really. Wife standing in a huddle with other girls from her office, the one Lewis’ wife worked at. The icy insistent white light against her olive shaped head. The crowd screaming, her screaming, “Fuck the Gophers!” The Gophers proceeding to then get fucked, which made her olive head smile and then laugh. Lewis then saying something to him about Sodom and Gomorrah, and him replying, “Yeah, for sure. No doubt. Sodom. I’m going go grab a Pretzel. I’ll be back.”
He’d dream about bumping into Wife’s back on accident-purpose, the way you do when you want to touch someone you don’t yet know. He’d dream about the two of them ditching that lame Hockey suite and then running around the stadium tunnels. The crowd above in the perfect degree of fever: stomping their feet and clapping their hands. Wife and him running beneath the hissing pipes, stopping to kiss as the Gophers give up a big goal. Then the two of them in the guts of the stadium: holding each other for the very first time. And he sees her eyes wet. And smells the chemicals they use to keep the ice frozen, longer.
And they go back to her apartment and fit together perfectly.
And he is happy.
Because it is love.
His chin falls to his chest.
And his eyes open: booms of thunder stacking off in the distance, as he floats slowly along the doldrums.
He puts his hands in his knotted hair and wishes to be back in the dream.
But no. He’s awake now and must again think of her as something gone.
And he does.
Because he knows: none of the dreams are exactly how it really happened.
Wife was far too real for dreams to do justice.
So, he must live a bit longer, in case there’s people out there, somewhere.
On the top of a mountain or riding around in a zeppelin.
People that he can explain everything to.
Because if it is truly only him that is left.
It is only him that remembers.
And that means Wife is the entire history of the world.
SAM BERMAN is a short story writer who lives in Boise, Idaho and works at House Of Wheels, in a very nice warehouse with Wes & Peter & Whitney. They are terrific coworkers. He has had his work published in Maudlin House, Illuminations, 6S, and recently won Forever Magazine's Unconventional Love Stories competition. He was also selected as a runner-up in The Kenyon Review's 2022 Non-Fiction Competition. He has forthcoming work in Hobart, The Masters Review, The Fourth River, and others