How to Eat Well at the End of the World

“Before,” a short story by Simon Han

How to Eat Well at the End of the World

Before

Again they cooked a meal, a good meal, maybe the best Benny had ever cooked, and they ate it slowly, with great delicacy, noting the mouthfeel of chives and onion, the muscularity of bone broth, laughing because not knowing which words would be their last had made them pretentious, and though there would be no one to document their words let alone be impressed by them, Elle wondered if the ash would remember, if she and Benny would be tossed and raked through and blended with the rest, if they would become mountain peaks, humpback whales, books — a clatter of Benny’s spoon against his bowl, and he peered up like a child, thinking what a gift it was that he and Elle could share a nice dinner behind soundproofed walls and blacked out windows, how despite growing up thousands of miles from each other they’d told the same story of the world they stitched together, only now he wanted to tell her something he’d done without her, something shameful, was that okay, he asked, and as she nodded with noodles in her mouth he began: long ago, in a McDonald’s drive-through, a nice old lady in front of him had paid for his milkshake and fries because the person in front of her had paid for her and the person in front of that person had also paid, etc. etc. and he’d wanted to keep the chain going, except that he had the stupid luck of having behind him an entire youth group packed into a monstrous van, all while the man at the drive-through window stared him down as if waiting for him to be a decent person, so he paid it forward, over $200 he paid it forward, and before he could allow himself to get on the road he did something utterly indecent: he re-entered the drive-through lane, he willed the goodness he’d launched into the world to boomerang back to him, and when he pulled up to the menu again he asked for five meals, at least three more milkshakes, a box of apple pies, etc. etc. and by the time he finished his four-movement symphony of an order, the truck in front of him had already driven off, and wasn’t that shameful, Benny said to Elle, I don’t know why I never told you, I guess I didn’t know you then, and Elle smiled because to her this was probably far from the most shameful thing he’d ever done, because the two of them might aspire to true accountability right before the trumpets rang but there would be no trumpets, the most she’d heard through the coded radio static was that it would all end in a matter of days in a literal flash, and if Benny gave all of himself away now she’d have to sit with him in the minutes or hours after, piecing together the wreckage as they waited — enough, Elle said, as she reached across the table to still his hands, did he remember when she used to give elaborate readings of his palms, and he said of course, like the time she predicted incorrectly that he would outlive her, and she said, well back then death was interesting and I didn’t want to be alone, and this made Benny quiet as he knew that in his company, Elle had at times felt the most profound loneliness of her life, and after all these years, he still could not separate the wars inside her head and the invisible anchors on her chest from how they had caused him suffering, and yet before the flash, when his comparative lack of suffering should have made him more terrified than her of what would come next, it was still Elle who looked the saddest; all this he told her, and Elle stared off at the hunting rifle by the sink and said that sad wasn’t the right word but she didn’t know what was, and before long they were sharing with each other their favorite words: woolgathering, zaftig, defenestration, 아련함, 孤独, working the sounds out of their throats and along the walls of their mouths and over and under their tongues and through the many shapes that their lips could still form as if they were chewing the words, as if words were for dessert when dessert was actually two vitamin gummy bears each, which Elle and Benny savored before throwing caution to the wind and devouring the rest in the bottle, and as they stood up and the nutrients drowned their bodies, they marveled at how long it’d been since they planted their feet like this, not to move from seat to seat but just to be upright, to let gravity run its course, though looking down at her feet, thought Elle, seemed to buck the natural order of things, an order she’d learned as a little girl when her mother died lying on her back the way most preferred to go, looking up, wasn’t that right, Elle asked Benny, and that may be true, he said, but who could really know which direction pointed to heaven, to which she groaned, realizing at the same moment that she’d forgotten the last words her mother had said or even what language they’d been in, a failure, Elle was calling herself now, she was one of the last representatives of humankind and should be giving the earth more to lose, but with a hush Benny handed over a stained dish that needed no instruction; she chucked it against the wall with the others, the crash no longer causing either of them to flinch, then she moved on to the jugs of water, the wind-up flashlight, the last of the liquor, Benny’s grandfather’s coin collection, the cards and letters they’d written each other and re-read together every time they packed up and moved, Benny always pretending for some reason that he’d never read them in private, and when Elle was done they stepped over the detritus, humming some tune, some soundtrack for their lives that they’d cobbled together over the years from pop hits and commercial jingles and even the weird demo song that came with their electronic keyboard, now overturned into a pool of cranberry juice, how they kept going, how their voices grew louder, how before Benny smashed his only working walkie-talkie he radioed their former landlord to say yes, Carl, you are racist and no, I will not forgive you, not even now, and after Elle went down her list as well and took a hatchet to the portable stove, there was a silence in the apartment so pervasive that they could hear each other blink; it was then, for the first time in months, that they unbolted the five locks and clasped their hands together and went outside, surely, they thought, to the sight of overturned cars, rubble pyramids, human fire pits, killing contests, and cannibalism, and there was some of that, but there was also in the former laundromat across the street a pack of strangers belting out separate cobbled-together songs, none of them in sync as they swung and shook and contorted also to the thumps of whatever objects were being cycled in the dryers — please god, let it not be heads, thought Benny, as Elle pulled him there over the broken glass and splintered chairs, toward the smell of sweat and piss and smoked outlets, and when she began to shimmy in front of him like a fool he could smell her too, a smell that had no other language but Elle — and there, bumping against these people, everyone the same age before the end, she looked back at Benny and thought how the earth would fold in on itself and the stars would combust and dazzling light would arc from the periphery of the eye causing a collective turn of heads toward a sight that no one would have the capacity to describe, and how for a breath before all of this everyone around her would still be alive, and not just alive, but dancing.

About the Author

Simon Han’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Iowa Review, Guernica, and Fence. The winner of the Indiana Review Fiction Prize and the Texas Observer Short Story Contest, he is a 2017–2019 Tulsa Artist Fellow. Find him online at simonhan.net.

“Before” is published here by permission of the author, Simon Han. Copyright © Simon Han 2018. All rights reserved.

About the Author

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