by Joe Kowalski, recommended by Electric Literature
EDITOR’S NOTE BY Halimah Marcus
If the apocalypse is the final destruction, then what can come after it? Nothing should follow the end, and yet so much fiction and film would tell you otherwise. Whether it’s Noah and his ark or McCarthy’s unnamed father and son, the plight of lonely survivors has become a genre unto itself. Understandably so, because when survival is at stake, when our own interests are so nakedly pitted against the interests of others, our humanity (or lack of) is exposed — and can be explored. Joe Kowalski’s “Our Meat” is set in this oxymoronic post-apocalyptic landscape, where “everyone is a little crazy since The Thing That Happened.” The Thing That Happened: that’s all you’re going to get by way of back-story. An event so incompressible it cannot be described in further terms; it is a hinge in time marked only by the words before and since.
So, what do we know about The Thing That Happened? We know that the protagonist has grown increasingly, inexplicably muscular; we know that his girlfriend’s knees have become weak. We know that there are bombed-out brownstones, selective ghosts, and carnivorous butchers. We know that “the color departed when people stopped noticing it.” But, if you want to know if it was war or rising seas, zombies or global pandemic that brought about these changes, “Our Meat” is not the story for you. One could call it sci-fi or speculative fiction, but the degree to which Kowalski speculates is nothing compared to the role of emotion, of desperation, of hope without hope, of the most basic elements of human companionship.
In addition to high-stakes survival, perhaps what makes the after-apocalypse so alluring, so productive for narrative, is that it offers the chance to see beyond the end — beyond death — into a kind of after life. Like Dante and Orpheus, each post-apocalyptic hero is an envoy to the other side, issuing his own report on what follows the end.
Editor-in-Chief, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading
On nights when it’s cool, I carry Mem up to the roof, and she makes a wish on every 11th gunshot we hear. Bursts from automatic weapons are harder to count and are usually an indication that it’s time to go back inside. I’m not superstitious, so I don’t wish for anything.
Right after The Thing That Happened, everyone was so shaken up that it was not uncommon for a man to walk around with a plastic bag stuck to his foot for days before realizing it was there. Some people went around saying only, Everything has changed now. Everyone went a little crazy, each in their own way.
Everything has changed, yes, but things aren’t as bad as some people make them out to be, at least, not in our community. We get all our food and supplies from The WPA, and in exchange I help them out when they need heavy lifting. I mean that literally, I’m the most able-bodied person here. I have a muscular figure, but my best feature is my arms, which are so improbably thick that they seem as if they were intended for a much larger body than my own. But I wasn’t always like this.
Tonight, in the kitchen, Mem tells me to keep my eyes closed so I don’t spoil the surprise. I close my eyes and I hear her walk to the oven and I smell cupcakes. As she walks back there’s a clatter as something falls. I rush over to her. Her knees have given out again. She’s wincing in pain, and I carry her over and lay her on the bed. There are cupcakes all over the floor.
I can still eat them, I say.
No, you know that’s dangerous, she says.
There are words written in icing on the top of each cupcake, but many of them are now smeared and unreadable.
Happy birthday, she says weakly.
I met Mem right after The Thing That Happened, when it seemed like everyone was pairing up in a hurry. We talked about how desperate everyone was acting, and then two days later we were living together. We concluded that maybe there wasn’t time to worry about these sorts of things anymore.
As her knees got weaker, I was there to help her along, and then I was there to carry her. She had been so self-sufficient in her old life and I know she didn’t like having to rely on anyone.
I was changing too. It was gradual enough that I didn’t notice until the day I could no longer fit into my favorite shirt, the one with the cartoon wolf.
This makes sense, I told Mem. She was the brains, I would be the brawn.
As we lie in bed, we listen to the radio. There’s an advertisement that informs us that everyone in the world is falling apart. Then it goes on to describe a new type of knee that has been developed in the Northern Provinces. It is self-installing, and guarantees full restoration of ability. It sounds too good to be true. I look at Mem. She is asleep.
The WPA is great for keeping things from going 100% to shit, but they don’t process Non-Basic Requests. And the artificial knees are most definitely a Non-Basic Request.
In the morning I carry Mem to work in the gardens then return to our apartment to call Yosh for advice. He helped me out with my previous Non-Basic Request, the fish, and even though that didn’t turn out well I call him anyway.
I explain the situation. He takes a severe tone and he says, Yes, I can help you get the knees, but I only know one possible way. I’ll tell you because you’re my friend, but I think it’s a terrible idea.
Yosh explains the plan, reminding me again and again that it’s a terrible idea and I shouldn’t do it. Each time, I tell him I probably won’t.
The next day, I wake up early, while Mem is still asleep, and I leave her a short note explaining that I’ve gone into the city, as if it were still a normal, everyday thing to do. Bus rides are a luxury, but I have a driver that owes me a favor.
I wait for an hour, and finally a bus arrives. It is empty aside from the driver, and every single window is smashed. The doors open and I hesitate. This is not the driver I expected. He steps out and tells me he is aware of the debt owed me and prepared to make good on it, and also, contrary to the sensationalist reports on the news, there have been no instances to his knowledge of psychopaths seizing control of city buses. He says to prove that he is not a psychopath I may ask him any question and he will answer it sanely. I can’t think of one, so he offers to let me punch him in the stomach as hard as I want. I tell him I’m convinced and I get on the bus.
It’s okay. Everyone has gotten a little crazy since The Thing That Happened. Myself included.
As we pass through a long-dead residential neighborhood, a place so dead that some of the buildings are only dust, I see the residents. A man watches television in a room with no walls. A couple fights in an upstairs bedroom that is only sky. A woman takes her dog for a walk, even though there’s no dog. For some people, the end came so quickly that they don’t know they’re dead and gone, and they’ll just keep on reliving these moments forever.
No one else sees them, of course. And the ghosts don’t see me. I haven’t told anyone, just Mem. It’s okay to be a little crazy, she says.
The bus deposits me at the border of the Northern Provinces. I walk along streets lined with medium grey buildings, as if the color departed when people stopped noticing it. I follow Yosh’s directions and find myself standing before a small shop with a sign that proclaims, Unscrupulous Butcher.
When I walk in the door, a bell chimes and a line of gaunt, hungry-looking men turn. They are lined up in front of an empty display counter, waiting. They know why I’m here, but I don’t look at them. I don’t want to believe people like this exist.
The butcher, dressed medical garb, emerges from a back room and signals for me to join him. I follow him into a small room with an operating table.
He explains the procedure and I say, First show me the knees. He exits the room and when he returns he places one in each of my hands. They look like fleshy doorknobs. They’re very easy to install, he assures me. This pamphlet explains everything. I nod, and slide the knees into the front pockets of my coat.
In the past, it would have been impossible to remove most of one’s upper arm muscles without rendering the arms useless. But thankfully, that is no longer the case. It’s a miracle of technology, says the butcher as he raises a scalpel.
The procedure is quick.
And it’s done and I look at my arms, crosshatched with stitches, and so thin that they resemble used-up tubes of toothpaste. Now you’re a poet, says the butcher. I feel lightheaded as I stand, and as I’m walking out, I see an assistant carefully weighing and cutting up what they took from me.
It’s overcast outside and it feels colder than before and maybe I’ve lost some blood and I circle the block trying to remember where the bus goes. I walk and walk and I locate the bus stop, but the search has exhausted me, and I sit down on the bench.
When I wake up the shadows are so long on the ground that I know instantly that I’ve missed the last bus home.
But it can’t be that far. If the ride took an hour, I can probably run it in three. This all seems reasonable. I’ll be in a familiar area before it’s completely dark. Mem will be worried. I will go home tonight.
The thoughts are coming fast as I start to run. It goes well for a while, but my stamina is diminished. My pace falls to a walk.
I am nearly halfway home when I notice something looming in the shadows of a row of gutted brownstones. And suddenly I am surrounded by a pack of wolves, and they are upon me.
In my better days, I could have killed a dozen wolves; I would have seized them by their jaws and pried them open until they snapped. But now they are biting into me, and things are going dim, and time is slowing down, and I remember how Mem once told me that to dream of a wolf biting into your neck was good luck. But everyone is a little crazy since The Thing That Happened.
And then as quickly as they pinned me, the wolves are off, running and fighting over something. I reach down and find my coat is tattered.
They took the knees.
They are chewing on them and fighting over them as they disappear back into the darkness.
I stumble in their direction, and then collapse on the ground.
I am too weak to go home. The wolves will come for me in the night. And then I too will be lost.
Maybe I can find shelter, I think. I enter one of the buildings in front of me, though it is little more than a roofless shell. Upstairs I hear a couple fighting.
The man descends where there was once a staircase, but is now just a wall with a faint silhouette of a staircase. I see his face. And I recognize him. He was a friend, back when we were in school. I haven’t thought about him in a long while. I was sure he must be gone.
He is gone. I guess I know now.
And then something very unexpected happens. He looks at me. He recognizes me. And he says my name. And he asks, What are you doing in my house?
I’m not sure what to tell him. So I say I’m trying to make it home, but I can’t.
He gestures to a couch that doesn’t exist and tells me I am welcome to stay. He tells me I will be safe.
I ask him about the girl upstairs. He says he will introduce me, and he calls her downstairs. But she can’t see me, and they start to argue. Eventually she retreats upstairs, with him following, and their loop restarts.
I collapse. I sleep.
My last Non-Basic Request was for Mem’s birthday. Mem used to love fish, before things were as they are now, before fish became just a memory. Yosh had gotten a tip about a certain market in a neighboring community, and after some heavy bartering I was able to procure a fish. Mem told me it was the best present anyone had ever given her. I cooked it up, and she insisted that I have some. No, I said, this is all for you.
She was vomiting all night. I remember her looking up at me, and her eyes were filled with sadness, not because she was sad to be sick, but because I had tried and failed.
I wondered if this time she would be so forgiving.
I wake up as the sun is rising. I am not dead. I am motivated. I run towards home. It takes less than an hour.
I burst in the door of the apartment. Mem has been sitting within a step of the door so she will be able to embrace me without having to hobble, and when she does I almost lose my balance. I catch hold of her with my ruined arms and I’m reminded that I won’t be able to carry her to the roof again.
I try to explain what happened but the sentence comes out jumbled, as if it was written on the tops of cupcakes that have fallen across the floor. But she’s already put it together on her own, she’s clever like that. She raises a finger to shush me, and we hold each other in silence. The heat from her body is reassuring. With her mouth, she forms the sound of gunshot.
Make a wish, she says.