Before You Know It

The leaves fall like some personal ‘fuck you’ from the cosmos.

Before You Know It
Photo by Wendell Shinn / Unsplash

by Brandon Forinash

Eric is raking leaves through the apocalypse. The seventh sigil has been unsealed, swarms of locusts have turned distant Iowa into a desert hellscape, cell phones have been proven definitively to cause brain cancer, and Eric is in his backyard raking the leaves.

There are so many leaves. He is raking the leaves into piles and then scooping from the piles into large compostable paper bags while more leaves fall. 

Eric is raking leaves even as the value of the US dollar craters because yesterday he got into a drunken fight with his wife. Not, like, politely or enjoyably or even depressingly drunk. Eric got desperately drunk. Drunk like a person who has read all the signs, thinks the world is ending, believes it, but understands that he is powerless to stop it. Because, let’s be real, what can any one person do against the power of a solar flare or the global dependency on scarce, vanishing resources? Or neo-fascist cybernoid time travelers? And especially when this one person is a high school English teacher and high school English teachers are, based on his viewing of shows about the apocalypse, the absolute least valuable kind of people in terms of the apocalypse. So he got desperately drunk, knowing he was going to have to go back to teaching in a few days during the middle of this long apocalypse, in the face of which he feels himself held hostage at worst or made a silent witness at best. 

So Eric is raking leaves because yesterday he got drunk about the state of the world and himself and then he started a fight with his wife. No, no, Eric wants to explain, I didn’t start the fight. But he did start the fight. What happened was that Eric couldn’t find a corner in his mind to hide from his apocalyptic anxiety of the coming semester, knowing he would likely get sick with the new variant of the disease or be held hostage by a rebel militia - either possibility being as likely - and he would then be out for 5 - 10 school days while work stacked up because his school is absolutely indifferent to the end of the world. Or really, he knows the school is so slammed with everything as a result of the apocalypse. There are so many other things demanding their attention - the shortage of resources, shortage of teachers, shortage of custodial staff, the pagan sacrifices during gym class, the pressure from parents sick with worry about what the school is doing to keep their kids safe and learning during the end of the world as well as all the parents sick with anger about the school trying to do anything about the end of the world, parents who will give endless amounts of grief to admin for even calling it the end of the world, but mostly everybody is slammed with leadened anxiety just about these kids, these kids struggling in school, these kids struggling to be people around other people, these kids struggling with the excess trauma of unhappy homelifes where their overworked/underpaid mother tells them, Illiana, that she is counting on her to look after the young ones while she picks up extra shifts to try and cover the bills, and Illiana looks to her siblings, her little brother pilfering through the cheap carb-heavy food in the kitchen pantry and her little sister texting with somebody on a kid-facing app who is DEFINITELY NOT A KID, and the thing she definitely doesn’t think about is the essay a random substitute teacher assigned her in her English class over, who gives a fuck, her personal narrative about a favorite childhood memory, along with all her other work she isn’t doing because, and because - the knowledge of which meant that Eric started drinking in the early afternoon and it didn’t make him feel better, not a bit, not at all, but it did make him forget for a while about the end of the world, and then he started the fight. 

So because yesterday he got drunk and started a fight with his wife Eric is now raking these fucking leaves and putting them in fucking bags - and it’s already like five fucking bags of leaves, because - and this is where this line of thinking shatters - because he can’t name a one thing. 

The waters of the Yangtze River have turned to blood, the fertility rate in Europe had hit zero, a sentient AI is spreading across the internet through an exponentially more sophisticated and personalized email phishing scheme, and Ericisn't sure what do with himself and his stacked worries and pitiful regret.

The leaves fall like some personal ‘fuck you’ from the cosmos. Eric rakes them into piles and then scoops them into the brown paper bags and the yard fills up again with leaves. 

And yes, Eric thinks to himself, People have had it worse. In the course of human existence, the leaves falling in heaps, the imminent threat of nuclear warfare, and your wife being justifiably mad at you and you feeling anxious and supremely underappreciated in your job and kinda sorta in your marriage and wondering why doesn’t she kiss you like she did when you were first dating and wondering if this is your life now, opening yourself up to the possibility that you may never be as loved or appreciated or believed in as you would like to be - a gravitational pull enough to keep you from ever escaping the orbit of a dying Earth collapsing in on itself - and on top of that all of the work stuff and the world stuff, and even all of that together, undoubtedly, it must be that in the 300,000+ years of human existence it has been the great majority of people on Earth who have had it worse than you.

Sure, he knows that, but still. 

Even in an apocalypse there must be room for the smallest human hurts and human wants. Even in the face of great wars and depression. Even when the greatest volcanic eruption in human history - he had recently listened to a thing about it - covered the earth in a thousand years of dust that changed the color of the sun in the sky to a bluish hue, killed off a great many species of plants and animals, reduced all human life on earth to maybe just a scant ten thousand. Even among those ten thousand, scattered across Africa and Asia in whatever shelter they could find in those years of winter, there must have been one of these last remaining humans surrounded by death and cold - digging into the ground in the desolation of a barren forest, digging for some years old seeds, an insect or two, maybe a pregnant rodent - who felt especially cursed by his existence, burdened by the smallness of it even amidst the end of the world. Maybe got to feeling a funny way having eaten some fermented fruit he’d found while digging. Said things he didn’t mean to say, or meant to say, but not that way. 

Eric rakes the leaves and scoops them into big brown paper bags, he rakes and scoops, scoops and rakes while leaves continue to fall and fall and fall, because the evening before he started a fight with his wife. He was drunk. He wanted to be drunk. But he hadn’t wanted to be drunk when he started this fight. 

What he had wanted - it is difficult to say what he had wanted. 

His wife came home from work that night with what might have been the last few unblighted peaches in existence - she’d got them as barter from a client who couldn’t pay in cash. They rummaged the cabinets, the pantry, the cooler. They got creative with a jar of bell peppers and some still-fresh pork, made a dinner of carnitas with peach salsa on something resembling tortillas (in taste if not appearance). They ate in the quiet and candlelight and finished the remaining sips of their tequila, the third to last bottle of wine. They moved out onto the patio. They stood out on the patio in the warm winter dusk, the low clouds overhead a soft orange/purple/peach from the light of the fiery city. Eric was at one end and she was at the other. 

You’re so far away from me, she said. Why are you so far away? 

Above them, satellites passed like shooting stars as they burned up in the lower atmosphere. 

You’ve been upset for weeks. 

He nodded. 

And you won’t talk to me about it. 

He shrugged. 

I don’t know what to do with that, Eric. 

What it was he wanted from her, Eric wonders now, as the yard continues to fill with leaves. 

There were things he wanted to ask from her, things that would tilt the balance of things a bit more positively. A few sweet words for the things he did around the house to let him know that she had noticed. Not to get so mad at him for the things he didn’t do, that maybe he forgot to do or didn’t know how to do. He wanted them to be spontaneously affectionate with one another, because he felt they had slipped too much into routine. To show a bit more interest and encouragement in his writing or graduate education or hunter-gathering, because he was pretty insecure about his hunter-gathering, but he had to start somewhere if he was going to ever leave teaching for something with a little less heartbreak and a little more fulfillment or maybe just a better chance for their basic survival. 

But this isn’t what Eric said that night, because Eric wanted to be drunk, and then became drunk, and then didn’t know how to ask her for those things when the forecast for every future night was new and unimaginable danger - so he said something kind of shitty, he can’t remember what, and to be fair she did not remember, because for the sake of honesty it should be said that they were both a bit drunk, but he definitely did say something kind of shitty - and she said something shitty back. 

And then more things were said. Shitty things. By both of them. 

The leaves twirl. They spin like dancers. They fall like bricks. 

The earth split and fires leapt and he told her she didn’t support his hunter-gathering and she said she never saw him either hunting or gathering and he said that was because whenever he hunter-gathered she complained that he wasn’t being available, and she said that was bullshit, she’d never said that, and he asked her if she thought he was just making this shit up, and she said that she thought he was looking for excuses not to hunter-gather, and in fact she thought he should be hunter-gathering more, that she loved what he hunter-gathered, and he shook his head and said, I think you’re just saying this now to win the fight. 

And then the fight became about everything, her feeling like she has to follow him around the house picking up after him like a child, him not getting thanked enough for dinners cooked, garbage taken out, bills paid, they both listed the kind affections given and not received as kindly as they should, all the promises broken; the fight expanded to consume all other fights, became about the way they fought together, which the alien overlords agree from their observation ships was definitely very badly. Apocalyptic, some might say. And some might say differently, of course. 

And then Eric said he was leaving. 

Walk out that door, she had said and something not quite this, but what he heard was, and I’ll know exactly what kind of father you will be. 

And he hadn’t waited to let that sink in, couldn’t make out what she said next except that she had said it with something like anger, or frustrated incredulity, a kind of I-cannot-believe-you-are-doing-this-right-now mixed with defeat, a resignation to the reality that he was in fact doing this right now. 

Eight bags, nine, ten. Eric scoops and bags the leaves. Bags and bags. 

Eric is raking leaves because yesterday his sad-boy ass had gotten drunk and started a fight with his wife even as the world as they knew it was ending. Things were said. They can’t take them back. 

And then he’d walked away. 

Which was wrong. Which was bad. Very bad, the alien overlords say to each other and shake their heads or really do a kind of squidgy thing while looking at each other because their vertebrae aren’t vertebrae. 

Very bad, they squidgy at each other. 

Eric is bagging leaves at the end of the world, because his wife isn’t home, hasn’t been home since he came back last night, and isn’t answering her phone. So he can’t apologize. He can’t make any promises. He can’t explain that last night wasn’t the sum of his feelings. That it takes a lot of work amidst all of the day to day and end of days shit to, each and every time, give over his unenlightened body to a more enlightened self.

That loves her. That wants so much to be her loving husband, always. 

The word ‘apocalypse’, from the Greek, is also the word ‘revelation’, from the Latin. As in, what was once hidden, now will be seen. As in, when you have seen it, then you shall know. Finally. Ultimately. 


And so Eric scoops and bags the leaves, bag after bag, because he wants to show her that it was not a revelation. He wants her to see the yard, the bags of leaves, whenever she finally comes home, and think that he and they are not as hopeless as last night seemed. They are not broken. Or if they are broken, he and they are not altogether so. And even if he walked away, he is not a man who walks away. 

Though it might not matter, he scoops the leaves into the brown paper bags for hours and hours because maybe she will see this one small thing as a promise kept. And if spending all day bagging the asshole leaves from the asshole trees in their backyard is a promise kept, then their story is not an apocalypse. Their story has not been seen. There is still more to see here maybe, even as the islands of Japan sink into the sea and Chilean miners accidently uncover Cthulhu and the rovers all report that Mars is still entirely uninhabitable, as Eric stretches his back, watches the leaves come down, catches a twirling leaf in his hand and presses it into the brown bag.

A lifetime ago - not my lifetime, the lifetime of a toy poodle - I finished grad school at UT Austin and became a public school English teacher and Speech coach. Recently, after a wink in the life of a rehydrated tardigrade, I came back to writing. Given a little succor (Necessary Fiction, Sixfold, forthcoming from Wigleaf), I'm trying to make the most of my writing life while the writing is good.