“Interview with a Starving Man” by Juan Carlos Reyes

Driving into town, rising bubbles of green and yellow mark the main boulevard formerly known as McFarland. Wanderers, survivors, remnants of the city’s elite line the road that used to be riddled with alcohol and tobacco shops, firearms blowout sales, and gas stations.  Six years since the blast and the city’s recovery is still marred by caustic waters of yellow and green algae. Bright orange dogs, strays, scamper beside the car as we ease our way off the highway. Their mutated tails drag nine feet behind them as they run.

Our first unofficial stop comes at a blinking red light. Disconcertingly, traffic lights still run at full power, a byproduct of the radiation that, though waning, has permeated enough of the soil and, in turn, penetrated enough underground high voltage cable lines to sustain working electricity for at least the next twenty-five years, according to a report published by Southern Peoples of Mechanical and Electrical Integrity (SPMEI) two months predating our arrival. Looking down the road, one toppled convenience store after another stand with empty shelves amid broken storefront glass. At one particular broken gas pump, I ask my driver to stop, to allow me a quick glimpse at a hairless woman whose heels were exposed and whose arms had been stripped of skin, two layers deep, by the radiation that suffocates the air and clouds the city. A purple fog covers the leafless remains of oak and magnolia, something like the awful stench of God had God actually been the Devil and let loose upon the world a detonated blend of uranium and hydrogen and fire.

My driver and I wear the protective masks the FDNA (Federal Deterrent to Nuclear Atrocities) suggested we wear, not to mention the two-inch thick coverall coat and pants that the USOJC (United States Obstruct the Journalists Committee) gave us as thick cloaks and pants, the latter surprising us in both its willingness to help and its suggestion we map the entire city for them while we’re here in Tuscaloosa. “The uranium oxide has turned the soil in many places into charred carbon, whatever the chemical composition had been before then,” said Jeremiah Jinga, Deputy Director for Emergency Broadcasting at the USOJC. “And so sinkholes have suddenly appeared everywhere, and the town might very well be a huge canyon or an irreparable crater by now.”

He was partially right. After we arrived to the intersection formerly known as McFarland Boulevard and 15th Street, we saw the canyon Dr. Jinga had hypothesized. According to our estimates (the driver’s and mine) the canyon was approximately a quarter mile wide, and its length in both directions ran as far as anyone could see. It didn’t seem plausible any longer to cross the chasm on auto, and so we decided to walk the ridge, going West, until we encountered a hanging bridge, a concoction of twine and boards as flimsy as we were sweating.

Crossing, our steps were awkward. The rope bridge swayed, and so we held onto the rail rope so tightly, we flattened the twine in various places along the way. Only once did I look down. The penetrating shadow beneath us was breathtaking. I saw nothing concrete, and neither did the driver walking ahead of me, who froze after his only glance into the canyon, and after we’d reached the other side, he fathomed in his own silent breathless way, with matching hand gestures that only managed to point, that the full depth of the canyon was endless.

On the canyon’s north side, our biggest surprise was simply that life seemed even more destitute than on the southern front. Walking through the streets, we saw no one. Here and there, bare cracking walls stood. Solitary empty doorways stood with no surrounding walls, not even a shattered door or broken hinge on its frame. This, the driver and I reflected upon later, had essentially become the city’s remnant marker of human survival. Upon every bare standing surface, the words Feral Swine covered the brick and wood in near feral script. This part of town had clearly been lived in, and subsequently left abandoned, by whomever it was that feared those words.

The script should have been our first recognizable premonition of the kind of person we’d find here, the kind of person riddled in boils, missing hands and forearms and toenails, and watching us from his elevator shack home as we approached what had been known as the city’s cathedral, the city’s gladiatorial soil, its arena to dwarf all arenas, much like Boston’s Fenway Park and what Chicago’s Wrigley Field had been before Shanghaian suicide bombers destroyed the ivory wall back in 2052.

As we approached him, he waved to us, a man of standard height for this part of the world, and of standard girth, by which I intend to imply an extreme obesity and giganticism that resulted after uranium-enriched fumes swept over the city’s barbecue sauce brewing plants. The elevator in which he lived still lay embedded in its shaft. Because of its thick metal exterior and wooden wall interior, the elevator proved cooler than I had expected. The man had sticks for hands. Standing just two feet away, I could smell those hands, riddled in what had perhaps been the only untainted barbecue sauce stash left. The sticks embedded in his fleshy wrists were like well-carved forks, and they seemed interchangeable; well-carved wooden knives lay in piles on the ground. Shining red on this man’s elevator wall, there hung a replica of the Chinese flag. Holding the flag in place was a fully entrenched dagger, barbecue sauce covering its handle.

Prior to the Mandarin War of 2054, Tuscaloosa, Alabama had been the nation’s leading producer of onion-scented barbecue sauce, barbecue-glazed frozen chicken fingers, and chicken-flavored duck grease. The nation’s, indeed the world’s, insatiable appetite for the canned and refrigerated products spiked in 2041, at around the same time Chinese garment workers began to die by the thousands, and many in their own working factories, due to intestinal disorders, colon complications and four-valve heart attacks. Chinese diplomats traced the artery-clogging grease found in the blood stream analysis of more than 4,500 Chinese corpses to the United States. Furthermore, chemical inspection revealed traces of crimson soil in the duck grease (something of a culinary staple in China by Summer 2039).

China’s Supreme Chancellor declared cultural sabotage after the findings’ revelation.  The country’s Vice Chancellor was quoted in the Beijing Chronicle as asserting his lifelong distaste for everything Alabama. China’s State Secretary cut diplomatic ties to the United States and recalled all Chinese ambassadors, income tax advisors and low-wage cooks. And Beijing’s Deputy State Secretary left the WCF (World Culinary Forum) early due to fever, raised blood pressure and traces of duck grease in his stool sample.

Needless to say, tensions between the two countries ultimately spiked and then spiked some more. And now we find ourselves on the edge of Bryant-Denny Stadium, or, rather, on its concrete rubble, having crossed an Earthen divide so unexpectedly deep even our best interstellar satellites have found it impossible to zoom in on anything but deep dark shadow in its basin.

This man we met, whom we ultimately interviewed, this last man standing, if you will, proved suspect of us and intolerant of our cameras. He asked us to shut them off and remove their batteries, and so we did.

The elevator shack man was a serious man, and he did not appreciate jokes. I tried humoring him once about how “neat” his holed socks were. I even asked if he could take them off so I could see them closer, which I meant as a joke, but which he clearly received otherwise. He heard me, having turned his right ear to me after I spoke, and then he put his fried chicken down, and then he leaned in and whispered, “This is why I look around like you trying to kill me.”

I assured him as best I could I most certainly was not there for that purpose. “I stand here,” I said, “because you are, from what I can see, the last remaining survivor on this side of town.”

He nodded, emphatically, and he took another bite. “That’s right, my house burned down because it was too close to the sun, and no one want to come close to me, those feral swine.”
By sun, I assume his hot boiling yellow star of reference was, in fact, a flash of light, the flash of light to end all flashes of light. Modern atomic weapons being what they are, Tuscaloosa bordered the blast zone limits. The bomb actually landed and detonated some one hundred and forty-two miles from the city, but, reportedly, the epicenter blast heat was felt upwards of 110 miles from the detonating core — and, in some places along the Gulf Coast, as if within walking distance.

When the driver asked the man about his hands, the blast survivor kicked over a tin can. The can slid to a stop at my feet. I crouched, and when I opened the can, the fragile charred remains of the man’s fingers scared me back and I unintentionally dropped the box. I fell back several steps, coughing, and the holocaust survivor railed me for coming this far only to break all his things. I had never seen a tin grave before, and I’m sure I won’t ever again. Our interviewee referred to it simply as his “glove box.”

When the driver and I walked over to a large ash mound, its onion garlic smell almost stopped us. That’s the thing about all this safety equipment and protective suits. I still smelled things, which I didn’t notice until we’d been at the stadium’s rubble site for some time. And if we still smelled the stuff, what’s to stop its nuclear fumes from mutating my spine and intestinal coil. And so when I saw the driver take off his gloves and pick up the last butt of a clove cigarette, I urged him to put everything down and get into his full equipment again. He turned to me. He nodded sheepishly and then stood up.

When we decided to leave the elevator shaft (to cross the canyon again, to regroup and recollect the details of our first city excursion), we informed our interviewee about our intentions to go. The man in his elevator shack nodded. He didn’t seem in the slightest bit moved, and yet he immediately balled his right fist and pounded his breastplate.

“The indomitable is indomitable is the indomitable spirit of it.”

He coughed and almost choked. He spit out a piece of chicken.

The man’s expression did not surprise me. Every knowledgeable expert of the South knows exactly what it means where it came from and why it stems from near mental incapacitation.

Nicholas Lou Saban carries a near sainthood air in the minds of the atomic holocaust’s rugged survivors. It has been said by many that, had this legendary leader still been alive, he would have annihilated China’s nuclear bomb by staring into its growing shadow on the ground until the bomb vanished entirely into the ruffled puff of his hair. However, and unfortunately for Alabama, Mississippi, and most of Louisiana, the man did die, and he died long before the international conflict that produced this last of all last atrocities peaked.
It has been said that on his deathbed, under duress from rattling intestinal pain and swollen lungs that had nearly given way to the poisoning duck grease in his bloodstream, Nicholas Lou Saban squeezed his wife’s hand and groaned his children close. He tried to clear his throat and, in the process, only coughed up more blood. His son wiped the father’s chin.  The father smiled.  As doctors shuffled into the room, Saban’s valve monitor ringing wildly, he pulled his family close, pressed his wife’s hand and almost bit his son’s ear, and then his lips met his daughter’s cheek and he whispered, “The indomitable is [cough]… indomitable is [cough]… the indomitable spirit of [cough]… it.” And then he died. Saban’s wife slowly let his head down onto the hospital pillow. Saban’s son and daughter turned away in tears. The lone newspaper reporter (at the time, disguised in medical garb), left the room immediately and called his editor at the Birmingham Daily to report on the incidents of death and the now famous quote, words hurled, it seemed, as fragments of a larger poetic opus.

To find this holocaust survivor now, this man in his elevator shack, upon the concrete rubble of Tuscaloosa’s athletic cathedral, and shouting the rallying cry of the Alabama 2100 movement, I can’t help but recall our enduring spirit as Americans, our collective momentum to drive this nation’s history forward, our obsessive determination to make this one thing clear: Southern history has not coughed up its last pint of blood. Holocaust survivors, like this man in his elevator shaft, have proven that, indeed, hydrogen bomb revenge will be theirs — it will be ours. “The indomitable is indomitable is the indomitable spirit of it” is the evolved adage of an earlier motto that had formerly been reiterated like a prayer: the South will rise again, and then again after that, no matter how many exploding misfortunes accompany the nuclear gusts.

Juan Carlos Reyes is originally from Guayaquil, Ecuador.  He received a PEN USA Emerging Voices Fellowship in 2007 and is currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama.  He has presented his work at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Benham Gallery in Seattle, WA, and has published in Tertulia Magazine and Black Warrior Review.