1942 was not a good year. You can taste the trenches in the wine. Three years later, you can smell the celebration. If you look under the right light, the blood color is gone. I have the right light. I picked it just for this.
Every bottle tells a story. You can’t fake wine. That’s why I keep it with me in the cellar, where no one can touch it, no one who’d just drink it without knowing what they’re drinking.
I drink the 1980s, I don’t touch the 60s. The pre-war ones are really just for show, but I don’t show them to anyone who won’t appreciate them. I look at them dancing underneath the light and they take me back there, just for a moment. I never taste them. I can’t rewrite history, you know.
I sit at the table and open a bottle of 1976 and smell it first. It smells like wine, but also, it smells like childhood. Not my childhood, but someone’s. It smells like a heart that hasn’t yet been broken. It smells like California even though it’s French.
I stopped my collection when they started the Internet. When the world began to end, I came down to the cellar. I set up a cot by the far wall and set my television on a stand. I drink, and I watch, and I watch the world end more.
My attendant sends food down three times a day, morning, noon, and night, like clockwork. One day he was late, so I fired him and called a new one, and there he came, like clockwork. He sends the food down, right on time each day. I eat, and I drink, and I watch the world end. Sometimes I watch soap operas, where the world is always ending.
I am safe here. In a world of deadly sins, I alone am safe. Me and history, never to repeat itself, we watch the rest die on the television.
I heard them come for me one day. The sound of bombs and the boots. But I was safe in the cellar, and in a week, it passed. Sometimes I hear footfalls. I wonder who’s out there. Muslims, maybe. Terrorists. Maybe the Commies came back. Maybe it’s the Japs. Still my attendant finds his way, morning, noon, and night, like clockwork. I open a 1959 and breathe in the smell of the Cadillacs. This one’s from California and it smells like it too.
In the morning, there’s a shoe next to my breakfast. I turn on the television. They say nothing about shoes. The shoe is black with a little heel, so I ask the wine for answers. The wine says that in 1963 they shot Kennedy. I should know better than to drink the 60s. There’s nothing for me then.
I consider the shoe. I hold it up to the light. It smells like leather and sweat. It smells like earth and mud. It smells like a time now gone, and my heart breaks for the world before it ended. On television, there’s a war. On television, a riot. In my cellar, there’s a shoe. A shoe and wine and me.
I put the empty bottle in the shaft. When my attendant comes at noon, the bottle will be gone and lunch will be there. I set the shoe beside it. I relax into the arm chair and I watch the soap operas and a woman who doesn’t exist, well, her world is ending too.
At 11:59, I take the shoe back. I put it on the shelf where 1963 used to be. I look at it. The shoe’s all wrong there. I can’t tell when it’s from. The imprint on the bottom is worn away to nothing. It’s old, and it’s young. It’s the young trying to be sophisticated. It’s the old trying to be modern. I put the shoe in the 1980s but still it doesn’t fit. I try the 90s, right at the end of the collection. I put the shoe when they made the Internet. I put it in the war.
I turn back to the shaft, and already, lunch is there. The shaft is closed. My attendant is gone.
I eat my lunch and watch the shoe and watch the world end. On television, there’s an outbreak. On television, a plague. The shoe sits at the foot of the rack, taunting me, saying nothing.
I take it to the wall and mount it on a hook. Maybe it could be art. I don’t believe in art. I believe in history. I hide it underneath the table, but still I know it’s there. I wrap it up in Christmas lights and set it by the television. It winks away happily, taunting me, saying nothing.
I doze into a dream, a dream I often have. The army’s come for me. I hear them marching above me. This time, they’re wearing black leather shoes, each with a little heel. I can’t see their faces. I only see their shoes.
At night, like clockwork, my dinner’s in the shaft.
“Wait!” I call, but the shaft is already closed.
I eat and watch the shoe. I turn off the television. I unwind the Christmas lights and in each unwound bulb, it still looks like a shoe. I put my empty plate in the shaft with the shoe on top of it.
In the morning, I have breakfast waiting, waiting with the shoe.
I toss the shoe up the shaft, but the hole at the top is sealed. I climb as far as my belly will let me into the little shaft and reach my fingers up to tap on the seal. I can’t quite touch it. I reach for it with the shoe, but even then, the top is out of reach.
I slide back down and sit, sit with my wine and my shoe. I open a bottle of 1978 and drink the disco. I try the shoe on my foot. It’s too small to fit there. I take it off and set it on the table.
The hole at the top of the shaft leads back into my living room. No one’s set foot in there in years. No one but my attendant, morning, noon, and night. There’s no one in the house. I’ve left white sheets over the sofas and the beds are still made.
I could do it.
If I came out, just for a moment, no one would know I left. The bombs and the boots wouldn’t find me, if it was just a moment.
I sit with the shoe in my hands. I walk to the door. I sit back down. I sit against the door. I pace, I drink, I pace.
The wooden door on the wall leads up to the stairwell. It’s unlocked, but no one opens it. I pace. I sit. I pace back to the door.
What would it do, really? Just to set the shoe outside. I could run back before they found me. I could, I could.
I try the handle and it’s stuck. I push, I push as hard as I can, and the door gives just an inch. I push harder.
I sit back down with the shoe. My attendant will be by in an hour. Perhaps I can call up and say, “Please remove this shoe.”
The shoe taunts me, saying nothing.
I drink a bottle of 1969, to get the spirit in me. I drink another 1942 and taste the trenches. I drink until I pick up the shoe and push the door open. I’m up the stairs before I know what year it is.
The world is white.
It comes in tiny pinpricks, dancing across my eyes like stars of pain. This is what’s left of the world after it ended, and it keeps ending still. I close my eyes and lay back on the ground. I should never have come here.
I never should have left the cellar.
I open my eyes. Holding the shoe to my chest, I open my eyes, I do, and I blink into the light of my living room. The floor is green. I touch it. The floor is made of grass. The ceiling is above me, blinding and blue. The ceiling is blue. The ceiling’s made of sky.
I sit up, slowly, feeling each inch of my body work to move me. There are flowers growing where my television was. There are flowers growing everywhere. The door to the cellar is stuffed with moss. Through the space where the walls no longer are, I see trees. The house, my house, and all its years, are gone.
The light of the sun, it dances, and I feel the sun’s pain. Perhaps this is what blind eyes see. Everything is a field. I could be blind by now. The world up here is far too bright.
Here, instead of my house, there is a field. Growing and growing with flowers and grass as tall as my knees, a field. I watch bees fly into flowers and make life there.
I hear the sound of whistling on the wind.
Has it all turned into earth? Where is the humanity?
The whistling grows louder, and with it, the whine of wheels. I turn slowly, feeling the grass and the moss and the dirt move to accommodate me. There are trees all around. I remember these trees. I could see them from my window but the windows are all gone. There’s a path to where my door was, the path that leads on.
Coming up the path is a bicycle.
The bicycle is not what’s whistling, it’s the girl riding it. Her hair is long and red and it flickers in the sun. She moves like a mirage, a whistling mirage. Here is the song that she whistles:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let Earth receive her king.
But through her lips, it sounds like:
Tweet tweet too-weet, tweet tweet tooo-weet.
The bicycle sounds like a bicycle. It’s brown, if you were wondering. A brown bicycle and pink girl with red hair. A green field and a blue sky and a black, black shoe. The bombs and the boots, they aren’t here. This place is alive and things are beginning here.
The bicycle whines up the path like it’s going to pass me, and then, like a dream, it does.
“Wait!” I call.
The whistler doesn’t heed my cry.
“Wait!” I call again, and I stand up with the shoe.
The bicycle makes sad metal noises as it grinds to a stop, and with it goes the whistling. The red hair ripples and the head it’s on turns.
I hold the shoe aloft in the sunlight.
“Yes?” says the girl.
She wears a long white dress, the color of a cloud.
My mouth opens and shuts. It opens and shuts.
“Yes?” she says again. She waves a hand. “Do you need something?”
“Does this shoe belong to you?” I ask.
“No,” she says, and turns back to her bicycle.
“Wait!” I call again.
She turns to look at me. Her eyes are the color of the field. She’s dotted with freckles like the bees in the grass. Each line on her face is some kind of life. I can see it all the way from the field.
“Yes?” she says.
“Please,” I beg. “Is this your shoe?”
“It’s not,” she says, “I told you.”
“Just take it,” I cry. “Take it away from me. Take it back where it belongs.”
The girl turns her bicycle into the field. She rides to me like the wind, and up close, I can see the marks of the living all over her body. Bruises and cuts and scars and tattoos, she’s covered in memories, scattered across her like stars in the sky.
She considers the shoe. She looks at it in the light, and I hold it out to her to see.
“Well,” she says. “I’m sure I can find a home for it. But a shoe is not much good without the other.”
She takes the shoe from me. Her hands are long and thin. She puts it in her basket and turns to ride away.
“Wait!” I say again.
She turns around to face me.
“What happened to the house here?” I ask.
The girl looks around me at the field.
“They tore it down,” she said. “Years ago. An old man lived there, but they say he died. Haven’t you heard?”
I hadn’t heard I’d died.
“But I’m right here,” I say. “I’m here and my house is gone.”
“Where did you go?” she asks.
I say, “Into the cellar. Where it’s safe.”
She turns her throat to the sun and laughs.
“Safe? Safe from what?”
With that, she rides away.
“Wait! Don’t go!” I call. The whistling has started again. “I have wine! Years of wine! I have wine and history!”
“Enjoy it!” she calls over her shoulder. “You have your history, and I have mine.”
And the wind says: tweet tweet too-weet, tweet tweet tooo-weet.
I sit down in the field, empty and without a shoe. Night falls, and still I do not move. The air grows cold. The bees move on, to bring life somewhere else. I lie in the grass and look at the moon, round and bright above me. They have not destroyed the moon. The boots and the bombs, they have not reached the sky.
All is still. The world is quiet for me. I breathe it in, slowly, tasting it.
It tastes like wet and life. Wine, it tastes like death.
I pluck a blade of grass and lick the tip. There’s dew on it. The grass has dirt on it, and so I eat the earth. I feel mortal. In my stillness, I feel alive.
A sound comes loud above me and I jump to my feet. The planes, the planes are coming. The sound of its roar like the falling of a mountain breaks the world in half. I scramble for the latch to my cellar. It opens, mercifully, beckoning me back in.
How could I forget that the world has ended? How could I believe in lies and songs and shoes?
I’m down the passage before they have a chance to reach me. The roar of the planes like the end of something, a death rattle, it cries above me. It cries its wish to burn my skin, to tear me limb from limb, but I am safe beneath the world.
I am in the cellar. Me, me and the wine, and the television.
I wonder what they’ll report on. I wonder where the bombs will land. I listen for the shatter of my roof, for the breaking of the beautiful things.
The roar passes on.
In the silence that follows, my breath is loud in my throat. My lungs are screaming. My lips don’t move.
I pant. I wait. I pant.
The roar is gone now. The end has not yet come.
I find air moving through my lips, feebly climbing over my tongue and out into the room.
My lips say:
Tweet tweet too-weet, tweet tweet tooo-weet.
The plane has passed on. It has not brought bombs. It has not brought boots. The wine, it rattled a bit in its cages, wishing to break, but didn’t.
The world is still again.
I turn to face the cellar door.
Do I dare? I do.
The handle is cold and half way to rusted. It’s rough beneath my fingers. I take it in, each sensation, slow and cold and loving. I press.
I press, and it does not give.
I press again and again and the handle does not budge. The door is stuck in place, locking me in safety.
But I want to see the grass again. I want to feel the moon. I want to whistle and throw off my shoes. I want, I want, I want.
The door, like a dead hand, remains impassive to me.
“No,” I cry. It’s a whisper, but a cry nonetheless.
I plead against the door. I jiggle the handle up, and down, I press, I throw myself against it. The door, it will not move.
I sink to the floor, me and the wine, alone beneath the world.
In the morning, my breakfast is waiting. I try to crawl up the shaft, but I built it so I would not fit. In case I lost my mind, I said. In case I ever wanted to go back.
I want, I want. I can’t go back.
I leave my meal to rot.
At noon, I draw a moon above the door. I draw blades of grass around the floor. I whistle:
Tweet tweet too-weet, tweet tweet tooo-weet.
Somewhere, beyond the walls, I hear a whistle back. High and shrill and unmelodic, a whistle nonetheless. The sound of a bird, beating its wings, flying through the sky. It can feel the moon. Me, I feel the wine.
The bird comes closer now, just above the shaft. It perches, I think. It whistles.
I whistle back.
We sing: Joy to the world.
We sing it with our breath.
The television is off. The wines are safe in their cages. Tweet, tweet, too-weet. The bird sings back. Let earth receive our song.
I throw a glass of wine at the television. It shatters and it cracks the screen. On television, the world is ending. The bombs, the bombs and boots. They thunder somewhere far away, but outside is a field. Outside is a field and grass and beautiful, living things.
I run to the door and it does not give.
I whistle as loud as I can.
I open my throat and sing a song. I sing joy into the world.
“Wait!” I call to the next plane. “Wait and take me with you!”
The roar of it passes over me. I’m left with silence and wine.
I wonder what the new wines taste like. I wonder what stories they tell. I listen for the birds, and they whistle. I whistle. I wonder what they see up there. Down here, I see the wine.
At night, my dinner slides down the shaft.