Old Man Stories & Starvation
The inside of the cave was habitable. Dark, drafty, but habitable. Barely. A small fire burned in the corner. A single chair and a dilapidated cheap plastic patio table were the only furnishings.
“A visitor, at this hour?” said the old man not turning from his seat at the fire. The stranger looked at the old man’s back, whispy grey hair, thin grey beard. He was smaller than imagined and looked older than anyone the stranger had ever met.
“They come for my stories,” the man continued. “Been awhile since I had a visitor.”
The stranger stood silent.
“You want the stories of how it was, or how it ended?” the old man asked. There was a pause.
“Ended,” said the stranger. A quite whisper through tight teeth.
“How it ended,” the old man mused leaning back slightly in his chair. “You must be looking for answers. Not likely to find them here, but a story I can tell. Or several. Come in and listen. They all do.”
The stranger fidgeted with hunger from a long journey. There was no pot over the fire. Not even a kettle that could be brought to a boil. The extent of the hospitality would be the story.
The stranger sat down next to the table on the ground. Back straight, hands in his lap, he couldn’t really see the old man’s face and the old man made no move to be seen.
“It started a long time ago. Longer than anyone can remember,” the old man began. “Even longer than I can remember.”
“Seems that man, mankind, people like us I suppose, always could find a way to make things better,” a hint of disgust touched the old man’s tone.
“Better was, well, it seems better was always a bit of imagination. Better didn’t always work out that way.”
“Used to be all kinds of things that mankind had that made things better. Hard to imagine now,” a small huff interrupted the sentence.” “I remember there used to be fresh water in every home. Imagine that. All the water you could drink. Right there. Fresh, clean, more than you could ever drink right at the push of a button or the lift of a lever.” The stranger’s thirst grew at the thought.
“People used to spray it all over themselves and let it wash down the drain with all the dirt. People used to be clean, much cleaner.”
“People had so much water that they would piss and shit in it. They kept it in a bowl in their house and after they shit in it they just flushed it away,” sadness sprinkled the old man’s voice with disdain at the thought.
“Things started to get warmer and people started to run out of water. The first people who ran out of water were far away from here. Folks around here didn’t really notice much about them.”
“Round here, we always had plenty of water. It was nice to be here,” a memory danced across the old man’s eyes, but the stranger didn’t dare move for fear of disrupting the story.
“You know what caused the problems,” the stranger knew it was a rhetorical question.
“Round here the problem was rubber, you ever seen rubber, know what it is?” Another rhetorical question.
“I haven’t seen anything made of rubber in a lifetime. It used to be everywhere. Wheels on carriages, machines with rubber parts and gaskets. Used to have little bands of them. They were cheap, I’d snap my little brother with them, leave a welt, mom would get mad,” a pause as the old man entertained the memory.
“It’s rubber that started the problems or brought them to a head I suppose. In Asia of all places. You ever heard of Asia?” No pause was left for the stranger to answer. The old man knew by the stranger’s age the answer was no.
“I don’t reckon there’s a man alive who has seen Asia. Places like that are too far away now. Who knows if there is anyone in Asia still alive?”
As the old man prattled on, the stranger began to doubt the wisdom of his journey. He began to feel like he might be a fool wasting his time looking for answers.
“We had men called scientists and they were real smart,” the old man droned on.
“They figured out how to make real good rubber plants outta what they called, ‘clones.’ They set it up so that all the rubber in the World was made from the same tree, just in different places. Pretty smart. Until the rubber tree got sick and they died real fast. They called it a ‘blight.’
“Before we even ran outa rubber, people ran outa common sense. When there was no more rubber trees, rubber got real spendy. So did food, water, damn near everything, cause it all depended on cheap rubber. Pretty quick, no one could afford anything anywhere.”
“People started fighting over things that they already had too much of at first. Then they started running out of things they really needed, and it got a lot worse.”
The stranger hoped that finally, something of value to him now would come from the story. The old man continued unrelenting.
“It wasn’t before too long people couldn’t get any food. People didn’t grow much back then. Or hunt much. People didn’t know much about food. They just got it at the market. It took trucks and airplanes and machines to get the food to the markets and they all needed rubber.”
“It hurts to think of all the food in those markets. More than you could imagine. I would give everything for just 10 minutes in that market now,” the old man drifted in memory again.
“People fought over what little food they could get. Governments and companies were big back then. They had lots of machines. Most of them were for making food or killing people. When they ran outta rubber, the machines wouldn’t work.”
“They couldn’t find another way to feed all those people. Millions. Billions. I can’t even imagine that many. The governments started organizing their people and making bigger and bigger wars against each other.”
“They wiped out almost all those people. I can’t even imagine. I haven’t seen more than 100 people in the last 20 years. Millions? Imagine.”
The old man added a small stick to the nearly dead fire. The stranger shifted uncomfortably.
“Rubber was the start. Then food. Pretty soon people got sick on account of some of the bombs they used in the war. Pretty soon lots of people got sick.”
“Now, we have the wastelands and we both know that nobody comes back from there.”
“Maybe they find something even better on the other side of the wastelands and that is why they never come back,” he flashed a sarcastic hint of hope into his voice.
“We got the wastelands and pretty soon people started movin’ trying to find somewhere they wouldn’t get sick.
“Most of the people around here moved away, or died, or died were killed in the great war.”
The old man’s head turned towards the stranger just a fraction.
“Hey, you remember guns?” Although more inquisitive, it was clear the question was still rhetorical.
“People used to have all sorts of guns so they could kill things from real far away. In the end, most all of what they killed with the guns was people, even though you can’t eat people. Imagine that,” he paused.
“Been a real long time since I seen a gun. After the great war, there were no more bullets and no more people who knew how to make bullets.”
“Things used to be a lot more complicated. Now, things are pretty simple.”
“All those companies, and all those governments, all of those people, all gone now. I’m not sure what it was all really worth anyway. Came down to it, when they run outta food, people killed each other instead of trying to make more.”
“At first, people banded together, worked together to go out and get more food. They’d take it from other people. When that ran scarce, the people working together would start to take food from each other. Then they would start killing each other.”
The stranger’s head was dizzy with hunger and thirst, trying to follow along, but losing out to the distraction of his needs. The old man kept going.
“People started moving around to find food. You couldn’t stay in a place once you used up all the food, so people went to being nomads.”
“Things got real hot after all of the bombs. When it was hot, there wasn’t much water. It all dried up so no one could grow food. There was no rain.”
“You ever seen rain?” Rhetorical again, but the stranger perked at the talk of water.
“Can’t even imagine now. Water falling from the sky. The clouds from the bombs stopped all that.”
“The people that were left and movin’ around were finding food made before the great war. There weren’t places to grow or make food, or animals running around to eat.”
“People cut down most all the trees, now there are hardly any left. That’s why I like it here. I can see a couple trees from this old cave.”
“Did I tell you it was rubber that caused it all. A blight they called it,” the old man suddenly showed the fatigue of his story. The stranger feared he would lose the chance to find out what he needed to know.
Legend said the old man rambled and didn’t make much sense.
“Suppose I might be the only one who remembers before the great war, and all those trees,” he slurred.
“Might be the only one who remembers, cars, trees, food, robots,” his consciousness was hanging by a thread.
“Robots, huh,” the old man blurted.
“All those smart people building all those smart robots, how about that now? How are those robots now?”
“We used to have all kinds of food. Food everywhere. Wrapped in plastic and brought to your house on a truck,” the rambling continued, more animated.
“It was the rubber. They needed it to move the cows and to get the dead cows to you when you needed meat.”
“I can’t remember the last time I tasted meat,” his slurring worsened.
“Now, well now is different. Now, we just…. Just, are.”
“Now its just strangers. Strangers who want stories,” the slumping old man was suddenly lucid, but it was fleeting.
“Most of them talk more than you do, but they are all strangers. Strangers looking for stories.”
The stories had made the stranger uncomfortable. He was looking for answers, but what was his question? Maybe the answer was here? Maybe there was nothing. Silence drug on for a couple long minutes. The old man popped back to life, barely.
“Greed. That’s what it was. People had so much and wanted more. Always more,” a cough racked the old man’s shoulders.
“We’re lucky, we didn’t get sick like the others did. We didn’t allow no sick people to come here.”
“Couldn’t have the sick people here. Didn’t want all of us to get sick.”
“The bombs. The bombs made the wasteland. Didn’t make things much better. Just made the wasteland and more sick people.”
“Lots of the kids ended up sick. Couldn’t have that. Buried all the sick people just Southeast of town.”
“This is no place for a kid. Can’t remember the last time I saw a baby. No place for a baby here,” the little man said with his eyes shut, swollen by smoke and Sun.
Another burst of coughing, nearly shook the man out of his chair. Then he slumped, exhaled and expired. It was the end of his story.
The stranger left the body in the chair by the remains of the fire, searched the cave for food or water, found none and returned to the dark hot night to look for his answers.
“Uprising: Fall of Man” is a working fiction project being published in serial form as it is written.