Excerpt from “The City, Not Long After”

In “The City, Not Long After,” a plague has wiped out most of the population of the United States. In San Francisco, a group of artists are remaking the city. In this excerpt from Chapter 5, Danny-boy, one of the artists, decides it’s time to start a major new project.

Danny-boy’s inspiration for his biggest project came from a conversation with Duff, an industrious, egg-shaped man with three wives and countless children. In a city filled with artists, Duff was a businessman. On the shore of Mountain Lake, the city’s largest spring-fed pond, Duff had established a trading post and a business empire.

Danny-boy was visiting the trading post one fine spring evening. It was twilight and the luminescent grey-purple sky reflected in the still lake. The drooping branches of eucalyptus trees hung low over the water. Now and then, fish jumping for insects broke the smooth surface. At the far end of the lake where the water was shallow, five of Duff’s children were netting crayfish. Their shrill voices carried in the evening air, echoing across the water. Overhead, the wind generator that supplied Duff’s electricity rattled rhythmically.

Danny-boy was strolling around the lake when Duff hailed him from a bench, inviting him to come and sit and smoke a joint. “How’s it going?” Duff asked. He rolled a joint from the marijuana in his pouch. “You haven’t brought me any trade goods for a while.”

Danny-boy nodded. “Yeah. Been busy helping Rose Maloney transplant some of her trees. She had this one rubber tree that must be about fifteen feet tall. We transplanted it into the baptismal font at Saint Monica’s.”

“Why do you bother with all that?” Duff lit the joint, took a drag, and passed it to Danny-boy.

Danny-boy shrugged. “She likes it.”

“It’s not going to get you anywhere.”

“So? Where would I want to go?” Danny-boy took a drag on the joint.

The sun was setting. Down on the beach below them, a campfire burned. A group of artists and scavengers had gathered to sit by the fire and drink. Danny-boy could hear voices raised in discussion.

Duff gestured at the fire. “They’re always talking. But they never seem to do much.”

Danny-boy frowned at the bitterness in Duff’s voice. “What do you mean? They do lots of things.”

“They live off remnants of the past,” Duff said. “You know, I think you care about the wrong things.”

Danny-boy blew out a cloud of smoke and did not reply.

“Not just you,” Duff said. “All of the scavengers in the city. If you only got organized, you could accomplish something. You could get somewhere.”

“What would we want to accomplish?” Danny-boy asked idly. He offered the joint to Duff but the older man waved it away, eager to make his next point. Danny-boy smiled slowly and took another hit. The more Duff talked, the less he would smoke.

“Suppose you wanted some marijuana?” Duff said. “What would you do?”

“I’d see if I could find some wild plants to harvest,” Danny-boy said. “I know a backyard in the Mission with plants as tall as I am.”

“Living off the land like a savage,” Duff scoffed. “Suppose someone had already harvested the plants in the Mission. What then?”

“Maybe I’d see if Snake had some to lend me.” Danny-boy was willing to go on proposing solutions as long as Duff kept asking for them.

“And if he didn’t have any, you’d come to me.”

“Sure. And I’d trade you for some.”

“Why would you come to me? What have I got that you don’t?”

“Marijuana,” Danny-boy said.

“A greenhouse full of it. And you could have a greenhouse too. The materials are there.” He waved a hand toward the city. “A little work, and you could be self-sufficient.”

Danny-boy leaned back on the bench, surveying the lake dreamily.

“If everyone worked with me,” Duff went on, “we could rebuild this city.”

“Why would we want to?” Danny-boy asked. “I like it the way it is.”

“You never saw it before.”

Danny-boy shrugged. “I dream of it sometimes. I like it the way it is.”

Duff was not paying attention; he was caught up in his own vision. “All we need to do is work together. Think about it — one man couldn’t have built the Golden Gate Bridge on his own. One family couldn’t have done it. Hundreds of people, working together, build that bridge. To accomplish things, you need team-work. Now if you wanted a greenhouse…”

“I don’t,” Danny-boy interrupted.

Duff shook his head furiously. “OK then, if you wanted a wind generator….”

“I don’t need one.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Duff growled. “It could be anything. Suppose you wanted to paint the Golden Gate Bridge blue. Alone you couldn’t do it. But if you had enough people who would cooperate, you could do it in a week. Cooperation means civilization. Without it, you’re alone.”

Danny-boy frowned, listening intently for the first time. “I see what you mean. I never thought much about it before.”

Duff eyed him uneasily. “About what?” He seemed startled that Danny-boy was finally listening.

“I’ve been working on my own. It might be interesting to try a bigger project.”

“Like a greenhouse?” Duff suggested.

“I was thinking more of the bridge,” Danny-boy said. “Blue’s a nice color. Well, I guess I’d better be going.” He gave Duff the end of the joint, smiled pleasantly, and sauntered away into the night.

The following week, Danny-boy started accumulating blue paint.