“They can’t just relax out there,” Leon had said. “The local crew chief’s not bad, but I want them to know the company’s on top of the situation. I can’t help but picture an armada of floating parties.”
But the men were serious and reserved and afraid of pirates. She talked to a man who hadn’t been ashore in three months.
That evening on the beach below her hotel, Miranda was seized by a loneliness she couldn’t explain. She’d thought she knew everything there was to know about this remnant fleet, but she was unprepared for its beauty. The ships were lit up to prevent collisions in the dark, and when she looked out at them she felt stranded, the blaze of light on the horizon both filled with mystery and impossibly distant, a fairy-tale kingdom. She’d been holding her phone in her hand, expecting a call from a friend, but when the phone began to vibrate she didn’t recognize the number that came up on the screen.
“Hello?” Nearby, a couple was conversing in Spanish. She’d been studying the language for the past several months, and understood every third or fourth word.
“Miranda Carroll?” A man’s voice, almost familiar and very British.
“Yes, with whom am I speaking?”
“I doubt you’ll remember me, but we met briefly some years ago at a party at Cannes. Clark Thompson. Arthur’s friend.”
“We met again after that,” she said. “You came to a dinner party in Los Angeles.”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, of course, how could I forget.…” Of course he hadn’t forgotten, she realized. Clark was being tactful. He cleared his throat. “Miranda,” he said, “I’m afraid I’m calling with some rather bad news. Perhaps you should sit down.”
She remained standing. “Tell me,” she said.
“Miranda, Arthur died of a heart attack last night.” The lights over the sea blurred and became a string of overlapping halos. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t want you to find out on the news.”
“But I just saw him,” she heard herself say. “I was in Toronto two weeks ago.”
“It’s hard to take in.” He cleared his throat again. “It’s a shock, it’s … I’ve known him since I was eighteen. It seems impossible to me too.”
“Please,” she said, “what more can you tell me?”
“He actually, well, I hope you won’t find it disrespectful if I suggest he may have found this fitting, but he actually died onstage. I’m told it was a massive heart attack in the fourth act of King Lear.”
“He just collapsed …?”
“I’m told there were two doctors in the audience, they came up onstage when they realized what was happening and tried to save him, but there was nothing anyone could do. He was declared dead on arrival at the hospital.”
So this is how it ends, she thought, when the call was over, and she was soothed by the banality of it. You get a phone call in a foreign country, and just like that the man with whom you once thought you’d grow old has departed from this earth.
The conversation in Spanish went on in the nearby darkness. The ships still shone on the horizon; there was still no breeze. It was morning in New York City. She imagined Clark hanging up the receiver in his office in Manhattan. This was during the final month of the era when it was possible to press a series of buttons on a telephone and speak with someone on the far side of the earth.
AN INCOMPLETE LIST:
No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years. Aviation gas lasts longer, but it was difficult to come by.
No more screens shining in the half-light as people raise their phones above the crowd to take photographs of concert stages. No more concert stages lit by candy-colored halogens, no more electronica, punk, electric guitars.
No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite.
No more flight. No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows, points of glimmering light; no more looking down from thirty thousand feet and imagining the lives lit up by those lights at that moment. No more airplanes, no more requests to put your tray table in its upright and locked position—but no, this wasn’t true, there were still airplanes here and there. They stood dormant on runways and in hangars. They collected snow on their wings. In the cold months, they were ideal for food storage. In summer the ones near orchards were filled with trays of fruit that dehydrated in the heat. Teenagers snuck into them to have sex. Rust blossomed and streaked.
No more countries, all borders unmanned.
No more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pickup. No more spacecraft rising up from Cape Canaveral, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, from Vandenburg, Plesetsk, Tanegashima, burning paths through the atmosphere into space.
No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.
TWENTY YEARS AFTER the end of air travel, the caravans of the Traveling Symphony moved slowly under a white-hot sky. It was the end of July, and the twenty-five-year-old thermometer affixed to the back of the lead caravan read 106 Fahrenheit, 41 Celsius. They were near Lake Michigan but they couldn’t see it from here. Trees pressed in close at the sides of the road and erupted through cracks in the pavement, saplings bending under the caravans and soft leaves brushing the legs of horses and Symphony alike. The heat wave had persisted for a relentless week.
Most of them were on foot to reduce the load on the horses, who had to be rested in the shade more frequently than anyone would have liked. The Symphony didn’t know this territory well and wanted to be done with it, but speed wasn’t possible in this heat. They walked slowly with weapons in hand, the actors running their lines and the musicians trying to ignore the actors, scouts watching for danger ahead and behind on the road. “It’s not a bad test,” the director had said, earlier in the day. Gil was seventy-two years old, riding in the back of the second caravan now, his legs not quite what they used to be. “If you can remember your lines in questionable territory, you’ll be fine onstage.”
“Enter Lear,” Kirsten said. Twenty years earlier, in a life she mostly couldn’t remember, she had had a small nonspeaking role in a short-lived Toronto production of King Lear. Now she walked in sandals whose soles had been cut from an automobile tire, three knives in her belt. She was carrying a paperback version of the play, the stage directions highlighted in yellow. “Mad,” she said, continuing, “fantastically dressed with wild flowers.”
“But who comes here?” the man learning the part of Edgar said. His name was August, and he had only recently taken to acting. He was the second violin and a secret poet, which is to say no one in the Symphony knew he wrote poetry except Kirsten and the seventh guitar. “The safer sense will ne’er accommodate … will ne’er accommodate … line?”
“His master thus,” Kirsten said.
“Cheers. The safer sense will ne’er accommodate his master thus.”
The caravans had once been pickup trucks, but now they were pulled by teams of horses on wheels of steel and wood. All of the pieces rendered useless by the end of gasoline had been removed—the engine, the fuel-supply system, all the other components that no one under the age of twenty had ever seen in operation—and a bench had been installed on top of each cab for the drivers. The cabs were stripped of everything that added excess weight but left otherwise intact, with doors that closed and windows of difficult-to-break automobile glass, because when they were traveling through fraught territory it was nice to have somewhere relatively safe to put the children. The main structures of the caravans had been built in the pickup beds, tarps lashed over frames. The tarps on all three caravans were painted gunmetal gray, with THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides.
“No, they cannot touch me for coining,” Dieter said over his shoulder. He was learning the part of Lear, although he wasn’t really old enough. Dieter walked a little ahead of the other actors, murmuring to his favorite horse. The horse, Bernstein, was missing half his tail, because the first cello had just restrung his bow last week.
“Oh,” August said, “thou side-piercing sight!”
“You know what’s side-piercing?” the third trumpet muttered. “Listening to King Lear three times in a row in a heat wave.”