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Jennifer and Richard live in a cave over the river.
Colleen and Bill live two caves down.
I live in the cave between them, with my cat, Jackson.
Everyone but Jackson has a job.
We’re good neighbors.
We share stories and meals.
We’re conveniently located within walking distance
to shops and permanent gridlock.
Colleen says we’re patriots.
“Human-shaped gland-farms,” she says.
“Replacement-part factories for progeny of the CEOs,” says Bill.
Bill is Colleen’s boyfriend. He teaches philosophy at the university. So does Colleen.
Our jobs pay us just enough to rent caves over the river.
The river is dirty and loud.
None of us has health insurance, so we aren’t expecting to live here for long.
After we’re gone, they’ll triple the rent.
And then you can live here.
Because you can hold three jobs.
The rains came hard this year.
The dirty loud river rose.
Our floors turned to mud.
We stole some pallets from behind the all-night supermarket and dragged them home across the rickety footbridge that connects us to the rest of the world.
We tore the pallets apart and fashioned them into floorboards.
“Because we’re patriots,” says Colleen.
There’s no electricity, no television,
but sometimes at night
we can hear people yelling
from the other side, in the parking lot.
Almost always, someone will yell, “Fuck!”
For a little while, Bill was almost famous.
A couple times a year, someone rich
from the Entertainment Industry
would contact him and advise him
that if he were to do this or that,
then someone would pay him
enough money to live in a house with a yard.
So Bill did this and Bill did that,
but nothing seemed to come from it.
The rich people told Bill to make things
that had already been made, to say
things already said, over and over.
Bill hated repeating himself.
Colleen says that before it was privatized,
the university where they work was known
for taking care of its own.
Treatment for Bill’s cancer —
he was just diagnosed — is available
at a cost of 120 percent of Bill and Colleen’s
combined monthly salary.
“Black-market morphine,” Bill says.
“Ventura Boulevard heroin,
when the pain arrives.
I’ll trust you to decide when to let me go.”
I grew up in the United States,
a developing country just south of Canada.
We were not rich or poor.
I got good grades in school.
I’m an award-winning American writer.
Living in a cave without electricity
means charging my laptop elsewhere,
often at the stimulant emporium,
where there’s free Wi-Fi.
It takes about three hours to charge. Then
I can work for about four hours. Then
I go back and charge it again.
I grew up to be a battery.
Jennifer and Richard lived here before any of us.
They run the Laundromat next to the supermarket,
so we always have clean clothes.
They met as undergraduates at USC.
It took them 40 years to pay off their student loans.
“These are days of mud and coffee,” Richard likes to say.
“Don’t let anyone tell you any different.”
Jennifer crawls into my cave and tells me that Richard has stopped eating.
He’s done that before. But now he’s stopped moving too.
“He needs coffee,” says Jennifer. “I can’t leave him.”
I slip into my boots.
The stimulant emporium is just across the river.
Colleen gives me a clean overcoat for the journey.
Otherwise they won’t let me in.
The footbridge is on its last legs.
I always wanted to be a hero.
I used to have a desk that faced a wall.
On the wall was a small picture of Mark Twain,
and next to the picture was something Twain
supposedly once said:
“If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous,
he will not bite you. This is the principal difference
between a dog and a man.”
Richard needs coffee now, or he’ll slip away.
Many years ago, his brother, Lennox,
drowned in Peoria Lake.
Richard went into a deep depression
with uncontrollable coughing fits.
He was given sertraline and dextrome-thorphan, and he felt better.
But he can’t afford either one anymore,
because he only has one job.
Caffeine helps. It keeps Richard
from having to buy meth
from your little brother.
I return with Richard’s coffee —
an iced triple espresso —
and Jennifer brings the straw
to her husband’s lips.
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