The Fu

Milly stood absolutely still, letting the warm soapy dishwater work on her arthritic hands and looking out of her window over the tops of houses and beyond the four-lane highway to Blood Hill. Blood Hill rose gently from the other side of the valley and could be seen in its entirety from Milly’s little house nuzzled into a heavily-gardened three-quarter acre. Milly was not surprised to see that no more progress had been made clearing the path marked by the bright orange flags on the hill. Those jackasses got stopped dead in their tracks, she thought. And she smiled.

In fact, everyone had been stopped in their tracks for the past few months, ever since the fungal virus – familiarly called “Fu” to differentiate it from the regular flu and perhaps as a reminder that in started in the northern provinces of China – had ripped through the entire population. In some place it was still raging, but seemed to have exhausted its interest in the town of Clinton and departed with little loss of life. Milly was up doing housework for the first time in two weeks, and – while she didn’t feel great – she knew she wasn’t half as sick as many of the younger folks who had gotten it. Some people had been laid up for weeks, struggling for breath, unable to swallow anything through their swollen throats. Milly had been pretty miserable, resorting to fruit juices for a few days and doctoring her achiness with Tylenol and brandy. But today she felt almost ready to tackle the weeds that had taken advantage of her absence from the flower beds. Physically she felt better, but she harbored a secret disappointment.

Milly had long since decided that the only thing that was going to save the Earth – the world as she knew it – was a plague. She had watched the politicians and scientists argue about global warming and pollution for years. She had been bombarded with thousands of ads telling her how “green” the business world was while those same corporation continued to pollute and desecrate the world. And most troubling of all, Milly felt the world getting more and more crowded – in her neighborhood where there was not a spare lot of woods left, in the grocery store where she had to maneuver her cart around ever more and fatter people, on the packed highways, in the airports when she went to visit her sister in Michigan. Too many people seemed to the root of all problems. And no one seemed to be doing anything about it. Milly had figured that if Mother Nature had any brains, she would figure out a way to thin out her most highly evolved and least successful of species. Then the Fu came along. Milly was afraid of dying but hopeful that, if she did, she would have a lot of company.

But Milly did not die and neither did almost anyone else. Though the Fu was much more contagious than the regular flu (since the spores could be carried in the wind), it was even less fatal. Everyone got it, but after nine or ten days, almost everyone got over it. However it was, Milly heard on the radio, particularly dangerous to pregnant women. Any expectant mother who contracted the Fu before six months miscarried. There had been some attempts by public health officials to isolate pregnant mothers when they realized this, but it was too late by then. It appeared that there would be almost no births for a period of five or six months and Milly thought that was at least a step in the right direction. Not that she didn’t feel bad for the mothers, but her overwhelming concern was for Mother Nature. For obvious reasons, she kept her thoughts to herself.

As she was drying her hands, Milly’s front doorbell rang, and the door opened before she could even pick up her towel. Bertha came waddling down the hall to the kitchen, talking as she walked and leaving the front door wide open behind her.

“Oh, I’m so glad you’re better,” Bertha started crowing before she even made it to the kitchen. “I’ve been up since yesterday, but what a mess in the house. And I’ve been worried to death about the kids. They’ve been so sick. I wanted to leave last night to stay with them, but Amy won’t let me. She said they were starting to get better and I should be sure I was recovered before I started traveling. Besides, Henry is still not quite himself. He strained his chest coughing and still feels sore. Don’t know how well he could drive. He’s over it though. It’s the little ones I am worried about. Mike and Tina. Especially Tina. You know the little ones get it worse.”

By now, Bertha was in the kitchen and Milly went back down the hall to shut the door behind her before Stella could get out. Until Milly got alarmed by the number of birds that the little gray cat was snaring, Stella had been an outdoor car and she still looked for any opportunity to escape. Milly wished she could escape out the open door herself, since she was sure she was in for at least an hour’s report about Bertha’s “grands.”

Well, she could try to cut it short. After Milly shut the door, she simply stood by the front entrance forcing Bertha to turn around and face her, diverting her from ensconcing herself at the kitchen table, a seat from where it might be impossible to remove her for hours.

“I’m through it, but I’ve got a lot to do.” Milly’s subtext was she did not have time to spend gabbing with her obese neighbor, but Bertha had lost a whole week of face-to-face chitchat, and she was at least as determined as Milly to make up for lost time.

“Thank God we made it through. Do you know they even cancelled General Hospital? Everybody was sick. I mean everybody. They even had it at the White House and those people get shots for everything. I was so upset. Usually when Amy’s sick, I go over and help with the kids, but there was no way. I was so worried. Finally Amy had to tell me to stop calling – I was checking up on them all the time. But they’re fine.”

Milly thought that Bertha surely did not look any worse for wear – she might have lost a pound or two, but it was hard to tell in that muumuu thing she always wore. Bertha’s round face was framed by very short and very white hair, and she wore a massive amount of blush, bright red lipstick, and trifocals in sapphire blue frames. Next to Bertha, Milly looked drab in her jeans, navy blue Audubon sweatshirt, the rag wool socks she used for slippers in the house, and her gray ponytail held in place with a pink rubber band.

Bertha put her hands on her ample hips. “You look terrible though. Couldn’t you eat anything. I sent Harry over here with some of the fortified milk shake stuff he uses. Did you try it. Do you want some more?” Milly was thin even in good times, but she had lost over five pounds with the Fu. Milly had disposed of Harry’s fortified drink after she contemplated whether the creamy chemicals were even safe for the cat.

“I’m fine. You better get back to Harry. I’ve got to catch up with things. Did you notice they stopped working on the hill?”

Bertha looked confused for a minute and then remembered her neighbor’s obsession with what was going on across the valley. She hardly noticed herself and was looking forward to the new Walmart, which was a great place to pick up surprises for the grands and would be right on the way to Amy’s house.

Bertha was not ready to leave. “Too bad you never had kids – it would give you something else to think about. I never even noticed they stopped, but then everything stopped. It will all be normal again in another week or two. At least I hope so. I miss my soaps. A real disappointment that they weren’t back on this week.”

Milly thought that if missing her soaps had disappointed Bertha, then her neighbor knew little about disappointment. Milly, on the other hand, knew a great deal about it. Many things had left Milly’s life, leaving disappointment in their place. A young husband gone with another woman. A child. Bertha did not know that Milly did, indeed, have a daughter. And even Milly did not know if she had any grandchildren as she had had no contact with her daughter Clara in over two decades. The reason, of course, had been a man of whom Milly disapproved. Clara was convinced that Milly hated all men, beginning with Clara’s father (Milly’s ex), and Milly was convinced that Clara was trying to get her father back in every man she hooked up with. Clara left with the man in question and the last word and that had been the end of it. Milly had even contacted her ex trying to find Clara, but he swore he had no idea where she was, and Milly knew him well enough to guess he was probably telling the truth. Because Milly could not make peace with her daughter, she made peace with the situation. But she did not talk about it.
Milly made small talk with Bertha for a few more minutes and the ushered her out the door and went back to the kitchen, where water was simmering for the tea she had been determined not to brew until she got rid of Bertha.

Milly sat down with her tea and her tangerine and a stack of four graham crackers and considered whether she was a bad person. Usually such thoughts revolved around Clara, and she often wondered whether, after all this time with no contact, Clara was as much at fault as she was. But today she pondered where she was a bad person because of her desire for the human race to obliterated – or at least culled. It wasn’t that she had no feelings, Milly reflected. It was true she had not had much luck with the people in her life, but there were many beings she did love. She cared about every bird that nested in her yard, every wildflower that bloomed in the wild strip by the stream between her and Bertha’s houses, every fox that tried to adapt from forests to backyards. Even though she seldom climbed its trail anymore, she had a close relationship with Blood Hill where they were building the detested Walmart. She mourned for every tree that the bulldozers took down. Milly wanted human beings to leave her world alone, but they would not. So, she wanted her world, she wanted Mother Nature, to do something about it. Milly finished her tea and concluded that she wasn’t a bad being; she was just a bad human being.

The Fu disappeared during the next few weeks. It appeared that no one had been exempt – even a month after everyone else was other it, there were reports of outbreaks at polar experimental stations and South Sea islands. No one could escape, but no one got it more than once, so things slowly returned to normal. General Hospital resumed broadcasting and kept Bertha busy for at least an hour a day, and the “grands” were well enough to visit while Amy went off with her new boyfriend for a week leaving Bertha no time for neighborhood visits. The crews were back on the hilling cutting down tress and grading the road up to the new Walmart Plaza. Things did indeed seem back to normal.

And then one day Bertha arrived right after her soaps were over and asked if Milly had heard that something funny had happened to people who had the Fu. Milly said she hadn’t – she seldom listed to the news anymore since it depressed her – and that she herself had had no after-effects. Bertha lowered herself down into a kitchen chair that was too narrow for her bulk and whispered to Milly (as if there was anyone else around to hear) that there were rumors that women who had had it stopped getting their periods and no one was getting pregnant. No one. The scientists were looking into it, but there were also rumors that the men could get it up but not deliver. Milly sat there initially fascinated that old Baptist Bertha was sitting at her kitchen table, fat hanging over both sides of the chair, talking about erections and sperm, but increasingly interested in what she had to say. No more babies. What a delightful thought! After Bertha left, Milly decided to watch the news later.

And it was true. Something about the Fu cause reproductive organs to quit functioning. Women stopped ovulating and their uteruses started to shrivel; men produced no sperm and were not as fast on the draw as they used to be. There were no babies on the way. There were not even healthy uteruses to implant frozen embryos into and scientists had yet to figure out how to grow a baby outside the womb. It appeared that young girls who were about to go into puberty when they got the Fu just stopped developing sexually. There was some hope that the babies born within a few months of the Fu might grow up with functioning reproductive organs, but it was too soon to tell.

No more people. No new people. Milly thought that Mother Nature was probably very happy. The Biblical Sarah laughed at the possibility that God would make her sterile womb fertile; now the opposite was happening. Mother Nature was indeed wise. No need to strew the planet with billions of rotting corpses – they would all bury each other until the human race just petered out. Nobody alive would have to suffer. People would not die before their time – they just could not reproduce – and for many of them Milly thought it would be a blessing even if they did not realize it. There was only one thing that Milly was still worried about.

On the other hand, Bertha worried more and more – about no great-grandchildren and who would take care of the grands when they were old since they would have no children. Since she had not seemed to have thought of it, Milly point out to Bertha that she herself was doing fine even without children around. Bertha was taken aback, and seemed to doubt that Milly meant it.

“What will the world be without people?” Bertha moaned.

It will be better, thought Milly. Much better. But Milly kept her counsel, and just told Bertha it did not worry her.

“You’d feel differently if you had children. Children make all the difference.”

The news was full of items about funding for research in reproductive technology and searches in remote areas for unaffected people who might still be able to reproduce. So far, there had been no success stories, but Bertha and millions of others staked their hopes in science and felt better. Milly only hoped for one thing, and she sighed happily and often when spring brought birds’ nests, then eggs. With the bald nestlings gawping for food and baby rabbits in the garden, Milly got over her only worry. The Fu had not sterilized the other creatures. The world would go on indeed.

Not only did the world go on, but Milly was amazed at how little her world had changed since the Fu. True, you did not see babies or pregnant women, and the baby sections in stores and markets were disappearing. No diapers, formula, or baby food in the supermarket had freed up a whole aisle, and the change in demographics and the drop in population were causing stagnation in the real estate market. Schools and colleges were preparing themselves for the worst. Some private colleges were transforming themselves into retirement homes and assisted living centers. Or metamorphosing into one of the new “longevity” centers. Scientists who weren’t working on test tube babies were racing the clock for ways to extend human life indefinitely, and there seemed to be even more interest in the latter than the former research. It had been determined that the young children who contracted the FU did not become fertile at puberty, and that seemed like the last real hope. Governments were worried about how to pay retirement benefits when everyone was old and had already upped the retirement age both to save on benefits and keep the workforce as large as possible with no new entrants. But little of this affected Milly, nor most other individual lives. People continued to go about their business and even save money (without thought of passing it down through generations) to provide for their old age. And most construction came to a halt – including the work on the new Walmart on Blood Hill. A contracting population meant contracting markets.

It was in March four years after the Fu outbreak that Milly got a brief note from Clara, who had gotten her address from her father. Clara wanted to come and visit. And bring her son, whose name was Jonah. There was nothing about Jonah’s father nor mention of any other children. The note contained no regret or apology and make it seem that it was Jonah who had initiated her request. “Jonah is eighteen now and would like to meet you. He leaves for college in the fall, so it would be good to do it sometime this summer.” It rather sounded like Clara was trying to schedule getting his wisdom teeth out, Milly thought. There were no pictures, but there was an address (San Diego) and a phone number. Milly could not imagine dialing the number and getting Jonah or Clara on the line and trying to talk to them, so she used a note card with a chickadee on the front to write and tell Clara that anytime would be fine; she would accommodate their schedule, (“Come anytime you want but please give me at least a week’s notice so I can get in some groceries”) and could put them up if they wanted to stay with her. (“Someone will have to sleep on the couch, but it’s not bad. Since I got old, I fall asleep on it all the time.”) Milly mailed the card and waited.

They were coming for the last week in June. Milly waited until the day before Jonah and Clara were to arrive to tell Bertha anything, and even then she did not tell her much despite repeated interrogation. Bertha was thrilled with such drama at her doorstep but frustrated with the lack of details. Not surprisingly, Bertha managed to be out in the yard when Clara and her son arrived.

Clara looked the same. Older, certainly, and a little wider in the hips; the brown hair was thinner and much drabber, but in her bare smile and her jerky mannerisms, she was as Milly remembered her. Except, of course, that she used to be aggressive towards her mother and now she was… reserved. She did not hug Milly when they met in the driveway, even though it was apparent that Jonah and Bertha were standing back waiting for this to happen. Instead, Clara stood there explaining to Jonah (although she must have told him this before) that this was not the house she grew up in. Milly finally went over and put an arm around her tall and skinny grandson while reaching out with her other had to pat her daughter on the arm, welcoming one and reassuring the other that she was welcome and forgiven.

Jonah had obviously made an effort. His jeans were clean, his sneakers were new, and he had on a red crew neck sweater over a blue tee shirt. His hair was straight and fine (like Clara’s and Milly’s) and in need of barbering to keep it from veiling half of his face and relieving the necessity of swiping it aside every few seconds – but it was squeaky clean and the bright auburn color that Clara’s used to be. Jonah looked happy to be there. Clara looked tired and miserable.

“What do I call you?” Jonah asked. Milly was immediately confused. She had not thought of this.

“Grandma, if you want. Of course, yes, Grandma. Or if that doesn’t seem right – do you have another Grandma? – you can call me Milly.” Milly immediately regretted asking questions about Jonah’s other relations.

“Grandma. Yeah. That would be great.” Milly wondered what Clara would call her. Hopefully not the names she was calling her the last time they saw each other.

Milly immediately felt that she would get on well with Jonah, and she did. She and Clara, however, hovered around Jonah like two crows keeping an eye on the same crust of bread. Their only involvement with each other was in the surveillance of the other’s interaction with the teenager, while the young man seemed oblivious to any of it and was clearly enjoying himself.

Milly and Jonah had talked about the Fu. Milly had asked him what he thought of the fact that he might never have children, that he might live to see the world almost completely depopulated.

“Well, I don’t think about it. Maybe they’ll invent something. Anyway, that’s one of the reasons I told Mom we should find you. Family is going to get scarce.” Jonah did not seem frightened of the abrupt change in the rules of the world that he was born into. But, then again, he had grown up with it. Like the way Milly had grown up with television and Clara with computers. Milly wondered if seeing herself and Clara together – a relationship cold in its cordiality – made him wonder if having children was so great. He didn’t seem to have such a good relationship with his own mother either – but what eighteen-year-old did?

Clara and Jonah stayed for a week and then prepared to head back to the west coast. Jonah was going to visit his father who lived in Oregon and was not the man Clara had left home for. Clara was returning to her position as an administrator at a large nursing home. Milly observed that Clara had chosen her work wisely; there would be plenty of old folks around for a number of years yet. Jonah hugged Milly as they left, and Clara kissed her on the cheek. Clara and Milly had never discussed their schism. There were promises all around of another visit – perhaps even of Milly coming to California – but everyone was emphatically indefinite about when.

As soon as they left, Bertha came through the door. She had met Clara and Jonah a few times during the week and exchanged pleasantries, but she could not wait to debrief Milly.

“So, how do you like being a grandmother?” she burbled.

Milly told her Jonah was a great kid, they all had a good time, and sent Bertha home with the leftover cookies and cheese snacks she would never eat. After Bertha left, Milly made a cup of tea and sat down with the pictures Jonah had left her – baby photographs, school portraits, team pictures. She thought about the ritual she had just gone through, the triangle of generations that would not happen anymore. Did it matter to her that Clara would never experience what she had just gone through? That Jonah would never take baby pictures of his own child?

Milly looked out at the finches and the woodpeckers at the feeder and across the interstate to the scars from the aborted Walmart project. Yes, it mattered. But not enough.