There are too many options in the toothpaste aisle.

I stand there for almost a minute and just stare. AIM, Crest, something called Polident…I don’t remember the last time I saw anyone use a toothbrush. Electric toothbrushes? Was that ever truly a thing? I never saw an inorganic source of electricity, as my grandparents had often mentioned. I couldn’t believe people had ever used it to do something as mundane as to clean their teeth.

I slide my tongue around inside my own mouth. I’ve got 19 remaining, and they seem fine. Around me, the aisles of the looted store are virtually empty. Plastic, empty cans, litter and empty shelves surround me. Utensils are all gone, snatched by looters who use everything, even whisks, against anyone and everyone. I can’t remember the last time I could speak out of line even in our tribe of 8. The world as I’d known it had always been desperate. I do recall running into a pair: a father and daughter who were walking along the edge of the broken highway, parched and confused. She held a small plastic spatula and he had a long pair of metal tongs from over 100 years ago. It was an easy takedown.

So many toothpastes. I try to think of a time when these sorts of needs had purpose. Trivial upkeep and tiny vanities. I cannot picture it. The long aisle, nearly untouched after all these years, speaks to how much has changed over the generations after the fallout.

Why did my great grandparents ever care about these small things? I question, running my hand over a filthy stand with a rotten rubber conveyor belt under a sign reading “self-checkout”. Abandoned now, looted and all the scanner’s copper pulled out and stolen. Frozen food? I can’t even imagine how that would have looked or tasted — there hasn’t been electricity for over two decades. What were diapers? Why did people need dog treats? Those seem to last forever.

I run my hand over the empty shelves and let my fingers dance up across the tops of strange nail polish remover bottles and sun-ruined concealer bottles. Was anyone ever that color?

Hundreds of people had flung themselves into this tiny store after the fallout. What they took spoke volumes. I always tried to remind myself of that when I snaked my way up and down through the store. There couldn’t be anything of value, now, left. I heard the stories: produce and fresh food and people taking time to read and learn and diaper their babies. To buy these very concealers that matched their pale skin.

We learn to shoot and loot and run fast. You have to distrust, be bandits, sing the songs of the elders and walk without shoes for days. Learn to identify the rabbits that would make you sick from the ones you could actually eat. There is no need for the old indulgences: those are strange snake oil products that have no bearing on us today — things like hospitals, doctors, dentists, people called acupuncturists, meter maids, cashiers, plumbers: all gentle jobs from the past, which I couldn’t say was real save a few diaries I’ve seen in abandoned houses and a few newspapers in hoarder’s houses.

I look at another section next to what was once the lip balm area. “Floss”. People once had the time to run tiny string through their teeth. A whole section devoted just to that. It’s full. No one took that while they ran.

I pick one of the floss packages up. I turn my back to face the dusty, dark front of the store. I’ve never seen the sun, but my tribe says the dust might finally clear in a few more decades. Maybe. I don’t know what to believe, but what else can I do. There are too many options in the toothpaste aisle, and I can’t imagine a world where there aren’t.


the boy in the car

It was like any other late September Los Angeles day. After a heat wave, there was a calm purr of cooling, the air taking a deep breath that was kind to us and kind to all manner of weather patterns.

I heaved myself up as best I could with my brace cutting into the waking flesh of my back. Two pills, and a glass of water later found me ready to snap a little leash onto my little dog’s collar. She, Ruby, perched hopefully on the arm of a sofa.

Treats and bags in hand, we were off on our 15 minute constitutional, winding up a tall staircase and down a slight decline. I saw no one, ever, save a passing car, and knew all the 12 vehicles I would see parked along the route. Until I mounted the last hill. Up ahead in an illegal spot sat an old, clean car. Spotless.

The old Mercedes was one of the early 90’s boxy sedans, maroon with big, silver accents. The tinted windows were dark and large, their hue made the figure sleeping in the back almost drenched in a patina, a relic from twenty years ago frozen in slumber. Even the sunlight warmed to a nostalgic glow, humming dustily on the leather seats.

I didn’t want to get too close so I kept on, and nearly forgot about it until I embarked up the stairs the following day.

Like an awaiting friend, its flat, metallic underpinnings seemed to anticipate my arrival as I crested the hill.

The figure was still sleeping, although it had turned the other way and I could see the face of a boy, a teen, his eyelashes long and fanning out as I saw them from my vantage point. He had a long, thin nose and soft lips slightly parted, in repose. His face was colored orange from the setting sun through the window and where the tint darkened near the window edges, his light hair became almost blue. A moment from another era, a photograph already changing color. I walked on, tugged past by my dog, and vowed to look closer if it was there tomorrow. Maybe I’d tap on the door, see if he was alright. I turned again. There was no license plate.

I didn’t forget this time, that night, and wondered if he was sick or a runaway. He seemed clean shaven and not gaunt. Maybe a lover’s quarrel or a journalist on assignment. My theories were numerous.

I got ready for my walk and grabbed a little plastic water jug, maybe he’d be grateful for it.

I rounded the bend and the hill and the car was gone. I stood and watched an ant scurry across an old oil stain where the car had been. One of those large, heavy, black ants. A few gardeners walking past were watching me watching the ground. Ruby was pulling on her leash to greet them, so I turned and walked home.