The Man woke himself up coughing, and touched the Child to make sure she was still breathing. She had been coughing all night too. It would be morning soon, the Man knew in minutes the faint glow would spread like the weak shine of a sputtering tallow flame across a gray flowstone floor, but right now the horizon was still as cold and dark as a dead cannibal’s frying pan in the dead gray ashes of some dead campfire.
The Man put some distance between himself and the Child so she wouldn’t hear him coughing. Sometimes she lay awake at night making sure he was still breathing, this he knew. The morning was cold, this he knew because the Cats fell over each other rushing into the house when he opened the door, the red Cats and the ash-gray Cats. Still discalced, he fed them and washed out their mylar food envelopes and washed the catfood sauce from his fingers, wondering why catfood couldn’t just come in simple cans.
Maybe someday society would collapse for reasons unknown and Cats would be happy to eat from cans again.
He looked at the bare table. He looked at the calendar. He had to get a wreath today. The Wreath had to be simple, with simple red candles and simple red ribbons and Nothing Else, and cost €15 which is what the simple Wreath would have cost at school where the Child ordered it, if they hadn’t messed up her order.
He ate some cereal, coughing. The Child was watching him from the doorway. The Man wondered how long the Child had been standing there. Do you want some cereal, the Man asked. The Child said okay.
The Man and the Child ate their cereal.
Driving down the gray wet macadam through a scabland of strip malls, wipers set to a 5-second interval against the depressing cold mist, the Man bemoaned the difficulty of finding a simple Wreath and why did the school have to fuck this up every year it was like a traditional thing. The Man refused to consider the possibility that the Child might have fucked up the order somehow. The first florist they tried had only fancy wreaths. Black candles? Who needs those? Do Goths buy wreaths nowadays? Black candles with fake black birds on them!
The advent market in the newly-remodeled town square had more punch than you could shake a stick at, but also no wreaths, not even fancy ones. The second florist they tried after another detour also only had wreaths starting at forty euro. The Man coughed.
The Child watched the Man coughing. Then the Child coughed.
You coughed, said the Man.
So did you, said the Child.
The Man and the Child got back into the car and left that florist and drove to a nursery that had advertised an Advent market Sundays, but it turned out the Man had no idea where the nursery was, at least, that is, he had an idea, but it proved to be absolutely wrong. The Man could feel his heart growing granitic and crozzled. But there was another nursery not far away so they went there. Secretly, the Man resolved to buy a wreath, no matter what, assuming they were open.
The other nursery was open. The Man and the Child wandered around inside, coughing. The Man could feel a fever rising, and was shakey.
The Child found a table full of wreaths near the cashier. Two tables, in fact. The Man said, this is not the Wreath we were looking for, since it costs €22 and not €15, but our time on Earth is finite, you know what I mean.
The Child coughed as if in response.
Then the Man coughed. It was almost like the thing with yawning, where when one person yawns then everyone else has to as well.
After buying the Wreath the Man and the Child went to the supermarket to buy groceries because the Man had forgotten to buy sufficient groceries the day before because he had miscalculated. They got a shopping cart. Usually we get a shopping cart at the doorway, said the Man, but this time I want to get one out in the lot, because last time I was here the guy selling the homeless newspaper had a new moneymaking scheme, where he would give people carts at the door, and so if you were a nice guy you felt obligated to give him the Euro coin as a tip that you had planned to use as a deposit for the cart, which sucks in a way because you don’t get it back like you’d get a deposit back but on the other hand of course is good because you want to help the guy out, but if say ten people give him a Euro per hour out of the hundred he gives carts to, then that’s an hourly wage of ten Euro, and probably 20 people give him a Euro, which means maybe I’ll start doing this somewhere. You want to help the guy out, but all I have today is a two-Euro coin and that’s more help than I can afford to give, said the Man, and coughed a hacking cough that shook him to his spine.
Okay, said the Child.
The Man and the Child said good morning to the guy selling the homeless paper. Then the Child pointed and said, look. The Man looked, and saw a table near the doorway, full of simple Wreaths selling for €14.50.
The Child looked at the Man. The Man laughed. The Child Laughed. Next year we’ll come here first after the school messes up our order, the Man said.
We’ll come here first, said the Child. Okay.
The sky was no longer black, it was the gray of an elephant beaten cruelly with cold lead pipes. And the mist had not stopped.