Sunday, May 31, 2009

AMERICAN CRUDE - Chapter 6-b

The following is a draft of Chapter 6-b of my post-oil novel AMERICAN CRUDE. Comments have been disabled. If you wish to comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast at and join the discussion.


--Innocent Byproduct

There were two large 80’s-era refrigerators --I guess intended as community fridges where never-employed employees might have stashed their home-packed lunch boxes. One fridge was silent and unplugged, but the other hummed. She went right toward the humming fridge.

“I have sodas, spring water, and fruit juice if you’d like,” she explained as she opened the refrigerator and revealed its lit and chilly interior. The shelves bore six-packs of many different drinks, and even some snacks like pudding and cookies. “The only thing I ask is you be careful about any messes, including even the tiniest of crumbs, because I’m trying to keep vermin away.”

“Sure,” I nodded. “This is all very kind of you.”

She went to one of the unlocked lockers and pulled out a dark shiny package that at first looked like a pillow rolled up in plastic. It turned out to be a factory-packed, clear plastic bag tightly bundled around a dark garment.

“And here’s that jacket I promised you,” she said, handing it to me.

I was surprised at first, then clumsily accepted her gift.

“Uh, thank you. That’s great!”

I popped open the plastic. It was a classic wool letterman jacket of navy and black. Its gold embroidering read: “US ACE Lydia IV Facility, Lancaster, PA, USA.”

My God! I thought as soon as I read the embroidery. This IS a military facility! Specifically, it was an Army Corps of Engineers facility. As to what “Lydia IV” stood for had me stumped, and I wondered where Lydia I, Lydia II, and Lydia III might be found. I further wondered if there might also be a Lydia V or Lydia VI somewhere.

“Wow, this is great! Thanks!” I said, hiding my realization from her and merely slipping on the jacket.

As I slid my arms into its silk-lined sleeves, I glanced toward the door we had just entered and noticed another military clock: nineteen-hundred and fifty-five hours, or seven-thirty-three PM. And near it hung the first (and only) piece of artwork I had yet to see in the whole facility. It was a large and fully framed color pencil drawing of what I assumed was a nighttime landscape of a moonlit industrial tank farm much like the ones found alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. I thought surely a tank farm had to be the oddest subject any artist could ever choose to draw. But as I examined it further, I realized it was not an outdoor scene at all, but an indoor scene: it was in fact an architect’s rendering of the same football-field-full-of-oil-tanks I had just been introduced to. However this particular vision of the facility as depicted in the drawing had about a half dozen of the massive forty-foot-high Jersey tank farm tanks, rather than hundreds of the smaller tractor trailer tanks that currently sat waiting for us below the steel catwalk. I also noticed there was a small strip of printing on the drawing, but from this distance I couldn’t read it.

“Shall we go see that leaking tank now?” she asked.

I shot my gaze from the drawing back to her and smiled in compliance.


We turned to exit the room. As we headed out the door I covertly glanced sideways to get a better look at the printing on the tank farm drawing. On the top I saw a title (or maybe it's called a caption) that read “The Moral Equivalent of War.” At the bottom I spotted the signature of the artist/architect: Dale Garner, and the date of his drawing was August 23, 1977.

Out in the hall, the scent of oil greeted us as before. We retraced our steps back up the long hallway, turned the corner onto the catwalk again, passed by the control room and her still-dangling purse, and returned at last to the elevators.

Once we reached the elevators she hit the call button and the door of the same car we’d taken earlier instantly slid open. We entered and she again inserted her round-barreled elevator key. This time she took us down to the absolute bottom level labeled “SB-4-B.”

-------------------End of Chapter 6-b--------------------

AMERICAN CRUDE - Chapter 6-a

The following is a draft of Chapter 6-a of my post-oil novel AMERICAN CRUDE. Comments have been disabled. If you wish to comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast at and join the discussion.


--Innocent Byproduct

I looked back at the sea of tanks in disbelief.

“Are you perhaps an oil trader?” I asked. “A speculator who does-- what’s it called --physical trading? You’re a physical trader of physical oil?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t deal with the markets at all. This oil has been here for years. And it’s here to stay.”

“For what?” I looked back at her again.

“To heat my house in the winter,” she said. “And to run the diesel generators which supply my electricity.”

“Unless your house is the size of the Taj Mahal, this oil will last over a hundred years! Are you … are you and your husband some kind of survivalists? I’ve heard other plumbers talk about people stockpiling oil on their estates … maybe ten or twenty thousand gallons at the most … but never anything on this scale. My God! Who built this place? It looks like military.”

At this point I was blatantly disregarding her don’t-ask-don’t-ask policy. I had totally forgotten myself. She stood in silence a moment then changed the subject: “Mr. Walczak, are you ready to repair my leaking tank?”

And instead of catching the hint, I blindly pushed forward in my quest for information: “Where are we, exactly?”

“Um, well, you’re in my house. And I would like to show you the tank, and then the equipment you’ll be working with …. Is that all right with you?”

At that point I knew I was taxing her patience. Rich people never SERIOUSLY ask the hired help if anything as basic as mere procedure is “all right” with them. Her words snapped me out of my astonishment and helped me recall the terms if the contract. My ego was now stung, so I was tempted to dethrone her in my mind from my previous level of respect and demote her to the rank of typical rich bitch. But in all honesty, she was being more than patient with me.

“Yeah, sure,” I nodded.

She smiled then reached up with both hands and tightened her hat down around her ears. Then she re-shouldered her purse and gestured leftward for me to accompany her.

With the wall to our left and the pipe railing to our right, I walked with her beneath the straight-as-an-arrow trail of overhead florescent bulbs. We passed just one blank door to our left. As we walked I kept glancing sideways at the spectacle of tanks on the “football field” below. I assessed our height on the catwalk to be fifty feet up.

We traveled barely thirty paces past the elevators. And even though the overhead line of florescent bulbs continued onward and totally unbroken for a very long stretch, it was here that the pipe railing at our right ended. In its place stood the glass wall of an elevated control room that thrust outward into the “stadium” from our catwalk, overseeing the tanks like a TV news press box. I estimated that the all-glass control room hovered directly above where the 50-yard line should have been. The control room sat dark and totally unmanned. The only signs of life were the dim glow of computer monitors all in sleep mode. Within the control room, mounted on the wall above the far windows which overlooked the array of oil tanks, I faintly discerned a military wall clock. The time was nineteen-hundred-and-fifty hours. I checked it against my own watch: seven-thirty PM.

We did not enter this control room. Instead Mystery Lady paused at its entry door and draped the long strap of her purse over its doorknob. When satisfied that it wouldn't fall, she smiled at me and gestured for us to continue walking past it and resume following the trail of overheaad floresent lights.

When we passed the far end of the glass walled control room, the pipe railing resumed for only another dozen yards, then it ended at a blank wall in front of us while the football field full of tanks continued onward at our right past this wall. There at the end of the catwalk we hovered above the sidelines of the 20-yard line, then we turned a corner to our left heading down a hallway that pierced the wall of the cavernous football stadium, leading away from the playing field. The metal grating beneath our feet was then replaced by normal tile flooring.

The hallway was reasonably wide and its walls presented several closed fire-proof metal doors on both sides. A sole drinking fountain hung against the wall mid-way down. As we approached that fountain, my plumber’s training told me that the presence of a public water fountain usually signaled the adjacent presence of a set of public restrooms. And sure enough, as I looked again, I could see that the water fountain sat wedged between two doors which were plainly marked “MEN” and “LADIES” respectively. The word “LADIES” jumped out at me and struck me as very odd. In that instance I vaguely recalled from my teen years back during the 1980’s that the more than 100-year practice of using the word “LADIES” for public restroom doors in the United States had come under sharp attack from feminist groups during that decade. The politically-correct word “WOMEN” eventually became standard for such signage by the 1990’s. So in all my years of installing, remodeling, and fixing bathrooms, I don’t think I had seen the word “LADIES” on any bathroom door except for one job I did at a very old and exclusive social club. In that club, not only did the membership prefer traditional decorum, but the door itself hailed all the way back to the 1920’s and had simply never been replaced.

“Rest rooms are here,” she gestured to them. “And so far as I know the plumbing still works. But if it doesn’t work, let me know and I’ll see about fixing it.”

“Certainly, Mr. Jones,” I laughed, wondering if she was perhaps hinting at additional contract work for me for the future.

She then pushed open a different door, marked “BREAK ROOM.” As soon as we entered, the scent of oil in the air was noticeably less. She flicked on the lights revealing a typical break room set up: a coat rack (full of hangars but not one coat), several rows of cafeteria-style tables and chairs, an older-model ice machine (silent and empty), two older-model vending machines (unplugged, unlit and barren of any product), and lockers (all closed and lacking padlocks). The near-perfect and unspoiled sense of the room indicated the place had simply never been used. It was definitely old, easily twenty years or more judging by the out-of-date color choices and taste in furniture. But in spite of the whole place screaming “NINETEEN-EIGHTY’S!” at me, the lack of any scratches, scuffs or wear marks likewise screamed a lack of people traffic --it still had “new car smell” to it.
-------------------End of Chapter 6-a--------------------

AMERICAN CRUDE - Chapter 5-c

The following is a draft of Chapter 5-c of my post-oil novel AMERICAN CRUDE. Comments have been disabled. If you wish to comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast at and join the discussion.


--Innocent Byproduct

She removed the key from the panel, pocketed it, then took one confident step out through the doors to the grey floor. She stood in the darkness and looked back, beckoning me to follow. I cautiously stepped out beside her and the elevator doors lingered open behind us. I sensed the movement of chilled air currents flowing about, so I knew this was a massive room veiled by the blackness. And the lack of moisture or dankness meant an environmental control system. The only smell I sensed was the unmistakable scent of “home heating oil Number Two.” So this was surely the “basement” where the leaking oil tank sat.

After a moment I heard the faint click of a motion sensor, and barely four feet above us a single florescent light directly overhead flickered on. But it was the dim, struggling, barely-there flickering indicating the air was far too cold for the gasses in the long glass tube to burn at full brightness. It would take another few minutes for the bulb to build enough of its own heat to achieve proper illumination. All I could see now was a poorly-lit but very long, industrial grade, metal pipe railing. The railing sat about ten feet in front of us and stretched from left to right before us into unknown realms of left and right darkness. Between us and that railing lay more grey floor. Beyond the railing lay more blackness.

She reached sideways and hit a wall switch. This new action revealed that the solitary florescent bulb above turned out to be hanging end-to-end with other such bulbs all lit by that switch. These additional lights snaked in a thin straight line, left to right like the ceiling lights of a long hallway. But while one side of this “hallway” had a wall, the other side only had the pipe railing. These newly lit lights likewise struggled against the cold to achieve illumination, so I could make out very little.

Beyond the railing in the total blackness all I could hear was the dull muffled murmur of air conditioning equipment. If this really was her “basement,” then a 5,000 gallon oil tank wasn’t so unreasonable after all.

The elevator doors closed behind us. Without the elevator’s lamp my field of vision grew dimmer. The pathetic overhead bulbs cast a pale whisper of weak light, hardly at all illuminating the floor and pipe railing. I heard a motor far below us kick in, and the now-hidden elevator car started descending, its retreating sound fading from us.

"I realize it's very cold down here, Mr. Walczak. But I can certainly give you a clean new jacket --never been worn before. And you may keep it if you like."

I delayed answering her due to my building mystification. I hadn’t forgotten the don’t-ask-questions clause, but the growing surrealness of all this began overpowering me. The still-flickering bulb above suddenly up-ticked one notch in luminosity. In response to her offer of a jacket, I glanced sideways at her and spoke as diplomatically as I could: "That's mighty kind of you. Meanwhile ... forgive me for asking but ... where’s your oil tank?"

She again hit yet another light switch.

And then, out beyond the pipe railing, a progressive cascade of dozens of overhead lights all came on across a vast and expansive chamber. It took nine or ten seconds for all the lights to kick in like an overhead triggering of light-based dominos. The massive room finally revealed to us was almost the size of an enclosed professional football stadium, and she and I stood at the advantageous perch of where the box seats would have been.

But rather than stadium seats rimming the room's distant perimeter, I merely saw the blank concrete walls of this monstrous rectangular cavern. And rather than my eyes looking down upon a grid of chalk lines on green astro-turf below, I instead strangely beheld the orderly and tightly-packed rows and columns of hundreds of stainless steel, 5,000-gallon oil storage tanks. Each tank sat crouching in its own rectangular concrete pit while a complex network of pipes snaked in all directions from the tanks.

Dumbstruck, I slowly stepped forth to the pipe railing, took hold of its cold metal, and peered over to get a better look. I tried to count each row and column, but they were far too many. In mild shock I turned back to her and asked: "How many are there?"

"Four-hundred and forty," she replied quietly.

"And it's all oil?" my voice had an unintentional squeaking quality to it.

"Yes," she said, again very quietly.

"Those tanks are all five-thousand gallons apiece! That's ..." I faltered in my words --I couldn't do the math quickly enough. So in a near-whisper she did it for me:

"... Two-point-two million gallons."

-------------------End of Chapter 5-c--------------------

AMERICAN CRUDE - Chapter 5-b

The following is a draft of Chapter 5-b of my post-oil novel AMERICAN CRUDE. Comments have been disabled. If you wish to comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast at and join the discussion.


--Innocent Byproduct

As I stood wide-eyed, taking all this in, I heard her ask: "Do we still have a deal?"

Still fearful of being forever owned, I shrugged with a quiet laugh to hide my ill-ease. "I'm here. Let's do this."

She smiled with the tiniest hint of relief in her exhale. Then she reached into her car door and pulled out her purse and the jacket that matched the hat. While donning her jacket she strolled to the open elevator, nodding for me to follow. I fell in step behind her, and when she paused just outside the open elevator without entering, I also paused. I watched her reach out her hand to the call button panel, but she didn’t press any buttons. Instead she withdrew from the panel a small, round-barreled key which I only just realized had been hanging in the button panel’s keyhole, awaiting our arrival. With key in hand she entered the elevator and I followed. I noticed the interior of this elevator wasn’t the small size of a typical office building elevator with just one set of sliding doors. Instead it was an elongated hospital-designed elevator with doors both front and back, and an interior large enough to fit a gurney into.

We each assumed elevator stances before the open doors. I glanced out at the limo, its driver sitting motionless with a near-blank gaze. Mystery Lady inserted the same key into the elevator’s unlit interior button panel. In response all the numbered buttons blinked just once then went dark again. She chose one button, pressed it, and the doors slid shut. Then the elevator started moving … down.

The key still in the panel, I studied the menu of buttons. It indicated over a half-dozen levels, marked with cryptic abbreviations. We had just left an upper level labeled "LB," and as we headed down we passed "SB-1," then "SB-2," and I could see that our target floor was the second-from-the-bottom level marked "SB-4-A," (and the very last level read “SB-4-B”). While I wasn't sure what "LB" stood for, I surmised each instance of "SB" probably meant "sub-basement." She said the tank was in “the basement” ... but a sub-sub-sub-sub-basement? And this was a private house?

I also noticed on the button panel a small sliding door about the size of a clipboard: the obligatory sliding panel for the elevator’s emergency telephone.

“You might want to turn around,” she said while doing exactly that herself. “We’ll be exiting at the rear.” I obliged and did likewise right as we reached SB-4-A.

The elevator stopped. During the brief hush of silence as we waited for the doors to open, I noticed her reach up and close her jacket’s collar tightly against her throat.

The doors opened before us and revealed total blackness. A sudden inrushing of cold air hit my face and body as if we’d opened the door of a large commercial refrigerator. The lights in the elevator ceiling above shone downward and out through the now-open doors onto a grey concrete floor.

-------------------End of Chapter 5-b--------------------

AMERICAN CRUDE - Chapter 5-a

The following is a draft of Chapter 5-a of my post-oil novel AMERICAN CRUDE. Comments have been disabled. If you wish to comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast at and join the discussion.


--Innocent Byproduct


The bright light loomed off-center, to my right, behind the table where the computer-typing man sat. It kept me from seeing much of anything, especially faces. I turned my head away from its glare and heat. Squinting, I barely discerned that the table where the Computer Man sat, just a few feet in front of me, was made of wood. Off to my left I saw a tiny red light hanging in the air. I squinted hard at the red light, trying to get a better glimpse. I finally figured out the red light came from the front of an actively recording video camera, mounted atop a tripod.

*** *** *** ***

Mrs. Jones and I entered the limo and it pulled away. I’d been in limos before, but this was the first time the occasion wasn’t a prom, wedding, or funeral. I felt out of place in my blue work clothes, wishing I’d kept the jeans and leather jacket and brought the work clothes in a bag.

A frosted glass partition separated the driver from us, therefore I could see nothing beyond the partition, especially the road ahead. And the black tinting on the passenger windows was just a little too black, therefore (aside from blurring headlights) I could see nothing beyond the windows, especially the passing terrain. All this ultimately meant I couldn’t see where we were driving. As I processed this, the no-cell-phone thing made sense: no camera phones and no GPS. Thus it dawned on me I was being taken to a destination whose location would remain secret from me, even after I was (hopefully) returned to my van.

She opened a beverage bar and offered me my choice. My first thought was that any food or drink might be drugged. But the odd setup of the bar eased that suspicion. First, I saw no alcohol among the drink selections in spite of the presence of bar tending tools and stemware. I next saw a gaping gulf of empty space between the juice bottles and spring waters, suggesting many bottles of “something else” had only just gone AWOL. So I surmised she’d removed the alcohol bottles before picking me up, yet left all the bar tools and glasses in place. The lack of alcohol didn’t dismay or insult me since even if there had been booze, I would never take a drink right before a job. Instead, this kid-friendly selection reassured me she wasn’t out to drug me, only that she likewise preferred I not drink before the job. All this was just more evidence of the contract being real.

But still on my guard, I opted for a bottled spring water. “Mind if I help myself?” I asked. And without awaiting an answer I reached out and took a bottle on my own instead of letting my hostess do it. I popped the cap –- it was still factory sealed, assuring that nothing foreign had been put into it. Perhaps I was being silly, but at least I was safe. She smiled, completely overlooking my (deliberate) faux pas, and helped herself to her own bottled water.

It was quite a treat to have two bottled waters in one day. California was the first state to ban bottled water after the Ten Year Drought. That catastrophe of Mother Nature culminated in 2015 with the incineration of over 800,000 houses in three of their wealthiest counties --all in that one year. The angry push to get a handle on the state’s water supply came not just from wealthy homeowners but also from the powerful US insurance industry which threatened to cease insuring anymore houses throughout more than 18 of California’s most fire-prone counties. [Never mind the fact that the drought gutted their agricultural industry (California’s true money-maker, not Hollywood).] But then the equally-powerful US bottled water industry fought back, threatening class action lawsuits in the billions of dollars. California compromised by only banning the sale of water in bottles smaller than two liters, known as “personal sized” bottles. But then a year later in 2016, the governor of California went even further by seizing all aquifers, reservoirs, and river systems in the state, taking them out of the jurisdictions of local water commissions, and out of the hands of private companies (such as water bottling plants). The bottled water industry again mustered their lawyers. But because corn and soybean crops has been impacted, that ultimately meant ethanol contracts were threatened. And that’s when the federal government stepped in and upheld California’s actions. Over 38 other US states followed California’s example of both banning personal sized bottles of water, and also seizing ground water supplies. Thus the majority of states now had fierce water restrictions. Being in possession of a bottled water wasn’t illegal in Pennsylvania, merely the buying of it. So “gifts” of bottled water were still perfectly fine.

Over our drinks we resumed chatting. But as we bantered I covertly did my best to memorize the motion of the car. I was certain we were still on the same road as the diner. And I was also certain the limo had turned left when exiting the diner’s parking lot. I checked my watch and gauged the mileage, trying to estimate the distance so far.

The car slowed and we turned right. We now cruised atop a gravel surface at barely 15 miles per hour. The gravel road stayed fairly straight for the next five minutes. The windows were a solid black with not one glint of light.

Then the car jolted at a sudden upward bump in the road, but not a speed bump. Instead it felt like we’d abruptly tackled the brief ascent up a short ferry gangway. That bump marked the end of the crunching gravel and the start of a pristine smoothness. I also heard the car’s exterior sounds change in pitch to a high-pitched moan: we were traveling in a tunnel.

And then we stopped.

The engine went off. The electric door locks all popped up.

“We’re here now,” she smiled.

She opened her door and exited, beckoning me to do the same.

I emerged from my door onto the concrete floor of a large, windowless, warehouse-looking room -- like a subterranean parking garage minus the cars. The only light came from florescent industrial pendant lamps dangling overhead. The extreme height of the ceiling made it feel downright cavernous, and also made me reconsider the parking garage theory since parking garages have notoriously low ceilings.

There was nothing there but the limo, us, and two rows of thick rectangular support pillars for the roof, each row of pillars running along either side of the limo like two rows of trees flanking either side of a country lane.

The headlights of the limo shone forward upon a distant wall sporting a few random and unmarked utilitarian fire doors. The tail of the limo pointed back to the far off (and now closed) garage door we’d just driven through. Near our parking spot, to the left of the car and just beyond the left-side row of pillars, lay a pair of people-sized elevator doors. One elevator car sat open, empty, and waiting -- lit by its interior lights. To either side of the two elevators stood several more unmarked fire doors. As for the wall itself, that left-facing wall in which the two elevators were embedded continued forward past the nose of the limo for a few car lengths until it turned sharply to the left, so this massive warehouse was actually an L-shaped room. I could not see what lay around the bend of the left-turning arm of this giant letter “L,” but the markings on the floor told me vehicular traffic was part of the room’s design, and such traffic surely turned to the left on its way to … I couldn’t guess.

Out of curiosity, I stepped forward, past the nose of the limo, trying to get more of a view of what lay around that corner. I felt very bold in my unauthorized exploration, convinced at any moment she’d shout an angry command to stop snooping. But she didn’t. I sensed she was watching, yet I pressed onward, getting closer to the corner, taking in an ever-expanding view of the leftward bend and of the opposite grey wall where the headlights still shone.

After advancing far enough, I finally spotted something of interest. That opposite wall of the letter “L” which lay a staggering distance away had its own sole elevator mounted into it: a hulking freight elevator whose giant steel doors stood as tall as any highway underpass. The doors formed a near-perfect square, nestled into a titan-sized square doorframe bearing the diagonal black and yellow stripes typical of a heavy industrial facility. I stopped walking and beheld the doors in awe. Where the FUCK am I?

-------------------End of Chapter 5-a--------------------

Sunday, May 24, 2009

AMERICAN CRUDE - Chapter 4-c

The following is a rough draft of Chapter 4-c of my post-oil novel entitled AMERICAN CRUDE. Comments have been disabled. If you wish to comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast at and join the discussion.


--Innocent Byproduct

After finishing that shitty coffee, my cell phone rang. It was Mystery Lady.

“Hello?” I answered, “Mrs. Jones?” I switched my grammar and diction filters back on.

“Hello, Mr. Walczak. Again, thank you for coming.” As always, her telephone voice was just heavenly. And her ongoing attention to my name melted my heart.

I laughed and said: “While I’m sure it’s my fault, I think I might be lost.”

“No, you’re fine. Step outside. I’m right behind you.”

I glanced left at my driver-side mirror. In it I saw the broadside of a black car. It sat idling in the fading sunlight behind my bumper, blocking me in my parking space.

My phone still to my ear, I exited the van and turned. There stood Mystery Lady by the car in her brown velvet hat and matching jacket, cell phone to her own ear. She smiled and lowered her phone. In amusement I lowered mine too.

With a second look I realized the black car was a limousine, its rear passenger door hanging open beside her. In the front seat sat a uniformed chauffer.

“Please join me,” she gestured to the open limo door. “We have a long drive.”

“What about my van?” I fumbled uncomfortably at this whole turn of events. “All my equipment is in it.”

“I already have all the equipment you’ll need. If anything is missing we’ll come back here for it.”

No! I thought. There’s no such thing as a customer providing a plumber with tools. And certainly not the RIGHT tools. This isn’t real! I stood frozen in fear.

She saw my hesitation and her face grew worried. She walked up to me as I stood paralyzed in the open door of my van.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“I … really … prefer my own tools,” was all I could say.

She stared at me, puzzled yet thinking, for a long while.

“Do you want to back out?” she finally asked in a quiet voice. “Just say the word and we’ll call it off right now.”

Calling it off scared me for no other reason than my inability to refund her money.

“I already spent most of your cash,” I shook my head. “I paid off a bunch of debts this afternoon with it.”

“We can try and work something out then. I’m serious: if you can’t do this we’ll just find some other way for you to work off the payment.”

My fears only multiplied. I sensed my cell phone-wielding hand begin to quiver. I squeezed hard to make it stop.

The prospect of trying to “work something out” unnerved me because I’d heard tales of people becoming financially beholden to the rich and powerful. Those people were then “owned,” body and soul, with no way out for the rest of their lives. When my lending agent asked me if I had gone to a loan shark perhaps on some level he was right. At this point, trying to rescue the contract --no matter how repulsive it might prove-- seemed like my only option.

“How is it possible that you have the correct tools I would need?” I said, hoping her answer would sound halfway plausible.

“We used to have a regular plumber who was also a long-standing friend of the family. He unfortunately got drafted last year and sent to Afghanistan. And at his request we’ve been safe-keeping all his plumbing equipment.”

While that scenario wasn’t impossible, it was certainly an anomaly. I relaxed only a little, my guard still up.

“Okay, let’s assume for a moment that you really do have all the needed equipment. Tell me how bad the leak is. How much oil hit the floor before you found the leak? Has it leached into the ground at all? Is it under control at this point? What I’m really asking is: if I back out now, and then you have to scramble at seven o’clock on a Friday night to get another heating expert--”

She interrupted me: “--It’s still leaking as we speak. I discovered it three days ago, but it had already been dripping for what might have been nearly a month because the puddle I found on the floor was massive. And no, it hasn’t leached into the ground because the basement floor is sealed against oil permeation. The oil is contained and the puddle is merely getting deeper.”

I took a deep breath and considered her claims at face value. An oil-tight basement floor was expensive and rare. But in this event such a floor would more than pay for itself by averting the massive EPA fines concerning ground water pollution --not to mention lawsuits from adjacent neighbors who relied on wells or springs. Maybe it all was legitimate. I lowered my guard by just a few notches more.

“Have you had any oil deliveries in the past month? Deliveries that woulda’ made the spill worse?” I scolded my blue collar upbringing for the lazy pronunciation of “would have.” But I asked that question because such a scenario was all too typical. More than one horror story abounded about a basement tank with a tiny, yet-to-be discovered leak. Then along came the scheduled tanker truck delivery where the oil guy innocently pumped hundreds of gallons through the outside fuel port at very high pressure, ripping open that tiny leak into a massive hole, instantly flooding the basement with a gushing fountain of oil.

“No,” she shook her head. “I haven’t had any new deliveries since last year.”

That answer gave me hope that the tank might have been less than half full when the leak started. That would also mean less for me to wade through as I worked. Because the whole conversation was actually feeling “normal” now, I further lowered my guard by several more notches.

“So how much do you think you’ve lost?” I asked.

“It looks like I’m losing twenty gallons a day. And my best guess is that since the leak began, I’ve probably lost over 600 gallons and counting.”

Over 600? I dismissed that claim as evidence that she didn’t know what the hell she was even talking about. Most home oil tanks from the days of oil heat were about 265 gallons -- the size of a vintage Mini-Cooper. The absolute biggest size available in domestic tanks was 550 and no larger -- the size of a Hummer. And 550 gallons was more than enough to heat even a massive home for at least a month at a time. The reason for these size limits was it was almost impossible to physically squeeze a tank into the standard basement doorway of a domestic house if it was any larger than 550. Only custom tanks and/or custom doorways could handle anything bigger. And even if she did live in a veritable palace with 30 bedrooms, the more typical way to engineer such a home heating system was to install three or four separate tanks of 550 gallons each. So there was no way she’d lost 600 gallons from a tank that only held 550.

“What’s the capacity of this tank?” I asked, disguising my skepticism.

“It’s 5,000 gallons,” she said matter-of-factly.

Once again, she obviously didn’t know what she was talking about. A 5,000 gallon tank was the same size as the long cylindrical cargo tanks found on the backsides of 18-wheel big rig trucks, and the smaller style railroad tanker cars. While it’s not impossible that such a transport tank from that era could have been retro-fitted as an in-place domestic home heating oil tank, it was highly implausible. Usually, the rare choice to install that sized tank in a private home was reserved for large country estates or luxury vacation retreats -–places so far removed from civilization that truck deliveries were infrequent, especially during snowy winters when roads might be blocked for weeks. And even then such a tank would almost never be installed free-standing in the basement mostly due to the inability to get the tank in through any normal doorway. So that tank would instead get buried in the ground outside, making it an “underground storage tank” or a UST. A 5,000 gallon tank left free-standing on the floor of a basement was a scenario only found in two now-defunct building types we used to call “high-rise apartment buildings” and “office skyscrapers.” And the engineers behind those old and monstrous buildings usually crouched each tank down into its own rectangular concrete pit sunken into the basement floor, so in the event of a leak the pit would contain the spillage. While I was willing at the time to concede maybe Mystery Lady could have been filthy rich enough to live in a 30-bedroom estate with a free-standing in-home 5,000 gallon tank in her cavernous world-class basement, such a residence would assuredly be staffed with full time servants including a house manager (sometimes called a butler) whose duties should have included taking care of all the dirty work for her. That would apply doubly-so for matters involving the contracting of blue collar low-lifes like plumbers. The fact that she was making these arrangements herself indicated she had no house manager/butler, and thus had a “normal” house of “normal” size. So all I could surmise at this point was she might have mistaken the number 500 for 5,000.

Seeing as how she was not only helpless but also clueless, I started feeling bad for her and wanted to hurry up and get to the job site and see what I could do. And I was also growing increasingly annoyed with Mr. Mystery for failing to be there for her and take care of this nightmarish mess himself. I was starting to hate that son of a bitch for not regarding his woman with a little more respect.

“Mrs. Jones,” I sighed, “It sounds to me like you could really use some help. So how about we try and get there right away before your whole basement gets flooded?”

She smiled and nodded.

I turned to lock up my van. But she next voiced another odd request: “I do want to make one stipulation about your cell phone,” she said. I froze at her words and looked back to her for clarification. “Please leave any phones in your van as well. Once again, that’s a privacy requirement.”

No phones allowed? You have to understand: back then we lived and died by our cell phones. To us, the psychological trauma of being separated from one’s cell phone was akin to the physiological trauma of being separated from one’s kidneys. And the thought of being alone in a strange house with no way to call the outside world wasn’t even rational.

My inner terror returned and my immediate instinct was to jump back in my van and tear the hell out of there. But the limo had me boxed in. I then revisited in my head the long string of negative suspicions I’d been entertaining all night about her. And I likewise revisited the succession of evidence pointing to her maybe being okay. As the balancing scales in my mind continued rocking back and forth, the fact of the already-spent money became the deciding factor.

Stiff as a zombie, without saying a word, I put my cell phone in the car charger and locked the van.

-------------------End of Chapter 4-c--------------------

AMERICAN CRUDE - Chapter 4-b

The following is a rough draft of Chapter 4-b of my post-oil novel entitled AMERICAN CRUDE. Comments have been disabled. If you wish to comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast at and join the discussion.


--Innocent Byproduct

About five years prior to those hateful shouts, back when MK and I were still married and reasonably happy, she mentioned one day that she’d just read a survey in a women’s magazine, polling 300 women’s opinions about the sexiest profession a man could hold. The Number One answer was a carpenter, followed by such jobs as firefighter, pro athlete, astronaut, Secret Service agent, move star, rock star, forest ranger, airline pilot, doctor, lawyer, and many more. The winning professions all alternated between physical exertion jobs, high danger jobs, celebrity glamour jobs, and Ivy League power jobs -- with a carpenter standing at the top of the heap. All the answers in the survey centered upon nothing but the subjective, unfounded and entirely fantasy-based perceptions held by women as to what sort of activities and skill sets gave the superficial appearance (I say delusion) of a man being sexy.

I was stunned that the humble carpenter finished so far above the likes of firefighters and movie stars. The article explained why in great detail.

First, his vocation has the most perfect and even poetic combination of the following: a brute physical strength in hoisting around massive planks of wood, a delicate gentleness when carving tiny decorations and flourishes, an adept and effortless handling of complex and dangerous power tools, a precise command of mathematical and geometric skill, an overt flair for artistic creativity, and a gift for hand-making beautiful things entirely from scratch --things that were large, strong, practical, relevant, beautiful, expensive, and capable of invoking deep emotional attachment. Beyond this already impressive head start, the very vocation of carpentry is associated with clean, honest and wholesome effort as opposed to those jobs seen as sneaky, violent, ego-centric, or power-craven. Furthermore, the image of a carpenter at work manifests itself as a tall, quiet, really well-built guy, dressed in all-American faded jeans and a ruggedly masculine shirt with rolled-up sleeves exposing his rippling arms -- in short, he’s a physically fit he-man who dresses neatly and modestly yet still exudes a subtle but undeniable undercurrent of macho allure. What’s more is this fairy tale image has him leaning with a calm intensity over his mysterious and powerful table saw in a clean but rustic work room with wooden walls, a wooden floor, exposed wooden rafters above, and glorious beams of sunlight streaming through the multi-paned sash of a nearby window. And this work room is his exclusive domain that he rules over, where he answers to no one, and from which he single-handedly produces valuable works of much sweat and high artistry. There’s even the added plus that the most common aroma associated with carpenters is freshly cut wood emanating from the piles of sawdust found everywhere in his he-man carpentry shop. And then it all gets topped off with the notion that because carpenters work with wood they are somehow closer to nature than most other guys. Stone masons might have scored just as high for the same reasons, but stone is a hard cold non-living thing associated with grave yards, while wood is a warm thing associated with life itself. So carpenters have it all, and women just swoon over them. As an afterthought, the association with Jesus -- while not someone deemed “sexy” --lends a universally-perceived divine stamp of approval on the whole vocation.

As for the least sexy job in the survey, being a garbage collector was branded the absolute most unflattering job a man could have. And in second place came a two-way tie between sewer workers and … plumbers.

The thing that burned me up about the survey is carpentry and plumbing mirror each other very closely. Most plumbers need to know advanced carpentry since laying pipes includes opening up walls, floors, and ceilings, and cutting through timbers. So you need to know which beams should not be cut through so as to avoid collapsing the entire house. Then when the pipes are done you need to reconstruct everything with wood and plaster -- sometimes grout and tile -- restoring it to its former intactness including the paint and wallpaper. And since I was a “master plumber” I was most definitely trained in all the skills of any carpenter.

But women from that time period didn’t see it that way. When those women thought of plumbers they thought of short stumpy uncouth louts with obnoxious pot bellies bulging over their ill-fitting pants. Women saw plumbers as men who scratched themselves in unseemly places, sported unsavory beard stubble, and burped indiscriminately. And the image of plumbers at work in their craft showcased these frumpy and grotesque males leaning their faces over shit-clogged toilets, flashing their hairy butt cracks to the world. The aromas associated with plumbers included piss-filled bathrooms and moldy basements. As for any connection with nature, plumbers were seen as part of the ever growing problem of industrial pollution with massive pipes spewing raw sewage into our planet’s dying ecosystem.

Even the tools associated with plumbers were unromantic: plungers and monkey wrenches. While sexy Mr. Carpenter valiantly held forth a manly hammer with pride and authority, unsexy Mr. Plumber pathetically held forth a ridiculous plunger with a sit-com laugh track playing in the background.

At the time when MK showed me the women’s article, she assured me I was the sexiest man in the world and that the women who answered the survey didn’t know what the hell they were missing. But a few years later when things started getting sour between us, she had the fucking audacity to bring up the article and declare she had grown inwardly embarrassed, tired of having to apologize to her family and friends “for having married a plumber of all things.” I knew our marriage was over only when she went one step further by snarling to me with much venom and disgust about how when she met new people she now made it a habit to avoid for as long as possible telling them the truth of what her husband did for a living.

-------------------End of Chapter 4-b--------------------

Friday, May 22, 2009

AMERICAN CRUDE - Chapter 4-a

The following is a rough draft of Chapter 4-a of my post-oil novel entitled AMERICAN CRUDE. Comments have been disabled. If you wish to comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast at and join the discussion.


--Innocent Byproduct


The frantic keyboarding continued. I heard two men (the cell phone fiddlers?) come toward me. And as confirmation of this, I saw the bright light which still pierced the bag get overshadowed by their approaching forms. My heart rate shot back up again.

They yanked me to my feet and wrestled me into a very heavy wooden captain’s chair, making sure to slide the chair’s back up between my spine and my still-bound hands. With both my elbows hooked around the sides of the chair’s back, they pulled my hands downward behind the chair, stretching my arms so far toward the floor that I actually yelped in pain. Once they’d maxed out the distance my arms could be extended, they secured my hands to the bottom rungs of the chair with more plastic binders. And finally both my ankles got strapped to each front chair leg. The dull ache in my shoulders now became shooting pains radiating down my arms and up my neck. After they finished this perverse feat of engineering, I heard them step behind me. They paused. I held my breath. At last they snatched the black bag right up off my head. I clamped my eyes shut from the powerful light.

*** *** *** ***

I arrived at the shop yard by ten thirty. Once home to a used car dealership, I’d bought the old cracked blacktop lot eight years earlier, keeping its rusty nine-foot chain link fence. After knocking down the dealership’s rotting one-room shack, I hauled in two second-hand work trailers and propped them up on cinderblocks. One served as an office, the other acted as an equipment storage shed.

I entered the now-open gate, walking along the crumbling driveway that sat flanked on both sides by neatly stacked bundles of pipe that my son referred to as "metal Lincoln Logs." Just a few paces beyond the gate I paused to survey it all. It was a “neat” work yard (I kept it organized) but still gritty looking from the dark stain of urban pollution and the sad truth of plumbing being such an unromantic craft of pipes and machines. I looked around in awe --not to admire its neatness nor to lament its ugliness. No. On that day I looked around in a surreal moment of self-actualization, basking in the euphoria of knowing that as of that very morning I had finally paid it off.

I entered my office, strangely comforted by the fake wood paneling which I’d always deemed so tacky prior to that life-changing morning. Stephanie looked up from her desk in terror. Today she wore her inhumanly jet black hair pulled back extra tight behind her multi-pierced ears (usually signaling a non-shower day for her). With more nervous tongue-ring clicking she asked in a timid whimper if I wanted her to clean out her desk. I laughed and held up the fresh loan amortization. Her face twisted in amazement and I even saw her eyebrow ring pivot sideways. After a series of reactions from her --ecstatic jumping, joyful tears, heartfelt hugs-- we both spent the rest of the morning at the delectable task of calling creditors to square up my many delinquent business debts.

By lunch time I told Stephanie she could take the rest of the day off. Since it was Friday she gladly jumped at that.

After she left I called my lawyer to discuss MK’s hostile phone call. But his secretary said he was on vacation until Monday. I asked her to have him call immediately upon his return. Then I sat down and composed an e-mail to him, itemizing everything I recalled from MK’s rant.

I later headed to the back of the trailer, to a room originally meant as a bedroom by the trailer manufacturer. Beyond that "bedroom" lay a full bathroom.

I'd initially employed that rear bedroom as a spare storage area for more delicate stock items like faucets and valves (leaving a foot path through the inventory to allow anyone who needed it access to the trailer's only toilet). After a while Stephanie claimed a spot on the floor for her office supplies. The room served us both quite did well as a storage area.

But then, during the previous autumn after MK demanded the divorce, I briefly had to live in that room for the first few months of our separation, just until I could move into the apartment by Locust Street. Even though the pathetic ordeal of my temporary lodging there came to a blessed end as long ago as Halloween, I still had some of the resulting second-hand furniture shoved behind plumbing parts and boxes of printer paper. The bathroom still functioned as a mere lavatory, but almost ten months earlier I covertly disconnected the shower as a deterrent to Stephanie. I’d figured out in mid-December that Stephanie used her key Thanksgiving weekend and "entertained" someone on my old bed. She was slick about it, covering her tracks well. I never would’ve known except that she and her “guest” both generously used the shower, causing a huge over-usage penalty on November’s water bill. I guess the queen-size mattress (stashed upright behind a shelving unit) made the temptation irresistible for her, especially since she had nosey roommates. While I never confronted her about it, I figured if she knew the all-important shower no longer worked, she might think twice about using my shop as a crash pad again.

As I entered the bedroom/storeroom on that sunny Friday in September of 2018, just three months before the Big Crash, the rear closet off to the side of the bathroom door was my real goal. In there I kept my work clothes.

I changed into a white t-shirt, making sure it was a not-so-yellowed one. On top of it I meant to layer one of my dark blue button-front work shirts bearing a white oval pocket name patch declaring “Pete” in red embroidery. But with the same care used in picking a t-shirt, I sifted through the hangers until I found one with the crispest shade of blue, and a name patch that wasn’t half falling off. On its back hung the large decal: “Pete’s Plumbing.”

After finishing up with my least-worn pair of dark blue work pants and steel-toed construction boots, I headed outside to my red work van and tidied its interior. I admit I over-tidied it, self-conscious from the dented exterior and my inability to do anything about it. After a vacuuming and a dash-polishing, I opened the other trailer, the equipment trailer, and loaded the van’s rear cargo doors with everything for a tank repair: pipes, valves, fitting kit, welding kit, oil pump and a whole rack of hand tools. By three PM I locked the office, equipment trailer and work yard, then drove the van from the now-locked gate and down the street to a local gas station. That was back in the days when a town like Philly would easily have over a hundred gas stations within its city limits. In retrospect I have to admit a typical late-twentieth century gas station is perhaps the ugliest piece of architecture ever conceived of with pen and paper. I don’t miss those either.

As I stood by my van squeezing the gas nozzle into my fuel port, I watched the numbers on the gas pump flicker upward in value. Two years earlier if you’d told me my van would eat nearly four-hundred dollars per fill-up I’d have laughed. But now the only thing laughable about that day’s refueling session was my debit card didn’t get declined. I checked the time: three-fifteen. “Meet me at six-thirty tonight,” Mystery Lady had said. If I wanted to beat Friday evening’s rush hour out of Philly I had to go right then.

After finishing at the fuel pump I fumbled with my wallet to quickly stash away the debit card and the gas receipt. But in my haste I let one fold of my wallet flop sideways, causing a large silver-looking coin to slide out and bounce on the concrete at my feet. I gasped and instinctively lunged down to try and grab the coin back. Tilted to one side it rolled in a circular whirl until it hit the high curbing of the gas pump island. I snatched it before it could plop on its face. Straightening up again in mild terror, I held my breath while examining it. The coin’s image of the grinning rat in flight shades and flak jacket remained unscratched. I double checked both sides for damage. Finding none, I let out a long sigh of relief.

They were called “challenge coins” because, when challenged (or when “coined”), you had to instantly produce the coin for your challenger, proving you had it on you. Failure to have it with you meant one of several penalties, depending on the setting and circumstance of the challenge. If someone challenged you as a civilian in peace time, you had to buy your challenger a drink. But if you had it on you, he had to buy a drink for you. (I had been coined a half dozen times in bars after returning to the States. I got the free drink out of it every time.) If challenged during active duty, since alcohol wasn’t allowed on-base, the loser usually had to do push-ups or minor grunt work. In one instance back in Kuwait, two guys in my unit called me over to the officers’ shower tent because they decided we should all be a bunch of wise asses and try to coin Captain Warren while he was in the shower. (I asked them why the hell they needed me to join in with risking a reprimand for entering the officers’ shower. They said because Captain Warren liked me and would probably be more lenient if I was in on it.) We snuck up on the poor man, cornering him in an open shower stall where he stood under the running water, buck naked with nothing but his dog tags on his neck and a bar of soap in his hands. His towel and bathrobe hung off to the side where it might have been possible that a coin lay tucked in the pocket of his robe. But “off to the side” wasn’t good enough because the coin always has to be physically on your person. So we figured that unless he had one shoved up his ass, we’d nailed him. Standing beneath the spray of water, he turned to face us with a look of surprise, followed by dead-pan annoyance as he demanded to know why we were in the officer’s shower. When we explained our mission, his irritated expression gave way to … a sly smile. His grin widened as he slowly held up his bar of soap. And there we beheld a coin lodged inside the bar itself. He then ordered us to make good on our loss of the challenge by having us do his laundry that night. The next day when we delivered the bundles of folded garments to him at his quarters, he invited us to join him in the officer’s mess tent for lunch. We gladly accepted.

But beyond merely having it on you, the method of carrying could not in itself cause damage to the coin. Even keeping it in your pocket, jostling around with your keys and regular coins, posed the danger of scratches. So if you produced the coin but it proved in any way defaced, you’d committed an unpardonable sin. At that point it’d be far better to lie and tell your challenger you didn’t have it on you, for you had now betrayed the honor of the coin. Punishment for allowing a challenge coin to suffer damage usually involved far more push-ups than just a few, and the grunt work handed out was the worst detail possible. And I once heard of an unusually vindictive measure of punishment where some guy from a neighboring unit in Kuwait was disrespectful (and stupid) enough to drill a hole through his challenge coin to wear it around his neck on a chain. When the guys in his unit found out, four of them waited for him one night and beat the daylights out of him. Then as he lay moaning on the ground they took the desecrated coin from him and melted it down with a blow torch.

Although I hadn’t been in the service in over 25 years, and hadn’t even been coined in four years, the habit of keeping it on me simply would not die. In my leather wallet, enfolded behind the soft protection of both flaps of a credit card slot, its safety never struck me as a problem. But the wallet had grown worn with time, suffering a few rips, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when such an accidental dislodging finally happened. Yet still, that one careless moment at the gas station rattled me.

After securing the coin in a different and more intact credit card slot, I put my wallet away, took a breath and climbed back in the van. I then pulled out the paper napkin Mystery Lady had scribbled on in her beautiful penmanship: 385 Lincoln Highway, Interlochen, PA. I set my GPS and started driving.

After an hour on the highway I took the designated exit. And after yet another hour I found myself in Lancaster County, which back then was the heart of Pennsylvania Amish country. Along the way I passed a few tall, black, box-like horse-drawn carriages, each trotting along the shoulder, bearing orange hazard triangles on their rear panels.

Just before sunset I arrived at the end of my GPS journey. There I found a 24-hour diner wedged between an old boarded up video store and a deluxe-sized gas station. At first I thought I’d keyed in the wrong address, but I checked again and it proved correct. I glanced at my watch: almost six. So I parked in the diner’s lot, went inside and bought a coffee to go --one of the worst coffees I’d ever had.

As I sat in the van, waiting, sipping my crappy coffee, I recalled the moment outside Hal’s when I got my first glimpse of Mystery Lady. Rich. Pretty. Polite on the surface but maybe a snob underneath. But still, she seemed like a nice person. Rich people who were truly nice were usually “above” snobbery, yet also above the likes of me.

I got annoyed with myself as I recalled my unprecedented care in choosing my stupid blue work clothes, followed by the meticulousness in cleaning my piece-of-shit work vehicle. Then I shifted toward a devious hope as I pondered Mr. Mystery’s absence. Maybe he traveled a lot. Maybe she threw him out recently. I wondered if she was lonely.

Why the hell did she shell out a whole fifty-grand so effortlessly? I wondered if she was just plain crazy. And if I still looked good naked.

Ditching my car back in July did wonders for my physique. Suddenly having to walk everywhere helped me lose ten pounds and got my lower body strength back up again. As for my upper body, yanking at wrenches and pipes all day long helped me maintain that with little problem over the years.

Would she think I’m sexy?

Maybe Mystery Lady would enjoy pissing off her husband by having a fling with a plumber. Not the mailman, or the landscaper. A goddamned plumber! I chuckled, recalling a conversation from a year ago that had originally scathed my soul. But now while thinking about Mystery Lady, those venomous words just amused my ego. “I married a PLUMBER for god’s sakes!” Mary Kelly had yelled those words at me one night right before our separation. “A goddamned plumber!”

-------------------End of Chapter 4-a--------------------


The following is a rough draft of Chapter 3 of my post-oil novel entitled AMERICAN CRUDE. Comments have been disabled. If you wish to comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast at and join the discussion.


--Innocent Byproduct


At last someone new entered the room. The newcomer sat down at a table that I hadn’t even known was there. I heard him set something onto the table. I heard the chimes of a computer getting booted up. I heard a computer keyboard getting typed upon by a very fast typist. The typing lasted for a long time.

During the endless keyboard typing, the black cloth against my face got assailed by the sudden illumination of a blinding light that penetrated the weave. I turned my head away from its glare. The light remained on, its steady beam fixed on me. It was so powerful I could feel actual heat coming from it through the black bag.

*** *** *** ***

I left Hal’s with an expensive, silvery metal security briefcase in hand, swinging it by my side like a lunch box. While she amazed me by being foolish enough to have the money on her, I sure as hell didn’t complain. Meanwhile, part of me feared some juvenile delinquent might snatch the case from my grasp. So as a deterrent I cranked up my “very straight and very tall” to full tilt. Walk like you have a purpose in life, soldier! Those words still echoed through my head more than two decades after their utterance.

I went to my business bank over on Vine Street --the bank where I had my company’s checking account. I told the teller I needed to make a large cash deposit. When she asked how much, I hesitated. Is it really fifty-thousand? I hadn’t actually counted. But in faith I declared exactly that. The teller’s eyes at first widened, then narrowed in dark revulsion. (She must’ve thought I was a drug dealer or a pimp.) She asked me to wait while she got her supervisor.

I was next greeted by a smiling branch manager. He employed regal gestures to usher me behind the counter to a back room. In there we found the same teller preparing an electronic cash-counting machine. In polite tones he asked that next time I try to give at least 24 hours notice. I handed him the metal case, and he surprised me by handing me a bottled water --something I hadn’t seen in a year, and it was even chilled. Feeling like I’d just been given a Cuban cigar, I offered my stunned gratitude. In return he used more regal gestures to direct me to a nearby chair where I could sit and watch. From my chair I saw him wordlessly open the case and survey the banded bundles of fifties and hundreds. He then told the teller to begin, thus he supervised the teller’s chore of popping paper bands and feeding the notes into the chattering machine. Hiding my nervousness, I sipped my delicious chlorine-free water as the contraption whipped through the cash, its small screen displaying the growing tally. After five minutes the bills had all shuffled through, proving a perfect fifty-thousand. I clutched the bottle and quietly sighed in relief.

He filled out a deposit slip and asked me to sign it. He exited the room with it then returned moments later with a deposit voucher and a beaming smile.

I left that bank and went next door to my other bank where the mortgage on my shop sat in arrears. My lending agent called the first bank to confirm the cash deposit, then agreed to take a company check for the balance of the loan.

“It WILL clear, right?” he asked. “Because if you bounce a check this large--”

“--It’ll clear,” I assured him.

He turned back to his screen, clicking his mouse. But then he stopped clicking, leaned over, and whispered: “Pete, I really hope you didn’t go to a loan shark.”

I said nothing.

-------------------End of Chapter 3--------------------

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

AMERICAN CRUDE - Chapter 2-c

The following is a rough draft of Chapter 2-c of my post-oil novel entitled AMERICAN CRUDE.

Comments for this post have been disabled. If you wish to comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast web site at and join the discussion there.


--Innocent Byproduct

When I reached her tableside she tilted her head sidelong at me in quiet neutrality. With one curious eyebrow arched, she awaited my self-introduction. Her eyes were chestnut.

“Brown velvet hat with a flower on the side?” I asked.

And then she smiled. While not the rapturous smile of adoration I’d hoped for, its glow boosted my ego.

“Mr. Walczak! Thank you for coming. Please join me.”

In response to the uncomfortable temperature I slipped off my jacket and sat down as she packed away the Blackberry. I’ll confess to two acts of stealth-machismo I incorporated into my jacket-shedding gesture. First, I cranked both shoulders back extra hard, keeping them back all through breakfast. And second, I stole another glimpse at her twinkling wedding band. Like the rest of her, it too was real. And at close range I could tell it was an exquisite piece of workmanship with serious money behind it.

The waitress came with menus, and Mystery Lady requested a glass of water be brought for me as well. I protested, but Mystery Lady raised her hand in insistence. “Please,” she said, “this is my treat.” So I conceded, and the waitress set down a clear empty glass which she then filled from her pitcher. As the water and cubes tumbled forth, I caught the pungent aroma of too much chlorine --all too typical of City tap water. Ignoring the smell, I nodded my gratitude and returned my attentions to the menu. The waitress left.

As the swirling cubes in my cloudy water slowed down in their gyrations, I glanced over my menu at my hostess and potential client, and pondered her age --maybe late twenties, and that made me feel old. Yet with one of those accursed face lifts she might’ve been in her forties. But the lack of overdone perfection to her face made me hopeful she had never gone under the knife and merely took very good care of herself. So I finally pegged Mystery Lady as somewhere in her thirties. Then I wondered about “Mr. Mystery.” Was he also in his thirties? Or was he a decrepit old codger far past an acceptable age for someone like her? Did she love him? Or did she marry him for his money? As for her gentle curls peeking out from under the hat, I could tell she was freshly bathed and shampooed that very morning. She didn’t wear the hat to cover bad hair, she wore it to be fashionable!

When it came time to order I tightened up the slipshod jargon of my urban upbringing known as “Philly-speak” and actually sounded half-civilized for a change. After the waitress took our order and left, I said to Mystery Lady with a modest laugh: “I’m embarrassed to say this but I think I forgot your name.”

She said in overt mystery: “You can call me … Mrs. Jones.”

I cracked a wry grin while giving her a knowing glance --that wasn’t her real name! And she knew that I knew, so she grinned back with a shrug. Part of me hoped to catch a tiny hint of flirtation in her grin. But I saw nothing like flirtiness, only a veiled nervousness.

I eventually lifted my glass as I readied to take my first sip. I stifled any betrayal of my revulsion when the now-motionless water revealed foreign particles floating visibly in the oddly colored liquid.

“So, Mrs. Jones,” I said, bracing against the chlorine smell and concentrating on my grammar, “can I ask what kind of tank work you’re in the market for?” I set my lips to the glass and forced the water in.

“Can we hold off talking business ‘til after we’ve eaten?”

I found her request appealing since it’d be easier for me to eat first and turn her down later. Free breakfast with a pretty lady -- what more could a man ask for?

So we talked small talk: the weather, traffic, even sports. We avoided the triple taboo of sex, politics, and religion. We also avoided any talk of our private lives including spouses. I did mention my son which caused her to light up, and I responded to her inner spark by smiling back far more broadly than I intended. When I asked if she had children, she mustered a stilted smile. “No,” shook her head. I changed the subject back to the weather again.

The food arrived and it was great. And her impeccable table manners awed me to the point of distraction. I’d already second guessed her to be made of money. But witnessing her dining conduct made me suspect she was old money. Possibly even “a Main Liner,” which (in Philly-speak) meant she likely hailed from the long narrow strip about fifteen miles in length, laid out in a fairly straight path called “The Main Line.” That platinum ribbon of real estate was the heart of high society in the Philadelphia suburbs, deriving its name from the coveted commuter train that ran through a string of desperately expensive Victorian era streetcar villages on its way into the City. While Philly’s public transit system certainly had other trains, that particular line was forever dubbed the most important line, the “main” line. If not for the presence of that train, none of the houses in those villages would have been worth half what they typically fetched in the market since the closer a house sat to the train, the higher its value. The layout of the Main Line was dictated by that train, its personality was defined by the train, and the poshy residents of the area were so protective of it that they could always be counted on to fight hard to prevent their train from ever being compromised. If Mystery Lady didn’t live there surely she ran with the people who did. If so that made her someone who had absolutely everything and needed absolutely nothing. Yet still she needed my services -- badly enough to offer the inconceivable fee of fifty thousand dollars for them.

What exactly does she have in mind?

I again eyed her wedding band.

Where is “Mr. Mystery” in all of this? Is she hiring me behind his back? Or is he privy to her hiring me and merely looking the other way? Or is he in on it all and going to be very much a part of it? What is … “it”?

Beyond my suspecting the contract had to be illegal, my other unspoken question was: Will it also be immoral? Her failure to hide the ring suggested I likely wouldn’t be subjected to the sexual dalliance of a desperate housewife.

As we chatted I asked for the second time that day (with a little more diplomacy) where she got my home phone number. I was unlisted so it might’ve come from a mutual friend or a prior customer. Not too many people knew my home number and I’d had it for less than a year, so the identity of the reference might help me learn her true name. She merely smiled and said: “I prefer not to be a name-dropper.” Total stonewall. So I smiled right back and let it go.

When the plates were cleared and only the coffee remained, she finally got to the business part of the conversation:

“I have an oil tank in the basement,” she said. “It’s leaking. I need it fixed.”

That’s it? A leaky tank? She wants to get all cloak-and-dagger over a damned oil tank?

Minor repair work required no permits or inspections. So fixing a leak under the table would be in no way illegal as far as my state licensing went. But why all the secrecy? Had the tank been installed by another under-the-table contractor, making it an unregistered or even out-of-code tank? Was the leak contaminating the ground water, but she and her husband wanted to avoid reporting it to the local environmental board? If either possibility turned out to be the case, there was no way I’d touch this job since those fines started in the four-digit range.

“Forgive me but …” and then I dropped down to a whisper, “I don’t understand why a tank repair is worth fifty thousand, cash up front, with a back-end bonus.”

“It’s a bit more complex than that,” she whispered in return. “I hope to secure not just your services. I’m also seeking your … discretion. It’s all about privacy. So the location of my house can never be disclosed by you, nor details about anything in the house.”

I paused in mild intrigue.

“Is your husband a politician or a celebrity?” I asked. “Is that what this is about? He’s famous?”

“No. It’s just that the privacy of that household must remain utterly uncompromised.”

I knew there had to be more than she was letting on. Nobody paid fifty-grand for mere “privacy.”

“Mrs. Jones, what exactly constitutes ‘privacy’?”

“No matter what you see in my house, no matter how bizarre, you cannot ask questions, you cannot divulge to anyone the location of the house, you cannot tell anyone what you saw there, nor that you’d even been there in the first place.”

My happy-meter was nowhere to be found now, and instead my run-like-hell claxon blared full blast. Did her basement perhaps serve as the meeting place for some strange religious cult? A kinky swingers club? A drug ring? A human traffic hub? Fifty grand or not, my license and my son were worth far more than her “privacy.” I defaulted to a blank stare as I struggled over how to exit as gracefully as possible in one minute or less. I even tossed aside my grammar filter and started dropping my consonants again.

“Ya’ know, I gotta’ confess,” I noticed I was involuntarily shaking my head, “only reason I came’s Hal’s Diner’s got th’ best breakfast in town an’ so --”

-- But my cell phone rang. In awkwardness I glanced and saw it was the office number, which meant it was an emergency.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Mystery Lady, “it’s my secretary. I gotta’ take it. But I’ll be quick.” I popped the phone open and turned sideways to answer. “Hello? Steph?”

“Pete,” Stephanie’s voice was quiet but anxious, and I could even hear her committing the rare faux pas of letting her tongue ring click nervously against her teeth. “That guy from the bank called again. He said he couldn’t get you the extension you asked for. So if you don’t pay the entire balance by the end of the day, he’s going to foreclose.”

I sat there frozen, numbly holding the phone to my head while a wave of trauma shuddered through my whole body. And then I imagined the courts taking my son away.

I turned to Mystery Lady and asked: “How soon can you get me the cash?”

-------------------End of Chapter 2-c--------------------

AMERICAN CRUDE - Chapter 2-b

The following is a rough draft of Chapter 2-b of my post-oil novel entitled AMERICAN CRUDE.

Coments for this post have beeb disabled. If you wish to discuss or comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast web site at and join the discussion there.


--Innocent Byproduct

I stopped on the sidewalk and laughed as I turned to him with a forced smile. He grinned back through long, yellow, jumbled teeth, his salt-and-pepper beard stubble many days overgrown. He always wore the same grungy Phillies baseball cap to hide the greasy hair that I suspect he cleaned twice a month at best. For most Americans, after the culturally normative habit of showers seven days a week had almost universally down-graded to just three days a week, there quickly came a revival of the decades-dormant custom of wearing hats in public to cover less than perfect hair. Hat sales soared, and America witnessed a radical change to the uniforms of various professions. Nurses returned to wearing hair nets and pinned-on caps all day long, as did restaurant servers and some delivery people. Sales of body cleansers slumped while sales of cologne and perfume tripled. Meanwhile, Mr. Frazetti’s lack of hygiene was downright epic judging by the strength of his stench. He didn’t even try to cover it with cologne. I surmised early on in my dealings with him that he wasn’t simply being frugal in his failure to bathe, just flat out lazy.

“Sorry, Mr. Frazetti,” I shook my head, holding my nose from the inside, “not for 900 bucks. Like I said: only 300 o’ those coins were ever struck. They’re valuable.”

“Oh, come on, Pete!” he chided. “Those kinda’ coins, they’re not worth one penny more‘n their weight in gold. Only way to get the value out of ‘em is to melt ‘em down.”

He was referring to the last of my seven challenge coins. I’d already sold him the other six, but the seventh represented the final holdout in my desperate quest for cash. I shrugged and gave him my reply with the same sloppy urban grammar I’d employed my entire life: “If’a can’t get a decent price, wanna’ give it t’ my son one day.”

“I offered a decent price! But you think sentimental value translates to real value. But that’s not how it works with coins, ‘specially when you’re talkin’ ‘bout ones that weren’t real currency. Don’t matter if it was just 300. Only way the value of the sentiment can exceed the value of the gold’s if somebody famous was in your Army unit with you, like maybe somebody who became a rock star or somethin’. Did you have any congressmen or movie stars or Nobel Laureates in your squad with you in the Gulf War?”

Challenge coins enjoyed a long tradition in the United States armed forces. They were always custom designed to include not only the unit’s name but even its personality. So my team, called the Desert Rat Squad, had a great big grinning rat emblazoned on ours. The CO’s task of handing them out to team members was the military equivalent of gold stars from the teacher. They were not an officially endorsed aspect of American military procedure, but were unofficially encouraged as an excellent morale booster and an aid to team bonding. Beyond that they were ultimately a very expensive novelty --so expensive only individuals with lots of disposable cash could make them possible. Commissioned on a private basis with a stateside mint by more affluent members of a given squad, one minting of just a few hundred coins could easily cost thousands of dollars. The price only went up from there if their composition included real gold. Challenge coins didn’t have to be made with gold but they did need to have a little class. Most challenge coins from other units were merely plated with silver. But Captain Warren, a man who always had a mild whiff of money about him, forked over the extra to have ours made of 10 karat solid white gold. He was an awesome CO. And my teammates and I once speculated in full seriousness whether he might become president. After Jason was born, MK forbade me to tell him about my Army days, my former captain, and the seven tales behind each coin. But telling him one day was deeply important to me. And that was the official reason I gave Mr. Frazetti for my holding onto the last coin. The unofficial reason was I didn’t want to ever have to get stuck buying another war vet a drink.

“Nah,” I smiled, shaking my head and breathing through my mouth. “No congressmen. No movie stars. Just a buncha’ Army goons and one very cool commanding officer.”

“Then my offer stands,” He said. “Nine-hundred dollars. You better take it now while the price of gold is still high.”

“I’ll let ya’ know,” I laughed, then continued walking.

*** *** *** ***

A long time passed. During that time, as I shivered on the floor with that damned bag still on my head, I heard someone fiddling with their cell phone. I also heard the occasional snicker. Once I even heard a whisper of “Look at this,” which was answered with an affirming chuckle from a second man in the room. The cell phone fiddling continued.

The icy hard floor started making my legs and my ass numb. And then I started wondering about the time. It was Monday night so I was due at the shop tomorrow. How long before anyone missed me? How long before anyone called the police and reported me missing? Had anyone on the street or in a nearby window seen the men snatch me away? If so, would they even report it? And who the fuck were these assholes? Was I even the correct target of their black-bag specialty services?

*** *** *** ***

I arrived outside Hal’s right at eight and peered through the glass. Amid the mob of patrons I saw a variety of hats on both men and women. Hatless folks (like me) were a clear minority. But then I spied the backside of a dark brown hat that was soft and floppy looking. A small swirl of coral-colored velvet shape into a flower graced one side. Its wearer sat alone in a booth, clicking a Blackberry. I hovered, waiting for her to turn so I could view her face. As I waited I carefully slid my sunglasses off making sure never to avert my eyes from the hat and its wearer.

At last the waitress came to pour a glass of water, and the velvet hat pivoted to greet the water-pourer. I only caught Mystery Lady’s profile and only for a few moments, but that one glimpse was all I needed. She was far more than merely pretty --she was real. A slow smile of awe came to my face.

So many women from the ranks of American wealth in that era had disfigured themselves with a soulless enslavement to nip and tuck lies. That rampant epidemic of self-mutilation included bottled blonde hair, cantaloupe-sized breast implants, and liposuctioned states of skeletal emaciation. Deluded shadows of former womanhood, warped and ruined.

But not Mystery Lady.

Her dark hair shined, and although very short it still boasted a thick vibrance, just begging for a set of kind fingers to slide up the delicate nape of her neck into those generous handfuls of soft humanity. Her skin had a rich olive tone. And as I watched her talk to the waitress, the quiet grace of her gestures and head noddings evoked the same classiness so evident in her voice earlier. In those few moments I even witnessed her stand up briefly to remove a brown velvet jacket that matched the hat. And instead of a pair of silicon cantaloupes beneath her dark knit turtleneck, she sported a refreshing set of … reality.

A sweet, humming euphoria rose in my chest. And as long as I didn’t disengage the trance-like fixation of my eyes from the hat-wearer, my bliss would remain intact. I lingered in my gaze, nursing my buzz, deciding how to enter, imagining my triumphal and god-like arrival at her table would prompt a rapturous smile of ecstasy from her. But then I saw her reach forth her left hand to rest it upon the now-filled water glass. That’s when I caught the unmistakable glisten of a diamond ring.

I paused.

My aspirations of godhood quickly deflated, and the humming euphoria gave way to a slow melancholy like the final wisps of an abandoned cigarette right as it burns itself out.

I sighed. Then I summoned all my professionalism, and with a cool casualness I entered the stuffy diner. Bracing myself against this new mix of colognes and perfumes now magnified by the added heat, I headed for her table, detached and aloof.

-------------------End of Chapter 2-b--------------------

AMERICAN CRUDE - Chapter 2-a

The following is a rough draft of Chapter 2-a of my post-oil novel entitled AMERICAN CRUDE.

Coments for this post have beeb disabled. If you wish to discuss or comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast web site at and join the discussion there.


--Innocent Byproduct


I can’t say how far they took me or how long the journey lasted. I only know we briefly used the highway. When the van finally stopped, the unseen hands, knees and shoes all released. Two men dragged me from the vehicle out into a blistering cold wind and forced me to walk with them across a blacktop surface, clutching me by my aching elbows. Through the bag I heard a tug boat sound its horn somewhere nearby. And when the fierce wind pierced the black cloth I detected the aroma of salt water in the air.

I wore a nice business suit that day, a mode of attire quite rare for me. And my newly-bought, not-quite-broken-in-yet dress shoes scuffed clumsily along the pavement as the men marched me forward. On top of the suit I wore an equally new, full-length designer rain coat. While those many layers of garments offered me some protection from the arctic air that blasted against us, they also compounded the restricted motion of my arms.

We eventually entered an unheated building with a concrete floor that echoed with our steps. I tried to count the footfalls and it sounded like at least six men --including my “escorts”-- accompanied me. Then we entered a room.

Once in the room they threw me forward, releasing their grip, hurling me against a wall that felt like brick. With my hands still tied behind my back I lost my balance and fell sideways, hitting another wall (it turns out I was in a corner) which kept me from hitting the floor.

I stood hyperventilating in the frigid corner of the brick room, my back to whoever my captors were. There I waited.

*** *** *** ***

The next morning I strolled through my kitchen, sipping the day’s first cup of coffee, all while composing in my head how to tell my lawyer about MK’s phone call. After I’d had enough of that sordid mental exercise, I took a glance at my power meter which hung fixed to the wall by the phone. I clicked through the dozens of charts and graphs available on the meter’s display screen, seeking one chart in particular. And when I found it, the data on it spawned a sick fear in my gut. Even though I’d used less electricity that month than any prior month since my lease began in November, the dollar figure the screen claimed I’d owe in two more days was double what I had in my bank account. Still in a mild fog from the sleeping pill, I wasn’t up to the task of analyzing the numbers in search of a hoped-for error.

In defeat I tipped my head against the wall by the phone, oblivious to the mug cooling in my grip. I imagined the power getting shut off next week right as Jason and I walked in the door with his suitcase Friday afternoon.

My head still to the wall, and a shuddering fear creeping over my soul, I realized that for the first time in my life I faced true insolvency. I hadn’t paid my lawyer August’s installment, and here I was getting ready to rack up further billable hours. I felt the sudden urge to pray. That urge surprised me since I hadn’t prayed --really prayed as if I fucking meant it-- in decades. Yet that avenue of desperation started to appeal for the first time since grade school. But then I recalled the starry-eyed words of my ever cheerful secretary Stephanie. “Our ancestors watch over us from the Heavens,” she beamed to me one day from behind her deathly white face makeup. I remember grinning at her, then asking if she was Native American (if so that would’ve made her the first goth-chick tribal member I’d ever met or heard of). “No,” she said, smiling with black lipstick. “I just think it’s a cool concept,” she shrugged and went back to her work, just as cheerful as ever.

I didn’t know any of my “ancestors” except my deceased grandmother who’d always been way too Catholic to entertain such a quasi-pagan concept as ancestral guardianship. But if anyone really was watching my pathetic life, I needed their help right then.

That’s when the phone rang, inches from my ear. I jerked my head back from the plaster to glare at the offending phone. After overcoming the shock of its loudness, I noticed with a twinge of guilt the same red light blinking with the same unretrieved messages. I sighed, knowing if I didn’t answer then yet one more message would get stacked up behind the others. But rarely inclined to face the world before seven-thirty, I turned away and began working through my coffee.

Then I noticed the caller ID gave the nameless label “CELL PHONE, PA.” A cell phone wasn’t likely to be a creditor. Fearing the remote chance of an emergency involving Jason, I put down my mug, braced myself and answered.


“Yes, good morning. Is this Peter Walczak?”

Neither bill collectors nor emergency room representatives say “good morning,” so chances were good the call would prove harmless. Whoever she was she had a sweet voice. Not only do I admire a nice telephone voice, I appreciated her flawless pronunciation of my name: “vall-chuck.” Few people on the western side of the Atlantic knew to render that Polish “w” as a “v.” So since immigrating to the USA my forbears settled for the Americanized “w” and introduced themselves as “wall-chuck.” As for the rest of my name, most people bastardized it as “wall-ck-zack” or “wall-shack.” But Mystery Lady here nailed it beautifully: vall-chuck. This all so charmed me that I nearly dropped my guard against the lingering possibility I was about to get dunned.

“Uh, yes it is,” was all I would let myself say.

“Hello, Mr. Walczak,” Mystery Lady continued in her kind and tender treatment of my name. “I, um …” and here she grew timid. “… I hope this isn’t … too early in the … morning?” She ended with the insecure upward inflection of a question. Her sudden anxiety over the hour struck me –-she’d only just realized her error! From her mildly British accent, I formed the (weak) theory that she hailed from a Euro or Indian call center with calls re-routed through a Philly transfer station, and after I answered she noticed too late that she’d called my time zone prematurely. My lawyer assured me collection agencies and telemarketers can’t call private homes at “inappropriate hours.” So I said, “That depends on what this call’s all about.” Her answer told me she definitely wasn’t calling from overseas.

“Well, I was hoping to secure your professional services.” The hesitation disappeared so now her speech exhibited a certain brand of refinement that only comes from years of boarding school -–in short she sounded rich. My hunch became even more plausible when she added: “And since it’s going to be a rather unorthodox contract, I feel obligated to pay you considerably more than your usual rate.”

That rang all the bells of my happy-meter. Elated at the prospect of a wealthy client with money to burn, I ignored her peculiar choice to call my home instead of my shop office, and asked what the contract involved. She said, “I’d rather not discuss that on the phone, but I also want to know if you’re willing to accept cash,” which meant it’d be an under-the-table job. My happy-meter instantly shut down and my caution lights started blinking. Had this woman called at any other time than right after MK’s confrontation of the night before, I’d have deemed it a blessing. But in my sudden fear of MK’s shenanigans I postulated this woman might’ve been hired by my ex-wife’s lawyer to get me caught doing something illegal.

I kept one hopeful eye on this being legitimate. So to head off any illicit discussions, I gave the delicate speech on professional ethics and losing my license. That speech sometimes offended people, especially rich ones. After all who was I, a mere “common laborer” (actually, I’m a “craftsperson”), to tell anyone with buckets of money I had more scruples than they? Surprisingly she took no offense. And with overt promises that nothing was illegal she gently persisted. She never got pushy, just tried to entice me by offering the cash up front and tossing in a contingency bonus at the back end. When I asked how much cash she had in mind, she gave me her answer. I then fell into a breathless silence, frozen in uncertainty. She had just quoted a dollar figure so outlandishly high there was no way any of this could be real. But still -- that kind of money would’ve gotten me on my feet again with loads left over afterward. Caught between paranoia and finances, this conversation was proving to be a real head-fucker.

“Mr. Walczak? Are you there?” she asked, making me realize I was taking way too long to second guess everything.

I summoned an inner calm. The coffee started kicking in, boosting my alertness. And then I pondered the bizarre fact of her calling me at home.

“May I ask where you got my home phone number from?”

She paused. At first I thought I’d tripped her up, assuming the hesitation meant she was scrambling to think up a lie. But her pause turned out to be awkward embarrassment.

“I’m terribly sorry,” she sounded downright mortified. “Are you saying I called your private residence just now?”

“Well ... yeah.”

“I truly apologize!” She fell into a nervous laughter (but lacking any silly giddiness). “I had your name and number on a scrap of paper and assumed--” She interrupted herself and regrouped, squashing her nervous laugh, shifting to a more heartfelt conviction. “I had no intention of disturbing you at home. I confess I wondered when you answered why you merely said ‘hello’ and didn’t recite some sort of canned business greeting and--” Another regroup. “I only called this early because I wanted your business’ voicemail, not a live person and--” Yet one last regroup. “You’re probably still in the middle of your breakfast!”

“Uh, well,” I laughed, taken in by her candor as I relaxed my suspicions, “I actually haven’t had breakfast yet.”

She then seized upon my not having eaten. So to make up for disturbing me she offered to buy me breakfast if I’d hurry over to Hal’s Diner by eight o’clock. Though I still meant to turn down her contract, Hal’s had an awesome breakfast.

When we ended the phone call, I gently eased the receiver into the wall-mounted phone base then paused, holding it, lingering over the warmth emanating from it. I recalled the description she gave of herself: “I’ll be wearing a brown velvet hat with a flower on one side.” I indulged in the thought of touching soft brown velvet. But I shook off that thought and began my leaving-the-apartment rituals.

I raced around, closing windows, tidying up, and noticed an extra spring in my step. But then I realized: She never gave her name. That struck me as … odd. I stopped pondering that when I saw the time: seven-forty. I had to go!

I snatched my jacket, keys, and cell phone (strangely, I don’t miss cell phones) then opened my apartment door which sat perched atop the straight staircase leading down to my front door. My hand still on the knob I paused on the top step and looked back inside. Recalling MK’s vicious phone call, I defiantly thought to myself: It’s not THAT bad!

I kept it immaculate (two years in the Army will do that to you). And it had a nice rear view to a garden tended by an old man across the way. Sure, it was small -- smaller than the townhouse I relinquished to MK in the divorce -- but it was pleasant. I even wangled a break in the rent in exchange for taking care of the furnace and the plumbing.

Lingering in the door I turned to the mirror. Blue jeans and a green corduroy shirt -–not very authoritative, but the leather jacket looked cool. It was autumn so while a jacket wasn’t needed it also wasn’t unreasonable. This is a business breakfast with a prospective client, I thought, so I have to look good. I also took solace from the fact that Friday was a shower day for me, so I smelled good at the moment. As an added bonus my shower included a shampoo, allowing me to go hatless that morning. (I always deemed my hair one of my better assets, but only when it was clean.) I adjusted my collar then headed down the stairs, locking the door behind me.

*** *** *** ***

“Sit down!” a man’s voice ordered. So I leaned sideways against one wall and used it to brace myself as I slid down to the floor. During my descent, the rough surface of the bricks snagged against the fibers of my raincoat.

Seated on the icy concrete floor, both hands behind me and one screaming shoulder propped against the harsh wall, I continued to wait. My breathing started to slow and my heart rate leveled off. I now merely trembled. The black cloth of the bag started growing damp from my respiration and sweat. In that frigid room, the trapped humidity in the bag chilled my head. I could no longer tell how much of my trembling came from unceasing fear or relentless cold. I recalled my Army field medic training, and considered the possibility I might go into shock from the combined extremes of trauma and temperature. I further considered whether going into shock might be a godsend.

*** *** *** ***

After I made it downstairs and onto the sidewalk, the danger of even just meeting with Mystery Lady started weighing heavily. I can’t risk my license! I stomped along, dreading getting caught up in something shady. Losing my license would mean I’d lose my business, file bankruptcy, lose the apartment. Then I’d lose Jason due to my inability either to support him at MK’s house or provide a decent place for visits with me. And even if found innocent of any wrongdoing and my license and business remained intact, the scandal of my undergoing such a licensing review would never get by the scrutiny of Family Court. I resolved just to eat and say good-bye to this woman forever, regardless of whatever she had in mind.

What exactly does she have in mind?

“Just tank work, Mr. Walczak,” she’d vaguely said. And in spite of her claims to the contrary, I doubted it was legal. But as I rounded the corner onto Locust Street, the image of the blinking red light on my phone began to gnaw at me again. And the looming threat of the power getting cut off compounded my mounting anxiety. So I started to rationalize accepting her contract “just this once” as long as it stayed in code requirements.

The divorce settlement back in June cleaned me out. Giving up my half of our grossly-devalued house gutted my financial profile. Then I had ten months of back-child support to pay all in one shot, followed by regular monthly child support from then on. When July started getting rough the first bit of damage control I resorted to was selling my personal car for almost nothing --while I made no profit on its sale, my real goal was eliminating the monthly costs of parking, gas, and insurance premiums. Next I ditched my home cable and internet, and hocked my electronics. Then I broke a cardinal rule of business: I dipped into the company account … deeply. That lack of operating capital proved a near-fatal mistake. Not only did the price of diesel for my two work vehicles suddenly exceed fifteen dollars a gallon that summer, but my freon compressor broke, so I couldn’t do air conditioning repairs or service all during July. On top of that a contract I’d lined up for August to do the pipe grid on a new townhouse fell through when the builder went bankrupt. So for the first time I fell behind in the mortgage payments on my shop. In desperation I cashed in an IRA to keep the lights on and pay my secretary, figuring if I could hold out until heating season I’d pull through. In September businesses and landlords do pre-winter maintenance on furnaces, so a handful of those might’ve put me in the black again by the start of autumn. But another damned nationwide banking collapse had been unfolding since April, rippling yet more destruction through the economy and prompting most of my regular heating clients to chance the winter without me. My only hope now was for the random heating system here and there to break down, warranting emergency repair. But between an unusually warm September, and Philly rental laws not requiring landlords to provide heat until the First of October, such breakdowns wouldn’t happen for another ten days. Meanwhile my bank was nearing the end of its patience. So perhaps Mystery Lady here would be my salvation.

As I walked down Locust Street, I pulled out my phone and called the office to leave a voice message. “Hey Stephanie, it’s Pete. Gonna be late --got a business meeting. I’ll be in b’fore ten. No calls, ‘less it’s an emergency. See ya’.” I collapsed my phone while glancing at my quickly strolling reflection in a dark and empty shop window: the jacket definitely made the outfit. I fished out my sunglasses and donned them. Very cool, very business-like. At least on the surface I’d look like I had it all together.

I passed other pedestrians, my nostrils assailed by their group blending of perfumes and colognes which only somewhat masked a wide array of body odors. I sometimes caught scent of a person who seemed genuinely clean. In rare instances I inhaled a human smell which rivaled that of a dead animal. Yet these weren’t homeless people, just regular folks trying to get by in the face of the City’s latest water restrictions. While some people’s body chemistries allowed them to squeak through a full 48 hours without bathing, others clearly could not. But they had to go without. We all did. I usually managed to hit the 40-hour mark before getting flat out offensive, so my luke warm shower from an hour earlier lent a needed air of confidence to my stride.

As I continued my brisk walk, I focused hard on my more than 20-year habit of always walking very straight and very tall, walking “with a purpose.” I took another glance at my reflection in the next smeary set of dark deserted shop windows. Observing my momentum, I recalled the command I’d been given many years earlier in Kuwait: “Walk like you have a purpose in life, soldier!” Very straight and very tall. With a purpose.

Satisfied with my gait, I again asked myself, Is this job going to be illegal?

Rich people get away with doing lots of illegal things with their private houses (or at least try to). They dig their cellars down deeper than local ordinances allow so their fully finished basements can have twelve-foot ceilings instead of nine-foot. They build separate apartments for their live-in nannies over their garages --complete with full baths and kitchens-- even if the neighborhood is zoned for single-family dwellings. And they sneak across the boundary lines of adjacent and federally protected wildlife preserves to chop down dozens or even hundreds of trees to enhance their picturesque views of lakes and mountains. And in order to get away with all these forbidden dream-house renovations, they hire guys like me under the table. No permits. No inspectors. Just cash and no questions asked. But if a guy like me ever got caught doing a job like that, it would mean massive fines, a revoked license, the shuttering of my business, and then I’d never see my son again. While being snagged in patently illegal jobs like that would certainly cost me my license, a legitimate contract merely done off the books would get me in trouble with no one other than the IRS. So maybe I could risk it “just this once.” I walked along, half hoping, half dreading, and fully musing on that woman’s beautiful voice.

Distracted by these thoughts, I didn’t notice I was walking by the pawn shop where I’d hocked my electronics. The shop owner spotted me, waved, and ran outside. I bristled.

“Hey, Pete!” he called. “Ready to sell me that last coin?”
-------------------End of Chapter 2-a--------------------