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--------------------