Wednesday, July 15, 2009


The following is a draft of Chapter 22 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 walked out of the bathroom in a towel with my hair still dripping. I headed for my futon: a long snooze on a Sunday was at least half as good for the soul as church, or so I always imagined.

Before unfolding the bed I busied myself with sorting through the dirty laundry of discarded work clothes and the bag that held my Friday street clothes. When I picked up my dark blue work pants, I pulled my wallet out of one pocket, but then something else fell out of the other pocket. It hit the hardwood floor with a soft metal clinking. I looked and saw the same dog tags that I’d pulled off of Catherine’s neck on Friday night.

I picked them up and examined them. They were not metal because the Army had abandoned metal dog tags decades earlier. Instead they were plastic and each contained a computer chip. The only thing metal was the chain.

I thought about returning them to her. But Doctor Tuxedo’s threats loomed heavily before me. I wondered if she could even operate that freight elevator anymore without them. I stood there with the chain dangling in my hands, and finally turned to look at my wall of Desert Storm memorabilia.

After coming home from the Gulf War many years earlier as a young and unmarried man, I hung my sparse assortment of military treasures on the wall of my first apartment with a careful and proud arrangement. That was a war to be proud of (or so we thought). We got in, we did our job, we got out, and hardly anyone on our side suffered any injuries (at least none that were apparent right away). I initially took no shame in my participation of that war. But when MK and I started dating and eventually moved in together, she demanded I either get rid of everything or hide it all away. She hated warfare and weaponry and didn’t want any of it in her house. Only after the divorce did I unbox it all and place it on display again.

My own dog tags dangled motionlessly on their chain there upon the wall. I had bought a very large and ornamented brass tea cup hook from a hardware store and used that to hang my dog tags. The tags were not the actual centerpiece of my display, but because they were the only one of their kind and because I had nothing else of a similar shape to balance it out, I wound up hanging them just below center.

After hesitating a few moments with Captain Warren’s dog tags in my hands, I decided there was no better place at the moment than my wall. So I gently draped them onto the same hook with mine. If Catherine wanted them back, she could call me at her convenience.

I then sacked out on my futon and slept like the dead.

-------------------End of Chapter 22--------------------


The following is a draft of Chapter 21 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 awoke to the sounds of cheering and clapping. I looked up to see the number of waiting cars had grown so that the line stretched around the block. My own vehicle was boxed in on all sides by a new crop of cars that arrived as I slept. I checked my watch: it was after midnight.

The cheering came from the dozens of motorists who all stood outside their parked vehicles, watching in ecstatic joy as a giant tanker truck slowly inched its way onto the sidewalk and stopped along the edge of the station. Several motorists held up their camera phones to record the moment. The cheering continued even after the truck shut down. Much to my dismay, the tanker only carried gasoline and not diesel. I sighed and resigned myself to simply remaining in my van until daybreak if necessary. It was then that I realized I hadn’t showered in nearly two days.

The truck driver opened the cab of his vehicle, and as he stepped down several women actually ran to him and greeted him with hugs. Many of the onlookers laughed at that display, and the clapping and cheering suddenly increased with a pronounced measure of good natured laughs and innuendo to its tone and intention. The surprised trucker played along with a great sense of humor and posed for several photographs as the two women continued to hug him at his sides and as the crowd continued to cheer.

The convenience store clerk jogged out from the store and greeted the driver with a handshake. That handshake prompted an even more powerful eruption of applause.

After another few moments, the cheering finally subsided. Total strangers began talking amongst themselves with a degree of warmth not typical in the City of Brotherly Love. More camera phones got brandished, focusing upon the chatting store clerk and truck driver.

We all watched the clerk and the driver pantomiming to each other in total cooperation about the truck, the hoses and the feed ports. I knew it would be at least half an hour before anyone could possibly get any fuel into their vehicles, and yet I feared few others in the crowd likewise understood how much time it would take for the tanker to offload, and for the convenience store clerk to reset the pumps. The entire process of refueling a gas station was always such an invisible process to the vast majority of the public that any familiarity with it was almost nil. Maybe they’d be good sports about it, or maybe their patience was at an end. The crowd seemed in good spirits, but I dreaded their reaction to the news of how long off-loading might take.

As the clerk and the driver chatted, and as the crowd buzzed with anticipation, a surprising development unfolded before my eyes: four military Humvees pulled into the gas station and a squad of National Guardsmen all jumped out of the vehicles.

The crowd shifted from congenial anticipation to breathless nervousness. One Guardsman walked straight over to the clerk and the truck driver and spoke in earnest tones to them. Another stood up atop his vehicle and addressed the crowd:

“Ladies and gentlemen!” he shouted. “I need your attention!” The crowd remained almost silent with just some residual whispering. The many camera phones continued to be held aloft to record everything. “I know some of you have been waiting here for several hours, but this tanker load of fuel was not supposed to be delivered to this station. And my unit and I have come here tonight to rectify that delivery error.” The entire crowd groaned in disapproval at that outlandish claim. I stiffened in a quiet fear because I knew those soldiers meant business. The same Guardsman continued with his speech undaunted: “This tanker load of fuel is now being commandeered by the National Guard, so it will NOT be offloading here at this station.”

The entire crowd booed him unmercifully. Some people raised their fists in the air and shook them. Some gave the “thumbs-down” signal to the soldiers. Some even flipped their middle fingers at them.

I watched the same coffee-drinking SUV driver in the jogging suit step forward and raise a cautious hand to the Guardsman.

“Where is this fuel delivery being diverted to?” he demanded.

“I don’t know, sir,” the Guardsman shook his head. “I was only ordered to apprehend this delivery and then await my next orders after the load was secured.”

“I’m a lawyer,” the man in the jogging suit continued, “and I specialize in Constitutional Law. And this sort of an act whereby private property gets seized by the US military is not legal unless the United States is at war.”

The crowd -- while I suspect half of them didn’t truly understand what all that meant -- immediately latched onto this and started to cheer on the lawyer and his effort to combat this veritable hijacking of the fuel.

“We are at war, sir,” the Guardsman said. “We’re at war with Afghanistan. And we’re also fighting the War on Terror.” More boos from the crowd. The Guardsman continued: “And as of ten hours ago, the Governor of Pennsylvania declared a State of Emergency, and said State of Emergency is still in effect. And since Philadelphia is at the heart of that State of Emergency, the National Guard has been dispatched into Philadelphia, and therefore the National Guard is perfectly within its rights to commandeer a Philadelphia fuel shipment during this emergency.”

The crowd again booed. But the lawyer in the jogging suit raised his hands in an act that beckoned for silence. The crowd strangely obeyed his beckoning.

“Well then,” the jogging suited lawyer shook his head, “you need to give this truck driver a receipt for the truck and for the entire shipment. Otherwise he could get fired for turning the vehicle and its cargo over to you without proof of who took it and why. The receipt will allow him to explain to his employer what happened, and it will also allow his employer to get properly reimbursed by the National Guard for the price of the goods and the equipment that have been seized.” The crowd remained somewhat silent, possibly confused that the lawyer was giving in so easily. “And if you don’t give him a receipt with today’s date, the time of day, and your name, rank, and serial number on that receipt, along with the name of the commanding officer who ordered the seizure of this shipment, you’re not acting according to the guidelines set out in the Federal Codes that govern Declared States of Emergency. And that would make you nothing but a highway bandit and a common thief.” Everyone cheered again. “So you had better give this truck driver a receipt. And I personally would like to inspect that receipt to make sure it’s in good order.” More cheers from the crowd. “And if it’s not in good order, I will personally see to it that you and your entire unit are court martialed.” The crowd exploded with the most avid applause so far that night.

The Guardsman stood there in quiet hesitation, staring down the defiant lawyer. He next glanced around at the dozens of witnesses and their many camera phones being held aloft and pointing right at him. Finally, as the cheers started to die down again, the Guardsman shouted: “Sergeant!”

Another Guardsman, presumably a Sergeant, came rushing forward. “Yes SIR!”

“Get this man a receipt!”

“Yes, SIR!”

The lawyer made quite a show of it, scrutinizing every last detail of the receipt, playing to the crowd and the cameras. After putting the entire squad through lawyerly hell, he finally said the receipt was in good order and advised the truck driver to release the truck. The crowd again booed. The truck driver handed the keys over to the Guardsmen.

The soldier who took they keys got into the cab and started the engine. Again the crowd booed and then the truck began slowly backing up into the street, it’s back-up beeper loudly echoing through the gas station parking lot. Someone threw a half-full cup of convenience store coffee at the side of the tanker where it burst into a small transparent stain of dripping brown liquid on the tank’s shell. As the truck backed away, the crowd mirrored the vehicle’s slow backing motion by inching forward at an identical speed, shaking their fists at its departure.

Once the truck was fully in the street, the back-up beeper ceased and the gears loudly shifted from “Reverse” to “First.” The giant front wheels cranked their orientation into the other direction and the truck roared forward in lower gear. More boos and more tossed cups of coffee and even tossed Hot Pockets followed. The truck lumbered away with the Humvees following. At last the crowd turned their angry backs to the departing Guardsmen, sulking toward their lifeless vehicles in bitter frustration.

Many motorists asked the truck driver if he would let them see the receipt. He obliged. Each person took less than thirty seconds to behold the receipt. Some people looked at the receipt simultaneously in groups, standing tightly clustered together to behold it. Some people with the camera phones even took close-up video footage of the receipt. The lawyer in the jobbing suit and the white tip on his hair shooed away most of the people and told the truck driver it was critical that they take some photocopies of it. Together the lawyer and the truck driver went into the convenience store to use the public photocopier inside.

I watched the crowd mull around for another ten minutes. Then some of them departed. Things seemed calmer now. I decided to stick around and wait for a diesel delivery. I again fell asleep.

I woke up at dawn on Sunday morning right as another tanker rolled into the half-full parking lot. This time it was a diesel shipment. When the lingering motorists realized it was “only diesel,” many of them gave up and drove away.

I exited my van and wandered into the convenience store for a microwave breakfast, terribly self-conscious of the fact that my body odor was turning unsavory and I’d been wearing the same clothes for over thirty-six hours. I did my best to stand as far away from others as possible to prevent them from catching a whiff of me.

Back in my van I ate a sandwich of a cardboard-like English muffin and a rubbery yellow circle of egg product. I watched the tanker offload its shipment into one of the many round in-ground fuel ports. After more than twenty minutes, the delivery was done and the hose got pulled out of the ground again. I waited another five minutes as the clerk squared up the paperwork with the truck driver then reset the diesel pumps. At last I refueled.

I made it back to my work yard before eight AM. Philly was always dead on Sunday mornings, so cross-town driving at that hour was a total breeze.

After I secured the van and locked the gates, I retrieved from the office the same street clothes I’d worn back on Friday during my breakfast with Catherine. I tossed them into a bag, and headed for Locust Street. As I walked the streets I slouched, ignoring the tolls of Sunday morning church bells.

I entered my apartment and looked around at it. It’s not that bad, I told myself again then headed straight for the shower.

As I stood under the hot water I found myself -- for the third time in my adult life -- crying.

-------------------End of Chapter 21--------------------


The following is a draft of Chapter 20 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 let my engine idle for a few minutes while I checked my cell phone. I had only one voice mail. It was from Stephanie, saying she was at the Jersey Shore with her boyfriend and wasn’t sure of she’d be able to drive back to work again on Monday due to there being no gas at any of the stations. I called her back and told her not to worry about Monday and she could take it as one of her vacation days -- paid or unpaid, her choice -- with no hassle from me.

Then I started driving.

The highway was unusually clear which made my journey faster and less fuel-intensive. I refused to run the A/C because of how much fuel it sucked, so I drove with the windows down as the only means of cooling the van. Along the way I spotted the occasional motorist stranded along the roadside with his hazard lights blinking. I assumed most of those motorists were out of gas. I resisted the urge to stop and help anyone, so I just kept cruising. I also kept checking my fuel gauge: it dipped a hair below half-full right as I reached my own half-way point. So I felt pretty confident I’d make it home.

I reached the last stretch of highway just outside of Philly right in time for a traffic jam. I turned on the radio listening for the traffic report. After a few minutes of creeping at two miles per hour, all the vehicles reached a perfect standstill. So I -- like everyone else there on that stretch of highway -- turned off the engine and left the radio on for more reports. This sudden lack of motion eliminated my passive cooling efforts, so I now sat in the roasting heat of late afternoon, listening to the traffic report, hoping to hear that the problem was being alleviated. Eventually the ten-minute news cycle repeated itself and the traffic report swung back into the spotlight. According to the report, a motorist had run out of fuel on the highway and was the cause of the backup, and efforts to move his vehicle were being hampered by an accident that blocked the nearest exit. I rolled my eyes and settled in for a long wait.

The vehicle to my left was a two-door BMW convertible with the top down, driven by a very nice looking college-aged woman in a sundress and sunglasses. To my right sat a Jeep Cherokee with a young family of four -- the Dad was behind the wheel. The BMW lady on my left sat talking on her cell phone. The family of four watched a movie together on the ceiling-mounted DVD player. With a thousand cars in front of me and behind me, and with all our engines off and only the occasional radio playing, the highway took on an unheard of serenity. I watched a gopher come up out of the grass on the shoulder and bounce off into the woods. And I could even hear birds chirping.

After half an hour of this near silence on the highway, the BMW lady suddenly got out of her car and walked straight over to me. I perked up at her approach, turned down the volume of the radio, and awaited her greeting.

“Sir?” she asked timidly. “Can I ask you about the van you’re driving?”

It was a very strange question and I merely shrugged with a smile. “Sure.”

“Is it a diesel?”

“Uh, yes it is.”

“Do you think you could sell me just one gallon of fuel? I’m already on empty and I don’t think I can make it into the City.”

I glanced at her BMW and spied the label beside the fuel port indicating the diesel engine. Before I could answer I overheard the radio announcer:

“And getting back to that tie-up on the Schuylkill Expressway, there seems to be a chain reaction taking place where thousands of stranded cars are just sitting there, idling in traffic. And some of those idling cars are themselves running out of gas right there in the middle of the traffic jam. This development is merely compounding the traffic jam, and in turn causing even more vehicles also to run out of gas, compounding the jam up even further, and making its overall duration incalculable.”

She and I were both looking at my radio together, listening to this report. When the commercial break came I looked at her and smiled: “Sure. I think I have a hose.”

I asked her to keep a lookout on the traffic ahead while I siphoned a small amount of gas out of my tank into hers. I self-consciously glanced up from my siphoning hose to the vehicles immediately behind us. No more than 20 of the occupants of those on-looking cars could see what was going on, and through their windshields I gauged their reactions to my siphoning as a mixture of both amusement and horror. While they could see I was obviously helping the BMW lady, the dire implications of this undertaking were not lost on any of them: this traffic jam might start compounding exponentially before our eyes if other cars further down the highway ahead of us started running out of gas as well.

After what I guessed to be a full gallon, I stopped siphoning and retracted the hose from our respective tanks.

I refused her offers of cash and merely got back into my van again.

I watched the Dad get out of the Jeep next to me with his young son (who looked to be about six). Together they climbed over beyond the guard rail and past the grassy strip where the gopher had been frolicking. With the Dad’s help the boy relieved himself in the bushes.

The traffic jam lasted for hours. It was almost sundown before the cars in front started moving again. Our vehicles all bottlenecked into a single lane of traffic lumbering along at less than five miles per hour. There really should have been two lanes, but the high number of stalled and out-of-gas cars along both sides of the road choked off two otherwise functional lanes.

I kept glancing at my fuel gauge: I had less than a quarter tank now and I feared I wouldn’t make it. I hated the thought of pulling off at the next exit and parking somewhere because the neighborhood of that exit was pretty bad and my van might get broken into, especially on a Saturday night. But the risk of staying on the highway and running out of fuel also repulsed me. I decided that if I did pull over and park I simply couldn’t leave the van alone all night and needed to stay in it at least until daybreak.

By eight o’clock my van inched its way onto the downward exit ramp. Five exceptionally muscular Pennsylvania state troopers stood along the ramp’s sides, directing the traffic, their cop cars parked by the ramp with blue lights strobing. As I rolled slowly past their flashing blue lights, I noticed three additional cars had been shoved off of the ramp’s blacktop and sat precariously perched on the extreme slope that embanked one side of the ramp. I could only assume they had each run out of gas there at the ramp and got manually pushed aside -- probably by those same troopers.

By the time I got to the bottom of the ramp my fuel warning light came on. So now I knew I had maybe a mile or two left to go before I would run out and get stranded also. I started to regret having given the BMW lady that one precious gallon of diesel. I hadn’t been in that section of Philly in ages, and the neighborhood looked just as terrible as ever.

I drove for a few blocks in the badly lit city darkness. After two stop lights I found a gas station of the 24-hour convenience store variety. Even though the inside of the store was lit up, the pricing sign had no numbers on it so I knew there was no fuel. But I figured the best I could do was park there until a fuel delivery arrived. Several other motorists had the same idea as me and the lot was half full of other vehicles all in line for the lifeless pumps. I pulled into a parking space wedged between a broken pubic pay phone and an air hose used for filling tires.

After I turned off the engine I got out and surveyed the other cars where a hodgepodge of motorists -- African and European, rich and poor -- stood outside their vehicles, leaning against the doors and the quarter panels, silently waiting for a fuel delivery.

I noticed an SUV whose quiet door-leaner had dark hair with a white tip. He wore a jogging suit as he sipped from a cup of coffee that bore the same logo as the gas station. I strolled over to him and asked: “Is the coffee any good here?”

“It’s passable,” he shrugged, barely looking me in the eye.

I got a coffee and waited inside my van with the windows rolled half way down. In spite of the caffeine, I eventually fell asleep.

-------------------End of Chapter 20--------------------


The following is a draft of Chapter 19 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


After our drive through Amish country, Kyle and I eventually came upon Lincoln Highway and a sign that read “Welcome to Interochen.” And then I spotted my 24-hour diner with its lousy coffee. My van was still there, undisturbed. I pointed first to the diner and then to my van, and he started navigating a course that would take us into the parking lot and to the empty parking space beside my vehicle. As we rolled into the entry of the parking lot, Kyle commented: “Uh oh. There’s another one.”

I looked up to see what he meant. He pointed at the mega-sized gas station next door.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“This is the third gas station along the way that has no numbers posted for the price per gallon of fuel. That usually means they’re out of gas.”

I looked again and saw that he was right. I also saw no cars anywhere on the gas station’s blacktop or concrete driving surfaces

“The third you said?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said while rolling in the space right along side my van.

“Have you heard anything on the news?” I asked.

“No, let me check.”

Once we were angled alongside my van he threw the engine into “Park,” leaving him free to fiddle with his truck’s radio. He found a 24-hour news station. We listened for a few minutes before the newscasters cycled around again to the “top story.” The announcer said:

“And once again, the governors of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey have all declared a state of emergency for their respective commonwealths. Three of the five key gas terminals that service the tri-state region were suddenly shut down yesterday afternoon without warning, bringing all deliveries of gasoline, diesel fuel and home heating oil in the area to a compete halt.”

“Holy crap!” Kyle gasped. “It’s a good thing this didn’t happen in the dead of winter!”

“How can New Jersey of all places be out of gas? It’s one of the largest gas ports in the world!” I asked, incredulous.

The newscaster continued:

“Oil industry officials explained the shut-down was ordered by Homeland Security after they had received a bomb threat yesterday morning involving an oil refinery in Delaware Bay. The bomb threat coincided with the discovery of an unregistered shipment of explosives hidden aboard a large freighter docked in the Wilmington shipyard not far from the targeted refinery. While it isn’t clear if that shipment and the bomb threat are related, the discovery prompted Homeland Security to order the US Coast Guard to shut down all of Wilmington Bay, which then caused the gas terminals there to also shut down.

“Currently over two hundred cargo ships and freighters are waiting in the coastal waters outside of Delaware Bay, hoping to be allowed into the bay to make their deliveries. In the mix with those two hundred freighters are over a dozen oil tankers full of crude oil, which were all scheduled to off-load today to the refineries in Delaware Bay. Unfortunately, that oil will have to wait for now.

“Contingency plans are underway to divert gasoline and diesel shipments from other parts of the United States into the Greater Philadelphia Region before the weekend is over. In the mean time, the mayors of Philadelphia, Camden, Wilmington and Dover are urging residents to avoid all unnecessary travel, to carpool if possible, and to avoid rushing to fill their gas tanks. Local tourist destinations such as Atlantic City, the Jersey Shore and the Poconos will likely suffer a severe drop off in traffic this weekend due to this sudden and unforeseeable shortage.”

“Wow,” Kyle marveled. “I hope I have enough gas to make it home tonight.”

“Hey, man!” I said with much apologetic urgency. “If you need gas money, I can give you some. Is twenty dollars enough?” I reached for my wallet.

“No, no,” he shook his head. “It’s cool. Besides: what good is the money anyway if there’s not even any gas to buy? How ‘bout you? You got enough fuel in your van to make it all the way back to Philly?”

I hadn’t thought of that. I’d filled the tank before leaving the City less than 24 hours ago. But it was a long drive out here and that van wasn’t known for good mileage, especially when fully loaded with my heavy pipe-fitting equipment.

“I don’t know. Let me check.”

I got out of Kyle’s truck and unlocked my van’s driver-side door. When I climbed inside I left my door hanging open and engaged the key in the ignition. I watched the needle climb to just past the mid-way mark.

“I think so,” I nodded. “I’ll be okay.”

“Cool. Well, I gotta get moving. My old lady’s expecting me to take her out tonight. It’s our six-month anniversary of living together. Maybe we’ll just rent a movie instead. Stay cool, Pete. Hope to see ya’ round again. Bye!”

He backed out of the parking space and returned to Lincoln Highway.

-------------------End of Chapter 19--------------------


The following is a draft of Chapter 18 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 sat in the tack room upon the sofa, lifeless and empty, Misty’s head on my lap. She sensed my sadness and lay there with an empathetic stillness so thorough that even her tail didn’t move. I marveled at the love and faithfulness such a dog could offer and lamented MK’s denying Jason and me a dog all those years.

From outside in the barnyard I heard a car door open and close. Then I heard the powerful Jaguar engine fire to life. It purred its way out of the driveway and faded into the distance.

I pondered one possibility of contacting Catherine without Doctor Tuxedo ever knowing: snail mail. But what could I say in such a letter? Should I tell her that Doctor Tuxedo was a crazy man? Would she even believe me? I recalled Catherine’s smiles, her laughs, and the two instances where she took hold of my arm. I began composing and re-composing such a letter in my mind. What if she became afraid of me after that kind of letter? What if she showed the letter to a lawyer and had a restraining order issued against me? Maybe I could word the letter in such a way so that it was only clear to her what I meant but not to anyone else, like a code that no one else knew but Catherine and me.

This desperate game of thinking through the wording of a letter without the benefit of having pen and paper in hand reminded me in a regrettable way of my marriage to MK and the years of letter writing she and I engaged in. As soon as I realized the emotional overlap I was experiencing between Catherine and MK, I instantly stopped my mental letter composing and rubbed my eyes, trying not to let actual tears come forth.

By noon time Kyle came back from having ridden the last of the horses for the day. He said he could give me a ride back to my van as soon as he had brushed the horse down and watered it. “But do you wanna stay for lunch before we go?” Kyle asked. “Mrs. Valera usually feeds me a sandwich, and she told me a few minutes ago that she’s going to serve lunch to you and me in the family dining room. So she asked me to find out if you had time to stay for lunch.”

The thought of sitting in Captain Warren’s chair sickened me. I shook my head and said, “You can eat if you want to. I’m not feeling very well right now.”

Kyle nodded and went to tending to the horse.

After he left, I glanced at the metal cart Catherine had lay upon the night before. The lower shelf still had her brown velvet hat. I knelt down, picked it up, and held it against my chest -- it smelled like her. I breathed deeply. Misty came over and licked my face.

Still kneeling, I put the hat down and said good-bye to Misty, explaining I would never see her again. She whimpered at me and bore her head deeply into my chest -- she knew exactly what I was saying.

Half an hour later Kyle came and declared it was time to go.

As Kyle and I entered his pickup and drove away, Misty cried and howled from behind the barnyard gate.

“Wow,” Kyle said quietly, “she really got attached to you. You should come back some time and cheer her up.”

I snorted with a wry smile and shook my head. “I don’t belong here,” I mumbled.

We drove through Glicksville -- a beautiful little town of postcard perfection. I was too depressed to enjoy it, but on a very numb and detached level I could see its fine qualities.

After leaving Glicksville we drove past acres of tract houses -- McMansions. I had done the pipe work for many similar houses in Delaware County just southwest of the City, so I knew their general layouts as well as the materials used in construction.

Next we were driving through actual farm land, real Amish country. And seeing these Pennsylvania Amish suddenly reminded me of my summer in Ohio not far from a large population of Ohio Amish. I attended plumbing school in Ohio ten years earlier. It was in Ohio that the fine art of my brief stint at coded letter writing reached its zenith, all at the urgings of my beloved wife at the time: Mary Kelly.

Back when the Iraq War first went live, MK began a sizeable project that led to a life long habit of my composing all letters or e-mails with over a dozen different language filters operating in my brain at once, steering my careful word selections.

It was St. Patrick’s Day in 2003, a huge holiday for MK’s diehard Irish family and also for about half of Philadelphia. She and I had been married less than a year at that point so she looked forward with pride to the honor of walking into church with her new husband on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day, and later walking just as proudly with me into her family’s house for corned beef dinner. But then that evening, instead of heading to her cousin’s Irish bar and getting drunk on green beer, MK and I stayed at home and watched the TV in horror, witnessing the bombings of Bagdad.

We turned off the TV and she cried in my arms, pleading with me not to go to war. I assured her that I was not an actual Reservist, so the Army had no immediate claim upon me, and there was no active draft anymore, so I was safe from that as well. But I gently explained that if an American draft got started again I’d be among the first to go, and there would be no choice in the matter. She instantly latched onto the fear of a draft since we were actually fighting two wars: Iraq and Afghanistan. So she insisted that if a draft did get started and if I did go overseas, then I was to write her letters telling her what was happening, where I was, and whether I was going to be fighting anywhere. But then I told her my letters would be censored by the Army. She next took the conversation off into a strangely paranoid and surreal path by demanding that if I were ever captured by enemy soldiers and held in a prison camp, I had to write her the whole truth of how they were treating me. While I at first wanted to tell her that such a possibility was quite far removed from reality, I merely insisted for a second time that such letters from me would most likely be heavily censored by those imprisoning me. So she said maybe I could write my letters to her in some kind of code so that no one would even know the letters needed censoring.

And so it began.

MK suddenly embarked upon a crusade of borderline madness that ultimately proved detrimental to her during our divorce proceedings and in her custody claims on Jason.

She and I had already built up a considerable vocabulary of private marital words between us -- every married couple has private words that mean nothing to anyone else but them. However, MK came from a family that was really big on crossword puzzles and reading mystery novels. So during the years prior to the War -- as we dated and then moved in together and eventually got married -- she took our private romantic language to a level of complexity that I suspect few other couples ever attained. We of course had our special bedroom words (everybody has those), but beyond the bedroom these code words entered into literally every corner of our lives including our discussions of our finances, of our extended families, of our restaurant preferences, even discussion of our annoyances with various neighbors. It was quite a vast vocabulary, most of it her own invention, but some was from my creativity also. And together we made it all up piecemeal, adopting each new word one at a time as we went along through life. As vast as this secret lovers language had become, we had it all comfortably memorized. Speaking it was so effortless and intuitive of a thing that I never bothered to ponder how large the language had grown over the years.

But then in March of 2003, MK began to do the unthinkable: she began to write down all of our private marital language and compile it into a master glossary. So at last I could see the entirety of the Beast in all its swaggering magnitude. It exceeded forty hand-written pages. After getting over the shock of seeing a quantifiable measure of its immenseness, I was actually embarrassed to know that she had done this and I worried about the sexier details of it all appearing somewhere on the internet one day. And while I was somewhat relieved to know she chose to do it entirely with paper and pencil rather than use the computer, I was quietly weirded-out later on when she explained she wanted to avoid the computer in case the government was electronically spying on us.

MK wasn’t satisfied with merely writing down a formalized compendium of our private marital language. She wanted to develop and refine a system of written communication between us so that anyone who read any of our letters would merely think they were just typical letters in plain and simple English. But unbeknownst to the rest of the world there would be hidden clues in the letter to a secret sub-text within. So she came up with a hierarchy of codes. The hierarchy required that the letter’s formal date always needed to be written out at the top, and so the numbers in the date would be the key to deciphering the letter. Those numbers indicated which words to skip and which words to pull out separately. The pulled out words became the real message. And MK made me practice this new code. For several months we sat across from each other at the kitchen table each night and hand wrote mock letters back and forth. She was adamant that the wording of the superficial letter had to look and feel like a normal letter -- even if I had to ramble on for an entire paragraph or two just to camouflage three code words into a string of organic-feeling sentences.

This was at first a very silly game that I merely tolerated. It seemed to make her happy, and I reasoned that a false sense of control was perhaps the best medicine for her during those scary first few months of the war. When summer came I went off to plumber’s school. And this time of separation provided a near-perfect opportunity for our code language to be put to the test.

I spent eight weeks in Ohio at an intensive training program for my master plumbers license. As soon as I arrived I wrote my first “real world” coded letter to MK. It took me over an hour to compose, but I stuck with it and fashioned it according to the hierarchy. A week later her reply came back, also coded, so now I had to decipher. And when I deciphered her hidden message, it revealed that she had successfully gotten my own hidden message from the week before. I marveled that we had actually achieved this level of sophistication. It all so amused me that I became eager to keep this whole thing going. As soon as I was done with her letter, I diligently sat down to reply with yet another coded letter of my own. After she and I exchanged four such rounds of letters the code became easier for me to work with. Meanwhile the other guys at plumbing school expressed their with admiration at how intent I was about writing letters to my wife, and at how quick she was to reply. Sometimes her letter arrived in a care package with homemade cookies, making me a very popular guy on my dormitory floor.

After plumbing school I returned to Philadelphia in time for Labor Day weekend. I hoped the change of season would quell her anxiety of a military draft getting started. But all through the fall she fretted all the more. Thanksgiving and Christmas were both dampened by her overt and constant voicing of those fears. And she made me keep up with our kitchen table practicing of coded letters well into the new year.

By February my thirty-sixth birthday was approaching and then I would be too old for the draft to touch me. On the eve of my birthday I told her the only present I wanted was that I be allowed to stop with the coded letter drills. She refused to acknowledge that I’d even asked for such a thing. The next morning I went to the breakfast table and found a small gift wrapped box on my plate. Inside was an early pregnancy test indicator displaying a positive reading. I held it in my hands and for the first time in my adult life I cried. That October she gave birth to Jason right in front of my eyes, and there in the delivery room was the second time in my adult life that I cried. We eventually stopped the letter drills merely because life got too hectic with a baby.

MK and I of course continued for many years with the original verbal marriage language we’d fostered. But the complex written code of secret letter writing ceased entirely. When our marriage started waning, even the verbal codes ceased and so from then on we merely spoke in the same normal English common to everyone. It’s not that we’d forgotten our secret language, it just that it had simply become too painful for either of us to try and use anymore. Meanwhile, the prior existence of the written language came out in family court in all its embarrassing details. My lawyer was banking that the whole ridiculous undertaking would smack of just enough crazy to sway the judge into granting full custody of Jason to me. Instead the judge merely ordered MK to undergo counseling.

As Kyle and I drove past fields of corn, trotting horse buggies, and tall grain silos, my prior stance of secretly mocking MK’s paranoid fears of electronic spying was suddenly replaced by an ardent respect for her insightfulness. I sat there in Kyle’s moving truck and made a vain fantasy-wish that Catherine and I likewise had our own coded language between us, allowing us to exchange secret snail mails that Doctor Tuxedo could never get to or even understand. But I knew that was a futile hope.

Catherine said she would call me later the following week. But if Doctor Tuxedo was the all-powerful super spy he was posturing himself to be, then he would somehow find out that Catherine called. And he would definitely keep up his end of the bargain if I failed to end my association with her in that one phone call.

-------------------End of Chapter 18--------------------


The following is a draft of Chapter 17 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


“Is he upset about the limo?” Catherine’s lovely telephone voice asked with an obvious hint of fear.

“No no!” Mrs. Valera assured her. “He is a perfect gentleman. And I have already arranged for Kyle to drive him back to his vehicle after Kyle is done with his chores. He is being very patient.”

“James warned me this would happen,” Catherine said sadly.

“Warned what would happen, Senora?”

“Spot shortages on fuel deliveries. I didn’t think it would start this soon. Oh God, I wish James was here!”

And then there was a long pause.

“Mrs. Valera, he saved my life!”

“Who did?”

“Mr. Walczak. I might very well have died last night if he hadn’t been there. But he saved me. Please be as good to him as you can.”

“Muy bien! Absolutely! I know you are not a woman prone to exaggeration. So if you say this happened, then he now has a place of honor in this household.”

In the next long pause, my sense of godhood reached a crescendo. My ego was so strung out on self-adulation I might have been downright dangerous at that moment.

“Mrs. Valera,” Catherine’s voice changed in pitch and she spoke very slowly now. “What do you think of Mr. Walczak?”

“Well,” Mrs. Valera seemed to be choosing her words carefully. “I regret I have not seen his workmanship, so I cannot comment on his skill as a worker, or his diligence in reporting for work. But Kyle said he helped with the chores in the barn this morning. And he seems quite agreeable, and if your husband chose him, then I think that alone means he is trustworthy. Did not your husband choose him?”

“Yes, he did,” Catherine said. “But his quality as a worker isn’t what I was asking you about. Mrs. Valera … what do you think of Mr. Walczak … as a man?”

I had to grab hold of the podium at that moment. My breathing grew very short and intense as I listened through the long silence of Mrs. Valera’s pause. My aspirations toward godhood vanished and actual terror gripped me now. Out in the kitchen I heard Mrs. Valera close the door to the kitchen office before continuing to speak.

“I have some opinions, Senora.” Mrs. Valera finally said. “Are you prepared to hear them?”

“Yes,” Catherine said. My terror mounted.

“First, I think he is a gentleman. That is always a requirement and he fulfills that very nicely.”

So far, so good.

“Second, I automatically have much respect for a fine Polish man. And I know you Americans seem to think Polish people are somehow inferior. In fact when I first came to America almost thirty years ago and I heard about how Americans tell Polish jokes, I was shocked. We do not look down upon the Polish in Europe. Europeans regard the Polish as a very noble race of hard work and honesty. And they have many intellectual and scientific accomplishments as well. So I think Americans should be ashamed at the way they have so cruelly defamed such a fine nation as Poland without warrant.”

That warmed my heart.

“I recall you told me that a few years ago,” Catherine said. “But you also said there was some other nationality in Europe that almost all Europeans looked down upon -- what nationality was that again?”

“The Irish,” Mrs. Valera sighed in sadness.

I laughed! My ex-wife Mary Kelly was 100% Irish from the neighborhoods of Northeast Philly, and toward the end of our marriage she began angrily calling me a “dumb Pollock” right to my face. Part of the divorce settlement included the stipulation that she never call me that again -- either to my face or behind my back -- because the judge deemed it would most assuredly be permanently harmful to Jason on many levels, especially considering he shared my ethnicity, my last name, and even my genes. But in spite of MK’s complying with that veritable gag order, I’m sure she never stopped thinking those words about me. Yet now Mrs. Valera’s information proved a sweet sweet revenge to my ears.

Mrs. Valera continued:

“I have more opinions if you want, Senora. Not all of them are good.”

“Please go ahead.” And now my terror slowly began coming back again.

“He is a blue collar man. So this prompts me to caution you: your friends and family will not accept him. You will have to choose between him and them. And while they might warm up to him eventually, their acceptance of him will never be complete. There will always be a wall between him and them, a great gulf that divides him from ever becoming one of them.”

The truth of that declaration was in no way lost upon me. I knew it from the start, and Doctor Tuxedo’s treatment of me the night before was a mere foretaste of what I would surely be in for if Catherine chose to pursue letting me into her world.

“Regardless of what other people might feel, do you think James would approve?” Catherine asked sheepishly.

“Well, Senora,” Mrs. Valera said, “if you had asked me that a year ago, I might have said ‘No, he would not approve.’ However, I have a different opinion now. And here I need to explain why. And if you will forgive me, Senora, I cannot explain it without first confessing to eavesdropping on a conversation between you and Colonel Warren.”

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Valera. It’s impossible to work in someone’s private home without sometimes overhearing things. Which conversation are you referring to?”

“It was about a month before Colonel Warren died. He knew he was dying. And he was telling you that after he was gone he wanted you to marry again. But, he said, he did not want you to marry a man of wealth and prestige. He urged you instead to seek out a man of honesty who was accustomed to hard work -- a man with no fear of living a life of unending physical labor -- a man who accomplished things with his hands and his back, not his smile and his vocabulary. Do you recall that conversation, Mrs. Warren?”

Catherine did not answer right away. I then heard her sniff back a tear before whispering her strained reply: “Yes.”

“Well, Senora, I think you have found such a man.”

Another a very long pause happened. Misty lay down at my feet and plopped her head upon my shoes again.

After that interminable pause, Mrs. Valera continued:

“Have you seen Misty’s reaction to this man?”

“She seems to like him.”

“More than that! She follows him everywhere. And last I saw her, she was lying beneath the table in the break room where Mr. Walczak was finishing breakfast, with her head upon his feet.”

“You’re kidding!”

“I do not kid, Mrs. Warren. And Kyle told me that even Apollo has taken to Mr. Walczak. Do you recall I once told you about my father back in Spain?” Mrs. Valera said, and now I finally knew why I couldn’t place her accent: I had never heard the accent of a true Spaniard before.

“I think you said he was a dog trainer,” Catherine said.

“Yes. But not just any dog trainer. He trained hunting dogs for the Spanish nobility. And even the royal family bought his dogs as their personal pets. My father knew the heart and mind of a dog like few other people did. And if he were alive today to see this behavior in Misty, he would marvel. Now my mother, on the other hand (God rest her soul), was very mystical in her outlook. And if she were alive to see this, she would say Misty’s devotion to Mr. Walczak is a sign from Heaven that Mr. Walczak is meant to be here, but not as a plumber. She would say he is meant to be here to take Colonel Warren’s place. But that is only what my mother would think. My father was far less mystical in his outlook and more scientific about most matters. So if my father were here to see this, he would say that the only reason Misty has so thoroughly cast her heart and her loyalties toward Mr. Walczak is because Misty sensed from the first moment she met him that you yourself had already cast your own heart toward him, and so now Misty is merely following your example.”

As another long pause of silence unfolded, I glanced down at Misty’s head resting upon my feet. She looked up with sad eyes then plopped her head back down again.

I stood there stunned. And strangely I did not launch into the self-aggrandizing, god-hood fantasy again. This time, I was faced with having to consider interacting with Catherine in a real life relationship of real dating and real phone calls and real misunderstandings and real arguments and real make-ups and real first-time meetings with real friends and real family. And that thought simultaneously electrified me and terrified me.

“I need to hang up now,” Catherine said. “Please treat Mr. Walczak with the highest respect. And of course, I don’t have to tell you not to mention any of this to him.”

“Si, Senora. Meanwhile, Kyle does not usually finish his chores until after lunch. Shall I serve lunch to Mr. Walczak in the dining room instead of the servants break room?”

“Yes, but only if he’s comfortable with that.”

“Muy bien.”

“And if he does eat in the dining room, do me a favor: seat him in James’ chair at the head of the table and let me know if Misty follows him. I used to get so annoyed at that dog and all the hair she left all over the house. I stopped arguing with James about it years ago: she was his dog and went with him wherever he went and that was that. But now I just wish …. Let me know if that happens when he eats lunch. I would love so much to see that for myself, but for now I’m just counting on you to tell me if it happens.”

“Si, Senora! I can’t wait for lunch then!”

They ended the call and hung up. The dial tone kicked in. I heard Mrs. Valera open the office door again and rush into the main kitchen. I slowly hung up as well and walked in a daze over to the window that overlooked the back of the property with its paddocks, orchards and the tall cliff. Misty shadowed me all the way and assumed her preferred position of lying at my feet with her head upon my shoes.

I stood there pondering the very notion of becoming lord over this stately manor. Of having that ravishing woman adoringly lean against my side in both public and private. Of providing my son with a bedroom upstairs fit enough for any European crowned prince. I literally stopped breathing for several long moments.

And then my breathless mystification was interrupted by the chiming of a beautiful doorbell. I could tell by the genuineness of its musical tones reverberating with acoustical clarity through the house that this doorbell had actual bells in it and wasn’t merely a digital recording. Misty jumped up, standing taught with her tail straight up, letting off one loud bark.

“Misty! Hush!” I whispered. And she dropped her aggressive stance and sidled up alongside me in her formal “heel” position. I patted her head. “Good girl.” I next imagined taking Misty for morning walks every day through the vast acreage out back. And I imagined Jason joining us on those morning strolls during the weekends when he came to visit. Jason will like Misty, I thought to myself. And then I further imagined that when Jason was old enough for the courts to let him choose between his parents, he would surely choose to come and live with Catherine and me. I recalled how Catherine’s eyes lit up when I first mentioned my son to her. Catherine will like Jason. And he’ll definitely like Catherine. I had not yet called her “Catherine” out loud, and the idea of my addressing her by her first name -- and of having the full right to do so -- caused a slow smile to unfold. I once again stopped breathing.

I heard Mrs. Valera answer the front door.

“Good morning, Doctor Bradley,” Mrs. Valera’s voice came. I groaned and rolled my eyes. Misty sensed my annoyance and started to growl. “Shhh! Misty, hush!” I said. She obeyed and I sat back down at the table again, clutching Misty’s head with both hands as I stroked her ears with my thumbs.

“Good morning, Mrs. Valera, I came to retrieve my car. But before I drive off, I needed to ask: is Mr. Wall-chack still here?” I grimaced at his mangling of my name, especially since I’d witnessed Catherine’s introduction of me followed by his own on-the-money pronunciation when he gave me the dead-fish handshake. His failure to pronounce it correctly this time around at first struck me as deliberate insult. Only later did I realize the truth was he had been reading my name repeatedly that morning, both on a computer screen and on printout sheets. And so his constant reading of the letter “W” as well as the other difficult letterings of my name was likely part of what corrupted his pronunciation there with Mrs. Valera. Misty sensed my further annoyance and she growled again. I hushed her again.

“Yes,” Mrs. Valera’s voice replied. “He’s in the break room. Come in.”

I heard their two sets of footsteps walking through the house, getting closer. And then the two of them entered the break room. Doctor Tuxedo wore over a thousand dollars worth of weekend casual wear -- from the Shetland sweater tied by its sleeves around his shoulders, to his designer jeans, to his leather boat shoes.

“Hey, Pete,” Doctor Tuxedo smiled, “how’s it goin’ man?”

“Hello, Keith,” I tried not to clench my teeth. I mostly succeeded. “You’re here to get the Jag? Mighty sweet-lookin’ride ya’ got there. I envy you!”

“Thanks, Pete! I’ll be trading up soon. You wanna buy it?”

“Nah, Keith. I’m not lookin’ to buy another car this year. Maybe another time.”

He turned to Mrs. Valera. “Mrs. Valera, I need to speak with Mr. Wall-chack alone if you don’t mind.”

“I have to walk to town right now and I will be back later. Before I go, can I get you something to eat or drink?”

“No thank you,” Doctor Tuxedo smiled. “I’ll be leaving shortly.”

She nodded and left.

Doctor Tuxedo sat down across from me. Misty let off another growl.

“Shhh, Misty!” I whispered. She stopped again.

“I’m very impressed,” he began, “with how much Misty actually obeys you. Follows you around. Like maybe you’ve been here before and she’s perhaps gotten to know you over the course of time.”

I didn’t like the unmistakable insinuation. I paused before answering, and in the silence we both heard Mrs. Valera leave the house via the front door.

“I have a way with animals,” I finally said.

“I guess you do. But … a few other things have likewise … ‘impressed’ me.” And from here onward he kept haphazardly looking left and right, up and down, but never directly into my eyes as he grinned in a carefree manner all through his speech. With a whimsical gesturing of his hands he oh-so casually spilled forth his not-so-subtle accusations, even tossing in the occasional and insipid laugh at times. “First of all, Catherine’s injury … I asked her what happened, and she merely said ‘I fell.’ And regrettably, my many hard years of schooling to become a doctor also included the sad and distasteful and obligatory training on how to spot domestic abuse in my patients. And one of the most common … lies … that a chronic victim of domestic abuse will offer when asked about their injuries, is the transparently false claim of ‘I fell.’”

I knew exactly where he was so smarmily going with this. But I said nothing. I just sat there, my eyes darkening and narrowing as I held back my desire to punch that grin off his whimsical face as he continued with his carefree tone of voice.

“I asked her where she fell, and she wouldn’t say. I asked her what she fell upon and she wouldn’t say. I asked her if you had anything to do with it, and she still wouldn’t say. So, now I’m kinda faced with whether or not I should obey the laws of the State of Pennsylvania and file a form called a dee-vee-one-nine-seven form with which I would then report in writing to local social services and local law enforcement authorities my suspicion that Catherine is emotionally and psychologically impaired to such an extent that she is now trapped in an ongoing and physically abusive relationship with …” and now he finally looked me in the eye as he paused and said: “… someone.”

With my eyes still narrowed, my respiration slightly increased and Misty started growling again. I didn’t shush her this time.

“And so she might be in need of intervention. Of course,” he returned to his smiling and whimsical eye rolling and hand gesturing. “Even though I’m not a psychologist, my opinion would still carry a lot of weight seeing as how she recently lost her husband. And then there’s the circumstantial evidence of such unexplainable things like your supposedly coming here last night to perform an emergency oil tank repair, and yet instead of arriving here in your work vehicle with all the appropriate tools of your trade, she picked you up at a diner in her contracted chauffer limousine.”

I started tipping my head forward with my eyes narrowing upon him even further. Misty stood up from the floor and her growling grew more intense. I could feel myself perspiring and I’m sure Misty could smell the raging presence of testosterone building in my sweat.

“And then there’s the odd matter of the even more disturbing and distasteful possibility that she might actually be paying you cash for your … ‘services’ … to the tune of twenty-thousand dollars per encounter.”

My eyes widened, my respiration became somewhat audible, and my sweat became visible. I felt one bead sliding down my forehead. He seemed to increase his mirthfulness now that he could see just how effective he was at getting to me. Misty started to intermix barks into her growls now. I again did not shush her.

“Now that would make you a very high-priced prostitute, and therefore you would be subject to criminal prosecution under Pennsylvania laws against sexual solicitation. And that kind of an arrest on your heretofore non-existent criminal record wouldn’t look too good in family court when it comes time for the judge to revisit the custody rights concerning your 9-year-old child.”

I exploded into a standing position, causing my chair to flip backward and topple over as I shouted: “YOU STAY AWAY FROM MY SON!” Misty charged forward with ferocious barkings and Doctor Tuxedo leaped up from his own chair in terror and backed himself against the wall. Misty stood at his feet, the hair on her back standing straight up, and her barkings now replaced with low guttural growls.

“MISTY!” I shouted, again invoking Captain Warren’s voice. “HEEL!”

She instantly obeyed and came back to my side again, but her respiration was also very loud, the fur on her back did not go down, and her angry gaze never left Doctor Tuxedo.

“All right!” I hissed at him. “What is it you really want?”

He un-pinned himself from the wall and tried to regain his former smugness. But in spite of his try at bravado, he was visibly shaking. He had a slight but detectable tremble in his voice as he spoke: “I am of the opinion that Catherine is very confused right now. She just lost her husband, she’s lonely, and not thinking clearly. And even though her association with you can be construed as a relationship of two consenting adults, it is for her own good that it needs to end. And I must therefore -- not merely as her doctor, but also as a good friend of her late husband’s -- do whatever I can to get you the fuck out of her life. That includes not just oil tank repairs, but even phone calls and e-mails. I am declaring all of Glicksville a no-fly zone for you from here onward, and Catherine especially is to remain off limits. Even if she calls you and begs you to come over, you are unequivocally to say no to her every single time. And if you think I don’t have ways of finding out if any phone calls or e-mails ever again happen between the two of you, you’re dumber than you look.” He then pointed at Misty. “Now you keep that mongrel away from me. One little scrape of its teeth against my skin, and I will have it put down, and I will also have you arrested for ordering the dog to attack me. The DA plays racket ball with me every month. I’m sure he’ll see it my way.”

I took a moment to think through this. I ran my fingers through my hair and closed my eyes.

Part of me wanted to call his bluff and take the chance he would never want to risk infuriating Catherine by publicly humiliating her via the despicable maneuver of setting into motion those kinds of legal proceedings. But I also knew what kind of man he was: a stark raving control freak. Maybe he didn’t have the balls to get the police involved, but maybe he did. And even if he chose not to go that route, it was obvious he had access to the right kind of people capable of getting any information he desired about me, and possibly wreaking havoc upon any corner of my life he so chose. And now that my explosive display of emotion a moment earlier had already tipped my hand to him that Jason was my one weak spot, he would surely apply as much pressure to that weak spot as his money and influence would afford him. The only thing that gave me hope was the possibility that Catherine was hip to just how much of a bastard Doctor Tuxedo was.

He suddenly added:

“I think you’re taking just a little too much of my valuable time here this morning. So let me make things as clear as possible: Catherine has no desire to hang out with convicted drug dealers such as yourself.”

I shot my head back up at him in shock.

“Okay,” he shrugged. “So maybe you haven’t been convicted yet. But the Glicksville chief of police can very easily get a conviction off of just one gram of cocaine found either on your person or in your vehicle. So I advise you to keep your person and your vehicle as far away from his jurisdiction as possible.”

That was all he needed to say. Even if such a conviction were overturned, I’d never see Jason again before his eighteenth birthday. And Catherine might not want to be associated with me after such a scandal, even if she knew the truth of what Doctor Tuxedo had done. It was better to lose just Catherine than to lose both her and Jason at the same time, not to mention my reputation and possibly even my freedom.

Before giving in to him, his slandering of Catherine was the one thing I couldn’t let go.

“All right, fine. I leave here today and never come back into her life again. But there’s just one thing you need to get straight in your head before I go: you’ve got Mrs. Warren all wrong,” I shook my head, wanting so much to call her by her first name but knowing better that to do that now. “Nothing happened like what you’re implying. She’s a decent woman. And even though I know you won’t believe me: I really did come here last night to fix an oil tank. And she really did fall. And it really was the fall that caused the injury. And that’s all I can say because she made me promise not to say anything more.”

He paused and squinted at me, mulling over in his mind the veracity of what I had just said. Then he quite surprisingly smiled with an odd twinkle in his narrowing eyes. He shook his finger at me and said with overt mischief: “She made a pass at you, didn’t she! She startled you with her sexual advances, in a panic you pushed her away, she fell, and now she’s too embarrassed to --”

“--Oh you sick sorry bastard!” I threw up my arms in exasperation. “You only see what you wanna see! I fixed an oil tank! Replaced a broken valve! But in your twisted mind--”

“--If you really did fix an oil tank, show me the tank and I’ll believe you. Show me the broken old valve that got discarded. Show me the shiny new valve that only just got popped out of its factory sealed bubble-packaging last night and is now newly installed on this mythical oil tank I keep hearing about. Show me and make a believer out of me.”

I became deathly quiet and felt the blood drain out of my face. He now had me, but not for the reasons he believed. He started to gloat in his victory and darkly declared: “I want you gone. Now.”

“There’s a stable hand named Kyle who works for the Warren household. Kyle’s doing chores in the barn right now and he’s already agreed to give me a lift when he’s done. So I’ll be gone before the end of the day and won’t be back. Is that good enough for you?”

“It’ll do.”

He turned to the door and left.

-------------------End of Chapter 17--------------------


The following is a draft of Chapter 16 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 ushered me across the gravel barnyard, past the Jaguar and onto the service porch, with Misty hovering beside me the entire time. Mrs. Valera stopped on the porch before letting herself open the back door and turned to look down at Misty again.

“You being a good girl today?” But then Mrs. Valera seemed puzzled and asked me with an odd humor: “Is she following me? Or are you the one she is shadowing?” She didn’t wait for my answer and answered the question herself while giving me a clever smile: “I think it is you, Senor.” She then turned back to open the door and led me into the house.

We entered the service hallway with Misty at my side. The first ten feet of the long straight hall was outfitted as a mud room with the left wall sporting an old wooden bench with coat hooks on either side of it. Across from the bench, to my right, hung an alcove/coat rack full of coats, overshoes, lots of pairs of more Wellington boots, and even a few sets of snowshoes. Beyond that coat rack on the right stretched an unbroken succession of counter-height, multi-paned glass windows separating the hallway from some interior room. And then opposite all those windows, the left-side wall revealed three open doorways into actual rooms. Daylight spilled forth from all the windows and doors ahead of us, illuminating the long runner that lined the hardwood floor of the hallway. We walked along this hallway and I glanced both left and right to take in the view of each room. On our right, through the multi-paned windows, I beheld a large food storage pantry with a food prep area. On our left I glanced into each of the three left-side rooms as we passed by: the first one was a large sunny laundry room, the next was a full bathroom, and the last one was a break room (for “the help,” or so I imagined).

We passed by all the right-hand interior windows of the large room which I now realized was an office with a pantry. If we had kept walking all the way down the hall we would have entered he kitchen itself. Instead we only almost entered the kitchen. Mrs. Valera stopped barely a foot short of the kitchen and took a right-hand turn into the room with the interior glass windows.

I stayed out in the hallway and watched her snatch up a phone (which was identical to the phone I had seen near the cat in the basement TV room). As she dialed into the voice mail, I glanced sideways into the spacious kitchen to check out its impressive design.

The upper cabinets were in the style of 1930’s glass paneled cupboards and nickel plated pulls, and the glass panels revealed beautiful dishes and glassware. The lower cabinets were of the same style only with wooden panels hiding their contents. A long counter peninsula divided the kitchen into two distinct zones. The larger zone was the kitchen’s main work area where “mother” would operate. The work area boasted two sinks, a stainless steel industrial grade oven rage complete with a pancake griddle, a double-wide stainless steel refrigerator, a regular dishwasher plus two drawer-sized dishwashers, and oodles of cabinet space. The smaller zone was a breakfast bar, but that side also had its own small fridge, its own microwave, and even a small sink and counter area and a drawer-sized dishwasher for family to use. The design of the kitchen was to allow “mother” to have exclusive reign over the true kitchen on her side of that peninsula while keeping pesky family out of her hair, yet still allow her kids access to an alternate kitchen arrangement of a sink, fridge and microwave where they could all indulge in the occasional can of soda or microwaved Hot Pockets.

I had seen that exact kitchen design only once before, and that was in the home of some high powered corporate lawyer in the village of Bala Cynwood just outside of Philadelphia. The lawyer’s wife hired me to install the additional drawer-sized dishwasher and the small sink found on the “family” side of the counter peninsula. But as I worked, the teenagers of the family (with their friends watching) stood in the next room with their mother complaining to her that “that stupid plumber” was ruining their afternoon because I was blocking access to “their” microwave where they always made an afternoon snack of nachos with melted cheese. I quietly did my work while I very painfully overheard the mother trying to placate her children with the explanation that when I was done, the “kid’s kitchen” would be all the better, so they needed to be patient and forego their nachos with melted cheese for just one afternoon. But the teenagers kept hasseling their mother, demanding that she allow them to use the microwave found on “her” side of the counter peninsula. But she kept refusing that demand, insisting that she was already making dinner and that no one used that side of the kitchen except for her. I then heard the teenagers start to quote some sections of the law to her -- actual statutes from the Pennsylvania code -- concerning “reasonable expectation” and “lack of fair warning” and “personal distress,” and “compensatory damages.” They were arguing with their own mother like a bunch of courtroom lawyers! She finally sighed with that exasperated sigh that only a mother can muster, and then she caved in and agreed to pay each of her kids “compensatory damages” of fifty bucks apiece for the inconvenience of ruining their afternoon without fair warning. Then I heard her high heels clomp angrily through the house to another room where she opened a wall safe -- I could hear her turning the dial to the combination lock -- and removed the cash. As she was off raiding the family vault, I heard her kids snickering to their friends about their success. Then her high heels clomped back through the house and she handed them the money. After the kids all left the house together with their court case winnings, (supposedly heading to a movie) I shook my head and vowed I’d never allow Jason (who was just seven years old at the time) to become such a morally bankrupt little monster.

Mrs. Valera finished dialing into the voice mail then she hit the speaker on the phone. I turned my gaze back to her and the phone. We listened:

“Yes, hello. Mrs. Warren. This is Bill Pryor from Pryor’s Limousines. We got your voice mail asking that we please pick up Mr. Valchick from the tack room of your barn over at Seventeen Maple Street. Unfortunately we’re unable to service any of our clients right now. We’re having fuel delivery problems so we’re unable to refuel any of the vehicles in our fleet. I’m sure this is a terrible inconvenience for you. But please don’t hold it against us because it’s not just us who can’t get fuel -- it’s everybody! So it’s sauce for the goose. I regret the inconvenience. I apologize to you and to Mr. Valchick. You’ve always been a great customer, Mrs. Warren, and I hope to do business with you again. But this whole situation is out of our hands. Call me with any questions. Thanks.”

I stood there in a mixture of surprise and hope: having an excuse to linger in Catherine’s house and possibly even see her again delighted me to no end.

“Now what?” I asked Mrs. Valera.

“You have been here all night?” She asked that with a compassionate lilt to her voice.

“Um, yeah. In the tack room.”

“I will see if I can arrange a ride for you, Mr. Valchick. How far do you need to go?”

“I have to get back to my vehicle. It’s parked at a 24-hour diner on Lincoln Highway out in Interlochen.”

“I will see what I can do. Meanwhile, would you like some breakfast?”

She walked past me into the hallway and led me across the hall into the small break room where a casual dining table sat with just a napkin holder and a salt and pepper shaker. She set down a large bowl of fruit in the middle of the table and gestured for me to sit down. As soon as I did, Misty crawled under the table and, to my surprise, lay down upon the floor with her head upon my feet. Mrs. Valera cocked her head sideways to get a better look at Misty.

“What are trying to say, Misty? What are you saying to us with this behavior?” she asked with a grin. I even caught a glint of knowingness in her eyes as she straightened up again.

“How do you like your eggs, Senor?”

“Um, eggs? That’s a real bother. You don’t have to go to all that trouble to make eggs just for me.”

“You are a guest of this household. I would bring shame to Mrs. Warren if I did not treat you well. How do you take your eggs, Senor?”

I prefer my eggs over-medium, but to keep things simple I asked for scrambled. She left, and I dug into the bowl of fruit for a pear. I bit into it and instantly experienced a two-part surprise. First it was one of the sweetest and juiciest pears I tasted in my life. Second, while I still had my teeth in its flesh, a sizeable measure of juice ran in a rapid stream down my chin, my hand, and even down my arm all the way to my elbow -- it was more like biting into a watermelon. I was so startled I unintentionally shifted my feet somewhat and poor Misty had to reposition her head upon my shoes. At the time I didn’t know what variety of pear it was. But I imagined it was something rare and exotic and impossible to find at the local ACME supermarket. I pulled the fruit from my mouth and with my free hand wiped the juice from my chin while I held my dripping forearm up over the table. I took a small wad of napkins and started wiping my face, my arm and the tabletop.

With minor apologies to Misty, I stood with my soiled napkins, searching for a trash can to discard them into. I spotted yet another landline telephone -- identical to the one in the basement and the one in the kitchen office -- sitting on a wall-mounted podium. If this was the “servant’s break room” I wondered if perhaps I could ask Mrs. Valera’s permission to call my voice mail on that telephone and remotely retrieve my messages.

As I stood there wondering this, Mrs. Valera returned, bearing a tray with a full coffee service and a small glass of orange juice. “The eggs are almost ready, Senor. They will be out in a few more minutes,” she smiled as she set the tray down on the table.

I thanked her and asked about the phone, explaining I didn’t have a cell phone at the moment. She said, “Certainly. Dial 9 to get out.” Then she left.

Before making my phone call I walked from the break room into the bathroom and washed my hands, Misty again shadowing me. When I finally called my voice mail, I thankfully found no messages. I sat down again. After Misty plopped her warm head upon my shoes, I began to set up my coffee.

I noticed my food tray was lined with a linen napkin, the cutlery was a reproduction of Colonial-era pewter flatware, and the place setting included a small arrangement of fresh flowers in a tiny vase of water. I was both flattered and unnerved at how much trouble Mrs. Valera was going to for me.

As I waited for my coffee to cool I took a sip of orange juice. The moment I tasted it I knew right away it was fresh squeezed.

The eggs arrived with buttered toast as well. I marveled at Mrs. Valera’s skill at timing the eggs and toast so that they both hit the table visibly hot and steaming. I took my first bite, and she proved herself to be a top flight chef. I thanked her and started eating. She promptly exited and I heard her dash down the hallway toward the mud room, run out the back door to the service porch, and stomp across the gravel into the barn.

After I was done with breakfast I concentrated on my coffee. Mrs. Valera returned to the house via the service porch again and stuck her head into the door.

“How was your breakfast, Senor?”

“Fantastic. Thanks so much. And this is one mighty impressive cup of coffee too. You could put Starbuck’s out of business with coffee like this.”

“Thank you, Senor. But Mrs. Warren only has me buy the very best ingredients, and that is half the secret to a good breakfast. Meanwhile, I spoke to Kyle and he said he can give you a lift back to your vehicle after he is done with his chores. It might be a few hours. Can you wait that long, Senor?”

“Yeah, sure. I don’t wanna be a bother. Whenever he can get around to it’s fine by me.”

“Very good, Senor. May I join you for coffee?”


She left and came back with her own empty mug, than sat at the table with me. She poured her mug half full, ignored the milk and sugar, and proceeded to drink hers black.

“I take it you served in the military?” she asked.

“Um, yeah,” I said, surprised that she knew. “Did Mrs. Warren tell you that?”

“No, Senor. Mrs. Warren only left me a voice mail telling me about her hospitalization. She never even mentioned you in that voice mail and I have not heard from her since. But when you walk, Senor, you walk like a soldier. And Kyle told me just now that you came last night to fix an oil tank. And I know that Mrs. Warren would never hire anyone for that job unless he was military, or former military.”

That statement intrigued me. She continued:

“You see, about eight years ago, Colonel Warren hired four young men to come here as a maintenance team full time -- sometimes they worked in the basement, sometimes out in the barn, sometimes down by the river, sometimes up on the hill. Sometimes they did work on the different real estate properties Colonel Warren owned here in town. He kept them busy. And they were good boys. I fed them lunch whenever they came -- sometimes breakfast when they came early, sometimes dinner when they stayed late. They each had different specialty skills: an electrician, a carpenter, a mechanic, and a plumber like yourself. They all answered directly to Colonel Warren. But … they were all members of the Army National Guard. And sadly, each of those poor boys got called away one by one to fight in Afghanistan. The plumber was the last one to get called overseas, and he left in January. Poor Colonel Warren -- he tried to replace those young men, but he couldn’t because he was getting too sick. I tried to suggest some people I knew --plumbers, electricians-- but Colonel Warren was stubborn. He wanted people he already knew, and he preferred they be military, or former military. He said he wouldn’t hire any replacement unless he knew he could trust him with his life.”

Again I was intrigued. Again she continued:

“Now, as for the part about Colonel Warren only wanting to hire people he already knew: tell me Senor, did he know you before?”

I hesitated at first, but saw no real harm in admitting to that part. So I did:

“He was my captain in Operation Desert Storm.”

“That makes sense then. I am glad you are here and I hope you will return. I think Misty likewise wants you to return.”

Suddenly the phone rang. Mrs. Valera excused herself, jumped up, and ignored the phone that sat there in the break room. Instead she dashed across the hallway to the office and picked up the same phone she had retrieved the voice mail from.

“Hello, Warren residence,” I heard her say those words with a quiet civility and almost no trace of her accent.

“Ah! Mrs. Warren! So good to hear your voice! How are you?”

I took in a breath and my whole body stiffened. I felt Misty lift her head from my shoes as if she too were listening. My heart kicked into high gear.

“Si, si,” Mrs. Valera continued. “The cat I fed -- he was hiding in the basement again. And the dog had already been fed this morning by Mr. Valchick.” She paused. “Yes, Mr. Valchick, he is still here, the limo driver never came for him.”

And then another long pause happened. I quietly stood up and strained to hear even more.

“Something about how the limo company cannot refuel their vehicles.”

Again she paused. I walked over toward the podium where the break room phone sat. The caller ID read “Interlochen Medical.”

“Oh! I am so sorry!” Mrs. Valera’s voice was quiet but sincere. “I did not know! He was so nice about it and never corrected me! His name is really Walczak? Okay, Senora, that is such a fine Polish name. I will get it right from now on.” I laughed at that entire portion of the conversation.

“Yes, I gave him breakfast already. He had eggs and toast.”

And then another pause.

“Si, he is very nice. I think it would be good to have him return again.”

My delusions of godhood resurfaced. The only thing on this Earth more beneficial to a man’s ego than knowing he is being spoken of well, is knowing he is being spoken of well by two women. And at that point I so very much wanted to hear Catherine’s beautiful telephone voice again, and I also wanted to hear that voice speaking well of me. So in a fit of longing I did something I later came to regret: I hit the “mute” button on the telephone in front of me, picked up the receiver, and listened.

-------------------End of Chapter 16--------------------


The following is a draft of Chapter 15 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


Back in the tack room, I turned the heat down then sacked out flat on my back atop the sofa, covering myself with a horse blanket. As soon as I settled down, Misty jumped right on top of me, knocking the wind out of me, but I didn’t mind and found it very amusing. In fact I would have laughed if only I’d had the breath to do so. She turned two marching-in-place circles on the blanket, lightly punching her paws rhythmically down into my stomach, my groin, my ribs, and my chest as she rotated. Then she lay down to rest, sprawled across my blanket-covered torso. I snickered and patted her head.

I assumed the limo driver would pull up and honk, so I kept my sleep light with one ear listening for that honk.

I awakened to the sound of a rooster crowing. Both Misty and I popped our heads up and beheld a glorious stream of mote-laden sunlight pouring in through the tack room window. I glanced at my watch: 6:20 AM.

What the hell happened to the limo driver?

While I didn’t actually have any place I needed to be, I worried about that 24-hour diner possibly towing my van, and also about my being without a cell phone for so long -- especially with an ex-wife on the warpath and my partial-custody of Jason being tested by her. What if my son lay dying in a hospital and MK was trying to call me to come to his side? Or what if MK lay dying in a hospital and my ex-sister-in-law was trying to call me to take Jason indefinitely? While neither scenario was likely, these projected fears of mine all took place back in the age of instant phone access. Failing to be accessible to the rest of the world for more than two hours at a time was the unpardonable sin of that era.

As I fretted over these improbabilities, Misty -- still lying upon my chest -- suddenly did something that shook my mind clear of all those worries.

She stood up on top of me with a mild stiffness to her joints. Then she bowed just the front half of her body downward into a full-on morning stretch, following it with a similar stretch to the back half of her body, finishing it all off with a loud and amusing canine yawn. I again laughed.

“Good-morning, Misty,” I smiled. She replied with a cheerful bark and a tail-wagging.

“You hungry, girl?” She then licked my face.

“Let’s see if Mrs. Valera’s arrived yet. I think she’s supposed to have breakfast for you -- you and that calico cat down in the basement TV room.”

Misty excitedly jumped off me, to the floor, and scrambled for the door. Now it was my turn to stand up with stiff joints and launch into a morning stretching ritual. My thighs were sore from the Ascent up the Staircase of Hell. And I ached all over from the general stress of everything the night before. Other than that, I think I was actually happy for the first time in well over a year.

I went to the door, opened it, and with Misty at my side walked out onto the gravel. Doctor Tuxedo’s Jaguar still sat where he’d left it, its windows fogged over with morning dew. The barnyard gate was now closed because I took the time to close it myself the night before as I walked back to the tack room with Misty.

The sun had already risen over the trees off to my right. And now with actual daylight I could survey the true look of Catherine’s house. My prior assessment of it having Victorian sensibilities was only partly right. In the growing daylight it at first looked like a Tudor with its three-part medley of stone masonry, wooden clapboards, and stucco plaster accented by exposed wooden crossbeams. But on closer examination I realized it was a beautiful and well thought out mixture of English and German designs. It combined Queen Anne turrets with classic gingerbread flourishes, and I even detected what looked like a faint hint of Japanese detailing in the peaks and soffits. I don’t believe I had ever seen a house quite like it. And even though Catherine said her husband had built the house, it didn’t at all look new and was more than capable of passing itself off as a vintage house from over a century ago. And it was all very well kept with not a trace of peeling paint or un-pointed brick.

I noticed the roofing material had a peculiar texture. After squinting for a few moments I determined it was an entirely solar roof, but well disguised as a traditional roof, thus not drawing attention to itself. The number of chimneys shocked and delighted me: I counted sixteen. How many fireplaces did the house possess?

I turned around to behold the barn. It was a field stone structure covered over with plaster then painted stark white from roof to foundation: a typical German stone barn similar to hundreds found all over Pennsylvania. But this one also sported a solar roof identical to the one on the house. Solar roofing aside, these barns were a brilliant feat of engineering going back a thousand years. The key to the barn’s function was its being built into a hillside so that the cellar wasn’t completely underground. Instead one wall of the cellar enjoyed the design of a “walk-out basement.” And the positioning of the barn against the hillside was ideally arranged so that the southern wall was the one where the cellar’s walk-out doorway sat. Thus the architecture took full advantage of the wonders of passive solar heat on the southern exposure and also geo-thermal cooling on the northern foundation. And it also utilized the sun’s uncanny ability to keep the cellar relatively dry and almost mold-free, extending the lifespan of the barn by decades if not centuries.

At the moment, judging by the position of the sunrise, I stood on the north side of the barn, so the southern exposure with the walk-out basement remained hidden from my view. I was tempted to take a stroll through the dew-laden grass and down the hill to the barn’s southern side to take in the entirety of its workmanship. I was also curious to see if I could discern the remnants of the chopper pad that once stood somewhere nearby.

I remained standing on the gravel and scanned my eyes along the back acreage of the property stretching far beyond the unseen rear of the barn and its horse paddocks. Catherine’s estate had a sunken grassy meadow behind the barn that rambled on for perhaps a quarter mile of nothing but grass and paddocks toward the back of her property. And at the very backside of her estate, on its southern flank, a high cliff-like hill -- possibly an actual mountain -- rose in a steep ridge up and away from the meadow, rimming the estate in a fairly straight line. At the foot of the cliff a long narrow grove, ripe with September fruit, sat in the morning mists. And almost near the top of the cliff I saw a windmill, its blades gently turning. But it wasn’t a modern three-blade wind turbine. It was the old fashioned wooden kind of windmill with four canvas sails.

The windmill alone was intriguing enough for me to want to go exploring. But as I surveyed the sheer cliff face, I didn’t see an obvious way up it to the windmill. I kept scanning the rock wall and started to make out a series of straight vertical lines that scored the entire hillside, each line running from the very top of the cliff straight down to cliff’s base far below. It took me a moment to recall where I had seen such lines before, and then I knew what I was looking at and the full significance of it all: the tall cliff that rimmed the southern flank of the property was not a naturally occurring cliff, it was the product of a blasting crew. The entire sunken meadow used to lie beneath a solid mountain of rock that stretched all the way from the summit of that cliff clear onward to Maple Street. But it had all been blasted away, one ton at a time, probably over the course of many years. And the vertical scorings in the cliff were the remnants of the blasting operation. The blasting crew from years ago had once stood atop that former mountain and drilled the scoring lines straight down into the rock. They used their explosives and after hauling away all the debris, they left behind those long tall grooves in the side of what became the sheer cliff overlooking what was now a sunken meadow.

I suddenly heard the sound of wheels crunching over gravel -- I hoped it was the limousine. Misty started barking.

We both turned to watch a slightly grimy and well-worn pickup truck rolling from around the front of the house. It came up to the closed barnyard gate and stopped on the other side. The engine cut out. A beardless but long-haired young man in small round eyeglasses emerged. He wore faded jeans, an old U-PENN sweatshirt, and a pair of broken-in work boots of the sort that I used to call “shit-kickers,” but their correct name is “Wellington boots.” Misty looked up at me with her already madly wagging tail increasing its ferocity. She was obediently holding back a building burst of energy and she seemed to need my permission to leave my side to greet this newcomer. I patted her head and whispered:

“Heel, girl.” She obeyed and shook off the energy, settling back down again at my side.

“Hi!” the young man called out with a friendly smile. “How’s it going? I’m Kyle. Here to tend the animals.” He hopped the fence into the barnyard. Misty barked once at him.

“Hi, Kyle,” I nodded and started to walk to him. Misty walked alongside me. I reached out my hand to greet him. “My name’s Pete. I’m a plumbing and heating expert. I came last night to perform an emergency repair.”

We shook hands while Misty circled Kyle’s legs in affection. “Good to meet ya, Pete,” Kyle nodded. After he released my grip he looked down at the circling Misty. “Hey, Misty! How ya’ doin’ girl?” She barked, licked his hand, then looked to me for direction.

“Misty, heel,” I whispered. She instantly came along side me again and sat beside my right foot. I patted her.

“Wow,” Kyle marveled at the dog. “She never obeyed anyone but Colonel Warren, and only sometimes obeys Mrs. Warren. She never obeys me at all. But she sure seems to like you. I guess you have the magic touch. You have dogs of your own?”

“Uh, no,” I laughed with a shrug. “My ex-wife wouldn’t allow a dog back when we were married. And now that I’m divorced my current landlord won’t allow one either.”

“Sorry to hear that. I think next chance you get you need to get a dog. I’ve been working with animals my whole life and when it comes to animals some people got it and some don’t.” He then gave me a beaming smile. “And I think you got it.” His beaming smiled suddenly shifted to a new-found confusion. “So … where’s your work vehicle?”

“Um … that’s a long story. Meanwhile, I hate to be the one to tell ya’ this but Mrs. Warren had an accident last night -- fell and broke some ribs. She left in an ambulance some time after midnight.”

Sudden alarm overtook his face. “Is she okay?”

“Looks like she’s gonna be fine. Her doctor came and did a house call and he said she seemed like she was okay. Then he arranged to admit her to the hospital for X-rays.”

He gave an almost-whistle of relief. I continued:

“Meanwhile, she asked me to stay with Misty for a few hours and I gladly obliged. However, I was eventually supposed to get picked up by Mrs. Warren’s driver but he never showed. So I’m kinda stuck here for now and I don’t even have my cell phone. Hope my bein’ here’s not a problem.”

“Wow. That’s rough. Um … I can’t give you a ride at this very moment because if I don’t milk the animals and gather the eggs -- ”

“ -- No, no!” I interrupted him. “I’m not hinting at a ride from you! So please don’t think that’s what I’m doing. I’m just trying to let you know why I’m here and why I can’t leave. I’m sure the limo will be here any minute. I’m just apologizing for my presence.”

“It’s okay, man. You being here is fine.”

“Thanks. Oh! And another thing: Mrs. Warren called someone named Mrs. Valera last night and left a voice mail.”

“That’s the housekeeper. Nice lady.”

“She explained to Mrs. Valera in the voice mail about having to go to the hospital. And she asked Mrs. Valera to come in this morning and take care of Misty and the house cat. But Mrs. Valera isn’t here yet and I wanted to see about getting Misty something to eat.”

“Misty doesn’t usually get fed until about seven AM. So she’s fine for now. But if Mrs. Valera doesn’t show, I can probably toss Misty a couple eggs. Good for her coat.”

“I bet she’d like that,” I grinned. “Can I make ya’ a proposition? If I help you gather the eggs, can you let me feed Misty?” Misty barked once and resumed her avid tail-wagging, rubbing her head fiercely against the side of my calf.

“Damn! She DOES like you!” Kyle laughed. “Okay, sure. C’mon in the barn, I’ll show you what to do.”

With Misty trailing us, Kyle showed me around the barn, first explaining about the stable office and his need to do certain paperwork. Then he led me into the barn proper and guided me back down the central corridor with the honeycomb tiled floor on our way to the poultry pens. Misty continued to shadow us, keeping closely to my side.

We were nearing the area of the barn where the wooden elevator door hid the jumbo-sized freight elevator. In the growing daylight I scrutinized the entire wooden structure that encased the elevator shaft. It was obvious that a “room” of some kind lay behind those doors, but it was a huge room with no windows, and it soared in height up to the rafters, a full two stories tall. To the casual observer, it was an easily dismissed feature of the barn. But the truth was that the entire barn was built around that massive yet mysterious structure. It was the proverbial gorilla in the living room. While I didn’t know much about the duties of a stable hand, I was pretty sure that understanding the barn and keeping the place clean had to be part of such duties. So I had to wonder: Did Kyle know what lay behind that door?

As we went by the stables, the brown horse with the white diamond stuck his head out and grunted at Kyle. In the daylight I could see a small name plaque above the stable door that read “Apollo.”

“Woe, boy!” Kyle stopped a moment and gently patted that huge looming head with affection. “Good morning, Apollo! Apollo, this is Pete. Pete, this is Apollo.”

“Good morning, Apollo,” I said. But without intending to, I guess I made an automatic association in my mind between Misty and Apollo, assuming that talking to one animal was the same as talking to all animals. So without actual pre-meditation I adopted the same tone and pitch with Apollo as I employed with Misty.

Kyle suddenly jolted his gaze away from the horse toward me with surprise. As Kyle did that, Apollo gently swung his massive head sideways toward me and licked my face. I laughed and took one step back. But then Kyle spoke with an urgency.

“Did you know Colonel Warren?” Kyle asked, almost accusatory.

The smile on my face melted into fear.

I paused.

“What?” I asked, not sure how truthful to be with that information.

“You talk like him. Your voice. Horses can hear certain elements of the human voice, and I think Apollo agrees with me: you kinda talk like Colonel Warren did. In fact you even kinda walk like him. Were you related to him?”

“Related? Uh, no, I was definitely never related to him. If I was, believe me,” and I tossed in a laugh while looking up and around and gesturing in admiration at that magnificent barn, “I wouldn’t be … a plumber of all things.”

Kyle laughed as well, and I detected the desired reaction in him of inner embarrassment over even considering such a crazy notion.

After Kyle explained to me about the round wire baskets made of stainless steel, and after he showed me how to gather the eggs, he handed me the baskets and went off to milk the cows and goats. As he walked away, Misty instantly lay down upon her belly at my feet in a very formal Sphinx-like pose with both paws forward and her head up high. She fixed her eyes upon me in silent alertness. I smiled. Then I started pulling eggs out of each chicken cage.

I gathered about three dozen chicken eggs into two wire baskets. They all bore strange hues ranging from a pale greenish yellow to a dark speckled brown. They also ranged in sized from oval ping pong balls to oval tennis balls. Then I switched to a different basket and gathered five goose eggs. Those were a medium tan and astonishingly huge.

I picked up all three baskets and started walking with them back toward the stable office, Misty at my side. I passed by Apollo’s stable and he again stuck his head out and watched me with the same uncanny stillness and attentiveness as the night before.

After the eggs were all safely in the office fridge, in the egg crates Kyle had shown me, I washed my hands and went back into the barn with Misty at my side as usual. I headed toward the wooden doors that concealed the freight elevator.

As I strode down the honeycomb tiles, my approaching footfalls prompted Apollo to again stick his head out. This time he whinnied at me. I paused in front of him. I didn’t know much about horses, although I’d heard they could bite. In caution I reached up my hand and hovered it just below his mouth. He sniffed my hand and licked it. I smiled. I then wished I had something to give him like maybe sugar or oats or carrots. I patted the side of his head and resumed walking past the stables with Misty beside me.

I reached the wooden door. I slid it open just partway, expecting to find the vast echoing elevator shaft plummeting dangerously downward from the door’s threshold. But instead the door revealed a dark room whose wooden floor boards sat slightly higher than the tiled barn flooring -- I’d need to step up just an inch from the tiled floor to enter onto that wooden floor. Then I slid the door all the way open to let in more light. I beheld inside the room a handsome old fashioned covered carriage draped in plastic drop cloths. Through the plastic I discerned the old time gold gilt lettering printed upon the shiny black ebony paint, declaring the name of the company that manufactured it: “Wolfington Coachworks, Philadelphia, Penna.”

In mild confusion I stepped into the room. The beautiful workmanship of the carriage entranced me, but the lack of an elevator shaft dumbfounded me. I looked straight up at the vast (and wasted) expanse of empty space above: no rafters, no lofts, no crossbeams of any sort -- just two stories of an utterly empty and hollow cube of wooden walls terminating in a flat wooden ceiling two stories above. I visually estimated the height of the soaring ceiling against the height of the not-too-tall carriage, and I formed my only theory for explaining the “missing” elevator. I determined that if this wooden floor was in fact a platform that rose and fell from the comings and going of the elevator, there was enough room above to allow the carriage to rise without crashing through the ceiling. Then I looked down at the floor boards which lay tightly spaced together. I got down on my knees, prompting Misty to lick my face. I grinned and ignored her. I hovered my hand above one crack in the floorboards and held my breath: I was checking to see if I could feel a breeze of some kind coming up between them. But I felt nothing. I looked back up at the carriage and regained my feet. I stood there with my eyes fixed upon the carriage and pondered the surreal and never ending mysteries of this entire estate.

“She’s a beauty, ain’t she?” Kyle’s voice called out.

I turned in startlement to see Kyle walking from the office toward me.

“Yeah,” I nodded, trying to play cool. “How long’s it been here?”

“Since before my time here. Colonel Warren picked it up at an antique’s show years ago. Had it fully restored then just put it in storage here in the barn. He used to take it out from time to time, hitch up one of the horses and bring it for a ride around the grounds -- it’s a one-horse rig. But it’s been a while since that’s happened. Colonel Warren started getting sick, then we lost the horse that was carriage trained.”


“We used to have four horses but we had to put one down last year. Haven’t replaced him yet and we also haven’t trained any of the other horses on carriage pulling protocols. I don’t know if we’re going to see this baby hitched to another horse ever again. Truth is I’m a little worried Mrs. Warren might choose to get rid of all the animals and sell the estate, including this nice old carriage. And if she does that, I’ll not only be out of a job, but I’d really miss these guys somethin’ awful,” and he gestured backward to all three horses who were now sticking their heads out at us and eyeing us curiously. “If she does I really hope these animals find a nice home.”

“Something tells me she’s never going to sell this estate,” I smiled.

“What tells ya’ that?”

“From what I gather, her late husband started something here -- something very important to him. And she aims to carry on his work. While I can’t say for certain if his ambitions included horses and carriages, this barn all by itself was real important to him. He had it custom built, didn’t he?”

“Yes,” Kyle nodded. And then he rattled off a list of buildings on the estate, half of which I didn’t even know existed: “He built the barn, the house, the still cottage, the windmill, the cider house, the spring house, the gate house, the boat house -- all of it to his liking.”

I smiled while shaking my head: “She won’t ever sell it. So your job and these horses are probably all here to stay.”

Kyle and I walked back to the office together and I showed him the eggs in the fridge. He said he appreciated my hard work. He further said that since it was after seven o’clock and neither the limo driver nor Mrs. Valera had arrived, Misty could have some eggs. So he gave me two eggs plus two plastic bowls. I broke the eggs onto one bowl, and as she lapped them up I filled the other bowl with cold water from the tack room lavatory.

After she was done, and right as I was cleaning the plastic bowls, I heard a knock on the tack room door. Misty and I looked and saw a woman standing outside waving at me with a smile. To my eye, she looked Italian. She was middle-aged, only the tiniest bit overweight, and wore a yellow button-up shirt with a pair of jeans.

I put the bowls down and answered the door, Misty again shadowing me.

“Hello?” I asked.

“Are you Mr. Valchick?” she asked with a Hispanic accent.

I smiled, not at all offended by her mispronunciation of my name.

“Yes I am. And you are?”

“I am Mrs. Valera. I’m Mrs. Warren’s housekeeper.”

“Hi, Mrs. Valera,” I nodded. “Good to meet you.”

I sensed something odd about her accent. It wasn’t Mexican. It wasn’t Puerto Rican. I was utterly unable to identify where she hailed from. I was also curious as to how she knew my name (or at least a minor variation on my name) since Catherine never mentioned me in the voice message.

“I came over this morning as soon as I got Mrs. Warren’s phone message. I hope she’s going to be all right. Such a sweet lady.”

“From what I was told, she’s going to be just fine.”

“That’s good. I prayed for her as I walked over this morning.”

“Oh, and another thing,” I added, “I met the stable hand, Kyle, when he got here. He’s a nice guy. And he and I already fed Misty breakfast. So she’s all set for now.”

“Thank you, sir.” And she took a moment to look hard at Misty who sat beside my leg, wagging her tail and switching her gaze back and forth between Mrs. Valera and me. “She let you feed her?”

“Uh, yeah. It was my pleasure.”

Mrs. Valera continued to look at the dog for several moments, and the woman seemed taken aback.

“She did not growl at you?”

“Uh, only once last night when she became very protective of Mrs. Warren. But then Mrs. Warren shushed her and Misty warmed up to me very quickly.”

“Is that so?” Mrs. Valera asked with a smile. “Misty is learning manners for a change. But I have not come here to talk about the dog. Please, Mr. Valchick, I must explain to you: I entered the house just now and I found a voice mail from the man at the limousine company, and he mentioned you in the voice mail.” My eyes widened at that in hope. But then she said: “The limo driver cannot come for you. He can’t send anyone to pick you up right now.”

“Um … did he say when he can eventually come?”

“He didn’t. Would you like to hear the voice message?”

-------------------End of Chapter 15--------------------