Tuesday, July 7, 2009


The following is a draft of Chapter 10 of my post-oil novel AMERICAN CRUDE. Comments have been disabled. If you wish to comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast at http://kunstlercast.com/forum/index.php?topic=2006.msg24273#msg24273 and join the discussion.


--Innocent Byproduct


“MRS. JONES!” I screamed upward and around. “MRS. JONES, WHERE ARE YOU?” I heard no reply. I ran to the cart and picked up the jacket: no blood or fluids of any kind.

Still standing by the cart, still clutching the jacket, I scanned around in all directions, listening but hearing nothing.

“If I were her,” I said allowed, “where would I go?”

I turned from the cart and looked at the two closed sets of elevator doors nearby. I hit the call button.

The doors of the same elevator as before slid open. And there upon the floor lay Mystery Lady/Mrs. Jones/Mrs. Warren/Catherine, on her side, trembling in pain.

“Mrs. Jones, I’m here!” I knelt, afraid to touch her.

“Please help me,” she whispered, remaining perfectly still, her cheek pressed to the floor. “And please don’t leave me alone again.”

“I couldn’t find the elevator key!” I explained. “I’m sorry I left you. I just didn’t know what to do without being able to bring you up in the elevator. So I went up the stairs to try and find another way to get you out! But…” And here I chose to edit the truth. “The doors were locked! So I’m back now and I promise I won’t leave you again!”

“I couldn’t find the elevator key either,” she whispered, her cheek still against the floor. “I thought maybe you had taken it and left me here.”

“No! No! Nothing like that! I’d never do that! You passed out and so I searched your pockets looking for the key but it wasn’t there. But I wanted to find help and so … so ….” And here I struggled with whether to confess that I had rifled through her purse, stolen her keys, learned her true name, and entered her private home. In my nervous silence I took the jacket and covered her up to her shoulders with it. “It was a long walk up the stairs. But I’m back now.”

With her eyes closed and face still sideways against the floor, she surprised me by smiling.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“Can you stand?”

“It hurts too much to try. If I were to guess at my injury: broken ribs is probably a safe bet. And dear God it hurts! Maybe if you help me I can try to walk. But please don’t leave me again.”

“Okay, I’m going to try and help you stand up in another moment. But before I do, please, Mrs. Jones, I know you don’t want me to call an ambulance, but I can’t carry you up that entire staircase all by myself. I might injure you even worse that a few broken ribs if I try. So unless you can provide another elevator key, I’ll be needing help from at least one other person in getting you out of here.”

“There’s anther way out,” she said, much to my astonishment.

“Where is it?” I asked with more force than I intended.

“First I need my Blackberry to call my doctor. I don’t know his phone number by heart, but it’s in the Blackberry.”

Again I paused. I did not want to tell her I had the phone in my pocket -- which meant I’d gone through her purse. So I played dumb: “Where’s your Blackberry?” I asked.

“It’s in my purse, up in the control room.”

“Well I know you said you didn’t want me to leave you but I’m afraid I’ll have to do that in order to get the purse.”

“Don’t be long,” she said. “And as a special favor, please don’t actually go into my purse or anything. Please?”

I paused and nodded at that. Then I stood and charged back to the staircase.

Once in the control room, I snatched the purse, slipped the license back into her wallet, dropped in the keys and the Blackberry, and prayed she’d never know the difference.

I raced out of the control room and to the stairs again.

When I got back to her I found she hadn’t moved at all in my absence and maintained the exact same position all that time under the letterman jacket. I knelt and set the purse down near her face. But she didn’t move.

“The Blackberry’s in there with everything else.” I explained. “Can you use it to call your Doctor from down here at all? Is there even any reception down here?”

“No reception whatsoever,” she whispered, still pinned to the floor. “Believe me, I’ve tried. We have to go topside to dial out.”

“How do we get topside? What is this other way out?”

“We’ll use the freight elevator.”

“What?” I gasped.

“The freight elevator requires a different key. And I’m wearing that key around my neck.”

I scolded myself for being so stupid. It’s not like I hadn’t already seen the damned freight elevator earlier while in the loading bay. Why the hell didn’t I recall it? But then again, even if I had found it, I wouldn’t have had a key to that one either.

“So where is this freight elevator?” I squeaked out that question in mounting anxiety.

“Help me to stand. We have to walk back through the oil tanks to reach it.”

With much difficulty and many tears from her I brought her to her feet. Then I had her slowly lift her left arm and hook it over my neck so she could lean on me as she walked. Every little move proved absolute agony for her, prompting actual screams at times. Each unintended protest from her was a knife through my heart.

We inched our way out of the elevator and she gladly agreed to let me use the work cart to transport her through the array of tanks. But getting her back onto the cart again was also a painful ordeal. When she was partway onto the cart, I kept one hand on her mid-back, and the other hand I slid up her spine and behind her neck, cradling her skull on its slow journey down to the cold metal tabletop. So once again those soft handfuls of hair greeted my palm with their fleecy touch. But the whole undertaking of helping her recline back elicited one more horrible scream and it nearly brought me to tears as well.

After she was flat on her back on the top shelf, I covered her again with the letterman jacket, then bent down to set her purse below on the lower shelf. When I stood back up, she was again shaking with pain and almost sobbing. In horrible awkwardness I waited in silence for her crying to subside. Part of me wanted to take her hand and hold it as she worked through the pain. I also wanted to stroke her forehead. But I fought those urges and just waited in silence, holding on to the edge of the cold metal cart.

When she seemed to have her tears under control, I asked her which way. She paused before attempting to answer. At first she tried to lift her arm to point it somewhere, but the pain overpowered her and her arm sunk down again. Finally she said through clenched teeth:

“Go back to the same tank you repaired, but then turn right and keep going.”

I instantly obeyed and started wheeling her forward. At first she protested with gasps over every little hint of unevenness to the cart’s motion. So I did my best to keep the velocity as seamless as possible. Thus we progressed in a fluid glide, under the rose-less trellises of pipe-work, and past the many rectangular pits with their tanks.

At last we reached my repair job where the scattered debris of the dumped plumbing equipment still lay strewn about. While gently decelerating I scanned the floor, hoping to spot the elevator key, but struck out. Although I did spy her hat off to the side where it had popped off her head. As soon as I achieved a full stop I pivoted ninety degrees to the right and was about to resume rolling, but then I paused. I let go of the unmoving cart and turned away from her, walking a few steps toward the pile of debris.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

I reached down and snatched up the hat from the floor, then I turned and plopped it onto her chest as I said:

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

And she actually started to laugh, until she caught herself and moaned in agony. She clenched her teeth and hissed at me: “Oh, God! Don’t make laugh!”

“Sorry!” I said sheepishly.

“Don’t worry. It was funny.”

In embarrassment I ignored the bad judgment of my backfired joke and just started to roll the cart again. On this new trajectory through the tank array, I advanced with her down my make-believe football field, passing the 30-yard line, then the 20-yard line, then the 10, and at last I reached the end zone. And there, off to the left, stood the freight elevator, right where the goal post should have been.

It was a perfect twin to the one in the loading bay: three times as wide as it was tall, painted with the diagonal black and yellow stripes of heavy industry. After I stopped the cart before the doors I jogged over to the call button and slammed my hand against it. But nothing happened.

“You need the key,” she called out in a weak voice.

I went back to her side and found her struggling to slide her fingers down the tight collar of her turtleneck.

“It’s on a chain,” she explained. “Can you get it?”

I slid my own fingers beneath her collar and groped down her neck. My finger tips found her collar bones, and then found a warm metal chain whose texture and thickness seemed very familiar to me, although I couldn’t immediately identify that tactile memory at the moment. I gently pulled the chain up from her collar, snaking the metal strand out of her neckline. I eventually came to the chain’s end and caused it to pop forth with a pair of military dog tags. I squinted at them in a surreal surprise.

“There should be a key hole on the wall panel next to the elevator call button,” she whispered. “Pick either dog tag. They both work.”

I walked back to the elevator call button with the dog tags dangling from my hand on their chain. Next to the call button I found what looked like the vertical coin slot for a vending machine. In awkwardness I hesitated before inserting the bottom edge of one dog tag into the “coin slot.” It slid in beautifully and I felt the very clean click of a hidden mechanism inside the panel. And then the call button lit up. I pressed it.

I heard from behind the huge walls the unmistakable sound of king-sized gyros coming to life and then the elevator’s giant hidden motor kicking into motion. I sighed in relief and went back to her side, leaving the dog tag chain swinging from the call button panel.

After a few moments of standing in front of the closed titan-sized doors and hearing the unseen elevator machinery cranking through its work, I started to sense the tell-tale breeze rushing out with amazing force from between the door’s seams: the elevator car was nearing! The breeze grew so powerful it fluttered our hair. Then the muffled sound of the unseen elevator motor decelerated into silent lifelessness and the breeze ceased. After a long pause the doors parted and the empty elevator car awaited us.

I wheeled her forward into the massive car. Its interior could have easily held three automobiles nose-to-nose with three more stacked on top. I scanned the interior button panel while asking:

“What floor do we even want?”

“Top floor,” she whispered. “It leads to the barn.”

I located the upper-most button on the panel and read it aloud to her:

“It says ‘Chopper’.”

“Yes,” she whispered. “That’s the one.”

So I hit the “Chopper” button. But nothing happened.

“You need the key again,” she said.

I exited the elevator and went back to the call button to retrieve the dog tags. Once in the elevator again, I found another vertical coin slot-looking feature on the button panel, applied one of the dog tags, and the button panel lit up. I hit “Chopper” and the giant doors slid closed. The hidden gyros sounded off and we started rising.

On the way up, she continued to whisper:

“It was originally a heavy-class chopper pad for double-rotor troop and cargo transporters. When my husband built the house, he had the chopper pad removed and erected the barn in its place. But he kept this elevator intact and functioning.”

“When we get to the top,” I began, “are there other people living in your house with you? Family? Servants? Attack dogs? Anyone?”

“No family here at all. No one lives here but me. I do have a house keeper who comes during the week, and a groundskeeper who comes on occasion. There’s also a stable hand who arrives every morning around six. And then I have a border collie. Her name is Misty.”

“Where is Misty right now? Will she attack me?”

“Not unless I tell her to. Other than that, the worst she’ll do is bark and lick your hand. And if she really likes you, she’ll hump your leg.”

Now it was my turn to laugh. She closed her eyes and grinned.

“Mrs. Jones … Were you ever in the military? Are these your dog tags?”

Her grin disappeared and her eyes slowly opened, staring at the ceiling. She took a good long while to answer

“No. Those were my husband’s dog tags. He was--”

But she never finished because at that moment the elevator stopped. After a pause the metal doors slid open.

They revealed a second set of elevator doors that didn’t open at all. But instead of metal, these second doors were rustic, unfinished wooden planks of tightly spaced barn boards. I hesitated at the sight of this unmoving wall of wood blocking our exit. But then as I listened I heard the muffled grunt of a horse in its pen, and I caught the distinct aroma of fresh straw and a subtle hint of manure.

“My purse,” she said, “I need the Blackberry. Can you get it, please?”

I bent over, reached into her purse and retrieved her phone. She took it and started hitting buttons, causing it to light up in her hands. Over the tiny beeps I asked:

“How do I open these doors?”

“There’s a rope.”

I looked up and saw the rope dangling down. I yanked it and the wooden doors parted. And there was the barn. There were no lights in the barn itself, but the light from our elevator car shot a long rectangle of indirect light out across the barn floor. With that borrowed illumination I could tell it was a well-built barn --but could I have expected anything less? I spotted the pale outlines of three different horses leaning their heads over the half-doors of three different stables. One in particular was overtly blinking his eyes and cocking his head at me in apparent curiosity. That horse -- a brown one -- stood out from the others in the darkness because of the white diamond on his forehead. Elsewhere in the darkened barn I heard a cow moo, and a goat bleat. Somewhere outside in the distance I could hear a dog barking.

Catherine continued to hit keys on her Blackberry. I asked:

“Are there any burglar alarms or motion sensors on your property or in this barn I might accidentally trigger?”

“No. I have a few of those in the house itself, but not out here. Animals and burglar alarms don’t mix.”

“Can we get from the barn to the house with no problem?”

“Not on this cart. It’s a gravel pathway from here to the house. But my doctor can simply come to the barn. He knows his way around. But please -- he has no knowledge at all of that underground facility. So don’t say a word about it.”

I nodded.

She finally put the phone down and sighed in exhaustion.

“Did you call him?” I asked.

“I texted him,” she replied with growing weariness.

“I don’t know if it’s wise to wait here in the elevator.”

“I don’t want to be moved anymore. It hurts too much.”

“I’m worried about how cold it is in here. Is there someplace in the barn that might be a little warmer for you than these stables?”

“There’s a tack room and an office at the far end of the barn. They both have their own heat.”

-------------------End of Chapter 10--------------------