Monday, August 17, 2009


The following is a draft of Chapter 34 of my post-oil novel AMERICAN CRUDE. Comments have been disabled. If you wish to comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast at and join the discussion.


--Innocent Byproduct


As I walked back into the office trailer I pulled out the envelope. I drifted toward my desk and popped open the fine paper flap, revealing a brown and gold paisley design inside the flap. I expected to find a brief handwritten thank you note accompanied by a check. Instead I found a somewhat longer note and no check whatsoever. I didn’t bother reading it yet because I was distracted by the sensation of noticing a hard flat something --a key-- tucked down into the envelope. I slip it out and examined it: it was the military-issued key to the foot locker. I turned and strolled over to the fax desk --envelope, note and key in hand. The initials on the outside of the footlocker read “JMW.”

Before reading the note, and while studying the key, I wondered if she had forgotten to include the check. Part of me wanted to be annoyed that she didn’t pay me --not that I needed more money from her, but only because she SAID she’d pay me. She didn’t strike me as being a woman who would break her word. I held back my annoyance and wondered if the real truth was that the bonus check was in the other envelope marked “Peter,” and so maybe its absence here was a mistake. While fiddling with the key in one hand, I held up the unread note paper and noticed its top border had a matching flourish of brown and gold paisley. I sniffed the paper, hoping to find traces of her perfume, but I found none.

I turned my back to the fax desk and leaned against it as before. I sighed.

I read the note.

I squinted in confusion at its message then re-read it.

Still squinting, I set the note down and spun myself around into a full standing position before the fax desk. I brandished the key and inserted it into the large round lock of the footlocker. I turned the key, heard the click. With the key still sticking out of the lock, I unclipped the latches and creaked back the lid.

I frowned, confused at what I saw. It looked like I had just opened a trunk filled with hundreds of neatly packed toy dominoes. Except rather than these dominoes being black and covered with little dots, it looked like they had all instead been spray-painted with metallic gold paint and engraved with tiny numbers and letters.

Then I touched them, expecting to feel the sensation of either wood or plastic under a layer of cheap paint. But the surprise sensation my fingers experienced was that of flawlessly smooth coldness --they were made of metal. I took in a sharp breath and involuntarily held it.

I picked one up. It was cold, dense and heavy -- heavy as lead. But I knew it wasn’t lead.

“Oh my god.... She didn’t,” I whispered in astonishment.

I felt my legs wobbling and so I actually had to pull up a chair and sit down before the fax desk. I started breathing very rapidly. I wondered if perhaps I should find a paper bag and start huffing into it.

While sitting in the chair, noticing one of the veins on the side of my head throbbing, I held the same golden “domino” up closer to the light to examine the tiny letters and numbers engraved upon it. They read:

1 oz
24 kt

“Oh my god.... She did.”

-------------------End of Chapter 34--------------------


The following is a draft of Chapter 33 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 asked her to let me set up the back room for her --the back room where I used to live and where I still had my old bed. That took me far longer than I intended.

She sat in the actual office, still in Stephanie’s chair. But she had wheeled herself over to the door and watched me from just over the threshold between the office and the back room --watching me and talking to me as I stacked up shipping cartons full of plumbing parts and office supplies to make room on the floor. We talked and joked and all the while I fumbled with boxes, making a fool of myself as she laughed and joked back. I eventually achieved a large enough space on the floor and proceeded to tug at the bare mattress that set wedged in an upright position behind a storage shelf. I maneuvered it into the middle of the cleared off floor then took out the one set of sheets that remained there in the office all those months. Still talking and joking, I made up the bed. Finally I was satisfied and I went back into the office to her. I helped her stand from the chair and walked her into the back room/bedroom with me.

I won’t get into the full details concerning how we managed everything. But the most difficult part was just plain getting her clothes off. It was slow delicate work. She told me she had temporarily hired a private duty nurse to stay at home with her for the next three weeks who --among other things-- helped her get dressed each morning because she was unable to do it on her own. “I wanted to wear a shift dress today,” she explained, “because it was the best choice in an outfit that can simultaneously hide the rib brace and not interfere with its function.” And thus I achieved my accidental education on what a shift dress even is.

But a shift dress --as I further learned that day-- is also a slightly tight dress with a zipper running all the way down the spine. It was too tight around her legs to merely lift it up, so it had to come completely off and that was a major undertaking, constantly interrupted by the tiniest of gasps and wincings from her. After I finally managed to slide it down to her ankles, I found she wore a very short yet form-fitted slip underneath, and under the slip I could feel the velcro straps of her rib brace. I briefly surveyed the slip, ornamented with lace and other embellishments. Then I looked back to her face and awaited her next decision on the disrobing process.

“I find the rib brace very ugly,” she whispered while shaking her head, “and I made the mistake of telling myself while I watched you set up the bed that I could deal with the pain of not wearing it. And so I told myself I would have you take the brace off of me along with everything else, and I was even willing to do that in spite of the bruises I still have. But I can already tell I’m not going to be able to tolerate the pain from it coming off. So is it okay if we also leave the slip on just to cover up the stupid brace?”

“Oh god, yes! Of course it’s okay!” I laughed. “You’re beautiful! I wouldn’t begrudge you the wearing of a slip!”

Part of me was disappointed as I recalled the beach photo of her with my former captain: the one-piece bathing suit she wore in the photograph so tantalizingly hinted at a very nice body underneath. So now that I had her with me, live and in person, and gleefully saying to me the one blessed word of “yes,” it seemed so unfair for fate to yet again deny me a full glimpse of her bare body. But I would never force such a thing from her, so I resigned myself to forego the privilege of that image.

We made attempts at a lot of different approaches, positions, strategies, and ultimately it came down to her lying completely still and my not being too aggressive. Slow and steady wasn’t terribly difficult for me. My only challenge was not touching her rib cage in any way. MK had always liked --when I finished, and only when we engaged the classic standby of the Missionary Position-- for me to simply remain on top of her. Unless it was an unbearably hot night I never complained about that because sinking down in utter relaxation upon MK’s beautiful breasts and even falling asleep there was an extra treat I always enjoyed. I at first questioned MK about that preference of hers very early in our relationship, asking her how she could possibly even breathe with the dead weight of a two-hundred pound man crushing down upon her lungs for several hours of sleep. MK replied that when God made Woman he engineered her so she could breathe while a giant baby kicked at her lungs from underneath her diaphragm for several months, and therefore he simultaneously engineered her so she could likewise breathe while a giant man slept atop her rib cage for several hours. But there would be no touching at all of Catherine’s upper body, and certainly there would be no falling asleep upon her breasts.

When we finished, the next (and usually unspoken) question for all first-time lovers of “which side of the bed do you prefer” didn’t even have to be wordlessly figured out or negotiated. Since it was impossible for Catherine to lie on her right side, I had to take the left --the same side I took when I helped her rise from the table at Hal’s, the same side I took when I walked her to the park, the same side I took when we leaned against each other on the bench, and the same side I took when sat together in the limo. After I settled down on Catherine’s left I found myself feeling quite grateful for that twist of fate because for MK and I, the left-side/right-side question had always been the reverse arrangement. Achieving as much divergence as possible from most MK-isms --no mater how trivial-- made me immensely happy.

During our quiet “after-time,” we lay there side by side, she on her back and me on my side and leaning toward her. My initial attempt to wrap my right arm underneath her shoulders wasn’t at all comfortable for her, so I settled for resting the full length of my bent-at-the-elbow arm completely flat on the mattress in a way that merely framed the top of her head. I kept my left hand on her left shoulder while she clasped it with her own left hand. I wanted just once to hug her tightly against me, but that was impossible. I settled for stroking her shoulder endlessly.

Lying there we remained awake, sometimes whispering, sometimes giggling, sometimes saying nothing at all and just listening to each other’s breathing. During one such period of silent and eyes-shut listening, she started shivering and I opened my eyes in concern.

“Are you cold?” I asked as I saw the goose bumps rising on her otherwise smooth and flawless skin.

“The A/C is too high,” she whispered, and I immediately rolled leftward completely off the mattress in an effort to avoid jostling her around. I jogged into the next room and clicked off the trailer-wide air conditioning.

Before going back to her I grabbed the letterman jacket I had unwrapped earlier. I returned to the rear room where she still lay and I covered her with it.

“Thank you,” she whispered, much as she had a week earlier when I found her on the floor of the elevator car and likewise covered her with the same jacket.

I kissed her forehead, then I excused myself and used the bathroom. After that I lay down beside her again and closed my eyes, my hand on her shoulder as before.

A long while of blissful silence passed, then she whispered: “What time is it?”

I opened my eyes again and glanced at the clock. “Quarter to five,” I whispered back.

She opened her own eyes and sighed. “It’s very hard for me to stand up. But I have to stand up. Can you help me with that? Then I can get dressed and go.”

The sadness that arose in me caused actual pain in my stomach, like a relentless squeezing of my guts. I felt tears rising in my eyes.

“Can’t you stay any longer?” I whispered. “We could go to dinner --my treat.”

“Are you taking back your good-bye?” she asked.

I hesitated and looked away.

“No,” I finally said, shaking my head at the wall.

“Then I have to go. And it’s better if we remember each other in happiness and not in conflict. This was only supposed to be a long good-bye, not an interminable one.”

I helped her up, again with much care and attention. She asked to use the bathroom. As she used it I remained out beside the mattress and started to get dressed. It took her a while in the bathroom so I actually finished dressing before she emerged. Then her own clothes all needed to go back on.

I had to help MK get dressed a few times when she was in her final weeks of being pregnant with Jason. That experience proved quite the education in some of the more obscure factoids not only concerning women’s clothing, but even their bodies. Taking a woman’s clothes off of her body doesn’t require as much knowledge as putting them on. So now with Catherine I had my first opportunity to help an unpregnant woman get dressed. And much to my surprise I again got schooled in women’s clothing and anatomies --and I thought I knew it all.

After I zipped up the back of her dress for her I watched her slide her shoes --emerald green shoes-- onto her feet. Then we went back into the office and I pulled two non-rolling chairs up to the window overlooking the ugly spectacle of my shop yard. I helped her sit in one chair then seated myself in the other. Together we waited for when her driver would pull in. After a few moments she asked for something to drink, so I went to the office fridge and retrieved a pair of juice boxes and some lunch-pack portions of crackers with peanut butter.

“Not very gourmet,” I confessed, “but munchable.”

“No it’s great. I make these at home all the time,” she smiled while devouring her share.

“You eat crackers and peanut butter?” I asked.

“Doesn’t everybody?” she shrugged.

I laughed and imagined the impossibly middle-class spectacle of her spreading peanut butter on crackers while standing in that undeniably upper-class kitchen in Glicksville. I also imagined Misty watching her nearby. When we were done eating, she timidly held out her left hand to me. I smiled and took it with no hesitation. The thumb stroking began as before.

Sitting there together, holding hands, talking and fully clothed again, made me want to change my mind and take back my good-bye. There is a special bond of knowingness that arises between two people during that initial hour right after their very first time in bed together. It’s subtle but unavoidable. It covertly springs to life during the act of lovemaking, manifesting itself during that quiet time of togetherness after the fact. And at no point is the potency of that knowingness more evident than after the clothes go back on and the couple both return to being “civilized” again --in spite of the irretrievable knowledge they now each have of the other’s body. Clothes might as well be optional at that point. So our sitting in those civilized chairs with our civilized clothes was almost like a game of pretend. But we --as does every other couple in the world-- looked past the ludicrous uselessness of the clothes, and got dressed anyway and sat side by side with the same poise and dignity as we might display while sitting and waiting for a flight in a public airline terminal. As for the chairs, those two office chairs looking out on my crummy shop yard might just as well have been two hotel balcony chairs looking out across a beach, or two porch chairs looking out upon a garden. Our bond of knowingness was very much alive --even the left-side/right-side preferences were firmly in place at that point. We were at each other’s sides now, holding hands, stroking thumbs, and it felt absolutely natural and just plain right. Maybe we could remain at each other’s sides --for years, for decades, experiencing life together and repeatedly sitting down side by side in whatever two chairs presented themselves in each new setting. To hell with Doctor Tuxedo, and to hell with Catherine’s doomsday speechmaking. Maybe. Just maybe.

But then I paused in my yearnings and glanced across the room to my desk. I took in a long eyeful of Jason’s photo and sighed.

By five-twenty the limo pulled up.

“He’s early,” I mumbled, not moving from my chair.

“It’s his job to be early,” she said, also not moving. “But I don’t have to be out there until five-thirty. So we have ten minutes. And truthfully, etiquette allows me to be five minutes late, but no more than five.”

I turned my chair toward her, leaned forward to her and set my hands upon her knees. Then I bowed my head down sideways onto her lap. She stroked my hair.

“I’m sorry it has to end,” I said.

“At least it can end on a nice note,” she said, still stroking my hair.

“It barely even began,” I sulked.

She took a long pause before her next statement:

“I was taught a long time ago never to question someone else’s family conflicts. I don’t need to know the terrible details of what it is you can’t tell me. But your family is your family, and your son is your son. And regardless of the details of why you can’t see me, I’m glad you were honest with me about the final upshot of it all. But if you had chosen to play both ends against the middle and strung me along for months and kept me hidden away as some shameful secret, I never would have forgiven you. So I say this sort of an ending is far preferable.”

She continued to stroke my hair. Meanwhile I didn’t want to think anymore about the reasons behind saying good-bye to her, so I changed the subject.

“How are you going to take care of that place all by yourself?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I have other names on the list my husband left me. But you were the closest plumber, geographically speaking.”

“Who else is there?” I asked. “Any plumbers I might know?”

“The next-nearest plumber on the list is in Tennessee.”

“I don’t know anyone in Tennessee,” I laughed. “What about the rest of the facility? The elevators alone require very specialized attention.”

“I’ll work it out.”

“Did you ever find that missing elevator key?” I asked.

“I have another key in my husband’s study,” she said.

I suddenly remembered the freight elevator and the dog tags that operated it. I lifted my head from her lap.

“The dog tags,” I said. “I still have them.”

I jumped up and ran to my leather jacket which I had tossed aside onto the fax desk. I searched the pockets of the jacket and retrieved the dog tags. I turned and walked back to her with them dangling from my outstretched hand.

“Here. I’m sure you want them back.”

I stood in front of her, awaiting her response. She looked at them with a near-revulsion as they swung from my fingers. I assumed my returning them to her would make her happy. Instead I saw an entirely new kind of sadness befall her face. After she waited, staring at them for a particularly long and awkward moment, she eventually took them and placed them around her neck. They weren’t emeralds, but they still looked great on her --in my mind anything would have looked great on her.

“Thank you,” she mumbled to the floor. Her clutching hand gripped the tags at the end of the chain with such a fierce tension I feared she’d snap the chain right off her neck.

I decided I needed to help end this whole dog tag moment and move things along.

“Can I walk you to the car?” I asked while holding out my open hand. I almost phrased that question with a different wording --I almost asked her if I could walk her “to the limo” but I switched my word choice at the last second because I sensed she disliked the word “limo” and preferred the more vague word “car” instead. I later learned the word “car” is used by the rich as a deliberate understatement to water down those portions of a conversation that might otherwise sound like staged bragging.

She suspended her sadness and downgraded to a somberness. Then she released her grip on the dog tags and took my hand. I helped her to stand. Together we walked out the door, down the steps, and to the waiting limousine. The driver jumped out and opened the door for her. I helped her in and this time I didn’t join her. I lingered in the open car door, the driver waiting with the most admirable measure of patience for me to leave.

“I truly wish I could see you again,” I shook my head.

“I think wishing has a proper place in life, Mr. Walczak,” she nodded. “And so does resignation.”

She reached for her purse and cracked it open. In it I saw two identical, very fine looking cotton stationery envelopes with handwriting on them. She pulled out one and held it out for me to take. It was addressed to “Mr. Walczak.” As I extended my hand to take it I caught a fleeting glimpse of the other envelope that remained in her still-open purse. It was addressed to “Peter.”

“Your bonus,” she whispered. I nodded and accepted from her hand the first envelope. I rotated it in my grasp, getting ready to open it, but she held up her hand in a motion for me to stop. I froze and waited for her.

“Please wait until I’ve gone,” she said.

I nodded and slipped it into my back pocket.

We said our final good-byes without any farewell kisses or other gestures of intimacy. I nodded, backed out of the open car door, finally allowing Larry to shut it for her.

As the limo drove off I stood there in painful emptiness, regretting having listened in on Mrs. Valera’s phone call.

-------------------End of Chapter 33--------------------


The following is a draft of Chapter 32 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


Catherine instructed the driver (whom she now called “Larry”) to retrieve my “gift” from the trunk. He popped the trunk and pulled out an over-sized shirt box, nicely gift wrapped. With the trunk still hanging open Larry turned and handed the gift to Catherine, and Catherine quietly held it in her grasp in front of me, but not actually giving it to me. She clutched the box against herself in silence, looking down at the ground in what seemed to be sadness. She made no motions indicating she intended to give me the present and just continued to hug it. After a long pause she spoke again to the driver:

“And now the other one, please, Larry” she said.

I raised an eyebrow at that. Two gifts? I watched him reach deeply into the trunk once more. But then I saw him struggling with whatever was down inside it, so I immediately went to help him. Together Larry and I hoisted up a small brown military foot locker --an old one-- and it weighed a ton (just over fifty pounds, I later calculated). We carried it by the two opposite handles toward the small set of three metal steps that led up into the office trailer door. When Stephanie --still peering out the office window-- saw us heading for the steps, she scrambled to open the door for us from within, then held it open as he and I maneuvered the trunk through the doorway.

After Larry and I got the foot locker past the threshold and into the office, Stephanie wordlessly raced to the fax machine desk and cleared a spot for us to set it down upon. Once he and I had it securely footed upon the desktop, we released our mutual grips on the two handles and simultaneously let out sighs of relief. I extended my hand to him for a shake. He accepted that handshake and we briefly exchanged smiles and verbal thanks.

“Is she not gonna come inside?” Stephanie asked us with an urgency to her voice. We looked over and saw Stephanie again peering out the window at Catherine who remained standing beside the idling limousine, holding the present.

“She needs help,” I mumbled self-consciously as I raced toward the door.

On my way outside I heard Stephanie ask the limo driver in a hushed whisper: “Is she okay?”

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

Stephanie later told me that Larry almost raced outside with me, but that he was delayed for about thirty seconds because Stephanie grabbed his sleeve and started pestering him for more details. Her first question to him was “Is she okay?” which she told me she had asked out of fear that there was something either physically or mentally wrong with Catherine on some permanent basis. I wasn’t there to witness the conversation, but here’s what Stephanie reported to me. The amount of self-condemnation and regret Stephanie employed when she told me the story of her silly behavior makes me believe she probably got most of it right.

Somewhat disturbed by Stephanie’s abruptness, Larry stood there with his sleeve still in her grip and reluctantly replied: “She broke her ribs last week, so it’s difficult for her to walk and climb stairs right now.”

That answer relieved Stephanie, so --not letting go of him-- she pressed him even further for more details about this mysterious and beautiful woman:

“Is she rich?” Stephanie asked with a hopeful grin.

“Um, well, in a word: yes,” he said, wriggling his sleeve out of Stephanie’s grasp and trying to cut a side-stepping circle around Stephanie and to the door. “But we don’t actually talk about people’s money. It’s not professional for us to do that.”

“Are they in love?” she stepped toward him. “I saw them kissing! Are they in love? Please say yes!”

“Um,” Larry was now backing toward the door. “Maybe. I really don’t know. But I have to get out there and help. It’s my job.” He turned and left while Stephanie went back to the window and gawked at us even further.

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

As Larry shut the passenger door of the idling car, I helped the gift-bearing Catherine up the steps, secretly cursing myself for never getting around to installing a deck with a proper wheelchair ramp. She suddenly glanced around at Larry who now stood beside the car, awaiting instructions.

“Larry,” she said, “Please wait here for few more minutes.” He nodded and leaned back against the driver’s door.

Once I got Catherine into the office door, Stephanie leaped over to her own desk and yanked forth her chair --which was the nicest out of all the rolling office chairs we had-- wheeling it dutifully forward toward Catherine. My secretary did this in the fastest, most efficient use of motion I had ever seen her display in her two years of employment with me.

“Thank you so much,” Catherine smiled at Stephanie and accepted the chair from her eager hands. Stephanie smiled back with a shy nod as I helped Catherine sit down. Stephanie pressed her nervous hands against her chest and started wringing them, still smiling as she watched Catherine settle into her newly-seated position.

“I’m Catherine,” she finally said to Stephanie, extending one hand up to the girl. “What’s your name?”

“Stephanie,” my secretary beamed down to Catherine, tugging at the many silver and black rings on her fingers and dropping her eyes to the floor in coy embarrassment.

“I’m sorry,” I jumped into the conversation with embarrassment. “I lost my manners. Stephanie, this is Catherine Warren, a very nice lady from Lancaster County. Catherine, this is my secretary Stephanie Baines.”

“Hello, Stephanie,” Catherine nodded, still balancing the present on her lap. “Those are such beautiful rings. Where did you get them?”

“Most of them I got from a pawn shop,” she gave a slight and timid shrug of just one shoulder while grinningly looking at the rings of her nervous hands. “But this one I got from my great-grandfather,” she pointed with more smiling timidity to a flat rectangle of black onyx set on a silver-looking band with a diamond embedded in the onyx. She weakly lifted that hand to make the ring more visible, but her giggling coyness somewhat undermined that intention. “Most people think it’s silver, but it’s really white gold.” At this point, she finally got up the nerve to look Catherine directly in the eye. But as the grinning Stephanie continued to speak, she started pivoting her entire torso --from shoulders to hip bones-- left and right repeatedly, back and forth, like the agitator of a top-loading clothes washing machine. Yet she did this while keeping her eyes still fixed upon Catherine and still gesturing awkwardly to her great-grandfather’s ring.

Catherine reached out to Stephanie’s limply dangling hand and grasped it, steadying its wavering position, examining the ring more closely. Stephanie stopped pivoting and held her breath in a momentary flash of surprise from Catherine’s clasping of her hand. But Stephanie’s surprise got slowly replaced by a look of ... hope.

“What an exquisite piece of workmanship.” Catherine smiled and finally released Stephanie’s hand. “You make sure you hang on to that ring. It’s a true family heirloom.”

Stephanie burst back into her grin, but with a new boldness behind it. “I will,” she nodded with a sudden energy, and now her smile had broadened so much that her tongue ring was clearly visible. The silliness had now left and an actual poise took its place.

I have to admit I had never seen such a childish display of behaviors in Stephanie before. Getting past all the cliché goth-chick trappings --such as her dozens of body piercings, black leather and lace clothing, and the black hair and lipstick contrasted against deathly white face makeup-- she really was a very sweet young woman. I hired her because she lived in the neighborhood and majored in office administration at Temple University, so I felt she had a lot to offer. While I was at first put off when she showed up for the interview wearing --among other classic goth badges of honor-- a black leather dog collar around her neck with spiked studs sticking out of it, she pulled an awesome interview and her resume included years of experience with more than a dozen of the most important specimens of professional business software. For the entire two years that she worked for me, she repeatedly came to work full of smiles and cheeriness despite the heavy eyeliner on her lids and the studded leather bracelets on her wrists. This seeming contradiction between goth and sunshine, darkness and light, always baffled and amused me. And in a somewhat fatherly concern I sometimes wondered about the possibility of there still being a little girl inside of her buried underneath all that makeup and hair coloring. So after over twenty-four months of befuddlement from my secretary’s ongoing dichotomy of being the cheerful death-walker, it took the mesmerizing presence of my beautiful Catherine to prompt the 22-year-old Stephanie into suddenly acting like the 8-year-old little girl I always suspected might lurk beneath the surface.

Catherine turned to me again.

“Have you any other employees I could meet?” she asked me.

“Uh, no. Just me and Stephanie --Stephanie and me,” I corrected myself. Stephanie could not get that grin off her face. And she now found the courage to look Catherine up and down from head to toe, examining every aspect of her clothes, hair and makeup.

“I hope I’m not interrupting your work day,” Catherine said to me apologetically.

“Uh, no,” I assured Catherine. “In fact, we’re kinda’ slow today and so I was just about to give Stephanie the rest of the day off.”

Stephanie shot her head up at me in shock, her smile nowhere to be found.

“With pay,” I added giving Stephanie an overtly knowing glance. But Stephanie’s shock didn’t turn back into the smile I hoped it would. Instead she morphed into actual sadness now. “Not vacation pay, just regular company pay,” I clarified, certain that would cheer her up. “So that means the rest of the afternoon is all yours, Steph.” But Stephanie’s sad eyes remained fixated on me, pleading for me to change my mind.

I was growing embarrassed by Stephanie’s resistance and wasn’t sure how to make her leave. Finally Catherine asked: “Stephanie, how far away do you have to travel? Can my driver perhaps give you a lift?”

Stephanie’s eyebrows arched up to the sky as her mouth opened wide with a gasp of delight. For the second time I witnessed her eyebrow ring pivot sideways. “Are you serious?” She could hardly even breathe.

“Of course, dear,” Catherine smiled and then took out her phone. She hit a button which I later learned was one of her speed-dial buttons set up as an automatic page. Within seconds the office door opened and in the doorway stood her driver.

“Did you need me, Mrs. Warren?” he asked, lingering in the door.

“Yes, Larry,” she said. “Could I possibly ask you to please take this young lady to wherever she wants to go? And then could you please meet me back here by five-thirty?”

“Absolutely,” he nodded, and then returned to the car.

Stephanie looked back at Catherine and said: “Thank you so much!” But then the sadness returned, mixed with a hint of hope. “Maybe I can see you again some other time then?”

Catherine smiled up to her and nodded: “That would be wonderful. I’ll let you know next time I’m in the neighborhood.”

Stephanie’s final smile absolutely radiated with ecstasy. She grabbed her backpack and jacket then hurried for the door. But --much to my frustration-- she stopped short in the open doorway and turned one last time to wave at Catherine. “Bye, Catherine! So good to meet you! I look forward to meeting you again.”

“And I you!” Catherine waved back. “Have a great day!”

Stephanie allowed herself just one more giddy display of wordless yet obvious silliness as a response to Catherine’s farewell. Then she finally left. After she was gone I laughed and slinked down with a sigh upon the fax desk, just beside the brown, still-closed foot locker.

“She’s a lovely young lady,” Catherine nodded to me.

“I agree,” I nodded back. “I’m lucky to have her. She really whipped this place into shape when I hired her two years ago.”

Outside the window I saw Larry open the passenger door to allow Stephanie to enter with a giggle. When the gentle yet audible closing of the car door reached our ears, Catherine turned her head and also looked out the window. The limo drove off. She turned back to me and smiled.

“Is that your son?” she asked, gesturing to my cluttered desk where a school portrait of smiling Jason stood upright.

“Yeah,” I nodded proudly. “That’s my boy. Jason Ryan Walczak.”

“He looks like you,” she beamed.

“Everyone seems to agree,” I said. “But he’s got his mom’s blue eyes.”

“Would you like to open the first of your two presents now?” she asked, holding forth the large gift wrapped box in her hands.

I hesitated, somewhat fearful of what the package contained. My failure to get her a present gnawed deeply at me, and now my fear of her getting me the gift to end all gifts would at last be tested.

I held my breath and accepted the box from her grasp. It was light for its size, so it most likely was a garment. I ripped off the paper and popped open the lid. Inside the box, underneath a few folds of tissue paper, I found the same wool letterman jacket she had originally given me when I fixed her oil tank. In heartfelt relief I looked up and smiled at her with a sigh.

“Thank you,” I nodded. “I actually missed this.” And in a sincere gesture of gratitude I slipped off my leather jacket and replaced it with the letterman jacket. “Wow! It still fits too!” I laughed.

“You’re welcome,” she nodded back, also laughing.

And then I eyed the unopened footlocker, somewhat puzzled. She had said “two” presents just a moment ago, and yet two presents wasn’t what she mentioned earlier. So now that I had safely gotten past the first hurdle of what merely turned out to be a jacket, this second present likewise threatened to prove far beyond my own ability to reciprocate.

“As for the other present,” she said “please don’t open it yet.”

“No?” I asked. “Any hints as to what it is?”

“It’s a little more than I originally intended --but what price can I possibly place upon my being alive?” And now I knew for certain that this second gift cost far more than a mere jacket. She continued: “So with that in mind, I must once again insist: you are free to sell it if you like, but please --as I stipulated before-- please don’t ever try to give it back to me.”

“So ... when do I get to open it?”

“After I’ve gone.”

I glanced at the clock: two-fifteen. Larry would be back by five-thirty to pick up Catherine.

“That’ll be too soon,” I said.

She smiled at me. “Do we really have to say good-bye for good?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, looking away.

“Well then,” she sighed, “let’s stick with the original plan: this needs to be a good-bye worth remembering.”

I laughed and looked back to her again. I got off the desk and walked to her chair. I stood closely in front of her and took both her hands and held them, caressing them.

“You’re sure I won’t hurt you?” I asked softly.

“No,” she shook her head with a smile, causing me a moment of worry and also causing me to stop the hand-caressing. She continued: “I’m not sure at all about that. I’ve found it difficult enough to avoid hurting myself these last few days. But I am confident you’ll try your very best not to. And that’s good enough for me.” Her answer relieved me and my worry gave way to my former smile. I resumed stroking her hands.

“I don’t have any protection,” I shook my head, still caressing her hands.

“I have that taken care of,” she assured me.

I nodded. I stopped the hand caressing and merely held her hands now. Then I leaned over and kissed her.

-------------------End of Chapter 32--------------------

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


The following is a draft of Chapter 31 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 completing the call to her driver, she pulled a mirror from her purse with a set of tissues. She started dabbing gently at her eyes. She also ignored me. I started pacing nervously.

Within minutes the limo pulled up to the nearby curbing --about ten yards behind us-- and the uniformed driver jumped out to open the passenger door. I helped Catherine rise from the bench and slowly walked her toward the car. On the way there she turned to me and said:

"Please do me the honor of letting me drive you back to your shop office and giving you your bonus."

I nodded.

"And your ... gift," she added. While I was pretty sure she didn’t intend it, that final statement made me feel horrible. I merely nodded a second time.

I helped her with much care and caution to get into the limo without invoking any pain. I then climbed in beside her, seated at her left, and watched her breathe shallow breaths of discomfort. As we drove, she stroked her ribs with her eyes closed.

"Are you in much pain?" I asked.

"Only a little," she whispered, her eyes still closed. "But would you let me hold your hand again while I deal with that pain?"

I slowly reached out and touched the tops of her knuckles. With her eyes still closed she turned her hand up into mine and we again laced our fingers. After a moment of this she surprised me by pulling my hand toward her with a minor amount of force. So I responded by sliding over on the seat and sidling up right beside her. As before, she barely leaned her head against my shoulder --once again probably because she wanted to avoid bending sideways. So I again nestled myself as closely as possible against her without making her tilt too much. With no hesitation I let my arm go around her back and I leaned my cheek down against her temple. She leaned against me just like she did back on the park bench. Her perfume proved all the stronger there in the enclosed car and grew downright intoxicating. I shut my eyes and breathed deeply of it.

"What is that amazing perfume you’re wearing?" I whispered.

"It’s called ‘Joy,’" she whispered back. "Do you like it?"

"Yes," I said.

"But," she paused before finally saying it: "we have to say good-bye soon." She said it with a quiet almost emotionless tone. I opened my eyes and looked down at her face to get a better read of her emotions. She had her eyes tightly shut.

"If we say good-bye," she whispered, eyes still shut, "we could either make it a short good-bye, or a long one. That’s up to you."

Before I could even begin trying to figure out what she meant by that, the car turned right and the force caused her to shift more heavily into my arms. I sensed her body grow tense during the momentary torque caused by the turn, and I also heard her wince in pain with a slight hiss through her teeth. I did my best to buffer the full brunt of the turn upon her body.

The car then stopped and the limo driver opened his door and got out.

"We’re here," she whispered to me right as the limo driver opened my door for me. She remained in my arms, eyes tightly shut, a tear sliding from one of them.

I hesitated while holding her, and grew self-conscious over the limo driver’s presence. So I slowly released her and exited. As I stood in the open limo door I briefly surveyed my shop yard, looking around self-consciously at it, feeling very low class and blue collar amid this ugly albeit orderly collection of pipes and grimy industrial equipment. A carpenter’s work shop with the aroma of sawdust had this place beat by a mile.

I stooped over to help her step out. I watched her wipe her now-open eyes with the edge of her finger. Then she reached out her hand to mine so that I could help her out. I again used as much gingerly care as possible in assisting her passage through the car door.

As I slowly helped her to achieve a full stand right in front of me, I kept my arms loosely around her. She didn’t resist that and even reciprocated. She leaned against me, hugging me tightly, her face against my shoulder. I resisted the urge to tighten my own encircling arms for fear of hurting her.

We remained in each other’s arms for a long while, ignoring the limo driver who merely stood there in total silence, waiting. The engine sat idling.

"As I explained earlier: I have a gift in the trunk for you," she whispered to my shoulder. "I insist that you take it. It’s yours to do with as you see fit --even sell it if you like. The only thing I ask is that you never try to give it back to me. That would deeply hurt me if you did."

"Okay," I nodded. But the same fears again crept back --this time with greater certainty, topped off with mountains of guilt-- that her gift most assuredly had to be expensive.

"Thank you," she said, then tipped her head away from my shoulder and looked me in the eye. Her tears were gone, and her voice regained only some of its former strength. "As for that good-bye," she explained, "we can either say good-bye very quickly right here in the parking lot, and then I instantly drive away and never see you again. Or," her voice found just a slight measure more of its former strength, and a meager smile came to her face as she looked me dead I the eye, "we can go into your office and say good-bye very slowly, and I can STILL drive away later today and STILL never see you again. But at least then I would have a good-bye worth remembering, and hopefully you would too."

My eyes widened at her proposition. I glanced sideways at the limo driver --his face remained as blank and empty as a freshly painted wall. And then I noticed the office window just over his shoulder where Stephanie had her grinning face pressed against the glass. She saw me and waved like the giddy school girl she was. She followed that wave with an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

I turned back to Catherine and said: "Your ribs are still mending. Your injury is less than a week old. I might unintentionally hurt you."

"You’ll have to be very careful then," she smiled.

"Wouldn’t my apartment be better than the office?"

"I’m not ashamed of who you are. And this place is very much a part of who you are. There’s no place on Earth better than here."

I took a breath at her words, then spontaneously kissed her.

-------------------End of Chapter 31--------------------


The following is a draft of Chapter 30 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


“Yes,” I said to Catherine while we still sat on the park bench in Washington Square, “I have seen empty supermarket shelves.”

“There’s never more than three days worth of ‘normal’ food purchasing on the shelves of the nation’s supermarkets,” Catherine said. “And during times of ‘panicked’ food purchasing, such as with impending hurricanes or snow storms, the shelves usually get emptied in mere hours. It’s only the steady and reliable fleet of America ’s long haul trucks which endlessly replenishes those shelves. And that reliable fleet is about to start failing in its reliability. It’s already been proven again and again that the trucks of this nation can never be allowed to stop rolling -- even for one day -- because of how rapidly the shelves go bare. That’s why, ever since the 1960’s, it’s been illegal for the Teamsters Union to launch a full-on nationwide strike --because of that exact weak spot to our entire food distribution system.”

“If our nation’s leaders have known about that weak spot since the 1960’s, surely they have some kind of plans in place to prevent all out catastrophe.”

“They tried to come up with different plans,” she nodded. “The Lydia Project was just such a contingency plan. But as I already explained, it got scrapped. And now there’s nothing in place. No safety net whatsoever.”

“But,” I shrugged, “I don’t see us running out of oil any time soon.”

“I’m not talking about running out of oil, I’m only talking about having less of it than we used to. A permanent state of our suddenly having less oil will translate into ongoing disruptions to commerce itself --not the all-out ceasing of commerce, merely sporadic yet crippling disruptions to it, especially disruptions to the national trucking system.”

“But will this oil shortage happen any time soon? That’s my real question here. None of the oil companies are talking about any sort of impending shortages.”

“That’s because they don’t want to talk about it,” she shook her head. “The oil companies are just like any other big corporations: they have a myopic tunnel vision incapable of seeing beyond the next 18 months of profits. And as it stands now with the current escalating price of oil, they are once again very pleased with the projections for the next 18 months, and no regard at all for what comes after that 18 months. So they have no incentive to sound the alarm.”

For a moment I started to think maybe she was right. I recalled the sudden upsurge in diesel prices from July onward: the latest pump prices had it at almost eighteen dollars a gallon. Meanwhile, many of my parts distributors of late had been telling me they no longer had certain plumbing parts available because of shipping delays that lasted a week or longer, forcing them to back-order more and more items that used to be regularly in stock. Maybe there was something to what she was saying after all. But then I came back to reality and disputed her line of logic:

“Look, I’ve heard people lately talk about oil shortages happening maybe fifty years from now, but not in five years or less. And by the time fifty years gets here, we’ll have SOME kind of replacement for oil.”

“If we had fifty years, yes, but we don’t. Not anymore we don’t. This crisis WILL be five years or less. It might even start making itself evident in only one year or less. And the current systems we have in place for keeping this nation running --such as trucking and food and even medicine-- will start breaking down because of how reliant those systems are upon the oil. And there are no alternative systems available to substitute or even supplement any of those oil-reliant systems --in fact there aren’t even any alternative systems to be found in a half-completed state on anybody’s drawing boards anywhere. No ‘shovel-ready’ projects capable of surviving a future of oil scarcity. No contingency plans at all. I’m not a scientist and my major was only English lit. But my husband knew things, especially about the oil. It took me a while to wrap my brain around everything he was trying to tell me, but I eventually believed him. And I’m telling you all of this because I’m hoping you’ll be able to believe him too.”

When she made the appeal for me to believe her husband --not merely to believe her but to believe Captain Warren-- that gave me pause. If he had been the one saying all of this to me I might have accepted it --or else I might have shook my head in sorrow that he had probably been caught up in some freaked-out religious cult. I remained guarded.

“So we’ll grow our food locally,” I shrugged. “Maybe we need to do what we did back during World War II. We need to have every last American with a clump of dirt in their back yard start growing food gardens. I think we could handle that. My grandmother says that the Victory Garden movement during World War II literally saved us from starvation, so it can save us again. We can do food growing programs, start gardening societies and have community gardening centers with small government grants to let people buy gardening tools and seeds and take classes on horticulture. That would work, right?”

“Do you know how to grow food?” she asked.

I hesitated. I did not know a thing about growing food. I was raised in the blacktop jungle of Northeast Philly and no one in my family --except for my grandmother who had passed away years earlier-- grew gardens, nor even bothered with the occasional potted plant.

“I could take a class,” I shrugged.

“Do you even have a place to grow food?” she asked still further.

I again hesitated. The townhouse where MK and Jason still lived had a back yard with a southern exposure, so it was probably once possible to grow a garden there. But MK asked me to install a Jacuzzi, so all we had back there now was a small grassy play area for Jason, a brief line of flowers along the foundation, and a sprawling multi-tiered wooden deck for barbecues and Jacuzzi parties. As for my own apartment, I had no back yard at all, just a rear courtyard owned by the landlord, monopolized by the antiques shop downstairs, and it was completely paved over. And the meager 2,400 square feet of property where I had my plumber’s shop was just a shabby cracked blacktop lot, soaked clear down into the worthless sub-soil with decades of gasoline and oil drippings.

“No,” I said. “I have no place to grow food.”

“How many of your neighbors possess either the knowledge or the means to grow their own food?”

I recalled the rear view from my apartment window to the old man across the way. He tended his garden faithfully all summer, much to the fascination of Jason whenever I had him for a weekend. He and I watched that old man repeatedly as he spent hours each evening weeding and watering --and lately harvesting and canning. The old man used Mason jars for his canning enterprise right there in the open air with some kind of outdoor cooking apparatus.

“Only one that I can see,” I told Catherine. “He has a garden and he does very well with it.”

“One neighbor out of how many? Hundreds? Are his food growing efforts enough to feed your entire neighborhood?”

“Probably not,” I shook my head.

“You’re partially right that we can start growing our food again locally. But the variety of food available on a local level is dozens of times more limited than the current variety found at most supermarkets today. So there’ll be no more pineapples, no more oranges, no more bananas.”

“I think we can get along without bananas,” I said wryly.

“True, but things like sugar and coffee and cocoa will become the exclusive domain of the very rich. As for what we actually can grow here in Pennsylvania , this growing region can accommodate only a limited number of crops, and they will only be available in a state of garden freshness for a few brief weeks at harvest time. Outside of harvest time, all our produce will need to be either canned or frozen. So year-round tomatoes will be non-existent. Year-round cucumbers, year-round carrots. The current luxury of fresh vegetables 365 days a year will cease. Only the very rich will be able to eat fresh celery out of season.”

I turned my gaze from her and looked around uncomfortably.

“I think I’ve said enough for now,” Catherine sighed. “And I think you can see my overall point. Our entire society was built on something we mistakenly thought would last forever. But now that forever is about to come to an end, so will our entire way of life. This isn’t going to be merely a brief and orderly adjustment period during which we mildly tweak a few minor aspects of our food and our transportation --this is going to be a head-spinning, life-destroying restructuring to our whole civilization. The onset will be sneaky and rapid. The progression will be long and messy. It will include severe shortages of basic life necessities, most likely trigger rampant crime. And there’s no way to avert any of this, only adapt to and survive it. THAT was James’ intention for the ‘basement.’”

“You’re basically saying that we’re going to have food shortages and rioting in the streets. Looting and --”

“--Yes. And many people won’t survive.”

“Won’t survive? As in they’re going to die? Die as in ... die?” I suddenly stood up. “That’s ridiculous!” I shook my head, staring down at her. “None of what you’re talking about will ever get to THAT level.”

She paused and seemed close to tears now. She took a moment to answer. I remained standing, waiting for her reply.

“No. It’s true,” she finally said. “People are going to start dying in this country, possibly by the millions. And not just because of food. Medical supplies will grow scarce because the local pharmacies will run out of medicines and there won’t be enough trucks to deliver new drugs to them.”

“Then the government will have to do emergency distributions of medical supplies,” I said.

“How long can that last?” she asked. “They’ll have their hands full trying to get food to people. And this crisis won’t be a few months, it’s going to last for years. Our nationwide trucking fleet will start falling apart very soon, and we have no alternative method at this time for transporting goods other than the trucks.”

“What about the railroads?”

“We dismantled over fifty percent of our nationwide rail system decades ago in order to prioritize the national highway system. There’s almost nothing left to rail transport in this country, and what little remains is too and feeble and lacks the track density needed to handle a sudden resurgence of rail freight on the scale needed to offset the soon-coming failure of truck transport.”

“Isn’t there some plan underway to start manufacturing 18-wheeler trucks that run on natural gas instead of diesel?” I asked. “Won’t THAT help alleviate any of these delivery truck problems?”

“Yes, but that plan has been stalled due to the logistics not working out. Natural gas is many times more flammable than gasoline, so those trucks are essentially rolling bombs on the highways. Also, those trucks don’t have anywhere near the range that gasoline-powered trucks do. And to top it all off, such a fleet of trucks would cause an unmanageable increase in the price of natural gas, forcing some people to go without heat or cooking gas, and also forcing our gas-fired electrical generating plants to raise the price of electricity for their customers. We might even see rampant nationwide power outages.”

“From what?”

“The current nationwide electrical grid is run almost completely on fossil fuels. More than fifty percent of American electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. Another twenty percent comes from natural gas-fired plants. If we start running into shortages in coal and natural gas, we’ll start having to resort to inflicting pre-staged brown-outs on different regions, rationing the electrical supply to select towns and cities during different times of the day. And those regularly-scheduled brown-outs will prompt more and more private citizens to buy diesel-powered home back-up generators, just increasing the demand for diesel all the more.”

“There’s always solar and wind power,” I said.

“But that will barely put a dent in the current usage. Our entire society is going to have to start making sacrifices. If not, then our hospitals will suffer sporadic power outages.”

“All hospitals have backup generators,” I shook my head.

“Yes, and those back-up generators are fueled by regular diesel shipments -- shipments that will become subject to disruption once the American trucking system starts breaking down. Our regional refrigerated food warehouses will suffer sporadic power outages. And our water and sewage treatment facilities will suffer sporadic power outages too. All of that means that the level of safety to our food, the quality of our medical care, and even the sanitation of our water supply will start slipping by huge degrees. This is one giant recipe for the rapid nationwide onset of disease and pestilence. And people are going to die.”

I was getting overwhelmed. All of this was too incredible to believe.

She continued:

“Even keeping warm in the winter will become almost impossible for millions of people.”

“I’m a heating expert,” I pointed at myself. “I know how to keep warm in the winter.”

“Then you know that it requires oil.”

“There’s also natural gas,” I shrugged.

“And what do we do when that runs short?”

“Then we’ll burn wood.”

“All three hundred million of us? Even city dwellers in apartment buildings? If we switch to wood then apartment fires will break out every day in all our major cities, and within ten years there won’t be a single tree left standing on the entire continent.”

“Look, everybody and his mother is switching over to solar panels and installing wind turbines. We’re already reducing our reliance upon oil. And there’s nuclear also.”

“You can’t manufacture solar panels without using oil at the solar panel factory. You can’t manufacture wind turbines without employing oil in the smelting process for forging the very exotic metals needed for the specialized blades of the turbines. You also can’t maintain the equipment in a nuclear power plant without a supply of oil. And I haven’t even mentioned here yet the need of oil to manufacture plastics, and I’m not just referring to plastic toys either. Over ninety percent of the non-perishable medical supplies found in all hospitals are made of plastic: the plastic bags in which we store units of blood, the plastic tubes that deliver the blood out of the bags into your veins, the plastic syringes for injections, the latex gloves worn by all hospital workers. The list goes on. Our national leaders are going to have to try and prioritize which factories get the latest available shipments of Middle Eastern crude oil: do the solar panel factories get this month’s ration of oil? Or do the pharmaceutical manufacturers get it? Or do we convert it into diesel fuel so that the sewage treatment plants can turn their generators back on again and keep our municipal water supplies clean for a change? And our leaders will have to keep making that eenie-meenie-minie-mo decision every month for years to come. By the time this whole nation wakes up and realizes we should have mandated decades ago that there be no less than two solar panels mounted atop every last American house in all fifty states, the ability to manufacture solar panels won’t even be feasible for us anymore.”

“Enough!” I said, and I shouted it so loudly that I startled even myself. I saw the look of fear on her face and I suddenly felt like a brute.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, standing somewhat sideways now, unable to look her in the eye. “I just think this is all a little bit much.”

She slinked down in her seat and looked away at the playing children. I turned my full gaze back to her and waited in fear of her next words, dreading that she might ask me to leave. Instead she took her argument into a new direction, one that wasn’t merely academic but which got downright personal.

“Do you know what the First Gulf War was fought over?” she asked while still staring at the children. “The war that poisoned my husband’s body? Do you know why we even fought that war?”

I paused because this time I knew the answer, and I didn’t like it. I stood beside the bench, my hands in my pockets, not wanting to give the answer, but finally I did.

“Oil,” I said with a hint of shame.

“And,” she added, still riveted on the children, “do you know why the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor ?”

This one threw me for a loop. I had always been taught by my school teachers --as well as by every last Hollywood movie I’d ever seen on the subject-- that the Japanese simply attacked us, but I was never told why. And I never even thought to ask why. I squinted and took my hands from my pockets.

“Are you going to tell me they attacked us over oil?” I asked.

“Yes,” she turned her gaze up to me and nodded. “They attacked us over oil. And do you know how we defeated Hitler in World War II?”

“Is the answer once again oil?”

“We cut off Germany’s oil supplies in order to choke the Nazi war machine into a total standstill. They lost the war only because they literally ran out of gas. Can’t you see? Oil is the key to all of modern civilization. My husband knew this. He was a student of history. Modern democracy is made possible only because of oil, and so even democracy can’t continue to exist without it. When we lose our grip on the oil, not only are millions of people most likely going to start dying, but those who survive will either revert back to feudalism, or embrace fascism. That’s why, when I say our entire way of life is about to end in the next five years, I’m also saying that democracy itself won’t survive beyond the next five years.”

I held back my incredulity and shook my head while trying to phrase my doubt as politely as possible. “But democracy isn’t about oil or food or truck deliveries. It’s about freedom and equality.”

“Democracy merely ENABLES freedom and equality,” she said. “But trying to ACHIEVE and MAINTAIN those enablements requires an underlying energy supply. Democracy is the great equalizer only because easy access to an easy energy supply allows us the extraordinary enablement of leveling the playing field between the very strong and the very weak. But once that easy energy supply gets taken away, the playing field can’t be kept level anymore, and then the strong once again start to overpower the weak. And that’s when democracy evaporates.”

“No, that can’t be correct,” I shook my head with confidence “We didn’t even have oil back when the Founding Fathers wrote the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They had horses and buggies and burned wood for heat and candles for light. There was no oil back then. So democracy arose without oil, it will continue without oil, and you’re just plain wrong. That connection you’re trying to make between democracy and oil isn’t valid at all.”

And at that point I was quite proud of myself because I had never taken a debate class in my life. And yet I felt I did an excellent job of disarming an opposing argument.

“Instead of oil we had slaves,” was her comeback. The answer surprised me because I never considered slaves to be an energy supply. She continued: “The South had lots of slaves, and the North likewise had lots of slaves, as well as lots of hydropowered factories, which means the North had inexpensive access to an abundant supply of energy and to an easily accessible labor pool of human slaves and animal power. The North also had coal back then. And coal is a close cousin to oil, and coal was the true start of the Industrial Revolution. Coal set the stage, and then oil stole the spotlight, but it all started with the coal. And we of the North had full control of all the coal and all the hydro-powered factories, so we didn’t need the slaves as desperately as the South did. Getting rid of our own slaves was not a hardship to us and only required minor societal adjustments for us. But the South was far more reliant on them and had no hydropower or coal to fall back on. So once we took the slaves away from the South, their economy crashed –-which was the one and only point behind the entire Civil War: to take their slaves and crash their economy. And we did a very good job of that. Now if you fast-forward by 150 years here into the twenty-first century, once we lose easy access to oil, our economy will crash as well. And so will democracy itself. We’ll have to re-structure under some form of either feudalism or fascism. We’ll also probably wind up reinstituting slavery all over again too. And thus will democracy die.”

I had heard enough. I again couldn’t look her in the eye.

“Look,” I sighed while scratching my head, focusing my gaze on a neraby flower bed, “Captain Warren (or Colonel Warren, forgive me) was a great man -- not just a good man, a GREAT man. And the world is a lesser place now without him. But in spite of whatever he might have thought, here in the twenty-first century we’ve reached a level of technology so sophisticated that it can help us through whatever crisis may be coming.”

“No we don’t,” she seemed saddened at my conclusion. “Technology can do many things, but the one thing that no technology can ever do is function without energy. All forms of technology are useless without an energy source to set that technology into motion. A lawnmower is no good without a half gallon of gas in it. A tractor on a farm is worthless without five gallons of diesel in it. And forgive me for borrowing from a fictional television show, but even the USS Enterprise --as brilliant a piece of technology that it is-- is just a useless hunk of metal floating lifelessly through space without its dilithium crystals.”

“Technology is the future,” I shook my head, not even sure where I had come up with such a trite sounding phrase.

“No,” she said sadly. “You have it backward: technology is merely the cart, but energy is the horse. Ten thousands carts are nothing but a lot of useless trash cluttering up the landscape, but ten thousand horses will win a war. Ten thousand horses will plow millions of acres of farm land. Ten thousand horses will transport goods across the continent and keep your nation’s economy alive. Ten thousand carts are just a worthless waste of wood without something to make those carts move. It’s no accident that when we talk about how much power an automobile engine is capable of, we measure it in units called ‘horsepower.’ But that measurement is only what the engine can do after you put the gasoline into it. Deprive the engine of the gas and all you have left is a rusting collection of pistons disintegrating in a junk yard.”

“That’s not what I--” I didn’t even know how to excuse myself or who to blame for my inability to accept these ideas of hers, so I groped for my words, getting angry at myself. “--not what I was ... told ... in ... in school,” I finally said, and after I was able to spit that out I felt quite stupid for blaming my ignorance on my school teachers of all people. “It’s not what any book or magazine I’ve ever read has said,” I continued to make my appeal to the presumed reliability of various other corners of society that I thought could be reasonably relied upon for accurate information. “And it’s not even what any news show or TV show or movie --even Star Trek-- has ever said. Technology has always been held up by teachers and journalists and even Hollywood as the key to civilization, not energy. ‘Technological superiority’ has always been the phrase invoked when discussing military strength and industrial power and our hopes for the future. As for ‘energy superiority,’ I don’t think I’ve ever even heard anyone anywhere mention such a thing. And I don’t even know if the expression ‘energy superiority’ even exists in anyone’s vocabulary. How can there be such a lack of--” I didn’t even know what the correct word might have been, so I hesitated as I tried to pinpoint it, “--such a lack of ... of awareness on all this by the people in our society who are supposed to know about this sort of thing? Why do they all keep talking up technology decade after decade, but completely leave out any treatment on the issue of energy?”

“There isn’t one single nation in the history of humanity,” she began a new leg of her argument, “that came to greatness due to superior technology. The true winners found in human history achieved greatness due to the superior harnessing and employment of human and animal labor, or else the superior harnessing and employment of powerful energy supplies. Technology merely grows out of our increasing sophistication in energy usage, not the other way around. And once we of the twenty-first century start coming up short on our one and only energy supply, we’ll be forced to return to the harnessing of human and animal labor -- which really means we will return to the enslavement of human and animal labor.”

“But,” I persisted, “you’re not answering my question: Why does technology always get harped on as being so important, and NOT energy?”

“I don’t know,” she sighed, almost in defeat. “Maybe because it’s easier and more exciting to visually portray technology in a science fiction movie. But the depiction of energy is too abstract to try and put on a movie screen, and even kind of boring. So technology always gets the glory, but technology is merely a pretender to the throne of true greatness. Meanwhile, oil is the only viable energy source available at this time to keep the machinery of this very modern civilization of ours going. And now the oil is starting to run short --but it’s not running out, it’s only running short, and ‘short’ is all we need to have happen to throw a monkey wrench into the works for good. The United States Army did study after study from the 1950’s up through to the present. And each study pointed to the eventual shrinkage of our oil supply, and thus the eventual demise of our entire way of life. Not even nuclear energy can shoulder the same weight as oil. The US Army recommendations that came out of all those studies from the 1950’s onward said that we needed a minimum of twenty years of intensive R&D into alternate energies, plus three trillion dollars of government spending to try and mitigate a society-wide solution to the coming era of oil scarcity. My husband read every last one of those Army sponsored studies. And that’s why he did what he did.”

“Where exactly are all these secret Army reports?” I asked. “Locked up in some vault in the Pentagon?”

“I never said they were secret reports,” she said with an air of shock and even hurt. “Those reports are all public record, available for anyone to read on any one of hundreds of web sites, including the Army’s web site itself. They’ve all been freely available to the public for decades.”

“And our leaders haven’t said anything to us all this time? And not one journalist has ever done a news story about all this?”

“We had only one president in US history who tried to tell America the truth about a soon-coming era of energy scarcity and the eventual demise of our economy. But we didn’t want to hear it, so by an almost unanimous vote the nation kicked him out of office because (afterall) ‘It’s about the economy, stupid.’ As for our journalists, hundreds of in-depth books and documentary films exist on this subject. And hundreds of television news clips ranging from four minutes to an entire hour in length likewise exist on it."

"And yet nobody knows about this?"

"The message keeps getting lost and sidestepped and it never sticks in anyone’s mind for very long due to a lot of factors, including the lack of most people’s ability to conceive of just how huge and unmanageable the entire problem is. It’s beyond our ability to comprehend losing this way of life so we simply won’t let ourselves comprehend it. And that inability exists not just with laymen, but even our journalists. So ALL of our leaders have failed us, from every corner of society where we imagine true leadership ought to exist. Another really sad factor is the lack of even one celebrity endorsement of this issue. No one with the notoriety of Al Gore has ever adopted this issue as their pet cause. So the majority of the entire journalistic profession glosses over the problem as just a second rate sensationalist blip without enough Four Quadrant Appeal to draw a viewership worth bothering with. In other words: Rome is burning and it’s not just Nero who’s fiddling, it’s also Socrates, Plato and Aristotle who are looking the other way too.”

I paused and I again almost wanted to believe her. But a deep nagging in me refused to let me embrace these ideas with total acceptance. That deep nagging included my inability to conceive of trying to enter into any other way of living than what I had grown up with: hot and cold running water, television, refrigeration. I especially couldn’t conceive of trying to protect Jason from a future life of no such amenities. And as for MK: she would demand the judge have me declared incompetent and ask for all my visitation rights to be permanently revoked. I had to preserve my previous conception of the future if for nothing else than my need to be with my son.

“Even if it’s as bad as you say it is,” I persisted, “somebody somewhere in our scientific community is probably working on a solution. So we’ll pull through. We always do. We’re a very resourceful nation of people and we just need some time. And I still say we have plenty of time because any kind of true oil shortage is a full fifty years away.”

“We already had our fifty years. We’ve known about this for MORE than fifty years, so we’ve had all that time and then some to come up with a replacement energy source. That fifty years has come and gone now, and we did absolutely nothing about it for those five decades except burn even more oil. We’re fifty years late and three trillion dollars short of a solution. Time is now up, and the United States Treasury is completely bankrupt, so even if we tried to do something, we’re financially incapable of it now. The oil fields are all petering out and the oil companies are scrambling to get at the last viable fields --fields that they'll exhaust in no time. We’re staring down a rapidly burning fuse of less than five years with an irreversibly dying economy sputtering all around us. So any attempts at either mitigation or contingency would be pointless at this late date. The only realistic path now is triage.”

She stopped talking. She merely looked at me and waited.

I was on information overload and wasn’t able to digest the massiveness of what she was saying. But still: it HAD to be wrong. So I just kept countering her.

“We’ll adapt,” I shrugged, not even sure if I believed myself anymore. “We always adapt, especially when it makes sense to adapt.”

“No we don’t,” she shook her head. “If that were true the United States would have switched over to the metric system three generations ago. But we kept resisting metric all these decades because it was more profitable for big corporations (as far as all short-term considerations went) to stick with the old system quarter after quarter and fiscal year after fiscal year --another fine example of that stubborn myopia. And this situation with the oil is yet more of the same profit-driven and government upheld myopia incapable of seeing beyond the next 18 months of market performance. We’re going to lose everything, Mr. Walczak. Our entire civilization is about to start seizing up and splintering right before our eyes. James had no delusions that he could stop what was coming. He was merely trying to prepare for it. As I said: the time for mitigation and contingency is over, and now we need to take up the regrettable position of triage.”

I stood there and looked away. I couldn’t speak anymore. After an awkward pause she sighed.

“I’ve ruined everything,” she said quietly. I turned back and saw her shake her head with a sad ironic smile. “What a pleasant afternoon this was up until ten minutes ago. I’m so sorry I chose to get so serious. I knew I should have stopped with just the food part of the lecture. But I got carried away. I’m sorry for not having the good sense to restrain myself.”

I still said nothing. I was mentally frozen.

“I’d like to call my driver now,” she said while poking through her purse. “He’ll bring the car around. He can drive us to your shop, and then I’ll give you your bonus.”

As she went through the motions of taking out her cell phone, it slowly dawned on me that I hadn’t realized earlier that she came that day in the limo. She had only mentioned “the car” to me, not clarifying that it was really the limousine. But now that I learned for the first time that day that the limo was involved, I slowly remembered yet one more painful item among all of Doctor Tuxedo’s impossibly detailed knowledge about Catherine and me: he somehow became privy to the fact that Catherine and her driver had originally picked me up from the diner. While it’s true that the good doctor initially learned about that limousine ride when Catherine called the limo company on her cell phone in the tack room right in front of him, the details about the 24-hour diner were (so far as I knew) never divulged to him. So he either had a very good hacker at his disposal, or else he had an “in” with someone who worked at Pryor’s Limousine Service, or maybe even both. So today’s encounter with her would assuredly show up on his radar screen.

“You ... you came here today in your limo?” I fumbled with the words.

“Yes,” she looked up from her phone to me with a self-conscious laugh. “I hope you don’t think I was simply being pretentious. The truth is that with my injury I can’t drive yet. I never knew you needed your ribs to drive a car, but you do. So I can’t drive --not this week.”

My lunch with Catherine had now become an official threat to my son. There was no way to hide any of this from the good doctor and his many tentacled resources. So when I combined my fears for Jason with the dizzying load of doom-saying she had so fervently dumped upon me just now, what I did next came far easier than I imagined it could.

“I can’t see you again,” I suddenly blurted out.

She paused in surprise with the phone still to her ear.

“I’m sorry,” she said to the phone, “I’ll call you back.” After lowering it again she stared at me in quiet devastation.

“I didn’t mean to scare you,” she shook her head with tears forming.

“You didn’t scare me,” I shook my own head. But that wasn’t really true.

“Of course I did,” she looked away with a wry smile. “Like a bloody-damned Jesus freak out to save your soul, I just couldn’t shut up with my urgent warnings regarding the soon-coming apocalypse.”

In the next moment of awkward silence I summoned a very shortened version of the speech I had been preparing for days now. “The truth is that I need to protect my son from something that’s compromised my life just recently. And if I continue to see you I could expose him to that terrible situation. I know that doesn’t make sense because I’m being deliberately cryptic with the details. The most I can tell you is my ex-wife has been very vindictive and has a part in this dilemma I face. But I love my son more than anything in this world. If I could keep seeing you without any harm to him I would, but this situation concerning my need to protect him is out of my hands.”

I expected her to ask me for details, but strangely she didn’t. She turned her head away right as the tears started falling. I now felt more horrible than I anticipated.

“I heard the hesitation in your voice when I called you this past Sunday night,” she said to the ground. “I knew there was something wrong. I knew there was a possibility that you’d ....” She didn’t finish. After another long pause she continued. “I’ve been calling you ‘Mr. Walczak’ all this time. I was getting ready to ask your permission to start calling you ‘Peter.’ But now I can see that I must leave it at ‘Mr. Walczak.’ And, believe it or not, I came here today prepared for exactly that possibility.”

“Mrs. Warren,” I said, “I’m more sorry than you might think. I enjoyed our time together as well. I wish I could change what’s happened. But I can’t and my son takes precedence over everything. And I make no apologies for prioritizing him over me.”

“Well then he’s very lucky to have Peter Walczak as his father,” she said, then followed it with a sniff.

“I never liked ‘Peter,’” I suddenly said in a near-mumble. “It’s too formal for me. So I prefer ‘Pete.’”

“‘Peter’ is a very noble name,” she said to a nearby tree. “It’s a name of kings and popes and conquerors. But ‘Pete’ is a mere abbreviation, and I do not believe you are a man who should be subjected to mere abbreviation.”

No one in my entire life had ever given me such a compelling sales pitch on my formal name. And putting aside all her visual and physical cues such as her smiles and her glances and especially her wonderful time of holding my hand earlier, this marked her first verbal cue directed at me --actual spoken words-- indicating she truly loved me. My heart was now breaking and the only thing that allowed me to hold fast to this despicable task of telling her to get out of my life was the insurmountable degree of full-on insanity that she’d been spouting at me a few moments ago.

“That’s got to be the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me about my name,” was all I could say.

“It wasn’t your name I was ultimately referring to,” she whispered through her tears.

And then she lifted the phone again and called her driver back.

-------------------End of Chapter 30--------------------

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


The following is a draft of Chapter 29 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


It had only been two winters ago when a huge snow storm struck Philadelphia . It lasted over 24 hours with nonstop snowfall and paralyzed the entire region. The City’s snow plows couldn’t handle the rapid accumulation, and every street and road became impassable. After the first six hours MK and I gave up on shoveling the driveway and the front walk of our townhouse.

By six AM the next morning, 22 inches had already hit the ground, and the snow just kept on falling. With school closed and the entire City shut down, MK and I both knew we’d be spending the day with Jason as a family. By seven-thirty AM, MK poked her head into the family room where Jason and I sat in our pajamas playing video games. She informed me there was no bread for breakfast. I grinned with a shrug and said “So, let them eat pancakes.” And MK laughed right out loud with a laugh I hadn’t heard from her in months. With a grin and a dance in her step she promptly started mixing pancake batter. It was a relief to be able to get an actual laugh out of her since she and I had been grumbling at each other so much lately.

But then, as eight-year-old Jason was helping me set the breakfast table, he tried to get both the milk and the pancake syrup out of the fridge at the same time.

Now I thought I had done a pretty smart thing the day before when I closed the shop early in anticipation of the coming snow storm and picked up two whole gallons of milk on the way home. But MK made Swedish meatballs for dinner so we had already gone through over a half a gallon before midnight. And then for breakfast MK used another pint to make her pancake batter. So when Jason went to the fridge he didn’t realize his mother already had the open gallon jug next to her on the counter as she cooked. So while I was setting plates, he grabbed the other jug --the unopened and completely full one-- right out of the fridge. Between the awkwardness of the pancake syrup bottle and the nearly ten pounds of that heavy milk jug, Jason dropped them both. The plastic gallon jug burst open on the floor at his feet, spattering his legs with milk and sending a rapid stream of the white liquid surging across the floor to me.

While he wasn’t injured in any way he still started crying, and MK ran and consoled him. But she also snarled at me for letting him lift the jug on his own. I wordlessly cleaned up the milk and then --without having eaten any breakfast-- I donned my boots and coat and headed out into the city in search of an open supermarket. “Get some bread while you’re at it,” she said with a snort as I headed out the door.

While on the first few lengths of sidewalk, I struggled through over two feet of snow, pumping my legs upward then downward again into the wet heavy drifts, wishing I had actual snow shoes. After only ten strides I could see that the sidewalks were useless so I stuck to the street itself. The plows hadn’t been by our part of the city in almost five hours so the depth of snow on the streets exceeded a foot for most of the time, again requiring me to pump my legs up and down.

I walked in near-solitude under the falling onslaught of tiny white flakes, not a single person around me for blocks at a time. I saw not one moving vehicle on any street and only encountered the occasional pedestrian who likewise struggled in the deepening snow. The streets had many large mounds lining the curbs -- cars all buried under the snow since their owners knew better than to try uncovering them.

Every store I came to was closed -- every supermarket, every convenience store, every fruit stand. All were closed because the owners and employees were incapable of getting to work. Restaurants likewise were closed. I peeked into the front windows of the closed food stores, hoping to spot an employee who might take a bribe to let me in, I saw that the shelves lay completely empty. Every shop had been stripped bare the night before by prudent city dwellers who (like me) cut out of work early and bought gallons of milk and (unlike me) loaves of bread. Then after the milk and bread disappeared from those shops, the jugs of spring water, the cans of soup and the boxes of pasta went. Finally the soft drinks, Pop Tarts and Cheeze Doodles got snatched up out of desperation by the late comers. Non-food items like birthday candles, diapers and batteries also went quite fast, as did medical supplies like aspirin, rubbing alcohol, and cough syrup. But then odd items like scotch tape and brown paper lunch bags, even ballpoint pens got snatched up as well. The final emptying of the stores consisted of sales to people who perhaps needed those items, and also by those people who had no need of them at all of those things, but who were so frustrated at the lack of milk and bread that the act of just buying something --anything-- lent a false sense of control over their predicament. Those pathetic spurts of “comfort-driven consumerism” were the last push that emptied the shelves down to practically nothing.

I continued plodding through the snow for many blocks, asking the rare pedestrian if they knew of any store that was open, explaining to each new person that I had a wife and a young child at home in need of milk and bread. But all of them shook their heads with the news they too were unable to locate milk and bread for their own families.

I finally found one man carrying a brown grocery bag. He said there was a mom & pop bakery ten blocks north, run for over 40 years by an old Italian couple who still lived above the shop. He further said the bakery sold milk and butter, but they were almost out of that so I needed to hurry. I started heading north.

Normally I would have achieved ten blocks in mere minutes, but that morning it took me almost half an hour. I paused during that northward journey and tried to call MK to report my intended quest in the north, but the cellular service was down for some reason. As I huffed and puffed and replaced my useless cell phone back into my jacket pocket, I suddenly saw a huge silent blur pass me from behind: a man on skis had just whizzed right by, a backpack full of food on his back.

I finally turned onto the street that the man with the grocery bag had named for me. And I spotted an unmoving line of people stretched out the door of an Italian bakery. I trudged over and got on line. The sidewalk in front of the bakery was being endlessly cleared by a pair of young boys armed with shovels and rock salt, presumably relatives of the couple who ran the bakery.

After fifteen minutes of waiting and after a dozen more people had gotten on line behind me, the line progressed to where I finally made it into the door. But my fellow line-waiters and I were now informed that the latest batch of bread had sold out and we all had to wait for the next batch to come out of the ovens. While an old man with a heavy Italian accent hurried around behind the counter, mixing more dough in his mixers, an old woman stood at the register taking orders on a notepad. I pulled off my hat and unzipped my coat in the face of the unbearable heat inside the bakery, then I gave the old woman my order. In her gentle Italian accent she said not to pay me until the bread was ready. She also said that if I left the store and wasn’t there when the bread came out of the oven, I would lose my order.

A young teenaged girl --presumably another relative of the bakery owners-- had set up a folding card table in one corner of the customer waiting area. On that table she tended to a coffee urn and sold small styrofoam cups of coffee to people for a dollar a cup. I bought one and the coffee actually tasted pretty good, so I bought a second cup and a canoli to go with it.

As I finished off the pastry and sipped my coffee I glanced around at the small crowd of other customers who made up a passive human barrier, blocking my view of the wall opposite the service counter. I stretched my neck to peer around them and noticed a row of glass-front refrigerator units behind them. I politely pushed my way past the small mob to get a look at what the fridges contained.

The cold shelves of the humming fridges sat completely empty under their stark florescent lights. The signs permanently pasted onto the glass doors listed the sale prices for things like juice, milk, and butter, but they’d obviously been sold out hours ago. I asked other customers if they knew of any place else selling milk, but they all shook their heads, some with smirks and shrugs, others with eye-rolling frustration.

One man in a parka and an oily mustache held up a half gallon of milk before me and said: “I’ll sell ya’ this half gallon fer fifty bucks.”

I balked openly at the offer --normally a half gallon would sell for five. But the color of the cap --pale blue-- told me it was the correct grade of milk that my family preferred (skim milk). So perhaps I shouldn’t let this opportunity go by. I noticed a few stares from the crowd and even heard a restrained scoff of disbelief.

“Ten,” I snorted at him. The room of spectators grew silent with breathless interest.

“Forty-five,” the parka man countered. A few quiet gasps of both amusement and astonishment sifted around.

I hesitated, wondering if I could get him down to fifteen. I was just about to offer him twelve, but then another man in a Flyers cap brazenly stepped out, waving a twenty dollar bill. “I’ll give ya’ twenty for it,” the Flyers cap guy said. More gasps were suddenly sucked in right as more quiet scoffs were suddenly coughed out.

“Sold,” the parka man said, and the two completed their transaction.

I felt blindsided as I helplessly watched them swap the cash and the milk. I said nothing and slinked back to one side, angry and even embarrassed.

The parka man pocketed his money then walked quickly out of the bakery into the snow storm. But then the guy with the Flyers cap examined his new jug of twenty dollar milk and suddenly cursed.

“Hey!” the Flyers cap guy shouted. “This milk is already open!”

That revelation prompted one spectator to mumble: “Uh oh,” with a dash of nervous laughter. The rest of the crowd watched in tension-filled silence as Flyers cap guy opened the milk and took a swig. He loudly spit his swig right out again, spraying it all over the floor, causing people to jump backward from him and his spray. “It’s not even milk!” And he ran out of the bakery after parka man.

The remaining crowd looked at each other in varying shades of embarrassment. Some chuckled darkly at the incident while shaking their heads. Others grumbled their disgust.

“Yo, man,” one guy said to me, “good thing you got outbid.” Others nodded their agreement. I shrugged and turned away from their gazes. The old lady who ran the register came out to the customer area with a mop to clean up the messy spray of white stuff that obviously wasn’t milk.

I then noticed a pay phone on the wall behind a cluster of other people. As I reached for it two people simultaneously warned me the phone was dead. My hand hesitated in its reach, but then I went ahead and tried the phone anyway. But it was indeed dead. After hanging it up I asked just those two people about their cell phones, explaining my own was dead. And more than a dozen people all chimed in with the regrettable news that their own landline phones and cell phones likewise didn’t work. Some even brandished their cell phones and i-Phones, gesturing to them in regret. And then one man said “Even the MAC machines are down,” causing many heads to turn in rapt attention. (A MAC machine was really an ATM, but in Philly we called them MAC machines.)

“Are you serious?” I asked.

“Yeah,” another man nodded his agreement. “I tried to hit three different MAC’s on the way over here and they were all down.” The whole room got very quiet.

I waited with the crowd for another half an hour for the bread to come out of the ovens. The smell of it baking was wonderful. After the old man finished setting aside another rack of dough balls to rise, he cleared off one of his large wooden work tables. Upon that table he started setting up dozens of brown paper bags. After he had each bag set up like a phalanx of soldiers, the loud DING! of a small bell echoed through the store. The old man froze in his tracks at the sound of that ding, then clapped his hands together just once and shouted: “That’s my bread! Time for it to come out!” We all sighed in relief and amusement then watched him pop open the ovens. “Okay! Okay! Okay!” he shouted while sliding the pans out of the ovens. “Lots of bread for everybody! Coming right up!” He and his wife worked together as a team to methodically insert each de-panned loaf into the dozens of waiting paper bags with astonishing speed.

I paid for my bag of bread, shoved it down into the front of my coat, and headed back outside where the snow continued to fall. In thankfulness I strolled the cleared off sidewalk which the two shovel-toting boys diligently kept clean, and I took a moment to marvel at the number of people who now stood on line: easily three dozen, although I didn’t afford myself the luxury of sticking around to count. After leaving the zone of clean sidewalk that the shovel boys tended with such vigilance, I took a deep breath and returned to trudging through the snow-choked streets rather than the far-worse sidewalks.

The accumulation had only gotten deeper and my efforts to struggle along the streets became even more labored than earlier. For many blocks I could smell the slowly cooling bread under my coat where I tried to shield its brown paper from the falling snow. The heat against my chest felt good for the brief while that it lasted.

On the way back I crossed the street to a bank with a MAC machine. I fished out my wallet and was about to slide my card when I noticed the screen had a message that read: “SYSTEM TEMPORARILY UNAVAILBLE.” I put away my card and my wallet and started walking again, trying to recall exactly how much cash MK and I had on hand in the house.

As I once again passed by the same unattended stores with their abnormally empty shelves, I spotted one store that had only just suffered a broken window --I knew for certain that the break-in was barely a minute ago because the deep footprints on the sidewalk leading into the broken window were still very clear and well-defined. I paused in the street and looked through the jagged glass to see two teenagers in hoodies running through the empty aisles, carrying what was likely stolen merchandise in their arms.

After almost two hours of my snowy odyssey I finally made it back to the townhouse, out of breath and in need of a hot shower. As soon as I stomped my snow-covered feet into the side porch, MK yelled at me -- right in front of Jason -- for being gone so long, especially since the phones, the internet and the cable TV were all dead. Still standing there in my wet clothes I explained in breathless exhaustion the entire story. Then I handed her the crumpled and snow covered bag of no-longer-warm bread, apologizing that there was no milk to go with it. But then she further yelled at me because (in her opinion) between getting milk and getting bread, the higher priority was getting the milk. Then she peeked into the bag and yelled at me further because the bread wasn’t even sliced. In disgust she turned back into the kitchen, hurled the damp and sorry looking bag of bread out of her grasp and clear across the room onto a distant countertop, then opened one of the upper kitchen cabinets where she retrieved a box of powdered milk packets.

I snorted at the utter lack of gratitude for my hard-fought mission and plodded into the kitchen while still wearing my wet boots and coat. I passed by the sink where she busily mixed the powdered milk -- a sink I had installed myself -- and I went straight to the fridge. She heard my heavy footfalls and turned from her powdered milk project to yell at me for tracking snow into the house. I ignored her screamings as if she wasn’t even in the room, grabbed a can of beer out of the fridge, then plodded upstairs into the master bedroom, tracking even more snow throughout the house. I locked myself into the master bathroom for an hour to take a long bath. I had custom built that entire bathroom according to her specifications with no consideration for my own preferences. I rarely took baths, so the tub was usually her domain. But I was too tired to actually stand up and take a shower, and I was so chilled to the bone that I needed a good hot soak.

After my bath I got dressed and sat down with MK, telling her in earnest about the teenagers I had seen robbing the store. I feared that between the suddenly dead phones and the impassable streets, the police were incapable of performing their services. I also feared that because the MAC machines were down, that even decent people might start getting desperate enough to resort to thievery. I further explained that with the phones down, the electricity might be the next thing to go, and then we’d have to fall back upon wood burning for heat. (While we had gas heat, the gas furnace relied on an electric ignition system.) And to top it all off, other people throughout the City were probably also stoking up their own fireplaces as well -- some probably for the first time in years -- which would only increase the likelihood of fires breaking out in the city. And if the police weren’t able to help anyone, the fire trucks likewise wouldn’t be very helpful to anyone either. So I adamantly insisted that she and I needed to work together and protect our son and our home during this snow emergency.

She agreed. Without a word she started preparing candles and flashlights. She also filled over two dozen jars and bottles with water from the kitchen sink. While she did all that I went outside into the snow again and shoveled off our pile of firewood. From it I made multiple trips back and forth, hauling many armloads inside to the wood crib in the living room and built a fire in the living room fireplace. After vacuuming up the trail of chips and splinters from my wood hauling effort, I pulled my gun out of storage and started cleaning and oiling it. She didn’t like the gun, but I assured her that I’d keep the safety on. She rolled her eyes and returned to the kitchen to slice up the loaf of fresh bread I had bought for us earlier.

By sundown, as the snow continued to fall, she and I went through the entire house, peeking into all our normal hiding places, retrieving every scrap of hard cash we had on hand. We pooled all the “hiding place” cash with what she and I both had in our own wallets, and we came up with a total of almost four hundred dollars. We agreed to stash it all into a plastic baggie and hide it under the mattress on her side of the bed that night. But then I told her I also wanted to build a fire in the master bedroom, and that she and I needed to have Jason sleep with us in there. She agreed to that.

After I secured all the doors and windows in the house, she and I both tucked flashlights beneath our respective pillows. While she filled a portable AM/FM radio with batteries and set it up on her nightstand, I went the extra step of putting my loaded gun into the top drawer of my own nightstand. She watched me do that and said nothing.

Jason was delighted to sleep with us and gladly lay down upon the bed between us as the fireplace roared nearby. Right as MK and I jointly pulled the covers up over the three of us at once, Jason reached both his arms out from his sides and simultaneously hugged himself against MK’s arm and my arm. With his eyes closed he clutched our two arms tightly against himself and said: “We’re all together! Mommy and Daddy love each other again and now we can we stay this way forever.” MK and I looked at each other sadly and didn’t even answer him.

The snow stopped falling by seven PM the next evening with a total accumulation of 51 inches. But Philadelphia remained paralyzed for three more days due to there being nowhere to actually put all that snow. Looting commenced each night for two nights in a row with the police unable to intervene. Several fires broke out and gutted entire apartment buildings. The fire department response time for some fires was close to twenty minutes during the emergency, allowing one entire block to be lost down in South Philly. Ambulances also were unable to deliver adequate response times, and one man --a heart attack victim-- died in transit to the hospital. By the third day some neighborhoods had banded together and started massive bucket brigades of several hundred people at once, tossing the snow into the nearest river --either the Schuylkill or the Delaware, whichever was closer-- one bucketful at a time. The majority of all the stores remained closed and empty until the following Monday. The Walczak household --other than having to drink powdered milk-- remained unscathed by the emergency.

After sleeping together as a family for the rest of the week, life eventually returned to normal. The phones became available, the MAC machines came back on line, the streets were cleared of snow, the store shelves got restocked with food, my gun went back into its locked storage box, I went back to work, Jason went back to school, and MK and I started sleeping without our son again. She and I made an honest effort for a few months to sleep together with civility. We even had sex at times, although not very good sex. A wall of distance and mistrust had grown between us and the sex couldn’t breach that wall. When summer came, it was hot, we grew increasingly annoyed with each other, and we soon found ourselves sleeping on opposite sides of the mattress. By August she declared she wanted a divorce, so I moved out of the townhouse and spent two months living in the rear of my shop’s office trailer. In October I landed the apartment near Locust Street .

The following May, the judge in family court expressed his disapproval over my being so irresponsible in front of my son as to make a rude and deliberate display of tracking snow through the house in what was an undeniable temper tantrum. He further disliked my drinking a can of beer in the middle of the day. And he reprimanded me right in court for selfishly locking myself into a room away from my family for an entire hour while a severe weather emergency was taking place. His final measure of disgust came from his anger over my placing a loaded gun in the unlocked drawer next to the same bed where my son slept.

-------------------End of Chapter 29--------------------