“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.”
“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.
“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--------------------