the overgrown backyard
I embraced her once again, and we held each other, in silence, for several minutes, Scout standing quietly at our side.
So long, in fact, it was the commotion downstairs that brought us back to the real world. We joined the others and helped them stash away another large supply of food.
“How was it at the store” I asked.
Jaime replied: “There were some fifteen other customers in the store stocking up and a bunch more standing outside complaining. But I’m surprised there wasn’t a flood of people. Two more asked me how I got the car started. Is everybody just plain stupid? No one has a clue about anything.”
“It’s only ten a.m.” I stated. “I suspect most people are still at home pushing buttons on their cell phones or T.V.’s or looking under the hoods of their cars and cursing. But I can tell you this, hour by hour it’s gonna get worse. People are going to start to panic and do crazier and crazier things. There’s no police force out to stop them. City hall is probably empty, and even if people do show up, there’s nothing they can do. Power is out, and the water is about to run out with all the pumping stations down. We need to put our heads together and figure out everything we might need to stay in this house and yard with the front gates locked, for at least a month. Let’s make a list and then go out there and fill it before people wake up.”
“Then we’ll need candles like we had last night,” Scout exclaimed.
“Right Scout, I hadn’t thought of that. You’re such a great help.” I knelt and kissed her on the forehead.
“Guns” Jaime said, “and locks and chains and batteries, and a generator would be nice. Where’s the nearest hardware store?”
“Gas for the cars” Naomi added.
“No, I think we’re good on that” I replied. “First of all we won’t be driving that much. It’ll be much too dangerous when others realize we have a working vehicle. I can see us being held up at gunpoint for our car. But not yet. Everyone is still in a daze and has no idea what’s going on. We can siphon off all the gas we’ll need from dead vehicles, and that’s almost all of them.”
“But fuel is an important consideration” I continued. “How are we going to cook or heat water? There’s the fireplace in the dining room and library, some firewood but not much. We need some equipment, a barbecue and propane or charcoal. I know a hardware store where we can get all that. Jaime, let’s go.”
“Let me go with you” Naomi spoke up. We got in the car and off we sped.
There was a home improvement center just another quarter mile down from the supermarket. As we raced past it, I looked and noticed the sign had changed. It now said ‘20X’ and I could see more people going in.
“They’re waking up. We should hurry.” I exclaimed.
There was no one in front of our hardware store. It was like any other sleepy Sunday morning around ten. We pulled the car to the back alley, walked to the front and smashed the window of the front door with the tire iron I had in my hand. The security system was dead. The thought struck me that it might not be on again for many, many years.
All three of us set to work like practiced thieves. We unbolted the back door next to the car and began loading up. I grabbed a small propane grill, so as not to take up too much trunk space while Jaime brought out a case of small gas canisters and three five-gallon ones. We took some chain, locks, and we ransacked the battery and flashlight shelves. But it was a relatively small store nestled in our affluent neighborhood, so there were no generators or larger items. Naomi did find a shelf with paraffin candles and a shelf of scented ones, so we loaded up on those. Just as we were about to leave Naomi saw the sign ‘garden depot’ in the back corner of the store. She stopped us and said we had to check it out.
We ran to it. I looked about, “there’s nothing here we need.”
“I’m thinking long-term” was Naomi’s swift reply.
She was by a rack of packets, flower and vegetable seeds, grabbing every one of them and filling a large box she’d just emptied on the floor. I could see now that the wafer was working in our heads even faster than the first time, probably from practice. My mind was once again sharply focused and I could see every movement of her beautiful hands, as if in slow motion. And I was multitasking. I could hear the dim sound of the engine outside, all the while computing the minutes we’d spent in the store and the likelihood of anyone noticing our break-in. My mind was running on twenty cylinders again, like a quiet, perfectly tuned Rolls-Royce, not the sputtering, four-cylinder Volkswagen of my former life.
We arrived back at the house safely with another precious cargo of goods.
The other’s unloaded. I ran straight to Claire, standing by the back door on the deck in the sunlight, looking beautiful.
“Do you feel it yet? I’m already bright again.”
“Yes I do feel the surge, and it’s wonderful, clean, with no interference, no background roar. Thank you, Roland.” She kissed me and said: “Let’s help the others.”
As we were still unloading, I noticed a group of people collecting at our open gate. They were my neighbors. I went to greet them. It must have been the noise of my car coming and going while all the rest of the street slumbered in deathly silence.
“Hello, my friends” I said, addressing them like a Roman orator. “Do any of you have older cars, standards?”
Two of my neighbors came forward and said they did.
“Well if you can get them to an incline and push them and pop the clutch they’ll probably start. There’s the grocery store just down the street and they’re open for business. They’re gouging us on prices but if you have any cash on hand, head down there and buy all the food you can. Also, there’s the matter of water.”
“My tap just ran out” one woman said in desperation.
“There’s Strawberry Creek just two blocks from here. That’s still running. I suggest you take every container you own and fill up now. We don’t know how long this power outage is going to last. Look, let’s all work together as a community and see this thing through and be good neighbors. Go now and get all the supplies you can find of every type. If one household runs out of some item, we can trade and barter. We might be a few weeks in this predicament.”
After a brief chorus of ‘thank yous,’ I was surprised at how quickly the crowd dispersed. Only two old folks remained, standing on the sidewalk gazing at me. They were my closest neighbors, the Abbotts, in the house right above me on the lane, with a similar backyard stretching on their two-acre plot right beside mine, divided by a low stone wall. They had been longtime friends of my parents.
“Roland it’s so good to see you again” Mrs. Abbott began, “it’s been so long.”
“Yes Mrs. Abbott, I know. I should have dropped by, but I’ve been quite the recluse since my parents passed. Are you stocked up on food and water? If not, we can help.”
I turned to Naomi. “Would you be so kind as to see what the Abbotts need and what they have?”
“Gladly.” Scout was holding her hand. Off they went, the four of them, next door.
Jaime and I walked back to the kitchen and sat at the table. Lucille and Claire were neatly organizing the cans of food and the candles in the pantry.
“What else do we need?” Jaime asked.
“Hard to tell if we don’t know what’s going to happen. But wait, there is one thing we need, intelligence” I replied.
“I think we’re all stocked up on that.” He said.
“No, I mean information, an idea of what’s happening out there, communication, a working radio. I wonder if shortwave is still working?”
“If that’s what you want, I know someone” Jaime said as if waking up to the idea. “He’s a ham radio buff. He has several of them. That’s all he does all day, talk to his friends around the world. He’s our man and he’s into electronics. He can build radios.”
“Maybe we should visit him. Does he live far from here?” I asked.
“No, just on the other side of campus in a basement. He’s been there as long as I’ve known him, for decades probably. He’s on disability from the Iraq war. His name’s Charlie.”
Just as Jaime was telling me this the back-screen door swung open and Scout rushed in, Naomi not far behind.
“Roland, Naomi says you have to come over right away and see all the stuff next door,’ she said breathlessly.
“Let’s all go” I said, calling Claire and Lucille.
Even as we were walking there Naomi was excitedly filling us in: “They have a vegetable garden with tomatoes, melons, radishes, all sorts of greens and they have a gas stove in their kitchen that’s still working. But it’s the garage you have to see.”
I remembered as she said this that Mr. Abbott had a shop and used to be somewhat of a craftsman in wood. They greeted us at the door with introductions and we toured their kitchen. I saw their larder was well stocked, especially with mason jars of pickles and jams and what not. The stove did indeed come on at the click of a knob. It looked like some antique, but Lucille immediately remarked that these were the best for cooking. I had no idea how the gas supply worked but thought to myself that it might last for days, perhaps longer. And if the city gas did run out maybe there was a way to hook our stolen supply to it.
I turned to the couple and said: “I propose we join forces. If you let us use your stove, we’ll bring over the food, cook it here and have dinner together, if you don’t mind. Ours is electric, out of commission.”
“Oh, we’d love that, and we’ll share our food with you, just to have your company and protection,” was Mrs. Abbott's reply.
Next, we saw the garden, a plot some twenty feet square, with tomatoes in one corner already beginning to show and rows of other green sprouts, six inches high.
“This is her one hobby” Mr. Abbott broke in. “Years ago, it used to be three times this large. But we’re pretty ancient now, with less energy.”
Now I remembered how she and my mother would visit and spend time in each other’s yards. She would visit our greenhouse when it was a going concern, and the two would talk about flowers for hours.
Naomi spoke up, “I study horticulture at the university and could help you tend these plants.”
“I could help too” Scout added in.
They accepted their help with evident delight. It occurred to me that it would take a lot of water to nurture this garden, more than just rain. But when I brought this up, Mr. Abbott told us he might have a solution. There was a very old hand pump in the back of their yard on a decaying wooden pedestal. He said it used to work twenty years ago. We made our way to it, through a neglected tangle of overgrown bushes and branches, as if on safari. Sure enough at the very back of their lot, there it stood. Jaime and I took turns manhandling the rusty arm of the pump. At first we could barely work it, with all our weight and strength. But with each push it got a little easier and soon we were cranking it up and down like a seesaw. We did this for a good five minutes and our efforts paid off. There was a gurgling noise in the pipe and out gushed some dirty brown water, all the girls clapping their hands in glee.
With this fresh example and the matter of the car, I thought to myself: “Why do old things come through for us while everything new fails? Now they’re the most valuable things we have. I suppose it’s because older things are so simple.”
Then I remembered my mother’s dictum about old clothes, how they always came back into fashion again after a span. What a smart woman she was. Maybe her rule applied to everything.
Next, we entered the side door of the garage. It was a large two-story affair with a loft. On the far side was parked a medium sized camper, with another propane tank on the top. The first half was one large workshop, with a long bench, a wall of pegboard with countless tools hanging and drills and saws and lathes on shelves. Next to it there was a mechanics toolbox five feet tall with its twenty drawers. Beside that was a small welding rig on the floor.
This put me in mind of a generator.
“Do you have a generator, Mr. Abbott?”
“Why yes, right inside the camper.”
“Does it run?”
“I’m not sure” he said. “We used to take it up to our cottage in the Sierras, to power up the house. But we haven’t been there in almost ten years.”
“If we could get this going” I told them, “we’d be in much better shape. But we need to do some maintenance, change the gas and the oil, it’s been sitting so long.”
“Go ahead, it’s all yours.”
I thought about dragging it to my house where I wanted it, but that meant all the way to the front gate and along the sidewalk in sight of everybody. For one thing, without power, I couldn’t get my panic room open, and in this crisis that was the one room we might need most. I stepped outside with the others and examined the old, mossy stone wall that separated our two yards.
“Would you mind if we knocked a hole in this thing. That way our two back doors will only be a few steps apart and we can visit each other far more easily, and lock our front gates for security.”
In another minute Jaime and I had a sledgehammer in hand. The wall was about six feet high but so old that the mortar was rotten. After a few knocks we unhinged a few of the top rocks, taking turns. Naomi and Claire also stepped up and helped. Within ten minutes we had a passageway to walk through, and our union with our neighbors was settled, tighter than any contract. It was actual.