Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Chimney

It was once the Coke-a-cola bottling plant in Valdosta, but it shut down years ago. I pulled over in the driveway to answer the phone, and after the call sat there waiting for traffic to clear. Ashley Street is one of the main roads in Valdosta, so I’ve been by this building, literally, hundreds of times. The City Of Valdosta bought the building, but it still looks abandoned and… hmmm, there’s a chimney. Odd, after all these years and after going by this building so many times, I have never noticed the chimney before.

I grew up watching chimneys die. When I was a kid electric heat was just coming into its own, and there were a lot of homes, businesses, and other places where humans needed to be that were heated by wood or coal. Down here in South Georgia it was mostly wood, and if you were a male child you were going to grow up swinging an axe to split firewood. There were also chimneys for oil fueled furnaces in plants where they used steam, and generally speaking, the higher the chimney the hotter the fire was that burned below. This one isn’t that big around but it is high enough for me to think it’s not a wood burner. Still, because I can’t really fix a sense of scale to it there’s no way to know.

I wonder if the chimney leads down to a building where the furnace was at one point in time, and there was always some guy that ran what they called the boiler room. He would be the man who fixed things. Broken windows, broken doors, lights that were out, the floors that needed to be swept and mopped, and, of course, keeping the furnace running during the winter and the fans going in the Summer. He’d be the guy who replaced blown fuses and who would catch spiders and release them outside, when someone inside got freaked out over a spider being in the building. With a sigh, he would set traps for mice when one scampered out into the open in the middle of the day. He would be like the chimney to the people who worked there; they would see him hundreds of times and never realize who was there.

No matter what sort of business there was, there was always that guy, just as there was always some woman answering the phone and typing upfront. The workers worked and the bosses bossed, but there was always that guy, and there was always that woman, and anywhere you went, if you wanted to know what the hell was going on you looked for that woman and if you wanted something fixed you’d go to that guy. But that was in the days of chimneys, and the days before air conditioning and electric heat. As soon as the heat went electric that guy became a little less useful and a lot less needed, and then air conditioning became a must, and suddenly the boiler room because a storage room, and the chimney a stack of bricks with a hole in the middle. Computers moved in and then cell phones and suddenly that woman and that man both became other people, and the chimney was a silent red brick memorial to niches that didn’t exist anymore.

But, of course, there is a story here, because there is no way I can stand and look at something like a red brick chimney from the past without wondering about who was there the day the last brick was laid on top of it, and who that person was, and if that person, when that last brick was put in place, moved on to another job, or was this the last brick of their last day of work? And there, on the other end of the bookshelf, the other matching end, was the person who was the last person to see it used, as the furnace was shut down for the last time, and that person who was always that person who kept the furnace running, did they see the future, and realize that one day there would be no chimneys?
They never realized it, of course, the woman in the front who always kept up with everything, and the man in the building after hours, who kept things running, they never realized they would lose their jobs. The man to an advance in technology that made hiring a part timer, younger and more willing to be paid less, and the woman, who took night classes so she could move out of her job and get a better one. They both wanted to sit down, and have that talk that two people have, that they both want to have, that eases a friendship into something else, something that has been simmering like a meal in a slow cooker that needs some time before it becomes what it ought to be.

He’s written a poem for her, and he’s been trying to conjure the fortitude to just walk up to the woman and hand her a piece of paper. They tell him that he’s being replace by part time help, a college kid working his way up to the top, they’re sorry, really, but there is no reason to keep him on the payroll and he understands, he’s felt it coming as he knew as long as the chimney was needed he was too, but the stack of bricks with a hole in it has grown cold, and so has the world. She’s got her degree, and when she asked for a raise they laughed and told her that they couldn’t afford that, but she already found someone who could. She’s stayed, because she feels something for this man, this man who has fixed her heel when it broke, this man who jumped off her car when the battery was dead, this man who walked her out to the parking lot when she worked late, and even if he is a little older than she is, he’s the type of man she wouldn’t mind having around a house, one day, maybe, and she had to be careful around him because she blushes sometimes, thinking he might think so too.

His last day is her last day, and he very carefully rewrites the poem, because the copy he’s carried for so long is worn and battered by fear and hesitancy. But her co-workers have surprised her with a going away party at a local restaurant, and of course no one thought to ask him, the chimney, and now she is gone, and he will be too. He goes into the boiler room and gathers his tools, and his lunch pail, and he burns the poem, watches the smoke rise one last time, and he leaves.

I stand and look at the chimney, and I see him leaving for the last time, his overalls as overworked as his heart, his boots stained with the work of years, and he’s walking away from the place he’s known for a very long time. He knows he can find work, this type of man is never unnecessary, yet he knows the world is different now. He turns, and sees the chimney, and wonders what will become of it.

At the restaurant, she realizes that he’s not going to show up. Did he not know? Or did he not want to be there? Maybe he didn’t feel anything, but she thinks about the heel he repaired and the umbrella he found for her, how he got into her car with a flat piece of metal when she locked the keys up, and now, she realizes, that the carved wooden heart that she found on her desk one day was from him, and she tells people she has to leave, that she has to go, and she returns to the plant only to find him gone, and everyone else, too. He works late, she knows that, so she takes the key hidden in the back and lets herself in. Here, in this place, with the clean floors and clean windows, with the nice smell of pine and of hard work, she realizes she’s never told him how good it felt to know he was always there, and now, he is gone. She looks for him in those places she’s seen him before, working to make things work, always happy and smiling, a man who accepts in life the small things that have to be done, and she opens the door to the boiler room and turns the light on. It’s an old fashioned bulb, a single small sun in the small room, and there is his workspace, clear of all things, but a single scrap of paper, worn by hesitancy and carried with love, the original poem, written for her.

Take Care,


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Stubs: Questions and Answers

The idea to get Henderson drunk enough to start talking came from Reba, and I wondered if it was a good idea. He was clearly operating way below his pay grade at the moment, and I wondered how up the food chain he had been, before things had gone to hell, and gotten there in a hurry. But the rain had set in and the compound was secure. Henderson wasn’t wearing a uniform and there were no rules that said he couldn’t have a few beers, and then a few more, with friends.
“How much do you know?” Reba asked Henderson, after most everyone else had stopped drinking and gone back to their living spaces.
“What do you want to know?” Henderson finally replied. “You didn’t have to get drunk to ask me, you know.”
“Where are they from?” Ray asked and Dawn sat up and leaned forward, her hand on his back.
“We don’t know.” Henderson said. “We do know that the story that was told, that they were from space isn’t true, or the version of that story isn’t true. We simply don’t know.”
“Do they leave invisible, uh, poop. I’ve never seen or smelled anything of them.” Dawn asked and then she giggled and everyone laughed.
“You’ve notice they regurgitate clothes, rings, jewelry, and anything not carbon based. Cotton clothes disappear but all the blends get the organic matter dissolved and they regurgitate the rest, from what we could gather.” Henderson said.  
“So how come we can’t see inside of them?” Ray asked. “And how come they can fit an entire person inside of them and not be bulged out a like a snake?”
“I saw one eat a horse once,” Henderson said, “and it never looked any bigger. I can’t go into detail as to where I was or what circumstances, but it’s a good theory that the Stubs aren’t confined to the same dimension we are. I think where they’re from is where the food goes. I think they’re basically mouths that feed and it gets sent back as energy. We were scanning every frequency we knew that had been created by any device we knew, and it took is a decade to figure out which one to jam to keep them from blinking out. What we didn’t realize until about that same time, that jamming of their frequency also kept any new ones from coming in. They can survive about two years without food, which is why you see them dying right now. We’ve got what’s left, and what’s
 left may be in the millions, trapped. But we’re hunting them now, and while we think those that are here can still feed with the frequency jammed, they can’t send anything back to wherever it is they came from and they can’t leave, and no one else is coming in.” Henderson seemed oddly animated at this point and Reba pushed closer beside me. “We’ve made contact with about two dozen different camps in the states, but there’s no word from anyone else.” He said.
“Did you share the frequency information with everyone else?” Reba asked.
“Of course we did.” Henderson sounded defensive. “Why wouldn’t we?”
“The same reason nuclear weapons were top secret.” Reba replied. “You didn’t did you?”
“I was told we did.” Henderson said angrily. “It wasn’t my job to send out information, just collect it.”
“When did you realize they had the jamming technology and wasn’t letting anyone else know about it?” Reba asked.
“She’s right.” Berg hadn’t spoken until now. “You don’t have to say anything Leo, I know these people. They sit tight.”
“Leo?” I asked. “Henderson isn’t your first name?”
Everyone laughed again, but this time it sounded a little hollow.
“Is there any place safe?” Dawn asked. “Any place that didn’t get hit?” She sounded like a little girl asking if there was any ice cream left after a house fire.
“We don’t know, but we don’t think so.” Henderson popped the cap off another beer and drank half of it outright. “We figured out late, very late, in the game that shooting one, or hitting one hard causes it to blink out. Thousands were shot before we could get the word out to stop but by then there were everywhere. Worse, when one got popped, more blinked into to where that one was. That’s why it seemed like there were so many of them. We estimate there was never really more than a million or so in New York City before it fell. You see the videos of what seems to be waves of them, but there were never so many that we couldn’t have beaten them if we had just figured it out more quickly.” He killed the beer and picked up another one and popped the top.
“I’m sorry for what happened, but no one on this planet caused it, or made it worse.” He sighed. “All the damage we did, all the damage I did, was done after things had gone to hell. The president and half the senators were killed when a Stub blinked into the command bunker and the Secret Service opened fire. As far as we know, there are still a dozen live Stubs in there right now. We’ll check in two years.”  Henderson looked down at the floor. “You have no idea. You will never have any idea at all, at how close we were to being wiped out, how close we came to not finding the right answer at the right time. You’ll never know what it feels like to see extinction.”
“We lived it.” Reba said.


Saturday, February 3, 2018

Stubs: The Cats

I woke up and there was really no way of telling what time it was, and it didn’t matter, either. It was dark, totally dark, black as blind, and we were getting used to night being that way when there wasn’t a moon, like tonight, or when it was cloudy. We had both, actually, and the night air was still as death. There were no frogs or crickets or bird sounds at all. Kim rolled over and I thought she was awake but her breath, the only sound in the room, was deep and steady. I remember that night because we would find out she was pregnant with our first, Kyle, in less than a week. But that night, I sat and listened to my wife breathe, and I wondered how it would all end, and when. We, everybody that was left, had pretty much given up. We knew that sooner or later the food would run out, and guarding people who was farming took two to watch while one worked, and it was incredibly hard. It really didn’t matter, because what little food we grew we are as fast as it was ready, and we were running out of dried beans and rice. Life felt bad enough, but in a week’s time we would discover Kim was pregnant, and I had no idea how to bring a child into a world that was ending. I sat up at night and wondered how people stuck in wars raised their kids, and how they ever survived being in a battle zone with little ones. The truth is a lot of civilians were killed in wars and this was a lot like that. But this night was one of the very last night I had, even if I didn’t know it, without that worry on me. It was enough to think about what life would be like when the food was gone, or if there was a tornado or a hurricane.

“We had a cat one time,” Kim sat up and just started talking, “and I called her Tapioca. There was another cat named Pudding, and the two of them became best buddies. They were could mousers, and they both liked to bring in dead things. Mama would have a fit because Tapioca liked to bring live things into the house sometimes, and they would get away. We had Pudding fixed already but Tapioca got pregnant before we could get her to a vet and the next thing we knew that one had a mess of kittens, seven of them, and not a single one of them looked like their mama. They were getting big enough to give away and one day Tapi comes in with a half-dead rabbit. She dropped in on the floor in front of the box where the kittens were all sleeping and when the rabbit hit the floor it bolted. Kittens went running, the rabbit was bouncing off stuff trying get away, Tapi was chasing it but we had hard wood floors that had been polished with polyurethane on them and Tapi couldn’t run as fast as she wanted, or fast enough to catch the rabbit again, mama started yelling for me to get the rabbit out of the house and I couldn’t stand up I was laughing so hard.” Kim lay back and giggled like a little girl. “We got the rabbit out and didn’t let Tabi chase it anymore. The next day I came home and daddy told me he had found homes for all the kittens, that people at work had wanted them. I believed that for a long, long time, but when I got older I realized he had taken them off somewhere and killed them.” Kim stopped giggling. “It’s on odd thing,” she finally said, “what people tell their young’uns. I mean they all say they want to hear the truth but they lie about death, and Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and they’ll tell you everything in the woods in dangerous to keep you from going out there.” Kim stopped talking and our hands met in the darkness, mine trying to find hers and hers looking for me.

I laid back down with Kim and held her and eventually she went back to sleep.

Take Care,