After We Got Back the Lights
By Eric Del Carlo
8 February 2010
Rust wept from bullet holes in the driver's door of the Contra Costa Sheriff's car. Rooftop rollers wove red and blue, but the siren wasn't going, which would've brought everybody down to the weedy strip of Highway 29, which I didn't want. I had the butt of an autoloader planted on my hip, set to drop into an aggressive posture. Especially if this guy—going to a masquerade as an old-time Law Enforcement Official—made a move for the sidearm strapping his thigh.
He had a haircut, a crisp shirt; but for footwear he sported hiking boots patched with electrical tape.
"Shuck," I said.
The Lawman shook his head, topped with a crumpled straw something that was probably supposed to suggest official headgear. He stooped into his cruiser. Justin Cushenberry, at my left and also armed, twitched; but I waved him cool with my free hand, and the Lawman merely cut the ignition. I had nearly forgotten what an engine, internally combusting, sounded like. And it had wholly slipped my mind—or I'd never noticed, back then—what a live automobile smelled like, especially on a fine late spring day, with the crickets lively in the highway's weeds.
The hypnotic roof lights stopped.
"It's all true," said the Law.
Indulgent disdain moved the bristles of my beard. I'm not a hardass, and I don't have aggressions to work out. That's in part why this town has kept me doing what I do all these years. So I didn't tell this guy he was full of shit, that I'd heard stories like his before. I simply, quietly told him to get back in his machine and turn it around. He got exasperated for a minute. I flexed my fingers on the shotgun. Shaking his straw-hatted head again, he climbed into the aged vehicle. It was a sight, heading back south, like a motorized memory that had gotten loose from the past.
"Did you see his badge?" Justin Cushenberry wanted to know. "It was . . . shiny."
I wasn't unaffected. As shucks went, it had been a good one.
We turned away from the highway.
After that, a canvas-back olive-drabber growled its way right through, up 29 which is Main Street inside the town's limits. The big Army truck went north, toward Calistoga. A lot of people saw it, and everybody talked about it; I kept mum because I'm not eager to dispense my opinions. Even-handed. If I get described, that's in there. It's a good trait to have—the best, in fact—for my job.
But I did get asked directly, because I was respected. I said, "Let's wait and see."
It was always a small town. Not insular, and not poor—not by a long shot—back when money was a measurement. Those who stayed and those who survived turned out to be decent people. Maybe I was surprised at just how decent, or how capable, or how willing to dig in and do what work needed doing. Maybe most surprised by how cooperative we all were, with each other. In another era this would've been a quaint hippie-dippy social experiment. It wasn't. It was our town, and we'd kept it alive through these years.
I saw no reason to give up our autonomy to anyone who could put together a passable mockup of a cop car or a military deuce and a half.
But after that, about a week later, a helicopter went overhead, then came back (or it was a different one) and circled the town for twenty minutes. Either these were raiders with access to fuel and technological riches, or else the country was pulling itself back together, and we were going to be citizens of something greater than our township once again.
After that, well, they came in gentle but firm force. But in better vehicles, not just ones scraped together like that first Sheriff's cruiser. And they had better equipment, and snappy uniforms, and calming authoritativeness. They also had goodies—bars of soap, MREs, socks, iodine, condoms. Lots of supplies (or at least what seemed like abundance to us, who'd had no new manufactured goods for so long).
It was no shuck, no raiders' ruse to get us to let down our guard. I had long since admitted that.
There was celebrating. The town whooped it up. My family jubilated. I reveled, because it felt like my share to do.
Census takers came. I was asked questions along with everyone else, cautious of the inquiries I was silently waiting on, the crucial questions, the dangerous ones. What did you do to survive? And maybe, more luridly and to the point: How far did it go? I waited, and no one asked. Indeed, I would've been the one to ask, and I already knew the answers.
Two and a half months later, with the town circumscribed by a witches' circle of engineers and firefighters, they poured electrical power back into our local grid. No fires were started, and bright civilized light radiated and streamed. Everyone wept. Every last one of us.
I knew it was over, really all over, when they issued us money. Newly minted bills. Gold in color, prettily designed, without any Masonic bullshit. Everybody had an even start. It was like a Monopoly game set to commence. And for me it felt about as real. But I went along.
29 was being repaved, and people gathered and cheered at the new black steaming borders of Main Street. Gasoline was at the gas station again. I'd preserved in the garage the tires off our Ford Explorer; now lug-nutted them back on, filled the tank. It was like wrangling a stoned bull. I could barely drive it. Emmy, who'd always loved the vehicle, took right to it, as if she'd been driving only last week.
There were military all over, going north and south, not all battle-strapped, most in fact part of the non-aggressive units of Operation Reconstitution. That was the name. Reconstitution. Somebody put an iota of thought into that descriptive and patriotism-inducing code name.
Personnel stopped in our town, friendly in a clipped "sir-ma'am" way. One I tried to get chitchatting told me there would be a presidential election in November, though I pointed out it was an off year. "The people need to put someone in the White House," the soldier said.
"Who's there now?" But what I wondered was, had anybody been there these last years, anybody at all? When the power grid went out, when things had come apart back then, we'd lost all national awareness. We were just this town, and nothing more. Or less.
The exchange ended with a grave "You folks are better off than some," which had to be the official sign-off, I heard it so often.
When the Safeway reopened, Emmy and I and the kids went. I walked the aisles like a zombie, and I wasn't the only one. I bumped—literally—into Roberto Canas, who, quiver-lipped, was clutching two differently labeled cans of tomato soup. For something like five minutes I stared at a steak through its cellophane wrap, until Mike, my boy, came scampering up, imparting all sorts of news about all the great stuff here. (Later, I ate that steak; I was so used to deer and squirrel I didn't know what to make of it.) Emmy drove us and the groceries home. I sat quietly, hands folded.
We had officially appointed police in the town now. They had two patrol cars. They introduced themselves to everyone. They made no particular fuss over me.
One night I jolted awake, hard enough I practically bounced Emmy off the far side of the bed; but she sleeps deep and well. Around me the house was humming. It felt like a dynamo. Lightning waited inside every wall socket. I could hear the refrigerator cycling in the kitchen. The wilderness-quiet of the night was gone.
I went half-dressed to the living room, to pull on my boots. I'd refused to give them up, despite the worn-to-wafers soles, though I had accepted new laces for them. I sat a moment more on the couch, telling myself to just stay there. I was shaking, pent-up. When I slipped out the front door, my heart was pounding.
California summer night, no jacket required. Streetlamps bleared their light. Across the way a raccoon was sitting under one, gazing up bandit-eyed and perplexed. I started up the street, slow unsteady steps. I had asked another soldier what they were calling it, how the history books would record it. The Collapse? The Crash? The American Dark Ages? All sounded kind of science-fiction-y to me. She said, "The Hard Years, officially."
The Hard Years. I'd smirked at her "officially," but then, I had asked. I guess they could've come up with a worse, or at least more overwrought, name for what had happened.
I ranged out into the warm electrical night, startled by shadows that moon- or starlight never would've created. I passed houses I knew, knew everyone who lived in them; but soon new people would come, people returning and relocating. A few insomniac windows were lit. But I saw nobody else out.
When I came to the lane that cut between two vineyards, I turned down it. Wineries can grow more than grapes, which we found out early on, laying in every comestible crop we could. It was one reason I'd gazed around nonplussed, passing through the Safeway's produce department. Our local fields are Napa County fertile. Not that we'd given up viticulture altogether; wine was a good trade commodity. Some smart cookie had even thought to put in some pot.
Farther along the dark became more authentic. I had been the one people had looked to—not for sage advice, but when there was trouble. I could face it, handle it. Now . . . who was I?
The lane emptied into a wild lot where poppies grew, away from the streets. Here I stopped, feeling the thumping of my heart ease. I knew where I was, of course. Knew the tall redwood that was the only tree here. This wasn't a restful place; but I felt a calming nonetheless, a sure reminder of my past purpose. I stared and stared at that tree.
So long and so intently, in fact, that I didn't immediately register the person who stepped around from behind the thick trunk.
Which gave me a new hard jolt that woke me right out of my reverie. The figure was dressed in earth tones. I peered at him through the night. The masculine voice had spoken my name as a wary-neutral greeting, the sort of hail we'd all give each other at a morning sales meeting at the car dealership where I used to work. (That's right. I was never a certified cop. Our police fled when the shit came down.) Responding in kind, I said, "Miles."
Miles Nordham. Here. Standing beneath this tree. Not here by accident, any more than I was.
Great terrible unsaid things hung in the air. Or so it felt. I stood five paces off. Miles leaned back against the redwood. He wore a mud-colored poncho and jeans faded gray. His hair was long, almost white. I squinted for his expression.
"I hardly know you without the whiskers," Miles said.
It seemed a casual statement, maybe friendly. I was careful to give no tension to my voice. "Promised Emmy I'd shave if I could ever use my Norelco again." It still felt as though a pair of icy angel's hands was cupping my face. I missed my bristly gray, even if I did look five years younger, like Emmy said.
"Deal's a deal." Miles's shoulders shrugged the poncho. His hands hung in the pockets.
"Yes, it is," I agreed.
"How is Emmy?" Even more casual now; two long-time acquaintances shooting the breeze.
"She's fine." Then, though true, the statement was too trite; and I said with sincerity, "She's a rock."
Miles nodded with slow genuine understanding.
I should reciprocate. He'd asked after my wife; I ought to make a polite inquiry about his . . . well, there was the rub. Olivia Schultis was still married to Jimmy Schultis, and we hadn't had a priest or a bureaucrat who could undo it. That hadn't mattered during these past years. But now. . . .
Screw it. I asked, "How's Olivia doing?"
The shrug came again, with a whispering of nylon. This time Miles grunted a half-chuckle. "It's like the lights went out a month ago. And now they're back on. No, not quite like that. But—she's accepting it. Adjusting."
We were still two men standing out in a lonely dim field in the small hours of the night, when nobody should be here at all. Not here. And certainly not either one of us.
My eyes were straying past Miles, to the dark rising column of the tree. I almost let my head tilt back, my gaze roved upward, to that high brawny branch.
But he spoke again, and again it was chew-the-fat downhomeness. "How's the lungs these days?" And I told him.
"How's your back?" And he told me.
Two years ago I'd had what might've been pneumonia. Miles suffered from lower back trouble, maybe arthritic. Our doctor had been a vet from the local no-kill animal shelter. A good fellow, though. Once our diabetics and the old folks who needed cardiac pills died off, our mortality rate—even for infants—was actually about what it'd been in the old days. Half of Dr. Kimura's house had burned down one autumn. We cut and salvaged timber, and built him a bigger place. No zoning crap to slow things up. Took the town two and half weeks. Miles, I remembered, did a lot of sanding, since he couldn't handle anything too strenuous.
A lull came to our out of place tête-à-tête. I could see Miles's features a bit better, aided by the distant spill of streetlights. His brows kept pulling down and together, like he was listening to some internal rhythm. I didn't know how to break the pause, how to excuse myself the hell away from here.
Finally he asked, "How are . . . Mike and Zoe?" The inflection was just a little off. His hands were still slung in the poncho's pockets.
It was, really, one question too many, one past where we could safely pretend to be just conversing. And I didn't like the question, which would've been innocuous coming from anybody but Miles Nordham.
The shakiness of earlier was trying to come back. I felt each beat of my heart. I had faced down serious danger over the past several years; I had kept this town safe. Had all that just vanished with the lights coming back on?
I decided I would answer, even though I couldn't—most certainly could not—ask him back this same question. "Can't get Mike away from the TV. Zoe wants to go to Seattle."
Miles's chuckle was fuller this time—but it still had a queer off-key sound to it. "Did you tell her it rains there all the time?"
Actually I had. But Seattle, as exotic and faraway as any destination ever was, had captured my daughter's imagination. She was sixteen and remembered what travel used to be like. I didn't doubt she would go, eventually. I knew she wouldn't want to go back to school; she remembered that too well. We had handled education in an informal and effective manner in the town. Most everybody pitched in, whenever there was time. Miles had read to the kids from his archaeology texts.
I didn't respond to his comment. I was staring at him.
He started to shrug again, then his right hand came out of the poncho, and in it was a pistol, almost toy-sized, old and dull gray metal, a stumpy butt.
And now the pretense was over; and I understood the other reason he was here at this tree.
I kept the trembling out of my voice as I asked, "How long you been waiting for me?"
His eyebrows were moving again, and I didn't like how fidgety he was getting. "How long since Matthew died?" he countered, the question going hoarse and frail halfway through.
Died, I damned well knew, wasn't the word. Neither did Miles need his question answered. He could tell me to the day.
He went on, "I used to come out here every night. I didn't sleep for a year after . . . Matthew. . . . Now I just come when I miss him too much, when I can't take it. . . ."
Matthew Nordham. Young. Jet-dark hair, good-looking. Wiry and energetic. I had sensed something of the sociopath in him, even when he was a teen. One night he had climbed through a window into Charlene Carbo's bedroom and raped her. Two witnesses saw him coming back out, and of course there was Charlene's testimony. I caught Matthew hiding on a roof and locked him in an old walk-in freezer. Four days later, after other people had made serious decisions, I noosed a rope around his neck and he died hanging. From this tree, from that high branch.
Miles was trembling outright now, not concealing it like I was. His sparkling eyes caught the far-off streetlamps. "What . . ." His voice was ragged and raw; a final crisis was approaching, a last turning point. "What if . . . he'd been yours . . . what if—it was Mike?"
The dull gray barrel of the pistol shook.
I said, very quietly, "What if the girl had been Zoe?" And even saying it, giving the idea even that much reality, set ominous instincts in motion within me. But I held steady.
He reached out, and I saw his finger wasn't on the trigger. I strode forward, and he dumped the pistol in my hand.
Tears were rolling down his cheeks as he said, "I didn't hand it in. Back when you first took the job, you told everybody left in town to turn in all firearms, so we could have a pool. But I kept this old thing."
I weighed it in my hand. It wasn't much, but it was real; and it had no doubt kept Miles company on many nights standing in ambush under this tree.
I walked him back to his place. He bade me goodnight. Then I went home too, steps quicker and steadier than before.
Months later, when things were getting seriously organized and workers were out painting fresh crosswalks and—God help us—there was a mayoral campaign on, a crew with a cherry picker and chainsaw lopped the top off that lone redwood. It had overgrown, and was now interfering with a power line that traversed the two vineyards. That night Miles and I went there, found the big branch that had once overhung the poppy-rife lot, and chopped it up for firewood. He took home one half of the wood, and I carried off the other.