Plinius Part 1: A Short Story
Aging Power Grid
I was at the town hall building up in the rafters as the maintenance man wiggled his way through the crawl space above, near the apex of the roof. It seemed the power grid was delivering less than the expected amount of current throughout the town and the culprit was suspected to be the solar cell array. But then again, it had to be. Over the years more and more elements were burning out, probably not entirely from the sun but also from the long nights when the temperatures dropped considerably. Not just the solar array perched on this roof but many others were in horrible shape. The one on Plinius High. The one on the town library. Scores of arrays in the business district, including all the ones on the outlying farms reported drops in power making it more difficult to run the irrigation pumps.
"Almost there," the maintenance man reassured everyone below as he squeezed closer to the power coupling. He moaned a few times as he struggled further, edging upward, and I could hear the wood planks cry out under stress. Flakes of fire retardant insulation came raining down, spiraling in ever widening circles. Some of the white flakes caught the sunlight streaming in through the attic window and they seemed to dance with life. I turned away not wanting to get any of it in my eyes. "It's about 30 amps down on this array," he yelled, as he finally made it to the junction box.
"That brings about a power drop of almost 10 percent across the entire grid," a voice spoke softly below. It was Hank. A farmer who had a spread on the other side of Mount Plinius. He was a large man who could hardly walk, so he stayed down below on the hall floor along with my grandfather.
Zeb, the maintenance man, squeezed out of the crawl space above and climbed down from the rafters boldly jumping to the attic floor. He was a tall thin wiry man with skin that seemed stretched too tight over his slim bony face. With his bulging eyes and his balding head covered with flakes of retardant I turned toward him and laughed. Zeb turned red and thrusted his amp meter back on his equipment belt and then proceeded to brush the white flakes out of his hair and off his red flannel shirt and blue jeans.
"Get down here right now!" my grandfather yelled from below. I went to the steel ladder and started down it and then grabbed the sides with my hands and feet and slid the rest of the way down to the hall floor. My grandfather was visibly upset. So was Hank but he turned away and idly lumbered aimlessly across the large hall floor. Just in the nick of time Toby waltzed in through the outside double doors and nearly slipped on the waxed floor, but he regained his balance and came over to us. "Both of you get to the grain bank and pick up the seed and then get back to the fields and get the pumps ready."
"Yes sir", Toby acknowledged, nearly bowing to him. "We'll get right on it." I felt like smacking him up the side of the head for being so submissive. I didn't say a word and avoided my grandfather's scrutiny. Together we turned around and left the town hall and emerged onto Main Street which at this time was quiet, desolate, stores and shops empty, homes locked up. Many people still hadn't come out of the long hibernation. But the roofs were set aglow. The sun sat wedged behind the mountains, setting the distant pine forest ablaze in orange light. It would be another six hours before the sun would clear the mountain range.
"The power arrays aren't in very good shape, are they?" Toby asked. He kept on walking ahead of me and I purposely slowed down considering I wasn't in any hurry to get to the bank.
"No, they aren't," I responded.
"Neither are the storage batteries." Toby sighed and finally slowed down and came alongside. "Some homes reported running out of electricity more than 24 hours before sunrise. I don't think the batteries can hold a charge anymore."
"Maybe they're not obeying the conservation guidelines."
"No, I don't think so," Toby said. His voice seemed to tremble. "Maybe some, but there is just too many."
"Then I think we're in trouble." I gazed out past the town, across the fields, to the distant pines, affixed by the ghostly shadows the trees made on the slopes. I had never been to the outlying forests.
"Do you think they"ll do anything? You know, the council. Did your grandfather say anything?
"No." I pulled myself back. "He didn't say anything. I don't think they care." I threw Toby a sidelong glance and thrusted my hands in the pockets of my trousers. "As long as it doesn't affect the outcome of the parade."
"Maybe Zeb can do something." I burst out laughing.
"Zeb!" I stopped and turned toward Toby. He stared back, twisting his eyebrows in confusion. "You're kidding. His rewiring job at the middle school practically burnt the place to the ground," I exclaimed. After that incident I could understand the ban on burning. Zeb's fiasco created a hazy cloud that blanketed the valley for many hours. The law was strict, the penalty swift. If intentional, Zeb should have gotten it for his arrogance, but he didn't.
"Oh, and you could do better?" Toby asked amused. We continued walking, turning off of Main Street onto a narrow cobble side street called Huron. Look who's talking. as I recall, you're just a farmer. You know nothing about electricity."
"I know I don't," I snapped back. "But I don't pretend to like Zeb does."
Together we grabbed and pulled the dual handles on the roll up steel door and entered the grain bank through the loading dock on Huron Street. Inside, everything was covered with grain dust, the walls, the inside of the door, the sloped concrete floor. It filled the air and filled my lungs. Wheat, corn, a fine film that permanently covered everything. A residue of many tires, many feet, leaky grain bags that passed this point countless times. I coughed and we closed the door behind us and I coughed again squinting through the haze.
"This place is an explosion waiting to happen," I mumbled. Another variation of a statement that I must have made every time I entered this place. It didn't seem to bother Toby. Neither did the dust.
We continued up the ramp until we were out of the dock and into the warehouse area where most of the grain was processed and stored. The grain bank was the central hub of a vast distribution network. It contained storage facilities, five loading docks, a half a dozen trucks for transporting grain, and even a mill. All the crops that were grown on the farms ended up here where it would then be processed and sent to the bakers and food processors in the business district concentrated mostly around second and third street. But most importantly, the grain bank meant wealth. This was the place where grain was deposited. The more grain the more influence a farmer had in the community. Here, grain didn't have to be processed into food products. It could be held for a farmer until a future withdrawal date. That was why Toby and I were here.
We hung a right and followed close to the wall until we came upon a small enclosed cubicle with thin pressed board walls and permanently fogged plexiglass windows that covered the top half on three sides. Toby entered first through the single door that once had a doorknob and I followed, reluctantly.
"Hi Toby," Barb said. We were greeted by an unpainted pine top desk that sat in the middle of the cubicle. Behind it stood a petite female with shoulder length brown hair and large dark brown eyes. She wore a bright white and red floral dress. "How are you?" she said bubbling with enthusiasm. Too much that is. She fidgeted nervously from one foot to another and waved her hands around not knowing what to do with them.
"Oh, just fine," Toby responded. "How are you?" he repeated back, almost bowing in her presence. When she noticed that I was right behind Toby, her eyes met mine, and time halted. She was calm. Her hands fell silent, dropping to the top of the pine desk.
"How are you, Jack?" she said so softly that I almost couldn't hear her. Her large brown eyes seemed to get bigger and they looked as if they were about to roll back into her head. She blushed and I could feel the blood surge up my neck and my face felt warm.
"Fine," I blurted out, quickly breaking eye contact. I nudged Toby in the back with my elbow.
"Oh...we want to make a withdrawal for the Crandel farm," Toby said. He sounded so formal. I wanted to laugh. I circled the room away from the desk, looking out the windows that I really couldn't see out of, looking up and down the walls with the imitation wood paneling. I felt stupid. There really wasn't anything to look at. The walls were bare. No paintings. No photos. No plaques signifying ownership or community service. Nothing.
"How much do you want to withdraw?"
"Ah, I have it right here." He pulled out an already filled out withdrawal slip from his front shirt pocket and fumbled with it and then handed it to her. Out of the corner of my eye I could see her grab it and I wondered how much longer it was going to take. It already seemed painfully too long.
She turned away from the desk and went to the grey steel filing cabinet in the corner and proceeded to look up the deposit records on my grandfather's farm. We were requesting a thousand pounds. Mostly wheat. Some vegetable seed. We wanted it for planting and for our own baking. The request was rather small, barely scratching the surface of what my grandfather had deposited here.
With her back to us, I moved a little closer to Toby, but I stepped away again back toward the door once she returned from the filing cabinet with the deposit records.
"Jack, you'll have to sign the slip," Barb said, and my heart sunk. I went to the desk taking the pen that she offered doing my best not to touch her or look at her. I struggled with it as I signed my name. The first few letters came out rather jagged looking. The scarred desktop didn't help, with all its pot marks, grooves. and dents. Pressed into it after many years of use. I even noticed a fine film of grain dust covering it like everything else. "We'll send a truck out in a few hours," she said with a somber voice. The life seemed drained from her and I felt guilty. She handed me the receipt and I put it in my back pocket of my jeans.
"Bye," Toby said as we both went for the door but Barb didn't answer back, and I didn't say a word. We left the same way we came in, out the loading dock onto Huron and back to Main street, heading where we had come from earlier, the town hall, where we had parked the truck.
We strolled along casually with the sun behind us and I could feel the warmth pleasantly crawl up and down my back. Toby seemed to enjoy it too. Ahead of us the town of Plinius rested, silent. Still resting from the long darkness. And still further, at the edge of town was Lake Tranquil, calm. Like a sheet of glass, it was blinding. Assaulting the eyes with orange light. Reflecting the sun's image in perfect fashion. In the midst of it. dominating the view as if it had thrusted itself violently up through the center of the lake, was Mount Plinius. Rising up out of the water, it reached well over five thousand feet coming to an end at a plateau.
"What was that about back there?" Toby asked rather loudly. He looked at me and grinned. I didn't like his tone.
"I don't know what you are talking about." I lied. I knew what he was thinking. I shielded my eyes with my right hand from the glare from the lake. I realized I had left my sunglasses back in the truck.
"Come on, you know. Why give Barb the cold shoulder?" Toby didn't let up. "You've been assigned to her."
Assigned. It had been a year. The town council in the town hall. A crack of the gavel. Wood against wood. Barb and I. Our lives had been laid out before us, under the watchful eye of my grandfather and her father and the rest of the governing body. No choice. No control. Oh, I still had another year, until the marriage. I can still remember Barb's reaction. She was ecstatic, excited. For her, a dream come true. For me, it wasn't. Sometimes I felt sorry for her, wishing that I could look forward to it as much as she did. But I couldn't.
"I don't know." I didn't know what to say and I didn't want to talk about it. I continued to look ahead at the rust colored slopes of Mount Plinius. Scrutinizing every jagged edge. Every bolder and rock littered at its base. The cliffs that rose up changing from rust to orange to brilliant yellow.
"You're scared. Aren't you."
"No...I'm not. I just..."
"You're not thinking of doing anything stupid, like backing out."
"No!" I shook my head. "Don't worry." Images of my father washed over me. The agony in his face. His twisting from side to side on his back, buried in the rows of corn clenching his chest. The sun high overhead beating down, unbearably hot. Cold drops of water from the irrigation pumps beading on his face. "I'm just not up to it." The images faded and Mount Plinius returned.
"She's a fine girl."
"I know!" I felt ashamed. "She deserves somebody better." He turned and seemed to gaze at the mountain with me in a long drawn out silence. My mother never really got over my father's death, and the only thing I thought of right then was how lonely she had become.
"Oh, don't underestimate yourself," Toby said softly and re-assuredly. He looked at me and smiled. "Everything will work out fine. She'll be proud of you.”
We made it back to the truck in the parking lot adjacent to the town hall. It was white but rusting, mostly near the bottom of the cab doors and around the wheel wells. Its electric engine wasn't running too well anymore. Another sign of the growing problem in the community. I just wondered how much longer things would last before it would explode in our faces.
I took the keys from Toby and decided to drive back, after persuading him not to go in the town hall since I didn't feel like dealing with my grandfather. We both climbed into the truck and I turned the engine over and gunned it. I put it in gear and it grinded in protest until finally it lurched forward and we lumbered along out of the parking lot and onto Main street, heading back to where we had walked from, and back to the farm.
"I checked the ventilation motors before the last dark period," Toby said as he hung his arm out the window. "The ones in three of the loading docks and the main warehouse are out. Most of the wiring is frayed and the bearings are badly worn." We passed the grain bank to our right and we both looked. Toby sat there slouched, holding the side mirror with his right hand. "That place is going to go up in flames if nothing is done." He sat motionless. All I could see was the back of his head. I grabbed my sunglasses off the dash and I put them on.
"And nothing will be done," I said as Main Street turned from the deep red color of layered brick to dirt that rose up in clouds around the truck. I flirted with the thought of what might happen if Barb were in there if a flash fire started. No marriage. No future together. But I pushed it from my mind. "Sometimes it takes a disaster before someone wakes up." Toby turned toward me, gaping. "But its true." I avoided his scrutiny and kept my eyes on the road.
It was true. Not just my grandfather, but most everyone else. They were only concerned about the upcoming parade. The one planned for the centennial. Down Main Street, to the tight road called Geddes squeezed between the town hall and the courthouse. Up Fourth Street in the heart of the business district and back to Main by way of Huron passing by the grain bank.
But why? Maybe the parade was a distraction. A way of avoiding our problems like downing a bottle of corn whiskey and letting them wash away.
"Can't you you do something," I asked, trying to cushion the impact of my earlier statement. "If you know what's wrong with them why not give it a shot."
"No. I can't. I may know what's wrong, but I don't have any experience in repair." He shook his head in disgust and kept his eyes on the road with me. "The solar arrays are worse. Their physical damage is unnoticeable."
"Come on. You've got nothing to lose. We can go to Cal's shop and use his tools. Maybe even take a motor there to work on."
"Oh, no." Toby shook his head and raised his hands up almost as if he were about to cover his ears. "No, I don't want to hear it."
"Why not? If you're so concerned why don't you do something about it before the whole bank blows up. I'll help. Maybe I'll learn something too."
"No, his shop is off limits. No one is allowed near it. Besides, its padlocked."
"We'll break the lock."
"You are crazy!" He practically shifted his entire body toward the passenger door and for a moment I thought he was about to open it and jump out.
"Ok, fine," I said irritated. "We won't talk about it anymore."
"There's a price to be paid for knowing to much."
"What?" I threw him a glance and frowned. "Then why be so concerned if you aren't willing to do anything."
"You know what I mean. His name is unmentionable." He crossed his arms over his chest and stared ahead with a sour look on his face. "I should have figured you would want to do something so stupid like that."
"Alright, fine. We won't talk about it anymore." I was mad. Cal was a close friend. We had many good times together. Most of them were spent just sitting around and talking at his shop located on the corner of Third and Huron. But I was warned. Cal was labeled an undesirable. He was barred from marriage. He was barred from all town council meetings. He was even barred from work. Bring him a broken irrigation pump, or a tractor that didn't run too well, and he could tell what was wrong just by cocking up an ear and listening to it run or by removing the screws and popping off some access cover and simply looking.
He was that good.
He even had ideas on repairing the solar arrays. But as time wore on repair orders began to dry up. It wasn't that things were working. On the contrary. Cal was purposely being avoided.
"I'm sorry." He calmed down and cocked his head toward me and hesitated. He struggled to speak. "Jack, you ... you have to watch what you say, especially since you were such good friends with him." I didn't say a word. Deep inside I was still slightly fuming. Maybe Cal questioned things too much. Talked too much. But what was wrong with that? "Especially after what he did. You never should have gotten mixed up with him." He shook his head and let out a faint laugh. "Why did he do such a stupid thing?" I'll never understand."
Not even I really knew what made him do it.
Why all of a sudden he just left without telling anyone, not even me. Everything was a secret. The wood planks and plywood he ripped from the attic ceiling of his shop. The special equipment he fabricated by his own hand. The food provisions he carefully stored away. He did it all and he told no one. Maybe he did it because he was an outcast, paddling across the calm placid lake in the raft he constructed. All I could do was imagine what it was like when he came back some time later and told me. At first I didn't believe him. But his excitement made my heart pound up in my throat. He had ascended Mount Plinius, making the forbidden climb to the summit.
He never made it. Later he tried again and never returned.
"What did he say to you when he came back?" Toby said so softly that I almost couldn't make it out over the outside noise. I rolled up my window and lied.
"Nothing really. He only wanted me to come along," I said wondering how convincing I sounded. I avoided looking at him and I glanced up at the rear view mirror at the ominous image of Mount Plinius framed within its borders. At that instant my mind went back to high school.
Cal. Barb. We both always hung around together, inseparable. She always followed, keeping her distance from across the cafeteria, from across a crowded classroom. She stared, infatuated. I imagine she had a hand in it all. Forcing her father to decide on me. But through all our high school years I ignored her. She didn't give up.
"There's been a lot of talk since. Many think a lot more happened than you claim." He looked at me and his eyes drove deep. He was one of them. He knew I was lying. "Including your grandfather."
He came to the farm by foot, hiding in the fields. Coaxing me behind the irrigation shack. I remember. The bright sun high overhead. The sweet cool breeze sweeping in from the distant mountains swaying the wheat in wave after wave, tumbling over each other in a chaotic dance. He just stood there. His jeans and white shirt badly soiled. His palms ripe with drops of blood. Against the backdrop of the ever moving wheat and the distant ridge of mountains, Cal looked so utterly alone. He stopped and then paced and then stopped again. He mumbled. Kicked around some dirt with his foot and mumbled again. Like the changing breeze he seemed to slip in and out of reality. First he asked me how everything was going on the farm and then he looked so distant, mumbling how he had seen the sky.
I never knew more than that. He desperately pleaded with me. Begging me to come along. All the while he kept on talking about seeing the sky. Repeating himself over and over again. But I refused. I was scared.
"I've come to expect that from him. There's not much trust between us," I said letting out a lame laugh. But through it all he took most of the flak. I'll never forget. The bright lights above. The waxed pine floor, slick, and wet. Reflecting the ceiling lights back like a sheet of glass. I stood there alone. The ruling body towering over me behind their large court desks. Encircled by the rest of the town in chairs placed some distance back. So many eyes trained on me. So many whispers drifting among them. I felt so naked standing there. But my grandfather chaired one of the ruling seats. He bailed me out.
"He stuck his neck out for you," Toby responded. He was right. "How else do you think he would react? You hurt him pretty bad."
"What do you think?" I asked. When they came for me I was finishing up in the fields. They dragged me into town and took me across the lake in the ferry. Hank. Zeb. Toby. My grandfather. The rest of the ruling board. Even Barb's father came along. At the base of Mount Plinius we found Cal. Dead. His body broken up among the rocks. He had fallen.
"I think you better watch your backside from now on," he said sternly, pointing a finger at me.
"No, what do you think. I don't care what everyone else says." I never knew how they found out. Cal and I were alone behind the irrigation shack. Or were we? "Do you believe me?"
"The council cleared you." Toby abruptly turned away and looked out the passenger window. He seemed to squirm in his seat. "What I believe doesn't matter anymore."
"To me it does. I want to know." Through all of their scrutiny. Through all their interrogation. I held myself together. I showed no emotion. But after the hearings. After the funeral. After everything quieted down. I went to the barn where it was dark and I was alone. I cried. All Cal wanted to do was touch the sky.
For a long moment there was silence and then he turned toward me and answered.
I looked up at the rear view mirror and the image of Mount Plinius. At its flat top summit. Among the haze. Among the fog that drifted up that high, spiraling around. It caught my eye. A wisp. A thread. Spun from a spider. Touching the summit and trailing off into the emptiness above. Was I imagining it. Did I see what Cal had seen.
There was silence. We drove on. I imagined how Barb would react if I were to gorge myself and gain fifty or so pounds. How would she feel about me then?
Deep inside I laughed.