The Woodpileby Robert P. Kaye
Fife believed society was a Jenga tower—take out one wrong piece and the whole thing fell apart.
“It’s another hundred year storm,” the police chief said on the TV. “But we’re prepared for this sort of thing.” In another part of the country, the storm would have qualified as a hurricane and been called by a first name. Power lines snapped under fallen trees and houses sluiced down hillsides. Lakes formed in the declivities of streets and freeways, drowning any car foolish enough to wallow in.
None of which mattered to Fife, who counted himself an Independent Son of a Bitch. “Bullshit,” Fife answered.
The lights extinguished and the picture crumpled in on itself before the Police Chief could respond. “Ha!” Fife said.
Flames already crackled in the fireplace, a camp stove and emergency kit abiding on the kitchen counter. The woodpile could heat the house for ten days and the bookshelves he’d built stood fully stocked.
He plucked the headlamp from his pocket, fitted the elastic band around his head and hand-cranked the emergency radio. It had batteries too, but using them would have felt like cheating. The local news cataloged power outages, school and road closures and the first casualties: a family of four expired from carbon monoxide poisoning delivered by an ill-positioned generator exhaust.
He switched off the radio and opened the book he’d selected for the occasion: Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Tough guy detective fiction. The perfect choice.
Power was still out at Fife’s office the next morning, so he huffed up ten flights and unlocked the front door. Penny, the Office Manager, didn’t arrive until 9:36. No makeup concealed the dark circles under her eyes, her lips pale as uncooked shrimp. She was barely older than his son Brian, but technically his boss.
“Coffee?” he asked.
“Ohgodyes. You are a lifesaver.” She kept her deflated beach ball of a down coat zipped to the throat as they sat at the plastic table in the break room with a view of the city cowering under gray skies. The loamy aroma of dark roast coffee filled the air as he poured from the big steel thermos he’d brought from home.
“Christ that’s good.” Her fingers basketed the mug. “I heard some woman actually drowned in her own basement,” she said. “I can’t imagine how that could happen.”
Fife had heard the same report on his emergency radio. “She was trying to rescue her stuff and probably got shocked.” Fife said. “Probably unconscious when she drowned. People make some bad choices in natural disasters.”
“True,” Penny said. “They said the major transmission lines are down on the northeast side and some areas could stay dark for weeks. You live up that way, don’t you?”
“I’ll be okay.” He hadn’t heard about the transmission lines, but then the power companies always advertized worst case scenarios so they’d look like heroes when they exceeded expectations. He had his woodpile and supplies. “What about you?”
“Six inches of water in the basement and now I’m afraid to step foot in there. You can’t buy a Presto log or a flashlight to save your soul, so there’s nothing to do except sit in the dark and shiver. Maybe I should haul these books home and burn them.” She nodded to the cheap metal bookcases filled with perennial leftovers from the charity sale. Trade paperback mysteries, romance, self-help.
“Go ahead,” Fife said. “Nobody’s ever going to read that crap again.”
“I couldn’t burn a book,” Penny said. “I’d feel like a Nazi.”
“You know how it is,” he said. “You do what it takes to survive.”
“I hope not,” Penny said.
It looked like she was thinking of something else.
Fife spent the morning cleaning his desk, the virtual files inaccessible. He missed the rotting sour milk smell of what used to be called the “permanent record.” He used to like running across Post-It notes written years before in his own hand, little asides noting a peculiar name or an obvious lie told by an applicant, but he felt uneasy when these showed up in the scanned images, obscuring information on the actual document.
About ten-thirty, the first few bars of a pop tune obliterated the stillness, repeating twice—Penny’s ring tone muffled inside the pocket of her puffy coat. Her voice rose and fell in protest. “Yes. No. I get it,” she said. “No, I’m not arguing.” She clicked the phone shut without saying goodbye.
Her coat whooshed against the fabric of the cube walls. “Corporate says we’re closed for the duration. The computers are down and the database is, ah, out of sync.” She looked like she’d been notified of the death of a relative. One she liked. “You know how it is.”
Fife peered at the glass-walled fish tank of the computer room, the little jeweled lights on the machines extinguished. “No. I don’t.”
“It’s all the techie stuff,” she said. “You’d have to ask Brian.”
Fife thought of his son, employed doing something incomprehensible with computers on the opposite coast, but then remembered their IT guy was also named Brian. It occurred to Fife that perhaps the storm would provide an excuse for Corporate to pull the plug on the branch. Rumors had swirled after the merger and motivated most of Fife’s co-workers to retire or move on, their jobs left unfilled.
Penny swallowed and glanced toward the door, tears ebbing. Something had to be up. Marlowe would get tough and demand she spill the beans. “When should I check back?” he said.
“I’ll call you.” She swallowed hard.
“My phone’s down,” Fife said.
“Then what’s your cell number?”
“I don’t have a cell phone.”
She blinked. Something about the way she cocked her head and kept her mouth in a straight line disqualified him for the future. “I’ll call in,” he said. “Just let me collect my stuff.”
“Okay, but hurry. I want to get out of here.” She retreated down the corridor, nylon coat whooshing.
Fife surveyed the pictures pinned to his cube wall, their curled edges revealing the less faded color of years gone by. A miniature wooden fire truck, part of a complete set he’d made for Brian one Christmas, peeked out from behind a file rack. He put it in his coat pocket.
Fife spent most of the next two days reading, doing crossword puzzles, heating canned food over the camp stove and glancing at the little cedar fire engine on the mantle when he stoked the fire. The set of vehicles he’d crafted when Brian was eight had been such a hit that he’d hatched fantasies of a side business. By the time he’d sourced wood suppliers, built jigs and revised designs, Brian moved on to video games. Fife eventually donated the box of trains and cars and emergency vehicles to charity, but claimed no deduction, unable to come up with a value.
The absence of dial tone thwarted his attempt to call Brian to reassure him that the media reports of devastation were overblown. He decided it was time to tour the neighborhood.
The street remained dark except for Huling’s place, where flames painted a faint aurora on the blinds. Huling never attended the annual block party—which hadn’t been held for some years. Nor did he participate in the neighborhood watch, formed after a rash of car prowls and disbanded after a few patrols. Fife sometimes sniffed the air when passing Huling’s house, hoping not to detect the perfume of a rotting corpse. Tonight the air smelled of wood smoke.
On his way back up the hill, Fife glanced at his own woodpile and noticed a corner of blue tarp peeled back. Some bastard had robbed him.
He inspected the bite taken from the stack of split alder, heart pounding. Should he camp outside with a baseball bat? How high did fireplace flames have to be to show on Huling’s blinds? He camouflaged the stack with fallen boughs to prevent anyone else from getting bright ideas.
That night he finished The Long Goodbye, ear cocked for the plink of wood being pilfered in the night. The silent eye of the TV peered from the entertainment center, unable to display his favorite crime scene investigator shows, broadcast signals perhaps even now permeating the room. When power came back on he’d miss thinking of his little house as a ship tossed upon a great ocean of storms, but right then he missed his shows.
Moby Dick caught his eye, a book thick enough to see him through the disaster and something he’d always meant to tackle. “Call me Ishmael.” The sentence echoed in a satisfying way.
He made little headway before sleep overtook him.
By Wednesday afternoon the reported population without power dwindled from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. Fife drove to an area of the city spared major damage, passing through neighborhoods where dismembered tree limbs lay tangled on lawns like corpses after a battle. He found a pay phone at the mall and called work. Penny’s recorded message declared the office closed until further notice. She did not answer the cell number listed on the emergency contact card.
Fife ate a hamburger, fries and chocolate shake at a restaurant and lingered over the shelves at a big chain bookstore. Nothing appealed to him under the bright lights and he felt more isolated than ever in the crowds.
Pulling into his driveway, the headlights shone on the peeled-back tarp and the gap occupied that morning by at least a quarter cord of wood. He pulled out a section of branch that had been too small to split and smacked it into his hand. It made a good club.
A single muddy wheelbarrow track led downhill, petering out in the flashlight beam trembling with each maul axe stroke of his heart. A creek of smoke wound into the sky from Huling’s chimney.
Simmering fury rose to a boil. The door thudded under the butt of Fife’s fist. He wedged the stick under his belt in back, the end over his jacket, an easy grab.
Footsteps echoed inside. A blinding light flooded Fife’s face as the door jerked open and a plumpish figure in a sweater-vest and sweat pants with wild white hair and beard appeared in an umbra of tungsten light.
Fife stepped back and sideways on the tiny cement stoop with no rail, almost toppling into a rhododendron.
“Oh, it’s you.” Huling reached back to lean something against the inside wall and Fife recognized the hollow ring of an aluminum baseball bat. “Can I help you?” Huling said.
Fife squinted into the light. “You’ve got power?”
“Sure do,” Huling said. “Came on a couple hours ago.”
“You need something?” Huling said.
Fife recalled the distant fury of his original mission. “You didn’t see anyone go by with a wheelbarrow full of wood, did you?”
“Well I’ll be goddamned,” Huling said. “The lights flicker for a bit and the chaos begins. No, I didn’t see anything. I’ve got my pile where it can’t be seen from the road, behind the fence. Three cords, plus my pellet stove.” He grinned. “Want help tracking down the bandit, neighbor?”
Neighbor? He wasn’t sure what that meant anymore. Or if Huling might bring his bat. Or something worse. The stick poked into his back. “That’s okay,” he said. He glanced over his shoulder at the dark windows of the street. “Where is everybody?”
“They’ll straggle back in a few days.” Huling chuckled, inspecting the night as if scouting enemy positions. “Most folks aren’t ready for anything real. Not like us crusty old bastards, am I right?”
“Right.” The smug satisfaction on Huling’s face frightened him more than anything. “I’d better check my power.”
Fife craved retreat to his house, his shows, his library, but he could not turn around, because doing so would reveal the stick wedged into his belt. He extended a foot behind him and down in an attempt to descend the steps backward, his knee trembling with excess adrenaline as he tried not to fall.
“Hey,” Huling said. “You play chess?”
It took several blinks to decipher this as an invitation. For a few years Fife had played chess with Brian, until video games took over. But Fife’s favorite crime scene investigator show would be on soon. “Not really,” he said.
“Yeah. Well. Okay,” Huling said. “Good luck with that power.”
“Thanks.” Maybe one game, he thought. But the door banged shut and the front porch light switched off, plunging him into darkness.
Fife flipped wall switches and circuit breakers. All remained dark. He stoked the fire to drive out the ectoplasmic chill that coated every surface of the living room.
Moby Dick hit the flames like a bible-cut clinker of whale blubber still on its hide, smoke swimming under the cover until the fanned pages caught with an audible puff. A car repair manual followed, automobiles having evolved into computers, the knowledge of how to fix them passed down from his father, now rendered useless. Tough guy detective fiction and a multi-volume history of WWII stoked the fire until flames licked the throat of the chimney. He’d saved them to read in retirement. For all he knew, he was already retired, someone named Prema in Bangalore puzzling over the computer image of an old Post-It note obscuring the permanent record.
The stick he’d taken up Huling’s front steps rested on the mantel, next to the little cedar fire truck. When this was over, Fife would make wooden toys and perhaps take up chess. He would call Brian and try to understand what he did for a living and where the modern technology juggernaut that had run him over might be headed next. He would seek out and read a different kind of book even though he wasn’t sure which ones or whether his library shelves would ever be filled again.
He looked at the stick on his mantel. However low the woodpile got, he told himself, he would not burn that stick.
And then he wondered if this was true.