Part Three: Through the Looking Glass
In the days that followed the violence was bad but sporadic rather than constant and confined rather than pervasive. The worst riots occurred where violence was already an endemic problem. Some lower middle class neighborhoods got involved but that was usually a youth movement that grew out of a lack of self control rather than a true ideological response to what we faced. The real difference this time as opposed to the riots that occurred in the 60s and 80s was that the authorities and news media outlets (most of them anyway) tried to make it out to be for really outrageous reasons instead of blaming racial tensions. They said – without proof mind you – that “the poor, underprivileged and disenfranchised masses” were being egged on by some secret coalition of traitors against the true populist movement to distract the government from doing its duty for the citizenry of this country. Another “reason” or justification for the rioting by the population that was supposed to most strongly support the Administration’s actions was fear that their “rights” were going to be taken way by “the archaic and prejudicial suppression of the uneducated and unenlightened ‘tea partiers’ and the so-called ‘Constitutionalist Movement’.”
Mateo had some succinct and rather harsh comments regarding what some people considered rights. “Have these people ever even read the US Constitution?! Whoever is writing the copy for those reporters can’t even seem to understand the difference between libel and slander, why should I trust their legal judgment when it comes to issues of Constitutionality?”
I could have said more as well and even cited historical documents as proof but it would have been like preaching to the choir. I was also busier than I had ever been in my life and didn’t have the energy to get any angrier than I already was. I was canning and drying all of the fresh produce I had purchased. I was also drying the commercial sized bags of frozen veggies that I had gotten from the warehouse club since that saved me having to blanch the food before it went on the drying trays. I felt in such a hurry that I was running both boiling water canners and the pressure canner too; I could barely fit them all on the stove top at the same time, but I made it work. I felt like I had no choice.
After I had to pull Nydia away from the stove for the third time I kept her in the playpen or in her old highchair. She had just started using the booster seat like a big girl and wasn’t happy being confined to the highchair but I didn’t see what else I could do, she just didn’t want to listen and the danger to her safety was too great. What is it about two year olds? I finally understand why Mom said that she had come really close to having Dad build a dog run that she could put me in between the time I was two and four years of age. I love Nydia but we’ve almost spoiled her and I’m grateful when Mateo can take her for a little while. He couldn’t do it often then however because he was fielding phone calls, a couple from investigators from the SEC asking if he’d spoken with Mr. Lazaro.
“Hello? … Yes, this is Matt Jakob. … And you are? … Well, sir I’m rather uncomfortable speaking of this matter without verification of your identity. … OK, give me a few minutes and I’ll call back.”
Hearing him grumble under his voice I asked, “Mateo? Is everything all right?”
“I’ve got it covered. Don’t worry. Just a gentleman on the phone claiming he’s with the SEC. He gave me his extension and I’m going to call back through the switchboard to check his credentials.”
Turns out the man really was an investigator and that it was a good thing that Mateo hadn’t simply blown him off.
“Yes, I’m here … My license? … No, not since I left the firm. … No, I haven’t been counseling or giving recommendations to anyone in a professional capacity … Well yes, I have spoken with some of my former clients but only to refer them to new brokers …. Yes, I’m sure … He said what?! … Absolutely not! I’m well aware that with the additional licensing restrictions currently in place I cannot operate outside of a corporate permit … I don’t care whether you believe me or not. Check with the Office of Financial Regulations. I applied for the additional licensing and permits the day I left the firm … Yes, I’m aware of the freeze but I applied to get on the waiting list … No, hardly … No, that is not what we spoke of at all … No … No, I’m definitely sure. … I understood that Lazaro was the one you were investigating … On the contrary, I was far from aware Dan has been named as a conspirator in the case, thank you for the information … She what?! ... That’s a @#$% lie!” Striving for some control and modifying his voice he continued, “That is a total fabrication. I introduced them to a buyer from a local museum concerning some of their personal artwork and that’s the last time I entered their home … No, absolutely not … investigate all you want but if what you say is true I strongly suggest you verify any of the so-called facts you are gathering because I can prove where I was at and what I was doing that morning … When I see a subpoena, because right now I’m finding your line of questioning more like you are fishing … I’ll eagerly await it.”
I sat there intending to give Mateo a chance to calm down before I started asking questions but he jumped up from his desk and stormed out of the room and then out the back door, slamming it against the outside wall and nearly springing the hinges. Justifiably worried at his display of temper I followed him out only to have Mateo turn around and snap at me.
He snarled, “Leah, will you just go in the house and give me some space?!”
Nydia was down for her nap and I was worried that his yelling was going to wake her so I gave calming him down a shot. “Mateo darling …”
“Leah! I said go in the @#$% house! I’m this close to losing my temper and …”
I went up to him, put my hand on his arm and said, “Then go head and lose it. I trust you and know you wouldn’t act like this over something trivial. I’ll still be right here when you’re ready to talk and we’ll face it together.”
The crazy edge to his anger came close to spilling over and then it just evaporated. I got jerked into a hug that nearly crushed me. That startled me at first then I started hugging him back though not as frantically. His actions confused me but at the same time they confirmed just how upset he was. He was not demonstrative in public and while we were in our own backyard the neighbors could have easily seen us at that position. It took a few moments but he did calm down a bit and then we walked back to sit in the wicker furniture on the lanai.
Mateo was still very tense but at least he was ready to talk. “Leah … I … I don’t like losing my temper. You shouldn’t take risks like that by being around me when … when I get like this. My mother and sister always said that I frightened them … I’m …” I leaned into his embrace and thought how awful to have your own mother say she was afraid of you. She might have been trying to help him by bringing attention to how he was acting but I think she had made things worse instead. Eventually he continued, “Try and understand Leah, I don’t want to hurt you or Nydia so … when I ask for some space just give it to me even if you aren’t afraid of me.” Another sigh and he said, “I just don’t understand what is going on. Strike that, I understand it, I just don’t know why. I thought I knew Dan and could trust him. I’m not naïve. Nor am I some callow freshman investor. If I missed this, what else have I missed? Dan has been named in the SEC investigation right along with Lazaro. If Lazaro is an informant then what does that make Dan? And what Lazaro is doing is too close to entrapment; I would think a decent lawyer could get the charges against those men dismissed easily … assuming this is meant to go to court.” He gripped his hair with both hands and gave a sharp tug, very unlike himself. “What is going on and how did I miss this?!”
“First off, you are an honest person and wouldn’t necessarily think that to make money you’d have to do something illegal. Secondly you are very talented at what you do and wouldn’t find it necessary to do something illegal to make money for your clients or yourself. Thirdly, you were always extremely busy fulfilling your responsibilities to your clients’, all of whom were much more modest in means than the clients that Lazaro dealt with. And it seems that most of the firm’s board didn’t know it either so stop beating yourself up over it. The man is a … a scoundrel and a scab on society. Now what do you mean “assuming this is meant to go to court”? Why arrest someone, possibly ruin their life in the process, if you aren’t going to charge them and take them to court?”
“A scoundrel and a scab on society huh? Not how most people described Lazaro last time I checked,” he said folding me into his embrace even tighter. “Te quiero mujer. As for why arrest them if they don’t mean to prosecute … leverage, same as in business. Control. Perhaps simple intimidation. But it shouldn’t be happening for those reasons. That means that either the investigators are in some way corrupt, the court system is being manipulated, or both.”
The very idea turned my stomach. If we couldn’t trust the judicial system what protection did we really have? Then I asked a question to clarify something that had confused me. “It sounded like you were referring to a female making claims against you. Who was she? Was it Rachel?”
“No, her mother; but it wasn’t … intentional; at least I don’t think so. Mrs. Lazaro is a dimwit and …”
He snorted and shook his head. “Have you ever spent any time with the woman? She is addicted to prescription meds – a functioning addict – but it does give her the appearance of living her life in a fog or haze. That airy fairy display you saw at the equestrian center was actually a good day for her. She either can no longer afford her drug of choice or she is being forced to be more circumspect in public.”
“I knew Rachel’s mother always acted kind of … distant … but I didn’t realize … .”
“Most people don’t know; like I said she is a functioning addict. And you don’t have to bother to be so polite when it is just the two of us. ‘Distant’ is about the kindness descriptive term I’ve heard for her in quite some time. Trust me, I’ve helped pour the woman into a limo on more than a few occasions and seen Lazaro send her home from parties because she was losing her grip on reality. She also runs off at the mouth talking about things that either she has no business talking about or that she has no direct knowledge of. For instance, according to the investigator she made it out like I’ve been using my license and I haven’t, it’s not valid at the moment because I’m not covered by a bond. The question I don’t have the answer for is whether this is something she came up with on her own demented walk through reality or whether Lazaro is feeding it to her as part of some game plan.”
I could tell he was becoming agitated again so I pulled him into the kitchen, had him sit at the table and gave him some chamomile tea and a slice of fresh bread with jam and butter on it. I took a load out of one canner and refilled it before prepping the next batch of jars as he continued talking around mouthfuls.
“I’m still missing something.”
“Yeah. The reason why Lazaro is so focused on me. Or maybe it isn’t me … or isn’t only me, maybe there are others he is doing this to. Or maybe it is my imagination, but I really don’t think so.” After another bite and then a sigh, he muttered, “But I can’t worry about it right now even though my instincts tell me it is important. I doubt they’ll send investigators out while martial law is still in effect but you can bet they will eventually and I need to have my own strategy in place.”
I realized he meant they would be sending an investigator to the house and I looked around and got a sinking feeling.
“Mateo … the house. I wouldn’t want anyone to see it right now just because it is so messy but I certainly don’t want …”
“We can put the stuff out in the barn.”
“No, someone could see us moving it. And yes,” I said seeing him look at me like my tinfoil helmet was getting too tight “I’m aware how paranoid that sounds. The Nelsons are all right but the guy on the other side – Gerald What’s His Name – is … well, he’s nosey and he works for the County Administrator. He got a little too curious when we started putting up the fence. Don’t forget he called Code Enforcement and then got bent out of shape when he found out we weren’t doing anything wrong.”
“Yes, I’m well aware of the problems he could cause us but I believe most of it is just envy. Gerald thinks a rather lot of himself. When I first bought the house I was very disappointed to learn how irritating he could be. And …” He stopped and then waved his hand in front of my face. “What? You’re thinking of something. I know that smirk.”
“What kind of mud did you pick up and how much?”
He scrunched his face up and shook his head. “Leah … Earth to Leah. Habla inglés por favor.”
“Huh? Oh, you know, spackle, drywall mud, texturing; the stuff I put on the list for out in the barn.”
“Spackle what? Oh, you mean the stuff in the buckets?”
“Yeah. Was it the type that is pre-mixed or do I have to prepare it with a mixer?”
“Yes and yes. I asked the man at the warehouse you sent me to and he recommended one product then two contractors who were there as well came over and started arguing about the relative benefits of the recommended product versus other products that they preferred to use finally admitting that it depended on the project as to which was most appropriate. I got … irritated … so I … uh … there is quite a bit of all the different types and brands,” Mateo answered in a slightly embarrassed voice.
“That’s providential! Now we don’t have to worry.”
“Worry about what?” Mateo asked getting slightly irritated and still trying to figure out how our conversation had gone from the SEC and Lazaro to mud … although it wasn’t really that much of a jump if you are talking metaphorically.
It was easier to show him than tell him. I grabbed his hand and pulled him upstairs and into the empty bedroom that shared a wall with the boarded over bonus room. “We have to use interior walls since the house’s exterior walls are made of block. It also needs to be a wall that doesn’t have a bunch of electrical wires running through it. See how this wall only has the outlet on one end? The house was built before the code changed requiring outlets six feet from every corner in a room. That means I have this whole long wall to work with.”
“Leah, you’re making my head hurt and reminding me oddly of Greg when he starts on one of his lectures. Will you just tell me what has you so excited and leave the technical explanation for another time?”
“Hidden storage in the walls.”
“Hidden … OK, maybe you had better back up and explain after all.”
“Trust me Mateo, a lot of cans will fit between wall studs the way I want to put them in there. There isn’t enough room in the kitchen cabinets for me to put everything away and I certainly don’t want anyone outside of our family to know what we have. I can use the metal flashing we were going to use add a water catchment system on the barn, bend it to create “chutes” or channels that the cans can slide down, and nail them up between the wall studs. It will mean putting off most of the renovations that I was going to do inside the barn since I’ll have to utilize those materials; but like you always say, you must prioritize your assets. What I want to do is carefully take out the drywall on this side of this wall. I’ll use the 2 x 6’s we have on top of the existing wall studs to give the wall more depth, that’ll let us store something as large as those #10 cans of freeze dried foods that are so awkward. Then I’ll cover everything the area with new drywall, texture it, and repaint with the leftover paint we used on Nydia’s room last year and you’ll never know the new storage is there.”
“You plan to seal our supplies up in the wall?” he asked still perplexed.
“Not quite,” I said really getting into the spirit of the plan. “On the bonus room side of this wall I’m going to build a chase. It’s going to look like something for the HVAC system. What the chase will do is in part cover the real wires that already exist and tidy them up along with the exposed duct work but there will also be access panels that we can unscrew and take things out of the wall storage as it is needed.”
Mateo looked at me blankly and then asked in a tired voice, “Do I want to know where you learned to be this devious?”
I could tell he was only half way kidding and that his pride was smarting from all of our recent troubles as well as the call from the SEC and the realization that he’d badly misjudged someone he considered a close friend. He also didn’t particularly appreciate having to accept that between the two of us I was the more mechanically inclined.
“Mateo, as much as I would love to be as savvy and as capable as you are when it comes to complicated financial matters it is simply not my talent. If you hadn’t worked so hard I wouldn’t be in a position to do this, any of it, especially now. We certainly wouldn’t have the supplies we have to work with.”
Mateo sighed and said, “Leah, you don’t need to … to stroke my ego. I …”
“I’m not. I’m giving credit where it is due. The only paycheck I’ve had in a long time came out of your wallet. The money I spend at the grocery store comes out of your wallet. The little bit of money from my parents’ estate exists because you took the time to help me invest it safely. I’m well aware that a degree in Secondary Education hasn’t exactly prepared me for what life has thrown at me. I was also going to say that it’s nice to know I’m not completely useless when it comes to doing things to protect our family’s investments.”
Mateo’s mood altered in under two second. “Hmmmm. I like the sound of that,” he purred.
“Sound …” I had to clear my throat before I could finish. His chocolate brown eyes always tickle my insides when he looks at me like that. “Sound of what?”
“Yes … oh. Now, let’s explore that a little more … argh.” The groan was due to the intercom on my waist band calling, “Nonny!” letting us know that Nydia’s nap time was over. We both pulled ourselves back from where we were heading and eventually chuckled as we went downstairs, accepting that there are some things you simply can’t avoid and responsibilities to a toddler is one of them. I spent the rest of the day preserving food, entertaining Nydia, keeping up with laundry, and popping into Mateo’s office to keep the coffee pot refilled and for updates on what was going on.
Gathering “news” was a frustrating experience. One of the primary problems with using the mainstream media as an information source was that only crews with federally issued papers could be out on the streets; freedom of the press was a thing of the past. The other restriction was that they had to be accompanied by a federally assigned escort which dictated where and when they could go into areas. The national news outlets were taken over by the FCC bootlickers a few years back and they now occupied all of the senior administrative positions on all but a very few of the networks. Local media outlets weren’t quite as bad though it still took a few days for the complaints that the Freedom of Speech was being violated to emerge, but by then it was too late.
The government types on both sides of the aisle were trying to write history before it happened. What most of them failed to understand was how quickly the physical infrastructure would begin to fail altering everyone’s plans.
Road traffic was completely prohibited, both pedestrian and vehicular. All people movement was restricted under threat of detainment except for federally approved troop movements and those of official municipal security personnel such as law enforcement officers and “deputized” personnel from the Federal Volunteer Corp. The restrictions may have made it easier for the criminal element to be identified and picked up but it ultimately added fuel to the fire of violence because of the indirect consequences.
The first problem that came to light was that people were running out of food. The reasons ran the gamut; dependency on food pantries and other types of charities like food pantries or volunteer organizations like Meals-On-Wheels; economic deficits where people could only buy a few days of food at a time; shopping habits that only had seven to ten days of food in the house at any given time; the habit of eating most meals outside the home; etc., etc., etc. There was also the issue that many families with children depended on at least one meal a day being served at the school cafeteria or in an after school program, and not just because they received free or reduced lunches. People, confined at home as they were, ate the food supplies they did have faster than expected as well. I could sympathize with that last one as I had to curb the snacking really fast, especially Nydia who was a grazer. Some of it was nervous eating but some of it was just eating out of habit rather than because we were hungry. I had given into Nydia’s pleas too often for “treats” – healthy or not – and paid the price when I had to start saying no. And realistically staying up later and getting up earlier used up more calories requiring another “refueling.” I added a “tea time” snack to try and address this even though it meant more work for me.
The problems with food went beyond the individual and family unit issues. No one on the road meant no one on the road – no truckers, no bread deliveries, no fresh produce deliveries, no fresh dairy deliveries, no exceptions. That meant no new items were available at the stores to stock the gaping holes on the shelves where people tried to grab everything they could at the last minute (and no stockers to do it even if there was stuff sitting waiting to be stocked).
The complications to the situation didn’t end there. The worn infrastructure in most areas of the country requires constant and consistent upkeep and maintenance. Without workers to perform this upkeep things begin to break down, often more quickly than expected. A small part in a system would break or wear out and because no one was there to replace it or throw a switch to a redundant circuit, the small part would cause another part to malfunction which in turn caused other breakdowns and malfunctions, exacerbating existing weaknesses and causing even more failures.
They did try and address this once the breakdowns became noticeable to the public. Municipal authorities, usually in the guise of public safety or emergency response, would go to the homes of the managers and supervisors of the electric companies or water departments and “draft” them to work – whether they wanted to go or not. What they found however was that jobs had become so specialized and required constant training to remain up-to-date that managers and supervisors did not have enough specific knowledge; or had no training or experience at all for the maintenance issue in question. It was a complete Chinese fire drill that contributed to the eventual total decent into chaos that many locations – both big and small – eventually experienced.
The first that Mateo and I became aware of the infrastructure failures – I thought of those always being “in the future” only suddenly the future was now – was on the fourth morning of what was passing for martial law. Why I say it like that is because some areas of town were in virtual lockdown while other areas had all sorts of Red Cross and Emergency Aid workers running around like ants gratuitously serving a population that would have otherwise burned the city down. It was like pacifying the hellions in the classroom while the good students languished and suffered. A more clichéd description of what occurred is “the squeaky wheel got the oil.”
Mateo came into the kitchen, disheveled from another long night at his desk trying to wheel and deal his money an evacuation route, and asked me, “How were you planning to take care of the water?”
I hadn’t slept very much myself because I hadn’t planned as well as I could have and had started a load in the canners too late for good sense. “Water?”
“A representative from the water department just issued a statement that a boil-water order is going into effect immediately and that water pressure may go down as well as brown-outs in various districts begin.”
I was tired, but not that tired. “Mateo, we’re on a well. We aren’t affected by boil-water orders.”
“Not the boil-water order Leah, the brown-outs. If we lose power, we lose water.”
I think I was just getting overwhelmed. I had so much to do and no time left to do it. I felt like a dog that had been chasing its tail backwards. I slumped down in a chair at the table, laid my head down and had a brief pity party. No sooner did I feel Mateo’s hand on my shoulder than I sat up, shook myself and then leaned into him after remembering I wasn’t in this alone. “I’m OK. Really. I … I just need … need a hug. That’s what I need. A hug. Please.”
“Oh, my Leah, I’ll give you as many as you crave. I would give you more if there was time and Nydia …” Mateo stopped, wrinkling his nose that the noise coming from the family room. “What is wrong with my little ray of sunshine this morning? She sounds … upset.”
I wanted to roll my eyes at his understatement and the fact that he had fallen into Latin syntax again which he tends to do when he is very tired. His “little ray of sunshine” was more like a stormy morning at the moment. Nydia liked her routine. Any time her routine was disturbed she let us know exactly how displeased she was. Most of the time Nydia really was like sunshine but she had her moments of being a strong-willed termagant just like any other toddler; and that was one of those mornings. “She is upset that the Disney Channel is off the air. All of the children’s programming is off the air. Nickelodeon, Disney, TV Land, and some others are completely blacked out and PBS, WUSF, and the local broadcasting stations have all gone national with 24-hour news coverage. I hate to use the TV as a babysitter but I may need to pop a DVD in until I can …”
“I’ll take her for a while. She can play at helping me.”
“Helping you what?” I asked as I put another eight quarts of hamburger in the pressure canner.
“The water?” he reminded me.
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Do not apologize Leah, without you … I have no idea where Nydia and I would be right now.” We did a little more than hug for a moment before being forced to come back to earth.
I stretched, trying to wake myself up enough to do mental math. “All right. We calculated one gallon of water per day per person for drinking and cooking only and we said we wanted to have one month in bottled water saved up. That is 90 gallons. We didn’t quite make it but it should be no problem to finish getting there since we still have power right now.”
Mateo asked, “How much do we have at the moment?”
“We have the ten five-gallon Zephyrhills jugs you ordered last month before you cancelled the contract. They’re along the wall in the garage. I’ve got another ten gallon-sized jugs on the gorilla shelves out there as well. That’s sixty gallons. We also have four flats and a piece of sixteen ounce water bottles but I’m not going to count them in our total, we’ll keep them back in case … in case we have to leave for some reason which reminds me that we never finished those backpacks for the Jag or my Chevy and …”
“One thing at a time mi Corazon.”
I took a steadying breath and continued, “For wash water I can use the pool and the rain barrels. I wish we had had time to have Southern Solar come out and hook everything up to the well.”
“The parts were delivered,” Mateo reminded me looking at me consideringly.
“Uh … I don’t know very much about electric beyond the basics Mateo and this is something above and beyond. I can change and add outlets, switches, fans, lights, and splice wires … simple stuff like that … but solar? I don’t know Mateo. I’d be scared of causing a surge or blowing the batteries. Did they deliver the schematics with the supplies?”
“Yes, I believe so. Hmm … first let’s fill more containers – I would rather be safe than sorry – and then while Nydia naps I will lay everything out on the lanai in the order of the pictures.”
“Mateo are you sure about this? I’ve never worked with solar beyond the plug-n-play chargers like the ones on the electric fence.”
“You saved me a maintenance call last year on the charger for the pool pump.”
“That was just a loose wire Mateo, anyone could see that. I …”
“We will figure it out together. Don’t get cold feet on me now Leah. It can be no worse than taking apart the air conditioner to fix the …float switch? … and clean the coils.”
“That’s different,” I tried to explain.
“I do not see how.”
Trying to remain calm I responded, “Because they were already put together the way they were supposed to go. All I did was make some small repairs following simple directions. This would be starting from scratch!”
“I still say, working together, we can figure it out.” Mateo’s confidence in me is both a blessing and a curse. I’m forever worried that I’m going to run up against something that he is sure that I can fix that I make a complete mess of. “Now, what can I fill with water before we lose power.”
Knowing he was right and I was wasting time I said, “I have two garbage bags full of clean two-liter soda bottles I’ve been saving and we have that extra pickle barrel we didn’t need for the water catchment system and … oh no!”
“What?!!” I had startled him.
“No power … no freezer … no frig … no computer … I … I’ve got to get moving! I’ve got to finish …”
“Easy Leah. Look at me. Now I will say to you something that my mother used to drive me insane with. ‘There is as much time as there is.’ We’ll do what we can and it will simply have to be enough.”
I wanted to scream at him that it was easy for him to say but I didn’t because he did understand. In his industry everything and everyone was always “on.” Multi-tasking wasn’t merely a line in his job description; it was a mandatory survival skill. So were patience and perseverance and the recognition that sometimes there simply wasn’t enough time in the day to get everything accomplished and sometimes you missed an opportunity through no real fault of your own. Mateo was very good at compartmentalizing things and that was a skill I was going to need to develop.
So I took a deep breath, counted to ten, and said, “Spray the pickle barrel on the inside with straight bleach to sanitize it and kill some of the smell. While that is soaking take the two-liter bottles and pour a capful of bleach in each bottle, swish it around, and then fill with water. Make sure the cap you use for each bottle gets soaked in some bleach water as well. After the bottles, the barrel can finish being cleaned and filled. While you’re doing that I’ll put water bobs in Nydia’s tub and the guest bathroom tub and get them filled. We’ll need to use your bathroom for Nydia’s bath time but I can still use the shower stall in the pool bath. That should give us another … let’s see, fifty plus one hundred times two, plus another … four liters is just a smidge over a gallon and I think there are almost two dozen bottles out there …hmmm … OK that should give us about two hundred and sixty more gallons of drinking water after everything has been filled.”
Mateo nodded at the plan in satisfaction.“Very good. I’ll check the salt level in the pool and shock it if necessary just to be on the safe side. I think we are due some rain tonight as well. I’ll use the spigot and transfer the water already in the barrels to the garden cistern.”
After our brief brainstorming session we both went to work. When the water was taken care of I asked Mateo to finish pulling all of the citrus fruit and I juiced and canned it all since it was now too soft to make good segments. The loquats were also beginning to ripen so I made a small batch of loquat preserves as well.
Lunch, when I finally found time to stop long enough to prepare it, was pimento cheese made from a block of Velveeta cheese on homemade bread along with a salad of homegrown cherry tomatoes in vinegar and oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. Dinner was the last steaks in the freezer and nearly the last anything in the freezer. As I had removed items from the freezer I had filled the space with bottles of water. When the water in the bottles froze it meant that the freezer didn’t have to run so often or work so hard to maintain its temperature. Along with the steaks we ate baby carrots and loose leaf lettuce out of my window box garden. By necessity rather than plan, dinner was eaten on paper plates on the lanai. A so-called rolling brown out that started about 3:45 pm turned into an actual black out which forced Mateo to grill the steaks outside. As careful as we tried to be, as I was pulling some of the fruit that Mateo had missed, I heard some of the neighbors wondering enviously who in the neighborhood had been grilling out. I’ve been much more careful ever since then with food odors. We’ve got quite a cushion of distance between our property and all of the adjacent homes, but smells still carry a long way.
As afternoon turned to evening we could hear people in the neighborhood calling out to each other to see if anyone had power yet … and whether anyone had a generator. We did not interact with anyone primarily because some of our neighbors had rather different views of property rights that we did, particularly the neighbor immediately to our west, the one that worked for the county. Gerald had made a huge stink when we began to renovate the barn, going so far as to call code enforcement, because he was concerned that we weren’t using environmentally friendly paint and that we might be dumping stuff in the lowlands behind the house rather than disposing of it as he deemed appropriate. Turns out that CE actually cited him when they went through his yard to get to ours and saw that he had built a shed inside the conservation belt and had shut down the utility company’s right of way to access power lines that ran behind his property. We got the blame for that snafu for some reason and our neighbor relations with him and his family hadn’t been particularly good since then.
Mateo and I were both exhausted that night. Events around town had quieted enough that Mateo told me to take Nydia to bed early and that he would be making an early night of it as well. There was nothing to stay up for anyway with the power still out. We had the radio with rechargeable batteries and the solar recharger, and then we had the wind-up radios some of which had their own solar back up but most of the radio stations were without power so no one was broadcasting anyway. I was grateful for his insistence; I really was exhausted to the point of tears and I needed sleep desperately at that point. However, when I got up the next morning it was to find Mateo had slept in front of the doors to our rooms.
“Mateo!” I whispered after nearly tripping on him as I tried to exit the room.
He groaned, “Not morning already?”
Still whispering to avoid waking Nydia, “Yes, morning. And the power is back on … the toilet tanks filled about 4:30 this morning, waking me up for a second. I’ll go check the frig and freezer and get breakfast started while you tell me why you were sleeping on the floor instead of in your bed where you belonged.”
I helped him stand and we went to the kitchen. “No power, no security system. And the phone lines were down for a while as well so no calling for help should we have needed any. I wasn’t too worried about it because of the security shutters but then I picked up some talk on the hand held radios and I heard a report that another riot had started in College Hill … and that the authorities couldn’t contain it or at least couldn’t last night. A fire started in West Tampa as well and there wasn’t any water pressure for the emergency responders and all they could do was watch it burn until they could bring in a pumper tank. It was simply … better … for me to watch over you and Nydia in case something …”
“But on the floor?! Look at you, you’re even more exhausted than you were last night … and moving kind of funny too. Is that a scuff mark on your cheek?”
He’d tripped over the coffee table in the dark – I’m surprised I hadn’t heard him – banging his face on the back of his recliner on his way down to the floor. As I dabbed first aid cream on the injury, Mateo nearly fell asleep in my arms. I knew he simply couldn’t take too many more nights like the ones he’d been having. And that’s how I … and Nydia … began sleeping in Mateo’s room. We turned one of the large walk in closets into a “camp out” room for her and I became a wife in fact and not just title. I found that I too felt more secure with us all together at night, or at least closer at hand than at opposite ends of the house.
The power continued to go up and down that day. They tried to keep the power on at the hospitals as much as possible but we heard, again through the civilian broadcasts on the hand held radios, that the hospitals were using their backup generators more often than not. The areas of town that made the most noise got lots of attention as always and the areas of town that remained law abiding – or at least appeared so on the surface since they caused no open problems – went without even though the needs in those areas were just as great.
A week into martial law the authorities had no choice but to let people return to work to head off more riots and infrastructure failure, but it was a changed world for all of us. Many people found that when they tried to return to work their jobs weren’t waiting for them, or that they were laid off after a few days of clean up. The week that the country was on hold was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many small businesses; and many large businesses as well. The greater majority of the service industry told their employees to stay at home on unpaid leave if they didn’t let them go completely so that they could get them off of their payrolls, especially the mandatory health care expenditure accounts. The laid off people ran to sign up for Medicaid coverage and other state and federally funded health care to avoid IRS fines only to find out that there was a huge application processing backlog and that applications didn’t stave off the net being thrown out by government enforcers to levy fines and delinquency charges. Unemployment checks were still considered income for tax purposes and that amount was used on the sliding scale to determine how much they were going to be charged … a great deal more than most expected since you couldn’t just opt for a catastrophic-only plan.
The Federal Reserve still had no real plan for exiting the mess created by the Stimulus Packages passed by Congress and signed into law in 2009. They had finally managed to divest themselves of the banks and other industries that had been nationalized, and even turned a profit on some of the entities, but the decision by and large was one that cost the taxpayers of this country billions of dollars. In an attempt to stem the rising risk of inflation the decision was made to abruptly turn off the printing presses again – a process that had been going on and off for a few years to try and control the value of the dollar - to give the economy time to absorb the extra dollars raising the specter of deflation instead when that plan worked no better than the one before it. To pay the unfunded mandates as well as the ever increasing debt service on the deficit the federal government went into overdrive collecting all of the “fines” and back taxes they could. No one was exempt. Even Mateo and I got caught.
One day I walked into Mateo’s office to bring him some cold, sweet tea when he looked at me with this horribly ashamed expression, “Leah, I’m sorry, I …”
“What’s wrong Mateo?” I asked concerned.
A pale faced anger replaced his discomposure. “I’ve done everything I could think of Leah. I’ve moved some money offshore but not enough and we can’t bring it back in without risking huge fines, fees, and taxes. We’d wind up owing more money than is actually in the accounts right now. And for some reason they have me qualified as self-employed rather than unemployed and they are requiring me to pay taxes up front instead of at the end of the year as they’ve always allowed the self-employed to do in the past. They can’t prove I have any income, I closed all of the investment accounts and disbursed the funds, and yet they are asking me to pay taxes as if I was still making the same income I made at the firm. If I don’t they’ll begin fining me and the fines and interest accrue daily … daily!! And now the county is asking for quarterly payments … up front … on the property taxes. Do we not own anything anymore in this country?!! Or do we merely manage it for the government’s benefit?!”
“Easy Mateo, it’s bad. I agree, it is definitely bad and unfair and everything else. So … so what do we do?”
“I …,” and he raked his hands through his hair. “The only option I have at this time is to … Leah, the money in your account. I can close it and …”
“Well, then do it. The sooner we get them off our back the better.”
“Leah, you don’t understand, that’s … the money from the sale of your parents’ home …”
“We’ll get it back somehow. Eventually. Probably. And right now that account is inaccessible to me except in limited circumstances anyway according to the statement we received. This is one of those limited circumstances. Cash it out. Do what you have to do. Maybe when all of the visible money is gone they’ll have less to take aim at.”
“It should only be so easy.” Mateo took a deep, calming breath and then looked at me, “As God as my witness Leah, I’ll get the money back somehow. I’ll …”
“Don’t. Don’t do this to yourself. I trust you Mateo. I know how hard you’ve worked to try and save what you can. You wouldn’t bring this up if you hadn’t already exhausted all other options. You’ve gotten us this far. At least we don’t have to worry about going to the grocery store so much.”
You see, taxes and fines weren’t the only problems. When people did return to work, assuming they had work to return to, the price of fuel had skyrocketed. With little to no threat from the US, the Middle East had erupted in violence and extremist rhetoric. Threats of depegging from the dollar never materialized for most of OPEC but that doesn’t mean that words weren’t capable of causing us pain. The current Administration’s blindingly poor performance with regard to international relations had practically garroted any standing we once had. With the loss of the US’s balancing power, Russia quickly found itself overwhelmed and unable to cope with being the only former super power on the block and was also ignored by everyone no matter how much posturing they did. Only their immediate neighbors were really affected and too many of those former Soviet Bloc members had internal problems of their own.
Besides, Russia had China to worry about. And China was having its own set of internal problems. They were imploding economically and their social and ethnic troubles were increasing at an equal rate. Since they had been the go-to source for investment dollars to keep countries running, China’s dramatic economic destabilization created a great deal of fall out around the world.
With the increase in the cost of fuel came an increase in the price of everything else. This was especially noticeable to us at the grocery store and produce markets. At first there were shortages everywhere from the week of martial law and once the shelves where re-stocked – sort of restocked – prices were outrageous. To address this the government started to muck up the free market forces even more by instituting rationing and price controls which only made things worse – for some, much worse – accept for those making a living on the black market.
Work and productivity came to a standstill. The government couldn’t stop its previous mandates quick enough and couldn’t enroll the newly poor into their entitlement programs quickly enough. Everything was unraveling much faster than even the most depressing talk shows had anticipated. It wasn’t an overnight collapse but it felt like we were dying by inches every day. The media had finally awoken from their masochistic love affair with the current Administration but not soon enough apparently.
The federal government, in the interest of Homeland Security, tried to shut down some broadcasting companies as well as some private companies that broadcasted on television, radio, and on the internet. The court had denied the FCC the prize it sought a couple of years ago of control of the internet – explaining they had not been able to establish a connection between their case and any existing law at the time. Since then the FCC, with the help of certain people in government, had changed that situation dramatically. Now the laws on the books looked similar to what had only existed in places like China in the past. The FCC now has the power to force carriers of all electronic media to have ratios of types of information and to desist in carrying information deemed inappropriate for the common good.
This had caused mass outrage in many sectors as who determined “appropriateness” could weight the rules heavily in their favor. This went from a “good intentions” law to censorship approved and supported by the law. What was written for one reason became used for another, similar to what happened to the RICO laws.
These days there is only one conservative broadcasting giant still viable and on the air, not because of their business model, but because the people demanded it. When the FCC had made a move to try and take over the network thousands upon thousands of viewers and listeners had surrounded every affiliate across the country. To prevent a bloodbath, the President and his men … and women … tried to make it appear that someone, in their zeal, had overstepped their authority. Someone was figuratively thrown under the bus – a standard and over used tactic - and the Administration reverted to their former tactics of belittling the network and refuting that it was a news agency and was only using their entertainment value to enflame the masses. What a bunch of smelly fertilizer. All the attempted coup did was validate the fears that people had. The network and all of its affiliates are now basically armed camps with the type of heavy security that only truly free men can offer and understand. They have also turned into small cities in their own right as some have had to move their families into the administrative offices to protect them from the other tactics now being used to intimidate employees of these stations … SEC investigation of the corporation’s stock value, audits by the IRS, social services investigating reports of child or elder abuse, dirty little tricks to make life miserable.
Our days during this time were stressful. Mateo and I weren’t just waiting for the other shoe to drop, we were waiting for the rain of shoes on our roof top. It became a daily occurrence for me to see Gerald outside peaking over or through the fence with his stupid notepad, scribbling away. When I finally figured out how to hook up the solar so that we could switch the well off of electric when we needed to, Gerald sent the inspection department Nazis over. All they did was give us a sticker of compliance with the new conservation mandates and congratulated us on being the first in the neighborhood. They also gave us a receipt to turn in to get a rebate. I thought Gerald was going to have a stroke from the look on his face as it went from gloating to furious when he found out the results of his call. Mateo told me to ignore him, that Gerald was acting the way he did to rattle us and that in reality he was just a cog in a wheel and not the important bureaucrat he envisioned himself to be, but that only helped my state of mind so much.
In reaction to having no control over certain areas of my life I became a control freak in others. I just about worried our garden to death. I spent hours every day checking for bugs, watering each plant carefully – using water I dipped from the deepest parts of the swamp when the rains didn’t come as often as they needed to since the solar only supplied the lines to the house and not the ag well – and fertilizing as sparingly as I could get away with. When I wasn’t doing that I was helping Mateo collect wood for our wood pile – in the guise of cleaning up our yard to meet the new “beautification” codes that were just a guise to keep people as busy as possible so they wouldn’t have time to foment unrest; sort of like the old CCC only without the pay check. We also reinforced our security starting with our own fence sections.
Thus far we had been having better luck than we should have hiding our assets and new lifestyle. The fence and gate helped as did the brambleberries and climbing roses, confederate jasmine, and other things that I had planted along the fence where we could install plank-on-plank fencing. So did the fact that we had never been the type of people to share our private business far and wide. We didn’t have to suddenly stop talking about certain things because we had never talked about them in public. And people were really focused on their own miseries – well most, Gerald is still a pain in my backside with his stupid surveillance act. A lot of people’s situational awareness ended at their own front door. And I kept busy; very, very busy. Every day brought new projects that I could focus some of my nervous energy on.
How Mateo was coming up with some of the materials I don’t know. We used up most of our materials for the barn renovation when I built the hidden storage space in the house. I’m not sure I want to know where some of the stuff comes from. At one point I was convinced it had something to do with the old playhouse built on stilts and hidden in the lowlands behind our property. I have my suspicions, namely that it has something to do with Mateo’s odd friend Greg and a railroad, but the less said about it the better.
I suppose the one good thing that came out of that time was that we learned who in the neighborhood could only complain about the lemons life was handing them and who could actually make lemonade. Our neighbor to the east was several years older than Mateo and had grown children and two grandchildren about Nydia’s age. He had owned his own maintenance company and was hit very hard economically. Taxes were eating him alive and he had to make a hard choice.
“Matt … Leah … I’m sorry to tell you but we’re moving.”
“Moving?!” I asked alarmed at the prospect of some of the most self-reliant people we knew packing up and leaving the area.
“Yeah. The county has already taken my little fishing shack over off of Anclote for back taxes. The place is just sitting their rotting but they even have a court order that I can’t fish off the old pier over there that has always been public use even though it was privately owned by my grandparents. I can’t afford another pre-tax payment on this place. We’re moving to our hunting lodge up in Georgia and the kids are going with us. We’ll be living like a bunch of dang hillbillies in side by side trailers but I own the land free and clear and I’ll be able to put food on the table for a while, at least until they try and take my fishing and hunting licenses away. You watch, guns’ll be the next thing on their agenda … surprised they ain’t done more than they have already.”
“We’ll be sorry to see you go,” Mateo said.
Mrs. Nelson, a quiet woman who rarely spoke at the best of times, said, “We honestly hate to leave, we have so much invested in the house … then again we don’t, it isn’t really ours after that last refinance we did and since they shut our business down for so-called environmental reasons, and well, the government can have it and good luck to them when we’re through with it.”
That made me blink. Mr. Nelson continued, “The ‘burbs are getting too hard for us. I played fair too long, didn’t stock up the way I should have. Never thought things would go the way they have. There’s been no one big event that made us skidaddle to safer digs the way we probably should have months ago. Things are getting lean around here and all our supplies are up at the lodge. My uncle – lives on the land too – keeps an eye out but he’s getting on in years and needs some help keeping the poachers at bay; lots of vagrants from the cities trying to squat out in the woods too. But listen, what we want to talk to you about is … well, you’ve still got a little one and I know you got the raw end of the stick too. There is no way, even with us and the kids packing up, that we can take everything. Can’t afford the gas to do it either nor the surcharges for any more extra axles on the road. My son is using his rig to get his and his sister’s houses packed up and we’ll put in what we can but there still won’t be much room to move four households – we’re picking up my mother on the way out of town. But no way do I want the government to get what we leave behind. I guess you’ve heard what’s happening on the news.”
Mr. Nelson was referring to the redistribution of “abandoned or excess resources” that had started to happen. More like a payoff to keep some members of the general public from revolting; or maybe bribing them is a more accurate description. It started with businesses that had shut their doors but hadn’t cleaned out their stock yet. The government went in and took whatever was leftover to cover fines, back taxes, or to – and this was a huge load of bunk – to prevent environmental impacts. The “abandoned” items were redistributed to the “needy.” Food and clothing were easy to understand – not that I agreed with the tactics used but it still made sense in a world that had descended into Marxism – but often the city, county, and state (and their employees) were the beneficiaries as the items were sold on the open market and the resulting cash disappeared into municipal coffers.
Tampa was far from the only municipality doing this. Even the federal government was using such tactics and there was the occasional scuffle between the feds and the local authorities when there was a disagreement over who had the “right” to a resource. It never seemed to occur to anyone except the victims that none of the government bodies had the legal right to do what they were doing at all. No writ of possession had been issue. No judgment had been granted. No sheriff’s sale had been scheduled and advertised. A team from the government body making the claim simply walked in and took things, often not even leaving a receipt behind of what was taken. And people found they couldn’t even claim the losses on their taxes.
Mateo nodded to Mr. Nelson in understanding. Mr. Nelson then said, “We have things almost packed up. You’re the first in the neighborhood we’ve told and probably the only one except for old man Houchens on the other side of us. Know for a fact he has some family moving him out in a couple of days too. Poor old guy, they’ve disallowed some of his medications that keep him going and it’s only a matter of time now. Medicare will pay for Hospice but won’t pay for a cheaper drug that would actually keep him alive with a decent quality of life.” Mr. Nelson sighed deeply and said, “I just don’t know what this country is coming to. Who would have ever thought … but it’s here and we have to make the best of it. Mateo, you helped me get out of that 401K mess a couple of years back and I’d like to share a last drink with you. We are heading out at first light.”
While Nydia chased a locust around the yard – and I prayed it would leave my garden alone long enough for me to finish my conversation with the lady in front of me – Mrs. Nelson said that she wanted to leave me her succulents and her pots of tomatoes since they didn’t have any room for them in the truck. “I’m actually relieved that we didn’t plant a winter garden this year, it’s that much that I’m not being forced to leave behind.” And then she broke down crying. By the time her husband and Mateo came back outside she’d gotten herself under control but both Mr. Nelson and Mateo looked grim and Mr. Nelson was also sporting red-rimmed eyes like his wife.
As Mateo picked Nydia up and we headed back inside to escape the mosquitoes that had come to dine I finally caught the locust with Nydia’s butterfly net and tossed it to the concrete where it made an oddly satisfying splatt.
“Nasty Nonny. Nasty. Ewwwww.”
“I know Baby Doll but I didn’t want that bug eating our garden.”
After a moment Nydia asked, “Nonny, how come da lady was twying? Was it da bug? Did it scare hers? It was big and yucky.”
“Something like that Baby Doll, it was something big and yucky.”
I was grateful that I had decided that morning to try out the solar cooker I had made as the power was out … again. It was basically just an old pizza box that I had altered with directions I had found online but beggars can’t be choosers. It cooked well enough that I made biscuit pizzas. Mateo’s was loaded to the max but Nydia’s and mine were plain cheese that I had made from powdered milk.
After playing outside all day and then another hour or so in the pool, Nydia was more than ready to go to bed for the night after Mateo read her a chapter from Trumpet of the Swan replete with sound effects. I was cleaning up and putting together a thermos breakfast of oatmeal that would cook overnight and be the next day’s breakfast when he walked in with the wind up lamp.
“Did she finally give it up?”
“She fell asleep two pages in. It took me a while to realize I was reading to myself.”
After a few more moments of quiet companionship Mateo said, “As soon as the clouds cover the moon I’m going back over to the Nelson’s place.”
“Why?” I asked, concerned that we were getting involved in something that could lead to trouble.
“Nelson is determined. He’s going to leave just enough for the government thugs that are bound to show up sooner or later … probably sooner if Gerald sticks his nose into things … and the rest he’s insisting that we take.”
“What? Wait, I … Mateo …”
“Leah, it makes sense. He can’t take it all. He doesn’t want the government on his trail if he can help it. If they take the property he’ll be out from under any new taxes and he’s already paid off the old and has proof of it; did it yesterday as a matter of fact. He’ll leave some contents to make it look like he took everything he could and just took off, which is true. But even with the way they have everything packed down there is a lot that they don’t have room for.”
“Mrs. Nelson told me about her plants. I can hide them in with what we already have because she uses the same generic black plastic pots as we do.”
“There’s more gardening equipment and chemicals and I’ll store them in the barn; I plan on storing it all in the barn until we can go through it. Anything they have a duplicate of at the property is being left behind, most of their furniture too but that will stay in the house – they were smart enough to move most of their family heirlooms up to the lodge when they lost their place on Anclote and had started thinking of retiring early. But his business equipment needs a new home and we have room in the barn. I’ll hold onto it as long as I can in case they return but the way Nelson talks he’s ready to shake the dust off and move on and never look back.”
Within two days of the Nelsons leaving people from the county showed up and kicked in their front door … unnecessary since it had been left unlocked. I didn’t even see them make an attempt to serve a legal notice before they ransacked the place. They just backed a dumpster onto the property and loaded it down with the remaining contents and then hauled it away after slapping No Trespassing stickers all over every window and door and sealing the building with hazmat tape.
The Nelsons and the Houchens weren’t the only ones that simply disappeared one day. Roughly fifteen percent of the homes on our street became vacant within four months. The subdivisions surrounding our small enclave of homes on acreage were even worse with some streets looking like there were more empty homes than ones where people lived. The florescent orange stickers signifying that the government had taken over the property looked like a new holiday decorating fad.
On our street most of the remaining neighbors tried to at least keep the yards of the vacant homes mowed … there was a booming business for homemade push mowers and Mateo bought one off of Craig’s List. We also used the swing blades. Pools were emptied as people dipped the water out of them during the times that the power was off. And the occasional gator was shot as it was sunbathing with the only evidence left behind the entrails left after the meat and skin had been hauled away, and those soon disappeared in the gullets of the local scavengers.
We both now had the bodies we had only dreamed of with hard abs, bronze skin, and arm muscles that no pickle jar could ever stand against but it sure wasn’t as satisfying as I had always inagined it would be. There were days when I dreamed of pale skin and softer curves, thinking that women that still had those must be rich indeed … or that they had latched onto some government employed Sugar Daddy. Even unemployed our days were full of nothing but work in one form or another; and sometimes it was just as much work not to turn bitter over what we had to do to survive.
The heat of summer saw the end of my winter garden and left me with only black eyed peas and okra growing. It also brought the return of rioting, especially when the power was off and the air conditioning failed. The government no longer made any pretence of civil liberties. For a while there had been noise of bringing in UN Peacekeepers to help when many National Guardsmen and military personnel refused orders to fire on unarmed citizens. That plan had fallen through however as the world at large began to descend into chaos.
Contrary to what many had thought, the US really did serve a purpose as the world’s biggest Boy Scout. As we became unable to give as much away in charitable contributions, or the Administration picked and chose where to offer the little assistance available with no apparent logic especially when it came to our allies, a great many people began to suffer. As the US instituted taxes and tariffs on all imports, other countries returned the favor and did it to our exports. Instead of selling our grains as an export, it sat rotting in warehouses despite real hunger hitting our own citizenry because of price controls, rationing, and general bureaucratic inefficiencies at all levels. Going to the grocery store was like a trip to Russia in the 60s and 70s – long lines, few items, and ration books.
Many grocery stores simply closed, unable to cope financially. Other places that had formerly used groceries to help their gross income closed as well … mini marts became a thing of the past, many either boarded over or even fire bombed to unrepairable shells in some parts of town. I used to love taking Nydia and going to the grocery store, flea market, or produce stand. Not now. Now it was like entering hell on a one day pass. And I was constantly worried I was going to get stuck some place if violence broke out. I hated the lines. I hated the depression. I hated the anger that simmered just below the surface. But I hated the feeling of helplessness most of all and the aura of hopelessness that seemed to follow some people around like a fog. Even though it wasn’t hard labor I always came back from shopping exhausted and with a head ache that took the rest of the day to get rid of.
I never went any further than I had to but unfortunately it was always alone. Neither Mateo nor I felt safe taking Nydia out in public any longer, people were so unpredictable. Neither one of us felt safe leaving the house completely empty in case someone from the government showed up and mistook our house for another “abandoned” one. The government tried to claim that such circulating stories were nothing but urban legends; however we knew for a fact that it did happen … had happened twice in our own area.
I didn’t even attend church any longer but when the power was on we listened to the podcasts of the sermons. Seems if this crisis has done nothing else it has driven people back to church, or at least back to a type of faith that wasn’t there before. I heard through the grapevine that many churches offered potluck dinners on Sundays to church members, either as a breakfast or after the morning services. Wednesday was another popular night for potluck or “Stone Soup” dinners as they were being called. Everyone brought what they could and it was turned into a large soup or stew. The church provided crackers, cornbread, or rolls and a selection of beverages. Some Catholic churches had returned to the traditional Friday fish fry by contracting with local fishermen direct at the pier.
A barter system also sprang up within the local churches. People would list items that they had for trade or that they wanted to trade for … or services they could offer or needed. Of course everyone had to be careful because the government was trying to force people to have business licenses to do this. Places like Craig’s List, Freecycle, and Ebay were all heavily monitored by the government so that no taxes or fees went unpaid. There was no way the government was going to give up the VAT tax or other sales tax and fees that a barter economy subverted.
We were lucky. We had started preparing just in time. Nothing lasts forever though and both Mateo and I craved different items at different times. The thing we craved most though was fresh eggs. Powdered eggs were great for baking and they even made decent omelets if you put some effort into it, but for scrambled eggs they were the pits; or at least I had never been able to make decent scrambled eggs with the powdered stuff. And frying was not an option either.
One day Mateo made one of his mysterious forays into the city to meet his friend Greg and returned with six sad looking chickens in a dog crate.
“Mateo? What on earth? Do I even want to know where these came from?”
“To make a long story short … no. But do not worry, they are … what do you call them … feral chickens. They are the descendants of the ones left behind when many of the migrants returned to Mexico rather than pay taxes here. You know that Greg “finds” things and … well no, you really don’t want to know.” As I picked small feathers out of his hair and out of unusual places on his clothing he continued, “He suggested that we build a coop for these in the barn and let them do something called free range. With no rooster we won’t have to worry about chicks, but if we can get fresh eggs you won’t worry so much.”
Greg had a habit of “finding things” all right. Why he felt the need to gift Mateo with so much stuff I’ve never been sure of. Greg is … eccentric doesn’t really cover it but it is the closest polite description I can come up with at the moment. He doesn’t make the greatest first impression and while he’s rubbed off on me a little bit – he really does think a lot of Mateo – even after long acquaintance he takes a lot of tolerance from me when he is in one of his moods.
Actually I’m grateful to Greg and shouldn’t bad mouth him after what happened. We – no I – would have been in some serious trouble without his odd skills.
It had been months since we had heard anything from any of the Lazaro family. The SEC investigator never materialized at our home. We had relaxed and made assumption we shouldn’t have. About six months from the week of martial law that changed everyone’s economic landscape, I was subpoenaed to appear to give a deposition for Mr. Lazaro’s lawyers and some federal investigators. It was totally out of the blue and I really resented the lack of warning and being dragged into the whole mess. I didn’t blame Mateo, it wasn’t his fault. No, the fault for what happened lies solely on Lazaro and I now detest the man more than I ever did before.
I never considered myself stupid and after being around Mateo, even before our marriage, I’d learned a few things. Two of the most important things I’d learned was that you never volunteer anything and that documentation is king. Lazaro and his minions underestimated me. They were also lame and grossly misinformed; they didn’t realize the difference between the funds that Mateo had set up for me – now hidden overseas after making it appear the money had been lost to a bad investment – and the account that had always been in my name from what was realized from my parents’ estate, it too now gone to pay taxes. I came prepared with proof of where those funds originated and proof that all taxes had been paid; thereby refuting their ridiculous assertion that Mateo was hiding undeclared assets under my name.
“What’s the difference?” I asked. “His name, my name? Florida is a community property state and we filed our federal income tax forms married-filing jointly. Or does Mr. Lazaro assume everyone is as corrupt as he is and hides assets in LLCs and in his children’s names … not to mention the rumors of mistresses and foreign currency dealings. Or maybe he just wants to blame my husband for publicly pointing out that his poor professional behavior cost people their life savings?”
I looked away from the death rays that Lazaro was shooting my way with his cold gray eyes and I noted a ferrety looking little man in the back taking notes. I also noted how Lazaro’s attorneys (yes, plural) were studiously avoiding paying him any attention.
After hours of their nonsensical questioning – I didn’t understand half of what they were talking about or trying to lead me to say – I was finally released from the deposition. I stood up to leave and watched the federal agents look at Lazaro’s team of lawyers with less than happy expressions and the ferrety man looking like he was chewing on something tasty.
Turned out the ferrety man’s name was Louis “No Stone Unturned” Banks, Esq. … the newly hired divorce attorney of Mrs. Lazaro. “Yes, my client caught her estranged husband moving assets and raiding the account set up in her name as part of their prenuptial agreement. Here’s my card. If you can remember specific details, I’m sure Mrs. Lazaro would prove to be very appreciative,” he said with a barely discernable wink before catching sight of someone and scurrying in their direction.
As much as I would love to have had information to share to repay Lazaro for his actions, I didn’t. And even if I had I’m not sure that I would have ultimately given into the temptation. What goes around comes around and some ancient proverb said “when embarking on a journey of revenge, first dig two graves.” Not to mention that if I was really leaning on faith I needed to remember “Revenge is mine saith the Lord.” Better to avoid the temptation – and potential repercussions – and keep my nose firmly stuck to my own business, something too many people seem to lack the skill to do.
As topsy turvy as our lives had become since our marriage, things became even more so that day. As I left the offices where I was deposed I noticed that the gas tank in my Chevy was around three-quarters full. That wasn’t bad but I decided to top it off anyway. It was a rare day when fuel didn’t go up a penny or two … not so much because of the price of crude per barrel but because of all of the new taxes being added per barrel at the state and federal level.
I was at a red light waiting for the arrow on my side to turn green so I could make a left turn and then turn right into the gas station closest to our street. A woman in oncoming traffic was in a hurry, talking on her cell phone, and she blew through the light … the same time two bicyclists were crossing in the crosswalk (something they weren’t supposed to do since there was a bike lane and they too weren’t following traffic rules). The woman saw the cyclists at the last moment, slammed on her brakes, swerved and … I still don’t remember being hit. I don’t even remember getting scared that I was about to be hit. Heck, I don’t even remember the woman blowing through the light or anything. Everything I know is what someone else has told me happened.
With the drop in taxes and increase in fuel prices, one of the fall outs has been too few police officers, too few first responders, available at any given time to respond to emergency calls. They say I was only completely unconscious a couple of minutes but I wasn’t real with it for another ten or fifteen. The only thing that saved my life was that my poor Chevy was an old tank of a car. It still had a real metal bumper if that tells you how old it was and Bea’s brothers always treated me right so if something did have to be replaced they would go to the junk yard and pull a good piece instead of a fiberglass aftermarket thing. I had also been wearing my seat belt … no way did I want one of those $300 tickets they handed out like candy … and I also don’t like to sit right up on top of the steering wheel so when the woman’s car clipped my driver’s side front fender and pushed the front of my car to the right hard enough to cause the back end to spin to the left, I didn’t slam into the steering column area. The air bag didn’t deploy because I didn’t have one.
I spidered the driver’s door window with my head … still trying to figure out how that happened considering it was the back of my head that I did it with. The seat belt did its job, but it did some damage at the same time. My ribs were bruised, a couple cracked. I had skin abrasions all the way through my clothes and let’s just say the bruising has resembled a surreal piece of modern art.
I think the worse physical damage, other than the ribs, was the hamstring. I must have been twisted pretty violently and most of the muscles down the left side of my body were pulled, pinched, bruised, and lots of other nasty things.
But the scariest thing wasn’t the accident because I don’t remember it; it wasn’t the injuries either, at least not then. What was scary was that it took forty-five minutes for the first official to show up even though witnesses had called 911 right away. Heck, the news van got there before they did when people started calling the news stations saying how long it was taking for the cops and emergency responders to show up. This wasn’t some hokey back road. I was on a main highway not too far from an Interstate exit, still along a main drag. It wasn’t during rush hour so there wasn’t any physical impediment to them arriving. People were calling, apparently telling the 911 operator that the other lady and I were bleeding to death and that both the cyclists were already dead and it still didn’t get a unit to arrive any faster.
Most of the law officers in Tampa were assigned to cover areas where government buildings and other types of major infrastructure instillations were located. With those officers off the streets there just weren’t that many to send, plus the federal government had taken over the 911 system nationwide, supposedly in a bid to streamline some healthcare issues arising when people thought they were free to call an ambulance for less than emergency purposes … it was “free” after all.
During all of the craziness a witness turned out to be a neighbor, had recognized my car, and called Mateo. I was still penned in my car when he arrived, right after the first Sheriff got there. Bea and a couple of her brothers had come back to town for a short duration to clear out the last of their belongings and Mateo reached her on the first ring. She showed up about five minutes after Mateo – they were in the area and had meant to stop by as a surprise - with her two oldest half brothers from her dad’s first marriage. One of them had spent 25 years with the VFD and was able to stabilize me and to calm Mateo down enough so that Bea could take Nydia back to the house.
The other lady didn’t make it. She hadn’t been wearing her seat belt and had been ejected. She was alive for a long while, lying on the blacktop where passersby did their best to keep her immobile and calm, but it wasn’t blood loss or internal bleeding that killed her but shock. Neither cyclist actually died though they did suffer life threatening injuries and there had been enough blood that everyone had thought they must be dead.
My own shock eventually wore off leaving my mind free to feel the pain I was in. The first responders were finally dispatched by 911 … the coroner was dispatched before those people who were trained to save lives. When the EMTs triaged the other three people they turned to me and I received better care in their hands than I did once I was admitted to the emergency room.
My car is history; between the impact and the “jaws of life,” or whatever you want to call that hardware that opens up vehicles like a tuna can, not even Bea’s brothers could put it back together. Mateo said it is probably the only good thing to come from the wreck; I still don’t understand why he hated my Chevy so much. I miss it, not that I’ve been able to drive but still, it was something left from my old life and it was reliable.
I eventually made it to the emergency room where I was left in the hallway on a gurney for a long time; I don’t really know how long but even in my condition I could grasp that a significant amount of time had passed. Nurses came and went, as much to comfort and calm Mateo as to check on me … but there were so many people needing their attention that they could only do so much until I had been seen by a doctor. Finally a harried looking man in a white coat and scrubs came over … only because Mateo bodily picked him up and brought him over nearly by the scruff of his neck. The physician took one look at my chart and then looked at me and you could tell the young man was shocked. Under his breath Mateo swears he heard him mutter, “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. They promised; it wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
Blood work was drawn before they would administer any pain medication … and a good thing too. A rather antiseptic looking woman came in to the curtained off area where I had been put and told us bluntly that I was pregnant, that the accident was likely going to cause a miscarriage and that to prevent me further discomfort they were scheduling me for D-and-C immediately. It had taken hours of lying on a gurney in the hallway before anyone would even look at me but somehow they could schedule a pre-emptive abortion “immediately” for my comfort so I would have to go through the trauma of a miscarriage. Mateo and I wanted a sonogram to make sure that what they were saying was true but there weren’t any sonogram machines or techs available and really “it was inevitable so why not allow them to help me before the medical bills began to mount.”
I had held up pretty well until that point. I felt the walls closing in and a scream building in my throat. All I could do was beg Mateo, “Get her away from me. Make her go away! Make her leave me alone!!”
A nurse came in and started to try and calm me down. Eventually they turned the lights down and left Mateo and I alone. The crazy feeling finally let go but I looked at him and said, “There is no way that woman is coming near me again. Do you understand what I’m saying Mateo?”
“So long as you’re sure that is what you want. We’ll do this however you want mi Corazon. Just be calm. I won’t let her near you again,” he whispered, wiping my face with the damp rag the nurse had left.
I was in the hospital for a little over twenty-four hours and never saw the inside of a room. The closest I came was the cubicle they wheeled me into so that I could be examined to see if I needed a cast on my leg or anything more invasive. The only thing they had me sign before I left the hospital – Mateo took care of all of the insurance paperwork – was a form acknowledging that I had turned down the D-and-C and that any medical complications due to this was solely my responsibility.
Bea had stayed in the house with Nydia and her brothers had camped out in the driveway with their camper and trailer to keep an eye on things and to keep the curious neighbors at bay … especially nosy Gerald. They stayed for another two days but then had to leave which was OK because by then I had finally started staying awake more than I was sleeping.
It was a rough three weeks; I was in pain but wouldn’t take the medication they had sent home with me “just in case.” I had spotted a little right after coming home but the promised miscarriage never occurred. I finally begged Mateo to go to the drugstore and get a home pregnancy test. In his usual style he brought home three because he didn’t know which brand I wanted. I actually laughed – the first time in a while albeit brokenly – when he told me of standing in front of the rack of tests trying to figure out which one to buy. Apparently when he would try and stop a woman and ask her opinion they thought he was some kind of weirdo and would run the other direction. The clerk from cosmetics finally took pity on him and helped him settle on his choices.
The first pregnancy test registered positive. I was ecstatic but Mateo remained reserved, more because he was too afraid to trust that things were going to be all right. I took another test two weeks later when my monthly cycle still hadn’t shown up and again it registered positive.
During this whole time I tried to have a somewhat normal life … hah, what a laugh. I was afraid and kept waiting to start spotting again which would signify a miscarriage was imminent. Another month went by and the referral for my OB/gyn appointment was finally approved. The appointment was enlightening in more ways than one. Mateo insisted on going with me and I’m glad because frankly I was shocked and I’m not sure I could have explained things to him if he hadn’t heard it from the horse’s mouth so to speak.
After arriving and filling out yards and yards of forms I was given all of the standard tests and then some. I was embarrassed because I’d never been subject to quite that thorough an exam before, not even while in the hospital for the wreck itself. I could feel Mateo’s stress as he sat at my head and held my hand. It’s not that he disliked the doctor, it was just a horribly awkward situation.
I dressed and we waited in yet another waiting area with us doing our best to entertain Nydia. When we were finally called back it was to a little closet of a room with two chairs, a desk, and a harried Dr. Milton sitting on the other side of the cluttered surface. “Mrs. Jakob, welcome to the end of your first trimester.” I immediately burst into tears … tears of relief. It took me a moment to pull myself together and assure the doctor I was happy.
The shocking part of the appointment wasn’t the news that I was still pregnant; the shocking part was why I had been forced to suffer in anxiety until I could see a doctor. The national healthcare database had me essentially blackballed. Actually blackballed really isn’t a good description; I’m not sure what a good, short description of the situation would be.
I had been listed as “high risk” and most OB/gyn’s no longer see high-risk patients because of the cost of malpractice insurance, lack of tort reform, shortage of specialists driven out of practice by the new laws, and new federal standards mandating price controls of treatments. The database had somehow tied me to my mother’s health history, then the wreck added another tally mark against me, and lastly I was listed as “emotionally unstable.” I didn’t get the last one at all but the doctor explained that is was probably a result of refusing to allow the hospital to perform the recommended procedure … the D-and-C.
“Well of course I wasn’t going to allow them to do a D-and-C without a sonogram and they refused to do one!” I exclaimed, uncharacteristically emotional, remembering how they had wanted me to simply trust them without any actual proof of whether their diagnosis was a correct one.
The doctor steepled his fingers and took a deep breath and said I could request going back into the pool to be referred to a different doctor but it was going to be yet another delay to me receiving prenatal care. “Mrs. Jakob, while I do not wish to alarm you, it would perhaps be beneficial if you were to allow us to keep you on our patient roster. The circumstances of your first trimester have been less than ideal. I would be remiss if I did not recommend closer monitoring than you might get had the accident not occurred.”
Basically the reality is that there could still be “complications.” How likely those complications could be isn’t quantifiable right now but so far so good. That doesn’t mean … but I’m not going there, I need to have faith. Things are already so bleak. Mateo and I decided to remain with Dr. Milton’s office and before we left we were loaded down with literature to read. Mateo said “study” which is not the least bit amusing to me but would probably go over well in a sitcom because that’s exactly what he done; like he is going to be tested on how much he retains of what he reads. We also left with a special ration card supposedly similar to the old WIC program that only pregnant women can obtain from their healthcare provider.
Originally it was suppose to encourage women to get prenatal care but it has morphed into something else. When we tried to turn down the card since we were doing fine and some other woman might actually need it we were quietly pulled aside by the nurse.
“Take it, use it. We’re required by law to sign you up today either way. And,” she looked around to make sure no one was listening. In a whisper that barely moved her lips she said, “They check. If you don’t use it a social worker will show up at your house and want to do a home study. My sister is still fighting the findings of the so-called investigation her family was put through.”
When the three of us got into the Jag – I still miss my roomy Chevy – I wanted to discuss what we had learned but Mateo insisted on celebrating first. He made a call and then we drove to a small restaurant no too far from his old office.
We walked in the door and an older gentleman came out. He spoke excellent English but at the same time his accent made it patently clear that Cuba had been his place of birth. “Mateo! It has been too long. I have a table all prepared. Come, come.”
We had a lovely lunch of Arroz con Pollo, black beans (onions on the side for me thanks), fresh Cuban bread, and Tres Leche cake for dessert. The restaurant was small and even with the economy being the way it is there was still a wait to get a table, an even longer one if you wanted a booth. What I noticed was that while there was a real appreciation for the food, I didn’t see any real enjoyment going on. What I mean is that the people all looked stressed out. Mateo knew a few of the other patrons and there were nods of acquaintance but none of the “well met good fellow” type greetings that I used to see between his peers. People were not loud and boisterous and were not having a good time which was a complete contrast to the way things were before. The only “loud” was Nydia squealing at all the attention the owners of the place were paying to her and a belligerent couple at another table; fighting about what else but money.
The owner insisted on me sitting and waiting while Mateo brought the car around to the door – the brace on my knee was still necessary but brought some embarrassing attention that made me more uncomfortable than the brace did – and the owner’s wife was a little too loud with her congratulations on the impending addition to our family adding to my embarrassment. Nice lady, just she had a hearing problem and instead of talking to me she was basically announcing it to the entire restaurant and several buildings on either side. When Mateo pulled up a couple of the people that had recognized him came over and congratulated him and they wanted to get together and talk when he had time.
We were both quiet as he drove home. And instead of doing the work like we had planned we put Nydia down for a delayed nap and then lay on our own bed for most of the remainder of the day, saying nothing and everything at the same time.
Confirmation of the pregnancy being viable hasn’t change our lives so much as reinforced how important everything we are doing is. Mateo did freak out a little bit when he started making up a budget … diapers, formula, clothes … and when he took a trip to the stores to get the average cost of the items he really freaked out. An upset stomach had me waking up in the middle of the night a few days later to find him gone from our bed. He wasn’t in the house and it wasn’t until I looked outside that I found him; but he wasn’t alone.
He was talking to Greg – how that man shows up and disappears like he does is a mystery.
“I didn’t mean to wake you Leah. You should go back inside.” Mateo was making it sound like a request but I knew in reality it wasn’t. Sometimes you keep the peace even when your dignity gets affronted.
When Mateo came in I was back in bed and turned away from him. “I’m sorry Leah but …”
“Don’t worry about it. Next time simply tell me ahead of time; that way when I wake up and can’t find you any place in the house I won’t worry. I’ll just assume you are on one of your manly ‘no women allowed’ covert operations.”
“Ouch. I said I was sorry mi Corazon. Greg is a little more … eccentric … these days and while I trust him I … I … I wish to protect you and Nydia as much as possible from what is going on.”
I sat up and turned to him, “Considering I don’t have a clue what is going on you are doing your job a little too well. How can I help if I don’t know?”
“I don’t wish you to help. I don’t want you involved. Wait … please Leah … understand me, this has gotten a lot more complicated than I had anticipated when I first agreed to get involved. What is going on is …”
“Not … not precisely.”
“Mateo Jakob, I taught teenagers. More prevarication I can do without.”
He chuckled, “Yes, I know la profesora.” Then he continued more soberly. “Seriously Leah, I really don’t want you involved. As I said I trust Greg but at the same time a reasonable man takes reasonable precautions. We are moving … items … that might otherwise have difficulty moving. Nothing is illegal but it gets things done with less … fuss and bother … when the … items … are moved shall we say, less publicly.”
“Do I want to know what these items are?”
“Let us say that you don’t need to know what the items are.”
“Leah, mi Corazon, let it go. For me. The greater complications that are occurring are less of a problem for me when I know that you aren’t a part of what is going on.”
“Mateo, I really don’t like the sound of this. Why can’t you simply tell Greg to take a hike if things are getting more complicated than you were given to believe in the beginning?”
“Because …” and his hesitation gave him away.
“Oh my gosh, you are enjoying this whole 007 thing aren’t you?!”
“Enjoying isn’t how I would describe it. But if you are asking if I get a certain amount of satisfaction from it? Then yes,” he replied rather smugly.
“And you promise this isn’t illegal? That we won’t wake up with the government knocking down our door and hauling you away?”
“I can no longer fathom what the infernal government is going to do. But what Greg and I are a part of is not illegal, that I can promise.”
I had to be satisfied with his answer but at the same time it didn’t do a thing to settle my stomach. But even when drama abounds real life has to continue on. I found one of the reasons that Greg had been to our house that night was that Mateo wanted him to “find” items for our baby so we could prepare ahead of time. I finally got Mateo to sit down so that we could talk about what a baby would cost.
“Mateo, forget the formula. I can breastfeed. And, when I was little my mom used to make my formula and I know the recipe is still in my baby book in my hope chest. The nurse said that I could get liquid baby vitamins with that ration card. That is one of the ingredients in the homemade formula. If we can get cloth diapers then that will cost a lot less than disposable ones as well. And babies don’t really need all the clothes people buy for them. Nydia used to only get a wear or three out of her little outfits before she would outgrow them. She was happier in onesies and socks than in a ruffled dress with baby shoes.” We reworked the budget again and Mateo relaxed a little; not much but a little. There remained the issue of the cost of the hospital and birth but we’ve decided to put that off for a couple of months. Besides, there have been enough other things to cause us concern.
Life is both micro and macro. You live in your small world on a daily basis. You have to. The small details make the difference in how well you live. But you also live in a macro world where things beyond your control – the big picture – affect your micro world.
We live on our two acres and pretty much keep to ourselves but that isn’t to say that we aren’t aware of what is going on in the neighborhood. We stand there and listen while other people talk. Domestic violence is up; so is juvenile crime. Mateo caught some kids out in the swampland behind our house. I don’t know what they were doing back there but I think he, and possibly Greg the way Mateo was grinning about it afterwards, must have put some kind of scare into them because we’ve had no other problems like that since.
Our neighborhood is actually somewhat better off than many; some neighborhoods are more like the OK Corral than the suburbs. While we haven’t had any gunshots on our road I’ve seen with my own eyes that people are carrying their guns openly. I think it is more in reaction to some yahoo in DC saying there should be a complete federal ban on private gun ownership than actually needing the gun for protection, at least right now. If things get too much worse people might start wearing their guns for something more than to show they can.
There are parts of Tampa that you have to be careful in for more than one reason. College Hill, sane people avoid it at night. Some of the streets off of Nebraska Avenue have gotten even rougher. Parts of Town n’ Country, formerly a rather nice area, now erupt in gang violence at the least provocation. Too many young people without jobs to take up their time. Some parts of Sulfur Springs, formerly a resort area in the early decades of the 1900s, are dangerous no matter what time of day it is. Ruskin and Palmetto also have their problems. Clair Mel can be a war zone as bad as Sulfur Springs when turf wars start with the sister community of Progress Village. And of course the violence has a bad habit of spilling over.
I’ve lived in Tampa my whole life and so has Mateo and though Mateo remembers the last College Hill race riots in the late 80s when he was a young boy, neither one of us ever remembers things being like this. Oh sure, you’d have your occasional bit of shocking violence but it was usually due to a small number of idiots … small number, as in less than ten. But these days it seems everyone’s temper is riding the surface. The rationing and price control causing shortages of basic food items has not helped at all. Even if you are lucky enough to still have the job you had two years ago, even a year ago, the money doesn’t go near as far as it did before. The great majority of employed people now report that though working, they are underemployed. Most of the underemployment issues are blamed on rising taxes, rising cost of the so-called free health care (mandated now that the grace period is over), and the fines and fees imposed by the local government. If the government would just get out of the way most folks could deal with the rising cost of living as far as food and fuel goes.
And Tampa is no exception though Florida has suffered more than most states because of the loss of tourism income and lowered property tax income in the state. The only income source that remains constant is the income from the Florida Lottery and from the legalized gambling within the state. People would rather bet small fortunes of winning a large fortune than actually living with today’s reality.
I hear from Bea and her family once a week or at least three times a month depending on how often someone comes out of the swamp to make contact with what passes for civilization down there. I carry my cell phone with me all the time now, hoping to hear her voice; but usually it is just a long text letting me know how she is doing. Things are rough in their neck of the woods. People are scraping by the best they can; lots of poaching and more than a few reckless hunting accidents happen every week … and a few hunters have disappeared into the woods and swamp lands never to be heard from again.
Bea is being courted by a neighbor; they were introduced by her grandparents. He’s older than Mateo and she calls him her “diamond in the rough” and that for once her brothers are thrilled with her choice. The man must really be tough as old shoe leather then because Bea’s brothers have been known to be pretty rough on her beaus. She was thrilled when she found out I was having a baby and promises to try and be here for the birth but I think that is wishful thinking for both of us. It makes me sad to think about it; we grew up best friends and always dreamed of living next door and … well, it just makes me sad how our lives have gone so far off course from what we imagined as little girls when we had no cares but baby dolls and plastic tea pots.
Outside of Florida things are pretty bad as well. California and Michigan have kind of imploded and are now run almost directly by the federal government through puppet governorships. Los Angeles is a mess but there are some true die hards that swear not even the evacuation of the Rodeo Drive crowd could make them leave. A lot of those expensive homes in Bel Air and Holmby Hills have been ransacked. Hollywood’s porcelain crowns have gotten cracked and stained and most of the big studios have been forced to pick up stakes and move. Movies … the few new ones that can get financing … are being shot on location which means any place else besides California these days. The economy of California is so bad the immigrants that were granted immunity and US Citizenship are trying to give it up to return to the countries they came from … but their former countries don’t seem to want them back. And Mexico is pitching a fit because so many immigrants from the US are passing across their borders heading south, causing a strain on local resources.
New York City is another place that has reverted to a form of lawlessness; all the work done by Rudy Giuliani’s office in the late 80s and into the 90s has come unraveled with both organized (and disorganized) crime making huge gains back into the old neighborhoods. And Time Square is again a place where no one sane – except the occasional naïve tourist – goes after the sun sinks. Taxes have become so burdensome that most people that work there refuse to live there and actually commute from other states or maintain a work apartment on site for those nights that it is impossible for them to commute back home in time to get up the next day and do it all over again. It may sound like lunacy but if you have a job these days you do whatever it takes to keep it.
And doing “whatever it takes” can be pretty extreme. There are cases of murder and murder-for-hire in relation to job openings and closings. Just last week on the radio there was a story of a man who had killed his boss when he heard from the grapevine that he was going to get the ax so that they could bring in someone cheaper to do the same job.
A lot of pension funds are simply disintegrating and Congress, now more evenly balanced as far as party affiliation goes, is not listening to Presidential directives to fund the empty accounts. In fact, even though the President vetoed the Bill on its first pass, Congress took the unprecedented step of making strikes for any other reason than health and safety an illegal act. If it can be shown that the striking Union members’ wages are more than 3% above the same job held by a non-union member and the strike was union encouraged, the union will lose its federal pension insurance and employers are free to break any unionized contracts signed by striking members. That caused a lot of consternation on both the pro and anti-union sides of the debate. It has also caused a lot of public sign waving and noise … but with the promise of Congress to rush the Bill through a second time and over ride the Presidential Veto, the number of actual strikes as decreased. Too many people still remember that President Reagan fired all of the striking Air Traffic Controllers in 1981 after decertifying PATCO.
The trucking industry is in complete disarray. The cost of fuel and slim profit margins imposed by the Federal government as pushed most independent truckers off the road and caused most professional trucking companies to drastically downsize. There are still a few major players in the industry but they are primarily in-house like Walmart and Dollar General. Target’s shipping capacity collapsed when their company had to restructure after they competed and lost with Walmart and some larger regional grocery chains.
Online purchasing has remained steady though the spikes in spending at the holidays has pretty much disappeared. Amazon and Barnes and Noble both remain healthy companies though their stocks have taken a hit like all the others. You would think this would have saved the USPS but it didn’t. Too much overhead and too many retiring employees eating at the pension plan gutted them financially. People now get mail two or three times a week on days dictated by zip code. It has been a huge adjustment for people use to one of the fastest mail delivery systems in the world. UPS and FedEx have picked up a lot of the slack with package shipping. Online banking has tried to take over the Bill-Pay issues though many companies charge a fee for accepting online payments.
A new industry of Bill-Pay kiosks has sprung up for those people that don’t have bank accounts. You walk in with cash or a cashier’s check and a clerk will help you route your bill payments appropriately and then print you out a proof of transfer tag to attach to your statement for your records with a routing number, etc. You are either charged by the transfer or you can purchase a yearly membership at various levels based on how many transactions per month you expect to have.
Internationally things are not much better and in some cases much worse. All the help that the EU attempted to give Greece wound up being for naught. The country is one huge street brawl day after day and refugees are seeking anyway to get away … but many countries are no longer accepting Greek passports because their country defaulted on loans. Starvation is rampant in Eastern Europe after yet another year of some kind of disease wiping out the Ukrainian wheat crop. Some places in Africa have devolved so far into violence and genocide that no communication can come into or out of the region. Disease and starvation are adding to the destruction an entire generation in places like Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Central African Republic, Pakistan, Yemen, Congo DR, Palestine, Haiti, and the Sudan. They aren’t the only dangerous countries but they are the worst this week. Iran isn’t too far behind due to the opposition party continuing to fight against the totalitarian theocracy of the Grand Ayatollah currently controlling the puppet President in that country.
Another war is breaking out in the Middle East. It has been starting by inches for years but a recent series of bomb blasts in Israel itself makes war a near certainty now. It is very hard to get any information on what is going on in that part of the world because both countries have requested that all foreign journalist leave – aka they’ve been thrown out – further complicated by our own government’s censoring.
Do I go on about the bread riots in France? Or how about the immigrant problems in Great Britain? Or the attacks on the Vatican by some coalition between a militant atheist group and a group of disenfranchised Catholics who believe the current Pope – whether wittingly or unwittingly – abetted corruption within the ranks of the clergy? China’s attack on Taiwan? Or it’s attempted financial takeover of a great many of Australia’s natural resources? Russia’s arming of Venezuela and the subsequent Venezuelan – Columbian Conflict that destabilized much of Central and South America? International tussles over the Space Station? The India – Pakistan Religious War? The Gold Mine Battles in places like Papua New Guinea and Indonesia? Or any of the many other crazy things going on in the world?
It has gotten where I almost hate to listen to the news any longer. I’m either suspicious of the censoring and can’t believe what I’m hearing or I get depressed knowing that with the censoring the things going on in the world are probably much worse than they are letting on. And everything revolves around money in some way … the assassination of some execs from Goldman-Sachs after they were indicted on fraud; they were accused of directly manipulating precious metal markets using corporate assets for personal gain … several large churches around the country are losing their tax-free status and have federal investigators (via the IRS) scrutinizing not only their financials but their children’s activities and other community activities … law suits against several environmental groups for terrorist activities against Monsanto who is slowly gaining a monopoly in the area of agricultural biotechnology industry … the unintended and drastic drop in OPEC’s output and the resulting international economic impact as the price of crude oil goes ever higher … the defaulting of international loans left and right by countries that were doing it in retribution to countries trying to take their national resources (like the Australian-China conflict that is occurring) … and on and on and on.
But to top it off the current president just signed an Executive Order mandating participation in local Volunteer Corp activities if you wish to receive your ration card. Mandatory volunteering … an oxymoron for the morons of this country. Mateo and I both received draft letters – well, that’s what they amount to anyway – and we are assigned to different locations on the same day. How do we take care of Nydia? Mateo has outright forbidden me … yes, he actually used the word forbidden … to go. I really don’t have a problem with volunteering, I did it through the church all of the time, but being told I have to defeats the whole purpose of volunteering. And, you would think they would want to utilize people’s talents to maximize their impact. But no. I could be volunteering in a tutoring program for students at risk of dropping out. Forget that, they want me … a woman who has been classified as having a high-risk pregnancy … to help collect and dump old household chemicals. I tried to change dates or jobs or something but they said no, no exceptions to the assignments under any circumstances. They have Mateo picking up trash in a really bad area of town … a man of his talents, who could help the elderly organize their estates or straighten out some taxable income situation, and instead they have assigned him to pick up cigarette butts and used condoms. Someone somewhere is out of their mind.
We’ve got three weeks to figure things out but that “no exceptions” stipulation doesn’t appear to be up for debate. There is a huge uproar in Congress over the President’s end run around the Legislative Branch of the government. The President’s response, on national TV no less, was that it was Congress’ fault; if they had acted as he told them to act in a timely fashion he would not have been forced to use and Executive Order to get things done. The man has some nerve. It is rumored – but you’ll only hear the rumor on some internet forums and from one or two independent networks – that even some of his closest allies are beginning to have serious doubts about his methods. That’s a little too little, a lot too late. This whole country is in such a pickle I have no idea how we are going to dig ourselves out.
I know that Mateo and Greg … and several other people I’ve never met and only know they exist because of their shadows passing through our yard at night … have spoken of the possible futures in store for us. Mateo speaks with me a little but only when he can no longer bear the burden in silence. I can grasp most of what he talks about; the financial future, the political future, the social ramifications. But what scares me, and though I try and hide it I know Mateo senses it and it is one of the reasons he keeps most of it to himself, is that there isn’t anything in the future to stop this except a major war, a world war.
We already see the potential in international events that make it through the censors and history tells me loud and clear that economic woes precipitate most wars and violent conflicts. If you want to get right down to it one of the greatest reasons for divorce stem from money conflicts within a marriage. Why should it be any different with relationships between countries?
I can’t stop whatever is coming but I can do what we’ve been doing … pray, plan, prepare. Before the next planting season we will add at least four more raised beds. I’ll do what I can to prepare for the baby. Mateo has gotten handy enough that he wants to add metal shutters on the inside of our windows to match the steel storm shutters on the outside of the windows. The other night he handed me material to make black out curtains with. The space where my little Chevy used to sit in the garage now holds strong shelving for all of our prep items that aren’t food related … those go up into the finished hidden storage. Mateo wants to turn the remaining space in the bonus room into a room reminiscent of the one in Anne Frank’s Diary and he wants to furnish it … for us if need be. He’s also making other plans but so far I’m not privy to them.
All I can do is all I can do. But most days it just doesn’t seem enough. The only time I feel at peace is at night when we close the bedroom door, check to make sure Nydia is sleeping peacefully, and we lay together in each other’s arms and let the world fade away before drifting to sleep. The only problem is sometimes I wake up … and he’s not there.