“Ryan, what was it like here during the collapse?” Katie asked, turning to dump a handful of raspberries into the stainless steel bowl between them.
Ryan sat back on his heels for a moment considering how to respond; it wasn’t a subject for polite conversation. But Katie had been out of the country during the instability that followed the financial collapse. She’d returned to the States just months ago from Japan with her former employer’s daughter to live with her grandparents who lived next door.
Since arriving, the two of them had spent many hours together working to establish a new shared garden. Their friendship had blossomed in the spring like the berries they were harvesting.
Reluctantly, he shifted his weight and sat down cross legged to face her.
“When the banks closed, there was a lot of confusion and panic. Most people just didn’t see it coming and they were completely unprepared.” he began.
“Congress managed to pass some emergency legislation, but it was too late. Unemployment skyrocketed and whatever savings the middle class still had was wiped out by the inflation that followed. Gas was rationed but half the time you couldn’t even get your allowance. And then the pharmacies, they began rationing insulin and other drugs. After a couple of months, we started having brown-outs. That’s when things got really ugly.” He twisted a deep purple berry from its pale core and placed it ceremoniously on his tongue.
“Without street lights and alarms, gangs of looters took over – especially at night. It was crazy. The police were overwhelmed. The city set a dusk to dawn curfew. So a local militia group of vets and retired cops was hired to help protect the remaining businesses downtown..and a few blocks of nicer homes. For a while, the violence was so bad, that Karen and I just hunkered down. We stopped cutting the grass, kept the doors locked, and stayed home as much as possible.”
Ryan looked away, remembering many nights of vigilance and sparse meals from the pantry.
Katie softly ventured “You mean, you and your fiancé? My grandparents mentioned her but they didn’t know if…”
Ryan finished her question for her “Yeah. My fiancé. Karen.”
“We didn’t get to know your grandparents that well; we were just too busy with everything. She moved in about a year before the markets crashed. Then the white collar layoffs started; She lost her job at an insurance company. Her father was killed in Philadelphia during a robbery. We postponed the wedding, and then,” Ryan paused and shrugged, “she left.”
Wanting to quickly change the subject, he asked “What about Japan?”
“Not good. Rioting in Yokohama and Osaka. And in Tokyo for a while. But, the radiation was so bad in Tokyo, that people were more concerned with getting out of there than with protesting. The news kept repeating the government’s orders for everyone to stay at home, but food and water were becoming a serious problem. Faith in government was shot over there. It was a…a cultural shock that…”
Katie stopped short when her young pupil, Sakiko, came bursting from the porch with a spiral notebook tucked under her arm.
“Can I read you my new poem?” she asked standing before them smiling, obviously quite pleased with herself. Without waiting for an answer, she began:
“Garden crickets sing
Creakt-creakt to the shining moon
Dancing in the trees”
“Very good, Sakiko – I like that one.” said Katie standing to offer a small bow.
“Grandma Edna-san said it was her favorite,” Sakiko replied, returning the gesture. As she did, Katie saw a large man in his 40’s appear over her tiny shoulder approaching the garden gate.
“Sakiko,” Katie said quietly, “would you please take these berries into the kitchen and give them to Edna-san for us?” Sakiko eagerly nodded asking, “Can I eat one?”
“Yes of course, but take them inside and wash them first.”
Seeing the reason for Katie’s urging, Ryan stood quickly, taking a position between her and the gate. With his eyes fixed on the visitor, he reached beneath his sweatshirt to unsnap the 5” serrated survival knife he wore sheathed at his belt. “Can I help you?” Ryan called out coldly.
The man was a bit taller than Ryan, pepper gray hair, unshaven, wearing denim overalls and carrying a galvanized bucket. “Good afternoon, I’m Bill – I live over on Colby. How‘r ya’ll doing?”
“Fine” replied Ryan without offering his own name. “What can we do for you, Bill?”
“Well I wondered how your garden turned out? You got quite a load of dirt back in March. I assumed that’s what you were doin’.” Bill said with a knowing smile.
Ryan cursed silently to himself. Before Katie arrived, her grandfather Henry suggested they combine their efforts and turn their backyards into a shared garden. They were able to barter for a large truckload of garden soil and salvage most of the other materials. Unfortunately, the supplier’s truck had desperately needed a new muffler. Ryan had worried at the time if the noise had attracted any unwanted attention. Apparently it had.
“My, my – looks like ya’ll been real busy!” Bill whistled looking past them.
The raspberries lay tied up in a series of dashed lines running parallel to a grid of long raised beds. Behind this screen lay narrow rectangles of lettuce, collards, onions, garlic, spinach and two deeper beds of potatoes. Along the back row, pole beans were trellised on one half, tomato cages the other. Turning to survey the half acre of garden hidden from the street, Ryan and Katie found a rare moment to appreciate their efforts.
“I’ve got a garden myself and a little greenhouse too; very useful over the winter. Would you be interested in swappin?” he said swinging the bucket. “I’ve got some real nice finger carrots and some strawberries if you’re interested?”
Ryan wasn’t impressed with his folksy demeanor but Katie’s hand on his elbow suggested her interest in the offer. He stepped aside as she moved to open the gate replying “Yeah, that’s sounds terrific; I’d love some strawberries. We were just picking raspberries – would you like some?”
“Absolutely” said Bill, “and I see you have chickens too. Would you have a couple of eggs to spare?”
Ryan responded, “I’ll check; the girls are usually finished laying by this time of day.” Katie continued on politely with Bill as he headed down the hill to the coop he had built before his engagement. On the way he remembered how his fiancé had quietly objected to his ‘hobby’ at the time. His chickens, the garden, the Gerber knife, the freeze dried food – all of it. She never shared his interest in peak oil or the global credit crises. She said it made her ‘unhappy’ to think of things beyond her control. Her only interest was in planning every aspect of the wedding, including what her father would wear.
After Bill left, Henry came through the screen door off their porch, his 12 gauge resting easy in the crook of his elbow. “Who was that?” he asked trying to sound casual and pretending to clean the weapon with a rag cut from an old T shirt.
“A neighbor, said his name was Bill, lives on Colby Avenue. Ever seen him before?” Ryan answered.
“Maybe. I might have seen him at the Lot once or twice; hard to forget a big fellow like that.” Henry replied. “Was he armed, Ryan?”
“I couldn’t tell. Although you could easily conceal a pistol in those overalls.” he noted. “It’s about time we had that conversation about security, don’t you think Henry?”
“Absolutely” he began as he made his way to a patio chair at the bottom of the porch stoop. “How about we raise the chain link fence; take it up to 6 feet or so?”
“Great idea; I’ve got half a roll of galvanized wire left over from the chicken coop we can start with. In the front yards, I’ve been thinking about creating a natural barrier using holly bushes or something with thorns. It’s not the right time of year to do it, but there are plenty of abandoned yards around here with that kind of vegetation” said Ryan.
Katie joined in, “I’d like something over the windows in my room and Sakiko’s. I hate the idea of bars, but maybe shutters or something we can close at night? And it’s probably time I learned how to shoot” she said pointing at Henry’s shotgun.
“How about you Ryan?” asked Henry, “Ever handled a firearm?”
Ryan’s preps before the collapse had included a trip to the shooting range with an old high school buddy who had been a SWAT officer in D.C.. “A little” he replied knowing he hadn’t fired the Glock 19 he kept on the shelf below his bedside lamp in over a year. “I need some practice.”
“Good,” said Henry. “Now that things have stabilized a little and the garden is in, it’s time to take action. I’ve got another idea” he said. “What do you two think about getting a dog – a German Shepherd if we can find one?”
“A dog? Are we getting a dog?” cried Sakiko, eavesdropping through the kitchen window above their heads. “I’m going to write a new poem!”
Katie smiled at her grandfather, “You said it, not me!” With a wink to Katie, Henry raised his head and leaned back to send his voice in Sakiko’s direction, “We’ll see Sakiko; one thing at a time.”
–JB Sties, Transition Voice