Our fourth installment of post-peak fiction by writer JB Sties. His first piece was “The Lot: a tale from the near future.” His second was “On the fence” and his third was “Stop cutting the grass.” — Ed
As the train came to rest beside the wooden platform, Ryan removed his cap and wiped the sweat from his brow. His handkerchief, soaked after a long day of manual labor, was of little use. Reluctantly, he left the shade of the trees and the smell of summer grass to join the small group of men assembling to unload the four boxcars emblazoned with the head of an American bald eagle. The pungent odor of tar mixed with the heat radiating off the corrugated steel containers made him dizzy. He consoled himself as he tugged on a pair of patched leather gloves: it was the last train of the week and payday for the crew.
The pallets of cargo were off-loaded one cardboard box at a time. The cartons of #10 cans contained staples – flour, salt, sugar, cornmeal, dry oats and pasta. There were assorted pallets of instant coffee, powdered drinks, and even the rare cookie mixes. There were two different sized boxes of toiletries. The standard was marked with a bold #2; the larger a #4. If you had more than four people living under one roof (as many did), you looked for the difference at the Lot or bartered with neighbors. The most popular item at the Lot was not toilet paper however, it was the U.S. government surplus cheddar cheese. Ryan was usually able to barter a dozen fresh eggs for a block of the bright yellow cheese known colloquially as a “gold brick”
By 7 pm the rail cars stood empty and swept. The foreman appeared from his inspection as the sun sat low over the bridge overpass marking the eastern edge of downtown. From his clipboard, names were called, hours verified, and payments for the week’s work made in cold hard cash. It was enough to make at least one of the men break down, his emotions displayed in quiet heaves of his shoulders. Ryan accepted five of the new twenties, denominated with the same bold stare of the iconic white headed eagle where the eyes of a US president once gazed.
Into the station
At first the supply trains to the small city he called home had been few and far between. Lately the shipments had become more regular although the manifests rarely matched the contents. Ryan suspected graft and bribery was to blame although outright robbery couldn’t be ruled out either. It was common to see the Recovery Trains with private security details. Men in paramilitary garb armed with light automatic weapons were often seen speaking quietly into wireless headsets as the trains rolled through town.
Although he was sorely tempted to join his fellow crew members in their calls for a round of beers, Ryan headed for home. He climbed the concrete steps up from the rail yard and felt the welcome relief of the evening breeze on his face. He passed within a couple blocks of the Lot where the night welcomed the weary at heart with colored lights, live music and the spicy smell of an open grill.
In the waning light, he saw a scrawny tri-colored dog headed in that direction, no doubt looking for its evening nourishment as well.
Just two years ago, he would have ridiculed the wages offered to him today. As a former IT manager at the local university, his salary had provided a comfortable lifestyle by anyone’s standard. Back then, he’d have spent the earnings in his pocket on dinner for two and a bottle of wine and thought nothing of it.
Not anymore. The days of easy money were over.
Despite the soreness in his limbs, he smiled as he walked. He hadn’t intended on taking the job when he first learned about it. A notice posted on the message board at the Lot offered cash to “able bodied men with strong backs.” He later learned that the train depot’s only forklift was in need of critical hydraulic parts and new tires. Not knowing when the parts might arrive, the manager had resorted to good old-fashioned human labor.
The garden he’d planted with his neighbors, Edna, Henry, their grand-daughter Katie and young Sakiko, had offered great promise. In early April, they were eating fresh salads. By May the potatoes needed mounding and a dozen poles were covered in the runners of peas and beans. The cages were full of green tomatoes and raspberries were harvested by the bucket in June.
However, June also produced the last of the rain.
He knew from years passed that the third week of July was usually the hottest. But this year, temperatures climbed into the triple digits over the July 4th weekend, and pretty much stayed there. After almost four weeks of unrelenting heat and no measurable rain, much of the summer garden was lost. Worried that a fall crop would be insufficient to supplement their winter diet, he gratefully accepted the job at the train depot.
Katie was waiting for him at the garden gate when he arrived. She was sitting in a lawn chair next to an LED lantern, her petite bare feet resting on an insulated cooler.
In the soft glow of light, Ryan noticed her gentle figure outlined in a summer dress as she stood to greet him. As his neighbor’s granddaughter, Ryan had kept his emotions toward Katie in check. But as they spent more time together working in the garden toward a common goal, he found himself growing fond of her quiet determination and self confidence. A kindred spirit perhaps? Eventually he had given up and allowed himself discrete glances in her direction. With exhaustion setting after a grueling week, he felt immediate relief upon seeing her.
“This is for you,” Katie said smiling stooping quickly to retrieve a glass of lemonade from the cooler. Ryan took it eagerly with one dirty hand, draining the contents in a long single draught.
“That was just what I needed. Thank you. I have something for you,” Ryan said. He reached into his jeans front pocket with his other hand and took out his earnings. Katie looked at the cash and then back to Ryan.
“You got paid, that’s wonderful! But you earned it – don’t you think you should hold onto it?” she asked.
With lightning bugs emerging around them, Ryan looked at her earnestly and said, “I’ve spent all week thinking about this. You, the garden,” he said with a nod toward the stricken beds that lay beyond in the darkness, “your grandparents and Sakiko, are like family to me. This is what I can contribute and it would make me very proud if I could share it with you.”
Katie quietly stared at him for a moment while she tucked a loose strand of her dark hair behind her right ear. “Thank you,” she whispered and leaning forward on her toes, quickly kissed him on the cheek. “C’mon, let’s get you washed up and find you something to eat.”
Sitting in her kitchen over a plate of steamed green beans, an ear of corn and some homemade buttered bread, Katie gave Ryan an update on her own efforts to support them. Of the neighbors that remained, several had school age children. Katie had approached them and announced her intention to create a school and privately teach a small group. Her formal education and mentoring experience in Japan was more than enough for the parents to express an interest. Details on how Katie would receive compensation were left open to discussion for the moment.
Although the city had managed to keep one school open, it offered little in terms of educational value. Some of the school system’s best teachers did not return to work after the riots that followed the financial collapse. Those that did had a dysfunctional school board to contend with and rarely got paid. School days were often eliminated in winter to save on heating and electricity. Only half a dozen buses remained in service. The board couldn’t afford to pay the new fees for internet connectivity. A peanut butter sandwich was sometimes the best the cafeteria could offer. It was a sad state of affairs, but there simply wasn’t any funding available.
Katie continued to describe her plans to set up a one room school house and offer a basic curriculum. Their neighbor Bill with whom they sometimes exchanged produce, said he would donate an old slate blackboard. He wouldn’t say from where but that he would bring it by in a week. Her greatest wish was to locate a few violins or a piano so she could offer introductory musical instruction.
“And Sakiko has graciously agreed to teach the music lessons if I’m too busy,” she said quietly with a hint of humor. “Well? What do you think?” Katie asked as Ryan finished off his last bite of bread with a quick swirl around his plate.
“I think it’s wonderful. You’re the perfect person to do this. If you need a place to get started, you could use my basement. It’s all finished, there’s a built in bookcase I can clear out and there’s a bathroom down there as well. The basement door and the windows all face the garden. You could call it ‘The Garden School.’”
“That’s funny – Edna came up with the same name. She thinks I should also teach them to garden, composting, canning, that sort of thing. Would you mind showing me your basement tomorrow? You look like you’re about to fall over,” she said, reaching out to gently shake his arm tenderly.
“Absolutely,” he said with a yawn.
“There are no trains this weekend, thank goodness.” He was exhausted and stiff from sitting. It was then he realized that everyone else in the house had retired for the night.
Ryan’s thoughts drifted to the kiss she had given him earlier. “Oh, one last thing before I head home. Tell Sakiko, I might have found a dog for her.”
— JB Sties, Transition Voice