Never Again – A Vignette
Baker Smith didn’t much like his boss. Oh, he paid well enough. But he was always coming up with a new scheme to get some of it back. Well, not back. It would still be Baker’s money, but just not in useable form. Like what Tim called ‘prep supplies’.
“I’m not about to tie up that kind of money for stuff I’ll never need. And gold and silver,” Muttered Baker. “I’m no coin collector. Just tie up money I can use for other things.” It didn’t matter that Baker could have taken advantage of the one percent matching investment in preps, plus the huge discounts on the prep products due to Tim’s volume buying for those that did take advantage of the plan.
And there were always calls for Baker to attend safety and first-aid classes. And more of that prep stuff. There was no way the government was going to allow a nuclear war. It would cost too much.
No. Tim could keep his ‘perks’ and Baker would keep his money and use his time as he saw fit. It was tough supporting a wife and raising two kids. “Bridget!” Baker called to his wife, who was in the kitchen fixing supper. “I’m going out for a while. Don’t hold supper for me.”
“Oh, Baker!” Bridget said, coming into the living room as Baker headed for the front door. “Bren had a school project he needed help with.”
“You take care of it. You’re better at that kind of thing than I am, anyway. And don’t wait up, either.”
Bridget sighed and nodded. Baker was more and more going out in the evenings. He smelled of alcohol, cigars, and other women’s perfume when he came home in the middle of the night. And he was spending everything they didn’t need for immediate use. She had to save money from the household budget for several months sometimes before she could get what she needed for the children. And Chelsea was going to be thirteen soon, and would need all the ‘girl’ stuff that Baker hated dealing with.
Going back into the kitchen, she resumed her duties of housewife and mother, while Baker went out to be lord of the manner at the Kit-Kat strip club.
Baker was on his way in to work the next morning after only three hours sleep. He wasn’t in a good mood. His favorite dancer hadn’t been at the club the night before and he’d been warned twice about getting too touch-feely with one of the other dancers and then barred for a month. Besides that, he had a hangover.
“That cow,” Baker said softly. “Them brown eyes looking at me like I’m doing something wrong. Man’s entitled to a night of entertainment once in a while.” Bridget hadn’t said anything that morning, but she had ‘that’ look on her face when she served him his bacon and eggs for breakfast.
When he got to work, the place was in turmoil.
“What’s going on?” he asked Michelle, the receptionist. She was typing furiously on her computer.
“Geez, Baker! Didn’t you see the news this morning? Boss is closing down until the situation is resolved.”
“Closing down? What for? What was on the news this morning?”
Michelle shook her head. “I don’t have time to educate you. I’m doing complete backups of everything.”
Baker frowned and went to his office. Tim Snider was waiting for him. “Glad you’re here, Baker. I need you to go out and start a full shutdown of the plant. I want everything temporarily mothballed, just in case.”
“In case of what, Tim? I can’t get an answer from anyone. What is going on?”
It was the first time Baker had ever seen the ever cheerful Tim frown. “Taiwan has set a date to vote for independence. Mainland China is readying an invasion force and ordering the US and everyone else to stay out of it. We might be looking at a nuclear exchange if the US honors its defense agreements with Taiwan. If they vote to go independent.”
He didn’t know it, but Baker went white. He went to the production floor and carried out Tim’s instructions like an automaton. It was noon before everything was shut down and protected for the long term.
Baker looked around suddenly and noticed that he was now alone. He walked through the warehouse. It, too, was empty of personnel. Going back into the office, he found Tim and Michelle loading backup computer media into boxes. Tim would be taking a set, as would Michelle.
“Good, Baker. You’re back. Everything go okay?”
“Sure boss,” Baker said. “But…”
Tim interrupted him. “I know you haven’t participated in the company sponsored prep program. I’m hoping you did things on your own. I’m giving everyone five hundred to get last minute preps.”
Tim handed Baker five one-hundred-dollar bills. “Use it wisely. Just follow the employee emergency manual for keeping in touch during the crisis.” Tim turned around and picked up one of the boxes. Michelle had the other one. “Would you lock the door?” Tim asked Baker, nodding toward the set of keys on the desk.
Wordlessly Baker picked up the keys and followed the two outside. After locking the doors of the business, Baker dropped the keys into the box Tim was carrying when Tim nodded at it.
“Good luck, Baker. Keep in touch,” Tim said as he headed for his SUV, behind Michelle, who was going to her own vehicle. Only Baker’s two year old Corvette was left in the lot. He walked over to it slowly, in a bit of a daze.
When he got home, Bridget was in something of a panic. “Oh, Baker! I’m so glad you’re home! What are we going to do? The news is saying to stay calm, but prepare for the worst. Nuclear war with China! What do we do, Baker?”
Baker shook his head and slowly came to a decision. “Don’t worry about it, Bridget. Haven’t I told you time and again that the government won’t allow a nuclear war. The President and the UN won’t let China do anything.”
“Enough! I’m going out.”
He couldn’t go to the Kit-Kat club, but the slightly more upscale Gentleman’s Club was open for business lunches. He headed there. As he drove, he noticed the frantic maneuvering of the other vehicles and laid on the horn several times. “Idiots!” he said, passing a grocery store being mobbed.
He got to the Gentleman’s Club and went inside. It was cool, and dark, and inviting. The hostess showed him to a table. He was the only customer in the place. He ordered the crabmeat Cobb salad and asked about the dancers.
“Only one came in, sir. I’ll… uh… let her know we have a guest,” said the hostess.
Baker’s lunch came out before the dancer did. When he complained he was asked to leave. They were closing up the place, anyway.
“More idiots!” Baker muttered and went to his Corvette. He was driving back home, for the lack of anything better to do when he saw the liquor store he generally used with a line leading out the door.
“What the heck?” Baker asked himself. He thought for a minute. His stock of booze was getting low. Even though nothing was going to happen, it looked like people were going ape and buying up things like there was no tomorrow. Might as well lay in a couple cases of liquor while he was out.
He pulled the Corvette into the parking lot and got in line. He hated lines. By the time he was at the door into the store, the owner came forward and started to close it. “I’m out,” he yelled to the rest of those in the line.
Baker didn’t like it. He could still see some bottles on shelves, though admittedly not many. “You’ve still got goods. I’m going to get at least two cases. Let me in.”
When Baker went to shove past the owner there was suddenly a gun in Baker’s face. “I said I’m out. The rest is for me and mine. Back off, Jack, or eat a bullet.”
Baker didn’t argue. He lunged backwards and ran for the Corvette, muttering all the while. The thought of not having booze during the crisis disturbed him. Not war with China non-crisis, but people believing there might be war with China. It took him five stops before he had the liquor he wanted and the five hundred dollars was gone. Prices had been marked up double and triple and Baker didn’t drink the cheap stuff. Not anymore.
Smiling, thinking how silly people were, he drove home and parked the car. Bridget’s minivan was gone. “Now, where in the world has she gone off to?”
The kids were with her, since they weren’t home. Baker fixed himself a double out of the remaining stock of alcohol he had and sat down to watch the madness on TV. He couldn’t get over it. They were really talking war. Another double and Baker was shouting at the TV when one of the commentators said something he didn’t like.
Then Bridget and the kids were back. “Groceries? This isn’t Sunday!”
“I thought… With what was going on… I’d better get a few things.” She was carrying two bags, and both children had a bag.
“A few things! How much did you spend?” It was more accusation than question.
Bridget stood her ground as Chelsea and Bren hurried into the kitchen. “All I could get. They wouldn’t take the credit card, or I would have picked up more.” Her voice was low.
“Wouldn’t take it! That’s a Platinum card! How could they not take it?” Baker’s attention was diverted from the supplies she’d bought to the credit card company. “I’m going to call them right now! This is outrageous!”
“I think it was the store and not the credit card company,” Bridget explained.
Baker waved the comment away and Bridget took the groceries to the kitchen. The four plastic bags were all Bridget had been able to get with the cash she had.
Baker was shouting into the phone as Bridget put away the groceries. She’d sent the kids to their rooms. Not as punishment, but to keep them out of Baker’s sight. They were relieved at the order.
Finally, with a crack that made her jump, Baker slammed down the telephone receiver.
“I’m telling you… When this mess is over, I’m going to cancel that card and get one that knows how to do business! Imagine! And don’t buy anything at that store again, either. They are partly responsible.”
“Baker, don’t you think that maybe they’re right? Should we try to get a shelter ready or something? The paper is supposed to be printing up a special that includes what to do.”
“Shelter, my left foot! I keep telling you that there is nothing to worry about!” Baker seemed to calm down a bit. “Now. What’s for supper?”
“Mac and cheese, with a couple of side vegetables,” Bridget said, expecting the reaction she got.
“What? What about a steak to go along with that?”
“It was so expensive!” Bridget said. “They raised the price. I got everything I could that would last for a while. Rice and beans. Mac and cheese, Canned soups…”
“Bridget! For the life of me, how could you be so stupid? You know I hate rice, and never eat beans!”
“Baker, please… I had to get what I could. There may not be any more food in the stores for days… even weeks…”
Baker was as angry with Bridget as he’d ever been. Why couldn’t she trust him to know what to do in a crisis created by a non-crisis. “I’m going to bring in the stuff from the Corvette.”
Bridget perked up a bit. Perhaps Baker had understood and bought them more food.
She sighed when she saw the first case of liquor, and then turned away with tears in her eyes when she saw the second. She was beside herself when she saw the third case. Bridget was sure Baker hadn’t picked up those kinds of alcohol for a couple of dollars.
“Baker! How did you pay for that? Everyone was upping prices!”
“Oh. Tim gave everyone five-hundred extra. He’s acting crazy. Closed the plant. Had me shut down everything and mothball it for a long shut down. It’s going to cost him a fortune next Monday to get everything started up again.”
“You… You… You spent all five hundred on booze?” Bridget was incredulous. And angry.
“So what? It’ll all get used up. The way people were buying, there’s no telling when the good stuff will be back on the shelves. Speaking of which, I’m fixing myself a fresh double and putting in a Rambo movie. Keep the kids quiet, will you? And pop me a bag of popcorn.”
Bridget did as asked, taking the bowl of popcorn to the living room for Baker when it was ready. He’d finished the drink and handed her the glass for her to prepare him another. She could tell he’d already had two or three, but always did as she was asked. So she fixed him another drink.
Going into the kitchen, she pulled a pad and pencil from a kitchen drawer of odds and ends, sat down at the kitchen table, and began to write out a food plan for the coming few days. That’s all the food she’d been able to get. The pantry was almost empty, since it was already Friday and she would have been getting groceries Sunday, anyway.
When Baker fell asleep on the sofa, Bridget didn’t disturb him. She put the simple supper on the table for Chelsea and Bren. She ate a little herself, but put away enough for Baker, for when he woke up. He would be hungry.
She went to bed early, not long after the kids, not wanting to deal with her husband that evening.
Baker was groggy when he finally woke up. He looked at his watch in the light coming from the big plasma HD TV screen. It was past eleven. Groaning, he got up and went into the kitchen. His eyes darted over the few items in the refrigerator. Mostly condiments and such. There was the bowl of Mac and Cheese. Reluctantly he took it out, but only after checking the freezer for something more suitable to his appetite. Nothing. Mac and Cheese it would be. But come morning, he was going shopping for some meat.
He didn’t bother to put the leftover food away. They’d be eating good tomorrow. No need for leftovers. He hated leftovers and Bridget knew it.
Being the next day was a Saturday, Baker slept in. When Bridget got up and went downstairs to the kitchen to start breakfast, she saw the bowl of Mac and Cheese on the counter beside the microwave oven. Tears came to her eyes. There was at least one large serving left, and now it was inedible.
She put the food down the garbage disposal and then set out milk and the cereal containers, cautioning both Chelsea and Bren to limit themselves to one bowl. Neither complained. Bridget knew it was because they were scared. They’d been sent home from school early the day before because of the news. Both were old enough to understand some of it.
A grouchy Baker came down an hour later. The children were watching a movie. Bridget had insisted they not watch any of the news shows. “Cereal? You expect me to eat cereal? Bridget! Bacon and eggs!”
“But there is only a little bacon. I was going to use it in some beans for flavoring,” Bridget said evenly.
“Bah! Beans! I’ll not be eating beans! With or without bacon. I’m going out to get breakfast. I’d better not see a pot of beans on the stove when I get back, either.”
Bridget thought for a long time before she made the decision. But when she did, it didn’t take long to act on it. “Kids!” she called.
When they came in from the living room, looking at her expectantly, she said, “Pack a bag… No, two. We’re going to Grammas for a while. Maybe a long while.”
“Until after the war, Mother?” asked Bren.
“Something like that. Yes.”
Two hours later the minivan was packed with the three’s personal possessions most dear to them, and most of the food Bridget had picked up the day before. She’d also had to empty the five-gallon can of gasoline for the lawnmower into the van so they could get to Baker’s Mother’s place on the edge of the city. Mother and son were estranged, and Bridget knew she would get the support she needed from Evelyn.
Baker was furious when he returned home. Not only had he not been able to get any breakfast, even a fast food one, the Corvette fuel gage was sitting on empty and not a single station had any fuel. Or so their signs proclaimed.
When he found the fuel can for the lawnmower sitting empty he went from furious to livid. “Bridget!” he nearly screamed as he headed for the kitchen, going through the garage. He stopped when he saw that the minivan wasn’t there.
He hurried into the house and immediately found the note Bridget had left. It was simple. ‘Going to Evelyn’s. If we all live through this, then… well… we’ll discuss things.’
Baker wadded the note up and threw it into the trash. He was very hungry now, it being three hours past his normal Saturday breakfast, and four hours past the weekday breakfast time. He could tell that Bridget had taken most of the food. “Fortunately for her, she left the bacon and eggs!” Baker thought when he found them.
Twenty minutes later, eating burned bacon and hard fried eggs, rather than the leathery bacon and easy over eggs Bridget fixed for him, he was still as angry as before. He went into the living room and turned on the TV. He couldn’t believe his eyes. There were shots from a US carrier strike group sailing for Taiwan. It looked like they were traveling fast, though no mention of a speed was made. Actually, not much information was given, other than the fleet was headed to Taiwan in response to Mainland China’s activities.
Baker got a cold feeling in his stomach. His parents had described the tensions of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War to him as he grew up. But he’d paid little attention to them. He grew up in the eighties and nineties. The cold war was over and the government had grown to the point it controlled just about everything. Which was fine with him. He liked things stable.
Suddenly thinking of his retirement portfolio, Baker hastily changed the channel to the Financial Network. He went pale. The market had been shut down. But not before it had fallen. Significantly.
Baker got on the telephone with his stock broker. Or tried to. There was only the machine saying he would be back in his office after. No specification as to ‘after’ what.
Slamming the telephone down, Baker sat back and began to think. Things had looked bad before, but the market movers and shakers had always kept things on an even keel. Sure, the little guys lost bundles, but he was in top notch Mutual Funds. They should be holding. But from the little he’d been able to learn, they weren’t.
Going to the computer, Baker tried to get into his bank account to determine just how much money he had available. The system wouldn’t let him in. A string of expletives erupted and Baker headed for the door. He’d go down to the bank…
“Not enough fuel,” he though as he opened the door of the Corvette. He slammed it shut. There was a branch of his bank at the strip mall six blocks from the house. He’d go there. On foot.
There was no telling what his blood pressure was when he arrived at the branch bank building and found it locked up tight with two private security cars parked nearby. Baker kicked the door in frustration when it wouldn’t open and a security officer got out of each car.
“Move along, buddy. Bank is closed for the duration.”
Baker made a rude gesture and went to the ATM on the front of the building. The screen announced that the terminal was out of service. Tempted to put his foot through it, Baker thought twice as the two security guards moved toward him. He spun and marched off.
He walked the six blocks back to his home furiously cursing the system that had let this happen.
Three days later he was down to eating mayonnaise sandwiches. But it was the last of the bread and of the mayonnaise. He’d locked himself inside the house once, with Bren’s baseball bat in hand when a gang of youths had come through the neighborhood, trying doors. They got into the house next door and Baker had a tense hour as the gang trashed the place.
Baker called 911 but couldn’t get through. Leaning back against the door, legs weak with relief, Baker sighed. One of the gang had just tried the locked front door, but another man had called to him that a house down the way was open and full of liquor.
Baker’s eyes went to his own stash that he’d yet to put away. All that booze and not a thing to eat in the house.
Another three days and no telling how many miles Baker had walked back and forth in the living room, and the President was making a televised speech.
‘My fellow Americans. It is with ambivalent feelings that I come before you this afternoon. I feel fantastic that we have avoided a nuclear exchange with Communist China. I feel very saddened that Taiwan has chosen to maintain the status quo by calling off the scheduled election for independence.
‘This one episode is slowly winding down. But there are dangerous times ahead. I assure you that I, and all those in my administration will try to maintain this precarious balance.
‘Please allow FEMA time to get help to all those that are in need due to this situation.
‘Thank you, and good afternoon.’
“Wait for FEMA? After Katrina? You’ve got to be kidding! Where were they while this was all going on?” Baker was talking to himself. “Can’t depend on the government for anything. They should have blasted China, just for good measure!”
When the telephone rang, Baker jumped a good two feet in surprise. He picked up the receiver after recovering his composure. It was Tim Snider. Baker had been checking in every week day, after finding and reading the emergency operating procedures for the company in the employee manual. Each day it had been a quick, ‘just stay in touch’ and the line would go dead.
This time was different. “Okay, Baker. We start firing up first thing in the morning. How have you managed? I was pleased to note that you followed the manual and checked in every day.”
“I’m… uh… okay… Ran short of food and sent the wife and kids to my mother’s. I’ll be fine when I get another good meal.”
“At least you managed. Don’t worry. A lot of people are in the same shape. The company will be providing one good hot meal every day to help out, until things get back on track.”
“Thank you, Tim. And… Tim… I want to sign up for those classes you give. And get in on the group buys. All those things.”
“That’s fine, Baker. We’ll get you all set up for a future event as quickly as we can. I don’t think this is over.”
Baker hung up the telephone slowly. He’d been a fool. He’d survived this event by the sheer luck that it hadn’t lasted any longer than it had. It was going to take some work to get Bridget and the kids to come back to the house and be with him. He had a lot of things to make up for.
“Never again will I be caught unprepared like this. Never again.”
Jerry D. Young
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