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Liz the First | 2017 | Our Nameless Cat


There are two kinds of light--the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures.  

-James Thurber

The Blackout of '17

This is the beginning

A tree falls in the high winds of a brief squall, landing on the power lines outside my apartment. The weight jerks the cords that attach to the exterior wall, tearing the corner of the building, resolutely stopping electricity. When someone chainsaws the tree to free the lines, they manage to rip off most of the wall, exposing the insulation. The heat and water stops.

In short order, the fire department arrives. I do not know who called them, but assume it might be the occupants of the apartment on which a dead tree now rests. They tromp through our apartment, waving a meter that would alert them if the walls were secretly aflame, but decide that the apartment is not yet burnt to a cinder.

Amber and I go out for dinner, since eating at home is not unlikely. We charge our phones at the diner and see that our landlord, whom we promptly informed, stated that it may take around a week to restore our electricity. We walk to a nearby café, which offers us an opportunity to charge our devices more and see if we have been sent any helpful mail. To our surprise, Dezi is working and, upon hearing our travails, gives us a free pastry.

We return home. I hand wash and dry some dishes so we are not reduced to savagery in the meanwhile. Amber studies for some tests. This does not even last until I have emptied the sink, as Amber declares that we ought to go to the movies to see the new Guardians of the Galaxy to distract from our disadvantage.

Well, that's not so bad...

In the morning, our neighbor, who acts as maintenance to defray his rent, tells me the only running water is from a hose outside another building, but it is better than leaving toilets unflushed. He implies that the landlord sure hopes we won't take these inconvenienced days out of our rent, the subtext being that he absolutely hopes we do. They may marginally employ him, but he owes them no loyalty, particularly when his refrigerator doesn't work. The building inspector had been through in the morning and pronounced a series of vague threats, but did not label our apartment uninhabitable yet. Once it is, we will not be permitted to stay the night there, though I do not think we would be especially keen to try if we could help it. It would be troublesome to pack up our pets, but it is May and it would not be too difficult.

The heat and hot water returns by afternoon, as does the electricity to every neighbor outside our building. The landlord is no more optimistic about our chances but vaguely suggests he might get a generator.

The days telescope, finding hours that must otherwise hide in working sockets and wireless routers. I finish a third of one book and dive immediately in another, until I have to rely on Amber's camp light on a hook in our ceiling next to a dream catcher, throwing spider web shadows against the walls.

We meant to cook hamburgers in Amber's Rocket stove, but the sky will commit neither to raining or ceasing, making any kindling likely too damp for use. Amber is not inclined toward being outside in the spitting drizzle a moment longer than she must. We go to the grocery store, getting a rotisserie chicken, a hearty bread, and vegetables for a salad to eat in the waning light. We do not get salad dressing - it is one of those items I presume I always have, like salt and bread - but I whip together balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, and olive oil to a passable substitute. We also grab four bags of ice to keep our refrigerated food from spoiling. Usually, we watch a Netflix with dinner - there is more good media than I will ever have the opportunity to consume, but I cannot justify watching unless I am doing something else (Amber, and seeming most people, have the genes and lack of Calvinist guilt that allows binge-watching). Tonight, we talk a little, then study and read, respectively. We call it a night early, having no reason not to. Amber says the dark tires her out.

Well, that's pretty bad...

I wake the next morning with my lungs and throat raw from a cold my body is fighting too hard. I grab my breakfast from the refrigerator with all possible swiftness. My ancestors trusted blocks of ice to keep their food fresh. I suppose I cannot deny the possibility now.

I go to do our laundry, since that building has electricity despite having had a tree fall on it. Our maintenance neighbor is on a ladder against the house, feeling through the wound inflicted on the wall. He is not, to my knowledge, an electrician or even a carpenter, but he clearly has been told the repair is at least partially his task. He tells me, burdened by laundry, that he would like to get on the other side of the wall, into my apartment. He fingers a white wire sticking from the sagging fluff of the insulation as an excuse. As through with ex-ray vision, I see the hundreds of books in a sturdy bookcase between anyone and that wall.

"So, if I could get in there soon..."

Amber wants no part of this, does not want to have the books moved, does not wish our neighbor in our home for any reason, doesn't expect he knows the first thing about electricity, and prefers to be left alone in the dark to study. I move most of the books into a box she finds and wiggle the bookcase out enough that the neighbor can get behind where there is a pinhole through which one can now see outside.

The neighbor sees the books in a pile and says airily that books never take up as much room as you think. Amber looks ready to bite him, because she had the books on display exactly where she wanted them and now they are unsorted.

There should be a wall there.

The neighbor enters and exists a half dozen times before pronouncing it likely fixed, though we won't know for certain until the power returns. Stacks of books will have to remain until that point. Amber glares at his retreat.

For the rest of the day, he drunkenly sings outside our window in a Mickey Mouse voice and bangs nails out of the piece of our wall now on the lawn.

After lunch, we go to a café because Amber needs to take a test online, we both need tea, and our various gadgets could use a charge. Cords snake over me, going from the power strip Amber had in her bag to seven devices and two computers. It is possible that we are not using this outlet in the spirit it was provided to us.

Next to us, Bard students badly lecture one another about contemporary politics, particularly the specifics of the recent French election ("Did you know the French government doesn't allow anyone to talk about the results of the election for forty-eight hours after it happens? It's a crime! You'll be arrested!" When the girl he was trying to impress asked how anyone finds out who won then, he could not conjure up a good explanation. He profoundly assures her that not everyone obeys the law). It is all so fond and frivolous, though I restrain myself from butting in on their half-remembered reiteration of the episode of Last Week Tonight they'd seen.

When Amber finishes her test - she had two hours and seems to have taken fewer than one - she turns to the internet to find us a new apartment. This seems premature, since we are technically afflicted by a natural mishap compounded by a human enough one. Though the man who ripped off our wall was acting in the stead of our landlord, who is thus culpable.

After hours at the café, we go for pizza in a restaurant with Wi-Fi, because we have gone just long enough without Netflix. After serving us, the waitress gives us a wide berth until the episode is over.

We make mutual apologies by Sunday for our irritability, though I cannot tell if it is wholly to credit our combined illnesses, withdrawal from regular internet, or if we are merely getting on one another's nerves as a fun activity to fill our overly long days. If I were a betting man, I'd spread my chips on the former two, depending on the odds given me.

We return to the café from the first night, because there seems to be no sense in going home until we are readying ourselves for bed. Amber does more homework and I mostly play on the internet in lieu of typing out my notes. Next to us appears a club of people playing ukuleles. Within a few minutes, half the café is absently singing along to their songs and I am not so hard-hearted as to act as though this were not magical.

How we survived.

Monday, when I return home from work, Amber is on the porch, huddled around her Rocket stove, making herself tea. "I heard our neighbor talking. They don't think they will be able to fix our building until the weekend. I'm going to look at apartments on Wednesday and Thursday, since I don't have school. I probably won't want one of them, but I am going to look."

She asks for the quilt and cushion from my trunk, but otherwise is occupied with her studying. I find a hoodie to keep away the chill and sit beside her, reading a book. Our neighbor appears and stands at the top of the hill, addressing Amber and me, along with another neighbor, with his pronouncement. He dramatically spreads his arms to underscore than he is speaking the word of God. "I've spoken to the property manager and he said that the electrician and carpenter will be here tomorrow. I asked if I could quote him on that and he said I could. So, tomorrow, hopefully."

Amber stays outside, cooking the turkey burgers, though she can only do one at a time, so we eat separately. We almost have a routine in the darkness now, reading with the available light. In the evening, I walk into town to get more batteries for the camp light. I charge my laptop enough in the laundry room that I can type up a few notes, then scribble the beginning of a new (overdue) book in a fresh notebook. If I didn't have to go to work tomorrow, I am certain I could write until the light died. There are so few distractions and so much quiet it is eerie.

My wife is mostly quilt at this point.

I feel the temptation to learn a lesson from all this, how I should spend more time away from the thrall of electronics because there is a great big world out there, how the days stretch when I am not anchored to a device, how computers are tools and not toys, but it all feels so glib. Yes, of course I know all this. I've had these lessons before and come to these conclusions. Maybe it would behoove us to spend more time at cafes, since my town had two in walking distance that I do not utilize enough.

The electricians offer to fix the power the next day, but the carpenters refuse to proceed. Amber and I connect an extension cord out from the laundry room and use our toaster oven to make fish sticks and tater tots on our back porch, figuring that we had better use up the contents of our cool-but-not-cold freezer. The day after, grilling chicken and corn on the Rocket stove, we watch the workers and a ten-year-old boy finally put up the wall and connect the wires. When the power resumes, the quality of the indoor lights seems wrong, much too yellow. I want to shut them off again, but I don't because we have waited so long. The refrigerator begins to hum again, filling the silence. A few of our appliances beep to let us know they have begun to charge. I sit out on the porch with Amber, around the grill, and read until dusk falls.

Soon in Xenology: Adventures. Spring.

last watched: Black Mirror
reading: 1984
listening: Great Big World

Liz the First | 2017 | Our Nameless Cat

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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