Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Distance, Chapter 2


January Fifteenth
Seven a.m.

Two days in a row now; Doug was awakened by his cell phone far earlier than he would normally rise.  

“Hello?” he said, seeing only that it had a local prefix.

“Doug, it’s Julie. Sorry to call so early.”

“No problem, Julie.  Any news on Cam?”

“We spent about three hours there last night before they admitted her.  She was completely uncooperative with the doctors, and I think she was on the edge of getting physical with the orderlies.  Her local doctor didn’t respond with a records request.  I tried to call you last night but the cell system is a mess.  Too much traffic.”

“Yeah, mine too.  I suppose all that trouble out west. People trying to call family,” Doug said.

“Probably. They admitted Cam to the psych ward.  The on-call doctor thought it was a pharmacological problem, but I couldn’t help figure it out.  There wasn’t anything in her bag that looked like a prescription or even a pill bottle. Nothing here at the hotel, either.”

“Which hospital is she in?”

“Lenox Hill. Not far from here,” Julie said.

Doug thought for a moment. “Julie, are you planning on staying there until…”

“Yes, for a while anyway. She’s a friend of mine, and we can’t get out by air even if she was OK.”

“I’d come if I could, but air travel restrictions sound like they’re going in place.  That ash from Rainier is coming across the country; so all aircraft are headed south out of the path, or grounded.  And I’m trying to set up a job interview tomorrow.”

“Honestly Doug, there’s nothing you can do here except wait. Neither of us have power of attorney; she doesn’t have any other family; no one can make medical decisions on her behalf without the courts getting involved, according to the social worker at Lenox Hill.”

“So it could be Monday…sorry, tomorrow, before any progress is made regarding getting her records to New York and then someone to act on them.”

“Pretty safe bet, yes,” Julie said. “Doug, I hate to say this though, but I am going to have to get home when I can. I have a board of directors meeting on Tuesday about that other club we’re trying to acquire.”

“I understand, Julie, believe me. There’s only so much you can do.”

“Listen. I’m going over to Lenox in a little while. Maybe I’ll have some news.  I’ll text or email you later. I’m….also looking into catching the train out.”

“Thanks, Julie.  I really appreciate it. I know that Cammie would too….”

“You’re welcome, Doug. I’ll be in touch,” she said as she ended the call.  He’d never really paid much attention to Julie Forsythe, having met her ‘formally’ not long after he started dating Camille, and then seeing Julie in passing a few times.  Her kindness toward Cammie went way beyond what he would have expected from ad supervisor.  She was definitely going the extra mile. 

He flipped on the television, showing again, coverage from the Northwest.  He muted the sound.  

Doug sat on the edge of the bed, not knowing quite what to think next.  His problems were really nothing compared to what thousands of others were dealing with today, but his problems were plenty big enough.  He felt like he’d been punched in the gut.

In the space of a few days, his career plan was gone, his girlfriend had either gone nuts or she had a serious medical condition that she’d not disclosed to him.   He didn’t know at the moment which bothered him more.  The loss of the job or the lack of trust that Camille had….in probably not telling him that she had a medical condition. Everything in their…relationship was in question.

Doug eventually got up, gathered up some clothes, and showered. He’d be very early for Sunday brunch at Jack’s, Doug’s favorite local restaurant.  He’d usually wander in late in the morning, enjoy the buffet, and spend the day watching football with his “Jack’s Friends,” guys he’d only see on the weekend.

The picture on the television caught his eye, a massive black cloud boiling thousands of feet in the air.  He took the TV off of ‘mute’.

“…sixty-five thousand feet.  This ash cloud will certainly circle the globe in the weeks to come.  The trajectory of the cloud will take it over the northern tier of states, and should wind patterns bear as predicted, will sweep across the Great Lakes states, dipping down into the Ohio Valley, and up the Eastern Seaboard.”

The animated map showed the progression of the ash across the United States and southern Canada, marked in hourly progression as the ash was projected to spread.

“Now on the ground,” the weatherman said, “There hasn’t been ash fall like this in any modern city on the planet. You have to go back centuries to even come close to the ash fall in a city environment.  The eruption is estimated to be roughly between the eruption at Mount Pinatubo in nineteen ninety-one and the massive Mount Tambora eruption of eighteen-sixteen.  With each hour of the continuing eruption, the Rainier Eruption increases on the scale—known as the Volcanic Explosivity Scale.
The combination of the earthquake, several feet of ash fall—reported from on the ground survivors using shortwave radios and short-range walkie-talkies—and mudflows from melting glacial ice and winter snows have simply devastated one of the most crucial technological centers in the nation. The south Puget Sound area, Renton, all the way over to the Sound, along with Joint Base Lewis-McChord are devastated.  Aerial reconnaissance, which is intermittent due to ash and ash-filled rain, show major technology centers in the South Sound/Green River/Auburn area as wrecked shells.  Mudflows appear to have reached both Puget Sound and Lake Washington.  United States Navy forces at Bremerton may  have found themselves grounded---the floor of the Sound, according to marine geologists—has been raised by the quake in several locations, perhaps stranding ships in port.  That problem is being compounded by incredible amounts of mud and debris now clogging the South Sound….” 

“Incredible,” Doug said to no one, shutting off the television as he grabbed his jacket and a Chicago Bears knit cap. 

‘Jack’s’ was a block west and a half block south of Doug’s townhouse-style apartment, not worth driving.  The restaurant and bar had been built in the late Thirties and had been in continuous operation since.  It was the center of the goings on in the neighborhood, having seen the transitions of the neighborhood over the decades.  The surrounding businesses in the currently thriving, and increasingly gentrified neighborhood in central Elmhurst included banks, the typical cookie cutter fast food restaurants, a coffee house, a few offices, and a couple of grocery stores.

The overnight storm had dumped another six inches of snow, and Doug’s shoes weren’t suited to the snow. He made his way in already stomped-down narrow paths on the sidewalk.  Normally his work routine took him from home to car to work, where the parking lots and walks were always cleared, and back home again.  On the road; the routine across his territory was the same, the only difference was geography. He didn’t have need of winter boots or heavy clothes—he didn’t work outside.  While he had a Toyota pickup in his younger days, the five year old Acura coupe was more his style and the mileage was better.
Doug walked east on Second, and turned south on Addison, noting how few cars there were out.  It was still early, not yet ten.  There were five people waiting at the ATM on the other side of the street, near Palmer Bank. ‘That’s pretty odd,’ Doug thought.

‘Jack’s’ was busy as always, a few of his regular friends already at their customary booth.  Hal Downing was newly divorced, and worked in the city in the financial district.  Chris Brownson played football for Illinois in college, twenty years and forty pounds ago.  He had worked as a general contractor, but things had been slow for two years in his main line of work. He was making ends meet through small residential remodels and tenant improvements for landlords. The hundreds…or thousands of foreclosed homes owned by his main employer these days—James Bank of Chicago—were often damaged by the former residents when they were evicted.

“Hey, guys. Mornin’,” Doug said. “Everyone’s here early today, huh? Where’s Nick? He owes me twenty from the Monday night game.”  Nick was a communications coordinator with Cook County, and always seemed to have the inside scoop on the Bears.

“Hey, Doug.  Nick’s gone.  Talked to him last night.  He was at O’Hare, heading to Salt Lake.  Homeland Security federalized him.  Heading to the Northwest,” Hal said. “But he said he’s good for the twenty.”

Doug didn’t know what to make of Nick’s sudden departure. “Really? Shipped him out?”

“First responders.  I guess communications out there are a wreck,” Chris said.  “Haven’t you been watching the news?”

“Yeah, I’ve had my own issues to deal with,” Doug said, and then filled the guys in on Cammie’s situation.

All twelve of the big flat panels, and the big projection monitor were tuned to various news channels.

“They’re saying a hundred thousand dead,” Hal said to no one in particular. “Holy God. Look at those people.”

The big screen showed people standing on top of a minivan, surrounded by fast moving muddy water, trying to get the attention of the television helicopter. A moment later a tree trunk hit the van from behind, and cleared them off of the van.  They were gone.

“Not every day you watch people die live on national television,” Doug said.

“That wasn’t live. That was from yesterday.  Some little river south of Mount Rainier,” Chris said. “Doesn’t make it any easier to see for  though.”

Doug noticed how tired Hal looked.  “Hal, you look like Hell. You go on a pub crawl last night or something?”
“Not hardly.  I was at work until about four this morning.”

“I thought you kept banker’s hours!” Chris said. “Nine to three, right as rain,” he said, kidding a little.  Hal seemed to work short days most of the time. In reality, he was up quite early to check the European markets from his home office, and came into the office late.

“This mess out west.  It’s going to rock the domestic markets come morning. Asia will be all over the map, too.”

“How’s that?” Chris said. “Not that I have any money to invest anymore.”

“China’s thinking of re-evaluating their money. Plays badly in the investment world.  That’s just one thing.  This mess,” Hal said, “Will cost billions of dollars to rebuild, which you think would be a good thing, you know? Contractors, construction supplies, permits, taxes, new steel, new lumber, wiring, the works…”

“So you’re saying that’s not good?” Doug said.

“No one’s interested in investing.” Hal replied.

“What do you mean?” Chris asked.

“I mean we’ve been working since we got the news about the quakes to look at bond offerings, projections of stock sales in major material suppliers and general contractors and no one is interested in the offerings.   Without venture capital, it’ll be up to individuals to finance this,” Hal said, pointing a thumb at the monitor nearby. “The government can’t afford it—they’ve had five T-Bill sales fall flat in seven weeks. They ended up buying them up themselves.”

Doug had never paid much attention to ‘big finance,’ but even to him, that didn’t seem possible.

“How does that work? Don’t they need investors to put outside money into the system to keep it in operation?” Doug asked.

“Yeah, unless they just monetize the debt, which is what they’ve been doing since mid-November,” Chris took note of this, and was now leaning forward on the table.

“So Hal, what do you think is coming?”

“If China re-values the Yuan, the dollar will plummet. Everything made in China will increase in price.  Problem is, it’s like an infection. Once ‘some’ products start going up, more will follow.  Then people start to lose confidence in the Dollar, and they try to get into other currencies, when they should be getting into commodities. Hard stuff you can lay hands on.  If the frenzy doesn’t stop, then, gents,” Hal said, downing his bloody Mary, “it all hits the fan.”

“What, exactly, does that mean?” Doug asked.

“Yeah, enlighten us, Hal. I pound nails for a living.”

“In the past two weeks, we’ve seen a thousand point drop in the Dow, and a corresponding drop in every other domestic index. That isn’t anything compared to what can happen.  Not will happen mind you, I don’t know this for sure. I do know that the chances of it happening are greater now than at any point in the past five decades,” Hal said, flagging the waitress for another drink, and ordering one for Doug as well.

“So if you have money in the market, get it the Hell out.  Get it into something solid, and do it fast,” Hal said, dead serious. “That’s one thing that can happen, simple stock market crash. The really ugly thing that can happen is a full currency collapse.  That twenty, Doug, might just be toilet paper,” he said. “In that kind of situation, you see the prices of everything skyrocket.  Hyperinflation.  Unimaginable prices, changing every hour.  Your paycheck doesn’t though.  Your debts however, stay where they were. Debt obligations that is, because they’re fixed by contract.   Stuff you need you can’t get, because your money isn’t any good. Stuff you don’t need, but have, no one wants,” Hal said as the waitress returned with their  drinks.

“We oughta get to the bank,” Doug said; then remembering it was Sunday.

“Wouldn’t really matter one Helluva lot today, even if it weren’t Sunday.  ATM withdrawals are limited to a hundred dollars in twenty-four hours. That went into effect at midnight.” 

Chris swore.  “So what are we supposed to do now?”

“Damned if I know,” Hal said. “I will tell you this though, just imagine what happens across the whole of Chicago when welfare payments don’t show up? Or food stamps? This ain’t the place you want to be caught.”

“You’re leaving?” Doug said. “You grew up here, Hal. Where you gonna go?”

“As far away as I can get, if it starts to go,” Hal replied. 

The bar was now getting crowded, and the buffet line was long.  Doug took his place, heaping up his plate with corned beef hash, three fried eggs, and an English muffin. His mind though, was racing. If Hal was correct, and things really hit the fan, he’d last about fifteen minutes.   Finally, he was able to get back to the table with his plate.

“Where’d Hal get off to?” Doug asked.

“Got a call from his office.  Boss said to hightail it over. He boogied,” Chris replied, taking a swig of his drink and looking at the sole monitor covering the pre-game show.

“What do you think about what he said?” Doug asked.

“Damned if I know. Hal was dead serious though. I tried to get two hundred out of that ATM across the street, and it wasn’t having any of it.  And I have five hundred in that account. Aw, it’ll be all right. Hal’s just worrying too much.  His alimony and child support are kicking his ass.”

Chris changed the subject back to the playoffs, and the conversation continued while Doug ate.   Doug wondered what he could do, should Hal’s worst-case scenario come true. He glanced over at the bank ATM, and the line was longer yet.  Chris excused himself to head to the men’s room, and Doug found himself wondering if he should take Hal’s warning seriously.

The first game of the day, Ravens against Colts, was a one-sided affair after Aaron Whitman, starting quarterback for the Colts, went down on the opening drive after a knee injury.  The replacement, a kid out of Texas Tech, was quickly in over his head. While the rest of Jack’s was engrossed in the one-sided game, with money rapidly changing hands with various bets, Doug’s mind was preoccupied with Cammie in New York, and Hal’s ominous warnings. 
He’d tried Cammie’s cell phone numerous times, and didn’t ever even reach voice mail. Julie’s number likewise, couldn’t be reached.  He tried to contact some other friends around the country. As the day grew long, he couldn’t even get a connection on his phone, let alone get an ‘all circuits busy’ tone.

Chris was in his element, yelling loudly at a blown call, obviously well on his way to a cab-ride home.  By the time Doug finally called it a day, before the start of the Redskins – Niners game and far earlier than he’d normally leave Jack’s, the bar was over-full of patrons.  Doug waded through the crowd. The lines for the hot wings troughs were long, and the waitresses were working under the strain of many pitchers of beer.

Across the street, the once-long line at the ATM was gone and the screen was flashing. Doug walked across the snowy street to check it out, dodging deep snow and slush in his low shoes.

The screen flashed ‘OUT OF SERVICE’ repeatedly in English and Spanish, with directions to see the bank manager for withdrawals during regular business hours.  The machine also provided a list of other ATM’s nearby, and behind each, a similar ‘OUT OF SERVICE’ tag was present.    A chill ran down Doug’s spine, not going away.

Doug realized as he walked back to his apartment, that he had less than fifty dollars on him, and very little cash at home.  His checkbook had a few hundred dollars, his savings account just under five thousand.  The inheritance from his parents was invested with the Raleigh Investment Group, the same firm that his parents had used for their funds.  His credit cards all had healthy balances…well, those that he hadn’t rolled over into a Raleigh On Demand card.  Doug wondered how soon he could get some cash. He walked down the sidewalk and stopped dead in his tracks, shoes filling with cold, slushy water.

The local grocery—larger than a convenience store but nowhere near as large as a decent-sized store—was over busy.  Doug walked inside the old building, pushing the door open.  Three checkers—one was a manager—had at least five people in each line, with probably thirty or forty people in the store.  Several had multiple baskets, filled with all kinds of things.  The lines were longer than just before Thanksgiving, when the last round of stimulus checks arrived.


  1. I greatly appreciate your writing. You always manage to send a chill down my spine.

  2. Looking good so far. I appreciate the shout out to my hometown of Elmhurst!

  3. Elmhurst is also my old hang out, that and Addison. It was pretty rural back then.


Comments are welcome!