Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Doug had followed one of the Regent trucks and their security escort into a guarded truck stop on the outskirts of Madison. A parking lot had been carved out of the adjacent farmland to accommodate additional vehicles. After a brief conversation through protective masks with one of the fuel attendants, Doug was motioned to the end of the dark lot. A makeshift campground and RV park had sprung up, with all sorts of non-commercial traffic cramming into the lot. Fortunately the kid running the gas pump in the lot hadn’t noticed that Doug was ill. One hundred sixty-six dollars later, the Explorer’s tank was full. Truck stops charged for their security at the pump—in this case, a three-dollar-per-gallon surcharge.
He parked on the end of a row, nearer to the semi park than to the RV’s, and noticed that most or all of the other cars, trucks, and RV’s were occupied, their dome lights on or some other light source inside. Two fairly large camp tents were set up behind a couple of the cars, dimly lit.
He just sat there for a few minutes, reclining his seat, feeling miserable. The emergency kit supplied by his employer did contain a small ‘three man’ tent (really big enough for one adult and a backpack, maybe two in a pinch), a highly compressed sleeping bag, dehydrated food and other emergency essentials. Doug had taken the time, weeks before, to look over the kit, set up the tent, and add some items he felt important. With the kit and his boxed-up supplies, he had plenty of food, water and other liquids. He forced himself to get out of the car, get into the supplies in the back and round up something that would pass for dinner, more pills, and the sleeping bag.
It had been years since Doug spent the night in a car. During the early days of his sales career, he’d made his mark by covering twice the territory as his peer’s…part of that was accomplished by ‘driving through’ when others spent the night in some motel. He’d clean up at truck stops, shower, shave and get back to the sales route. This experience wasn’t remotely the same.
What concerned him more than anything was that he didn’t have the ability to know what bug he’d caught. Doug didn’t quite know how to deal with the possibility that he could be dead in a day or two. Endless questions rolled through his head as he ate a cold cup of soup, some vegetable-flavored crackers and water.
He drifted off to fitful sleep as the rain began.
Sometime during the night, Doug woke with a start, completely disoriented and coughing fiercely; feeling as if he were drowning. He moved the drivers’ seat to vertical and coughed enough to clear his throat, for the first time feeling afraid that he did in fact have ‘the flu’. Doug struggled to get out of the sleeping bag and get dressed. He stepped out of the Explorer to visit the portable toilets and was greeted by six inches of fresh snow, more coming down. Other than a few idling trucks on the far end of the lot, there wasn’t a sound. Most of the lights in the area were off. The passenger side of his Ford was a solid mass of white.
The toilet was less than pleasant, as Doug only had a tiny LED flashlight attached to his coat to light up the fiberglass box as he tried to create a clean place to sit down. Somewhere two cars started their engines and idled.
Back at his car, Doug used multiple disinfecting wipes on himself, not all on his hands. He then went through the gymnastics of getting out of his wet coat and boots and back in the sleeping bag.
He flipped on the ignition, quickly switching off the automatic headlights. The outside temperature read twenty-two degrees. It was cold inside as well, but not cold enough—yet—to freeze his bottle of sports drink. He took another batch of pills, ate an energy bar and started the engine, waiting for it to warm up to the point where he could turn on the heater. The radio kept him company.
“We can’t get money to plant. The banks won’t loan us money, ag diesel’s so expensive that it’d be a third mortgage on the place just to fuel up for spring planting.”
“How much for diesel out your way, Edward?” the host asked.
“Fifteen fifty a gallon. Ag. Road diesel is worse, assuming you can get it.”
“Yeah, those Federal price controls are really holding the line, aren’t they?”
The caller was bleeped out. “Sorry. There’s a massive shortage of fuel at nine dollars a gallon Federal rate. There’s plenty of fuel available north of fifteen dollars a gallon.”
“Just like everything else since the dollar went down,” said the host. “Everyone jockeying to create a new reserve currency out of thin air, blow up another bubble for the suckers to invest in, nothing ever changes.”
“You know, wars start over stuff like this. This whole currency mess.”
“They do in fact, Edward. We’ll just see if calmer heads prevail this time.”
“It’s been damned near three months and no one’s fixed a thing. Nothing. Things are getting way worse, Ray. People are gonna starve in this country this year.”
“This is Late Night with Ray Michaels,” the host said as the show went to a commercial break. The radio however, remained silent where commercials should have been.
“And we’re back. Open lines tonight. Our scheduled guest was a no show, an anonymous voice from the current iteration of the Treasury Department. We were hoping to have a discussion on the proposed re-valuation of the dollar, which has been rumored for more than two months. The guest however didn’t call in, was not able to be reached at the number that we had on file…so we have no idea what happened,” the host said.
“We’re obviously in the midst of a global shift in the way that the world works, and we’re probably so late and recognizing it that there’s no hope of meaningful response. Springbrook, North Dakota, you’re next up.”
“Ray, thanks for letting me on tonight,” the caller stated. Doug wondered where ‘Springbrook’ was, and fished out a map. It wasn’t far from where his friend Hal Downing had been headed. He wondered if Hal was part of the oil economy these days. He’d tried to call Hal’s cell phone several times over the past several months, but only reached voicemail.
“Vandy. How’s it going out there? For those that may not know Vanderbilt, he’s a regular caller, and happens to be involved in the oil biz out there. Van is not his real name, by the way.”
“It’s busier than Hell, but getting in here to work is for the favored few. If you’re not paying off the inspectors, like daily, you’re not on the job for whatever reason they can find.”
“Sure, if you keep up your payments to the landlord and the Feds…who both want more money to keep us ‘safe.’ It’s extortion.”
“How’s production? Things coming on line?”
“Sure. Right under the watchful eye of Big Brother. Don’t expect any of this to end up in your local pump. It’s all going to the mil.”
“Hmm. Three speeches about the wondrous resources within our own borders and the Secretary of the Interior on site with a pumping well behind him and it’s all being kept for the government.”
“Yes. And not a damned thing we can do about it. They’ve got all the guns around here---literally.”
“How are you guys getting paid these days?”
“Depends who you know. Grunts out there—the worms—they get fed and housed and some down time in town once a month. Skilled folk get better food and I kid you not, silver coins in a bag, every week. The drillers are best off, but it’s a backstabbing business. Everyone’s out for each other’s job. And Brother gets his cut over everything.”
“You’re not living in one of those camps, are you?”
“Nope, got out of there a while ago. Off the grid, not far from where I have to work…and I like it that way. It’s been an interesting couple of…”
The line went dead in mid sentence, straight to dial tone.
“Vandy? You there?” the host asked. “Huh. Not the first time that’s happened on this program. Vandy, hope you’ll be safe out there.”
Doug listened for another fifteen minutes as the heater shook off any semblance of the winter weather outside. All of the calls spoke of either the crashed economy or of heavy-handed governments or the difficulty that people were having in adjusting to a dramatically different America. Finally he shut off the engine and drifted off to sleep as one of the sleep-inducing cold remedies kicked in.
Doug woke to someone pounding on the drivers’ side window, startling him out of the medicinal sleep.
“You OK, Mac? Someone thought you might have kicked off overnight,” the truck stop worker said. Doug finally got his eyes to focus and noted the heavy overalls with the logo of the truck stop. The man didn’t have a mask on. There had to be a foot of snow out there.
“Yeah. Took a sleeping pill. I’m fine,” Doug said. He wondered about the people sleeping in tents. He fished out his watch. It was nearly eight a.m.
“Breakfast and showers are available for a price. You interested? I can get you on the list.”
Doug didn’t even think about asking the price. It would’ve been far less than any hotel. “Sure. Set me up.”
“You got money? Or credits?”
“Yeah,” Doug said.
The man stood up and radioed to someone at the truck stop.
“Fifteen minutes. You’re number Thirty-Eight. Wear your mask, talk to Beth at the window. You’ll pay for your shower there, order your breakfast. When you’re out of the shower room, you can pick up your breakfast to go. Dining inside is reserved for truckers. Got it?”
“Yes, sir. Many thanks,” Doug said, finally almost fully awake. The man moved to another car, wiped the snow off the window, and started his pitch again. He was rebuffed and moved on.
Doug fought his way out of the sleeping bag, put on his boots again, and found his still-wet coat. He had no idea what might pass for ‘breakfast to go’ these days, it’s not like there were many fast-food places open anymore—Regent’s sales figures had seen a dramatic fall off in all of the prepared restaurant-ready products. He then got out of the SUV and was greeted by the cold. He thought it couldn’t have been more than fifteen degrees outside as he swept off the snow and scraped the windows clear. On the upside, he felt much better. Doug rounded up a change of clothes, his shaving kit, and a box of Regent retail-grade energy bars. He thought he might be able to do a little bartering….if not, no loss.
He started up the Explorer and warmed it a little before it was his turn for the showers. Two cars were trying to maneuver out of the snowy parking lot. Neither had snow tires or four-wheel drive, and appeared to be caravanning. Doug saw Pennsylvania plates on both.
The cost of a shower was thirty dollars flat, for fifteen minutes of hot water. No soap or shampoo provided, although towels were. Doug shaved in the shower, enjoying every minute of the experience. As promised his breakfast order was ready in a Styrofoam container when Doug was finished—another thirty dollars on his Regent card. They had a surprisingly good menu available to-go. Doug ordered pork sausage and gravy over biscuits, two fried eggs and a large coffee. The truck stop was uninterested in bartering for Doug’s goods.
He made his way back to the car, his small backpack slung over a shoulder, breakfast balanced on top of the case of energy bars. He noticed a number of other people were looking at his bundle with something regarding envy.
‘What the hell,’ he thought. ‘Maybe they can use them.’
After finishing breakfast in the front seat of his car, Doug opened up the case of energy bars. He made his way back to the cars that contained the envious faces.
“You interested?” Doug asked, holding up four. There were two adults in the front seat of the Chevy van, at least a couple of kids. A beat up trailer was hitched up, covered with tarps.
“We don’t have any money,” the woman replied as she rolled down the window. She used a cloth for a mask. The man was just staring at Doug. The van was from Indiana.
“Not asking for any. Here,” Doug said, handing her the first four and another large handful. “Tried to barter with the folks inside. They weren’t interested.”
“Thanks. We appreciate this,” the woman said. Three small kids appeared between the woman and the driver. She quickly passed one to each of the children.
“No problem,” Doug said. “Glad to help.”
A half dozen other cars also accepted the food, and Doug then made it to the tents down on the far end of the lot. He had a lump in his throat.
“Whatcha got, Mister?” a young boy asked Doug. He looked to be about eight, and was wearing a ratty, dirty sweatshirt, jeans and some once-expensive running shoes.
“Well, some energy bars. Are your folks here?”
“Michael, get in here! You know you need to wear your mask!” a thirty-something woman yelled at the boy. “And where’s your coat?”
“Inside,” the boy replied, looking at the ground.
“Ma’am, would you like some of these? Free,” Doug said.
“We don’t have money. I’m not trading anything—including favors.”
“Free. No obligation,” Doug said, realizing too late that she thought he was propositioning her.
“What are they?” she asked, voice muffled through a well-worn and soiled facemask.
“Energy bars. My company supplies them. These are extra,” Doug said.
The woman took a dozen, thanking him, and the neighboring tent—holding six children, and a man and two women, took the remainder. None of them looked like they’d eaten much in a while. Doug noted that there was a fire circle beyond the tents, a pile of firewood and some broken-down chairs.
“Where you from?” Doug asked.
“Milwaukee. We hoped to get out to Sioux Falls. Trying to get gas money.”
“You’re all one family?”
“We are now,” a young man said. He looked about twenty-four, and moved as if he had authority…although he was trying too hard. “Three of the kids are orphans. Lived in our neighborhood. Lost both parents to the flu. No other relatives.”
“How long have you been here?” Doug asked.
“A week,” the man said. “We’ll get out soon. Soon as the snow melts,” he said with a note of false bravado.
“Andrews, I told you to leave the travelers alone,” a booming voice said from behind Doug.
“He came to us. We didn’t do nothing wrong.”
“It’s fine,” Doug said. “We were just talking.”
“I need a word,” the lot agent said, looking at Doug.
“Sure,” he said. He walked over to the agent and both walked back toward Doug’s car.
“You don’t need to be messin’ with them. They’re bad news.”
“Seemed OK to me,” Doug replied.
“That tent on the right’s a whorehouse. Andrews tried pimpin’ out one of the kids a few nights back and the John cleaned his clock. You’ll notice he didn’t smile...he’s missin’ some teeth. Management had to have a word with him and them women. You might say if we had decent lawmen ‘round here, the kids would be in some sort of foster care and that ‘un would be underground,” he said, motioning to the watchful ‘Andrews.’ “We watch ‘em all close.”
Doug didn’t know what to say. “Jesus….can’t you get the kids away from that?”
“Maybe the orphans, but they trust the women. The other kids are theirs by birth we figure. We don’t know what goes on with them, if they’re messin’ or not, but we’re not about to let anyone else mess around. Got it?”
“Got it. I’m sorry, I had no idea.” Doug felt like an idiot.
“Just watchin’ out. Things aren’t always what they seem.”
“I think they’re seldom what they seem,” Doug said.
“Fair ‘nuff. You have a good day. Watch yourself on that highway. No crews clearing it anymore this year.”
“Any convoys heading out?”
“Sure…an hour ago. Nothing organized is scheduled the rest of the day,” the man said as he walked away.
Doug got back to the Explorer, took off his mask, coat and gloves and climbed in. A minute later the truck stop was behind him.
Three miles down the deserted road, he took the exit towards his client’s plant and passed by three recently burned out cars. He pulled over into an empty parking lot, kept the engine running, and called his first appointment.
“Good morning. This is Doug Peterson, calling for James Abernathy in R and D.”
“Thank you, Mister Peterson, one moment,” the receptionist replied.
“Doug—good to hear from you. I heard from your corporate office….said you were ill? That right?”
“I did pick up a cold. I’m here in Madison but it’s best that I don’t meet at your office, just in case.” He was surprised that corporate had called ahead of him….
“I understand. For your information, trial runs were a great success. Full roll out on the first of the month if you can fill the order.”
“Done!” Doug replied. “I’ll contact my team and make the arrangements. Will there be any issue with the terms?”
“Payment will be made within the hour on the deposit; by next Monday on the balance.”
“That’ll be great. We can expedite pack and ship and be ready to go as soon as the balance is credited,” Doug said. “Is there anything else I can help with at this time?”
“No, I think we’re in good shape. Are you guys still on track for the upgrade?”
“Yes—Should be ready to ship mid-May,” Doug said, remembering that his own team said that it would be wildly optimistic to plan on any shipment of the third generation RNEW formula before the first of June.
“That’s great. Hope we’re ready. We have a Helluva backlog.”
“Good to hear. Thanks, Jim,” Doug said as he wrapped up the call. Doug again was starting to feel the aches and pains he’d had the day before. It was too soon to take another batch of meds.
The second and the third calls of his day—essentially his whole schedule were washouts. One plant had unexpectedly closed, gates locked, phones dead. The second contact, another major distributor of pre-packaged, shelf-stable foods, was out due to an illness in his family. Doug was ready to scrub the sales pitch, but before he was able to do so, his call was transferred.
“This Mister Peterson?” The male voice asked.
“It is,” Doug responded.
“This is Charlie Clegg. Mister Blackham asked that I have a shipment ready for you. I understand you had a batch of some of that last production run for him?”
“I do indeed, but I’m fighting a cold…” he replied.
“No problem with me. Just pull into the warehouse load yard, go to gate E. You can drop your product for Mister Blackham there. I’ll have your stuff ready. How far you out?”
“Ten minutes or so. That work?”
“That’ll be fine. I’ll let Mister Blackham know. I know that there’s a packet on top of the cases. Looked like forms of some kind.”
“Perfect. Thanks, Mister Clegg,” Doug replied. The forms were the contract for Regent Performance to be the exclusive supplier for Fairland…and for Regents’ distribution network to take over for Fairland’s failing distributor.
“Mister Clegg’s my Dad. Call me Roy.”
Chuck Blackham had been with Leinhardt National when Doug had started—and had trained Doug in the sales route for the Upper Midwest. Chuck was moving up the Leinhardt ladder quickly, but had resigned after a subordinate made some sort of complaint. The woman left the company not long after, but Leinhardt wasn’t going to put Blackham into another position where he was in a supervisory position. He’d then moved to the other side of the table with Fairland Homestyle, running their purchasing division at first, and moving up the corporate ladder for the past ten years. Doug thought the whole business was just a giant misunderstanding. Leinhardt’s lawyers thought otherwise of course.
Doug had offered to swap Chuck some of the Preferred output for some of Fairland’s product line. They’d been pioneers in shelf-stable foods that actually tasted like real food. He’d tried it on a previous trip and was very impressed. He’d give some—or all—of this batch to Brenda. Doug’s basement was full enough, he thought.
As promised, the shipment was at loading gate ‘E’, and might pose a problem—it looked larger than he’d planned for. Doug backed the Explorer in, donned his mask and got out and was promptly greeted by the bitter wind. Roy Clegg looked on from inside the dock loadmaster’s office.
His batch of product was in the back of the Explorer and would fill a half a pallet, packed properly. There had to be a full pallet of Fairland food on the dock. It took a half-hour to remove Chuck’s product, wrap it up in shrink-wrap, and break down the pallet into manageable pieces. He left a loose package for Clegg, motioning to him through the window, receiving an informal salute in return. Doug pulled out of the loading yard, the entire passenger side of the front seat filled with bright foil pouches, haphazardly covered by his jacket.
Ten minutes later, he was headed north out of town. He had a hundred and fifty miles to Wausau, without a convoy.
The patched up Suburban followed at a distance, hidden mostly in the flying snow behind Doug’s Ford.