[ Caryl Johnston is writing a semi-humorous novel about the Oil Crash. Here is Chapter Ten. Read this novel-in-progress on her website. ]
10. Tomorrow, the Festival
Once the Crash came and people realized how much they had depended upon the energy released from fossil fuels in every aspect of their lives – how this dependency affected everyone in society, and how everyone would feel their absence — once these truths had become known — a strange unearthly stillness descended upon the earth and its inhabitants.
It was like nothing that had ever happened before. All work was suspended. The machines stopped running and the motors went off. The freeways were empty of cars, the skies were emptied of airplanes. Nobody even picked up a phone. If anyone said anything, no one remembered it.
To be sure, the children still played out in the yard, and the dog whined to be let in. You fed the cat, looked out the window. The television sizzled and went out. Seasons of blankness crossed your mind. What was tomorrow? You opened the door for the dog. The children ran in, muddying the kitchen floor with their muddy feet. Husband or wife came down the staircase, “What’s going on?” he said, she said. “I had the greatest little nap. I think I’ll be in good shape for the presentation I am giving tomorrow.”
Presentation? Tomorrow? You look at your spouse in disbelief. You are wondering how the children’s clothes are to be washed. There is food for tonight, and tomorrow, and then again and again, for a few days. But then? The car is a bit low on gas already.
There is a kind of sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. “Honey, what’s the matter?” spouse asks, with concern. You reel, put your hand on the kitchen counter to steady yourself. You see the muddy tracks on white and black squares of the kitchen floor and in a strange mental association it makes you think of trespassing. Forgive us our trespasses.
Your spouse looks up in alarm. He or she flicks the kitchen light; nothing happens. “The clock’s stopped. Is the power out?” You nod in misery. “Yes,” you whisper, “for good.” And in a funny way the expression of something being “for good,” meaning forever, strikes you with the greatest possible significance.
It is an effort to walk into the living room, to navigate to the direction of the couch. You seem to be forcing your way through invisible currents of meaning, tidal barriers of significance. You could not know that this feeling was more than the fancy of a stressed brain. There might really have been something to it. All of the energies formerly pent up in the hydrocarbon economy have been freed simultaneously; the atmosphere was supercharged all at once with the sudden explosive release of all these energies. Potential, kinetic, dynamic – everything converges at once.
You lie down on the sofa. The children thunder in, clamor to watch television; you tell them it’s broken. “Boken,” repeats youngest. They turn around, all three of them in unison, and run upstairs as if to a hidden signal, to set up their toy soldiers, their toy cannons, horses, spaceships.
Spouse nods, looks at you, seems to receive a bolt of understanding from the supercharged air.
* * *
It might have happened in a different way. Not on a Sunday afternoon in the suburbs, say, but on a Tuesday morning at the office. Twelve people have entered an elevator to go to the eleventh floor. The power dies. Fortunately, you are already in your office by this time. The computer’s out, but so what? At least you are not trapped in an elevator. It takes a long time for the twelve trapped people to be rescued, since elevators in the hydrocarbon age were never equipped with hand cranks, enabling an elevator at least to make it to the nearest floor so that people might exit by the stairs. Nobody ever thought the power would go off for such long periods… and certainly not “for good.” Was there a generator in the building? Or did someone have to go out and get one, when it was obvious that there were lots of people trapped in elevators? Is it easy to generate sufficient electricity to move an elevator five or ten feet? Or does it take a long time? Can you direct the generated electricity to the elevator unit alone? Are these questions stupid, or has somebody already figured it all out? If so, who?
* * *
Maybe it’s not at home, not at the office, but somewhere in between. It’s a bar, everybody laughing and having a good time. The televisions are blaring. It was such a great day today, sunshine, no storm, not too hot or too cold. Why did the lights go out? Why did that man who may have had one too many smash a glass, when his elbow swiped the table? “I wasn’t drunk,” he said, “I just didn’t see it. Sorry.” And then nobody cared because nobody could see anything.
* * *
The people out driving around on the freeways were the last to learn of the new situation. They were going to the shopping malls, or coming home from them, or returning from vacation, or going to them, or going out on dates, or doing any of the thousand and one things they always did in cars. Sit, drive, listen to the radio, look out the window. The radio interrupted the music and sputtered something about massive power outages, but that was the usual news these days anyhow. How could one day make a difference to the usual news? The drivers continued to drive.
When all of these things happened – and of course, they did not happen like this. I have had to translate and compress into a form suitable to the literary medium what took place over a series of months and years even. Yet the realization was growing, and perhaps it did happen, to some, like that suburban couple I first mentioned.
It was called the Hydrocarbon Holocaust, and it was beginning of the reign of the Powers of the Fire. But when it first happened the stillness came, and it was as if a giant holiday had been declared, although no speeches were broadcast. For as I said, if people spoke, their words were not remembered.
At first, there was the most enormous collective sigh of relief. There could be no thought or worry for the morrow. There was no tomorrow. There was only now. It was the strangest thing, as if the entire earth had entered into a Bermuda Triangle condition of being. Time, momentarily, was suspended. As the Book of Revelation put it, “And there was silence in heaven for half an hour.” And certainly earth was not heaven, but that brief suspension into timelessness characterized this initial period of the Crash. Or perhaps –“a time and half a time.” Whatever it was, it did not last long, or perhaps it did last long. There was no way of knowing. A day, half a day, three days? People watched their pets to see if there was any clue, but even the dogs and cats went about their usual business, and other than their usual periodic demands for food, seemed unaffected by this pause in the rhythms of human affairs.
This period could be likened to a festival in which everyone was present but none rejoiced. And yet there was a quiet cheer, a kind of release from burdens, just by the fact that everyone was experiencing it. There was nothing to know and yet there were only questions. It was a quiet time of communion and reflection, with people walking up and down their streets, or leaning out their windows, talking to their neighbors, asking for the latest news, but somehow not caring to hear if there was any news to be had. Sentences would be begun and not finished. In fact, talking itself had become rather a nuisance. The stillness and the quietude of the atmosphere made talking seem rather invasive, and it was easier, and more fun, just to stand around with people, looking at each other, and sometimes smiling or making gestures of one kind or another. Like (shrug) “You know,” or twiddling the fingers as a sign of tremendous inner movements of thought. A wink might mean, “I am just here, going with the flow,” or something of that nature.
The looting did not begin until some time afterwards. That was the real Crash, the Crash of the tomorrow-mind. Time began again like an animal that had received a mortal wound and went limping into the bushes. There was only to be tomorrow and impoverishment, tomorrow and being bereft, tomorrow and being uncertain about the priority of the tasks to be done. Mountains of tomorrow crashed all around those who were left standing in the plain.