Ellen Meeropol

Gridlock

My sister Ruth showed up on day four of the blackout, the day we began to suspect this wasn’t an ordinary grid failure. There had been no blizzard, no fragility of the coming western Massachusetts winter. The utility company issued no major wind event. It wasn’t even that cold, though the early November air already held the crisp-edged reassuring texts about the prompt restoration of power and there were no earnest promises from the mayor.

At our co-op meeting two nights before, we discussed how to handle people seeking shelter in the converted factory building where Samuel and I lived with twenty other people, including our son Ben and his wife Sarah. Ben was obsessed with climate disaster, so we were off-the-grid and mostly self-sustaining. He’d been collecting cots and blankets and stockpiling food for something just like this—whatever it was. At the meeting we decided to keep the outside doors locked, take turns keeping watch, and set up a shelter in the community wing. People in town knew we had heat and electricity and we expected neighbors to show up—about three-dozen people so far—but we never anticipated Ruth. My sister and I hadn’t seen each other in over fifty years.

When Ruth arrived, I was on lookout duty. From an armchair at the front window, I watched a road-filthy electric car with New York plates pull into the parking lot, the asphalt surface glittery in the oblique afternoon light. With the grid down, I wondered how they expected to charge the battery and get back home.

I recognized Ruth the moment she climbed out of the driver’s side. Her red curls had gone rusty gray, but the fire still blazed. I punched the “All” button on the intercom system. “We got company.” I announced. “Samuel, Ben, it’s Ruth.”

Ruth strode across the parking lot with the gait of a top-of-the-food-chain lioness only minimally slowed by age or infirmity. She was three years older than I, making her seventy seven, but despite a slight limp she exuded the vitality of a much younger woman. I tried to read her expression as she studied our building’s eclectic mix of antiquated and innovative: stained yellow factory brick with heavy plastic secured over the old multi-pane windows and the soccer-field sized roof divided between a mammoth, photovoltaic array and a passive solar greenhouse. Not beautiful, but one of the few places in town with power. I unlocked the double metal doors and faced her. The ten feet of empty air between us froze my heart and sizzled with energy.

Time folded back on itself and for a moment it was 1968. I was a young mother on a city street heavy with tear gas, convinced by my older sister to join her at throwing rocks at police beating anti-war protestors. I blinked my eyes to banish the memory and swallowed the familiar emotions—confusion and fury, guilt and longing.

Ruth’s expression displayed no burden of memory. “Miriam!” Her voice boomed and she enveloped me in a monster hug.

I pulled away. “How’d you know where we live?”

She didn’t let go. “That piece from the Times last year.”

Our co-op had argued about that article, one of those alternative lifestyle features with the tone so nuanced you couldn’t decide whether they were admiring or ridiculing our lives. The younger members were proud of it, but Samuel and I were leery of the publicity. We knew it might lead to some people seeking us out. Still, we never expected Ruth.

Ruth grinned. “Who’d have thunk that you’d be the one to be living in a commune.”

I studied her face, trying to decide if she was insulting me. It was hard to know with Ruth; she was as magnetic as she was destructive. I led her around the leftover Halloween decorations towards the mismatched grouping of easy chairs and couches ringing the wood stove in our co-op living room, once the massive lobby of a brush factory. Alone with Ruth in that huge space, I wished Samuel would show up. I hoped Ben would hear the intercom in the basement where he was working on our photovoltaic storage system. But Ben and Sarah knew the story of Ruth and me. I wouldn’t blame them for choosing any other task over my meshugganah sister.

“Where’s Samuel?” Ruth asked.

“He’ll be down in a moment. What about Cornell?”

“In the car. Should I invite him in?”

“Of course. It’s cold out there.”

“Thanks.” Ruth opened her mouth and then stopped. She probably wanted to ask if they could stay. I wondered how my famous sister liked having the power in the other sister’s hands for a change and if I felt satisfaction at the reversal.

Ruth returned with Cornell, who dumped their duffle bags and backpacks on the floor. Did Ruth think they could just move in with us? Cornell hadn’t changed much in fifteen years, although his Afro and wiry beard had turned snow white. It was easy to welcome him; Cornell had always managed to smooth out some of Ruth’s sharp edges. But I had no idea what to say.

My husband had good timing. He strode into the room and opened his arms to Ruth and Cornell.  “Welcome to our home,” he said.

I was enormously proud of Samuel at that moment, of his generosity. Samuel had always been fiercely protective of my feelings and hugely critical of Ruth. “That woman is toxic,” he liked to say. Coming from a pediatrician who dealt with the havoc caused by microbial toxins on a regular basis, that label meant something and it had stuck. Toxic Ruth.

“So, what’s up with this blackout?” she asked.

Samuel shook his head. “No idea. But I’m pretty worried. Something feels very wrong.”

Ruth laughed. “You always specialized in worry. I’m sure the power will be back soon.”

The kettle whistled. As our guests busied themselves with hot drinks, Ben and Sarah appeared in the doorway.

Ben and Sarah were in their 50’s, but they felt way out of their league when Ruth was involved. We rarely talked about that part of the family. Rarely like never. Ben brought in firewood and filled the stove. Sarah lit the kerosene lanterns against the gathering dusk.

Cornell waved his arm around the cavernous room. “What is this place?”

Ben leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “It’s off-the-grid communal living. We collect solar energy and store it, so we’re self-sufficient. With two wells, wood stoves, rooftop gardens, greenhouses and chickens, we grow or raise most of our food.”

“Who lives here?” Ruth asked.

“Seven families have apartments upstairs,” Sarah said.

“But since the power went out,” Samuel added, “about thirty-five neighbors are here.”

“Where are they all?” Cornell asked.

Sarah pointed to the hallway. “Down that corridor is the public half of the building: two event rooms, bathrooms, storage space, and a restaurant-sized kitchen. We’ve got plenty of cots and blankets and water. This is our co-op family living area.”

“How can you put up all those people?” Ruth asked.

“They’re our neighbors,” Ben said. “They brought bedding and air mattresses and food. They’ve organized meals and clean-up and childcare.”

“Aren’t there shelters in town?” Cornell asked.

Ben nodded. “One at the high school and one at City Hall. But they just have a couple of generators. Since the blackout is so widespread, the Red Cross is stretched awful thin.”

“What about us,” Ruth asked. “Can you put us up?”

“For a night or two, sure,” I said. “Beyond that, the group will decide.”

After coffee and tea and clean up, I showed Ruth and Cornell to the empty apartment on the second floor, kept minimally furnished for visiting family and holiday guests.

Ruth stood at the huge factory windows towards the last smudge of pink outlining the western hills. “This is an amazing view. And this apartment is perfect for us.”

“Decisions about adding new folks,” I reminded her, “are made at a community meeting.”

“But we’re here already,” Ruth argued. “And we really need a place to stay.”

“There’s an assisted living facility down the road about to run out of gas for their generator. Those people are old and they need a place to stay too.”

Ruth chuckled. “Trying to save the whole world, little sister?”

“Someone has to do it. Once that would have been you.”

“Touché,” Ruth said.

“Why are you really here? There must be a shelter closer to home.”

“Because you’re family,” Ruth said. Cornell touched her arm, to shut her up maybe, and I wondered if he could still get away with that. No one else had ever been able to.

“We make our decisions together here. Surely you can understand that.”

Sharp words, but I wondered why she and Cornell drove three hours to our home. Then the guest alarm sounded, and Albie’s voice on the intercom sounded more frantic than usual.

“Incoming,” he shouted. “Need backup.”

“Got to go,” I told Ruth and Cornell. “Dinner at 6:00.”

Albie was a vet from the first Iraq war and easily spooked. He was a whiz with anything mechanical and with no Internet, his ham radio hobby was invaluable. His wife was Sarah’s best friend and their Myesha was the closest I’d ever get to a granddaughter. I hurried downstairs.

Albie’s incoming was a mother and three kids pulling a red wagon piled with boxes of cereal and raisins, cans of soup and soda. The youngest, about six, hugged a stuffed unicorn.

Myesha arrived. She knew the oldest girl and soon they were whispering. Sarah and I exchanged glances and backed out of the crowded room. Myesha would bring her friend’s family down the hall to the public area and find them cots and blankets.

Sarah and I sat in our favorite chairs by the wood stove.

“Do you want Ruth to stay?” Sarah asked.

“I don’t know.”

“After all, she’s your sister.”

“Yes.” I squeezed my eyes closed. “She is my sister.”

 

Normally we didn’t all eat together every night, but we were trying to conserve energy. We passed large bowls of rice and beans and veggies down the long table.

I sat between Ben and Samuel, as far away from my sister as I could manage. I wasn’t hungry, hadn’t really been hungry since the power went out. What would happen if we could never again turn on the lights or listen to music or answer an email? Luckily, my co-op chairperson role kept me so busy I didn’t have time to seriously consider the possibility that the grid failure was permanent. That just couldn’t happen, could it?

“I have a question,” Ruth said above the dinnertime chatter. “What happens when the food runs out? Or when more people want to move in than you have room for? Or if…?”

I knew what she was thinking, what we all worried about but no one wanted to say out loud: what happens if the power doesn’t return.

“Right, because a lot of people must know you’ve got electricity and heat,” Cornell added. “What if people try to force their way in?”

Ben stood up. “Those are great questions and they’re on the agenda for tonight’s meeting. I’m on the clean-up crew, so I’m going to get started.” At his words, everyone pitched in. By a few minutes after seven, the dishes were done and we were gathered around the stove, without our guests.

I started the meeting by asking Ben to report on our physical plant and energy supplies. When he stood up to speak, the concrete in my chest softened a little. Ever since he was a toddler, my son reminded me of a Dr. Seuss character, with a major cowlick and a goofy grin. The Ben character would have a hedgehog head on a giraffe’s body. He would spout rhymes, updating the Lorax to our current situation, making us laugh and not worry so much. The real-life Ben had been acting odd recently, even before the blackout, and it triggered my worry genes like mad.

“Two things I want to tell you,” he said. I loved how everyone listened to him. I hoped he would be able to pull us together, to remind us why we created this place. “The good news is that our food and energy supplies are terrific. The batteries are over 90% full, the solar water-pumps are fine, and the photovoltaic array is working perfectly.”

My son was the reason we were so well prepared. I was proud of him, even if I still didn’t quite understand his thinking. This started after he went to California last year for a climate change conference. He stayed a couple of extra days and came home freaked out about climate deniers. His worries seemed to intensify. He talked about infrastructure collapse until my eyes glazed over.

 Then his mouth turned down at the corners. “There’s some not-so-good news too. Albie has been monitoring shortwave radio transmissions. A huge chunk of the country is dark, from Virginia to Maine and west almost to Chicago. Washington is crippled and the financial centers in Manhattan. There seems to be an interim federal government somewhere in Colorado, and there are rumors of a stock exchange operating out of Los Angeles.”

His voice got quiet and he looked around the circle.

“So, what are you saying?” I prompted, knowing from his expression that there was more.

In the silence we could hear the wind blow sleety snow against the big factory windows. “I’m saying that that this is worse than we originally thought.” He glanced at Albie. “And it might not have been an accident.”

His announcement was met with silence.

“You mean someone crashed the grid on purpose?” Sarah asked. “Why?”

“I’m not saying they did,” Ben said. “Just a hunch.” He sat down abruptly.

“Next item on the agenda is Ruth and Cornell,” I said. “Should we invite them to stay?”

There wasn’t much discussion. Usually we follow a slow process of getting to know prospective members of the community, over weeks and months of discussions and shared meals and work. But this wasn’t usual.

As we talked, Ben looked down, as if he had some kind of secret knowledge and couldn’t trust his features to keep it hidden. How did my son even have an opinion about why the blackout happened and how long it would last? I studied his face. His new round granny-glasses made him look even more like a Dr. Seuss character. A very troubled one.

Albie raised his hand. “What kind of skills do these New Yorkers have?”

Sarah consulted her clipboard. “Ruth is a political organizer. And teaches GED classes.”

“Maybe she could help Miriam with the school,” someone called out.

Maybe not, I thought.

“You should know,” Samuel announced, “that Ruth taught GED classes in prison.”

That was a conversation-stopper. Everyone stared at me and my face flamed. “It’s a long story, but I can promise you she doesn’t pose any threat.”

“Debatable,” Samuel muttered, barely audible. I suppressed a smile, oddly glad that Samuel was back to his fierce protection role.

“Cornell is an attorney,” Sarah said. “Both he and Ruth say they’re willing to do whatever we need. They know that we’re each working five hours a day during this crisis.”

“Maybe the lawyer could have permanent bathroom duty,” someone suggested.

The discussion went around for a while, but consensus was reached without too much difficulty: Ruth and Cornell could stay for the duration of the blackout. We decided to invite the assisted living folks to the public wing, along with their caretakers.

After the meeting, I puttered around the kitchen, rinsing cups and wiping down the counters. Sarah stood behind me, hugging me.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” she said. “But I’m worried that Ben might have expected the blackout.”

Her words made sense. Several months ago, Ben started insisting we stock up on beans and grains, can more veggies and fruits, stockpile extras of the things we can’t live without. He told us to double up on prescription drugs and replace devices that require electricity with ones that don’t, like grinding our coffee beans by hand.

I tried to unwrap Sarah’s arms so I could see her face, but she resisted and spoke to the back of my head. “Ever since that conference, he’s been doing odd things. Like giving up his contact lenses for glasses.”

“Yes. He gave you that vintage typewriter for your birthday with a lifetime supply of ribbons and ordered Samuel a case of batteries for his hearing aids. Looking back, it’s almost as if he knew this was coming.” I swiveled to face Sarah. “Have you asked him what’s going on?”

“Last night. He evaded the question, changed the subject.”

“Ask again. He adores you.”

“I used to think Ben and I shared everything.” Sarah buried her sad face in my shoulder. “You’d think I would know, from what happened to you and Ruth, that people who are close can be horribly divided, can lose each other.”

I was glad she couldn’t see my expression when she said that. No matter how I tried to understand what happened with Ruth and me, the kernel—the truth—eluded me. We had been the closest of sisters, at home and summer camp and college. It was always Ruth and Miriam, and then it was Ruth and Miriam and Cornell and Samuel.

Together, we were going to change the world. But that summer day in 1968, the world changed us. Ruth and I were at a huge antiwar demonstration when the cops started beating up protestors. A few people began throwing rocks to stop the beatings and Ruth joined them. I didn’t want to, but I wanted less for Ruth to think I was a less committed than she was to the antiwar struggle. So, I threw a rock too. A cop was hurt, and we were arrested with several others. Ruth and I disagreed about what to do. Ben was a baby and I couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from him, so I accepted a plea bargain. That meant I had to testify in court, to tell what happened, what we did. I told the truth, but Ruth was furious with me. She went underground, then was caught and went to prison, becoming a heroine in lefty circles. She has never forgiven me. I’m not sure I’ve forgiven myself.

Sarah hugged me again. “I know you tried to reconcile.”

“And failed. And now she shows up here.”

 

On day six of the blackout, the weather turned colder. The previous few years had been warmer than average and we were no longer used to single-digit temperatures. We told ourselves that’s why the governor called a state of emergency. They called it shelter in place, but everyone knew what curfews meant. Without television or radio stations broadcasting, without access to the Internet, getting information was challenging. Police cars with roof-mounted loudspeakers drove up and down the streets announcing that citizens were to stay inside their homes or community shelters, except for a daily window from noon to 4:00 pm. Starting immediately. They didn’t say why, but we assumed desperate people were looting for food and firewood.

Over lunch that day we had an impromptu meeting about this new development. Food committee members suggested we open our doors to the community for a hot lunch as long as we had enough rice and beans to share. How would we let people know? Myesha jumped up. “We can do that. The teen brigade will write leaflets and distribute them all over town. We’ll use our bikes.”

I was too tired to budge. Ruth stood close to Sarah in the kitchen, laughing.

I felt Samuel’s hand on my shoulder.

“Even pushing eighty, she has this sizzle of energy, doesn’t she?” I whispered.

Ben and Albie interrupted us. The dark expression on their faces silenced the room.

“Listen up,” Ben said. “Important announcement.”

“On the shortwave radio.” Albie said. “Six other states declared martial law today.”

 

Over the next twenty-four hours, we settled two dozen elderly people into a curtained-off corner of the smaller event room, along with caregivers, wheelchairs, walkers, and a blue rolling cabinet of medications and supplies. More people than I could count—more than I wanted to know—showed up for the first free hot lunch. Some of them brought sleeping bags and simply didn’t leave. It wasn’t until late that night that I actually saw one of Myesha’s leaflets. My surrogate granddaughter had added an unauthorized sentence at the bottom: If you’re desperate, bring your food and wood and sleeping bags or blankets. You won’t be turned away.

The day’s pleasant surprise was Cornell. He found me late Thursday evening warming my feet by the stove and sat down.

“You look beat,” he said. “I want to help.”

“You worked in the greenhouse today, didn’t you?”

“Sure, and I’m happy to do that, but I’d like to do more. You seem overwhelmed.”

I closed my eyes. Cornell was right. I couldn’t ever remember feeling so tired and stressed. I’d been half-dozing over my clipboard, trying to figure out the next day’s work assignments. Trying to stretch our resources and energy. Trying not to think about how come Ben seemed to know about this blackout mess before it happened.

Cornell touched my shoulder and my eyes jerked open.

“I’m a decent manager,” he said. “With more people coming, it’s going to get more complicated. I can make job lists, collect reports from people.” He grinned and pointed at my clipboard. “I can help with the assignments. I can even type.”

Like I said, I was surprised. My primary memory of Cornell was of arrogance.

“We just happen to have a typewriter,” I said. “Maybe we could work together first thing in the morning and then meet again after you’re done in the garden.” I paused. “You don’t get off greenhouse duty for this, you know.”

“Wouldn’t think of it,” Cornell said. “Turns out I like digging in the dirt.”

 

The next morning, Friday, day seven of the blackout, we ate oatmeal with reconstituted powdered milk, and Albie announced that his shortwave radio buddies predicted unseasonably cold weather heading our way. He read a short statement from Ben announcing that a freeze would severely tax our stored energy. The first priority was to provide minimal heat to the building, enough to keep the pipes—and us—from freezing.

Cornell and I exchanged looks and poured ourselves more coffee. I asked Albie where Ben was.

“Some problem with the battery settings.”

“When you see him,” I said, “tell him to come find me.”

Cornell and I revised the work charts, assigning extra people to prepare the greenhouses for frigid weather. Then Cornell went to put up the charts and I headed to the shelter wing to the makeshift school, where thirty children ranging from two to sixteen were writing stories on yellow pads and building rocket ships with cartons and duct tape. Ruth was helping the oldest kids with reading. I was too busy to think about what Ben knew and how

Late that evening, Sarah knocked on our apartment door. She was wrapped in a down comforter and her face was grim. Ben towered behind her, looking as serious as a Seuss character could manage. Samuel and I were already in our pajamas. The four of us settled in the circle of comfortable chairs, draped in bathrobes and comforters against the chill. Two thick beeswax candles lit the space.

Sarah sat as far from Ben as she could in the small space. “Tell them what you told me.”

Ben looked at his hands, clasped in his lap. “I’m sorry I couldn’t share this before.”

“Tell us now,” I said.

“Things are so much worse than I thought,” he said. “More complicated. Global warming and species extinction and icecap loss and drought and famine.” He stopped to clear his throat, as if the whole beautiful dying Earth was caught there.

“At the California climate conference last year, people tried to convince us that carbon caps and solar panels could save us, but the numbers didn’t add up.” He took his hand away, to swipe at his eyes. “It became clear that we’ve got to do so much more than light bulbs and carbon caps. But I didn’t know how to make those changes.” His words trailed off.

“And then,” I prompted him.

“Then I met some people with a plan. Anarchists but incredibly well organized. After the 2008 collapse they realized that our buy-more, throw-away economic system is causing the climate problems. They reorganized their town so that everyone works half-time. Most people are employed and with their other time they make stuff. Stuff they would have bought before. Like clothes and pottery and food and music. It’s very cool.”

“What difference does one town make?”

He leaned closer. “These folks are part of a network of activists, mostly in California and the Pacific northwest. They’ve got technological expertise, engineering and hydrology especially. A bunch of towns are now using their model. Over time, it could make a big difference. And working fewer hours, people have more time for family and friends. So they’re happier.” His eyes glistened. I couldn’t tell if it was tears or excitement.

“Who are they?” Samuel asked.

He shook his head. “I can’t tell you that. I promised. But I spent a few days with them, after the conference. I read their material, their manifesto, and… I joined them.”

“What does this secret group have to do with what’s going on?” Sarah’s voice was controlled, but furious.

“I can’t tell you that,” he whispered. “Not yet.”

“Then you and I are in big trouble.” Sarah stood up and pulled the comforter closer around her shoulders. It was thick and soft, a gift from Samuel and me last Chanukah. “I thought you and I were completely honest with each other, Ben. That we didn’t keep secrets.”

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“I’ll sleep downstairs,” Sarah said. She wrapped our holiday present around her angry and lonesome self.

 

When I arrived downstairs the next morning to make coffee, Sarah was sleeping on the plaid sofa, cocooned in her comforter. By the time the coffee was brewed, she was awake.

I brought two mugs to the sofa. She moved her feet to give me room, then sat up and accepted her mug.

“You okay?”

“Ruth couldn’t sleep last night either. She came downstairs and we talked. I loved hearing her version of events.”

“Like what?”

“Everything. Growing up. All the stuff you guys did, helping women get abortions and antiwar marches.”

I looked at her sharply, almost spilling my coffee.

“Yes,” Sarah said. “We talked about that day.”

I could imagine.

“How are you doing, having Ruth here?” Sarah asked. “It must be so weird.”

“Totally. We once knew each other inside out. Now I haven’t a clue what she’s thinking.”

“Have you talked?”

I shrugged. “She lectured me about the big women’s march.”

“I can’t see Ruth in a pink pussy hat!”

I didn’t laugh. “And she won’t stop asking me about grandchildren.”

“What do you tell her?”

“That you and Ben think there are already enough people in the world.” She shook her head. “I hate it when Ruth feels sorry for me.”

“Do you know why she’s here? Really, I mean?”

“No clue.”

“Have you talked about the past?” Sarah let her voice slide away into the land of unspoken places.

I shook my head.

“How can you live like that?”

“Lots of practice.”

 

Ten minutes later, Samuel and I dawdled over our coffee, already wearing our layers of long johns and thermal shirts and wool socks. Cornell and Ruth pawed through a mountain of long underwear and fleece pants and lined sweatshirts and double thick wool socks piled on the green plaid sofa. The deep freeze was as bad as predicted.

“Dibs on the red one.” Ruth held up a union suit, fanny flap open like a lopsided grin.

“Big surprise,” Samuel muttered.

Ben whistled and the room quieted. “Two things you should all know before we get started on the day’s work. The temperature and wind chill are even worse than predicted. Stay inside. After nine days, the town shelters are running dangerously low on supplies.”

“Also, Albie has been monitoring the shortwave radio conversations and it sounds like the Commonwealth is starting to take over privately-owned resources, claiming the emergency.”

“Damn them,” Albie said. “We’re already feeding and housing half the town.”

“Even so, the emergency probably gives them the legal right,” Ben said.

As the meeting broke up, Ruth touched my shoulder. “Can we talk?”

We settled on two mismatched easy chairs in the small alcove off the living room, facing each other. Ruth looked tired.

“I’m sorry if I said anything to Sarah last night, anything I shouldn’t have.”

“Ruth apologizing? Alert the media!”

“Have I thanked you enough?” Ruth said. “For taking us in? I don’t know what we would have done if you guys sent us away.”

“You’re welcome,” I said after a long pause. “I’m glad you’re here. Mostly.”

Ruth ignored the last word. “I love your community, how you all work together. It reminds me of us, our old collective and the women’s group and our potluck dinners and meetings.”

“Before,” I said.

“Before.”

“I wish you had visited sooner,” I said. “When things were normal.”

“What do you miss most from that normal life?”

“Having time to paint,” I said. “What about you?”

Ruth laughed. “Now you’ll see how shallow I’ve become. I miss that little thingie that froths the milk for my coffee. You press a button and you’ve got a latté.”

Samuel would love that, I thought. If life goes back to normal, I’ll find that gadget and bring him coffee with frothed milk in bed every morning.

“Why now?” I asked.

Ruth shrugged. “We’re old. I’m tired.”

“I have something I want to give you.” I said. “I’ve been writing to you for years, ever since you wrote me that first horrible letter after the trial. I didn’t mail any of them. At first I didn’t know where to find you, and then it was just too late.”

“I kept a journal,” Ruth said. “I brought it with me.”

We were interrupted by Albie. “We need you now, Miriam. Big problem.”

I followed him to the dining area. Sarah, Cornell and Ben sat with two uniformed men.

“These gentlemen are from the Western Massachusetts National Guard unit,” Cornell told us. “They demand our building – your building – on behalf of the Commonwealth.” Cornell rolled his eyes when he said that.

The officer in charge didn’t look amused. “Under a state of emergency, we have the right to commandeer property for the benefit and use of the citizens of the Commonwealth.”

Cornell switched to his lawyer voice. “It’s not clear that a grid failure meets the criteria for an emergency to warrant a property seizure.”

The younger officer leaned his automatic weapon on the dining room table, where grains of salt from breakfast glittered in the weak sunlight. “We would rather have your co-operation,” he said. “But it’s not necessary.”

“Your people can move over to the shelter section,” the older man added, “but we need this part of the building for headquarters and troop housing. With access to your stored electricity and the photovoltaic equipment.”

“But this is our home,” Ben said. “It’s our electricity.”

The older man stood up. One of Myesha’s handwritten flyers was sticking out of his pocket. So that’s how they knew about us. “It’s our job to safeguard all the citizens of the Commonwealth.”

Ben stood too and he towered over the soldier. “Can you give us until tomorrow? We need time to move people. All those old folks from assisted living, you know?” He smiled his best bespeckled Dr. Seuss grin.

The officers looked at each other. “These premises must be vacated by 10:00 a.m.”

After the officers left, Ben locked the door behind them. The five of us stood in a line at the front window and watched the armored vehicle drive away.

“What’s our plan?” Sarah asked. “Should we start evacuating people to the shelter area?”

“I can handle this,” Ben said, putting his arm around Sarah’s shoulders.

She shrugged off his arm. “You owe us an explanation.”

“I know. First, give me a couple of hours with Albie on the shortwave.”

 

I gathered the stack of letters I’d written to Ruth over fifty years and brought them to the alcove. Ruth was already there, holding a thick bound journal in her lap. I mentally warned myself against hoping, against all the history stored in every cell of my body, that this time would be different. Ruth and I were incorrigible and impossible, but she was still my only sister.

We started reading our old words aloud to each other. Chronologically. No interrupting, we agreed. No comments. No arguing.

After we were finished, we cried. And then we talked. About that cop and how we never knew if one of our rocks hit him. About prison. How we ruined our parents’ lives. How we robbed our children of knowing each other.

“That’s why I came,” she said. “With the world in big trouble, I had to try to mend us.”

“So, despite everything,” I asked her, “despite how badly things turned out, with the two of us not speaking to each other for most of our lives, would you do it again?”

“Try to stop the cops and everything?”

I nodded.

Ruth took my hand. “I don’t know. I think so. Would you?”

Sarah stuck her head around the screen. “Ben wants to talk to us. Upstairs.”

The air in Sarah and Ben’s apartment smelled stale and unused. I sat next to Samuel.

“Let me back up,” Ben said. “To that underground group in California.”

“The anarchists?”

“Yes. I joined their group and had to promise not to tell anyone. Not even my family.”

Samuel shook his head. “What does this have to do with the grid failure?”

Ben rubbed his face with both hands. “Our group orchestrated the grid failure. To wake people up to how critical the environmental issues are. To demonstrate the power of a small group of activists against Goliath.”
My son did this? On purpose?

“What does crashing the grid have to do with waking people up?” Samuel asked.

“The Earth may have passed the tipping point, the point of no return. If we don’t stop burning fossil fuels, we’ll all be living off the grid because there will be no grid.”

“If that’s true, what use is any action?” Sarah asked.

“If people understand how dire things are, they’ll demand political change. We have a massive online educational campaign starting tomorrow, to set out a plan.”

“But isn’t crashing the grid terrorism?” Samuel asked, clearly dreading the answer.

“Our purpose was to offer a last chance to save our planet.” Ben shrugged. “You decide.”

I had no patience for his damn relativism. “I can’t believe you did this on purpose. That’s horrible. People could die, freeze to death or burn or starve.”

“People are dying already, all over the world from heat waves and fires and famine and disease and mega-storms and floods. Many more will die unless we act.”

“What about us? The National Guard will take everything tomorrow,” Samuel said.

“Our plan all along was for a ten-day blackout. It was never supposed to be permanent.” Ben looked at each of us. “Next time, the grid failure might be real and not fixable.”

I couldn’t believe any of this. “So, what now?” I asked.

“I just spoke with my friends in California. The power will return this afternoon.”

“And in the meantime, you’ve been lying to all of us,” Sarah said.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “But secrecy is critical. We could all go to prison. We felt this was our only chance. Marches and petitions haven’t worked.”

I tried not to feel chastised by my son’s dismissal of my life’s political work. “Did you consider all the possible consequences? The collateral damage?”

“Did you?” Ben asked softly.

 

The power returned that afternoon and we heard nothing more from the National Guard. The folks on dinner duty went all out to celebrate, roasting chickens and opening the final jars of last summer’s blueberries for dessert.

I sat next to Ruth, cycling between confused and overjoyed and pissed off and then back to overwhelmed and relieved. Ruth and Cornell started talking about spending a month at the co-op next summer. Relief—or sugar—made us giddy.

“It’s not really over, you know,” Ben said at one point. “He looked around the table at each of us. “Next time could be permanent.”

Heads nodded, expressions serious and thoughtful. But I could tell Ben wasn’t satisfied with their response. Relief and denial are pretty strong emotions.

Sitting with my extended family, I study the steam rising from my mug. I don’t know what comes next. I can’t name the emotions swirling with that vapor. Relief, certainly, that the immediate danger is past. That I can begin to understand my son’s work and figure out what I think about his actions. That Ruth and I are sisters again and beginning to make peace with each other.

I am afraid for the future. I look down at my mug and my finger traces the painted outline of a purple crane. Its wings are opened wide and I let my heart crack open. Taking Ruth’s hand, I think I finally understand us. In spite of everything, against all odds, in a world demanding desperate actions with unknowable consequences, I admit to harboring a small glimmer of hope.

 

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