“Soul to Keep” by Joni Tobin
Betsy was running when the blackout began, which is to say she was running when the explosion that caused the blackout began. The running was for health and recreation, and also for fun, the fun something that she dragged into justification whenever running became just the opposite. She ran in a neighborhood full of tidy, historical homes, rife with mature trees that provided shade even at 3:00 p.m. in mid-July. The forgiving canopy didn’t fully disguise the plume of smoke staining the otherwise clear sky.
But before she saw the smoke she heard the blast, a deep boom that penetrated the sanctuary of her headphones. She wheezed to the street corner, staring up as the smoke thickened, much blacker than the smoke from the forest fires that sometimes huffed up to the west.
Other people dribbled out onto the sidewalk, mobile phones and cameras in hand. Some brought out their dogs and babies. One man had a six-pack of beer, like a party was starting somewhere, or like he intended to start one himself. Sirens erupted in the distance, and more people arrived from the east, the direction where the smoke was rising. A transformer in the power station had blown up, one of them said. He was on a bicycle but his feet were bare, his expression bleary with yawns. That didn’t stop the man with the beer from passing him a bottle, as if the man on the bicycle had been through an ordeal and had done them all a great service.
More people showed up from the east. A woman with a fussy daughter, whose mouth was neon with Popsicle stains, said that the explosion had come from the hospital, and that some crazy man was holding the patients hostage. The hospital specialized in respiratory disease, so this news made everyone, including Betsy, gasp. In her own gasp, and in those of the others, Betsy heard a note of excitement. More phones came out, and if thumbs had lungs there would have been a great deal of panting. Someone brought the woman and her daughter a lawn chair and a fresh pair of dripping Popsicles. The woman collapsed in gratitude, relishing the ice before it melted.
Betsy went home, walking because her mind felt too heavy for running. Her building — the only apartment building in the neighborhood — was in the direction of the smoke. Except for Jim, the elderly man who lived in the basement, and a couple she never saw who never even opened their curtains, the other four tenants were all unmarried women over sixty. This building has lots of single women, the landlord had said when he had handed over the keys. He made it sound like it was good for single women to nest together where they could keep an eye on each other. It had made Betsy feel rare and endangered, a feeling that vanished when she realized that her single neighbors were nothing like her: Betsy was firmly in her early 30s and never ordered from the Lands’ End catalog or put angel figurines in her window. Still, that label, single woman, blighted her somehow. That was why she ran in the sweltering sun instead of at dusk, and kept a shot of pepper spray in her purse. It gave her shoulder comforting weight, almost as good as muscle.
Betsy discovered the blackout when she entered the building and found it dark. Her apartment was still bright with summer light, but absent the background hum of the ceiling fans and refrigerator. She laughed at herself when she tried to turn on the TV. It was what she would have done during a faraway disaster, hungry for the news, opinions, predictions that would first dampen her fears, then ignite them anew. She wished that she had found time and money to buy a laptop with a long-lasting battery, but she had opted for a smartphone instead. Even though the power bar was still above the halfway mark, she turned the phone off, just in case. Even though blackouts never lasted long.
While sweating in the still air she read a neglected book, then ate two peaches and a sleeve of crackers for dinner. If she kept the fridge closed, maybe her food wouldn’t go bad. When it got too dark to read she started looking for candles. Before she had been a single woman, she kept a few long, elegant tapers, but now she only had two scented candles in glass pots, gifts from someone obligated but uninterested. One was called “Home for the Holidays” and smelled like Christmas; the other was called “Island Getaway” and smelled like suntan oil. She lit them both, then made a face at the schizophrenic air. One puff and the “Island Getaway” ended. With “Home for the Holidays” she could at least pretend that it was deep, icy winter. She carried the candle to the bedroom and relaxed in its cookie-scented light.
She had made candles, once. That was at Prairie School, and the teacher had given them each a thick string, then told them to dip it in a pot of melted wax, then dip and dip again, until the layers built into an actual candle, lumpy and off-white, smelling of wet ears. The memory made her smile. She’d forgotten about Prairie School, a week spent at a historic pioneer village, complete with a sod house, a little white church, a blacksmith, and a one-room schoolhouse. She’d gone there the summer she was nine, and playing pretend was part of the fun. She had worn a pinafore-style dress her mother had found at the church rummage sale, and her mother had braided her hair and sewn her a bonnet out of calico. Along with the candles, Betsy remembered the tedium of writing with quill and ink, which rendered her letters into illegible blobs. She fell asleep remembering the sound of chalk scratching on a slate.
When she woke later it was to a distant thump that echoed through the pipes. She wondered if there’d been another explosion but was too sleepy for the worry to take root. She blew out the candle and slept.
When Betsy opened her eyes the alarm clock failed to greet her with angry, flashing numbers. It was her first time experiencing a blackout that had survived the night, and she got out of bed slowly, giving the lights a chance to rethink their reluctance. She wondered what to do with the day; she was a teacher, not expected at work for almost two months. Maybe she should go somewhere. The park, the store, the library.
The building’s stairwell was quiet. The other single women must have been sleeping. Betsy walked to the corner store and found the lights were off there, too, but people were shopping anyway. The store owners knew when it was a good time to sell. She studied the shelves for nonperishables, drawn to the cans of cling peaches and ravioli, gummy-textured foods that reminded her of childhood. She collected cans of both, then splurged on sugar and a dozen lemons. At Prairie School, they had made fresh lemonade every day, storing it in a steel milk pail that had to be covered with cheesecloth to keep out the flies.
It was funny that she thought fondly of Prairie School now, because at the time it had been like forcing fun out of nothing. Making lemonade was pleasurable only because the end result was better than drinking the grass-flecked water from a ladle that the teacher insisted they call a dipper. Constructing a lunch pail out of a coffee can and twine was a satisfying craft, but in the end Betsy would have rather used a paper bag because it didn’t leave her sandwich smelling like French roast. The best part of Prairie School was when it let out for the day and she climbed into the blistering heat of her mother’s station wagon, which carried her away from the pioneer village and back to the present, where she was allowed to wear cut-off shorts and flood her lemonade with ice cubes.
She brought the lemons and everything else to the man at the register. He could only take a check or cash, he said, and when she was two dollars and twelve cents short he waved his hand and told her not to worry, that she could pay him the rest when the blackout was over. She smiled as she walked home, and everyone she passed smiled back. She noticed things she had never noticed before, like the fact that the squirrel perched on the fence had nipples. Nipples. It seemed impossible. An occasional puff of black smoke still belched from the east, but all would be well. People didn’t have to behave like animals when things were uncertain. They could look after each other and keep things civil, the same as the pioneers who had built their villages on the prairie. The teacher said that that they only survived by sticking together. If one farmer had a bad harvest, others would make sure he didn’t starve when winter came. If a tornado ripped down a house, everyone would help to put it back together, laughing like friends with a jigsaw puzzle.
Betsy juiced lemons in the dim light of her kitchen. It was hard work that left her arm aching with satisfaction. She drank the lemonade without ice, holding her mobile phone but abstaining from the urge to turn it on and seek out some answers. Whenever the blackout ended, she would be a better person.
The good feelings faded when night fell. There was thumping coming from somewhere, a giant’s heart beating down the walls. It came at random, sometimes ceasing for hours, then picking up an uneven rhythm of gentle taps and an occasional, floor-shaking bang. Could whatever caused the explosion and blackout be happening in the building? Even though Betsy had never seen it before, she pictured the machinery in the boiler room, popping gears and gushing steam. Wires burst from the plaster and showered out sparks. Everything burned like brush fire.
She wavered from one window to the next, looking out through the blinds and seeing nothing in the absolute dark. What creature or calamity was out there? She held up her Christmas candle and it only cast a glare upon the glass, her reflection a ghostly floating head for anyone to see. She snuffed out the flame and crawled into bed. The sooner she slept, the sooner she’d wake.
In Prairie School, there was one boy who was always up to no good. He pinioned pointy gray wolf ears to his head and hid in the bushes, licking his chops and pouncing at girls’ ankles. He howled and brayed at an invisible moon, scratching the little church Bibles to shreds. One day, the teacher sent Betsy out to the well to refill the water pail. The boy was there with one leg lifted, trying to aim an arc of piss into the bucket that was meant to dredge up water. He stared her down with yellow, predatory eyes. She dropped the pail and ran.
The teacher took his wolf ears away after that, so he showed up the next day with feathers in his hair and paint streaked across his cheeks. After taking a few of his sucker-tipped arrows to the chest, the other children surrounded him, just as real pioneers might’ve surrounded a lone Indian who crept in to steal horses. He refused to respond to their accusations, yelling war cries and waving his bow. Finally, the man who pretended to be the village blacksmith picked him up and hauled him away. Then the teacher showed them how to make real ice cream and the boy was forgotten, just as Betsy had forgotten him until now.
The boy had never spoken in words, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t been saying something. Another thump radiated through the walls and Betsy sat up in her bed. Okay, she thought. It’s okay, I’m ready to listen.
It was quiet.
The lemonade had sat on the counter overnight and grown warm, and tiny flies had been glued to death at the lip of the jug. Betsy didn’t have any cheesecloth. She didn’t even know where to buy some. Maybe that made her ignorant, but had the real pioneers even seen lemons, grown so far away in the jungles of Florida? She dumped the lemonade into the sink and locked all of her windows, keeping the blinds shut tight. The way the sun came in now felt a little intrusive, the way it kept trying to fill the room and push her out, bringing the faint smell of smoke with it.
She put an ear to her door and the building was quiet. The other single women must have been sleeping. Maybe they had left to stay with family and friends. Or were they all in the same apartment together, sharing candles and building a tower of canned food?
She thought of walking or taking the bus somewhere, to a coffee shop or a bar, to some place with power. The more she thought about it, the more it seemed a venture bound to end in disaster, where the farther she traversed into the city, the more she would come to see that there wasn’t power anywhere at all. It might be better to live with uncertainty than to face that devastating fact.
The best she could do was turn on her phone. There were two messages, one from the electric company, apologizing for any inconveniences, and the other from her mother, reminding her to buy water and toilet paper. Neither made mention of what had caused the blackout, but they did at least verify its existence. Which was a relief, Betsy thought. It would have been unsettling to discover that she was only imagining that the power was out, all while lights and fuses buzzed with life around her.
She was so relieved that it rendered her guilty. People like her took for granted what a luxury it was just to know what the hell was going on. Settlers on the prairie probably hadn’t even known who the new president was until weeks after an election. Even the death of a beloved family member wouldn’t be discovered until someone got around to sending condolences by Pony Express, which took ten days from coast to coast. By then, the person would already be worm food in the ground.
One thing they must have been certain about, though, was smoke. By plume and color they could gauge what kindling kept it burning, what direction it was heading in, and whether or not it was building up to a righteous wrath.
She felt more alive in the dark. She crouched from window to window. Her eyes were sharper and stronger, and she could make out trees and the deadened streetlights. At Prairie School, the teacher had said that their town had once been called the Queen City of the Plains, which meant that beneath the sidewalks and skirting there was nothing but prairie, wild land trampled by buffalo and volatile storms. Compared to that, her lipstick tube of pepper spray seemed laughable. Like the boy’s arrows, tipped with suction cups. Or had the arrows been real? She tried to remember whether they had glinted, lethal in the sunlight, but she couldn’t be sure. That was before she had seen things, things like nipples on squirrels.
A thump rippled from somewhere. She squinted through the glass, looking for the boy. Maybe he’d be a coyote this time, with a scarlet coxcomb caught in his teeth. A hungry bandit with a rope and knife. Or maybe he’d discovered how to become a stagnant watering hole, a colorful bouquet of cholera, measles, or smallpox. Whatever he was, it would fix her so she was ready for anything.
She knocked against the wall and she thought he knocked back. She fell asleep on the floor, dreaming that she was the dirt ground into the creases of his knuckles.
With morning came light and lights. Betsy’s eyes teared up in all of that brightness. Her shoulder and hip ached from sleeping on the wood floor, and her ears felt assaulted by the white murmur of electronics, the barely perceptible whine of the kitchen lights. The biggest discomfort was her degree of embarrassment. Things were back to normal and it now seemed silly to have thought they would ever be anything but. She hurried to hide her Christmas candle in a high cabinet.
What had happened to those candles she had made at Prairie School? She might have made Mother light them at a birthday dinner, where they let off dusty-smelling smoke and dripped all over the linens before burning down to stubs. She might have forgotten them in the garage, where they turned yellow and were nibbled at by mice, hungry for tallow fat. Either way, she had forgotten about them. She looked forward to forgetting them again.
When she opened the blinds, a fire truck and an ambulance were flashing blue and red, and single women were gathered on the front walk, talking to an officer. She put her shoes on and went out to join them, speaking to the one she knew a little, a trim, sixty-ish woman who only ever seemed to wear colorful hospital scrubs. The woman told her that the ambulance was for Jim. Seeing Betsy’s lack of recognition, she said Jim, Jim who lives in the basement.
With the blackout over, the woman had gone down to the laundry room to wash a load of scrubs, and she had heard Jim groaning from his apartment. He had fallen down during the blackout and couldn’t crawl far enough to reach his phone. Whenever he was awake and had the strength, though, he’d thumped at the walls with his cane.
But I guess you never heard him, she said to Betsy, because they both knew that Betsy lived just above.
Betsy hadn’t heard him. Or rather, she had heard him, but she had mistaken him for somebody else.
The paramedics pushed Jim across the sidewalk on a stretcher. The back of his white hair was tufted up like a duck’s, his face bedraggled and gray with exhaustion as it rolled from side to side. The stretcher squeaked down the front walk and Betsy sank back into the grass, not quite ready to return to this clear-eyed morning where the smoke had finally waned. She could at last hear the boy, though. Without trying at all she could hear him, his war cries matching that of the ambulance’s siren, reminding her that all she knew of the world was pretend.