The New Geek Empire
I love driving and that night was no exception. I was also particularly fond of driving fast with the wind blowing through my hair but was forced to roll up the window when the third bug flew in and tried to take up residence in my teeth.
Kelly was one of those kids that as soon as you put them in a car seat and pulled onto the road they crashed. It was eerily quiet in the closed cab as the sun went down. I was used to her making all sorts of racket but I supposed that her being quiet was less of a distraction since I was driving without lights. A few places I had to slow down, not because I didn’t know where I was going but because the corners were too sharp to haul the trailer around as quickly as I wanted to. Finally we made it to the outskirts of town and I led the way to pull up to an old warehouse that had been vacant even before things went south.
Jax hopped out and carefully checked around before cutting the chain on the doors and pulling the truck and trailer he had been driving into the warehouse. He came back out and then got into the truck that I was driving.
“Geez Lydie,” he said shaking his head.
“You said you wanted me to take the lead,” I told him trying to hide a grin.
It was safe to grin because he was fighting one himself. “Did your dad really know how fast you were going when you ran that ‘shine?”
I stopped trying to hide it and smiled outright. “Let’s just say that he stopped asking after he rode with me a time or two. And if you’re wondering, I’ve never gotten a ticket.” More seriously I added, “If I hadn’t felt safe doing it I wouldn’t have gone so fast. I wouldn’t be stupid with Kelly in the back seat.”
He looked at me with trust in his eyes and said, “I know. Now let’s get over to the feed store and see what we can see.”
I eased over a couple of blocks and in behind the feed store. Handley’s was more than just a feed store but was a full service farm store. The people that had run it had been some kind of shirt tail cousin on my mother’s side but then again I could say that about half the people in town … and the other half were related to my dad so that wasn’t saying too much.
Jax nodded his head toward the rear entrance. “Place looks untouched. You think you can bump that lock while I cover you?”
“Nope, that’s a Schlage lock from the look of it. But if you give me a sec I’ll go through the transom window … assuming it hasn’t been screwed shut since the last time I was here. They used to open it to let the hot air out in the summer.”
It took more work than bumping the lock would have but I managed to use a flathead screwdriver to pop the lock on the transom window and then slid inside, turned my head lamp on and after a brief turn of my head to see if things were intact I unbolted the door. “Looks good. Jax, I’m going to go through the store and open the loading bay.”
“Good deal. I wasn’t keen on the idea of leaving Kelly out here unattended.”
Once we had the truck backed in we went to work. The inventory was way down and about half of what was there had been gotten into by mice and rats … all of which had run as soon as we had gotten busy … but we managed to fill up the truck and trailer in just a couple of hours.
First I hit the rabbit and chicken feed. The laying pellets and the mash for chicks was a welcome addition to what we already had. I would have cracked corn for them but it can be labor intensive and I was glad I didn’t have to for a while yet. I also got all the fish chow they had, both the floating and sinking kind.
He grunted, “Yeah?”
“What about this canned cat and dog food? There’s a few feral cats that hang out around the old tobacco barn but they are pretty self-sufficient. Dogs … we just never got another one after Lady died because the docs said it wasn’t a good idea for Will … but … I wouldn’t mind a hunting dog if such an animal is still around.”
Jax looked like he was thinking about it and then said, “Can’t hurt I suppose. Put it on the loading dock. If nothing else we can fill empty space with it.”
I used stacking crates from the back of the store and grabbed all of their flea and tick products like sprays, treatments, collars, shampoos, and dusts. I grabbed the animal vaccinations that were still viable from the locked cabinet they were kept along with all the other animal medicines. I was sure that some were gone over but since I didn’t have the time or the light to look close enough I figured I could do it when I was putting it away back at the home place. Dewormers, animal remedies, and diet supplements followed the rest of it.
Animal bedding and litter took up a lot of space but better to take it while we had access to it. Bulbs for the brooder and heat lamps was of particular importance so I packed them into the cab and wrapped some horse blankets around them to keep them cushioned.
After grabbing all of the animal stuff we hit the organic garden section. Fertilizers, soil amendments, weed control, fungus control, and as man bags of soil and mulches as I could fit was crammed in as well. All of the insect and pest control was crated up and shoved anyway it would fit. Grabbed all of the gorilla glue and tape off of the end cap where they had been prominently displayed.
The area I should have hit first was the canning area. I had a gazillion and one jars, many older than I was, but having too many jars never hurt anything and I decided I could store the extras out in the loft of the tractor barn if I needed to. So all the cases of jars – weren’t really that many in stock anyway – along with all the lids and rings got its own corner of the trailer. I also grabbed all of the ascorbic acid and what commercial pectin was on those shelves along with canning salt and pickling spices. There were a bunch of boxes of ice cream salt so I grabbed that too. In the back in the out-of-season storage area were bags of sidewalk salt and blocks or deer salt.
I handed Jax another small box to find room for only he stopped and then turned to me and wanted to know, “Why am I carrying a bunch of animal urine?”
I laughed. “Fox, coyote, mountain lion, and bobcat pee can be used as repellents.”
“Uh huh, I’d reckon so given how this stuff is likely to smell.” He went on to the trailer but he was still shaking his head. I thought to myself that if he thought that was bad he obviously hadn’t seen all of the buckets of Snake Away I planned on taking with us.
Not too long after that Jax and I had to stop and admit that not another thing was going to fit. “Dirt is dirt,” I told him. “Sure it would be nice to take all of this back with us but it isn’t happening on this run. We got most of what we came for.”
He nodded. “I say we go switch vehicles. I don’t want to run this trailer any heavier than it already is. If the other places don’t pan out we’ll come back and get what’s left.”
When I drove I could tell the trailer was really pulling. “Jax, we are going to have to go back a different way. I’ll never get this thing around some of those curves out on River Road, especially in the dark and with those inclines.”
“Guess it’s a good thing we made alternative plans for the trip back then.”
As soon as the switch was made we had to pacify Kelly with a meal and truth be told Jax and I were starving by that point as well. We ate tuna fish on biscuits with apple chips and a few slices of aged cheese. In no time Kelly was out again … lucky for us … and we hit up the tractor dealership for all of the parts on Jax’s list of must haves and a few on his would be nice to have list.
From there we had to drive a couple of blocks down river but as soon as I pulled in I thought it was going to be a bust at the Mennonite store. Got out of the truck and I could smell male cat in every direction. “Whew! That is some heavy territory marking,” I told Jax.
Jax was making a face and said, “What the heck? I don’t want to even breathe this stuff.”
“Are you familiar with the store’s lay out?” I asked.
“Uh uh. What’s it like inside?”
I thought for a second and then suggested, “Tell you what, you stay here with Kelly and let me get inside. These cats gotta be eating something and if the mouse population is in the building the hassle might not even be worth it.”
He twitched his nose, nodded, then shut the truck door so that Kelly wouldn’t have to breathe the air. He had a good grip on his rifle because no way did either of us want to be surprised by anything feral enough to create the odor we smelled.
But we were either lucky or blessed as whatever catty creature was outside appeared to have kept all the varmints outside as well … probably as dinner. That wasn’t to say the place wasn’t rank but it was the rankness of food long gone bad and dried up rather than fresh ripeness. Still Jax and I didn’t waste any more time than necessary. It was the wee hours of the night and we were both starting to drag.
Anything that could spoil obviously already had although there was surprisingly little of that in the store. The freezer cases looked pretty well cleaned out as was the dairy cases. In fact most of the shelves were a lot more barren than I had ever remembered seeing them which told me that either the Mennonite community had been taking care of their own towards the end, someone had already been through the place though that didn’t make too much sense, or the store owners simply hadn’t been able to restock before things really went south.
Most of the bulk food was in plastic bags with twist tie tops and appeared to be OK although there were some bags that were damaged; by what or from what wasn’t readily apparent so I just made sure to take bags that didn’t look like anything had got at them. The beans, rice, and dried soup mixes would certainly not be going to waste and I just shook my head that Matt and crew hadn’t thought to come out this way to take possession of any of it.
Cereals and grains were next. The less common grains quinoa and spelt could only be found in small bags on the shelves but there was plenty of wheat, mixed grain cereals, rye, oats, and the like in fifty pound bags stacked on pallets. I left those to Jax who would stack a dolly full and then take it out to the trailer to load into the eighteen foot enclosed trailer. There were plastic bags of muesli and I threw a couple in the cab before I boxed up the remaining cereals into plastic storage tubs I’d brought along for the ride.
Next came the dry mixes, teas, dried gelatins and pudding mixes. I wasn’t too sure about some of the baking mixes because they were made up fresh. The ones I worried about I put into a different container to keep any possible rancid food from contaminating the rest of it. I grabbed all of the oxygen absorbers and mylar bags too. The absorbers might have gone over – I wasn’t sure – but the mylar bags could be dead useful for many different things. There were several two pound buckets of lard and coconut oil too that were stacked for hauling off.
Over in the spice area I grabbed all the jars of vanilla beans as well as just about everything else. Most of them came in this little plastic butter dish kind of containers. They were opaque so I could see what was inside just in case a label was missing. I did find a couple of containers that had weevils in them and left them where I found them. Sadly all of the nut butters were rancid as they were mixed fresh but I did find some bulk nuts like pistachios and cashews that didn’t grow anywhere near. And even though we had a few almond trees I got almost two hundred pounds of almonds … whole and still in the shell … and was grateful for every single nutmeat.
Got a lot of dried and glazed fruit that I was also grateful for; the more that was already fixed up would mean less sugar that I would have to use from our supplies because the one thing I was noticing a real shortage of was white granulated sugar in bulk. I did find some brown sugar, molasses, and honey in both liquid and crystallized form but white sugar was scarce as hen’s teeth. The sugar issue did lead me to take all of the candy and chocolate I could find though there wasn’t a huge amount of it.
In the personal hygiene area I threw all of the Burt’s Bees products and Barlean’s Oils products into a tub and decided organizing it could wait until we got it back to the home place. I also put all of the homemade soaps and other beauty products into another tub though the smell just about knocked me on my keester because some of the natural oils were quite strong and didn’t combine into a cohesive perfume.
I almost wasn’t paying attention to what came off the shelf in the kitchen accessory area because I was starting to get really tired and my head lamp was going dim and needed a battery change. I figured it would all prove useful eventually.
After loading all of the bulk grains and such Jax started at the other end of the store, this time with Kelly on his back. I felt badly but he told me not to worry about it as he was used to it. He found some sturdy plastic boxes from the back area and loaded products like from Bob’s Red Mill, Mrs. Wage’s Canning products, Dutch Valley chips. He kept Kelly quiet by giving her a bag of veggie chips after making sure they were still good.
It was hard to believe but there were still a whole lot of green coffee beans. Jax asked, “Your dad said something about your mom knowing how to cook … no roast, he called it roasting … coffee beans. Can you?”
“Sure. That’s how my folks bought their coffee. Green coffee beans last longer than the ones that are already roasted. I’d leave them in that barrel though if you can move it while it’s full. That’ll be the best container for them.”
He nodded and just slid the dolly under the barrel and hauled it out. I’d worked my way over to where he’d been unstocking the shelves and then just about squealed. They had several cases of birch beer and cheerwine and I couldn’t wait and popped the top on a can of the beer right then and there.
Jax caught me guzzling and he stood there with a surprised look on his face and then laughed when I couldn’t stop a belch. “I take it you like?”
“I love birch beer … and no it isn’t alcoholic; it is sorta like root beer or maybe sarsaparilla if you’ve ever had that. Here, have a sip,” I offered generously.
He sipped gingerly and then nodded. “Not bad. I like orange cream soda better but haven’t had any in a long while. Stuff isn’t cheap.”
“There’s bottles of the stuff on the end cap down there. We just need to make sure not to hit a bump and break them on the way home.”
He smiled and said, “Looks like your prejudice against salvaging is changing.”
And just that quick most of the fun I’d started to have drained away. I sighed. “This is just too easy. I keep forgetting the reason behind all of this stuff just sitting here like this.”
“Hey,” he said, chagrinned. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. Now c’mon … don’t go all … depressed and morose on me.”
I shook my head. “I’m not. But I shouldn’t be taking this for granted like I am either. People died. That’s the only reason we can do this. I shouldn’t let myself forget that.”
He leaned in and kissed me for no good reason. “I don’t think you are the type that will ever simply take stuff for granted. Just don’t let it weigh you down like a ton of bricks either. You didn’t engineer what has happened but you’ve got responsibilities. If God is giving us all of this should we just turn our nose up at it because we think we are too holier than thou?”
I shook my head harder that time. “No. That’s definitely not what I mean. I’m just having a hard time figuring out … oh just forget it. You and I both know I’m not going to stop salvaging; to complain about it midstream is beyond hypocritical.”
He wrapped me in a one armed hug. “Don’t be too hard on yourself Lydie. This is just one of those … things.”
He nodded. “Yeah, one of those adjustment reactions like that book talked about. Reality is setting in and we are adjusting to a new … a new paradigm. We’ll get through this.”
I snorted. “I know and I hope I’m realist enough to admit it. I suppose I’m just concerned we aren’t trying to set ourselves up like kings with the only purpose being to get one over on someone else. I never saw myself like that and don’t want to think that I’d fall into that trap and get greedy.”
We continued on with the job at hand as I forced myself to put guilt to the side that was more gratuitous than constructive. What we started boxing up at that point wasn’t necessarily edible in and of itself but would make other things I fixed more so. Shank’s flavoring and extracts; Golden Barrel cooking oils; Gunter’s honey and locally jugged blackstrap molasses; imported maple syrup; Yoder’s jams, jellies, pickles, and relishes; McCutcheon’s preserves and sauces; and enough Jake and Amos products to make a road side vendor envious. I made sure to pack the bottles of Bragg’s vinegar and amino acid so that they wouldn’t break as I was fond of using both. Candy sticks and corn syrup made a colorful combination in another box. I didn’t know for sure what I was going to do with a dozen three pound tubs of marshmallow fluff but I figured might as well take it.
Not everything on the shelves was salvageable. There were some plastic containers of perishable items that didn’t look too healthy or had bulging sides in the packaging that I gave a wide berth to. There were weevil infestations on the shelves containing the packaged bread and cornmeal mixes. Most of the cookies and pretzels were too stale to bother with. And most of the packaged flour and such looked like damp or something had tried to get at them at one point.
We did get lucky and found plenty of sausage and ham seasoning for hunting season. I took every box of rennet tablets that I could find as I would need them for cheese making if I could ever figure out a way to trade for milk … or capture the goats. Did the same for all of the yogurt starter I could find. Got a couple of new lids for my sprouting jars … they look like strainers that screw onto the top of a regular canning jar … as well as all of the sprouting seeds they had that hadn’t already tried to sprout in their packaging.
Jax nearly had me in stitches when I saw him carrying out huge gallon jars of pickled eggs and pickled sausages. “Where on earth did you get those?”
He shuddered and then hawked up a wad of gross from his throat and spit it in the general direction of the rain downspout. Before he could answer Kelly tried to imitate him and said, “Stinky, stinky.”
I raised my eyebrow and Jax explained, “Behind the counter over by the deli foods. It smells worse the further into the back you go. I don’t think anything else in there is worth a risk on.”
I gave myself a dope slap and said, “The smokehouse!”
“Wha …? Wait, you think it still has something in it?”
I shrugged. “No clue but they kept that thing locked up like Fort Knox. It would take bigger bolt cutters than we brought to get into it if …”
“Keys are in the manager’s office I bet. Saw some hanging behind the door.”
I rolled my eyes. “Good place for them. Anyone could have broken in here and … Oh. Never mind. That’s what we’re doing so I’m not going to complain.”
Soon enough we had the last of everything out of the store and had walked around the side to see if there was anything worth taking. It would have been a fantasy to have opened it to find all the meat we would need for a long while but there wasn’t. It wasn’t completely empty but it was obvious, just like the store itself, that someone had either given a lot of the stock away or had been eating it themselves for a while. But the locks were rusted pretty fiercely requiring some pretty strong persuasion to open so whatever had happened it had been some time ago.
“Country hams and some strings of sausages. Better than nothing,” I said.
Jax added, “A lot better than nothing. I think I saw some butcher’s paper back in one of the supply closets. We’ll wrap these then unless you have a different idea I say we set up camp for the night. We’ll need to have some kind of watch through the day and then we’ll get the last few places on our list once it gets dark and go home.”
Thinking about how much we already had I asked him, “Are you sure you don’t want to just head back now?”
He gave it some honest thought. “Here’s a compromise. We’ve had good luck up to this point. Let’s secure the trailers in the warehouse and then walk over to the thrift store and fabric store. If they look picked over we leave, if they look untouched … or relatively so … we stay and finish up after we rest.”
I nodded. “Probably the best we can do at this point. We’re already really loaded down though. We’re going to have to start being choosey.”
“True dat. I just wish we had found more reloading supplies. I found a lot of brass and shell capsules but the shot and everything else wasn’t where I thought it would be.”
“What about the pawn shop next to the thrift store?”
He got thoughtful and said, “Mebbe. Let’s just take care of this first.”
It was no easy task to get the trucks and trailers lined up for a quick getaway. Once I stopped moving it was awful hard to put my body in motion again. I pulled a packet of energy pills out of my pocket and looked at them carefully. I’d had to resort to them a few times when I was running shine but I didn’t like to because they made my scalp feel like it was going to crawl off my skull but I was getting to the point of being really done in. I popped them even against my better judgment and swallowed them just in time to here Jax asked suspiciously, “What did you just take?”
I gave him a look that said don’t be stupid. “You know what I took. It isn’t a narcotic but this needs doing and I’m dragging too much to get it done.”
“Then you should have said so,” he growled.
I put my hand on his tense forearm and squeezed. “I know my limits Jax. We’ll get this done. I’ll take first watch because you’ll probably have to cuddle with Kelly to get her to sleep. When the tabs wear off I’ll wake you up and you can take a good long watch and let me sleep it off. When I get up I’ll fix us some food and then …” I stopped with a shrug. “Besides, if the stores we are going to check on are a bust I would still need something to be able to drive home safely.”
He calmed down and then gave me a look. “If we do go back tonight you got any more of those?”
I nodded and showed him the ones in my fanny pack. We locked everything down and then using our own chain and lock from home locked up the warehouse, brushed the tire marks away as well as our boot prints, and left things looking as undisturbed as we could while we quietly making our way over to where I knew the last few stores were on our list.