Morrison and Dolores had decided to lay low for a while, recoup their energy while they plotted their next move. They had rented a cabin in what was euphemistically called the Switzerland of Central America. But the mountains were green and the crater lake was still clean. In nearby Monteverde, the Quakers, who had fled the U.S. during the Korean war, were still making cheese in their peaceful mountain outpost. There was a beautiful butterfly garden which moved Dolores to tears.
But this afternoon Morrison was driven to tears of rage. “Goddamnit. Oh god. Motherfucker.”
“What’s that smell?” Dolores yelled from the kitchen, where she was looking for her stash.
“Fucking toilet. It’s flooding all over the floor. And I just used it.”
The toilet leaked out where the wax seal should have been but that wasn’t the trouble. It was backed up somewhere down the line and was coming up when you flushed it. So they called Ecco Pelikan to help out. He came by right away, all friendly and herky-jerky tall and lanky with a ball cap on his bald head and a wide grin over his lean face. “What can I do to make life better for you?” he asked. Pelikan wasn’t convinced yet that the problem was elsewhere so he went ahead and gallantly laid in new wax seals – two of them, “just to be sure,” he said. He owned the place they were staying in and lived out here by himself on this large plot of land he’d bought from an old farmer whose sons were someplace in Texas. He was glad to have company to show off his place.
They rode in Pelikan’s pick-up and he pointed out various spots around the lake. “That house is mine, well sort of. Let my ex-wife live in there. Her whole family.” He grinned and tugged at his cap. “Gave it to her in the divorce. They can’t say I wasn’t generous. And we’re still friends. She’s coming over later to watch a movie, some Mexican horror thing, ha ha.”
“There’s the new cell tower. Making cancer. We’ve got good internet though. Progress, right? This was a farm community before the real estate stuff started happening. But now there’s a new tower and a new road around the lake. Lot more tourists coming in. My place is up on the hill, got a great view of the lake and the town. Only one road in. And I’ve got my dogs. A Great Dane I raised from a puppy and a German shepherd. I’m pretty safe up there.” He laughed with nervous satisfaction.
Pelikan told them he was building a bunkhouse for his workers so they could live on the property and help him become completely independent. That was his goal. To be totally off the grid. He pointed out the freshwater coming down the hillside – he would collect it and take care of the cows, the pigs, the chickens, the garden. He was installing solar so he’d have electricity. They were going to grow vegetables and beans, slaughter their own meat, there’d be out-buildings for drying meats and fruits, a place to can things, even a metal shop – everything but a bunker. For that Pelikan felt there would be no need since he knew most of the people in town, many of whom were related, and he had workers here with an interest in maintaining things as they were: “After the big society crashes and collapses,” he said meaningfully.
After all, Pelikan continued, “by spring next year the earth will be so close to the sun that the odds of an electric flare burning up the communications grid are the highest since the Carrington event in 1859. That’s when a solar flare did hit. Burned out the whole telegraph system. Today the scale is immense. It’s global. Imagine no banking transactions, no credit cards, no internet. Water systems will shut down, the electric grid, the phone grid, the security grid, transportation, all of it. Everything is hooked up one way or another to electric juice, you know what I mean? Without it everything stops. The banks will have all your money. You won’t get any, dig! I’ve buried six figures out here inlined, waterproof, bug-proof sacks. Won’t tell you where though, hahaha. I’ve got my rifles and sidearms. Yeah, I’m off the grid, I’m ready.” He grinned and said, “All cuz of cosmic debris.”
Morrison pointed out that most of what he described he still had to do.
“Hey, all that stuff costs money. You know the price of steel today? Or a bag of cement? Paint? Everything you touch has gone up. Things are a lot more expensive now. These guys even get paid more. But we’re putting in the pig house Friday, then the sink in the slaughterhouse. Yeah, I’ll get it done, because the flares have already started, and look what happened in Japan, big storms …”
“Well, you’ve only got six good months left till spring,” Dolores said. “Then, as they say, it’s the fire next time.”
“Why do you think I’m up here and not in a city? You’ve got at most a week in the city once the power goes. Then the place is uninhabitable. Oh man, the garbage alone! Listen, let’s smoke a joint and I’ll show you my jewelry studio.”
Pelikan had the joint at hand, lit it, and took a deep drag. “I’m ranked eighth in the world as a goldsmith. I’m in catalogues.” He exhaled an enormous cloud of smoke. “Yeah, I’m one of the best goldsmiths in the world. In fact, they’ve been stealing my designs!”
“I trained in Switzerland with a master goldsmith. He taught me the European method of working with gold and jewels, very different than the American method – believe it. I learned in my father’s jewelry store as a kid. I grew up with jewels. But I got sick of dealing with customers, the whole scene. So I split.”
“Rode a tandem through Europe and Australia, fucking at all the inns at night. That was my first wife. Then in Switzerland, I lived with a woman and raised her kids with her. She was a designer. She’d make the most beautiful drawings, far-out designs, and I’d make the pieces. We had our own line – Cosmic Debris.” Morrison chuckled. “Pretty good, huh? We made beautiful jewelry, rings and brooches, pendants – I have a display in my studio.”
Pelikan led them to a windowless, cement, one-story building. Here was the bunker. He flipped through a ring of keys and found the ones that opened a heavy metal door with three deadbolts on it. With a remote, he turned on a series of lights and they were surprised to find that they were inside a remarkably well-laid-out studio, as equipped as any you’d find in the big city. Here, in the middle of nowhere, inside a cement box, Pelikan had built a professional workspace. “Pretty nice, eh,” he said proudly. “It’s identical to the one I had in Zurich. I had all the equipment shipped over here. Wasn’t easy to get it here, I can tell you.”
Pelikan had a press to roll out gold till it was paper-thin, tantalizingly light like a gum wrapper. He could choose the thickness he reduced various metals to. It was incongruous to see such a high-end workshop out here, especially since Pelikan was obviously up to his neck in farm projects and some kind of major personal delusion. But there it was, real as the workers lining up for their pay, which they received every Saturday at noon.
Pelikan didn’t just make pendants and brooches, he liked to make sculptures out of insects. He opened a glass display case and pulled out an African Beetle carefully shellacked with varnish till it was beautifully preserved with a dark brown stain, black legs shining from the polish.
But the coup de grace was the Tarantula Wasp he had lacquered with gold, layer by careful layer so that the wasp was now rigid with gold but with subtle details brought out: the fine hairs on the legs, the antennae protruding from its head, its round black eyes. It was gruesomely beautiful, disturbing, but so well-crafted that it was hard to put down once it was in your hand. If you worked the legs of the wasp over your skin against the grain, you could feel that it would rip your flesh. Pelikan was proud of that brutally realistic detail. “Not something to wear around the neck,” Dolores jibed.
“For some reason widows love it,” Pelikan said drily. “Perhaps, Madame, you would like it?”
It was Saturday night and they went to the dance with all the local farmers and their girls. Stayed up all night drinking and smoking out behind the barn, behind the third leg of the new electric tower buzz … buzz. Sat on the soccer field with the remaining Sanchez brothers and passed a smoke around as the sun came up. It seemed a peaceful place. The locals were tolerant of the crazy gringo, especially since he was easy with his cash. All those dreams cost money and Pelikan was nothing if not a dreamer. And then too, there were rumors that the gringo had buried cash money somewhere on his property. Couldn’t be that hard to find. Sooner or later. They sure weren’t going anywhere.
The Switzerland of Central America was peaceful enough but it was nerve-wrackingly clean. It had no sizzle. And after seeing their host’s proclivities, Morrison guessed that Dolores was already looking for their next landing spot. It didn’t take long for her to reach her limit. The best cure for cabin fever was another country. It wouldn’t take them long to pack. They could reach the border before dark, get the local currency from the border touts, catch a bus on the other side. To Morrison, a new currency always signaled a new adventure. He went up the steps and opened the door to the cabin. Dolores was putting her hair up in front of the mirror. Her bag was packed on the bed, her passport sitting on top. She grinned at Morrison. “I’m ready,” she said.
Michael Grotsky is rumored to come from a long line of international agents and globe-trotting magicians. Following the family tradition, he has lived in many places, and traveled extensively for both work and pleasure – though he has still not found the difference between the two. He currently lives in Montreal where he is completing his first collection of short stories, Spinning the Sensualist, which will appear in 2020. He has written fiction and non-fiction for various literary reviews.