Sunday, September 25, 2016

Not Zen 189: Flood of Wisdom

"Two inches of rain in an hour," she said. "It's the beginning of the hurricane."

"You again? Stop calling." Aidan lifted his head from his pillow. He grabbed the edge of a blanket that had escaped while he slept to pull it up under his collarbone.

"Well now, you're the council member, not me," said Margaret. "I have to call you for action. When I was a member, I voted to build flood locks for the creek downtown. Then you won the election. And you changed my vote."

"Margaret," he said. If he'd been more awake he might have teased her with one of her nicknames. None of them seemed to bother her, anyway. A groan escaped him. He sounded sleepy to his own ears. "The locks were a shady enterprise from the beginning. They amounted to half the town's budget. The money went right to your friends."

"It's not that big a town, honey," the older woman said. "I'm friends with everyone."

He sighed, said goodbye, and hung up. It was dark. He glanced at the night out his window but not at his clock. He didn't want to know what time she'd woken him. For a moment, he studied the spatters against his pane. They didn't look like much. He listened. The drumming against his roof only sounded like rain. Perfect weather for staying in bed, he thought. He closed his eyes.

Aidan didn't mind constituents, not even his former council rep, calling him during the day. In fact, he sort of liked Margaret. She was like having a second, crankier mother. But waking him up in the middle of the night was too much.

"Sheesh." He rolled into the blankets. A moment later, he squeezed shut his eyes.

Again, his phone started to make noise. This time it was one of his friends. He recognized the ring. It was what they'd chosen for their secret code. How much time had passed? The rain sounded different. The wind had picked up. In fact, it was howling. He blinked at the clock. It was 5:30 in the morning already. The air smelled thick and damp.

"Is this important?" he grumbled as he picked up the line.

"Of course it is," Leticia snapped back. Her voice sounded rough. She had probably just woken up. She was always moving a little earlier than him. "The center of town is starting to flood."

"Ugh." He tried to sit up. "Hold on. There's nothing we can do about, is there?"

"I don't know. Folks are trying." She huffed. "It could be a problem. Another council member got up early. He's building a sandbag dike in front of the library."

"Which councilman? Margaret?" No, it couldn't be her. She wasn't on the council anymore. Leticia was aware of it. She wouldn't make the mistake.

"It's Francis," she said.

"Damn it." Francis Ipswitch was an old, short, pudgy man who the younger generation had failed to unseat in the last election. It seemed totally unfair. Everyone suspected Francis of being as corrupt as the rest. But no one could prove it. No one could prove anyone against anyone in this town, it seemed. The man had even been investigated twice by his allies. That purge had ended more than a decade ago. No payments for votes had been uncovered. And the public had forgiven Francis.

"Are you getting up?"

"I'm already up." Aidan's feet hit the floor. His right elbow knocked aside the comforter. "See you at the library."

"Are you going to join him?"

"No." He was certain he didn't want that even if it was the politically smart thing. Francis was a smug bastard. He'd voted to build the locks. All of the old guard had. They weren't going to let Aidan help them without making him admit they'd been right. 

"Then what?"

"Who do we know who has sandbags?" A picture started to form, a plan of action. He rubbed his chin.

"I'll ask around."

"Okay, have them meet me downtown." His eyes went to his closet. In theory, he had boots in there somewhere. He hadn't worn them in years. He had work jeans, too, sitting at the bottom of a dresser drawer. "What's the building next to the library?"

"Across? A church."

"No, I mean downstream of the library is a clinic. But it's low-lying. That's going to be hard to save. Upstream is something else."

On the other end, Leticia paused. Her mental map of the infrastructure was better than his.

"About half a block up, there's the fire house," she concluded.

"Perfect. As you find folks with connections to sandbags, have them meet me there."

The next half an hour moved so quickly that Aidan felt later as if he woke up in front of the firehouse with a sandbag in his hands. Raindrops smashed his face despite his expensive raincoat with its practical rubberized hood. Swirling winds seemed to drive the water everywhere. But the worst was the sandbag itself. The delivery truck driver was a construction foreman. He was twice Aidan's age, half Aidan's size, a short, thin man, and he got out of his truck and watched Aidan pick up the sandbag with a sense of anticipation.

He was waiting for his councilman to drop it. That's what it was. Immediately, Aidan sensed why. The bag was slippery. It was heavy. The truck driver reached into the flatbed, hauled one out, and shifted it with ease. He tossed it over his shoulder. Then he waited for Aidan.

Aidan readjusted his grip. The sandbag kept slipping. Why did this fellow keep waiting and watching?

"Where to, boss?" the man finally said.

"Oh." Aidan flushed. "The other side of the building, near the river. I don't know much about building levees, though."

"Me neither." The gray-haired fellow chuckled. He tugged on the bill of his cap and squinted as if the brim and a grimace together might keep out some water. He strode toward the open doors of the firehouse. "Who does? It's not like we have a chance to practice."

That's true, Aidan thought. He felt the pressure ease from his shoulders. The sandbag slipped. He dropped it into the inch of water around his boots, stooped, and picked it back up before the truck driver could turn around.

Over the course of the next hour, more drivers showed up with more sandbags and tarps. One of them knew how to use the tarps and supervised the stacking and wrapping. The levee, only two feet high at this point, seemed too porous to have an effect. The firehouse's raised floor got soaked. Leticia McCulley and a crew of the downtown office staff arrived to carry more bags. They were the younger staffers, Aidan noticed. One construction crew chief showed up with a truckload of horrible, drenched sand and a passenger seat filled with canvas sacks.

"Make your own," he said. He came from a small construction company that hardly ever did business with the city because of deliveries like this.

On the other hand, although he was pot-bellied, bald, smelly, and late, he was here. He was willing to try. On the side of the new council members seemed to be a lot of folks who had opposed the old guard. Some of them had fought the council for twenty years. They'd been locked out of the town business. That included the owners of two construction companies.

Francis Ipswitch, in comparison, seemed to have the three of the biggest construction crews on his side, the most reliable ones. He had a lot of experienced volunteers, too, including members from multiple churches. The library's sandbag dike looked professional. Aidan glanced to it every now and then to check his own progress. He tried to copy Francis's design but narrower, to save time, and taller.

Once when he looked in the direction of the library, he saw a familiar figure striding his way through three inches of water. Margaret Cheney had dressed sensibly in double-overcoats. Her boots looked tall but fashionable. Only her hair color and the wobble in her step showed her age. Aidan worried for a moment that she would fall in the overflow of the river, shallow as it was on the sidewalk.

"What are you doing?" she called as she approached.

"What does it look like?" he said. "We're saving the fire house."

"Why?" She leaned close. Her voice didn't carry very strongly over the gale. "They drove the fire engines out. There's not much equipment on the ground floor. If you want to save something besides the library, try the health clinic."

"Do you think we can do that?"

"Well, no." Her attitude retreated to being motherly for a moment. "It's too far below the river level. The water is two feet high in it already even with the dike at the library sheltering it. But if you can't stand helping Francis, for gosh sakes, you could at least have your people help the doctors and nurses in the clinic move their equipment to the top floor."

"They've already done most of that. I'll stick with the fire house, thanks."

She stomped her feet in exasperation but she didn't harangue him. Margaret seemed too tired as well to bother the fire house volunteers, at least not while Aidan was watching her. She moved from spot to spot behind the sandbags. The makeshift wall had stopped being porous. It guided away at least a foot of the river overflow. Of course, more water was headed downstream to the library. The library system seemed to be able to withstand it.

Margaret offered advice to the baggers and builders. She said hellos to the people that she knew. As she would have been happy to point out, that was nearly everyone. At the end, she announced she would have her nephew deliver coffee to the fire house as well as to the library.

"She's good," Leticia observed as Margaret left. 

"Yeah. But she saw that we're pulling sand from the brick foundry. Francis's group and ours are both draining the same resource."

"Do you think she'll stop it?"

"The last guy from the brickyard said they're pretty much out anyway." He shrugged.

"Why does a foundry have sand?" Leticia's gaze narrowed. She knew there had to be a technical reason.

"No idea." It didn't matter at the moment.

Aidan had run for office on an anti-corruption platform. So had most of his political friends, Leticia included. Although they hadn't been able to unseat a majority of the established members, they'd taken three positions. That was enough of a voting block to put a halt to the crooked deals including this one. It would look awful to the town, though, if the flood locks turned out to have been necessary. 

He mentioned the problem to select members of his crew but they already had it in mind. They knew they had to save as much of the downtown as they could. It was a race to get the sandbags up. Unfortunately, it wasn't simply a contest with the older folks at the library. They had to match pace with the river, too. 

In the hour after dawn, the water had risen a couple of inches. By midday, it rose at a rate of a foot an hour. It started catching up to the progress they'd made. To make matters worse, the crew ran out of tarps. Those were essential to keep the structure from letting in water. One of the young men waded downstream and slogged back with a bundle of tarps. Where could they have come from? They had to be from the rival effort at the library. Aidan opted not to say anything.

In another hour, though, the sandbag wall started tilting.

"We've got to double the thickness," someone shouted over the winds.

"Can we?" Aidan yelled back. Next to him, Leticia shook her head. She didn't think they were going to make it. 

During the morning, Aidan had directed everyone to take breaks. That had practically been his entire job, standing on the back porch of the fire house, telling people to join different teams, seeing who was tired, and telling them to rest. He stopped doing that. They needed everyone to move all out, now. They had too much progress to make and probably not enough time to do it. Doubling the thickness of the wall might not be possible before the flood reached the top of the sandbags. 

They dug into the task. Some did it literally. There was a pile of dumped sand on the steps of the firehouse. A woman and two men shoveled it into bags. Other workers ran the bags out to the levee. Letitia accomplished bits and pieces of complementary chores while she held conversations via an emergency phone that was also a radio. Outside, over the wind and rain, she announced there would be no coffee. Apparently, someone's truck had gotten stranded on a hill and it couldn't come down into the water.

Aidan paused to look through the windows of the fire house and out through the open doors to the other side. The silt-filled waters flowing over the road looked to be two feet deep. He couldn't see the sidewalks. Aidan realized that he'd lost track of the flood progress. That was because the temporary dike had been working. In the areas not protected, the river had overflowed its banks by forty yards on either side.

"We're sending the flood right into the library," someone groaned. 

Aidan glanced downhill. The assessment seemed to be true. The fire house project was directing water to the north face of the library building, where its protective sandbag wall was at its lowest. Everyone froze for a moment as they reacted to the announcement. Then they returned to their work. What else could they do? It was too late to join the two levee walls. 

"We should stop," Leticia hissed in Aidan's ear. She smelled less like her usual perfume and more like river and rain now. He supposed they all did.


"We're not going to save the fire house. Anyway, it's not worth saving. But the library has a shot. They built a thicker wall down there, right from the beginning. We shouldn't send water to their weakest point. They stopped building it high on that side because they thought we'd protect them."

"Crap." He knew it was true.

Everyone on his team kept moving. They used up most of the free sand. The thin, grey-haired foreman that Aidan met in the early morning grabbed a broom. He used it to sweep the fire house steps for loose dirt and mud. He would only get another bag or two out of it.

A woman outside one of the windows, despite standing in the overflow up to her knees, used a shovel to dig up the strip of lawn between buildings. She was dumped the wet soil into a wheelbarrow that kept threatening to drift away in the current. That was innovative.

"Give the library a call. Warn them."

Leticia rolled her eyes. But she called. She didn't want to order anyone to stop, either.

A minute later, the library crew sent out a pair of workmen. Aidan could see them scramble from position to position with shoulder-loads of sandbags. But they were too late. The river, directed by the levee in front of the firehouse, had already crested the top of the library dike. Those workmen could only toss more on top and hope. But they were up to their knees on a strip of land that should have been dry.

Someone on the radio screamed at Leticia. She held the handset an arm's length away. After a few seconds, she turned it off. Her eyebrows rose. 

"They're retreating," Aidan murmured.

Behind the failing north wall of the library's dike, the men who had topped off the sandbags tried to back up. For a few minutes, they worked on a second wall, an extension of the library's brick facade. But they didn't have enough time to build it high. Hurrying, one of the workers hopped over the new row of bags. He tripped and fell.

The man's white t-shirt disappeared. His entire body sank under the water. He must have fallen into a hole, Aidan thought. 

"Come on," Leticia said. She must have been watching, too. They’d been dividing their attention between their own crew and the library.

The missing man stayed under until his partner floundered over the him, followed by a third man, the short and chubby Francis Ipswitch. Francis and the larger fellow pulled their fallen companion out of the mud and swirling water. Then, without a glance upstream, they retreated into the library. As Francis opened the rear door to the building, Aidan could see that the river water was already inside. The library had been lost.

Leticia said some bad words. She tucked the radio into her pocket and shifted a half-full sandbag. The fire house was out of sand.

Fifteen minutes later, the fire house levee started to topple. Aidan saw it coming. He yelled for everyone to get out of the way. Others hollered the same warning. They scrambled for safety. Only one woman didn't seem to notice the tilting wall. Leticia grabbed her by the arm and pulled her through the back fire house door as the levee broke open. The top pair of half-bags gave way. Then water pushed on that section of the dike like a child poking a finger into a bowl of candy. All of the pieces moved.

In another minute, everyone in the fire house had to retreat up the stairs to the second floor.

As one of the foremen observed, they were trapped. Aidan hadn't thought about it but he was relieved to see that the fire crew slept here, normally. There were cots. He spent a half-hour organizing the area into shape to accommodate everyone. Some of the folks were happy to lie down even if no one could manage to crack a smile.

Aidan was thinking of resting on a cot himself when Leticia took a call. She strode toward him, waved him over, and they sat in the corner by the window.

When the call finished, Leticia closed her eyes. She leaned her head back against the wall. For a moment, her lips trembled as if she were going to cry. He started to reach out to her. But he hesitated. Even now, in rough work clothes, she seemed smartly dressed. He'd always felt a little intimidated around her.

"Was that the police?" he asked.

"No." She turned her head toward the window. "That was the library."

"Oh." He felt awful. Margaret and Francis had to be blaming him for the disaster. "Are they okay?"

"Yeah. Margaret knows someone who knows someone in the Coast Guard of all things, so there's going to be a chopper coming." Leticia wiped her cheek. "It'll drop a rope ladder. We can climb."

"Good," he breathed. "Actually, great."

"She says she blames you for the library."

"Of course." He nodded to himself.

"Francis got everyone to promise not to blame you publicly."

"What?" He lifted his head. For a moment, he studied his friend's face. "Why not?"

"Apparently he thinks you honestly tried to save the fire house."

"Okay, okay." He was trying to figure this out. "I did that."

"Except for the honestly part." Leticia lifted her hand as if she were going to smash the radio against the window sill. Instead, she took a deep breath. She lowered her hand. "It was so stupid. Of me, I mean. But you, too."

"How can you say that? We made the same decision that they did over there!"

"No." Leticia's round, brown eyes focused on him. "Francis took a risk because he thought he could save the library. You decided to compete with him. Those are different."

"They're the same tactic."

"You are so into your heavy rationalization mode." She made a rude sound with her lips. "I used to think you were smart."

"I used to think so, too, until this job." He pulled his legs up to his chest and ran his hands through his hair.

"Well, me, I've had some realizations, last night and today." Her voice softened. "I thought you were making our council strategy decisions. That's because you won your race. I lost mine. But you know, for the last six months it's been me. I've set up the votes."

He nodded. "Yeah, that's pretty much true."

"For a while, I saw you as the hero in my story, not me. That was wrong. I was making the choices. Me. And I needed to have my heart right to make the right decisions. I didn't."

Aidan had no idea what to say. He'd always been the best at finding the right words and coming up with the winning arguments. He'd been a captain on his debate team. He found himself remembering, though, that Leticia had been on the same team, a year older than him, stronger and more sharp-witted than the boys. In the year that she'd been a leader while he'd been a backup, they'd won the state championship.

"Are you saying your heart isn't in the right place?" he asked.

"It is now, I think. Is yours? Aidan, by now you ought to know that how you try to achieve a goal affects the outcome. You can't achieve something without the right motivation."

"That's totally crap." He saw the obvious hole in that argument. "I wanted to stop this town's corruption. It was a vague motivation and it probably wasn’t up to your standards. But I crushed it. I ran for town council and won."

"Why have you never seemed happy about it, Aidan? Mostly, you've been angry. Before you won, you talked about how you wouldn't be like other the other council members. But when you were losing to Margaret, you took money from businesses to secure the seat. You owed your vote to a real estate developer just like you said you wouldn't."

"You can't say things like that," he countered. "There was no vote trading. Besides, Leticia, I followed your guidance."

"I gave bad advice. You accepted it. And as soon as you took the money, you defeated your goal. Because your real goal wasn't to win. It was to win honestly."

He hugged his legs tighter to his chest for a moment, suddenly very tired.

"That's the same mistake as today, really," she continued. "You didn't mean to flood the library. Neither did I. Only we didn't have pure intentions. That's what made for our bad decisions."

"Even if we didn't know what we were doing," he said, leaning back. "Give us a break. Our choices weren't much different from theirs."

"It's because we didn't know what we were doing. It's because we had political intentions, not practical ones. Those are the things that made it different. Look at how it turned out. Look at the choices we made along the way to this," she gestured to the lower third of the window and the overflowing river below them, "this really crappy conclusion. Our wrong thinking went into every little decision and every consequence."

Finally, he brought himself to put his hand on hers. He pleaded, "We'll improve. I’ll have better intentions. You know I will."

She nodded but she pulled her hand back, leaving him with a hand on her knee. It took him a moment to realize it. Then he started to pull away. Before he could move, her fingers returned. They locked onto his. She held his hand against her body.

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