Ordinary World: A Family Story
“What’cha doing?” Gracie asks me, catching me off guard.
I glance up at her quickly. I’m sure I look guilty. I’m supposed to be doing bookkeeping, not browsing the news. I briefly consider closing my browser so she doesn’t know I’ve been goofing off, but I have five windows open with various news reports and financial analyses. It’s obvious I haven’t been doing the books.
“The news says that California is about to go bankrupt, and that New York and Illinois aren’t far behind.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” she says.
“No,” I agree. “And there’s a report that says there are 32 states in all that are technically bankrupt.”
“Is Utah one of them?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “Actually, we’re one of the 18 that isn’t.”
“That’s something,” she observes. “But I suppose we ought to review our preparedness supplies.”
Ordinary World is about preparedness, but it’s much more than that. From its initial conception as a series of blog entries, I envisioned it as not just a story about facing a possible future, but about a family like mine having to face that future together. The characters are loosely based on my wife, my stepson, and me. The life they lead going into the crisis is much like ours was when we were still making cheese. I wanted the story to emphasize the family as much or more than the crisis itself.
[A]s we change our clothes together, we take advantage of a rare moment alone. I’ve pulled off my hay-covered clothes when Gracie comes up behind me and puts her arms around me. I turn and put mine around her.
“I love you so much,” I tell her. “You are a remarkable woman.”
She laughs. “I think you are a remarkable man,” she says.
Then she turns pale.
“What?” I ask, thinking that she may be afraid of the dangerous baggage I’ve unwittingly brought with me.
“I’m sorry,” she says. She breaks her embrace and runs for the bathroom. A moment later, I hear her retching, then the water running.
When she emerges, she still looks pale.
“Are you okay?” I ask her.
“I think so,” she says. “This has been happening a lot lately.”
“Jeez,” I mutter. I’ve been so busy doing other things that I didn’t even know my wife was sick.
“Do we need to get you to a doctor?” I ask.
“I don’t think so,” she says. “I’m pretty sure I know what it is.”
“It will pass, then?” I ask.
“It will,” she says. “In about nine months.”
I stare at her, trying to grasp the meaning in her words. Nine months? What kind of a disease…
“Oh, holy hell,” I say, finally. “Are you pregnant?”
“I think so,” she says, and smiles tentatively. “Are you happy?”
“Happy?” I ask. I’m still trying to process this. Gracie is pregnant? “Of course I’m happy,” I tell her.
To myself, I think: I’m going to be a father? My God, that’s what I have hoped for so long… and feared… what if I can’t do it? What if I’m a lousy father? What if I fail Gracie?
“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” Gracie asks. “You seem upset.”
I’m going to be a father? With Gracie?
Finally the reality begins to get through. I throw my arms around her and kiss her.
“It’s taking a minute to sink in,” I whisper into her ear. “But you are making me the happiest man on earth.”
“You’re afraid,” she observes.
“Of course I’m afraid,” I reply. “I’ve never done this before. I’m terrified I won’t be good at it!”
“You’ve been pretty good at everything so far,” she says.
I’m not sure if it’s a double entendre or not, so I let it slide.
“I will do my best,” I tell her.
“I know you will,” she says. “You already are. You are a great dad to Joe, and I know you will be to your own child.”
It’s tough to write about characters that are so close to your heart. It was tough reading it to my family, too. As bad things happened, and at one point one of the family members got severely wounded, my wife warned me that if I let them die, she was going to kill me! I have to admit that I cried as I reread what I wrote, and some days I still cry when I read it. I hope that level of emotion comes through to readers outside my family.
Lack of protein and the lack of Vitamin C have combined to make us all feel weary and slow-witted. I’m not confident of my ability to make good decisions. And our family meetings suggest that no one else is, either. There’s a lot of “I don’t know” being spoken.
So here I am, ten miles or more from home, determined not to come back empty-handed. I’m carrying the 30-30, which is a bit big for rabbits, but which is the most flexible rifle I have. I can shoot anything up to the size of a deer with it. Including coyotes, should they decide to try to make a meal out of me.
If I see a rabbit, I’m just going to have to hit him square in the head so there’s something left to bring home.
But I haven’t seen a rabbit, not even in the distance.
I’m not going back empty-handed. In my pack, I have a down sleeping bag, a tent, and some supplies. I’m prepared to spend the night out here if I have to. Even two nights.
Gracie is pissed at me for that. She doesn’t want me camping in cold weather. I’ve done it before. Heck, I grew up in cold weather, and winter camping was one of the things we learned. But Gracie is scared.
“Why don’t you at least take the truck?” she pleaded.
“I’m not taking the truck,” I replied, sternly. “If anything goes wrong here, if anything happens with Kendra, you’ll need the truck. There’s no other way to get into town in a hurry.”
“This is crazy,” Gracie said.
“These are crazy times,” I said back. “Weylan and I have been combing the valley for days, and we haven’t seen anything we can eat. I’ve got to go to the hills.”
“And what if you don’t come back?” she asks, a note of panic in her voice.
“I’ll come back,” I insist. “Everything has to be wintering somewhere. I’m going to search the canyons until I find something, and I’m going to bring it home.”
“Look at you,” she said. “You’re tired, you’re weak, and I don’t think you’re quite rational.”
“None of us are,” I replied. “And it’s only going to get worse. We’re starving. If I don’t go now, I may not be able to go at all.”
There were harsh words spoken, words I now regret. I closed the discussion with the words, “I’m going, so get over it,” and the slam of the front door.
If I don’t come back, that’s not the way I want her to remember me.
But I’m going to come back. Just not empty-handed.
When I wrote Ordinary World, I didn’t have a child of my own. My wife and I lost a baby a year earlier, and we talked about trying again, but hadn’t yet been successful. I wrote about the birth of Bill and Gracie’s child from my imagination. Now, with a 17-month-old son of my own, I look back and think I did pretty well. My son Sam was born in a hospital, which contrasts markedly with the home birth scene in the story, but from the birthing itself to the emotions I felt for my brand new child, I wasn’t far off. One of Bill’s great loves is his daughter, Kendra. He would do anything to protect her– and does. Now I feel the same way about my own son.
[In the bottom of the freezer we find] a bag of rice, which is perhaps symbolic of our times. I bought the twenty-five pound bag of high-quality Basmati rice down in Las Vegas a couple of years back at an Asian store. When I got it home and opened it, I found that the rice had weevils in it. Having traveled overseas, I know that almost any culture in the world would have washed away the weevils and eaten the rice. But we’re not just any culture, we’re Americans, and we don’t eat food with bugs in it. So I put the rice in the bottom of the freezer to kill the weevils and to keep until I decided what to do with it.
Now, a couple of years and an economic meltdown later, we have no problem washing the weevils out of the rice. Throwing it away would be unconscionable. Just like most other places in the world.
Is this desperation, or practicality? Was the convenience-filled world we were so accustomed to the real world? Or is this one?
I’ve seen too much of how people live outside our sheltered boundaries to think of this as anything other than an ordinary world. At least half the world’s population would look at our current circumstances with envy. Even without phones and internet and gasoline and utilities, we own our own land and home and business. And we have physical security. That’s something many folks in the world can’t even dream of.
At night, our daughter Kendra sleeps between Gracie and me. We don’t have a crib, but we do have cloth diapers and rubber pants. Gracie feeds her a couple of times a night. Neither of us sleeps as much as we used to. And, as I look at the two of them lying next to me, I am overcome with love. My wife and my daughter. Family.
Of all the things I thought I wanted in life, I never knew that the most satisfying would be the simplest and most universal.
But the chemistry that makes the family work is Bill and Gracie. He couldn’t survive without her, and she wouldn’t want to survive without him. As Bill says,
I know Gracie as the hardest, softest, most naïve, most jaded, most practical dreamer I have ever met. That may make her sound like an enigma, but she isn’t at all. At least, not more than any other woman. She’s just, well, Gracie. She’s hard when she needs to be, and soft when she can afford to be. She can be the most compassionate person I’ve ever known, and then she can shoot a deer or tell me it’s okay to steal wood. This woman who will beg me not to kill a spider in the cheese room, but to put him outside instead, can kill and dress out a chicken, or point a rifle at the chest of a biker who might be threatening our family. I’ve now seen her point a rifle at a man and pull the trigger.
And she is my wife.
Ordinary World was my first novel, but it seems to me to be the best writing I’ve ever done. What makes it work is the family. And I hope my readers feel the same.