The old man you see walking in snow is Mitchell Purlin – a senior citizen living in the not-so-distant future whose memory of the early 21st century global warming hoax burns as hot and fiery as the bonfire that now heats his Louisiana home. One of the survivors of seventy years of tumult, chaos and civil war, Purlin wonders if somehow and in some way he is not one of its oldest victims.
A Short Story by Gene Hoyas
He shivered for a moment and then blew warm breath into his fingers, silently cursing himself for not wearing gloves when he gathered more wood for the fire. As he stacked the seasoned cord wood next to an already blazing inferno in the fire pit, he marveled at the beauty of the snowfall outside.
The flakes were enormous. They were not single snowflakes, of course, but agglomerations of them, an indicator of extreme humidity in the atmosphere. It was a common occurrence – after all, this was the state of Louisiana, presently enduring the fifth blizzard of the year, one that forecasters predicted would add another foot and a half to the two feet of snow already on the ground.
Mitchell Purlin moved to Louisiana from New York state in an effort to escape the bitterness of that season – one that rendered most of what was once the United States north of the Mason-Dixon line an unbearably frigid wasteland where temperatures in August barely climbed above seventy-five degrees. He purchased a hundred acres of heavily wooded farmland in Madison Parish and built his own house there. The dwelling was designed around the fireplace which was, in both form and function, little more than a circular, brick-lined fire pit. An enormous, funnel-shaped hood of quarter-inch thick steel hung over the pit, suspended by steel bars that hung from the ceiling above. An insulated flue continued upward through the second floor and thence through the roof.
It was a most ingenious design: when a bonfire burned in the pit, the hood absorbed the heat and radiated it back into house, making it warm and cozy. While the arrangement freed him of any dependence on hellishly expensive oil or electricity or natural gas for heat, it made him a serf of both the chainsaw and the log splitter.
Every June for the past two decades, when the weather grew warm enough to obviate the need for a fire, he began the summer’s labor: felling trees, cutting them into stumps and then splitting the stumps – which were then neatly stacked as cord wood to season properly. The work didn’t stop until September, at which time it became necessary to stoke the fire pit once more. More than anything else, it was very likely the rigor of the activity that contributed to Purlin’s remarkable longevity.
Purlin built his own home at a time when astronomers gazed at the sun with the same longing that starving children gaze at an empty soup pot, their expectations dashed and their hopes crushed by the complete absence of any sunspot activity. It had been that way for years. Like a house that slowly cools down after the heating oil runs out and the furnace no longer fires up, the earth was inexorably and uncontrollably cooling. Glaciers were beginning to spread southward from the north pole and just five years earlier, Greenland was abandoned because it was uninhabitable. There was nothing anyone could do to stop the onset of a new ice age and the hare-brained schemes suggested by egghead academics and cynical politicians were studiously ignored or outright ridiculed by a population that had long since learned to sniff out the stench of snake oil.
Purlin was a teenager back in the early years of the twenty-first century…a time of chaos and tumult. In those days there were people who not only believed the earth was actually getting warmer, but insisted that mankind was somehow responsible. He remembered being subjected to an awful video in science class – what was the name of it?
As he struggled to search through the filing cabinet of his subconscious, Purlin tossed a cypress log into the fire pit and stared down at the floor. It had been seventy years since he’d ever thought about it and for that moment he was damned if he could remember.
Then it popped into his head.
“AH!” he uttered out loud. “An Inconvenient Truth!”
It all came back and the memory flooded into his thoughts as he chuckled to himself.
It was 2008 and he was a sophomore at Woodland Hills High School. He and his fellow classmates were herded into the auditorium where an acolyte of Albert Gore droned on for eternity – it was actually only an hour and a half – about how mankind was destroying the planet by dumping gazillions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. At one point the acolyte seemed to weep when speaking of the plight of the polar bear – how it would likely become extinct because the ice cap at the north pole was doomed to melt away – and made a dramatic gesture of wiping a tear from his eye.
Purlin grinned and then laughed out loud. Twenty years after that stupid, mawkish presentation, the polar bear population practically exploded; they were being hunted down and exterminated in Alaska because too many people were being attacked and killed by them. For several years, polar bear rugs had become all the rage in those lower forty eight states that had yet to become handmaidens of the animal rights crowd. Purlin had a couple of the rugs in his own house.
At that precise moment in his distant past – when the phony global warming alarmist shed that phony tear – fifteen-year old Mitchell Purlin experienced the first of many political epiphanies and scientific satoris that would shape his life and his future. Although the internet was a relatively primitive research tool in those days, it was still very effective and it wasn’t long before the boy discovered many inconvenient truths, among them the fact that the anthropogenic climate change movement was predicated on an enormous lie – a suspicion confirmed three years later when a scandal called “Climategate” broke.
By then, of course, Mother Nature herself was dispensing clues so obvious that only a complete idiot could ignore them. At that time, he lived in the northeast – when the United States was still united but in the process of imploding. The collapsing political and economic conditions were only exacerbated by what was destined to become a string of the worst winters in anyone’s memory. Unemployment was rampant and many people could not afford to heat their homes. As he poked the logs to settle them into glowing embers, Purlin dwelled for a bit on memories that his better judgment left buried all those years.
In January of 2010 – on a day he could not now recollect with any precision – he woke up and saw his own breath. Sometime during the night the furnace stopped working because the heating oil had been completely consumed. He cocked his head and listened carefully: his mother and father were talking downstairs; Dad was on the phone with the oil company, insisting that he would be able to pay for the delivery in cash (he was unemployed and too many checks had bounced earlier for the oil company to extend any further credit.)
Mitchell pulled the covers back over his head and curled up, wondering if they would all freeze to death.
Needless to say, they did not. His mother sold much of her prized gold jewelry – in those days gold was trading for over a thousand dollars an ounce and when the delivery truck arrived in the afternoon there was plenty of cash to pay for a couple of hundred gallons of heating oil. In an hour’s time the house began to warm and Mitchell no longer saw his own breath.
In spite of his proximity to the fire, the old man shivered in vicarious response to a very unpleasant recollection, one of many that accumulated in the course of over seven decades. In the years that followed, an ongoing spiral of increasingly colder winters gave rise to an ongoing spiral of protests against a federal agenda that opposed fossil fuel (even nuclear power) in favor of a “green” energy policy that consisted almost entirely of capitalist crony payouts to companies offering solar and wind-powered “solutions.”
It wasn’t long before protests became riots that eventually morphed into armed insurrection and all the accumulated horror remained entombed in the mental crypt of Purlin’s subconscious. He regretted the small part he played in the proceedings, wishing that he could have simply moved away and lived in peace by himself – bothering no one and being bothered by no one.
The attack on Carthage, Tennessee was not his idea and he was grateful later that he did not participate, as it was little more than a disorganized and fury-filled assault that took even the local law enforcement agencies by surprise. Then again, it was not Carthage the attackers were looking to destroy, but rather a single residence located there.
As their luck would have it, the owner was home – they got there before he was able to flee to the airport to make good on his flight to the Cayman Islands – an escape that had been arranged shortly after his carbon credit and green energy companies went belly-up. Thirty million dollars in an offshore account and the mansion in Carthage were all he had left in the world and he valued his life and the money more than the mansion. His bags were already packed but the limousine arrived minutes after the mob; they stripped the driver naked, sent him fleeing in the snow and then torched the vehicle.
By then, dozens of state and local police cruisers descended on the property but were hopelessly outnumbered by hundreds of automobiles and pickup trucks – including a dozen heavy Peterbuilt and Kenworth rigs. Over a thousand shivering but heavily armed locals had surrounded the house, demanding justice as yet another snowfall began and the temperature dropped closer to zero. Uncounted billions of fine snowflakes floated down as dozens of huge rocks soared up, crashing through huge windows.
The authorities were not entirely unsympathetic and several of them simply leaned against their vehicles, arms folded across their chests, and smirked. Sometimes frontier justice is the only true justice – karma for the masses, if you will – and the life and property of this particular charlatan wasn’t really worth the risk of their own lives. Besides…the chaos and tumult of civil war had gripped several nearby states and anarchy was quickly becoming the new rule of law.
The homeowner frantically dialed 911 on his cell phone, but was repeatedly put on hold or disconnected. Several Molotov cocktails crashed through several windows and the flames quickly spread through the house. It wasn’t pretty and certainly was not civilized – but the resulting conflagration was warm and for the next eight hours the crowd contented itself close to the bonfire as billions more snowflakes gently coursed down from the dark skies. It was the winter of everyone’s discontent, made glorious summer by the light of a pleasingly ironic fire.
Purlin shivered again, grateful to have been spared the horror of it all. He’d grown up believing that God and God alone was the rightful purveyor of justice. When he was a boy his mother would remind him of a passage from one of the letters of St. Paul: “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord…I will repay.” There were so many times when he would happily have dispatched so many people but for the voice of his long-deceased mother still echoing in his head.
“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord…” This time, the Lord did repay…and it was a frigid retribution.
The conflict raged for years until all sides became exhausted from death and destruction. Peace was the new desideratum and it was achieved in due course to nearly everyone’s satisfaction, insofar as those who would otherwise have been dissatisfied were, for the most part, dead.
His life had run its unsteady course and he was weary. In two more years he would be ninety. That’s a long stretch – sometimes it felt like a prison sentence – and there were times when he earnestly yearned for an executioner. Nancy died eight years earlier and they had no children.
Purlin was all alone in a huge house warmed by a huge fire.
He ambled into the kitchen where he prepared a cup of hot chocolate milk and grabbed a handful of Stay-Puft marshmallows – a favorite since his Cub Scout days.
After pulling a long twig from the pile of firewood in the center of the house, Mit sat cross-legged near the fire and neatly impaled two marshmallows on the end of the stick. He gingerly turned them over the glowing embers until they were perfectly browned and consumed them with the relish of a child. Gazing into fire as he impaled two more marshmallows on the twig, he took a sip from the mug of hot chocolate and began to sing softly to himself.
“Row, row, row your boat…gently down the stream…merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily…life is but a dream.”