Fiction by Jan Johnson.
Photo by 
Rene Asmussen.

The Walls of Elba

Arriving for his night shift at the Elba Gas Storage Hub, Eugene passed his ID card over the box outside the gate, imagining all the information passing through that thin plastic:  Eugene D. Beauharnais; age 24; employee number P83002; height 5'11; weight 146.2 pounds; emergency contact Mrs. Josephine Beauharnais, relationship, mother; job title, technician, first level; status, new hire - probationary.

The surface of the card itself contained only the company logo and a photo of Eugene that emphasized his sharp nose -- his worst feature -- but not his soft eyes, his best.  No where anywhere was any mention of what Eugene himself wanted, which was to do his duty and earn a little respect for doing it.  Oh well.

It made Eugene tired to think about all there was contained in a space no bigger than a credit card.  Not that he had a lot of experience with those.  He looked over his shoulder at the houses across the street.  If he lived to be 100, he'd never understand what the gated communities of Elba, Texas were walling off.  Coyotes maybe?  The real intruders -- burglars, vandals and solicitors -- could drive through at will. Sometimes when he arrived too early to punch in for his shift, he'd drive in himself to watch the builders.  The construction guys said the house they were working on now would have an indoor basketball court, a guest house for visitors and a triple garage attached with a "stable" for four more vehicles.

The data on Eugene passed inspection and the iron black gate between brass lanterns opened automatically. Eugene drove his 1984 Ford Explorer with the primer paint job and busted bumper through the brick entryway that made a natural gas storage facility that served 13 pipelines look like a country club.  The hub itself was laid out with almost military precision.  Miles of underground pipes sent invisible fuel to New Jersey, Chicago, LA and wherever in between to heat homes and power up plants everyday.  As industrial as the place looked inside, the wall outside looked exactly like the walls around the million-dollar houses.

On the other side of the hub, a few plain little houses bunched up together on the Texas prairie.  No seven-car-garage, indoor-basketball-court, guest-houses-in-the-back houses.  The people in those country houses had been here since before the facility and some of them opposed it before it got built.   Everybody who moved in to those fancy houses all knew the hub was there, even signed a paper saying they know about the hub along with all the deed restrictions and homeowners association fees that come with living in a gated community.  

The plain-house people were the ones who opposed it before it got built, or so Eugene had been told.  Steve told him.  Steve shared the night shift with Eugene.  It was Steve who answered the phone and talked real nice every time to everybody, but especially to Mrs. Potocka as they had been talking nearly every night for 10 years now.  Steve came from upstate New York, but had been in Texas ever since he was 19 years old and started earning $11 an hour back in 1976.  He's been in the business ever since, lived all over Texas.  Steve says he's liked every job he's had and Eugene believed him.

Eugene could not say he'd liked every job he ever had.  Just five months ago, Eugene got paid out, collected his honorable discharge and said good-bye forever to This Man's Army.  A dog soldier pulling straight duty's got no say in any matters.  It was all the same at Fort Myer then Bliss then Hood.  Shut off your brain and shut up your mouth.  Do what some fool noncommissioned tells you to please the brass.  When it came time for re-enlistment, this enlisted man gave up his Pfc., hitchhiked back to Texas and took civilian work. 
Funny thing was, this civilian job made him feel like he was in a real soldiering outfit for once.  Back at Myer, he got busted from Pfc. to Pvt. just for failing to salute when an officer walked past the sink where his hands were submerged to his elbows in grease, scrubbing pans on KP.

Here at the hub, the day shift turns over the control room to Steve with more spit and polish than he ever saw.  Ed, the closest thing the facility had to a noncom on ops, went by his middle name because his first name was "Monet" like the guy who painted those blurry pictures because he was going blind.  When Ed told him, Eugene thought that was quite a thing -- the more blind the guy got, the more popular his pictures.  Ed took photographic pictures of just about everything - flowers, people, buildings, sunsets.  He had a bunch of cameras and always kept one onsite just in case something beautiful should happen. 


She calls all the time, every time she hears an unusual noise.  Steve doesn't always send Eugene to check everything, but tonight he did.  It was kind of a bad time for Eugene.  Tonight they were running diagnostics on all the equipment ahead of the maintenance crew.  The work wasn't hard but there was a lot of it.  He needed to be taking those readings just at certain times, clean.  

No delays.  And she wanted him to come check a noise nearly a mile off the facility parameters by a pipeline marker.  But Steve said do it now, so mostly what it would mean is Eugene's supper break would be cut short. Oh well.

Eugene didn't mind Mrs. Potocka.  She sure didn't look like most ladies around these parts.  Steve described Mrs. Potocka as "willowy" but Eugene always thought of her as "regal" and he made a point to tip his hard hat for her.  He wanted to take off his hat to a lady like that but he's not supposed to take off any safety gear when he's outdoors on the property.

She came from Poland to Elba to be near her daughter but her daughter moved to Cincinnati in Ohio.  She loves the country, but not what's happened to it.  "I wonder about this civilization.  I feel sorry for the coyotes.  At night I hear them howl."

Eugene liked to listen to the coyotes howl too.  He told her so.

"You people from Texas are sweet.  You probably get mean in a pinch but you have such good manners."  Then she told him she drove past Elba Middle School and noticed on the billboard that usually publicizes football games that on Wednesday, Feb. 20 eighth graders could sign up for a special class in eighth grade etiquette.  The sign said the class was nearly full.

Eugene told her that he himself thought the manners in Elba could be improved upon.  They weren't like manners in Beaumont.  He came from Beaumont, although he was born in Houston.  He and his mom.  She's a Creole.  His mom worked over to the Wal-Mart in Beaumont but she was still looking for a job here in Elba.

"And you live with your mother?"

"Yes ma'am."

"You Texas boys are sweet."  She herself moved here from Poland.  To be near her daughter.  But almost as soon as she got here, her daughter moved to Cincinnati in Ohio. For her son-in-law's job.

It seemed to Eugene they had been over this ground before.  It seemed to Eugene that they were stalling for time.  Nothing wrong as he could see.  He checked all the readings twice.  No sign of a gas leak.  He drew in a deep breath in case his nose could  detect what the meters couldn't, but the only scent he could pick up was the familiar dust of Texas.

"Well, if there ain't nothing else ma'm…"

"Listen!"  Her upraised palm silenced him.

He listened with his eyes focused on the soft wrinkles that cut into the meat of her thumb.  A woman's hand is such a soft, soft thing.  His eyes focused on the meat of her thumb, until he smelled it.

He smelled it before he heard it.  Steve told him it doesn't take long working at one of these facilities to develop The Sense.  The nose can pick up the worrisome odor of natural gas before any other sense, way before most diagnostic equipment.  And this smell was definitely natural gas, an invisible fuel with no odor of its own until the producers add it just for this purpose - detection before disaster.
If any wind that evening had blown the prairie grass that grew along the fence, it ceased now.  The air stood still.  That faint whiff of natural gas intensified.  And then he heard it.  Sounded like a jet.  A distant drone, then a high-tech hum.

Mrs. Potocka turned to him and smiled, showing a new set of dentures and a radiance Eugene had never seen before.  She raised her newly radiant face skyward and Eugene followed suit.  What appeared overhead looked like a giant, luminous mushroom.  Bright, bluish-white light showered from the base.  She clapped her hands together in what looked to Eugene like wonder.


Eugene flipped frantically through the manual he kept on the seat of the truck for handy reference seeking proper protocol for the situation but found nothing that might apply.  Technically, it was not an intruder, as the mushroom appeared outside the fence not within it.  It was not a burglar; it didn't steal anything.  Not a vandal; it didn't damage the facility.  It was not even a solicitor; it didn't try to sell him anything.  Lacking guidelines, he returned to old, familiar ways.  His military training came to the rescue again. Follow a Chain of Command.

A mile is a long way to drive when you don't know what kind of reception your news will get.  He was still in his first-six-months probationary period.  You don't want to be telling about UFOs five months on the job.  But what else could he do?

He entered the control room.  Steve was eating a roast beef sandwich.  Steve looked up at Eugene and frowned.  

"What's the matter?  You look like you've seen a naked woman with a trained ocelot strolling through the property."

It was their old joke.  They always hoped one of those society women next door would be out walking a fancy-pants pet in the altogether.  Those society women never did.  They must hire pet walkers.

But Steve's line gave Eugene an opening.  He looked Steve dead in the eye, real serious.  "No naked woman.  It was a UFO.  I think they fuel with natural gas."  There!  That was easier than he thought!

"Christ!  Don't tell the commercial guys.  They'll want to supply it.  Set up online nominations to friggin outer space.  Be just the new profit center they're looking for."
Eugene sat down with his legs wide apart.  He didn't want this revelation that came so hard to turn into another joke among men, the way men do when they're uncomfortable.  He wanted Steve to believe him, to take him seriously, to respect him.

Eugene took off his hard hat and rolled it around in his hands.  This time he didn't look at Steve.  He looked down at his hat.  "I think I really did see a UFO.  I think that's why Mrs. Potocka always wants us to come check the facility with her.  She sees it a lot.  She says."

Telling Steve started out easy, but already Eugene felt foolish and awkward and defensive.  He didn't know if he should continue to try to convince him or let the news sink in awhile.  He decided to let it sink in.

Eugene looked up from his hat and saw that Steve resumed eating his sandwich.  Steve offered Eugene barbecue chips by pushing the bag toward him.  Eugene shook away the offer.

Steve raised his eyebrows.  "Never seen you refuse food before."

"Never seen no UFO before."

Steve poured out a generous portion of chips on a napkin and let them sit in front of Eugene.  "Mrs. Potocka is about 100 years old.  Probably sees her dead husband at the breakfast table and Lady Bird Johnson in her flower bed and the King of Romania from the old country."

"She's from Poland."
Steve took another bite of his sandwich and chewed.  Slowly.  Then he put down the sandwich and wiped his hands on a napkin.  "So you saw something weird?"

"Yes sir.  I did."

Steve got up and walked to the window, where he scissored the blinds apart with his fingers.  It was just a gesture.  The control room was nearly a mile from the pipeline marker Eugene checked with Mrs. Potocka, probably a good mile and a half from the spot where he saw the craft land.  A row of pine trees blocked the view.

Eugene studied Steve's face for signs.  Since Eugene started this job, Steve had been his primary guide and trainer.  It was real nice to have somebody like Steve to tell you what you were doing wrong because he was patient about it and made sure you knew how to do it right.  He also told Eugene when he did something right in the first place, which was a new thing for Eugene.

Steve was about the closest thing Eugene had to a Dad at the moment, considering his own dad was dead and his step-dad was sort of AWOL from his Mom.  You could tell Steve liked being a dad.  You ask him anything about his oldest girl who's a pretty good softball pitcher, you're going be listening awhile.  You're going to know everything about every game.

Steve removed his fingers from the blinds.  "Let's go check it out."


A mile is a long way when you don't know the take off and landing schedule of the craft you seek.
On the way there, two coyotes ran across the road, looking over their shoulders.  Steve laughed out loud.  "I love seeing those coyotes!  Reminds me of being young, running with my high school buddies.  They look like they're having a damn good time, don't you think?"  
Eugene nodded but he didn't look.  He faced forward, intent upon reaching the scene without distraction.
Steve seemed intent upon creating distraction.  "You got yourself quite a sun burn.  Been fishing today?"

Eugene's skin did feel tight across his cheek.  His hand reached up to the side of his face.  The skin did feel hot to the touch.  All day long he was inside helping his mom lay down contact paper in the cupboards and unpacking dishes.  They moved again to a different apartment.  Their first apartment in Elba didn't work out.  

"No sir.  I ain't been fishing in some time."

When they got there, they found no spaceship but did find burn marks in the grass in the shape of a circle.  A big circle.

They walked like coyotes around the circle, but neither stepped inside it.
Then they got back in the truck.  Steve drove.

Eugene looked at his boss.  "You gonna file a report?"

Steve looked ahead.  "Nope."

Eugene crossed his arms.

Steve looked at Eugene.  "We see some burn marks in the grass - offsite.  You tell me you and Mrs. Potocka saw a UFO - again, offsite.  What do I have here?"

Eugene set his mouth in a straight line.  He met Steve's question with silence.

"Look, I keep records of what happens inside these walls.  I don't keep records of everything that happens outside the walls.  I don't record the speeding offenses on this road, although I see these cars flying by.  I don't record what I hear coming from those houses.  All their sobbing and fainting and begging for bigger allowances - and that from the men!  I don't record anything but what happens right here."  

Steve had been pointing as they traveled at the road and the cars and the houses and now he was pointing to the ground inside the gates where the truck now sat, at ease.     

Eugene unbuckled his seat belt. "Maybe they're casing the joint?  Planning to steal natural gas?"

"Maybe they're planning to buy?  Christ, they could be potential customers!  Give them a Texas welcome."

Eugene got out of the truck and stood in a pool of light.  "What about national security?  Aren't we still under provisions of Homeland Security?  Shouldn't we tell somebody?"

But he didn't hear Steve's response because Eugene was thinking about exactly what would happen if they called Hood.  Or Bliss.  Or Myer.  They'd say he was just another EM drinking on duty and seeing things.  For the record, Eugene never drank on duty.  He'd shown up pretty hung over a few times, but never drunk.

He used the toe of his boot to kick at the dust.  His head hung down.  He had given the military a good go - six years!  A quarter of his life so far!  And what did he have to show for that commitment?  No money.  Just an honorable discharge and a set of values and habits that didn't fit in the world he lived in now.  Five months after discharge, it was hard for him to remember not to salute.

He heard only the last of what Steve had to say about calling in a report in the name of Homeland Security.  "You're out of the Army now.  You need to put your gun down."


Eugene went about his business on the diagnostics until about 2 a.m., when he decided he really did need to eat something even though he missed his supper break.  He didn't mind night work.  The hub's gray pipes and grey pumps and grey compressor room looked a little drab under gray February skies in the daytime.  At night, the lights sparkled off those same pipes, pumps and compressors, making them look all silvery and dazzling.  He looked around to appreciate the well-lit grounds he crossed when he went inside for his lunch.  Steve was on the phone so they didn't talk.

He ate his bologna sandwich fast but on the way out of the break room, Eugene noticed something.  Ed left his office unlocked, with the door wide open and a fine camera sitting right atop a pile of reports like it was a paperweight.  It was almost as if Ed had left it there for him to use when something remarkable presented itself!  If he had a picture, maybe then Steve and the rest would believe him about the UFO?  Ed was always inclined to photograph just about anything.  Why not this?    


When his shift ended, Eugene stood atop the high wall of the gated community with Ed's camera, trying to work the thing.  It wasn't as easy as it looked.  He could work most any equipment, but usually he had training.  This he had to work on his own, in the dark.  He hoped the flash, combined with the too bright lights from this wall, would show the burn marks that made the big circle.

In his concentration and with the spotlights atop the wall dimming out all but what lay immediately before him, Eugene failed to notice the approach of a security guard who now stood directly below him, blinding him further with a flashlight beam.

"Get your ass down from there!"

Eugene never lost his fear of MPs, usually the biggest and meanest guys in any outfit.  He raised his hands.  "I'm not stealing anything!  I'm not selling anything!  I'm just here to take a picture."

"I bet you are!  So you finally figured it out?  These houses are owned by the banks.  These people inside `em just barely make the payments -- can't afford no drapes, no blinds.  You see it all, let me tell you.  You can hand over that camera right now."


Eugene laid his head against the wall in despair.  The bricks felt cool on his sunburned forehead and that helped ease it some.  Ease the notion that he had stolen a camera from his boss's boss, then lost it and now surely would lose his job.

He was in this sorry position with his head against the wall when Mrs. Potocka came along.  He told her what happened with Steve, Homeland Security, the camera.  He told her about wanting to do his duty and be respected but now he messed that up.

"I done a shameful thing."

Mrs. Potocka laid her head against the wall too, alongside him.  "Oh at last someone has found a good use for this wall.  We all -- this whole community -- should come and rest our foreheads right here whenever we do shameful things.  I bet we'd be lined up for miles."

They rested there in silence with no construction hammering or even road noise to distract them.  At this hour before daybreak they heard only coyote howls.  Finally Mrs. Potocka lifted her head and started to talk.  She said she likes to walk in the night because she can hear the coyotes.  She said that since they began building these terrible houses she'd been concerned about what would happen to the coyotes.  She said she planned to organize protests of development of any more gated communities.  "These people know nothing about how to be rich!  They are play-acting in these vulgar homes!  Don't you think you've finally found a good use for this wall?"

He couldn't bring himself to answer.  He remembered in kindergarten, his teacher would stand him against a wall whenever he did something bad.  He had liked to play a game he called "Fire!" which involved lining up all the little chairs and convincing the other children to run on top of them screaming, so he stood against walls quite often in kindergarten.

And it had never changed.  Kindergarten to high school to the military to Elba.  Eugene put his fists to his eyes.  "I'm just so tired of being treated like a child."

She let this pass without remark, instead arranging her long, flowing skirt.  "Ten years ago, you could protest nothing in Poland. The first thing I did when I came to America was protest your facility.  This is a wonderful country.  You can protest anything.  With all your heart."  

"Yes, Ma'am, I know what you mean.  I been pretty gung ho at times myself."

"Great passion is a gift."

Eugene rubbed his head against the bricks.  "I'm not so sure about that.  I done some terrible things with great passion." 

Mrs. Potocka didn't let this remark pass.  She said that the way she saw it, Eugene now had two-and-a-half, maybe three choices.  He could tell Ed that he took the camera and why and that he would pay for it over time through payroll deductions or he could borrow the money for a replacement camera from her, give the full sum to Ed now and pay it back to her later.  The third choice was for him to go knock down the security guard and take back the camera.

"Well that last sounds like the stupid thing so that'd probably be the one I'd do."

"Don't sell yourself short, Mr. Beauharnais."

He pressed his forehead harder against the wall.  She didn't understand that selling himself short is what he did best.  

She coughed.  He squeezed his eyes shut.  "Maybe I'll come by tomorrow?  For a loan?  When I know how much I need?"

She nodded.  "You were in the armed forces before you came to Elba?"

"Yes ma'm.  Gung ho. Bought the whole program.  For awhile."

She put her hand on his shoulder which made him look at her.  "I think you take safety and security very seriously, Mr. Beauharnais.  I, for one, am glad to have you here, taking care of us."
Then she turned and walked across the field that separated the gated community from the plain houses.  This field had real grass; the lawns inside the gated communities grow the same stuff that isn't grass but sucks up all the water that might feed bluegrass or wildflowers but goes brown in winter.  The construction guys told him that pros do the landscaping so each lawn looks identical.  Given a choice, Eugene preferred real grass.

Eugene watched her through the shadows cast by the harsh spotlights until she made it to her house.  Once inside, she stood in the warmth of a lighted window, framed with white curtains, where she gave him a crisp salute.