Authors: Peter Schechter
To my dear mother
It is as I whispered: “We will always remember.”
And to Rosa, Alia, and Marina.
You are the faces of sunshine.
The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.
—Dante Alighieri (1265–1321)
Don’t buy the house; buy the neighborhood.
MAR VISTA, CALIFORNIA
Hannah held her mother’s hand, the little girl’s honey-colored eyes bouncing with anticipation as the manager of Charlie’s Chocolate-Ice-Cream Foundry turned the store’s lock.
Since opening two months ago, the all-chocolate, all-the-time ice-cream shop’s twenty-three versions of chocolate ice cream had become an enormous hit. Pulled by a sharp advertising campaign, kids had been dragging parents from all of Los Angeles’s far-flung districts to the seaside neighborhood for a fix of cocoa ice cream.
Though Hannah’s kindergarten had let out for summer break last Friday, it had taken only four days of Hannah’s determined whines to break down her mother’s opposition and get her to agree to the crosstown journey from Hollywood Hills. Traffic had been unusually light on the freeway—eerily light—but Hannah’s mother didn’t dare turn off the
sing-along disc to tune to the all-news traffic and weather radio station. Hannah’s mother knew better than to toy with the few, precious moments of respite from Hannah’s kinetic curiosity and happy, nonstop chatter.
With the light traffic, they had arrived fifteen minutes early in front of the ice-cream shop’s brown—chocolate—facade. Hannah’s mother suggested they stay in the car’s air-conditioning until opening, but Hannah couldn’t wait. Hannah’s mom winced at the onslaught of chocolaty metaphors as they sat on the group of cocoa-colored benches just outside the shop’s windows. Hannah’s Gappurchased skirt was too short to pad the back of her thighs from the hot burn of the seat’s wooden slats and the little girl jumped up with a yelp. The benches had been in the sun for only a few hours, but were already boiling.
“Okay, here’s some butt protection,” said Hannah’s mother with a smile as she spread out the white towel she had dug out of her gym bag on the car’s backseat.
Hannah’s mother looked around. She was surprised that they were alone. Elementary schools in L.A.’s school district were now on vacation and she had expected hordes of similarly manipulated parents to be congregating outside the ice-cream shop.
Within minutes, both Hannah and her mother were covered in beads of sweat. It was only June and California was already sweltering. Since last Friday’s school dismissal, temperatures had reached 105 degrees every single day. There was no change in the forecast for at least a week—a stagnant high-pressure system was stuck like glue over the West Coast. With her daughter starting a junior tennis camp next week, Hannah’s mom wiped the sweat streaking off Hannah’s face with a Kleenex and wondered if it was healthy to keep kids outside in this heat.
Hannah’s mom banished the thought from her mind. The alternative—keeping Hannah home and bouncing off the air-conditioned walls—was too difficult to contemplate.
Hannah, though, didn’t seem to mind the heat. She had unsheathed her coterie of nonstop questions and was already poking and prodding her mother with unrelated queries on every possible subject. Have you heard of American Girl dolls? Do you think I can have one? At what age can I have a cell phone? Did you know that
Luke—you know, the Luke from school, Mommy—has parents that were divorcing? What is divorcing?
Hannah’s mom did her best to answer each question and keep her face locked into one of those falsely patient parental smiles. But the oppressive heat made it hard to concentrate on the meandering onslaught of Hannah’s questions. She looked down the convection waves shimmering off the already-boiling concrete street and caught a glimpse of a long-haired, sandaled man walking toward them on the sidewalk. He was looking down at something in his hand.
Hannah’s mom heard the jingling sound of keys coming from his fingers. God, let this be the ice-cream man, Hannah’s mother begged inwardly.
“G’morning,” he said with a smile. His white T-shirt was drenched in sweat. “I hope I’m not late. Overslept this morning. But I only live two blocks away.”
He looked at Hannah and smiled. “This is the right day for an early morning ice cream, isn’t it? And you’re lucky to be the only ones. Yesterday we had a twenty-minute wait.”
Hannah jumped off the bench. “Are you the man from the store?” As he grinned his assent, Hannah looked at her mother with a beaming smile and just hissed a “yessss” as her fist pumped up in the air.
Wiping the sweat on his brow with his left sleeve, the man used his right hand to insert the key and turn the lock.
“Come on in and let’s choose your ice cream!” the man shouted in mock excitement. For a guy only in his twenties, he had a good way with kids, thought Hannah’s mom.
The sandaled feet had taken only two steps into the store before they stopped cold. Hannah was so close behind him that she bumped into his back.
The first thing the three noticed was the ovenlike temperature. Unusual heat is a noticeable thing, but it’s an eyepopper when it emanates from an ice-cream shop.
The manager of Charlie’s Chocolate-Ice-Cream Foundry and his
two clients adjusted their eyes to the darkened store and immediately saw the catastrophe. A squishy brown muck covered nearly every inch of the shop floor. In the astonished silence, they heard the steady drip-drip of murky liquid spilling out of the air-conditioning slats at the bottom of the long line of spanking-white refrigerated ice-cream freezers.
The glass windows of the ice-cream cases were covered in condensation. Cleaned four times a day with computer-screen wipes, there was now no way to see through the usually crystalline glass into the round containers of twenty-three flavors of chocolate.
“Oh, shit,” muttered the store manager, oblivious to Hannah’s presence. He rushed forward toward the cases, his sandals squeaking through the oozing, mud-colored liquid that was now splashing onto the top of his foot and in between his toes. As he lifted one of the sloped glass-paneled doors of the first refrigerated case, a rush of vapor drops converted into a little torrent of water streaking downward into the ice cream.
“Oh my God,” moaned the manager of Charlie’s Chocolate-Ice-Cream Foundry. “Please tell me this isn’t happening. There was eight thousand dollars’ worth of ice cream in this store!”
Hannah’s mom felt a knot tighten in her stomach. A native Californian, she had lived through the state’s traumatic 2001 crisis. It hadn’t been all that long ago—but time could never diminish the harrowing memory of that late-summer morning. Dressed in business attire, Hannah’s mom had walked with the rush-hour crush into the crowded elevator in the seventy-three-story building at Number Fourteen Century City Plaza. She had been on her way to her very first job interview when the elevator—along with nearly every other electricity-driven machine in the state—had jolted to a stop. Fourteen people had been stuck together in a ten-by-fifteen-foot elevator car for eleven hours, the first hour’s good humor quickly replaced by a dark, groaning human hell of feces, urine, and vomit.
The horror would never leave her.
Yes, Hannah’s mother intuitively knew what was happening. She
now understood the light traffic and empty storefront. Los Angelinos had stayed at home, bracing themselves.
She was knocked back to attention by Hannah’s sobbing yells.
“Mommy, what’s happening? What’s happening?”
Hannah’s voice was now becoming very loud and was bordering on the hysterical.
“Look. Look! The ice cream…it…it…it’s all melted.”
Anthony Ruiz heard the phone ring. But at this hour, he was simply not able to translate the shrill tone into the usual reflexive actions that required opening his eyes and stretching out his arms to pick up the receiver.
The answering machine in the hallway of his one-bedroom Foggy Bottom apartment collected the call. Satisfied that this momentary sleep interruption had disappeared, Anthony Ruiz turned over onto his stomach and relaxed.
Until he heard the voice booming from the answering machine’s speakers.
“Tony, it’s Tolberg, wake up. Your cell phone is off. Turn on CNN and call me back in the office.”
Tony Ruiz’s eyes unlocked as his body riveted into an upright position. He looked at the clock and saw that it was 1:27
. Jeezus, what the hell was Isaiah J. Tolberg, the president’s imposing chief of staff, doing awake at this hour? thought Ruiz. Notwithstand
ing his graying hair, folksy mannerisms, and sartorial elegance, the sixty-eight-year-old White House chief of staff ran President Gene Laurence’s office with an iron fist. At the White House, everyone, including the president, addressed the former six-term senator from Kansas only as “Senator.”
Tony Ruiz reached for the phone and stuck his index finger into the air, ready to jab in the requisite seven numbers that would get him Tolberg’s office in the White House’s West Wing. But he stopped after the first three digits, remembering the message’s admonition to first turn on the television.
Ruiz zapped the remote on his way to the bathroom and punched in CNN. Standing over the toilet, he strained to hear the television’s volume over the gurgling of his urine hitting the toilet-cleaner blue of the bowl’s water. Within seconds, he understood the urgency of Tolberg’s call.
“Shit,” Tony Ruiz gasped.
The voice on the tube was that of a female reporter—her voice strained with tension. Tony furrowed his brow, from the bathroom recognizing CNN’s Los Angeles correspondent. He knew the voice; her didactic delivery was engraved in his mind. During the campaign, CNN’s California correspondent had been the only reporter to ever have successfully rattled President Eugene Laurence’s cage with a battery of questions designed to raise doubts about Laurence’s easy demeanor. The questions had implied that the candidate suffered from an intellectual laziness that had him floating above tough issues while others did the hard work. The interview had been patently unfair.
Twenty minutes into the exchange, Laurence had interrupted his hour-long interview commitment, gotten up, and walked off the Los Angeles set. “You may be in charge of the questions,” the future president had snapped, removing the microphone from his lapel. “But I’m the guy with the answers. And I’m out of here.”
Tony Ruiz, the president’s special advisor for domestic affairs, had been left to clean up the mess with CNN. To this day, on Lau
rence’s orders, there was only one big exception to the administration’s excellent relationship with the press. CNN’s Los Angeles correspondent.
Yes, he definitely recognized the reporter’s voice.
Ruiz shook himself back to attention and listened to the dialogue between the California-based reporter and CNN’s anchor.
“Ryan, in the last two days, the situation here in California has escalated from the occasional neighborhood blackout to a growing panic. We’re in the dark here in Los Angeles. The entire city is without any electricity.”
Ruiz finished relieving himself and padded back into the bedroom. He took one look at the television and saw CNN’s Anna Hardaway’s face on the screen. She was standing in front of a hospital; blue emergency lights were flashing around her on the street.
“We’re transmitting to you off our truck’s generator and we’ll keep going as long as we have juice, Ryan. Los Angeles County General, which you can see behind me, is also on a generator. Hospital officials have told me that they can function without electricity for another eight to twelve hours. But that is hardly reassuring to this city’s residents who, at ten thirty
, are now without air-conditioning and suffering the stifling ninety-degree heat that has overtaken this metropolis.”
Ryan Foxman, the New York–based bearded anchor of CNN’s
Executive Office Hour,
interrupted Anna’s reporting. Foxman’s show was the network’s top-ranked business broadcast. Ruiz guessed that Foxman was the only recognizable face the network could find at that hour to anchor the emergency transmission.
“What are city officials saying to the residents of Los Angeles, Anna? Are they being reassured?”
“Well, Ryan, you have to remember that this city’s citizens can’t turn on their televisions at this time.” Anna Hardaway sounded a tad exasperated with her anchor’s question. “You and I are being watched everywhere else in the United States, just not here. But I’ve
heard reports that people all over this city are in their driveways and in the streets listening to their car radios.”
“Of course, Anna. That was a silly question,” said Foxman. Tony Ruiz couldn’t remember ever hearing a news anchor admitting to a stupid question. This guy got points for honesty.
“I guess what I’m really asking is
are officials saying? How long will it be before power is restored?” queried Foxman, now posing his question with precision.
“That is the eerie thing, Ryan. Nobody is saying anything. When the rolling blackouts began two mornings ago, city officials and spokespersons at WEPCO, Western Energy Power Company—they are the state’s largest and this city’s
electricity company—went out of their way to explain that citizens were going to face just a few days of rolling blackouts due to the incredibly hot weather and unusually dry spring. Twenty-four hours ago, it sounded as if they were still in control, with a plan in place to meet the surge in energy demand—”
“And now?” Ryan Foxman’s voice interrupted the reporter.
“Now we can’t get an answer. The mayor’s office will only say that Mayor Steve Villas is in emergency meetings. We’ve called the governor’s office in Sacramento and those calls have not been returned. And CNN’s Roger Fenton, standing by at WEPCO’s offices, just called my cell phone to tell me that, except for lights on the top floor, the building is locked up, tight and dark.”
Anna Hardaway looked genuinely worried.
“Ryan, it’s been three and a half hours since the lights went totally out in Los Angeles and nobody is saying anything. Anything at all.”
Those last three words were enough for Tony Ruiz. He wouldn’t bother calling Tolberg back. Ruiz threw on a pair of khaki trousers and a white shirt and on the way out grabbed his blue blazer from the coat hook. He needed to get to the White House.
JUNE 14, 2:15 A.M.
THE WHITE HOUSE
Tony Ruiz’s blue Subaru flew down Pennsylvania Avenue. At this hour, Washington’s downtown streets were empty of traffic. Halfway there, Ruiz irately realized that he had forgotten to brush his teeth. Tony Ruiz was fastidious about personal hygiene.
With good reason. The only son of an immigrant Mexican apple picker, Ruiz had grown up dirt poor in Washington State’s Chelan County. For over twenty years, Tony’s mother and father came and went from their native Veracruz to Washington State at harvesttime. When Tony was eight, Steve McCain, the farm’s owner, told Mario Ruiz that he had enough work to last throughout the year; he asked Mario to stay in America with his family.
As the car stopped at the only red light between his apartment building and the White House, Tony thought about how that small exchange between an American farmer and an illiterate Mexican seasonal worker had changed his life.
Young Tony graduated as president of his high school class, in the shadows of Lake Chelan’s glacier-filled Cascade Mountains. Four years later, Mario and Rosario Ruiz attended Tony’s graduation at the Washington State police academy, and Rosario made a no-holds-barred Mexican banquet for Chelan County’s entire police force on the day her son joined their ranks.
Tony Ruiz had never considered doing anything but police work. It had been a dream job. His dark good looks and Latino charm had made him popular on the force. Three years and a few days after the death of the beloved twenty-year-veteran president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, Deputy Tony Ruiz had been elected president of the union by acclamation. Once again, Rosario Ruiz had celebrated her son’s professional milestone by cooking for the forty-
five employees of the county’s police—
in walnut sauce,
with meat and bacon,
and oxtail tacos.
The rest of the story was all about the serendipitous alignment of stars. The next year had been an election season in Washington State. Ronnie Masterson, the state’s elderly sitting governor, was running for reelection. Seeking to bolster his law-and-order credentials, the governor had asked the state’s Fraternal Order of Police for their support. Tony was a big fan of the governor and, in a large Seattle convention hall full of cops, he had risen to endorse Masterson.
Toward the end of his three-minute speech, Tony’s voice had become louder. Slamming his fist, he had described Masterson to his fellow police officers as a down-to-earth politician who solved problems. Without ideology—Masterson wasn’t about right or left, he was about right or wrong. Tony Ruiz ended his first-ever speech by asking his colleagues to “get behind the old man; he’s got our type of common sense.”
A former speaker of the state’s House of Representatives and deputy governor, Governor Ronald Masterson had more power in his hands and people at his command than any state politician in memory. Nobody had ever dared call him an “old man.”
So when Tony Ruiz finished, he heard a collective gasp. No applause. The hall had held its breath in absolute quiet. Only one sound had broken the silence. From the front of the room, Governor Ronnie Masterson himself was doubled over in laughter.
Ronnie Masterson had been reelected that year with over 69 percent of the vote. The campaign slogan—affixed on every poster and narrated on every spot—was The Old Man Has Our Kind of Common Sense.
From that moment on, Tony Ruiz had become part of Masterson’s tightly knit circle of informal advisors. A few years later, when Gene Laurence’s presidential campaign had come to Washington State, Governor Ronnie Masterson had introduced the presidential hopeful to the young deputy Tony Ruiz and told him
the story. A smiling Laurence turned to his aging campaign manager, Isaiah J. Tolberg. “Now what do you think of that, Senator?”
“What I think is that we need to bring this boy on to our campaign,” answered Tolberg.
The rest was history. Eleven months after a bruising political campaign, Mario and Rosario Ruiz had been invited to president-elect Eugene Laurence’s swearing-in ceremony below the magnificent porticos of the United States Capitol. They had accompanied Tony as he got his White House pass. They had been right behind him as he walked into his West Wing office for the first time. Mario’s lips had trembled as his nearly illiterate eyes stumbled slowly over the official-sounding words on the doorplate:
ANTHONY RUIZ, SPECIAL ADVISOR TO THE PRESIDENT FOR DOMESTIC AFFAIRS.
At that exact moment, a hand had come to rest on Rosario Ruiz’s shoulder. She turned to face the president of the United States.
“Señora Ruiz, how glad I am to meet you. Thank you for letting Tony come to Washington, D.C., with us,” said Gene Laurence, his eyes twinkling. “Now, Tony tells me that every time he’s had a new job, you have cooked a Mexican meal for his employers. Why haven’t I gotten one? You’re going to owe me.”
Tony Ruiz shook off the reveries as he approached the White House gates. A uniformed Secret Service officer ordered him to a halt and shined a powerful flashlight into the car.
“Oh, hello, Mr. Ruiz. Forgive the bright lights; I didn’t know who it was at this time of night.”
It took Ruiz five minutes to park, enter through security, and take the west elevators to the first floor. As he walked straight down the hallway to Isaiah J. Tolberg’s office, Ruiz saw right away that the place was in full swing.
“Hey, Senator. I didn’t call you back. I turned on CNN and figured I should just come.”
Isaiah J. Tolberg was a man who stood on tradition and formality. Even at this time of night, he was polite. Over his white shirt, the Senator was wearing only the vest of his usual three-piece gray suit
with thin black pinstripes. His blue necktie—adorned with interspersed small yellow ducks and gray metallic rifles—was tied tight under his collar. This was the first time in two years that Tony Ruiz had seen Senator Isaiah J. Tolberg without his suit jacket.
“Good evening, Anthony. I’m very sorry to have interrupted your rest. I appreciate your loyalty.”
The two men were separated in age by nearly forty years, but genuinely liked each other. Tolberg was more at ease with Ruiz than with many of the other experienced Washington hands who populated the West Wing’s offices. Tony often thought that Tolberg appreciated the fact that the senator’s old-fashioned demeanor never bent Tony’s youthful informality. After all, Tony Ruiz was only twenty-nine years old.
“No sweat, Senator. What the hell is happening in California?”
“‘Hell’ is the right word, son. Fasten your seat belt; I have a feeling that the next few days are going to get very bumpy.”
JUNE 14, 3:45 A.M.
THE WHITE HOUSE
Tony Ruiz worked his computer’s mouse at full steam. Seated at his desk down the hall from the chief of staff, Ruiz skimmed through the developing avalanche of news from California. Ruiz had gotten Tolberg to give him a quick rundown on California’s energy problems. It was amazing that the chief of staff of the world’s most powerful executive office knew little more than what was being reported by the nation’s news bureaus.