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Wednesday, August 12, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Summer Stories: ‘The Department of Long-term Catastrophes’ by Eli Francovich

UPDATED: Sun., July 19, 2020

By Eli Francovich The Spokesman-Review

Hugh Hubert, the proprietor, founder and sole employee of Hubert & Sons Long-term Catastrophes, sat at a grimy table and tried not to smile. He asked, “Have you considered volcano insurance?”

The client, a spindly, dark-haired man named Jake, shook his head.

The two men sat in a bland, damp room on the second floor of a strip mall in Kalama, Washington, along the banks of I-5 and within a stone’s throw of the turgid Columbia River. It was a balmy 65-degree January day. The accumulated ice from a cold snap two days prior had nearly melted, its legacy water pooled along the town’s main drag.

“It’s a new bundle we offer,” Hubert said. “Packages a lot of the traditional catastrophic business coverage into a bulletproof deal. Flood. Earthquake. Projectile damage, you name it. We call it the Johnston Guarantee.”

Hubert had made the 35-minute drive from Portland earlier that morning. It was a beautiful day, the sky a brilliant blue and the sun warm. Although the northern horizon was hazy, steam-ejected ash lingering from last week’s mini-eruption, the news said.

Jake owned a small business, transferring ancient VR memories to the newest bioformat, or something like that – Hubert couldn’t remember – and had called him a few weeks ago struggling timidly to tell his story.

He needn’t have wasted the effort. Hubert had heard it a hundred times. Probably even thousands. I used to just have regular, normal insurance. Seemed to work fine, but now, I don’t know. I feel like nothing is covered … blah blah.

In Jake’s case, it was a series of floods last spring, followed shortly by a deep freeze. The water, pooled up to a foot deep on the floor of his shop, froze solid. The insurance agency, “God bless ’em,” only paid out half, claiming most of the damage came from the ice, not the flood and, after all, Jake hadn’t purchased the ice-storm coverage.

Now, Jake was visibly nervous. His leg bouncing up and down like a rodeo clown. He was worried about his husband and daughter, he said. Hubert nodded along.

“But, I mean,” Jake said, “how likely is a volcano?”

Hubert suppressed a carnal victory smile, instead leaning back in the chair and interlacing his fingers behind his head, letting his gut erupt over his belt in celebration of an imminent deal.

“Have you seen the news?” he asked. “The scientists think Mount St. Helens could blow any day now.”

•••

Later, as Hubert sat in the backseat of his car, navigating Portland’s rush-hour traffic, he felt a tinge of guilt. The volcano package, for Jake at least, was probably unnecessary, although technically defensible. Kalama, after all, wasn’t more than 50 miles from the mountain. And, with the 90th anniversary of its last big eruption nearing, the probability of another blowup was rising, although most experts agreed it was still a decade or more away.

And, Hubert guessed, Jake wouldn’t be in business for another five years. In his decades working insurance, he’d developed a sense for a business in a death spiral.

He shook the guilt away; he’d rather not dwell on it. That was the nature of his business, and it treated him well. Catastrophes, of all kinds, were a growth industry.

Sure, he did the normal stuff. Floods, burglary and fire. But he’d managed to find his niche early on. Climate change and its harem of horrors. Artificial intelligence, job displacement, too. Meteor strikes, even.

With the discovery of other sentient life two years ago (they’d been sending Earth messages for nearly 100 years, but for various, inane and complicated reasons, NASA had been interpreting the signals as reruns of “Friends”), Hubert was in the process of drafting a policy covering an interstellar war and/or subjection. He might even draft a separate policy for extraterrestrial job displacement. He took a mental note to check and see what the competition was doing in that sphere.

Things changed faster than anyone could track. Technology, of course. But also, topography. Seattle had calved into the sea in 2040, when Hubert was 20. The weather shifted year to year. All this change, Hubert learned, made everyone very, very afraid. When in a philosophical mood, he believed people didn’t actually fear death or financial ruin so much as chaos.

Insurance, even in the topsy-turvy world of the ’70s, remained a bulwark against mayhem. He believed that without a tinge of doubt.

His car arrived and parked itself in the garage. The lights flickered on, and the door opened. The house greeted him, asked him about his day, informed him dinner would be ready in 20 minutes and that it had successfully killed three mice. Was that a note of pride?

Tremors had knocked a few knickknacks off the mantle. He noticed and put them back; a picture of Mom and Dad. His brother.

He sat in the living room and checked his statistics. Slightly elevated heart rate. Above average water consumption. Below average caloric intake. Stable cortisol levels. His M.D. Assistant shipped the day’s data to his insurance company.

The silence was oppressive, and he felt some dark mood coming on. Sensing this, the house put on music (an individually tailored mix of melancholy and upbeat pop designed to honor his internal state while slowly lightening the mood). He adjusted his dopamine levels, welcoming the familiar luminosity, a gentle aloofness that softened the worries and stresses of the day.

He rested here for some time, but his mind, impervious to the comfort of the situation, wouldn’t let go of something Jake had said.

They’d been saying their goodbyes. Jake had put up an admirable show of pretending he would think it through, even though they both knew he was terrified and would happily pay for any modicum of peace of mind.

“I’ll let you know soon,” Jake said.

“No rush,” Hubert replied while glancing at the water-stained carpet. “Hopefully, it will be a mild spring.”

Jake looked miserable. The room smelled awful. Damp and old. It wasn’t even hooked up to the internet. Hubert started out the door.

“It must be nice to own a business with your sons,” Jake said.

Hubert stopped, his hand resting on the door frame.

“Yeah,” he said. “Talk to you soon, Jake.”

Wynonna had been gone for five years, but he still sometimes heard her voice in the home they’d shared. He’d barely touched her office; it had, over the years, become a shrine to their love. Anything and everything that reminded him of her he’d moved into that room, slowly filling it.

He didn’t enter it much.

They’d met during a career retraining program. He was 32 at the time. His first career had just ended (he’d worked for Apple in tech support before they folded), and she was the course teacher.

He’d never in his life felt any strong sense – good or bad – about the rightness of things. In his experience, people who talked like that were usually woo-woo wackos who’d willingly forgo dopamine boosters in order to get closer to “reality.”

He had no time for that. And yet, when he saw her that first day in downtown Portland, he was overcome by a deep knowing that they were meant to be.

That had been foreign, terrifying, exhilarating and completely irrational territory. He was smitten. And as they became closer, all the evidence supported his initial feeling. They fit; she balanced out his cynicism. Her job, after all, dealt in hope. And his caustic view of life provided an edge, he liked to think at least, that helped her connect with the desperate people cycling through her classrooms.

She later said she hadn’t felt a similar “knowing,” but it didn’t seem to matter. Their lives seamlessly interlocked, and within six months they’d moved in together, a decision his friends warned against. But it went well. For 13 years, they’d had an ideal partnership.

And then she’d become pregnant.

He still remembers that day viscerally and completely. He was in Alaska trying to sell crop insurance (Sure, it’s too cold now, but just look at the models. This will be the freaking breadbasket of the world in 20 years, brother. Think about your children.) when he got the call.

He’d called her back as soon as the meeting was over. Before the video even popped up, he could tell something was wrong. She sounded tense and tight – a cable stretched too far.

“I’m pregnant.”

He almost laughed. That was impossible, right?

Apparently not.

Only later did he learn that the male pill, while nearly perfectly effective, was not infallible. He couldn’t believe it. They had people living on the moon, and the Mars mission was about to launch, and yet the pill still failed? It strengthened his resolve to avoid space travel at all costs.

Adding to the seeming impossibility of the entire thing was the fact that Wynonna was 48 years old. On the flight back from Alaska, he’d figured out the rough probability of getting pregnant under those conditions. Statistically speaking, they’d won the freaking lottery (he even started drafting an Unexpected Pregnancy, Despite Best Efforts insurance plan, but the potential market was just too small to make it pencil out).

That night, they’d met at their favorite restaurant and then walked along the Willamette River.

“What are we going to do?” she’d asked.

Despite the shock of the day, he’d felt happy. The pregnancy made sense. Their relationship felt ordained, a crazy word to be using, and yet how he felt! He told her this shyly. She started crying. They hugged. He cried, discretely. They were going to be parents.

“Twin boys,” the doctor intoned, examining the black-and-white, and oddly antique looking, ultrasound.

“Holy crap,” she said.

“Holy crap,” he said.

They made preparations. In a fit of exuberance, he renamed his business. She laughed and said he was sweet. Australia burned and desperate people arrived in boats and planes up and down the Pacific Coast. The insurance business boomed.

Then one day in early May, Wynonna, who still worked for the government helping people retrain for new careers, came home from work ashen. It had been a tough day. A class full of folks in their 70s trying to get jobs in biotech. Some were refugees from the East Coast. They smelled of desperation, she said.

“Want a dopamine shot?” he asked.

She shook her head no.

“Hugh, I’ve been thinking,” she paused. Looked out the window. Fear gnawed at his belly, and he upped his dopamine level. He felt at peace and calm ready for whatever she would say next. “I don’t think we should have these babies.”

The words cut despite his elevated happiness index.

“Seeing those people in my class today, I just don’t feel right about having a kid, and especially not two of them,” she said. “Everything is so bad right now. Can you imagine what it will be like when they’re 70?”

She couldn’t imagine bringing a kid, let alone two of them, into this mess.

She was crying. He was crying.

They went back and forth. She wanted it to be their decision, she said, and he believed her, but of course the biological reality of it made it her decision more than his, didn’t it? And her logic was bulletproof, he admitted, and so at the end, they made the rational choice.

They still loved each other, and they were committed to each other, they said. The pregnancy didn’t change that, they said.

But, of course, it did. The fault lines widened. He searched in vain for some insurance against that, something that could hem them back together. And, he didn’t change the name of his company, saying at first that it was more hassle than it was worth and soon saying nothing at all.

Jake called the next day.

“I’ve been thinking it over, and I’d like to add the volcano package,” he said. “I did some reading last night, and, whoa, I had no idea volcanoes were so dangerous. That one in the 1900s or whenever, that was insane. I saw some of the photos.”

Twenty minutes later, it was done. Hubert was a little wealthier, and Jake felt more secure. Still, after he got off the phone, that same, dark empty mood overcame him, and he felt none of the normal post-deal surge of power and accomplishment. Perhaps he was getting too old for this, he thought. He prepared for the day’s meetings.

He was dressing, trying not to think too much, when a tremor raced through the house, the floor suddenly fluid. He stumbled and steadied himself on the dresser. He heard a crash from Wyonna’s office, and the house started squawking at him. Another tremor shook the world.

“Seek shelter, seek shelter.”

More crashes from the room, he tried to run but was tossed into the wall, nearly lost his footing but didn’t fall.

The house yelled at him. “Volcano warning. Ash, earthquakes expected. Seek shelter, Hubert.”

The floor settled, for a moment, and he lunged toward her office door, opening it and bracing himself in its frame. Another shock rocked the house.

Already, her room was a disarrayed disaster. The photos of her and him smashed on the floor, and her workstation toppled. A box full of her clothes broken open, its contents tossed about like driftwood.

The tremors stopped. The ground, so fluid a moment ago, returned to its normal solidity.

He stood there on the edge of the wrecked room and felt himself unraveling. He roughly wiped away the tears welling in his eyes and turned his mind to work and his back to the room. He didn’t know the extent of the volcanic damage, of course, but, based on back-of-the-envelope math, he’d owe a lot of people a lot of money if he didn’t get creative.

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