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After Jess

This speculative fiction piece was submitted to the Sustainable Montpelier Coalition’s “What Comes Next?” writing contest (2020). We were tasked with starting with Covid, ending in 2047 and imagining how our small city would cope with climate change in 2500 words. Tough! Many of the events and organizations in this story already exist in our capital city. I underestimated the rapid development of a Covid vaccine (that was impressively quick, wasn't it?). My entry won second place.


September 21, 2047

Dear Jess,

I always write you on your birthday, even though you’ve been gone a generation now. Not sure what the afterlife might be all about but these letters to you, Sis, comfort me, so I write them. Since it’s the 25th anniversary of your passing, friends encouraged me to excerpt highlights of my previous annual letters to you and post the result on Front Porch Forum with an introduction, so that’s what I’ll do.


Introduction

2020

You’ll remember this, Jess, the year Coronavirus descended on the nation like Cassandra, foretelling our future woe. You are imperiled, she showed us, her prophecy manifesting in the hunger of our children, as their jobless, masked parents overwhelmed our paltry food banks, in our underfunded hospitals and refrigerator truck morgues as Corona found her victims, in the desperate protests for justice that filled our streets, pandemic be damned. You are imperiled, she told us, and that will not change until you find a new story and live that.


In our tiny capital city, nestled in the Green Mountains, rivers all around, we were already half living a new story – but we didn’t recognize it, we didn’t treasure it, until Corona took you, Jess. You’re the hero of this story, even if you don’t know it.


I remember how your eyes smiled before your lips caught up. Such a sparkle to you! You used to concoct elaborate stories for the kids at the library on Saturdays, taking on the voices of fairies and frogs you invented for those tales. Remember those summer days when you’d take your guitar, go sit on a blanket on the Capitol lawn, and strum those songs from the sixties? Grizzled old hippies and hip parents in their thirties would stop with their children and soon there would be a sing along.


You were at Janice’s side using your strong arms to hoist the giant puppets of Earth and Sea for our All Species Day Parade each May. You were queen of the pumpkin carvers when we lined Hubbard Park with lit jack-o’-lanterns for our Halloween Enchanted Forest. I remember how you dressed in a long swirly green velvet cape, a crown of entwined oak leaves on your head for that night of forest and song and story, yours about how the giant trees of Hubbard cared for lost children. You helped build the bonfire for Fire on Ice at the Nature Center. You were the first one out in the morning, trash bag in hand, for Green-Up Day. You sat in the front row on Town Meeting Day with good ideas for how we should spend our budget. You were the one to organize neighborhood free piles and holiday caroling groups. You supported our growers and artists by buying at Farmers Market and our Holiday Crafts Fair. You lived it, Jess, our story about celebrating nature and community, neighborliness and supporting one another. You were the heart of it.


2022

Corona slammed Vermont when the second wave hit in the winter of 2022. By then, you were delivering meals for the Senior Center. That was when you approached those young folks building electric bikes up on County Road and asked them to make you a little plug-in roadster to use to deliver the meals. They came up with the first prototype – surprisingly stable on our roads in all weather – of what we now call our TEVs (tiny electric vehicles). When you managed to deliver meals up on Hubbard Park Road in your purple TEV during that early blizzard we had, before the plows had even gotten there, folks began to notice.


The restaurants all closed for the second time. Unemployment surged again. At some Zoom City Council meeting you asked, “Can’t we deliver more meals and have unemployed chefs and those culinary school students make them? Unemployed wait staff could deliver them. Make it open to anyone.”


“How could we possibly pay for that?” said some naysayer.

Sam from Rabble Rouser said, “We used a ‘pay what you can’ model and it worked for us.”


Our Community Meals program was born that year, Jess. You did it. Three months (and hundreds of new Corona cases) in, the program was feeding a couple thousand people a day. It was good food, safely made and delivered. People paid what they could, some generously so. The wealthy scared ones paid enough so the unemployed scared ones could eat too. The cooks and delivery crew also were decently paid. You requested the route I lived on. When you zipped over in your purple TEV to deliver my meals, we talked through the glass window that scary and sad spring.


That August, you were singing on the grass in front of the Capitol wearing that lavender mask that matched the streak in your hair, when a three-year-old came up to you with a song request and coughed in your face. That kid had the virus but no symptoms. You died a month later; your last week spent gasping for air. Hospital policy kept me from your side. It broke my heart not to be holding your hand when you passed.


We had a Zoom memorial service and I was stunned at how many people joined in to celebrate your life. After many told their Jess stories and we’d laughed and cried at them, that Rabble Rouser kid, Sam, said, “Instead of just telling each other how great Jess was, why don’t we DO something to make sure her generosity lives on?”


“Like what?” I asked.

Sam said, “How about more TEVs to deliver the meal program she started?”

“She’d love that,” I replied. A rolling tribute to my little sister.


Sam started a GoFundMe right there at the Zoom funeral. By the time we logged off, a secret sizable donor and the rest of us had committed enough for a dozen TEVs. Larry – because you had taken loving care of his mom Marsha when you worked at Westview Meadows – volunteered to build some charging stations downtown. Since Vermont’s electricity is from renewable sources, you’d approve, Jess.


That winter, Corona cut a devastating path through our town. The Polar Vortex came to stay for a month, too, treating us to double digits below zero for weeks on end. They painted the twelve new TEVs in the colors of the rainbow flag for you, Jess. They arrived just after the cold snap started. By then, half the town had signed up for meal delivery. We needed more TEVs and drivers.


Letters to Jess (Excerpts)

2023

You remember Karli, Jess. She was one of your fellow Community Meals deliverers. She moved back here with a sustainability degree from a university near New York City.


“My college friends are all looking for jobs,” she said. “Bet I could get a couple dozen or so to come up here and be drivers, at least for a season or two.”


“We could house them up at the college,” said a neighbor of mine, who worked there. “Most of those buildings are empty.”


Karli’s friends, it turned out, were multi-talented 20-somethings with lots of ideas. There were artists and designers, programmers, engineers, a couple with community health degrees and even several with urban gardening experience. They had last names like Mendoza, Singh and Ajasa and first names like Zevon, Naladi and Bo-Young. They brought to our town a Brooklyn-worthy mélange of colors and genders. And ideas.


After quarantine, Karli arranged a meeting between new and current drivers. The combined group renamed themselves the TEV Collective and got right to work. A few helped the County Road crew ramp up TEV production, a few worked at streamlining the online meal booking and delivery process and making it zero waste. Others trained the drivers to do wellness checks and need investigations. Needs were posted on Front Porch Forum and people responded. Maybe because we were homebound and had nothing else to do, folks became as generous as you were, Jess.


2023

Our Community Meals program continues to deliver sumptuous meals (Thai, Tex-Mex, Italian, and more, all nutritionist approved). The chefs are committed to local ingredients so they’ve been meeting with area organic farmers to decide together what to plant.


We citizens wondered why we were spending all that money on car payments and insurance for cars we hardly used.


2025

They finally got a vaccine for Corona that provided decent protection. The TEV Collective – still delivering meals daily – saw to the vaccination campaign. I’m proud to say Montpelier was the first capital city in the nation to declare 100% vaccinated.


The TEV Collective now numbers 75 and actively recruits young folks with interesting ideas and skills from all over the place. They have taken over some abandoned storefronts downtown. Sweat equity, they call it, and they are insulating the old buildings, installing heat pumps, and repainting. Two beautiful murals adorn Main Street buildings. The first thing they did when they occupied downtown storefronts is open a free clothing store. You have to bring a decent item to take a different one. It’s been fun interacting with people wearing clothes I used to have – who knew used clothes could be such a great icebreaker? It’s good to not be afraid to talk with our neighbors again.


I got all weepy when I saw someone sitting on a blanket on the Capitol lawn, playing her guitar for a couple of kids and their parents. Miss you, Jess!


2026

Now that we can have groups again, we’re eager to form them. High schoolers started forming “collectives” – they are all enamored with the TEV Collective. A neighbor kid belongs to the Make Music Collective and another one belongs to something called “Tweens Pot.” He swears it’s a pottery making collective.


We older folks are revitalizing our CAN (Capital Area Neighborhood) Associations. CANs CAN! is our slogan – kind of corny but somebody designed a beautiful graphic for it. Jess, we are so happy to be able to be neighborly again that we are busy planning street breakfasts and block parties for summer and fall, and group composting and community gardens for next season.


We celebrated All Species Day, 3rd of July, Enchanted Forest and even Dog Swim Day at the Rec Field Pool this year again! Felt so good to be together, the whole town showed up!


2028

Jess, there was a massive hurricane – worse than Irene – that dumped rain on town for days. The Winooski River almost reached the Transit Center but we had sandbagged successfully. A few of those stately pines in Hubbard came down too, but nobody hurt. Our grid never went down, not for a second. Brave CAN volunteers went door to door in howling winds to make sure all the neighbors were okay. Chefs made meals and the TEV Collective kept delivering them. We are used to eating this way now.


Our eating habits have improved so much that obesity, diabetes and heart disease have all declined dramatically. Here, everyone eats well.


2030

Jess, you’d be thrilled to find out that TEVs are the common vehicle in Montpelier now. There are charging stations all over town, even in the residential neighborhoods, where you can book online to rent a TEV for 10 minutes or a morning, for “pay what you can.” Most people pay the suggested price, and some pay more, so it works fine. Some are like mini pick-up trucks, to use for larger loads. All with height-adjustable chassis. The “Vermont state car” company (you know who I mean) offered some of its new electric models for times when many kids or a lot of stuff has to be hauled. They are scattered about town too at our community charging stations.


2034

Jess, the roads have begun to change, because TEVs just don’t need all that width and it was so much money to keep them paved in asphalt anyway. So as the roads needed repair (and when don’t they around here, with all that frost heave?), we dug them up and replaced them with that stuff that’s on all the back roads in Vermont. We made the roads half as wide as the old roads and put a couple of feet of soil on top of the half we didn’t need. Then we planted trees and flowers and even vegetable gardens. Who knew, but there is a market for used asphalt chunks and that’s where we got the money to green up the streets. Most neighborhoods are now vying to be next to “de-tar” their smaller roads and green them up instead.


2037

Jess, Vermont is becoming the Sunflower State! Outside of town, so many fields are growing sunflowers and safflowers that, come August, Montpelier seems like it’s wrapped in a gold blanket. It seems like every garden is awash in them too. It’s because we are making an effort to replace every last gallon of fossil-fuel oil with sunflower and safflower oil. Every home in town that used to burn diesel now has a tankful of vegetable oil to burn if the weather dips below zero. Otherwise, we all use solar or hydro-powered heat pumps. You’d love to see how solar has sprouted on every roof.


Many folks turned their unused garages into small apartments so the neighborhoods are becoming more mixed, which feels right.


The TEV Collective has over a thousand members now. “Generosity Heals Us and Earth” is their motto. Who could disagree?


2047

We are a city of greenhouses, now, Jess. We had to start growing more food for ourselves and indoors, too. Sometimes spring starts in February, and then it snows in May. Sometimes it tops 90 degrees for days on end. There are deluges and droughts, and in winter, the Polar Vortex is still with us some years. The greenhouses are beautiful, Jess, crystalline sculptures that are sturdy and climate controlled. Along the river, there are greenhouses where asphalt parking lots once blighted our town. In some, we raise fish and lemon trees along with the more typical vegetables and fruits. We printed them, Jess, at the massive 3-D printer up at the College. The TEV Collective installed it about ten years ago, right when the College started offering degrees in Artful Sustainable Design. We teach our children urban farming as part of their community citizenship curriculum.


I have to go; our CAN autumn breakfast is starting, right outside my door. I can hear our teenagers scurrying to put out our meal of granola with dried blueberries, hemp milk and maple syrup. There will be herbal teas, hard-boiled eggs from our CAN flock, and biscuits with jams in flavors like elderberry and Vermont kiwi. We bring our own steel, three-tiered tiffin boxes – the same ones we use for our TEV meals. Today, as we celebrate community and the equinox, we’ll also be celebrating your generosity and inspiration, Jess. We are living your story.



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