The Free World

 

By Robert Zimmer

 

 

Chapter 6

           

It turned out that Richard had ample time to sit and watch girls, boys, old men, old ladies, and various dogs as they walked by without taking any notice of the six large canvasses that Uwe had grudgingly removed from storage and propped up for display. The two men had come down to Sparks street early to stake out a section of the Artist’s Strip, an area of the shopping district where painters, sketchers, and artisans commonly sold their wares, and since the weather promised to stay dry and warm, they were prepared to stay most of the day. The cobblestone street lacked the quiet ambience of the gallery, but as Richard kept pointing out, at least there were people here. He wasn’t really expecting many to show an interest in taking a painting; they were large canvasses, and not everyone would have space for such things; but it irked him that no one gave them more than a passing glance. Surely they must have at least provided a source of novelty next to the potters and landscape painters. Don’t you understand? Richard felt like berating them, you can take these things home for free!

            The apathy of the passers-by did not seem to matter to Uwe, however; he was contentedly engrossed in a discussion with the resident portrait artist who scribbled away nearby. Uwe seemed to be in excellent spirits (even though he had imbibed none), a far cry from the suicidal slouch Richard had envisaged the day before. It seemed that his friend had reached the bottom of despair and was now coming up again; for now he had even picked up a pencil and sketchpad to try his hand at the portraitist’s art. This was, of course, the kind of transformation Richard was hoping for, and of course he felt relieved that his friend was applying himself in some fashion. He just wished it had not occurred at the expense of his infallibility. I told you so, Uwe could say, as if it needed saying: I told you no one would want these old paintings. Richard’s erstwhile certainty that he enjoyed Uwe’s work because of some intrinsic, direct appeal was now beginning to waver. As he looked at the canvasses on display—all of them with similarly bright, diagonal bars on dark fields, a few with lines intersecting—he began to seriously consider whether his appreciation was merely a function of market forces which had been unconsciously transmuted into aesthetic principles. This possibility made him extremely uncomfortable, for it suggested that he was not in control of his own tastes, but had been a puppet of those forces all along. Perhaps he had merely convinced himself that he liked geometric art because it came with a respectably large price tag; and wasn’t that the way one judged things in the old régime, by looking at the market price? The better something was, the more it cost. Of course, it wasn’t too hard for someone to disrupt the integrity of the price-quality relationship, and it could even happen without anyone’s maliciously intending it.

            Presently someone stopped to examine the paintings, someone who looked as though he were actually interested in taking one of them home.—Aha, Richard thought, it was just a matter of time. There has to be one true art lover for every hundred Philistines; I’ve just been waiting for him to walk by. And here he is, a work of art himself, dressed all in black with a black beret and a streak of blue strap where his knapsack is slung. All he needs is a vandyke and a few more earrings. . . .

            “Hi there,” Richard greeted as he approached the customer, hands-in-pockets, salesman style.

            “Bonjour,” said the man, briefly glancing away from his absorption in a canvas. Richard feared the fellow might be francophone (Richard spoke little French), but the “bonjour” turned out to be an affectation rather than linguistic necessity. “Are you the artist?” the man asked.

            “I’m not, no. I’m just helping Mr. Kuefer sell—er—market his work. If you’d like to speak with him, he’s just over here, and he’d be happy to talk to someone who appreciates his art.”

            “Oh, yes, do ask him,” was the response.—I knew it, thought Richard; just a matter of time. He practically ran to notify Uwe, who was annoyed at having to interrupt his drawing but curious to see the “customer” nonetheless.

            “Now remember,” Richard cautioned, “you’ve got to sell yourself. Pretend you’re trying to make a living.”

            In a moment they were vis-à-vis the man in black, whom Uwe greeted in the most affectedly businesslike manner. Richard smiled expectantly.

            “It’s nice to see someone resisting this movement to more representationality in painting,” the man remarked. “It’s so refreshing to see such pure composition.” Uwe seemed almost won over by this compliment, but he instantly expressed his suspicions.

            “Are you an artist yourself?” he inquired.

            “Yes, but I’m just an amateur,” the man confessed. “I’m studying art at the University, actually. It’s pretty much the only place you’ll see work like this produced these days.”

            “Ahh,” sang Uwe in an expression of recognition. “A fellow artist—sorry Richard, this one doesn’t count—and a university product, too. Now, tell me, sir, which one of these canvasses do you think ‘works’ best?”

            “Well, they’re all very good. . . . This one—‘untitled’—I think the dynamic balance, with this heavy red down here and the pink bars in the corner”—he pointed as he spoke—“makes for a very effective composition.” He paused, and Uwe said nothing as he, too, contemplated the painting with what Richard recognised as a mock intensity.

            “I’d like to take it,” the man in black decided, “but I’m not driving, and it’s too big for me to carry on a bike. If you can arrange to deliver it to me, I’d love to have it.”

            “I’ll tell you what,” Uwe began—“what’s your name?”

            “Chris.”

            “I’ll tell you what, Chris, I’ll draw you a little diagram.”

            Uwe took up the pencil and sketchpad with which he had been working and began to make a diagram of the untitled painting in question, to the confusion of Chris and the consternation of Richard, who could see where this was going. The diagram represented the canvas itself, with each coloured bar drawn in proportionately heavy or light pencil lines and marked with a label indicating its approximate colour.

            “Here you go,” smiled Uwe as he tore off the sheet, “now you can reproduce it for yourself. You can even customise it to fit your house—there aren’t many walls that will properly accommodate something this size anyhow. And if you have any friends who like it, they can make one of their own, too.”

            Chris took the paper, looked nervously at Uwe and Richard, and smiled; apparently, he thought this was all a jest at his expense. “Seriously, though, Mr. Kuefer,” he resumed, “I think I can arrange to bring this with me somehow. I’ll get a van from the lending lot.”

            “Suit yourself,” said Uwe. “But feel free to paint over it. That’s the best thing about my recent work, I suppose; it’s not textured with splatter and bits of newspaper like some of the crap I did in the nineties, so it’s still recyclable.” Having thus dismissed his would-be patron, he turned and walked away again without further adieu. Richard could only shrug his shoulders when the man in black turned to him with an inquisitive look.

            “I’d still come back and take it if I were you,” Richard advised. “This painting might be worth money some day.” His bewildered customer regarded him even more quizzically for a moment, smiled wanly, then left him to his otherwise uneventful vigil.

            —Artists are all crazy, Richard thought.

            Not long after this episode, and soon after Richard had made himself comfortable in his chair again, he found himself no longer watching the passers-by (except for the young and the shapely), but the various persons working diligently along the street. The shop owners and managers, he observed, were a relaxed lot: if no one was visiting their shops, they would sit out in the sun chatting, eating, or reading magazines—sometimes even ignoring the people who did enter their shops. They obviously enjoyed the peculiar freedom gratuitism afforded, namely the absence of concern about theft. Their only occupation, other than procuring stock, was to help people find what they wanted, or provide information about their wares. No books to keep, little if any advertising to worry about, little if any staff—what could be easier? They could even open and close whenever they pleased, and close up and take a holiday if they felt so inclined. Richard saw that it would be difficult to convince such people that they were better off under monetarism, even if there were queues for gas and coffee rationing now. These kinds of inconveniences paled in comparison to those which used to trouble the lives of small business people.

            From where he sat, Richard could also see a group of men replacing one of the enormous ground-level windows of what used to be the Dominion Bank building, and what was now a “freespace” where goods of all kinds were left and taken. It was a long, difficult process, replacing such a window; Richard counted seven men at work on the project, together with an enormous truck that both carried the glass and provided the crane with which the pane was set in place. Two men warded off approaching pedestrians, two guided the glass from the outside, two from inside the building, and a seventh stood back to judge whether all the edges were lining up in the frame. It had to go in perfectly the first try, Richard gathered, and even with a finely-adjustable crane, it was painstaking work getting the glass positioned properly. When it was finally accomplished, however, an onlooker could almost see the warmth of camaraderie those workers felt; a feeling, Richard guessed, like that which he used to have when the team won at baseball or hockey. It was a feeling that was forever fostered, but never really produced, among the mercenaries of the financial community to which he had once belonged. There was actually a flame of envy within him for a moment as he observed the workers’ bonds from afar; but this soon faded into cold indifference when he remembered that these men were working, not playing, and theirs was a kind of work that was beneath an educated man like himself.

            Something else caught his attention now, too. Since arriving downtown that morning, he had several times made eye contact with a woman minding the clothing store across the way; and here she was now, approaching him like a mingler at a party. Richard did not feel immediately attracted to her (though he remarked to himself that she had nice eyes), but he felt a nervous flutter in his breast as she came closer, a flutter such as he had not experienced since a certain girl in high school had provoked it.

            “Hi,” she opened hospitably. Richard registered the lines around her eyes and guessed she was probably a little older than he was. He noticed that her hair was jet black, which together with her broad cheeks suggested native Canadian blood in her ancestry. Her blue eyes, however, were French, as were her clothes, or so it seemed to Richard; beneath her red, broad-shouldered jacket peered a ruffled white blouse which was opened just enough to reveal a golden crucifix about her neck.

            “G’d afternoon,” Richard sang casually. His voice indicated a powerful attraction which nonetheless remained beneath consciousness.

            “I see you’ve had no takers,” she observed.

            “Yeah. It’s too bad. There was one fellow who really wanted this piece here, but the artist—that bean pole with the beard over there—he scared him away, I think. He doesn’t like his own paintings. So what can you do?”

            “Can’t say I blame him,” said the woman as she frowned upon “Untitled”; “I wouldn’t feel too badly about it, though. I’ve seen much better art than his get ignored on this street. People’s tastes are still warped.”

            Still warped. A gratuitist sentiment, not surprising coming from a working merchant, and a woman at that. Obviously means that though the economy has straightened itself out, tastes remain perverse.

            “Is that your store?” Richard asked, feeling compelled to keep the conversation going.

            “Oh, no, I’m just minding it for my friend while she takes her turn minding our kids. She usually brings them here, but it’s such a nice day, we decided one of us should take them out to the country.”

            “And you’re stuck here minding the shop,” Richard commented, thinking that she must feel as he did.

            “Oh, it’s not that bad. It’s only six hours, and it’s always nice to get a break from one’s children, even though mine are angels,” she boasted, looking away wistfully. “I could have just closed up shop, of course, but I figured it’s also a nice day for people who want to do some shopping, you know?” There was an empathetic logic here that Richard could not quite comprehend, so he moved on to his next question.

            “So what do you normally do, when you’re not here, I mean?”

            “I make clothes—a lot of the clothes in our store,” she said, gesturing towards the display window. “Actually, I’m trying to set up a large-scale production facility with some other ladies and a man who used to be a big designer in Montreal. We’re going to take up the slack left by the oriental imports. It’s not coming together at this point though. . . .”

            How industrious, Richard thought disdainfully. Although he could not help feeling some respect for a woman who took such initiatives—it was the entrepreneurial spirit he had been taught to worship in business school—it was still disturbing for him to think that she was making gratuitism work by volunteering so enthusiastically.

            “Did you make your outfit yourself?” he asked now, directing the conversation towards something more palatable to him.

            “This? Oh, yes, the jacket and the skirt. Not the blouse, though. It’s so hard to get decent silk nowadays.”

            There’s the weakness, Richard concluded. Bring this woman a boatload of Chinese silk and she’ll probably support whichever politician you want her to. As he reflected on this idea, Richard’s eyes lingered on the woman’s blouse just long enough for her to take charge of the conversation.

            “And is this your regular occupation, vending unwanted art?”

            “Uhh—no,” he said, looking up at her guiltily, “I do other things.” At first, Richard wanted to say “yes” to stifle further enquiry, but he saw that the truth would be easier in this case.

            “What kinds of other things?”

            He was suddenly defiant. Why should he try to hide his allegiance with vague terms? “I work for the Monetarist Lobby,” he said proudly.

            “Oh,” she responded, obviously disappointed; then, with an edge of cynicism: “Unwanted art and unwanted economics: a winning combination.” With that, she turned coldly and walked back into her shop. It was as though he had told her that he was a violent criminal or something.—What, he felt like remonstrating with her, what is so bad about thinking that the most successful and durable economic system in history should be reinstated in this country?

            It was not long, however, before Richard made eye contact with her again, only this time it was while she was talking to a customer who was also looking his way.—They must be talking about me, he speculated. How quickly the chickens alert one another when a big, bad wolf is discovered in their midst.

            He was a strange kind of wolf, however, for try as he might he could not prevent himself from caring what his prey thought of him; once the heat of his defiance had dissipated, he found himself with a cold insecurity about the woman’s question: what was his occupation? Out of protest, he had none. But was it really the right course of action? In other words, was his protest worth the discomfort of knowing that he was somehow dragging down everyone around him, whatever their political opinions, because he would not contribute to the common good? It’s easier for a man like Tony, he thought; Tony makes speeches, attends policy meetings, and keeps track of supporters; Tony strengthens the community by providing a voice for its discontents. My only real responsibility is to keep track of the gasoline supply, which is neither challenging nor beneficial to anyone else—not like the important job I used to have at the embassy. I want to do more.

            “Had enough?” Uwe interrupted his reverie. The artist had been to the corner store to pick up a bottle of juice for himself and for Richard, who suddenly realized how thirsty he had become. It was late afternoon now, and the parching late April sun had appeared from behind a highrise to the south of them. Across the way, next to the clothing store, a group of tradesmen who had been renovating the upper story of a shop paused to bask in the sunlight that would soon be obstructed by another highrise.—Efficient, thought Richard: work stops when the sun comes out. The men looked in his general direction, said something, and laughed; making fun of Uwe’s art, no doubt. My kid could paint that, they would be saying.

            “The triumph of the Philistines,” Richard thought aloud. Uwe either didn’t hear him or didn’t pay any attention, for he began making suggestions about what they should make for dinner, since Bill would be out at a friend’s.

            “Let’s pack these things up and go, eh, Richard?” he said finally.

            And so they did.

 

            Pamela had spent the better part of the week working at the offices of Shaw, Brady, and Levant, the firm which had helped draw up her divorce papers for her. It was a much cozier office than any she had worked in or visited before, which no doubt had something to do with the fact that two of the partners were woman and the third a genuinely gay man. When first she had come through the front entrance of the post-war brick mansion with its hardwood floors and Persian rug and brass fixtures and walls decorated with the most wonderful oil paintings—and the luxurious furniture!—Pamela almost forgot why she had come in the first place and she decided, then and there, I have got to work here—if they’ll let me. She was even more determined after being smitten with the elegance and friendliness of Ms. Shaw, a “happily divorced woman” herself, who treated her to cappuccino, home-made cheesecake, and a half-hour’s indulgence as Pamela railed mightily against the cruel, unfaithful, and inept Richard.

            “He sounds like a perfect brute,” Ms. Shaw declared after hearing how he would ignore his wife at social functions, even while flirting with other women in her presence (Pamela did not, of course, mention how she would retaliate in kind with her own flirtations). “But you really can’t expect any better in this day and age. When you’ve been a divorce lawyer for as long as I have, you come to the realization that men really are pigs, and the best you can do is to keep a lover at arm’s length so that you’re always the one in control. If you don’t have to marry for security—and no one does any more—then there’s no point taking any of those silly, old-fashioned vows.”

            “I totally agree,” Pamela had said, although she was not sure if she really did agree.

            Towards the end of that first meeting, she had asked if she could help draw up the papers since she was, after all, an experienced legal secretary; and then she mentioned that she wouldn’t mind coming by to volunteer for a few hours a day, on a continuing basis, if the other partners didn’t object. Ms. Shaw couldn’t really say no, even though she hinted that Pamela was a little beneath her class and a little foolish for demanding so little from her soon-to-be ex-husband. Ms. Shaw certainly wouldn’t have let her husband get away with better than half of what they owned. Arrangements were nevertheless made to have Pamela Kerr (not Spendler) begin work at once.

            The new job was every bit as enjoyable as Pam thought if would be. The work was so easy; none of the clients seemed interested in going to court when their demands for stewardship were refused by their spouses; it just wasn’t worth the trouble when a new car or piece of furniture could be had for free. The only cases that required any effort were those involving battles for custody of children. These were just as grueling and disturbing as they had ever been; but as Ms. Shaw put it, you always felt good about fighting for the right side, and without the necessity of earning money by it, you simply didn’t take cases if you didn’t think your client was in the right.

            It was just such a case that Pamela found herself working on as she began her second week as a volunteer at the office. She would come in around noon every day and relieve Jan, another assistant who had worked with the firm for almost twenty years, and would pick up where the other left off—typing up affidavits, tracking down prospective character references, taking notes during meetings, and setting up appointments. Although it was not altogether certain that their client in the custody battle was in the right—she openly admitted to being a poor disciplinarian—Pamela became engrossed in the woman’s battle against yet another in what seemed like a world full of wicked husbands.—Why, she wondered, do women like us always seem to fall for men like that? That harshness, coarseness, that inability to discuss feelings openly—why does it always seem to come in such an alluring, tall, dark, and handsome package?

            One day Pamela decided to come in early to do some research on visitation rights, more for her own edification than for the benefit of their client. She found the office strangely deserted. Was it possible that all three attorneys were in court today?—No, she thought; Ms. Levant’s case is in recess.  They must be upstairs in the library. Pamela was satisfied with this conjecture, but as she went to the kitchen to brew a new pot of coffee, she heard voices coming from the back porch where, on pleasant days, the ladies and gentleman in the office would take their breaks.

            “Beverly tells me she’s a very diligent worker,” said one of the voices. Ms. Levant’s voice, Pamela noted.

            “Oh, I’m sure she is. She obviously knows what she’s doing, even if she can’t type very fast.”

            —Jan. No, I can’t type very fast, I’m out of practice. I was every bit as fast as you before I got married. . . . Wait. Maybe they’re not talking about me.

            “I don’t mind her working around the office,” Ms. Levant went on, “but I really think we should keep her out of the courtroom, if at all possible. I don’t think she dresses very professionally, and we don’t want judges thinking that our clients consort with trollops.”

            —Trollops! Can’t dress professionally! How dare you talk that way about me!

            “I don’t see why she makes herself up like that just to come here anyway. It’s not like she’s going to meet any men here. I mean, did you see that skirt she was wearing yesterday? And that garish nail polish?”

            “Don’t be too hard on the poor thing, Jan. Remember, she’s been out of the country for a long time, and maybe that look is acceptable right now overseas. Like I said, we’ll just keep her busy here in the office and it won’t make any difference.”

            There was a faint creak from outside, as though one of the women had lifted herself out of a chair. Fearing that they might walk in and realize that they had been overheard, Pamela hurried upstairs to the bathroom.—I’m too angry to face them, she thought. She could not escape their resounding words, however, especially once she beheld herself in the large mirror that graced the privy.

            —Well, at least I’m dressed sensibly today, she thought; no one will be scandalised by the sight of my legs with these baggy slacks covering them. The bitches! they’re just jealous because they haven’t had any in years, and they’re both too old and dumpy to attract a decent-looking man any more. Pamela looked at her reflection more closely.—I’m not getting any younger either. Those lines are deeper. Too much time spent in the sun. But men tend to overlook those kinds of things when you’ve got a nice figure.

            She drew back from the mirror again, struck a defiant cover girl pose, and tossed her unbound tresses proudly. Hair longer than shoulder length will be worn pinned up in a professional manner, the old dress code had read.—At least I don’t have to conform to that any more. We’ll see if they try to keep me out of the courtroom when I start coming in looking more classy than they do.

            —Blast! Why must they be so damned obsessed with appearance! You’d think women as smart as they are would know better.

 

            On the evening of the day after Richard’s disappointment as an artmonger, there happened to be a meeting of the Monetarist Lobby Association’s executive, and Richard was urged to attend since he was now a minor officer in the organization. Not that he needed any urging; since his encounter with the woman in red, he had grown increasingly eager to do something for the common good, even if he wasn’t going to get paid for it. In a way, the meeting was going to be less exciting than the inspiring public conference held by the Lobby the week before, but Richard looked forward to it for different reasons. At the conference, he had watched and listened; now, he would have a chance to contribute his own ideas and expertise.

            The executive met in an enormous boardroom near the top of a skyscraper which had once housed the offices of an insurance company. It was one of the few such buildings that had not fallen prey to rezoning initiatives, whereby commercial and retail spaces were being converted into residential, educational, and studio space. Here, organizations like the MLA executive could hold meetings and use office equipment with little or no interference from others, even while enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the metropolis through the expansive windows. The only thing amiss about the building, as far as Richard could tell, was that all of the potted plants in it were either dead or dying. Apparently, no one had taken upon themselves the responsibility of watering them.

            The boardroom was state-of-the-art, complete with a projection screen into which information from microcomputers could be fed and displayed for the purpose of presentation. There were firm, comfortably upholstered chairs around a wonderful oak table which, though large, was not so wide as to prevent one from handing papers across it. Richard took his appointed place near a corner of the table furthest from the chairman and Prime Minister-in-waiting, Mr. De Champlain. As others took their places, Richard recognised some of the faces from the conference: there was Mr. White with his quick, beady eyes; and Mr. Reich, the balding, bearded fellow who had given the opening speech; and Grant Chandler, the former Conservative party president. Mr. Tan, the Director of Foreign Affairs, took the seat next to Richard and briefly introduced himself while they waited for the late arrivals to take their places. 

            Mr. De Champlain began the meeting with a review of the minutes from their last meeting, then drew attention to the newest member of the executive.

            “For those of you who haven’t heard, Mr. Spendler comes to us from a strong background in international trade, having spent the past four years with our consulates in China. He will be reporting to us on the dynamics of the oil supply both in the Capital Region and abroad. I speak for all of us, Richard, in welcoming you to our organisation.” The chairman smiled, displaying a disconcertingly wide mouth full of shiny teeth, and took his seat again.

            Richard thanked the chairman, then surprised them by offering to deliver a report he had already prepared on the current local oil supply situation, together with some recommendations for publicising the negative implications and extrapolations to be derived from his data. It seemed to him, he explained at length, that monetarists would have to do a lot more than create web pages and Internet news groups to reach the public with such information; they were preaching to the converted through such media, since the general public simply avoided what they didn’t want to know or hear. Confidently addressing the dark-suited assembly of expectant-faced men, Richard motioned that they try to infiltrate print media with journalists who could report and interpret world events from a monetarist point of view.

            “It’s a good idea, Richard,” conceded a Mr. Davies, the MLA’s chief publicist; “and don’t think we haven’t tried things of that sort. But you’ve got to understand that if you want to publish a paper with our kind of slant to it, you pretty much have to start from scratch. We had an editor at the Sun at first—lots of monetarist editors at first, all over the country—but they were kicked out by their own reporters, even by pressmen sometimes. People simply wouldn’t work for us, and we no longer had any leverage to use against them. So if you want a monetarist newspaper, you have to find monetarist reporters, editors, layout people, press people, and distribution people. Television is just as bad, with all those technicians. It’s not that easy.”

            “There is our radio station, though,” someone suggested.

            “Yes—there is that.” Davies was distracted by some recollection, then continued: “It’s worse than the web page, though, for bringing in new recruits and getting our message out. It’s all preaching to the converted, like you say.”

            Thus was Richard’s small contribution to the meeting regretfully dismissed. All present seemed to agree that the only way they would get better exposure was by making more effective use of the pre-election media circus, that is, by waiting for a time and place when their message would have a willing if unsympathetic audience.

            The matter of their sabotaging tactics was far more engaging for the entire assembly, for this was their strength, their domain of creativity, and their theatre of activity. Each man (for there were no ladies among their number) seemed to fancy himself a freedom fighter who, by impeding the economic system of his misguided nation, was an unknown hero akin to the black marketeers in Soviet Russia or the Resisters in Nazi-occupied France.—At least, they fancied themselves so when their rationality yielded to conceit and base desire. Richard was, however, perfectly rational in this respect, and felt some of the others could use a reality check.

            “I can’t imagine,” he addressed them emphatically at one point, “that my waiting in a gas station line-up for half an hour a day will have any effect on our popularity. I mean, it doesn’t much matter if someone waits 25 minutes or half an hour. Even cumulatively, and even if everyone in this room does it regularly, I don’t see that it’ll accomplish much.”

            This criticism was met with the endorsing nod of most present, but Richard noticed several disgruntled turnings-aside as well. It seemed that he had reopened an issue that was once heavily debated.

            “None of us has to wait in line-ups if it’s too much work,” said Mr. Reich, the real-estate man, with derision.

            “I don’t think you should underestimate the cumulative effect,” added Tony. “But most of us, I think, tend to agree with you. It’s something we still suggest to new officers like yourself, though, because it’s something everybody can do and something with an obvious, though as you say, slight impact.”

            “You haven’t told Mr. Spendler of our other activities, have you Mr. Bounderby?” asked Mr. White.

            “No, but I suppose it’s an appropriate time,” Tony mused. “Actually, he’d be most impressed if I took him out to the warehouse so he can see for himself.”

            “Yes—I think we can trust Mr. Spendler,” said Mr. White, almost grudgingly. “If no one else has an objection.”

            “Good,” said Tony when he saw that no immediate objection was raised, and before anyone could arrive at any deliberated objection. “By the way, Richard, your report was very thorough and informative. I’m sure we’re all a little encouraged about our prospects now that you’re on board.”

            Richard was glad to hear this somewhat patronising praise, which was supported by the other men’s nods of assent, but he could scarcely think of a gracious way of accepting it now that the mysterious “warehouse” Tony mentioned had taken hold of his imagination. What could they be storing there? Barrels of oil? Explosives? Slave-girls? Tony would not say; he merely excused himself from the meeting (which no doubt turned to discussing the contents of the warehouse) and motioned to Richard that he should follow.

            The quiet hall and elevator of the old office building somehow added to Richard’s suspense as he followed Tony down to the almost vacant parkade where they had left the car. It felt as though they were sneaking around, operating behind the back of the big, bad government like the Resistance in Paris. Richard was excited by the thought that the whole building might be bugged, and before they knew it they would be in a car chase outrunning some kind of secret police.

            Rather than give him directions, Tony asked for the car keys so that he could drive the two of them to the secret location in Merivale. “Sure; here you go,” Richard assented, then warned: “Watch for potholes.” It was to little avail, however; Tony could not avoid them all.

            “The roads in this city might as well be closed,” he complained as he swerved past a particularly rough patch.

            It suddenly occurred to Richard that the roads’ almost impassable condition must be part of yet another government conspiracy to reduce vehicle traffic and thus gasoline consumption.—Of course! The lower consumption would, over time, make gas easier to get, while the blame for the continued inconvenience of driving would shift to the public itself, since its laziness was responsible for the poor roads. Or was it that the petroleum compounds used in surfacing bitumen were being rationed along with gasoline? An increasingly intricate conspiracy evolved itself in Richard’s anxious mind, the pieces of which he suggested to Tony as quickly as he could assemble them. The latter was engrossed by the road in front of him, but occasionally he would smile or nod in acknowledgement.

            The industrial park harboured a surprising amount of traffic and parked vehicles for such a late hour. Is it possible, Richard wondered, that people are working out here at eight o’clock in the evening? That plastic container plant—why would anybody be there at this hour? Why would anyone be working there at all? No one could possibly be that bored. And what’s with all these transport drivers on the road? Surely they’d be happier if they weren’t driving around after dark. . . . 

            As Tony slowed the car before coming to what had to be the warehouse, Richard saw that the building was not unusual in any way: it presented a perfect cover for whatever subversive activity it housed. It was just another huge white building in an industrial park full of huge white buildings, different only in that there were no trucks or trailers parked in its vicinity. By the light of the pale orange streetlights, Richard noted that a large wooden sign, no doubt a relic of the days of monetarism, labelled the building as the property of a Taiwan-based electronics firm. In the wake of deteriorated relations with China, passers-by would naturally assume the building to be vacant. Its locked doors, however, would indicate occupants who feared the theft of some rarities or—less likely—occupants who feared that their hoarding activities might be discovered.

            Tony, who had been nervously checking the rearview mirror while he drove out, now looked nervously about him as he climbed out of the car and produced a key to unlock the door to the building.

            “You never know who’s watching,” he explained in a conspiratorial tone.

            —This must be really big, Richard thought. Once they were inside with the door closed behind them again, he felt as though he were in a James Bond movie, and this was the inevitable scene in which the evil genius decides to show 007 his superior technology before trying to kill him.—I’m even dressed for the part, he remarked as he glanced down at his suit—although perhaps a white tuxedo would have been even better.

            The door admitted them into a front office which was gutted of computers, photocopiers, and other signs of business, so that it felt eerily empty; then came a hallway leading to other offices; then a steel door that opened to the warehouse proper and which required yet another key. Tony fumbled with his keys briefly, found the correct one, then unlocked and opened the door. It was dark until he found a light switch.

            The space was enormous—it must have been over 10,000 square feet—but it seemed quite empty except for a forklift, a series of empty racks, and four of five rows of laden pallets stacked three units high. Richard could not make out what was on the pallets, but it looked to him like large rolls of paper stacked on their ends and strapped with nylon twine.

            “So this is the big secret—we’re hoarding paper?” Richard asked without attempting to conceal his disappointment.

            “Not paper,” said Tony as they began to walk towards the stacks. The click of their hard-soled shoes on the concrete echoed as they went. “Paper isn’t that important; this is cotton. Thousands of yards of it, removed from the system until we come to power again, at which time it will sell at a premium, finance a new government, and set us up with the lifestyles we had before we were dispossessed.

            “You see, Richard, we can’t very well hoard gasoline—it’s difficult to hide it, you need facilities, and the government monitors its distribution too carefully. But you can store textiles anywhere—this isn’t our only place—and you can frustrate people even more by taking it out of the system, since they’ll want new clothes and discover there’s no cloth to make them with. That’s why we’re hoarding cotton. What’s more, cotton gets used for everything, and you can’t grow it very well here, so people will know that government trade policy is to blame.”

            “I don’t know,” said Richard, thinking for a while. “Once it becomes rare enough, don’t you think the department is going to keep a close watch on who takes shipments, and where?”

            “That will become a problem, yes; but we’ve got things planned so that the shortage will come upon them so suddenly, they won’t realise there’s a hoarding problem until it’s too late. We’ve also calculated our operation such that availability will become an issue in about six months from now—”

            “Just in time for elections,” Richard filled in the blank.

            “Exactly. And the other thing is this: as you probably know too well, garments and sheets were the last imports to be cut off in our trade with Oriental producers; there’s already a demand that’s not being filled anymore, you see. So just when the gratuitists discover that they need to build up their own textile industry here, they’ll also discover that there’s no material to do it with.”

            “Which will make the government look even more foolish for losing such valuable trading partners on account of their poor diplomacy.”

            “Exactly.”

            “Ah.” Richard saw the plan clearly now. “Very clever.”

            “It was all my idea, really,” boasted Tony. “That fussbudget, White, just takes care of the details.” They shared a knowing glance over this remark, and Richard shook his head and smiled.

            “You’re just the kind of guy who would think something like this up, Ton. I guess all that experience trading futures comes in handy even now.” Richard looked at his friend admiringly, then back at the rolls of cotton. It didn’t look like much in this gargantuan building, but there must have been enough there to make a pair of socks for everyone in metropolitan Ottawa.—Do they need the material that badly, though, he wondered?—I haven’t bought anything new in over two years. . . . Then again, the shortage need not be felt directly. A few pessimistic laments from empty-handed clothiers themselves would be enough to sway public opinion, even the female vote.

            “I learned a lot trading futures,” said Tony as he led them back to the steel door, “but I think my genius, if you would go so far as to call it that, comes from my personal involvement in the whole question of gratuitism. As you know, Richard, my ex-wife works for the Department of Justice in the present administration, which she supports wholeheartedly; she left me and took my two young daughters, who she’s managed to turn against me by filling them with all kinds of lies. As for my son, Phil, he had enough sense to stay with his father at first, but as you know, he’s off on his own now, and no comfort to me. You see, this isn’t just about reclaiming the wealth and power we used to deserve, it’s a matter of revenge for me. You know, whiners like Reich think that they’ve lost so bloody much, but he’s still got his wife, his jag, his family, even his old mansion.” Tony paused in his stride and his speech, put his hand on Richard’s shoulder, and looked at him earnestly. “It’s men like you and I, Richard, for whom the restoration of monetarism is a matter of deep, personal importance. That’s why we’ll be the ones with the good ideas that will bring it about.”

            This was said with contagious confidence, as was always the case when Tony spoke, whether privately or publicly. It made Richard feel honoured again to have him sharing his house; not only was this man clever, eloquent, and self-assured, he even recognised Richard as belonging to the same class as he: an elite within the elite of the MLA executive. This man, Richard was sure, would lead them to power again.

            Much to Richard’s displeasure, however, Tony ended up leading them into the giant potholes of their street when he drove home afterwards. It seemed that the car remained intact this time, but Richard nonetheless decided that Tony was not going to drive his car again, genius or no genius.

 

            The events of the day conjured in Richard’s mind a vivid and rather disturbing dream, the images of which he tried to piece together when he awoke in the morning. In one scene, no doubt precipitated by his visit to the secret warehouse, Richard found himself in the deserted offices of the Canadian Embassy in Hong Kong; only it was not in China, but downtown Ottawa, and he was with Tony and some other men from the MLA executive. There was some kind of protest outside, a siege of their headquarters. People—thousands of them, mostly Chinese, it seemed—threw bottles and shards of glass at the building, and Richard was afraid because the windows lacked panes and there might have been molotov cocktails in the crowd. He noticed that his fellow captives had guns, but he could see that it would not be enough against such a mob. . . .

            Then he was at some kind of Arabian bazaar full of veiled women and turbaned men who never came too near, but who always seemed to be looking his way and talking amongst themselves. When he noticed, in the distance, that some of them were disassembling what looked like his car—the wheels were already gone—he realized that he could not move for some reason. He looked down at his legs and saw that they were locked into some kind of stocks. He was relieved when Uwe suddenly appeared at his side, but his friend wore a turban now, too, and with his bushy, dark beard looked just like the foreign men at the bazaar. “I can’t let you go until they’re finished” Uwe said. He grinned insanely and, despite Richard’s protestations, disappeared into the crowd. That was when Richard woke up.

            He brooded over the flitting images of these dreams all morning, almost savouring the feeling of terror they had instilled. When he began with his daily weight training, he found that the afterimage of the siege became too distracting for him to focus well enough on the weights; when he glimpsed Uwe sketching in the morning light of the back yard, the memory of the turbaned Uwe came back to haunt him. It was only when he began looking at pictures of nude women on his computer that he was able to put the dreams out of his mind, but he was soon distracted by something else instead: a rumbling old five-ton truck pulled up in front of the house. He peered through the dirty panes of the front window and saw that it was two moustachioed men, neither of whom Richard recognised, undoubtedly come to take away Pamela’s bulky China cabinet and the lime-green chair. She had managed to find volunteers for the task after all.

            “I wasn’t expecting you guys,” Richard said as he opened the door for them. “You might have called ahead.” He noticed the rippling bulkiness of their arms and chests and thought to himself, no wonder these boys volunteer for this kind of work—they probably find it easy.

            “We talked to a fellow named Uwe here on the phone yesterday evening, and he said someone would be here for sure ’bout this time,” remarked the stockier of the two. “By the way, my name’s Ray, and this is my partner, Jean.” They both offered their hands in the by now familiar gratuitist fashion.

            This brief introduction taken care of, Richard brought the movers into the dining room and pointed across the table to the cabinet against the far wall. “That’s the unit, there,” he said.

            “Well that’s no good,” scowled Ray. “The china hasn’t even been packed away. You really weren’t expecting any movers at all, were you?”

            “Actually, I was,” Richard replied, “but it just didn’t occur to me to pack those things up because I really don’t care what happens to them. It’s all my ex-wife’s stuff, eh?”

            The movers glanced at one another, as if to remark “what an idiot,” which glance Richard noted and correctly interpreted. He was foolish not to have packed the dishes away, he realized, and he immediately sought to rectify the situation.

            “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I’ll get a box and some newspaper and I’ll have those plates packed up and out of there in fifteen minutes. You guys can just make yourselves comfortable for a little while—have a seat here in the living room.” The men retained their frowns, but they took the offered seats nonetheless. Richard, though anything but eager to exert himself for Pamela’s sake, set to packing away the china and glass such that it would not rattle and break during transport. Of course, it took somewhat longer than fifteen minutes (Richard being inefficient at such tasks), but the movers didn’t seem to mind the wait once Richard engaged them in conversation.

            “Who's the weight lifter?” asked Ray, spying Richard’s gym through an open door.

            “Oh, those are mine. I don’t lift seriously—just an hour a day, usually, to keep fit. I’m sure it’s nothing compared to the kind of gym you guys use.”

            “Actually,” said Ray (Jean remained perfectly silent), “I haven’t been to a gym in two years—not since I started working as a mover. I find it’s a lot easier to get motivated to lift people’s furniture for them than to pump iron in a gym, where you don’t accomplish anything besides flexing your muscles.”

            “I see. So . . . what kind of work did you do before?” Richard asked tentatively, asking himself at the same time: Why do I always enter into this topic?

            “Me, I used to sell cars. Jean here used to drive a Brinks truck, right Jean?” (The other nodded.) “I tell you, life is a lot easier now that I’m out of that rat race.” (Of course, Richard thought; easier because you’re less productive.) “It was stressful, I tell you, trying to sell your quota every month, wearing a goddamn tie every day. . . . I wouldn’t want it back.”

            “I can imagine,” said Richard. He found himself suddenly resenting the fact that he, too, had at one time been obliged to wear a shirt and tie every day. He appreciated the uniform’s function as a sign of reliability and power, but it wasn’t always the most practical thing to wear, especially in the tropics.

            “And what sort of work do you do, Mr. Spendler?”

            —Shit. The inevitable question. “Oh, I take care of the house—I’ve got three housemates, none of which do much work around here; I help my friend display his art; I—I do some work for the Department of Trade.” Lies! All lies! yelled his conscience. But he immediately appeased it by telling himself that insofar as his statements were untrue, he would endeavour to make them true; he resolved in that moment to clean up the house after these men were gone, and he could convince himself that he really was still working for the Department of Trade, indirectly—No, he reconsidered; I have lied outright. But what does it matter? I have lied a thousand times before. . . .

            “Well,” Ray remarked, “if you’re interested in doing some real work instead of just lifting weights, you can give me your number—we take on some pretty big jobs sometimes, so I like to keep a list of guys who can help out once in a while. What d’you say?”

            “Thanks, but I don’t think I’d be much help.” Once again Richard felt foolish for not being entirely honest, that is, for not saying that it was a matter of principle with him not to volunteer.

            “You fellows can start carrying this thing out of here now,” he announced after a while. The men rose, glanced at him a little disparagingly, then cleared themselves a path by moving aside the dining room table and chairs. Next, they went back to their truck to get a pair of long straps and a dolly with which to accomplish their task. Richard was actually rather disappointed to see them using anything more than their bare hands (enjoying as he did a good display of sheer strength), but he realized that if one lifted things all day, one would try to make it as easy as possible; only a man pumping iron in a gym went out of his way to make his work harder for himself. It was curiously irrational, like most things one did to try to please the opposite sex.—Or was it that he worked out to please his own vain self? Wasn’t that why they’d put up all those mirrors in the gym he used to visit, so you could see how good you looked all flexing and sweaty? These thoughts troubled Richard briefly as he watched the massive piece of mahogany descending his front stairs under the guidance of the two soft-spoken giants. Feeling somewhat inadequate afterwards, he took it upon himself to carry out the chair (which was by no means light) and two boxes full of dishes (which moved with scarcely a rattle).

            —I could do this job, Richard thought to himself; it’s not as if it takes any skill. I would be wasting all the time I’ve spent being educated as a trade expert, though—not that that education is very useful to me right now.—What a ridiculous train of thought! You’d think I took the notion of working as a mover seriously.

            “So I suppose you’re taking this to a house on Shelley street,” Richard ventured when the movers had finished with the cabinet.

            “Actually, no,” said Ray as Richard passed a box of dishes up to him. “We were told to deliver the cabinet to a freespace, and the chair and dishes to a condo near downtown. I’m surprised you didn’t know.”

            “A condo, eh?” mused Richard, his interest piqued. Apparently, Pamela hadn’t stayed at her parents’ for very long. Richard wondered what she could be doing. Was she working? Had she already found some other guy? It was almost three weeks since the day that she’d left; did she have any regrets? Richard found himself longing for her suddenly. “What’s the address?” he asked innocently.

            “Maybe you’re not supposed to know,” interrupted Jean before his partner could divulge the information. “Maybe your ex-wife doesn’t want you to know where she lives.” The erstwhile mute man fixed Richard with his piercing blue eyes, as though he could somehow read the truth behind Richard’s innocent expression. Richard stared back with equal intensity, thinking how annoying it was that this meddling security guard remembered everything one told him.

            “Maybe she doesn’t want me to know; maybe she couldn’t care less. But you’re taking my stuff away, right? So I have a right to know where it’s being taken, don’t you think?”

            “According to the woman who called us,” Ray recalled, “these items belong to her. I assume that’s why you let us take them out of your house in the first place?”

            There was no arguing against that, Richard knew; still, he could not let this exchange end on such a tense note. “Okay, you’re right,” he conceded. “It doesn’t really matter anyway—I’m just curious whether she’s had to move down in the world, that’s all.”

            “I haven’t seen that address,” said Jean, “but I’m sure she’s improved on this arrangement.” This was said with more malice than could be expected from someone who had only been acquainted with Richard for a short time, and even the more sociable Ray regarded his partner with surprise. He did not, however, seek to make amends, as would have been appropriate among small business people in a monetarist world.

            Once again, Richard lamented, it was the social buffer of money that was lacking; people who served you were either too friendly or too hostile, for they didn’t care if you did business with them in the future or not. They treated their customers as their equals or, worse yet, as though power lay on the side of those who served. In fact, it seemed that serving others was the only way one could acquire any power in the inverted world of the gratuitists.


© Robert Zimmer
rlzimmer@hotmail.com

Previous chapters: Back Issues. Continued in the next issue of SCR.


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