The Free World

 

Robert Zimmer

 

 

 

Chapter 7

           

 

 

Richard was feeling understandably frustrated and resentful after the movers departed, but for some reason the thought of sitting in front of the computer and searching the internet for pornography (his usual method of dealing with frustration) did not appeal to him. On the other hand, the brief burst of physical activity in which he had engaged had the effect of inciting him to do more, and presently he remembered his resolution to clean up the house. None of his housemates, he had said, do much work around here: not entirely false, but his conscience demanded some atonement for that portion which was false. And so he took the vacuum cleaner from its seldom-opened closet, assembled it, and began with the front room.

            —I’ve done this kind of thing before, he recalled, when I was a teenager, only I never did a very good job; but then, that was my mother’s house, whereas this is mine, and I wouldn’t accept anything less than perfect cleanliness in my own house. I never accepted a shoddy job from servants, and I certainly won’t accept a half-assed effort from myself. Hence, he thoroughly vacuumed and dusted the dining room (which seemed so much easier to move around in now that a certain bulky piece of furniture was gone) and the kitchen (where Tony had lately dropped his tell-tale crumbs); he then moved on to the weight room, the main floor bathroom, the stairs, his bedroom, and even the upstairs bathroom (which was, he noted, still a sty). It was not long before he was telling himself: this house is too damned big; I should abandon it for a small, one-bedroom apartment; I can’t believe how much stuff Tony has; I can’t believe how much stuff I have. He was beginning to see that what used to constitute an asset in the monetarist world—a big house full of possessions—had become a liability in this world.

            On the other hand, with every pass of the carpet brush, and with every disappearing skein of dust, Richard felt as though he had erased some debt; he felt as though his more or less indolent existence since leaving China—and, perhaps, the indolence he indulged while he was still employed there—as though this were being restituted now, even though he was working for himself as much as for anyone else.

            When it came time to sit down to the lunch Bill had prepared, Richard actually felt as though he had earned his meal for once. Of course, in his role as a trade facilitator—that is, as a gainfully-employed contributor to the great capitalist machine—Richard had always felt as though he earned his meals, his bed, and his sex; these were his due, as the money in his pocket signified. Lately, however, in the absence of such a convenient signifier, he had been feeling as though he were freeloading, cheating, even stealing. At first, he had avoided this feeling by reminding himself that he would be a gainfully employed contributor to the great capitalist machine were he not prevented by circumstances, but this strategy was no longer working. He had tried to remind himself that it was his duty to avoid work, but he was beginning to see that his faltering self-esteem necessitated that he do something constructive with his time. He could not pretend he was on a holiday. Then there was the impressive strength and will of those movers—that, he now saw, had been the last straw. He was a monetarist, certainly; but he was a man first. A man, he decided, must work so long as he could, even if it were only a little each day. 

            And yet, a part of him rebelled against this new turn in his thinking: and this part, which seemed to speak in the voice of an adolescent, complained that all of this voluntary work—indeed, he fancied that he had done a great deal already—for all the “earning” this work achieved on an abstract level, it could not be converted and exchanged for the services of ready and willing females such as money could once buy. What good was it then? No voice of righteousness answered, but his wounded pride spoke up: Was it really true that he could no longer attract a ready and willing female without the assistance of money? Was his only hope a prostitute?

            —Somebody has to clean the toilet, he noted as he was relieving himself downstairs after dinner. I might as well; it’s not as though the thing has reached the point where it’s too disgusting to even contemplate cleaning it. Of course, Bill has already once taken it upon himself to clean the main floor’s bathroom, which is only right since his room is directly opposite and he probably uses it more than any of them. Since Richard’s confrontation with his other housemates over the state of the bathroom upstairs, however, there were two primary users of these facilities.—I kind of owe it to Bill, he thought; I owe Bill a lot for all the dinners he’s cooked for me. Richard was also the kind of person who couldn’t stand a dirty bathroom, and he had a feeling Bill wouldn’t get around to it again soon enough.

            Although he had never picked up a toilet brush in his thirty-six years, Richard approached the task with remarkably little hesitation; once he had determined to go through with it, he was eager to get it over with. He found that the whole business was not much worse than washing dishes, that is, like washing spoons and forks that were coated in other people’s germs (he was very squeamish about such things). He discovered, however, that his hands had to come uncomfortably close to the filthy porcelain in order to wipe it properly, which problem he addressed by using many layers of folded paper towel. Had there been rubber gloves in the house, he would have worn these as well. For all his daintiness, however, Richard was very thorough. He was not the kind of person who would be satisfied with imperfection. And so he wiped diligently at the hinges of the cover and seat to remove the filth which, he surmised superciliously, Bill had missed, and Uwe before him.

            —It’s all so disgusting, he thought, so demeaning—but with what proud satisfaction did he look upon the result of his work! There was no speck of dirt to be seen anywhere. Surely he had earned something now. From now on, whenever someone asked him what kind of work he had done lately, he could say with dignity, and without stretching the truth, I cleaned house.

            The sink, he found, was much easier and more enjoyable to clean. He polished it as though it were the chrome on his old Chevelle (how he missed that car!): as though by rubbing it well enough he might also clean his conscience of whatever stains it had accumulated over the years. He stood over the tap and smiled at his miniature reflection, thinking: reduced to that scale, my complexion looks pretty good—too bad it’s all distorted. Then he looked up at the mirror and polished that reflection as well, noticing as he did so that he looked sharper with all the spots out of the way.

            After he had finished this task, Richard remained energetic; he drew from the energy generated by that satisfaction which arises when the result’s of one’s labour are pleasing, and without which one becomes discouraged and lethargic.—While I’ve got this momentum, he thought, maybe I should tackle the bathroom upstairs, too, grim as it is; I’m sick of coming down here for everything anyhow.

            Hence, armed with toilet brush, paper towels, and antiseptic cleaning powder, Richard began to work in such a way as, he had promised himself, he would never lower himself. Here he was, performing a task that was unquestionably not his responsibility; work for which he would not receive any reward other than the convenience of being able to use a bathroom on the same floor as his bedroom; work which he was doing for the most gratuitist of reasons, namely that he was able and proud to do it. He felt himself superior to Uwe and even Tony because he, Richard, was not afraid of such lowly and thankless tasks (anymore). Of course, he also felt angry with them for not cleaning up after themselves. “Pigs,” he repeated several times as he wiped away accumulated pubic hair. “Swine.” And then he amused himself by imitating the voices of the housemates in question and making them say things like, “I’m a pig, you see,” or “dirty? It’s not dirty in here. I like it like this,” and so on.—I wonder if old Mrs. Sun used to make fun of me when she was cleaning my bathroom?

            Annoyed though he was with Uwe, Richard could not bring himself to the point where he might insult him in person, nor would he complain more than necessary when his irresponsible friend returned from his now daily sketching trips around town. It was, after all, only logical that a man who was temporarily on the brink of suicide would let the state of his surroundings deteriorate. Furthermore, Richard knew quite well that it was Tony who could not wash or shave himself without splashing water or soap everywhere, Tony who shed hair like a dog, and Tony who occasionally neglected to flush. And yet Richard could not reach the boiling point with him either, because Tony seemed to him a political genius who ought not to be bothered with the niceties of housekeeping. It would be inefficient to divert the energies of a man suited to making speeches and running the country—not to mention Tony’s atrophying speculation skills—to divert such energies into mundane housekeeping that any idiot could do, even an idiot like himself.

            Thus thought Richard, with scarcely a trace of cynicism, even though he pictured Tony with a pig’s nose and doubted whether the old blowhard did anything important for eighty percent of the day.—One can never be too certain about such things, he told himself. Perhaps there were times when Tony was lounging about like a fat, lazy old cat, apparently doing nothing more than taking up space, when in reality he was pondering some great problem concerning the reinstitution of a monetary system.—On the other hand, doesn’t he have it all figured out already? The way he talks, you’d certainly think so. . . .

           

            It was several banal days and boring evenings later when Richard, returning from supper at a Bank Street cafeteria, spotted a group of men repairing a pothole-ridden street parallel to his own. He observed briefly and noted how simple the process seemed: a little routing to make the holes square, filling, packing, and sealing, all of which was carried out with great efficiency by the four men—or was one of them a woman?—whom he was now approaching.—Surely, he thought, it would take this team but a few hours to repair the craters that mar my block; surely they will be doing my block tomorrow, or at least within a week. On the other hand, maybe some unqualified but eager civic maintenance engineer will move this crew to some other part of the city tomorrow, maybe to a street where some elected official or well-connected sourpuss happens to reside.

            Richard casually waved to one of the workmen, who stood by while his colleague slowly rolled a patch of warm, pungent asphalt. “Are you guys going to work on Second street when you’re finished here?” he asked.

            “’Fraid not,” replied the stocky, coarsely bearded fellow. “We’re doing this block, the next one down, and the next one over, which is actually more than we wanted to in the first place. We’re not regular maintenance workers, eh? Me and my neighbours just got tired of waiting for someone else to fix these potholes, so we formed our own crew and booked some machinery at city hall.”

            “And they let you just—take it?”

            “Hell yeah. Of course, you need someone with you who knows what they’re doing, and we’ve got Franco here, who used to work on a highway crew. It’s pretty easy anyway; it’s not like we’re resurfacing the whole thing, although this street sure could use it.”

            “Yeah. So could mine.”

            Richard followed the worker’s gaze down the block, then looked down at the man’s dirty hands and dirty boots, then up at his sweaty face.—There’s no way I’m going to do this kind of dirty work, he swore to himself; someone else on my street will have to break down and do it sooner or later. I’d probably injure myself anyhow, or make a fool of myself by making a mistake. And then some old Spic with a grade nine education, like this Franco guy, will either boss me around as though I were in the army or treat me with unwarranted friendliness and insist that I meet his ugly daughter. Worse, Richard thought, would be the reaction of Tony and others in the MLA; even if he repaired only his own street, for his own benefit, he would nonetheless find himself spurned for donning coveralls and lifting a shovel voluntarily. Housekeeping and gardening were, as they had always been, perceived as necessary and therefore acceptable tasks for a committed monetarist. But the moment one crossed the boundary of one’s property and worked voluntarily for the common good—even on the street in front of one’s house—this was, he had learned, frowned upon in the monetarist circle to which he now belonged. Such an act might delay the imminent reversion; a neglected road might be the deciding factor for a voter sitting on the fence between the old and new ways, so it ultimately remained in his best interests to leave it as it was, even if the circumstance inconvenienced him as much as any of those hypothetical fence-sitters. Furthermore, as even the most cynical monetarist had to admit, voluntary work was infectious. Since human beings were incorrigibly imitative, one volunteer would incite another, and these would incite others who, perhaps, were young and had never learned to expect a wage for their labour.

            Still, Richard observed and learnt from the paving crew until they decided to call it a day, which happened to coincide with the sunset. How medieval, Richard thought. They probably began at sunrise and took a two-hour lunch break, too. That’s what I’d do, he thought to himself; that’s what Bill does. Inefficient, of course, but a lot less stressful.

            As he began walking home on the quiet, dry streets, he considered how unfortunate it was that certain characteristics of life in the gratuitist regime, such as the indeterminate hours, could not be retained after the reversion to monetarism. He pondered over the incompatibility (as had many clever persons before him), but could see no middle ground between the rival systems; as soon as one introduced currency, currency became the all-important, all-determining foundation for any human endeavour: the bottom line. Even under a communist system it was ultimately currency that dictated what was done, how it was done, when, by whom, and for whom. And was this not the only way to ensure that things were done properly? Granted, there were always volunteers, and there would always be volunteers. But was it not possible that the craters on Richard’s street would never be repaired because no one’s livelihood depended on it? And what about all of those jobs that had to be done, but which Richard did not even know about—those obscure, yet essential jobs in distant power stations and refineries that most people would not even think about, let alone volunteer for—what about them? Richard still could not comprehend how things still functioned without the aid of currency and exchange, but he was beginning to wonder rather than merely scoff. Furthermore, he was beginning to feel a strange reverence for those unknown workers who volunteered for those horrid yet unknown jobs in distant power stations and refineries, a reverence which overshadowed the pride he still felt from having cleaned the house a few days before.

            “What’s wrong with me?” he suddenly asked aloud. “Am I turning into a gratuitist?” —No, no, no. I’m just exploring what it’s like to think like one. After all, like any idealistic philosophy, gratuitism has a strong idealistic appeal; perhaps it is the best economic system, or anti-system, from an abstract point of view; it seems to make most people’s lives easier, true; but it doesn’t work in practice, as evidenced by the long line-ups at the gas stations. Insofar as it does work, it can’t work for very long. One had better maintain a monetarist mindset, or face dire consequences in the future. Especially if one is a member of the MLA and privy to certain secrets important to that organization’s survival. Shit! What would they do to me if they so much as suspected that I was having doubts about the urgency of their cause? With so much at stake, they can’t afford to let a potential traitor quit their ranks alive. Good thing I’m not a potential traitor.

 

            As the days and weeks went by, Richard found that life was becoming increasingly boring without real employment. Since he wasn’t getting paid to do the menial tasks assigned to him by the MLA, he found himself procrastinating or avoiding to do these altogether. No one seemed to care anyhow. His only mental challenge each day was to find something new and interesting on the Internet, which activity could only alleviate his boredom for three or four hours. Hence, as a diversion, he began challenging his body more: he rode his stationary bike longer, forced himself to repeat his weightlifting exercises a little more each day, and lengthened his daily run along the canal. Occasionally, when the others were around, he would convince his housemates to join him in a game of cards or backgammon. Such games had lost much of their appeal, however; Richard used to enjoy them because he would always play for money, and now there was no point in it. Even Monopoly, with its imaginary money, didn’t seem the same anymore, though he and Tony still enjoyed the game for its nostalgic premise: invest in real estate until you have all of your opponents’ money. Just like real life in the good old days—one had to be a bold investor, a shrewd mortgager, and a lucky dice-thrower. Still, Tony and the others were rarely around, and when they were, they did not always want to play with Richard. At these times, he turned to solitaire to keep himself amused.

            But even solitaire became too boring one rain-soaked evening following a rain-soaked day which Richard had spent alone. It was nine o’clock, he observed; too early to go to bed. Television afforded nothing that interested him, and his eyes were sore from scanning erotic pictures on his computer screen for most of the afternoon. He had already washed the dinner dishes that he and Bill had made, and now he sat at the kitchen table, wearily staring at the playing cards spread out before him. The queen of spades, he remarked, was much better looking than the queen of hearts. The queen of diamonds looked vaguely like a girl he used to know. The queen of clubs looked very stern. The king of clubs looked stern, too, but this seemed to suit him better.

            Richard yawned very loudly, the fourth or fifth such yawn in the space of about fifteen minutes. This attracted the attention of Bill, who had been reading by the light of the living room lamp and who presently sauntered up to the kitchen table. He looked upon Richard with pity.

            “Tell me something, Rick,” he began in a voice that seemed to boom after so much silence.

            “Hmm?”

            “What do you think you would have done with your life, had you been raised in a gratuitist society?”

            Richard thought for a moment. “That’s a difficult question. I—I don’t know,” he fumbled. He looked quizzically in the direction of the patio doors, as though the answer lay out there. “I’ve always been good with numbers; maybe I would have become an engineer or something. I actually studied business because it seemed like the best place to make money. Now that I’ve had a position at an embassy, I think I would have tried for something in the area of trade again, if I were raised a gratuitist. But it’s really impossible to answer,” he concluded. He gathered up the cards and began shuffling them idly, keeping his eyes down so as not to meet Bill’s searching look.

            “Surely you must have had some other ambitions when you were a kid. Kids don’t want to become accountants or trade consultants, normally,” Bill remarked.

            “No—you’re right. Now I remember. I wanted to be a hockey player at one time.”

            “How Canadian of you.”

            “I suppose it’s pretty typical. I grew up in Brockville, you know—a real hockey town. I didn’t have the talent for skating, though, and I didn’t have the size to become a scrapper, so I didn’t get very far.”

            “Any other things you wanted to be?”

            Richard kept shuffling as he thought back again. He paused and looked up suddenly as something occurred to him. “At one time, I wanted to be a cop. I always wanted to have power of some kind, you see, which is another reason I studied business administration.”

            “I see,” said Bill, seemingly disappointed. “It’s still possible, you know, for you to join a police force. It only takes a few years of training, and once you’ve finished, you can set your own hours and work wherever you want. It’s not even that dangerous anymore, now that money-related violence has disappeared.” Bill spoke encouragingly, but it sounded too much like a gratuitist sales pitch.

            “I’d rather wait until my old job comes into fashion again,” Richard stated resolutely.

            “You might be waiting a long time.”

            “That’s okay.”

            This put an end to the conversation and drove Bill away, but it did not stop Richard from thinking about the uncertain future and unforgotten past. Despite his attempts to remain optimistic, he could not fail to be realistic about his prospects. He had initially been impressed by Tony’s hoarding strategy, but as he saw how most people on the street seemed satisfied with the status quo, he was becoming less and less confident in the MLA’s chances of gaining power in the near future. You might be waiting a long time. What would he do with himself if, after the next election in six months, the gratuitists retained power? He could not live without meaningful work for much longer. The banality of it would drive him insane.

            These ruminations started him walking about the house peripatetically until the bookcase in the living room caught his attention. One book in particular made him stop and pull it from the shelf: Comprehensive Business Administration, a textbook from his third year of university. It comprised nineteen chapters, totalling some five hundred pages, and covered everything from project financing to corporate tax laws. He had not read every page, of course, but he saw from the notes in the margins and highlighted passages that he had read most of it.—The hours I spent studying! It made him sick to his stomach to think that it was all worthless to him now—as worthless as the briefcase full of yuan under his bed.—It’s all obsolete now. It’s as though my knowledge, my most precious acquisition, has been stolen from me and carelessly thrown in the garbage by the thieves. And it’s not just my precious knowledge: thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of men and women who studied and worked in the financial industry have suffered the same loss, the same devaluation. Look at these books! All the work that went into writing them, teaching from them, learning from them, all the assignments and tests and week-long seminars for retraining in new practices—it’s all a big nothing now. The prospect of it made Richard dizzy, prompting him to throw himself onto the couch.

            What would you have done, Bill’s words echoed in his mind.—What, indeed. Perhaps I would have become a police officer. Perhaps I would have gone into politics—no, one generally has to go through law school to become a politician. How would I have been a different person, raised in a gratuitist world? I certainly wouldn’t have turned out to be so ambitious. And yet, suppose I took all of the ambition, learning, and creativity that I brought to my role as an investment broker, and say I diverted it to the business of an engineer or mechanic or doctor—the things I might have accomplished! Impossible, thought Richard—I couldn’t have worked that hard without the incentive of money. No one could work that hard without such an incentive.

            It suddenly occurred to Richard that a load of laundry he’d started doing early in the day was still in the washer.—Damn it, he thought, those shirts are probably just about dry by now and wrinkled all out of shape. He got up from the couch and made his way down the rough wooden stairs to the low-roofed cellar, ignoring as best he could the heaps of junk that his housemates had stacked there. He opened the washing machine’s lid.—Of course, everything’s scrunched up around the outside of the drum. Oh well; at least they still feel pretty damp.

            One by one he peeled the shirts away from the drum’s perimeter and shook the wrinkles out a bit before tossing them into the dark orifice of the dryer. He tried to work quickly, for the laundry was ice cold with moisture. But when he shook out the T-shirt he had bought lately at the MLA convention, Richard had to pause to inspect the logo on the front of it. There, as before, was the bold blue “G” that stood for gratuitism; but where was the red circle around it, and where the red stroke crossing out the G? All that remained of these was an interrupted outline of a circle and a few red flakes that clung tenuously to the fabric where the G was emblazoned.—What a shitty piece of workmanship this is, thought Richard. That bastard who sold it to me—why, he ought to be run out of town, or shut down, at least. I can’t walk around wearing this thing. Goddammit! I paid for this shirt in yuan, too!

 

            Pamela enjoyed living in the privacy of her new apartment on Borden Street, even though it was infinitely more proletarian than the spacious rooms she and Richard had occupied in Hong Kong. The bathroom lacked the gold fixtures and oversize whirlpool tub she had once known and loved; her new bedroom was scarcely a quarter of the size of her old one; the living room wouldn’t have accommodated a group of twelve, let alone the 20 or 30 Richard would sometimes invite to dinner parties; and there was no room for the elaborate exercise equipment she once had—her rowing machine and barbells took up too much space as it was. There were little things, too, that she missed about having her own house. How much better it was to have reliably hot water, one’s own laundry facilities, and the freedom to have loud parties that lasted until 4 a.m. when the husband was away on business. But when she found herself thinking of all these drawbacks, Pamela would laugh at herself, thinking: what do I care? If I can’t do something I want to here, I’ll just go someplace else and do it. Besides, the more I get out and meet people, the more fun I’ll have. I don’t want to live in a self-contained cocoon.

            Of course, it helped immensely that the apartment had no owner, which meant that one could really feel that the carpets and fixtures and even the halls belonged to oneself. Pamela had no qualms about driving heavy nails into the walls to hang her favourite paintings and artifacts. She even took it upon herself to start a little flower garden along the walk that led to the front entrance; for there was no building supervisor to initiate such things. Unfortunately, and as Pamela was to discover before too long, these freedoms were not without their corollary responsibilities. It was up to her and her neighbors to fix the building’s mechanical problems, or at least to find someone who would be able to fix them.

            One morning before heading to the office, she was standing in the shower rinsing a lather of shampoo from her hair when the water began to get a little cool. Now, this wasn’t exactly unusual since the hot water tank in the building was far too small for the number of suites; but it was strange that it should happen at 10 a.m. when most of the other tenants had gone to work or school. Pamela could do little more than hurry with her rinsing before the water became too cold to bear.

            —Okay, she told herself, I’ll rub in my conditioner and stand here for a few minutes, and when I turn on the tap it’ll be hot again. There’s no one here except for the old ladies who live downstairs, and they can’t all be using hot water at the same time.

            She waited. When she turned on the hot tap and tested the water with her hand, it was lukewarm.—That's a little better, she thought. With the shower on, however, it went completely cold in a matter of a minute, barely enough time for her to rinse her hair again.

            “Whew!” she gasped when she had turned it off again. “That was invigorating. I have got to start taking cold showers every morning.”—Right after I start running 10k every morning.

            The sudden lack of hot water remained a mystery, for when Pamela left for work she noted that all but one bicycle was gone from the rack out back, and the cars that people normally commuted with were gone, too; furthermore, as she got onto the bus that would take her to the office, she noted that two of the smartly-dressed old women who lived below were getting off the bus, grocery bags in hand.—There couldn’t have been more than two of us in the building, she surmised. Either someone’s left a hot water tap running, or there’s something wrong with the plumbing.

            When she returned home five hours later and tested the taps again, things were just as she’d left them: no hot water. “Well, shit!” she fumed. She stood for a moment with her hands on her hips, looking angrily at the sink and thinking what to do.—Better go see if everyone else is having the same problem.

            She went next door and knocked; there was no answer, even though the sound of a television or radio was audible enough through the closed door. She went to the suite across the hall and knocked, this time with success. The door opened slightly, just enough for an eye to peer out at her; then, when the occupant decided it was safe, it swung wide open to reveal a girl of about eighteen or nineteen, thick-limbed with the face of a pudgy kid.—Glandular disorder, Pamela thought wryly.

            “Sorry to bother you—I live across the hall—do you have hot water in your suite?”

            “No,” replied the girl. “Not since I got home.”

            “Did you ask around to see if everyone else has the same problem?”

            “No.”

            “Okay. Well, I’m going to get to the bottom of this. Pamela frowned as she turned away to and marched to the fourth suite on her floor. There her knocks were answered by another young woman who confirmed that the building was without water; she had spoken to the ladies downstairs, and they had the same problem. When Pamela asked if anyone had taken the trouble to check the water heater, or at least call a plumber, the girl couldn’t say for sure, only that she “didn’t think so.” This sent Pamela down stairs to ask the smartly dressed ladies if anything was being done, which yielded the same response at each door: “Oh, I think one of the neighbors was going to call a serviceman.” Becoming a little frustrated, She went up to the third floor and found a few of those tenants home. Again, it was young women, and all had no hot water, and none had taken the initiative to do something about it.

            “Women! Nothing but women!” she said through gritted teeth as she finally descended to the boiler room. “If there were any men in this building, they’d have called a plumber as soon as they realized something was wrong, or better yet, they’d have tried to fix the damn thing themselves by now. This isn’t an apartment building. It’s a sorority house. . . .”

            Pamela threw open the door to the boiler room and felt around for a light switch. When she found it, however, it didn’t turn anything on; and, when her eyes had adjusted to the dark, she saw that this was because there was no light bulb in the ceiling fixture. “Perfect,” she sighed. She went over to the laundry room to borrow one of its bulbs, returned to the boiler room, and screwed it into place. With the room illuminated, she discerned three large tanks: two of dark, rough, iron, seemingly ancient—to heat water for the radiators, Pamela surmised—and another painted white, obviously newer, which must have been the tap water heater. About halfway up its cylindrical tank there was a thermostat which was set at the third of six notches, and next to this a button marked “reset”. Pamela pushed it. Next, she looked for some kind of pilot light that would indicate the heater was getting fuel, but could find none at first. There was a kind of trap door at the base, however, and when she pushed it up, she could see a little blue flame burning in the recess.

            “Nothing wrong with that,” she declared in the tone of voice her father would use in such a situation. She was about to go see if resetting the thermostat had had any effect when she saw two of the ladies from the first floor watching her through the open door. It was as though they were afraid to come in; they kept their distance from the machinery like the apes around the mysterious monolith in Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

            “Can you fix it?” asked one.

            “I doubt it” Pamela replied. She brushed past them to go try the tap in the laundry.—Still no hot water. “I guess we’ll have to call a professional in to fix it.”

            “You know,” began the more smartly dressed of the ladies—her perfect white hair radiant beneath the fluorescent lights in the hall—”it wasn’t a month ago that my son was adjusting something in there so we wouldn’t run out of warm water so quickly. We used to have such a problem at around seven every evening, because everyone in the building would be doing their dishes at the same time . . . .”

            “Is your son a plumber?”

            “Oh, no, but he’s very handy. He repairs all kinds of things.”

            “I’m sure he does,” Pamela remarked snidely, immediately certain that this so-called handyman was somehow responsible for their present inconvenience.

            “It’s too bad he’s moved out-of-province, or I could call him and he’d be here in a jiffy.”

            “Yes. Too bad. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to track down a professional to do the job.” With that, Pamela raced up the stairs to her suite and computer, on which she began to dial some local plumbers and water tank specialists. In the few cases where she managed to get through to a live human being—most of the time she got answering machines—the man who picked up would give her the invariably bad news, namely that there was a minimum three-day wait before they could make a service call—that is, unless she could offer some “incentive” for them to come by sooner. When she heard this the first time, she had to enquire what they meant by “incentive.”

            “You know—something to grease the wheel a little,” said Joe from Zapatski’s Plumbing and heating.

            “I’m sorry, but I still don’t know what you mean. I’m sort of new to this country.”

            “Oh. Well, it’s customary here for people to offer a little something in exchange for quicker service—you know, like a bottle of spirits, or a case of beer, something you can’t get easily otherwise, right? On the other hand, we’re all happily married, if you know what I mean, and we respect the law, so far as that goes.”

            “You mean you’re not interested in sexual ‘incentives’?”

            “Right.”

            Pamela thanked Joe for his time and continued calling, but it seemed there was no way to get a repairman to come within 24 hours unless one could offer some kind of incentive. She felt like telling the next man she with whom she spoke “hey, I live in a building full of single women, and if you come by and fix my heater right away, I’ll make sure they all come down to watch you; and hey, maybe one of them will fall for you and you’ll get lucky, and we’ll all be very happy afterwards.” Before she could try this dubious lure, however, there was a knock at the door. It was the chubby girl from across the hall.

            “Hi,” she said. “Are you trying to find someone to fix the water?”

            “Yes, I am, and I’m having no luck at all. They all say I’ve got to wait at least three days before they make a service call. Do you have any suggestions?”

            “Well, my dad used to be a millwright. I think he would know how to fix a water heater.”

            “Oh!” cried Pamela. “Yes! A millwright ought to know how to fix anything mechanical. Okay—I’m sorry, what’s your name?”

            “Tanya.”

            “Tanya. Do you think you can get a hold of him tonight?”

            “I’ll try. He lives out of town, about twenty kilometres. But he’d come tonight, I think, if I told him it was urgent.”

            “Oh, it’s urgent, alright. Here—use the phone on my computer,” Pamela implored. There was no time to lose. She watched and listened expectantly as Tanya got through to her father and asked if he could come into town right away. When the booming voice on the line said “sure, what for?” Pamela breathed a sigh of relief. Exasperated as she was at this girl’s uncertainty and hesitancy about calling her father from the start, she was willing to forgive her for rescuing them all from another day of cold showers.

 

            There was trouble at the next meeting of the MLA executive. The problem arose, it seemed to Richard, from petty rivalries between men who had borne a well-known contempt for each other for a long time, even before the gratuitists had made them bitter. Normally, from what Richard gathered, these rivals were able to keep their differences to themselves during meetings, but the subject of debate on this particular occasion set them off. It was the same issue that was brought up during Mr. Reich’s speech at the convention—the importance of government money to his and others’ once-great fortunes—and even though Reich had defended himself and his kind admirably then, things went differently now.

            The argument began when Mr. De Champlain, the Prime Minister-in-waiting, gave his view on what the MLA’s role ought to be once the imminent reversion had transpired: “Of course, we’re all going to have a share of the proceeds from the textiles we’ve stockpiled,” he reassured. “But we can’t form a government and buy up all the land and industry shares which we, as a group, used to own. It’s a conflict of interest; it wasn’t done before—at least not openly—and it can’t be done in the future if we’re to retain power for more that one term. We’d be better off making sure that our wealth spreads rapidly and country-wide; we need to enable the rapid development of a nouveau riche, which is the kind of thing that makes people think there’s a possibility of making their own fortune: the kind of thing that gives people drive and initiative.”

            This seemed to Richard a sensible speech, even though it took a great deal for granted. How could they discuss something as unlikely as their speedy return to power with such bravado? Not only was he losing confidence in the MLA’s prospects for the future, but as he surveyed the faces around the table he was also wondering if their hoarding strategy wouldn't land them all in jail soon. But Richard remained quiet.

            “Political power is not enough,” declared Mr. Reich in response to De Champlain’s words. “We need to govern this country through financial power. Don’t forget, there’s nothing to prevent the gratuitists themselves from becoming major owners of industry, and if that’s what happens, they’ll be undermining everything we do by using monetary leverage. Suppose, for example, the reversion is finally taking root, and some troublemakers, say in the auto industry, start giving away product for free?”

            “They’d just go out of business,” said Mr. White.

            “After a while, sure. But before that happens, what if they start a chain reaction of giving which reinitiates gratuitism despite our legislative efforts? Look at what happened in France.” (Richard thought back to the fall of the French monetary system, and the vain efforts of the French government to prevent it.) “Somehow, we’ve got to ensure that most, if not all major industries are controlled by committed monetarists like ourselves. Surely there are enough of us in this country to spread things around and prevent the perception that we mean to set up a plutocracy. There’s no reason why we can’t set things up such that our political and financial gains remain separate in the public eye.”

            Tony, who had been idly toying with his cravat up to this point, suddenly lashed out at Reich. “Why don’t you come out and say it: you want to be the wealthiest, most powerful man in the country, and maybe in the world if you can swing it, even if it costs us a second term in government.”

            “That’s ridiculous,” scoffed Reich, looking away.

            “Is it? Didn’t it always gall you that the Lais were always buying up companies that your family had always controlled, and buying them up without government concessions? Wouldn’t you just love to have enough money to buy them out, for a change, with the generous help of our fledgling government? That’s how you’ve always done business though, isn’t it?”

            —We don’t have a government yet, Richard countered silently.

            “I always hear the same old crap from you, Bounderby,” Reich sighed. “You and everyone here know that I only took what was offered me, as any sensible man would have done. As for Mr. Lai and his sons, I never envied their position. Why should I? I had everything a man could want.”

            “Maybe,” said Tony. “But you didn’t have everything a Jew could want.”

            Reich rose indignantly and glared at his smugly smiling adversary. “What exactly do you mean?” he demanded testily.

            “That’s enough, gentlemen,” warned De Champlain.

            “I deserve an explanation!”

            Tony made a gesture of innocence. “Nothing personal, Reich. I just mean you were amassing a fortune for the sake of Israel’s expansionist objectives—money for better arms, a little influence peddling here and there, control over the media—things like that. I don’t really care, actually, but I don’t want your personal and racial vendettas to fuck things up for the rest of us—”

            “I can’t believe this kind of intolerance is being permitted in this organization,” Reich stormed. “It cannot go unpunished!”

            “Now, Albert—”

            “I’m just agreeing with what Roland said before,” protested Tony, motioning towards De Champlain. “We can’t afford to be perceived as an oligarchy. I mean, it’ll happen anyhow, but we shouldn’t be contributing to that image.”

            “I see,” said Reich. It was obvious, however, that he saw something quite different from the practical, dispassionate team player Tony presented himself as.

            “There now, Albert,” interposed De Champlain; “that’s almost an apology. C’mon, take your seat again—and Tony, try to be a little more diplomatic, will you? We can’t afford to have this kind of internal divisiveness at this juncture of our campaign.” For a moment, it seemed as though Reich would ignore this entreaty and leave the room; but he remained, seated himself, and made it clear with his persistent, laboured breathing that he was still incensed and probably thinking of ways to avenge himself. Richard did not want to look him in the face, but he could imagine the expression of indignance there.

            There was an uncomfortable silence until Mr. White took it upon himself to salvage the meeting by getting back to the issue of policy. “Don’t you think it would be wiser,” he addressed the chairman gruffly, “if we distanced ourselves entirely from our textile sell-off as well? I mean, if we really want to corral public approval for the long term, we should take all the proceeds from those sales and put them towards public works.”

            “Like road repair,” Richard suggested.

            “Exactly. We need to make it clear that we stockpiled those goods for the public interest in the first place; what better way than to kick-start the economy with government expenditures, without demanding taxes or incurring government debt?”

            “Hear hear!” cried several members.

            “That was my plan from the beginning,” Tony pointed out. “But I also suggest that nobody has to know how much was stockpiled, so we can still benefit by selling a reserve portion clandestinely a little later. It’s a practical way of securing wealth for ourselves without offending the public, whereas once we determine our salaries as ministers of state, everyone will know how much we intend to reward ourselves with. You see, Mr. Reich, I believe we all deserve the fortunes we used to have before—since we did work for them—but it’s got to happen as secretly and as gradually as possible. And, like Roland said, it’s essential that we develop a nouveau riche and a strong middle class. Without them, history will repeat itself.”

            Discussion continued on this topic, but Richard was suddenly removed from it by a peculiar train of thought: had Tony and the rest of them “worked” for the entirety of their lost fortunes? Had Richard worked for his, or was some of it acquired by some unwarranted default? How much of it was simply luck, like the roll of the dice in Monopoly? He thought of himself cleaning his house again, then thought back further to the embassy where he once worked with figures on computer screens and voices on telephones. How could the one kind of work be reconciled to the other? Perhaps he had once ensured a low tariff for a shipment of chemicals from which cleaning agents were made; perhaps he had brokered insurance for the shipment. The office job made the house job possible insofar as one needed imported cleaning products. And yet, did such shipments not take place now, among the gratuitists, without the help of men like him? Could this kind of work be compared to the work involved in cleaning the bathroom, which was essentially the same no matter which economic system one lived in? If he was expendable among the gratuitists, why had he been paid so well by the capitalist system? This train of thought was extremely uncomfortable, even painful once Richard perceived its destination. For it led to the conclusion that gratuitism was, in a way, potentially more efficient than monetarism. All of the time and money once expended calculating time and money, all the work of men and women in the financial sector, even the work of small business people who had to keep track of accounts even when they had no gift for numbers—was this not a massive drain on a nation’s productivity? Once-indispensible people like accountants were necessary in a gratuitist economy as well, of course; one always needed people who could analyse a system of supply and demand and figure out how it flowed most efficiently. Yet how much easier and more efficient it was when one did not have to reckon taxes, tariffs, prices, shipping charges, insurance premiums, depreciation, inflation. . . .

            “We have the technology,” Richard heard Mr. White say, “to install a system of currency that will be entirely electronic. Why should we waste our resources printing up new money?”

            “The start-up costs of putting new direct payment equipment in every store will be even more, I think,” said someone else.

            Monetarism is so damned complicated, thought Richard.—And yet, why shouldn’t it be? Human beings were complicated, and had always been so; it was only natural that they should produce complex systems for themselves. . . .

            “Banks should initially charge no interest on loans, perhaps for one month.”

            “But then we’ll have to support the banks with government money. We’re starting by passing a no-deficit law, remember.”

            “There’s no way we can do that immediately.”

            “We have to pass some kind of law restricting giving.”

            Richard thought of the riots that had toppled the government in France, and his dream about being besieged.

            “It’s too risky,” someone said.

            “It can be done if we just. . . .”

            “But what if. . . .”

            “. . . that’s what I’ve been saying from day one. . . .”

            There has to be a way of reinstituting monetarism, Richard reflected as he tuned out of the discussion completely, without eradicating the benefits of gratuitism. He focused on this problem, without making any headway, for the remainder of the meeting. Afterwards,  it made for a very quiet ride home; Richard was absorbed in his disconcerting thoughts, and Tony in his. In fact, both men were so absorbed in their own thoughts that neither remembered to watch out for the massive potholes on Richard’s street. These made their presence known, however, in the most provocative fashion, jarring the car such that its occupants rattled about in their seats.

            —Feels like something in the suspension snapped again.

 


© 2003 Robert Zimmer

Continued in the next issue of SCR. For previous chapters, see Back Issues