[an error occurred while processing this directive]

 

The Free World

 

by Robert Zimmer

 

Chapter 9 

 

            It was after returning home from a meal with his new friend that Richard happened to notice the absence of a prominent piece of art from his dining room wall, the Kuefer original entitled “Progress.” This troubled Richard greatly; not because he couldn’t bear the sight of a blank wall, but because it probably meant that Uwe had entered a new phase in his neurosis. No one had seen much of Uwe since that disastrous dinner party with Bill and Laura, and although the artist seemed cheerful lately—he was even painting again—the possibility remained that he would do himself harm if he combined too many depressing thoughts with too many depressing drugs. If Uwe had become suicidal again, his paintings would no doubt go down with him.

            When Richard opened the unlocked door to the loft, however, he discovered his friend in high spirits and “Progress” still in one piece. But the painting had been altered. By the fading light of day streaming in through the skylight, Richard saw that “Progress” was no longer merely an arrangement of blue and green diagonals on an oppressively black field, for now there was a rather large, stylised human figure painted into the lower half of the picture. This figure, which seemed to be a man, was bent over in an attitude that suggested a heavy weight on his back. In fact, he appeared to be carrying the diagonal lines, to which his back was parallel, as though they were a load of iron rods. Nor was this all: in the upper left-hand corner, a reddish light broke like the dawn over a jagged black form which looked like a mountain. Although it illuminated the human form somewhat, the light was not very bright; the darkness dominated; but there was something hopeful in it.

            “We’ve accomplished something today, I see,” Richard commented.

            “We have,” said Uwe, glancing over his shoulder. He laid aside a brush that was already dry, as though he had finished some time ago but had remained frozen in the attitude of creation. “What do you think, do you like it better this way?”

            “Much better,” said Richard. He felt no need of many words of praise, such as he might have used had he not been entirely pleased. “Is it still called ‘Progress’?”

            “Yup. Only now it’s much more appropriate and expressive. I originally called it Progress because it reminded me of a business graph—all these diagonals were like indicators of increasing profits, sales, debts—whatever.”

            “Really?” Richard struggled to believe him. “You never explained that to me before.”

            “No, of course not—it’s far too simple an explanation, and my livelihood used to depend on mystification, on overcomplicated explanations that only an elite could understand. You see, it was representational art all along—even realistic art. Now that our concept of progress isn’t so abstract and linear, though, it needs this human element to remain realistic—it needs this worker who brings things forward.”

            “Right,” agreed Richard, his eyes lingering yet a while on the painting. “Is it finished, then? Can we bring it downstairs again?”

            Uwe nodded. He wiped a speck of paint from the metal frame, motioned for Richard to grab an end, and the two of them carried the painting downstairs with a silent determination, much like that of the burdened figure on the canvas.

 

            Esmerelda called the next day not only to inform Richard that she had found a volunteer to help him with paving, but also to invite him to dinner. He accepted of course and was still ecstatic a good half-hour after talking to her. He was not altogether surprised by her invitation, however; as his reflection in the well-polished mirror always confirmed, he wasn’t all that ugly (certainly no hunchback!), and even his complexion had improved since it had been left undisturbed by bouts of drinking. Furthermore, Meri had seen him work—work for her benefit, one might say—which could only have endeared him to her.

            —She’s obviously a practical woman, Richard thought as he shaved before going out on his date; she was obviously seeking a man who could keep house, tackle whatever repair jobs arose in her domain, perhaps take care of her children, make her feel comfortable when she came home from work.—None of which, he humbly reminded himself, I am very well qualified for. How, for example, would I entertain a five-year-old girl? And what if Meri expects me to cook for them? He did not know how. But such deficiencies did not matter, after all, he decided; what one didn’t know, one could learn if one had the intelligence, or could figure out for oneself if one had the confidence. He was always considered intelligent. He had once been confident. Given sufficient love and attention, he would regain all his confidence again.

            —You’re building too many expectations, he told himself as he combed his increasingly grey-beleaguered hair,—too much on too few pieces of reality. Maybe she’s just being a friendly neighbour, not really interested in me as a potential lover. Maybe I’m just deceiving myself, imagining that sparkle in her eye because I’d like to believe it was possible. You’ve been mistaken that way before, remember?

            When Meri received him into her house, however—wearing a low-cut, dark green satin dress which she had no doubt created herself—Richard found that his expectations were, to some extent, justified. It soon became clear that a serious relationship might develop between the two of them. Although he could easily determine what it was that he found attractive about her, he could not figure out what it was she saw in him, only that she saw something; the look in her eye, the slight affectation in her manners were unmistakable now.—Perhaps, he speculated after a while, it isn’t so much me as a person that’s making her act this way, but the mere fact of my masculinity; perhaps another man would have done just as well; perhaps it’s just that she’s lived [as she herself had informed him] without a male companion for over three years. . . .

            “And how,” Richard inquired as the after-dinner tea brewed and the conversation became interesting, “—how did it come about that your ex was able to leave such a lovely woman?” In the dim light of her dining room, it was difficult for him to tell whether Meri blushed at this one of many compliments which he found himself paying as the evening progressed. That she did not hesitate to answer gave Richard the impression that compliments had little effect upon her, though.—A practical, level-headed woman, not like Pamela. Interested in me, not my money. . . .

            “This might sound funny coming from someone who is, as you know, a fervent gratuitist,” she preambled, “but I used to be something of a hoarder. Up until two years ago, in fact. It so happens that my ex-husband was even more fervent, and I still think he’s a little overboard—he seems to think we have to live like monks to make gratuitism work on a global scale. Anyway, that’s the main reason he was willing and able to leave me. Of course there were other reasons. I think he always felt trapped—”

            “There are always several reasons why a couple breaks up,” reassured Richard, thinking of his own former spouse. “And what,” he continued. “were you guilty of hoarding?”

            “Guess.”

            “Clothes?”

            “Aha. You can see my weakness.”

            “Your strength, at the same time, I would say.”

            This time the compliment had the noticeable effect of turning Meri’s eyes away in an expression of modesty which, in turn, made Richard’s heart skip a beat, for she looked terribly pretty that way.

            “A strength now, maybe—I can at least take credit for the design and manufacture of some of the things I wear.  Before, I used to buy almost everything. Of course, I never used to have the time to make my own things, but it was also that I had to be well-dressed according to the dictates of some Parisian zillionaire: I had to buy something with the right label on it.”

            “And a whole new wardrobe every year,” Richard interjected, thinking of Pamela’s credit card bills.

            “But of course! You don’t get to be a zillionaire by selling people the same things every year. If the clothes don’t wear out, they have to become unwearable: passé.—When I think of the closets full of ugly, impractical things I used to have . . . all bought with credit and sold in the name of vanity. I’m still vain, mind you—but at least I can admit it. At least I have something concrete to be proud of, don’t you think?”

            “Absolutely,” Richard agreed. He saw that he might lead the conversation further in the direction of reasons why Meri had a concrete right to be vain, namely how well-suited she was to please a man as full of desire as he was; but it presently occurred to him that such verbal sexual advances might come to nought if her children were due back again soon.

            “So who’s taking care of the kids this evening?” he asked.

            “Good thing you reminded me.—They’re with my friend, the one with the shop on Sparks.” She suddenly looked disappointed. “I should really drive over there and pick them up soon, or I’ll be imposing on her. She’s so reliable. I can’t afford to have her feel that I take it for granted she’ll watch them longer than I told her it would be. Next time I’ll leave them with their grandparents in Hull, or maybe their father.”

            Richard smiled as he heard the words “next time” echo through his mind like voices in the finale of Handel’s Messiah.—Hallelujah!—Something wonderful, he thought, happened this evening.

 

            The day after the day Esmerelda had said “next time” (the echo of which still rang in his head intermittently), Richard walked to the grocery store to pick up some fresh fruit. Even though it was cloudy and cool, he was in such good spirits that when he saw a produce truck parked at the store’s loading bay, he did not hesitate to cheerfully lend a hand with unloading.—After all, he thought, I’m going to walk out of here with some of that produce under my arm. What more incentive do I need? None. And yet, I have an even greater incentive: some of this produce might end up in the hands of Meri; it might end up in the mouth of Meri; it might, through some mysterious process, be transformed into the strength with which Meri will seize my shoulders when, next time, the two of us will roll about passionately on the indubitably cool, soft sheets of her bed.—It is all for you, Richard almost said aloud: my every effort, every twinge of strain in every muscle I flex from this day forward, I do for you, darling Esmerelda, for you and for all the network of people who do their part to keep you fed and warm and content. And even though she was nowhere near, it seemed to him that she was watching his every move, smiling at him, approving.—They must have invented work, he thought playfully, so incorrigible bastards would have a chance with good-looking women. . . .

            “This wouldn’t take me too long on my own,” said the fellow whom Richard had begun helping. “But I can’t very well turn down your offer.” He grinned, showing yellowish teeth that matched his yellowish hair.

            “No, I guess you can’t,” said Richard. And it dawned on him that so long as he could honestly contribute something, he could volunteer to help anyone, anywhere in the free world; no one would complain that he was threatening their hourly wage, or transgressing union lines, or spying for the competition. Even if he had to be taught a new skill in some situation, who in this system would deny him the opportunity if he showed the desire? No one could lose money by taking the time to instruct a volunteer. And if he tried something, and found that he was truly inept at it, there was nothing stopping him from walking out and trying something else, except for a little lost pride. He could do whatever he wanted now.

            Once he and the trucker had finished unloading what turned out to be cheese and butter, they helped themselves to some cold drinks from the store’s cooler and loitered about the store for a while. They began to chat with Anna Morton, the overfamiliar woman who kept stock, who knew all local gossip, and who habitually sat by the door mornings with a book or newspaper in her hands.

            “How’re things, Mrs. Morton?” asked Richard. It was the first time he had taken it upon himself to strike up a conversation with her (she had often accosted him), and she was obviously surprised by his sociability.

            “I am honoured that you should ask me, Mr. Spendler. I’m fine, but I’m afraid I don’t have much in the way of good news as concerns the movement of stock in and out of the store; there’s more going out, and less and less coming in. Local produce excepted, of course,” she added, gesturing graciously to Eugene, the truck driver. He bowed with a gauche formality. “I haven’t been able to bring in coffee for a week now,” she continued, “and black tea is getting scarce. No Mexican bananas, no Cuban tomatoes, no Portuguese olives—we’re lucky to get something shipped out of the States, for heaven’s sake.”

            Eugene shook his head. “Too much laziness in this country, I say. It’s the mining that isn’t being done; we’ve got to ship more ore to gain more trade credit. You know how many mines have been shut down this past year for lack of workers?”

            “It’s not the workers that are at fault,” snapped Anna with what would have been impropriety had she not been friends with the man. “It’s the mines! They’re not fit for human beings to be working in. And no wonder—most of them were built before the change, when a man’s life wasn’t worth his weight in silver and gold. It’s just a matter of time, Eugene: the mining will get done once they figure out a way to do it safely.”

            Richard could not help but point out the reality of the matter. “Mining will always be dangerous work,” he remarked. It was too blunt a statement, he discovered; somehow it caused an uncomfortable silence as the three of them pictured to themselves coal-smeared faces peering into dark caves with poor air. It seemed to fall to Richard to start things up again, which involved the difficulty of presenting a bright side, a hopeful option.

            “Wouldn’t it be better,” he mused, “if we could export our recycling technology or our plastics technology—and whatever else it takes—so our trading partners overseas aren’t so dependent on our mines? I mean, we should be thinking of ways to save ourselves work, not better ways of making it; and if we still can’t export enough—well, we’ll just have to concentrate on other industries, won’t we?”

            “That’s what I like to hear,” declared Anna. “Ideas instead of complaints. See what happens when a crafty old accountant applies his skills to real life?”

            Richard noted the woman’s inaccurate reference to his former position and reckoned that his former identity had become common knowledge in the neighbourhood by now.—My God! he thought—what else might they know about me? What might Meri know?

            “What other ideas for better trading do you have, Mr. Spendler?” Anna inquired.

            Richard was caught off guard; he had no ideas, other than those which presupposed a reversion to monetarist exchange. As he reflected, however, his eyes drifted toward a sign hung on the wall. Hoarding—who really needs it? it said. Who indeed, he thought. Nothing offended him more at the moment than the memory of a warehouse full of valuable raw materials, the products of hundreds of hours of labour, being withheld from those who needed them because a group of bitter old fools wanted to gain power by it.

            “There is one way by which the system could be quite easily improved,” he advised. “We could liberate all of the goods being hoarded by certain organisations who mean to benefit from other people’s frustration.”

            “And do you know of such an organisation?” asked Anna, her eyes widening.

            “You bet I do.”

 

            Tony and the other leaders of the monetarist lobby didn’t suspect that someone had betrayed them to the authorities until it was far too late. Richard never let on that he had become opposed to the MLA during the two weeks for which its members, their warehouse, and the movement of textiles in central Canada were placed under surveillance. He even continued to send Mr. Tan, the Director of Foreign Affairs, a weekly report on the world petroleum supply based on information gleaned from the ’net. Richard’s change of allegiance made him feel uncomfortable, however, while Tony was still in the house; it was far worse than anything he had felt with Pamela, whose trust he had betrayed a number of times and a number of ways. Tony, though an annoying, self-important bastard, was still his housemate if not his friend, and to look him in the eye every day knowing that you had betrayed him—it was almost unbearable.

            What made things even worse was Richard’s uncertainty about the punishments Tony and the others would face. He was not at all acquainted with the Canadian justice system as it had been reformed by the gratuitists, but he knew for certain that his former colleagues wouldn’t have the option of paying fines to extricate themselves from some other form of punishment. Tony would most likely go to jail, where he would most likely be forced to do work for which no one in the general population would ordinarily volunteer. Perhaps he would be sent into the blackfly-infested northern wilds to clear new roads; perhaps he would be given rubber gloves and a brush and be told to clean the penitentiary toilets. Perhaps he would learn to enjoy working for the benefit of others instead of just himself.

            —No, Richard thought, Tony will never change; he’s far too bitter about his personal losses, and I don’t know if I can blame him, having lost his family and all. But it was probably his own fault for being so unyieldingly certain that the monetarist way was the only way. Some people will never change, never revise their ways; some will always remain thinking with the concepts of the past, for their minds have worn themselves into grooves which cannot be traversed without excruciating pain. It had been painful enough for Richard, relatively young as he was, to think beyond his customary, mind-forged manacles.

            He began to think about the future of the monetarist movement as he patiently washed, the day before Tony’s arrest, the house’s overabundant windows. —The movement would live on, he decided, so long as there were people who felt cheated by the new system. A new executive would arise from the ranks of the MLA’s supporters to replace those who would be incarcerated, but perhaps these ranks themselves would dwindle somewhat once it became known that their leaders had stooped so low in their quest for power. Others, Richard suspected, would stoop lower still as their situation became more pathetic; there were always those who favoured violence to achieve their ends.

            He, meanwhile, pulled the trigger on his bottle of glass cleaner and washed away what seemed like ten years’ worth of grime. How had they managed to see anything all this time through these filthy windows, he wondered?

 

            Since his new girlfriend was in the business of making clothes, Richard was easily able to arrange for the dispersal of the many rolls of cloth that the MLA had stockpiled in their warehouses. Meri’s shop could only utilise so much at one time, but she was easily able to find takers for the remainder. Such was the nature of business among the gratuitists: one did not, in order to stay ahead of the competition, hoard material when one found a new and plentiful supply, but rather shared it with other factories or tradespeople so that more people could benefit from it. A shortage of new clothing was, after all, beginning to develop (even though more and more was being made from the locally-grown hemp that had supplanted tobacco in the fields of southern Ontario). It was therefore only logical that the stockpiled cotton be put to manufacture as soon as possible.

            And so Richard found himself overseeing the transport of all eighty pallets of material from the Merivale warehouse to Esmerelda’s shop and others like it in Ottawa and Toronto. It was an occupation which gave him a feeling of accomplishment much like that which he used to enjoy when he connected Chinese investors with Canadian enterprises or other expats with the circle at the embassy. Moreover, he clearly saw now that there was still a role for a man with his skills in the gratuitist world; there was still a need for organisers, for analysts who would connect supplies and demands in such a way that efficiency would be optimised. Was inefficiency not gratuitism’s greatest weakness, the very thing he deplored most about it? How ironic, he now realised, and yet how typically human, that he had always complained about the lack of the very thing that he was most capable of ameliorating.

            Richard made a point of being at the warehouse personally when the pallets were being taken away by the trucks he had arranged. With the bay doors open and the sun streaming in, the building had lost all the mystery with which it was invested when Tony had showed it to him. The noise of the forklift and the deliberate actions of its driver, too, seemed to exorcise the traces of evil genius which Tony had left there. Richard reflected upon the similarity between his role in this matter and the actions of a real-life Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor.—That’s the wrong way of thinking of it, he decided; a Robin Hood merely returns to the poor what the rich have stolen from them.

            —That’s how a Marxist would put it, remarked that part of him which spoke with the voice of Tony.—And what if it was? Just because Marxists are wrong about some things doesn’t make them wrong about everything. And who gave Marx the rights to economic thinking with a social conscience, anyhow? Robin Hood lived long before him, and other, greater ones even earlier. . . .

            The final six pallets of material were to go to Meri’s shop on Kent street, and Richard shipped himself with them. When he arrived and jumped from the van’s cab, it was with an air of triumph which might have seemed a little theatrical to a casual observer, but which arose and expressed itself as naturally as the vocal flourish of a rooster. Richard immediately went to clear a spot for the new material while the truck driver and his mate—Ray and Jean, the men who had moved Pamela’s furniture and whom Richard wanted to impress with his change of heart—set to work unloading their cargo. Meri, who had been busy at a sewing machine, put her project aside, stood, and greeted Richard with a kiss when he walked over to her. He was a little surprised; although he had already been intimate with her by now, this was their first public display of affection. It was a sign of acceptance which made him extremely sure of her commitment to him. Up until now, he had been uncertain: she might have been, like him, lonely for physical contact and not too fussy about who it came from; she might have been keeping an eye out for something better while making do with him. But now that she had kissed him in full view of her co-workers, it appeared that she intended to have and hold him. It was as though she were declaring her ownership by kissing him thus.

            Richard, too, felt as though he were declaring something. As he drew away from her and regarded her lovingly, his eye alighted briefly upon the glittering cross about her neck and he wondered if he ought to marry this woman someday.—I certainly can’t expect to find anyone better, he thought, not at any cost.

 

            Perhaps it had something to do with her lingering self-loathing for having slept with a man old enough to be her father: Pamela had found herself a new beau, Colin, who was about six years younger and, as she was beginning to find out, ten years more immature than herself. She had met him at a concert in a neighbourhood pub where one could actually get beer most nights. Not that she went there to drink—something to do with that lingering self-loathing again—but the pub seemed like a place where young single people could meet and have fun, so she had gone and met this boyish man there and she found that they had a lot in common. He liked the same music, read the same books, and had grown up in the same neighbourhood where her parents still lived. Once they had ascertained that they even knew a few people in common—his older brother was married to her friend’s friend—well, it seemed like destiny that they should start seeing each other. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they couldn’t take their eyes off of each other, either.

            The trouble with Colin (from Pamela’s point of view, at least) was that he couldn’t relax or stay put for very long. It seemed like every other day he was off on his motorcycle, touring the Gatineau Hills or the Ontario countryside, racing to Montréal and back, driving his co-workers crazy with his unpredictable absences. Indeed, Pamela wondered why they didn’t ask him to stay away altogether; but then, it wasn’t easy to find volunteers to work as roofers.

            On one occasion, he got the idea into his head that he would drive cross-country to the Rocky Mountains. Of course, he wanted to take his new girlfriend with him.

            “I really can’t get away from the office for at least a month,” Pamela had told him; “we’ve just gotten started working on a custody case that’ll take quite some time to get through.”

            “A month? I wanna go on Friday,” he’d whined to her. “Don’t pretend you can’t just pack up and leave that place whenever you want. Let someone else do your stuff for you.”

            “I made a commitment, and I’m not going to let my associates down. You’ve got to plan ahead if you want me to go on a trip like that with you.”

            “C’mon, Pam! Haven’t you ever wanted to just act totally irresponsibly for once in your life?”

            “I’ve been totally irresponsible many times,” she’d assured him. “It’s an overrated pleasure, let me tell you.”

            Colin was discouraged for a while, but he did not give up entirely. He wanted more than anything to take Pamela someplace spectacularly beautiful, someplace primordial and dangerous where they could experience their animal nature all the more powerfully. He pestered her and enticed her as best he could, but in the end he had to settle for a weekend in the all-too-familiar Laurentian Mountains of Quebec.

            And so Pamela found herself being spirited away from Ottawa and Hull and up into the gentle, tree-covered hills of the gatineau, her hands holding firmly to Colin’s leather-clad body as she sat behind him on the bike. It was one of those humid, scorching June afternoons that would have been unpleasant in the city, so she was quite happy to be on the road out of it. The refreshing coolness of the air being driven through the seams of her leather pants and under her collar, the sensation of power beneath her crotch, the closeness of this man in front of her and in her grasp—it was almost overwhelming. The sheer speed and acceleration was a thrill, and Pamela loved it when they took a curve and leaned into it sharply. It was a little bit scary to think you were tilted thirty degrees from vertical.

            When they got into the real mountains, however—it only took a few minutes once they had rocketed past the suburbs of Hull—Pamela’s excitement turned to concern. It seemed to her that they were going far too fast for such twisty, two-lane roads.—He’s probably showing off, she thought, thinks I’ll be impressed by his skill and courage. Well I’m not.

            “Would you slow down, honey?” she asked sweetly. She did not have to yell because their helmets were wired with a radio headset.

            “What for?” came the reply.

            “It’s not safe.”

            Colin laughed. “Pam, I know there roads like the back of my hand. See this next bend? There’s a crossing a hundred metres beyond it. The light will be green.” They came around the bend, and it was just as he’d described it; he accelerated through the intersection as though there was no chance the signal could change. Pamela noticed that it went amber just as they were passing beneath the traffic light.

            “We just about missed it,” she pointed out.

            “See? We’re going too slow. Just like this guy in front of us.” Without any hesitation, Colin swung alongside a car in front of them and overtook it in the blink of an eye. Pamela didn’t even have time to look over at the driver’s face.

            “Suppose we meet a cop on this road?” she asked.

            “Ha! I haven’t seen, or even heard of someone seeing a cop on this road in three years. There’s nobody enforcing speed limits any more! It’s a free country!” proclaimed Colin, twisting the accelerator a little more to make his point.

            —Impossible man, Pamela though. Maybe there should be police out here enforcing the speed limit before someone (like me) gets killed. But who would volunteer to do it? Dammit, I wish I had a halter and reins so I could control him like a horse. Maybe if I pulled on his ponytail. . . . She tugged gently, but this only made him turn his head and say “quit it.”

            They drove on for an hour, north to where the road was no longer as smoothly paved as it was between the city and the popular ski lodges. There was a stretch of road that followed a river valley and was almost straight for miles, and Colin took advantage of it by pushing the machine as fast as it would go.—This isn’t fun any more, Pamela decided. It’s just stupid masculine bravado in excess, defying death and getting off on it. Figures he’s hard as a rock. Maybe if we stopped for a quickie in the woods he’d get it out of his system and we could travel at a more civilised pace. Braking—why is he braking so hard? What’s that thing on the road?

            Pamela had just enough time to classify the animal on the road as a wolf, just enough time to see its frightened eyes before the bike got away from Coin as he locked up the brakes and swerved to avoid it. The animal darted away at the last second, but it didn’t make any difference; Pamela had lost her grip on both man and machine and suddenly she was watching road, sky, and trees twirl in a blur, then she was bouncing on the pavement, rolling on it, finally coming to rest in the grassy ditch. Then she was looking up at a puffy white cloud sailing ever-so-slowly across the azure sky, the world having gone silent but for the blood rushing in her ears.

            —I’m okay. He managed to slow down enough. I don’t think anything’s broken, but oh, Jesus, does my elbow ever hurt. Thank God for leather. Thank God I’m still alive. Thank God we didn’t wipe out while he was going faster. Thank God for helmets. I think I’d have a concussion if it weren’t for this thing.

            “Pam!” screamed Colin’s voice. He could not see her there in the ditch. “Pam, where are you?!” She groaned and forced herself to stand up. It seemed like every part of her body had made contact with the asphalt at some point, for she felt battered and bruised all over, and there were scuff marks on every part of her leather outfit.

            Colin was running towards her, his helmet off so that one could see that he had turned white as a sheet, with tears streaming out of his wild eyes. He, too, had been thrown from the bike, but he didn’t look half so scuffed up as she did.

            “Oh, thank God you’re okay!” he cried. Pamela thrust an arm out in front of her before he could reach and try to embrace her.

            “Don’t touch me,” she warned. He stopped dead in his tracks.

            “Look, I’m really sorry. I’m just not used to the way the bike handles with a passenger behind me. Do—do you think anything’s broken? Or crushed inside?”

            “I’m not sure. . . . Hey, get your bike off the road, you dumb ass!” she railed at him, pointing to where the motorcycle was lying, unmoved, with its front end jutting out from the shoulder into the driving lane. “Hurry, before you cause another accident!”

            As Colin rushed to carry out her order, Pamela checked to see if anything was coming.—Not another car or truck in sight. I hope I don’t have to wait here too long for a ride back into town. No way I’m getting back on the bike with him, whether it still works or not. Wait a minute—what’s that thing on the road? Don’t tell me we hit the poor animal after all—? She started walking towards the furry lump to get a closer look. It was roadkill, alright—but not the animal she had seen before. It was a young deer that had probably been hit by a logging truck.—Poor thing, Pamela thought. I know how you must have felt.

            Colin came up alongside her, having propped up the motorcycle by the side of the road. He paced his hand on her shoulder in the most gingerly way possible, but she coldly withdrew from his offensive presence. “That’s why that wolf was standing in the middle of the road,” Colin deduced. “He was sniffing this deer.”

            “So he was.” Pamela thought for a moment, paced, and confronted Colin again. “Let me give you something to think about: suppose there hadn’t been any wolf here. Suppose you hadn’t tried to stop because you saw him. Do you think you would have noticed this carcass lying here?”

            “I don’t know. Probably.”

            “Probably not. Not until it was too late, anyway. You would have hit this thing, and you’da been going a lot faster, and you woulda lost it, and we’d probably both be dead by now. That’s what would have happened.”

            Pamela remembered the wolf’s face and decided that some supernatural agency had sent it here to protect her from a far worse accident in which she would have at least been seriously injured.—Thank you, guardian angel, she prayed; but I shouldn’t have needed you. We shouldn’t have been tearing around the countryside like maniacs. And we wouldn’t have been if there were cops somewhere, or at least the fear of cops and fines and insurance premiums to deter a certain person from tearing around like a maniac. Haven’t you ever wanted to act totally irresponsible for once in your life?—I remember him asking me. Well, maybe if you’d reached manhood in a normal, monetarist country, you’d have known the cost of irresponsibility. It’s all very well if you’re a smart gratuitist and you don’t need a fine or reward in every circumstance to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right. But what if you’re dumb and immature and you’re not ready for that way of thinking yet? There’s no better tool than money when you need to control those who just can’t control themselves. Oh Colin, it’s not your fault. It’s the system. It just doesn’t suit men like you.

 

            A mere four weeks after Richard had been at Meri’s house for the first time, things had progressed between them to the point where they decided that he should move in with her. They were in love with each other, and Richard had also fallen in love with Meri’s children—another unexpected turn in his life, for he had never been interested in children before. Joanne, he found, could be depended upon to make him laugh with her ridiculous questions and precocious behaviour, while Valentin drew out of him a fatherly tenderness such as he never would have dreamt himself capable. The boy could be a terror, too, with his far wanderings and his propensity to bring insects into the house, but Richard could forgive him for being curious.—I was probably the same way at his age, he would think to himself. And what an amazing discovery it was, too, that these children could entertain themselves (and anyone who would join their games) with things that had always been free; the broken, discarded pot of their mother’s was more useful in their eyes than the plastic playsets that were once sold in the stores, and Valentin had more exploring his own backyard than he could ever have had exploring the virtual worlds of the computer.

             Richard and Meri had, of course, debated whether she and her two little ones ought to move in with him, but this option seemed to them more of an inconvenience than if Richard were to move in with her. Not only did Meri’s family have more necessary things than Richard, the move would have also presented difficulties for Richard’s tenants; for there were three of them again, Laura having joined them after Tony’s arrest. Since Laura had taken the guest room next to Bill on the main floor, the children would have been forced to share Tony’s old room, and they were accustomed to rooms of their own. Hence, Richard agreed that he should bequeath most of his furniture and household things to his tenants and move himself into Meri’s house. Meri, meanwhile, made space for him by giving away some of the clothes in her bedroom closet and clearing a little space on the bathroom shelf. What more did a man like him need?

            A problem remained, however, in that Richard was still obliged to formally transfer stewardship of the house to one of his housemates, who would subsequently be responsible for the yard and occupancy level. This was not going to be easy; Richard had reasons for entrusting the place to both Uwe and Bill. He was not even certain of his decision when he called the two of them to a meeting at the kitchen table.

            “Meri and I were talking today,” he began, “and we decided it would be best if I were to move in with her. Now, it’s not going to have to be today or tomorrow, but I’m going to have to relinquish stewardship of this house to one of you gentlemen and fill out the applicable forms at city hall.”

            He paused to survey the faces of the two men, both of whom were tensely awaiting more information. 

            “This is difficult for me, because I know I’m effectively giving one of you an authority over the other which hasn’t been extant until now. . . . Uwe, you’ve been my friend a long time, and you’ve taken care of the house for years in the past—”

            “I know, Richard, but I don’t really want it.”

            “Don’t argue with me until you hear my explanation. Now that Bill’s got his friend Laura living with him, I think it’s only right—”

            “That he should take over,” Uwe spoke the very words that were forming in Richard’s mind. “That’s perfectly okay with me.”

            “It is?”

            “Of course. What do I want with a big house like this tying me down anyway? You know I like to go south for the winter, and I don’t care much for yard work or housework, for that matter. Besides, Laura runs the house already, doesn’t she, Bill?”

            “She does, thank God,” said Bill sheepishly. He stood, and one could detect a feeling of gratitude trying to show itself in his stolid face. When he spoke again, however, it was something other than words of thanks.

            “I’m very happy for you, Richard,” he said, shaking his unexpected benefactor’s hand. “I had no idea it was so serious. It’s really a miracle, too, the way you’ve changed.”

            —The way I’ve changed? He’s noticed the way I’ve changed? Richard suddenly felt flattered and blushed slightly. Then he searched the twinkling eyes of this peculiar, hawk-nosed man and wondered at him. Somehow, he and Laura had done something to effect this miraculous change. Richard felt fortunate that the pressures of the world had forced his and their paths to cross, for he probably would never have met such persons, he was sure, had he been able to merely follow his old inclinations. Such was the beauty of the free world, which Richard, through his erstwhile distorted perception, had seen as an ugly blight: humanity was brought together when the commerce between them was taken away, so that one could see how others lived and worked; so that one could see, when it was impossible to imagine, how one might live, work, and above all, think differently.


END


© 2004 Robert Zimmer - rlzimmer@hotmail.com

For previous chapters, see Back Issues