by Paul Charles Griffin
“On the seventh day, they got up at daybreak and marched around the city seven times in the same manner, except that on that day they circled the city seven times. The seventh time around, when the priests sounded the trumpet blast, Joshua commanded the people, ‘Shout! For the Lord has given you the city! The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the Lord. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall be spared, because she hid the spies we sent.'”
-Joshua, Chapter 6, Verses 15-17
PREFACE: The Argument
The world is approaching, in Hegelian fashion, a dualistic political reality of, on the one hand, absolute totalitarianism, and, on the other, utter anarchy. The future holds both systems, simultaneously. Pockets of anarchy will stand over and against world-totalitarianism. Organizations of free association upholding the freedom and dignity of the individual — in short, each man as his own king — will develop alongside the continual build-up of a labyrinthian world-system dictated by the wills of big business, big religion, and big government — in other words, the institution as ruler. In the following short, speculative, picaresque novel, I have attempted to depict this future and its inherent conflicts.
I began writing this novel in despair. The year was 2002 and the state of America was in decline. The Bush Administration, having quite possibly stolen the election of 2000, in a travesty of democracy, seemed to me to have materialized directly out of the mind of George Orwell. Over the years, this administration’s capacity for deceptive doublespeak (the Clean Air Act, the Patriot Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, etc.) and its incapacity for sensible leadership (the Iraq War, the response to Hurricane Katrina, the non-existent policy on climate change, etc.) has only deepened my sadness. There is no denying that there is something rotten in America. Fully aware of the dangers of oversimplification, I have come to see our political system as essentially corrupted by the profit motive, by the greed for money, by late-stage corporate capitalism. We are not living in a true democracy, where the will of the people rules the land, not by any stretch of the imagination. We are living in a corpocracy, where soulless entities motivated only by profit dominate national policy. We are not living in the Happy Age of Universal Comfort; rather, we are living in the Dark Age of the Lord of Materialism. And things are getting worse.
At the same time, I would not choose to live anywhere else. Even as the government, big business, and fundamentalist religious thinking, in my opinion, pull our country in the wrong direction, namely, backward, there is still a joyful spirit deep within the people, a voice alive in our arts and culture, a steadfast, enlightened vision of the future that continues to uplift all things American. Even as our basic freedoms are more and more encroached upon, even as our reputation in the world continues to decline, this country is still a free country, where self-expression of all kinds liberates and purges us continually. We rise up and live another day, even as our national pride has been so mortally wounded, because we still believe in what America stands for, namely, the inalienable rights of man, the dignity of each human individual, and the unfettered pursuit of happiness. We remain loyal, dutiful citizens, even as it is clear that America has yet to fully realize its ambitious, philosophical aspirations. Despite our failures, the essential landscape of America is still one of vast hope and limitless possibility. We embody what Fitzgerald, in describing his hero Gatsby, so eloquently named, “ a heightened sensitivity to the promises of life... an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness.” This sensitivity, this gift, this readiness is everything I believe in. I see the people of this country — despite everything — progressing spiritually towards a new and beautiful paradigm.
But the road will not be pretty. To be sure, there will be conflict, suffering, loss of life. This much is clear. Already, over the past six years, the road has indeed been ugly and the sacrifices have indeed been great. Each day seems to bring more bafflingly bad news. When I began writing this novel, to write was a form of therapy. Every morning I sat down to express my frustration with the state of affairs, my deep disillusionment with our country, and — dammit! — my rage against civilization itself, which seemed to me at every turn to obstruct our ability to just be what we are — human and alive, all-good and joyful.
So I returned to this novel in the summer of 2008 because I had yet to exorcize the demon. Once a project is born in the mind of a writer, he is never free until it is finished. As I revisit this work, I notice that my motivations are clearer and redoubled. I wish to give the public a rough sketch — albeit an unreliable, fictionalized portrait, a product of my mad imagination — I wish to compose a creative study of this dualistic dialectic, a portrait of world-politics as inexorably evolving into both absolute totalitarianism and utter anarchy. What follows is the story of the conflict therein.
While the novel form no longer has the kind of influence over the collective consciousness it once had, I nevertheless offer this short, comic novel as a vision of what might come to pass, despite all our lofty rhetoric on the future of democracy and the freedom of peoples. Perhaps part of the responsibility of the artist is prophesy, if that be his talent and inclination. I myself don’t claim any such clairvoyance, rather, what follows is simply a sketch of my personal nightmare and an expression of my faith in our collective romantic readiness.
PART I: The Empire of Flatland
Citizen and Public Servant
Arthur Plank, a behemoth of a man, stared at the screen, trying to ignore how badly his eyeballs ached. Sitting in Pod #171 of the Empire’s Department of Reality, Plank was at the busiest intersection of information in the world. Thousands of state-of-the-art flat screens surrounded his pod which was positioned on a mechanical arm capable of moving swiftly up and down and side to side within the Opticon, a circular cavern of data with a mile-long radius. This mechanism allowed Plank to zoom down a level and observe the action in any alleyway of the Empire, or zoom up a level and keep an eye on the docks. The Opticon was an excellent machine, and though it made Plank feel powerful in a pleasurable way, it also really hurt his eyeballs. In fact, over twenty years of working in the Opticon had made Plank half-blind.
By uttering one of thousands of codes, Plank could observe any nook of the vast Empire. He could also call forth a report on the human movement within any given sector, and this single report among billions would appear before his sorry eyes on a computer screen that extended by robotic arm from the dark recesses of the outside circular walls. Ironically, much of this video was filmed by the citizens themselves, obsessed as they were with capturing their own lives on film. The Opticon merely had to intercept and organize this constant influx of self-surveillance. In the end, Plank could watch any Empirean man, woman or child, as unseen Opticon cameras too recorded nearly every moment of each citizen’s life. If not every moment, at least enough to give the citizens of the Empire the sense of invisible omniscience. Hence, people in the Empire were awfully paranoid, which didn’t mean they weren’t constantly being watched.
Plank had a reputation for watching people having sex. Not because he was a pervert, but because the last terrorist attack perpetrated on the homeland had been plotted exclusively during copulation between the evildoers. Institutionalized imagination was the Department of Reality’s creed, and the Opticon, this matrix of benevolent surveillance, was Plank’s workplace.
“Your shit’s not selling,” said Dan, zooming around in the pod next to Plank’s.
“What are you talking about?” asked Plank.
“You saw the numbers,” said Dan. “Don’t play dumb. Your shit’s not selling.”
It was true: Plank’s videos were not selling. Not only was the Department of Reality responsible for surveillance of the entire Empire, it was also expected to turn a profit. At the end of each shift, Plank put together his Best Of Surveillance Today highlight video. These digital Best Of videos were then sold to the public on the internet. Lately, Plank, who had years ago been crowned King Of Best Ofs at the office holiday party, hadn’t been selling anything.
“I’ll turn it around,” said Plank. “I’ll be back in the Top Ten by week’s end.”
Dan laughed derisively at Plank and zoomed down a level to watch a grocer he’d been following sit on his front stoop and play dominoes with his kids.
He called up: “Here’s a tip, Plank: Stop watching animals.”
Plank’s golden days of catching criminals planning their crimes while having wild criminal sex were long gone. Back in the day, Plank’s videos had sold very well. But now everybody in the Department was doing what he had pioneered. Criminals Having Hot Criminal Sex best-of videos sold consistently in the Top Ten. So, bereft of new ideas, Plank spent most of his time watching squirrels in the park. Those fuzzy little suckers were fascinating, and perhaps dangerous, thought Plank. He figured that terrorists had once used rats to disseminate poison gas in the subways, why not squirrels? So he kept close watch. Not that it mattered whether the squirrels were dangerous anyway. Ultimately, the Department of Reality was less concerned with protecting the public and more concerned with swindling the public through the sale of its best-of videos. This state of affairs had begun years ago when Bling Studios Inc had bought the Department of Reality from the Empire government in a conspicuous display of corpocracy. Business was business was economics was government. In the Empire — a flatland of pure objectivity — the bottom line was the bottom line.
A man named Maxwell Jamb was Plank’s boss. He roamed the Opticon with a limp and jabbed his employees in the kidneys with his cane to remind them of his great capacity for cruelty. Jamb was a bad trip of a man who worked sixty hours a week to feed his family and pay the mortgage on their seventy million dollar home uptown. Having risen to his current post of Director of Reality by having the previous Director of Reality poisoned, Jamb was feared.
As Plank tried to squeeze his huge rear-end into a chair in Jamb’s office, Jamb fired away:
“Plank, you don’t look good,” he said. “What the hell’s wrong with you? You’re taking your fucking Cocktail, right?”
“Yes sir, I take my Cocktail,” answered Plank, who, like every dutiful Empirean, took a complex concoction of pills in order to stay happy and productive. For sadness and depression were banned in the Empire. In fact, all inner states of consciousness simply were not recognized in the Empire. The view of the Empire was that only objective material reality was real, as the existence of any so-called consciousness had long ago been disproved by empirical science. There was no space for inner realities in the Empire’s arch-rational worldview. Things like the soul and the soul’s troubles simply were not considered real; only the brain and the brain’s chemistry. Moreover, negative emotions such as so-called sadness were bad for business. Clinical well-being of the citizenry had been mastered by science and technology. Any personal, inner reality such as sadness was considered invalid, as there simply was no inwardness or depth or consciousness in the Empire. The Empire was a flatland.
“If you don’t mind me asking, Plank, how many pills do they have you taking these days?” asked Jamb.
“I take forty-seven now.”
“Forty-seven! Holy shit! You’re a fucked-up factory, aren’t you, Plank? Forty-seven. Wow. Unbelievable. That’s a lot. What are they all for?”
Plank minded the asking, but his numbers were low, his videos weren’t selling, so he couldn’t afford the sentiment.
“Well, I take one for Anti-Obesity,” said Plank. “That’s helped.”
“I can see that,” ribbed Jamb.
“It’s helped some,” Plank continued. “Then, my Anti-Lost Love combination is up to thirteen pills. Or is it fourteen? I can’t remember. So many colors. Uh, let’s see, two months ago, I started in on this Anti-Paranoia pill. And there’s my Anti-Anxiety, Anti-Bad Art, Anti-Constipation — ”
“All right, Plank, that’s enough.”
Jamb leaned back in his plush chair and tried to shake off this unusually intimate exchange with his employee. He needed to get down to business, and business was tough — business was business. Business came naturally to Jamb, who was built to tear through people like a hurricane tore through trailer parks.
“Business is business, right Plank?” he began.
“That’s right, sir,” agreed Plank. “Business is business.”
“Yes it is,” said Jamb. “That much we know for certain. Now Plank, you’ve always been a hard worker. A real original. But the facts are the facts, are the numbers. And your numbers are horrible. Your stock is not even in the top 50%, Plank? That’s low class.”
Here Jamb paused, allowing Plank a moment to respond. The name of every citizen of the Empire was traded on the PersonExchange. In this way, society constantly evaluated a person’s functional worth. Instead of ranking human beings by their net wealth, as was done in the past, this more advanced system also took into account a person’s potential to make money. How much society was willing to gamble on a person’s talent-set was an important part of the equation. Trading on the PersonExchange was lively because betting on a person’s potential was fun and kept things interesting through dark times. In the final analysis, every citizen of the Empire of Flatland could be reduced to numbers: to his physical coordinates according to the Opticon, to his financial potential according to the PersonExchange, even to his statistical well-being according to his brain’s ChemiScan.
Plank’s stock had plummeted ever since other surveillance video editors had caught onto his criminal sex gig. People weren’t trading in Arthur Plank the way they had five years ago when Plank was featured on the cover of the newspaper under the headline, “ARTHUR PLANK, LOCAL HERO: KEEPS US SAFE, SELLS US PORN.”
“I haven’t been hot in a while, sir,” said Plank matter-of-factly.
“No you haven’t,” said Jamb. “Now I have two choices here. First, I can spend company money and send you to an ProductivityRehabilitation center. Maybe the experts can make you productive again. But that’s company money we’re talking about. That’s important stuff. Can you be made productive again? I don’t know, Plank. Your light is fading. You’re looking dim. This happens. Now, my other choice is simply to let you go. Which is clearly the better option and so this is what I’ve decided to do. You’re a free man, Plank — you’re fired.”
Financial instability was not Plank’s idea of freedom, so he protested.
“Mr. Jamb, I’ve worked here for twenty-two years,” he began. “Twenty-two years of loyal service. You know that’s all I care about. Serving the Empire, protecting the Empire, selling things to the Empire. I have my priorities in order. There are some fellows in there who watch movies all day long. I’m not naming names, but the guy in charge of Sector 78, an important sector, I might add, he watches kung-fu movies all day. I haven’t seen him make an arrest or cut a good best-of edit in weeks. Not that I mean to compare myself with others. I don’t need to do that, I know I do good work.”
“What have you done since criminal sex?” countered Jamb. “Nothing.”
“That’s not true,” Plank argued insincerely.
“Look, Arthur,” said Jamb, “I just don’t have a single, solitary spot.”
“But that’s a lie!” cried Plank. “I know over 30 of the 270 Pods are currently unoccupied. You have plenty of spots.”
“I know,” said Jamb. “I just like that line. Truth is I don’t have a single, solitary spot for you, Arthur.”
“But what about my sponsorship!” he asked.
Every citizen in the Empire was required to secure corporate sponsorship or else face deportation. Fulfilling the responsibilities of citizen sponsorship involved wearing visible emblems and logos in public at all times — on hats, shirts, slickers and such — and inserting a word-of-mouth advertisement into one’s conversation at least twice daily. Citizen sponsorship began at age three, when the brain was most malleable and susceptible to branding . Hyping one’s corporation eventually became second nature.
“OptiVids will continue to sponsor you until you are able to secure a new sponsor,” said Jamb, adding, “or until two weeks is passed, whichever comes first.”
Plank was getting screwed. But he refused to prostrate himself before Jamb, even if the man was a murderer. Plank possessed the quiet pride of a humble public servant. A clerk’s pride, firm and steadfast. So he decided to deny the fact of Jamb’s power, to deny the firing.
“Two weeks! Fuck you, Mr. Jamb!” he spat out, rising to his feet. “You can’t fire me! I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Plank stormed out of the office, as fast as a fat man can storm, leaving Jamb to wonder if he had successfully accomplished the firing. He couldn’t be sure. Plank was a weird one, he thought to himself, he might back again tomorrow, just like he said he would. That would make things rather uncomfortable, wouldn’t it? If that happened, I might have to deport the poor bastard, Jamb reasoned. Or have him killed. Or melt his blubbery flesh down into candles. Something drastic. A sense of despair came over Jamb, so he quickly popped an Anti-Despair pill and everything was all better.
Happy Juice, the WarNow!Network, and the ClearAirIndex
Walking home after being fired, Plank felt pain in his feet. What he thought about was alcohol, because having accidentally stumbled upon the illegal stuff as a young man, he had become a lover of alcohol, a genuine dipsomaniac, and so it was his fate to think about alcohol for much of his waking life. But of course the drinking of spirits had long ago been outlawed in the Empire for obvious reasons: drinking spirits gave rise to interiority. And officially, there was no interiority on the inside. So, because the very existence of an individual’s private inner self was denied categorically by the Empire, drinking was illegal. The smoking or inhaling or ingesting in any way of any drugs whatsoever not explicitly prescribed by one’s primary physician was against the law. This law was instituted for the good of the people, for only the doctors and the scientists and the lawmakers — only the experts — knew what was best.
Meanwhile, Plank dreamed about alcohol, and in his dreams, he drank the stuff. But of course, Plank kept such scandalous dreams to himself. For if he were to report such a dream — and by law all dreams were to be reported to CentralImaginationCommand each morning via the DreamReportHomeConsole — if Plank were to report such a dream, he would be deported. And no honest Empire citizen such as Plank wished for the anarchic outsider world beyond the Empire’s walls, where people starved and and suffered and died. That kind of poor, savage subsistence was commonly considered a living hell. As was the idea of drinking alcohol. Yet, and here was the rub, getting fired had been an emotional ordeal for Plank. It was deeply upsetting, so naturally, Plank desired the drink. And even in a strict totalitarian society such as that of the Empire, there was always underground moonshine to be found. Even in the Empire, the roots of rebellion stirred beneath the surface.
He called a buddy in Dipsomaniacs Anonymous, a support group for those unfortunate souls who had somehow discovered alcohol and developed an attachment to the wicked stuff.
“Ralph, I got fired today,” Plank said. “And I want a drink.”
“Don’t do it, man,” said Ralph. “You’ll throw your life away.”
“Don’t be a bitch. Go to a meeting.”
“I hate meetings.”
“What does that have to do with anything? Everyone hates meetings,” said Ralph. “Don’t you have any Anti-Dipso pills?”
“I already took two,” said Plank. “Still wanna drink.”
“Jesus. Take a Doozex.”
A Doozex was a pill that made one feel as if one were floating in the ether. It was prescribed for “passing undesirable moods, days or years.”
“Not a bad idea.”
“Look man,” said Ralph, “Do you need me to come over?”
“No, no, that’s all right,” said Plank. “I’m just going to grab a bottle and —.”
“Don’t kid around, Arthur,” said Ralph. “It’s not funny. You’ve never taken your sobriety seriously enough. Today’s a good day to start. Just get through today. You don’t want to be deported.”
“Blah blah blah,” said Plank. “All right. I’m okay. Thanks for taking the call.”
“Well, call me if you need me,” said Ralph. “But I gotta run, I’m tied up here at work. Call Tommy.”
“Yeah, all right. I’ll let you go.”
“Take it easy. Go home and relax. Watch some TV.”
“I hate TV and you know that.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, whatever, call me back. I gotta go.”
“OK, Ralph. Thanks.”
Worthless phone call, thought Plank. Furious at the utter futility of DA, Plank now wanted to drink more than he had before the call. And he didn’t feel like calling Tommy, because Tommy had an evangelical bent to his program, and that turned him off.
And he really didn’t have any other friends.
And his family, his wife and son, were on the outside, and had been for twenty years. If they're even alive, thought Plank.
He made the phone call. To Happy Juice — to HJ — an underground alcohol dealer. In ten short minutes, he met the dealer in an alleyway, bought three bottles of whiskey, and walked home with the liquor stashed beneath his shirt. Feeling the warm, brown stuff near his skin, Plank grew giddy. He could almost taste the sweet stuff on his lips as he scurried home through the darkening night.
Plank’s uptown apartment was a luxurious, sprawling place overlooking the river, which had risen drastically in recent years due to global climate change and now engulfed much of Empire City, including three avenues on its east side. Nevertheless, human capitalist ingenuity had risen to the occasion. Underwater shopping was the current rage. On Deep Blue Avenue, sales of trendy flippers or gas masks kept business booming. And that’s what mattered. In the Empire, booming business mattered most.
When Plank arrived home, Ralph was there waiting for him. This annoyed Plank, because now he wouldn’t be able to drink his whiskey. Seeing Ralph’s face, Plank intensely hated his good friend, for keeping him sober and law-abiding. He quickly tried to hide his three bottles of whiskey in a dumpster, but Ralph saw him and laughed at him. Ralph hustled over to the dumpster and took the bottles from Plank. One by one, he broke each bottle over the dumpster’s edge.
Ralph, sensing Plank’s rage, handed Plank an Anti-Rage pill and said, “Come on. Let’s go to a meeting.”
“No,” said Plank flatly.
“Let’s watch some TV then.”
“Fine,” muttered Plank.
So they went to Plank’s apartment, slumped onto the couches, and watched some of the western frontier’s War Against Outsiders on the WarNow!Network.
The WarNow!Network anchor, a man named Carl Kromberg, sat in the War Room, reporting on the bloody violence out west. Plank and Ralph drank tall glasses of cranberry juice on ice and watched the screen in a manly silence. Even a straight man would have to admit that Kromberg was a pretty man. He wore a sharp blue suit and a red power tie. His jet black hair was super-slicked back. With unnerving eyes, he reported the latest news to the citizens of the Empire:
“The outsider loonies are after us. After nearly two weeks of a tenuous cease-fire, it’s a now a full-fledged rampage on the west coast. The outsiders have blown a hole in the Sector 13 Wall. Let’s take you there now, where our own Lindsay Blackmon is reporting live.”
Blackmon, visibly high on a legal cocktail of strong amphetamines, appeared frightened and frantic.
“The outsider rebels are surprisingly resurgent, Carl. I’m being told that a new terrorist group, Laws Not Walls, is responsible for the latest thrust. Regardless, there is no need to panic. The reaction of the Empire Armed Forces has been swift and awesome. We’ll take you now inside its GunSquad Headquarters.”
Inside the GunSquad Headquarters a host of kids appeared to be playing video games. And that’s what they thought they were doing. In actuality, the little tykes were manning mini remote control fighter planes that gunned down the hapless rebel outsiders.
“It’s wild in here, Carl. These kids can shoot!” Blackmon walked to a boy, an eight-year-old, fiercely concentrating on his game. “Look at this soldier at work. I feel safe with this young sharp-shooter picking off the enemy.”
Sounds of video game gunshots — pytzoom pytzoom — filled the room. The kids grunted as they killed. A gigantic scoreboard overhead announced who was winning and who was losing, motivating the competitive little bastards to no end. The Empire Armed Forces was good at what it did — kill people.
“Fucking outsiders,” said Ralph, trying to make a point.
“Yeah, fucking outsiders,” repeated Plank. But actually, Plank found himself in a compassionate mood. “Actually, sometimes, I feel bad for them.”
“Feel bad for them?,” mocked Ralph. “Why? They’re ungrateful punks. Total barbarians.”
“Sometimes I feel we should help them more,” said Plank. “Like back when that one island state went underwater, Ahiee or whatever, and we were just like, Whatever, screw it. That seemed wrong, no?”
Ralph, a run-of-the-mill militant patriot and self-proclaimed realist, was flummoxed.
“We feed them,” he began. “We give them water. We give them work. We support their every waking moment. We support their very lives, however subhuman those lives may be. And this is how they thank us — by blowing holes in the walls around our cities! Bullshit.”
Ralph’s reactionary patriotism irked Plank. Naturally, Plank was a patriot, too, he had his priorities in order. But there was a little voice in the corner of Plank’s mind that suggested a reordering of priorities, a reevaluation of values, even though he took a pill to correct that. Despite his Cocktail, Plank still heard the voice.
“I guess,” said Plank. The conversation was hurting his heart. Ralph, on the other hand, had an artificial heart. “But you’ve got to admit, Ralph, they’ve got it pretty tough.”
“I suppose,” admitted Ralph. “I wish we could do more. Really, I do. I wish their lives were better. But we’ve got our own shit to worry about. Personally, I put in fifty plus hours a week at the Incinerator just to keep this whole thing going. I’ve got my hands full.”
Plank wasn’t going to ask what Ralph meant by “this whole thing”. Instead, he went back to watching Kromberg interview an ex-hippie-punk about his rehabilitation into society, “One day, I just decided,” said the hippie, “So what if the Empire is out of control? At least we’re winning.”
Plank wondered when Ralph would get the hell out of his apartment and go home to his wife, so that he could call HJ and order more whiskey. He pondered his weakness for booze and why death by booze wasn’t more widely respected. He wondered why the Empire’s groundbreaking science and wonder-working pills had yet to fully eradicate his deep longing for whiskey. Then he fell asleep and dreamed sweet drunken dreams.
Plank awoke two hours later when Ralph jammed an oxygen mask onto his face.
Swatting at his friend, Plank cried, “Get the fuck off me!”
“Weather report, man,” explained Ralph. “CleanAirIndex of only 13%. They’re recommending masks for the next few days.”
This was common procedure in the overly industrialized society of the Empire. Fortunately, Plank was a relatively well-off man, but a lowly public servant, and wage-enslaved by the money-bags, to be sure; nevertheless, he was an Empirean, and thereby superrich by any global standard. Even when compared with other Empireans, Plank fared well; his income at the Department of Reality was, or had been, more than respectable. For example, he could afford oxygen, a privatized luxury. When the CleanAirIndex dropped, many Empireans simply suffered a few weeks of emphysema until things cleared up again; others less fortunate succumbed to lung cancer.
“You need a new machine, man,” said Ralph, his voice muffled by the mask over his mouth. “I sound like fucking Darth Vader in this thing.”
“You’re welcome for the oxygen,” said Plank.
Ralph’s meager income — again, all things being relative, meager only according to Empire standards; Ralph was superrich accord to a global standard — Ralph’s meager income did not allow for the purchase of surplus oxygen. His wife would have to line up at the local FreshAirDepot and hope for the best. But Ralph wasn’t worried about her for the time being because he and his wife were in the middle of a nasty fight.
“What are you going to do about work?” Ralph asked finally.
“I don’t know,” said Plank. “Maybe I’ll just go back. Show up tomorrow. See if Jamb says anything.”
“You’re in denial.”
“But I can’t think of anything else to do. I can’t find another job. And I can’t sit at home all day. I don’t trust myself.”
“Yeah, I don’t trust you either.”
Plank reflected a moment, then said, “I guess I never learned to do anything with myself other than work.”
“Work makes free,” said Ralph.
“Not really, though.”
“Yeah, not really.”
Plank and Ralph sat together in the early morning and enjoyed their oxygen, even though it was a little stale.
Ralph added: “Did you know the Incinerator is reducing its trash-vaporization prices by up to 50% all month long?”
Plank rolled his eyes, “Shut up, Ralph.” And then, in perfect monotone: “Buy OptiVids: Because a slice of life is a ton of fun!”
Memory Machines and Economic Logic
Plank fell asleep with his oxygen mask on and when he woke Ralph was gone. At first his heart leaped, as his liver shivered, but then he found a nasty note from Ralph on the coffee table.
Don’t even think about drinking. I called HJ myself this morning and told him not to sell you anything. I also stopped by Bailey’s Pub and told Roger not to serve you. This is serious. You could get deported. Now I know you could find another place to buy booze, but if you do I will kick the living shit out of you. Is that clear?
Naturally this note only helped Plank continue to obsess about drinking — such was the dark irony of all forms of total abstinence — and about how his good friend had ruined everything, how he had screwed up his entire plan for the day, namely, to drink. He thought about how drinking would change the way he felt, which was miserable, about how it could lead him to a new and exciting sexual adventure, which he knew was unlikely, and about how it was the perfect solution to all of life’s spiritual woes, which he knew was only partly true.
Plank unhitched his oxygen mask from the huge base tank and attached it to a smaller, more portable tank. He walked to the window to survey the new day. The sky was thick with a milky purple pollution.
Looks like a bad day to be alive, thought Plank, but here I am: alive, conscious. Is that ash I see floating in the air? Yes, he admitted, it appears to be ash. God help us, he intoned, half-heartedly, for even though Plank didn’t believe in God, it was the State Religion, so he often found himself praying in this half-assed manner. Oh God, why is the sky full of ash? But Plank didn’t want to think about why, about what could possibly be the source of all that ash. Had the Empire razed another city? Was the Empire burning more rebels? Would the floating ash ever go away? Plank vigorously shook these thoughts from his mind and went to the kitchen to take his morning Cocktail, starting with the all-important Anti-Paranoia pill.
Within moments, he felt a little better, in an artificial, manipulated-by-chemicals way.
Plank sat on the couch, his mind empty. He folded and unfolded his hands, placing them instead on his thighs. He felt utterly cast out from the natural order of things. Usually after he took his morning Cocktail, he showered, ate breakfast, and commuted to work. But now, with this expanse of time opening up before him — an entire, unformed day of freedom — he was filled with a previously unknown dread. He simply didn’t know what to do with himself. When it came to workdays, serving the Empire in Pod #170 of the Opticon was all he knew.
So Plank took refuge in the only other thing he knew: his Sunday routine.
A few years back, he had purchased a fancy and expensive MadeleineMachine from an online catalogue. The MadeleineMachine was a module that transported a person into their past through the power of sense recollection. Furthermore, all MMs were linked to the Opticon, all the information and images retrieved by the MMs were sent to CentralCommand; thereby, the public use of MMs was yet another avenue through which the Empire collected, sorted and edited the private lives of its subjects. (Some private memories, if at all dangerous or distasteful to the Empire, were, of course, erased through mandatory neurological surgery.) The MM’s brochure had proclaimed, “A mere morsel of cake will transport you to your magical past!” and so Plank had promptly bought the machine thinking that it would transport him to a magical past. Soon afterward he was disappointed to learn that the MadeleineMachine was only able to transport Plank to his own past, to the actual history that was stored inside his mind and body, whether this past were magical or not. To Plank, this seemed like a rip-off. He had his entire Life on Video as it was (this was a special Opticon employee benefit). So Plank had tried to return his MM, arguing that he had been duped by a blatant case of false advertising. What Plank had been promised, he argued, was transportation to a “magical past,” and not a torturous reliving of the failures, defeats and other fiascoes that constituted his life. The customer service lady on the phone told Plank to “screw off” and welcomed him to try taking the company to court on charges of false advertising. She told Plank that that would be a good way to waste tons of money on his own public humiliation. Nevertheless, Plank argued on as the lady laughed at his Me-Versus-The-Man crusade. In the end, no refund was granted. And Plank was stuck with this ugly monstrosity of a memory machine that occupied half of his living room.
So, in what seemed the only prudent course of action, Plank cultivated the habit of escaping into his MM every Sunday morning.
On this — his first jobless Tuesday ever — Plank got naked, slapped his belly a few times, and crawled into his MM. He attached various chords and wires to all parts of his body including his most special organ. He checked the levels that monitored the available supplies of Plank’s particular memory-inducers: ocean water, breast milk, HardNuts cereal, the smell of burning tires, the Transmuters cartoon theme song, the smell of burning hair, cheese cake, fried egg sandwiches on wheat bread, the smell of fear, the flavor of Expressica coffee, stale subway air, the sound of cracking knuckles, and so on — particular sensations especially meaningful to Plank for one reason or another. The levels were all good, except for the smell of burning hair, which was low, but that was okay because Plank didn’t want to go back there. Not this morning at least.
The titles of various memories appeared on a flat screen in front of Plank. First Date with Helen, First Kiss with Helen (distinct from First Date), First Sex with Helen, First Good Sex with Helen (also distinct), Birth of Jack, Holding Fat Baby Jack, Stupid Fourth of July Parade, An Afternoon of the Terrible Twos, and so forth. Plank scrolled with the touch of a finger through hundred of not-so-spectacular memories. Finally, he stopped on Wrestling With the Moon. Plank himself had titled each memory, and he was certain that Wresting With the Moon was the single most poetic phrase he had ever conjured up. This fancy title had been inspired by the single most poetic moment of Plank’s life (and he was convinced his life wasn’t growing any more poetic with time).
Wrestling with the Moon: Plank is young and in love. And thin. And his soon-to-be wife, Helen, also thin, and beautiful and bosomy, is in love with Plank. They are at the beach house with Plank’s parents. After the folks go to bed, Helen and Plank steal away to the lifeguard stand with an illicit bottle of wine and listen to the waves crash. And make out. And wrestle with the moon. Metaphorically speaking.
What a night! What bliss! Plank was resigned to the fact that he would never again experience such happiness. Such pure, original bliss. Not fleeting moments of material desires satisfied, not ephemeral moments of conditional happiness — if A, then B — that were the hallmark of the Empire lifestyle. The problem, as Plank saw it, was that these so-called happy moments laid atop of years of accumulated tribulations. Time did not pass, it piled up. If only Plank had understood back then that everything accumulated, that all experience transcended and included previous experience. If only he had known that everything remained, he thought to himself, then maybe he wouldn’t have screwed up so severely. He wouldn’t have lost his family and ended up a lonely public servant. (And now, not even that!) He had concluded that the brain was capable of editing the past, and thereby fundamentally changing the past. Plank had been taught, by and large by advertisements on TV, that only the present mattered, that the present affects the past, and so so long as one possesses this remarkable power of a transfiguring memory, then there is abundant room for mistakes to be made! But Plank had misunderstood, or, as he saw it, he had been lied to. Because the past was the past was the past. Especially when he was sober. And no matter how hard he tried to rewrite his own past — convincing himself, for example, that it was all Helen’s fault — it never worked. Plank knew some people could lie to themselves about their pasts in this fashion (and Plank envied these people, and he took an Anti-Envy pill to correct that). But Plank’s own fate was to carry an honest memory.
Oh but that night he and Helen had wrestled with the moon! What a night! Plank had resigned himself to the fact that he would never again experience such pure happiness, that is, until he purchased his MadeleineMachine. He touched the Wrestling With the Moon selection on the screen and the MM churned its magic. A needle shot Plank in the rear-end with a tranquilizer. Pop music pumped into Plank’s ears, triggering the scene earlier that night at the beach house. He felt the presence of his family, the mood of bonding. Smells of that long-ago dinner wafted. The sounds of familiar, long dead voices echoed. Helen came into the reality-recreation through the unbelievably accurate reconstitution of her touch. In real life, Plank began unconsciously sobbing. He usually didn’t play this memory because it was too hard to return from. He and Helen made their way down the long, curving path through the dunes towards the beach. Hand in giddy hand. They climbed into the romantic shelter of the lifeguard stand. They nestled into one another. The taste of sweet, consoling wine on his lips, followed closely by kisses… Elephant tears poured from the corners of Plank’s eyes, as modern technology afforded him the opportunity to once again be with his wife, and to wrestle with that most melancholic moon of memory...
Maxwell Jamb sat in his office, banging his cane on the floor, trying to get to the bottom of his finances. It wasn’t easy being obscenely wealthy. There was a lot of money to look after. Lots of grandstanding donations to outsider charities to worry about. And lots of things to buy. Which involved making many decisions about taste, of which Jamb had none. He collected luxury canes and designer robots, but these were the extent of his consumer interests. His wife, on the other hand, had many expensive tastes, so in the end, the money got spent. This pleased Jamb because spending money was the most patriotic thing to do.
Jamb’s accountant was presently in Jamb’s office. Jamb took this opportunity to ask his accountant how much money he was worth, and his accountant had a hard time giving Jamb a straight answer. This concerned Jamb. So he tried to phrase the question differently, comparatively, asking, “Do I have more money than all of my employees combined?” His accountant laughed at this question as if to say, Of course you do, you idiot. Then Jamb asked, “Tell me which nations from history had a comparable amount of money.” So his accountant listed nations, and pairs of nations, and entire lists of nations from history that once had about the same net worth as Jamb currently had, adding that these historical wealths were often held in other currencies and in other markets altogether, such as bars of gold or stock in a corporate communist market, and therefore, in his accountant’s humble opinion, these historical wealths were not as indestructible as Jamb’s, because all of Jamb’s money was invested in the Holy Stock Market of the Empire, which by natural law could not crash. Jamb asked his accountant to explain the part about the “natural law,” after which his accountant launched into a speech on the Darwinian nature of the history of world markets and how the Empire’s was far and away the fittest. And always would be, forever more, amen. Jamb said, “But I thought Darwinism only applied to cells or genes or whatever,” after which his accountant laughed and said, “Despite your genius and great wealth, sir, you still have a lot to learn about how the world of economics works.” Then Jamb’s accountant gave himself a raise, demanded that Jamb stop wasting money on ludicrous robots, and peremptorily ended the meeting.
After his accountant exited his office, Jamb hit Enter on his keyboard, triggering one final tabulation of the most recent debits and credits made to his bank account. Something started flashing and beeping on his computer screen — not a good sign. Behind Jamb, something started flashing and beeping on the Opticon Motherboard. Also not a good sign. This is my life, Jamb thought, a slave to the flashing and beeping of computers.
The Motherboard announced that Pod #171 was empty. It flashed and beeped on and on and on, and Jamb didn’t know how to stop it. He stuck his fingers in his ears and reconsidered the Plank situation one last time. The rub was that, in an uncanny reversal, Jamb was actually afraid of Plank. Something about the man had always deeply irked him. Probably it was his obesity. A fear of being crushed. Jamb wanted to avoid a confrontation with Plank at all costs. In fact, he wished he could just give Plank his job back and forget about it. But business was business was business was government. It was a purely economic problem. Plank’s latest videos, excruciatingly boring montages of squirrels, or as Plank called them, bushy-tailed bioterrorists, scurrying around Central Park, were not selling, and the government’s shareholders were not happy. And by law, by the government’s own law, the Department of Reality’s primary objective was to create profit for its shareholders. After all, the Empire’s tacit motto was: “Above all things, profit!” Damn it, I’m not running a goddam charity organization here, Jamb thought to himself. If I’m not creating profit for my shareholders, then really, what’s the point? If we’re not bringing in the bling, and thereby imbuing the world at large with great trickling prosperity, then we may as well just dissolve the whole damn department. So ran Jamb’s logic. Moreover, Jamb’s wife had overspent last year — she had purchased a beautiful piece of beachfront property near the North Pole— and just to keep up with the new mortgage, as well as with Jamb’s other mortgages, his children’s education expenses, and his wife’s fashionable tastes, Jamb felt enormous pressure to produce unprecedented profit margins. Because profit margins that weren’t unprecedented hardly had the right to call themselves profit margins at all.
In the end, Jamb had no brain-space to worry about a guy like Plank. Securing his own peace of mind was his first responsibility, his inalienable right. Moreover, Jamb firmly believed that once he satisfied his own self-interest, the rest would take care of itself. That was just the way the world worked.
Firmly resolved again in his decision, Jamb walked to the window and looked outside. Was that ash? Yes, it was. Another nasty, ashy day in the Empire. Whatever. Jamb sucked in a lungful of fresh oxygen, pumped non-stop into his office. Delicious. He walked to the wall, bent down low, and placed his mouth directly on the vent. He inhaled a few times. Deeply. Taking the pure, privatized O2 straight to the head. Good stuff, he cried to himself, standing upright again, wobbly and weak-kneed, That is damn good stuff!
Stumbling out of the MadeleineMachine, Plank threw up and fell to the floor in his own mess. He rolled over in the muck and stared at the ceiling. He felt incredibly anxious, as if tiny bugs were eating at his innards, as if he desperately needed to be elsewhere, anywhere — back on the lifeguard stand, back in his Pod at work — anywhere but here: at home, viciously anxious, and lying on the floor in his own vomit.
Crossing his hands atop his naked stomach, Plank laid still on the ground. Stretched out and perfectly still. Nothing doing. And then something happened.
First, memories — the Wrestling with the Moon memory, then others — memory after memory after memory returned to Plank’s mind without the help of the MadeleineMachine machine.
Then Plank began to think. And not just functional thoughts about how to commute to work or how to start the microwave, but deeper thoughts with a foreign texture to them.
And he experienced his thoughts in a new way, not as merely a part of the whole system, not as a purely functional part of the Empire or the Opticon, but as truly his own, as truly inside of him and yet still completely real.
Suddenly, Plank felt enormous activity taking place within him. As if his body and mind had stored all of this information inside for years and years, only he hadn’t known about it, hadn’t known how to access it. He felt a shimmering sense of being alive as thoughts and feelings and memories course through him. And it felt good, all this stuff coming up! So he let it happen — as opposed to popping an EmergencyInteriorityCollapsor pill, as was prescribed by law is such an emergency — he just lay on the ground and let it all unfold.
Plank felt luminous and alive for the first time in his life. He closed his eyes, no longer anxious, but utterly blissed-out, and he watched it all unfold.
Within six minutes, the Empire Health Squad arrived on the scene. Four officers forcibly yanked Plank up off the ground, hand-cuffed and straight-jacketed him, and stuffed him into the back of a paddy wagon. With its sirens blaring, the van raced across the city towards the Institute for Rehabilitation.
PART II: The Anarchy of the Outside
The Fellowship, the Empire, and Infiltration Dreams
Sadness swarmed Jack Plank as the early morning sun shone through the window and lay across the cabin floor in fingers of light. Jack always felt terrible when he first woke up. Even with his girlfriend Heidi Newell sleeping beside him, Jack still felt miserable. For Jack, life outside the Empire was hell.
He rolled over and grabbed a package that he kept hidden under his mattress. The package had been delivered a few days ago by post. Despite the utter failure of most basic institutions on the outside, like the economy and the federal government, somehow outsiders had managed to organize the post. The mail was delivered through rain and snow, through sleet and societal collapse. It was the first thing outsiders attended to when they began forming the Fellowship, their half-assed excuse for a Congress, a decentralized, anarchic confederation of unions, syndicates and other local organizations of free association. Through this system of the Fellowship, outsiders organized the post first because people liked getting mail. It made them feel connected.
The Fellowship, a profound show of solidarity, was essentially a series of meetings across the ravaged land. Meetings were a powerful thing; the gathering of peoples was awesome. But Fellowship meetings were also quite boring, and most people had a low tolerance for boredom, making the rebuilding of a new and innovative form of society a slow and painstaking process. Moreover, meetings where people argued endlessly about the purpose and legitimacy of “the State” or how to, as the primitivists said, “live off the land,” or what the hell “a Fourier phalanx” was, were less powerful than meetings were people agreed upon a collective vision and then signed historically significant declarations, charters and constitutions. Fellowship meetings were less awesome than meetings where leaders managed to get some electricity, environmentally sound or not, to the people. Or working sewage systems. Or law enforcement. Or laws.
Jack ripped into his package. The return address was: The Empire, The Old White Palace, Department of Citizenship and Immigration, 20529. For three years now, Jack had been secretly applying for Empire citizenship. Only his buddy Lomax knew about it; actually Heidi knew too, but only because she was clairvoyant, not because Jack had told her. The problem with Jack’s dream of citizenship was the Empire’s great prejudice against outsiders. The Department of Citizenship and Immigration was a very reluctant department. While once long ago the Empire had a reputation to live up to — the open land of opportunity thing — a rash of terrorist attacks, actually not that many, had made the Empire resentful and exclusive. Emperians didn’t trust foreigners any more, so they didn’t let them in. Only four percent of applicants were granted admission. It had been decided that the idea of a universal melting pot had proved overrated and highly problematic. History had taught the Empire that you can’t throw a bunch of vastly different people together and expect them all to get along swimmingly. Moreover, there really wasn’t enough money to go around anyway. So walls were built.
Jack spread out the contents of the package before him: the cover letter, Form ETA-9089, Form I-485, Instructions for Form I-485, Abstract of Instructions for Form I-485, Comprehensive List of Common Errors Made When Filling Out Form I-485, Brief Summary of Form I-485 Comprehensive List of Errors. The paperwork was extremely abstruse, and deliberately so.
With his elbows on the floor, and his hands holding his head by its temples, Jack tried to make sense of the cover letter.
“Congratulations Candidate 40,506.88! Step 216.b has been filed in your name by the Committee for Outsider Green Cards (COGC) in the process of reevaluation mode for permanent admittance (RMPA). Stage RMPA signifies that a candidate has fulfilled the necessary checks, both background and foreground. And middleground. You are 37/50ths on your way to Empire citizenship!
“Next complete the enclosed forms and return them to headquarters (HQ) within thirty days. If the ratio of your excellence to the related quality gap of your talent-personality set type in the Empire exceeds the necessary constant of 0.036, then your application will be forwarded to CHOMPA (Center Happenings on Male Prospective Applicants).
“Please do not try to contact CHOMPA directly. Such an attempt will result in immediate disqualification and your application will be shredded at a great speed…”
As Jack reread the letter, the words made less and less. He was growing anxious. The completion of step 216.b had seemed to promise more. He thought he was closer than 37/50ths. Thumbing through these new forms and questionnaires, Jack grew distracted and furious. He was going to need to meditate soon. What the hell was this CHOMPA business? He had never heard of it. Moreover, the questions on the lengthy psychological form were bizarre. For example, “1. Do you ever feel you are the only person on the planet?,” or “12. Do you ever sense yourself floating in the ether?” These queries required short answers of no less than 250 words each. This is ridiculous, thought Jack. The survey was haphazard and seemingly endless.
Psychological Super-Probe C45
20. Give three adjectives, including one color, that best describe the Empire.
21. List these animals in order of your preference: Cow, Chicken, Tiger, Bunny, Cat, Sheep.
22. Do you like fast food? Detail your favorite dollar-menu meal.
23. Describe the influence jazz music has had on your soul. If none, pick another form of Empirean music, except country-western.
24. Describe the influence country-western music has had on your soul.
25. Describe your soul; include one color in said description.
26. Have you enjoyed any movies about characters engaging in any terrorist activities while residing in the Empire?
27. What is more important to you: money or other people’s money?
What a bunch of bullshit, Jack thought. What the hell was fast food? Jack was out of touch with civilization and this bothered him. As for the color of his soul, that was easy enough: blue. Dark, pain blue. And he had heard jazz music once; it had made him feel jittery and spontaneous, so he had that answer. What else? Empire adjectives? Omniscient, omnipotent, and omnivorous. Also, Jack liked cats.
Then Jack lost all motivation for the survey, as was the norm with him and paperwork. After all what did it matter? Jack had plans to infiltrate the Empire. He and Lomax had a connection to the Underground Subway, a group of kind souls dedicated to helping outsiders sneak into the Empire. Jack stood up, grabbed the papers, fetched a pack of matches from the cooking hole, and tiptoed out the front door. Outside in the dirt, he set fire to his dreams of legal Empire admittance. The time for acting above the law had arrived.
Back inside, Jack canoodled Heidi, trying to wake her up. He hated waking up people, seeing as sleep was infinitely preferable to waking life, but he was lonely so he did it anyway. They had to get on the road.
Starvation, Foot Rubs, and the Being-Pain
Word had it the Empire was going to drop rations over the weekend. A remarkably benevolent act for a ruthless Empire, actually, more a mere show of sympathy designed to make Emperians feel good about themselves. So Jack and Heidi camped out in an open field and waited. Waited for free food, or for at least simulacra of food. Fake dry wafers would be a real treat. It had taken Jack and Heidi five days on foot to reach this hillside. Their feet hurt. They had come by way of an OutsiderOutpost where news of the imminent ReliefRations had arrived just ahead of them. Starving people grew very excited at the prospect of fake bread. One emaciated fellow was promising everybody sugary dried cereal, which had been dropped eighteen months earlier to much elation. Another guy grumbled about the possibility of ProteinPacks, which he claimed tasted like rotten bananas. Heidi, with her uncanny knack for prediction, said everybody should expect DigestiPills, a new invention, tiny, yellow pills that supposedly contained enough sustenance for a week.
Jack’s feet hurt, but he wasn’t going to complain about it. He was happy enough to be finished walking. Happy enough to be lying under the sun in an open field with his girl. Happy enough, which was to say not very happy at all: Jack was a melancholic. He was dark foreboding itself, a star of apprehension. After all, he was living in the ruins of civilization, on the outside of the Empire. Fortunately, he had Heidi, who was blessed with a more sanguine constitution.
“Do you want me to rub your feet?” asked Heidi.
“Yes, please,” said Jack.
This was their routine. Heidi carefully unfastened Jack’s homemade sandals. Jack winced, but kept quiet, acted like a man. Heidi ran her fingers gently along the reddened grooves made by the thick straps. Jack had tied them too tight again; there were cuts, dried blood. Slowly Heidi massaged, until the sensitive skin toughened and she could knead the foot.
In Jack’s drawn-out, painful moans one could hear a hint of ecstasy, a satisfaction of a sexual nature. In fact, Jack almost enjoyed foot massages more than he enjoyed sex, a bizarre preference conditioned by his increasingly curbed expectations for the world. He held his breath, arched his back against the grass, then exhaled, first in brief gusts, then in a single extended release. The touch of Heidi’s hands enveloped his awareness: her touch was his everything. Jack forgot for a moment that he was tired and hungry, and waiting for Empire airplanes to drop synthetic food.
Heidi went about her task with devoted concentration. She derived her pleasure from pleasing Jack. She understood altruism’s dirty little secret: it felt good to help and please others. She always massaged Jack’s feet until he said enough. It was her clever and determined way of teaching Jack to understand when enough was enough. Because one of Jack’s built-in flaws was that he always craved more. More more more. With Heidi’s help, Jack was learning ever so slowly how to restrict his expectations for the world. Heidi often said, “Only when one desires nothing is one truly aligned with the heavens.” Nevertheless, Jack still had big dreams.
After twenty-five minutes, Jack said, “That’s good. Thanks, Babe.”
Both of his feet pulsed with the gentle, aching afterglow of a good, long massage.
Jack sat up and Heidi nested in next to him. They had arrived early. Of course they had — Heidi had them on a strict schedule. The best place to sit was squarely in the middle of the open field, where no ReliefRations would get caught on tree branches. As the morning drew on, gorgeous light cut through the hazy, polluted sky, and other outsiders began to fill the field.
Jack watched the others set up camp. He observed them closely, their dress, posture and manners, looking for signs of sophistication. One woman went topless, her voluptuous, tanned breasts hanging freely for all to see. A pair of lovers strutted around wearing outfits made from leafs, tree bark and wild ferns. One couple allowed their four children to run around naked.
“Stop judging,” said Heidi with her mind, which had curious powers of telepathy. Powers which needless to say tended to bother Jack, who had to work very hard to hide his rich inner life from Heidi’s oppressive clairvoyance.
“Stop reading my mind,” said Jack.
“Can’t help it.”
“Yeah, well, neither can I: I judge.”
They teased each other, and each tease was a serious joke. There should be a word for the way lovers tease each other, a word that means serious joke. A single, perspicuous word for the earnest critique between lovers that goes disguised as comedy.
Empire planes flew overhead emitting their pollution on the outsiders, who coughed and waited. Most of the flying objects were private jets and helicars, the most popular forms of transportation in the Empire. In the southern sky, a hotrod pilot made freewheeling loops and Möbius strips for hours.
No ReliefRations had yet arrived as evening approached. Even the Empire failed to stick to its schedule. An Empire that had successfully imposed its version of the world on the rest of the globe couldn’t manage to get its own planes to take off on time. But this was a plane on a charity mission. Empire planes launched to kill experienced no such delays.
“Do you want me to rub your feet?” Jack asked Heidi this time.
“Please,” said Heidi.
Jack did a pretty good rub himself. There was ample time on the outside to perfect one’s rub. His method was entirely different from that of Heidi’s. He poured his frustration into his rub. He went at Heidi’s foot as if he were angry with it. As if her foot had done him wrong. This made for a particularly vigorous and satisfying rub, though sometimes a wave of massive metaphysical fury accidentally seeped from Jack’s fingers into Heidi’s heel, after which Jack would feel embarrassed, apologize, and then continue rubbing violently. Heidi also moaned, like Jack, in a sexual way.
The sun set in pinks and purples and many colors in between, made all the more fantastic by the toxic chemicals saturating the air. People began to doze off, secure in the knowledge that yet another day had closed on a note of bitter disappointment. Proud to remember that they had never expected much from the Empire in the first place. Fuck the Empire, they said to themselves, eating blades of grass, then falling asleep on the hill, hoping for a dry night.
Jack, an insomniac, ran his fingers through Heidi’s hair as she fell asleep in his lap. How beautiful she is, Jack thought to himself. Her hair was the color of the earth, her skin an olive yellow. Her lips were full; her mouth opened like a flower. She had an adorable strip of peach fuzz that ran down beside her ears, almost a little too far down, spreading onto her cheeks a touch; Jack loved that most.
Bored out of his gourd, Jack picked a blade of grass and made a whistle out of it. He whistled a while. Then he chewed up his whistle grass and swallowed it. This upset his stomach. His chemicals were all out of whack. Perhaps it was something in the air. Something like carbon dioxide.
Then a serious pain seized Jack, right in the center of his chest, as it often did at this time of night. This pain was ineffable, which was the worst part. Jack’s other pains came in many different and terrible forms that he patiently and meticulously catalogued. For example, there was the Pain of Starvation, as well as the Pain of Poorly Performed Sexual Intercourse. Then there was the Pain of Devastating Despair and the Pain of Another Miserable Morning. Generally, this nameless pain appeared in the form of heartache, heartbrokenness, a tender and empty ache. And though he tried diligently to find the right name for this pain, in the end, this single ache eluded coinage. Its source was a mystery. It just felt like his heart was crying for the entire world and all its inhabitants. It felt like a thousand nameless natural shocks. So then, this pain was the Tenderness Pain or the Shock Pain — it was a Pain of Being — the Being-Pain. There’s a name for it.
As evening turned to night, the sky taking on a darker shade of black, Jack took up arms and performed his breathing exercises to pass the time. And time passed, as it is wont to do. Or at least time seemed to pass. Why did time seem to pass, Jack thought, when all it really did was pile up? And so Jack and a sleeping Heidi waited for the word to come true; they waited on the Empire to make good on its promise.
Key Chains, the Jericho March, and Stomach Guts
It was never a good idea to wait for the Empire to make good on its promise. While Heidi slept, Jack sat still, waiting, for five hours. Midnight arrived and angry people booed. Jack was agitated. Jack was hungry. And his being-pain was throbbing.
Suddenly the sky filled with tiny boxes attached to red, white and blue parachutes. The ReliefRations had arrived! People responded by going crazy. Everyone woke up, even Heidi, an unusually deep sleeper. The boxes with Empire logos floated gently downward while the people on the ground acted like savages trying to secure food for their loved ones. They trampled over one another. They threw pointy elbows. One fellow stepped on the back of a fallen woman. The struggle to survive brought out the worst in people.
Some boxes got stuck in the trees. Inspired by heroism, children scaled the enormous oaks, rescuing rations and throwing them down to their gaunt, open-armed parents. A kid fell and cracked his skull, but he was okay. Just a thin little crack. Nothing a good outsider couldn’t learn to suffer with a quiet pride.
It was like Christmas, only not as fun, and it had nothing to do with Jesus or fourth quarter earnings. Jack and Heidi huddled over their single box. Practicing anti-greed like good outsiders, they decided that one box would be enough for the two of them. The contents of the ReliefRation box were befuddling. The first thing they saw was a note written in enormous block letters, “THANK YOU FOR YOUR BUSINESS. SINCERELY, THE EMPIRE.” Entirely inappropriate. Next, there was a bumper sticker that read, “I BUY EMPIRE,” a declaration of consumer loyalty that obviously applied only to Emperians, who still earned and spent Empire dollars. There was a leaflet with information about a new television program called “AssimilationNation.” People on the outside didn’t watch much television due to a lack of TVs and a lack of electricity (not to mention a lack of good programming). But this show looked pretty hot to Jack. The leaflet explained how the show’s producers selected “less civilized” people from around the globe and invited them to participate in the “great, successful human experiment that is the Empire!” Non-Empire citizens would spend six weeks in the Empire “learning the rich culture and imbibing the rich, rich spirit.” Everything was videotaped, which was par for the course in the Empire, where people were obsessed with recording and then watching “reality.” The show’s first season, in which outsider tribesmen lived in the city for six weeks before losing their minds and turning murderous, had been a real hit. The leaflet announced that auditions for the second season of “AssimilationNation” would be taking place next month at a local OutsiderOutpost and that the show’s producers were looking for TV-ready outsiders, or in the words of the leaflet, “star-quality lost Empirians.”
Jack was interested because he considered life on the outside crap. What passed for fun was hanging out in abandoned strip malls pushing each other around in rickety shopping carts until someone got hurt. Or scavenging for hardened bits of French fries in the oil vats of a closed-down fast food joint until someone got sick. Or waiting in open fields for airplanes to drop boxes full of bullshit.
“Maybe I’ll try out,” Jack said.
Heidi looked at Jack as if he were very dumb.
“Why not?” Jack said.
“Why?” Heidi rebutted.
“Why not?” Jack answered.
“Because the show is bad,” said Heidi. “It exploits people for profit.” A solid moral argument.
“But it looks like such fun,” said Jack.
“And so because it’s fun, it’s okay?” said Heidi.
“Sometimes bad things are okay because they’re fun,” said Jack.
“Sometimes you’re okay because you’re fun,” joked Heidi.
Heidi shook her head at what she considered Jack’s confused personal morals. Jack shook his head at what he considered Heidi’s overly cautious conscience.
“I’m just saying it looks interesting,” said Jack, concealing the true root of his desire. Jack harbored big Empire-destruction dreams. More than anything he wished to infiltrate the Empire and blow shit up. But he never told Heidi about his plans, for fear that she would disagree, and maybe leave him. He knew that Heidi held a different, less hell-bent-on-destruction view. She believed in life on the outside, in her basic freedom to live as she pleased; while Jack saw continued starvation as more of a sticking point. Heidi also believed that through spiritual practice one could change things. She had organized the upcoming Jericho March, where outsiders would march around the Empire walls of the capital city for seven days, and thereby, so Heidi believed, bring the walls down. Jack thought it was more likely that pigs would fly; he had suggested dynamite. In short, Heidi always focused on the positive, saw things as workable; while Jack focused on the negative, saw things as blow-up-able.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Heidi.
They dug deeper into the box, through a slew of advertisements, bubble wrap and free key chains. Something rattled at the bottom. A canister of pills. The Empire had dropped DigestiPills after all, proving Heidi’s clairvoyance. A thick line of text across the top of the canister read, “DIGESTIPILLS ARE MAGIC!” To Jack, this seemed like a joke. Some pharmaceutical giant mocking the outsiders’ proclivity towards belief in the supernatural. Then there was an intimidating WARNING/DANGER label which read, “DIGESTIPILLS PROVIDE ENOUGH SUSTENANCE FOR SEVEN DAYS: DO NOT CONSUME MORE THAN ONE PILL IN SEVEN DAY’S TIME!”
Jack was not excited about the pills. What he longed for was actual Empire food and the joy of eating it. He remember previous ReliefRations, and longed for them. He wanted frosted oats in milk made sugary by the cereal’s excessive fructose. He wanted a dry cracker or a wafer. Or the pluot, a sweet fruit he’d only heard about, that was supposedly a hybrid of a plum and an apricot. Amazing! To Jack, the Empire simply had the most amazing food, and lots and lots and lots of it.
“DigestiPills,” said Jack glumly.
“I think it’s exciting!” said Heidi. “Digestipills are an amazing invention. These little pills in our hands could end world hunger. Can you imagine? An end to hunger across the globe!”
But Jack was in one of his moods where Heidi’s enthusiasm made him feel like strangling puppies. He rolled his eyes and thumbed through the “AssimilationNation” leaflet. The picture of the face-painted tribeswomen shopping for handbags at an upscale boutique made him laugh.
“Let’s eat!” Heidi said.
Following the instructions, Jack placed a single pill on his tongue and did not swallow. The pill dissolved instantly.
“That’s it?” asked Heidi.
“That’s the show,” said Jack.
They looked each other in the eye, gauging each other’s reaction.
“I’m fucking hungry,” said Jack.
“Me too,” said Heidi.
“Maybe it takes a little time.”
“Stupid fucking pills.”
“My stomach kind of hurts.”
They waited to feel full.
“I wonder what would happen if someone took two pills at once,” said Heidi.
“Probably death would happen,” said Jack.
Then, directly behind Heidi, a man’s stomach exploded. Not his whole body, just his stomach. The eruption was so forceful that parts of the man’s stomach tore through his skin, leaving a big gaping hole where his belly had been. It was gross. He was crying and terrified and staring down at this hole in his body. But he was okay, still breathing, sort of. Though he probably wouldn’t make it much longer. Jack leaned over and picked bits of the man’s innards out of Heidi’s hair.
Another few stomachs exploded making the entire scene macabre. Some people weren’t designed to follow instructions; some people liked to do things their own way. Jack thought it rather cruel that the Empire had dropped such dangerous pills. He envisioned some government clerk deep in the belly of the beast watching this terrifying scene and laughing his ass off.
And indeed there was a clerk deep in the belly of the beast watching this terrifying scene and laughing his ass off.
Meanwhile, Heidi, always sympathetic, thought of all the poor mice whose stomachs must have exploded during the testing stages for the DigestiPill. The scientists in their clean white lab coats must have cleaned up hundreds of rat-gut splattered cages.
“Do you feel full yet?” Jack asked Heidi.
“Maybe we got placebos by mistake!” joked Heidi.
That was funny, disturbingly so. They laughed and then laughed some more. A few more bellies exploded because some dyed-in-the-wool idiots thought maybe they could stomach two pills. But the idea of having taken a placebo, and its accompanying threat of continued starvation, was a perfect riot to Jack and Heidi and so they laughed. Hard. Exhaustion and starvation made a person susceptible to bouts of lunacy. Under the midnight moon, Jack and Heidi laughed and laughed at the insanity of things.
The Hook, Squirrel Meat, and Mamma’s Last Words
Jack’s best friend Lomax — a.k.a. the Hook — was a terrible womanizer but people still loved him because he was a fun guy. He wore cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, but he wasn’t a real cowboy. He didn’t actually herd cows or participate in rodeos because wild cows and bulls were mostly extinct. Lomax was a biracial, revolutionary, outsider fool. Also, he had only one hand — one hand and a hook.
His mother had died of cancer when he was a young boy, giving Lomax a deep and unspeakable sadness which nobody spoke about. Moreover, his father was missing. He was likely murdered, as many people living in anarchy were. But some people said he went to fight as a marine mercenary in the War against the Empire on another continent. Either way, he was probably dead. Jack’s father was missing too. Word had it he had abandoned Jack’s mother Helen twenty years ago when Jack was two years old. Another rumor said Jack’s father had successfully infiltrated the Empire; some said he had been captured and killed; others claimed that Jack’s father was alive and well. Jack’s Mom told Jack that his father was probably dead and that he was a jerk anyway, so who cares? That Jack should let the whole thing go. So, on the surface, Jack figured his father could go to hell, but deep down, part of the reason he wanted to sneak into the Empire was to find the man. Jack and Lomax both hated their fathers and this was a strong bond between them. Hate can really bring two people together.
Lomax had found a stray horse out in the farmlands. This made him a happy man because it validated his cowboy fantasy. Moreover, healthy horses were exceedingly rare. Lomax was always pulling these tricks — finding horses, securing water, sleeping with women — he was a very resourceful man. Proudly sitting atop his white stallion, Lomax strode up to Jack and Heidi, still loafing on the hillside, waiting to feel full.
“Where’d you find the horse?” Jack asked.
“Out in the farmlands,” said Lomax, “Near the mountain ridge.”
“What were you doing out that far?”
“Right,” said Jack.
“Hello, Miss Heidi,” said Lomax with a gentlemanly nod.
“Hello, Lomax,” said Heidi, “nice horse.”
“Why thank you,” said Lomax. “Look Jack, I just came from your Mom’s place. She’s sick. We gotta get over there.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Jack asked.
“I don’t know, but she was pale in the face,” said Lomax. “I couldn’t even talk to her. She was kneeling on the porch, praying like mad. Rhyming, soul-singing, speaking in tongues, the whole deal.”
“Does she have The Jesus out?” asked Jack.
“Yes, she has The Jesus out.”
This was serious. The Jesus was a relic from the Planks’ former life in the Empire, where Jack had been born. The Jesus was life-sized, a six-foot three-inch replica of the Son of God manufactured by a popular Empire toy company. Just after Jack was born, Helen had insisted on buying it and installing it in the corner of the master bedroom. Jack’s father Arthur, an atheist, had never been a fan of The Jesus. But Helen got her way because she was a woman — a woman of faith. And a woman of faith was mightier than an ocean storm. So the plastic Jesus, in all his splendor and munificence, was erected in the corner of the marital bedroom. Each morning Arthur awoke to a seemingly resurrected Jesus from whose arm he would grab his work slacks. When Helen erupted one morning, irately screaming that The Jesus was not a fucking coat rack, Arthur had had enough. That same night he abandoned the family. Two weeks later, Helen, broke and broken, took her baby boy and left the Empire for the outside.
“We better get going,” said Jack. He stood up and helped Heidi to her feet. He took the canister of DigestiPills and offered one to Lomax.
“Do they work?” Lomax asked.
Jack looked quizzically at Heidi.
“Not really,” said Heidi.
“Actually, I’ve sort of forgotten how hungry I am,” said Jack.
“Yeah, maybe,” said Heidi. “I can sort of sense that. But, if you think about it, there’s still the pain, you know, the hunger.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” said Jack. “Here Lomax — try one.”
Jack handed Lomax a little yellow DigestiPill, the Empire’s cure to world hunger, if only it worked. The Empire, Jack thought to himself, would be off both the moral and proverbial hook if only this damn pill worked.
“I don’t think it works,” declared Lomax after popping the pill in his mouth with his hook. “But it’s worth a shot.”
The three friends piled onto Lomax’s stallion and headed for the communal cabin on the river where Jack’s mother’s lived.
By the time they arrived, Jack’s mother had died. Johnston, a fellow cabin-dweller, sat by her beside, silently mourning. Jack sat down beside him, cursed the world, felt his heart break, and kept quiet.
Heidi kissed Helen on the top of her head and then went to the kitchen to prepare dinner. She knew Jack would want to be alone.
After a moment, Jack asked, “Was she in pain?”
“Yes,” said Johnston. “Yes, she was. I’m sorry, boy.”
Jack nodded his head. “Did she say anything?”
“Yes,” said Johnston, “she said, 'It’s no big deal.'”
“What’s no big deal?” asked Jack.
“I don’t know,” said Johnston. “Her dying, I suppose.”
Jack grew angry, not at Johnston, or at what his mother had said, but at death itself. Johnston, misinterpreting Jack’s anger, said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what she meant.”
“It’s okay,” said Jack. “Mamma used to say that all the time.”
“Hmm,” said Johnston, rising to his feet. “I’m gonna leave you alone. You need anything?”
“No,” said Jack. “Thank you.”
Johnston left Jack alone with the corpse of his mother. Jack looked at her face, wondered at her last thoughts. He felt utterly alone, and angry. At himself mostly. It’s no big deal. Fuck, Mamma, he thought, yes it is, isn’t it? Isn’t it all a Great Big Deal? Jack didn’t know. At that moment, Jack felt he didn’t know anything at all, beside the fact that death is, that death comes, and that —whatever the order of the universe — the fact remained that human life came and went like so many sun-ups and sun-downs. And perhaps it was no big deal, he thought. Perhaps Mamma was right.
Out back, Lomax and Jack dug a grave. They buried her right then and there. At the service, Heidi said a prayer and sang a song, an old folk tune. Jack couldn’t handle the ceremony. His bedrock love for his mother had been for Jack the only truth in a sea of half-truths, and now he had only the memory of her to love. He walked away before the song had finished.
Later, Jack and Lomax kept watch on the front porch. Rapists and thieves and murderers freely roamed the outside. This was the unfortunate downside of lawlessness. Lomax owned a rifle, but few bullets. Bullets were hard to come by. By his last count, he had seven bullets remaining. He liked to fantasize about how the last seven bullets would be used. He liked to fantasize about killing the Emperor of the Empire, even though such fantasizing was illegal and punishable by death.
They sat in silence, watching the shadows of the night flicker.
“I’m real sorry about your Mom,” said Lomax.
“Yeah,” said Lomax, chucking a pebble across the front lawn.
A long time passed. Jack turned stones over in his fingers.
“Look man,” said Lomax, “When are we going to do this? When do we infiltrate?”
Jack was happy enough to discuss the plans. He believed action was the only solution to suffering.
“We take Heidi to the Jericho March tomorrow,” he said, “and then we can leave from there the following morning. Sound good?”
“Yeah,” said Lomax. “So did you tell her yet?”
“No, but I’m sure she knows. She’s clairvoyant.”
Outside in the cold distance a wildcat dug the ground. A furry creature appeared from behind a tree. Lomax snapped to attention, his killer instinct serving him well. He smelled a meat breakfast. It was unusual to see animals on the outside; entire species were dropping like flies.
Lomax, even with only one hand, was a very good shot, but with his first bullet, he missed the furry creature by a truck’s length. The creature scurried across the front yard, hiding behind another tree. He fired again and nipped the creature in the butt. The creature whimpered; Lomax cursed. A man obsessed was a doomed thing.
Two more shots missed.
The despair of everything washed over Lomax as he thought about what a fool he’d been to waste four bullets on a failed hunt. What was he shooting at anyway? It looked like a groundhog. Could I even eat groundhog?, he thought. Probably not. Not unless I want to eat a marmot with rabies.
Jack stood up to take his leave and put his hand on Lomax’s shoulder.
“I’m going to bed,” he said.
“Good idea, man,” said Lomax. “Try and get some sleep.”
“I’m just gonna lie next to Heidi a while,” said Jack. “I’ll be back out to keep watch in a few hours.”
“Don’t worry about it, man,” said Lomax. “You get some sleep.”
Jack turned toward the front door. Lomax called out to him, “Hey, look on the bright side, Jack —at least the apocalypse didn’t arrive today.”
“You’re right,” Jack smiled. “No apocalypse today. That’s a good thing.”
The apocalypse never arrived, or else, arrived over and over again. It was hard to tell the difference. Jack went inside. Lomax stared off into the darkness for any sign of the groundhog, for any sign of edible life.
Compassion, Non-Violence, Solidarity, Egolessness and Other Bright Ideas
Heidi was a tremendous sleeper because she had serenity in her soul. She was such a deep sleeper that it took her a full hour to wake up. For this hour, she lived in a semi-conscious state, half-dream, half-real. Sometimes she confused her dreams for her real life. Jack surmised that it was this slow coming-to-consciousness in the mornings that helped give Heidi such a positive outlook. He liked to think that she confused the awful truths of existence with the marshmallowy fantasies of her dream world.
“I have shut-eye disease,” Heidi muttered sleepily, as Jack nuzzled her awake. It was only a joke, and not a real disease. Heidi had a terrible time opening her eyes first thing in the morning, trapped as she was between two modes of being.
“Aww,” said Jack, kissing her closed lids.
Heidi clung to Jack and drifted off into bizarro-world, while Jack stared at the ceiling and thought about death. What exactly, in the end, died? Her body, her soul? And what, if anything, lived on? Her consciousness, her thoughts? Her love? Was there any her at all?
Eventually Heidi opened her eyes and started saying silly things like “Gunga galoo,” which had no discernable meaning whatsoever, but sounded funny. Jack responded in the same language, “Googa boogla,” the language of love, the language of children. They continued with this nonsense for a few minutes, then started their morning routine.
Jack was a spiritual warrior. An earnest fellow. He diligently practiced his own private religion, a rational brand of spirituality complete with rigorous ascetic exercises and peculiar mystical rites. Once Heidi found Jack buck naked, arms outstretched, legs spread-eagle, tied face-down to a raft at eight places, and floating aimlessly down a toxic river. After the rescue, Jack claimed that this prostrated position had induced much insight. Using another arcane method, Jack often subjected himself to dangerous bouts of apnea while he slept, again, claiming insight as his reward. But simple silent meditation was the keystone to Jack’s practice. Yet, Jack was not a naturally skilled meditator. During his sits, he often fell asleep or entertained sexual fantasies or told himself stories. Indeed, Jack, a worldly, melancholic fellow of flawed human stock, was not particularly suited to the winning of spiritual truths. Nevertheless, this lack of natural ability did not deter Jack from his pursuit. His spirit craved nourishment and growth. And moreover, perhaps something did happen after death. Perhaps something came next. Perhaps all his earnestness was not in vain. Perhaps, he thought, Mamma was right and death is no big deal. And if it turned out that spiritual rewards in this life or the next life or the life beyond were a grand hoax perpetrated against the human race by an unfriendly universe (or an evil genius or a wrathful God), at least Jack could honestly claim that he had tried. I tried. Those would be his last words, he thought to himself. I sat here, upright and alert, and at least tried to figure it all out. Moreover, the insights Jack accrued along his odd and rigorous path were a boon. This was vital. For what mattered most was that Jack’s private religious practices, despite their occasional lapses in logic, panned out empirically. And they did indeed, Jack’s practices yielded daily gold.
So Jack sat cross-legged on the floor and meditated, while Heidi performed her angel hum. The angel hum was Heidi’s own creation, her own private religion. She hummed a single note, lightly and softly, in her angelic soprano, for twenty minutes or so. She claimed this practice, if performed with devoted discipline every morning, helped her stay in contact with the angels. Heidi looked cute doing her angel hum and the practice seemed to make her a calmer, more peaceful person, so Jack didn’t bother telling her that angels were not real.
After the spiritual stuff, Jack and Heidi put on their clothes, the same clothes from the day before and the day before that. Heidi wore a tattered white and flowered dress over a pair of trusty blue jeans. Jack dressed in black. Black boots, black jeans, and a thick black flannel. The blue man in black.
In the front room, Lomax grilled squirrel meat over an open fire. Beaming with pride, he whistled an old loopy melody. Johnston sat in the corner of the kitchen, trying not to worry about global warming. Jack and Heidi, spiritually centered up, joined the happy scene.
“Meat for breakfast, ladies and gentlemen,” shouted Lomax. “Meat!”
“You got a squirrel?” said Jack.
“That’s right, boss. In a single shot.”
“Isn’t that wonderful?” said Johnston.
“I don’t eat meat,” said Heidi.
“Can you eat squirrel?” said Jack. “I’ve never had squirrel.”
“Of course you can eat a squirrel,” said Lomax. “It’s a delicacy in some places.”
“Which places?” asked Heidi.
“For your information, Little Miss Vegetarian,” said Lomax, “squirrel is delicious.”
“You’re so full of crap, Lomax,” said Heidi.
“Come on now,” said Johnston. “We’re all going to eat — well, except Heidi — so let’s get along.”
“I don’t even feel hungry,” said Heidi cheerfully. “Maybe the DigestiPill is working.”
Only someone like Heidi could still believe that the DigestiPill might be working. The others were happy enough to feast on the blackened, chewy meat of a rodent.
It took over an hour to eat breakfast because the squirrel meat was very rubbery.
Outside, Lomax’s white stallion was gone. Somebody had stolen it, or else it had escaped. Lomax let fly a colorful string of expletives. Heidi was offended. The three travelers started out on foot.
“Let’s stay along the river,” said Lomax, “and I’ll see if I can’t scrounge us up a boat.”
They were headed to Heidi’s Jericho March. The famous Biblical story was Heidi’s inspiration. Joshua and the Israelites marched around the city of Jericho for seven days, and seven times on the seventh day, at which point, they gave out a trumpet-filled war-cry, and the walls of the city crumbled. This was the idea. Heidi believed that if she and her fellow outsiders marched around the walls of the Empire, the walls might crumble. She believed in her heart of hearts that such miracles were possible. Jack, on the other hand, thought straight dynamite might be the wiser option.
In Heidi’s mind, the whole of world history was bending into the Jericho March.
Meanwhile, at the March, Jack planned to rendezvous with an explosives expert.
Heidi had planned the March to coincide with a longstanding outsider’s tradition, the Drum Festival, a yearly festival on the banks of the river that had very little to do with drumming and more to do with spirituality. It was a celebration of spirit and of life, focusing on the four supreme virtues of compassion, solidarity, non-violence and egolessness. All natural human impulses, survival-of-the-fittest Darwinism notwithstanding. Heidi adored the Festival because her parents had taken her every year. On the other hand, Jack struggled with the Festival and found its celebrated virtues difficult to live by. Take non-violence for example. Sounded great in theory, he thought, but the idea took for granted humankind’s obsession with killing each other as well as the darkness in our very blood.
But this year’s festival was special, because of the March. This year the festival goers planned to use their spiritual powers to cause the walls of the Empire to tumble down. The idea was that if enough people visualized the walls crumbling, then the walls would crumble.
They walked southward on a thinly wooded path along the river. Birds chirped and Lomax whistled back. Jack felt the meat from breakfast sitting heavily in his stomach. He stopped by the side of the path and retched, but nothing came up. A dry heave. Heidi thought she saw a long row of dead squirrels just off the path, but she was only hallucinating from hunger and guilt. When she exclaimed, “Oh my God, dead squirrels!”, Jack assured her that the dead squirrels were merely a figment of her conscientious imagination.
The day began to elongate itself. They passed sections of the path that recalled earlier sections, giving them the unsettling sense that they had already been there. The sun inched ever so slowly towards the top of the sky. Another day to get through. They trudged on.
Danger lurked around every corner on the outside. A flaw in any utopian vision was the existence of people with criminal tendencies. Two hours into the hike, a man who’d been hiding in the branches of a tree fell from the air onto Heidi’s back and started screaming awful things about stealing her virginity (which she didn’t even have). He pinned her to the ground as Jack booted him squarely in the eye, sending him flying backwards. Lomax came over and stabbed the wild man in the gut with the butt of his rifle. Jack stood with his heel on the man’s throat and decided whether to spare him or not, or rather, whether to kill him or not. Jack was furious, but he had never actually killed a man and wasn’t sure he could do it even if he wanted to. Although, if he were ever curious about killing — and he was — then here was his golden opportunity. A wild, bearded, shirtless man, with rabid eyes and a hair lip. A forgotten man, as violent and uncivilized as nature herself. An expendable man if ever there were one.
“The gun,” said Jack, holding his hand out to Lomax.
“No more bullets, boss,” said Lomax.
“I thought you said you got that squirrel in one shot. That leaves one bullet.”
“I lied. It took me two shots.”
“Give me a break, boss — I only got one hand!”
Heidi pleaded for the man’s life.
Jack was conflicted. Jack considered rapists to be the worst people. This man’s attack filled Jack with a murderous fury that made him feel alive. Made him feel something true and awful and powerful inside himself. Jack and his rage wanted to kill this man. This much was certain: a murderer dwelled within. From a very young age, Jack had felt this savage capacity, and it was a rotten feeling. Jack called this feeling of intimate and inexorable connection to humankind’s great historical chain of violence the Pain of the Cycle of Violent Rage. By sticking close to his religious mother, practicing his spiritual exercises, and loving Heidi doggedly, Jack had managed to keep his innate rage under wraps. And he hadn’t killed anyone yet.
But now this cesspool of a man was under his heel. He fantasized about how he would kill: he could see himself grinding the man’s throat with his boot. Maybe a couple of kicks to the face, just to bloody him up and make him ugly. Poke out his eyeballs. And surely a heel to the brain would end his life. Ah, the joys of Jack’s imagination.
The man grabbed Jack’s knee and pulled him to the ground in a surprising show of strength. They wrestled on the floor of the woods. Lomax leapt into the fray and pulled the man’s arms behind his back. Jack began socking him in the stomach as Heidi turned her head. Anger got the best of Jack as he punched and kicked away. It was a bloody showing. Finally the man lost consciousness and the fight subsided. The man was still breathing as evidenced by the rise and fall of his chest. Lomax fell to the ground and covered his face with his hook. Jack crawled to Heidi to save him from himself, and took her into his arms, and even though his arms were all bloody, Heidi didn’t mind, in fact, she didn’t even think of it because of the high drama of the situation.
It was an unfortunate incident, seeing as these three were on their way to a festival of non-violence. Lomax was the first to speak, “I hate that. I hate bad people.” Then, after a brief, therapeutic silence, they picked themselves up and continued on their way.
[More chapters to follow...]