The Free World

by Robert Zimmer

Chapter One

Somewhere out in the endless night, in a twenty-four hour convenience store on the outskirts of Canada’s capital city—sometime before the first suit awoke to the hurried start of the day shift—there, from her post behind the counter, a woman named Meri was peering nervously at the man who was loitering in her parking lot. He had been there for at least ten minutes, maybe longer, pacing, at times drawing close to the door but never looking directly at her. There was something familiar about him to Meri: the sharp features of his face in profile and the thick, straight hair she was sure she had seen before. Yet he was not one of the regular customers who came to the store at night.
    He’s probably just waiting for a ride, she thought; but then again, he might be mustering the courage to come in here and hold me up. It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing had happened to her, though she had, on that first occasion, promised herself that it would never happen again. Never again, she had said, will I work another graveyard shift alone, even if I have to quit this job. But according to her manager it was too expensive to have two cashiers on at night, nor was he convinced that the new generation of brazen criminals were any more deterred by the presence of two staff than they were of one. And Meri had debts, and a child to feed, and an unemployed husband whose meagre social assistance checks had stopped coming now that the government was practically bankrupt. She couldn’t just quit. So here she was, working alone again.
    Dreading the possibility that she might might make eye contact with the mysterious man outside, Meri sat down and picked up one of the fashion magazines which she had selected for the night’s reading. She distractedly flipped through pages glittering with smiling faces, gaudy dresses, and painted nails—images, it seemed to her, from another world where all people were rich and happy and beautiful. Much like the world I once belonged to, she reflected; she too had been one of those giddy yet shy girls with fashionable, lustrous chic clothes, and plenty of time to play with make-up. And once upon a time she had been so secure in every way: at the turn of the millennium, the year she had graduated from college, she had felt so positive about her future job prospects. There seemed to be optimism everywhere in those days, what with the new technology becoming cheap and commonplace; how easy it had been to find a reasonable mortgage rate for a reasonably-priced house! In those days, she never would have dreamt of being forced into working in this godforsaken place.
    But something had gone terribly wrong with the world—something that was, perhaps, merely the end-product of a downhill spiral which had begun even before Meri was born, but that was no less catastrophic for being predictable. The overinflated markets had crashed after a year of heavy losses for manufacturers, interest rates climbed senselessly, and overextended governments became too weak to do anything about it. The nation’s wealth became concentrated in fewer and fewer hands as the lower and middle classes lost ground. Unemployment had reached levels worse than those of the 1980s. The clothing store where Meri had worked went bankrupt, and her husband’s role as a teacher had been replaced by a more cost-effective computer program. Now, they were in danger of losing the house for which they had worked so hard. The last mortgage payment had siphoned away what remained of some money they had set aside for their child’s education , and there would be no opportunity to replace their dilapidated old car in the future. These were hard times for many people. Desperate times. Was it any wonder that a desperate man should be pacing back and forth in front of her store, trying to convince his conscience that he had no other choice?
    Meri was frightened when she heard the door open and she saw that he was finally coming in, but at least she was not surprised when he exhibited the typical demeanour of a man about to commit an armed robbery. He wandered aimlessly, spending undue time snatching glances at the security camera but avoiding eye contact with her. His brown leather jacket and dark blue jeans were somehow markers to her that he was up to no good; his quick, clear grey eyes seemed to her the eyes of a violent criminal. Don’t press the remote police call, her boss had told his employees, until you’re sure it’s a robbery—if it’s not, the false alarm will cost me, which will eventually cost you. And so she did not press the button until she saw that it was not a wallet, but a gun that the man pulled from his jacket as he approached the counter.
    But Meri recognised something else, too, and in same moment, so did he: they had gone to school together. “Marcel,” she said quietly when the name flashed from a long-deserted memory outpost. He was clearly taken aback, and seemed on the verge of dashing out of the store; but the gun remained pointed at his former schoolmate, as though the courage he had summoned had brought with it a demon who would no longer allow him to abort his crime.
    “Give me all the money in the till, and fill two plastic bags with cigarettes and lottery tickets—but just the ones under the glass here, that aren’t sold in series,” he said steadily. It was clear that he had done this before.   
    Meri searched the man’s eyes for a glimmer of compassion, but saw none—only the steely gaze of one who had, for whatever reason, lost the ability to feel empathy. She thought she might reason with him: “It’s not worth it,” she said; “you know there’s only sixty dollars in this till after eleven.”
    “That’s why I want you to fill those bags. Now hurry! And don’t think you can psych me out because you used to know me. Just pray that I don’t kill you because of it. You remember how to pray? We used to pray in school, didn’t we?”
    “We did. I remember,” Meri whimpered as she watched herself tossing the cartons of cigarettes into the plastic bag she had shaken open. Initially, she had thought that the second hold-up wouldn’t be as bad as the first—all she had to do was comply with the man and she wouldn’t get hurt—but somehow this seemed worse. It was as though her hands were unable to respond to the urgency in her mind, as though her body had slowed down as it sometimes did in those dreams where one tries to hurry but finds that the earth has turned to mush underfoot. It seemed like an eternity had passed before the two bags were full and all the coins were out of the till, and in that time she pondered (as well as one can rationally ponder in such a situation) over the possibility that he would decide to kill her before he left. No—he wouldn’t, she thought at first; he scarcely had the courage to come in here. Surely he would not want to be hunted down for murder; the police still take such things seriously, whereas armed robbery has become so commonplace lately that one has a good chance of eluding arrest. On the other hand—and what a grisly hand it was!—he would have a much better chance of eluding arrest if she were unable to tell the police his name. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. . . .
    “I’m sorry you had to be my victim,” Marcel said as he took the cigarettes and lottery tickets from her. “But it’s a cold world.” He smiled, slid the gun back into his jacket, and rushed into the darkness from which he had come. Only then did Meri realize that she felt as though the blood had retreated from her legs such that she could hardly stand, so she quickly slumped into her chair. Her eyes fixed themselves a while upon the till—open, gaping like an eviscerated carcass. She looked down at the magazine she had been reading and saw that the letters were blurred by the tears in her eyes. —I have to get out of here at once, she thought suddenly. The atmosphere of the place was still reverberating with the sounds of what had just transpired there, and the very shelves, laden with their colourful cans and packages, seemed like silent conspirators to the crime . . . .
    In a moment she was outside, where the cold glow of streetlights illuminated a road empty of all but a few cars and trucks that thundered past with furious indifference. A forlorn, waning moon looked down upon her from the eastern sky—another accomplice. The only thing that might have comforted her was the embracing summer breeze that brought smells of wild vegetation from the distant river valley where, among the gnarled old oak trees in their quiet darkness, there was a safer place than the fluorescent metropolis could ever afford.
    Meri sat on the concrete curb, began to cry in earnest, and remained there until the police came (half an hour later, being understaffed and all), even while a gang of youths marched into the store and filled their pockets with junk food. She wouldn’t have cared, though, if the whole store had been looted, for once she had pulled herself together such that the tears stopped flowing, she became entirely engrossed in a meditation on the meaning and value of life. What was it worth? She had just witnessed the appalling sight of what was once a decent, Catholic boy who had become a hardened criminal and who had decided that it was worth risking his life for sixty dollars and a dozen cartons of cigarettes. Even more appalling, she considered, was that her own life had become worth so little. She had risked it for $8.54 an hour! Something was terribly wrong with the world, she mused; all this affluence, all these resources, all this government, and still people like me have to deal with people like him on nights like this . . . .
    “Hey, lady,” said a young man’s voice behind her, “we just ripped off your store. Aren’t you afraid you’ll get fired when your manager looks at the security tape?”
    “It’s okay,” said Meri. “I quit.” The thief and his mates laughed, then walked away without paying, but also without pointing any guns at her. It was as though for a short space of time, everything in the store were free.

    It was about 3 weeks later when Meri received her final paycheck in the mail. She tore open the envelope as soon as she recognised its source, not bothering to go back into the house for a knife or letter opener. Luckily, with her remaining holiday pay tacked on, the cheque was more than enough to make the next mortgage payment. But other numbers on the statement did not escape her notice: she saw how much of her hard-earned money was skimmed away by the government, and this displeased her more than it normally would have.—I don’t make enough to warrant being taxed, she thought; and even if I do get most in a refund, that doesn’t do me much good right now. How dare they! And how much of it goes into their bloated pension slush funds and their loan guarantees to big businesses and their . . . I don’t even want to think about, Meri decided, shaking her head and taking a deep breath. She was about to retreat into the postwar bungalow behind her when she noticed a flyer in the mailbox. It was a piece of propaganda from the Gratuitist Party.
    “They haven’t even called an election yet,” she mused aloud, “and these jokers are already starting their campaign.” Normally, she would have thrown the thing away without another thought—political parties were all the same, so far as she was concerned—but she had never actually read anything about the gratuitists before. Parties of their kind had, she had heard, won power in several European countries, but the establishment media were terribly vague about the Gratuitist platform, almost as though they didn’t want anyone to find out what it was. It involved suspending the use of all currency and instituting some kind of collective ownership scheme, she had been told—something like Communism, she supposed. But as she read through the plain, unassuming pamphlet in her hand, she saw that it was not Communism at all. It was anarchy! Not only would currency of all kinds be abandoned, but all forms of exchange. This, of course, entailed the elimination of wages, prices, taxes, loans—everything that everyone had always assumed was essential to the proper functioning of an economy. Why vote for anyone else? they concluded their message. We have nothing to lose but our debts. Meri smiled. It was the most preposterous thing she had ever heard.
    Still, having no foreseeable income and far too many debts, the message appealed to her quite strongly. In the days that followed her receiving the pamphlet she could not get the idea out of her mind. Foreign though it was, it grew like a weed that found its way into the most varied theatres of the imagination. She thought of her husband and how he could teach again in a gratuitist regime since no one would care if he “cost” more than a computer program. She thought of herself, how she could start making clothes again; no one could say “we can’t afford to hire you.” She watched garish advertisements on TV and wondered if they would still exist if someone wasn’t desperate to make a buck by claiming to have the lowest price. She wondered what would become of all the banks and insurance companies and all those people who worked for them. What would they do with themselves?
    Yet she was afraid of what might happen if ever the gratuitists came to power. Without the incentive of money would the farmers still farm, so that she could still feed her children? Would the oilmen still drill, so that she could drive her car and heat her house? Who would collect the garbage? Would anyone help her if she had a plumbing emergency, or a sick child, or a broken window? Would anyone study intensively for 4-6 years to become an engineer, so that they could design the power generators which brought the city lights to life? All without that all-powerful incentive?
    These were grave doubts indeed. But something happened, or rather she heard about something that happened, in the week before the federal election was finally called. Stories were circulating that a veritable black market of giving was subverting terms of commerce in Canada even now. This was no ordinary charitable giving for philanthropic reasons, but a concerted action amongst certain manufacturers and tradespeople to give each other goods and services rather than exchange one thing for another.  Apparently, it was a chain reaction begun by a gratuitist  supporter (with plenty of money to throw around) who had given away a number of cars and even condominiums to certain self-employed persons. These, in turn, were charged with the duty of giving away an amount of goods and services equal to what they were given—with the stipulation that they were not to give anything away to someone already involved in the scheme, nor to anyone in the financial industry. Many of this first group, being generous persons and some of them gratuitists themselves, gave away more than they received; and so the next group of beneficiaries got more than the first.
    Now, certain businesspersons who were entirely unimpressed by the gratuitist ideology were nonetheless more than happy to give things away, after having received something of value already; it was like a promotion, and the lucky customer who walked away with a free bag of groceries or tires or a paint job would probably tell their friends, who would bring their business and their money in hopes of getting something for free, too. Of course, there were cases where people took but would not give to keep the chain going, and there were cases where someone didn’t understand the whole scheme and gave away money instead of something with intrinsic value; but on the whole, it worked the way its initiators had intended. And people saw that gratuitism could, to some extent, function.
    But Meri still had her doubts. So many of these black-market “grats” were, she knew, giving things away to promote their business; were all commerce suspended indefinitely, many of them would just take a holiday and maybe never come back. What if everyone who made the world run took holidays at the same time? There was no way to stop such a catastrophe. And on the day she went to the polls—even up to the moment she stepped behind the cardboard shield that ensured no one would see how she marked her ballot—even then she was thinking it’s just too damn risky. You can’t trust people to do what they know is right and necessary . . . but then . . . what have I got to lose? At worst, there will be no food to eat. No. People will never get that lazy. At worst there will be no electricity. But then, how many working people does it take to make sure we have electricity?
    Damn it, she cursed to herself, I’ve never spent so much time in a polling station in my life. And then the scales in her mind tipped: fear and habit had been the heavier up until then, but now, in addition to the heavy debts she had placed on the other side, there dropped from nowhere a primal desire to strip the greedy of their means of oppression; and after that, there came her faith in humanity’s sense of duty. She, for one, would go right on working in a world where there were no wages and everything was free. After all, her mother, a traditional homemaker and community volunteer, had almost never worked for a wage; neither had her grandmother, nor perhaps her great-grandmothers and their mothers before them. They did what they thought needed to be done. Why couldn’t everyone work in the same way?
    And so she marked an x next to the name of the candidate running for the Progressive Gratuitists. What the hell, she thought bemusedly afterwards, it’s not like they have a chance of winning anyway, and my little vote won’t make any difference.    

    They invented money, Richard Spendler’s father had told him, so ugly men would have a chance with good-looking girls. It was an adage Richard had always found to be confirmed by experience, even if it was not historically accurate; for so far as he could see good-looking girls were always available to a man with money, no matter how ugly, brutal or socially inept he might be. It had always been so. Prostitution was, after all, the world’s oldest profession. Back in the stone age, perhaps, one would exchange a piece of meat or a shiny bauble for an hour’s entertainment with a whore; now, in the plastic age, one could buy the same commodity with a credit card. A gold card now—along with half a million dollars and a secure government job—would even get you a reasonably intelligent and pretty wife, as his own case proved. Not that he really needed so much money, he always told himself. He was handsome. But it sure made things easier for him and it definitely made things easier for the rich and the ugly, which was probably why the ugly tried so hard to become rich in the first place.
    And yet it was not all that simple, for here, smiling away at him from the front page of the Globe, was the ugliest Prime Minister in recent Canadian history, the same man under whose government the country had been plunged into its present morass of gratuitist economics. Here was the Right Honourable Mr. Knight—Old Night, brother of Chaos—who had followed the lead of the Europeans by dismantling the system of money and exchange that had, Richard held, benefited mankind since the beginning of civilization. And what was Knight doing in a country where the flesh trade had entirely disappeared together with all commerce? Surely he was not merely thumping that ancient, deformed wife of his!—impossible, Richard decided.
    He glanced from the newspaper to his wife, Pamela, a fairly young and well-formed woman who was trying to sleep in the airplane seat next to him, with her head inclined sharply towards her left shoulder. Her mouth, he could see, was fixed in its usual sleep-grimace. It was fitting, for she rarely had a smile during her waking hours either. She had been married to him some six years now and would, he thought, stay by his side even though his thousands in the bank were now worthless and even though his job as a money and influence broker in China had been unceremoniously terminated.  He knew that there was no real love between he and Pam, but they had become habituated to each other and could still have sex so long as they were not completely sober or spent from some extramarital promiscuity. It would be difficult for him at first—the same boring woman, night after night—but he would have to live with it for the time being.—Oh, how he would miss the variety of girls that the Hong Kong establishments had to offer!  He would especially miss the younger ones, he reflected: those who, though too inexperienced to please one with their skills, were somehow more enjoyable for the timidity in their eyes. That was it—that timidity was the attractive thing about them—it was so natural, so human, whereas the experienced whores always seemed so distant and mechanical. Pamela, too, was always so self-absorbed if not altogether numb . . . but she was all he had now. Night after night after night, as monotonous as the roar of the jet engines which had filled his ears for the past 20 hours . . . .
     Vaguely arousing though they were, these thoughts began to fuel the anger in him again: the anger he had felt when he was told of the Chinese government’s decision to throw Canadian nationals out of the country. At first it was the Chinese themselves he was angry with. He had protested, as had so many expats, that he was as much a capitalist as any of them and he would prefer life in China to life in any gratuitist country; he would even renounce his Canadian citizenship if that was what it took. He would gladly have become a useful contributor to China’s continued prosperity. How humiliating all that grovelling had been, and yet so ineffectual!  His entreaties, the entreaties of his colleagues, and the entreaties of his Chinese friends all fell on deaf ears. Under pressure from business groups, the government was determined to root out all possible sources of subversion, which in terms of the present state of the world meant deporting everyone who looked European—the Blue-eyed Menace. As the Ambassador had observed, it was a draconian measure more characteristic of the Communist era in the seventies of the last century. At that time China thought it could erect barriers against capitalism; now it had become one of the last monetarist regimes, and monetarism’s most powerful, paranoid and protectionist advocate.
    Richard was angry with them, but he could not help but sympathise with their concerns. They were desperately trying to protect themselves against an ideology even more virulent than Marxism—that is, if gratuitism wasn’t just another kind of Marxism, as he suspected it was. No, the Chinese were not to blame. It was his own country and its unreasonable policies which he was really upset about. The fools! Wasn’t it obvious from the start, he asked an imaginary audience of his countrymen, that an economy of giving could never work in a country like Canada? One had to admit that it was working fairly well in those European countries where it had originated, but that was because they were racially homogeneous; they were really just vastly extended families, and those people probably did things out of dutiful kinship whether they were tangibly rewarded or not. People in those countries trusted each other. But this was Canada, now! Richard had never even got to know his neighbours in Ottawa—he was not about to trust them to work for his benefit out of a sense of altruism. The few that did work would soon become discouraged by the sloth of those who didn’t.
    The things he had read in the foreign press and heard from friends back home only exacerbated his consternation; for according to his sources, the standard of living had dropped drastically. Knight and his party were constantly reassuring the country that this was to be expected, but that it would ultimately reverse as those who had turned to a life of freeloading would grow bored and return to meaningful employment. In the meantime, the propagandists said, look at how much more leisure time we have! Richard scanned the newspaper again, this time remarking a graph with figures that expressed the “quality of life” in the country as a function of leisure hours. It was transparent to anyone with the most basic education, he thought: you can’t rate a life based on how much time one spends not working, or you’d wind up saying bums have better lives than CEO’s. The important things—having your own house, good sanitation, a variety of foods, availability of higher education—these were the things that made a life better when you had them (availability of prostitutes, too, he thought, then laughed at himself for thinking it). And yet these were the very things that had declined since Knight’s policies had rendered money worthless and most barter illegal. Richard, like all adamant monetarists, predicted it would get worse, not better.
    He examined the Prime Minister’s face again. Ugly.  With a pen he drew a little hammer and sickle on Knight’s shirt sleeve, then little horns sticking out of his head. This disfigurement was not quite enough to express Richard’s real feelings, however. The pen subsequently became a weapon with which he gouged out the Minister’s eyes.
    “Put a hole in his forehead while you’re at it,” spoke up Pamela, drowsily peering through unpainted lashes, then turning away again in search of sleep. Richard glanced at her and smiled with what little satisfaction there was in knowing that she was just as displeased with the prospect of a gratuitist government as Richard, even though she was glad to be out of China. She did not care for Oriental men, nor for the older men who generally received posts at the embassy. Her affairs, at least those of which Richard was aware, were strictly with young Caucasian men—meaning journalists and students. Since the gratuitists came to power in Canada and the U.S., the students had disappeared; the journalists, on the other hand, were always an ill-featured lot, and Pam rarely found one that appealed to her. In recent years she had therefore turned more and more to other pleasures, like the massages of women and the oblivion of alcohol: pleasures, she knew, that would not be easy to come by in the new regime.
    It seemed that Pamela did not intend to strike up a conversation, so Richard went back to reading his newspaper. Not that there was much to look at—it was amazing how few pages there were now that advertisements were more or less obsolete and the financial news minimized. And Richard was genuinely surprised that the quality of reporting was as good as it had ever been—surprised, that is, since he knew that the journalists weren’t writing for money anymore. How could anyone write without earning money by it, Richard wondered? On the other hand, he reflected, writers were just glorified gossips anyhow, and their motivation was probably fuelled by a desire to appear more knowledgeable than anyone else; this, at least, was the impression that the foreign correspondents at the embassy had always made upon him.
    He turned to the opinion columns and letters to the editor. —There’s material that’s always been free and plentiful, he mused: insipid opinions. “Gratuitism Prevents the Advance of Technology” read one column—an opinion Richard would have gladly communicated for free. As the columnist so admirably expressed it, “without a competitive arena that demands ever-newer ideas, technology will never advance any further, and may indeed regress. We need to follow the example of Nature, where we find that the law of the survival of the fittest provides the impulse for new and better adaptations. We cannot be complacent, or we become stagnant and invite invasion from technologically superior countries.” It was a good point, even though Richard doubted the possibility of an invasion from China or one of the Islamic states. In fact, the writer was foolish to bring up the issue of military technology, which certainly required no further innovations; the arsenals of the West were still equipped with nuclear warheads and cruise missiles. Richard sighed, thinking how sad it was that a monetarist perspective should be represented by such irrational fear-mongers.
    “Our Laziness Cause of Produce Shortages,” announced another article, the author of which blamed ordinary people for the country’s lack of trade credit with fruit- and vegetable-producing countries.—As if it weren’t the fault of the government’s policies, Richard scoffed. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the shitty mining and drilling jobs that used to make Canada a wealthy exporter would be abandoned as soon as people were no longer forced to do them out of desperation. How naive people were, to expect boatloads of bananas and grapes and kiwi fruit to keep magically appearing in the harbours of Vancouver and Quebec, when the boatloads of nickel and crude oil had almost ceased going out. One could exchange only so much grain, especially with the grain-rich Americans. It seemed that the gratuitists were resigned to a future of shortages, of eating nothing but preserves all winter like people of the nineteenth century.
    Richard stopped his train of thought before it could agitate the burning anger in his gut any further. He decided to get up and walk the length of the airplane, perhaps talk to someone he knew. Most of the embassy staff with whom he had left Hong Kong had decided to pause in Vancouver before proceeding to points east, but a few had, like Richard, resolved to travel until they were home. Many of these were sleeping (or at least sitting with their eyes closed in the semblance of sleep), but Brian McCann, the thirtyish, red-haired clerk whom Richard could tolerate in small doses—the man was a little too eager to be one’s friend—Brian was awake and peering through his window at the endless cloudscape below. His was an excellent view, unobstructed by the broad wings—a first class view, which is what one got in this country for being first in line.
    “Comfortable enough up here?” Richard taunted.
    “Huh? Oh, it’s you. Yeah. It’s no big deal, really, just more legroom.”
    “I see you don’t get any drinks here, either.”
     “No,” said Brian with a shake of the head. “No drinks to be had anywhere. Can you believe this shit?”
    “Get used to it. You know, I can’t figure it out. You’d think that of all the factory jobs people would want to do voluntarily working in a brewery would be at the top of the list.”
    “I think that’s the problem. The people who really want to make booze are the same ones who want to drink it. I guess they just work long enough to supply themselves, then shut down the plants and go on a bender for a few months.”
     “Sure,” smirked Richard. “That’s gratuitist efficiency.” He dodged a stewardess who was collecting dinner trays and needed the entire width of the aisle to manoeuvre her cart. She smiled courteously in acknowledgment. Being one of the first voluntary workers Richard had encountered, she still amazed him somewhat, and his eyes lingered upon her for that reason. She was so diligent. It’s the only way to travel the world, she’d explained when he had spoken to her earlier. Richard was thus reminded of the gratuitist policies concerning travel: with the exception of children and seniors, one had to earn travel privileges by doing difficult, dirty, or dangerous work like surgery, collecting garbage, or running printing presses; or you could volunteer with an airline or airport. How, it seemed to Richard, that all of these options would be demeaning for a white-collar professional like himself, and he had said to himself: I’ll just have to travel by car from now on—that is, until the system collapses and things return to normal again.
    “So you’re going to try for another position overseas?” Brian asked.
    “I guess so,” mumbled Richard. “But what are my chances? There’s a long waiting list for people who want to be trade reps. Every guy with a knack for accounting wants a piece of that action, whether he’s got foreign trade experience or not. I dunno—I’m not in the right loop any more. You’ve got to have the right connections. I think I’ll just take it easy for a while—take care of the house, drive around. I suppose I might do some kind of work, somewhere . . . maybe learn to brew my own whiskey.”
    “Now that’s an idea,” smiled Brian, his eyes twinkling with the devilish enthusiasm of a heavy drinker imagining a bottomless glass of the hard stuff. “I wonder how it’s done?” Richard shrugged, then spied something through the window through a break in the clouds.
     “Looks like Ontario.”
    They both gazed down at the suddenly clear vista below, where patches of dark green alternated with the white ice of myriad tiny lakes pockmarking the Canadian shield. They might have been flying over just about anywhere in northern Ontario, from the Lake of the Woods to the Ottawa River. Brutal country, Richard thought; almost untraversable, unexploitable; and yet there, snaking though it like a frozen river, was a railway, and next to it, there, a highway. All the labour and skill that must have gone into it!—the surveying, the painstaking measurements and decisions about the best route through that wasteland; the welding of girders and pouring of concrete for bridges; the dangerous blasting that opened the way through rock that could never be circumvented; and the miles and miles of paving, with the hot asphalt grilling a man from below while the sun burned him from above. Yet who would build such a road now? What would possess a man to do all that work if not greed, or simply the need to make some kind of living in a society where nothing was free? Greed built this country, Richard thought, and people were stupid to think the machine would keep running without it. And was it not already breaking down?
    “Excuse me,” Richard said,  making eye contact with Brian again before making his way towards the back of the plane where he edged into the tiny closet of a lavatory. He found himself noticing what he had long taken for granted in public toilets: the place was clean. As he began to relieve himself into the shiny stainless steel bowl, he wondered who kept it this way, and why? Was it the stewardesses? Was this part of the bargain, whereby one had the privilege of “seeing the world” for the small price—yes, price—of one’s dignity? He briefly considered the case of other public toilets he might encounter in a gratuitist country. Did anyone clean them at the airport? Who would volunteer for such a thing? He decided that such washrooms had either fallen into the most filthy decrepitude by now, or that the office of janitor had become one of those jobs which had been relegated to the civic duty system, much like the jury duty that one was randomly assigned.
    This troubled him.
    He zipped up his pants, flushed, and as he did so noticed the small drops of urine that defaced the rim of the toilet bowl. This disgusted him. He promised himself that he would never clean up someone else’s shit and piss, even if it meant going to prison. He had not spent four years in university and seven years as a government attaché only to be humiliated into doing janitorial duties.
    As he emerged from the cubicle and looked into the face of an elderly man waiting his turn, Richard could not shake himself of the thought: there’s no way I’m ever going to clean up after that guy.
    He sat down again next to his wife, who had managed to fall asleep again. How did she do it? Richard could never sleep in airplanes. She must have taken pills. That was her solution to all the discomforts of life, whether physical or psychological—take a pill, take a drink, go to the acupuncturist—whatever it took to escape the harsh glare of reality. Things still got to her though, and it showed in her face, which Richard began examining askance. He noted how the long trip had left unsightly purple marks under her eyes (not unlike my eyes, he thought, recalling his glance at the washroom mirror moments ago). Her golden hair, so well pinned and braided when they had left Hong Kong, was fraying out and into her face. Such well-formed cheeks, such fine, full lips—that’s why I married her, he thought; if only she were not so averse to oral sex. If it was really that important to you, she had once said, you should have put it into our marriage vows, as if one could actually put such things into marriage vows. And yet she could be talked into it under the proper circumstances, that is, after some unusually fine champagne and a tangible reminder that he had paid up all of her credit card accounts. Richard smiled cynically at her: she could be bought, just like a whore.
    Pamela slept until the announcement of their imminent landing, which was followed by a marked modulation in the roar of the engines as the plane began to descend. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the co-pilot addressed them over the P.A., “if you would like to adjust your watches, the time in Ottawa is 4:05, so we’re a little ahead of schedule . . . the temperature is a balmy six degrees under cloudy skies.” Both Pam and Richard were somewhat stunned to hear this. It had been sixteen when they stopped over in Vancouver and twenty-five in Hong Kong. Six degrees! And this the end of March . . . .
    “I don’t know it I’m prepared for Canadian weather just yet,” sighed Pamela.
    “I’m kind of looking forward to it,” countered Richard. It was four years since he had been in Ottawa, and his time in Beijing, where one could experience real winter, had always been during the summer months. Not that he missed the worst of winter—those thirty below days when every excursion was an ordeal, icy winds blowing down from Hudson’s Bay and somehow penetrating three layers of wool and cotton, blizzards that made it impossible to drive—but life in the tropics made him yearn for those cool spring and autumn days that somehow made it easier to think and get work done. You could retreat into yourself better, concentrate.—A lot of good that will do me now. There is no work for a man like me in a country like this. In my own country!
    Pamela, who was always nervous during takeoffs and landings, took hold of Richard’s hand as their descent brought terrestrial objects to familiar proportions. He felt the metal of her diamond ring against his skin and thought: she will stay with me. I have provided for her.

    He had been in the MacDonald-Cartier Airport at least fifty times, but he reentered it now with the deportment of a visitor who had come, for the first time, from a country where such buildings did not exist. He looked at everything with the greatest curiosity, from the enormous expanses of plate-glass windows to the orderly rows of luggage trolleys to the humming luggage conveyors and omnipresent arrival/departure monitors. Like most persons who had never been in a gratuitist country before, he was expecting to see decrepitude and disarray everywhere; for how could it be otherwise in a place where commerce and competition no longer provided the incentives for cleanliness and order? And yet there was little evidence of decline here. In some ways, it was even cleaner: the trash that once accumulated around the eatery, for example, had disappeared along with the once-thriving fast food kiosk. The empty counters of the kiosk itself, however, Richard found unsightly, for they were a grim reminder of lost prosperity. He knew that it hadn’t served the healthiest food, but the restaurant served a purpose nonetheless; people had benefited from its existence, and if nothing else from the convenience it offered. But of course gratuitist thinking did not rate convenience very highly. Richard had been told about this many times and now he saw that it was true.
    “All these damn white people,” Richard muttered as he brushed past a slow-moving group pushing their luggage carts. Both he and Pamela felt a little envious as they saw how other passengers were greeted in the lobby by family and friends. Not that they lacked family and friends; in their case, however, the affection that makes relatives drive for two or three hundred kilometres to meet you at airports was entirely lacking. Richard’s parents were the kind of people who loved to be visited, but they could not be bothered to visit anyone outside of Montréal. Even a son they had not seen in four years. It was almost upsetting for Richard, and indeed would have been upsetting had the indifference not been mutual.
    Then there was Uwe, his friend-tenant-housesitter who was annoyingly unavailable when Richard had repeatedly tried to reach him from Hong Kong. But that was typical of Uwe, who was always out visiting someone when you needed him; either that, or he would be so engrossed in his painting that he didn’t notice when the telephone was ringing. Richard was much more incensed that Pamela’s parents, who lived here in Ottawa, were not there to meet them.
    “It’s an insult,” he said abruptly.
    “Your parents not wanting to see us. Not that I particularly want to see them, but they should have been here for your sake at least.”
    “That’s what I get for taking your side,” Pamela said coldly. She did not face him, but kept her eyes fixed on the pieces of luggage that were beginning to circulate on the conveyor.
    “Taking my side? Taking the monetarist side, you mean. Don’t pretend you’re not against gratuitism. And don’t make it sound like I’m responsible for your tactless squabbles with those people.”
    “Well, it’s always been your arguments that I use against them,” she retorted, fixing him with a bleary glare. “Anyhow, it doesn’t matter. Let’s just worry about finding ourselves a ride so we can get home and get some sleep . . . there’s our stuff.”
    Richard was not about to dispute the importance of getting to bed, so he quietly plucked their things from the luggage conveyor, piled them onto a trolley and rolled them across the arrivals hall and directly out the door. An unpleasantly cool, stiff breeze greeted him as he surveyed the line of private vehicles along the curb, and with the breeze came the unmistakable, invigorating smell of melting snow. This tallied well with Richard’s expectations, but there was something missing from the scene; he had neglected to question whether there might be any taxicabs in a gratuitist country and was suddenly dismayed at the absence of any tell-tale yellow or black cars in the arrivals lane. For a moment he felt utterly abandoned, like a man stranded and penniless in a foreign country. For a second he thought he might cry. But then, to his immeasurable relief, he spied over the roofs of some other cars a taxi sign atop a white sedan. Another, closer car—somewhat souped-up judging by the way it idled—had foregone the traditional roof-light and had “Taxi” elegantly hand-lettered on the hood and door.
    “Let’s hire this one!” enjoined Pamela. Richard was not impressed by the youthful appearance of the driver, who couldn’t have been more than nineteen, but he was impatient to get going and this was the closest car. He was not inclined to argue.
    “Are you available?” he called, leaning over the partially-opened passenger window. The car looked nothing like a cab on the inside, either; there was no meter or CB apparatus, and some grating rock music from the nineties was playing at a most unbusinesslike volume. The driver was eager, however, and after answering “sure” practically sprang out to open the trunk and handle their luggage. He was immediately and disconcertingly friendly, which both husband and wife took in stride as the price of a free ride.
    Even more disconcerting was the sudden realization that this car was a two-door; furthermore, it was of such a make and year that the back seat, which Richard dutifully took, was not at all easy to get into. As Neil explained (the driver was quick to offer and elicit first names) the back seat tended to discourage older people from taking a ride with him. But he didn’t want them in his car anyway, since they complained about his music no matter how much he turned it down. “Those damned old baby-boomers,” he added.
    Then came the inevitable question: “Where you folks flyin’ from?” Richard said Vancouver in hopes of avoiding much further conversation or, worse, an exchange of opinions, but Pamela decided to tell the truth. Being in the front seat, she was the more audible.
    “China? Really?” Neil exclaimed, his voice cracking and his eyes widening. “I’ve never met anyone who’s been to China. So, did you get expelled and stuff?”
    Richard rolled his eyes as Pamela answered and explained at length the circumstances of their forced departure. He was not particularly surprised at her willingness to engage in conversation, but he was somewhat annoyed at having to hear it all again; it was as much as he could do to put the whole thing out of his fatigued mind for a while.
    He did his best to ignore the others (which wasn’t difficult since he could hardly hear them from the back seat anyhow) and gazed out at the familiar yet somehow foreign city into whose outskirts they were now entering. Where was all the traffic, he wondered? He reminded himself that he was accustomed to the traffic in Hong Kong, which had always been more intense. And yet he was sure there was less traffic than there ought to have been on a weekday afternoon in Ottawa. A lot of salespeople off the road, he thought; people shopping around less, since nearby stores were just as cheap as distant discount marts; people sitting around at home without ambition since they could have whatever they wanted whether they worked or not. . . .
    “Right, Richard?” Pamela had turned to him, smiling.
    “I said, we’ve got enough booze stashed away at home to last us for a while.”
    “Maybe,” he answered, glaring at her for broaching this subject in the presence of their delinquent cab driver. “Assuming Uwe hasn’t gotten into it.”
    “Who’s that?” asked Neil. Richard could not believe it.
    “None of your fucking business,” he said.
    “Hey, relax, man.”
    “Never mind him, he’s just cranky because he’s tired,” sneered Pamela. “He can’t sleep well on airplanes. Anyhow, Uwe is our artist friend who’s been housesitting for us these past four years. He’s had his work in some major galleries, and there’s a big canvas of his in the Bank of Commerce building downtown. Maybe you’ve heard of him—Uwe Kuefer?”
    “He does minimalist abstract paintings.”
    “Well, that’s probably why. I don’t like that kind of art. I like minimalist realist stuff, though—you know, like woodcuts or Lawren Harris landscapes.”
    How quaint, Richard thought, the guy’s taken an art history course at the National Gallery. He felt like throttling him, but wished instead that Uwe were here to make this Neil look ridiculous. Richard knew little about art and didn’t think his friend’s work was all that wonderful, but he knew what other people were willing to pay for it in the days when people paid for things. More than one large corporation had a Kuefer original hanging in their offices. I don’t like that kind of art.—Who cares what you like, punk?
    Conversation after this exchange was once again limited to the front seats, from which the back seat passenger happily remained aloof. Let her be friendly with this twit, he decided, she hasn’t socialised with her own kind for years now. As Richard became resigned to the situation and the choler in him subsided again, it seemed as though sleep would overtake him, and the familiar streets of the capital rushing past the window began to appear like flickers from a dream. . . .
    A violent thud rocked the car and jarred him awake.
    “Holy shit!” cried Neil, “these potholes are gonna wreck my car.” Richard surmised that they had turned onto Second Avenue, his street; for he had made similar remarks about the condition of this road when he was here four years ago. Of course no one had done anything about it since then.
    The taxi slowed to an appropriate crawl as Neil negotiated the uneven pavement up to the end of the block.
    “This is it,” announced Pamela when they had pulled up in front of the big old two-storey in which they had once lived, and would now live again. Even though the house and yard were somewhat unattractive in the aftermath of a long winter—the abundant ivy on the east wall dark and skeletal against the light brown brick, a few heaps of dirty snow where the spring sun had yet to penetrate—even so, for the returning expatriates it was the most welcome sight imaginable. This was no mere house, no mere physical structure: it was the gate to those fields of rejuvenating sleep from which they had been cruelly banished for days now, it seemed. Richard was so glad to be there that he did not even cringe at Neil’s officious proffering of his phone number (of course he had no proper business card), nor at his needless assistance with their baggage, which he brought right to the front door. Had the fellow been performing for a tip it would have been tolerable, maybe even pleasant; as it was, it seemed as though he were trying to impress Pamela. But Richard did not cringe, because he was opening the door to his house. He did not care. He was going to sleep. He cringed only at the point where Neil, finally turning down the walk to go, called back to them in a cheerful voice: “Welcome to the free world, man.”
[Continued in the next issue of SCR]

© Robert B. Zimmer

Robert B. Zimmer
is a Canadian singer/songwriter, artist, author, and scholar. His previous works include Clairvoyant Wordsworth and Evolution and the New Gnosis (co-authored with Don Cruse) . He lives and works in Edmonton, Canada, where it is far too cold most of the time.