The Free World
Anthony Bounderby and his son arrived with a truck full of belongings that immediately presented some logistical problems. Richard’s house was large, but it was already cluttered with things that Pamela had left behind; there wasn’t a great deal of space for Tony’s furniture (which he didn’t have to bring, but which he was ideologically opposed to giving away), his boxes full of financial records (which he insisted might be important again someday), and his collection of vintage guitars (on which he could play only the most basic chords and melodies). Many of these things found a home in the cellar, where Uwe kept his supplies and unwanted paintings, and the men wedged as much as they could into what were to be Tony and Phil’s rooms; some of the junk, however, was left piled in an empty corner of the living room where Pamela’s exercise equipment once was. Apparently, she had been back for more of her things while Richard was out.
Yet even with this enormous load distributed throughout the house, it seemed to Richard as though something were missing. He could not shake the feeling and finally asked whether Philip’s things were interspersed among Tony’s.
“Well, regrettably, Richard,” Tony began in his habitually formal tone, “my son has decided to abandon his aging father and go it alone. I’m not sure, but I think he’s hoping to shack up with some little slut.” There was contempt in his voice as he uttered those last four words, possibly jealousy: contempt that was further expressed in a grimace as Tony watched his son pull the last box from the moving van. “Always working with his hands, too, like a gratuitist volunteer. There’s some of his mother in that boy, that’s for sure.” Richard was reminded of what Uwe had said about Mrs. Bounderby’s position in the new government—it must be eating away at Tony, knowing that she’s working for the enemy and probably indoctrinating his son on the sly. . . .
“Wait a minute!” Richard suddenly broke out.
“What is it?”
“Two and one are only three, not four. Now I’m going to have to find another person to move in here; I’m right back to square one. What a pain in the ass,” he complained further, pacing between the piles of boxes.—And who, he thought to himself, would want to move in here with Tony’s junk all over the place?
“I didn’t realize you needed both of us,” Tony pleaded; “you didn’t say anything on the phone. You’ve got Uwe here, me, and Pam. Surely this isn’t considered to be a five-person dwelling?”
“It’s not,” Richard replied, rubbing the back of his neck in a gesture of frustration. “But there’s only three of us now. Pamela left yesterday. For good.” He turned away so that he would not have to look Tony in the eye. There was something shameful about losing one’s wife, even in the presence of a man who shared that fate.
“I see. That’s too bad—really too bad. Such a fine woman, too,” Tony mused, seemingly disappointed more for his own sake than for his hosts’, but Richard did not notice the impropriety.
“I think her gratuitist parents talked her into it. She was also afraid of having to cook and clean for us, I’m sure. She hasn’t had to do either since we’ve been married, and she’s a lazy woman. Always drinking, too. . . .”
“Of course. I remember. Over fond of rum, if I remember correctly.”
Tony sighed sympathetically, but not without a hint of boredom. “I know it’s tough, Richard; I went through the same thing. But we’ve got to put the past behind us and plan for the future; that’s what separates us from the animals, you know: we make provisions for the future. And right now, we should be thinking of someone who can help you secure this house against the Levellers.”
“That’s what we call the zealots who volunteer to enforce the occupancy codes—that is, to make sure single men like me don’t have an overabundance of space for our belongings.”
“Right. Well, can you think of someone who will move in with us?”
“Not offhand, no.”
—Of course not, Richard realized, the man lost his own house for lack of occupants. What happened to all those business connections of his? Was there something about Tony that he didn’t know—something repellent, something that makes him impossible to live with?
“I’ll ask Uwe again,” Richard decided; “he’s well-connected, and he thought of you, after all.”
And so they talked to Uwe, who suggested some names of persons unfamiliar to Richard, but it made no difference; for when they called those persons, they found no one willing to move in with them. Richard, too, called people he had not seen for four years and longer, even men he was certain had slept with his wife; but again, to his dismay, these were either happily accommodated or happily married. It seemed that after the flurry of moving about that attended the gratuitist changes, people had settled down in places where they could be content.
Finally, they decided to resort to a government-sponsored web page called the “Accommodation Exchange,” where homeowners and prospective tenants could find each other. Not surprisingly, there were a number of single men who desired lodging in the Glebe area; for here one was within walking distance of good cafeterias and stores, the canal was close by, and downtown not too far. The trouble was that most of these prospective housemates were under twenty-five and had likely never lived away from their parents before. Like the men at Richard’s house, the young fellows sought others of their own kind,—or, if it were feasible, they sought young women who weren’t afraid of male roommates, but of course these were few and far between.
When Richard and Tony did find others of their own kind, however, the prospective tenants were not impressed by the quarters they were offered. This, Richard concluded, was on account of Tony’s things occupying a good portion of the vacant bedroom’s closet, not to mention every other corner of storage space in the house. It was not until after these disappointments that Richard decided to clear the closet of the offending objects and put them in his own room. It turned out to be hard work; Tony, thinking it would not present a problem, had left the heaviest boxes of papers on the main floor. Worse yet, Tony insisted that he couldn’t possibly help to carry them upstairs because he was “incapacitated” by an old football injury which had caused him a great deal of pain during the move
“That’s all right, Tony,” Richard cheerfully assured him. “I still train with weights. Those things can’t weigh much more than 40 or 50 pounds a piece.” But he found that his once-strong arms quickly became exhausted, so much so that he began pausing to rest half way up the stairs.—Strange how something feels twice as heavy when you’re not lifting it by an ergonomically-designed handle-bar.
When he had finally set down the last box, slumped down on his bed, and regained his breath, Richard assessed the experience: “I’m really not used to this kind of work.”
“I’m sorry to be such a bother,” said Tony casually. He sat on Richard’s dressing chair and put his arms behind his head, stretching his limbs as though he, too, had laboured as hard.
“It’s not your fault,” Richard addressed the ceiling. “It’s the price we have to pay for letting chaos and Old Knight kick men like you out of their houses. I just wish we would have moved that stuff before we showed the room to those guys. What were we thinking?”
“Now, don’t worry, Rick; we’ll find someone else.” Tony’s deep, mellow voice was soothing. “That last fellow was a gratuitist anyhow, and he would have made trouble about something. Didn’t you hear him? He said he wanted to be closer to his job at the University of Ottawa.”
“You think anyone who works voluntarily is a gratuitist?”
“Not necessarily, but it’s almost always the case. If you work regularly, you’re helping the system function; if you’re helping the system function, you’re impeding its natural decline and prolonging its lifespan. If you’re serious about monetarism, you should be accelerating that decline so people will be fed up sooner and ready to reinstate a system of commerce.”
“Ah—of course,” smiled Richard. “I knew not working was the right thing for me do under these circumstances. I could sense it; I just hadn’t thought it through like that.” He was silent, thinking disconnectedly for a moment, then he propped himself up on his elbows and wondered aloud: “Do you really think we need another person living here? I mean, how do they know? Couldn’t we simply make it look like there’s someone living in the spare room—tell the inspectors or whoever that our fourth man is away somewhere working?”
“Don’t be naive. They find things out. I tried to fool them too, to hang on to my house, but you see where it got me. I wouldn’t be surprised if they know about my move already. Gratuitists are nosy, and the most apathetic of them will call the government if they see or hear about someone hoarding goods or space.
“You see, many people have developed this mentality whereby they think they own everything in common—more so than the communists ever did, I think—so they’ll rat you out as though you were stealing from them personally. And if I were you, Richard, I’d prepare myself for some questions about that glassware collection if ever an inspector came to this house.” He said this in such a way that Richard intuited the increased likelihood of such a visit now that Tony was living here. —Perhaps he’s the subject of some extra government attention because of his political activities, not to mention the political activities of his ex.
“And what would I say in such a case?”
would I say if a Leveller came by and asked about the crystal?”
“The same thing I said about my guitars: they’re works of art; heirlooms; artifacts; not things to be used.”
“Right . . . but I think I’ll get rid of those glass things just the same. It’s all Pamela’s stuff anyway. I still don’t know why she didn’t take it all with her.”
“Don’t be giving things like that crystal away,” Tony advised, “they’ll be worth money again someday.”
—Worth money. How strange that was beginning to sound! But Tony said it with such vatic confidence that Richard was convinced the time would soon be here when things would be worth money again.
Tony stood up and clapped his hands together. “Now, let’s have a look at that web page again, shall we? You’ve still got to follow some of the rules, or they’ll throw you out of the game.”
After downing a glass of water to slake the thirst he had developed lifting boxes, Richard seated himself before his computer again and logged onto the net once again. Looking through the Accommodation Exchange a second time, he and Tony soon discovered an entry which had been submitted that very day:
Quiet, industrious male, looking for room near Bank Street north of the Rideau River. Enjoys cooking and repairing. Will share with quiet adults, couples. . . .
“Hey, Uwe, are we quiet?” Richard yelled to the artist, who was busy fixing himself dinner in the kitchen.
“I think we are!” he replied, shouting rather more than necessary.
“The man’s obviously a gratuitist, but I suppose I can be quiet for someone who might cook for me.”
Richard regarded him critically. “’Enjoys cooking’ does not necessarily mean ‘enjoys cooking for housemates.’—But let’s call him and see what he’s like.”
So Richard called, and a Mr. William McLeod said he would be down in an hour or so to see the room—so far, so good. After hanging up, it occurred to Richard that this whole experience was just like looking for an apartment when you were young and in university, only now everything was reversed. Somehow, the accommodation had become less important than the tenant who occupied it.
“What I can’t understand,” remarked Richard as he and Tony sat around waiting, “is why people should be forced to have full houses when there are more than enough apartments around town for all these single people. I mean, are there apartment buildings that are just standing empty? Is this just a way of providing space for people on the street?”
“It’s a peculiar logic, Richard,” explained Tony. “Of course, the government wants to make sure no one has to sleep in the street. But they also want to centralise the population more, so that people don’t have to commute as much; the same housing laws don’t apply in the distant suburbs, for example.”
Richard started at this and for a moment considered moving to those suburbs without further adieu. But he reconsidered just as quickly, reminding himself that he owned this house and would not just let somebody else have it. Someday, it would be worth money again, and it would be worth more than a comparable house out in Kanata.
“There are also a lot of apartments that people used to be quite content to spend their lives in, but which are suddenly uninhabitable, it seems; all the tenants wanted out as soon as commerce was abolished.”
“So there are perfectly good apartment buildings standing empty while I have to find extra occupants for my own house? That’s insane!”
“It is insane. And what’s more insane, those perfectly good buildings are being torn down as though they were unfit for human habitation, or gutted for renovations so everyone can live like princes. Of course, it’ll take them forever to renovate these places because nobody feels they ought to work for eight hours a day, if they work at all. And let me tell you something: I used to own one of the buildings that are in the process of being torn down, and it was definitely fit for human beings to live in—a little run down, mind you, but I’m sure there are people in Asia who would jump at the chance to live in a building like that for free.”
“I still don’t understand it,” said Richard, shaking his head.
“It’s the result of widespread irrationality, that’s for sure.” Tony paused, rubbed his forehead like an Aladdin’s Lamp, and tried to conjure an explanation for it all. “The trouble is, people seem to think this renovation and reconstruction will eventually provide modern, spacious living quarters for everyone in a few years. But they can’t see further. What’s going to happen is, they’ll fill up all the housing that we built with loans and wages, and they’ll never build anything new. They’ll just raise the minimum occupancy in existing buildings until we’re living like destitute Asians, four families to a house. And it’ll happen sooner than anyone thinks, believe me—now that there’s no financial deterrent to having a large family, the population’s going to start increasing like crazy again. They say that the birth rate has gone down because poor women don’t use children as a means of securing their spouses’ support anymore, but it’s all just propaganda; just take a walk through a park any day of the week in the summertime, and you’ll see the truth: thousands of new families and hungry mouths to feed. And if it’s a really nice day you’ll see thousands of people sitting about idly who would otherwise have been doing something productive. Meanwhile there’s machinery breaking down because no one has bothered to learn how to maintain it, because that’s too much work; or there’s a trainload of grain that’s not being unloaded because everyone thinks someone else will take care of it. . . . ”
Tony’s genius continued to forecast even grimmer times in the future, at times in accord with Richard’s own thoughts, at times unreasonable, at times insightful, always cynical. It was clear that he had no faith in the altruism or dignity of his fellow human beings. And why should he? thought Richard; the bad in humanity outweighed the good by far; the takers always outweighed the givers. Richard’s own case seemed to him a perfect example of this principle, for he felt himself forever giving while others always took. Pamela had happily taken his money and spent it so long as this was still possible; he had been Uwe’s benefactor since their university days; and now Tony and some other man would be taking up the space and using the household things that used to belong to him exclusively.—Well, sooner or later, the givers will get sick of doing all the giving, or they’ll run out of things to give. Gas tank empty—engine stalls.
Bill McLeod, it turned out, could not believe his luck in finding a vacant room in such a good location; as he explained to his three prospective housemates, Richard’s house was within walking distance of one place where he worked, and a short bicycle ride or car trip from the other. He was a gratuitist volunteer, there was no doubt about it. Even if his work ethic were not proof enough, there were other bits of evidence about him to confirm this conclusion: he travelled appallingly light for a man his age, for he felt that he could always borrow the things he didn’t have; and among his effects were books by E. F. Schumacher and Rudolf Steiner, obscure philosophers who, as Tony pointed out, had influenced certain early gratuitist thinkers in the previous century.
Richard found his new housemate’s appearance as repulsive as his political beliefs. The man had coarse, untame black hair, eyeglasses, and a hawkish nose; his thick forearms were out of proportion to his thin chest, his clothes stained black here and there, and his heavy work boots were ungainly, like those hideous Frankenstein boots women used to wear in the nineties. Bill had an explanation to justify the clothes, however: “There’s an automotive shop about four blocks away from here where I like to work, and sometimes I wind up doing something after I’ve changed out of my coveralls. It doesn’t matter what you use, these grease stains just don’t come out.” There was something very quaint about the man’s earnestness, like the simple manners of a farmer; but Richard and Tony cringed nonetheless at those words: where I like to work. This was the ultimate self-deception, as far as they were concerned, for it was clear to them that nobody could possibly like to work anywhere; which was why it was the ultimate goal of all people in a monetarist society to be rich enough so that they wouldn’t have to work.
And how much time did Bill spend fixing cars, they inquired?
“I only work there four or five hours a day; sometimes longer, depending what people bring in. The rest of the time I work at the lab or in the kitchen. I used to be a full-time chemist for a pharmaceutical company, but I don’t do much R & D anymore. Everyone’s switching to herbal remedies for most things now, thank God.”—A veritable Renaissance man, thought Richard, a paragon of the gratuitist volunteer: doing three different jobs to give himself variety and thereby making his work more interesting, but sacrificing a proportionate amount of efficiency. It was as much as Tony could do to keep his opinions to himself on this subject, but Richard wanted to find out more; for this was the first practicing gratuitist he had been able to interview thus far.
“That sounds pretty hectic,” he remarked leadingly.
“It’s not that bad. Of course I can take time off whenever I want, and I set my own hours. And besides, I’m a workaholic; I’d go crazy if I wasn’t always busy.”
“I can understand that,” Richard sympathised (even though he could not for the life of him understand it); “but don’t you find it—er—beneath you to be fixing cars when you’ve been educated as a scientist?”
“Beneath me?” echoed Bill, a little flustered. He nervously adjusted his eyeglasses (although the shape of his nose precluded their sliding down) and blinked disbelievingly at his interlocutor. “Why—it’s beneath no one. I think it’s the more noble of the two occupations, actually; someone always benefits when you fix a car, but the kind of research I used to do wasn’t always benign. I was trying to replicate natural compounds in the lab—things that grow in your garden—to create something artificial that could be patented and sold at a ridiculously high price. I wasn’t being unethical, mind you; my superiors were unethical; I was just making a living,” he explained, apparently more for the sake of his own conscience than for Richard’s curiosity. “That kind of thing is what’s beneath me now.”
It seemed to occur to Bill that Richard’s query was rather old-fashioned, which prompted him to ask what kind of work his pending house mate did.
“I haven’t had a chance to start anything since I got back from China,” said Richard, feeling oddly embarrassed, “but you might say I’m a mover and building supervisor.” He, Tony, and Uwe laughed at this, for it was true: Richard had been working for free, however reluctantly.
“And what were you doing in China?”
“For the past few years, trying to maintain our trade relations with the Chinese—a difficult job under the circumstances, you can probably imagine. Before that, I was a special advisor to the government in matters of currency exchange, as well as an agent for securing foreign capital for Canadian businesses.”
“Interesting. And what does this gentleman do?” Bill gestured towards Tony, who had distanced himself from the conversation.
“I lead a local branch of the monetarist lobby,” Tony answered proudly. “150 strong.”
“That’s—uh—fascinating,” Bill said apprehensively. “It appears we’re going to have some lively conversations should I decide to stay here.” This was said with a smile, but the other men showed no sign of taking the matter of their differences lightly: Tony was grim, no doubt thinking that there could be no reasonable dialogue with a gratuitist; Richard was uncomfortable, suspecting he would have to search for a new lodger soon after the first “lively conversation”; and Uwe remained as downcast as he had become when the subject of occupation was first broached. Richard suspected his friend was once again plagued with self-doubt about the relevance of his contribution to society.
“Uwe, here, is an artist,” Richard said peremptorily.
“Oh really? And where do you stand politically, Uwe?”
“I take no stand,” he replied distantly; then, managing to look Bill in the eye, he added, “I tend to lie prostrate on political issues, while other people walk over me.” This provoked the laughter of all present, including Uwe, who found in humour a brief respite from his habitually morbid thoughts.
And all present decided that they would at least try to cohabitate, despite their obvious differences; after all, none of them could have expected the arrangement to last for long. Tony looked forward to the “imminent reversion” to monetarism, which would, he was certain, occur in about seven months at the next federal election; Uwe predicted an argument that would end with Bill leaving; Richard, too, expected the reversion, but he expected even sooner to find a new wife who would take Bill’s place as the fourth occupant; and Bill himself, one could have surmised, was resolving to find an equally good location before too long. In the meantime, he must have looked upon the arrangement as an opportunity to show these monetarist dinosaurs that life as a warm-blooded gratuitist was better, if somewhat smaller.
Everybody thinks they want more freedom, her father had told Pamela at dinner, but when they actually have it, they don't know what to do with it.—Well, she thought now as she lay in the darkened bedroom that had once been hers—I may not know what to do with myself, but it's better than having Richard do with me whatever he pleases. It's all his fault, anyway, for keeping me diverted from the necessity of any kind of meaningful work all these years. What the hell could I have done in Hong Kong, anyway? I certainly couldn't have found work as a legal secretary there, not even at the embassy. The only thing I've had any experience with in the last four years is shopping and managing servants. Oh, and I mustn't forget my job as a fashion adviser to Mrs. Cho and Mrs. Yu, or my supporting role in Danny's cheesy action movies.
Pamela thought back to the week she spent on the set of Singapore Gunslingers, all of which yielded a mere 30 seconds of usable film footage. Don't worry, you don't have any lines Danny told her, you'll be in a steam room with some other women, and the villain storms in and hides there among you. All you have to do is look sexy and scream.—He thought I was acting, but by the time they got the shot down I was screaming because the heat was driving me crazy. . . .
—And how, she asked herself, will that experience help me now? I'm sure no one makes films like that in Canada, not now, not without the motivation of a quick buck behind it. It certainly isn't the kind of thing one produces for artistic expression, or even because it's mildly entertaining. People might watch those movies as a kind of brain candy, I suppose, but who in their right mind would go to the effort of making one now, here? I'm sure those poor stunt men can think of less hazardous jobs to volunteer for.
Pamela looked over at the redly glowing numbers of the clock radio, then tried to figure out what time it was back in Southeast Asia. 2:00 pm? 3:00?—No wonder I can't get to sleep. It's going to take at least a week for my system to get over this awful jet lag. If I had a good, stiff drink or two, or three, I'd be able to sleep without a problem. If this is the way things are going to be from now on, maybe I ought to help out at a distillery so I can be sure of getting a bottle of rum now and again (I wonder if there even is a distillery in this city?). But then, maybe I don't really need that crutch any more. It's Richard that drove me to it anyway.—Bullshit, declared her conscience, you've been a lush since you were seventeen.
She turned herself to lie on her side and began recalling a time when she was still gainfully employed. At that time, she had been Pamela Kerr, Legal Assistant, and she worked in the oak trimmed offices of Arnaud and Wilson, corporate attorneys specialising in bankruptcy management.—What a shitty job that was! she realized now; all that damn paperwork, details, overtime, no proper benefits—no wonder I jumped at the chance to become Richard Spendler's devotedly dependent wife. And the worst part about it was the office dress code—no bright colours, no denim or tight slacks, dress hemlines just below or just above the knee, no higher—oh, and hair longer than shoulder length will be worn pinned up in a professional manner.—What a bore! I wonder what Mr. Arnaud and Mr. Wilson (the fags) are doing now that their little species is extinct. And wherever will they be able to indulge their little dress-code control-trip now?
—Pamela Kerr, Legal Assistant. Can't be too many law practices around now that most of the crime is gone; there certainly isn't any need for corporate lawyers. There must be something, some kind of workplace where I can apply my skills, even if it's just answering phones and doing data entry. Someplace where I can dress as trashy as I please, take as many breaks as I please, come and go as I please, and flirt with all the good-looking men . . . which reminds me. I've got to see about getting a place of my own tomorrow, just in case I get lucky and I need some privacy.
She turned from her side onto her stomach, in which position sleep was equally elusive; but the feeling of the bed against her front made her think of the embrace of a lover, and her anxious thoughts and memories of work began to dissolve into a fantasy involving the most beautiful man she could possibly imagine. He would make everything work out right, too; he would know what she should do, what was right for her; he would even introduce her to the director of the film company he worked for, and she would get a role opposite and equally attractive and famous man, and there was a love scene between them where it wasn't acting anymore and he started doing things that weren't in the script. . . .
It became clear after a week of the new living arrangements that the men in Richard’s house would be able to live together, after all. This was mainly owing to the patience and industry of Bill, who, in addition to preparing some meals for the entire group, did more than his share of the dishes and cleaning in the kitchen. That he had to do more than his share was mainly owing to the indolence of Richard, who had never in his life been responsible for such things and was not about to start doing them now. His family had always had a maid, and his mother did all the cooking; at university, he lived in residence and always ate in the cafeteria or in restaurants; and he’d always had servants while he was married. This was, of course, part of the reason he had always needed a big house with bedrooms on separate floors: the hired help could not, after all, sleep on the same floor as their employers.
Bill was not, however, merely doing extra work because he was a nice person. Richard soon became convinced that the man was (as he himself admitted) a workaholic. It seemed as though there was no part of the day when he wasn’t busy with something. When Richard got up to jog at seven-thirty or eight, Bill had already finished his breakfast and was off to the lab. When, after reading the paper and doing the daily crossword, Richard spent an hour lifting weights, Bill was already starting to prepare a hot lunch that served three (for Uwe, this was often breakfast; Tony usually disappeared by nine and did not join the others for meals). While Richard spent the afternoon looking for the latest foreign news and pornography on the Internet, Bill was at the garage tuning engines and fixing brakes. In the evening, the Renaissance man was busy again, either making supper for “the boys” (as he called his elder house mates), or bringing a dish to some potluck dinner with his friends. Afterwards, he would occasionally join the boys as they drank whatever alcoholic beverage Uwe had managed to forage, but normally he would disappear into his room and read. This was, it appeared, Bill’s schedule six days a week; he worked as hard, or harder, than most people had before the big change.
Richard could not understand it. How did a man motivate himself to work like that when he didn’t have to? Sure, one couldn’t spend one’s days doing nothing, and even Richard looked forward to occupying himself with Tony’s monetarist organization after attending their next conference; but that was work that would bring some reward in time to come. Bill, on the other hand, seemed to work out of pure altruism, expecting no reward for his labour. If there were a shortage of food because certain persons were too lazy to haul produce, Richard was certain that Bill would go right on repairing their vehicles. And there was no way for Bill to tell whether his customers worked, reciprocally, for his benefit or not. There was no real exchange.
This exorbitant work ethic annoyed Richard at times, even though the results of that ethic made his life more comfortable. He resented what he felt were Bill’s excessive efforts at keeping their common area clean, efforts which he interpreted as a display calculated to make one feel guilty for not helping enough. Furthermore, he began to suspect that Bill hadn’t always been such a hard worker, but that he had resolved to convert the others, by example, to a gratuitist way of life.
—It’s not going to work, Richard would scoff; I don’t care how much work you do.
But he could not forbear having a word with his tenant when, after returning from the morning jog one bright day, he found Bill truant from his post at the laboratory and raking the struggling grass in the backyard instead.
“That’s really not necessary,” Richard told him as he approached. He paused before speaking again, catching his breath. “Uwe is responsible for maintaining the yard.”
“Oh? Well, he doesn’t do a very good job, does he?” said Bill, trying not to sound overcritical.
“No, he doesn’t,” Richard replied sternly. He looked around at the untended lawn and thought back to Uwe’s promised redress. It was two weeks ago, and he had done no more than cover the compost heap with a board. “All the same, I would prefer it that Uwe take care of it. It’s not like he does anything else, other than scrounge for liquor and sulk.” Richard had been disturbed by Uwe’s listless behaviour before, of course, but now that he expressed himself in words it seemed like a problem requiring immediate attention. “I’ll talk to him about it today,” he promised.
“I won’t argue with you,” said Bill, setting aside the rake. “I hope your friend takes you seriously; it seems to me he’s a very melancholic man, and some hard work in the fresh air will do him a lot of good.”
“That’s probably true,” mused Richard. “I think Uwe’s problem is, he doesn’t feel like he has a purpose in life anymore. No one seems to want his paintings, and unfortunately he thinks his art is his life. Actually, I think he should do some little projects around the house, too. He could certainly paint it.”
Bill nodded in agreement.
“And maybe,” Richard continued, “he’ll occupy himself in the house more if you hold back a bit with cleaning. Uwe can cook, too, you know.”
Richard’s recommendation became a plan, and Bill held back for a while, but Uwe did not take the cue. He took care of the yard, but it didn’t seem to bother him that the dishes began to clutter the sink; or that grease spots accumulated on the stove; or that newspapers cluttered the living room; crumbs and spots where liquid had spilled remained on the dining table. Bill, no longer able to bear it, returned to his old regimen, much to the relief of Richard and Tony.
Still, there was a price to pay for having a man like Bill in the house. Not only did he make the others feel guilty and thereby threaten their slothful complacency, he also imposed a certain custom which they felt obliged to observe. He annoyingly insisted that they give thanks whenever they ate together, a simple ritual whereby they would link hands and say “a blessing on our meal; thanks to God and all the benevolent spirits of nature for whom the green things of the earth flourish and nourish us.” At their first meal together, which Bill had prepared, they all cringed at the practice; even Tony, once a superficially religious man who attended church regularly, could scarcely bring himself to say “God.” They had assented, however, being genuinely thankful that Bill had served them and confident that this was a ritual reserved for special occasions, such as a first meal with new house mates. But Bill expected them to give thanks every day, which made his meals a mixed blessing for the others.
Then there was the matter of Bill’s girlfriend—if that was what she was—whose biweekly visits provoked the jealousy and irritation of the other men. Her name was Laura, and even though she was not particularly handsome, she had an intense femininity about her: a dark, smouldering sexuality which attracted even Uwe, who rarely took an interest in a woman. And yet, for all her desirability, she would come every Sunday with a basket of laundry to throw in the washer and would spend several hours with hawk-nosed Bill in the privacy of his room, no doubt having sex with him. (Richard could not be certain about this, because he only ever heard talking when the door was closed; but this proved nothing since, as he once demonstrated to the other men, one could jump up and down on Bill’s bed and not hear a single squeak.) Because Richard had not, despite all his charm, been able to attract a new woman of his own, and because he could not even find a venue at which to meet women, Laura’s presence irritated him a great deal. Worse, he began to suspect that she was a married woman whose laundry provided the excuse to steal away from her husband; for Richard, this possibility inevitably reminded him of Pamela and started him imagining the kind of hideous man she must have been fooling around with by now. Then he would think of his father’s aphorism again: they invented money so ugly men would have a chance with good-looking girls; was there something besides money that worked equally well, he wondered? Then he would rationalise, reminding himself that Laura was not all that good-looking, and whatever power she had over him probably wouldn’t work if he were getting laid regularly. Miss Liu Min, now, she was a pretty piece of work. . . .
Tony, too, was proving to be a source of consternation, albeit for reasons of a much different sort. He took up far too much space, not only with his belongings, but with himself. This was not so much a matter of his corpulence (although he was rather large) as it was his deportment; he seemed to occupy the space in his immediate vicinity as much as the space where he actually stood, for if you walked within his orbit he was sure to run into you or touch you as he carelessly gestured. At the dinner table, he somehow managed to take up twice the space of anyone else, mainly by planting both elbows firmly apart as though to shield his plate from potential scavengers. Furthermore, when he spoke on the phone, his resonant voice was such that a pair of closed doors was not enough to shield one from overhearing him, and one felt as though he were in the room even when he wasn’t. He made no effort to mute his presence out of respect for others.
And Tony was messy. For a man who had all his life delivered tidy sums into the hands of his bank’s shareholders, and who had neatly managed a number of high-yield mutual funds, Tony was surprisingly incapable of making himself a sandwich without carelessly smearing the counter with butter, bestrewing the floor with crumbs, and leaving the bread bag open. He would often fail to remove his muddy street shoes until he saw that he had left tracks all over the foyer and kitchen floor. He would clean such things up, of course, and even do his own dishes—he was not about to be entirely upstaged by a gratuitist like Bill—but he was so slow and ineffective at these tasks that it pained Richard to watch him.
Tony’s room on the second floor, which used to be Pamela’s auxiliary bedroom, was quickly turned by him into a disaster area, which he freely admitted; but he “didn’t have time to clean it, you see.” This did not particularly concern Richard, however, so long as Tony kept his door shut. What did concern him was the state of the bathroom, and especially the toilet. Although the upstairs toilet was shared by Richard, Tony, and Uwe, who lived in the attic, it was to Tony that Richard complained first; judging by his new friend’s general inattentiveness, Richard felt certain about who ought to be held accountable for the majority of the mess. This led to the first of the “lively discussions” Bill had foreseen, although Bill himself was not present.
“I think it’s time someone cleaned this bathroom,” Richard remarked one morning as Tony was busy shaving.
“Uh-huh,” acknowledged Tony. He carefully scraped away at the stubble beneath his nose.
“You’ll do it then?” Richard suggested. This brought the razor to a stop.
“That’s not what I meant, no. I don’t clean bathrooms, you see.”
“Well, neither do I, you see,” mocked Richard. It was true, after all; he had never in his life been forced to do such a thing.—I did not spend four years in university to qualify for a job scrubbing a toilet, he thought, even if it is my own toilet. There are always other people who will stoop lower for you. Furthermore, Richard thought, at least fifty percent of the urine stains must belong to Tony, a man who couldn’t pour himself a cup of coffee without leaving a dark streak on the side of his porcelain cup.
Before he could make this clear to Tony, there was a squeak on the steps coming down from the loft: Uwe, who was up conveniently early, was Richard’s next target. He, too, felt that Tony should be put to the task. Worse, he seemed to think the situation “wasn’t that bad.”
“It’s not like we’re getting any female visitors,” he added.
“No, but we’re not pigs, either,” countered Richard. “At least I’m not a pig. And I don’t want my bathroom to look—and smell—like a pig sty.”
“Why don’t you clean it then?” jabbed Uwe.
“Because I shouldn’t have to. This is my house, and if you guys appreciate it at all that I let you stay here, you ought to keep it clean when I ask you to!”
“Don’t forget who it was that asked me to be here,” warned Tony. “And don’t forget that you wouldn’t retain this house for very long if Uwe and I left. Now, what I would suggest is, you ask our friend Bill if he’d care to clean up in here.”
Richard had to smile cynically. Tony knew damned well that Bill never set foot on the upper floor, and there was no way his generosity would extend to such heights as this. Richard was, in fact, quite surprised at Tony’s gall for even suggesting it, not to mention his ridiculous threat about being irreplaceable. He was beginning to see why his wife and children had been so eager to get away from him.—I’ll fix him, Richard thought then; let him think I’m going to ask Bill; let him think someone else will clean up after him. I’ll just start using the bathroom downstairs, and we’ll see how long these two pigs can live in their own shit.
© 2003 Robert Zimmer