The Free World
by Robert Zimmer
Pamela and her neighbour, Tanya, watched expectantly as Tanya’s father worked to remove the heating element assembly from the base of the water heater. Despite his promises to hurry, it had taken him 3 hours to get there, and Pamela wanted to stand by and make sure the man didn’t dawdle too much. He went straight to work, however, providing them with a running commentary on what he was doing so they themselves could deal with similar problems in the future.
“There isn’t a lot that can go wrong with a unit like this,” he explained. “If you’ve got burning gas and flowing water, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have hot running water, unless there’s a valve stuck or the thermostat doesn’t work.”
“What if you have to get parts? Would it take long to find them?”
“Naw. The people who built these things practically had a monopoly. There’s spare parts everywhere. Don’t you worry ’bout a thing, Miss Kerr, I’ll have it up and running in a day, for sure.”
“I hope so. And please—call me Pamela.”
“Alright,” said the man, turning to her and flashing a friendly grin. “In that case, you can call me Dale.” He looked down at the element which he had now removed, then probed the little valve housing with his finger. “Well there’s you’re problem right there.” Both women stepped forward for a closer look, and Pamela stooped down so as not to block the light. “See this little wire right here?” Dale went on. “This runs from the thermostat to the valve, and it’s not making contact. Whoever had this thing apart last musta pulled on it and broke the soldering, and eventually it worked itself completely free somehow. Told you it would be something simple.”
Dale turned to smile at Pamela again, and before turning away again to reach for his tool box, she noticed that he stole a glance at her cleavage which, she instantly realized, must have made a rather good show at that particular angle. She straightened up and retreated a little, stifling a bemused snicker at her own unselfconsciousness.—I’ll bet I’ve got him all excited now, she thought; I hope he doesn’t end up burning himself with his soldering iron. She watched him for signs of unsteadiness but could see none. She did, however, note that he had very good, dark hair for a man who, judging by his face, must have been in his late forties; and his physique had nothing in common with that of his big-boned daughter’s.—She must take after his wife, Pamela surmised.
“So, have you lived here long?” Dale inquired.
“About three weeks.”
“You from the city?”
“Oh yeah. I’ve lived here most of my life.”
“So have I. But I decided to get out to an acreage a couple of years back—you know, where I can live in peace and quiet. Took everything with me except for my daughter, here—she prefers to live in the city where her daddy can’t keep an eye on her.” He said this in a joking manner that ought to have elicited some response from Tanya, but the girl remained silent, perhaps resentful that she should be spoken of as someone who needed watching over.
“And you’re a millwright? You still work in town?” Pamela asked.
“I used to be a millwright. Twenty years, busting my ass so someone else could get rich. Not any more. I got my garden—my cows—my still—that’s work enough for me.”
—A still! Pamela’s heart leapt as her eyes brightened.—My God, how long has it been since I’ve had a good belt of . . . “What is it you brew?”
“Oh, a little beer, a little rye whiskey. I’m not talking about the paint solvent you see around town here, either. I know how to make the good stuff,” he boasted, his eyes sparkling alluringly.
“But you can’t tell anyone about it,” Tanya spoke up.
“That’s right. The last thing I need is thieves stealing my hooch on me.”
“Your secret’s safe with me,” Pamela promised; then, with a mischievous smile: “so long as you’re willing to share a bottle with me now and again.”
“I think that can be arranged,” said Dale as he crouched down to slide the element into place. “In fact—if you’ll just wait till I put these fasteners back in—we can probably talk Tanya into sharing a bottle with us tonight. You still got some whiskey, honey?”
“What? I gave you four bottles at the beginning of the month!”
“I know, but I share them with my friends.”
“Aha! With your boyfriends, eh?”
Tanya did not reply. “Maybe there’s one bottle left,” she muttered grudgingly.
—My, my, how times have changed, thought Pamela. I know what you’ve been up to, you innocent little girl—luring boys into your apartment with promises of liquor, getting them just drunk enough so they’ll overlook your elephantine ass but not so drunk that they can’t stay hard for you. . . .
“Well, you share that bottle with me and Ms. Kerr tonight and I’ll bring you another couple next week, okay?”
“Okay. But I’m not drinking with you. You know I don’t like to.”
Pamela could taste it already; she could feel the harsh burn of the fiery liquid in her throat; but oh, to be drunk again! To lose oneself in that oblivion, to laugh and flirt and say rude things without the sting of conscience afterwards; oh, to be perfectly stupid again! There was no stopping her now. It did not matter a whit that she intended to go to the office again tomorrow. It was, after all, not until noon that she usually went in, and if worse came to worst, she would just go in late. It wasn’t as though she had to worry about getting fired.
Once Dale had packed away his tools and checked to make sure the water was, in fact, running warm again, the three of them headed upstairs to Tanya’s room. Pamela had a chance to look around at the apartment while the girl went to the cupboard for the whiskey bottle. It was just enough to make her glad that Tanya hadn’t invited her to stay; the place was in total disarray, as though someone had just moved in but hadn’t bothered to unpack. But for a sofa and a stereo/television console, there was no furniture, just piles of books and CDs and clothes and empty drink and food containers.—Good Lord, thought Pamela, a city full of free furniture, and this woman chooses to live without it. And those posters on the walls! What hideous-looking men; they must be rock stars, no woman would want to see them baring their chests like that otherwise.
Tanya handed the bottle to her father, and Pamela overheard her saying “you behave yourself” as she did so.—You’re talking to the wrong person, dearie.
“All right,” declared Dale, “you clear a space for me to sleep in here, ’cause chances are I won’t want to drive home after drinking half of this.”
“You don’t have to drink half of it at once, daddy. You should leave some extra for Pamela to drink some other time.”
“Bah! There’s plenty where this came from. You got ice, Pam?”
“I sure do.”
Pamela led him across the hall to her suite while her conscience nattered incessantly about how dangerous it was to bring strange men to one’s room where you were alone and defenceless. But her normally reliable intuition told her that Dale was not the kind of man who forced himself on women. For one thing, he was pretty handsome for a guy his age, and together with the attraction of his still, he probably didn’t have too much trouble finding willing sex partners. Furthermore, she could tell from his manner that he was a genuine alcoholic, and he would probably rather get drunk with her than have sex with her. Of course, it was entirely possible that he wanted to do both—in fact, it’s entirely certain, Pamela decided. But this did not bother her, for she was quite accustomed to such attention.
“So how come you have a daughter but no wife?” she challenged him as they downed their first rye and colas. She could see by the brightness of the kitchen light above them that he was surprised by her question.
“How do you know I don’t have a wife?” he returned.
“No ring,” she said, pointing to his hands.
“How do you know I don’t have a common-law wife, then?”
“I can tell,” Pamela averred vatically.—Quite logical, actually, she added clandestinely; your daughter didn’t remind you of any obligations you might have to someone waiting for you back home. But I’d rather you thought that I can just tell; it’ll make you wonder what else I can tell about you.
“Tanya’s actually my daughter from my first marriage. That was the only woman I ever loved, her mother. But she died when Tanya was just six years old. It was horrible—I watched her waste away for two months in the hospital, which was what made me discover how valuable this stuff is.” He pointed to his glass and the dark liquid inside it. “You know,” he went on, “she looked a little bit like you do right now.”
“Really?” said Pamela politely.—What a hopeless liar. He must want me really badly to be trying this rehearsed sentimental stuff on me; either that, or this cock-and-bull works for him every time, so he sticks with it on all his dates. “And you’ve been married since then, I take it?”
“Just once; a marriage of convenience. I needed a wife who could take care of my daughter and my house while I was working, and Belinda needed a man to support her. Once Tanya could take care of herself, though—and once I decided to quit my job and move out of the city—thanks to our present government—I didn’t have much need for a big ugly wife any more. I can cook fine by myself.”
“And do I remind you of her?” asked Pamela playfully.
“No! Not at all!”
She laughed, and he laughed with her. They drank silently for a while, each of them wondering where to take this conversation next.
“It’s no fun drinking alone, though, is it, Dale?”
“Pam, in this country, the way it is now, you never have to drink alone. There are so few people with access to a regular supply of booze—I can call up any of a hundred people and invite them over, and any one of ’em will be happy to drive out to my place for a drink. Just look at yourself: you’re a perfect example. In the old days, a woman like you wouldn’t even think of inviting a stranger like me into her place just for half a bottle of rye, not if you coulda gone to a liquor store to buy your own. Am I right?”
“I don’t know. Depends if I had the money to buy my own or not.” Pamela reached for the bottle and poured another couple of jiggers over the ice that was not half-melted yet. Dale tossed back what was left in his glass and she poured him another as well. She was just beginning to feel the warmth of the alcohol in her limbs, just beginning to feel herself relax into a state of easiness.
“How about you?” Dale resumed. “You been married before?”
“Oh yeah. Just got my divorce finalised, actually.” She looked down at the ice cubes floating in her glass. “I was married six long years. Maybe six months of that was actually happy.”
“You should be glad it’s over, then,” Dale enjoined, noting that she didn’t look glad.
“Oh, I’m glad, all right. I just wish I could have done it sooner, or at least . . . I wish I could have changed him into the man I thought I married. I don’t know if he ever really was that man, though.”
“What made you love him in the first place?”
“Oh, Richard was a fine, fine-looking guy when I met him; and a real charmer, too. He still is, I suppose, but that’s just not enough to keep a woman interested for more than a few months. I stayed with him, though, because he earned a lot of money and I didn’t have to work. I didn’t even have to do housework, ’cause we had a cook and a maid. And I always figured, well, he’s going to grow up and start being trustworthy and sincerely caring someday, or else I’d find a better man and just leave him.”
“So you stuck around because that was the path of least resistance,” Dale surmised.
“Yeah. You could say that.”
“So what made you leave him finally?”
“Well, for starters, I didn’t need his money any more, for obvious reasons. Second of all, he was going to bring this asshole of a friend of his to live in our house—this old, conceited crook who I always hated—and he didn’t even ask me if I minded or not. I mean, he just assumed that any friend of his would be a friend of mine.”
“That ain’t right,” Dale remarked.
“And the other thing is, Richard, my ex-husband, thinks it’s his mission in life to restore monetarism in the world, and I just don’t think he’s given gratuitism a chance. I mean, so far as I’m concerned, life is a whole lot easier now. No one’s trying to rip you off when you go to a store, no one’s begging on the street, and no one’s selling out their morals for a little more money. I think it’s a damn good way of doing things.”
“So do I. I’d never have been able to live the way I want if it weren’t for the fact that everything is free. If I get a bad crop of beans, I go into town and get some there. I get more milk from my cows than I need—I bring it into town and just leave it for someone else to take. No worries about buying and selling, that’s what I like. And if I want to sit on my porch and drink my whiskey all day instead of fabricating a piece of machinery for some factory, like I used to do—my life won’t be any worse for it.”
Pamela thought about Dale’s words for a moment, and although she was ready to support his choice of a simple life, she thought how selfish it was of him to let all his skill and experience go to waste. “Well, what if everyone else’s life is worse because you’re sitting on your porch doing nothing. Ever thought of that?” she challenged.
“Everyone else? Hey, I’m just one guy! I’m just a millwright, and most of my life I spent fixing machines in a chocolate factory. If the factory has to close because I ain’t there, the worst that’ll happen is, people will have to either go without chocolates, or make their own at home. Besides, there’s plenty of other guys out there who can do the same job I used to, and they’re happy enough living in the city. There’s no way I’m going to drive into town every single day, not from out where I live. It’d be a waste of gasoline, and as the government tells us, we don’t have the trade credit to be able to waste gasoline.”
Pamela frowned. The man’s attitude didn’t seem very practical. Given a perfectly sober mind and ample time to argue with him, she probably could have demonstrated to him how wrong he was to give up on his former trade altogether.—What he really needs, she thought, is a woman who will nag him until he would rather get up off his porch and drive off to work somewhere, if only to get away from her. She smiled, remembering how often her father would run to the garage and tinker with his carpentry when her mother’s badgering became too much to bear.—If I had a husband who treated me as well as my father treated my mother, she considered further, I would never torment him that way. Especially if he had stout, firm forearms like Dale, here . . . and hands like his, too, pulling you towards him. . . . Too bad he’s so old and wrinkled.
“You got any music here?” he asked suddenly.
“There’re some CDs next to the computer. Go pick out something you like while I go to the washroom.
When she returned (her hands dry but still warm from being washed under the hot water), Pamela found that Dale hadd filled her glass again and put on one of her favourite recordings, a Cuban band playing what she thought was the most romantic dance music ever made.
“Well,” she said, “you certainly have good taste.”
“Actually, I’ve never heard this stuff before. I just picked it out because I liked the picture on the cover.” He held up the CD case with its photo of a sultry, dark woman wearing a low-cut dress and sitting with her arms resting on a table, a bottle of rum at her elbow.—Yes, thought Pamela, it’s an attractive cover, and you must be really lucky because I’m going to want to dance in about ten minutes. . . .
She took her glass from the table and went with it to her couch, whereupon she made herself comfortable in the most overt fashion: she smiled, closed her eyes, snuggled against a pillow, and stretched her legs onto the coffee table in front of her. When she opened her eyes again and turned them to where Dale was sitting by the computer desk, she saw that he was grinning lecherously at her.
“So how do you like my whiskey? Pretty potent, ain’t it?”
“Oh, it’s fine. I like it fine. I’ve never been much of a whiskey drinker, though. If I had the choice, I’d be drinking rum.”
“I like my whiskey. Of course, you can’t grow sugar cane here anyhow, so you wouldn’t be able to make your own rum.”
“I wish I had a bottle of it right now.” Pamela took another swig from the glass in her hand. “I guess this’ll do, though. I can’t be too fussy, now, can I?”
“No. You can’t.”
—That song. My favourite. “Wanna dance?”
Dale took her by her outstretched hand and held her in a most gentlemanly fashion, his hand pressing lightly against her back, his pelvis at a respectful distance from hers. As music-measured time passed, however, their bodies came closer together. Pamela noticed the hard flesh in his pants.—If I’m going to put a stop to this, she considered, it’s going to have to be right now. So far I’ve given him nothing but encouragement, and he knows that I know that he’s hard. He knows that if I don’t stop him now, I must want to have sex with him, too. There—his hand’s moving down to my butt already. Okay, when this song’s over, I’ll pull away from him, and I’ll tell him, one more drink, and you’ve got to go. It’s after midnight, I work tomorrow. . . .
Rather than pull away from the man, however, Pamela found herself clutching him all the more tightly when the song ended, partly because it felt good to clutch him thus, partly because their swaying dance had made her so dizzy that she might have fallen over had she let go. Then, ever-so-predictably, she felt his lips on her neck below the ear, his nose against her earlobe, his dick pushing tumescently against her hip, and all of her resistance melting away like the ice in the empty glass on the coffee table. Perhaps it was because he had aroused her, too, despite his age and wizened appearance; perhaps it was just the alcohol drowning her conscience and inhibitions; perhaps it was her eagerness to replace memories of Richard with memories of someone new; perhaps it was because she felt she owed Dale something for sharing his bottle with her; perhaps it was all these things that made her whisper to him finally, “take me to my bed.” Of course, she did not have to tell him twice.
In a moment of lucidity at a time of overwhelming sensation—the rising wave of pleasure was about to come crashing down on the shores of her body—she thought of Jan and Ms. Levant talking about her and cattily calling her a trollop.—Maybe so, ladies, but don’t you wish you could be in my position now!
Richard awoke that morning with the images of two dreams burned into his memory. In the first, he found himself alone in the house, early in the day; Bill’s door was wide open, and Richard could see that there was a partially-finished jigsaw puzzle on the floor in a spot where a rug normally lay. As he entered to look more closely, he could feel that guilty excitement one gets from trespassing in the bedroom of a relative stranger, a feeling which was soon supplanted by consternation; the puzzle, he found, defied completion. It was a landscape with a city skyline, wreathed by tree branches drooping from the top of the picture. On one side, there was a kind of monument or gravestone; on the other side, a dark grove. The portion that was still incomplete was that which would unite these two sides. In his dream Richard examined several pieces, but he could not discover any that fit into the picture. He began to wonder whether some of these pieces belonged to this puzzle at all, for some were odd shades of red that seemed foreign to the landscape. And yet, he sensed that Bill was somehow capable of completing the puzzle since it was in his room. . . .
The second dream seemed to have nothing to do with the first, but when Richard thought about it later, he could see a common theme. There was a busy street, Bank Street perhaps, but with more Chinese than European Canadians. Pamela was walking beside him, her hair loose about her bare shoulders, her eyes looking away. Richard reached for her, but she was already too distant. There was a strong wind that made the passers-by run for shelter. Richard saw the two men who had taken the furniture away; they glared back at him disapprovingly. Pamela was in the moving van with them.
The meaning of the dreams was obvious, Richard decided afterwards. His inability to reach Pamela was represented in both dreams, the puzzle dream being the more symbolic with its male and female pieces that would not fit together. It was a similar kind of frustration. It made sense, furthermore, that he should feel that Bill was capable of completing the puzzle, since Bill was (or at least Richard suspected he was) having sexual encounters with a woman in the very room where the dream-puzzle appeared.—One doesn’t have to be a Freud to figure out the symbolism, he thought; and yet, why had this dream come on this night, when the day before he was not, for once, preoccupied with sex, but with politics and economics? Perhaps, he decided, I have interpreted the dream incorrectly after all. Perhaps Pamela has become for me a symbol of the way things were, a symbol of life in a monetarist world to which I no longer have access.
—And what was the missing part of the puzzle, other than the impossible bridge that could connect me to the life I want, the middle ground between gratuitism and monetarism? Yet neither I, nor Bill, nor anyone else can find this middle ground. That was why the puzzle was unfinished. And yet there was that feeling. . . .
Pamela awoke to the sound of snoring. The room was bright with the day, the covers stiflingly warm, and her mouth was parched, wretched with the familiar aftertaste of hard liquor and sweet cola. The feeling of another’s flesh was at her shoulder.—Richard, she thought at first; I am in Richard’s bed. What! She started, and with one motion was sitting bolt upright, legs together, one arm over breasts, eyes wide open and looking at the snoring body lying next to her.—Oh. Now I remember. What time? 11:30. I can still go in to work if I get my shit together. Amazing: he sounds just like Richard when he snores. And what a face! My God, he must be fifty. I must be out of my mind. But holy mother of God, I swear I haven’t come like that in years.
With mechanical efficiency she went to wash and brush her teeth; she dressed, combed her hair, and brushed on some make-up, all while the man in her bed snored peacefully.—I’ll let him sleep, she decided; no point delaying myself by having to explain to him that this was just a one-night kind of thing, and I’d really rather not see him again, free booze or no free booze. He’ll figure it out himself, I guess.
Pamela pulled open the bedroom curtains and allowed the light of the sun to flood inside, hurting her eyes and illuminating a thousand airborne specks of dust between the window and the bed. Once her eyes managed to adjust to the light, she peered outside to see if any rain clouds were gathering in the southwest. There were none; but as she looked out over the parking lot, she noticed something far more unsettling than any weather: there was Dale’s pick-up truck, for all to see, for Tanya, his daughter, to see. “Shit, she’s going to know,” groaned Pamela quietly.—How will I be able to look her in the eye when I run into her in the hallway? What if she’s on speaking terms with the other women in here, and she tells all of them, That floozy across the hall, you know what she did? She seduced my father, and now she won’t even see him when he comes around.
—None of this would have happened if this was a good, old-fashioned monetarist country, Pamela told herself. The water heater would have been fixed by a building manager, or at least I would have been able to call a reputable plumber who would fix it, take his money, and leave; or if he offered me a drink, I would have said no, thanks, I’ll go buy my own. I’d have half of Richard’s money, I wouldn’t have to worry about a thing. Stupid gratuitists! It’s all their fault.
Sunday rolled around, and Bill’s friend Laura came by in the afternoon with her usual load of laundry. It was an unusual visit, however, in that she did not leave after the usual two or three hours she spent alone with hawk-nosed Bill; this time, she stayed while Bill began preparing dinner for everyone in the house—himself, Richard, Uwe, and, apparently, their female guest.—Finally, thought Richard as he covertly listened to the kitchen banter, finally I will find something out about this mysterious woman, this sexy creature who for some reason enjoys the company of my repugnant housemate.
Unfortunately for Richard, however, the conversation did not deviate from the themes of vegetables, spices, and homeopathic medicines—until, at the dinner table with the four of them assembled, Bill broached the sensitive issue of his tenancy.
“I know I haven’t been here very long,” he began, “But I’ve noticed that the guest room doesn’t get used for much more than storage. Do you ever expect to get any visitors, Rick?”
Richard did not expect any visitors, but he thought for a moment whether he should lie; the question implied that Bill was expecting a visitor, and since Laura was, for once, joining them for dinner, it seemed altogether logical that she was this prospective visitor.—She stays out of my way when she’s around, Richard thought; she doesn’t distract me that much, and it’s an enjoyable distraction; what harm could come if she spent a night or two here?
“No, I never have visitors,” said Richard. Then it occurred to him that the guest room was full of Tony’s junk, and it would make more sense for Laura to sleep in Bill’s room, with Bill on the sofa (assuming they meant to sleep apart). “I don’t think anyone would want to visit me anyway, since there’s nowhere to put all that junk in the guest room.” He felt curiously sad, having to make this admission; for what kind of a life was this, when you could think of nobody who would want to visit you, not even your own relatives?
“Are you sure you can’t move that stuff somewhere else?” Bill asked. “I mean, couldn’t you and Tony move some things into storage, in a vacant retail space or something?”
Laura suddenly sighed impatiently. “What Bill is ever-so-gingerly getting around to asking,” she began sternly, “ is whether or not I can move into that room, together with all my clothes and some other necessary belongings—move in for a long time, that is.”
Uwe coughed as though he had choked on Laura’s words. Richard, who was slicing a piece of breaded fish, did not raise his eyes from his plate as he responded instinctively: “No. Out of the question.” After saying it, the reasons for this response urgently crowded into his mind, but they were not the kinds of reasons he could offer Laura and Bill. The most alarming of these was Richard’s fear that he might eventually be unable to control himself with a woman like Laura constantly about the house; the possibility that the demons of desire would eventually goad him into grabbing, even raping her on some unbearably humid July day when she was wearing shorts that barely covered her rear. (Was he really capable of such a thing?) Then there was the other reason: Richard could not tolerate such a living arrangement, namely the shift in the balance of power it would portend. It was difficult enough living under the same roof with one gratuitist; what kinds of arguments, what kinds of accommodations and compromises would one have to endure with two? Bill seemed content not to preach to his idle housemates about social duty and the joys of altruism, but Richard suspected things would be different with Laura. A woman like her might tempt him or push him into becoming a gratuitist, too; as he was beginning to notice, he was certainly prone to such temptation.
“Why is it out of the question?” asked Bill.
“Because I don’t want another person living in my house,” Richard declared, emphasising “my” to make it clear that it was entirely his prerogative. “We don’t need another person, and as you probably know, I wasn’t too thrilled about having to accept even one strange tenant.”
“Supposing I were to leave,” offered Uwe—“I mean, not that I want to leave. Hypothetically.”
Richard directed a look of consternation at him for making this more difficult than it already was. It was like they were trying to corner him into admitting his real reasons for saying no.
“Hypothetically, in that case, it would be okay,” he lied.
“Where do you live now, Laura?” Uwe asked. “Would I want to trade places with you?”
Richard cringed.—Don’t do this to me Uwe!
“I don’t think you’d want to, no,” Laura replied; “and anyhow it wouldn’t be possible. My building—it’s an apartment building just off Bronson—is being renovated, and I’m moving because I want to get away from all the noise and the smell of paint. It would be a good two months until anyone would want to live there again. So I thought I might as well look for something more permanent anyhow.
“But it seems your friend Richard is afraid of me or something,” she continued; “or maybe it still hasn’t sunk in with him that it wouldn’t cost him more to have another person in the house?”
This remark made Richard feel exceedingly uncomfortable. “I need my space,” he said defensively.
“Oh, of course. I forget. All of these essential belongings of yours,” Laura sniffed.
“A lot of it belongs to Tony,” put in Bill, obviously hoping to avert a confrontation more serious than this had already become. It was immediately clear to Richard that this diplomatic effort of Bill’s was part of a larger strategy that he had maintained since moving in: maintained, that is, by ushering Laura through the house so she could not cause this kind of scene.
“Actually,” explained Richard, “most of what you see here—all this ill-matched furniture, pointlessly large vases, that row of never-used glasses on the shelf, there—it’s all the legacy of my acquisitive ex-wife. Like most women, she wanted everything, and unfortunately I gave her the means to get it. If I’d been smart and stayed a bachelor, I would only own things that I find useful . . . Useful or entertaining, that is.”
“Useful or entertaining,” mused Laura: “such unstable categories. I always thought it would be practical to have a microwave oven, but you know what? I never use the thing. But I’m sure you’ve never bought anything frivolous like that.” No one spoke as she looked askance at Uwe’s “Progress” hanging on the wall next to them. “What about enlightening things? Do you have any of those, Mr. Spendler?”
“Hmm, let’s see. . . . Pamela left me that glass Buddha on the bookshelf. And I think I have an I-Ching somewhere. Nothing by any of your gratuitist gurus, though, if that’s what you mean.”
There was another unpleasant silence as Laura surveyed Richard’s poker face with her bright, penetrating eyes. Richard, unable to meet that stare, looked over at the row of glasses.—They are useful after all, he decided: useful as a place to rest your gaze when you were being glared at by discourteous guests. Uwe and Bill were looking at their empty plates with resignation, although Bill glanced from Laura to Richard and back again, hoping to read signs of good humour. These were not forthcoming.
“Tell me something Richard,” Laura resumed as she leaned back and folded her arms judgmentally, “what have you contributed to our fair city since your inauspicious return? I mean other than plotting the reinstitution of a monetarist regime which will save us all from our decadent ways?”
“Laura. . . ,” Bill interposed.
“It’s all right,” Richard reassured him. “It’s a perfectly valid question; I mean, we all work for each other, so you all have a right to know what I’ve been doing. The answer is—nothing, really. Mind you, last week I did clean house, including a filthy bathroom which was certainly not my responsibility”—here Richard glanced accusingly at Uwe—“and I tried to give away some art one afternoon, but no one was interested because none of the people in this country know good art when they see it. I’ve also been busy ascertaining that the availability of gasoline in our fair city has not changed significantly in the past four weeks.”
“Fascinating. And don’t you feel hopelessly inadequate for having accomplished so little?”
“Not really.”—Not altogether true, Richard’s conscience reminded him, but he countered by reminding his conscience that he did not want to give this virago any satisfaction in her cross-examination. “After all,” he went on, “it’s not my fault that the skills I’ve spent most of my life acquiring are suddenly obsolete. If things ran normally, I would be working as hard as any of you right now—except for maybe Bill, but he admits to being a workaholic. And I don’t know what you do for a living, madam, but I’d hazard a guess that whatever it once was, you didn’t make as much money as I did. I would make a very important contribution to our common good, given the right opportunity.”
Laura sniffed haughtily again. She did not say anything more, as though to suggest that Richard’s explanation was too ridiculous to merit further discussion. Then she did the most exasperating thing possible under the circumstances: she got up and began to collect the dishes. This prompted Richard to rise as well.
“Allow me,” he said.
“It’s no trouble, really,” she said with mock politeness.
“All the more reason why I should be doing it. Please—I’m your host. It’s the least I can do.” Richard maintained his composure surprisingly well for one as incensed as he felt at that moment.
“Very well,” she relented.
Richard took the plates and forks from her hands and brought them into the kitchen where he rinsed them off. Then he returned to take the glasses, and a third time to take the serving bowls. He dutifully packed away the leftovers (which Tony would probably consume around midnight) and arranged everything in the dishwasher.—I can do work just as enthusiastically as you can, Richard thought as he faced, in his mind’s eye, Laura’s unbearable stare. I am not lazy; how dare you accuse me of it!
—In fact, I’m going to organize a street repair crew tomorrow, just like those guys I saw working the other day, and I will shovel the asphalt myself if I must. I’ll show you.
Afterwards, when Laura had left and the house was quiet again, Richard made himself analyse the rationality of the resolution he had made. He saw at once that it had come to him in the heat of the moment; it was not the kind of idea that would occur to him without unnatural provocation. Then he wondered if he could actually go through with it, given that he wanted to take it seriously. But it was precisely by wondering in this way that he became fully resolved to take on the task, for it frightened him to find himself doubting his ability to realize his ideas; in business school, he had been taught that it was better to follow through with a decision to the best of one’s ability than to backtrack and vacillate for fear that it wasn’t right. And that was how he would explain his initiative to Tony, too. This was not going to be a genuine act of gratuitism: it did not signify the surrender of his monetarist ideals: it was merely an exercise of the focal and organisational faculties which had, Richard felt, begun to atrophy in him.—I am not, he rationalised further, succumbing to feelings of guilt and inadequacy such as Laura tried to provoke in me. I will work of my own free will.
It was nevertheless several days before Richard could bring himself to act on his resolution to do something about the road. He would go to bed each night with the firm intention of looking for some volunteers the next day, but when morning came, he found himself procrastinating, telling himself it was too early to bother anyone. In the afternoon he would quite unconsciously seek some diversion that would prevent him from taking any initiative, and then he would decide that it was too late to bother anyone. There were moments when he thought the whole thing was a foolish idea after all. Then, one afternoon as he was playing solitaire, he realized that his life was a boring, lonely hell. Perhaps repairing a street would seem like hell, too, but at least it was a more invigorating, interesting, and social form of incineration.
As Richard expected, it was not too difficult to find a few other men who were willing to help repair the holes in their street. After canvassing houses on both his and an adjacent block, he found that many of his neighbours were equally dismayed by the road’s condition but were too busy with other commitments to take up the task of repairing it themselves. Many were not aware (as Richard had not been) that one could simply book equipment from the city, conscript a knowledgeable foreman, and do it yourself. It was one of those opportunities which, though they were to be expected in the gratuitist world, did not always occur even to those who had lived in such a system for years.
The actual booking of the equipment was, of course, possible through the city’s website. Here, one could offer and request all kinds of goods and services: labour, idle equipment, and even catering could be posted in one area, while requests for help and machinery from city warehouses could be entered in another. It was all very practical and efficient, but Richard noted it was also very vulnerable to sabotage—not that he wanted to sabotage it; in fact, he felt vaguely apprehensive lest someone else should try to interfere with the site. Of course, it would have been difficult for someone to enter a number of bogus requests without being traced by the authorities afterwards.
Richard followed the necessary links to the paving equipment page, which was so organised that when one found the listed machinery available at a convenient time, another link could be followed to a corresponding list of trained supervisors who made themselves available on that particular day. Furthermore, one could send a message to one of these supervisors via email or by telephone and thus let him know that he was needed. There were many of these supervisors available; volunteers abounded.
Even so, it turned out that Richard, who wanted to begin as soon as possible, had no choice but to book an early morning slot about a week later, beginning at six a.m., at which time a man named Paul Olzyk was mysteriously willing to work. Where did such people come from, Richard wondered? Why, one would have to get up at five, or earlier, and to get a good night’s sleep, go to bed at ten!—hours to which, of course, many people had accustomed themselves over the centuries, but which Richard could not imagine himself keeping for any length of time. He had always begun work at nine, finished by five, stayed awake until midnight (when the most entertaining TV shows were over), and up again at seven or so.
The difference in the old regime, it occurred to Richard, was the commute. One generally had to reckon with an hour’s worth (or more) of commuting to and from the embassy or wherever one worked: time which no longer played as great a role for gratuitists who, like Bill, had a better chance of finding a place to live that was near their workplace since money was no longer an object. It was a great advantage, Richard reflected, to be free from the financial chains that once tied everyone to their mortgaged houses and condominiums, but it was an advantage which was peculiarly gratuitist. Central locations were no longer prohibited by cost, nor were they good investments compared to land in the suburbs. One simply lived wherever was most convenient.
And so it was five days and several pothole incidents later when Richard, two of his neighbours, and Paul Olzyk the foreman met at the city yard to pick up their equipment. It was rather cool for a morning in late May; Richard noted how his exhaled breath condensed into clouds before his eyes, and he felt the brisk air through both jacket and sweater.—I’d rather be in a warm bed or a warm office right now, he thought; then again, it feels good out here in the fresh air, all these birds singing, and the whole day ahead of me for once. No morning jog or weights for me today—I’ll get enough exercise shovelling and pushing machinery, or whatever else this business entails. . . .
The four men—Richard, Paul, Dave, and Stewart—took from the yard two trucks, each of which pulled a trailer with a paving machine aboard. One came with a small roller, the other with a small tarring and flaming machine. The trucks themselves were laden with spades and cutting tools, a jackhammer, a pounding device, a bin full of coarse asphalt, and a tank full of fluid surfacing material. There was even a box full of old heavy-duty gloves and steel-toed boots for the occasional volunteers who, like Richard, did not have a pair of their own. One certainly had to admit that the volunteers who had prepared these things were very thorough.
As the organising force behind their little work crew, Richard felt obliged to ride next to Paul in the first truck, a position he did not assume comfortably. For Paul was not only an unfathomably committed gratuitist (as anyone might deduce from his willingness to work so early), he was also quite obviously past the age when workers once retired, that is, sixty-two: he had reached that difficult age when, as Richard saw it, a man loses all the inhibitions that once prevented him from foisting his opinions, observations, and life story on perfect strangers. It was therefore with a feeling of trepidation that Richard responded to his new acquaintance’s initial attempts at conversation.
“Patching up a road is easy,” Paul remarked once he had determined Richard’s inexperience in the world of paving. “’Specially when it’s cool out, like today. Resurfacing an entire stretch of highway when it’s 30 degrees and humid as a sauna, now—that’s something else. No way I’d do that again, at my age.” This was said with a cheerful grin which seemed to triple the number of wrinkles in the man’s leathery face. When the smile dissipated, the cheer remained in eyes that peered at Richard from beneath a fleshy, sagging brow and an old red ball cap.
“So this is your street we’ll be paving today, is it?” Paul asked.
“Yes. Mine and the next block down.”
“Ach. An easy day, then. Mind you, it’s always easy for me—you fellas have to do the real work. I’m just a supervisor, now, but I used to do the hard stuff, too. I didn’t mind it, though. In fact, I used to prefer shovelling and raking instead of sitting on a machine all day. You get hem’roids, sitting on a hot machine all day.”
There was an interruption in Paul’s reflections as he cursed a cyclist who had dangerously swept across the road in front of them before turning left. Then, after a welcome silence, the inevitable question presented itself: “So what kind of work do you usually do, Mr. Spendler?”
“Nothing steady,” came the tentative reply. Richard considered for a moment whether it would be best to answer truthfully, with a half-lie, or with a whole lie. He decided to take the way of the devil and the politician. “I take care of a house—my house, actually, which I share with three other men. I also take care of a big garden—lots of trees, fruit trees, flower beds. But I do lots of other things on the side.”
“That’s good, honest work, gardening. I used to do it myself in the old country. I used to work on a mixed farm back in Ukraine, too, but that was when the Russians were still in power. Those were tough times, I tell you. Not that it was much better after Gorbachev, but at least a person with a good piece of land could be sure of getting something to eat. When the Collectives ran the farms, they took the whole harvest from under your nose and sent it to Moscow—and there wasn’t much of a harvest, either.”
Bank Street, Richard thought—two more minutes of this fellow’s monologue and I’ll be safe.
“I was happy to be working in my own garden, I tell you. And I’ll tell you something else—the vegetables didn’t grow nearly as well when the Soviets were still in power, because they tried to turn everybody into atheists. When I was growing up, you had to hold mass in secret, ’cause they thought Christianity was a threat to their power, if you can imagine that. But you know what happened? The vegetables and the grain didn’t grow right anymore, because there weren’t enough people who believed in God in our country. I’m not saying you have to be Orthodox, okay? but you have to have people with some kind of faith if you expect to have proper crops in a country. That’s why you find that even here in North America, the country folk are always more religious. They know how it works.”
And, Richard continued thoughtfully, you’ve got to avoid poisoning the soil with radiation, the way the Communists did during the eighties; and who knows what kind of chemicals they were using for fertiliser and pesticide back then?—All the believers in the world would be of no avail if they were poisoning themselves with chemicals and radiation. Richard concocted this argument as they neared his street but kept his thoughts to himself, hoping to stymie further unwanted conversation. If Paul Olzyk wanted to be ignorant and superstitious, that was his problem; Richard did not feel it was his responsibility to disabuse the man of his peculiar ideas.
They came to a stop at the corner of Richard’s block, the other men pulling up close behind them. Paul stepped out and surveyed the becratered pavement before them, then appraised the fidgety, inexperienced men next to him, and then smiled at the prospect as only a person working voluntarily could possibly smile.
“Should we unload these machines from the trailers?” asked Dave, a burly but soft-spoken Jamaican. He had been eager to take on the project, Richard recalled; he was a newlywed and seemed to want work that would keep him close to home, his wife and newborn child.
“It’ll take a few minutes to get them down. I’ll get a couple of you guys started with a spade and jackhammer first. No point in all four of us waiting around until the paver’s down and warmed up.”
“Isn’t it a bit early for us to be making noise with a jackhammer?” Richard asked pointedly. “I’m sure everyone on this street’s still asleep.”
“Ach—tomorrow’s Saturday. They can sleep all they want then. Besides, this particular hammer is designed to be quieter. Since you’re cutting asphalt with it and not concrete, you’ll only use it at half throttle anyhow; asphalt’s pretty soft actually, which is why there’s always so many holes in it.”
Stewart, a tall, full-lipped Scot, spoke up: “Why don’t they use concrete slabs, then?”
“’Cause they don’t expand and contract as well, and you’ve got to reckon with a lot of that in this country the way the temperature goes up and down. And once you get cracks or gaps in concrete, it’s a helluva job to fix it. You pretty much have to replace the whole slab.”
“Let’s just get on with it then,” said Richard impatiently. He could not believe that he, a former trade agent, had become party to a discussion of various paving materials at six-thirty a.m. on the street corner down from his house. A month before, he would never have believed that he could ever wind up in such a position of his own free will. And yet, as he began to chip away at the jagged edge of a pothole and shovel the debris into a wheelbarrow, it seemed the most reasonable thing in the world; for here, he resumed, is a piece of decaying infrastructure that’s making my life as a motorist miserable—not to mention the lives of others—and I’m doing something about it. It’s not like I'm demeaning myself by accepting a lower standard of living along with this lower-class job. If I’m going to apply myself at all, I couldn’t have picked a more sensible place to start; had I chosen something more in line with my former profession, the best I could have done was to voluntarily arrange a shipment of suspension parts for his car from a factory in Japan. Still, part of him saw this as an inefficient application of labour. Didn’t he and his two neighbours need to be told, at every step, what needed to be done? They were learning procedures which they would probably forget by the time they volunteered for such work again. Two or three specialists could probably do the same work in half the time, assuming such specialists were available.—And why aren’t they available?
Richard began to doubt the necessity of a “specialist” for the kind of work they were doing, however. Once the first potholes were cut square and cleared of debris, they merely needed to be packed by hand with coarse asphalt, pounded tight, sealed with tar, and rolled smooth. Even the machines were not difficult to operate once one knew the function of all the levers; after all, guys with grade six educations had been working them for years. The only thing that seemed to require any experienced judgment was the temperature to which one heated the surfacing bitumen, the chemical composition which varied according to the application. But this was the kind of thing that could be prescribed by a specialist beforehand.
Having begun working with a spade—it was his duty to shovel away debris and then fill the holes with asphalt—Richard was obliged to continue thus for the sake of efficiency. He worked ahead with Stewart, who spalled the rough edges of the holes with the jackhammer, while Paul and Dave packed and sealed the finished holes with the machines. It was noisy—Richard was sure they had awakened the entire neighbourhood by now, and Tony had probably seen him at work from the window of his room—but there was nothing especially difficult about any of their tasks. As he shovelled aggregate into each prepared crater, Richard thought not about the minor strain on his muscles, but about the obliteration of these obstacles to worry-free driving. He looked back at the first completed patches and saw that they had done a good job.—And why wouldn’t we? he asked himself; if you’re going to volunteer for something, you may as well do it right. We’re not about to cut corners or take our time to cheat an employer who pays by the hour.
It was not until the four of them paused for a break that Richard heard more from Paul—heard more, that is, about Paul’s eventful life. They sat together on one of the equipment trailers, Paul and Stewart enjoying a hot drink from their thermos bottles; Dave went indoors to have a warm drink with his wife, and Richard made do with the by now noticeable warmth of the morning sun streaming above the greening trees. Now that his captive audience was comfortable, the old foreman took it upon himself to edify them about the nature and benefits of “retired” life in the free world.
“You know,” Paul addressed Richard (who had done nothing to elicit such an address), “I have no idea what I’d be doing right now if we were still living in the old system. It’d be like the first six months of my retirement—watchin’ TV, getting in my wife’s way, playing snooker with the old men at the billiard hall—I might as well have been dead for all the contact I had with the living.”
“I’m sure an energetic guy like you would have found something eventually,” offered Stewart.
“Oh, sure I would have. But I wouldn’t have taken a paid job back then. Not with so many young people out of work who needed a job more than I did.—Besides, no one would have taken on an old guy like me anyhow. A man my age doesn’t work efficiently enough.” Paul reflected for a moment, as though visualising the day he was forced to retire. “There was no way I coulda worked as a supervisor, either. You worked for the city, you retired at 62, even 60 in some cases. Finito.”
“Didn’t it feel nice not to have to work anymore?” asked Richard.
“Sure, for the first few months. Then I started to get depressed. A man starts to feel useless. I was always bored. Even travelling—it’s nice, sure, but then you think: why should all my knowledge and experience sit idle now? It’s like the thing about you that made you important to other people just vanishes. You know what I mean?”
“I know exactly what you mean!” Richard said passionately. The old fellow had formulated his predicament perfectly.
“I sure am glad we can do what we want now,” Paul remarked.
Stewart responded, but Richard did not pay attention to the ensuing conversation; for the inclusivity of Paul’s “we can do what we want now” started him thinking along well-travelled tracks. What, Richard wondered, did he want to do now? After the last MLA meeting with its ridiculous squabbles, he was not altogether sure if he wanted to be an active member of the organisation. They were looking less and less like serious contenders for political power. And what of his other goals? After almost two months away from prostitutes, he no longer felt any strong desire for young girls; his perversity seemed to have atrophied for want of indulgence. He realized that he felt almost indifferent about the prospect of winning a new wife, too. He was finding he could get by without one. The only desire he felt with any force at the present time was the longing for recognition, for the affirmation of his worth as a member of the human race: the kind of affirmation that once came through working with others, getting promoted, getting paid. . . .
Richard decided there was really only one way to satisfy such a desire under the circumstances. He would have to volunteer somewhere on a regular basis.—Oh, how the mighty have fallen, he mocked himself. Has it come to this?
He was distracted from his reverie by Paul’s suggestion that they get back to work before someone complained that they were blocking up the street needlessly. Richard took up the jackhammer—a change being as good as a rest, as Paul was fond of telling them. Although he had watched carefully while Stewart operated it, the device proved difficult for Richard to wield; he found he had to exert a great deal of pressure on its handles to avoid cutting a bevelled edge or having the machine skip away from him. His arms soon felt numbed by the vibration, and the dust stirred up by his excavations found its way into his nose and throat. This, combined with the increasing heat of the morning sun, made Richard feel as though he were in a desert.
At the same time, however, he felt something increasingly pleasant. It was something more than the mere satisfaction that arises from seeing one’s efforts transformed into fruitful manipulations of the world; it was something more than the seductive pride that arises out of work that one knows will benefit unknown others. It was the feeling of a bond that arises between people who work together at the same job and who experience the same difficulties: a bond which cannot, which need not be expressed in words. Here was this neighbour of his, Stewart Leith, with whom Richard probably had nothing in common, and with whom he had not spoken above thirty words; and yet, he had already been brought to the first stage of friendship with him, for Stewart was enduring what Richard had endured, and Richard was going through what the other man had. They now had something in common, something to talk about: something, potentially, to laugh about. This was camaraderie.
Having worked closely with others before, this bond was not entirely new to Richard, but in his other life—the life of the embassy and the foreign exchange bureau—camaraderie had always been tainted by a confrontational atmosphere which arose from what he had always regarded as healthy competition. Everyone was always vying for a better post and better wage, and these could only be achieved at the expense of one’s colleagues. It was a competitive milieu that was, Richard saw, actually inherent in the kind of work he once did in that other life, but he also saw how it was inherent in the monetarist world in general. What was it, after all, that drove him to accumulate so much wealth, so many things that he neither needed nor enjoyed? What was the real source of his greed? Was it part of that same healthy (or unhealthy) competition?—Someone always had more, therefore I had to have more, and even if I had too much, there was always the possibility that I might lose some of it; I therefore needed excess. From his present standpoint, beyond this world of endless acquisition, Richard finally saw how futile and yet pervasive it all was. Greed fed on itself and engendered more greed, and since the monetarist system had made a game of it all, the quest for more was too pleasant and absorbing a pursuit to give up or even think about from a higher moral standpoint. Those who did give up on the game always seemed to be the ones losing it, anyway, so that their renunciation and sanctimonious attacks on consumerism sounded like the whining of a poor sport who couldn’t admit that he lost, fair and square.
And yet, was the competitive drive really eliminated from the gratuitist world? As he focused once again upon the task at hand, Richard noticed that it was not; for Stewart appeared to be working harder and faster than Richard had earlier, as though to assert his superiority. It was not surprising. After all, the only means by which the competitive drive could be expressed in the new system was through outworking others. One could no longer rely on a display of mere symbols of superiority like cars, houses, or jewellery—symbols that no longer demanded for their acquisition superior cleverness or industriousness. Of course it had always been so, even in the monetarist world where the most inept sloth could inherit or win such symbols. But what did it mean now, when a man wore a better suit or drove a fancier car? At best, it meant he had good taste or good connections; it no longer meant that he was “successful.” One could only “succeed” by doing something better than everyone else.
The asphalt broke away more easily now, and Richard left a straighter edge in his wake. He began to feel comfortable with the rattling, unruly machine, comfortable in the simplicity of his task. The jackhammer and asphalt became for him a world unto themselves—a world which was, like the one Richard ordinarily experienced, a mixture of routine and change, control and vicissitude, whole pieces and broken pieces. Despite the dust, heat, numbing vibration, and the pungent smell of hot bitumen, Richard decided that road repair wasn’t the oppressively hard or boring experience he had expected it to be. On top of the immediately perceivable benefits, it provided a physical challenge: how quickly could it be done, and how precisely? Moreover, one wasn’t tied to one task or machine; though not as efficient (specialisation being the key to efficiency), this rotation of tasks made the job far less tedious. It became more like playing sports than doing real labour, and Richard’s erstwhile renunciation of work and his attacks on gratuitism seemed more and more like the whining of a professional athlete who holds out for another ten million dollar contract because he’s forgotten how much better it was to play for fun, applause, and tacky little trophies.
By noon, all of the craters on his block had been filled and sealed, and he and Stewart had already prepared half the holes for the next block down.—I could, Richard thought, abandon this little project right now, having repaired the only length of pavement I normally drive on; but that would be ridiculous. I would have to be a real asshole not to continue what I’ve started. Besides, there’s nothing else to do, other than to look at the same old e-crap on the Internet. Besides, it’s not as though I have to do this every day. Besides. . . .
Richard found that his dinner, which he shared with Bill as usual, was somehow more enjoyable because he had worked hard all morning. He had a tremendous appetite, which brought tremendous satisfaction when it was allayed; furthermore, he felt a warmth of camaraderie in the presence of Bill which could only have arisen through their mutual recognition of having worked concurrently. For once, Richard had something he could talk about at the table, something which Bill was interested in: something which made Richard feel important. Yes—that was what was missing from his life the past few months, he concluded afterwards; he had not felt important, because the thing that had made him important to other people had vanished. One could only be important in this world by doing important work, by making oneself useful or entertaining. Or enlightening, added his conscience in the voice of Laura.
“I think it’s time I cut the grass and weeded the garden,” Richard mused as after dinner he surveyed the back yard through the kitchen window. He visualised himself working just as much tomorrow; perhaps he would even get up early again, though not too early. He would also scan the television Job Channel to find something to do the following day. He was not going to waste his time moping about the house anymore.
Sometime around three o’clock, Richard and Stewart were already finished preparing the potholes on Stewart’s block, which, owing to the way runoff water drained from it, was somewhat less decrepit than Richard’s had been.
“Well, I guess that’s it,” said Richard, leaning on his shovel. A warm breeze from the east toyed with the tree branches casting shadows across his face as he looked down the street to where Paul and Dave were working. “Maybe we should help those guys get done quicker.”
“We’ve got the equipment until five,” Stewart pointed out. “Why don’t we keep prepping for another hour, and fix up some of the next block down?”
“Aren’t you tired yet.”
“Not really. Besides,” Stewart added, “we can’t very well pack up without fixing that thing.” He pointed to an enormous crater right near the intersection where the next block began. “Look at it—you could have a bath in there.”
“You’re right,” Richard agreed. “It’d be negligent of us not to fill it.” So he went and discussed the matter with Paul, who glanced at his watch and assented.
It was as he was walking from the paving machine back to where Stewart was waiting with the jackhammer that Richard noticed three small children playing on the sidewalk nearby. He was able to observe them for a short time, during which he saw that they were imitating the workmen: the tallest of the three, a black-haired, ivory-skinned girl of about five, was pretending to hammer away at the sidewalk with a kind of pogo-stick, while a smaller boy who looked to be her brother pretended to cart away shards of asphalt with his toy truck; a third child shovelled stones, making tractor noises as he did so. When Richard looked at them a few minutes later, they were riding their tricycles back and forth across an overturned fragment of carpet which resembled a fresh layer of pavement.—These children, he thought, are the next generation of gratuitists. Perhaps they will grow up with a different notion about the difference between work and play. Perhaps they will find it strange that human activity was once restricted by the dynamics of the market. Perhaps they will be better off that way—not necessarily because they’ll have more things, but because they’ll have more free time. If they remain gratuitists, all of their time—even work time—will be free. Wouldn’t that be something.
It was not long before Richard was able to fill the last pothole with aggregate and wait for the machine operators to complete their tasks. He was relieved to be finished. He was tired. He might have disencumbered himself of his borrowed work clothes and gone home to take a shower now, but such a course of action seemed to him impolite; because he had organised this endeavour from the start, he felt somehow bound to remain until it was complete, even until the trucks and equipment had been returned. Furthermore, he enjoyed the feeling of pride that came from looking upon the newly passable street and knowing that he had taken the initiative, conscripted, and arranged the whole thing.—Next time, of course, it ought to be stripped and entirely repaved, he adjudged. For now, though—
“Excuse me,” a child’s voice interrupted his reverie. Richard looked down at his side to where the girl he had earlier observed playing was now standing. “My mom said I should ask you if the men would like some water.” There was an innocent boldness in her demeanour that Richard found instantly endearing. He smiled at her, then turned somewhat instinctively to look at the house behind him. As he might have expected, the girl’s mother was standing on the porch, smiling proudly.—Where have I seen that woman before?
“I’m sure we would all like a glass of water,” Richard answered, crouching slightly to make himself less intimidating to his waitress. “All four of us.”
This sent the girl, a stream of dark hair flowing behind her, running up the stairs to the porch where she eagerly related Richard’s answer to her mother. Richard watched the mother’s face with interest, trying to place her. It was, however, not by her face, but by her fine clothes that he recognised her: it was the seamstress he had encountered that day on Sparks street when he had tried to give away Uwe’s art.
—Ah—I remember all too well. She asked me about my occupation, and I told her that I worked for the MLA. Was she not disgusted at the revelation? Did she not say something impolite about Uwe’s artwork? On the other hand, Richard observed, she’s very attractive; and did she not approach me first that day, after making eye contact several times, as though she were interested in me? Furthermore—and most importantly—was it possible that such a woman could remain available for any length of time?
Richard recognised the house now, too. The small front yard, which was beginning to become verdant now, had been the object of his derision not too long ago because it was being cultivated as a garden. As he had remarked to Tony one evening as they were walking to a corner store together, it was a blight on their city that, at the instigation of the local government, such dirty plots were replacing civilised grass in their neighbourhood. We’ll have to pass legislation when we take control, Tony had said, to eradicate such things; they’ll lower your property value if you live next to them. Richard was much more accepting of the little garden now that it was sprouting.—Less work, he reflected, than having a lawn, and more productive and efficient.
When mother and daughter reemerged from the house a few minutes later, each carried with her two glasses of water which, Richard saw as they came closer, were garnished with a slice of lemon. Luckily, Paul and Dave were just rolling the final patch of tar and could therefore join them in this welcome refreshment; any earlier, and they would have been indisposed since once a fresh layer of bitumen is spread, it must be flamed and rolled immediately. The woman’s timing was perfect.
Richard took a glass from her, thanked her, and could see as he did so that she did not recognize him. He was not surprised; it had been a month since she’d seen him, and he was dressed much differently now. She looked at him quizzically, however, as though she saw something familiar after all; and when, to wipe his forehead, Richard removed the ball cap he had been wearing, the spark of recognition leapt from her eyes.
At first, she did not say anything. She merely smiled and squinted scrutinisingly. Richard drank again. He seemed to see her face as an after-image continually before his eyes, as though he had accidentally glanced at a bright light. Not only that: he suddenly sensed everything around him more intensely: he registered the sounds of susurrous leaves which he had not heard before, tasted more lemon than appeared to be in his glass, felt more heat from the westward sinking sun. It occurred to him that he had never seen such vividly red tulips as were blooming in the rock garden of a house on the opposite corner of the intersection. Then she addressed him.
“Looks like you’ve done a lot of work here today. Strange, that a committed monetarist should do such a thing.”
Richard, too, thought it was strange. His rationalisations—that he wasn’t really volunteering but rather exercising his organisational faculties—suddenly seemed uncompelling. There was really only one explanation for his actions. “Maybe I’m not a monetarist anymore,” he said enigmatically. This possibility was as much a revelation to him as it was to his interlocutor who, perhaps suspecting that this man did not always tell the truth, smiled cautiously, .
“Does that mean you’re going to fix the rest of my street tomorrow?”
“Uhh—no. Not that I wouldn’t—it’s just that these things have to be organised ahead of time—you know,” Richard paused for a moment, noting how ridiculously nervous he sounded. “We’ve only booked this machinery for a day. In fact, we’ve got to load up and drive back to the city yards right away. Someone else will be using it in the evening.”
“Of course. I’m sure it gets used 24 hours a day in the summertime.”
“Assuming there are people who work at night.”
“Oh, there’re always people who work at night,” she assured him; “I used to do it myself, when I couldn’t find anything else—you know, before the change.”
“What were you doing then?” Richard asked casually before emptying his glass.
“I used to work as a cashier in a convenience store. I didn’t work graveyard shift much, mind you—it’s too dangerous, especially for a woman—but sometimes I didn’t have a choice. I mean, I could have chosen to refuse and lose my job, but that wasn’t much of an option then.”
“No, I guess it wouldn’t have been.”
Despite his lack of contact with people who once worked such jobs, Richard had always known they didn’t really have much of a choice; after the deterioration of the employment insurance system and the virtual disabling, for lack of money, of government job creation programs, it had at one time become irrational for someone with little savings or support to jeopardise a secure income.—Why, Richard asked himself, did I think such an economic system was acceptable? Survival of the fittest, I used to say; it’s natural that some should struggle or die out with their inadequate adaptations, while others like me had it easier. Natural. But maybe inhuman and illogical. Maybe I’m not a monetarist anymore. . . .
All the water glasses were empty, and the other men were ready to load the machinery onto the trailers and be on their way. Richard took leave of the woman to sweep the last bit of asphalt residue from the road, gather up the pylons he had set up at the perimeter of their job site, and to exchange his borrowed work boots for comfortable running shoes. He remarked that he did these things with uncommon haste, as though to impress her and perhaps to finish before the others and leave himself a few minutes to talk to her again. She remained outside, watching, as though she knew that he would do this.
“All done,” he said, approaching her again. She was pulling dandelions out of her garden. “Like I said,” he continued, “I would have to organize in advance, but I’m sure I could arrange to get the rest of your street fixed up—maybe the next few blocks down, too, if they're just as bad.”
“That would be nice,” she remarked.
“And if you know any men who might want to help out, I could leave you my number.”
“What about women who want to help out?”
“That would be okay, I suppose, but it’s dirty work.”
“Mm-hm,” she acknowledged, brushing the soil from her hands. “Well, I can’t think of any woman who would want to anyhow. But I could ask some of my neighbours when I see them. I think there’s at least one man, a few doors down, who’s always volunteering for public works projects.”
—So far, so good, Richard thought. She hasn’t mentioned anything about a husband or boyfriend.
She took a piece of paper from her shirt pocket, and Richard gave her his name and telephone number. “Great,” she said. “You can expect a call. By the way, my name is Esmerelda, but if you find that too long, you can just call me Meri. My little girl’s name is Joanne and my boy’s name is Valentin.”
“I saw three children before—”
“That was Nathan, my friend’s boy.”
One of the other men honked a horn, and Richard was embarrassed to see that they were all waiting for him. He quickly said goodbye and ran to join the others.
—Quaint, he thought as he rode along with Stewart: Esmerelda has brought water to the hideous hunchback and befriended him. Could it be that she’s genuinely interested in me, or is this just business? There’s something about her manner—something about her smile—I just know this Meri woman is attracted to me. Did she not make the first move that day in April?
“I’m famished,” Stewart remarked. “How about you?” Richard, being absorbed in his thoughts, did not respond. “Earth to Richard.”
“Huh? Sorry. Yeah, I’m hungry too.”
“Do you want to grab a bite at Mum’s Cafeteria?”
Stewart smiled knowingly. “That Meri’s a nice lady, ain’t she?”
“You know her?” Richard demanded, searching the other’s face.
“Not really; my girlfriend talks to her once in a while, and I see her walking her kids now and again. Is she a friend of yours?”
“No, I just met her. But you’re right—there’s something special about her. She’s not—attached to anyone, is she?”
“As far as I know, she’s been divorced for a few years, and I haven’t seen her with anyone. Maybe you ought to make some serious inquiries of her before someone else does.”
“I think I will,” Richard resolved aloud. And he could scarcely think of anything else for the duration of the drive, nor afterwards through his supper.
© 2004 Robert Zimmer
Continued in the next issue of SCR. For previous chapters, see Back Issues