The Free World
by Robert Zimmer
Somewhere out in the endless night, in a twenty-four hour
convenience store on the outskirts of Canada’s capital city—sometime before
the first suit awoke to the hurried start of the day shift—there, from her
post behind the counter, a woman named Meri was peering nervously at the
man who was loitering in her parking lot. He had been there for at least ten
minutes, maybe longer, pacing, at times drawing close to the door but never
looking directly at her. There was something familiar about him to Meri:
the sharp features of his face in profile and the thick, straight hair she
was sure she had seen before. Yet he was not one of the regular customers
who came to the store at night.
He’s probably just waiting for a ride, she thought;
but then again, he might be mustering the courage to come in here and hold
me up. It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing had happened to her, though
she had, on that first occasion, promised herself that it would never happen
again. Never again, she had said, will I work another graveyard shift alone,
even if I have to quit this job. But according to her manager it was too
expensive to have two cashiers on at night, nor was he convinced that the
new generation of brazen criminals were any more deterred by the presence
of two staff than they were of one. And Meri had debts, and a child to feed,
and an unemployed husband whose meagre social assistance checks had stopped
coming now that the government was practically bankrupt. She couldn’t just
quit. So here she was, working alone again.
Dreading the possibility that she might might make
eye contact with the mysterious man outside, Meri sat down and picked up
one of the fashion magazines which she had selected for the night’s reading.
She distractedly flipped through pages glittering with smiling faces, gaudy
dresses, and painted nails—images, it seemed to her, from another world where
all people were rich and happy and beautiful. Much like the world I once belonged
to, she reflected; she too had been one of those giddy yet shy girls with
fashionable, lustrous chic clothes, and plenty of time to play with make-up.
And once upon a time she had been so secure in every way: at the turn of
the millennium, the year she had graduated from college, she had felt so
positive about her future job prospects. There seemed to be optimism everywhere
in those days, what with the new technology becoming cheap and commonplace;
how easy it had been to find a reasonable mortgage rate for a reasonably-priced
house! In those days, she never would have dreamt of being forced into working
in this godforsaken place.
But something had gone terribly wrong with the world—something
that was, perhaps, merely the end-product of a downhill spiral which had
begun even before Meri was born, but that was no less catastrophic for being
predictable. The overinflated markets had crashed after a year of heavy losses
for manufacturers, interest rates climbed senselessly, and overextended governments
became too weak to do anything about it. The nation’s wealth became concentrated
in fewer and fewer hands as the lower and middle classes lost ground. Unemployment
had reached levels worse than those of the 1980s. The clothing store where
Meri had worked went bankrupt, and her husband’s role as a teacher had been
replaced by a more cost-effective computer program. Now, they were in danger
of losing the house for which they had worked so hard. The last mortgage
payment had siphoned away what remained of some money they had set aside for
their child’s education , and there would be no opportunity to replace their
dilapidated old car in the future. These were hard times for many people.
Desperate times. Was it any wonder that a desperate man should be pacing back
and forth in front of her store, trying to convince his conscience that he
had no other choice?
Meri was frightened when she heard the door open and
she saw that he was finally coming in, but at least she was not surprised
when he exhibited the typical demeanour of a man about to commit an armed
robbery. He wandered aimlessly, spending undue time snatching glances at
the security camera but avoiding eye contact with her. His brown leather
jacket and dark blue jeans were somehow markers to her that he was up to
no good; his quick, clear grey eyes seemed to her the eyes of a violent criminal.
Don’t press the remote police call, her boss had told his employees, until
you’re sure it’s a robbery—if it’s not, the false alarm will cost me, which
will eventually cost you. And so she did not press the button until she saw
that it was not a wallet, but a gun that the man pulled from his jacket as
he approached the counter.
But Meri recognised something else, too, and in same
moment, so did he: they had gone to school together. “Marcel,” she said
quietly when the name flashed from a long-deserted memory outpost. He was
clearly taken aback, and seemed on the verge of dashing out of the store;
but the gun remained pointed at his former schoolmate, as though the courage
he had summoned had brought with it a demon who would no longer allow him
to abort his crime.
“Give me all the money in the till, and fill two plastic
bags with cigarettes and lottery tickets—but just the ones under the glass
here, that aren’t sold in series,” he said steadily. It was clear that he
had done this before.
Meri searched the man’s eyes for a glimmer of compassion,
but saw none—only the steely gaze of one who had, for whatever reason, lost
the ability to feel empathy. She thought she might reason with him: “It’s
not worth it,” she said; “you know there’s only sixty dollars in this till
“That’s why I want you to fill those bags. Now hurry!
And don’t think you can psych me out because you used to know me. Just pray
that I don’t kill you because of it. You remember how to pray? We used to
pray in school, didn’t we?”
“We did. I remember,” Meri whimpered as she watched
herself tossing the cartons of cigarettes into the plastic bag she had shaken
open. Initially, she had thought that the second hold-up wouldn’t be as bad
as the first—all she had to do was comply with the man and she wouldn’t get
hurt—but somehow this seemed worse. It was as though her hands were unable
to respond to the urgency in her mind, as though her body had slowed down
as it sometimes did in those dreams where one tries to hurry but finds that
the earth has turned to mush underfoot. It seemed like an eternity had passed
before the two bags were full and all the coins were out of the till, and
in that time she pondered (as well as one can rationally ponder in such a
situation) over the possibility that he would decide to kill her before he
left. No—he wouldn’t, she thought at first; he scarcely had the courage to
come in here. Surely he would not want to be hunted down for murder; the police
still take such things seriously, whereas armed robbery has become so commonplace
lately that one has a good chance of eluding arrest. On the other hand—and
what a grisly hand it was!—he would have a much better chance of eluding
arrest if she were unable to tell the police his name. Pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. . . .
“I’m sorry you had to be my victim,” Marcel
said as he took the cigarettes and lottery tickets from her. “But it’s a
cold world.” He smiled, slid the gun back into his jacket, and rushed into
the darkness from which he had come. Only then did Meri realize that she felt
as though the blood had retreated from her legs such that she could hardly
stand, so she quickly slumped into her chair. Her eyes fixed themselves a
while upon the till—open, gaping like an eviscerated carcass. She looked down
at the magazine she had been reading and saw that the letters were blurred
by the tears in her eyes. —I have to get out of here at once, she thought
suddenly. The atmosphere of the place was still reverberating with the sounds
of what had just transpired there, and the very shelves, laden with their
colourful cans and packages, seemed like silent conspirators to the crime
. . . .
In a moment she was outside, where the cold glow of
streetlights illuminated a road empty of all but a few cars and trucks that
thundered past with furious indifference. A forlorn, waning moon looked down
upon her from the eastern sky—another accomplice. The only thing that might
have comforted her was the embracing summer breeze that brought smells of
wild vegetation from the distant river valley where, among the gnarled old
oak trees in their quiet darkness, there was a safer place than the fluorescent
metropolis could ever afford.
Meri sat on the concrete curb, began to cry in earnest,
and remained there until the police came (half an hour later, being understaffed
and all), even while a gang of youths marched into the store and filled their
pockets with junk food. She wouldn’t have cared, though, if the whole store
had been looted, for once she had pulled herself together such that the
tears stopped flowing, she became entirely engrossed in a meditation on
the meaning and value of life. What was it worth? She had just witnessed
the appalling sight of what was once a decent, Catholic boy who had become
a hardened criminal and who had decided that it was worth risking his life
for sixty dollars and a dozen cartons of cigarettes. Even more appalling,
she considered, was that her own life had become worth so little. She had
risked it for $8.54 an hour! Something was terribly wrong with the world,
she mused; all this affluence, all these resources, all this government, and
still people like me have to deal with people like him on nights like this
. . . .
“Hey, lady,” said a young man’s voice behind her, “we
just ripped off your store. Aren’t you afraid you’ll get fired when your
manager looks at the security tape?”
“It’s okay,” said Meri. “I quit.” The thief and his
mates laughed, then walked away without paying, but also without pointing
any guns at her. It was as though for a short space of time, everything in
the store were free.
It was about 3 weeks later when Meri received her final
paycheck in the mail. She tore open the envelope as soon as she recognised
its source, not bothering to go back into the house for a knife or letter
opener. Luckily, with her remaining holiday pay tacked on, the cheque was
more than enough to make the next mortgage payment. But other numbers on
the statement did not escape her notice: she saw how much of her hard-earned
money was skimmed away by the government, and this displeased her more than
it normally would have.—I don’t make enough to warrant being taxed, she thought;
and even if I do get most in a refund, that doesn’t do me much good right
now. How dare they! And how much of it goes into their bloated pension slush
funds and their loan guarantees to big businesses and their . . . I don’t
even want to think about, Meri decided, shaking her head and taking a deep
breath. She was about to retreat into the postwar bungalow behind her when
she noticed a flyer in the mailbox. It was a piece of propaganda from the
“They haven’t even called an election yet,” she mused
aloud, “and these jokers are already starting their campaign.” Normally,
she would have thrown the thing away without another thought—political parties
were all the same, so far as she was concerned—but she had never actually
read anything about the gratuitists before. Parties of their kind had, she
had heard, won power in several European countries, but the establishment
media were terribly vague about the Gratuitist platform, almost as though
they didn’t want anyone to find out what it was. It involved suspending the
use of all currency and instituting some kind of collective ownership scheme,
she had been told—something like Communism, she supposed. But as she read
through the plain, unassuming pamphlet in her hand, she saw that it was
not Communism at all. It was anarchy! Not only would currency of all kinds
be abandoned, but all forms of exchange. This, of course, entailed the elimination
of wages, prices, taxes, loans—everything that everyone had always assumed
was essential to the proper functioning of an economy. Why vote for anyone
else? they concluded their message. We have nothing to lose but our debts.
Meri smiled. It was the most preposterous thing she had ever heard.
Still, having no foreseeable income and far too many
debts, the message appealed to her quite strongly. In the days that followed
her receiving the pamphlet she could not get the idea out of her mind. Foreign
though it was, it grew like a weed that found its way into the most varied
theatres of the imagination. She thought of her husband and how he could
teach again in a gratuitist regime since no one would care if he “cost” more
than a computer program. She thought of herself, how she could start making
clothes again; no one could say “we can’t afford to hire you.” She watched
garish advertisements on TV and wondered if they would still exist if someone
wasn’t desperate to make a buck by claiming to have the lowest price. She
wondered what would become of all the banks and insurance companies and all
those people who worked for them. What would they do with themselves?
Yet she was afraid of what might happen if ever the
gratuitists came to power. Without the incentive of money would the farmers
still farm, so that she could still feed her children? Would the oilmen still
drill, so that she could drive her car and heat her house? Who would collect
the garbage? Would anyone help her if she had a plumbing emergency, or a
sick child, or a broken window? Would anyone study intensively for 4-6 years
to become an engineer, so that they could design the power generators which
brought the city lights to life? All without that all-powerful incentive?
These were grave doubts indeed. But something happened,
or rather she heard about something that happened, in the week before the
federal election was finally called. Stories were circulating that a veritable
black market of giving was subverting terms of commerce in Canada even now.
This was no ordinary charitable giving for philanthropic reasons, but a concerted
action amongst certain manufacturers and tradespeople to give each other
goods and services rather than exchange one thing for another. Apparently,
it was a chain reaction begun by a gratuitist supporter (with plenty
of money to throw around) who had given away a number of cars and even condominiums
to certain self-employed persons. These, in turn, were charged with the
duty of giving away an amount of goods and services equal to what they were
given—with the stipulation that they were not to give anything away to someone
already involved in the scheme, nor to anyone in the financial industry.
Many of this first group, being generous persons and some of them gratuitists
themselves, gave away more than they received; and so the next group of
beneficiaries got more than the first.
Now, certain businesspersons who were entirely unimpressed
by the gratuitist ideology were nonetheless more than happy to give things
away, after having received something of value already; it was like a promotion,
and the lucky customer who walked away with a free bag of groceries or tires
or a paint job would probably tell their friends, who would bring their business
and their money in hopes of getting something for free, too. Of course,
there were cases where people took but would not give to keep the chain
going, and there were cases where someone didn’t understand the whole scheme
and gave away money instead of something with intrinsic value; but on the
whole, it worked the way its initiators had intended. And people saw that
gratuitism could, to some extent, function.
But Meri still had her doubts. So many of these black-market
“grats” were, she knew, giving things away to promote their business; were
all commerce suspended indefinitely, many of them would just take a holiday
and maybe never come back. What if everyone who made the world run took holidays
at the same time? There was no way to stop such a catastrophe. And on the
day she went to the polls—even up to the moment she stepped behind the cardboard
shield that ensured no one would see how she marked her ballot—even then
she was thinking it’s just too damn risky. You can’t trust people to do what
they know is right and necessary . . . but then . . . what have I got to
lose? At worst, there will be no food to eat. No. People will never get that
lazy. At worst there will be no electricity. But then, how many working people
does it take to make sure we have electricity?
Damn it, she cursed to herself, I’ve never spent so
much time in a polling station in my life. And then the scales in her mind
tipped: fear and habit had been the heavier up until then, but now, in addition
to the heavy debts she had placed on the other side, there dropped from nowhere
a primal desire to strip the greedy of their means of oppression; and after
that, there came her faith in humanity’s sense of duty. She, for one, would
go right on working in a world where there were no wages and everything
was free. After all, her mother, a traditional homemaker and community volunteer,
had almost never worked for a wage; neither had her grandmother, nor perhaps
her great-grandmothers and their mothers before them. They did what they
thought needed to be done. Why couldn’t everyone work in the same way?
And so she marked an x next to the name of the candidate
running for the Progressive Gratuitists. What the hell, she thought bemusedly
afterwards, it’s not like they have a chance of winning anyway, and my little
vote won’t make any difference.
They invented money, Richard Spendler’s father had
told him, so ugly men would have a chance with good-looking girls. It was
an adage Richard had always found to be confirmed by experience, even if
it was not historically accurate; for so far as he could see good-looking
girls were always available to a man with money, no matter how ugly, brutal
or socially inept he might be. It had always been so. Prostitution was,
after all, the world’s oldest profession. Back in the stone age, perhaps,
one would exchange a piece of meat or a shiny bauble for an hour’s entertainment
with a whore; now, in the plastic age, one could buy the same commodity with
a credit card. A gold card now—along with half a million dollars and a secure
government job—would even get you a reasonably intelligent and pretty wife,
as his own case proved. Not that he really needed so much money, he always
told himself. He was handsome. But it sure made things easier for him and
it definitely made things easier for the rich and the ugly, which was probably
why the ugly tried so hard to become rich in the first place.
And yet it was not all that simple, for here, smiling
away at him from the front page of the Globe, was the ugliest Prime Minister
in recent Canadian history, the same man under whose government the country
had been plunged into its present morass of gratuitist economics. Here was
the Right Honourable Mr. Knight—Old Night, brother of Chaos—who had followed
the lead of the Europeans by dismantling the system of money and exchange
that had, Richard held, benefited mankind since the beginning of civilization.
And what was Knight doing in a country where the flesh trade had entirely
disappeared together with all commerce? Surely he was not merely thumping
that ancient, deformed wife of his!—impossible, Richard decided.
He glanced from the newspaper to his wife, Pamela,
a fairly young and well-formed woman who was trying to sleep in the airplane
seat next to him, with her head inclined sharply towards her left shoulder.
Her mouth, he could see, was fixed in its usual sleep-grimace. It was fitting,
for she rarely had a smile during her waking hours either. She had been married
to him some six years now and would, he thought, stay by his side even though
his thousands in the bank were now worthless and even though his job as
a money and influence broker in China had been unceremoniously terminated.
He knew that there was no real love between he and Pam, but they had become
habituated to each other and could still have sex so long as they were not
completely sober or spent from some extramarital promiscuity. It would be
difficult for him at first—the same boring woman, night after night—but
he would have to live with it for the time being.—Oh, how he would miss
the variety of girls that the Hong Kong establishments had to offer!
He would especially miss the younger ones, he reflected: those who, though
too inexperienced to please one with their skills, were somehow more enjoyable
for the timidity in their eyes. That was it—that timidity was the attractive
thing about them—it was so natural, so human, whereas the experienced whores
always seemed so distant and mechanical. Pamela, too, was always so self-absorbed
if not altogether numb . . . but she was all he had now. Night after night
after night, as monotonous as the roar of the jet engines which had filled
his ears for the past 20 hours . . . .
Vaguely arousing though they were, these thoughts
began to fuel the anger in him again: the anger he had felt when he was
told of the Chinese government’s decision to throw Canadian nationals out
of the country. At first it was the Chinese themselves he was angry with.
He had protested, as had so many expats, that he was as much a capitalist
as any of them and he would prefer life in China to life in any gratuitist
country; he would even renounce his Canadian citizenship if that was what
it took. He would gladly have become a useful contributor to China’s continued
prosperity. How humiliating all that grovelling had been, and yet so ineffectual!
His entreaties, the entreaties of his colleagues, and the entreaties of his
Chinese friends all fell on deaf ears. Under pressure from business groups,
the government was determined to root out all possible sources of subversion,
which in terms of the present state of the world meant deporting everyone
who looked European—the Blue-eyed Menace. As the Ambassador had observed,
it was a draconian measure more characteristic of the Communist era in the
seventies of the last century. At that time China thought it could erect barriers
against capitalism; now it had become one of the last monetarist regimes,
and monetarism’s most powerful, paranoid and protectionist advocate.
Richard was angry with them, but he could not help
but sympathise with their concerns. They were desperately trying to protect
themselves against an ideology even more virulent than Marxism—that is, if
gratuitism wasn’t just another kind of Marxism, as he suspected it was. No,
the Chinese were not to blame. It was his own country and its unreasonable
policies which he was really upset about. The fools! Wasn’t it obvious from
the start, he asked an imaginary audience of his countrymen, that an economy
of giving could never work in a country like Canada? One had to admit that
it was working fairly well in those European countries where it had originated,
but that was because they were racially homogeneous; they were really just
vastly extended families, and those people probably did things out of dutiful
kinship whether they were tangibly rewarded or not. People in those countries
trusted each other. But this was Canada, now! Richard had never even got to
know his neighbours in Ottawa—he was not about to trust them to work for his
benefit out of a sense of altruism. The few that did work would soon become
discouraged by the sloth of those who didn’t.
The things he had read in the foreign press and heard
from friends back home only exacerbated his consternation; for according
to his sources, the standard of living had dropped drastically. Knight and
his party were constantly reassuring the country that this was to be expected,
but that it would ultimately reverse as those who had turned to a life of
freeloading would grow bored and return to meaningful employment. In the
meantime, the propagandists said, look at how much more leisure time we have!
Richard scanned the newspaper again, this time remarking a graph with figures
that expressed the “quality of life” in the country as a function of leisure
hours. It was transparent to anyone with the most basic education, he thought:
you can’t rate a life based on how much time one spends not working, or you’d
wind up saying bums have better lives than CEO’s. The important things—having
your own house, good sanitation, a variety of foods, availability of higher
education—these were the things that made a life better when you had them
(availability of prostitutes, too, he thought, then laughed at himself for
thinking it). And yet these were the very things that had declined since
Knight’s policies had rendered money worthless and most barter illegal. Richard,
like all adamant monetarists, predicted it would get worse, not better.
He examined the Prime Minister’s face again. Ugly.
With a pen he drew a little hammer and sickle on Knight’s shirt sleeve, then
little horns sticking out of his head. This disfigurement was not quite enough
to express Richard’s real feelings, however. The pen subsequently became
a weapon with which he gouged out the Minister’s eyes.
“Put a hole in his forehead while you’re at it,” spoke
up Pamela, drowsily peering through unpainted lashes, then turning away again
in search of sleep. Richard glanced at her and smiled with what little satisfaction
there was in knowing that she was just as displeased with the prospect of
a gratuitist government as Richard, even though she was glad to be out of
China. She did not care for Oriental men, nor for the older men who generally
received posts at the embassy. Her affairs, at least those of which Richard
was aware, were strictly with young Caucasian men—meaning journalists and
students. Since the gratuitists came to power in Canada and the U.S., the
students had disappeared; the journalists, on the other hand, were always
an ill-featured lot, and Pam rarely found one that appealed to her. In recent
years she had therefore turned more and more to other pleasures, like the
massages of women and the oblivion of alcohol: pleasures, she knew, that
would not be easy to come by in the new regime.
It seemed that Pamela did not intend to strike up a
conversation, so Richard went back to reading his newspaper. Not that there
was much to look at—it was amazing how few pages there were now that advertisements
were more or less obsolete and the financial news minimized. And Richard
was genuinely surprised that the quality of reporting was as good as it had
ever been—surprised, that is, since he knew that the journalists weren’t
writing for money anymore. How could anyone write without earning money by
it, Richard wondered? On the other hand, he reflected, writers were just glorified
gossips anyhow, and their motivation was probably fuelled by a desire to
appear more knowledgeable than anyone else; this, at least, was the impression
that the foreign correspondents at the embassy had always made upon him.
He turned to the opinion columns and letters to the
editor. —There’s material that’s always been free and plentiful, he mused:
insipid opinions. “Gratuitism Prevents the Advance of Technology” read one
column—an opinion Richard would have gladly communicated for free. As the
columnist so admirably expressed it, “without a competitive arena that demands
ever-newer ideas, technology will never advance any further, and may indeed
regress. We need to follow the example of Nature, where we find that the
law of the survival of the fittest provides the impulse for new and better
adaptations. We cannot be complacent, or we become stagnant and invite invasion
from technologically superior countries.” It was a good point, even though
Richard doubted the possibility of an invasion from China or one of the Islamic
states. In fact, the writer was foolish to bring up the issue of military
technology, which certainly required no further innovations; the arsenals
of the West were still equipped with nuclear warheads and cruise missiles.
Richard sighed, thinking how sad it was that a monetarist perspective should
be represented by such irrational fear-mongers.
“Our Laziness Cause of Produce Shortages,” announced
another article, the author of which blamed ordinary people for the country’s
lack of trade credit with fruit- and vegetable-producing countries.—As if
it weren’t the fault of the government’s policies, Richard scoffed. It didn’t
take a genius to figure out that the shitty mining and drilling jobs that
used to make Canada a wealthy exporter would be abandoned as soon as people
were no longer forced to do them out of desperation. How naive people were,
to expect boatloads of bananas and grapes and kiwi fruit to keep magically
appearing in the harbours of Vancouver and Quebec, when the boatloads of
nickel and crude oil had almost ceased going out. One could exchange only
so much grain, especially with the grain-rich Americans. It seemed that the
gratuitists were resigned to a future of shortages, of eating nothing but
preserves all winter like people of the nineteenth century.
Richard stopped his train of thought before it could
agitate the burning anger in his gut any further. He decided to get up and
walk the length of the airplane, perhaps talk to someone he knew. Most of
the embassy staff with whom he had left Hong Kong had decided to pause in
Vancouver before proceeding to points east, but a few had, like Richard,
resolved to travel until they were home. Many of these were sleeping (or
at least sitting with their eyes closed in the semblance of sleep), but Brian
McCann, the thirtyish, red-haired clerk whom Richard could tolerate in small
doses—the man was a little too eager to be one’s friend—Brian was awake and
peering through his window at the endless cloudscape below. His was an excellent
view, unobstructed by the broad wings—a first class view, which is what one
got in this country for being first in line.
“Comfortable enough up here?” Richard taunted.
“Huh? Oh, it’s you. Yeah. It’s no big deal, really,
just more legroom.”
“I see you don’t get any drinks here, either.”
“No,” said Brian with a shake of the head. “No
drinks to be had anywhere. Can you believe this shit?”
“Get used to it. You know, I can’t figure it out. You’d
think that of all the factory jobs people would want to do voluntarily working
in a brewery would be at the top of the list.”
“I think that’s the problem. The people who really
want to make booze are the same ones who want to drink it. I guess they
just work long enough to supply themselves, then shut down the plants and
go on a bender for a few months.”
“Sure,” smirked Richard. “That’s gratuitist efficiency.”
He dodged a stewardess who was collecting dinner trays and needed the entire
width of the aisle to manoeuvre her cart. She smiled courteously in acknowledgment.
Being one of the first voluntary workers Richard had encountered, she still
amazed him somewhat, and his eyes lingered upon her for that reason. She
was so diligent. It’s the only way to travel the world, she’d explained when
he had spoken to her earlier. Richard was thus reminded of the gratuitist
policies concerning travel: with the exception of children and seniors, one
had to earn travel privileges by doing difficult, dirty, or dangerous work
like surgery, collecting garbage, or running printing presses; or you could
volunteer with an airline or airport. How, it seemed to Richard, that all
of these options would be demeaning for a white-collar professional like himself,
and he had said to himself: I’ll just have to travel by car from now on—that
is, until the system collapses and things return to normal again.
“So you’re going to try for another position overseas?”
“I guess so,” mumbled Richard. “But what are my chances?
There’s a long waiting list for people who want to be trade reps. Every guy
with a knack for accounting wants a piece of that action, whether he’s got
foreign trade experience or not. I dunno—I’m not in the right loop any more.
You’ve got to have the right connections. I think I’ll just take it easy
for a while—take care of the house, drive around. I suppose I might do some
kind of work, somewhere . . . maybe learn to brew my own whiskey.”
“Now that’s an idea,” smiled Brian, his eyes twinkling
with the devilish enthusiasm of a heavy drinker imagining a bottomless glass
of the hard stuff. “I wonder how it’s done?” Richard shrugged, then spied
something through the window through a break in the clouds.
“Looks like Ontario.”
They both gazed down at the suddenly clear vista below,
where patches of dark green alternated with the white ice of myriad tiny
lakes pockmarking the Canadian shield. They might have been flying over just
about anywhere in northern Ontario, from the Lake of the Woods to the Ottawa
River. Brutal country, Richard thought; almost untraversable, unexploitable;
and yet there, snaking though it like a frozen river, was a railway, and next
to it, there, a highway. All the labour and skill that must have gone into
it!—the surveying, the painstaking measurements and decisions about the best
route through that wasteland; the welding of girders and pouring of concrete
for bridges; the dangerous blasting that opened the way through rock that
could never be circumvented; and the miles and miles of paving, with the
hot asphalt grilling a man from below while the sun burned him from above.
Yet who would build such a road now? What would possess a man to do all that
work if not greed, or simply the need to make some kind of living in a society
where nothing was free? Greed built this country, Richard thought, and people
were stupid to think the machine would keep running without it. And was it
not already breaking down?
“Excuse me,” Richard said, making eye contact
with Brian again before making his way towards the back of the plane where
he edged into the tiny closet of a lavatory. He found himself noticing what
he had long taken for granted in public toilets: the place was clean. As he
began to relieve himself into the shiny stainless steel bowl, he wondered
who kept it this way, and why? Was it the stewardesses? Was this part of the
bargain, whereby one had the privilege of “seeing the world” for the small
price—yes, price—of one’s dignity? He briefly considered the case of other
public toilets he might encounter in a gratuitist country. Did anyone clean
them at the airport? Who would volunteer for such a thing? He decided that
such washrooms had either fallen into the most filthy decrepitude by now,
or that the office of janitor had become one of those jobs which had been
relegated to the civic duty system, much like the jury duty that one was
This troubled him.
He zipped up his pants, flushed, and as he did so noticed
the small drops of urine that defaced the rim of the toilet bowl. This disgusted
him. He promised himself that he would never clean up someone else’s shit
and piss, even if it meant going to prison. He had not spent four years in
university and seven years as a government attaché only to be humiliated
into doing janitorial duties.
As he emerged from the cubicle and looked into the
face of an elderly man waiting his turn, Richard could not shake himself
of the thought: there’s no way I’m ever going to clean up after that guy.
He sat down again next to his wife, who had managed
to fall asleep again. How did she do it? Richard could never sleep in airplanes.
She must have taken pills. That was her solution to all the discomforts of
life, whether physical or psychological—take a pill, take a drink, go to
the acupuncturist—whatever it took to escape the harsh glare of reality. Things
still got to her though, and it showed in her face, which Richard began examining
askance. He noted how the long trip had left unsightly purple marks under
her eyes (not unlike my eyes, he thought, recalling his glance at the washroom
mirror moments ago). Her golden hair, so well pinned and braided when they
had left Hong Kong, was fraying out and into her face. Such well-formed cheeks,
such fine, full lips—that’s why I married her, he thought; if only she were
not so averse to oral sex. If it was really that important to you, she had
once said, you should have put it into our marriage vows, as if one could
actually put such things into marriage vows. And yet she could be talked
into it under the proper circumstances, that is, after some unusually fine
champagne and a tangible reminder that he had paid up all of her credit card
accounts. Richard smiled cynically at her: she could be bought, just like
Pamela slept until the announcement of their imminent
landing, which was followed by a marked modulation in the roar of the engines
as the plane began to descend. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the co-pilot addressed
them over the P.A., “if you would like to adjust your watches, the time in
Ottawa is 4:05, so we’re a little ahead of schedule . . . the temperature
is a balmy six degrees under cloudy skies.” Both Pam and Richard were somewhat
stunned to hear this. It had been sixteen when they stopped over in Vancouver
and twenty-five in Hong Kong. Six degrees! And this the end of March . .
“I don’t know it I’m prepared for Canadian weather
just yet,” sighed Pamela.
“I’m kind of looking forward to it,” countered Richard.
It was four years since he had been in Ottawa, and his time in Beijing, where
one could experience real winter, had always been during the summer months.
Not that he missed the worst of winter—those thirty below days when every
excursion was an ordeal, icy winds blowing down from Hudson’s Bay and somehow
penetrating three layers of wool and cotton, blizzards that made it impossible
to drive—but life in the tropics made him yearn for those cool spring and
autumn days that somehow made it easier to think and get work done. You
could retreat into yourself better, concentrate.—A lot of good that will
do me now. There is no work for a man like me in a country like this. In
my own country!
Pamela, who was always nervous during takeoffs and
landings, took hold of Richard’s hand as their descent brought terrestrial
objects to familiar proportions. He felt the metal of her diamond ring against
his skin and thought: she will stay with me. I have provided for her.
He had been in the MacDonald-Cartier Airport at least
fifty times, but he reentered it now with the deportment of a visitor who
had come, for the first time, from a country where such buildings did not
exist. He looked at everything with the greatest curiosity, from the enormous
expanses of plate-glass windows to the orderly rows of luggage trolleys to
the humming luggage conveyors and omnipresent arrival/departure monitors.
Like most persons who had never been in a gratuitist country before, he was
expecting to see decrepitude and disarray everywhere; for how could it be
otherwise in a place where commerce and competition no longer provided the
incentives for cleanliness and order? And yet there was little evidence of
decline here. In some ways, it was even cleaner: the trash that once accumulated
around the eatery, for example, had disappeared along with the once-thriving
fast food kiosk. The empty counters of the kiosk itself, however, Richard
found unsightly, for they were a grim reminder of lost prosperity. He knew
that it hadn’t served the healthiest food, but the restaurant served a purpose
nonetheless; people had benefited from its existence, and if nothing else
from the convenience it offered. But of course gratuitist thinking did not
rate convenience very highly. Richard had been told about this many times
and now he saw that it was true.
“All these damn white people,” Richard muttered as
he brushed past a slow-moving group pushing their luggage carts. Both he
and Pamela felt a little envious as they saw how other passengers were greeted
in the lobby by family and friends. Not that they lacked family and friends;
in their case, however, the affection that makes relatives drive for two
or three hundred kilometres to meet you at airports was entirely lacking.
Richard’s parents were the kind of people who loved to be visited, but they
could not be bothered to visit anyone outside of Montréal. Even a son
they had not seen in four years. It was almost upsetting for Richard, and
indeed would have been upsetting had the indifference not been mutual.
Then there was Uwe, his friend-tenant-housesitter who
was annoyingly unavailable when Richard had repeatedly tried to reach him
from Hong Kong. But that was typical of Uwe, who was always out visiting
someone when you needed him; either that, or he would be so engrossed in his
painting that he didn’t notice when the telephone was ringing. Richard was
much more incensed that Pamela’s parents, who lived here in Ottawa, were not
there to meet them.
“It’s an insult,” he said abruptly.
“Your parents not wanting to see us. Not that I particularly
want to see them, but they should have been here for your sake at least.”
“That’s what I get for taking your side,” Pamela said
coldly. She did not face him, but kept her eyes fixed on the pieces of luggage
that were beginning to circulate on the conveyor.
“Taking my side? Taking the monetarist side, you mean.
Don’t pretend you’re not against gratuitism. And don’t make it sound like
I’m responsible for your tactless squabbles with those people.”
“Well, it’s always been your arguments that I use against
them,” she retorted, fixing him with a bleary glare. “Anyhow, it doesn’t
matter. Let’s just worry about finding ourselves a ride so we can get home
and get some sleep . . . there’s our stuff.”
Richard was not about to dispute the importance of
getting to bed, so he quietly plucked their things from the luggage conveyor,
piled them onto a trolley and rolled them across the arrivals hall and directly
out the door. An unpleasantly cool, stiff breeze greeted him as he surveyed
the line of private vehicles along the curb, and with the breeze came the
unmistakable, invigorating smell of melting snow. This tallied well with
Richard’s expectations, but there was something missing from the scene; he
had neglected to question whether there might be any taxicabs in a gratuitist
country and was suddenly dismayed at the absence of any tell-tale yellow or
black cars in the arrivals lane. For a moment he felt utterly abandoned, like
a man stranded and penniless in a foreign country. For a second he thought
he might cry. But then, to his immeasurable relief, he spied over the roofs
of some other cars a taxi sign atop a white sedan. Another, closer car—somewhat
souped-up judging by the way it idled—had foregone the traditional roof-light
and had “Taxi” elegantly hand-lettered on the hood and door.
“Let’s hire this one!” enjoined Pamela. Richard was
not impressed by the youthful appearance of the driver, who couldn’t have
been more than nineteen, but he was impatient to get going and this was the
closest car. He was not inclined to argue.
“Are you available?” he called, leaning over the partially-opened
passenger window. The car looked nothing like a cab on the inside, either;
there was no meter or CB apparatus, and some grating rock music from the
nineties was playing at a most unbusinesslike volume. The driver was eager,
however, and after answering “sure” practically sprang out to open the trunk
and handle their luggage. He was immediately and disconcertingly friendly,
which both husband and wife took in stride as the price of a free ride.
Even more disconcerting was the sudden realization
that this car was a two-door; furthermore, it was of such a make and year
that the back seat, which Richard dutifully took, was not at all easy to
get into. As Neil explained (the driver was quick to offer and elicit first
names) the back seat tended to discourage older people from taking a ride
with him. But he didn’t want them in his car anyway, since they complained
about his music no matter how much he turned it down. “Those damned old baby-boomers,”
Then came the inevitable question: “Where you folks
flyin’ from?” Richard said Vancouver in hopes of avoiding much further conversation
or, worse, an exchange of opinions, but Pamela decided to tell the truth.
Being in the front seat, she was the more audible.
“China? Really?” Neil exclaimed, his voice cracking
and his eyes widening. “I’ve never met anyone who’s been to China. So, did
you get expelled and stuff?”
Richard rolled his eyes as Pamela answered and explained
at length the circumstances of their forced departure. He was not particularly
surprised at her willingness to engage in conversation, but he was somewhat
annoyed at having to hear it all again; it was as much as he could do to
put the whole thing out of his fatigued mind for a while.
He did his best to ignore the others (which wasn’t
difficult since he could hardly hear them from the back seat anyhow) and
gazed out at the familiar yet somehow foreign city into whose outskirts they
were now entering. Where was all the traffic, he wondered? He reminded himself
that he was accustomed to the traffic in Hong Kong, which had always been
more intense. And yet he was sure there was less traffic than there ought
to have been on a weekday afternoon in Ottawa. A lot of salespeople off the
road, he thought; people shopping around less, since nearby stores were just
as cheap as distant discount marts; people sitting around at home without
ambition since they could have whatever they wanted whether they worked or
not. . . .
“Right, Richard?” Pamela had turned to him, smiling.
“I said, we’ve got enough booze stashed away at home
to last us for a while.”
“Maybe,” he answered, glaring at her for broaching
this subject in the presence of their delinquent cab driver. “Assuming Uwe
hasn’t gotten into it.”
“Who’s that?” asked Neil. Richard could not believe
“None of your fucking business,” he said.
“Hey, relax, man.”
“Never mind him, he’s just cranky because he’s tired,”
sneered Pamela. “He can’t sleep well on airplanes. Anyhow, Uwe is our artist
friend who’s been housesitting for us these past four years. He’s had his
work in some major galleries, and there’s a big canvas of his in the Bank
of Commerce building downtown. Maybe you’ve heard of him—Uwe Kuefer?”
“He does minimalist abstract paintings.”
“Well, that’s probably why. I don’t like that kind
of art. I like minimalist realist stuff, though—you know, like woodcuts
or Lawren Harris landscapes.”
How quaint, Richard thought, the guy’s taken an art
history course at the National Gallery. He felt like throttling him, but
wished instead that Uwe were here to make this Neil look ridiculous. Richard
knew little about art and didn’t think his friend’s work was all that wonderful,
but he knew what other people were willing to pay for it in the days when
people paid for things. More than one large corporation had a Kuefer original
hanging in their offices. I don’t like that kind of art.—Who cares what you
Conversation after this exchange was once again limited
to the front seats, from which the back seat passenger happily remained aloof.
Let her be friendly with this twit, he decided, she hasn’t socialised with
her own kind for years now. As Richard became resigned to the situation and
the choler in him subsided again, it seemed as though sleep would overtake
him, and the familiar streets of the capital rushing past the window began
to appear like flickers from a dream. . . .
A violent thud rocked the car and jarred him awake.
“Holy shit!” cried Neil, “these potholes are gonna
wreck my car.” Richard surmised that they had turned onto Second Avenue,
his street; for he had made similar remarks about the condition of this
road when he was here four years ago. Of course no one had done anything
about it since then.
The taxi slowed to an appropriate crawl as Neil negotiated
the uneven pavement up to the end of the block.
“This is it,” announced Pamela when they had pulled
up in front of the big old two-storey in which they had once lived, and would
now live again. Even though the house and yard were somewhat unattractive
in the aftermath of a long winter—the abundant ivy on the east wall dark
and skeletal against the light brown brick, a few heaps of dirty snow where
the spring sun had yet to penetrate—even so, for the returning expatriates
it was the most welcome sight imaginable. This was no mere house, no mere
physical structure: it was the gate to those fields of rejuvenating sleep
from which they had been cruelly banished for days now, it seemed. Richard
was so glad to be there that he did not even cringe at Neil’s officious proffering
of his phone number (of course he had no proper business card), nor at his
needless assistance with their baggage, which he brought right to the front
door. Had the fellow been performing for a tip it would have been tolerable,
maybe even pleasant; as it was, it seemed as though he were trying to impress
Pamela. But Richard did not cringe, because he was opening the door to his
house. He did not care. He was going to sleep. He cringed only at the point
where Neil, finally turning down the walk to go, called back to them in a
cheerful voice: “Welcome to the free world, man.”
[Continued in the next issue of SCR]
© Robert B. Zimmer
Robert B. Zimmer is a Canadian singer/songwriter, artist, author, and
scholar. His previous works include Clairvoyant Wordsworth and Evolution
and the New Gnosis (co-authored with Don Cruse) . He lives and works
in Edmonton, Canada, where it is far too cold most of the time.