The Free World
It was several weeks before the new government was able to pass its laws and effectively dismantle the regulated structures of commerce. But because everyone knew it was inevitable—the Progressive Gratuitists had won a slim majority—the structures of commerce were already breaking down before their official demise. After the night of the election, the country had fallen into a spending frenzy—those with money bought land, furniture, foreign currency and bonds, gold, and anything that would retain its worth once the dollar was put out of commission. Even people with no money did their share of buying and hoarding, running their credit cards up to the maximum, knowing that they would never have to pay those bills after the coming change. Many people, fearing the worst, prepared to leave the country; others fortified their houses to keep out the looters who would, they believed, run amok when the police were no longer paid to maintain law and order.
Meri watched the transpiring metamorphosis with wonder, a little trepidation, and a curious feeling of gratification; these changes were, after all, the result of her vote, however small a part it may have played. This wasn’t the first time she had voted for a winning party, but it was the first time she felt that she had exercised any sort of real power, for those previous occasions involved parties that didn’t really do anything different from what came before. They merely fine-tuned a system that had needed a major overhaul, and they functioned as the puppets of big business most of the time anyhow. This time she had helped to throw the whole government out, including the puppeteers who wielded their power through mercenary lobbyists and favours accruing from campaign contributions.
Now, the day after they passed the new laws—the day after Knight had addressed the nation on television, exhorting everyone to refrain from senseless hoarding, dereliction of essential jobs, and destructive public celebrations—the day after, Meri thought she had better go to the grocery store before its shelves were stripped bare. It was, of course, inevitable, no matter what the Prime Minister said. There were simply too many people who feared that the farmers would stop farming, the butchers would cease slaughtering, the cannery workers stop canning, the truckers stop hauling. Too many of the urban dwellers, and in particular those who had only a vague idea of how food was produced, thought that they would be forsaken by their rural brethren—perhaps because the city had forsaken the country in the past, and now was the time of reckoning.
Her car having finally expired several months before, Meri borrowed one of the neighbors’—they had always been good about lending her things, and now there was no reason not to share. —I’ll go to the neighborhood market, she decided, reasoning that the serious hoarders would be drawn to the bigger supermarkets. The parking lot adjacent to her local market was nevertheless full of cars, and she could see a steady stream of shoppers flowing in and out of the automatic doors.—Might as well park on the street, Meri thought; it’s not like I have to worry about putting coins in the meter! And so she did, and she hurried to get out of the car and into the melee before another truckload of groceries could be carted off by the hordes.
It soon became apparent to Meri that the store management had not failed to plan for this situation; the entrance door was plastered over with an enormous sign reading “Max. 2 Cartloads Per Customer Per Week.”—How the heck are they going to enforce that, she wondered? Those two young men watching people as they leave—surely they don’t expect to remember all the faces who come and go here for a week? But then Meri noticed that the volunteers were merely ensuring that each customer swiped their bank card through a direct-payment machine before exiting, once if they had one cart, twice if they had two. This was not, of course, a means of paying for the groceries, but merely an efficient way for the store to keep track of its customers.
“Shit” Meri cursed aloud, thinking she had left her card at home; but a quick glance into her purse put her mind at ease, for the plastic was still in its place alongside her identification. She was relieved. It made her wonder, though, what someone who didn’t have a bank card would do if they wanted to eat. There were still some people around who lived by cash alone. “I’m sure someone’s thought of that, Meri,” she told herself impatiently. “Let’s get a move on.”
It was strange to see a grocery store half-emptied of its wares. Meri had seen certain shelves empty before, sometimes because an item was on sale for a very low price, or because a supplier was late in filling an order; but this was an entirely different experience. Canned goods, in particular were disappearing quickly and shelves that were normally fully laden with corned beef and tuna were now clear enough to set up bunk beds in. The only things to be found in any abundance were perishable produce and dairy products, things that wouldn’t keep longer than a few weeks anyway. Even the meat cooler had been picked almost virtually clean by people with big deep-freezes at home.
Most disconcerting of all, however, was the behaviour of some of the shoppers who were tearing around the store madly, as though it had been announced that a nuclear war was imminent and they had to stock up as much food as they could before scurrying into a bomb shelter. Meri watched in awe as one woman raced down the canned vegetable aisle, pitching things into her cart with scarcely a glance at what she was grabbing. It was like watching a rabid animal let loose from a small cage, which made Meri wonder: is she acting like that because she really believes there won’t be any food left next week, or is she unable to control herself because she’s been shackled by poverty for most of her life?
In another aisle, another drama was playing itself out. It seemed that two elderly ladies had simultaneously reached for the last bag of a certain kind of dog food, and the two were now arguing over it with an unseemly vehemence.
“I’m sure you’ll find some in another store,” said one.
“I never go to other stores,” said the other.
“Then maybe you can feed your mutt on table scraps for a while. I had a hold of this bag first, and you know it. Now LET GO!” But the other did not let go. Instead, she started pulling on her end with both hands. “Give it to me!” she cried. They remained locked in a ridiculous tug-of-war, the outcome of which Meri did not care to see; but as she continued on down the next aisle she heard a crash, as though one of the women had lost her grip and fell into some tins. This was followed by some loud threats punctuated with four-letter words.
“If this is the way people are going to behave,” Meri said to a man passing next to her, “I think we were better off chained to a monetary system.”
“I don’t know,” he replied; “there are always going to be people who don’t want to get along, and ruin things for everyone else.”
—Yes, that’s true, Meri thought, and maybe it’s better that we’ve got two old ladies fighting over a bag of dog chow rather than a store full of people getting robbed by the swine who used to own this franchise . . . .
She plucked one of the last remaining 2-kilo bags of sugar from the shelf in front of her and set it down in her cart. The man she had spoken to had just turned the corner at the end of the aisle; all she could see was the taupe back of his jacket as he hurried away.
“Hey!” she called after him. A tub of strawberry yoghurt, the last of that flavour to be found in the dairy cooler, had gone missing from her cart. “Thief!” she cried. But was he a thief? Meri supposed that since she was still in the store where everything was free for the taking, the man could not really be considered a thief under gratuitist law. She thought for a moment about what he had said to her. “Hypocrite!” she cried.
Free world indeed, thought Richard soon after he awoke in the initially disorientating environment of his old bedroom. He stared up at the ceiling, meditating: everyone here is free, free to be as obnoxious and lazy as they want, and free to live from the legacy of those who have worked hard and suffered under the yoke of commerce. They were even free to appropriate the name we once gave to the democratic countries during the Cold War—that was the real free world, Richard declared to himself. This was the Evil Empire.
It was still quite dark as he lay in bed thinking. He ruminated over whether he should get up and to assuage his hunger or try to accustom himself to the local time by sleeping some more. It’s six p.m. in Hong Kong, he thought; I’ve slept through lunch and now it’s dinnertime. Got to get up and eat . . . but what, and where? There were, he knew, persons in the gratuitist world who enjoyed cooking for others enough that they maintained restaurants, and there were “eating houses” all over town; but who, Richard asked himself, would want to serve meals in the middle of the night? Five a.m. Looks like I’m just going to have to prepare a meal for myself—too bad I don’t know how to cook worth shit.
I’ll make myself a sandwich, he decided. There has to be something in the house that I can put between two slices of bread.
When he’d made his way downstairs and into the kitchen, however, he found that the refrigerator was disappointingly bare. Of course there was milk, cheese, and eggs, although the milk had gone sour; there were carrots, onions, and radishes in the bottom drawer, even some kind of leafy greens; there was apple juice and tomato juice in the door. But no meat (Uwe being semi-vegetarian), no fresh fruits, and no bottled water (of course, Richard recalled, one can drink tap water here). This poor fare might merely have reflected Uwe’s meagre needs, but Richard suspected at once a more disturbing reason: too many things, especially produce, were not available in the markets anymore, either because they came from other countries with which we had nothing to trade, or because they came via distant cities from which no one had taken the initiative to haul goods.—And why should anyone take the initiative, thought Richard gloomily; no one gets paid to do it. He briefly wondered whether it would be all that hard to drive a transport to and from Don Mills (or wherever) and bring back a truckload of lunch meat. For the moment, however, he settled for bread, cheese, and a kettle of tea. It wasn’t exactly what he wanted but, as he reminded himself, it was free. Everything is free in the free world. Welcome to the free world, man.
As he sat down and began to eat his sandwich, Richard felt uncomfortable in his seat and realized that his wallet was still in his back pocket where he had left it the day before. He removed it and laid its contents on the table before him. In the event that it would be of some value again some day, he had brought with him some $10,000 in New Yuan, most of which was in his briefcase, but some of which was in his wallet in the form of notes and coins. Richard examined them all carefully, perhaps more carefully than ever he had when they were still worth something; it was as though he expected to find something physically different about money now that its exchange value was rescinded. The gratuitist system had, one could say, declared that all money was counterfeit. But where was the flaw? The coins were minted so perfectly, the paper printed with all the appropriate designs.—And yet nobody in this country, or in practically the entire western world (with the exception of Italy), would be impressed if you gave them a suitcase full of these notes, unless of course they were on their way to China.
China! Richard suddenly raised his head and stared off into space. What would this money not buy there? Any breakfast you could possibly imagine, any time of the night; a plate full of spring rolls or bacon and eggs prepared just as you asked brought to your table on dishes you wouldn’t have to clean yourself afterwards; any kind of liquor, coffee, or over-the-counter drugs; why, you could pay someone to come and clean up your house, rake your yard (if you were wealthy enough to have a yard), or give your wife a massage while another woman gave you a hand job in the next room. A man had to do such things for himself now in Canada, it seemed.
Richard’s eyes alighted upon his Mastercard when he looked down again, which prompted him to snatch it up and examine it with continued intensity.—With this, he thought, I could spend 200,000 yuan that I didn’t even have. Ah, Credit, this imaginary money, every bit as good as real money—or as useless, depending where you lived. He meditated for a moment on the essence and implication of the credit card: money is not a thing, but an idea. He had always known this, of course, but the fact of it had never seemed so poignant as it did now. The counters, whether they were in your hand or recorded in a database somewhere, were just external markers for the idea that the world owed you something, or you owed the world. It was a fantastic invention; some prehistoric genius probably figured out (and what was more obvious now?) that it was easier to trade counters that stood for goods than for the goods themselves.—No, Richard mused, that wasn’t exactly how it was in the beginning; people traded with gold and silver coins that had intrinsic value. But things worked better when money became more abstracted from things.
A figure flashed into his head now, namely the value of an ounce of gold on the Hong Kong market a few days ago. He had tried at the time to estimate the value of Pamela’s jewellery, and had guessed the gold alone would be worth $400,000, the price of a new Alfa Romeo in China. What bothered him presently about the figure, however, was the fact that it did not accord with the value that Pamela placed on her jewellery. She scarcely ever wore it. Except for her wedding band, none of those shiny things came out of their box unless there was a special occasion, and even then it was often a case of “oh, this chain doesn’t go with any of my clothes,” and so it would stay in the box like bullion in a vault. This suggested to Richard that these things had little intrinsic value for Pamela—to her, he reflected, they’re just another set of counters that will retain their value when markets crash and husbands lose jobs; they’re signs that say “I am wealthy. I have power. I can afford to rent a hotel room, sweetheart, just keep quiet about this so my husband doesn’t find out. . . .” Is her jewellery still worth anything to her here? Am I still worth anything to her here? He had always had an edge over other men, which was why she had married him in the first place: he came with an attractively swollen wallet, plus attractively dark, chiselled features which complemented his expensive clothes. The wallet didn’t mean much now, though, and he had developed a disadvantage which his appearance could scarcely compensate for: Pamela knew him now. She knew his faults, his obsessions, and his habits, and she didn’t like any of them. Despite all his egocentrism, he had to admit to himself that he couldn’t really blame her, but then he figured she deserved no better anyhow.—Suppose she found herself a “nice guy” with strong morals and family values and all that crap—well, he’d just dump her anyway, but if he was desperate to marry, and the kind of guy who put up with a bad situation until he couldn’t stand it any more, she’d ruin his life before long, what with her bad habits.
Then it occurred to him: she’s a creature of habit. Pamela would stay with him out of habit. Didn’t people do things that were bad for them, even things that they didn’t particularly like, because they were habituated to them? Of course! It was, after all, the whole foundation on which a gratuitist economy was built, the only part of the structure with which even Richard had to agree. People kept doing things out of habit long after the tangible rewards for those things were taken away. There was no denying it—most people had kept working. It therefore followed that his wife would let the momentum of the past carry her into the future together with him.
Richard returned his credit cards and banknotes to his wallet but left the change on the table. Perhaps Uwe could adhere the coins to a canvas, he thought; after all, they were still very decorative objects, and one could no doubt make a powerful artistic statement by employing them thus.
It was past six by now but still quite dark outside, and Richard realized that heavy clouds were obscuring the morning light; in fact, it had begun to rain. This circumstance exacerbated the depression he already felt as he stood before the kitchen window and surveyed his backyard with all its wet, dark, as yet leafless trees. Uwe had not taken very good care of the place. The grass—at least what could be seen of it where the snow had fully melted—had obviously been allowed to grow too high the previous autumn; leaves had been raked, but probably too early judging by the pile around the maple; and what was once a flower bed had become an unsightly compost heap, a veritable playground for raccoons. An ugly iron sculpture served for a centrepiece.—A perfect example, Richard thought, of what happens when you expect people to do things but don’t offer to pay them for it. They just don’t care. He sighed and told himself he would have to do a lot of work to make the place look respectable again.
“What’s out there?” asked Pamela, who had quietly come up behind him. She bore a striking resemblance to the dishevelled yard.
“A mess. That ingrate Uwe left me a good day’s work out there.”
“So hire a gardener.” Richard could not tell whether Pamela was being sarcastic or whether she had merely forgotten where they were living now. Surely no one would volunteer to clean up another able-bodied man’s yard.
“Didn’t you make any coffee?” she asked irritably.
“I didn’t know when you’d be up.” Five years in the Orient, Richard thought, and she still won’t drink tea. He watched her disdainfully as she vainly searched the cupboards for a package of coffee. As he knew quite well, this commodity had become rather scarce in gratuitist Canada now that South American growers were switching to crops that would feed them directly, and Uwe probably hadn’t been able to find any. What coffee did arrive in port cities was snatched up locally, leaving little for landlocked places like Ottawa.
“Shit!” she cursed after a few minutes. “There’s none here.”
“There’s tea.” He said this with a knavish smile that meant “suffer, wench.” Pamela regarded him with that look of reproach of hers which blamed him for everything that was wrong in her life. It was a familiar look, a look which transcended circumstance; it began in the tinder of circumstance, of course, in a minor irritation from her husband’s insensitivity, oversights, and attitude; but the look quickly drew upon the store of latent resentments at the bottom of her heart. It drew upon resentment over lost ideals, independence, family ties, friends—in short, the lost life before marriage. Unfortunately Richard did not recognise the depths from which this came and was left to scoff at how seriously she took a snide remark like “there’s tea” when he had really meant nothing by it.—Well, almost nothing.
“Why don’t you go to the store and buy—” Pamela checked herself—“and get me some coffee.”
Richard was about to say something vexatious but decided to humour her instead. Fine; he would go to the store despite the fact that there was probably wouldn’t be any there. It was in any case his intent to investigate whether anything was even open at this hour, and whether there was any meat to be had in the local food mart. Furthermore, he felt he ought to give Pamela a chance to make herself up. It depressed him to see the years traced out on her face now that he was more or less constrained to having sex with her and her alone.
“Very well, my dear,” he said theatrically, then plucked a set of car keys from their hook by the door and stepped out into the gloomy morning.
Perhaps there was, at one time, a sign near the entrance of the market which displayed an oversized fingerprint and said something like “shoplifting is no way to leave your mark.” Since everyone in the gratuitist world had, in a manner of speaking, become a shoplifter—one took what one wanted without paying—the sign had been removed. In its place was one that read “Hoarding: Who Really Needs It?”—a little reminder from the incumbent authorities. It had been a glitch in the system from the beginning, hoarding, a problem that was as serious as theft had been in the monetarist system. It was difficult, even impossible to tell if people were taking more than they needed, but theoretically this was not supposed to be a problem; the system assumed that hoarding simply wouldn’t happen since there was nothing to gain from such an activity. Rare commodities, of course, were still subject to market forces and could be bartered legally for other rare items, but such things were not available in regular stores anyhow. The hoarder of things like sugar or paper or underwear—things that were abundant everywhere—such a person was an atavism, stuck in the monetarist mentality in which it made sense to amass what you could while it was cheap or free, in case you wouldn’t be able to afford it in the future. A perfectly natural impulse, Richard thought: any animal that could would instinctively hoard food against future shortages.
Still, there was a limit to what he considered sane and purposeful acquisition. Pamela, for example, had far more clothes than she would ever wear, and far more drinking glasses than she could ever break. Richard also recalled his grandfather, a neurotic man who was always buying toilet paper when it was on sale. He had amassed half an attic full when they put him in the nursing home, in addition to the forty rolls under the bathroom counter. Back then, it was merely ridiculous; now, it was a crime punishable by incarceration.
Richard picked up a steel shopping basket and wandered down the nearest aisle before he really registered the abundance of food lining the shelves. They were packed, which was confusing to a man newly arrived from Hong Kong; this did not accord with the reports and photographs that he’d seen in Chinese newspapers. He’d read horror stories describing the shortages in gratuitist countries, stories that had often compared the situation in the West to the conditions which prevailed under the old Soviet systems: shelves empty of all but a few kinds of vegetables, maybe some flour and bread if you were lucky. Here, however, Richard could see no justice in such a comparison; the produce shelves were packed, even if certain exotic things were unavailable. Had it all been propaganda, perpetrated by threatened monetarist institutions that wanted to make people fear a gratuitist revolution? Richard looked around and could think of no other explanation for the abundance he saw—unless . . . . wait a minute, he thought, this is Ottawa. It’s a flagship city, a capital city; the government couldn’t allow a serious shortage to develop here, or all the foreign visitors and embassy staff would be outraged. There must still be ways of influencing the distribution of goods, especially imports, to create an island of affluence in an otherwise languishing country. On the other hand, maybe I have been fooled by monetarist propaganda . . . .
Richard found that contrary to his initial suppositions, there was plenty of meat of all kinds at the back of the store. Again, he was confused—he could not understand why anyone would volunteer to work on a killing floor, or as a butcher, other than to procure meat for oneself—but he was pleased in his confusion. The evidence before him reconfirmed his conclusion that the gratuitist system drew on work habits established during the days of commerce. To him, there was no other way to explain it. But these were habits that would deteriorate over time, just as an electric fan comes to a stop after you unplug it. It was basic behavioural psychology: rewards had to be given periodically to maintain the desired response. As his experience with people bore out, it was with humans as it was with rats: take their reinforcement away, and sooner or later they’ll stop doing tricks for you.
“Is there something special you’re looking for?” asked a man who had appeared behind the meat display case, a tub of sausages in his hands.
“I’ll take seven of these rib-eye steaks here,” Richard pointed, “wrapped individually, please.”
The man looked confused for a moment, then set his tub down. “I don’t know if I can wrap them any better than you can,” he said, “but I’ll see what I can do. I’m just a meat cutter, you know—if it’s not shrink-wrapped, I’m pretty pathetic. . . . I’m just as bad with gift wrapping.”
It quickly became apparent that the man spoke truth. He wrapped the first three so slowly that Richard decided to play gratuitist and wrap the rest of his steaks himself. He felt kind of silly, a customer getting behind the counter to do a job which in any other country would be executed by an experienced specialist. But then, gratuitism was not adopted for greater efficiency.—A good thing I don’t have to slice my own cold cuts, Richard thought as he speared some slices cut the day before—I’d probably cut off my finger in that machine. One can’t even sue here for injuries due to unsafe premises. He placed his packages neatly into his basket and emerged from behind the counter without acknowledging the meat cutter with whom he’d spoken. —At least nobody saw me back there, he thought.
Next, he surveyed the few aisles of packaged goods and as did so noted the absence of a number of staples—no rice, no sugar, no nuts, and above all, no coffee. Again he was confused; for how was it that they could stock bananas from South America, yet fail to stock rice and above all sugar? It was mysterious enough to incite him to ask a woman seated at the door who, though she was leisurely scanning a newspaper, appeared to be working there in some capacity. She was even wearing a cashier’s uniform from the days when there were still cashiers—perhaps, thought Richard, she had worn the orange frock for so many years that she found it more comfortable than ordinary clothes.
“Excuse me,” he interrupted, “I can’t seem to find any sugar or coffee. Can you tell me where to look?”
“You haven’t shopped here before, then,” she surmised. This appeared to confirm a suspicion she had been entertaining since Richard had walked into the place. “We keep those things in sacks over by the meat case. There’s some big jars there, too, with bulk spices, and a coffee grinder on the wall.”
Richard uttered an automatic “thank you” and returned whence he had come. There he recognised a group of sacks which he had, of course, seen earlier but which he had taken no notice of. Now he saw the labels on the sacks and jars and, yes, there was a small sack of coffee beans. He had scooped as much as would fit into the grinder’s hopper when he realized there were no plastic bags anywhere to put the grounds in. In fact, there were no containers of any kind.
“Oh dear,” said the woman with the paper when Richard had come back to complain to her. “Our customers usually bring their own containers. Wait a minute—let’s see if there’s anything small in here.” She laid down her Citizen and began rummaging through a pile of boxes in the cockpit of what was once a cashier’s station. The cash machine was still there with its drawer wide open, gaping like a junked car with its hood up and engine removed.
Richard grew impatient and was about to tell her to abandon the search since he didn’t really need coffee anyway; as it happened, however, she discovered a stack of empty margarine and yogurt containers that someone had washed out and given to the store. “You’re in luck,” she said. “But don’t count on it happening again.” She regarded him momentarily with an appraising look. “So are you just arrived in the neighbourhood, or does your wife always do the shopping?”
“Both,” replied Richard, hurrying away from what threatened to become a conversation. Apparently, one of the effects of the new economic order was to make everybody much nosier. That’s what you get, Richard thought, for removing the formal insulation that commerce once afforded: people wanted to get to know you instead of just happily taking your money, smiling insincerely, and saying “have a nice day.”
Unfortunately, but not too surprisingly, someone else was grinding up Richard’s coffee beans by the time he crossed the store again, which added to his mounting impatience. Not that he had any reason to be impatient; he had no plans other than to unpack his bags, call some old friends, and visit some Chinese websites; but this shopping experience was taking longer than it should have, and that was reason enough to get impatient. Richard was accustomed to a much faster pace of events. In the world he had come from, there was really only one way to do things: as fast as humanly (or sometimes mechanically) possible. Time is money, one used to say. But what was time now?
At last, Richard had collected his groceries and put them in a box. He was relieved to find that the woman with the newspaper had left her post by the door and was now engaged in a conversation with another, older woman who was picking through the sparse lettuce heads. The two of them looked up at him briefly as he headed for the door, and in that moment the strangest feeling came over him; conscious though he was of the principles of gratuitist economy, he could not shake the feeling that he was doing something gravely wrong by walking out without paying. As he crossed the threshold he felt as though he were naked; a feeling of shame came over him like that which one feels in those silly dreams where you have no pants on in a public place. “This,” he said aloud as he emerged in the wet outdoors, “is going to take some getting used to.”
A similar feeling had visited him earlier at the gas station, but there Richard felt he had earned the gasoline by being forced to wait in line for it. It was clear that Uwe had allowed the car to sit near empty for precisely this reason: the line-ups at gas stations were too much of an inconvenience, which was, after all, exactly what they were intended to be. The Chinese press was not making up the stories about the Western oil shortage, at least. Despite the fact that gratuitist countries were consuming far less than they once did, their governments found it necessary to ration their petroleum or dam it up, as it were, by restricting the number of gas stations in a given area and thus creating deterrent, grossly inefficient queues. As Richard discovered later by watching the locally-televised propaganda, cabs, buses, and trucks hauling goods could still fill up conveniently at special pumps reserved for them, but ordinary consumers like him were discriminated against.—Free world indeed.
The oil shortage was, of course, caused mainly by trade deficits with the Arab producer countries of the Middle East. These countries remained, like China, monetarist, although they were not as paranoid about their dealings with Western countries; they even approved of the change to gratuitism since it obviated the practice of charging interest, to which Islam had always been opposed. Furthermore, unlike the Chinese, the Islamics had successfully kept Western influence at bay through religious protocols. But despite our willingness to trade, it turned out that the West had much less to offer in exchange for oil now that armament factories had lost their workforce; it turned out that the workers in that industry had a conscience, after all, but it had been suspended for economic reasons in the past. Factories once engaged in the overproduction of military weapons for export had now been retooled to produce more useful machinery. Hence, the supertankers from the Persian gulf began to come by twos and threes instead of dozens; the arms business flourished in the Orient; people in Detroit started building cars that were either powered by electricity or were amazingly fuel-efficient; and Richard waited in line for twenty minutes to get a tank full of fuel for his gas-guzzling Acura. (Neil, it occurred to him later, was actually quite clever in pretending to be a cabbie in order to access the reserve supply.)
It had been frustrating waiting in line, and now there was the echoing frustration of the shopping experience on top of the residual, simmering exasperation from the preceding days’ events. As he drove home with the groceries, Richard found himself cursing the inevitable slowness of the drivers in front of him and yearning for the body of a woman to find release in.—Liu Min Zhao, he thought, I need you today. . . .
Having carefully navigated the water-filled craters on the avenue leading up to his house, Richard parked his car and sat there for a moment, mustering up the courage to step out into the cold drizzle again. Fortunately it was only a few steps to the sheltered expanse of the veranda where he paused once again before entering the house. He took a deep breath of the fragrant air: a welcome change from the smog of the tropical oriental cities.—If only the circumstances were different, he thought, I would be really glad to be back in Canada again. If it hadn’t been for the six figure salary and all the benefits one gets for working abroad, I’m not sure I ever would have left. . . .
Upon opening the front door, he heard the low tones of a man’s voice coming from the living room; and, after setting down the groceries on the kitchen counter, he entered the living room to find the elusive Uwe awake, stretched out languidly on the couch, and sharing with Pamela a bottle of what appeared to be homemade wine. There was no need to look twice, for Richard’s old friend hadn’t changed a bit. Still the ashen complexion and pale blue eyes, the seafarer’s beard and bushy eyebrows, intellectual eyeglasses, skin and tall bones. His habitually sombre expression brightened immediately when he spotted Richard approaching.
“Hey, look who’s here! Great to see you again,” he beamed, springing up enthusiastically to shake his old friend and benefactor’s hand. Richard, too, was glad, but there were too many things troubling him about Uwe’s stewardship of the house for the pleasantness of the meeting to last very long.
“We’ve just been having my friend Vincent’s sparkling white—here, I’ll pour you a glass.”
“No, thanks,” Richard declined; “it’s a little early.”
“Early?” cried Pamela. “Hell, it’s almost midnight in China.”
“We’re not in China anymore.” Richard cast a look of reproach upon his wife, for whom it was never too early or too late. She scowled back, mocking him with bugged-out eyes. Unfazed, he turned his reproachful look turned upon Uwe. “We tried to call ahead to tell you we were coming—over and over, three days and never any answer.”
“I’m sorry about that, Rick. I’ve been down in New York visiting friends.” Uwe raised his glass. “And I brought six bottles of this back. It’s great, you know, being able to bring as much liquor as you want over the border.”
Richard was not impressed. “So how long has the house been sitting empty?”
“Not long—just five days. I’m sorry man, I just had to go somewhere a little warmer for a while. It’s been a long winter . . . and I was getting depressed. . . .”
Richard saw a sob story coming and was determined to cut it short. “We’re all depressed, Uwe, myself in particular. I’ve been forced to leave the greatest marketplace in the world. Suddenly, I’ve got to do my own cooking, my own shopping, and God knows what else.” He went to the patio door and gestured theatrically towards the outside world. “I’m depressed by these gas station line-ups and inconvenience stores. I’m depressed by the fact that no one gives a shit about the state of the roads here. And I’m depressed when I look at the state of my own yard,” he concluded, prompting Pamela to roll her eyes. “Uncut grass and junk lying around . . . it looks like friggin’ hippies live here.” Hippies! This was strong language indeed. The h-word was, in their coterie, rather derogatory for it suggested an affected bohemianism that valued shabby clothes, underconsumption and that ultimately led to gratuitist economies.
“My God, Richard,” Pamela scolded, “can’t you behave yourself anymore? It’s just a stupid yard; don’t make such a big deal about it. We should just be glad to see Uwe again. If there’s criticising to do, we can put it off for a while, don’t you think?” Richard bowed his head and for a moment actually looked as though he agreed.
“It’s okay, Pam,” said Uwe, “you’ve both been under a lot of stress. I can’t even imagine how you must feel, losing your position and your privileges. . . .” He looked as though he were about to add something, but visibly checked himself. There was silence, and all three of them gazed out into the yard, each silently watching the rain, each brooding over the nexus of pain that surrounded those words: losing your position.
Pamela left the room for a minute and when she returned stood next to Richard, who was still in front of the patio door. “This rain will wash away the rest of that snow,” she began. She did not intend to route the conversation towards the condition of the yard again, but it seemed like the only subject that promised direction and activity. The yard was something that called for work, and work promised a cure for the depression and anxiety they all felt.
“We’ll have to cut that grass as soon as it’s dry,” mused Richard, “and clean out that flower box before it starts to rot. Were you trying to start a compost heap there, Uwe?”
“Yeah. It’s kind of a mess right now, but once the heat starts it’ll turn to soil pretty quickly. I couldn’t bury it, either, because the ground is still frozen.”
“Well, we should at least throw some boards over part of it so it doesn’t show as much.”
“Sure,” said Uwe, feigning enthusiasm. Richard, who had known him for a long time, could see that his friend was hiding something. He was about to try some probing questions when Pamela spoke again.
“I’m sure it won’t be hard to find a truck to haul away that pile of scrap metal,” she said, pointing towards the centre of the yard. Richard regarded her with incredulity; Uwe turned away, ran a hand through his hair, and sighed pitifully.
“That,” said Richard, “is a sculpture.”
“No, she’s right,” Uwe interposed. “It’s scrap metal. It’s one of Ron Moffat’s last pieces . . . all of his work is just scrap metal, as anyone can plainly see.” He collapsed onto the couch like a marionette and reached for the open wine bottle. There was clearly more at stake here than Mr. Moffat’s integrity.
Richard leaned close to Pamela, whose head had dropped in penitence and anger. “Stupid bimbo,” he whispered coarsely; then, louder: “Christ, Uwe, don’t listen to her—any cultivated person can see it’s a sculpture. I knew it was a sculpture as soon as I saw it.”
Uwe stared at him with a seriousness that was unexpectedly intense, even for his grim visage. “Do you like it?” he asked.
“That's not the point—”
“Just answer me. Do you like it?”
“Come on, Uw, you know I’m not very good at expressing myself on this subject.”
“Do you find it ugly?”
“Well, it doesn’t look very good in my back yard,” Richard admitted, trying at the same time to remember the proper way to defend such art. He sensed that whatever he might say about the sculpture could also be said about Uwe’s art, which was, he guessed, why his friend had seized this issue so violently. Then he remembered: “what does it matter whether it’s ugly or not? Real art doesn’t have to be pretty. That’s just an archaic notion, isn’t it? It just has to express—to address, confront—shit, why are you asking me? Anything I say will just be an inadequate imitation of something you told me.”
“Yes—I know, it probably would be, which is really too bad in any case. But maybe I didn’t know what I was talking about, Rick. Ron decided that he was wrong and that all of us were wrong—dead wrong. I tried to convince him that art wasn’t just something aesthetically pleasing, but he wouldn’t listen. You know why?”
Richard sighed. “Why?”
“Because he couldn’t give his sculptures away. They used to sell for thousands of dollars—there’s ten of them at the National Gallery—but since this gratuitist system began, he could only get other artists and friends to take them. I took that one because I thought it would make him feel better, but it just made him feel worse. He told me that I didn’t like his work any more than anyone else and that I was just being nice in taking a piece.
“Then he said that the reason my canvasses weren’t moving was the same as the reason his sculptures weren’t: they were ugly, and people didn’t want to invest in ugly things anymore. In fact, there really isn’t any investing going on at all any more. People just take what they like. I’m starting to think he was right, Rick. I . . . I’ve stopped painting.”
—So that was it. Richard understood now what was troubling Uwe—somehow, the gratuitist system had transformed everyone into nosy, lazy philistines who would crush resistance to their system by rejecting high culture and art. They rejected the very things that had inspired and nourished free markets and democracies since the days of Socrates. They rejected the products of the intelligentsia in favour of sentiment and pretty things, pretty little economies and philosophies where everyone is happy and smiling all the time as they roll around in their own excrement. . . . To make an artist like Uwe stop painting! It was an abomination, like . . . like making an investment broker like Richard stop wheeling and dealing, making him clean out his desk, sending him home like a disgraced schoolboy . . . . The anger and frustration began to well up in him again with the intensity they had manifested three days ago, when the news of his extradition had come. He began to pace and breathe noisily. He looked upon Uwe with pity. His friend’s life had never been particularly happy, but to see him like this was terribly disheartening. Here was a man who had spent his whole life developing his style, giving up almost everything else for the sake of his art. Now he was contemplating whether it was all just a waste of time. Just like all my time spent learning and working.
Richard felt like hitting something; he felt like driving a stake through the heart of Old Knight, the Prime Minister; he felt like leading an army of monetarist rebels through the streets of the city. If people didn’t choose what was good for them, maybe someone else would have to choose for them.
“They’ll pay for this,” he said with restrained passion. “Someone will pay for this.” Pamela, who was full of regret for having inadvertently opened Uwe’s wound, fingered the rim of her wine glass uneasily. She was not surprised when her husband took hold of her arm with somewhat more force than a merely amorous man would have used. “Ugly or not, we’ll keep that sculpture—and Uwe’s paintings,” he added, as though she had suggested they go, too.
Without letting go of her arm, Richard took from her hand the glass she had emptied and set it down on the stone ledge which ran the circumference of the room. “I think we have some more unpacking to do,” he remarked, with one meaning for Uwe and another for his wife. (He was good at that kind of double-edged speaking, of course—it was the secret of his success as a diplomat.) He began to pull Pamela away, and although she showed no fear,—he did not beat her, at least—she displayed her resentment for being led in this manner. In fact, she might have shook herself free with impunity had she not felt a tincture of guilt about her error—just enough for her to justify this discomfort to herself. As usual, this was a moment that was quickly subsumed within her general feelings and rationalisations: this was what one got for being stupid enough to get married, and one couldn’t blame anyone but oneself if things didn’t go well.—Men, being men, would treat you like a whore if you didn’t have them wrapped around your finger from the start. By the time you realized you didn’t really like your husband (let alone love him), you had become so dependent upon him for so many things, it was too hard to leave him. Besides, were there really any better men out there? One always discovered their bad side last. And so one stayed with men like Richard, even though they swore annoyingly and called you names while they were having sex, even though they grabbed your arm and led you around like a child, and even though they paid for “gentlemen’s massages” with their credit cards as if they didn’t care if you found out or not. Such, at least, was Pamela’s impression.
“Just a minute,” she said when they had shut the bedroom door behind them and began to undress. She quickly opened the bottom drawer of her dresser (an enclosure into which Uwe had not the boldness to search these past four years), pulled out a half-empty bottle of rum, and tossed back a mouthful.
“What’s the matter,” sneered Richard, “afraid you might feel something?”
“Afraid?” she mocked him. “It’s my only hope.” Richard was not sure if this was meant to be as insulting as it sounded, or if she was just being silly. In any case, he could tell that she, like him, was feeling something, even if it was merely a warm loathing; there was passion in them, and passion could easily run from channels of hate into channels of lust.
Even so, Pamela quickly became frustratingly passive in bed. After a while, he even began trying to please her in the way he once had when they were newlyweds, but to no avail. She simply tuned out completely. Just like a whore, he repeated to himself. Her silence made him more uneasy than it normally would have, for it indicated sign that she had not, like him, resigned herself to the prospect of reentering an exclusive relationship with him. Next time, he thought, I’d better go about this differently—what was I thinking, dragging her up here like a caveman! She could walk out of here tomorrow. These thoughts, together with the realization that it was about 2 a.m. in Hong Kong, attended Richard as he sank into sleep yet again.
[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.