3790

 

The Free World

By Robert Zimmer

 

 

Chapter 5

           

 

 

Richard might have favoured Tony with even less latitude that day had the bathroom episode not immediately preceded the MLAC—the long-awaited Monetarist Lobby Association Conference. For it was through Tony that he expected to instantly assume an important role within this association. Indeed, Richard thought of himself as ideally qualified for an executive position wherefrom he could smooth over or put down the factional infighting that vitiated such groups. He was, after all, trained as a diplomat and influence broker; he knew how to simultaneously appease two opposed parties without granting either of them a single concession. He knew how to make it seem that he was acting in your best interests, while acting only in his own (although his confidence in this ability was somewhat shaken after Pamela had thwarted his efforts). These qualifications would, he was certain, secure him a post once he had acquired it. But he still needed Tony’s patronage to acquire it. It was therefore as “Tony’s good friend” that he introduced himself as the two of them mingled at the conference, which was held  in the West End at a large hall that must have held four or five hundred people. Not all of those present were members of the Lobby, but they were, at the very least, dissatisfied with the current regime and willing to listen to what the opposition had to say.

            The monetarists, Richard found, were organised as a “lobby” rather than a political party because they were actually a coalition of parties, each of which maintained that money and commerce were the necessary propellants of an economy. As was the case before the ascent of gratuitism, these parties came in a number of ideological flavours. In the old system, they had sat apart from each other within a comfortable, two-dimensional political spectrum ranging from socialists to arch-capitalists, and they differed only in their notion of which part of society ought to have the greatest economic advantage. Yet what a difference! On the one hand, there were those who believed that labourers ought to have the greatest reward, since all things were produced through their direct efforts; on the other hand, there were those who held that the entrepreneurs and financiers who orchestrated projects for labourers to do were the more important, and therefore the more worthy of a great reward. Now, however, both found themselves united against a third dimension where rewards were eschewed; and although they all realized the necessity of working together (they were a pitiful minority as it was), they inevitably and constantly worked against one another.

            Fortunately for the Lobby, most supporters of what was once “the left”—socialists of various stripes—had become ardent supporters of gratuitism, thus allowing a fairly united monetarist front to develop out of supporters of what was once “the right.” But this did not prevent a certain faction of neo-Marxists from joining the neo-conservative monetarists in their cause—strange bedfellows indeed, but of like minds with respect to the primacy of capital and greed in all human endeavour. It was the opinion of this leftist faction, Richard learned, that a system of exchange was still necessary to facilitate a perfectly equal distribution of goods, something which gratuitism had certainly not achieved. People like Tony and Richard, for example, still managed to retain the goods they had acquired before the change; people in port cities tended to have a better choice of foods because no mechanism guaranteed equitable distribution; and able-bodied men and women could freeload with impunity. Of course, those who objected to these inequitable conditions remained equally opposed to life in a monetarist-capitalist state. The former supporters of the left disagreed with the former supporters of the right on almost every issue besides the reinstitution of a system of exchange. Fortunately for the Lobby, these leftists showed little support at its conferences, which generally consisted of speeches by, and policy debates among, the monetarists on the right.

            Richard was confused by all of this. “Why don’t we just tell the Marxists to stay away altogether?” he asked Tony. “We don’t need them, do we?”

            “We need all the help we can get,” Tony said gravely. “Even though there are hundreds of people here tonight, it’s really quite a small movement at this stage of the game.”

            “It looks pretty impressive to me, though,” Richard remarked, surveying the fluctuating panorama of bodies before him. “Just think, for every one who goes to the trouble of showing up, there must be ten like-minded people who couldn’t come, or who didn’t even know about the conference.”

            “That’s true.”

            A young man with a handful of photocopies approached the two of of them. “Do you gentlemen have your programs?” he asked.

            “Have one?” echoed Tony. “I drew up the thing, son.”

            “I’ll take one,” said Richard. He promptly began to survey the paper’s contents.—Looks boring, he thought; all this repetition of themes, like speeches at a fundamentalist-religious convention. But if it’s a hundred ways of saying down with gratuitism, well, it’s what this crowd wants, I guess. Indeed, as Richard gleaned from snippets of conversation that he was hearing around him, many in the audience came not to learn where monetarism had gone wrong in the past or where it ought to go in the future, but to hear their convictions affirmed, to feel part of a community, and to feel that there was a strong movement towards reversion in the country. 

            These feelings were contagious, for Richard, too, felt them as Tony introduced him to a few of the prominent monetarists who would, along with Tony himself, be speaking shortly.  These speakers—some of whom Richard recognised as former members of the conservative party in which he was once active—knew how to foster enthusiasm in their cause. Almost all of them were charismatic, and even though there was often a lack of substance in what they said, Richard was willing to gloss over these defects and allow himself to be drawn in by this charisma.—These, he thought, are the kind of people who deserve respect, the people who built this country before it was taken away from them—the financiers, the members of boards of directors, the real estate men—the kind of people who will rebuild it again. He felt proud to be in their midst.

            Tony and the others were summoned away, so Richard found a seat for himself which, though near the back of the auditorium, gave an excellent view of the stage and the Master of Ceremonies—or Mistress, in this case—who was about to introduce the first speaker. The conference organisers had done well, Richard remarked, to find such a strikingly beautiful woman (or so she appeared from a distance, at least) to draw everyone’s attention to the stage. It was, after all, a predominantly male audience, and if the others were anything like Richard, they would quickly forget their private conversations, fix their attention on the podium, and gladly applaud any introduction this woman cared to make.

            “It is my pleasure to introduce to you a man who is no stranger to the needs and dynamics of our community. You know him as a real estate developer of the highest profile, a director on the boards of several former public companies, and as Chancellor for the University of Ottawa. Please join me in welcoming one of the chief strategists of the MLA, a truly Great Man, Mr. Albert Reich.”

            At this prompting, the great man himself appeared on stage, his straggling hair somewhat greyer than it had been when Richard saw him five years before, his bald head reflecting the glare of the lights like a shiny bead.—Of course, Richard thought, Reich would have to be here. Not many people had lost more money, power, and prestige to gratuitist levelling. Not surprisingly, Reich’s speech began as a lament for precisely this personal loss, a lament that struck an emotional chord and rang sympathetically for many hearts in the audience. But it was a strange rapport, for many of those who had known Reich before the change would probably have looked on with schadenfreude had the millionaire fallen by the hand of the free market. As it was, however, he had become to them a martyr, a man who had suffered by the hand of an economic system that unjustly disregarded the talents and efforts of this “great man”. Those who had lost as much as he had, or even felt like they’d lost as much, recognised that they, too, must be great men and great martyrs because of it.

            Reich told a long but fascinating tale of how he had built up his real estate empire through intelligence, courage, and leadership (with a little financial help from the Spielbergs, to whom he was somehow related); how he had given thousands to important charities; how he had supported the arts; how he had financed successful building projects in the suburbs while braving the most stringent government interference; and how he had invested in and thus fostered the growth of the local computer software industry. He presented himself as a godsend to the area’s economy. And what, he asked, did he have to show for these efforts now?

            “Like so many of us,” he answered himself, “the money that I spent my whole life earning—some eighty million dollars in properties, securities, bonds, and stock—was suddenly and irrevocably devalued. Worthless! Worthless. This was not the result of my own mismanagement; were it so, I would have only myself to blame. Neither was this the result of a widespread depression such as occurred in the early part of this century; were it so, I would have lost as the nation lost, and I would have no right to lament my case above the losses of others. But my loss—our loss, ladies and gentlemen, was caused by something far worse than any depression—gratuitism. Our loss was carefully planned by those who have since benefited by it.

            “Unlike so many of us, I did not lose my house here in Ottawa, as I was fortunate to have family who did not mind living with me, even though they, in some cases, gave up their homes to do so; my family has, in this time of upheaval, remained standing by my side. But my other properties were all taken away from me, merely because I did not occupy them. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how theft is justified in this day and age—if a man is not able to sit on his property, it is acceptable to take it away from him.

            “And who has taken it away?” he asked. “Was it someone who worked as hard as I have, who managed their money as shrewdly, or who took chances on new and uncertain business ventures? No, it was no such party. My commercial properties are, instead, owned by the public, and my residences in Toronto and Huronia have since been occupied by some lucky souls, whom I have never met, and whom our present government has favoured with an unprecedented, undeserved handout.”

            Reich paused here, which was unfortunate, for it enabled a heckler, who was sitting almost right behind Richard, to respond at some length: “you forget the handouts the government bailed you out with, Reich.” The speaker at the podium looked up surprised, his face reddened with anger and embarrassment. Everyone heard, and many laughed; it was a well-deserved brickbat, Richard knew, for Reich had once received enormous loan guarantees from cash-strapped governments who feared that his empire would crumble and thereby add to the severity of the unemployment crisis. It was a sign of health in the organization that men like Reich could be heckled this way and not treated like gurus; on the other hand, Richard reflected, it was a sign of weakness that dissent should be so openly expressed.

            But Reich knew how to defend himself. “Let he who hath never cheated the government out of money cast the first stone,” he proclaimed ecclesiastically. This provoked even more laughter than the heckler’s brickbat. “Of course, I am guilty of taking what was offered me by our overgenerous former government, as we are all guilty. But did we not also give back to the community double, triple, even tenfold what we took out of it?” There was a murmur of approval. “I think we gave back a great deal. We cannot forget that this country was built by the entrepreneurship of men— of people like ourselves,” he corrected himself. “It was built on the foundation of the profit motive, right from the first time a European settler bought furs from the First Nations and resold them back home at a tidy profit. But what have the gratuitists built, now, since they took this essential motive away? We have seen how they can destroy, certainly. But what have they built these past few years?”

            “Nothing!” shouted several voices.

            “They have built nothing. And they will build nothing; can build nothing; for the machinery of construction runs on the fuel of investment and wages. You and I, ladies and gentlemen, know this for a fact, and soon the rest of the world will come to remember it as a fact. For soon, the rest of the world will discover that their gratuitist fantasy life is not real life—it is not a life worth living!”

            This closed the speech, and there followed a spirited outburst of applause into which Richard joined. If only such speeches could be broadcast, he thought, twenty-four hours a day on radio and TV; it would quickly put an end to public misperceptions about the benign effects of gratuitism. Of course, such broadcasts would necessitate the voluntary work of trained technicians, probably not the kinds of people to be found amongst monetarist supporters. . . .

            Richard listened to several other long-winded speakers before deciding that he needed to get up, walk around, and try to locate some refreshment. He noticed that others, too, were already growing tired of their seats, and a large crowd had gathered at the back of the hall where it appeared that someone was giving away something to drink. As he walked up for a closer look, he saw to his surprise that they were not giving away, but selling homemade beer. He actually saw the outlawed, devalued currency changing hands as though the imminent reversion had already occurred, or as though gratuitism had never happened. Of course, it was kind of silly since the ten dollars that bought each bottle couldn’t be used to buy anything else, and it made no difference to the fellow selling his beer whether he had a hundred or a hundred thousand of the notes in his safe; still, it was comforting to see such transactions again, and Richard would have gladly parted with fifty or a hundred dollars to pay for his bottle—that is, until he tasted the stuff, after which he decided it wasn’t worth a cent, even in play money. How could the rest of them drink it?—Maybe it’s been so long since they’ve had a bottle of Canadian, they don’t remember what beer is supposed to taste like.

            At another table next to the beer vendor, a fellow was “selling” T-shirts emblazoned with the big blue “G” that was the international gratuitist movement’s logo, only there was a red line crossing through it, cancelling it irreverently.—A nice thing to wear around town and show people where my loyalties lie, maybe shock a few of them. If only we could pay some busty young girls to wear them at the market, or on posters we could give away. . . . I wonder where that MC woman went? Richard mingled, but could find neither her nor any other woman suitable for his impromptu promotional scheme.—What, he wondered, has happened to all those pretty, bumptious girls who used to flock to Conservative Party conventions?

            It was almost time now for Tony’s talk on the origins of popular discontent with monetarism, which speech was to close the day’s symposium. It so happened that this speech also drew the day’s largest crowd, for many people had either left and returned or arrived late, as though they knew that the best would come last. This made Richard feel exceedingly proud to be the man’s intimate associate.—He hardly knows me, but I can tell he really appreciates me as a friend; and there he is now, on stage, shaking her hand (he’ll introduce me to her, of course). Damn, I’m lucky! I always manage to get into the loop, even if it’s the loop-in-exile, the circle of future power.

            As Tony took his place behind the podium and in front of the stage’s navy blue curtains, his silver hair radiating the wisdom (or possibly the foolishness) of his years, it suddenly became quiet in the hall—this was a man who commanded great respect in this audience. This was a banker.

            He began in earnest after some preliminary remarks and thanks to the conference’s organisers, “especially to Jennifer, the most attractive hostess a conference could have.” It was to be a different kind of speech, he said; unlike the other speakers, he proposed to tell his audience where they had gone wrong in the past: how they themselves had fostered anti-monetarist sentiments by supporting the misguided fiscal policies of previous governments. It was a bitter pill for many present, but as Tony put it, it was “absolutely necessary to understand the past if we are to survive the future.

            “There can be no doubt,” he proclaimed, “that it was the unbridled greed of the wealthy that brought about this unfortunate revolution.” This was a shocking statement—a statement seemingly taken verbatim from the speeches of gratuitist demagogues. The few former supporters of the left that were in attendance must have felt solidarity with him at this point even if he was from the far right. “I say unbridled greed, for I do not propose that this greed can or even should be eliminated. To propose such a thing would be unrealistic, a gratuitist fantasy. But greed can be helpful or malignant, and I tell you that it was the malignant greed—greed that fed from the hand of our governments—that ultimately made the gratuitist option attractive.

            “It was not long ago that our government deficit here in Canada became entirely unmanageable. We all know that it was beyond the control of any and all governments since the 1970s, with the exception of a few years before the turn of the millennium. Such was the case in many countries of the world, especially in eastern Europe where the gratuitist experiment first took root. And so there came a long period during which governments cut back their spending, and subsequently their taxes, until all but the most essential services became unavailable; which created, I need scarcely remind you, widespread discontent. But one area of government spending could not be cut, namely debt servicing. Interest payments had to be made, and this eventually required more than half of the governments’ annual revenues. It was these enormous debts that brought about the collapse of the monetarist system as we knew it.

            “Ladies and gentlemen, I tell you tonight that this state of affairs came about because people like ourselves—the upper middle class and the wealthy, the core of our support—I apologise if I exclude anyone here—we were the ones who, by purchasing bonds and securities, lent our money to governments who were too irresponsible to ensure that they could pay us back. Now, you may think, who can blame us? Were we not offered bonds with attractive rates of interest and the most secure assurances of return? Were we not proud to invest in our country? Of course we were, we all were; but we should have been careful, should have seen how it all had to end: governments defaulting on loans, currencies inflating and inflation countered by ever-higher interest rates, interest rates which eventually prevented our faltering government from borrowing more money to pay us, their creditors. No wonder Mr. Knight and his party had such an easy time of it, declaring all currency worthless and commerce illegal. No wonder, when the crushed middle class could no longer stand the fact that sixty percent of the country’s wealth lay in the hands of ten percent of its citizens, and another twenty percent in the hands of wealthy foreigners. No wonder that the dispossession of such wealthy men as myself—or Mr. Chandler or Mr. Reich here—that our dispossession was welcomed as deserved retribution.

            “I wish to make it clear, however, that I do not think we did anything wrong, except that we lent so much money to shortsighted finance ministers. It should therefore be evident that a new monetarism must envisage a world where governments simply cannot borrow money to finance services or stimulate the economy; we must return to a pre-Keynesian monetarism. True, this would reintroduce the conditions that were partially responsible for the great depression of the 1930s, but I am confident that such a depression could yet be avoided without excessive government spending. It is our challenge to work out, in certain terms, how this might be accomplished in the future, and it is our challenge to present such a new monetarism to a world in decay, a world suffering under the influence of the economic anaesthetic known as gratuitism.

            “And yet, we cannot afford to wait until we have all the answers, for no one has all the answers. It is an imperfect world, and we must be able to accept that we bring to the world imperfect proposals for a new monetarism. But these will always be preferable to the imperfections inherent in gratuitism. It is therefore still our foremost duty to eliminate gratuitism before it is too late—before our infrastructure and industry deteriorate to the point where we can no longer revive them. We must therefore stop at nothing to ensure that the result of the next federal election is a result in our favour.”

            There followed a very formal “thank you, and good night”; then a lightning flash of a smile such as comes to a man’s face when he knows he has accomplished what he set out to do; then, like thunder, applause. Richard was in awe. His friend’s closing remarks, which seemed to echo above the clapping of hands, had left him with an exalted feeling: “a world suffering . . . economic anaesthetic”—brilliant! And to think, Richard reflected, this morning I was trying to command this man to clean my bathroom. What was I thinking! A man like him, a charismatic speaker and leader, really shouldn’t be bothered with such trivial things.

            The day’s round of speeches having come to an end with Tony’s closing remarks, a large portion of the crowd headed for the auditorium’s exits while others loitered together in twos and threes. While these dispersed, Richard made his way to a booth near the back where a short queue of people were waiting to sign themselves up as MLA members. Here lay his first step in acquiring a position within the organization: completion of the membership form. The second step involved attending an interview, arranged by Tony, with the Lobby’s Director of Operations. Luckily, the Director—a Mr. White—had time that very evening, and Richard soon found himself pitching to this officer the very skills and experience he had despaired of never being able to apply again. The beady-eyed, tight-lipped and aptly white-haired gentleman listened attentively while this pitch was made, occasionally giving hints that he was impressed by what he heard.

            As it turned out, Richard was found qualified for the position of Far East Liaison reporting to the Director of Foreign Affairs, meaning he would be responsible for reopening trade with the Orient in the event of a monetarist election victory. In the meantime, he would be responsible for keeping track of the world petroleum trade, and specifically the availability of gasoline in the Ottawa area. This was an important duty since it was through a gas shortage, above all, that the gratuitist experiment was expected to fail. It was also to be his duty—as it was the duty of any serious monetarist, he was told—to spend as much time as he could waiting in line-ups for gas and other rationed essentials. This was part of a larger sabotage plan in which devoted operatives did what they could to make life more difficult for the general public, thereby accelerating public discontent and thus paving the way for an election victory. This information, Mr. White explained, was “very sensitive” and presented a “security risk” whenever it was divulged; normally, the sabotage plan was imparted only to senior persons in the organization. “On Tony’s recommendation, however,” Mr. White continued in his gravelly voice, “I am confident that we can trust you.” Thus Richard was made an instant insider, by which he felt commensurately honoured. It did not occur to him that White’s willingness to share such sensitive information with someone who had just joined was not so much a sign of Tony’s confidence as it was a sign of the MLA’s inability to find eager officers.

            Afterwards, during the drive home (with Tony in the passenger seat), Richard glowed with the positive feelings that the day’s events had evoked in him. He felt genuinely confident, for the first time in months, that things would revert to the way things were; they would have to. He felt as though he had a purpose in life again, a title, and an occupation. He had seen a pretty woman on the stage and another in the membership queue. He had even spoken with her. He was almost giddy. Owing to the strange vicissitudes of the mind, however, Richard’s buoyant thoughts were brought down to earth again as he pulled into his street. Because he could not see well in the dark and had forgotten about the about the condition of the road, he drove directly into what must have been the biggest pothole in the city.

            “Shit!” he exclaimed, suddenly angry and frustrated again.

            Something was broken.

 

            Meri's husband, Greg, had become a very different person in the months following the great change. Years of insecure contract positions and long stretches of unemployment had turned him into a morose, tight-fisted pessimist, not at all like the man she had married. Now that he was able to teach again, however, he was much more sociable and positive; he felt he was contributing to society and not letting his wife and family down by failing to provide for them properly. And rather than spending his weekends watching TV and listlessly puttering around the house, he would catch a ride with some other volunteers to do some physical labour out in the country. He was very proud of these latter efforts, for as he put it, "there's nothing like the feeling of knowing that your work has put food directly onto your table, and the tables of countless others, even in distant countries."

            Still, there was one think about Greg that hadn't really changed from the days when they were pinching pennies just to be able to afford decent food. He remained very frugal and obsessed with minimising waste around the house. She didn't mind so much that he would turn the heat down in the winter and thereby incite them to snuggle together to keep warm; nor did she resent his insistence on drying all their clothes on lines in the cellar rather than wasting power with an electric dryer. But there were other things that she couldn't stand, like his custom of cooking kidneys and brains instead of proper, choice cuts of meat. It used to be tolerable, since the organs were always the cheapest sources of protein; now, however, Greg thought it was their "duty" to eat the whole animal, so that nothing would go to waste. "Do you know how much work it is, slaughtering a cow and cutting up all the meat?" he would say. When Meri asked why they couldn't just feed those "disgusting parts" to dogs or grind them up into sausage, he would become exasperated. "We're lucky to have meat at all," he would say; "and you ought to be used to it by now, after eating kidney pie all these years."

            "I will never get used to it," Meri would reply. Then she would go to Julia's or her mother's while the smell of burning renal organs filled her kitchen, leaving Greg to try his luck at getting the children to eat his pungent fare.

            This was not the most contentious issue that cam between them, however. far worse were the arguments over the clothes Meri would bring home. Greg had always resented her for buying for the sake of fashion, even if she bought things at second-hand consignment stores and garage sales. Now that she was free to pick out new and imported things for herself, the resentment persisted and grew into anger when Greg perceived that she had chosen something frivolous.         

            One day she was emerging from the cellar with a sack of potatoes in her hand, only to find him with her newest pair of shoes in his hands. He was scrutinising the label with grave distaste.

            "Made in Spain, eh?" he said accusingly when he noticed her presence.

            "What of it?" Meri shrugged.

            "How much do you think a pair of shoes like this would have cost before the change?"

            "I don't know . . . maybe 150, 200 dollars. They would have been worth it, though; they're very good quality, and very comfortable."

            "200 dollars. that's still 200 dollars worth of our trade credit, you know."

            "So?"

            "So you know how much wheat we have to send to Spain to balance out this one pair of shoes? Why—you wouldn't be able to grow that much in our yard. Or, if you want to look at it another way, a nickel mine in Sudbury would have to produce 30 kilos of ore to offset the cost of these eight ounces of leather. You know, we don't have an unlimited supply of trade credit. Men don't like working in mines. It should go towards oil and cotton, not some fancy shoes for your delicate little feet!" Greg was trying to maintain his composure, but his bulging eyes and flaring nostrils made him appear angrier than one would have expected under the circumstances—or so Meri thought. She would have laughed at him if she were not so upset about his manner of lecturing her.

            "I suppose you'd rather I wore some crappy Canadian-made shoes instead," she suggested drolly.

            "Yes, I would," he replied with a smile. "Don't think it's just me that wants you to, though. The whole country wants you to, whether people realize it or not. We all have to do our part to make the system work."

            "It works fine," Meri snapped. "I go to a shoe store. I see a pair of shoes I like. I try them on and take them home. If I'm not supposed to take them, then they shouldn't be there in the first place. Now leave me alone so I can cook you some supper."

            "You just don't get it do you?" yelled Greg, his ruddy complexion beginning to deepen. "Your choices have repercussions. Somebody's got to bust his ass to make it possible for you to have luxurious things like this." Meri had already turned her back on him to go into the kitchen, but she suddenly spun around to glare at her husband with an uncommon vehemence.

            "You're the one who doesn't get it yet, Greg. You don't bust your ass for things in this world any more. You work because you want to, simple as that. If you think it's too much trouble to go out to that farm on the weekend and drive around on a tractor so women like me can have nice shoes from Spain—well, just stay at home like you used to when they wouldn't let you work. Don't try to lay some lame guilt-trip on me, because I've done nothing wrong."            "Impossible woman," Greg muttered, then stormed out the door.

            —He's got a point, you know, said Meri's conscience after he was gone and the room was silent. But the shoes were here; someone had gone through the trouble of making them and bringing them all the way here. It would be foolish to send them back whence they came. They fit dammit!

           

            “Thank you very much,” Richard said politely when Bill, extending a dirty hand, presented him with the keys to the car a few days after his unfortunate encounter with the abysmal pothole. He wished he could have given Bill a few hundred dollars for his trouble, not because Bill needed it—no one needed it in the free world—but because Richard felt uncomfortably indebted and could see no other way of dispelling the feeling. Somehow, it didn’t matter that his mechanic was also his tenant, which ought to have balanced their accounts; for Richard could not force himself to believe that the room in which he had lodged Bill was worth as much as the repair to his car. “I wish I could do something just as helpful for you,” he offered.

            “That might not be possible; but you might help someone else, or help our community in general. Anything you do unto them you also do unto me,” Bill smiled.

            Richard detected some kind of biblical allusion in the gratuitist’s words but did not make anything of it.

            “As for the part I replaced, you were lucky I was still able to find one. The factory where they’re made is in Japan, and they haven’t been shipping. If I were you, I’d get on the ’net and let a trade official know there’s a demand.”

            “Sure,” muttered Richard. Efficient, he thought sardonically—as if I ought to do the job of a shipper-receiver. Of course, if I were a gratuitist volunteer, I would actually become such a trade official myself, since I’m well-qualified for such work, and ordering parts would actually be my duty. But I am a monetarist. It is my duty to disable the system by refusing work of any kind, even if it might indirectly benefit me. At any rate, the imminent reversion will occur long before I need more parts like this for my car.

            After backing out of the garage and leaving Bill to his next project (where did he get the motivation?), Richard decided he might as well wait in line at a gas station for a while—not that he needed gas, for he had driven little since his arrival, but he thought he should do as Mr. White suggested and clog the system a bit. And so he took his position behind a snake of cars leading up to the pumps, turned on the radio, and became progressively more bored as the time passed. After ten minutes, he found himself brushing dust away from the steering column and dash. After fifteen, he caught himself dozing, so he turned up the radio. After twenty minutes, he became impatient, even though he was waiting of his own volition.—How big are these people’s gas tanks, anyway? Aren’t these old beaters converted to fuel cells? Finally, after thirty minutes, his turn at the pump came, and he soon felt perfectly ridiculous for adding a mere quarter tank when everyone else was filling from empty. 

            —They don’t need me, he decided as he replaced the pump nozzle, to make these line-ups exasperating; there are enough people making each other’s lives difficult here, people who actually need gas. This is a waste of my time, and it’s not worth it.

            Hence, like so many initially determined monetarists trying their dutiful best to “clog the machinery,” Richard found that common sense prevailed after all. He would not wait in queues needlessly again.

 

            There was a letter in the mailbox when he arrived back at the house that afternoon.—What kind of person volunteers to deliver mail? He examined the envelope briefly. It was not the long-anticipated notice that would precede a housing inspector’s visit, nor was it a letter from his friends in the Far East (these communicated by email only); it was not even a belated invitation from his estranged parents—they were waiting for him to call first, which he was not about to do because it was their negligence that had disrupted communication between them in the first place. No—The letter was not a notice from the department of foreign affairs, either. It was from one Ms. Shaw, attorney.

            Richard opened the letter with great trepidation, for he immediately knew that it must contain the terms for his divorce. He quite irrationally foresaw the worst: Pamela would demand stewardship of the house, the car, and the furniture, and she would justify such exorbitant claims by adducing the evidence of his infidelity; and his unfaithfulness was, he knew, recorded in the form of credit card statements showing hundreds of yuan worth of debits incurred at legally-recognised Chinese brothels. As he combed the wordy clauses in which lawyers still wrote, however, Richard found nothing of the sort. “With no reallocation of heretofore commonly held possessions,” he read aloud.

            He felt euphoric for a moment, but he soon realized that he would have preferred that she demand some things. The house was, after all, stuffed with furniture now that Tony was here, and even before the others had joined him, Richard had always felt claustrophobic in the dining room.—Perhaps, he thought, I can ask her to amend the terms so that this ridiculously huge china cabinet will be out of my way. (The cabinet, full of dishes they had never once used, irked Richard a great deal). —Sure, it’ll be worth money again some day, and all that fine china that we never eat off of will be worth money again some day. Tony would think me foolish to give it away. But Tony doesn’t have to know; I’ll tell him that Pamela wants the thing, that it was part of her divorce terms. And that chair! That lime-green upholstered chair from the 1950s that I’ve always hated the sight of (what did she paid for it?)—it’ll have to go, too.

            Richard immediately placed a call to Ms. Shaw’s office, conveyed his request, and waited on hold while the attorney spoke to her client on another line. When Ms. Shaw spoke to him again, it was to inform him that her client would arrange to have said furniture picked up as soon as possible. How gracious of her, Richard thought.

            He was also thinking, after hanging up, that Pamela might not be able to find any movers willing to carry away a monstrosity such as the china cabinet presented; in that case, she would have to come by again after all with her father and some other male relatives.—And they would find that Richard was having a party, a gathering of his new allies in the MLA, and he and his allies would stand around, watch, and laugh as the gratuitists developed hernias as they tried to carry that china cabinet. Then Pamela would somehow see that she had made a mistake in leaving him, and she would be lonely, and sorry, but he would forgive her of course, and she would be wetting her lips. . . .

            Richard’s fantasy was disrupted by the ringing of the telephone. His annoyed “hello” was answered by a woman introducing herself as a friend of Uwe’s: a friend who, as she explained, had experienced the misfortune of having Uwe pass out on her bathroom floor the night previous.

            —So that’s where he was, Richard apprehended. “And where is Mr. Congeniality now?”

            “He’s in my shower, and he says he’s going to walk home when he’s done. But I don’t trust him because he seems—well, suicidal. I mean, last night he took a knife to one of the canvasses I took from him last year.”

            “That’s not a good sign.”

            “He was also speculating about the number of pain-killer tablets it would take to put him out of his misery.”

            “A very bad sign,” Richard concluded. He had not thought of his friend very much lately (other than his slovenliness) but remembered how pitiful Uwe had looked the last time he joined them for a meal.—If I looked like that, Richard thought, I’d want to kill myself too.

            “I think it would be a good idea,” said the voice from the phone, “if someone picked him up and kept an eye on him.”

            Richard agreed. He took down the woman’s address, grabbed the car keys, and drove to the apartment as quickly as he could. Before he could ring up to the suite, however, he was met at the entrance by Uwe himself; who, for all the time he’d spent sleeping and showering, still smelled like a distillery.

            “What’re you doing here?” he demanded at once.

            “I came to give you a ride home, of course.”

            “Why? I’m not an invalid, I can walk. I fact, I’d rather walk. It’s a nice day and I need the exercise.” Staggering slightly, Uwe brushed past Richard and began walking in a direction opposite from the waiting car.

            “You’re coming with me,” Richard insisted. “It’s time the two of us had a little talk, man to man.”

            “Not about the bathroom, I hope?”

            “No,” Richard replied gravely, “though now that you mention it, have either of you guys lifted a finger to clean it?”

            “No. And I won’t be the first, either.”

            Richard sighed. “Grown men, too. I wish—no, never mind, that’s not what I want to discuss.” Richard paused while they both got into the car. He thought for a minute how he might begin, looked from the road to Uwe and back again, and registered the look of vacant disinterest on his friend’s face. “I hear you destroyed one of your paintings last night.”

            “Oh, that,” said Uwe with unnatural flippancy. “That was nothing; I was just doing a Dorian Grey impression. . . . But seriously, I was helping out my friend. She needs to be disabused of the idea that those things I used to paint are worth anything. Too bad about the canvas, though—it could have been reused by a real artist.”

            “Does this mean you’re going to destroy my Kuefers as well?”

            “No—I mean, not unless you want me to.”

            Richard found the calmness with which he said these things alarming. “I don’t want you to, no. I like your paintings. Look, I know they haven’t been moving for you, but that doesn’t mean nobody likes them—”

            “Oh no? I think that’s exactly what it means. And as for you, you’re just looking for the imminima—imminent reversion. You want to keep my work for the same reason you keep that case full of Chinese money, the same reason you keep Pamela’s lime-green chair—”

            “Hey, I’m getting rid of that.”

            “Whatever. The point is, you think it’ll all be worth something again someday. My paintings are just an investment as far as you’re concerned.”

            “That’s not true!” Richard protested, letting go of the steering wheel and gesticulating exasperatedly. Of course, it was true, but it was also true that he had been convinced, through many years of dealing with art and artists, that Uwe’s art did have intrinsic value; he was therefore positive that he liked it unconditionally.

            “I’m just telling it like it is, Richard,” Uwe resumed. “Don’t think this is something new that’s only happened because of the grats; art has been dead a long time. We’ve just made it look like a worthwhile endeavour by asking thousands of dollars for crap that didn’t have any beauty or any message.”

            “Don’t be silly,” said Richard.

            “I suppose it happened,” Uwe continued, ignoring Richard, “because some poseurs discovered they could sell experiments and accidents for more than their best work garnered. The experiments were unique, so they became valuable—just like stamps with rare printing errors on them. People thought it was good art because it was valuable, you see?—not the other way around. And then we artists had to come up with some dilettante aesthetics to make it seem like these hideous experiments were really worth what people paid for them because they were rare.

            “The trouble is, Richard, I bought it all—I thought the dilettante’s aesthetics were the real thing. I thought,” he said, becoming abnormally agitated, “I thought I was accomplishing something by reducing a composition to just a few geometrical elements. I was working with the beauty of simplicity. But just because something is simple doesn’t make it beautiful, right? Sometimes, it’s just boring, like my art.—Hell, it’s not even original.”

            They had arrived at the house (having avoided the larger potholes) but remained sitting in the car with the ignition off. Richard was feeling frustrated and inadequate; he could not argue with Uwe about aesthetic theories.

            “Maybe,” mused Richard, “you just haven’t been showing your work in the right places. You’ve been at Singer’s gallery up to now, right?”

            “Right.”

            “Well, maybe no one takes your work because they don’t set foot in there in the first place.”

            “No, that’s not it. Other things in his gallery move. You should see how fast Gwen’s watercolours are snatched up.”

            There was silence as both men thought the situation over.

            “I’ll tell you what, Uwe,” Richard imposed in his managerial tone, “we’ll set up an exhibit of your work someplace where there’s a lot of pedestrian traffic—there are plenty of vacant retail spaces around—and you’ll see how many people know good art when they see it. In fact, if the weather’s nice tomorrow again, I’m sure we can set you up down on Sparks street somewhere.”

            “Yeah, right next to the portrait sketchers,” Uwe muttered dismally. “Not that I really care; I know what’ll happen. Actually, setting up on the street will be good for me; it’ll be cathartic to hear ordinary people attack my work as banal pseudo-art. I’ve been too sheltered in the gallery—always the same clique playing the same highbrow charade.”

            It wasn’t a positive response, but Richard was satisfied that Uwe would at least try. “Good, it’s settled then. Now, I expect you to show only your best, and the presentation has to be flawless, just like you would have it if you were trying to make a living.”

            “Does that mean I have to act like a salesman?”

            “I’ll be your salesman,” Richard declared as he opened the car door and stepped out.—Better that than your pallbearer, he added clandestinely. It subsequently occurred to him that he might meet some women if he was working as a vendor down on Sparks street, too; if not, at least he would have ample time to sit and watch the girls walk by.


© Robert Zimmer
rlzimmer@hotmail.com

Previous chapters: Back Issues. Continued in the next issue of SCR.