Chapter One Our hero's good home and fortune and how he began to lose it
Not long ago, in the belly of a big-bellied land called Wonderland, there lived a young man who, in order to protect from unwanted commercial solicitations, we'll simply call X.
X grew up with loving parents in a prosperous time of peace. He attended public schools from kindergarten through the university, and after ten years in the building trades, he earned a graduate degree from the prestigious School of Ecology and Economics.
After graduate school, X remained at the university and became well known for his public radio show, Home Renovation and Repair Issues. He built himself a beautiful house in the country down a long driveway through a grove of Lombardi poplars. In those days the sky was mostly blue and the grass very green. There were brook trout in the creek and pretty horses in the neighboring pasture. X read of injustice and evil in the newspaper, and he saw it on the evening news, but, sitting on his water-sealed redwood deck in the evening after a day discussing with curious and energetic callers concrete slabs, vent spaces, blown-in cellulose, wall mold, and capillary flow through foundations, injustice and evil seemed far away indeed.
And for the most part, they were. X lived in a good country in a good time. His education taught him that Wonderland's abundance had not been accidental, but created by brave religious and economic refugees who, despite offensive Old World habits, such as massacring natives and importing slaves, had the genius and pluck to build the Global Free Market, an economic system that quite simply provided more food, shelter, medicine, and toys than all of the oppressive old gods put together.
So understandably, when X stood before the start of a ball game, facing the Wonderlandian flag and listening to the Wonderlandian national anthem, he often shivered with pride.
One night at a party, X met a tall African Wonderlandian woman with a hearty laugh and a big head of red hair, who he'd been told was a successful international private consultant. She walked over to him holding a tumbler full of brandy in one hand and a swizzle stick between the thumb and forefinger of her other. She stood a little too close for comfort and looked at him intensely through small dark eyes - looked down at him, actually, as she was taller, and she smiled strangely, and said, "Do you like jokes about white men with big cocks?"
X felt too flustered to answer. He knew it would be racist if he told jokes like this, but was it racist if she did?
She didn't wait for an answer. She licked her lips, leaned a little closer, and told a dozen big white penis jokes, cracking up after each one. Even though X thought the jokes embarrassing, he couldn't help but like the woman for having such a great time telling them.
After the party he ran into her again, in the hotel parking lot. She stood with her big German Shepherd on a leash, apparently getting ready to walk home.
"You're gorgeous," he said, which is when he knew he'd drunk too much. He let his eyes drop from the woman to her dog.
"Who?" she said, "Seamus?"
"No, you," he said. He touched the dog's head. "I better go."
"Not so fast."
He paused and looked up at her, but couldn't hold her gaze.
"Why so shy?" she asked.
He shrugged. He wanted to lean closer and whisper something obscene, but he didn't know what to say. "Because I don't even remember your name," he said. "I'm sorry."
She looked more concerned than offended. "You should watch badgers."
"Why is that?"
She sat down on a bench, and the dog sat by her feet. "When a badger sinks its teeth into something, it hangs on."
"Is that right?"
"The badger is a beautiful animal," she said. "It's good medicine." As she spoke, she looked at him with narrow, unflinching eyes, as if she were dispensing life-giving, spiritual advice. "I told you my name once and you should have hung onto it. And since you didn't, you'll have to find it out again, and this time hold tightly."
"Let's take a walk," he said. And so they did, and the park smelled like newly mown grass. She let her dog off the leash and X took her hand and held it, and after walking for a while they sat down, the night air like cool velvet. X lay on his back and he felt her lie on her back next to him, their fingers still touching in the grass, and he looked up at the crescent moon, and suddenly remembered her name. He turned it carefully on his tongue like something sharp. It was a strange and beautiful name, African-ish, and its sound suggested the vulgar word for women's genitals. He whispered it but felt no acknowledgment from her, nothing in her fingers to show she'd heard. He said it louder, and still nothing. He sat up, looked down at her face, and realized she'd passed out.
He woke her - we'll call her C - and drove her home, where he learned she lived in a beautiful Tudor two-story separated from his home by only a half mile of oak and hickory forest. He walked her and her dog to the front door and watched her round bottom fill her dress as she bent forward to use her key, and he fantasized long berry-picking walks with her through the woods. In just the amount of time it took for her to open her door, step up, and turn to kiss him on the forehead, he imagined a year-long courtship, an engagement and marriage, followed by three or four multiethnic, multicultural children. She certainly had the hips for it! Happy and hopeful, X drove home to his well-lighted, cedar-sided split-level.
But things happening far away had already conspired to turn X's prospects inside out. A glut of wheat crackers and toothpicks on world markets had reduced prices and sent projected state revenues tumbling, so when X returned to work the following Monday his office was closed, and when he went to see the dean, he was handed a memo by her assistant stamped RECYCLE PLEASE across the top. The memo explained that because of a "bump" on the Global Free Market highway, his personal route to economic security now included a "detour." Small sacrifices would bring long-term prosperity to all, he was reminded, and "private" is always better than "public," so of course he would understand the decision to turn his department over to a large hardware store chain.
The FixIt Company would use its own personnel to do X's radio show, which was better because they could sell products while giving home improvement advice, and selling products meant more production, and more production meant more choice for consumers, and ultimately more wealth and jobs.
In his current state of unemployment, X had to agree that more jobs would certainly be good.
Copyright © 2005 David Allan Cates How the "downturn" got meteorological
All right reserved.
That evening the faces on television who called their show The Storm Team showed weather satellite pictures, and the pictures showed "air masses." One of the air masses came from the north, the other came from the south, and they collided in the sky over where X lived, spawning tornados. One of the funnels touched down on X's home, splintering it to fragments the size of pencils, and then it carved a fifty-yard-wide swath of destruction through the forest to where it exploded C's house into similar-sized pieces.
X had been aware of the official tornado warning, and so had saved himself by hiding in the southwest corner of the basement as he'd been told to since he was a boy. C had not been listening to the news - she was bathing in bubbles - and the funnel sucked her out of the tub and up with a cloud of her home office papers and gently set her down, wet and naked, amid a snowstorm of falling receipts and invoices.
Climbing from the rubble of his home, X could think of her and only her, and he stumbled through the forest that was ravaged as if by a squadron of bombers. He found no trace of her, only thousands of pink papers with her name on the top, bills sent to businesses all over the globe for strategic services rendered, each for $187.36.
He searched the forest and the wreckage of her home, but he could not find her. The telephone lines were down, and his cell phone had lost its charge. Disoriented and sad, he wandered off in the direction of town, where he was directed to an emergency shelter set up for victims of the twister. There were cots in the high-school gymnasium, a line of people made sandwiches and served soup, and that evening the refugees sang and wept, and congratulated themselves on their strength and courage and good insurance policies.
Miraculously, C was in the shelter, too, dressed in too-tight donated clothing, and X gave her a comforting hug, and she gave him one back, and then they gave each other comforting kisses, and soon they'd stepped out of the crowded gymnasium and before long X had removed her too-tight donated clothing, and they gave each other many more comforting hugs and kisses. X told C about how he'd lost his job and offered sympathy for her destroyed home office, but C simply laughed and said oh well she'd be all right, and she handed him a fat roll of cash. X thanked her profusely, with more hugs and kisses, and afterward, lying on their backs, looking up at the stars, X said he couldn't help but notice by the invoices strewn ankle deep in the ruins of her home that her business had gone global.
"Sure," she said. "I contracted an on-line bookkeeping firm to send out my bills, so I'll be getting checks for a long time. All I need is a P.O. box to live well."
X was dying to ask about her "strategic services," and why the charge was $187.36 on each bill, but she'd begun to kiss him again, and then she put her round bottom in a strategic place.
X tried to speak but made no intelligible sound, because C had begun to move in a strategic way.
The next morning X went to visit his insurance agent, a broad-shouldered meat-faced young ex-athlete who informed him that his insurance company had filed for bankruptcy just a few days ago when the economy burped, and so his claim would not be covered.
"I don't get a dime?" X asked.
"Nope," the insurance man said, "but keep in mind that the same government that killed the company with out-of-sight taxes is now stepping up to help the executives save the company and the jobs it provides, and the price of the stock will probably come up again eventually, so it's a pretty hot buy, if you have any spare chunks of cash to invest."
X agreed it would be a hot buy, but aside from the roll of 187 dollars that C had given him, he didn't have any spare chunks of cash. All of the extra money he'd earned from the radio job had been put into his house, so he was indeed destitute. The insurance man whistled through his teeth and said that was too bad, but sacrifices were required from time to time, belt tightening so to speak, and if and when X ever got back on his feet again, he should stop by and maybe they could do a little business.
"The key is that consumers like yourself don't lose faith," the insurance man said. "Because this is one great country, you know what I mean?"
X did, of course.
Nevertheless, he left the insurance office feeling worried. Even though Wonderland was a great country, and even though these were the best of times, technologically speaking, and even though there had never been a system better at the delivery of goods than the Global Free Market, X still didn't have a home anymore, or a job.
Choice and Mobility, he reminded himself as he trudged along the sidewalk, his empty stomach grumbling, were twin virtues. And anybody who was hungry or homeless or without sufficient purchasing power, he knew, need not be so long as he or she chose to make the sacrifices necessary to move and retrain.
But his clothes looked ragged, he needed a bath and a shave, and when he got back from the insurance office the high-school gymnasium was packed with screaming teenagers, and technicians setting up cameras and lights to shoot a soft-drink commercial. All of the cots were gone. So were the soup servers, and, even worse, so was C. No note, no message, and despite the mass of people, no familiar face.
Uncertain of what to do next, X walked up the hill past the lime green water tower, then down through a muggy little park with a lot of old oak and walnut sagging in the sunlight. He passed an empty swimming pool behind a hurricane fence, and then a pink band shell. He wondered why all the invoices C had sent out were for the same amount of money, and he was impressed by the number of prestigious international companies she'd consulted for. He wished he'd saved one of the bills so he'd at least know her P.O. box.
He crossed the street to the sidewalk on the far side and walked by some children climbing a pipe fence that separated a hedge from the sidewalk. The homes were very nice in this part of town, brick with big front windows through which he could sometimes see wide rooms with mirrors on the walls, and the tops of stuffed chairs, and big color television screens. The driveways were smooth blacktop, and children rode trikes and bikes, or chased each other across the lawn and onto the sidewalk. The wind gusted, and X felt it cool the sweat on his neck and was suddenly exhilarated by the way the children's voices rose like leaves, swirled, and then fell into quiet again on the green grass. He waved, and a little girl straddling the fence was the first to notice. "Watch out for the homeless man!" she yelled, and all of the children scattered off the sidewalk, out of his way.
To keep from weeping, X breathed deeply, held the air in his lungs, and pretended he was watching himself walk across a movie screen. He was the star, and the camera followed him in slow motion, and he imagined grand and inspiring music. He was a man walking along the street of a small city on a hot summer day. A man who'd lost it all, and yet the Global Free Market and the country of Wonderland would provide. Something in his bearing, the tilt of his head, the length of his stride, or his ragged clothes suggested mystery and possibility to the casual onlooker, perhaps to someone in an upstairs bedroom of one of these houses who happened to glance out the window as he was passing, someone who just a few days ago had received good sound advice from him on vinyl-clad windows or stabilizing the wing walls of a basement walk-out.
At the end of the block stood a square, brick theater. He paused for a moment under the marquee, and would have pretended to be deciding whether he should enter, but the lobby was dark and where there might have been a movie poster behind glass there was only a sign saying No Loitering. Across the street a young woman stepped out of the Chinese-Szechwan Restaurant. She blinked, wobbled, and soon was joined by a lanky man wearing a tweed sport coat and Cleveland Indians baseball cap. Paper blew along the sidewalk from a tipped-over garbage can and then fanned out into the street. One of the papers blew up against X's shoe and stuck. X lifted his foot to get rid of the paper, but it wouldn't blow off. He shook his foot, but the paper merely wrapped itself around his ankle.
X bent down to peel it off and read:
An Economic Colloquium Presented by Dr. Fingerdoo
A somewhat personal account of the history of the Global Free Market, emphasizing the role of Optimism and Positive Thinking in the creation of Wealth and Prosperity. Although one might say the Consumer is blessed by a robust Economy, Dr. Fingerdoo makes the case that the opposite is true: The Economy is blessed by robust Consumers!
X took note of the time and place of the lecture. Dr. Fingerdoo had been one of his esteemed professors in graduate school. He folded the flier and slipped it into his pocket, then turned and entered the restaurant. One good thing about being jobless would be the opportunity to attend educational events.