The Two Shoemakers
Long ago, in a land far away, there lived a humble shoemaker. He was plain and unassuming, residing in a modest cottage set in the shadows of the great forest. As a young man he had worked diligently at his craft and was content to lead a quiet and frugal life plying his trade in the bustling town. He presented the same face to all of his customers and the townspeople, always forthright and honest in his dealings. The shoemaker was not really happy living in the town, though. He wished to continue doing business, but dreamed of having a home a little more removed from the carts and hawkers, the constant chatter, gossip and quarrels which are the stock of nearly anywhere that many people may congregate. He didn’t begrudge any of the townsfolk or hold any judgement against them and the way they chose to live: he just didn’t care to be in the middle of it all.
After having mastered his trade and accumulating some gold he had taken an old stable to rent and set up his shop. He required little more than the loft above for his personal quarters, furnished with a simple straw mattress and a small stove for the winters. He developed a sound reputation for producing a small repertoire of sturdy, well made and affordable shoes. They were not fancy or in any way decorative, but were consistently well made, properly sized and he always delivered as promised. His most popular creation was a sturdy and durable pair of boots which served well for woodsmen or hunters, farmers, or those who simply liked to hike the wilds. They were also an excellent choice for the winter months with a solid tread to travel the cold, wet snow, slush or mud of the season. He had no rival in the town and his business flourished until he had set aside enough to purchase a small plot of ground along the lane that led from the town into the great forest beyond.
There he built his cottage of stone and great oak beams. He constructed a great fireplace in the middle of the cottage with a broad hearth on either side and a formidable stone and mortar tower to the roof to house the chimney. The front side of the cottage housed his workshop and all of its wares and was partitioned by a long, log wall running the length with a single door to enter the rear half of the home. Behind this wall, arranged about the other side of the hearth was his cook pot, water basin and a collection of cast iron and wooden cookware. There was also a small array of ceramic pots with lids and wax seals for the storage of dried goods, a rocking chair, a small wooden table with a pair of matching benches, and in the back corner of the cottage was his simple wood framed bed and a standing cupboard to house his modest wardrobe.
He put in a garden and taught himself how to can many of his summer vegetables. He later constructed a smokehouse for the drying of meats, acquired a horse for which he built a small stable and cart, and a collection of chickens and geese with a coop to house these as well. There was an abundance of berries, honey and various nuts from the neighboring forest and at need being a fair bowman he might dine regularly on hare, pheasant and deer. He had settled a very happy home which fulfilled all of his simple needs. He was not so far removed from town as to be inconvenient for his customers, many often bringing their children along to visit with the shoemaker’s horse or play with the chickens and geese. There were some smaller trees on the edge of the forest which were fine for climbing about, though the youngsters were always cautioned by their parents and the shoemaker both that they were not to wander any further into the forest. It was not often, but there were on occasion the chances that one might encounter a lumbering bear seeking berries or, in the worst case, the fearsome wild boar.
It was an idyllic life at this sylvan junction. The shoemaker’s trade remained steady and as years passed wagons and carts from other towns passed increasingly through the lane and others which led to the town. The town itself grew and he became acquainted with a second and then a third generation of customers. Word had travelled to other distant parts of the well crafted and excellent value of footwear to be had from his small shop, especially those boots. As merchants would pass through to the town in increasing numbers the shoemaker was met with some of these who inquired if they might negotiate a price for a wholesale order of these fine boots to pick up in their next travels to take and sell in their own distant towns and villages. The shoemaker would always treat with this visitors in the most cordial fashion, often offering tea and at times make some inspection of some of the wares they carried. He was flattered at these offers, but always politely declined, telling them that he preferred to continue with his custom fitting and fine quality. He feared that production in scale might compromise the quality for which his boots were renowned. There was also the matter that as he now approached the early years of middle age he had begun to suffer the onset of fading vision and arthritis in his hands and joints. He simply wasn’t prepared to work that hard any more. Each time a merchant would reply that they would call again on their next trip and indeed they would, always with an attempt to change the shoemaker’s mind.
One year a winter came that was particularly cruel in its cold and wet assault upon his bones. Trade was good, to be sure. Those who had not already acquired a pair of his boots were most eager to obtain a pair for the long remaining winter months to come. The shoemaker worked at a steady pace, fulfilling the demand in as timely a manner as he was able, but with each passing day he was finding it more and more difficult to make his fingers work the needle smoothly or to see well enough without placing a great strain upon his eyes. Where he used to work by fire or candlelight well into the evening hours he now found that in the dancing shadow of the twilight hours his eyes might fail him altogether. He struggled mightily through this season yet still made it through not too much worse for the wear and with more gold coin stored up in his chest.
As the snows melted and March crawled into April he began to make ready for his garden. Being a shoemaker was his livelihood, but this simple farming was his true love. This year, though still very fulfilling for him, he grew very conscious of the fact that he was finding it more and more difficult to perform these chores. He could still manage to get it done, he just had to slow down and on some days take rest from it to recuperate from his labors. It was during this time that he began to think about what he was to do. He knew that the hands of time did not turn back, that his condition would reach the stage that he was no longer physically capable to do this work. And the same would eventually be true for his craft. So what would it be then? He had saved enough to sustain himself, but would he be able to continue to live here on his own? Never having taken a bride and with no children to carry on his legacy he began to think harder upon those offers from travelling merchants. A small seed of an idea began to grow in his mind. Perhaps there was a way….
After a fairly rainy period around the middle of the month the clouds abated and a week of a steady, warming sun proclaimed the spring had finally arrived to stay. The warming air and sunlight were a restorative balm to his aching joints and he awoke one morning with more vigor than he had felt in months. He washed, pulled out his finest clothing and hitched the cart to his horse to ride into town. It was time to start working on his new plan. It would not be long now before those travelling merchants would return and each season seemed to bring more than the last.
As he rode into town in the mid morning hours he found good numbers of people out and about their business for the day. He was hailed from the street by many of his long time customers, to each he would politely nod and tip his hat in reply. He rode at a stately pace into the streets, noting new buildings and more underway. There were many more people than he had ever remembered. The shoemaker wound his way through the town until finally arriving at the smith’s shop. He pulled up the reins to halt his horse and climbed down from the buckboard seat to tie her off at the post and enter the forge. The fires were stoked, the smith in his heavy leather apron hammering away upon an anvil, so intent in his task that he failed to see that a guest had arrived. The shoemaker stood at a fair distance and patiently awaited a pause in the hammering to announce himself. The smith finally paused in his labors to set the mighty hammer aside and brush the heavy sweat from his brow.
” Good day, smith!”
The smith let out a long sigh from exertion and turned from the shimmering heat to find his caller. ” Well hello, shoemaker! Good to see you about! What news from the forest?”
“Oh, little news, I fear, but all is well. I have some business for you and a favor to ask, if I may?”
The smith now set aside his tongs as well and took up a heavy cloth to brusquely wipe his hands of the grime and further daub at the sweat still pouring from his bald head. He stepped closer to the shoemaker and extended his hand in greeting. As they shook the smith replied, “Certainly, friend! What business and what might be that favor?”
“Well I need to have my horse re-shoed for the season, for the business. The favor would be more of a recommendation, I suppose.”
The smith nodded. “Aye! And what might that be?”
“Would you know of a young man of suitable age and skill to commend as an apprentice for my trade?”
The smith, for only a moment, appeared mildly surprised at what he had just heard, but then quickly his brow creased into some contemplation of the question. He scratched his jaw and rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he searched his recollection of any fitting this description. After a minute or so the smiths face relaxed from the furrowed brow to reply, ” Well let’s bring your horse in here, shall we, and I’ll have to think a bit more on an apprentice. There might be a couple that I think of…”
The shoemaker led his horse in and left the smith to his work, telling him he would be about to visit some of the local shops and return soon. The smith replied that he didn’t expect to be more than a half hour at it and would hope to have some suggestion for him then. The shoemaker wandered up one side of the block and down the other, peering into any open storefronts to peruse textile goods, furniture, a candle and soap maker among others. He did enter a small confectioners shop and treated himself to a stick of colored sugar candy in a red and white spiral. The proprietor was a jolly fellow with a shock of carrot hair who had purchased boots and shoes for his family for some years. The candy was a nice treat, but a bit more sweet than he was accustomed to. He broke off the tip to let it dissolve under his tongue and placed the rest into a deep pocket of his tunic.
By the time he had made his way back around to the smith’s he had nearly finished shoeing his horse, just completing some filing on the last hoof and pulling the nails from a bucket to finish the job. ” That was good timing, friend! Nearly finished with ‘er”, he said as he set the file down and took up a mallet to set the nails. After tapping in the first two for proper alignment he went on speaking without turning back to look at the shomaker. “Thought some on what ye’d been askin’…about an apprentice? There’s that Jones lad, the tanners boy. He’s fit enough for less strenuous work. He’s got some kind of problem with his breathin’….too sensitive to be around dust or smoke, or those nasty fumes at ‘is father’s place. He might be a good match for you.” The smith finished placing the nails and set his tools aside, wiped his hands and softly brushed the back of the mare. ” All done with ‘er. Just two silvers, if you please? Ye know where the tanners place is?”
The shoemaker fished from a coin pouch to procure the smith’s payment and replied as he held out the two coins, ” Aye, I know that tanners place. Other side of the hill for the stink!”
“That’s right! Thank you, friend. Anything else for ye today?”
“No, thank you, smith! I’ve got what I came for today. I’ll ride up to the tanners and see if I can speak to the boy. What was his name?”
“Er….Desmond, I think it was. Yes! Desmond Jones, thats it! Well good luck to ye!”
The shoemaker hitched the mare back to his cart and rode off through the town to the lane that wound about the hill at the far side. The tanners was set mostly where the winds would not carry the awful reek of urine and caustic fume into the town, but as an added measure had been placed opposite the hill for those occasions when the breeze might sway back towards the settlement. Where the shoemaker lived on the outskirts by choice, Jones the tanner was placed there by necessity. He was an honest and skilled tradesman, but sadly the foul odor of his work seemed to follow him about making him a man to avoid on those times when he might come into their midst. The boy, Desmond, was normally sent to do his father’s bidding with the inhabitants and only thus was he known to the people. The shoemaker didn’t much care where the lad came from. If he was capable and willing to be trained he would be his choice. If the boy had physical limitations that precluded him from other occupations this might be well suited for him.
The shoemaker had a further motive, of course. If the lad was an able study and could take to the work quickly then he might produce enough product to fill those prospective orders for the travelling merchants, whose carts and wagons would soon return to this corner of the land. This would allow a further funding of his nest egg, letting him retire quietly to his little farm lot and nurse his failing condition in relative comfort until the end. The boy would then have the business to carry on on his own to have a livelihood more forgiving to his own malady. It surely seemed a good match.
As the shoemaker rode on through the growing town he saw many new faces, town dwellers he’d never encountered, though a number bore some resemblance to families he had come to know over the years. There were so many new settlements, it seemed the borders of the town had spilled out in all directions, save but two: his own little lane and the way to the tanners. There were distant farmers and hunters who had migrated in from the surrounding country to take a bride and take a trade to raise and support a family. It saddened him to some degree to see this, but accepted it as the way of things. There would always still be farmers as long people wished to eat, too many now conditioned to the town life that skills like growing, hunting, gathering from the land were fading from the population. Who could dream what wonders may come? But these were not for him. He was a simple man merely seeking to live out his days in simple fashion.
The noise and movement faded behind him as he emerged on the opposite side of the town to the winding way into the looming hills in the east. The road took a slow, steady climb as he approached the first of these, almost unnoticeable at first. Entering the bend that wrapped around one side of the near hill the foul stench of the tanners first wafted to his nostrils, telling that it was not much further. The road continued its slight rise as the bend progressed around to the opposite side and then leveled off where the collection of shacks first came into view. A long, low wooden building with the many vats sat in the foreground. Beyond this and further up into the crease of where hills met there was a barn lot with a couple of dairy cows, some chickens pecking about the grounds and long set of cords strung between posts where hides and fabrics had been hung to dry. It was a sad and ramshackle looking homestead, yet the tanner’s trade seemed to be thriving. It was all the same as he had seen it so many times before.
He halted the mare and sat at this distance looking over their little settlement nestled into the hillside. As he further studied the grounds it occurred to him that in all of his trade with the tanner over the years for the supply of his leather he had never once seen or been introduced to his wife or children. Set off into such isolation he wondered what the tanner did with his earnings. Not that it was any of his concern, only as an idle curiosity, for he was certain that his trade had remained steady and only grown with the town. It was as he sat pondering this that he heard what sounded like a door slamming shut carry through the air. Alerted by this he again scanned across the grounds until spying the younger Jones for the first time.
A long and gangly youth with dark hair emerged with a loping gait from behind one of the little sheds that dotted the plot of ground. From such a distance he was unable to recognize any details of the lad’s appearance other than the fact that at the ends of his long limbs the hands and feet seemed exceedingly large in proportion to the rest of him. There was an almost comical quality in his movements, like the dancing of a jester at a summer fair. The boy ambled across the lot towards the hanging lines, bringing him toward the lane. The shoemaker did not believe that he had yet been seen and waited until the tanner’s son reached the end of the posts to call out and announce himself.
“Hail, I say, boy! You are the tanner’s son?” His voice sounded clearly into the hollow between the hills and caught the boy’s attention. He stopped in his tracks and could be seen to cup both hands above his brow to shield the sun and peer up to the lane.
Once he had spotted the shoemaker’s horse and cart he seemed to falter in his stance, initially hesitant to answer. With one hand still held at his brow he took a few tentative steps toward the lane and only then did he muster some response. “Aye….that I am. Do you….er…have you some business for the tanner’s ?”
The shoemaker now felt at ease to proceed, gently prodding the mare to move forward. As the cart rolled ahead slowly he called again. ” Alas, no, my young man. My business may be with you. May I meet you at your gate to speak?”
The boy appeared mildly puzzled at this, looking about as if he suspected that this stranger was perhaps speaking to some other than he. He collected himself and began stepping backwards toward the front of their property. ” Come ahead, I will meet you at our gate.”
The shoemaker urged the mare on a little faster now, eager to pass by the sour fumes from the long row of vats on his left. It was not as horrid as it would be in warmer months, but still enough to discourage any lingering nearby. In moments he had arrived at the front gate outside of the Jones’ home and waited for the young man to meet him there. The shoemaker remained seated in the cart as he arrived at the gate. At this closer distance he could perceive that there was indeed something that ailed the lad. The only robust part of his anatomy were the oversized appendages that swung from the end of his limbs. Otherwise the lad was gaunt, a long horse-like face that was drawn to hollow cheeks, his shirt hanging upon his frame like an empty vessel swaying in the breeze. Overall an unhealthy look like a malnourished beggar. His skin had an unwholesome blend of jaundice, pallor and acne that would surely leave a pock-marked trail on his face when older. The shoemaker had to wonder suddenly if this was perhaps a bad idea, for surely this youth suffered from more than just a sensitivity of breath. Nevertheless he was here now. He had come to speak with him and he would. Things are quite often not as they may first appear.
“Good day, Master Jones. I’ve come at the suggestion of the town smith to speak with you about an apprenticeship proposition. Are you free to discuss this with me, or would you prefer your father to be present as well?” The boy’s expression contorted through several stages of perplexity as he weighed the shoemaker’s question. Once assuming the more normal aspect of his face he gazed directly with clear blue eyes that conveyed a genuineness. For whatever other shortcomings he might have it did not strike the shoemaker that there was any guile in him.
” No sir, I am free to speak. If we should find an accord then I will inform my father and he may ask what he will of you.”
Well. He was a well spoken young man. It was a somewhat curious response; answering the question while perhaps implying something more without actually saying it. The shoemaker noted this with the thought that this was a signal of one more clever than they might appear. It was here that he elected to climb down from the cart and meet at the gate.
“Very well. I should introduce myself. I am Samuel the shoemaker. I have a workshop on the opposite side of the town near the forest.” He considered for a moment to suggest that perhaps he would have heard of his boots, but glimpsing bare feet then thought better of this. Desmond replied with a curt bow and ” pleased to meet you, sir.”
The shoemaker went on then. ” As you may see I have grown some advanced in years and I fear that I may not be able to perform my trade for much longer. I have no family of my own to whom I might pass on any legacy and there appears to be great opportunity to expand the fortunes of my craft, though sadly I am unable to fulfill these demands. I have thus decided to take an apprentice to train in this craft and assist in production for a period of a few years, after which I should want to retire and bestow the trade upon the apprentice to carry on for himself.” There it was stated as the broad proposition, minus any more specifics of the terms. The shoemaker believed that this was enough to present initially and waited to observe the youth’s reaction.
Desmond had listened carefully and understood the proposition pretty clearly. He was not experienced enough in life to give any thought to more specifics. In his head he performed a rapid assessment of his circumstance and considered the benefit which this proposition offered him. He was here, alone with his father, whose temperament like the environment of his trade was caustic. His mother had passed on long ago in his childhood. He was 19 now, and where other young men had joined in their fathers’ enterprise or taken an apprenticeship in trade by the age of 17, he had not been so fortunate. He had since an early age been prone to respiratory spasms, triggered or exacerbated by any smoke or heavy fume. A further consequence of this condition was that these made him vulnerable to fainting spells as well. For this he was either unwanted or unable to take on most trades available for a young man to set out on his own. His father was begrudgingly tolerant of him remaining at home, accepting his cooking, errand running and such help as he was able to render in the daily operation of the tannery.
He had never given any thought to making shoes as a living, but for what little he knew or could guess of it he considered it would be a trade not too taxing upon his physical limitations. He was certainly well acquainted with the medium for their construction and already had some skill in forming leather into lacing for boots. Without any thought or care to any of the details he considered this a gift dropped from heaven. This offered a way off of the tannery and further held the prospect of a profitable livelihood for years to come.
The shoemaker observed carefully as Desmond stood in silence considering his proposition. The boy’s expression betrayed nothing of his thoughts or impressions at all; like a closed book with no title. Not even a hint as to what lay inside. As the silence hung heavily between them the shoemaker thought that perhaps he should provide some additional details of the arrangement, though he honestly had not thought all of these through himself. He had opened his lips just a fraction to begin to say something more when Desmond offered his initial response.
“When would this begin?”
The shoemaker knew this answer well enough, though it was hardly the first question he would have expected. ” As soon as possible. There are travelling merchants who will return soon with this season and have expressed an interest in purchasing a large lot to return for sale in their own lands. ”
Desmond was able to make a rather quick deduction from this. If the shoemaker’s trade grew to supply other trading merchants from other towns then this would require more leather, which in turn would equate further business for his father. If his father would hold any reluctance to allow him to leave and accept the offer this would be a sound point upon which to build his case for it. He was old enough now that his father could not bar him from it anyway, but there was still the matter of some respect. As to whether or not he could accept was a decision he was free to make on his own. Without further thought on the matter Desmond gave his reply.
” I will accept your offer, sir. If you would allow me a couple of days to settle some matters here I can be at your shop on the morn. I know where you are by the forest.”
In spite of his clumsy appearance and rather awkward manner Desmond proved to be a quite clever young man. He had shown to be a quick study and took to the work with ease. He was quite intent on his work and with careful attention to small detail. In only a short time the shoemaker found that he could have confidence in the quality of his work and allow him to proceed with minimal supervision. There were still things to teach him in performing fittings and cutting and assembling for other designs, but for the immediate purpose of fulfilling larger orders Desmond had proven to be a skilled and highly productive boot maker. For these larger orders there was not fitting involved; they worked from patterns. Desmond was able to replicate the template flawlessly with every pattern inside of a month, just in time to begin building for merchant orders.
For his labors Desmond was furnished a cot and meals and a stipend of 30 crowns per month. The work week was generally five and one half days per week, depending on the arrival of orders when either longer days or seven of seven days might be demanded. The larger boot orders were seasonal, in the spring and the fall, leaving him at some greater liberty the rest of the year. The shoemaker still did his part, though Desmond could outpace him in turning out finished boots at a rate of 2 to 1. The shoemaker would do what he could for production and perform individual orders, create templates and cut leather to sustain the operations.
As these orders of boots landed in other towns and counties their exposure and the demand for them expanded. After three years the shoemaker was satisfied that he had taken enough profit from the trade that he could at last retire. Other merchants still arrived with each season seeking allotments of their own, but it had reached a point that some of these would simply have to be turned away.
At the time of the winter solstice that third year the shop was closed for a respite. The shoemaker had prepared a dinner of roast goose, yams, a dark bread with berry preserves, canned beans and a bottle of well aged wine. He intended to use this to mark a special occasion, one for which Desmond was unaware. When they sat down to light the candles on that shortest day of the year at dusk the shoemaker asked Desmond to open the wine, his own hands not up to the feat, pour their glasses and prepare for a toast.
“Desmond, I toast to you the blessing of another year of good fortunes passed in our endeavor and the hopes for many to come!”
Desmond raised his glass and responded ” Hear hear!”
They each drank from their glasses and then set to serving the dinner. The shoemaker offered a blessing and thanks for the meal and they began to dine. After a few morsels had been sampled from his plate the shoemaker set his utensils aside and began to speak.
“Desmond you have proven to be an exemplary pupil. The fortunes of this shop could not have achieved the great return of these last years without your fine craftsmanship and great labors. I don’t believe at this stage that there is anything more I could teach you. We have profited handsomely by the expansion of trade and I am now prepared to retire from my toils. The inventory, the tools, the many loyal customers all belong to you now. You have earned it.” He paused to raise his glass here in a further toast. Desmond had stopped eating and shared in more wine as he struggled to find some fitting words to offer. Before he could form these the shoemaker went on.
“In addition, Desmond, I have set aside 20% of the profits from our merchant orders and bequeath this sum to you. You may for a time continue to conduct the business here, but with this sum I expect that you will locate a new venue for the shop and carry on to further fortunes.”
So it was that the torch was passed. Though Desmond had not expected the announcement to come when or how it had, he had in fact been making future preparations for some time before. In addition to his mastery of the craft he had further honed his savvy for the business end of the trade. He had been able to save a fair portion of his stipend and had arranged to supplement this with the granting of a modest commission from his father for the increased trade in leather. He had already formed plans to exit the small cottage and erect a building solely for the manufacture of shoes and boots adjacent his father’s land. It put the primary supply of raw material for production right next door to the shop, never to leave it wanting for delivery of material to complete orders in a timely fashion. With all of these preparations in place and the sum of 150 gold sovereigns from the shoemaker Desmond was set to seek his own fortunes in good style.
The shoemaker settled quietly to his cottage with no cares for the town or the rest of the world beyond. He spent his days before the warming sun or a warming fire as the seasons might decide, tending his small garden at a leisurely pace, watching the birds and serenaded by their songs and the sighing breeze. He would still take his cart into the town a few times a year for certain provisions or to hire for someone to cut wood or till the ground, tasks he could no longer manage. From time to time he would have visitors, former customers who would come just to look in on him and bring pastries or other such delights. He was happy and content to spend the rest of his days in this fashion.
Now Desmond, it seemed, had always harbored a measure of shrewd acumen for business, little known to any that saw him. In the town he was still regarded by many as that silly looking boy from the stinking tanner’s, even though he had in recent years fitted and made boots or shoes for many of them. As he grew into adulthood he remained an angular figure but shed the once malnourished look. His color had grown better, though still rather pale, and much of his sensitivities had abated to a manageable level. Word got around that Desmond was now the man to see for boots and shoes, often evoking a groan for the need to travel near the tannery. Desmond was aware that this might disturb a number of his patrons, but in his long term plans this would no longer matter.
Desmond and his father hired and trained more workers for both the tannery and the shoe shop. Production capacity was tripled and was equipped to expand further. No longer did either of them perform the work themselves, instead supervising the work, training and managing the business end of things. Desmond’s plan was to end the practice of personal fittings. He had once been truly grateful to the old shoemaker, but as he learned that the production orders built from a range of size templates were more profitable he grew to have a disdain for the old man. What a fool! Working so hard for so little return! He was indeed a master of his craft, but he had no sense for business. Soon there would be a shoe and boot merchant in the town to take inventory in larger lots to distribute to the townspeople just the same as elsewhere. And Desmond had schemed a way to use this to take yet another bite from the apple. He would underwrite the opening of the store and install a stooge to run it. The store would pay for the inventory and Desmond would take a percentage of the store’s sales, in effect getting paid for the same product twice. And none would be the wiser.
It proved to be a good model and did indeed become quite profitable in a short time. The business continued to grow and expand. People were generally pleased with the shoes and boots they could obtain from the shoe store, though they had certainly grown more costly. Still, the town was growing, more jobs became available and more commerce between the growing population grew into more jobs. As the town’s overall fortunes grew so did that of its residents. The shoes became the most sought after in the land, the famous boots still the most popular. The arrangement that he had forged in the town soon became the same in other towns, taking a stake in those stores and even bestowing a brand name: Desmonds Shoes & Boots.
When his father decided to retire Desmond assumed direction of the tannery as well, expanding and modernizing it to increase capacity and efficiency. All he needed to do was oversee those he hired to manage these factories and rake in the profits hand over fist. With the arrangement he had made he was in for a cut of the action at every stage in the business. As he amassed further and further fortune he took a bride and built a fine manor in the city. It was an ostentatious jewel of architecture to remind all that he, Desmond Jones, the smelly, skinny boy from that disgusting tannery, now had the finest home in town. Then there were mistresses, more land, homes, he couldn’t find enough ways to spend his wealth. Times were good.
Some years passed and the old shoemaker was still whiling away his time on the edge of the forest. He heard of Desmond’s spectacular success and swelled with pride at the results of his tutelage. He had never wanted all of that, but was happy for Desmond just the same. He sometimes wondered, though, why he never heard from him. He had been to visit only twice since striking out on his own, and even then only very briefly. Why it had been years since he’d even heard word from him. The shoemaker had never been one to hold any grudge and attributed it to the very busy nature of what had become multiple enterprises.
Life had grown in bounds for all in the town. The distant throne of the land and the monarch who occupied it were of no consequence to them. Then the war came. One day news travelled to their ears that a new monarch had ascended the throne and through some quarrel with relatives over the order of succession the country had been plunged into war with a neighboring land. It was disturbing news, to be sure, but in the near term made little difference to their happy lives in the town. It would not, however, take long for this to change.
First came the levy of burdensome taxes, expropriated under threat of imprisonment, forfeiture or worse. When soldiers came with arms and many horses they were surrounded and under the point of the sword were left little alternative but to submit. This was followed by more of the king’s soldiers coming to take their sons to make more soldiers. The people paid tribute to the crown under threat with first their treasures and then their blood. These were dark days that followed, but not for all.
The army needed many pairs of boots for their soldiers. Their soldiers could not march into battle after battle without sturdy footwear. The only place where they might obtain such numbers of good quality boots was Desmond’s factory and he was only too happy to oblige their need. The coin extracted from the townspeople would now, at least in some part, land in his coffers. It was just too good to be true!
An emissary of the king came to see Desmond at his handsome manor. He was acting as an agent for the crown and had been authorized to issue an order for no less than 50,000 pairs of boots and an urgency for 15,000 of these to be delivered in a month’s time with similar increments at 60-90 day intervals. If the war were to drag on of course there would be more. Desmond assured the king’s agent that they could accommodate their need and would be proud to serve the crown and the army in this way. He was starting to count the gold already.
There was an element of this which Desmond had not anticipated. The crown was only prepared to part with a price per pair which was considerably below the normal margin. Then there was the matter of how he was to be paid. Desmond would not receive the actual gold for the sale, rather a writ of credit from the crown would be deposited to an account set up specifically for the contract. An account with the crown’s official bank, of course. This was a less than optimal arrangement to Desmond’s thinking, but he began to scheme how he might make some advantage of it. Would he have free access to this credit from the bank? Why of course, he was assured. He made some further calculations in his head over dinner with the agent and with brandy served after the dinner he agreed to and signed the contract.
He planned to pay the tannery for materials with monies from the shoe factory, simply moving funds from one pocket to another in the same pair of trousers. He would utilize the writ of credit to purchase more hides for the tannery and then funnel the finished leather direct to the shoe factory to backfill materials inventory. Any sale of goods outside of the crown contract could be taken at 100% profit, using the writ of credit to pay his workers as well. This would more than make up for the lesser margins of the contract, increasing volume and overall profits at the same time. All he had to do was continue this process again and again, always keeping ahead of the curve. It was brilliant! The longer the war went on the more money he made.
He was also clever enough to play this contract as a plus to the store customers. Each Desmond Shoes & Boots store would proudly display a poster in their storefront with the image of the kings valiant soldiers marching into battle with the legend beneath reading: Desmond Shoes & Boots, proud to carry your sons in their brave fight against the enemy! The patriotic message perhaps did little to grow sales, but it was a master stroke of good public relations. It made people feel good about buying Desmond Boots!
The war did indeed drag on. Each campaign promised the final victory. And each campaign only delivered more death with no foreseeable end. Now Desmond thought that things just could not get any better, and his personal treasury agreed with that sentiment. There evolved, however, a consequence which he had not foreseen. In the ongoing effort to fulfill the demands of their army contract the factory had begun to cut some corners. Consumer orders were delayed in preference for army orders. Some stores did not see delivery of more product for weeks at a time. When they did it was often found that “seconds”, material rejects which had previously been disposed or repurposed were now being substituted to fill partial orders for the consumer market. Customers would arrive daily with some complaint of poor workmanship in their recently purchased shoes and boots. Leather uppers and tread not properly aligned. Loose stitching causing the uppers to tear or to separate from the soles. As the army’s demands grew and grew these problems with the consumer market also grew until something Desmond never imagined would occur. In order to fill their needs for shoes and boots small shops began to spring up in towns across the land, serving that need in much the same way as the old shoemaker had done before.
He was so consumed with keeping the contracts and shuffling finances from one fund to another, and back again, that this situation developed without any knowledge of what was happening. Orders from Shoes & Boots stores ceased. Some shops simply locked the doors and the storekeepers walked away. This went on for some while until the profit subsidy from consumer sales had evaporated to a negligible level. Desmond first became aware of what was happening when he happened to spy some citizens on the streets of town wearing shoes and boots which were most definitely not from his factory. Upon inspection he found that these were made with lesser materials, or perhaps the stitchings were not as precise, but all in all passed muster as at least a suitable pair of shoes. Then he learned of the purchase price and the alarms sounded.
Prompted by this to investigate further he found that footwear such as this had begun to spring up in nearly every quarter of the kingdom. This led to the further alarming discovery that some stores had closed their doors and been left abandoned. Under this set of circumstances there was absolutely no way the model of the army contract could be sustained. He would have to hope for a swift end to hostilities – not likely- or, ask for an increase on the contract sell price – again, not likely. Otherwise he would be ruined! There was one other possibility….
Desmond sent an urgent dispatch to the crown’s agent describing the perilous conditions that these “rogue” and “black market profiteers” posed to Desmonds Boots and in turn to the continued supply to the army. If the crown could perhaps outlaw these unauthorized makers to protect him, their valued supplier? On receipt of the message the agent conferred with the king, urging him to issue a decree to save Desmond’s from this unfair opportunism. The crown had a further motive in keeping Desmond happy which he did not know. If he were to learn that the writs of credit issued from the royal bank were now nigh unto worthless it could be disastrous. It could be the first piece to fall that would bring the entire house of cards tumbling to the ground. The kingdom would face ruin and defeat.
Two days later a courier arrived with a brief answer from the agent and a copy of the royal decree banning all but Desmonds from the production of shoes and boots in the kingdom. He was saved! At least for the time being. He wasn’t so fool as to think that he didn’t need to revive his consumer sales. Over the course of some late nights he devised a set of solutions.
First there were to be new shopkeepers installed at those stores which had been abandoned. Inventories were boosted as much as could possibly be spared. Then he returned to his role as craftsman and began to design a new set of templates and to make a sizable buy of sheep on the shaky livestock market. In a gesture of apology to his patrons mutton was offered with the purchase of shoes. The hides were collected from slaughter to the tannery where these were converted to the less costly and lighter sheepskin. With manpower being rapidly depleted in the kingdom he found it necessary for the first time to recruit and train women for work in the factory. Within six weeks time the added production was staffed and trained to begin to produce the sheepskin shoes exclusively for the consumer market. The “brave soldiers” posters were removed and replaced with an apology and an appeal to all Desmond Shoes & Boots patrons:
Please accept this, my most sincere apology, for having failed to deliver the standard of quality and service that you have come to expect from Desmond Shoes & Boots. The war has created difficult circumstances for us all as we have each been called to make some measure of sacrifice. It is in this spirit of sacrifice for king and country that Desmond Shoes & Boots now offers a solution to some of these difficulties we have found ourselves in. In order to sustain our commitment to the king’s soldiers and meet the expectations of all of you, our loyal patrons, we are pleased to introduce a new line of footwear exclusively for our consumer market: SoftShoe. In order that we may conserve leather required for army boots we have created this new product made with the finest quality sheepskin. SoftShoe offers the same quality workmanship you have come to expect from Desmond Shoes & Boots. Come on inside the store and give them a try!
If only the people were to know the true nature of the “sacrifices” made. With his competition eliminated by royal decree the crown could be seen as the goat, while Desmond Shoes & Boots demonstrated their commitment to both the country and their loyal customers. The people would all say, “Isn’t that Desmond Jones a great man? Why he is not only a patriot, but he has still worked hard to find a way to look out for us too!”Of course none of this was true, but nonetheless it is how it came to be perceived by many. That clever Desmond Jones had found a way to look after the needs of our valiant soldiers and keep us all supplied with shoes for our families at great cost to himself and his company. The new SoftShoe, in addition to being fully stocked, was offered at a price 40% less than the traditional line of Desmond footwear. Again, whether true or not, a perception was created that this reduction in price came at a drastic reduction in Desmond’s bottom line. The reality was that even with this substantial reduction in sale price the wide disparity in the price paid for the sheep hides more than made up the difference. And to top it all off the sheep were purchased from his royal bank writ of credit, taking nothing from the liquidity of the company.
The ploy worked. Customers, albeit with nowhere else to go, returned to Desmond’s stores and the sale of the new SoftShoe took off. They were not as good as the originals, but they were at least as good as those replacement shoes that had sprung from the ground before the decree banning them. For Desmond there was the added advantage that these did not wear as long as leather, creating a need for more frequent replacement. It began to appear that everything was going to work out just fine, and for a time it was.
Then the war ended. The kingdom had finally prevailed in battle, but in a sense had still lost the war, so high was the price paid in blood and treasure. Within months of the end the collapse of the royal bank could no longer be postponed. The well had run dry, the vault was empty. The payout at the end of the line that Desmond had counted on would not come to be. The writs of royal credit were worth less than nothing. Now being the shrewd man that he was Desmond’s personal fortune had been amassed in gold, which was now worth more than ever. For the Desmond Shoes & Boots, however, it was a different matter entirely. No longer were they able to obtain materials needed for production. No longer could they meet the payroll of their workers. And with everyone’s currency now worthless there were no more sales to be had anyway. Like the shopkeepers during the war who simply walked away from their stores Desmond simply locked the doors and walked away to engage in a new endeavor: The Desmond Bank.
This crisis, as they always do, passed eventually. The soldiers came home, businesses and trades sputtered to a start again and the people began to return to a normal life. As their SoftShoes eventually wore out the people of the town were left to wonder where they might now find new shoes and boots? With Desmond Shoes & Boots closed it was unclear if the royal decree banning other shoemakers was still in force. There seemed to be none rushing forward to fill this gap. As remaining pairs in stores dwindled a group of citizens began to discuss this problem among themselves.
“Hey! What about the old shoemaker? I think he’s still around out there by the forest. Maybe we could go see him.”
“Him! Why he’d have to be 100 if he’s a day!”
Another chimed in. ” No, no! He’s not quite that old. Maybe he’s 80, but no more. He doesn’t move so fast, but he’s still out there. I’ve seen him sitting out sunning himself on warm days.”
“Hmm. Maybe we should go to see him. He could help out until something else comes up, I suppose.”
And so it was agreed that this small party of four would ride to the cottage at the edge of the great forest and seek out the old shoemaker. It was a fair autumn day, a mild breeze but with plenty of sunshine. As they rolled up the lane to the cottage the old shoemaker was indeed sunning himself on his front porch, ensconced upon a rocking chair. He was near totally blind now, but could hear their approach and make out the fuzzy outlines of movement out on the lane. He watched, inasmuch as he could, and listened carefully for their voices.
“Hello? Mr Shoemaker?”
He replied with a feeble croak, “Aye.Thats me. Used to be. I’m just Samuel now. You’ll need to come closer dear!”
At this they made the short walk over to the porch. The young woman spoke again for their little group. ” Mr. Shoemak…..er, uh….Samuel. We’re glad we found you out today. It is a lovely day, isn’t it?”
The old shoemaker chuckled softly and then replied, ” My dear I’m afraid you should save the small talk. No offense, but at my age I fear I don’t have the time left for it.”
This evoked some laughter from the group and with the ice thus broken she began to state their business. ” Samuel, you heard that the war has ended?”
“Has it? Well…..yes, I had heard there was a war. You say it has ended? Well good. War is a nasty business…”
“Yes sir, it is. We’re all glad it’s over. Uh…since the war ended a lot of shops and businesses have folded up…”
“Oh? Why that’s a shame, isn’t it?”
” Yes sir, it is. Sir, the reason we rode out here today is because the town is in need of a shoemaker…”
The old shoemaker seemed genuinely surprised at this. “Oh? My goodness….what has happened to Desmond?”
” Desmond had to close his factory after the war, I’m afraid. He is a banker now.”
“Is he? Well, well…. I always knew he’d be a success, that one! You know he was my apprentice?”
“Yes sir, uh, we did. Umm….well that’s partly why we came out here to see you. You see we were wondering if maybe you might be able to make some shoes. Only for a short while, of course, until another shop gets started….”
” Well what about some of those fellows that worked in his factory?”
“Well sir that may be, but Desmond locked everything up. All of the tools, the patterns. We don’t have anything to start with.”
“Oh my. Yes, yes…that would make it rather hard at first….” The shoemaker sat nodding, his mouth still open as though prepared to say something more. They all waited, looking at one another with quizzical expressions, wondering who should speak next. Then the old shoemaker cleared his throat. ” Eh-hehmm….excuse me. You know when I first came here the town was no more than a few shacks and a stable. There were four families here. And a mill. That was all. I learned my trade self taught, I did. Started from nothing, just a few tools and some leather. As the town grew I had more customers, worked hard at it and I got quite good at it. I never got any special equipment or special training for it. I just figured it out, I did good work and I made a fair livelihood at it for years. Why I probably fitted shoes for your granny, sweetheart. ”
“I’m sure you must have yes. Maybe you could still help us somehow? Teach us how to measure, make patterns…..”
” Missy I don’t mean to hurt your feelings in any way, truly I don’t. Just listen now. There is nothing magical about making shoes or boots, alright? Any soul can do it. There is nothing to it today that there wasn’t years ago. I’ve been out here alone for a long while, but I don’t think peoples’ feet have changed any, have they?”
“Umm….no, sir. I don’t think they have, that is true.”
“Well, there you are, see. You young folk don’t need my help. I’m blind now and probably be little help to you anyway. Go on back to your town and figure it out. I did. What was right then is still right today. No good me telling you. You have to figure it out for yourselves. You’ll either get it right or you won’t. The world will go on either way and people will still have their feet.”
IMaGE-ine a future….
It is the late 21st century and the IMaGE logo is ubiquitous. The IMaGE conglomerate is the international holding company, a corporate collective if you will, that serves the planet with their information, technology and foodservice platform. The name and the image are universally recognized, few now alive who can recall the origins of the amalgam which formed the title.
When the old and inadequate financial system collapsed a global panic ensued. Economic and geopolitical meltdown spiralled out of control leaving chaos to reign in place of the, albeit unstable, order that had preceded. Socio-Political theorists for decades leading up to the collapse had been constructing and expounding upon an evolved social order, a new age of enlightened rule installed upon a globalist platform. These minds had over time infiltrated and gained control over certain key segments of society. They succeeded through governments, multi-national corporations and other institutions in making theirs the dominant school of thought, laying the foundations for the new order to come. It took a very long time to place the bricks of their edifice, but over time the pace of their project accelerated. The great unwashed, those not part of the great plan, were lulled into a docile state of ignorance and apathy where they would ultimately be convinced of the beneficence of a world corporate state.
Their following grew, inhabiting education, entertainment, information, finance and governments alike. Those within each of these sectors had plotted their designs, partnering with one another where it benefited their ultimate aim. Each had their “angle” where the global construct would be to their own advantage. Whether in “free” societies or in more autocratic states, teaming up with governments were key to their success. Governments could either directly impose their will or provide law and lend legitimacy to the cause, depending upon the nature of each. In either case the results were essentially the same. These arrangements had always functioned on the principle of reciprocal benefit. What many did not count on, though, was the fact that after collapse hastened a full implementation of this system their services were no longer needed. They had become expendable.
To restore order to society bold and sweeping reforms of the institutions were needed. There was no time, and in large measure no longer sufficient capacity for reasoning, to question the long term consequences of this action. Crises call for bold action. This was accepted, the changes preferable to the alternative, the reality of the time. The first step was to restore financial stability.
The corporate world leading up to the crisis had for the most part consolidated into only a few “mega” corporations. Mergers forming entities that were larger in size and scope than most of the nation states of the time. These monoliths transcended the definition of “the state”, providing the most logical platform for the establishment of unified, global rule. As the only remaining institutions solvent enough to exercise authority over anything larger than a municipal or county entity they could act on a macro scale and be embraced as saviors. A global medium of exchange, a new world currency, was established. All “money” was digitized, a process which had in fact already been well underway in many economies. There had previously been an international financial market, but fractured into inconstant and often unstable currency exchanges. Most of the planet were blissfully unaware that the coins and bills they held in their hands were of no intrinsic value even before the collapse. Like the sacraments rendered by the priesthood of ancient orders these were only articles of faith. Real wealth resides in control.
With this first critical step secured the former banking institution was vaporized. It simply didn’t exist any more: it was no longer necessary. And the “people” celebrated their demise, believing that the former had not only failed, but had in effect dispossessed them. In the more remote reaches of the world peoples contented themselves to work within the constraints of their own physical resources, reverting to simple bartering. In the more ordered parts of societies, where peoples had become helplessly dependent on an urban social structure, the new order was the only alternative for most. It was seen as a salvation from anarchy.
The mega corporations had stemmed the chaos, provided the first glimmer of hope in restoring stability to society. People were made financially “whole” again, their accounts replenished with an accepted medium of exchange. Their “money” was back in the bank, though they did not truly comprehend where or what this new bank was. In control of the world’s currency and their own transportation and distribution network in place they had positioned themselves to further be the provider of essential goods, keeping the shelves stocked. Where additional capacity was needed to serve a particular region they simply bought other external assets.
The giants of information, technology, energy, communications and food were all swimming in the same pool. Trying to map out how things would move forward it was determined that other institutions had outlived their usefulness. The true globalist agenda could now be realized with little or no opposition. And the true beauty of this was that the masses had been conditioned and were in circumstances that the corporations would enjoy their support. There were, as there always will be of course, those voices to “cry out in the wilderness”. They could mostly be ignored, but wherever these might become problematic they were easily marginalized or, if need be, silenced.
The scheming opportunists who had inhabited governments were no longer vital. Their services held a value in a world where they were nominally in possession of control, but it became clear that this was no longer the case. They no longer had anything to sell. They had become expendable. The people no longer needed them. Like the bankers they had failed the people. The politicians owned a sizable share of blame for the mess they were all in. Borders fell, states dissolved.
With the fall of states many of their functions were left to be filled, prime among these being education. The education provided by these institutions had long been failing the needs of the corporations anyway. More and more they had moved to automation. State education had failed to deliver an adequately prepared or trained labor force to fill their needs. In the western democracies governments had further compounded this ill by mandating a wide array of environmental regulations, labor rules and the provision of health insurance benefits over and above the wages. To pour salt in the wound these demanded ever more taxes upon their productivity, ostensibly in part to pay for and improve education. The corporations determined that it would be much better for them to provide the education. It was an investment. The education system could be tailored to turn out a labor force with skills they needed. No more useless degrees in transgendered studies or sixth century Mongolian poetry. Let them pursue those interests on their own time. Though near useless to start with, the education system, like banking and government, had become expendable.
The communications,entertainment and information fields were already squarely within their camp. The timing was right, they were perfectly positioned. The world was their oyster. With all other obstacles removed things would now work the way they were meant to. All of the academics who had unwittingly been accessories to their ascent were not entirely mistaken in their Utopian ideals. They had only been mistaken in the proper means of achieving it. The corporations would now prove that creating a Utopia, as with anything else, was better left in the hands of the private sector. They would achieve what governments could not.
For some years upheaval would remain the order of the day in many parts of the globe. Too many factions and too much surplus arms to prevent all of it. The corporations did not make the mistake of governments in trying to insert themselves as either backing one faction over another, or to act as peacemaker. It was better to let them fight it out and kill each other off. History had shown that this would be the ultimate result anyway. And beside that these were in most instances still paying customers contributing to their coffers. This way they could not lose.
With time they further firmed the ground beneath their feet. Life in much of the “civilized” world had returned to normal. It was a new normal, for good or ill, but was accepted not for it’s merits one way or the other. It was stability. It permitted a population that had grown accustomed to gratification and ease to continue residing within their comfort zone. In the previous order governments had learned that a reasonably contented populace were also an apathetic and incurious populace. Where these conditions exist a government can begin to do things under cover of darkness, escaping the scrutiny of their constituency. The problem with governments had been that the people in them were short sighted and self serving. A mentality of “take the money and run” had ruled their thinking. They had no concept of “the long game”, as any wise capitalist will, wise being the key word. Corporations which had grown to such large proportions were not populated by fools.
A time arrived that consensus formed among the corporate giants. More mergers and buyouts proceeded, further consolidating their power and reach. The one world government had in effect been achieved. If sound business acumen had brought them to the current state of things then it was logical that the organization should be further streamlined, that this new world order be run as a well ordered and disciplined business. It was out of this that IMaGE was born. IMaGE was, prior to the corporate and planetary singularity:
Intel, MacDonalds, Google, GE , thus IMaGE
These were the giants, the survivors, who absorbed other giants in petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, transportation, anything and everything needed to sate the demands of the world market. There would be no more mergers, no more startups, nothing left to buy up. IMaGE was the corporate godhead, the one-world government/provider. As mankind neared the dawn of the 22nd century they were just IMaGE, as they had been for as long as most could remember. Any who had lived in the times of the forerunners were either too young at the time to remember, or they were under end-time care. Others had already been euthanized or expired on their own. As the decades passed this was simply accepted as the state of things.
Those with the skills required for the operation of IMaGE and its various component parts were employed and well compensated in digital credits to chart their course in life. Others, those who were only capable of duplicating those tasks which were now performed by machines, were assigned to housing and subsisted on UBA, or the “Universal Basic Allocation”. IMaGE was structured upon a balance sheet, a cost benefit analysis model. The UBA was in part public relations, the presentation of a benign face to the world, but was in fact a calculation. Enough of those credits issued for the purpose recirculated into their economy to maintain a dynamic growth above the “investment”. With the need for defense funds and other former government functions eliminated from the economic equation the model was set at a rate that would remain sustainable. IMaGE would have no ongoing obligation for entitlements. Those who did not contribute were sustained until their medical condition deteriorated to a point that the credits would be halted and their care entrusted to End Care Services. When a resident of End Care reached an expenditure that placed their account into the negative they were simply euthanized.
End Care Services also had a means of extraneous funding by providing voluntary euthanization for a fee to those that desired. Any citizen could walk in to any End Care clinic at any time and be provided the service with no questions asked. If, of course, they possessed enough credits in their account to pay the fee.
In more remote reaches there were still people living outside of the IMaGE network. They operated under barter and trade, in some cases devised their own local currency. As long as those choosing this lifestyle remained within their own distant reaches from civilization these practices were tolerated. As a practical matter most of these existed in places where the expenses associated with extending the full IMaGE platform could not be cost justified. Where individuals might attempt to subvert IMaGE within their zones of service this was a different matter. If caught these parties were seized and executed on sight. Those found to be receiving goods or services from unauthorized providers would find their employment terminated, or if on UBA have their benefits either suspended or revoked entirely.
The new order was not perfect, as nothing ever is, but for the most part it operated fairly smoothly. Some held at least the intuition that it was impersonal, inhuman, but by this time was generally accepted as a fair system. Though some policies were grumbled about from time to time it was generally agreed that it was at least impartial. If anyone wanted for anything it was of their own doing.
Following is an account of this benign impartiality at work, as featured on information streams everywhere to anyone paying attention.
…. Mr. Smith, aged 47, resident of the Cambridge Arms community in suburban Springfield, was charged in April with an attempt to defraud IMaGE food delivery services. The regional IMaGE review board issued their ruling on the case this morning. Mr. Smith maintains that he placed an order for delivery of two large Big Mac meals with Coke and a six pack of beer from his home video screen. He claims that he had been painting and while cleaning up was unaware that his personal credit bar code had been smudged, causing the on screen scanner to read the code incorrectly. After accepting delivery for the meal and the beer at his residence the account read from the scanner was billed and discovered to be assigned to someone other than Mr. Smith. The actual account holder was contacted by IMaGE fraud protection services and acknowledged the notice, affirming that it was a fraudulent charge to his account. Mr. Smith was then charged with fraud and notified of the charge and a summons to appear before the regional review board. Mr. Smith says that he responded his receipt of the charge and attempted to enter the correct account information to reconcile the bill, but was unable to submit without first selecting the guilty/not guilty option on the screen. Mr. Smith reasoned that to do so was to stipulate to the commission of the offense and confused as to what he should do simply submitted the acknowledgement blank.
The review board has ruled Mr. Smith guilty as charged and referred their finding to the employment board and the property titling agency. Mr. Smith was terminated from his job as a machinist and the title agency has placed a lien on his property. Asked for comment Mr. Smith only stated his intent to appeal…..
Can you imagine what happens to Mr. Smith? Can you IMaGE-ine a future like this? No? Don’t be so sure….
Recalling the day the Earth shifted it’s axis
There was a day back in 1992 that I have long been convinced signalled the end of civilization. In the tangled undergrowth of my memory I am unable to weed out the precise date, only the year. The herald of the end was delivered via the 11:00 PM local newscast. On this day there were two events which occurred, over a thousand miles apart, and were both recorded for the eager appetites of the news consumer.
Paul Ruebens, better known to us of a certain age as the infamous Pee Wee Herman, was busted for masturbating in a public theatre. This report came complete with his mug shot, looking nothing like Pee Wee. A later report informed the viewers that on the same day a long and tense afternoon passed in the parking lot of a Shell gas station on the east side of Columbus, Ohio.
An employee had spotted a container of some kind on the property which they considered “suspicious”. This individual then dutifully phoned the authorities to report the disturbing irregularity. Upon the arrival of a city police cruiser with two uniformed officers there was made a brief examination of the “package” from a safe distance. These two seasoned veterans determined that it was better to err towards the side of caution, calling in the department bomb squad to take control of the scene.
It was never explained by anyone just what there was about this container that was the source of suspicion. Nonetheless the bomb squad did arrive in full protective regalia and proceeded to cordon off the area. Hours passed with additional squad cars arriving to join the fray, parking around the cordoned perimeter in a blinding display of red and blue flashing lights. Police radio static crackled in the air, the siren call to local television news vans which then also arrived to further snarl traffic. Some passers by occasionally tried to assemble and observe the action, or lack of, in the hope of learning what demanded such a heavy police and media presence. These curious citizens were quickly dispatched by officers, no doubt out of a concern for public safety.
One can only assume that there must have been some debate amongst the bomb squad as to proper procedure. Most of the afternoon had passed and as the clock approached rush hour they finally finished suiting up with their hoods and gloves to make their approach on the package. It had loomed there, ominously, as the sun passed overhead to the west. It seemed to be mocking them in it’s inanimate smugness. Without making any more detailed examination it was gingerly lifted from the pavement to be placed within a blast blanket and cautiously removed from the site.
The news report concluded to inform the public that the suspicious parcel was transported in the bomb squads blast resistant van to their training facility and from a safe distance it was detonated. It is not known what method was used for this detonation, but in the department’s official statement it was revealed that the contents of the suspicious box, upon further examination post detonation, were discovered to be nothing more than a collection of old skin magazines.
I had sat through this report hearing it all while not really paying close attention. It was one of those many occasions when one may sit with the television only playing as background. It took several minutes for the enormity of it all to sink in. Pee Wee Herman jerking it in a Florida theatre and the Columbus bomb squad detonates a box of porno mags. On the same day! What are the odds of that, I thought to myself at the time. Surely it must have been a sign. Maybe it was. Maybe we’re all just missing it. Anyway, I thought it worthwhile to provide the reminder. It’s about as relevant as the rest of what passes for news these days.
Larry sat at the polished walnut conference table, his wife seated beside him and beaming with excitement. There would be these final agonizing moments here inside the title company and they would take possession of their first home. There were three others seated around the table; the attorney, a representative for the builder and the secretary for the title company. The attorney droned on as they pared down the mound of paperwork, copies being offered across the smooth tabletop for signatures after a summary explanation of each. There was no requirement that any more than that be provided. It was a given at these occasions that no one took the time to thoroughly scour every line of every page. Who ever reads all of the boiler plate?
Coming very near to the end there was a cursory explanation of covenants accompanying the deed, the home owner’s association and small sheaf of papers detailing the by-laws and management of the association. This association would remain under the direction of the builder until the development was completed, overseen by a property management company for collecting annual fees, blah, blah, blah. Sign here, Mr. Jones. More boiler plate! He took the pages, hastily scrawled his signature at the designated space as he had with all of the others and it was added to the pile that would be theirs for the keeping once this was all over.
Fifteen minutes later it was done. They escaped the sterile confines of the office to a brilliant spring morning with a set of keys and the bulging folder of forms from the transaction. It was a short ride from the title company to their home. Larry pulled into the driveway, exited the car and stood with his wife for a few moments to gaze upon the house. They each in their own way reflected on the occasion, neither finding any words to voice their thoughts. The minute passed in a silent appraisal and then Larry turned to his wife, held out an arm and offered a look that said “Shall we?”
It wasn’t a palace, but everything was new. A moderately priced, moderately sized, moderately attractive home in a middle income neighborhood with acceptable schools and nearly any shopping needs within a short drive. It was everything she wanted and at least on paper was within a reasonable budget. Well, not everything she wanted. It was acceptable. For now. It was a good starter home for someone who wasn’t handy enough to tackle a fixer-upper.
They settled into their home with their small family and began to fill it with all of the little things that eventually end up accumulated in your garage or basement after twenty years. Rugs, accent tables, knick-knacks, blinds, curtains, towels meant for decoration but never function as towels, candles that looked good one season but then had to be changed for another. They get put away, moved, forgotten, replaced with something else until they are discovered years later when the bottom falls out of the box while moving it from the garage to the basement. Or vice-versa.
Work days and work weeks passed, birthdays, holidays, everything for that one year at least a first. Life just happens in all of it’s crushing monotony, the long tunnel that may or may not have a light at the end of it. A succession of monthly billing cycles accumulated in file folders or boxes in a corner of the bedroom closet. After a while the newness wears off and the house just becomes the set of walls and a roof that slowly becomes the wallpaper of your life.
Through the first three years there was an annual bill that arrived in January from a property management company. Not an exorbitant amount. $ 110 one year ; $ 125 the next. Each time the conversation between them.
“Larry? What’s this?”
“What? Oh yeah, thats for the HOA, remember? It’s just once a year for upkeep of the common areas. You know, like the landscaping around the entrance?”
“Oh that’s right! I forgot about that….”
Sure. Everybody forgets that, don’t they? Especially if you’re a virgin homeowner. Just another one of those things that was in the fine print of your closing documents. You’ve still got all that stuff somewhere. Probably still in the same binder that you brought it home in.
After four years in their home the builder had wrapped up construction on the few remaining lots in the development. Those remote corners or irregularly shaped lots that no one wanted. If they weren’t on your street you wouldn’t even know there was any building still going on. Everyone is just busy with doing what they must to keep up on the mortgage, the taxes, the car payments, school supplies. Attending school functions, taking care of the lawn, softball four days a week in the spring. Everyone is busy with something. All the time. It never stops. Letters from the builder landed in every residents mailbox, a form letter, explaining that with the completion of the project the HOA would now be turned over to the residents. A meeting for this transition, nomination and election of board members would occur at such-and-such a place on such-and-such a date. Residents were encouraged to attend but were given the option to submit their proxies by such-and-such a date in advance of the meeting.
Of course most of the residents never saw these details. A good number of them saw the envelope with the builder’s logo amid the weekly Coupon-Saver, their 20% off coupon from Bed Bath and Beyond and the unsolicited letters from insurance agents, lawn care companies and home security systems. It seemed to have found it’s proper place being along with all of the other bales of junk arriving with the post every week and thus shared the fate of the trash container. Unopened. Just more crap that no one has any time for.
The development had 122 households. Out of these there were members of 6 who were in attendance at the HOA meeting. Good civic minded citizens who were prepared to do their part. Or maybe they had nothing better to do with their time, we may never know. Well at any rate they showed up and by virtue of this, and this only, they were now in charge. No big deal really, it’s just an HOA after all. Probably just keeping a landscaper retained, an hour of time at 7:30 every third Thursday of the month. Maybe coordinating an annual community garage sale or summer barbeque. The event passed with 95% of the residents never even knowing what had occurred or who was now running the HOA. Of the 116 proxies that might have been exercised there were zero submitted.
About a month later another round of letters landed in all of the residents’ mailboxes. They were envelopes with a new HOA logo on the outside, professionally made in sunny colors of orange and green. Enclosed were letters introducing the new officers of the HOA with their contact numbers, an announcement of the next meeting and an invitation for all to attend. Of all the letters sent there were approximately 25 that were read, the others finding their way to the landfill with all of the other junk mail. Of those 25 that were actually read there were 10 residents who showed up, and 4 of those were members of the board.
Nothing of any great importance was discussed at this first meeting. There was a summary of the association’s accounts presented by the treasurer. A motion was tabled and seconded and passed to retain ABC Lawn Care Company for the landscaping services around the entrance. There were no minutes from the prior meeting, no other agenda items, no other motions, no questions. For the few other than board members who did show it proved to be about what they expected. Ho-hum. No point in coming to the next one.
The meetings passed in this fashion for several months. The grass grew, flowers were put out, Saturday afternoons began to be filled with the smell of fresh cut grass. People went to work, kids went to school, ball practice after school. Busy, busy, busy….everyone just trying to live their own lives, mind their own business. During this time one of the board members had taken a copy of the HOA’s articles of incorporation and the booklet of the covenants and all of the rules and regulations contained therein. All pretty much the standard boiler plate. Nothing wrong with it, except for the fact that in many areas the language needed to be more specific. Some of the rules were just too vague. And besides, now that the association was theirs it was only right to place their own imprimatur upon the rules. Parsing the documents quite thoroughly a list of modifications and amendments were prepared for motion at the next meeting.
The board was impressed with all of this effort. The amendments were complete with detailed schedules where needed to provide specifics. Very well thought out with attention to standards and uniformity. Fences, signage and other exterior displays, acceptable plants and landscaping, trash containers, noise standards, approved hours for workmen to conduct their jobs. It was a thing of beauty! This was dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t”s, which is of course required when dealing with people. Why if you don’t spell it all out then there will always be someone who will rock the boat. This was just an assurance that everyone was on the same page in protecting property values. All of the motions passed with ease, under the by-laws only a quorum was required. Following this it would be necessary of course to get copies of the new regulations printed for every homeowner. There were ample funds in the association treasury and the amount could always be recovered with an increase in the annual fees in January. Surely there would be other items to add to this as well. There might some grousing from some, but it was all for the good of the community.
Larry came home from work one day in early June. The day’s mail was on the kitchen island and included a large envelope with the HOA logo. It looked kind of thick for HOA business so he decided he’d better at least give it a look. He ripped open the top without any particular care and found a small booklet contained, perhaps 20 pages in all. Revised covenants, rules and by-laws for HOA, resident copy. He flipped through the pages, it didn’t look much different. Well, come to think of it he wasn’t even sure he’d seen all of the original anyway. It was just page after page of blah-blah-blah…. He chuckled, thinking of the farcical adult voices from the old Peanuts cartoons. Wah-wah, wah wah wah wah-wah. He couldn’t recall where the original file was so he tucked the booklet back in the envelope and deposited it into the designated junk drawer underneath the kitchen phone.
Later on that month Larry and the wife made an early Saturday morning trek to the local garden center and picked up some arbor vitae and ordered delivery of mulch for those border islands they had been planning for the yard. The weather was ideal for it and they were able to corral their kids to get in on the work too. They spent much of the weekend on it and by late Sunday afternoon one of the islands was completed. They cleaned up their tools and dusted themselves off, proud of their accomplishment but ready to call it a wrap. The better part of three yards of mulch remained mounded at the end of their driveway. With a little bit of work on it in the evenings during the week and good weather the following weekend they would have it all done.
The work week began routinely the next day and Larry arrived home at the usual time, around 5:25. He came in and said hi to the wife and kids and she told him there was a voice mail, but she’d not been able to retrieve it yet. Larry rolled his eyes, thinking it would be about yet another change in practice schedule. Sighing he picked up the receiver and dialed the number for the mailbox. There was only one message:
“Hello Mr. Jones. This is Mr. Prick, Snivelly Little Prick, from the HOA? I was just calling to remind you that you have several violations of HOA rules that we’ll need to get corrected ASAP. That pile of mulch at the end of your lot is very unsightly and it actually exceeds your boundary. Also your lawn modifications must be submitted to the board for approval before proceeding with any work…. Well, anyway its more than I should try to leave on a recording. We’ll be sending you a written copy of the variances and would you please call me to discuss? The number is…..”
Larry pressed the numeral to save the message and then hung up the phone with a sneering scoff. What the fuck? Who is this asshole?, he wondered. He shrugged it off, deciding to deal with it later. The week went on in its ordinary fashion, the weather remaining cooperative to chip away at the work a few hours every evening. On Thursday Larry was working with a shovel and wheelbarrow next to the mulch on his own after dinner. It was a pleasant evening and there were many people out walking. He wasn’t paying any special attention to the foot traffic and carried on with his chore. He took a load with the wheelbarrow to dump into the next island and then on the return to the mound he noted a man with a camera out in the street in front of is house, the flash signifying clearly that he was taking photos of Larry’s yard.
” Hey! Can I help you?”
The camera came down to rest on one hip and the man replied. ” Oh, Mr. Jones? I’m Mr. Prick, from the HOA? I left you the voice mail?”, he paused to produce an envelope from his shirt pocket and extended it toward Larry. ” I wanted to deliver this in person, Mr. Jones. This is your copy detailing your variances, as promised. I…..”
” What’s with the camera?”
” Oh we just want to have a record of evidence for the violation to put in your file.”
“My file? Really? You know what Mr. Prick? I’m gonna do you a real solid here, bro! I’m gonna let you turn around right now and get the fuck off my property before I shove that camera so far up your ass your eyes will light up every time you get the hiccups. You can put that in my file too.”
Mr. Prick looked like he might wet himself. Apparently he was not accustomed to hearing such crude and vulgar language. His lower jaw quivered for an instant as though he were considering saying something. A nervous dart of his eyes met with Larry’s for just an instant and his jaw clamped shut. He pivoted himself around on one heel and stamped off in a huff without looking back. Mr. Prick was resolved. Mr. Jones had surely not heard the last of him! The association had remedies for people like this. Mr. Jones would have to be made an example of, that’s all there was for it.
Larry’s wife had not witnessed this and Larry, for whatever reason, chose not to mention it. He deposited the letter in their trash container and resumed his work. As they had planned they had completed their efforts in the yard by the following Saturday. Once concluded they tidied up the yard and driveway and then walked about examining their efforts, proud of what they had done together. As passersby filed past on their neighborhood stroll they received several compliments for how nice their yard looked. Larry was feeling quite proud that his wife was pleased and that the good of the work was affirmed by their neighbors. He had put the earlier confrontation with Mr. Prick out of his mind. After dumping the letter into the trash and seeing the can off to the landfill with the Friday morning garbage collection he’d assumed that the little episode was over. It was just the HOA. What could they possibly do anyway? Just a bunch of god damned busybodies.
Later that month at the HOA meeting only Mr. Prick and the HOA treasurer showed up. Mr. Prick had scoured the articles and called upon his esteemed education to ensure that the association would be able to remedy the situation with Mr. Jones. During his weekly inspections of the community he had made note of a handful of other less egregious violations. He had excelled in the pre-law program at Catatonic State, his alma mater. Of course that was years ago and he’d not gone on to a career in law, but he was certainly the most well educated in this area of any of the board members. They would of course defer to him in these matters due to his brilliant and masterful revision of the regulations. What Mr. Prick understood was that this was a private entity, in the legal sense, even though it dealt with the public matters of the community. The HOA was governed by those rules established in the articles of incorporation, just like any other incorporated entity. Provided they did nothing to controvert any other local or state statutes they were free to make their own rules and amend these as the duly elected board may deem fit. By virtue of their having signed the covenant agreement and receipt of the HOA rules and regulations upon taking their deeds the residents were all bound, legally, to the agreement. The individual resident could, if they chose to, challenge the board’s authority in any matter, but would have to do so through the courts. Until such time as a ruling had been issued from a qualified court to negate the HOA’s authority they were still bound to the provisions. It was abundantly clear that he was on solid legal ground here.
Mr. Prick tabled a motion for the incorporation of penalties and procedures for violations of the covenant agreement. He had already prepared a document detailing procedures for notification, a table of fines (including a 1-1/2% monthly interest fee for those unpaid) and a mechanism for the Association to levy and collect such fines. There were provisions, in the case that a member may persist in non-compliance and/or non-payment, for the Association to retain legal counsel and/or a collection agency on it’s behalf (at the expense of the violator, of course) and could as a final recourse obtain a lien upon the resident’s property. The treasurer was, as expected, impressed with Mr. Prick’s thorough preparation. As there were only the two of them present only a quorum of two was required for the motion to pass and be adopted. Mr. Prick had studied pre-law, hadn’t he? At the esteemed Catatonic State, no less! Who am I to argue, the treasurer thought.
At the start of the Independence Day holiday Larry was prepared, along with his wife and family, to enjoy a ten day “stay-cation”. Their disciplined budget did not allow for them to indulge the family road trip that year, but all were looking forward to enjoying an unhurried freedom of days spent at home. There would be some day trips to some local venues, of course. Lots of charcoal grilling and cold beers, long hot days stretching to nearly 10PM for sunset. It was going to be a well deserved rest from the workaday routine. Thursday that week was the last day of postal delivery until after the holiday. Arriving home with the children that afternoon Larry’s wife collected the mail from the box and in the children’s excitement to begin the long holiday she simply set the bundle aside without paying any attention to it. She and her husband could review it later.
She and the children retreated to the back yard where they filled fresh cold water from the garden hose into the inflatable kiddie pool they had purchased a few weeks before. His wife changed into a modest bathing suit to recline upon a lawn chaise and bask in the late afternoon sun until Larry arrived home. He arrived at his normal time and finding no one in the house to greet him wandered to the sliding screen door at the back of the house. He smiled seeing his family already relaxing and chose not to announce himself until he had changed into more comfortable attire of his own. The wall-mounted kitchen phone was right next to the door, the day’s mail in a neat stack resting on the counter beneath it. As he turned away from the door he absently lifted the stack and thumbed through it with a cursory look over the contents. It all looked like junk so he set it aside, anxious to change, grab a couple of cold beers and prep the grill for dinner.
A short time later he emerged from the screen door clad in denim cut-offs and a comfortable tee-shirt. The children splashed in the pool and gleefully greeted him with squeals of “Daddy!” His wife turned and smiled at his arrival and happily accepted a cold bottle of Bud Light from him as he came to her side. They sat sipping their beers, exchanging small talk of the day’s events for a short time and then Larry got on with the grill. They enjoyed their feast of brats and chips on the small patio table in the back yard and spent most of the rest of their evening right there. As sunset approached in the late evening the children were rounded up from the pool, toweled and herded inside to put on their PJs and retire to the game system in the basement family room.
With all quiet and settled for the night Larry and his wife retired to their living room sofa and switched on the television, in search of something mindless and distracting. Retrieving another round of beers from the kitchen his wife returned with the small stack of mail in hand.
“Larry did you look at this?”
“Nah! Just took a quick glance at it is all. Did we get anything good?”
“Mm-mm….I don’t think so, sweetheart.” She continued filing through it as she came over to resume her seat with him on the sofa. A sudden crease formed on her brow as she arrived at one item. ” Huh! Somethin’ here from the Home Owner’s Association….wonder what this could be?”
Larry had a wary moment, recalling the brief confrontation from a few weeks prior. ” I dunno. Go ahead and open it.”
She took her seat, took a swallow from her bottle and then proceeded to rip the end off of the envelope, shake out the contents and unfold the single letter inside. Larry watched as she skimmed over the lines, mumbling the lines under her breath as she went down the page. Her face remained neutral at first but then an ever deepening frown formed upon her brow until she finally exclaimed “Whaa-at? What the hell is this?”
Larry grew concerned and asked her if he could see it. “Yeah, I think you’d better!”, she replied as she handed the single sheet of paper over to him.
He started at the top of the page, seeing the HOA letterhead and the customary greeting line:
Dear Mr. Jones –
Pursuant to our brief conversation on June XX of this year and as a further follow up to the Association’s correspondence of the same date, this is our second written notification of your violations of covenant agreements contained in your HOA contract. With the acceptance of the deed for your property, located at 123 Any Street, lot number 13 in Builder X development, you signed the agreement to abide by the rules and regulations set by the Association and any subsequent revisions of the same. You were furnished with the most recent additions to the Homeowners agreement on May XX of this year.
In the aforementioned verbal and initial written notice of violations you were informed of the following variances present on your property:
1) Contrary to provision 3a-1, line bb, pg. 6, pp. 3 you have installed a modification of landscaping upon the property without having first obtained the prior consent with a design submission to the board for approval.
2) Contrary to provision 5d, line a-2, pg. 10, pp. 5 you have stored unapproved materials outside of a board approved container in public view at the end of the property line and have further exceeded the boundary of said property to have placed these materials upon a public area.
3) Contrary to provision 4, line g, pg 14, pp. 2 you have planted trees, shrubs or other plants within XX feet of neighboring property lines. A variance may only be permitted with the prior written approval of the board specifying the location of and type of foliage to be planted. Additionally prior written consent from the owner of the adjacent property must be obtained and filed with the board before any approval may be considered.
In prior correspondence the board has requested that you correct these within seven days of receipt of the initial written notice. It has now been 23 days since first written notice was issued. Under revised Association policy, revised XX June of this year the Association will begin to levy a fine of 25$ per violation, per week, until such time as the violations have been corrected to the satisfaction of the board. Penalties will continue to accrue and an interest charge of 1-1/2% will be applied per month for any balances remaining unpaid.
If after 90 days from this second written notification the violations remain uncorrected the Association will by retaining the services of a collection agency and/or legal counsel sue for the collection of the balance, including interest and the violator shall be responsible to reimburse to the Association any monies associated with the professional fees required in this collection effort. Failure to respond within 30 days of any judgement obtained will result in a lien being placed upon the property until such time as the Association is made whole.
We all share in the sense of community here in Builders Development X and only wish to insure that standards assuring the preservation of each respective owner’s property values are maintained. We are pleased that you are part of our community and sincerely wish that these matters may be resolved satisfactorily before further penalties or actions will be required. If you have any questions about how you may resolve this matter with the Association please contact me, Snivelly Little Prick, President of HOA Board at 555-555-5555 at any time.
Larry thrust the letter angrily to the floor after he finished reading. ” This is fucking bull shit! I’m not letting this asshole shake me down like this!”
“Larry! What are you going to do? Can they do this?”
“Like hell, they will! When they pay my fucking mortgage and my property taxes they get a say in what goes on on my own property! The unbelievable nerve of that cocksucker!”
“Okay, Larry. Calm down! I’ll get in touch with my sister. Her husband has an older brother who’s an attorney with Lipschitz and Greenberg. I’m sure he can help us out. Just relax and enjoy the holiday. We’ll talk to him next week.”
Larry was still fuming, but took his wife’s admonition to heart and sat back into the sofa with her nestled at his side. He was resolved to enjoy his holiday in spite of the nasty-gram from Mr. Prick. Plenty of time to deal with that later.
Their home vacation went on without any further disturbance and though it still stuck in his craw Larry was able to keep his mind from it mostly and enjoy his time off with his family. His wife had made that call to her sister and in the week following the holiday they received a call from the brother-in-law attorney. Larry spoke with him on the phone, briefly detailing the problem they were having. He was candid with him, telling him that they were not sure that they actually wanted to retain his services in the matter, rather they were just looking for some guidance. As Larry described the correspondence over the phone the attorney only responded with “Hmm.” and “I see” and “Really?” At the end of it the attorney explained that he would really need to make a review of all the documents. Larry didn’t want to schedule an appointment at the law office, suggesting instead that he come by the house and join them for a barbeque for his trouble. It was agreed.
On the evening that the attorney came to join them they enjoyed a casual dinner of burgers from the grill and baked beans. After getting the children settled into something to keep them occupied they retired to the patio table to share some cold beers. The attorney sat and perused the documents, seeming to make notes here and there. He would focus in particular at a section on one page and then abruptly shuffle pages to cross reference something pertaining on another page. He combed through it all with some care, not rushing, and appeared to be making a rather thorough exam of it, sometimes nodding or quietly murmuring some line to himself as he flipped through pages. Larry and his wife sat quietly exchanging looks, patiently awaiting any opinion. After about 10 or 15 minutes the attorney reassembled all the documents into one neat stack and set them aside. He took a deep breath and then slowly let out a long sigh, leaning back in his seat and then taking a long drink from his bottle of beer.
” You folks ever watch John Oliver on HBO?”
Puzzled Larry and his wife exchanged a quizzical look and then Larry, somewhat hesitantly answered. ” Uh….yeah, we catch it sometimes. Why?”
” Okay, well I don’t know any better way to tell you this, but I’m afraid what you have here is a case of what Mr. Oliver refers to as the “Fuck barrel”.
Again the curious look. ” The what?”
“Oh boy. You’ve never seen that one?”
“Uh, no….what does that mean? It doesn’t sound good.”
“Well, no, it isn’t. Okay, you know the expression ” over a barrel”, right? And then there is the common expression when you’re getting a raw deal that you’re getting “fucked”, right? Well its a combination of the two. Basically you’re getting fucked in a situation where the fuck- er has you, the fuck – ee, held over the barrel.”
Okay, now I know that’s not good, but still, what the hell does that mean in this case? Are you saying they can get away with this!?”
“Well, in a word, yes. They can. I’m not saying it’s right, but it is legal. As an officer of the court I can assure the two are not the same. But they have dotted all the “i”s and crossed all their “t”s. When you signed the agreements at your closing you were agreeing to be bound to the terms of the Association.”
Larry was incredulous. ” You gotta be shittin’ me! For real?!”
With a pained expression the attorney answered. ” I’m afraid so, Larry. Now look, you can contest it, sure, but that’s going to take some time and money. Filings, getting a court date…all of that. And it’s on your dime, just you. They have the funding from the Association treasury, and as you see they have also set the rules to have you on the hook for their legal expenses. Unless of course you win. You might find a sympathetic judge, but that’s a crap shoot. And on the letter of the law? Well….yeah. Fuck Barrel.”
Larry and his wife shared yet another look between them, this time mixed with incredulity and worry. There was a long silence as the news gradually sunk in.
” I just can’t believe this. We already have state laws, county ordinances, municipal ordinances, codes and zoning laws. Aren’t all of these things already addressed that way? And how the hell can they make additional rules that conflict with existing laws or codes? This is insane!”
“No, Larry. This is the law. For right or wrong this is how it works. See this plot of land is private property. It was the builder’s property, they formed the corporation as a legal entity. The articles of incorporation establish the rules governing the corporation and thus the rules for the property. When they subdivide into lots and sell to others they include these rules under the association as a condition of the sale. When you signed those documents at your closing it served as your agreement to abide by those rules. The initial intent was that these rules would insure some measure of uniformity in the development that would protect the builder’s investment. As an example, now this is an exaggerated case mind you, but to illustrate. Let’s say that the builder has half of the lots sold, has built the homes and is at that point just at the break even mark. If you suddenly have people living in the development who decide to paint their home in day-glo magenta, or put up chicken wire fences to contain their free range poultry, or maybe set up an auto repair out of their garage with all of their junk and spare parts scattered around their yard, these things are going to make the remaining properties less attractive to prospective buyers. It’s bad for the builder’s business….”
“Now hold on! Those are things already covered under local ordinances, like I said…”
“Yes, Larry, you’re right. They are, but remember I’m just using those as an illustration, okay? The point is the initial purpose isn’t to penalize or abuse the home owners. It is just meant to define a set of standards that will protect the selling aesthetics on the property until the builder has finished. After that it’s no longer their property, except for those common areas like your entryway or the right of way border along the road. And since the sign at the entry bills this as ” A Builder X Community ” there is still some identification with the builder, so there is a continuing interest in maintaining some standards for future developments elsewhere. ”
“Yeah, yeah…I get it, alright. All that explains why, but still…. it can’t be right for the association to bully people like this. There shouldn’t be a way they can get away with these heavy handed tactics. For Christ’s sake! We’re just talking about some mulch beds with greenery! On my own property, no less!”
“Larry I’m not disagreeing with you. In principle you are correct, but we’re looking at this from the perspective of the law. The builder sold the lots and built the community. They made a condition of the sale that those taking possession would remain “good stewards” of the property. The problem here is that now that the builder has abrogated their role in the association it is in the hands of the residents. It’s a problem underlying any law or rule. When the authority to enforce the rules is placed in the hands of people who will abuse it they will act in such a way and still be able to hide behind the legitimacy of the rules. It’s like the corrupt cop, okay? He can do things that are wrong, but if he can hide behind the gun and the badge it allows him to get away with it.”
” Okay, I see the comparison. Within a police department you have internal affairs to correct that kind of thing. Where’s our internal affairs? We have to have something to stop this.”
“Well Larry, in a way you do. Every deed holder in this development is a member in the association. If you want to get control out of the hands of residents who are going to abuse the authority you just need to get a majority of members, or a quorum of any assembly, to remove the officers and take control of it. What happens in these things is that people are busy, they don’t have the time or they don’t pay attention and then the control and the decisions end up in the hands of the few who decide to show up. Did you go to any of the association meetings?”
“Well, uh….no. It’s like you said, we’re busy.”
“Exactly! That’s what allows these things to happen.”
Larry thought on these words for moment. There was something familiar about this tale, but he couldn’t place it. He tried to draw the connections but just couldn’t find it so he abandoned the train of thought. He instead began searching an idea to use the rules of the association to somehow bring it down.
“So what you are saying is we just need to gather a majority of the homeowners to grab control of this thing.”
“Yes. A majority or at least a quorum, a majority of those present for a vote.”
Larry pondered this further. How would he go about it? Would he be able to get enough people involved? Most probably didn’t care to be bothered with it. And it would take time to do this, time he didn’t have to spare. He began to speak again, not so much talking with the attorney as it was thinking out loud.
” Okay, so for a majority we’d need what? 122 members, so 62, right?…..”
“Well yes, for a majority overall, Larry, but you only need the quorum, the majority at a given vote.”
“Right, right….so that might work, then, the quorum thing. Probably never get 62 to get involved…so how many do you think? Ten? Twelve?”
“That might be enough. It depends on your attendance. You know you have another option. If you can’t talk people into showing up you may be able to get their votes through a proxy.”
“A proxy? I know what a proxy is….how’s that work in this case?”
“Okay, you reach out to some of your neighbors. Explain to them a motion you want to introduce at the association meeting. If they agree, but don’t want to come to the meeting you can have them sign to you their vote to exercise by proxy. That way you would only need one other party present to second your motion to bring it to the floor for a vote. When it is your turn to vote you cast yours and present the board with any proxies you have gathered. That would give you your quorum.”
Larry nodded, following the idea through to a conclusion. ” Okay, so if we do that we have someone else on the board. Could we then move to simply dissolve the association?”
” Well….yes, I think so. If you gather a majority or quorum for the motion yes, I suppose you could.”
“Okay then. I think that’s what we’re gonna do! I really appreciate you helping us out with this!’
“Well you’re welcome. Good luck with it! Be sure to let my brother know how it all turns out.”
Larry had never once in his life played the part of a crusader. For anything. For that matter he had never really even had that much of an appetite for engaging in debate over anything. Essentially it boiled down to a lack of patience in trying to persuade people who seemed so determined to cling to ignorance. He knew what he believed, at least about most things. He also knew from his experience that the vast majority of people will believe only what they want to believe. It most cases it wasn’t worth the time or effort to convince them otherwise. For whatever proof you could produce people seemed to inevitably gravitate to others who would only affirm their original belief. One of his biggest challenges in mounting his campaign for a change was convincing himself that it was all worth it. As a practical matter it would be easier to just cave to the demands, jump through their hoops and be done with it all. The one thing that kept persisting in his mind, would not let go of his thoughts, was that it was just wrong. With no one watching, no one to raise any questions those who are left to make the rules are also left free to break the rules, or change them to their own advantage.
He began by drafting a letter to clearly explain what the HOA was, how and why it was designed and that every resident had an interest in exercising the rights of their membership. It was a painstaking process to get the points across and keep it brief enough that more would be likely to read it. After multiple edits he finally believed he had a clear, concise and persuasive argument. He printed copies for every household, plus a few extras, and on a Saturday morning began making the rounds of the neighborhood. Where he had to he would simply leave a copy in the mailbox, but tried in every case to meet the homeowner in person, briefly describe his effort and then present them with their copy.
Of those he managed to speak with the reception was generally cordial, but this accounted for less than a quarter of the community. Out of these there were also a fair number who simply held up their hands or waved him off to say ” I don’t have time for it” or “I don’t want to get involved in that.” There were those who may have greeted him, listened politely and accepted the letter and within ten minutes of his departure tossed it into the trash. Of the 97 other homes concerned there were three who were absentee owners, four who were current board members, fifty who disposed of the letter without reading it, twenty-three who read and then disposed of it and seventeen who actually read it and marked their calendars for the next HOA meeting. For all of the effort there were fewer than thirty who even gave the matter any further thought one way or the other. Larry found it mildly disheartening to find no more reception to the effort but came away confident that there would end up being enough for a quorum.
Larry had unfortunately made a minor miscalculation in his plan. By depositing copies of his call to action in the boxes of the board members he had tipped his hand. Larry’s intentions were not to unseat current board members out of any personal animosity he held for any of them. He only wanted people to be aware and remain engaged so that the association not fall into the hands of and thereby become abused by only a select few. These details, however, were not where he had made his miscalculation. It was instead an underestimation of one of the uglier characteristics of human nature: ego. Even in matters which might seem as trivial as an association of one small community it is a sad fact that those, once introduced to the intoxication of authority, become loath to relinquish it. Or to have it challenged.
The letters were distributed two and a half weeks ahead of the next meeting. Mr. Prick examined Larry’s paper thoroughly, carefully parsing every line. He measured every assertion and exhortation contained against the context of the covenants and all of their amendments, picking it apart in minute detail. Clearly this man was a rank amateur, a rabble-rouser who was only trying to subvert the governance of the association to avoid his responsibility to abide by the same rules as everyone else. With the same right of membership that he was encouraging others to exercise came the obligation to adhere to those regulations legally established for the community via the duly elected board. It was all spelled out very clearly in the rules. Mr. Prick knew just what to do to counter this attempted coup.
The week before the next meeting a newsletter was prepared, with professional letterhead and the association logo on the envelopes, and delivered to every member of the community. All very professional looking and at the expense of the association, of course, including the postage. This was the proper way of doing things. The newsletter was brief, all contained on a single page, and dealt with just two items. First was the invitation to indeed encourage those members to come and participate in the next board meeting in a week’s time. The second was to provide a warning to residents to not be misled by other communications regarding the association which were not sanctioned by the board.
Mr. Prick referenced Mr. Jones’ earlier correspondence. He did make the fair point that Mr. Jones was indeed entitled to participate and to encourage others to do same. He was also correct that members were permitted to exercise their votes by proxy. Proxy votes did not need to be collected by another member to submit in person, though this was permissible under the rules. It was also possible for residents to submit their proxy vote to the board in advance for any questions announced in the meeting agenda beforehand. The newsletter went on to explain that as no items were scheduled for vote in advance of the coming meeting that any proxies submitted could not be exercised as there was no vote to apply these to. In a closing note he reminded the members that they should be wary of any parties attempting to manipulate their votes in order to escape their own violations. Without providing the specific details of the matters in question he cited the list of Mr. Jones’ violations chapter and verse to each corresponding section of the association rules. There was nothing personal; the board only wished to act to protect property values, which of course were for the benefit of all residents.
This newsletter, like much of the other association correspondence, only found it’s way to the garbage container. The few who did read it mostly shrugged and set it aside with the rest of the junk mail, altogether forgotten in a day. Two days at most. Larry, of course, opened and read his copy immediately upon receiving it and began a slow burn as he scanned the page. Although there was nothing stated there that was untrue it was no less an unfair and incomplete characterization of what they had done to run afoul of the board. He understood the intent very plainly. It was absent detail with a purpose of discrediting him. He tossed the letter aside with contempt and muttered under his breath “fuckers!”.
He needed to walk away from the subject for a while to maintain a cool head. He was still determined to attend the coming meeting and was still hopeful that there would at least be some other residents who would do the same. Until then he tried as best he could to keep the subject out of mind.
The following Thursday at 7:30 the meeting convened at what had been the model home for the development, which now served as a part time sales office for the builder. There were three of the four board members in attendance, including Mr. Prick. Then there was Larry, Mrs. Jones and three other residents. They waited another three minutes or so to see if there might be any stragglers still to wander in. As there were none the meeting was called to order, the opening niceties were exchanged, the prior minutes read, the treasurer’s summary, blah, blah, blah….The usual mundane proceedings of any other board meeting. As this droned on Larry looked about the room and conducted a head count. There were five of them, only three board members present. The numbers were there to meet a quorum. No need of any of the proxies.
As the routine matters concluded Mr. Prick addressed to floor to ask if any of the attendees had any questions or concerns for the board. Without looking around to gauge the reaction of others Larry stood and addressed the room.
“Yes, I have a concern.”
Mr. Prick’s mouth formed a smug twist before replying. “Mr. Jones, you are recognized on the floor. What is your concern?”
“Yeah, I think we have a problem with the way this whole business is conducted. It seems to me this board has abused their authority by arbitrarily adding amendments to the HOA regulations without sufficient information being provided to the members.”
” Well Mr. Jones, perhaps you could be more specific? Meetings are open to all members, published in advance. There is nothing done in secret here. If members choose not to participate we do not have any authority to force them.”
” That may well be, I understand this, but it seems that some decisions are being taken by the board on questions that should also be published in advance so that if members find they are unable to attend they at least have the opportunity to exercise their proxy.”
“Well, Mr. Jones, if it pertains to an agenda item predetermined that would of course be true. But matters may arise during a meeting that can not be anticipated.”
“Okay, I understand that too, but wouldn’t it be proper for those questions to be scheduled on a future agenda to allow participation?”
Mr. Prick’s face screwed into half a scowl hearing this, but he recovered quickly with an answer at the ready. ” Mr. Jones it is not a question of whether it would be proper or improper. The fact is according to the rules governing the association that simply is not required. The board has it within their discretion to vote and act upon any measure before it at the time it is presented.”
” Alright, let me ask you a question about those rules. A member has the right at any scheduled board meeting to table a motion before the board and any attendees, do they not?”
Mr. Prick squirmed, just a little, to dart quick glances to the other board members seated on either side of him. ” Yes, they do. Do you wish to make a motion, Mr. Jones?”
“As a matter of fact I do. I move that there be a new election for board members here, now, at this meeting. You said yourself it is not required to schedule matters for a later meeting.”
“Well Mr. Jones that might be true for most things, but for the election of board officers don’t you think…..”
“Ah-ah-Ah!”, Larry waved his finger, ” You can’t have it both ways. The rules say what the rules say, don’t they? Isn’t that the board’s position?”
“Mr. Jones you are out of order! I suspect that this is more about you trying to avoid fines and sanction from the association for your violations, which I would remind you have still not been addressed.”
“Out of order?! Would you care to explain to the floor what we have done specifically to violate some rules you cooked up? For doing some landscaping to improve the appearance of our yard? Which, I would remind you, improves property values that are, to use your words, “to the benefit of all”?”
“Mr. Jones you don’t….”
” I have a motion before the floor. Does anyone present second this motion for a vote?”
Mr. Jones rose to her husband’s side. ” I second the motion!”
“No no, Mrs. Jones…..that doesn’t count. You are from the same household…”
” I beg your pardon? The covenants clearly state that any parties named on a property deed are designated members and therefore eligible to vote!”
The treasurer was also growing uncomfortable and concerned that Mr. Prick was losing control of the meeting. He leaned into his ear and reminded him ” Prick! She’s right, you know. You cant stop this. Just bring the vote to the floor!”
Mr. Prick steadied himself, took a sip from a glass of water and then addressed the floor. “Very well! Let the motion be brought to the floor for a vote. All in favor say aye.”
Larry and his wife each responded aye and looked around the room hopefully for voices to join them, but there were none. Mr. Prick also looked around the room nervously, waiting for any others. When after a minute there were none he smirked and proceeded.
“All those opposed say nay.”
The three board members and one of the other residents present all said nay. The two remaining residents who had remained silent were scrutinized by both the board and the Jones’. After a minute Mr. Prick addressed them.
“We have two other members present. What say you?”
The two remaining members both stated that they would abstain and then promptly rose to leave the meeting.
” A vote of 2 in favor and 4 opposed. With a quorum the nays have it. Motion denied! Do we have any other business this evening? No? I call this meeting adjourned!”
As they walked home from the meeting Mrs. Jones did her best to offer support to her husband.
” Oh Larry, I’m so sorry! You tried your best!”
It was little comfort. It was bad enough to have so many not even show, but to have the numbers there, to actually show but then not even cast their vote? That was the killer.
” You know what? Fuck these assholes! We’ll vote with our feet. Next month the house is going on the market!”
Mrs. Jones was not keen on this idea, but she knew her husband well enough not to try and argue the point then and there. Better to remain silent and let him stew.
And stew he did, into a long and sustained simmer. Despite her objections the home did go on the market and in the fall the Jones’ moved from Builder X Development to another, older home nearby. They did as Larry said they would. They voted with their feet.
Doing this is not a luxury we always have. The world is shrinking fast and soon there will be no places left to run to. When those in authority remain unchallenged and unaccountable, when they write all of the rules to favor their own, when they control the narrative to discredit any who call them into question, these are a sad state of affairs. It leaves one with the two primordial instincts of fight or flight. With no place left to run to fight is the only option remaining. Unless, of course, one considers silent acceptance and submission an option. Any way you slice it a choice has to be made.
My political opinions lean more and more to anarchy. The most improper job of any man, even saints, is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.
No, it just doesn’t translate…
“No, it just doesn’t translate accurately. We must find another way.”
Members of the council sat around the table in sober contemplation of the problem, silently nodding in agreement with the leader’s statement. G-12, System 22-4 had been troublesome from the start. It was almost missed in the initial scans conducted upon this corner of the grid. Some data had populated the central console indicating that the system met the minimal parameters, but as this created only a minor blip in the larger view it was discounted. After further segments of this galaxy yielded nothing more promising it had been decided to make a full review of the data scan. It was only then that a closer look was given to system 22.
Upon closer examination it was discovered that the system was comprised of eight to ten worlds with three of those potentially residing within the “sweet spot” of the habitable zone. Drones dispatched to the surface of these for further evaluation did not report anything promising. The first was found to be barren and with insufficient atmosphere. The second was found to be overheated and toxic. The third did not yield any conclusive results. Efforts to recall the drone failed. This was not unusual. Often a drone would malfunction due to hypergravity, burning up on entry to an atmosphere. Other times magnetic anomalies would erase navigation systems causing the craft to drift aimlessly until impact or breaking away from orbit. In other cases, as was true in this instance, a drone might succumb to volcanic activity. Unless sensors indicated an abundance of the necessary conditions within a system it was rare for a second drone to be dispatched. 22-4 was one of those rarities.
A second drone revealed much greater promise than any probabilities calculated from preliminary analysis. Though still plagued by considerable geological instability the world was blessed with an abundance of water, an optimal mix of gases in it’s atmosphere and had already developed an impressive bio-diversity. The life forms, though many were only primitive, were nearly innumerable. And there were a few higher forms which were deemed to have potential. Early in the sixth epoch it was agreed to send a set of exploratory teams to prepare for population. It was a process that had been repeated through the ages, the slow and careful cultivation of the known universe, one galaxy at a time.
Each of these were an experiment of sorts. Some thrived while others failed, as is the way of nature. The sowers had long since surpassed any recollection of their own origins or any contemplation thereof. There was no conscious quest of a purpose, they simply were and simply did what they did. Their seeds were planted into plots that were found suitable and worlds were left to flourish or fail on their own with minimal interference. Through patient and careful observation it was determined to either cultivate mythologies or conform to those that would form organically as a means of concealing their comings and goings amid these societies. 22-4 had remained a relatively quiet backwater for centuries, ignored and mostly forgotten, but this had suddenly changed. Now it was necessary to determine if it was still safe to leave unguided, or if as was sometimes needed, some radical alteration of their mythology was required.
“The messianic model will no longer suffice. They now have too many competing versions, all co-opted to fulfill baser instincts.”
“Are they ready for the truth?”
“The truth! Ha! No…they would only try to pervert it to meet their own ends. We must steer them to a new truth; not the truth.”
This hung heavily in the room, a silence observed to allow the thought to be digested. After a long pause another member of the council offered another contribution to the discussion.
“Perhaps it is better to cull the herd first? A great cataclysm is always an opportune moment for introducing a new paradigm. How many are there on this world now? Six, seven billion?”
The leader did not address the council member directly, rather responding to the whole assembly. “It is true that such events can serve as a vehicle, however I do not believe that we need effect a direct intervention of such. Within any ecosphere nature will always strike it’s own balance. It may well be time for this to occur of it’s own accord, if past history tells us anything. Introduction of a new truth in advance of this will accelerate it’s dissemination. Their susceptibility to superstition all but assures a correlation to be drawn between the two. It is not cause and effect, but will be perceived that way.”
Another member, an aged female, seized upon the mention of superstition. “Superstition is the fertile ground for redefining understanding of any phenomenon. It has given birth to many cults, but only where a voice has an opportunity to grow dominant. I fear that 22-4 has developed a degree of communication that challenges this.”
The leader observed that her statement had captured the close attention of all. It seemed as though this were an idea that all shared but had not formed the means of expressing it. Still it was incomplete. The leader allowed time for others to pick up on this reasoning and expand upon it, but this went unfulfilled. Perhaps a lack of concern or interest in this obscure island had dulled any desire to participate. The leader chose to facilitate this subtly.
“Please elaborate, 95. Enlighten us.”
She permitted a brief sign of amusement at the invitation, a mere blink of a look exchanged between them and then she continued. “Speech, the development of language, all forms of communication on 22-4, as with most worlds, is a very long cycle. In their early development societies form in isolation from one another. I’m not telling you anything we don’t already know, am I? But there is relevance…”
The leader smiled inwardly, aware of the direction she was taking this. ” Please, continue.”
” We may introduce a mythos in a very broad form, allowing it to take on it’s own unique characteristics within each. There will remain certain commonalities as each of these are cultured within their own environments. Without a means of effectively broadcasting these universally they grow and mature in different paths determined by each set of conditions. These may at times be altered in their course, accelerated by random events. Geological or oceanic upheavals, meteorological events or trends, the organic path as it were. In this slow track the histories and mythologies are spread as travel expands. As societies may assimilate it is natural that the commonalities in their respective myths will merge the two to an altered narrative that finds concordance between the two. The mythology evolves. This process has completed its cycle on 22-4 and thus we have, as we have witnessed, a set of several that have become the dominant. While they share those same common elements they do compete with one another. As a whole population the technologies have advanced, transcending travel and the distances that have kept these mostly isolated from one another. They have achieved a level of instantaneous communication across the entire sphere. This allows for so many versions to be shared at any location and at all times, no longer restricted by spatial limitations….”
Another of the council members grew impatient with the remedial instruction on societal development. ” Yes, yes….as you say, sister…..things we already know! What is your point?”
Unfazed by the interruption 95 continued in stride. ” My point, dear 48, is that we have a society where so much data, factual and otherwise, is available at any time, anywhere and to any one being that it has been diminished. It is taken for granted. Individuals have the ability to select from so much that it is possible to limit that selection only to that which affirms an existing bias. Or, absent that, they have become enabled to assemble their own mythos and broadcast it anywhere to a global audience. With so many competing ideas, so many avenues for consumption there is little if any that assumes any merit. Speaking for myself, if I may, I fail to see how one introduces a “new truth” into this environment with any hope of it taking hold.”
Several members had been following the train of thought and had already arrived at the same conclusion. Heads nodded in a silent acknowledgement and faces grew pensive in a search for the means of addressing this concern. The leader looked about the table, searching the minds at work, considering which to prompt for further discussion.
“This is all true, 95. An extremely valid assessment and I believe that you have identified our way forward. ” The leader paused to await their faces responding with attention, the anticipation of hearing the way forward revealed. ” It is not our role to “cull the herd”, as you have suggested, 27. Nature will decide when this is to occur and….that time may be near. The models that have been useful to our purposes have dissolved. They are still present, but no longer effective. They have been co-opted to purposes beyond those intended. A new truth may be planted and cultivated in anticipation of or in the wake of a great apocalyptic event, it is true. It has been done and has worked for us before. I foresee a variation of this for 22-4. We shall introduce a new truth, but as never before.”
The leader had obtained their undivided attention. A careful study of those faces surrounding him showed that there were none exhibiting those creases about the eyes or hesitation at the corners of the mouth, signs that they may have anything they wished to insert into the discussion. Thus assured the leader proceeded.
“A catastrophic event is warranted here, but not of the natural variety. Not a sudden and rapid reduction in the population. That will follow, given their nature. This is a species that has forgotten or denies their animal nature. We have changed them, yes, altered their genetic course irrevocably, but with the hope of retaining some of their more desirable attributes. They have arrived at that state of hubris that predicts the extinction of many. They remain susceptible to superstition, needing to assign the means of understanding to that which they can not know. They still do this, though they have convinced themselves that they have evolved past this behavior. They reject and disparage the mythology of their ancestors as primitive and ignorant, abandoned their need of gods and assumed the role for themselves. The messiah model will be rejected. They make their own messiahs. We will introduce the new narrative, but the messenger must be the anti-hero, the reluctant messiah.”
“And how would we do this? What catastrophic event?” It was 27 again, a skeptic by nature. His query was not a critique of the plan; simply the need for detail.
“We do not offer this as the herald for catastrophe. It is a voice that will be drowned amid the many, as 95 has so properly reminded us. We will expose this messenger in a place where they are most likely to be heeded, not by a large audience but gradually, relying upon word of mouth but using those means of mass communication as they are available as well. The event will be the eventual destruction of global communication. This will be a teacher, reaching many through mass medium, then after the collapse of the communication grid the message will be carried forward by others, the “disciples” if you will. In the wake of the collapse the message will resonate and will not need to compete with so many other voices. We are slowing them down then redirecting. Its back to the long cycle.”
Several brows rose, impressed with the explanation. Heads nodded in agreement with the wisdom of this plan. There would be further detail, of course, but this was understood and agreed as a general direction. It would now only want for a script, a messenger and at a later date to be determined a massive series of solar flares or other electro-magnetic disturbance to fry the communication grid. It was just a new twist on an old program that was tried and true. The only real surprise was that 22-4 had ever even reached this stage. All of the smart money had been placed on it’s eventual extinction.
To be continued…
It was a cool, wet day in early spring that 998 was delivered to the co-ordinates 42 degrees, 13’24” N and 121 degrees 46’39” W. These were the proximal co-ordinates; the actual manifestation occurring somewhere just on the outskirts of the unassuming settlement situated a short distance inland from what was roughly the center of the western coast of the land mass known as North America. 22-4, or Earth as it was known in the local tongue, had been visited by the sowers in this same vicinity at a time roughly 4,000 years before by the planetary calendar. Time was yet another disorienting factor in visiting these worlds. It was necessary to remain aware of not only where one was, but when. All time is relative, but in dealing with indigenous populations it became critical to observe the sequential nature of their understanding of it. Calendars in the terrestrial sense were an anachronism to the sowers.
998 had reviewed all archives and uploaded the data cache for 22-4 in preparation. This was the third planetary insertion for him, the first on this world. The assignment, though less rigorous than his previous expeditions, did promise to be lengthy in its duration. In reality this was a sort of condemnation. The amount of time required virtually assured that he would become fully integrated to the relative time scale of the planet, making an eventual extraction highly improbable. The risks had been made clear and were acceptable. As far as these worlds went this was one was not so onerous. It enjoyed a mostly temperate climate, it’s bio-diversity painted an ever changing portrait of bright color and much to marvel over. Technologically the dominant species were on the cusp of a great leap forward, still primitive by his understanding but advanced enough that it did not promise to be a wholly spartan existence.
The most striking sensation upon arrival was the potent and nearly overpowering scent of pine oil in the air. The sowers through their evolution had retained only the most rudimentary of olfactory glands. In their sterile existence there were few “scent” molecules present and those that were present were mostly neutral in their nature. The most pungent odor known to most sowers was ozone and given the vestigial nature of any remaining sense of smell even this was subdued in character. This was one of those things that all the research and preparation could not ready one for; it simply had to be experienced. In all of it’s varieties life bore a multitude of scents. 998 had to spend the first several minutes after arrival slowly breathing in the air and begin to form a mental catalogue of these many scents and build the correlations to their source. It was a highly unnatural sensation initially, but as a bank of memory was built for it the overwhelming nature subsided until fading into part of the unconscious background.
After regaining orientation 998 made a careful study of the surroundings. He had managed to manifest in a space and time with no sentient life forms to observe what would be to native life forms a truly bizarre phenomenon indeed. The sowers were possessed of a vaguely humanoid form, though plainly alien to any native life. In the process of materialization to the surface it was necessary that sowers remain in their true form. Only after manifestation was complete and a brief period of acclimation to the local atmosphere were they able to shape their form to something familiar, to blend in to the scenery. His initial contact subject was a young adult male, engaged in the local custom of hiking a nature trail. Recalling images from his data cache 998 morphed into the image of an average adult male of similar aging and characteristics. His image was made to blend in to both the environment and the activity, appearing with garb, footwear and paraphernalia identified with hiking. Accessing an internal mapping system he determined a course to travel that was marked in local unit of measure of 15 miles to the northwest, a geopoint identified as Mt. McLoughlin. Somewhere in that vicinity within a time frame of 60 to 120 earth minutes he was to encounter his subject.
As an internal function 998 was unable to sense the passage of time in the manner of human beings. For him it was more mathematics, a counter to keep him oriented to the dimension as perceived by his hosts. The journey was simply a movement of mass and energy from one point to another, the “time” elapsed just another piece of data working in the background. If this assignment was anything like those previous this anomalous presence would gradually form as a part of a character consciousness, a sort of mental construct that aided in maintaining an outward normalcy. This was not a conscious act, just something that occurred naturally in the course of a manifestation. After arriving at the proximal coordinates 998 began to walk about on the marked trails, watching for the appearance of the subject.
In a relatively short distance upon one of these paths he came upon the subject seated amid some scrub vegetation surrounding a small promontory jutting out from the trail in a rocky face overlooking the long slope. The spot was deserted, save for some avian and reptilian life forms. No other sign of sentient beings present. The subject had not yet detected him. A small cloud of wispy gasses arose from the space and drifted across the air to 998. It was accompanied by a scent, one that he had catalogued as the combustion of organic material, composition unknown. His speech library correlated it to the word smoke. This was puzzling initially for there was no apparent thermal energy that would foster combustion of materials, organic or otherwise. Solar energy was present, but in filtered form due to larger clouds of moisture hovering higher in the atmosphere. He remained still, observing the subject in as much detail as possible before revealing his image.
The subject was seated, manipulating some device and bringing an open cylinder to his mouth. 998 then observed that the subject held in his other hand another, smaller cylinder which when rubbed at one end with the subject’s thumb produced a flame. There was the source of combustion! The subject drew the flame to the base of the larger cylinder and then inhaled air through the top. A gurgling sound was faintly audible from that distance and then another cloud of gas drifted from the cylinder, followed by a larger volume of gas exhaled by the subject. The image of this activity was scanned to the memory cache and in mere instants produced an explanation. The subject was smoking a bong, likely filled with the dried leaves of a native plant life, cannabis sativa, which was commonly consumed as a mild intoxicant. Colloquial descriptions included the terms weed, grass, smoke, bud and several others. 998 now had an understanding of the act being performed but no comprehension of motive. The intoxicating effect would have to be quite pleasurable as it seemed counter-intuitive to deliberately inhale gasses that were known to damage lung tissue, an organ vital for human survival.
Programming indicated several possible courses of action, the two primary being to continue to observe undetected from a distance or to approach casually, offer greeting and inquire if the subject was willing to share the consumption of the intoxicant. Based upon his observations and the data available 998 concluded that the subject, in a mildly intoxicated state, would have reduced inhibition and a lessened probability of hostility, thus an opportune moment for approach. He engaged his speech programming and began to walk steadily forward toward the small bluff where the subject remained, still smoking from the bong.
“Hey man! That smells good! Hows it goin’?”
The greeting seemed effective. The subject turned to his approach, exhibiting no signs of alarm and a welcoming facial expression. ” Hey! Whats up, dude? Goin’ pretty fuckin’ good right now….”, he chuckled, pausing to point toward the bong, ” … ya wanna a hit off this? I got plenty, man. It’s good stuff!”
998’s speech processor reacted in nano-seconds, prompting the optimal response. ” Sure! Sounds good!” With the invitation clearly tendered 998 moved to take a seat on the other half of the large rock and accepted the bong and lighter as it was presented to him. Arranging himself to a relaxed but secure position he took them and mimicked the act just as he had observed it. The scent much more pungent now the smoke stung his nostrils and eyes, causing the outward reaction consistent with such close exposure. He drew deeply from the tube and held in the smoke as he had observed, then gradually exhaling a plume. Conventions dictated that he pass it back to the subject, but it was declined.
” Nah, it’s cool. You go ahead. I got a head start on ya!”
998 pulled the bong back and repeated the process a couple more times before finally handing it back. He began to vaguely experience a sedating haze, surprised at the sudden reaction from such a small degree of ingestion. ” Thanks! Yeah, thats good stuff, man.”
The subject grinned and set the device on the ground next to his pack then extended his hand in the customary greeting. ” Hey! I’m Paul! Nice t’ meet ya, dude!”
998 extended one of his own hands and met with Paul’s in a handshake. He had made no prior calculation of a name corresponding to his identity. His speech processor defaulted to the most common names in the english speaking world and prompted his timely response. ” Hey! I’m John. Likewise.”
“Well hey, John! You from Klamath?”
Data incomplete. 998 was unaware if the subject was native to Klamath Falls. Without a sufficient cover and no beings in the town to vouch for him the safe response was determined to be from other urban centers in proximity of the region. ” Nah, I’m from Sea-Tac. Just passin’ through here.”
“Thats cool! I been to Seattle a couple times. We get a lot of out-of-towners come here to hike. Mostly from Portland or Salem. Some come up from California. This yer first time here?”
“Yeah, I uh…..I heard about the lava tube caves and some of the trails around here. Wanted to come and check it out for myself while I’m headed through.”
“Cool. So where ya headed?”
“I dont know. No where in particular, I guess. Just movin’ along, ya know?”
“Yeah, thats cool. So ya stickin’ around here long? Ya got a place to stay?”
“Uh…no. Not yet. I just came around this morning. Haven’t decided how long I’ll stay here. You know a good place?”
“Well if ya wanna stick around a couple days and check things out you can crash at my place, if thats cool. Yer not some kinda serial killer, are ya?” Paul sniggered as he added the last line.
998 responded with an equally dismissive humor. ” No, man! I’m cool. But…you serious?”
“Sure, no problem.”
“Well thanks! That’d be really cool.”
“Okay then! So, you wanna go on and hit the rest of this trail, or what?”
“Sure! Let’s go!”
It was as easy as that. For all of the accounts of what a hostile world this planet could be this was the easiest initial contact 998 had experienced. And the weed wasn’t too bad either.
more to follow…
The gravelly path crunched beneath their boots as they steadily ascended the long grade of the trail. To Paul the vistas falling away to the plateaus behind were inspiring, a perspective to help center his being. He was not a stranger to the site; he had visited the trail often. On this day he had sought it’s familiar solace to clear his mind of many clamoring voices. These were not hallucinatory in nature, simply a number of matters troubling his conscience. Ordinarily the solitude enjoyed in these visits was the cure for what ailed him, but today the distraction of a new companion was welcomed, though he really wasn’t certain why this was so. There was something he noted in John that seemed familiar. He was unable to say just what that was. He just seemed to be one of those people one sometimes encounters who possessed a certain “everyman” quality.
They continued for some way in total silence, only the whispering breeze occasionally punctuated by the distant shriek of a hawk carried across the sky. 998 was making good use of this, utilizing all of his senses to intuit Paul’s make up and general perspective of life and the world around him. The images and impressions he could form from Paul’s psyche showed that he was indeed a good selection to receive the message. Lesser characters had been selected earlier in this world’s history, some with results far exceeding expectations. From the data cache 998 was reminded of the stellar example of Jesus of Nazareth. Out of nothing, from an insignificant corner of an early civilization, this one messenger arose from such obscurity to be elevated to divinity. Divinity was one of those peculiar concepts that arose organically out of human experience due to the work of the sowers. As an idea it had grown so powerful as to have reached across generations and the planet to where it was still a potent force here, now, in this terrestrial place and time.
They were nearing a crest, a brief evening of the grade before the final climb to the mountain’s peak. Paul turned to 998 as he unloosened his pack from his shoulders and reached inside.
“You want some water? I brought a few bottles. They’re probably not very cold any more, but hey, it’s still wet, right?”
998’s metabolic rate was advanced enough to prolong hydration, necessary for his species as well. He did not need the water as Paul’s body may have, but for appearances accepted the offer. ” Sure, I’ll take one. Thanks.”
From this vantage they stood together at the edge of the trail, peering back to the southeast across the wide, placid lake and upon the distant town beyond the opposite shore. Reflections of the passing clouds drifted over the surface of the lake, appearing like sheep milling across a distant vale. They sipped at their waters in an uncertain silence. 998 sensed that Paul wished to speak, but was still searching his words. He was scrolling through his speech programming, linking with his external data collection to formulate a suitable initiation.
“It all looks so small from up here, don’t it?”
Paul seemed startled at this at first. It was not the voice, but what had been said. ” Wow man! That’s like psychic or somethin’! I was just thinkin’ the exact same thing!”
“Yeah! I know, right? Isn’t that freaky, man?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe not so much. It’s like synchronicity, right?”
“Whoa! Yeah man….Jung! Yeah man! That fucker had it all over Freud, didn’t he?”
This was a promising response. 998 nodded visibly and smiled, wordlessly acknowledging his agreement. ” Yeah, I kinda like Jung’s take on things.”
Paul now seemed to show more curiosity over his new companion. 998 could tell he was engaged. He remained silent, allowing him to further formulate additional conversation. Paul took a longer drink from his bottle until a small stream trickled from one corner of his mouth. He set the bottle aside and wiped his chin with a shirt sleeve.
” Yeah, ya know that’s one of those kinds of things like deja vu. I mean, like, its connected into your brain somehow even though you don’t know where its comin’ from, ya know? Like you can tell its real, but you know it cant be. Then yer just like hypnotized by it, tryin’ to figure out where that shit comes from. I think I notice more when I’m stoned, but maybe its because I’m stoned. Ya know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. It makes sense, though, if ya think about it. I mean look at how many cultures have used hallucinogens as part of some religious experience? It’s like there’s certain chemical keys that open up pathways for our minds to meet with something beyond.”
“Exactly! I think that’s why they got all these bull shit laws against the stuff. They don’t want the people to discover the truth, man!”
“You think they lead to the truth? What truth?”
“Ah, you know what I mean man! It’s not just the drugs, that’s just one of the tools, right? They help ya get to where you can see, but then you gotta meditate so your mind can take you the rest of the way.”
“Okay, but rest of the way where? What? What truth?”
“I don’t know, man! Like whatever’s there, ya know? Whats on the other side, ya know, like….. like after all of this.” Paul gestured with a sweeping arm to indicate everything, the world around them.
“Hmm. Yeah, I suppose it’s somethin’ like that.
“Yeah. Maybe it’s God, maybe its somethin’ else. Maybe its another place, or another time. Maybe it’s another dimension we cant even understand.”
998 was impressed. This was dangerously close to the truth. And this was only one sampling of the species, clearly not their brightest star. This species was definitely in need of a redirection. There were perhaps some exceptions, there always are , but on the whole humans were still an untested quantity. The consensus was still generally pessimistic, but if there were not some hope still kindled amid this world he would not be here.
“Do you believe in God, Paul?”
” I’m not sure. I mean…I think I kinda do….but I’m just not convinced what that is.”
“Most people still say this is a Christian nation. Whatcha think about that?”
Paul’s face screwed into something approaching a scowl and then dissolved into a softer countenance expressing doubt. ” Yeah, I dont know about that. I mean I know what’s meant by it, right? Our traditions and customs and all, right? There’s principles in it that are sort of a backbone to our whole system, but we’re not like Iran, ya know? I mean there’s not a church that runs everything. You dont have to believe, it’s voluntary. You get to choose for yourself. At least thats how its supposed to be.”
“You’ve thought about this some! Most people don’t even want to talk about it.”
“Yeah, well ya know what they say, right? Never discuss religion or politics?”
“Mmm. Yeah, I guess they do say that, don’t they?”
” It’s cool with me, ya know. I mean I can talk about it, but with some people? It ain’t always good. But its cool to find somebody else who thinks about this shit!”
Paul seemed content to leave this as the last word on the subject for the time being. He placed his half emptied bottle back inside of his pack and hefted it back on to his shoulders then turned back on to the trail. 998 followed and without further conversation the two of them completed their trek to the summit, some 300 yards ahead. Past the treeline there remained patches of snow scattered across the bleak, rocky face. In the still air could be heard the steady trickle of melt seeking its path downward through the many cracks and crevices of the volcanic cone. The very peak was still covered in icy slush but a well worn path was marked through it. Spring had come on early this season and the trail had already been active. There were few who attempted the journey in the full winter months. Upon reaching the nearly 9500 foot ceiling the sun broke free momentarily to bath their surroundings with a near blinding white light reflected from its surface. At this elevation the air had grown thinner and the crunch of every step was amplified. Paul found himself somewhat winded and was mildly puzzled to find that his companion seemed to be unaffected.
“Whoa, dude! I’m either smokin’ too much dope or you’re pretty used to this! You know we’re almost two miles up, right?”
998 shrugged, decided it was too late now to feign exhaustion. “Really? Huh! I didn’t know it was that high.”
They stood together, squinting against the light and forming visors above their eyes with their hands to look all about. To the south the view reached well into neighboring California with it’s Mt. Shasta, to the west and north further into the cascade range, the peak of Crater Lake in the foreground some 50 miles distant.
“Well this is it! Didn’t think I’d need the sunglasses today!”
998 craned his neck skyward to an arc pointed westward. Against the glare he could make out that more low, dense cloud approached and would again shade them soon. ” Yeah, looks like you’re gonna be alright without ’em. More cloud comin’ in, see?” He gestured to the west horizon to direct Paul’s attention to the looming relief.
“Yeah, yer right. Ya wanna get stoned some more or wait til we get back down part of the way?”
” I don’t know. What do you think?”
“Hmm. I’d like to, but I’d probably choke it up this high, ya know?”
“Yeah. Maybe. You wanna head back down?”
“In a minute. I gotta get some pics…” He reached into a pocket inside of his jacket to extract his phone. ” Aren’t you gonna take any?”
“Umm…..I don’t have a phone.”
“No shit!? Yer on the road with no phone? What, did you lose it?”
“No. Just don’t have one.”
“Really? Damn, dude….”
“It’s okay. I really never wanted one.”
“Huh. Oh well. To each his own, I guess.” Paul regarded his companion a moment longer, beginning to ponder him further. He concluded that he must be running away from something. Probably a broken heart. That’s what it usually was, wasn’t it? Unconcerned he shrugged this off and proceeded to snap some shots with his I-phone. The first couple were glared out from the light and then the cloud bank returned. Paul refocused the shots and took them again. He checked the new images, satisfied with their clarity and then completed a set from all angles.
From his data cache 998 understood the use of such devices to capture and preserve images. He felt sorry for their need of a device to preserve their views. The sowers possessed enough memory capacity to preserve flawless images of every single sight they had ever viewed. It was hard for him to even try imagining not having such abilities. The human brain with their genetic alterations had the capacity for this, but sadly they were yet a long way from developing this potential. There were methods of accelerating this process, but the few attempts had resulted in the subjects going mad, unable to cope with even a 10% expansion. Further attempts had been discouraged, instead waiting for the natural evolution to occur at its own pace.
later comes a shocking revelation……
On the return trip down the trail they engaged in sporadic bouts of idle chatter. What, for example, did he (John) like to eat when he got the munchies? What kind of music did he like listening to? The dialogue aid in his speech programming selected appropriate responses based upon context, location and profiling of the party engaged. This enabled 998 with the optimal response in any instance, offering what to say but not how to say it. That was a nuance left to the user. Once familiarized with the process the user would learn to develop certain skills in the form of their delivery to make their speech appear genuine and not as if it were being read from a script. In lesser developed cultures this was not as crucial, but on Earth it did require an experienced user.
They paused at the same point where 998 had first encountered Paul to further imbibe in the pipe. He had sampled a range of intoxicants from several worlds and never developed an affinity to any. For the most part these had little effect for him yet he found that he was rather developing a liking for this cannabis. Its effect was pleasant without being incapacitating, of relatively short duration and provided a mildly sedating quality without the undesirable after effects as found in those from fermented or distilled beverages. Further consultation with the data cache informed him that other methods of ingestion were suggested to avoid damage to lung tissue. A tea, as a simple preparation, or an actual cooking process to render it in an elixir form. It might also be eaten in it’s raw form or prepared as an ingredient in some baked foodstuffs. He made a note that he would wish to try some of these as well.
After that brief interlude they resumed the trail and conversation again returned to eating. Paul continually sought his thoughts on various establishments to which he offered no affirmative response. After hearing multiple choices he finally deferred, telling Paul that where ever he wished to go would be fine with him. Paul replied that this was okay and they made a turn into a path leading to the trail head where had parked his vehicle. There was only a short distance more until they arrived at the gravel parking area where Paul’s lone vehicle resided, a powder blue Jeep Renegade of a late ’90s vintage. 998 was amused by their primitive modes of transportation and the peculiar enthusiasm many humans held for these hulks. His visual was synched to the data cache for recognition and in an instant he was able to identify the make and model of the vehicle, most of its critical specifications and any marketing material identifying it with probable driver profiles. Accessing this data and pairing it with what he had absorbed thus far from Paul this vehicle would seem to be a highly suitable match. His dialogue aid suggested he should offer some remark about the vehicle.
“You got a Jeep! Thats cool! The Renegade is a lot of fun, huh?”
Paul smiled at this. “Yeah, they are. I like ’em, anyway, even though this one is an old rust bucket! 225,000 miles on this puppy and still pluggin’away. So where’d you park your buggy?”
“I don’t have one.”
“No shit? Man, yer doin’ this shit old school, aren’t ya? Hard core, man! I’m down!” He extended his right arm straight out, offering his clenched hand for a fist bump. 998 responded in kind. ” Go ahead and take shotgun, dude. It’s unlocked.” Speech processors rapidly sourced the vernacular and 998 climbed into the vehicle.
Paul wasted no time in starting the engine and slapping the Jeep into gear, creating a cyclone of gravel in their wake. He switched on the radio, tuned to the local FM Alternative station. The song Carry the Zero by the band Built to Spill was playing. “Oh, this is a cool jam!”, he enthused and increased the volume. The tires ground along the rough service road to the highway as he tapped out the rhythm of the song on the steering wheel, singing along. Upon reaching the highway he paused without reducing the volume and spoke over it to announce that he would just hit the drive thru at Taco Bell and go back to his place to “Spark up and scarf out”. 998 responded with the simple reply “cool” and then made a show of rocking in his seat to appear that he was also enjoying the music. He’d not had much experience with this and wasn’t entirely sure what his thoughts were on this phenomenon. The manipulation of sound waves intrigued him. It seemed a most peculiar function of mathematics though he had to admit that the rhythms and harmonies were infectious. He’d certainly want to learn more about the variety of instruments used to render these sounds.
Paul seemed satisfied that his companion appeared content with his selection and was happy to just listen and enjoy the ride. 998 observed the country roll past as they rode back to Klamath Falls. What a green world this was! He marvelled at the density of plant life here. He had learned that plant life in a multitude of forms was common in most of the habitable universe, though not always green. And no where else was he aware of it existing in such abundance. As he watched the lush vegetation file past his window he mused at how humans were so largely unconscious of it. They seemed to have no appreciation of the remarkable similarities between the smallest grasses and the mightiest pines that shared the forest floor. So much life existed absent consciousness yet it counted for the vast majority of energies invested into living form. Were they able to comprehend that their own life energy might once have inhabited a fern, or might at some future iteration rest in a towering cedar perhaps it would be different. They were yet a long way from this.
A roughly twenty minute ride brought them to the edges of the town where Highway 140 morphed into the South Side Expressway and crossed the Klamath River. 998 observed that they exited to Washburn Way and then headed north. Much of this part of the town was still open space, the buildings increasing gradually as they progressed northward. Nearing a traffic signal at Onyx Avenue the light turned yellow and Paul revved the engine to race into a careening left turn, narrowly clearing an oncoming car whose driver apparently had the same intent of beating the signal change. A horn blared as the car roared away down Washburn. Paul grinned and looked into his mirror to see them pulling away, stuck his arm out the window with his middle finger extended and called out ” Ahh fuck you!”
He rapidly recovered his composure and wheeled to the right into the Taco Bell parking lot, taking the next space in queue for the drive-thru. “We have arrived, dude! Sorry about that back there, you know, the uh…”
“Nah, it’s alright.” That’s what he said. He was thinking that he had just seen a brief exhibition of the innate aggression present in the species. This was their difficult challenge: to preserve enough of this natural instinct to insure that they might do those things necessary for their survival, while tempering it enough to avoid their self destruction. To place it in human terms it was the desire not to tame the species, rather to domesticate the species. For a moment he allowed himself to lament the fact that the vast majority of humans failed to understand the difference between the two.
They were still idling in the drive thru when Paul abruptly made to exit the vehicle. “Dude! Take the wheel a minute, will ya? I gotta go take a pis, be right back!”
Before 998 could utter a response he had dashed away. He clambered over into the drivers seat and quickly familiarized himself with the muscle memory for the operation of the controls. They had only nudged forward two spaces in the line before Paul rushed breathlessly back to the driver door. He uttered a quick “thanks, dude” and slipped back into the drivers seat.
A few minutes later they pulled away from the window with a sack of burritos and two large Baja Blasts. Paul turned back into Washburn northbound and they rode on for many blocks through the town until approaching Shasta Way he signalled right. It was just around the corner now he was assured. They turned past a church then immediately on the right was a white and green sign suspended between two wooden posts, bearing the name High Lakes Apartments.
“Well, here we are dude! I picked the place for the name, right? High – Lakes?” He punctuated this with a little laugh. 998 caught the reference but only smiled. Paul drove ahead to the second lane and pulled in to park along the street next to the third building on the left. High Lakes Apartments was a tiny oasis nestled in between blacktopped lots for surrounding mini strip malls, restaurants and a monolithic Coastal Farm and Ranch store. The complex was comprised of three-storey multi unit apartment buildings. The way they were oriented to the surrounding streets one might easily travel past without even knowing they were there. Paul led the way into the building with 998 close behind. They entered a low ceilinged hall with dim lighting and at the second door on the left Paul selected the right key from his ring and opened up his apartment.
“Come on in! It ain’t much, but hey, it’s a roof and a bed, right?”
“Right, yeah….hey thanks for inviting me like this.”
“No prob, man. Come on! I’m starvin’, aren’t you?
The apartment was small, sparsely furnished, but surprisingly tidy. A couch with an end table and lamp, a recliner, a long, low coffee table that served as a dining area were the main pieces in the room. There was also a stereo stand with a modest sound system, another mismatched stand held an old CRT television and a cable box. The coffee table held a laptop computer, a large, round amber colored ashtray and a variety of smoking paraphernalia. He glimpsed a small kitchenette beyond the room and a short hall leading back to what was presumably the bath and the bedroom.
They took their places on the couch and spread the contents of the bag out on to the table. The wrappings were shed quickly and they devoured the whole thing in mere minutes, washing it down with the sticky sweet sodas until the final gurgle erupted from their straws. 998 had little use of human food, though he had no difficulty ingesting it. He had only the vaguest sense of flavor. He could identify things such as sour, sweet, bitter, salty, but any of the individual nuances of human fare were lost on him. The act of eating was more for the sake of appearances. His bio systems were capable of metabolizing nearly every morsel taken in. Any waste product generated in the process was excreted through the pores.
As expected Paul produced more cannabis and loaded the chamber of his bong to spend an afternoon in a blissful sloth. During that process he retrieved a small rectangular device with multiple buttons, a remote it was called. He held it out and switched on the television. Some manner of sporting event came to life on the screen, the volume low and hardly discernible. In between hits on the bong Paul asked what he liked to watch. 998 selected the safe response to say simply that he didn’t care and really didn’t watch that much television anyway. Paul shrugged and began to scroll rapidly through the channels, scanning the titles until spotting something he considered worthwhile to watch. 998 watched the blur dully, hoping to see or learn something of interest. Suddenly Paul cried out.
“Hah! There we go! The history channel! Ancient Aliens, you ever see this shit?”
This piqued 998’s attention and he focused at the screen intently. A man, still rather young looking, appeared on the screen with a bizarre profusion of hair sticking out haphazardly from his head. He could tell he was speaking, but could not hear.
“Turn the volume up…”
Paul obliged, adding ” Oh, this dudes a trip, man! My boy Giorgio!”
998 listened intently from the television ….
“…the ancient astronaut theory suggests that this is a direct result of extraterrestrials tampering with our DNA, so we’re half human and half extraterrestrial. We’re hybrids…..”
Paul hooted. “Man I’ll tell you what! They do have some real interesting stuff on here, but this dude? Giorgio’s a freak, man!”
” I don’t know, man. There might be somethin’ to that, ya know?”
“Ha! You never seen this? Really?”
“No, but it looks interesting.”
“Yeah, its interesting. Some of the stuff they put on here actually sounds pretty legit, ya know? Its just this guy, man! He’s too much.”
998 listened to more of the theories discussed on the program. There were a number of citations of evidence from ancient earth civilizations, the Sumerians, the Mayans, all of which he was familiar with. He was heartened to hear how much of it they had figured out, though he knew the parts they were missing. It was not expressed in character but inwardly he smiled as he listened further and watched Paul’s engagement with the subject. It was only the two of them and it seemed fateful somehow that he should be offered up such a clear invitation. The protocols suggested it better to allow more time to gain the subjects trust, but his instincts told him that this was a golden opportunity.
“Hey Paul? Don’t you think there must be other life out there?”
“Well yeah, man! I mean the law of probabilities, right?”
“Exactly! Its not so far fetched that somewhere one of them might not have come here, right? Maybe that is how we got here, ya know?”
“Yeah. Maybe. Sure, it’s a plausible thing, I guess.”
“Right. Here, lemme see that remote a minute, will ya?”
Paul pitched the remote over the short distance between them and 998 snatched it out of the air one handed. In one fluid motion he clutched the device, swung it around to point at the screen and switched it off.
“What the fuck you’d do that for?”
“Just chill, dude, okay? I gotta show ya somethin'”
Paul had the start of grin then, seeming to think that there was some kind of joke to come. 998 stood tall and straight in front of him, no more than six feet away. he let his arms fall relaxed at his sides and closed his eyes, training his mind inward.
“What the fuck ya doin’ man?” he asked, still with a bit of amusement in his tone.
998 began to emit a very low subsonic hum, putting a mild pressure on Paul’s eardrums. Paul had only begun to notice this mild discomfort when a brilliant flash of light filled the entire room. Instinctively Paul threw up his arms to shield his face and cried out “Jesus!” The light vanished as suddenly as it had appeared and the hum had ended. As Paul gradually lowered his arms back to his sides and tried to blink away the flash blindness he began to see a fuzzy outline of something standing where John had been. He was having difficulty focusing, though he could tell something wasn’t right. Was it John standing there? What had just happened? He stood up and rubbed his eyes then blinked some more. His sight was growing clearer now. He stepped toward John and…..
“Holy fuck! Ho-lee fuck! What the fuck is…John?”
998 stood before Paul exposed in his true form. He projected a pheromone that exerted a calming effect upon humans and allowed him a moment longer to recover himself. Then he spoke.
“I am the last of my species, Paul. I have been sent for a purpose. You need not fear.”
still more to come. be patient
998 knew that remaining in his true form would be unsettling, a distraction. To calm any anxieties he smoothly reverted to character. The process was much less dramatic than the shedding of character, to human eyes appearing as an instantaneous change. The process was painless for 998, the only sensation involved being that after exiting character one was left with a feeling throughout the body like that experienced when wearing a tight fitting hat for a long period and then after removing it still having the sensation about one’s head that the hat was still on. He now appeared again as John.
Paul was left unsteady. He did not exhibit signs of fear but was now wary, cautiously weighing a decision whether or not to flee. Not flight from fright, rather it was just an instinct to put some distance between himself and something uncertain. Deep down he still needed to be convinced that he would not come to harm. The shock of it was still fresh enough that he remained paralyzed. 998 spoke calmly in the voice of his character.
“I am John. This is how you shall see and know me, Paul. I will not shock you with any further displays. Unless, of course, you still feel you need further proof?”
Paul shuddered then snapped from his daze. ” No no! Its…I….I believe…. I think I believe, uhh….. How the fuck do you do that, man?”
John assumed a kindly, paternal expression. “Oh Paul, dear dear. I couldn’t begin to explain it to you even if I wanted to.” Paul was completely unconscious to the gradual effects that the release of the calming pheromones were having on him. He only knew that his heart rate had resumed a normal rhythm and the adrenaline surge that had jolted his body was now neutralized. 998 had remained skeptical of how effective this agent could be on human behavior. As a matter of science he fully understood the mechanics of this. He was just surprised to find that after so many generations of the genetic makeup of the species being watered down they still carried the same potency as with the lower orders of life on the planet. He had thought that as with the sowers the receptors would have been dulled to the extent that this would no longer be effective. Humans may have reached a stage where they were no longer conscious of this sensory function, but clearly they were still susceptible to the influence. 998 moved this bit of data to have a more prominent place in his processing centers, considering that there might be many circumstances in this mission where this might prove to be vital.
As Paul gradually recovered his equilibrium he began to form questions. A trickle at first and then a flood, so many that he struggled with where to start. 998 observed the rapid activity in Paul’s frontal cortex and patiently waited for him to complete his processing. As this went on for some minutes Paul became aware that his mouth had grown extremely dry. He licked his lips and tried to will his salivary glands to produce, but to no avail. Blankly he rose and went to the kitchen to get some water and returned with his own open bottle and another to offer to 998. He did not need the water but graciously accepted it with a quiet nod as it was placed before him.
“So…. you’re the last? What, like you guys are dying off and trying to repopulate through….Oh ho-lee shit! You tellin’ me Giorgio is right?”
“Not entirely, Paul. Its….its a bit more complicated than that. No. I am the last of my species. There are others.”
“Paul throughout the universe there are nearly as many higher life forms as there are species upon this planet.”
“No shit! Fuck, man! So…..oh man, this is just makin’ more questions….”
“Oh I understand, Paul. This will take some time. But don’t worry. I plan on being here for some time. In fact….in fact, Paul, it’s highly unlikely that I will ever be able to leave. At least not in any sense that you might comprehend.”
“Okay, so you said you had a purpose, right? Like some kind of mission?”
” Yes, you could put it like that. Without any specifics I suppose that would be the best way to describe it.”
“Huh. So, like….umm. Can ya tell me what it is? Not like the whole plan, ya know, I mean like just basically. Ya know, like in a mission statement. Oh…wait….umm, you understand what a mission statement is?”
Making an effort not to seem condescending 998 offered his reassurance in a gentle tone. “Oh certainly, yeah sure, Paul. Yeah I understand that. Lets see….” 998 assumed a pose through his character that indicated that he was searching for the right words. ” To put it in the form of a mission statement. Hmm.” 998 carefully weighed several possible versions for this. “My purpose is to redirect the course of your species, to return it to a path that reaches for your ultimate potential.”
Paul considered this, trying to form a picture of that mission in the context of humanity and it’s present state. ” Okay, so like we’re the wayward child and you’ve come to put us back on the right road?”
“Mmm…..yes, it would be something like that.”
“Huh. Well you may be just in time, dude, ’cause we sure got some things fucked up on this planet. Well, I guess you’d know that or you wouldn’t be here, right?”
“No world is perfect, Paul. We are….we are guides, not creators. At one point it was believed that there was great potential for this world, for your species. There is still that belief. Not shared by all, but on the whole we still have hope for your continued progress.”
“Okay, okay…..Just….just hold on a minute, dude. I need to smoke another bowl.” Paul took the bong and scraped ash and residue from the chamber then methodically repacked it with the pale green, fluffy buds. 998 observed patiently as Paul applied a flame and drew deeply until the fluid churned within the tube. Clouds of the smoke roiled within the orange translucent tube and then spilled slowly from over the rim as Paul pulled away and held the breath deep. A few seconds passed and he exhaled long and slow, tripling the volume of smoke swirling about the room. When the last of the long breath was spent Paul extended the bong and a lighter and a look as to ask would he care for more. 998 politely waved it away.
“So who is “we”, or “they”, or whatever?”
“We are called….In your tongue we are called the sowers. We’re sort of uhhh…. what you might describe as an all-star team from several advanced civilizations. We do on an intergalactic scale what bees essentially do on this planet. That is we move about, mostly unnoticed, and we uhh….just through the course of very random interaction we pollinate worlds, so to speak. To insure the continued advance of life.”
“But you’re not creators? I don’t get it. I mean it sounds like what you’re doing makes you, like, the gods or somethin’. And why? Why even do it?”
A genuine wry smile formed within and translated into the expression on the face of 998’s character. He thought to himself “why indeed?” Before he could attempt any answer Paul continued.
” Is this like how we got the whole thing about the God, like the big boss, and then all the angels? That whole idea? Like you guys are the angels, right? So is there, like, a god? Or gods?”
” There is “god”, Paul. Not “a god”, not “the god”. Or gods. There is just god. God is. But it is not what you think it is. The concepts of a god or the gods? These are just the creations in the minds of sentient beings. Sometimes it is a phenomenon that evolves of its own accord. Most instances, actually. Often, to some degree here on your world, it is a result of a mythos that we may have planted, like a seed left to germinate. Your species, other species, other worlds, these are the fertile ground that we “sow”. We are the sowers.”
“Huh. God is. What the fuck does that even mean, man?”
“It means…. this is difficult, Paul, because your species has all of your preformed means of understanding or describing the concept. “God” is a word, an identifier that your speech requires to indicate the concept of “God”. You have other words that don’t entirely capture the meaning, but they come closer. Nature would be one. Your species often describe natural phenomenon, or the reasons for these, by saying that “it is nature’s way”. What you describe, what most of your species has anthropomorphized to describe as a “god” entity is in fact a universal life force, a form of energy that is omnipresent. It is nature’s way. “It” decides the course of life. All life. We may be able to influence events to steer it in one direction or another. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail. We do not control it. We can not control it. But we have gained a clearer understanding of it. We are masters of nothing. Like you and your species we are simply a part of nature, instruments of whatever purpose nature may hold.”
Paul was spellbound by this explanation. He took up the bong and consumed more cannabis. “Whoa, man! This is some heavy shit, dude! Damn! I always knew all of those churches were full of shit!”
“Oh you should not say that, Paul. Not out of fear of some damnation, that is surely part of the mythology. The churches are not all bad, they have their purposes. Many impart wisdom, guidance. Much of what they have taught are lessons that we brought here to guide the species, Paul. Now it is true that their creeds have often been co-opted by humans for purposes that are wholly human, selfish. But there are still valid teachings there. You just have to look for them, not wait to be told what they are.”
“Oh, right, right! Yeah, I get that. Its not the spiritual thing or the moral thing I got a problem with. It’s the organizations, ya know?”
“I understand, Paul. The organizations are human institutions and like humans they are not perfect. They are the messengers, not the message. Did you know, Paul, that there is no “perfection”? Another human creation, I’m afraid. Everything that “is”, that is that which exists, not that has been made by human hands, everything that “is” is as it was meant to be. It’s not our choice. We must take what is given.”
“Okay, so what about, like, the prophets, then. Or the founders of religion or a movement, or whatever. Was that, like, you guys, or….?”
This was one of the questions to be anticipated. Faith or bias resistance to that which challenges that bias. These were the seeds of doubt, suspicion.
“Let me give you an example, Paul. When I, uh….when I frightened you with my transformation what did you say? You cried out “Jesus”?
“Uhh, yeah. Well that wasn’t a religious thing, ya know. When you’re surprised or scared that’s just one of those expressions that comes out. Kind of a reflex, ya know?”
“Yes, I understand that. But don’t you see? It is a reflection of how deeply rooted this is in your culture. You’re right. Its not religious, not spiritual. Its cultural. Maybe they can not be separated from one another, but they are not the same thing. But I digress…Anyway, Paul, Jesus? He was not one of us. Jesus was a man. He was real. He lived, he was a teacher and a prophet. He imparted wisdom for living in harmony with each other and with nature. That was his purpose. Did he perform miracles? Did he have certain abilities? Yes, he did. For those things he had some help from us. It wasn’t our plan to see him nailed to a tree, that was your doing for your own purposes. There was nothing “divine” about it. All that came later. Someone else’s mythology, a human invention. Jesus was a great messenger and teacher, a guy you certainly wanted around if you wanted to put on a great wedding feast or cure your leprosy, but the son of God? Sorry, but no. Or at least no more than any of the rest of you are.”
Paul seemed to be pondering this deeply, a frown creased his brow. “Wait a minute! Hold on….Yer tellin’ me that you guys, like what? You created Jesus, or gave him the mission or whatever, and then you just left his ass flappin’ in the wind? What the fuck, man?”
“Ah-ah, nature , Paul. We may guide or attempt to guide it a certain direction, but we do not control it.”
“Yeah, okay, but I mean if you can give the dude a mission and help him out with some of the props and shit…. I don’t get it. Ya did that to steer things a certain way and then some other people come along and turn it to shit and you can’t, like do something the same then? Like, not intervene directly, but you know, like you say….you could have done something else to “steer” things a different way, couldn’t ya? Hell, why even do anything then?”
There was some truth in what Paul said, but again it was more complicated than that. He could explain more later, but there were other things Paul would need to learn first. Paul did not persist and allowed these questions to not only go unanswered but not even acknowledged. He was still struggling to make some sense of it on his own when his countenance again changed and he moved to another line of questioning.
“So what about the others, then? Right? Like Mohammed or Siddhartha , or…..hell I don’t know the others. Are they yer guys’ work too? ”
“Siddhartha we can take credit for. Mohammed was spawned as an entirely human reaction to Judeo-Christian teachings, another one sadly co-opted. It’s always when these are taken by those who would pervert the teachings to their own ends that the teaching takes on an ill name and is entirely rejected. This too is in part why I am here.”
A look of understanding crossed Paul’s face with this explanation. ” Oh, I get it now! Yer the janitor, then, right? Come back to clean up somebody else’s mess?”
“I can understand why you might perceive it that way, Paul, but as I say it is more complicated. Much more, I’m afraid. In order for you to fully understand what has been done, or not done as you have noted, there is more that you need to know. This is going to be the most challenging part for you. This is the reason why we must work through messengers and can not reveal ourselves entirely to an entire population. It’s too disruptive.”
Paul had not the slightest inkling what this meant. No conjecture, no attempt to in any way interpret this into something that he thought he might understand. The long pause left hanging at the end of the last statement frustrated him. The longer it went on he became agitated, growing impatient for the rest. 998 did this purposefully. Paul’s face began to blush slightly, his ears grew hot and finally he burst out.
“Well!? What the fuck, man? What is it? Yer not gonna tell me?”
998 remained calm and replied in a soft but steady voice. ” I can tell you, Paul, but you must listen. You must listen to it all and do not interrupt with more questions. You will need to hear this and you will need to allow some time to begin digesting it before you can ask any more questions. Do you understand?”
Paul’s expression was intent upon these words. His face reflected a sickly mix of anger, confusion and fear. It was the panicked look of a caged animal. His nostrils flared steadily as he breathed heavily, slowly calming himself until the tension in him subsided. ” Okay. Sorry. I’ll listen.”
“Paul your observation of what was done, and not done, in the case of Jesus is only one example of what I am about to tell you. Your perception of the event is viewed in a lineal field of time, comprehended within the scope of finite dimension. You can see what was done first then what happened after, and then what happened after that. You perceive actions and reactions. These are real, actions do produce reactions. You know physical laws governing these things. These laws are understood as absolutes, and this is correct, but only in part. Actions and reactions radiate across different planes. What you perceive is within your plane of existence. Your view is spatial,not only in terms of physicality, but your mind has assigned a spatial quality to events as well. Spatial in the sense that it is perceived and defined as within a select set of fields that are linear: past, present, future. Anything that happens, action, reaction, it all falls within before, during or after.”
998 paused here to open the water bottle and take a few sips from it and then cautioned Paul before proceeding.
“You may want to take a few more hits off of that thing before I go on, Paul. In fact, I’m quite certain of it. Go ahead.”
Paul no longer appeared angered or afraid. The flush upon his skin had faded. He now only looked anxious as he heeded 998’s admonition and took in a couple more healthy doses from the bong. 998 waited until he was positive that Paul was done, the bong returned to its place on the table, the lighter out of his hand next to it and he had relaxed back into his seat.
“Paul I will be able to help you fully understand these things as we go on. It can be illustrated for you, but you must first be prepared for it. What I am going to tell you now is only where you can begin this understanding. Paul, time, as you understand it, does not exist. If there is truly time in any sense whatsoever then one would have to say that everything is now. Everything that has, does or will exist does so right now, in this instant as you are living it, but it does so across multiple planes, simultaneously. Likewise for everything that has happened or will happen. These planes are infinite There are planes where you do not exist. There are planes where you were burned alive in childhood. Planes where this planet exists and planes where it doesn’t. Planes where plants are the most advanced life forms. Everything that nature intends that could possibly exist or happen, or not exist or not happen, every possibility in infinity is. You call this God. It is as I told you before. God is. That is a human word, a human understanding for that which has no word, that which can not be known. It can not be known because your are a part of it. So am I. So is this building. So is wet mucus on the snout of a Great Dane 7.2 miles north-northeast of this room.”
998 decided to stop there. Nothing more he could say presently that would make it any easier. Paul sat in a daze. His eyes said that he had heard it all, but they also said he was still trying to process it. He was completely still in his seat, continued to blink at normal intervals. His breathing and heart rate were steady. Looking blankly ahead, with no trace of emotion or animation in his voice he quietly said, ” I’m gonna need more fuckin’ dope”
998 had broken the rules. He had broken protocols on exposure, but that was a trifle. He had broken the big rule, rule numero uno. He had instead of planting the seeds of a new truth, he had revealed the truth. Knowing this truth he finally understood that the rule did not matter. The truth was like Dylan: it means everything and nothing at the same time. And no matter how many times it was revealed it never made any difference in the grand scheme of things because of one other simple and absolute truth. The truth just doesn’t translate.
As anyone on the south side of Chicago knows when Cubs fans die they go to hell. This was true for one Cubs fan who passed away earlier this year, we’ll call him Bob. My apologies in advance to all of you Roberts out there.
Bob was an unfortunate victim of a City of Chicago Department of Sanitation truck back in March, before his beloved Cubs had even begun their 2016 season. Upon his arrival in hell he was escorted to the section reserved for Cubs fans, a ballpark with an uncanny resemblance to Wrigley Field except that there is no Old Style and there are simmering sulfur pits where the bleachers would be. It’s a crowded place, standing room only and the inhabitants are compelled to wear paper bags over their heads. Even though they are in hell they are accorded the one comfort of anonymity.
The Devil usually doesn’t spend much time around this corner of his domain as he has more important matters to concern himself with. This year, however, was different. As the Cubs began to show signs of a legitimate run at the pennant in the over-world it was brought to his attention that the Cubs section of hell was beginning to experience odd disturbances. This phenomenon has occurred before. Every few years the Cubs begin to show signs of life, hope grows and the negative energy gets thrown off kilter, but always things have been restored to a state of sustained misery. By late August of this year the situation in Cubs’ hell had reached a crisis, so much so that for the first time in many a year it required the Devil’s personal attention.
In the third week of August 2016 he popped in to have a look with his own eyes and noted that there was indeed something out of the norm. In recent years much of the technology in hell has been upgraded to include “smart home” features. The Devil pulled out his Android phone ( in hell not even he can obtain an I-Phone) and accessed the climate control app to crank up the heat by about 20 degrees. On a lark he decided to stick around and observe the results. In spite of the now toasty 152 F temperature he noted that Bob still seemed to be almost… what was it? Was that a smile on his face? Puzzled the Devil decided to investigate this more closely. Rather than try to fight through the crowded aisles he spread his wings and let the heated updraft lift him above the section until he was hovering a few feet above Bob’s head. In spite of the paper sacks the Devil has the ability to see the faces of all of the inhabitants. He’s not always good with names, but despite the boast upon the entryway billboard, “Welcome to Hell, 7 billion served and counting”, he can honestly say that he never forgets a face.
“Hmm….you’re new, aren’t you?” the Devil bellowed down to Bob.
With an idiotic grin Bob replied ” Ah, not so much. I dunno…think I been here since March. What month is this?” Given that hell is generally an eternal proposition there are no calendars.
The Devil found himself oddly amused, rather than angered by Bob’s seemingly flippant reply. ” It’s August, fool. I’m more of an American League follower, so I usually don’t bother much with you over here.” This was true. How else do you account for the Yankees having won so many series? The Devil resumed ” So! How are you finding the temperature today?”
With his moronic expression still displayed beneath the bag Bob replied, in his best nasally Chicago accent ” Yeah, it’s not too bad. Kinda like one of those balmy Chicago days in May.”
This came as a bit of an affront, but the Devil chose to treat it as trifle and floated on to tend other more pressing issues in the Muslim section. There were always problems in the Muslim section! There were days when he regretted ever agreeing to take them. The importation of camel shit alone was a growing burden on the aging infrastructure. He made a mental note to stop back here soon and keep a careful eye on the situation.
Ten days passed to the very end of the month when he returned to find Bob and a number of the other residents displaying a disturbing set of emotions ranging from contentment to something almost approaching happiness. He certainly wasn’t expecting this, but no cause for alarm. Like most CEOs the Devil is accustomed to being in charge and not easily rattled. He simply pulled out his phone, accessed the requisite app and cranked up the heat to 180 F. As he tapped the final command on the screen and closed the app he was feeling satisfied that this would achieve the desired effect. It was not because of any doubt, rather because he now recalled fond memories of just how much he enjoyed tormenting these people, that he decided to tarry there a bit longer. The sulfur was already beginning to bubble more rapidly and the distorting glimmer of the heat rising from the field signaled that the new temp commands had been accepted. If only he’d had this technology during the inquisition!
He observed that the veil of misery had mostly returned to the section, though clearly the full effect was yet to come. Curiously Bob still seemed unaffected. He obviously required a more personalized attention. The Devil hovered over Bob for the second time in as many weeks.
“Hey there, fool! Remember me?”
“Yeah, yeah….yer the boss, right?”
Pleased to hear his authority acknowledged a sneer formed upon his mouth as he replied. ” Damn straight, asshole! How ya likin’ it today?”
Beneath his paper bag Bob blinked the dripping sweat away from his eyes and cheerily volunteered ” Yeah, not too bad. Kinda like one of those sticky days in Chicago in late July, ya know?”
The Devil was uncertain whether Bob was just exceedingly stupid or if he was trying to deliberately provoke a violent response. Almost like a reflex, with almost no thought given to the action at all the Devil flexed his tail and whipped it behind Bob to insert the barbed tip firmly into his rectum. With a leering smile on his lips the Devil inquired ” How ’bout now, fool?”
Bob grimaced and then groaned. Through clenched teeth he replied ” Ooh! Yeah, these benches are killin’ me this year! My hemorrhoids are flarin’ up. Son-of-a-bitch!”
” Good! Good! Thats what I like to hear!” Satisfied that he had finally corrected the imbalance the Devil went on to a 1:30 conference with the Catholic bishops. He’d been skeptical of this lot, but had to admit that they had really proven to be team players, a welcome addition to the staff.
Nearly a month passed with no further alarms from the Cubs section and the Devil had almost put them back out of mind. Daily status reports indicated the return of some irregularities coming from the Cubs section. A late September staff meeting with Caligula, Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer listed this as a possible action item and was briefly discussed. Hitler, whose counsel the Devil had come to increasingly rely upon since 1956, assured the committee that this, like the panics of ’98, ’01 and ’03 , would also pass. Historically the higher Cubs hopes rose the more precipitously they would ultimately fall. Probably nothing to worry about. The same had occurred last season too. The Devil was inclined to agree with the assessment, though the mocking nonchalance of Bob stuck in his head. He instructed the staff to keep him apprised of any further developments.
Through the month of October the data remained concerning yet confidence of the Cubs eventual fall still prevailed. On October 11 when the Cubs defeated the Giants in game 5 of their National League Division Series and advanced to the League Championship Series alarms began to sound. These alerts had become fairly common over the past 20 years or so. Every few seasons the Cubs would show something to raise hopes, but always it proved to be a false alarm. With this being the second year in a row that they were mounting a credible run the alarms demanded closer attention. This year, with the US Presidential election entering its home stretch between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the Devil’s attentions were focused upon that drama and thus the Cubs situation remained in the hands of his subordinates. This was a professional operation, after all. If it came to it the Devil, as an individual, and hell, as an organization, were equipped to handle multiple crises.
When the Dodgers blanked the Cubs in game three to take a 2-1 lead it was believed that the crisis had passed. A wave of pessimism swept over Cubs hell and the negativity was nearly restored to its proper balance. With the final presidential debate looming the Devil breathed a sigh of relief that he could remain focused on that contest. Soon Hillary would win the election and order would be restored to the underworld. It was times like these that it was good to be the king!
On the night of October 22 that new-found confidence was shaken. The Cubs had blanked the Dodgers 5-0 in game six and were now headed to the World Series for the first time since 1945. An emergency staff meeting was convened in the wee hours of the morning on the 23rd. The Devil was tired. Election years were especially taxing. Now he was pissed and he wanted answers. Not only were the Cubs going to the series but they were set to face another perennial loser, the Cleveland Indians.
This was the full staff this time: Hitler, Caligula, Dahmer, Saddam (the junior member), Bundy, Pol Pot, Khomeini, Stalin and Degaulle. Tensions were high and nerves taut in the conference room as the Devil made his entrance in full combat fatigues. Beads of perspiration formed on Hitler’s forehead, his eyes nervously darting about the table as he fidgeted with a sheaf of folders in front of him. Paper was still the medium for records and reports conducted in the conference room. Situated deep within the bowels of hell laptops and tablets were worthless as the wi-fi signal was unable to penetrate this deep and ancient cavern. The staff waited breathlessly for the Devil to start the meeting. Though he put on a veneer of calm control there was an iciness in his tone as he opened.
“What the fuck is going on here, people? I’m hip deep in shit with this election, I got Putin trying to screw the pooch in Syria, Assad trying to score brownie points with me slaughtering his own people, the Iranians still pulling their shit, all of this….” he gestured here with a wide sweep of his clawed right hand for emphasis, ” …and I gotta take time out to deal with fucking baseball!?”
Several staff members shifted nervously in their seats, not daring to raise their eyes at the Devil but anxiously stealing glances at each other across the table. The Devil in his customary fashion on such occasions left a long pause for dramatic effect, letting the lingering silence scream with the same volume as his sonorous voice. They were never certain how much of it was real and how much was mere drama. This was by design, of course. Always best to keep them off balance. Each member of this team brought their own unique qualifications, but the nature of each was such that they were never to be trusted completely. Fear was the best remedy for this and what greater fear than the unknown? The Devil sensed that he’d succeeded in instilling enough of that fear and given the gravity of the situation now relented and dropped the pretense, getting down to the business at hand.
“Alright. Adolf? Sit-rep, quickly!”
Hitler opened the folder on top of his stack and licked his lips. He opened his mouth to begin to speak, then halted to clumsily retrieve his reading glasses. Properly adjusted at the bridge of his nose he began. ” The Cubs have defied the probabilities since game 3 of the divisional series. We have reason to believe that this is due in part to Trump having secured the Republican nomination, but in any case the actuarial tables still point toward their defeat. I would remind all of you again that this is the first world series berth they have gained since the year I joined the staff here. They lost in that contest and odds favor their doing so again. The Indians, on the other hand, though they have been unsuccessful, have at least earned several trips to the series during that long drought. Their roster has more players with championship experience and…..” he paused here for dramatic effect and beamed about the room with a triumphant look, “… the mayor of Chicago is, as you all know of course, a fucking Jew! Our best data has the Cubs chance for victory fixed between only an 11-18% chance.”
Khomeini and Saddam nodded appreciatively as Hitler spat out the words fucking jew with such utter contempt. DeGaulle, another dedicated anti-Semite, likewise reacted with approval. He and Joseph Kennedy had been discussing this with Henry Ford over tea just last Thursday. The Devil’s face betrayed no reaction one way or the other. He moved on briskly.
“Pol Pot! Where are the Asians on this whole thing?”
The diminutive Pot squinted from behind his inscrutable visage, his look fixed upon no one in particular and weakly croaked ” We don’t give a fuck. Like you say, boss. Its fucking baseball.”
The Devil fixed him a smoldering glare but offered no other response. He made a note to himself that when this had all passed he would want to move up Mr. Pot’s annual performance review. Pot was a highly capable administrator, easily the least scrupulous since Stalin, but he found that his sour attitude was wearing thin on his patience. He looked about the table, processing the attitude of the staff as much as any data.
“Dahmer? Bundy? What about your posse? Anything to add?”
Dahmer just mutely shook his head. Bundy, in his nauseatingly obsequious manner bared his pearly white teeth and offered ” No, nothing to add here my Lord.” That Bundy. Always sucking up. A real prick. The Devil often thought if he’d ever had a son he’d want him to turn out like Bundy.
He searched the faces of the staff, rhythmically tapping a lone talon upon the onyx tabletop. This might be a situation that called for the special talents of Caligula. He was, since Judas Iscariot’s demotion to shit shoveller, the senior staff member after all.
“Cal? We have anybody on this Cubs roster morally compromised that we can leverage? I mean more than normal. Bestiality, pedophilia, an Oedipus case? Anything of that nature?”
Caligula raised his arms from his flowing robes and casually examined his manicure. He was going to have to go back to that Vietnamese girl next time! He cleared his throat and replied in his stentorian voice. ” We’ve, ah… looked into this at some length. There are some suspicions, but nothing has been confirmed yet. We’re still digging.”
There it was. That was always what had most impressed him about Caligula. You didn’t need to give the man any direction. You could always count on him to do the job right. The Devil nodded. ” Mmm. Thank you, Cal. See that you do. Time is running short. Do you need any more resources?”
Caligula nonchalantly returned his hands to the folds of his robes where he was likely playing with himself. ” No, nothing we can’t handle. I’ll turn up the heat, don’t worry. When we have something you’ll know.”
The Devil was not entirely comforted by what he had heard from his team, but they were a capable group. Hitler’s analysis of the historical probabilities was reliable . Due in large measure to his own dedication to his job history did have a dependable tendency to repeat itself. That and the fact that the average human being was so self delusional in their thinking that they rarely learned from their mistakes. Being entirely honest about it, as contrary to his nature as this was, this was the one thing more than any other that had assured the long continuing success of his franchise. The Devil was thorough to a fault. His clever mind raced through possibilities to be certain that all the bases had been covered. He grinned to himself at the pun, leaving his staff to wonder at the source of his amusement. Another brilliant gem leaped to the forefront of his mind and he determined how he would conclude this council.
“Alright then. As this is an emergency conference there are no other agenda items slated. Does anyone have anything else that we should cover? Anyone? Syria, the Philippines? Chuck what about you? Anything new brewing in France? You’ve had a banner year!”
Degaulle fingered his mustache and offered a modest nod to acknowledge the compliment, but quietly replied that no, he had nothing new to add.
“Alright, I want all of you to stay on top of this and text me if you have any new developments. I don’t need to remind you all of the gravity of this situation. A Cubs victory in the series could have catastrophic results for us all. Adolf? I want you and Uncle Joe to round up Tupac and the rest of his crew. We have six days before game 3 at Wrigley. You send their black asses to Chicago to round up some thugs for a drive by. If it all starts going south I want a team ready to put a cap in those Cubs. Got it?”
Stalin and Hitler nodded their silent assent and the Devil dismissed the meeting. He remained there alone for several minutes, idly stroking his pointed beard and admiring his reflection in the highly polished onyx tabletop. He was feeling more assured that they had this under control, but still…. That idiotic grin on Bob’s face haunted his sleep.
Game one was comforting with the Cubs shut out 6-0. With game two also in Cleveland the odds favored the Tribe jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the series. With the next three games at Wrigley they might need it. For a time he considered attending game two in person. He’d always liked Cleveland. Definitely in the top five destinations in the US. This was too much of a risk, though. It could be construed as an overt effort to influence the outcome and invite unwanted help for the Cubs. The Devil knew that God could give a shit about baseball as a rule. No sense in drawing the attention.
The Cubs managed to even up the count in game two, but the next two nights seemed to bear out Hitler’s analysis. With a 3-1 lead the Indians could finish it in game five. The added insult of having their long hopes crushed on their home field would be enough to restore utter misery to Cubs hell for a decade at least! But the Cubs survived their last night at home with a 3-2 win. Spirits in hell were still high, though. Only one game away and the next two nights, if needed, at Cleveland. Everything favored the Cubs being vanquished and hell would remain safe for another year.
The Devil and his entourage celebrated their high holiday of Halloween by surrounding Cubs hell with crate upon crate of Cubs bobble-heads. Anyone who is anyone in hell showed up and skewered the bobble-heads upon stakes and set them afire, taunting the suffering Cubs fans cruelly. It was a veritable orgy of a voodoo-like ritual. If there was any glimmer of hope left in the hearts of Cubs fans it was heavily veiled by a cloud of shame and despondency. It was looking like it would be business as usual; in hell and in major league baseball.
The following night was game 6 in Cleveland and all eyes in hell, except for Cubs hell of course, were on the game. At the start of the ninth inning, with the Cubs leading 7-2, the Devil was doing a slow burn. When the Cubs hammered two more runs in the 9th he’d had enough.
” Son of a bitch!”, he shrieked. From that distant corner of hell he heard the buzz of excitement coming from Cubs residents. ” WTF! How do they know? I’m gonna fix this shit right now!” The Devil roared from his seat and soared about the vast caverns of hell as he dialed up the climate control app on his phone. As he descended over Cubs hell he cranked up the heat to 360 F and hovered overhead to observe the licking flame and boiling sulfur. ” Ha! That’ll fix those assholes! ” As he admired his handiwork he noted that Bob, although constantly hopping from one foot to the other and waving his arms frantically, was still wearing a beatific smile. His brow creased to a furious scowl and he swooped down low just over Bob’s head.
“What the fuck are you grinning about, you asshole?” the Devil demanded.
Continuing his tormented dance Bob replied between gasps for air ” Hey…<huff>, hey there….<huff-puff> Just like….<huff-puff>…a….steamy…<huff>…..August…..after- <huff-puff>….noon….<huff>….at Wrigley!”
The Devil was not amused. ” Oh, you think so, huh asshole? Well you just keep dancing like that for the next 24 hours and I’ll check back with you then. We’ll see what tune you’re singing then, you wise-ass!”
The following night in Cleveland it was a tight game. The Cubs jumped ahead, but through 6 innings the Indians kept within reach. Then came the rain delay. The Devil consciously maintained calm, but a sinking feeling began in the pit of his foul stomach. The game resumed, the 7th inning passed with no additional score. In the bottom of the 8th the Tribe tied the game and the minions of hell sat through a nail-biting, scoreless 9th that took the game to extra innings. Game 7. Tied game, tied series, extra innings, all of the makings of “one for the ages”. The Cubs scored two runs in the top of the 10th to take an 8-6 lead. Now it was up to the Indians.
They closed to within one run and the Cubs dug deep into their bullpen for a saver. When the Cubs made the final out a stunned Devil was rendered speechless. The lights went out, the furnaces choked and a sheen of ice descended over every square inch of hell. In the distance he heard Bob’s manic cries echoing in the darkness. ” Cubs Win! Cubs Win! Cubs Win!”
A week later Donald Trump won the presidential election. Hell is closed and the dead are up walking around in Washington DC.