After about four months of complete inactivity here, I thought I’d post some creative writing. I doubt there’s much interest (little traffic here), but as Steve Martin used to say to the audience during his stand-up days, “I don’t need you, I can do this act alone. I often do.”
So, I just finished reading Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole. Hard to get through, but mostly because the things it describes are going on all around me today. If you haven’t read it, give it a go. It’s about the frustration and helplessness of the vast army of unemployed and underemployed.
In Greenwood’s novel, the main characters end up escaping starvation only by means of corruption and criminality. The question is, when organized social movements are impossible, what else might people do? The choice is die silently or act criminally.
What has always puzzled me is why those who choose to act out violently always do it in the most pointless way–murdering other poor people, for instance. What might happen if they retaliated against those who are really oppressing them?
The history of Literature offers us many examples of tales revealing the hypocrisy, violence, and corruption that created the current ruling class. To offer just one example, consider Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables, where he makes it quite clear that America’s ruling class got its wealth and power the way all ruling classes do–by murder and theft, and then establishing law and order to keep anyone from doing to them what they did to those before them. No tag-backs. Hawthorne couldn’t be more explicit about it, but he sees no solution. The have-nots just need to hope for miracles or luck to magically transport them out of poverty–they can’t be justified in using force to take back what was forcibly taken from them.
The whole genre of detective fiction is largely based on exactly this–the poor, in daily contact with the idle rich, decide to get wealth and power the same way the ancester’s of the idle rich got it…and the detective must catch them, imprison them, and restore the spoils to the original plunderers.
So, what if someone among the have-nots decided to take revenge against the haves, to resort to the same violence that was used to get possession of the world in the first place? How would the sons and daughters of the 1% fair in open combat?
The remainder of Durdára Bodhicitta will just remain on my desk for now I suppose, an old-fashioned manuscript with a rubber band around it. It didn’t seem to have generated much enthusiasm, and it would probably take reading it all the way through for it to have the effect of inspiring any real action.
Instead, here’s a chapter from another novel that sits on the corner of my desk. It’s called Revolution. Artist and explores the effects of dangerous works or art on already discontented audiences. Reading Greenwood reminded me of this chapter–the character’s a kind of twentieth-century Harry Hardcastle (the protagonist of Love on the Dole).
When Mike Goodrich acts, what kind of action might he take, given his analysis of the situation?
Chapter Eleven: Escape from Pleasure Island
When we were kids, when we were eight or ten, that was the only time we had friends, Mike thinks. What is it that made us stop having friends?
Going down to the school playground on our bikes, until there were enough kids and somebody would say do you want to go to the pond to swim or does anyone have enough money to play putt golf. What happened to that world where Pogs and Bubble Tape and Beanie Babies were so important, where we couldn’t wait to play Hackey Sack and Bop It at recess, and it was so cool to roll up one pant leg but nobody really knew why?
Was it just growing up that killed that way of being, when getting up in the morning was full of anticipation, when things were fun and always would be? Does everyone have to outgrow that? Or is this different, a part of the change in the way the world is, every new fad soured by the knowledge that it’s a ruse to make a quick buck, already old by week’s end, and all eyes turned back to wifi devices and the constant craving for a feed, an input, the next message that will be the one that’s important…
Ah hell, that can’t be it. No, that’s all crap, all nonsense, just a distraction. How is it any different from the radio, the television, even our Tamagachi’s?
It’s not the technology that’s the problem, Mike decides: it’s the loss of hope.
Hope. Sure. When we were kids we all had infinite hope, belief that things would always get better, faster, cooler, bigger. That we would always get richer, find more exciting things to do than miniature golf and Hackey Sack: snowboarding, mountain climbing, sailing around the world. Trips to outer space and hotels at the bottom of the ocean. We wouldn’t live our lives in the suburbs, with their dying old trees and cracked sidewalks and decaying strip malls. No, these trees, these sidewalks, these parks and school playgrounds and backyard tree houses, these were just our training ground, the place we played and had fun while we waited for real life to begin.
So, why hadn’t it ever begun? Why had so many of the kids he’d grown up with gotten way more education than their parents ever thought of, at enormous expense, only to find out the jobs were all gone, only to wind up working part time jobs for temp agencies, wondering how long they could keep deferring student loans?
Ah, but he was one of the lucky ones. Mike knows this. He hadn’t majored in anything popular and cool: computer science or film studies or cognitive science. No, he became an actuary, and while all his classmates were finding out that a degree in computer science meant shit next to some teenager with Asperger’s syndrome who could write code for an app in a day, and a degree in film studies was a joke if you had no family connections in the industry, Mike was recruited at an insurance firm with a starting salary of 80k and the promise of big raises and promotions if he just kept passing those actuarial exams. And so he spent the next five years taking exams, working seventy-hour weeks, and still dreaming of the day when his real life would begin…until he couldn’t bear it anymore.
Was it his own weakness? If he’d toughed it out, forgone a social life, any kind of enjoyment—for how long, maybe another five years?—then he would have been up in the 200k range, a supervisor, working regular nine-to-five hours and delegating. He would have had it all, right?
But what would he have had, exactly? All his friends were gone. Women, well, he was pursued by half the women at work, but they were more interested in his salary than his soul, and they expected him to be interested in the same thing: they flirted by telling him how much they made, how much their cars cost, what neighborhood their condo was in. He’d stopped dating completely. He started reading the Thomas Hardy novels he’d been supposed to read in his one college lit class, the ones he’d only read the Sparknotes for. He fell in love with Eustacia Vye and Bathsheba Everdeen for a while. But eventually, even Victorian novels are a poor substitute for human life.
He began drinking in the evenings, to make it bearable to sit in front of the television, to help him fall asleep. Eventually, the hangovers were hard and the drinking took its toll and he discovered meth could help him get through the days, keep him focused on the mindless tedium of actuarial work. But then even that became too much, and he found himself focusing on things unrelated to work, unable to attend to his job: first trying futilely to derive a simpler proof of Fermat’s last theorem in algebraic number theory; eventually, just rolling dice and keeping endless tables of the outcomes, and obsessing about the tumble of a die as the ultimate border of contingency and determination.
He failed an actuarial exam. He failed to get reports finished. He went to rehab, three times. He lost his job.
At the same time, he felt ashamed and humiliated and also indifferent and justified. Why had he been working such insane hours to make money that all went to pay back student loans, and to pay an astronomical mortgage on a condo he spent very little time in, a car he drove only to the office and back? At the end of each year, he had nothing saved, and could remember no moment of enjoyment, save those times he would sit in front of the television watching superhero movies, getting drunk and daydreaming of playing Pogs on the fifth-grade playground, or riding bikes to the old quarry to jump in the icy water on a summer afternoon.
His father stopped speaking to him, his mother called to berate him and tell him how disappointed they were, how hard they had worked to give him every opportunity!
Had they worked hard? He didn’t remember that. His mother was always home when he got home from school, his father would come in the door at 4:30, open a beer and turn on the television. There were no weekends in the office, no cramming for exams that determined promotions, and no money worries. Mike had never been sure what his father did, exactly, at the plastics factory in Deep River, but he was well paid, worked a forty-hour week, and had health insurance, a pension plan, and enough money for a new station wagon every other year, two weeks every summer at a rented house on Cape Cod, energy in the evening to play softball with the church league in summer, bowling league in winter, fishing trips with the boys on the Long Island Sound.
Mike became furious with his parents, angry beyond containment at their judgment of him. And this guided his analysis of the situation into channels he might otherwise have ignored, explanations that certainly never would have been considered in his college economics courses.
He got an actual paper notebook and began to sketch an economic outline of his family’s history for the past three generations. His great-grandfather’s work as a journeyman carpenter, his grandfather’s service during the Korean War and subsequent job in the Connecticut State prison system, buying a house on a GI mortgage, having four kids and no thought of paying for their college, no thought of giving them the kind of leg-up he got from American bellicosity. Mike’s father just missed the Vietnam era, but landed a job at Graeber Plastics in Deep River at around the time that Reagonimics money started the economy rising. They had a union, and some defense department contracts, and Don Goodrich moved up, made good money, bought a suburban ranch house. When the housing bubble happened in 2000, Mike’s parents sold their ranch house for five times what they paid for it, bought a little condo. When the bubble burst in 2007 and Graeber plastics all but shut down, Don Goodrich took early retirement, coming back to work as a supervisor when the factory had a contract to make some molded plastic crap and ran at two shifts for three or four months, then closed up again.
A pattern began to emerge in the busy swirl of twentieth-century lives. At its center was debt. Working as he did with the concepts of risk and monetary compensation, Mike had no illusions that money was anything other than a symbol of power. A dollar bought what those in power decided it would buy, and there was no such thing as an invisible hand or a free market. But more importantly, a person’s life was worth whatever those in power decided it was, at so many dollars an hour, and there was no real power to negotiate, no way to opt out of the game. We are born, Mike though, in debt; it our original sin, against the God of Money. The entire surface of the planet is private property, and if we want have permission to live on it, we have to sell our future to those who own it, at whatever rate they choose to offer. The trick, for those in power, is to never pay enough for an hour of human labor to let the majority of people ever get ahead, or even out of debt.
It was no different from being a peasant in medieval Europe, owing the noble a certain number of days a year of work in return for living on his land, being allowed to grow your own food, being protected from enemies. Or, it was different, because at least that was an honest and open relationship. Now, we pretended it was some eternal entity called the economy that forced us to work, and we couldn’t blame the noble for not protecting us, for not allowing us enough time and common land to feed ourselves, that was the fault of the great impersonal and inscrutable god Economy.
And how had we become enslaved to this God of debt, become pawns in the game of exchange played by the wealthy? Ah, this one had puzzled Mike for some time, but now he saw the truth of it.
We had been sold into slavery by the so-called Great Generation.
They accepted the enormous national debt, allowed the whole world to be bought up by fewer and fewer real estate investors, and in return they got good jobs with high wages and short hours, suburban houses and gas-guzzling cars, pensions and vacations and plenty of leisure time, televisions and swimming pools and back-yard barbecues. They’d never see the first payments on that debt; their children, and their children’s children, would have to pay that piper.
In his fury, Mike Goodrich couldn’t imagine that the post-WWII generation was duped, naive, fooled by the promise of perpetual prosperity. No, he was sure they knew what they were doing, that they sold their progeny into serfdom to the great god currency, and for what? For two decades of sitting in a Barcalounger drinking beer and watching Gilligan’s Island, for full bellies and comfortable beds and weekend trips to the Poconos, and most of all for the right to belittle the younger generation for not being as successful and hardworking as they were. But Mike could see that his generation had nothing left to sell; even if they wanted to sell their children into serfdom to the mystical entity Debt, it was too late, that sale had been made, and the proceeds were in the bank accounts and property values of a host of decrepit retirees, living out twenty or thirty years of nonproductive idleness, or early-bird dinners and weekday tee times and afternoon book clubs, their reward for their perfidy, their thirty pieces of silver.
And how had they tricked his whole generation into going along? How had they produced an entire cohort not only unable to understand the economics of their own situation, but so desperately terrified of the very act of thinking that they never will come close to understanding it?
Simple enough: by giving them a childhood on Pleasure Island. And the voice they drowned out with their video games and their mp3 players wasn’t the voice of conscience. No, it was the voice of reason and logic and critical thought, squashed dead as the cricket in the actual book Pinocchio by a long easy childhood of play and an education that was reduced to the mere repetition of simplistic accounts of the world, lessons in how to use calculators and computer software, in how to cheat your way around understanding and thinking and contact with real causes and effects.
On days when he wasn’t doing accounts at E-Z-T Clean, he couldn’t bear to sit around his parents’ condo while his father talked back to Fox News and his mother talked on the phone in the kitchen. The condo smelled of beer and potpourri, and if he left the guest bedroom at all his father would start complaining loudly to his mother about how lazy he was, and suggesting that they should kick him out, let him live on the streets to toughen him up. Or suggesting he should enlist in the military, or launch into a diatribe about how many jobs there were out there, if people today just weren’t too lazy to work at them. Once, Mike had tried explaining to his father that on minimum wage in the state of Connecticut one earned less than the average rent of a studio apartment.
“Bullshit,” Don shouted, growing red in the face. “We lived on less than that when we were your age! You’re all just spoiled brats. We spoiled you rotten.”
So Mike stopped trying to talk to his father. But his father’s fury at him only increased his belief that his parents had knowingly sold him into slavery, indentured their progeny to the anonymous god of Exchange Value.
Once the weather got warm, most days he slipped out early and drove his old Kia to the amusement park they’d gone to every year as kids. Bergman Fields.
Days spent here were anticipated for weeks, anxiously watching the evening weather reports, fingers crossed that fathers would be able to get the day off, that there would be a big enough group of kids old enough to ride the cool rides, not so old they’d sulk by the picnic tables declaring the place lame. Sometimes it would be cousins from out of state, other times the neighborhood kids that played freeze tag and Frisbee on front lawns, drew chalk pictures on sidewalks and caught fireflies in mayonnaise jars after dinner. Mike’s parents clearly preferred the days spent with relatives, were awkward and made empty smalltalk with the neighbor parents; but Mike and his brother and sister much preferred the times that three or even four neighborhood families went to Bergman Fields on the same day.
On those days, the amusement park was lit up in some inexplicable way: it was brighter in light and sound, the rides more thrilling, the prizes at the carnie games wonderfully important. Mike had won a stuffed monkey shooting basketballs into undersized hoops when he was nine, and had kept that monkey on his bed until he moved out of his parents’ condo after college. In high school, even in college, when a girlfriend cheated on him or he had to spend a summer at a dreaded tedious job, he would sit on his bed in the evening and look at that monkey and think “someday, my life will be that happy again, when I have my own family it will be that happy all the time.”
Bergman Fields hadn’t changed much. There were a few new rides. One of his favorites from childhood was gone, a spinning rocket that only he and Emma Little from down the street had ever had the nerve to ride as kids, riding it together every summer for years, holding hands and screaming. Some of the old gravel paths had been paved with asphalt. The funnel cake stands were mostly gone, replaced with new kinds of treats: freeze-dried ice cream, Dippin’ Dots, kettle corn. The log cabin where they took antique-looking photos—everyone dressed up as wild-west outlaws, or 1930s gangsters, 1960s Hippies—looked exactly the same. Somehow, it had always seemed that if everyone got into the right costume, posed just right, that immortalizing the day in a sepia-tinted photograph would…what? Give their whole lives meaning? Reassure them that happiness was possible? Something like that. Mike still had two of those photographs, still kept them easily available wherever he went: one with family and his cousins from Massachusetts dressed up as cowboys, another with most of the kids from his street when he was eight dressed up at gangsters and molls, in little double-breasted pin-striped suits or flapper dresses (Emma Little had insisted on dressing in a boys outfit, and holding a tommy gun).
Had he really been as happy then as he remembered? Looking at the kids walking around now, unable to get their parents attention aways from iPhones, to get fathers to look up and wave to them on the merry-go-round, or mothers to stop texting and listen to how exciting the log flume was, he wondered if it was really any different. Sure, his parents didn’t have cell phones to distract them, but were they any more enthusiastic about their kids enjoyments? Plus, the kids all looked tired and cranky, and slightly nauseous from too much sugar and too many spinning rides. Had he and his siblings and the neighborhood kids been any different? Were they happy, or just dazed by excess of animal pleasures and the vague promise of some unspecified greater pleasure always yet to come? Looking at these kids, sunburned and grimy and whining, he could almost see them turning into donkeys like Pinocchio.
At home in the afternoons, he would try to eat a late lunch and get out of the house before dinner time, to avoid hearing his father’s grumbling about still having to feed his kids (he always used the plural, although Mike’s older siblings were long gone and almost never contacted their parents, even on holidays).
And every time he opened the cabinet to take out a CorningWare plate to make a sandwich on, he’d see the shelf below the dishes, packed full with square plastic medication bottles, the kind with the easy-open tops that people with arthritis could get if they signed a waiver at the pharmacy. Mike had counted them once, read all the labels, checked the prices printed on the stack of pharmacy receipts tucked along the edge of the shelf, carefully kept for tax purposes. Between them, his parents took eleven prescriptions, costing a total of two-thousand-seven-hundred dollars a month. They complained about the hundred and ten they paid on copayments. But that was over thirty thousand dollars a year paid by insurance, and eventually by Medicare, to keep his parents alive without them having to put any effort into changing their lifestyles: cholesterol pills, medications for their type-2 diabetes, for heart disease, for urinary incontinence and erectile dysfunction and high blood pressure and gout. All this, and they were both overweight, ate more sugar than Mike had even as a kid, never got more exercise than it took to walk from the golf cart to the green. And they were both barely past sixty. A generation ago, people so idle, so careless of their health, so fond of Ben and Jerry’s (his mother) and Johnny Walker (his father) would have expected to have no more than a decade left of idle puttering around the house, watching Wheel of Fortune and reruns of The Waltons, driving to Olive Garden for the early-bird special. But today, with a steadily increasing supply of drugs, and increasingly regular medical procedures, they would last, unproductive and uninterested, another twenty-five years or more.
Mike’s two living grandparents, his mother’s father and his father’s mother, were both living in a senior living complex in Hamden. They’d sold their houses, turned over every penny plus their pensions and social security checks, to live in an enormous complex with an indoor pool, shuffle-board courts, and rubberized walking path around the perimeter of the manicured grounds. They had watercolor painting classes, silver-sneaker aerobics, “book clubs” where a dozen women with Alzheimer’s watched BBC productions of Dickens novels, the occasional bus trip to a nearby community theater production of Oklahoma! Both were nearing ninety now, and had been retired for more than a quarter of a century, all their money long depleted, their every passing month paid for at the expense of the taxpaying public.
Mike hadn’t visited them since he was still in college. Even then, neither was sure who he was, and they didn’t seem interested in what he was doing. They seemed to him to be waiting politely for him to leave, to get back to their television.
And now, this infuriated Mike. His parents’ medications, his grandparents’ hotel-like living conditions, all seemed to be an unfair burden placed on him. Because within his new understanding of the economics of American capitalism, they had purchased these decades of idleness, this life of non-productivity and leisure, by accepting enormous national debt. Effectively, they had never done any real work in their lives, and never would, they had been bought off, selling their progeny into slavery to the holders of America’s multi-trillion dollar note. And now, with the ingenious strategy of assisted living complexes and expensive medications, with heart surgeries and cancer treatments, the rich were using their wealth to create corporations that would take back all those thirty-pieces of silver, make sure it never got passed on to the next generation, that it all went into the coffers of insurance companies and drug companies and HMOs and nursing home chains. A brilliant strategy, Mike thought: we’ll loan you a few trillion dollars, you live a life of plenty, then whatever’s left at the end we’ll take back to keep you alive bodily, if dead in mind and spirit, and don’t worry, your kids and grandkids will have no choice but to pay back the debt, because we’ll call it a “national debt,” and say they owe it for the privilege of being born Americans.
Mike put the plate back. He wasn’t hungry anymore. He was furious. If he couldn’t drink, couldn’t do a bump, he had to walk, get out of the house. If he was home when his parents’ got back from their trip to the doctor, he might just kill them, and that would ruin everything.
There was no way to walk anywhere from the condo complex. You’d have to cross the state route into town, where the traffic was constant. So Mike drove to the old center of town, the street that had been the whole town in the years just after the civil war, when this was a mill town. The oldest houses, some were now being re-gentrified, restored as country getaways for those rich youngish couples still making big money in finance, computer software, drug companies. They wanted to create a little model of a small town, with the old noisy, smelly mill replaced by an antique mall, or a gallery that offered the ceramics or watercolors the rich folks made as hobbies, maybe a few faddish new restaurants. They had no need for the real centers of small-town life: they didn’t go to church, got all their culture over the internet, and if they had kids they would send them to private schools down by the shore.
When he walked through this part of town Mike saw it like an old washed-out polaroid, the kind that capture bright colors and happy moments instantly, but faded with time, until nothing was clear. When he was in high school, he had worked at a music store on Front Street. There had been a Friendly’s restaurant where they all went on dates, a beer distributer where they snuck in and stole six packs, a stationery store where they bought comic books. During the housing boom, when Internet company stocks were going crazy, there was a Staples in town, a Pottery Barn, a Starbucks. All of these, even the Friendly’s, sat empty now. Nothing left but two pizza places, a Dunkin’ Donuts, and a consignment shop for fancy women’s clothing.
The world seemed like this to him now. He remembered when he got his driver’s license, and they used to head out to the mall down toward Old Saybrook. Already, the stores in town were closing up, becoming seedy, shelves half empty. Already, too, the malls were emptying out, the stores that had been there from his childhood disappearing, the multiplex movie theatre half empty even on a Saturday night. Now, when he stopped in a mall, half the stores were closed, papered over with advertisements for the other half. Even on a Saturday afternoon, there would be a few dozen people in even the biggest mall, many of them senior citizens doing their “mall walk” before stopping for a churro and cup of decaf coffee.
Turning up Crane Road, right past where Sinclair’s Stationery had been for three generations, the sign still hanging at the top of the empty building, which had briefly been a liquor store and then a nail salon, he could still walk along the cracked and buckled sidewalk past the house he’d lived in until he was eleven, and on toward the river to the great gray monstrosity that had dominated the town in his youth, that would always dominate the town in Mike’s mind. Graeber Plastics.
Mike had no real idea what went on in that building. His father had never worked anywhere else in Mike’s lifetime, and during the early years his mother had done some kind of office work there part time. His brother and sister had both done brief stints in the factory in their high-school years, as second-shift help when there were contracts to be filled. But Mike had vowed he’d never step foot in the place, convinced from an early age that such work was responsible for his father’s furious devotion to ignorance and a life of dull passive idiocy. But this was a vow that had never been put to any test. By the time he was eighteen, the factory almost never operated more than four months a year, and never more than one shift, running at half-capacity, the same old men and women who’d been laid off coming back, hoping to make enough to stay in their houses another year.
Now, it had been over a year since the noxious fumes came from those stacks, but still the place boasted the Graeber Plastics sign, still there was an old man in a blue security guard shirt sitting by the locked gate.
Monday nights, for a change of pace, a drive to Middletown to on of the new Buddhist Recovery groups that were beginning to compete with AA and NA in affluent suburban regions. Mike was not Buddhist, not into any of that tired old new-age hippy stuff. He’d gone mostly to laugh at the flakes he expected to find there, but returned because the meeting energized and fed his powerful monomania.
A big group, bigger than most AA meetings, but no more than two or three of these folks identified themselves as Buddhists. They mostly claimed to believe in God, but not in religion, and said they just “practiced” Buddhism for their recovery. They all had a “personal God” or a “higher power,” but weren’t interested in the religion they’d grown up with, which for over three quarters of the group turned out to be Catholicism.
After three months of listening at this meeting, Mike figured out what “spiritual but not religious” really amounted to for these folks: No matter what I do, if I cheat on my spouse or yell at my kids, steal from work or just act rude to strangers, sell drugs to teenagers or sexually harass my employees, God knows that deep down I’m a good person so I’m still going to heaven when I die; on the other hand, that other guy is going to hell for getting on the express line with thirteen items, or letting his dog bark when I’m trying to sleep, and my calling him an asshole or feeding his dog poison is really in his best interest, making him a better person who will be more considerate of others. Spiritual-but-not-religious, it seemed, meant your believed in God, but he worked for you, and he damn-sure won’t be keeping you out of heaven, and you sure-as-shit weren’t going to be following any “dogmatic” rules of “good” behavior.
Also, most of these people had to be at some kind of meeting, because of spouses or bosses, court orders or pending court dates. And they weren’t going to deal with any of that nonsense about personal inventories and making amends–after all, they had that personal God, who knew they were good deep down. But most of all, they weren’t going to tolerate any demands on them: no ten commandments, no ethics, no love-thy-neighbor, no sin, Buddhism didn’t have any of those, right? Most of all, none of that bullshit obsession with absolute abstinence. Nobody was going to tell them that one bottle of wine, or one joint, or a couple of Oxys, meant that they weren’t still in recovery.
Then, there was this “mindfulness” thing, which stumped Mike at first. Most people who showed up at the Buddhist Recovery meeting understood mindfulness and Buddhism to be synonyms, and they’d learned all about it in rehab, or in prison, or from a substance abuse counselor. Nobody was too clear on what exactly the term meant, but they spent twenty minutes of every meeting staring at the floor and practicing it.
He had asked a guy he new from other meetings about this, some older guy who was some kind of college professor and knew a bit about philosophy. Malcolm something, and he had a PhD and whenever he spoke at an AA meeting nobody had any idea what he was talking about. His explanation was that they were trying to achieve a state of non-conceptual consciousness, believing that thoughts were a screen between the “uncreated true mind” and the world, and that stopping all thought would allow this supposed true mind to contact the real world without mediation, and then it would be possible to sit and do nothing endlessly, in a state of pure pleasure. Of course, Malcolm had told him, this was a bunch of nonsense, not really possible, and all they were really doing was trying to zone out, like you might have done as a kid on a hot day, lying in the grass and staring at the clouds. They thought this zoning out was “practicing Buddhism,” and that if they did it enough, they would be happier. Some of them even convinced themselves it made them happier—relieved their stress, cured their depression, eliminated addictive cravings. For a while, anyway, until the novelty of it wore off.
Mike read a book about it by some guy who’d written a bunch of bestsellers about neuroplasticity and atheism and other faddish topics. His claim was that sitting still and not thinking and experiencing “bare awareness” would produce a state like being on meth and ecstasy at the same time, without the drugs. This seemed like a perfect practice for a bunch of recovering addicts, chasing an elusive and non-existent high.
Most of all, and what really infuriated Mike, the goal was to be able to do nothing for the rest of eternity: to be content while inactive, to not even think, to have no interests or desires at all beyond a kind of orgasmic bodily pleasure that nobody ever really achieved, although at almost every meeting somebody would proclaim that they had reached this state momentarily. They called it enlightenment, this state of being a human vegetable.
And wasn’t this just what the older generation would want them to believe? Sold into a state of slavery, now they had to convince themselves that a total inability to have a real life, to work and plan a future, to think and build and create and improve the world, giving up all these things would make them somehow spiritually superior, would give them some kind of endless orgasmic high. If only they could become stupid enough, become lazy enough, and learn to renounce action and settle for animal bodily comforts, the joy of a life of silent inactivity. And if they weren’t joyful doing nothing? Then they were spiritually inferior, lacking in self-discipline, responsible for their own unhappiness and deserving of their suffering state.
The perfect slave mentality.
So while this sad crowd of confused and broken people sat pretending to stop thinking and let their uncreated true mind experience pure sensory awareness, Mike sat seething with hatred, trying to imagine something he could do to them that might be so horrible it would make taking an action preferable to the pursuit of slow self-immolation.
On his way back to Deep River he went into a Stop and Shop and bought a half-dozen cans of frozen orange juice concentrate.
Instead of going home, he pulled his car into the old gravel alley that ran behind the backyards of the Crane Road houses. These were the oldest houses in the oldest part of town, and some had been overhauled and restored and re-gentrified fifteen years ago, but others hadn’t gotten that far, and were sitting empty and decaying since the banks foreclosed on them five or six years back. One of the empty ones was the house where Emma Little had lived with her mother and her sister and her grandparents. Mike opened the steel cellar door with a shriek, and went down into the stone-walled and dirt-floored basement. His Mag-light was bright enough to scatter some small animals; he didn’t really care what they were. In the middle of the basement were a formica-topped dinette table and a chair. Under the table, six five-gallon cans of kerosene, and two picnic coolers full of cans of orange juice concentrate.
On top of the table, an old book. One of those “wordless novels” that had been popular for a while in the mid-twentieth century. Not the one he liked, Labour, from the early fifties. This one was older, by Lynd Ward, from the middle of the Great Depression. It was called Wild Pilgrimage. The other one he’d lost somewhere, couldn’t figure out what he might have done with it, but this one was too important to take anywhere, to risk losing it…to even let anyone see it. He sat in a shaky ladder-back chair with a damp and soft wicker seat, and flipped the book open, let it fall to a page near the center.
Labour ended with the ditch digger and the garment worker and the bookkeeper all marching together on a picket line, smiling, sun shining, a tree in flower. But the ending of Wild Pilgrimage was more troubling. Mike could never quite figure out the story, depicted in full-page woodcut block prints. Still, it gripped him. Especially these two pages, printed in a strange terra-cotta colored ink: a young man, slightly demonic looking, is surrounded by smoke stacks, by a spike fence, trapped; then, the sun, an empty circle, shatters the prison like an explosion, and in the following pages the man is free, leaping into a rushing torrent, swept away.
Some nights, Mike would sit and look at this book until morning, until the battery died in his little Mag-Light, until he heard the animals squealing and scratching behind the old furnace and in the rotting cardboard boxes stacked along the wall. Sometimes he wondered where Emma Little was, wondered if she’d had ever played in this creepy basement, if she ever missed this house.
Mostly, he wondered when it would be time to act.