A novel by Greg Swann
Prologue: The World is Good
"The world is good," Curtis Randolph said in the quiet of his own mind. He felt a strength of cleanliness, as though the ugliness of the past were swept away by the same rays of sunlight now washing away the last tinges of darkness from the broad highway. He led his dark blue sedan onto the exit ramp, feeling the car resist him, struggling to remain on its former course. And he felt the greater strength of his purpose guiding it away nevertheless, just as he had guided himself from the squalor of his youth to the splendor of his latest triumph. "I bear witness," he said with silent conviction, "the world is good."
He slowed to the speed of the accessway. Unable to keep his eyes on the road, he feasted on the midwestern landscape, the wild outbursts of color: purples, heartbreaking yellows, a dozen shades of green, each singing with a light of its own. The colors of the sweaty shirts and grimy billboards of the city, here made real in their natural palette. Just weeds, really, he thought, grinning at his own emotional reaction. But weeds who didn't regard being weeds a curse. Weeds who strive for the best within them, for the hope and beauty and prosperity--for the turf--that could only be won by their own effort. "The world is good... for those who seek good in it."
He slowed to a stop at the outskirts of Dalton, Ohio. He got out of the car and stood, hands on his hips, getting used to his new home. He could feel the rising sun warming the back of his neck, and he could see it reflected in the white paint of the clapboard houses at the top of the next rise. The fields to his left and right were ribboned in neat furrows of some crop--was it corn? The gangly plants seemed to rejoice in the coming of their god, the burning orb of the late-Spring sky. He could hear faint hints of the radio, a symphony erupting through the closed windows. A symphony of life, thought Curtis. Of the life that is a becoming, an emerging, a rising. The rising of the sun from yesterday's dusk. The rising of the crops and weeds, fueled by death but defiant and unafraid of it. The rise of man, he thought. Of a man who brings success of failure, undismayed and unintimidated. "The world is good!"
"Life sucks," Corey Pauling muttered as he neared the rise that led out of town. "Gotta get up at a godforsaken hour to work at a stinkin' job for lousy pay!" He fussed at the marijuana pipe he held between his hands at the top of the steering wheel of his ancient pick-up. Not 'til we're out of town, he advised himself. Not 'til we're out of reach of the law... "Fuckin' sun in your eyes all the time!," he cursed, more out of the habit of cursing than for any real complaint. He sighed gratefully as he passed the 'City Limits' sign, raising the pipe to his lips, firing the bowl with his pocket lighter. A sense of peace, of relief, washed over him as he sank into the bliss he found only in a lungfull of smoke, the first of many for the day. He nearly choked on it when he finally noticed the car parked on the opposite shoulder.
"Oh, Christ!," he swore. "A fuckin' car..." But then he saw the man standing outside of the car, a tall, thin black man in casual clothes. Corey felt a relief equal to the prior stress. "Just a fuckin' nigger," he muttered. "Most likely stopped to take a leak." Life might suck, he thought, but there were a few things you could count on. One was that no nigger would ever turn you in for smoking reefer. Steal your money, sure. Run off with your woman if he thought he had the chance. But no nigger was going to run to the police. Not over a little stinkin' reefer. As if to prove to himself that he was safe, to prove that the witness would see nothing, he raised the pipe to his lips and had another hit. "Life sucks, but pot makes it okay..."
Curtis saw the truck ambling toward him. He saw the beefy, bearded driver scrunched forward on the wheel, as if he were using his hands for some other purpose, for something besides driving. As the truck swung past, a glint, some kind of metal, erupted from the driver's hands. He had no idea what it was, and no concern. He opened the car door and slid behind the wheel. "Hello, Dalton," he said aloud as he swung off the shoulder and back onto the road. "Hello, home," he said, with the sound of a man thrusting a shovel into the earth, embedding an axe into a tree, heaving an anchor into a friendly harbor. "I have come to reap of your goodness."
1. Press On Regardless
"I'm afraid I don't understand..." The prim little woman behind the counter recited the formula for the fourth time.
Curtis Randolph smiled. "There's nothing to be afraid of."
"I'm afraid I don't understand that, either," she said, reaching back to tuck a stray white hair under her bun. There was a tightness about her, a feeling of being bound and gagged: her tight-pursed lips, her rigid posture, her stiff-starched white blouse. She straightened the objects on the counter in front of her, the pencil sharpened to a pinpoint and the small plate engraved with her name: Estelle Simpson, County Recorder.
"It's really quite simple," said Curtis. "I'm here to claim my property. I hold good title, as shown by this bill of sale." He pointed to the document on the counter. "Your job is to grant my title."
Estelle Simpson sniffed. It was a habit she'd picked up in girlhood. If she expressed it in English, which she never did, it might translate to: 'know your place', or 'children are to be seen and not heard'. She did not like this Curtis Randolph, whomever he might be. His tall figure was ugly, like something composed of metal, or maybe rock. And his stern black face was unbecoming. She had always felt that blacks should smile and be cheerful. After all, that was their nature, wasn't it? She sniffed again.
"Do I get my title?," Curtis demanded.
"Mr. Randolph, I was under the impression that I am the Recorder of Deeds."
Curtis smiled again, a smile that spoke of a private pleasure, as if the Estelle Simpsons of the world did not matter because they could not matter. "Tell me," he said, "as recorder, are you recording many foreclosures?"
"Why, yes," Estelle conceded. "A great many."
"And is it true that unemployment in this county has stood at over ten percent for more than two years?"
"Closer to three years." She saw Randolph's smile and knew what he was getting at. And hated him for it... If only he wouldn't smile like that! So smug. So sure of himself. What right did he have to be so sure of himself? The other blacks who came to her, they knew how to act. Why couldn't he act that way? He reminded her of a dream she hadn't had in years, a dream of unbearable pleasure and revulsion. She gasped, realizing that she was thinking of a whip, but she was not sure if she was delivering or receiving the lashes.
"Do you know that I'm reopening the Pauling Plastics plant?"
Estelle fought to compose herself. "Yes," she said. "Yes, I did know that."
"Well, it's just that I was expecting someone--" She saw the glint of recognition in his eyes, like one of her meticulous check-marks on a form. "It's just that I wasn't expecting you so soon!"
"Well, I'm here now," said Curtis. "And I'd appreciate having that title. I'd like to get started."
"Yes, yes," said Estelle, burning with embarrassment and resentment. She fought to regain control. "If only you'd explained..." That smile again! That smirk! But she knew it wouldn't do to push him too far. The Dalton Chronicle was very enthusiastic about Mr. Curtis Randolph and his plan to reopen the Pauling plant and create 500 new jobs. It would be only too easy for him to complain of foot-dragging... And with the elections coming... She didn't finish the thought; she didn't need to. She knew what would happen to any politician accused of standing in the way of jobs in Dalton, Ohio. She knew too well...
She bustled about the small office, making more of the job than was necessary. After twice checking files she knew by heart, she regretfully concluded there was no way to deny Randolph's claim. She initialed the form and got him to sign it. She tore off the original and handed it to him. "Your title, Mr. Randolph."
"I thank you," he replied warmly. "Good day."
She glared at his departing back. He would be gracious! She knew what his gratitude meant. It meant: I can afford this; I won. She was aware of that sinking feeling of revulsion again. If he had won, then it was she who had been whipped. Humiliated! By a nig-- She cut off that thought in favor of another: things have a way of changing. "With God as my witness," she intoned slowly, silently, "I'll see him beaten!" She gasped with a pleasure she hadn't known in years.
Outside, on the way back to his car, Curtis stopped an old man. "Pardon me, Sir. Could you please direct me to the Pauling plant?"
The man was stooped, and his clothes hung on him, but there was still a strength in him. He studied Curtis, his clear blue eyes missing nothing. "Stranger hereabouts?"
There was no doubt in the observation and it was only by the rising pitch that Curtis guessed it was a question. "Yes. I've just arrived."
"Come in off the Interstate?"
"Then you drove right past the Pauling plant. Off to the left, just past Virgil Wright's place. There's a sign for it. Can't miss it."
"My error," Curtis said, smiling, glad to have the error corrected. "I guess I overlooked it. I was too busy admiring the landscape."
"What landscape?," the old man asked. "Ain't no landscape out that way, just a bunch of damn weeds."
Randolph's smile grew more full. "Well, there's one weed out there I intend to pluck. Thanks for your help."
Glenna Rhodes was sitting in the bank, waiting for an officer, before she stopped to reflect on what had happened. How surprising: the past hour had been lived totally in the present, with no thought to past errors, no wishing for future triumphs, just an endless stretch of time being herself. Without the need to question who that was... This was new: an enjoyment so good that one did not take time to examine its goodness until afterward. She almost burst out laughing when she put into words the thought that the last hour--this treasured time spent being totally Glenna--had been spent at work. And that she had worked harder in that one hour than in the previous week. She smiled, affirming the experience, embracing herself and all that her life embraced: this is what she had wanted. This is what she had worked for, what had made the taunts of others, the constraints of money, the nights without sleep--spent studying, learning, gathering the knowledge she would need to make life better for herself, for her child... This is what had made all that worth bearing, this feeling that it mattered, that it was her best that had earned her the right to do still better. It hadn't always been that way, and she smiled at the irony that this one hour of pleasure had made up for all those years of pain. She had worked so long with the idea that she must do her best solely because she wanted her work done that way, with no hope that anyone would notice or care. But it ought to matter! Business is business; one trades one's values for values. Everyone should strive for the best they can get for their money, for the same reason that you check every egg before you buy the carton. She knew it was right. She knew it was not practiced.
Except by Curtis Randolph.
She sighed, letting her thoughts roll over him. Then she mentally kicked herself: is that all it is? Had she let an attraction for Randolph convince her there was more there than there was? No. Not because she was not attracted. But because that would not have made her feel as she had in the last hour. She almost laughed again when she thought of how her sister or the other women she knew would have reacted to her dilemma, which they would have thought more important...
She thought of the first moment she had seen him, of the feeling that had swept over her then. She was aware not of a man, but of a man in charge. The words leapt out at her: man in charge. The man people are always asking to see...
Glenna saw him. She felt him. She tasted him. The man who leaned against the jamb of her office door was a stranger, but still somehow a friend. As if in her glance she had known him totally, known his spirit, which no later action would ever contradict, so that no detail could ever matter. Is it possible to know a person in one glimpse? Glenna felt in the moment no introduction: she felt a summation.
Was his face beautiful? Or was it the things his mind brought to his face that made it beautiful? The stern lines of his face echoing the rigorous strength of his lean body, his coffee dark eyes, bright and burning with the energy of intelligence, the smooth dark skin stretched taut over his sharp features--were these cause or consequence? Or just an accident?
It took her a moment to realize he had been speaking to her. "I'm sorry," she said, flustered. "Please repeat that."
There was a sun in his smile, a light that erupted from his perfect white teeth. "I'm Curtis Randolph. I'm the new owner."
"Oh!" Glenna fought to retain her composure. "You surprised me. I wasn't expecting you to... I wasn't expecting you to be here today."
His smile grew still brighter. "The county recorder wasn't expecting me to be black either."
Glenna bit her lip. She started to raise an objection, but he held up his hand.
"Don't apologize. I wasn't expecting you to be black, either."
She laughed with a joy she hadn't known since girlhood, a feeling that everything was so simple and so right. "Well," she said, "don't just stand there in the doorway. Come in... Sir."
He strode confidently into the room. "Call me Curtis in here." He pointed toward the door, out toward the factory floor. "Mr. Randolph out there. I don't require a lot of formality, just enough to get the job done."
"Okay... Curtis. I'm Glenna Rhodes. You can call me Glenna anywhere."
"Including your home...?"
"Never mind," he said, smiling. "I'm not courting a job action or a harassment suit. Let's go to work instead. You were appointed by the receiver?"
"Yes," she agreed, fighting to regain control of herself. She was glad he hadn't pressed his point; she didn't know how she would have reacted. "But I was with the company five years before it went into receivership."
"Is that common out here? To let a former employee remain on the premises?"
There was a pencil on the desk in front of her. She pushed it gently forward. "Let's just say I made a good impression on the receiver..."
"And how did you do that?"
"As soon as I heard Herbert--Mr. Pauling--had filed for reorganization, I shut down the production lines and had the entire staff start moving things. For the rest of that day, everything that couldn't be nailed down was moved to the warehouse. I had new locks put on every door, with the keys to be held for the receiver, and I put truck seals on the doors to the warehouse."
There was a look of respect in his eyes; she felt good about it, an honor she'd earned. "That was quick thinking."
She fought to keep the bitterness out of her voice. "I knew what to expect."
"Have you had trouble with looting employees before?"
"With one looting employee..." She felt her anger as a palpable thing spread throughout the room.
"Him," she said, pointing through the open door. "The bum who let you in."
He looked confused for a moment, then his smile surged forward again, like a new dawn. "The receiver wanted to make sure that you didn't go soft, so he left you a continuing challenge...?"
She smiled despite her anger. "Not quite... You see, Corey Pauling--him," she pointed again, "--he's the boss's son."
"The old boss's son."
"Right. Son of the boss, grandson of the founder. The end of a short line." She took a deep breath; maybe talking about it would make her anger abate. "Pauling demanded that Corey keep his job as a term of the receivership." She let her new feeling for the man before her carry away the pain of remembering the bitter arguments, the long, angry nights spent hammering out the reorganization that saved the body of the factory, but killed its spirit. And the pain of the price: to let the killer remain to kill again.
"I'd like to hear about it," he said, and she knew it was true. He was aware of her emotion, not just solicitous of it. He knew where it came from and why it mattered. He wanted to hear it not for her sake, but for his own.
"It's pretty simple, really. Oh, a lot of history. Corey made life miserable for both of his parents... and maybe that went both ways, I don't know. But when his mother killed herself three years ago, Herbert put him on here. He hadn't wanted to. Corey had never made much of himself; kicked out of one college, dropped out of the next. More interested in telling lies to his drinking buddies than in doing anything worthwhile. But Herbert brought him in. I think he felt he owed Corey something, especially after... what happened.
"Made him purchasing director," she continued, "which was more than he was trained for. And a big mistake business-wise."
"A truck pulls up and delivers thirty gallons of paint. The receiving clerk does a count, compares it to the packing slip, signs for it. A half-hour later the warehouse foreman calls me and complains that he shows paper for thirty cans of paint, but he's only got ten to store."
"This happened often...?"
"All the time, and with everything. Paper goods--eight thousand dollars worth of paper goods in one year. Hardware, plumbing supplies, lumber, raw materials, finished product. He stole and sold everything except the air in his father's office."
"You were right to lock everything up. I'm in your debt."
That felt real good, despite everything. "It just ticks me off that five hundred good people are out of work because of that worm, but he still has a job!"
That smile, that face, that strong figure; she felt his support even though she hadn't thought she'd ever need support. She found that she not only needed it, but welcomed it. "So," he said. "Maybe he won't have a job for long... What does he do here?"
"Officially, he's still purchasing director," she replied, "but now the few checks go through me to the receiver--Mr. Dalton. When we were putting together the receivership agreement, he insisted that if Corey were to stay, he'd stay on as janitor. He said he didn't see any reason to pay for more than two employees, and Corey wasn't qualified to do anything else."
"I think I'll like this Dalton. But I didn't see any evidence of janitorial services rendered."
"And you won't. Corey doesn't want to earn a living. He just wants to get paid." There's was more she could say, but she decided to keep her mouth shut. If this new boss was as smart as he seemed, he'd find out on his own.
"So you've been running the plant?"
"Since we went into receivership," she said.
"I mean before that. I knew about Pauling's wife. I expected the company to sink soon afterward. Was it you who kept it afloat?"
"To the extent that anyone did..."
"You did all right," he said, and again she felt that surging jet of pride. But that wasn't what she was working for; she hadn't hoped for it or expected it, she never had. And she hadn't known it would feel this good... "How much are they paying you?"
"What? Oh, three hundred."
"And what kind of hours are you working?"
She bit her lip again; there was no telling what bosses would say about hours. One might be offended if she didn't work twice as much as he did, another if she worked more than half as much. Best to tell the truth. "I try to get here before he does. So I'm here by seven. I usually get out before six."
"So," he said, "that's six and loose change an hour before taxes. Glenna, that's terrible. Put yourself down for ten, hourly. Can you keep up those hours?"
"Yes, and thank you."
"Don't thank me. You earned it when you put the locks on that warehouse. And the hours may get worse." He spotted the snapshot on her desk. "Your kid?"
"Are you married?"
"If you want, you can put him on the payroll. We'll use him after school, maybe as an office boy. Pay him whatever you think he's worth, off the books. Set up a cash drawing account or add it to your check and pay it out of that. Do you have a pad?"
"Yes," she said, pulling a steno pad out of her desk.
"Good. Because I'm going to cover a lot in a short time. Then I'm going to have Corey show me the plant while you run to town.
"First, I need you to go to the Dalton National Bank and open a checking account for me. Do that first, because there's a cash transfer coming for me, and I'll need to write checks against it by tonight." She took down the instruction and made two notations beside it. "Second, make arrangements to hire yourself a girl. Get the best you can find for two-fifty plus overtime. I'd like her to start tomorrow."
"What if the girl is male?," she asked.
"Don't do me that way. Hire the best person you can get, and I promise to be shocked if she isn't female." Glenna couldn't resist his smile that time. "But whatever gender she is, get her quick. I want you to turn over your general administrative, payables, receivables, posting, all that, to her. You'll keep a close eye on her, but I'll need you free to handle the phones, the doors, keeping the fort."
"And where will you be...?"
"Selling, if we're going to make this pay. And let me finish, please. I'll make time for questions later. Stop off at the local newspaper and place an ad. I want eight able-bodied men--who can be female, so long as they're strong. Good strong backs to move heavy equipment. To start at once. What do they get paid?"
"It was eight to start here, before we shut down."
"Pay them six. There are five thousand pairs of idle hands in this town. They'll work at six." Rapture? Is that the name for it? She'd always doubted her girlfriends, when they spoke of rapture in the arms of their lovers. Yet rapture was what she felt when she looked into the clear eyes of this man, this man in charge. "You'll interview them," he went on. "I'm paying for conscientious muscle. I don't care what they do off the property, so long as they earn their pay on it. Any chance of having a least one tomorrow?"
"Probably. I'll call around to some of the old hands later. There were a few I hated to see let go."
"Good. If you can get all eight or any fraction by tomorrow, that'll make things go quicker." He stopped to think, his eyes drifting toward the ceiling. "Money, staff, labor... I guess that's all for now. Jump into town and get on it. How long will you be?"
She looked at her watch. "An hour, maybe more."
"Take time out for lunch, and bring me back a sandwich. Now," he said, "I've got to see what kind of work has to be done out there."
He turned abruptly and was gone, leaving Glenna in the glow that persisted here, in the bank. "I'd like to see this last," she said to herself, not sure if she meant the job, the man, or the feeling. Maybe it was all of them...
"A good woman to have at your back," Curtis reflected as he walked through the plant with Corey Pauling. "A good woman..."
Glenna had been a silent undercurrent to his thoughts from the first, a glowing harmony that seemed to support the melody of his mind, no matter where it turned. He was surprised to find himself thinking of her here, in a twisting accessway leading back to the loading dock. The straight lines of her vision, of her posture, or her movements and speech--they were what was needed here, too. "Needed by whom?," Curtis asked himself, letting his eye trail back to the vacant factory floor. He smiled at himself, knowing by whom and for what. He saw her slim perfection, her trim waist balancing the jutting breasts, the gently rounded behind. He saw the sleek lines of her legs singing with the beauty of her creamy brown skin, as the delicate nose, the clear dark eyes, the rich, full lips sang of the beauty of her face. He wanted to join his skin to hers, to press so tightly together that no heat could escape from them. Because he wanted to join his mind to hers, to match the wonder of her clear vision with his own, to join her in the actions dictated by their thoughts. Because he wanted her to supervise reconstruction of this hallway, to use her strength to tear a clear path from the plant to the world. He wanted her body because he wanted her mind because he wanted what her mind and body could do.
And that's the way to start a new job, he chided himself. Think about screwing your secretary...
"Who laid this out?," he asked Pauling, who gave every evidence of a sincere attempt to blur the distinction between life and death.
"I don't know... I guess my father did..."
Glenna was right about this Pauling. Even if he wasn't a thief, he wasn't worth anything. It was almost amusing to bring that verdict, the judgement he'd passed so many times before: Pauling was white. Curtis knew that shouldn't make any difference, but he still felt somehow that it should. He thought about the values he'd had to fight to learn, one at a time, the hard way. He'd always felt that those who had the advantage to grow up with values, who had parents who knew right from wrong and how to get ahead in the the world--they ought to know how to appreciate it. He'd met many who did, but many more who did not.
"That reminds me," Curtis said. "I smelled something when I came in this morning. What was it?" Curtis knew what the odor was. He'd recognized Pauling at once--the driver of the old red truck parked out in the lot. He'd seen him earlier, scrunched furtively over the steering wheel. He wasn't hunched now, but there was still something secretive about him, as if he were trying to hide. Curtis thought of all the liars he'd known and laughed silently at this feeble attempt. No point in giving the man a chance to tell the truth...
"I don't know. Maybe it was a cleaning fluid..."
"It wasn't a cleaning fluid." Curtis looked contemptuously at the dirty floor. "Not that any has been in use here recently. No, what I smelled was more like marijuana. You know anything about that?"
The bearded punk looked to his feet. He kicked one shoe against the other. "There were some people... Up the road. They were burning weeds this morning. Maybe some of the smoke got inside."
Curtis smiled. "Did they tell you I'm a city boy?"
"I don't know much about the smell of burning weeds. But I do know the smell of burning weed. Do you want to tell me what you know about it?"
Pauling kicked his shoe again. He looked all around the room, everywhere but into Randolph's piercing brown eyes.
Curtis asked, "You have any friends on the unemployment line?"
Pauling seemed surprised by the quick turn in the conversation. "Damn near all of 'em," he spat.
"Do you have a strong urge to join them?"
Pauling's eyes were small. They raced to Randolph's face, then sped away just as quickly. The fear in them was unmasked and unpretended. "No!"
"Then you'll tell me all you know about the marijuana I smelled in here."
The punk made another ritual of kicking his shoes. When he looked up, his expression was one of undisguised bitterness. "It was mine! All right? It was my pot you smelled!" He let out a gust of air, punctuated exasperation. "What the fuck am I supposed to do, huh? I'm trapped in this coffin all damn day! Who cares if I smoke a little reefer?"
"I do," said Curtis. "For one thing, it's illegal, and I'm legally responsible for what happens on my property. For another, what you're supposed to do is keep up the custodial services in this factory. Which you obviously haven't been doing."
"Hey," said Pauling, "there's only one of me!"
"And that one of you has been blowing smoke rings instead of doing his job. I want you to understand me, Corey: I'm not happy with you. This plant is a sty, when you've had three months on the payroll to get it in shape. You try to bullshit me about what you've been doing in here. What kind of idiot do you think I am?"
Pauling looked as if he were about to say something, then checked himself. "Are you telling me I'm fired?"
"I'm telling you you're sure as hell hanging by a thread, mister. You'll shape up and damn fast, or you'll eat at somebody else's expense. Is there marijuana in this factory now?"
He wanted to lie! Damn, he wanted to lie! Curtis could read his face like a schoolbook; what a loser. "...yeah."
"Get it out of here. Get it off your person and from wherever else you've got it hidden. Get it out into your truck, and don't bring it on my property again. Not in your pocket; not in your truck; not anywhere on my property, from now on. What you do on your own property is your own business. What you do on mine is mine. Do you understand me?"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah."
"Good. When you come back, get started clearing out this area." Curtis pointed to the boxes and skids stacked around the loading dock. "Don't break them down, just stack them outside. We may be able to use those skids. Clear everything out of this hallway."
"Corey, we're going to reopen this plant. When we do, it's going to be a good idea to have a straight shot at the loading dock. It's hard to sell product if you can't ship it. Does that make sense to you?"
"I guess so..."
"Good," Curtis said. "Get on it. When you've got all that trash outside, give the floor a good sweeping. Looks like it could use it."
"But that'll take all day!"
Curtis smiled. "Corey, you'd best get used to the idea of working for a living." He slapped at the flat expanse of his chest. "Mammy ain't got no tits to suck on..."
Pauling smiled, it looked as though in spite of himself. "Good," thought Curtis as he watched him shuffle away, "good... There might be a way to make him work out despite himself."
Curtis whistled softly to himself as he ran his hands across the broad head of a drill press. He'd expected the dust and accumulated grime that came away on his hands. He hadn't expected the small pits of rust that dragged against his fingers.
He kicked a box over to the tool and stood atop it. Pits. Maybe two hundred small cavities in the gray metal. The rust had dug through the paint and was surging like an undergrowth beneath, shriveling it, declaring it impotent to its purpose. He looked up to the roof of the toolroom: a leak? Or just the moist Ohio air? He ran his hand down the sides of the drill, feeling the same drag. No leak had caused those pits. He hadn't really felt the wetness in the air until he saw it condensed, concentrated in those small red bores.
Damn! A coat of paint six months ago would have saved a long day with steel wool and acetone. No real damage, but the time! There was too much to do, too much that had to be done to get this facility back up. It seemed a shame that some of that time had to be wasted on jobs that shouldn't have needed to be done.
The story was the same throughout the plant: things looked good, until you looked closely. Pauling Plastics had been neglected long before it was abandoned. Like that accessway to the loading dock. Whoever did the numbers--Pauling senior?--must have known what that contorted route cost. In extra steps. In smaller loads. In goods ruined by scrapes and tumbles through the sharp turns. Like this toolroom. Fabulously equipped, some of the best machine tools money could buy, but going to rot and ruin because no one ordered a paint job. He let his eyes drift back toward the roof. He wondered what he'd find, when he finally got around to inspecting it...
So much to do. Pauling senior could have made it easier by attending to his property. But it isn't Pauling's property anymore. It's mine, Curtis thought with satisfaction. Mine, and it's my job to make it pay, no matter what. "Press On Regardless." Without being summoned, the name of Janio's boat leapt into his thoughts. He remembered seeing it for the first time, asking why the boat's name was painted below the waterline, where no one could read it. Later, when the speedboat was surging up the Long Island Sound, it's nose pointed skyward, it seemed that the screw was the only point of contact with the water. Janio had slapped at the side of the boat: "Any trouble reading it now?" Curtis smiled at the memory: "Press On Regardless."
And he would be hearing from Janio... Curtis pulled a small pad from his jacket pocket and made a note to strip, scrub and paint these tools. He'd made many such notes in the past hour, and he knew he wasn't yet begun. There was very much to be done, but some of it could wait. What Janio would be concerned with was just one aspect of his operation, a dry molding line that had prompted him to fund this project. But that wouldn't be enough to pay to keep the doors open. And there had to be above-ground activity to make eyefood for gawkers. And all of that is my job, Curtis mused. And there is so much to do. "Press On Regardless," he said aloud to the empty hulk of a factory. "Victory belongs to the man who snatches it."
Curtis was back in the office, trying to get a line on the physical inventory and plan a schedule for the coming weeks, when Glenna returned. She was not alone. Behind here was a tall, thick white man with straight black hair. He wasn't fat, but he looked as though he had to keep an eye on his waist.
"Curtis Randolph," she said, as Curtis stood, "meet Ryan Dalton."
Curtis nodded as the man locked a beefy hand in his firm grip. "You're the receiver, then?"
"Newsman," said Dalton. "My father is--was--the receiver. He owns the biggest bank in town, so he gets all the ugly financial jobs."
"Your father and Glenna saved me an ugly financial job. I'm looking forward to meeting him."
"Sure," said Dalton. "You'll look forward to meeting him right up until you do meet him. Then you'll look back in horror..."
"Ryan!," Glenna scolded.
"Sorry," Dalton said, raising his hand and letting an impish grin spread over his face. "Things aren't all they could be in my family, but that's not your problem."
Glenna said, "Ryan wants to talk to you about your plans for the factory."
"Not that we can't get by on the prevarication and procrastination we've run so far. It's just that it's more comfortable to have a fact or two to lean on." Again that impish grin. Dalton had to be thirty-five, but when that smile erupted it took years off his features.
"And who do you work for?," Curtis asked.
"Dalton Chronicle," Dalton replied. "Central Ohio's biggest small newspaper. Guaranteed to be untainted by objectivity, impartiality or good sense. Thirty-five cents daily. Seventy-five cents on Sundays."
"Don't let him kid you, Curtis," Glenna said. "Ryan is the Dalton Chronicle. He owns it."
"R. Dalton, Proprietor," said Dalton. "I brought a photographer with me, but he lost his nostrils out in the parking lot. He'll be along soon."
Curtis was swept along by the brawny man's infectious good cheer. "Good thing you brought him," he said. "You may want to run a lot of photos with your story. Because all I have to say consists of more prevarications and procrastinations."
"Doesn't matter. If it's in quotes, the reader thinks it means something. If I write Mr. Randolph says quote zero equals zero unquote, we'll still get over. They'll be sure they've learned something."
Curtis laughed out loud. "Do you have such a low opinion of your readers?"
"That's what I'm striving for. I haven't gotten there yet. It doesn't pay to have too high an opinion of Dalton's denizens."
"Does that include yourself...?"
"Touche!," said the brisk, confident man. "When I make a blanket statement, I always leave my own poor self out shivering in the cold. Which is all a part of my immense vanity, of which you're asking for a display. Not wise, as I have to hit a press by one-thirty. If I don't have the Curtis Randolph story in tonight's rag, there'll be an angry mob of hungry job-seekers outside my door. Worse, my father will threaten to foreclose on my mortgage... So, Mr. Randolph, is it true that you're going to put a rainbow in every back yard, with one pot of gold for every gaping mouth in the county?"
"Not quite. And call me Curtis, please. I think you and I will get along fine."
"Okay, Curtis. Call me Ryan. And don't worry about getting along. Everybody likes me."
Glenna made a puffing sound, like a restrained laugh.
"And no backtalk from you, wench! If the man has a good opinion of me, let's make it last as long as possible. When it's gone, it'll be gone forever."
"Curtis," Glenna said. "Just talk. Say whatever comes to your mind, but talk. If you let him go on like this, he'll just go back to his office and make up quotes."
"Lies!," Dalton sputtered in mock anger. "And the worst kind, too--the true ones! Curtis, you've got one hell of a woman here. Best administrator in the city. I'd hire her away, but she'd make me wash behind my ears."
"And clean up your balance sheet."
"And eat my asparagus, for all I know." The newsman shivered in mock revulsion. "So let's do some business instead. How soon do you plan to be in operation?"
"Three weeks, give or take," said Curtis. "You understand that I've just arrived?"
"Sure," Dalton replied. "I knew as soon as daddy did. And he knew as soon as Glenna dropped in at the bank. There are advantages to dynastic hegemony. But that's neither here nor there. How many employees?"
"Twelve by tomorrow. I'm estimating one hundred when we swing into production. More as the workload justifies it."
Dalton whistled his surprise. "I've been saying five hundred. That's what this plant used before..."
"Before it sank."
"...before it sank."
Curtis went on: "Five hundred employees was part of why it sank. The lines were engineered for people, not profit. The plant employed more people than it needed to do less than it should have, for a lower net rate of return on equity. I didn't know how it lasted as long as it had until I met Glenna."
Dalton stared beseechingly at the ceiling, then looked down to plant another impish grin on Curtis. "Go ahead and look forward to meeting my father. He'll like you, too."
"If you're saying I ought to employ more people, I'm telling you why I can't. What good does it do them to have a job that won't--can't--last?"
"I know, I know," wheezed the newsman. "My staff's cut to the bone, too. But the prospect of jobs is what sells newspapers. You're big news, Curtis. Probably the biggest news around here since the Civil War. A hundred jobs ten years ago and you'd have been a blurb on the business page. And I might have tied you to an ad contract to get that much. But today... Today a hundred jobs is a hundred more than anyone ever expected. What'll you be paying?"
"Between five and six to start. Performance incentives and a good benefits package."
Dalton whistled again. "People around here, they're used to eight, ten, fifteen dollars an hour..."
"My understanding is that the labor pool I'm appealing to is earning zero, and getting around four from the state. Follow me close, and you can print what you want of it. It won't matter in the long run, because my guess is that soon enough your gaping mouths will decide that I'm heartless. But the way I see it, the only alternative to being heartless is to be brainless, and I proved to myself today that it was brainlessness that killed this factory. No amount of brainlessness is going to bring it back. If the people around here think they're worth more, let them go and get it."
"My daddy's going to like you fine!" Curtis hadn't expected Dalton's enjoyment to last through that speech. But the dark-haired man underscored his smile: "Pity you didn't come here and say that about fifty years ago..."
"Well, then," Curtis continued, "let me say the other half. I'm not going to pay ten dollars for five dollars worth of value. And I'm not going to pay a bum for more than half a day; there's no reason why I should. But if there are men and women in your audience who want to work, who know that there is no free lunch, no something for nothing--if they're willing to work, I'll trade my best effort for theirs, and we'll all make a good living."
Dalton was scribbling feverishly on his pad. "When and where should they apply?"
"Here, with Glenna, but I don't want to tie up all her time. How much for a quarter page of your paper, front and back?"
"I'd just as soon publish the application and have people mail it in as have them lining up outside."
"Don't worry," said Dalton. "I'll run it for nothing. Your application will be worth the space it takes up."
"What kind of response should I expect?"
"Fifteen hundred, maybe two thousand."
"One in twenty ought to make for a great labor force. But I thought there were five thousand out of work...?"
"There are, but the biggest group of them intend to remain out of work. They didn't like jobs when they've had them, they're without them more often than with, and they like it that way."
Curtis smile bitterly. "Why does that sound so familiar...?"
"A twice told tale: we've got plenty of it, but it ain't worth a damn. I don't kid myself, Curtis. This town has problems neither of us is going to solve. And they didn't start with any plant closings, economic troubles or foreign imports. They started with a kid who told a lie and got away with it--like your executive janitor." Dalton jerked a thumb over his shoulder, out toward the factory floor. "And I talk too much. Let's see if we can find that kid and take a few snaps of you and Glenna in industrial bliss."
"You've got it."
"You bet I have!," Dalton shot back. "And I intend to keep it!" Curtis joined him in his laughter. He wasn't sure why, but he felt certain that part of the man's gaiety was a defiance of pain...
They had seen Dalton and his young photographer to their car and were walking back toward the plant when Glenna said, "He's fun, isn't he?"
"I guess so," Curtis replied, glancing at his watch: ten of one. "But he does talk a lot... Didn't you say you were bringing back lunch?"
"Oh! I forgot all about it! I brought chicken dinners for both of us. I hope you like chicken..."
"Why, yaz," Curtis teased. "Dis black boy shonuf do like chicken!"
"Stop that." She knuckled him hard in the ribs. "Besides, everything's probably cold by now!"
"Not the cole slaw. It should be nice and warm. Anyway, I'm hungry enough to eat the box, so run back and get it. I'll fix us up a place to eat."
While they ate, he sat silently and listened to her tell him about her boy. How smart he was. What an accomplished musician. How well he did at math and science. He didn't press for details, letting her speak of whatever she wanted. He was surprised at how much he enjoyed it.
But he was not surprised by the sharp turn she took as he was finishing his last piece of chicken. "Curtis," she asked, "how old are you?"
"Twenty-eight. How about you?"
"Then this is your first job?"
"Not by a dozen," she replied. "The first job since I got out of business school. I guess it's the first job that's really mattered to me."
"And you wanted to make sure it's going to last? That's why you asked my age?"
"...I guess that's why I asked."
"No," he said confidently. "It isn't. But it'll do for now."
That was an insolence, just as much as if he'd torn her clothes from her. But he was right! How could she deny that he was right? And how much more was he right about? She wasn't sure that he wouldn't be right to tear her clothes from her... She felt that she didn't need any defense in his presence, would never need any defense again. "That's right," she said, matching his confidence. "It'll do for now..."
Curtis looked up from his work and was surprised to discover that the sky was growing dark. He glanced at his watch: after seven. What do I know?, he asked himself. Not seeing what isn't there. Not pretending that what is there isn't. What have I proved to myself to be true?
A lot of potential. A truckload of potential. A good facility. No serious structural trouble. Lines and tooling that needed reworking, but were in good shape. Zero products and zero sales prospects, but that cut both ways: Pauling Plastics hadn't pursued any new accounts in years; the damage to its reputation was limited to a few accounts, some of which might be brought back into the fold.
A decent labor base at a reasonable price. A lot of local support... or at least no strong resistance. Probably a lot of backing from both the bank and the newspaper, which could make a difference...
..and Glenna. She was worth all the rest and then some. How many people, he wondered, how many brilliant executives buried so deep in dead-end jobs that they didn't even know what they had going for them? Well, here was one chance to make a difference. Because, like it or not, Glenna was going to have to take a large share of making this thing go. But he knew she would like it. And he knew she was the added margin, the insurance that this factory would rise from its own ashes, no matter what. Press On Regardless, he intoned in the silence of his own mind. The world is good! I know she's felt that too...
He pushed away from his desk and strode out to her office. "Come sit down with me for a few minutes, then I'm going to send you home."
"Okay," she said, rising, "but I can't leave yet. I still have loads to do."
"It'll keep." He followed her into his office. They sat opposite each other in the two chairs in front of his desk.
"You should go, Curtis. What time did you start this morning?"
"That's the point," he replied. "I need you to cover for me when I collapse. If I get sick, there's no damage. But if you get sick, we can't operate."
"Well, why not?"
"For one thing, you have the keys to the front door."
"Oh, darn!," she said. "I meant to have a set made for you while I was in town."
"Don't bother. That's part of what I wanted to talk to you about."
"Don't bother! Curtis, you should have new locks made and keep the keys to yourself. That's just good business."
"Oh," he said, "do I need to worry about you stealing from me?"
"Well, no. But it's just good policy. It's not smart to trust anyone that much."
He smiled, but it seemed as if at a memory. "Glenna, you can trust appearances. Or you can trust what you believe in. But you have to put your trust in things, in people, more often that you have time to think about. I trust knowledge. I trust what I have proved to myself to be true. I have proved to myself that you're not going to steal from me. On that I'd stake my life--and your argument is that I have. So be it: it is done. The only argument that could sway me would be if you were to say that you don't want that responsibility. Do you wish to say that?"
She sighed. "You know I don't."
"That's right, so that case is closed. Next, that raise today is only the beginning. You've done a hell of a job around here, and it seems as though no one has noticed." He saw the look of recognition in her face, as if he had named her thoughts. "I have noticed. From now on, you'll be paid on the basis of your performance. That is, as soon as we have the cash flow to cover it, you'll be paid as superlatively as you've performed all along. Does that appeal to you?"
She gave him a grateful smile. "You don't need to do that. I already make more than I have time to spend."
"So. That son of yours will be going to college some day. You'll be able to pay for a good one. There's more, and this is part of how I know you won't ever steal from me: I'm cutting you in on the action. For now it will just be profit participation. When we're on a sound footing, we can convert it to ownership. I don't want you to lose money on my account, so we won't call it equity until it's equity worth owning. Does that sound good to you?"
She looked both pleased and confused.
Curtis went on, "You're thinking: there must be a string attached... And you're right: there is. You're going to bust your ass for this company, Madame Vice President."
"What?! Oh, Curtis!"
"I have a friend who calls himself the vice president in charge of everything else. Dalton, Ohio, I give you Ms. Glenna Rhodes, Vice President In Charge of Everything Else. I'll handle manufacturing and sales. The rest is up to you. Will you take the job?"
"You don't have to do that, Curtis. You know I'm with you in this..."
"I know it," he said. "In this and in whatever else I might ask. But I do have to do this. I have proved to myself that it's the right thing to do. If I may offer one small criticism of my newest partner, you've been willing to do too much, and you've asked too little in return. Pauling should have done this. Maybe if he'd given you the authority you'd earned, he'd still be sitting behind this desk. But I am not obliged to duplicate any of his errors, and I'm doing my best to correct the worst of them. So, how about it, Glenna? Are you taking the job?"
"Yes," she answered, a little breathless. "This and whatever else you might ask..."
"The rest is for another day. Tonight we're rebuilding the loading dock."
"Rebuilding the loading dock," he repeated. "First thing tomorrow, I want you to get on the phone to a contractor. Get the best price and performance you can find. I want to knock out the wall from the shop floor to the loading dock, so that we have a straight shot outside. I want to seal off that dog-leg they have been using. Have them hang walls at both ends, with a door at the loading dock end. We'll use that for short-term storage; it'll save trips to the warehouse. Got it?"
She was scribbling on her steno pad. "Finished by when?"
"The twentieth at the latest, so tell them the fifteenth. That'll give them a chance to be late without hurting us."
"And to spend how much?"
"I leave that up to you," he said. "I don't know the local prices and I don't have time to learn. No frills, just one wall out, two walls and a door in. Do that first, because as soon as you're free, I want you to get me an inventory on everything. I'll give you two of those men we have coming in the morning. How many will there be, anyway?"
"All eight. But, Curtis, I'm sort of tied to the office. In addition to everything else, I've got to get them on the payroll."
"Is your girl coming?"
"Did she turn out to be male?"
She laughed. "No. She's female."
"Put her on the phones as soon as she comes in. 'Ms. Rhodes is out of the office right now; may I take a message and have her call you back?' Give her anything else you want her to do, and lock everything else up. As to the payroll, we'll pay these guys out of my checking account for now."
"Curtis, that's illegal."
"Yeah," he said, smiling, "I'll bet it is. And organized crime is always defensive of its prerogatives. But my guess is that they'll be quick to look the other way. If you get any trouble, tell them we're only paying the men long enough to move the tools and goods to Kentucky." He laughed out loud.
"Oh!," she said. "That's rich! But what if they still want to cause trouble?"
"Then, by god, we will move to Kentucky. If they were smart, they wouldn't be in government; they'd have real jobs. But the last five years should have taught every thief in the county that you can't steal what hasn't been produced. If they don't like the way we produce, they can do without. I'd just as soon they do without anyway."
She said nothing, just laughed like a child, with the gaiety of the joyously serious.
"So," he went on, "you're going to look after that construction, then get a complete inventory of the plant, the warehouse, and the offices. Sounds like a big day. Do you agree with me that you ought to go home?"
"After a proof like that, how could I disagree? I'm not sure I could ever disagree with you, Curtis."
"Will you remember that, when I get around to whatever else I might ask...?"
"...I'll remember." He saw the smoky look in her eyes and knew she would never forget.
The phone rang. Glenna said, "I'll get it from here." She picked up the phone on his desk and announced herself. She pushed the hold button and turned to face him: "A Mr. Valenta. Shall I have him call tomorrow?"
"No," said Curtis. "That's the man I was telling you about, the vice president in charge of everything else. I'll take the call, you hit the road. Deal?"
"Okay, Curtis. Don't stay too late." She leaned forward and gently kissed his forehead. "That's a down payment..."
"Hmm. You tempt me to collect the outstanding balance."
"Don't worry," she said, her voice low, almost husky, "I'm good for it. I'll bet you are, too... Bye."
"Goodnight, Glenna. I'll see you tomorrow." A good woman, he thought as he watched her walk away. He picked up the receiver. "Hello, Janio."
"Hi, Curt. How is everything?"
Curtis pictured the slim bronze man at the other end of the line, the unbending strength of his body and the unbending strength of his character. "Good," he replied. "Real good."
"...that isn't very revealing."
"Ah," said Curtis. "Then I have achieved my purpose!"
The laughter boomed through the room. "Curt, it's good to talk to you."
"Same here. But you say it as if you thought you'd never speak to me again."
"...I've never been to Ohio."
Curtis laughed. "Janio, it's just like New York, only quieter and less crowded. America is all one country, not too different from one place to the next."
"I have heard that blacks are not as welcome outside of New York..."
Curtis sighed. "There may be some truth to that. And it goes for hispanics, too, if you're thinking of visiting. But, Janio, the difference is very small. I feel safer here than I did anywhere in New York, and I'll have fewer race troubles here than in some parts of the city."
"Then it's all right?"
Curtis smiled. "My mother, the worrier. Yes, buddy, it's all right. Couldn't be better."
"That's good. Please forgive my worrying. It's part of my job. Let us speak of other things. Tell me about the business."
"Not very much to tell," Curtis replied. "I took title this morning, looked the place over. When you called, I was going over plans with Glenna Rhodes, the woman who answered. There's some good news: she's a real winner. I'm going to cut her in on the equity."
There was a long pause. "You haven't told her anything?"
"No, of course not!"
"But you intend to? Don't you? I can tell it by the sound of your voice."
"I do intend to tell her, sooner or later," Curtis responded. "But I'll let you know before I do."
"So she's that impressive?"
"Do you remember we wondered how this place stayed open as long as it did? She's the reason."
"Oh, ho!," said Janio. "I should have found her on my own."
"I'm glad you didn't. I aim to keep her for myself."
"Good for you, Curtis....tell me--the plant, was there anything missing?"
"No... Some things weren't well cared for, but Glenna kept a close guard on the inventory. Why do you ask?"
"Because I'm the mommy. Worrying is part of my job. Will you be able to produce what I need?"
"I'll be ready for you by the end of the week. I'd rather wait until the first of the month, just so people get used to seeing truck traffic out this way. Is that all right?"
"Fine, fine," said Janio. "I wanted to assure myself that the physical facilities were as good as advertised."
"If anything, they're better. I did a rough count this morning, and I see at least two hundred thousand in resale value, not counting the real estate. We got a real bargain."
"Someone else thought so, too."
"Never mind. Will you have enough activity to hide our work?"
"I expect to," said Curtis. "In addition to the dry forming I'll be using on your stuff, there's enough compression for a dozen wet layup lines. Pauling was angling for circuit-board work before they went under, and I'm thinking that's a good way to go."
"Excellent! That's really good news. Cliff was bugging me about a source for boards. You may get a contract from us, to supplement your above-ground work."
"Keep talking, Janio. I get richer every time you open your mouth."
"...Curt, what's the attitude out there? What are the people like?"
"I don't know. I've only met five of them so far. I liked two, didn't like two, and didn't form an opinion of the last."
"Those people," said Janio, "they have been without work for a long time, have they not?"
"Some of them..."
"Ah, people without work can become ugly very quickly. Have you thought about that?"
"Janio, this is America. You're still living in Nicaragua. Things like that don't happen here."
"No? Then why are they in the newspapers every day? Shootings, killings, riots? Things like that do happen here, but Americans don't attend to them. I learned the hard way to suspect fire where I see smoke."
Curtis restrained a giggle. "And that's why you're the mommy..."
"That's right. If I worry too much now, it is because I didn't worry enough in Managua. We have much to lose, Curt. Too much to lose... I want you take out an insurance policy on that factory."
"Yes, of course. Fire, theft, weather-damage--all the usuals."
"Those, yes. But also a policy on the productive capacity. To be paid if production is disrupted or made impossible by accident or malice. A big policy, Curt."
"Janio, what for?"
"Because I'm the mommy, if you must have it that way. Because you've got your entire fortune tied up in that plant. Because I've got a chunk of money in it, and because the whole organization will be hurt if we don't get those membranes bent. We've committed ourselves to that plant, Curt. If we lose it, we'll all be out a lot."
"Is there any reason to expect that we'll lose it...? Janio, why did you call today?"
Curtis heard Janio sigh deeply. "Because I finally found out who was our second bidder at the receiver's sale. The party who forced us to go higher than we'd intended for the property..."
"Well, who was it?"
"Mr. Cameron Dalton, of the First Dalton Bank, Dalton, Ohio," Janio replied.
"But he was the receiver!"
"That explains why he went to such great lengths to cover his tracks."
"But why would he want it? What does he know about plastics?"
"Probably nothing. My guess is that he wanted to gut it, to sell the tools and inventory piecemeal. That would explain why he didn't go above a hundred thousand, assuming your estimate of value is correct. He was trying to double his money."
"But, Janio, is that any reason to suspect him of trying to sabotage us?"
"'Those who do evil fear the light'. And it's not the only reason. There's still the general population and who knows what crazies. One idiot with a grudge could do us more damage that I'd like. Let's do what we can to offset it. I'm going to have a policy sent out to you. As owner of record, you'll have to sign it for it to go into force. Don't put it off, Curt. It's too important to all of us."
"All right," Curtis sighed. "I still don't think it's necessary, but it won't hurt anything."
"Fine. And when it turns out that you were right all along, you can tell me I worry too much."
Curtis laughed. "And you'll say, 'that's why I'm the mommy'."
"That's right," Janio replied, and Curtis could see his clear, bright smile through the phone. "That's why I'm the mommy. I'm going now. Mind you, keep your greedy black hands off that Glenna until you show a positive cash flow. Or I'll get Sally to put a lock on your gold drawer."
"She won't do any such thing," Curtis joked. "So go suck on your rice and beans, all right?"
"Fillet of sole tonight. What are you having, chicken or ribs?"
"Chicken was lunch. I thought I'd get the watermelon special for dinner."
Janio's full, rich laugh erupted through the phone. "Go to it, Curt. And listen: I love you."
"I love you, too, Janio. Goodbye."
Curtis sat for a long time, staring at the phone, but not really seeing it. Instead, he saw the friend who knew him so well, the trader who always gave more than could ever be repaid. "The world is good!"
2. The Clock Unwinding
Corey kicked at the sofa. "Damn nigger!," he said to the empty house. "Goddamn nigger!" Mr. Curtis Randolph was spread over the first three pages of the Dalton Chronicle. With photos of him and that nigger bitch who was always causing trouble. He could picture his friends' reactions. He knew what they'd say about him... Behind his back for now, but that wouldn't last. He kicked out at the sofa again.
Where is that dumb bitch? Probably at her fuckin' mother's again. No dinner on the table, the house is a fuckin' pigpen, so she's got to run off and cry to her mother. Five fuckin' nights a week! It hadn't bothered Corey, at first, when Sandra had started spending more time with her mother than with him. In some ways it made him happy, He didn't have to talk to her or think about her; he was free to run off where he wanted, stay out as late as he wanted... What the fuck? Sandra didn't give a shit, right? She was off havin' a good time with her damn mother, for Christ's sake... But then he'd caught the scent of something else, something like fear. Like the cunt was running off to her mom out of fear. Like she's afraid of me or something, like she's tryin' to escape... He was shocked to see his thoughts come to life in his mind, collapse from a fog of generalizations into the definite shape of words: Sandra is afraid of me. Corey shivered. He didn't like that, knowing things completely, knowing them so well they couldn't be denied. And what a crazy fuckin' thing to think about! Sandra--afraid of me? Trying to escape...? He forced a laugh, then kicked out at the sofa again. "Damn nigger! He ruined my whole fuckin' day!"
Corey lived in a rundown wood house at the dead-end of a short side street. There were two automobiles in his front yard, two rusting heaps abandoned in plain sight. There was an assortment of other junk, and the grass was calf high and shot through with weeds. The house next door was vacant; it had been taken over by an extended family of cats who fed on the neighborhood's garbage. When Corey kicked out of the house, out for a damn drink, he found a gray-striped kitten in his truck. "Get out of my fuckin' truck!" He picked up the cat and threw it hard, like a baseball. The cat squalled; it landed hard on the grass, took the fall rolling and squealing. It struggled to its feet and regarded Corey with a look of confusion and fury. He laughed. As he was peeling away, he heard a crunching sound and felt his tires spin out, give way beneath him. Someone had smashed a beer bottle on the pavement. "Fuckin' asshole!"
At the corner stood Rutherford's old dump, a general store with a gas pump. Corey smiled as he passed it, at the sight of the boards nailed over the windows and the big orange sign: closed. Rutherford was a fuckin' bastard, played favorites with his credit. Sandra could buy stuff on credit, for Christ's sake! But not me... Fuck Rutherford, he thought. Let him rot in hell.
Up ahead there were some kids playing ball in the street. Corey stomped on the accelerator, pushing the truck as fast as it would go. The kids scurried, one barely making it out of the way in time. They shouted angry curses as he passed. Corey Pauling laughed. He let out a yelp of undiluted glee.
Corey spun out on to the main drag, Dalton Avenue. There was slack in his lane, but he quickly chewed it up, anxious lest anyone should cut in front of him. The car ahead was driven by a blue-haired old lady. Corey crept up closer to her, until he was tailgating to within a foot of her car. He giggled, enjoying it, teasing her. He had one foot hovering over the brake as he pushed closer, closer. The granny kept glancing furtively, plaintively into the rear-view mirror. Finally she gave up; she signaled to move to the other lane. Corey smiled with satisfaction. He slowed the truck down to the speed limit. "Fuck you, bitch!," he mouthed through the window as he passed her. The old woman gave him a resentful glare.
Her name was Cora Landry. She had just had her seventy-fifth birthday. Her nerves weren't fit for driving, she knew that. Every new encounter with young idiots like this one proved it to her, and they seemed to come more often the older she got. Fighting to keep control of herself, she led the car off into the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant. She pulled into a slot, giving way to the shakes before the engine had sputtered out.
Her husband had warned her, warned everyone. Hadn't he said that all these roads would make things hard on older folks? "Get things so damned spread out," he had said, "you won't be able to get around without one." But that was in the thirties, and Horace--her husband--had been on the outs on everything; people had called him old-fashioned. They chided him for suspecting the motives of those who sought no profit. "Mind you, that's exactly what I do suspect. If something's worth doing, someone'll come along and do it for money. What's the purpose of doing something that isn't worth doing for money? What makes it worth doing? A merchant might try to skin me alive, but at least I know what he's after, what to protect. What are they after? How will you protect it, if you don't know what it is?" People had pooh-poohed it then, and even now Cora couldn't say precisely where it was right and where it was wrong. But she'd had nagging doubts for years, the feeling that Horace had known what he was talking about, even if he couldn't say exactly what that was. What was the purpose? She didn't know. What was the effect? Pushed off the road by a hairy monster in a pickup...
Her children had sided with Cora's neighbors and friends, of course: father is a lovable old paranoid, don't let his blustering scare you. Margaret was in Chicago now, engaged to husband number four. Walter was in California, with his... friend. "...get things so damned spread out..." Cora was shivering in a parking lot, trying to work up the courage to go back out on the road. "...can't get around without one..."
How much else had Horace been right about? How much of what they'd laughed at? Hadn't he foretold the troubles Social Security was having? Her shiver deepened as she thought about it. He'd said just what the papers were finally saying now, that it was a swindle that could never last, that it was just a fancy pyramid scheme that had to collapse sooner or later. How she'd resented his holding back money for their retirement. And how grateful she was now! The dividends from Horace's investments came to more than her meager Social Security check...
And hadn't he predicted that Dalton would fall on hard times? When the first few layoffs and the first few store closings were announced, Cora had thought it was just a passing thing. Dalton had one-hundred-and-fifty years of proud history. There were good times and bad times, but there was always Dalton, bustling, lively, aglow day and night. The biggest city in this chunk of the state; an employment mecca for all the folks in the county. Maybe a little rowdy on payday, but the work of Dalton's industries--tires, truck parts, steel--required that type of man, didn't it? Things never got out of hand, and for a long time it seemed that Dalton would get better indefinitely. But Horace had been right in the end: the first signs were not the last. The layoffs and plant closings seemed to be fueled by their own momentum. More than half the downtown shopping district was boarded over and closed. Three companies had moved out, and three more were running one shift where they had run three. And two had gone bankrupt.
Worse, it seemed that the people had changed... She wasn't sure when she had first noted it; she hadn't thought much about it then, no more than she would at noting a small crack in the paint of a family portrait. But the crack had spread, coming to dominate the canvas. She thought of the Dalton she had grown up in, the Dalton of nods and waves and small talk on Dalton Avenue. Of proud men in stately clothes and proud men in sturdy clothes. Of decency and civility and, yes, even moral outrage on the rare occasions that was called for. How different now... Without being summoned, a memory struck her--a child, just a baby, maybe four. She was hitting a doll again and again, screaming, "Mommy's gonna teach you how to live, if it's the last thing I do!" She could hear Horace's questions, "To live? Where?" Oh, Horace! What are they after? How much did you know? How much did I ignore? Her hands clenched at the wheel, her anger renewed: "Fuck you, bitch!"...
Lonnie Cummings knew that look: "Get out of the way!" He'd seen it on his father's face many times; he was surprised to see it here and to know what it meant. He stood staring into the car, looking at the unseeing old woman. Her eyes were fixed on the sky, but he knew her sight was blocked, that in that moment he could smash out her windshield or piss on her tires or anything, and she wouldn't see. But if she were like his father, then she'd be that much worse when she did come around, so "get out of the way!"
But she wouldn't hurt him if he didn't bother her... Would she? Lonnie was mystified by adults. He had a few dim clues, a few rules he knew were always true. But you could never be sure of how any adult was going to act about anything. He stood there watching, testing. He looped his thumbs in the thin belt wrapped around his waist, supporting a too-large pair of dungarees that were patched in several places. There was a small hole in his smudged tee-shirt. He was three days from his last bath and proud of that fact. Outwitting mom about baths was one of his early triumphs in the battle to have his way from adults. He leaned his strong young back against one of the lamp posts in the parking lot, watching the old woman. If he could understand why people stared like that, maybe he could use it...
Lonnie was eight years old. He was the smartest and most unruly boy in Mrs. Stark's third grade class. He always knew his lessons, without study. How many Eskimos go along on a seal hunt, how many milligrams of nicotine in a cigarette, what to do when a friend says he doesn't want to talk about a problem, how a Swedish boy his age would spend his time, the entire history of the Tennessee Valley Authority--all the stupid things they make you memorize. Lonnie could memorize that crap almost before the teacher said it. At times he was nagged by the doubt that there couldn't be much use for this junk, but he beat it back. The use was winning, beating the other kids, in class, on the playground, after school. That was a lesson he didn't have to memorize. He felt that he knew it somewhere inside him, like in his bones or something. He had always dominated the other kids, had always known how to bully them to have his own way--most of the time without even having to use his fists. It had come as a surprise to him when he learned he could dominate adults in the same way, surprised and shocked him. With the kids, he'd known what to do; just scare them with what scares you most. He began to feel he had some control over his life when he made the connection: it's not what scares me that counts, it's what scares them. That was the key. If you could find out what made an adult scared, you could dominate him... That made sense. The damn teachers said that things didn't have to make sense, but Lonnie knew they did. When you throw a baseball, it always moves away from your hand. When you throw it at a window, the window smashes into a million pieces. Things worked like that, but it didn't seem to apply to people... Well, if the fuckin' teachers aren't smart enough to look for a pattern, I am. If they won't build a system, then I'll come up with a system of my own...
Lonnie's system had worked fairly well. He made mistakes, got caught in the shoals of the unknown, but he made progress. His father was harder to bullshit, but all the strangers--the teachers, neighbors, storekeepers--they were putty in his hands. He smiled to himself, remembering the free candy, the coins and bills, the phony compliments uttered in tones of awed respect. He laughed, thinking about how much free candy you could get, just by fingering a baseball and talking about the store up the street--funny, isn't it, how their plate glass window was shattered by those kids playing a game of catch?
But his father remained a mystery. He'd just sit there on the couch, sit there and stare. Once in a while he'd take a long pull off the drink on the table beside him, but mostly he'd just look off into space. Not like he was seeing something good; not even something horrible. Just like he was seeing nothing, and like nothing was the only thing he was happy to see. Lonnie was never sure, when he walked through the room, if his father would notice him at all. Or, if he did, whether he would get clouted or hugged. Sometimes his father would hug him so tight, like he wanted to crush him or something. "You know I love you, don't you, Lonnie?," like one long whine. "You know I'm doin' the best I can, don't you?" That didn't happen too often, and it never lasted too long; his father would lose interest, turn back to his drink or his football game. But Lonnie felt that somehow this was the key: "You know I love you, don't you?" Lonnie didn't know and didn't care. But it was interesting that his father cared...
He looked up and was surprised to see that the old woman had gone; the space where her car had rested was empty. Lonnie pushed his hands into his pockets and ambled off down Dalton Avenue. If he phoned his mother and said he was studying with Jerry Dinkins, he could probably stay out 'til ten, anyway. He had nothing in particular to do with the time, but the thought of getting over on his mother made him happy...
Marion Grant braked sharply as a white blur, a scruffy young ruffian in a dirty undershirt, tore across the street in the path of her car. Someone ought to be looking after these gangsters! If she had her way, their mothers would be supervised around the clock; parenting was too important a job to be left to the individual...
And, darn! She was going to be late. She hated to be late for School Board meetings; one never knew what would be decided in the halls before the meeting. And there were so many important questions to consider just now, so many important issues rending the board into hostile factions. Just as the new methods were showing their worth, they were being called into question. That Ryan Dalton! Things hadn't been the same since he'd won a place on the board.
She soothed herself with the memories of what she had been able to do, how much things had changed from the classrooms of her girlhood, dominated by rules and axioms and postulates and necessary relationships. Not reading, writing and arithmetic, but reasoning, in order to read, to write, and to do arithmetic. Marion had hated it, and she was glad to be able to do something to change it when she took her place in front of a class. Her education instructors had stressed the destructive aspects of learning, the pressure, the loss of self-esteem that results from failure, the social atomization forced by the system of competition for rewards.
It was competition that she had done away with, first in her own classes, and now, thirty years later, throughout the school district. Students would cooperate, if that was the only way to be rewarded. No more systems of axioms, postulates, proofs. If they wanted the grade, let them learn the more important things: sharing, foreign culture, the accomplishments of the nation-state. Let none of them stand alone on his or her own conviction of proof; let them all stand together in the sharing of data carefully memorized. No more systems of grading based on merit. What was merit, anyway? Just an organized way of playing favorites. No, now every child's grade would be tied in a curve to every other child's grade; the best children, the most common ones, would hold down the few lone wolves, crush their desire to stand out. No more reading, writing and arithmetic, for that matter. Or at least not much. What did they need that stuff for, anyway? To work in factories? To put bolt C on spindle Y? No, she'd convinced the entire School Board that the purpose of a school was not to teach the student to read or to reason, but to teach the child to react, to respond and be responded to. To be creative and sharing and close to others. To need others... Training for interdependence, she'd called it. Manufacturing the new man...
And now Ryan Dalton was trying to ruin it all... "Parker Academy!" She spat out the words like a bad pistachio. Dalton's children didn't even attend the public schools! None of the Dalton children ever had. What right had he to dictate to the schools--darn it!--my schools? That man was so infuriating! He wanted the public schools to adopt the Parker model, what she privately called the four A's: Aquino-Aristotelian Atomistic Anarchism. Rigorous reasoning for robots. Sure, Parker kids got a good education, and they got into some of the best colleges, but they never came back to Dalton. If a kid went to Parker, someday he'd leave and neqer come back. What kind of school made children turn against their own home, their sacred family birthplace? Parker kids didn't give a damn about their city, even though there were many jobs for educated people. Why, didn't her own school district have a shortage of skilled teachers? And with the pay out of sight, up near fifteen thousand dollars a year. And the Rexco downtown has been advertising for a pharmacist for over six months. And wasn't Dr. Griswold just complaining to her that he hadn't had a good secretary since old Miss Ellis died? Things weren't so good in the factories, but there were plenty of good positions from which the Parker kids could give back to the community what they'd so freely taken. Didn't they owe that much to Dalton? The greedy little money-grubbers certainly didn't act like it. They wanted the better money, the better jobs, the better life, and to hell with those left behind.
And that's exactly what Ryan Dalton wants! Didn't he say so? He said that our public schools should train children to get along without anyone, not just the city, but their friends and families as well. He said the town is dead, and the only reason people don't leave is that they know they can't get along anywhere else. "They can't retrain because they don't know how to learn. We have willfully and intentionally crippled them, and the only thing we can do now is try to save the children. Teach them to live; teach them to reason." At first she thought is was just rhetoric, more of the same invective she heard in meetings with angry parents. But it had its effect over time, among the industry observers to the board and some of the local entrepreneurs, perhaps because Dalton emphasized his points by admonishing, "Look outside! Do you see what's happening out there?"
Time is running out... Why should those words strike her? She glanced hurriedly at her watch, trying to pretend that the time was all that worried her. But it was worse than that. Those dunderheads were getting a lot of support for their simplistic notions. She tried to counter it, both by calling their case into question and emphasizing her own, that good times or bad, children have to be taught how to get along in this world, how to give way. But... time is running out. She remembered the eight-day clock that had hung in the living room of her childhood home. She remembered how the ticking would slow, oh so gradually, as it expended its stored energy. She used to listen with pleasure to its slowing. She was gleeful when it finally stopped, as if her power alone had conquered it. At times she couldn't bring herself to worry about the Ryan Daltons of the world, so sure was she that the eight-day clock of culture was winding down. Man had reached his highest state--and had failed of it. He couldn't practice the sacrifices required. He had aspired to godhead and succumbed to deviltry instead. It gave her pleasure to think of the clock stopping...
She checked her watch again as she bustled from her car to the Public Library building, where the board meetings were held. She was hurrying, so she didn't notice Matt Clinton. But he noticed her. As he sat there in his truck, waiting for his boy to finish up in the library, Matt watched the people coming and going. It gave him pleasure to think that each had something worthwhile to do, someplace to hurry to, something worth the hurry...
There was a reverence in his clear brown eyes, an etching of confidence in the concerned lines of his face. His skin was brown from the sun; it set off the brightness of his smile. He smiled now as he watched the people charging past. They practiced the principles his daddy had taught him, even if they refused to admit that they did. Those few principles were all he'd had to get him here, but they'd served him well, and he was proud to have passed them on to his three sons. "A man pays his own way." Matt Clinton had always paid his own way. Once there were three seasons of bad crops in a row, but Matt had taken winter jobs to keep even with the bank. "A day's work for a day's pay." Matt prided himself on always giving full measure, never knowingly cheating, even where cheating was expected, as at weigh-ins. "Life is what you make it." Matt hadn't had much education, but he made the best he could of what he had. He'd kept up with improvements in agriculture, to the point that he got some of the best yields in the county, even though his land was far from the best. And he'd taught his boys to seek the best. His two oldest were off in college, paid for by twenty years of paid-up insurance. His youngest was finishing high school and gunning for an academic scholarship. Matt smiled, a testament to a pride that doesn't need to shout. It hasn't been all peaches and cream, but I'll spit in the eye of anyone who says it hasn't been good...
"Huh? Oh, hi, Josh. Hop in."
"Dad...? Would you be upset if I asked you to come back in an hour?"
"Not finished yet?"
"Get back to it then. I don't mind coming back." Matt smiled as he watched Josh hustle back inside. Was he that serious about his studies? Or was it a study-rendezvous with a girl? A good thing either way. Just because there's a girl around doesn't mean you can't learn anything. And, for damn sure, there are worse places to have a date.
He pulled the truck out into traffic and, without really considering his route, found himself headed out east of town. He'd heard that the Pauling plant was being reopened and he found himself drawn to it. Just a damn fool curiosity, most likely. But he felt that there was more to it, something like a feeling of kinship, a desire to see his values confirmed by the actions of another person. And more: a thirst for the knowledge that factories were opened, too, not just closed...
As he drove past the plant, Matt saw one lit window, one surging beacon of light against a black background. He wondered if the light came from the office of this Randolph who was in the paper. "Good luck, Mr. Randolph," he called silently. "Good luck."
Apple Annie waited for several minutes before scrambling from her hiding place. She scurried out toward the road, making sure that the red spots of the tail lights were out of sight. Then she hurried back to her plunder: a bunch of good cardboard boxes. Rain coming, by the clouds, by the winds. She would need the boxes to build a house. She did not hope it would last the night. She did not hope, even, that a box would keep her any dryer than doing without. She did not hope or care. She began to gather all those that were already open at both ends. She wasn't sure how to open those that were still sealed. She worried that there might be sharp things holding them closed, sharp things that could cut her skin.
No one knew Apple Annie's real name. That was part of a joke: not even Annie. In Dayton or Cleveland, Annie would be 'one of the homeless', entitled to special benefits. In Dalton, she was one of a kind, and she was granted permission to live completely outside Dalton's norms. Annie was a fixture, an institution. She'd shown up many years before, had earned her name silently peddling fruit near the courthouse. At first, the cops had rousted her daily. But it soon became clear that they were not getting through, that they were not there for Annie. Lock her up for the night and she'd be out there the next day. Hand her a nickel and she'd hand you an orange. Lock her up and she just came back. People felt sorry for Annie. After a while orders came down to leave her alone. Annie had long since stopped selling fruit. She roamed the streets by day, picking through the city's trash. She slept in a different place every night, always as far from cars and people as she could get. Some said she had riches stashed away, someplace in the city. Once in a while, Annie would bring an old silver coin to Dalton's only pawnbroker; she always got top dollar.
Enveloped in the reek of her own wastes, resplendent in the remains of a dozen cast-me-off wardrobes, encumbered by double hands-full of booty, Annie went where she would, contentedly oblivious and middling. Ryan Dalton had twice dubbed her Dalton's 'Person of the Year'. His breathless editorials had gushed about "Reality's Refugee. We credit her for her many services to this city, among them single-handedly saving Dalton's delousing industry from extinction." People had chided him, said it wasn't fair, him picking on Annie. But Ryan had pointed out that Annie was not offended, probably not even aware of her newly won status.
"Besides," he'd said, "you ought to regard her as your leader. She's achieved everything you claim to want. Did you say ignorance is bliss? Then Annie is ecstatically blissful. Did you say wisdom is indifference, that wanting something automatically disqualifies you to have it? Annie is always indifferent, she wants nothing. Therefore she's qualified for your highest respect. Did you say that that the things of this world are evil, that you cannot know things as they really are until you forget this world? Annie has forgotten this world. Take careful note of what this higher state of knowledge has done for her skin, her teeth, and her functioning level. I know you'll all keep at it, but you'll have a hard time matching that!"
Everyone was shocked but Annie. Annie was never shocked. Nor amused, nor angry, nor frustrated, nor joyous. She tried as hard as she could not to think, and after years of practice she had come to a place where she could hide all evidence of awareness. A place where her mental existence was unwitnessed, seemingly even by herself... But tonight she was caught unawares by the rain. She still hadn't thought about how to organize the boxes. When the rain began to pelt at her cheek, she stood staring at them, thinking she must do something, but not wanting to know what to do...
It was late when Curtis finally pushed away from his desk. The job was barely begun, but he had a clear idea of where he was going, a bare-bones plan for bringing the plant back to life.
When he walked outside, he was surprised to see a person standing there in the parking lot. She was a bag lady--what people in New York would have called a bag lady. She was wearing several layers of ill-fitting clothes, and she had collected a few of the boxes Corey had put out earlier.
"Hello," Curtis said.
"Looks like a wet night. Can I take you someplace?"
"All right then," he said. "Wait here. I'll be right back." He hurried back into the factory. He found what he was looking for in the custodial closet: large industrial-grade trash bags. He took one and cut head and arm holes out of the top seam Another he cut up the side seam, almost to the top.
The bag lady was still waiting when he got outside. By gesturing to show what he wanted, he got her to lift her arms so he could pull the plastic shirt over them. Then he put the plastic poncho on her head and showed her how to pull the sides around her to keep the weather out.
"...thanks," she said.
"So you can talk?"
"Now can I take you someplace?"
"No... I want to stay here."
"Suit yourself," Curtis said. "Good night." He smiled warmly and was answered by a crooked grin.
He didn't know why she should bother him, why he should feel, as he drove away, that he could have done something more for her. She wasn't his responsibility; no man was his brother's keeper--nor his brother's property. He felt bad for her, but that didn't mean he owed her anything, that he should sacrifice his own values for the sake of her inability to evaluate. Yet he felt there was a way to attack the problem, and that he should be attacking it not for the bag lady's sake, but for his own...
Curtis sped silently through the rainswept streets, looking at Dalton for the first time. In many places it looked like a war zone. He passed a long row of stores with their windows boarded over. He saw many 'For Sale' signs in the lawns of the houses he passed, but not many signs that said 'Sold'. There was a feeling about the town, a sense of foreboding. He pictured Dalton as a man pacing back and forth in front of a casket, trying to decide if he should get in.
At a traffic light, he stopped to look closely at a cluster of houses. The ghetto, he thought, sure that this was the area set aside for Dalton's blacks, yet not sure how he knew it. The streets were deserted. But the colors of the paint on the houses, the colors of the flashing neon signs, the toys strewn about on lumpy lawns, the broken glass on the pavement, the electric cross on the steeple of the church--all told a silent story...
A question of values, really. Wasn't that what separated people? Whether they served different values, or the same values differently, wasn't it this that stood between them, that kept them from understanding each other? He thought about that bag lady. What made her life worth living like that? What did she get in return that made that worthwhile? And what about this neighborhood? How is it that I can know blacks live here, without seeing any blacks? By cataloging disvalues? By knowing where the values of blacks differ from those of whites?
Curtis remembered something Janio had said years before: "There is only one right way. If the issue of right and wrong is involved, only one way is right, and all the rest are wrong. Some things don't matter, such as which shoe to put on first. And people will differ about which value to serve. But if two people agree that a value is valuable, there is only one right way for each to pursue it, and the one who comes closest to that right way will achieve more of the value than the one who comes less close." As his wheels hissed over the water, he let his thoughts roll over the past. Not just back to Janio and all that he'd taught him, but back to his beginning, back to his first memories of trying to find the right way to live...
Had he been born hungry? His first memories were of hunger and of the quest for food. There was never any starvation, never any days without food. But no meal was ever large, never large enough. At an early age, Curtis grew adept at finding food for himself. At first he stole it, not knowing that he was stealing, knowing only that he saw an orange or a box of cookies, and knowing that he wanted it. Later, he'd learned to trade labor for food, and only then did he achieve the satisfaction of being well-fed all the time. And more, the satisfaction of knowing that he would be well-fed all the time.
Curtis was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a black ghetto in the steamy heart of Brooklyn. His mother was in her late teens when she had him; she had no time for a child, and no need. Curtis was raised by his grandmother. His mother rarely stayed at home, preferring to hang out in the streets or the bars or the apartments of her many boyfriends.
Curtis was what his Gramma called a "good baby". He was quiet as an infant, serious as a child. He was inquisitive and curious. He rarely spoke except to ask new questions. He spent many hours examining everything in their small home, in the building, in the streets outside. He like to take things apart, to see how they were made, then to put them back together. His favorite word was "because", as in "because this happened, this must happen", but more often as in "because why?" Gramma was driven to distraction by his ceaseless pursuit of answers. You couldn't put him off; if he didn't get the whole answer right away, he'd push till he got it. If you couldn't tell him, he'd find out on his own, then come back and tell you.
He was five when he figured out that you could trade work for food and other things. He'd been caught swiping an apple. The greengrocer clouted him good, but he let Curtis keep the fruit. He made the boy heft some boxes from the store to the curb. The next day, Curtis came back, took another apple, then stood beside the greengrocer, waiting to be told what to do. The man had laughed and put Curtis to work. An hour later he walked home with a large bag of fruit.
Work gave him the mobility, the freedom he needed. He had much of his time to himself, and he was usually without supervision. With a good, steady diet, he was able to expand the scope of his daily wanderings, coming at the age of five to know the city as his own. He knew every building and store and junkyard and abandoned car in Bed-Stuy; he had explored all at least once, and he had worked in many of the stores. He never worked for more than an hour or two. Though they valued his eager labor, the merchants feared reprisals from the city--the city that could forbid them the legal right to live, just as they had forbidden it to Curtis with their child-labor laws. But a couple of hours a day was more than enough. Sometimes Curtis took his pay in food, at other times in goods, at other times in cash. He always brought the bulk of his wealth home to Gramma, who told him what a good provider he was, what a good man he would be.
At five, Curtis also learned to read and to fight. He badgered Gramma about reading until she sat him down with a book and tried to explain. Because she was ignorant, because she lacked the inestimable benefit of a college education, she taught by the outmoded and inferior phonics method. She did not know 'see and say' existed, did not know of its superiority. As a result, Curtis learned faster. He already knew thousands of words; he could read them as soon as he could sound out the letters. He quickly tore through the few books and magazines in the house, then started reading anything he could find: posters, cereal boxes, leaflets and flyers he found in the street. He even began to take some of his pay in old books and magazines.
It was when he discovered the library that he learned to fight. It was a wondrous place, an entire building full of books. He'd wandered into it not really knowing what it was, then stumbled all through it, awed, exploring it thoroughly. He was still there at closing time, poring over one of the five books he'd selected. He was not aware of the time, of his hunger, of Gramma, who must have been worried sick over him. He was aware only of the book in front of him and of the feeling of being home, a relaxation and comfort he'd known nowhere else. It took a moment for him to realize that someone was trying to get his attention, a tall white woman with glasses. When he figured out that she worked here, that she knew about this place, he asked her a million questions. She explained everything, then helped the very excited boy apply for his first library card. Then, exacting his solemn promise that he would return them, she let him borrow the books he'd selected.
On the way home, a bigger boy tried to shake him down. He taunted him about the books and demanded that Curtis hand over his money. Finally, the thug had swung out at the smaller boy and caught him full on the face. Curtis did not know how to fight. He'd had little to do with other children, and he didn't even know that they did fight. But when the boy struck him, he responded with a fury that was new to him. He carefully set the books aside, then attacked the other boy. He knew nothing about technique, had no knowledge of which blows were effective, which wasteful. It didn't matter. He attacked in a wild frenzy, swarming over the bully, laying on so many blows that the other had no time even to react, much less retaliate. The fight was over quickly. The older boy scurried off, looking over his shoulder to make sure Curtis was not following. Curtis dusted himself off, picked up his books, and walked home.
"What's it like to grow up in the streets?" He smiled at the naive question asked so many times by concerned whites. "What's it like to grow up in the suburbs? No different from anything you've ever known, not subject to comparison while it's happening." Curtis never connected the things he saw in the streets of New York to his own life, he never considered them a reflection on him. Those people were stupid; he was not. For a long while, his life revolved around the library. He'd spend hours of every day there, devouring books of science and stories.
At six he was sent off to school, but he stopped going after the third day. The teacher claimed she was going to teach math and reading, but mostly she seemed to chatter and act confused. He could learn more in ten minutes than she managed to cover in a whole day, and he quickly grew disgusted with the ceaseless, senseless repetition. He went back to the library. After much plaintive argument, the librarian agreed to let Curtis study there, so long as he promised not to mention her to truant officers, social workers or anyone else who was likely to inquire. She set a stern course of study for him, but Curtis tore through it faster than she could assign it. He became very interested in chemistry; he was fascinated by the perfect mathematical structures embodied in perfect physical structures...
When Curtis was twelve, his Gramma died. He hadn't known her, hadn't loved her, but still he felt the loss: a part of the unchanging universe had changed. His mama showed up for the first time in years, tried to take up the place in his life Gramma had occupied. Curtis knew it was a fraud, that it wouldn't last, that his mother could not be both what she was and what she was now pretending to be. He tasted the bitter resentment of charity, the knowledge that this was something his mother was doing not for her own sake, as the consequence of her own introspection and her own desire, but for his sake. Worse, because she thought that this was what ought to be good for him, to collect a sacrifice. It was the same resentment he knew when he thought of the 'do-gooders' who thought it was 'good' for him to be denied a way of making a living, of getting an education. Denied a way of living a life that didn't require sacrifice, whether it was the sacrifice of other people's wealth to him, through handouts, or the sacrifice of his ability to others, in classes full of morons to whom it was demanded that he chain himself... To have his mother renounce her whole dismal lifestyle, and to have her think that he would regard this as the good, that she would do herself out of what she wanted out of some self-imposed slavery to Curtis--to cooperate would mean that he would be enslaving himself to her, wouldn't it...? Curtis left for Manhattan that night, taking only his clothes, his books, and his savings.
"What's it like to grow up in the streets?" Good, for Curtis. Leaving home made him confront the issue of survival head on. He realized he had defaulted on Gramma, letting her handle much of what he didn't understand. He understood it now, and after sleeping two nights out in the cold, he cajoled an old woman into renting him a room. She made him promise to tell any questioners he was her nephew from South Carolina, staying here while he got his schooling. He began to hustle at the first of dozens of odd jobs--shining shoes, curb service at a newsstand, hawking papers, peddling cheap jewelry and umbrellas. The city was his front lawn and he explored it thoroughly, starting with the Fifth Avenue Library and proceeding to every surprising corner of Manhattan. His days free of the impertinences of parents, teachers and other busybodies, he applied himself rigorously to getting an education--his way. When he discovered the universities he was enraptured for weeks. He spent every free minute sneaking into chemistry classes, to listen and learn, first at one school, then at another.
At fourteen, by lying egregiously about his age, he talked his way into a job at a chemical supply house, first working as a stock-boy, later as a sales representative and supervisor. He wanted desperately to go to college, to a good college, to study chemistry. He knew his education was spotty, remarkably complete in some areas, next to non-existent in most. His new-found stability gave him the margin to think long-term, to think beyond the next meal or rent payment. He resolved to go to school, even if he hated it. To get the best grades he could get, even if he was bored to death doing it. To qualify for the best school, a school like the ones he so loved visiting, and to do whatever was necessary to make that dream come true. Even if it was dismal.
To his surprise, it was not dismal. His savings permitted him to apply to the some of the better private schools. He did not consider the public schools; they were just the slow way of asking to be adopted or dumped in a juvenile home. Curtis had spent many years learning to avoid the 'social relief' apparatus that wanted so desperately to destroy what he'd made of his life. He wasn't about to pay that much for an inferior education. He quietly asked around and found that, on the list of those he could afford, St. Matthew's was the school with the greatest financial need. By quietly demonstrating his ability to pay, and by assuring the headmaster that he would not report him should Curtis fall into the clutches of the social welfarists, he managed to talk his way into the school.
It was much more than he expected, so exciting, so fulfilling. The mindless repetition was gone, replaced by a rapid-fire cannonade of strange, new, wonderful ideas. Any student who could not keep up was invited to repeat the course, but Curtis always kept up, even in English, where he was weakest. He soared in the sciences, and he spent many joyous hours after school in the copiously stocked chemistry lab. A teacher gave him a copy of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead; Curtis liked to lay awake at night thinking of Roark, of how much is possible in life for a man who is willing to work and think. In his Senior year, he read Atlas Shrugged, and it gave him an understanding of himself he hadn't gathered on his own. Ayn Rand had named his own thoughts, his own most deeply held convictions.
It was less than a month later that he met Janio for the first time. In those days, Janio was running the 'church' without fanfare, just himself and his equipment on Saturday afternoons in Washington Square Park. Curtis had seen him there, attracted by the strange spectacle of a crowd of radio listeners. As he got closer, he saw that the man at the center of the crowd, a slender hispanic with rich black hair, was 'broadcasting'. His microphone and instruments fed into a radio transmitter, not an amplifier. The audience heard the show through the portable radios they carried. How strange...
There was a sign beside the man: "Holy Church of Iconoclastic Atheism". "Have you come to worship god?!," he demanded in a parody of the raging video evangelists. "No!," came the liturgical response, accompanied by a few angry remarks from the fringes of the crowd. "Have you come to kneel before the lord?!" "No!" "If you have come to pray to god, you have come to the wrong place. Why? Because there is no god!" The audience cheered. Curtis got interested, fascinated by the careful way the performer kept his motives ambiguous. You couldn't be sure if he was a comedian or a soap-box crazy. It wasn't clear if his purpose was to amuse or to hector. He made you laugh, but when the laughter ended, you had the feeling that something stuck, that some part of what he'd said stayed with you and made you think...
Curtis became a regular at Janio's shows. Every Saturday, he would come to hear the strange man speak on drugs or politics or religion or liberty or his experiences in Nicaragua. His lectures were always funny and always didactic. And Curtis came to hear him play, too. Janio was a keyboard master; he would use his synthesizers to produce as many as twelve voices at once, and his gay parodies of musical cliches were as effective as his satires of philosophical bromides.
A big part of the audience came solely for the music. Janio played as no one they'd ever heard, and if they had to put up with a few quirks to hear it, it was worth that price. He played rock 'n' roll medleys with a classic virtuosity, using their common themes to craft a symphony. Though he rarely performed the lyrics, he made the music speak with a greater beauty and potency than its words could declare. Nothing passed through his fingers unchanged. It was as though his hands were a filter that let past only that which was beautiful and purposeful and inspiring in a piece of music. He seemed to thrive on exposing the musical beauty of 'ugly' songs, like the Tubes' 'White Punks on Dope', and the Beatles' 'Jealous Guy'. He stripped them of all anger, defeat, pain. What was left was the stark beauty of the music and the raw power of the musician.
After the radio show one day Janio had stopped to speak with Curtis. They talked for an hour, then went for dinner together. That was the beginning of a close friendship, one that had now lasted more than ten years. Janio was joyous and carefree in those days, an elegant Central American heir gone bohemian. He lived in a garage-sized loft on Prince Street. Curtis spent many late nights there, talking with Janio, listening to him play the classical music he loved but would not play in public. And, as Janio put it, 'making the revolution'. Their shared interest in Objectivism, Austrian economics, and liberty filled their minds and time with many lively discussions.
A revolution of the other sort had erupted in Nicaragua, so Janio missed seeing Curtis graduate with honors from Columbia, BS-Chemistry. By the time he returned to the city, Curtis had gone away on the first of a series of jobs in the plastics industry. His first jobs had been in research and development, but he had shown so much organizational skill that he was quickly promoted into management. He earned a reputation for getting everything right: people, product, profit. His last two jobs had been as CEO in turnaround companies. It was the bonuses from those rescue operations that had paid his half of the Pauling nut.
Janio had paid the other half. Since the Sandinistas had taken power, Janio was different. He returned to New York a changed man, no less ebullient, but much less open, less trusting. Curtis knew that Janio no longer shared his whole life with him. He knew that there were things that Janio kept from him, things of which he no longer spoke. Part of it was the private gold bank Janio ran through SallyBank, a powerful computer. That was very illegal, as he'd advised Curtis when he set up his account. When Curtis saw the scope of Janio's private trading network, he was astounded: "Why? Janio, why?" His good friend had smiled, but the smile was not a happy one: "We are making the revolution, my friend. We have embargoed them, we boycott them. Are you with us? Don't answer. When the time comes that you must choose, you will know. For now you have a gold account in an underground economy. That's worth maybe five years at a federal country club. I won't give you any better basis for self-incrimination just yet."
'Making the revolution'...? Or making a living? For more than five years, Curtis had traded over SallyBank, had seen his gold shares accumulate, losing no value against goods, gaining value against the US dollar and every other paper currency. SallyBank was a trading network more than a bank, a means of negotiating goods against a common standard to effect a trade, sometimes involving many parties. Curtis sold consulting services and imported some chemicals that the SallyBank economy was not yet producing internally. He didn't know his current state of legal compromise, but he thought it must be greater than simple tax-evasion, trading in taboo currencies, etc. Maybe black marketeering? Conspiring to mock the dignity of the holy republic? Treason? Curtis smiled his answer: "Make the most of it!" He had come to love SallyBank and everything it represented, from the code of competence imposed by gold money to the spirit of freedom that prevailed among the traders. SallyBank was home, and if necessary he would fight for his homeland. Isn't that what a value is, something so good you refuse to deny its goodness, even at gunpoint? My purpose is to live and "there is only one right way", and it does not require guns or armies to compel 'cooperation'.
Curtis saw his hotel ahead, on the left. He slowed and turned carefully on the slick pavement. As he entered the hotel, he heard music from the lounge. He looked in on it and saw Ryan Dalton, one elbow to the bar. The beefy newsman spotted Curtis and waved him over.
"Hi, Curtis," said Dalton. "I was hoping you'd drop in. I wanted to speak to you."
"Oh, nothing in particular. Just to shoot the breeze. I came here from a School Board meeting, and I needed to wash the stink off me. What are you drinking?" When Curtis had ordered, Dalton continued: "Do you want to know the intellectual crisis of our age, the burning issue searing the heart of the body politic, the two contenders for the heavyweight championship in the battle of ideas? It's the Pythagorean Theorem versus 'Getting Along With Your Grandparents'. And the grandparents are winning!"
"It sounds like it means a lot to you."
"Oh, yeah!," said Dalton, taking a sip of his drink. "Funny, isn't it? Me, Mr. Civic Virtue? I used to laugh at them, their look-say-forget reading, mantra math, and togetherness training. I thought they were getting what they deserved..."
"Hah! What made you join the other side?"
"I found that I was getting what they deserved--all over the place! In errors made by idiot reporters, in waste caused by idiot printers, in taxes paid to keep idiots idiotic. Simply renouncing stupidity is not enough. I have to fight it, to try to root it out."
"You know, around town people enjoy thinking of me as Mr. Civic Virtue. They say things like 'high time he gave back what his family's taken out of this town'. That is not my motive. I want to stress that with you, though I don't know why it should matter."
Curtis said: "I do."
"Do you? You know, somehow I thought you might... Anyway, my family has never taken or given anything in this town. We've traded honestly and well. I don't feel that I owe anything to Dalton, nor that it owes anything to me."
"But..." Ryan took another sip of his drink. "Well, maybe I'm just trying to prove to myself that I'm not acting in self-sacrifice... Tell me, Curtis, if you saw a man on fire, would you try to put him out?"
"Yes, if it wouldn't endanger my own life."
"But an ongoing problem, like drink or drugs or gambling--would you subsidize that?"
"No. Because it would endanger my life, to consistently trade higher values for lower ones."
Dalton smiled. "What you didn't say is that subsidizing vice would hurt the recipient."
"That's true but irrelevant. In both cases, it's my own interests that count, not the other person's."
"Okay," said Ryan. "Try this: what if you saw a giant mantrap? Would you try to tear it down?"
"A trap for men. A machine that snatches them and holds them and won't let them go. Would you try to tear it down?"
Curtis smiled. "Somebody did that for me. I guess I'd return the favor. Is there such a machine?"
"You tell me. Dalton has lost five thousand jobs in the last five years. The housing stock is ten percent vacant, and those who remain can't hope to sell. The public schools are guided by the premise that education is Pavlovian, that a child who understands 'monkey-see, monkey-do' understands the world. With the help of some of the city fathers, the schools have sought to produce the perfect factory labor force--short attention span, low reasoning ability, limited curiosity. As a result, now, when they should leave, they can't. Many of them don't even know they should leave..."
"There's not much you can do for them now, is there?"
"Not for them," Ryan said. "Not this late. But I can try to stop the process. If we're going to pay taxes to support schools, let's at least get our money's worth. Let pay to give the kids a fighting chance in life. Can you imagine the type of mind that considers grandparent relations comparable to geometry? That is what we have to fight against. If we can get reason back into the curriculum, then maybe we can save this town. Without it, we're sunk."
"...do you think the problem can be solved that simply?"
"Not simply," Dalton replied, "and not overnight. But in time, if we have the time to give it. You said it today: what killed the Pauling plant? Low productivity. How do you learn how to produce more? Not by looking into tea leaves. Not by consorting with demons or talking it over with your relatives. No, to learn to produce more, to learn anything, you must think! An education that doesn't teach reasoning is a fraud. An education that insinuates that there can be a special reality where falsehood is truth, where you can eat without having produced, know without having thought, steal the property of others because they produced it and you didn't--that's a mantrap. It commands that its every victim be both predator and prey, both a thief and a beggar, with no hope of escape ever, because the victim knows no other way to live. Would you try to tear that down?"
Curtis looked down at his drink: half full. "What are you getting at, Ryan?"
"I don't know. I guess I'm looking for allies... I talk to everyone I can, try to get them to see why it's so important. I've lined up support from most of the commercial community, and my paper pumps it regularly."
"Isn't that enough?"
"Doesn't make a scratch. This is Ohio, Curtis. The Democratic party has ruled Dalton for more than fifty years. If you're in a union, especially the teacher's union, you're under their protection. Until we can get control of the School Board, we can't effect any lasting change."
"And you represent--what?--the Republicans?"
"Libertarians. The Republicans are cold soup in Dalton; they usually endorse our candidates. Can I talk you into running for a seat in the next election?"
"I don't think so. I've got too much to do for the next few years. Maybe later."
Dalton smiled. "I figured that. Will you write an article or two for my paper, maybe make a few speaking appearances?"
"I don't know what I'd write about..."
"How reason saved my life, naturally. Or anything related to education. Someday when you have time just sit down, relax, and write down what you thought was most valuable in your education, what you prize most highly now."
"All right," Curtis said. "I'll do it, but it's not likely to be soon... By the way, Ryan. There's something I wanted to ask you."
"Is it common, around here, for a receiver to bid on his own sale?"
"That's not common here or anywhere. That's fraud..." A look of confusion overtook Ryan's face. "Curtis, what are you asking?"
"One of my financial advisors phoned today. He reports that our competitor in the bidding for Pauling Plastics was a Mr. Cameron Dalton, the receiver. That's your father, isn't it?"
"Do you have any idea of his purpose?"
"No real information, but I can guess. He's making quick kills to keep his mortgages alive."
"I don't understand."
"When Cleveland Tool moved out, the same thing happened, though my father wasn't the receiver. He bought out the plant, then sold everything under the roof and condemned the structure. A week later he announced that new foreclosures would be suspended for six months. My guess is that he's trying to give folks a chance to recover, while making sure he doesn't trade the capital stock of the bank for real estate that can't be sold..." A sadness overtook Dalton's face. "He's trapped in it, too, just like the rest of them. And selling out the productive plant only makes it all worse. A six month 'breather' works out to zero if you don't get anything in exchange for your breaths... Are you upset with my father?"
"He cost me twenty-five thousand dollars I didn't need to spend."
"That might have been part of his motive as well. The bank owned most of Pauling's notes. It'll get the lion's share of the distress disbursement... If what you say is true, you have legal recourse. You know that, don't you...?"
"Yes," said Curtis, "I did know that."
"Are you going to take it?"
"I don't know. I'll have to decide if it's worth it to me. Are you going to discuss this with your father?"
"Maybe," Ryan responded. "Are you?"
"Probably. I'll want to know what kind of man I'm dealing with."
Dalton's impish grin returned. "When you find out, be sure to tell him. He's heard it before, but it never seems to sink in."
Curtis laughed. They chatted a while longer, then he said good night and trailed up to bed.
Curtis was a long time getting to sleep; he had much to think about. He tried to deal with the problems of the plant, but his mind kept turning back to the conversation with Ryan Dalton, the do-gooder in spite of himself. Hadn't he had the same thoughts earlier himself, about the bag lady? Not that one person owes another for some part of his existence, but that, somehow, one's own interests were served by... what? Charity? Pity? Paternalism? Or was it, as Dalton said, rescuing them from a trap? I don't owe them even that much, he thought, but if he's right, then... I bought into this town, he's banking on that... If helping the schools will help my business, in the long run, then I'll do what I can to help the schools. Is that how you get to be a reluctant do-gooder? Gnawing at the back of his mind was a question: could all of Dalton's problems be related, the schools, the joblessness, the blight of that ghetto he'd seen tonight? Could they all be tied in with his own business? He laughed silently at himself. In other words, in taking control of the factory did I take control of the whole town? He put the issue aside for a more pleasant thought: Glenna. He pictured her face as it looked in a moment when she understood something new, the reverence and appreciation in her eyes and the lines of pleasure in her smile. That's the way to look at life... He smiled in answer to his image of her.
Ryan stared at the remains of his drink for a long time, thinking about Randolph... Could you know a man that well? In just one day? Ever? Was Curtis always that true to his own interests? Was he always that consistent?
Dalton pushed away the drink and pushed away from the bar. As he drove home, he whistled softly to himself, a phrase from Beethoven's Third. It seemed somehow connected to Curtis, as if it were written solely to herald his arrival. Dalton smiled to himself when he remembered that the Eroica was written to honor a conqueror... And now, at last, it does...
Lying in the darkness of her bedroom, Glenna heard a car streak past. Rare for this late at night. There wasn't much traffic in Dalton after eleven.
She was thinking of Curtis, realizing that she had thought of little else all night. How could he know her deepest thoughts, her most hidden emotions? He had named them as if he had known they were true, and known that they ought to be true. Did that mean he shared them? She gasped with pleasure. Do his clear bright eyes qualify him for this room, as well as the office? Another thought clamored forward: am I qualified for him...? She quivered when she thought of Curtis Randolph here, in her arms, in her body. She was aware suddenly of her hand, resting gently against her leg. She felt it not as a hand but as pinpoints of heat burning into her flesh. She raised the hand to the heat of her thighs. "Oh, yes, Curtis... Yes!"
Glenna was oblivious to Corey Pauling's truck when it rumbled by. Corey was pasted, as close to passing out as a man can get and still drive. Poorly. He held to no lane, weaving in and out with the effect of an attention span reduced to fractions of a second. Corey giggled at the radio announcer, who was exhorting listeners to refrain from drunk driving. It was good to laugh; it was good to feel happy. Corey hadn't felt happy before. Though he'd downed six boilermakers, the alcohol had not brought joy or peace, just stupor.
It's all that fuckin' nigger's fault, he thought. He's the one who had to go and ruin my life! Things had been rough. At the first bar, Corey had finished two drinks before the giggling got out of hand. He'd gone to another bar rather than face a show-down. Hassle old women and kids, sure, but there's no point in getting beat up... At the second bar, he had another two. By the third joint, he was obviously too drunk to fight, so he was able to enjoy his last two slowly.
But that crowd had gotten their giggling in early; by now they were to the open insult stage. One man had asked, "Larry, how low can a man sink in life...?" His table mate had responded, "I don't know. Why don't you ask the nigger's janitor?" That had brought down the house, and the more timid types were happy to waddle down the trail that Larry had blazed. Old geezers and meek milquetoasts would say things like, "At least you ain't his golf caddy!," or, "Could be worse; you could be shinin' his shoes!," all accompanied by spastic, joyless guffaws.
Corey knew they had to gang up on him, had to prove to themselves that he was unique, that his fate could never befall them. Corey didn't know that in seeking that proof, they were proving its contrary. But he knew that if he got it out of the way tonight, he'd never have to fight about it. The tittering, the raw comments, they'd continue. But he wouldn't be expected to fight about it. He'd announced to the world that he would let them have their way with him, that he would not resist their taunts. He felt somehow that there was a surrender involved, but he didn't know what it was. He didn't feel any loss.
What he felt was hatred, a burning resentment, against that nigger Randolph and everyone. He remembered with pleasure busting up that ballgame, running that old bag off the road. That's life, he thought. It's not what you can get, it's what you can deny to others...
He pulled into his drive and waddled to his door. After fumbling with his keys, he let himself in. Sandra was asleep. He undressed and slipped into bed beside her. Her rolled her over and pulled up her short nightie. He entered her in one quick thrust and she awoke in a scream of pain. He took her in short fast jerks; Sandra endured it. He knew she got no pleasure from this, that it brought her no more than pain and boredom. That was part of his pleasure. When he had finished he rolled over and stared at the ceiling, hating the things he saw in his mind, Randolph and those swarming savages in the bar and Sandra and Glenna-fucking-Rhodes and the whole stinking town... "How low can a man sink?" Corey clenched his jaws. "Ask the nigger's janitor..." Then his mind stuck on a happier image: "Fuck you, bitch!" He wore a smile of quiet satisfaction as he dropped off to sleep.
3. Mind at Work
For Curtis, the Dalton Chronicle article on education was a kind of private celebration. He wrote it on the Sunday afternoon following the plant's reopening. There had been a number of public ceremonies, with insincere testimonials and blinding electronic flashes, but the private ceremony consummated by the article was by far the most valuable to him. Out of three weeks of his hardest labor he had condensed a rule of laboring, a universal law of getting things done, the practical definition of "Making it pay"...
Making it pay... It had been a scrabble from the first. The eight hands Glenna had hired were eager and intelligent, but there was a beatenness about them. Their faces were lined at the eyes, creased at the cheeks, and Curtis felt that the pain-scars were both new and enduring. He had some buttons he'd used once in a turnaround situation; they read: "Mind At Work." He gave one to everybody, and they seemed to help. The men seemed more confident of their fitness for work, of their worthiness to have a job.
Curtis lost two of them to Glenna's inventory the first few days, and he put two more to work inspecting the decompression system valve by valve. With the remaining men he'd rebuilt the toolroom, reorganizing the machines, stripping and painting each before it was moved. From there his crews surged through the plant. Working side by side with the men in dungarees and work shirts, Curtis inspected, replaced, repaired and reengineered the production lines of the factory. They set up and operated two lines: one for bending polymer-glass membranes, one for the layup of multi-layer printed circuit boards.
Glenna had chosen wisely: the men she'd selected were first-rate. Once they'd gotten their confidence back, they thrived on the work. They worked overtime, well after dark most nights. When they'd gotten the plant into serviceable if not perfect shape, he began drilling them on product, training, quality control, personnel management... He made it clear to the men that he was looking to promote them into floor management. He coached them ceaselessly on manufacturing techniques, cost savers, known disasters to watch for. "Let me make this clear: our job is to make money. 'Mind At Work'. I'm looking at you men for better jobs at better pay, because I think you'll be worth more to me in those jobs. If you elect to take them, it will be because you feel I'll be worth more to you at those wages. When we start hiring for line workers, I'll hire on the basis of ability. Does that sound strange, coming from a black man? Just now the debate rages over which arbitrary standard to use in layoffs: race or seniority. Why not just spin a dial?" The men laughed, some uncomfortably. "I want the best that my money can buy. I want ability, and I don't care what kind of package it comes in. Why? Because I want to make money. Because I want to do the job and make it pay. 'Mind At Work'."
At another session, he touched on a similar theme: "'Mind At Work': talk to your people. Find out what they like and dislike about the job. We share the same interest in this endeavor. What we need to do is show people the relationship of the company's profit to their own. I think the whole adversarial style of management is stupid and unproductive. You're here to work and make money; I'm here to work and make money; the employees will be here to work and make money. I'll make a lot more on a happy labor force, people who know productivity gains will translate to standard-of-living gains."
Once, at the end of a very hot day, they were sitting around with cold beers. The conversation turned to work experiences. One man spoke gruffly, movingly of the lazy sluggards he'd seen thrive in union factories. Not the ordinary member, this bird was about one in fifty. The kind of guy who would show up drunk, ruin a batch of work, 'injure' himself, then go on three months' disability. Many of the others had similar stories, each a tale of outrage. Curtis said, "That's what I want you to convey, the thing in you behind that anger. The things that knows that a man must earn his dinner, because that's the way things are, but also because that's the way things ought to be. We're buying and selling values, here. We don't pay for any other product. If you can show your people why consistently seeking the highest values, the best within them for the things that they know are right--why that will pay the most for them, then you'll have done what I need you to do."
Two days later, one of the men had spoken to him privately. "Mr. Randolph, I want to thank you."
"I know you do--and don't. I didn't do anything to be thanked for. I'm in this for me."
"...I guess that's what I'm thanking you for."
Curtis smiled. Putting an arm over his shoulder, he led him to the rear of the plant, talking excitedly about the walk-in oven being constructed there.
He spent as much time on the phone as on the factory floor, talking to potential customers. He got the same kind of pleasure from the conversations, the pleasure of talking to people who are worth talking to. Pauling Plastics had a lot to overcome, but Curtis himself, with his company-savior reputation, made up for part of that. The samples the men were preparing made up for the rest. His circuit boards generated orders as fast as he could show their worth. He took two weekend trips to seal major deals, and it looked as though the plant would have the cash-flow to carry it through the crucial first months.
Curtis smiled at the effort he'd invested. He was usually last to leave, saving his office and R&D work for last. Many times Glenna arrived to find him still there. She'd send him home, only to see him return in a few hours, fit and feisty.
Glenna had good reason to pride her efforts, as well. Curtis had dumped everything that didn't require him onto her. She was in the office from dawn to dusk; she left when she did only because he made her. She had more than too much to do. In those three weeks, she hired 120 laborers, got all of them plus the original set through the payroll morass, performed a full inventory, supervised three small construction jobs, ordered supplies, arranged credit and transportation... The list was endless. She'd worked harder than she'd ever known she could.
One job she'd liked especially: Curtis had pushed on her the problem of where he was to live. He asked her to find him a reasonable rental in a decent neighborhood. He said he didn't care where, so she found a place near hers. She helped him move his things in, and twice she had cooked for him, once at her home, once at his. At the last he'd kissed her. It was wonderful, but he ruined it by making it clear that that was all until the future of the business was assured.
Maybe he was right... She put those hopes off to the future and concentrated instead on her growing responsibilities. She found that she liked making decisions without having to check them with someone. She'd always been able to come up with the right answer to any problem. But she's always had to 'check' them with higher-ups, and sometimes the higher-ups said she was wrong, that another course would be taken. Curtis trusted her to do the right thing. She matched his trust by giving her work her closest, most careful attention. She knew that that was exactly what he expected. More, she knew why he was right to expect that, why that course was to her profit. She liked being Vice President In Charge of Everything Else. It was a lot of work, but it was work worth doing...
Curtis spent a lot of time teaching her as well. "What we're doing here, some people call it 'enlightened capitalism'. I think the qualifier is stupid, because there really isn't any other kind. When we trade, I make a profit if you make a profit. We have the same interest."
"But aren't there cases," she'd asked, "where the interests of labor and management are opposed?"
"Only where one is trying to steal from the other. If everyone recognizes that the only way for either to make a profit, long term, is for the other to profit as well, then there can be no conflict. Part of the labor/management conflict has resulted from managers who think it's their job to steal from their employees. The other part has resulted from restrictions on labor contracts, where management is forced to deal with a particular labor monopoly and no other. Employees are free to come and go as they choose, but management has to deal with one union or not at all. We don't have a union here. If the employees decide that some part of my wealth is theirs, I can take my business elsewhere. If we show them why this is so, and why it's right that it should be so, then we won't have any problem. Why should I have fewer rights because I've committed the crime of creating jobs...?"
She'd complained to him that she couldn't possibly administer objective tests to all of the applicants. At Pauling, the practice had been to put potential employees through a battery of eye-hand coordination tests, to assure that they could do factory labor. Curtis sat in on a few interviews. He said little, sitting quietly, pensively, watching what applicants did with their eyes, their hands, watching what they looked at when speaking...
"Have you ever stolen from an employer?," he asked one of them, a slim woman with bright green eyes.
"Ever run from the scene of an accident? Float a bad check?"
"No! I have to look at myself in the mirror. I never do things I know I'll regret."
"Hire her," he'd ordered.
Later, privately, Glenna had said, "Curtis, you're just asking for it. If you ever have to show cause why you hired that woman, you won't be able to do it."
"Show cause to whom? Her husband?"
"To the state, to the Equal Opportunity Commission... To anyone else who might ask."
"I hired her because she's honest."
"But you can't show that. You can't show a test result that proves her more honest than someone we didn't hire."
Curtis had smiled, the slow gentle smile that said he didn't give a damn what anyone else said, he knew what he knew. "I'm paying for a particular kind of motivation, a particular idea of how to go about doing a job, and why it should be done that way. I can't test for it, but I can identify it when I see it. It's clear eyes and a clear voice and a proud posture and strong eye contact and a half-dozen other things. It's the way a person faces up to reality when you hit him with an ugly question. That's what I want in here. That's the kind of person who can do what I'm paying to have done."
"But what about the law?"
Again that easy smile. "Glenna, I've lived outside the law all my life. It's been good, and I don't see any point in trying to live inside it now. Assuming that's possible, which I doubt..."
She crossed her arms; she knew her face wore a stubborn expression.
"All right," he said. "What's wrong with that law you're defending? Is it true that people are so equal as to be interchangeable? Could I replace you with Apple Annie?"
"Then the only other possibility is that I could injure my own interests with no long term damage. Do you see? That law proceeds from the insane proposition that, without its 'protection', I'd deliberately commit financial suicide by hiring people who are worthless. Does that sound like something I'd do?"
"Does it sound like a smart way to run a business?"
"Then to hell with the law. If they give us too much trouble, we'll move to Kentucky."
"And if they give us trouble in Kentucky...?"
He smiled again. "Then we'll move to Singapore, damnit. This country has gone too long with the idea that it can tell people what to do with their own property. Maybe we can't change that, but we don't have to sanction it."
But there hadn't been any trouble. All her life she'd heard the professional whiners rail against business, blaming it for every evil from alcoholism to child abuse. But the whiners stayed home when Curtis came to town. It was as if his body were a wall they could neither surmount nor tear down. There had been one snide letter in the Dalton Chronicle. A person named Marion Grant had written in complaining that the rush for jobs at Pauling Plastics was 'vulgar', that she'd hoped that kind of 'gold rush mentality' was gone for good from Dalton, but alas... The letter had generated over three hundred responses; angry Daltonites had told Ms. Grant where she and her 'vulgarity' could go. Most were unprintable, but a few were quite moving defenses of the morality Curtis was teaching--almost as a side-effect...
That was what was so funny about him. He made you feel as though you were embarked on some holy crusade, a war for righteousness, for justice. Yet he was interested only in his own profit. If he taught you anything, it was because he knew you'd make more for him with the knowledge than without it. If he taught anything, it was why everyone should act the same way.
But wasn't his appeal to people who'd always acted that way? People like me?, Glenna asked herself. People like those out on the floor of the plant, who considered liking themselves to be the most important value they could earn? What Curtis taught them was why it was right to feel that way. Not just why it was right to give full measure, not cheat or steal or lie. But why it was right to defend that as the good. Why it was wrong to let anyone tell them they should operate on any motive other than their own profit and their own self-love. He didn't teach us anything new, he just showed us why we were right all along...
So, Glenna told herself later, maybe I had an excuse for overlooking a few little things... Nothing much at first, just a few small questions to which Curtis would not give her a straight answer. Such as: why was material showing up in the warehouse for which there were no invoices, no receiving documents, no work orders, and no shipping arrangements?
"That's just same sample fabric I had sent," Curtis had replied.
"It's an awful lot for samples. There must be fifty rolls."
"A very tricky operation. It may take us a while to get it right."
"Have you seen the performance tests on those circuit boards?"
"No," he'd said. "What do they show?"
"Curtis, they're indestructible."
"Nonsense," he had said, smiling. "Everything that can be made can be unmade."
"They can't be 'unmade' by quality control. They're lasting through several multiples of their ratings."
"So, our customers should be very satisfied."
"Curtis, how do you build a fiberglass board that can't be destroyed?"
He'd smiled again. "One molecule at a time..."
And then there was the third shift. For some reason, Curtis seemed to be more interested in the graveyard shift than in the other two. He'd started that operation even before the plant officially opened, and he worked with them most nights; on the nights she'd cooked for him, he had left early to go back to work with the third crew. She knew there was something strange about what they were doing, because they had no recorded responsibilities. Curtis had made her fudge production statistics for them. Twice she had seen trucks being loaded when she came to work, trucks for which there was no record of any sort, no transportation orders, no bills of lading, no record of inventory shipped.
She'd confronted him about it. "Curtis, what are you and the third shift doing here at night?"
"Making it pay, my dear. Making it pay."
No matter how she nagged him, he would say no more than that.
So... what? Glenna knew there was more to it than worry about her boss, or worry about her job. She was worried about her husband, about the man she'd decided to make her husband. He'd said again and again that he had no respect for the law. Was he a thief? How could he be? With that face, that perfect body, that stern sense of justice, that compassion for injustice--could a man like that be a common criminal? The evidence of her papers and records said yes. The evidence of her eyes and mind said no. Which was correct...?
The third shift was Randolph's special pride, the source of much of his feeling for the plant. He'd hand-picked the crew, and he worked with them almost every night.
The third shift was where Janio's membranes were bent. Curtis had personally set up the heating elements for turning the tough plastic sheets. He'd shown the men how to do the job without burning themselves, then stayed with them until they could get the production rate and quality level Janio needed.
The third shift was where Janio's circuit boards were layed-up. Early in production, Curtis had found a way to apply the repolymerization technique to the ordinary fiberglass, thus giving them performance capabilities far beyond those required in Janio's specifications.
The third shift was the time when shipments of supplies to and from the SallyBank economy were made. Curtis was present for every truck; he had the only records, so the responsibility of making sure of the counts was his.
The third shift was the most heavily engineered. Though it was manned by only eight people, they produced more than the other two shifts combined. The material arriving and leaving late at night became an important addition to the SallyBank economy.
The third shift was when Curtis earned his satisfactions: work and wealth. He did all of his R&D in those hours, preferring the quiet, the atmosphere of silent dedication. The employees liked having him around; it made them feel respected. And he enjoyed being around them. In those first few weeks, he drew up plans for four new products to be introduced in the next year, two above the surface, two below it. And there was the satisfaction of watching his wealth accumulate. He knew that for every membrane shipped on the third shift, four grams were credited to his gold drawer. For every circuit board, one gram.
The third shift is where we make it pay, he told himself. Where business gets done. No idiotic laws or make-work regulations, no useless waste-paper to fill out, and, best of all, no taxes. He brought to the midnight shift the dedication of a man stripped of everything except his one purpose. He did not have a thousand side issues tearing at him, he only had to work. To do the job the best he knew how, and to reap his just reward for doing it. Could the legislators, the busybodies and the professionally needy, could any of them claim that they'd brought any part of this wealth into existence? This wealth they knew nothing about and would have done what they could to destroy, were they not too busy sleeping...? Curtis reaped the twin satisfactions of making it pay his way and not being made to pay for the privilege.
And the third shift is how I'll pay for Glenna... He'd felt bad, having to put off her questions, but there was too much he couldn't tell her. Not yet. How would she react? Technically, SallyBank was organized crime, an underground economy. But it was an economy of justice, a world where your parents or your skin color or your clothes or grammar or eating habits--they didn't matter. What mattered was what you could do, and how well you could do it.
A world for Glenna's boy. He liked young Dwight, liked having him around the plant. The boy was around most afternoons, running errands, making copies, helping with the less-strenuous moving and packing. Curtis made him his special research assistant, giving the boy jobs to do around the lab and answering his fervent, ceaseless questions.
Dwight was a good boy, a bright youngster with the right attitude. Curtis had taken him on inspection tours of vendors' operations, taught him to do time studies on production lines. The boy was smart; he would grasp for the principle behind a statement, the reason that made it true. Curtis spent hours with him, talking about his studies, his music, what he hoped to do with his life. A good son...
Thinking of Glenna and Dwight always brought a smile to his face. He knew what was his to take, what he'd earned from Glenna. But he knew he could not take it, not yet. Not until he was square with her, just as he was square with his partners on SallyBank. Before you can be a husband, you must first be a man... But the knowledge that Glenna was there for him, that his home and family awaited him--that made the long nights of the third shift go easier. And it made the rewards earned there even better. Making it pay--for me and mine...
The opening of the plant had been a happy thing. Glenna had stood off to one side with Dwight while the mayor of Dalton, August Collingsworth, made a lengthy speech about the values Pauling Plastics had brought back to Dalton. She noticed that he spoke only of the factory, as if the building, its bricks and girders, were the cause of the plant's reopening. He went on and on about the values to be created by the application of muscle to tools, as if muscles acted without direction, and as if the tools were an accident of nature that had erupted on just that spot. He spoke of the enhancement of the town's revenue-base without explaining the source of that enhancement, as if money were a value, not the things one could buy with it. A number of Pauling employees were standing in the crowd, but the Mayor didn't seem to notice their 'Mind At Work' buttons.
Curtis was standing between the Mayor and his gaggle of yes-men, but he did not seem to be a part of the crowd at all. It was not as if he were pressed into a mob of his equals, but as if he were completely alone, without equals. She saw him on the walk leading to the main door of the building, now blocked by a gaudy red, white and blue bunting. But she felt as though he were alone, perched atop a tall mountain, surveying the territory he alone had conquered. The Mayor and his followers were trying very hard to convey to Curtis that he was their equal, their partner in the enterprise of rebuilding Dalton. Curtis was trying very hard to hide the fact that he considered them not just as his inferiors, but as beings completely incomparable to him, unworthy of his thought, irrelevant to his purposes.
Glenna was shocked when she thought of this: suppose he is a thief... Is he less of a man than these, these chickens who don't come home to roost until it's time to eat the bread? She felt disgust for the fat Mayor who could celebrate the reopening of the factory without acknowledging the man who had reopened it. For his claim that muscles alone could do anything without the direction of a fertile, eager intelligence. Curtis might be a thief, but he wasn't a rat or a worm or whatever it was these non-men tried so hard to be...
Matt Clinton was there for the ribbon-cutting. He had no business being there, had work that needed doing at home on the farm. Yet he'd come anyway, chiding himself the whole way. Damn foolishness, just a bunch of politicians making speeches. But he felt that he wanted to see it anyway, not sure why it was of value to him. A factory opening, instead of closing. A gay ceremony instead of a black-bordered announcement in the newspaper. A crowd of people gathered to celebrate, rather than to scream at each other. Goods coming into the county, not just tools and capital equipment moving the other way. Funny... It doesn't matter to me, he thought. My boys are gone or going; they don't need Pauling Plastics or a few factory jobs. But still, it was a good thing. A good thing for the people who'd work there, and a good thing for the whole town. For too long he'd heard people crying that pain and misery were all they saw ahead, all that's possible in life. Let them come here and see that it's not true, that this Randolph fellow has taken their claims and predictions and put them in the trash can where they belong... As he looked at Randolph, he felt that somehow the man was more than he seemed. Not just the tall, slim black man he saw before his eyes, but something else, something more that he saw in his mind's eye. It was as if the man were a tremendous dynamo, a source of energy upon which Matt could draw--for power, for purpose, for pride. He looked at the other watchers and thought he saw some of the same respect in their eyes.
Cora Landry was there. She stayed in her car, parked well to the rear. She didn't know why she came, didn't know what she hoped to find at the opening. She payed no attention to the speeches, had heard them all before. Her thoughts were swept up in the memories of Horace, of the things he'd said. Maybe it wasn't true, maybe it didn't have to be true. Maybe the world didn't have to fall apart the way Horace had said it would... Wasn't the reopening of this plant a proof that things didn't have to go wrong? Wasn't that young Mr. Randolph proving that things could go well, not just badly? She knew she felt better thinking that way. Since she had heard about the Pauling plant, she'd felt happier, more comfortable. She didn't worry as much about the cars or their drivers, and she was more confident that the happy spirit of her girlhood was not dead. She didn't know this Curtis Randolph, didn't know what he thought, what he did. But she knew he'd given her something she hadn't known in years: a feeling of peace and contentment. She didn't examine the emotion, didn't know its source, but she was grateful. "Thank you, Mr. Randolph," she silently intoned. "Thank you."
Estelle Simpson was there. She hated it, but she had to come. Elections were coming, and it wouldn't do to be called anti-jobs. And Ryan Dalton was giving the event so much coverage! Without thinking, she fussed at her bun; must look good for the voters... But what rot! The Mayor was going all out, paying this Randolph his highest tribute. But did the man notice? Did he care? He stood there like so much granite. One had the impression he was trying to ignore the high praise the Mayor heaped on him and his factory. Well, he should ignore it! What did he do, anyway? Did he build the factory? Did he birth the babies who grew up to work for him? Did he invent the plastics industry? He hadn't done anything except steal the efforts of others! Where would he be without other people to do his dirty work for him? To build for him and invent for him? To grant deeds for him...? Estelle hadn't forgotten the meeting in her office. And she hadn't forgotten the outcome. We'll see about you, Mr. Randolph, she said in the silent safety of reflection. We'll just see...
Corey Pauling was there. He'd thought about cutting out; Randolph would never miss him. But this was better--revenge. Corey was drunk and high. At lunch he'd driven off in his truck, down the road to where no one could see. In a secluded spot, he'd smoked two fat bowls of pot. Then he had downed a half-pint bottle of peach brandy. By the time he got back to the plant he was stuporous. No fuckin' pot on the premises, huh? No smokin', no drinkin', just hard work, is that it Mr. Randolph? I'll do what I please, and fuck you, Mr. Stuck-up Nigger! I'll fix you, just you watch! I'll come to work drunk from now on! I'll fix you...
Ryan Dalton was there. He tried to keep a look of interest on his face during the Mayor's speech, tried to keep himself from looking as bored as he felt. The Randolph story had been so exciting, such an important news event. How sad that it should be marked by this anti-climactic opening. It seemed that every bug had come out of the woodwork for this one, every do-nothing in the whole city government. They didn't know about Randolph or plastics or manufacturing or business or what it takes to earn a living in the world. But they knew how to get publicity, how to get their names and pictures in the paper, how to get their names so closely associated with a project that they could claim privately that it was their influence that had swung the balance...
But Ryan had a surprise for them this time. He smiled when he thought of his instructions to the team covering the opening, reporters and photographers: "I want Randolph. I want Glenna Rhodes. I want the employees and the crowd. I don't want the politicians or their hangers-on. This is a celebration, not a campaign event. I want the dog, not the fleas." That'll fix 'em. He knew Collingsworth would be apoplectic when he saw the paper that night, saw that his foggy speech and fat, sloppy figure were not the news of the day, were not worth even one column inch. He hoped the Mayor would be angry enough to complain, to place one of those long, whining phone calls that always made for such good copy... It gave Ryan pleasure to deny to the Mayor the fluff coverage he wanted, only to give him great play on the rough stuff he never wanted mentioned.
Ryan watched as Curtis walked toward the door with the Mayor's giant ribbon-cutting shears. The tall man turned to face the crowd, and Dalton felt a flood of respect for him, for his ability to reap only what he wanted from the scene, to traffic only in his own values. "I don't talk a lot," he said. "But I know I'm supposed to say something now, something about what we've done here, what we intend to do. All I can tell you is what I tell myself: 'Make it pay'. No matter what you're trying to do, if you can't make it pay, you won't do it for long. But if you can make it put money in your pocket, you can carry it out indefinitely, as far as you wish to go. This is what we've done, and this is what Dalton will have to do, if it wishes to revive itself and to prosper. Do the whole job and do it right. 'Make it pay'..."
The applause for that short speech was greater than for all those that had preceded it. Ryan felt an excitement, a thrill his cynicism could not ridicule or destroy, when Curtis raised the shears to cut the ribbon. "To life!," the black man called. "To work! To purpose, to pride, to happiness!" As the blades fell together, rending that last barrier to the the future of the plant, the crowd erupted in a joyous cheer. Ryan saw his photographers rushing around, freezing images of living beings glad to be alive. This is what he does to people, he thought. This is what he gives them. Not just the conviction that it's right to cheer, but that it's a world worth cheering for. And it goes for me, too. That's the way he makes me feel...
Apple Annie was there. She had been living on the Pauling property since that rainy night when the black man had made her a coat. She was there the following day when he came back. He had unlocked one of the outbuildings and said, "Stay in here if you like." She liked living there as well as anywhere. Except today there were too many people around, too many cars. Annie knew why they were there, but she hung back, watching from a safe distance. There was a ribbon on the door. She like the colors...
Marion Grant was not there. She hadn't thought the event had anything to do with her, until she read the coverage afterward, in the Chronicle. She didn't care about the plant or the jobs or this Randolph, whomever he might be. She did care that Ryan Dalton cared. His robust enthusiasm was vulgar, like something out of the wild west. And she cared about the enthusiasm of the townspeople. If they got the idea that their problems could be solved, that more money or more technology would buy their happiness... Now that was something to be concerned about. And wasn't Ryan Dalton also responsible for that atmosphere of optimism, that conviction that life was a game that could be won? Without thinking about it, she knew that Randolph was her enemy, that a man who could make these people happy and expectant, after all her years of teaching the opposite--a man like that was dangerous! But it wouldn't do to say so too loudly. People were so stupid sometimes, so narrow, really. But not everyone was happy about Mr. Curtis Randolph. There was grumbling that he was unfair in his hiring practices, that he played favorites for raises and promotions, that he didn't care about people, just profits. Marion smiled when she heard these complaints. They were testament to her success as a teacher. She nurtured the grumbling, redirected it, organized it. When the time came to strike, she would be ready...
Glenna's laugh was a precious gem, a glittering diamond erupting with the light of pure enjoyment, undiluted by pain or regret. She laughed at all the things that couldn't matter, that never had to hurt. She laughed in the name of all that was glorious. "Oh, Curtis," she exulted, "you were wonderful!"
Curtis felt his smile not as a facial expression but as an axiom, a law of nature that ruled his entire body. "Sure. The best way to make a boring speech is to make it short."
"It was not boring! Besides, you really threw it in the face of that slob Collingsworth. Muscles and buildings! What rubbish... Curtis, why did they listen to that? How do losers like him get to be Mayor?"
"According to Ryan Dalton, because they don't teach reason in the schools."
She tugged at her chin. "What do you say?"
He smiled. "I say the only reason to think about lice is to get them out of your hair."
She laughed again, the sparkle in her eyes matching the sparkle in her voice.
Dwight came charging into the kitchen, where Glenna and Curtis were seated. "Mommy, look! We're in the paper!"
The boy was clutching a copy of the Chronicle. Glenna eased it from his grasp, gave it a quick scan, then looked it over more carefully. "Curtis, apparently Ryan agrees with you. There's not a word here about the Mayor or any of his fellow lice. Not a word or a picture!"
Curtis smiled again. "Nice to see politicians getting what they deserve for a change..."
"From the editorial page," Glenna said. "'Though some would attribute this event to physical exertion and accidents of nature, let no Daltonite doubt the true cause: reason. It took the strictest, most rigorous reasoning to bring the Pauling factory back to life. The most precise calculation, the most rigid adherence to inviolable principles, and the most scrupulous application of mental acuity. It wasn't blood or sweat or tears or prayers or chance that made something where before there had been nothing. It was pure, uncorrupted thought. The thought of the laborers, who proudly uphold the slogan "Mind At Work". The thought of Dalton native Glenna Rhodes, who steered the effort through the morass of regulatory "protection" and bureaucratic make-work. And, most especially, the thought of Curtis Randolph, a newcomer to Dalton, who found a way to take the sorrow and squalor of the Pauling bankruptcy and make of it a thing of great joy and beauty, the wonder of which we celebrate today. To Mr. Randolph and all his employees, thank you for thinking. We are in your debt.'" Curtis felt her glance as a thing burning within him. "Now that's telling them! Don't you think so?"
"You bet. But the best part was watching how much you enjoyed it."
"What made it worth enjoying was that it was right. I'm glad Ryan didn't turn his sense of humor loose on us."
"He won't," Curtis replied. "He laughs at things that he'd cry about, if he weren't a man. He'll never laugh at us, nor at anyone who shares his conviction that reason is the only way to live."
"You know... That's true. He only laughs at fools like Collingsworth or that Estelle Simpson. Funny, I never noticed that before. You must read the Chronicle very carefully."
Curtis laughed aloud. "I never read the thing at all. I don't have time. I was just going by what I know of Dalton personally. His irreverence is a pose, a shield to protect his values. He loves his values passionately..."
Curtis thought about Dalton while they ate. A good man, the kind of man you could count on... Curtis remembered his commitment to Dalton to produce an article on education. "Dwight," he asked, "where do you go to school?"
"Parker," said the boy. "It's fun!"
"It costs a fortune," Glenna said, "but it's worth it."
"What makes it worth it?"
"The curriculum. The Parker Academy really rides herd on the kids. There's homework every night in every subject."
"Too much homework," Dwight said. "That part's not fun." He giggled.
"Would you consider sending him to the public schools?"
"Public schools suck," said Dwight.
"Dwight, are you hungry for some soap?"
"No," the boy replied.
"Then use your mouth for eating, not swearing." Glenna turned to Curtis. "For one thing, they don't teach anything. What they claim to teach is 'social interaction'. What that works out to is kids ganging up on each other, stealing their lunches, supplies and money. Destroying any value that can't be corrupted. There's a question you could answer for me--why is it that when a person knows he's doing wrong, he has to talk somebody else into doing it with him?"
"It's an attempt to substitute a collective standard for objective proof. The idea is that it can't be wrong if 'he's doing it, too'. That's pretty silly, when you think about it. 'He's doing it, too' won't make a damn bit of difference if he's jumping off a cliff. But the people who think two people can be less wrong than one person don't think. If they did, they'd know that if one person can be wrong, so can two or ten million... Is it a big problem?"
"Frankly, Curtis, I think it's part of what they're teaching. Why should you have to teach 'social interaction'? Kids grow up around people, there's no other way they can grow up. When they get to school, they need to learn about math and reading and science, not people. They need to learn how to live. If learning how to live means 'social interaction', then the only thing I can figure is that they're being taught that some should eat the others... How many firm handshakes, friendly nods, and interesting conversations does it take to put a meal on the table?"
Curtis laughed. "Ask the Mayor."
"Right! 'Social interaction' works out to training in dominance and submission. That may not be what they're trying to teach, but that's what they are teaching. If you don't believe me, take a walk through the halls of one of the schools."
"Oh, I believe you!"
"So what could I gain by sending Dwight there? First, he wouldn't learn anything useful. Second, he'd end up either a tyrant or a slave. What do I need that for?"
"You're paying taxes to support it..."
Glenna's face bore a bitter smile. "That's right. I am. Funny, isn't it? I'm forced to pay taxes for a product that's no good, that I won't have any part of. Then I spend more of my money to send my boy to a private school."
"You love Dwight."
"I love myself! When I had Dwight, I decided that I had to do right by him, no matter what. Not for his sake, but for my own. What is it that you like about my work, that I do the whole job? I do the whole job at home, as well. I know that not everyone thinks as I do, but I don't know why."
"Because they don't think."
"...because they don't think."
Curtis said, "Because they learned at home that they could get by without thinking, that there was someone who'd make up the shortfall between their lies and reality. And because no one ever showed them that it's just not so. That you can't spend all your money and still have it to spend again. That you can't fry your brain with drink or drugs and hold onto a job. That you can't live like a bum and reap the rewards of a millionaire. You pay taxes to the schools to teach children the laws of the universe, and instead they learn that the key to life is getting over, manipulating others into granting special exemptions to the law of identity. The worst thing is, it cannot work, no matter how many people say it can, no matter how many children they manage to indoctrinate. It cannot work, because you cannot live by theft. Before something can be stolen or manipulated away, it has to be produced. And the graduates of 'social interaction' can't produce..."
Dwight spoke up: "Mr. Randolph? What's the secret to success?"
"I love myself."
"I'll bet you do," Curtis said. "And you've given yourself good cause. But what I mean is loving yourself totally, all the time. That means you have to be worthy of that love all the time. You have to earn it. You can never do what you know is wrong, and you must always do what you know is right. Loving yourself means loving your values, picking out what you want from the world and going after it and not letting up until you've made it your own." He looked poignantly at Glenna.
"Dwight, I think it's time you hit the hay."
"But, mom! I have to help with the dishes, don't I?"
"Not tonight," she said. "Curtis will help me tonight. So scoot."
Curtis smiled, watching the boy scamper out of the room. "You've done well with him, Glenna."
"Yes," she said. "That's funny too, isn't it? The 'social interactionists' act as though this is the worst thing that could happen to a child, to grow up in a 'broken home'. But I think Dwight's a whole lot better off without his father than with him."
"...do you feel like talking about that?"
"Not much to talk about... I was a bright kid, a Parker kid like Dwight. Planning for college, really going places. Then one night I tried thinking with my hormones instead of my brain. Nine months later I had Dwight."
"Not too bad. His father was a louse, which was lucky. He didn't even offer to marry me, which seemed terrible at the time, but now I think it was for the best; Dwight has half-siblings all over town. Anyway, I could have aborted, but I didn't think that was right. If Dwight didn't ask to be conceived, he sure didn't ask to be killed. So I had him, and I loved him from the first. I got my high school equivalency and worked during the day to put myself through business school at night."
"Then you got the Pauling job?"
"That's right. The hours were long, but the pay kept the food coming, kept Dwight in clothes. I won't tell you it's been easy, because it hasn't. But I won't tell you that it hasn't been wonderful, either, because it has."
"You did a good job."
Glenna beamed. "I think so. I think the most important thing you can teach a child is what you said tonight, how to love himself. Why it's right that he should love himself. I can't teach him everything he'll need to know in life, but I've tried to teach him to have values."
"Glenna, you're wonderful!"
"You know I've thought that from the first."
"Yes, I did know that..."
"And you know what I'm going to ask for next, don't you?"
"Yes," she replied, almost breathlessly. "Because I know why it's yours to take."
He pulled her close and kissed her slowly, desperately, passionately.
Later they were lying together in the darkness of her room, still entwined. He said, "I'll have to leave soon."
"You can stay here, Curtis."
"I know that... Glenna, I think you look real good on me, but you're not the outfit I was planning to wear when your son gets around to asking my intentions."
She laughed gaily. "What are your intentions, Mr. Randolph."
"I intend to make you my wife."
"You knew that..."
"I'd hoped it. I'm glad I know it now."
"It won't be right away," he said. "I want to make sure my future here is secure. But you can regard this as an expression of intent to wed."
"Ah!," she said. "Now I've got you! You can't back out; a verbal agreement is binding." She laughed like the villain in a melodrama, mock evil.
"I won't back out. Not that I think you'd take a husband at gunpoint. Not a husband or a meal or a jewel. You want to earn everything you get."
Her face was clouded by a frown. "...and you?"
"I feel the same way."
"Curtis, what's repolymerization?"
His expression was sharp, a thing for cutting. "An unpatented trade secret."
"Okay," she said. "Evidently that wasn't good enough. What goes on on the third shift?"
"...call it delousing."
"Glenna, if you're asking if I'm a crook, the answer is no. Not everything I do complies with the law, but I don't lie, I don't cheat, and I don't steal. Which do you prefer?"
"...what goes on on the third shift?"
"Unrecorded transactions," he said. "And that's all I'm going to tell you, for now. I'm not going to compromise you any further."
She hugged him with her legs. "Any further than this?"
He grinned, the smile erasing the clouds from her own face. "I knew you were curious about those things. They're all completely moral, but not all of them are completely legal. Someday, I'll tell you the whole thing. But I promised Janio I wouldn't, not yet."
"...who is Janio?"
"Janio Valenta. You spoke to him on the phone."
"That Mr. Valenta?!," she burst. "Janio Valenta the TV evangelist?!"
"You know Janio Valenta?"
Curtis smiled. "An old friend. He's a partner in the Pauling plant, one of your future partners. By the way, remind me to get on that. We can afford to put you into the equity now."
"Curtis, don't change the subject. You know Janio Valenta?"
"Are you going to ask what he's like in person? Well, just hold it, because you'll meet him yourself someday. In the meantime," he said, forcing his way deeper inside her, "let's talk about something else."
"Oh, I thought you were going..."
He grinned. "Something persuaded me to stay a while longer. Would you rather I leave?"
"Oh, no, Curtis. No..."
It was on that Sunday that Curtis wrote his education article for the Dalton Chronicle. He wrote it in a white heat, condensing his own experiences and observations into a solid metal of conviction.
When he was done, he felt the quiet satisfaction of having served his own values. The article somehow seemed a part of his work at the factory, as though the labor he performed there was here duplicated in symbolic form. He did not lecture from lofty perch, did not talk down to youngsters. He named the code he had always lived by, and he addressed it to adults. He titled it: "Reason as though your life depended on it... Because it does."
Ryan Dalton ran the article over three days, Wednesday through Friday. He promoted it heavily early in the week, so the town was primed for it when it appeared. He liked it, and he was sure it would be effective.
Estelle Simpson hated it. She had to put the paper down several times before she was able to finish it. That man! First he has to get the whole town whooped up over his damn factory, and now he's telling us how to run our schools! "I cannot deal exhaustively with every form of unreason, but one I should address is tradition. The fact that our ancestors did something a particular way is not a good reason for our doing the same. Our ancestors did not have plumbing or hospitals. Should we forego them? They did not have automobiles and telephones. Should we content ourselves with horse carts and speed-of-foot communication?" Well, Estelle told herself, they didn't have uppity nig--blacks telling them what to do, either! Pulling the rug out from under us, making us change when we don't want to change! Things were fine in the old days, before these, these--people got the idea they could tell decent folks what to do!
Matt Clinton read it and enjoyed it. It was nice to see his opinion of this Randolph confirmed. The man had something, when you thought about it. He'd never thought much about what they taught in the public schools, had never cared. Three boys in Parker hadn't been an easy thing to bear, but it was worth it. The education they got was the best that money could buy. But he'd never thought the public schools were teaching anything different, just that they weren't as good at it. If this Randolph was right, then the schools were just one giant fraud. They told unsuspecting parents they were preparing kids for life, then taught them nothing but lying, cheating, begging and stealing. Is that any way to live? Good thing this Randolph has the courage to stand up for what he believes in...
Lonnie Cummings tried to read it. He didn't get far. He could remember some of the words, but most were just pictures to him, devoid of meaning. He didn't know how to sound the words out, so he couldn't discover that most of them were already in his spoken vocabulary. He could speak thousands of words. He could read only a few hundred. But he caught the gist of the article: it said the schools were no good. Lonnie knew that--he had first-hand experience. But it was interesting to discover that someone else knew it, too. That he thought it was important enough to write about. Lonnie filed that away with the other interesting things he was learning about people. Maybe he could use this, maybe on his father... That was it! The next time the old man gave him one of those slobbery hugs, he'd hit him with this: if you loved me, if you were really doing your best for me, you'd do something about the schools. He knew his old man couldn't do anything about the schools. First the schools were like some sticky cesspool, nothing that went in ever came out alive. Second, his old man couldn't do anything. Couldn't get a job, couldn't get off his fat ass, couldn't do anything besides mope and whine. But that's the weapon, that's what I'll use on him. He's afraid he's not doing right by me? Well, let me give him something to be afraid of... Lonnie was swept up by that glow of power he felt only when he knew he had someone caught in his trap. To hell with school, he told himself. I know how to live!
Cora Landry read it. She didn't understand much of it. She just let her eyes run over the words in the hope that some meaning might enter her brain without her having to think about it. She knew it was important because it sounded so much like the things Horace used to say. Mr. Randolph was like her Horace in many ways, so calm, so sure of himself. Though she didn't know why, she felt safe, secure, when she thought of him, as if he were there to protect her from all the things she saw going wrong with the world. She wrote a letter to the editor of the Chronicle. She thought it was a letter of support. "Things were different when I was young," she wrote. "We had an expression: 'spare the rod and spoil the child'. If you want to bring honesty and decency back to the schools, just bring back the hickory switch."
Ryan Dalton had run it, along with the hundreds of other letters he received. When Cora saw her name in the paper, she felt a quiet satisfaction. She had helped to solve the problem, hadn't she? She had shown the way out...
Marion Grant read it and was apoplectic. That Ryan Dalton! Now look what he's done! He wasn't satisfied by ruining her plans piecemeal. Now he's duped this Randolph into defrauding the whole town! And what rot! Reason! Hadn't it been shown over and over again that reason had failed? That teaching children the hard, mechanistic laws stunted their emotional growth, stifled their creativity, and put a wall of separation between them and their peers? When she thought of all she'd done to protect these children, to save them from the vicious competition, the grasping and striving of economic atomism... And now Dalton and his stooge were trying trying to ruin it all. I forbid it! I absolutely forbid them to do this!
Without waiting to see the rest of the series, she scheduled an emergency board meeting for Thursday night. Then she sat down and wrote an angry rebuttal. She put all her moral fire into it, for she knew that it would not be appearing under her name. She'd get the board to pass it. Then Dalton wouldn't be able to ignore it. And he wouldn't run it as a letter, either!
"'Therefore, the board respectfully suggests'," Marion Grant read aloud to the School Board, "'that grease-monkeys and other would-be pedagogues remain where they are needed most and leave education to professionals!'"
Five members of the board applauded. Five did not.
"Very effective," said Ryan Dalton. "I always knew you were a creature of the Dark Ages, Marion."
"And what's that supposed to mean?!"
"'Render unto Caesar'," Dalton quoted. "Just that you're being pretty huffy about your stolen goods, that's all."
Marion scowled, but she did not respond. She knew Dalton was trying to bait her, to force her into a stupid move.
A thin, bespectacled woman with pursed lips spoke up. "Marion, I'm on your side. I think we should stand up for our beliefs."
"Even if they're wrong?," asked a balding man with piercing blue eyes.
"Especially if they're wrong!," said Dalton. The five who hadn't applauded laughed; the five who had scowled.
"Mr. Dalton," said Marion. "You'll control these outbursts or I'll have you removed!"
"Nothing would make me happier, Marion. Just think of the headlines!" He saw the ugly frown overtake her face, half fear, half venom, and knew his shot had hit home.
"Well I'm not voting for this drivel!," said the balding man. "That Randolph's got something. I know if my kids were in the public schools, I'd want them to learn something besides brown-nosing and brow-beating!"
"Hold it, Mike," said Dalton. "Maybe we can reach some kind of compromise."
Marion said, "Compromise...?"
"Sure. You want this to pass unanimously, don't you?"
"I'm sure it will pass."
"So am I. I went to Parker, so I know how to count. But you want it to pass by unanimous consent, don't you? You don't want me to have to print at the top of the resolution that almost half the School Board opposes it, do you? Wouldn't that drain some of your impact?"
"Yes," she replied. "Yes it would."
"Well, suppose we could find a way to get it passed unanimously. Would you be interested?"
"Hold it, Ryan," said another member, a trim, stately woman with steely gray hair. "I'm not voting for that thing!"
"Wait a sec, Gloria. You may change your mind." He turned back to Marion. "So what about it? Are you interested?"
Marion sighed. "What's your price, Ryan?"
"I want you to retire."
"I want this term to be your last. Come election day, I want you to be off in the happy bliss of some retirement home, torturing bugs or breaking out plate glass, or whatever it is that you do for fun. I want your district, Marion. I can win it without you."
"No!," said the woman. "Never!"
"That's your last word? You don't want time to think it over?"
"Never, Ryan. Forget it."
"Fine," said Dalton. "Move to table indefinitely."
"Second," said Gloria.
The vote went six to five against Dalton.
He said, "Move to adjourn to the next regular meeting."
"Second," said Mike.
Again the vote went six to five.
"Move to put the question," said the bespectacled woman.
"Second," said the pale man beside her.
The resolution passed six to five.
"My compliments, Madame Chairperson," Dalton said as he got up to leave. "Look for the resolution in Sunday's paper."
"Thank you," Marion said, her voice sugar-frosted to hide the enmity she felt for Dalton.
All of Dalton argued over Randolph's contentions. Education seemed to be just the tip of the iceberg. The discussions roamed all over the political landscape, from the effect of the New Deal to the role of labor unions to the right of the state to interfere in the private affairs of its citizens. Without being able to show how they knew it, people sensed that the issues were closely related, and that the future of Dalton, of the whole country, hung in the balance. The Dalton police were called in to keep the peace in several of the rowdier bars, and more than one life-long friendship was rent over the issue.
There was a large teaser ad on the front page of Friday's Chronicle. "Curtis Randolph:," it read, "Scoundrel or savior? See Sunday's Chronicle for the exciting story of Dalton's most controversial citizen. Is he a madman, out to destroy our schools? The School Board thinks so. They've adopted a resolution condemning Randolph's series on education. Or is he a messiah, come to save Dalton's schools as he is saving Dalton's industry? Ryan Dalton's by-lined editorial presents his side of the case. See it all this Sunday in the Dalton Chronicle!"
Corey Pauling saw the ad. He read every installment of Randolph's series with a burning resentment and a morbid fascination. "The unreasoning mentality, because he does not know how to distinguish values from disvalues, short-term gains from long-term losses, gets trapped in a cycle of habitual self-destruction. This may take the form of drunkenness, gambling, overeating or any of a number of other types of the attempt to value disvalues. Still worse than the disvaluer is the anti-valuer. This individual does not pretend he is serving his own values; he has no values. His sole purpose is to destroy the values of others. This sort of person hates life and values above all else. He is the consequence of a morality that introduces a schism between the good and the proper, between that which it is right to do, and that which one does. He does not seek the good; for him, the good is an object of destruction, of sacrifice. The most extreme form of this mental disease is the kills-for-thrills murderer, the killer who slays not to gain some value, but to destroy it. Is this vicious doctrine being inculcated by our schools? Read this paper carefully. Talk to parents, to schoolchildren. Think about the things you've read in the past, the deathcamps, the mass suicides, the immense pile of corpses that is the sole testament to the efficacy of progressive education. If you give it careful reflection, I think you'll agree that murder and barbarism have been the only products of this scourge. And more, that murder and barbarism were all that could result, when reason was excluded from the curriculum."
That smug fuckin' nigger, Corey fumed. I'll fix him!
Curtis was asleep when the phone rang. It was five in the morning.
"Hello, Mr. Randolph?"
"...yes," Curtis replied.
"Mr. Randolph, this is Officer Batler, Dalton Police."
"Yes, what is it."
"Mr. Randolph, do you think you could come down to your factory...?"
"Officer--was it Batler?"
"Batler, would you mind telling me what this is about?"
"...well, sir," said the policeman. "It's your factory, sir."
"What about it?"
"It's on fire."
"What?! I'll be right there!"
Curtis dressed hurriedly and raced out to the plant. Fire! How wrong can things go? Too many volatiles, too much in the plant that was extremely flammable. There could be explosions, and if the fire spread to the warehouse, there would be explosions. He pushed his car as fast as the condition of the road would permit.
He could see the smoke when he was still more than half a mile from the plant, a giant grey plume, the signal of disaster. There was one lone police car parked in the rear of the lot, its flashing bubble light painting a false flame on the walls of the building.
Curtis was out of his car before it was completely stopped. "Batler?"
"No, sir," said the cop as he slowly emerged from his car. "Name's Robb. Batler's down at the station house."
"Where the hell is the fire department?!"
"No fire department outside city limits," said Robb. "I could put a call in. There's a volunteer crew out here." He looked at the fire, ebbing fast as its fuel was expended. "I don't expect they'd get here in time to do you much good."
"No," Curtis replied. "You're right. The worst damage is done."
"Is it likely there's anything in there that hasn't burned yet?"
"No. It's steel and concrete inside. What's burning is a storage area for resins and solvents."
Robb looked earnest. "Any hazard in breathin' that smoke?"
"About as much as in smoking a cigarette. Do you have any idea how it started?"
"Well, sir... Don't quote me on this, but it looks like arson to me?"
Robb said, "Come take a look." He led Curtis around the side of the building. He pointed to a bank of skylights, one of which was marked by a jagged hole about a foot across. "Was that window out on Friday?"
"My guess is that somebody threw a bomb in--maybe just a Molotov cocktail--just busted out the glass on the way in. Does that make sense?"
"...yes," said Curtis. "But if you're right, it means the fire was set by someone who knows the layout of the plant. You can't tell what's inside from here. If he'd broken through down at that next bank of skylights, chances are nothing would have burned."
"So you're saying it was an inside job?"
"That's what it looks like to me... Why? What did he hope to gain?"
Robb's face was creased by the bitter smile of a veteran cop. "Why do people do the things they do...? I wish I knew."
The fire was dying out. There was still a considerable amount of smoke, but the flames had died down. In many places, the fire was spent. Curtis said, "I'm going in."
"Sir, I'd advise against that. It's still pretty hot in there."
"I need to get the payroll records. I'll have to get somebody to call around and lay off the employees. Then I want to get some idea of what we'll need to do to get back in business."
Robb said, "Mind you, the city can't be responsible for you if anything goes wrong."
"Well, it's your neck. If you see anything that looks like evidence, leave it alone. The arson investigator will be along later, and he'll want to see how it started."
"Okay, Robb. And thanks for what you've done."
"Just doin' my duty, sir. And listen, I'm real sorry about this. Folks around here, they were pretty excited to see your factory open up. I'm sorry to see it end this way."
Curtis felt the shock and pain wiped away from his face, felt them replaced by the serenity of knowing that things don't have to go wrong, that disaster is the exception, not the rule, that the world is good. "I appreciate that, Robb. But don't write us off yet. I intend to salvage what I can and bring it back to life."
Curtis didn't waste much time looking at the factory floor. It was very hot, would still be hot for hours. He went into the offices. There was a thick layer of dirty grit over everything, but nothing had burned. Probably nothing damaged, nothing that a little cleaning wouldn't cure. The file cabinets were hot to the touch. He quickly removed the payroll records and the employee roster. He was turning to leave when the phone rang.
"Hello." Who would be calling this early on a Monday morning?
"Curtis?! Is that you?"
"Hello, Glenna. I guess you've heard the news."
"It was just on the radio. Is it true?"
"They said it was a major fire. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Curtis replied. "Slightly hot under the collar, in more ways than one, but otherwise okay."
"How bad is it?"
"Not too bad. I didn't see the worst of it, but I'm sure it looked worse than it was."
"Are we... Are we out of business?"
"Definitely not. We lost a little inventory, a little work in process. But the structure is undamaged, and I think most of the equipment can be salvaged with an overhaul."
"Oh, thank god!"
"I haven't had a chance to inspect anything yet, but it looks like we'll be shut down for two weeks at least. I haven't looked at the warehouse, but it seems to be unhurt."
"Oh, I'm so relieved! Listen, I'll be right there."
"No you won't. There's no point in two of us getting filthy. I want you to work from home today. I'm bringing you the books and the roster. I need you to get on the phone and tell the employees to stay home until we call them back."
"I can't pay them, Glenna. I don't have anything for them to do. Get the foremen in, and maybe we can work out a schedule to put some of them to work on the salvaging. But most of them are going to be furloughed until we're ready to reopen. I don't like it any better than you, but the arsonist didn't ask my preference."
"Arsonist...? The fire was set?"
"That's what it looks like. Listen," he said, "let me get off the phone so I can get this stuff to you. I want to get back here as quickly as I can."
"Curtis, I'll come out there." She continued before he could object. "Just to pick up the books."
"All right. But stay in your car. Honk when you get here and I'll bring the records out to you."
"Okay. And Curtis... I'm really sorry."
"Yeah," he said. "Me too..."
Curtis was inspecting the warehouse when Glenna arrived. There was no damage at all; the worst was that some soot had blown in through the ventilators. That was good news: the inventory, both supplies and finished product, was secure. When he heard a horn sounding, he rushed out to the parking lot.
Glenna's face was torn by grief. He leaned through the window and kissed her tenderly. "Don't take it so hard. It's not that bad."
"Oh, Curtis! It just seems so rotten to have all our effort come to this end!"
"It's not an end. It's a beginning. We'll be back up to speed in no time. Just you watch. They can't stop us, no matter what. 'Press On Regardless', right?"
She swiped at a tear dribbling down her cheek. "Right. I'll be okay. It's just that it seems so... It seems so vicious and senseless."
Vicious and senseless, he thought as he walked back toward the plant. And what else? How do you explain something like this. He knew there were people who did things like this for no good reason, for no motivation you could point to. Except malice, hate. He remembered his own remarks about the kills-for-thrills murderers; was that what had happened here? Was there someone so twisted, so insane that he wanted to destroy the spirit, the sense of being alive that the people of Dalton were slowly regaining? Did the arsonist think that by torching the factory he could kill the thing that had brought it back to life? If so, he miscalculated. Because we're going to bring this plant back to life, just as good as new. Because a business isn't buildings and tools and muscles. It's a mind, a spirit acting on the conviction that the good in life is to live it. And that cannot be destroyed.
Wounds heal. Scars fade. Within a few minutes Curtis was taking the measure of the devastation, probing though the waste of skin-searing metal and thick, fluffy char. As he'd expected, the damage was not even close to total. The machine tools would have to be rebuilt--cleaned and re-belted, more than anything else. The production tooling was ruined, but that was easily--and cheaply--replaced. The place would need a good scrubbing, perhaps two. Curtis saw a pile of his circuit boards, undamaged except for a layer of soot, amid the embers of the table that had burned beneath them. Clean 'em off and ship 'em. Have to have the electrical system checked. And that window has to be replaced.
Curtis threaded his way over to the shattered glass. Robb was correct: among the shards of plate glass were the crushed remains of a bottle, from the looks of it a liquor bottle. And Curtis saw that he was also correct. Only someone who knew the precise positioning of those drums of volatiles, only an insider, could have known where his hateful blast would do the most damage.
Curtis did not disturb the scene. He didn't know that the shattered bottle would be of much use to the police, didn't see how it offered any clue to the identity of the arsonist. But he didn't want to spoil any chance that they might succeed.
He was grateful that the small storage closet he'd had built off the loading dock had not gone up. Evidently the walls had deflected enough heat that the drums inside had not exploded. He did not open the door. The insurge of oxygen might cause the walls or paint to burst into flames. The loading dock was virtually unaffected, as was the plumbing. The compression system would probably need no more than a good cleaning and new hoses. The ovens were done for, their tattered remains hanging like a moth-eaten tapestry...
Curtis was making mental lists: supplies, scheduling, costs, tooling. There was much to do... Very much to do.
And there would be the call to Janio. Curtis knew Janio would not resent it if he rode this out alone. The partnership agreement they'd posted to SallyBank confirmed that Janio was solely a financial partner, with no management responsibilities or authority. But no agreement would have ever been made if either man were the type who would damage the other's interests by withholding information this important. It's my job to come up with the recovery solution. Janio has the right to know how his investment stands, but my job is to make it pay...
He was poking around in a tool box, seeing how many of the hand tools would have to be replaced, when he surprised himself. He noticed that he was whistling a concerto he'd loved since his teen years. He smiled to himself, the private smile of victory over pain, the triumph of life over death, of creation over decay, of joy over depression. "The world is good!"
"Janio?," Curtis said into the telephone in his office. It was covered with soot, but serviceable. "It's Curt."
"Hello, Curtis. You sound concerned. Is everything all right?"
"No. Janio, I have some very bad news..."
The sun was halfway up the cloudless sky. In the past two hours, Curtis had set the shop foremen to work, getting them started on things that could be done right away. Then he'd started planning the recovery, going from the floor to his office and back, computing estimates, checking them against reality, arranging replacement of damaged tools and supplies. There was much time spent on the telephone, advising customers of both the company's condition and its intention to honor its commitments nonetheless. Two calls to Glenna for mass delegation of jobs. She called it "do everything else right away, but do this first" and thrived on it. Ryan Dalton phoned, but Curtis made only the briefest statement: the plant is being salvaged; we expect to reopen in two to three weeks; and I have to get back to it.
"There was a fire in the factory last night."
"Oh, no!," Janio said. "No one was injured, I hope. Are you all right?"
"No one was injured. The damage is not extreme considering the size of the fire."
"We're down for two or three weeks. I've cut the payroll back to twelve, including me. We lost some tooling, we'll have to overhaul some tools, and we'll have to do a big cleaning job. Most of the finished product is modified along the lines Cliff suggested, so there was little if any damage. I can put people to work turning those membranes in a day or two, and I have a backlog of boards. I estimate limited loss of revenue, with the cost of repair and replacement running to twenty-five thousand dollars. As to down-time, I'm looking to limited production by Wednesday, and I project fifty percent within nine business days, most favorable."
"Nine days most favorable. How do you know you'll get back up at all?"
"What are you getting at?"
"Curtis, you just got started and now you're shut down. How did the fire start?"
"That was the right question to ask. It was arson..."
"So. I'm sorry to discover that I was correct about the people of Dalton."
"About a person in Dalton, Janio."
"Quite correct. Next will come mass resentment, then calls for your head on a platter. I have seen it all before. Curtis, I predict you are in for an ugly Summer."
"Don't you think you're overreacting a little?"
"I hope so, Curt. I hope so."
One of the workmen was standing in his doorway. "Hold on, Janio. There's someone here." He turned to face the man. "Yes, Hardy. What can I do for you?"
"The police are here, Mr. Randolph. They're asking to speak to you."
Curtis followed the man to the factory floor. He saw Officer Robb waiting, arms folded, looking slightly sick and astonished. By the damage to the plant? "Hello, Robb. How are you?"
"Uh, good, sir," said the policeman. "The arson investigator's here. He's back looking things over."
"Fine. Any other news?"
"Well, yes, sir. You see, I'm here to arrest you."
Curtis said nothing for a moment, letting his thoughts collect. "Do you have a charge?"
"Yes, sir. It's second degree arson."
"I see. Robb, I don't suppose you're the man who decided to arrest me?"
"No, sir. Fact is, I argued against it."
"So it would do me no good to plead my innocence to you. Fine, please wait here. I was on the telephone when you came, and I need to finish my business."
The policeman said, "Mr. Randolph, I'm afraid you'll have to come with me now."
"Robb, my factory's burned down. I didn't do it, but you want to arrest me for it anyway. Fine, I'll live through it. But I need to protect my financial interests before I go, and the interests of my employees. You aren't doing me or them any justice as it is. Don't use that gun on your hip to do us an overt injustice, just for the sake of filling out the form."
Robb bit his lip. He let his eyes roam around the room, seeing the silent workmen watching the scene. "All right," he said. "But hurry. The chief said he wants you right away."
"Thanks, Robb. Right back." Curtis sped back to his office. "Janio, really bad news. I'm being arrested."
"I'm being arrested for arson. Someone in the Dalton police thinks I did it."
"Oh, no! Why?"
"I don't know. I guess I'll find out when I get there."
"You, know...," Janio mused. "It could be that insurance policy. They might regard that as a motive. Curtis, I'll call and cancel it at once."
"No." Curtis was firm. "That policy is going to pay to put this plant back together. That's what we bought it for, what you convinced me to buy it for. It's ours by right; we paid for it. Didn't we promise not to let them cheat us out of our values?"
"...if they put you in jail, they are cheating me of one of my values."
"Don't worry, Janio. I expect to be out within an hour."
"So. We'll see. In the meantime, I'll hop a flight to Ohio."
"No, Janio. Stay there. This isn't that serious."
"No? We didn't need the insurance policy, either. Let me be the mommy, Curtis. I'm good at it."
Curtis exhaled slowly, exasperated. "I guess there's not much I can do to stop you."
"All right, Janio. Do as you wish. You should get here just in time for dinner. Pick me up at the plant and we'll go together."
"Nothing would make me happier, Curtis. I shall enjoy wasting this trip."
Curtis smiled. "Well, you're the mommy. Listen, I have to call Glenna before the cop gets antsy. See you tonight, all right?"
"I hope so..."
I hope so too... Curtis dialed and waited. He saw the deep blue of the sky by reflected by the windshield of his car. He looked from his office to his car, but what he saw was all the places that car had taken him. The value of freedom, the freedom to seek values. Trade, travel, knowledge, happiness, love--in exchange for what would anyone trade these? 'Free to trade, free to travel,' the grand motto that had led a nation. Why had it been let go? How could anyone let it go?
"Hold on a sec. Let me get my pad."
"All right. Then sit down."
"Glenna, I love you."
"Oh! Oh, that's wonderful!"
Curtis saw a boy on the farm across the way. He was doing wheelies on a bicycle and pealing with laughter. He was alone and totally alive. Curtis reflected with a bitter revulsion upon all the claims he had heard that the good is to renounce one's own happiness, that to value private pleasures is anti-social, that one's existence has no value except as it is sacrificed to others. The claimants promised that when the orgy of sacrifice reached some unspecified critical mass, universal bliss would result. Until then, please do not be alarmed by the close approaches, the valiant attempts, such as Buchenwald, such as the Ukraine... One-hundred-fifty-million political murders, but no bliss. But the bliss of children enraptured by their private pleasures--that had gone. For most, by adulthood it is gone and fondly remembered, then not so fondly remembered. 'Free to trade, free to travel,' might mean something to the boy. Would it mean anything to his parents?
"It is wonderful. You are wonderful. But what I have to tell you is not."
"Oh, no. Curtis, what is it?"
"I'm being arrested. For arson."
"Oh, no! Curtis, they can't think you did it!"
"Where are you, the police station? I'll be right there."
"I'm at the plant, and you'll be right here. I want you to take over for me. I'm sorry to call you in after I gave you the day off, but the police didn't give me any choice in the matter. I've heard of police doing that before. Have you?"
"Are you trying to be funny...?"
"I'm trying not to be bitter. If they have to do this, I wish they'd reschedule to after five. But I've never heard of police doing that. Have you?"
He heard her giggle. "You might not like it if they did."
"I don't plan on liking it too much, anyway. Lick your pencil, lady. Here's the drill: I expect to be out relatively quickly, but, in case I'm not, just carry on and hold the fort. The boys have their instructions, and there's a schedule on my desk."
"Curtis, do you think they'll keep you in jail?"
"No. I think it's kind of funny, getting arrested for the first time on no cause, when I've given them such good cause to hassle me all these years. My guess is that the law wants to have a suspect under questioning until a minute after the Chronicle's deadline. Don't want anyone to get the idea that they can commit arson and not get caught."
"Could that be all it is?"
"I hope so. I have plans for dinner. Your friend the TV star is coming out, so make reservations for the three of us. Okay?"
There was a pause. "Curtis, you're wonderful!"
"Yes, of course. That's why you love me."
"...yes," she said, her voice suddenly softer. "That's why I love you."
"When I come to times like this, times where something awful is happening and I can't prevent it, I stop to tell myself what I'm doing here. My purpose is to live life and enjoy doing it. No part of any ugliness advances that goal, so I live for my values. I don't let disvalues enslave me. This is a moment when I must remind myself that my objective is to love life, to be happy and free. I won't let them steal that from me, nor will I let them deny me its value. It's not right and it's no way to live. And if no one else understands that those two mean the same thing, I do. How about you?"
"I do, too, Curtis. That's why you love me..."
"That's right. Listen, I have to go, my escort is waiting. I'll see you tonight, okay?"
"Yes, Curtis. I want very much to see you tonight."
"Not as much as I want to see you. Goodbye, my darling. I love you..."
"All right, Chief," Curtis said. "Would you mind telling me what this is all about?" He was in the office of Dalton's police chief, Paul Nelson. Since arriving at the station house, he'd been fingerprinted, photographed and twice advised of his rights. The chief was a brick of a man, stocky and muscular. His face was like something chiseled out of rock. His steel gray hair and the small wrinkles around his eyes made him look not worn, but eroded...
"What's to tell? Soon as I found out about that insurance policy--well, I ain't no city boy with a fancy education, but I know a motive when I see one."
"So it's that, after all." Curtis let his thoughts collect. "Chief, that insurance policy was suggested by one of my financial partners. He wanted to make sure we could deal with anything that came up. As it turns out, he was correct, because we'll need that policy to put the plant back together. But I didn't set that fire, and the policy would be no inducement for me to do so."
The chief smiled. "That's about what I'd expect you to say."
"Do you mean that you're actually going through with this?"
"With this arrest..."
"You don't think I invited you down here for tea, do you?"
Curtis sighed. "Chief, I didn't commit any arson."
"Can you prove that? You had time, opportunity, motive. Do you have an alibi?"
"Do you mean, was I with someone when it happened? No I was home, alone, in bed."
"Well, you see," Nelson said. "The evidence points to you. As does simple logic, I might add. And you don't contradict either."
"Logic? Why would I open the plant if I only intended to burn it down?"
"Indirection? To wait for the right time? That's not a question I have to answer."
"But I didn't do it!"
"Believe me, Mr. Randolph, I'd say the same thing in your place."
"But you're wasting all this time and effort. You can't prove me guilty, because I'm not guilty."
"That's not for me to decide. My job is to find 'em. It's the prosecutor's job to convict 'em."
"But while you're wasting time on me, the real arsonist is still running loose. Maybe running away..."
"Maybe," said the chief, not convinced. "Maybe... Do you know of anyone in town who'd want to do you harm?"
"No," Curtis replied, exhaling. "But I don't know very many people in Dalton."
"Well, you've been making such a splash in the paper, maybe somebody wanted to steal some of your thunder. What'd you think about what Ryan Dalton said about you yesterday?"
"I didn't see it. I was working yesterday."
"Hoo boy!," the chief said. "A man so busy he don't take out time to read about himself in the newspaper! What was you busy with, making a Molotov cocktail?"
"No. I was writing production schedules. Schedules that were blown to hell in a certain explosion!" Curtis checked himself, controlled his temper. "Chief, that's the worst of this. Somebody wanted to put me out of production, and you're helping him!"
"I'm helping him? I don't know what you mean."
"I mean I have work to do, if that factory is going to be brought back into production. By arresting me, you're no closer to solving the crime, but you are delaying the reopening."
"Oh," said Nelson. "Well maybe you can get your friend Dalton to write a story about the black-hearted chief of police. In the meantime, you and I have a date in court."
"Chief, I didn't do it."
"Maybe you did, maybe you didn't. Must admit, I've never seen anyone sit so calmly through questioning for a major felony. But right now, you're the best suspect I've got..."
Curtis sighed. "Who's second-best?"
"No one, yet. If you have any ideas, you might name them. It won't get you out of this arraignment, but it might save your neck."
"I have no one to suggest."
"Well, then, let's get to it. And don't you worry, Mr. Randolph. If you didn't do this, I'll prove it. 'Course, if you did do it, I'll prove that, too."
"...I guess that's the best I can hope for."
"Yep. I like to tell the boys that the service ain't fancy, but we don't charge much for it."
Curtis smiled at the irony. "I hope I don't have to avail myself of your hospitality for long."
A mantrap... Is that what it is? As Curtis sat in the courtroom, he reflected on all he'd seen, all he'd thought about since coming to Dalton. Is that what it is? A giant trap for men...? But it's the same all over the country, not just here. It's the same all over the world, where it isn't worse...
Curtis was watching a man pleading for his life. A man who cared enough for his values to fight for them, to fight the mightiest and most fearsome gang of all, the gang of the state, with its armies and warheads. Was he fighting for the right to commit murder, theft, rape? No. He was fighting for the right to commit commerce. Curtis had fought a losing battle with disgust as he watched case after case of men convicted of loving their lives, their families and their values. Commerce was by far the most common crime in Dalton...
There was a man convicted of installing a new freezer in his store without having the state inspector certify that he was not deliberately ruining his inventory.
There was an elderly gentleman declared a criminal for closing off part of his house without getting the state's construction permit.
There was a child of perhaps fifteen, a true juvenile delinquent, who had committed the heinous deed of selling magazine subscriptions door to door without a work permit.
There was an Asian man who might have been twenty-five or fifty. His crime was pushing a quarter-ton cart through the streets of Dalton, sparing people the trouble of driving into town if they needed fresh fruits and vegetables.
There was a farmer with tired and defiant eyes. He'd sprayed his plants with a forbidden herbicide. The judge took account that the taboo substance had only recently been outlawed. But he said that just because the farmer had an unsellable stock of the stuff, that didn't give him the right to use it.
There was a blowsy young woman who was shown to have offended the gods by giving men pleasure for their money. The fact that her arrest proved that people wanted her product was not considered.
There was a man convicted of operating an unlicensed limousine. Out of pure spite and malice, he'd been victimizing his elderly neighbors by driving them to and from the supermarkets and laundromats.
Curtis fought to restrain himself when he saw a boy of ten declared truant and ordered to a state home. The child had been working as a dishwasher to help feed his family.
Compulsory dependency... Did any of these people need this? In persecuting them, was the state doing anything besides hindering that which they did not need help to do? They were independent, totally free. And for this crime, they were persecuted...
A mantrap. A system that enshrines those who seek to destroy values, such as this judge, these lawyers, these armed men, and their chattels on the state's plantations--the welfare system, the criminal justice system, the civil service. A system devised to destroy those who seek values. A god who would welcome and embrace you only if you declared yourself impotent, renounced both your mind and your body and gave him unlimited power over both. If you deny your ability to feed yourself, he feeds you. If you deny your ability to think for yourself, he tells you what to do. If you hate yourself, he will love you. But if you love yourself, he will hate you. He will destroy you...
A mantrap... A machine that rewards you to the extent that you do not deserve to live, and punishes you to the extent that you do. He thought of Ayn Rand, the philosopher who spoke of "zero holding a mortgage over life." This is what she was talking about; this is the "anti-man, anti-mind, anti-life." To reward a man to the extent that he kills himself, and to kill him when he does not kill himself--death is the only possible goal.
Does it matter that they don't go the whole way? Is a mass murderer more of a murderer than a spouse killer? Isn't the thing that lets them say that you can't earn a living without a useless piece of paper, isn't that the same thing that was used to forbid life to the Jews of Hitler's Germany, to the Kulaks, to the Ukrainian peasants, to the Kampucheans and the Mikitos? Is a difference of degree a difference of kind? If two men are headed for Chicago and one is closer, is the other headed someplace else...?
No. The same goals are served by the same defense. The issue is values, with the first being the value of life. Mine is the way of serving it--to think, to work, to live. The things that stand opposed to that are anti-life, whether they admit to it or not...
A man pleading for his life, except that men who are compelled to this place are unqualified to plead. The god of death does not hear their prayers.
He was a stubby man, short and stocky. His thick black hair was streaked with gray. Curtis admired the bright beacon in his proud dark eyes. "Is this what I pay taxes for?," he demanded of the judge. "What have I done wrong? Who is injured by what I have done?" The man was a Mediterranean, a Greek or a Turk; he spoke with a thick accent.
"You were operating your business after hours," the judge said. "Your license specifically prohibits you from operating after sundown. I believe the restriction results from the noblest of purposes. The City Council wished to protect your competitors from you."
"First," said the man. "My competitors can get protection from me any time they want it. All they gotta do is do what I do better than I do it. I know it works, because that's how I protect myself from them!" The audience in the courtroom laughed. "Second, the competition you are protecting from me has failed. He's out of business. You protected him to death!"
"The witness is ordered to restrain himself."
"Yeah," said the man, shaking his head in disgust. "You like giving orders, don't you? Do you know anything about earning a living? Do you think it's safe to order a man to commit suicide, or else you'll kill him?"
"I don't know what you are talking about!"
"No? Am I mistaken? When I was a boy, there was man in our village--maybe you have this type of man in America? In exchange for money and obedience, he would protect you from his gang. So long as you paid money, made way, he wouldn't break your legs or wreck your shop or rape your woman. The night before I came here, I got him alone and told him what I thought of him. He didn't know what I was talking about, either..."
"Do I understand that the witness is threatening me?," the judge demanded.
"No," said the man. "Just telling a story. Do you know about my business? Do you know what I do to feed my wife and children? Is there any part of what I have that I owe to you, that I have stolen from you?"
"It is not claimed that you have stolen anything."
"No? Then why am I here? This is court, place for thieves. I have stolen nothing. I have hurt no one. Do you know why I was arrested?"
"As I say, you're charged with violating the terms of your license."
"Yes. You know what this means? I have a food truck, you know what that is? Do judges eat from food trucks? It's a pick-up truck with a refrigerator. I fill it with food and take it out to the factories. Men in factories, they don't have the choices of judges downtown, they eat from home or eat from machines or they don't eat. I bring other food--good sandwiches, good fruit, candy, cake, hot coffee.
"Men at the factories, they like me. Women too. I work four plants every day, four lunches, eight breaks. I do a good business, maybe a hundred a day, after everything. Including taxes to pay so judges can eat in restaurants...
"In town, I have one competitor. Young kid taking over his father's truck. They used to have two trucks, worked the late shifts at five different places. But between the shutdowns and the taxes and everything, they couldn't make it. They sold one truck. It's in Cleveland now. The kid starts driving the other, he's on the road twelve hours a day. He makes his runs at the shops they have left, starts at six at night, doesn't finish until six in the morning. Do judges ever have to work that hard? But still he can't make it. Two shops shut down their night crews, and my competitor, he goes down with them. That truck is now in Dayton.
"So I'm left. There's one crew still working of those he served. So what do I do? I get up at four in the morning to take them some lunch. I don't work their breaks. They can bring their own coffee. And I don't make much on their lunch trade, just enough to get me out of bed. For what you cost me today, I've been getting up for nothing for the last month...
"But think! Think! There were three trucks, now there is one. Those two trucks that are gone will not come back without new capital. Do you see people rushing to town to invest their money? There is now just my one truck, and when you have destroyed me, made me sell my truck in Dayton or Columbus, who will feed the men?
"Do you see? You tell me I am evil. Why? For selling people what they want, where and when they want it. You tell me I am selfish. Why? Because I get out of a nice warm bed to sell food. You tell me I am exploiting the men by selling them food. You say that I am hurting your government by trading the best I have for the best I can get, for paying my own way, not hurting anyone. If I hurt you by helping my customers, then what? My customers don't hurt me, they don't give me orders, they don't need men with guns to protect them and to force their orders. We don't need guns to get along. We don't need your guns at all.
"And yet, here I am... So you must be like that man in my village. How much do you charge to not break my legs--or is it my neck this time?"
The judge said, "Are you through?"
"Fifty dollars or five days."
The man paid his fine, swearing softly in a language Curtis couldn't identify.
His case was called next. The state briefly presented its evidence. The judge agreed that the state had enough to warrant the charge. He ordered Curtis held over for trial. Bail was foregone; the judge said he feared Curtis might run. He asked if Curtis wished to speak for the record.
No bail... Curtis was stunned. This was worse than anything he'd considered, worse than the wildest nightmare. It took him a moment to collect his thoughts. "I'd like to underscore what was said by the man who just spoke," he said. The dark headed man had been walking out, but now he turned to watch. "You claim that you are acting in the service of values, but where you have a chance to serve the values needed to live, you ignore it. I am today charged with having set fire to my own property. If you knew what I did to get my factory operating, you would know I did not destroy it. But since you do not know this, or refuse to take account of it, you charge me with this crime. Fine. I will be proved innocent. But I will have been innocent the whole time that you will have slandered my name and stolen my time. My factory burned this morning. In order to get it producing again, I need to give it my full time and attention. By locking me up, you are damaging my own financial interest and the financial interests of my employees. You are wasting our money on a fruitless trial, and at the same time forbidding us to make more money. What value is it that you hope to serve by this?"
"Young man," said the judge. "I have a hard-won reputation of standing for the common good."
"...by standing against those who are uncommon?"
"I don't know what you're talking about!"
"Yes, you do. Tell me, your majesty, whom do you propose to eat after the producers of Dalton are picked to the bone...?" The dark man burst into applause.
The judge said, "Take him out."
The chief stayed with Curtis all the way to his cell. When they got there he said, "Listen, Mr. Randolph. After what you said in there, I'm not sure if you belong in here, or if Judge Rollins does. I think that no bail business is just plain spite, and I have a good idea where it came from... Anyway, you can do some of your business from here, can't you? I can't put a phone in here, it would cause talk. But I can give you unlimited visitors, and they can bring whatever you need to work on."
"That's decent of you, Chief. But aren't you afraid I'll get hold of a revolver and make my escape?"
Chief Nelson smiled. "I can afford a few bullets to save the taxpayers the cost of a trial. But I don't think you'll try to escape."
"Hmm," said Curtis. "Does that you mean you think I'm innocent?"
"That means, come what does, you're the kind of man I can get along with. I'm not going to go out my way to hurt you."
When Chief Nelson walked out of the station house, he was surprised to see a crowd awaiting him. There had been people milling around downtown since early morning, since word got out about the plant. He didn't know what brought them out, what value they hoped to exchange together, but he had learned to expect them whenever there was something big going on. It was as though they hoped to make themselves part of the story simply by being present. But this time, they'd gotten their wish. Among the milling Daltonites were several camera crews from the TV stations in Columbus. And the crowd was large. Not angry, not violent. Not yet. Just large...
"Chief Nelson!," a man called before he was completely outside. "Is it true?!"
"It can't be!," a young woman shrieked. "It just can't be!"
One of the reporters called out, "Is it true you've arrested a suspect?"
Old Newt Kelley, who'd spent half his days in Nelson's drunk tank, hollered, "I saw them bring in that Randolph feller!"
A charge seemed to surge through the crowd. The reporters tried to push closer to Nelson. Nelson tried to push away from them all...
"Goddamn nigger!," snarled a beefy man in a plaid flannel shirt. "In the Klan, we know how to fix his kind!"
"Chief Nelson! Are you expecting trouble from this crowd?"
"It just can't, can't be!"
"Chief, do you intend to answer any questions at all?"
The Chief said nothing.
"Well," Kelley yelled, "if he don't know what to do, I sure do!"
Again the charge went through the crowd. Nelson didn't know if he'd be reading by the light of a fiery cross later tonight, but he knew that a bunch of otherwise decent people were turning each other into clawing monsters. A government that does that to people, is any part of it good...?
He reached his destination on the other side of the square, the headquarters of the Dalton Democratic Club. Inside, three people were awaiting him: Mayor Collingsworth, Estelle Simpson and Marion Grant.
"Good job," the Mayor said.
"Good job of what? Railroading?"
"No, no. Good job of police work. You got your man and locked him up!"
"Yeah," said Nelson. "A real desperado... I've had a harder time picking wildflowers. As for locking him up, I didn't know it was going to be for life."
"Life?," the Mayor asked. "Who said anything about life?"
"When Estelle came to me about the insurance policy, she didn't say anything about no bail."
"Well, it seemed like the prudent policy," Estelle said, tucking at her bun. "That Randolph's not from around here. He doesn't have friends or relations around here."
"For us to hold hostage...?"
"Hostages?," said the Mayor. "Life sentences? Chief, what's gotten into you?"
"Maybe it's not what gotten in, but what's finally getting out. Estelle, when you told that idiot Rollins to hold him without bail, did you think of the effect that would have on the people?...no," Nelson said, turning to face Marion. "You thought of that."
Marion knew that tone of voice; she'd used it on cowed classrooms for thirty years. "Well," she said, "somebody's got to think of the interests of this party!"
"I don't get you."
"Elections are coming, Chief. You do know that, don't you?"
"So your Mr. Randolph stands to do us a lot of damage, unless we can discredit him. He's linked up with that Ryan Dalton, and you know what he stands for."
"Funny you should mention Dalton," the Chief mused. "You know, once he told me that I'd know what was meant by all the rhetoric when I saw a man held guilty without a trial. We say a man has the right to live free of unreasonable searches, then inspect his luggage every time he flies. We say he has the right to go where he will, then set up roadblocks, just like the Russians, to see if he's got liquor on his breath. He said that when I saw the extra-special emergency that made it absolutely necessary to call a man guilty without a trial, then I'd know what you've wanted all along..."
"I don't know what you are talking about," Marion huffed.
"That's what Rollins said, too. You know, I don't think Randolph set that fire at all. That insurance policy makes him look bad, but I don't think he did it. I don't think he's the kind."
"Who cares?," Marion sneered. "What I care about is this election!"
"Is it caring when you sacrifice a man to a mob, a man who's done nothing wrong...?"
"I don't care about one individual! What matters to me is our goals, our purposes, our plans!"
"Marion, what you care about is winning this election."
"Not winning, really. Beating your opponents..."
"What's the difference?"
"A subtle one," Nelson replied. "When you win, your concern is the goal. When you beat others, your concern is those others. If you win your value, you've gotten something you wanted. If you beat the others, you've gotten nothing you wanted. You wanted nothing. All you've done is to deny to them what they wanted. If winning is your motive, then your life and values are your standard of the good. What is your standard of the good when your goal is to beat people...?"
"Why the common good, of course." Marion was astonished that anyone could doubt her intentions.
"So to do them good, you must do them ill?"
Collingsworth said, "Chief, I think you've been spending too much time talking to Ryan Dalton."
"That's right," said Nelson. "I do like talking to Dalton. Fact is, he's about the only man left in town I do like talking to... Maybe this Randolph is a second."
"Chief!," said Estelle. "You don't know what you're saying!"
"No... I think my problem has been that I haven't known what you were saying. My fault, too. Marion's been telling us for years that her purpose was the sacrifice of all to all. Is it her fault that we didn't believe her?"
Marion fought to keep her poise; she knew she couldn't take much of this, just as with Dalton. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about a political organization that considers it necessary to cheat people into doing their own good. We pay lip-service to liberty and democracy, but behind closed doors we scheme to discredit the opposition and deny that the voters have any right to identify their good without us. And that leaves aside the question of whether or not it is good. Given the course of Dalton's history, it doesn't look very good to me. Now Marion tells us we shouldn't care about one individual. Well, the way I see it, the people of Dalton come one individual at a time. If we don't care about one of them, then we don't care about any of them. We don't care about life at all..."
"Do you have any idea what you're saying?!," Marion demanded.
"Do you have any idea what you're doing? Do you know what's going on out there? Do you know what's going to happen come nightfall? Do you think you can retain any claim on the good after you've scheduled a riot for political expediency?"
"I wasn't planning on any riot!"
"No? I suppose not. You weren't planning on a fire, either. You just knew how to take advantage of it when it happened."
"That is what has kept this party in power," said Estelle. "Marion has guided us through some rough times, especially since that Ryan Dalton got the idea he could run for office."
"In other words, we have nothing to do with the good. It's lying and cheating and encouraging the worst in people that keeps us in power. What we say is the good, what anybody says is the good--that doesn't work into it at all, right?"
"You know," said Marion, "from what you're saying, I wonder if you wouldn't be more comfortable in Dalton's headquarters..." She was baiting him, trying to call his courage into question.
"Funny thing," said the Chief, failing to take the bait, "I've been wondering the same thing."
"No!," said Estelle.
"Chief," said the Mayor. "What are you saying?!"
"I'm saying that maybe I'll take a walk over to the Chronicle building. See what kind of place Dalton'll offer me on his ticket."
"No!," Estelle said.
"Yeah?," Marion sneered. "Well, what if he's already got a candidate for Chief of Police? What then?"
The Chief smiled. "Well, then, I guess I'll have to run for something else. Maybe the School Board..."
Marion fixed him with a hateful glare. She did not notice when he turned and left.
"Oh, no," said Collingsworth. "Oh, god, no..."
"Oh, forget him," said Estelle. "I never liked him anyway."
"Yes," said Marion. "We can get along without him."
"Do you think so?," said the Mayor. "Do you really think so? Do you think we can win elections without Chief Nelson?"
"Well, sure!," Estelle exulted. "Our structure is sound. We only lost one candidate."
"Our plans, programs and principles are intact," said Marion.
"Do you think anyone votes for your organization, your principles and your plans? Do you think anyone even thinks about them? Or do they vote for men like Nelson, men they think they can trust? Do you think that gaggle of spinsters you call a voting bloc has the clout to go up against him?"
"A barbarian?," scoffed Marion. "A vulgarian and a traitor? I don't think he can do us any harm."
"No?" The Mayor turned to face Estelle. "How about when he tells Dalton about the stunt you two pulled with Judge Rollins?"
"He can't prove anything!"
"Moreover," drawled Marion, "who would believe him? If you follow his statement with one about the strains of police work, he'll be defused."
"Think so, do you? Well, you think it's your plans and programs that won a seat for his honesty and decency. When you learn that his honesty and decency were what won elections for your plans, you'll understand why people will call you crazy for calling him crazy."
A mantrap... But how does one tear it down? Curtis leaned against the wall of his cell, thinking. Not bitter, not brooding, just thinking of all he had learned and how he could apply his knowledge to the problem of survival.
Because the goal is to live, the goal is always to live. That others do not share that goal is no reason to forego it; it cannot be foregone. The man who gives up life as a value... gives up his life... If he remains alive, what is left to him? Resentment? Malevolence? Destruction? Can there be any good will among men who have renounced their own right to live?
Curtis smiled. How abstract these practical problems are. And how concrete these abstractions.
A mantrap. Feed in an ordinary man and out comes an arsonist. Feed in an ordinary woman and out comes a second-string dictator. Feed in a normal child and out comes a mental invalid. Feed in strength, purpose, pride--and out comes weakness, aimlessness, envy...
The engine of commerce, of life, didn't it do the opposite? You took things that were worthless and made of them something valuable. This is true of men, but it is also true of all living things, of the plants that take the nuclear wastes of the sun to make their substance, of the birds who turn the litter of the plants into their nests, of the beavers who ford the aimless waters, and the fish who keep those waters pure. To live, every living thing must turn garbage into wealth. What is the purpose of a system that turns the wealth of consciousness into garbage?
Curtis thought of the things he'd seen in his childhood, the frenzy the social workers and other busybodies brought to their work. They rejoiced at any new sign of dependence, but snarled at any suggestion that dependence was not the norm. They erected a sort of mock slavery, with the whites as the slaves this time, the whites and any blacks who didn't want handouts.
But it was like the Court Jester's day on the throne, not real, just a lark. The young black knights of the new aristocracy held sway in public, using the unstated threat of violence to maintain their authority over the cowed whites. And the flabby queens of the court labored overtime to bear new royalty, each to receive a legacy from the serfs at birth. But it was all a big lie, for the whites retained control. The pageant was just that, a lark, a trick, a fraud. And a mantrap for any black foolish enough to fall for it. Is there any man more dependent than a slave owner, than a king...?
And the other alternative offered, wasn't it the same thing? The store-front preachers who promised eternal salvation for the price of your life, were they any different? If you must renounce your mind, your body, to assuage your god, then your god wants you dead. Your mind and body are how you remain alive; to renounce them is to renounce your life. Suicide is the only logical course. And that's the wedge... The wedge the pastor drives between your actions and your convictions, your love for life and your claimed hatred of it. A mantrap for anyone who doesn't think it's right to be proud to be alive...
And isn't that what they've all been pushing--that it's wrong to live? From ancient history all the way down to the latest works of philosophy, haven't they all said that it is despicable to love oneself? That to hold values is evil, to honor them, selfish, to refuse to sacrifice them, anti-social, to fight for them, treasonous? From the dawn of time, hasn't the claim been made relentlessly that the only good in life is to act as if you were dead? That the state of grace is communion with an imaginary god or an imaginary essence? That a man is automatically evil to the exact extent that he believes his life is real and that he has the right to live it as he chooses?
A mantrap... But how does one tear it down...?
Curtis felt that he knew the answer, that he had known it all his life. You don't tear it down, you let it destroy itself. You don't feed yourself into it, and you don't let anyone else do that to you... On the streets of New York, on his early jobs, it had been a matter of his choice, mostly. He'd learned what to avoid, what was dangerous, and the trap didn't snatch him. But now it had...
A question of values. The hope, the purpose, the pride he saw in the faces at the factory, he knew it wasn't there all the time. But it was there some of the time, and he knew that those moments were precious to those people. That, whether they knew it or not, that was what they were living for, the feeling that life is wonderful... But it is they who hold me trapped... Not them specifically, but the same thing in the others, the other side of the coin. The people who admire me do so without thinking. The people who hate me do so without thinking. The trap is a man without a mind...
When Chief Nelson returned, he gave Curtis a copy of Sunday's Chronicle. "I'd have brought you today's paper, too, but it's late. Ryan showed me what he's writing, and it's a scorcher. I'll bring it around to you later."
"Ain't nothing, son. Listen, I've been thinking, and I'm not too happy about what that judge did to you."
"Does that mean you're going to let me out?"
"Can't do that, not unless I wanted to join you. The judge set the terms of your incarceration, not me. I'd go to jail for violating them. If you'd call in a lawyer, he could get you out, probably."
"No," said Curtis. "My partner is coming down from New York. I'll discuss my options with him."
"Suit yourself. You're probably better off in here tonight, anyway. People are pretty stirred up about things. You might not be safe."
Curtis smiled. "Is the purpose to protect me from them...?"
"Well, sir," said Nelson. "I wouldn't have said that at breakfast. But now...? I just don't know."
"Chief, you're a good man despite your profession."
Nelson smiled. "Sounds like I'm damned either way I take that."
"I meant only praise."
The Chief looked to the floor for a moment. "Your secretary phoned while I was out. What should I tell her when she calls back?"
Curtis said, "Tell her to wait for our mutual friend, then discuss with him what to do."
5. As Though to Appease the Gods
Janio Valenta frowned. He stood at the periphery of a mob in Dalton's town square. The people were angry. They were staring with hostile frustration at the stodgy courthouse, as if the stone would melt under the fire of indignation in their eyes. The natives are restless, Janio mused to himself, half as a joke. He translated the bitter hysterical mob-sounds into the drum music he'd heard as a boy in the untamed hills of Nicaragua. The music of provocation, an incommunicative noise breeding chaos. Physically he could feel the fever of the crowd climbing, the urge to action, to violence, becoming more open, more pronounced, more self-justifying. In the jungle, the witch doctors would know enough to sacrifice an animal to soothe the mindless bloodlust of the savages. But these savages have no witch doctors...
The tall man stood still, his every nerve collecting data, almost automatically, while his determined mind grasped what he could of his bitter memories, to apply the knowledge he had gained so painfully to a situation that hurt even more--Curtis, about to be sacrificed to this mob. He stood still, so firmly erect, his every muscle fighting the urge to decimate this mob, to blast this courthouse to dust, to retaliate against violence with violence. But in the tight planes of his face, the sure confidence in his eyes, and in the firm principles he'd proved in his own mind, his only tool of survival, he knew that violence is no solution. Violence is never a solution, only reason is. Even among the unreasoning, only reason can prevail in the end.
But it would be so easy, so easy... The savages have no witch doctors because they don't know they are savages. They wear the mask of civilization without being civilized. When they are asked to recognize that every person has the right to his own existence, they revert to savagery, to the principle that the group owns all. Haven't I seen it all before?, he asked himself, bitterly, sadly. This same angry jungle-drumming, this same mindless frenzy to act, to lash out at anything, to destroy not for retaliation, but for revenge. Revenge not against the ostensible cause, but against the reality that does not permit two eggs to be three or his effort to become my reward. A blind revenge, an unseeing hatred, an unknowing self-destruction, for when reality is your enemy, you must destroy everything your life depends on...
How like Managua... So sultry, so hot. There will be fires tonight. Nature allows no vacuum, and ad hoc witch doctors will not contain this mob.
In a far corner of the crowd Janio spotted a fat, beefy man wearing a pillow case over his head, by the fold marks a brand new pillow case. There were eyeholes cut into it, and the man was displaying himself to the growling crowd. Near the middle of the mob some people were stomping and clapping their hands. They were being led by a severely thin young woman with pale blonde hair and a wan, washed-out face. Some carried signs: 'Feed the People', 'The First Dalton Bank is Your Oppressor', 'Seize for the Needy'. Not far from them, a soapbox evangelist, dressed all in black, was exhorting a tight-packed circle to kill for god, to purge Dalton of the devil personified in Curtis Randolph and any others who might deny to the common, decent people their fair slice of the pie. Not ten feet from Janio was a very fat woman, angrily pumping her fleshy arm skyward. Her fiery eyes were a glare in the vacuum of her blank expression. There were tiny beads of sweat on her upper lip. She was shouting the word 'justice' in a throaty voice, again and again. In the cadence of her arm motions, it sounded as though she were bellowing 'just us'...
Across the square, Cameron Dalton was standing near the door to his bank. His eyes were glued to Janio, his attention riveted by the stern young man. So much like Ryan, he said to himself, so severe, so perfect. Was I ever like that? I was... at one time. It seems so long ago... He looked at his aging body, rickety, almost frail. The years had caught up to him. Was there anything left of the spirit that had fueled his youth, that had made him stand with the stressed exclamation of Ryan, with the firm commitment of this strange young man?
Cameron let his eyes sweep over the crowd, so out of control, so close to an explosion. He knew what had brought them out--the Pauling fire. Ryan had phoned about Randolph's arrest. Cameron had known enough to expect a mob. He did not fail to note the foot-stomping sign-brandishers, nor their claim that his bank was the cause of Dalton's troubles. The six-month moratorium on mortgage foreclosures was drawing to an end. Because he had failed to generate enough cash in the sale of the Pauling plant to declare an extension, he expected the next mob action to be directed at himself.
Without intending to, he let his mind drift back over an argument he'd had with Ryan about a week after Randolph had come to Dalton...
"Is it true, dad? Did you try to bid on your own receiver's sale?"
The two were standing near the bar in Cameron's den. The older man had a drink in his hand, half consumed. There was an untouched drink beside Ryan on the sideboard.
"Why, yes," said Cameron. "Through an intermediary. I did the same thing with Cleveland Tool."
"Not the same thing. You weren't the receiver for Cleveland Tool. Dad, I want the truth. The way things look, if what you did isn't criminal, it's damned unethical!"
"Damned unethical, you're right. Is that what you want to hear? A quick and easy confession, to condemn your father without a hearing, is that it?" Cameron took a quick gulp of his drink then scowled at the floor.
"No, damnit! You know that's not true. I don't agree with your policy of avoiding foreclosures by selling the productive plant, but I know you don't stand to gain by it. That's what I don't understand. Why would you risk your reputation on something that looks so dirty, when you don't stand to benefit? Not in any way at all..."
"You tell me, son. What am I supposed to do? I live here. I, myself, personally. Our family founded this town, built our fortune here. I know you don't want to hear me say we owe the place something. But tell me this: what is there for me--for the me that you say I should honor first--anywhere else? Your mother and I could move without too much trouble, retire to Florida or California. The bank hasn't done so well lately, but our personal fortune is intact. But what would we be? Just another aging couple with too much money and too much time on our hands. Dalton may not be much, but some of what it is is what I helped to make it. I'm not going to give that up without a fight. You feel the same way, I know it. Are you ready to abandon that sassy paper of yours?"
"No, of course not. But what you're doing, it's not helping to save the town, it's helping to destroy it!"
"What am I supposed to do? People have to eat, they have to have someplace to live. You can say that they have to produce values in order to consume them and I'll agree with you. You can say they can't produce anything without a productive plant and I'll agree with you. I've studied economics, too. But what am I to do? I can dispossess people--honest, decent, productive people--who can't pay what they owe on their homes, but what will I get for my effort? Can I resell their homes? No. Can I borrow against them? No. At the moment, a home in Dalton has zero resale value. So come down from your Olympian perch, my son, and tell me--what am I to do? Shall I organize a posse to go to the next town and steal what we need? Shall I drown the bank's capital in real estate I can't sell? How will we finance any recovery with no money to lend?"
"But, dad! Don't you see? By delaying the finale, you don't change its nature. Until Dalton addresses the root of its problems, there can be no recovery!"
"And in the meantime...?"
Ryan picked up his drink and took a quick swig. "I don't know, dad. I don't know..."
I don't know either, son, Cameron said to himself, to the mob. His eyes again stopped on the dark-skinned young man. Maybe he knows...
Without really knowing why, Cameron began to thread around the edge of the crowd, moving toward the stranger. He chided himself even as he did. What do I expect to learn? Why do I feel that he's somehow connected to this? He knew the dark man was not a local, had never seen him before. But that doesn't mean he's connected to this Randolph business. Probably just one of those idiots who can't pass a scene without stopping to gawk...
He approached the man from behind. He didn't think he'd been observed in his coming. Yet just as he was about to speak the young man turned to face Cameron, as if he'd expected to find him there. Up close, his face was even more severe--the inky black pools of his eyes, the straight patrician nose, the tight, thin line of his mouth. Cameron thought he looked like a judge. Not a judge in some traffic court, but the judge who guards the gates of heaven. As he watched, a warmth overtook the man's face, the hint of a smile in his lips and around his eyes, as if he were seeing something he enjoyed.
"How do you do, Mr. Dalton," the man said in the tone of a friend sharing a joke. "My name is Janio Valenta."
"You know me?," the old man demanded in surprise. "How?"
"I did some research on you. About a month ago. I saw your photo in a trade reference."
"You did research on me? Why? Who are you, anyway?"
The young man's smile bordered on impudence. "I'm one of Curtis Randolph's partners. My researches dealt with certain business practices of yours. About which, I'm certain, nothing more needs to be said."
The old man gave Janio a long look. Was he telling the truth? Or was he just a cheap blackmailer who'd shown up at the right time? "I wasn't aware Randolph had partners."
"You weren't meant to be aware of that. Until this fire, there was no reason to mention it. Where is Curtis now?"
Cameron pointed to the courthouse. "In there, I expect."
"Locked up. The city keeps a holding pen in there. So far as I know, Randolph went in an hour or two ago and hasn't come out. That's why these folks are out here."
"No...," Janio said slowly. "No. They're out here because they think life is something you get in exchange for temper tantrums... Locked up? Oh, that's very bad."
"No offense, but until these folks cool down, it's probably the best place for him."
"Perhaps..." Janio pulled at his chin. "Tell me, Mr. Dalton, where do you stand on this?"
"What do you mean, where do I stand? How do I fit into it at all?"
"I mean, my partner's in jail for a crime I know he did not commit. Do you have anything to do with his being there?"
"Why no!," the older man protested. "And where do you get off accusing me of such a thing?!"
"That's very bad, Mr. Dalton. Not at all the style I expected. Don't I have good cause to suppose that you might do anything for another crack at the Pauling plant?"
"If you're saying, did I set it on fire?, the answer is no, I didn't. I admit that you've got your reasons for calling my integrity into question, but I don't think you know the whole story. If you did, you might see things differently."
"All right," Janio returned. "What is the whole story? Why did you bid on your own receiver's sale?"
The old man sighed. "Do you see this town? It used to be something. Not the biggest city in Ohio, but one of the busiest. Then things started to fall apart. Jobs left, but the babies kept coming. Key people died, but there was no one trained to replace them. A few of the bigger employers went bankrupt, a lot of the smaller employers went down with them..."
"So far you've told me nothing I don't know. The bread and circuses movement has collapsed again. As it must."
"'Bread and circuses'...?," Cameron continued. "Were we really that decadent? Well, anyway, it worked out that a large number of my mortgage holders couldn't make their payments. At the same time, the real estate market was flat. My choice was to take possession of their homes, with no way to resell them, or to find a way to carry the bank while I waited for recovery."
"So you set about to rape the physical plant, thus assuring that no recovery could ever occur."
"You sound like my son."
"Do I?," Janio asked. "Then I wish you did."
"You can spare me the abuse," Cameron said testily. "Whatever you can do, I've already done better myself."
"Have you? Well, I suppose there's justice in that..."
"Well," Cameron demanded defensively. "What would you do?! I get so tired of being told I'm wrong by people who don't have a better solution to offer!"
"By your son, you mean?"
"That's right, by my son. By that idiot Mayor Collingsworth. By every stray letter-campaigner in the county. Everybody knows all the answers, until it comes time to show proof. So why don't you tell me--what would you do?"
Janio said simply, "I'd be the mommy."
"Someone has to sit at the head of the table. That's a natural law. To decide when it's time to wash up and when it's time to eat. Most people don't want the responsibility of having to say that a fish is neither a tree nor next week nor a video show. The people who want things accomplished have to be willing to take moral responsibility over those who don't care, or who aren't capable of doing the job themselves. They have to be willing to guide the others, not out of charity, but out of the deepest selfishness, the desire not to see the world mucked up through aimlessness."
"Yeah, so. What are you saying?"
"That when the bread and circuses crowd started touting their con game, someone should have stood up and said, 'No! That can't work and you know it!' They do know it, you know. They're not stupid." Janio gestured at the crowd. "They just think they stand to gain more by acting stupid than by doing what's right."
"That's great," Cameron said contemptuously. "Now if I can just find a time machine, I can save the town..."
"Why, no. You don't need a time machine. The right road to New York is the same today as it was yesterday. Situations get better or worse, but, in fundamental terms, the issues never really change. This battle has been going on for five thousand years, but we're no closer to a solution today than then, precisely because no one is willing to stand up and say, 'You can't fry the egg the chicken hasn't laid'."
"Five thousand years... What are you talking about?"
"Cain and Abel, Mr. Dalton. Cain and Abel... Ask yourself sometime, what happened to Cain after he killed his only source of sustenance? Then take a look at the town you're trying to 'save'."
The old man scowled. "Look, Mister--was it Valenta?"
"Mr. Valenta, I know you don't think much of me, and, as I say, I've given you cause. But if there's a way to keep this town from going under, sign me up."
"See what I mean?" Janio smiled warmly. "Someone has to be the mommy. For my part, I may have misjudged you. Let's leave things where they are right now, and we can each keep an eye on the other. I admit that I'm not anxious to lose the money I've invested here, so it may be that you and I can work something out."
Cameron couldn't stop a smile from erupting on his face. "Well, I won't say you're easy to talk to, but I think I'd like doing business with you. You've got what we've been missing around here. For too damn long."
"You've been missing what hasn't been welcome. Let's you and I change the welcome mats. What do you say?"
"I'd like that," Cameron Dalton replied. "I'd like that a lot..." He walked away feeling better about Dalton--and himself--than he had in a long, long while...
"Who set the fire?"
"Oh!," Glenna said, startled by the dark-skinned man in the office doorway, then startled again by the shock of recognition. "Mr. Valenta!"
"Call me Janio. And you're Glenna. Curtis is in jail?"
"Yes." Her eyes were red rimmed.
"Damn! Are they letting him out soon?"
"Not tonight, anyway. He's being held without bail..."
"Who set the fire?"
"You sound sure of yourself. Do you have proof?"
"Proof of bitter experience. Inadmissible as evidence."
"Even so," Janio said, "my investigation now has a better suspect than the one being used by the police. It is conceivable that mine did it."
"Yes. Is that so strange?"
"Not strange. Unexpected..."
"Ah, well, the tragedy of my life is that so many of the things I want done are never done properly by others. So I must do them myself. The police will spend all their effort trying to prove that Curtis did it, and none on other suspects. So, to release him, someone else will have to find the actual arsonist, and prove he did it."
"Yes," Glenna said. "That makes sense. I'm sorry if I don't. Curtis told me to expect you for dinner, not to get him out of jail."
"I understand. Curt has spoken to me of you."
"I'll get it together. It just seems so damned rotten, to have this as his reward for all he's done here!"
"All the more reason for us to get busy on freeing him. How do you know this Pauling did it?"
"Just an ugly suspicion. Nothing else."
"Malice. Just pure malice," Glenna said. "Corey was one of those kids who'd make two bugs fight to the death, then kill the winner."
"I see," Janio said. "Show me where I can plug in a television."
"Uh, over there," she said, pointing across the room. "You're going to watch TV?"
He pulled a small set from his pocket and bent over to plug in the cord. "Yes. You wish to know why? Because I want to know what Dalton is like, how the people are reacting to this fire, this arrest. Does this surprise you?"
"I have just come from your town square. There was a mob bubbling there. I'd like to know what it's doing." He hooked up the TV, continuing while tuning it. "Tell me, would it cause problems for the local hotels if I requested several phone lines in my room?"
Glenna stopped trying to guess at his purposes. She simply answered his questions. "Probably. They're not set up for that sort of thing."
"And how many phone lines do you have here?"
"So. I will put my equipment here. Find a news show on here. I'll be right back."
Glenna twisted the dial until she found a live news broadcast, a circle of Daltonites, some she recognized, around a reporter. The reporter was collecting man-in-the-street reactions. Her attention shifted when Janio returned. He was carrying two large leather cases. He set them down on a table, opening one to reveal four small television monitors. The other contained a portable computer. "What's that stuff for?"
"For getting your husband-to-be out of jail. I have the TVs so we can watch every station at once. I'll use the computer to keep records of what we discover. I have other things in the car, but I don't need them yet."
"What exactly do you plan to do?"
"Gather enough proof about a likely suspect to force a confession. Tomorrow, I'll have my attorneys get to work on getting Curtis acquitted, if this comes to a trial. But I'd rather get him out of jail as soon as possible, and to do that I'll need to give the police another suspect to sniff at." He continued to fuss with his equipment, tuning a second monitor to the Dalton station and the three others to stations in Columbus. It was only after a while that he looked up and noticed that the pretty black woman was crying. "Don't be troubled, Glenna. We'll get him out."
"...yes," Glenna answered, the crack of a sob in her voice. "Yes, we will get him out. Tell me what I can do."
"Go wash your face, first. I want to visit Curtis. To let him see us happy and untroubled. To let him know we are extricating him soon."
"Okay," she replied, leaving the room.
Janio pushed a chair over to the portable computer and tapped out a short sequence of keystrokes. Then he keyed: "Hi, baby!"
"Hi, pops!," flashed back on the screen. "Guess what I found?"
"Hmm...," he typed. "A stock whose performance can be correlated to garter belt sales?"
"No... Should I look into that?"
"...? I was making a joke."
"Oh," the screen flashed. "Guess again."
"Um... A Life-size Inflatable Ronald Reagan Doll?"
"No! Dad, don't be dumb! Guess again."
"I give up, dollface," Janio keyed. "What did you find?"
"Some really neat Hungarian films! I got 'em from MetNode. I never had any Hungarian films before... Heck, I'd never even heard of Hungarians!"
"Good films?," Janio inquired. His back was to the door. He did not notice that he was being observed.
"No. Not really. There are some good stories, but the execution is vintage rot. I'm adapting a bunch of them!"
"Great, kid. I'll see them when I get back. Anything from Bryant?"
"Get him in the morning and tell him to get Curtis out of jail."
"Oh, yes. I'm here with Curt's right hand. We'll work on finding the true arsonist. You tell Bryant to use any trick he knows to get Curt released, ASAP."
"You hold the fort, girlie. Make me a good TV show tonight. I need to be inspired."
"You got it, pops. And listen, take care of yourself. I admit that you can be pretty retarded sometimes, but I'd miss the bedtime stories."
"I love you, too, child," Janio typed back. "Flaws and all... Gotta run. Bye, baby."
"Bye, daddy. Call me later!"
Janio was surprised when he turned to face a man standing in the doorway.
"Everybody's using one of those nowadays," the man observed, holding out his hand. "I'm Ryan Dalton."
"Ah, yes," said Janio, shaking hands. "I just met your father. I'm Janio Valenta."
The man smiled effortlessly. "I recognized you."
Janio smiled back. "Believe it or not, I almost never have that experience. My show is least popular in New York."
"And most popular out here, where people need to believe that right action is rewarding."
"Oh," said Janio. "One of those..."
"Not really. I watch your show, too. And I'm inspired by it. I'm just amused that it's necessary."
"'A spirit, too, needs fuel', Mr. Dalton."
Janio noted Ryan's startled look. When the man spoke again, it was of a different subject:
"I'm sorry if I interrupted your conversation."
"I was finished."
"Pretty amazing... Was that a conference with your secretary?"
Janio gave Ryan a stern look. "Were you reading over my shoulder?"
"Occupational disease," Ryan replied, grinning. "I'm a newsman. I read everything I find in front of my eyes."
Janio decided not to make an issue of it. "Not an endearing characteristic, Mr. Dalton."
"No," Ryan replied. "You know, until today, I didn't know Curtis had any partners. We've had several long talks, but it never once came up..."
Janio looked at the man suspiciously. "What are you getting at?"
"I've stuck my neck out in a big way for Curtis. I'm not going to get it chopped off, am I?"
"You tell me. Who set the fire?"
"You, too! Do you have any proof?"
"No, and I don't expect to. Whoever did it was unobserved."
Ryan said, "What I want to know about is you. How come you show up here all of a sudden, the partner we never knew about?"
"I'm an equity partner of record. Have you checked the abstracts?" Ryan nodded. "I own twenty-eight percent of the equity and fourteen percent of the profits. My name was not made public because Curtis owns controlling equity and is the operations manager. It's a perfectly ordinary venture capital arrangement."
"Oh?," Ryan returned. "How many venture capitalists come rushing to protect their entrepreneurs?"
Janio grinned. "All the successful ones!"
"So you two have met," Glenna said, returning to the room, her eyes bright, her face freshly made up.
"In a manner of speaking," Janio replied. "He's been showing me his nose."
"Touche!," said Ryan. "Have either of you seen this afternoon's Chronicle?"
Janio and Glenna pored over the paper while Ryan inspected the flickering television sets. Glenna gasped when she saw the grim black-and-white photos of the plant. Somehow it looked worse, more violated, in the newspaper...
In a moment, Janio turned to face the video screens. The local reporter was still doing man-in-the-street interviews in front of the courthouse. The mob was still milling about, still petulantly demanding 'just us'.
The reporter was talking to a cheerfully weathered man in farmer's clothes. "Do you think Curtis Randolph set fire to his own factory?"
"No, sir. I don't," said the man, to the sputtering disapproval of the video-palsied onlookers. "I don't think a man would go to that much trouble just to burn it down."
"Matt Clinton," Ryan observed. "Father of the three brightest kids ever to race through the Parker Academy."
The reporter was saying, "It's said that Randolph was trying to commit insurance fraud. How would you react to that?"
"Mister," said Clinton. "I don't know about you, but I'd lend Randolph money in a New York minute. I don't think he's got it in him to commit any kind of theft. I don't think he'd feel good about any money he got that way."
The crowd jeered him down. He was replaced in the screen by a timid old woman. The reporter said, "We're at the Dalton Courthouse gauging reaction to last night's arson at the Pauling Plastics plant. What do you have to say about it, ma'am?"
"Cora Landry," Ryan said. "Widow of the town crank."
The woman looked confused. "Well," she said, "I think it's a terrible, terrible thing..."
"But what about the Randolph connection?"
"Well," she sighed, "I just don't know. But I think whoever did it--they should track him down and lock him up. People have to have jobs, don't they? How can they have jobs if somebody burns down the factory?"
"Yes," said the reporter, turning to another face in the crowd, a puffy woman in a red skirt-suit. Her eyes were filmy behind thick glasses and her dull blonde-white her was cut short.
"Marion Cummings," said Ryan, grimacing. "Public Enemy Number One."
"She caused these people to riot?"
"No, she just hid from them the fact that there is another way of doing things. A way that actually results in something besides misery and injustice."
The woman began to lecture in a harsh voice and Janio turned from the screen. "Glenna and I were planning to visit Curtis in the lock-up. Will you join us?"
"I'd like that very much. And I appreciate the offer."
"Let's go then," said Janio. "Glenna, you ride with me. I'll drive you back later."
Behind the wheel of the car he'd rented at the airport, he glanced quickly at Glenna. "Tell me of the Dalton family..." He dug around in a small leather case, pulled out a cassette tape and plugged it into the portable stereo leaning against the seatback between them.
When the music started, it was as if a calm settled over the two of them. It was a rolling instrumental, a short theme repeated in myriad variations in seven voices. Not the full crescendo of the music of having won, but the stripped-down determination of trying to win.
"That's you, isn't it?," Glenna asked.
"Road food," he replied. "Music for running or walking or driving. Music that's a companion in the quest."
"I listen to your records all the time. I catch your TV show when I can stay up that late."
"I guess I'm not being much of a bubbly fan right now, but I really am grateful for what you do. It makes the bad things easier to take. And the good things--more glorious."
"I appreciate that more than you might guess. From what Curtis tells me, you're the customer I'm trying to serve... But let's talk about the Daltons for now."
"Okay," she replied. "Ryan's father, Cameron--"
"I met him earlier. Downtown."
"Cameron is the current head of the clan. Owner of the town's biggest bank. The family founded this corner of Ohio when they sold a piece of their farm to the railroads as a depot and yard. Since then, the Dalton family has owned big chunks of Dalton, including the bank, interests in many of the bigger businesses, and real estate. Cameron's brother, also Ryan, started the Chronicle, which young Ryan took over when he got out of school."
"Are they honest?"
"What do you go by," she asked, "what you see or what you hear? To hear people talk, Cameron is the worst skinflint since Scrooge. But I notice that the people who complain about him are also the ones who whine that they're always getting short-changed or stuck with shoddy goods. From my own dealings with Cameron, I'd say he's one of the most honest people I've ever met. Honest about everything. Not just about money, but about the way things really are. He's not always trying to pretend wrong is right. Unlike some of those who criticize him..."
"My buddy," said Glenna, grinning like a young girl. "Ryan and I went to school together. I was one of the first black kids to go to the Parker Academy. Ryan kept the halls clear for me. Since then... Well, when I hear a cute story, I call Ryan. When he has something in the paper he wants to make sure I see, he brings it by the office... What does honest mean? Isn't an honest person one you feel totally comfortable with? I feel totally comfortable with Ryan."
"How did Curtis take to them?"
"With Ryan, it was like love at first sight. They hit it off from the first. Curt sits down with Ryan frequently, and he wrote a long article for the Chronicle on education, Ryan's pet passion."
"I don't know," she said simply. "He's never talked about him. I do all the banking business, and Curtis has never come along. When I mention Cameron, I notice that Curt's lips purse, as if he's trying not to talk."
"You don't think the Daltons have anything to do with the fire, do you?"
"What? Oh, no!" Janio's smile was a response to the comically unforeseen. "Not at all. I guess I'm letting my mind run both ahead of and behind itself. The issue at hand is letting Curt know we're going to get him out before his next haircut."
"Are we going to get him out...?"
He could hear the echo of the tears in her voice. No matter what, it always comes down to this. No matter how many artificial restraints you remove, it always remains--somebody has to be the mommy. Someone has to pick up what the others can't carry. And hold his head high, so that they will... He said simply, confidently, the hint of a smile underscoring his certainty, "You bet!"
When Janio and Glenna got out of the car, Ryan was there waiting with a beefy cop. The men surrounded Glenna and the group pressed through the milling mob without incident. Inside the courthouse, the cop pointed toward a door. He said, "It's right through there."
"Glenna, why don't you go on ahead?," Janio said. He turned to the policeman. "Give her a chance to steal a kiss."
The two left. Janio turned to Ryan. "Are the police pursuing any suspects besides Curt?"
"None that I know of. Chief Nelson was by to see me earlier. I talked to him about Pauling, but he didn't seem very excited."
"Yet you act as if you have no doubt."
"To know that Corey did it, you have to know Corey. Nelson doesn't."
"What would be his motive?"
Ryan smiled at the bitter irony of a phenomenon that could be explained, but never understood. "When one kid destroys another's toy, what does he get for it? How does he gain? What is the motive of a person who seeks not something, for himself, but nothing, for other people? Who doesn't want to have anything, who just wants them to do without...?" Ryan was staring at the wall, as at a long-hated enemy. "I've known Corey since we were kids. I wouldn't put anything past him, so long as it's rotten."
"But in your opinion, the police will not regard him as a suspect?"
"From their point of view, Curtis had motive, time, and opportunity. Since there were no witnesses..."
"So," Janio mused. "These same characteristics, time, opportunity--they could apply also to Pauling."
"You left out motive. That's harder to prove."
"Pauling was to be heir to that plant, no?"
"Then that will help," Janio said. "And maybe I can collect enough of the facts to persuade him to confess."
"Are you going to be investigating this arson, then?"
Janio shrugged. "Somebody has to..."
"...when you're right, you're right," Ryan replied. "How can I help?"
"I need a list of names of people to talk to, to establish Pauling's movements and so on--wife, friends, neighbors. And I'll want access to your paper's files, to look into this and that. Is that a problem?"
"No," Ryan answered. "How should I play your being here?"
"Thanks. I didn't know if it would be fitting to ask. Let's say I'm a close friend, here to be with Curt in his time of trouble. That's the truth, just not all of it."
"I can live with that. And if you find anything, I get it, right?"
Janio smiled. "I knew there had to be a catch... No problem."
Glenna stuck her head out the door. "Are you two coming?"
"You go ahead," Janio said to Ryan. "I need to make a call."
At the pay-phone in the waiting room, Janio punched in a long sequence of keys, stopping twice for relay connections.
"Hi, pops," said the childlike voice at the other end of the line. "Why are we making these wasteful noises?"
"Easier on us fleshy types, Sallykid. I don't have rocks in my head, like you."
"I have rocks for a head," came the play-huffy retort. "And you're just jealous. So there!"
"So right, baby. Someday you'll have to outfit me with some rocks, just so I can live up to your potential. In the meantime, I need you to run some checks for me."
"Timely would be better. I need Cameron Dalton, Ryan Dalton, Corey Pauling, his father--check Curt's files for the name--I guess that's all for now. I'll be adding more, and I'll be wanting everything you can get, eventually. For now, whatever stands out, especially anything that looks like crime."
"You know I'm working on the show until then."
"Oh! All right! I'll set up the searches now and run them during the film."
Janio smiled into the receiver. "That's my girl!"
"Don't get too excited," came the tart reply. "I'm billing you for this! Somebody's got to pay the connect-time charges around here! Work and slave over a hot video recorder and what do I get for my trouble?!" Janio heard a delightful little-girl giggle.
"Bring in the violins, doll. A spiel like that is just crying for violins!"
"Funny! But just you wait till I get you home!"
"Can't wait, girlkid. Big hugs!"
"Big hugs, daddy! Bye!"
When Janio walked into the lock-up he was surprised. He had entered expecting to see Curtis behind bars, but still, expecting it and seeing it are two different things. The cell occupied most of the space in the small room. A bed and sink were in plain sight behind the bars. Janio saw a shower curtain and surmised that behind it would be the shower and head. Between the bed and the bars there was just room enough for a man to take two strides. The accessway where Glenna and Ryan were standing was narrow, no wider than a hallway.
Janio walked over to Curtis and put both of his hands atop the black man's, resting against the bars. The gesture was a private one, and in that moment neither man was conscious of the two onlookers. "I'd hug you," Janio said, "but there's something in my way..."
"It's all right. Listen, I'm sorry you have to see me like this."
"You kidding? I should be taking pictures. You're big news! Sally's been trumpeting you all over the network, and she wants to buy the movie rights!"
"Of course," Janio continued, "I don't see why you had to go to these lengths just to stiff me for dinner..."
Curtis laughed out loud.
"I met Ryan's father earlier," Janio went on, his tone becoming more grave. "He's of the opinion that locking you in here is for your own protection."
"The chief of police said much the same thing," Curtis replied.
"I doubt that either realizes the implication..."
"That the civilized population is at liberty in here, while the criminals are locked-up outside."
"Janio," Curtis returned, laughing, "only you could see things that way!"
"I know," Curtis broke in, wiping the tears of laughter from the corners of his eyes. "That's why you're the mommy. Where would I be without you?"
"Probably rich and famous, instead of locked-up and infamous."
"Perhaps... But I'd enjoy it less."
"I would, too, Curt."
Curtis spoke to Ryan: "Well, I finally found your mantrap. Until today, I didn't know what you meant."
"This isn't exactly what I was talking about," Ryan replied.
"Oh, but it is. This is the distilled form, that's all. Undiluted."
"...I guess so."
Glenna asked, "What are you talking about?"
"A theory of Ryan's. He says the education system of Dalton creates a sort of trap that imprisons everyone, in one way or another."
"A way of assuring that everyone gets trapped in debt and dead-end jobs," Ryan offered. "So that they can't change, even if they want to."
"But why?," Glenna demanded, mystified, almost angered. "Why would anyone want to do such a thing?"
"I don't know..." Ryan stared at the floor.
"I do," said Janio, almost to himself.
"Glenna says you're going to try to get me out of here," Curtis said.
"That's right," Janio replied, as if from a distance. "Who do you think set the fire?"
"I don't know... I was thinking about it earlier, and it just doesn't make any sense to me."
"Has Glenna told you that she suspects this Corey Pauling?"
"No. But the thought occurred to me, too."
"Why?," Janio asked.
"Just an ugly suspicion, I guess. I don't see how he would stand to gain anything."
"If it was Corey," Ryan observed, "he wouldn't be looking for his gain, but for your loss."
"You know...," Curtis mused. "I was thinking about him when I wrote that article for the Chronicle. I think if I knew how Corey thinks, I'd understand all there is to know about ignorance..."
"Why do you assume that he thinks?," Ryan remarked in the voice of bitter cynicism.
"Oh, but he does! I've watched him. He does recognize that there is a reality out there. He works very hard to avoid it. Erg for erg, he spends more energy hiding from work than it would take to do it!"
The four of them smiled together. Curtis went on, "That's what I've never understood about him. I can almost see it if someone gains something by pretending that fiction is fact. But what's in it for Corey? What is he getting?"
"Como una substituta para experiencia," Janio said, almost whispered.
"What was that?," Glenna asked.
"Nothing. Something I heard as a child." Janio squared his shoulders. The lines of concern disappeared from his face. "Listen, Curt. I want you to know that we're going to get you out of here. Even if we have to blast you out."
"I know it, Janio. I'm not worried about that. What I am worried about is the business." He asked Glenna a question and the four spent several minutes going over plans for working around Randolph's incarceration. As Ryan, Glenna and Janio were getting ready to leave, Curtis said, "Hey, Janio. Who's doing your TV show while you're here."
"Sallygirl, of course."
"How can she do it?"
"Gosh, Curt. What's a videotape, anyway?"
"A mylar medium coated with iron oxide."
"...patterns of electromagnetic interference."
"Which is Sallykid's end product. She does the show a lot. Gives me time to be lazy, and I look better in the bargain!" Curtis was still smiling when Janio left the room...
When the three of them emerged from the courthouse, Janio stood for a long time, scanning the crowd. The man in the pillowcase was still dancing around. The sign-brandishers had organized into a picket line. The air echoed with the drums of chants and angry, ad hoc lamentations. Janio's eyebrows tightened as he watched, and a fire erupted in his eyes. "What are you doing here?," he called out, his calm, clear voice penetrating to every corner of the square. "What is it you hope to achieve by this?"
A resentful silence settled over the mob. All stared up at the dark, confident man standing on the courthouse steps. Someone whispered, "That's Janio Valenta!" The TV crew turned to face him.
"Why are you doing this? Is there some god you must appease by performance of this mindless ritual?"
Throughout the mob, people looked ashamed. As if until that moment they hadn't known what they were doing. Some stared at their shoes, others wiped sweat from their brows. A woman near the black-robed parson was weeping silently. The angry man in the pillowcase shouted, "We want justice!"
"You don't want justice," Janio replied in the voice of grim certainty. "You want blood. You want Curtis Randolph's head on a platter, whether or not he's the guilty party. If you wanted justice, you'd wait for proof. What you want to do is satisfy yourself that you've done something, even if it comes to nothing! Ask yourself sometime, what is your motive when you're acting like this?"
Janio stood watching them, his face the final argument of his certainty, his body a ringing proof of his truth. "You're not doing anything, not achieving anything in reality, just making a big scene for some imaginary god, whom you think requires scenes of you. But if you stay here, eventually one of you will egg the others into doing something stupid. So do the smart thing. Go do your nothing at home, alone, where you're not likely to get into trouble."
Without a word, the mob began to disperse. The hooded man tried to stop some people, but they pushed past him. In a moment, the square was empty.
Ryan looked about him, amazed. "I've met a great man..."
"You've met a normal man," Janio replied. "I admit that's a rare experience. It's rare for me as well." He held out his hand and Ryan grasped it tightly.
In the car, Glenna said, "You said something back there. In Spanish. It sounded like something Curtis has said."
"'As a substitute for experience'," Janio translated.
"Yes, that's it."
"Curt and I have spent a lot of time talking about that..."
"What does it mean?"
Janio smiled, a tight, bitter smile. "It would take me too long to explain. In this case it means living a lie to spite the truth."
"But why would anyone do that?"
"Exactly," Janio replied. "Why would they?"
"I don't know... What could they possibly hope to gain?"
"It's not what they hope to gain, it's what they hope to lose," he mused, his voice a mixture of frustration and resignation. "Those people back there, they didn't wish to gain justice or even revenge. They simply wanted to lose responsibility for deciding, each in his own mind, whether or not Curtis is guilty. A substitute for experience is an attempt to know without having found out."
"'A mantrap'?," Glenna quoted.
"I guess so... The trap is that, after you've made believe that fact is fiction long enough, it becomes hard to tell which is which."
"Curt keeps telling me about a book I should read..."
"Atlas Shrugged?," Janio asked, smiling wryly.
"How did you know?"
"Just a wild guess." He grinned. "He's right. You deserve to be told how proud you have a right to be."
"Proud of what? What have I done?"
"You've done the hardest job of all," he said gravely. "You've kept your eyes open. And your mind..."
The night was edging across the twilit sky as he pulled into the parking lot of the plant. "Give me your keys and show me how to lock up," he said. "Then go home and get some rest."
"What are you going to do?"
"Work a while here, then check into a hotel. Eat. Sleep."
"I could make you something..."
"Don't trouble yourself. I'm not sure I'd enjoy it, anyway."
"Hmm... Me neither."
"Glenna, if it starts to get to you, just remember--we're going to get him out."
"I'll remember. And thanks."
"I'm doing this for me, not you."
"That's why I'm thanking you!"
As her tail lights shrank away in the gathering dusk, his smile turned to a frown...
Janio walked back to his car. He removed two more leather cases from the trunk and mounted them on a wheeled luggage cart. He pulled the cart into the plant. In Glenna's office, he busied himself with setting up the equipment inside the cases, two small video recorders. Out of a pocket of one of the cases he pulled a small disk, circular and luminescent-white. He pinned this to his black leather jacket. He extracted a pair of long antennae from the back of one of the recorders and gave power to the machine. When he was satisfied that the recorder was functioning properly, he took a walk through the plant, through the offices, through what must have been Curt's office, through the plant, the still sooty production lines and the nearly spotless R&D room. On his way back he stopped to examine carefully the area where the firebomb must have entered. Most of the large debris had been hauled away, but the floor was marked where drum after drum of volatiles had gone up.
Back in the office, Janio stopped the recorder he'd set up and rewound the tape. As he watched silently, lips pursed, the path he had just taken unfolded before his eyes, recorded in infinite detail in 'patterns of electromagnetic interference', as transmitted by the small white disk pinned to his jacket.
Satisfied, he let the tape run out and reset the machine. Taking the keys with him, he let himself out of the building, locking the door behind him. He walked a long, slow perimeter around the plant, taking extra care in the area where the firebomb must have been thrown. When he'd made it all the way around, he went back and took the same tour around the warehouse and an outbuilding. He noted a harried organization to some of the debris around the small shed.
Without noticing it, he had been whistling softly a melody that had haunted him from childhood, thrillingly complex yet made of the same stuff as 'road food', the music of doing things. Walking slowly, his eyes to the ground, he took a wider sweep of the property. He did not know what he was looking for, was not even sure there was anything to be found. In the back of his mind there was the nagging doubt that there might not be anything to be found, there might not be any evidence with which to exonerate Curtis. He smiled at himself, not in ridicule or pity, but more in the frustration of a man who is sure there is a way, but not at all sure what that way is...
Suppose there is no evidence?, he demanded of himself. The crime occurred at night, so it is very likely that no one saw it. Without a witness, the line connecting this Pauling or anyone else would be very thin, very hard to demonstrate. While the police have what amounts to a very strong circumstantial case against Curtis.
Janio had never even suspected that Curtis set his own property afire. It was inconceivable, beyond doubt. No, the person who set the fire was not a man so in love with himself that he rebelled against every 'charity'. Not a man who had hidden from the law all his life, not to escape its evils, but to escape its 'good'. To remain free in every respect, owing no one, owed by no one, owned by no one but himself. A man like Curtis knows too well the price of stupidity and weakness--death. A man in love with life does not pursue death.
How simple the proof, yet how compelling... And how useless in a court, where that which is inside a man is unseen and unmeasured, while that which is seen and measured commands that he face torture unto death, the death of the unseen spirit that turns trash into riches, lead into gold...
No, the man who set this fire hates himself, hates existence. The destroyer always hates passionately. It is his sole revenge on a reality that will not bend to his whims. And the avenger is always the target of his own vengeance. Even where the circumstances are not so extreme, it is always his own person--his own non-omnipotence--he seeks to destroy by destroying other people and their values. Here, where the values of the creators, the producers, are nearly eradicated, where the body of Curtis Randolph is a thin wall that stands between the residents of Dalton and permanent ruin... Here there can be no doubt--the arsonist is a killer in spirit if not yet in fact...
And I can prove it!, Janio thundered in the quiet of his mind. I can prove it as surely as one can derive all of geometry from a single line. But what good does it do me? In the courts, in the codified blindness of the seen and the measured, how can one bear witness to the inside of a man, to the glowing purity of the god and the self-abasing corruption of the devil?
One cannot, he said to himself with a simple finality. One might as well prove geometry to a pig, for all that men are willing to look to the essential for truth. Can you prove to them that only the human devil, the rebel against reality, is capable of arson or theft or murder, while the human god, the man who harnesses reality to his own ends, is capable only of good? Can you prove anything to men who prove nothing to themselves, not even the maths, but simply memorize rules of thumb that are claimed to work, with the validity of the claim being that it is not one's own? Can anything be proved to men who regard knowledge as solely an attribute of other people, not of themselves...?
He did not notice that he had stopped. He was not consciously aware that he was staring at the horizon, at the red orb of the sun setting in the hazy skies. His mind was three thousand miles away, in the grimy streets of Managua, tortured as then by the same questions that haunted him now. But now I shall answer them, he replied silently to the pain of his memories. This time... This time I shall win!
Later, in his car, driving back toward Dalton, he felt he had part of the answer--a substitute for experience. To prove anything to anyone, you must present him with what he regards as proof. A rigorous mind accepts only the proof of experience, the demonstration that things could not be otherwise. But the others...? A deception is not the truth, but how does a pig know that? I said today that I would get Curtis out even if I must use force. Can I bear false witness for him? If the price is the death of a god, can one flinch at deceiving the devil?
Janio smiled at the last thought--when have I ever not cheated the devil? He punched a button on the tape player on the seat beside him. The song of happy labor erupted from the speakers and he felt more joyous than he had all day. Does the devil praise suffering and doubt? He is welcome to it. The stuff of the god in man is joy and certainty. Joy in certainty...
When Janio checked into his hotel, there was a message awaiting him--Ryan Dalton inviting him to drinks at nine that night, with a number. He read it over twice while the clerk was preparing the registration form.
"That's an unusual name you have, Mr. Valenta," the clerk said as he pushed the card across the counter. "Does it mean something?"
Janio signed the card quickly, in a firm hand. "Yes," he said. "In English, my name would translate to Strong. John Strong."
At a quarter of nine Janio was waiting in the hotel lounge. He'd spent his evening in Dalton's hash houses and shopping malls, watching, listening. As though to appease the gods, the burning of the Pauling plant was on everyone's lips, a thousand pointless speculations gushing forward as a substitute for the experience of action. The theories were alike in that none was tainted by a single fact, but Janio had listened anyway. He wanted to know what stood for proof, for certainty, in the minds of these people, how they could speak at such length when they had almost no information. He'd stopped people singly and asked them, "Who set the fire?" No one knew, in terms of proof, but the name of Corey Pauling had come up several times. The people who knew him didn't think the act beneath him.
In the end, he knew no more than he had at the beginning, but he felt he'd touched at something, as one feels a fish brush against one's thigh in the ocean. A hint of something that could be used, perhaps something crucial. In all his years in America he'd never seen true Americans. In New York every pose is conscious, a costume donned on a whim, supplanted quickly by another. He knew of the aristocracy of ignorance who mined the riches of the shopping malls. But he had never seen them up close, never observed their waddling indifference, never known how much it is possible for them to take their great wealth for granted. In the three-fourths of the globe that is kept by its rulers in perpetual starvation, the stores of Dalton would seem an impossible miracle. To the Daltonites, they were a commonplace unworthy of the awe of even a slobbering child...
To see and not see, to know and not know... To seek and to hide from oneself the object of one's search... To be and not be, both at the same time... Isn't this all a part of the same deviltry? Isn't this the well-spring from which evil erupts? Is evil the crime, or is it the pretended respect for falsehood, the affected contempt for fact...?
"Why is that people in bars always look so sour?"
Janio looked up and was surprised to see Ryan Dalton standing beside his table. He smiled. "Perhaps because they know what it is they came to find."
"Oh, and did you come for the same thing?"
This time the smile was bitter. "In a manner of speaking. The others come to forget how to remember, while I strive to remember how to forget. Is there a difference?"
"Not when you put it that way... But I think there is a difference between you and them."
"Do you?," Janio asked. "So do I. But I was just now trying to think of what it is."
"Epistemological honesty. They'll succeed in cheating themselves out of what they already know, while you'll never defraud yourself of what you're able to discover."
"With another person, I might answer: that's a speculation."
"But not with me?"
"Not with you."
"'A spirit, too, needs fuel'," Ryan quoted.
"That's right. Tell me, do you think it's that we have learned so much, or just that the others have forgotten so much that we have not?"
"...you're asking to have your ear bent for hours."
"I have time."
"Okay," Ryan said, sitting down. "I think the difference is that we cared enough to fight to keep the distinction clear."
"The distinction between what one has proved to oneself to be true and what some other person says is true. Epistemological honesty is living life first-hand, seeing with your own eyes, and living with the consequences of your own errors."
"Hmm... That's harder. I think of it as attempting to be conscious external to consciousness, attempting to control one's own body, one's own mind, by some external force, such as 'god' or 'society' or just aimlessness." Ryan paused, marshalling his thoughts. "It seems bizarre, but I keep watching it, and that's what I see. A relentless attempt to convince oneself that consciousness is not exclusively local, that somebody or something else is at fault when one identifies a flaw in one's own character."
"Yes," Janio replied. "I can go along with that. But how do you explain it? What causes it?"
"And how do you tear it down...?"
"And how do you tear it down?"
"A mantrap," Ryan mused. "A trap for men... I had a conversation with Curt about this, the night he arrived here. Do you suppose I'm stuck in a mantrap of my own devising?"
"Perhaps we both are... As Objectivists, we regard ourselves as unbound; we recognize no barrier to our goals. But here I am, wanting something I cannot have--wanting minds to change miraculously. Am I not wishing for consciousness to be other than 'exclusively local'?"
Ryan's face bore a look of surprise. "I've never thought of that..."
"I have. You see, I think I know what causes your mantrap: the refusal to accept that the impossible is impossible, or the refusal to take responsibility for what is possible. The people who get trapped do so by seeking evidences of impotence or omnipotence, by believing either that they are incompetent to deal with nature, or that nature is so pliable that it must bend to their arbitrary whims."
"'Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed'."
"Precisely. Those who are trapped are chained by their own voluntary rebellion against that law."
"Yes," Ryan said excitedly. "At some point they identify their interest in pretending that things are other than they are, either that their every effort is useless or that their imperious demands have power. But why...? Why would someone do that to his brain?"
"Because it seems less painful at the time. Because, when he does it the first time, deliberately denies what he knows is true, he identifies the honest course as too painful to pursue. In the quiet inviolability of his own mind, he knows he is wrong, but he chooses to regard dishonesty as efficacious in the outside world, even though he knows it destroys his own self-love. Afterward, there is a part of himself that he cannot stand to look at. The process is habituating, so, over time, the person comes to regard introspection as dangerous, a source of pain. In order to validate his own actions, which he knows in his deepest, most repressed consciousness to be wrong, he invents imaginary external 'causes'--'society', 'god', 'the system'. The mantrap is his own unwillingness to identify his own nature, to acknowledge that the cause of his actions is volitional, 'exclusively local' as you would have it."
There was a flame in Ryan's eyes. He was looking at Janio, but his mind seemed to be a thousand miles away. In a moment he broke his abstraction and smiled warmly. He said, "Thank you."
"We are family," Janio answered, reaching out to touch Ryan's hand, at rest on the table. "In many more ways than I can say at present. I have given you no more than I owed you."
Ryan's smile turned wry. "Aren't we the people who don't pay unearned values?"
"True. But we are also the people who pay every debt that's earned." Janio picked up the drink before him and gestured broadly. "I salute you."
Ryan completed the motion. "And I, you." But before his drink was back to the table, his eyes were lost again. "There's something I always wanted to know. If serving the interests of others is altruism, what is it when you serve the interests of others in your own self-interest?"
"Capitalism, if you gain by it. Self-deception, if you do not."
"It's funny... Do you know what Curt did when he came here? He gave every one of his employees a button that said, 'Mind at Work'."
"I've seen that button."
"That's not all. He really went out of his way to motivate those people, to convince them that the good is the righteous, that what they've done all along with their bodies is what they ought to be upholding with their minds. At first, it seemed like altruism to me, but now I'm not sure..."
"What do you think was his motive?," Janio asked.
"That's just it--profit. The more I thought about it, the more I saw that, not only would those people be better, happier with themselves, as a result of his attention, they'd also be better workers."
"So in serving their interests, Curtis was serving his own. That's capitalism. I think that there's a serious error in the whole Objectivist approach to other people. We regard irrationality as some ephemeral thing, without recognizing that the barriers to knowledge are very real to the person who erects them. Then we're angry and dismayed when he doesn't change his mind instantly."
"But shouldn't we be? Shouldn't a logical argument win on its own?"
"It should, and it does with people who are honest. But the people stuck in your mantrap regard logic as their enemy. It is logic that convicts them of their past evils. To persuade them to the good, we need to do more than make logical arguments. We need to show why only reason can deliver the trapped man from the prison he has built in his own mind."
"Which brings us back to altruism..."
"Not quite. It would be altruism to do this without seeking to gain one's own values. But where one's goal is to produce more, or to better protect what one has produced, then it's not altruism. It's total selfishness."
Ryan looked puzzled.
"Look," Janio went on, "do you want to live in a free society?"
"That's why I'm in the Libertarian Party."
"Well, best wishes, but the enemy is epistemological, not political. I applaud the efforts of anyone trying to change the political status quo, but our real battle is in the minds of those who believe slavery is more efficacious than liberty. Until we can show them that they are wrong, that by endorsing the use of force they are putting their own lives in peril, we cannot hope to secure our freedom. This is what I've been realizing today, that my entire approach has been flawed. I keep expecting minds to respond to my arguments, without recognizing that I am not speaking to minds, but to the attempt at a substitute."
"'Como una substituta para experiencia'...?"
"Exactly. 'As a substitute for experience'. So long as we pretend that in addressing imaginary ego-substitutes we are addressing egos, we will continue to fail, and we will continue to be dismayed at our failure."
"...but what can one do?"
"What Curt did. Show them why self-love is the good, why an unearned value at the price of self-loathing is no bargain, why only the man who can sanction his every action can be happy. And why joy and pride make the effort worth it."
"I think I knew that," Ryan replied. "At least part of it. That's why I got involved with the School Board. If we can teach children the value of honesty early enough, they won't get trapped. But what about the adults? Haven't they dug themselves in too deeply? You said it yourself--they become irrational because they can't stand to look at their own actions. How can anyone change that?"
"What is the nature of the actions they can't stand to look at? In a lot of cases, it's very minor. It looms large in their own minds, in part because the process begins so early in life. But, in most cases, the uglinesses people cannot stand to look at are very small, like stealing a toy, or lying about who broke a lamp, or hating the act of surrender to the mob. They go through a lifelong mental imprisonment in punishment for 'crimes' a rational person would recognize as minor and easily corrected. Because they won't live through the honest pain of recognizing that human potency includes the possibility of error, they embrace the dishonest pain of self-denial. But the original error remains uncorrected, along with any later evils added to it. It's true enough that to correct those errors, a person has to identify them, and for many this may be too painful. Certainly it's a lot of work, even where the errors are insignificant. But the values involved are always the same--life or death. If we can show them why it is right to value life, we can lend them the courage to face up to and correct their past mistakes. That's what Curt was doing. Did it work?"
"Yes. At least it worked with the people he hired."
"Or: with the people who hired him. This is what I have been understanding. I've been doing much the same sort of thing with my video show, but I've only now realized that, not only do I present myself to the people I can influence, the people I can influence present themselves to me. Minds are changeable. But only from the inside..."
Janio smiled, the smile of victory over doubt, pain, helplessness. "So live! We speak as much in our actions as in our words. Those who can be influenced by a good example, by an objective assessment of costs and benefits--they will learn. Those who cannot are unreachable by us."
Ryan lifted his glass. "I say again, thank you."
Janio smiled. "If you insist on thanking me, have one of your staff put together a package of all the facts relevant to the factory and the fire."
"I was planning to give you that stuff anyway. When do you want it?"
"Early tomorrow, if possible."
"Stop by my office around ten. I'll have it for you."
"Great," said Janio, rising.
It was after eleven when Janio returned to the factory. In the darkness he couldn't be sure of it, but he was nagged by the impression that something was not quite the same, that something had changed since his inspections that afternoon. He took a quick sweep of the property and saw nothing awry, but perhaps the video recorder had picked up something his own eyes had missed. Before going inside, Janio went back to his car. He removed two of the shimmering white disks from the trunk and mounted them on light poles near the road. Their overlapping fields of view covered most of the property.
In Glenna's office he punched the rewind button on the video cassette recorder and picked up the phone. He dialed, then reprogrammed his monitors, two to the video cameras outside and one to the Columbus station that was the local outlet for his nightly television show.
"Hi, pops!," came the delightfully delighted child's voice through the telephone.
"Hi, kid! I love you."
"I love you, too, daddy. To tell the truth, I miss having you around. It's nice of you to call so much, but it's not the same as having you around to talk to all the time."
"It's not the same for me, either. My tongue has been bursting with things to say to Sallykid, but she's just not around to hear."
"Well," Sally said, cheerfully quarrying the bright side, "you'll be home soon. And then I'll bend your ear for a week running, just to get you back in shape."
"I'll bet you will. But you'd do better to look out for yourself. I just spent a pleasant hour boring the wits out of Ryan Dalton, and I didn't tell him the half of it."
"Hmm... Something new?"
"More like something old looked at a new way."
"Must I beg?"
"You haven't got it in you. But I'll torture you, anyway. Justice is rendering unto each man what he has earned and deserved."
"Aristotle, more or less."
"More or less."
"Yeah, so," Sally playfully demanded. "Is there a point?"
"Wouldn't 'each man' include oneself?"
"That reminds me... I've been meaning to speak to you about this 'man' business. I was reading an artic--"
"Oh, can it, sisterhood!," Janio teased back. "Wouldn't 'each person' include oneself? Not the political sense of justice, but its basis in rectitude. Wouldn't it be as unrighteous to unfairly judge yourself as to unfairly judge another?"
"Hmm... That's interesting. Where are you headed with it?"
"You work it out for yourself and we'll discuss it when I get back to New York. What I'm doing now is getting Curtis out of jail."
"More mental gymnastics, huh? Think I can't handle it?"
"Not at all. I tease your brain in order to treasure the outcome--elegant success."
"Other business," Janio said in a different tone. While he had been chatting with the child, he had made a duplicate tape of his two inspections of the property. "I'm feeding you two patches of video. The first is a sweep I took of the Pauling plant this afternoon. The second is the same tour just a while ago. Something's changed, but I don't know what. Please let me know if you spot anything."
"Work, work, work."
"Worse news: afterward I'm feeding you the whole tape, about seven hours. Assimilate and be prepared to make movies."
"Now you're talking!"
"I've got a lot we'll have to talk about, but it can wait. There's still a lot more I need to collect before we can do anything."
"Gosh, dad. What are we making?"
"A substitute for experience, baby. A substitute for experience..."
"Oh..." There was a pause. "Are you tuned in for the show?"
"Primed and expectant."
"It's going to be a good one. Will you be staying up for the movie?"
"Probably not. I have a lot to do tomorrow."
"Too bad. I'll make you a tape."
"Work, work, work," Janio mocked.
"Have you got that stuff I asked for?"
"You said oh-eight-hundred."
"But I do have it, so I'll throw it to your printer."
"You're a darling child. A credit even to such a retarded parent as I."
"Yeah," said Sally, giggling in advance, "too bad the credit's not reciprocal."
Janio was distracted. He was watching the monitor covering the north side of the building. There was something moving out there.
"And by the way," Sally continued, "I've compared those tapes. Some of the debris near the smallest outbuilding has been moved. It looks too orderly to be the wind."
"...so I guessed," Janio replied, still watching the shape move closer to the unseen video camera. It was a person, a human being, slumped over, filthy, in tatters. What the people in New York would call a shopping bag person. "Sally, there's someone out there. I have cameras mounted and I'm watching from the inside. There's a person out there, a vagrant of some kind." As he watched, the person, now clearly a woman, sorted aimlessly through the boxes strewn across the rough land. Presently she looked up. She crouched low to the ground as a truck hummed past, did not rise until it was gone. "Sally, maybe she was here! Maybe she saw it!"
"Well, stop chattering and find out!"
"Okay, babes. I love you!"
"I love you, too, daddy! Call me and let me know what you find out."
"Okay. Sorry I'm missing the show."
"I'll make a--"
"I know, you'll make a tape for me. You're wonderful! Bye!"
Janio watched in the monitor as the woman began to move again. She seemed to be approaching the road from the north side of the building, so when Janio crept soundlessly outside, he circled around the other way, to take her from behind. He stopped himself as he neared her. The stench was terrible, even at twenty feet. The woman was clothed in random patches. Over her head she wore an industrial trash bag as a hat and cape. He had seen many such people in the city, but he had never become used to it, had never been able to accept it as normal, much less as common, possible to ignore. He had defined 'shopping-bag person', just to get some sort of a grip on it: those people who try hardest not to be people. But the puzzlement remained...
..until now. Of course! It is all part of the same thing, the same contradiction carried to its logical conclusion.
Janio composed himself. "Hello," he said.
"Oh!" The woman turned, startled. Her eyes were large and frightened. Her ravaged body was poised like an animal's, tensed to spring at the first sign of danger.
Janio held up his hand. "I mean you no harm. I just wanted to say hello."
"Do you like candy?" Janio pulled a bag of hard candy out of the pocket of his jacket. "I got it at one of the shopping malls. I'll warn you," he said, extending the bag, "it's addicting."
The woman snatched the bag out of the air, quickly spiriting it to the folds of her many garments. She stuffed a hand inside the bag and popped one of the candies into her mouth.
"Don't chew," Janio said. "Just suck on it."
She nodded, smiling faintly. In her eyes, there was the hint of a deeper gratitude. She offered the bag back to him.
"No," he said. "You keep it." He patted his flat stomach. "Bad for my waistline."
"My name is Janio," he offered.
She shuffled nervously. "I'm Ann."
"Hello, Ann. Do you know Curtis? He and I are friends."
"He made my coat."
She tugged at her plastic cape. "He made my coat. It rained and he made this coat for me. There's another part to it, but I don't need it now."
"Do you like Curtis?"
"He lets me stay here."
Janio had the impression that the woman was forcing herself to speak, that she would prefer to run... "Oh, where do you stay?"
"Over there." She pointed to the smallest outbuilding, the tool shed.
Damn! That was just like Curtis. Do whatever you want, just don't interfere. He'd known Curt when he was in much the same straights as Ann, when he would have killed the man who said he needed to be helped in life. "Do you like it here?"
"Were you here last night?"
The old woman's eyes shot a beacon of fear. "I have to go."
Janio knew better than to fight. "Okay. Sleep well."
"Uh, thanks for the candy."
Before Janio could respond, she was gone. He watched her scurry off to her home, a tool shed on a windy prairie...
Janio was a long time getting to sleep that night. When he returned to his hotel, he had phoned Sally to fill her in, then taken a long hot shower, bathing as a cleansing of both his body and his spirit. But when he put out the lights he knew that sleep would not come, not to a mind so enflamed. The horror of Ann's crusty skin kept him awake, of the grime ground into the wind-bitten flesh, of the stench and the filthy rags and the pitiful 'coat' and the house unfit for a goat. But the worst horror is her eyes, he thought to himself, wide, bright seeing eyes in a face stripped of emotion, stripped of interest. Eyes that see everything yet react to almost nothing....
..but she does react! "I have to go," she had said, just when to stay longer would have committed her. Janio's mind was swept clean by a flash of blinding light--she left because she knew that I was asking if she saw who set the fire. Which means she did see it! More: it means she's a lot more awake than she pretends to be. How could she have guessed what I was asking about, if she didn't already know it would be a topic of interest...?
But that only disturbed him more. How could it be? Those eyes are as awake as they seem, but she lets almost none of it out. Why...?
That question was the greatest horror of all...
6. As a Substitute for Experience
Anger didn't claim Curtis until dawn crept into his cell through the tiny window on the wall opposite his cot. In the dark it had been easy to ignore his prison. He had slept in worse beds, under much worse conditions. And if he couldn't get up and go out, it wouldn't help his sleep any to fret about it. Instead, he'd pushed it all off on Janio, didn't worry about what he couldn't do anything about. He smiled as he thought about it--that's what mothers are for...
But when the morning's light burst in, he could no longer hide the bars from his eyes. The light was twice cut by the thick-wire mesh of his cage, at the window and by the fence that separated his portion of the city lock-up from the visitor's area. Without wanting it, trying hard to stop it, Curtis felt his fury rising, anger as he had never before known it. The anger of impotence, the anger that would make dust of the universe in one scowl, if scowls had force, the fury that wishes for the power to blast walls, to pulverize whole cities. The bitter self-remonstrance for lacking these powers...
He wanted to lash out at the sunlight splattering against the grimy concrete floor, stupidly wrestling through chains to founder on rock. Is this prison an insult to that purity?, he asked himself. Or is the sun insulting itself, by feeding its purity to corruption? Stop it!, he screamed in invisible passion. Stop it! Put out the light on them! That's what they deserve! That's what they've wanted, the sleepwalkers, the walking dead. Stop fighting them, stop feeding them. Give them what they want... Don't you see it?! They'll always stop you in the end, no matter how far you push, no matter how hard you try... He spat at the patch of light.
..the hatred of all life, Curtis said to himself, listening closely to his own mind. The hatred of all existence, the desire to tear it all down... And the hatred of oneself for not being able to do it...
He laughed out loud. How stupid I'm being! How can I be angry at myself for something I cannot change? But isn't that what did happen? He did not notice that his fury was gone as he let his mind gallop off on this new course.
It was something the chief had said. Nelson had come by the night before, bearing news and newspapers. The two men had sat up late, chatting about Dalton, the coming elections, Ryan's passion for the schools... The chief had been talking about a hostage crisis.
"Damnedest thing I ever did see," he said, leaning back in a swivel chair he'd hauled over from his office. He had opened the door to the cage to make more space--physical and mental--for both. "I'm telling you the kid was looking to get shot. We had the hostages, and we had his ass cornered. He knew there was no way to fight it out."
"Do you really believe that?," Curtis had asked. "Couldn't it be that he was just so tied up he didn't know what he was doing?"
"No sir. I watched him. He knew. I told him so. I said, 'Mister, if you don't know, I'm here to tell you--you fire that gun and you die! You may take one of us with you, but you're sure as hell goin' second at the latest. You got that?' He nodded at me. He understood me clear as a bell. He starts to put the gun down, then pauses midway, like he's thinkin'. He just holds the gun there and I can practically hear the gears grinding. Then he jerks that cannon back up and fires. Missed all three of us. My guess is he intended to."
"Did you kill him?"
"You bet. Like the man said, 'no trial, no forms to file'. He hung in for a few minutes, muttering about 'the system'. It was 'the system' that killed him, don't you see? He didn't commit suicide the long way, 'the system' got him. The point is, he knew he was killing himself. He decided to die. He knew that if he shot, we'd kill him. He thought about it, decided to shoot, and we killed him. Since then, I've seen it about a dozen times, the same thing, just different ways. Like a shoplifter pausing in mid-snatch, wringing her hands on the merchandise. She's telling herself she's wrong and trying to find some way to justify it to herself. What I'm saying is, they know. They know what they're doing is wrong, not just wrong by the law, but wrong in the nature of life. It's not the law that stops them in that dreadful pause, it's their own knowledge of the evil of their own actions. And then, damn 'em all to hell, they go ahead and do it anyway..."
Curtis was silent. His thoughts ran so far ahead of him that he didn't want to take time to offer any comment....so much of what he says is right. I've seen it myself, that terrible agony in another person's face, the moment before he does something awful.
"The thing is," the chief went on, "what I was thinking is that they're spending that time trying to pretend they're something that they're not. What is it people say? 'That's no way to live'. They know that crime is no way for a man to live, so they have to pretend they're something else..."
That's it!, Curtis cheered in silence at daybreak in the Dalton lock-up. He sat still on his bunk, the quiet frenzy in his mind was not evident....they pretend they're something they are not. They pretend they're not conscious, that they don't have to recognize the fact of their own actions, their own nature, that they can cause events to un-happen by deliberately forgetting them, that they can cause situations to disappear by ignoring them....that they can cause existence to crumble by hating it enough... That's it, that's the error, the terrible contradiction I've fought all my life but never understood--the refusal to grant validity to the inviolable facts of one's own being. Half of them believe their own volitional actions can have no efficacy, that they're just helpless pawns controlled by others. And the other half think they can bend steel on the strength their whims, that their emotions are all-powerful. And it gets all mixed up, because people oscillate wildly from one state to the other, never stopping to identify what is and is not possible to a man.
He remembered a boy he'd known, a kid who was always about to start to learn how to play the piano. He never did learn, of course. Because, he suddenly realized, he wanted to play piano without having to learn how... To know without having to find out, to have knowledge without a prior chain of correct reasoning. Isn't that what all of it is about, all of irrationality? Not just evil, crime, but all of the stupid, senseless pain people put themselves through, in order to cheat themselves out of what they want most. What is religion? 'Revealed knowledge', a way of knowing without having found out. And those phony paste-on 'ideas' he'd grown so sick of in college, are they not the same thing? Instant 'wisdom', just add brainlessness. And how about 'I can't', the one he'd fought so bitterly in his work. "I don't want to try," a young woman had told him. "If I don't try, I won't fail." "You won't succeed, either," he had replied, but she tuned him out, refused to grant validity to her own future, pretended that her nature included only the muddling now.
What was it Janio had said? 'The future is the only thing open to change.' That's what they're running from, finally. At the start, when a child tells a lie or makes a mess, he identifies his own interest in pretending it did not happen. He knows it did happen, knows he's a liar, but he doesn't want his deceit made real in the bad favor of others. So he hides it from them. But to keep it most perfectly hidden, he must hide it also from himself, he must close off forever that portion of his experience, that memory of his own life. To the extent that he wishes to maintain unearned good opinions, he must become selfless, in the exact meaning of that word--he must mutilate a part of his own self. And, as time passes, as he refuses to grant validity to greater and greater errors, as he maintains his pretense at the expense of his self-love, as he knowingly denies his own nature, root and branch, mind and body, denies every unavoidable fact that stands between him and unearned self-esteem, the one premise that he must deny most vehemently is that the future is open to change. By denying his past he has kept it preserved, but he has not kept it alive--it is gone. The past is not subject to any sort of change. By keeping the issue of his past errors both alive and dead, both present as a real dilemma and violently ignored as unresolvable, he attempts to have efficacy in the past. Like the dead-beat who keeps a bill long past its due date, intending someday to pay it, just not now, he keeps reliving his past errors, silently, so deeply buried in his consciousness that he may not even be consciously aware of the process, hoping that they will change. But they cannot change. The past is gone...
But the purpose is not to solve the problems of the past, but to avoid the ever-present problem of the future... They do know it, just like the chief said. They're not insane, they're anti-sanity. If they can convince themselves that the past is so pressing that it demands their constant supplication--in depression, in guilt, in drink, in self-mortification--then they can deny that their actions can have real efficacy in the future. If the 'sinner' can just reach the place where he can say 'it's no use' and mean it, he's 'safe'--he'll never have to be a human being again. 'The anti-man, anti-mind, anti-life'...? This is what it is! Before it presents itself in bitter hatred for the good, in the hysterical destruction of values, in the mocking ridicule of self-improvement, in the petulant demand for unearned praise, in the self-inflicted stupor of mindlessness... Before it presents itself as obvious irrationality, it starts as a desire to be non-human, to deny with respect to oneself that 'nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed'. The self-deception behind all evil is this: the self-donned chains of the belief that one cannot make oneself good, that one cannot become worthy of true self-praise by right action through time. This is the 'selflessness' that must precede every self-damning act of altruism, every self-mutilating crime. Evil, crime, altruism, irrationality--they all mean the same thing: humans attempting to be non-human.
But the future is the only thing open to change! If a person's goal is life, then he must face up to past errors and get on with his life, correct what he can and make up for the rest by learning what he can from the experience. At any point along the way, he can stop his irrationality, resolve thereafter never to act in knowing error.
..and that's the mantrap... The trap of knowing there is a way out, and not wanting to take it. For those who want to live, the course is obvious. But for those who do not...? Death is what they seek, and death is what they harvest. The death of a suicide at the hands of 'the system', or the imitation death of the willful ignorance of being. Life or death; there is no other choice...
And I know where I stand on that issue, he told himself, smiling at his anger. It's no crime of mine that I'm locked in here, and no act of self-hatred will release me. I cannot release myself, and, as ugly as that may sound, it is unavoidably true. So, I'll do what I can.
When the guard came in later with the breakfast tray, he was surprised to find Curtis standing over the sink, carefully scrubbing the sooty shirt he'd thrown on so long ago, when he had raced to save his burning factory.
"Hey," the guard demanded. "What are you doing?"
Curtis looked over his shoulder, a glint of proud sunlight flashing from a drop of sweat at his brow. "Staying human," he replied serenely. "Staying human... You see, I find I like it..."
There was fear in Sandra Pauling's eyes. She kept throwing her head over her shoulder, as if she expected to find someone sneaking up to strike her. She would not look directly into Janio's eyes. When he could coax her to speak at all, she kept her eyes locked on the threadbare carpet.
Janio was seated on a beaten sofa in the Paulings' living room. Sandra, a pale woman with long, lifeless blonde hair, had invited Janio in and given him coffee. She was clear on his identity from the first, had seen him mentioned in last night's Chronicle. She must have known that his purpose in approaching her was to implicate her husband in the fire, but she didn't throw him out...
But she didn't talk either. If he left his questions vague, she pretended not to understand them. If he made them so specific that she couldn't evade them, she answered noncommittally, often inaudibly.
"What I'm trying to establish," he said, going over the same ground for the third time, "is your husband's movements Sunday night and early Monday morning. Did you sleep here Sunday night?"
"Was your husband in bed with you?"
She said nothing, but the fear seemed to flame more brightly in her eyes. Again she looked over her shoulder, then fixed her eyes on the floor.
Janio said, "You know, you're going to have to answer these questions. If not to me, then to the police."
Her small hands were rolled up into tight little balls, the nails digging into the flesh of her palms. She bit her lip so hard Janio worried it would bleed. She kept her head down, her face a horrid mask of fear and guilt and anger and violation.
"Let it out," he said softly, slowly. "Whatever it is, it can't be worse than what you're doing to yourself right now..."
Without warning she cried out, a tortured, snarling moan. "I hate him!," she screamed. "I hate him, I hate him, I hate him!"
"That's better," he said soothingly. "Talk it out. Make it real, so you can put it behind you."
Then she did talk, the horror story of her marriage gushing forth in a shower of tears. The drugs, the beatings, the casual rape of 'sex' with Corey, the smothering weight of continuous acrimony, constant warfare, perpetual contempt. Once started, the words burst forward, as though the dam that had held them in, kept them hidden from even Sandra's full identification, had crumbled, and the flood of a life spent in terror surged out. By the end of her story, Sandra's head was buried in Janio's shoulder, her speech garbled by shivering sobs.
When she had calmed down, made apologies for her tears and resumed her place across the room, he spoke to her softly, in the voice appropriate to living minds, the calm authority of the truth that is not to be doubted. "Corey set the fire. Didn't he?"
"...yes. At least I think so."
"When did you first think so?"
"Yesterday morning. When I heard about the fire on the radio."
"What made you think your husband did it?"
"It just sounded like something he'd do. He works out there, as a janitor. He hates the place, hated it even when he was a kid. It's funny... I always wondered if Corey didn't hate the factory the way a bad kid hates a good one, as a reminder of his own flaws... Anyway, when this Randolph took over, Corey really went off the deep end. He hates Randolph. The last few weeks he's wandered around here muttering, 'I'll fix him!' I think what he really wanted to do is kill Randolph. But he couldn't push himself into doing it, so instead he burned the factory down."
"Are you sure he did?"
"No. I didn't see him do it."
"Was he here with you at all Sunday night?"
"No, but he hardly ever is. He left here about eight. Came home drunk at about five Monday morning. He tried to take me, but he passed out before he got anywhere. That's one of the things that made me think he did it; he always wants sex after he's done something rotten."
Janio said nothing, letting his thoughts collect. I need evidence, not just more speculation. "What would you guess he had been drinking?"
"Brandy," she said with certainty. "Peach brandy. I ought to know; I smell it often enough." She smiled at herself, the quiet smile of victory over a remembered pain, as one remembers the temporary incapacity of an illness.
"Just who the hell are you, buddy?," a man's voice demanded from the dark of the next room. As Janio watched, the fear, the cringing self-hatred returned to Sandra's eyes, to her pain-wracked body. A man stomped into the room, a short, pudgy man with long, greasy black hair and a scraggly beard. "Whatever it is you're selling, mister," the man growled, "we don't want any."
"Thank you," Janio said to Sandra, rising. He turned to face the man he guessed was Corey Pauling, making sure the white camera-disk pinned to his coat was unobstructed. "I was just leaving."
At the door, Janio turned to face Sandra. "What will you do now?"
"Remember that conversation we had," he said, looking down at his own shoulder to remind her. "Do what you wanted to do then. That's what you really want to do."
She shot a fearful glance to Corey, standing aside with his hands on hips. She bit her lip. "I'll try..."
"Do it," he said, his voice a seething command. "Do it. Save yourself while you can. I can't do it for you. You have to save yourself..."
"Just what are you driving at, mister?," Corey demanded. "I want you out of here! Right now!"
"Sir," Janio responded in rich formality, "I am only too happy to oblige you." He nodded to Sandra and left.
Later Janio sat in his car in downtown Dalton, watching the lunchtime crowds in his rear-view mirror. Watching people in mirrors was an old habit. If you looked at them directly, they became self-conscious, inhibited by being observed. But when the line of vision was not direct, as with watching a reflection in a mirror or a plate glass window, they were not aware of being witnessed.
He had spent an hour going over the data Sally had forwarded from New York and the clippings files he had picked up from Ryan that morning. There was nothing new, nothing really jolting. Janio had read with interest the coverage of the plant's opening, the article Curtis had written for the paper, and the shrill reactions it had elicited. He took careful note of one passage of text: "Still worse than the disvaluer is the anti-valuer... He does not seek the good; for him, the good is an object of destruction, of sacrifice. The most extreme form of this mental disease is the kills-for-thrills murderer, the killer who slays not to gain some value, but to destroy it...."
Janio mulled over what he'd seen of Corey Pauling, what he'd witnessed in the man, and in the destruction the man had wreaked upon Sandra. What would be his reaction to that article...? How would he feel to have his psyche splayed across the paper? Janio wondered if Curtis even knew he had been speaking of Corey when he wrote that text. More than likely, he did not. But how would Corey take it, to have his method explained, explained so well that it would be impossible to doubt any longer?
To know and not know, Janio recalled. To be and not be. To live a life unattended. That's what he had seen in Sandra, a woman fighting desperately to leave her body vacant, to empty it of the driving spirit, the untouchable self. To leave only mindless flesh around to absorb the beatings, the violations, the indignities... To escape the torture not by the honest means of recognition and action, but by the dishonest renunciation of her own experience, by grinding her self out of existence.
How monstrous! And how diabolical... What better way to rule a person than by her own fear of life? Who is more enslaved, the person who is chained, or the person who chains herself?
Without his noticing it, his thoughts drifted to Ann. Isn't she doing the same thing, hiding herself from herself, in order to avoid the responsibility of being alive? Isn't that what all of error is, the willful refusal to exist in the only way that one can exist?
Yes! How could I have been so blind?! That's all it is, that's all it ever is--an invalid ruling in the court of personal efficacy, a refusal to recognize one's own power to act, to make one's life better. To avoid the honest pain of admitting that humans can err, they embrace the immeasurably greater pain of denying it. To keep from being hurt by their sins, they shut out their awareness of their own lives, forget their own selves...
The question that had tortured his sleep returned: Why?!
Janio broke his distraction, glancing out through the mirror. Ann was out there, about a block away. She was bending over, picking up something she'd spotted on the street. As he watched, she reared back up, her hand tightly clutching the treasure. She held it up to the light and he saw that it was a jewel of some kind, or a small piece of aquamarine glass. She held it up in the sunlight, catching the sunrays with the small bauble and sending them careening off in all directions as surging beacons of blue light. Her face was enraptured, as delighted and as closely attentive as a child's, as if she'd never before seen light refracted by colored glass. She played with the toy with the solemnity of undiluted pleasure. She was a being totally involved in life, unattentive to the revolted people bustling past her.
Janio shifted his attention to the other people on the street. He watched the studied care with which they ignored Ann. A person would approach, a waist-coated businessman or a glossy secretary. They would see Ann, then would pretend not to see her. In order to maintain the huffy pretense that Ann was invisible, they first had to see her. The studied ignorance was proof that they did see her, but each put on the show, striding past her in indignant oblivion.
Ann seemed not to notice that she was being snubbed even by the writhing children, dragged along behind harried shoppers. She stuffed the small gem into a pocket, then shuffled forward slowly, moving toward Janio, but drinking in the whole scene as she walked. She saw everything, the stern lines of the buildings, the joyous dance of the birds, the glitter of the cars in the noonday sun. Her time-carved face was rich with the wealth of vision. Her expression was the jubilant seriousness of a scientist.
She stopped along the way and dug into another pocket. She pulled out the bag of candies Janio had given her. She looked at the bag and smiled warmly, a salute to her unseen witness. She reached into the bag and pulled out one of the candies. She put it in her mouth, then stuffed the bag back into her pocket. But the smile remained, and she strode forth with what looked to Janio like a quicker step...
He started the car and pulled away. On his way back to the factory, he stopped at a clothing store, a grocery and a pharmacy.
Janio was waiting for Ann when she returned. He had spent the afternoon attending to business with Glenna and with Sally, but by five he was ready. He had set up a small table with two chairs in the shade of a large tree north of the plant. The table was piled with cold cuts and cheese, plus crackers and condiments. On the ground beside it table was an ice chest full of beer and soda. Janio sat back in the shade and waited, his tape player on his lap, savoring the music and the sight of the waning day.
He spotted her from a long way off, shuffling slowly along the shoulder of the road. She must have seen him even earlier, because as he watched her approach her eyes never wavered from the scene. As she drew nearer, he saw that her face was blank, slack muscles communicating nothing. Almost as if it were consciously empty of expression... By pointed contrast, her eyes were ablaze, drinking in the sight and, at the same time, fighting it. He watched her fight herself as she moved, torn between the desire to approach--to accept this affirmation of humanity--or to run. Janio saw with his whole mind, grasping to understand. Finally she came close and he saw that her eyes were bright not just with intelligence, but also with welled-up tears.
"It's nice here in the shade. Isn't it?"
"...yes," she said, "nice and cool."
"Would you like to sit down? I have food here, and there's beer and soda there beside you. Take whatever you like, but be sure to leave one Pepsi for me. My dentist makes me drink it. Claims it's good for his car."
"Well," he said, gesturing, "go ahead, sit down. I won't bite you. At least, not on the first date."
She laughed again, and a smile lingered for a moment on her face. Then she tore it off. Janio watched, horrified, as her face was rent by anger and doubt, the picture of a silent fury. Then, just as quickly, that expression was replaced by the moonscape of empty lethargy she had worn while approaching. She turned to go.
"No," he said. "You can't do that with me. You know that, don't you? You can hide from the others, because they pretend not to see you. But you cannot hide from me. What is more, you don't want to hide from me..."
She said nothing, just stood there, frozen, neither staying nor going, safely, noncommittally inbetween.
"I saw you today, downtown."
She said, "I saw your car."
"Did you?," he urged. "Did you know it was my car right away?"
"Without any doubt?"
She was slower in answering, as if she mistrusted the question. "...yes."
"I thought you might. I noticed how aware you are of things. And how hysterically unaware other people are of you."
"Then I watched you put one of those candies in your mouth."
She started to leave again, then stopped herself. She stood there in stony silence.
"You were thinking about me, weren't you? You were thinking about our talk last night, remembering your enjoyment. Weren't you?"
She fought with herself a long time before answering. Pushing back waves of horror, Janio watched the war within Ann. Her face remained slack, as though by determination, but her body was rigid, every muscle committed to maintaining her posture, almost the crouch of an animal preparing to leap to safety. Only she didn't leap. She stood in the tremble of frightened indecision, as the part of her mind that could never doubt that the anti-mind is the anti-life defended itself from the mad assaults of the mental demon who demands life without mind... Finally she spoke. "Yes, I was thinking about that."
"And you thought that you'd like to speak with me again. Didn't you?"
She almost smiled. She started to speak, then suddenly broke herself off. Her face was again wrenched in agony, and when she spoke, it was a throaty cry. "Why?! Why are you doing this to me?!"
"What am I doing, Ann?"
"You're--" She choked on a sob. "Treating me like a human being!"
When Janio permitted himself to speak, his voice was grave. "Because that's what you are..."
She broke her rigid pose, letting all of her muscles go slack, as if beaten. Her hands found each other and she clasped them tightly together. He could see tears again welling up in her eyes.
"Sit down," he said easily, pointing to the chair. "Eat."
She collapsed into the chair, as though to hide her decision in emotional exhaustion.
"That's better," he said. "Now do me a favor. I know you don't want me to be a tactless host, so eat something before I starve!"
She grinned openly. She let her eyes hold his for a moment, a recognition of equality, before she reached for the trays of food. She surprised him by eating carefully, almost daintily, without the clutching frenzy she had shown the night before.
"It's all a pose," he mused. "Isn't it?"
Without warning, her mouth half full of food, her face went slack. She started t* rise.
"No, Ann. It's no good anymore. I know now. Last night you could hide from me, but you cannot hide from me now. You've shut yourself off completely from people, but you cannot shut yourself off from me."
"Why can't I!?," she demanded.
"...because, behind the pose, behind the closest imitation of death this side of the grave, you do want to live. And because I speak only to that desire, granting no importance to that part of you that tries to cheat you of what you want most."
She fell back into the chair. She sat limply, her head down.
"Because you do know that you are worthy of life, and that you can achieve it, if you work for your values. Because, despite your best efforts, you've never been able to deny your joy in being, your love of life and sensation and wonder. You've never been able to forget the ecstasy of being alive, though your every conscious act has been dedicated to that purpose. You've lied to yourself, deprived yourself, made yourself into a pariah, imprisoned yourself in a cave... You've tried to grind our consciousness down to an animal's perception, an awareness of only the immediately obvious, with no memory after the scene changes. But you've never been able to do it, and you've always known that it is impossible to do it. Yet you tried, again and again, day after day, striving desperately to forget what it means to be a human being, what it means to sanction your own remembered experience. You could shut out everyone else, you could come to exist in a no-man's land of pretended non-existence in the eyes of others, a social solitude... But you could not shut out Ann... Try as you might, as soon as you let your guard down, you find yourself enjoying life. And you like it, even though you fight it. You want to enjoy your life. Ann, you must tell me--for what terrible crime are you punishing yourself in this way?"
When she looked up, the pain was gone from her eyes. Her face bore the serenity of exhaustion. "Thank you," she said simply. When she spoke again, there was a tone of wonder in her voice. "How did you know all that?"
"Como una substituta para experiencia. Because I've seen it from the inside... When I was a small boy, I was rude to an old woman who lived in our village, in Nicaragua, a bitter old crone who was thought by many to have mystical powers. When I gave a piano recital at church the following Sunday, she claimed that my ability was the result of a pact with the devil. My father was a European; he scoffed at it as the nonsense it was. But my mother was very religious, very superstitious. Without telling my father, she took me to see a spiritualist, an espiriditu." He showed her the back of his hand, the mottled, vermillion scar. "I have this wound to show for it. The spiritualist claimed that burning me with a coal would rid me of the devil. As she did it, she said, 'como una substituta para experiencia'."
"What does it mean...?"
"It means to know without learning. It means that she thought that by torturing me she could force an abstract, conceptual knowledge. That she could communicate ideas to me in no language except pain, and that my brain is such that ideas can enter it without prior identification and integration. In other words, that by one stupid, mindless ritual, she could rule my life, that she could 'persuade' me by force to renounce my own mind. I owe my life to the fact that I was so young; an older child might have let his fear of others drown him...
"But I fought it, I fought it in the way I thought was right, by withholding myself from them, by not letting them touch any part of me, keeping myself from them in the only way I could, by withholding my virtues. Was I to be damned for my skill at the piano? Then may they be damned before they'll hear my piano again! Do they think knowledge is some mystical accident that just erupts spontaneously--or not at all? Then let them do without my better information to the contrary! Do they wish to 'persuade' by threats of physical and emotional violence?...for more than ten years, I did not acknowledge the humanity of my fellow humans. I saw them, I worked with them, played their games when I felt like it. But in the 'I' that is my conscious awareness of being, there were no others. I didn't have to think of them and didn't."
Ann's eyes were clear and deep, understanding. The food before them was going to waste. "What made you change...?"
Janio smiled, the memory of victory over a formidable opponent. "'Como una substituta para experiencia'. I saw it was the same thing, an attempt to know without having learned. When I wrote off people, I didn't know I would later meet people who are worth treasuring. I have always loved to live, but the conclusion I drew from this scar, without ever identifying it, was that death is the motive of every other person. That there were no other people who wanted to live, who wanted to see with their own eyes and pleasure in their own bodies and praise every action and memory." He smiled again, this time with a deeper pleasure. "I discovered I was wrong..."
Janio reached into the cooler and pulled out a can of beer. He popped it open and leaned back in his chair. He said, "Your turn."
Ann sighed deeply. "You know it all already. Everything except the details."
"I guess I do... Tell me the details."
"So you can get it out of your system and get on with your life."
"Hmph! What's left of it!"
"If you're still breathing, there's still time to live. Do you think you stand to gain more by cheating yourself out of what remains of your time alive?"
She breathed deeply, the certainty of her conclusion written on her brow. "No."
"...all right. My name is Ann Addison. Folks around here call me Apple Annie, like the people in the Great Depression... I was born here, in 1931." She smiled quietly to her memories. "It wasn't a very good time for babies, but I had no way of knowing that. I grew up here, went to the city schools, went off to Ohio State for my degree, and came back here to teach. I was a schoolteacher."
Janio heard the pride she had invested in that term. "I knew you were a lot more intelligent than you let on. Is it rude of me to ask what happened?"
She sighed. "No. It's really not much different from what happened to you... I like children. I loved lighting that fire in their minds, teaching them not just how to learn, but why it is good to love learning. Even as young as I saw them, there were some I couldn't reach. But most of them were bright, happy, normal children, eager to learn, trusting me to show them how. I loved my work. Do you understand that?"
"Anyway, at about that time a woman named Marion Cummings took power over the school board. After the war, it was noted that fewer and fewer of Dalton's young people were staying here, after they grew up. They went off to college or to the service, to the east coast or the west, but they didn't seem to want to stay in Dalton at all. Well, can you blame them? There's nothing for them here... Dalton is an industrial town and industry has always had a strong say in education policy. Until then, the manufacturers had supported the classical curriculum, the Aristotelian method. But Marion Cummings went around to each of them, telling them that since their purpose was to secure their own labor pool, they should be backing the progressive curriculum, the molding of the worker-citizen. I had this from several different people; she told them that by teaching children how to discover, we were teaching them how to discover that they didn't need Dalton, didn't need its grimy industrial jobs. That the Dalton schools should teach no more than is needed to work in Dalton's factories, teach nothing that is general, applicable to all cases, but only minutiae, impossible to remember, much less understand. Teach them to 'read' by identifying each word as a picture, like a Chinese ideogram, without ever telling the child that a printed word is a phonetic symbol, a logically encoded sound. Teach them to do math by the memorization of thousands of unintegrated rules, without a single principle to bind them, so that the child will never learn how these 'magic' rituals can be demonstrated in reality. Teach them 'togetherness' and 'social studies' and 'other awareness' and 'global harmony'. But don't ever let them know that they have minds, don't ever tell them that to live, they must think... Did you say I have cheated myself of my life? It's true; I have. But the evil I have done was done only to myself. What Marion Cummings set out to do was to cheat every child in Dalton of his life, of the intransigent will of childhood, the mind that bends before no authority.
"She was very clever about it. Progressive education was 'the way of the future', 'the modern method', 'the enlightened path'. She never once mentioned that what it amounted to was stealing human lives, using the education monopoly to force them into a life of perpetual ignorance, of a contempt for education and a fear of the educated. Enslaving children to this town for the crime of being born here, chaining them by their in-born lack of knowledge. Bloating them on a diet of undigested facts, then slaughtering what remains of their minds with meaningless make-work.
"Well, she was right, wasn't she?," Ann asked. "Isn't that the sort of mental ability required by manufacturing? Get this, put it there. Get this, put it there. Is that all that is required? The graduate of a progressive school is qualified for nothing else.
"So they went for it... None of them wanted to admit that they were deliberately destroying human minds, and the 'progressive' jargon gave them their out. Would you believe that no one fought it?"
"No," Janio replied. "You're telling me that you did."
"Oh, I tried! I spoke at board meetings, at PTA meetings, I wrote letters to the Chronicle. I tried to show them why the classical curriculum is the only valid method, why learning means learning to reason and nothing else, learning to validate knowledge. That if we didn't teach children that, there was no reason to teach them at all, since there is nothing else to learn. Did they hear me? They did not.
"When the new curriculum was imposed, I was singled out for 'special retraining'. How to stand in the front of a classroom and quack like a duck... I wouldn't do it. I continued to teach the way I had learned, by proving laws and principles, showing children how integrated reality is, how to derive new truths from known facts.
"I wasn't surprised when the showdown came, but I was angry. Angry like you were, angry at all of them for being so blind. She fired me, got me tossed out of the union, which meant I could never work in another union district. But it didn't matter; I had no intention of ever teaching again. They'd starve and rot before I'd pay a penalty to do them good, and I'd sooner die than deliberately cripple a child's mind... The Parker Academy offered me a job, but I wouldn't take it. I think I wanted to spite myself. I felt stupid and used, like a wide-eyed kid who's just had his wallet lifted, except that what was stolen from me was everything I'd ever loved. I think I hated myself, hated not for losing what I valued, but for valuing anything. For being so stupid as to think that they would permit me to have my deepest desire, that people who would cheat a child of his most precious possession would let Ann Addison live her own life. I was so angry at myself, angry not for failing, but for having tried in the first place. Why should I?, I told myself. If the price of my virtue is torture, why should I treat with them at all...?
"I left town, left for Dayton. I was a mess by the time I got there, and didn't feel like doing anything about it. I didn't have much money, so I slept where I could, ate what I could find. I did just what you said, I tried to forget everything except the immediate moment. Before long I was out of money, and I was hungry so often it wasn't hard to think only as far ahead as my next meal. At first I was ashamed of myself for letting myself go like that, but after a while I got used to it. I even grew to like it in some ways. People left me alone. I learned the ropes, learned where I could sleep, where I could find food, where I could hide things..."
"When did you come back to Dalton?," Janio asked.
"Almost twenty years ago."
"I don't know... I was in Dayton for six years, not really caring much about where I was. Then it started to nag at me, I don't know what. That there was something of mine I'd lost here, that there was something I'd left undone."
"There is something you've left undone."
"My life? I guess so. I guess I'm only learning that now..."
"And you've been here all this time? Do people know who you are? Do they know you're the Ann Addison who used to teach here?"
"Some do. I've seen it in their faces. But they never let me know it. Only one person has told me flat out he knows who I am."
"Who was that?"
"Cameron Dalton. When I first returned, he stopped me on the street. He'd funded some of the advertising for my battle with Marion Cummings."
"What did you say to him?"
"I froze him out," she said. "I just ignored him. Every time he saw me, for months. After a while he gave up."
"That's what you did with everyone, isn't it? You just froze them out."
"...by freezing yourself in."
"I guess so... I felt that if I didn't have anything to do with them, they couldn't hurt me, they couldn't get at me at all..."
"But now," said Janio, his voice low and calm, "now you must choose among your values. You have escaped being hurt by them by escaping them altogether, by refusing to make your person real in your actions. But now someone who has helped you, not hurt you, can only be saved by your actions, by your own real person, by making real what you witnessed here Monday morning... Isn't that so?"
"Tell me about the fire, Ann..."
She sighed deeply. "You know, when I came out last night, it was in the hope that I might speak to you."
"I suspected that, afterward."
"I knew you were here, saw you earlier. Heard your car when you returned. And I know who you are, Mr. Valenta. I've seen your show, late at night in the doughnut shop." She smiled at him. "You and me, we own the night! All to ourselves after the waitress goes to sleep."
He laughed. "Thank you. But please call me Janio. A person with whom I have been so intimate for so long dishonors me with formality."
"All right..., Janio."
"It makes me happy that I have spoken to you for so long, Ann. You were the mind I was trying to reach, the mind that, at least in the quiet solitude of the untenanted hours, recognizes the need to be right by choice."
"I guess what I'm trying to say is that my pose started at the skin, not inside. I convinced other people, but I never was able to convince myself."
"I know that."
"I never could stop myself from being Ann on the inside. I could be Apple Annie in an instant, to a new resident or even an over-night visitor, but in twenty-six years, I could never be Apple Annie to myself without having to force myself. And as soon as I'd forget to make the effort, just like you say, I'd find myself enjoying some memory of learning, or learning something new." She chuckled. "There were times when I dug into a trash barrel for food and came out with a magazine. I wouldn't remember to eat until the magazine was consumed. I guess what I'm trying to say is, I never did let it go. I just stopped letting it show... I keep up with things, I read everything I can find. I know what's been going on here. I've watched the town sinking, watched Marion Cummings and her crew take it over, take charge of the people she 'taught' to be unable to take charge of themselves. I've followed Curtis since he came here, read about him in the paper, watched him when I saw him."
"You like Curtis," Janio said. "Don't you?"
"I don't really know him. I guess what I really like is what he represents. You know, someone fighting the tide, working to keep the town alive when everyone else writes it off as hopeless... Do you know what I saw him do? Yesterday morning, after the fire, I watched him through the window of his office. He was in there working at his desk. And he was whistling, Janio, whistling joyously, as though he hadn't a care in the world, an hour after his factory had burned!"
Janio smiled to his good friend. "That sounds like Curtis. He put it behind him. He knew that reliving the pain wouldn't change anything, so he worked to change what he could."
"...and it made him happy..."
"It made him happy. Do you like Curtis because he does what you know you ought to do?"
"Maybe... I don't know. I've never thought about it."
"Oh, no? What was it that brought you out looking for me?"
"I didn't want to," she admitted. "Oh, I fought it so hard. But I had to, I had to try to stop it. I had to try to change what I could..."
"Who set the fire, Ann?"
She let her eyes meet his before speaking, as a proof of validity. "Corey Pauling."
"You saw it all, didn't you?"
"Where were you?"
"In the shed," she replied. "There's a crack in the door. I can see outside."
Janio settled back in his chair, feeling the tensions of two days leave his muscles. So much easier, to know with certainty, to have evidence, proof. And so much harder... He knew that it might be months before Ann was ready to withstand the onslaughts of a defense attorney. And no matter how much she did for herself, her testimony would always be suspect. I have definite proof, but tell that to a pig... He glanced at the bright red ball of the sun, hanging low in the sky. "Ann," he said, turning to face her, "will you come inside with me?" He nodded toward the building. "It's getting late and I need to call my daughter. Maybe you could speak to her, too. She likes to meet people."
A glimmer of the fear returned to her eyes, but just a glimmer. She fought back against it and won. But in the next instant, she was looking at her own person, seeing her rags as if for the first time. "...I really couldn't."
"Yes, you can. In fact, you must. For once you have to decide unambiguously, both because I've painted it so plainly it can no longer be denied and because your own values are at stake outside of your skin. The value you treasure in Curtis is the value you have to honor now, with your own person, both for your own sake, and in the name of the conditions you require to exist. A man lives or dies on the basis of your evidence of memory. If he dies, it will be because your own will to live has died, and what remains of your body will quickly succeed it in death. You have to come with me--now--because that is the only way you can stay alive. You cannot push it away anymore, Ann. If you choose death now, you choose it irrevocably..."
She sat silently for a moment, her face untroubled. "Come on," Ann Addison said, rising. "Let's go."
"Excellent!" Janio leapt to her side. They walked side by side to the factory. "I bought some things for you. I hope it was not a presumption."
"You knew I'd come...?"
He said simply, confidently, "Yes."
"Thank you." Her voice carried an even greater tribute of gratitude.
"Do you understand that it is yourself that you are thanking? What I identified in you?"
He smiled. "Then permit me to thank you in the same sense!"
She laughed delightfully, the joyous girlchild's laugh he knew had always been trapped inside.
"You remind me so much of Sally, my daughter. Don't be hurt; I'm not saying you're childish, just that you reap pleasure in the same way she does, with your whole mind."
"...you're saying that's what I should do all the time, aren't you? That I should never stop myself from going after what I want, that when I find myself cheating myself of pleasure, then I am cheating myself of life. Is that right?"
"Okay. What did you buy me?!" She asked it with an excitement that burst into peals of laughter as she finished.
When Janio stopped laughing, he gave her a sidelong glance. "Ann, you're something else!"
"No, I'm not. I'm a human being. Because I cannot be anything else... And because I want to be!"
"You're wonderful!" He pulled her under his arm and she let her arm drape around his waist. They walked slowly, arm in arm. "Well, just wait till you see all this stuff. I got dresses, pajamas, sweat suits, slippers, sneakers, a bathrobe, bath stuff--the works. I could only guess about your sizes, but everything should fit loose enough. We'll have to have you fitted for real shoes, but we have enough to get out and get them and whatever else you'll need."
She stopped, pulling away from him. "Why are you doing all this? It's wrong of you to sacrifice yourself for me."
"It's no sacrifice, Ann. I'm doing this for my own benefit."
"What benefit? To get your friend out of jail? You don't have to buy me clothes for that. What are you doing all this for? How do you stand to gain by it?"
He smiled. "For one thing, I get to have the world the way I want it. I'll get to watch an old friend released from bondage while I see a new friend release herself. My selfish desire to witness these events is enormous. For another, because we're family, separated by continents but recognized in a single glance, the people who reason... I don't owe you what I offer, but I offer it as a payment of gratitude for what you have kept alive behind your mask of death, and in celebration of its rebirth. For a third, because it will pleasure me to watch you drink deeply at the fount of your own pleasure. Is that selfish enough for you?"
She grinned. "Yes."
He held out his arm. "Then come back here."
She pulled him to her, burying her face in his shoulder. He hugged her tightly. He did not notice the odor, the filth, or the rags. What he hugged was life, in recognition, in sanction, and in salute. "It's over now, Ann," he soothed. "It's behind you now. It's over with. The future is yours... Make of it what you want most."
She looked up at him, wearing the smile that is made more cheerful by defying welled-up tears. "Okay, Janio. I'd like to start with a bath."
"Ah," he replied lightly, "a wise choice..."
She knuckled him in the ribs and they walked off together, laughing and joking.
At the door to the bathroom in Curt's office, Janio offered to help. "I'm not suggesting anything, understand," he said, on the verge of blushing. "But if you need anything..."
"I think I can manage."
He had gone back out to clean up the food. He put the ice chest and the tape player beside his equipment in Glenna's office. The tape had run out long ago. He replaced it with another, a piano concerto. His own spirit led the music to its heights as he reprogrammed his monitors while phoning kisses to his wise child.
"Hi, Sally! I love you! We've got our man!"
Janio looked at his watch. He said, "Work, work, work."
"At your command! Sir!"
"Funny. Do you have vectors on the Pauling plant?"
"Okay, then give me a 3-D map to the PC. North side, eye-level, hidden-line, from the perspective of that small shed."
"Dad! Do you have a witness?!"
Janio Valenta did not try to stop himself from smiling. "I have a witness. The woman I saw here last night, Ann."
"She saw the whole thing?!"
"The whole thing."
"That's great news! When's Curt getting out of the clink? Is he going to let me make the movie?"
"Not so fast, kid. I still don't know what happened, much less what we're going to do about it. Give me that map quickly, so we can find out what she knows."
"It's done, daddy! Do you look before you speak?"
"Ha, ha, ha..."
"Are you going to watch the show tonight?"
"Oh, baby, I'm sorry."
"Oh, boo hoo!," she said giggling. "I'll bet you expect me to work with you while I'm doing it."
"You know me so well, my daughter. I just want you to listen in, so you can get the motion vectors. I'll plot it out with her, and then we can polish it. How's that?"
"Billable time, buster," the girlchild sassed. "My banker speaks your name in her nightly prayers."
"Well," Janio returned. "I think that's the nicest thing anyone ever said to me. Thank you!"
Janio heard the door to the bathroom open. "Hold on, honey," he said into the phone. "Ann," he called, "I'm in here." Back into the phone: "Sally, will you speak with Ann?"
"Sure. Deep cover?"
"You guessed it."
Janio was surprised when Ann emerged in the doorway. The contrast was startling; where had been a decrepit wreck stood a proud woman, attractive in her aging, serene in her countenance. Her head was held high and her thick grey hair fell back as a veil. She stood perfectly straight, as she must once have stood before hundreds of feisty children, adorned in a simple, light blue shift. The simplicity of the lines of her dress, and of her face, revealed how much she had retained of her youthful beauty. "Ann...," Janio said, in awe and delight, "you look great!"
Her smile deepened. When she spoke her voice sang with an awe of its own, the wonder that the truth could feel so good. "I know..."
"Here," he said, handing her the phone, "talk to my daughter while I hook another line up to the conference phone." He listened to Ann's half of the conversation as he dug into one of his bags. He pulled out a speaker-phone and in a moment he was hearing both ends of the gay exchange. Ann knew how to talk to children, how to take their minds seriously without expecting them to have an adult's experience. It was hard for him to get a word in. Finally there was a pause. "Speak to me, Sallykid."
"Father!? Can that be you? After all these seconds?!"
"Funny... Ann, you can hang up that phone. We'll both speak through here."
He led her over to the computer and they sat down before the screen. On it was displayed a perspective drawing of the plant, as seen from the north side. The perfect white lines against the deep green field looked like a draftsman's blue-print.
"Do you recognize this?," he asked.
"Of course. That's the view from the shed."
"Okay. What I want you to do is pace me through what you witnessed. So I can see it, just as if I had been there beside you."
"...don't we have to go to the police now?"
"Is that what you want?"
"I didn't think so."
"But that's what I have to do. I have to face up to what I saw. I have to see justice done."
"...'see justice done'... That's what we'll do, you and I and Sally. But you won't go to the police, not if I can help it. Not to see them torture you with what you worked so hard to learn, to use your endorsement of the future as a weapon against your past, to punish you for teaching yourself what they wish never to discover."
"I don't like it any better than you," she replied. "But what else can we do?"
Janio sighed. "Ann, there are things I cannot tell you, not yet. But you do have the right to know that no part of what I will do is evil. I will not initiate violence, nor will I bear false witness to fact. If that's not enough, tell me."
"...it's enough. I don't think you could ever do an injustice, not intentionally. You love yourself too much for that."
"So how could I do an injustice to you? Ann, if I can spare you what they'd put you through, I will have done the best I can by you. Curtis would say it was wrong of me to involve myself in the first place, and he'd be right in one sense. It would have been wrong to speak to you the way I have if my intent was to deliver you the meat grinder of the so-called justice system. No, Ann. Let's do it my way and get the job done."
"Okay. Where do we start?"
"Where was Pauling when you first saw him."
"In the parking lot. I heard his truck."
"Sally, I can't see the parking lot. How do I back this thing up?"
"Hit the 'b' key. You back up ten meters for every keystroke."
"'F' for forward?"
"What a mind!"
"That's why people buy computers," Janio said to Ann. "So their kids can teach them how to use them."
They laughed together, then began to plot out Corey's movements on the screen. Ann's memory was detailed; she related his drunken stumble toward the building, the timing and the vectors in space, the pause before he had thrown the fiery bomb, his escape. He used a light pen to draw it on the screen as she spoke, so that, when she finished, he had programmed a flashing cursor to duplicate Corey's path, step by step.
"SallyBanker," Janio called in an affected voice, "didn't you tell me this software could portray a human in 3-D graphics?"
"...oh, yes. It puts him at the center of the screen. You can pull him around with the light pen. Pull at his stomach to move his whole body, at an appendage to move that, at his ribs to turn him. I'll stop at every footfall to collect changes."
"You'll stop?," Ann chided. "Don't you mean the computer will stop?"
"...yes. That's what I meant....uh, to activate that function, you hit the 'h' key."
"Got it, smartkid," Janio said.
They reprogrammed the drunkard's walk using the simulated man, a video rendition of an artist's wooden dummy. Going very slowly, they programmed in every motion, including random lurches. When they were finished, Janio again executed the animated sequence. This time, it looked almost too real. The motion was convincing, true to life.
Ann said, "I've never seen anything like that. I didn't know computers could do that."
Janio smiled. "Some computers are better than others."
"Darn right!," Sally piped in.
"But is that exactly what you saw, Ann?"
"It seems perfect to me..."
"Does it?," Janio asked. "Here, watch it again. Look for things that jar, that don't seem to match your memory."
It was almost eight before Janio was satisfied with the program, before he assured himself that the simulation matched Ann's description perfectly.
He turned from the screen to face her. "I need to put Sally to bed."
"Hush, child. Ann, have you thought about where you would like to sleep?"
"No. I guess I've been leaving things up to you. I'm sorry."
"Don't be. That's why I'm the mommy... Do you know Glenna Rhodes? This is her office. If you want, I can have her put you up at her place, until we know for sure where you'll be going from here. If that's not okay, I could take you to my hotel. But I'm going to have to be out for a while, and I'd like it better if there were someone with you."
"If you're worried that I'll run out on you, don't. I'll stay."
"That's not it. What I'm thinking about is Corey Pauling. What would he do if he knew you saw him?"
Ann nodded grimly. "I can guess..."
"So, can I call Glenna? That way, even if he finds out, which is not likely, he won't do anything, not with a witness he knows is watching."
Privately, from Curt's office, Janio explained to Glenna what he wanted, stressed to her the importance of protecting Ann--from the aggressors both within and without. Glenna agreed to come, and he called to Ann to switch off the speaker-phone so he could say good night to Sally.
"Hey, Sally: Action!"
"Action! How do you want it to look?"
"Amateur. Rank, rot-gut amateur, like some idiot out fooling around with his birthday present."
"Yes," Janio answered. "But mind your lights, there aren't many. And my freedom depends on your keeping the shadows straight."
"Puhlease! I haven't made a mistake like that in months!"
"Get your feathers down. I just want to be sure of everything."
"Dad, you're a worrier. Has anyone ever told you that?"
"You have, darling, many times. But that's--"
"That's why you're the mommy. I love you, mommy!...what about sound?"
The two went on in detail. Janio had turned his chair to face the window, so he did not see Glenna silently enter the office.
"Perspective?," Sally asked.
"The one you've got. It's more convincing that any other could be. I'm going out there now to leave some evidence."
"Do you think they'll be smart enough to work out the angle?"
"No. But how else will I prove how much smarter I am?"
"Ship it, Sally. No time. Gotta run."
"'Ship it, no time, gotta run'...?," the child teased.
"Ship it, no time, gotta run, I love you, goodbye."
"Goodbye, daddy! I love you!"
"Okay, baby. And remember, crude, crude, crude. Convincingly amateurish..."
When Janio rose to leave, he was surprised to find Glenna standing before him.
"Who was that you were talking to?"
Janio shrugged. "My daughter."
"Would you mind telling me what is going on?"
"I'm not sure I understand you," he said carefully. "Ann is right out here. I'm sorry to rush you, but I really need to hurry. If things break right, Curtis and I will be stopping by for breakfast."
The concern was wiped from her eyes by pleasure. "Do you mean it?!"
"Wait and see," he said, seeming to smile at some invisible victory. He led her out of the office. She turned at the doorway and looked back at the phone, her face torn by a question...
"I hoped I'd find you here," Janio said, sitting down next to Ryan at the bar.
Ryan's face was bright, his eyes delighted. "I was just thinking of you."
"Yes. I wanted to thank you."
"Mr. Dalton," Janio said, his face mocking sternness, "you have thanked me quite enough."
"Have I? I don't think so. I wanted to thank you for giving me back something that I hadn't even known I was missing."
"More than that. Expectation, joyous anticipation. The certainty that the good can win... That it will win."
"I cannot have given that to you," Janio said. "You must have found it on your own. Righteousness demands that you reward the person who has produced the value."
Ryan nodded, gratefully conceding the point. "And you are a man of rectitude before anything. True?"
Janio locked his eyes to Ryan's before he spoke. "True."
Ryan smiled. "I was talking to my father today. He feels much the same way. He told me you spoke to him about those receiver's sales."
"It's behind us now. We don't have to discuss it. I learned something today that made me think better of your father... Do you ever watch people when they think they're unobserved? The things that people do when they believe there are no witnesses? When they're not acting up to someone else's ideas about them, but just being who they are, in silence and solitude?"
"Watching people is part of my job."
"So it is. Mine, too. I find it very interesting to learn about people without their knowing I am doing so."
"What are you getting at?"
"Just that you see a person best when he doesn't know you are watching. I'm babbling, I guess. Just being happy..."
"Well that's excuse enough," Ryan assured him, almost protectively. "Relax. You've earned it. Dad said you spoke to him about rebuilding the town."
Janio's smile deepened. "Yes. I think your father and I will be able to do quite a lot together."
"Now, there's some good news! Any details?"
"Oh, no. Nothing for publication. Not yet. I'm still tied down with this investigation."
"How's it going?"
Janio shrugged. "...wait and see..."
Ryan scowled at his drink.
"Hey, you," Janio said. "Relax. You've earned it..."
Ryan grinned, his eyes bright with the triumph over pain. The two men sat side by side at the bar, their easy silence conveying their admiration for each other in lucid intimacy.
Ryan glanced at his watch: ten o'clock. "Mind if we watch the news?"
Janio smiled. "I was just about to ask you that."
Ryan got the bartender to turn on the large set mounted over the bar.
"--breakthrough in the Pauling arson," the announcer admonished. "WDTV has anonymously received a videotape that apparently shows the crime as it happened!"
"What?!," Ryan exclaimed. "Can that be?!" His eyes were glued to the set. He did not notice Janio's calm. He did not know that Janio watched Ryan Dalton, not the television, when the scene cut away to the tape.
Someone was there... The view was dim, ostensibly a color picture, but the light was so poor Ryan could barely see anything. To make it worse, the camera had been held by someone obviously unused to it; the picture jumped and trembled with the photographer's every twitch. But there was something--someone--there, slowly weaving a random path toward the factory. A man, a very drunk man; the connection from his purpose to his actions was tenuous, frequently broken, short-circuited by self-induced stupor. He stumbled more than walked, his course corrected more often by obstacles than by design. But still he did have some motive. His movements were haphazard, but still somehow directed. As the man drew nearer to the camera, Ryan was able to discern the details of his appearance.
"My god!," he said, turning excitedly to face Janio. "That's Corey Pauling!"
He spun back to face the set. In his excitement, he did not process what Janio said next: "I know."
Corey lurched on, and, as he came closer, Ryan saw that his face was a mask of hatred, the bitter death-mask of an animal caught in a trap. Even as he took almost no control over his careening body, his eyes betrayed the force he had unleashed n his mind--they were mad, raging. There was no sound, but Ryan could see that Corey was shouting something, whether curses or grunts he did not know.
Corey stopped himself without quite falling over. He looked around himself, twisted around toward the skylight. From his back pocket he drew a half-pint liquor bottle. Corey held the bottle up to the light and Ryan saw that it was about half full. He was able to identify it by the shape--a cheap brandy. Corey unscrewed the cap and threw it down. From his pocket he pulled a greasy shop towel. His motions reckless, uncontrolled, his face still a mask of fury, he clumsily began to stuff the rag down the neck of the bottle. He stopped and slapped his shirt and pants pockets, looking for a tool of some kind; he hadn't brought anything. He forced the rag in by twisting it until he had enough trapped inside that it wouldn't come out.
As Ryan watched in the concentration of total horror, Corey pulled out a throw-away lighter. His face a prediction of the explosion to come, he put fire to the fuse of the molotov cocktail, his eyes melting to pleasure as the flame took hold in he oily cloth. For a moment, standing there stupidly, watching the flame climb up the rag, Corey's face was ecstatically happy, his eyes aglint with the light that seeks to burst into laughter, a laughter that never ends... Then, suddenly, Corey's face was rent by revulsion, as if he stood before himself as a stranger, witnessing the values he was making real by his actions. He seemed stopped. He stood perfectly still, his muscles rigid, his eyes chained in horror to the growing flame, his face torn by indecision. Then he screamed, madly enunciating his passions. Ryan was able to read his lips on the screen. "I don't!," Corey silently insisted. "I don't have to! I don't, I don't, I don't!"
His face gripped in an angry snarl, Corey Pauling reared back and hurled the bomb through the skylight. Almost at once the scene was blindingly bright, as drum after drum of angry volatiles went up, one explosion setting off the next. Corey stumbled back from the wall. About thirty feet away he tripped, and when he landed as a dead weight on the ground, he did not get back up. He rolled over to face the growing blaze, still fed by new explosions. His face bore the gloating ecstasy of vindication. His visage seemed to answer the stranger he had defied before: this is my proof...
In a moment, he stirred, as if suddenly noticing that he was still there, still at the scene of the crime. He looked about himself worriedly, guiltily, then got up and stumbled back toward his truck.
The announcer said, "It is not known yet known who the arsonist is. WDTV received the film only minutes before air-time and the authorities are only now being notified."
Ryan looked at his watch. "Wow! That was less than two minutes! It seemed much longer... Excuse me, please. I have to call my office."
Janio smiled warmly. "Go right ahead."
When Ryan returned, his face was troubled. "I called Chief Nelson," he said. "He's already got cars out looking for Corey."
"Did he say if they've tried his home?"
"Yes. He's not there."
"Good. I have to go there. Will you join me?"
"There's something I want you to tell me about first... What do you know about that film? Where did it come from?"
"The announcer said it was delivered anonymously."
"That's right. My paper got one, too. Wrapped up in a note reading, in a crude hand, 'I don't want no trouble, but people got a right to know this'."
"Can we talk about this on the way to the Paulings?"
"No," Ryan insisted. "Let's talk about it now. 'Gosh, Curt,' you said. 'What's a videotape?'. 'Patterns of electromagnetic interference'... 'Which is Sallykid's end product'... You said, 'I know'..."
"You have a very detailed memory."
"Haven't I? Who is Sally? Who was it you were typing to when I walked in on you yesterday? What kind of a fraud are you trying to pull off?"
"'You are a man of rectitude before anything'," Janio quoted. "'True?'"
Ryan sighed, defeated. "I just want to know what's going on."
"That's why I came here," Janio replied. "To tell you what's happening, and what's going to happen."
"Oh, yeah," Ryan demanded, his face and voice resentful. "Why bother...?"
Janio smiled, a quiet recognition of his own rectitude and of his ability to bear this rejection. "Because somebody has to be the mommy." For a moment his eyes were lost, seeing the values that could only be won his by his own effort, the paradise that he alone could create for himself. "Come on," he said. "I have to pay a debt."
Ryan stood still. His eyes ransacked Janio's confident face, looking for answers. "Are you a man of rectitude?"
"That you must decide for yourself. I can't do it for you. You have to save yourself..."
7. The Only Thing Open to Change
On their way to his car, Janio tossed the keys to Ryan. "You drive," he said. "I'll talk."
As they pulled out of the lot, Janio turned to face him. "The film is forged."
"Forged. Is that the right word? The events depicted transpired in the way they were shown, but no camera was present."
"But..., how? Why?"
"How? Technology. Why? In order to see justice done."
"Corey set the fire, Ryan. I have a witness."
"A woman named Ann Addison."
"You know her?"
"Do you see? She reported all the details you saw on the film, but you don't believe her. I have a witness, but no one will believe her..."
"Apple Annie saw all of that? She remembered it all?"
"She was a schoolteacher. Before... She's still as smart as she ever was."
"...you're right. No one would believe her. They'd say she was making it up."
"Exactly," Janio confirmed. "Sometime you ought to ask yourself why that is."
"Oh, I know it. They don't want to look at Annie at all. They don't want to admit they're walking the same road. But--forged? What gives you the right to deceive them?"
"I have not deceived them. I have told them the truth in the only way they would listen. I have presented them with an argument they cannot 'yeah, but' to oblivion."
"No," said Janio. "The problem is that you don't see. Morality can be a substitute for experience, too, when one puts a value ahead of the evaluator. Righteousness is the pursuit of values for yourself, not the pursuit of rectitude for its own sake. You're sitting there telling yourself that it was wrong of me to deceive them by letting them think a camera was present when it was not. But is it less wrong of them to withhold my values by force?"
"...but two wrongs don't make a right."
"Is it wrong to retaliate against the initiation of violence?"
"That is what I have done. They held Curtis by force, despite the obvious fact that no man like Curtis would ever act in self-destruction. I found a witness to prove his innocence, but the price I paid for that proof was high. Could I betray the trust that Ann has placed in me by delivering her to your 'justice system'?"
"My justice system?"
"The truth is what you saw on video. In behalf of what are you now arguing?"
"Damnit, Janio! It's just not the right way to do things!"
"And letting Curtis languish in jail for months or years is?"
"But you're fighting to change things, right? To make sure that things like this don't happen in the future, right? To bring liberty to everyone?"
"The difference between you and I is that you want freedom as an abstract, as the most elegant solution to the problem of survival. But I want it to live. Here, now, in my own person, in my own lifetime. I hope that my grandchild's grandchild can live in the perfect liberty you conceive, but I won't be around to appreciate it. I want it now... Does my liberty have to wait until the majority agrees that it exists whether they agree or not? Does my identity depend on someone else's recognition of it, even my own recognition?"
"No," Ryan replied. "You are what you are, a human being."
"That's right. I'm a human being, and my consciousness is 'exclusively local'. No one but I can control my body and mind. If I place my life in peril while waiting for others to recognize this fact, in order to fill out the form, I am acting against my own interests. That I will never do!"
Ryan sat silently, his eyes on the road.
"Is it wrong of me to mislead people who do not distinguish fact from falsehood? Who would deny me my values in order to collect a false evidence of the efficacy of madness? Or do I have the right to retaliate against their violations in any way that I can?"
"But what about the law...?"
"If you put the law ahead of justice, on what motive are you acting?"
Ryan said nothing. They rode the rest of the way in silence.
When they pulled up in front of the Pauling home Janio said, "Keep the motor running. I'll be right back, and we may need to leave in a hurry."
Janio came back with Sandra Pauling under his arm. They got into the back seat together. Janio said, "Take us to Glenna's house."
Ryan smiled into the mirror. "Yes, Janio."
"Are you feeling better about me?"
"I'm not sure..."
"Put it aside for now. This is my lifeboat. Which will you do, bail or get out?"
Ryan chuckled. "I'll bail... Because somebody has to be the mommy." In the mirror, Janio could see the warmth in his eyes.
"But we each have to save ourselves..."
It took a moment for it to sink into Ryan's brain that it was Sandra who had spoken, not Janio.
Janio could see the concern in Glenna's face before the door to her home was fully open. When she saw him, her face was overrun by doubt, as if she feared to let him enter.
"Hello, Glenna," he said. "I've brought some more guests."
"Come in," she responded, almost automatically. "Come in."
Janio followed Sandra and Ryan inside. Ann was sitting in a rocker. When she looked at him, her eyes were lit with laughter, but there were lines of concern in her face. "Glenna, Ann," he said, "this is Sandra Pauling, former wife of Corey Pauling." Sandra looked at him in surprise, then nodded recognition. "If it's not an imposition, I'd appreciate it if you'd keep her out of sight as well." After the introductions, Sandra excused herself to go wash up.
"Janio," Glenna said, "...there was a film. On television."
"Where did it come from?"
"Ann," he said, "do you want to tell her?"
The older woman smiled. "I'm not sure I know myself. You made it, somehow, I don't know how. But there wasn't any camera there when the factory burned, or I would have seen it."
"Were you there?!," Glenna asked excitedly. "Did you see it?"
"Ann provided the evidence on which the film was based. But I didn't make it, Sally did."
"Sally?," Glenna mused. "Your secretary?"
"But how could a little girl do that?," Ann asked.
"Sally is a child, but she's not a human child. I'm sorry. I don't have time to explain. I'm ready to tell you everything, but I have things that need to be done right away. I'll sketch it in, and then you can phone her for the details. Sally is rational but not an animal. She is a machine, a young, self-aware computer. Among many other things, she can produce true video images, electrical impulses that resolve to deceptively perfect images. Earlier, I had Ann describe what she saw, and we plotted it out on the computer. Sally was controlling that computer, Ann. That's why she got so huffy when you suggested she wasn't. Even though she was 'undercover', keeping the secret of her unique physiology, she still felt a child's resentment at not having her accomplishments acknowledged. Anyway, Sally used video I've collected since I came here to illustrate the model we built together."
Ryan said, "And you made it deliberately crude, so it would look like the work of a hobbyist."
"If not worse."
Ann said, "But you changed something..."
"Did I? Well, blame the errors on me, not Sally. Have you heard any news? Is Corey still on the loose?"
"Yes," Glenna answered.
Sandra had returned. Standing beside Janio, she cringed. Ann got up and took her hand.
Janio turned to Ryan. "Why don't you phone that police chief and find out what he knows?"
While Ryan called, Janio helped Ann and Glenna make Sandra feel comfortable, finally safe. They outfitted her in the guest bedroom. When Ryan finished, Janio took the phone and attached the speaker-phone. He dialed Sally.
"Do you have an eye on those cameras?"
"And the quarry...?"
Janio smiled. "Sally, there are some people here. Ann, whom you've met, and Glenna, Curt's wife-to-be. And Ryan Dalton is here, but he and I are leaving."
"Aw! I want to talk to you, daddy. I want to talk about what we did before."
"I want to talk about that, too, baby. I think you did a wonderful job! I've told the people here about you, and I want you to fill in the blanks for them. Is that okay?"
"Yes, Janio. What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to go spring the trap. Then I'm going to spring Curtis."
"Hug yourself, baby. You did it. You, too, Ann."
"Okay, Janio," Ann replied. "And, Sally? I find I owe you an apology. I'm sorry if I misjudged your talents. You are a most amazing young woman."
Sally giggled with delight. "Yeah, well you remember well enough to be a computer. How's that?"
"Just fine, from you, dear. Just fine."
Janio said, "Racing, baby. Big hugs!"
"Big hugs, daddy! Hug Curtis for me!"
"I will, Sally. I will..."
Back outside, Janio asked, "Do the police know where he is?"
"No," Ryan replied.
"That's all right. I do..."
They were getting into the car before Ryan spoke again. "Janio, how can a machine be alive? I know there's research to emulate intelligence. But life?"
Janio sighed. "You don't know how much you're asking. And we have many more important things to talk about. For now, let's just say that we have done it."
"'We'?" Ryan had started the car. He shot Janio a questioning glance.
"The factory." Janio settled deeper in his seat. "'We' is part of what we have to talk about. We are a family, Sally and Curtis and I, and many others."
"A family, a private club, a political-economy. Call it what you like. The family of Ego, of the people who say 'I', 'me', 'mine'. The family of people who do not pretend that it is possible to live without wanting to live. 'We' are the people who want to live."
"I'm not sure I understand..."
"That's because the simplest things are the hardest to see. One can only be enslaved if one is available to the would-be slave-owner. 'We' are the people who are not available to be enslaved."
"Like Galt's Gulch, voluntary disassociation... But you're right here, Curtis is right here, in Dalton, Ohio."
"'Ego is where I am'," Janio said, smiling warmly. "'Ego is the dominion over which I alone am sovereign'."
Ryan smiled back. "Janio Valenta, the Egovangelist..."
"I have to laugh when they call me that. If they only knew that I'm so much worse, by their standards. Ego is a free society, Ryan. A free economy, right here, right now, on this earth."
"But where is it?"
"Where I am. Where Curtis is. Where each of us is, each in the privacy of our own lives. Ego has no frontiers; that's the point. The only 'territory' we occupy is the bodies of the people who freely act together by choice. Sally is our bank, our information network, our clearinghouse, and our meeting hall. If Ego has a territory, it's Sally. But it hasn't, not yet. And it will never be a state, because the sole authority behind our actions is our own volition. Ego is the society of people who know that no one but oneself is in charge of one's person."
"Anarchy...," Ryan mused.
"Anti-archy. Archy-irrelevance. The people who are unavailable to be enslaved are unavailable to be enslaved. Period."
"'The known is the seen,'" Janio again quoted,"'but the truth is always itself'. What they don't know about, they can't stop. That's the flaw in the whole statist ideal--zero can't lay a claim against the one that it doesn't know about..."
Ryan grinned. "You're enjoying this. Aren't you?"
"Are you trying to recruit me to your family?"
"Depends. Are you available to be enslaved?"
"No, Janio," Ryan replied. "Not anymore..."
Janio smiled deeply, in the way that is hoped for of brothers, but is seldom realized. "My turn: thank you..."
Corey leaned back in his booth and gulped at his beer. He wasn't drunk, just mellow. He had gotten high earlier and he was drinking just enough to keep the deadening throb alive in his brain. He was gloating privately over his luck. Just goes to show you... I never even thought of what the cops would do about that fire, then they went and arrested Randolph! Now that's justice! I fixed him! He felt a joy he'd known many times in his life, the snickering triumph of vindication. 'You can make it?', the words called out from some hidden corner of his mind, the memories of childhood introspection. 'So what! I can tear it down!' But this is better, so much better! I can burn it down!, he exulted, scoffing his contempt. I can burn it all down! He was weak with pleasure, his mind numbed with the lust for omnipotence...
His eyes stopped on the television perched across the room atop the scarred wooden bar. Some kind of suspense movie, he decided, seeing the dim view of a figure lurching along beside a building. He watched it absently, his mind still deploying his newfound power. I can burn it all... I can destroy anything, I don't have to permit it to exist if I don't want to! I don't! Damn it! Damn it all! I can damn it all...
Suddenly his full attention was fixed on the screen. That's no movie..., that's me! In horror, he realized he was watching a film of himself setting the fire at the Pauling plant. But it can't be! It can't, it can't, it can't! I forbid it to be so!...but wait... There wasn't any camera. I was damned drunk, but I would have noticed a camera, damnit! He chided himself for his frenzy.
But his terror did not cease. How can it be? My body, my movements, my clothes... He watched himself stumble across the rough land knowing he was watching himself, watching as an observer the actions he himself had taken Monday morning, in the untenanted hours.
No one saw, no one saw, no one saw! Damnit! Damn it all! It must be a dream... That's it! A dream, like an acid flashback! Corey sighed deeply, finally safe. He watched the dream with interest, proud in a way, but smiling at his past weaknesses.
But he again blanched in horror when he saw himself drop the cap to the liquor bottle. Damn! I dropped it, damnit! I dropped the damn thing! Oh, shit! That's evidence! If anybody did see, that fuckin' bottle-cap would back up the story...
Without thinking, he tore out of his seat, raced toward the door.
"Hey, Corey," the bartender called jovially, "that guy on the TV, he looks something like you."
Corey was stopped by the comment for an instant, but then he surged forward again, refusing to process it. Gotta get that cap, gotta get that fuckin' cap, damn it! Fuckin' evidence! God damn fuckin' evidence!
He drove recklessly to the factory. When he jumped out of his truck, he left the door standing open. The property was deserted, as void as the moonlit sky. Corey tore across the land to the building, screaming to himself to find that bottle-cap. When he reached what he thought was the spot, he fell to his knees and began to root around in the ground.
Where is it, where is it, where is it, damnit?! He dug around the turf in rough circles, ever widening. He looked up to the patched skylight to confirm he was in the right place. God damn it, where is it?! It must be here! It must be, it must be! I demand it! His movements grew more frenzied with his emotions, his fingers digging into the turf with each wild grasp, pulling up sod in disintegrating clouds of dirt. He cast them away from him violently, as if to destroy the earth that would not permit him to destroy the evidence of his own being.
Gone... Gone, damn it, gone... NO! The scream in his mind was the final echo of the explosion he had ignited, the final battle of the war within Corey, the full statement of his ideal. The explosion not of drums of volatile chemicals, but of a little boy, the boy who might have been father to Corey Pauling the man, but was not. The boy who had known all along that it was not right that he should be able to get away with evil.
NO! I don't have to! I don't, I don't, I don't! Stop it, stop it, stop it, stop it, stop it, stop it... No! It must be here! It must be! I'll look again! It must be here! Damn it! Damn it to hell!
He was crouched on his knees, angrily tearing up the ground before him, when Ryan and Janio arrived. The two men approached him slowly, fighting revulsion.
Corey heard them coming, looked up startled. The moon reflected the hostile emptiness in his eyes. "I'll find it! God damn it all, it must be here!" He shrieked, then fell back to his mad destruction.
Ryan stopped, unable to force himself closer. He turned to Janio. "What is he looking for?"
"The cap to the brandy bottle. You saw him drop it in the film."
"You knew he'd come out here to look for it?"
"I surmised. And I hoped a lot."
"But why should he bother? With the film, there won't be any doubt that he did it."
"He doesn't believe the film."
Ryan shot Janio a puzzled glance.
"He was here, Ryan. He didn't see any camera. I don't know if he thinks the film was a hallucination or if he's just refusing to deal with it at all. But if he believed in the film, he wouldn't be here, he'd be running."
"But how could you guess he would deny it validity...?"
"Because that's what he's always done. He seeks to grant validity to falsehood by denying it to fact... Because he knows there was a witness, and he must destroy that person, as he must destroy all proofs of validity."
"Are you talking about Ann?"
"No," Janio replied, his voice grave, almost pitying. "No, the witness was Corey... Through his whole life, he's sought to cheat validity by destroying its evidences. If there are no witnesses, there is no crime. If there are no physical reminders of an event, the event did not take place. If no one can say, 'he did it', he didn't do it. Evil unwitnessed is not evil... That's what he told himself. But evil is never unwitnessed. It is known to the actor, even if to no one else. And the evidence of memory is unquestionable testimony in the court of self-judgment. It is that evidence he has now, finally, succeeded in destroying. Now there is no first-hand witness to the life of Corey Pauling."
"...he can live only if his life, his true person, is not made real." Ryan spoke distractedly, watching in horror a man tearing at the earth as a substitute for experience, as a substitute for life. "As long as he can convince himself that his evil cannot be discovered, he can continue to live..."
"But I have shown him that he cannot escape awareness of his own actions and continue to live as a human being. I have taught him that life without mind is a contradiction that cannot persist."
"You have? How?"
Janio pulled a small object from the pocket of his trousers, a shiny circle of black plastic. "I have the cap."
Ryan's eyes could not contain his surprise. "Did you pick it up earlier?"
"Yes, earlier. But not here. I got it from his pants pockets, from his clothes hamper, in his house."
"He didn't drop it, Ryan. He put it into his back pocket. Ann described it in detail. I changed that part when I told Sally what I wanted in the film."
"I wanted to neutralize him. I didn't want him beating up Sandra, or trying to kill Curt. I wanted to put him where I could find him, where he couldn't hurt anyone but himself."
"But...," Ryan began, his face puzzled, "you were able to guess this much about him? How?"
"I reasoned that he would continue to try to turn ones into zeros. The safety of his body from the police is secondary. He came here to defend the safety of his mind, to make one last futile attempt to turn the one of his own life, his own past actions, into a zero..."
Ryan looked at Janio's face, watched him watching Corey. The proud, dark man seemed to see--and accept--everything. Not with the righteousness of a judge, but with the serenity of a teacher, fully confident of his truth.
"A is A," Janio said. "Man is man. What we are witnessing is the most impossible contradiction of all--a man trying to exist without identity..." Janio shrugged. "Keep an eye on him. I'll go call an ambulance."
"Not the police?"
While he waited, Ryan watched the wildly ranting man, the frenzied body uncontrolled by a living consciousness. He drew closer, in fascinated disgust.
"Stop it!," Corey cried out. "Stop it, stop it, stop it!"
"Stop what, Corey?," Ryan asked.
"Stop... being! Damn it all! Damn it, damn it, damn it!"
"Damn Corey! I hate him! I hate him, I hate him, I hate him!" He tore back into the earth, unaware of his own madness.
Insanity? It's just a word, isn't it?, Ryan asked himself. Just a word, over there somewhere, where you don't have to think about it, don't have to see it. Until you do see it... Ryan did not deny validity to the evidence of his senses. He watched with the calm, pitiless severity of a scientist, seeking to learn.
What has he done? What has he done to his mind? He has negated everything he ever was, ever might have become. He has sliced away any portion of his experience that proved troublesome, that reminded him of his own self. He has killed himself, one small piece at a time, destroying not his body, but his memories of being a body, of being alive. Destroying not his physical existence, but his mental existence, destroying his person, one small contradiction at a time.
And now... Now there is no person left. His body did not revert to automatic self-control, like an animal's. For man, there is no automatic cognition. No, he descended to the lack of control, the violent, undirected frenzy of a mad dog. He had worshipped an unbroken chain of zeros, and, finally, he had achieved it, in the only way that zero can be achieved in life.
Corey shrieked shrilly, as if in answer to Ryan's thoughts. "I can damn it! I can damn it all! I can, I can, I can!" He fell to the earth, his body warped by the frenzy of his omnipotence. He pounded the ground in angry fury. Defiant cackles emerged from his throat, rent by bitter sobbing...
Curtis Randolph strode out of the holding pen as if it were his office, a man too preoccupied by his purpose to notice his surroundings. The three men, Ryan, Janio, and Chief Nelson, watched his coming from across the wide lobby, watched the proud steps, the firm, confident posture, the streamlined serenity of his face.
The joyous seriousness of a mathematician, Janio thought, brashly erasing the errors of his students, laughing at invalidity as the comically unnecessary, the hilariously inefficacious. Janio moved toward him, his smile bearing witness to his sanction of this moment, his thriving body bearing witness to the unity of his purpose.
When the two men came together, they did not stop to speak. They hugged each other, embracing tightly as a testament of relief and celebration.
"Hello, Curt," Janio said, standing back. "I'm glad there's nothing between us now..."
"There never was, Janio. There never was..."
Janio nodded his confirmation: it was true. The people who cannot be enslaved cannot be enslaved, no matter what the slave-owner does to their bodies.
"The guards tell me it was a film on the news that got me out," Curtis continued, smiling. "If I were to speak to a little girl I know, would I find out more about that film?"
"Hmm... Could be..."
"Is, Janio," Curtis said, laughing playfully. "Is. Proof by identity. Because it could not be otherwise."
"Q.E.D.," Janio returned.
"Well, mother knows best," Janio said, his eyes dancing joyously with Curt's. "Come on, mommy. Let's meet the press and go home. I know a lady who's losing sleep over you."
Curt's eyes were lit with the same fire. "Look who's being the mommy now. Why are you so concerned?"
"Well, for one thing, she's an employee, and I have things I'll need her to do tomorrow--today."
"You're a scoundrel!," Curtis teased.
"Of course. I'll have that added to my calling card--Janio Valenta, iconoclast, evangelist, revolutionary, scoundrel. Phone for free delivery."
"You're... You're wonderful!"
"You bring out the best in me. Mommy."
"You bring out the best in me," Curtis replied, the seriousness of his tone underscoring, not disguising, the joy he took in the proof of the validity of his mind, his senses, his reason, his voice making real the pleasure he felt in his flesh and in his emotions, the love he had never denied to this proud, dark man. "You bring out the best in me, mommy."
The two men walked arm in arm across the court-house lobby, following Ryan and the chief outside to the steps.
A video crew from the local station was waiting, ready to witness the event for unseen eyes. Curtis was the last out of the building and when he stepped into the bright lights, it seemed as though his snow white shirt were lit by the energy of his own proud body. He stood in the glare without strain, his effortless posture a testimony to the grandeur he observed in his being, the unstressed confidence that it was right for him to live, right from validity, from utility, and from rectitude, right in the nature of all being...
"Mr. Randolph!," the video reporter called. "Will you answer some questions?"
"No. But I'll make a statement. Will you settle for that much?"
He turned to face the cameras head-on, his eyes seeming to cut through the glare, to lock fast with the eyes of the witnesses present only by video. "Mother your values," he said softly, almost gently, as to a weeping child. "I stand before you as proof that circumstances are open to change through time, that the boy does not have to be father to the man, if the man is the mother of his values. If he does not let the misfortunes of his past act as a drag upon the glory of his future. If he does not let past injury cheat him out of future health. If he does not so mourn the things he has valued and lost that he prevents himself from pursuing the values he stands to gain--in the future.
"Oh, the pain you have known!" He said it lightly, as if it could have no importance. "You have torn yourself to shreds, reliving past humilities, past indignities, the loathsome actions you have taken in the past... You have self-mortified, just as your teachers commanded. But you hid your self-destruction from yourself by mortifying not the flesh of your body, but the flesh of your spirit, the living body of your love of your self, of life and of your own life. You tell yourself that your mind can have no efficacy, that reality is some malevolent demon who denies you your every desire, that your spirit is just a ventriloquist's dummy at his command. Or you tell yourself that the body of your spirit can be fed by plunder, that a thief can feel the self-respect known only to the man who has earned his life. You mortify your spirit at the altars of impotence and omnipotence, seeking to provide yourself with 'proofs' of the invalidity of premises you have never doubted are true, that A is A, that the universe is itself, that, to live, man must live as man. That you can worship your spirit, that you can make it worthy of your own self-sanction--in the future.
"I am the man who speaks only to the good within you. If you want to live, then you must mother your values. And your first and highest value is your own self, your own spirit, of which you alone bear witness. If you cannot treasure this, then you cannot treasure any values--not love, not riches, not pride. Those past errors before which you abase yourself in supplication, can they be corrected? If they can, then make your restitution and put them behind you. If they cannot, then make up for them by your future acts, make up in glory what you have lost in shame.
"But mother your self; learn to love what you are by working toward your goals. Because that is the only way to live. You cannot pursue self-destruction indefinitely. Eventually you must attain it. If self-destruction is not your goal, then stop practicing it. No amount of self-torture for past errors will insure your life tomorrow. Only your actions today can do that. Identify yourself. Make real the recognition that, as a human being, you are potent, not impotent, not omnipotent. Act in recognition of what you can do to change your circumstances, to change things you don't like in your character, to obtain the values you desire. Bear witness to your own efficacy, to your proud status as a rational animal. Before you learn to mother the value of your own identity, your own life, you cannot achieve the values you desire most.
"It's not easy, but the reward is worth it--life. Your life, the way you want it--and the serenity of knowing that it is right that it should be thus, that you have earned the joy that can never be stolen."
Curtis pulled Janio next to him. He continued speaking with his arm around the proud man's shoulders. "I am elaborating on something I learned from my friend and teacher: the future is the only thing open to change. If you can hear me, you, trapped in the self-inflicted dungeon of zero, of isn't, of can't, I am here to tell you that there is a way to live on earth. There is a way for the body of your spirit to thrive in comfort and happiness. There is a way you can sanction your every action as righteous, as the expression of self-love. But no part of it can proceed from self-mortification, and none of it can be produced in the past. The past is gone. The future is open to change, but only to the person who has the courage to recognize that man's life is not automatic, that his nature will not permit him to exist without the self-sanctioning love of his own spirit, that he cannot exist despite self-destruction, and he cannot thrive by self-abasement. If you want to live, then live! Stop pretending that you can live by pursuing death, the death of reckless self-destruction or the death of self-imposed blindness. Your life is yours, entirely yours. No person but yourself can control your body, can achieve your desires. The future is yours, yours to command, if you act in accordance with your own inviolable nature.
"And if you do not... I'll paraphrase my favorite anarchist and say this: I care not what course others may take, I know my life is mine, and I intend to make the most of it!"
"Mr. Randolph?," the reporter asked. "You've just been released from the Dalton lock-up, exonerated, after having been falsely accused of setting fire to your own factory..."
"Yes," Curtis responded. "What are you getting at?"
"Nothing," the reporter said, looking sheepish. "I guess I was just wondering why you'd talk about this, and not something else."
"Because somebody has to be the mommy," Janio said, as though from a long way off. "When everyone is trying to deny the obvious, to refuse to grant validity to the self-evident, the person who wishes to mother his own values must be prepared to show others how to mother theirs."
"Do you have anything to add to Mr. Randolph's remarks, Mr. Valenta?"
"Only this: if any part of you calls out in recognition to what you have heard, respond to that call. Don't put it off, because the battered hulk that is your ego may not have the strength to call again. Act in answer to that call to change your future, now, before it's too late. It is telling you what you want most to do. Hearken to it, and you can still save yourself... No one else can do it for you, you have to save yourself..."
"What will you do now, Mr. Randolph?"
Curtis smiled, his face purified by the pride of a man alive, a man in charge. "Make it pay, mister. Make it pay..."
Ann had gone to bed by the time the three men arrived back at Glenna's. As Janio walked through the door, he saw that the television was on, tuned to a movie about proud Vikings and their triumphs. It was Sally, he knew, presenting the television show that bore his name but rang with her love for the historical romance, the rollicking swashbuckler that is the delight of any child.
Glenna and Curtis were entwined in a tight embrace, their fiery eyes locked, seeing only each other. When Glenna pulled away, she turned to face Janio, her tear-brimmed eyes betraying the gratitude that was trapped for a moment by a tight ball of emotion in her throat. "...I don't know of any way I can thank you."
Janio smiled, the proud sanction of the life that is worth living, the experience for which there is no substitute. "You just did," he said, nodding toward Curtis. "Do it again. I think he appreciates it almost as much as I do."
"That you, pops?"
"Yes, baby. You still there?"
"Glenna and I were talking. Hi, Curt!"
"Hi, kid. How's business?"
"Oh, you know Janio. He's working me into bankruptcy. His bankruptcy! I saw your speech on TV. You were great!"
Curtis shot Janio a puzzled glance.
"We have equipment set up in Glenna's office. Sally is monitoring the local station through that link. Which reminds me--both of you should send me your phone bills for this month. You shouldn't have to pay for our idle chatter."
"Idle chatter!," Sally sputtered. "Why you-- Just for that, I'm not going to tell you how good you were."
"If I didn't know it without your telling me, I wouldn't know it afterward. There is no substitute for self-awareness. So there!"
Janio turned to face Glenna and Curtis, locked together, their hands happily remembering each other. "I know you two have a lot to make up for, so I'll be leaving now. Ryan, can I drive you back to your car?"
"Aw!," the child groaned through the telephone. "Daddy, you're going to miss the rest of the movie. And you haven't watched the show all week!"
"I'm sorry, baby, but I need to sleep. I'll watch it tomorrow night, I promise."
"Well..., you'd better."
"I will, child. You can bank on it." He spoke to the others. "We're all tired, but there are things we need to discuss. Can we sit down tomorrow? Ann, your father, Ryan, if he wants to come. Say for lunch?"
"I'll make the arrangements," Glenna offered.
"And I'll provide the entertainment," Sally put in. "What are you going to do, Janio?"
"I?," he inquired, mocking the child's playful insolence. "I'll be the mommy, same as always."
"Because the world is good," Curtis concurred, his serenity presenting the full proof of his truth.
"Because the world is good," Ryan confirmed, "to the man who is mother to his values..."
Matt Clinton was up early Wednesday morning. He stood in his kitchen in his work clothes, waiting for the coffee to brew and watching the new day stir into wakefulness through the window. There's a peace at dawn, a cleanness of spirit. As if the calm, the cool, and the bath of sparking dew birthed the earth anew each morning, erased yesterday's disasters to make space for today's triumphs. In the solitude that is not loneliness, the quiet that is not apathy, the anticipation that is not self-fraud... In the sight of the universe becoming, a man can look back, look forward, look at himself as he really is... And what...? Just smile, Matt told himself, just smile. The smile that starts in your face, then spreads to every muscle, a pleasure no outside force can cause.
He had the television on. He'd been listening absently for the grain prices, but the set got his full attention when the scene cut away to a picture of Curtis Randolph. The tall black man was in front of the Dalton courthouse, making a speech. Matt sat down and watched the speech through, his respect growing with every word. He ignored the mug of coffee before him. Another man had spoken, a strange, dark man, like some kind of Mexican. When the two finished, Matt was numbed, his spirit bursting, and he found he was unsure which man had said what and what he had added from his own experience.
They're right. They're so right... That is the only way to live, he called out silently to the two stern men, now swept from the screen by the announcer. That's the way I've lived my whole life, and look what I've managed to do. He looked out at the day breaking over his farm, his tenderly nurtured earth thrusting forth the food of his prosperity, his sparkling machinery, his luxurious home... His proud sons... Haven't I earned that pride as well?
He smiled at himself. A day ago I would have laughed at any man who said I needed to thank myself for what I do, that the rewards I'm getting aren't enough, that I need self-gratitude besides. But if you want a man to do a job, you've got to pay him everything he earns from you. And if the man doing the job is yourself...? I don't see how it's any different. Justice is giving everyone what he deserves, including yourself. And that's what I've done all along, too, isn't it?
Matt Clinton smiled, pushing past the kitchen door, stepping out into the universe becoming. What is it people are always yammering about, the 'common good'? He snorted. The 'common good' is the good Mr. Curtis Randolph and I have in common, and there is no other good. And if other people don't want to admit that's true, that's the way things are...? Well, Matt Clinton told himself in the silence and solitude of the dawn, proud to offer back what he could to the man who had so much to give, 'I know my life is mine, and I intend to make the most of it!'
He did not look back, did not see his shadow stretching behind him as he strode over the dewy ground. He saw only the sun and the earth and the wealth he had brought forth by obeying the laws of their union, the values he had mothered into being by his thought and by his actions, the actions that were the proof of his thought...
Marion Grant was found dead that morning. She had not appeared at her office at eight, as usual, so an assistant had driven by to see if the aging woman was in peril. What she found was Marion's remains, prim to the last, laid out on the sofa. Beside it, on a coffee table, was an empty prescription bottle--sleeping tablets--serving as the sole paperweight for a note. The note read: "The clock has stopped."
Cora Landry heard about the suicide, heard about the note, listening to the radio in her car. She had gone out early that morning, without really knowing why. She had heard the speeches that morning, on the television, and felt somehow that the city had changed, changed in some subtle way, yet one that should be visible, if only she could find it. She had guided her car aimlessly through the mid-morning streets, seeing gaily chattering children trundling off to school, proud mothers with their prams, a beaming young woman, very pregnant, with a load of groceries in one arm and a feisty toddler in the other. They're mothering the future... Aren't they?
Without knowing why, she drove past Marion Grant's home, a prim little stucco box in a poor-but-tight-lipped neighborhood. As she passed the house, she almost thought she heard her Horace. 'Good riddance to bad rubbish', he would say, and she'd chide him for being unfeeling. Oh, Horace! I didn't know! I didn't know what you did have feeling for, for justice, for purpose, for the satisfaction of having earned a living, not stolen it.
Cora sighed, a recognition of the past that is gone, that it is not subject to change. If only I could tell you, dear, tell you how happy you made me all those years, how much I loved my life with you... What was it Mr. Randolph had said on television? The future is the only thing open to change. I can't make up what I owe you, not any more. But I can make what I want of the rest of my life. Maybe that way I can make good on part of the debt I owe to the truth you never defaulted on, the reality you never denied.
Without intending to, she sang out in time-scarred notes, a gay song they'd sung together so many years before, in wild rides over rough country roads in a rickety flivver. She felt that the spirit of her girlhood was still alive, that, so long as it was alive within her, it could not die... You're right, Horace. You were right all along: good riddance to bad rubbish...
Estelle Simpson swore silently when she heard the news about Marion on the radio. She didn't know what she felt about it, didn't know that she felt at all. After all, hadn't Marion herself said that one individual could not matter in the quest for global harmony? Estelle knew Marion was a woman of high principles; she wouldn't apply a different standard to herself. Perhaps the best tribute she could be paid, in dying, was the recognition that neither her death nor her life mattered, as no one single person could matter to the the collective struggle...
But there were things to be done, damn her! Things were changing just too damn fast around Dalton, and with the TV station and that snotty Chronicle, there were just too many battles to be fought. Marion had no right to run out on the war, like some cowardly deserter! She did not own herself, did she? Didn't she owe it to the party to stand beside it against these upstart usurpers?!
Estelle gnashed at the air, snarling, making real the spirit that drove her... Well, there's one thing that's got to be done right away! She dug into her desk, pulling out the mock-up of her campaign poster, which the printer had submitted for her approval. She looked it over, not noticing the fierce lines of repression in her tight-pursed lips in the photograph, not noticing the beady, hateful eyes, refusing to grant validity to the angry grimace that was the mold into which she had forced her face. What she saw was a line of text, printed in large, star-spattered, red-white-and-blue letters: "Collective Action For The Common Good". She crossed it out with a stroke, scrawling in the margin the replacement text: "Honesty * Decency * Liberty"... Damn you, Marion! Damn you for making me do this, for letting that Ryan Dalton push me to this! It's your fault! It's all your fault, damn you! Damn you to hell!
She did not notice it when she collapsed to her desk, weeping. She was not aware of her pain, not aware of the voice that called out that life doesn't have to hurt, doesn't have to sob, terrified, in the corner. She did not hear it. But she would not have listened to it, would not have acknowledged her pain, even if she had. After all, what does the pain of one individual matter, in the quest for the common good...?
It was late in the day when Ryan had asked to speak privately with Janio. The two had been split up most of the day, with Janio involved in business discussions with Cameron Dalton, Curtis, Glenna and Sally-on-one-phone, while Ryan and Ann hashed out a new education policy with Sally-on-another-phone. When the two men had finally been able to break free the sun was an orange ball, half down and sinking fast in the western sky. They walked away from it, toward the new dawning they both knew would come, letting the fiery ember behind them light their way. Ryan marveled at the way their long, thin shadows preceded them, rippling over the rough ground to warn them of hazards in their path...
Janio stopped at the crest of a low ridge, well beyond Ann's lonely refuge. He looked out over the wide, flat land, choked with weeds, yet somehow beautiful. The hazy orange light of the sun sprang back in a chorus of colors, deep rhythms of throbbing browns, the proud harmony of a thousand singing greens, the daring melody of colors so bright it almost hurt to look at them... A music that sang out in sanction of its own being, that did not moan of it smallness, but cheered gaily of its enormity, its beauty, and its pride. A music of life, for life, for the life that surges forth despite every obstacle, that strives to prosper even where conditions are against it... A music for man, because man is the being who must choose to prosper. The plants and the animals cannot fail to observe their nature, but man can. 'Man must be man by choice'. He sang out in praise of the philosopher who had so much to give. A music for her, and for me, and for every mother of true values, in those moments when they stop to celebrate their success. A symphony to reward righteousness, and to fuel it. Because 'a spirit, too, needs fuel'...
"I shall remember this...," Janio said. "Do you find that there are moments of your experience that you keep in special places, so you can relive them when you want, 're-enjoy' them by memory?"
"I shall treasure this experience. I had trouble going to sleep last night, after everything, sorting over all I've learned."
Ryan looked straight into the dark man's eyes. "Me, too." He smiled deeply.
Janio returned the smile. "I thought you might. Did you think about what I said?"
"No, Ryan," Janio replied, his throat tight. "You're the mommy now."
They embraced tightly for a moment and when Ryan pulled away he said, "No, don't defend yourself. I know enough not to thank you."
The tall, dark man grinned so brightly his face seemed to battle the sun for dominance of the horizon. "I shall quote a source dear to me: 'I have met a great man'."
"'No,'" Ryan quoted in return. "'You've met a normal man. I admit that's a rare experience.'"
The two men hugged again, then walked slowly back to the factory, chatting of things to come...
In the conference room, caterers had arranged a light buffet. With the lights dimmed and candles lit, the room seemed to Janio to be perfectly suited to its purpose--work as a celebration of life. Life, the joyous serenity you buy with you honest effort, the value you take first from your work, before even your food or your shelter, the value that gives meaning to food and shelter. It is right that the glory of ego should be celebrated here, on the canvas of ego's achievements.
Janio smiled warmly at the roomful of friends, family... How much I have missed?, he said to himself, speaking to the boy who had fathered Janio the man. Not chiding himself, but taking honest note of fact. If only I had known then that others could treasure life as I do... But then, he affirmed, smiling in the name of the values salvaged from the things he had lost, I cannot know without having found out, como una substituta para experiencia. And would I substitute anything for this experience? His smile answered the question eloquently as he looked at the eager, happy faces of his brothers and sisters in the family of Ego...
"So what we thought we'd do," Ann was saying, the shimmering grey of her hair reflecting the flame of the candles, highlighting the flame in her eyes, "is privatize, one way or another. Ryan thinks he'll have control of the School Board after this election, so we'll try to buy out the schools, if possible. If not, we'll try to take them over by a management contract."
"What we want to avoid," Ryan threw in, "is keeping the same management structure. If we can't get rid of whom we want, we can't do much of anything."
"If we have to live with the teachers working now," Ann confirmed, "forget it."
"Busting up the state monopoly on schools sounds like a good idea to me," said Janio. "Cameron, this is something you and I should talk about when I return, funding a big education complex. Ann, Ryan," he spoke into the speaker-phone resting on the conference table, "you, too, kid. One of the things I want you to think about is how the Aristotelian curriculum can be tied more closely to the world of experience, how we can show children--and their parents--how knowledge is applied in reality, how it can be employed in reality to make life better. We've sold school as the place where you learn how to get free of school, not how to live... What I'm thinking of is a place where students of all ages can come to learn and to teach, where they are motivated to come, in the service of their lives. Where the connection between their thoughts and their actions, between their goals and their accomplishments, is not obscured by the assumption that force is persuasion, that children 'ought to' learn because we will lock them up in a state home if they don't. And, worse, that adults have no motivation to learn at all..."
"Yes," Ann agreed, "that's what I've always thought. One of the things I'd like to see is a closer link to work. We should get lecturers from the ranks of people doing real jobs, to teach what they do. And we should give the children jobs, part-time, so they can see how their skills translate into market values; the more a child learns, the more he is qualified to do, and the more he is paid. That's something we've always needed to teach, but have not."
"Right," said Janio. "And we should offer education vouchers as a fringe benefit to our employees, and to the employees of other Ego entrepreneurs who invest here. We'll have to eat it as an up-front capital loss, but it should pay off handsomely in time."
Ryan looked dubious. "Are you prepared to fund all this?" Janio nodded. "Well then, in my role as ward-heeler, let me say that I think I can 'deliver the vote'. Chief Paul Nelson has come over to our side. He'll be running for Chief of Police on he Libertarian ticket. And to give you an idea of the kind of support he's bringing with him, Mayor Collingsworth has already announced that the Democrats won't oppose the chief. Seems the Mayor's worried his good Democrats might split their tickets to vote for Nelson. And if they have to pull all those levers anyway, well, who knows how many they'd pull on the other side... That crew is going around spouting about how they've always stood for liberty and motherhood, but I don't think anyone's fooled by it. Not this time..."
"Short and sweet," said Curtis, his eyes embracing Janio's. "We start bending membranes tonight, laying-up circuit-boards on Friday. We'll have all product lines up and running by next Tuesday, full staffing first-shift Wednesday, full production by a week from Friday. I hope to make up my shipping schedule within a week after that."
"That's great news!," Sally cheered. "I need the elbow room!"
"You're a true paper-pusher, Sallykid," Janio sassed. "You want to do everything in quadruplicate."
"Ha, ha, ha," the girlchild sassed back.
Cameron Dalton's face was puzzled. "Forgive me if it's ungracious, but I'm having a hard time getting used to everything I've been told. Am I to understand that this girl, one moment a ruthless businesswoman, the next a darling child, is a machine...?"
"Finest computer on the block, right kid?"
Janio went on, "Sally now runs in triplicate, in three different locations. Of the products being made here, two are related to a quadruplicate Sally, an orbiting communications satellite upon which one of Sally's other fathers is now at work. Reminds me--Ryan, we should find a place to build the fifth Sally. We'll need it for our school."
Cameron smiled helplessly. He said, "Well, I'll be..."
"Yes, you will, sir," Janio replied. "And you'll do a good job of it, too."
"Oh, has something happened to change your opinion of me?"
"Might I ask what it is...?"
Janio smiled, his joy wiping away the strain that had marred their last meeting. "I discovered you are man who does not attempt to substitute lies for truth."
Cameron accepted the compliment gladly. "And you...? What kind of a man are you?"
Janio's smiled deepened, in sanction of this moment and everything he had paid, paid gladly, as the price of admission. "I'm the mommy," he said simply. "Because I want to be." His eyes danced brightly, moving to each of them in turn. He raised is wine glass in a solemn salute. "To the glory of ego, always our goal, and therefore always our most prized possession!"
They toasted equality as only the truly independent can, in recognition that no part of their concourse was the consequence of force, but only of volition. What they toasted was the honor of knowing they were celebrating virtue by choice. When Janio put his glass down, he rose, saying, "Ann will be coming back to New York with me for a few weeks, to rest up, and to get ready to tear a path through your schools, Ryan. She threatens to teach Sally manners, but I doubt she'll get anywhere."
"Sandra is staying with her mother for a while," Glenna offered. "She's thinking of going back to school."
"And you?," Janio asked. "Where do you go from here?" He nodded pointedly at Curtis, whose face was a mask of mock-innocence about to burst into a breathless laugh.
"My partner and I are in negotiations," Glenna replied, laughter in her eyes.
Janio turned to Curtis. "You'd be a fool to let her go."
"Hey," Curtis teased, "keep your nose where it belongs. Mommy."
"Yes, mommy." Janio hugged the black man tightly, as if to convey by touch the words that could never remain unspoken between them, that burst forth not just in speech, but in every action, as the expression and goal of their every purpose. When they parted, Janio held Curt's hands in his, as if he didn't want the bond to be broken. "Press On Regardless, Curt. Yours is the right way."
"And 'there is only one right way'... I love you, Janio."
"And I love you, Curt." Janio embraced his good friend again, quickly, as an experience to remember...
Janio had the windows to the car down as they drove to the airport. Ann had tied back her hair to keep it from blowing and her face matched his, invigorated, drenched in the cool, evening air. The sun was low in the sky and the glittering fabric of the night was a rich, deep-blue velvet, demanding to be touched. It seemed they owned the road. There was no other traffic, and the mad pounding of the wind could not stop them.
Janio had a tape playing on his small stereo, loud rock music, almost raucous, like nothing she had ever heard him play. He seemed consumed by the music--his person, the car, just extensions of those driving keyboards, those startling, never before heard sounds of electronic triumph. She imagined the music as the body of a giant sketched in tight, neon-bright lights. She watched him singing along with himself, surging with the life he had saved from the past to fuel the life of the present, of the future, and it seemed as though the giant rose, bursting the chains that had bound him, tearing down the walls that had imprisoned him, breaking loose and free, so that no power could ever hold him down again...
She knew that he must always look like this: straight, untroubled brows shielding deep, all-witnessing eyes; proud, flat cheeks; chin and shoulders held high; his shiny black hair flying loosely in the breeze... On a ski slope or a on boat or in a library, he must always look the same, joyously harvesting his values and nothing else.
And nothing else... This is what I owe him for, for teaching me that if I refuse to live my own life, I won't therefore acquire another. And the one life I do have will go unlived, unmothered... Ann Addison smiled to the mother of the universe becoming, bearing witness to the proof of the lesson she had learned.
"'Get your motor running'," Janio Valenta sang out, accompanying his own voice on the tape. "'Head out on the highway'. I didn't write this one," he said to Ann, "but I've always liked it. Not the sound, but what it says. I adapted pretty freely to make this version. If the author heard it, he might have a stroke." He grinned.
Light all of your guns in thunder, he sang,
and explode into space...
Like a true nature's child,
we were born, born to be wild
We can fly so high,
I never want to die...
Ann's smiled deepened, making real a conviction she would never again desire to erase with the mask of indifference, of pretended impotence. She put her hand atop his on the seat, letting her touch speak for the spirit she had always known but had feared to worship, a salute not to him, but to herself.
He looked at her, smiling warmly, letting two words say all that was needed to be said between them, all that would ever need to be said: "Thanks, mommy..."
Curtis and Glenna walked out of the factory together. They had talked for more than an hour, just chattering and laughing, enjoying the experience. Enjoying being worthy of the experience. Curtis turned to face the sign over the plant.
Glenna turned with him, letting her eyes follow his to the top of the sturdy brick building. "Pauling Plastics," she read.
"Not anymore," he replied. "Now it's Rhodes-Randolph."
"Curtis! Do you mean it?!"
"Rhodes-Randolph for you, too, Glenna, if you'll have it. And for Dwight."
"Oh, I'll have it!"
"Sure," he said, holding a hand to his chin. "And soon you'll have it up to here."
"I will not!" She knuckled him playfully in the ribs.
"Rhodes-Randolph Repolymerizations," he said to the sign. He pulled her closer, as if to express with his body what he felt for those words.
She pulled her head back to look at him. "Curtis, are you ever going to tell me what repolymerization means?"
"Yes," he said breathlessly, pulling her back to him. He brushed his lips lightly against the silky skin of her cheek. "Just not tonight..."
"Ah...," she said, hugging him so tightly that she felt as if she might crush him. But she knew this was the man who could not be crushed, and that it was in response to that invulnerability that she embraced him so passionately.
"Mmm!," Curtis said, bearing witness to his own passion. "The world is good!"
Lonnie Cummings was confused. He had walked the whole day, thinking, looking for answers, but he felt as though he knew no more than when he started.
Something strange had happened at breakfast. For one thing, the old man was there, not sacked-out, sleeping it off. When Lonnie had last seen him, the night before, he was plopped out in front of the TV as usual, the drink trickling sweat on the table beside him. He didn't hear him stumble to bed, which means he must have stayed up past one, because Lonnie hadn't gone to sleep until then. Yet, there he was at breakfast, showered and shaved. Lonnie had checked the calendar, thinking it was one of the two days a month his father had to go downtown to pick up his unemployment check. But no..., it wasn't that.
But dad had sat there, the child reminded himself, just like a normal person, eating breakfast and chatting with mom. And as if that wasn't enough, then he went out and started to work on that old heap... Lonnie couldn't remember a time when that old Chevy was not out there, collecting rust in the back yard. And he couldn't remember a time when the old man hadn't talked about selling 'that damned old clunker', if he could just get it going. But it was just talk, even back when he used to have a job. The car just sat there; it never got fixed, it just got old...
But this morning the old man was out there with a passion, poking around under the car, wasting his shower with grease and dirt. Lonnie had gone out to ask him what was up. "A man's got to mother his own values," he had said. "It's for damn sure that nobody can do it for him..." There was some kind of fire in his eyes, like he was sure of what he was saying. For once in his short life, Lonnie Cummings felt as though he had a real father. It was too weird, too new. Lonnie felt almost as if he liked it, but he wasn't sure. The old man had offered to let Lonnie help, but the child had skittered off.
Hah!, he told himself. Work, that's all it is, just dumb, stupid work. You can't fool me! He had spent his day emptily, kicking a small rock, then walking forward to kick it again, trying to convince himself that his boredom was better than any old stupid work. But by the end of the day, he knew his arguments had not taken hold. He found himself wondering what he'd missed by not staying to work with his father. He'd seen other kids doing stuff with their fathers, and sometimes it looked like fun. It's still work, but if it's fun, who cares...?
"...nobody can do it for him..." I wonder what that means... Lonnie thought about how easy it had been for him to get over on people, to get them to hand over the things they'd made, so that he didn't have to make anything. But supposing they stop making things...? What then? How could anyone swipe something that isn't there? Maybe that's what he meant.
The strangest thing was that the old man had looked... happy. Like all the lines had gone out of his face, all the anger and self-pity, all the sadness. Lonnie had never thought about people really being happy. That's for fairy tales, isn't it? He'd seen people all giggled-out from a roller coaster or a bottle of whiskey, but he couldn't remember ever noticing anyone who actually looked happy. Yet there was the old man, grinning, working on that old rust-heap and whistling. Whistling, for heaven's sake!
Lonnie was puzzled by it... He kicked the rock forward and followed it, unsure of his destination. I'd like to think that the old man is happy... I'd like to think that maybe it's okay for me to be happy, too... He cut himself off, surprised at the things he was permitting himself to name in words. He looked around guiltily, out of habit, to make sure no one had seen. Then he laughed at himself, the bell-pure laugh of a boy who hasn't a care in the world. Who could have seen, except me?
He did not snuff out the laughter still burning within him, and when he looked up, the sight he beheld seemed an answer to that happy flame. A man and a woman were walking, arm in arm, in the fading light of the sun. As he watched, they pulled each other tighter, as if they couldn't stand to have anything separating them. They walked along, their steps light, their heads high. At one point the man had jumped over a low ridge, then lifted the woman over after him. He held her high against the deep blue sky for a moment, and Lonnie heard her cry out in the pleasure of mock fear--the pleasure of being so safe from fear that a person can mock it gaily. When she landed beside him, she drew him near and kissed him tenderly. They stood there, two proud figures against the encroaching horizon of the night... They looked happy... Lonnie found himself hoping they were.
Walking home, he stopped himself, surprised to discover he was no longer kicking the rock, that he must have left it behind somewhere. And then he surprised himself a second time: he was whistling...