Tales From Mephitis. Chapter 2: The Descent into Hell
The most critical problem facing them now was that they needed firewood to survive next winter. Without heat one simply cannot live in the North Country near the shores of Lake Ontario: This is a country of deep snows and far below zero winters. In the past they bought cords of logs and cut and split them. They owned eight acres, five of which were wooded, but they only harvested the dead wood from their land. Five acres simply wasn’t enough to continuously cut year after year.
But now there was no choice. He and his wife had gone around that morning marking trees for felling; fifty five live ones and fifteen dead ones. He figured it was the bare minimum they’d need.
They were going to have to use an old trick he knew: ‘Wilt Wood’. If you drop a tree in full leaf and leave it till the leaves fall off in about a month, it’ll be ready for burning with only six months drying time compared to a year or more otherwise.
It was still going to be a Herculean chore to fell, cut and split it all by hand, and then wheelbarrow it all uphill a quarter of a mile to the barn. But you do what you have to.
They dropped some of the dead trees the next day and hauled them up to the barn.
The next morning he woke up beat and feeling defeated; the thought of riding a bike up and down hills for an hour or more, then working for ten hours, then riding home maybe another couple of hours crushed him. He felt he couldn’t do it. If it had been full time he figured he could tough it out for a few months until he could get a car. But as a part time job, he’d never be able to put together enough for a car; it would be running to only stay in place.
He called DPW and told them that unless it was full-time, or at least only at Florence, that he just couldn’t do it. The boss, Ray, peevishly told him to have a little faith in him, that it would work out. “Faith”: A very strange thing to hear him say. To Frank’s ear that word sounded worse than hollow: It sounded like a mockery. Then he said that until further notice, Frank would be assigned to Florence. He agreed to take the job, though with a strange mixture of foreboding and puzzlement.
So, he blew another $22 of their dwindling reserves on another cab ride, this time to the MunicipalCenter to fill out the paperwork that would bring him into the 21st century. He had spent decades disentangling himself from the “System”, striving to erase all traces of himself like the character, “Blank Reg” had in the “Max Headroom” pilot movie. He had forgotten how painful, seemingly senseless and achingly slow, dealing with a bureaucracy is, and he hadn’t missed it.
The Cabbie he rode in with was a wall-eyed, stove-up sixty one year old who obsessively repeated his phrases twice as he told him his life story, all the while poking Frank’s leg from time to time for emphasis. Frank told him if he did that one more time he was going to break it off.
“Fill this out...except for this, this, this...and this." The stout middle-aged woman in the County Building told him. "Sign here, here and here. Read this, then sign it. No, you don’t need to read this. Okay, let me have your SS card. ...Your Social Security Card....What do you mean, you don’t have it? Okay, then you’ll need to fax me it...What do you mean you don’t have a Fax? I need that, so you’re going to have to get it to me somehow...What do you mean, you don’t know if you still have it?...Sign here, here, and here. Read this...not now, it’s forty seven pages long. You can read it at home, then fax me the signed form on the last page. It’s the County Employee Handbook...What do you mean you don't have a fax?...Right. Okay, then just get me a copy somehow.”
This went on for an hour. Then they told him he had to go to Wings Falls for a drug test. That ate up another precious six dollars for another cab, and another hour of waiting, following strict protocols to protect the integrity of his urine.
“I’m sure the nation is much safer as a result of such stalwart precautions such as these.. at least from urine identity thieves.” He told himself wryly.
He had bad memories of this lab. Three years ago he had come here for a physical before he could start a job he had landed in a paper mill. The X-Ray had come back saying he had what appeared to be a mass on his lung. That effectively killed that job.
He hadn’t had a nibble since.
Without a car for so long, his trips to town had been rare. The area had deteriorated badly since even his last time in a few months ago. It was hard to believe how comfortably middle class this area was just twenty years ago. Then the factories began to close down and move south or overseas. All of upstate New York that had grown fat and happy in the boom days now suddenly woke up one fine morning to find themselves in rags, wondering if their memories of prosperity were just a dream that had evaporated.
With each mill closing, more and more ‘Lawn Care’ businesses and “Garages” were started by the laid-off men. The laid-off women tried to sell Avon, Mary Kay, or Real Estate. “For Sale” signs popped up like mushrooms. Many picked up stakes and headed to the southern states where they heard there was work; but it was non-union work that didn’t pay a living wage. Some of the upper class of corporate managers fared better, they were all re-located elsewhere, at least until the next round of lay-offs; the lower levels of management were scraped off like the workers then and there. With each recession, the ‘bottom’ turned out to be further and further down. Those who had managed to survive one ‘downturn’ only got whacked by the next. The only booming businesses now were the self-storage places and the truck rental firms.
The area’s largest ‘city’, Wings Falls, which had felt so smug about it’s prosperity in the 80’s, was at a loss to explain why it had been abandoned by the companies it had been so proud of. The city officials flailed around for solutions. Like every other city in the nation that was in the same trouble they bought the idea of building a CivicCenter to attract tourists. Obviously they never watched “Roger and Me.”
The people looked awful; obviously poor, almost all were obese; and worse, they wore a furtive, suspicious air or looked drugged. So damn depressing. The Cabbie he took from the lab was a fat, young male in his late twenties who grew up in Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina. Like the first driver, Frank heard his life story too. He shared the fare with a smoke-croupy, worn-tired, shapeless, thirtyish red-haired woman who worked at the “Cumby’s” a mile away. She said she’d had enough of working the 11-7 shift “What with all the f**kin drunks and crackheads”, but she could handle anything because she’d waitressed at the “Irish Pizza House”, whatever the hell that meant.
The next fare he shared was another smoke-croupy, forty eight year old, red-haired, dumpy, Floridian Divorcee who was up here in a ‘safe house’, as she was a victim of domestic violence and undergoing counseling for her “mental problems because a da abuse”. She had been in a coma for five days in Florida after being knocked “thirty seven feet by a Budget-Rent-A-Truck doing sixty two miles per hour. Lost two toes.” Turns out she and the cabbie were from the same place in Florida and had the same opinion of the “Red States’” educational system; which meant thirty three kids packed into one half of an un-airconditioned trailer.
“Shove a stick of dynamite up all their asses for all I care.” Was the way she summed up.
He had the cabbie drop him off at a grocery store. From there it was a twelve mile hike home, but he’d rather spend what little money he had on food than a ride. As he walked toward the distant hills of his home, he thought that it was impossible to talk with any of these people, because they don’t want to hear anything you have to say. They just want to vomit their life stories all over you; stories that have been told over and over and over so often they have worn such deep ruts in their minds that they can’t climb out of them, or hear anyone else while they’re in them.
While of course everybody wants to talk about themselves, these people lacked the clutch, the ‘etiquette’, that others had that led them to pause in their monologues and give others a chance to talk about themselves too.
He mused on what could be the critical dividing difference between those who ‘succeed’, and get to enjoy the perks of society by being inducted into the ‘Middle or Upper Class‘, and those who are left behind; the ‘Proles’.
As he have been in both classes several times already in the course of his Polytropos life and been known and accepted by both at different times, he had empirical knowledge to go on. He’d dined with Bank VPs, Plant Managers, and Corporate Officers, and played tennis and racquetball at their clubs. And he’d been a dishwasher and cook, a bouncer, laborer, Paper Mill Foreman, Artist, and a Farmer…and now it seemed he was about to become an employee at a dumps.
He could unequivocally say native intelligence is not the difference. He’d seen Upper Class members as dumb as the dumbest Prole; and Proles every bit as intelligent as the smartest Elite. Educationally there is often a huge gap, that’s obvious. It’s the access to higher education that is to blame, and there is more family pressure for a degree, if not an education, among the elite. The Proles are far more likely to either not attend college or to not graduate high school; and that consigns them to a lower earning class immediately, unless they become entrepreneurs or work their way up the disappearing corporate ladders.
Nor did he think it is a matter of morals, or moral ‘fiber’. He’d seen too many swine in both groups, as well as a few saints in both. Mainly it was a matter of which economic strata you happened to be born into; it was hereditary in that way. But it was also about behavior. There are certain requirements of deportment in speech, dress, and attitude to belong to the Upper Class. You can be as twisted, perverted, or demented as imaginable, but you’re expected to behave with decorum, keep your twisted soul hid and keep up that mask of respectability.
Most of the people in the Proles either do not know of these standards of behavior, or are incapable of carrying them out because of their psychological problems due to maladjustment, neuroses, or childhood problems carried into adulthood. To be sure, there are some “Golden Children” of “Earthenware Parents” that escape up into the Elite Strata, but they do so also by knowing how to act.
He was surprised when a pick-up pulled over and was obviously waiting for him. A neighbor, Sam Tibble, had recognized him. They were good neighbors: Neither bothered nor spoke to the other, but both knew either would immediately help the other if he was in need. Sam asked no questions of Frank. Their conversation as he drove was about the number of deer each had been noticing. Sam loved to shoot. His pickup had camo seat covers, camo steering wheel cover, camo dash, and he had a camo shotgun between the seats with a box of camo shells. He also dearly loved his Harley-Davidson, which his third wife referred to as Sam’s “Crotch-Rocket.”
Though a young man, not yet forty, he was on his fourth wife. His second wife cuckolded him with a ‘horse whisperer’, and the third had been driven out by his mother, who had moved in with him.
He remembered the night of the wedding reception well. Sam had held it under a tent in back of his house. It was a raucous affair, attended primarily by Sam’s fellow factory workers. Frank and his wife weren’t invited, but they had no choice but to hear it.
The happy couple’s choice of music to express their love for each other was significant: Pat Benatar’s “Hit me with your best shot!” and Meatloaf’s “Heaven by the dashboard lights”. When the best man took the microphone to introduce Mister and Mrs.Tibble, Sam couldn’t be found at first. Finally he was located playing horseshoes on the front lawn. He told them not to bother him.
Frank and Melissa had looked at each other.
“I give them two years.”
One year it was. His fourth bride was a quiet, slim brunette. By that time Sam had grown from the stocky young man of his first marriage to the obese, bearded couch potato of today.
A large part of why Frank found this turn of events so depressing is that for almost three decades now he and Melissa had lived secluded from the world in a corner of the hill country among beautiful gardens.
They had filled their time tending their gardens and crops, listening to classical music, something that was previously unknown to them, and spending their evenings reading the finest literature ever written. Over the years he had amassed an impressive library from book sales. He had decided to make up for his missing education and had begun reading philosophical and historical works chronologically, from the pre-Socratic up to the present.
To go from that rarified atmosphere to the tawdry, insane world he visited that day and mix with the ‘masses’ again was strangely humiliating for him. All the more so because he knew he had no right to pretensions: He was now one of them.
Actually, he was worse off. At least they had work and cars. And to know he was going to have to push his heart and muscle to the limit for two hours or more a day just to get to and from a job pushing trash, that will only pay enough to allow them to live to only work more; he felt he had failed spectacularly.
And all because he’d remembered what he had forgotten, and like a naive fool took a year off to recover and pursue it further. As a result he’d lost everything.
“Why should I keep studying history and philosophy; thoughts from interesting minds thinking about eternal questions? Why listen to classical music; music that’s from a different, beautiful world and time?
No, it’s too pretentious. I’m a part-time laborer in a dumps, for Christ sakes. The leopard must change his spots. Find a top forty station somewhere, or a moronic talk station. Go pick up a scandal rag from the supermarket check-out. This is who you are now.
Besides, what am I going to do with all this knowledge, this ‘wisdom’? I have no children who want to hear from me, I’m not a teacher; I have no students. My intent in undertaking this regime of self-study was to hopefully make things clearer for myself, to help me find my own way. So far, it’s done precious little of that.
Either way; what’s the point? I’ll be dead soon enough, and all this ‘learning’ will blink out of existence like a blown light bulb. Before my brain even starts to decompose it’ll all be gone.”
"Life's but a walking shadow...a tale told by an idiot; full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Next: Chapter three, where Frank finds out a taste of what Fate has in store for him...Its not over yet.