Saint Jake – The Road

Jake approached the fire warily. Food wasn’t regular, nor always healthy, and he seemed more bone than meat. He’d been drawn to the fire by the light and the smell of something cooking, and sat carefully, hands in view, across from the person heating a can of Dinty Moore stew over the fire.

“Hungry?” the other man asked. Like Jake, he was painfully gaunt. There were patches of gray in his rough beard.

“Powerful,” Jake answered.

“Aught to trade?”

“A little weed.”

“You mean ditchweed,” the other man answered, with a grimace of disgust.

“No, good stuff,” Jake answered. “Purple haze.”

The man’s eyebrows went up.

“No shit? Lots better company than I had last night.” He gestured to the empty stretch of fallen log beside him.

Jake rose and walked around the fire to sit beside the older man.

Wariness on the road was habitual, but of necessity had resolved into a kind of courtesy. Robbery was rare — people on the road these days had little to nothing, and it wasn’t worth taking a scratch or a bite over nothing. Food was shared regardless, which blunted the main reason for theft. But trade was expected, if the other person had anything to trade. Jake had been robbed only once when he’d just started walking the road, three years ago, and the fellow had sat him down afterward and taught him the rules. So it wasn’t even a proper robbery, more an object lesson.

Jake slowly pulled his pouch of purple haze from his pocket, and offered it to the older man, who raised it to his nose and sniffed. A softer expression crossed the man’s face.

“That’s good,” he said, and handed the bag back. “Dessert, then.”


The older man nodded, once. “Robert.”

When the stew started to bubble, Robert set it on a rock to cool, and they both watched stars appear in the cerulean evening sky. When the can was cool enough to hold, Robert took a spoon from his pocket and took the first bite, then handed the can to Jake. Jake had his own spoon ready, and took a bite, then handed back the can. They passed it back and forth until the can was empty and scraped clean.

Jake took the pouch back out of his pocket, and put a generous pinch into the tiny pipe Robert had pulled from a different pocket on his vest, then placed a pinch in his own pipe. Jake heated a twig to a coal in the fire, and lit his pipe: the sweet stench of burning marijuana filled the air. He inhaled deeply, and passed the coal to Robert, who lit his own pinch and drew until the glow in the pipe flickered out. He held his breath for nearly thirty seconds before he slowly exhaled.

Monosyllables melted into easy conversation. Life histories had been polished by the road into smooth, elegant gems as terse as an old-world resume.

Robert, once married with two children, software designer and good at his job. Laid off, turned to drink, wife left him and took the kids. Stayed in shelters for two years, then got restless and hit the open road. Wouldn’t think of going back.

Jake, teen-age slacker and video gamer, mother died in a fracking quake that destroyed his house and almost got him. Hitched to the Pacific coast and then found himself on the road. Sometimes missed his mother, and desperately wanted to finish the last video game he’d played, the Dragonlords of Sym.

“You played Dragonlords?” Robert asked, one eyebrow raised.

“Almost finished it,” Jake replied.

“I worked on that game,” Robert said. “Just a bit, at the beginning, before they laid me off. Looked good.”

“It was awesome. Best AI on the market, and you could actually talk to the characters in the game.”

“You almost finished it? I thought it wasn’t supposed to end?”

“Yeah, that’s what they said. But someone on-line said you could force an ending if you backed all of the Dragonlords into a corner at once. Kinda like a checkmate in chess. I was that close.”

“Tell me about your favorite battle.” Robert’s gaze was far-away.

“That would be the Arena of Fate,” Jake said, his voice taking on timbre and excitement. “They stripped me of all my weapons, except my fleschette rifle, and all twelve Dragonlords were there….”

Jake’s voice rose and fell, and Robert listened with rapt attention. When Jake finally fell silent, Robert slowly brought his hands together in deliberate applause.

“You are the best entertainment I’ve had in a month of Sundays,” Robert said. “It’s just a damn video game, but you tell it with such passion. I’m in your debt, Jake. Thank you.”

They fell silent after that, individually contemplating the night sky and the vagaries of fate. Then Robert wished Jake a good night and curled up on the ground close to the fire. Jake watched the coals for a few more minutes, then curled up and fell asleep.

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Saint Jake – In the Beginning

Jake should have felt the rumbling ground, but he had his X-Box Infinity turned up, and the subwoofer always made the ground vibrate. Plus, he was pretty high. He insisted it improved his reflexes. The frantic action on the screen occupied his full attention, until the power went out.

“Aw, SHIT!” Jake shouted into the darkness. “MOMmmm! Power bill! Again?”

Then he remembered that today she had a shift at the clinic. He grumbled, unfolded his lanky frame, and shuffled through the cave-dark room, wincing every time his bare feet clipped a dirty dish or cup. There was an open pizza box, somewhere, and he didn’t want to step in it.

Something crashed above, marking the death of some glass trinket. The house was full of them. Mom’s hobby had once been collecting glass figurines, back when they could afford it, and she was going to blame him and have a fit.

He reached the stairs before he stopped to wonder who had knocked over the figurine. He was supposedly home alone.

He stood, openmouthed, at the bottom of the steps, wondering if he should just stay down here. Then the ground rumbled again, and he heard several more crashes.

Holy cat, an earthquake. Here?

He tried to remember whether it was safe to be in a basement during an earthquake. Or was that just tornados? He decided he’d be better off outside, where the only thing that could fall on him was the sky. He pounded up the stairs, threw open the basement door, and stopped, blinded by the late afternoon sunlight pouring through the back windows.

As his eyes adjusted, he saw broken glass all over the kitchen tile leading to the back door.

Shit. Good thing I didn’t run across that in my bare feet. Be mellow, man.

The rumbling ceased. He made his way across worn carpet in the other direction, grabbed his Crocs from where they lay near the door, and threw the deadbolt on the front door. As he stepped through the door, the ground lurched under his feet, and a rush of dust-laden air pushed him forward onto his face as the roof caved in behind him.

He rolled over onto his back. Nothing above but clear, blue sky. The front wall of the house still stood, just beyond his feet, the top edge roofless and ragged against the sky.

Maybe I should get away from the house.

He decided to roll, rather than walk, and stopped halfway across the yard. Several more rumbles shook the ground, none as bad as the jolt that had knocked him down, but the front wall of the house collapsed inward with stately grace. The door and doorframe remained stubbornly vertical.

A door to nowhere, man. Been that way for a long time.

He lay quietly on the dead stubble of lawn and the few spiky patches of natural xeriscaping where the desert weeds had blown in and Mom had let them grow, because they had pretty blooms in the spring. It was the only beauty left in the yard. The water table had dropped, and most of the trees in the neighborhood were gone. At first, they’d been cut down and hauled out, and people had planted new trees, which had not thrived. Later, as the economy dove into yet another recession, people had cut down the dying trees themselves for firewood, leaving stumps in their yards. Eventually they had just let the dead trees stand as they abandoned their houses. Water restrictions made irrigation too expensive for decorative greens, so the crisp Kentucky Blue lawns died, gradually displaced by hardier, drought-resistant species. They greened up for a couple of weeks in the late Spring, but then went brown, just like the hills that surrounded the town.

Another rumble shook the ground, and he heard the house collapse into the basement.

When Jake finally dared to stand, he walked back to the still-standing door, and looked at the pile of rubble that had been his home.

Jesus. Now what am I going to do?

He scratched his nascent beard, then turned and walked in the direction of the clinic where his mother worked.

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Saint Jake – Prologue

Rudric gripped the shaft of his hayfork more tightly, and swallowed with a dry mouth. He could see the dust raised by the horsemen ahead, and a few of the lead horses, manes flying in a full gallop. No telling how many more rode behind in the dust, but there would be many. All battle-trained and armed with real weapons.

He glanced to his left and to his right. The village and all the nearby farms had turned out, armed with whatever they could find, mostly farming tools, nearly three hundred strong. His hayfork was one of the better weapons. One of the two Jakes had organized the villagers, and had nodded when he’d seen the hayfork and asked others to bring as many as they could find. There were an even two dozen hayfork wielders, packed tightly in two rows in the center of the line, with the Jakes astride their horses on the slope right behind them. Drop low, plant the butt of the fork in the hillside, and keep the tines high and pointed directly at the horse. Let the horse do all the work.

Not that any of them would likely survive. A thousand pounds of racing muscle and bone was not something you could fend off with a pointed stick. Their job wasn’t to survive. It was to protect the Jakes for the few critical moments they needed.

None of them would survive if they didn’t fight. These weren’t annual raiders, come for food and women. They were part of a terrible army from Washimore, on their way to fight the equally terrible armies of the Linahs, and they slaughtered people and burned the fields as they went; should they lose the battle, their enemies would need to cross a dead zone to strike back.

Rudric’s work-callused hands began to tremble. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and recalled the Prayer of Saint Jake to mind.

Be mellow.

He thought of Saint Jake’s campaign against the Dragonlords, standing alone in the Arena of Fate, the fate of his people riding on his victory against impossible odds, and his hands steadied.

I can do this, he thought. Saint Jake, give me strength of spirit and mellowness of soul, and should I die here today, receive me into your company of the blessed.

He opened his eyes, and watched the lead horsemen race toward him.


Gun-Toting Patriots

I was raised in Wyoming. It is the quintessential “square state” — a big patch of beautiful nothing in the middle of nowhere, populated by 300,000 people, and wind.

Wyoming is also a gun-totin’ Red State. My father was a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, and made the kids in the neighborhood some of the best wooden guns I’ve ever seen. Our neighbor across the street was a serious gun collector. A lot of people hunted game in the fall — typically deer and antelope — and the ranchers all had predator issues for which a gun was simply a convenient and appropriate farm implement.

As a young man, I believed — as my Wyoming upbringing taught me — that the point of the Second Amendment to the Constitution was to allow The People to defend themselves against their own government, should it turn to tyranny, and found that my callow political sympathies lay with neither the Republicans nor the Democrats, but with the Libertarians.

Then I grew up.

I really can’t put it any more delicately. This view of the Second Amendment is juvenile at best. For anyone who wants to disagree, I have just three questions.

Envision a situation — any situation you like — where you believe in your heart that The Time Has Come. The Government has turned to tyranny, and it is the hour for all good men and true to kick off their man-slippers, step out of their man-caves, and start kicking some ass. It’s time to do your duty, and Defend America. Lock and load.

First question: Do you know who your CO is? That’s Commanding Officer, just to be clear.

Don’t tell me who it is, since if you’re going up against a national government gone sour, I’d certainly hope your CO’s identity is need-to-know. The question is, do you know your CO? If not, do you at least have a reliable means of knowing when you’ve been called to leave your home and family, and report for duty and (probably) death in the glorious cause of Freedom?

I’m guessing you don’t belong to any chain of command whatsoever. You’re a private citizen with privately-owned lethal weapons. No one gets to tell you what to do. That’s what freedom is all about.

That means you are, at best, no different from an armed vigilante in a city-wide riot. You are surrounded by other armed and dangerous hotheads freshly arisen from their man-caves, and also by lots and lots of unarmed fellow citizens — you call them “sheeple” — who are most certainly not going to man up and grab a gun. In fact, they’ll take pictures of you on their iPhones and rat you out to the authorities.

Your revolution is over before it even starts.

So let’s assume you are in the small minority of armed citizens who are also part of a volunteer militia with a clear chain of command and a sworn oath of duty.

Second question: Who is backing your revolution?

It takes an 18-wheeler full of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) to keep a fighting force of 1000 well-fed for ten days. You need a constant resupply of ammunition just for training: if every patriot gets to practice with one shot per day, it’s 1000 rounds of ammunition a day. What about clothing: shoes, coats, hats, gloves? Body armor, helmets, shovels, and mess kits? Kitchen equipment? Vehicles? Spare tires? Gasoline?

What about shelter? Where will you winter? Where will you hide 1000 men, and is your secret base proof against infrared satellite imaging, drones, air strikes, and old-fashioned betrayal? Or are you going to embed yourself in a civilian population, and implicitly use them as hostages?

Do you have smart, seasoned tacticians in your organization? Do you have strategic planners? Do you have a path to winning this war you’re about to start your militia of 1000 men, good and true, pitted against the sworn and ready Armed Forces of the (now-tyrannical) United States Government?

I know you are all enamored of the American Revolution and how it turned out, but I hope you understand that without financial support from France, and without an entire ocean between Britain and the colonies, the American Revolution would have been nothing more than a short-lived riot, swiftly put-down and its leaders hanged. It very nearly ended at Valley Forge. It might well have failed had not King George been afflicted with the madness of porphyry during the critical phases of that war.

It was a near thing.

In the modern world, you are aware, are you not, that every single “patriotic resistance” (or “radicalized terrorist group”), from ISIL to the FARC to the Shrouded Whatever, is — as it must be — supported by a solvent government that wants to see a rival government fall? So which hostile foreign government is going to supply, support, and guide your militia? Will you be working for the Russians, or the Chinese, or for someone else?

I’m going to guess that it never occurred to you to think about any of this, and I’m going to further guess that your CO, and his CO (if he has one) has not thought about it, either.

Your revolution will end when your forces are pinned down by the FBI and the National Guard, besieged, and start to get hungry.

So let’s take this to the final step. Let’s assume that somehow, after weeding out all the sheeple and the snowflakes and the Democrats and the Godless Liberals and the women and the children and the cripples and all the rest of the worthless dross that never has and never will stand up and fight for freedom — that somehow, there are still enough of you, good men and true, under some kind of brilliant strategic command, with support commitments from at least one major government hostile to the tyranny in Washington, DC, to actually make war on the United States Government. That there are enough of you to potentially defeat the sworn and duty-bound soldiers and high command who remain loyal to the US Armed Forces, and force the corrupt US government to its knees.

Third question: How do you really expect this to play out?

I hope you understand that you are starting a war against an established government that is, however corrupt you believe it to be, still the lawful government of the nation.

I hope you understand that you will be immediately branded as foreign-led terrorists on US soil, vilified by the US media, shunned by a terrified US public, infiltrated by spies and traitors to your cause, and will be engaged in not only a military struggle, but a propaganda struggle to capture the hearts and minds of this nation of television-drugged sheeple.

I hope you understand that you will no longer be a member of a militia. This is war. You will be a soldier in a full-scale army. They will feed you. They will clothe you. They will train and arm you. They will give you orders, and hang you if you disobey (not shoot you — they’ll want to conserve ammunition). They will do all the thinking for you.

As for your privately-owned weapons: if this insurgent army has any interest in them at all, it will be to confiscate and distribute them to their sharpshooters and special operatives. You’ll get standard issue.

No one can say who would eventually “win” such a civil war, but one thing is guaranteed: we will all lose our freedom.

Here’s the bottom line.

No government cares about your guns. Your guns are not a threat to the government. Your guns have never been a threat to the government. Your guns will never be a threat to the government.

On the other hand, if your guns make you a sufficient annoyance, they will put out an arrest warrant, hunt you down, starve you out, and — if necessary — fire bomb you out of existence. You will be a terrorist shot while trying to escape.

And if it’s really a tyranny you are up against — a real, honest-to-God tyranny — they’ll take out the entire area around you, without hesitation or qualm, even in the middle of a heavily populated city. You think your assault rifle is going to stop a stinger missile?

Your privately owned guns are a hobby. Your band-of-patriots doing calisthenics in the woods is a hobby.

Private gun ownership does not “protect the liberty of America.” It never has, and it never will. This is one of the most ridiculous Libertarian myths to have come out of people who’ve lived too long with the maddening moan of Wyoming wind in their ears.

So what is the Second Amendment all about? Glad you asked.

Turns out — and I didn’t know this until a couple of years ago — it was a negotiating point that the Southern states demanded in return for their ratification of the Constitution. The “militias” they refer to so mysteriously in the amendment weren’t mysterious at all in 1778: they existed, and were a matter of common knowledge in both the North and the South.

The militias were informally known as “slave patrols.” These were armed citizen militias in the southern states with mandatory service requirements for every able-bodied white man — with explicit exemptions for various occupations, like ministers and politicians. Their purpose was also a matter of common knowledge: it was to control the negro slave population, through oppression and fear.

The new Constitution explicitly established a continental army, and the Southern states feared that this national army would supersede the authority of their slave patrols, and that the Northern states would use this authority to gradually absorb and phase out the slave patrols. The Northern representatives argued that this was nonsense (they were most likely lying). The Southern representatives held fast: they believed (almost certainly correctly) that they would lose control of their slaves without the militias, and without slaves — if they were forced to pay their laborers a living wage — they believed the Southern economy would collapse.

The Second Amendment is about preserving slavery, and the slave-economy of the Old South.

If you want to take issue with this “theory” of the Second Amendment, then I’ll ask you a final question. We know the writers of the Constitution were worried about the unwashed masses, the people the Romans and later historians referred to as “the mob.” They were worried enough that, although they gave citizens a House of Representatives and a vote, they initially restricted the definition of “citizen” to landowners. They also established a separate Senate composed of members who were originally appointed to their office by the State governments. They further protected their fledgling government from the mob by establishing the Electoral College, to filter the popular vote once more.

Given all that, do you really think they were interested in giving the mob a way to blow away the government they had tried so hard to create? By simply pulling a trigger?

That makes as much sense as hair on a cue ball.

Now, I don’t begrudge anyone for not knowing the two-century-old politics behind the Second Amendment; it certainly isn’t taught in school.

But if you’ve been thinking your gun ownership has ever had anything to do with protecting the US against tyranny under our own government, let me make it clear: you are thinking like a child.

Like those Bundy boys, who took over a government bird sanctuary in Oregon, got on the government-created, government-protected Internet to beg for food, took for granted that it would be delivered promptly to their door by the government-run Postal Service, and expected any outcome but public humiliation and a prison term.

I, for one, am sick of hearing this gunslinger fantasy from grown men. Newsflash: you are neither Shane, nor Batman.

Grow up.

Jesus Saves

Here is the current state of our public dialogue.

“Jesus Saves,” as we all know.

So an American entrepreneur opens the Jesus™ Savings and Loan, Inc. Their motto: “Jesus Saves, and so can YOU!”

The business is a huge success, particularly among the ultra-religious Christians.

The first CEO is well-aware of the irony of it all, and doesn’t care, he’s getting rich. He thinks he’s brilliant.

The second CEO is aware of the irony, but isn’t interested, as he has a serious business to run. He thinks he’s responsible.

The third CEO is not aware of the irony: he is of the generation whose parents banked with Jesus™ S&L, and he believes in his heart that he is doing the Lord’s work by charging interest on loans, and foreclosing on “deadbeats” who missed a house payment. Hard work, but it’s his cross to bear. He thinks he is righteous.

After all, Jesus saves. Right? Which means Jesus clearly understands the power of compounding interest, and doesn’t have a problem with accumulating wealth.

Someone comes along, now, and says, “The love of money is the root of all evil.”

The CEO of Jesus™ Savings and Loan responds, “Atheist! Blasphemer! Anti-christ!”

This is the state of our current public dialogue.

Something Right

2017-06-27 16.30.17The heat peaked at 94º earlier this afternoon. It now drops, slightly, though the air continues to hold a comforting warmth as the sun streaks at a steep angle through the tall pines. The park is filling rapidly with people. We find an empty place in a small triangle of shade that has just grown into existence, and we set down our folding chairs and open our new baby-blue picnic blanket. I rummage in one of the grocery bags for my wineglass and spike, a cookout gadget I’d never seen before moving to California. A splash of Ava Grace, a red blend from Livermore that I’m fond of these days, and I’m ready to settle in for the evening.

I reach out to touch Marta’s hand. “Happy anniversary, beautiful!” She smiles back at me.

Twelve years ago today, we celebrated our love and our good fortune in having found each other in a world of seven billion people, up in the Colorado mountains where we had met the year before. It wasn’t a wedding — I was still allergic to the institution. But we wanted a celebration, so we’d decided to hold the reception without the wedding, a two-day affair with overnight camping and an unconscionable surplus of food, surrounded by family and friends. We had a very short, eclectic Pagan circle to celebrate the wind and the wildflowers, and later participated in our first Druidic rite when three of our guests asked if we minded; they invited Marta and me to join in as the Green Man and Queen of Summer — a few days late for Solstice, but I’ve always felt the light turn in Colorado about a week after Solstice, anyway. Samantha, Marta’s friend, had paved the path to our tent with rose petals and lined it with rosemary.

Kat and Izzy, our neighbors, arrive before long, trailing three young men who have been interning at the Sustainable Living Center in Hopland, working with Izzy. Two twenty-somethings, and the “old man” who might have been all of twenty-eight. Kat pulls out a St. Michelle Riesling and passes it one way, while I pass Grace in the other.

Royal Jelly Jive fires up. They bill themselves as “soulful gypsy blues,” and — as usual — they excel, as does the sound system and the mixing engineer. We give and receive introductions all around, and laugh and talk easily as the music plays. A bag of chips is set out, then a second. Marta leaves to order an arepa, and brings me back an enormous slice of pizza. The wine bottles make another circuit.

2017-06-25 19.51.17 HDRI watch the people around us. A family has spread out on a blanket ten feet away. There are two little ones delighting themselves hiding under a different blanket and chasing each other. A girl of perhaps twelve tries valiantly to do a handstand; she’s clearly grown out her legs in the last year, and she hasn’t yet found her new point of balance. I think of the year that my voice changed, and I smile. Two old friends just beyond the family notice each other; they exclaim and hug. I fall into a brief conversation with the older man beside me; he’s a “newcomer” to town, as of some twenty years ago. A young man strides across the park, an immortal godling, head held high, muscular arms swinging freely from broad shoulders, his bare back a riot of artwork. A slender young woman minces in the other direction, carefully, carrying a plate of food — her Carmen Sandiego scarlet dress is beautiful, and the broad-brimmed hat is a matching shade that glows in the now-shallow golden sunlight. A handful of people have iPhones in hand, but they seem to have actual business on them: perhaps coordinating with latecomers. They text, and then they put the phone away and either listen to the music, or talk with their friends, or — like me — watch the people.

2017-06-25 19.50.26 HDRThe light is magical. We are now in the shadow of the mountains to the West, a gentle, warm twilight, but the sun still limns the limbs of the pines. Cameras capture colors and shapes, but they cannot seem to catch the trick of light that makes the trees glow as if with their own inner light.

I can just see the dance area in front of the stage. It is packed with people of all ages, teenagers and septuagenarians, couples and singles, parents and children. A policeman strolls by, alone. He wears a uniform; he does not wear tactical armor. He is smiling. There are only a few black people in the crowd, but many Hispanic, Oriental, and Native American folk. There are a lot of tattoos.

I discover that Kat, like me, has a near-perfect memory for movie dialogue, and we begin to have a conversation using fragments from “guess that movie.” Izzy and Marta roll their eyes and ignore us. Marta falls into conversation with a woman she just met, a former Silicon Valley executive who threw it all away to move here. The bottle passes again.

At some point, I lean over to Izzy, and with a broad gesture at our surroundings, I say, “This. This. There is so much in the world that is so totally fucked up. But this — this is something right.”

We stay until the band stops playing and the crowd begins to disperse. Marta drives us home.

A Day in the Life


I’m still in bed, awakened by the dogs moving about in the other room. It’s quiet this morning: I hear the sound of only one car in ten minutes. It’s been chilly at night, so the windows are closed; otherwise, I’d probably hear birdsong, though not much — with the windows closed, I can hear only the most penetrating of birdcalls.

Hardly anyone is awake: the bakers at the bakery up the street, of course, and a few restaurant and coffee shop owners and employees getting ready for the breakfast crowd; the night shift at the police station and the hospital, wrapping up a long night; a few insomniacs and early-risers taking quiet walks.

I slip back into REM sleep, where I have a strange and vivid dream of a different life, a gloriously self-sufficient life where I am no longer burdened by taxes or government interference with my essential freedoms…

I’ve been up for half an hour, milking my cow. Selling fresh milk is one of my most consistent sources of trade income, since I’ve the only cow in the area, owing to the good fortune of the grazing on this piece of land, and a running stream. She’s getting old, and I worry about her production. I give her a sad look, with a hint of calculation in it. I can see steak in the next year or two, but I’m not sure I’ll make enough off the meat to afford a new calf, much less a new cow. Not sure what I’ll do at that point.

My hands are nice and warm, the early morning ache from the cold worked out. My heavy quilted jacket is warm, but my feet are still cold; I’d traded for a poor batch of wood a year back, and the night fire had once again gone out early and left me shivering. I’d had words with Jim, the woodsman, for selling me crap wood, but he’d just shrugged. He knew he was the only game in town. He didn’t overcharge, at least not too much, but his prices were high. There’d been another young fellow a couple of years back who had tried to compete with Jim, but he’d up and vanished after a year. Some said Jim had cut his throat and burned the body. Could be — Jim was a mean son of a bitch — but with nary a trace of evidence, there wasn’t much to be done about it, and no one was going to pay for an investigation. I’m sure as Hell too old to be taking down trees: it’s trade with Jim, or do without.

I hear a shriek in the woods, and experience a brief moment of grim satisfaction. A new group of squatters moved into the area a week ago, and they haven’t yet learned that my fences mean business. I keep on milking as the screams grow hoarse and then subside to a bubbling howl. My son issues a soft birdcall as he slips through the trees around the perimeter, to let me know where he is, just in case I decide to explore. Wouldn’t want to shoot him by accident. No point to my going out there yet, though — I’m not going to waste shot on the poor bastard, he’ll die quick enough. My son will raise the alarm if there are more coming.

I sigh, thinking about the work involved in digging another grave, but it was that, or let the body rot in the open, and that would attract scavengers. It’s putting wear on the shovel, too, and new steel will cost me dearly. But I’m too damn old to work with a wooden shovel in this soil. Wish the squatters would just read the signs I post, or at least have the sense to pay attention to the scalps I’ve mounted on poles. Of course, who’d pay to teach any of them to read? This squatter was probably hungry enough to try to eat the scalps — I should check on those later today, too.

6:00 am

I wake a second time. The dogs are restless, and my wife has just fed them, so they’re yipping to go out and play. I throw back the covers, and put my bare feet on a cool hardwood floor.

The dream is still with me, and I think about the temperature in the house — not a usual early-morning thought. I can still feel the dawn chill of the dream and the warm udders against my palms. I hear the hum of the forced-air furnace as it kicks on, fed by natural gas and electricity from a public utility with government-regulated prices, quality-of-service, and safety practices.

I remember the gas leak up the street last spring, when the neighbors had gone digging with a backhoe to plant a new tree, and hadn’t bothered to call the utility company first for a free service visit to mark the underground gas line. We lost our gas in the neighborhood for two days while the crews repaired it, and I heard the neighbors got hit with a huge bill, which their insurance paid. Everyone complained that insurance costs were going to go up, but they didn’t.

I think about Jim, selling shoddy fuel for high prices, and how his only competitor just vanished one night, in a world where no one is interested in paying for justice.

Brrr. I shake off the dream and become preoccupied with my daily morning routine.

After breakfast, I pour milk into my coffee, and with the sight of pouring milk, the dream returns unbidden…

I dig with a steady rhythm, and when I tire, my son relieves me. He digs longer and faster than I do. I don’t want to sit too long, though, lest I stiffen up. The soil isn’t too hard, and we don’t hit any big rocks; we’re deep enough in less than an hour. We drag the two bodies to the grave and roll them in. The man had been caught by the trap. The woman had put a sharp stick through her own neck and died with her arms around the man. It was probably just the two of them. She lands on her back, and her eyes pop open — they seem to stare at me, though I know she’s dead and isn’t staring at anything in this world. She and the man are both emaciated scarecrows, doubtless starving for weeks. I cover her with dirt quickly, and then sit and let my son work. I tell myself it’s age.

Dammit, why should I care? If they starve, it’s their own damn fault. It’s not like they can’t work just as hard as the rest of us. These squatters are like all those people on welfare back when I was a kid, when we had the big nanny state fed by taxes taken at the point of a gun, no freedoms, a world full of welfare bums living off the hard work of other people, no respect for private property, no self-respect. Parasites.

I think again of the other woodsman. What was his name? I don’t remember. I wonder if Jim really did kill him. Maybe Jim just drove him away. Maybe took his axe, and broke his arm, and frightened him off. Couldn’t very well work as a woodsman with a broken arm and no axe. Takes a month to starve, longer than that for a bone to knit. Assuming it knits straight, which there’s no guarantee if you can’t pay a bonesetter. I try to remember if the man we’re burying maybe had a bad leg, or a bad arm. I didn’t notice. Doesn’t matter. Squatters are squatters.

“You’re falling behind, Old Man,” my son says. He’s grinning, but there’s a sadness in his eyes, and a hint of calculation that I don’t like the look of. I suppress a grunt as I rise to take my shift with the shovel. I sat too long, and my back hurts.

8:00 am

Seated at my desk, I reply to e-mails from work. I sit in an ergonomically-designed chair that allows me to put in a solid eight hours without back or leg pain, at a desk designed to minimize wrist strain. The company I work for paid for both of them, which was less expensive than dealing with an OSHA grievance filed against them with the government. Without the threat of OSHA, there probably wouldn’t be any profit in making such chairs and desks, since they are too expensive for most people to buy on their own.

The VPN secure network software I use was developed by a private company, using algorithms developed by researchers at a public university. The Internet I use for high-speed data transfer is an outgrowth of the fiber-optic backbone laid in at government expense back in the late 1990’s. Performance is good, and relatively cheap. The government prevents the service providers from tiering their prices, the so-called “net neutrality” issue that keeps floating in Congress: providers can’t force their customers to bid against each other for better bandwidth, which removes incentives for scalpers and speculators to move in.

I finish reading all my new e-mails, and sit back for a moment before digging into the project I’m working on. I sip my second cup of coffee, close my eyes to savor the taste, and the dream intrudes again…

I’m late to market, and have to set up on the periphery instead of my usual spot. My customers give me a hard time about my “new location,” and I grunt and say, “Had to bury some bodies.” They laugh. They don’t ask questions. There’s some hard bargaining this morning, but I hold firm on prices, and sell out quickly. It’s a good take. The baker is preparing a cake for a wedding, and buys a whole pint with the cream. That leaves me short for the other customers, and they get into a bidding war over what’s left.

There’s a brief scuffle down by the baker’s table. Some drifter is accused of passing counterfeit coins. They’ve already got the rope around his neck when one of the other vendors looks at the fake coin and declares it to be Canadian quarter, rare these days, worth more than twice an old US quarter. The baker is embarrassed enough to throw in an extra bread roll for free. The drifter’s face is pale, but he gathers up his order and the extra roll with shaking hands and leaves quickly. We won’t see him again. Good riddance.

I buy a loaf of bread, and some eggs. No meat: I’m saving my money to try to buy a lamb at the big market in the Fall. I’ll be able to spin wool, then, and maybe get a second lamb and start breeding them. That might provide enough extra income to buy a new cow.

When I get back to my property, I walk the perimeter and check the traps. All of the scalps are still there. I always salt them before I put them up. Not even birds are stupid enough to peck at them. Only starving humans would try. Those two squatters didn’t get close enough to try. My son has reset the traps. All good.

10:00 am

I dial into the team meeting. Six of us in the group, a fairly large development team, but it’s a complicated project. The remote conference software is not too flaky this morning; developed by a pure for-profit company, one of many competing products in the marketplace, the software is constantly being revised, patched, and its user-interface redesigned. We rarely have a month go by without some major glitch. It’s the cheapest and most widely-used software out there. I swear, most of their money must go into marketing.

We all touch base, then two of us stay on for a half-hour longer working out some of the design issues on a virtual whiteboard. There’s an integrated whiteboard in the commercial conference software, but it freezes all the time. We instead use an old piece of code originally developed at a public university, which then moved to the public domain and is now maintained with community support. It does the job, and it’s fast and stable.

The two of us are about three thousand miles apart — she’s just returned from lunch. She says she’ll write up the notes, and we end the call and I wait for them. She’s always quick — it won’t be more than fifteen minutes, and there’s no point in doing anything more until we have a common document. I take a bathroom break, and then come back and open my windows to enjoy the warming breeze. I close my eyes…

I’m splitting some extra wood for the fire tonight — damn that fucker Jim, anyway — when the gate bell clatters. I pick up my shotgun and walk around front, to find the postman, of all people. He’s a rare sight, these days. I remember daily mail as a kid. These days, with no taxes and no government to collect them, there’s precious little in the way of official mail. I can read, but most people can’t, and don’t miss it, so there isn’t much call for mail at all. Postman used to come around once a month, to the middle of town, and a couple of the old-timers and I would make a little trade by reading the mail aloud to the illiterate recipients, then writing down their replies for return post. There hasn’t been much of that kind of work in the last few years. 

Postman has never shown up at my gate. No one pays for that kind of service. Yet here he is.

He isn’t in a talkative mood, just sees me coming and drops a big, fat envelope on the ground and takes off. I imagine he’s pissed to have to come out here, though it’s only about a mile from town — even paid for, it’s extra time added to his day, which I’m sure is as full as anyone else’s. Whoever sent it must have paid pretty well.

I pick up the envelope. It’s heavy, cream-colored paper, elegant stuff I haven’t seen the like of in … well, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like this. The address is mine, my name and everything, and the writing is like artwork. I stare at it without opening it. Then I go in the house, the house I built with my own hands, and put it on the desk I built with my own hands. It’ll keep. I’ve got real work to do.

12:00 pm

I look up from my work and stretch. It’s already noon, time to take a break for lunch. My wife is meeting with one of her friends, and the dogs are done napping and want to have some fun. I rummage through the refrigerator, and find some left-over caprese salad from dinner last night, all local produce, including the balsamic vinegar. I dice leftover grilled chicken and mix it with mayonnaise, chopped kalamata olives, and a dash of seasoned salt, served on a bed of fresh lettuce. I have just water to drink — I’m trying to watch sugar and starch intake, since I’ve got high blood sugar. It’s just tap water, from another regulated public utility. The State is pretty fierce about enforcing water quality here — none of that nonsense like up in Flint, Michigan.

I take my lunch to the back yard, and sit at the patio table and watch the dogs frolic. Two ravens tick-tock at each other up in the branches of the trees. The heat is rising, and I feel a little sleepy…

My son and I eat our day-meal: fresh bread from this morning, with our own butter, a berry jam from last Fall’s canning, roast garden potatoes from last night, fresh garden greens, and the milk I reserved from this morning, cooled in the stream. We’ll have the eggs tonight, after I start the night-fire. We talk about what to do with our neighbor upstream, Raymond.

The stream smells of pigshit, again. He’s got pigs, and while the bacon is welcome in the Fall, he can’t seem to keep the styes from leaching into the stream, which flows through his land. We’ve had some friendly conversations, but they’ve soured and matters are coming to a head. No one further downstream cares: water flows into a small fen just beyond us, then over a spillway into a fast, shallow run over gravel with lots of sun, and folks past that are happy with their water. The matter’s between Raymond and me.

Once Raymond figured out that it was just the two of us, he stopped even pretending to care. Said he wasn’t about to spend time, effort, or money looking out for my interests, and I had no call to be infringing on his freedoms. I agree with that, in principle, but the stream past my place stinks, and I worry my cow will get sick. Raymond shrugs: says he’s lactose-intolerant, meaning he can’t drink milk anyway, so he doesn’t give a damn about my cow or the milk. The bastard says his water’s fine, and has the cheek to offer to pasture my cow for me, for a fee.

My son and I try to find a point of leverage against Raymond, but we come up empty. I wonder if we need to build a gravel bed upstream, though I don’t know if that will be enough without a fen.

2:00 pm

My computer bleeps at me, and my doctor’s appointment pops up on the screen. I pull on shoes, and drive to her clinic, about a mile away. There’s no traffic to speak of; it takes five minutes. Normally, I’d walk the mile, but I’ve got some work I’d like to finish today.

The doctor and I discuss my last tests, and the high blood sugar seems to be under control. She wants a follow-up in six months. It’s an easy visit — a lot easier than the one fifteen years ago, when they told me I had cancer.

Treatment has come a long way since I was a kid. Back then, a cancer diagnosis was a death sentence. Since then, basic research done in public universities had found new ways to treat different cancers, including some uncommon forms that gave them hints for handling some of the more common ones. Spreading the costs through insurance, combined with various direct and indirect government subsidies, had created a mass market for cancer treatments, which would otherwise have been restricted to the very wealthy. That, in turn, provided a profit motive for pharmaceutical companies to mass-produce some of the drugs, as well as support the education and training of a whole cadre of experienced surgeons and oncologists to serve that market. My treatment had been almost routine.

That whole turn of thought makes me change my mind about going back to work. When I get home, I walk to the nearby public park, where I sit and watch squirrels for a bit…

It’s just a finger cut, but it’s deep — I can see bone — and it was one of those stupid things. I know how to hold a knife to carve wood. Hell, I taught my son how to carve wood. Then I go and break my own rules, and slice my finger open.

Blood poisoning is an ugly thing. I’ve no choice — I need to make the walk back to town, and get the healer to clean, and stitch, and sell me some Pharma. I hope not Big Pharma. I don’t know if I’ve got enough saved to pay for that. Maybe a poultice will be good enough.

Looks like the lamb will have to wait another year.

4:00 pm

I receive a surprise call from the VP of Engineering. It’s six o’clock in his time-zone. He’s worried about the delivery of parts for the new hardware, and wants to discuss how that’s going to affect my part of the project. We talk for nearly an hour. I tell him about the new design we’d knocked out this morning, and he’s enthusiastic. We both hang up feeling good about the project.

It’s quitting time when we finish talking, and I retire to the back yard with a glass of wine. My wife joins me, and we enjoy the lazy afternoon heat together. She tells me about her day, and I smile, and tell her a little about mine. I don’t mention the strange dream, but then we fall into companionable silence…

I scream and weep as the healer cleans the cut. The stitching isn’t as bad as the cleaning, but then the pain settles into a throbbing rhythm that swells and peaks and dies away, only to swell again. She offers some pain-killing tea, but I decline — I’ve already spent enough. The poultice helps with the pain. As I’d feared, I can’t afford the Big Pharma. She sells me her best poultice, and gives me a price break, because she’s one of my milk customers: uses it to make one of her Pharmas, so it contributes to her own income. At least I’ll still be able to afford the lamb in the Fall. If I live.

The healer is my age. She helped deliver my son, and helped my wife recover from the hard birth. That set me back nearly all of my savings, and when my wife caught pneumonia a year later, I couldn’t afford the Pharma, so she died. I dug her a special grave, apart from the squatters. Damn lucky I was already in the milk business, and that my son wasn’t lactose intolerant, or I’d have lost him, too.

I walk out into the main street through the town, and decide to Hell with everything, I’m going to buy myself a shot of something strong. I don’t indulge often — my father turned to the bottle when I was young, a good man broken by changed circumstances, and I’ve seen plenty of fine men ruined by the stuff. But I need something to lift my spirits, or at least mute the pain a little. Healer’s tea would likely have been more effective, but also more expensive. I’ve spent enough today.

There’s something outlandish outside the bar. It’s a vehicle, like nothing I’ve seen. Shiny metal, gloss-painted silver. Tinted one-way glass windows. Sleek, like a fish or a bird, but powerful-looking. A man in a red jacket and white gloves steps out, walks around the vehicle and opens a door on the other side. A short man in a white suit steps out, looks around, sniffs the air. As he turns toward me, I see his face. It’s a mess.

There’s no other way to describe it. It looks like someone has gone at it with a chisel, leaving deep, purple gouges. His nose is the wrong color, as if it isn’t real flesh, and his lower lip droops and hangs open on the left. He carries a delicate handkerchief in his left hand, and dabs at the lip, reflexively, I imagine to keep from drooling.

I make a guess at cancer. They had better surgeons when I was young. When they dismantled the welfare state, the whole medical system broke down. No one could afford it. Well, the rich could afford it. They could afford anything. But they weren’t about to throw money away on the poor, and there weren’t enough of the rich getting sick to keep the medical schools open for training specialists. Besides, there were no students: there was no future in doctoring the old way. You might have one paying customer in a lifetime, and if you did, you were set for life. Most likely, however, you’d starve waiting for that one customer. A kind of patronage system came into use for a while, where the rich would fund their own private, exclusive hospitals, but the hospitals were almost always empty of patients and the doctors took to gambling and drinking to pass the time. Then, when a real case finally came in — like this poor bastard — they simply didn’t have the skills.

A crowd gathers.

“Begging the pardon of all you excellent people,” the man in the white suit says in a high voice like that of a pre-pubescent boy, all his labial consonants mangled by that dead lip. “Could you direct me to the property of the man who owns the cow?”

I step forward. “That would be me.”

“Ah,” he said. “I assume you received my letter.”

I scowl. “Haven’t read it yet.”

He blinks and pats his drooping lip in silence.

“Well,” he says at last. “I wish to purchase your land.”

“It isn’t for sale.”

The right side of his face smiles. I’m learning to ignore the left side. His smile looks condescending to me.

“Everything is for sale, my good man. Just name your price.”

“It isn’t for sale at any price.”

“Hey, mister, what the Hell happened to your face?” That’s the baker, who is an impulsive ass. The man in the suit turns to look at the baker. He says something in a soft voice to his driver, or servant, or whatever the Hell he is, and the servant replies inaudibly.

“Ah,” says the man with the ruined face, and there’s a hard glitter in his eye. “You are the baker. Your livelihood is selling bread to this community, is it not?”

“Aye,” says the baker. He stands a little straighter, and his chest puffs. He’s proud of his independence, his freedom, just like all the rest of us. He’s his own man, and he’s got a right to be proud.

“Take a note,” the man in the white suit says to his servant in a loud voice that carries, still staring at the baker. “I’d like to open a bakery in this village. A proper bakery. Spare no expense. I want greater variety. Higher quality. Lower prices. Much lower prices. Say, half what this fellow charges.”

The baker’s face is red, and his fists clench. “That’ll put me out of business!”

“Indeed,” says the man in the white suit. He turns back to me, dismissing the baker.

“You can’t do that!” the baker wails. “You can’t do that!”

“Take another note,” the suited man says in the same carrying voice, without looking at the baker. “Hire some men to travel with this baker fellow, to make sure he stays completely safe wherever he goes. Have them report regularly, and any place this fellow settles, open a new bakery. Same goods, same prices as here. For as long as he lives.”

The baker collapses to the ground, eyes wide, his jaw slack. The crowd moves away from him, slightly, as if he might be contagious.

The man in the suit speaks to me. “I understand that your livelihood is selling milk to this community, is it not?”

I stare at his misshapen face for a long moment, and a knot of fear rises in my stomach like nothing I have ever felt. I think as quickly as I have ever thought. I lower my eyes to the ground.

“It was,” I say, carefully. “What is your offer for my land … sir?” That last word comes hard. Damn hard.

“Name your price,” says the man in the white suit. His voice is cheery.


Dinner is pork loin on the grill, asparagus, and new butter-gold potatoes. We eat outside, and then come in as the evening cools and the mosquitoes come out. I wash up the dishes — there aren’t many — while my wife reads the local paper.

There’s an art walk tonight, and we walk to the downtown area. Sidewalks are a little uneven in spots, but the way is well-lighted, courtesy of city government. We have our own “squatters,” more than a few, but they generally have places to stay, and ways to eat. They don’t worry about lethal traps that landowners have set.

All the artists are local, and some of them are very good. We meet neighbors, old friends, familiar acquaintances. It occurs to me that I’m not plotting against any of them for running pig feces into my water; if they were, I’d complain to the cops, and the cops would make them stop, because that sort of thing isn’t allowed.

On the walk home, under a beautiful moon, I’m quiet and reflective…

I’m shit-faced drunk. I pull out the heavy, soft paper and stare at it again. My signature at the bottom, and the illegible scrawl of the man in the white suit. I’d never even learned his name — the letterhead is that of a law firm, representing a corporation named in the document as the new owner of my land.

At the top is a number. The price I’d asked. Enough for me and my son to coast through life like rich men. The man in the suit hadn’t even haggled. He’d just said, “Done.” Next thing I knew, I had two copies of the letter he’d sent by post in front of me, and a pen in my hand. I signed both copies, he signed both copies, then he handed me one, took the other and got back in his vehicle. The window had rolled down.

“I’d like you out by the end of the week,” he said, pleasantly.

After that, I headed straight to the bar.

What will I tell my son? That I’d just scored the biggest deal of my life? Or that I’d just sold both of us into slavery?

What can I do with this much money? How will I even collect it? There’s a bank named on the paper, located in a city. That city is a resort favored by the rich. It’s a month’s journey by foot; we’ll be drifters, until we run out of money. If we survive the trip, the contract will be my passport, if I’m not robbed en route, and if I get a chance to show it.

If they let me into the bank, then what? If I take out the whole amount, where will I put it? How do I keep it safe? If I keep it in the bank, I will be chained to the bank, living among people who can throw away this kind of money without haggling. That is my new career, and my son’s: making daily trips to the well of the rich man’s bank to draw up a bucket of money, to spend on a poor man’s vision of Heaven in a rich man’s city.

Or I could just burn this damn thing, and forget the money. But then what? I have no land, no house, no hand-made desk, no aging milk cow. I have nothing but this fucking piece of paper.

Is my life any less ruined than the baker’s?

The worst of it is that I had no choice. I’ve prided myself on being my own man, beholden to none, pulling my own weight in the world, dignified and free.

I gave up my land and my livelihood without a fight, without a struggle, without even a bleat of protest. I lowered my eyes and called him “sir” as he robbed me of everything.

The man with the ruined face had not even threatened me. He had been nothing but pleasant. He had destroyed the baker with a handful of words, words that should have been purest philanthropy — a new bakery for the town with better goods at half the price, and then a kind offer of protection for the man he’d just robbed of his livelihood and driven out on the road to become an unwilling evangelist for that benediction. Wherever the baker goes, people will thank him for the blessing he brings with him — while he slowly starves to death. I have no doubt that if the baker figures out a way to exploit the situation, the ruined man will turn it back on him. I have never seen such vicious, cold-blooded cruelty.

Two emaciated faces appear uninvited in my mind’s eye. Faces buried at the bottom of a fresh-dug grave. One had died in agony, by my design, and I’d felt only satisfaction. The other had taken her own life in despair, and I’d felt only disgust.

No, dammit, that was different. They were trespassers, for God’s sake! Squatters. No respect for private prop….

No respect….

I curse aloud and tell the bartender to pour me another. I see myself in the mirror behind the bar, and for a moment, just a moment, I see a reflection of my father.

8:00 pm

I sit and try to read, but I can’t follow the plot, and my legs are restless. My wife watches me for a while, then asks what is wrong. I put down the book, and slowly try to convey the dream that has been haunting me all day.

“That’s a horrible dream!” she says, when I’m done. “What a nightmarish world!”

“I know,” I reply. “We all take so much of our civilization for granted. Streetlights. Electrical power grids. Potable water. A right to live unmolested, enforced by law, paid for by taxes. Courts to sort out who cheated whom in business. Sharing of costs for accidents and disasters. A basic, publicly-funded, free-to-all education in how to read and write. To give all that up for a … a ‘free market’ where even basic justice has a price tag on it…. My God.”

She shakes her head, and tells me she’s going to bed. She usually retires earlier than I do. She kisses me, and I hold her tight.

I give up on the book, and sit down at my computer to write out this dream.

I leave the bar, the last of the cash I’d brought to town spent on whiskey. I run into my son who is coming in the doorway. He stares at me with worry that slowly turns to disgust as he sees the state I’m in. He tells me he’d finished his chores and came to town because I hadn’t come home. The healer was already in bed, and he’d been asking everywhere about me. Says there was some nonsense story about a silver carriage and a man in a white suit, but someone finally mentioned they’d seen me go into the bar.

He wants to know what the Hell?

My son doesn’t cuss like I do. That he would use such language says a lot about his state of mind. I tell him I just want to go home, it’s been a pisser of a day.

Halfway home, I weave to the side of the road and puke my guts out. A long walk on a belly full of whiskey is not a good recipe for digestion. I feel better after that.

I still don’t know what to tell my son. I have to tell him. That we’re rich. And that we’re totally fucked. Tomorrow.

I’ll tell him tomorrow.