Fiction: Wednesday Politics
By Thomas R. Long
“Baltimore is a Dystopian mess,” Nadia says, taking a sip of her chai tea and sighing.
“Yeah imagine, some people come to a Hampden bar and drink tea,” chides Carl, downing half his glass of beer.
“No, she’s onto something,” Patricia says, “like the racial segregation and poverty, The Black Butterfly, and the way big corporations decide what transportation we will have, who will get jobs, and what entertainment we deserve. We’re still slaves to history. Is it any different than 1984 or A Brave New World?”
My companions and I sit at our usual table next to the corner booth, which a few years earlier we decided was too cramped and required the entrapment of the unfortunate persons delegated to sit wall side. Our foursome is a third of the diminished Wednesday evening clientele at The Watering Hole.
Carl takes the opening given by Patricia when she sucks some purple concoction through a straw.
“Yeah, well don’t forget the crime, war-zone murder rate, and dysfunctional socialist government that castrates a functioning city.”
“Are we really doing politics again?” I grouse, fearing a conversation that will leave me slouching wordless in my chair like a half-wit child. We met as freshmen in college, we were inseparable as undergrads, but unlike the others, I’m not in grad school, working at a fortune 500 company, or developing my future options in some primo internship. I married my college sweetheart and decided my contribution to posterity would be fathering future citizens, two girls so far. We still meet every Wednesday to have a drink. There’s a feeling that if we lose our communion, then we’ll spin away, become people unrecognizable to ourselves.
“I mean, we aren’t necessarily walking the corridors of power.”
My companions go silent except for the sound of glasses being lifted and set back down. I look around the table at the comforting features of my old friends, things that are morphing into the traits of strangers. Patricia’s candy colored hair styles are now juxtaposed with high heels instead of sneakers; Nadia still wears sweaters and librarian glasses, but the fullness of her youthful face has receded to reveal intense angles; Carl, a former clean-shaved advocate of sportswear, now wears an acid-green blazer and manicured beard.
I wonder if the server who comes to our table brought our first round of drinks. I certainly would have remembered him. He’s my height, but sickly thin, an old man with a glass eye and burn scars on the side of his face. He limps towards us, dragging his dead, right foot. One eye greets us, while the other eye is vacant. One arm hangs lifeless at his side. I give him the nick name Old Man Frankenstein and sit in a pool of inner satisfaction as my companions laugh.
“What will it be, friends?”
“Coffee Shitters!” we all shout in unison.
“Four Shitters, coming up,” He confirms before lumbering back to the bar.
“So, doid heads, let’s get back to this dystopian thing. You’re wrong, Oscar, we can do something, maybe only a small part, give our little push, but we can make positive change.”
“And what positive change would you make, Patricia?” asks Nadia, her chin supported by her hands, elbows on the table. “I mean, how many protests and marches and issue events have you been to, and this country is still run by the most egotistical, corrupt, un-woke, vanilla Viagra cases imaginable. I’m just saying, it ain’t as easy as courageous conversations and good will and all. Change takes planning and thought, and…”
“Pointless overthinking is what you mean. True change takes reworking the rules of reality.”
Nadia’s Rebuttal is interrupted by Old Man Frankenstein bringing out a tray of Shitters, shot glasses rimmed with cane sugar and filled with coffee liquor, syrup, and a shot of brandy –
a singular experience only found at The Watering Hole. We sit silently, wondering if his shaking hands are up to the task of placing the shots in front of us.
“Enjoy your expositions,” he says, before shuffling back to the bar. I am fascinated by our server – there is a look of secret knowledge in his eyes, rather eye. I wonder why my friends don’t seem interested in this incongruous old man.
By the third Shitter, my companions are all Polisci professors, nay, societal prophets. They have it all figured out. Maybe they do, how would I know? I’ve always felt like the stepchild in our little circle of reality masters. Carl, an engineering genius, will probably invent some teleporting robot that clips toenails. And Patricia will put an end to the plagues of the Four Horsemen through some meticulous U.N. resolution. Nadia will no doubt cure cancer, and hangovers while she’s at it. Me, I couldn’t do grad school, and not just because I had a family to support, I couldn’t take another lecture class to save my life. Being an industrial air-conditioning sales representative might not be a self-actualizing, sexy career, but it pays the bills.
The bar closes at 11:00 on Wednesdays, and the other weekday customers have left. We prepare for exit into the brisk autumn street. Carl is helping Patricia on with her jacket when Old Man Frankenstein asks, “Where you kids going?”
“Home. I mean, you’re closing, right?”
“But you were having such a great conversation, all about those important things.”
While his body reminds me of a decaying corpse covered in scaly lesions, his words are poignant and steady.
“It’s late, and we have things to do tomorrow…”
“What folly. Time is just a scam, reality’s thin veil. If you stay, I’ll give you Shitters on the house,” Old Man Frankenstein says before giving us an openmouthed cackle that shows a torturously destitute dental profile.
“Yeah, well, my belly needs some food, so…”
“Of no concern. I’ll have the cook bring out a plate of each of our starters.”
“Won’t the owner get upset?” asks Patricia.
“Young princess, I am the owner. But what is an acquisition without friends to share it? The only payment I ask is that you listen to a fantasy created in the mind of an old man.”
We look at each other. Four young adults still insecure with our place in the world, but growing in confidence, finally able to see how our jigsaw pieces of identity might form a future. The Shitters have put us in that forever mood, focusing the oblivion of alcohol with unhealthy doses of caffeine.
“What the hell.”
“I could eat a cow, and the barn she’s in.”
“Taylor, put a tray of Shitters in the bar frig and tell Pedro to bring out one, make that two, plates of each starter, and then you two can go home. I’ll do the closeout,” Old Man Frankenstein shouts to the bartender, louder than one would expect possible from his weathered frame. He sits down in a chair at the corner of the table. We are silent as he scans us with his one good eye. His face is stern, his mouth paradoxically forming a smile and grimace.
“Hmmm, such smart kids, gonna change the world, aren’t yah?”
“I’m not in for some takedown of the young-ins talk,” Carl says.
“No, ain’t that at all. It’s a real compliment. I couldn’t compete with minds like yours when I was young, Isn’t that right Oscar? Still can’t. Experiences were my lessons. You see, I’ve lived lots, experienced some things, traveled extensively, in a certain manner.”
“A certain manner? That’s rather ambiguous,” Patricia says.
“Forgive the lack of specifics, dear, I just want you to hear my little fantasy.”
“Old men and their fantasies, eh. Nothing involving lube and farm animals, I hope.”
Halitosis pours through the old man’s broken, pee-colored teeth as he laughs. Then he abruptly stops.
“No Oscar, my fantasies are borrowed, and Patricia, I’ll try to be more discerning in my labels, and Carl, I’ll try to fulfill your need for efficacy, and Nadia, I’ll consider public health in all my considerations.”
“How do you know…”
“Got a good memory, and your conversation wasn’t necessarily volumed for privacy.”
“So, you’ve been eavesdropping on us. What’s your name, anyway?”
“You guys are partial to calling me Frankenstein, although that would mean I resemble a mad student of the natural sciences more than a monster, so just call me Frank. Now Patricia, the consummate social justice advocate, how many rallies and marches and sit ins and planning circles have you been to? What have they accomplished anyway?”
“Are you ganging up on me with these three vultures? It’s about two steps forward and one step backwards,” Patricia says, slapping the table with her palm.
“Yes, of course, one step backwards, but you would prefer no backwards movement, wouldn’t you? So, lets indulge my fantasy. What if you were queen of the world? What if you could control the levers of power, make the tweaks here and there to cure societies injustices?”
“It’ll take more than tweaks to change this Screwed-up world.”
“Of course, my dear, much more. So, let’s change levers to a jackhammer. That’s what’s needed, right?”
“If I had a jack hammer, I’d hammer in the morning, I’d hammer in the evening…” sings Nadia with anticipation as the bartender approaches the table. He slides two more Shitters in front of each of us.
“Pedro will be out with the starters in a moment, sir, and there’s a latrine full of Shitters below the bar.”
“Good man. Be safe,” Frank says as the bartender leaves out the front door. “So, Patricia, Baltimore becomes your kingdom when you rise from city council president to Mayor. In a time of uncertainty, you bring certainty in a landslide election. With your popularity and a partisan government, you shake up the city like an Etch A Sketch and redraw the lines of convention.”
“Shake things up!” shouts Patricia, downing a Shitter and slamming the glass on the table. The rest of us follow her example.
“But people don’t live in Etch A Sketch lines, so you have to create incentives, punishments and rewards to make your society just and equitable. Special monitors are required to straighten the not-so-perfect inclinations of ordinary citizens.
“But things still go awry. Corruption, reactionaryism, pettiness – and you begin to understand that humanity is living in a state of trauma. Like a child who has been abused, humanity struggles to overcome being beat with the wire hanger of history. History is the problem you decide. Ah, the starters have arrived.”
In three trips, Pedro covers our table with plates of appetizers. While he creates our spread, Frank pulls silverware bundles from his apron pockets and makes a point of handing them to us. The bundle knives stick out and glisten with utility.
“Dig in,” the old man commands, and we obey. He sends Pedro home and locks the front door. His fantasy is put on hold as we stuff our faces with breaded calamari, fried pickles, shrimp cascadias, and cheesy tots. The Shitters have made us ravenous, and we embarrass ourselves with gluttonous enthusiasm.
At the direction of the old man, Carl goes behind the bar and retrieves a tray of Shitters to washdown our feast.
We all sit back, buzzed and satiated, as Carl clanks three Shitters in front of each of us. He breaks the silence, “so, your little fantasy makes sense to me. Social justice warriors don’t get the point of free enterprise and self-determination.”
“Of course, Carl, self-determination. Who cares that we live in a city where people already own resources and real estate, people born into structures of unequal equity? Can’t they change their circumstances with that self-determination?”
“So, what’s wrong with self-determination?” Carl asks, downing another Shitter.
“Nothing, my friend. In my fantasy, you become the CEO of Actualization INC. You consolidate the major companies catering to Baltimore’s needs – utilities, food providers, private security, entertainment. You can now pull the levers of power or pay people to pull them. You are convinced your position came from your own advocacy, so you create a utopia for rugged individualism, to hell with those who can’t keep up.
“But with all self-determination regimes, they never really understand what holds society together. Everyone being so self-determined, well they tend to crawl all over each other like rats in an outhouse. The rats on the bottom become desperate, crushed under the weight of those above, until their position becomes minted by the weight of the unholy mound.”
“Wow, what an image, rats in a dung pit, almost makes one sick,” Carl quips as he pushes a loaded fork of cheesy tots into his mouth.
“Yes, and with all that pressure on the dung-side rats, boom, things explode. Anarchy rules as the rats struggle for new positioning. Rat eating rat. But we’re not talking about rats are we? No, we’re talking about people, that paragon of animals, and this animal has another side.
“Business prowess has brought your success, brought you within licking distance of omnipotence, but there are cracks in your godhood. Structures put into place in the minds of men that want to deny your advantage. You start a new project, hire a cadre of fringe physicists and mathematicians, build an underground quantum flux gateway. But you soon find that playing with the laws of reality is a little more complicated than manipulating supply and demand.”
“Burp, I think I’ve eaten too much,” groans Nadia, downing another Shitter and sitting back in her chair, embracing her belly.
“Oh, dear, you’ve blown your little Med diet to hell,” Patricia says.
Frank cuts off Nadia’s imminent rebuttal, “But your low carb, scientifically optimized diet bolstered by big data is a beautiful thing, isn’t it? Its perfection guaranteed, but guaranteed for what? The Shitters and starters have brought a smile to your face. Perhaps you would like a longer life without a smile? Perfection is a demanding mistress.”
“Is there anything wrong with scientific progress? I mean, data, numbers, the scientific method, that is the only reason why we aren’t worshiping dung fetishes and living at the mercy of wolves and plagues.”
“So says Ms. Hopkins medical school.”
“To hell with you, Carl.”
“Well, maybe you have something there, Nadia. In my fantasy, you are given reign over the city as a high-level CDC official. You see, a state of emergency is declared, and the riotous violence sweeping the city is declared a health crisis. Ever the overachiever, you are determined to build utopian pyramids with your data enhanced perfection. Cure the sick, cure poverty, cure aggression, cure old age, even cure sadness…”
“And while we’re at it, can we cure heartburn?” I ask, feeling a rebellion of grease and alcohol burning torches up my throat.
“Yes, why not? Will there be any other way to save Baltimore from its rat pile than to cure all its afflictions? But curing all those human things requires curing humans. Humans are so idiosyncratic, wanting silly things like love, and joy, and individuality.
“Education is the key. Well, re-education, putting the chaos of the soul into a brace of scientifically calibrated truth. All the beautiful imperfections of humanity must be cured like bubonic plague until we are lobotomized smiles squinting from the sunlight pouring through the windows of inescapable asylums.”
“Wow, you have quite the imagination, Frank,” Nadia says through a defensive smirk.
“Yes, imagination, one of those unhealthy human proclivities. And all those dystopian novels you love have taught you that the perfect society can never erase the cracks in its foundation. To truly progress, Nadia, you realize you need Patricia’s political wizardry, Carl’s techno-industrialism, and the unredeemable imagination of the forsaken, yours truly. You see, all three of you are woven into my fantasy. We’ve had this little conversation a thousand times before but talking never seems to create a better resolution. It’s all too complicated, needs to be taken point by point with fluid imagination. So, I’ve arrived at another solution. Isn’t that right Oscar?”
“Why are you always asking me for affirmation? Yeah, sure, but if not systems, then what do you believe in?”
“Anything but comfort. Your little certainties give you comfort. You think they’re only dialectical, fun distinctions to make over drinks. But they solidify, become who you are, become rusty scalpels you dissect the world with.”
“Drop dead, Frank!” Patricia shouts, slamming a Shitter glass down on the table, “are you saying our heartfelt beliefs are merely a rusty scalpel?”
“That’s what he said, my dear queen of Baltimore,” Nadia says, punctuating her taunt with a mean-girl laugh.
“You don’t care because you don’t have a heart to be heartfelt about, Miss Well-Case-Studies-Show,” mocks Patricia.
“Hey, girls, let’s not get out of sorts.”
“Who the heck are you calling girls, Carl!”
“Well, I think you are fine examples of the fairer sex,” I say, trying to lower the temperature.
“That’s the problem, you boys have been screwing up this world for far too long. Carl with his Neo-conservative, colonial, look-at-me-and-how-reasonable-I-am ideology. He has the world divided into boxes like an Amazon fulfillment center. And you Oscar, with your…do you believe in anything?”
“I believe in living, goddamn it. I can’t go into debt and pursue options like you fine influencers of the future. I need to work, to feed my family, to survive day to day. I don’t even know who you guys are anymore. You’re all so damn serious about bullshit!”
My words are fiery and sharp, as an inexplicable anger rises to my chest and then infests my fist that smashes the table, sending a half-eaten plate of calamari shattering against the floor.
“That’s because you have nothing to believe in, no plan, and our world needs a plan. Science, not heartfelt patriarchal superstitions!” Nadia shouts, matching my gesture by tossing a nearly empty plate of fried pickles like a Frisbee at Carl’s head. He ducks just in time.
“I’m so sick of your peer-reviewed slavery, bitch!” Patricia screams, stabbing Nadia through the hand as her target rises it in defense. We are quiet as Nadia stares at her impaled hand. Carl moves towards her with a look of concern, but with a quick precision, Nadia grabs her own knife and slices Carl’s face open. He staggers backwards holding his oozing check.
Carl’s pathetic look of hurt angers me. I jackhammer him in the stomach with my knife, snarling like a rabid dog as he staggers backwards. When I turn around, I see Nadia sinking to the floor with a gaping mouth in her throat.
I get a glimpse of Frank, his arms folded, watching us as if we were lab rats in an experiment. Then Patricia demands my attention as she leaps onto the table. She kicks the table clean as she shimmies towards me, creating a shattering storm of discarded plates and glasses. I sublimate my terror at her unearthly scow as I ready myself for her attack.
Knives sharped beyond the need for cutting bar food slash and stab, our arms and bodies mingling in a brutal dance of death. The pain is not as poignant as it should be. Deep wounds have cut through the functional workings of my body, and I fall to the ground. I feel a sense of satisfaction that I have created the same disfunction in Patricia’s menacing form.
Our unnatural aggression has subsided into ghastly moans, gurgles, and sobs as we writhe on the floor. Frank shuffles around us like a professor in a lecture hall.
“Well, you really did a number on yourselves. Mephedrone. Are the bath salts I put in the starters, or the Shitters with their seductive mix of caffeine and alcohol, to blame for this little blood orgy? Perhaps they just expedited the inevitable conclusion of your little ideologies. I don’t know if this is a little fantasy of mine, or if I’ve just saved Baltimore from your enthusiasms and excesses, isn’t that right, Oscar Delgado?”
Unable to muster words, I look up at the scarecrow who knows me too well.
“Let me finish this fantasy for you masters of reality. You see, I had grown distant from Nadia, Carl, and Patricia after our college days. Sure, I came to these Wednesday outings as my dear friends become politically connected, ran in circles of power, and claimed places where they could fight over the levers behind the emerald curtain that control Charm City. I never had the initiative, or the certainty, or the shamelessness.
“Eventually, I lost contact with my old friends and became an embarrassment. I was a reminder that they were once common creatures of flesh and blood, baseness and averageness. They became fiery angels. Floating too close to the earth made them introspective, brought them too near our outstretched, workaday fingers.
“You muddle through life, Oscar, but sometime after our second marriage and fourth child, Patricia has her moment to shine, and you are cast into hell. You are considered privileged because you can walk while others crawl. You must be purged and regurgitated in the court of reconciliation. Reeducation is mob justice, and when they spit you out, you’re missing an eye, and some other parts not conducive to a just society. Your children are removed from your imprecise care. Your only conciliation is that you end up better than some.
“You are saved by Carl’s regime of self-reliance. But rugged individualism can’t be separated from luck, leverage, and position. Self-made people tend to fix the system in their favor. They pull up the ladder and kick away those beneath. You are found wanting, and your means of survival become suspect. In a debtor’s prison you lose the proper functioning of your liver and kidneys, not to mention an arm and leg and wife.
“Luckily, the city finds its reason through data-driven perfection. Thought, joy, and purpose are put through a meat grinder and turned into a pristine concoction of organic longevity. But Oscar, you weren’t made for perfection. Your love of life is imperfect, squishy, sentimental, even perverse.
“Meanwhile Patricia, Carl, and Nadia come to a consensus, create a tenuous truce of ideologies, realize they need each other’s gifts. They create a devil’s pact of politics, industry, and science to get the upper hand on reality itself. But there is a missing element. When deconstructing reality, a reality anchor is needed, a person deeply enveloped in the fabric of mundane existence with little desire to reweave it. My friends decide to lift me up from the mire of their utopian ruins and make me their chrononaut.
“There was no training for my mission. I was the test subject, the expendable chimp sent to realms undreamt. Their method of outsmarting time included psychedelic drugs, mountainous quantum-electronical structures, and the redirecting of public resources. It was a Wednesday, just like today, the last day of consequence for my friends and me.
“All that reality-bending genius, and we merely returned to where it started. We can change everything now, can’t we? But I didn’t return as you, as a component of the ignition, I came back as the broken monster you see above you. I bought this bar using the capital of inside knowledge given a time traveler. The Watering Hole, our little stage of ideologies and dreams. Great people control great ideas, but there are things that should never be controlled. The price of this Faustian bargain is death.
“Oscar, we are just as culpable as our companions. I hope your death will be my death, the death of a forgotten man living each day in agony. Our apathy, our selfishness, our self-serving rationalism let them fly to unhealthy heights. I hope the snake eating its own ass gnaws us out of existence.”
I stare up at the copper ceiling tiles and start to cry at the intricate beauty of the floral design, something I never noticed before. The design falters, weaves together into new patterns, and then solidifies as rust splotched iron. Old Man Frankenstein is wrong about eating ourselves out of existence. I merely arrive at another temporal way-station, a barren cell in the purgatory of Patricia, Carl, or Nadia’s utopia. It was a futile dream, my escape from the cruel math of reality or the Wednesday night proselytizing of future leviathans.
Thomas R. Long is a writer living in Baltimore who survives by consuming local beer and his wife’s madrileño cooking.