Commonwealth: A Novel of Utopia, part 1, chapter 2
[Author’s Note: This is the sixth installment of my new novel, Commonwealth. Read the previous part here. If you like what you see and want to read the next part today, it’s already up on Patreon. You can sign up for as little as $1/month. —Adam]
Rae had gotten out of work early, and she and her team had saved the subways from disaster. She should have been overjoyed. Instead, she felt anxious and unsettled as her train hurtled north. It was the note, of course, but more than that, it was what it represented.
Who would want to do something like that? It couldn’t be a prank, could it? I’ve always gotten along with my coworkers. I didn’t think I had any enemies…
She texted Zoe from the train. Need to talk. Free tonight?
Sure, the reply came almost immediately.
When the train pulled into her station, something was different, and Rae quickly realized what. It was empty.
She hadn’t been home early in a long time. During the morning and evening rush hours, the station was jam-packed with commuters and panhandlers. But in this in-between hour, there were neither.
The platform was abandoned except for the video billboards that shouted their slogans and jingles into indifferent silence, and at the far end by the stairs, a lone homeless man carrying a bundle of bottles and cans wrapped in clear plastic.
Rae walked past the man and headed for the stairs. She assumed the straight-ahead gaze and the brisk stride of the experienced New Yorker, the one that said: I have somewhere to be and can’t spare the time to acknowledge you.
Nevertheless, as she passed him, he held out a hand. A gravelly voice said: “Spare some change, miss?”
She hesitated. By now, she had heard every imaginable story – the beggars asking for change to buy a bus ticket, the ones fleeing abusive homes, the ones trying to get into rehab, the ones who urgently needed medical care they couldn’t afford, the ones who had a job lined up but needed a few dollars to tide them over until it began. The ones with pets or, worse, children tugged at her heartstrings the most. But most of them were lying, she couldn’t afford to give to everyone who asked, and these people needed more help than she could give and would be in the same situation again tomorrow. So she told herself, and sat uneasily with her conscience.
But this time, she stopped. Maybe it was a trace of her heightened feeling of awareness from that morning; maybe the anonymous note had rattled her enough to weaken her defenses; maybe a one-on-one interaction was harder to ignore. Whatever the reason, she paused and looked at the man.
He wasn’t old, but he had been prematurely aged by rough living. He had papery skin, gnarled fingers, a salt-and-pepper beard. He wore a motley of stained and mismatched clothes and shoes held together with many layers of tape.
Rae fished in her pockets.
“I’m sorry. I would, but I don’t have any change,” she said, honestly. “Just my card.”
The homeless man gave a gap-toothed grin.
“No problem! Got my reader here.”
To her astonishment, he held out a battered phone with a credit app on the screen and a small black card-reader attachment.
“I’ve… never seen a street person with one of those.”
“It’s how I get paid for these,” he said, gesturing at the bag full of cans and bottles he had scavenged. “Recycling centers don’t give cash anymore. Just credit. So I joined the modern economy.” He chuckled hoarsely.
Rae was dumbfounded. She thought of inventing another excuse. But the man’s audacity impressed her, and she smiled.
“All right. Will five dollars do?”
“Good enough for a hot meal, miss.”
She pressed buttons on the screen, then swiped her card. The reader beeped.
“Thank you, darlin’!”
“No problem. Stay safe out there,” she said as she climbed the stairs to the street.
Toolbox in one hand and the other in her pocket, she walked briskly to her apartment. The billboards were showing a power plant cooling tower that was gushing a pillar of black smoke into cornflower-blue skies. The crawl read, “Midwest Nuclear Disaster.”
“…strongly denied that the abolition of inspections played any role in the fire,” the newscaster was saying. “In response, stock markets notched a new all-time high, as investors were optimistic that the cleanup and rebuilding effort would spur economic activity.”
As she had that morning, Rae noticed again the smell of the city. A pile of garbage bags heaped on the curb had split open, and litter spilled into the street.
Well, it’s no surprise. Lots of people can’t or won’t pay the subscription fees to MuniSan Inc. After all, why should the trash be your problem once you heave it out the front door? she thought sardonically.
A stray piece of litter, tossed by the wind, came flapping down the street. Rae tried to step aside to avoid it, but it hit her squarely and curled around her leg.
She snatched it up. It was a ragged flier, wrinkled and sun-bleached. Printed on it was an image of Morale Secretary Remington in a fur scarf, her fierce dark eyes glaring at the reader, one accusing finger pointed outward. Along the bottom, in bold red, white and blue letters, it read:
“Fight the Birth Crisis! The United States Needs Workers: Are You Doing Your Part to Procreate?”
Now there’s an image I could do without, Rae thought with a grimace. She discarded the flier to let it resume its windblown journey.
She had some downtime to clean up her apartment. Most important was her toolbox, which was filled with dirt and muck from the morning’s near-disaster.
She spread a dropcloth on the table and laid out her tools on top of it. She rinsed the empty toolbox in the shower, then got a bucket of soapy water and a brush and carefully scrubbed each tool clean. Finally, she spritzed them with rust-preventing oil and wiped them with a rag until they gleamed. She looked at her handiwork with satisfaction before returning the tools to their case.
Soon after she was done, she got a text from Zoe letting her know that they were home from work. She went and rang the doorbell.
Zoe and Michael’s apartment had the same layout as hers, although their furniture was draped in colorful cloths, their floor covered by a patterned rug. The blocked windows were concealed by corkboards that held a collage of Zoe’s photography: black-and-white photo booth prints of her posing with Michael, snapshots from college, candids at restaurants and tourist spots, glossy pictures from their wedding day. In one corner, Michael’s double bass leaned on a stand. In another, a curling, many-branched fern grew from a pot.
Her friends had just walked in the door, and Zoe was setting down her briefcase while Michael took off his cap and gloves.
“Your message sounded important. What’s the matter, Rae?” Zoe asked.
Hesitantly – not realizing how upset it had made her until she heard the tremble in her own voice as she recounted it – Rae related the day’s events and the anonymous note in her locker.
“I don’t think it was a prank. I think someone wants me to quit. But I can’t imagine why.”
“I’ll make tea,” Michael said. “Do you want some?”
She sat at the table with Zoe while he busied himself in the kitchen. Zoe asked, “The timing seems suspicious. Could it have anything to do with the flood you stopped?”
“No. I mean, I don’t know. I fixed the problem! Everyone at the MTA wants to keep the subways running. Why else would they be there?”
“It must have been upsetting. I’m sorry.”
Michael brought over the tea. Rae wrapped her hands around her mug, breathing in its steam.
“I feel better already. I just needed to talk to someone. Thanks.”
“Any time,” Zoe assured her.
Feeling the knot in her chest loosen, Rae told them about the flier she’d found on the street. She was heartened to see the grimaces on her friends’ faces.
“If they wanted to stop people having sex, that’d do it,” Michael said dryly, and she laughed.
“It’s not just Remington,” Zoe observed. “It’s all the ads. They use sex to sell everything. That’s what’s killing the romance in our society. You get so used to ignoring them, when you have a real chance to get laid, your libido is just confused!”
“And when you check into a love hotel for the weekend, instead of a mirror on the ceiling, you get another animated billboard hawking wine and chocolate!” Rae chimed in, giggling. “It’s worse than a cold shower. Did you know, I hear they’re putting ads on sidewalks now?”
“Are you serious?” Zoe asked, and she replied, “Completely. Inlaid video under sapphire glass. Ten thousand people a day can walk on it and not scratch it.”
“If you pay to upgrade, do you get premium ad-free sidewalks?” Michael wondered.
“How would that work?”
“They’d give you polarized glasses that screen out the images,” he said, deadpan. “Just wear them any time you go outside.”
The three of them cracked up together, and Rae gave a happy sigh. Her friends could always cheer her up.
“Seriously, if they want more people to have babies, they could do something about the air pollution,” she said. “I can’t imagine how many people must be infertile from breathing in this crap.”
“Well, you get what you pay for,” Michael observed. “And the air is free.”
“They should give the EPA an actual budget,” Zoe said angrily. “Five people in a broom closet isn’t going to cut it.”
“And thanks to the Branden Amendment, they have to pay with their own money for any decrease in profits if they enforce the law,” Rae said. “Makes it impossible for them to go after any except the smallest polluters.”
“Trees clean the air, don’t they? And we still have Central Park,” Michael said.
“Yeah, but I remember when it was free to get in, not a gated private garden for the rich,” Zoe said. “Anyway, half the trees are dead from the pollution.”
“If it were up to me, I would—” Rae began, but she felt a buzz from her pocket. She took out her phone and saw a text: where r u?
“Who is it?” Zoe asked.
“Owen,” she replied as she texted back, Next door w/Z + M.
“The more the merrier,” her friend said, just before a heavy, impatient pounding on the door.
Michael went and opened it.
“Hi, Owen,” Zoe greeted him. “What’s up?”
“Have you seen this crap?” he said without preamble. He threw a newspaper on the table.
Rae looked at the paper. It was that day’s edition of the Wall Street Tribune, and the headline read:
U.S. “FREEST COUNTRY EVER,” MORALE SEC SAYS
She skimmed the text:
“Americans are fortunate to live in the freest country that has ever existed, said Morale Secretary Remington in a speech broadcast today on the major networks. ‘Until now, there has never in the history of the world been a nation where men were truly set free to pursue happiness and realize their productive potential unencumbered by the burden of regulation. The Willard Administration in its wisdom has seen to it that…’”
Rae wondered what had disturbed him. It was hardly different from anything else in the news these days.
“Is that it?” Zoe said, mirroring Rae’s thoughts. “What’s there to be so upset about?”
“Didn’t you read it?” Owen said. “Can you believe she gets away with this? How can people read this horseshit about the ‘freest country ever’ and not take to the streets?”
“You’re assuming that anyone reads the papers anymore,” Michael said dryly.
“I agree with Michael,” Rae said. “Why bother getting upset at the news? It’s all bad.”
“That’s just the problem!” Owen said, slapping a hand on the table. “Apathy! That’s the only thing that keeps these thieves in power. People don’t pay attention.”
“It’s not that we don’t care,” Rae said gently. “We do. But that’s how the world is, we can’t do anything about it. There’s no point getting angry at things we can’t change.”
“We can change things,” Owen insisted. “If people learned to work together, we could. If people realized what their real interests were. But the robber barons in power keep them blind and ignorant. We need to wake everyone up.”
“Well, in a certain light, isn’t she telling the truth?” Michael said.
Owen looked incredulous. “You’re not serious.”
“Just playing devil’s advocate. Isn’t it true that they repealed almost all the laws we used to have, except violent felonies? Doesn’t that make us freer to do what we want?”
“Freedom? You call this freedom? When there’s one law for the rich and one for everybody else?”
“The law in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges,” Michael quoted.
Zoe and Rae stared at him.
“What?” he said. “I paid attention in some of those SSJ meetings.”
“That’s the point!” Owen went on. “The only crimes left are the ones that only poor people would commit. The rich can do anything they want. Insider trade. Rig the courts. Buy elections. Fire people who ask for higher pay. Robbery is only a crime when you rob a bank and not when you rob a whole country! There’s no good left in this society!”
“That isn’t true,” Zoe insisted. “There’s still good here.”
He turned a withering glance on her. “Name one example.”
“Well, we opened the borders. That’s one thing they got right.”
“Yeah, too bad no one wants to live here anymore,” Michael said with a chuckle.
“I do,” Rae said quietly. “People need me here. They need us.”
“We need you in the streets, Rae. Joining our protests. Fighting the system. Anything else is a waste of time.”
Rae faltered. But Zoe said, “That’s not true, Owen. You should have been here before. Rae was telling us how she fixed a broken gate that was about to cause a flood. Stopped a disaster that would have ruined half the subway system. You can’t say that was a waste of time! The work she does matters to millions of people every day!”
“No. You mean well, Rae, but you don’t understand. None of you do,” Owen said. He paced back and forth, gesturing as if trying to grab at the words.
“This system is crumbling. It can’t last forever. But the billionaires who run things are only thinking of themselves. All they care about is holding it together another day, another week, another month. A little more time to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. A little longer they get to laugh at our expense.
“But they can’t hold it together on their own. They need people to do it for them. People like you. That’s what you’re doing – buying the billionaires time. Postponing the revolution a little longer.”
“I don’t fix the subways for billionaires,” she protested. “I fix them for ordinary people who need them to go to work, to school, to visit their families. No matter when the revolution comes, on the day after, people will need to travel and go places. I’m keeping them running for that day. To benefit the better society we want to create.”
“Excuses. Nothing but excuses. Anything that keeps this society running benefits the people in charge of it. No matter what you tell yourself. See, it’s attitudes like yours that are the problem,” he went on, waving a finger at her. “The poor know the system is rigged. They’ll be ready to take to the streets when we give the call. Where will you be? At work? Laboring for the property owners? Making them richer?”
“But the subways are public—” Rae began.
“Fuck the subways! Who cares about the subways? Let them flood!”
Rae hesitated. For anyone else, she would have had a sharp retort, but for Owen, she bit it back.
He was the most passionate activist she had ever known. When she and Zoe had founded Students for Social Justice, he hadn’t just been one of the few men who joined, he had been the first to serve as its president. He came from old money, but he had renounced the Breygandt family fortune in college after denouncing his parents as exploiters of the poor. Rae felt vaguely guilty that she’d never had to make a sacrifice like that in the name of her beliefs.
Zoe stepped in for her. “Owen, subways and schools aren’t evil. They’re things every society needs, no matter what its government is. Just because our country has problems doesn’t mean all its institutions are corrupt. Even if this socialist revolution of yours happens, it may change who’s in charge, or how wealth is distributed, but we’re not going to burn everything to the ground and start over. Right?”
Owen was undaunted.
“It’s wrong to support this system,” he said with a glare. “That’s all I need to know. It’s beyond redemption. Whatever it takes to bring it down, that’s what I’m in favor of. Even if the rest of you are too soft, I’m not.”
He stormed out, but on the threshold of the door, paused as if he had forgotten something. He turned back.
“Hey, Rae. Can I borrow fifty bucks? I’ll pay you back.”
“What? I—I mean, sure, I guess…”
Rae fumbled with her wallet. She had only a few large bills, but she took one out and handed it to him.
“Thanks, babe,” he said, kissing her on the cheek.
He left, closing the door hard behind him.
The three of them looked at each other.
Michael shrugged. “Same old Owen.”
“I know he’s your… your boyfriend, Rae, but I’ve never liked him,” Zoe said.
“He has his good points,” Rae protested. “He cares, I know he does. He wants what’s best for everyone. We just have some differences of opinion on the best way to go about achieving it.”
“It’s a question of negative versus positive liberty,” said Michael. “You know. One is freedom from coercion; the other is the ability to do what you want. If you need a wheelchair to get around and your house only has stairs, you have negative liberty but no positive liberty.”
“Or if you’re not white,” Zoe said, glancing around at them, “and you want a job that won’t hire people who look like you. No one is stopping you from applying, but you still can’t get what you desire.”
“Right,” Michael said. “But to give you the positive liberty to get that job, we’d have to pass anti-discrimination laws that decrease the negative liberty of the business owner. It’s a tradeoff, and everyone has their own opinion about where those two should balance. From the pure, anarchic state of nature where we can kill and loot at will, to the regimented communist society where everything is decided for you – how many infringements on absolute freedom do we accept, to make sure everyone can lead a good life?
“The people running the country now, they’re all about negative liberty. No rules, no regulations. Everyone can do what they want, when they want – assuming they can afford it. Owen, I think he’s all the way at the other end. He wants to tell everyone what to do, but for their own good.”
“That explains a lot about him,” Rae agreed.
It was growing late, and she had taken up enough of her friends’ time. Making her goodbyes, and thanking them for listening to her, she went back to her apartment to reflect.
She changed into her most comfortable pajamas, fixed herself a meal and ate while reading one of her favorite novels. It was a time-honored routine, and it rarely failed to calm her after a stressful day.
It was growing dark outside, and she was starting to relax and decompress, when there was a loud, booming knock at her door.
Rae startled, her heart suddenly pounding again. She put her book aside and got up, glaring at the door.
Damn it, Owen, if that’s you again…
She went over and looked through the peephole.
A scowl came to her face.
It wasn’t Owen.
It was worse.
She got a robe and wrapped it around herself. While she dressed, the booming knock came again.
“I’m coming, I’m coming!” she said crossly.
She undid the chain, pulled back the deadbolt, and opened the door.
Standing on her threshold was a tall, elegant man. He wore an impeccable, expensive suit: a charcoal-gray shirt open at the collar, a tailored black jacket, sharply pleated slacks, leather wingtip shoes. His dark, slicked-back hair showed hints of gray at the temples. He had a bright intent gaze, aquiline features, and high cheekbones, but there were lines of care deepening around the corners of his eyes and mouth.
He smiled when he saw her. Rae had no intention of returning the gesture.
“Hello, Will,” she said reluctantly.
His voice was urbane, sophisticated, but had a faint, ineradicable trace of his mother’s Mexican accent.
She cocked an eyebrow.
“What’s a billionaire CEO like you doing in a bad part of town like this?”
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