The indisputably marvelous coterie of smartyboots at IndieInk.org have issued another week of challenges to we bloggery sorts. Everyone is free to join in- just check out the link for details, and you don't need to be especially good, or especially anything, really, other than willing, to be part of the challenge. (And longtime readers of this space will no doubt agree that this blog is not especially anything. Other than maybe long winded.) There are a couple of rules, but they're not hard. Everything is acceptable, pretty much- poetry, fiction, non fiction, collages, elaborate interpretive dance. Well, maybe not that last one.
This week I have issued the challenge "Eight Hundred" to San Diego Momma, and I have been given a challenge by wondrous Wendryn to describe either a utopian or dystopian society from the point of view of the lowest member of that society.
I have gone the fiction route once again, and I won't say anything more than that- the story should pretty much speak for itself. It's called "The River", after the Bruce Springsteen song, but it doesn't really have anything to do with that song. It's a good song, though. For what it's worth. (I did also watch the Denzel Washington/John Travolta movie "The Taking Of Pelham 123" last night. While that doesn't really have anything to do with the story, either, since it doesn't happen on a train or anything like that, there's no doubt that it influenced where my mind went after reading Wendryn's prompt this morning.) I also hasten to add that, for someone who said he wasn't going to say anything more than that, I sure am having trouble shutting up. Ladies and Gentlemen, "The River".
"Mr. Thomas? Are you there? Can you hear me?"
"Yeah. I'm here. What?"
"Talk to me, Mr. Thomas. What's happening in there? How did this happen? How did we end up here?"
"Ha! How did we end up here? God, I don't know. No, actually, no- I do know. It was all because of one mistake. Like a Springsteen song. It's like, you do one thing wrong, and then your life starts to just come apart. Like a thread on a t shirt, you know? You pull, and you pull, and suddenly you've got this huge hole, and the whole thing is ruined. And you've just got to throw it all away. It's kind of like a river, flooding and coming into your basement. You let a little bit of water in, and then more comes in, more and more, more than you can handle, and then it just washes everything away. How did it start? It was Wendy, first. My wife. It's not her fault- not at all- but it all starts with her. I mean, she's still beautiful now, but, you should have seen her then, man. She was catnip. High school. Everybody loved her. EVERYBODY. And she loved me. Just me. Do you remember how that felt? Do you? You feel like a god, like nothing can hurt you. And we were kids, you know? You're 17, and this beautiful girl, so pretty, such a perfect body, she is hanging all over you, and you feel ten feet tall. We did something dumb, but we were kids. People told us not to, we knew better, and we were always, always careful, and then, one time, we just weren't. Nothing special. We just slipped up. She didn't say no, and I didn't ask any questions, and then it was done. We made one mistake, and then another one follows that one naturally, and before you know it, you're just gone, man. Gone. It happened, and I asked her to marry me, and then we were at the courthouse, doing it. We moved into a place, and I was working all summer. I tried college, sure, they told me I should, and I wanted to, but I just couldn't stop thinking about her, and then about both of them, and then I just couldn't concentrate anymore. So I quit. I just left, and you know what? I don't want anything free from nobody. Nothing. Just give me a chance, and I'll earn my keep. So I started working, and things were OK. I made my bed, time to lie in it, right? It wasn't perfect, but it was working. Wendy had the baby, and then she tried to work, you know, tried to pitch in, but it was hard for her, she couldn't make much part time, but I was making OK money, and then things just got expensive, you know? Medicine, and clothes, and shoes, and Wendy wants to go to a movie once a month, you know? That's not too much to ask, I don't think. I keep hearing on the radio all this stuff about freedom, you know? How we're so free, and how all these other countries want to be like us because we're so free and because everything's so great here? Well, it seems to me you're a lot more free when you're on top of the heap then when you're on the bottom. They talk about cutting taxes, and how unfair it is that they've got to pay for people they don't even know. And I guess that's right, you know- you should be able to keep what you make, right? So I'm in Mickey D's to get a coffee once, I'm so tired, I'm dead on my feet, and there's this paper on the table, so I look at it, and it talks about how this banker guy spent like hundreds of thousands of dollars to decorate his office, right? Like, to put up pictures and get furniture and stuff like that? So I start thinking about that kind of money, like even a hundred thou? What I could do with money like that is, like, I could breathe. For once, I wouldn't be in this constant panic. I could get Wendy some stuff, sure, and put some away for my daughter's college, and all kinds of stuff, and this rich guy throws it away on chairs and stuff? I don't get it. I mean, I guess he was free to, and I guess he's entitled to, and I guess the bank must have made lots of money that year. So I guess it's OK that he has nice stuff, and all that. But I doubt, you know, I really doubt he would last very long bagging groceries, or hammering nails, or pouring concrete, or landscaping, or the stuff I do. It doesn't seem like sitting in a big chair in a comfy chair and telling people what to do is all that hard, not like I do. The stuff I did? See, I worked. I always worked. I never asked for nothing. Wendy told me a couple of weeks ago that my brother had been sending her money, you know? And my mom? And I appreciate it, sure, but it's just that, well, a man wants to feed his family himself, you know? So I worked, right, after I quit school? I did all kinds of stuff. Construction, and landscaping, and lawns, and all that. I worked, you know? All day, every day, whatever I could pick up. So I'm working on this house, a year ago, and I just turn the wrong way, and I fall. Not far, like six feet, maybe, and I land on my back. I go to the hospital, and it just never stops hurting after that. Never. I try the pills, and they don't work so good and I feel all foggy if I take them, and I try the exercises, and a back brace, and stretching, and nothing really works. Not for long. So I go to this lawyer, and it's more doctors, and more pills, and more bitching. Arguing, and court, and I keep hustling, and I try to do some stuff on the side, keep some money coming in, but I can't, it just hurts so damn much. So I finally get a little money out of the company, and then we can breathe a little bit again, but it don't last, and the lawyer takes a lot of it, and then the company goes under and stops paying. So there's more bills. I try to keep working, but it just hurts so bad, you know. I take every job I can, but it just hurts so bad, and I get surly and mean with the customers, not because I'm mean, just because it hurts, and they let me go. So I try to get disability, but I'm not hurt bad enough, and I get unemployment, but it ain't much, and then it runs out. So I'm trying, right? I mean, I made bad choices. We both did. And I own that- I did what I did. And I'd undo them if I could, I swear to God I would. I would. I love Wendy. I love my kid. But it would have been so much easier if she had come along a couple of years later. That's all. I did what I did. I made my choices. And I had the freedom to make other choices, you know? And I didn't, and I have to live with that fact. But I'm just tired. So tired of hurting all the time, and tired of hurting so damn much, and tired of being broke, and tired of being tired. So I run into Roger, who I knew from a couple of jobs ago, and he asks me if I'm looking, and he tells me he needs help on a job. He tells me where to show up, and not to tell Wen. He was always kind of sharp, the guy who plays the angles. Not dirty, just willing to do almost anything for a buck. So it sounds fishy, but I need the money, right? I just need it. I want to breathe again, not be constantly scrambling. So I show up, and Roger explains what we're doing on the way over. And I didn't expect this, you know? I mean, I figured maybe it would be a little shady, you know, some roofing tiles that fell off a truck, you know what I'm saying? But nothing like this. So we're on the way over, and he says that the other guy didn't show, so I have to walk in with him. And I don't want to, but I'm there, and I figure I'm guilty of something already, so why not try to make sure it goes right, you know? So we walk in, and then there's a cop in line, and he shoots Roger and Roger shoots him, and there's blood all over the floor, and I pick up the gun, I mean, I've never even held one, before, and then you call me, and now, you know, we're here. I mean, I made my choices. This country is all about freedom, right? But you're a heck of a lot freer if you're the guy who owns the bank than the guy who works in one. A heck of a lot freer. It's all about freedom, freedom for the rich to get richer and the companies, and the banks, and the courts and the lawyers, and the whole thing, to screw little guys like me, but when we try to get a little freedom of our own, we get nothing. I mean, I'm not saying give it to me, I'm not saying give me a handout. No free lunch. Just let me work for it, let me earn it. Give me a chance. It seems to me no matter how hard I try, no matter how free I am, it never adds up to nothing. People probably say, well, you had your chance. You made your choices. Now you got to live with the consequences of what you chose. And I get that. I do. And I am living with them, you know? I live with them every day. I do. But I was a kid, too, right? I was a dumb kid, and I made a dumb choice, then another one, and then another one, and then I'm here. I don't think you should be punished for the rest of your life for being dumb when you were a kid. People probably say, well, other people have it as bad as you. Even worse. And they don't do what you did. And that's true. I own what I did- every decision from high school right up until now, I did it. I didn't have to. But I did. You get to a point where you feel trapped, though. You are free to do what you want, but school costs money, and your wife needs her pills now, and your kid needs vitamins, or that antibiotic when she gets sick, or new shoes, or glue and posterboard for school, and it all costs money, and nothing gets any cheaper, not bread, not milk, not gas. Nothing. Yeah, I made choices, but I just wanted a little breathing room, some time to think, you know? And I never got any. Not once. I just don't think that's right. What's that song say? 'Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose?' My high school English teacher told us about that song. I mean, I love this country. I do. I love the fact that you can be anything you want to be. But the thing is, the thing I never got, the thing I could never explain to anybody, was that sometimes, you can't be what you want to be. Sometimes that job is filled, and you have to be who you are, instead. Freedom's great. It beats, like, not being free. But it's got another side. You're free in this country, sure, everybody is, but people with money? They're more free. Or it's a different kind of free. They can do what they want, and if they do make a mistake or something, it doesn't matter. They can recover from it, or buy another chance, or just adjust. I'm not asking for all of it. I just want a little bit. I just wanted enough so I could sleep and stop worrying so much. It felt like I was drowning in it, drowning in life, just swept away by the current. So many people have so much, and I just wanted a little. And I did what I did, and now I end up here........Anyway, I'm going to stop talking, now. My mouth is real dry. I want you to do something for me, though. Can you do something for me? Can you tell my wife that I love her. Tell Wendy that I'm sorry. Tell her, and tell my kid, that I tried, that I really, really tried, and I just made some dumb decisions. Tell my kid not to make any dumb decisions. Not even one. Tell her that. And tell her that I love her. Tell them both that. Tell them that I love them, and that I'm so, so sorry. I'm sorry I made mistakes."
"Mr. Thomas, are you coming out? Mr. Thomas? Are you there? Mr. Thomas? If you tell me you've put the gun down, the police won't shoot. I promise you. Just tell me you dropped the gun, that's all I need to hear. As long as you don't have the gun, we can talk about this. The police are here, but they don't want to shoot you. Just tell me you don't have the gun. Just leave it on the counter. That's all you have to do. That's all. Mr. Thomas? Are you there? Can you hear me? Mr. Thomas, just listen to me for one second. Mr. Thomas? Can you hear me? Are you there?"