PROTECTION COMES AT A COST
You can’t accuse me of not knowing what I’m talking about, because the story I’m telling actually happened to me. Nowhere in it do I exaggerate. There’s no need to. I was fourteen when the spirits began to visit me, and by the time I was nineteen, it was all I could do to resist their attempts to urge me to kill my parents. I loved the my parents, but apparently the spirits couldn’t sense that.
When I left my home in Pennsylvania, it was to protect my parents from me and these demons. I started hitchhiking one morning and by the end of the week I had crossed the continental United States. If I had had the foresight to obtain a passport, I could have ventured on to Canada or Mexico, but I didn’t, so I had to make do with starting a new life in extreme northwest Washington State.
I had always thought that the west coast would be “hip.” Maybe it is in San Francisco, but where I ended up north of Bellingham reminded me a lot of the small towns on the outskirts of Erie, Pennsylvania. Blue collar, economically depressed, angry fat people who strongly suspected the world had passed them by. The only real industry was logging, and since that was a man’s game, men outnumbered women two to one. At the time, I wasn’t looking for a girlfriend. I merely wanted to avoid killing my parents.
When I finally did hook up with a girl, I had lived there for a year and had just turned twenty. She was a bank teller a year older than me. I had been working in a plastic factory during the day and going to community college classes at night. That’s where I met her, in English Composition II. We sort of just fell into sleeping and then living together, as if it had been preordained. There didn’t seem any compelling reasons not to.
And we were happy. Couldn’t understand why other people make such a big deal about cohabitation. You respect each other, you mind your own business whenever possible, and things work out. But then we had a child, and all of a sudden it wasn’t so easy anymore. Suddenly, each of us was stressed, exhausted, and finally angry. We felt we had lost our youth and freedom. We were waiting for an apology that never came.
I started drinking too much and she began to have secrets that kept her away from home. I finally found out she was having an affair with our English teacher, a swishy, creepy guy whom I figured was gay, but I guess I’m no expert on gays, because I’ve never actually met one. I knew about them from watching TV.
My happy home life had vanished like a morning mist. And although I’d developed a clumsy affection for our son, I figured if ever there was time to leave, it was now. Alaska was north, and you didn’t need a passport to get there. There had been a gold rush there a hundred years ago, and maybe there was some gold left lying around, where a guy like me might stumble across it. If he were lucky.
And that’s just what the spirits were whispering to me. They were telling me just where to go, which supplies to purchase, and how to find my way to the treasure that would solve all my problems.
I had enough money to make it to Skagway, and from there I was able to walk for two days into the woods. Then the food ran out, but I figured that was a sign that this was the spot. I had one candy bar left when I heard the main spirit who had been whispering to me say “Start digging.”
I dug for two days before I found large nuggets. They were like balls of fruit at the bottom of a barrel. I thought about how happy my wife would be to learn that our money problems were over, but then I remembered that I had left her and the baby without saying good-bye, and maybe there wasn’t going to be any easy way back.
Running away might have some consequences that can’t be solved with money.
You’d think this daring breakthrough would have been enough to stop me from feeling short-changed, picked on, ignored…but it didn’t. It only made my lust for wealth and security blossom into a giant, carnivorous plant. Now I’m a wealthy person full of self-pity and feelings of persecution.
My biggest problems are in my own head. The demons know this. They are extremely patient and allow me to completely forget they exist.
I sold my gold nuggets for an absurdly large sum, and then decided to head back to Erie, to see if my wife would consider taking me back. Except she wasn’t there. She had moved on without leaving a forwarding address.
She had, of course, taken our son with her. So much for my dreams of family life. So it was time to come up with new dreams. They might not come true, but at least it was something to get me started. If you have no motivation at all, it’s hard to get out of bed and not just climb back in.
Who was I compared to my fellows? I was a guy to whom demons gave advice and direction. I didn’t really talk with demons so much as listen to them. Many times I tried not to listen, to shut them out. I can’t tell you how many night I would like in bed with my pillow wrapped around my ears, trying to make more noise than they could. They always outlasted me.
When I was a kid I watched a movie about zombies on a Caribbean island. I was both attracted to and repulsed by the idea of visiting such a place, and yet I seemed to have brought my own zombie island with me wherever I went.
So now I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that like a zombie, I seem to lack normal human emotions. Yes, I sort of feel affection for certain people, but not for very long. I spend a lot of time just staring off in the distance, trying to formulate my thoughts. Sometimes there are no thoughts to formulate.
If there are others like me, I’m not sure that would prove a comfort. I might end up hating them and accusing them of causing all the problems in the world. Pointing the finger at others comes easily to me. I hate them for what I see in me. On the other hand, maybe I would finally join the human race, at least the zombie subset, and feel a sense of belonging that I’ve craved for as long as I can remember.
All right, I’ve been guilty of exaggeration here. I’m not a zombie. I’m not even dead, much less the walking un-dead. I’m just a guy who stumbled across some good fortune and currently has a wad of cash. Better to be a rich guy disconnected from everyone than a poor one crying for help with nobody listening.
Fortunately, when I’m not sure what to do I stop doing anything for a while and wait for circumstances to shift. In this way, change is at least possible if not guaranteed. If I keep doing what I habitually do, I’ll keep getting the same results. That’s guaranteed.
The more I calmed down, the less I heard from the demons. One morning I woke up and there was no noise in my head at all. Glorious silence! Maybe they were all busy tormenting some other poor sap. I felt like Shirley Temple skipping through a meadow of flowers, though I knew deep down this would soon pass and I would find myself back in my familiar quandary.
On the way to the neighborhood bakery I bumped into a young man who looked down on his luck. It’s rare that you see anyone with obviously dirty clothes and not enough meat on their bones to fill them out, but here he was, looking like a hobo from Central Casting. When I looked at him, he looked away. I tried again with the same result. “OK, buddy, have it your way,” I thought to myself, but then I felt a stab of sympathy. After all, I was rich and he was poor. Couldn’t I help in some way?
“If you think you’re better than me, you’re not,” he said when I got close enough to speak to him.
“Hungry?” I asked.
“You’ve got that one right.” he said, affecting a sort of 1930’s smart-alec speech pattern usually seen in movies of that era. I guess he had been a film major at a liberal arts college before alcoholism or mental illness brought him down.
“You doing OK?” I asked him.
“Better than some, not as well as others.”
“I can show you how to make a lot of money. But you have to listen to demons. You up to that?”
“What the heck. Why the hell not?”
I bought him lunch and told him my story. He said that he knew of a place nearby, an abandoned well, where he often heard demons talking at night. He would often camp nearby and sometimes the voices made it hard for him to sleep.
“Yeah, that’s a problem I’m well aware of,” I added. “But if you follow their guidance you can get a place of neutrality, where having them around isn’t so annoying. It will, however, make normal family life impossible.”
“No problem there. I have no ambitions to be normal.”
“You seem to be doing pretty well with that already,” I snickered. He didn’t take offense.
We planned to meet every day, and to my surprise, he showed up at our agreed-upon places at the appointed times. He started washing his hair and wearing less-grimy clothes. I have him a few dollars so that he could go on a shopping spree at one of the many used-clothing stores around. Ever since the pandemic, there had emerged a new subculture that was positively third-world compared to the prosperous America of my youth.
His name was Blaine, a strange, high-class, effeminate name for someone so devoid of social standing. It turned out that he had an occasional girlfriend, a mousy, quiet girl who looked like she wrote poetry at night after everyone in her house was asleep.
At first I thought maybe his drug use had permanently impaired his mind, but once I stopped focusing on the strange mental blank spots that peppered his conversation, I realized that he was quite bright. Maybe as intelligent as anyone else I knew, he simply didn’t care to present himself as a “sharp” person who was standing by ready to snap to attention. He had probably never snapped to attention at any time in his life. Fine with me. I have had enough of eager yes-men and their desire to please an imaginary boss or drill Sargent.
Once I told him I was glad he had a woman in his life, she began accompanying him to all our meetings. It turns out her name was Olivia and she had been studying for a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry when she had had a nervous breakdown and was forced to drop out of the graduate program shortly before graduation. Now she owed almost a six-figure sum for tuition and was thoroughly disillusioned. In this way she made a perfect partner for Blaine.
“What would having a Master’s of Fine Arts in poetry diploma really do for you, anyway?” I said to her one morning when we met for coffee. I was trying to console her, but I don’t think she took it that way.
“One of the girls in my class is now the head of the poetry program at a private University in Uruguay. She makes lots of money and hangs around with the super rich. She got her degree and did something with it.”
“If you want to hang out with the super rich, all you have to do is provide a service they want. Sure, maybe you can find a few who want to learn to write poetry or do yoga or Reiki, but there are other services that are in even greater demand. The income you can get from that will make your tuition bill seem insignificant.”
“But I’m not good an anything. I don’t know how to do anything practical. Why would anyone give me money?”
“Find a need and fill it.”
“What kind of need?”
“Up to you. What turns you on?”
“Men. Sex. Drugs. The usual.”
“Unless you want people to pay you for sex, that just sounds like something that would cost you.”
“Sorry if I can’t come up with a business opportunity on the spot. I’m not that kind of a girl. But an oblique metaphor or a series of obtuse images, that I can come up with. I can skirt around meaning for as long as anyone.”
“Is there a market for those?”
“Only in graduate school. And you have to be the one being paid to be there, not the customer.”
“That’s how it works in most areas. Plenty of sheep, but a shortage of shepherds.
“The sheep fear the wolf, but in the long run it’s the shepherd who will eat them.”
“Right again. How much is your tuition bill for the the degree you never received?”
“I was hoping for join the winners circle and become a shepherd myself, only I guess I figured out that the whole scheme was rotten to the core, and I could no longer believe it as anything more than legalized theft.”
“Well, at least you know now, even though you had to learn the hard way. Me, I’m pretty much unemployable and it shows. I never make it past the first interview. They can sense my true motives. I want to get paid well for doing very little. I see others do it with impunity. Government, Universities, Schools…”
I decided to stop talking. After all, who was I to lecture anyone on finding a vocation? Any success I’ve enjoyed has been more the result of luck than applied effort.
By the time we left that cafe, I got the impression that Blaine’s girlfriend was now mine, even though no one had consummated any deals. I looked over and saw that Blaine was absorbed with this cellphone and probably didn’t notice that Olivia and I had been talking.
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The next day we met again and Olivia and Blaine seemed a solid couple again. They wanted to talk to be as a couple, and seriously asked me, as if I were the adult in the group, my opinion on what they should be doing to advance their lot.
“We’re getting nowhere. What would you suggest?” they asked as soon as we had sat down.
“Stop playing with your phones. All that is pure addiction and a colossal waste of time. Being online is simulated connectivity, but it’s really mostly just an enormous waste of time, leading to painful loneliness.”
“Don’t you use a phone?”
“As rarely as I can. Sometimes not every day.”
That shut them up. Olivia became animated “We agree, social media is a bottomless pit into which we pour our precious gifts.”
He spoke. “But we don’t know what else to do. It gives us the illusion that we’re staying informed, and plugged into the culture.”
“As it is. But what if there’s nothing there? What if it’s simply the illusion of discourse?”
They both nodded, sad and serious.
“We have to find a way to catch fire that doesn’t involve social media or staring at our phones. The mere act of not doing what everybody else is doing will set us apart and give us untold advantage. We don’t know the nature of that advantage yet, but I think it’s safe to say it exists.” I was playing the professor and they were glad to play the role of students.
“So what do we want to do? Even if we have all the advantage in the world, we still need to decide on something to do. Some service to provide,” Olivia said.
Nobody said anything for a long time.