Sunday, August 19, 2012

Harry and Frederick

Harry and Frederick

He was a kind man, no doubt about that. He had a high forehead running into a collapsing hairline and it was wrinkled with concern.

“Perhaps if you fill in a new 714-233?”

“I already did that.”

“With no results.”

“With no results.”

“Perhaps you could appeal.”

“Filling in the new 714-233 and waiting meant the time for appeal on the original 714-233 elapsed. The regulations allow for an appeal only on the first 714-233. No appeal is allowed on the second.”

“Dear, dear.”

Harrington Bringwater was weary but he was used to being weary. It seemed to him that he had been weary for many, many years but as he was only twenty years of age then it could not have been that many. He thought of his grandmother who was eighty-three. If she had became weary at the age he was now she would have had sixty-three years of weariness. But he doubted that this was the case for grandmother even in her old age seemed a tireless woman. If she wasn’t in the garden digging she was in the kitchen cooking or on the porch knitting. Every stitch of clothing he wore was made by his grandmother, even his underwear. Underwear she made out of the better parts of old flannel shirts she bought at the second hand store. Winter underwear she double layered; summer underwear was only a single layer. Even then on hot days, like today, the summer underwear was warmish.

“I could give you a food bank voucher,” said the man behind the desk.

“That would be nice,” said Harrington.

The man made out the voucher and Harrington left.

He walked to the food bank rather than use the bus ticket the man gave him along with the voucher. The bus ticket would take you all the way across town and, if your errand was a quick one, back again. The walk to the food bank took only thirty-five minutes.

Since it was Monday morning the food bank was almost empty but, unfortunately, so were the shelves. The woman at the front desk gave him the small box you were allowed to fill. But Harrington’s grandmother had taught him from the time he was a little boy what to choose, what to stay away from. Rice, flour, sugar, molasses, lard first. No boxes; no processed. They got their vegetables from Nan’s garden which was big enough to supply them all year, with the cold storage. Luckily that day there was bulk rice and lard so he loaded up mostly with these two. No sugar so he took two middling sized containers of molasses. When the woman at the front looked in his box she raised her eyebrows. Unless they knew him they always did. A young man his age usually took boxed junk – macaroni dinners, hamburger patties.

The walk home with the box used to be tiring until he learned his trick with the two ropes. He cut holes in the cardboard with his jackknife, threaded a rope through on either side and slung the box onto his back as if it were a backpack. It took an hour to get home from the food bank. Halfway there he lowered the box to the ground and had a rest. The spot he chose was on the riverbank where the river slung itself east in a wide meander. Sitting here you could see across to the corn fields on the other side, fields surrounded with chain link fence topped with three rows of razor wire. Harrington often wondered why the razor wire. Everyone he knew, including himself, slipped through holes they cut in the fence at the very bottom where you were hidden by long grass. Every July and August since he was nine he and one of his pals made the trip four or five times a season bringing back bags of corn they ferried across the river in an ancient canoe. His grandmother frowned when she saw them in the porch the next morning. She was an ethical old woman but then one had to eat, ethical or not. She frowned but said nothing and when he came back the following evening the corn was gone, stored in the cold cellar in the basement.

At one time people got jobs in the cornfields, hoeing and picking. But machines did all that now. The people who drove the machines were from the outside. They came for the work and then went away. None of the corn went to the local markets anymore. It was loaded onto boxcars and driven west where it was processed and then loaded onto ships and sent across the ocean. The Company who owned the cornfields nobody had ever heard of before. Some said it was owned by rich men in another country where the corn fetched high prices and there were whole buildings filled with agents ready to buy it. But not all the corn went this route. Sometimes the papers were filled with stories about corn thievery, not the penny ante kind he and his friends indulged in, but the derailing of whole trainloads with vehicles suddenly appearing and a small army of thieves emptying the cars. His Righteous Rigorousness threatened dire action. He said he would burn whole counties, hang the ringleaders but this was bluster for the most part because His Righteous Rigorousness hardly had a pot to piss in when it came to enforcing anything. His old tracked vehicles had engines whose pistons sloshed around like a spoon stirring gravy and even if he managed to patch up enough for a punishing expedition anyone in front of them disappeared like ghosts so there was no one to punish. Once, some years ago, when they burned empty houses, it so angered people that they dug holes in the roads and spent all night shooting at the trapped vehicles, ping ping, the bullets bouncing of the armored plates. This scared the daylights out of the soldiers who escaped on foot the next morning. When they came back two days later with bulldozers the vehicles were all gone. Not a single bolt or sparkplug remained - all cannibalized and carried off to God knows where. But this didn’t stop His Righteous Rigorousness from taking to the screen once a month, banging the oak table he was sitting at and shouting so loud spit flew out of his mouth like he were a human rainstorm.

When he arrived at the house his grandmother was washing the front steps. She did this once a week excepting, of course in the winter when the water would freeze. She looked into his box and patted him on the head.

“Good for you!” she said. He took the box into the kitchen and put the things away in the cupboards.

Two of Harrington’s uncles lived in the house along with he and his grandmother. The uncles were simple. Even if there were jobs for them, which there wasn’t, they would not have been able to work. For them to do anything sustained they needed someone at their side telling them exactly what to do. But they were big and strong and did all the heavy work in the garden and around the house with their mother, Harrington’s grandmother, directing. They were kindly, gentle men but sometimes they did become difficult. Once in a while, Harry, the oldest, managed to buy a bottle of bootleg whiskey. When he was thoroughly soused he would sit up late on the back porch singing old love songs at the top of his voice, so loudly that no one for many houses around could sleep. If any one tried to stop him he would become violent which was a problem for he was very large and had tremendous strength. His mother, Harrington and the neighbors had learned, through trial and error, the best thing was to leave him be. He ran out of steam around two in the morning and stumbled off to bed. The next morning he apologized to everyone.

“Don’t give me that!” his mother would say to him. “If you were really sorry then you would stay away from that rotgut booze.”

However there were enough people around to listen sympathetically to his apologies that he spent the whole day going from house to house. The women would give him coffee and pie and Harry would do his best to explain to them how it seemed that he was taken over by another man when these things happened but he was sure that it would never happen again and so on. As they were kind and motherly women of good heart his hosts clucked sympathetically and gave him another piece of pie. Harrington thought Uncle Harry got two things out of his occasional bouts – firstly he got drunk and sang love songs which he dearly loved to do but was too embarrassed to sing when he was sober and secondly the next day he received pie and sympathy. Harrington did not begrudge him. A man who, because of his condition, had never had and never would have, sexual relations with a woman, had to have an outlet of some kind. Even God would not be so cruel as to deny him that.

Frederick, the other Uncle, never got drunk and sang love songs. This was because he was an obsessive masturbator and his obsessive masturbation left him no energy to indulge in such goings on. Frederick had his own room on the second floor which in turn had a bed with creaky metal springs. No amount of lecturing from his mother had any effect whatsoever on the noisiness of his masturbation technique. Although Harrington had never actually seen his Uncle in the act, a fact for which he was grateful in the extreme, from the sounds which came from his room several times a day Frederick had no concept of quiet, mewing pleasure. The bed springs creaked so loudly it was hard to imagine that Frederick was accomplishing this act in his bed alone. They sounded so loudly, so piercingly that it seemed as if three or four people were involved thrashing about in a great fire of mindless pleasure. His arrival at ejaculation was accompanied by a rising crescendo of bear like grunts which one could easily hear at the very end of the garden in the back, some one hundred feet away from the house.

When he was a young boy Harrington was mortally embarrassed by these daily gallops of Uncle Frederick. Adults would not mention them to a young boy but his fellow children brought them up in the eternal one upmanship of childhood, at least his enemies. But Harrington was a robust boy and by the time he was twelve no one would dare mention his Uncle’s activities in his presence. Among his intimate friends, however, those who were like members of the family, the occasional mention of Uncle Frederick’s romps was allowed, indeed even welcomed, as comic relief. Frederick himself never spoke of what he did in his room and his mother reached the point where she was accepted it as a great, unstoppable force of nature and ceased trying to reform him. Besides Frederick in the past few years (he was now fifty-five) had slowed down considerably so that now there were even occasional days in which the bedsprings did not sound at all and instead there came from Frederick’s room the sound of loud, bear like snoring.

Form 714-233 was an application for government relief. Anyone could make one as long as they were eighteen or over and unemployed. However whether the application was accepted was another matter. This, as far as Harrington could make out, was entirely arbitrary. The rules said that it was a rigorous rational process and that it was as if the details were fed into a great omniscient computer which made an objective and Godlike determination but everyone knew this was untrue. The truth was that there were so many slots, so to speak, and when they were filled that was that. The available slots were taken up by people who had some advantage  - someone inside who spoke for them, relatives with influence, etc. Perhaps twenty percent of the people who applied received. The rest were sent to an appeal which merely a formal second denial. No one was allowed to know who sat on the appeal board or indeed if there even was any such thing as an appeal board. Harrington suspected there wasn’t. The appeal board was a fiction, a bureaucratic placebo.

Harrington did not mind this himself. If it were up to him he would make his way on his own. But he could steal so much and there were others to consider. His grandmother received a small pension but his Uncles were considered ‘undesirable’ and thus not eligible for any government funds. In fact in his last two speeches His Righteous Rigorousness had suggested that the government might soon place special taxes on people such as his Uncles who HRR considered to be ‘superfluous’ and a ‘hidden tax on successful production’. HRR said that the state had suffered long enough from the ‘invidious excursions’ of these ‘undesirable elements’ and the time may very well have arrived when they would be ‘incised from the political body’ as one would incise a useless growth from one’s own physical body thus protecting its health and vigor. HRR became incensed when he spoke of issues like this. His face reddened; his eyes became filled with aggressive fervor. He sometimes moved his hands about as if he were strangling someone or at least throttling and shaking them about.

Harrington and his grandmother watched these speeches together. His Uncles were not allowed to watch for HRR scared them. They had a limited capacity to understand what he was saying but the aggression and frightening gestures were clear enough even for them. And Uncle Harry knew that he and Frederick were what HRR called ‘undesirable’. He had friends in the neighborhood who told him all about HRR.

“Mother, he’s a bad man,” Harry said one day at the breakfast table.

“Don’t talk about him, Harry, dear,” his mother replied. “Bad things happen to people who talk about him. Promise me you won’t.”

Harry promised but a week later he was still calling HRR a bad man and his mother told him some of the nasty things which happened to people who did so and then he stopped. When Harry was gone Harrington said to his grandmother, “You scared the shit out of him, gran.”

“Exactly,” replied his grandmother.

A year after this Harrington’s grandmother received a letter from the Directorate of Internal Hygiene. The letter said that she, as the legal guardian of ‘two of the unfit’, was required to attend at a certain address in one months time to register them with the Directorate. Failure to do so, the letter said, would bring ‘immediate enforcement activity’ which she would no doubt wish to avoid by complying.

His grandmother showed the letter that night to Harrington. Fortunately Harrington, an astute and no nonsense lad, was ready or at least ready enough.

“We’ll have to go,” he said.

His grandmother didn’t put up a fuss as he thought she would. Eighty some years living in the same house meant far less to her than the safety of ‘her boys’.

HRR was the power in the clusters as they were called, the large centers with remnants of productive capacity still hanging about them. But he could project his power outside the clusters only to a very small degree. Harrington had contacts in places to the north, which nominally paid taxes to the center but largely ran their own affairs. There were, even in these far places, a HRR administrator, etc. but he was essentially powerless and reliant on the tolerance of the local people for his survival. Survival is the word for many unwise HRR administrators who tried to enforce directives from the center had completely disappeared and were never seen again. ‘Bogged’ was the term used for these disappearances, presumably because the officials in question were weighted and dropped into one.

“Where are we going?” Harry asked when they were on the boat sailing up river.

“On a nice trip, dear,” his mother replied.

“No bed, no bed,” Frederick said, a kind of chant he had taken up now and again ever since they left the little dock outside town.

Harrington was seated in the stern with the boatman, a grizzled man who seemed to be able to see in the dark.

“Mom will get you a bed when we get there Fred,” said Harry, “so be quiet and stop going on like that.”  

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