by Steven C. Day
One time while sitting at the large round table, Horace said, “I believe that every now and then people should take a little time to think about the things that we think are unthinkable, if for no other reason than that by doing so, we greatly increase the likelihood that they will stay that way.
The Last Chance Democracy Café:
Episode 47: I Can Still Remember Freedom
Date: December 23, 2078.
Location: Rural Montana.
It was a strikingly unlikely sight, even for a world that had become accustomed to unlikely sights: A President of the United States walking alone in the moonlight, still a full hour before dawn, in a wide open field at the end of a long dirt road; he was 110 miles away from the nearest town. A week’s accumulation of snow had turned into muck the day before when the temperature soared to a radically unseasonable 67 degrees, only to plunge back into the low 20s after nightfall, freezing the saturated fields. Every step taken by the famous, solitary figure was met with a loud crunching sound, the sound of a child biting into a piece of rock candy. Only to him, it conjured up something different, for him it was the sound of millions of voices crying out in anguish.
He came at last to the prearranged marker, a solitary red stake driven into the ground. Tears welled up, but he fought back — he hadn’t come to cry. After a few moments, he placed a small bouquet of red roses next to the stake, then, laying his overcoat neatly on the ground as his only protection against the tundra like earth, he sat down. He had practiced the words he would speak to the small red stake in the ground at least a dozen times. But sitting there, he silently rehearsed it once more; he wanted to get it just right. It was important to him.
As the sun began, ever so gently, to rise behind the tree-line to the East, a young presidential aide, waiting a half a mile back by the dirt road, after first hesitating, lifted up a camera with a strong telescopic lens and snapped what would become one of the most famous photographs in history.
* * *
Nine years earlier . . .
Date: December 23, 2069.
Location: The Patriot’s Grill.
Previous occupant: The Last Chance Democracy Café.
It was an achingly typical Tuesday afternoon at the Patriot’s Grill; business was as dead as a moon rock, and not one-tenth as interesting. Joe, who tended bar and, for that matter, was responsible for just about everything else that needed doing in the lounge, glanced noncommittally at the not so pretty/not so ugly face staring back at him in the large rectangular mirror mounted on the wall behind the bar. With shallow cheeks, a prominent jaw, pointed nose, longish already graying hair and piercing brown eyes, Joe had the look of an old-time gospel preacher, or perhaps a mass murderer. He had been a bartender for 20 of his 43 years; he’d only hated it for the last 17.
He wasn’t just a bartender, though: He was also an actor — although, like most self-professed professional actors of this and every other generation, he had never actually acted in anything other than an occasional no pay community theater production. Still, he was determined that someday, when his residential transfer papers were finally cleared by Homeland Security, he was going to move to California to star in the movies. It was a long shot, of course, if for no other reason than Joe had the face of a character actor, not of a leading man, and the studios rarely used live actors anymore for other than the leading roles.
As Jacob Davis, CEO of Gramstar corp. — the entertainment sector giant — had put it almost three decades earlier, “Why would we use real actors when the computer generated characters are just as good? And you don’t have to pander to their egos, or pay them a dime!”
Gramstar Corp., by the way, was a wholly owned subsidiary of JurassicInc, the third largest multinational corporation in the world, and a founding member of The Big Six Consortium, the business association representing the world’s six largest corporations, with combined assets representing 53 percent of the total economic value of planet Earth. BSC made history in 2053 when it became the first private entity to be awarded a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, with full veto power.
The bar and tables in the Patriot’s Grill’s lounge were littered with empty beer bottles, dirty glasses and old cigarette butts (the tobacco industry won out in the end). Given the slow pace of business, the mess had obviously been there long enough to earn squatters’ rights. “What? You think I’m a fucking janitor?” Joe would respond if anyone complained. No one generally did.
It’s a little frightening, actually, to think of what a health inspector might have thought of this scene, though since there were no health inspectors anymore (the government said it was a matter of personal responsibility), we’ll never know.
It was a dark, dreary day outside of the lounge’s dirty windows. No surprise there: They were almost all dark and dreary anymore — the combination of the industrial pollution and the increased atmospheric humidity brought on by the melting ice caps and glaciers generated a dark smog cover almost every day.
The motif in the Patriot’s Grill was cheap, tacky and supercharged-nationalistic: The walls, though peeling badly now, had been painted in bright red, white and blue. Posters with “patriotic” messages, mostly prepared by Homeland Security, were scattered about on the walls. One read, “One Right, One Wrong and One America;” another “God Bless Our Commander in Chief,” and still another “You’re Either With Us Or You’re Against Us.”
Truth be told, nobody had been paying much attention to these messages for years; it isn’t that people necessarily disagreed with them. It’s just that after awhile, it had all become just so much more wallpaper.
There were only three people in the lounge, besides Joe.
Joe hated them all.
One, a woman, a widow, around age 70, lived nearby and had been coming in almost every day for three years. She would sit alone at a large round table that supposedly had some sort of history to it, the particulars of which no one seemed to know, sipping endlessly on the same whisky sour. She sat there for hours, sipping and sipping, smiling and nodding anytime someone passed. Sometimes when Joe delivered a drink, she would mention something about how her roses were doing. Joe would grunt and leave.
Joe hated roses. Mostly he hated people who talked about them.
The other two customers, sitting at the table in the Northwest corner of the lounge, were former university religious studies professors, who had been fired the year before and banned from teaching for five years; they had been foolish enough to participate in a public meeting, attended, of course, by several informants, where they questioned several tenets of the nation’s official fundamentalist faith.
Joe hated their guts. He didn’t give a damn about their politics or religion: It just pissed him off that they’d had something so much better than anything he had ever had, and then had so recklessly thrown it away. They were morons and, worse still, self-righteous morons. “They should have fucking lined them up and shot them,” he once announced to another customer, just loud enough for them to hear.
Joe didn’t get a lot of tips, but he didn’t care. “I’m not kissing anyone’s butt for a couple of bucks,” he often said.
* * *
An old man walked into the lounge — actually, more ancient than old; so ancient, in fact, that he looked almost brittle, like if you touched him he might fracture into a million pieces. His cheeks and forehead were rutted and gray: His nose, which had always been on the largish size, had grown especially prominent during his senior years, as the rest of the face receded. What hair was left was pure white, combed neatly from front to back.
“Shit,” Joe muttered to himself. “God, I hope he doesn’t sit at the bar. That’s all I need right now . . . some old-timer yakking at me about the good old days.”
But Joe had apparently jinxed himself, because the old man headed directly to the bar, picking a spot front and center. After slowly, painfully so, pushing himself onto the tall bar stool, he tapped his finger twice on the bar and cheerfully ordered a draft beer.
Joe, who already hated him with a passion, grunted in response, then grabbed a (hopefully) clean glass from the rack above the bar.
One thing you have to say for the America of 2069 is that it was never hard to get a drink. Although religious fundamentalism played a powerful role in the governing alliance (part de facto presidential dictatorship, part corporate oligarchy and part fundamentalist theocracy), no serious steps had ever been taken to restrict alcohol consumption.
For despots, some sins are manna from heaven.
Joe thought that he might have caught a break — at first: Far from talking his head off, as Joe had feared, the old man didn’t say another word. He just looked intensely around the lounge, studying it as though he were a student cramming for an exam. Something about the old man’s face struck Joe — a familiar expression, one he had seen before on other faces, but not for a very long time: Not quite a happy look, not quite a sad one.
Then he remembered: Nostalgia. It was the look of nostalgia. Though how anyone could possibly feel nostalgic about this dump, left Joe shaking his head.
Like I said, Joe thought he might have caught a break — at first.
The old man quickly shattered the illusion, however, speaking again, with a wide toothy smile. “I used to come to this place back in college.”
“Really.” Joe struggled to stuff as much disinterest as possible into the sound of his voice.
But the old man wasn’t taking any hints.
“Yeah, but it was different then,” he continued. “I mean really different.”
“You don’t say?” Joe busied himself clearing the dirty glasses off the bar. “Excuse me, but I’ve got to get this work . . .”
The old man still wasn’t taking any hints.
“Yeah, it’s really different. Take your posters. There were posters back then too, but they . . .”
“Like I said . . .”
“. . . weren’t pro-government ones like yours. They mostly criticized political leaders, or at least made fun of them . . . especially George W. Bush. He was the president back then.”
“Yeah, right,” sneered Joe. Now he wasn’t just irritated; he was getting seriously pissed off. It was bad enough having to listen to this old fucker rattle on. But now he was making shit up. Posters criticizing government leaders: Yeah, like someone could ever get away with that without being closed down, jailed and probably worse.
“And you see over there at the end of the lounge,” the old man continued to rattle, “that’s where they used to play . . . let’s see, what did they call it? Republican darts, that’s it. There were seven dartboards; each one with the face of a particularly obnoxious conservative political leader . . .”
Joe had had enough. “I’ll tell you what, old man,” he interrupted angrily, “we both know that’s a pile of crap. Nothing like that could ever happen in this country. And I’ve got no use for bullshit, or for the people who spread it. So why don’t you just get the hell out . . .”
“So, you think I’m lying?” smiled the old man. But it wasn’t the smile Joe would have expected from someone his age. It was a lot tougher — more like the smile of a prizefighter looking down at an unconscious foe.
It unnerved him.
The old man pressed his advantage. “So, answer the question. Are you accusing me of lying?”
“Look, buddy,” he said, “I don’t know you, and I don’t know what you think you’ve seen, so I’m not accusing you of anything. I just know for a fact that nothing like what you’re describing could ever have happened; the Homeland Security troopers would never have allowed it.”
The old man’s smile softened. “You forget, Joe (he’d read his nametag), I’m an old man.”
“I’m so old I can still remember freedom.”
Joe was a little taken aback. People just didn’t use the word freedom that way. Sure, the president and other government officials would sometimes throw the word around, but no one took it seriously. It was like saying the Pledge of Allegiance, as was required at every public event; it was just a bunch of words to recite, like a young child doing numbers by rote. Nobody actually believed it had any relevance to their lives.
But Joe was intrigued enough to ask, “Freedom to do what?”
“Well, Freedom of Speech, for one thing.”
“We have Freedom of Speech today . . . or so they say.”
In a sense, Joe was right, of course. The First Amendment was still right there in the Constitution, right along with the rest of the Bill of Rights: You could go see it on display at the National Archives, assuming, of course, you could get your travel papers approved.
But the old man was having none of it. “Really. So, if we have Freedom of Speech, does that mean we’re free to call the president a turd?”
“Of course not.”
“So, have you ever called a president a turd, Joe?”
Again Joe said of course not. This time a little more testily.
“You ought to try it sometime. You’d be amazed by how good it can make you feel.”
“Yeah, if going to prison is what makes you feel good.”
The old man drew a line in the air with his forefinger, indicating that Joe had scored a point. Joe, who was unfamiliar with this particular bit of antiquated pop culture, had no clue what he was doing.
“Well, okay, if we can’t be quite that in your face,” the old man carried on, “how about a speech arguing, in respectful terms mind you, that the government’s policies are wrong . . . that they’re bad for the people, and that new leadership is needed? Do you think we’re free enough to do that, I mean, without getting arrested?”
“Stop wasting my time. You know that’s illegal.”
“You’re right, Joe, I do know that. But I also know something you may not know . . . something that’s kind of important, and that’s the fact that it used to be allowed. All of it, even the turd part. Hell, it was more than just allowed; it was a sacred right. That’s the way things worked when I used to come to this place back in college. Back then the Bill of Rights was more than just pretty words, it really meant something. We used to raise hell about the government all of the time. In fact, it was just over there, at the large round table, where that beautiful young woman is sitting . . .” The old man smiled and tipped his head at the anything but beautiful and far from young woman still sipping away on her first whisky sour.
She smiled and waved back, although being as deaf as an old rock musician who never wore ear plugs, she hadn’t heard a word he said. “Every Wednesday evening, back then,” the old man carried the story forward, “a group of us would gather around that very table and talk politics . . . sometimes for seven or eight hours, all the way until closing time. And, my Lord, did we give the bastards in power hell. We didn’t hold back, and we didn’t whisper . . .”
“But weren’t you afraid of a Homeland Security raid?”
Joe wasn’t a slow learner. He just didn’t have a frame of reference. It was as if a 17th century Pilgrim had been suddenly plucked out of Plymouth Colony and transported to late 20th century Los Vegas, and then asked: “So, how does all this strike you, dude?
It wouldn’t compute.
Freedom didn’t compute for Joe. He’d simply never experienced anything like it.
(End Part One)
Visit us on Friday for Part 2
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001