The cordwainer, p.1
or An American Fairy Tale
by Christopher Blankley
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Blankley
other books by Christopher Blankley:
The Bobbies of Bailiwick
Seymour Fonk's seminal paper on greenhouse gases forever changed the academic world in 1921, but it wasn't until the droughts of 1927-28, and the resulting global food shortages, that Dr. Fonk's work garnered more mainstream attention. With the 1929 crash and the subsequent 1932 election, the Roosevelt Administration found itself inheriting a pair of twin horrors: Economic collapse and widespread global hunger.
It was here, in these corridors of power, that Dr. Fonk's work truly came to find a receptive audience – an audience desperate for bold solutions to complex, global problems. Almost from the very beginning, the politics of Roosevelt’s New Deal became tightly intertwined with the issue of global overheating. So much so, it is said, that Roosevelt himself came to consider the “New Deal” not simply as a new pact between government and the governed, but also a new contract between mankind and the planet – to find common cause, to live in peace and harmony, to sustain one another and to foster continued mutual growth...
- excerpt from A Brief Political History of a Warming Planet
The affair of The Cordwainer, and my subsequent meteoric rise to political fame, began the Saturday I returned to Boot Hill, my Class A work chit literally in my back pocket.
I was standing on the corner of Main and H, waiting on the trolley car, itchy in the new jacket and shirt I had just purchased from the Concession Store behind me. Monday morning was to bring my first day at work, as a Foreman at The Shop, and Foremen were expected to arrive in a jacket and tie. I'd never owned either in all my years growing up, or anytime during my four years away at the Big City University; so my first port of call upon returning to town had been the Men's Department of the Concession Store.
The matronly assistant had absolutely insisted that I wear my purchase home. “To show your mother,” she'd said, beaming, in some sort of transitive state of maternal bliss. “She will absolutely die!”
I doubted that, my mother already being dead – by then going on ten years – but the old bird had been so insistent... I wore the suit out. But ten minutes waiting in the sun, and the whole contraption had begun to feel like an irritating hemp noose around my neck. I was altogether too overdressed to be waiting on a street corner for a trolley car on a Saturday. People were giving me sideways looks. But the store assistant had pressured me to wear it. I'd felt obligated.
I was feeling a little down in the mouth and more than a little bit like a fool as I stood there in line at the trolley stop. But fate had not yet had its fun with me – it had not yet decided that my situation was completely unbearable. As I waited there at the curb that early June day, with the first heat of the summer just starting to set in, I happened to look easterly down Main to check on the progress of the electric trolley, only to see a rusty silver wrecking truck come squealing off J Street and accelerate up Main.
You have to remember how unusual the sight of an automobile was back in 1973. Thirty years before, I understand, you couldn't have crossed a street like Main without looking both ways for traffic. But at the height of carbon rationing, during the summer of '73, such a phenomenon was a peculiar sight.
If that sight alone had not been enough to turn heads, the reckless nature with which the vehicle was being driven would have done it. The waiting crowd on the sidewalk in front of the Concession Store let out a collective gasp.
I, alone, was silent. To me, the sight and smell of that particular vehicle loomed large in my memory. I sunk back, attempting to duck my head behind the crowd. That wrecking truck – and the man I knew would inevitably be driving with such insane abandon – was nothing and nobody I wanted to see right then; not dressed in my new jacket, shirt and tie; not standing out in front of the Concession Store, waiting on the trolley; not after four years and enough time and space for me to just begin to regret my days spent in the passenger seat of that truck. No, not that day of all days, two days shy of the beginning of my professional career.
“Shee-it!” A voice screamed from the open window of the truck as it passed, brakes squealing. I dared not look up, but I knew that I'd been spotted. There'd be no other reason for the yell. The wrecking truck stopped in the center of the street, sputtered and settled into an unhappy idle, as the driver's door creaked open. I considered running, all crouched down, back through the revolving doors of Concession Store. But before I could act, before I could flee, the crowd around me began to part. “Shee-it!” the voice came again. There was no avoiding it now. I pulled myself back up to my full height and feigned surprise to see Fluky stepping down from the truck and walking up onto the sidewalk towards me.
“Shee-it!” he said for a third time, somehow making the four-letter word have two syllables. “Ya ol' son-of-a-bitch!” he rolled around a mouth full of chew. He seemed bigger than I remembered, more than his five feet four inches should have let him. Bigger around the middle, perhaps. But it was the same old Fluky, in his stained blue jeans, ripped flannel and cap; smelling of a combination of motor oil and cannabis. “Beanie? Beanie? It's me, Fluky...” he mocked unfamiliarity, then laughed at his own joke. “Damn! When'd you get back into town?” he drawled. “You can't pick up a phone and call an old buddy?”
Fluky. With his backwoods, Tennessee accent; though he'd been born in California and moved to Boot Hill as a child. Fluky. So intentionally vague about his exact ethnicity – sometimes Chinese, sometimes Japanese. 1973 was the tail end of the repatriations – that interminable policy of actively deporting Japanese refugees back to repopulate their radioactive rock. Fluky had been unquestionably born in the U.S. But it was wise for a guy who looked like Fluky not to let the exact nature of his ethnic makeup be too well known, lest a jumpy government official be accidentally within ear shot and prone to fits of excitement.
“Fluky, I just got into town-”
“Ah, hell!” he interrupted, letting out a belly laugh and slapping my shoulder. He held out a hand and shook mine warmly. “How the heck are ya?” I could sense, to Fluky, the last four years had suddenly never happened.
“Good, good...” I replied, shaking Fluky's hand back. I had to admit, it was good to see him. I let myself smile, just a little.
“Ah, that ain't gonna get it done!” he laughed, breaking away from our handshake and wrapping his arms around me in a big bear hug. For his size he was amazingly strong. He picked me clean up off the pavement, with everyone around watching. “Shee-it! Four years!” he continued when my feet had returned to the ground. “Don't look like no college learnin' done hurt you none...” he looked me up and down, noticing for the first time my new hemp suit. “Hell, what you doin'? Standin' there like a five-buck hooker?” he laughed and spit a wad of brown goo into the gutter.
“Trolley...” I pointed off down Main, where the electric trolley was laboring in the distance.
“Shee-it, girl as pretty as you ain't gotta wait on no trolley!” Fluky laughed. “Come on, get in!” He gestured back at the wrecking truck, idling away in the center of the road, slowly engulfing itself in a cloud of choking black diesel fumes.
“Oh, no...” I answered, raising a hesitant hand. “I can wait...” But Fluky was already walking back to the truck, oblivious to my protests.
Every fiber of my being was screaming, “No.” I couldn't get into that truck. I wouldn't get into that truck – back into that truck. After all those years that I'd been free of it.
I tried to slip back into th
“Get in,” he said with a gesture.
I wasn't going to get into that truck, he couldn't make me get into that truck.
Getting into that truck was absolutely, unequivocally the stupidest thing I could do. I was two days away from the real beginning of my career. All the time and energy I'd invested into school was just about to start paying off. I'd be a Foreman. The Boss. To be seen in the passenger seat of that truck... there was just absolutely, positively no way I was going to get into that truck with Fluky...
...I remembered thinking as I pulled the passenger's door closed behind me.
I guess you could say I wasted my youth.
Well, Fluky and I did, along with Mitty, in that damn old rusty wrecking truck.
The employment bureau, in its infinite wisdom, our sophomore year, had apprenticed Fluky to Old Man Zimmerman. Why in hell was anyone's guess; it put one of the town's only Oriental kids in the employ of one of the town's most notorious bigots. But whatever the logic, it had put Fluky, myself and Mitty into the enviable position of being among the few automobile-powered teenagers in town. We had a car... well, we had a stinky old truck, but small-town girls couldn't afford to be that picky. I'll skip the sordid details, but sufficient to say, without fear of contradiction, we had ourselves a good ol' time. Maybe too good a time.
My grades began to slip. When you spend your nights out driving the town, drinking McTavish and smoking Jefferson’s, it's hard to bring your A-Game to class the next day. That damn truck nearly cost me my college career. Halfway through my senior year, my dad wisely took me aside and tried to talk some sense into me. It wasn't hard. He told me: Next time I was out riding around, look to my left and look to my right; look at the fellas sitting next to me.
That was all it took. I bucked up on the books, dodged the old crowd for my last semester, and managed to sneak by with grades just good enough for the Big University over the mountains. I was gone. Free. I fell in with a whole new crowd in the Big City; made whole new friends. Engineering types. Classmates.
Quickly, the nights I'd spent with Fluky and Mitty in that old truck became nothing more than a fond memory. I had little reason to stay in touch, and four years later, with a degree in Mechanical Engineering to my credit, there was no reason at all for me to expect that I'd fall back into my old ways, not the second I stepped back into town. But there I was, not a day fresh off the train and already I was climbing back into the cab of that stinking, rusty old truck.
“You gotta be stupid,” Fluky said, reading my mind as I dropped into the seat next to him, closing the door. I began to answer, but my attention came to rest on the four-inch googly-eyed Jesus that was suction-cupped to the dash right in front of me.
I couldn't remember ever seeing anything quite like it in my life. Simultaneously pious and cartoonish. It was self evidently Jesus, with a beard and long hair and robes, but there was no obvious separation of the body and head. He was egg-shaped, with little carved wooden hands clasped together in prayer; googly-eyes jiggling in their glass orbs, cast pensively – hysterically – heavenward. Fluky leaned over, witnessing my fascination, and gave it a flick with his finger. The googly-eyed Jesus began to bob back and forth on some sort of spring attached to its suction base, sending eyeballs googling in their sockets.
Fluky gave me a dirt-brown grin, obviously amused by his small totem, and he put the wrecking truck into gear.
Boot Hill began to roll by.
“Stupid?” I finally replied, a full two minutes later, after the truck took a wild turn onto G, Fluky working his way through the three on the tree.
“Yeah, stupid,” he said with joy, working the word stupid around in his mouth with his chew.
“Yeah, maybe...” I had to admit.
“Got to be,” Fluky said, now sure of his conclusion. “Can't imagine no other reason why you'd show your ginger ass in this town again. Gotta be 'cause you're stupid,” he spat out the window, “got to be...”
I dug in my back pocket, pulling out my Class A work chit, and held it up between Fluky and the windscreen. “Start Monday morning at The Shop,” I said.
He squinted: “What the hell you study at that University?”
“Mechanical Engineering,” I replied, refolding my chit and returning it to my pocket.
“That learn you much about makin' boots?” Fluky snorted, giving me a glance as he made a turn onto Yakima.
“Oh yeah, sure...” I shrugged, prying my eyes away from the Jesus' hypnotic googly-eyes. On the corner of G and Yakima a disheveled Indian stood with an outstretched hand. Suddenly, the feeling that I was really back in Boot Hill hit me. My dad's house, Main Street, the Concession Store, Fluky and his truck, were all some half forgotten memory. But that hard-luck Indian – that reminded me that I was truly back in Boot Hill.
Boot Hill, of course, was not officially called Boot Hill. Find it on a map, and you'd think the place was called Luma, after that Indian – well, at least his tribe. The Luma had lived or hunted or fished or some such thing in the area for centuries before the coming of the white man, and the town had been named in their honor.
But no one called the place Luma. Everyone knew the town as Boot Hill; not out of some silly Old West, frontier town sort of association, but because the town made boots. Hundreds, thousands, millions upon millions of them, at the Concession's Central Footwear Manufacturing Facility, known as The Shop, just on the edge of town. If you'd bought a pair of shoes in the continental United States pretty much anytime in the postwar era, chances were they'd been made in Boot Hill.
But officially they had been made in Luma. To honor that Indian and his tribe, who were free to stumble into the town named in their honor, anytime, to panhandle off people. Yeah, Indians and Boot Hill made a connection for me, let me know that I was finally well and truly back home.
“Damn! Them injuns make me thirsty...” Fluky stated, reaching back through the absent rear window of the truck's cab, fishing around by the winch, and coming back with a waxy carton of Frau Brau. “Beer?” he asked, holding the carton out to me.
I took it without thinking. He reached back and came back with a Frau for himself. I folded out the tab and popped the carton open, taking a quick sip.
Yeah, I was back home.
Fluky deftly punctured a hole in his carton with the nail of his thumb and squeezed the container like a lemon. A stream of beer erupted from the tear and splashed down his gullet. Three seconds, and the beer was done. He crushed the last of the wax carton in his fist and tossed it unthinkingly out his window.
“Mother fucker!” he yelled, punched the roof of the cab and let out a rebel yell. “Andrew Rice! Rice and Beans! Red Beans and Rice!” he cycled through. Rice, my last name, inevitably lead to the nickname “Beans”; Red Beans because of my hair. I took a swallow of my beer and tried to smile. “How the fuck are you, Beanie?”
Four years with no one calling me Beanie... That had been nice.
“Good, good...” The wrecking truck bounced across the railroad tracks. Almost immediately, Fluky took a sharp Y where Yakima joined Nez Perce. “Hey, where we going?” I asked, but I had already answered that question in my head.
“Where the hell you think we're goin'?” Fluky answered, reaching back through the rear window to grab another Frau. Crossing the railroad put us literally on the “wrong side of the tracks”. We had left the small, neat bungalows of the hardworking, God-fearing neighborhoods of Boot Hill and were driving though the maze of prefabricated concrete shotgun shacks that made up Boot Hill's seedier district. I knew only one person who'd ever lived in this part of town – would only ever know one person from this side of the tracks.
“Mitty,” I said over my beer.
“Hell, yeah!” Fluk
“No, no,” I began to correct, then realized he was ribbing me again. “How have you been, Fluky?” I changed the subject.
“How has Fluky been?” Fluky lifted an eyebrow while again performing his well practiced one-handed beer maneuver. “Shit, you know they ain't yet invented the itch that old Fluky can't scratch...” He again finished his beer and sent the container spinning out the window.
“Ah...” he shrugged without committing himself. “You know Mitty...”
Fluky turned the old wrecking truck at a boarded-up old grocery store at the corner of Nez and C. He shifted down to second and gassed the truck up the slight grade that was C Street. I looked back at the boarded-up storefront, at the political posters from last November's election that still hung, dogeared, from the rain-soaked plywood. They were all for Kennedy. None for the Republican, whose name, frankly, now I can't even remember. Most of the signs touted, in large red lettering, the new slogan from Kennedy's latest campaign: “Four to the Future.” (“Four” being a not terribly clever play on words for the number of sequential presidential elections he was hoping to win.) But one carried the older, but still popular, slogan: “Nation of Big Ideas” with the stylized likeness of the President against a sky full of his wartime bombers. It was a slogan and poster the Administration had been using from the very beginning, since the 1960 election, when Joseph Kennedy Jr. had so handily defeated the sitting Vice President.
I lost sight of the posters as the old store vanished behind the smokescreen belching from the rear of the wrecking truck. She was really laboring up the grade now and I turned my attention back to the road, then down to the googly-eyed Jesus dancing in front of me, silently praying, perhaps, for our successful conquest of the grade.
The Cordwainer by Christopher Blankley / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on36 votes