Re-branding

Finally, on a Wednesday they walked through the door at the bottom of the garden. On the other side, all identity was erased. No longer defined by race, or gender, or religion, or nationality … anything. This meant the pros as well as the cons. It all had to go. Now just a number, X17359 was a little sad, because some of the old identities were useful and conferred a bit of priviledge. But there was no way to separate the wheat from the chaff with this process. It all had to be burnt away in the purifying fires of re-branding. Even the new “name” was as un-unique and vague as possible, with no accompanying meaning for or against. The “names” were even randomized so people couldn’t brag about how long ago they had walked through the door. Not like they wanted to, not after that experience, but this way there was no chance of temptation.

For you see, nobody was forced to walk through that door, a nobody who had gone through mentioned it to others. It wasn’t advertised, but everyone knew about it, one way or another. Some thought about it every day until they finally just did it, and for some it barely registered with them and they never did. But they all knew. It was encoded in fairytales and scripture. It was woven into pop lyrics and advertising jingles. It was never overt, but it was always there. It was kind of like a pattern you could only see when you had polarizing sunglasses on. It was hidden in plain sight, but only those with eyes to see noticed.

Papa and the gun

Papa brought his gun everywhere he went. It wasn’t a small gun, either, no sir. It was a shotgun, meant for bears and the like. Gardening or the grocery store made no difference. He toted it all over Grandville, in the elbow-carry position most of the time. Sure, he got some strange looks when he was off his property, but everybody knew he was a retired Colonel (full bird, not Lieutenant) and cut him some slack. He’d never shot anything or anyone his whole service career, but that didn’t matter now. He’d been an electrical engineer before the World War started and he signed up as soon as he could. He wanted to do his part to help out his country. Maybe deep down he also wanted to make right the shame his father had brought to the family all those years ago when he left his family the permanent way.

But now he was at his new home, his two children (the requisite boy and girl) waving at the edge of the forest. They had just moved there, the 3 bedroom, 2-and-a-half bath, 2288 square-foot house they came from just wasn’t enough for him anymore. Maybe he was like a hermit crab and had outgrown his shell. He’d had to find a new one and fast or he’d die. That unsettledness was his inheritance from his Pa.

Papa was a tender soul in a hard world. Deep down he would have preferred to walk in the woods, without a care or obligation. He married out of social expectation, but had requested they have no children, but his wife had snuck two in on him before he’d insisted on separate rooms. He didn’t want children because he couldn’t bear to think of a child having to undergo what he and his sister had – the hardship, the skimping, the growing up fast after their dad died at his own hand. The family story was that it was during the Depression.  It was a depression alright, but not the capital-D kind. More of a personal kind than a public one.

Yes, that was why he carried a rifle. His father had used a revolver. And while you could kill yourself with a rifle, it was a lot harder.

You’d think he wouldn’t carry a gun at all, but he needed a reminder of the weakness that might affect him. He wanted to never succumb to weakness – whether inside or out. He needed a reminder to never forget how easy it was to go astray. Some former cigarette smokers kept their favorite ashtray, while some ex-drinkers kept empty bottles on display. It was all for the same reason. They kept their old sin before them so it wouldn’t become their new sin all over again. He never knew if suicide would sneak up on him like it had his father, but he was determined to not let it get a chance.

Sergeant Jangles

Jayne sure loved her monkey friend Sergeant Jangles. He wasn’t friends with just anyone, as he so often told her. He couldn’t afford to be, not with his position. He oversaw a regimen of Simian Soldiers, all raised like him to be different from the average monkey. In many ways they were different from the average human as well.

You see, they were educated from birth to be self-sufficient and quite capable. They were given training on how to cook, how to drive specially designed cars, and how to communicate using sign language. Some were assigned to assist humans with disabilities, while others were assigned as soldiers. They were all quite intelligent, insightful, and wise, capable of making independent decisions.

And yet they weren’t citizens. Unable to vote, to marry, to own property, they were beneath the law, an invisible slave workforce. Their owners thought nothing of it. Why would they? They collected all their salary without having to provide any more than food and lodging, both of which were minimal for their charges. When pressed by members of the Monkey Liberation League (whose motto was “Monkeys are People too!”) they would bring up the expense of training and clothing, saying that the fees had yet to be recouped. When pressed further, they hemmed and hawed about exactly when that date would be reached. They’d say things like “Well you see, new uniforms have to be custom-made, and that don’t come cheap. They tear up their clothes so often, you see. And then there’s the hats. You can’t imagine how expensive they are, and they lose them all the time. Just when the debt is about paid up, there they go needing something else again. Why, they should be grateful we take care of them at all, as much bother as they are.”

Meanwhile, their owners never worked and lived in the better parts of town and ate at the better restaurants. You could always count on finding at least a dozen of them in the fancy hip coffee houses downtown during the day while their charges worked.

Jayne wasn’t a member of the League – she was much too young. She had not even heard about it and most likely never would. Her people didn’t waste time on such shenanigans as liberating others. They barely had time to look after their own selves – and when they had a spare moment to think about the plight of the less fortunate, generally thought it was the for the best for them to take up their own fight. It wouldn’t be right to do somebody else’s work for them, now would it? Nobody marched or rallied for them and they were just fine with that.

Jayne first met Jangles when he was a private in the Simian Army Corps, back when he was first starting out. Many monkeys made it up to sergeant, but never any further. It wasn’t for lack of ability. They had that in spades. It was the simple fact that if they became Lieutenants they’d expect to become Colonels, and that was unthinkable. Then it would be even more obvious that they were capable of being full citizens, and that wouldn’t do. So they were kept low to avoid the question even arising.

Not like Jangles ever worried about such things. He was content to do his work as long as he had to. He didn’t count down the days until he could retire. He didn’t look up his pension amount every few months, when things got stressful. He got used to not being listened to, not having any real authority. Sure, his superiors told him that his happiness mattered, but when it came down to providing concrete solutions towards creating said happiness, they were silent. And any suggestion he offered was immediately discounted as being unfeasible. They were all talk and no action, blaming their employee’s dissatisfaction with the unequal work/life balance on the employees and never on themselves. They had fulfilled their required duties by having the “happiness talk” and left it at that. Once Jangles realized this was his reality, he accepted it. It was the monkey way – that which cannot be changed must be accepted.

One thing that was changed was his name. Of course his true name wasn’t Jangles. That was randomly assigned to him by his “caretaker”. Owner, manager, boss, slave master, however you wanted to think about it – it was all the same. Some titles sounded better than others, but they all described the same person. “Caretaker” was probably the most deceptive and sugar-coated, or to put it honestly, the most untrue. They didn’t take care of the monkeys at all. They cared for them just enough to keep them working, not out of any concern for the monkeys well-being, but for their own wallets.

The “caretakers” didn’t bother to ask the monkeys what their names were. They didn’t even consider the question. To them the monkeys were dumb animals, barely more intelligent than the family dog. Dogs got demeaning names like Spot or Scout or Snowball, so why shouldn’t monkeys? In the same vein, the monkeys were taught a sort of sign language so they could answer their keeper’s questions but it was never used to ask them anything. That would be absurd.

Jayne had learned the sign, same as everyone else in the town. They all had to, so they could give orders to the monkeys. But she, being a child, and a female one at that, instinctually understood the position of the monkey workers. She understood the dynamic of lesser-than, of powerless. She understood what it was like to be talked at and never with. Thankfully she didn’t follow the usual course of passing on the oppression. Lesser-thans usually treated their perceived inferiors the same as how they had been treated, handing down abuse the same way poor families handed down clothes. Thankfully, Jayne knew better, and acted better. So she asked Jangles what his real name was when they first met. This was done privately of course, and the name was kept secret. She never spoke it aloud or used his unique hand-sign within the presence of an adult. It was critical that she kept up the illusion of hierarchy, or else their friendship would have been terminated.

Tomorrow

Tomorrow she would go through the green door.
Tomorrow, not today. This is how it must be.
Today, she had to pass it by, with its peeling paint and the missing name-plate. Whose name had been there before? Was it absent to make space for her? Who would answer these questions?
Today, she would finally stop to admire the climbing vines, the red flowers. She would smell deeply of their scent, accepting it as a gift, as incense, as an offering to her, or a blessing. 
Or a warning. 
She’d walked by this doorway every day for a dozen years.
Tomorrow, she would place her hand on the door, take a deep breath, and walk inside, knowing that she would never pass through that doorway again. 
Tomorrow marked the end of her old life. 
But just today, she would live as she always had.

Boxing

Lizzie McPherson was young for a widow, but she didn’t let that stop her from her dream of being a boxer. Even when she sat for her formal photograph announcing her new status, she wore her new gloves as a sign to her friends and family of her intentions. Perhaps it was a warning.

Now that she no longer had to answer to a man, she was free to live as she had always wanted. As a maiden, she was under the authority of her father. As a wife, that role passed to her husband. She wasn’t allowed to make any legal decisions without their say-so. Sure, she could decide what she wanted to wear and what food to buy for the household. She was even allowed to pick out the books she wanted to check out from the local library. She understood that this was a rare exception, granted to her by the magnanimity of her spouse. He’d even signed a form, on file at the front desk, letting the librarians know she had free rein.

In the 27 years that branch had been open, only two other women had been granted that privilege. Had the others not known it was an option? Or did they not care? Maybe they were content to read the same old boring stories over and over. Sure, there were new books every week, but only the character names changed and the locale.

Lizzie wanted more. She wanted to be surprised by what she read. She wanted to be surprised by life. She didn’t want to know how the story ended until it ended. If it was predictable, why spend the time reading it? Life was too short for that. Lizzie was busy enough with all the chores required to run the homestead that she didn’t have time to waste on silly books.

James, her dearly departed husband, had moved them out to the wilderness the day they got married. Neither of them had set eyes on the parcel of land that had been allotted to them by the government but that didn’t matter. It was take it or leave it and no second chances with the land grants game. They decided that no matter what, they’d stick with it, come rain or shine, come harvest or famine. What other option did they have? The opportunities to start a life together were few and far between in their town – and the same was true all over.

Just too many people in too small a space. Only the elderly were staying there now, with no youngsters to fuss over and no jobs to go to, what with mandatory retirement. All their needs were taken care of, even food and personal care. They had no worries. Those were for the next generation, the ones trying to set up a family and get their household established. Marriage was the first of many hurdles to being a full citizen.

James took Lizzie out to the plot that very day, right after they’d shared the wedding cake with their family and friends. That act sealed the deal and cemented them as legally joined in the eyes of the law of the land. The plot was three hours away from the town they had known all their lives, and it had nothing on it. Their wedding night was spent in a canvas tent, without even a bed. Their wagon had just enough room for one or the other and they had thankfully agreed that shelter was more important than comfort, even on that night.

From that day onward she wore his clan tartan to tell one and all that she was claimed. Now, a widow, she wore it to fend off possible suitors. She was done with belonging to someone else, done with having to adjust herself to someone else’s whims. She’d had it relatively well with James, but she’d served her time. Now she could live as she wished. It was the best of all possible worlds.

Boxing wasn’t the usual pursuit for a lady, but she’d taken it up out of self-defense. The trouble began with her cousins at family picnics. The male ones, of course. They thought nothing of chasing her down and demanding a kiss, or worse. The adults, if they noticed at all between beers, laughed it off as childish games and told her to play along saying “boys will be boys”. It was then that Lizzie knew she’d have to take matters into her own hands. Literally.

She took up boxing secretly of course, but it didn’t matter. She was much more confident, much more certain of herself. Somehow the boys knew not to hassle her, and for many years she was single because no one had the gumption to tangle with her. This was fine by her. But then James came along. He didn’t ask her to stop boxing. He was proud of it, in fact. He was the first man that was able to befriend her, in part because he didn’t see her as a conquest but as a fellow person.

This was unusual to say the least. No man thought of a woman as his equal in those times. But James wasn’t usual. He was a s/he. S/he’d been raised as a girl until it was time to go to school. Then her parents changed her name and her clothes and nobody knew any better until Lizzie came along. This was why they got along so well. They were part of the same club, as it were. They didn’t agree on everything, of course. Nobody does that, no matter how much they have in common. But they got along better than many other couples, and in private, they even boxed. Maybe that helped too. 

The photographer tried to talk Lizzie out of wearing the gloves for her portrait, but she wasn’t budging. She no longer had to prove herself or make space for other people. It wasn’t that she was pushy, or that she had to have her way all the time. But she was done with shortchanging herself to make others feel rich. Perhaps boxing had taught her that. She wondered what else it might reveal to her about herself.

Written early April 2019

Bicycle lesson

Morris wasn’t pleased with the bicycle instructor that had been assigned to him. He was more OK with the idea that it was a skeleton than the fact it was an “it”. How was he supposed to address it – Mr.? Mrs.? Ms.? Then he started to wonder why women got a different title when they got married, but men stayed the same. But he didn’t have time to wonder very long about that. 

He needed to know the correct title so he would seem like an appreciative student. He looked again at his assignment slip – Terry Hasenmiller. No help there – that first name could go either way. He decided to settle on “Teacher” as a safe bet.

After the preliminary instructions when it was determined that Morris wasn’t a complete beginner at cycling, the instructor decided to go over all the tips and tricks on how to maintain a bicycle. “As my teacher always says ‘if you take care of your tools, they’ll take care of you’.”

Bicycles weren’t for exercise in those days. They were a necessity in a culture that seemed to be going faster and faster. A bicycle (never a “bike” according to Terry) was what made it possible to get a job or an education other than just from what was around you. The bicycle was the great weapon against mediocrity and even poverty. With a bicycle you could pedal your way out of whatever you’d been born into and make for yourself a better future. You were no longer limited by your circumstances – you could rise above.

This attitude is why Terry was still alive – in spite of being a skeleton. Terry didn’t let something as common as death put an end to a good life. Terry hadn’t always taught people how to ride a bicycle, but it made sense now. If it weren’t for the bicycle, Terry would never have known there was a different life, ready for the taking, just on down the road. If it weren’t for the bicycle, Terry would probably be just like everyone else in that town – poor and content with a sixth-grade education.

(Written around 3/30/19)