This was originally written as the prologue to a dystopian novel that would follow a different set of characters some two hundred years after the fact. I ended up abandoning the project but decided to turn this into a standalone story because I find it interesting, and because it’s possible that I may end up writing more “dystopian doorstep” sketches in the future.
John Bailey stepped out of the Capitol building and into the crumbling majesty of Washington, D.C. The sun was setting, illuminating the National Mall and memorials of great Americans long dead; Washington’s obelisk cast a shadow not only over the city but seemingly over the nation, while the eyes of the stone Lincoln, felt rather than seen, shed silent tears for a suffocating America. The city’s crackling energy seemed muted, as if a rubber cap had been placed over a live electrical wire: people walked the streets alone or in pairs, but they did so in silence, like mourners filing out of a wake.
With his free hand Bailey loosened his tie, hating. I always hated wearing the goddamn things; the impracticality, the tedious tying procedure, the sensation of being constantly strangled, but, at the same time, they served as a reminder of another age, an age when being a Congressman meant more than being a lapdog. Now, the dog days were over. His briefcase, hanging by his side, seemed tragically light.
Orange and blue and purple followed Bailey through the streets as the day faded to black. He passed a couple holding hands, both of them looking no further forward than the next step. That was the new American way, and the new way of the world. It wasn’t a contest: still winners and losers, but certainly not sport. Even the street lights seemed dimmer.
There was a sign in the window: “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS.” A sinking feeling, and you thought that the bottom had dropped out before. The “e” in the neon “Charley’s” flickered as Bailey pushed open the door, chiming the little bell of freedom. The place was empty but for Charley Junior behind the bar. His eyes – those of a much older man – flicked to the door, the promise of business, and dropped back down to the bar. Bailey’s tongue turned in his mouth and his body unfroze. The familiar corner table beckoned.
“Sorry to see you’re closing down,” Bailey said.
“Can’t compete,” Charley Junior replied, “with the goddamn nest. The last independent bar in D.C. Could be the last in the country, or even the world. Hell if I know.”
With nothing to add to this grim proclamation, the former Congressman ordered his first drink and watched the door. The street was barren, but beyond its faded lights one could hear the electronic rhythms and sighs of gratification drifting over from Company Avenue: once a side-street, it had expanded with centers of commerce and entertainment venues to the point where it had swollen to become the capital’s primary attraction for tourists and locals alike. The museums and government buildings had become largely empty; the city’s great history preserved less and less in the minds of the nation and more and more in its musty unkempt bookshelves.
The air was stale; the alcohol strong. Organic warmth soothed Bailey, travelling down his throat into the pit of his stomach. His free hand drifted to his briefcase and he stroked the worn leather, tenderly, as if he were afraid that by doing so he might brush away hours of work and lost sleep, crumpled papers strewn across a study floor and piles of documents towering on a desk, brought forth during the day before a group of diverse but fundamentally like-minded citizens, who would then all turn their attention momentarily to this issue and set in motion the slow but certain cogs of government. Now morals were a myth in those halls and chambers: only power, and its endless redistribution, held sway. The only constant was that constant change, at least until the works began to get gummed up, and the interests of the few masquerading as the many took precedence.
Owen Guthrie was shorter than the former Congressman by a head, and the difference seemed even greater due to his bad posture. His hair and beard were long, his eyes in a state of constant motion, and his dress was a war of color and pattern; were he not a regular, or were times not dire, Charley Junior may have thrown him from the establishment in a volley of insults. As it stood, each raised a hand to the other, and Guthrie ambled over to the corner table.
Bailey stood to greet him as he might a constituent, but his expression was of the kind reserved for old friends. Guthrie returned the sentiment with a half-smile and awkward straightening of the spine, unconsciously emulating the man whose hand he shook. Before they sat, Guthrie took the bottle that was on the bar waiting for him. It was whiskey: the only thing that he drank.
Owen Guthrie too carried a briefcase, and tonight it seemed stuffed to or even beyond capacity. The case was old and beaten; slips of paper peeked from it, exposing hard black type or an untidy penciled scrawl. Guthrie’s eyes never strayed from the briefcase, at least not far or for long; they even peered down as he took his first swig of the night, straight from the bottle. Bailey waited patiently for his friend’s first words.
“So that’s it.”
Bailey’s sigh was a mixture of release from anticipation and weariness from untaken steps. “That’s it.”
“What’s the plan?”
“Go back home for a while, then try to find work.” Guthrie nodded. Public office was no longer an option; never would be again.
“It bothers you.”
“Well, these aren’t easy times to live in.”
They both drank to that. Even Charley Junior, listening from behind the bar, emptied a glass.
Guthrie’s eyes remained sharp. He had gathered, among select audiences, a degree of fame for his ability to hold liquor, especially considering that he was a man of average size. He pulled a cigar from his pocket and began to smoke it as Bailey spoke, never looking at him, but listening unfailingly.
“Every generation wakes up one morning and finds the world gone to hell. We’re different in that we woke up one morning, showered and shaved and stepped outside and found ourselves in hell. The fire is real and so are the devils. They pass among us with no trouble, and you know why? They have mirrors as their shields. Mirrors as their shields and two busy hands: hands that take our money from our back pockets and hand it back to us as a token for our invaluable labor. I think the worst part is that we know this, but we don’t care. We’re all too busy admiring our reflections and stuffing dollar bills into our pockets.
“I don’t believe in good and evil, Owen, you know that. If there are such things, it’s not my place to say. There is power, though, and slowly but surely power is collecting in a single great basin, leaving the rest of the world dry. It’s like the Preacher said: all is vanity, and he’s even more right now than he was when he wrote those words. We’re disposable and immaterial, and it’s only going to get worse. WorldCorp has rendered the majority of humanity obsolete. it has rendered America obsolete.”
Guthrie’s eyes met Bailey’s and he said, “The Company, now.”
Bailey exhaled, resigning himself better with that than he would have been able to with any words.
“That was eloquent, John,” Guthrie said, taking the cigar from his mouth. “You should write that down before you forget.”
Smirking, “Isn’t that more your field?”
Guthrie took a long draw from the cigar, watching his briefcase all the while. “Not anymore.”
Bailey froze as reality bore heavily on his shoulders. The haze of alcohol faded and his eyes, now clear, focused on Guthrie’s averted gaze.
“I’m out of print. City Light won’t take me and my agent dropped me.”
Guthrie took another shot. This one seemed to weigh more heavily on him than any drink Bailey had ever seen him take, and reality settled fully in the bar. “We knew it was going to happen. WorldCorp acquired City Light months ago and since then it’s only been a matter of time. I’m surprised it’s taken them as long as it has, to be honest with you. Access to literature is the first step towards an enlightened populace, and God knows we can’t have that.”
“They’re shutting down City Light?”
“Just the parts of it they don’t like. The parts that ‘aren’t profitable,’ as if profits are always measured in dollars. The human soul is being crucified on the cross of business. It’s what I’ve been writing about for years, so it’s being ensured that I never write another word, or at least that if I do, no one will read it.”
Bailey almost protested on behalf of justice, or freedom. But he could follow Guthrie’s train of thought; he had read it in the words his friend had written. Guthrie was out of a job for the same reason as he was: the balance of power had shifted too far, and society, in the palms of WorldCorp, was being purged of the freedom of choice, of freedom of thought, and of freedom from money. Bailey was not a radical like Guthrie – to be so radical would spell death for a political career even in the best days of democracy – but with the pile-drivers of profit closing in on the last refuges of culture, he could only think of passages from Guthrie’s works in his head, works prophesying the downfall of humanity in the form of globalization, marketing, and the culture of the Almighty Dollar. Under his breath, he whispered one of them: “When humanity is chained to the dollar, the only concern becomes how to make the chains heavier.”
For the first and only time of the night, Guthrie smiled. It was a specter of a smile, on his face for a fraction of a second, but Bailey would remember it until the day he died. It was the smile of a crusader crushed at last by his enemy, the forces against which he had spent much of his life crusading; a resigned prophet being swept away by the events he had long ago foretold.
“You guys need anything?”
Guthrie: “No thanks, Charley.”
Bailey didn’t ask what the writer’s next step was, nor did he have to: words would have polluted the purity of the moment. They would have destroyed Guthrie’s momentum, and to destroy a writer’s momentum is to take from him everything that he has.
“I’m leaving, John. I don’t know where to. I don’t know if the America I’m searching for even exists anymore, but if it does, I’ll find it. The Company won’t have me, but I won’t have the Company – the nation and the world are the elixir of the soul. I’m getting out in it for my soul’s sake. I don’t know if there are others out there who believe as I do, but if they do exist – and I believe that they do, because they’re the ones who read my books, or who loved and felt and thought for themselves, in spite of what is happening around us, and if they don’t exist then I’ll die alone and will have lived for nothing – if they do exist, then I’ll find them. They have to exist, because they made the world what it is, and loving it, it will pain them to see it dying.
“You’ve been my friend for years, John, and you’ve stuck by me, often at great personal risk, for that time. In exchange I want to be a good friend to you: I want you to come with me, to get out before it’s too late.”
Bailey waited in silence. A hand was held out to him, offering support; a life vest to a man with waves crashing down upon him. For a moment he held his mouth open, but as his lungs inhaled and exhaled and his heart pumped living water through his body, he began to wonder if he had ever been drowning.
“I don’t know, Owen…” There were more words to be said, more complex assertions to be made, but the look on Guthrie’s face told Bailey that reasoning would be useless, a hairball to be coughed up between them. The doubts had torn them apart in ways that words had not the power to mend.
After they finished their last drinks they parted ways, and John Bailey neither saw nor heard from Owen Guthrie again. It was as if he had never existed, except as a nagging presence in Bailey’s head, persisting through time and the peaks and ever-increasing pratfalls of life, to the point that, many years later, John Bailey died wondering if he had drowned that night after all.