Steven Brust and Skyler White's novel The Incrementalists (September 2013) introduces us to a secret society of two hundred people with an unbroken lineage reaching back forty thousand years. They cheat death, share lives and memories, and communicate with one another across nations and time. They have an epic history, an almost magical memory, and a very modest mission: to make the world better, a little bit at a time.
Not an excerpt from the novel, “Fireworks in the Rain” is an original tale about some of the same characters, and serves as an equally beguiling introduction to these mysterious people…and to how they work their small but consequential changes on the modern world.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
Ren had gone back to Phoenix for her sugar spoon, leaving me nothing to do except play poker or change the world. I got out of my sadly empty bed, put the coffee on, and stepped into the shower. Usually, it would be an easy choice: The World Series of Poker was going, and the money I made playing the side-games was a truly appalling percentage of my yearly income. But, in the first place, I’d done really well so far, and, in the second, I’d played eight to twelve hour sessions every day for the last eleven days. Even if you’ve been playing poker since the game was invented, which I have, you need breaks from time to time to stay at your best.
Besides, Ren had made a pretty good argument before she left.
So I had to change the world. Trouble was, I didn’t know how. I mean, I knew, in the most general terms, what I wanted to do; but how to go about it stumped me.
Last night, Ren and I stared out our front window at “foreclosure” and “sheriff sale” signs in front of nearly half the houses on my block, sort of like politicians campaign signs in reverse: “Shouldn’t have voted for me!”
“You know,” I said, “I told Jimmy a year ago that I wanted to do something about those.”
“Then do it,” she said. “I’m gone for a couple of weeks, and you’ve hardly done any meddlework since we’ve been together.”
I shook my head. “Do what, though? How? We tried to do something when the bail-out happened, and got nowhere. We wanted the money to go to—”
“Too big,” she said.
I sighed. “Yeah. I could probably pick one of them, and—”
“Too small,” she said.
“I was about to say that. So, Goldilocks, too big, too small; what’s just right?”
“I already had that conversation with Jimmy,” she said, and kissed me. “You’ll think of something. It’s what you do.”
And that was that, and now I was alone in the house, tempted to say “fuck it” and just play more poker. I imagined the conversation when she came back. “What did you come up with about the foreclosures?” “Nothing, but I flopped top set and check-raised a guy with a flush draw.” Yeah, not so much.
I dried myself off, missing Ren and my bathrobe, hoping they were happy together. She’d taken it with her, leaving a note that said, “Dear Phil, I want to feel you all around me. See you in a couple of weeks. Love, R.” Sweet as hell, don’t you think? I should really get a spare.
Bathrobe, I mean. Not lover.
I drank coffee, sitting at my lonely breakfast bar.
She’d taken our Finnish Spitz, Susi, with her too. It’s funny how, after decades of being alone, a year of company can make loneliness suck again.
I opened my laptop and scanned some headlines, vaguely hoping for inspiration. Locally, a drunk driver pled guilty in a kid’s death, an escaped convict was captured, they were closing the North Las Vegas jail, and some teenagers had been arrested for—I kid you not—drowning kittens. The national news had a great deal about the Higgs-Boson Particle and the death of Andy Griffith, and rest was mostly Syria: a lot of sabre-rattling and demonizing and I had no idea what to do about any it. Same with the Arizona Immigration law; we ought to be able to do something, but what? I wished I could figure something out; if there’s anything I hate more than injustice, it’s self-righteous injustice. Yeah, I know; social evils always pass themselves off as social goods; but sometimes it’s just so blatant it sets my teeth on edge.
Good work, Phil. You’ve not only failed to figure out what to do about the foreclosures, but you’ve come up with more problems you can’t fix, and now you’ve gotten yourself so pissed off that your fore-brain isn’t working.
Zero plus one is one. One plus one is two. Two plus one is three. Three plus two is five. Five plus three is eight.
If you’re going to play poker for a living, you need to have a way to engage your cerebral cortex at times when your emotions demand that you let them do the driving.
I took the Fibonacci sequence up to 233, by which time I felt like I was thinking clearly again. While I had the laptop open, I logged onto the board. It was still full of Billy being pounded for meddling with the Supreme Court without talking to anyone first (I mean, Jesus!), and waiting to see how things with Irina would play out. Oskar was being Oskar: demanding we Do More. He wanted gunshots, and the masses in the streets, and fireworks. I can respect that, but it isn’t how I work. I left an insult for Vivian, thought better and deleted it, and logged out.
The Pirates would be playing the Astros at 4PM Las Vegas time. I made a mental note to record the game if I was going to be too busy changing the world to actually watch it. I poured another cup of coffee, toasted a bagel, ate it with cream cheese. I composed and sent an email to Ren, full of in-jokes and sexual innuendo and cute things that are none of your business.
Then I decided that, if I couldn’t find an answer in the real world, there was one other place to check. I closed my eyes, and, as I had so many times before, I imagined the smell of cherry blossoms, and the taste of chive; and then, still with my eyes closed, I looked around.
The typical Roman villa had no stairways, no basement, no upper floor. Mine wasn’t typical; somehow, without my being aware of it, it had changed over the centuries. The peristylium was still there, but now there was, in one corner, a space where, if I chose, I could imagine a stairway going up. And in the opposite corner was a stairway down that was more or less permanent—more or less because this was the Garden, a product of my imagination, and with the imagination, more or less is all you get.
I took myself to the atrium, where a rope hung from the ceiling because I wanted it there. I pulled it, and a wall slid open, complete with grinding sound and the stirring of dust, because I have a very good imagination. This was yet another stairway going down, a circular one. Do not try to make sense of the floor plan; particularly the lower floors. Accept my imaginings if you can, reject them if you must. But remember that we are in a place that is real and unreal at once, and that out of imaginings truth can appear in unlikely places.
There was a torch in my hand because otherwise I couldn’t imagine how I could see, even though, at present, there was nothing to look at. The circular stairway behind me was gone; blackness in all directions, except the floor, which I imagined as a sort of grey flagstone, shining just a little in the torchlight.
There being no reason to chose one direction over another, I walked forward.
The things I passed had nothing to do with what they were, unless it was happening at some level of my subconscious too deep to access and too obscure to be useful: A portion of wall became fuzzy, and through it I saw a Porsche 911 driving on I15, which I knew was the Nevada State Bank; on a suddenly-appearing counter in front of me was a glass of some amber liquid, and that was a branch of Citibank; a few bars of a symphony by Rachmaninoff were a branch of U.S. Bank; the light from the Luxor, through the same hole-in-the-wall where I glimpsed the Porsche, was the Bank of America. Yeah, okay; there were a lot of banks that owned the mortgages on a lot of houses, full of a lot of people who couldn’t pay. That didn’t give me any clue how to help. I picked one anyway, in hopes a deeper look might inspire something. I passed the antiseptic smell of a hospital and recognized it as Wells Fargo.
I inhaled the scent, and followed it, no longer conscious of which way my feet were going. The yellow apple hanging from the tree was a teller at the branch on Maryland Parkway. The sound of wind-chimes took me all the way to the top of the corporate ladder. Well, okay. Too small, too big, and . . . just right? Say, someone in management who oversaw some of the foreclosures here in Las Vegas? High enough that he could do some good, low enough that it wouldn’t be noticed? I concentrated on what I was looking for, holding it firmly in my mind. I wasn’t as good as Jimmy, but then, this wasn’t a terribly challenging search.
I tasted rocky road ice cream, which has never been a favorite, but I knew that was it. The appearance and the tactile sensation of an ice cream cone appeared, and I took some onto my tongue, and I knew the guy’s name: Peter Washington. From there, it was just a matter of scouring, searching, inspecting, collecting; a long process, but one I’ve done thousands of times. My favorite way to address the metaphor is to imagine myself with a light-weight shoulder bag into which I throw each new discovery, figuring that when the weight gets annoying I’m done.
Peter has two computers—home, and work. The home computer appeared as a table saw; all I had to do was turn it on. The work computer was an icicle, and, after playing around a bit, I licked it like a kid, and that did the trick. I checked his email on both, but the only thing worth making a note of were his plans for the next couple of days. He had some porn on his home computer (like, who doesn’t?), but nothing that was important enough to him for me to exploit.
Then it was time to hunt for switches.
Human beings never stop generating sense memories tied to a moment of precise emotion. You remember that song that makes you think of your first lover? How about the smell of your first new car? If you have a passion for, say, horse racing, how many sounds, sights, and smells go with that, and how do they make you feel? We’re constantly creating new switches, but the most reliable ones are generated between the ages of four and nine. That’s when we lock in the scent of our mother’s hair, or the roughness of grampa’s beard, or the sound of a favorite lullaby, or the smell of sawdust as daddy works on a project, or, well, dozens of others. I spent my time looking and sniffing around that area of Mr. Washington’s life.
He was thirty-one years old, straight, white, originally from New Jersey, and had spent the springs and summers on a farm in Iowa (returning to the usual, “Around here we pronounce it Ohio. Ha ha ha”). He’d majored in business at Kansas State, where he’d also lettered in track, doing the high and low hurdles and anchoring the four by four. I made a note of his college nickname. He was a smart runner; he loved the strategy of racing, as well as the thrill of pushing his body to its limits. The smell of fresh-cut hay made him feel safe; long, slow sunrises woke him up faster than coffee; the taste of salted and buttered corn-on-the-cob right from the field, thrown into boiling water for not more than four minutes, gave him a pleasure almost erotic in its intensity. And here was an odd one: in all of my long life, until now, I had never realized that, on hot nights in the summer, you can sometimes hear corn growing. I mean, literally, actually hear it. Did you know that? Peter Washington did, and he loved that sound.
I put it in the bag, and continued.
More of the same—things in his life that meant something emotionally: triggers. Those of us who work with them call them switches. They weren’t hard to find—not when just about any information that is coded in symbol and transmitted from anyone to anyone can make its way into the Garden. It isn’t hard, it’s just tedious.
I became aware that I was hungry. There are plenty of things to eat in the Garden, but none of them provide nutrition, or do anything about real-world hunger. I decided I was done and opened my eyes.
I’d spent four hours in the Garden. No wonder I was hungry. After taking care of other biological necessities, I checked the refrigerator and the freezer, and decided that frozen pizza did not sound attractive. After careful consideration for about three seconds, I called my favorite Chinese place that delivered and arranged to have Mongolian beef, hot & sour soup, pot stickers, and chicken fried rice brought to my doorstep. That would take care of food now and later and into tomorrow. Problem solved. When you’ve been around as long as I have, you get good at solving problems. Almost as good as you get at creating them.
The Pirates game was due to start in a couple of hours, so I set it up to record, feeling all proud of myself for not having forgotten. I checked my email, and Ren had replied with a bunch of cute things and sexual innuendo and in-jokes that are none of your business.
I seeded what I’d done so far, leaving it as an urn in the atrium, then logged onto the board and put in a pointer to it in the “Meddlework—in Progress” forum. The food showed up, and I ate the soup, the pot-stickers, and a third of the Mongolian Beef. I put the rest in the refrigerator, taking a moment to smile at its door, which a year ago had opened toward the wall. This was better.
Then I made myself comfortable in my chair, and it was back to the Garden to sort through the switches to figure out which of them might actually be useful. A good number had potential and I discarded the rest. Not that they actually went anywhere except out of my awareness; once something is in the Garden, it’s there forever.
The next tricky part involved figuring out when and where to approach Washington. For convenience, I’d left his general information as a silver sconce on the wall of the atrium. I put a torch in it and twisted it to lock it in place, and the memories became my own.
He had tomorrow off, it being the Fourth of July. There’d been email about a gathering with some co-workers to watch fireworks at Knickerbocker Park in Providence. That should do nicely, if I could snag him before he joined up with them; if I had to separate him, it’d be tricky. His friends showing up at the wrong time could blow the whole deal. But the outdoor location gave me some advantages. On the other hand, it can be harder to control things outdoors, especially in crowds. Tough call. Could I predict where he’d be? Or, failing that, could I control it?
My mind drifted. Washington. Funny name, especially on Independence Day. I hadn’t known General Washington. I’d seen him in camp, and listened to him, but I’d never known him. Or if I had, I’ve forgotten. I knew Tom Paine—I’d even meddled with him, in spite of the group screaming at me. Those memories were hazy. I knew that particular Second had died in the winter of ’77-78, but I couldn’t recall how. And then my next Second had, of course, already been a volunteer, because if you’re going to meddle with Tom Paine over the objections of half the Incrementalists, you’d better be ready to put your body where your switches are.
That Second survived the war, though it cost me a hand; I remember that much clearly. I could go back and graze the seed of losing it, but that wouldn’t be any fun at all. I know that during the Revolutionary War I called myself Carter. I didn’t start going by Phil until the Civil War, which knocked all the emotional power of the Revolutionary War right out of my head. I mean, those memories are still there, but going through the Civil War was like no other experience. To this day, when I need an example or a metaphor, the Civil War is the first thing that comes to mind.
I was with Sherman when Cleburn held us off at Tunnel Hill at the north end of Missionary Ridge, and I took a minié-ball in the eye and it took me longer to die than you’d think, but when I came back out of stub I learned that we’d carried the day, and my next Second was in the Army of the James and nine months later we marched right into fucking Richmond with the fucking flag, and I watched it being raised with the band playing the Star Spangled Fucking Banner, thank you very much. That memory still chokes me up, even after all this time.
So many memories. After a while, you know, you don’t even try to keep them straight, and sometimes you realize that the image in your head of running in terror from a Civil War skirmish was actually something that happened in Gaul 1900 years ago. Now that is a strange feeling.
And yet, really, very little of my time has been spent as a soldier. I’ve never liked being a soldier. I’ve never liked fighting. It just isn’t what I’m good at. I was drafted during World War II and sent to Europe, and I suppose you could say I saw some combat, but I never fired my carbine, and no one ever shot at me as far as I know. My keenest memory of that war is when it was over and we thought they were going to send us to invade Russia. We put together some demonstrations, though World War II historians like to forget about those. I don’t know if they did any good, but we were never sent in, and then that asshole Patton was killed by a truck driven by a guy named Thompson, who shouldn’t be blamed for it. All the witnesses agree it was a fluke accident. That’s the last time I used meddlework to take a human life, and Patton deserved it but Thompson didn’t. I wish I hadn’t done it. I never seeded any of that until now. I’m sorry, Jimmy.
One thing about the Garden: if you spend a long time there at once, it’s hard to stay focused; the memories are just all around you, and even if you don’t specifically graze, sometimes they sneak in.
Christ. Not my fault the guy’s name was Washington.
Okay, Phil: Stay with it. What’s he like—this Washington, the one in the here and now? He’s patient, methodical, careful. He drinks top-shelf rum, and it is possible he could be induced to drink it to excess, if that would do any good. Have to be careful not to get the poor bastard a DUI if I do that, though.
Hmmm. But he is methodical. He’ll arrive early, to try to get a good spot for him and his buddies. They will be expecting him to do that. I will almost certainly have a few minutes with him alone. A few minutes is all I need. Just a few minutes to work what Ren had once called magic, and gone before his friends got there and interrupted it with God knows what results. Unpredictability in the middle of meddlework is not a good thing. A few memories of unpleasant results of that demanded attention, and I told them to shut up and let me work.
I selected the switches I’d actually use, and considered how I was going to set them up. Finding him in the park I could do—any preparation to the park itself that would require exact knowledge of where he’d be was out of the question.
By the time I’d completed the plan, I was mentally exhausted, though physically still fine. I opened my eyes, letting the Garden dissolve. I thought about a nap, but then realized that most stores would be closed tomorrow, so any errands would need to be run today. While my resolve was still firm, I put on my cap and walked out of the house.
It was about a hundred and five degrees outside, but it was a dry heat, so it felt like a hundred and four. In spite of the reflector, the inside of my Prius was not pleasant. I turned on the a/c and went back inside while it did its job. I drank some water, because that’s what you do when you’re about to set off into an environment in which man was not intended to survive. Funny, I remember adobe houses, and times when finding shade, or a sudden cool breeze, or a cloud felt like salvation. But now I’m used to air conditioning, and I don’t really remember how I managed to live through the 2000 years—not to mention the previous 38,000 my Primary has been around—before it was invented. Anyway, this is better. While the car cooled, I phoned some liquor stores, and managed to find one not too far away that had what I needed.
By then I figured the car was cool enough. I got in and headed out. An In and Out Burger off the 15 tempted me briefly, but I had leftover Chinese waiting for me, so I was virtuous. It was a short trip, and I came back thirty-five dollars poorer, but with a bottle of Ron Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva. I opened it and poured some into a hip flask. By that time, it was already getting dark, which meant the Pirates game was over. I heated up the rest of the Mongolian beef and watched the game, fast-forwarding through the commercials. It was exactly my kind of game—a nail-biter, finally won by McCutchen’s walk-off home run. Gotta love a good ball game. Somewhere, deep, deep inside of me, I’m sure a guy named Chuck Purcell was pleased.
Okay, enough fucking around, Phil. You have meddlework to do tomorrow; let’s get ready.
I opened up my oversized hall cupboard and checked through it. I keep a lot of things there: various oils, scents, and the raw materials for more. I had fresh-cut grass, but I didn’t have any fresh-cut hay. I made a mental note to acquire some; that’s a pretty common switch. I dug around some more. Finding things in the Garden is easier. Eventually, I came up with some sweet william, and spent a couple of hours making perfume (not that hard, it just takes distilled water, a scent, and a lot of care), then diluting it. Usually, with switches, less is more. On a hunch, I also put together the smell of an old diesel engine: a combination of diesel and burning motor oil.
I cut a couple of 1-inch squares out of a sponge, and poured tiny amounts of scent into each. A casual hand into a pocket, a squeeze, and they’d be on my hand.
So much for the smells.
Not much I could do with visuals out in a park.
I reviewed the sound options, sighed, and downloaded what I needed onto my iPhone.
I called it done. I stretched, loosening up my back, hips and shoulders. I made sure everything was in a nice pile on top of my cap so I wouldn’t forget anything. Then I checked the TV listings and grumbled. Last year over the Fourth of July weekend there’d been a “Shadow Unit” marathon, but I’d had no time to watch it. This year I had time, but I could only choose among “NCIS” or “Dallas” or a sci-fi show that I’d already seen a dozen times. I’d have liked to curl up next to Ren and watch something mindless, but it wasn’t any fun by myself. I went to bed.
The Fourth of July in Las Vegas was only in the mid-80’s when I got up, and my swamp cooler was handling it like a champ. Shower, shave, coffee, check the boards, set up to record the game. I had time to head to The Palms and play some poker, but decided not to—I wanted my mind sharp for the meddlework. I had fried rice for breakfast and went over the approach I’d take, the switches, the delivery. I put on my pants with the big, loose pockets, so I could drive and walk without accidentally squeezing the sponges. It made me look a bit like a dork, but only a bit.
By mid-afternoon, it had clouded over, and it looked like we might get rain. I hoped that didn’t mean Pete was going to cancel. I went into the bathroom and put on a bit of make-up so I could pass for ten years younger, then went to the entryway where there is a small table opposite my painting of “Dog Painting Coolidges Playing Poker.” From the table I put the flask in one back pocket, the iPhone in another, the sponge with the sweet william in my left-hand pocket, the other perfume in my right. There I was, ready to meddle. The air around me smelled cleaner, the outlines of objects a bit sharper. It’s funny how having all of my switches ready to use on the Focus is, itself, a switch for me. I was no longer nervous; I was ready.
I put on my cap, picked up my keys, and headed out the door.
I got onto the 15, taking it north to 95, which took me most of the way to Providence—a “gated community” that had generously opened itself up so us poor and disadvantaged types could enjoy fireworks at their park. I wondered if they’d spray it down once we left. The drive took about forty minutes, which still got me there early. I studied the clouds. Rain would dampen things. Even if the fireworks weren’t cancelled, there is an emotional difference between watching fireworks on a nice night, and getting wet while you watch. And if everything you’re doing is based on emotional subtleties, you can find yourself in trouble just from a bit of rain.
I watched the sky.
It wasn’t hard finding the park. From what I could tell, it was a nice park: they had a dog area that made me miss Susi, which made me miss Ren; they had a baseball diamond that was, at present, occupied with fireworks preparations; they had a lot of what I’m sure they called “natural terrain;” they had a picnic area; and they had a parking lot that was filling up fast. I was looking around for a good vantage point from which to see as much of the lot as possible, when a light green 2011 Acura pulled up. And there he was.
How many of these had I done? Certainly it was in the tens of thousands. And still, my heart still gives a flutter when I first set eyes on the Focus. I was about to meddle with him, to change him, to alter him. If I messed up, not only would the project fail, but I’d leave him worse instead of better. If that sort of thing didn’t matter to me, I couldn’t have been the sort of person who’d have been recruited to do this work in the first place; I’d have been a shoemaker in Judea, lived a life, and died.
In exchange for the possibilities of immortality, you get the possibility of fucking things up, and having to live with that the rest of your lives. Yeah, it’s a good trade; but never think we don’t care.
He got out, stretched, and removed a lawn chair, a blanket, and a cooler from his trunk. He still looked in pretty good shape—tall and sort of lanky; a bit like me, now that I think of it. But my hair is longer.
The lawn chair had a sort of ribbon on it, so he could haul it over his shoulder, put the blanket over the other shoulder, and use both hands for the cooler. That’s the sort of guy he was. He set off, and I followed him. He was wearing dark blue shorts, a sleeveless white T-shirt, and a hat that made me think of Colonel Blake on MASH. It was not, let us say, his usual outfit.
There was a big field between the parking lot and the baseball diamond, and he found a spot in it as close to the diamond as they were letting people. I walked up to him as he was spreading out the blanket, put a somewhat puzzled, hesitant look on my face, and said, “Slippy?”
His head whipped around—pleased, then confused. “I—”
“Phil,” I said, smiling and extending my hand. “Kansas State. I’m a track fan. Saw all of your meets. We never met, but I’d recognize you anywhere.”
He took my hand, smiling. His handshake was strong, and I liked it that he didn’t pretend to know me. “You live in Vegas?” he asked me.
“I do. Near Arville and Trop. You?”
“Right here in Providence.”
“Nice!” I said. “You must be doing well.”
“I worked for Wachovia. Wells Fargo now.”
“Ah. That’s gotta keep you busy.”
“Reminds me of the Las Vegas cocktail waitress joke. You know it?”
“Too many cocktail waitresses,” I said.
He grinned, and I put my hand in my back pocket and turned on my iPhone. It was soft. So soft, you could hardly hear it: John Denver singing “Rocky Mountain High.” The hardest part of this job is when you have to deal with things like that. But one man’s slap is another man’s switch; what can you do?
“Beer?” he said.
He opened the cooler and got me out a Coors Light. I popped it, held it up like I was toasting him, and drank. The things I do for the world that the world will never know.
The temperature had crept up a bit, but was still a quite tolerable 90 or so. Meanwhile, the place was filling up, and his friends might be along any minute.
I got out my hip flask and held it out for him. “Like rum?” I said.
“If it’s good,” he said, but accepted it. He tasted, and a delighted grin came over his face. I had some too, to be sociable. I’m not a rum guy, but it was better than the Coors. I handed it back to him, and, while he drank, I put my free hand in my pocket. I squeezed the sponge with the sweet william perfume, and casually wiped my hand on my shirt.
I studied him, gauging where he was. There should be a good quantity of oxytocin running through his system by now, not to mention a bit of alcohol. Enough? Maybe. I turned so we were both facing where the fireworks would be, shoulder to shoulder. I matched the way his shoulders hunched and the way he stood, one leg forward a bit, knees almost locked—not enough for him to think I was mocking him, but enough to tell his subconscious that I was his kind of people.
“Those were some days, weren’t they? You were a helluva runner, man.”
He nodded and smiled.
“Smart, too,” I added. “You knew how to plan a race. There’s more to a footrace than flat-out speed, and I like the way you approached it.”
I hadn’t actually known any of that before grazing for his switches; but he was pleased. “You have to stick around and meet the boys,” he said.
“Maybe,” I told him. “I’ve got a few people showing up.”
He wasn’t married, and he wasn’t happy about that, so I was careful not to make one of my imaginary people an imaginary wife. He nodded and I handed him the flask again. That was enough. Alcohol and oxytocin can complement each other, but the effects can become unpredictable. And those of us who do this don’t like unpredictable.
I said, “Who are the people you’re meeting?”
“Some guys from work.”
“Bankers,” I said. “Exciting crowd, eh?”
He chuckled. “They can be more fun than you’d think.”
“Yeah? What do you do there?”
“Ah. Not a lot of those these days.”
“Well, and foreclosures.”
“Oh! That’d keep you busy.”
It started raining a little. We both ignored it.
“Yeah, it does.”
“What’s it like?” I asked him.
“What’s it like, working on foreclosures?”
“Masses of paperwork. I mean, masses of paperwork. I don’t handle it directly, I supervise. But you wouldn’t believe the red tape, the legalities, the forms.”
“Yeah. A guy I went to high school with just had his farm foreclosed on.” Okay, the time for subtlety was over; make it or break it right now. “Do you ever think about it?”
I put my left hand into my pants pocket, squeezed the other sponge, put the diluted scent of an old diesel engine onto my hand, and wiped it on my shirt. I brought my right hand up and playfully pushed at his head. It’s a delicate thing, that push. Do it wrong, and all of a sudden your usual heterosexual male starts feeling vaguely threatened, or at least uncomfortable. Do it right, and it’s a sort of friendly teasing gesture that permits you to brush your finger past his temple.
“About throwing people out of their houses.”
He was quiet for a long time after that.
It’s a strange thing. If you’re going to have a job like Pete’s, you must have defenses. Layers of them. First, you concentrate on the tasks, ignoring as much as you can the end result. But more, you have to have built up justifications and arguments enough to keep you going in to work every day—in fact to keep you not bothered by going in to work every day. By any reasonable measure, someone doing that can’t have a conscience about it.
But somewhere, under the walls and layers and defenses, there’s the guy who went to college, who lettered in track, who wanted that girl to notice him. And still further under, there’s the boy who loved fresh corn-on-the-cob, who spent hours watching his grampa work on the tractor, who played with his cousins in spring woods full of sweet william.
He’s in there somewhere. You just have to find him.
The rain came down—light, but steady.
He said, “But what could I do?”
“You could walk the line,” I said. “Between delaying and sabotaging the foreclosures, and going so far you get fired. You’re in a position to do that. And not only that, but you’d enjoy the game.”
He stared at me.
I smiled. I was facing him now, and I reached out and, once more, lightly touched his temple with a finger. “You’ve been thinking about it anyway. You might not have been aware of it, but somewhere inside you’ve been thinking how much fun it would be to gum up the works, just a little.”
Yeah, just a little.
That’s where I left him. He was thinking about it, but I knew it had worked.
Two weeks later, Ren was back.
She was curled up in my arms, her hand on my chest, and I was enjoying her touch and the way the sweat was drying on me. Susi scratched at the door.
“What the other Washington did was big,” I said. “But some people, like me and Peter, are just cut out for little things.”
“Unlike Oskar,” she said.
I nodded, and her head bounced a bit on my chest. “Oskar wants to see the whole banking structure come tumbling down and the wealth divided. But Pete and I don’t work on that scale.”
“I don’t either,” she said.
“There are, like, nine homes on this block about to be foreclosed on. You gave some of them more time, and maybe now they won’t be. I think that’s a win.”
“Yeah.” I pulled her closer. “I’m not saying it’s good. I’m saying it’s better than nothing.”
“It’s better,” she agreed. “What did you do after you left him?”
“About what you’d expect,” I said. “Found myself a decent beer, missed you a lot, and watched the fireworks in the rain.”
“Fireworks in the Rain” copyright © 2013 by Steven Brust
Art copyright © 2013 by Wesley Allsbrook