Another piece from the archives. In reading through it…I’m not sure what I think of it. There’s certainly a lot of pretension here. Given the name of this site, maybe it’s a good time to balance out all the eloquence and microfiction and get some good old fashion pretentiousness up here too.
There’s no major crisis, no insight into areas of the human soul normally left in darkness…just a story. Sometimes simplicity is the ultimate pretension, like walking out onto a stage in front of 250,000 screaming rock fans and starting in with just an acoustic guitar. Consider this my stoned Joan Baez at Woodstock set.
There are those happy people, who’ve found their place in life, comfortable, smiling, well-groomed, bothersome, distant, and always with important meetings after lunch. Then there’s the rest of us, still searching for a place, hopeful, depressed, confused, hurting, loving, muddling along as best we can.
And then, there are those for whom a place is made.
Once upon a time, there lived an eccentric millionaire. He lived in Los Angeles, so he never stood out much, though he should’ve, a rare camel with a real chance to pass the Needle’s Eye. He’d spent most of his life poor, or at least payday to payday, like the rest of us. One of the local aerospace companies—where he’d spent forty years as an on-call engineer, ready to look at some problem, something’s broken, fix it quick there are a hundred and twenty-six drunk businessmen and crying kids backing up in the terminal, please just one more trip, then we’ll get the new jets (and we won’t need you anymore)—had ‘encouraged’ him to retire in 1986, and within six months he had become the victim of a con-game aimed at the double-A-R-P crowd.
A well-dressed young man with a ponytail had convinced him, and most of his neighborly peers, to invest their savings—five hundred, a thousand, or in our camel’s case, fifteen thousand dollars—to buy studio time for an up-and-coming rock band. In exchange, they’d get ‘points’, a percentage of a percentage of all the money people paid for the album in stores. And with the profit margin on these new compact discs, they were still guaranteed to make twice, even three times their money back, whether the album sold or not.
It sounded risky, but there were charts and graphs with projections and everything was so professional; they couldn’t help themselves. It was supposed to get the band a good demo and the nice young man with the ponytail a kilo of cocaine and the use of the drummer’s girlfriend for a week. It was supposed to end with fifteen people living on social security in worse shape than they had been before. Instead, an executive thought the demo was good enough to release, as is. He did, and it went on to sell over ten million copies. And fifteen people had to rethink their ideas of retirement.
Vernon Adams was eccentric because he knew his new-found fortune wasn’t his. He’d lived a small life, and enjoyed it—you weren’t supposed to get anything less or more than what you worked for, and Vernon had always worked hard, and was happy with what he got. He liked it when the world worked the way it should. And when he had realized that he and his neighbors had probably been tricked, his first thoughts hadn’t been of revenge, or despair, but instead that living on peanut butter and dried cereal and week-old fruit wasn’t luxury, but he’d done it before, and it wasn’t so bad. Not when it was all you had.
And then, after only six monthly deposits, he had more money than he had spent on every home he’d ever lived in, combined. Plus every car he’d ever owned. More money in six months than he’d earned with hard work, total, in the past fifty years. It was staggering. It was unbelievable. He didn’t know what to do with all of that money. It wasn’t in him to even comprehend how much money he now had. And that’s when he understood—it wasn’t for him. God had dropped this gift out of the sky, into his lap, and if He had meant for Vernon to spend it for himself, He’d have made sure he knew what to do with it. But what did he know? How to take care of things. Make them last. Make them work so that others could make what they could of their own lives.
The money wasn’t his. His job was to find out who it was really for.
That’s not to say he didn’t touch a dime. His lawns grew green, under professional care, and a new import replaced the relic of American stubbornness in his driveway. In a wild fit, he went to the store, bought every jar of peanut butter on the shelves, and gave every last one of them away to the homeless and hungry in the parks and alleys near where he lived. But this was a lot of money. You couldn’t nickel and dime a thing like this to death, though it was fun trying. And Vernon didn’t try very hard.
For the first few years, he simply waited, hoping the answer would come the way the question had, with a mysterious phone call and a quick leap of faith. Everyone he met suddenly became a candidate, whether they knew it or not. Would this one know what to do with the money? Would that one understand that it was for something, to be used well? But no one fit. Vernon was hardly a recluse—the few close friends he finally revealed his search to had spread the news within hours over three zip codes. It wasn’t long before someone—several people, actually—hit upon the idea that they should give him a mysterious-sounding phone call. Set up a time to drop by; introduce themselves; explain that they’ve always wanted to do just one thing, had a plan, if only they were to win the lottery, or something like that. And, hey, if the old man was sincere. . .well, it was worth an afternoon to find out, wasn’t it?
Vernon became very popular. And, the small, quiet neighborhood where he lived saw an increase in pure imagination so powerful, had it spread to cover an area the size of, say, Europe, it might have been its own Renaissance. As it was, Vernon considered hiring a secretary to keep track of everyone (he settled for a new computer instead). But, as even he had to admit, the old man was sincere, and maybe this was how God was going to bring the right person to him.
So day in and day out, from ten o’clock in the morning until five at night, he sat patiently, listening to the cures (there were numerous) for cancer; ends to world hunger and, therefore, war; plans for monuments for him, for America, for most of the forty-something presidents—though most named Elvis as their honoree. He met hundreds of the most honest souls, telling it plain: they were going to drink a lot, smoke a lot, eat a lot, and see every movie ever made twice, so how about some credit for not trying to pull the wool over the old man’s eyes? He listened intently to every single one of them, looking for something, a sign maybe, to let him know that this was the one. But years went by, one long confessional with people that weren’t any more deserving of the money than he was.
And then, she finally came. She was young, no more than fifteen, a mix of most of Earth’s races, nervous as hell but feeding off of it at the same time. She’d researched Vernon carefully, had spent a month writing and re-writing and burning and writing again before she felt she had something that would work. And it didn’t matter one bit. She walked through his front door (which he kept open during business hours), into his living room, and before she’d opened her mouth, he knew. The money was hers. He hadn’t even taken in her face, or how she was dressed, before he knew with the same certainty he had known that the money wasn’t his: it was hers. He nodded politely through her speech, not paying attention to the details—something about sky-writing and his name—and when she finished, he just sat there, staring at her, tears peering over the lower edge of his eyes, checking to see if it was safe to come out. He thanked her, put her file on top of his desk, saw her out, and canceled the rest of his appointments. An hour later, after a call to a lawyer to make sure everything went the way it should, he called her and told her the news. She was on her way to his place when he had a stroke and slipped into a coma, from which he never woke up.
The money was hers; the lawyer had merely filled in the blanks on a document Vernon had already signed, and the next morning she awoke in her mom’s apartment and found no police, no government agents, come to take it back—someone like her wasn’t supposed to have that much money. But there it was.
The girl’s story was infected with the same irony Vernon’s was. She had been seeing a boy for the past six months, and her period had been only a memory for the last sixty-eight days. On the sixty-ninth she had gone to see Vernon, and become a millionaire, as only the tiniest part of her (one afternoon out of eighty years) had been allowed to believe. On the seventy-first, she had her period. The boy was, needless to say, history, and with no more financial monsters looming (besides the day to day of ‘getting by’), she found herself in an awkward place. She didn’t know what to do with it, any more than Vernon had.
And a month or so later, after every local mall had been terrorized at least a couple of times, she got a mysterious phone call. From the lawyer, the guy who’d set everything up. He wanted to know how her plan was going. Which was funny, since she hadn’t thought about it once since the first meeting. She was so stunned with memory that she actually mentioned this, that she hadn’t even thought about it since. She was embarrased, immediately, but the lack of silence on the other end of the call suggested that the lawyer wasn’t surprised at all. Had, in fact, been expecting this.
The lawyer asked her if she’d managed to read through all of the documents yet, if she had noticed the amendment Vernon had added. She asked him to refresh her memory. The original plan had been this: she was to use the money to live a simple life. She would finish high school and then take flying classes. She’d learn to fly, and then learn how to sky-write. She’d buy a plane, and equipment, and hire what help she needed, and spend every penny not maintaining her simple existence on the plane, keeping it flying. And every day she would fly over the executive offices of the aerospace company that had so callously used him up and spit him out, and write his name in the sky. Every day, until the money ran out or she died (or they shot her down), whichever came first. It hadn’t been the plan that had convinced Vernon.
The amendment was a small one, but important: never his name, and never within sight of his former employer. Otherwise, full speed ahead. And if she actually sat down and thought about it—which she didn’t do often—it occurred to her that she didn’t have anything better to do with her life. She had done a lot of growing up somewhere between day forty and seventy-one of the lost period, and suddenly she didn’t have to, but it was already too late. She was in a different place, seeing things through different eyes, and on a lazy afternoon she committed herself. She would finish high school, she would take flying lessons, she would buy a plane, and she would. . .well, fly. It wasn’t glamorous, it wasn’t productive, but it was a damn sight better than the other possibilities she’d faced. She’d fly.
What if I’m scared of heights?
She wasn’t, thankfully, and after a few bumpy landings on what passes for a runway at the small, local airport, she found that she actually enjoyed it. She had a new CD-changer, speakers and a sub-woofer installed, and would map her flight plan along the coast around her music. And she’d fly. The drone of the engines would fade into the background, and she could hear her heart, beating, always faster.
And then she discovered clouds. The kind that drift in, off the ocean, like cotton candy all stretched out. She’d find a way in, and hide, making tunnels, getting lost in the white, trusting that something would beep long before she was in danger of crashing into what she couldn’t see. She’d swoop, and dive, and fly. She’d build up speed, and come tearing out one side, a long trail of intangible cloud clinging behind her. She’d shake it free, swerving the plane back and forth, sometimes taking her hands off the stick and holding them up high above her head, like on a roller coaster. And behind would stretch a soft, wide blanket, rippled, curving familiarly to an invisible point at the end.
From the ground, looking up, the wings of hidden angels, watching over.