When the sun goes down, and there’s nothing left we have to do, it becomes time to sit around the fire and tell stories. As I see from your faces that your yarns are spent, your bodies tired and minds at ease with exhaustion, it must be my turn, so I’ll tell one. Like most of my tales, this isn’t fiction; it really did happen, although I fictionalize it in the telling, because for one who has seen what I have seen the details blend together and become symbols, the names and places settings for the story, which is how what happened happened, and what it means to us now.
This story starts a long time ago, when life was easier, and there was a young man getting off a boat in a new country. He had enough money with him to live for a few weeks, and was proud of this, but when he stepped off that pier he saw suddenly how much bigger this place was, how people flooded around him like the waters he’d just quitted. He stopped for some moments there, like you do before you take a drink, but longer, and then began to walk. He went from pier to station, from boulevard to avenue, from store to restaurant, his mind drinking in all that passed before him. He tried his new language, aware of the bemused smiles at how haltingly words came to him, and how much was unknown to him. Everyone spoke so fast, in an accent he didn’t recognize.
There were new words, too, that rolled off the lips of those fortunate to be born there with an ease he could only envy. That cock of the head, toss of the hair – you do know what a W.C. is, don’t you? And then the little men with thick dark hair and moustaches who came up to him with offers. Look, all you gotta do is — but something in him sniffed them out, knew these offers would turn out badly, whether them disappearing around a corner with his money or him ending up in a foreign jail, sent to the country to do labor no one would take for any price. He passed the smells of rich food, the comfortable hotels, and when it was too dark for him to be seen wandering without being stopped by the police, he found a shady spot under a secluded awning and shivered himself to sleep.
We’ve lost tracks of his days now, because they passed for him as in a dream. He took small jobs, learned to speak without the awkwardness of an immigrant, and found some lodging better than the transient hotel that had been his option before. He didn’t go out drinking like the other young men, and he didn’t spend his money on presents for young ladies; he worked and when he got off of his job – he forgot quickly, and so do we, what it was, but rest assured it was menial, a starting position – he read newspapers until he fell asleep, running his finger under the words and puzzling them out, finding new ones and committing them to memory. So it was for several years, until he grasped the basics of his trade. In the case of this young man among millions, it was printing.
His fingers calloused and his mind sharpened to the job, he rose from paper-baling to typesetting to managing one wing of the plant, giant machines below thrashing with a blast of metal and steam. He was older now and spoke less than he did even in his home country, a place he was willing his mind to forget, since it was no longer part of his life and would not be again. When he went to file his taxes, he changed his name, rounding out the difficult consonants and dropping extra vowel endings, so that in a page of names his would not stand out as different from those of the language of his adopted country. He saved all of his money, made some partnerships, did not get drunk when he dined with his superiors and finally, after nearly a decade, took out a loan against some assets he did not exactly have, and bought the plant.
The next day the changes started. The secretaries who had spent most of their days idle were gone, as was the old drunken nightwatch. Several people whose output was less than optimum were replaced by men he knew from his days on the piers, tough and determined faces. Knowing how he had done jobs in half the time that others did them, he sent out new instructions and cleared out the old and inefficient ways of doing things. Any worker who had some problem, like spending too much time drinking or chasing young women, was out, and eating on the job was forbidden. He wanted only hungry men in his new plant, and within years, he had realized the dream: money flowed into his bank account like the waters he had not so distantly in memory left pooling around the boat that brought him here.
He could afford a small house, and he bought it, and he could afford better clothes, and he bought those too. But that was it: he wouldn’t spend more than he had to, and while the ink-smeared underlings at his plant griped about his tight fists, they even had to admit they were grateful when times were hard and they still got paychecks. In these bursts of hardship, other plants closed, and soon he was there, a small paunch riding his hips, cutting the ribbon on another plant, and then another. Soon the same faces who sneered at him when he was fresh off the boat, in another time, were people coming to him for money and often, leaving without jobs. The parties reserved for the native born were open to him, as were the ladies ten years younger, and by now, his speech resembled that of those who had been there their entire lives, even if sometimes a word came out slightly too stiff or vivid for the colors of pronunciation there. He took a wife, and two small children came of it.
At this point, his neighbors knew him only as a prosperous man, an important person to whom it was important to be cordial, because with a few dips of his fountain pen he could change the course of a life in ways for the better, or almost destroy it. When the Mayor of the city threw an important function, the man was there, too, because he had carefully spread his money around to ensure he would succeed. Charities, bribes, gifts, celebrations. Within another decade it was impossible to pick up a newspaper without seeing somewhere in its pages a mention of him, if only on the masthead, since now he was powerful in the press as well as in its printing. The house was tidy, and clean, and had that air of money spent carefully which guaranteed it a prolonged stability. His children went to the best universities that the country could offer, and took on important jobs high in its power structure; he was, in short, the best any immigrant could hope to be, and on the docks many recognized in his new name fragments of the old, and took to imitating his gestures and ideas.
The daughter, who had come first, married well and soon her greying father could count upon being called to the social functions of those who were mining black gold out of the earth, first coal and then oil. Over cigars and whisky, talk was made of some new things turning up, and well, his checkbook was handy; soon you could read about him in every newspaper across the country. His son married well also, and as a loan officer in the biggest bank, he was fond of looking over proposals and if he liked them, closing his office door and making a new deal: the bank can only loan you some of the money, but this looks like a good prospect, so I know how to get the rest. His investments, and those that his father made in his name, paid off, and soon the son had an estate down the hill from the new family house, a place which required no street number when mail was sent to it by name. In turn, these fortunate children brought forth a handful of their own, which is where our story really starts.
At that point, talk was brewing of war in the old countries, and then, there was poverty throughout the land. The man and his children were untouched by it, of course, since while others were out drinking and chasing girls, they had sacrificed those years, married for sense and not passion, and owned not as much physical things as promises of things: money in banks, investments in companies, and the like. Some days, the old man would go to the park and watch the jumpers quitting their high tower offices with final jumps; as the bodies landed, he would comment to those around him, “And that’s why I gave all those years, why I gave up so much so I could have this. Someday, you might, too.” His grandchildren came of age into this time and were told to be quiet when in public, because most people did not have what they had come to take for granted. Still, they would never forget the scenes of that time: mothers selling their bodies out of battered cars that served as home for their children, men in once-fine suits now greased by time and wear selling apples, the people who lived in shanties made of garbage outside of the city, raiding the garbage of the wealthy for their living. These things cannot be forgotten.
The first grandchild, against his family’s wishes, joined up for the army before the war. Since his eyesight was not good, and his aim even worse, he was sent to the worst of the jobs possible, in the kitchen. Soon he learned, as his grandfather had, to do the jobs others would not, but to do them in half the time, and so after two years of hard work, he was promoted to quartermaster and was responsible for buying food and supplies. Coincidentally, his cousin operated a grocery and wholesale business, having wisely taken the position offered by his father in one of the family-owned interests, and soon the cousins were partners in business as well. They had different last names at this point, neither of which betrayed origins in a far off country smirked about by the native-born, and no one suspected a link. The money flowed in while the nation starved, and then while its native-born sons died in distant war, and by the time the war was ending, these two favored sons were as established as their grandfather, and had bloodlines which enwrapped those of the most favored families in the most powerful part of the nation.
What they did was second nature; much as their grandfather had crawled over the others who had become distracted by drink and young women, they crawled over those who had not been sensible enough to not only get the house and job, but also make investments – the right investments. This was a country where one did not matter until one owned things, business and drafts of paper, which would return income to their accounts. Having money from a paycheck meant nothing; even owning a smattering of stocks and bonds meant little; but having part of a business, connections and the right marriages, this made all the difference. The granddaughters also married well; each had a career, one running the best catering business in the capitol city, another starting the last independent publishing house to really score big with the new writers coming from overseas, and then they married well too, taking names which were also engraved in the oldest cemeteries in the new country. Now the grandfather’s family name was as much part of the language as those he had sought to emulate when he rounded out its sounds, and his offspring were well-known in the social pages of the newspapers in which he did not even have a controlling interest. He died surrounded by servants, children and grandchildren, and his passing was noted in the financial community as much as the socialite one.
The quartermaster, when he retired young after the war, had reached a rank that astounded any who knew his inability to fire a rifle when he had first joined, but to all who were assembled the proof was irrefutable, as those who spoke highly of him were the most decorated soldiers and most successful men in the land. Calling some old friends from the service, he went off to California, and created for himself a business making weapons for the finest services the country had to offer. When he built his house, he – taking a cue from the rising sentiment of the time against the old money and its power – bought not in the popular glittering neighborhoods of the city, but in its countryside, where he put a modest home in comparison with those of his grandparents. His children ran wild, growing up under the care of a nanny who had been schooled in the new theories of how a nation should run itself in respect to its working poor, and experimented with marijuana, LSD and the new cosmopolitanism. As a result, they were popular with their classmates, but were distracted much as those over whose knees their grandfather had crawled to build his wealth. And why should they worry? They had wealth, enough to never want for it, so their decisions had no impact on any but themselves.
If I haven’t put you to sleep already with this familiar tale, it is fortunate, as the meat of the story occurs here: these children were witness to a father who was rarely home, at work in distant lands or vacationing in the paradise of casinos and brothels. Their mother took her first lover when they were infants, and the nanny made sure they never strayed toward the wing of the house where champagne glasses and fallen clothing mingled to the throbbing beat of the music they played in the fast clubs in the city. When these children came of age, there was a messy divorce, and money traded hands; their father never returned from one of his trips abroad, and their mother now lived in a foreign nation. The house was theirs, as were the checks that came from banks whose very seriousness they mocked even as cashing them. Money – it did not matter – pleasure did.
The old house changed; new decor came in, in the peasant style now fashionable in the cities, and parties happened every night, long into the night. Cars pulled up and left many hours later, if at all, as the wine and drugs continuously flowed into the veins of the revelers. The girl took several lovers, then stopped making such formal distinctions, and offered herself as the whim might take her, the fine features of her grandmother present and enjoyed by all who knew her. The boy at first confined himself to women, but then opened his mind to new possibilities, and soon was a favorite among both sexes, from whom he selected at seeming random and in abundance at the end of each night. Never a dull moment? Hardly. After a decade of this, these children were bored, dark circles under their eyes, and lines prematurely crossing faces which had seen the most youthful, carefree, and hedonistic lifestyle possible.
These children – even though they were at this point far older – are the core of our story. They grew up without much suffering, although clearly they’d earned the right, and had come to believe, as in the books of an ancient middle eastern religion, that any excess wealth a person earned was stolen from the mouths of others. Crawling over the befuddled and distracted to gain wealth would not have occurred to them, but since they owned it in abundance and could not conceive of a life outside of it, they did not abandon it. Instead, they put it to good use, as they saw it should be. Checks flew from the large house between parties, going to the salvation of the impoverished, aid for the diseased, protection of those who were not favored by the privileges of being “normal.” The newspapers delighted in these children, as did the magazines and the television stations, praising them for their selflessness. No party on that half of the country could occur without their presence, and many hung on their words as they did on the ideas of other celebrities, people who formed a presence outside of that which was accepted by the conservative public front of the time.
As they aged, the grandchildren found new outlets for their time. The son became the most prominent disciple of a new religion, and the daughter, the most vociferous spokesperson for the new empowerment of women, of the disregarded, of the impoverished. Where their grandparents and parents had been money-earners, these offspring of that now illustrious line were heroes: they gave, not took, and brought the new doctrines of a more enlightened time to a society oblivious to its importance. While most slaved away at jobs, for the privilege of someday owning things, it seemed to them as they read the papers that the grandchildren had transcended that state, and had become like angels, from a more pure state of humankind. The granddaughter had a short marriage to a popular musician, and bore him a child who looked nothing like those of her family before, but loudly took him everywhere she could have gone and asserted his equal privilege. The son took on beliefs his grandparents would have found irrelevant, and toured the country leaving behind wisdom and on many occasions, offspring left to the care of lawyers who sighed and wrote monthly checks from lengthy lists of names.
The world belonged to them, and their children grew up in much the same way: the best schools, the best opportunities, and the most prominent social existence. This was, to them, the culmination of their grandparent’s story, but for our purposes, it is where the story begins. In their children – the great-grandchildren of the man who had crawled over others to build an empire in his new country – there was much promise. The old wealth was only partially diminished, and they had social credentials unlike anyone else, and nothing to stop them. They were like kings, in a time without kings. And so the party rolled onward! Anyone who was important was at their door, or driving home unsteadily from their parties in the misty early mornings, or at least had seen them on cable television news or the internet. Even after their four divorces and three children each, the grandchildren were luminous in the public eye. And to mere popularity they added heroism, as said before, by being the kindly hand that reaches out to those who are being crawled-over, and grants them safety. All of this was bestowed upon their own offspring. It was in all respects a modern fairytale.
The storyteller pauses at this point, unsure of how much to simplify, how much to render into symbols and meaningful phrases, the vast amount of time that passed in that state. Well – to make long and short of it, the children of the grandchildren grew up in great favor as well, and continued to live much as their parents did. After sexual initiation at an age well inside the confines of childhood, they granted themselves much as they did their money to all, one for all and all for one. They were more popular than popular, names so well known they were part of the language, much like in our minds we could see some guy named “story” giving rise to the term “storyteller.” They lacked nothing, and held back nothing. On every continent they were famous, wealthy, well-received. And then —
And then the wealth gave out. Not as much their personal wealth, but the wealth of their nation, which had made them native in the short course of a century and a half. It had been a conquering nation, and had become the first in the world, in military strength, in the power of its newspapers and television, in money and economics. All other nations were second to it, and most of the big ones had been beaten by it in battle, although there had been a few failures that shocked all but the most learned historians worldwide. Its wealth, however, no longer came from the hands of those who crawled over fields putting seeds in the ground, or from those who manufactured. Its wealth came from ownership, from selling things, from expanding in every direction. And there was no one day where it ended, but a series of days where it slowly to the point where like a heartbeat, it had fallen beyond the point of health and the only remaining direction is downward, a collapse. Since this was a slow collapse, and since no one makes any money by preaching the obvious doom, only dooms of a fantastic and unreal nature, it wasn’t noticed until of course there was little that could be done about it.
The walls caved in around them, but slowly. The sources of energy that had made them great profit got more expensive, and profits waned; to compensate, they sold things that they had owned for years as, on the advice of their counselors, these things had no future in them. Their income consolidated, and then dwindled, and they started to cut into that which they owned in order to live. This upset the balance their grandfather had established, where what they owned brought in money, and the owned things themselves stayed intact. It seemed the days of easily farming that wealth had passed them by, and thus they were getting less wealthy. Of course, so was everyone else around them – poverty unseen since their grandparents’ time was visiting the land, everyone equally having less of what they once did. The cars slowly went away, except for a wealthy few; the cheap products and abundant food dwindled; again, mothers sold their bodies out of makeshift housing, and suicides littered the streets as promising almost-fortunes were lost. In the times that followed, people referred to this as The Conquering.
Unlike most conquering, it did not come from across the seas, or the skies, or even the limitless space above. It came from within. When conquerors come from far away, people can run into the forests and hide, but at this time, the conqueror was all around, and there were no forests in which to hide. It laid waste to everything, even the rich. Such it was that the great-grandchildren of a successful man found themselves rapidly approaching a level where they could not live. Surely, if they’d sold the great house, and most of their assets, at once, they would have been permitted a normal life, but this was something they had never had nor wanted. So they did not, and thus came to an end like the rest, which was not a terrible end, but it had large consequences for their lifestyle.
The rest of them had been living off the past as well. Wealth had come, and then a certain amount of lazy time with nothing to do, so instead of telling stories and relaxing they had invented things that had no purpose. Desperate things. But these things were so normal and innocuous that no one thought about how desperate they really were, and so no one noticed. Not only that, but these were good things, like helping out those who had been crawled-on and not crawling, and this distracted them while their downfall gathered around them. They started to think that nature had been conquered, and that the only world that was important was the world they shared when they talked, made money or were seen in the society pages.
You know why they say storyteller is a full-time job? It is because really, there are few stories to tell, since most things are obvious if you just think about them. There is not a need for stories, except that it’s how we pass on what we’ve learned. When we live every day in the world, we don’t really need to invent replacement worlds, but we talk over what we’ve seen and done so that we have something we can say we have learned. It’s the opposite in diseased times, when storytellers are there like cheap opium, to make up something distracting. That’s not actual work, because there’s no part of it that makes you make sense of things. When you don’t have to make sense, any turn in a tale will do, and so it becomes an easy tale to tell. When people start needing distraction, you can tell you’re in a diseased place and time. That’s the type of place the original man in this story found, but for him, the questions of life were simpler. Eat or don’t eat. Soon you’re crawling over other crawlers.
You know, we really could have had so much. If we’d grown upward instead of outward, getting taller instead of getting fat, we’d have had something there. Instead we got fat. That immigrant son ate up the fat and grew himself, but eventually, the fat ate him up through his family. Since nature has no need for time or memory, its only determination of success or failure is whether you endure through the generations. You might be a rich or powerful person, but if you’ve gotten that way on unsteady ground, it doesn’t last too long. That’s why they don’t pay storytellers much, because if we get excess, our stories get poisoned with laziness and stupidity. It has nothing to do with that old story that wealth is theft from the mouth of others. There’s nothing wrong with wealth. But too much of it will make you lazy, and take it for granted, and it might afflict your future generations. Might make you die out, even.
Like I said, we could have had so much. With the oil and gas resources we had, if we’d spent them wisely, we could have built to the stars. Stories are simple, and this is no exception. We got our wealth and instead of putting it to some good use, we drained it away into the greed of individuals. Whether they were poor and impoverished, or rich and ruthless, it didn’t matter, because they took what they could get with no thought for the whole, the big picture. So most of our gasoline went into cars and private travel, and very little went into building a society that could outlast gasoline. We bred recklessly, and people grew fat and lazy and stupid, and then we couldn’t control our own society. We bred badly, too, and so even our own people changed, not just in appearance but inside. They didn’t care about anything, and they didn’t know any world but one where the wealth was already waiting there for them to take.
All of this changed of course when the oil wells started drying up. At first it was just more expensive, then it was too expensive, and pretty soon whole parts of the world we’d built up for ourselves started just disappearing. Our ability to travel through the air, or drive vehicles. Our food supplies. Even more, there were so many of us we’d started eating up the forests and swamps and plains, until what was left was like a shadow of what had been before. Every aspect of the world had fallen under human control, and that control was looking to make more, not make better, humans. Because there were too many of us, and we’d built this whole thing on selfishness, soon you had to get everyone to agree in order to make changes. Well, fat chance of that happening. So it all fell apart, at least, any attempt to put reason into the process did.
With that giving up, everybody went out and got selfish. Bought cars, drove them all the time. Took lots of trips, bought lots of things, threw out even more, it seemed. We were all caught up running around trying to find things to sell to each other, or ways to make money off each other, and we’d forgotten about reality. It got worse and worse, and those who could see the disaster were ignored time and time again. It was as if we were reading out of a rule book, and forgot that the rule book isn’t reality. Only reality is reality, and the only things that matter are what you actually can make happen in that reality. We didn’t lift up the impoverished, and the rich all came to bad ends. We didn’t really help anyone go where they weren’t going already.
Really, looking back over it, the whole thing was a failure. We conquered ourselves. It was selfish, each of us trying to make his own world with money, so he didn’t have to listen to the others, or listen to nature. The only time we came together was when anyone challenged that selfishness, and threatened to make us behave, and then we lashed out and killed them and raped their women. So no one could stop the disaster because we’d slaughtered the only people who saw it, wondering why they died with mocking smiles on their lips, as if to warn us of something we couldn’t outrun. Our lives became hollow and foolish, and like slaves we spent our time caring about what other people might think, how we’d sell an idea to any idiot on the street. Soon the selfishness, which could take any form it wanted whether government or religion or economics, had us beat. We didn’t stop until we’d run out of oil and, because we’d spent what oil we had on selfishness, run out of dreams. We conquered our dreams, and drove them away, but it took awhile before that caught up to us.
That’s why I’m telling you this story tonight, after the cattle are in the pens and the fires are stoked down. All of us here, we’re just one tiny tribe in the north. I don’t know what happened to the rest. Calling what went on then a war is silly, because it wasn’t a war, more like everybody just turned on each other trying to gobble up what was left. I’m glad we’re out of that time because now reality is reality again; if you don’t lock up the pen at night, your cattle go away and you starve. I sort of miss the big cities we had, the architecture and arts, all the nice things in life… but I guess they made us fat and stupid, and were part of our downfall. Once we went down that path, there was no other way it could work out. So now we tell stories by the fire, and remember to keep our dreams close by us.