“Are ya kiddin’ me?”
“That’s what they cost, kid. Ya want one or not?”
“I don’t have those kind of specs, and I wouldn’t pay that much if I did.”
“I don’t get this christmas tree crap anyways. What’s chrism―?”
“Listen, kid. I don’t make the traditions, okay? If ya want a tree for graduation, give me your ear and get out of my life. If ya don’t, just get out of my sight, will ya?”
“Yeah, it’s a pleasure doin’ business with you too, buddy. Did ya know christmas used to be a religious holiday?”
“Hey, blow hard—”
“All right already, what’s the cheapest weed ya got?” I said, but I was thinking, I don’t know how this guy passes inspection. He’s at least fifty pounds over regulation. Maybe a hundred.
“We have this pretty little one sittin’ right over here for thirty specs,” he said.
Right. All of a sudden, he was a regular jolly guy. The blubber under his arm had a life of its own, doing a little dance when his finger stopped to point at the tiny, sulking tree.
“You’re killing me,” I said. “That puny thing is thirty specs?”
His hollow grin vanished. I could tell I was pushing my luck, so I retreated.
“All right already. I’ll take it, ya lousy man. You’re lucky it’s almost curf, or I’d find someone more accommodatin’.”
I knew I pissed him off by the way he ran the scanner over my ear.
“Cool it, man. That hurts,” I said, but he was already lumbering to his last customer of the day. The guy was flagging jumbo over like he expected him to fly or something. I didn’t blame him really, with curf only a few ticks away and all.
That happened about sixty years back, slap in the middle of Stoner’s New Society. Life was very different back then. My sister told me I needed to tell my story before—well, you know, before I’m not around to tell it no more. She said it was important for America, the world even, to know about the humble beginnings of the Liberation. As you can see, she talked me into it, even though a lot of those memories are difficult. If you’ll humor me, I might as well continue where I left off.
I was graduating school the next day and had just bought my christmas tree for the ceremony. Stoner required we buy our own tree. We weren’t even allowed to have anyone help pay for it, even our parents, if we had any. He said it revealed a devotion to society. If you ask me, all it showed was a devotion to not getting blacked out.
I have to tell you, I was sick to my stomach as I headed toward my cubicle, dragging that green stick behind me. Paying thirty specs for something you get just one use out of makes a guy want to hurl, if you know what I mean.
The whole christmas tree thing was for show anyways. What did a christmas tree have to do with graduation? All it did was embarrass the poor and stupid kids. If you were poor, your tree was puny like mine, and if you were stupid, you didn’t have no commendations to decorate it with. So, there I was about to look poor and stupid. Stoner’s New Society was like that.
Anyways, I was leaving a trail of needles behind me as a calling card to the stoners that I was a devoted citizen presently breaking curf. The streets were already lonely and deserted, and I had people watching me from their doors and windows. Most people minded their own business, but it wasn’t every day you got to see someone about to graduate.
One guy about ten floors up screamed, “Hey, butch. Did ya get that twig off the reject pile?”
“Good one. Funniest thing I ever heard. Have a nice night,” I said, staring straight ahead. It was too late to get anything started, and it for sure wasn’t worth getting blacked out over.
I laughed when I passed a large sign with a kid that looked ten years younger than me standing next to his christmas tree. The caption read, Jumpstart your profession like Simon.
A little while down the road, another guy spouted, “What good’s it gonna do ya? You’ll be sweatin’ like the rest of us come Monday.”
From the looks of him, I’d say he never stopped sweating. “You’re a gem. Keep up the good work,” I hollered back, louder than I should have. I did a quick eye-sweep of the road behind me to make sure I was safe.
That grimy guy had a point, though. Graduating didn’t make a bit of difference. I’d be working the same twelve hour shifts, for the same pay as the rest of them, in four short days. Besides, I understood their griping. Most of them people never did graduate, and in a way, they were jealous. It was only recently that most of the kids started making it all the way through, even if they were two years late graduating, like me. Everyone knew we weren’t being taught nothing of consequence. School was just like work, a good place to keep everybody busy and detectable, if you know what I mean.
When I got home, I hollered, “Sis, are ya home?”
“Oh, Zammi, it’s beautiful,” she said from behind me. “I’m so proud of you.”
Was that sweet or what? I walked in with a tree looking like it was cut last year and grown in weed killer, and Syd said it was beautiful. I didn’t take compliments too well, so, as usual, I deflected hers.
“I had to graduate sometime, didn’t I?”
“It’s still somethin’ to be proud of. You should give yourself credit for once.”
“What’s for dinner, Sis? Smells great.” “Cabbage soup with ham. Your favorite.”
“Great, I’m starved.” We sat down to eat, and I said, “Hey, Syd. I’m gonna have to do some SS this weekend. Make sure you give me a list of everythin’ ya need to get by. I may be gone a couple of days.”
Stoner made sure orphaned school kids got an allowance every month, but it didn’t always get us through. If—no, when you fell behind, you had to perform Societal Service to make up the difference.
“What?” she began. “So you can spend more time away from me payin’ with speculation we don’t have? I’ll be fine, we have plenty.”
My kid sister Sydney was just about the sweetest thing on the whole earth. She found the good in everything. Syd and me had been on our own for just over eight years, ever since she was six, and I was seven. Not too many people had normal family relationships in those days, but families disintegrated for different reasons. Sometimes parents didn’t give a crap; some spent more time blacked out than free, some died at work, and in the old days, Stoner made orphans out of way too many. That’s what he did to me and Sis.
Our parents died in one of the last big riots. I’ll never forget it. What made it special was it was the last uprising before the one in Dallas where the sabbath was created. (I’ll explain what the sabbath was a little later. You won’t believe it.) What made it personal for me and Syd, though, was that we got the privilege of watching our parents die that day.
Anyways, there were pockets of unrest throughout the country. Philly, being the capital city, was particularly known for it. It was a Saturday, and neither Mom or Dad owed SS, so we were walking the vacant streets, eating and drinking and enjoying a beautiful day. We heard it and saw it a long way off—the uprising, I mean. Me and Dad wanted to creep up on it and see what it was about. Mom wanted to scram. I’ll never forget what she said to Dad.
“Stop, Zach. We have no business getting involved.”
“Who said anythin’ about gettin’ involved? We’ll just take a quick look see.”
“Yeah, Mom,” I said. “I never saw so many people in one place before. Let’s check it out.”
It was a man’s culture, so we snuck up to the edge of the crowd, all of us holding hands, trying to figure out what all the commotion was about. We weren’t there a tick before we heard the tanks and personnel carriers and such coming up behind us. When I turned around, my eyelids tried to cover my eyebrows. There must have been a thousand stoners stomping up that street with their cutter rifles raised for action, all wearing those intimidating black suits that covered every inch of their bodies except their eyes. I didn’t know about the others, but I felt like throwing up.
Dad said, “Stay calm. We’ll explain we ain’t involved, and they’ll let us go.”
When they got close, Dad did just that, but the response wasn’t what he hoped it would be. This one stoner kept yelling back, “Don’t move. Nobody moves or ya die.”
I can still hear his voice in my dreams. I swear he sounded twelve years old.
“We ain’t part of this,” Dad pleaded as they came within several feet of us. “Please, let us go. I have my whole family here.”
“Take one more step, you’re done.”
As you can imagine, we froze like peanuts in brittle, but sometimes shit happens, and shit happened to us. The crowd behind us started pushing, and that one step we were told not to take happened, and those cutter rifles lit up like Jiffy Pop popcorn when the little pan gets to the exact right temperature. At first, I thought our parents threw themselves on top of us to protect us, but they hadn’t done it purposely. They were dead before they hit the ground. Poor babies.
I still have all of our bloody clothes buried deep in my closet. I can’t bring myself to throw them away, to burn them, or to frame them.
Anyways, my dad never found out what that riot was about and why he and Mom died that day. He’d be sick if he knew. The people were protesting sanitation pickup. They wanted it moved to Friday so their cubicles would be all spiffy for the weekend.
Is that disgusting or what?
Poor Sis didn’t speak a syllable for almost a whole year after that. I’m not sure she ever really got over it. Who am I kidding? Neither of us ever got over it, and we never will. A common saying in Stoner’s New Society was, Dead is dead. Well, Stoner made sure of that.
Anyways, I was sitting there eating dinner in silence until I got up the nerve to tell my sister, “Listen, Sis. I don’t want ya comin’ with us tonight.”
Her smile vanished. “Why, what’s wrong?” she pleaded.
“It ain’t nothin’ particular. It’s just there seems to be more stoners around, and I don’t want ya slowin’ us down if trouble comes our way.”
Her eyes suddenly filled with tears. She whined, “But I’ve been looking forward to it all day. Is Straz goin’?”
I answered, “Yeah, what’s it to ya? Besides, it’s just for tonight. I promise. You know I couldn’t live if something happened to you. Come on, Sis, don’t walk away.”
I hated hurting her feelings like that, so I kind of groveled with her after I finished eating. “I’ll tell you what, Sis. Why don’t ya decorate my tree tonight like we saw in them magazines at the library? That’ll give ya somethin’ to do while I’m gone.”
“Oh, that’s a great idea, Zammi. Don’t forget, though, I get to come with you guys next time.”
“You got it, Sis.”
A few hours later, I got dressed in my stoner suit and headed out to meet my best friend, Straz.