Authors: William Stamp
"That sounds so lonely," I said.
"I'm so busy with my research that there's not a lot of time to meet people." He paused, "And it's not like college, where you meet people who live in your dorm. I don't even know the name of the girl next door." I pulled out my cigarettes. When I'd lit mine, he stuck his hand out. "Give it here."
"One's not going to kill me."
* * *
Before the fireworks started we had to run to the corner store to buy more beer and cigarettes. An empty bottle with its label half torn-off had been commissioned as our makeshift ashtray, and through the hazy brown glass the smushed cigarettes piled up like bodies in a mass grave. Tobacco genocide.
The show was entertaining, if not the Hudson River spectacle I'd seen the previous five years. And in New York the fireworks go on for days before the Fourth, and from even the most piddling, skyscraper-obstructed rooftop you can't help but see a good show every night for a week straight.
Two women had come out to enjoy the show on the balcony next ours. They had two bottles of wine—one empty, the other close—and were taking pictures.
"Do you remember when we all went to see that huge fireworks show... the summer after we graduated, I think?" I asked. "You were dating Maya."
"Yeah, I remember."
"That was an awesome night. I got into a shouting match with Dimitri, and when that one girl tried to stop us we both started yelling at her." I laughed.
"I don't think Maya's friends were your fans after that."
"Whatever happened to her? I heard you two broke up, but that was about it."
"It was typical long distance stuff. She got a job at an advertising firm in New York and she was always busy, and I was always busy, so we couldn't meet up ever. Not even for the odd weekend."
"Do you know what she's doing now?"
It was too dark to see his face, but his curt "No," was a bitter yes. If I'd been sober I would've dropped it, but eight beers deep I had no chance.
"Come on, Edward. No secrets between friends. Does she have a new boyfriend?"
"Sorry." I handed him a cigarette. I preferred watching the supermarket to the fireworks. It was closing time, and the employees turned off one row of lights at a time until the store was dark except for the checkout area. They shut off the air conditioning and a loud whirring I hadn't noticed wound down to nothing.
"It's none of my business, I know," I said. I hated holidays—I always ended up doing something like this. Dimly, I understood the problem could be ameliorated by drinking less.
"It's fine. She doesn't have a boyfriend—as far as I know. Her dad wasn't going to let her marry a non-Indian anyway, which she didn't bother to tell me until after we broke up. In fact, she'd always said the opposite... that he was open-minded and all that."
"So I was talking to Dimitri," I said, changing the subject. "About the Panic. You know, like what caused it. Well, James said the Terminus case caused the whole thing and Dimitri said that was like saying the Sun, not gravity, causes the Earth's orbit."
"Uh-huh. So what was his explanation?"
"It was all a big bubble, and the government's botched response turned a Storebrand recession into a once-in-a-century catastrophe."
"You wouldn't understand, but it's just such typical behavior from a mathematician. I could say the same thing about his answer. His explanation is trivially true and reflects an outdated idea of what economists study; he probably read one book about the history of 20
century economics and figured he was an expert. But credit markets, austerity, the codification of the insurance market, those didn't all spring out of nowhere, and because of the way our society is, the Panic had to happen the way it did. What Dimitri told you would be like pretending gravity was a string attached from the sun to the planets, instead of the curvature of space-time itself."
I sighed. Three people, three opinions, and condescension to spare. "So what was it? What caused the Panic?"
"Well to put it simply, it's the structure of our political and economic system, and at a more basic level is probably a fact of human nature itself. Increasing inequality is a fact of history. It's happened in every civilization back to the Romans and further. People hoard wealth, and the people with the most are the best at it. And higher inequality leads to social instability, which manifests itself in war, oppression, financial shocks, whatever. It's not the money itself, but the way it warps incentives on a macro level.
"Imagine the government increased your taxes by ten percent. It would suck, but in the grand scheme of things it's not that much and besides, there's nothing you can do about it. Now imagine you make a trillion of dollars a year... like the CEO of Liberty Bell. Ten-percent for him isn't thousands of dollars like it is for us. We're talking about a hundred billion dollars a year. That's more than you, me, and everyone we know will make in our lifetime, no matter how much money we have. Rich people have to accept what society gives them, they can't outright defy it. Very rich people have a little more leeway, but they can't, like, make personal appeals to the Supreme Court over the nature of non-person humanity. But once you reach a certain level of wealth, even the most fundamental laws begin to have asterisks. Liberty Bell's CEO has the incentives, and the power, to stop things that affect him individually, regardless of their impact on society."
"And that has what, exactly, to do with the Panic?"
"Without getting too technical, once inequality reaches a certain point the people at the top trample over the rest of society to maintain their fortunes and do everything they can to take more where they get it. I don't know if you've heard of Bella Guiness—"
"No, I must have missed that enormous scandal," I said sarcastically. Bella Guiness had been the scion of a tech dynasty whose relatives had fallen ill and died one by one until she'd inherited the entire family fortune. She had been complicit in all their deaths but for the first, for which she'd been merely present. It had inspired her, she claimed. When her lavish gifts to each member of the jury failed to secure her desired verdict in the ensuing court case she'd fled to Hungary, which granted her asylum as a political refugee. She now lived the life of a fabulously wealthy expat in Vienna.
"Yeah, well you need two things for that to happen: enough money for it to be worth it, and a group of people who feel they are safe from prosecution, regardless of whether or not it is true. If you can, for example, get regulations rewritten to make criminal actions legal
ex post facto
, then you are much more likely to act with impunity. And because oligarchs don't have identical preferences, every jurisdiction, governmental department, and market becomes a battleground. Basically the Panic was a bunch of rich fucks duking it out with each other and ruining the country in the process. Every single devastating event made someone, somewhere, fabulously wealthy."
The two women next to us burst into laughter. Though we hadn't exchanged more than sidelong glances, I felt a connection with them. Our existences were mirrored, wine instead of beer, picture flashes in place of cigarette embers, with the shared experience of the fireworks as our focal point. Their levity floated through the air in stark contrast to our sober-minded discussion of a broader world bleaker than the one they inhabited.
Once the show was over the women went inside; Edward and I continued our drinking and smoking. Edward had criticized my life for being a college extension, but that seemed a good alternative to his—cut off from New York and four formative years of friendship. He'd been expected to forge new relationships, but the obstacles were higher, and everyone he met had another four years of experiences in which he hadn't taken part. Was it possible to become close friends with a new person when you're fifty—or even forty—when you're life is well-established and the discoveries ingrained in becoming an adult have subsided? How close can you be to someone when you have a wife, kids, and a mortgage? I was jealous of the close bonds soldiers form in the military, that no matter how close I'd been to Ryan it could never compare to trusting someone with your life. Even when the trust is misplaced.
"Are you happy, Edward?" I asked.
"With your life, I mean."
"Yeah, why wouldn't I be?"
"Well you sound... I don't know... lonely."
Now it was his turn to laugh. "I'm all right. Sure, I can't hang out and be lazy all day like when I was an undergraduate, but I have friends here. Think about it: how good of friends were we at the end of freshman year?"
"Eh, we weren't friends at all." We'd lived in the same suite, but hadn't spoken all that much. "In fact, I wouldn't say we were friends until maybe the middle of junior year."
"Exactly. These things take time. We've barely started our lives, and in twenty years, when you're a best-selling author, you probably won't speak with more than one or two people you know right now. If that. I guarantee it." He checked his phone. "Holy shit. It's late. I have a meeting tomorrow morning. When are you leaving?"
"I need to be back by two."
"That's perfect. My meeting's at ten, and we can get lunch after that."
"Stay up as long as you want," he said. He stood and went inside, leaving a half-empty beer behind. I'd just finished mine, and was tempted to take his so none of it went to waste. I opened a new one instead.
I sat on his balcony, drinking and smoking and watching the supermarket. They left that last row of lights on, even when no one was inside. One of the women next door came out to smoke. I puffed away at my own cigarette and ran through conversation openers. I came up with one, I'd ask her about the fireworks. Not the smoothest, but I was drunk and under pressure. I turned to speak, but she was gone. Disappointed, I dropped my cigarette into the bottle and opened another beer.
by Jacob Horowitz
1 INT. TRAIN
A computer console reboots. The monitor reads ERROR, over and over again. A red light over the console pulsates maliciously.
2 EXT. AERIAL VIEW DOWNTOWN CHICAGO — DAY
It's the middle of RUSH HOUR, and cars are backed up in all directions as far as the eye can see. Horns are honking nonstop. A helicopter flies overhead, providing traffic updates.
3 EXT. STREET LEVEL
Fat, graying, old man in a dirty Hawaiian shirt is pushing a hot dog cart on a wide, almost-empty sidewalk past a line of stationary cars, all honking.
Hot dogs, I got your hot dogs!
A RED CONVERTIBLE drives onto the sidewalk. It whizzes past the old man and he stumbles, knocking his cart over and sending hot dogs rolling into the street.
Eh, fuck you buddy.
4 INT. CAR
A disheveled man in his mid-thirties, our DOWN-ON-HIS-LUCK HERO, JACK WHITMORE is on the phone with his ex-wife.
I'm sorry. I know he finishes practice at five.
I just forgot.
JACK tosses an empty FAST FOOD BOX on his passenger seat, which is filled with them. He is waiting at a red light, THREE CARS BACK. The light turns green. When its his turn to cross the intersection the light turns yellow and the RED CONVERTIBLE drives off the sidewalk and cuts him off, trapping him at the light again.
5 INT. TRAIN STATION
Train from first scene smashes at high speed into a passenger train.
FREIGHT TRAIN CARS
Silver gas tanks attached to the train buckle and explode. POISONOUS GAS rushes out and everyone in the station dies.
7 EXT. DOWNTOWN CHICAGO
POISONOUS GAS rushes out of train station, killing everyone it touches. In the distance we can see the RED CONVERTIBLE and JACK's car.
10. Going Back
Edward had his meeting and woke me up when he got back to the apartment. We ate at a boutique brunch joint and talked about nothing in particular.
As we stood on the platform and said our goodbyes he promised he'd make it out to New York soon. I told him he could sleep on my couch even if it meant kicking James to the floor. His chipper demeanor wavered only once. A sallow frown flashed across his face when the train stopped at the platform.
The ride leaving was as uneventful as the one coming. If I'd been in Edward's situation, how well would I be able to restart my social life from scratch? I fancied myself a loner and doubted the lack of friends would bother me. I expected I would, however, become the core of a group of the emotionally disaffected. Edward was too nice, too normal, and too smart for that. I was a child running a magnet over a lawn littered with rusty nails, finding treasure where others saw only junk.
Mr. Berger's car was idling outside the station. I opened the back door and hopped in.
“Hey Cliff, did you have a good time?” Elly asked. She was kneeling on the front seat, back to the windshield and peering at me from the gap below the headrest.
“I did. It was nice to see my friend. How was your Fourth of July?”
“Oh man, it was great. You should've been there,” she said, and told me about all the friends she'd made and how Mr. Berger's “war-buddy” let her set off a bottle-rocket.
She kept talking. Mr. Berger started to drive off. Elly jerked with the acceleration, but wrapped her arms around the seat before she fell over.
“Ells Bells, don't you think you should put on your seat belt?” I said.
“Gramps says I don't have to wear a seat belt if I don't want to. Isn't that right Gramps?”