“Ah, Mr. Haversham. Please come in.” His smile was even more warm and friendly in person than in news reports. He seemed taller in person, almost more larger-than-life than the media made him seem.
I numbly made my way to the sofa as he gestured. I so much wanted to introduce myself, to say what an honor it was, but my mouth could not bring itself to move.
“Don’t worry. The shock usually wears off in a minute or two.” He laughed, and poured a cup of coffee from the tray on the table between us. Although my mouth was still unmoving, my hands accepted the cup. All I could do was bow my head in thanks.
“You’re not the typical climber.”
“I… I guess not.” Finally, Words were coming to me. “Is that why I’m here, sir.”
I was so happy to be speaking, yet suddenly regretting that my first words were not thanking him for my audience nor expressing gratitude for the coffee.
“Relax, Richard.” He seemed to understand the turmoil I was going through. “Or do you prefer Rock?”
“Richard is fine, sir.” I began to take a sip of my coffee, but stopped. “But if you prefer Rock, sir, that’s ok.”
“Well, Richard,” he looked me over. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re the hero here. Or at least, you might be.” He removed what looked like the iPhone I had just gotten today from his pocket.
“What I am about to show you is confidential.” He swiped his thumb over his phone a few times.
The giant portrait of George Washington behind his desk instantly changed. It was now a list of climbers, arranged by various rankings. As I watched, I could see climber’s rankings moving up and down and various numbers next to each changed with each passing second.
There, 3rd from the top, was my name. Of the people I knew so far, only Alex was ahead of me. The names all had images to the left, ranging in colors from red to yellow to green, with what seemed like logos at the extreme. Where my name had a yellow-green circle, his had a bright green checkmark.
“You’re doing quite well.” He gestured to the chart. “We can’t be sure who will make it to the top. We have a team of people who calculate physical ability, mental determination, popularity, but in the end, it’s really a gamble.”
“I’m not really sure what you-
“Let me ask you a question, Richard.” He put his hand up to stop me from speaking. “What do you think of the climb?”
“Well, sir, it’s an incredible opportunity…” I paused. Kris’ words rang true. I wasn’t here to reach the top. I was going to die to provide for my wife and unborn child. Still, I had to say something to the President. I struggled for words.
“Myself, I think it’s barbaric.” He moved in closer. “You. You’re not our ‘usual’ climber. You’ve got the media in a storm.”
“I’m... I’m sorry if I’ve inconvenienced you, Sir.”
“One hundred men join this climb each year. Most will never make it to the top.” He put his palm to his face and sighed. “Men are killing themselves, because they know that even dying on the climb will give their families a better life than they could provide by working every day. Do you know what that makes me think of?”
“Makes me think of the sick fucks that did this to us in the first place. Pardon the expression.” He sat down next to me. “The men that destroyed our country did so for a promise of both Earthly and Heavenly riches. And now America is doing the same.”
He stood from the sofa, adjusted his jacket, and moved back behind his desk.
“I hate the climb. Hell, I hate the current system.” He pounded his desk as he sat. “And I want to change the system, Richard.” His face suddenly changed, as if he shifted from being the man in front of me, to the President I knew from the public messages. “Do you?”
“What is it you’re trying to achieve? Hoping to `change the world? `”
“Sir, I just want to climb as high as I can, and provide a better life for my family. If that makes you see me on the same level as the terrorists who caused the great blackout, I apologize.” I wanted to stop there, but my voice kept rambling. “I entered the climb at the last minute expecting not to make it to the top, Sir. I haven’t thought about what I would do with my family if I actually succeeded, much less considered anything political.”
The President looked at my face. He looked deep into my eyes. I felt so intimidated, but couldn’t turn away.
“I’m sorry, if I’ve disappointed you, Sir.”
A wide grin appeared on his face. It wasn’t a fake grin, or a malicious grin. He seemed genuinely pleased.
“That’s good, Richard.” He picked up a small tablet like the ones I had seen at the Apple store from his desk, and swiped his finger across it. “That’s very good.”
A second later, the yellow-green circle next to my name was replaced with bright green checkmark.
“Richard, I can’t say it any other way than that this climb is a sick game. It’s one of the few legal gambling establishments existing in the country, and it generates a lot of revenue.” He pushed a button, and the charts on the screen disappeared, showing a full screen analysis of me, as a climber. “You rank very highly in many areas, giving you a decent chance to reach the top. That green checkmark just increased your chances tenfold.”
“I’m not sure I follow, Sir.”
“Richard, it’s no secret that only a few climbers reach the top each year. And it’s no secret that the gambling pool around the climb is a billion dollar industry.” He shook his head and sighed, “But we can’t let money run the entire show, now, can we?”
“We look at each incoming climber,” he continued, “We consider their stamina, determination, political affiliation, popularity, and history.”
He pointed to various sections on my chart. The amount of information they knew about me was impressive.
“For most climbers, we just sit back and observe. But when a climber has a high stamina and popularity, we need to consider his determination and political affiliation. We have very little data for you on those two sections.”
“I’m sorry, Sir, but why does that matter?”
“Don’t be naïve, Richard. There are so many interests in the climb. The government, the public watching on TV, and, of course, the gambling. We have to try and please them all. When a climber becomes so popular that the gambling consortium would lose money if he reached the top, they take steps to prevent that. That green checkmark I just gave you stops them from taking direct action.”
“I’m sorry, Sir?” I couldn’t believe it. “So you’re saying that had I answered poorly, I’d have been open game?”
“No… You’d have been open game if you’d answered noncommittally. If you seemed like a troublemaker, you would have a red X, and then WE would have taken steps to see you didn’t reach the top. Ironically, then the bookies would try and boost your popularity to encourage betting on you, knowing you wouldn’t make it.”
Apparently, he could see the confusion in my eyes.
“Richard, why would you join the climb if you knew so little?”
I shared with him my frustrations working on the farm, my shame about Jennifer whoring herself to support us, my worries about my mother.
“So you were seriously just looking at the rewards charts.” He stood from his desk and made his way back to the sofa, “Amazing.”
“You apparently have no political goals, no agenda, you are climbing the climb for the awards, but judging by what you picked up today, obviously don’t know you could have gotten so much more.”
“Richard, most climbers know that they don’t have a good chance of reaching the top. Most of the climbers who are here for their families focus less on gear to get to the top, and more on gifts for their families from sponsors. Even climbers who are gearing for the top load up.” He pointed at Alex on the chart. “This guy here has loaded up on prizes for both himself and his family, and sponsor day isn’t even finished yet.” He pointed to two columns with dollar amounts. There were multiple numbers beneath each, and I didn’t understand what he was showing me fully, but I could tell the difference between the $187,645 in Alex’s column, and the $2,534 in mine. “It doesn’t look like you got any.”
“I got an iPhone8 delivered to my mom, Sir, and according to the store people, I can call her when I get back to the hotel.”
“Actually, that’s pretty special. Apple is pretty tight with their endorsements. You have Ms. Ross to thank for that. But, still, you could have gotten so much more.”
Although what he was saying was making me furious with Guttenberg, I didn’t want to tell him that my day at the sponsor booths had been hindered by a drunken guide.
“I guess I have simple needs, Sir.”
“Or a simple guide.” His look of disdain for Guttenberg was unmistakable.
“Sir, I went with Kris because I had sent-
“Richard.” He didn’t raise his voice, but there was a level of authority that stopped me in mid-sentence. “I know everything that goes on in that hotel during these three days. I know about your conversation with your guide. Hell! I know that you had a cow named Buffy.” He looked at me and shook his head.
“I admire your loyalty.” His voice had returned to the friendly demeanor with which we had been speaking. “And if you want to go on protecting that drunk, I don’t care.”
“Sir, I have a child on the way. And whatever I can do to provide for my family, I will do.” I wanted to stop short of throwing Guttenberg under the bus. “But I told him on day one that I wasn’t interested in sponsors. I guess I didn’t know how much was available. It’s really my own fault, Sir.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it too much.” He smiled and half chuckled. “I want to make this country great again, but that can’t be done with revolutionary ideas. Steps have to be taken in the right order to ensure we never become victims again. Do you believe me, Richard?”
“I do, Sir.” And I did. I believed him. It was easy to see how this man got elected.
“I like you. A lot of people question whether this ‘simple country boy’ image you have is too good to be true. And it is. You’re not a simple man.” He flipped open a folder and leafed through the pages contained within. “You’re intelligent, well read, good with people, you speak with conviction, if not eloquence, and are from all reports, a very likable person.”
“Well, Sir.” I felt a bit embarrassed. “If you got those reports from my town, they would have said that about any one of us.”
“Oh yeah, and a bit too humble for your own good.” He smiled. “These reports come from a number of sources. The good people of your town mostly said you were a ‘hard worker’ and a ‘great guy’.”
“I want you to help me, Richard. Help make America great again.”
“I’m not sure what I can do, Sir.”
“Do you see that chart?” He walked as he pointed, with his finger coming to rest on Alex. “It’s guys like this who usually get the green checkmarks. Guys who are out to succeed! Do you know what happens to them?”
“No, Sir. I had assumed they tended to make it to the top.”
“They DO!” He laughed and shook his head. “And to their credit, they don’t stir up any trouble once they’re there. But they’re in it for themselves.”
He picked up his phone and began flipping his finger across the surface. Images on the screen swiped by so quickly, I was amazed he could follow. He finally stopped, and pressed a button marked past winners. A page with 2 pictures and profiles appeared.
“Last year. Darren Dixon and Jessie Hardman. Both had corporate jobs lined up before they even got to Chicago.”
He flicked his finger again.
“Two years ago. Bryce McLean, Derrick Lukas, and Samuel Tyler. All three of them found high paying jobs in the private sector. Lukas and Tyler made their connections in the sponsor booths, but McLean had his set up long before the climb as well.”
He flicked and flicked and finally stopped on a face I recognized.
“Scott Diedrich.” I said his name with an air of awe. The man was a legend in Wisconsin. I knew without being told that he had gone from being a spokesperson for Boeing to his eventual current position as junior vice president.
“They all passed the ‘troublemaker’ litmus test with flying colors. They did so because they wanted to cash in, but you don’t.”
“Sir?” He had that same look my mother got on her face when she was about to ask me to do a difficult job.
’That dog is going to have to be put down.’
’If we don’t get that hay baled by Friday, We’re like to lose half.’
’I know the funeral is tomorrow, but your father isn’t here to help dig.’
“I want you to come work for me.”
“Mr. President?” My world was spinning. I hadn’t known what to expect, but I certainly hadn’t expected that.
“I’m serious, Richard. I want you to come work for the government. Help me make this country great again.”
“With all due respect, Mr. President, I think you’re overestimating my chances of making it to the top.”
“Your chances are fine.” He flicked the phone back to the climbers screen. “And I don’t think you’d be happy in some cushy corporate job. I think that, if given the chance, you’d want to help out this country and help out Wisconsin.”
“Help out Wisconsin?” My interest was now piqued.
“You see, Richard. We have a big decision coming up this year. We want to expand the citizen zones around the lake and open up a few limited small cities to promote growth. The only two directions to choose from are north or east, and nobody wants to try and rebuild Gary at the moment.”
“We plan on expanding along the lake all the way through to Milwaukee, and setting up a small zone in Madison, with future expansion to Minneapolis. The new roads and infrastructure alone would be beneficial to the whole state, not to mention the increased market and chances for citizenship.”
“And how could I help you, sir?”
“If you make it to the top, Richard, you’ll be the ‘Hero of Wisconsin’. What better spokesman could we hope to have? When you explain how these programs will benefit people in the rural areas, they’ll believe you because you came from there.”
“And will they benefit the people, sir, or just the people in the cities?”
“That’s a pretty ballsy question, considering I could flick a switch at any time.” He chuckled. “Tell me, Richard, in all of your reading, did you ever study about the Wild West?”
“Well, at our country’s stage of recovery, that’s about where we are. The main flow of goods and services runs through a few large cities, and the outlying areas that support them grow more slowly. But once a new city is established, and the trade routes form, so to speak, the area between the two cities developed rapidly.
“Back in the wild west, they were transporting simple goods, but now what we’re trying to do is build new infrastructure, hardened against the very attacks that took the old system down. It’s not easy. And I’m sure the people in the farming communities feel neglected in the same way the pioneers felt neglected, but at least we provide basic goods, minimal electricity, and rule of law.”
Rule of Law. I wondered if the President knew what the locals thought of the military security forces. How they would use their advantage of power and cash to turn the good women of small towns into prostitutes.
“We have a chance now, Richard!” He was becoming excited. For all of the faults of the government, I could see that he believed what he was saying. “Look at the development that has happened between here and Indianapolis, and on to Cincinnati. Look at the areas around Detroit and St. Louis. You might not believe it, but we’re making progress.”