I imagine if you asked people, before everything changed, if they thought America would look like it does now they would say, not in a million years. It didn’t take nearly that long. Some people believe the beginning of the end of America was in the early part of the century. America elected an extremely progressive president. No one remembers, or no one cares, whether he was a republican or democrat. It doesn’t really matter anyway. Others said it started long before, before the Great Wars, or during the Great Depression, as many theories as there are people to think them up. All I can say now is it doesn’t matter anymore. What’s done is done, and all we can do is live with our mistakes.
-Excerpt from the journal of JohnEvermann
John took his jacket from the locker marked with his number, pulling it on over his sore shoulders. He grabbed his steel lunchbox from the bottom of the locker and turned to leave the break room.
The floor manager stood in his office doorway, catching John’s attention as he walked by. “Your line is down twelve percent with Hernandez out again.”
“I’ll come in early tomorrow and catch up,” John said, his normally soft voice rough from hours on the dry factory floor.
Several of the workers in the room gave John a disgruntled look.
“It will be outside your contract time, John,” the floor manager said. “We can’t give you extra time off later.”
“I know, Terrance,” John patted the dark-skinned man on the shoulder as he passed.
The drab walls of the break room and hall were broken every so often by a colorful poster espousing the merits of hard work and doing one’s part for the community. In stark contrast, most of John’s coworkers stood, exhausted, waiting in line down the hall for their turn at the time clock. Work was something that many did, not something they wanted to do, or cared about. John could remember a time, when he was younger, when his father and grandfather used words like work ethic, and pride had meaning. Now it was all about getting through the day with nothing to look forward to except the same tedious tomorrow. He picked up a broken chair that had been leaning against his locker before leaving the break room.
One of the last men in line stepped out and followed John toward the front doors, stopping him where no one could overhear.
“What are you doing, John?” He asked in a hoarse whisper. “You know our contract with the feds means no extra rations for extra work.”
“Work has to get done, Carl. It’s not about the pay.”
Carl scratched at the short stubble atop his head and looked back at the line of workers. He waited while one of their coworkers passed on the way out the doors, then he turned his eyes on John again.
“It makes everyone look bad. If we still had unions they wouldn’t stand for it,” Carl said.
John shrugged and look back down the line of people, standing complacent as cattle outside a slaughterhouse.
“No one should feel bad, we’re all the same now right?”
There was a hint of sarcasm in his voice, and they both knew without looking at the wall that John was standing in front of a poster depicting three androgynous, faceless people in gray coveralls, standing on the edge of a cliff or building. Each held a different tool but they were otherwise identical. Against the red background, printed in gold letters, were the words Free, fair, and equal.
“Just be careful, John,” Carl said before returning to the line. “Don’t draw more attention than normal.”
John exited the mill and looked up at the lettering over the main doors of the National Department of Agriculture Stewart Mill. The sky over the sign was leaden and the air was colder than the day before. He sighed and started the long walk home, hoping the coming winter would be milder than the last. John’s family did not own a car, not that anyone else owned a car either. The government denied John’s application for a car because it was determined he lived close enough to his workplace to ride public transportation. When he appealed, stating that Stewart, Illinois was too small of a town to have public transportation, his application was denied citing a new ruling that five miles was close enough to walk.
John scratched an itch on his shoulder blade as he passed Stewart’s hardware store, his fingers passing over the white stenciled numbers on the back of his grayish-blue jacket. His numbers were always there as a reminder that he was just a number in the system, not John, but a series of digits to pass through the databanks and bureaucracy faster.. He waved at Mike Connors, the old man who used to own the hardware store. Mike was sweeping the steps under a sign reading National Hardware Supply, Stewart Unit. Mike stopped sweeping and nodded in greeting, watching John pass by.
John saw people he had known since childhood, walking around town with no apparent purpose. When work was done for the day, many people had no idea what to do with themselves. Most forms of entertainment had been eliminated or changed to meet new regulations. People used to go out, meet friends, and date, but few saw the point anymore. People still had to get out of the house. Meeting in groups was against the law, as was loitering on government property so most just wandered around town until they got bored and went home.
Just a few store fronts down from the hardware supply was a furniture repair shop where Stewart’s only contracted furniture carpenter worked. John put his hand on the glass door that still bore the faded letters naming it Jerome’s Woodworks under a newer sign stating Furniture Repair, Stewart. He pushed the door open and walked through a shop that was piled high with rows of broken chairs, tables, cabinets and other pieces of furniture. No one else in town was authorized to do their own repairs; it wouldn’t be fair to take the work away from another citizen.
“Jermone, I have a chair here that needs fixed,” John called out. He didn’t hear any power tools running in the back to drown him out.
“That you, John?” Jerome’s mellow voice called out from the back.
The man entered the room, wiping wood shavings off his jeans with a large rag. Jerome was a giant of a man, at least a head taller than John. Ebony skin rippled with muscles across his bare arms, and sawdust clung to the sweat of the work day. His wide face broke into a smile when he saw John.
Jerome took the chair from John like he was handling a wounded animal. “What happened to this guy?”
“Thomas was leaning back in it and it tipped,” John explained.
“Your boy all right?”
“Bumped his head, but nothing serious.”
“Well, I’ll get the chair in line.” Jermone gestured to the furniture that surrounded them. “Not sure when it will be done.”
“No luck getting some help around here?” John asked.
“Stewart’s too small to support a second carpenter,” Jerome said in a tone like he was quoting a letter from the National Labor Board.
John just shook his head and offered his hand to the big carpenter. Jerome took it in his strong grip.
“Say hi to Amanda for me,” Jerome said.
John nodded and headed out of the store, giving another quick wave as the door closed behind him.
John turned the corner and started up the Harper Street hill. He passed by a rundown brick building with a faded placard above the door that read Jerry’s Pub. He remembered the day Jerry had to close the beloved bar. Nearly the whole town showed up to say goodbye to the old place that had been a Stewart institution since the end of the first Prohibition. Now the building sat like a forgotten friend, empty windows staring out onto a town that had long since given up hope of ever entering those welcoming doors again.
Beyond the abandoned pub stood a long line of houses that ran up the street in front of John. They were classic American, small town type houses, some of which had been around since the turn of the last century. Most had small fenced-in yards with little concrete porches. A few toys lay in the grass among fall leaves recently dropped from the surrounding trees, but not many. He remembered when the sound of dogs barking could be heard in the neighborhood, but as far as he knew there weren’t any pets, anywhere. Owning pets had been ruled inhumane, and most of the animals had been put down. The useful ones were turned into work animals for the government, but the rest couldn’t just be released. Some owners could not turn their pets over and released them out in the country. The farmers were still dealing with the packs of feral dogs that attacked national livestock.
John smiled when he saw some kids playing tag near the top of the hill. Children were the exception to the law that prevented adults from gathering in large groups. Believed to be no threat they were permitted to gather and play between the end of school and curfew. They all had little grayish-blue jackets over their school uniforms. He almost didn’t notice the numbers anymore. The children ran about, squealing and laughing while he watched. Their game was silhouetted against the gray October sky, and for a time John forgot everything except what it had been like to be a child and have no care except to enjoy the moment. When one of the kids looked in his direction, he waved and two of them came running over, shouting goodbyes to their friends. After a quick hug the trio continued to walk up Harper Street.
“More kids than usual out,” John commented.
“The bus broke down again. Everyone had to walk,” the boy said. The district had one bus so kids at the end of the route wouldn’t be home before dinner.
“Well, walking never hurt you two,” John said. “At least they’ll get home in time to have dinner with their folks.”
John and his wife wanted their kids home for dinner every night, so rather than ride the bus and be one of the last ones off, they walked to the top of Harper Street and met their dad on the way home.
The little girl took John’s hand; he smiled down at her. “How was school Susan?” He asked.
Susan kicked a small stone, sending it skittering and bouncing down the road. “Fine, daddy.”
“Just fine?” John asked.
Susan nodded her head, causing her brown curls to bounce a bit. She squeezed his hand and giggled, then ran off after the stone to give it another kick. John watched her and chuckled at her antics. She was tall for eight, and smart. He was a sucker for those big blue eyes, and Susan knew it too. John would move heaven and earth for those eyes. The boy was walking quietly next to him, hands in his pockets and his face turned down in thought.
John patted his shoulder. “Thomas?”
“Huh?” Thomas looked up, snapped out of his thoughts.
“What’s on your mind son?”
“I was thinking about class today. Do other kids have to learn history when they get home?”
John watched Susan skip down the road for a moment before answering.
“I don’t know Thomas. It’s important for you though, to learn the truth, because things won’t always be this way.” John waved his hand, indicating the world around them. “When things get put back the way they should be, the world will need people who know how it got this way in the first place.”
“We were reading about that Chinese guy, Mao, who lived a long time ago. The book at school said that he was a great leader, and helped the world, but didn’t you tell us he killed lots of people?”
John nodded grimly, taking a moment to stifle the rising anger that he felt, not toward his son, but toward the school.
“Yes, Thomas. He killed lots of people to get what he wanted. That’s why we study this at home. So we remember.”
“It just makes me sad,” Thomas said quietly.
“Me too son,” John put his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
The trio rounded a corner, turning onto their street and saw federal agents parked outside a home a few doors down from their own. Two black cars were in front of the small house, and two officers were standing by them, watching the street. John and his kids could hear shouting coming through the open front door of the small, white house. A crash sounded form somewhere inside and a moment later two more officers exited, pushing a small Asian man out in front of them. His hands appeared to be cuffed behind him.
“Mister Li, you are charged with overdrawing rations and hoarding food,” one of the officers said loudly.
John had stopped walking at the sound of the crash and all three were close enough to the house to hear everything. Seeing his neighbor’s face pulled at his heart, especially since John had considered finding a way to draw more rations himself. With the shortage everyone seemed to have just enough to get by. He hadn’t realized it, but his fists were balled tightly, and he took a step toward the officers.
“I’m sorry,” Mister Li was saying. “We need the food, our son is sick.”
“Everyone needs the food Mister Li,” the arresting officer said in the professional monotone that all federal officers seemed to use.
Mister Li looked up and saw John and the kids looking on. The defeated look in the man’s eyes brought John forward another step. He didn’t know what he would, or could do, but he felt like something had to be done.
“Move along citizen, this is none of your business,” the voice of one of the other officers snapped John out of his thoughts.
For a moment the approaching officer became the target of John’s simmering rage. He could feel every muscle in his body tense as if preparing to lash out, but it all came crashing down with a tug on his pants and his daughter’s voice.
“Daddy, I’m scared,” Susan was pulling at his pocket to get his attention. Those blue eyes that always touched his heart were on the verge of tears.
“Can we go home?” Her voice shook a little.
John tamped down his anger and picked her up, all thoughts of doing something that would put him in jail forgotten.
“Let’s go see what Mommy has for dinner.”