Albertson Wallet V had a peculiar way of walking that mixed a prance with a swagger. He had a large build – he played rugby in college – which accentuated his peculiar locomotion’s menacing air. His father, Albertson Wallet IV, taught him to always have a presence when entering a room. A-Five, as he was sometimes called, always followed his father’s advice. “Act like your shit don’t stink, boy,” his father told him. And he listened. But he never told his father that he didn’t care whether his shit stank or not, because everyone else would have to deal with it anyway.
When he was a boy, he used to purposely walk through the mud when he knew one of the servants had just cleaned the floor, so that he could dirty it up again. After tracking across the formerly spotless floor, A-Five switched around to look at the servant still toiling on hands and knees, smirked, then said, “Guess you gotta do it again, huh?” Then he laughed as he tracked the mud all the way to his room. He finally grew out of the habit when he was 14 and got sent off to boarding school. By that point, he didn’t even notice the servants, or at least pretended not to.
He had just returned home from Yale where he studied for his MBA. His father went to Yale, so naturally A-Five had a right to go. His favorite place to walk at the family estate was the semi-circular colonnade along the side of the mega-mansion that overlooked the spectacular view from their hillside. From this location, they had a commanding view of the Flatlands and the ocean beyond. This part of the mega-mansion had just recently reopened after some reno work. Betters renoed their properties regularly to change styles or add square footage, which increased property values and status. However, in this instance, the Wallets went for the former. They had their retro-infinity pool removed to make room for a mini-forest. The trees gave them green credits, which they could use to increase their tax returns. They generally received $4-6 million back on their returns, but a little padding never hurt. Green credits were an old-fashioned idea that didn’t really mean anything anymore. The ice caps had long since melted. But the credit remained on the books mostly as a means for Betters to take advantage of it when convenient. Betters, like their corporate predecessors, never paid taxes. That idea was foreign.
A-Five paused when he came to the PR statue. All Betters had a least one statue of PR in their mega-mansions. The Wallets had five. PR – to speak his name was considered blasphemy – was a 21st century politician, but that fact was rarely mentioned because PR had became a deity. Some called him the OB, the Original Better. He championed the destruction of the FDR legacy. His first act was to rid the country of Medicare and replace it with vouchers. Before he passed, he had destroyed the FDR legacy completely and had FDR himself written out of the history books, at least the history books used by Flatlanders. If you asked a Flatlander, they would tell you that Herbert Hoover and his strict austerity policies saved the country during the Great Depression and that he defeated the Nazis, because that’s what their history books told them. Some Betters kept a photo of FDR in their mega-mansions to use as dartboards.
A-Five bowed at the PR to touch his forehead with the statue’s as was customary. He raised his head quickly in disgust and felt the grit left behind on his skin.
“Fucking-A! Did those motherfuckers forget to cover the PR before working out here? I’ll kick their piss-on asses!” Piss-ons was a derogatory name for po’folks used by Betters. It derived from peons, or pee-ons. Pissing seemed a more active verb than peeing, so in time the word evolved to piss-on.
He gingerly rubbed the statue with his sleeve to rid it of the offending soot. When it looked clean, he bowed at it again, before continuing his prance-swagger along the colonnade. He walked towards a figure he saw standing between two columns and staring out into the Flatlands beyond.
“Hey, Sis,” A-Five said, “like the new forest?”
He never called Aileen by her name, only Sis or Sister.
“Yes, it’s quite lovely,” she answered, not looking at him. “When did you get back, Albertson?” She never called him A-Five.
“This morning.” He stood next to her and leaned against one of the columns, arms folded. He smiled as he looked at her then turned to look out at the view. A-Fived liked to smile. Others felt nervous when he smiled. “Look at that smoke rising from the Flats. Geeze, must’ve been one hell of a strike last night.”
Various pillars of white smoke rose in different locations in the distance.
“That’s disgusting,” Aileen said.
“What’s disgusting about it, Sis?”
“Albertson, people live in those locations. Their homes were destroyed and they might have died in the process. That’s what’s disgusting.”
“Aw, come on, Sis! It’s revenge! The Harkness Angel promises revenge for those who have been wronged. It flies silently through the night seeking those deserving of its wrath.” He laughed. He was quoting from the ads for the Harkness he saw as a kid.
“It’s not revenge and you know it.”
“What are you saying, Sister? Are you saying that the whole Harkness campaign is a hoax to keep the little people busy while we live far away from them and screw them over? Is that what you’re saying, Sister?” He was still smiling, which made his words that much nastier.
She refused to look at him and kept staring out at the pillars of smoke in the distance.
“Funny, Sister, I seem to remember reading something about that in a book. You know, the book that talks about the purpose of the Harkness program. I seem to remember us having a copy of that book around the house somewhere. And you know what’s even funnier, Sis? I can’t seem to find it, now isn’t that interesting?”
She still refused to look at him, though her eyes darted in his direction. He stared at her and smiled he saw the eye movement.
“Heh. Yeah, I thought so.” He glared at her some more before looking out towards the ocean, ignoring the pillars of smoke from the Flatlands. “I don’t buy your cappuccino, goody-goody, armchair liberal crap. You think you’re better than the rest of us, don’t you?” The smile vanished. “You whine about the poor little people, while sunning yourselves in our exclusive resorts and being served by them. What, you think tipping them a few extra makes you alright in the end?”
“Stop it, Albertson!”
He smiled again. “All I’m saying is that you’re benefiting from a system you claim to hate. If you hate it so much, go down there and live in the Flats. I’m sure they’ll treat your hot-house orchid ass just fine.”
“Do you have to be such a cruel lout?”
“You can do better than that, Sis.” He starts swag-prancing around one of the columns. “You’re slipping. You’ve called me worse than that. Well, it might interest you to know that one of those pillars out there belongs to someone you might know.”
She snapped her head and looked at him.
“Naw, it wasn’t her place. We got her the other night. That’s her mother’s place there, the big one. It was one of those elder centers. The Harknesses had a grand time with that place. Sent them scattering. So now that’s the end of that, isn’t it, Sis? Can’t send them any more books, including books that piss-ons should never see, like the one about the Harkness program. Yeah, I figured it out long time ago. You know, you may have been able to talk Pop into that bullshit agreement with the piss-on he knocked up, but I didn’t buy it. Not for one second. I knew what she was doing. And I knew what you were doing too, Sister. I’m the son and the heir, not some little piss-on bastard kid from the maid. Sorry, Sis. But it’s purely business. Just gotta protect what’s naturally mine.” He smiled wider and wider.
Aileen found no words to say. Her eyes stayed on her brother as he wandered from pillar to pillar, unable to stand still, prance-swaggering all over the place, arms folded, in utter contentment.
“You know, I could have reported you for sending that book to the Flats. That’s against the law, you know. Could have sent your prissy ass to prison. Instead, because you’re family, I did you a favor.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. “There’s you’re itinerary. You’re flying to Europe. ‘Bout time you spent some time with our swish brother. I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you. You can both suck on your cappuccinos and wish away the problems of the poor while still living better than them, together. Won’t that be nice, Sis?”
“I’m not going to Europe,” she said in a harsh whisper.
“Oh yes you are. Flight’s been booked. It’s tonight. I’d go pack up if I were you. ‘Cause you’re gonna be there for a long, long, long time. It’s either that or prison, take your pick. I’ll take care of Pop. Don’t worry. He won’t have you around giving him any more bad advice, like being nice to the piss-ons he knocks up.” He chuckled a bit then swished around and began walking away.
“Enjoy the forest, Sis. You’ll never get to see it again.”
She closed her eyes as water filled them.
Aileen remembered the day so well. Lillian always carried herself with such dignity even when doing the most menial of tasks; and when she saw Aileen she always managed to pull a smile from out of the hat. It had been like that since Aileen’s childhood. But then on this day, Lillian could not manage a smile or a look of anything but humiliated terror as she staggered from the study. Aileen might not have put two and two together had she not seen her father bolt out of the study in a stiff clip just moments earlier. The exit from the study in two acts was not an unfamiliar play performed in the house. Only now it had a new cast member, Aileen’s favorite servant, someone she actually called a friend.
She took Lillian to her room and comforted her. Lillian feared that she would be missed once others noticed that the chores went undone. Don’t worry, Aileen assured her, I’ll take care of it. And she did. She mopped the remainder of the floors that needed it and washed the windows near the colonnade. No one was the wiser, because Aileen dressed down and wore a do-rag. She looked like any of the other servants in the house. And fortunately, A-Five wasn’t around. She let Lillian rest in her room until it was time for her to go home, and she took her home. It wasn’t her first time going into the Flats. She and some girlfriends did it on a dare once. That was the first time she had ever seen poverty, and it shocked her. Her girlfriends laughed, but she was incapable of finding levity in the situation at all. She just stared at the desperate people and kept wondering things like “why?” and “what for?”
Lillian never looked like those people. She had a job, a good job, and a nice place to live. She had food in the house. But that day, the day she fell out of the study moments after her father, she looked just as haggard and worn as any folks she saw on her first trip to the flats.
Aileen assumed, as did most of the household, including her mother, that A-Four, her father, had given her “necessity money” to take care of any potential consequences. That’s what folks called it, in hushed voices at teatime. But it became obvious, a few months later, that if Lillian had received any necessity money, she didn’t use it the way it had been intended. Folks who knew Lillian to be single began whispering about her baby bump. The cat was out of the bag. So, she had to go. Aileen intervened at this point and talked her father into the generous tin parachute severance package, something unheard of for domestics. She believed her mother may have had a hand in talking him into the package as well, but she can’t be too sure. Her mother never talked about the trysts that occurred literally under her nose.
How A-Five, still away at college, figured out all of this, Aileen can’t be sure. She doubted that her father said anything, even if A-Five was his favorite. No, she thought it more likely that one of the other servants told him. Her brother kept a network of moles, and though Aileen tried her best to keep a scorecard of who’s who, it wasn’t hard to fall behind. In any case, it didn’t matter now. Time was short. She had to move and move quickly.
She proved that she still knew the Flats very well by navigating the complex network of freeways like a champ. She drove the oldest car they had and dressed in the worst clothing she owned. She wore a scarf over her head to hide her perfect hair and skin. She actually fit in quite well to the inattentive eye.
Aileen didn’t go to Lillian’s old apartment at first. She went straight to the senior center where Lillian’s mother had lived. Pretending to be a distant relative, she learned that Lillian’s mother had not been at home for some time. Aileen sighed relief, but now the trail was cold. She had to trace back to Lillian’s apartment to try and figure out where they might be. Her gut told her that Lillian and her family survived, that somehow through the carnage and chaos, they managed to slip away. Faith prevented Aileen from believing anything else.
Her flight was in a few hours. She had to hustle.
“Turn the switch now,” Gabriel called out.
Ángel turned the starter and the Gabriel’s cab came back to life. He smiled.
“Was it the chip?”
“Yep, little buddy. You called it. A bad chip. Now she can run again.”
He rubbed his assistant on the head, who beamed while sitting in the driver’s seat, pretending to drive. He had taken to reading Gabriel’s automotive books and learned a great deal about how the thing worked. He learns in a snap, Gabriel told Lillian often.
Through the windshield he saw someone approach. Though to most she looked like anyone else, to Ángel’s eyes, she stood out like a tree in an empty plain. She walked up to the Ángel as he sat in the car. She stopped at the window and smiled.
“Learning to drive?”
“No. I was helping him fix it. I figured out it was a bad starter chip.”
“That’s very good. You must like cars, don’t you?”
“Yeah, they’re alright. I’d love to see a gas car, though. But I guess I never will, since only Betters have them.”
That was the one thing Aileen couldn’t hide – the car burned gas. But it was still old and it was a hybrid, so it only burned a little gas.
“I can show you my car. Would you like to see it?”
He got out of Gabriel’s car and followed the woman.
“You know,” Aileen said, “you should be more careful around strangers. You don’t know who I am.”
“I know who you are,” Ángel said.
He didn’t say anything. His eyes fell on her car and couldn’t stop staring at it.
“Can you pop the hood?” he asked.
She got in the car and complied with his request. He went bug-eyed at all the machinery, the belts and flywheels, the radiator. He had only seen them in the books Gabriel had, never in person. He wanted to take it all apart and put it back together again, so that he could learn its secrets.
“You like?” Aileen asked.
“Yeah, this is too sick!”
Gabriel approached. “What you doing looking in this lady’s car?”
“She’s showing it to me! Isn’t it dope?”
“I hope he hasn’t been bothering you, ma’am.”
“Oh, not at all. I can’t stay long, but is his mother around?”
“Lillian? No. She and her mother are at a service.”
“Oh. Yes, of course. My condolences.” Her evil brother went through her head, but she snapped back to her purpose. “Can you give her something for me?”
She leaned into the car to pop open the trunk. Gabriel walked towards it as she opened it fully and took out a box full of books.
“Give this to her, won’t you?”
“Sure. But is she expecting this?”
“Tell her it’s the last shipment. She’ll understand.”
“More books!” Ángel exclaimed.
“Yes! More for you to learn. And learn it quickly. There’s not much time left.”
“Excuse me, ma’am, but who are you?”
“A friend.” She closed the truck, and then went to the front of the car to close the hood. She got back inside and started the motor.
“I have to go. I probably won’t be back again, not for a long while. But read those books. You’ll need to.”
“We will!” Ángel said.
“Take care.” And she drove off in a hurry.
“I wonder who she was,” Gabriel said.
Ángel picked up a book from the box and started to skim it. It looked like a technical manual.
“Oh, she’s my half-sister,” Ángel said. He had never met her, but saw his own face in hers.
To be continued…
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.
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