(You were promised ‘less political, more fictional’. So here you go. A short story, on the shorter side).
* * *
They’d been at it since grade school, Joel and Bert, Bertie back then, short for Bertrand, after Bertrand Russell, family lore has it, a namesake Bertie never understood, his parents, the least philosophically-minded people he ever knew. “Impractical,” his dad snapped when Bertie joked one day about following in the great thinker’s footsteps. “In this day and age.”
The 60s. Mid-to-late-ish. The Age of Aquarius. The Age of Upheaval. Children of the 60s, Joel and Bert, but not quite prime boom time. More, passive spectators than active participants. They watched the show unfold from the sidelines. A few years later, Joel took to elegiacally quoting Hunter S. Thompson, ‘… a very special time and place to be part of.’
“We weren’t the counter-culture,” Joel figured. “But we were counter-cultured.”
Joel had The Beatles, Bert The Stones. Emblematic of the slight but strongly maintained differences they cultivated throughout the years. What they did agree on was that no other music mattered. They updated their collections as technology changed. Rubber Soul on vinyl, cassette (self-taped), CD, and the various digital versions before the return to vinyl. Ditto Sticky Fingers for Bert although he went 8-track for the car, a valued relic he still possesses. “A Kijii collector’s item.”
Progress. The defining mark of their era. Invariable advance and upgrade on all fronts. Everything new, newer, newest and improved. Occasional downturns but always bigger rebounds, making up for lost time and momentum.
Through marriages, children, career, careers, stable mostly, overlooked for a promotion or two, slight setbacks in the scheme of things. Vacations. Divorces. Minor illnesses but nothing too serious, knock wood. Remarriages. Divorce.
The 70s. The 80s. The 90s. The new millennium.
Now both retired, Bert only recently, during the pandemic. He’d been forced to work from home and came to the realization, like thousands, millions of others, that perhaps there was a better, more fulfilling way to spend your life, what remained of it at any rate. They had their pensions, child and spousal support payments dwindled to negligible (if still annoying) not counting the kids who lived at home with them when necessity dictated. Boarders. There’d been no life savings-draining bad investments. Joel, in fact, had handsomely feathered his proverbial nest egg, post-retirement, transforming himself into a self-taught financial strategist of sorts.
“Hand-over-fist, buddy,” he’d proudly whisper to Bert, nudging his friend to give him a go with some play capital, so he could show-off his newly developed skills. “Nothing that would tank your bank,” Joel assured him. Bert demurred, leaving it to the professionals. Besides, if things went south, it could jeopardize their friendship.
“Your loss, buddy,” Joel said. “I’d have you awash in the Covid plenty.”
Sometimes Bert like to indulge his longtime friend in such flights of fancy. He knew what was happening out there. He knew what had happened to his investments.
Still, they were doing fine, thank you very much. Sitting together with their almost daily morning coffees, Bert and Joel acknowledge their blessings in these days of tribulation and disquiet. Joel’s words. Couldn’t complain and who’d listen if they did? Bert and Joel confess that, in fact, if they had been ushered into this world by the Greatest Generation©™, theirs might well be considered the Luckiest, contingencies of time and place factored in.
“What other period of history and geographical spot on earth would you rather have been born into?” Joel asks.
That’s not to say they hadn’t had their challenges, their generation, talking about their generation. Unprecedented issues in the annals of history for sure. The breakneck speed of change, for one. The breakdown of traditional ways of life for another. The two probably related, according to sociologists, probably.
“Can you name one?” Bert teases.
“Max Weber,” Joel answers without so much as a pause, pronouncing the ‘W’ a ‘V’. “The father of the field as a matter of fact,” he adds.
There were times Bert couldn’t tell if he was being bullshitted by his friend. How would Joel know about Max Veeber, the name vaguely familiar to Bert. From some elective course back in school. A sociologist? What is a sociology anyway? He didn’t bother asking in case Joel actually knew.
Sometimes Bert begrudged his friend his erudition. Yes, that’s what he’d call it. Erudition. Why not? Joel was well-read. Well-read across a spectrum of topics. So, for sure he’d know about Max Veeber and sociology. Why wouldn’t he?
Bert just couldn’t figure out where Joel found the time, even now in retirement, when both of them had plenty of it. Where do all the hours in a day go? is a constant refrain he finds himself muttering, sometimes out loud. It’s hard enough to keep up with all the things that need keeping up with, Bert complains to someone, his girlfriend, one of the kids. Who’s got time to branch out into the arcane and intellectual?
“I sleep like shit,” Joel has told Bert when he asks about all the extracurricular exploration. “Always have. Four hours a night, if I’m lucky.”
Bert doesn’t remember that about Joel although, admittedly, it’s been a while since they had sleepovers. Growing up. College roommates. That first place they shared when they moved to Toronto after school. They did frequent each other’s places up north, even more so in retirement, and Joel was always up and at it before anyone else, off for a run or a round of golf with his golfing buddies. Bert hated the game. Could never take it seriously after Caddyshack.
“It’s a movie,” Joel pointed out. “Not a documentary. Bill Murray loves him his golf.”
Exactly. Pastime of the leisure class.
“Or maybe it’s because you suck at it, buddy,” Joel countered.
You miss all the shots you don’t take, right?
Don’t even get Bert started on environmental impact of the game.
“That doesn’t bother you?” he asks Joel, more of a poke than an actual query, knowing full well the answer. “Especially right now. Drought conditions all over the world. ‘If you see me, then weep’,” Bert quotes from a Guardian article. The Hunger Stone, emerging along the banks of a river in Czechoslovakia… the Czech Republic. No, something else now. A new, updated name.
A presage of bad harvests and hunger, famine, social disruption.
Joel isn’t a denier, a denialist. He’s also no alarmist, he will point out. Different times, improved adaptabilities, he tells Bert. What might’ve been catastrophic a few hundred years ago is manageable these days.
“Technology,” Joel chants, his regular invocation in the face of constant tumult and apocalyptic manifestations like the Hunger Stone.
“Besides,” he says in the face of Bert’s increasing concern about the state of affairs, concern unconverted into much action, Joel has pointed out, recycling, an electric car, periodic vegetarianism, “if no one individual action will make any sort of real positive difference aside from merely symbolic, no one individual action will make a real negative difference aside from merely symbolic, yes?”
A word Bert wrestles with, usually unsuccessfully. It pops up in his reading and he’s always forced to go back to try and understand its meaning. Even then.
An unnecessary repetition.
A truth by necessity, made true by a seemingly logical form. Two true propositions do not necessarily make a statement true.
An unsatisfiable conclusion.
That, he remembers.
Bert’s constant thought companion, seeping out beyond the borders of the darker moments. Their generation born into an era of limitless promise. Prosperity. Equality. Justice.
An unsatisfiable conclusion.
Joel’s exhortations to the upside, always the upside, aren’t nearly as comforting as they once were. ‘The long arc of history… The inevitable forward march of progress… Rational self-interest… Cooler heads will prevail… Our Better Angels…’. Have you seen the news lately?
“I remain convinced,” Joel insists as they sit with their coffee and devices, watching street scenes play out in front of them, little evidence of the ongoing pandemic on display, “despite the rough patch we’re currently experiencing, a system that brought us to this point in history, warts and all, buddy, warts and all, will not prove incapable of turning the engine around before it races over the edge into the abyss.”
An unsatisfiable conclusion.
“And can you actually picture,” he continues, “I mean, really, really imagine the type of collapse the doomsayers are predicting? Sci-fi and Games of Thrones aside, all that Hollywood hokum. From this?” he gestures at the business of daily life these two not-quite-elderly but aging men bear witness to, out here in the morning sunshine and humidity. Some on the way to work. To an aerobics class. Yoga. The babies, infants, in their strollers. Who in their right minds would introduce new life into a dying world, a society poised on the brink of collapse? All the Covid puppies, no longer puppies.
“I can’t see it, buddy,” Joel answers his own question. “I simply refuse to believe we’re that far gone, that some sort of collapse back into a medieval barbarity is inevitable now.”
“We should be so lucky,” Bert jokes.
Joel waves his old friend off.
“We’re designed to thrive,” Joel contends. “Our species craves the good life. There’s no going back once we get a taste of it. That’s how the world ends. With a snifter not a whimper.”
Joel laughs at his joke.
Despite his own disquiet, Bert can’t help but admire his old friend’s ease and composure in the face of it all. The possibility of decline, never mind demise, of life as they’ve always known it, a nonstarter. Maybe if more of us refused to give over to, what? Bert considers. Despair? Is that what he’s feeling? Despair. A creeping sense of impending doom? Maybe if we worked harder at keeping such thoughts at bay, refusing to succumb to them and adopt a longer historical prospective. There’ve been tough times before, tougher when it gets right down to it. Great Depressions. World Wars. Plagues and epidemics of truly biblical proportions. Huge chunks of the population wiped out. What do they think, 50% of the European population gone with the Black Death?! Ice ages. Droughts and dust bowls. Millions dead and gone through Communist purges and reigns of terror.
“Spare some change, buddy?”
Bert hadn’t noticed the man stopped on the sidewalk in front of them. Joel deep into his phone and doesn’t looked up.
“Any change?” he asks Bert again.
A man? Bert wonders now, momentarily meeting the person’s eyes, blurry and unfocused, in a flushed face, darkened with grime or constant exposure. Hair matted, indeterminant colour. Baggy, dirty clothes. Pants barely hitched up. One shoe, unlaced and worn through everywhere. The other foot barefoot. Nails, the nails, disgusting is the only word that comes to mine, reluctantly, Bert notes.
“Any change?” hand thrust out toward him now.
Bert shakes his head and turns from the person. Man? Woman? Impossible to tell. Sad, in either case. He watches as they shuffle off along the sidewalk, hand still out, asking the others sitting outside the coffee shop for help.
No easy fixes, he thinks. No amount of spare change will turn that person’s life around. We’ll never be able to seal up all the cracks. If there was some sort of magic wand, we would’ve discovered it by now, right? It’s just life. No satisfaction guaranteed. None.
An unsatisfiable conclusion.
Bert sighs and finishes his coffee.
“There but for the grace of God, huh?” Joel says without looking up from his phone. “But for the grace of God.”