Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Chapter 24. In the Garden

Max squatted among the rows of tomato plants, turning over leaves one by one in search of hornworms. When he plucked them off the plants, they would squirm and twist in a sort of slow motion panic, as peristaltic ripples flowed from one end of their bodies to the other. The largest of the hornworms were about the length and thickness of his pinky. There were plenty of the pests to find munching on the pesticide-free plants in the Freedom Club gardens. After only an hour of searching, he had already collected enough to cover the bottom of the rusty coffee canister resting on the dirt by his knee. They weren’t really worms at all, but a fleshy type of caterpillar with rich, emerald green skin and a menacing though apparently harmless horn at the tail.



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As a rule, Linda had told him, everyone staying at the Freedom Club compound was assigned chores. Although in Max’s case it wasn’t required, considering the circumstances of his arrival. He did essentially nothing for his first three days in the compound except breathe deeply of the manure scented air, eat mounds of organic food, and wander about observing the rest of the residents hard at work planting, harvesting, and tending to animals.

It wasn’t long before boredom and a twinge of guilt at his privileged leisure inspired him to volunteer for work. Lacking any other identifiable skills, he’d been assigned to the vegetable gardens. He’d never had much luck at gardening in the past, but given the choice between working with plants or the commune’s collection of pigs, sheep, and goats, picking vegetables and clearing hornworms off of tomato vines seemed the best option for a soft, son of the suburbs.

When Joel first led him out to the garden, Max cringed at the thought of picking hornworms by hand, and gagged when Joel picked a juicy one from a leaf, pinched off its head and tossed the squirming remains into his mouth.

“Best way to make sure they won’t be comin’ back,” Joel said. He grinned to reveal bits of emerald hornworm skin on his yellowing teeth. “Or you can do it the sissy way and put ‘em in a bucket.”

Max had opted for the bucket.

When he reached the end of the row of tomato plants, Max tucked the captive hornworms into the shade under the vines and stood, pressing one hand against his lower back to ease the crick that had resulted from squatting in the garden. He was, at best, a quarter of the way through. Considering the density of hornworms and lack of viable tomatoes, there seemed little chance that the plot would ever be very productive, unless the goal was to harvest the hornworms rather than the fruit.

He arched his lower back until the muscles spasmed in protest, and listened for the telltale clatter of cooking pots and utensils that would have indicated that the communal lunch was near. For the moment, he could make out only an occasional hammer blow, along with the mews and brays of farm animals and the syncopated cough of the archaic engine that ran the camp’s generator. Although there was a promising sign in the wisp of gray smoke that snaked from the stovepipe poking out of the long, low tent that served as a dining hall.

The Freedom Club compound was tucked in the Amish hills of Pennsylvania. Buggies, scythes, and horse-drawn ploughs littered the outdoor spaces. Of the several dozen people in the camp, most dressed like Max in denim overalls, t-shirts, and work boots. Every article of clothing as far as Max could tell had a ragged patch sewn in where the label had been torn out. A few residents, like Joel, preferred linen wrappings that may have been intended to evoke scholarly dignity, but achieved something closer to a frat boy toga party look. Universally, hygiene was a lower priority at the camp than Max was used to, even in comparison to the grad students back at the university. No one looked particularly dirty, other than Joel of course, but regular bathing, antiperspirants and deodorizing soaps were clearly uncommon at the Freedom Club. After a few experiences with the poorly heated shower water, Max was inclined to let himself get a bit ripe before washing up as well.

The Freedom Clubbers were about as friendly as they were fragrant. Which is to say, just a little friendlier than Max cared for; offering a hug rather than a handshake, for instance, or a pat on the back instead of simply saying goodnight after supper.

Idle conversation, however, was generally limited to speculation about the weather and observations on the size and quality of the vegetables and plants. None of them expressed much interest in revealing anything of themselves or learning about Max. It seemed that they knew all they needed to know. Just what that was they didn’t say, but with the exception of Joel, they treated him with a kind of familial affection and respect, as if he were a revered but mildly demented uncle.

Inevitably, they sprinkled their lightweight chatter with cryptic invocations.

“It’s a beautiful morning,” a woman had said as she was gathering onions in a garden behind Linda’s cabin, “Thank Ted.”

“May Ted protect you,” responded a ruddy man pushing a wheelbarrow full of wet cement when Max had apologized for stepping in his path.

“Ted only knows,” was a common response to many of Max’s queries, from the state of an ailing dog’s health, to the prospect of rain, and even the time of day.

When Max experimented with the phrase “Ted be with you” in lieu of a simple hello, no one seemed startled at the sentiment. “Ted-sundheit,” in response to a sneeze, he had discovered, crossed the line of propriety.

The joke solved one mystery. When Max made the irreverent remark at dinner the night before, the woman who had sneezed hopped up from her seat and wove her way through the picnic-style benches to the picture of the chained prisoner, which was mounted on a post to offer a clear view of it to everyone under the tent. She kissed her fingertips and pressed them against the captive’s cheek, then returned to gather her plate and utensils and move to a seat facing away from Max, only stopping long enough to glare at him and say, “May Ted forgive you.”

He hadn’t been very surprised at the connection. The photograph hung throughout the camp. Every room had at least one copy in place. There were other pictures as well, mostly of revolutionaries and libertarians who Max would not usually have recognized, except that many had the names of their subjects inscribed across the bottoms of the images. Thomas Paine, Jean-Paul Marat, Molly Pitcher loading a cannon, and Che were among the ones he had identified. But only the mysterious Ted-in-chains appeared everywhere.

Perhaps he was only being paranoid, but the slightly-too-friendly Freedom Clubbers seemed to have cooled a bit toward him after the dinner incident. Their hugs were less sincere, though just as frequent, and the pats on the back were slightly more spirited and a bit painful. When they’d rearranged the seats for the after-dinner lecture, which focused on fifteen fun ways to use Willow bark, the seats on either side of Max had remained empty.

As he stood in the garden working the tight spots out of his lower back, he was glad that collecting hornworms was a solitary task. It gave him fewer opportunities to offend anyone. Still, he was careful, as he tapped the can of hornworms with his foot, to double check that nobody was close enough to hear him say to the entangled wad of caterpillars, “May Ted have mercy on your slimy souls.”

The tomato plot was set part way up the side of the valley, at the edge of an area cleared of trees and brush. The vantage point gave him a clear view of the haphazard smattering of cabins and the dusty paths cut into the turf that radiated out to each of them from the ogre-head house. A similar spider web of paths linked each of the cabins to the dining tent at the opposite end of the camp. The indelible marks left behind from the foot traffic suggested that the dining tent and the big house were in nearly equal competition for the campers’ attention. The popularity of the first was clear enough, based on Maslow’s pyramid of needs -- after all, everyone has to eat. Max was not yet privy to the reason for the attraction of the second.

He was on the verge of returning to the hunt for hornworms, when a team of horses emerged from the woods beyond the dining tent, pulling a wagon piled high with bundles, packages, and bushel baskets.

The driver stood on the bench at the wagon’s front. It seemed to Max a reckless way to drive a horse team, except that the man so easily maintained his balance atop the swaying cart. The driver’s face was hidden beneath the broad brim of a straw hat. He wore a pale blue shirt buttoned up the front with the sleeves rolled neatly to the elbows, black pants with suspenders that seemed more decorative than functional, and shiny black boots.

The driver guided the cart across the spider web crisscross of paths to the center of the Freedom Club clearing, pulled on a handle that ratcheted into place, and leapt gracefully to the ground by way of a step that protruded from the cart next to the front wheel. He strode across the grass, ignoring the worn pathways, to vigorously ring a brass bell that hung from an A-frame of heavy wooden posts. He turned to head back to his rig, and Freedom Club residents began emerging from the cabins to gather around the wagon.

Max jumped at the sound of a violent struggle that erupted in the woods beside the tomato plot. Joel careened out of the underbrush, his grimy linen toga entangled in raspberry briars, and stumbled into the garden.

“Come on man,” he said, “the ice cream truck is here.”

He snatched up the coffee can and gave it a shake.

“Nice haul,” he said with a wink. “I’ll take care of these slimy souls.”

Joel lunged down the hill, clutching the can in one arm while urging Max to follow with the other.

After a moment’s reflection, Max started down the hill as well. He’d assumed they were keeping an eye on him. But he was shocked that Joel of all people could have managed to be so stealthy as to hide in the woods only a few meters from the tomato patch.

The crowd clustered around the back of the wagon. A man and a woman who had climbed on board handed down baskets and bundles into outstretched arms. At least one basket appeared to contain ripe red tomatoes, which put the anemic green ones in the Freedom Club garden to shame.

Meanwhile, Linda negotiated with the driver, who Max could now see sported a tidy beard but no mustache. She counted out cash, and then bent to open a small suitcase that stood by her side. She flicked it’s latches and lifted the lid, revealing a pile of cell phones and other gadgetry. The man in the straw hat picked out a half dozen phones, some miniature video players, and a couple of memory sticks.

Linda laid the selection on a cloth and rolled it up into a tight bundle, which the man tucked under his arm.

The wagon was emptied in a few minutes. The crowd dispersed and the driver hopped back to his perch, pausing for only a moment to lift the seat and stash the rolled package in a compartment underneath.

“Electronics buff?” Max asked Linda as she approached, the suitcase in her hand.

“Sort of,” she said with a shrug. “Jacob’s really a kind of smuggler.”

“No kidding.”

“The Amish elders don’t look kindly on modern evils, but there’s a demand anyway.”

“Really,” said Max. “I thought you were trying to break free of that stuff too.”

Linda nodded. “We are. This is just business.”

“I see. And the tomatoes. They looked tasty. What’s the point of a tomato garden if you have them shipped in?”

“We haven’t had much luck with the garden, but Joel said you wanted to work on it. See you at lunch.”

She hefted the suitcase and chose a path that took her to the ogre-head house.

Max gazed up at the blighted patch on the hill where the spindly tomato vines nourished the hoards of hornworms.

“Ted dammit,” he said.

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Chapter 23. Welcome to the Freedom Club

The old van struggled along the hilly roads, coughing and sputtering as it labored up toward each crest and revving frantically in a motorized scream as it careened down from the heights. To Max, it felt less like a trip in a panel van than a ride in a creaky trawler that was climbing the petrified waves of an ancient storm, frozen in time and encrusted with ribbons of asphault.



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Max had only a vague notion of where they were headed. But the angle of the shadows on the road ahead indicated that they were traveling north. Considering they had been en route for several hours, that placed them somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania. The rocky, tree-covered hillsides seemed to confirm his guess.

The asthmatic engine relaxed a bit as their travels took them to slower secondary routes, and soon was drowned out by the rattling spray of gravel against the wheel wells and jarring rhythms of washboard dirt roads. At last, Joel stabbed the break pedal and killed the engine. The van ground to a halt.

Linda slid open the side door and Max followed her out. He stretched his aching legs and scanned a hodgepodge of cabins nestled into groves at the edges of a tiny valley that was ringed with tree-lined hilltops. The largest building in sight was a clapboard house at the far end of an oval-shaped expanse of severely mowed grass. It was two stories tall and painted in pristine white with black tar roofing and a screened veranda that extended the full length of the first floor. The building was brightly illuminated by the sun, which was on the verge of sinking behind the hills. A pair of gables poked up through the rooftop. In combination with the veranda and jet black door at the very center of the structure, the gables created the impression of a squinting, angular head, as if some wooden giant was buried up to his chin. Max couldn’t decide if the behemoth was rising out of the ground or being sucked down in. Either way, the expression seemed an indication of his irritation at the glaring sunshine blinding him as he strained against the earth.

The brilliant white farmhouse was in such glaring contrast to the rest of the shadowy valley that it took a few moments for Max to make out the figures on the veranda and strolling about near the other buildings. There were perhaps a few dozen people. It was impossible to guess their genders, partly because of the distance and partly because they all seemed to be dressed as Max was, in denim overalls and white t-shirts.

Joel leapt from the driver’s seat and waved his hand in an attempt at a grand flourish. “Welcome to the Freedom Club, our Shambhala of the Poconos.” He dropped to his hands and knees to kiss the dirt.

“Shit,” he said, wiping grit off of his lips. “It don’t taste like paradise.”

He sprang back to his feet, but stepped on the hem of his robe in the process, which prevented him from standing fully erect.

“Unless,” said Joel, contorting his bent body so that he could grin at Max, “paradise is supposed to taste like crap.” He tugged at his robe with both hands, tearing the hem. “It sure smells like crap. In case you hadn’t noticed.”

Max had noticed indeed. It was an amplified version of the fragrance - if so delicate a word can be applied to such an odor - that Joel had been emitting the first time they met at the café back home. Out here, Max guessed, the smell was probably due to nearby stables and animal pens of some kind. Joel may have picked up his stench from tending livestock, but it seemed just as likely that he was capable of generating it all on his own.

Linda reached for Max’s arm. “Come on.”

“Are we going to give him the grand tour?” asked Joel as he struggled to disentangle his foot from his robe.

“It’ll be too dark soon," said Linda with a shake of her head. "We can show him around tomorrow.”

“The dark,” said Joel, “ is when this place is in it’s best light. ‘Course, you’re the boss.” He winked, nodded, and hitched the rope around his waist a little tighter.

“Hold on Joel.”

“What?”

She extended her hand, with her palm open.

“Oh,” said Joel, reaching into his robe and searching around near his crotch. “You want these?” He pulled out two blister packs of pills and laid them in her hand. They were Max’s Phenobarbital tablets.

Linda turned to Max.“Is this all?”

“I had three packages.”

Joel hung his head and reached into his robe again. “Really? Three? Are you sure it wasn’t just two?”

“Three.”

“Right.” Joel produced another pack and handed it to Linda.

She pulled at Max's arm, leading him onto the grassy oval as Joel knitted his hands behind his back, looked skyward and meandered away, whistling tunelessly.

She handed the pill packs to Max. One pack, he noticed, had been ripped in half along its perforated strip. “He kept eight tablets.”

“I thought he might snag some. Is that going to be a problem?”

“Eventually.”

“Well,” said Linda. “We can take care of it later.”

Max tried to recall when Joel would have had a chance to get his hands on the pills. He couldn’t think of an opportunity. Then again, most of the day had been a blur. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about refilling his supply for a few weeks.

They started off across the grass. The work boots were heavy on Max’s feet and the stiff denim of his overalls seemed to resist his every step. They had only gone a few dozen yards when he had to stop to catch his breath. Linda waited in silence until he was ready to resume the walk. The sun had sunk just past the hills, and the sky was a bright orange to the west while darkness was rapidly encroaching from the other side of the valley. The giant-head house no longer gleamed. It seemed to Max that the building grew noticeably grayer in the few moments that they paused, although the angry eyes of the gabled windows still reflected the flame of the sunset in burning orange slits of light.

He couldn’t bear the thought of trudging any further in the leaden boots. He dropped to his haunches and untied the laces. He stood and lifted his feet out of the boots, tied the laces together and hung the boots over his shoulder. The short, stiff blades of grass crackled with each step and tingled the souls of his feet. It was mildly stimulating and gave him the energy to continue.

After the rattling ride in the van, the valley had initially seemed dead silent. Now that his ears were adjusted, Max was inundated with a multitude of hums, chirps, and croaks of invisible insects and distant amphibians. A dip in the landscape to their left indicated the likely presence of a stream that was apparently the source of the thrumming that he recognized as the calls of bullfrogs. Countless lighting bugs flashed in the dimmer sections of the trees, and occasionally the shadowy outlines of small birds or bats flitted overhead in acrobatic pursuit of an invisible meal.

Max struggled to keep up with Linda despite her leisurely pace. She led him to one of the small cabins. It was of the same style as the farmhouse, painted white with tar shingle roofing and its own tiny porch that emulated the farmhouse’s veranda. It even had tiny, obviously decorative gables peeking up from the roof and a door painted in glossy black. He followed her up the short flight of steps to the porch and through the door that Linda swung silently inward. She pulled a string attached to a lamp mounted at the center of a slowly spinning ceiling fan. It illuminated a single room that appeared to encompass essentially the entire floor plan. There was just enough space for a small bed, a couch that was barely more than a love seat, a dresser and a writing desk. A narrow door near the back stood open, where Max could see a sink, a toilet and a white vinyl shower curtain. The only decoration in the room consisted of two photographs in simple black frames; one was of Che Guevara, and the other of a bearded man in an orange jump suit and manacles who bore a passing resemblance to Joel.

“This is my place,” said Linda. “We’ll find one for you in the morning. For now, you can have the bed and I’ll take the couch.”

Max dropped his boots on the floor, shuffled to the bed and collapsed on his back without bothering to turn down the sheets.

He heard water running in the bathroom. After a few moments, cool fingertips brushed his forehead.

“How many?”

He opened his eyes to see Linda standing over him with his pill packets and a glass of water.

He held up two fingers

She popped the pills from the pack. Max heaved himself up onto his elbows and opened his mouth. Linda placed the pills on his tongue, and then held the glass to his lips. The water was tepid and tasted of metal. When he finished drinking, she took the rest of the pills and the glass to the bathroom.

He dropped back onto the bed and turned his head to study the manacled prisoner in the photo. The man didn’t seem distressed at his chains. His head was up, with his brow slightly wrinkled and his lips parted as if he where on the verge of speaking. Max suddenly had the impression that the prisoner wanted to ask him a question, although he had no idea who the man could be.

As his eyelids grew heavy, Max half dreamed and half hallucinated that the prisoner said, “These are just chains. They’re nothing. How about yours? Do you have an escape plan?”

Max thought he might.

He slept at last as visions of flashmobs, search engine cabs, chess-playing penguins, couch creatures, laundry monsters, and an eviscerated virtual Betty flitted through his dreams like bats on the wing.

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