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We’ll share the bottle | The Newcomer – Chapter 10

Thick black Vietnamese coffee dripped from the metal filter into a glass mug that was engraved with the logo of the Truc Bach Cafe. Carla followed each drip with caffeine-hungry eyes as Chuck sipped at a smoothie that looked and smelled like damp grass.

“You gotta stop drinking that stuff,” said Chuck. “Look at you, you’re fiending.”

“Can’t be any worse than drinking lawn clippings,” said Carla, tapping the filter with her spoon to hurry it along.

“This stuff gives you real energy,” said Chuck.

“Uhuh,” said Carla, leaning back and rubbing her eyes. “I’ll stick to coffee.”

Carla unfolded her fresh copy of The Daily Worker and scanned the headlines.

“Any good news?” asked Chuck, glancing up from his smartphone.

“Looks like we might be taking in more refugees from Puerto Rico,” said Carla. “Things are getting rough over there.”

“Of course they are,” said Chuck. “But I asked for good news.”

“Not much today,” said Carla. “New iPhone is coming out next month. Did you vote on the headphone jack thing?”

“You know me,” said Chuck, holding up his phone. “Android for life.”

“I might be right there with you if we get rid of the headphone jack,” said Carla.

An urgent chirping erupted from Carla’s handbag.

“Speaking of phones,” said Carla, digging into her bag.

Chuck’s phone began chirping as well. He quickly swiped to silence it.

“I got it, too,” said Chuck. “Domestic violence, just up the road from here.”

“Looks like we’re the closest Responders,” said Carla. She glanced forlornly at her coffee. “I guess we’d better take it.”

Carla swiped to indicate she’d be responding and sighed.

“It’ll be waiting for you when we get back,” said Chuck. “Addict.”

“Shut the fuck up, Chuck,” said Carla. “You have your gear?”

“Always,” said Chuck, tapping the breast of his sportscoat. Carla grabbed her tazer out of her handbag and clipped it to her belt. “Let’s go.”

The GPS lead them to a little dive bar a block away. “RED’S” was painted on the crumbling brick wall by the door. A lineman was standing outside, still wearing his hard hat and tool belt. He held his smartphone up and waved to Carla and Chuck as they approached.

“I’m Roger,” said the lineman. “I’m an apprentice.”

“Chuck,” said Chuck.

“Carla,” said Carla. “You been inside?”

“I didn’t want to go in alone,” said Roger. “This is my first call.”

“You’ll be fine,” said Carla. “Just keep your eyes on their hands and don’t say anything.”

“Got it,” said Roger.

“Ladies first?” asked Chuck, gesturing to the door.

“You’re getting on my last nerve,” said Carla, shouldering past Chuck to swing open the door.

She had her hand on her taser at her side as she rushed in, eyes flitting around the room for signs of danger.

The bartender was a middle aged woman. She had a baseball bat on the bar in front of her and her arms were folded.

“Fuckin’ asshole passed out,” said the bartender. “He gave his girlfriend a black eye.”

A large man was slumped over the bar, thoroughly unconscious.

“Where is she now?” asked Carla.

“She left,” said the bartender.

“You know where she went?” asked Chuck.

“No idea. Never seen these two before.”

“How much did he drink?” asked Carla, gesturing for Roger stay with her as she carefully approached the unconscious man.

“He came in here drunk,” said the bartender. “I told him I wouldn’t serve him, I guess that’s what set him off.”

“Roger, will you call for an ambulance?” asked Carla. “You and Chuck stay here and keep an eye on him. I’m going to see if I can find the victim.”

Roger nodded.

“You have no idea where she would have gone?” asked Carla, turning back to the bartender.

“She was pretty drunk herself,” said the bartender. “I doubt she got very far.”

“Thanks,” said Carla. She turned around and walked back towards the front door.

Just as she was back outside her phone chirped again. She got it out and swiped. Several new call markers were blinking half a block farther up the street. She saw that two ambulances were already en route to the area.

“There you are,” said Carla, swiping to indicate her response before shoving the phone back into her handbag.

She looked around for a public bike. There weren’t any so she started to run.

Five minutes later she came upon a gaggle of people circled around someone.

“Carla Tucker,” said Carla, holding up her ID badge. “I’m a Master Responder.”

The crowd parted, and Carla could see a young woman sitting on the curb. Her cheek was smeared with either blood or lipstick and she had a black bruise beneath one eye. She was wearing a green dress and she was crying.

“She needs an ambulance,” said an old man.

“There’s one on the way,” said Carla. “Y’all get back from her, give her some air.”

Carla knelt down and examined the young woman’s face.

“I’m Carla,” said Carla. “What’s your name?”

“Stacey,” said the young woman.

“You’re going to be okay,” said Stacey.

An ambulance whizzed by on the street, sirens blaring, headed in the direction of Red’s.

“Is Craig okay?” asked Stacey, staring up into Carla’s eyes.

“He’s going to be fine,” said Carla, handing Stacey a napkin to wipe her face. “Did he do this to you?”

Stacey looked down.

“It’s okay,” said Carla. “We don’t have to talk about it right now.”

The crowd began to disperse. Carla reached out to hold Stacey’s hand.

“You’re gonna be okay,” said Carla. “Just try to relax.”

A young man in a suit and tie knelt down next to Carla, holding up an ID badge.

“I’m Troy,” said the young man. “Journeyman Responder.”

“Hi, Troy,” said Carla. “I’m Carla. Master.”

“Anything I can do to help?” asked Troy.

“I think we’re fine,” said Carla. “An ambulance is on the way.”

“You sure?” asked Troy. “You don’t need anything?”

“Actually,” said Carla, “maybe you could go grab her a bottle of water somewhere?”

“Sure thing!” said Troy. “Anything else?”

“If you don’t mind,” said Carla, “I could really use a cup of coffee.”

“Feels like the paperwork has tripled since our last call,” said Chuck, pulling an orange American Flyer touring bike from the public rack.

“Domestics are always complicated,” said Carla.

“You think they’re going to be okay?”

“Medically speaking, Stacey will be fine,” said Carla. “Just a bruise.”

“Otherwise?” asked Chuck.

“Not sure,” said Carla. “They’re both registered to a commune in Seattle but they’ve been on the road for a long time. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened.”

“It never is,” said Chuck, with a sigh.

“I put in a recommendation for inpatient treatment,” said Carla. “For both of them.”

“She’s from your part of the woods, isn’t she?” asked Chuck. “Alabama?”

“Yeah,” said Carla. “She’s only been out West for a few months. Don’t know how she got caught up with that guy.”

“It can happen to anyone,” said Chuck. “At least this happened here and not back East. Could you imagine?”

“Oh, I don’t have to imagine,” said Carla. “She’d definitely be worse off if this happened to her in Alabama. She’d probably be sleeping it off in a jail cell right now. Definitely wouldn’t be offered any free therapy or anything like that.”

“What a fucking hell hole,” said Chuck, before quickly adding: “Um… No offense.”

“None taken,” said Carla. “That’s exactly what it is.”

Carla’s phone rang from her handbag and she scrunched up her face.

“What is it this time?” she asked, pulling out her phone.

“Carla?” asked Curtis.

“Curtis?!” asked Carla. “Is that you?!”

“It’s me, baby!” said Curtis. “I’m at the airport!”

“What airport?”

“Oakland!” said Curtis. “I’m here in Oakland, at the Oakland Airport!”

“What’s going on?” asked Chuck. “Is that Curtis?”

“It’s Curtis,” said Carla.

“Who are you talking to, baby?” asked Curtis.

“Nobody,” said Carla, a tear rolling down her cheek. “How did you get here?”

“I don’t know,” said Curtis. “I’m just here. I need you to come and get me.”

“I’ll be right there,” said Carla, sniffling. “Shit. I used all my tissue with that drunk girl,” said Carla to Chuck.

Chuck handed her a napkin from his inner pocket. It was stamped with the logo of the Truc Bach Cafe.

“And what happened after that?” asked Nikosi, scribbling furiously at his pad.

“Nothin’,” said Tucker. “He just died there in the road. We went back to the FOB. That was it.”

“That can’t be the end of the story,” said Nikosi. “The family didn’t protest? There were no repercussions?”

“They don’t tell us about none of that stuff,” said Tucker. “We just went back to the FOB and that was it. They flew me home about a week after that.”

“But that can’t be how the story ends,” said Nikosi.

“It’s how it ended for me,” said Tucker. “Ain’t got nothin’ else to tell ya. Sorry.”

“Well the politburo is going to want something more,” said Nikosi. “What did you take away from the experience?”

“What did I take away from it?” asked Tucker.

“What did you learn? How did you grow? How did it change the way you see the world?”

“I ain’t done none of that,” said Tucker. “It was a shit world before I saw that man die, it was a shit world after, way I seen it.

“I think I can work with that,” said Nikosi, scribbling more.

Tucker looked out the window. And watched the clouds billowing below. The private jet they were in was a lot more quiet than the ones he’d been on before. The chair he was sitting in was a lot more comfortable, as well. He stretched his legs and looked around the plane. A full portrait of Kim Il-Seong was posted on the wall next to the lavatories on the other end of the airplane.

“This here plane’s from North Korea?” asked Tucker, pointing to the enamel flag that was set into his coffee cup.

“It is,” said Nikosi, leaning in to whisper to Tucker: “Gives me the creeps, to be honest.”

“All that stuff they say about North Korea true?” asked Tucker, in a hushed voice

“Some of it,” said Nikosi. “But not most of it. But perhaps that’s best discussed when after we’ve disembarked.”

Tucker nodded and took a sip of coffee, looking back out the window.

“Have your views changed since you got here?” asked Nikosi.

“My views?” asked Tucker, eyes drifting over the patches of California countryside that peaked through the clouds.

“Of the world,” said Nikosi. “Do you still think it’s a shit world after seeing what we have to offer out West?”

“I’m holdin’ on to my judgment,” said Tucker. “I only been out here a few days.”

“You’re a wise man,” said Nikosi.

“No I ain’t,” said Tucker, “but I ain’t no fool, neither.”

“I guess that would make you wiser than most,” said Nikosi.

“Anything you say,” said Tucker.

A North Korean flight attendant rolled a service cart up to their table and waved his white-gloved hand over a collection of bottles and trays.

“Any refreshments, gentlemen?” asked the attendant. His uniform had all the piping and braiding of a Civil War cavalry officer.

“I ain’t hungry,” said Tucker, settling back into the extremely comfortable chair.

“I’ll have a bottle of soju,” said Nikosi.

“What’s that?” asked Tucker.

“Kind of like Korean vodka,” said Nikosi.

“It any good?”

“We’ll share the bottle,” said Nikosi. “Then you can tell me.”

“Man, I tell you,” said Tucker. “I never thought I’d be drinkin’ no North Korean vodka on no North Korean airplane.”

“Life is funny,” said Nikosi.

The attendant poured two small glasses with the clear, sweet-smelling liquor and let the bottle on the table. Tucker picked up his glass and sniffed at it.

Nikosi held up his glass.

“What should we drink to?” asked Nikosi.

“That motherfucker over there, I guess,” said Tucker, pointing to the portrait of Kim Il-Seong, “Since he’s lettin’ us use his airplane.”

“He’s been dead for decades,” said Nikosi, glass still raised.

“Then we’ll drink to his memory,” said Tucker.

“I’d really rather not,” muttered Nikosi, as the flight attendant rolled the cart away.

“Then we’ll just drink,” said Tucker.

“Sounds like a plan,” said Nikosi, and they drank.

Not a Cop | The Newcomer – Chapter 7

Note: this is Chapter 7 in an ongoing series of speculative fiction about an alternative history of the USA. Chapter 1 can be found here.

“Well just calm down, Marvin.”

Carla had her iPhone awkwardly pressed between her shoulder and ear, freeing her hands to button up her blouse.

“I don’t see what the big deal is, Marvin.”

She straightened her blouse and pinned her ID badge onto her breast. She glanced at herself in the mirror.

“I know, Marvin. I know.”

She tapped the speaker icon and plopped the phone on her dresser. Marvin’s disgruntled voice blared out:

“I done told them I ain’t interested in all that nonsense. I just wanna get up there to Oakland and get some rest and see all y’all, I don’t want to get into none of this nonsense.”

“I know, Marvin. Look, why not just see what they have to say? At the very least you’ll get a good dinner out of it.”

“I don’t want no dinner! I can’t believe you’re on their side!”

“I’m not on anyone’s side, Marvin. I just think maybe it would be a good opportunity for you, you should at least hear them out.”

“I ain’t interested!”

“So tell them that!” said Carla. She opened her jewelry box and plucked out a pair of earrings. Little black pearls.

“I done told’em and told’em! They ain’t lettin’ up. I ain’t goin’ to no LA, I just want to get up there to Oakland and see all y’all. They can’t make me go to no LA, I ain’t interested in all that.”

“I’m wearing the earrings you got me,” said Carla.


“The black ones, from Iraq.”

“What the hell’s that got to do with anything, Carla?”

“Look, Marvin, I gotta go to work. If you don’t wanna go with them they can’t make you. Just relax.”

“They’re just pissin’ me off, is all.”

“Everyone pisses you off,” said Carla, giving herself one last glance in the mirror. Presentable. “I still think you should listen to what they have to say.”

“Did they tell you to say that?”

“I don’t even know who ‘they’ are, Marvin. Look, I gotta go, I’m running late already.”

“Well I ain’t goin’ to no LA, you can tell them that.”

“Goodbye, Marvin,” said Carla, smirking as she reached down to end the call.

She grabbed her keys and left her apartment, quickly running down the stairs. She ran over to the public bike rack and selected the orange Marin she’d ridden home the night before.

“Oh, shit,” she said to herself, realizing her phone was still on her dresser. She leaned the bike against her apartment staircase and sprinted back upstairs.

The hospital was quiet, in the way that hospitals were. She could hear voices down the long hallway from some other room, and the muffled chiming of various machines in other rooms, and the occasional page from the intercom, and the clicking of her pumps on the glossy floor, but it still had that strange hospital quality of quietness.

Carla didn’t like hospitals very much. She always felt like she was in the way.

She came to room 307. Chuck was standing outside of the door, eating an apple.

“How’s he doing?” asked Carla, eyeing the apple. She’d had to skip breakfast.

“Sleeping, last time I stuck my head in. Doc says it looks worse than it is. Should be back on his feet in less than a month.”

“Kids heal fast,” said Carla.

“Kid’s lucky to be alive,” said Chuck, taking another bite. Carla felt her stomach rumble jealously.

“I might have to kill him, myself, after this one,” said Carla.

“Good luck,” said Chuck. “I’m gonna head home now, if it’s all the same to you. Been a long night.”

“Sure,” said Carla. “I’ll handle it from here.”

She eased open the door. It was dark inside, except for the glow of a machine by the bed. She could faintly make out the soft edges of Johnny’s youthful face. He looked peaceful as he slept. Innocent.

“Wake your ass up,” said Carla, flipping on the light. “You and me got to talk.”

“Ms. Carla…?” said Johnny, startled awake by the sudden burst of LED light that filtered down indirectly from the ceiling.

Johnny’s right leg was in traction. His left leg had one of those delicate-looking 3D-printed casts that looked like a spiderweb. He was shirtless and the side of his body that was facing him was covered in complicated-looking dressings. A deep gash was stitched up, running from his cheek bone to his chin.

“You told me just last week that you were gonna stay out of trouble,” said Carla, pulling up a chair to sit down at the bedside. She looked at a tray of uneaten food at his side. She picked up a pudding cup and held it up in Johnny’s face. “I’m eating this.”

“Look, Ms. Carla, I know I messed up. Look at me, you think I wanted this to happen?”

“I can’t even begin to comprehend what you were thinking,” said Carla. “You’re eighteen years old. You can’t hide behind bein’ a kid no more, and this is serious. Now you’ve got three different communes pissed off at you. So explain to me why you took Comrade Redding’s motorcycle without permission and crashed it into a wall last night?”

“I thought I could handle it,” said Johnny.

“Well, clearly you thought wrong.”

“I just wanted to try it out,” said Johnny. “I was gonna put it right back when I was done.”

“Why didn’t you just ask Comrade Redding if you could ride it? And why were you going so fast?” asked Carla, ripping off the plastic seal of the pudding cup. “You coulda killed a kid or something.”

“I thought I could handle it,” said Johnny. “Is Comrade Redding angry…?”

“Angry? Hell yeah he’s angry! And disappointed! But not as angry and disappointed as I am!”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Carla,” said Johnny. “I fucked up!”

“Yes you did,” said Carla, taking her first spoon full of pudding. Banana. She let the silence linger until she’d finished swallowing.

“What’s gonna happen now?” asked Johnny, shifting himself up on his elbows.

Carla placed the pudding cup down and helped reposition Johnny’s pillows so he could sit up. He groaned a bit in pain as he shifted into position.

“That’s a good question,” said Carla. “Most folks in the commune are sick of your bullshit. Some folks want you out, now that you’re 18.”

“They all want me out,” said Johnny. “Been that way since I got here. Wish I never left Philly.”

“Oh, enough of that self-pity shit,” said Carla. “You haven’t exactly made yourself welcome. I’ve been workin’ cases for a long time, now, and you get in more trouble than anyone I’ve ever looked after. Do I need to read back your case file?”

“Half that shit I didn’t even do,” said Johnny. “Folks just hate Okies. Streetlight gets busted and they blame me, just cuz I’m the only nuke in the commune.”

“I’m a newcomer,” said Carla. “There are fourteen other newcomers in the commune, and none of the rest of us have these problems.”

“You all been here for years, Ms. Carla, and you’re all old. You don’t know what it’s like in school. All the kids call me a cappy, they treat me like shit. I’m sick of it.”

“We’ve been over this, Johnny. You push kids around, talk trash. You gotta show respect if you wanna get respect.”

“I never had these problems back home,” said Johnny. “I have lots of friends back in Philly. I wish my momma never brought me here.”

“If you did what you did last night in Philly you’d be handcuffed to this bed right now,” said Carla. “And as soon as the doctors cleared you out they’d throw you in a jail cell. And I don’t even wanna think about how much your hospital bill’d be.”

“Jail would be better than this place,” said Johnny, slumping back in his bed.

“Look, if you wanna go back to Philadelphia so bad, I’ll get the paperwork started,” said Carla. “Just say the word.”

Johnny tilted his head back and said, “Fuck, I fucked up Ms. Carla. What am I gonna do? Comrade Redding’s not gonna want me to work in the shop any more after this.”

“On the contrary,” said Carla. “Comrade Redding expects you to help him get his bike back into shape. It’s gonna be a lot of work, after what you did to it.”

“He said that?” asked Johnny.

“Oh, he said a lot more than just that,” said Carla. “But don’t ask me to repeat most of it, I don’t use that kinda language.”

“So I can keep my job?” asked Johnny.

“Probably,” said Carla. “Nobody in the syndicate’s talking about voting you out, just yet. But we all want to see how things go with you. You need to start therapy again, Johnny.”

“That shit doesn’t help me,” said Johnny.

“Then we’ll get you another counselor,” said Carla. “You can’t keep going on like this.”

“I guess my supervision’s getting extended?” asked Johnny.

“I terminated your supervision, Johnny. And we’re not gonna force you to do anything. So far all your mistakes have done is hurt you, really. And a motorcycle, I guess.” She scooped up another bite of pudding. “Look, we want to help you, but you gotta want to help yourself.”

“You’re right, Ms. Carla. It’s just hard. Ever since mom…” Johnny looked away. “It’s just hard. I’m sorry I wrecked Comrade Redding’s bike. I’ll help him fix it. I’ll fix it all myself, even.”

“That’s between you and Comrade Redding,” said Carla. “But you gotta turn this mess around. Are you gonna start therapy again?”

“I’ll try,” said Johnny. “But…”

“What?” asked Carla.

“Aren’t there any nuke counselors I could talk to? Someone from back East? That lady from San Francisco don’t know what it’s like, man. She just ain’t got no idea.”

“Of course,” said Carla. “I’ve got a good friend from New Jersey who I think you’d like. He’s into motorcycles, too.”

“Thanks, Ms. Carla,” said Johnny. “Tell Comrade Redding I’m sorry, and I’ll help him fix the motorcycle.”

“You’re gonna have to tell him yourself,” said Carla, setting the empty pudding cup back on the food tray.

“You asshole,” said Comrade Redding, standing in the doorway. “What did you do to my bike?”

Carla ate an enormous pastrami sandwich in the hospital cafeteria. It was sitting heavy in her stomach as she walked out into the cool air of Oakland. She came to the bike rack, and was a little sad to see the orange Marin gone. She found a sturdy electric Mercurio plugged into one of the solar stations and decided that might be better after the pastrami, anyway.

Wizzing away from Highland Hospital’s shade, Carla felt the warmth of direct sunlight and lost herself in the first calmness of her day.

Her phone vibrated in her jacket pocket.

She pulled over to the curb in front of one of the cute, colorful houses that dotted the street. An old man was sweeping his porch. They waved at each other as she put her phone up to her ear.

“Did you end up murdering the Problem Child?” asked Chuck.

“I spared his life,” said Carla, “but I’m not sure Dave Redding will make the same choice. He showed up just as I was leaving.”

“I almost feel sorry for Johnny,” said Chuck.

“I certainly do,” said Carla. “Both of us got here as adults, and we have people here. Must be hard for someone his age, no family to speak of.”

“Yeah,” said Chuck. “I think this shook him up, though. Hopefully he’ll straighten up after this.”

“I really hope we can help him,” said Carla. The old man was stepping onto his porch with a big trash bag.

“Listen,” said Chuck, “I called because I need you to look in on Comrade Beasley today, over near Mills. She’s been having some trouble with Chicken.”

“With her chicken?”

“Chicken is the name of her dog,” said Chuck. “Her neighbors have complained before about him, say he’s aggressive. She says he’s never harmed a flea but apparently it already chased after one student from Mills who was jogging by. Now there’s a dean over there, insisting we take the dog to Animal Welfare.”

“How bad was the bite?”

“No bite, just a chase. Look, I think this is a tempest in a teapot situation. Better if we handle it quickly before it gets out of hand. Just go over there and see what you can do. Comrade Beasley lives on Berkman Boulevard. I’ll text you the address.”

“Sounds like a fun case,” said Carla. “I can’t imagine why you’re pushing it off on me while you have the day off.”

“I’m gonna go back to bed, now,” said Chuck. “I owe you one.”

“You certainly do.”

Carla ended the call.

The old man was struggling to lift the trash bag up into the bin. Carla put the Mercurio on its kickstand and went over to give him a hand.

“Oh, great, now the cops are here,” said Rebecca Beasley. She was sitting on the stoop of a slate gray apartment building that faced the entrance to Mills College.

“I’m Carla Tucker,” said Carla. “I’m a social worker for the Fischer Park Commune. Not a cop.”

Carla handed a business card to Beasley, as well as a middle-aged woman in a houndstooth skirt suit who who must have been the dean. She had also been standing on the stoop with her arms folded. Her bright red plastic glasses matched a pair of red pumps. Carla noticed they were the same make and model as the pair she was wearing, though Carla’s were brown.

“Took you long enough,” said the probable dean. “When is Animal Welfare coming?”

“I talked to Chuck Hodgeson on the phone,” said Carla. “He’s my partner. Said there was an incident with a dog?”

“I don’t talk to police,” said Beasley, digging through her handbag for a vape pen. She took a puff and turned away. “And nobody’s taking Chicken away from me, not unless it’s over my dead body.”

“I’m not a police officer,” said Carla. “You know that. I’m just here to mediate and take a report for a commune hearing, if it comes to that. Though I hope we can find a better solution by talking it out.”

“What’s there to talk about?” asked the woman in houndstooth. “That animal is vicious, it chases our students almost every day. It’s just a matter of time before somebody gets hurt.”

“May I ask your name? I assume you work for the college?” asked Carla, glancing down at her shoes.

“Mina Hong. And yes, I’m this month’s student health and safety coordinator.” Dr. Hong offered Carla a business card of her own. Carla glanced over it. History professor. She/her.

“Comrade Beasley, Comrade Hodgeson tells me this isn’t the first time someone’s complained about your dog. May I ask why you don’t keep it on a leash?”

“Chicken has a skin condition,” said Comrade Beasley. “He can’t wear a collar. He gets loose from time to time but mostly he stays indoors. And he wouldn’t harm a flea, he just likes to chase people around sometimes, that’s all. He’s never bitten anyone!”

“May I see the dog?” asked Carla.

“You may not,” said Beasley.

“Alright,” said Carla. “Well, look, if we can’t come up with an agreement here then the college has the right to call for a commune hearing. I can help you prepare for the proceeding, if you’d like, but it is the commune policy to take the animal into Welfare Custody until the end of the proceeding. It says it right here in your contract.”

Carla held up her smart phone, which had the contract in question pulled up.

“Animal Welfare should be here already,” said Dr. Hong. “We called them hours ago.”

“And they called us,” said Carla. “I assume the dog is secure in the house, now? Can you at least confirm that, Comrade Beasley?”

“Chicken’s inside, yes, and that’s where he’ll stay,” said Comrade Beasley. “I’m not going to let you or any other cop bastard come and take him away! You’ll have to take me with him!”

“Has the dog ever had any obedience training?” asked Carla.

“He don’t need any training! He’s a good dog! I wouldn’t ever have a vicious dog,” said Beasley.

“All the same, maybe obedience training would solve this problem. We have some very good trainers who would be glad to come and help in the commune’s pet owner syndicate. Are you a member?”

“I don’t join groups like that,” said Beasley. “I’ve been living in this commune since 1967, and things were a lot better before all you tankies came along with your contracts and your cop talk. This place is falling to pieces! Won’t be long before Okies and tankies are running the whole show, if they aren’t already!”

“See?” said Dr. Hong. “She’s completely unreasonable. We’ll have to take this before the commune, I see no other way.”

“Comrade Beasley,” said Carla, “will you just try the training? You don’t have to join the syndicate, we can have someone come over a few times a week and see if it works out. I can have Chuck check in daily with you and the college to see how things are progressing, and when the trainer says Chicken’s ready we can all meet back together and see whether we’re all satisfied. I’m sure Dr. Hong would consider such a compromise?”

“We certainly don’t want this to go any farther than it has to,” said Dr. Hong. “But we have to be ensured that our students will be safe.”

“Do you think they could train Chicken to use my toilet?” asked Beasley. “I saw a cat that used the toilet on the internet, I’ve been trying to train Chicken but he’s scared of the toilet bowl.”

“I’m… not sure about that,” said Carla, “but we could certainly ask the trainer about it.”

“Well, I’ll give it a shot,” said Beasley. “But they can’t come on Thursdays.”

“I’m sure that will be fine,” said Carla.

“And you’ll check in on the situation every day, like you said?” asked Dr. Hong.

“My partner will definitely check in with both of you every day, just to make sure everyone is doing okay. Sound fair?”

“I suppose,” said Beasley.

“I’ll have to confirm with the rest of my committee,” said Dr. Hong, “but I think they’ll be in agreeance.”

“Excellent. Well, I’ll email you both a circumstantial contract and Chuck will be over tomorrow with a trainer.”

“Tomorrow’s Thursday,” said Beasley.

“Then I’ll have him come over this evening,” said Carla.

“That should be fine,” said Beasley.

As Carla walked back to the Mercurio she was already texting Chuck:

“Remember when you said you owed me one?”

Continue to Chapter 8

Author’s Note:

Thanks again for waiting for this chapter, Incidentally, I’ve set up Twitter and Mastodon accounts for The Newcomer as well as a dedicated page on this site — I do enjoy the positive feedback I’ve gotten on the series. If you really do enjoy the series, I hope you will consider subscribing to those social media accounts, sharing the series with your friends, and perhaps even contributing a buck or two on Patreon — the more support I receive the more time I’ll be able to spend cranking these out. 🙂

-Emerican Johnson

Don’t seem that much different – The Newcomer – Chapter 5

Note: this is Chapter 5 in an ongoing series of speculative fiction about an alternative history of the USA. Chapter 1 can be found here.

Tucker found himself standing in the shade of the portico of the Gold Rush with a cigarette in his hand. The warm fresh air was welcome after the last frantic hour he’d spent in the casino, but the cigarette was troubling. This would have to be the last one.

“Thanks,” said Tucker, as Travis offered him a light.

“Hey, I was about to walk over to Fremont to meet some ‘rads. Couple of other transers. You wanna come with? We’ll grab dinner and a few beers.”

“I got an early start tomorrow,” said Tucker, hesitantly.

“Hey, I have an early morning shift, myself. We’ll catch a cab back together, be home by 10.”

Travis had that youthful way of being convincing, and Tucker really didn’t have anything better to do. “Sure.”

“C’mon, I’ll give you a little tour of the real Las Vegas. We’ll take the back streets.”

The sun was setting and it was starting to cool down, which made it nice for walking. Tucker could make out the sun setting behind some of the taller casino buildings on the strip. The sun seemed different, somehow, out here in the desert. More awesome. At least to Tucker’s eyes. Maybe it was the nicotine.

Tucker was chatting with some people on his smartphone as they strolled along, so Tucker enjoyed the relative calm of Sands as it turned into East Twain. There were some apartments, here, festooned with black and orange flags and banners that said things like “Las Vegas Casino Workers Syndicate #038” and “Union of Gaming Workers #22.” One large banner said “Code 0*3#37!”

Tucker tilted his head, pausing for a moment to try to decipher it.

“What’s a Code Zero?” asked Tucker.

“Ah, that kinda means ‘vote no.’ Goes back to the old days before smart phones, when you could televote through SMS. It was kind of a pain in the ass. Most of Las Vegas was using a points-based voting system back then, so you could assign a certain number of points to each option for each issue. So that means ‘give zero points to option three of proposition 37.’ Kind of an old-school joke, but they’re being serious.”

“What’s option three of proposition 37?”

“C-Dub-S is having a major vote on whether or not to merge with the big Sex Workers Union in town, that’s what prop 37 is all about. Option three is a full merger. Sex work’s super controversial here. A lot of abolitionists with c-dubs. Yaknow, Casino workers. If you ask me it’s because they don’t like the business competition.”

“I thought prostitution was illegal out West?”

“You can’t really think of it that way. It’s not that it’s illegal, it’s just that most places don’t have much incentive for prostitution. Easy to find better ways to make a living. But there are sex workers all over, even up North. They’re just a lot more discrete everywhere else outside of Nevada. This is the only place where it’s still kind of a business. Well, Nevada and Cancun. They’re mutualist, too.”

“Don’t seem much that different than back East,” said Tucker. They were strolling up to a McDonald’s, now, which punctuated his point. Tucker stood there, staring in disbelief.

“That’s not a real McDonald’s,” said Tucker, with a laugh. “Looks pretty legit, though, don’t it? It’s mostly there for the foreign tourists who only have a few days to travel but want to take in as much of the states as they can… For better and for worse. Almost kinda like a museum or something.”

Tucker saw a Vietnamese family pouring out of a shiny rental van. Tucker had never heard Vietnamese spoken, before, and his whole head turned when he heard the strange, effluvient tones of their language.

“Yaknow, I’m not sure if you know this, but Nevada is kind of the black sheep of the UAC,” said Travis, pulling out another cigarette. Travis felt a pang of hunger for the tobacco. He could smell that raisiny smell of the open pack. He managed to refrain when Travis offered one to him.

“On account of the mutualism?” asked Tucker, trying his best not to stare as Travis lit the cigarette.

“That,” said Travis, taking his first puff, “and the ties they have back East. But, funny enough, that’s also the main reason they’re tolerated. Vegas pulls in cappy currency in a big way. We get mostly locals at the Gold Rush, but most of the tourists on the strip are from the States, from Europe, from Japan. Even some Koreans.”

“North, or South?” asked Tucker.

“Both,” said Travis. “The casinos of Las Vegas will fleece you no matter where you’re from. And they do a lot of trade. Not all of it legit.”

It was fully night, now, and the street was getting rougher as they advanced towards Fremont. It was starting to feel a little like his old neighborhood back in Atlanta.

“This is why I wanted you to come with me,” said Travis. “I wanted you to see this. Check it out.”

“It” was an addict. Tucker knew an addict, could tell from the way she walked. She walked up to them, scratching her upper arm. “You got any spare change, ‘rads?” she asked. “My car broke down, and I need…”

Travis tucked a five dollar poker chip into her palm, and she stopped talking, shuffling off to find someone else to ask.

“They got meth here?” asked Tucker, surprised.

“They got it all,” said Travis. “And it’s free, at least for locals. Along with the drug treatment therapy, though a lot of big casinos try to fight both those programs every year. That’s not why she’s begging. She wants to gamble.”

“Free drugs?”

“Oh, yeah, different communes deal with drugs in different ways, you’ll find, but Nevadans aren’t big on teetotalling. So we distribute the drugs and try to help folks clean up. It works out okay. The gambling addicts are a lot worse than the drug victims, in terms of begging. That’s one area where the big casinos don’t mess around. No free chips for anyone, except at some of those ‘just for fun’ casinos the Mormons run.”

“So the big casinos have a lot of weight to throw around?” asked Tucker.

“Oh, yeah. That’s the thing about mutualism, yaknow. Workers might own the businesses but there’s still wealth accumulation, and where there’s wealth there’s power. That’s what I mean when I say Nevada’s a black sheep. The other communes aren’t big on power differentials like that.”

Another beggar came up. This one had on flip flops and a tank top and one of those bucket hats you wore to go fishing. He had long, stringy hair, looked to be a little older than Travis. Didn’t seem to be on any drugs.

“Yo, I’m tryin’ to get home, could I get some change for the bus?” asked the young man. He had the strongest Southern Californian accent Tucker had ever heard.

“You know I can’t give you anything, Brody,” said Travis. “You gotta go get help, ‘rad.”

“I really just need a bus ride, man. Come on.”

“They’ll let you ride for free if you claim indigence, Brody. You come on.”

“Come on man, I ain’t played in three weeks. I’m off that shit for good. Just help me out a little, comrade.”

Travis sighed, reaching into his pocket.

“Stay away from the tables, tonight, okay, buddy?” said Travis, flipping him a dollar chip from the Gold Rush. “If I see you comin’ out when I’m goin’ in in the morning we’re gonna have words.”

“Thanks, ‘rad,” said Brody. “Don’t worry, like I said, I’m done with that shit.”

Brody walked off in the opposite direction.

“Damnit,” said Travis. “He’s headed straight for the Gold Rush. I gotta get him on the No Play List.”

“Seem to be a lot of beggars here,” said Tucker.

“We’re basically smack in the middle between the strip and Fremont Street, so this is kind of a hot spot for panhandlers. Maybe we should take a cab or I’m not gonna have anything left to buy our beer,” said Travis.

Tucker considered suggesting that Travis could just say no, but he could see that saying no was quite counter to the young man’s nature. So instead, he said nothing.

Travis spotted a bright pink cab parked just up the street, so they ran up and hopped in the back. The driver was smoking a huge cigar, which further exacerbated Tucker’s tobacco hunger, but he rolled down the window and tried to breathe in fresh air from outside.

“Fremont Street,” said Travis.

Fremont Street had a totally different atmosphere than the strip. Everything was a little more run-down, but something about that appealed to Tucker. There weren’t so many of those big LED displays, more of those old-fashioned signs that were spotted with tungsten bulbs. Or at least LED bulbs that were made to look like Tungstens.

The street performers here were a bit more rough around the edges, but somehow they seemed more seasoned and professional in their own way. A pair of jugglers were hurling around bowling balls like they were made of lightweight plastic (maybe they were?). A clown on stilts was picking her way through the crowd, high enough up that it made Tucker nervous just to watch.

“Right in there,” said Travis, and they meandered through the crowd into a little pub called “Rosa’s,” which seemed to have a German theme.

It was quiet inside, at least compared to the bustling crowd outside, and Travis made a beeline to a table filled with other young people, all wearing stripped-down casino uniforms. Most wore a tuxedo shirt with the top buttons undone and the name tags removed just like Travis, but a few wore more exotic ensembles. One woman wore a fairly authentic-looking silk kimono, and another wore what looked to be a dress from back when there were kings and knights and things.

“This is Mr. Tucker,” said Travis.

Tucker felt himself bristle at that “Mr.”

“He’s from back East, Atlanta. He’s a Newcomer.”

Suddenly, the entire table gave out a little cheer, and Tucker felt some hands clapping him on the shoulder, and found everyone offering him their hands to shake.

“Congratulations,” said everyone, “Welcome out West!” “Welcome to Vegas!”

Tucker felt himself flushing. He didn’t like this kind of attention, so he tried to turn it back to Travis.

“Travis here rescued me from a drunk, today,” said Tucker.

“Well, it wasn’t really a rescue,” said Travis, and he began to tell the story.

Tucker didn’t listen. Instead he looked around at all the things on the walls. There was an old accordion, a lot of German beer signs, some of those leather pants they wore over there. Tucker’s mind was wandering, wondering if they still wore those pants. They didn’t look very comfortable.

His eyes scanned over everyone as they listened to Travis and occasionally chimed in. He felt a bit startled when he landed on a familiar, pretty face. That waitress from before, with Chilton. What was her name? Contessa?

Everyone burst into laughter and another round of applause. Apparently Travis had finished his story. Tucker made himself laugh, as well.

“So what made you decide to come out West?” asked the woman in the kimono.

“I wanted to see what it was like,” said Tucker.

“Well? What’s it like?” asked a young man in a black tuxedo shirt.

“It’s different,” said Tucker. “But this city feels a little bit like home.”

“All the vice, but twice as nice,” said the woman in the kimono.

“I’ll drink to that,” said Travis. They all raised their glasses.

Someone shoved a big mug of black beer into Tucker’s hand, so he could raise one, too.

Tucker didn’t usually need an alarm, but somehow he knew he’d slept later than he wanted to, this morning. His head was pounding as he looked at his watch. Seven. He’d hoped to be up by six.

He sat up in bed and rubbed his temples, squeezing his eyes shut. His ears had that numb feeling from a night spent out in places that were loud. He looked around and saw his clothes strewn here and there. Heard water running in the bathroom.

She peeked out from within the bathroom and grinned that wide, gorgeous grin.

“You’d better get dressed, Marvin,” said Vanessa.

Tucker’s eyes widened. The memories from the night before flashed back in pulses. That delicious German pork chop thing with the cheesy pasta. More drinks. Losing a few hands at Blackjack. More drinks. Dancing. With Vanessa. And the rest of it. He pulled the sheet up to cover himself, sheepishly.

“Oh, come on, honey, you definitely don’t have anything I haven’t seen before,” teased Vanessa. She was wearing her uniform, now, and just fastening on her name tag.

“I gotta get down to work,” she said, “and you’ve got a train to catch.”

He nodded, at a loss for words.

She crossed the room to the side of the bed and tapped a little slip of paper she’d left on the nightstand with an email address scrawled out on it.

“Write to me, would ya? I might be swinging up through San Francisco in a couple months, maybe we can grab a drink.”

He simply nodded. She leaned over the bed and kissed him deeply.

“Take care of yourself, handsome,” she said. “Gotta run.”

He saw her legs, long and glossy with black nylons, as she disappeared. She closed the door behind her.

He felt dizzy, a little giddy. His head still pounded. He remembered the time.

“God, damn,” he said, reaching for his underwear on the lampshade, and almost falling from the bed. He repeated: “God, damn!”

Next: Chapter 6: It Was a Good Movie, Though

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Like That Old Merle Haggard Song – The Newcomer Chapter 4

This is the fourth chapter in an ongoing series of speculative fiction about an alternative history of the USA. Chapter 1 can be found here.

“It’s somethin’ else,” said Chilton.

It was. The traffic that crawled along the strip was peppered with neon sports cars, thundering Mexican-made motorcycles, and stretch limousines that were wrapped in casino liveries.

The sidewalks were just as exciting. Even in the early afternoon there were parties of drunken revelers rambling this way and that along the sidewalk. Performers and costumed characters were vying for the attention of the crowds, but more than a few spectators were lined up to watch the parade of beautiful and exotic vehicles rolling by. Ernie’s matte black Mekong Phoenix had windows that were tinted so dark that nobody could possibly see who was inside, but Tucker could tell that a lot of folks were trying anyway.

The casinos were huge and garish and festooned with massive billboards and video screens hawking shows and brands. They were reminding Tucker of home, of Atlanta, but in a way he found unsettling. He suddenly realized how devoid of advertising Denver had been. He closed his eyes.

When he felt the car turning he opened them again. Ernie had pulled off the strip onto Sands Avenue. They passed by the faux tropical paradise of the Palazzo but the building stretched on and on. The side that faced Sands was surprisingly plain and bare compared to the strip-facing front facade.

There were no pedestrians here and only a handful of cars.

“We’re off the strip, but I prefer it that way,” said Chilton. “Keeps out the ruckus.”

They passed a few smaller casinos. They were like miniatures of the behemoths on the strip, complete with miniature billboards and miniature crowds. Tucker thought he saw a movie star walking along the road. The guy who played the bad guy in that movie about outer space. He was wearing a huge white cowboy hat.

The Gold Rush had a huge conestoga wagon parked in front that seemed to be made of solid gold, along with a team of glittering horses. A small child was straddling the back of one of the golden horses and grinning wide as their mother took a picture. Tucker had started to notice the children out West tended to have haircuts and clothes that made it impossible to distinguish their genders.

“Home, sweet home,” said Chilton, as a valet opened the door for them, which startled Tucker. After a moment’s hesitation he jumped out of the car and gazed around.

It wasn’t as busy as the huge casinos on the strip but there was a steady stream of people going in and coming out of the wide bank of huge doors of the main entrance. He could feel the air conditioning blasting out, even from this far away.

“Welcome back,” said the valet, shaking hands with Chilton. The valet took Chilton’s bag and reached for Tucker’s, but Tucker shrugged it away.

“I can carry it, thanks,” said Tucker.

“Let the young man take your bag up to your room,” said Chilton, “so you and I can have a drink before they find out I’m back and bury me in paperwork.”

Tucker relented and handed over his bag to the valet, who looked to be about twenty. He wore an enamel-painted silver badge on his chest. The words “TRANSIENT WORKERS SYNDICATE” circled around an emblem of a globe, with the number “327” beneath.

“Put Mr. Tucker here in a VIP room. On the house,” said Chilton.

“You got it, Mr. Chilton,” said the valet, before springing off, carrying the bags as though they had no weight at all.

“Wish I still had that much energy,” said Tucker.

“We do have a lot in common,” said Chilton, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s get in outta this heat.”

They walked into the chilly casino. The cries of stick men calling out craps rolls and dealers taking bets punctuated over an ambience of chatty guests and brassy jazz music.

Chilton brought them to a central bar. A waitress immediately placed a crisp white napkin with the Gold Rush logo embroidered on the corner before each of them.

“Oh, you’re back early, Mr. Chilton!” said the waitress, who looked like she could have been super model, with long blonde hair. It took Tucker a few moments but he suddenly came to realize that she must not have been born a woman. She had the same badge as the valet clipped to her skimpy cocktail dress but hers had the number “268.”

“They dragged me back in,” said Chilton. “I’ll have a double bourbon and my friend here will have…”

“The same,” said Tucker. He saw that her eyes were green.

After the waitress was gone, Tucker pointed back at her with a thumb.

“Was she a –”

“Transgender,” said Chilton, cutting him off. “But just think of her as a woman. You’re gonna have to get used to folks like that, boy. Out here we live our lives the way we wanna live’em, and if you don’t like it you might as well just pack it on up back to Georgia.”

“I ain’t bothered by it none,” said Tucker. “Just, she’s even prettier than most real women I seen.”

“She is a real woman,” said Chilton. “You just gotta wrap your head around stuff like that. It took me a few years to come around to it, myself, and I wish I’d caught up sooner. Vanessa there came from back East, same as you and me. Lost her whole family on account’a they couldn’t accept her as a woman. Lost everything, everyone she had. But she’s rebuilding her life here, found her a new family here. It’s a great thing, boy. Havin’ that kind of freedom.”

Tucker nodded, not sure of what to say. After a while the bourbons were placed in front of them, along with two icey glasses of water.

“Anything else?” asked Vanessa.

Tucker looked her over. Tried to make like he wasn’t.

“No thank you, ma’am,’ said Tucker.

“Alright, she is a real woman,” he said, glancing back at her as she walked away, which drew a phlegmy laugh from Chilton.

“You got a lot to learn, son,” said Chilton, “but folks’ll mostly go easy on you. Just tell’em you’re a newcomer right away.”

“I thought you wasn’t allowed to have employees out West,” said Tucker. “Seems you got a lot of people workin’ for you.”

“I hold an elected position,” said Chilton. “I can rightly say this whole casino is mine. But Vanessa could say the same thing. And so could Ernie, who drove us here. Same as Dwayne, who took your bag. Same as Mr. Easley, who’s currently pushing that broom over there.” He pointed to a white-haired man who looked even older than Chilton. “We’re all equal shareholders of this enterprise, and we all make the same salary.”

“You mean you run this place and you make the same money as a janitor?” asked Tucker.

“This place could get along pretty well without me,” said Chilton, “But if nobody picks up the trash and cleans the floors our guests are gonna stop comin’ in real quick.”

“Makes a certain kinda sense,” said Tucker.

“Mr. Chilton,” said a middle-aged man, handsome and dark-skinned, in a very nice suit. He looked very concerned about something. “Sorry to bother you, I just heard you’re back. We need you upstairs right away.”

“Of course you do,” said Chilton, with a heavy sigh. He stood up and grabbed his bourbon. “Take Mr. Tucker here to his room, would you? Dwayne can tell you the number.”

Chilton extended a hand to Tucker. “We might not see each other again this go’round, I’m afraid, but you have my card. Give me a call if you ever need anything.”

Tucker shook it, once again surprised by the strength in his rough, aged hands. “I appreciate this all very much, Mr. Chilton,” said Tucker. “You take care of yourself.”

“Y’all be good, now,” said Chilton, disappearing into the depths of the casino.

The room was enormous.

Tucker found his bag placed neatly on a side table by the door along with a basket that was filled with fruits and confections and a bottle of wine. A small kitchenette was to the left and floor-to-ceiling windows made the opposite wall. A white couch faced out the windows. There didn’t seem to be any TV, but then he realized there was a projector mounted to the ceiling that served that purpose. He didn’t even see a bed from the doorway. It was somewhere deeper in the suite.

“Is the room to your liking?” asked the man in the suit, whose name was Mr. Khatri.

“It’s real nice,” said Tucker.

“If you need anything at all you can call reception by dialing zero,” said Khatri. He sounded like he was trying hard to not sound like he was in a hurry.

“I think I’ll be okay, Mr. Khatri, thank you again.”

Khatri stepped serenely out of the room, but Tucker could hear him start to run down the hall once he was out of sight.

The bathroom was as big as his apartment back in Atlanta. There was a basket of soaps that were shaped like little fruits and a brand new razor set out on a clean linen towel. He looked at himself in the mirror. He could use a shower and a shave.

Tucker stepped out of the elevator and looked around. He knew a little bit about rolling craps so he thought he’d play for a while. He found a table with a $3 limit and sidled up next to a heavy-set older man in a rayon bowling shirt. The middle of the table was lined with Japanese salarymen in suits but no ties. They were chatting in hushed tones as they pointed at the chips and markings on the table. One of them seemed to be teaching the rules of the game to the others.

Tucker threw one of his ten dollar bills onto the table. A single red chip and five whites were slid to him in exchange. He placed three whites on the pass line.

The croupier shoved the dice to a woman in golf clothes who stood at the opposite end of the table.

“Coming out,” yelled the stick man.

The man in the bowling shirt yelled out: “Come on, let’s do it again!” He was obviously very drunk.

The woman rolled the dice and hit a two.

“Snake eyes,” said the stick man, and the dealers whisked away all the chips, including Tucker’s.

“Wanna shoot, pal?” asked the stick man, shoving the dice half-way towards Tucker.

Tucker nodded and held out his hand. The stick man gracefully flipped the dice so that a six and a one were facing up, set neatly before Tucker.

“Where ya from, shooter?” asked Tucker’s drunken neighbor.

“Atlanta,” said Tucker. “I’m just passin’ through. Headed up to California.”

“Lotta you Okies coming in, nowadays,” said the drunk man. Tucker didn’t understand what he meant, but it didn’t seem like a friendly remark.

Tucker placed another three dollar pass line bet and waited for the table action to settle. He saw that the drunk man had placed a blue chip on “Don’t Pass.”

Tucker snatched up the dice and rolled them the way his brother had taught him when they were kids, holding the dice between his index and middle finger and sort of flipping them underhanded towards the other side of the table. They bounced and rolled and came up a 7.

The Japanese men and the golfer cheered, but the drunk man slammed his drink down onto the elbow-polished hardwood of the craps table and shouted: “Gawdamnit!”

He swung towards Tucker. Tucker could smell that he was drinking coconut rum mixed in with one of those Mexican apple sodas that were popular out West. He couldn’t remember the name. Mundo?

“You gawdamn Okie!” shouted the drunk man. A heavy blast of coconut, apples, and alcohol.

“Cool it, ‘rad,” said the nearest dealer. “Just had some bad luck.”

“Place your bets,” said the stick man, trying to move things on. But the drunk man was relentless. He shoved his finger into Tucker’s face.

“You just lost me a hundred bucks, asshole.”

“You coulda bet with everyone else,” said the nearby dealer. “Now make a bet or walk away.”

“Fuck. You,” heaved the drunk man, reeling back to throw a punch, The nearby dealer grabbed his arm before he could swing and wrestled him to the ground in a quick, practiced motion. Several security guards rushed over, as if from nowhere, and in an instant the drunk man was gone. His half-empty coconut and Mexican whatever-it’s-called was still sweating on the rail of the craps table.

“Table’s closed,” said the box man, and the chips were whipped back and forth to their respective owners. The dealer who’d wrestled down the drunk man was straightening his gold-colored bow tie as he was kneeling. Tucker stepped over to help him up.

“Hey, thanks for stepping in,” said Tucker. “You alright?”

“Part of the job,” said the dealer. “Happens from time to time. Hey, looks like my shift ended early. Wanna grab a drink? I could use one.”

“Sure,” said Tucker, feeling the same.

“You want one?” asked the dealer. He was offering up a crumpled pack of JET cigarettes. Tucker could see an import seal from Vietnam and one of those ugly stickers with a picture of some guy with a tube in his neck.

“Don’t really smoke any more,” said Tucker. “But I’ll take one.”

“What’s Atlanta like, anyway?” asked the dealer as he tapped out two cigarettes, giving one to Tucker.

“It’s alright,” said Tucker. “They make Coca-Cola there.”

“So I heard. I’m Travis, by the way.”

“Tucker. Marvin Tucker.” They shook.

Travis lit his cigarette, then Tucker’s. Tucker realized it had become strange for people to smoke indoors, even back East, but Las Vegas seemed to do things a little differently from everywhere else.

“What was that guy calling me? An ‘Okie?’ Like that old Merle Haggard song?” asked Tucker. The cigarette was smoother than the Marlboros he used to smoke back in the army. Seemed stronger, too, but maybe that was just because he hadn’t had any nicotine in over a year.

“Yup, like the song. Kind of an insult for Newcomers,” said Travis. “My grandpa was one of the original Okies, back in the dust bowl. Snuck across the border from Oklahoma into New Mexico and was one of the founding members of the TWS.” Travis gestured to his own enameled badge with a globe. His had the number 146. “They were the original Newcomers.”

“Transient Workers Syndicate,” said Tucker, reading his badge. “I seen everyone who works here’s wearin’ one of them.”

“Most of us, anyway,” said Travis. He seemed to be about Tucker’s age.

“What’s a syndicate?” asked Tucker.

“Kind of has a few different meanings,” said Travis. “For us transients it’s basically our own commune. Sometimes we call it ‘Nowheresville.’ Kind of a joke.”

Travis took a drag of his cigarette, the cherry burning bright in the dimly lit bar they’d moved to. He ashed in a black plastic ashtray and ordered a Corona. Tucker asked for the same.

“So none of y’all live here?” asked Tucker.

“Transients don’t usually live anywhere for very long, that’s kind of our thing. But Vegas is a great place for us because we can convert Nevada dollars to cappy currencies.”


“Capitalist. I’m saving up to travel Europe.”

“So y’all enjoy traveling?”

“I can’t speak for everyone else, but I love it. We only get one spin on this globe, might as well see as much of it as I can!”

“How many places you been?”

“Just about everywhere in the Americas, so far,” said Travis.

“Except Atlanta,” said Tucker.

“Except Atlanta.”

The beers came. Tucker picked his up. There was a lime slotted into the mouth of the bottle. Tucker had never seen that before. He watched Travis and learned that you were supposed to push the lime down into the bottle. He did it and beer started to foam out over the top, spilling onto the table.

Travis laughed and helped him wipe away the beer with a napkin.

“Never had nobody put no lime in my beer,” said Tucker.

“It’s a thing they do with Mexican beers,” said Travis. “Kind of an art to gettin’ ’em in there.”

“Ain’t a lot of Mexicans back East,” said Tucker.

“I suppose there aren’t,” said Travis.

Tucker wiped up the last bit of spilled beer from his bottle and took a sip. It tasted pretty good with the lime.

“What do y’all need a commune for, anyway, if you’re always travelin’ around?”

“Look after our interests, organize contracts with all the other communes. Some transients are digital nomads, they have their own syndicate. The TWS is mostly hospitality drifters like me. We work in casinos, hostels, massage parlors, tour companies, wait tables. Whatever we can pick up. Have an online job board where we can find new gigs all over the place. We work pretty much everything out online, actually. Back in the old days they did everything through the mail, I guess, but that was before my time.”

“Sounds like a nice life,” said Tucker. “I wish I coulda did more traveling when I was younger.”

“Never too late,” said Travis. He pulled out his wallet and slide a little business card across the table. It had Travis’ contact info on one side and that same globe emblem and a web address on the back. “You should look into it. Might be the life for you.”

“I’ll think about it,” said Tucker, slotting the business card into his wallet behind Chilton’s.

“What you wanna see over there in Europe?” asked Tucker.

“All of it,” said Travis, taking the first sip of his own beer.

Chapter 5 can be found here.

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Crossing Paths – The Newcomer Chapter 3

Note: this is Chapter 3 in an ongoing series of speculative fiction about an alternative history of the USA. Chapter 1 can be found here.

Tucker watched the vast plains of scrub brush whip by through the large tinted window of the dining car. He had a pimento cheese sandwich and a Coors Light in front of him but so far he’d only touched the beer.

“It’s somethin’ else, ain’t it?” asked an old man as he sat down across from Tucker at the little counter. He wore a dark green sweater, despite the heat, and a tweed flat cap was perched atop his completely bald head. He was holding a giant salted pretzel.

“First time I seen land like this,” said Tucker, taking a sip of his beer. The old man tore off a corner of the pretzel with his teeth and chewed thoughtfully.

A couple of young men walked up, both wearing dark suits. One had a red patterned tie, the other blue. Neither could have been more than twenty years old.

“Mind if we join you?” asked the red tie.

“I was just leaving anyway,” said the old man, his eyes darting over the young men with open contempt. “You were about to head off, too, weren’t ya, young man?” he asked Tucker.

“I reckon I’ll finish my lunch,” said Tucker.

“Suit yourself,” said the old man, shuffling past the young men and hobbling off down the narrow aisle of the dining car with his pretzel.

The young men took the old man’s place, sitting across from Tucker. They set down trays that were identically overburdened with hot dogs, plates of chili cheese fries, giant root beers.

“Y’all sure scared him off,” said Tucker, deciding to take a bite of his pimento.

“A lot of folks don’t like Mormons,” said red tie.

“Especially missionaries,” said blue.

“We had some’a you boys back in Atlanta,” said Tucker. “Always ridin’ around on bicycles an’ knockin’ on folks’ doors.”

“That’ll be us,” said blue tie, with a big boyish grin.

“You’re from Atlanta?” asked red tie, excitement in his voice. “That’s where we’re heading!”

Tucker set down his sandwich and looked at them a bit more closely. Red tie wore a black glossy name tag on his breast pocket that read “Elder Stevens.” Blue was apparently “Elder Batts.”

“Say what, now?”

“That’s why we’re going to Las Vegas, to fly to Atlanta,” said Stevens. “That’s where we’ll be doing our mission. Well, not in Atlanta, exactly. We’ll be in a town called Savannah for our first year.”

“I have people in Savannah,” said Tucker.

“Well, maybe we’ll meet them,” said Stevens. “I’m Elder Stevens.”

“I’m Elder Batts.”

Tucker glanced at their name tags.

“Saw that. I’m Tucker, Marvin Tucker. Nice to meet you boys. I thought you couldn’t fly to the states from here?”

“The Church has a few private jets that can make the flight,” said Batts.

“They call it a diplomatic flight,” said Stevens. “But they can only leave for the States from Las Vegas and, I think maybe Mexico City.”

“Are you a newcomer?” asked Batts. “Forgive me for asking, just, I know a lot of newcomers come through this way and you seem…”

“Yeah, I just got here yesterday,” said Tucker.

“Looks like we’re crossing paths,” said Stevens. “You mind if we ask you some questions?”

“Go right ahead,” said Tucker. “But I ain’t much for church and whatnot, so ya know.”

“Don’t worry,” said Batts. “We can’t proselytize until we finish our training in Atlanta.”

“But we can give you these,” said said Stevens, digging a couple of pamphlets out of his backpack and laying them on the table. The face of Jesus smiled warmly up from one of them. The other featured a photograph of the Salt Lake Temple.

“Anyway,” said Batts. “What’s Georgia like? Are the states as dangerous as everyone says?”

“It ain’t too bad,” said Tucker. “Some places you gotta be careful, but most places are alright. I don’t think anyone’s gonna bother you much, they gonna see them name tags and know you ain’t got no money.”

“What are the people like?” asked Stevens.

“Folks is always just folks,” said Tucker, “Everywhere I been, anyway.”

“Have you traveled a lot?” asked Batts.

“Been to Iraq,” said Stevens. “Afghanistan. But didn’t get to do too much sight-seein’.”

“You were in the war?” asked Batts.

“Elder Batts,” said Stevens, “maybe Mr. Tucker doesn’t want to talk about –”

“It’s fine,” said Tucker. “All I did over there was do some weldin’, never saw any fightin’. Lost some good friends, there, though.”

“Very sorry to hear that, Mr. Tucker,” said Stevens. Both of the Elders looked gravely down at their hot dogs.

“Yeah,” said Tucker, taking another bite of his pimento.

“Where are you going to live?” asked Stevens, after an awkward gap of silence.

“Headed to California,” said Tucker. “Oakland, near San Francisco.”

“I’ve always wanted to go there,” said Batts. “This is our first time leaving Salt Lake City.”

“Things are a little different back East,” said Tucker, “But folks is just folks, everywhere I been.”

Tucker polished off the last of his beer and stood, leaving the uneaten half of his sandwich on his plate.

“Thanks for the conversation, sir,” said Elder Stevens.

“Y’all be careful out there,” said Tucker, walking away. He left Jesus and the Salt Lake Temple on the table.

“Glad to see you escaped,” said the old man, wandering up. He’d taken off his tweed cap and tucked it under one arm. The pretzel was gone.

The observation car was open-air, and the dry heat of the wind made Tucker wish he had another beer as he leaned a bit over the railing and let the desert sun warm his face. “They didn’t bother me none.”

“I can’t stand religious types, leasta ways them Mormons,” said the old man. His Southern accent was even deeper than Tucker’s. “I just had to spend a whole week in Salt Lake. Buncha religious nuts. ‘Christian socialists,’ call themselves. Nice enough folks but they all got that loopy-eyed look about’em. Don’t trust’em.”

“You sound like you ain’t from around here, neither,” said Tucker. “You from down South, too?”

“I was, ‘til ‘bout twenty five years ago. Came through Denver, same as you, I reckon.”

“Was your Welcomer a Chinese lady? Name of Lam?” asked Tucker.

“Hell, I can’t remember. I can barely remember my own name, any more.”

“Well, mine’s Tucker, Marvin Tucker.”

“I’m Lee Chilton, what’cha say?”
They shared a stiff handshake. Chilton had a lot of strength left for a man his age.

“Where ya headed from?” asked Chilton.

“Came outa Atlanta,” said Tucker.

“I’m from Birmingham, second greatest town there is.”

“What’s the first?”

“Our next stop: Las Vegas, Nevada,” said Chilton. “The last holdout of American freedom,” he added, with a phlegmy laugh.

“I’m gonna be stayin’ there overnight,” said Tucker.

“Everybody does,” said Chilton. “Security checks, they say. But if you want the truth, I say they’re ropin’ in tourist dollars.”

“I thought there wasn’t no money in the Communes?”

“Most places there ain’t, but Vegas is a little different. We’re mutualists.” Chilton plopped his cap back atop his pate and peered out at some mesas in the distance.

“I can’t get my head around all’a this stuff,” said Tucker. “Seems a fellah has to do a lot of book learnin’ to get on, ‘round here.”

“Ideology,” drawled Chilton. “Most of it’s a bunch of hooey, if ya ask me. That’s why we mutualists keep things simple. Self-regulatin’, that’s how we do things.”

“So you have money in Las Vegas?”

“Oh yeah,” said Chilton. “How much you know about anarchism, boy? You is a boy, ain’t you?”

Tucker nodded. “I don’t really know much, ‘cept what they taught me back East, and I’m startin’ to figure ain’t none of that was true. And yeah, I’m a guy. Everyone keeps askin’ me that, for some reson.”

“Considered polite, in these parts,” said Chilton. “Anyway, where you headin’ to, again?”

“Oh, gawlee. You’re in for a rough time,” said Chilton, spitting again. “If ya ask me, you ought to stick to Vegas. Mutualism, that’s where it’s at. Real freedom.”

“What’s the difference between mutualism and… whatever they got in California?”

“Them Californians are what you call Anarcho-Communists. Work everything out on paper, base everything on trustin’ one another. Me, I know better. I trust myself, and not damn much else.”

“So Las Vegas is more like… more like back East?” asked Chilton, still confused. “Capitalist?”

“Oh, lordy, no!” yalped Chilton. “No, sir! We ain’t capitalists. See, capitalism is all about thievin’. The rich folks thieve from their workers, the government thieves from the rich folks. Everyone’s robbin’ everyone else blind, or at least they’re tryin’ to. You know what that’s like.”

“I know well enough,” agreed Tucker.

“In Las Vegas, every worker’s got a right to own their own means of production. We have a market, just like bac East, but ain’t nobody allowed to profit from nobody else. Ya get it?”

“Not really,” said Tucker.

“Well, look how it works back East. Me, I’m a miner, or used to be, anyway. What you call a bolt man, kept the roof from fallin’ in, ya see? And I was pretty damn good at it. When I was your age, they had me runnin’ all over Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky… Anywhere they had problems with the roof of a mineshaft, they flew me in.”

“Sounds like rough work,” said Tucker, who knew a thing or two about rough work.

“Hell yeah it was,” said Chilton. “Roof collapses on a mine, that costs the company a fortune. Production halts, gotta re-excavate, not to mention payin’ out to all them that gets hurt or kilt in the collapse. I figure in twenty years of workin’ I must have saved them companies somethin’ like half a billion dollars, maybe more. I stopped a lot of daggum roofs from cavin’ in, I tell ya what. And you know what they paid me?”

“I bet they didn’t pay you no half a billion dollars,” said Tucker.

“Damn right they didn’t. I was lucky if I made a thousand bucks a month. This was back in the 70’s and 80’s, mind, but even then that wasn’t much scratch.”

“So I guess y’all get paid more in Las Vegas?”

“You know how much money we earn in Las Vegas?” asked Chilton.

“How much is that?”

“One. Hundred. Percent. We keep it all, every cent. Company don’t take a cut, neither does the government. Hell, there ain’t no government, practically, except what we need to build the roads and all.”

“That sounds a lot different from Denver,” said Tucker.

“Couldn’t be more different,” said Chilton. “The problem with them people, they wanna get rid of competition. Just like them folks in California.”


“It’s healthy. Keeps us pushin’ ourselves forward, ya see? I’m 70 years old, doctors’ been sayin’ I’d drop dead any second now for thirty years. But I keep pushin’ myself forward!”

“I guess that makes some kinda sense,” said Tucker.

“God damn right it does. Las Vegas ain’t like any of them kooky communes. We look after each other, mind. Nobody’s gonna starve to death or nothin’. Everyone gets what they need to survive, but from there, the sky’s the limit. That’s the way ya build a city, son. A soft floor and no ceiling! Guess you could say it’s the exact opposite of workin’ in them mines, back home.”

“I guess you could say that,” agreed Tucker. “So what do you do, now? You retired?”

“Oh, they been askin’ me to retire for fifteen years, now,” said Chilton. “That ain’t for me. I have a little hotel, out near the airport. Cater to folks from the States, mostly. But, say, you oughta come spend a night there.”

“Well, I ain’t got no money,” said Tucker. “They gave me a reservation in a hotel by the train station.”

“Forget about that,” said Chilton. “You’re gonna be my guest. See the town, watch a show. Maybe play some games, blow off some steam. You’re a newcomer so they’ll give you some foldin’ money, and the room’s on me.”

“Well, that sounds fine, Mr. Chilton. I believe I’ll take you up on that.”

“I believe you will,” said Chilton, clapping Tucker on the back. “Here’s my card. I’m in seat number twelve, car eleven. Come find me when we pull into Vegas.”

Tucker looked down at the business card in his hand. It read:
“Robert Lee Chilton, Proprietor, Gold Rush Casino and Resort.”

Tucker looked at his wristwatch. 3:30pm. He still had two hours to kill before the train was scheduled to reach Las Vegas.

He headed back to the dining car for another Coors Light.

Las Vegas Central Station was an enormous building. As Tucker stepped off the train he looked up and saw that the ceiling was set massive with screens that displayed dozens of ads for casinos and shows and restaurants. He reached up to help Chilton step down onto the platform and together they walked to a customs gate where all the passengers were queuing up. Above the gate were the words, in neon:

“Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas.”

Below that, in a more official-looking sans serif:

“Member of the Mutualist Collective of Nevada.”

Tucker moved to queue up but Chilton grabbed his arm.

“We ain’t gonna wait in line like a buncha yokels,” said Chilton. “I’ve got residency. Come with me.” Chilton lead Tucker around to a small secondary entrance around a corner, where a handful of locals were being ushered through a much faster line.

Chilton explained that Tucker was with him, and after passing through an X-ray they were allowed through to the main concourse.

“Let’s get you your allowance,” said Chilton, guiding Tucker up to a service window under a banner that read “UAC Citizen Services.”

“Go show that lady your passport, tell’er you’re a newcomer,” said Chilton.

Tucker did so.

“How long will you be in town?” asked the woman behind the counter, who was smacking gum boredly. She wore a gray smock that was sort of like the ones back at the Denver welcoming center, only different somehow.

“Just tonight,” said Tucker.

“Here’s your one hundred dollar allowance,” said the woman, pushing ten crisp new ten dollar bills to Tucker. “If you have any trouble while you’re in town you can call this number.” She pushed a pamphlet towards him, as well.

The pamphlet had the words “Union of American Communes, Civil Services Confederation, Bulletin on Visitation of Las Vegas Mutualist Collective” in big bold words at the top. He picked it up and turned it over. On the back it read: “Problem Gamblers HelpLine,” along with a phone number.

Tucker thanked her.

“Enjoy your trip,” she said, without enthusiasm.

As Tucker walked along beside Chilton, he examined the currency he’d been issued. It was orange and black and seemed to be made of a plasticy material. It felt a lot more slippery than the stuff they used back home. A bearded man stared out at him from the front of each bill, and beneath each portrait was printed the name “PROUDHON.” The reverse featured a big white star and some kind of ugly-looking goat or something with huge, curling horns.

“That should be enough for you to see you a show, have you a nice dinner, and still play you some table games beside,” said Chilton. He lead Tucker out of the concourse and into the open air. They were standing under a large covered depot. Buses were lined up along the street, waiting for passengers.

Chilton guided Tucker past the buses, to another row behind. This one had taxis and private cars queued up, their drivers milling around in the calm before the storm of disembarked passengers were to descend upon them. One of the drivers wore a black cap with a glossy brim and held a sign with Chilton’s name scribbled on it in black marker.

“Here’s our ride,” said Chilton. Tucker helped him up into the back of the sleek-looking Vietnamese-made sedan.

“Got you a new car, Ernie?” asked Chilton.

“Yessir, Mr. Chilton,” said the driver, glancing back into his rear mirror as he started the engine. “I just bought’er. Whadaya think?”

Chilton eased back into the seat, which was plush leather. “Beats walkin’, anyway,” said Chilton.

Click here to continue on to Chapter 5.

The Nicest Thing He Ever Owned – The Newcomer – Chapter 2

Note: this is Chapter 2 in an ongoing series of speculative fiction about an alternative history of the USA. Chapter 1 can be found here.

“Here’s your new phone,” said Lam, seating herself across from Tucker. “How’s your sandwich?”

The canteen of the Welcome Center was filled with other migrants. Most of them were from the USA. Tucker recognized a few of them from his convoy. They looked a lot different, now, cleaned up and sporting new clothes. He figured he must pretty unrecognizable, himself, after his first fresh shave and hot shower in over a week.

Tucker grabbed the phone, looked it over. He never cared much about phones. His old BlackBerry was in the stiff hip pocket of his brand new Levi’s jeans.

“Thanks,” said Tucker, placing the new device on the table. “It’s good.”

“It’s one of last year’s models, but when you get to Oakland we should be able to sort you out with something newer,” said Lam.

“I was talking about the sandwich,” said Tucker.

“Ah,” said Lam. “Probably not as good as the barbecue you have back in Atlanta.”

“Not quite,” said Tucker.

Lam placed a blue folder in front of Tucker.

“They want us to handle most of this stuff electronically,” she said, “but I thought you might prefer hard copies for some of this stuff.”

Tucker wiped his hands with his napkin, dabbed the corners of his mouth, then reached for the folder. Lam sat back and folded her hands over her side of the table.

“So, now you have your visa, your provisionary commune membership in Fischer Park. That’s the same neighborhood your cousin lives in,” she said.

“Did you talk to her?” asked Tucker, his eyes snapping up to Lam from the blue folder.

“I did, briefly. She wants you to call her.”

Lam glanced at the new phone. It was sitting next to Tucker’s lunch plate, now dusted with crumbs and smeared with remnants of coleslaw. Tucker picked up the phone, eyes running over it as he tried to figure it out.

“Here, let me help you,” said Lam, reaching for the phone. She pressed a few buttons, swiped at it a few times. “I’m putting her in your contact list.”

After a few moments she handed it back towards Tucker. “It’s ringing.”

Tucker seemed a bit frantic as he cupped the phone to his ear.

“Hello?” he asked, his voice strained. It was still ringing.

“Hello?” said his cousin, after a couple more rings.

“Carla? Is that you?”


“Carla! I’m here! I’m in Denver!”

Lam noticed that Tucker’s hand was shaking as it gripped the phone. She stood up and touched his shoulder. “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” she said, stepping away.

“How’s Curtis?”

“Curtis didn’t make it over,” said Marvin. “They got him down in Dallas, I think.”

“They say you’re coming to Oakland?”

“Yeah,” said Tucker, “Yeah, they’re gonna put me in… Fischer Park, it says.”

“That’s right, we’re gonna be neighbors. You call me when you get on the train, okay?”

“I will if I can figure out how to use this damn phone,” said Tucker.

“Still ‘Old Man Marvin,’ I see,” said Carla. “You gotta take some computer classes.”

“That’s what they keep tellin’ me. And I keep tellin’ ‘em I ain’t interested in that stuff. All I need a phone to do is make a call.”

“Now you be nice to them people, Marvin,” said Carla. “They’re tryin’ to help you.”

“I been takin’ care of my own damn self for thirty five years, now,” said Tucker. “I don’t need no help from nobody.”

“Things are different, here,” said Carla.

“Passport?” asked the customs liaison. She wore a simple gray uniform that looked a lot more comfortable than the stiff new blue jeans Tucker had on.

Tucker looked at Lam.

“In your folder,” said Lam. “It’s black and red.”

Tucker fumbled with the folder and finally found the little booklet, handed it over. The customs liaison compared the photo with his face for a few moments, then smiled and handed it back to him.

“Anything to declare?”

Tucker looked at Lam. Lam shook her head. Tucker looked to the liaison and shook his head. “No, ma’am.”

“Welcome to the Union of American Communes, Mr. Tucker,” said the liaison.

Marvin stepped past her, out into the lobby of the Welcome Center.

It was a massive space, and the walls were giant windows. In the center of the lobby was an enormous silver statue of a dove. It reminded Tucker of some of the hood ornaments of very old cars he’d seen, working as a mechanic in his youth.

There were people rushing about all over the lobby. Some of them wore the same gray smock-like uniform as the customs liaison. Others were wearing plastic ID badges like Lam wore in the breast pocket of her sport coat. But most of them were wearing brand new Levi’s.

“Let’s take you shopping,” said Lam, striding up to him from the entrance gate.

“Oh, I’d just assume get to the train station,” said Tucker. “I don’t especially need nothin’, right now.”

“Your train doesn’t leave for four hours,” said Lam. “We have some time to kill. You’ve been fidgeting ever since you got into those blue jeans. And I need a new pair of running shoes. C’mon.” She started walking toward the exit doors without looking back. He followed, crumpling his face in annoyance.

The air was hot and dry and the sun was dazzling as he stepped outside for the first time in over twenty four hours. He stumbled along behind Lam into a wide public square. There were vendors everywhere selling drinks, candy and snacks, souvenirs and toys.

Lam grabbed a bottle of water from one of the vendors without stopping.

“Don’t you gotta pay for that?” asked Tucker, perplexed.

Lam laughed. “I told you, we don’t use money here.”

She handed him the bottle. It was ice cold.

“So these people just sit around all day handing out stuff for free?” asked Tucker.

“It’s their work assignment. And it’s how I got my start, doing what I do now.”

“By handing out bottles of water?”

“Yes, actually. Right here, in front of the Welcome Center. It was sort of a summer job, while I was in college. I loved the way it felt to help new folks. Give them some water, give them directions. Seeing the looks on their faces — like the look on your face, right now. That’s what made me decide to get trained up as a Welcoming Coordinator.”

“I still don’t get it,” said Marvin, though he cracked open the bottle and took a long drink.

“You’ll get the hang of it,” said Lam. They came to another enormous building. The facade had the appearance of carved sandstone, with a dizzying network of motifs of farmers, construction workers, dozens of little faceless people at labor in gallantly stylized poses. A giant marquis was chiseled above the entranceway.

“The Free Market,” Tucker read aloud.

“It’s kind of a joke,” said Lam, glancing at Tucker. “Do they have those, back in Atlanta? Jokes, I mean?”

Tucker rolled his eyes. They stepped inside, blasted by frosty air conditioning. The place reminded him of a Wal-Mart, if Wal-Marts were designed to look like museums on the outside. There were a few dozen aisles sprawled out in the massive space carrying items ranging from groceries to clothes to furniture. Lam lead him to the clothing department, which was front-and-center. “Find yourself some pants you like,” she said, “I’m going to the shoes.” She pointed to the shoes.

Tucker nodded, and began walking through the racks. It was so much like a department store back home, but it was very different somehow.

“No prices,” he muttered to himself. That was it. He stepped up to a rack of slacks and examined them. They all had little tags attached to them, but the tags were blank. Just had those little microchips that stopped shoplifters, it seemed like. He found a pair of khakis that looked okay and went to the dressing room. There didn’t seem to be anyone around to watch him go in, which made him feel strange.

Inside the dressing room there was a sign that read: “Feel free to wear your new clothes out of the store, but please do not remove inventory tags until you exit the building.”

He tried them on and decided to keep them. As he walked out of the dressing room, a woman walked up to him, wearing a bright yellow vest that said “Customer Service.” Tucker felt an instinctive rush of anxiety, assuming he had somehow gotten himself into trouble, but she was flashing a pretty genuine-looking smile.

“Would you like me to put those in a bag for you?” she asked, reaching for the Levi’s he now had draped over one arm.

“I… Well, I don’t really think I’ll be holdin’ on to them,” he said.

“That’s fine,” she said. “We’ll make sure they’re reconsigned.”

She took the jeans, smiled again, and walked away.

He walked over to the shoe department and found Lam struggling with a pair of Nikes. His friend had a pair of black market Nike high tops back in high school, and Tucker had always wanted a pair of his own. Now here were stacks and stacks of brand new Nikes, just free for the taking.

“I think my left foot is bigger than my right foot,” said Lam. “Oh, those look a lot more comfortable. You kept the tag, right?”

“I read the sign,” said Tucker.

“Alright, good. There’s no limit on what you can take, they just need to keep track of inventory.”

“What if someone wanted to take, like, a hundred pairs of pants?”

“I hope they have a big closet,” said Lam. “But why would anyone want a hundred pairs of pants?”

“They sell them shoes back East. Go for a lot of money,” said Tucker, pointing at the Nikes she now wore. She stood up, taking a few steps to get a feel for them.

“That stuff happens from time to time. It’s a breach of contract, of course.”

“Breach of contract?”

“The contract you sign with your commune. If you don’t wish to abide by the non-negotiable terms, you can always leave. But if you agree to a contract and then breach it there will be consequences.”

“I know all about that, Ms. Lam. I been locked up before, like I wrote down on the forms.”

“Oh, god,” said Lam. “It’s nothing like that. There hasn’t been a jail or a prison West of the Harman-Cleveland line in over a century.”

“That’s true?” said Tucker. He let that sink in for a moment, then asked: “So how do y’all punish criminals?”

“What does punishment solve? We try to prevent problems, first and foremost. And when we fail at that with someone, we try to rehabilitate them.”

“Some folks can’t be rehabilitated, Ms. Lam.”

“That doesn’t mean we won’t keep trying.”


Lam was unlacing the Nikes, now. She looked up at him, puzzled. “How?”

“Like, say someone goes crazy, kills a bunch of folks. Y’all ain’t gonna put him in no jail, so what are y’all gonna do?”

“We,” said Lam, “will put him in a hospital, or a rehabilitation center. Try to find out the cause and look for a solution.”

“What if there ain’t no solution? Some folks is just plain crazy, Ms. Lam.”

“It is true that there are some people we haven’t figured out how to help, yet,” said Lam, “but that doesn’t stop us from trying. Some people do spend their entire lives confined to rehabilitation, and that’s very unfortunate. But at least we try to help them recover.”

“Sounds like jail, to me,” said Tucker.

“It’s nothing like jail. Some of my clients are undergoing rehabilitation, and believe me when I say we try to do everything we can to help them to reform.”

“Still don’t make no sense to me,” said Tucker.

“Give living here a chance before you make up your mind about us,” said Lam.

“Guess I ain’t got no choice,” said Tucker.

“Choice,” said Lam, “is sacred, here. Should I go with the blue or the black?”

“They say that back in the States, too,” said Tucker, bitterly. “Blue, I reckon.”

“Give us a chance to prove we’re different than the States,” said Lam, placing the pairs of Nikes back in their respective boxes. “I think you’re right. I’ll go with blue.”

A few minutes later they were strolling back towards the exit. Lam stopped at a jewelry display.

“I noticed you don’t have a watch,” said Lam.

“Oh, I don’t need no watch, Ms. Lam,” said Tucker, hovering towards the exit.

“Come on, you’ll be traveling for a couple of days. Don’t want to miss any trains, do you?”

“Those look expensive,” said Tucker, realizing that his vocabulary had yet to adapt to this new reality that was forming around him.

“I think my husband has this one,” said Lam.

The watch she held up was black-faced and dainty, elegantly braceleted in stainless steel. Marvin looked at it like it had just grown six legs.

“No, you’re right, maybe this one,” she said, holding up another model that was a bit more simple: plain white face, bold black numerals, brown leather strap.

He tried it on. It felt solid, well-made… expensive. He just didn’t have any other word for that.

“I don’t know, Ms. Lam. I ain’t never worn no wrist-watch, before, ‘cept an ol’ Casio when I was a kid. I don’t usually go for fancy stuff like this.”

“There’s nothing fancy about having a nice watch, here, Mr. Tucker, or a nice pair of shoes, or a nice home. Or a big-screen TV, or a nice long vacation. You plan to do your part to help out once you get to Oakland, don’t you?”

“Yes ma’am, Ms. Lam. I done told you, I ain’t afraid of workin’ hard.”

“Then take the watch,” she said. “The bread has been secured.”


“It’s kind of a saying we have,” said Lam. “It means ‘relax.’”

“I don’t get it,” said Tucker.

“Comes from a line of Kropotkin: ‘after bread has been secured, leisure is the supreme aim.’”

“Oh,” said Tucker, gazing down at his wrist. The name “ELGIN” was stamped cleanly onto the pearly face of the watch in bold, black letters.

“Consider it a gift,” said Lam. “A welcoming gift, from the city of Denver.”

Tucker smiled, just a little. “Alright,” he said. “And…”

Tucker stopped short, winding his new watch. It was the nicest thing he’d ever owned.

“What?” asked Lam.

“Aw, it’s nothin’. Let’s head over to the train station.”

“No, come on, tell me. What were you going to say?”

Tucker glanced at the shoe box tucked under Lam’s arm.

“You think I could get me a pair of them Nikes, too?”

Click here to continue to Chapter 3.

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