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?”

“Marvin?”

“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.”

“How?”

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.”

“Bread?”

“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.

8 Responses to “The Nicest Thing He Ever Owned – The Newcomer – Chapter 2

  • I’m really enjoying these.

    One typo I found:
    –“He figured he must pretty unrecognizable” I’m assuming there should be a “be” in there.

    I look forward to the next chapter.

    • Emerican Johnson
      3 months ago

      Thank you so much, I’m glad you enjoy! I’ll be trying to put out a new chapter every week from here on! (and I fixed that line!)

  • Sonja Jelaca
    3 months ago

    This is great. I can totally picture Tucker even though you didn’t describe him in minute detail. That’s a good thing. A few hints are enough and the reader fills in the rest.

    Can’t wait to read more.

  • Radical Reviewer
    3 months ago

    I love the little things like the train taking a little bit abd like taking more time and resources to address recidivism. Like there will be some draw backs in a less exploitive ancom society. And looking at the cost/benifit of living in a much better society.
    Im looking forward to the next chapter

  • Like it a lot.
    You write well, it is a pleasure to read.
    Can’t wait to read more.

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