THE TOWN'S BIGGEST conservative lived in a tree. This was because he lost his house when the bank took it. Illegally, he said, and blamed it on the liberals. He used to be a checker at LowCost, but lost his job when the decision somewhere faraway was made to cast loose half the cashiers and go with automation. That, too, Everett Fagle blamed on the liberals. He couldn’t have lost his job at all had the unions not been busted. It was the state’s right-wing governor who did that, illegally. But Everett Fagle blamed it on the liberals.
Nobody knew about the tree. It wasn’t like he stayed there all the time, squatting in the little cave provided by a redwood hollowed by fire, staring out the hole, staring at Tree Vee, watching his life go by, blaming it on the liberals. There were cans to collect, lots of bottles with deposits waiting. Two months there seemed like two years. He was thirty-seven, and lost twenty pounds already. Most of that was beer belly, but he could see in the loose flesh of his forearms and feel by the sharpness of his cheekbones that the hunger which he now felt all the time was eating away at him, hollowing him, leaving his insides charred like the silvery blackness of the fire-ravaged redwood.
More and more of his days were spent simply sleeping. Partly this was because he was simply so tired. He didn’t have the energy for all the walking required to go anywhere. Also now he was a month into the worst case of athlete’s foot he ever had. He tried washing his feet in a creek running through the forest, but the creek had the yellow foam of some secretly dumped pollution collecting in places where shiny black mushrooms lined the banks, and even though he tried to avoid it, his feet developed a rash all the way up to the ankles at least as bad as the athlete’s foot.
So what he did was he went out at night. There was a drinking fountain at the junior high school that would have been perfect in terms of seclusion, but the junior high was shut down due to lack of money. Everett blamed the liberals for that and took to rinsing his feet in a fountain at the high school, always only late at night, when the relative certainty that no one would see, coupled with painful desperation, temporarily overcame his fear, and he wouldn’t only rinse his feet but load up plastic bottles he had found and take those with him back down to his tree. That wouldn’t be until nearly morning, because the animals were active at night, and the subtle furtive sounds of their activity filled him with terror of being nipped or worse by something with rabies or without.
It was late May now, still too early for blackberries, but sorrel grew freely. He chewed the tart stems and leaves every single day, ruminating increasingly on the possibilities of people’s garbage. Everett also thought about helping himself to the mushrooms that he saw. Yellow chanterelle seemed prolific, as did a variety that might have been morel, but he really was by no means certain that what he saw available might not kill him. And underneath it all, in his mind, the tape that ran on endless loop: Blame, blame, blame the liberals. They were the ones responsible. Responsible for everything. Liberals were the ones ruining the world. Liberals were the ones who ruined his life.
One afternoon Everett Fagle woke in his tree to strange popping noises and the distinct sound of snapped sticks. He waited, listening.
More snapped sticks.
This wasn’t Everett’s first time hearing voices, the tree he was in being not far from the forest trail. The cleft at the base of the redwood, however, did not face the trail, so on the rare occasion that people went by, if Everett was even awake, he simply held still until they were gone. Not now, though. Something impacted at the charred edge of the cleft and left a bewildering smear of red.
Groggy, aching, Everett had no time to process this before, suddenly, a cammo-clad form appeared at the aperture. BMX-style pads at the elbows and the knees, a cammo bandana over the mouth, and a light sort of helmet consisting most prominently of opaque eye and face protection looking like something between a welder’s mask and ski goggles, lent a post-apocalyptic paramilitary touch, capped off by the strange-looking gun in hand. Everett tried to collect himself as a similarly clad figure materialized alongside the first. The two heads turned toward each other. One of them said something that Everett didn’t catch, but the timbre of the voice was unmistakably youthful. Stiff and creaking, Everett emerged from the tree at a crouch, blinking and wiping the sleep from his eyes.
“What’s up? What’s goin’ on?”
Again the two silently conferred.
“What are you doing down here?” The young voice dripping with accusation, unnaturally flat and cold.
By the receptacles extending above the guns, Everett registered what the boys were doing. “Hey, if you guys are playin’ paintball, you better watch it. You almost hit me.”
The indignation went ignored.
“He’s a bum,” the other one said. The woods seemed somehow quieter now.
“Did he just say we better watch out?”
“Yep, that’s what he said.”
A momentary pause elapsed, as of tiny wheels turning in a hidden mechanism. Everett guessed the two were brothers, kids in their mid-teens anyway, and felt reasonably certain that if he could see their faces he would probably recognize them from his years checking at the supermarket. The one with the cold flat voice, probably the elder, had managed to gather his courage.
“You’re the one who better watch it.” He took a step back and leveled his paintball gun. Body language from the other indicated tense excitement.
“He’s a bum!” the smaller one reiterated, goading the other to action. With his gleeful tone he sounded like together they had won the lottery. However, before the kids could spatter Everett at point-blank range with tiny balls of paint traveling at three hundred feet per second, the speed of which would easily put out an eye and endanger the brain—before they could pepper him with welts, breaking the skin, pushing the paint into the bloodstream (supposed lack of toxicity not being much comfort)—before they could vent the young frustration of powerless lives on the easiest possible target, a voice cut through the somber air of the deep and shaded woods, “Anybody seen my dog?”
Someone stood in the trail nearby. A robust guy about Everett’s age.
“Hundred bucks if you find my dog,” the guy said coming over, amiable and intent. Brittle twigs and branches strewn across the rust duff of decomposing needles comprising the redwood forest floor snapped as he passed. All the major indications of an impromptu firing squad evaporated into the air.
The guy reached into his back pocket, evidently to produce a picture from his wallet of his missing dog. Everett he didn’t even seem to notice, but his eyes widened perceptibly at something on one of the boys’ baggy cammo sleeves. “Hey, those things are poisonous,” he said, yet instead of brushing off some horrendous spider, his upraised hand latched onto the fabric, and in one fluid motion smashed the smaller boy into the taller as though he were slamming a door, and both of the boys went instantly down in a heap, the man’s robust weight pinning them momentarily as he forcibly extracted the guns, and the next thing anyone knew, he had both of those in hand, leveled at both of the boys.
“I saw what you little turds were doing,” he said. “I wondered what all the red dots were uglying-up the forest.”
Throughout these brief events, Everett, stunned, remained quite quiet. Largely this was because, it being afternoon, his unwanted forest guests had disturbed him during sleeping hours. His athlete’s foot was killing him, deep sting in the discolored cracks moist and singing. His pan-fried eyes blurred from sheer exhaustion and the dry heaves were coming on. Now that the threat was over, and he was no longer in any danger, Everett rounded on his rescuer.
“Hey! What are you doing? They’re a couple of kids trying to play paintball! Give them back their guns!”
But the guy ignored him. “Take off those stupid helmets.”
“You’re a witness that he hit us,” the older kid said to Everett, voice breaking behind his bandana. “I’m calling the cops.”
“Take off those stupid helmets.”
“Give them back their guns.”
“If you want to see these toys again you’re taking off your masks. Now.”
“You’ll shoot us.”
“No I won’t. I just want to see your faces. I saw what you were doing here. Goddam junior fascist league.”
“Hey, give them back their guns.”
“If you don’t take those off your face I’m doing it for you and you won’t like it.”
Reluctantly, they did so. The cammo bandanas and big-screen goggles removed revealed bland white faces pink with youth and pinched with low self-esteem. Both of the boys were huffy, and seconds away from blubbering. The older boy stuck out a hand like Oliver Twist requesting seconds.
“You said you’d give them back.”
“I certainly did not. I said I’d let you see them. Here they are, my new toys. Get the hell outta here.”
Somehow they seemed to not understand.
“Oh come on,” said Everett, shaking his head in commiseration, “you said you’d give them back. Just give them back their guns.”
“You mean you want me to let your people go? Your people are a couple of brats who were about to paste you. That’s got to be a world record for the fastest case of Stockholm Syndrome ever, but here’s the thing: these are mine now. I’m confiscating these because you’re fully irresponsible. And if I ever see either one of you do anything like this again, I’m not gonna be so nice. Now you’re gonna get the fuck outta here before I change my mind in three, two—”
The boys got going, hightailing it on the trail with quick looks behind, in case they might get hit.
Everett breathed a sigh of disappointment. “Great, now I’ve got the cops coming down here.”
“I doubt that.”
“They’re probably on their cell phones right now.”
“The older kid has one, but that ran down.”
“How do you know?”
“On account I’m…your new neighbor! Howdy! I’m livin’ down here in the forest, too! Small world, huh neighbor? They passed right by me and didn’t know I was there. Listening to their every word. I wish a cop would show up, so I could bask in the glow of someone who gets to enjoy the benefits of a socialized system, a socialized system, like the ones with the highest standard of living index, where you put in only twenty years, and then you get to sit back and have a jolly old time sucking off that nice fat socialized teat. Must be preciously wonderful bitching how lazy everyone else is for not being given a lifetime of health care, thanks to the tax-paying public.”
Everett stared dumbfounded at the guy with the guns in his hands. “You’re a liberal,” he said.
“Goddam right I’m liberal! What, you think you’re not?” He let out a derisive laugh. “You really are a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome. So you’re one of those brainwashed dumbasses who actually applaud the criminal assholes who rip you off the most.”
“You’re the one brainwashed by the liberal media.”
“Say that one more time. Say that one more time!”
Tense moment. Then the guy let out a deep breath, shaking his head, and calmly said, “You understand, all the outlets of the media are controlled by, owned by, major corporations. How many Hippies do you know who own a corporation? You can’t name any liberal corporations because there are none. Corporations don’t help people. People help people, once in a while, like I did for you here. Corporations help corporations. That’s it. All they do is make money, for themselves, at everyone else’s expense. That’s why we’re here, having this lovely little conversation in the woods. Goddam, I shouldn’t have let those kids go without explaining all of this thoroughly to them. Can’t even really blame them. They’ve been living in the Internet. Dehumanization is their only reality. As soon as the next war comes along, as soon as the next one gets planned, by the corporate cowards that make the money, those kids’ll be right in place, just like in a Pez dispenser, and everybody else will be told to bury themselves in shopping, to keep the rich cowards rich, and they’ll spread a bumper sticker on a car, maybe wear a little pin, to show how patriotic they are.” Suddenly the guy spun around and flung first one gun deep into the brush, and then the other, cheerily pronouncing as he chucked them, “Slave to the military industrial complex, this is what your ignorance has wrought.”
Everett watched amazed as the guy put his hands up to his head, fingertips pressing tenderly on his skull as he grimaced. “I know, I know.” The words were almost a whisper. “I understand. I’m a mean, mean bully. Mean to the fascists. I bully the bullies. Wall Street robs the world of every single cent it’s got, and everybody else goes to jail. Why is it people love violence in the movies so much, but when they see it in real life they always shrink?”
The sounds of the forest swam all around. The sound of a raven taking wing, the breeze in the trees clacking limbs and keeping time, trunks creaking in a dance too great to see.
Everett said, “Don’t you have to go get your dog or something?”
And the guy replied, “No,” amiably enough, matter-of-factly, “I don’t have a dog. I said that so I could get in close and keep you from being completely humiliated.”
“Mm-hm. My pleasure.” Rubbing his temples with tender fingertips, “I wonder if you know that liberal and liberty have the same root word. Liber. It means free. Comes from another name for Dionysus. Did you know that?”
“God of libation. And…madness.”
“Nope, I didn’t know.”
“Yeah, I thought as much.”
“That’s supposed to mean I’m dumb? Because I didn’t know that? If you think that makes me dumb, then I think that’s what makes you dumb.”
The guy stopped rubbing his skull. Everett Fagle had heard enough, and now he was on a roll. “Hussein. Did you know that your big hero’s name is Hussein? Think about that. Think about the fact that he isn’t even an American. Oh, but you don’t care about that. That’s why this country’s morals have eroded. People like you.”
“Holy shit, I bet you’re a Jesus-freak. Can’t you see that Jesus hates your goddam yellow guts? Look how poor you are. He hates that. That’s why this country always makes sure to invade the unarmed poor ones. I told you I bully the bullies. I understand completely. I’m supposed to be nice to you. I’m supposed to let stupid little fascists ruin the world, because I’m smart, and I see more clearly. Because I’m the one with the wisdom, I’m supposed to be Mr. Super Peace and let the world go down the toilet.”
“You think you’re saving the world?”
“Well if nothing else it’s existential correction. It’s no wonder the right-wingers have to use nonstop propaganda every single minute of every single day. No wonder they hate education. If the people were allowed to think for themselves, the right-wingers wouldn’t have a prayer.”
“I don’t watch TV.”
“You’re already ruined. You have to understand, this country is run by the spoiled rich who hide. They orchestrate wars because war makes them money. Powerless people get suckered in by the feeling of not being powerless for once. Those most degraded by the system are the system’s biggest slaves. I suspect that, deep down, most people know it. They’re just too afraid to admit it. It’s gone on this long.”
“I don’t know where you get your information.”
“I’m not surprised by that. Never forget: Bush was a college cheerleader. All the war-lovers are cheerleaders. Not Muhammad Ali, though. Not Bruce Lee, either. The toughest never support war. That’s because the war-lovers are such phonies. It’s the strong who oppose war, and the weak who go along. Never forget that.”
No liberal had ever spoken to Everett like this before. He felt hellishly confused. The mental mouth inside his mind hung open like a drawbridge. Everett began to wonder if he’d ever really heard from a liberal in his life. Listening to this guy, in person, was a completely different experience from the radio show he used to hear with paid performers pretending to call in. There was no way he would say it out loud, but he had to admit, and he had known it long before he ever got canned, big tax cuts for the richest few really didn’t do anything for him at all.
Near the banks of the poisoned creek stuffed with clumps of yellow foam, tiny ants could be seen, if one looked close enough, busily negotiating the purple forest loam. Tiny ants, in single file, working together with no sociability, carrying weight greater than their own, all in the service of some unseen queen—the corporate whore, as the liberal observed. The liberal went ahead and chomped on the mushrooms that grew so profuse, but Everett shook his head and refused to partake, even when he saw them being eaten. Sometimes he’d seen ants down there with the mushrooms carrying their own kind off to the side, away from the rest, and he wondered if the ants hadn’t been infected with some poison from the creek.
They’d been wandering around the forest for half an hour now, the liberal going slow to accommodate Everett’s fungus-induced Charlie Chaplin limp.
“I just realized something,” Everett said.
“What’s that?” the liberal replied, plucking a piece of post-mushroom sorrel.
“I haven’t watched TV now for two months. That’s the longest I’ve ever gone in my life.”
“When I was a kid we used to call this stuff clover. Two months is pretty good, dude. I hope no little critter pissed on this.” He nibbled at the sour stem. “If television was a person, I’d punch its face in. Where did you used to work?”
“I was a cashier at LowCost for fifteen years. What about you?”
“Went to college, racked up debt, had some shitty jobs. What I really do is paint, but nobody has any money to buy.”
“You’re an artist?”
“What kind of stuff do you paint?”
“Nothing these days, although now I know where I can get a little bit of red paint when I need it. Do you have any idea how much paint costs?”
“LowCost doesn’t carry that.” Or did they? They used to have some kid’s paint on aisle four, with the stationery and school supplies, but Everett was pretty sure that wasn’t what the guy wanted. What it looked like he wanted was a bottle of aspirin. The guy was rocking back and forth with his head in his hands, tightly wincing as he writhed, breath hissing through clenched teeth. The way he felt about his skull looked like the way that Everett felt about his feet. At least, Everett thought, I don’t complain so much.
Groaning, without warning, suddenly the guy stood up from where he had been sitting against a poplar, tottered around horribly with his head in his hands, let out a loud, sharp, unearthly scream, and fell stretched out full-length flat on his face like a toppled tree. Simultaneous with this, perhaps a fraction of a second before impact, an exploding sound occurred.
Everett stared in shock. Tiny red dots covered his arms. They were on his clothes. Red dots were on the trees. He could feel the wetness on his face. The back of the guy’s head was open. Wide open. The exploding sound he heard hadn’t come from a gun. The head had burst from inside with incredible pressure, and the thing that forced its way out sprang like an ingrown hair, a glistening stalk about the size of an asparagus spear, a horrible mushroom that slowly opened like a tiny black umbrella.
It had grown inside the liberal’s head.
Had the ants been capable of carting off the liberal’s body, they would have surely done so. They had lived in the forest long enough to know that when the mushroom clouds the mind, it’s time for the body to go. The colony had to be saved from the highly toxic spore.
It was only a matter of time before Everett blamed the liberal—whom he’d had to leave decomposing where he fell well off the forest trail—blamed him for the strange new ache throbbing in his skull. And for the first time in his life, and for the last time in his life, Everett Fagle wasn’t far off base in blaming a liberal for his troubles.