Don Stoll

State of Nature

I’m the last bloke you’d think would know any philosophy: never a day of uni in my life. But I know a bit about the one true philosopher of our time, old Tom Hobbes.

Acquired my knowledge as a lad, good thirty years ago. “Advanced” for my age, I was. Would go into a pub, usually get told to leave. But one night got served straight off. 

Barman’s drawing my half when bird next to me says, “Make it a pint.”

Smiling she says, “I’m a nihilist,” me with no clue what she means. 

She sees that, says, “Sorry, studying philosophy at uni.”  

She’s twenty. I can’t believe my luck. We get pissed. 

Next morning I wake up in her bedsit. She’s sitting up, sheet pulled up to cover herself. Me wondering why she bothers since I’ve seen it all. Or would have, night before. I can’t remember how she looks, so maybe there’s sense in her covering up. 

I say, “Last night’s a blur, so we do it again this morning it’ll be like the first time.”  

I laugh thinking that was a good one. She nods the sort of nod that means she’s not listening, and her smile from the pub is gone. I think Bloody hell, now that she sees me in the full light of day. . .  

I come clean, say, “I’m fifteen but no way you could have known, that’s on me.” 

Her smile comes back. She lowers the sheet. Lovely jog to the memory, that was. Tells me she knew I was a baby, had only been pondering her hangover. 

She says, “Sod your age,” and, “Danny, right?” 

I say, “Close, luv.” 

I call her luv because I’m fucked if I can remember her name. 

I say, “It’s Davy.”

Sliding down on the bed I say, “But you call me whatever long as you call me for mealtime.”

After a minute she says something I can’t make out because she’s got my ears clamped. But the calm way she says it, like she’s ordering breakfast in the same place she goes every morning, tells me I’m not doing a proper job. Takes practice, I guess.

She says, “No worries, Danny or Davy, come on up here.”  

I obey. Kiss her mouth wondering what she tastes more, herself or the skinful I’d had night before, not just coming out of my mouth but out of every pore. Whatever she tastes she doesn’t mind.

The kiss finally over I say, “So that’s it, sod the law?”    

She says, “Give it a minute, sod more than the law.”  

I wasn’t hard all the way till she said that.   

“Yeah, sod the law,” she says. “State of nature’s coming, and in such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no. . .”

I try to kiss her mouth again but she says, “Clever bloke you should know about, Thomas Hobbes.”

I say, “Professor of yours?” 

She says, “Look him up,” and, “Abridged version for you: in the state of nature there is no society; and continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” 

I say, “You going to flip over?” and she says, “Didn’t I say give it a minute?” 

She says, “Anyway, I promise you the state of nature’s coming.”

Not long after I did what she told me, looked up Hobbes. Seemed like bollocks.

Till the oceans started rising.

***

Thirty years after my unusual lesson in philosophy, I pissed off for the States. If the planet was drowning, better to be somewhere with more land. It would take longer to go under. Immigration ban didn’t frighten me because by that time, amidst the general chaos, passports had become incidental and enforcement at ports of entry was slipshod. It was mostly vigilante, meaning that as long as you were white and you sounded American, you were safe. I can do a number of Yank accents. I chose Midwest.

Enforcement at the ports was a joke. I brought in an old Westley Richards droplock double rifle in my luggage. Knew I’d find use for it. Bloke can always find use for a rifle. 

Course, you could still ask why not stick to dry ground in the middle of the States instead of heading for California. But I never thought about putting down roots there, with less ground all the time where they could get a purchase. My thinking was that California had been rich, so all the posh people fleeing to high ground would have left loads of swag. Help myself, then piss off to dry, beautiful Montana was my plan.

Took over a place in this sodding ghost town. Assumed I had no neighbors. Then evening came, lights went on at a place a couple of hundred meters away. Could have moved, but I decided to observe through the glasses first. Thought I might as well stay put unless they were going to give me trouble. 

Old chap, young woman. His daughter, I think, come at no small risk to herself to talk him into moving. Wouldn’t have been the first old chap to insist on staying in a doomed house he’d lived in forever.

Next day old chap’s on his deck with a rifle, blasting away at a wolf well out of range. He’s bloody starkers. I think, Off his head, and his daughter has to tolerate it. 

Then she prances out onto the deck also not wearing a stitch. Strokes the rifle barrel, then starts stroking elsewhere. Then decides more than stroking’s needed. Use your imagination.

But it’s no good. He hangs his head, that not being the only thing left hanging. She goes back in the house.  

Need to meet them, I thought. And once I had, him saying their names were Frank and Ludmilla Pride and she was his third wife, the way she looked at me told me she was aching for a younger bloke. I’m thinking he’d introduced her as his third wife to hint that he’s got one who looks like this now, imagine the women he had when he was younger.  

I think, Not sure you could have done better. And, You’re young no more, lad.          

Anyway, he’s doing all the talking. But finally he says, “This man’s no danger to you, Ludmilla, you can talk.”  

She says, “Is pleasure to meet you,” in an accent you’d have needed a chainsaw to cut. He says he’d brought her to the States right before the ban on immigration passed. So I understood why he’d told her not to worry about me: I hadn’t used my phony Yank accent. I also understood why she’d stayed with him in this ghost town instead of heading inland where the younger blokes were, but also where the hordes wouldn’t give a toss that she was legal. They hear her and know she’s a foreigner, she’s done.   

We chatted more. Frank said he’d been mayor of the city when it was a city. 

“Practically Mayor for Life,” he said.

That made me curious. But truth is that after we parted ways, I thought more about Ludmilla than about Frank. 

Anyway, place I’d taken over happened to be near the city library. I thought one day I’d have a snoop around. Never been a reader, but you never know. I didn’t have to break in: the staff had fled without bothering to lock up.    

I poked about and came across the old newspapers. I recalled “Mayor for Life” and thought I’d see what there was to read about Frank. There was loads. 

City, when it really was a city, had an interesting story too. And Frank’s own story tied up with it.     

***

Frank Pride had liked to boast about his success in the stock market. And he liked to say that a winner in business would also be a winner in politics. 

Critics said he’d been lucky to exit the market just before it crashed in 2002 and 2007, and lucky to jump back in as it was about to tick up.  

“You know what makes someone a critic of me?” he liked to say when he was campaigning for mayor. “Not being as rich as I am.” 

Ecstatic applause.

“History teaches that markets rise and fall. You’ve heard about the first-ever market bubble, the one for tulips that burst four hundred years ago? I learned that markets rise and fall from my old Dutch uncle who got out of tulips at the right time back in 1637.”

Frank must have been proud of that joke, knowing he was the last forty-five-year-old man in the world that anyone would mistake for four hundred. Losing his hair, but fit. And his wife gave proof of his vigor. He would deliver his tulip line and then turn to where Wife Number Two, the former Olga Orlova, a beauty barely half his age, was sitting. Frank would present her with a fresh tulip. 

“History also teaches,” he’d add after kissing her, “that the oceans rise and fall.”

He would scan his audience for the right face before delivering his next line. 

“Sir, you remember when a morning stroll could take you from Alaska to Russia?”

A smile would spread across the face of the chosen old geezer.

“But don’t try that now unless you’re from Galilee,” Frank would smile back.

He would pause for laughter.   

“And Mr.”. . . (he’d pause again so the old chap could shout his name) “you also remember the Ice Age. So you’ve learned that the climate changes and oceans rise and fall, just like my Dutch uncle learned that markets rise and fall. And I say now’s the time to be smart about rising and falling ocean levels, so we can profit from them just like we profit from rising and falling markets. I say we unincorporate Beach Flats now before the ocean covers it. Then we reincorporate later after the ocean has washed away the mess!”    

Frank would have to shout so that his audience could hear him over their cheers.

***

The Beach Flats neighborhood was cut in half by a river that flowed from the mountains to the sea. The first people to live there after the Ohlone Indians were Italian fishing families, with some Portuguese mixed in. Some of those families built restaurants. As the waters got fished out, the restaurants remained. Every one of the restaurants lining the pier was either Italian or Portuguese. 

By the time there was no more fishing you’d have seen, if you looked back toward land from the pier, Beach Heights North on your left and Beach Heights South on your right. The ocean views made this real estate to kill for. 

A time came when the rich people on Beach Heights decided to buy enough of Beach Flats to make room for an amusement park. This would bring money into a neighborhood that would never see fishing money again. The new park straddled the river and it had a roller coaster, like every amusement park. But what made the reputation of this particular park was the river. From the bridge connecting the two halves of the park you could look down on “mermaids,” girls paid to swim back and forth under the bridge.

Eventually, the park suffered from mismanagement. Best example: the “adult swims,” when the mermaids swam naked and admission to the park doubled and by paying double again you could swim with them. Absolutely my cup of tea, I don’t mind saying. But amusement parks do best when Mum and the kiddies feel comfortable. 

The adult swims finally went away. But they’d polluted the atmosphere, making it welcoming to every sort of sleaze. In particular, the old Beach Flats Italian and Portuguese families had been replaced by a new “demographic,” if you get my meaning. Heights people looked down on Flats people in more way than one. 

So Beach Heights fell in love with Frank’s plan to unincorporate Beach Flats. Its “demographic” would have to provide for themselves the services that Beach Heights and the rest of the city had got fed up paying for.   

“Low moral values keep the Beach Flats property values low,” Frank would say. “I’m going to let the ocean scrub the filth out of there. Then, when the time is right, I’ll go back in to build great moral values and great property values.”              

As for the pier thrusting from Beach Flats deep into the bay, Frank’s plan was not to unincorporate. The money saved by unincorporating the Flats would pay for new access roads and bridges to the pier, bypassing the Flats. Direct access from the Flats would be denied. Though some people said that new access roads and bridges wouldn’t save the pier from rising ocean levels, Frank had an answer. The savings from unincorporating the Flats would pay for construction of a sturdier, taller pier. 

There were happy memories of the glory days of the pier’s Italian and Portuguese restaurants, but good families had stopped going because they didn’t like passing through Beach Flats. However, Frank’s plan was to take apart the old restaurants plank by plank and put them back together on the new pier, far above the waves. 

Diners who didn’t want to think about Beach Flats would have their view of it blocked by a wall of steel and concrete. Nothing excited the crowds at Frank’s rallies as much as watching him get worked up about the wall.

***

Long after the end of his third term as mayor, Frank planned to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday with his wife. I wondered how much he had to celebrate.

During the thirty years since he’d first become mayor, the ocean had submerged Beach Flats, driving out the old “demographic” like rats from a sinking ship. But then the ocean had submerged the pier, meaning the old one. New access roads and bridges had been affordable, but it turned out that the new pier hadn’t. The ocean had gone on to submerge also Beach Heights North and Beach Heights South and nearly all of the rest of Frank’s city. He’d moved several miles inland while the rest of the population had moved farther inland still, to places like Minneapolis and Missoula. 

Why hadn’t Frank gone, too? Concern for Ludmilla’s safety? Perhaps. But my guess is that stubbornness had to be a big part of it. Same stubbornness that had made him stick to his guns about rising and falling ocean levels even when scientists told him there was no evidence that the falling would start soon enough.

I went looking for Frank and Ludmilla on his birthday. My lorry was loaded. I wanted company for the drive to Montana.

But would she go with me to where her not being a proper Yank would be an issue? I’d need to show her I could protect her, be hard in more ways than one.   

Frank and Ludmilla had their guns and I had my Westley Richards.       

“Bulls and bears,” Frank said. “Never saw them in the old days.”

He always talked about the sodding bulls and bears. Story was, a rancher who’d left for the Midwest had abandoned his cattle, bulls included. And what with depopulation, the grizzlies had come back. You never dared go walking without a gun. 

“You going to shoot something for your birthday dinner?” I said. 

“I used to like turducken on my birthday,” he said. “You know turducken?”

I shook my head.

“A chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey and cooked that way. You slice it and get the meat of all three birds at once.”

Frank beamed.

“How about stuffing a bull inside a bear,” he said. “Or a bear inside a bull?”

Ludmilla shook her head. They had no staff to do the work.   

I was tired of small talk. I knew I was taking a gamble since I might have misjudged her attachment to him. But I’d made up my mind. 

Thinking of old Tom Hobbes and the state of nature, I raised my Westley Richards and emptied it into Frank’s chest.

I looked at Ludmilla. Maybe she didn’t like having blood sprayed all over her.   

She looked down at herself. I held my breath. 

She smiled. I let out my breath. 

“Come to Montana with me,” I said. “I can protect you.”

“I need a shower first.”

I had an idea.

“How about we go tomorrow? While you shower, I shoot a bull and a bear. We’ll do the stuffing together. Curious to taste it.”

She nodded.   

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