Fosters Night By Paul deParrie

Chapter 11

           I rode the ancient schoolbus that passed for an underground transport. The price of the ticket had been exorbitant because the seller sensed my desperate circumstances. He asked no questions but obviously jacked up the price to cover "certain risk factors." The back of the bus contained shelves where riders could stretch out sleeping bags.

           I had neglected to bring mine so I scrunched on the hard bench seat and tried to sleep with my coat covering my legs. The mountain pass we traversed was not snowbound but skiffs of snow littered the ground and the temperature spiked below freezing.

           Most of the crew were aging hippies and young drifters cut loose from colleges and family. Altogether, they were a gregarious bunch, but I withdrew from any offers of company.

           My fears of discovery and feelings of guilt absorbed me and made me appear so much more the fugitive -- though I didn't realize that this was so.

           As I tried to sleep in the afternoon grayed by low, heavy clouds, I started with the realization that I had not left word for Raylene or the collectors that I was fleeing.

           The guy on the other end won't know I'm coming, I thought with alarm.

           I cast about in my mind for a way to remedy the situation. The signal had been a letter drop -- had it been a phone call, I could have used the next payphone. But there was no help for it. Adrenaline tensed my body.

           What would I do once in Arizona? every nerve seemed to ask repeatedly.

           On my second day on the road, I snagged a copy of the Seattle paper. In the Local section, a blurb noted my disappearance. There was a hint that I might be sick or "disoriented." The picture was a bad one taken by the paper when I was minus a few pounds and plus some of my hair but the general appearance was close enough for recognition.

           Two pages later, apparently unrelated, there was an article that noted the mugging death of a psychological counselor named Ridley Daves in an alleyway in an old part of town. I tried to imagine what they were up to -- not even quite sure who the "they" were.

           Trask? Absolutely! The police? Probably. The brass at the paper? Likely. Just what is their game? I wondered. But I was not up for much deductive reasoning. My mind was crowded with other things.

           My false identity as Aaron White would stand fairly close scrutiny but it would be caught by any truly professional inspection. I knew there was probably a manhunt going on and that police agencies would be searching for someone about my age and build. Their search would be aided by the story in the paper whose readers would no doubt be anxious to help. I had to maintain a low profile.

           My only hope was that Raylene or the other collectors would see the story in the paper and make the connection that I was headed for the underground. Perhaps they would take it upon themselves to pass the word to the man in Phoenix. On this issue, I could only wait. I passed the rest of the afternoon restlessly nodding and waking in turn. A couple behind me played grating tunes on their disk player while they fondled one another under a blanket as if they were in a private suite. Finally, I rose and found an unoccupied platform in the vehicle, and spread out upon it with my tote bag as my pillow.

           "Like to borrow a sleeping bag, mister," a small feminine voice came after I had fruitlessly tossed for a comfortable position for several minutes. "We have an extra."

           The girl couldn't have been more than 16-years-old. The young man looked to be about 20 -- maybe more. They were sitting on the bottom platform across the bus from me. Beneath them there was a bedroll spread out and a sleeping bag rolled up at one end.

           I was becoming desperate for sleep.

           "You sure you won't need it?" I croaked.

           "Not till we get to Phoenix," she answered. "That's where we get off."

           "Me too," I said. "And I would be most grateful for the use of that bag."

           It took only moments to drop off once I had the small comfort of the bag under me to soften the bed.

           When I awoke at midnight, the stale, sweet odor of marijuana hung heavily in the air. I looked around and everyone save the driver and an old hippie were asleep. Outside the terrain could not be discovered. The dimly lighted grayness of the highway and stark glare of a highway sign were the only things to be seen. The old hippie was conversing in a low voice with the driver. It seemed to be a metaphysical conversation as the words "ethereal" and "consciousness" seemed to play a major role.

           Lacking any other diversion, I strained to listen.

           ". . . like a cosmic scale of justice," the hippie ended his thought.

           The driver glanced over at the long-haired man. "You really think there's justice in the universe?"

           "Yeah, man. It's like karma or something. What goes around, comes around, you know!"

           "I dunno," the driver continued. "I mean, where did this 'karma' come from? Did it just happen as part of the Big Bang or evolution? Where did 'justice' evolve from? And is 'justice' an earmark of the next stage of evolution? It seems to me that the unjust -- the oppressors -- are the winners in this world and natural selection always chooses the strongest to survive."

           "Wow, that's heavy, man," the hippie responded. "I never thought of that before. What a flash!"

           Listening to the conversation was like entering a time machine and going back to the 1960s. It was the kind of philosophy everyone had been talking about then. The old hippie even retained some of the vernacular.

           The driver spoke again. "The way I figure it, 'justice' is what's right for me and what I can get away with. After all, if I'm just a part of a Big Bang, cooled into a planet, given life by a chance mixture of chemicals, made human by a series of successful mutations, and placed at the top of the heap by having inherited superior qualities, then where is the place for 'karma' or 'justice' unless they are just scare tactics to keep the lesser men in their place?"

           "Sounds pretty cold, man," the hippie replied."Yeah, it is cold. But then, so is the universe."

           The hippie appeared to think it over for a few minutes. The bus hummed along the highway as if bearing full speed down a tunnel.

           After a time, the hippie ran his fingers through his hair, looked at the driver and asked, "But don't you think there is any limit on that kind of philosophy? Like, it's one thing to do your own thing, but that's gotta be done without busting up somebody else's thing, right?"

           "I don't know why," the driver answered. "There are no absolutes of right and wrong, right? Each person decides what's right for them, right?"

           The hippie nodded and the driver went on. "Then what makes it so-called 'wrong' to mess up your 'thing' -- maybe that's my thing."

           "But we have to draw a line somewhere, don't we?" the hippie asked in surprise.

           "What? And establish absolutes again? There aren't any. And even if we agreed to arbitrarily make some, who decides what they are? You? Me? The government? Well, I'll tell you who, it's the strong -- the ones that evolution favors anyway. And guess what? The rules have never applied to them at all."

           "Yeah, but their karma will get them," the hippie assured.

           "Oh, really? Got any evidence of that? Seems to me a lot of these guys get off scot free and there's no evidence that they get reincarnated -- they're just dead."

           The old hippie said nothing. He knew his arguments were no match for the driver's conclusions but he did not know why. The conversation was frightening. The driver's words did not bother me so much as the old hippie's inability to respond to the challenge. But it was not simple ignorance. Both actually operated under the same philosophy -- do your own thing -- only the driver was more honest about the consequences of his beliefs. People like him were rare -- fortunately. But the fact that a broad spectrum of people held the same nihilistic belief and still regarded themselves as basically good people was terrifying. The thought of three hundred fifty million Americans each "doing their own thing" -- and with no one allowed to believe in absolutes, much less try to impose them -- was a fearful awakening.

Ideas and Consequences
           With a primarily uneducated populace -- or at least one with a stunted education -- it was much simpler to find a home for philosophies that would have been immediately dismantled by critical thinking. People became used to thinking with their glands. If an idea was presented in a way that evoked good feelings, it was accepted. It was simpler to sell the vacuous Desiderata with its "Go placidly among the noise and haste. . ." than to accept the thundering of "Thou shalt not. . ." from Moses on Mt. Sinai.
           In the same way that advertising products was perverted from a display of actual quality to making the consumer feel good about the product, ideas were also marketed. Serious discourse on important issues came down to who had the best feelings attached to their side of the issue. Often times the remnant of those better trained in debate were unprepared for audiences who would not respond to rational, logical debate and facts. They would simply stare at the debater uncomprehendingly. Thus, the advantage went to the sloganeer who best understood the mental temper of the times.
           The consequences of the ideas accepted by the popular mind became quickly apparent.
           The overarching belief of late 20th century Americans could be summed up as, Do your own thing. It was variously stated as:
           Different strokes for different folks.
           Each person must decide what is right for them.
           There are no absolutes.
           Right and wrong are situational.

           It did not matter if the people actually understood that this was what they believed, the results were the same -- chaos. In the midst of this was a nearly universal acceptance of the maxim, "Your right to do your thing ends where it interferes with my right to do mine."
           No one, however was quite willing to draw any line on where that interference began. Since no one would draw any lines, the nation was left with hundreds of millions of free moral agents each trying to do their own thing heedless of others doing the same.
           Another comfortable idea that gained ascendancy was that there were no "bad" people. This soon flowered into the idea that there were no bad acts, merely responses to bad parents, bad experiences, bad genes, bad memories, or some other stimuli. With this, people could feel good about the wrong they did since they were just "acting out" on some unfortunate past incident -- it was all so easy to understand why people did wrong when they were seen as helpless pawns of their fates.

*      *      *

           It was five days before the lackadaisical transport line's bus pulled into Phoenix. The majority had voted for a two-day stop at the Grand Canyon. The few who opposed it simply had to suffer it.

           I later discovered that it was on the second day at the canyon when the collectors back in Seattle released the first of my scathing societal exposes. The reactions were mixed. Copies appeared all over town and some had been inserted in the local paper along with the ads. The paper and police decried the leaflets as "fraudulent" and "a sick joke."

           They expressed continued concern for my safety and whereabouts while denying the possibility of my authorship of the tracts. An editorialist for an alternative paper hinted that I had been kidnapped by a "group of fanatic, fundamentalist political regressives" and that I had been forced to write the flyer. Most appeared not to bite on that.

           vThere was shock when the second flyer went into circulation. Regular readers claimed that the writing style was definitely mine but the paper announced that their experts had determined that it was not.

           Meanwhile, I arrived in Phoenix. The desert nights were cold and I had no more desire to expose myself to them than to expose myself to renting a motel.

           I made an immediate call to the contact and prayed that Raylene had contacted him."This is Aaron White," I told him.

           There was a silence at the other end then he asked. "Just got in, huh?"I knew the sequence.

           "Yeah, a long and winding road." The key phrase came from a now ancient -- and probably forgotten by most -- Paul McCartney tune.

           "Winding from where?" he asked.

           "From the north," I replied.He told me where and when to meet him. I asked at a local bus stop how to get to that location and hopped aboard. It took about half an hour to make my destination but I was there more than an hour early. I sought the transitory solace of a coffee shop across the street from the rendezvous.

           The restaurant was large and designed to accommodate travelers from the nearby highway going east. Two rows of paper racks stood sentry outside the double front doors. Several contained local papers but the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post were also represented.

           I selected the L.A. sheet and went inside. I hadn't had a leisurely meal since leaving home. Even at my stop at the Grand Canyon, the food consisted mostly of brown rice and other undiscoverable "natural" substances, so that even though there was leisure, there was none of what I would consider a meal.

           "Coffee," I signaled the waitress as I sat at a small, two-man booth.She answered with a questioning look.

           "Real. Leaded," I answered in response to her wordless query. She brought the globe of the liquid over and filled the cup before me. "I won't need a menu. Just get me a Spanish omelet, heavy on the cheese, OK?"

           She whipped out her electronic keypad and entered the order.

            "Anything else, sir?"

           "That's it for now," I smiled in anticipation of the meal. I figured that all the nuts and grains I had eaten in the last few days would more than make up for the cholesterol overdose I was about to encounter. I seized the flavor of each bite.

           I opened the paper and began to browse for interesting stories. My eyes froze on the now familiar picture of my own face. It wasn't a large story but it chronicled the events since my disappearance and the controversy over the articles I had written.

           Trask was represented as a long-time friend and confidant who said, "It's a shame that social regressives would take what is developing into a tragedy and warp it to their own ends. This is very disturbing. For all we know, Foster may be dead."

           Yeah , you wish , Trask! I thought.

           I could just imagine Trask and his cronies trying to find a way to make all this fit their agenda.

           When I had finished eating, I looked at the clock and realized that it was nearly time for me to be across the street. I dropped a generous tip, paid at the front desk, and headed across the street.

           I stood looking about me for several minutes when the words "Mr. White? Mr. White?" invaded my consciousness.

           I felt no need to respond until I suddenly recalled my new identity. I turned to see a young man in a small, older model electricar. It was one of the ones made before they had discovered truly compact electric storage batteries. I knew that in the trunk was all motor and under the hood was all battery. The car was still small. It would carry two comfortably -- and three with some judicious squeezing. I stowed my tote bag behind the seat and climbed in without a word.

           "I will take you to a safe place, Mr. White. You'll be there for a couple of days or more while some people talk with you," the young man explained.

           He seemed barely old enough to be driving much less involved in clandestine operations like this. I guessed that he was a good part Hispanic with his dark hair and complexion. He was a good looking, healthy youth who probably would be involved in sports -- if he were not here fetching a fugitive.

           "Sounds OK to me," I replied.

*      *      *
           Two days later, I died.

           The wire story appeared even in the Phoenix paper about the discovery of my body off the side of a hiking trail in the woods. I was stunned to see my own death reported so simply. Trask was quoted as saying what a wonderful, sensitive man I was. I had never been accused of either before.

           Police were quick to point out that it appeared that I had been dead for five or six days.

           "This should end those bogus articles we've had floating around," said a captain.

           There were several comments from readers and one from my editor saying what a great writer I was and how I would be missed. The news was even reported on one of the major TV networks. Somehow I didn't feel like a celebrity.

           I was well quartered so there was little chance of discovery but I was a little upset at the way the authorities had faked my death for their own convenience. I wondered what effect the smothering falsehood would have upon the acceptance of my parting shots -- and upon those who distributed them. I later discovered that a small contingent of people believed that I was still alive, though any attempt to acknowledge that was viewed as gross "insensitivity" (Horrors!) and subject to suspicion of psychological problems.

           The gulags would be the end for anyone publicly accepting the articles as genuine. So, as usual, a small underground of people who questioned the status quo grew below the patina of unbridled tolerance and civility.

*      *      *

           "It's a good thing that your contacts figured out what was going on before you got here," the man told me. He was called Mike and he had me stored in a furniture warehouse on the southern edge of town.

           The young man who picked me up had taken me there and dropped me off without revealing his own name -- I never saw him again.

           "But now that we have you debriefed, we have to ship you out," he continued brushing his long blonde hair away from his eyes. "We have a long ride ahead and we can make no unscheduled stops so use the head now, OK?"

           I nodded and headed toward the bathroom door. My kit was already packed and I was anxious to depart after having spent three weeks holed up inside this building. I longed to see something out of doors. Thus I was surprised and disappointed when I was led in through the side doors of a windowless van with a curtain drawn across between the back and the driver's area.

           "Hey, can't I sit up front?"

           "No can do," Mike replied. "I'm staying back here with you so you don't look out. You're not to know where you are when we get you there. About all you'll know is that you are in or around Arizona -- and that's a lot of area."

           "But you know that I checked out, Mike. Why all the secrecy?"

           "This goes for everybody except on a need-to-know basis. If you ever went back outside for any reason, you couldn't lead anybody to the community," he explained.

           I relaxed when I finally saw the wisdom of the method. It was better for the collectors and the communities to fully adjust to secrecy before the need was as great than to try to tighten up the ship after the closer scrutiny began. I sat in the back of the stifling van for many hours. My bladder began to complain -- especially after the roads became rougher. The van would seem to be on a smooth highway one moment, then on a rough track, then back to a smooth road. The van turned and twisted though the roads for most of the day. Mike dozed the whole time.

           Finally, the drive ended. I climbed out after Mike and looked at the surrounding dry hills. From beneath an overhang came a small knot of men. This was my first sight of the Old Man. I would never have guessed that the Old Man was in charge.I was immediately shown to my quarters and, on the following day, interviewed by the Old Man and two others.

           Over the next week I could feel the unknotting of the tensions that had been building for years and had been greatly exacerbated after my fateful meeting with Trask. The evil wariness drained from me -- though a reserve was held for my new company in the community.

           The religious atmosphere was pervasive, though very natural in its presence. It was with great unease that I lived in their midst as I could almost sense the blood on my hands. It seemed as though the community all knew of my guilt.

           The Old Man, and then Jones, put me more at ease over time. This project helped me to bridge the gap between my old world and this new one.

           Probably my most difficult adjustment was having to be so dependent on others as was necessary in the community.

Individuality v Society
            One of the immediate results of autonomy of moral values being taught in 20th century America was the inordinate emphasis on the individual over the responsibility to others. Individuality is a cherished Western concept but in former times had been carefully blended with duty to one's fellow man.
           Thus, in revolutionary times, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution were not afraid to assert freedom of speech because all were in general agreement that this freedom was within certain bounds -- and that those bounds were respective of men's responsibilities towards others. There was a moral consensus.
           George Washington and others pointed out that freedom without self-restraint would be chaos -- and thus it has been fulfilled in the modern age where the freedom itself has become the highest virtue. Man's inborn perversity and abilities for self-deception had led him to imagine that freedom means having no restraint whatsoever. Yet, man's greatest periods of progress have all been times when ideas were free and actions were dictated by self-control.
           The idea that a person is only responsible for himself (and not even that, when in therapy) for his "values," led to a societal carelessness about how others were affected by the exercise of various freedoms. Women and children were degraded into objects of pleasure in pornography. "Chronic users of medical services" were ignored to death. Parents were allowed to abandon their children and each other in "no fault" divorce. Even auto insurance assigned no blame for accidents.Immersing myself in my assigned writing project, helped me begin to appreciate the need for the interdependence of the community. The balancing act in the community was precarious.

           Everyone was expected to bear the safety of the community in mind, but the actual list of rules was kept at a minimum.

           I came quickly to love the solace and safety of his new life.

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