(warnings: language, adult themes, social commentary, public nudity, spanking, sex between adults)
Introduction - Thoughts on my sixth novel
“The Outsider” is my sixth novel and follows the lives of two protagonists, Mike Sinclair and Ruthie Burns. Mike Sinclair appeared briefly in the beginning chapters of “The Freshman” as Lisa Campbell’s original boyfriend, but I had Lisa break up with him and banished him to California when I felt that his presence in the novel was slowing down the plot. Mike continued to stay in the back of my mind as a possible future protagonist however, assuming that I ever wanted to write a story that takes place in California.
Ruthie is a totally new character, but elements of her appear in the characters of previous novels: most notably Kathleen from “The Pledge Mistress” and Wendy Li from “The Wanderings of Amy”. I created Ruthie because I am interested in using her to explore serious topics such as non-verbal communication disorder, depression, suicidal fantasies, the impact of religion, struggles with sexuality, and class resentment. From the beginning the reader will know that Ruthie is at odds with early 21st Century U.S. society. She is an outcast, and in the story serves as a metaphor of a society that created her and then rejected her. Mike finds himself in a similar situation, although not to the extreme that Ruthie does.
I am fully aware that my newest novel is not for everyone who visits this website. It might disappoint some of the readers of my previous novels, because the world of erotic fantasy that I have created in the previous works of fiction is not part of the setting in which Mike and Ruthie must make their way through life. Some of the places and characters of my previous novels (most notably Lisa Campbell from “The Freshman”) are mentioned in passing, but are not central to the development of “The Outsider”.
“The Outsider” was my most deliberate attempt to write a serious novel instead of a story concentrating on sexual fantasy and alternate reality. There is not much action or adventure, because the novel deals with the story of a friendship and the exploration of two lives against the backdrop of a decaying society. I did include some sexual scenes in the story, but purpose of the scenes was to further the plot. I commented to a reader that my previous novels were erotic stories with some political perspective and social commentary included as part of the backdrop, while “The Outsider is a novel focusing on social issues and political commentary with some eroticism mixed in.
The project strives to examine the decline of the United States from the perspectives of Mike and Ruthie, and by extension their families. This is another difference between “The Outsider” and my previous novels: in my previous projects my characters all have families, but usually family members are not central to the main plot. In “The Outsider” the parents of Mike and Ruthie are much more important for what happens to my two protagonists, so I examine their lives and thoughts more thoroughly. I also go into more detailed descriptions of my protagonists’ jobs, especially Mike’s job, for reasons that will be clear at the end of the story.
In the novel my characters make some personal choices that some readers will find disturbing. I tried to neither justify my characters nor criticize them, but I do try to explain the circumstances that surrounded their decisions. I leave it up to the reader to determine whether the actions taken by Mike, Ruthie, and their parents were “good” or “bad”.
I tried not to judge my characters and their actions, but I make no apologies for judging what is going on in the United States. I am horrified by the impact that globalization, commercialized evangelical Christianity, and the rise of mega-corporations such as Walmart have had on US society. I am just old enough to have seen how the US was before globalization and very strongly feel that nothing in the US has changed for the better since 1980. I feel that the changes in the US have destroyed the lives of the most worth-while and productive people in our country, and that old values such as the work ethic are no longer relevant. These opinions are reflected throughout the narrative of my sixth novel.
My fictional corporation Mega-Town Associates makes an important appearance as part of the story’s backdrop. Mega-Town Associates is loosely based on the real-life corporation Walmart, but it also is a representation of the “anything goes as long as it is profitable” philosophy. I have been accused by some readers of being against capitalism. I am not, but I am against the amoral capitalism practiced by predatory corporations such as Walmart.
Another difference that readers will notice between “The Outsider” and previous novels is my treatment of religion. In my Danubia novels I am creating a world of alternate reality, of which the Danubian Church is a component of that fantasy. Because Danubia is a world that I created, I decided to create a state religion that makes sense for that society and populate it with well-meaning clerics that attempt to act in the best interests of their followers. I even leave open the possibility that the supernatural world can communicate with the realm of the living.
In “The Outsider” I am not kind to religion. Ruthie and Mike come from different Christian denominations, but I make it clear that I do not feel that religion has been a positive influence in either of their lives. I am fully aware that my views on religion will bother some readers. However, I am drawing from my own experiences when I talk about both Mike’s church and Ruthie’s church.
All places mentioned in the novel, with the exception of Davenport State University and a very brief mention of Danubia, exist in real life and are locations that I have actually lived in or visited. (Even Davenport, California is a real place; it’s just that in real life there is no university there). Davenport State University is loosely based on the real one in Santa Cruz, but it is fictionalized because I don’t want to deal with UCSC alumni telling me that this or that detail about their university is inaccurate. With everything else I attempted to keep the details of the story’s setting in Central California as close to real life as possible, while staying within the context of my other fiction.
The written word can be far more powerful than any of us realize. Whatever a person writes will produce consequences at some point in the future. Often consequences manifest themselves in very subtle ways: someone reads that passage and is motivated to act in a way that the author never could have imagined. One small event leads to another, lives are changed, relationships are born or die… and thousands of possibilities are eliminated so that one can become fact and reality.
A single passage from “Red”, a short story penned by British author William Somerset Maugham, was destined to alter the lives of two California college students in such a manner. It was because of just a few words, written nearly a century before; that the lives of Mike Sinclair and Ruthie Burns would be joined, that two perfect strangers would come together and the paths of their lives changed forever.
Chapter 1 - Parking Tickets
Mike Sinclair and Ruthie Burns were students taking classes at the Davenport State University, just north of the town of Santa Cruz in California. The two students were among 50 others who were enrolled in a sophomore-level literature review class titled “British Prose 1902-1945”. Almost everyone taking the course had no intention of studying literature, but the class counted to fill a humanities requirement and was considered an easy “A”. The professor was old enough to realize that he had nothing to prove to anyone, and therefore did not make unrealistic demands of the students. Show up to class, read the books, be able to talk about them, and you’re guaranteed an “A”. Not a bad deal for anyone worried about their GPA.
Mike was beginning his sophomore year. He was a native of California, from a family that had lived in Santa Cruz for decades. Although his parents had never changed their residence, he had traveled about on vacation with his relatives while still in high school, so he was familiar with a lot of different places around the US and the rest of the world. He was well-read and very knowledgeable, which led him to be extremely opinionated about everything. It was very difficult to find a topic that he was neutral about, so he was not the sort of student who mixed well in casual situations. However, if a person needed a study partner or someone on their side in a game of Trivial Pursuit, Mike was their man.
Mike normally showed up to class wearing t-shirts with political logos; usually with a message against corporate capitalism. He bore particular resentment against the US conglomerate Mega-Town Associates. He was active in the anti-MTA group on campus and continuously passed out fliers condemning the company to anyone interested in taking one. It was obvious that in the class he would be one of the students getting an easy “A” because he clearly did read all of the books and had comments for each of them. Most of the other students were content to let Mike pontificate on the assignments, because if he was talking, the others could kick back and not worry about being called upon. Because of Mike’s habit of commenting on everything, the professor was hard-pressed to get his more apathetic classmates to say more than a few words. If a student who didn’t know the answer hesitated long enough, Mike would come to the rescue with a comment or hint. That habit was irritating to the professor whose job it was to sort the students who had done the reading from those who had not, but he respected Mike’s command of the literature to not say anything to him about overshadowing his classmates.
Ruthie was a freshman who had graduated from a high school in Salinas. She always sat up front near the window. She was extremely quiet and never talked unless called upon. During class she habitually stared at the world outside, but it was clear that she was paying attention to the lecture, because she always did know what to say if she was asked a question. There was no question she was a very strange girl, because she fidgeted whenever someone talked to her and never looked a person in the eye during a conversation. Another strange thing about her was her clothing, because she wore so little of it. A pair of old tennis shoes, loose running shorts, and a t-shirt normally were the only things Ruthie put on in the morning. When she sat down and the thin cloth of her t-shirt pressed against her body, it was clear that she was not wearing anything underneath. About once a week she wore even less, a pair of flip-flops and a flimsy dress that was totally open in the back clear down to her waist. She wore no jewelry and no make-up. Her black hair was short, which was good for her because usually it was not combed.
Mike had noticed Ruthie, partly because of her abbreviated clothing and partly because, in spite of her lack of grooming, she was very attractive. She had a petite well-proportioned figure with slightly olive skin, very large dark eyes, and a mouth that was sensuous in a quiet way. He enjoyed looking at her, especially on the days she wore her skimpy dress, but at the same time never entertained thoughts about trying to talk to her. She was too withdrawn, no doubt, to be interesting to talk to.
* * *
The semester progressed as Mike and Ruthie pursued their lives. They both fretted about their classes and their finances, had unpleasant moments with their respective roommates, and worked on term papers.
Ruthie, in spite of her shyness, managed to get a job at the in the Student Center at the coffee shop. Starting the last week of September, she worked from 5:00 am until 11:00 am, taking responsibility for the initial cash count, setting up the equipment for the day, receiving food orders, and opening for business at 7:00. Two co-workers showed up at 7:00, but during the first two hours of each morning Ruthie usually worked alone, which she preferred. She took advantage of the solitude to listen to her favorite news show on Public Radio as she set up. When the newspapers arrived, she took a break to go through them. By the time she actually started serving coffee, Ruthie had thoroughly informed herself about what had happened in the world the day before.
Mike frequently bought coffee at the store before going to class, which meant seeing Ruthie running about in a blue apron worn over her abbreviated clothing. For some reason he felt that she looked sexy in that apron, especially on the days she wore her backless dress. With her bare back it was easy to imagine Ruthie wearing the apron with nothing underneath.
Whether or not Mike wanted to accept it, he was beginning to feel somewhat attracted to his classmate. Throughout October he still did not imagine that he would ever have any type of relationship with her, because she definitely “was not his type”. However, he had to admit that he enjoyed looking at her. He started leaving money in the tip jar, but only did so when Ruthie was working. Mike was not an overly generous person with his money, but he was willing to part with a dollar each time he bought coffee in exchange for a slight smile of gratitude from her.
Nevertheless, throughout October Mike’s mind was not on Ruthie except when she was nearby. When he saw her in class or in the Student Center, his thoughts about her were a vague attraction, and that was about it. At that point in his life he certainly was not losing any sleep over her. He still took it for granted that her strange, quiet personality would not suit him and that what he needed to do was find another political activist like himself. Yes, that was what he needed, someone who understood the evils being committed by those who love money, a strong woman whose intellect could match his.
* * *
The assigned readings in the literature class for the third week of October included several stories by William Somerset Maugham, which included the classic “Red”. Assigned questions requested the students to comment on Maugham’s attitudes about colonialism, his concept of class, his descriptions of interracial relationships, and his attitude towards women. That night Mike and Ruthie took their respective copies of Maugham’s stories home and read the following:
And so the little wooden house was built in which he had now lived for many years, and Sally became his wife. But after the first few weeks of rapture, during which he was satisfied with what she gave him, he had known little happiness. She had yielded to him, through weariness, but she had only yielded what she set no store on. The soul which he had dimly glimpsed escaped him. He knew that she cared nothing for him. She still loved Red, and all the time she was waiting for his return. At a sign from him, Neilson knew that, notwithstanding his love, his tenderness, his sympathy, his generosity, she would leave him without a moment's hesitation. She would never give a thought to his distress. Anguish seized him and he battered at that impenetrable self of hers which sullenly resisted him. His love became bitter. He tried to melt her heart with kindness, but it remained as hard as before: he feigned indifference, but she did not notice it.
Sometimes he lost his temper and abused her, and then she wept silently. Sometimes he thought she was nothing but a fraud, and that soul simply an invention of his own, and that he could not get into the sanctuary of her heart because there was no sanctuary there. His love became a prison from which he longed to escape, but he had not the strength merely to open the door - that was all it needed - and walk out into the open air. It was torture and at last he became numb and hopeless. In the end the fire burnt itself out and, when he saw her eyes rest for an instant on the slender bridge, it was no longer rage that filled his heart but impatience. For many years now they had lived together bound by the ties of habit and convenience, and it was with a smile that he looked back on his old passion.
Mike had plenty to say about the passage. He was still bitter over the break-up with his girlfriend the previous Christmas, and he projected his bitterness onto the character Sally. He berated the fictional woman for being so selfish and for not taking advantage of the fact that someone decent loved her, that she was interested only in the guy who was better-looking but totally irresponsible. To that the professor responded:
“Yes, Mike, I do see your point. But this story has two sides… maybe three if you want to throw in Red. Sally, too, has a perspective, although I don’t think Maugham developed it very well. Anyone want to comment?”
To the surprise of everyone in the class, Ruthie’s hand shot up.
“Yeah, when I read this it pissed me off what that creep Neilson did to her. He wanted her to be his fucking toy. That’s what he wanted. He didn’t love her, because if he did, he would’ve left her alone… and he didn’t even have the guts to go after her himself.”
Mike moved to the edge of his seat and his hand went up, but the professor ignored him.
“Interesting, Ruthie. Care to elaborate on that last statement?”
“I mean… he forced her to marry him. And he did it by getting her family to nag at her until she couldn’t take it any more. He forced her to do something she didn’t want to do, and then he had the nerve to get pissed off when she wasn’t happy. I mean… I wouldn’t be happy either if I had to be owned by some sicko, and that fucking sicko wouldn’t let me have what I really wanted.”
Mike tightened his lips and kept his hand up until finally the professor recognized him.
“That’s why women are always unhappy! Because they’re all chasing after crap they can’t have instead of being happy with what they do have! She had a hell of a better deal than most women in that place!”
“So? She didn’t want him and he forced her! He never even gave her a chance to talk! I think that totally sucked and he should have spent the rest of his life trying to make it up to her! The rest of his fucking life!”
It was clear that both Mike and Ruthie were dealing with much more than a simple disagreement over an old story. It was obvious that he was projecting his own anger (which was nothing new), but now it was obvious that Ruthie was projecting hers as well. Neilson and Sally were surrogates for their own issues and their own disappointments in life.
For several minutes Mike and Ruthie went back and forth as the rest of the class sat watching them in silence. Mike was his usual argumentative self, but Ruthie’s passionate participation seemed totally out of character for her. As she argued she became angrier and started searching for a way to cut at Mike and get him to shut up. Finally she said something that many other students in the class had felt like saying all semester.
“You know what, Mike? There’s another story in the book called ‘Mr. Know-it-all’. You ought to read it.”
About half of the students knew what Ruthie was talking about, and of those, the majority laughed. There were a few claps and a whistle. Mike sullenly quit talking, because he knew that any response he could think of at the moment would only make the situation worse. Ruthie quit talking as well, seemingly embarrassed by her outburst and show of combativeness. Neither spoke throughout the rest of the class.
That night he read “Mr. Know-it-all”, even though it was not part of the course readings. He cringed as he finished the story, because he realized that Ruthie had been right about him. What was worse was that undoubtedly the story was dead-on about how the other students in the class must have viewed him. His opinion of her changed, because she was a much more perceptive person than her normally shy behavior would have one believe.
* * *
The next morning Mike passed by the Student Center to get his usual cup of coffee. He was an early riser, so he was one of Ruthie’s first customers of the day. On that particular morning she had worn her backless dress. She briefly flashed her large eyes in his direction and began preparing his usual drink, a simple 20-ounce cup of coffee. When she turned around and bent over slightly, her apron bulged forward and he could see the side of one of breasts under her loose clothing.
She blushed as she passed him the cup and took his money.
“I read ‘Mr. Know-it-all’.”
Mike shrugged slightly. “I guess there’s something to what you said.”
Ruthie handed him the change. “More than something...”
“You really think I’m that bad?”
Without looking up, Ruthie opened a carton of half-and-half and poured it into a metal pitcher.
“You’re not that bad, but sometimes you need to know when to shut-up. You know… I hear people in class talking about you, making jokes… because you’re always talking.”
Mike blushed at both her comment and the embarrassing memory of having 20 of his classmates laughing at him. “Well, you didn’t exactly help me yesterday.”
“Why should I? I thought you were wrong and I told you. Why shouldn’t I say what I think, just like you?”
“You really felt that strongly about it?”
“Yeah. I did. I wouldn’t have said anything if I didn’t.” She handed him the pitcher of half-and-half. “Could you do me a favor and set this out on the counter?”
Mike reached around the corner of the stand where there was a shelf full of condiments and napkins. He set down the pitcher. She turned around to dump a filter from the espresso machine and replaced its contents with new coffee grounds. Mike admired the girl’s bare back as she worked and suddenly was hit with an overwhelming urge to run his hands over her smooth skin. Against his wishes, he realized that his feelings about her had dramatically intensified.
He decided to change the subject and see if he could get to know her better. He felt that the fact that she had asked him to do her a favor was an opening, however slight; a hint that she might be willing to talk a bit more about herself and move beyond the unpleasant encounter from the day before.
“So… how do you like it here? Working in the Student Center?”
“It’s OK. Better here than the cafeteria or the pizza place.”
“You don’t mind opening?”
“No. I don’t mind. I like it. I’m used to getting up early from when I was in high school. I get here, and things are quiet. It’s nice, actually… the first part of my day I get to relax and get paid for it.”
Mike hesitated, trying to think of what else to say or ask. A group of sorority girls showed up, chatting loudly and ordering expensive complicated mocha drinks. A co-worker of Ruthie’s came rushing in and threw on his apron. She gave him an unpleasant look, presumably because he had come to work late. The moment to converse had passed. Mike put his usual dollar in the tip jar and left for class.
* * *
After leaving the Student Center, Ruthie rushed back to her dorm to have lunch. She got off work at 11:00 and had her first class of the day at noon. It was imperative that she get something in her stomach after work because her schedule did not allow her to eat breakfast. Going to class with nothing but pastries and coffee in her stomach didn’t cut it. She rushed into the cafeteria, grabbed several pieces of fruit, a glass of orange juice, and some rice, and filled a salad bowl with vegetables. She snuck the fruit into her backpack and ate the rice and salad. She washed everything down with the juice. As always, she ate alone and was out of the dining hall within 10 minutes of sitting down. A quick trip to the bathroom on her floor to piss and brush her teeth, and she was on her way back to central campus. She made it to class just as her professor was about to start lecturing.
At 1:30 Ruthie got out of class and for the first time all day had some time to relax. She had a favorite spot on campus: a tree-covered area that separated the Economics Building from a large parking lot full of parking meters. In theory the lot was for campus visitors, but students filled it up early in the morning and stayed parked at the meters all day. There was a rush in the area in the early morning and late afternoon, but in the middle of the day it was totally quiet and very rarely was anyone around.
During her first week at the university, Ruthie had realized that if she went into the shade under the trees, it was very hard to see her from either the parking lot or the sidewalk leading to the Economics Building. As for the building itself, the foliage completely concealed the ground from the windows. If anyone came from either the parking lot or the building, a person sitting under the trees could see the passerby long before the passerby noticed anyone was sitting under the trees. That detail was important for the way she planned to spend her afternoon.
After making sure no one was in sight, Ruthie laid a towel on the ground and took off her dress. As was normal for her, she wore nothing underneath the flimsy garment. She totally hated having to wear clothing, and had it not been illegal, she would have spent her life in the nude. The light dress was the next best thing, because it covered her enough to keep her within the confines of the law but did not feel suffocating on her skin.
She lay on the towel under the shade and pulled out two textbooks and a notebook. She had about two hours to prepare for her next class, so she’d be relaxing and studying under the pleasant shelter under the leaves with the breeze caressing her bare skin. She pulled out a pear from her backpack and munched on it while she took notes.
After she had been studying for an hour, she heard the whirr of a bicycle coming down the sidewalk. She looked up, but did not bother to get dressed. Bicyclists always went by so fast that they had no time to look towards the trees. Still, just to be sure, she always kept her eye on any bicyclists until they were out of sight.
This time the bicyclist was someone she knew; her classmate Mike Sinclair. He was wearing the uniform of the Campus Parking Department and was loaded down with ticketing paraphernalia. She watched as he dismounted from his bicycle, pulled out his ticketing machine, and approached the first car out of several hundred that were parked at meters that had not been paid. He typed the car’s information into his machine, pulled out what looked like a small receipt, stuffed it into a red envelope, and placed the envelope under the windshield wiper of the car. Within 30 seconds he was done and had moved onto his next victim.
Ruthie watched Mike with concern. The students had been taking advantage of the lot to park at the meters all day without paying, which meant that no one could get a spot after classes started and the area was deserted after 9:00 am. If the freeloaders were chased out and the meters used by people who actually paid them, there would be a lot more movement in and out of the lot and she would lose her private spot to lie out naked. What could she say to Mike: don’t do your job so I can lie here in the nude? That probably wouldn’t work.
Mike went up one row of cars and worked his way down the next, ticketing each and every one. A frat guy yelled at him:
“Hey, parking Nazi! How’s it feel to be paid to be an asshole?”
“Feels great! How’s it feel to be born an asshole?”
Ruthie smiled at Mike’s comeback. She continued to watch as he came closer and closer to where she was sitting. She decided to put on her dress when she heard the faint rattle of the ticketing machine’s printer. It was close to the time she had to leave anyway. She packed up her books and walked out to where her classmate was working.
“Still working on trying to be popular? I don’t think this is the best way to do it.”
Mike understood that Ruthie was trying to make a joke. He was not a humorous person, but tried to play along with her:
“Well, if I can’t be famous, at least I can be infamous.”
Ruthie smiled slightly. She asked Mike how the ticketing machine worked, since she had never seen one up close before. The device looked like a very large calculator with a roll of receipt paper on the end. Mike allowed Ruthie to look over his shoulder as he used his finger on a touchpad to type in information on the car he was ticketing: license plate, description of the vehicle, violation, and if it was present, the student parking permit number.
“Here, you can push ‘print’ if you want.”
Ruthie pushed the “print” prompt and the ticket was printed out. Mike tore it off and stuck it into a red envelope. He looked the fanny-pack that contained his ticketing supplies and quietly said: “shit”.
“I’m running out of envelopes. I’ve hit pay-dirt in this lot and now I have to go back for more envelopes. I didn’t realize I’d need so many.”
“Stats. Management pays attention to how many tickets we write each month, and it looks like it hasn’t occurred to anyone to come over here to this lot. It’s just meter tickets, but they’ll add up.”
“So… you’re gonna be ticketing here? Permanently? Not just today?”
“You bet. This’ll be my new home. All these violators… I didn’t realize these meters weren’t getting paid. This’ll be great for my stats.”
Mike noticed the disappointed look on Ruthie’s face. “Are… you… OK?”
“Yeah… I’m fine.”
Mike was puzzled by his companion’s expression, because she didn’t look fine. She looked very depressed.
“Ruthie, I mean… if you’ve got your car here, just tell me what it looks like and I won’t ticket it.”
“I don’t have a car.”
“Then, what’s wrong?”
“It’s nothing… really…”
“You got friends parking here?”
“I don’t have any friends… uh… I mean… I don’t have any friends who are parking here…. that’s what I mean.”
Ruthie blushed; not just because of the slip, but also because her correction was not convincing and she knew it.
“Look, I gotta go to class. I’m running late.” She turned to walk off.
She stopped and looked back over her shoulder at Mike. “What?”
“Are you working tomorrow?”
“I’ll see you then. Jo as always.”
Mike watched her as she walked towards the Econ Building. The late afternoon sunlight shined through her dress and made the cloth almost transparent. His heart stopped as he studied her attractive figure and realized that she was not wearing any panties. He wondered if she was aware of the extent to which her body was visible under that thin cloth.
* * *
As soon as Ruthie disappeared around the Econ Building, Mike mounted his bicycle and sped off to the Parking Enforcement Office. He put a fresh battery into his ticketing machine and grabbed several fist-fulls of the infamous red envelopes.
He returned to the lot to continue ticketing at the spot where he had left off. There were hundreds of cars, stretching out in every direction. Mike knew that he would only get to a fraction of the violators that afternoon, but the following day he would be on the lot right at noon and work it non-stop until his shift ended. He was very efficient with the machine, being able to write about 80 tickets per hour if the violators were parked in a small area. If he stayed out all afternoon the next day and the machine held up, he calculated that he would be able to write around 400 tickets. That would be a new record for the department and one that would be very hard to beat. He would come back day after day until the students got the message that a meter was not a “free parking” sign. October was going to end very well for him.
By 4:30 students began returning from their classes to leave for the day. As soon as the violators saw the dreaded red envelopes on the windshields closest to the sidewalk, some of them started running to their cars. Around the lot there was swearing and insults directed at the parking officer, but he was used to that. Working for the Parking Department had its advantages, but popularity was not one of them.
The truth was that Mike was totally unconcerned what the students he was ticketing thought of him. He hated the people he ticketed every bit as much as they hated him. For the most part they were irresponsible rich types: spoiled pot-heads, fraternity guys and sorority girls, and student athletes. They were a varied crowd, but they all had several things in common: wealth, privilege, attitude, and a feeling of entitlement. They drove expensive cars that had been given to them by parents or sponsors: BMW’s, Jeeps, even a few Escalades. Mike delighted in taking a dig at the elite crowd and their fancy cars whenever he could. His uniform and his ticketing machine gave him the power to harass people who otherwise would be untouchable. Yes, the elite crowd hated Parking Officer # 036, just as much as he hated them. Mike wanted them to hate him: he wanted to make their lives miserable and make himself worthy of their hatred.
As 5:00 approached, he picked up the pace, trying to squeeze as many tickets in as possible before the lot opened. The last ticket he wrote was at 16:59, on a bright red BMW with sorority stickers. Yes, maybe it sucked having a ticket on one’s windshield that was written one minute before the lot opened, but even with only a minute to spare, the sorority bitch could not argue that it was not a valid ticket.
A few minutes later Mike returned his ticketing machine to the dispatcher. He announced that the next day he would need an extra battery and 400 envelopes. The older woman looked up.
“Four hundred? What are you gonna do with 400 envelopes?”
Mike smiled: “Stuff tickets in them.” He handed over his radio and added: “can you keep a secret?”
“Hun, d’you know how many secrets I’ve heard? C’mon, you know I keep secrets.”
“No one’s been paying the meters over at Econ-A. It’s all cars with student permits and none of them are paying. Tomorrow they’re gonna be mine. There’s 400 spaces out there and I’m getting them all.”
The dispatcher smiled sarcastically: “You know you’re a real jerk, Mike, but we still love you.”
Mike forced a smile, not sure how to take the dispatcher’s final comment.
Chapter 2 - Ruthie's evening
Ruthie left her classmate with very mixed emotions. At the very beginning her reaction towards him was resentment. Because of him, she was about to lose one of the few small pleasures she had in life, the quiet two hours she spent in the nude under the shade every afternoon.
However, once Ruthie calmed herself down, she understood that Mike had to do his job, just like she had to do hers. He was totally unaware of the consequences of his actions in her life and she had to remind herself that he was not acting out of malice, at least not towards her. In fact, he had offered her the small favor of not ticketing her car, assuming that she had one. He cared about her enough to offer a privilege that apparently he would not grant anyone else.
No, he was not acting out of malice towards her, but most definitely he was acting out of malice towards the rich crowd that was abusing the lot. The truth was that Ruthie hated the spoiled elites every bit as much as Mike did. It would be nice to see them get theirs for once. Because of Mike Sinclair, the free parking the “beautiful people” on campus felt that they were entitled to would turn into an expensive hassle. Yes, it would be nice to watch the parking guy stick it to them.
She especially loved that moment when that frat guy had called Mike an “asshole” and he had a come-back that forced the other guy to shut-up. There were so many times that she would have wanted to do the same thing at her job, to tell those miserable sorority bitches, and the disgusting sluts with fake tits who fucked the football players, and the arrogant TA’s who treated her like dirt… all of them… what she really thought of them.
Ruthie’s mind replayed her interactions with her classmate several times over as she tried to figure him out. He was willing to talk to her, something that meant a lot to a person whose only other conversations that day had consisted of taking coffee orders and answering questions in class. Speaking to him, however briefly, had made her feel slightly less isolated. She had not been nice to him in class, but from what she could tell, he did not hold that against her. In fact, he had taken her advice and read the story she recommended. That was nice, having someone listen to her for once and care enough about her opinion to actually do something she wanted.
Suddenly Ruthie stopped in her tracks. She remembered the slip she had made about not having any friends. It was true, but why did she have to admit that, without even being prompted? Mentally she castigated herself, because she was always saying idiotic things like that. That slip was only the latest out of many that she made out of habit, the stupid things that came out of her mouth that made people roll their eyes and kept her isolated. What a stupid thing to say… I don’t have any friends…
Ruthie’s concentration began to drift. She was only partially in the real world as she walked to her afternoon class. Like a flock of agitated birds, thoughts circled around her mind, diving in and out of her consciousness. Her memory drifted to a customer who had snapped at her that morning, before shifting to a news story of a child’s murder that had upset her. She noticed a flier for an evangelical group, which prompted her to think about religion. Her mind wandered to an assignment she had due the next week, and then to wondering what was for dinner when she got back to the dorm.
She entered the building and made her way to class. Being forced to focus on a lecture and class discussion forced Ruthie to clear her mind somewhat, but the background noise of her other thoughts did not go away entirely. It never did.
* * *
Ruthie was a geology major, but the class she was attending that afternoon was a third-year literature course with the Spanish department. She had entered college speaking fluent Spanish and immediately tested into the third year of the program. She realized that she could take advantage of her language skill to get an easy double-major. She would take all of the literature classes offered by the department, throw in some Latin American history and political science classes, and that would take care of all her language and humanities requirements, plus getting her the extra major.
From the time that she was twelve up until the previous summer when she graduated, Ruthie Burns had been surrounded by Spanish. Her mother and her uncle’s family originally were from Culiacan, Mexico and usually spoke Spanish at home and among themselves. Many of her classmates in high school spoke Spanish as their first language. At the insistence of her mother, Ruthie had taken the entire Spanish program in high school, which gave her a more formal knowledge of the language and compensated for the uneducated accents that surrounded her. As much as reading texts and conjugating verbs might have irritated Ruthie at the time she was doing it, she had to admit that all those classes in high school had benefited her upon entering college.
Ruthie’s mind wandered again. The window of the classroom faced towards the south and she could see the hills the coastal range. Beyond those hills lay Santa Cruz and the elite suburbs that surrounded it. Further south the land flattened out and a person driving down Highway 1 entered a totally different world once he hit Watsonville. Highway 1 passed through miles of vegetable fields: asparagus, cabbage, and of course, artichokes.
Past all those fields lay Salinas. Salinas’ claim to fame was calling itself “the artichoke capital of the world” and “the salad bowl of the nation”. Wow, what a thing to be proud of, thought Ruthie to herself. Just north of town there was a big statue of an artichoke. She rolled her eyes every time she passed that stupid thing.
The only other brush with fame that Salinas could lay claim to was the author John Steinbeck. Steinbeck had written about the area in the 1930’s and there was a museum dedicated to him in town. Unlike most of her classmates, Ruthie Burns actually knew who Steinbeck was and had read several of his books. When her class visited the museum, she was the only person in her group who showed any interest whatsoever in the displays. As for her classmates, Steinbeck was irrelevant. Central California was a very different place back when he had written from what it was in the 21st Century. The area now was populated by people who had come from a totally place and lived a totally different reality.
Ruthie’s mind continued to drift. She thought about her mother, vaguely wondering if she already had gotten home from work. She had promised to call on Sunday, but already it was Wednesday and Ruthie still had not talked to her mom that week. She couldn’t put it off any longer. As much as she dreaded calling home, she’d have to call that night.
I guess I shouldn’t be so hard on her, thought Ruthie to herself. She did help me get out of Salinas. I suppose the least I can do is call.
Ruthie’s attention finally returned to where it needed to be: the class she was sitting in. She was among students that were two or three years older than she was, but her knowledge of Spanish put her at ease with material that many of her non-native speaking classmates struggled with. For her, reading in Spanish was every bit as easy as reading in English. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Juan Rulfo, Ruben Dario, Jorge Icaza… it didn’t matter… she knew the material, some of which she had read for recreation when she still was in high school. For example, as a junior she had discovered “Pedro Paramo” and spent days reading and re-reading a novel that seemed to speak directly to her.
Ruthie raised her hand and chatted in Spanish when the professor posed a question about Mario Vargas Llosa. Spanish literature was one place within her comfort zone, where she was on familiar territory. She had no hesitation showing off and embarrassing the rich, lazy gringos whenever she could. As she listened to a classmate with a very thick accent struggle to answer the next question, an interesting thought occurred to her. In the English literature class it was Mike Sinclair who dominated the class discussion, but in the Spanish literature class the obnoxious show-off was Ruthie Burns.
* * *
When Ruthie stepped out of the Spanish literature class she stepped out of her comfort zone. She looked around at the people surrounding her, all of whom seemed from a different world than the one she had come from. She knew that she really didn’t belong in Davenport. She couldn’t relate to these people, all these spoiled rich types with their fancy clothes, and their fake tits, and the car that daddy gave them, and their drinking, and all their money. She couldn’t relate. She had nothing in common with them.
And yet, if anything her ability to relate to Salinas was even less. As she always put it: “Maybe I lived in Salinas, but I’m not from there.” Even though she was half-Mexican, the tough-guy machista culture of her family’s homeland elicited nothing from her but disgust. She had been to Sinaloa several times to visit her grandparents and found the ingrained violence and oppressiveness of the culture there repugnant. The salsa erotica and narco-corridas that were popular in Culiacan offended and nauseated her, every bit as much as the rap music that assaulted her ears in Salinas.
What Ruthie really hated, more than anything else, was the gang culture that had permeated both Culiacan and Salinas. She resented having to be afraid of being beat up in her school, of always having to seek the protection of her older cousin when walking in the hallways. She hated the graffiti, the bandanas, the tattoos, the drugs, and the sneering expressions of the gang members. She hated the way those guys treated her female classmates, and she hated the girls for putting up with it.
For Ruthie’s mother, her escape and her defense against the hostile world of Salinas was evangelical Christianity. Ruthie accompanied her mother every time she went, but over time religion became every bit as disgusting in Ruthie’s mind as the gang culture at school. She was an outsider at her mother’s church, just as she was an outsider in school.
* * *
Ruthie’s only escape was reading. From the time she moved to Salinas until she graduated from high school, she locked herself in her room whenever she could and read voraciously. Before she was twelve, she had lived in Nebraska, so she was well-aware that a world existed beyond the one inhabited by her mother and her cousins. She also knew that there were places and times when drugs and gangs had not been a feature of everyday life. She was fascinated with literature that covered different eras from the one in which she was trapped and reading about people who led lives that contrasted with the grim one that she knew. She started with C.S. Lewis (recommended by her Bible study leader) and from there branched out into science fiction and mid-20th Century British fiction. When details of the stories did not make sense to her, she returned to the library to look up answers to her questions, which led her to read histories and biographies. The past interested her, so she explored further and further back, teaching herself about ancient civilizations.
Her curiosity led her to pick apart the Bible. She read several scholarly studies on how it was created and what the passages actually meant in the context during which they were written. The Biblical studies had a profound effect on her, because placing the Bible in its historical context took away most of the mystique that her mother’s church had ascribed to it. Ruthie memorized the entire New Testament and a large portion of the Old Testament, but the more she learned, the less divine the book seemed to her. Of course, she had to keep her growing doubts to herself. She was rebelling, but she rebelled in secret.
Finally, she started reading about most forbidden topic of them all: evolution. Precisely because her maniacal preacher so vociferously condemned evolution, Ruthie was determined to find out everything she could about it. Anything that preacher hated had to be good. By the time she graduated from high school, she was reading professional-level studies concerning paleontology and the various theories surrounding evolution. That interest was what led her to declare geology as her first major.
She was totally isolated from her classmates in high school. The more she read and the more knowledgeable she became, the greater were the differences between her and the others. Her social skills quit developing because she felt that in the hostile world of Salinas she had no use for them anyway. She was disgusted by the teenagers that surrounded her at school and scared by their belligerent behavior. They rejected her and she rejected them. The few times she did go out she went with either her cousins or her mother.
Ruthie’s continuous reading was destined to determine the course of her life. She mastered a broad range of topics, so class assignments were very easy for her. If given the chance to do extra-credit work, she’d do it, in part because she really had nothing else going on in her life. She got straight “A’s” throughout the entire time she was in high school. Her grades, coupled with the fact she could claim a Hispanic background because of her mother, resulted in the grant she had received to attend Davenport State University.
Ruthie’s uncle brought her to Davenport at the end of August and dropped her off at her dorm. At the beginning she was elated to have escaped Salinas. She fully expected to make friends with people whose intellect matched hers, but very quickly she found out that was not to be. No one except her professors cared anything whatsoever about the book knowledge stored in her brain. Instead what mattered was that her social and conversational skills were non-existent. She could not talk about light topics at all and had no interest or knowledge of popular culture. She tended to be quiet, but suddenly would become emotional and have an opinionated outburst. Then she would realize she had just made a fool out of herself and sink back into sullen silence. She felt that she was incapable of articulating what she was thinking in speech, that she really could only express herself in writing. Because she had spent so much of her life as a teenager alone, her gestures and mannerisms were not “normal” and she had no concept of what it was to have fun. On top of everything else, subconsciously many of her university classmates rejected her because she was an impoverished person from Salinas.
In Davenport, she no longer had to be afraid for her physical safety, but she found herself even more isolated than she had been before she graduated high school. It seemed that everyone with whom she interacted disliked her and wanted her out of their presence. Her big dream to get out of Salinas had been realized, but the disappointment that followed had come close to totally breaking her spirit.
* * *
Ruthie walked to her dorm just as it was getting dark outside. She was shivering, because the evening had turned cool. The breeze blowing from the hills whipped across her bare legs and flowed right through her light dress. The backpack protected her bare back from the cold, but the contents pressed uncomfortably and the canvas scratched at her skin. She dumped the backpack in her room. She extracted a book to take with her to the cafeteria.
She got her tray and silently sat down. No one was interested in talking to her, which was why she brought the book. She was not really going to read, but she calculated that it would not be so obvious that no one wanted to sit with her if she was pretending to be studying while she ate. Eating in the cafeteria at night was always the hardest part of the day for her. During lunchtime she didn’t have any time to talk, but in the evenings she was forced to confront the hard reality that she had made no friends whatsoever during the two months she had been in Davenport. She knew it and everyone else knew it. Whatever chance she had to make friends at the beginning of the semester had long since passed. She failed to connect with anyone, the dorm cliques formed, and by the end of September she was completely shut out of the dorm’s social life.
* * *
After eating her joyless dinner, Ruthie returned to her dorm room. Her roommate still had not returned. That meant that she could call her mother and talk to her in private. She took a deep breath and nerved herself to dial home. Ruthie always found talking to her mom very stressful. The conversation, after a brief exchange of personal news and gossip about family members, fell into the usual dialogue:
“Ruthie, have you found a good church yet?”
“No mom, not yet… really…”
“But, why not? Love, you can’t tell me there’s no decent churches in Davenport.”
“Really, Mom… there’s nothing here. Everything’s down in Santa Cruz.”
“Ruthie, honey, you are lying to me and you know it is a sin to lie… Lourdes Rosales’ daughter is up in Davenport too, and she found a church the first week she got up there. Why can’t you?”
“Mom… I don’t know… I haven’t found anything… and I haven’t talked to Cristina.”
“Well, why don’t you just give her a call?”
“Yes, mom… I’ll call her…”
“Honey, please don’t forget this time. Call the Rosales girl. I’m very worried about you. You know that Satan is watching and he’ll get you if you’re not careful. You can’t fight Satan alone, dear…you have to find a church.”
“Yes, mom… I’ll try… I promise…”
Ruthie tensed up during the conversation, resisting the urge to scream into the phone:
“Look Mom, I’m not going to find a church because I don’t want to find a church! I don’t believe in that shit! I’m a fucking atheist, OK? Deal with it! I’m a fucking atheist!”
She knew that the moment was coming when she would lose control of herself and actually say that, but she figured that the longer she could put it off, the better. Her mother would be devastated when she found out that Ruthie had rejected her faith.
* * *
Ruthie hung up the phone and calmed herself down. Just in time, because her roommate Shannon came breezing into the room with her boyfriend. With not so much as a “hello” the pair settled in and started spreading their books on Shannon’s bed. They had brought a box of pizza with them. They did not offer Ruthie a slice.
Ruthie was extremely uncomfortable with the invasion into her space, which was Shannon’s intention. It was only 7:15, so she could not complain that her roommate was preventing her from sleeping. Nor did the no-sex-in-the-dorm room-rule apply, because Shannon had brought her boyfriend over to hang-out and watch TV. The point was that Shannon wanted the room and Ruthie needed to leave.
At the beginning she had hoped to be friends with the other student, but Shannon quickly put an end to that hope. Shannon sized up her roommate within a couple of days and decided that she was a nerd who could easily be pushed around. She cut at Ruthie with several hurtful remarks and then proceeded to take over the room. She bullied Ruthie with her TV and her CD player, using the noise to spoil her concentration and chase her out of the room. She continuously invited guests over; people who were every bit as inconsiderate as she was. In Shannon’s mind, Ruthie was the sort of person who deserved to be walked on, because she was such a nerd and such a creep.
Burning with resentment, Ruthie put on a jacket and stuck some notebooks in her backpack. She’d have to go to the library and stay there throughout the evening. Probably it was just as well, because she’d be forced to study and would have time to take some notes for class the next day. She left without saying goodbye.
* * *
As she walked along the dark sidewalks to get to the library, Ruthie’s thoughts returned to religion. Nearly every religion imaginable was present on campus: evangelicals, Catholics, Muslims, Scientologists, Hare Krishnas, Moonies… everything imaginable. Ruthie hated them all. As far as she could tell, all the religious groups wanted the same thing from her: her brain and her money. Well, Ruthie Burns had no money and her brain was messed up, so guess what? She had nothing to offer them.
Anyhow, the idea of believing in something that she couldn’t see or experience with her physical senses was something that she was incapable of doing. She knew the natural history of the earth and knew that the Bible could not have possibly been written by God. Her reading in history had convinced her that the most fervent religious believers were nothing but a bunch of psychotic killers, misogynists, and megalomaniacs. God’s love? Yeah, right. Tell that to the nine million women who were tortured and murdered for witchcraft in the Middle Ages.
If Ruthie had her way, all religion would be illegal, or at the very least it would be illegal to practice any religion in public. All those obnoxious street preachers and Hare Krishnas would be going to prison. Fuck the First Amendment.
The root of Ruthie’s hatred towards the world of religion was straightforward enough; she had it shoved down her throat from the moment she moved to Salinas. Until she was twelve, she had no opinion of religion whatsoever, because her father was a Christian in name only. He was the sort that believed in God and defended religion, but did not practice himself nor forced it on anyone.
Ruthie’s mother was very different from her father when it came to faith. Her family had grown up Catholic, but like so many other Latin Americans during the 1980’s and 1990’s, she converted to Pentecostalism as a teenager when still living in Culiacan. When she and Ruthie’s dad split up, she joined a local non-denominational church. The oversized t-shirt she normally wore pretty much said it all: “the radicals for Jesus”.
Twice per week Ruthie’s mother dragged her to a “Temple of the Lord” that had been set up in an abandoned store in a dilapidated shopping center. Twice per week she was forced to listen to a demented preacher as he screamed, cried, and sweated at the podium, his voice transmitted over a defective set of speakers that screeched and made the girl wince. Her mother and some of the other women spoke in tongues, which totally gave her the creeps. The first time she attended worship Ruthie was terrified by the spectacle and did everything she could to get out of going a second time. It took several hard slaps across the face to get her to change her mind.
Ruthie reflected that her mother was by no means a bad person, but she was dealing with a lot of personal issues (including a brief and very dysfunctional marriage to her father). She had little education, so the only frame of reference she had to see the world and judge the people who surrounded her came out of the preacher’s interpretation of the Bible. Ruthie hated that preacher, in part because he was such a tyrant over his small kingdom of believers, including her mother, and in part because he was such a demented freak.
* * *
The chilly breeze whipped around her as she took a short cut across a playing field that separated the dorms from the academic buildings. She was adequately protected from the waist up, but her legs had goose bumps from the chill. The wind blew up her skirt and felt cold on her bare bottom and vagina. She loved the feeling of exposure, especially when her skirt blew up and she was momentarily uncovered from the waist down. Ruthie was not exactly an exhibitionist, because she did not want other people to see her when her body was exposed, but she did enjoy being naked in places where she normally would be expected to be clothed.
Along with studying evolution, Ruthie’s obsession with being naked was another form of rebellion against the values of that preacher she so hated. God had commanded people to cover up, so Ruthie made it a point to wear as little as possible, even if the weather was chilly.
Ruthie’s fascination with being naked started shortly after she moved to Salinas. Her mother could not afford to turn on the air conditioning and Ruthie was complaining about how hot her room was. Her mother responded that she should sleep in her underwear. She followed that advice for several nights, but then realized it would be even more comfortable to sleep completely nude. At first the thought frightened her, but then she saw it as a daring adventure. She knew that if she were caught, at the very least she would get several slaps across the face and be forced to sit at the kitchen table for a couple of hours, but to her the risk was worth it.
About six months after Ruthie moved in, her mother managed to change her work schedule so that she would be home when Ruthie got out of school. She left for work at 3:00 am and returned to the apartment at noon. She was concerned about keeping the girl out of trouble, forcing her to do her homework, and making sure she spent less time with her cousins, who she did not consider a good influence.
The change of schedule did keep Ruthie under control in the afternoons, but what her mother did not realize was that it also gave her four hours of free time in the mornings. The girl referred to those hours as her “me time.” The moment her mother left for work, Ruthie got up and ran around the apartment naked. She enjoyed her own body, spending hours looking at herself in the mirror and taking self-portraits with a digital camera. She read, cooked breakfast for herself, listened to music, and masturbated in the living room. When she got a little older, occasionally she went outside when it was still dark and streaked around the apartment complex.
Ruthie’s “me time” in the early morning hours affected her life in the afternoons. By the time she got home from school she was dead-tired. She studied and had dinner, but on the nights she did not have to go to church she was in bed asleep by 8:00. Her mother sometimes wondered about the girl’s constant sleeping, but had no problem with it because she was worried that if Ruthie were out on the street she would get in trouble or get beat up. She bragged to her fellow churchgoers that Ruthie was a “good girl” who never gave her much trouble. Had she known about her daughter’s “me time” she would have been horrified.
* * *
Ruthie entered the library, went to the basement and found an open table all the way in the back. She unloaded her backpack and began searching among the Spanish literature collection for some titles that she needed for a report.
After several hours, Ruthie had taken most of the notes that she needed. She looked around and realized that all of the other desks and tables in the basement were empty. When she looked at her cell phone she knew why: it was 10:15. She knew from experience that after 10:00 no one came into the basement and anyone wanting a study desk could get one on the main floor.
The student took off her dress and returned to her seat to take some final notes. She planned to spend the final hour at the library nude. She calculated there was very little danger of being caught because she could hear the elevator if anyone came down at such a late hour.
At 11:00 she got up and, still naked, re-shelved the books she had been taking notes from. She felt extremely daring walking up and down the aisles of bookshelves with nothing on. She loved the sensation of the cool air blowing on her exposed skin and the silence that surrounded her. When she got up and left her dress behind at her study desk, her heart pounded at the beginning, but the longer she stayed away the more confident she became. She never allowed herself to return to the safety of her desk before she was completely relaxed and comfortable with being naked in the library.
She heard the bell of the elevator and scrambled back to her seat. She slipped her dress over her head just in time, because the person who had entered the room was a library employee. The man gave Ruthie a suspicious look, apparently having realized that she was doing something she wasn’t supposed to. Ruthie was disappointed, because she’d have to re-shelve the last two books with her dress on. She didn’t like to do that because she considered that her naked time in the library was not complete unless she could re-shelve all of the books she had taken to her desk that night before getting dressed. But with that guy in the basement she had no choice. She knew better than to leave immediately, because that would arouse more suspicion. She’d re-shelve the books, then get her backpack and depart.
When she stepped outside, the chilly air hit her bare legs and a feeling of cold reality hit her soul. She began to feel resentful and morose as she walked past the engineering building and the computer center on the sidewalk that exited the main section of campus. She left the well-lighted sidewalk and plunged into the darkness to cross the playing field that separated the academic buildings from the dorms. The field was empty and silent. The silence was not peaceful to Ruthie; rather it had a sinister and desolate feeling for her. She knew that what she was doing was not safe; because a student had been raped on that same field just a month before, doing exactly what she was doing. She didn’t care. If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen, and my life sucks anyway. When she got to the middle of the field she stopped to stare up at the stars.
Her thoughts wandered as her mood deteriorated. She thought of writers such as C.S. Lewis who romanticized about the stars and created something out of them that was not based on reality. For C.S. Lewis the stars were living beings, something similar to angels. She then thought about astronomer Carl Sagan’s speculation that it was the stars that first gave people the idea of supernatural beings, perhaps because ancient humans thought the stars were far-off campfires in the sky.
Her mind shifted to the other science fiction writers that she had read as a teenager, and all those fictitious trips to “other worlds”, trips that in real life never would, and never could happen. Perhaps there is other life out there, but if there is, so what? It’s not like we’re ever gonna get out there… everything’s too far away. She thought about all the work-arounds that writers had come up with to cover those vast distances… warp drive… worm-holes… irregularities in space… time travel… but it was all fantasy, just like supernatural beings, alternate worlds, and the afterlife. The cold hard reality was that E=mc2 and there never would be anything anyone could do about that. We’re stuck here on this planet… we’ll never go to any of those other neat worlds… and the best we could ever do might be to get a few astronauts on Mars. That’s it. Science fiction and the whole idea of inter-stellar travel was BS, just like angels, ghosts, demons, pixies… whatever. It’s all crap. All of it. It doesn’t matter. In a few years we’ll run out of resources and all starve to death and go extinct. We’ll be gone just like the passenger pigeon, and then something else… rats, probably… will take over the planet.
Not that any of that matters, thought Ruthie to herself. The planet eventually will perish, burned up by the sun in a few billion years. Or maybe earlier… because if plate tectonics were to quit, the planet will become frozen and dead, like Mars. She had read an article that plate tectonics already was slowing down. If that speculation was true, the natural processes that maintain the atmosphere were coming to an end and eventually all water and air would freeze and evaporate away. We don’t have to wait five billion years… the end of all life is coming a lot sooner.
Ruthie reflected on the futility of her life, the uselessness of her own existence. In a planet that sooner or later was destined for oblivion, and being a particularly unhappy member of a species that was doomed to extinction much sooner than the planet, what was the point? Why bother to study? Why bother to open the coffee shop? Why bother to continue living? Everyone hates me… even that Parking Nazi… even he’ll see me for what I am and ditch me… There’s no hope… no hope for anything or anyone. It’s stupid to stay alive… for what? So I can spend the next 60 years taking shit from everyone? Fuck ‘em. I don’t want to take shit. I’ve had it. Fuck it.
Suddenly she took off walking. No longer was she walking towards the dorms, but instead she walked towards a path that exited campus, eventually descended a hill, crossed under Highway 1, and led onto a vegetable field that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. On the other side of the field there was a cliff that fell straight into the Pacific Ocean. A good fifty-foot drop onto rocks that were covered by roaring surf. Her body would get torn up in the waves and they’d never find her. Fuck ‘em. Fuck all their insults and their money and all the rest of their shit…
Ruthie ended up not going very far. She never did. She made it to the gate that exited campus, only to find it was locked. Had she really wanted to, she could have scaled the fence or gone through the main exit and then walked around to the trail, but to do all that would have taken more exertion than she was capable of putting forth at that moment. She was not scared of dying, but sheer effort that she would have to put into getting out to that cliff suddenly became overwhelming. Had she already been close to the edge, she might have worked up the courage to jump or fall off, but to actually get out there was too much. Her anger turned into depression, and once she was depressed, inertia took over and she was capable of doing very little.
Depression shrouded the unhappy girl like a thick heavy cloak. She felt weighted down. Slowly she walked back, trying to shake off the numbness just so she could move forward.
When Ruthie returned to her room, Shannon already was asleep and all the lights were out. She entered as quietly as possible, scared to wake up her roommate and risk an ugly confrontation. Her gaze fell upon Shannon’s head, which was turned away from her. She resisted the urge to take her roommate’s CD player and use it smash that bitch’s nasty face. After having withstood two months of mistreatment at the hands of Shannon, Ruthie hated her.
She fantasized about somehow getting revenge. Unfortunately, life rarely gives people like Ruthie the chance to get even with those who have treated them badly.
Chapter 3 - Mike's evening
Mike changed into one of his political t-shirts and left the Parking Enforcement office. He walked to the political science building, enjoying a cool October breeze that carried a hint of the nearby Pacific Ocean.
His mind wandered to Chicago, where he had been studying the year before. I guess that’s one thing Davenport has over Chicago, he thought to himself: it’s still nice here and it’s already getting cold there.
He remained in a moderately upbeat mood until he ran across a sight that was totally offensive to his eyes: a huge fast-food sign that featured a cartoon face of a clown stuffing a whole hamburger into his mouth. Accompanying the picture was the slogan:
Mega-Burgers – the biggest.
Feed your face with the very best rainforest beef!
The sign topped the new Mega-Burger franchise that had just opened on campus. Mike’s political group had fought and protested to keep Mega-Burger from defiling the Davenport campus with their presence, but to no avail. Mega-Town Associates, the holding company that owned Mega-Burger, had bribed the Board of Trustees, no doubt. Most of the students clearly had not wanted Mega-Burger on the grounds of the university, but like it or not, here they were.
Mega-Burgers – the biggest. The biggest… yes, everything in the US has to be the biggest… big, cheap, and fast. What a disgusting country we’ve turned into. That clown says it all… big, cheap, fast…and if it’s not sustainable, so much the better. To hell with resources. To hell with the rainforest. To hell with the planet. If disgusting clowns can stuff their faces on signs, isn’t that what the free market is all about? Why have unspoiled resources when we can have that hideous clown stuffing his face? That’s freedom, after-all. Freedom. Yes… yes… the land of the free, with an ugly clown to represent it.
Mike’s bitterness against corporate America matched that of Ruthie against religion. He had a particular grudge against Mega-Town Associates. His father used to own a Santa Cruz drug store that had been in the family for three generations and Mike had expected to inherit the business and run it just like his father and grandfather ran it. In high school he took as many science classes as he could to prepare himself to get a pharmacy degree. His ambitions were modest; all he wanted to do was continue with his father’s path in life and serve the community. Mega-Town Associates killed that dream the year that he was a junior in high school.
Sinclair Pharmacy was doing fine right up to the moment that Mega-Town Associates muscled their way into the family’s neighborhood. The company built a Mega-Mart that within a year put all the local stores out of business. Once the Mega-Mart had accomplished its task and ruined the neighborhood, the company abruptly closed it and opened a more centrally located store in Watsonville. As was true for so many other neighborhoods, the sole purpose of opening the Mega-Mart in Mike’s neighborhood was to eliminate competition. The company never had any intention of staying there permanently.
Mr. Sinclair spent Mike’s senior year in high school looking for work. At first he expected to simply get a job as a pharmacist in a supermarket or a chain pharmacy, but after six months of desperate searching had come up with nothing. He couldn’t understand why, with a degree and 25 years of experience there was never a hint of a job offer. Finally, the hiring manager of one of the chain pharmacies took a few minutes to explain his dilemma:
“Right now, I’m going to put aside the hiring manager crap and tell you something off-the-record, man-to-man. You’re qualified, alright. Too qualified, and since we’re being honest, too old. If we hired you we’d have to pay you too much, and besides, you’d be a liability to our insurer. So, no, we’re not interested in you, neither is anyone else. The bottom-line is we don’t hire over-qualified people.”
The hiring manager handed back Mr. Sinclair’s papers and continued:
“Sorry about your situation, but you’ve got to realize your life as a pharmacist is over. No one wants you. Just telling you like it is. So you’d better start thinking about ‘plan-B’ and save yourself some frustration.”
The hiring manager did Mr. Sinclair a huge favor with his candor. He had seen plenty of people like the applicant; hard-working over-qualified relics of the past that never again would have decent jobs. It was a hard lesson for Mr. Sinclair, learning that his knowledge and experience were useless and his middle-class life was over.
* * *
A year after Sinclair Pharmacy closed Mike’s father finally managed to get a job as the assistant manager of a Fast-Mart, working under a Pakistani immigrant who was half his age. Now the family was horribly indebted because of that year of unemployment and also because Mr. Sinclair had taken a second mortgage on the house so that Mike and his older sister could finish college. Over the summer Mike’s father openly explained:
“I don’t want either of you to borrow a cent. Not one cent. If you need something, ask me and I’ll get it for you. When both of you get your degrees, I’m going to give you the chance to take whatever you want out of the house. Then I’m gonna declare bankruptcy. Lose everything, but it won’t matter because you two will be done with college with no debt. I’m the one who’s gonna have to liquidate. I don’t have any choice. With my salary we’re gonna lose the house anyway, but I’m gonna get you two through college before it happens. That’s my end of the deal. Your end of the deal is when your mom and me lose the house, you take care of us. I wish I could give you something more, but I can’t. Mega-Mart put us under.”
The financial death watch of Mike’s parents continued. They were slowly declining and their debts were mounting. Since he knew that he was going to lose everything anyway, Mr. Sinclair wanted to borrow as much money as possible before his house went into foreclosure. The American dream was dead for him, and the only thing he could do was try to get revenge against the system by making sure his house was worth far less than what he owed on paper, to make the lenders lose as much money on him as possible.
* * *
Mike had a class that started at 6:00. The schedule was very fortunate for him, because it allowed him to work an uninterrupted shift with the Parking Department and still take a full load of classes.
The class was a large introductory course given in a lecture hall that held 200 students. At the door, he met up with a couple of classmates and the group found some seats together. Unlike Ruthie, Mike did have a few friends on campus. For the most part they were people like himself that he had met in the course of his political activities.
Had Mike been honest with himself, “friends” probably was not the best way to describe the people with whom he hung out. More accurately they could be described as friendly acquaintances. Mike and the people with whom he associated were drawn together because of circumstances and common interests, not out of any deep emotional commitment. The relationships were the sort that co-workers had, the sort that would end the moment someone in the group moved on with his or her life.
Still, Mike was much luckier than Ruthie. He did not have to face the humiliation of eating by himself in the cafeteria or sitting alone in class. He did have some activities in which he could participate and a group to which he could claim membership. If he wanted to see a movie or get some pizza for example, chances were that he could get someone to go with him.
Because the class was given in a large lecture hall, there was very little participation from students. Probably just as well, thought Mike to himself. Maybe Ruthie’s right. Maybe I really do need to tone it down. Maybe… people just aren’t that interested in anything I have to say. With that self-doubt filled his mind.
* * *
An hour later Mike and his two classmates had left the political science building and were on their way to a meeting of the Danubian Solidarity Committee, which was a protest movement directed against the Sinclairs’ nemesis Mega-Town Associates.
Back in April the obscure little country of Danubia made international headlines by thwarting an armed attempt by Mega-Town to take over its government. The Danubians completely defeated Mega-Town mercenaries and captured the majority of the people participating in the coup. The Danubian debacle was the biggest set-back that Mega-Town had ever suffered, and it only got worse for the company when the leaders of the coup were put on trial the following month. A torrent of negative publicity flooded the news as the Danubians released captured documents and exposed in detail what Mega-Town had planned for their country once it was taken over.
What happened during the sentencing of the coup plotters was yet another humiliation for the Mega-Town. The coup plotters, instead of being executed, were sentenced to a uniquely Danubian punishment called “life without honor”. The convicts were stripped, collared, and officially converted into property. Each convict was “presented” to a breed sow. The sows were given Danubian citizenship so they could be the formal custodians of the criminals assigned to serve them. Each convicted coup plotter would have to spend the rest of his life catering to the needs of a pig, to include washing and sleeping with the animal. It was a sentence to a lifetime of insult and degradation. In the country’s culture it was infinitely better to be executed than to serve “life without honor”.
When the trial ended and the sentences were passed, the local spectators chanted in Danubian:
“The Pig is your Mistress! Serve her well! … The Pig is your Mistress! Serve her well!”
That single phrase changed the tone of the global protest movement against Mega-Town Associates, because it provided a recognizable slogan for anyone who hated the company. Across the US activists started wearing t-shirts with “The Pig is your Mistress! Serve her well!” and the slogan was common on bumper stickers and protest signs.
Mike owned several t-shirts with the slogan. Wearing them gave him some confidence that he had been lacking for a very long time. The slogan was his proof that Mega-Town was not invincible, that already they had suffered a major defeat.
* * *
The meeting lasted past 9:00. Mike had entered in a good mood, but as one hour dragged into two and the conversation meandered around meaningless arguments, his confidence faded and he began to wonder to himself:
“How much good are we doing? Here we are, claiming to support Danubia’s fight against MTA, but really, what does it have to do with us? The only reason we’re even calling ourselves the Danubian Solidarity Committee is because it was the Danubians that did what we couldn’t. So we fantasize and live vicariously through what they did. And we all sit around talking useless bullshit, and we can’t so much as keep that fucking clown restaurant off our campus.”
Suddenly he excused himself from the meeting and went outside.
The clown on the sign, with his moronic yet evil eyes and his mouth full of “the very best rainforest beef”, stared at Mike as he exited the Student Center. For a second that image seemed to come alive …the hideous apparition that would consume and consume until nothing was left of the earth. Mike jumped back, totally startled. When he looked again the clown’s face was back to normal.
This is it… we, the humans, and the planet, are coming to the end. We will consume and be consumed until nothing is left. Mega-Town will take over everything, and they will destroy everything.
* * *
Having given up on his political group for the night, Mike decided to hit the library before he went back to his dorm room. A group of sorority girls and pledges passed by, giving him about as much recognition as they would give a light post. The sight of their bleached hair and fake tits offended Mike every bit as much as the Mega Burger sign. Stupid bitches… well, you’re all gonna get some nice parking tickets tomorrow. Mike totally hated sororities and everything they represented. His hatred was visceral: the very sight of sorority letters stirred up fantasies of bombed sorority houses and burnt-out BMW’s. He felt the same way about fraternities, but towards sororities he felt particular bitterness. The reason was straightforward enough: his ex-girlfriend had joined a sorority over the summer and now was a full-blown member… actually an officer… in a Chicago chapter called the Four-Betas. Lisa Campbell, a girl he had dated all through high school… leaving him and joining a sorority… for someone like Mike that was the ultimate insult. He thought he knew her, but obviously he didn’t.
Throughout his years in high school, Mike had dated Lisa; a girl who he admired for being intelligent and strong-willed. They were classmates in school and were inseparable. At the beginning she was not much to look at, a tall gangly girl with bad acne. Later she developed into a stunning beauty. She was shy at first, but she and Mike liked each other. That commitment grew into intense love within a year. They were with each other to the point they excluded everyone else. The couple even had a nickname in school: the football crowd called them “the dork twins”. They didn’t care. They ate together, studied together, took classes together whenever it possible, and went out together. They hiked and went to the beaches. Their favorite spot was a nude beach that was almost within walking distance of Davenport. None of their classmates went to that beach, but that was fine. They had their privacy and their time with each other.
At age 16 Mike and Lisa started having sex at her house. It was the first time for both of them. They already were skinny dipping in her pool after school got out. They started seriously making out on a lawn chair in her back yard and exploring each other’s bodies. Finally, on a lovely sunny afternoon, they worked up the courage to “go all the way”. She lay on her back on her lawn and he thrust into her. When they were finished, she did a strange thing. Several times she dipped her finger into the blood coming out of her vagina and drew stripes on Mike’s face.
“You’re my warrior, my love, and I’m yours. I will always be yours.”
She had given him the most precious thing she had, her virginity. That afternoon Mike knew that he was blessed, to have someone as lovely and as loving as Lisa for his partner. Yes, she would always be mine…
Well, that sure didn’t work out, did it?
* * *
Lisa’s true personality did not show until they had graduated and went to Chicago to take advantage of cheaper tuition. They had several strange adventures during that fall semester, the weirdest of which was being conned by their dorm’s Resident Advisor to participate in a 10-K nude marathon. They spent most of a Saturday completely naked in front of 50,000 spectators, not just during the run, but also before and after. Mike was very happy to get dressed when the whole thing was over, but the experience changed Lisa. She became an exhibitionist and her behavior started being flamboyant and aggressive. She was increasingly restless and bored with him as the semester wore on.
By December, Mike realized that his relationship with Lisa was in serious trouble. He blamed the different environment in Chicago and worried about the influence of their friends on her behavior, especially the influence of their RA. The solution was very simple: he and Lisa needed to return to California and forget about Chicago. Mike had a friend working in the admissions department in the University of California in Berkeley who walked him through what he needed to put on his application to be accepted, and what the procedure was for transferring the Chicago credits. Mike eagerly made the arrangements for himself and filled out Lisa’s paperwork as well. All she had to do was sign and they could forget about Chicago.
When they returned to Santa Cruz for Christmas vacation, there was a lot of tension between the couple. They celebrated Christmas Eve with his parents and the following day had Christmas dinner with her mother. Lisa was very tensed up during the meal and barely spoke to him.
The next day Mike decided to tell his girlfriend about the arrangements he had made with the admissions department in Berkeley. He told her that he had re-applied to study in California and this time expected to get in. In the meantime he would take community college classes in Santa Cruz. He told Lisa to resubmit her application as well, that he had done her the favor of filling it out and was sure it would be accepted. Lisa responded:
“That’s real nice, except there’s one problem. I don’t want to go to Berkeley. And I don’t want to sit on my ass taking community college classes until next fall. Fuck that!”
“Well, I don’t want to go back to Chicago. I’ve told you that several times, and it doesn’t seem you’re listening.”
“Who said anything about you going back to Chicago? I never said you needed to go back there! You can do whatever you want, but don’t you go making arrangements for my life behind my back! You can go to Berkeley, or Santa Cruz, or wherever the fuck else you want to go, but I’m going back to Chicago! Tell your friend in the admissions department to take my application and stick it up his ass!”
“…and so you don’t give a damn about our future? About me or anything I want? You’re telling me that Chicago’s more important than I am?”
“That’s right, Mike. That’s exactly what I’m telling you. Chicago’s more important to me than you are.”
Mike’s expression changed. He looked dazed, as if he had been hit over the head with a rock. He didn’t know what how to respond, because he had not expected Lisa to be so blunt with him.
One of Mike’s good points was that he was never willing to do anything that he thought would humiliate himself. He had backed himself into a corner, leaving only two options. He could cave in, beg Lisa to forgive him, and meekly return to Chicago, or get up and leave with the understanding they were breaking up. Either way, as far as Lisa was concerned the relationship had ended. Mike realized that as well, and did the one thing he could to salvage what was left of his dignity. Without saying another word he walked out, knowing that he was leaving behind the girl he had dated for the past four years.
“Chicago’s more important to me than you are.” Mike was floored when Lisa said that to him, so much so that at the moment he couldn’t even react. He stormed out of the room, making a show of anger, but in reality he was devastated that she could have said such a thing to him. At least he would not entertain any false hope that someday he could get back together with her: he knew that she was gone from his life permanently.
He drove out to the beach where he and Lisa had spent so much time when they were in high school…. only six months before when their relationship seemed like it would last forever. It was getting dark, which was good for what he needed to do. He sat alone on the wet sand for a couple of hours crying and mourning the loss of the one person who gave him meaning in life. He had not cried for several years and he was determined that no one would see his moment of weakness. He would maintain his stoic façade to the world, but at least he could be honest with himself.
Chicago’s more important than I am… more important…
* * *
With that, Mike gave up on his plans to study in Berkeley. He put in a last-minute application to study in Davenport for the spring semester, which to his surprise, was accepted. He got his job with the Parking Department in February.
His initial reaction of shock and heartbreak eventually transformed itself into anger and bitterness, not just against Lisa, but also against the world into which she had immersed herself over the summer. A mutual acquaintance from Chicago e-mailed him and mentioned that she had successfully pledged the Four Beta Sorority. That news affected what he did at his job, because he made it a point to target any car that boasted the markings of a “Greek” for special attention from his ticketing machine.
He needed someone… someone who was different from that stupid bitch Lisa. However, his luck with other women since she left him had been atrocious. He was far too serious for most young women to find attractive. Ten months after the breakup, Mike Sinclair was alone and his heart burned with resentment. He had to face the hard truth what he was a loser with women and that Lisa Campbell was the only chance that he ever would have for a relationship. Lisa was gone from his life and there would be no other women for Mike Sinclair. No woman, no matter how strange or how much of a loser she might be, was ever going to want to touch him. Apparently that was a law of nature, something as unalterable as gravity. Lisa Campbell was the exception… the one lucky shot he had at finding a partner. That opportunity had come and gone. He had blown his only chance.
As he dwelt on Lisa, the lines of an old Queensrÿche song passed through his thoughts:
I don't believe in love
I never have, I never will
I don't believe in love
I'll just pretend she never was real
I don't believe in love
I need to forget her face, I see it still
I don't believe in love
It's never worth the pain that you feel
Queensrÿche… Mike loved their music, even though their more famous songs were at least 10 years old. He first heard of Queensrÿche on a station that featured “classic” Metal from the 1980’s and 1990’s. Perhaps it was a trait of a loser to listen to music that was not in the least bit current, but he didn’t care. The music of Queensrÿche, which dwelt on alienation, anger, and loneliness, seemed to be written directly for Mike Sinclair.
* * *
Mike tried to cheer up as he wandered through the basement of the library, looking for a couple of extra books that would give him the 10 sources he needed as the minimum for a term paper. More BS, he thought to himself… these stupid term papers. He knew how to play the game with term papers, however. There wasn’t much to writing a term paper if one knew how to do it. Normally he used two or three books to get his facts, and then picked a few quotes out of the others. The extra two books would only be needed be for quotes, but he did have to include them.
As he got ready to leave, Mike passed a table with an open backpack set next to a pile of books. He recognized the backpack as the one belonging to his classmate Ruthie Burns. Curiosity led him to examine the titles. Much to his surprise, most of the books were in Spanish. There were two groups of titles: books that appeared to be novels and books that were literature reviews.
He dared not touch what was on the table; for fear that Ruthie would catch him. However, just by looking at the covers he could tell that her selection of books was not the sort of literature that a freshman would be expected to read. This was very dense reading, and in Spanish, not English. A worn syllabus laid among her notes answered his question: the books were required reading for a third-year class with the Spanish Department. That meant the Ruthie Burns, who was enrolled in her first semester as a freshman, was taking at least one class at the junior level. It also meant she was fluent in another language.
Mike walked past several shelves of books and saw his classmate thumbing through a literature journal. She was engrossed in what she was doing and didn’t notice him. He resisted the temptation to go back to her table and look through her notebooks to find out more about her. Yes, there was no question that girl was totally weird, but there also was no question that she was intelligent. He found her fascinating.
Mike returned to his dorm. When he opened the door to his room, the sight and sounds that greeted him were the ones he expected. When he entered he could hear explosions and the roars of electronic monsters. His roommate Todd was sitting at the computer at his desk, playing an online video game. With a quick single movement Todd put on a pair of headphones and plugged them into the computer. He never took his eyes off the screen or missed a beat in his online battle.
Mike briefly looked at what his roommate was doing. A monster’s head came off and flew towards the viewer. There were a bunch of explosions and then Todd’s character started bleeding. He reacted by quickly going through a menu and found what he needed to restore his online self. Within seconds he was back in the battle.
Todd would be at it all night, just as he was almost every night. Mike had read an article about that game he was playing; that it was extremely addictive for serious players because of a ranking system it used. There was no question that Todd had a high rank in that game, but what was he sacrificing to keep it? He had no social life, over the semester his physical health had deteriorated, and undoubtedly his grades were suffering because very rarely had Mike seen him studying.
For a few minutes Mike watched his roommate. He was an addict, no doubt about it. His life was as lost as that of a chronic gambler. Not that Mike cared that much about Todd’s well-being, because the two students did not like each other, but he did shake his head at the loss of yet another life to an activity that was a total waste of time.
Finally he went to the men’s room to get cleaned up. When he returned to the room, he took off his towel and got in bed. He was too tired to put anything on and had decided to sleep naked, but Todd was too engrossed in his game to notice or care. Mike covered his eyes with a pillow to block out the light from his roommate’s computer. He still could hear the muffled sound effects of the online battle through the headphones. The sound was very faint, but it was just enough to totally irritate him.
Abruptly the battle sound stopped. Todd started swearing and desperately tried to reconnect. He turned off his computer and rebooted, but to no avail. The campus Internet must have gone down again. Poor Todd, he was out of the fight and undoubtedly his ranking would suffer.
Mike smiled to himself in the darkness and fell asleep.
End of part 1
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