[A revised morsel from A Republic of Books, the novel in progress to be found elsewhere on this ethereal site.]

 

 

Act 4: Scene 2

the problem with fire

 

 

The bookshop is closed. The lights are low. Deirdre and Michael are sitting down stage, center right, on two stools. A bottle of bourbon is on the floor. They both have glasses in hand.

 

DEIRDRE

So, what are we going to do? How do we save the shop?

 

MICHAEL

Well, here’s the problem. The good guys won’t fight dirty because that would only make them bad guys. The bad guys will always fight dirty because that’s who they are anyway. Result—all else being equal—the bad guys often win the battle.

 

DEIRDRE

Are you are saying that the good guys have to fight dirty?

 

MICHAEL

No. I’m saying that most of the time, the good guys should not fight at all.

 

DEIRDRE

This is the real would, Michael. If the good guys don’t fight, they’ll be destroyed. Liquidated. Annihilated.

 

MICHAEL

Maybe. Probably. But Gandhi prevailed.

 

DEIRDRE

You like your history. So, you know Gandhi only won because he was going against a British Empire that actually believed in good and evil. They may have been wrong, but they thought they were doing the right thing. If he’d been fighting Nazis, he would have been shot. End of story.

 

MICHAEL

True enough.

 

DEIRDRE

Okay, then explain this—how come the good guys won the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War Two?

 

MICHAEL

Did they? I sometimes wonder about some of that.

 

DEIRDRE

Yes! And they won by fighting!

 

MICHAEL

I’m not sure the native Americans would agree with you about part of that. Or the families of all those dead soldiers. And there are a lot of black people in this country who think otherwise. And World War Two was really just more of World War One and the Cold War and the forced starvation of hundreds of millions of Russians and Chinese and all the misery of another hundred million people in little Marxist rebellions from the Congo to Vietnam. Is all that over yet? Really? Look at the bulletin boards at Harvard next time you’re over there.

 

DEIRDRE

Okay. Then tell me, how is it things have gotten better than they were. Things are a lot better now than they were a hundred years ago.

 

MICHAEL

You’re right. They are. But not by good intentions. By technology! Flush toilets and electric lights. Look, the reason the bad guys lose is because they’re incompetent. The movies always get that part wrong. And maybe that’s Conan Doyle’s fault. He started all that nonsense with the brilliant Moriarity. Before Sherlock Holmes, the bad guys lost because they were stupid. Everybody knew that! Then along comes Doyle looking for a worthy villain to match his hero. But Moriarty is not so smart. If he was, he’d be living a better life. He’s a fool! If he spent half as much effort trying to create something himself, rather than taking things from others, he’d be far wealthier and a much happier fellow. He’d get invited to the Christmas party and the July Fourth barbecue. The reason the good guys manage to make things better over time is because they are actually doing the most efficient and productive thing just by treating their fellow man the same way they’d like to be treated themselves. It turns out, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ works! Being kind, works. Being respectful, works. Being truthful works, Being clean, works. Learning to do something well will make you happy. Sharing that happiness will make you even happier. Bad guys are always losers, even when they win. They’re all ‘caged paranoids’ my dad called them. In their world, no one can be trusted. But unfortunately in any one pitched battle, they can win. They can put together a coalition of all the other bad guys and win. The thing is, you don’t want to put yourself in the way of that. You could get killed! Then your own story is over. Let the incompetent assholes kill themselves!

 

DEIRDRE

Be kind? That’s you’re answer?

 

MICHAEL

Yes. Over time. In good time. We’re only here for a while, as you’ve likely noticed. The whole weight of human history is not on my neck. Just a little tiny bit of it.

 

DEIRDRE

So what’s your plan? Are you saying that you’re not going to fight?

 

MICHAEL

I think I’m going to fight by not fighting.

 

DEIRDRE

You’ll lose the shop.

 

MICHAEL

Yes! That’s over. That’s done. But that’s a battle, not the war.

 

DEIRDRE

I didn’t know you looked at it that way.

 

MICHAEL

What way?

 

DEIRDRE

That way. A Republic of Books is just one battle in some larger war.

 

MICHAEL

Truthfully, I don’t. Not really. I’m attached. But that’s just me. The shop itself is just one thing. But in the larger scheme, it’s ephemeral. It’s not the idea. The idea is what the war is all about. I mean, hell. The Greeks are gone! They can’t even manage to run a good tourist industry anymore. But the ideas they had more than two thousand years ago are still with us. Maybe that goes for us too! America had some good ideas, but now we can’t run a city, much less a nation. Everybody wants to be taken care of and there’s nobody left to do the caring.

 

DEIRDRE

No! Look, you mentioned technology. You’ve made that point before that a lot of the good things we have now are the result of technology, not politics.

 

MICHAEL

Politics indirectly, maybe. Even the bad guys want to be able to open a can of beans a little easier. But technology is not exclusive to human liberty. Look at the Nazis. And the more people have the liberty to choose, the more minds are brought to bear on the problems we face and the technology improves.

 

DEIRDRE

Okay, but isn’t the problem now that technology has given more power to those who control it. Whether it’s the government, or it’s corporations like Amazon or Microsoft, or Google. Google can even tell you what to think just by limiting your access to other answers.

 

MICHAEL

Yeah. True. That’s right. Even a military mind like Eisenhower’s understood the dangers of the military industrial complex, back when technology was really just this side of the wheel. But things are changing very fast now.

 

DEIRDRE

Don’t we need government to control that?

 

MICHAEL

What? Really? Giving the bully the power to control you—the power to rule you. You’re giving the bully the only gun? . . . You’re just joking with me.

 

DEIRDRE

Then how do you stop some techno-giant like Apple or Google from doing whatever they want?

 

MICHAEL

You don’t support them.

 

DEIRDRE

You write your bloody blogs on an Apple computer, for Christ’s sake!

 

MICHAEL

I didn’t say you cut off your own nose. I drive on government roads too. I’m not saying we should all stay home. I use the best computer I can afford in order to do what I need to do. That gives me access to a lot more that some crappy writing software. And I’ve already noticed they’re making that more and more of a labyrinth anyway. You need one of their minion wizards to do things you used to be able to figure out by yourself. I’m about ready to go back to my old typewriters. Samizdat!

 

DEIRDRE

But doesn’t using their stuff just give them more power?

 

MICHAEL

And I also wear clothes made by slave children in Bangladesh because that’s what I can afford and that’s what’s available. It’s not good. I don’t like that either. But I need clothes and that’s the real world I live in. And then there are a lot of people who say that’s okay, anyway. At least the slave children have a place to sleep and food to eat! Really? The slave is better off a slave? Think about that way of thinking!

 

DEIRDRE

Don’t yell.

 

MICHAEL

But now all those children want to come to America or Britain or Germany and see what actually happened to all those shirts they made. So the problem is, there’s a problem with everything we do. You dam the river for electricity, you stop the salmon from coming home. You build windmills for electricity, you kill the golden eagles. You mine coal for electricity, you pollute the air we breathe. You drill for oil and you make it easier to operate cars and trucks and buses and factories, and all the rest, and you live with a thousand consequences including Bangledeshi children making shirts for cheapskate booksellers in Boston. One of my hero’s, Benjamin Lay got himself down to living in a cave and spinning his own clothes from the flax he grew himself in order to avoid all forms of slavery. Is that really the only alternative? And remember, I grew up in a generation that appreciated a lot of this problem way back in the sixties. They just had a bigger problem thinking straight with all that weed. When the true authority of mother nature came home with sexually transmitted diseases and a few of the other usual medical issues, they all wanted a good modern doctor. But then they didn’t want to pay for it. They wanted that for free too. So then they could protest the use of lab rats even while taking their antibiotics. A lot of them ended up on the dole, living off the tax money confiscated from the other fellow citizens—the ones they despised because they worked nine to five jobs and drove pick-up trucks and drank beer. And the ones who couldn’t deal with the facts got ugly and started blowing other people up. The really evil maroons, the Moriartys, ended up in University jobs, spreading their stupidity.

 

DEIRDRE

So, what’s the deal then? What are we going to do?

 

MICHAEL

I don’t know! . . . I still like the ‘we’ in that question, but I’m just now figuring out the next step for me. I’m too old to start all over again. That juice isn’t in me anymore. But I like modern medicine and pick-up trucks and efficient heating systems in the winter and all that. And I’m not going to move to a warmer climate and stop wearing shirts.

 

DEIRDRE

And what do you think about the ‘we’?

 

MICHAEL

I think we ought to give that some serious thought. But I’m not sure yet about that, either. I want to keep writing. I still love books. I figure I have to pare things down. I can’t live within my means because I have none to speak of. I’ll have to keep taking my social security check, at least for now.

 

DEIRDRE

Why not? That’s your money. I’ve even heard you say that.

 

MICHAEL

Yeah. But I never expected to have to use it. I always assumed it was just another part of my income confiscated by the government to take care of those who couldn’t take care of themselves. Now that I need it back, I need it. But the point is, it’s going to be a pretty modest life for me.

 

DEIRDRE

Maybe you’ll be able to sell some more books.

 

MICHAEL

Other people’s, perhaps. A few. But not my own. People don’t want to read the kind of stuff I write about. That’s pretty clear. And I don’t want to write anything else. So here I am. You better think twice about hooking up with a character like me. I’m sixty-eight, remember. It’s a lot of short term prospects for me. You’re young enough to do better.

 

DEIRDRE

I’m too old to do worse, maybe.

 

MICHAEL

Think about it first. I mean that.

 

DEIRDRE

Where are you going to live?

 

MICHAEL

Maybe my truck. Have you ever wanted to live in a truck? I always have. Maybe I’ll have enough dough left over to buy one of those little campers. They’re cold in the winter but that’s why God invented the sleeping bag. I can wander around the country like the old guy in Parnassus on Wheels.

 

DEIRDRE

I remember not being very happy about that fellow’s treatment of his sister.

 

MICHAEL

You read that?

 

DEIRDRE

You suggested it. Actually you suggested The Haunted Bookshop and then said that Parnassus was better.

 

MICHAEL

It is. There are no German spies. But you’re not my sister. I wouldn’t go anywhere with my sister. Or, actually, she wouldn’t go anywhere with me. Same difference.

 

DEIRDRE

And you’ll be a gypsy? That could be very romantic.

 

MICHAEL

No ear rings. No tattoos. Just books. And a laptop. Or maybe just a typewriter, and I’ll write each book I sell along the way, typos included at no extra charge.

 

DEIRDRE

The world’s smallest traveling bookshop.

 

MICHAEL

I saw a picture once of an Indian fellow with a bookshop perched on the back of a three wheeled bike. So it wouldn’t be the smallest. Just very small. But if you came along with your own bike, we could carry more! Maybe even a section for romance!

 

DEIRDRE

I’ll have to think about that.