Memories, Dreams, and Railroads (2)

29 September, 2016 – Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania

Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania has the crappiest hobotown that Jack has ever seen. There’s a huge switching yard a little to the east of town, and just before that yard there’s a very tight curve where the westbound line changes direction by a hundred and eighty degrees in less than a mile of track. That forces trains to slow to a crawl, which presumably accounts for the popularity of Punxy as a hobo hopoff, even though, from what Jack has seen so far, it’s a pretty serious shithole.

The tight curve of track echoes the slightly less regular curve of a little stream just to the south of it, and it is in this area between track and creek where the town has grown up. The town is mostly packed into the hundred yards or so closest to the tracks, so it has plenty of room to grow before it bumps into the river. Although after seeing the first bit of it, Jack is pretty sure he would just as soon not see it grow much more.

The place is literally a dump. What looks more or less like a hobotown from the rails is actually a combination hobotown and garbage midden in which each shanty is surrounded by its own heap of refuse including old cans, plastic bottles, and, from the smell of it, animal remains and just plain shit. Half of the castoff plastic bottles look like they’ve been used as pissers. The shanties themselves are no great shakes either. Most of them look like they’ve been thrown together out of cardboard, tyvek, and duct tape into structures that would fall down if you farted.

Jack has seen this kind of shabbiness before, but never to this degree. Most hobotowns that have grown up since the War actually have a pretty good percentage of permanent residents in them who tend to improve things a bit. Some, however, do not. In those kind of towns, where everybody figures they’re moving on in a day or two—why would anybody bother to clean the place up?

A man sitting on a crate in front of one of the shanties looks up at Jack incuriously as he strolls by.

“How you doin’?” Jack nods at the man, but the guy just puffs on his stub of a smoke. His eyes lose Jack, and stare out south toward the sunlit river. In spite of the day’s warmth the bastard is wearing what looks like a woman’s winter coat that was probably fashionable about twenty years ago. It’s long and brown, made of little squares that are each individually stuffed with insulation, the torn ones carefully patched with gray tape. This attractive garment comes complete with a hood that was originally trimmed in faux renard blanc or some damn thing—now mostly worn away and what’s left looks like it’s been soaked alternately in piss and chewing tobacco. At least there’s nothing faux about it anymore.

The man’s wrists, sticking out of the too-short sleeves, are large, the bones wide-set and strong, but there is so little flesh on his forearms and hands that it looks like he starved to death about two weeks ago.

Jack continues on, his attention momentarily drawn to a swarm of kids playing on a garbage-pile, and then to another spot further on where a group of half a dozen young men are lounging against a pile of old pallets.

They have made such a pitiful attempt to dress like a gang—all wearing short jackets that are either black or dark blue, all their hair cut inexpertly short, and all sporting gray flat-caps—that Jack is surprised into a short bark of laughter as soon as he sees them. This draws angry glances from several of the youngsters. From one of them, however, it also attracts a look that, for one flashing instant before the lad shutters it, is unmistakably a come-on! A hey-sailor-you’re-good-lookin’ kind of look—and this from a kid who can’t be more than thirteen! Although the kid also happens to be quite good looking himself.

Grinning, Jack tips an imaginary hat to the charming lad as he strolls by.

Towards the east end of the hobotown, where the land available to it necks down to a corridor no more than thirty yards wide between the Mahoning Creek on his left and the train tracks on his right, Jack Coulter discovers the reason why this place seems unusually transient even for transients.

There is a billboard spanning fully half the distance between river and railroad that proclaims in stark black-on-white words two feet tall:

Only Local EBT Cards

Accepted by Punxy Merchants

All Shop Owners and Street Vendors

Violating this Ordinance Will Be Prosecuted

by Order of the Punxsutawney City Council

Well, that will certainly do it, Jack thinks. Probably half of the people that Jack encounters in his wanderings still have their EBT cards. The other half are the ones who, like himself, have left behind even that last vestige of Atlantis, where Uncle Sugar takes care of all his faithful chilluns and dancing unicorns shit Skittles. People like Jack have long since learned to live by their wits alone, completely off the flickering radar of the old world. The ones who still have enough of one foot in that old world to score a working EBT card, they tend to be the ones who only travel a little ways and then settle down for an extended period somewhere. That’s the type that makes a hobotown worth staying at, because they start to set up little shops or stills or flophouses or what-have-you. And if the locals around here won’t take their EBT cards then that type sure ain’t staying for longer than it takes to hop the next freight.

However, just beyond the billboard—in fact, built to take advantage of its shadow during the mid-day hours—Jack sees a little business that looks like it might just make up for all the inhospitality that Punxsutawney has to offer. There’s a little shack made of clapboard and found materials with a cheap and battered foldable table out front and an old man leaning back in a chair. The old man has a sign made from a sheet strung underneath the big billboard that says, in rather less official-looking lettering,

Old Hokie’s

Qualitative Easing

~and~

Second-Half Recovery

~Fine Beverages and Defoliant~

Good for What Ails You!

The two different names of his beverages apparently indicate the two different colors of moonshine filling the big carboys on the table: one a nice shade of red with what looks like several quarts of cherries soaking in it, and the other one a truly virulent orange.

Jack strolls ahead until he’s in front of the old man.

“So,” Jack says casually, “you’re Old Hokie, I take it?”

“At your service, young sir,” the man says. “And ready to cure what ails you, for a very reasonable and nominal fee.”

Hokie is indeed an older man, with a substantial but reasonably well-trimmed white beard and a face that has wrinkled deeply with the expression of every human emotion that Jack knows, and some that he doesn’t. Hokie is wearing a broad-brimmed felt hat that has definitely seen better days, along with a black sport jacket that probably looked pretty good in 1980 or maybe the early Pleistocene. His establishment consists of a folding table that until a few seconds ago he had his feet propped up on, a folding chair that he is sitting in, and a small tent that looks like it does double-duty as sleeping quarters and distillery. Beyond its flap, Jack can glimpse a six-gallon plastic bucket with a coil of copper tubing coming out of it.

The chairs for the convenience of the patrons of this fine establishment are improvised from overturned plastic crates with the names of long-defunct produce companies on them. Jack pushes one of them with his foot to a spot he likes in front of the table and helps himself to a seat.

As he lowers himself onto his crate, Jack smiles at the old man. “Quite a place you got here, Hokie!” His eyes only flicker toward the tent opening for the briefest of instants, and he only spends a couple tenths of a second thinking of what a setup like that might be worth, and then a couple tenths more reflecting on how well a man Hokie’s age can really guard such treasures, especially after he’s knocked back a few samples of his own product.

“Ah, yes, thank you!” Hokie replies immediately. “The last vestige of the old world that I have saved. My bit of flotsam from the wreck of Western Civilization which I cling to in the flood.” The man bobs his head, but his smile turns sorrowful. “I only hope I don’t blow it up from carelessness and kill myself in the process, young sir.”

Jack frowns at him. “Why would you do that?”

“Well,” Hokie shrugs, “since I can ill afford a burglar alarm I merely have an old coach gun wired up back there. No doubt one day I will become careless while rummaging around, and blow myself to Kingdom Come. And all because of the hardness of this fallen world.” The man shakes his head sadly, and Jack laughs. It’s the most creative way that anyone has ever told him Don’t fuck with my stuff.

“Well I guess I better sample your wares, then,” Jack says, indicating the almost fluorescent contents of the carboys, “before this place blows sky-high!”

“An excellent concept!” The old man smiles, seeing that Jack has taken the hint. “But I must warn you,” he says. “If you want to play, you got to pay, young sir.”

“I got money,” Jack feigns nonchalance. “I imagine you want people to pay up front, in case they die from this poisonous shit.”

“I pride myself on return business, young sir,” the old man raises his white eyebrows with feigned disdain. “And I doubt,” he fixes Jack with a sharp look that isn’t feigned at all, “that you have any real money.”

Smiling, Jack shifts on the crate to put his hand deep in his pants pocket, and carefully pulls out a single twenty, placing it on the table and putting one of the proprietor’s empty jam-jars on top of it.

“What do call that?” Jack says.

“I call that waste paper,” Hokie says. “What I’m looking for is the cool clean shine of a little bit of silver, to wink at me in the lovely sunlight,” Hokie smiles, “so that I can wink back.”

“Say what?” Jack looks around. “I didn’t know you had such an exclusive fucking clientele around here.”

Hokie laughs. “Very well, young sir, very well. I suppose I can part with a taste of this week’s vintage for such a pittance as you can afford. Ah! The lengths I go to in my attempts to help corrupt the youth. What’s your pleasure, then?” He gestures to both carboys.

“I think I’m actually pretty corrupted already,” Jack frowns. “But I guess, maybe, the orange to start with?”

“The Second-Half Recovery! An excellent choice!” Rising from his seat, Hokie makes a show of lifting the carboy and filling one of the jam-jars that Jack used as a paper weight full to the brim, then sets the carboy carefully back in its place. As he resumes his seat, Hokie deftly removes Jack’s twenty to tuck into his pocket.

“What, you’re not joining me?” Jack exclaims. “How do I know this shit ain’t half methanol?”

In the shade of his hat brim Hokie’s eyebrows rise, and this time it isn’t because he’s clowning.

“Well, well,” Hokie says. “The young sir is a chemist! Perhaps the young sir has been educated?” He stands again up to pour some of the orange moonshine for himself—apparently needing very little coaxing—but Jack feels the man’s attention still surreptitiously focused on him even when his eyes aren’t. It makes him feel strangely self-conscious.

“Everybody knows you can’t drink wood-alcohol, Hokie.”

“But not everyone knows to call it methanol, now do they?” the old man says. “But very well, then. Come! Let us drink to knowledge!”

Old Hokie takes a healthy swallow from his jar of orange liquid as casually as a man might drink an equally poisonous flavor of Kool-Aid. When Jack realizes that the old man is actually drinking the stuff he quickly follows suit, not wanting to look like he really is hanging back to have the beverage’s drinkability proven. That was a joke. Pretty much.

Jack is rewarded by having his teeth transmuted into firework sparklers, his eyes converted into flashbulbs instantly set off and burned out, and the inside of his throat turned into a neon tube that blazes and flickers, blinking a frantic SOS in Morse code. In the seven tenths of a second that it takes the drink to burn its way completely through his body, the orange lightning contained within the flaming liquid has plenty of time to branch and re-branch, exploring and investigating, completing leisurely examinations and incendifications of his lungs and liver, his gallbladder and kidneys, his spleen, stomach, pancreas, intestines, and urinary bladder, lighting up each of these interesting new parts with a different wavelength and voltage until the map of Jack Coulter’s interior spaces would put a Christmas tree to shame and make children clap for joy.

But the branching fire has not ended its task there, not by a long shot. It descends now to the cellular level, where it gouges out the Golgi apparatus, mutates the mitochondria, vacates the vacuoles, lights up the lysosomes, and rubs out the ribosomes.

Back in the macroscopic world, Jack leans forward to slam the jar down on the folding table, aspirating through his open mouth and staring at Old Hokie while his view of the man doubles and becomes a photo-negative of itself.

The old man smiles. “Not bad, huh?”

Yeah,” Jack forces the word out through his flame-scoured windpipe. “Smooth!”

His illuminated skeleton and nervous system taps the jar on the table to request a refill.

~

Ten minutes later, after having shared several jars of both flavors, Jack has decided he definitely likes the orange best.

“It’s kind of like you took cranberries and orange peels and burned them,” Jack muses. “In, like, gasoline, or plutonium or some shit.”

“The delicate flavor you are referring to is rendered from ripened persimmons,” Old Hokie announces, “in a process, passed down from generation to generation, which requires more than twenty-four hours to ferment! I would have expected an educated man such as yourself to recognize the craftsmanship inherent in this artisanal and organic beverage.”

“No shit? It’s organic?” Jack holds up the jar and peers, as though the quality of light shining through might indicate the drink’s organicnosity.

“Only the finest carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms were used,” Hokie assures him solemnly.

Jack nods thoughtfully, then sets the jar down again as the old man stands briefly to pour another round.

“I’m not educated, you know,” Jack says, glancing at him. “Never finished the fuckin tenth grade.” He looks at the old man’s wrinkled face. “I pick stuff up, though, on the road or wherever. I read books sometimes. I know plenty of stuff.”

“Ah!” Old Hokie says. “Well, that’s fine. School learning is greatly overrated in any case.” The old man smiles kindly, but Jack has had too many years on the road to believe every smile. He can see that the old geezer was hoping for something else. Well, yeah. Aren’t we all.

“A toast, then!” Hokie says, “to graduate degrees from the School of Hard Knocks!”

They both raise their jars again and Jack sips the lightning.

“For example,” Jack says, “I know that you used to be a banker.”

The jar stops halfway to Old Hokie’s lips and the old man’s expression turns serious. “Now why,” he says, “would you think any such thing as that?”

“That’s what all this is about, isn’t it?” Jack gestures at the bed sheet sign advertising Hokie’s pop-up bar. “Qualitative Easing. Second-Half Recovery. That’s banker talk. I heard it from the news. I would say that’s a banker trying to be funny. And blowing it, by the way.” Jack grins. “Keep your day-job.”

The old man barks a laugh before sipping more of the orange hooch.

“A bit late for that,” he says. “In fact you could say that the banker I once was died, long ago. But you are quite right. I salute your perception, young sir!” He salutes it with another swig of the orange, which Jack emulates.

Hokie stands to top off the jars from the carboy again.

“Hey,” Jack holds out a cautionary hand. “I only paid for the one drink—”

“Nonsense!” Hokie declares. “Education or no, you are an intelligent and perceptive young man, and I enjoy your company.” Hokie pours, puts the carboy back in its place very gently and settles back into his own seat rather less so.

“I assure you,” he says, looking at Jack, “that is payment aplenty.”

Jack reclines on his own seat and sips the vintage. It’s actually quite good, once it has euthanized all the taste buds that find it disagreeable.

“Why’d you quit?” Jack asks suddenly. Even after four jam-jars of Qualitative Easing he knows it’s a question one generally does not ask of men on the road in this new world, but the old man seems comfortable with him—Jack feels likewise—and if the guy really wanted to keep it a deep dark secret he wouldn’t be making half-assed jokes about it on his sales-pitch banner, now would he. “Bankers are still doing pretty well, aren’t they?”

Hokie thinks that over. “Some are,” he nods judiciously. “The big national banks are doing very well indeed. Not through any virtue of their own, of course. But I wasn’t in one of those. I was in what’s called an investment bank. Not the biggest and not the smallest, but definitely one of the sexiest. I helped institutional investors and high-net-worth individuals maximize their investment potential by identifying high Sharpe-ratio opportunities.”

“So what happened?”

“Boston happened, of course. And when the markets finally reopened, the Collapse happened. I lost five million dollars in three hours and couldn’t so much as get a sell-order through. All of a sudden that Sharpe ratio didn’t look so sharp.”

“Yikes.”

“Yikes indeed. And, please note, young sir, that six years ago five million dollars was worth what twenty million is today.”

Jack blinks. That’s still a lot of money.

“Yes, now you see? But better yet, I lost a similar amount that belonged to my estranged wife, which I was still managing.”

“And best of all, by far, I lost about one hundred times that sum for my various clients. Some of whom, in addition to being high net worth individuals, were very likely high violence quotient individuals, if you take my meaning.”

“Oh, shit,” Jack says, seeing the potential. “But—I mean it’s not like they could blame you for the Collapse, right?”

“No, no. But I’m quite sure that some of them, in fact a majority of them, would indeed have blamed me for not getting them into more wealth-preserving instruments before the axe fell. In fact, one of them did.”

“Who was that?”

“That was the one who killed me.”

Jack sips his fire-water.

“Well, I got better,” Hokie admits. “You see, the only thing I didn’t lose was my life insurance policy. Which very explicitly covered murder, half of which would automatically go to my wife and the other half into my own account.”

“I thought you said ‘estranged’.”

“Oh yes, very. And living with a man who was wise enough to not lose quite everything. Half of the sum that would fall to me, I offered to the—irate client in exchange for his help in the scam. It certainly wasn’t enough to fully compensate his losses, but it was a lot better than he would get otherwise.”

“The irate client was actually a doctor involved in law enforcement, and thus had not much difficulty producing a body of the right proportions. Which is what gave me the idea.”

“So you only ended up with a quarter of it?”

“Well, in a manner of speaking. You see, when my wife and I separated, I had had the foresight to make my daughter co-signatory to my accounts. My quarter of the money was sufficient to allow her to finish school—which my wife’s new friend was in no mood to contribute to—and even with a little left over for her to get started in life.”

Thinking of it, Old Hokie smiles.

“Wait, so you got diddly squat out of the deal?” Jack finds this upsetting.

“Not at all, young sir, not at all. I got enough pocket change to buy the components of this world-class brewing facility you see behind me, and a lifetime pass to ride the rails, so long as I can keep one step ahead of the brakemen. Or buy them off with a jar of hooch.”

“Well, damn. I hope your daughter at least said thanks.”

“I hope so too,” Hokie says, nodding. “But I didn’t think it would be wise for me to try attending the funeral.”

“What—so, you didn’t even tell her it was a fake?”

“We were not on the best of terms either, my daughter and I, since the divorce and so on. I thought it best that she not be burdened.”

“Well,” Jack says, sipping. “Damn. So—did she graduate?”

“No she’s a crack-whore now.”

Jack chokes on his beverage, sending a portion through his nose. This doesn’t help Jack’s nose but does amuse the drinking establishment’s proprietor significantly.

“Hell, I don’t know,” Hokie continues once Jack has stopped gasping. “Yes, I expect so. The colleges didn’t start to fall apart until the next year, and even now most of the big ones are still limping along.”

Hokie looks at the sunlit tops of the trees.

“I didn’t do it so she would like me. That’s never going to happen, and neither of them wanted me around anymore. And, you know, that’s OK with me. It truly is.

“I did it because—well, I really did need to get out of town, you know. Some of those irate clients of mine, I am really quite certain they would have killed me and done it for free. Things were pretty bad there for a while.

“I knew the whole thing was crooked as hell, of course. It was obvious for years before the Collapse that there wasn’t any honest market left in the world. If I had wanted to stay clean I would have gotten out—hell, back in ’90 or something. But, I was just really getting going at that time, and all I wanted was to stay in the game. Crooked or not. Get my piece of the pie. Show the world what I could do.

“After it all fell over,” Hokie sighs, “I guess I just wanted to do something good, do the right thing, for one person who needed me.”

He takes a healthy swallow of the brew and swirls the remainder in his jar.

“You know, after it all came apart, I think that’s the first time I ever really stopped and thought about it all. It’s so easy, when you get into a good thing, to just keep going. Keep riding the wave and never stop and think about what you’re really doing until the wipeout comes.”

Old Hokie frowns. “Don’t ever do that, young sir. Not ever.”

“I don’t think I’m in much danger of that,” Jack grins.

Hokie looks at him. “The worst thing of it is—we stole your future from you.”

“Excuse me?”

“That’s precisely what we did. Myself, and people like me. I didn’t think of it that way then, of course. In fact I thought as little as possible about what I and my whole industry were doing. Concentrating on riding that wave, you know.

“Do you see? You have no idea what I’m talking about, am I correct? And that is precisely why it works. I’ve had a long time to contemplate it now. It’s actually quite beautiful, if that’s the right word to describe the biggest crime against humanity in the history of humanity.”

“Yeah, you bankers swing a pretty mean briefcase, huh?”

“Ah, but I am not joking, not at all. Do you think that the only evil is war? Why is that? Because it makes all the loud noises and bright flashes? Because the news sites tell you that’s what’s interesting?

“I’ll tell you, young sir. The generals do what money tells them to do. And if anybody tells you the president is their boss, well, he also does what money tells him to do.”

It is not the first time Jack has heard this viewpoint, although usually not expressed by someone with actual experience of money. He nevertheless remains skeptical. “What, some banker calls up the president and says ‘Launch the Auroras and I’ll give you campaign money’?”

“Oh no, young sir, it’s rather more abstract than that. And it’s not campaign money. The serious cash changes hands after the president leaves office or the general steps down.”

“Why?” Jack asks. “They can’t do anything then, right?”

“Oh, but they can! They can exert the most extreme influence on their successors, just by being seen to have done well for themselves, by doing what they were told. And these are,” Hokie quirks an eyebrow, “large amounts of money. The kind of money it would take a saint to ignore. And the presidents and generals are not saints.”

“Yeah? What if one is?”

“Then I imagine the others would make sure he never gets above the rank of Major, or a seat in the State House, or whatever. Once this system has become pervasive enough, it becomes self-sustaining. And it did not start yesterday.”

“Ah. Right,” Jack frowns, thinking. “Yeah, I guess not.”

“No,” Hokie muses to his beverage, “and it is not just ‘some banker’ who gives the orders. Or rather, makes the suggestions. It’s the big devils at the top. And they certainly don’t say ‘Launch the Auroras.’ They say ‘We need a guaranteed market for T bills, and we need it yesterday.’ And guess what? A few booms later we get US Foreign Command governing two-thirds of the globe. And hey, presto! Everybody’s buying T-bills again. Because, you know, it’s a lot easier to see what a terrific investment they are when the FC has a very large gun to the back of your head. It clears one’s vision remarkably.”

“Oh come on,” Jack frowns. “China started the War. We just ended it.”

Like most Americans, Jack has always been enthralled by the story of the single squadron of Aurora aircraft, which, at that time, were only suspected and never proven to exist, launching desperately from a base in the Indian Ocean, and, in a single great Mach 5 arc across Asia and Russia, decapitating America’s enemies in ninety minutes.

“Did they indeed?” Hokie smiles. “Oh come on, the general says, I can’t just launch against the Chinese for no reason. That would be aggression! They’d need to nuke New York, or something! So Mister Money thinks that over for a bit and says Well, General, New York sounds hard. But how about a battle group in the Persian Gulf?

Jack stares. “But—the Chinese did that,” he says. “So now you’re saying these big money guys can get the Chinese to do what they want, too?”

“Why not?” Hokie smiles slyly. “It only takes more money! Does that conflict with the Official Story? What do you hear from the news sites lately? Chinese oppression of minorities? Russian threat to eastern Europe? Neo-Communists! Booga booga! You get whatever flavor of bullshit they’re pushing this week, and you’re supposed to say you like the taste or you aren’t patriotic.”

“I’ve had some years now to think about this, young sir. If you watch, you can see it happening quite easily.

“But in any case,” Hokie takes a deep breath and, thus fortified, drains the remaining contents of his jam jar, “I’ll tell you what’s the truth. The War was fought for exactly one reason: because the bottom of the market was falling out for US T-bills, and they needed something to replace it the way an alcoholic needs one more bender.”

Hokie looks toward the east. A train that has been audibly approaching from the east for the last few minutes has now rounded the big curve and is getting close enough to make conversation difficult. It passes quickly, though, in spite of its low speed. It’s no more than two engines and a handful of cars, probably preparing to pick up a larger train in the switchyard behind Hokie’s back.

“No, that’s exactly it, young sir,” Hokie says, when it’s quiet again. “Though I’m sorry to say it. We stole your world . We stole your future.”

Jack holds his hands out to his sides, his left hand palm facing up to the blue sky, and his right hand likewise, insofar as possible while still holding his jar of brilliant joy.

“Hey, I’m still here,” he says, grinning. And brings the jar to his lips with a flourish to take another healthy swallow of high-octane liquidity.

“Indeed,” Hokey says. “You’re here. Riding the rails because there aren’t any jobs anymore for young men, because one hundred and twenty percent of the corporate profits in this country are coming from financial services. Which is a fancy way of saying Force your way up to the government geyser of new money, stick your snout in there, and hang on for dear life. There’s not a dime being made in manufacturing. Or mining. Or energy. Or farming. You know? All the stuff that actually keeps us alive? All the stuff that would make good jobs for an intelligent young man who wants to work hard and rise in the world? The leeches that live off the geysers of new money—the geysers that don’t add anything to our world except an extra zero on prices and an extra percentage for the leeches—they have no use for you, young sir. So the men who play with fake money get rich, while the men who could make real money—by creating the actual new wealth that our species needs to survive—well, they just starve, don’t you know. Or,” the old man gestures with his drink and smiles sadly, “they ride the rails.”

This level of seriousness requires a refill. Jack, no longer embarrassed to be freeloading off another man’s liquor (trains, of course, are different), requests and receives a generous refill. At this point, who can say what might happen if his bloodstream should suddenly stop fluorescing? Certainly it would put a quick damper on philosophy.

“You know, I’ve thought about it, sometimes” Jack says finally. This is not something he would normally confide to any man.

“About what, young sir?”

“Oh, you know.” Even with the better part of a quart of Qualitative Easing in him, it doesn’t quite feel like something to talk about lightly. “What it would have been like if—you know—if you could still do things in the world like people did before the War and all. Be an inventor or something. Start a company.”

Hokie sips, looking at the younger man intently over the rim of his glass. “What would you invent, young sir?” Hokie asks quietly.

“I’d invent airships,” Jack says. “You know what I’m talking about? Like big blimps, except a thousand yards long.” He grins, imagining one of the great ships floating among the line of clouds over the western horizon. “They’d be the biggest damn things you ever saw. A hundred, two hundred passengers. And the tickets are not cheap, and the flight is not fast. If you want to get to someplace fast and cheap, you can cram your ass into Sardine Airlines. My line has nice big staterooms for everybody, a,” Jack hesitates and frowns, “what do you call it? A place where couples could promenade around, outside, you know? Around the outside edge of the ship.”

“A deck?” Hokie suggests quietly.

“Yeah!” Jack grins. “Of course! Just like a cruise ship. It’s like taking a cruise, except in the air. We can close the deck in when it’s bad weather, but mostly, you know—we don’t go into bad weather if we can help it.”

“Won’t it be kind of windy out there?”

“No!” Jack leans forward so fast that he almost commits the cardinal sin of spilling some of his orange poison on the cracked pavement. Not only would it be a terrible waste of drink, but he’s afraid to see what it might do to the pavement.

“Mostly we just let it drift with the wind! You know, the pilots know how to get to the right altitude to where the wind is going more or less the way they want to travel. So they have to use the big fans to get to the right level, then they just let it drift and open up the deck. You can’t feel the wind at all, see? Because we’re moving with it.”

The old man, watching the young man’s countenance light up as he looks skyward, tightens the muscles of his face and unconsciously tightens his grip on his whiskey jar.

Jack Coulter waves his free hand up toward his invisible flagship and smiles again, seeing it. “And there’s one hell of a restaurant, with—” he waves his hand vaguely, “lots of dark wood, and copper lamps. And nice chairs. Comfortable, you know? And they serve the best damn food you’re gonna find anywhere.”

“And you know where these ships will take you?” Jack leans forward again. “Nowhere! If you want to get somewhere, take frikking Sardine Airlines! These things—you know, even if they only go eighty or ninety miles an hour, that still adds up to a lot of mileage overnight. They never quit, you know? So every morning you wake up—you don’t know where you’re gonna be! It might be Tallahassee, or it might be the Grand Canyon. Or Saskatchewan! You don’t get on a—uh,” he thinks for a moment, then grins. “On a Homeward Bound airship because you want to get somewhere, you know?” Jack laughs and blinks, and Hokie sees moisture in his eyes. “You get on a Homeward Bound airship because you just want to be going. Going in style, you know?” Jack nods at Hokie, grinning, then looks away again at his imaginary ship out on the horizon and sips absently from his drink.

“I would think,” Hokie says, “that the CEO of such a fleet ought to ride one of his own ships occasionally.”

“Oh, I sure would,” Jack nods. “In fact, I’d be up there more often than not. I’d have my latest lady friend out on the promenade deck, looking at the fall colors, you know? Like in Vermont or someplace. And then I’d say ‘Shall we go in for a spot of tea? Or perhapssomething stronger?’ And in we’d go, to the biggest damn stateroom on the ship.”

The older man watches as Jack stares into a future that will never happen.

“I wish I could be a real banker for you, young sir,” Hokie says. “A banker from a better time. Then I would give you the loan that gets that business off the ground. So to speak.”

“Damn,” Jack says, laughing and wiping his eyes. “You got me going there for a minute, Hoke!”

The old man stands, solemnly and carefully, to pour the last of the Qualitative Easing into their jars, then seats himself again and holds his jar up in a salute which Jack matches.

“Here’s to your airline, young sir,” Old Hokie says. “And would that we had a world where it could happen.”

Jack drinks half his jar in a single jolt then wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

“You know,” the young man says to the western horizon, “I feel like there is a world where I did. This just ain’t it.”

He looks back down at Old Hokie and gestures broadly with his half-full and half-empty jar at the shining rails and the rusting freights, the still-green trees and the sparkling river.

“But this ain’t so bad, is it?” Jack Coulter says.

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