"Your turn, Pericles." Orville
, beans now
thoroughly spilled, leaned back into the brick wall, taking full advantage of
what little comfort it offered. Our featureless eyes—no pupils, no irises,
nothing of that sort—stared long into the flames that licked at the lip of the
garbage can. We shared a pregnant pause, for contemplation, for anticipation.
"Okay." A false start. "Okay. So, real
quick, I hate talking about when I was a little kid. Grant me the luxury of
skipping that, please." What a hypocrite. Just an hour ago, I'd pestered a
reluctant Orville for his boyhood stories.
"Fair enough." Gracious.
"Okay, thanks. So, uh, let me set the stage: It's
2015. I'm eighteen years old. Freshman year of college. I—"
I hated that question. People always had to ask it twice. Terre Haute might as well have been Point Nemo.
In my twilight years, when the last generation of university students began to
die off, I figured I had escaped the question for good. I should have guessed
that it would follow me beyond the grave. "Does 'Rose-Hulman' mean
anything to you?"
"About as much as 'Purdue' means to you."
I grinned, stifling a chuckle. How did I forget that I
was talking to Orville Redenbacher, ex-Vigo County Farm Bureau extension agent?
"Anyway, the following year, the economy took a nosedive—I think I told
you about that." Orville nodded. "Tuition went way up. Too high for me to stay. I had to find work. There weren't a lot of software
jobs out there, so my formally trained skillset didn't do much good."
I took a long pause here. I knew that Orville, consummate
agribusinessman, wouldn't respond well to what I had to say
next. "Fortunately, there's always an opening for someone who follows
directions and keeps their mouth shut. I had years of experience in the latter,
so I made an inquiry, figuring I could learn the former on the job. Next thing
I know, I'm in a ConAgra grain silo, spraying water on the stock."
Orville understood the implications of this. (For those
of you that don't: Adding moisture to grain increases its weight and, as a
result, its value. Done intentionally, this is a crime.) Before he could voice
his disapproval—perhaps even his scorn—I cut him off. "Orville, wait.
Listen. I admit that some of my deeds in life were unsavory. But if you hear me
out, you'll see I'm not a devious man." He gave a hesitant nod,
invitation to proceed. So I did.
I regaled him of my stint below the bottom rung of
ConAgra's corporate ladder, which ended when a sympathetic manager
promoted me to a legitimate factory position. In the background, I kept my eyes
on the cutting edge of computer science, developing my skills. A couple of
years later, my work paid off, as was the style of the time for boys and girls
with grit and tech acumen. My success wasn't huge—I didn't become the next
Zuckerberg, not by a long shot. But my bioinformatics algorithm caught the
attention of some ConAgra higher-ups, who decided to put me on a research team
in the GMO division.
I was (sort of) a somebody now. I had an office. There
were plenty of folks in the department above me, more skilled than me, flat-out
smarter than me, with swankier offices, accolades, and cock-sure attitudes to prove it all. In spite of this, I was determined to reach for the top. I needed
to run the show, someday, because now I saw the big picture, the long run, the
things the future held in store for ConAgra. Spraying grain—that sort of thing
couldn't fly in the coming age of genetic modification. This company needed a
moral compass—I fit the bill.
The details of my rise to the top are not important. No
one, not even Orville, a man with an eternity to spare, wants to hear a million
tales of team management, paperwork, and ass-kissery. What's important: at the
end of it, I was 47. I was a very rich somebody. ConAgra had become a paragon
of responsible productivity, largely by my hand. Finally, in what seemed to me
a terrible twist of fate, I had grown disillusioned.
The money was fun. And I had so much, it could change the
world. I don't mean a "personally finance a cure for cancer" level of
change; more along the lines of funding an ad campaign to implant an idea of my
choosing into a dozen million minds. But nothing on that scale happened.
Multimillionaires are rarely without odd habits, and I was no exception. Buying
everything in a vending machine, but never taking any of it out, instead
leaving it all inside the machine in a heap—that was a fun trick. Nonchalantly
tossing Benjamins to buskers and panhandlers, not even stopping to witness
their reactions—another. However, the hollowness was impossible to deny. Such a
staunch proponent of moral business practice should hold himself to a higher
standard, I'd think to myself. And yet, each day, cash flowed without
consequence. I couldn't muster anything real.
In 2048, I retired. I couldn't put on the suit anymore. I
couldn't sign the checks anymore. Just reading my job description, I couldn't
shake the dishonesty. My second-in-command took my place and my non-vital
assets. I never asked or looked into what he did with them.
In the following decades, I withdrew further and further from
modern society. Having given up my greatest opportunity to change it, I saw no
gains in remaining a member. Staying would only expose me to problems I could
no longer address. Where I could, I resisted and evaded the ceaseless
marching-on of technology. But by 2095, I was residing in a hospital bed, as
weak, old, and alone as the worst stereotypes portray fogeys.
I don't know what sort of funeral I received, if any. Who would have held it? At some point, somebody must have put me in a suit, though, since that's
what I'm wearing now. And forever.