Politics & Media
May 22, 2012, 06:54AM

The Lever is Fear

A political fable, told in the second person.

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You are proud of your house. You are proud of your work. But what you really like to do is walk in the woods. One day you are walking in the woods and you see the strangest thing. It is a slot machine lever on the side of a tree. You have never seen it here before. It is odd, and vaguely unsettling. You cannot account for it being there at all.

You inspect it. You walk around it. It seems as if it has been there forever. You look about you. All is quiet. You think of your family, far away in your house. Eventually you pull the lever, and a bunch of gold coins spills about your feet. You do not know what to do with the coins. When they touched your feet you recoiled as if they were bewitched. But that was silly. You were just startled.

You stand by the little pile for a long time. The sun is going down. You look around the woods as carefully as you dare, as carefully as anyone would. Everything seems in order. You take the coins. You hide them in a woodbin before you go inside. Inside your house it is warm. “How was your walk?” “Same as ever.” Same as ever.
The second time is experimental. The coins appear as they did before.

Something is terribly wrong. The world does not work this way. Deep in your heart of hearts you know that something has come apart. But you cannot prove it. In the meantime there are these coins. You are conscientious. You listen carefully to any news. You keep a close eye out for signs of decay or other consequence to using the tree. It helps you, as you revisit the lever many times over many years, to know that you are being responsible. The average person could not be trusted to do that, not like you.

It also helps to make the money work. You start foundations and programs. You patronize the needy. You give scholarships, grants, subsidies, awards and advice. The ovations you receive are so soothing while they last. Funny, though, how little it helps anyone else. The same hands are always out. You see this as more reason you deserve the lever. How could the money not have helped them? It turned you into a great philanthropist.

It must come from somewhere. It is real money, after all, stamped and sealed and spendable. You imagine a rich man’s vault, the coins draining slowly like water down a drain. It must be vast, this vault. It must be heaped with gold. There must be drifts of it like snow. It must be fair to endless, because whoever he is, he hasn’t noticed its diminishment. There has been no news, no hue and cry, and no search for missing riches.

You come to hate him, this rich man with his vault. What a cruel miser, what a twisted trap door spider, to have hoarded all that wealth unto himself. Look at you, at what you have done, with just a meager portion? All the people you have helped, or tried to, with a ration so small it has yet to be missed? Damn him, wherever he is. Damn his conniving hide.

None of that, however, ever really helps for long. It waits for you in your rooms, it hides in quiet pauses: the nagging conviction that something is wrong. But what? What on earth can possibly be wrong? You are not hurting anyone. You are not breaking any laws. It changes you over time. You get defensive when the money is mentioned. “Do you hate the needy?” you ask. “To speak against me is to speak against them.” You spit and rail. Sometimes you do not recognize yourself. You were never like that before. You are more open-minded now. Things seem more permissible. You have done this thing that feels so wrong yet nobody came to harm. Maybe other things you thought were wrong might just be harmless too.

People with causes cotton to you. You are brothers in arms with this faction and then the next. But the collusion never lasts, because nothing ever gets solved, because solving was never the point.  The point was to quiet those nagging convictions that something you’ve done is a cheat. You wonder sometimes what lever they have found, that they act just like you.

Time goes by. You are on your deathbed. You can walk in the forest no more. You are comfortable, you are famous. Your children are handsome. Long ago you gave up on the idea that there was ever a rich man’s vault. There was just too much wealth that poured out of that tree for the vault to have ever been true.

The answer is undeniable. It is the only thing that makes sense. The money must have been everybody’s. Only that could account for the vast amounts: a middling bit from every person, the whole lousy teeming sea of them. Something tells you that should matter. It should bother you somehow. But that part of you is all scabbed over. What you really feel is a sort of weary nostalgia, like a retired pugilist remembering the fight. All those nameless people, getting out of life exactly what they put in: what a simple, easy, shop-sure way to live. They have no idea how hard it is to be extraordinary. You have to spend your whole life, every waking moment, convincing yourself and everyone around you it was worth it to pull the lever.


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