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Living Standards

by Bill Kowaleski

Table of Contents

Part I: Seduction

“The privileged soon see it as completely normal to treat a person of the laboring class as if he or she were a machine or a pet.” — Hayek Manifesto, Chapter 1

Chapter 1: An Offer She Could Not Refuse

Jiri first saw the big black car from a distance, painstakingly wending its way through the street, dodging garbage, resting dogs, squabbling women, vendor carts, armless begging war veterans — all of life as Jiri knew it.

As it crept closer, he realized that this had to be one of the real wealthies — Jiri could hear the engine murmur, and that could only mean that it was a gasoline car, that most prestigious and rare of vehicles. It moved at no more than one mile per hour, the darkly smoked windows ever so slightly open at the top where eyes peered at the crowd from both rear seats. Jiri pushed through the throng toward the car and, as he got close, it stopped, and the window on the rear passenger side, nearest him, opened just a little more, descending slowly and smoothly.

“Come closer, boy,” a voice called from the window. It was a woman’s voice, not young, ever so slightly frightened. “Put your face up to the glass.”

He eagerly complied, and as he did, he felt a cool draft of air waft from the car, chilling the sweat on his pale face.

“Good, very good,” she muttered. “We will move up the road just a little to where it widens. Bring your mother to me there.”

He jumped away from the car and flew to his shelter, hardly touching the ground before he arrived at the lean-to abutting the road, framed with dowel rods and covered with rusting corrugated metal salvaged from the many abandoned warehouses in the area. His mother sat in the entrance before a smoky, coal-burning stove, stirring something in a small pot.

“Mama, Mama, a wealthy wants to talk to you! Maybe I can work in their house!”

She scrambled to her feet, wincing and puffing, grabbed a long stick that had been leaning against a flimsy wall and hobbled with him, coughing all the way, to the street. They saw the black car, now just a little up the road where it widened into what the residents had turned into a market space, and hesitantly approached.

Now the rear window glided down almost all the way, and Jiri could see the occupants of the rear seat clearly. The woman who had spoken to him was trim, perhaps forty years old, with elegant, flowing blond hair, deep blue eyes, and the smoothest skin Jiri had ever seen.

Though she was seated, her long legs hinted at her height. She wore a halter top and very tight jeans, looking like she was trying to be one of those porno queens on the net, only too old to pull it off. Still, she created a stirring of excitement in him, something new that he had just started feeling when around certain girls.

Next to her was a large man, dark-skinned, dressed all in black, wearing wrap-around sunglasses and pointing a very conspicuous semi-automatic weapon toward the window. She spoke to Jiri’s mother. “Your son seems suitable to work for me in my home. I would like to hire him as a live-in servant. We will pay him ten dollars per day, and you will receive the same amount, paid weekly. If we can take him with us now, you can get a thousand dollars up front.”

She spoke like the people on the Clavenet videos, with grace and assurance. Jiri knew right away that this was a family of refinement and that he must take advantage of the opportunity.

But his mother hesitated. “Why do you want him? Is he going to become your plaything? I will not have my son abused.”

“No, mother,” Jiri pleaded. “Please don’t talk to her that way! I want to do it. Just think, a thousand dollars!”

“Listen to your son,” the woman in the car said. “This is a tremendous opportunity for him. He will learn to read, he will learn about the world beyond this...” — she hesitated as if she were trying to find the right words — “this very modest place you live. And if he does well, there will be more opportunities for him. We will not harm him. You can visit him if you wish, and see for yourself.”

The woman in the car reached into a bag on the seat, pulled out a wad of notes, and counted them. She handed the notes through the car window to Jiri’s mother who snatched them, head down. Jiri’s mother first turned toward their shelter, then turned back to face Jiri. “Don’t forget us, son. And tell me if they hurt you.”

“It’s for the best, Mama. Don’t worry about me.” He turned back to the car. “I’ll just get some clothes and my comm,” said Jiri, taking one step away from the car.

“No need,” the woman said quickly. “Please, just come into the car. I will give you much better clothes. Here is a nice new comm for you, it’s the best model on the market, as I think a boy your age would know.”

The door shut with a dull thunk, and the world outside seemed suddenly little more than a soundless video. He sat stiffly in the front seat, shivering in the chill, casting furtive glances at the driver, another huge man in black with wrap-around sunglasses.

The man smiled after one of Jiri’s quick glances. “How far have you been from your home, son?” His voice was deep, soft, soothing.

“We never cross the Interstate. It’s forbidden. Pasha tried it once, and the police beat him good. I’ve never been past there.”

“Yes,” the man said as though he were talking to himself. “Where your world ends and ours begins.”

The woman in the back leaned forward and talked into Jiri’s ear. “I am so rude, I should introduce myself. I am Imelda Gates. What is your name?”

He turned so that he knelt as he faced her. “I’m Jiri Lee, miss. I’m most honored to meet you. Could you tell me a little more about what I’ll be doing?”

“Oh, there’ll be time for that when you get there, but it’s pretty easy. You’ll do some cleaning, help with the cooking, maybe other things too. Someone will show you how to do everything. These two gentlemen we are riding with began their careers with my family exactly as you are doing now.”

The driver said, “Yes, Miss Gates’ mother picked me out just a few streets from yours, five years ago. And DeShaun, in the back there with that big gun, he came from the Maywood Enclave. How many years ago was that, DeShaun?”

“Just one year before you, my man. I was in the car when Mariana picked you.”

They floated very slowly through the narrow, winding streets as if riding on a cloud, dodging dogs and pedestrians, wending around vendor carts and sleeping derelicts. Mr. Mudanda sailed slowly by the window, calling out to passersby as he did every day, “Freshest fruits just in from orchards! Lowest price!”

Even as the car came within a foot of him, his voice seemed far away, outside the sealed automobile. His pushcart floated behind them and, as they curved to the left, there was Mrs. Garcia, flipping a tortilla on her portable stove. Jiri wondered whether he would ever see them again as the car turned onto the Main Road, which the driver referred to as Ohio Street, though Jiri had never heard it called that before.

Now the world outside the windows receded to a disconnected blur as the car sped quickly to the Interstate entrance and, for the first time, Jiri rode on the highway that had defined the limits of his life. He swiveled his head from side to side trying to focus on all the wonders rushing by him. His hands turned white from the tight hold he had on the right armrest, for he felt they must surely be out of control, so fast were they flying.

It seemed like a long time, but finally he sensed a slowing, a change of direction onto a narrower street, and then a scene right from a net video: trees and grass everywhere; cars, some of them burning gasoline, whizzing by; not a single person or house visible.

The car slowed even more, to a walking pace, turning toward a large iron gate that suddenly pulled apart in the middle, letting them pass, and only once they were past the gates could he see the huge structure that Imelda Gates called home.

DeShaun sprang out of the car and opened the door for Jiri while Imelda took his hand, guiding him up three stairs to a huge, windowless, carved wooden door that opened without anyone touching it. As Jiri walked through the threshold another blast of cold air chilled him, adding to the shock of the huge entry foyer, three stories high, topped with a gigantic glass chandelier holding eight bright spotlights, blazing despite the brilliant sunshine coming through the glass ceiling above it. He turned from right to left to right, trying to take in the immense strangeness surrounding him.

To his right, the entryway opened onto a large room full of plush chairs, some quite long, in shades of a dark reddish brown. The floor was covered with what seemed to him to be a thick cloth in a similar color. To his left was a long corridor of rich, glowing wood paneling with many doors, at the end of which he could just make out a brightly lit space with a large table.

In front of him was a massive staircase curving upward twenty feet to a second level, covered in the same strange cloth as the room to his right, and outlined by a thick wood railing. Soon he would learn the words for the wonders he was seeing: carpeting, oak, furniture, sofas, bannister. They never used such words on the net dramas that took place in wealthies’ houses.

Imelda let him look for a short while and then said, “Jiri, please follow me up the stairs to your room. I hope you will like it.”

His own room, such a strange concept, was much bigger than the lean-to his family lived in, featuring a very large bed, another thing he’d only seen in the net videos. He thought that his whole family could easily sleep on that one bed. There was more carpeting on the floor, this time in a muted gold color that matched the pastel shade of the walls. His two windows looked out onto a beautiful garden filled with flowers and shrubs, all meticulously trimmed. Against the wall opposite the windows was a gigantic screen, and in front of that a table with keyboards, game controllers, and other items he’d never before seen.

“Please, take a few minutes to get used to our net here, Jiri,” Imelda said. “I think you will find a lot of cool games. Then come downstairs, go down the long corridor, into the kitchen, and get something to eat.”

Cool games, no, these were totally awesome games! He played them on the giant screen, deeply absorbed, completely outside of time, until the bright daylight from his windows faded to the point where the glow of the screen was his only source of light.

Realizing he hadn’t gone to the kitchen as Imelda had instructed, he stumbled for the door, groping his way into the hallway where he ran into a girl about his age, almost a head taller than he was. She grabbed him by the waist just as he bumped into her.

“You must have just got here,” she laughed.

“How do you know?”

“You don’t know about light switches. Clavie kids never do. It’s right here on the wall, push up on it.”

He did and the hall flooded with brilliant light. “Wow, how did they do that?”

She laughed again. “I’m Mira, and you are?”

“Jiri.” Now he could see her, and it was all he could do to stifle a gasp. She was dressed in the skimpiest tight jeans shorts and a tiny top that did little more than cover her small breasts. Her bare midriff and legs revealed smooth, supple, olive skin that he longed to stroke. Yellow-dyed hair hung to her shoulder blades in braided strings and her beautifully symmetrical face was painted with the black lipstick and blue eye shadow that teens on the net shows had been wearing the past year. To him, she was a vision of perfection.

“Hello, Jiri”, she said, slightly mocking. “Want something to eat? I’m headed down.”

He nodded, following her to the kitchen where they sat at a long table in brilliant light, grabbing food out of serving dishes that sat on hotplates. It was the most delicious meal of his life.

Mira sat watching him, finally breaking out into raucous laughter. “You look like you haven’t eaten in a year! Slow down. It’s uncool to eat like an animal in public.”

“Oh, sorry, it’s so good. I never had anything like this.”

“Here’s Lea, she’s my best friend forever. This is Jiri.”

Another tall skinny girl in tiny shorts and halter top sat next to Jiri. “Hello, just in from Lakewood? You look like a Lakewood boy.”

“Yeah, just today.”

“Welcome, Jiri. You’re even more handsome than Imelda told us you were. She warned us we’d be amazed, and she was right! We’ve been assigned to take care of you. We’ll show you what to do, where everything is, who’s who.”

Lea presented a much more conservative look. Her black hair was straight and boyishly short, and he couldn’t see any makeup on her elongated face at all. She was plainer than Mira, yet there was something immensely appealing about her, a maturity, a kindness that Jiri felt as surely as he felt the soft comfortable chair on which he sat. She put him at ease.

After eating, they gave him a brief tour of the house, told him they’d be rousing him at the appropriate time next morning, and advised him to get as much sleep as he could. His bedroom door closed and he sat, overwhelmed, yet suddenly terribly lonely. Then he noticed his comm.

“Mama, I am in the wealthy’s house, and it’s wonderful! Let me show you my room.” He panned the comm slowly around until he could hear her talking.

“Jiri, it looks wonderful, and the money they gave us will really help a lot. I’m so glad you’re safe. Call me every day, please, son. Let me know if they try to do anything to you.”

“What do you mean, Mama?”

“You’ll know, trust me. Now get some sleep, you want to do the best job possible tomorrow.”

Proceed to Chapter 2...

Copyright © 2016 by Bill Kowaleski

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