“I hate patching tubes; especially in the rain,” I mutter to myself, pulling the collar of my threadbare jacket tighter around my exposed neck. “Of course, it always seems to be raining these days. At least the tire still works,” I add as I patch this particular inner tube for perhaps the twentieth time: Nothing but the best for today’s ride!
Eleven years into our current ten year Jing Jihua and conditions are anything but golden. We Meiguo are still debtors and because of the staggering amount of money that we owe the Geng Jia still dictate every aspect of our lives. We had borrowed heavily from the Geng Jia and when they demanded repayment we were all caught flat. Flat broke and when their demand for repayment was ruled on by the World Court we were given the knockout punch any boxer deserves who lets his guard down. We had been forced to accept reorganization in order to repay our staggering debt. Weekly our ministers remind us at Sixiang Kongzhi how the lavish lifestyles that we led previously, the ‘play now pay latter’ mentality that had swept our nation, is the reason that we find ourselves in our current state of emergency. The Court ordered reorganization has forced a temporary suspension of civil rights. Two generations into the emergency the word ‘temporary’ is starting to take on new meaning.
“Ancient history,” I mutter to myself, finally getting the patch to stick. I laugh a little as I climb onto my old Surly Karate Monkey bicycle. Back when I was able to make choices for myself, when I thought more goods meant a better life and I owned over a dozen expensive, high-end bicycles of varying styles, this was my inclement weather bike, the one I rode in the winter and on rainy days. Its fat tires, steel frame, ability to use either rim brakes or disc brakes, be outfitted easily as either a one speed or multiple made it versatile. Now it was the last bicycle I owned.
First I had sold my toys: The carbon fiber time trial machines I used when racing, the elegant 22 speed, electronic shifting, ultra light-weight road bike that had cost as much as a cheap new car, those had gone first when there were no more triathlons, at least not for Meiguos! And what use was a high end road bike when the roads were so full of potholes that riding them was impossible? Slowly I had depleted my fleet first for money to pay bills, and then as our dollars became worth less and less I bartered and traded the other bikes for goods and services. The Karate Monkey was my last bike and its loss will be as great as its value was incomparable. My last ride on the Karate Monkey was to Allen’s farm about 10 miles from my home. The farmer had agreed to barter the bike for fresh fruit, vegetables- and glory to God!- half a dozen eggs!
Meiguo are allowed to trade personal items with one another but with the barter of my bicycle would come an illegal act, a crime against the Geng Jia, and great risk for me and the Allen family with whom I would trade. Farmers’ food is property and used to pay off Meiguo debt, making it a crime for a farmer to sell or trade his products as they do not truly belong to him. I could trade a personal item with a neighbor for a tomato grown in his garden but a farmer could not sell or trade his food to anyone except a Geng Jia at the price the Geng Jia sets. Trading my Karate Monkey would be a seditious act and as such subject to extreme penalty.
I arrive at the farm and the husband greets me at the door. “Come in,” he says adding to his wife, “Bring him water while I put the bike in the barn.” He steps out on the dilapidated front porch, scans the horizon for roving eyes and when he sees no one roles the bicycle around to the big, empty barn.
The wife is old, at least in her mid forties, and even though she has better access to healthful food than most of us she is haggard. In the kitchen I see a little girl, probably a granddaughter, peer fearfully from behind the door frame. The wife was probably the little girl’s age when we started our first Jin Jihua and became a nation of serfs. I smell pancakes cooking and close my eyes as my mouth starts to salivate.
“Please sit,” she says indicating a rough hewn chair that sits by the picture window. The large piece of glass is still whole, not a mean feat in these days. “I wish I could offer you breakfast but there isn’t any extra. Excuse me while I get you some water,” she says bowing her head before leaving the room. She roughly pulls the little girl away from the doorway by a pigtail and I hear harsh whispers of instruction.
“The water would be lovely, thank you,” I say sincerely. The days of providing even close friends with food in the name of hospitality have died long ago. The fact that the water is offered freely indicates a well that has not been polluted with fracking and plentiful fresh water, true wealth indeed!
The wife returns with three tall glasses filled with fresh water. She hands me mine and sets one down on the store bought table that barely shows its age. “My husband will be in in a minute. The children will be back in from the fields to eat soon so I’m afraid we’ll have to hurry.”
“I understand. The fewer people that see us the better. These glasses are lovely. Mostly I use old tin cans to drink from now,” I say, trying to make conversation.
“Yes, we use tin cans, too! I know the lead in them isn’t good for us but we only have so many…. Isn’t the water refreshing? It’s nice to have company! Welcome.”
“Thank you,” I reply, lifting the smooth glass to my lips and enjoying water that doesn’t taste of chemicals.
The front door opens and is quickly slammed shut. “She’s a beauty all right! That baby’ll make getting in to town a whole lot easier! You didn’t exaggerate one bit when you described her.”
The wife hands him the glass from the table. He cocks his head to the side a moment before saying, “Oh, water! Well isn’t that nice? I have the food in burlap sacks outside and I tied them to a yoke so carrying them home will be easier. Sorry I can’t deliver them but we don’t want the Geng Jia getting wind of this, now do we?” He emits a nervous chuckle as his eyes circle the room.
“No, we don’t. This food will make all the difference for my wife; she’s not doing well.” They both stare at me and I can hear their un-mouthed question, ‘Is she as old as you are? Are you risking your life and ours to feed a ghost?’ It is a look that I receive often. There are not many Meiguo left alive who have children that were born before the Geng Jia took control. I am a relic, an anachronism of the old world digging my arthritic claws into the reality of the new world order.
The farmer drains his glass in one mighty gulp and looks directly into my eyes for the first time. I get the hint and drain my glass as well. “Did you protect the eggs?” I ask.
“Eggs!?” the farmer’s wife exclaims. “You traded eggs?!”
“Hush, woman.” he replies, raising his arm as though to back-hand her. “The trade is done and it is fair! Yes, the eggs are protected. Six fresh eggs, a treasure beyond the reach of most theses days.”
“How will we be able to explain those eggs…” the back-handed threat becomes reality and she shudders at the shock of it. I can tell that the blow was sent as a warning and did her no real damage. Too often women and children are seen with black eyes, fat lips and limps these days, at least the farmer uses his hand sparingly.
“I’d better go, it’s a long walk back to town. Thank you for your hospitality.”
“You’re welcome. It’s a fair trade. Let me know if you have anything else as valuable, the reward of this is worth the risk,” he says quickly, giving a pointed look at his wife. We shake hands and I start for the front door, “Oh, wait! Better go out the back. There’s a path you can follow to get you behind where what used to be the old high school. Safer if you go that way; no one’ll see you from the road until you’re at least seven klicks from here.”
“I understand.” We walk through the kitchen and the little girl runs away as I enter the room. I shake hands with the farmer and thank his wife, “The water was delicious. Just what I need to start my trek. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she says with a smile. She must be older than I thought to have good manners so thoroughly instilled in her. “Good luck to you and your wife.”
“Thanks again, ” I say shouldering my yoke and setting off with my burden. As I trudge home I pray that I have bounty enough to set my beloved back on the road to recovery.