“Tell me a story, Grandpa.”
“Oh I have one for you. It’s a doozy, but you have to sit very still and make yourself as small as possible.”
“Okay,” the boy said. He squatted to the floor of the hut and scrunched himself up into a tight ball.
“I think you’re about old enough for this one,” the old man said. He winked, cleared his throat, and began.
“Once upon a time, when there were countries, the greatest one was called the United States of America. They said ‘United States’ because it was a union of states from sea to shining sea, a ‘state’ being a government. Their governments made their laws, and the One Big Government made its laws, and, well, this is the boring stuff-”
“No, go on Grandpa,” said the boy. “I want to hear this one.”
The boy lost balance and rocked around a bit before coming to a stop, still squeezed into an eerily compact little-boy-sphere.
“Okay sonny,” he said. “Don’t get too excited. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, they had laws and lawmakers and lawyers and they liked to yell all day about things, but they weren’t always the most important things. In fact, as time went on, they got sillier and sillier. For example, they would fight over where people could go to the bathroom.”
“What, like in the hut or outside?” the boy asked.
“Oh no sonny,” the old man said, “this isn’t France I’m talking about. They fought over which facility people could use. They had the holes marked, Men, Woman, sometimes Family, Unisex, and nobody agreed on who needed to go where. They didn’t have the one like we do here.”
“Wow,” the boy said, his eyes wide.
“Yep. And all the while people were killing each other, but not the way you think. Statistically (that means a fact that you learn by counting, by the way), maybe one out of a hundred people ever died by violence directly, but they were poisoning the water. They poisoned the land and the air. They did this, mainly, to make money, er, barter. You know, things to trade. But most of them thought they had to! That’s the real kicker. They just accepted it as the way things go that you have to drain a lake to sell the water, or dump mercury in the soil to make tools.”
“Gosh,” the boy said. He squeezed himself even tighter, his brow furrowed.
“Mhm. Greed is a wickedness inside us all, that’s for damned sure. We’re all selfish. We all want to live, but that drive does something to us when we’ve achieved all we need to. It makes us want to do more. It’s a useful tool but it also lies. It lies and tells us the barter our mother gave us was ours all along. It lies and tells us that the fortunes we were blessed with were created by our sheer will. As if we could concentrate a turnip bigger. As if we could wish a fish. And we know you can’t do that.”
“I’d like to see a fish,” said the boy. “Maybe a red fish or a blue fish. Or one with a star!”
The old man inhaled deeply through his nose and stared past the boy for half a minute. He worked his jaw as his eyes searched back and forth on the low ceiling, as if some answer lay there. He forged on.
“The earth had always given signs, which some heeded, but most didn’t. People even argued whether they had the capacity to change things at all. Some said it was inevitable, that the earth got hot on its own. Some said it was people and their smoke. Either way, it didn’t matter. No one changed anything. Or not enough did, anyway. Hell, most couldn’t. A man starving in a crumbling city can’t tell a rich man how much oil to burn. Some did yell. Most just tried to live. Like we’ve always tried to live.”
The boy was as a small boulder. His breaths were imperceptible. When was the last time he had blinked?
The old man’s throat was already dry. His heart thudded in his ears.
“I was a young man when they hired the new boss, same as the old boss. They weren’t any worse a leader than there was before, but they were bad enough, and at the worst time. People were too busy being tricked into doing nothing to do anything about it anyway.”
“What do you mean?” the boy said low, just above a whisper.
“I mean they had things to do, like in your books. There were machines in the city that did things, wonderful things. You could talk to someone on the other side of the earth. You could even carry a thing in your pocket that contained the collective knowledge of humankind! People could have used these things for great good but instead they mainly used it to show each other what they were eating, or what their children looked like, or even to tell each other to kill themselves.”
“Wow,” said the boy, his eyes wide. “Why would someone do that?”
“Oh sonny,” the old man said. “It was so much worse than that. While people were being stoned to death and chopped to pieces, people on their damned machines were too busy complaining about the exploits of their favorite rich people. Or worse yet, complaining about the Spreading.”
“The Spreading?” the boy asked.
“Yes, sonny. The Man Spreading. Apparently mankind was taking up too much room on the earth, but people weren’t concerned about that. They were concerned that when one man sits, he sits too wide. Too big. He spreads himself all over the place and no one has room to sit anywhere!”
“Is that why?” the boy said. He rocked a bit, still spherical.
“Yes,” the old man said. He smiled and nodded. “We squeeze now, the Mansqueeze, to pay homage to our ancestors. Those who lived before the great deluge. Those great idiots who wouldn’t heed the warnings. Those loud, human idiots who we cannot blame, no we cannot, because it’s our nature to complain. Our ritual is now that all men will squeeze in low huts until humanity breathes its last breath. While the women walk among us, firm and wide, so wide, wider than ever before-”
“Dad?” A familiar yet higher voice asked from outside the cloth hut.
“-so big and huge and loud and we must squeeze so small-”
The boy giggled. The roof of the hut was ripped off violently.
“Dad what are you guys doing to my couch?”
“We can’t even spread out on an empty bus!” the old man cried before bursting into peals of laughter. “Oh come on, Karen!”
“Dammit, Dad. I’m never letting you babysit again,” Karen said. She tossed the couch cushion back at her father.
“Aww!” the boy said.
The old man couldn’t stop giggling from underneath the cushion, but Karen could just make out “the matriarchy” between gasps.