Note: I wrote this story in response to a writing challenge from The First Line. So the first line is what they gave me; from there, I went my own way. They decided on other stories for their issue, which means you get this one for free. Enjoy.
I came of age in a time of no heroes. You did what you had to, no more, no less. The raised head gets the bump, people used to say. Or was it lump? It’s hard to remember those times. Do you want to know what it was like? It was like a man who goes out for milk and comes home with milk. That’s what it was like.
No, you wouldn’t understand that. You’ve been bred on heroic tales from the Picket Uprising. You think everybody’s born with the courage to say what he thinks, out loud, and the devil take the rest. Well, it was us who made it this way. We didn’t get this kind of world handed to us. We took it for ourselves.
I can see by your glowing eyes that you don’t believe me. You say, ‘Look at you, Gramps. You rose above it all. You shouted down the corp.s, stood up to the CEOs.’ You don’t even know what a CEO is. You have no notion of it, how we used to kowtow to big men, all the way from the federation to the city council. No, not federation; back then it was called something else. Well, never mind that. I remember what matters.
You think because I took to the streets at the end of those hard years that I was just like you, born to fight. Born to call out a man at the first sign of his taking airs. You think that way, because you don’t know any better. But it isn’t true. I was reared on compliance. That was a word we used a lot back then. ‘It’s not in compliance,’ they used to say; whatever it was you were doing, it was never in compliance, unless it was the way they wanted it.
I took my first job when I was hardly out of school. Back then we went to a lot of school, if we wanted a good job that could pay for a house and food and all the other stuff we used to demand in exchange for our compliance. We had our pound of flesh; and they had theirs. But school was a problem for the whole system, because the teachers hated the whole system. Or some of them did; enough of them, so that when you stepped into that first job, you saw it for what it was. Just for a moment, but long enough, before the lid shut on you.
Oh sure, schooling taught you compliance, too. But not always, that’s my point. How you came of age back then was that you came aware of yourself, and how broken the bigger thing was, the system. But in the same moment, sometimes the same exact moment, you came aware that your life consisted in kowtowing to that broken system.
For me it happened at my job. I can still remember that shiny desk in the office building. You feel proud inside your dividers, in your cubbyhole there. But slowly it dawns on you, something your teacher said about thinking for yourself, asking questions, wondering why people do what they do. You might be sitting in a meeting, and you’re wondering why the corp. wants what it wants but isn’t saying it wants. But you don’t ask. You’ve got to comply with company regulations. All that hard thinking you know you can do, it’s got to fall within the lines. Use it for them, not for you.
But you don’t want to hear what it was like before. You just want to hear how we came out on the steps, flooded the lawns, broke through the gated communities, demanded to be seen. We, the people who made the system run. We, the thinkers. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To celebrate what a great world you’ve made. We’ve made. How nobody lords it over anybody else, how we finally realized the dream of the people.
Well, watch out. You better know what a corp. is; you better keep alive the legend of the CEO. He was no hero himself, we all found that out. He, that figurehead, was as milquetoast as we were, sleeping at the helm. When he saw us on his lawn, it was the first time he’d ever understood the system. He hadn’t understood, or he’d have been ready for violence.
The police came. You know what police are? They’re a club in your back pocket. They’re a threat uttered under your breath. When I was young, they fought crime, kept the gated communities safe, cleaned up the downtown. Theirs was a work of compliance, too; city regulation. And city regulation was written by people who kowtowed to big men, big corp.s. So some people had no crime where they lived. Which meant that all the crime had to go somewhere else. You couldn’t go there, without getting robbed or beaten or killed. That’s where all the robbers and thugs and killers used to go.
I used to live half a mile from a museum. The museum had a street on both sides, and people used to park their cars on the north streets, but never the south streets. You know why? The police told them not to, that’s the simple reason. And you want to guess why the police told them not to? You have no idea, do you? It’s because that’s where the big men lived, and they didn’t want people parking on their street.
That was a time without heroes. Everybody does what they have to, no more, no less. But now … Are there any heroes here today? Is there anybody who would stand up to a big man and tell him the truth? Is there anybody who would risk his own comfort, his own little piece of ground, his freedom?
That’s what it was about. I came of age in an office cubicle, knowing I wasn’t going to say anything. I wasn’t going to think. I wasn’t going to ask questions. I didn’t want to risk my little piece of the system, my little foot in, my toehold.
But then one day I did. We all did. I wish I knew who started it. I would shake his hand. It might have been a woman. I’d shake her hand. One woman saying, ‘Enough.’ And getting another woman to say, ‘Enough.’ And a man. And another. And then it starts. Pickets. The silent, compliant land — and then at last, a shout nobody could ignore.
Do we have any heroes here today? There were no heroes in my day. We made them. We made them for you.
Thanks for reading. Did you write one for the same contest? What would you have done with that first line?