By Thom Harding
There was snow in the creases of the chipped urban-cold pavement, turning rot gray as the fur-white, honest welcoming white of the winter clasp, picked up the mites of detritus and dirt and absorbed it without wonder or doubt. The small rises of filth snow seemed like the decaying fruits of the city orchard, kicked into the gutters, discarded as soon as it was no longer glossy and fine while the people of the city went hungry with no work and no blankets and no paperwork to validate the event of their disappearance.
The candidate walked along the sidewalk, elevated by the infinitely large inch of paving that kept the slush in the crannies of the street and off the minted shine of leather laggard loafers. Eyes ahead, thoughts behind, feet patiently and tirelessly breaking the present that he stood in to stretch into the future and the past over and over again. The budget had been faxed over to him that morning, the long tongue of paper protruding from the machine in its own mocking manner. It seemed that the incumbent esteemed Minister of State had spent mountains of cash, literal K2’s of capital before taxes had been collected, and the payers had acted upon their latent, previously quiescent, distrust of the System (the one that could run pipes from here to over there but couldn’t exactly say what was in them, who they were for or how they were to benefit anyone) and decided not to pay them at all. As an applicant for the Minister of Finances, the candidate was personally invested in the state of the fiscal structure and its motion. He knew that like any structure, it must be allowed to move as little as possible, to remain stable and anchored during inactive times only to be given the power of malleability and flex when disaster became imminent. Like foundations of skyscrapers that deny their movement until the ground asks them to give a little tolerance and take a little stress. The rigid pillars stand erect during the calm, and twitch with the tremors of action.
The word erect stirred an uncomfortable self-awareness in the candidate, a mirror-view of his matte life that he masterfully ignored most of the time. His wife hadn’t said anything directly to him, she had been involved in the game-politic too long for that, but the feathered breath of a sigh that escaped her collagen-tough lips as they settled down to sleep bred a paranoid dubiety in him. It didn’t haunt him, that would be too spectral and invisible for his type of manner, but the thought nagged at him and grew inside like some comfortable parasite. Settled, lamp on the table by the armchair, windows drawn and cocoa steaming. It had only been recently that he had noticed any difference, but there was some finalizing shadow of old age that loomed up over the subject. He remembered the time when he and his wife slept together every day, closely and seeking each other each moment. That was a long time ago, for sure. But they continued to love each other, and became comfortable and less insecure and more subtle in their expression for one another, the sex decreased but never to a level that the minister deemed below average. There was safety in average, and the thought of being below the common line was more unappealing than the false pushes and heartless grasps in the unlit tchotchke-studded master bedroom. Like with the money, and with contacts, there was a stable line to aim for. The mean. Below that was lacking, too small and insignificant to quite reach what was expected. The deficit. That word and ‘erect’ resonated together like bees crashing about between cymbals. The dangerous clamor that warned of personal becoming business, work becoming his extension of domestic marital inhibitions that not haunted, but spooked him, at home.
When he arrived at the office, volunteers and campaign managers and well-wishers and critics formed a knit group around him, pushing for his statement on the expense report that had so rudely blown, raspberry-like, into his room earlier that morning. The talk of accounts being too low for the interest they were supposed to be accumulating, the embarrassment of operating the city at such a loss, spending so much more than assets and income could speak for. Everything was too small. The uncomfortable thought squeezed its way through cerebral fabric into the ‘on’ part of his brain, and his spousal and economic worries became entwined in embarrassed, shameful ambition. But, glowing, through the feeling was the desire to fix the situation, to prove himself and succeed.
The candidate dispersed the choking crowd that had surrounded him upon entrance with confident, driven words and walked to the back of the building, where his own study remained in solitude, Cerberus secretary keeping guard outside with intercom and fake excuses. He began draping himself in the ideas and responsible actions needed to bring his position into the light of opportunity. Calculations executed, speeches written, blame placed. The deficit swimming in the System of the state like so many plagued rats was no more than the recession before the tidal wave. With him as Minister of Finance, the debt would be transferred into massive progression unlike any the state had seen. With his careful management, the fiscal balance would regain equanimity, and more likely even increase during his administration. As papers were signed and advertisements scripted, the candidate felt blood rushing to the place of which it had been so wary the night before. His wife flashed across his mind, bent and given and satisfied, bringing a corner smile to his lips as the pen in his hand dotted a sentence. There was a rise below the desk as he signed the new policy into existence. The economy would once again stand to attention, and so would he.
As the weeks continued to spill out of the calendar, his flaccid nightmare continued, wife still sighing in acceptance, embarrassment brewing behind his eyelids. The candidate felt small and powerless, and his confidence shrank proportionally. The papers and documents he had signed were acted upon, experts were putting their content into motion, stealing words from the page and fitting them with motors and all-terrain tires. But as the ideas were implemented, more questions arose about the wisdom behind the decisions made, doubts were born out of loop-holes, squeezed between the labial parentheses into the realm of action. Ordinarily, not something to faze the candidate. He had been in the game for years now, and this was only the kickback from the first drafts, the shocked pullback from a current that allowed policy to grow and become the most efficient, and heartless it could be. But with each new paper that passed across his dark-varnish desk, the candidate grew less and less sure of his decisions, and rapidly began to feel that attempting to rebuild the lacking financial resources was as hopeless as denying the cruel onward march of impotence. The stacked tower of documents grew by his side as his mind wrapped itself in cocooning turmoil and self-pity. Policies that needed his signature to be included in his campaign promises remained soulless and unverified. The debt increased daily, as more lenders called in the borrowings that had never been replaced by the taxes demanded. And the candidate did nothing. Unemployment and prices rose and began to simmer, a cutting irony as his oak bed remained cold and dry. The increasing deficit remained as rigid as his sex was not, and the candidate gave up hope. He returned to the campaign headquarters day after day, but no longer cared whether the banks could function or the ports trade. The candidate won the election and was appointed to his post, due more to the conservative tea-rambling idiocies spewing from his opposition than to his own efforts. He accepted the job amongst much fanfare from his advisors and supporters, but could not shake the impuissant feeling from his softening bones.
Three months passed, and the economy continued to fail. The state was in a legitimized depression. Jobless forgotten roamed the streets, soup kitchens were established by church philanthropists to feed children after the school day. Women marked the corners at night, while their infants waited another night for nourishment. The banks had failed, and un-monitored usury stepped in, inflated and insulting. And the Minister of Finance continued to bow his head, eyes caught at his crotch. Obsession bred apathy, and he resolved to continue doing nothing.
The smoky snow melted into the gutters, liquefied winter chill dripping into the pumping heart below the city. Small shoots began crowning through fissures in the pavement, and buds squeezed impudently from their parent limbs, made-up faces hidden before the prom. The sun held high for longer each day, and the night sky lost the metal sheen of the colder months. But as the earth woke up and stretched, twisting spine and rubbing eyes, the people of the state hunkered down into a demoralized crush. Stores closed and factories died, windows blinking out and chimney breath becoming strained and weak, in the arms of their owners.
One evening the minister and his wife sat in bed, reading side by side to ignore the deflated elephant in the room. Simultaneously they lent over and flicked their bed-lamps off. Rolling in towards each other for a somnolent peck, the Minister of Finance’ wife’s hand leapt forward and closed tightly around him. Surprised, the Minister forgot his shame and momentarily lost the lethargy that had destroyed his hopes. Without daring to look down, he reached his own hand to where his wife’s fingers were making contact with an estranged environment, relearning the topography and spirit of its climate. The curse was broken, and the bed began speaking in its forgotten language, awkwardly at first after so many months of mute dispassion, then with increasing fluency. The mattress was then shouting at the room around it, once again crude and juvenile. And it was shouting about sex.
The next morning the Minister swung into his office, jauntily and proud. There was a glow around him, particularly around his waist, that radiated hope and assurance. He attacked the documents perched on his desk, dashing signatures against the bottoms of pages, crossing out and re-writing statements, fixing the broken plumbing of the System. In a month progress had been made, minor but marking a shift in the fortune of the masses. The sex of the minister regained its youthful enthusiasm, no longer standing lackluster in the corner of the dancehall, hunched and cold like the lines of poor that remained laced around the fringes of churches and community centers. The Finance offices rang with enthusiasm once more, as the minister’s wife’s voice rang like the shrill cry of democracy in between sheets.
Thom Harding moved to Santa Fe this August, and is in love with the natural beauty and energy of this amazing place. Born in the UK, Thom lived in Boston during high school, then spent two years in Baltimore followed by two years in Florence, Italy, studying art history and painting. After graduating, Thom travelled and worked in India for a few months before moving out to New Mexico. His best times are spent reading, writing, hiking, working with kids, and making music and art. Thom has been writing for 10 years, and is greatly influenced by Pynchon, García Márquez, Tom Robbins and Kundera.