GIVETHEREADERSWHATTHEYWANT!
One writer's experiment to tackle any subject his friends come up with.
7/13/11-JUSTIN KEITH BARRETT

A story about how the modern idea of networking would play out in California during the settling of the Wild West ,circa 1850 without the use of computers. A man visits the Facebook General Store to check on his Friend Requests sent by the Pony Express. While there, he thumbs through the Status Update log book to find that his sister in Missouri gave birth to twin boys two months earlier and watches You Tube flip- book postings on his wall. When searching for his friend Delmer’s page he is regretfully informed by the clerk he has been de-friended and cannot view pictures of his new house.

The Rise and Fall of the Gatewood Empire

William Gatewood crushed the letter and threw it into the waste bin. Imagine, he thought, as he stomped the roughsawn planks. Telling me to give up and come home already. I’ve only been out here for six months! He laid his hand on the post office door, prepared to give it a shove. No, I’ll write back. Tell them how things are going. See if it does any good. He turned back to see the bespectacled clerk exiting with the waste basket.

“Just a minute!” he called out. “I need to get my letter back out of the trash.”

The old man looked at him, frowning, the basket immobile in his grip.

“May I just get it back, please? I plan to reply.”

The clerk looked into the basket, empty but for William’s note. “Well what’d you throw it away for?” he drawled.

“I just wasn’t thinking, is all. Heck, why do you need to empty the trash as soon as a body leaves something in it, anyway?”

The clerk was nonplussed. “Trash is trash, mister.”

William searched his memory for the clerk’s name. He felt it was something like “Merle”, but didn’t feel confident enough to try it out.

“Well – sir – I’m not keen to argue the point. Now may I retrieve my letter?”

“Suit y’self.”

Maybe-Merle extended the basket with trying slowness. William grabbed it and removed the wad of paper. He stepped over to one of the standing desks, on which stood a typewriter, already threaded with paper. He smoothed out the onerous letter from his parents and regarded it with disdain.

A standard post delivery, postmarked thirty-seven days ago. Who knew what changes could take place in his fortune within five weeks? For only a dollar more, the letter could have been sent by Pony Express. William could scarcely believe that standard delivery was still available. There will always be holdouts, he thought. And my family will be there, holding out with the best of them. He thought of the last deluge that had washed the farm’s fields clean of its cornstalks. Of his father scrambling at crops being swept away, staking them down one by one, even as they were uprooted. Sticks in the mud. His family, the living embodiment.

 

“Billy, your mother, brothers and I have all spoken, and we agree that it is time for you to return home. Your dreams of striking it rich in California have persisted long enough. We pray you will come to your senses and return to the good graces of family and honest effort. The pace of the world has begun to expand too quickly in the past years. It is unnatural, and unhealthy, to get caught up in it. The Lord calls on us to slow down and focus on the simple pleasures in life.”

 

“Simple pleasures”! No pleasures had ever been afforded by his father’s miserable dirt farm, a plot of land so unproductive it could only appeal to gluttons for punishment such as his father.

With bitter recollection, William filed through various attempts he had made to lighten his family’s load. One such was the Archimedes’ screw, discovered during an informal letter-exchanging chat with a friend in Rome. The device could be used to efficiently extract water from the underground aquifer which fed the family’s well. William had begged his father for time off from their endless chores to construct one, in order to pull up water directly, and relieve them of the drudgery of constant bucket hauling for their meager crops. He had even made a legitimate case for running water within the house.

But his father had balked at the idea. “We can’t afford to let you waste your time building some exotic contraption that will need two of our horses to run. Besides, their water flows the wrong direction in that country, Billy. Listen to me,” his father said, sweeping his arms to indicate the family estate. “I’ve lived here since I was born, and worked this land since I could walk. Our efforts do not go unrewarded.”

William’s eyes had followed his father’s gesture and made their own appraisal of the homstead. The five acres with their seven cornstalks. Their residence with its kitchen, bedroom, and dogtrot. The dirt floor and its interminable dust which settled on his clothes and in his lungs. The timber wall that his older brothers made him sleep next to, with chinks in the mortar so large that cold and rain beset him continually. And, finally, the sagging rafters and ancient, splitting shingles. He was sure his grandfather had been proud of the place when he had built it. His parents spoke of being indebted to his grandfather’s legacy. But William knew it for a trap – a trap for the body, mind, and spirit. It held each within its undeniable confines, limited its occupants to a mode of life and a vision that could not extend beyond the parched horizon.

William had become an avid reader of the public encyclopedia, a service which was now stored at every library, and updated with new content each month. it was through the We-Key-Pedia that he had learned of the fast-growing, shady Paulownia tree. Fed by visions of cooler summers for the sweltering house, he had searched the Arizon Company catalogue, and found that Paulownia saplings, like everything else, could be ordered and delivered within two weeks.

He had mentioned the idea over dinner one evening, but his father had responded with staggering predictabiliy.

“Billy, that ‘wicked-pedia’ is a mess of quackery and downright lies. People with too much imagination and too little responsibility writing ‘articles’ that get taken for God’s truth. Now they’ve got you thinking you can buy Jack’s magic beans. You can’t place your trust in a disparate collection of unaccountable laypeople. The Encarda Omnibus still comes out every five years, right on schedule. Last year’s edition was over four hundred pages! They have a responsibility, and they’re not going to produce a bunch of foolishness – only what people need to know.”

His father’s answer was always to work harder. When there was no rain, they worked harder, drawing water from their well and its thankfully bountiful aquifer. When the rains flooded their land, they worked harder, salvaging meager remnants and replanting for the limited growing season that remained.

But William knew advances were inevitable, that they were on the cusp of major changes in society. He knew that the sudden increase in the speed of communication enabled by the Pony Express’s web of connections would spark an exchange of more and bigger ideas. The Gold Rush had come at the perfect moment, and the instant he had heard of it, he had prepared to move. He hoped that one day he would be able to return home and relieve his family of their gruelling lifestyle.

William’s big idea had been forming in his mind since the Pony Express had come along. People had begun to talk about increasing the speed of travel, making it easier for people to experience the sights and cultures of the globe. But he knew the real movement was toward a culture of information. The rapid exchange of ideas would trump the need for travel. He would create a system of animated photography and recordings whereby people could experience sights and sounds found all over the globe. Someone would simply send a request to his office for, say, a trip to the jungles of Africa. And without leaving their home, within weeks they would receive a package of three-dimensional, animated daguerreotypes, plus the device needed to enjoy them. Additional features could include wax-tube recordings of the sounds of the jungle, its wildlife and weather. One small crew would experience the miserable heat, malaria, and tribes of natives. But their documentation could be shared over and over again, in safety and comfort, for a premium from every client.

William positively salivated at the prospect. This was bringing the world to everyone. Even his family could afford a budget version – possibly. He wanted to open up the wonders of all the continents to anyone willing to learn.

But doubt crept in and creased William’s forehead. Would his family see the value in his venture? Would they accept the leisure that came with his charity? Or was their happiness truly rooted in the back-breaking work that seemed to sap all their time and energy? He thought of the unyielding land, the health-challenged livestock. It was inconceivable – yet still he frowned.

Then, amidst mutterings about “lack of vision,” “disrepect for the advancements of society,” and “satisfaction with the meanest of circumstances,” William typed his rebuttal.

 

“Dear family. I’m afraid your request for my return is ill-advised. I have already encountered considerable fortune with my methodical approach to panning the foothills of Coloma. I began my venture with rigorous research of geology, panning and mining, afforded me by the We-Key-Pedia and my own growing network of social contacts. I daresay I may have developed a patentable method, thanks to the testing and implementation of various practices gained thereby. You may expect a small lagniappe from me within a month. I pray this letter finds you well.”

 

William regarded the letter with great satisfaction. Then his eyes brightened with epiphany as he pulled from his vest pocket a small daguerreotype of himself holding a couple of dollars in gold nuggets: his first real find. The picture had cost him most of the profit shown in his hand, but he had deemed it a legitimate business expense, casting his lot as it did with the barons of his trade. He would attach the picture to his written reply, and put the proof into the pudding himself.

Enlivened by the fire of his vision, he approached the clerk’s desk. “I’d like it sent Pony Express, please,” he said, handing over the letter with a self-gratified smile.

The clerk eyed the letter over the top of his half-moon glasses. “Well, you’ll be needing a perf, then.” He pursed his lips and proffered the letter back to William.

William screwed up his face in irritation. “A what?”

“A perf. Pony Express Reply Form,” the clerk replied blandly.

“I’ve never heard of a ‘perf’! Since when is this necessary?”
The clerk’s voice fell into the dull cadence of practiced speech. “In order to maintain their standards of speed and reliability, the Pony Express requires a strict protocol for documents.” He paused, and lifted an eyebrow a fraction. “As you have already used a non-protocol document, you are welcome to paste it onto a perf. We offer LePage’s high quality mucilage for your use, but cannot guarantee that your original will appear to your satisfaction after pasting.”

William was indignant. “This is ridiculous. Where might I find a ‘perf’?”

The clerk inclined his head, indicating the desk William had just left. At the top left of the desktop, unnoticed until now, stood a tiered oak stand holding several manilla folders. “Right there. You’ll find them in the folder called ‘New documents’.”

William strode quickly to the desk and pulled open the required folder. The perf bore no discernible distinction from the paper he had just typed on, but he knew the futility of pointing this out to the office’s agent. He quickly pasted his original document onto the new page, frowned at the wrinkly result, then thrust it at the clerk, along with his picture.

“You’ll be needing to paste that picture as well.”

William glowered. He did not want to risk ruining the daguerreotype. And now that he examined it, his confidence in it as a glut of evidence for his success waned. Daguerreotype technology must be improved, he thought. One can barely make out the nuggets in my hand.

“I will not be needing to paste the picture, as I am disinclined to damage it with your antiquated adhesive measures.”

“Suit y’self.”

 *****

William scowled as he exited the post office. Perfs and paste: a thoroughly miserable experience. He strode briskly down the town’s main street. The Pony Express has already become mired in inefficiency. It comes from their connection to the post office, an association they should do away with altogether. Why do they not offer dictation, for one? Cater to those who appreciate a full service. William’s eyes took on the familiar light of inspiration. There should be a complete overhaul of their infrastructure. Who is to say that we have achieved the ultimate speed already? The ‘great minds’ of our generation are already resting on their laurels. Now is the time to push for even more advancement. After all, ponies are not the fastest animal available to us. Yes, William thought, his face set in fiery determination. I shall begin writing with my associates in Africa. I can see it clearly in my mind’s eye: A decade from now, maybe less. Our continent, crisscrossed by the fiery streaks of cheetahs, hellbent on their deliveries.

Willliam had kept his determined stride throughout this reverie. He now found himself several blocks south of the post office, looking up at a familiar facade. The Book of Faces Club.

 

William glanced down at his feet and cursed. The boots he’d had polished this morning were already covered with dust. He removed his pocket watch and checked the time. Ten o’clock in the morning, and this had already been a trying day. The thought of attending to some leisure held great appeal. The club might also serve as a sounding board for his bold new proposals. True visionaries could always be found among those not entrenched in business or academia.

He entered the club, letting the doorman relieve him of his jacket and pocket watch. Several familiar faces greeted him, and he quickly fell into the comfort of amiable conversation. These young men and women knew the value of their earnings and the time it bought them.

One of the club’s servants brought William a large stack of correspondence that had accrued over the last eighteen hours, and William rifled through it quickly, dominated as it was by loan offers and matchmaking opportunities. He stopped and grinned, however, when he saw a large folder containing several notes and invitations. He knew this would hold a small treasure of interactions regarding crops and livestock from members of the club around him and those scattered throughout the states. He was quite pleased with the progress of his mock plantation, and looked forward to seeing the surprises that the day held for him.

He walked to the wall of Farmburg shelves and removed his own scale model. The quaint wooden carvings of cows, cotton rows, and farmhands always gave him an ineffable pleasure. He laid the set down on a low table, pulled up a mohair chaise, and began to move the pieces in accordance to the assistance given him by his fellow players. This is living, he thought as he settled in, ready to wile the hours away.

 

Copyright Cole Bennett, all rights reserved.

6 Comments to “7/13/11-JUSTIN KEITH BARRETT”

  1. Pat Bennett says:

    What a fun story! Delightful tounge-in-cheek prose. Made me laugh!

  2. Cole Bennett says:

    Thanks Mom! I thought it was about time for a light-hearted romp!

    • Adam Gillett says:

      Indeed, light-hearted and fun. I have to admit through the entire reading I was expecting part of the conclusion to include a printed RSS Post (Rapid Stables Syndication) with the headline: “Clippy the Kid shot in back”.

  3. Justin Barrett says:

    Wow, Cole! I’ve been worried for months after reading all the great story starters the rest of your friends provided. Infinitely better than where I would have taken it! Bravo!

    • Cole Bennett says:

      Are you kidding? I loved your starter. Lots of great material in one simple juxtaposition. Thanks for pitching in, Justin!

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