March into the Interior

March into the Interior

Waiting for his father to return, the wealthy industrialist’s only son sat in his father’s glass and granite corner office in the building built by and belonging to his father, wound about as tightly as he was in Advanced French at his Grantmore in his father’s elegantly plush leather chair and frowning downward at the screen of a tablet. The screen showed the website of a packaging company that was prompting the son—free hand running up and down his variant-blues striped tie like the clarinet he’d been handed a few years ago to help “round himself out,” it was explained to him—to answer a few questions about the details of the delivery unit he was searching for, but after some arrhythmic taps and swipes with his right hand, his left drifting away from his tie and curled under the desk against his stomach, he smiled at having gotten what he was looking for more quickly and efficiently than he had feared. The smile at his success was a thin, ambiguous one that had gained him the nickname Dr. V (meaning the science fiction miniseries originally aired while his father built his starter fortune in the paper manufacturing industry) because it was nearly impossible to tell—his friends and the girls they called “bullseyes” agreed—to discern whether it was sincere, scornful, strategic, or some mix of the three.

The son, who had stretched the same smile tightly around him during a phone conversation with his similarly-smiling mother trying to elude his current visit, was smiling now because the tremor in his free/clarinet/necktie hand—which he was worried his father might think was powder-related—had subsided, and because the son had slid victory loose, via the tablet, during his visit to his father’s east coast HQ, and the longer he was gone, the son knew, the greater the likelihood the oak-solid, top-heavy elder would return, disrupting his son’s efforts at simply doing, he thought, what he’d been taught to do. He knew his father would soon return to continue the digressive monologue the son had been audience to all morning as if there’d been no break at all (something about a fire in a region of Mexico whose name he couldn’t recall), a monologue about industry and chance and opportunity and hard work and persistence and, more than anything, victory.

The son had already heard nearly identical versions of this monologue before on previous Bring Your Daughter To Work Days—the son a son, obviously, and this being decades before his team would have to address the media about persistent (and true but politically meddlesome) “nonbinary” rumors, standing in for his two younger sisters both because both had managed to elude being daylong captive audience and because his wealthy industrialist father was not all that interested in inviting either of his daughters, the son’s mother explaining to him his father felt that while his words of wisdom would have a literal present-tense business-sense impact on the young man he expected to one day inherit the bulk of his capital gains and off-shore savings, it would be lost as generic bromide on either daughter.

“You know (older daughter) Alexis,” his mother had told him in a voice that sounded like a tightening smile, “is already pre-med, which your father is still having some difficulty adjusting to, and (younger daughter) Grace is still working on herself.”

What his mother meant by this, the son knew, is that his father considered professional altruism—especially when it required such a lengthy education—a poor investment, and pediatrics wasn’t even a real specialty anyway, he’d claimed on more than one occasion. When it came to Grace, her brother knew, via Alexis, that “working on herself,” while designed to suggest something relevant to personal brand development, actually meant Grace, about whom everyone save Alexis was careful to avoid using the term autistic, was recovering from her second suicide attempt, which bothered his brother not for the inconvenience it posed to anyone but because he could feel a small, smooth and slightly chilly gap between how much he knew he should care and how much he actually did, a gap he imagined resembling one of the thin fissures during his most recent trip to Antarctica the guide had explained actually indicated a crevasse that could be as much as a kilometer deep.

When the wealthy industrialist did return shortly later, his son was still frowning down at his thin, bright device, although his decisions had shifted from those of storage space commerce to playing a crude but compelling game on the tablet that his father had laughed at a little too long when the son explained it had actually been developed by a classmate everyone called Reg the Veg for reasons unknown to the son; the purpose of the game, visually suggestive of an Atari throwback, was to tease your avatar toward reaching the highest possible blood alcohol level at a kegger and still manage to talk your/his way out of any subsequent arrest when pulled over for driving while intoxicated. The game was popular at Grantmore because the joke was that it was precisely the kind of game the son and his classmates thought the Unwashed (meaning: other young people in Connecticut not attending an elite prep school) assumed the son and his friends would play, when there was more variety to them than it seemed in their attitude about things if not their backgrounds. Alexis had told her brother after his first real-life experience explaining his way out of a DWI last fall, “The thing about being this rich is everyone’s going to assume none of us ever have any real problems or consequences, and the problematic thing about that,” she’d sighed, “is that except when it comes to the kinds of problems Grace has, they’re more or less right. What makes this a problem,” she explained, “is that you can just shrug at what other people think the way you are right now.”

When his father had learned of the joke-role play game the son was currently playing, though, after chuckling in a way that sounded too dry and even to be spontaneous, he’d simply remarked it was important to learn at a young age how politely explaining why you didn’t need to justify things, like a short drive while a little buzzed would put you in a better power position than thinking you do have to justify your actions, after which he’d asked questions about the game related to private market soft launches to which his son had no answers, thinking the intense, impulsive and eerily prolific Reg hadn’t thought about them either. Some things, the son remembered thinking, when they’re completely private and hardly affect anyone, really don’t matter.

After glancing down at a bit of gameplay, steel-gray brows arched, the wealthy industrialist waved to his son to power off the device while easing back into his monologue (the son’s term, not his father’s) with a breezy “Hmm, where was I,” also waving at an aide who had followed the father back into the office and who looked, to the son, as if he owned three identical copies of the tailored dark navy suit he was wearing and little else. The father told the aide, “Just take care of it, crush it, shove it in a corner, it isn’t important anyway, and close the door behind you,” and after a confidently murmured affirmative, the aide shut the door as instructed and the wealthy industrialist picked up where he left off, which his son understood was his cue to stand and smooth his slacks (the son still at the age where he was transitioning from clothes to menswear), lay the device on the desk and stuff his hands in the slacks’ nearly-empty front pockets in soft fists while his father made a C-shaped arc around the glass-topped steel table and made a C-shaped clamp around his scion with his slightly sweaty right arm, swiveling his son away from the table and off into a gray-carpeted zone of the office, the carpet sliced into by sharp diagonals of sunlight by dust-free blinds, toward an area of the office that seemed to serve no particular purpose other than to emphasize the office was very large and very spacious and, following from that, the wealthy industrialist was wealthy and powerful enough in order to be allowed to build wastes of space into his daily life if he so chose, which he did.

The father swiveled and then swiveled his hands-in-pockets son as if flipping over a lumpy pillow so the two men, who had just been facing a bank of windows overlooking a storybook-redolent valley, were now facing a windowless wall, pressed against which were two large, identical mahogany bookcases framing a space of flat slate-gray wall used for projections of video when necessary, which was rarely. The bookcase to the father and sons’ left was filled will books, many kinds of books, some with dust jackets and some without, most of them pertaining in some way to property law or finance or a self-help variety of macroeconomics text and some devoted to more obtuse subjects such as ethics and philosophy of the Lockean variety. The bookcase on the right held binders, large binders that needed to be hefted with two hands, the kind of long thin hands the son had inherited from his father, as well as various boxes, some of which were decorative and some of which, the son knew, were not.

The wealthy industrialist asked his son the same question the son had been asked two years running, namely which bookcase the son thought held the more important information, and was hence of the greater worth, but the son already knew the script from previous tours both planned and impromptu and replied, trying to make it seem as if the answer were spontaneous, that it was neither, the important thing wasn’t what the shelves could hold but the fact that they could and did hold not just whatever was needed but whatever his father desired, and as much of it as he desired, which made the wealthy industrialist clap (carefully, athletically) his thin son twice on the shoulder in pride. What the son wanted to say, though, was really that importance depended upon use value and to him, to the son, the shelf on the right was more important solely for what he had discovered in a black plastic envelope in the rightmost non-decorative box on the second-to-lowest shelf, the discovery made a year ago but only capitalized upon today during the wealthy industrialist’s absence, thinking of another thing Alexis, the only member of the family not prone to speaking in smooth abstractions, had told him: “A lie of omission is still a lie,” she’d said when he’d blundered while trying to ask her what he intended to seem flippant questions about “gender stuff,” as he put it, “but the thing about lies is whether you’re lying to harm someone or protect them from harm and how much harm it is, not whatever little borrowed social soundbite you cough up.”

The son having passed the test of learning both to pay attention to what the wealthy industrialist said and make faces indicating serious consideration, there was no need to continue gazing at two sets of inertly expensive shelving units, so the wealthy industrialist rotated his son clockwise once more, the son tripping a bit in rapidly growing feet sheathed in designer dress shoes likely more expensive than all of the aide’s three navy suits combined and already bearing scuffs. The wealthy industrialist, post-turn, led his son to a corner where two wall-sized windows partly obscured by steel-gray blinds overlooked a storybook valley. The son knew which part of the speech was coming, the incredibly long setup to the anemic punchline, so while he made an effort to stand with the posture of a confident young man and seem attentive, his thoughts were drawn more to the contents of his right front pants pocket while the wealthy industrialist began his brief philosophy of Nature, unclamping from around his son in a way he was not aware made the son slightly uncomfortable in order to raise the blinds where the windows converged so that neither tall man would need to stoop in order to survey the valley laid out before them.

Nature, the father told his son, was important, or at least important to think about. The two men gazed out at the valley with varying degrees of feigned interest, the valley in question a river valley with a more or less north-south river seeming to pull a long thin strand of leafy trees down to a diagonal as it cut through the scenic view and flowed off to the right of both the building and the two men, who were gazing just at the evidence of the river given that it had sunken largely out of sight and was simply suggested by the cut it made and the thirsty trees leaning toward it. Upriver on both sides, the two men could see how a flatness of green not unlike a golf course gave way to a rougher green that began to roll like a lazy wave until, at the horizon line, the waves spiked upward into a ridge of blue and brown hills, or “minor mountains,” as the wealthy industrialist called them, the man currently at the point of his speech in which he was briefly recounting a protracted legal struggle between the wealthy industrialist, nearby land owners, miscellaneous cause-chasing noisemakers, and the federal government, the sum of which was that the wealthy industrialist now owned both the river they couldn’t quite see and the minor mountains they could. The wealthy industrialist asked his son whether the latter thought it was even possible to own a river or a mountain, which the son understood correctly was a rhetorical question, the wealthy industrialist answering with a boisterous “Of course not! But I do anyway, of course,” while the son used his right index finger still shoved in his pocket to slide over rough bumps of embossing that, the son thought, were not unlike a minor mountain range, but in both cases possession being more important than the shape of the ridge. The wealthy industrialist’s son had just turned sixteen but was already close to the completion of his stint at an exclusive prep school on the Atlantic coast, the son being fast-tracked partly out of the son’s natural intelligence and partly out of his father’s desire to speed him out of the world of hormones and math into the world of college, where he would learn accountability and acquire a bedrock of political science education in case either the wealthy industrialist or his son one day decided it would be entertaining and profitable for the son to enter politics and monkey around with a different form of power, as the wealthy industrialist put it, but while the son was thinking of how what he was being aimed at was simultaneously entirely unknown and too well-known, the wealthy industrialist was wrapping up his brief digression on the nature of Nature.

“Son,” the wealthy industrialist was saying, “that’s exactly the thing about nature. I understand how it works. So do you. So do many people. But the thing is, we can understand it, and we can own it and transform it and destroy it, but we cannot ever quite control it. Nature remains beyond us, even if only a little, and that’s why it’s nature, why it’s natural, why it’s not us, not our world, why it’s simply to be considered and used and bought and sold and made something of rather than tamed or subjected to the inarguable logic of the marketplace, because even the marketplace cannot control nature, and is in fact a form of nature itself. But I’ve just reminded you,” the wealthy industrialist said to his half-attentive son, “that I own all of this anyway. So what does that tell you?” he asked.

“That you don’t have to understand something in order to possess it,” the son told his father, pinching, in his right front pants pocket, the corporate credit card he’d taken possession of from the box on the bookshelf during his father’s absence, the son having found the card a year ago and patiently, in the interim, researched whether it might be “borrowed” without anyone noticing until the passage of time would make plausible deniability enough of a factor to diffuse any guilt; the navy-suited aide, for example, also had access to the office, and much more need than the son of a wealthy industrialist for access to a nearly limitless line of untraceable and anonymous credit, and as long as the purchases were discreet and sporadic, no one would ever know, and if it were ever the son’s turn to respond to the wealthy industrialist at length, which was unlikely, he could possibly lead his own digression about the nature of power, about how, in the context of possession, the power of taking was as important than the power of possession, and perhaps even more important than the power of use, because in the power of taking lay the flex of visible muscle that garnered not just more capital but more power itself, the son often finding himself hoping that he would indeed someday be allowed to enter politics, perhaps at a national level, thinking it actually likely given that the wealthy industrialist was the kind of old man who’d remain forever an old man, never a corpse, and that as he aged he’d only grow more possessive and want to defer, more and more, the son’s encroachment upon not just his career but the entire organization of his waning life.

But the still youngish and fit and only slightly graying-at-temples wealthy industrialist had spun his son around again for the punchline, the two men blinking into the large office’s relative dark after the glare of a non-ownable midmorning sun, the wealthy industrialist gesturing with his non-son-clamp arm into the elegantly cluttered dimness of the office and asking, again rhetorically, “Now what do you see in front of you?”

Answering himself, he inventoried a vista comprised mostly of the glass “smart desk” and the two laptops and three tablets resting on it and the bookshelves and their contents and the contents of the man’s satchel sitting ignored next to the office chair and other miscellaneous containers of miscellaneous data. The wealthy industrialist said the vista they now beheld was a vista of information, and information, unlike nature, could be easily controlled, but that this control itself was not the most important form of power it held, but rather the fact that this, other, and perhaps any information could be used to explain or contain or contextualize anything and everything, including nature, and that those things were where true power lay, that knowledge was power even though, the wealthy industrialist told his son, he knew from education and experience that the vast majority of this information was complete and utter bullshit, and what’s more, nobody seemed to really care if it were or not, as long as it were useful. But it was bullshit nonetheless.

After what he felt was an appropriate comic pause, the wealthy industrialist sighed and huffed a laugh and said to the thoughtful young man next to him, “Son, one day all of this bullshit will be yours.”

Pinching the card between pale thumb and pale index finger in his right front pocket of his gray gabardine trousers, the wealthy industrialist’s son smiled his thin Dr. V smile, a smile his father, in the relative darkness, did not search for and did not see.


About the Author

Nicholas Grider's first story collection, MISADVENTURE (A Strange Object), was longlisted for the Frank O'Connor Prize and their fiction, also available in the recent chapbook FOREST OF BORDERS (Malarkey Books), has been nominated for other awards and appeared in Conjunctions, Guernica, Midnight Breakfast, Okay Donkey, and other magazines. More can be found here:

Photo by Felix Mittermeier from Pexels