Up by the Bootstraps
When JJ returned to his room from his overnight with his Grandmother Gail there was a thick envelope on the desk. How did they get in? It wasn’t the hotel management. They were Indian or Pakistani and he didn’t trust them. He checked it for dust, and, after deciding that it was okay, opened it. It contained $5,000 in cash and a cryptic note, "This is the last you'll get. Spend it wisely and get a job."
Not wanting to leave cash in his hotel, JJ went to the local branch of the Bank of America and opened a savings account. They allowed him $200 in 20s, but were, "Holding the cash until they checked out the serial numbers." He decided to only deposit $3000 and keep the rest. He dropped in on an Internet café and, with a few quick searches, located a 1996 Honda Civic in "good condition". He gave the guy a call and took a cab to his house in Evanston.
JJ found the car to be a bit worn with 130,000 miles on it. It was silver, and had a few dents and scrapes, with serviceable tires. Just the kind of nondescript car that JJ was looking for. "Have you lost the timing belt?"
"No, I changed it at 100,000 miles like I was supposed to. I serviced it regularly. It'll run a long way yet. I'm only selling because I wanna buy a new one." The guy wanted $1995 for it, but with a little haggling he settled for $1795. The title in hand, JJ drove away with it. Parking in Chicago was a bit of a problem, so he worked a deal with the hotel for only $200 a month. They presented him with a room bill since the unknown source had quit paying for his hotel room. It was obvious he had to get a job.
Back at the Internet café, he did a search for local jobs. While waiting for a page to load he looked over at the cashier and saw a sign, "Help Wanted." He left the computer, and asked the cashier to see the manager. Soon he found himself in the small office of the manager back behind the rest rooms.
"Since they cracked down on illegal immigrants, it's been kind of hard to find busers. I've got a job busing from three to 11 p.m. for eight dollars an hour. You'll split the tips with three others. If you're good, I might give you a shot at making coffee or at the cash register for a little more money. What do you say? Sam Bernhard--so the sign on his desk said--was a longtime Chicagoan, who had worked his way up from busing when he was 17, and now had hopes of owning his own shop some day.
"Okay, I'll do it. When do I start?” Sam looked at his watch and said, "It's 2:30 p.m. looks like we got about a half-hour to show you the ropes before the shift starts."
The other three bus boys, Lenny, Charles, and Carl weren't exactly JJ peers. Lenny was a Russian immigrant of dubious origin. He was opportunistic and JJ couldn't trust him. Charles was a big black man about 30 who appeared to be mentally retarded, but affable. Carl was a 19-year-old student from Wisconsin who seemed a bit lost in the city. He was flunking out of ITT and it showed. JJ held back and didn't try to show them up. When they split the tips, it was obvious that Lenny was taking more than he was sharing. Figured that he’d fix that.
When he got his weekly hotel bill, it was obvious that he wouldn't be able to continue staying there. He had started mentoring Carl, and asked him if he knew if there was a room he could rent. Carl confided that his roommate from Wisconsin got homesick and left, making him pay for the entire room himself. "Would you like to room with me? I'm clean and I'm studying all the time when I'm not working here. I wouldn't bother you none."
They shook hands and JJ moved in the next day. Carl was surprised to see that all that JJ had to his name was a suitcase with only a couple of changes of clothes. The room was filled with Carl's junk. He had filled his car and his father's van with stuff when he started college that fall. Now, after his first year, he was flunking out, on probation and afraid to tell his folks. JJ didn't envy his situation, but at least by sharing their rent, he was helping out financially. The room came with a parking spot in the alley behind the old house.
One day, a couple of days after he started working, the computer network went down. Sam was about to call his Internet service, when JJ offered to see if he could fix the problem. Going to the computer rack in the back room, he saw that the lights were out on the server. He checked a few connections and found that someone had inadvertently pulled the power plug out. He plugged it firmly back in and hit the power button. Everything came back up and they were back in business. After that, Sam called on him with every computer problem. On the side, Sam also started paying him for his services with the computers. "Listen," he said. "Don't you go tell them other bus boys that I'm giving you this money. Don't want them to be jealous of your ability. Right from the start I wondered what a smart guy like you was doing work like this."
"Hell, Sam. I'm just a poor country boy from Minnesota. Come to the big city, Chicago, to make my way."
"I get a lot a country boys here, mostly from Wisconsin. You don't strike me as one of them."
"Well I am. Work in the country just made me versatile, that's all. JJ knew that Sam was on to him. Shouldn't get too close to anybody. He'd have to move on soon.
And since he proved to be such a good employee, Sam let him stay after when the place was closed. In the wee hours, JJ did his research. He looked up the cults, maps, and everything he could about hate groups in general. The Aryan Nation and Brotherhood. American Nazis. The John Birch Society. MS-13. Churches. He looked into them all. He didn't print anything--didn't want any evidence around. But he did imprint them on his mind.
JJ reviewed the security tapes and piece together a collage of Lenny picking customer’s pockets and pocketing tips he was supposed to share. That wasn’t all, when Sam turned him in they found out that his papers were from a Russian gentlemen who died in 1893 and was buried in a cemetery in Cicero. A prime terrorist suspect, Homeland Security had Lenny deported to Russia for prosecution.
Charles and Carl couldn’t believe their good fortune when their share of the tips more that doubled over night. Charles was especially demonstrative. “Mr. Sam, I want to thank you for catching that crook, Lenny, who’s been stealing from me, that son of a bitch.” I never dawned on him that JJ had anything to do with it.
When he had a chance, back at their room, JJ talked to Carl.
"Where are you from, Carl?" JJ started out slowly.
"A little town in central Wisconsin, Vesper. Well, not exactly Vesper, but the countryside around it. My Dad's a farmer--the last of his breed. I'm just one of the long line of farm kids that's been escaping to the city. Usually Milwaukee or Chicago. Some of them come home with their tails between their legs, but most make it and settle in the suburbs. If you aren't going to college, you soon want to escape the hard work, before dawn until way after dark, that kids have to do--legal child labor. I was a fool to go to college. I wasn't prepared. I didn't like school in high school and wasted my time. Don't even know why they accepted me at ITT. Must've been my test scores. I usually score high on those. Don't like the structure of class or the homework. Never did in high school neither, that's why my grades were so bad. I should have told him I wasn't going, gone to ITT Tech instead. Now I've disgraced him after he's bragged on me to the whole family and his friends." Carl was staring, nose down, at the floor.
"What you mean by, 'Last of his breed'?"
"The family farmer. Don't you read the papers? For the last three generations, all the young people have left the family farm. All that are left are the aging farmers like my old man with his 180 acres. Hell, you can’t make it on 180, or even 360 acres anymore. Now you have to have at least a section, hell… a thousand acres to make it. You got to have machinery, fertilizer, weed killer, pesticides and a milking parlor. You got to have at least four silos for silage, each close in over $100,000 each. You got to watch your fertilizer, weed killer, and pesticide use, your manure, and run off into creeks and streams. Hell, you got to be a big businessman--agribusiness they call it. That's why all the big corporations are buying out the family farms. Kids don't wanna work on them and old farmers just want to sell out and retire. If they sell the farm they can retire in Florida and leave enough to their kids when they die to give them a good start. My sister, Anne, is graduating next year from high school and plans to go to college in Stevens Point. Says she wants to be a teacher. That leaves only mom and dad to work the farm. Mom's already got arthritis, and dad hates the snow and ice in the wintertime. I ain't going back. Just have to make it here in Chicago. Busing's getting me nowhere. What about you?
"Where I come from in northern Minnesota there aren't even any farms. My father worked in the iron mines for a while, but he's all broken down now and lives in a cabin in the woods on his compensation check every month. Mom died when I was five, so I hardly remember her. My dad’s a drunk and it was his constant cussing that drove me away. I ain't going back there either. Too many bad memories. I passed up the Twin Cities to come here. I didn't want him coming looking for me. Any work up there in Wisconsin?"
Carl hesitated a moment, struck a bit by JJ's question. "Oh... there's some work for the county, but college boys used to get that work during the summer. You could be a farm hand for some of the few farms that still exist. But that's a lot of hard work and low pay. Most that live in the country drive to Marshfield, Wausau, or the Rapids to work--manufactured homes--trailers, we call 'em and other small industries. The Mennonites are moving in fast, too, buying up farms from the folks that are retiring with cash. The Amish and them came from Pennsylvania, about 20 years ago and have about taken over the land around Thorp. Now they're buying up land around Vesper, too. You couldn't work for them; they do all their own work theirselves. Strange dudes. They drive horses and buggies instead of cars--always havein' accidents. Rip all the wiring and plumbing out of the houses they buy. Don't know how they stay warm in the winter without electricity."
JJ pretended to be ignorant. "How can they make it against those company farms?"
"Well, they sure do make it all right. They are frugal to the point of being cheap skates. They've got a little cottage industry going with the tourists selling their organic food. They are rich and keep getting richer. That's why they can buy up so much land. If I go back, I might join the Vespers."
"The Vespers, what's that?" Acting dumb again.
"It's kind of hard to explain. A guy from my high school, Jim Gorski, joined up out of high school and was sent to Desert Storm. Word is he killed a family in Iraq and was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged. When he got back home he got religion and went off to some Catholic monastery to enter the priesthood. When he came back, his parents died within two weeks of each other. He took over the farm and turned it into some kind of monastery. He calls himself Pius One and has gathered a lot of young men around him. Using his parents farm as collateral, he has bought about 2000 acres for his compound. They are building a cathedral. His whole movement is called the Vespers. I'm Catholic, you know, joining the Vespers might be a good thing for me."
"Doesn't sound like something I'd be interested in, but keep me posted and maybe I'll check it out?"
JJ didn't tell Carl, but he had checked out the Vespers on the Internet already. He found much more than he hoped for. It seemed that the Vespers were some kind of pseudo religious cult that clearly played on the feelings and hatred that many people, particularly the young, felt after the blast. The cleverly disguised rhetoric preached that anyone, especially the fearful, outsiders, or downtrodden could join the group and be saved in the eyes of Jesus Christ. The all-powerful leader, Pius One, seemed to control everything, becoming the surrogate father for those who joined. Like so many cults, the Vespers had its own satellite TV channel and an HD radio station that only tech savvy young people would listen to. The whole idea was growth, and it appeared that money was pouring in feeding that growth. Pius One and the Vespers looked dangerous enough for him to intervene, but he couldn't. He had to be completely anonymous, and the fact that Carl knew him created a problem.
He was right. Within two weeks of their little talk, Carl had decided to join the Vespers. JJ could think of nothing to persuade him not to go. He set up an anonymous e-mail site on yahoo.com and asked Carl to write to him on it. "Let me know how you're doing. I'll e-mail you back. Maybe I'll join too... you never know." With that, Carl rented a U-Haul trailer for all of his stuff, JJ helped him pack it, and Carl headed north. JJ wished him well and waved as he drove off. He had a strange feeling, but didn't express it. The room really looked empty with Carl gone. JJ was saving money and couldn't afford to pay the rent himself. He soon talked one of the new busers into sharing it with him.
The summer turned to fall and while JJ enjoyed the color in the parks, he prepared himself for a dreary winter in a dreary city without friends or family. There were regulars at the cafe. Young women ranging from students to business owners who caught his eye. Some even flirted with him, showed him a little too much breast or leg when he was picking up dishes at their tables. He was sure he could have had some one night stands, but no girl in her right mind would want to hook up with a busboy. He was polite, smiled often and returned their comments. "Nice butt." "Hey, you work out?" or "Do you know you've got the cutest eyes." Come to mind. He parried them all with a polite, "Thank you." "You're most welcome." or "I appreciate that." And then moved on quickly to another table, or to the kitchen to avoid too much eye contact. He masturbated a lot. It helped ease the tension.
His new roommate was a local kid that had been kicked out of his parent's house because he was lazy. When he wasn't working, the kid played video games all time and didn't help keep the room up. A general drag. JJ found himself spending more and more time away, mostly after-hours at the cafe on the Internet. He checked into cults nightly, trying to avoid signing on and letting them know anything about him. He knew the CIA, NSA, and FBI were tracking the Islamic groups. He also knew that several of his Lancer colleagues were from Moslem families and spoke most of the languages used in the Middle East. Although it was an entry to pretend to be an American sympathetic to their cause, not knowing the language would be a big disadvantage.
The same was true of the Hispanic gangs like MS 13, Barrio Pobre, Longos, Malditos, Barrio Mojados, Florencia 13, Locos Park, Mexican Klan, and the Barrio Boyz, and Asian gangs like the Cong, Triads, 14K, , Born to Kill , Dai Huen Jai, Kung Lok, Flying Dragons, Ghost Shadows United Bamboo and the like. The bikers, skinheads, militias, and neo-Nazis were too rough for him. While he was probably tougher than any of them, he did like the idea of having to tattoo or scar himself just to prove that he was tough and the lifestyle that he would have to lead in order to fit in.
No, JJ would go after the most sinister groups out there. The ones who were openly pius and friendly. The ones who influenced politics and conspired behind the guise of good works to overthrow the government and wreck havoc. The Vespers were an ideal candidate for him to infiltrate. Too bad Carl was going to them. For now, all he could do was keep in touch with him through the anonymous Yahoo e-mail address he had set up.
"I hope everything is going well with you. I'm still holding down the fort at the café and training new guys almost daily, Sam has so much turnover. My new roommate is a real dunce. He quit working for us after a week, but I can’t get him to leave the room because he pays his share of the rent and doesn't do anything to allow me to get a court order to have him thrown out. That's it, in a nutshell he doesn't do anything--leaves that all to me.
"Well, write when you can.
At first, Carl responded often. And then, his responses fell off. Finally, in late October, he got this strange missive:
Don't know if I can take this shit... they got something planned for Halloween scares the hell out of me... ... gotta go!"
JJ never heard from Carl again. He began to wonder and to worry. Tried to put it out of his mind, but it kept coming back.
The winter was brutally cold and everyone was complaining about the cost of heat. His landlord cut back on the heat to his room so much that it stayed around 35° in there and his roommate finally moved back with his parents. If it weren't for a feather comforter that he bought, JJ would have had to sleep in the café. As it was, he was spending endless hours researching the countless religious cults that were popping up everywhere since the blast, the Posse Cometuas, the John Birch society, the Illuminati, Pi Masons, Moonies, and other quasi religious groups. Time and time again, it was the Aryan Nation, led by John White and the Vespers, led by Pius One, that stood out. He prepared himself to go to Arkansas in the spring. He had saved about $15,000, and thought that was enough to get him in. Still, thoughts of Carl kept nagging, pulling him northward to Wisconsin. He couldn't investigate for fear that he would be discovered. Finally, after Easter, he decided to take a chance and infiltrate the Vespers. He opened a new e-mail account on Hotmail and began looking for a way to contact Pius One on the various Vespers sites. After registering with one, he was able to send a missive in a form.
"Dear Pius One,
"I have sinned. I hail from the northern Minnesota mining country. I left high school early to seek my fortune in Chicago. I have engaged in unspeakable bestial and lascivious behavior. On Easter morning, I staggered, drunk, into a church and was suddenly stricken by the glory of God. As punishment for my past I want to join a strict order and be celibate for the rest of my life.
"John Jacob Olson"
The next night, when JJ looked, amid the flurry of e-mails that new subscribers get to Hotmail, he spotted one from glorybetohim.com:
"Dear John Jacob:
"Thank you for your interest in the Vespers. Yes, we are accepting new pions. Before you come, you must sever all ties with family and friends and former acquaintances. You must divest yourself of all your worldly goods, including this Hotmail e-mail account. You must agree to give to the order the sum of all your worldly value in exchange for the generous housing and food that the Vespers will provide during your ascent into the rarity of the order. Intolerant behavior of any kind, including verbal, will be met with the strict, swift justice of God. Very few ascend to the greatness required. You must understand this before beginning. If you understand, come with or without your vehicle and with only the monetary proceeds from your worldly goods to fire stop 381, Vesper, Wisconsin and prepare to enter in. Fear the wrath of God if you do not follow the requests given herein.
"The Pius One"
Reading that sent a shiver through JJ's spine. He immediately closed the Hotmail account, but left the Yahoo one and several others open. He didn't plan to use them, just have them available if needed. The next day he put an ad in Tribune to sell his stuff. There wasn't much, and he planned to give away what he couldn’t sell. There was no turning back now.