“Hi Carlos,” Ben said quietly. “My thoughts are on the communities today. Did you know that, in the old days, they referred to this type of building as an apartment complex? Now they call them communities, and each community is an island unto itself. It is sad, isn’t it?” Changing the subject, he looked at his friend and said, “You know, I should have worn my mud boots today too.”
“The dust is thick in the street today,” Carlos said. “The street cleaners will have much to do today. Ben, I remember the house where I grew up. It was not far from here. I guess they tore it down to make way for a community. There is one that stands in place of all of the houses that used to be on that street.”
“Do you think there are any houses left in the lower towns, Carlos?” Ben asked.
“I haven’t seen any, Ben. Each month since I was a boy, I have taken a different way home from church. Except, of course, for all the years I spent in the military,” Carlos stated.
“You’ve never talked about those days, Carlos.”
“No, I guess I try to block them out of my mind Ben. I was young when the world changed. The new laws said I must go into apprenticeship and then into the military. You know how it is. When I got out at twenty-eight, they gave me a job and a wife for my service to the country. I guess getting injured helped. I didn’t need to remain in the army those last two years. I might not be here now if I had, what with all the wars.”
“I never served, Carlos. I was thirty when that became law. I could hardly believe they would put a fifteen-year-old in the army though.”
“The law, I consider the worst is the one that will take my oldest boy away on his seventh birthday,” Carlos added. “He will go into apprenticeship until he is fifteen and then into the army. I will be lucky if I ever see him again. If I see him, will he even remember me? I wonder.”
“I don’t have a son Carlos, so I can only imagine your pain,” Ben said.
“Ben, I know they will brainwash him. He will not even remember the things his mother and I taught him, and he will think of women as beasts for breeding children. It is what they teach the young ones now.” Carlos wiped his eyes. A tear threatened to run down his face.
Both men fell silent for a moment. “Carlos, I think women and girls have it worse, don’t you?” he asked his friend.
“Yes, Ben. I think about my daughters and what will happen to them when they reach their majority. When you treat a woman like a beast, it breaks their spirit. The kind of man who will do this only sees the beauty of their youth and the work they can get out of them.” Carlos was clearly distraught.
“I know what you mean, Carlos,” Ben said very quietly. Few knew about Jewell. “I wonder the same about my daughter. How will I keep her safe from someone like my neighbor, Yusuf? He is a man who would use a woman until she dies, her body worn from childbirth and overwork. She will be sixteen in a few weeks. I am so afraid, Carlos.”
“My friend, maybe the prophecy will happen, and it will protect her. If it doesn’t, I do not know how any of us in the lower towns can protect our children. Even the servants who work for the rich in the upper town must follow the laws. Their children are subject to the same rules,” Carlos said.
Ben agreed, “You are right, my friend. The servants may be treated a bit better, being one step above us in the hierarchy. The rich do not consider their servants to be people either. Only the rich and those who own the corporations are people. The rest of us have become less than human. I think it is a black time for our country.
As the path to the factory became crowded, Ben and Carlos walked on silently. They had stopped talking. Many found them an odd pair—Carlos, thin, Hispanic, barely over five feet tall, and Ben, even though advanced in years, still had the build of a ballplayer. Ben was an immense man, dark-skinned, tall, and broad-shouldered.
Quietly they walked side by side. Now and then they glanced around at their world. Gone were the trees that used to line the streets. No squirrels or birds could be seen anywhere in the lower communities. There was only dust, black soot, and occasionally one could see blue peek through the clouds of smoke and smut that filled the sky.
To Ben, this world seemed dead. Nothing remained of beauty, in the lower towns for the youth to see what the world could be. Gone was the music that filled the streets and the flowers that grew in window boxes. Only in the morning and at the end of the workday did life stir on the streets in the lower towns.
Ben and Jewell lived in one of the poor communities. Theirs was a mixed community, because most of the folks who lived in it were of mixed races. Carlos and his family huddled in a two-room apartment in one of the Hispanic communities. He had heard that the conditions in the all-white communities were a bit better, but not by much.
The men from different communities rarely became friends. Sometimes during the few minutes of break time allotted at work, the lines between the communities broke, and men talked to each other. Sometimes others, like Carlos and Ben, met on the road, walked to work together, and became friends.
Most days, Ben and Carlos met each other on the path. Their communities were next to each other, so they had more time alone together. During the walk to work, they discussed the world or their families. Outside of their homes, it was the only privacy the world afforded them. They talked quietly, changing the subject if someone came within hearing. It served nothing to allow anyone to hear a private conversation. You never knew who the new snitches were.
The living conditions in all the communities were basically the same. Even so, jealousy and animosity sprung up between the communities. As a result, Ben and Carlos seldom spoke when other men joined them on the path to the factory. Since they lived in two different minority communities, just seeing them together was a cause for talk. If people knew they were staunch friends, it would make them especially suspect.
Each family, no matter the size, received up to two rooms. None of these rooms had running water or electricity. Only a few of the buildings still had plumbing and electrical wiring in them, but none of it had worked in years. Most of these were the older buildings that had been gutted to make the community rooms. All had some form of coal stove, which served for both cooking and heating.
Everyone that lived in the community got their water from the pump outside in the courtyard. Aside from the water that stood in the communal wash tub, each family received one large bucket of water a day. So strictly was the water rationed, people in the lower towns did not bathe frequently. More often than not, they cleaned themselves the best they could by reusing the same dirty rag, rarely even rewetting it. These rags became quite grimy.
I feel for Carlos, Ben thought. His seven-year-old son would go to the apprentice hall this year. There, he would live with the rest of the apprentices until the age of fifteen. At fifteen, boys did their military duty until the age of thirty. If he lived, when he was thirty, he would go back to work for the corporation and possibly be allowed to marry. Marriage was something decided upon by the magistrates, and many times they only picked those men who were the community snitches.
At sixteen, the girls became women, and by law, they got married. Some of the women went to the snitches as payment for informing on other members in their community. It was a hard life. Even snitches like Yusuf could lose favor easily enough. No one was safe.