Early in the decline of Plants and Fruits
The fall of Plants and Fruits
The decline of Plants and Fruits
Second heir to Plants and Fruits
“They will be expecting you.”
“I’ll let them know you’re coming.”
“Someone will be waiting for you.”
Douglas assured Miranda countless times.
Miranda Manoppoli is late now, and now that she has left Douglas, maybe for the last time, (they had sworn not to contact each other for the next six months, to be safe) she doesn’t know how she will get in touch with his family if she misses this flight. If she doesn’t show up when she is supposed to, they might assume she isn’t coming. And even if she does catch the flight, there are a thousand reasons they might not be there to pick her up when she arrives. Maybe they will get the time wrong, or the date. They might be afraid of her, intimidated, or resentful. They might decide the risk is too great, or the inconvenience. They might decide that Douglas has forsaken them and is not worth the trouble. Then how will she ever find them? She knows a few names, but she barely understands their version of the language. She will have no idea where to go, it will be hot, there will be villainous insects, and people waiting to prey on a woman dressed so nicely. She should have worn a different dress, this one has ruffled shoulders, is cut low at the front so it shows her chest bone, and is made of a fine cream silk patterned with lilies and grasses, too beautiful, but she chose it with the idea of setting a good impression. She looks at herself in the rearview mirror of the car that drives her, inch by inch, through traffic, and she unfastens the gold clasps of her largest set of earrings, leaving them loose in her bag. She turns her head right and left to examine this more modest appearance. She looks at her watch, looks at her hands, feels the tension in her neck that is unlike anything she has felt in business. From behind her field of vision a train comes by on hilly ground, undulating like a segmented arthropod, until it disappears in a thinning line, this bringing calm. She exhales. At least she has money, lots of money. She is calm enough now to wonder “Will the qualities of vigilance and rigour, which I have acquired through my ruthless ambition, be of any use to me where I’m going?”
Twelve months before, after a period of scandal and recession, Plants and Fruits had sent a scout South, not for cheap labour, as had been the custom for many centuries, but in search of expertise. This would be a delicate assignment, requiring unusual talents in observation and coercion. The risk would be to stimulate the untapped brilliance of the targets, while maintaining their desperation, their debilitating illusions. They must always think, even long after they have improved their conditions, “these things, this life isn’t meant for me. I should be grateful.” When it came to the survival of Plants and Fruits, Herr Manoppoli trusted only blood relatives. It was obvious that the job would fall to Winter Manoppoli, the male heir to the company.
For several months Winter toured the southern coast and parked his car outside of a chosen establishment—a struggling munitions factory, a milk farm, a call centre, a processing warehouse for stolen goods, a hospital, a municipal judiciary. He did not attempt to assimilate to southern dress, “Me? Be a clown in rags?” He continued to gel his hair down so it stuck to his temples, to powder his fine face, to wear black waxed pants and satin blouses in red, cream, or silver. He watched workers come and go. He heard a man argue for his due piece of roof “Overhanging? A small roof? A bit of a shed roof?” He saw women competing to pull bags off a conveyor belt. It thrilled him to watch them struggle and succeed, to hold their ground and refuse to move, to cast a suspicious eye on a friend.
He followed some people home, watched them from a distance, and took note of their performance. At home is where they undertook projects with the other, greater skills that could not be exploited or even acknowledged in daytime jobs. Many had built houses for themselves with full plumbing and electricity, and had scavenged pieces of mosaics and frescos to build into the walls; some mined their own properties and panned nearby streams for precious gemstones and metals, which they melted down to make jewelry and tools; some had set up semi-industrial machines by rigging together parts of broken appliances; some had invented new cultivars through grafting and selective pollination; all of them raised crops and livestock, and carried on long-held spiritual, musical, sexual, and medicinal practices.
Each of the men and women Winter finally chose to invite North had approached him first, sometimes aggressively or violently. A small group of men had attempted to kidnap Winter. They had organized a paneled van and weapons. But Winter did not perceive any of these people as threatening, because he knew they meant only to protect their communities, and what he had to offer was a kind of protection that reached far into the future. Most people softened, even warmed, when presented with visions of their own potential.
Douglas was fishing electrical wire through an underground tube to power a cluster of UV lights on the edge of the property. It sounded like rodents working their way to safety. Douglas’ family had two small bungalows and a piece of land on which grew an uncommon variety of trees and crops. In the smaller of the two houses a woman was looking through an old microscope and nursing a young child. In the other house a handsome man with black curly hair and fierce blue eyes yelled and laughed, while a second woman read from an outdated French decoration book, “My favourite colour is bread, and beige,” and a third, younger woman sewed reams of coarse fabric into what looked like drapes or tents. Douglas stopped in the middle of his task, brushed off his thick jeans filled with muscles, walked right up to where Winter was observing, and asked him for coffee. In a touching moment of ego or decorum Douglas even found a way to pay for the bill.
Douglas, the brilliant man of dark curls like his father’s, and Winter, the pale calculating prince, developed what to outside eyes looked like a friendship—they spent nights drinking beer, building trust, eating sausages. But they would never have loyalty, only the appearance of reciprocity, which over the coming months would provide Winter with great gains in fortune, and which would tax Douglas with the incalculable strain of the effort of holding the balance.
Several weeks after their first meeting, and shortly after the closure of the Grandofoil munitions factory where Douglas, his sister, his wife, and his mother had been variously employed, Douglas and Winter were eating pork. The meat was sliced off a rotating spit and thrown into a pile in a bun. Winter could not believe the quality of food here. He was so used to reconstituted vegetable products poured into moulds and served as delicacies. Between ravenous bites, red fat dripping down his chin, Winter wiped his mouth, first with a piece of bread, and then with a fresh napkin,
“Douglas, you’re smart.” He picked a piece of meat out of his teeth, “You’re sensitive. You deserve more.”
“I don’t know about deserve, Win, but you’re right in thinking that I’d like to be able to work. I’d like to be able to count on it.”
“I know about a project up North, lots of growth, we’re expecting 10000 jobs.”
Winter’s front pressed against the fabric of his shirt, shining round. Miranda laughed at him and pinched his cheek as he entered.
“You offend me.”
“Thanks for coming.”
“You don’t ask me for help until now.”
“It would not have been appropriate.”
After Winter, Illariot came in, pleased to be reunited with his master and invited again to do jobs, having himself spent the last four months embroidering towels with the initials WM. Miranda drove to meet her father at Jettainer, and, in the parking garage with high ceilings and polished floors, she signaled to the pianist to play her favorite Ma’roufi while she waited for the valet. She found her father at the familiar table overlooking the tall grasses in which vigilant civilians sometimes discovered dead bodies. She kissed his dry grey face on both cheeks and forehead. “You’ve done a great job my girl. You did the right thing.” She ordered a drink worth one month’s salary for a juice factory worker, and her father lit his cigar with a flaming dollar bill.
“I know what it’s like to be in your position. Not to be appreciated. To want to be thanked, praised, rewarded. To know that you are so skilled and yet for most of your lives you have been treated like servants.” Miranda had a way of speaking that suggested she knew what people were thinking, but she was often wrong. Douglas had never connected his sense of worth with how he was treated in his job, so what Miranda said confused him. But he had come here knowing that things would be not only different, but of a whole other order than what he was used to. He could not assume anything.
Twenty men and fourteen women were brought North to work in Plants and Fruits. Their families were set up in apartments along the east harbour, and deep in the old suburbs on the outskirts of the planting grounds. They stood there in front of Miranda dressed in what they thought was expected of them, but which to her looked like costumes pulled out of the trunk of a car: a conductor’s jumpsuit, a threadbare laboratory coat, a butcher’s apron stained down the front. “If you do agree to join us, of course you will be given many privileges, access to sensitive information, company strategy, facts and figures, data analysis. You will have to agree to certain limits, especially with regard to your communications, especially in relation to family members not directly involved in your home life, friends, former colleagues. That means no messages, no phone calls, and only controlled / chaperoned visits once a year, or for funerals, certain illnesses, weddings of immediate blood relatives. It’s not that we don’t trust you. It’s standard.” A desk was set up in the middle of the room with a stack of contracts not yet personalized. The 34 new employees formed a line. A woman sat at the desk and, one at a time, she handed over the pen affixed to a chain: “Write your name here, sign here, and…here. Write your name here. Sign here. And. Here. Write your name, yes. And…Yup.” The sky outside was dark and opaque, the midday sun nowhere to be seen.
Douglas went home that night to his family’s unit in the compound by the port. From the window they could see the cratered mountain past the rigs and smell the algae overgrown, like the memory of fish. His son sat up in his chair and looked at him, suspicious of this change they, this little army of three, had just undertaken. His wife looked at him and she wasn’t sure he knew what he was doing. She had deduced that day, upon discovery of furry black rings and spots crawling across the lower foot of wall, as well as under the linoleum, that water would likely come in through the windows and up through the floors when it rained. “Douglas, I can’t cook with what they give us here. Is this all they have? Even the salt I don’t recognize.” It’s true, he shook a pile of salt out of the box onto his palm, and the grains felt too fine, dissolved immediately upon contact with moisture, even a damp hand was enough to make them disappear.
Weeks passed and the sky was solid and dark as if foretelling rain. But the grit in the air, the burning in the throat and eyes, the lethargy, meant that those were not gathering clouds, but the pall of grime in airborne form. The rain would be a blessing, if it was in fact there, waiting behind the wall of soot to tamp it down. Miranda did her duty each day after work, even more important now for the ongoing image repair. She visited her mother, very publicly, and touched her on the head, fed her from the bowl, watched her swallow and smile, the figurehead.
The hall was decorated in gold, stars and feathers suspended at all levels to give the impression of dispersing energy throughout the volume of the room. Angels were the customary symbol of 18th anniversaries (for birthdays, businesses, marriages). 18 years since Manofuel had been renamed Plants and Fruits, restructured, power redistributed, Miranda president, Herr puppet master,
Moimoi icon, Winter spy.
“Trust me, you can make them run, throw them out, but they will only gather again outside, and watch for you there…” Winter, all in butter beige that day, was talking when he saw Douglas at the entrance. He caught Douglas by the arm. “You!” He was excited to see Douglas. “I don’t know how you do it.” Douglas had been showing himself competent for weeks, “The generator, the candle trick, fuck you!” In return for his competence Winter invited him to events like these, always formal, which Winter promised were the route to success. Beady little Illariot, never ashamed of showing jealousy, stood behind Winter and eyed Douglas. Illariot said, “You’re never very classic are you!!” and was for a short time pleased with himself.
“Why don’t you leave the little guy in the pen and join us for a toast,” Winter said. Douglas unclipped Enzo from his hip, and felt the immediate energetic impossibility of parting with him, like a strong yearning from his heart that held the boy fast at his side. Enzo’s gaze released him. “It’s ok dad, do what you have to do, I’ll be fine.” Enzo turned to crawl into the mound of other babies playing in the tub of coloured balls.
“Mother is here.” Douglas turned to face the centre of the room where Moimoi Manoppoli was installed as the mute centrepiece. She occupied 3 whole square metres, still, in a gown embroidered with live hand-sized moths, which were sedated so they didn’t struggle or bat their wings, but touched and parted in slow prayer. Douglas followed Winter to the front of a long line of people waiting to feed Moimoi sips of broth. Douglas watched the soup pool around her tongue and drip down two creases at the sides of her mouth. “An honour.”
“The speeches are about to begin, go sit down.” A voice announced President Miranda Manoppoli, who emerged from behind a curtained hideaway, walked up and down the aisles between the tables while harps and a steady beat played behind her. She walked to the rhythm and Douglas felt shy. She was most powerful in these isolated spaces, where the order of events was predetermined. She spoke forcefully, like a singer.
“Good afternoon to you all. Thank you for joining us in our celebration of…” Behind Miranda were projected images of Miranda holding plants, large crowds of people eating and rejoicing, healthy people, rain on leaves, an animation of a germinating seed. “I owe everything to my family.” Then Herr stood up, “You know words are not my forté, but it must be said, Miranda, you have saved us, I will not forget that.”
Pictures of Miranda facing crowds. Miranda and Winter helping their mother up the stairs. Miranda spoon-
feeding her mother. Miranda and Winter in empty fields. Then it was Winter’s turn, “My mother’s strength is beyond compare. I will never be able to equal her.” Then pictures of Moimoi in her youth. Boxing. The old battery factory. Holding a shovel in an empty field. Moimoi’s fateful accident, the final passionate match that dislodged her brain from its casing, and initiated her slow decline, until it reached the point where she could only signal with her eyes and swallow. She had become a living good luck charm. The perfect receptacle of duty. The music played again, and again Miranda walked up and down between the tables while everyone watched. They started to clap in time to the music, and inside, Douglas felt a sucking up of his pride. He clapped along. Plates of fried golden grain balls were placed at the centre of each table and people reached for them.
After the main course and before dessert, Miranda looked over to see the star recruit, his head bowed into his plate. He looked sad and impatient, and naive to the possibility of true beauty. She imagined his face looking up from a pillow, his hands full of velvet flesh, of how much gratefulness he must be capable.