By Richard Powers
Picador Copyright © 1998 Richard Powers
All rights reserved.
Day had a way of shaking Lacewood awake. Slapping it lightly, like a newborn. Rubbing its wrists and reviving it. On warm mornings, you remembered: this is why we do things. Make hay, here, while the sun shines. Work, for the night is coming. Work now, for there is no work in the place where you are going.
May made it seem as if no one in this town had ever sinned. Spring unlocked the casements. Light cured the oaks of lingering winter doubt, lifting new growth from out of nothing, leaving you free again to earn your keep. When the sun came out in Lacewood, you could live.
* * *
Lacewood's trace began everywhere: London, Boston, Fiji, Disappointment Bay. But everywhere's trail ended in this town, where folks made things. Some mornings, when the sun shone, history vanished. The long road of arrival disappeared, lost in the journey still in store.
At first, the town subsisted on the overhauled earth. Wild prairie weeds gave way to grain, a single strain of edible grass, grown on a scale that made even grass pay. Later, Lacewood graduated to human wizardry, thrived on alchemical transformation. Growth from bone meal and bat guano. Nourishment from shale. Breakthroughs followed one upon the other, as surely as May followed April.
There must have been a time when Lacewood did not mean Clare, Incorporated. But no one remembered it. No one alive was old enough to recall. The two names always came joined in the same breath. All the grace ever shed on Lacewood flowed through that company's broad conduit. The big black boxes on the edge of town sieved diamonds from out of the mud. And Lacewood became the riches that it made.
* * *
Forever, for anyone who would listen, Lacewood liked to trot out the tale of how it tricked its way into fortune. At its deciding moment, when the town had to choose between the sleepy past and the tireless nineteenth century, it did not think twice. With the ease of one born to it, Lacewood took to subterfuge.
The townsfolk felt no qualms about their ruse, then or ever. If they felt anything, it was pride. They laid their snare for the fifth Mr. Clare, the namesake president of an Eastern firm that had lately outgrown its old markets. Clare Soap and Chemical was heading West, seeking new hosts. The fifth Mr. Clare was looking for the ideal site to build the burgeoning business's latest plant.
Douglas Clare, Sr., secretly preferred the aroma of Lacewood to the scent of Peoria. Lacewood smelled clean and distilled. Peoria was a little too unctuous and pomaded. He liked this place for a number of reasons. But he kept mum, sporting the indifference of a cagey suitor.
The fifth Mr. Clare could not say exactly what he was looking for in a future site. But he always claimed he'd recognize the place when he laid eyes on it. Even that most resourceful businessman could not call this location central. But the country's growth would yet center it. Lacewood sat on train lines connecting St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Louisville. It lay a reasonable freight haul away from Chicago, the West's lone metropolis. And land in this vacancy was still dirt cheap.
Lacewood decided to doll itself up, to look like what it thought Clare wanted. Weeks before the visit, the town began papering over its crumbling warehouses with false fronts. Every boy over ten turned builder. The mayor even had two blocks of plaster edifices erected to fatten out anemic Main Street.
For the duration of the company tour, the town rented an old Consolidation locomotive. It ran the engine up and down the line at frequent intervals, rearranging the consist for the sake of drama. The freight even discharged a much fussed-over load at the suspiciously new station. Ten hours later, it returned from the other direction and hauled the crates of gravel away.
Clare and his advisers saw through the whole charade. One glance told the Easterners that the decaying antique hadn't seen service in over a decade. Peoria had run much the same stunt. And its fake facades had been fancier.
But necessity drove Lacewood beyond Peoria's wildest invention. Long in advance of its August inspection, Lacewood dammed up its sleepy little stretch of the Sawgak, just upriver of town. Ordinarily, the pathetic trickle didn't even dampen the dust on a muskrat's whiskers. But for four glorious days in the heat of late summer, the town council built itself a junior torrent.
At key intervals, Lacewood posted several fishers who passed as either entrepreneurs or sportsmen, depending on the light. With uncanny regularity, the anglers struggled to land a series of mighty northern pike: fat from off the land, food from nothing, from honest labor.
The fact that Esox lucius, the species these men pulled like clockwork from the synthetic rapids, had never on its own accord strayed south of Minnesota touched Mr. Clare. He admired the industry, the pathos in the stratagem. He could work with these people. They would work for him.
He glowered throughout the length of the inspection. He shook his head continually. At the last instant before heading back to Boston in his private Pullman — whose builder, up in Pullman, Illinois, had recently created an ingenious live-in factory town that supplied all his employees' needs — Clare acquiesced. Sighing, he accepted the massive tax concessions proffered him in perpetuity, and closed the deal.
And that's how Clare Soap and Chemical came to stay.
Years later, just in time to stave off the worst of the Great Depression, the globe's largest producer of earth-moving equipment dropped its world headquarters down in Peoria. Caterpillar played for more than fifty straight profitable years and ran up its annual sales to over $13 billion by the game's twilight, at century's end.
But Lacewood never complained. Without Clare, the town would have dozed forever. It would have stayed a backwoods wasteland until the age of retrotourism. With Clare, Lacewood grew famous, part of an empire of three dozen production facilities in ten countries, "making answers, meeting needs."
Lacewood joined the ride gladly, with both feet. It got the goose it bargained for, and more. For over a century, Clare laid countless clutches of eggs whose gold only the niggling would stoop to assay.
May, just before Memorial Day, just this side of millennium's end. Up on North Riverside, on the good side of the river, a Lacewood woman works her garden. A woman who has never thought twice about Clare.
Sure she knows it: the name is second nature. Traders on the Frankfurt Burse mouth "Clare" at the mention of Lacewood, the way they point and go "bang" whenever they meet someone from Chicago. Teens in Bangkok covet anything bearing the company's logo. Whole shipping-container sunrooms in São Paulo are emblazoned with it. The firm built her entire town, and then some. She knows where her lunch comes from. Which side of her bread bears the non-dairy spread.
She drives past Clare's Agricultural Division headquarters at least three times a week. The town cannot hold a corn boil without its corporate sponsor. The company cuts every other check, writes the headlines, sings the school fight song. It plays the organ at every wedding and packs the rice that rains down on the departing honeymooners. It staffs the hospital and funds the ultrasound sweep of uterine seas where Lacewood's next of kin lie gray and ghostly, asleep in the deep.
She knows what it makes as well as anyone. Soap, fertilizers, cosmetics, comestibles: name your life-changing category of substances. But still, she knows Clare no better than she knows Grace or Dow. She does not work for the corporation or for anyone the corporation directly owns. Neither does any blood relation or any loved one.
The woman kneels in her garden, kneading her fifty square feet of earth. She coaxes up leaves, gets them to catch a teacupful of the two calories per cubic centimeter that the sun, in its improvident abundance, spills forever on the earth for no good reason except that it knew we were coming.
Some nasty bug has already begun to nibble her summer squash in the bud. Another goes after her beans. She responds with an arsenal of retaliations. Beer to ward off slugs. Lemon-scented dish soap in solution, spritzed liberally to counter beetle insurgencies. Home remedies. Stronger measures when strength is needed.
She transplants flowers outdoors from their starter beds. The work is play; the labor, love. This is the afternoon she slaves all week for. The therapeutic complement to the way she makes a living: moving families from starter homes into larger spreads.
Spring releases her. The early oriental poppies unwad like her children's birthday crepe. The alpine columbine spread their two-toned trumpets, an ecstatic angel choir. Every growing thing looks like something else to her. Her mind hums as she weeds, hungry to match each plant with its right resemblance.
Tight, hard globes of Christmas ornament relax into peonies. Daisies already droop their tutus like sad, also-ran, Degas dancers. Bleeding hearts hang in group contrition. She urges them on, each to its colored destiny. No human act can match gardening. She would do it all day long, if she could.
The ballet school sponsors. The ones who pay for the TV that nobody ever watches. The annual scholarships for the erector-set kids at the high school. The trade-practice lawsuits she hasn't the patience to follow, and the public service announcements she never entirely understands. The drop-dead-cute actress who has the affair with the guy next door in that series of funny commercials that everyone at the office knows by heart. The old company head who served in the cabinet during World War II. She hums the corporate theme song to herself sometimes, without realizing.
Two pots in her medicine cabinet bear the logo, one to apply and one to remove. Those jugs under the sink — Avoid Contact with Eyes — that never quite work as advertised. Shampoo, antacid, low-fat chips. The weather stripping, the grout between the quarry tiles, the nonstick in the nonstick pan, the light coat of deterrent she spreads on her garden. These and other incarnations play about her house, all but invisible.
This woman, forty-two years old, looks up into the gathering May sky and wrinkles her nose. Yesterday's Post-Chronicle predicted azure. But no point in second-guessing yesterday, with today coming on like there's no tomorrow. Her seedlings are further along than Memorial Day could have hoped. A dollar twenty-nine, two spritzes of lemon dish soap, and a little loving effort can still keep one in squash all summer.
The woman's name is Laura Rowen Bodey. She is the newest member of Next Millennium Realty's Million Dollar Movers Club. Her daughter has just turned seventeen, her son is twelve and a half. Her ex-husband does development for Sawgak College. She sees a married man, quietly and infrequently. Her life has no problem that five more years couldn't solve.
A woman who has heard, yet has not heard. And on this day, no one but the six people who love her gives her a moment's thought.
* * *
Business ran in the Clares' blood long before the first one of them made a single thing.
That family flocked to commerce like finches to morning. They clung to the watery edge of existence: ports, always ports. They thrived in tidal pools, half salt, half sweet. Brackish, littoral. They lived less in cities than on the sea routes between them.
Clare was, from the first, transnational. Family merchants traded in England for the better part of a century, specializing in a bold shipping commerce that ruined and made their fortunes several times a year. Each generation refined the gamble. Jephthah Clare drank in gambling with his mother's milk. He gambled the way he breathed.
Jephthah fled the mother country in a hurry, on a wager gone wrong. He left in 1802, the year the aristocrat du Pont, escaping the French turmoil, set up his gunpowder mill in Delaware. Jephthah Clare ran from a more prosaic chaos: not wrongdoing, exactly, but failure to share inside knowledge of a collapse in sugar beet prices with an excitable trading partner upon whom he had just settled a considerable shipment. After his house in Liverpool burned, Jephthah thought it wise not to await further repayment.
He, his wife, and three small children sailed unannounced. They stowed away on one of Clare's own packet traders. For the length of the crossing, the family slept on a cargo of Wedgwood Egyptian stoneware. The pain of the passage eased as soon as they and the plates disembarked upon India Wharf, in Boston, America. That thorny pallet of freight paid the family's way toward a comfort that outlasted all memory of the uncomfortable voyage.
Jephthah Clare cared not where he landed, so long as he could reach the all-delivering ocean. He sold his Wedgwood plates and leased a countinghouse adjacent to Long Wharf. Starting with that one salvaged packet, rechristened the Rough Bed, he commenced one of the most lucrative schemes in the long and august history of commercial laundering.
France and Britain, eternally at war, blockaded each other's colonial trade. Clare sent the Rough Bed down to Jamaica and loaded it with coffee and molasses. He called these barrels back up to Boston Harbor, where they became, by the magic of paperwork, American coffee, American treacle. These he could then take to London, where the pinched combatants paid hand over fist for their deliverance. In the interests of fair play, he now and then took American rum to Le Havre, courtesy of Guadeloupe.
This dress-up game lasted for a full four years. Jephthah Clare extracted his markup both coming and going. When the belligerents at last closed down the trickery in 1807, Jephthah cursed Jefferson's embargo and turned smuggler. For every ship impounded, two more came in to pay the bribes and ransom, with a little bit left over.
That margin secured him a house in Temple Place. From this base, Jephthah strolled out daily to his favored haunts in Merchants Row. He struck deals in Topliff's Reading Rooms. He traded gossip in the Exchange, learning which packets had come in and which were overdue. He waited for the semaphores from Nantasket to reach the sentry on Constitution Wharf with word of the Favored, the North Port, the New Jerusalem.
When the embargo at last grew too risky to flout, Clare fell back upon longer runs. He dispatched New England goods to the Oregon country. There he exchanged his stock for furs. These furs he sent across the Pacific, to Canton, where his hong could not get enough of them. Furs bought tea in profuse bouquets. Tea came back home at a profit sufficient to buy ten new shipments of cheap New England goods. For truly:
The one thing Home cannot supply
Is that which hails from far away.
The sheer markup of distance sufficed to begin the whole self-enriching triangle all over again.
The world had to be circumnavigated before the humblest washerwoman could sip from her ragged cup. The mystery of it all sometimes visited Jephthah at night. It played in his drafty thoughts as he and his uncomprehending Sarah lay under the eiderdown in their timbered bedroom, tight against the night's worst incursions. He, the Oregon trapper, the Chinese hong: everyone prospered. Each of them thought he'd gotten the better end of the deal. Now, how could that be? Where had the profit come from? Who paid for their mutual enrichment?
The port of Fayal, in the Azores, turned whale oil into wine. A trip to the Sandwich Islands sufficed to change percussion-cap rifles into sandalwood. Everyone everywhere wanted what was only to be had somewhere else. Jephthah shipped Dutch herring to Charleston and Boston cod to Lisbon. For a while, he made a fortune selling white silk hats from France to New York gentlemen, until his competitors bought up a shipment and gave them away free to Negroes, discrediting the style.
Yet the man who moved these goods around the globe could not sell to Ohio. The prospect had no profit in it. The nine dollars that moved a ton of goods from Europe to Boston moved that same ton no more than thirty miles inland.
But on the sea, Jephthah engaged in the entire range of merchanting. He owned some ships outright and hired others. He bought and sold on his own account, acted as another's commissioned agent, exported and imported, traded with jobbers and factors. At times, he even vended directly to shopkeepers. He shipped and insured and financed, open to any deal or part thereof. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Gain by Richard Powers. Copyright © 1998 Richard Powers. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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