Economics is Easy — Once You See the Trick

by Lindy Davies

Last week, we found ourselves in between washing machines, the old one having died before the replacement arrived. So, when the laundry piled up, I drove 20 miles into town. To be honest I wasn’t upset about this. I had some correspondence-course lessons to read and grade while I waited. I shouldered the two big bags, secure in the knowledge that the foliage along the route was breathtaking, and the next couple of hours wouldn’t overtax me.

I dumped my loads in machines, found a plastic chair near the door and started in on a political-economy lesson from a student in a California Super-Max prison.

A mother and daughter came dancing in and started piling and sorting with pizazz. I felt fortunate to have the paraphernalia of my lessons to look busy with as I watched them. The mom was a beauty: quite short, not more than five feet, flamboyantly redheaded and freckled. She had a laughing, elvish air — except that her eyes seemed to belong to a wiser and older being: bright, deep grey, creased and wry. The little girl was about six, and a bit darker — auburn instead of fiery red — and perhaps a bit less exuberant, but clearly thought her mom was the coolest person in the entire universe.

The mother was teaching the daughter the technique of the Old Shell Game, using three bottle caps and a little red pill. She would say “Timing, honey!” and “Don’t watch your hands, punkin,” and “Fold that pinky under…” while the girl practiced with tongue-clamped diligence.

I was so busy pretending not to watch that I missed the fact that I was — being watched. “I’ve read that book,” said she, materializing at my side. She sat down and picked up my copy of Progress and Poverty. “Jeez, that takes me back to a weird time in my life. It was the guy who taught me sleight-of-hand, a fascinating and evil fellow. The book was on his shelf; I don’t know if he ever read it.” She shook the book a few times as if its ideas rattled with a familiar sound. “Y’know, I wasn’t feeling the need to sleep all that much, in those days. I think I must’ve read this thing straight through.” She laid a finger beside her nose, rolled her eyes and gave a small sniff, as if to explain. “But I haven’t thought about it in a long time.”

I asked her if she were still a sleight-of-hand artist. “Not professionally, but — yeah, I can pretty much direct the eyes away from the business at hand.” I followed her eyes to the little girl, who was struggling to retrieve the little red pill from beneath one of the washing machines. “Monica! Jeez.” Monica’s mom produced a little bottle of ibuprophen from her bag and popped out another pill. “Really. If you lose one piece, you just gotta move on to the next!”

Monica accepted the pill sheepishly. “I keep gettin on the wrong side of it.” She went right back to her practice.

“My name’s Ramona.” She thrust out a hand as if to shake mine, and handed me my wallet. “There you go. My husband and I and the girl moved up here two years ago from Ohio, where we learned Henry George’s lesson the hard way.”

I introduced myself, trying to stay cool as I replaced the wallet in my back pocket, and explained that I’d also just moved to the area, with wife and boy, from New York City.

“I think I could’ve liked New York,” Ramona mused, “Lots of decent magicians there. So, you teach a course on Progress and Poverty? Are you a Henry Georgist?”

I allowed as how I was, suddenly feeling like some sort of Shaker or Theosophist. I asked Ramona what she had meant about learning Henry George’s ideas the hard way.

“Ohh, that’s a story that old Henry George would appreciate. Do you have time for a story? I guess you do.” She looked far away for a moment, as if the tale might be too miraculous or sibylline for chance encounters in laundromats. “Ahh, well. I met my husband, Greg, when he picked me up hitch-hiking at the corner of High and Gay streets in Columbus, Ohio. I had sustained a few beatings at that point. Inside and outside. High and gay. My self-image was — lower than it is now, thanks.”

That ‘thanks’ was said almost flippantly, yet with a deep quiet, as though she were thanking a God whose name she didn’t know. At some point, as

Ramona said on, I noticed that little Monica’s hands had stopped moving, and mine had, too.

“Our experiences could hardly have been more different, but emotionally we were in the same low place. He thought he wasn’t worth a shit, and I knew I wasn’t — but, he was devoted to me from that very first ride. I went on to have love affairs with his three best friends — two boys, one girl — before my, y’know, my personal mud settled to the bottom of the pond — who knows how, or why, people’s lives get knitted together? The five of us shared a huge adventure. You know, I said he fell for me, but I wasn’t his first love. Greg’s first love was the earth under his home town, Elmwood, Ohio. There were things to love about that town; he made me sorta love it, too. One of those things was the ancient Indian mounds they have in Central Ohio. Mysterious and unimaginably old. Some of them are famous, but most aren’t. Some were plowed over by farmers before anybody knew. Anyway, one day he took me on a hike, past the golf course, through a stand of woods, over a crik, y’know, a walk like that was his favorite thing to do — but he wanted to show me this place he called Dragon Hill. So we got through to the edge of the woods, and there was a little hill, very steep, not like any of the other hills around there, with one old, gnarled maple tree on it. He said there was this shape, this effigy on the top of the hill. He said it had a long coiled tail. We climbed up; I stood there. I couldn’t see anything but grass. Greg took my hand and stooped down to make me feel this little depression in the ground on the hilltop — just a, little depression, maybe the size of a bowling ball, but smoothed-out. This meant nothing to me. But then he walked me four steps over, stooped down again and made me feel this rock — this dark red, smooth, polished rock that was like three-quarters buried in the ground, and — My God! It was the thing’s eye. And there it was, I saw the head, the legs, the coiled tail, just like it had — risen out of the ground, before my eyes! And I went and grabbed this poor, good, goofy man and tackled him, just about had his clothes ripped off before I realized what I was doing.” She lifted up both her hands, palms upward. “I don’t know what it was. I don’t know — what it was. The sex thing was just my reaction to the panic. I was shaking like crazy. He was too. Something. Had happened. To us. At that place. I’m shaking now, thinking about it.”

Ramona tossed her head quickly about, walked over and quickly tickled Monica’s armpit, and gestured for her to go back to practicing her shell game. “It was Greg’s idea to build a house there. Not for our little nuclear family; that came later. I was still involved with his three best friends, y’know, more or less in sequence. We decided to build a place for the five of us, we were going to make up our own kind of family. Did I ever really think it would work? I don’t know — before long, the other three started calling us ‘Mom and Dad’ — it was a kind of mean joke on Greg, and yet it was also kind of true. Somehow those years just seemed to happen, without my say-so — it was a long, sweet story, with just enough pain.”

One of her washers stopped spinning and clicked off. She spun back to her work, emptying little-girl and old-man clothes into one of the wheeled baskets. As she went on with her story, she made wordless comments, gigglingly affirmed by Monica, about the rippedness or dorkyness of various bits of clothing.

“Dragon Hill was on the farm of this crumpled-up woman named Jimison. I never knew her first name. She lived by herself in a big, old, white, wooden farmhouse. We went and asked her if she’d sell us a little piece of land containing the hill. She kept us standing there on the porch for a long time. Finally she said, Yeah, you can have it; it’s no good to me. But I won’t take money for it. She turned this evil eye of hers toward Greg, and she said, I’ve seen you up there. Yes, I’ve seen you. You bring me the dragon’s other eye, and you can have the hill. I am like The dragon’s other eye? Are you fucking kidding me? But I had to hand it to Greg, he kept his cool. He asked her if that was really her deal. She said yes, it really was. And you know what? From that moment on, it never occurred to him not to believe her. Greg started right in doing research, while I was doing — what I was doing. But I couldn’t leave, y’know? I mean, how could I have left, in the middle of this? He haunted the local library, he talked to all the old folks who might remember something. Somehow he managed to track down this old guy, this guy out of some weird movie. He lived in a shack beside a tobacco farm in North Carolina. The old guy had, there, in his shack, beside a tobacco field in North Carolina, a smooth dark-red stone about the size of a bowling ball. Greg suffered some broken bones getting his hands on that stone. I wasn’t along on that trip, and I never got the whole story. Someday I hope to. Anyway, that October, he came back. Walking on crutches, straining to carry the stone in a vinyl bowling-ball bag. He rested and healed through the winter. As soon as the ground thawed next spring, we set the other eye back in the dragon’s head. Jimison couldn’t believe it. She acted almost as scared of us as we were of her. Looking back now, I think it was her reaction — how freaked-out she seemed — that made me believe the whole thing was real. She said, Take it! It’s yours. And slammed the door in our face.”

I could still hear the tiny scraping of little Monica’s bottle caps on the smooth table, but every other conversation, whining kid, spin cycle, dryer alarm had gone silent, as if to give Ramona a few seconds, all she could get, with what she remembered. I was, of course, dumb; I couldn’t have spoken to claim a Megabucks prize.

“We started digging, like we never dug before! We disturbed — respectfully I hope — someone’s ancient rest. That was a crazy day. We got sore, sorely tired and sore. Our three strong men did most of the physical work. Vallorie and I were less doughty, so we took jobs, to keep our homestead stocked with tools and food. And we got an apartment — for our evil selves — with a hot shower that the guys appreciated. We spent a whole summer and a fall, ramming earth. Very, very, very slowly we built ourselves a house out of rammed earth and local timber, with a nice-drawing chimney and an airtight wood stove. And we were comfy there, for a little while. The five of us. But — before long, those three started drifting off into their own lives, as we all knew, without ever saying so, that they would. They would come over most Saturdays to Mom and Dad’s house; they’d still help get the firewood in. But the writing on the wall was — we actually did have writing on the wall, by the way, our walls were decorated with hundreds of quotes and sayings, you could spend a very happy forty minutes walking around and reading them. And then little Monica came along.”

I suddenly had a vision of this Greg fellow, hopelessly smitten from the start, waiting and waiting, finally turning over one wintry morning to embrace his heart’s desire. I whispered, “You were all set.”

“It seemed that way, yes, it did. I had old lovers who’d become my best friends, I had a husband who adored me, I had a beautiful little girl — I don’t know where this munchkin came from —”

Monica blew a big wet raspberry.

“And, are you familiar with rammed-earth construction? It’s really like nothing else. It seems like a natural rock formation that just — happens to be there, in the exact shape you wanted. So, you see. We had every right to that little piece of land, we’d put blood, sweat, hard work and spirit into it; we built a thing that will be there as long as that dragon will. But, old Jimison taught us Henry George’s lesson the hard way. Ohh, yes, she did. One morning a gang of heavy equipment came banging up Jimison’s lane. She wasn’t there. She was nowhere to be found. Pretty slick, huh? She had taken the proceeds from her family’s farm, and blown off to wherever the hell she blew off to. I have to admit, I kind of admired that. She was calm and cool while she played us. She left with the cash before we even knew what happened.”

“Holy shit. So you got nothing?”

“Not quite — let’s not be melodramatic. There were no legal documents of any kind, but the whole county had seen us building our house — hell, the Columbus paper had come out to interview us. We were told that we could recover the value of the house — though, I have to say, I’m sure their legal team had no idea how ill-prepared we were to sue anybody! But the developers settled. They gave us fifteen thousand dollars, with which we paid down on ten nice acres over on Knox Ridge. And I assure you, sir, that we have full, legal title to this bit of real estate.”

Those new-moon eyes of hers let me know, that she knew, that I could think of nothing to say; she didn’t mind, and besides, there was laundry to finish. She gave Monica a loud kiss on the head and we went back to work, she to folding, and I to distractedly staring at my correspondence lessons, as my dryer-loads finally got going.

Maybe ten minutes later, I’d pretened to get absorbed in my Progress and Poverty work. Ramona had folded and packed her laundry, and was stopping for a final review of little Monica’s shell-game work.

“Hey, you know, I just remembered something about that book, Progress and Poverty. You know what really impressed me about it? What really made me think this guy’s kind of a genius?”

“What?”

“It’s where he said that economics is easy, once you see the trick.” Ramona seized the three bottle caps from Monica, whose eyes lit up. While she spoke, she began to whip the caps around, and neither her little apprentice nor I had the slightest chance of following that pill. “The odds are definitely against you!” Ramona grinned. “But no, I’m serious. Why would I have remembered a book about economics? Or even read one, for that matter: Feh! It’s the opposite of a sexy subject. I mean the exact opposite. Your turn, honey!”

Monica went back to her laundry-table stage, wiped her hands professionally on the front of her overalls, and said, “Follow the red pill, bet you can’t!” She deftly shifted the caps around for a while, revealing the little red pill here and there, and then she gave me an opportunity to choose, while her mom, loading a dryer, watched with pride. I picked. The pill wasn’t there, of course, although I did sort of see the technique through which it came not to be. I didn’t let on, but Monica said, “Rats. My pinkies are too small!”

“Honey, how can they be too small, if they keep getting in the way?” Ramona winked at her. “You’ve almost got it!”

I ventured to comment, “She’s going to make lots of money, before long.”

“Ohh, no, no, that’s not what it’s about, and she knows it. Nimble fingers are useful things, but I don’t believe in gambling, anymore.”

“I see. So, no mother and daughter streetcorner hustles, huh? Wow, the two of you could clean up in Central Park, I think.”

“No ill-gotten gains for Monie and Monnie. In fact if I ever find out she’s extorted so much as a nickel from any other kid, she’s gonna be in truh-bull! Right, my darling?” Monica gave us a very big and sober nod, but there was a sparkle behind it.

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