Scoundrel Time

Three Pieces by Cameron Vanderwerf


We began having nightmares of rundown, underheated apartments. We dreamed vividly of hunger, of fatigue, of exhausting jobs with long hours. Our sleeping hours were filled every night with endless visions of drudgery, despair, and reliance on meager and insufficient charity. Each morning, we awoke feeling anxious and unrested in our satin sheets and memory foam mattresses. Unsuccessfully, we tried to simply dismiss the dreams while our house staff brought us our coffee and slippers and breakfast. But the dreams were too real just to be waved away. We felt them too keenly. They insisted upon themselves. We felt all of the pain and hunger and hopelessness. We experienced very real ailments, which in our waking lives could be easily addressed by our armies of concierge physicians, but which in our dreams remained untreated.

We were hesitant to talk about these dreams at first, even to our analysts. But then, at our country clubs and squash courts, or in our reserved theater seats and private boxes at sporting events, we gradually began to discover that all of us were having these dreams. We commiserated and traded details. One of us cried while recalling a nightmare of living under a bridge. One of us had dreamed of sunburns and infections sustained while panhandling. One of us had dreamed of being a refugee, fleeing from bombs that rained down on our home, and ending up in a cell in a foreign land. One of us had had a dream of working in the very mine that, in their waking life, they owned, but in the dream they endured the extreme pain of laboring down in the shafts.

Before long, we were talking of nothing else, and soon most of us were keeping detailed dream journals. We realized that the dreams were full of specific details—names, dates, addresses, street signs, and so forth. Secretly, in the privacy of our large homes, we searched online with these pieces of evidence and found real people and places that aligned with our visions. It wasn’t much later that we collectively concluded our dreams were real. They were projections into the most beleaguered existences available in human experience.

The dreams were agony, and we tried everything possible to make them stop. Medication, hypnosis, shock treatments, pseudoscience, and every experimental medical method that wasn’t yet available to the masses. We felt the pain and exhaustion of these other lives seep into ours, and we began to see things differently. As our chauffeurs drove us through neighborhoods we’d barely even glanced at before, we now saw the unhoused, the pained shift-workers, the mentally ill, the addicted, the disabled, and everyone else who struggled to simply make it from one day to the next. We stopped being able to think of buildings as things that simply existed, but as edifices that had been erected on the backs of other people. Even at our favorite restaurants, we saw past the fake smiles of the servers to the reality of underpaid servants who severely needed to see a podiatrist for the chronic aches in their feet.

At last, pushed to our limits, we decided to make the ultimate sacrifice: We pooled together fractions of our fortunes, and we worked every day until the very sources of these dreams were erased. No more hunger, no more homelessness, no more treatable illnesses left to fester. No more worry over water bills, heating bills, electricity bills. No more fear that we would be confined to a few square miles for our entire lives. No more prisons, no more brutal working conditions, no more unreasonable working hours. No more pollution, no more war, no more psychological torture in the pursuit of everyday necessities.

And when it was all done—when our dreams returned to calm oblivion—we felt peaceful at first. But then there was a pain even more excruciating than before. Because, in the end, it had actually been relatively quick and easy to do what we had done. We didn’t have to spare that many resources. We didn’t have to sacrifice comfort, or even luxury. And now we had to live with unerasable new knowledge. It wasn’t just the knowledge we’d gained from our dreams, but the knowledge of what we’d allowed for so long, when we could have stopped it. We tried to distract ourselves by refocusing on all the pleasures and amenities we’d retained—which was nearly all of them—but those things only served as painful reminders now.

We needed to get away from all of it, so we left our mansions and high-rises with only the clothes on our backs and a few meager supplies, and we wandered out into the wilderness. We tramped through forests, deserts, mountains, plains, glades, and all the other biomes that our efforts had helped to restore. We sat on boulders in the middle of nowhere, or in trees, or on glaciers, or on uninhabited island, or boats in the center of endless oceans. And we remained like that for as long as we could, contemplating sound and silence, watching wildlife skitter and climb and fly. A lizard darted under a rock. An eagle winged lazily overhead. A redwood remained in place, still debating whether or not to take its first step or stay rooted.

Eventually, we returned in shame to the cities, feeling not a single mote wiser or more enlightened. Depressed, we lay in bed for weeks, watching old sitcoms, the canned laughter rattling hollowly around our skulls. Then, one day, without fully realizing what we were doing, we began to give everything away. At first, we donated items one at a time. Rings, furniture, paintings. Then, in a fever, we devised more efficient methods of unburdening. We had our estates valued wholesale and donated them in-kind to whatever charitable organizations were still in operation. When we finally had nothing left to our names, we went in search of the old haunts of our dreams—the underpasses and sidewalks and factories and hazardous apartment buildings. Unfortunately, they now bore no resemblance to how they’d appeared to us in our nightmares. There were no more traces of struggle, of poverty, of desperation, despair, or disparity. So we set about restoring enclaves where we might recreate our nightmares. We aspired to live abjectly, precariously, reliant on charity, in the hopes that someday soon, people might dream of us too.


Environmental Impact Report

Things weren’t going well for humanity, so the earth offered us an alternative. She said that, the way things were going, our chances of survival were slim. We pointed to our renewables, our new technologies, our tentative compacts of international cooperation, but she said it wouldn’t be enough. In all likelihood, we would destroy ourselves long before we reached sustainability. And while we wouldn’t kill her, we would hurt her quite a bit in the process. So she made a proposal.

She opened up eight billion little pits for us to enter and join her in the silent bliss of nature. There were recalcitrants among us. But eventually, after a few more climatic calamities, even the doubters realized that we probably had no other option. So we marched in grand parades to our respective resting places. As the soil closed gently over us, we felt only a grain of fear in the middle of relief. The darkness was damp but warm, not to mention peaceful. And when light shone, it came not from above, but from below. A rich and nourishing glow, an endless sky of white beneath the earth.

We slept for a long time, only waking when our sprouts nudged into the open air. We drank in the air and sunlight gratefully, but with no trace of our old greed. We were no longer anxious, petty, self-serving, acquisitive, or ravenous. We only were. And we existed in that state for a long time, growing tall and stout and stable. Some integral traces of our humanity were left intact. We could see, smell, taste, feel, and hear in ways that other plants could not. So even as we felt the earth’s soothing vibrations in our roots, we could contentedly watch the quiet beauty of time unfolding in our broad surroundings.

We watched happily as nature reclaimed the ruins of our civilization. Moss growing on empty factories, rodents nesting in rusted out cars, ivy climbing chain link fences. Plants and animals grew to fill the spaces we’d left. Especially thriving, to our surprise, were the deer. Something about the post-humanity world suited deer quite well, and they became a numerically dominant species in many different regions. They were emboldened by their new freedoms, and they became inquisitive, showing an interest in the relics we’d left behind. And then the evolution began.

Since we were plants, time passed quickly from our point of view. And it seemed that in a matter of only a few years, the deer were poised to take our place completely. They became sapient, their clumsy hooves morphing and growing dexterous. They fashioned tools, wore shirts and shoes and dresses, and eventually began studying the artifacts of our old technologies. We felt an awful dread when they reached their own industrial era. Surely they were starting down the same destructive path as us. They would choke the skies with ash and smoke, and our sacrifice would be for naught.

But to our surprise, delight, and—if we’re being honest—deep shame, the deer proved better than us in the end. Perhaps they learned from our mistakes. Maybe there was something in the record of our civilization that spelled out the doom we’d been brewing for ourselves. The deer’s technologies were clean, efficient, elegant, and sustainable. We couldn’t believe it, this parody of humanity, with all their hair and tails and antlers, showing us the potential we’d never reached. And time only seemed to accelerate. As the deer boarded spaceships to begin their interstellar explorations, we begged them to take us along, and they beneficently obliged. Our collective uploaded consciousness became the final meager monument of humanity.

Kindly or cruelly, the deer let us watch as they spread themselves far and wide, eventually making contact with the intergalactic community. And with each new success of theirs, we felt increasingly disturbed by questions and uncertainties. Namely, could we have reached these same heights had we refused the earth’s offer? Or would we have only destroyed ourselves and all hopes for a future? Both scenarios tortured us, because now we could only watch passively as the future unfurled without us. All of our serenity vanished, and we only felt trapped. And as the deer—these creatures that were once contemptible pests, stumbling their awkward, disoriented way along the margins of our world—now danced among the stars with beings made of cosmic energy, we sat in the glum confinement of our humanity and yearned for a time before we had limits.


Public Funds

The municipality received a significant amount of covid funding for food, infrastructure, crisis response, transportation, small business loans, health care supplementation, and arts support. The head of the arts board motioned to temporarily suspend disbursement of funds, and two weeks later he died of covid. The board went on hiatus for about a year, at which point a new chair was appointed. The new chair was of a more experimental persuasion than the previous, and over the following two years of red tape and monetary distribution, she heavily favored artists of the alternative and conceptual variety.

The first grant given was to a self-described “sleep artist,” whose work primarily centered around sleeping in strange positions and situations—at funerals, in the arms of public statuary, in library restrooms, in the beds of strangers, et cetera. And then there was the dream artist—a colleague and protégé of the sleep artist—who created interpretive performance pieces based on the events of her various lucid dreams.

There was the interruption artist, whose work focused on the spontaneous interruption of speeches, wedding proposals, live theater, and everything else that could possibly be brought to an awkward screeching halt. Not to be confused with the embarrassment artist, who engineered extremely uncomfortable social situations and called it haute couture. And too many other artists to name. The lie artist, the hypnosis artist, the psychosis artist, the manual labor artist, the love artist, the heartbreak artist, the yawn artist, the high-five artist, the wink artist, the blink artist, the knowing glance artist, the chastity artist, the hunger artist, the gustation artist, the twitch artist, the grief artist, the euphoria artist, and so on and so forth.

At first, we the townspeople protested the assignment of funds because we didn’t understand the art that was being funded. Couldn’t these people sleep and blink and high-five without the use of public funds? What happened to painting and sculpture and theater and literature?

Not to mention, many of these artists were purposely disruptive and provocative. The sleep artist performed an installation that involves falling asleep at the wheel of a moving vehicle, and there was nearly a collision. The local theater company could never get through a performance of Hamlet without the interruption artist shouting at the actors. The hypnosis artist induced an entire nursing home to believe that they were sixteenth-century pirates. But really our complaints were founded in fear.

As time went on, the type of art being funded became even more abstract and conceptual, and we were worried about what this implied about the nature of art. When the town awarded two thousand dollars to an artist specializing in “the twinge of regret felt upon seeing a bird that reminds you of an ex-lover,” we realized we had crossed a Rubicon. All manifestations of feeling and experience had become subjugated to artistic forms. We could no longer eat an omelet without feeling that it was a performance of some kind. We couldn’t relieve our bladders or bowels without conflating these literal expressions with artistic ones.

We cried out to ban all public funding from creative endeavors, and we were called fascists and philistines by the artistic community. We tried to explain that money and bureaucracy had imperialized not only artistic output, but also our very conceptions of the division between art and life. But the artists couldn’t be dissuaded. They were flush with funding, and as we waited for the money to run out, it only seemed to grow more plentiful. A few of us gave in and became artists, carving out little niches of human expression. And the rest of us had no choice but to pick up and leave.

We founded a new town built entirely on utilitarian principles. We had no mimesis, no narratives, no aesthetics, no architectural principles, no impractical flourishes of any kind. We had only our daily lives, our tasks, our exigencies. And we each secretly lived in fear that someone might point out the unifying aesthetic nature of our eschewal of aesthetics. To our shame, we had become mundanity artists. We just hoped we could remain in denial of that fact until our final performances. We would become death artists, then decomposition artists, then heat death of the universe artists. And only when the final particles of existence faded into nothingness like scattered dust could we finally be free of our artistic burdens.


Cameron Vanderwerf is a Boston-based writer. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the New Delta ReviewSouthern Humanities ReviewMinnesota ReviewWorcester ReviewMoon City ReviewWrite LaunchEvery Day FictionFlash Fiction Magazine, and other publications. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Hollins University.


Photo by Marco Oriolesi on Unsplash