“You might as well go ahead,” Eric said quietly to Walter. “I’ll look after the dog.”
“Sure,” Walter replied. His eyes lit up as he looked at the brown-eyed, curly-haired fellow who was his companion by circumstance. “Happy dog-feeding.” What could be taken as patronizing back at the office was just friendly here.
Having wished his fellow traveler well, he walked off at a slower pace than his usual stride. Strangely, he felt eager. Walter had defied the suggested gift, judging that it was more important to feed the man. On a quirky lark, he had bought a case of twelve Meals Ready to Eat from some survivalist shop. Normally, Walter avoided survivalists and other doomsayers like the plague. They were reverse hysterics, just as embarrassing as the keener who thought the Dow was going to 100,000 real soon you-betcha. Compounding their inverted enthusiasm was a love of schadenfreude that seemed totally unnecessary. If the system were to collapse – a possibility Walter did entertain if presented to him soberly without preachiness – then why not just quietly make contingency plans? If you wanted to warn people, why not just say it once and leave it at that?
His opinions, firmly held when back in his turf, seemed a little disembodied as he was walking alone to meet the guru. The box of MREs settled onto his forearms as he continued.
The destination wasn’t easy to spot. Secluded in a copse of trees, Walter found himself staring at an honest-to-gosh treehouse. Six feet above the ground, the lumber it was built with was well-weathered. The dimensions were that of a small shed except for the five-foot height. There was no sign of a ladder: it was as if the guru had used a rope ladder and pulled it up with him. The entranceway must be in the back. Like many treehouses, the boards were not laid tightly on top of each other; there were cracks between them. Walter was sure that the dwelling was occupied.
“You have come here wondering why you are embarrassed all the time by your lower cohorts. Is that not correct?” The voice, which would contain little more than dry charm in an office setting, telegraphed authentic charisma in the faraway woods.
“Yes, it is,” Walter replied quietly. It wasn’t just getting ribbed about them. They really believed what they said. Had it been a mere sales script, he could let the ribbing and the implications roll off his shoulders. But oppositional defiance, with an undercurrent of malicious glee about the troubles his friends and neighbours would face? How could Walter face his friends knowing that the salt of his earth wanted them to suffer for no more reason than being normal?
Again, the voice spoke. “Have you any knowledge of student politics?”
High-school politicians? Those sleazes? Sure, Walter had friended his class president; only someone with a grudge wouldn’t. But live like her?
“What does being class president have to do with it?” His tone showed what he, as a lad, really thought of student politicians. They had to be insincere; they feigned –
“They have skills that are easily mocked. Do they not?”
For some reason, Walter thought of the class bullies. He was self-confident enough not to be bothered by them, but he had seen the ones that were. They did have a tough time, which many of them would never forget. You could always tell a victim: they were the most reliable type to turn down a friend request from an old classmate. The kind with an agreeably wild past from a distance…
“Yes. But feigning friendship, don’t you think that goes a little over the line?”
The voice, unattached to a visible person, continued. “Was it friendship that they feigned?”
Well, not quite. They had this knack of…
…good people management?
Blinking, Walter saw what the guru was driving at. Why did he have to be embarrassed by the hard-core? How did his old class president avoid being embarrassed by – well, some of the stunts that were pulled? It wouldn’t hurt him to pick her brain on the guise of a mini-reunion.
Looking around at the secluded copse, he didn’t think of control words like “hypocrite,” “sellout,” “loser,” “dork” and others: ones he lived and died by in high school. He was an accomplished and highly successful professional now. And yet…in some way, he was still stuck there. The quiet, sun-flecked woods took away the need to focus on his success track and gave him what he had been looking for: perspective.
Now feeling a relieved kind of odd, he sketched out a plan in his head. Embarrassing they may be, but he would no longer have to be tripped by the goldbug forest’s dark and sometimes tangled roots.
The voice continued. “You came here wondering why gold can go up despite contrarian alarms?”
Again, the guru hit the spot. Catching himself nodding, Walter added an audible “yes.” The scene was too calming for him to register the surprise he would feel later about an isolate who knew so much about the state of the gold market.
“They are wrong this time, as they are on occasion. You will find it so.”
Now plainly relieved, Walter thanked the guru and pointed out the gift. “Really, thank you.”
“Then you must go,” the voice answered in a way that connoted regret but finality. Remembering the young man by the dog, Walter turned around and headed back the way he came.
Now came Eric, who had played with the now-friendly dog after feeding it the treats. His onetime companion strode back, confident yet still reflective. “This man is everything they say he is,” Walter told him. “You’ll find everything makes sense again.” With those words, he hiked off to his BMW.
Eric was left alone to go see this guru, who could evidently work minor miracles. Picking up his own pace, he too came to the treehouse. To his amusement, the dog followed him.
When he heard the charismatic voice, he was impressed…but something about it made him stop. It reached into his memory: it reminded him of someone who he had known back at his place of work. Strangely, the voice from behind the mostly closed walls called up the memory of…
It was Carl. Forced out after the downsizing, which had left Eric glad he had kept his job in the mailroom, Carl had vanished. The fellow had been cynical, sometimes bitter, but charming all the same. He had an often twisted maxim for the young man whenever they met.
Seeing the mid-sized man climb down on a now-exposed rope ladder confirmed it. He was the same Carl: still black-haired but bald except for a ring around the ears, somewhat stocky, eyes that could be both empty and pixieish, a somewhat florid face. Yes, it was definitely Carl. “How did you wind up here?” Eric asked, agog. So shocked, he didn't even think to ask why the older man was spry instead of stiff.
Carl smiled, in part out of satisfaction but only partly. “You know I got canned,” he explained as his voice returned to his good old normal, “and I don’t know what to do with myself. Everything looked like it was going to hell in a shopping cart back then.
“So, I bought myself some land in the middle of this nowhere and set up a shack. It’s about a ten-minute walk from here in a secret location,” he added with a wink.
“After rotting for several months, with nothing except satellite Internet, I began to dispense some gold advice. Lucky me: after fifteen years of watching the thing, I finally had the knack of seeing where it would go. Enough for people to remember.”
His eyebrows shot up as he waggled his head side to side. “I had to dish it out free, the regulations being what they are, but I got an online reputation for being a guru. Word spread, and here I am.”
Here he was indeed. Eric, still surprised, didn’t ask how Carl supported himself - let alone how he had scarfed up that treehouse of his and kept himself comfortable in it.
Instead, the young mailroom attendant burst out laughing. A former senior dividend administrator, easy to categorize as nothing more than a back-office drone, had the same people who looked down on him now eating out of his hand!
“I know what you’re thinking, kid,” Carl continued with a wry smile. He actually had a pretty good batting average in that department ,even back when he was working. That phrase had been one of his trademarks.
Letting his belly show as he straightened his back, “Yep, I loved the sight of the people that used to treat me like the furniture eating out of my hand. For the first six months, it was a helluva hoot.”
Then, his eyes showed something Eric had never seen in them. For the first time, the mailroom attendant saw the former dividend administrator look solemn. The treehoused copse now focused in as a backdrop for the back-office worker turned guru.
“But then I found I was doing good. For once, I could see those guys as just human: they were hurting, and I could do something about it.”
With that disclosure, the old man turned and surveyed his land out in the middle of a sparsely-populated nowhere. “And that’s what really made me what I am now.”