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No Free Lunch

By Phillip Ghee (USA)

Part 1

 

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So Gypsy Jack was back. The banter around town already had him placed as being in at least seven forbidden zones and a tour out of the country during his year long hiatus from Sunset City. Gypsy Jack was a real character’s character in a town filled to the brim with characters. Sunset City fared better than most towns; its proximity to the edge of the country spared it, or at least lessened, the deteriorating impact that many other parts of the country had experienced. Without fail Jack would show up every so often with bags of pilfered and undoubtedly black-market-obtained goods but more interesting than his goods were the stories. Some doubted their validity and regarded them as only entertaining yet imaginative tall tales. Then there were the outrageous schemes, plans and visions he planned to bestow upon the residents of Sunset City.
 
His tales always included showmanship, a certain amount of the ole’ razzle and dazzle. Memories of such antics brought an audible laugh gushing through the lips of Fred Tomikawa.
 
Fred, which was not his real name, of Tomikawa and Son, was fortunate enough that no one was around to hear the laugh. Fred had worked very hard to build up his image as a cranky old shopkeeper as to gain the upper hand when wheeling and dealing and negotiating for offered goods. It was Earth Day and, as miserable as things were for the planet, it was still a holiday, in fact it was the most important holiday of year. Tomikawa and Son was closed for business so there were no customers to hear this breech of identity. And since there was no Son of Tomikawa and Son, the laughter drifted unheard, into the woods, with no one to witness, much like the last diseased Redwood, that at the same time was crashing to the canvas of the forest floor
 
Tomikawa and Son was a theme. Fred, whose real name was Austin, was such a fan of the late twentieth century television sitcom Sanford and Son that he built his whole business around that theme. This was not so totally out of the ordinary.  You see, by the early decades of the twenty-first century. creativity of any sort, had grinded to almost an abrupt halt. Many blamed the Internet while some blamed the proliferation of reality themed television shows and the endless procession of movie re-makes. Others suggested that chem-trails, pollution and the likes combined with the election of people like Sarah Palin to the highest office in the land had finally taken their toll on the American Mind. Whatever the reason, many had resurrected the creative images of the past and revered them as if they were Greek gods. Items of the past were not easily obtainable. A memory track of most any twentieth century television show or music recording was as valuable as gold. Austin, AKA Fred, had managed to acquire almost the complete Sanford and Son series: Seasons 1, 2 and 3 on a widget called a DVD. He also had the means, the antique equipment to play such. During the summer months he sometimes treated the local kids to a free viewing, thereby softening his image, just a bit.
  
Just as Gypsy Jack was a Jack of all trades, Tomikawa and Son was a shop of all trades. It served as a Holistic Medicine Shop, Recycling Center, Pawn Shop and a 2nd hand (more like 3rd, 4th, 5th and even 10th hand) store. As alluded to earlier, items of the past, recent and distant, had become very valuable and hard to find.

Despite the dire situation of the American Continent, Fred managed to do quite well for himself. His future seemed secure in a land where calamity was a daily event. America had been devastated decades ago in the First Great Economic War and by the Time the GEW II had rolled around, America barely rated as third world nation. In the years following there had been something of a resurgence economically, but the urban decay, pollution, overflowing land fills, poisoned and depleted water supplies still made life strenuous at best. Since manufacturing and industry were practically non-existent in the States, traveling hawkers with wares like Gypsy Jack were welcomed.
 
Fred reminisced over some of the earlier schemes and plans that Jack had tried to pawn off on him. There was the coffee nebulizer, the acid rain- proof umbrella, and the less than noteworthy paraplegic walking metal suit.  Most were good for a laugh and the story of the origin behind them. However, Gypsy Jack did manage to accumulate a few objects worth buying.
 
The next morning, as a line of shopping carts and their chauffeurs jockeyed for prime position outside the store, who should Fred spy in the background but Gypsy Jack. Gypsy Jack probably had some savings buried in this place and that but, whenever he appeared in Sunset City, he made no effort to flaunt prosperity, and there he was in his tattered over-worn overcoat with shopping cart in tow.
 
Fred literally tossed a couple of the wannabe vendors out of his shop while threatening others with a smack across the lips, due to what he perceived as their outrageous demands for either service or goods rendered. In fact he was more curt than usual with the clients and customers. He was in a hurry to grant audience to Gypsy Jack. His concealed excitement to see Jack was wrapped up in an outward sour expression.
 
            “So what brings you back around these parts?”
 
            “Well the wind was right, the sea was a calling, and I just had a hankering
              to pay the good folks of Sunset City a visit.
 
This was almost the same ritual that had taken place many times before, and neither party diverged from the script.
 
            “And I guess, you have all the items that will make our ohhh! so miserable lives
               so much better, right there in your shopping cart.”
          
            “Ahhh! A shopping cart to most, but - for you - consider it Santa’s sleigh.”
 
            “I guess this is going to take a chunk of  my precious time?” Fred faked a sigh. With a grumpy tone he beckoned Jack inside. He hung a cardboard clock face on the hook outside the shop that indicated he would be closed for the next hour. Those who were left outside received the news without much fanfare. Many retrieved from under their carts sources of liquid nourishment that would allow the passage of time to flow in a pleasant manner.
 
Once inside Gypsy Jack began to set the stage with all the drama and diction of a Snake Oil Salesmen combined with the smooth delivery of a Three Card Monte Dealer. He recounted how he had managed to sneak into China. China had been off limits to most, especially after its pummeling of America in GEW I. Once there he managed to gain entry into The Great Wal-Mart of China. This shopping Mecca was so huge and expansive, reported Jack, that it was the only Shopping Center visible from space. As he elaborated on shopping there he slowly and with theatrical flair unwrapped the plain pieces of paper surrounding items such as portable razors, solar operated can openers, compact water purifiers and dozens of other small appliances. Fred regretted not wearing his darker shade glasses. The gleam in his eye would most certainly call his bluff. The negotiations began and a half and hour later, Tomikawa and Son had increased its inventory to include every item that had previously been in Jack’s cart - except one.
 
            “Did you plan to spend the day here; I see you packed a lunch?”
 
            “Oh! There was once a  nicely packed lunch, but that was many months ago.”
 
            “Alright, Jack you’ve already bled me enough. How much do you want
              for the picnic basket?”
 
Jack leaned uncomfortably close and whispered into Fred’s ear.
 
            “This better be a joke.” Fred, his un-shown, but presently good mood, now wearing thin. He eyed the Louisville Slugger he kept conveniently by the antique keyed cash register.
 
            “I assure you this is no joke and if you were to hear me out, what’s contained
               within that basket will change your life, Sunset City 's and perhaps our
               sad Nation.”
 
          
            “Untrusting, Fred peered under the cart just to make sure that Jack
was not partaking of his own sort of liquid refreshment.” He conceded and gave Jack the floor to continue.
           
            Gypsy Jack proceeded to tell a tale about how, once leaving China, he had made his way over to Switzerland in order to obtain fine chocolates and truffles. These too were almost as valuable as gold in the milk contaminated US of A. He took a few days off to relax in the scenic countryside, devoid of landfills unlike the State Parks in America. There he happened to make to the acquaintances of one of that country’s more attractive females. When he later found out that she was an accomplished female yodeler, Gypsy Jack was shaken to his foundations. The thought of an attractive female yodeler, lederhosen and large horns offered endless possibilities, all which of Gypsy Jack was prepared to explore.
 
            He had managed to persuade the young fräulein for a picnic lunch in the beautiful hills encroaching upon the Alps. He meticulously packed a nice picnic lunch, purchased a fine bottle of wine and even surrendered a box of the recently acquired prized chocolates to the luncheon fare. The chosen location overlooked a pleasant valley. The valley was sparsely populated except for the old CERN Research facilities. While in town Jack had seen some of the structures that constituted the facility. Judging by their age, he assumed they had been preserved as museums. At some point during the choppy small talk, translations through filters, a swift hot breeze shot past Jack’s leg. It had actually managed to move the picnic basket a few inches. Jack though this was odd considering the breeze seemed strangely concentrated and not particular strong. As of yet none of the contents of the basket had been removed. Once again focusing his attention towards the young maiden in d’dress, and a very short one at that, Jack thoughts returned to more pressing matters.
 
Now seemed as good a time as any for wine. Jack went to pick up the basket and was astonished to find that despite all the items that had been placed in the basket, its weight now seemed as if the basket was curiously empty of contents. He was not a mountaineer, or even much of a hiker for that fact, but he was certain that altitude could not do this. He gingerly peeked into the basket by slowly, very slowly, opened the lid.

He gasped and abruptly shut the lid. Jack was speechless. Unable to speak, in any language, translators or not, his date deduced him as nothing more than another cheap date, with nothing to say and who couldn’t even afford lunch and thus ended the potentially romantic liaison.
 
             “So what the Hell does this have to do with the basket, Jack?” expressed an
irritated Fred; truly irritated this time, still foaming over what Jack had whispered into his ear.
 
            “I guess next you are going to say it belonged to Houdini or something?”

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