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by Len Messineo


About Len Messineo

Previously published in Shenandoah, Tampa Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, The New Novel Review, The Sun, and other magazines, my stories have twice been nominated for inclusion in the Pushcart Prize anthology. I teach at Writers and Books of Rochester and my prose poems are an occasional feature on PBS affiliate WXXI’s Salmagundi. Two of my one-act plays were performed as part of the Geva Regional Playwriting Festival.


We noted as far back as the Dark Ages that one’s station in life was wholly determined at birth. Whether one were cobbler or king, wore homespun or sable, carried scepter or spade, was a matter of historical inevitability. It was our idea, as against the hardships of destiny, to create the Holy Mother Church and the consolations of the afterlife.

Then a member of our product development team suggested an “alternative life.”

At first it seemed crazy, though his point was well taken. Except for one king, a few lords, the Church’s magisterium, most were menials. Who wants to spend his days minding the chickens, baling hay? We ran a test market. We made a few insertions into our lexicon. Words like “free choice” and “chosen path” became part and parcel of the King’s English. We instigated the Renaissance and then the Reformation in rapid succession.

Still, we met with resistance. Nothing could induce the hordes to take the alternatives we offered them. “The self is God-given,” they shouted. Any deviation from the natural lot was considered blasphemous. “We are what we are,” they clamored, rattling their chains.

“You are what you become,” we insisted. “A man is what a man does.”

To increase market shares, we seeded the French Revolution. “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.”

With the advent of the alternative, selfhood was no longer a legacy handed down from father to son. We gave everyone two and three alternatives. In the words of the new lexicon: Let each find his “chosen path”; let each “find himself.”

Making alternatives became a prosperous cottage industry. But production was slow and tedious. So we invented the Industrial Revolution. We created advanced manufacturing techniques: “assembly line,” “division of labor,” “automation.”

This had unexpected consequences. Suddenly we had a glut of “alternatives.” There were still malingerers, reactionaries, cultural throwbacks who would stray no farther than the bean patch. What, we asked ourselves, could we do to induce them to leave the farm. Hadn’t we already outlawed lineal descent? The divine right of kings?

Someone suggested making “self-seeking” mandatory, punishable by...

“No, wait,” a member of our sales department shouted “Let’s underwrite the alternative with a guarantee. Our contract team wrote up the Bill of Rights. With the insertion “life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness,” destiny, the great chain of being, lost its iron-clad grip. “Created by God” no longer had the panache it had in olden days. It was in our lexicon “the era of the self-made man.”

As an inducement, we printed money, opened marts and malls bursting with “consumables” and “goods.” We invented cities to speed things along.

By now, the number of possibilities any one person had were almost limitless so wealthy were we in alternatives. “Potential,” “dream for myself,” “anything is possible,” became the new buzz words. People were throwing off their shackles en mass, leaving their scythes and plowshares in the fields to rust. We blessed them and business boomed.

But then mayhem ensued. Practically everyone by self-declaration was potentate or pope. Our director upstairs was not happy. “Someone has to shoe the horses, shovel the manure.” We were stumped. We put our heads together. Had we, in our zeal to popularize the alternative made it too easy?

“Make them sing for their supper,” our human resources guy said. “Make them sweat blood.”

“Jousting?” we thought. “Submersion in boiling oil?”

“No! Exams.”

We loved the idea. We designed courses of study, subjects simple and abstruse. Everyone from beekeeper to brain surgeon had to be licensed through us. Suddenly we had alternatives in every imaginable species: apprentices, journeymen, baccalaureates, interns, GS-7s, professors.

We laddered alternatives, entered “status” into our dictionaries. We noted that the longer the period of study, the greater rigor, the more prestige. We inserted “esteemed member of our community,” "lord," "esquire" and other honorifics into our books.

For those with ambition but no apparent talent or skill we invented politics. Let them be elected to what they could not earn. For the unconscionable, we invented the criminal life; if they didn’t have the intestinal fortitude, let them read for the law. For the lazy, the luckless, the foolish, we invented the lottery.

Our citizenry began to dedicate the whole of their lives to attaining ever higher station through the acquisition of the prestigious alternative; “upward mobility” became the coin of the realm. The engines of production roared ahead and it was all we could do to keep up.

We started accessorizing alternatives. Each station had its accouterments, its totem objects, its status symbols. “Conspicuous consumption” became the buzz word of the day. We were producing everything from palatial estates to inner-city squats, Gucci luggage to Hefty bags, Lamborghinis to Lions warm-up jackets. Our manufacturing sector was going crazy. We feared market saturation.

“It’ll never happen,” our analysts assured us. We celebrated by inventing the stock market.

Then for unknown reasons the bottom fell out. Resources were scant. Good alternatives too costly, or gotten on the sly. Those who achieved fame were shamed, stolen from, sued. Everyone was speculating on future alternatives which were bundled and sold on the cheap. The market for alternatives suddenly collapsed.

“Do something,” the boss upstairs said.

“We’d have to start over!” we said.

Then someone in R&D sent down the word.