MAD MONEY

By John Thomas Tuft

Mary Catherine scurried along the cobblestone lane, through the village of Old Economy in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, a sort of Bruderhof community without the sex. She passed the row of austere cottages, furnished with simple, purposefully uncomfortable furniture, lest one be tempted to rest on their laurels. Behind the houses stand barns for storage, a cooper’s shop, blacksmith, and communal kitchen and dining room.  Vast beautiful gardens stretch into the distance, behind the large brick building that holds the enormous vats which contain the community’s pride and joy, their wines. Made from grapes grown in the extensive vineyards, pressed onsite, the vintages are known and desired far and wide. And they bring in a pretty penny. And all those pretty pennies get stored in a large vault underneath the stately, oversized house of the leader of the community, a poor man’s version of the Biltmore…

It is now a state run museum. “This fiefdom of a Christian cult ended with a whimper,” Mary Catherine says, wearing the simple dress now as a costume. “My man might have been a hooper to the cooper,” she laughs easily. “We’d work hard, eat well, drink good wine, admire the beauty, try to be devout. So for what? No children. Period. Pious old guy stores up the fruits of our labor being marketed to the world, up there in the big house. Turns out to be lots of mad money. When they can’t recruit more followers, because remember–no sex, no children–they hire out the labor. Their beliefs were the seeds of their demise. Old Economy became older and older folks, nursing a dream of what might have been. Money became the way of scorekeeping how much they were blessed by the divine.

Walter walks down the side of the highway, kicking at the gravel with worn work boots, the USW cap on his white hair sweat-stained and a bit droopy. He turns off at an entrance to a parking lot around sterile metal buildings, the Ohio River yards away, dark waters flowing passed, oblivious to who claims it. “There’s old tunnels underneath the river, you know,” he says. “Some say you can get into them underneath Old Economy, up on the bluff there. Chippewa and Shawnee used them to sneak in and out of tribal hunting grounds on either side. Some say you can still hear their spirits down there in the darkness, singing their songs of mourning.” He turns from the river to survey the troubled land. “This was The American Bridge Company, right here. Steel for bridges all over the country came from right here, including that one right above us. Landing craft for World War Two, also.”

He walks back to the edge of the river, looks downstream. “Up there just a ways, sat the four miles of the Aliquippa LTV steel works. Nobody thought it would ever end. Everybody had mad money then.”  He shrugs, “But somebody else could do it cheaper. Cheaper ore, cheaper coal, cheaper labor. The owners went somewhere else. Guess everybody likes keeping score with mad money…” His voice trails off as he takes off the cap, runs his fingers through his hair. “What makes something valuable?” he asks. “Don’t people decide that? Seems to me, if everybody decided money don’t mean anything, what would it be worth?” He sighs. “But then how would we keep score? Who’s worth it, and who ain’t?”

Brad and Heather are seated in front of computer terminals in a high rise office overlooking the Point in Pittsburgh. They look up as I enter. “Dude!” says Brad. “I’m sorry, I mean Reverend Preacher Boy Bro, come in. Want to check your retirement portfolio? Damn, the churches sure know how to invest. Lookit this! All the churches and denominations got billions and billions in the market.” Heather tucks her feet up under her legs in the chair. “But we’re on top of it. Making your money work for you, that’s what it’s all about. Taking care so you can be cared for, and all that.” She smiles and turns back to the screen. “Everyone wants some mad money, amiright?”

“I know that Bill Gates bullied IBM into using Microsoft and nothing else. Apple, Android, all of them are positioning to corner markets, even on rare earth metals. Zuckerburg and @Jack came up with social media that barely rise above the level of a college dorm discourse. Hershey and Nestle tolerated child labor where they harvest resources. Wars break out over ExxonMobil. Billionaires dominate politics, then meet twice a year in Davos and Aspen to discuss their solutions to the problems they created.” Brad and Heather scratch their heads.  “What’s your point? That’s business.” I sigh. “I don’t know. Seems like an unsolvable riddle. What if everybody simply decided it wasn’t worth anything?” Their laughter chases me out of the room.

As I exit, I see a man in disheveled clothes at the corner with a sign: Wil Wurk For Food. He mumbles his thanks as I stuff what bills I have into his hand.  “No problem,” I say, wondering what might have been, what seeds I have planted. “It’s only mad money…keeping score.”

Words are magic and writers are wizards.