Sweet Sixteen (a short story)

 

It’s John’s sixteenth birthday tomorrow.  He’s coming of age.  His cousin, Jane, who lives just down the street, won’t come of age until her eighteenth birthday, and everyone said at the beginning how unfair that was, but truth be told, and John knows it, guys can do a lot of damage between sixteen and eighteen.

“It’s your sixteenth birthday tomorrow,” his mother had said that morning, in a carefully neutral voice.  “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know!” he’d screamed at her, as if she’d asked the question a hundred times before.  Then he stomped out of the house, slamming the door on his way out.  Standing in the middle of the yard, he’d called a few of his buddies, but they were all away.  Summer camp, vacation, whatever.  So he’d climbed into his old treehouse and sat there, alone, fuming.  It was all he could do not to kick the walls out.

 

What happened was, in 2035 organized religion finally went too far.  That might seem like an odd thing to say, given the institutionalized misogyny of Judaism what with Jewish men thanking their god every morning for not making them female, the Vatican’s decision to prohibit contraception and permit pedophilia, the routine defrauding by various Protestant evangelists, the Puritans’ tendency to cut off people’s ears and bore a hole in their tongues with a hot iron, the witch ‘trials’, the Inquisition’s habit of dislocating limbs and burning people alive, the human sacrifices of the Mayan, Inca, and Aztec theocracies, the Islamic Taliban, jihads, fatwas, burkas—

Ironically enough, it was the Americans’ ramped-up military engagement with Islamic countries that made the long-time similarities between Christianity and Islam suddenly all too apparent.  People started to see the my-god-versus-your-god subtext and were hard-pressed to prove their own god was the one true god.  It wasn’t something they were used to doing, providing support for their beliefs.

So what, you may ask, was the thing that was considered going too far?  Because really, how much further can you go beyond torture and mass murder?

It was this: the American president was not only refusing to sign anti-nuclear accords and pro-environment accords, he was actively pursuing nuclear and environmental destruction to ensure that the Biblical prophecy of the apocalypse would be fulfilled.  He would thus prove once and for all that the Christian god was the one true god.  That there would be no one left alive to appreciate such proof seemed to have escaped his notice.

Immediately upon discovering this insanity, the Scandinavian countries organized a global boycott of everything American, and, upon further thought, of everything from every country that claimed, one way or another, to be a nation under god.

The world became atheist overnight.

And then philosophy finally, finally, took its true place in society.  The ‘Philosophy for Children’ programs run by various fringe ‘wingnuts’ were suddenly mandatory.  The brave initiative in Canada in 1995 to introduce philosophy into the high school curriculum, an initiative that flashed then faded, blazed into popularity: both senior courses became mandatory not only in Canada, but also in the United States, and courses were developed for grades nine and ten as well.  At universities, Departments of Philosophy and Religion finally separated: Philosophy became a department on its own, and Religion was added to Folklore Studies or completely subsumed into invisibility in Ancient History.

And people, ordinary people, began to think.

Almost overnight, instead of hearing people talk on and on about sports, you could hear them, here and there, talk about things like how sure you had to be about something before you could say you knew it.  Epistemology in the pubs!

And without religion to issue decrees, suddenly questions of right and wrong were, well, questions.  Recourse to legal moralism was common among the lazier minds, but the presumed equivalence between law and morality did not go unchallenged.

People also talked a lot about rights and responsibilities.  It was almost as if they had been wanting to do that for a very long time, but had lacked a vocabulary.  The sudden proliferation of philosophy courses, as well as philosophy blogs, philosophy newspaper columns, philosophy talk shows, and even philosophical counselors (after all, many mental health issues are simply the result of not thinking things through clearly) gave them that vocabulary.

One of the first things to go was the right to reproduce.  “The Smiths and their Biochem Cubes” had become a staple in the grade eleven Philosophy course:

Suppose the Smiths make biochem cubes—biological-chemical cubes about one metre by one metre with an input for the resources required for sustenance at one end and an output for the unusable processed resources at the other.  Why do the Smiths make biochem cubes?  Good question.  Truth be told, the cubes are unlikely to make the world a better place.  And the Smiths don’t sell them.

Should we make allowances for the Smiths with regard to money (salaries, taxes, subsidies, etc.)?  After all, they have, let’s say, ten biochem cubes to support.  If the cubes are to stay alive, the Smiths need to provide sustenance.  They need a bigger house.  More electricity.  More food.

Should we encourage their ‘hobby’?  Perhaps even consider it respectable, a rite of passage to maturity?

Or should we censure it?  Because once their biochem cubes become ambulatory, the rest of us have to go around them in one way or another.  And when we’re all dead, the Smiths’ ecological footprints will have been at least ten times the size of those of us who don’t make biochem cubes.  (More, if the cubes they made go out and make other cubes.)

Suddenly everyone was aware of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous comment, ‘Your right to swing your fist ends were my nose begins’.  That is to say, suddenly everyone understood that the crux of the matter for rights was that, and how, others were affected.  No right was absolute because no person was an island.  Everything, everyone, was connected.  Maybe not directly, maybe not immediately, but if the change in the Earth’s climate had taught us anything, it had taught us that.

So a right to reproduce?  No.  It was a privilege.  One had to earn it.  And even so, it could be taken away.

Shortly after, the abortion question was finally seen as a simple matter of competing rights: the right of the fetus to develop versus the right of the woman to carry on with her life.

And once it was decided that the fetus’ right didn’t trump the woman’s right, that the fetus didn’t automatically have a right to develop, a right to life (why would it? just because some man ejaculated into some woman and started the process?), it was a very small step for people to realize that they themselves didn’t automatically have a right to life.  After all, everyone was just the result of some man ejaculating into some woman.  Everyone was just someone’s biochem cube.

A lot of people resisted.  They struggled to argue for a right to life, an inalienable right to life.  But there was simply no basis for it.  Absent a god to grant it.

 

John wasn’t aware of any of this, of course.  He just knew that once he came of age, he had to prove somehow that he had a right to live.  He had to be useful or valuable in some way.  You got a free ride until then, that was the deal now.  But once you turned eighteen, or sixteen, if you were male, you had to earn the right to life, you had to prove your life was worth—well, worth the resources you used, perhaps, or worth the negative consequences you inevitably caused for others.

It was easier for girls, John thought.  Jane had been useful since she was old enough to dry the dishes, standing on a stool at the sink.  She had a whole list of chores to do: dishes every day, dinner twice a week, dusting and vacuuming on Saturdays, babysitting on Sundays…

She’d even learned to play the piano.  By the time she was fourteen, she was practicing an hour a day, and the last time he was at her house, she played something by Mozart for him.  She was useful and valuable.  And she wasn’t even sixteen yet.

When John saw how good Jane was at the piano—she’d even played some retro Supertramp for him once—he decided he’d become a musician too.  So he got a guitar.  But he had no idea how to play it.  A friend of a friend finally showed him a few chords, but even after two whole weeks, it was hit-and-miss, so he gave up.  Clearly, he had no talent.  Jane was lucky, he thought, she could do shit like that.

He didn’t know why it was different for girls.  Maybe all that stuff just came naturally.  Guys were different.  For example, a couple weeks ago, he and his buddies broke all the windows at their school.  Every last one of them.  They’d had a race to see who could break the most.  And just last week they had a great time turning over everyone’s garbage.  He always felt a little bad the day after they did these things, seeing the mess they’d made, but a guy’s entitled to have a little fun, right?

It took Jane a good two hours to pick up all the stuff that had overnight blown onto their lawn.  Wads of tissue, scraps of soiled, unrecyclable packaging—  So, he thought, philosophically, he’d given her the opportunity to be useful.  Didn’t that make him useful?

Long ago, his parents had told him he had to cut the grass, but he’d said ‘Fuck that!’ and took off.  They didn’t insist.  Truthfully, they were a little afraid of him.

All the young men who in earlier times might have proved themselves useful as soldiers didn’t have that avenue open to them now.  Because now there were no wars.  Killing someone—remember, everyone had earned the right to live now, everyone who was alive had proven themselves to be useful or valuable—killing someone, taking away someone’s right to life, was the quickest way to get your own right to life revoked.

And once people started thinking, they realized that football, hockey, soccer, basketball—these things did nothing to improve humanity.  So that avenue for young men was also no longer open.  The entertainment defence for that level of sport, for that concentration of resources for sport, was tried, but it failed.  As it did for pornography.  There was simply too much violence involved—and in the latter case, too much degradation—to grant entertainment value to anyone but vicarious sadists.

Even so, at the beginning it was easy for guys like John.  On their eighteenth birthday, guys like John would just start roaming the highways picking up the garbage that littered the ditches.  But a generation later, well, the kind of people who had earned the right to live weren’t the kind of people who tossed their garbage out their car windows.

The more ambitious guys got jobs.  But jobs weren’t that easy to find now.  Certainly John couldn’t find one overnight.  And he certainly wasn’t doing well enough in school to argue that he was going to become a scholar, a scientist, or even an entrepreneur.

The truth of the matter was that John wasn’t unusual.  A great many men by the age of eighteen hadn’t done anything, not one thing, to improve life for humanity, to justify their existence.

The same was true, of course, of a lot of young women.  The ones who’d expected to get a free ride by being somebody’s wife and/or somebody’s mother.  In fact, Brittany, one of John’s classmates, would have trouble a couple years from now.  In a previous time, she may have been useful as a prostitute, but once pornography became illegal, prostitution quickly followed.  The similarities were clear, once people thought about it, but also, the demand for it decreased quite quickly.

Even so, even now, in certain cesspool corners of the world, to which John and Brittany could escape if they’d known about them, Brittany could have, would have, found herself useful.  But she’d’ve been raped to death within six months.

And then John would have discovered just how useful he could be.

John kicked at the walls of the treehouse.  Now he wishes they had, he wishes his parents had insisted.  Again, and again, and again if necessary.  That he cut the grass.  Or whatever.  It was their responsibility to make sure he was useful, wasn’t it?  They created him.  It was their fault he was in this situation!

He looked back toward the house.  Then came down out of the trees.  And went on one last rampage.

Tomorrow he’d be sixteen.

And he wouldn’t be missed.

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