Somehow, and I had no idea how, I found myself face to face with a man I first mistook as a mobile home salesman. But he wasn't trying to sell me a double-wide; he was trying to sell me a gaudy package labeled Freedom™. He stood in front of me, smiling too much and waiting for me to comment on the beauty of his product.
"Tell me about this Freedom of yours," I finally squeezed out. "And why does it have the trademark symbol on it?"
"That's because our freedom is the best kind."
"So, freedom isn't just freedom?"
"Heavens no," he assured me. "Those other freedoms are poor, poor imitations." Then he leaned in toward me and spoke in a lower voice, slyly. "You know what I mean, don't ya?" He elbowed me in the ribs.
"I'm not sure I do."
He leaned very close now. "You know. We're kind of too humble to say it outright, but we're…" He wanted me to complete the sentence, but I didn't know how. He looked at me like a schoolboy who couldn't come up with the answer to two plus two. "You know… we're God's favorite."
He pulled back, incredulous at my ignorance. "But of course!" Then he gave me a good looking over. "Ah, I can tell, you're from one of those northern, liberal places, aren't you?"
"Well, I'm from the north, yes, but no, sir, I'm definitely not a liberal. Actually, I'm—"
"Listen son, we're the one indispensable provider of freedom. Without us, the world would have been a cinder a long time ago; and nothing can live on a cinder, can it?"
"No, I wouldn't think it could."
"Darned right, it couldn't. Now, you just talk to any preacher south of your northern city and he'll confirm that I'm telling you the truth!"
"You listen to talk radio, son?"
"Not in a long time, but I used to like certain interview shows, and when I used to drive a lot, I listened to Rush Limbaugh."
"Ah, did you pay attention to him?"
"Sure, he said some things I really liked, and he was fun."
"Well then, you have your answer!"
I had no idea what he was talking about, but rather than climbing further into his rabbit hole, I decided to move along to the price of this trademarked freedom. "And what, sir, does this finely wrapped package cost?"
"Well, it's not a fixed-price thing."
"Very well, but it must have some cost, no?"
"Certainly. Freedom isn't free!"
"Okay then, what exactly is the cost?"
"Well, it's whatever the government says it is."
"Look mister," I said, "It was tax season recently, and I counted up everything they take away from me, and it's a hell of a lot of money." The salesman stood stone faced. But he had hit a sore spot in me, so I went on.
"The Feds take income taxes, payroll taxes, and Medicare taxes, which I don't even use. And then I get hit for property taxes, state income tax, sales taxes, taxes on electricity, on gas, on telephones, gasoline taxes, and taxes on watching television. That accounts for more than half the money I work for… not to mention all the taxes paid by the people who make my bread, cars, computers, and clothes – all of which are rolled into the price I have to pay."
"Look," he said, putting his arm around my shoulders, soothing me and walking me across the display case so I'd see his package from a different angle. "Everyone pays that, son."
But I wasn't done. "The government also claims ownership of my children, you know!"
"Ah, son, don't be silly. Why would the government want to hurt your children?"
"I don't know or care, but if their agents decide to take an interest in them, they are authorized to take them away!"
"That only happens to bad people, son, and you're obviously educated. You don't have to worry about things like that."
"And if their armed men tell me to fall down on the ground in front of them, are you saying that I don't have to prostrate myself?"
"Well, of course you do, son. But it's always for your own safety. And like I say, they only do that to really bad people."
"And how can they be so good at telling the difference between me and a less 'educated' guy?"
"They know, son, they know. It's in their training."
And then, I must admit, my mind fell blank. What kind of magic training could they have?
Quickly, he put his arm around my shoulder again and walked me back toward my first position, stopping me where the lighting was perfect.
"You're looking at this all wrong, son. You need to forget those details."
"They seem like rather large details to forget."
"That's because you don't know what's packaged in with the deal. That'll make you forget 'em!"
"Of course! Guaranteed!"
"Then what's in the package deal?"
"Ah, the best, son… the very best!"
He leaned close again. "Have you ever felt insecure, son?"
"Sure. Hasn't everyone?"
"Indeed, son, indeed. And have you ever felt small, afraid, confused, and powerless?"
"Well, yeah, though not so much since—"
"Things of the past! All things of the past!"
I was incredulous. I worked long and hard to grow out of those things, and I couldn't see how there could be such a fast, easy fix. Still, I had to ask. "And how's that?"
"When you buy this here package, young man, you join yourself, heart and soul, to something larger than yourself! You make yourself part of the Jolly Red, White, and Blue Giant! He's got the ass-whoopingest department of kill-people-and-break-things on the planet, and you get to become part of it!
"After that, the next time you feel afraid or small, just wrap yourself in his colors. Proclaim your allegiance and you become part of him, son, and you'll never feel weak or vulnerable again. Just pull out your colors and sing his song. You'll feel it, son, you'll feel it! After that, you'll pay the cost over and over and over."
Maybe I've read too much history, but I can recall too many people who fell for that line and ended up squirming in an ash heap. I started looking at the other display cases, then down the aisle.
"Listen, sir," I finally said, "this Freedom™ seems awfully expensive. Is there another brand I can look at?"
And then… for a horrifying quarter second or so… I thought I saw the salesman turn into Agent Smith.
And then, finally and gratefully, I woke up, and swore off holiday barbeques forever. Next time I think I'll stay home and read.