The Guide, The Apprentice, and The Followers
When she received the news, Eva jumped up and down and spun herself in a circle until she became dizzy and fell to the floor in a heap of laughter. Most of her classmates, including many of those who had taken the academic part of college much more seriously, had not received any job offers, let alone one for the position they really wanted.
That’s the way it was in the Twenty-First Century. No guarantees. Maybe there’d never been any, but the odds had been better. Jobs in your hometown. Even ones that allowed high school grads to do more than just survive.
Nowadays, it seemed like those things didn’t exist except for a lucky few. Governmental officials pandered to the masses and said they cared; few, if any, acted as if they actually did. Mainly, it was nothing more than lip service and lies.
Stieb promised to fix that. Stieb told everyone he had a plan. Stieb said he, and he alone, would return the glory of the past.
Eva believed in Stieb. She believed so much she applied to work as an apprentice guide when they turned Stieb’s boyhood home into a museum.
Eva didn’t apply for any other position during her senior year, even though she estimated her chances of becoming an apprentice as something less than next-to-nothing. But she was still young enough to dream and didn’t believe in hedging her bets. She went all in.
Stieb’s people called her in April. They interviewed her over the phone, then invited her to come for a personal interview a thousand miles away. At her expense.
Eva leapt at the chance. At the very least, she knew she’d get the opportunity to see where Stieb had lived.
Eva wore a black dress cut midway between her hips and knees to her interview. She saw a few other women about her age on the day of her interview. Eva presumed they also wanted to be apprentice guides. They all wore suits.
Eva knew they didn’t have a chance. She understood Stieb better than the elites from her university and better than graduates of more elite institutions of higher learning than hers.
Eva was told she would begin her career as an apprentice shadowing a more experienced guide. She would only be paid half a guide’s salary until she completed her apprenticeship. Eva considered it the opportunity of a lifetime and happily left all she had known behind.
Eva believed Stieb as much as she believed in him. She believed the tale of former glory. And the one in which Stieb would bring about future glory.
Eva was sure. All one had to do was follow Stieb.
Eva arrived at Stieb’s boyhood home twenty minutes before the time she’d been told to report. A woman her mother’s age greeted Eva without a smile and told her to follow her. She led Eva to a room that looked like the sort of place where patients waited for their physicians after leaving the group waiting room. The room was barren save for a single wooden chair.
“Please sit.” The woman handed Eva a pin with a large brown checkmark. “And wear this.”
Eva happily fastened the pin with Stieb’s famous mark to her red blazer. She also wore the short, white skirt that completed the uniform for female apprentice guides.
Eva sat with her hands folded on her lap for five minutes before there was a knock on the door. Before she could say anything, a tall, blond, muscular man entered.
Eva jumped to her feet and thrust her hand forward. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Eva Morgan.”
“Please.” Max twirled his index finger as a sign Eva was to spin around.
Eva complied but Max reached out and grabbed her shoulders. “Slowly.”
When she completed her second and third twirls, Max looked her directly in the eye while he straightened her pin. “Have a seat if you like.”
“I’m fine standing.”
“You’ll have a long day on your feet.”
“That’s okay. I’m too pumped to sit still.”
Max nodded. His suit had such light pinstripes one only noticed them when standing very close to him.
“Are you aware of the phrase ‘active listening?’”
“That’s your task for today. Probably for the foreseeable future as well. Active listening.”
“I could listen to discussions about Stieb forever.”
“It’s much more than listening. It’s active listening. Active . . . listening.”
“And monitoring. You can’t forget the monitoring. It’s active listening and active monitoring.”
“I’ll do whatever it takes to excel here . . .”
“I’ll do whatever it takes to excel here, Max.”
“Good. Today, that means active listening and active monitoring. And looking the part of a young woman worthy of representing the Stieb brand.”
Max led Eva down a long hallway that had a series of full-length mirrors along one side and numerous gold stars painted on the other. They passed a large kitchen in which Eva spied men and women in white aprons and hats working furiously. She heard the workers yelling at one another while a thin trail of smoke escaped from the kitchen.
After making a sharp right turn, Max placed his hand against the wall. Eva didn't see a door handle but an opening in the wall suddenly appeared. Eva followed Max inside and entered a round, bronze ballroom where five other sets of guides and apprentices stood in pairs. In every case, a male and female were paired together, though in some, the female positioned herself a couple of paces before her male counterpart.
Max made a circle about the room, looking over his shoulder one time. Eva continued to follow at the swift pace Max had established. Upon completing the circumference, Max smiled broadly and flashed his square, white teeth. “It’s showtime.”
Each group exited from a separate egress. As she and Max were the last to go, Eva took the opportunity to study the faint outlines of each doorway. All the exits appeared identical to the others, and she didn’t notice any markings along the walls, but Eva instinctively believed she grasped her surroundings.
Max paused when he reached their exit. “Stay behind all the followers. And don’t say anything.”
Max zigged and zagged purposefully through a series of hallways. Eva actively monitored each turn.
They, or Max, or what Max represented, were greeted by applause upon entering a room with pulsating strobe lights. It reminded Eva of weddings she had attended when the bride and groom were introduced at the reception. She saw the room was filled with photographs of Stieb at various stages of his life. Eva would have liked to study them but understood she was there for another purpose.
Eva counted nine men and four women. Most wore t-shirts and jeans. Each and every one sported Stieb’s checkmark either on their shirt, hat or pin. Sometimes all three.
“Welcome, welcome.” Max’s words only increased the volume of applause he received. “Please, we have limited time and a lot of ground to cover today. It’s remarkable, really, truly remarkable, how much Stieb has accomplished. No one else could have done it. And today you’ll learn how this self-made man of such humble beginnings gave so much of himself so that you — his loyal followers — could enjoy all this.”
Max displayed his enormous wingspan when he held out his arms and moved to the center of the room. The followers resumed their applause as they encircled him.
“The property seems larger than I expected. How big is it?” The oldest and shortest member of the group asked the question when the clapping finally subsided.
“Many people say that. It’s about four acres.” Max towered over the man when he entered his physical space. “Shall we begin?”
The youngest female, who stood directly behind Max, raised her hand as if she were in school. After holding it aloft for a full minute, she called out: “Can I ask a question?”
Max didn’t turn. “I wish you wouldn’t. Stieb practices the Roman model of pontification and decree rather than the Greek approach. The Greeks were tragic, you know. So tragic.”
“Fuck the Greeks!” Two men in their early twenties, each with four or five days worth of stubble, stomped their feet and settled the crowd.
“Let me take you back in time. To a glorious time.” Max opened a door and everyone entered a game room that contained a billiards table, sports memorabilia and trophies of various sizes placed on shelves along all four walls of the room. “Stieb was always destined for great things, and was always doing amazing things, as these trophies prove.”
Eva waited for Max to explain what Stieb had done to win the trophies on display, but he said no more. He simply turned and crossed his arms across the chest in a show of pride. After a couple of minutes, a few of the followers began to clap, but they were drowned by the younger, more vocal members, who began to chant: “Stieb! Stieb! Stieb!”
Once everyone had joined the chorus, Max opened the door to the next room, a mahogany study with a fireplace and rows of books in pristine condition. It also housed various diplomas and paper accomplishments, which had been placed behind ropes and strategically hung considerably higher than eye level.
“Of course, Stieb was at the top of his class throughout the course of his formal education. Here are just a sample of his many academic awards.”
The followers tilted their heads back and gazed with awe, but when a couple pressed into the rope and stood on their tippy toes in an attempt to read, Max extended his arms and gently guided the followers away. “These are like fine works of art. If you get too close, your breath will commence the decomposition process.”
Eva glanced up to confirm what she’d thought she’d originally seen — that all of the acknowledgments of achievement were protected by glass enclosures.
Eva actively monitored Max control Stieb’s followers throughout the rest of the house over the course of an hour and actively listened to tales of wonder without interruption until the group entered a room that housed Stieb’s artwork near the end of the tour.
“This is the finest collection in hundreds of miles. Stieb’s eye is impeccable. It’s simply amazing he amassed all of these works before the age of thirty. Among the most notable pieces is this Cezanne.”
Max again paused as if additional information would be forthcoming, but after thirty seconds, he moved away from the painting.
“Excuse me.” A woman with long, straight hair stopped the procession. “I don’t have a question. Just a correction. That painting is a Matisse, not a Cezanne. It’s an understandable mistake.”
“It’s no mistake.”
“Yeah, it is. I was an art history major and focused on the post-Impressionists. It’s not a big deal. I just want you to know so if ever you point out this work on a future tour. . .”
“Art history,” someone snickered.
Max smiled with confidence. “I will identify the work for what it is: a Cezanne.”
“But it’s not.”
“I assure you, it is. Stieb personally told me so.”
Many of the followers gasped at Max’s declaration.
“Yeah, lady, this guy has Stieb’s ear and Stieb knows what he bought.”
Eva thought the man in the overalls and large hat surely was packing.
“Linda, come on.” A man who appeared to be the spouse of the woman who dared speak grabbed her arm.
“But I know what I’m talking about.”
Eva held her ground even as the other followers began to exit, cognizant of her duty to remain in the rear. The art history major resisted her husband’s repeated tugging. After his third attempt to extricate her, the husband shrugged his shoulders and left the room.
The woman turned to Eva. “I’m right, I swear.”
Eva did her utmost not to express any sentiment as she stared at the woman. She knew Stieb never displayed compassion, even as he declared no one was more compassionate than he. Coldness was power, sympathy weakness.
Eva watched the art history major’s lips quiver, her legs tremble. And then the woman screamed and fled.
Eva presumed she’d find her back with the group, but when Eva rejoined the others, she didn’t see the one who’d dared to contradict the guide. Eva sought to communicate with Max when their eyes met. She silently asked whether she should try to find the missing woman, but Max shook his head as if her disappearance was of no importance.
Twelve followers ended their tour a few minutes later.
“Your turn.” Max slipped behind Eva once they’d returned to the bronze ballroom. She understood and studied the room before choosing the correct door and leading her guide through the labyrinthian halls they had traversed earlier in the day. She stopped when she believed they’d arrived at the room where she’d waited for him.
Eva tested the handle and opened the door. In addition to a second chair, the room now had a small table on which sat a dozen roses.
“Have a seat, you’ve done well.”
Eva waited for Max to sit first.
“You can ask.”
“Who the fuck cares?”
“I thought maybe there were one or two other mistakes along the way.”
“There never are mistakes. Stories can’t have mistakes. Whatever I say on a given day is true. You see anyone else complaining besides that bitch?”
“Damn right.” Max placed a foot atop the opposite knee. He wore red socks. “Nobody else fucking cared. They just wanted a good story. That’s what I gave them. That’s what you have to offer. Actually, I’m glad we had a real cunt with us today. You have to be prepared for that. Sometimes people show up just to cause trouble. Sometimes you have to have them removed. Not usually. Get the rest on your side and the problem takes care of itself.”
“Have you really spoken to Stieb?”
Max stared at Eva but didn’t answer.
“I hope I can someday.”
“Do your job like you’re supposed to and good things will happen. Stieb’s incredibly loyal. And generous. You can count on him like no one else.”
Eva’s voice lightened and she lost the business approach she’d worked hard to carry throughout the day. “I know, right? We’re so lucky to be here.”
“It’s a great time to be alive.”
“It’s going to be glorious.”
“Bet your sweet ass it is.”
Kevin Finnerty's stories have appeared in Chicago Literati, Portage Magazine, Red Earth Review, The Quotable, VLP Magazine and other publications.