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Volume 16, Issue 2: Pictura

Atlas Shrugged

Mark Beauchamp and Nathan Wilson

Mr. Shrugged was an egoist, but not a very good one. At least not a successful one. This morning he had managed to walk to his mailbox. By lunch he was sitting at the dining room table with one unopened letter, wondering where his glasses had gotten to. The envelope gave way to the eccentric cutting edge of a spoon. Mr. Shrugged began squinting.

The letter, which he did not read correctly the first time, was a notice of an unfriendly sort. The general gist being that he no longer owned the property he lived on, or the white plastic fence around it, and he'd better jolly well pay his taxes.
Mr. Shrugged was not used to arriving at swift decisions, so he wasn't actually aware that he had reached one until his glasses slipped on the natural oils of his forehead and landed perfectly in the saddle of his nose. Then, without a modicum of subtlety, everything shot into focus.
"I did not," he announced, "read Thomas Hobbes, to have this done to me." He wondered if his wife was in the house, for he felt like making a speech. He settled for a mental press conference, stretching out for future events.
"What prompted you to take such a difficult and principled stand?" the first reporter asked. There would be camera flashes. He should prepare himself for that.
"Well, nothing more than what should prompt any civic-minded person who wants to honor the origins of the western social contract. What I mean to say is, these things are mine and those things are yours." Smile, but not too much. Look thoughtful, but committed.
"Yes, you in the back," he would add. He'd have to make sure everyone got a turn.
"Weren't you afraid?"
"Of what?"
"Prosecution. Jail time."
Mr. Shrugged had not considered this. But of course, the risk involved only made him bolder.
"They wouldn't dare infringe on the rights of a sovereign, if small, and new, country," he said. "The court of global opinion will be my world." No, that wasn't quite it. "I mean to say, that I will be judged by my peers, the world. My peers, now that my sovereignty has taken effect, are not the federal government." That was better.
"But can one quarter acre be a country of its own?"
"Yes," Yes. "Look at the Vatican. Or the other place. I think it's pretty small too."
"What governmental system do you plan to use?"
"It will be a democracy."
"You and your wife will vote?" That could be a problem. He couldn't be just another Tin Pot. There would be civil rights. There would have to be. A lot of small countries had made that mistake, and he wasn't going to.
"There will be equal rights for all, but only people with land can vote." It was going to be his country after all. His wife could never get a majority normally, but if his mother-in-law moved in, well, the land thing was important.
Mr. Shrugged pushed himself away from the table, and stood, president of an embryonic and yet unnamed country. He was going to write a press release. And he should write the governor. And the president. And the people claiming his house would be auctioned off on the first Monday of the following month.
He was still designing the letterhead when his wife arrived.
"Atlas," she said, "what are you up to? Can you carry in the groceries?"
He was feeling uncomfortable, as though he had been caught at something slightly inappropriate. Why had he suddenly shoved his colored pencils beneath him? Did Thomas Jefferson blush when writing the Declaration of Independence?
As he brought in the second bag of groceries, he discovered his wife reading the auction announcement.
"Is this real?" she asked.
"It's all right," he said. "We'll leave the country."
"Atlas, we don't speak Spanish."
"No, we'll take our house and our land too. We'll just be here, but not in the country."
"You mean secede?"
"Sort of."
"How can you sort of secede?"
"Well, we'll still be Americans, but we'll just pay our own taxes, like Canada. We'll be a little Canada right in the middle."
Mrs. Shrugged thought through the possibilities. The house could be auctioned, and they could both move in with their daughter. Or, the house could be auctioned, her husband could be jailed and she could move in with her daughter.
"Atlas, I will always be proud of you."
He stared at her. "You think I should do it?"
"I know you will do it." Their daughter only had a double bed.
Mr. Shrugged, with the suprisingly exuberant efforts of his wife, dictated his manifesto and a press release, and found himself at home as his wife drove down the street to the Copy Spot to fax the release to all the local papers and television stations. He stood in front of the mirror and had another practice press conference. It went much smoother this time. The only question that he got stuck on was "What is the name of your country?"
All that night he dreamt that he was the river in Showboat.
The two men who walked through this particular corridor of power had used to think themselves important. Of course, they did brief the president for five minutes every two weeks, but so did the experts in rare stamps. They drew government salaries to keep an eye and expert ear on the president's other hobby.
The room was empty. It always was. They messed with the video player and sat and waited.
The president walked in, diligently ignoring the three aides who were all fighting for the floor, emphasizing something, no doubt important, about a Congressional vote. He pushed them back through the door, and locked it. Then he threw himself onto the couch, toed his loafers off and exhaled.
"D'you bring the drink?" he asked. One of them opened up his brief case and handed him a can of domestic. The other cued the film. It was a familiar routine.
"Nothing too exciting, sir. But something happened on Tuesday we thought you might be interested in. This gentleman, a Mr. Atlas Shrugged has officially seceded from the union. This is a tape of a small press conference that he held on his front lawn."
"Yes, you in the front," Mr. Shrugged said.
"There's only me here," the voice from behind the camera said.
"Well, right. But when the others come, they'll be in the back. What's your question?"
"What's your justification for secession?"
"Well," Mr. Shrugged said. "I'm glad you asked. It's about King Alfred and common law and some other things similar to sphere sovereignty but more complicated like sales tax on the internet that ought to be left to a global court. It's really a big issue, maybe we'll come back to it. Anyone else?"
There was a pause.
"Yes, you in the front."
"What's the name of your country?"
Mr. Shrugged took a deep breath. This was it. This is how the history books would remember him. A dog barked. He was the president of. . .
"LeSabre."
"Like the car?"
The president laughed as he watched expletives race across Mr. Shrugged's features.
"No. Any other questions?"
"Are you French?"
"Why would I be French? I'm American."
"You've seceded. Are you still American?"
"As much as any Canadian."
The aide hit the remote freezing Mr. Shrugged's outraged face on the screen. The president was still laughing.
"That's pretty much it," the aide said, somewhat apologetically.
"Beautiful," the president said. "I need you two to do something for me."
"What's that sir?"
"I like this guy. I'm going to give him his own country. You two handle it."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean give him his own country. His own personal Cuba."
"Sir?"
"I want a twenty foot wire fence around his yard pronto. Razor wire, the whole bit. See if you can't get the National Guard to park a tank there for a while, and give him at least one helicopter fly over."
"Are you serious?"
The president laughed, and both the aides breathed relief. "Of course I'm serious. I want Marines at the gate, and no one leaves the country until we have established formal diplomatic relations with LeSabre. No imports, no exports. No pizza delivery, no nothing. In fact, cut the phone lines, and the power lines, and the sewer. We're talking about a full trade embargo. Nothing. And you two fly out there and talk to him."
"Sir, I'm not sure. . ."
"You're the ambassadors. See if he'll make sweaters cheap and tell him we're concerned his country might be a staging ground for terrorist activity." The president stood up, drained his beer, still chuckling, and left the room in his socked feet.
Mr. Shrugged was an egoist, a wildly successful egoist. But his library card had been cancelled. Only citizens of Roark county could have a library card, and having a country in Roark County didn't count. That had been two days ago, before the razor wire.
He pushed open his screen door and wandered down to the border. The marine stared from the other side of the gate.
"Passport?" the man asked. Mr. Shrugged handed him the note from his wife.
"Anything to declare?"
"No."
"Why do you wish to enter the country?"
"I have to go to the bathroom," he said.

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