The Spirit of the New Millennium

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fiction

Keith J. Powell

The Spirit of the New Millennium

 

 

Dr. Holland J. Hornswater was the first to start referring to Arnold Beaker as the Spirit of the New Millennium. By the time the good doctor had coined the phrase, Arnold Beaker’s story, what some had begun referring to as the story of his or any generation, had already become a ubiquitous part of modern life. Arnold Beaker had transcended beyond the status of mere icon and become a full-fledged cultural meme. Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Hollywood, Santa Claus, Arnold Beaker, with his name towering high above all of the others on the list.
      This title was no bit of hyperbole on the part of Dr. Hornswater, either. At the time of its publishing, every school child could recite from memory the legend of Arnold Beaker.
      On the night of November 5th Arnold Beaker, a humble, short stick of a man, was on his way home from work. He stopped off at O’Malley’s Sac of Suds on the corner of Main Street and Third where he purchased a bottle of root beer in an old-fashioned glass bottle. Enjoying the frosty fizzy soda, he never suspected that both danger and destiny were waiting for him just around the corner. No sooner had the door to the shop swung closed behind him when out of the shadows leapt a vicious mob of a dozen or so ruffians, all heavily trained, all excessively armed, determined to savage Arnold Beaker and separate him from his wallet. With the reflexes of a cornered spider monkey and the cunning of three nuclear physicists, Arnold Beaker spun the glass bottle around his finger like a gunslinger and brought it down on the crown of the lead thug. With a crash like thunder, the glass shattered along with the nerve of the rest of the gang who fled en masse into the night with their wounded leader humbled and wobbling after.
      This simple act of heroic defiance catapulted Arnold Beaker into the forefront of the country’s imagination and in so doing, brought joy and hope to a citizenry drowning in sorrow.
     Times were exceedingly tough in those dark days. The economy had entered into what top economists were calling a double-dip, loopty-loop recession. The general public was exhausted by scandal fatigue and found it increasingly difficult to get out of bed in the morning. City budgets had been slashed to the bone because state budgets had been slashed to the bone because the federal budget had long since been spent. It was a melancholy nation. One, long, bleak conga line of people with outturned pockets. The public felt marginalized and neglected. But Arnold Beaker changed all that by taking a stand against the scofflaws who went bump in the night. Arnold Beaker and his root beer bottle changed everything by loudly and unambiguously declaring Enough!

§

Despite the voluminous tomes written in the field of Beakerology, or perhaps rather because of it, it is oftentimes difficult to strain the fact from the myth. There is one fact in particular that is bound to surprise even the most well-versed of Beakernicks. It is a fact not available in the Arnold Beaker Museum of Momentous Achievements, nor can it be found in the much more impressive Animatronics Museum of Arnold Beaker’s Momentous Achievements.
      This particular fact is also absent from all three official Beaker biographies. Though it is referenced somewhat obliquely in the apocryphal Glass Shatters in the Night, an unauthorized biography long out-of-print due to its flimsy construction materials and uninspired cover design.
      Beaker!, the major motion picture about Arnold Beaker’s life, makes no mention of it. In truth, there is very little in Beaker! that in anyway resembles the truth of Arnold Beaker’s life. When interviewed the writer-director answered this criticism by explaining that since the major motion picture was being billed as “inspired by true events,” he was free to take artistic liberties.
     This misplaced fact is not referenced in the acclaimed documentary Arnold Beaker: A Spirit and a Nation, and as long as the curtain is being pulled back, Arnold Beaker: A Spirit and a Nation is even further removed from the truth than the major motion picture. The producers were told as much, but they just shook their heads and stroked their goatees and talked about Joseph Campbell and the power of myth.
     The neglected and overlooked truth is just this: it wasn’t a root beer bottle at all that night—it was a casserole dish.
     For years many Beakerologists of the so-called “Prohibition School” have argued it was not a root beer bottle but an actual beer bottle. Members of the Prohibition School claim the beer bottle was scrubbed from the historical records as part of a conscious effort to promote a wholesome image of Arnold Beaker. They point to a scarcity of root beer bottles in glass containers in that part of the country at that time of the year. No one ever suspects a casserole dish.
     The casserole dish is not the end of the embellishment, however. Rather, the casserole dish is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. According to the whispers of those in Arnold Beaker’s innermost circle of confidants, the reality of the famous assault that birthed Beakermania is greatly more pedestrian than the legend.
     According to the legendary story, on the night of November 5th Arnold Beaker was walking home from work. Already, fact and myth begin to diverge. At the time Arnold Beaker was an unemployed, though highly-skilled donut maker. As such, he had no work from which to be on his way home from. Rather, the truth of that fateful night is this young man of thirty-seven years was on his way home from a dinner at the home of his mother. This was not a dinner of familial devotion but rather one of necessity. Arnold Beaker and his mother, Susan Eloise Beaker, or “Ma Beaker” as she has come to be known the world over, had been estranged for some time prior to that night.
     It is difficult to reconcile this estrangement with the public image of a blissful Beaker family, particularly in light of the cheerful image of the Beaker family made famous on their line of holiday greeting cards. However, people in positions to know report discord between mother and son. It was only out of a desperate hunger that Arnold Beaker attended dinner at his mother’s house that night. The specific topic of discussion remains a mystery, but the conversation is rumored to have been tense and stilted.
     Departing his mother’s home, Arnold Beaker was given a glass casserole dish containing the remains of the meal. When later, two doors down from O’Malley’s on Main, under a pool of yellow cast by streetlights, fate, in the form of a mere two bandits, not the veritable army of legend, greeted Arnold Beaker; it was this casserole dish with which he struck them, pulverizing glass and bone and scattering the corpse of a tuna casserole across the pavement.
Newspapermen were all over the story right from the beginning. Those were somber times for journalism. Newspaper budgets across the country were being slashed. Investigative budgets were the first to go, followed by Science and Technology, Financial News, International News, News of the Nation and so on. By the time Arnold Beaker broke the bottle heard round the world, all but the wealthiest newspapers could only afford to investigate news happening within a seven-mile radius of their offices.
     Fortunately for history, the aborted robbery happened three blocks away from the central office of the Times-Tribune.
     When the newspapermen, those last few individuals deemed too unfortunate-looking to make the transition to television news, arrived on the scene, Arnold Beaker panicked. They stood there before him looking grizzled and smelling of burnt black coffee, pencil nubs clenched between ink-stained fingers, hoping for something uplifting, something their editors would slap them on the back for and delay their long slow march toward irrelevancy for at least one more week. Arnold Beaker correctly knew that the truth of an out-of-work donut manufacturer, or a donut artist, forced to take charity dinners with his mother would be depressing. Additionally he knew if it were known publicly that he was unemployed, his chances of finding new employment would be nil, it having recently become fashionable to only hire those people not in need of employment.
     So Arnold Beaker altered the facts of the evening and in doing so allowed the first indications of his true genius to shine through. Arnold Beaker gave the newspapermen not what they had asked for, the facts, but what they desired, a story.
     The newspapermen furiously scribbled down his words into their notebooks and took it back to their editors. Photographers asked Arnold Beaker to smile and flashed their flashbulbs and in so doing another piece of the legend was cemented. History can only speculate as to whether a witness to the assault provided the soda pop or if it was Arnold Beaker himself who crossed to O’Malley’s Sac of Suds to purchase the acclaimed bottle. What is known, however, is that in that photograph, that iconic photograph that introduced a short, bespectacled, rail-thin Arnold Beaker to the world, he is wearing his trademark navy sweater vest and pleated tan trousers, he is smiling with his arms folded, and between his two fingers he is holding a soda bottle.
     That photo of cocksure Arnold Beaker smiling into the camera and the story that accompanied it struck a nerve with the public. More than struck a nerve, it struck a raw nerve, a throbbing raw nerve that had been quivering and calling out for satisfaction for so long that people barely registered it anymore. Arnold Beaker brought it back to the forefront of everyone’s mind. Arnold Beaker made them remember.
Imitators appeared almost overnight. Kids in the beginning, mostly. In those early days it was just isolated incidents of kids prowling the streets, soda bottles of all kinds clasped firmly in hands, ready to whack crime on its nose. At first, no one really noticed because even before Arnold Beaker, there had been numerous reports of teenagers prowling the streets holding bottles. It wasn’t until parents and passersby on the street started noticing the fire in the eyes of the kids that they sensed that something had changed, that things were in flux.
     The initial impulse of many adults was to try and put an end to the craze seen as little more than a fad. Really, it was a knee-jerk reaction brought on by centuries of reflexively disapproving of whatever was in vogue with the younger generation. Parents were urged in the strongest possible terms to talk to their kids early and often about the dangers of hitting people with bottles. Many adults saw it as their civic duty and went through the motions, but inside many suspected the kids might be on to something. In time, parents themselves began to take up soda bottles and head out into the night.
     In those early days records indicate that not many actual crimes were prevented. That was not the point. The point was the people were out there. The image of the citizen on the street, seeking out and confronting the ills of society was more moving and important than the prevention of any actual crime. The police and the mayor alike, of course, denounced these lone individuals as vigilantes, but that stopped no one.
     As more people took to the streets, the authorities tried to stem the flow. They declared it illegal for anyone to be caught on the streets with a glass bottle of any kind. This rule proved difficult to enforce, however, and after an outcry from the powerful glass lobby, the hastily enacted law was rescinded.
     Within a few weeks the first of the Beaker Brigades appeared on the scene. In the beginning, they were poorly organized and operated separately from one another. Each group was autonomous, consisting of its own bylaws, rules, and hierarchy. That soon changed, as many of the differences between the competing groups were resolved for the sake of presenting a united front. The Internet was helpful to this end. Like-minded people across the city united on message boards and in chat rooms to proclaim the righteousness of Arnold Beaker and his deeds. They staged rallies and made signs: Be Like Beaker; Bite Back Like Beaker, and they chanted and shook their fists at no one in particular.
     Arnold Beaker’s hometown may have been ground zero for this newfound fervor, but it was hardly the only place it was happening. News of November 5th turned up across the state and around the country. Like a wildfire racing from Maine to California, it drove the people off their couches and out of their homes into the streets. People universally found themselves identifying with the plucky, young donut artist. Overnight Beaker Brigades began to sprout up in cities from sea to sea. Out-of-work factory workers were the first to join, followed by customer-service representatives, and Y2K-compliance officers. That’s when the dam really broke.
     After six months of operations, a poll was taken: the public had more confidence in the Beaker Brigades than the police department, and so the two were formally merged. The usual grumblings ensued from the moneyed interests, but the police department had been so under-funded for so long that most people saw it as a blessing.
     Curiously absent from these exciting days of revolution and reformation was the man responsible for it all, Arnold Beaker. Two primary hypotheses seek to explain his absence during this time. In Beaker’s Buddy: Arnold and Me, author and boyhood friend of Arnold Beaker, Kurt McKowske claims that Arnold Beaker shunned the spotlight initially because he was not comfortable with the idea of leadership. Mr. McKowske argues, without much in the way of fact to support his claims particularly in light of what happened next, Arnold Beaker’s awesome humility prevented him from stepping forward and taking control of the movement he had spawned. Miriam Luna, author of The Bottle that Shaped the World, claims in the wake of his encounter with the would-be assailants, Arnold Beaker was left shaken by his capacity for violence and departed for Tibet as part of a spiritual journey. Given what is known of Arnold Beaker’s precarious financial state at this time, this scenario is similarly unlikely.
     What Arnold Beaker was really up to during this unaccounted-for period of time is perhaps lost to the ages. What is known is that when it was announced he would make a personal appearance at the very first Arnold Beaker Celebration Day, the demand for tickets skyrocketed. Hotels filled to capacity before they even knew what was happening. Looking to take advantage of the demand, hotel managers and bellmen set up cots in alcoves next to ice chests and vending machines. They wheeled spare beds into their lobbies and authorized camping on the front lawn for a very reasonable fee. Homeowners got into the act, too. They posted notices online and on walls around town. “Spare Room Available For Those Wishing to Attend Arnold Beaker Celebration Day. Don’t Miss Your Chance to See the Legend in the Flesh!” By the time of the big day there was not a single room available for five counties.
     Those in attendance have described the first Arnold Beaker Celebration Day as a patriotic affair, and though that doesn’t exactly describe the mood accurately, it is close. Parents arrived early at the city park and unfolded large blankets on the morning-wet grass. Children waved sparklers and played games of kick the can and hide-and-go-seek, while parents stacked pyres of charcoal briquettes in preparation for lunch. The smell of grilled meat hung over everything. The park was decorated in yellow and white, with streamers and balloons affixed to gazebos and wrapped around lampposts. The local high-school band trumpeted a series of chipper tunes from highly polished brass instruments that gleamed in the sun. Even the weeping willows peppering the park seemed uncharacteristically jubilant that day, as if they, too, realized the magnitude of the occasion. The city hadn’t paid a dime for any of it. The entire bill was footed by the Beaker Brigade and other Beakernicks, who were only just then beginning to refer to themselves as such.
     The first-ever Arnold Beaker Day Celebration was big news. International news. Television crews from as far away as frozen Svalbard were on hand to document the occasion. When Arnold Beaker finally took the stage just after noon, a hush fell over the crowd followed by the fluttering pop of thousands of tiny cameras. He was dressed in the same sweater vest and trousers combination as he had been on the night of November 5th. Pictures from the day document a plurality of people in the crowd wearing their own navy sweater vests and tan trousers in imitation of the man they had traveled unfathomable distances to see. Arnold Beaker crossed to the podium that bore the town seal. He smiled at the audience. “We Love You, Arnold,” someone shouted. Arnold Beaker laughed. He cocked his finger and thumb like a pistol and with a wink, fired it at the audience. Casually, as if it had only just occurred to him, Arnold Beaker reached into the pocket of his crisply ironed trousers and produced a frosty bottle of root beer. He popped the metal lid on the edge of the podium and fired off another round of finger bullets into the audience. Downing the soda, Arnold Beaker was greeted with boisterous applause and a forty-five minute standing ovation. At no time during that appearance did the crowd’s hero speak a single word. He didn’t have to. His being there said plenty.

§

The endorsement deals with the soda companies came. What started as a local radio spot for a leading brand of root beer soon turned into a national campaign. Arnold Beaker would look at the camera, smile, and take a healthy drink from a chilled glass bottle. It became his trademark to close each commercial by good-naturedly tossing the bottled end-over-end at the camera. By the end of the year, Arnold Beaker was on billboards and the sides of buses pitching a flavor of his own design Beaker Berry Blast, a tart soda that, according to the ad campaign, was made from “raspberries and rage.” Despite initially strong sales Beaker Berry Blast was eventually discontinued for undisclosed reasons. Today the soda is considered a collector’s item of the most sought-after kind. A single unopened bottle of the soda sold last year at Christie’s Auction House for $50,000.
     His newspaper column appeared next. At the time the critics said he was mad. They argued the stress of his newfound celebrity had cracked his precious brain. No one read newspapers anymore, they clucked. Surely someone as important and well-known as Arnold Beaker understood that blogging was the wave of the future, and that a newspaper column squandered his recently acquired influence and regard. Cynics both then and now have suggested that Arnold Beaker’s decision to have his column appear in newspapers was quid pro quo for the newspapermen’s initial coverage of his heroically terrifying encounter. Author Miriam Luna disagrees.
     According to Miriam Luna, Arnold Beaker chose to go the route of newspapers because he was keenly aware that progress is cyclical and that to go forward one must first move backwards; something we all take to be common sense now. In order for society to advance the newspapers first had to be saved, and save the newspapers he did.
     Arnold’s Answers first appeared in the Times-Tribune a week before Christmas and was soon picked up and carried by every surviving newspaper in the country. The column offered advice on topics ranging from teenage pregnancy to vinyl home siding. It proved so popular that the newspaper offices were literally flooded with letters pleading for more. In one tragic incident often featured in clip shows of the era, the offices of the Hoboken Plain-Dealer collapsed under the weight of the mail they received. Three floors pancaked one on top of the next killing seven, while dozens more were hospitalized with third-degree paper cuts.
     The first collection of Arnold Beaker’s column, Arnold’s Answers Annual, appeared on bookshelves that fall. That was his first book, but, of course not nearly his last. Armed with nothing more than his now worldwide notoriety, a team of assistant writers, and a fierce can-do attitude, Arnold Beaker became a literary behemoth. Titles such as Murder by Phosphoric Acid, Beaker’s Burgers: A People’s History of Hamburgers, and Donut vs. Cruller shot to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List in the category of Hardcover Fiction, Hardcover Nonfiction, Graphic Novel, Paperback Mass-Market Fiction, and Hardback Advice. Even today, no less than eight titles penned by Arnold Beaker occupy spots on these lists with no sign of losing popularity anytime in the near future.
     After completing his climb to the top of the literati world, Arnold Beaker moved on to music. This was a logical next path for the young dynamo’s career, as the various audio recordings of his books had already won numerous Grammys. Arnold Beaker’s rhythm and blues album, Beaker’s Blues, came first. This was followed by The Arnold Beaker Blitzkrieg, a foray into the world of Post-German Metal. The world tours that followed broke all records in terms of ticket sales and critical reception. Other successful musicians of the time were said to have been so in awe of Arnold Beaker’s musical prowess that they developed a condition known as Beaker Bipolar Breakdown, in which the sufferer oscillates between extreme feelings of joy from having heard Arnold Beaker play and extreme feelings of despondency for not being able to play like Arnold Beaker.
     Music soon gave way to his own reality show that featured Arnold Beaker traveling from town to town, helping run-of-the-mill people solve their problems. Arnold Alleviates It ran for eight seasons and spawned two spin-offs, Crackin’ It, a self-defense show, and Breakin’ with Beaker, a sitcom about a team of competitive break-dancers. Despite its title, Breakin’ with Beaker was an ensemble, with Arnold Beaker in a supporting role as “the tough one,” a part for which he would go on to win two Emmys.
     It was during this period that many of the other elements that are today associated with the classic Beaker story began to enter the general public consciousness. It started when O’Malley’s Sac of Suds on the corner of Main Street and Third hung a blue and white banner over its door, proudly declaring itself the location where the world’s most famous soda had been purchased. Other stores on the block disputed this claim instantly. A thorough investigation was launched and when nothing was discovered to disprove Mallory O’Malley’s claim, her store was declared a national landmark.
     Mallory O’Malley began offering tours of the premises for three dollars a person. Tourists came by the busload. Other businesses on the block, determined to have their share of the glory, soon got into the act. Lee’s Liquors and Stuff on the opposite corner of Main Street and Third began to advertise itself as the first place Arnold Beaker had gone looking for a root beer bottle that night, only to go elsewhere when he discovered they were out. People waiting in line for a tour of the Sac of Suds would pop out of line and head across the street to Lee’s Liquor and Stuff to have their picture taken in the place where something truly wonderful almost might have happened. This spread to the other businesses on the block. Pretty soon up and down the street, every shop owner had a sign in his or her window proudly proclaiming some tangential connection to the town’s most famous son and his bottle of soda.
Several months later, a man in Tallahassee came forward purporting to be in possession of the five-dollar bill Arnold Beaker had used to make the purchase. This claim was immediately called into question by the appearance of another man in Tacoma, who claimed that he was in possession of the fateful bill. This matter eventually found its way into the court system where the case remains ongoing today, despite the long-ago passing of both of the original claimants.
     People, even then, knew this was ridiculous, but what could they do?
     When Arnold Beaker announced his candidacy for the Presidency, it came as no great surprise to anyone. He had married Courtney Bornagain, a southern beauty queen and heiress to a vast apple-pie fortune the year previous. Many had interpreted this as a not-so-subtle sign that he was gearing up for a career in public office. Claus Witherspoon, author of the book Destined for Greatness: Arnold Beaker and the Presidency, states that Arnold Beaker at first considered running for a lower office. Witherspoon claims a circle of advisors that Arnold Beaker had assembled counseled him against it. They told their advisee in the strongest possible terms that his time was now and any experience he might accrue would only be a hindrance down the road.
     Initially members of the punditry class expressed some misgivings about Arnold Beaker’s total lack of experience in the field of government. Still others began to murmur quietly that perhaps a total lack of experience in the field of government was exactly what the field of government needed most. The campaign slogan Things Will Get Bleaker Without Beaker began appearing everywhere. Media consultants of all types agreed that the slogan struck the perfect chord with the voting public. It simultaneously appealed to their raw unfettered love of Arnold Beaker and also their raw unfettered fear of the future. In the end it was a race in name only.
     Neither of the two major parties even bothered putting up a serious candidate that year. The writing was on the wall. Not that both the Democrats and the Republicans didn’t put on a good show. Straws were drawn behind closed doors and the loser, with a wink and a nod to the cameras, very publicly threw his hat into the ring. Everyone chuckled. Everyone knew there was really no point.
     The perfunctory debates were held during an unusually humid fall, but Arnold Beaker boycotted. “Why bother,” his spokesperson told the press. “The American people know Arnold Beaker and they know where he stands.” It was true. The American people knew where Arnold Beaker stood. He stood on the side of the little guy. He drank root beer from bottles, just like they did. He didn’t take any lip from hooligans, desperados, or scoundrels. He wasn’t afraid to break bottles over the heads of those who preyed on the sweat of the little guy. Who better to negotiate with dictators, they all said to each other.
     Come November, it was a landslide. Arnold Beaker, a between-jobs donut artist, was elected President of the United States with just over one hundred and six percent of the vote. Collectively the nation exhaled. They loved Arnold Beaker and if he failed to right the ship that could only mean that their love was wrong. No one was concerned about this possibility though, as people had been raised from a very young age to know that love was never wrong.

§

In terms of the hard tangibles, things did not improve much under now President Beaker. This is an oft-disputed statement with the general nature of what constitutes a fact being called into question. It has been suggested on more than one occasion that this quest to unravel the facts of the “fact” is the modern equivalent of the “Which came first, the chicken or the egg” conundrum. Everyone has a good time offering an opinion and feels comforted by the knowledge that there is really no right answer.
     Undeniably, on paper things looked the same if not worse. The economy continued to flounder. Unemployment rates fluctuated slightly but remained largely the same. With the notable exceptions of the glass industry and newspaper offices, businesses continued to wink out of existence across the land. Large sections of the rustbelt were transformed into ghost towns as people packed up their belongings and headed elsewhere in search of a brighter tomorrow during a period that came to be known as the Great Re-Migration.
     What was truly remarkable about this era was how above-it-all Arnold Beaker remained. Even the obligatory scandals failed to mar his reputation with the public. When photos of the so-called “Beaker Bunnies” started appearing in the tabloids, people seemed genuinely disinterested. They picked up the magazines in the checkout lines of supermarkets, thought about it, and put them back on the shelf. It didn’t matter to them what kind of photos were made public, or how clearly the videos on the Internet looked. It didn’t matter. Facts of all kinds had become cold and disheartening and so facts of all kinds were seen as suspect and largely ignored.
     For reasons that not even a top-notch team of poets were able to put into words, though just last year one was commissioned to try, Arnold Beaker spoke to the citizenry on a level both primal and sublime. The very existence of Arnold Beaker in the world made things brighter. Everyone just felt better knowing that he was in charge.
     Three months into his second term, the Twenty-Second amendment was repealed in the middle of the night, which allowed Arnold Beaker to run for a third term. Four years later he ran for a fourth, and then a fifth. When the time came for what would be his sixth campaign, a consensus was reached that even going through motions that year would be a misappropriation of the taxpayers’ money. So it is all these years later that Arnold Beaker remains President, despite, or perhaps even because of the fact that he has not been seen or heard in public for nearly twelve years.
     Over the last few years a small but vocal contingent of conspiracy theorists has begun to suggest that the President’s long absence from the public eye is the result of his having passed away several years previously. Arnold Beaker’s advisors tell us that this simply isn’t so. Arnold Beaker trusted these people so most of the public rightly trusts the advisors by proxy.
     Despite repeated assurances from advisors, religious scholars were recently forced to join the fray by providing scientific proof as to Arnold Beaker’s continued aliveness. Arnold Beaker, they say, is surely alive today because we as a people continue to go on. They justly claim that if the Spirit of the New Millennium were to go out, we would all sense the passing. There would rise up instantaneously in the hearts and minds of people everywhere a terrible sadness. The sun would dim ever so slightly, and the world would feel a heavier, colder, grayer place.
     Their logic is simple and irrefutable. We as a people may quibble over slight differences. We might substitute a root beer bottle for a casserole dish; we might invent landmarks to help ground ourselves in the physicality of it all, but the essentialness of the story remains unchanged. Arnold Beaker is all of us. And ultimately, all of us are Arnold Beaker.