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The Ideasmith, a short story by Roman Payne

"The Ideasmith" by Roman Payne

The Ideasmith
By Roman Payne
"The Baker's Helper" llustration by Roman Payne - copyright 2005
(Illustration: Ink and Watercolor, by Roman Payne, Copyright 2005)

I am always amazed at the fluency of money in the lives of the denizens of my country. It is strange that one can obtain it at all. Certainly, it is easy to earn a few francs here and there, but what could drive a man to pay another enough to last days - or weeks? Surely these great ancient buildings took more effort to build than is expended by those who currently dwell in them. How did these mere children of adults manage to persuade the City Fathers to surrender portions of their empire? Do they speak a dialect that is foreign to me? For I have wrestled with these misers and I have lost.

One evening I was working away; sweeping up the flour that is used for the bottoms of the pans, where the bread is cooked for the idle class to feed the birds in the park, and along with the lamplight, and the gamy odour of chevre wafting in from the nearby shops, a flood of ideas came to me. These ideas were so potent that I abandoned my broom and fled home to draft them out.
.... I worked diligently for many hours but at about four in the morning I forced myself to sleep as the next day was going to be busy; I was to go to the great government offices, to sell an idea.

At the time, I was living in a bustling little city on the River Vilaine. Aside from the problems the city was having with beggars, who lined the squares and hollered at people on the steps of the Opera; and with jugglers, who persisted in juggling even when the mood of the afternoon deemed it quite inappropriate to do so, my little river city was plagued by shoe thieves.
.... It was such a problem that most of the denizens would only sit in sidewalk cafés if it were warm enough to go barefoot, as the sidewalk café is the haunt of the shoe thief. One reason for the high rate of theft was that for a thief to obtain a pair of shoes, he would have to strike two different people - as once he had one shoe off a man's foot, the victim would certainly notice what has occurred and hobble fiercely down the cobblestone after the rogue. The thief then had the difficult task of finding another victim with a similar style and size of shoe.
.... This was the problem I was to address to the parliament, as at this time, the rate of theft had risen so high, that nearly no one consistently had shoes - except for the thieves.
.... The solution was simple, but it took a great mind and plenty of simpleminded sweeping and cleaning up to devise it. All shoes, in the future, would have to be made with an original identity, such as a phrase that would be inscribed on the heel of each shoe, so that when two matching heels were lined up, they would read a clever sentence. An example would be: a man buys a pair of shoes, the left heel reads: 'Large stone cathedrals', and the right: 'are well-liked here.' And if a policeman were to see this man walking and glance down at the backs of his shoes, he would read 'Large stone cathedrals are well-liked here.' and he would know that this was an honest man. But if someone nabbed one of his shoes, and placed it on his foot with another stolen shoe, he might only get a few blocks away before a cop saw that his heels read, 'Large stone cathedrals and that is why.' And knowing that this can't possibly be an intended concept, he would arrest the derelict.

This idea incubated in my head quite warmly all of the way to the parliament, but when I arrived I was aborted and dispirited. After being led down a hall by a stout woman carrying an arm of papers, I came to a waiting room where I bided maybe half an hour. When a man called my name, I entered his office. His plaque claimed that he was the Superintendent. He asked me for my slip and I unfolded a yellow paper that was given to me by the stout woman. He stopped me suddenly and asked me to return the yellow slip and fetch a blue one. By the time I returned with the correct documents, I found that a thin man had wormed his way into the office ahead of me. After an hour of waiting, I excused myself into the office and wafted the blue slip. The Superintendent insisted that he was not in charge of blue-slip affairs and that I would have to walk down the hall to office number twenty-eight. This I did, and when I was inducted, I handed the man the blue slip. He explained that the correct slip for my order of business was a yellow one, but he would proceed and process my case.
.... I then spoke for over three minutes about my idea - I was careful to flavour my words with the sentimental drama of a nationalist, but I addressed the problem of the shoe thieves of our city, and the lack of measures against them. I spoke about the denizens' apprehension to sit in public with their feet exposed. And in my excitement, I even spoke of plans to curb the beggars and jugglers. Well, I grew quite nervous through all this and was relieved when the man stopped me mid-sentence with a wave of his hand. He was a little rude, I think, looking back.
.... He explained that quite a lot of commerce came from the vendors who sold single shoes for half price on the street - if my initiative passed then their businesses would fail. People would be forced to go to the large stores and buy their shoes a pair at a time. He also explained that for years this crime had been extant and many people have grown accustomed to going barefoot, consequently, many doctors had been brought in from the capital to treat cuts, inflammations, and funguses of the feet. If the majority resumed wearing shoes in the streets, certainly their practices would fail and our city would have a disfavourable reputation in the capital. He told me that such ideas don't impress him and I should have spoken to the Superintendent if I wanted an agreeable result. He shook my hand limply as he looked at the tea brewing on the counter. I stood and left.

Well, after that day, I always avoided the site of the parliament. I took side streets when I wanted to go about the town so as to avoid glimpses of this unfavourable memory. And since my bedroom window exposed the sidewalls of the parliament, I kept my curtains drawn at all times. It's true that I reproached myself for my imperfect method of addressing the idea, but at night, as I swept the breadcrumbs and sang I knew and had full faith in the potency and purity of my ideas. 'They are for another time,’ I would sigh as I walked home through the narrow alleys. And my faith in myself led to the dissatisfaction of my neighbours and the structure of our system; the following summer, I moved to a larger, older city in the north.

I am happy here. I help out the baker downstairs in return for room and board, and in the evenings we often sit together, smoking, singing and laughing. After a few whiskeys we talk seriously, often about the future. When I feel confident enough, I share my ideas with him. He listens warmly and applauds my ingenuity. He says that I am a man of the future and some day I will appear in a story or a legend. After the mood of the evening dissolves, I return to my room and lie upon my cot with the whiskey soft in my head. I remember my childhood, and the occupations I dreamed of, I think of the friends and loves I had parted with, I reflect on the events that had led up to me being here, a bakers helper in a large city bordering three countries; and I think of that bustling little city on the river Vilaine, where I once took my vision to the parliament. I still visit that city every winter when the snows are too heavy here. I never run into friends in the street, I no longer recognize the people in the cafés, and it is no longer painful for me to cast eyes upon the parliament building. But one thing that is surprising, and makes me feel both welcome and resentful, is that it is the common style of the denizens there to wear shoes with sentences boldly printed on the heels. And all the street cafés are full.


AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story was written in Rennes, France – while I was living there on rue St. Louis. That year spent in the quaint little capital of Brittany begat many strange little tales in the style of this one. Most of them are lost. I don’t remember what inspired me to write this piece. I just remember that I wrote it with the carefree ease that is no longer characteristic of my mood while writing. I guess that is the blessing of not taking one’s work too seriously. Back then, I think I wanted to be a painter or a musician more than I wanted to be a writer.
- Roman Payne



The Ideasmith, a short story by Roman Payne
From The Old Century - written in 1999
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