Free: A Short Story About Our World

January 31, 2009
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Karl Kempf III stood on the lip of the roof, his arms thrown out wide so he could feel the wind tearing past him. Down below, far below, the city was crowded and hazy; but up here, on top of the world, nature coursed, the wind flowing like a river around the jagged bubble formed by skyscrapers and office buildings. Kempf basked in the current, feeling clean and free for the first time since his childhood.

Only now did he realize how constricting the chains of society and civilization had been for him;Only now did he realize how foolish people were to pursue and desire such superficial things as fancy cars or expensive jewelry; Only now did he realize how perfectly ridiculous it was that money, whose value, he knew, was merely an illusion upheld by society, ruled the life of every last human being on Earth. Except him. He had finally found the only escape, an escape he had been searching for subconsciously all his life.

He laughed aloud, but the sound was whipped away by the wind.

'Thank you Ozzy!' he shouted into the sky.

Then a thick arm wrapped around him and pulled him back from the lip of the skyscraper.
For a split second, Kempf was confused and disoriented, too surprised to resist. Then he recognized the Kempf Security uniform that the burly man was wearing. The uniform was familiar, but not the man inside it. Did Kempf really have so many employees that he hadn't even seen all of them? He sneered in disgust.

'Are you OK sir?' The security guard was clearly uncomfortable, and had no idea who the ragged man standing in front of him actually was. A bark of wild laughter escaped Kempf, and he strode back into the building without ever answering the man.


'So, what drove you to do it?' He looked over his glasses at the man lying on the leather couch, who had kicked his leather shoes off and was wiggling his toes thoughtfully. The wiggling stopped.

'People like you, asking me questions like that.' The man's tone was biting and accusatory.

David Gerber sighed and shuffled his papers in the awkward silence, pretending to write something down.

'Well... what about me and my questions annoyed you to the point of attempting suicide?'

The man sat up, his haggard face pierced by bright black eyes and framed by disheveled black hair. Despite his expensive suit, he looked more like a crazy hobo than half the bums in the city.

'What annoyed me? I don't think annoyed is the right word, Dr. Gerber. If you want to know what drove me over the edge, the answer is quite simple. It's you. You think you know how the world works, what drives me, what I love and hate. You think going to Harvard, or Yale, or wherever the hell you went makes you educated and knowledgeable. But it doesn't. All it does is isolate you from the world. You and every other psychiatrist I've ever seen is protected in the cocoon of society, unable and unwilling to accept anything outside of it. You believe that, since you are a perfectly sane human being, what motivates you must motivate the rest of the sane human beings on this Earth. And what motivates you, Dr. Gerber, is money.' He snorted in contempt, and stared pacing around the room in his socks, gesturing fiercely. 'If you weren't getting paid to help me, you wouldn't give a damn about my life! If that judge wasn't getting paid to punish me, she wouldn't give a damn about my 'mental stability,' or about making me a 'responsible citizen.' It's all about money! Money money money!' He collapsed back onto the couch and massaged his temples.

'So you have an issue with money.'


'You've got plenty of money, Mr Kempf. I don't see what the problem is.'

'Exactly! That is the problem! What on God's green earth do I need 673 million dollars for? Yes, 673 million. I asked one of my secretaries to figure out how much I'm worth. What does anyone need that much money for? Even if I donated it all to charity in a plus-sized check and flashy ceremony, it would just go into lining the pockets of some corrupt Third World dictator.'

David Gerber decided not to answer, because Kempf was probably right. He let the man continue.

'You think you know what motivates me. Well, you're right. Or rather, you would have been right a couple of weeks ago. But when I was standing up there, at the top of Kempf Inc., at the top of my entire world, I finally realized how little money actually means. I am the same man whether I am worth 673 million dollars or a nickel! Now, with that realization in mind, how could I possibly justify chasing money my entire life? I lost my wife and both children to money. My money was more important to them than my love. Hell, my family never even stood a chance because of money. Why couldn't I see that then?' He looked wistfully at Dr. Gerber as if actually expecting a response, something that could perhaps serve to reconcile him with the life he had always lived and enjoyed, a life which he now despised as na've and meaningless.

Gerber, however, knew better than answer the question. Instead, he asked,

'Mr. Kempf, do you know why you're here?'

The man sighed heavily, and lay back down on the couch; suddenly everything seemed normal and relaxed once more; the tension drained out of Gerber's shoulders, and he settled back into his chair.

'I'm here because some Judge Judy believed I went off my rocker when I suddenly decided I didn't care about my fortune anymore, and tried to throw myself off of Kempf Inc. Headquarters' rooftop.'

'And what, Mr. Kempf, inspired this sudden change of heart?'

'Well, I suppose it was Ozzy.'

'Ozzy, as in Ozzy Osbourne?' What the hell was this? Another twist?

He chuckled sadly. 'Not the real Ozzy. Just some crazy bum who begs at the bottom of our office building. I call him that because he has those same round, purple glasses as the real Ozzy. Anyways, one day as I was walking into work, he shouts to me as I'm walking by, 'You know the only difference between you and me? Your custom-made suit and white teeth! You ain't smarter or better, you just richer!' And damn it, he's right! All it comes down to is money. And I am sick and tired of money. I can't get away from it! After he said that, I began thinking about it; the truth of what he said hit me. It's everywhere. Money permeates every single one of our actions, directly or indirectly. It's despicable!'

'So you tried to kill yourself.'

'Yeah, yeah I did. I mean, it wouldn't have been that big of a deal. The company could have gotten on fine without me, besides the bad publicity.' He stopped himself and cursed. 'There I go again, talking about publicity, finance, money! Always money! It's drilled into my head and I can't get it out!' He started cursing and pulling at his hair.

'What about your responsibilities, your commitments to your family?' Gerber was grasping at straws, desperately trying to calm Kempf down without letting his distress show. He was too young for this. He wanted to help old ladies get over their addiction to cats, not fix some millionaire's hobo-induced identity crisis.

Kempf smiled bitterly. 'I'm an only child, because my parents didn't want to spend any more money on kids than they had to. As for them, they're both long gone.' He blew out a long sigh, slid into his shoes and pulled on his jacket, apparently deciding that the meeting was over, and that he had had enough. Gerber tried to at least partially salvage the appointment.

'Mr Kempf, will you make me a promise?'

'Yeah yeah,' he grunted, knowing what Gerber would ask. 'I promise not to try and kill myself again until our next meeting.'

'Thank you.'


David Gerber swirled the vodka around his glass and stared absentmindedly out of the window, down into the brightly lit, busy streets of Manhattan. From his penthouse apartment, the avenues were nothing more than ribbons of multicolored light, lit up by headlights, neon signs, and animated billboards.

He sighed. Try as he might, he couldn't get Kempf's rant out of his head. Everything the man had said rang painfully true; as far as he could remember, David had always been motivated to get a better apartment, better car, better TV; and to get those things he needed money. So he had sacrificed his life, his ideals, and his values, all for a chance to earn an extra bit of cash.

He looked around his apartment. It was virtually perfect, like a picture from an IKEA magazine. He had hired an interior designer to set up the space for him, one of the best around, and she had done a stellar job. Still, the apartment felt... empty. It was missing life. Everything felt artificial. Fake. Meaningless. He couldn't even see his own touch in the apartment. Apparently, the interior designer had done too good a job. He noticed a garish abstract Picasso painting hanging above a brown leather couch. I hate Picasso, Gerber thought to himself. Why on Earth did I buy this?

'It fits the atmosphere of the room,' his designer had said. What atmosphere?

Trailing his troubled stare across the furniture, paintings, and rugs, David felt like he was in a someone else's home. A stranger's, whose taste and personality he did not recognize. He had spent ridiculous amounts of money on this apartment, these items, this lifestyle. Everything else had seemed secondary to him. If he could only become rich and successful, he had believed, then everything else would work itself out, everything would fall into place. And yet it hadn't. He was rich, he was successful, but he was still unsatisfied and unhappy. Kempf's tirade had made him face that dissatisfaction face-on, and it was painful.

Gerber paced around the room, trying desperately to feel a connection to the items around him, a connection that could convince him that these things mattered to him, that they were a part of him. Yet as he struggled, the feeling welled up within him that everything he had done, all the sacrifices he had made, all the efforts he had put forth, it had all been for nothing. He had single-mindedly chased a dream and a life that he thought would be ideal; only now, once he had achieved that life, did he realize how empty it was.

'Damn you Kempf!' He kicked over a vase of fake orchids, and turned away in disgust. Everywhere he looked he was faced with unfamiliar, impersonal objects; they all reminded him of the bland life he lived, of the path that he had chosen and now hated. He tried desperately to find himself in the apartment, looking for pictures of his family, of his mother and father, or of his sister who was in college... where? He didn't even know. But the desktops and counters were clean, bare, and pristine. He had become so wrapped up in his efforts to find happiness through money and material perfection that his heart, his values, and his true personality had been left in the dust. He had stopped caring about his patients long ago; all that mattered to him now were the checks they wrote out at the end of each session. He remember, a long time ago, when he had actually cared about making the world a better place, and had done his utmost to help his patients' peace of mind; before society had jaded him.

David felt lightheaded, overcome by confusing and clashing emotions. He decided to get some fresh air, in the hopes that it would help clear his mind and give him some respite from all the tormenting questions that filled his head. He stumbled up a flight of stairs to a door that opened onto the apartment building rooftop. When he opened it, the door flew out of his hand and banged on its hinges as a powerful gust of wind tried to pull it away. He stepped out into the raging winds, pushed the door shut, and walked to the edge of the skyscraper, breathing deeply. Kempf was right, he reflected. The wind really did make you feel clean and free. He spread his arms wide and stepped onto the lip of the building, breathing deeply.

Standing among the antennas and rooftops of New York City, the most famous, busy, and corrupt city in the world, he realized that none of it mattered. He felt pity for the millions of men and women still trapped under the spell of society, but relished his own freedom. Finally untangled from the web that he had spun around himself, he could not help but laugh, both at his own past foolishness, and at how obvious the answers he subconsciously sought had always been.

He stared out into the soft black sky above New York, and silently wished Mr. Karl Kempf III a speedy recovery and happy life.

Then he jumped.

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sara said...
Feb. 15, 2010 at 10:31 pm
haha i loved that story so much. its so true, and i found it kinda funny, while making me feel guilty about my goals in life. great story.
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