“Oncie, my darling boy, this is incredible! You’ve made your mama proud.”
“Although personally I thought that the celebration today was a little underwhelming, didn’t you? I mean, all they could spare for a performance was the city marching band? Someone as important as you should at least get someone famous to perform for him!”
“I didn’t think it was that bad…”
“No, of course you wouldn’t. After all, just a little while ago you were the one who was standing up in the center of town and trying to promote Thneeds by playing your silly guitar! But you’ve got to get used to being classier now. At this rate, you’re sure to be the top dog soon, and you need tastes to match.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“You’re on your way, sweetie. Just remember, things can only get better from here!”
The Once-ler wasn’t so sure.
He was looking out the window, which was much easier than looking at the desk he was seated at, where his gangly arms were folded haphazardly among the rapidly accumulating stacks of paperwork and order forms. And it was much, much easier than looking at his mother, who he could already picture clearly in his mind’s eye. Right now she’d have that disgustingly contemptuous expression on her face, smug, self-assured. She was always like that. She was could never, ever let herself be wrong – so when things took a different direction from what she’d expected, she had of course known what would really happen the whole time, and anytime someone failed she’d be the first person to peer over the tip of her nose and sneer down at them, and anytime an unlikely underdog rose to success it would turn out that her criticisms had just been encouragement in disguise, cleverly engineered bits of reverse psychology.
Or maybe he was the only one she’d ever done that to. It wouldn’t be surprising.
He gingerly lifted the top hat from his head and tugged off his elbow-length gloves, one finger at a time. Neither article of clothing really felt like they were his. They were bright green and flashy and satiny, the sort of things reserved for millionaires and celebrities. Of course, after today he was both a millionaire and a celebrity, but it was still a bit disconcerting to swap his normal understated garments for something that made him look like a walking dollar bill.
The celebration that day, which had lasted from midmorning to well past sunset, had been entirely devoted to him and his Thneeds. This was a mere three months after his current customers had been literally lining up to throw produce at him whenever he tried to advertise. At first, the Once-ler had thought that it might be a refreshing break from his normal routine. His business was bogging him down more and more now, mostly with the grueling technicalities of management and paperwork, and partying for an entire day had sounded just right to him. But for some reason, it hadn’t been. The jovial music had blared, the crowds had cheered for him even before he made the little speech he’d been scheduled to give, and every vendor’s cart had sold out its entire supply of Thneeds and had received enough back orders to keep the company in business for another ten years. But something had kept him from joining in on the enthusiasm. Maybe it was the creepy-crawly feeling he got from seeing twisted depictions of his own face plastered over every surface. Maybe it was because he knew that his family would be preening themselves like peacocks and drinking in the praise that they hadn’t warranted at all. Or maybe…
“So, when are you putting up the new factory?” asked his mother.
The Once-ler started. “Huh? What new factory? I don’t have plans for any – ”
“Then you need to make plans! After today, everyone in the world is going to want a Thneed – no – need a Thneed! And the only way you can possibly keep up with all that demand is to build another factory.”
“What’s wrong with the one we already have?”
“Oncie, why would you even ask such a stupid question! Obviously, it’s too small.”
“But it’s not even a month old yet! Besides, we’ve been seeing some problems with, like, the smog and stuff, and we’re still trying to fix it! We can’t build a new factory until we – ”
“Forget about the smog!” She put her hands on her hips, where her fingers pattered out dangerous little rhythms. “This is big business we’re talking about here! Your money and success is on the line, you know!”
At last, the Once-ler felt that he had no other choice than to turn around and glare at her. “Mom, who’s the boss around here, you or me?”
His mother’s eyes widened slightly; then her lips curled into a saccharine, condescending smile, exaggerated by the layers of smeared makeup she had applied for the celebration, and she strode forward to wrap her arms around him from behind. “Oncie,” she trilled, “darling, you know I’d never, ever want to tell you what to do now that you’re all grown up. But…”
He stiffened, all too familiar with that tone of voice. It was the “fake nice” voice, the one that allowed her to mock him without ever having to say a single unkind word. Her embrace was as smothering and troublesome as the toxic smog that had recently begun rising from the smokestacks of his factory, and the manicured hands that were supposed to be gripping his shoulders seemed too close to his neck for comfort.
“But you don’t get it,” she continued. “You’ve always been a little boy with little dreams, and now your dream is getting so much bigger!” She pinched his cheek between manicured thumb and forefinger, and it took an effort for him not to recoil from her. “It’s time to start thinking less about yourself and more about other people. Like your customers! Instead of thinking about what you want, think about what they want? And what about your poor old family? What about me? Do you really want to go back to being the failure you used to be, Oncie?”
The Once-ler swallowed, his throat pulsing beneath her fingers. He didn’t want to listen to her, but now he couldn’t help but think about all those years he’d spent as a hopeless entrepreneur, stumbling around and acting like a fool in the hopes that one day he could make something of himself. Back then, “making something of himself” had meant becoming a modest success, making a comfortable living and improving people’s lives with his inventions. Never in a million years had he anticipated all of this fame, idolization, hard work, and stress. But at least that was better than being unknown…wasn’t it?
“No,” he said quietly. “I don’t want that.”
“That’s my boy.” Her nails gave his shoulders a sharp squeeze, before she mercifully stepped back.
He cleared his throat as the first few plans for the new factory flitted around in his head like semi-formed butterflies. For now, though, he didn’t think that he could stand to look at another form or blueprint or market trajectory chart. “I think I’ll be going to bed now, Mom, if you don’t mind. I’m pretty tired out. Big day, you know.”
“Oh, sure. I’ll let you get some sleep. Remember, dear, I’m so proud of you!”
No, you’re not.
He undressed quickly, eager to be rid of his suffocating dress clothes. At least his pajamas were the same. They were worn out and didn’t look like anything that the owner of a mega-successful corporation should be wearing, but at least they were comfortable, and he could say without a doubt that they were his and his alone. It was the same for the room around him. He hadn’t yet moved into more luxuriant living spaces, and his mother had started complaining about how plain and threadbare his old portable house was, but to him it felt like home. He flopped down on his bed and blew a strand of dark hair away from his eyes.
Same old pajamas. Same old room. Same old bed. It was only his life that wasn’t the same anymore.
Was there any logical reason for him to be feeling this way? After all, the Once-ler had been dreaming of this day for a long, long time. Sure, he hadn’t thought that it would actually happen, but who didn’t dream of being raised up on a pedestal and hailed as a genius? And, okay, maybe things weren’t perfect…maybe his mother wasn’t suddenly supporting and loving, like she had been in his old fantasies, but she wasn’t sneering at him about how worthless he was, either. And maybe there was a little smog in the air and a few more tree stumps in the forest, but those things didn’t affect him, and they didn’t really matter right now anyway. He was rich, and renown, and everybody loved him. He’d proved his family wrong and achieved his lifelong goal. He had everything that he’d ever wanted.
So why was he almost wishing that things would go back to the way they had been before?
“Have fun today, kid?” a voice asked coldly.
The Once-ler immediately shot up from where he was laying, his eyes darting over to the kitchen area. Sure enough, a squat round creature with pale orange fur was seated between the haphazard stacks of unwashed dishes. The Once-ler frowned; now, he knew that this visitor hadn’t been there just a moment earlier.
“What are you doing in my room?” he snapped, in no mood for polite small talk.
The Lorax, in typical Lorax fashion, ignored his question. “Guess you had a big day, huh?” he went on coolly. “Partying, making speeches to all your adoring fans…making promises you don’t intend to keep, maybe?”
“Can we talk about this another time?” sighed the Once-ler in exasperation, sprawling back down on the mattress, resisting the urge to pull a pillow over his head.
“Why? So you can have one of your million secretaries blow me off again?”
“Seriously, I don’t want to talk right now…”
“Aww, what’s the matter? Did you get yourself all tired out from making money and filling the air with smog?”
Suddenly, the Lorax was forced to drop himself to the floor in alarm when a pillow went sailing towards him. The Once-ler’s teeth were gritted as he clutched the edge of his footboard, his long legs causing his knees to jut out like a frog’s, his tousled hair sticking up in an unruly mess like a bunch of floppy spikes.
“Look, just shut up, okay!” he shouted. “While you sit on your furry butt all day, I have to get up at the crack of dawn every morning and work until, like, midnight! And I am working, not just counting my piles of money the way you seem to think I do! And so what if today was a celebration? It wasn’t that much better! If you think I’m so bad, then why do you keep coming back here, huh?! I’m not forcing you to know me!”
The Lorax softened. “I keep coming because I know you’re better than this, beanpole. I know you’ve been waiting for this success, but that doesn’t mean that you have to destroy everything in your way!”
“I can’t go around everything, either! I have to go faster.”
“Faster? Says who?”
“Well, who says you have to listen to everyone?”
The Once-ler’s fists clenched tighter around the footboard. “Do you have a family?”
The Lorax remained silent.
“If you had a family,” the Once-ler continued, “and if your family had made fun of you at every single chance they got – stomped on your dreams any time they could – then you’d know why I have to do this. Because for my whole life, I wondered if maybe they were right. And now I know…they’re not. They were wrong. I was right! And there’s no way I can let this slip away from me! I’m not going to go back to being that idiot with the guitar getting hit by tomatoes!”
The Lorax blinked at him slowly.
“Well…” responded the old creature carefully, “…at least ‘that idiot with the guitar’ that I used to know was happy. But you don’t seem to be happy anymore.”
“Uh, no, of course I’m not happy. I was trying to sleep and then you just waltzed right in here.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
The Once-ler spread his arms in defeat. “Look, I’m happy! Okay? This is what I’ve always wanted! And I’m already trying to make sure that things don’t get out of hand, so you don’t need to lecture me! I’m working on a way to get rid of the smog, and there’s still plenty of trees…”
The Lorax exhaled harshly, his moustache bristling. “You’re not happy, beanpole. But soon you’re gonna be convincing yourself that you are. And when you do, there’s going to be consequences, for you and for everyone else. Things you can’t even begin to imagine.”
“Right now, all I want to imagine is me going to sleep. So, thanks for coming, but there’s the door!” The Once-ler thrust a finger towards said door pointedly. “Don’t let it hit you on the way out!”
The Lorax shuffled out quietly, sneaking a few glances back at the Once-ler, who snapped off the light and hauled the comforter over his head as a means of preventing further conversation. Even with the blanket flattened against his ear, he could still her the scuffling sounds as his unwelcome visitor jumped for the doorknob, and then the telltale click-slam informing him that he was alone in the room once again. He grunted softly, rolling over. Everything would look better in the morning, he knew. He always turned irritable when he got overtired. By the time he woke up for work tomorrow, this would all be a distant, fuzzy memory that he would never have to have the displeasure of reliving again.
Outside the Once-ler’s house, the Lorax gazed up at the stars drifting between banks of unnatural gray-green clouds with a sigh. No one else was out and about in the truffula valley that night, but if someone had been out there, they would have heard him mutter as he trudged away:
“So say I’m old fashioned and live in the past,
But sometimes I think progress progresses too fast…”