A template of Innate Ethics has been a preoccupation of mine for decades, and I’m hoping to complete a book on them soon. The God Gun came from that idea, and blended with ideas of some sort of serious civil confrontation. All of which I feel is nullified by chiropractic answering the call on medical and social welfare spending, and therefore taxes.
The Political Officer got up very slowly from behind his desk, staring at the heavy rifle case lain on his desk as if it contained the death of him. He came around with the same stiff edge of caution and dread, switching hands on his long red lacquer cigarette holder. He never took his eyes off the bulky plastic case that obviously held some sort of weapon. The Political Officer, Shirley Folk, had taken up the filthy habit of smoking again, brought on by the stress of the War that had gone on far longer than anyone anticipated. But the old stigma attached to the smoking habit now was mostly gone, since a few higher ups had come to be known to do it again.
Shirley Folk stared down at the case the two soldiers had carried in. A plain plastic hardshell case. Surprisingly light weight.
“Open it,” Folk directed.
After a second’s hesitation, one of the Homeland Security officers unsnapped the chrome cleats. Deep embossed on the lid was the Octavian Arms logo. Just the sight of the logo stirred some animal dread in Shirley. There it was. What the entire upper echelon was talking about. Shirley almost doubted the rumors.
The gun appeared made of flimsy military green plastic like a toy. Two elongated rectangular pieces with a crude sight array, a rifle stock and a pistol grip. The business end didn’t even have a hole for a bullet or projectile.
The gun looked so toy-like that it seemed all the more sinister.
“That’s it?” Folk curtly asked the two soldiers.
“Yes, sir. That’s all he brought.” The DHS officer said, feeling stupid.
Shirley held his cigarette holder in both hands. “Bring him in.”
The DHS officer brought in a plain-looking man in a denim jacket and older jeans and a lovely new pair of Ferragamo loafers that were certainly rare to see these days. Shirley almost scowled. They were the only ones allowed to put on airs with their dress anymore. Their women could wear real fur coats.
That’s okay. Their time will come.
The man glanced around the room uncertain who was in charge. He realized it must be Shirley, beside the gun. Shirley noted how everyone in the room was on pins and needles, waiting on his lead. Gone were the days of loose joviality.
“This is a Psyche-Pulse weapon?” Shirley asked him. The screens on his wrist and his pad winked on. He impulsed them into dormancy again.
“Yes, Political Officer, it is.”
“How did you get it?”
“I was an engineer at Octavian Arms.”
“Why did you steal it?”
“Because I am loyal to our side.”
Shirley’s eyes returned to the object.
“You know it looks like a toy?”
“I’m well aware of that, Mr. Folk. But it is the real McCoy.”
Shirley touched the nib of his cigarette holder to his lips and took a careful, probative sip. “So—how does it shoot?”
“It doesn’t shoot a projectile per se; it shoots a perfectly tuned electromagnetic signal.” The engineer watched the Political Officer digest this. “I’m told that the signal poses a simple question to the target.”
Shirley leveled his gaze. “A question?”
“Yes, sir. A question.”
“—How does it do that?”
“It is my understanding it is same as an old-time radio signal.” He hesitated; it seemed so queerly fantastic. “The signal is so perfectly calibrated to the amygdala as to make it past all other biological chatter. And the query is made.”
Shirley pinched the nib tightly, staring.
The Psyche-Pulse God Gun. Just too f-ing unreal.
The next question opened to the dark behind an anonymous door. “And what does it ask the target brain?”
The engineer hesitated. He cringed at answering out loud. You never knew what insulted these higher ups. “It—asks a moral question. Sir.” He had known this would be the toughest part of the sale.
Shirley felt the dread again. This is what the intel implied, but never said. As if no one in Intelligence wanted to know the answer. Because how could the other side have this weapon if this were true? People in the Party had chuckled it off. But then, all the horrible disfiguring. The photos were quickly eliminated. Before they demoralized anyone. There was talk that the enemy had been first to make alien contact. This could be disastrous. It could end the war. If only our side had gotten there first. This weapon would stop the Fascists from waltzing into New York or Chicago or Seattle and setting up kangaroo courts for war crimes. Who could explain those injuries?
Shirley sat on his desk beside the case. “You don’t seem to be all that confident in telling me precisely how this thing works.”
The engineer coughed into his fist. “Well, sir, Octavian keeps all departments separate. I worked on what looked like calibration. The most difficult part.”
“How so? Why—would that be?”
“Well, the difficulty in getting the full attention of the subconscious. In making it see that a decision must be made.” He knew this was hard to follow. And that doubt could not be far behind. “You see, the entire theory behind this weapon is that there is a universal right and wrong, Good and Evil, and it is in this context that the gun allegedly makes an inquiry past the individual’s preferences.”
Shirley squinted confusedly. “But that’s bullshit. That can’t happen.”
“I don’t believe it either, sir. I’m just reporting what is said.” No one interrupted, so he went on. “The target is made to ask themselves if they have led a worthy life, if the causes they support are moral—” He could see flame creep into Folk’s neck.
Shirley waited for the part that had dropped off. “And?”
The engineer screwed his head sideways. “The gun asks if the individual is not making the world a better place, then why not—get rid of themselves?”
Shirley painfully let out a breath he’d held for a minute.
Did that explain the wrenching disfigurements?
“They get rid of themselves?”
The photos had been only too vivid.
“And—where does the bullet come out?”
“I don’t want to be held responsible for wild war rumors, sir.”
“Well, how do you test it?” Shirley demanded. “Do you use animal subjects? They don’t do anything evil.” Shirley’s mind pushed away the images.
“They say the brain rebels against itself. I have no idea how to test it, Mr. Folk.”
Shirley leaned over his desk, stonily uncomprehending. He looked around as if for his cigarette holder that was still clenched in his left fist. “Mr. Okonye, I’m sure you’ll be well compensated by stealing this little device. But I’m beginning to question your entire story here. How could this thing do what you say?”
“There is an assumption on the other side about an internal moral construct. For example, if you remove politics from a situation it becomes clear what the moral thing to do is.” Okonye could see Folk needed more. “If we fail to live a healthy lifestyle then the body drives us toward breakdown and faster aging. Their claim is that all of that is accelerated somehow with the gun, sir. That’s all.”
“I see. That’s all,” Folk repeated.
He thought about what the other side said about moral relativism.
The engineer shut up. He let the Political Officer rummage among the pieces for those he preferred. Folk sank into his desk chair. He looked over the gun case at his Captain by the door, wondering what he made of all this.
The Captain said to Okonye, “But where does the power come from? It looks like the bodies are exploded.”
“It comes from the person.” Okonye paused. “Our body uses fantastic amounts of energy to run itself. Something like—a person could light up New York for a year. I figured we could duplicate the weapon, and program it with our moral code, then we could tip the war back in our favor.” He realized suddenly what he had said.
Shirley straightened himself deliberately. What reason did Okonye have for thinking they were not winning the war? Did it look that bad from the outside? Was it the rumors about this gun? Shirley started to wonder if he believed this entire story. “I just want to know how you managed to steal this.”
“I snatched and grabbed it.”
“So, they know you took it.”
“Now they do.”
“Any way it’s not the real thing? A plant?”
The engineer shook his head. “They would’ve had to suspect me. And I’ve just never given them any shred of reason to.”
“What is the power source?”
The engineer made a sheepish face. “A 9 volt battery.”
Shirley’s sneered. “A 9 volt battery? I’ve seen what this thing can do!”
The engineer didn’t know how to respond.
“Then how are you sure of any of this?”
The engineer’s shoulders twitched. “Mr. Folk, I did the best I could.”
Folk put up his hand to shut him up. He pulled out the stub of his cigarette and laid it in the heavy amber ashtray. “Mr. Okonye, have you tested it?”
The engineer didn’t budge. He hadn’t dared.
Folk regarded his two Homeland Security officers. “Go to the stockade. Round up some POWs and bring them in.”
The Captain hesitated. “But, sir—”
“Are you reconsidering my order for me?”
“Well, sir, it’s just that, when the war ends—”
“They used the weapons on us!”
The Captain hung by the door.
Folk exploded. “You can be my test subject, Mister!” The Captain nodded and the two soldiers hurried out. Folk stewed over their conduct. This War.
Folk, his Captain, and Okonye waited. Folk stared at his platinum cigarette case in his hands. Okonye refused to lower his eyes and look suspicious. He wondered if he would have done this all over again had he the chance. Would the blasted thing even work? The last two years of the War, he had longed for this day to get back with his own side and steal something for them that would get him noticed. A cottage on the Hudson. Even just a car. Really, he had hoped for much more. Now, he felt you were better off never bringing yourself to their attention.
They heard the approaching scrape of heavy chains and boots on the scarred wood floor. Into the office stepped five POWs, American GIs. All of them had bruises and cuts on their faces from going through it. One fellow’s eye was puckered fatty white with a rind of purple. Their skin and hair were dense with muck and stink. The smell of long unwash and thick adrenaline from uncertainty stabbed the room with vile putridity as they were forced in front of the desk.
“Oh, ho-ho!” Shirley Folk laughed, covering his mouth against their smell. “Enjoying your restful stay, gentlemen?” He mocked them, but a part of him cringed at the conditions for these POWs that were never going home unless they lucked out on a prisoner swap across the DMZ. The worry hole crept into Shirley’s gut again of the wrong side winning, of holding people accountable for what they had done.
What we’ve done. And they know us now.
And now they had this weapon.
The American GIs looked around, gauging the situation. A Political Officer with full Party insignia and bars. The cigarette holder from Hogan’s Heroes and the flesh of the Party elite with well enough to eat every night.
Shirley saw the soldiers spy the weird plastic gun. He also saw how the dingus fazed them a bit. He hitched up his hip and placed it on the corner of the desk. The name tag said “Bailey” barely legible under grime on the battle jacket of the captain. “I want you gentlemen to help me with something. If you cooperate, I can arrange for you to be separated from the other political prisoners and given special quarters.”
Captain David Bailey had whispered to his men coming down the hall to stand up straight; don’t slump. Your last weapon was the look on your face. It was the last “fuck you” you could lay your hands on, after all they’d done.
“You’ll have more to eat,” Folk added casually.
“You can spare more roaches?” Bailey said.
Bailey had thought every day in captivity about another captain in another war. Every day, they beat that guy. They crushed his hands and fingers so that he would never be able to hold a pen right for the rest of his life, and how the turncoat press working for these guys back in the day had mocked him for it, like they always mocked you, when he ran for political office. David Bailey always wondered what he would do if they gave him that same offer like that guy, to get out of the POW camp if he left his men, him an admiral’s kid. That other guy never folded. He gave them the finger every day. And they beat the shit out of him for it.
Bailey had never known precisely what he would do or say. Since he figured his “countrymen” were most likely going to kill him anyway.
“We’ll stick with our guys. We do think you should let us all go and end this stupid war you started.”
“We didn’t start it. You did. You racists!”
Folk wondered which way to go with this guy. He could have the useless piece of shit taken out and shot. “What are we fighting for? We’re countrymen!” He patted his hand casually on the plastic top of the dingus.
Bailey shrugged, not looking at the gun. “Maybe because we won’t kneel?”
Folk smiled as if he liked this guy. But he didn’t. Something in him could not stand it when they said something clever. “Do you know what this is?” Folk watched Bailey look at the weapon for the first time.
Bailey got a quizzical look. “A God Gun?”
“That’s right. I want to test it on your men.”
Bailey noticed how the civilian in the Ferragamo’s stiffened at the idea of playing witness to something like this. “You want me to pick my own men?”
“You’re afraid of it, then?”
“No. I’m not afraid of it. Why would I be?”
“So, you don’t know that much about it, do you?”
Bailey half squinted at the Political Officer.
Folk nodded. “What does it do? Genetically recognize you all?” Shirley stopped. That was a good idea. He saw Okonye snared by that idea too. That made more sense than the other thing. But then, how would they know if you were a traitor switching sides? And the other side also believed that they had scientific proof that ideological decisions, just like everything else, trickled down to DNA.
Is that how this thing works?
Creepiness crawled up and down Shirley’s spine. That must be it! That made more sense than there being a real God with real good and evil imprinted on the world. That crap was just to demoralize the enemy. Well, two could play at that game.
“Pick out two to test it on.”
“You think I’m going to help you?” Bailey said. “No matter what I do from here on, you’re swinging on your own noose for this one, pal.”
Shirley felt his anger boil. He couldn’t stand it when they thought they were smarter than you. He snatched the weapon up and threatened the POWs with it, feeling ridiculous since he didn’t even believe the thing worked. The POWs looked at him in the same way, wondering what they should do. “What is it called?”
“It’s called a Psych-2,” another POW said.
Folk pointed at the door. “Let’s go outside.”
The group reassembled in the parking lot. Shirley saw the houses down the block where people might be watching. Two sandbagged machine gun emplacements and razor wire atop the high fence guarded the headquarters. Three troop trucks stood in the lot. Shirley directed the men to head behind the troop trucks where no prying eyes could see. He didn’t even trust the men behind the sandbags.
“You POWs, stand against the wall.”
Bailey and his men ranged along the wall.
Shirley studied the gun, confusedly. “This is how I shoot it?” He’d never been to a basic training. He’d been meaning to learn ever since the election was suspended due to tampering. But they had been fighting ever since.
“May I?” Okonye said. He made his way over, reaching for the safety.
Shirley watched with keen interest as the switch clicked.
“You’ve got it ready now.” Okonye stepped away.
“This is the trigger?” Shirley directed the toy gun at the soldier on the end. The soldier stood in antique leg irons and manacles found in the basement. He looked at Bailey and thought of his wife and four kids in Indiana in case this went very wrong. From the first day he had feared leaving his kids without a dad. He thought of his oldest boy, Jacob Jr., not knowing for six months now where his father was, or whether he was even alive or dead, because these guys used everything on the hog but the squeal to mess with their enemy.
“I miss you, Jake,” he said aloud. “I love you, son. Know that I woulda come back, if I could. I love you all. Rayna. Lester. Miller. Honey.”
Shirley jerked at the trigger.
The God Gun gave three indications that something had happened—the plastic trigger clicked, an orange light blinked, and it vibrated.
The soldier stood, unharmed.
Private Jacob Javitz heaved a huge sigh and shut his eyes. I’m still here. He felt inside for anything. He was okay except for his left knee jangling from fear.
Shirley jerked the trigger again. Click, buzz, slow orange light. He rattled the end in disgust. “What the fuck? Look!” He squeezed the trigger again. “It is a toy! It’s a freakin’ toy or a plant for a stooge like you!” He said angrily to Okonye. He aimed at the next POW in line, who put up his hands. “Look! Look!” He jerked the trigger. Click. Buzz. Slow orange light. “Nothing! Fucking nothing happens!”
Shirley laughed. He shook the toy worthlessly.
“It ain’t shit! . . . It ain’t dick!” He pointed the dingus at Okonye’s feet, who put up his hands and took a step back. “Look at this stupid thing! Are you the stupidest asshole that ever lived?” Shirley shook the gun like an empty water pistol. He chuckled in relief that the weapon wasn’t real. “A 9 volt battery.” Maybe it doesn’t have a battery? He opened a slot on the pistol grip. It had a battery.
“Watch me kill myself!” he said.
Shirley Folk brought up the business end to his jaw and squeezed the trigger.
Everyone heard the cheap plastic Click!
The ground bounced. A flash-corona of red-purple vapor replaced the top half of Shirley Folk’s body, knocking back the men around him. The explosion was muffled like a stick of dynamite in a safe. The black dress uniform had stretched and torn in wet, searing pieces around a trunk that had popped like a massive popcorn kernel. A hissing lump with legs slumped where a “man” had been.
This story went into the “Overmorrow” sci-fi anthology in 2020. I developed it from chapter seven in “Robot, Archangel”, and liked it so much that I included it in the final version of the novel.
“Do you want to fly to dinner, Jason?”
The boy couldn’t believe the luck. “Sure! Hell, yeah!”
“Alright. Take it easy with the tough language,” Aras warned.
“Where are we going? Can I pick?”
Ginger came around the corner from the expansive, gallery-white living room with a deviant smirk on her mouth for her teenage son. “Why are you editing his language?” she said to Aras, her husband. She goosed her son’s bony ribs. He clinched to escape her thumb. “Let this growing boy cuss all he wants! Right?”
Jason tittered at his mom’s patronizing. “Yeah.”
“Don’t encourage ugly behavior,” Aras told his wife.
“Oh, please. Screw ugly. Right, buddy?” She made to goose Jason again.
“Yeah. I guess so.”
“‘Ey! I’m on your side! Gen Fed, baby!”
“So, where are we going?” Jason asked his father.
Ginger wondered why she tried so hard with this kid. No matter what she did or said, he always seemed to look up to his father.
“Luigi’s. It’s sunset. Sit outdoors.” Aras glanced invitingly at his wife. The roof deck had been one of their date spots since before Jason was born.
“Can we leave after I finish my game?”
Ginger hooked her arm over her son’s neck and smooched him on the cheek. “You bet. And don’t forget to wash up. You reek.”
The family gathered at the lip of the living room over a clear evening rich with scarlet slashes in the sky. Jason had his learner’s permit, and leaned out awkwardly over the lip of the living room floor. “Wha-hoo!” Jason hollered as they dropped. He was copying verbatim the move his father used quite a bit. Aras, uneasy in the virtual passenger seat, said, “Alright. Not too fast. Not too much drop. . . . ”
Ginger razzed her husband. “You hilarious prude!” Wasn’t she the one always trying to give Jason more slack?
“Dad! You do this all the time!”
“And I’ve been flying a lot longer.”
“Dad. Tech won’t let anything happen, jeez.”
“You want me to upchuck down your neck?”
The family flew out into the twilight, climbing unevenly back around the girth of the building toward the golden onion domes of Center City half a city away. Jason enjoyed the flight even more since he was the one doing it, and lowered them down to Luigi’s Tuscan where they got a stone table under the hanging lights.
“So, Dad,” Jason said, “some of the kids are talking about there being a secret plan to wipe out the waste. Is that true?”
Ginger grinned around a bite of pizza.
“Uh. Who’s talking that up?” Aras asked.
“There’s been talk like that for four hundred years,” Ginger said.
“Some of the kids. Like Felix. He says he has a robot idea to do it and do the environmental clean up. He also says he has a way to glimpse food into our stomachs so we don’t have to eat any more. Isn’t that a cool idea?”
Aras shook his head impatiently. “So guys, I have a surprise.”
“That idea was dropped long ago because people enjoy eating,” Ginger said to her son. “Tell Felix I said he’s stupid.”
Aras found it interesting that even school kids were thinking about the issue. But then, why wouldn’t they? “So—guys, we’re going on vacation.”
“Yeah!” Jason barked. “Where to?”
“Buffalo Safari,” Aras said.
“Yeah, baby!” Jason crowed. “When are we leaving?”
“I’m assuming this is okay with you?” Aras asked Ginger. Ginger could have glimpsed up any request he made for leave or for safari or anything. But if she ever did she would only have spoiled the surprise. “We’ll leave tonight, if it’s okay.”
Ginger shrugged, touched by the effort. “Cool with me.”
“Yeah! Buffalo Safari! Can I invite any of the guys?”
The family rose up from Luigi’s and Jason omitted the dive since they had just finished eating. He could have had Tech buffer it but he didn’t want to because it might aggravate his dad. They soared west over the great featureless expanse of territory outside of the metropolis. Pittsburgh came up on the right. Chicago would be next. Ginger grew annoyed at how long the flight was taking since Jason could not fly as fast as his father was able. And the unevenness.
“Baby, let your dad or me take over,” she said to Jason.
“He’s got it. He’s got it,” Aras responded gently. He gave her a look to be more patient. She rolled her eyes at him.
Jason got better, but there was only unending dark below. “Are we there yet?” Ginger carped. Finally, Aras told Jason to descend, into the massed twilight. The grassy prairie came abruptly into focus like a threat, and they gently landed beside bundles of equipment that Tech had pre-stationed. Jason’s nose immediately caught the sharp, damp, woolly odor of the great herd nearby. He heard grunts and quiet squeaks of grass ripped up by blunt teeth. He smelled the loamy black earth. He ordered Tech to raise his retinal sensitivity. The herd was just thirty yards away! Aras, grinning ear to ear, hand-signaled Jason and Ginger to be sure to stay quiet. Tech would not let them be hurt, but it was so much more fun and raw to keep Tech to a minimum. “Oh, my God!” Ginger whispered the words to Aras.
Aras signaled them to follow. They tiptoed right into the massive disheveled creatures with towering shaggy humps. Jason saw their eyes in the infrared enabling. Buffalo safari was his new favorite thing. Smells and memories from the two other trips tumbled back, but they were knocked aside by the new sounds and sensations of being in with the herd. The Ngorongnoro was so cool—but bison. Their smell. The dust, the sweated mounds of wool—his Dad was the greatest.
Jason made out fleet shapes of wolves! The herd had not sensed them yet. Jason jabbed his finger to show his father.
Ginger felt a wave of fondness for Aras. She liked him trying this way. But recently, something had been gnawing at her. Everyone had always said they were crazy. But they were having Jason. They hadn’t cared about convention. They had felt in their gut that a child needed both parents, although that was not the belief widely held in their society. But this lurking question had been stalking. Now, next to the godlike primitiveness of these beasts, the emotion leaned out of hiding just enough. Milton Aras was hunky, he dressed well, he was relevant, he had the rarest thing in the world—a job that wasn’t fake. He was Deputy Chief of Security on his way to being Chief one day. The sinecure bureaucrats in a pointless bureaucracy looked up to him because he cared, he actually did things. . . . But, there it was. Ginger watched him grin at her for this crazy shared thrill. This was incredible, but he had been oblivious to her doubts, amazingly. She thought about how Tech scanned the minds of these beasts and etched out any realization about her and her family intruding on their space. It pushed their minds to keep them from stepping on one of them. Ginger waved to Aras flirtingly. She didn’t like that he was a stickler for the rules. She could have glimpsed up the Rules of the Great Wichita Game Preserve for herself, or Tech would just block her if she did something against the rules. But she didn’t give a rat’s ass. The reckless boredom for her marriage made her want to touch a buffalo. Boredom could do that; like a saline drip of grey poison. She reached up for the mane of the bull towering next to her, and pouted naughtily at her husband, who gawked at her. Her fingers disappeared into the stiff carpet of coarse hair that echoed the warmth of her skin. Ginger yanked down hard as if she intended to climb up and ride the thing. The brute swung his massive black head around, his weak eye trying to pierce the dark. His huge wet nostrils snuffled wet and cool against her knee, then he went back to foraging. Ginger marveled at the massed muscular energy pent up under the wall of hide.
Aras thought, “What the hell!” Tech seemed to shave hairs in these encounters sometimes, as if to keep people on their toes. He and Jason shared a sober glance over how crazy mom could be. Ginger slapped the bull dismissively. Tech blocked the sensation, or made it into a horsefly, and the beast moved on.
Aras squatted Indian style right there among the unbreakable legs. He snickered over at Jason and Ginger at the craziness. Ginger lay all the way back on the grass, suddenly feeling every mile of the trip. Or maybe that internal release when the toxin from the boil pops out. She sensed her son and husband close. Her thoughts traveled back to this new feeling of finally realizing what had been in her mind. A shadow leaned over her. An enormous hoof came down beside her face. She touched it, the hard, cornified dermis. She edged off toward sleep, aware of the tiny islands of space carved out around herself, her son, and her man.
Ginger started when Aras whispered in her ear to wake her.
The herd was a mass beyond Jason, tails pricking.
Aras indicated the canvas box tent he had already set up. Aras had Tech start the fire. A Dutch oven slowly cooked a stew of bacon and beans. Aras had let his family sleep while the problems from work nosed into his mind again. There really had been no good options with the paroles for four hundred years. Like the plan for letting them rot where they fell if they killed them all and let the immune system of the planet clear up the mess in it’s own time. The worry here was the concentrated release of toxins built up from coal smoke, dung smoke, dust and whatever was left in the soil from ancient times that would be re-introduced to the environment. Proles ate their rats and their rats ate them. All those billions. A nonstop cycle of concentrated toxicity for half a melenium. The prole revenge would be their own die-off. Aras unhooked the heavy pot from the iron cross rail, pushing away the thought. “Well, how was all that for starters?” he asked his wife and son, licking stew off his thumb.
Jason shrugged, grinning noncommittally. “I’m going to ride one.”
“Are you really, baby?” Ginger said, smiling.
Ginger directed Tech to uncork the wine. It emerged with a crisp snap. “Let me ask you something,” Ginger asked Jason. She took a seat in a rickety camp chair. “Don’t you think that eating is fun? And you’d like to keep doing it rather than be injected with your pizza by Tech?”
“Pizza was earlier, Mom,” Jason said. “This is stew. And it wasn’t my idea! And!—you can’t have Tech inject you with food!”
Jason’s tone reminded Ginger of some old movie she couldn’t remember. She poured two glasses of wine to the top. Tech made the best damn wine. “Be sure and tell Felix I said he’s stupid.” Every bottle flawless. And it knew exactly what you loved. Her mouth watered. She took a hefty draught. The full flavor cocooned splendidly around her tongue. Bullseye. This was going to be a two bottle night. She wouldn’t finish both, but she was going to talk to Millie about what had come up, before it turned.
“All the guys think it’s a good idea, Mom!”
“God, you’re at that stupid age,” she said with tired affection.
“We’re not stupid, Mom. You don’t have ideas!”
“I know I don’t want to be injected with pizza.”
“I told you that’s impossible!”
Aras felt his mind towing him back to the slums. Why? How many millions of unmarked square miles did he have around him now? He watched Ginger refill her glass. Was she going to hit it hard tonight? What was going on with her? Should I look it up? He decided he would. . . . Oh. Oh, yeah? Ginger looked over guiltily at him. He pursed his lips at her and nodded in understanding. What did she expect? After sixteen years. Ginger frowned at him in remorse, and took another swig. Aras glimpsed in to see if she wanted a divorce. She didn’t.
“You want to go for a walk?” he asked her gently.
Jason knew something was up. “Are you guys going for sex?”
“No. You little idiot,” Ginger snapped. “And don’t look!”
“I’m not!” Jason didn’t want to look. He sensed already his father had blocked him, just in case. Tech read every thought in order to guard the State. “I’m fifteen!”
“It’s parent stuff,” Aras assured him.
“Are you guys getting a divorce?” Jason immediately regretted asking as soon as he let the question go. But he realized he never would have asked if he had thought it was true. He was just being catty. “Don’t have sex! Wolves can smell it!” He had no idea if this was true, but the worry occurred to him.
Ginger and Aras walked out from the box tent. He laced his fingers inside her’s. He was surprised she was this far along with this idea. He felt deceived, and not. Her shape next to him felt strange, their shoes in the grass. The herd was an indeterminate distance away against the bottom of the night.
“I don’t know why I felt it,” Ginger said absently. “It’s not anything you did.”
“Baby, by any measure—we have a great marriage,” he said. They walked on. “You might as well speak your mind,” Aras offered. “We’re about the only young married couple we know. Nobody’s going to help us.” An abrupt hill loomed ahead like a buffalo hump against the pricks of stars along the horizon. They headed toward it like a sacred relic from the Indians six centuries ago.
Now, Ginger felt stupid. He is a good man! You can’t ask for better. “Are you looking?” she asked him, smiling shyly. Their boots met the rocky bottom of the hill. Lumps of grass mounted steeply to the top. A coyote popped up above and dashed toward the summit with ears pinned.
“No. I’m waiting for you.”
Ginger had said nothing by the time they reached the top. Aras took both her hands while Ginger stared at the ground. “We got married for our son. He needs us.” He tried to find her eyes. Ginger would not look up. The breeze plucked a strand of hair over her face that she turned away from. “We change things up,” he said. “You know we do. If you’re bored then you know it’s only psychological. There’s no end to what we can do and how we can change things up. If you’re trapped it’s in your own head.” He shook her hands to let her know he meant it, that he was with her, that he would do whatever she needed. “If you want to take some time off, feel free. But you know this is a psychological inevitability that people run into with each other. And I don’t think you should wipe it. Keep it. It’s real. Don’t make it easy on yourself. That’s not living. People do it too much.” He rubbed his thumb over her fingers. “Why don’t you start your bronzing again? Get refreshed.”
They could see the dark of the herd from above. Ginger did not make a sound as they looked off. Once, she moved another strand of hair.
Next morning, Jason opened his eyes to the sun blindingly gilding each grass blade as if they were made of metal. He stayed in his sleeping bag listening to his old man make breakfast. He smelled the eggs popping in the skillet. Jason stood and stretched and saw the herd far off. He asked Tech if there were some edible Indian fruit or plant and it showed him a few tiny strawberry-like things that the herd had missed. He added them to the pancakes and they tasted delightfully of licorice.
“I think Felix still likes Cassie,” Jason said while eating, “but she thinks she’s better than everybody else.”
“Hey,” Ginger said. “Our family on both sides were editors and publishers of The New York Times. This world would never be what it is without the press. Remember that. Tell Cassie that. Your family is as important as her’s.”
“I know. Cassie is conceited. Just because her family had three Chancellors.”
“No way, baby. We made this world.”
Aras watched his wife and son. “Ready to find the herd?”
“I might go off on my own,” Jason said. “Can we hunt, Dad?”
“Our permit covers it. You want some steaks?”
“I might. I’ll have Tech handle the mess. But it might be cool. I could get like a buffalo skull, and a big ass buffalo robe!”
Aras had hunted twice before. He remembered the time Jason saw the open water buffalo with fly-blown bowels, killed by a lion pride lazing nearby. Hunting was nasty business, but didn’t people need to know where their food came from? Civilization had been jolted when they learned food could not be made from inert materials. They had wanted not to kill so desperately. At least not animals. They had been sobered by the discovery that nothing ate if it didn’t kill something. Now, people didn’t care. Strange, how different ideas came and went.
Jason glimpsed Tech and had himself lifted up. Ten feet off the ground he saw the dark cloud stretching to the horizon. Jason saw two bald eagles way up, slicing though invisible drafts. He went up to them. Tech, how many buffalo are in this herd?
This is the Wichita River Herd. It has 2,503,256 members in population.
Jason did want to ride one.
He swooped down and floated, looking for the biggest bull. He found an old warrior with a particularly thick, pitted cape. Jason came in tentatively and straddled the broad back just like a rodeo cowboy. A dull rimmed eye looked back and the black tongue stuck out. The bull stopped dead at the unknown sensation. Jason felt the muscles gird. The beast exploded. Tech read the neurological telegraphing and appropriately confined the muscle firing in real time to keep Jason safely aboard. Jason clenched deep into the cape and directed Tech to lay off 5% more. Jason felt himself losing it and Tech rescued him by instantly restricting the jump.
“Whoa! Whoa!” Jason laughed crazily. “This is wild!” The bull jumped and whirled furiously, tossing his head and legs. Jason raised Tech control by 20% because his arms were suddenly turning to noodles.
The other buffalo panicked away from the bull wondering what was the matter with him. They did not see Jason riding him because Tech actively wiped his image from their brains so they would not stampede.
Then, suddenly, Jason felt under him the unchecked mania of the animal. He was off—upside down, high up. “Tech!” Up he went, in reverse. How could Tech have let this happen? “TECH!” Jason screamed, as he dropped. Flashing hooves slashed like combine blades. He bounced off the ground and one walloped him, sending him sideways. He tumbled in a ball, dust and grass in his teeth. His miraculous appearance romped the cows and bulls away from him. Jason could tell he was broken up. A dark wall of shaggy heads and bovine eyes enveloped him.
“Oh, my God. Tech! Tech, get me out of here!”
Nothing. No comment, no action.
—I could die here!
Jason couldn’t use his right arm. He leaned his weight and staggered up. The old warrior slashed menacingly with his horns, one of them broken like a beer bottle. “Tech! Tech! Please, somebody! Mom!” The old warrior lowed, slop falling from his black mouth. He lowered his rack and charged. Jason dove. The warrior missed, hooking his snout and yellow teeth in passing. He wheeled on Jason again. Jason limped away as best he could. Luckily, the wall of bison gave. But more were beyond them. Jason flailed and cried out, and the bison kept giving ground.
What if they stop?
“Yah! Yah! Let me out!”
God. His arm had snapped in two places.
“Fix my arm, Tech! . . . Tech! Please!”
The enormous bull followed him out of the herd, his mouth open to take Jason’s scent. Jason squeezed together all his strength to get away.
Ginger and Aras ran from camp. The herd shouldered together curiously with the old warrior. Ginger grabbed her son around his slender shoulders, panicked.
“Tech went out! It’s not helping me!”
Aras grabbed his wife and son. “C’mon. Back up!” He hurried them ahead. “Tech! Tech! . . . We need help!”
“It isn’t on?” Ginger said. “What’s wrong with it?”
The hill stood forever two hundred yards off. The herd began trotting. They lowed in unison. The hard earth drummed from hooves. Aras made the bottom of the hill and pushed his little family ahead of him. The loose grass and earth gave, and Jason’s arm hung limp, and the herd of massive skulls closed in behind, led by the bull. Ginger didn’t want things to end this way. Aras had been so good. Aras pushed his family higher, hoping. “Tech! . . . Where the hell are you?!” The angry bull glared with a white-rimmed eye, unwilling to climb at first. Then he lunged, cape dropping dust, on his way up, eyes insane. He reached the top and slashed so fast that his horns disappeared. He tossed Aras, Ginger and Jason in the air one at a time like snatches of turf. Scattering the enemy, he turned and carefully descended the hill.
Aras huddled over his battered family. Jason groaned, Ginger wept, her face and chest abraded from rocks. The Tech came back on an hour later. What the hell happened? Tech never answered. The family stayed another two days, telling people back home what happened, testing the Tech. Ginger refused to let go of her men. Aras would go back to the camp for food. Finally, they flew down slowly from the hill, flying low over the ground in case of another failure. Aras wondered now if maybe the Security Council would let him do his investigation.
This was a short story submitted to Liberty Island and it was rejected because there wasn’t enough to it. I disagree. My vision of the story was to show a hopeless future where ordinary people had no chance. The LI editor suggested it became a larger story. At first I thought this was a dumb suggestion—then suddenly I imagined Robot Archangel and thought what a cool story it would be. The opening with Milton Aras was kept even though it was not part of the original short story.
Your worst enemy was your own nervous system.
—-George Orwell, 1984
Milton Aras did not know how to respond.
How isn’t this Man’s Inhumanity to Man in the eyes of our God?
Aras revolted instinctively.
“Wait! Stop!” he yelled.
Rage crept into his voice. “You say our god? Aren’t you machina? You aren’t even alive! What’s this talk of any god being your god?”
The orange-red Aztec skull blazed silently.
“You have no say in this! This is a fight between people!”
What do you do, Aras, when one bad animal torments others?
A hot pain burbled in Aras’s gut.
Say it, Aras, if we are so unkind!
A sound welled up. A whistling, shaking, tearing roar. It quaked out of the very bonds of space and time around them. Somehow Aras knew this was the sound of every prayer ever uttered since the moment the first man became more than a beast and believed there was a god that might be spoken to for relief from wrong. Aras heard the team shouting and ducking under desks and chairs behind.
But Aras knew all the technology in the world was no protection.
They were coming for him.
The sixty-year-old citizen stepped down from the dray cart into the rain and into the cold puddles in the empty road and felt the rain pellets drum across his hat and shoulders and fire off the canvas roof of the cart. The city sky had wept rust-smelling rain all day into evening. He walked up the broad stairs to the ornate bronze doors of the closed and dark government building, and turned. The cart driver snapped the reins, the lines sprinkled white rain drops in the streetlight. The brace of mules shook their long-eared heads and rattled the cart away over the cobbles into the dark.
The citizen waved thanks. He did, indeed, feel helped by the driver’s mantra of prayers. The driver had said what he thought of this odd nighttime appointment beyond First Gate, and prayed for him, many times. The driver had asked:
“Dost thou think thine art to see the one they call The Jolly Man?”
Did the driver speak in the old dialect because he was uncertain of Wazku’s fate? “I have never heard of a ‘Jolly Man’.”
“It is said He is the one thy dost not wish to see!”
“I have no trouble with the government.”
“Yes. But who ever does?”
“I am a simple pawner.”
“I am a simple driver of mules!”
They had been silent, again.
“Let me see again.” The driver examined the papers more carefully under the next arc light, leaning his broad hat away from the light, droplets pelleting paper.
“One cannot tell what trouble is or not,” the driver said again. He handed back the letter without looking at the citizen. “There is no trouble for you, citizen. And yet, I will pray for thee and thine family.”
The citizen entered the high gloom of the government building lobby. Under the grand geometric cornice sat a stocky guard with black hair at the reception cell. The citizen brought his damp-softened summons to the cell. The guard barely looked up. “Please?” said the citizen. The guard made no real sign of what the citizen should do.
The citizen crept past toward the huge bank of elevators.
“If thine stance with our officials was truly dour,” the driver had said, “then they would have come for you with The Robes.”
So, how bad could it be?
His finger trembled at the button. He glanced again at the office number. The 632nd floor. His chest hurt. His heart was very timid these years. The elevator whooshed down and compressed wind from the shaft pushed the dirty tails of his long coat. The grand bronze doors yawned. Inside, the citizen heard faint pleasant flute muzak. He had never before heard recorded music. Such delights!
The elevator closed and whooshed up, and up. He felt it in his heart, rushing up to Heaven, or God, if God existed over these places.
Ding. A gentle bell rang sweetly.
The citizen stepped into a low lit empty corridor that peeled off down an endless hall in both directions. Room number 632-146. A wall plaque pointed right for even-numbered, left for odd. His breathing hurt more.
He thought of his three-year old grandson, left with him and his wife after the death of their son after the poor lad was kicked to death by a horse.
He walked and walked. Finally, a door like the rest. He knocked. No answer. He swallowed; he had no spit. Did this mean he had fulfilled his obligation? No. Surely, they would come for him. In the way the driver had said. He tried the nob. It turned. He let go, startled. His heart ached like misery in his chest, but he walked in.
“Master Wazku?” a happy voice said from beyond an opaque screen. “Don’t stand on ceremony, dear sir. Enter, Master Wazku! Enter, by all means!”
Beyond, the most handsome space for bureaucrats! Dormant visuals hung over the desks unmanned at this late hour. The citizen had never seen such wonders and thought they were jewels hanging by invisible wires in the air. Behind the desk on the right sat a fleshy man in an old-fashioned business suit and tie before a huge window overlooking the lake and the most incredible vista of the Tall City beyond the First Gate. The citizen had never even imagined the Tall City from this perspective. It was petrifying to be walking around up so high. It was so beautiful he thought he might cry! He knew of no one with any relatives who worked for the government or who lived beyond the First Gate. He had heard stories, but he could not believe he was actually here. The fleshy man at the desk was youngish with jet black hair and a black beard that offset uncanny white teeth as he smiled and indicated a chair for the citizen. White the shade of those teeth existed nowhere in the citizen’s world, not even in porcelain kitchen tiles in buildings from the ancient times. “Please, for cheer, Mr. Wazku! Be unfeared. I have little bad to tell you.”
Again, the laughter, the hand, welcoming.
The citizen crept forward, unable to look from the view.
“Mr. Wazku. Why do you act like a man afraid?”
“I am not afraid. I have nothing to fear.”
He lied. The height was incredible. Would the building fall?
“Oh, but we all have something to fear. Yes? It is a part of life. Yes?”
“I am untroubled. I have done nothing wrong.”
“Of course you haven’t! You are a good man! This, we know! But, when you say it like that, so suredly, then I know you have done something.”
“I am a simple pawner.”
“There. You see? A money-lender! This is trouble for you, yes?”
The citizen shook his head stubbornly. “I am a simple pawner, and my wife runs a four-table coffee shop, Monsieur.”
The official’s smile changed to one of sharp comprehension. “I see in you a man who knows how to talk to a public official, oh, yes.”
“Oh, no, I do not. I never wanted the pleasure.”
“We are both men of God, and, oh, yes! You do know how!”
“But, I have never been called up in my life. I am never trouble. I am a simple pawner who helps other Sons of God with small money problems.”
“That is what your neighbors told you to say, yes?” The man grinned warmly, as if it was no problem; no big deal, everybody did it.
“No, no. I was embarrassed; I spoke to no one. No one coached me how to talk because I did not want to be shunned, and my family.”
The bureaucrat maybe did not believe him so much. “I think maybe you are lying to me. But—what does it matter? Who does not lie to the government, yes? Ha-ha.”
“I would not lie to the government. I do not want the trouble.” The citizen held his hands as if to presume to lean them on the front of the desk, then thought better of it, and folded his hands in his lap.
“Make yourself comfortable,” the official urged.
The citizen stayed where he was.
“Mr. Wazku, I am Alfred Wah, Official Sub-Altern at the Bureau of Theological & Civic Maintenance, at your service.” Manicured fingers politely touched his midriff. “And you are here in our Al Hariri Branch Office, First Gate.”
The citizen was not overly bright. He had accepted this of himself since his early schooling when he decided to favor wrestling over book study. “Do you want me to take a poll of some kind, if you read it to me? I am always quite satisfied!”
The official laughed louder. “Of course you are! You are a model citizen!”
“I am grateful you think so. No record is of me complaining.”
“Do you have any complaints at all, Mr. Wazku?”
“No. I do not believe I do.”
“How old are you, Mr. Wazku?”
“In my sixties.”
“Really? You look much older. You and I are close enough in age, actually. Look at me! I look much more vigorous! And you have no complaints with your whole life?”
“No. Not really, no.”
“How about with your wife?”
Was this it? His wife? Had she done something? He bumped his glasses up his nose. He was in queue for a watery eye operation, and had been for four years. His wife had been more angry about it than he, but she never dared say anything outside the shop. “No, I am unangry with my wife. She seems to be a good person.”
“’Seems’ to be, Mr. Wazku?” The smile, forgiving all.
The official turned in his chair and smiled out the window at the vast space of the dark lake and the cityscape across. The night was the color of char, and the lake the color of ashes, and the buildings that ringed it rising up to three and seven hundred stories, with more buildings beyond, unending.
“The truth is, Master Wazku, you are here not because of your conduct, but because of the conduct of your people five hundred years ago.” A visual leapt up, and he checked himself. “Yes, five hundred years ago.”
Wazku flinched in fear from the abrupt appearance of the visual. He knew not what it was. “My ancestors did something wrong a long time ago?”
“Yes. Sadly so.”
“What did they do?”
“He was a writer.”
The citizen said nothing.
“He wrote about political things. About the government.”
“What is ‘politi—?”
“Things to do with power and government.”
“About the government five hundred years ago?”
“Yes. But it does not matter. That was the beginning, you see? And he, your ancestor, was pointedly critical of everything, even the Religion of the State.”
“What did he say?”
The official shrugged. “He was uncomplimentary.” He pouted. He glanced up at the visual again, checking a detail. “Yep.” He frowned. He leaned back in his chair and joined his hands behind his head, twisting.
“That is all you have for me?” Wazku thought how ironic all of this was. He remembered the summons coming in the pink envelope, and his wife, Indira, holding it up for him to see, the fear and surprise registering only in her eyes. How they carried it to the neighborhood scribe to have it read. “He was ‘uncomplimentary’?”
The official pushed his mouth sideways. The Tech alerted him now to let him know that the citizen approached a Threat Level 3 from a Level 2. The official saw Wazku sense the danger and respond to bring his anger down.
“What has that to do with me, sir? It was so long ago.”
“Yes, but must we not deal with such things?”
“But,” the citizen sighed, “I never even heard about him. And even you do not know much about him.”
“His name was David Wazz-Koffu-man. He was a writer. Your name, you can see how it derived from him.” He sniffed. “You are his blood.”
The citizen put the fingertips of both his hands together to plead the absurdity of this blot against him. “How would I know? All I know is what you tell me.”
The Tech again alerted Mr. Wah to the Threat Level status change because Wazku not a minute before had hit a 2.68. Now he was at 2.2 headed to 2.4.
“He encouraged others to resist what now is.”
“And so, he wasn’t even successful?”
“It is needed for Rightness & Instruction.”
“Was he critical of The Religion? But my entire family have been faithfully of The Religion since our conversion long ago.”
“Four hundred years ago.”
“There. You see?”
“But there it is! Thou ist not Original, ist thou?”
The citizen smoothed his fingers over his lips like drawing them to a fine point. That was it. He had no answer.
The official said, “I just came back from vacation with my family. We went to Lake Mire-gan. Do you know it up there, Mr. Wazku? So lovely. So unspoiled. Buildings only thirty or forty stories tall around the lake, you know. My family always has a good time. I too have a boy.” The official leaned down onto his elbows as he gazed with some vague emotion of sympathy at his guest.
“Do you want to know what your sentence is?”
“I do not want to know.”
“See? You are a smart man; a brave man.”
“Given my crime, the penalty surely is equal to it.”
The official made a fingertip bell-tapping gesture. “See? You still have the defiance of the writer in you, so is it not the Will of God?” The official up-glimpsed to see that Wazku remained flatlined at Threat-Level 2. Not that it mattered. He was merely curious about the man’s psychology.
“What of my family?”
The official glanced up at the visual. “To be determined.”
“Can I say goodbye?”
“I’m sorry, not for this offense. They come for you now.”
The official nodded.
Wazku sighed. He could not believe this would be his fate after a life lived such as his. The Robes! “Will we be punished, together?”
“No. Not for this offense.”
“They had less to do with this than I!”
“People can be trusted to do stupid things if they do not periodically see another face the Portraiting.” The official raised up his thumbs and protruded his lips to make a faint popping bubble sound.
The citizen felt hot weeping crawl up his throat as he thought of his grandson.
“I know it is a sad thing with thine children.”
“You cannot imagine how absurd; how cruel.”
Wazku went up to a 3.
Again, the upraised thumbs.
“We are 25 billion, sir. It hardly makes a difference.”
“It does to him.”
A faint shrug. The gesture carried with it the extent of feeling by so many in this hard and strange world.
The rise of Socialism in America has always fascinated me. Two key public figures typical of what many must have considered and gone through philosophically before and during the 1930s were Hemingway and Dos Passos, two good friends. Their friendship was damaged by the excesses of the Soviets during the Spanish Civil War and the murder of one of their good friends.
Hemingway and I first crossed paths in 1918 as ambulance drivers in the Great War. I was an ambulance driver on the French side, and he was on his way to drive for the Italians fighting the Austrians. It took six weeks of training to learn how to operate all the levers and cranks in those old jalopies. I graduated Harvard cum Laude in 1916, and it was there that my politics became radicalized. I was the bastard son of a distant, rich New York corporate lawyer, and I felt then that the world could only be made fair for the poor through Communism.
Hem and I met again when we were both expats in Paris. He arrived in the Latin Quarter with his bride, Hadley, eight years his senior, with a small pension from her family that would help a struggling writer. Hem was a strapping matinee-idol with unbelievably straight white teeth and confidence that would make life just too easy. His lack of appreciation for others was going to be hard for the rest of us. I was medium sized with owlish eyes and e.e. always said no one looked more “foreign” at Harvard than did I.
If you charmed or pushed your way into our clique of Paris writers and painters, you became aligned in drink and bullshit with James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald, e.e. cummings, Sherwood Anderson, and others. I lived on my small trust even after my first novel One Man’s Initiation in 1920 made me one of the new voices in fiction. Hemingway never went to college, became a cub reporter on the best paper in the Americas, the Kansas City Star, then went to Italy to get in the fight. He promptly got himself blown up by an artillery shell that made him an Italian war hero, then landed in Paris with all that momentum of story to slay us all with enviable charm, and fit right in with a crowd that had also read just about every book ever written. Hem read everything to compensate for his lack of a college education. I did because people smarter than I said a lot worth hearing.
“Dos, let’s sit at the Rotund again tomorrow and read to each other,” Hem said to me when he and Hadley and I parted ways at the Seine book stalls. I remember his smile that freezing day because he and I both liked to wear berets.
“Passages from the Bible again?” I said. “Yes, let’s.”
“I’ll write at The Dome until three then meet you.”
“How’s yours going?”
Hem browsed the Bible with an eye for titles to his work. He came up with great titles. But that’s why his titles tell you little about the story: The Sun Also Rises. A Farewell to Arms. For Whom the Bell Tolls. Across the River and Into the Trees. His titles bring lovely poetry, don’t they? Mine are more functional: USA, Three Soldiers, Manhattan Transfer. A lot of my early work was critical of free economics. Some of this was my father supporting me and my mother, but never acknowledging me, until the warmth opened up just before he died in 1917, as it often does in an outburst of emotional prescience from those with the shadow of the shadow on their faces.
“I’ve got some of ‘My Old Man’ for you,” Hem told me excitedly one day. He held the pages, written in thick pencil. I remember them shivering in the breeze as we sat at the Lilas with two Pernod between us. “Did you bring something?”
“I’ve got something.” I could see in Hem’s eyes the envy for me because I was already a published novelist.
“From the novel?”
“Actually an essay for a new Communist sheet.”
“Oh, Dos . . . That’s great!” He grinned as if I was silly. “Paying you anything?” Again, the smile over the deuce. He knew those Red sheets didn’t pay anything.
Hem and I got on so well partly from my plan to see the world by walking tour. Hem and Hadley loved to go along with me. I introduced him to Spain that way. I introduced him to Key West too, after my Florida walk in 1925 and I hopped a train for Key West that rolled over causeways on cerulean seas. Hadley and Hem came along on a walk through the Pyrenees ending in Andorra. Over 200 miles. A lot of that in the rain. Poor Hadley was miserable but uncomplaining, and Hem was sweetly upset for her discomfort. But that would change, as Hem loosened his hold on his appreciation of Hadley too.
Hem’s journalism made him great at grilling you about your expertise. He’d grill you for hours about roses or mending a sail or Roulette. I could tell he feigned interest while really he didn’t give two shits about you. He’d grin at me, knowing I saw through him and how we both enjoyed the writer’s hunt—for information, for wonderful, simple stories kicked over like a clod of manure in the paddock of life. My interest in people was made by my father’s disinterest in me. I understood Hemingway, and so he and I never got into awful fights like he had with everyone else. Until Madrid that is, in 1936. You don’t need perfect friends. Christ, if your family isn’t perfect, why hold your friends to a higher standard?
Everyone in Paris knew my politics. Communists were rare in the 1920s when money flowed like booze. The War made the United States the world’s money colossus. Europe was smashed, and Paris was so cheap we literally couldn’t afford to leave. Besides, we were busy pushing for the overhaul of language. We all felt it coming. We wanted to write like people spoke. The posing in writing created a huge emotional gap. Our desire to democratize language, the shock of the War, our dislocation as artists from our institutions—it echoed America throwing off England after the Revolution: Rejecting knee-breeches, the powdered wig, cutting our hair and shaking hands instead of bowing. All of us sought to capture a new immediacy and vitality in our writing. We knew one of us in Paris would get it.
I tried to interest my friends in Communism. It’s an easy sell. “Don’t you want to help the poor?” And they saw it. But they also saw the great strides made for the poor with unions and rising wages naturally following competition to keep worthwhile employees.
Attitudes didn’t change until the Great Depression. The explosion of poverty woke us up to the desperate need for Communism. People rushed to all us Communists, joining The Movement and infiltrating America and Europe with their new insight to bring fundamental change for the sake of the Have Nots.
Every university campus jerked awake with students flocking to Socialist radicalism. They went from lazily absorbing the classics and brooding longingly over their self-involved poetry to galvanized youths throwing off frivolity to grasp the controls of political power and undermine every institution that had lulled us to sleep regarding equality for all.
We saw it in the exciting election of a Socialist in Franklin Roosevelt. We winked at each other as we whispered stories about Roosevelt opening his Cabinet meetings with the warm salute of “Good morning, my fellow Socialists!” Communist Party USA members were appointed to prominent White House positions. And we knew what Stalin was doing blazing a trail of health and wealth for the impoverished of the Soviet Union.
Hemingway would sit and grin stupidly as we talked around him. It was the only time I saw him look stupid and doubt himself on what to think. This was because the fibrous ball of his soul, his art, was rooted in the enduring American reverence of the strong individual conquering a better life. Hem writhed in hatred for Roosevelt and how his vast welfare programs gradually turned vital people and families into cowed dependents of a numb bureaucracy.
“How does making people obligated to handouts help them in the long run?” he bristled. “We all know what’s down that road. It’s flat-out bribery!”
“It’s only temporary,” I argued, “to give them a leg up.”
It took me years to see past that one.
In 1935, Hemingway weathered the terrible hurricane and made his way from Key West on his new fishing boat, the Pilar, to Matecumbe Key where a Roosevelt public works program had lured over 800 hundred war vets with their wives and children for a government paycheck. The government knew how high a wall of seawater this awful storm might throw and lifted not a finger to get them north. Was it because the vets had angered Roosevelt in marches on Washington demanding he make good on Woodrow Wilson’s pension promises to them? Hem told me how he drove up to Matecumbe and came across the hundreds of bodies bloated into great, mottled pigs of corpses face down or face up in the water, like balloons with hands. The flies and the stink. The pop of bodies. Hem was livid. He wept. Those vets, their families, men who sacrificed so much in our War.
Hem roared at Roosevelt with the pen too. The article got a lot of attention from the Left, that thought this might be the chance to peel Hemingway from Capitalism. I couldn’t go so hard on Roosevelt since you can’t do that when you’re in camp with other Socialists. You see, it’s you and The Movement against the entire criminal world, the greedy, selfish nature of Man. The epochal struggle of history demands you can never weaken The Movement by criticizing a single member of it. Only our enemies can ever be made to look bad. If you don’t keep the story simple, stupid people might think we’re no better than anybody else.
Seeing Hem roil, my Communist friends watered at the mouth to score Hemingway, the top author in the world. Antonio Gramsci was piecing together his ideas on how to take down the West from within by The Movement subsuming control of education, the arts and entertainment to maneuver behind the credibility of these institutions to grow our crops in their fields. Already, anti-Capitalist messages emerged from Hollywood, and anti-Capitalist is switched in the human mind to pro-Socialist without our having to say a word. That technical divide between Silent movies and the Talkies is a fairly good timeline for when we began growing the prejudices against wealth and letting human nature steer those emotions. Movies from the 1920s portray an American morality on poverty and social evolution that says “The most robust Freedom grows us faster and better past human want.” After our takeover, movie morality insinuated: “Greed and racism have made the United States the most despicable nation ever, and only fundamental transformation and punishment of the old thinking will achieve the best expression of our humanity.”
I helped Stalin’s New York handler, Goros, study and ponder on Hemingway and other authors. Hem’s code name was “Argo.” I talked to them at length about ways to appeal to Argo’s personality and ego, and we all agreed Hem’s reaction to the hurricane might open a way to exploit his sympathy for the worker. I helped form the League of American Writers (a Communist front group), and then put them in contact with Hem, and this led to him writing a piece for New Masses about the Matecumbe Key vets, and this led to an invitation for Hem to speak on Spain at the convention in New York. Hem accepted all of these offers, even though New Masses had savaged him a few years before for not writing “proletarian literature” that we were making all the rage in literary circles.
And, of course, as is ever the case with the superior preparation and coordination on the Left, with its vast Left-wing conspiracy, these Hemingway pieces were pre-arranged to unleash an army of imbedded Socialists to jump in ovation for Hemingway’s outstanding “conscience”, so to seduce the writer’s vanity, and demonstrate the built-in audience waiting for them if they will only say what we want them to.
All of us artists, critics, writers, celebrities in the 1930s got the word from Moscow that we should exploit the explosion in support we received from the Depression. We were told by very smart people to talk as if our ownership of the arts was a fete a complis. “You’ll lose all your friends,” is what people were saying. Our psychology was blunt. It was the same entry fee for urban Democrat politics. We were the smart ones.
I had been the early beneficiary of some of this. In the 1920s, the literary world was still actually liberal so that dissenting views like mine were published and appreciated. Each of my books showed “important” work: In Three Soldiers I attacked fighting for America by undermining the credibility of the American military brass. In Manhattan Transfer and my USA trilogy, I mocked an establishment built around material comforts. I had been out front on these Communist themes, and now arts and letters was catching up and respecting me for my pioneering.
Hemingway, on the other hand, starting in the 1930s, began tasting the shitty end of the critical stick. His themes of frank individualism, his leisure travel to Europe and Africa and Key West for sport fishing, bullfighting, for safari bwana big game trophy hunting—left critics unstirred for the first time. His treatise on bullfighting, Death In the Afternoon, was all but ridiculed when only three years before, in 1929, they called A Farewell to Arms the greatest love story ever told. I hated to see it. I took no good from this. He was a genius. Hell, A Farewell to Arms knocked All Quiet On the Western Front finally off number one on the bestseller list.
Hemingway had to at least take stock of the assets we had so quickly amassed on our side and how stingy we were with them. And what the hell—The Depression made us all sharply aware of the condition of poverty. Hoover hoped that the engines of commerce would rekindle and tow the country out of the ditch. It didn’t work. The vehicle was too terribly stuck. And Roosevelt rode in with a spectacular plan to prime the pump with Socialist money-throwing. But the shock and fear from The Crash exceeded even Roosevelt’s naivety. It wasn’t Roosevelt’s fault. This was a head blow like no other. The psychological impact of the first hit is always the worst. Roosevelt was at fault for his unwillingness to admit that Socialism’s above-down methodology had failed when by 1940 it still had not rekindled the engines. But intransigence is the essence of Socialism-Communism. The Depression was an economic coma, and a coma takes its own time to heal. No doctoring performs a miracle with it.
And so, we had a lot to think about after the War, and then the Depression. Our walking tours made us all fall in love with Spain, Hemingway especially. The Spanish poor were the most noble in his eyes, and the Left in Spain was rapidly bringing hatred to a boil. The high color of poverty in Spain sharpened a picture for Hemingway just as he saw how his writing would have a built-in audience if he just gave more thought to the concerns of labor and the Left. I didn’t like how canned all of this was. Why weren’t we fair and open if we were so good for people? The very idea of militarizing enlightenment is antagonistic to the human soul, to our curiosity, to the role of our imagination. I saw how the Moscow workbook was used to trick people into believing our ideology was flawless. But why pretend such a thing? Because you think people are so stupid that this makes them feel safe? Because you want to trick them into thinking governance or life appear simpler than they are? Isn’t there something reliably innate in our draw to a thing of worth that affirms our revulsion for lies? Won’t the need for propaganda prove we’re off the mark? Enlightenment is the last thing that should require bullying, force, lies, cover-up and propaganda. If it isn’t, life isn’t worth trying.
And then came the Nazis. The “Fascists,” repellent for encouraging division among races, rather than what I was doing which was division based on politics. And the chessboard was Spain. Just when Hem saw the Spanish poor as the best people in the world. And Hem also liked war, and a fight, and he loved feeling superior to other people maybe more than any of us do. To me, that’s the problem in so much of this. The word “Fascism” became a sort of incantation that gave ready access to that deep desire to think ourselves superior to others. Impossible-to-handle emotions crept up in short order all because Stalin feared Hitler for his rival designs on Europe. The Nazis were Socialists who hated Commies and had no illusions about who they were, and they had wiped out Stalin’s cells in Germany and would do the same everywhere else. Worse, the economic crash caused by Communism impeded Stalin’s military build-up, while the economic miracle Hitler brought Germany raised a nightmare for Stalin. And so, Stalin sent down marching orders for all of us to bully our home governments to hold off the Nazis to help him. It was detestable, for we were no longer patriots of our own countries. We were now patriots of World Communism, and we would sacrifice even our own homelands to protect Communism, which was Stalin.
We rallied as befit the threat to Stalin. Our verbiage and energy were so effective that the Nazi stigma lasts to this day, while the Communist monstrousness slips by with a hall pass. Hemingway, spoiling for a fight, spoiling for better reviews, became particularly spirited. This was when he talked to Goros, and Goros got him to agree to the lowest level of cooperation with us—to give us information, always the first step. In return we lured him with what Hemingway relished—inside dope, access to top political people and circles, where he could feel self-important and listened to. To his credit, Hemingway never completed the loop.
In the meantime, political hatreds so poisoned Spain that it was clear the fighting would be odious. Because Franco knew what the sides were capable of, and if Spain fell over the cliff to the Left then genocide would ensue. Franco sat in the middle with Stalin and Hitler on either end of the board, each seeing the chance for a trial run with all sorts of guns and tanks. We knew Stalin had already murdered 20 million even though the New York Times wouldn’t print it. Their reporter, Walter Duranty, a Communist, had even won the Pulitzer for hiding the truth about the genocide in the Soviet Union. Hitler threatened the Jews, while we Socialists were well on our way against all who wanted free enterprise. Hitler was the bad guy, Stalin the good.
Jose Robles and I were there in New York when Hemingway appeared with his new lover, and Communist, the red hot journalist Martha Gellhorn, to warn the world about the rise of the Nazi threat. “The democracies need to wake up to the Fascist threat!” His incongruous, squeaky voice grated in the cheap acoustics of the hall. “The Fascists will use Spain as a springboard to the rest of Europe!”
I didn’t look at Jose Robles standing next to me in the stage wings. I had already gone too far with him saying my piece about how Nazi Fascism hated all who opposed its agenda to gain German conquest over the world, while our Global Fascism hated all who opposed our agenda to gain Communist conquest over the world. Jose was my Spanish translator and fellow Communist. I had risked making this joke after two times when our eyes met and we both recognized in the other a doubt about a person or a slogan someone repeated.
I remember searching for a sign in the way Jose’s hands clapped for Hemingway at the big speech to the North American Committee for Spain, a front group. I tried to decipher his mental state from his clapping, how hard he clapped. I wondered if Jose had said anything about my joke. Waiting in the wings for my turn to speak, I wondered. Me, one of the most valuable Communist assets in the United States.
And then war opened in Spain.
I went there, Hemingway went there, Gellhorn went there. All we Commies flocked to Spain to be part of it. Gramsci was daring to call out Stalin and say that his Socialist genocide in Russia was not the method Communists should use for conquest in the future because the genocide wasn’t working. Communism was failing, Gramsci said, because of Christianity. Communists needed to take over the Means of Education in countries to supplant the Christian values with Communist values and, as I said, grow our crops in their fields. Gramsci showed the way to make elementary schools and entertainment our beachheads as we hid ourselves there to pivot from battlefields and firing squads to focusing the minds of their children on our truth. This peaceful approach gave me hope, because this strategy said to me that we were going to win by peaceful means rather than our usual means of fostering political bigotry, leading to intimidation.
Stalin talked about murdering Gramsci. But Gramsci was only talking these ideas at the time and his thinking mirrored the concerns of many who were afraid to speak out. And all of us in Spain waited on pins and needles. Remember, Stalin had called to Moscow the Swedish experts on race differences and Stalin listened intently to their findings. He asked them to stay in Moscow three days while he weighed their research that so fascinated Hitler. On the fourth day, Stalin announced his decision that Soviet-style Global Socialism would reject the race theories and that Global Socialists were superior to other people not by virtue of our race, but by virtue of our Marxist views. Acceptance of Marxism should determine who wins or loses, lives or dies, not race differences. All of us breathed a huge sigh of relief, because now we still had this clear distinction between us and Hitler’s Nazi Socialists. And Stalin, with his usual flourish, finalized his decision on race by executing all the Swedish experts whom he had invited to Moscow.
My orders from Moscow were for me to travel and write to raise American money for the war effort. I called on American Communists to join the “Lincoln Brigades” to go and fight in Spain. The name was another Soviet masterstroke.
The war in Spain set brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor. Russian and German military advisors rushed in. Stalin’s atrocities from the Ukraine surfaced in Spanish towns and cities with the wholesale slaughter of prisoners even after they surrendered. So much for old fashioned chivalry and love of countrymen. As if they weren’t defenseless countrymen and children of God at all, but dried weeds to be scythed and burned from a field. But that’s what “class warfare” looks like. Wasn’t “Capitalism” the goiter Marx told us must be burned from the human corpus?
Our genocide was soon answered in kind by Franco. Franco was militarily brilliant, and desperate to stop us, and the war didn’t go well for our side. In Madrid and Barcelona, I saw the Soviet NKVD start rooting out the “wreckers”, “traitors” and “spoilers” who were causing our side to lose. In my travels, I saw the Soviets begin using techniques that pinched our troops between two forces where maybe the most ugly might very well be the ones at their back. This, in the Soviet mind, would cow civilian resistance. Our terror gave rise to what the other side called a “fifth column,” where civilians kept their true feelings in deep check to keep from being swept up in the Socialist cyclone of salt and burn. Soon enough, what emerged was that the war machines built by fifteen years of Soviet purges and Socialist Five-Year Plans were plainly inferior to the German. And in outrage, the Soviets kept rounding up the little people.
A sack of disgust came up in my innards, while I saw my old friend Hemingway falling more into admiration for the Soviet no-nonsense. Maybe he could detect a difference in the two Fascisms. I think he was smitten by raw Russian pugilism on the battlefield and behind it.
“The Soviet’s are the only ones who can beat Hitler!” he roared at an English journalist innocently repeating arguments from back home on staying out of the war. “It’s the Fascists, goddamnit! We have to beat Fascism!”
“Fascism, fascism, fascism,” I said. “It’s all I ever hear.”
I left Spain to raise more money. When I returned to Valencia, Jose had vanished.
I knew the Soviets had picked him up a couple times to talk to him. His face was pretty beat up after the last. But why did they suspect Jose of anything? Back in Madrid, I made demands after Jose at The Chicote, the bar-central for The Movement:
“Where’s Jose? Who last saw him?”
You know something’s wrong when, each time, you get a different answer. The sinking light in the eyes. The withdrawal of the pupils. Finally, I got this:
“You should quit asking, Dos.”
I got this point-blank from a world famous lady journalist.
“What do you mean I should quit?” I was amazed; Robles was a close friend to us all and a loyal Communist.
“You should just quit snooping around about Jose,” she repeated. Her pupils didn’t even budge. As if Robles’s life had been only a shadow.
“It’s not important to you when one of our friends just disappears?” I challenged her.
“The Cause is more important, John.”
“He’s part of The Cause!”
Her lips tensed into a frown. She gave me a shrug. “Jose came under suspicion, Dos. They brought him in a couple times for questioning.”
“Suspicion of what? Jose’s as solid as any of us!”
Again, that arrogant insinuation with the mouth. Again, as if a life is a shadow.
“Look. This is shit. Where’s Jose? Everybody in this goddamn bar, everybody in Madrid, will vouch for Jose! He’s solid. . . . Is he here? Is he in Valencia? Who has any proof that he did anything, and when can I talk to him?”
She looked around uneasily. “Don’t make a scene!” She bumped her arm into mine like this was a performance. The bar was packed as usual and rife with cigarette and pipe smoke.
“I don’t give a damn who’s watching!” I glared around at the crowd. From the glances all around I knew I was not alone in my fear about what happened to Jose. Those of us who had been around knew what could happen. “Is he here? Is he in Valencia?” Everyone with whom I made eye contact did not look down because they seemed to be staring at something other than real life. “Do the Russians have him in the basement?” The basement was the headquarters of the NKVD. I looked past my lady friend because she was obviously choosing to lie for them. “What if it was one of us? Do we want to be so easily forgotten?”
The only thing that moved was the cigarette smoke.
I left the Chicote and strode up the street to the Hotel Florida where we smiled all year about how the Russians ran their political terror operations from the basement. It had all been very hush-hush and “politically” exciting knowing that Russian friends we drank with, and that gave Hem caviar and vodka, were going the distance for the advancement of civilization. I was too angry to be afraid. They had pinched a good man, twice, maybe three times. It wasn’t Robles’s fault the war was going badly. Who were these Stalinist fucks to steal the authority from thin air to snatch a man off the street or out of a bar and play games with his life and limb?
“Is Orlov here?” I asked the NKVD soldier who cracked the rear door. Alexander Orlov was the Madrid Station Chief who was chummy with Hem.
“No,” he lied in heavy accent. “He is not in.”
“Tell him John Dos Passos wants to talk to him again.” I had already spoken with Orlov about Jose. Now, I knew he’d probably lied to me.
The soldier fumbled a shrug and shake that emphatically promised nothing.
“Is Jose Robles in there?” I pointed within. He gave me a bullshit half-shrug and upward eye tilt as he faked going through the Rolodex of people brought into our torture rooms. “You’ve questioned him, though, right?”
“No. No. No one by that name coming in.”
“I know you questioned him twice already. Right? You’ve questioned him?” I spoke accusingly to make the leap over the wall of his bad English and bullshit. He kept faking me off, and so I left angrily. I wanted to think, so I headed back to my pension and sat on the bed, my khaki uniform shirt soaked with sweat. The army-style shirt served rugged double duty in the field, and under a tweed suit jacket for speeches in front of gawking intellectuals who love anything wrapped in English tweed. My face and chest howled in damp heat as I thought of these bastards stonewalling me like I’d never done anything for them and their cause.
A polite knock arrived on the foot-thick oak of my door. “It’s open.”
Martha Gellhorn stepped in meek and mild with Arturo the owner of the Toledo bar. They were stuffed with empathy for my feelings for our missing friend.
“We all know how you feel, Dos,” Martha whined, hand wringing. She even sidled up her sex appeal by slipping onto the flouncy mattress next to me. She set both her hands on my hairy right wrist. I watched our wrists and forearms together under the soft reach of my bedside lamp, our shoes on the rag rug on the floor. “Sometimes people lose their way. They break ranks and turn on the side of right.”
“You and I both know how these people do things, Martha.” We knew, unlike Hem, because we’d been around. I knew Jose was no traitor because I had expressed my own doubts point blank and his eyes remained sympathetic yet rock steady. “They rounded him up a few times, and we all know the Russians are over-cautious, over-zealous. They—talk to a lot of people.” I chose “talk” instead of a more impolitic verb. “This is all breathlessly fun and exciting, the world of spies. But now its time to join ranks and get our friend back.”
For some unfathomable reason, Gellhorn hated this idea. “We can’t do that, John. This is war. We’re fighting for something important!” Martha’s blue eyes urged me to see. Arturo was right there with her, but rather more understanding with me.
“Why does our fight mean we give up our friend, Martha?”
“We can’t question—”
“If we can’t question, is it worth serving?”
Martha slapped her hands angrily onto her meaty white knees. She was unwilling to even consider my point. She puffed out any more arguments she was going to waste on me, stood up, patted me patronizingly on my shoulder and strode to the door. She was pissed the old honey pot sex ruse hadn’t softened me. But I knew the game. That’s why we so badly wanted Hollywood, and celebrities. “We’ll leave you to recompose yourself, John. Make sure you see the larger picture, and quit making everybody upset.” Arturo crept behind her and lightly brought to the brass latch in the door.
I got up and swung toward the tall window, and suddenly thought of Hem. He hated the Fascists and wasn’t a Communist and this stuff with Jose’s disappearance had to drive him crazy too. Together we had star power that the Madrid and Valencia NKVD and no one else on the Left could stand up to. I rushed up the Paseo Del Prado to the Palace Hotel where Hem held court in his double-room suite paid for by his North American Newspaper Alliance expense account. The usual round-the-clock gang filled the suite with talk and cigarette smoke. The “gang” consisted of international journalists, visiting celebrities, and officers from the Brigades. On the antique console table stood the bottled goods and the huge canned ham with the top pried up with ragged edges so that anyone passing could use a field knife to cut a big slice and stick it between bread.
“Hem’s in Barcelona,” Walter Duranty told me. He had just arrived and looked a little out of it as he held a bottle of Hem’s Jim Beam for himself. “Martha just left to drive all night to catch him there.”
I was annoyed. I wondered if Duranty would make his New York Times 1932 Pulitzer-winner influence of any help. I quickly caught him up on the story. At first he looked stricken and concerned, but then when I put Jose last in the Russian’s hands, his feelings congealed. He wanted no part of this. . . . Duranty, hero of the little man.
“Jose could be down in that basement right now, Walt,” I said.
“This shit happens.” The bottom of the bottle flashed coldly as he tilted it up.
I returned to my room. During the night I started to fear if our old friend was even still alive. In the morning I was making a plate of bread and cheese when one of the old waiters we all knew from the Chicote leaned in at the door and jerked his head for me to come along outside.
“It’s already over,” he said regretfully. He removed his smudged wire spectacles and wiped them with the end of his necktie, one side of the lens at a time. “I hear he disappeared for good over a week ago.”
The news was so abrupt, and he was so casual, I wanted to choke him. “On whose orders?”
The slouched shoulders lifted high, begging off. “They took him in four times. They had—” He didn’t want to say what they did. “They say they began to fear he knew too much of their tactics. Maybe he was too upset to remain a good comrade.” He shrugged meekly and looked off through his half-smudged lenses up the street. Not with paranoia, but in the way of an elderly boulevardier. “So, they—”
“When? When did this happen?”
He shook his sad face. “I haven’t seen him since ten days ago. I heard things right around that time.” He appraised me all over my face with deep sympathy. “I’m sorry, Comrade. He was a good comrade. With so many friends it shouldn’t happen.”
“But why Jose? Did someone denounce him?”
“No one denounced him. Because they cover it up, it must have been for nothing, yes? Which is worse.” He lifted his fingertips as if wanting to brush my sleeve, but he left the gesture upright like a flag of sad futility over the whole affair. “I’m sorry, Comrade.” He shrugged goodbye and made his way back toward the Chicote and I knew he would stay below the Gran Via to avoid the sniper fire. The Chicote would be crowded with soldiers and journalists at this hour. And they maybe would question where he had gone off to. He didn’t want to get himself denounced.
I got no reply when I cabled Communist friends in New York and Paris exposing how I was being obstructed and lied to. I wanted at least to claim Jose’s body for his family. Orlov was avoiding me and so I knocked on the NKVD door to make a nuisance. Orlov finally talked with me in the door, blocking the way. He claimed his men never saw Jose after they questioned him the one time a month ago. He said no one denounced him and Jose did nothing wrong that he knew of. The usually friendly NKVD officer didn’t smile at me flatteringly now the way he did with us literary lights. His grey eyes were petulant, impatient, resenting having to hold my hand over this stupid political rumor.
Two days later, Hem was back and took me aside at a public conference the Russians were throwing. His wide, handsome face held indulgent irritation for my meddling. He averted his eyes a lot as we walked for privacy to the Plaza Mayor which was filled with tents for the Brigades. Hemingway closed his eyes and squinted with acute regret, though I sensed his feelings were not so much for our friend.
“Are you a coward, Dos?” he said, palm open. We had stopped away from the smoky cook fires. Around us, we could make out the rubble and holes punched in ancient buildings from artillery. “You know these guys! They have to protect us!”
“How does what they did to Jose protect us?”
He squinted again, not wanting to hear it. “Come on. We’ve been in two wars, you and I. You know what we’ve seen. This is the way strong leadership is. We have to be tough!”
“Hem. They don’t give a shit about civil liberties!”
“They’re the only ones helping win this war! They’re the only ones who can beat Hitler!”
“And is this what we’re left with after Hitler?”
Pebbles crunched as Hem spun on his foot like a man shot, trying not to hear me come out against the Party. “Dos. Come on. We can’t say stuff like that.”
“We’re all better than this. Our loyalty deserves more than this. We both know what’s been going on, and we didn’t say anything. We kept our mouths shut for the important work part, and we kept hoping things would get better. But they’re getting worse. These people fool you with chants about helping the poor. But I’ve been to Russia. They aren’t helping the poor. And if they go this long showing no basic affection for giving the benefit of the doubt, for plain decency—then what is this all for?”
Earnest listened, and heard. “It’s war, Dos. And if you turn your back on this—every critic in New York will lay waste to you. You’ll lose all your friends! How are you going to make a living as a writer?”
“I don’t think war ever stops for some people,” I said. And, yes. Maybe we were headed into another Dark Age when artists could only portray what The Religion let them.
“What if we were in Germany having this discussion, Hem? Would you be telling me to shut up and just keep helping?”
“It’s not the same thing, Dos. Please. Please see it.”
“Frankly, I don’t. And I’m disappointed you don’t.”
We stood in the sandy lane of the park soaking in the brutal effort of each of us trying to make the other see. I fixed on trying to catch his gaze, desperate to win his talent and name so that we could denounce this garbage for what they were. All the years hiking trails, Key West, showing each other the world, flooded back. I could see his heart was pinned by the camaraderie in the violence that men and women can sometimes find a rationalization for, and become addicted to. And, he knew the easy glory and fame they had ingeniously stockpiled to bribe whomsoever stood silently by their sexy new take on Man’s Inhumanity to Man.
A horn raked my insides thinking that Hem might stick.
I tried a last time. “I’ve been piecing it together for awhile: They introduce the Good by claiming to be against the death penalty and poverty; but you find in time they are simply for using the death penalty on only one crime—challenging them for political power; and they support poverty so long as it’s for anybody and everybody but themselves. This is too much, Hem. It is so big and damnable that it defies seeing when so many ordinary people don’t know it’s behind them.”
Hem gave me a clever, cold look for a very long awhile, then said:
“Don’t be such a cry baby, Dos.”
When I walked out of the park he called after me:
“They’ll hate you, Dos. You’ll never publish another word.” The last thing he said was, “I can already read the reviews on your book! . . . You want to hear?”
I packed up my room, my typewriter, my socks, a sandwich, and left Madrid. I hitched rides to our lines where I knew of another writer-thinker I wanted to compare notes with, named George Orwell. Orwell, loyal to the Socialist ideal for a long time, was now having a tough time himself as his own group was being accused of being traitors by the NKVD. The charge was based solely on a power squabble. Yet Orwell and his wife were now hiding out. Reluctantly, I parted ways with him, and the two of us joined in a fight to expose a threat that always lurks when people refuse to question. Thankfully, Spain won its war over the Left, probably preventing the bloodbath for a million Spaniards, yet somehow putting the war forever in the column of misdeeds until what prevails is a more objective take on Twentieth Century history. I will know that day has come when I see genocide by the Left count for something, when Fascism is Fascism, when Stalin and Mao are history’s worst villains, with Adolf Hitler third or fourth behind Genghis Khan, or maybe even fifth, behind the Tai Ping Rebellion. Orwell went on to write classics on the monolith. Regrettably for us all, his talent blinked out just after 1984 was published.
Hemingway feared for his reputation when in the 1950s America briefly woke up to the takeover, and the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover uncovered the extensive effort to rewrite American education and entertainment, and American scientists thinking it was a good thing to give Stalin the bomb. Hem lost his beloved farm in Cuba to Castro in 1959, and didn’t trust them enough to stick around even after all he’d done for them.
Publishing changed more each year as I heard the voice of modern society fall in synch with too-familiar slogans. The new moral message could be read like the map of a losing war by anyone who knew what to look for. The movies went from framing universal truths to framing tired political truths. Traditional America was now “courageously” depicted as the demon. The new “hero” always exposed Old America to The New York Times, and together they breathlessly exposed the “hate and hypocrisy” to the hippies who were unwittingly helping the gigantic reptile egg of a new, political One Percent birth from America’s own ass.
To me, it was humanity lifting the revolver to its own brain. But, in this case, the patient never dies. They wake up and see what they’ve let their unquestioning do. Each day I lived after Spain, I moved more to the Republican Party and the side that knew how to evaluate freedom until one day when the patient woke up again.
Liberty Island wanted a story for Halloween and what came to mind was my wonderful Grandmother Lloyd and my childhood visits with the family every year to Puerto Rico to see her. She was always a bit mysterious and more than her share of bad things piled up in her life before she died of cancer in 1980.
We never knew some things about my gentle Grandmother Loyd. She kept those things secret. Darkly secret. Black secret.
Halloween stories are ridiculous. And I say that as a man who has had probably four run-ins with ghosts, not including this one. But this all happened.
My earliest memory of her was of her sweet, loving face beaming at me when I was three and leaving with my friends to Trick or Treat down Southwood Road in Austin. She wore a 1950s pleated sleeveless, collared dress and waved goodbye to me and said, with music light as a wind-chime in her voice, “I’ll see you again after you go around.” Only years later, after the unlikely deaths in Puerto Rico around our vacation home, her old home, did the prescience in those words strike me.
My grandmother was born on the rolling Kansas prairie in the town of Ellsworth. Her father’s last name was Wolf, and he was an odd turnabout. Kind of a ghost, since he spent a lot of time away working various jobs in the 1910s. But my grandmother adored him and she knew without a doubt that the bright smile on his handsome taciturn face meant he was the sort of father that would hug his little girl all day long if he could.
But then he died when she was only four and her mother had to marry the local sheriff in the neighboring town of Black Wolf. This sheriff was a widower with two small kids his own, a boy and girl, that he already didn’t much care for. Turns out, the sheriff was a bastard to all, my grandmother in particular. Anyway, something terrible happened at Christmas, something so awful my grandmother would go dark over it, saying not a word. The thing was terrible enough that Christmas was ruined for her every year after for the rest of her life.
She was a pretty girl and bright at school, but her home-life with the sheriff shooed the smile permanently from her fine features. You can see this in the only picture of her. Only one photo. How many snapshots do you take of your kids?
My mom later after my grandmother died went into the county records and tracked down this stepbrother of my grandmother. Grandmother Loyd told us he had run away from home at age 12 or maybe 13, which would have been 1917 or so. “Yes,” he told my mother over the phone, in 1990, “I run off at 13. My father was bad. Things were rough for your mother. She was nice, and to her he was especially rotten.” My mother never asked for specifics. People from Kansas wouldn’t. My mom was too afraid to really learn what might have happened to my wonderful Grandmother Loyd.
She shined in my eyes. Her tenderness, her love, the way she tipped forward and laid her hand over her heart when she laughed as if to keep it from spilling out, I have never forgotten. How she beamed the nights we flew in to Puerto Rico. How could anything have really gone wrong in the life of such a happy, loving woman? And her generosity. Like when my parents had difficulty buying the house of their dreams and my grandmother gave them a Christmas envelop with a $5,000 check for the down payment. A fortune in 1970. My step-grandfather, Breedlove, put no hand in that. That was her money. Money from her Aunt Gert.
Grandmother Loyd I think maybe thought I was gay because I loved art so much and was so good at it that once my whole second grade class gathered over my shoulder to watch me draw a herd of horses descending a path along a waterfall. I was nine years old when she told me about her closest little friend back in Black Wolf, a playful boy that she knew even then something was “different” about him. Out of the blue she told me about him. I knew she loved him. I was nine. I didn’t know what a homosexual was, and she never mentioned the word, but all these years later I know what she was telling me—“If you’re different that way, it’s okay.”
Anyway, that poor little boy died of blood poisoning after the kids were teasing him and chased him into a fall-down old building and he got injured somehow and the infection ran away and took his life within two weeks. That night, over my first cup of coffee-milk at my child’s red vinyl folding-table, with grandmother in my room, I saw hurt crowd behind her eyes. I wish I had been older to go into the pain with her.
My grandmother married young to my Granddaddy Howard. I loved him to death too. The quietest, shyest man that ever drew breath. More shadow than man, that way. The whole world scared him so much that, even so young, I was saddened how little ambition he had. He sold paper products out of a series of ancient trucks that changed model every few years I visited him in Wichita. I drove all around central Kansas with him selling a roll of adding machine paper here, a roll of price machine paper there, 25c at a time. How did he ever make a living? He never stopped traveling the road selling paper products from his jumbled hoarder’s warehouse that was formerly a diner he rented in Great Bend.
My grandmother felt he was drifting away from her after they had two children and this saddened and mystified her until she found a desperate love letter in the pocket of his drab-smelling plaid wool blazer. A lady told him she loved him and how gentle his love-making was and how she counted minutes for him coming back to Hays.
My Grandmother Loyd put down the letter and packed up the two kids and left the house and drove straight away to Laredo, Texas. They went so far because my grandmother’s sheriff stepfather had left her in the hard cold one day when she was so young with her tender small fingers. She got so severely frostbitten that her hands suffered Raynaud’s Syndrome every year ever after. Her hands became as useless as porcelain and she shivered in a shawl until the attack passed. His betrayal shut her off of Kansas. She never returned except when her rich Aunt Gert died and she came back for her share of the estate. But she arrived to find that her ex-father-in-law, the banker, and his friends, had cut up the estate among themselves so that my grandmother received little of what Aunt Gert meant her to get of thousands of acres covered with Donkey-pumps bringing up Kansas sweet crude all day long. She took what was left that they said was perfectly fair and never went farther north than Laredo ever again.
Back in Laredo, she met an Air Force Lieutenant named Breedlove, a Texan, because only Texans are ever named Breedlove. He himself was a divorce who had left his wife and young daughter. They married, and in 1955, Breedlove was transferred to Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico with a golf course by the sea that was Eisenhower’s favorite in the whole world. They built a Frank Lloyd Wright house off-base on five acres over a limestone cliff on the shore. The long peninsula of Rincon swept to the left with the lights of Aguadilla harbor twinkling along it, where legend says Columbus landed for fresh water flowing out of the lumpy green hills.
My grandmother’s Aunt Gert money bought the Finca, the farm, since Breedlove’s civil servant salary didn’t reach that far. My grandmother’s passion was art and Frank Lloyd Wright. The low slung, one-story house with glass cubes in the ceiling let in natural light and she surrounded it with sea grape and orchids. The architect warned them to build far back from the cliff because the rust-red soil and limestone couldn’t be trusted. The patios looked out at Rincon and, straight out, the shark tooth island named Desecheo, or Goat Island, where pirates buried treasure and left goats so the pirates could hunt fresh meat.
We went every year and stayed a month each visit. Grandmother’s Finca was paradise. We crawled down the cliff to the rocky beach and never saw anyone besides local fishermen at the crack of dawn because Puerto Ricans in those days never swam. The sea was a grocery store, not a place of recreation.
Each wave at the base of the cliff made a tiny ground-shake that suggested the graceful power of the ocean. I remember cocktail hour for the adults being a respite of rum and fresh lime from the garden, and sunset reaching across grandmother’s perfect repose through the redwood slats into the house. And the lovely stray dog as gentle as my grandmother was, that she named Plumy, for the long white fur on her tail. The Finca became grandmother’s redoubt to make her stand against cancer after her diagnosis in 1960. She had to be strong back then to tell doctors no to chemotherapy. Instead, she fought with her diet, and so she ordered much of her food from Walnut Acres in Vermont. She was the first person I knew to fight cancer naturally. She did fine until the late 1970s. Then she started losing weight, her chest collapsed. Cancer had greedily returned.
Cancer’s return marked another bruise to her life at the time. Dear Plumy was poisoned by local boys with eyes on the Finca when we drove seven hours to San Juan. Finding Plumy’s limp stiff body in the grass by the avocado trees stung my grandmother so badly that I heard her breath catch. She swayed, I think. I could see her fury over the waste, the cruelty. Her health worsened. Breedlove reconnoitered a gravesite for the two of them at a cemetery by the ocean in Old San Juan.
“Oh, Mommy,” Breedlove enthused when he returned to the Finca. “It’s such a perfect spot. The ocean. Sunset. Beautiful! You’ll be so happy there.” Breedlove was well over six feet, straight as a mast, with a crew cut and pencil mustache. His speech pattern and gestures effused a distinctive emphatic rhythm that made every Puerto Rican upon meeting him ask, “—Are you Cuban?”
“Oh, Breedlove!” my grandmother mocked him, putting her hand over her sunken rib cage. “I can hardly wait!”
My mom was there and laughed with her. Breedlove never got the joke.
Crime on the island grew infamously worse. Each year, I watched bars put on balconies climb a story higher on a certain San Juan apartment complex we always passed from the airport. Bars on that apartment building became my barometer for island crime. My last trip back for a while, when I was fourteen, bars reached to the fifth floor. I took this to mean that desperados were scaling five stories up to bust into apartments. When I came back again fifteen years later, the balconies were barred all the way up to the top floor. On that trip I came back to try to talk my mom out of selling her share of grandmother’s properties to Breedlove and his new wife, Virginia, whose greed knew no sentiment even when family was involved.
Grandmother Loyd died in 1980. I couldn’t believe Breedlove had not told us she was this far gone so that we could come say goodbye. I hadn’t seen her in six years. She deserved to have her two grandchildren snuggled by her side to weep and tell her how she was the best grandma that ever lived. Breedlove brusquely told us he would have no funeral. “Because all her friends are gone.” We were appalled. How could he behave like this? I don’t really know how my mom took all this upset. I was away in Iowa at college and I was never much for communication.
As I said, I came back with mom in 1985 when Breedlove wanted to buy out her and my uncle’s interests in both the Finca and the Spanish plantation-style townhouse in Old San Juan, also purchased with grandmother’s Aunt Gert money. I begged mom not to sell. The upsetting thing was that Puerto Rico has the Napoleonic Code. This misogynist decree prohibits the wife from dividing her estate as she wants, even if it’s all her money. All goes to the husband—though the reciprocal is not true if the husband dies first. All other parties receive no more than 1/8th of the estate split between them. Grandmother was not happy with Breedlove by the end, nor with this legal snare. Breedlove had already begun seeing Virginia. So my mother and Uncle Tim only received 1/16th apiece. To make matters uglier, in 1985, Breedlove sat with my mom and I at the bar of the La Mallorquina lunch counter in Old San Juan, a restaurant rich with family memories, and Breedlove went Rambo on my mom, his stepdaughter since she was nine, pounding out of her every last penny he could.
“Don’t worry about it,” my mom consoled me, “Breedlove is only doing it to consolidate the estate for Virginia.”
This grasping, childless Puerto Rican spinster turned out to be devoted to her nephew, a child of privilege my own age. I pleaded with mom to hold out so that we had a tie to the Finca and also, frankly, to haggle with Virginia and Breedlove from a position of strength over consolidating grandmother’s estate. But this was the first my mom showed her spendthrift tendency, and I’m sure Grandmother Loyd spun in her grave over that too. Grandmother had seen what Aunt Gert left her plundered by the Ellsworth Chamber of Commerce, and now Breedlove, with blood and grandmother counting for absolutely nothing to him. The whole business was so disgusting.
Grandmother Loyd was indeed buried in the cemetery by the sea. But she would be there on her lonesome after Breedlove informed us by letter that he would instead be buried with Virginia. That killed me. Grandmother, out there alone. My feelings involuted in ways that made me imagine I could channel my grandmother and her anger. Of course, this was sentimental nonsense except for my own judgment of Breedlove’s weakness.
So, Breedlove skinned mom, and mom soon burned through the little bit of Aunt Gert’s money that fell to her. Had I known how fast she was spending I would have implored that she keep some aside. One of the most painful experiences must be seeing your parents handle their monetary affairs so much more irresponsibly than you would.
Breedlove rented the Finca to a lady doctor who ran a Medicaid mill and the woman let the property go to seed. A chain link fence for her dog glinted around the Frank Lloyd Wright house, and flies and dog shit smell abounded. Then Breedlove sold the Finca for $400K to a Puerto Rican Medicaid neurologist named Pamela Ruiz whom no one in the village could stand, and who’s husband had already made two suicide attempts. Why had Breedlove sold? Why didn’t he ask if the family wanted to buy it? Ruiz’s architect drew up plans for a grand three-story rococo palazzo spanning from grandmother’s house to scant feet from the cliff. The palazzo’s corner turret left only a hair’s breadth to the drop-off over the surf-strewn rocks below. Looking down from the Italianate turret was a camera shot straight out of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Wrecking crews walked over Plumy’s grave by grandmother’s old vegetable garden and applied the wrecking ball to the concrete post and lintel frame Breedlove had built with the help of a boy, Manolo, from the village, who stayed with grandmother loyally to the last. Say what I might about Breedlove, his concretework didn’t budge. Ruiz had to call in her San Juan architect, and he could not believe she lacked the taste to see that she should have expanded on the Frank Lloyd Wright concept rather than put her palazzo on top of it.
“I didn’t know this was here!” He looked at her with open incredulity.
He informed her that, since grandmother’s house could not be razed without dynamite, they needed to incorporate the footprint into the palazzo. And so, grandmother’s house stuck halfway out, at an angle, her garage providing the same service for the palazzo, as the palazzo went up like a sand castle with Roman columns and arches. Dark, empty and pointless, the Frank Lloyd Wright house looked like a hernia someone forgot to remove. I slept in grandmother’s bed that October in the late 1990s when I came down for my cousin’s wedding. The exquisite, hand-carved redwood headboard was still in place, a lovely hybrid style between Craftsman and Scandinavian. But the headboard and so many other choice details in the house showed cigarette burns and carved initials from Ruiz’s bong-smoking kids and their friends. The conditions reminded me of a story a friend told who worked at the car dealership where Mike Tyson serviced his cars, and how the burled elm in the consoles of Tyson’s Rolls Royces were defaced by a pen knife.
That night, I saw every pore and delicate silver hair on my grandmother’s face stand out in eery close-up. Her Mamie Eisenhower bob, her narrow lips, always smiling in the old days, now were pursed in grim violation. But her eyes. Her eyes were the thing: the warm blue eyes were removed and in the sockets instead hung two stones the size and color of golf balls. They stared unblinking at all that had been done to her in her life, and to all the things she tried so hard to make beautiful and comforting. I saw through her eyes what savages we were. I saw the garbage and treachery people she loved brought to all her efforts to soften a life that could be so bitter without people like her. I saw her fury. I shared it, even as I felt ashamed to claim that I had been helpless to stop any of it. I saw the flame of hate in those cold stones for all the clumsy hands that had smeared palm prints over the many art pieces of her injured life.
The stone-eyes woke me in the cave dark of one house consumed by another. I sensed trouble was coming because somehow she was going to reach across.
That week Dr. Ruiz became a perfect bitch to us again, treating us like the poor relations trying to horn on her Finca. Millie had tried her best to make friends and keep open the lines of communication so that we could stop by if we were on the island. Millie also told me of Breedlove and Virginia throwing out all the treasures from our past in the San Juan house. Like the charcoal study of an old pine tree I gave grandmother that thrilled her because we both knew this was one of my best. Millie remembered the piece and saw my signature and snatched for the frame, but Carlos suspected something was up and thought the work must be from an artist he could make a buck off of. Millie tried to tell him the story behind the sketch but he wouldn’t believe her.
My cousin’s wedding was Halloween week. That night, my dream of grandmother came back, as well as Dr. Ruiz’s story to me about how she saw one day how fast her kids were growing up. Then she realized it wasn’t her kids, it was that her posture was collapsing because her spine bones were so softened by too many cortisone shots for her back pain. I couldn’t get the images out of my head. And the next day, in the cave of grandmother’s house, odd things happened. Like the living room bookcases trembling when my eye fell on grandmother’s favorite book—a photo collection of black and white snapshots from old Puerto Rico. Then the chair trembling under me when I sat down to look through the book. And then Granddaddy Howard’s old Army fatigue jacket from the War hanging in the closet where nobody ever touched it. The front was slashed to ribbons as if by an old fashioned razor. Millie would find out later that the Ruiz kids insisted this was not their vandalism.
After everyone but me returned home, things got really crazy.
On Halloween eve, Ruiz went into the hospital at Ramey. Her spine had collapsed again. I felt badly for her and went by the hospital to say thanks for letting me stay in the house. The nurses told me that her husband had thrown himself from the turret onto the rocks. He was still alive in another room. She was heavily sedated and the nurses let me look in. She was out of it, slumped forward like the neck of a squash in an utterly gruesome looking body brace with spokes into her head.
How Ruiz’s husband survived his leap makes no sense given the height. And that night, Halloween, back at the Finca, a storm blew in and threw waves against the cliff where he fell like none I’d ever heard or felt before. And on the spot where he had lain when they picked him up in a row boat not a few hours before, the whole cliff came crashing down, taking most of Ruiz’s Medicaid-built palazzo with it. In the storm, the sound came like the crash of an ancient tree or a thunder clap.
I woke to the perfect calm of the next day, and the sun blazed again on the windows and doors on the side of the house covered by the palazzo. In amazement, I opened the old patio doors and stood on what remained of the Finca cliff looking upon the white and black marble rubble below, resembling pieces of a broken chess board. The view from the house looked the same from our childhood days. Rincon, Desecheo, Aguadilla Bay, where a tidal wave made landfall 150 years ago and wiped out the entire town. My eye took in the familiar landmarks, but something was different: To my right on the turquoise water, the shining bodies of maybe fifty surfers curled over the lips of waves.
I had time before my flight, and something made me go back to the hospital. I found the nurses gathered at the door of Dr. Ruiz’s room. They stared in, touching their mouths. One of them wept. I noticed blood splashed high on the walls behind her bed where she was now pancaked flat, the head spokes on her knees. It looked like an explosion.
On my flight home, my paralyzed thoughts stared at what I’d seen: The wall. The nurses. The husband on beeping life support. Him maybe smiling when I stood in his room with pity on my face.
The rest we learned of a month after I got home. Mom got an odd call from Breedlove’s cemetery. Mom’s Spanish was a problem, but the caretaker’s office explained they had sent a bill for repairs to Breedlove’s and Virginia’s gravesite. Either the storm or vandals knocked over the twin grave markers and partly leveraged up both coffins so that the embalmed bodies were exposed. The office apologized for the inconvenience. No other graves were disturbed.
Millie went to San Juan to check on things. She said grandmother’s grave was fine, looking out to the sea.
A story contest wanted a sci-fi piece derived from your favorite sci-fi novel, and you had to use the title of that novel in your opening sentence. Here is my rendering of what Winston’s life looked like after his arrest and re-education in 1984.
By David Walls-Kaufman
In 1984 they arrested me.
In 1987 I got out of reeducation.
I didn’t actually learn anything in reeducation. Of course I could repeat by rote every lesson they “taught” me. It isn’t teaching. It is hearing the same things over and over. Until you cringe in all your being against anything different.
But me, I was overhandled past terror, to numbness. I really don’t care. Yes, I learned my lesson. But I also understand them now and know they have nothing to fear from me because I am broken by the experience of how cunning they are. I know they are reading these writings, these scratchings. I leave them out for them to find. They know I am only escaping into thought without hope of eluding or challenging them. Once they see this defeat they drop you from mouth like a bored carnivore to sulk off and dominate some other creature until it is killed or shaken useless.
I work mornings then sit hours in my same flat.
I returned to that meditation in a cell in front of the disc.
I returned to eat cabbage and bad-smelling sausage at the cafeteria in the square. But I was re-assigned from the Ministry of Truth. I now work in the Department of Public Works, in refuse collection, with others on work release.
I never see Julia, of course. And I don’t write in public.
I may mull over a thought as I sip a beer from my Four Ration per week. But I carefully wrap that thought and take it home with me to lay it out and examine it on the paper; see how it fits, or blooms, or moves. The pages are my only friends. People know what I did. For that they whisper and keep good distance.
And so it was a surprise the day the long, black, polished Spechyzia pulled up beside my cafe table as I sat in the December sunlight with my beer. Four other patrons shrank, wondering what big oafs might jump out to grab us. The windows are always dark tinted in official limousines. The Spechyzia idled, a feathering of exhaust regularly pulsing from the tailpipe in the frosty air.
And I—I, amazingly, feared nothing.
Then O’Brian stood, looking over the bonnet straight at me.
O’Brian. Of all the people in their world. Remember? The official who sent me and Julia up. The man I thought owned a far-away look during Ministry speeches that made me imagine he might sympathize with my cooped-up hostility? The man who exactingly supervised my early phase reeducation.
The breeze touched his sandy hair. His handsome face smiled.
Smiled of all things.
“Would you like to get in?” he asked.
The doors shut snugly around O’Brian and me.
The driver turned smoothly toward the Avenida Populi. The Ministry buildings loomed like cliffs in the low winter sunshine.
“I’ve always wondered about you, Winston.”
I didn’t know what he meant. Did he wonder if I was cured? Had they picked me up because they didn’t even want me writing my harmless drivel lest someone find it? This was the only thing I could imagine they would object to since they knew they had won given how they know everything of the human psyche.
“How’s life on the . . . outside?”
His mouth smiled affectionately across his square jaw.
I nodded. He knew what I did.
“Do you tire smelling of putridity?”
For some reason, this cut. Maybe all of us no matter how low we sink we keep a certain vanity for how others perceive us. We passed a main battle tank and the tank crew, seeing the Spech, snapped a crisp salute and boot click.
“I’m offering you a way out, Winston.” The orange of the sun caught his handsome profile. “I’m sixty-one. You are—thirty-one.” He tucked his head just barely toward me as if to better see to the backs of my eyes. “You’ll never have to lift another pail of shit.” He pouted at the significance of the offer.
“I’m not a homosexual,” I said defensively.
He altered the pout. “All the more fun for me.”
I looked away. “You tortured me.”
“What was I supposed to do? We always had a fondness for each other.” We were passing Parliament Complex. Several platoons of tanks lined the Avenida, and a handful of Spechyzias, some parked, some moving. Otherwise the Avenida was barren as usual, waiting for the next Pageant Day.
“You won’t be the only one. I have other—friends.”
I tried to grasp all that this meant. My mind opened a stagepiece in which he and I lay afterward across a comfortable, tousled bed with a splash of morning sun. We were somewhere tropical. I imagined I still felt his presence behind, up me. My mind created the indignity of the moment and arranged a query on whether I could take it.
I didn’t look at O’Brian. “Why me?”
O’Brian frowned. Either he nodded or our course over some cobbles made him seem to nod. “We have a history, you and I.”
You have to wonder about really smart, powerful men. Even if they are married, sometimes you never know. And the offer still made little sense. I looked older after three years in reeducation. These morbid thoughts sickened me.
“I travel a great deal,” O’Brian told me. “All over the world. The best resorts for the top Party officials. I have three homes in the country. Two abroad. The old Italy. The old Libya. And all you have to do is come along.”
Indeed. What did I have to take along from my cell with the disc?
“Is this the next step in my punishment?”
He almost chuckled. “Does it sound like a punishment?”
True. What would be the goal? How would they know when I was fixed?
“Is this punishment for my writing?”
“I don’t give a damn about your silly writing, Winston. The writing makes you more vulnerable, frankly.” He looked out the window as if checking our progress. “Pull over at The Palm.” The Spech turned into the Latin Quarter behind the Parliament Constabulary where two armed soldiers kept vigil at every lane leading in. The Spech trundled over the cobbles and pulled up in front of The Palm. Potted palms nodded in the breeze and torchlit sconces flickered in the mirror-finish granite walls. Broad slide-open bays lined an elegant terrace, revealing tables dressed in sharp linen lit by candles even at this hour, and a swift-footed waitstaff clad in white buss-coats making ready for a busy evening. O’Brian’s driver opened the door for me.
I wondered if he knew of O’Brian’s foul proposal. I checked his face but his gaze was averted so that I divined nothing.
I put one foot out and took a moment studying the scene.
I became acquainted with that Other World.
I don’t mean the Other World of homosexuals, but the Other World of the Party elite. They are not the same as you or I. They have more power.
It was true what O’Brian admitted to me. They do little work. And when they are away, which is most of the time, managing their world from more pleasant climes, they nose like hummingbirds along a delightful archipelago of resorts whose views take in the best topography and color our world has to offer.
We started in Gibraltar where he had an international conference. He kept me fairly well hidden in our pension high on the Mediterranean side. Gibraltar has the macaques. I had never even seen a monkey. Or a cable car. Then we took the overnight ferry to Málaga. We dined with the Captain. He never looked once at me. The man was frightened, but he stuck by his old world puritanism, though he had the head to keep the bias tight to his chest. Through dinner I dared him to give me a cross look. He refused. Our Gibraltar departure was delayed almost a day for a broken engine. O’Brian let the Harbor Captain understand his mood, but there was a coincident train problem that hampered the arrival of a replacement used carburetor.
I remember the expression on the Captain’s face half-hiding himself in the door of his bridge when O’Brian and I lurched down the gangway. It was so top-heavy that we descended first and let the Moroccan bearers follow after with the trunks. I bet he wished we’d fall, except then O’Brian might cast blame and make a reprisal. Málaga was a beautiful limestone city and the sea luminous. The water was so clear a fishing trawl appeared to float in the air above its shadow on the sand.
Over two years I saw a lot of the world. We made many of those trips by way of the gold service on the blimp Comrade Stalin.
The first class accommodations are impeccable. On one of these trips I came down with a mysterious illness spanning symptoms of extreme fatigue, headache, painful bowel and urination. By dinner bell, I exhibited jaundice. I couldn’t finish dining. I remained in bed until the Stalin reached Athens. I was taken directly to hospital where the doctors examined me and administered a couple tests. They found nothing. At least, this is what they told me. I saw them speaking confidentially in the hall with O’Brian and he nodding. When O’Brian came into my room he mentioned nothing of what they told him, and it enraged me that, even with my own health, and my dealing with whatever he put up me, he was still our only concern.
I remained in hospital for ten days and gradually recovered from my mysterious illness that O’Brian possessed more knowledge of than did I.
At that time, I returned home alone, and presumably another of O’Brian’s toys joined him for his trip to Vietnam for another economic conference. Much to my surprise upon landing home, I discovered first from the front page of Truth & Conviction that the invisible superiors or Big Brother had decided that the people of Britain could let slip the name Oceania and pick up the old names of Britain and London.
As a former member of the Ministry of Truth I wondered long and hard what this meant in the change of political winds.
I also wondered if my job as O’Brian’s toy was now ended.
I was well aware that he did not love me. How could he when I behaved the way I did? I had fallen dead inside, and I cared about nothing. I could not bring myself to feel enough about my position and my future and my returning to the trash collection to flirt with him or to put on an act in bed with him behind me. I did not enjoy that prison barred by palm trees and turquoise shores. His bumping and skirmishing behind and biting my bum left me sick and dead cold.
One time, O’Brian yanked on his pants and put the tine through his belt hole and said impatiently, “You could at least act as if you like it!”
I burned on my own. What did he really want?
“You don’t care if I enjoy this,” I observed.
This quieted him. He set his cuff links in the illumined bathroom mirror as he suddenly apprehended the crystal veracity of this.
It grew so still we heard the surf of the Cinque Terre.
“So . . . I suppose that is correct.”
He emphasized suppose as if he was still unsure what this implied.
He left without me for the dinner. I took my time dressing in uniform and then leaned on the balcony studying the sea far below and the path across the surface to the black horizon under the moon. I tallied in my mind the pros and cons of humiliating myself and going down. My emotions were in literal war. My throat, my heart, my diaphragm coalesced in a single steel bar of revulsion for myself and the image of the faces round our table if and when I finally degraded myself to follow my “lover” down, tail between my legs. I did go down. My face scorched as if from sunburn. My throat clenched so hard and dry I felt any moment thin vomit would force its way to the back of my mouth. Any tart comment from one of those Party cardinals or their wives or toys and my flaming humiliation would have aimed a fork at an eye.
I knew all this. That I could lose “favor”. That I could be sent back down from the Comrade Stalin to hoist ash bins leaky with refuse. Worse, back to raw humiliation for my choices without the consolation of perquisites and the beauty of the best places in the world. Apparently, Fate believed that I hadn’t suffered enough. And O’Brian set his hairy legs behind me to point it out, each day. Me, pretending only half of it was real life in idylls having diplomatic relations with the Union.
My self-discipline had run aground on irremediable self-loathing. So hard was it fixed that no threat in Oceania terrified me.
I was five months living in O’Brian’s villa while it was in full-out renovations. For that reason I actually stayed in the pool guesthouse.
It was modest enough that my feelings of hypocrisy subsided.
I chose to make political interpretations from the extent and obvious cost of the renovations, the much larger indoor-outdoor pool and the choicest materials for double doors, wood trim, chandeliers, flooring and the same gorgeous North African tilework O’Brian used in his grand Libyan villa. I decided the State and Big Brother must be increasingly confident in their consolidation on power now if they cared just shit about appearances where their villas and lifestyle were concerned. The splendor of O’Brian’s house and grounds taking shape around me filled me with despair. What chance was there for the rest of us if Oceania was this brazen? The workmen labored from sunrise to sunset fabricating lovely architectural art. Each work cycle shackled my mind with another layer of hopelessness that God surely had abandoned us.
It was so corrupt and unfair. I relived the disappointment that both my parents died so early that I could never whisper in their ear to please tell me how this world of inverse morals had toddled into reality. Couldn’t people see it coming?
Don’t monsters like this make their existence known?
Of course, I had to stop writing.
I couldn’t leave these ideas traced out.
I had gone too far in my hatred for O’Brian and the Party and how one helped the other take everything for the sole purpose that they could have fun and no one else could. I despised them for being the sort of people that probably could have found an honest way to come by this luxury so that others could experience it too. Certainly, if they brought all this destruction—weren’t they capable of the inverse? I assumed they had destroyed much that had been based on seeing the unending fear in my parents’ eyes. I knew even so young something was amiss. This could not be right. Before O’Brian, the Ministry of Truth, burning pictures and papers to hide lies. People were not built such that the fear I saw could be the norm—and now, as O’Brian’s plaything I saw what the remarkable facade of deceit was singularly used to hide.
For all this I loathed O’Brian more.
When O’Brian’s dream house neared completion he called me long distance from Hong Kong. He sounded happy. He told me breathlessly how spectacular the island peaks looked jutting over the rough cobalt of the channel.
“How is the house, darling?”
The endearment shocked me. My hate spiked.
“It’s coming along perfectly,” I said, inserting a soft smile.
“I miss you.” He was flirting, for God’s sake.
Instinct compelled me to follow his lead.
“I thought maybe you were bored with me.”
“Oh, maybe for a while. We have history. I told you.”
We hung on the line together.
“I’m headed to Sicily. Meet me.”
His voice was mysterious, like a little girl. It seemed ridiculous, this tenderness I’d never heard coming from this large political enforcer. That he was getting older must be the only explanation. I remembered the buffalo bull in Tanzania when guides told us the lions only pulled him over in a blaze of dust because of his age.
“Aren’t you anxious to see the house?”
The fucking “house”, like it was ours.
And we were a fucking couple.
“After. Sicily first. I want to show you a special place.” He sighed. “Will you be excited to see it?”
I smiled. “Of course.”
We crossed on the Comrade Stalin again.
The first night out I came upon O’Brian and a friend he had made armed with cocktails playing ping pong in the Recreation Room. I heard raucous laughter. When I opened the door I saw the “net” was the athletic naked body of a blonde male steward that earlier both men had been flattering.
O’Brian told me a special surprise was on board. I believed maybe he was going to present me with some sort of a diamond bracelet in a flute of champagne arriving with dinner. Each meal, the gift never came.
I came to realize the accommodations in the Stalin had altered. The salon was truncated and a conspicuous nautical door with the typical rounded corners stood in the new bulkhead that shortened the salon. There were fewer chrome rails and velvet observation chairs and sofas. Not until the second day of the voyage did I see the change and realize that the new bulkhead’s padded silk upholstery probably hid a magnificent state room. I couldn’t imagine why else the grandeur of the Party’s flagship dirigible would be compromised. Who was on the other side?
That evening, I tarried on the observation deck with my Pappa Doble cocktail in hand, taking in the views of the Sardinian coast floating below. Part of the observation deck extended out in a bay port and starboard. There, I twisted the aluminum latch and leaned out the pane into the turbulent breeze. I put aside my cocktail on a side table bolted into the salon carpet then leaned my torso out into the wind snapping past the bulk of the airship. I peered sternward to see in the windows in the rear compartment. The angle of the sun pouring in behind made it possible for to me to make out a man with arms behind him similarly taking in the coastline.
He was in his seventies with thick mustaches, brush cut white hair and a short, thick torso that bespoke endurance and menace. At first I thought it was Comrade Stalin risen from the dead! But there was something more familiar about him.
It wasn’t Stalin. . . . It was Big Brother!
So this was O’Brian’s surprise.
We were all bound for Sicily together for probably what was to be the single-most significant conference since the turn of the world.
The presence of Big Brother created palpable excitement.
Part of me doubted he was ever even real, if you remember. I believed he was a device, a boogeyman talisman, fashioned only to terrorize us children.
But he was actually here, in Sicily. None of us, wives and toys, were permitted to go along with our partners to the functions where he appeared. Was there a crisis in the war? Was his visit just an appearance or was state policy being developed? I saw O’Brian only in the late afternoons when we did some touring or enjoyed a luncheon in a coastal cafe, or in the evening every other night when a state dinner was not scheduled. I never saw O’Brian happier. Except for one awful problem.
At one lunch, we were joined by Comrade Felancon from Madrid and his female toy and his son and wife. We ate roast sardines and a light tomato-based shellfish stew and bottle after bottle of ice cold proseco. Felancon and O’Brian were carrying on an intense grudge. They argued and competed over everything. The last debate they were engaged in was the stature of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and how important this genre of anti-military Leftist literature had been in undermining the moral strength of the West in resisting the incursion of the Party into hemispheric politics.
“Heller was a Communist,” Felancon insisted as if O’Brian were stupid for not knowing this tidbit about the author.
“No, Felancon. He was a Socialist.”
“Well, what’s the difference at this point?” The Spaniard opened his arms and took a look around emphasizing how all the West was clearly Socialist.
“He was not a Party member!” O’Brian complained.
“He’s still a major figure, you dolt!”
The two glared at each other. Each settled back in his chair and removed the leather cigar commodes from inside their black tunics. The remains of lobsters covered the long table. They prepared their smokes in hostile silence and looked out over the balustrade with the awning nodding over the azure of the sea. To the right nosed a thin sailboat that was taking members out for twilight excursions. It too rode in the clear water that way as if on air floating over its uneven shadow on the bottom.
Like my first time seeing Spain.
It was that evening during cocktails that the two egoists got into a shouting match over some other mercurial point of revolutionary literature. They became so enraged that the two twisted fistfuls of each other’s tunics and campaign medals as they hollered nearly mouth to mouth. They were taken apart by friends, and I wonder if maybe the presence of The Man himself put them up to trying to outshine each other during this brief and maybe never-to-be-repeated opportunity.
The standoff became even more difficult given that Comrade Felancon and his outfit were roomed one suite down from us in the same hotel. I saw him late nights alone on his balcony enjoying a cigar. I made out the orange dot traveling up and down as he meditated on the murmur of surf far below.
The local police found the bodies on the rocks.
The State Security officers investigated as well. Even Big Brother came out onto Felancon’s terrace to take a look at the bodies. He made some sort of benediction with his thick hand that I could not translate and left through the living room after a period that paid too little respect. I supposed the two officials meant enough to the State apparatus to warrant checking on them with his own eyes.
Certainly the deaths came as a shock.
What the local police told the resort staff was that obviously the two men had escalated their quarrel after the big dinner. When each returned to their suites, they well knew their antagonist was scant feet away where they could have another crack at each other and maybe even sneak up to surprise him.
O’Brian apparently went for Felancon over the other’s balustrade and they lost balance so they plunged in each other’s clutches onto the mossy rubble. Their skulls and limbs were badly wrecked by the fall. But the local police were quite satisfied given all the witnesses to the escalating situation over two days. The State Security officers were probably inclined to put in more of a show for the sake of the reputations of the two men. I saw them carefully inspecting a patch among the rocks directly below the balcony of our suite. They were down there nearly two hours and then made their way up the demanding zig-zag steps carved into the cliff.
I was packing my valise when they came into the suite unannounced. Three of them. They did not look happy, but then why would the State police?
Seeing them reminded me of the boots up the stairs long ago.
“What happened to your face?” one asked me.
“My friend enjoys rough play.”
He seemed embarrassed, hostile.
“What was he doing, exactly?”
“Choking my throat. He hit me here.” I showed him. I didn’t have to show him. The purple pink bruise was prominent.
“How long were you—lovers?” He followed curiously the progress of his partner who slung his leg over our balcony and dropped down to the dirt on the other side. The two of us went to peer over at what he was looking for.
“We were together for four years.”
“It was consensual? You with him?”
I steered my head to say of course.
The man below took to his knees. He reached inside his blouse for a magnifying glass. “What are these scuff marks?” He peered closer.
I didn’t see any scuff marks. “What scuff marks?”
His partner beside me squinted too.
The fellow below showed nothing, but kept looking.
“The problem is,” said the fellow next to me, “below, on the rocks, there appear to be pieces where Comrade O’Brian burst. And if he landed there—then, how did he drift over to the spot there beneath Comrade Felancon’s suite?” I saw him rove over my facial highlights carefully again.
I frowned and shook my head.
Three of the local Sicilian cops strolled onto the terrace with folded hands as if shy they were crashing our party. One with a mustache and gold epaulets smiled cheerily at me. They seemed quite impressed with the hotel.
“This is a shoe print!” said the one below.
“I climbed after the Comrade’s lighter,” I told him.
“He dropped it?” asked the officer next to me.
I nodded at the Sicilian cop, who shrugged at me.
“He dropped it,” the Sicilian cop said.
The officer below started picking his way along the bottom of my terrace studying the soil between patches of grass and flowers.
The Sicilian gazed down at the two Security officers still nosing around the rocks where pieces of O’Brian had been found. The Sicilians started speaking in Italian to one another about the men below. They spoke for some time about a variety of topics. The depth of the conversation began annoying the officer with me.
“What is it you are talking about?” he said.
“Your men, what are they finding?”
O’Brian died three years ago.
I’ve lived in the pool house ever since. Another Comrade took possession of the house within a few months of the completion of renovations. This Comrade, Daladier, met me numerous times at functions with O’Brian. Daladier travels a great deal too and wanted a pension overseas. He asked the Party if he could take possession of the house in Tripoli as well and then asked if I would stay on to caretake both properties for him and his wife. I agreed and he made the arrangements.
The same Security officers came to visit me twice more to ask me about what exactly happened that night and how they found O’Brian.
I guess they didn’t like what the Sicilian cops urged them to understand about hunks of meat and corpses left open along sea water.
“Crabs, and turtles! They swish-swish! Carry all over!”
The Sicilian cop had spoken to me with the same partisan assurance that he gave the security officers. Like I was security too. Like he had to convince me of the same facts of coastal marine violence. Turtles and crabs. And tide.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised about how she died or where she died, bitter and surreal as the news struck me, and bare enough to make me feel cold, hollow, unclean. I’m really not sure if what I felt, or feel, for her is really what I would call love. Especially in light of what she did.
Could anything be more perverse and despicable?
We met at Columbia University before the War when we both majored in physics. I knew her from a class and we had spoken a few times and then I saw her at a jazz club and she held a cigarette aloft in the tight crowd, and we spoke over a drink, and then two drinks, over the course of hours, and even then she smoked too much. I realized all this after I made my way blearily back to my room on 112th and flopped into my lumpy bed seeing her lovely face in double vision wreathed in a dirty halo just like a movie shot.
—You’re leaving the department, she asked incredulously. Why?
—I’m listening to my father’s practicality, I said. She shrugged, wanting more. I’m realizing I really have no prospects. I don’t see myself teaching.
—You’re selling out? To the bourgeois? She bit the tip of her pinky in one of the few coquettish, girlish gestures I would ever see her do. Most everything she ever did was decidedly masculine, I see in retrospect.
—You’re beautiful when you smile. I didn’t realize you could.
She watched me with a complete lack of conviction. –A person’s politics is more important to me than looks, she said, smiling.
—I see. You’re a political racist.
She didn’t like that at all. I realized that night flopped on my face that she was beautiful, and smart, and that I felt some special closeness for her, and I maybe felt moved even more intensely because my feelings were so totally incongruous with her cold, strange supremacy. We made subsequent appointments to meet and talk in a cafe that clearly adopted Left Bank airs there on Amsterdam near Shermerhorn where she confessed, as she tipped up a coffee cup to full lips that left no lipstick stain, radicals congregated. I could tell she found it all very exciting and clandestine and that made her happy.
—Why do you like me? I asked her.
That made her smile. —I don’t know. Should we have sex?
I was startled by her boldness. Anyway, we did go back to my room for the loss of my virginity. It was surprisingly awful, and I could tell it was for her, too; and I accept total responsibility. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. And she seemed halfway hurt as if she should have known better.
—Are you a virgin? I asked her afterward, feeling angry.
She shook her head No.
—I don’t believe you, I said decisively. And I didn’t because the sex was so bad as if she had no more idea than I what to do about making it better. She was wooden in her emotions and actions, her abrupt, jerky thrustings of pelvis at me during my incomplete freshman explorations.
—No, she told me a little sharply, defensively, I had sex just last week.
—I think you’re lying to me.
I don’t know why I tried to be superior. I should have just shut up and taken my embarrassment like a man. In spite of the curt directness of this coital foible and the mutual lack of rapture she and I had sex again half a dozen times over the fall. In those subsequent skirmishes we found our stride. I don’t know why. Maybe we stopped trying, certainly she stopped poking at me, we held our kisses longer, we held each other longer, and I remember many times how we embraced one another with appreciation, and the sex, the contact, cured the loneliness and unknowing. She, I think, seemed impressed with me as if I had touched her in some way others had not. She never said so. I felt she went away a little hurt that maybe she now had some sort of deeper emotional bond or obligation with me than she had desired, though she wouldn’t fulfill it. From then on, I sensed that she considered me her intellectual equal and she was more willing to try to avoid being rude in ways that she clearly had not cared about before. Namely, derogatory comments about America, how it was such a sorry country and needed a do-over. This was a remarkable thing to hear anyone say in those days. I would look at her like she was talking a weird language. She mentioned things like racism and greed and classist genocide.
—I have no idea what you are talking about, I would say to her.
—You wouldn’t. You’re blindness makes you a cog.
—No. I don’t think you understand the fundamental definitions of some of the words you throw around. And it’s so striking because you are so arrogantly belligerent when you strike those artifices.
—You are such a boor.
—At least I know the definitions of the words I use. What system do you think is better than a democratic republic?
—A workers paradise like we’ve got in the Soviet Union. Where there is no greed or hunger, no want or poverty! Where everyone is finally getting along. She smirked at me defiantly like I was stupid.
So it was hot and cold, romance and friction. She gave me hell for leaving the physics department for finance and could not understand why I was perfectly content. In her eyes I was somehow impure.
—You’re living off the backs of the workers, she chastised me.
—How am I doing that? I’m in another department.
She made a sharp face at my joke. Her anger was stoked by her sense that she wasn’t making a convert of me. —You’ll profit off labor!
—Yeah? And how aren’t they profiting off me?
—But you’re not doing anything!
—Investment capital is the most important part! Who puts up the money to buy the plant? Machines? Materials? Wages? Accounting?
I couldn’t understand her at all. I’d read Marx and realized in a dim, naive way that his thinking was having a deep impact on my generation, but I felt that people were missing the overriding historical fact that a middle class had emerged that totally exploded his argument that social evolution was stuck. It clearly wasn’t. It was racing forward. Yes, things could be better. But people like her seemed want to ignore that conditions were improving.
I put too little effort into explaining any of this to her because, truthfully, I hadn’t realized the broad outlines of her anger. This was in part because we only learned much later that the Soviet Union murdered and terrorized people who tried to leak the truth about what was going on. There is also some indication that the print media in the West was intent on suppressing the whole story as well. If this is true, it is hard to calculate what to say about such an effort. She was not ready to hear any challenge I made on obvious points that progress could be seen, and predicted. And I always felt bored as if I was in Sunday school when she started cranking that rotisserie of radical platitudes. Twice, after making love, she told me flat out she did not want to sleep with me any more. I was just surprised. I lay back, saying nothing, watching her stare in irritation at her unadorned fingernails, lighting a cigarette.
Our warmth toward one another abated over the course of the dreary winter. I would see her on the campus or in the company of two different men at different times that I could tell at a distance I would not approve of due to a manner they had about them that suited her. Like her, they had a conceit, and a desire to make themselves unhappy.
And then I was in the War and made my way into Officer Candidate School and got my army commission. By 1943 I was in Italy with Patton. After Italy, we were re-assigned to England in April 1944 and there I was with so many thousands of American GIs pouring out of pubs, eateries, vaudeville theaters, movie palaces and dance halls on the arms of friendly English working girls that none of us figured the Krauts couldn’t figure out we were coming. Scuttlebutt had it that the Germans were going to have a hard time figuring out where the half million of us would land.
Turns out, I went in on the second day on Sword Beach and the sand was splotched all over with dark red brown explosion patterns, and up in the dunes and splashed across rocks and grass lining the inland paths. It was a sobering sight seeing what a blitz our boys had given back to the Hitler Youth. Crews carried out the bodies on stretchers with an occasional hand or leg hanging over the edge, sometimes with a raw missing piece, while we marched in. Looking back over my shoulder, I couldn’t count the number of our ships. You just can’t otherwise grasp the push, the effort, the preparation. To me, the sight of all those ships was the high point of Western civilization. In those countless ships and LCTs on the sun-warmed buff green sea was the most enduring embodiment of nobility that the human hand will ever write.
And I remembered her just then, too, walking up backwards, sinking my boots silently into the moist, coarse sand. I thought of her petulant, angelic face that I knew then could never be made happy.
Then after the invasion I saw a lovely girl in a tam o’ shanter dodging in the sunny haze of Piccadilly Circus with rubble all around her. After we got over our amazement at seeing each other, she found out I was with command and she was studying at Oxford and we agreed to have dinner.
—I can’t tell you what I’m doing, it’s all hush hush, she told me as we ate liver sausages and dehydrated potatoes out of a box two nights later at a smoky pub right off the square. I know it’s something military.
—Do you know where you’ll go? I asked.
—No one knows. They’ve emptied out the physics departments.
—We think it’s the War Department. No one can say. She smiled. People just disappear and the rumor is that they’re somewhere out west working on a super secret bomb. Maybe the atomic bomb. She whispered excitedly.
I nodded. —Are you working for the wrong side? I couldn’t help barbing her a little, sipping what passed for coffee in London. Actually, it was closer to dishwater than the Army coffee that was half chicory.
She shrugged. —Well, Hitler has to be stopped.
—Why? He’s a Socialist.
She pulled away a strand of hair. —No; he’s a fascist.
—So’s every Socialist you know.
She tilted her head and glared at me disappointedly. —You want to go fuck? She brought up the sumptuous round lip of her off-white coffee mug and watched my reaction with juvenile hopefulness.
I chuckled admiringly. —I’m not thrown out of your crib in wartime?
—You are the sort of man I should marry. Though that’ll never happen. She folded her arms with finality and, after a beat, started laughing at me and the abrupt way she had left me jilted at the altar.
I relished her bodacious, crazy incongruity. I did care for her, unpredictable and half-crazy as she was. She smiled at me with that golden warmth of hers, more girlish and fun than I had ever seen her. Maybe she could be happy, after all. Had anything changed? Was it the War? Was it the spirit of adventure now that she was off to join a mysterious team of top physicists gathered for tinkering somewhere in the Wild West? Was it that she thought me not half bad any longer? There was something precious, tender and sincere about her that I loved, but that got submerged in that uncompromising cruelty that was also there always finding vent in her chronic political malcontent.
We walked through the rubbled streets in the bright haze of a northern latitude evening until we spotted an arched doorway gutted by blast from what must have been a thousand pounder. Every step was coated in ash down a cellar stair leading from street level under the house. A thatch of pulverized timber blocked the way just beyond the nook behind the exterior wall. We watched out for the home guard at the far corner in his flat Brodie helmet and over-baggy uniform, and when he turned out of sight we ducked down into the gloom. Under the crosshatch of beams, in the cool fragrant from overturned earth and that peculiar odor of stone-fractured-by-bomb, we adjusted our clothing up and down. We tenderly went at it far more appreciatively than in the old days. After, we even kissed sweetly a long while, me holding her chin, as if we were turning over in our minds whether we actually should marry.
When she trotted off with her little fists tucked deep in the pockets of her worn green serge jacket, she plucked one hand out to wave a little frantic goodbye to me. —Goodbye, Eliot. I love you in my own way. I smiled and held my hand up in eternal salute to her, fondly taking in her colorless silhouette in a tam with a pom cutting the bright yellow haze of the late sunset in a city denuded by bombs.
And that was it; there was no more of her or about her.
Turns out, she had gone West to work with a regiment composed of the top physicists from the United States and England led by Bob Oppenheimer whom I had met before the War. The Los Alamos team defied gravity building the bomb that ended the war in the Pacific and that saved a quarter million American lives. And she had been there, one of just a handful of women in the program, indeed recruited from Oxford, along with Fuchs, like her, an ardent Communist. The Soviets wanted two separate information streams on the bomb to confirm they weren’t being intentionally misled by the Americans. They had cultivated Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall, both at the Los Alamos site, and those men knew they were working for Stalin.
It all seems so incredible and preposterous to me that people like them could actually lose sight of what America represented for civilization and what the Soviet Union actually did. But she did make that mistake, and so did Fuchs and Hall and so many others around that time. They did it, most said, because of the Great Depression and the economic hardship it caused. But when it ended—why didn’t they wake up with the others who had also been fooled?
She was approached by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who took their orders from the head of the KGB in America. She was asked to pick up the Ted Hall bomb documents, and she eagerly agreed. She even told Ted Hall that she hoped her participation in giving Stalin the bomb would injure the United States. She had been told by the KGB officer who ran the New York office, Leonid Kvasnikov, that if it appeared FBI agents had picked up her trail or that of Ted Hall, she was to usher Hall and herself straightaway to New York to be smuggled into the Soviet Union via France where they would be handed a new life and be treated as heroes of the revolution. She arrived in Santa Fe in the guise of a tuberculosis patient seeking relief in the desert air. After several aborted attempts to meet Hall on the campus of the University of New Mexico, Ted Hall having been told to look for a girl with a rolled magazine in her pocket, Hall was finally able to get away from Los Alamos with his painstakingly detailed drawings and notes that she then stashed in the bottom of a box of Kleenex. Once she had the drawings, she went to the train station and found the place flooded with Army police and FBI agents specifically there to search everyone for bomb materials. She was cold enough to actually hand the Kleenex box to the FBI agent that stopped her as she searched her purse for her train tickets and identification. She was quite proud of her little gambit with the Kleenex boxy and how she turned to get on her departing train and left it for the agent to call out to her to hand back her box of tissues, the only thing he had not searched.
Klaus Fuchs had waited weeks for the chance to leave the Los Alamos camp and that chance finally came when his Los Alamos friends planned a party after the Japanese surrender and needed someone to ride down the mountain for the booze. Fuchs volunteered and drove off into the desert and drew up his renderings and then got them to Harry Gold who got them to New York City where Kvasnikov compared the two sets of documents. She handed her parcel of drawings to Anatoly Yatzkov who spirited them to the fourth floor of the Russian embassy in New York where about forty members of the KGB worked to oversee the vast conspiracy that was actually in place to convince the American intelligentsia of the superior virtues of Socialism. All of it—that only Socialism can solve poverty, that America is racist and a hindrance to enlightenment—that was all the program of the New York KGB office. Kvasnikov quickly saw that the two sets of documents were nearly identical, and therefore probably real. And so, Joseph Stalin, with his black teeth, who laughed in the face of the crippled Roosevelt in his wheelchair, who murdered 30 million to Hitler’s 6 million, got the bomb he had been screaming for for over a year. Delivered by American and British citizens who idolized him, as did the rest of the Socialist world. Including the New York Times reporter, Walter Duranty, who was a Communist and painted such a loyal, rosy picture about 1930s Soviet life that he won the Pulitzer for it. Stalin celebrated his bomb victory by launching yet another wave of terrorist purges to “protect the security of the Soviet state”. This time, only fifty thousand died. And this was after Stalin wiped out his army’s officer corp, to whom he had lied and promised an end to Soviet Socialism when the army showed no will to fight until the Wehrmacht stood three miles from Moscow. That lie turned the tide of Soviet fortunes.
I wonder at the blindspot in the Socialist Fascist mind. Reading about the rest of her life was only more surreal. In 1949, when the Soviets blew up their bomb, American intelligence knew the Soviets could only have built a bomb that quickly with inside help. The FBI went back and carefully combed through the old encrypted Western Union records collected through the war from the Soviet embassy in New York, and secretly cracked the code, and this time they were far more careful screening decoders to make sure Communists had not infiltrated this office too. These messages exposed all the key players and how they smuggled the bomb plans. Ted Hall, Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and then the Left wing conspiracy to raise cane internationally to destroy the evidence and the case against them, specifically the Rosenbergs, just like in the Sacco and Vanzetti trial when Communists grabbed for evidence right on the judge’s desk under his very nose even as they screamed “Where is the evidence? Where is the evidence?” . . . And I remember her arrogance to me about her political pedigree. I shake my head. You might think you have the power to persuade people to be civilized and decent, to see good and evil clearly, but I can tell you, there she was in my life, and we spoke at length about these things, and I can assure you she looked at me with diamond clarity that the good was aligned with her and that she was a dedicated humanitarian.
She got word about the Rosenbergs and she and another Communist, named Johnson, escaped to the Soviet Union via France in 1950. And they were hailed as heroes of world “liberation”. They were paraded before the Kremlin under the grateful scrutiny of the politburo above the hundreds of thousands of hungry, shabby people ordered to assemble and cheer for the newsreels. The KGB records state that Johnson and she were both given positions in the nuclear research department on the outskirts of Kiev and she was awarded a Pension of the People in the amount equivalent to $45 a month, which I know was less than she had to work with at Columbia. In 1953, she suffered an injury from an explosion and the burns probably hurt her looks and after the injury she was more hostile, which now we know goes hand in glove with any brain injury. If she was no longer so fetching, then she was no longer so charming, and probably she fell out of favor, which meant she was less protected if yet another wave of “exposures” of “wreckers” and “limiters” came about. Solzhenitsyn has many lines that deal with this absurd and cruel fall from grace: “Famous revolutionaries, theoreticians, and prophets, . . . before their own inglorious destruction, welcomed the roar of the crowd, not guessing that their own time [of punishment] stood on the threshold, that soon their own names would be dragged down in that roar of “Scum!” “Filth!” Doubtless, she would have tried to trade sex for protection and food enough to survive on, but if she was uninteresting to the guards then she would have had no chance to survive.
The records of the Mitrokhin Archives say that she died of “lung failure” in the camps in 1957. These came out much later, and so her family had no word and no trace of her after her arrest in 1953. I had corroboration of this ironical ending from a meeting I was able to obtain with a secretary of Gorbachov who of course recalled the grim details of the trial of her “betrayal” in Pravda.
Who killed more, the one or the other? How does the heart and mind turn on this ideological pivot with dark and near perfect conviction? It makes no sense to me, this special treachery of human gifts.
I remember her smile, in those quick moments in a smoky bar or in a taxi when she was briefly so happy to be alive.
—You’re stealing from the workers! she scolded me.
I really enjoyed the Liberty Island short story contests because you had to come up with a story outside your comfort zone, and you had to write for a deadline. It was terrific practice for a writer. This was for a “Fantasy Father’s Day” contest.
A clear day peppered by fall colors. Three veterans sat in the sidewalk cafe in the shadow of the Great Doctor Memorial in the Plaza Frankenstein.
“First of all,” said the first vet, “Frankenstein was no politician.”
“He was a statesman,” agreed the second.
The scribe nodded as his quill wrote.
“No Regent who does great things is a politician,” said the third. “And all the corrupt bureaucrats Frankenstein slayed that day makes him the greatest.”
“The greatest of all!” chimed the second.
The veterans lifted in toast their chalices of purple absinthe. The purple absinthe from Tall Cheops. The scribe bought the best to loosen the tongues of these chevaliers. They wore the black beret with the immemorial gold-green badge. The badge showed the Rook the militia took that day to break the Diet and Ministries.
“Did you men participate in the regicide?” asked the scribe.
“Why yes! For shame if we missed!”
“And Frankenstein led you up?” The scribe’s gaze landed again on the fat gold signet on the finger of the third veteran, the loony one.
“The Great Murderer led until he was struck down. Then up again, healed by his very father! He wanted credit, you see. For the liberation. Was it not His stately vision to capture the corruptniks against the republic?”
“Things were awful under their hand, Scribe.”
The scribe touched the quill feather to his chin. “How were The Troubles?”
“Alas! Dark Oligarchy it ‘twas.”
“Oligarchy is alright if it is Just and bright. But this was vile double standard of Law and risk. One for common, another for those in the top rank.”
“They made it their express mission to destroy the reputation of anything and everyone! To spoil life so no one got along.”
“To keep us at each other rather than at them!”
“Friends even to our enemies before us!”
“Only Frankenstein saw through.”
“Really? Only He?” The scribe writ faster. “With his famous hair?”
“Only He, scribe!” The third sucked the last drip from his chalice. He sucked again, watching the scribe. He overturned the chalice to demonstrate the forlorn emptiness. “And it was more the shape of his head than the hair, that captured his virility.” The scribe dipped in his wool tunic for his coin pouch. “Scribe! Reachest for the pouch? Wonderful! Tis a wondrous day for another absinthe.”
“Aye! We chevaliers are known for our thirst!”
“Renowned, I might say,” said the scribe professionally.
The first waved to the barmaid. “Lass! Another squirt!”
“I’m to go in for the bot.”
“I have a cavalry pension, lass,” said the third. “You could do worse than to receive my Civil War pension for the rest of your life.”
The girl frowned, considering. “Me, a CivilWar bride?”
“Yes, my girl. And mother of eight. Ten. Fifteen.”
She eyed the signet. “And how many kids do you want?”
“I feel I owe the Realm a dozen more.”
This seemed fair. “And you fought at Rooks?”
“Yes, wifey. Aired the shoulders of many crooks at Rooks.”
The vets grinned at the rhyme. The scribe writ.
“Bring the bot, lass, and we’ll tell of the Day, and how the Doctor Father of our Great Murdering Leader saved the Sun that saved the Realm!”
The Rooks stood atop The Cliffs.
The Cliffs towered vertical over the Valley of Kings. Once the Citadel of the Republic, lice from the “best schools” permeated the chambers sufficient to wrest the institutions so that they became playthings for the rich and the permanent political class. The ruse spread through the Oracles, the schools, even the circuses in the bazaar. Each preached the same toxin—life was not worth living, the Realm had botched the world, that Oligarchs were the only doers of Good.
Citizens prayed wise peace could be restored by the vote pushing the ruling class to decency. But, no—the rulers doubled down. Frankenstein became the Partisan champion. His father, Dr. Frankenstein, scion of the elite, friend of intellectuals, begged his son leave alone the natural evolution of politics. Unforeseen popular uprising won Frankenstein the Chancellorship, but he was blocked from authority by the Oligarchs, who enlisted all branches of government to harry the Chancellor’s reforms.
Turncoats inside the dramas revealed the extent of the mischief. Frankenstein took his leadership to the farms and shires. He raised his sword and told of his plan:
“Divide the realm! Let Oligarchs own the cesspool Cities! Common and Partisan shall take the rest. Let each govern as they see fit and prove to the other who governs best. Let Partisan crash the tax and sweep away the regulations.” Of course, Oligarchs would hear none of this. Well did they know the discouragement tyranny brings. When rulers are the winners at every turn. Could Oligarchs leave two gardens growing side by side for comparison? No, they must bite out both eyeballs to stop from being seen!
Frankenstein declared for martial law across the Realm. He launched his campaign with the brilliant speech on “The Cancer against Freedom”, given before the army in the Valley of Kings. He warned against disloyalty of not only the bureaucracy, but also some generals for fear the intellectuality of the Oligarchs had beguiled them. “Soft men bring hard times; hard men bring soft times,” Frankenstein quoted.
Frankenstein then lay siege to the Rooks. The Oligarchs met the siege with the commanding presence of Dr. Frankenstein, who speechified from Pulpit Rock. He begged his son stand down, for he had created him and could not stand this division of the Realm.
“I made you with my own hands, stitch by stitch! Each piece I carefully composed without interference by woman! To make you pure!”
The Oligarchs and intellectuals watched greedily from the ramparts. They figured to shame the rebel leader to submit.
The people in the Rookery and the City hung on each word.
“Father, this life and my talents are blessing’s kiss!”
“Your hair, my son! The shape of your head! They are legend, they are mine! The size of your hands that are known clear to the Sands of Huld!”
“I bless and thank you, Father, for all!”
“Show love, and do as your Father commands!”
“But each must weigh even family against the preeminence of Land and Law, dear Father! What is family without foundation? They are nomads! Equal justice is never guaranteed in the wilds where beastly shapes prey on manly shapes. Without equal justice, Father, society becomes the wilds! Come down and join us for the sake of all Mankind. Your son and the Partisans will show you love, hiding by rock and stream, in field and glade, in cliffs above you—ready to fight for liberty!”
These famous words shook the father, for he was wise. He saw that his judgment was clouded by old favorite intellectuals so wedded to their privilege that they lost compass. The Oligarchs spied the wince in the father’s gaze. They knew they must stop this public humiliation if Dr. Frankenstein abandoned them for cause of right. At a signal, Captain Greide buried deep an arrow in the thorax. The Father’s tongue and eyes glared out before he plunged into the arms of his son and the Partisan captains. The whale bone staves knotted into his fox saved the Father. Thus, the wizard healer patched up Dr. Frankenstein.
Lucky this was for what would happen next.
The people of the City were chastened by this treachery. But they were unarmed. The Rookery Guard was fierce, and the Spearmen spread out with the Criers through the City with the yarn that Dr. Frankenstein was a traitor and so his end was Just.
Frankenstein held aloft his mighty sword, Darlt.
He hollered attack; his generals joined in voice.
The bird world rallied to the call. Swallows, finches, pigeons from the Cities and towns, starlings, robins, grackles. Poured forth they did round the boots of Frankenstein and his entire great Partisan army, and cavalry too. Up, they went along the sheer walls. The Rookery Guard bent back their mighty bows, sending sheets of arrows upon the up-trending regiments. Arrows and spears sparked off sword and shield. Frankenstein, whipped by rage, for his father and freedom, upraised his mighty arms daring traitors to strike.
Strike they did. Many times.
Remember how his head was near torn off? By slicing halberd and arrows? And his right arm. The mighty head hung by a tether, the arm gone.
But lo!—the loving Father rallied from his own death! To kneel over the broken son. Whilst the wizard showered the Chancellor with herbs and waved the healing qi clouds, the father staunched the wounds with plaster from his lab and then sewed them shut. Even before He was fully recovered, the army rose up on the bird clouds, their recovering leader croaking orders in the frenzied attack. Through the birds, the Partisans saw their leader rally wave after wave upon the Rookery Guard.
The Guard fought from every window and balcony. They shot arrows, hurled spears, heaved out furniture and drapes, pots of geraniums from the concubines’ apartments. The Oligarchs were so well conceived in their treachery that they had hoarded all manner of projectiles and weapons into the ateliers and lofts of the Rook.
Frankenstein clawed back to lift his sword and cycle it round to lop off oh so many noggins from the Guard. Swish, swish! Zing, zing! A scythe taking down mushrooms. Off they popped, in vivid explosions of gore, all in the glory of freedom.
The Rookery Guard beheld Frankenstein and his father growing stronger. Dr. Frankenstein ministered heroically to wounded Partisans and they lurched back into the fray. The Oligarchs had few wizards on their side for the wizards feared the Oligarchs and now had gone into hiding. The Oligarchs were caught by surprise since their strategy had stoked public hate against arms and brave men, and had always sought to see the nation die like a babe snuffed in the crib. The Guard faltered in bravery and felt the weight of their spears, and flower pots and busts of old Oligarchs. For the Guard saw the spirit of the rebels. The rebels cut and slashed with the excitement of Freemen when they smell the chance to hit back at tyrants, a chance that delivers a special joy. The eyes of the Guard lit with the wish to fly elsewhere, anywhere but fighting for these masters.
“Hold!” cried Frankenstein at the Guard. “Hold, and thoust wilt be passed over!”
“We Guardsmen will fight into a lake of blood, Frankenstein.”
“Your eyes speak a different language, Captain.”
“Why would you not behead us as traitors?”
“For the world is made better by more good men! And good men are made each moment by their choices!”
“How can we know truly?”
“As a warrior and Freeman, I give my vow! Turn now your backs and invigorate our ranks against the tyrants!”
“May we bear arms after the fight, Frankenstein?”
“Your swords and bows will insure thine trust!”
With that, half the Guardsmen turned upon their brothers. Their brothers faced the moral defeat that whispered in the cauldrons of their own burning lungs.
The sweated warriors huzzahed. The bird swarms lowered Lord Frankenstein upon the balustrade of the Imperial Loggia. The Oligarchs, watching from the luxurious interiors, let show the hatred in their eyes. Frankenstein’s boots strode across the loggia awash in blood and bodies, the latter festooned with arrows and mortal slices. He snapped out his own silk from within his breastplate and dabbed at his neck wound.
“Gather up the Oligarchs,” he ordered.
Much protestation issued from within as Partisans and Guardsmen rousted out the unctuous hedonists from their hiding spaces. Out they came, with their wives and other sex playthings, draped in inestimable wealth.
Frankenstein glared, holding his neck wound.
“You betrayed the nation, the Republic. You are an infestation, with no wont but to destroy what others create to bend to your purpose. You are the infinite siren song of trouble, and today your constant complaining shall end.”
All citizens nodded. No one was safe so long as a single Oligarch serpent lived, cutting inroads in future unhappiness.
“Good people assume all are on the same page to make the world better. That none would sabotage that which is true enough to serve human comfort and need not be rebuilt. But your cult’s only concept of society is the one over which you hold exclusive tyranny, no matter the cost to the rest. Anything short of that, you exhaustively undermine to attrit and throw your cloak over the shoulders of power.”
“You know not what of you speak, Frankenstein,” answered Calumbri, the Exchequer, and their leader. “None of your fool words is true! Solve this crime against democracy by restoring us to full power and you and the common shall live well!”
Frankenstein rubbed his famous, stitched chin.
“Calumbri, thou art a singleminded race. The stench of blood in the Rookery is no presentment for the doing of nothing. It is the death sentence of you all.”
“What does this mean?” Calumbri doubted this fate. “No trial?”
A trial meant lawyers. Lawyers were allies.
“What trial or examination did you ever give to anyone or any notion of morality beyond the high walls of your self-obsession?”
“You are not human, Frankenstein!”
“More human than thou, Exchequer. Ask the men.”
“They will say what you wish! You hold the axe!”
“Yet they sheathed arms. They quit your fight. Any sane traveler coming upon this scene would appraise the image opposite to you, Calumbri.”
The Captain of the Guard stood with a boot upon the dais.
“It is as Lord Frankenstein sayeth, Exchequer. You whore to your own disease. Who trusts thee? What haven’t thou ruined? Farms? Commerce? Your only defense against egregious proof is the baton of intimidation. Our only sure wager is to execute you off until the remainder see their fate upon the City wall and swear upon their children never to wander even to a political opinion for fear of death.”
Frankenstein leaned upon his sword hilt. “This is wisdom!”
“You are a traitor, Renfield!” Calumbri yelled.
“Not to my family and men, rabbit.”
“No more wasted words,” Frankenstein declared. “Bring them to the parapet and line behind them with stout halberdmen. Let free Partisans swing free and sacrifice the corpses into the Valley of Kings until they slip on the blood or grow weary of arm. And let us all sing and dance, dine and drink at the doing. Let the apartments of these pimps be turned out so the jewels may be dealt to the soldiers and the poor.”
The scribe pulled back his robe sleeve.
“We piled the gold, gowns, crowns, rings, candlesticks, sconces, satin undergarments, coins, paintings, tapestries upon the loggia until the blood rose between the tiles to a level that threatened the dainties.”
“Then,” said the third veteran, twisting his signet, “we prepared a pallet so to raise up the wares from the red drool, and then kept stacking and hacking.”
“Gloriously granting to conceit its just reward!”
“Frankenstein, great King that He was, claimed for the satisfaction of his own blade the top seven miscreants against the republic.”
The poor scribe shook his wrist.
“Please! Chevaliers, I cramp!”
The veteran’s laughed.
The barmaid had drawn nigh to partake of the history. Her suitor smirked much at her and boldly lay his arm around her hips. Such the twinkle of wit was he that the lass let him do it. And she plopped her fair hand atop his beret as if atop the bean of a faithful spaniel. Quite the couple did they strike!
“You should have heard we Partisans exult as mighty Frankenstein dispatched each miscreant,” informed the first. “‘Twas the song of Republic!”
“And in true form of the dramatist,” said the spaniel, “he sacrificed the juniors first to make way the excitement of executing the top rank!”
“Brooms pushed gore out the parapet rainspouts.”
The third again fondly twisted the signet ring. The second pointed the ring out to the barmaid. “That ring, lass, was gifted to George from the King himself.”
“Aye,” said George, smiling in his beard. “Me arm come off just like Dr. Frankenstein’s son. But I didn’t stop swinging with me left. We found an arm good as new, and the wizard sooth-said upon it and touched it with a dash of braised flox, then Dr. Frankenstein stitched me with the same gold thread as erected his boy from dead parts!” George squinted up at the statue to Dr. Frankenstein in the square.
The bot clicked out another round of absinthe.
“The Sire of the Realm, lass,” said her future husband. “For when he battened down the head of his son that fateful battle, Good and Evil saw how Good that day would find its way through to shine upon thee and me!”
The story challenge was to deal with a subject that had at some time horrified you. The thing that stuck in my mind was an obscure subject I had come upon several times in reading histories about the First World War.
“It’s the meanest thing in the world.”
“There’s nothing like it.”
“Aye. I don’t like it.”
“That’s a small way to put it. ‘You don’t like it’.”
“Aye, but you get my meanin’.”
“I suppose I do.”
The three Irish in the Royal Regiment of Artillery, VIII Corp went back to rolling the 15-inchers onto the shell lorry and then wheeling them one at a time across the loading dock to the open trap of the caisson. They grunted and heaved when the huge shells for shooting at the enemy 30 miles away needed to be hoisted on or off the lorry. Their boots slipped where a basket of lettuce heads had been dropped in haste that broke open and some lettuce heads were stepped on so that juice from the leaves smeared the boards, making tricky work with big shells.
“Whats this slipping?”
“It’s the buggerin’ lettuce heads what was yere!”
Andy, leaned on a shell laying flat in the lorry and gave the moist boards a tired look. “I’ll have a smoke, I will. Let ‘er dry out.”
“Oh, stop. Smoke after!”
They heaved and rolled and tipped the shells up on their balance on the thick brass rim at the end of the jacket to use all their strength to keep them on their balance and steer them into alignment in the wagon bed. The two horses yoked in at the front were alert and twisted their ears keenly at every thump or thud or curse. They almost seemed to know what the familiar boys at the back doing the load-in were talking about. They were both black, fine, big breasted farm horses bought from local farmers by the quartermaster. Their names were Argo, on the left, and Bruce, on the right. Everyone got a chuckle how a horse came to be named Bruce by a French farmer near the Somme.
“Bruce up there is more the leader,” said Andy. “You can see him smart enough to know what we’re talking about!”
“Aw, go on,” said Tanner. “He’s still a horse!”
“I’m telling you they’re smarter than we credit!”
“And maybe we should stop talking about it cause it’s bad luck,” said Mel.
They were all Donegal boys. Mel, at Augustines, had once played football against Tanner when he was at St. Edwards. They got on well. And they were at the rail depot far from the trenches nine miles up. They hadn’t liked the Frenchies, at first. All the past wars, the Kaiser be hanged. Frenchies and Brits fought regular. Then one day one of the other blokes mentioned how the French did Catholics a favor fighting the Brits. From then on, everybody got on just fine. The Yanks and the Frenchies got on fine from the American Rebellion. The Yanks and Brits did not like each other either, left over also from the Rebellion.
“Listen, my sympathies for horses is as strong as yours, And’,” said Tanner, “but I’m not believing Bruce understands the Queen’s English.”
“I bet he knows the gist of what we’re talking,” Mel said. “And it’s bad luck. For anyone. Would you talk that way for a man going to the Front?”
“No, I wouldn’t, shit beard,” Tanner said.
“Well, then don’t do it against a dumb animal, either.”
Tanner shook his head at all they had talked about.
They finished rolling in the 12 15-inchers, and before the wagoner drove away Tanner went over and swatted Argo on his fine shiny withers to get him back to good luck. The driver nodded and started away, not in his usual good mood, to make a spot for the next caisson to rumble alongside. A dozen other teams worked in tandem down the long dock, loading caissons for the batteries in the low hills none of which could be seen twenty miles from the Front. A big attack was coming. No one knew for when. Word was for morning.
The boys knew the caisson driver because he was a cheerful fellow who talked a lot to, and about, Argo and Bruce. “Come say hello to them! My boys are smart as people, I can tell you,” the driver would say. “Look at them, how smart!” He scruffled the stiff sweat-smelling hair between their ears. “See here, I have a whip. But do you know? I never have to use it. And they both like the Chinese!”
People laughed when he claimed this. Why would horses especially like the coolie trench diggers?
“Go on!” Tanner would say. “What do they know about coolies?”
The driver was offended. He came from down south near Spain, a place called Andorra, where they offend easily, he admitted. “It is the eyes! And the rope of hair down the back! They like it! And the Chinese work like the horses! What do you mean? How do they not know Chinese? You are stupid!”
“I don’t say they can’t see a difference between people,” Tanner explained. “I’m saying they can’t know that makes any one person from a different country from another person, is all. Frenchie.”
“No. Andorra. Not French!”
The Irish finished the last load-in and plopped down anywhere they could. The same subject came up.
“I don’t know why it’s not the same,” Andy said. “It’s kind of embarrassing that we feel more hurt for them than for fellow human beings.”
Mel nodded. “Like the time I saw the house get blown apart by that heavy shell. I saw the poor woman with the top half of her gone, and I saw the small girl there dead and blanketed in dust. And then there was the horse in the barn and I couldn’t even see him or his injuries, but I knew from the terrible sound of his suffering that it was no joke, that it had to be bad in there. And I just couldn’t bring myself to go and look! Or do anything for him! I woulda had to stove in his head with a stone. I woulda had to beat him with a stone to get it done! I saw the ma, and the child, and I felt a lot for the girl there covered in thick stone dust. But I tell you it was not the same compared to what I was feeling inside for the horse hidden away and cryin’ out behind the fallen wall of the barn.”
The boys thought over his repeat of the story. Andy reached under the flap of his breast pocket for his packet of Gauloises cigarettes. They were the best the French had. Far better were they than them from the Isles.
“Do you think it was because you couldn’t see him,” Andy asked, “that you could only imagine how he was tore open?”
“No, it wasn’t that. You know, from the deep grunts I ‘eard ‘im make. Grunts and wheezes and sighs like I just can’t describe. The sufferin’. I’m telling you boys there’s nothing like the sounds of a poor horse condemned to suffering the wounds of a bloody useless war!”
“Aye. But shut up for the censors,” Tanner warned. They looked around. They’d throw you in the jail for such talk.
The boys fell quiet again. In a past telling, after it first happened, Mel had told how the sighs of the horse sounded a bit like he was farting gas out of holes blown by shrapnel through his barrel of a body. Thank God he hadn’t gone into such detail this time around. But they remembered. And they thought about all that again now. Poor bugger of a horse. It just wasn’t a thing to talk about.
Most blokes had tales of horse injuries. Horses blown half to bits. Runnin’ down the road, steppin’ on their own entrails. The guts strung out and caked with dirt for thirty years behind ’em while they ran. Draggin’ themselves to soldiers or farmers asking for help with both back legs gone.
Everybody said the same thing. Injuries to boys in the trenches was horrible, but to see and hear the poor horses was another thing entirely. No man could stand it. You could not a put words to it.
“It’s not like it’s their war,” Mel said.
Andy thought Mel was the thoughtful one, like that.
Tanner had a story too. But he had told it and would not tell it now because of how bad it was to go through. He had gone along on a detail with a squad of caissons that trailed north at night through toward Montdidier. German spotters must have seen something because they lobbed over a starlight grenade that shed dead white light on them out in the open on a stretch of road that wound around the midriff of a rise in plain sight of the Front. The Germans opened up with 70s. They came in like thunder out of the ground itself, and they sent up another beacon, and there was just no place to hide. Soldiers dove for cover anyplace they could, mostly in the culvert. But not the horses. The poor dumb, faithful horses that always did their job stayed there because no one cut them loose and the loads of heavies were too much for them to drag off. You could not cut them loose because they would run for thirty miles. The column would be mired until new teams came in. So you had to leave them to get hit, and die. And got hit they did. It could not be helped. You could hear it, Tanner remembered. He had not told his buddies exact details about the horrible slapping sounds of shrapnel blowing hunks out of the horses in any direction and taking off their entire legs and heads in one clip. And the God damned sounds the poor horses made.
There was no sound like it in the world. Once you heard it, you could not forget it. It changed you forever.
Tanner slapped his hands over his face thinking about it all over again, feeling the same clenching in his gut all over again. He shook his head at the effort to block it. The sounds. The horses grunting at the suddenness of their wounds. The thud of their heavy bodies falling helplessly with legs gone.
It was hell to remember. Tanner had cried about it. He started crying now.
“They’re just helpless,” Mel said. “It’s not their fault they’re here. And I can see in their eyes when they look at you that they’re just asking you for help to get them out of it because they know that you know it isn’t fair.” He looked over and he saw Tanner with wet on his cheeks in broad day.
“We should never have started talking like this,” Andy said, hollow.
“I’ve got to get up and do something!” Tanner said.
“Are we done? Let’s bugger off to canteen!”
The three slipped off to the restaurant in the village on the rail from which the depot had grown. The restaurant had been converted over to a mess for the soldiers. They laughed boisterously as they marched their way along the dusty road to the village, ambulances passing and lifting up lazy dust. The village was in good shape this far back. Only occasionally, would a shell slam down somewhere around and shake things apart. They bought a pale of bier and sat out on the benches in the April shade with a bunch of other blokes. They had been loading 85s and 15-inchers since three in the morning. Bone-ache exhaustion settled in with the bier.
The attack did come in the morning.
They heard the peppering, growing rumble of violent death spread across the unseen land of the Front. They heard and felt even in their bunks the cross-hatch shaking, trembling rumble from all the 15s they had dragged the day before now fouling life for the German, blowing them to kingdom come and to life without limbs and to life with creeping, perpetual infirmity from gas attack. It went on and on. The drumming of unimaginable deafening and violence. On and on, seemingly at a million lives a minute, ground into hamburger and shat out into nonexistence as if that woman in Kent, and that woman in Munich, had never had any tiny little pink baby to speak of because that little baby of hers counted for exactly nothing in the pre-dark of a day like this.
On it went, until around noon. A hot flat noon when the sun baked the not-yet-green grass and the grey-black flat earthy upheaval of No Man’s Land, which you could see like a flat grey mist from any promontory.
And the dead smoke that faded sleepily to the East, like a fog of Death’s Triumph taking away the spirits it had claimed.
And there was silence. And the birds, even.
Next day was sunshiny again, perfect. Birds sang in the grass and crickets sprang in the sun. The blouses of the server girls at the Atelier gleamed especially white in the noonday light.
And the Andorran came by the road on foot and saw the Irish there at a table. They would not have recognized him without him riding up on his caisson and without the “boys”. Right away they thought something had gone wrong with him on foot like that, with the whip he proudly never used slung under his arm. They learned from the pain on his face that it was something so bloody awful that no decent person would ever want to hear of it.
One of my favorites of my short stories. It has been rewritten several times and was originally published under the title Plight of the Locusts. It is based on a true event involving the Mexican drug cartels.
“Remy, I am going to go over the Border.”
The 20-year old woman hefted their small boy. “What do you mean? When did you decide to start thinking like this again?”
Tippy ducked his head and shrugged.
“Bernardo and Felix are going.”
The couple stood near the open doorway of the family’s small house made of dirt brick and ancient repurposed windows and doors splintered from the sun. “Tippy, we have already talked about this!” The loud bray of locusts sounded outside. The sheen of white light was that of the desert.
Her husband could barely look at her.
“I think it is best to go with Felix and them.”
“What about me and Sancho?” She hiked the boy on her hip.
Tippy scrunched his head deeper between his small shoulders.
“They are going. I can go with them. It’s safer if we go together.”
“So, you are going to leave your boy and your wife?”
He put his hands in his back jean pockets.
“We talked about this. I’m not letting you go.” She hiked the boy again and rubbed an itch on her jaw on her shoulder.
“I can do more good for us up there.”
She nodded in frustration, conceding the obvious. “Okay. Okay. Your son will do better never seeing you up there?” She rocked the baby soothingly. She glared at her man like he too was a child. “Short term, Tippy. But what about the long term? Hmm? What about that?”
Tippy stared at the burnished dirt floor.
“I don’t need you to think short term, Tippy. I need a man who thinks long term. Hmm? Right? Do you understand me? I can’t do this alone.”
“We can all go up together.”
“With the baby? Really? Look at him. That’s what you want?” She waited for him. “I’m not going up there. This is our home. My parents need me. Your parents need you.”
Tippy’s mother came to the bright door, putting her hands on either jamb. The two-room house was sixty years old. The wood framing from before Pancho Villa. The lazy sounds of the locusts moved in and out of phase.
“What’s going on?”
“I want to go over the Border.”
The woman’s name is Marta. She looked inquiringly at Remy as if nothing was wrong with this, in the end. She shrugged. “Why not let him go?”
“I told him before, Nunu.” Remy shook her head.
“Dios mio,” Marta said.
The baby started to get upset. Remy rocked him.
“This is not the answer. We need our good men home.”
Marta raised her hand in solemn frustration and walked away. She halted three steps out in the sun then slowly turned back. She returned to the door and replaced her hands on the jambs.
“You two shouldn’t fight. It’s not good for your health.”
Remy shook her head. The boy looked tearfully at the adults, screwing his head this way and that as his mother cradled him.
“No. This is not the way. Long term.”
Marta looked at her son. She shrugged. Tippy kept his head hung and scratched once at the back of his neck. His pointed cowboy boots handed down from his uncle in this very room were white with dust from the bull ranch where he worked as a hand.
“He can make money.”
Remy shook her head.
Marta lifted her hands in surrender and made to leave again. This time, she simply turned around and replaced her hands on the jambs.
“He can send money home to us.”
“What do we need?”
“Aye. Shit.” Marta shook her head.
“Seriously. What do we need? What do we need that we won’t get one day if he stays and we all work?”
Marta said nothing.
“Running away from Mexico is not the answer. I want a better world for my son, here.” She kissed the boy. He is sensitive and doesn’t like adults fighting. “His father running away to America for a few dollars is not the answer for what’s wrong here that makes him run away.”
Marta turned to lean against the door. She crossed her sandals. “This is true.” Marta looked at the pale leaves of the mesquite trees in the ravine.
“What is there in America that you are chasing? What magic do they have that makes you think you need to chase what they have, Tippy? Eh? Tell me?”
“They have money. That is magical.”
“Okay. But why do they have that magic, eh?”
Tippy shuffled. He wanted to avoid fighting because he never wins.
“They have the money because they have it.”
“That’s not the reason, husband.”
Marta looked at a finger. She looked at her daughter-in-law.
“They have money because they have a stable country. They have a stable law.” Remy’s knees were tired and she sat on the bunk draped with blankets under the window that served as a couch. “They have courts that work. Police that work. Because they have people up there that insist on these things being done. That is why they have money.”
Marta shrugged noncommittally and looked away.
Tippy shifted his hands to his back pockets.
“We will never have those things if our good men run away from here, Tippy.” She bounced the boy. She could tell he would cry if she made him go down. “We have to bring what they have down here. Running away from this to go there and nibble will change nothing here.”
Tippy glanced up at her briefly.
She is always right. She is too smart for him.
That is the worst trouble for his being married to her. His friends know the situation. They give him a hard time. He accepts it because he knows it is good to be with a smart woman, and for the man to see it when it is true.
“I can go learn from them. Send money. Come back.”
Remy nods. “Okay. How many years? . . . What if something happens to Mama? Or Sancho? What if he dies? What if I die?”
“Caramba,” Tippy said, displeased she tempts fate.
“Caramba,” Marta said. “Girl. You go too far. That, should not be said.”
Tippy twisted his head, refusing to look at her again.
He would kill himself if such awful things should happen.
“And all those years away you could be here doing something. Like I told you before.”
Marta nods; Tippy nods.
“The FCN,” Tippy mutters.
“Exactly. Fighters. They have connections. You are a good worker. They know you. There is enough work here. And they are here.” Remy stopped bouncing the boy. She squared him up and looked keen into his large beautiful eyes and kissed him full, with a smack. She put him on the floor. He trotted to his grandma’s bare knees in her pink gingham shorts and leaned on them, looking out for the shrill locusts invisible in the pale green canopy of the mesquite descending into the white ravine.
Tippy rubbed the back of his neck.
“Maybe she is right, Titi?”
“What should I do?” he asked his wife.
“The FCN are Christians and only they are standing up to the criminals and protecting people. I told you. That is the way.”
Tippy nodded faintly. He turned and leaned his weight on the wall by the doorframe. His shirt is filthy with dust. He still looked down at his boots. They are the finest thing he owns.
“Let’s go talk to Señor Ramon,” Remy said. “He knows you.”
The family of three walked up the hill on the road out of Apatzingan up to the larger house made of white-painted concrete with a two-car garage and a clean 2012 Ford F-150 parked in it. Two young men sit on the low stone wall in front with automatic rifles. An old truck approached with a hole in the muffler and Remy quickly reached for her son to guide him more to the shoulder of the road. Two men are in the truck. One held a rifle.
“Hola, Tippy,” called the driver in passing.
Tippy barely looked.
“Hola, Samuel,” Remy answered.
She looked at Tippy. The men are FCN.
Sturdy, fanciful grillwork covered the car port and all around the second story balcony, a bit like a fortress.
In the shadowy front room, they found Don Ramon. Three other young men were also in the house and the voices of at least two women can be heard in back. A child too. Piled on a table are four AR-15s and two Kalashnikovs, assorted pistols and ammunition boxes. One of the young men nods and says hello as he repairs one of the pistols. Don Ramon sits squarely beneath the ceiling fan in the middle of the room. His floral shirt is open and sometimes he fans himself with a straw cowboy hat. His head is unusually long and rectangular, his skin dark, his toothbrush mustache stark and plain.
“Hola. How are you? Sit down.”
The family sits. The boy, Sancho, watches the man fixing the pistol.
“Don Ramon,” Marta says, “Tippy is thinking of going up North.”
“Oh? Many do.”
“Remy wants him to stay with his family and work with you.”
The Don nods sagely at Remy.
“I want him to stay and make life better here so we can one day be more like the United States. Not run away from our problems.”
The Don frowns. “Who will ever be like the United States? Maybe China will one day be like the United States, or even better. But we can make life better here,” he indicates Sancho, “for our little ones. Much better than Mexico is now. Now, it’s bad. God willing, we can make it better.”
“God willing.” Marta crosses herself.
“Tippy is hard working and honest and he wants to join you and the FCN to fight the drug lords and make an honest living. We are from the same town. We want to help,” Remy says. Sancho leans deep into the space between her thighs and stares at the big guns across on the table.
“We always have room for another good man. He works now at Don Ortega’s ranch. If he needs more work there is opportunity.”
“Thank you, Don Ramon,” Remy says.
“Let me hear from Tippy directly, now. I know how his women think and how they love him. How do you want to help the FCN?”
“I am nervous about the FCN, Don Ramon.”
“Oh? Why do you have reservations, my son?”
“I know you keep the money you steal from the kingpins.”
“Yes. This is true.”
“I don’t like it. And I know others worry about this and I know the Church Fathers also find fault with you doing this. Isn’t it crooked? And don’t you risk just taking their place?” Tippy looked directly at the Don, but he slouched low against the chair back.
“Ah, see? This is a big problem for many,” the Don admitted.
He fanned himself with the hat. He was tall, quiet.
“This is true, many people worry for this practice. And the Church Fathers too, for some, feel I should not do this practice. But the money from the Church and our own collections is insufficient for a small army. It is good for us to grow and pay our soldiers a little something. They are volunteers trying to save their country from murdering cutthroats, but where else should the money go but to them and to food, equipment and needed weapons? Look what the cartels have. We have to stand toe to toe with that? And where else should the money go? To the police? To the government? Should we burn it? To me? If this were the case and I was as corrupt as they and our police then I would deserve to die like them and be put in the desert in the same hole as they by our own men.” He crossed one thin leg over the other. “So, no. This is a fine practice. It is turning what is plainly sinful into a benefice for our state.” He watched Tippy square. “This is war. Only once we admitted to ourselves that this was war did we start to win and scare the cartels and the incompetent cops.” He looked at the backs of his fingernails. “Is our self-defense just? So is stealing their drug money. It is all the same virtuous business.”
He looked frankly at Remy now, the smart one.
“I think this is the truth of it,” she stated, looking at Tippy.
“They are killing us, Tippy. It’s only killing back. Enough to show them who is the righteous and who is going to be the boss.”
“We did not start it,” Marta said.
“No, no. We did not.”
The Don looked out at the land sloping from the rise.
The land was parched and rang with locusts.
“We and the Americans both have a war against godless cancer on our hands, Tippy. If you go North, you will be a knowing part of the problem. And you know it. In your heart. They are waking up to a problem of godless people doing their best to tip over that great country with disorder and hedonism. Look at the shit they teach their kids in school at earlier and earlier ages to train them to think of their own sexual desires first before being good people in a sound society.” He emphasized this with his long index finger. “Goodness is mocked in every one of their movies and TV shows. We see it here. It cannot be hidden. They who do it don’t want to hide it.” He paused. “Every one.” He gazed down the land again. “Showing sexual restraint. Not taking the property of your fellow man. Working hard. Up there, they are coming to war. Down here, we are already at war.”
“Good and evil,” Remy said.
Marta and Don Ramon nodded.
“I like sex as much as the next fellow. I am no prude. But sex is the least important of the social virtues we build on. The most important is mutually respecting our work and then what is the basis of reward and punishment in our society. First, you lay that foundation of the respect. Our cancer is that our people need to work harder to understand the importance of a larger social and legal organization and to be faithful to keeping it pure from criminals. We have a problem ignoring the near reward of making the quick dirty money that pushes away the far reward.” He twitched his mustache. He smiled. His smile was surprisingly immediate. “After we lay this foundation, then we can chase each other’s women.”
Tippy smiled. Marta and Remy laughed. Marta covered her mouth.
“Don Ramon! You are not the man of God I thought you were!”
“I joke. I am old enough that I need the women to chase me!” He snickered at them. “I am still a soldier of God, even though I have never read the Bible.”
“How can you never have read the Bible?”
“Well, when I was made to do it as a child. I should study it as a man.”
“You know in your heart what it says,” Marta said, squinting advisingly.
The Don nodded. He looked back at the man with the pistol.
“How goes it, Fidel?”
“Good, Don. Two more.”
Little Sancho scratched his head, watching the pistol. He put his head back against his mom and yawned. The Don smiled at the size of the mouth.
“So Tippy, you want to be a fighter?”
Tippy’s face didn’t know which way to move. But the Don’s speech had made up his mind.
“We are going out this week, if you want to join.”
Sancho said, “I want to join.” He stretched his arms and yawned again.
The Don and his mother chuckled.
Tippy knew better than to be amused by such a thing.
“We will show you the ropes of what we do. But each man must decide for himself what future does he want for himself and his family.”
“It’s a lot of fighting,” Tippy said.
The Don frowned. “Their fighting will never end. Again, my young friend, they are not the same. Because one barbarian after another rises to the top to savage those below. No one is easy with that. Our fighting is to wipe out the savages, who will not be peaceful, and then build the prosperity and peace on the other side of the hill where we respect one another.
“Not every man is a fighter, Tippy,” the Don said.
Tippy and the squad left Apatzingan in a big box van with three other large box vans each filled with a squad of vigilantes. At 9:30, they loaded out on the cobbled main street of a town on the outskirts of Uruapan. A cantina there was already secured by their well-armed vigilantes who had captured three men in the bar whom Don Ramon wished very much to interrogate. The interrogation took place by using a rifle stock to open the skull of the lowest cartel thug in the group and using this demonstration as leverage against the other two. It was known among the vigilantes that these cartel thugs knew of the whereabouts of some others. The Don used his cell phone to give the location to others of his men, and Tippy loaded back with the other vigilantes into the box vans.
The vans drove back and forth through narrow streets until the men got out again at a large old apartment building where the men they were looking for had already been caught and tied up hands and feet with sacks over their heads. The Don came into the apartment and ordered the sacks taken off the three men and then he had them dropped out of the window into the alley two floors below. Tippy and the other vigilantes returned downstairs to the alley where the three men were groggy but still aware of their surroundings.
“You know why we are here?” Don Ramon asked the men again.
He wanted them to swim back to reality before anything happened.
“We didn’t do anything,” one man whispered, rolling in pain.
“You have only a minute to get right with God and ask forgiveness.”
“You have the wrong guys,” the man tried again.
Blood bubbled out between this one’s nose and broken teeth.
“Oh, no. We have the right guys. You should see what we did to your amigos to get the truth out of them.” The Don nodded at Tippy and Tippy shouldered his AR-15 and brought out his machete that he had sharpened expertly yesterday just for this occasion. The blade shone with ragged file marks. “The farmer, our friend, Jalisco. You remember? What did you do? Eh? What did you do, young man? To his boys. Tell me. Tell me and make your peace with your God.”
“You have the wrong guys.”
Don Ramon dropped this one and picked up the head of the next guy by the hair and throat and shook him sharply.
“Very little time left, boys. Or you will go to God black with your deed. Tell the truth. You know as well as we what you did to those tiny boys.”
The young man in the Don’s grip looked up at him in double fear. Double fear for what was about to happen to him and what would happen to him in the afterlife. Tippy watched him blink heavily, his lips smooshed from the pressure of the Don and another fellow, Pico, choking him.
“We killed them.”
“Yes! You killed them. For what?”
“Because the farmer did not pay.”
“Oh! You wanted your protection extortion money from him? You rat bastards. Why did he not pay you?”
“He said he did not have the money.”
“Oh? Why is that?”
“I do not know.”
“Maybe because he was poor?”
“So, then. What did you do, you boys?”
“We killed them. With rocks.”
“Excuse me? I did not hear you.”
“We killed them. On the rocks.”
“Oh, that’s right. Now, I remember: You killed his four young sons by tying them up feet and hands, like you are now, and then bashing their brains out on the rocks. While he watched. He and his wife. Is that what you did?” The Don shouted all of this out loud so that his voice echoed down the alley. He turned to Tippy, his face flush with coldness. “Chop them up.”
The Don and the vigilantes not holding the three punks stood back and watched without any sign of emotion.
Tippy slung his machete up and down and chopped at the joints of each man. The blade sunk deep enough to stick with each bite. He wept as he cut. It was an outpouring that he did not really understand. He had known Jalisco, and his wife, and the four young sons. Sancho had played with them. He had seen the little boys the next day battered purposelessly to pieces.
“That’s for Raphael . . . . That’s for Mario . . . . That’s for Emilio.”
Each time he swiped apart a limb, he said a name, like a mantra. The blade was very sharp and made like the joints were thick saplings.
Another fellow helped him a little bit.
Tippy went around and around through the boy’s names.
They left the clothed limbs and bodies in a loose red pile in the alley for the other cartel members to see what happened.
On the drive back to Apatzingan it was late.
They got into the town and no one was on the street.
Tippy jumped down from the truck and hefted his gear and started the walk out to his house. He did not think about what he had done. He thought about the weight of his rifle and gear and the straight shape of his machete in the treated canvas sheath stiff on his hip. The machete he normally used to cut brush on the ranch with the great breeding bulls of Don Ortega’s family.
Remy was waiting up for him.
“I have some soup.”
Tippy sat at the table by the stove as Remy turned up the single burner under the dented, burn-stained pot.
“Is Sancho good?”
“Yes. He asked where you went.”
Tippy stood. “I have to clean something. Is there water?”
Remy nodded at the bucket of water waiting for him by the back door. Tippy took a rag and his machete and the bucket and went out behind the house. The sky was full of stars. Remy inside opened the cabinet.
Tippy took a moment to listen to the sound of the crickets.