Henry Brasater has taught at various colleges and universities, including Cairo University as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer.
Brasater’s stories are published in ezines, print anthologies and magazines. His published novellas are:Nandana, Gnome on Pig Productions, (in press for 2016); Nondum, Dead Guns Press, 2014; and Upheaval, Spanking Pulp Press, 2013. His nonfiction book, A. E. van Vogt: Science Fantasy’s Icon, is available from Booklocker.
5:20 TO NULL by Henry Brasater
Barking came from inside the barn.
“Baldwin!” Frieda Achziger yelled as she ran up the earthen ramp leading to open double doors of her father’s barn. “I’ve been looking for you! You naughty doggie!”
She heard Baldwin screech, then whine.
“What are you getting into now?”
Frieda repeatedly called out as she ran here and there on the large barn’s first floor. “Where are you, Baldwin?” She stopped short. No matter how hard she tried, her legs and feet would move no farther.
Frieda stared at Baldwin. The little schnauzer was enveloped by a blue-colored glow in a horse stall corner. Her dog had his front paws up on an edge of the glow. He briskly opened and closed his mouth. Frieda could not hear his barking.
Within the blue light a fluctuating face appeared. It was a type of face that she had never seen before in all of her six years. She watched, spellbound.
“Do you know how to tell your earth time?” came a soothing voice in her mind. She knew the pulsating face in the blue glow was speaking to her without opening its mouth.
‘I can tell one, two, three o’clock, four, five, six, and seven.’ She wasn’t certain whether she said that aloud, or thought it. Frieda went on. ‘I get out of school at three o’clock. I eat supper at six o’clock. I…I get a little mixed up about time after seven o’clock. I have to be told when to brush my teeth and when to go to bed. I don’t know how to tell time after seven o’clock.’ She stopped. Her words ran together. This was a problem she had. “You’re jabbering, dear,” one or another of her elders would occasionally tell her. She was not certain what “jabbering” meant. It seemed to be something that older folks did not care to hear from children.
Frieda heard the voice again. “I have transported enough little creatures like you. Being in an empathetic and sympathetic mood, I will divulge a decision that I have made. At 5:20 Eastern Time this afternoon, all living things on earth will be erased. The game must be tweaked, before I start it again.”
With wrinkled brow, Frieda pondered being called a ‘creature.’ Aren’t creatures evil things that go bump in the night, according to one of her story books? And, she was still trying to connect the word “erased” to herself. Sounds of erasers screeching over blackboards at school, was all that came to her mind.
The voice went on: “According to your time, 5:20 is about a minute from now. Are you not afraid?”
“Afraid?” Frieda asked/thought. She knew the word. She was often afraid of people, places and things.
“Yes. Do you not want to run to your mommy? Your daddy? Your…someone, and hold tightly to them? It’s what Homo sapiens frequently do, when they are perplexed, fearful, and not in control of a situation.”
She did not understand everything that the voice said. She fixated on Baldwin, wagging his tail and apparently barking within the blue light. “What about Baldwin?”
“I’m taking him with me, to where I…er…live.”
Frieda continued concentrating on the word, “erased.”
And Baldwin barked from interstellar space.
David Perlmutter is a freelance writer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The holder of an MA degree from the Universities of Manitoba and Winnipeg, and a lifelong animation fan, he has published short fiction in a variety of genres for various magazines and anthologies, as well as essays on his favorite topics for similar publishers. He is the author of America Toons In: A History of Television Animation (McFarland and Co.), The Singular Adventures Of Jefferson Ball (Chupa Cabra House), The Pups (Booklocker.com), Certain Private Conversations and Other Stories (Aurora Publishing), Orthicon; or, the History of a Bad Idea (Linkville Press, forthcoming) and Nothing About Us Without Us: The Adventures of the Cartoon Republican Army (Dreaming Big Productions, forthcoming.)
RED ROVER by David Perlmutter (Series)
Jack Mongrel was running.
He was running because his mother had been killed- and he was trying to avoid the same fate for himself. He would be very fortunate if he were able to accomplish this. Very fortunate, indeed. Not many of his kind were able to escape the fate that was coming for them- and some were not even willing to.
All Jack could possibly do now was run away as fast as he could- before they managed to catch him. Or worse.
He had heard stories of what those chasing him were like- and what they were capable of doing if they felt like it. That chilled him to the bone. He was sure not to let it happen to him if he felt like it.
In this world, vigilante justice and terrorism reigned, to say the least. The world was no longer a place where one could be lazy and indolent. It resembled the world that had once been inhabited by the predecessors of Jack’s race, the human beings, before they got their “act” together (as it was said), and then after they destroyed themselves through greed and hubris. There was a constant fear of death by one means or another, and a desire for it to come by many who wanted it to occur, to themselves, if not to those they hated. Especially for ones as young and vulnerable as this young dog boy named Jack was, a boy dog who had no means nor skills to help himself survive, for he had not obtained the old human age of majority in age or thought yet, and those lack of skills proved to put him at a severe disadvantage. If he wanted to endure and thrive in this new and strange universe in which he found himself, Jack would have to rely on all of his native instincts, mental skills, and physical resources. Such as he had at such a young age, anyway.
These were far more limiting towards achieving his goal than he likely would have preferred.
It had been over two hundred years since human beings ceased to exist on Earth, as they had become victims of constant fighting with each other- in ever escalating degrees- until absolutely none of them were left. The stock simply ceased to exist, though it lived on through the genetic inheritance of old human traits in dogs and other beings which had been experimented on and been “given” humanity, in all of its faults and benefits, through the late human race. In that period of time, so long ago to one who had relatively few years on him that the boy dog had, the world had been completely destroyed and reborn, in a way that its old residents would not have recognized. Well, they would have recognized some things about it. The geography had not changed, not even the great cities, whose great buildings, streets and sewers continued to exist and operate as if nothing had happened, for they had been spared the worst of the fighting. However, the inhabitants were nothing that the previous residents would have recognized as the products of their labor- or their gene pool- for they were the product of the evolution, breeding and interbreeding of the beings already introduced to you. What remained biologically of the human race existed within them, and there was no means whatsoever to artificially reproduce the old, deceased human race in any form or fashion (with some minor, aberrant exceptions), even if the new residents of Earth had ever wanted them to return. What remained of the human race was what they left behind- the culture, the media, the architecture, the technology- which had betrayed them, altered them and tainted them, socially and biologically slowly beyond recognition of them at their most forceful and intelligent. It was the most devastating aspect of their technology- nuclear fission, heavy armed airplanes and ships, viciously destructive guns, and the like- which had caused their destruction. Yet miraculously, it destroyed only the humans themselves and not their world, which it made all the more convenient for being taken over by the races who came to succeed them. Consequently, the positive things related to the human ascendancy of Earth were left behind, as the evil with which they had tarnished and ravaged the land and water which they had called home was interred with their bones.
This was, however, simply what those who managed to survive the holocaust of the human race, and to rebuild the old, outdated world in their images as best they could. Yet, thanks to the scale of the biological and social destruction which resulted, it was a convincing fallacy. Eventually, those who had survived the blast, newly restructured and reconstituted as canine or other forms of life, would figure out how to use and expand on whatever social and technological innovations the humans had left behind in their literature, as what was left behind was now very much within their grasp mentally and physically.
Much as this potential utopia seemed available, however, it had to be put aside for the moment in the face of something else that was inherited from the human beings- passionate feelings of hatred towards others, and a desire to control as much new territory in the new Earth as could be held. The new inhabitants of Earth would have to learn to live with each other and not kill each other randomly in epic, violent feasts of the contents of their bodies- blood, skin, sweat, black ink and sinewy nitrate film stock- before any talk of utopia and its’ benefits could be accomplished. This was, increasingly, something that seemed almost a pipe dream, given how firmly entrenched violence and violent warfare had entrenched itself as part of the new society, even more so than it had been within the old. And this bloodshed and fighting, as was often the case in history, was almost solely the province of one forceful, fearsome group.
The Hammond Weed, the Mafia of one of the new races to emerge from the ashes of the old one, was the perpetrator of much more than its fair share. The very name of this fearsome group, vicious, bloodthirsty and merciless, struck the residents of this new North America with the same sort of terror that the likes of Ivan The Terrible and Attila The Hun had once done to those who suffered under the heels of their boots. The comparison was apt when one considers both the group’s origins and their agenda. In Hollywood, long before even the blast, there were various and sundry forms of angry and frustrated colony of cartoon characters, an ancient, powerful group of denizens of the realm of faerie, who had become employed by the Hollywood film studios as a means of “entertaining” the citizenry of earlier times. They had once simply been two-dimensional images of film and nothing more, but, as with everything else in this world, they were victims of unprecedented change that no one would have ever expected. In the human wars, the Hollywood film studios were bombarded, heavily and constantly, with nuclear bombardments from the Far East. This allowed the old film cells, computer generated images, and drawings which had once been “animated” in name only came to become that in fact. Together and independently, they established social advocacy groups which fought viciously with each other for attention from Washington, which ignored and belittled them merely as a tolerable menace until the time of reckoning arrived. By far the most formidable, and the most vicious of these groups of creatures, was the Hammond Weed, which came to become dominant over the rest with vicious and deadly consequences.
The Hammond Weed considered themselves not only the most powerful and intimidating of the new races of “cartoons” but also the real, divinely guided leaders of the planet Earth, as the narratives of their previous incarnations supposedly had foretold numerous times. This was in spite the fact that the new canine race vastly outnumbered them in size, intelligence and population, and who believed, conversely, that the land and world now belonged to them, out of a recognition of their social and economic dominance rather than divine right. Consequently, these two groups- dogs and cartoons alike- were in constant conflict, seeking ways to dominate and control the other. In this, the dogs were willing to play by the rules of war, which they had come to know and respect, but the Hammond Weed was definitely not. They knew the rules, too, but found it more expedient to do things their own way- as their cartoon ancestors had always done.
It was well known to all and sundry that the Hammond Weed repeatedly and justifiably (in their eyes alone) resorted to torture and death to get people to think their way, in ways that rivalled any of the tyrants and dictators that existed in the time of the human beings. More often than not, unfortunately for their opponents, the Weed did get what it wanted, spreading a trail of death and disorderly behavior wherever it went and striking terror in the heart of anyone who even dared to try and cross their path. Make no mistake; they were not to be crossed.
This was what the young boy dog named Jack Mongrel knew, and, indeed, was why he was now running away from his war torn North Dakota home, where the Hammond Weed were holding strong, to the border with Canada, where the dogs were managing to hold on to power- for now, anyway. No doubt, he thought to himself, he would be safe there. At least until the Weed finally managed to find him.
It was late in the evening, Central Standard Time, when Jack arrived at his goal: Pembina, where the ruins of the great border crossing stood. Getting across the border- once a laborious and time-consuming process among the human beings- was now extremely simple. All Jack needed to do was step across the still extant border line. Soon, he would be able to cross the border into the country formerly known as Canada, as he wanted and desired. He’d be able to take shelter for the night in Emerson, Manitoba, only a couple of miles away, and then he would proceed on to Winnipeg, once the provincial capital and still largest city in the former Canadian province, where he hoped to forge a new and better life for himself.
He paused for just a moment, panting, in order to regain his momentum and his speed. He’d come a long way this day and he showed the effects of it. Whereas once the gaiety of youth had danced across his face, the anxiety, fear, mournfulness and hatred of the past few days were now written there, and, no matter how hard he tried, the effects of those days would not be washed off of him soon, if at all. Rubbing the grit out of the part of his brown pelt that covered his head, and removing any notion of sleep from his tired blue eyes for the time being, he pressed on. He had a goal to meet for himself and he was going to make sure that he made it. Within moments, he crossed the borderline into Canada, stepping over the clumsily painted yellow line as if it was not even there. But any notions of his being free, from his enemies or anyone else, in the Northern land, were completely erased from his mind soon after that. For, much as he would not like to have had it such, his life was again under threat.
As he past the equally decrepit Canadian immigration station and wandered up towards Emerson, he was being watched. Watched by someone who was no friend of his and would not be any time soon. She was a giantess in Great Dane form, clad only in leather from chest to toes, with only the forepaws at the end of her meaty upper arms exposed. She lurked around the corner, searching, as she had been assigned to do, for any sort of intruders. “Intruders”, for the most part, meant Americans, since it was far more likely that villains like the Hammond Weed would enter the sanctity of Canada and profane the land with their blood, bullets and fire than would beings with more benign and friendly intentions- such as Jack. Though officially, all were welcome, as there were no longer no hard and fast formal government policies regarding restrictions on immigration- since there was no formal government at all anymore- the border area was still run on the basis of an informal, if tactless, approach to keeping things “under control”. The Dane was, therefore, enforcing the social system of cues designed to keep Canada “safe”, though her determination was re-enforced not so much out of this desire for justice and sense of obligation as her utter, racist hatred of all Americans for the way they had destroyed themselves and allowed things to get out of control for everyone else including Canada- which, in turn, seemed to threaten her personally as well.
She spotted him as he snuck past the old motor vehicle receiving area, which, as with the rest of the facilities, was only a mere shadow of its former impressive and respectable self. That was her cue, as the self-appointed “border patrol” officer, to take action as she and only she saw fit. And it wasn’t very “fit” if you cared about such now arcane notions as justice, since she didn’t care anything about that.
“God damn Americans!” she mumbled to herself. “Like there aren’t enough of ‘em up here as it is!” It was true many American creatures had come north for the social and economic opportunities, but they were not entirely welcome, as they took those opportunities away from the Canadians themselves. This created additional tensions among the Americans and Canadians living together on both sides of the border, and made it much more easier for violence to break out in both countries more often than either country would have liked.
Events of the past had therefore become something the Dane was determined to avenge by keeping as many of the “enemy” out of her territory as possible. And, she believed, this youth would be no harder to send back “home”, even easier because of his relatively small size, in fact. Shifting her tone, she shouted a command to young Jack, as soon as she was able to get in his hearing rage.
“GET BACK HERE, YANK!” she growled, unfriendly and insensitive entirely in tone.
The young dog boy, in his tattered white undershirt and orange shorts, heard her command, but he was in no way about to heed it. He was not going back to the war-torn United States while his life was on the line there, and, when in fact, there was little of his old life there remaining for him to enjoy. Instead, he started to run for his life again, desperate in his aim to escape this assailant, only the latest of a number of such insensitive beings who had tried to come between him and his life since he began his quest from the base of the Red River far away. Consequently, Jack was quick to spring into flight when the border official called for him, knowing full well that, should he actually accede to any of her demands, he would be forced back to where he came, and that was something he did not desire in the least. And so he ran north, towards Emerson, so temptingly close on the still extant highways remaining from the human times. His quick motion meant that few, that is to say, none, of the bullets the patrol officer fired at him actually hit him. They continued like this for a few more kilometers until fate interceded on the boy’s behalf. In a positive way, this time.
The fate that interceded in defense of the young, bedraggled and perpetually hunted young boy dog came in the form of a large, yellow-furred female even larger than his pursuer, and thus, therefore, quite powerful, strong and formidable. Without word or warning, she came out of the bushes at the side of the road and stood between Jack and the vengeful Dane. The creature wore a black mask over her eyes, black arm bands on her arms, a black head band, a maroon undershirt and shorts with “RR” monogrammed on them in white, and black leg warmers on her legs. She quickly demonstrated how fast and strong she was by grabbing the Dane’s gun before she could fire another shot and quickly crumpling it in a powerful fist. Jack, stunned that anyone outside his immediate family would take such a protective interest in him, stopped in his tracks and observed their confrontation from the safety of a small pile of shrubbery that happened to be conveniently placed by the side of the highway road where he had been running.
“Out of my way, schmuck,” demanded the Dane, waving a threatening fist at the newcomer. “I got to do a number on that sleazy little Yank! And anybody who knows their salt knows better than to interfere with the perpetration of the actions of the border patrol, anyhow! Who the hell do you think you are, anyhow? I don’t care if you are strong enough to bust my gun up like that! You try to stop me from fulfilling my duty as efficiently like as possible and I’ll give you such a beating- the likes of which you won’t recover from for a month of Sundays! Dig me, you creep?”
The mysterious stranger did not hesitate a moment. There was no trace of the sort of cowering wimp behavior the Dane had come to expect from anyone she so much as raised her voice to. When the stranger did not move or seem to react at all, the Dane attempted to intimidate her into a fight, a fight the Dane (erroneously) knew she would win. She swore at the stranger, slapped her face, even pulled her tightly by her maroon T shirt to see if she could get something, anything, of a rise out of her. She was soon to regret her actions- in an extremely painful way.
The stranger reacted by pulling herself out of the Dane’s grasp effortlessly, as if the powerfully built Dane were herself built only out of papier mache. When the Dane’s grasp was broken, the stranger swung a powerful fist against the Dane’s head, felling her to the ground like some disheveled, dying elm. The Dane attempted to gain her feet, stumbling and swearing as she did, but one of the stranger’s powerful feet kicked her down as she did, and the Dane landed down again, dazed with her strength spent, on the hard blacktop of the highway. Having bested her foe, the creature lifted her opponent high above her head as she spat out a warning to her.
“I don’t appreciate anyone in my vicinity getting viciously manhandled,” she cracked. “Especially if they happen to be underage! I don’t care if you are part of some asinine system like the border patrol, or whatever rotten “laws” you’re trying to enforce. People like that young fellow are my friends, and they always will be! Now, if you haven’t got anything better than to try and make him feel scared and useless, I have no choice but to let you feel exactly like that for yourself! ”
And with a dazzling display of speed and strength, the Dane found herself twirled in the air, thrown with the speed and power of an expert quarterback, and returned to the calamitous ruins of the border station where she had come from.
Having handled the malefactor, the maroon clad marvel turned her attention to the spry youth whose life she had just saved. Jack was awed, but at the same time he was suspicious. Surely, she was of good intentions, having saved him from a fate worse than death, but he could not be certain of that from her previous actions. What if, in fact, she was a super-powered villain who had dispatched the border official so she could harm him herself? There was only way for him to find out. Walking towards the figure, he took a deep breath and spoke to her.
“Thank you,” he said. “You know, you didn’t really have to do that. I could have handled her easily myself. I got some training in martial arts, y’know!”
This was a lie, and the cheesy smile he added at the end only served to reinforce the fear as well as the mendacity behind the statement. The creature seemed at first to be unmoved and lacking in any sentiment, but then she spoke.
“Merely doing my job, sir,” said the female, in crisp, authoritative tones. “Red Rover knows when she’s needed, and this was just one of those times. I have committed myself to defending the meek and helpless, such as yourself, and I don’t care about any border matters, if that’s what’s worrying you about me. I am the friend of everyone who is committed to goodness and mercy, and, since I can obviously see that you need those things above all else, I want to be yours, too. That is, if you’ll let me. I have no intention of gaining your friendship by the kind of force I just used, because I…”
“Red Rover?” the boy asked, quizzically. “Why do you call yourself that? Your outfit is actually maroo…”
“Don’t get smart!” was the curt reply. “It’s close enough for red! Besides which, I can camouflage myself a lot easier dressed like this. You didn’t see me coming around the corner when you were fleeing for your life, did you? But then again, you were too busy fleeing for your life, so you wouldn’t have noticed that anyway. Anyhow, I can’t call myself “Maroon Rover”, now, can I? That’s a stupid name! Do you think I could intimidate anybody with a dumb name like that? No! My name is RED ROVER and it’s staying that, regardless of what you think!”
“Man! You’re pretty testy for a hero,” Jack answered. “You must have a lot of friends with an arrogant, stuck-up attitude like that, lady! But superheroes usually don’t have a lot of friends, anyhow. They’re pretty much loners, and I bet you’re one, too. ”
“You’re right,” she said, with a touch of emotion finally starting to surface in her voice, much to Jack’s surprise. ”I don’t have a lot of friends. I have a lot of enemies, but not too many friends.” She kicked a stone in the direction of Emerson, and, somewhere far away, a glass window shattered. “Not that I don’t try to make friends, or that I don’t want any. It would help a lot if I did have friends; make my job of protecting the city a whole lot easier than it is now. But there’s always the risk that I’ll do something that’ll make a so-called “friend” become an enemy and someone who’ll betray me to the authorities. So I don’t have a lot of friends, and I don’t think I will have any any time soon.”
“Could I be your friend?”
Jack was looking up at her when he said this. His eyes had expanded to “cute” size, making it difficult for the Rover to resist him. He was, after all, quite young, and these kind of open and unabashed emotional displays were something that even a tough girl like her had difficulty resisting at times. Yet, after a bit of one-sided mental debate in her brain, logic and duty won out, and, with tomboy swagger, she did managed to resist his advances.
“Yes,” she answered blankly. “But not now, okay? I mean, I can’t really give you too much information about myself. Superhero protocol and all. Besides, I have to leave. My turf’s really a little farther norm from here, and I really went out of my way to come down here, and the other superheroes probably won’t like it if I stay around here too much longer….”
“LEAVE?” Jack said, stunned. “Just like that? You’re just gonna abandon me out here like this? You only just got here! Don’t you want to get to know me? I mean, we are friends now, aren’t we? And friends don’t keep too many secrets from each other, do they? Otherwise they wouldn’t be friends, now, would they?”
“Sure, we can be friends and all, but let’s talk about it more the next time I see you, okay, kid?” the Rover said dismissively, as if she wanted to get away from him as soon as possible. “I never forget a face, so I’ll find you soon enough.” And she leaped up and jumped behind a conveniently placed bush, once again leaving Jack to his own devices.
He found it hard to repress the sadness and hatred building up in him. Was he just somebody who could easily be brushed off? She seemed to think so, with her cavalier and arrogant attitude towards him, but that was not the view Jack preferred to cultivate of himself, by any means. When he said he wanted to be friends with somebody, after all, he meant it, since he’d hardly had any in his life to start with- and really wanted at least one.
That’s just peachy, Jack thought to himself with an emerging sob in his voice. I meet a real life super hero and she doesn’t want to be friends with me. What am I, poison? Am I not good enough for you? Well, that’s all right with me, you big jerk! I hope you get radiation poisoning or however it is you stupid creeps get sick and die for being so mean to me, and I hope that you get killed in a rumble with a giant monster trying to prevent Winnipeg from being destroyed by it! That’ll teach you not to mess with my feelings!
But these verbal ramblings were interrupted in his head when he met someone else who was now coming into his life, and this one, he soon discovered, would display a strong and caring interest in him. Which was exactly what he needed right now, though he would never admitted to anyone openly.
This became apparent to him as another female emerged from the bush which the Rover had gone behind. This one looked a lot like her, in fact. The fur color, size, face and the headband she was wearing were similar, but in place of the Rover’s skimpy superhero clothes, she was wearing a pair of black sweatpants and a red sweatshirt with a white fringe at the collar, as well as comfortable looking sandals. She noticed the boy sitting sadly on the side of the road and went up to him. For she, unlike Red Rover, had a social conscience and empathy that was readily evident in all aspects of her personality. This made it harder for the few beings who knew the truth to fully reconcile the fact, when they discovered it, that she and Red Rover were one and the same!
“How goes it, friend?” the new strange dog said comfortingly as she moved towards Jack, sitting now sadly by the side of the road again. “Someone of your youth should not be that depressed. You should be happier than that. Childhood’s supposed to be a carefree time, now, isn’t it? ”
“Well, I am depressed, lady,” Jack said. “And I honestly don’t have as much to be happy about now as you seemed to think! A super hero just saved my life and gave me the brush off when I wanted to be her friend. In a real snotty way, too. She didn’t say it, but she seems to think we only exist for the purpose of her rescuing us. She didn’t even seem to think that I actually had feelings!”
“Those heroes sure are unsociable. I know,” she answered, sitting down, “I live in a town where there’s plenty out of them, and most of ‘em are too busy to be friendly. But I’m not. What’s your handle?”
“Jack. Jack Mongrel.”
“You aren’t related to Phyllis Mongrel, the recently deceased North Dakota rabble rouser, are you? ‘Cause she was doing a real good job battling the Hammond Weed and all those guys, and it seems like a shame that she had to go. Murder’s never something you can deal with easily. Especially like that- eesh! ”
“Yeah. She’s- she was my mother. But how did you know about that?“
“Because you bear a remarkable resemblance to her, among other things. Those eyes are hers, for sure.”
“I mean, how did you know about my mother? She didn’t like to let on about what she was really doing, even to me. Besides which, North Dakota is kind of isolated, especially now with all of the warfare and everything, and I didn’t think anybody else would have known about what was going on there…”
The female laughed. Not contemptuously, but in a friendly way. Jack liked that. It was good for him to hear something positive in his ears for a change.
“North Dakota is not isolated! From anything! Especially not from us up north in Canada,” the female said. “Where did you think you were living, Siberia? You Americans probably think we Canadians are some sort of primitives, don’t you? That we’ve all being running ‘round like mad in loincloths and stuff, just waiting for the Americans to put us out of our misery? That’s what you think, don’t you? They thought about us like before that before the bomb dropped, and it didn’t help them a little bit! Well, we Canadians aren’t idiots, or fools, or morons, or anything else like that! We have brains in our heads, and we’re smart enough to not get ourselves into any of those petty and bloody conflicts you guys have been fighting, with the cartoons and among yourselves. I’m surprised that all of you hadn’t killed all of them yet, or vice versa. Yeah! You look surprised, don’t you? Well, you should be! We know all about you guys, thanks to technology. We may not have invented the stuff you guys did, but we do know how to use it! And, like I said, we know when you Americans are getting in over your heads, and we know damn well not to get ourselves mixed up in your problems. That is, unless you guys start coming up north and filling up the vacant rooms in our cities like you’ve been doing recently. Then your problems become our problems, too!”
“I never said you were primitive!” Jack replied defensively. “ Or any of the other things you just said. Mom always said Canadians were the kindest and most thoughtful people in the world, and I’d be lucky to be in their company. Your nobility and your courage puts us to shame, especially recently. There’s a lot of folks in America who talk about being brave and holding the fort and everything, but most of the time they’re just running scared. Not like the Canadians- when they say something, they mean it, so you know right away that they can be trusted- most of the time, anyway. That’s why Mom and I started up north when the war started, because we knew the Canadians wouldn’t be stupid enough to go to war with the Americans- or themselves, for that matter!”
“Well, she was half right,” answered his companion. “We’re thoughtful, a lot more often than your country-folks might think, but some of us aren’t nearly as kind as you seem to think. But I am myself. I’m Madge Wildfire, by the way. I probably should have told you that from the beginning, but I have too much to say most of the time so I kind of delay those sorts of things until it’s too late. I’m sorry I didn’t bring it up earlier. That was why, when I got my super powers, I figured I’d reverse some of the unkind stuff around here. I mean, someone has to. The big problems that are still around- crime and all that- aren’t gonna solve themselves, now, are they?”
She said it casually enough, as if it were a simple, mundane facet of her life and nothing else. To Jack, however, when the phrase “super powers” had dropped in his ear, it seemed to him that he had been given access to all the secrets of the universe unleashed, at one blow, yet. Accordingly, his jaw dropped.
“You have super powers?” he said, with typical bewildered astonishment.
“Yeah,” she answered. “I work under cover, though- not like this. But then again, you probably already know my secret identity- Red Rover.”
“Uh huh,” he said, suddenly crossing his arms and snorting angrily in recognition.
So that was who she was, he thought. Uppity and snotty one moment, and friendly the next. Which one of them represented the real dog in the body next to him, if there was anything “real” about her at all? He didn’t know whether to be angry or impressed with this sudden revelation. However, she made him make up his mind about it very quickly with a further display of her humanity.
“Sorry I had to be short with you like that,” said Madge. “But I had to be sure you were real. You know, honest. I can’t risk anybody ratting me out to the fuzz, now, can I? Especially since I got a pretty long record that I pulled up around me back in the day.”
“Why wouldn’t I be honest?” Jack asked her rhetorically. “Being honest is the only way I know how to deal with people. It usually is, when you’re a kid.”
“I can’t take any chances,” retorted Madge. “Where I come from, there’s too many people living there, and you can’t expect every one of them will be your friend. Cities aren’t like the playground- you can’t expect to know or get to know everyone living there, even if you’re eager enough to want to do something crazy like that!”
“So you live in Winnipeg? Over there?” Jack pointed in the direction of the city.
“Yep,” answered Madge laconically.
Winnipeg. All anyone needed to know about the closest thing to an oasis in this new, strange world was summed in that name, given to it many years ago by the Native human peoples who had once congregated there to trade (although, to them, it carried the much more unpleasant connotation of “muddy water”). Since that time, many others had followed this example, and not simply for trade. Just as it had been known in the days of the humans, Winnipeg remained the Chicago of the North, located at the junction of the Red River, coming north from North Dakota and the Assiniboine River, flowing east from Saskatchewan. In this new world, Winnipeg had become more fortunate than it had been during the human time, when the brief period of importance it attained in the early twentieth century as a center of culture and trade had been short-lived, and it had been eclipsed by larger and more powerful cities. But that was then, and this was now. Now, Winnipeg was the only former Canadian city that had been spared the fire bombing and nuclear warfare of the wars of the previous years- the wars in which the cartoons and dogs fought for dominance of North America and helped to kill off the human race in the process. It was also the only one to prosper from the destruction of the old means by which humans conducted commerce, in particular the near total collapse of the North American automobile industry by putting its aging factories to work making bicycles, scooters and other “green” or “green” friendly products. And still, continuing a spectator sport that had existed long before the bombs dropped, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Hamilton, Regina, Saskatoon, Halifax and St. John’s considered themselves “better” in completely self-centered and self-justifiable ways, they who had taken far less beneficial beatings in the warfare. Well, there was the matter of those winters, the invasions of mosquitoes in the summer time, and the constant threat of flooding from the Red in particular, but, other than that, Winnipeg was the closest thing to a “nice place”- to visit, to work, or to live in- that still remained in North America, and, just as Detroit had once tempted the unemployed with the prospect of work in its now long defunct automobile factories, Winnipeg called out to those needing work and a safe place to live, learn and grow in this new and more uncertain universe.
Jack lit up hearing the city’s name, for it sounded preferable to the living hell he’d just escaped. North Dakota was a maze of terror and dangers in comparison, and he needed to be somewhere safer if he was to continue. But, even if he was to make it there, would a friendless, family-less creature like himself be able to find a secure home and base of operations? Madge seemed to offer a solution to that problem, so he eyed her with some measure of expectation.
“Can you take me there?” he asked. “Help me get settled there and stuff?”
“Of course,” Madge said. “I need a pal- at least one who isn’t a crumb-bum, rummy or crook, anyhow! Too many of those in my past, unfortunately. I got a spare room in my place where you can crash. Got a bed and everything- you’ve probably going without those sorts of luxuries for a while, haven’t you? You just stay with me until you feel you can make it by yourself. And there’s also the little matter of Red Rover needing a sidekick. It’s pretty damn hard being a solo act, I should say. A lot easier to get jumped and beaten up when you’re alone. An extra pair of eyes- and fists- would come in handy for me. What do you say about that, Jack?”
He nodded assent. Nothing more needed to be said, at least nothing of importance to this section of the narrative, so they began walking as the friends they had now become.
TO BE CONTINUED
Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folkdances, including many old and new Romanian dances. His poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN in 2005.
EXFOLIATING by Bill Vernon
Prices are about all that I check in the shampoo section of Krogers. A chemistry professor where I taught once told me all shampoos come from a basic formula, one that he employed, in fact, to sell hundreds of gallons of his concoction to soap manufacturers (a nice money-making sideline, which I, a science-challenged writing instructor, of course envied).
So I assume equality in this array of shampoo containers. Though each might smell and look different because of additives, any will produce thick suds sufficient to clean grimy hair. My discerning eyes center only on container size and cost. Two minutes of consideration at most to choose the most cost-effective, then I'm "off forth on swing," looking for bread.
Hours later, in a comforting shower of water, which seems to be God's natural cleanser, I open today's shampoo choice, and despite steam and flowing liquid, a new lurid claim, EXFOLIATING SOLUTION, glares at me from the pleasantly shaped and colored plastic bottle.
An innovative marketing ploy. Those business guys will try anything to make a buck, but I'm onto their tricks and unmoved. Exfoliating or not, the contents' slippery goop, with some finger massaging, foams up and does its job.
Rinsing off though, I realize that the product's boast, that phrase, especially the word exfoliating, has lodged in my mind the way Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Windhover" glided years before into my younger thoughts on the "rolling level underneath him steady air."
The word bugs me. A mental search recovers defoliation from the Vietnam War years. Agent orange. Dioxins. That brings back images of green jungles turned yellow and dead. It leads me off into the effects the poison had on our troops and the native population. I remember pictures of malformed children and people dying of cancer. I remember sit-ins, demonstrations, confrontations--but slow down. All that is off the point.
I refocus. De and Ex as prefixes can mean the same thing, from. Doesn't De imply a taking from? Foliate and foliation I know refer to plant growth, leaves, blooms, etc. Therefore, the taking or shedding of those things from their plant's body. For clarity's sake I finally look it up--thank you, Wikipedia.
So I learn that my hair scrubbing has supposedly employed extra help in ridding my scalp of dead skin, cells and whatever. Apparently, people throughout the ages have tried to rejuvenate their looks (if not their health) by hastening the departure of their dead and dying skin.
I don't think anybody in my family ever did it. If they had, they might have incurred more than strange glances. There would have been remarks. There might have been amusement at the "exfoliater's" expense. Then again I remember women relatives scraping their scalps with brushes. One of them even counted her strokes--was it 50 or even 100 times per day? I remember a body builder friend, a tough guy, who used pumice on his skin. When I asked what he was doing to his feet, he gave me a pumice stone in response and said to try it. That was decades ago, but I still have the stone somewhere, a little blocky, grey, rectangular thing, product of a volcano if I remember correctly. Maybe it's in that old gym bag in the basement. I do know I never used it as intended.
Anyway, did my accidental shampooing exfoliation work? I decide the difference in the effect of my "exfoliant" scrub from my previous non-exfoliating scrubs was so miniscule (if it happened at all) as to be insignificant.
Furthermore, isn't applying water to skin exfoliating? Isn't the rushing of air over skin? Doesn't brushing up against another person, say when you're dancing, have an exfoliating effect? These are the kinds of questions that plague me when I have time on my hands. Can I call what the dental assistant does with her tools on my teeth exfoliating the enamel? Can the diet I have trouble maintaining be described as exfoliating weight?
Just by comparison, I answer myself.
Regrettably, this thought of likenesses suggests that exfoliation might connect to many other quirks of life. With near hurricane force, innumerable similarities strike my mind and whirl me off, soaring, riding the currents, mixing metaphors indiscriminately.
There is delight, of course, in gliding high above it all, like "a skate...[sweeping] smooth on a bow-bend." But the lull of elevated flight also allows me to sense the dangers of what entanglements lie waiting below, the uncharted, crisscrossing paths that lead into mysteries that, if unresolved, might end in madness. I rebuff "the big wind" even as I know that I cannot pull away from it yet. So I search through that frenzied confusion below until, Aha! A target, a prey, the one specific subject I've been describing all along. I "here/Buckle" and dive toward it.
Actually, this bird, which is my exfoliating fugue, has since the beginning been carrying me here. I've been aboard the Bird of Cynicism, the Bird of half-understood psychology courses, the attractive bird of Negativity, and knowing that suggests that my sub consciousness knew all along where exfoliation was leading me. The word of course has to relate to myself (I've long suspected that everything's a mirror somehow). This sudden insight will be useful to escape my obsession with exfoliating. It's what I need to reach an acceptable understanding. A finality. A lid on the boiling water. A cap.
And here it is. After all these years of writing, playing with phonemes, the rhythms of speech, the attempts to imitate life, after typing every letter many, many thousands of times, after books and reams of wasted paper, I peer at my life through the lens of exfoliating and realize that I have been spending my time scrubbing with words. I've been exfoliating ideas, beliefs, and feelings from the terminally shrinking confinements of my cranium, the synapses and cells of retracting grey matter. Scrubbing with words. Cleaning off and rejuvenating. Making myself look better. Feeling good about myself. Laughing.
And these simple thoughts "gash gold-vermillion."
Economic College VIILOR, Bucharest
India, January 2014
Here in Zunka, there is a terrible mist, the other villagers say, but you know well that such a mysterious landscape relaxes and cheers your dear granny up. When you are smaller, we used to send letters one to the other. Therefore, i am going to start writing to you because i miss you a lot. I want to tell you something important from my past, something that would amaze you, to be sure.
I was 19 and i was happy because I had planned a small trip with your poppy, who at the time was my new lover. We had arrived in Italy, in San Marco. I remember well that it was a day of May, and the sun was shining over the Basilia church. Everything was beautiful, extremely beautiful! The paintings and the icons were touching us, it was like they were looking over us and blessing us. When we went out of the church, a nun came in front of me. At that time, there were no priests, and monks and nuns were unheard of! She took my hand, squeezed it friendly and nodded. Her black eyes showed hope. In one second, she let go of my hand, and left without saying one word. Then, I fell on the red cold marble. I could hear my lover calling for me and then, suddenly, everything became dark.
I was lying on the grass, refusing to open my eyes as I was afraid. I didn’t know what to do! Bravely, I lifted my eyelashes but the sunrays made me closed them again. When I could look closely, I realised I was in a forest, and certainly not a usual one. The wind was blowing calmly, and the blue and yellow flowers were rustling. The forest attracted me because of the emerald colour and the rustle of the leaves and the movement of the bird pushed me to go deeper in the forest. I started running towards the live world of the forest. I felt like I belonged there. I forgot about my family and especially about your grandfather. Then, it was only I and the strong and mesmerising nature. Maybe even terrifying.
Strangely, a fog surrounded me and an old woman with snowy black hair, long to her hips came before me. Her green eyes with yellow lights showed the warmth in her soul. I have a feeling you won’t believe me, my dear granddaughter, but it is true. Now, I think it was always I as the same age as the forest. Then, I was rendered speechless! I wanted more answers but the woman disappeared. Once she left, the forest started getting old. The sea of greenery was getting yellow, or better said black. The sunrays became more coppery. The flowers were bending sad, kissing the ground goodbye. Tension and fear overwhelmed my body.
Sweetie, all I know after that dream is that I woke up in the arms of my lover, crying. He became my husband, your grandfather... We two have never had enough time to talk, because I have been away almost all the time, all over the world, together with him. You know the nature of his job! That’s why I wrote to you about that May in Italy now, because you are old enough. The scarf I am sending to you has the shine of the sun as it was then and the smell of the plain here, in Zunka. And the gift shows that I have been missing you deeply. I am waiting for your visit in spring. We will make bracelets together, as we used to do in your childhood. We will drink tea and tell stories.
I love you, my little ladybug!
With all my love,
Your dear Mina
Economic College VIILOR, Bucharest
A TRIP IN A BOOK
Himalaya, page 182
Hello, my little Dolly,
Right now, I got to the middle of the trip, I am on page 182! Mother was right, this is a thrilling book. At about page 32, a carnivore plan was ready to eat me. It resembled to the Cobra plant, the one we have in the hall and which you don’t like as a rule. There, in the jungle where I was, the plan was gigantic. Bravely, a skipped to page 33 and escaped with my life. I made friends with a very puffy little monkey, named Cikita, which drags me into trouble all the time and disappears when you expect less.
I got into a dark and sinister cave, somewhere on page 48. I don’t know how, at its end there was a strong light and rocks had turned into crystals. I should not forget to tell you about the adventure in Sahara. Little Cikita disappeared like charm and I found myself with a very lazy camel in her place. It didn’t want to move at all, so we couldn’t look for any oasis. I a-ban-donned it! After a few steps, the sand moved and I fell in a tunnel! I have never been so scared in my entire life!
On page 61, I got to Atlantis city, where Cikita, the little monkey that now had earrings, was riding a seahorse. I was riding a stingray. How bizarre! There, all beings were speaking like people; they were even doing everything like them. The horseshoe crab was gathering metals in something like a pile, maybe it was rusty iron or maybe a sculpture? The stripped murine was dancing with each centimeter of its body (and it had about 80!). The snail fish was pushing its glasses on its nose and was reading the gossips in the local papers to comment them with its friend, the Portuguese dreadnought in their evening show on TV. One moment, though! How do I know their name and who they are? I don’t have time to find out because I am on page 84, near a castle. The ground shook because a volcano was about to erupt. I turned into a small robot that looked well like Mario, my brother’s favorite toy. Like from nowhere, Cikita appeared. We jumped from a rock to another till we got to the top. The castle was very small now; I turned my back to it – I don’t think I’d see it again. I descended on the other side of the mountain with a surfboard, made of rocks, to the foot of the volcano. There, we found a small tunnel which we walked. Then, Cikita and I had to swim. We had just taken our heads out of the water to breathe, when a coconut fell from the sky, hit me and I swooned.
I woke up and I saw that my feet were on page 182. I am in Himalaya, in a yeti’s house. His wife cooks quite well. In the morning we ate yak lard on a slice of bread, some strange bread, sandy but tasty in a way. We drank some yellow milk. I miss my mother’s hot chocolate and her cocoa and peanut biscuits that I would give you under the table when she wasn’t paying attention.
I am waiting new adventures, and I will write to you about them as soon as possible, my dear. I hug you with love and I hope to see you soon, my sweet Dolly! Do some tricks and show mother that I’m missing her!
Your friend, Nelly
In preparing for a temporary assignment to Afghanistan in 2003, Frank Light rediscovered a journal he had kept for a few weeks as a Peace Corps volunteer in that country more than thirty years earlier. Later he fleshed out the journal, starting a process that led to a draft memoir titled Adjust to Dust: On the Backroads of Southern Afghanistan. Fourteen literary reviews and anthologies have published excerpts from it. Further to Afghanistan, he met his wife on the cliffside Buddha in Bamiyan that the Taliban would later blow up, and in 2005/2006 he worked on Afghanistan policy while detailed to the Pentagon. Now retired from government service, he has resumed interests stoked years ago in the creative writing program at the University of California, Irvine. A few of his poems and other essays have also recently been published.
(Photo: Kerry Greene)
Disclaimer: "The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States Government."
OCTOBER SURPRISE by Frank Light
Beyond Kandahar to the north loomed a Planet of the Apes landscape of strangely shaped buttes and mesas, sweeping up from a bright yellow desert that appeared to have little depth, on account of the thin atmosphere and stagy plateau light.
- Robert Kaplan, Imperial Grunts
The first sight a traveler with a view to the front caught of Uruzgan would be the low mountains that encircled Tarin Kot valley, their color dependent on angle, hour, and season. As he drew closer, the traveler might also notice a wan ribbon of green coursing that valley perpendicular to his line of approach. I can report this with some confidence because I later went through a similar progression from a slightly lower perspective, coming in on the road out of Nesh in northern Kandahar. Many a day in-between I observed those mountains from the valley floor, and I crossed the river just north of Tarin Kot town as well as to the east and west of the valley. But at the time under discussion – summer of 2004 – no foreigner ventured that way except by air, and so most of us sat sideways, facing in. The portholes were small and opaque, not conducive to sightseeing. We could only see, through the open cargo door in the tail, where we'd been.
The flights, one or two a week on the average, originated in Kandahar. The few Americans there who knew anything about the land to the north said the river at its core had run dry. Not so. Although well into the summer and five, six years of drought, the thin, brown stream within that greenbelt meandered on, irrigating fields below the level of the ditches it fed, not really exhausting itself until just before it got to the Helmand on the other side of the western rim. Without it, there would have been no Tarin Kot town.
That town was the capital of Uruzgan, a province with the lowest literacy rate in all Afghanistan. Very Pashtun, very conservative. Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, spent his formative years in Uruzgan, and the man we installed in his place – Hamid Karzai – established a foothold there in 2001, with help from our Special Forces. Little of concern to Kabul – or Washington – happened in the province since.
As I knew from a layover in Kabul, Embassy staff had their hands full keeping up with Washington, the Ambassador, military headquarters at Bagram, high-level visits, the UN, other embassies, the provisional Afghan government, and the upcoming presidential elections. The voter registration deadline had recently come and gone. Someone in the Embassy's political section thought it’d been extended for Uruzgan; no one was sure. Uruzgan could have been the dark side of the moon. Nobody I talked to had been there or expressed any desire to visit.
So the Embassy directed me to the UN mission, where I was told Uruzgan had no institutions, rule of law, or freedom of expression. Governance was a one-man show. Tribalism reigned. The Governor’s militia killed 137 persons the previous year, and there had been no investigations. The Governor insisted all 137 were Taliban. Those who complained were, like the dead, labeled Taliban. Opium dominated the economy, involving every government official. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and donors stayed away. As did the UN. A disillusioned populace was asking what Karzai – and, by extension, the U.S. and UN – had ever done for them. The UN arrived at this analysis by interviewing Afghans who passed through or lived in Kandahar. It gave me something to go on, though over the years I’d learned that every time I thought I understood a situation, somebody would present a new way to look at it. What I previously knew wasn’t wrong. It just wasn’t the whole story.
The prior year I did a similar tour at another start-up Provincial Reconstruction Team, or PRT, in Jalalabad east of Kabul. An organization chart, had one existed, would have shown my position at the end of a dotted, horizontal line. Guidance from above was understood but largely unexpressed. The job was what you made it. Accomplishments were nebulous for the most part and in all cases depended on others. Satisfying, frustrating work. Just my being there, trying to contribute, wrapped up some loose ends. Were it not for family responsibilities, I would have stayed longer. The State Department wanted a year, which made sense. They took me for 90 days – their minimum, my maximum – because they couldn't get anybody else.
That wasn't my first acquaintance with Jalalabad. I'd lived there in the Peace Corps, most likely before anybody else on the helicopter had been born. But I'd never been to Uruzgan. Now sixty, with thick glasses, bad back, and a hoary mustache that would grow into an expeditionary beard, I was coming off leave without pay in Copenhagen, where my wife was Deputy Chief of Mission. My leave status dispensed with nepotism concerns and allowed us to have a parent in the house when our daughter came home from school. Except when I was in Afghanistan.
As the Chinook circled downward, it gave us passengers a chance to look around. Lacking monument or distinguishing color, or much size for that matter, the town was hard to spot from afar, or from above. Not that we looked that way for long. Our vision soon fixed on the southwest end of town, to a topographical bowl where Forward Operating Base Ripley went about its business. The base housed the 2/5 Battalion of the U.S Army's 25th Infantry Division and a 80-man PRT, to which I'd been assigned. PRTs were supposed to promote development and extend the writ of the national government. Though touted as interagency, they were mostly military. Tarin Kot's was still in the formative stage. It wouldn't become official until after I left. Its first USAID representative arrived a few days ahead of me, and I would be the first from State.
Scattered and close to the ground, the base, like the town, didn’t call attention to itself. What caught my eye was the dust, bright as butterscotch, that covered the bowl and the few structures rising out of it. At first glance Ripley hardly seemed a base at all. Its horizontal reach and vertical modesty brought to mind long-abandoned irrigation works found in other parts of the country; it seemed a place where sooner or later, probably sooner, the elements would prevail. Inside, as out, there was far more dust than signs of occupation. To stake out the high ground, the perimeter extended well beyond the space its inhabitants could occupy. I never discerned the dirt airstrip that ran inside the western berm until weeks later when a UN-chartered C-130 Hercules landed, churning up massive clouds of dust that drifted north and east toward the new PRT site under construction. The gray rocks that formed the helicopter landing zone, in contrast, made it difficult to miss, and they cut down on the dust. Those rocks were big and uneven, however, with large gaps in-between. You had to watch your step.
Uruzgan on the Map *
At At the High School in Tarin Kot
* In the spring of 2004, some eight years after this mural was painted, the government in Kabul created a separate province – Daikundi – out of northern Uruzgan. That left Uruzgan with five districts: Tarin Kot in the center, Deh Rawud and Charchina to the west, Chora and Khas Uruzgan to the east.
Part I. The Big Three
A. The Coordinator
The Governor had been gone for weeks when I arrived, and he had no deputy. A number of other key officials had also departed, including the Governor's main rival, the police chief. An absent official could have been fired; he could have found something better. He could be sick, dead, arrested, kidnapped, laying low in Pakistan, or living the life in Dubai. The Embassy hadn’t a clue, nor did anybody in Tarin Kot. Apparently its elites would rather be nobody somewhere else than somebody here in the heat of summer.
Their absence wasn't critical. For a while, it may have actually helped. Neither the Governor nor the police chief had shown much interest in the election, the one issue that could attract our embassy's attention to a place like Uruzgan. In the meantime my USAID colleague Kerry and I traveled under military protection to the outlying districts, where we found governance to be even more minimalist than in the capital. Not a single woman had registered to vote in Deh Rawud or Chora, and in Khas Uruzgan the election coordinator seemed afraid of his own shadow. Officials were waiting on guidance, or further prodding, from Tarin Kot.
There was reason for hope. Apart from the absent Governor and police chief, a third official cut a wide swath through the province. And he was, very much, on the scene. Atiqullah Khan, election coordinator for Uruzgan and the two southernmost districts in Daikundi – Kijran and Gizab – was a survivor with ambitions. A political chameleon, he had served as a colonel for the communists in the Soviet era, defected to the muj, returned to the communist fold under Najibullah when the Soviets left, holed out in Pakistan after Najibullah fell, repatriated to the family farm in Tarin Kot district during the Taliban reign, stayed in contact with some in the insurgency, and managed foreigners better than any other powerbroker in the province. It was just the competition he didn’t get along with. It didn’t help that each of the three rivals were seen as standard-bearers for the three main tribes in the basin – the Governor for the Populzai, the police chief for the Barakzai, and Atiqullah the Achakzai.
Those leaders who adapted best to the changes, shaping them where they could, would have first dibs on the perks, power, and funding that came with the new order. That order called for comity. The standard-bearers’ stated opposition to the Taliban, who came mostly from other tribes, did not lead to mutual cooperation. It was the old prisoners’ dilemma. Cooperation required trust. Too much was at stake; too much water had passed over the dam. The three had as little to do with each other as possible.
Fine by Atiqullah. Kabul provided a title; the UN, resources; and the Americans, military backup. Forget that the title came without authority, the resources had to be accounted for, and the backup was under external command; he parlayed his connections into an organization that spread across and in some places beyond the province. In the run-up to the voting more people reported to him than to the Governor. From the election compound in downtown Tarin Kot he oversaw 27 field coordinators, each with his own staff and up to 24 guards. All told, 1155 people supposedly worked for him, more if you counted unpaid volunteers, compound guards, and two Global Risk contractors who helped handle finances and Americans. Technically, they all worked for the Joint Election Monitoring Board, the JEMB.
The American point of contact was the 2/5 battalion's fire-support officer, not a fulltime job in a counterinsurgency of such low – compared to, say, Iraq – intensity. The officer, a young, round-faced captain known as Rob, also had responsibilities for base construction. As Atiqullah was not about to come to Ripley, Rob drove to the JEMB compound with ever greater frequency as the election drew near. The first time I hitched a ride with him we got in a pickup truck with only his interpreter Asim.
Knowing the PRT required three up-armored Humvees for every trip into town, Rob asked if I had a problem traveling so light. Staff officers commanded no troops, so he’d have to ask for escorts at the battalion operations center. Sometimes that took a while, he explained. He liked to get to the compound quickly. One issue or another was always coming up. That morning, for example. Bagram passed a rumor that Atiqullah had been arrested – pucked was the term, deriving from the acronym for Persons Under Control. Afghans might arrest or they might kidnap, but only Americans – a special few at that – pucked. We knew it was crazy, but our Special Forces in Deh Rawud and Kandahar didn't always coordinate with Ripley, Rob couldn’t get through on the radio, and the battalion commander, call sign Bobcat 6, wanted eyes-on confirmation that Atiqullah was still on the job.
Escorts wouldn’t have protected us from improvised explosive devices, IEDs in the vernacular, the most likely form of attack. But not that likely. Rob hadn’t been doing this for long, the town had been quiet, he didn’t go at a set time or on a fixed route, and no other foreigner drove around in such a manner. If we found ourselves in a fix, Asim carried a radio, an AK-47 too as I recall, I mean he kept one in the vehicle, and I had my Thuraya satellite phone. For what it was worth, in Deh Rawud the week before I’d practiced on the M-4. Rob's sat propped between the seats. Anything happens, he said, noticing my glance, take the wheel.
First sight of town on leaving the base was even less impressive than it was from the air. A few meters lower than our gate, Tarin Kot began almost as soon as we passed the last strand of wire. The exit channeled us into a long, straight shot of a road lined with adobe compounds, vacant lots, sheds, tire shops, broken vehicles, glass shards, scrap metal, goats, distressed trees, sand, stone, and gawking boys. There were no obviously nice parts of town, no neighborhoods for new money or old. If people had it, they weren't showing it. This shared aesthetic led to a uniformity in appearance, everything brown or gray and behind walls where walls still stood. Fifteen years after the Soviets left, when the factions turned on each other and the fighting really got nasty, whole blocks still lay in rubble. Buildings were abandoned or squatted in. None rose above two stories. Not a street was paved, at least not anymore.
With one exception all of them intersected at right angles, meaning the town must have been planned. The optimism such planning assumes disappeared with the resources needed to carry it out. Tarin Kot had no scenic attractions or hotels apart from a rudimentary tea house or two. Unlike most provincial capitals, it boasted no government guest house, and there was no easy way out (or way in for consumer goods). Its most notable feature marked the center of town, at the one intersection lacking right angles – a traffic circle with a police gazebo in the middle.
The people along the way looked the part – thin, scruffy, and poor. This was the only road from Ripley into town, and the 2/5 traveled it as often as the PRT did, maybe two or three times a week. Still, everybody stared. Under the unbridled sun the buildings themselves seemed to glare. Same with the streets, the wares, the trash, everything. Neither park, pool, nor fountain graced the town. The climate did not allow such luxuries. Even the river lay on the outskirts near the fields it irrigated (or flooded should that ever happen again). The little water than flowed into the province came from unseen mountains to the north and east. The ridges that framed the valley didn’t rise to a level that would capture moisture in the summer or hold snow from the winter. They merely reinforced the sense of isolation.
Indeed, Tarin Kot existed precisely because it was in the middle of nowhere. The track from Kandahar terminated just south of town. To the northeast a road ran to Chora and onward, depending upon the fork you took, to Daikundi or to Khas Uruzgan. To the southeast a road led to Chenartu in the southern part of Chora and up to Khas Uruzgan town, the provincial seat under the Taliban. To the west a road led over a pass to Deh Rawud and north from there to Charchina. None were surfaced, not even with gravel. You could drive for hours without seeing another vehicle.
The advantage of location produced another – Tarin Kot’s re-designation as provincial capital. What few official resources went Uruzgan’s way went to the new capital. They rarely went farther. Now a third advantage derived from the second – FOB Ripley. Apart from opium, the only serious money that could be made came from the Americans. Failing that, the UN.
The JEMB compound had two gates, and at different times we used them both. The Taliban built it, on the far side of the government quarter, as a religious school. Consistent with their predilection for irony, Special Forces transformed it into their operations base before moving to Deh Rawud. Thick, high walls, guard posts with armed sentries, barbed wire, and serpentine, vehicular entrances gave it a formidable appearance. But because the guards were local, the UN wouldn’t let expatriate staff spend the night there. It entertained no such qualms about contractors. The Global Risk twosome were ex-military, one Australian, the other South African. Neither were armed.
Sometimes Atiqullah would receive us in his office, sometimes on the veranda in front of it, our conversations frequently interrupted by incoming calls on his Thuraya and aides popping in with questions. I give him credit: he kept a lot of balls in the air. He made decisions without micromanaging. Like many a decision-maker, he was not into details, and he could be stubborn. He liked attention and pretended otherwise. Thin, with the eyes and beard of a man who had been to the mountain, he evinced a been-there, done-that weariness. He spoke in a voice so quiet that Asim had to lean forward to hear him, and I could pick up almost none of his Pashtu. At such times he might switch to a quirky English that tended to confuse more than clarify. The fellows from Global Risk usually sat in and sometimes offered comments or explanations. Atiqullah was nobody’s puppet, however. He liked pulling the strings even when, as often happened, there was nothing at the other end.
His statistics never quite jived from one day to the next, nor did his descriptions of voting procedures. At our first meeting he told me each voter would write his registration number on his ballot and put it in the box marked with a photo of his candidate. He mentioned 435 voting stations. There were 18 candidates, none from Uruzgan.
Calculating in my head, I said that’d make 8000 ballot boxes. Roughly. Was JEMB supplying that many? How big were the boxes? And how could you have a secret ballot when voters dropped their ballots in one of 18 marked boxes?
Atiqullah almost smiled; he almost sighed. If he didn’t have so many things on his mind, he might have welcomed my questions. They kept him on his toes. He explained that a candidate would have a ballot box at a site only if a proponent appeared with an authorizing letter from Kabul.
No letters will get here from Kabul, I noted; certainly not before the election.
He said he could authorize any proponent who stepped forward, letter or no. His staff had Thurayas for just that purpose.
At a subsequent meeting Global Risk reported 804 armed guards on the payroll. I think they counted toward the 1135 total. Atiqullah said he’d like to post 24 at each site but might get only 8-12 per site.
Apparently a site was the same as a station. I said it’d be a lot fewer than that if he had 435 sites.
He took a sip from a water bottle, one of the benefits of having foreigners on the compound, looked briefly in my direction, and then longer at Asim. Maybe the translation hadn’t been clear. Speaking slowly, he said he wanted 24 at each center.
Asim rolled his eyes as he translated. In the States, a guy his age and moxie would have been in law school. Or a Congressional aide.
How many centers? I asked. This was the first I’d heard of them. Gaps often perforated our conversations. Translation had something to do with it. As did culture. Habit. Intent.
And how many sites?
325. Every one within a kilometer of a center, Atiqullah declared. He said he’d had to eliminate a few sites that couldn’t be secured. When he tilted his head back, as he then did, it lifted his chin, and his beard rose with it, halfway to horizontal.
He knew ambition got you nowhere unless you had the cojones to back it. And if you didn’t persist in spite of the naysayers, handwringers, and beancounters, you’d never get anything done. Not on time, anyway. In August, just before my arrival, he was involved in – created, some said – an incident that exemplified his positive as well as negative attributes. Rob advised him to wait for armed escort before sending a JEMB convoy from Deh Rawud to Kijran District, north of Charchina. Impatient to complete registration, he disregarded the advice and personally led the convoy. Late in the afternoon of the first day they were ambushed going into Charchina. A JEMB trainer and driver were killed. Four vehicles were destroyed. Atiqullah led the defense, repelling the attackers. Nobody doubted his valor, just as nobody believed there were 150 Taliban, as he asserted. In telling me the story, he did not mention calling for help on his Thuraya or the American response – two A-10 Warthogs swooped low over the attackers just before they withdrew. A 2/5 convoy from Deh Rawud drove up a couple days later, on the date originally planned, to escort him to Kijran.
With the election fast approaching and logistics lagging, he needed to focus on administrative matters. Each station – Rob put the number at 384 – had 3 to 12 voting booths. JEMB’s job was to distribute to each station training materials, ballot boxes, polling kits, curtains, poles, and tables for the booths, and finally the ballots themselves. JEMB also needed to protect the stations, secure the ballot boxes as well as the unused ballots, and return them for counting. To that end field staff were supposed to coordinate with local officials, police, mullahs, elders, and militias. Atiqullah left it to others – Global Risk, Karzai, the Minister of Interior, or interested Americans – to make arrangements with the provincial authorities.
All that unfinished business could not take away from the growing excitement. Three years after 9/11, this famously failed state and its newfound friends had come to the verge. The world would be watching. Uruzgan was in the weeds, admittedly, but a part of the picture nonetheless. The renewed attention to Afghanistan had our civilian and military commands on high alert. The drumbeat of bad news from Iraq made progress in our other Islamic intervention even more essential to America’s – and, to get crass, our political leadership’s – standing. Those feeling the heat from that leadership needed to hear about potential problems, especially if word might spill out, but mostly they wanted good news, something to share. No whining.
Bad news makes good stories, so that’s what the media sought. But their motivation wasn't as strong as it was in Iraq since virtually everyone in the West endorsed an American presence in Afghanistan. Yes, some criticized the size and nature of our intervention. The NGO community kept calling for more aid, pay no mind (for the moment) how it was spent, and more American soldiers while complaining that those we did send either mucked around in humanitarian efforts that were none of their affair or were in cahoots with drug-dealing warlords who intimidated the voting public. The same crowd that bemoaned delays in scheduling the election now insisted it was taking place too soon – before the people understood it, before parliamentary elections, and before security prevailed in the countryside.
After pulling out battered and bloodied from Iraq, the UN had a major stake in the election it managed together with the Afghan government. Although the J stood for Joint, everybody knew JEMB’s senior partner provided the money, experience, and international credibility. For all its resources, and the U.S. was the main contributor, the UN couldn't easily get Atiqullah the cash he needed to pay his staff. Apart from the “bank” on the Governor’s compound, a shuttered shack the size and solidity of a melon shop and which I had never seen open, Uruzgan had no financial institutions. The UN would send a helicopter from Kandahar. The White Elephant, as it was called, would land at Ripley, and then the payroll had to be driven to the JEMB compound. That hadn’t happened for a while, so the field coordinators camped at the compound – on strike, in effect. Knowing how much easier it was to promise than deliver, they threatened to quit altogether if their back pay didn’t come soon.
Meanwhile the intelligence community was predicting an all-out Taliban effort to disrupt the election. Certainly that’s what the analysts would have done had they been Taliban. You didn’t need a security clearance to arrive at this analysis; it became a media staple. Even our own ambassador warned of a "Tet-like" offensive, proof that the Vietnam War had transitioned, in the American mind, from ideology to mythology. Feeding those fears, Taliban spokesmen in Pakistan threatened any and all who participated.
A lot could get lost between Pakistan and Uruzgan, but not all of it, not all the time. One of eleven voters the Taliban took off a bus and executed in Khas Uruzgan that summer was a JEMB team leader. They did it with a knife. Another of the eleven also worked for JEMB. A month after that, a second team leader in Khas Uruzgan was killed, this one by gunshot, while driving a motorbike. The backseat rider was also killed. An IED that hit a JEMB vehicle in Chora injured several employees. Nearby villagers detained the three perpetrators, who were now enjoying such hospitality as the Bagram Detention Center had to offer. They had come from Pakistan with satellite phones and new radios. A JEMB guard was killed and three of their vehicles damaged in the attack on the District Chief's office in Deh Rawud. JEMB lost another vehicle when a coordinator was attacked at his home in Kijran. He came out of it scared but unscathed, claiming he had exchanged fire with his assailants for 30 minutes.
In Khas Uruzgan five villagers were kidnapped by presumed Taliban for having voter registration cards in their possession. In Chenartu, gunmen executed two of four militiamen they abducted. No election tie-in. Just tribesmen making like Taliban. Villagers killed two suspected kidnappers in revenge. The situation there was getting out of hand, the Governor told Bobcat 6 soon after his return. He said he'd been in Kabul, meeting with Karzai, and in Kandahar, with our Special Forces. He had already ordered the police to round up the troublemakers. The acting head of police, brother of the absent chief, refused, saying it wasn’t police work. The Governor extended both hands toward Bobcat 6, offering him another chance to man up. Maybe after the election, the lieutenant colonel replied. Not before. The Governor had expected as much. In that case, he said, he’d send his militia without any Coalition support.
On the way back from a meeting a few days after that, I noticed a crowd around the gazebo in the traffic circle. I asked the driver to pull over. I hoped to see the first evidence of electioneering in the province. The Embassy would be pleased.
At the center of the commotion lay two dust- and blood-covered men dead from gunshot wounds. Taliban, a policeman said. From Chenartu, of course. He wanted me to take their picture. They needed a shave. A shower and a shave and a lot more than that.
Other incidents reminded us we were in a combat zone. After months of quiet, a total of three rockets were fired at Ripley on two separate occasions. All hit outside the wire, about a kilometer from the PRT, in the wee hours of the morning. Because some of us worked and all of us slept in tents, we were supposed to take shelter from indirect fire in a bunker dug into the dirt on the other side of our picnic tables. The air conditioners ran so loudly that none of us noticed, and nobody sounded the alarm unless you counted the first occasion, when the American guard nearest the explosion radioed he was under attack. The 2/5 was able to trace the rockets’ path over the town from the hills to the east, between Chora and Chenartu. Morning-after patrols even found the launch site. Same place both launchings. More a cry for attention than anything, stray rockets came with the territory.
Down at the JEMB compound, security guards refused to escort a truckload of polling furniture to Khas Uruzgan unless at least a hundred of them went. The road ran through Chenartu, they argued, an ungoverned place where Taliban and bandits preyed on the weak. The guards insisted on $6 per man-day like they got during registration, plus per diem and expenses for their pickups. The JEMB limit, set in Kabul, was $4 a day. In the early summer when the Marines were around they quietly plussed it up to $6. Global Risk held the line at $4. They saw the Governor’s hand in the guards’ demands, as most were doubledipping from his militia's roster. Atiqullah smiled, silent as a Sufi. He knew when to let the foreigners deal with these things. The furniture remained in his compound along with several JEMB staff also awaiting escort to Khas Uruzgan. Having found the compound in Tarin Kot far cozier than the streets of Uruzgan town, they didn’t push it. Must be Allah’s will.
B. The Governor
Like it or not, you couldn’t get much done without the Governor. Atiqullah had parleyed with him earlier in the summer but showed no desire to repeat the experience. Nor did the Governor. When I asked an interpreter to set up a meeting to introduce the new PRT command to the Governor, he came back with an invitation to an election shura, or council. The Governor knew we’d find that irresistible. Rob went, too. Even Bobcat 6.
An immobilized Soviet tank oversaw the entrance, its cannon facing visitors and the street behind them that ran straight to Dead Man’s Circle. Approved visitors parked in the outer compound, which contained a colonnaded office building and, off to the side, the padlocked shed that passed for Uruzgan's only bank. A second guarded gate led to the inner compound where the Governor worked.
We passed through that interior gate into a scene out of time immemorial: the Governor rallying the tribes. He stood tall, his arm out to make a point. He turned toward us knowingly, as though he’d predicted our advent. Men and boys milled about, or squatted and watched. Some but not all bore arms. The oldest sat on carpets and cushions laid across two pavilions, one on each side of the pathway. The Stars and Stripes flew from the left pavilion roof, compliments of the departed Marines. None of the elders were armed; like a white beard, that signaled sagacity. They stirred as we stepped forward. All foreigners but me were armed, and I had my vest. They knew we carried big guns. They hoped we also brought big money.
The Governor had been talking about security, a topic of greater local interest than the election. His voice carried without trying. It was rough and boisterous, a trait especially noticeable when he laughed. Built like a brawler, he called out to men he knew. Some were heavier, some taller, none larger. Even his gestures were larger. He wasn’t dressed differently, everyone in salwar kamiz, the traditional tunic with matching, baggy trousers. Black, brown, gray, and smudge green, one color per person. A few in sandals, most barefoot. All had beards. All wore turbans. The Governor had lost some teeth, and one eye was white, a common affliction. Dark streaks that ran through his beard joined in the middle to form a mustache the color of charcoal. Combined with his unpaired eyes and hanging brows, it gave him the look of an ex-con trying to go straight. He could do it. He could do anything, his manner suggested. Do it and get away with it. A hearty host, guffawing at an elder’s remark, he seemed genuinely happy to see us, happier still for us to see him with the shura and for the shura to see us with him.
With his good eye on us, knowing all others were on him, he declared it every man’s duty to vote. He held up a supersized ballot, courtesy of JEMB, with photos of the candidates. You didn’t have to be able to read. He himself couldn't. You simply put your mark by the picture and party symbol. Here, for example – he pointed to the ballot – was someone they all knew. The elders nodded and smiled as though being treated to a parlor trick. The image was Karzai’s. The Governor didn’t say his name. No need for advocacy, intimidation, or bribery.
Everyone knew, or thought he knew, how the Governor got his job. His father and Karzai’s father had been together, outside a mosque in Pakistan, summer of 1999, when two men on a motorbike shot and killed Karzai’s father. There was more to it than that, of course, for the Governor showed no sign of having been born to the throne. This man of the people, who reputedly started his working life as a janitor at Tarin Kot High, rose to the top of the provincial heap by resisting communist efforts to tear down the old order. You couldn't do that unless you were smart, tough, relentless, lucky, and/or – doubtful in his case – had God on your side.
His appointment as Governor allowed Karzai to settle tribal and family obligations in a place that had no bearing on the capital. What happened in Uruzgan stayed in Uruzgan, and Karzai counted on the Americans to keep it that way. For all the Governor's faults, no official was more pro-Karzai. None was more anti-Taliban. He hated them like a team hates its archrival.
The shura were probably all going to vote for Karzai, their fellow Pashtun with face and name recognition and ties to the area. To be fair, the Governor noted they could vote for any of the 18.
He paused to shake our hands, and I asked if he was going to cast his for the one female candidate. Ha ha; he had to laugh. A begrudging laugh.
Over 40% of the country’s registered voters were women, a sign of progress the Embassy frequently pointed to. The percentage was down to single digits in Uruzgan, however, weighed down by zeroes in Deh Rawud and Chora. The women don't like to go out, officials explained. Surprisingly, the most retrograde of all districts – Charchina – had 48 female voters. It once had 78. The high number made Atiqullah suspicious. He looked into it while waiting for the 2/5 escort the time he’d been ambushed. Thirty of them turned out to be “thieves,” he told me. A team leader confessed to filling out their registration cards.
The Governor turned back to the elders. Any questions?
An elder asked how and where the votes would be counted. The Governor turned our way. He had invited Atiqullah, the subject-matter expert. No Atiqullah. Not even Global Risk. The Governor remarked on that. Bobcat 6 spoke up. Uruzgan’s votes would be counted in Kandahar. By the JEMB. International representatives would observe.
The elders mulled that over. It wasn’t every day a foreigner addressed them.
Hands on his chest, the Governor followed up in Pashtu. Some in the audience murmured assent. Others nodded.
In contradiction to Bobcat 6’s response, Atiqullah had told us he would supervise vote counting at the compound in Tarin Kot. I caught Rob’s eye. A change, he muttered. JEMB would have a soccer stadium to do it in. Not just for Uruzgan. The whole south.
The Governor wrapped up his remarks, and his right hand opened toward us foreigners.
Asim translated: the Americans came to help. We were asked to elaborate.
Bobcat 6, a wiry, bespectacled hard-charger, spoke briefly about security, and the new PRT commander, the tallest person in the province, said a few words about development. Both talked about partnerships, how we were here to support the government and work with the people.
Putting it in terms the elders would understand, the Governor said we would build schools and roads. He invited me to speak. An old bugaboo bit me: failure to prepare. Neither the passion burning inside nor cool, crisp one-liners meant to disguise it came out. Governance, security, development – all were important, I think I said. Each enabled the other. The people provided what they had – labor and know-how. We provided the capital. They should tell us their needs, their priorities. The government would organize the response. Something like that. I know I didn’t say much. The lieutenant colonels had covered the bases. We understood that Americans shouldn’t speak at length. Not today. This was the Governor’s affair. He supplied the passion.
The Taliban didn’t come from Pakistan, he thundered. They were neighbors and relatives. Stop sheltering them. Kill them instead. Cut off their hands. That’s what his soldiers had just done to Mullah Ghafor, the scourge of Charchina. The Americans took him to Guantanamo and then – he paused for effect – brought him to Kabul and released him. The Governor had to shake his head at that. Ghafor returned to Uruzgan and his Taliban ways, attacking the JEMB and anybody with a voter’s card. No more. The Governor could report one less Taliban.
His voice shifted from exultation to exhortation: his soldiers couldn’t chase down every last Taliban. Not even the Americans could do that. He gestured in our direction. Elders and mullahs had a special responsibility. The Taliban listened to them. The elders should tell them he Jan Mohammed Khan – he smacked his chest twice – would pay every Taliban who turned himself in. He smiled at the thought. The elders smiled back. For all his faults, the man knew how to hold an audience.
He changed the subject, and the smiles disappeared. People should stop growing opium. Karzai had talked to him about it. They would have to weigh poverty against religious and patriotic duty.
The previous afternoon the PRT's military-police advisors returned from the police station with a Humvee trunk full of freshly cut marijuana. The chief's brother finally let them cut the cannabis garden by the front entrance. What’s the Governor done about drugs? he pointedly asked.
Providing his answer one day later, the Governor passed out copies of a fatwa from Kabul denouncing opium cultivation. You heard the Americans, he concluded. They’ll help you find a new way to make a living. Tell them your problems, your needs.
Two actions in two days, that was the counternarcotics campaign for the three months I spent in Uruzgan.
The new PRT leadership, the 2/5's civil affairs team, and I proceeded to the "palace," as governors’ quarters were called throughout the country. Impressive for Tarin Kot, the structure had two stories. Governors often resided where they worked, especially if they came from another province. This one was a native; he lived outside of town on the road to Deh Rawud. That allowed the civil affairs team and Asim to bunk in a room on the palace’s unfinished upper floor. Through them, his human hotline, Bobcat 6 kept tabs on developments. The Governor worked from a large office on the ground floor, chairs and sofas around the sides, and he was usually in early. His cabinet was there waiting for us, for the first time in Western trousers and suit jackets. The Governor had insisted on it upon his return from Kabul. That’s how the national cabinet dresses, he told them. It shows respect for the foreigners.
The civil affairs sergeant likened the atmosphere to a VFW hall, the management style to a mafia clan, with the Governor as godfather. His all-male cabinet were mostly war buddies from the resistance. They had no operating budgets, as their facilities made clear. Some offices lacked roofs; at others the walls had collapsed. Floors were dirt. Any furniture was scavenged.
A UNICEF project from the Taliban era brought a trickle of water a few hours a day to the palace and a few nearby pumps. In another vestige of bygone intentions, concrete gutters lined the streets in the government quarter. You wouldn't notice driving by. You had to get out on foot, as dust, dirt, dried mud, and weeds covered them. In that part of town power lines ran from a vacant lot where USAID had dropped off a large diesel generator. There was no fuel or fuel tank for it, nor were the lines linked to the generator or any consumer. In the evening small generators lit select compounds – the Governor’s, the police, the hospital, JEMB, and the one NGO (Afghan staff, European money).
Uruzgan had no cell phone service, and the landline connected a total of five phones to each other, all within a hundred meters of the Governor’s palace. He, the intelligence chief, and the NGO had the three TVs in the province. Reception came via satellite dish. Neither AM nor FM radio made it over the mountains. No newspapers. No computers. The bazaar stocked only the basics. Business was slow.
Over barbecued goat, fresh-baked flatbread, fried potatoes, watermelon, green tea, and hard candy, we discussed projects and priorities. Each cabinet member wanted security walls for his office. As in the past, we urged them to consider the outlying districts and the people they were supposed to serve.
Altogether, we stayed six hours, though we said nothing more about the election. The 2/5 had the lead on that, and Bobcat 6 had slipped away with his civil-affairs team to take possession of a prisoner the Governor's militia brought in. On our way out the Governor confirmed he would host a meeting the next morning to review election security. Global Risk had been pushing it, especially when Atiqullah wasn’t in earshot, and Rob had obtained Atiqullah’s sighing acquiescence. Earlier I had invited the police and the intelligence service.
The meeting didn’t start with the election. The Governor was too agitated. He had just gotten a call from the District Chief in Charchina. He said it concerned Mullah Ghafor, the Guatanamo graduate killed in the ambush he had reported to the shura. Two days ago his militia drove the body to Deh Rawud. No doubt about the mad mullah’s intentions – we had intercepts to confirm them, and the militia that bagged him captured rifles, grenades, vehicles, and a radio. On the day of the shura 400 relatives and sympathizers came to claim the body and take it to Charchina for burial.
The chief of the mullah’s subdistrict and Charchina’s District Chief made the trip to Deh Rawud and back the day after the funeral procession. On the return leg their vehicles separated as they approached the district line, each heading for his respective home. Coalition Forces had accompanied them for part of the trip and were in the vicinity when the District Chief called the Governor on his Thuraya to report the subchief called him, only a few minutes after turning off from the main convoy, to say a rocket-propelled grenade had struck his vehicle; tell the Americans not to shoot. The Chief couldn’t get through to the Americans, and he had since heard the subchief died of his wounds. Please tell the Americans he the District Chief had nothing to do with it, he implored the Governor. Please don’t bomb his compound.
It was all very confusing, and Bobcat 6 was at a disadvantage. The Americans were Special Forces, and they shared what they wanted to share. He said everything was quiet now, as far he knew. The Chief ought to visit the 2/5’s Charlie Company at their new outpost in Charchina.
The Governor nodded, and his emotions subsided. Nothing could be done about it for the moment. The Director of Health, the one outsider in the cabinet, asked if yesterday's prisoner had provided any useful information.
Bobcat 6 demurred. The prisoner had been flown to Kandahar.
He talked to us, the Governor noted. He didn’t talk to you?
We’re infantry, Bobcat 6 explained. Kandahar can do it better.
He switched topics, moving to the election.
Where's Atiqullah? the Governor interrupted. For show, he peered around the room.
At least Global Risk was present. The South African put his fist by his ear with thumb and little finger extended in the sign of the phone. Ambushed by the Thuraya, he explained. But he and the Aussie seemed to have Atiqullah's proxy, and thanks to their boss's network, they were often more clued in than either the Governor or us Americans. Too much information was their problem. They were better at collecting than at sorting and analyzing.
They confirmed JEMB would be responsible for security at the polling stations. They expected provincial authorities and Coalition Forces to secure the outer perimeter and respond to major incidents at the sites themselves. In an effort to bolster its own capabilities, JEMB was organizing a 50-man reaction force. Atiqullah was pressing Kabul for authorization to mount on two of their undersized Russian jeeps the machine guns necessary for a credible response. He was also still trying to clarify site locations. That’s why he couldn’t come to the meeting. His representatives declined the Governor’s offer to staff the reaction force, noting that his militia would be needed in other ways.
The South African did most of their talking, a wise approach since he was the more diplomatic of the two and took the lead on security. He had exchanged the cargo shorts, tee shirt, and flipflops he wore around the JEMB compound for cargo pants, long-sleeve shirt with sleeves rolled, and sandals. His older and stockier colleague, the Australian, came to Tarin Kot a couple weeks after him, and already he had the air of a man who’d seen enough. The South African said the Governor could help by getting the polling furniture to Khas Uruzgan.
Having seen his offer to staff the reaction force turned down and having gotten very little from Bobcat 6 on Charchina, the Governor noted the 2/5 had a base in Khas Uruzgan. Alpha Company. They should provide the escort.
Bobcat 6 smiled, a cup of the Governor’s tea in his hand. His guidance was clear, he said. The Afghans should handle these matters. It was in their capacity.
In a louder voice the Governor noted his militia lacked the protective gear and firepower the Americans enjoyed. Anyway, he added, aiming for a softer target, security was a police responsibility, not his. He glanced fiercely at Rozi’s brother, who sat silently on a sofa, arms folded, smiling and looking out the window as though he had not a care in this world. He had come in native dress, nothing fancy.
Unable to get a rise out of him, the Governor shifted his attention to the intelligence director, whose forces – fewer than 30 men in Tarin Kot plus a handful of agents in the districts – were not on the scale of the Governor's militia or even the police. The Director’s influence came from circumspection, independence, and connections to Kabul made evident by his well-turned, sharkskin jacket and the fact that he shaved. Ideally, he served as an honest broker. If he actually performed that function, he did it very subtly or out of my hearing. He said only that everybody needed to work together. The police had a role.
Bobcat 6 asked Asim to address Rozi's brother and then repeated the Governor’s assertion about security being a police responsibility.
The Governor nodded. That was what he liked to hear.
Maintaining his smile, the brother said he’d know more after Rozi talked with Jalali, the Minister of Interior, later that day in Kabul. It would be their second meeting, he noted. Maybe we can do more, he added, leaving it at that.
Bobcat 6 expressed confidence the Governor would do what was best for the province.
For once the Governor held his tongue. He was thinking.
Bobcat 6 asked him to consider what Karzai would want him to do.
Upon further reflection the Governor said he’d send his militia if they could train with the Americans and retrieve the cache of weapons Bravo Company had recently confiscated. That way they could hit the Taliban before and after the election. He had recently talked to Karzai – twice, as a matter of fact – the American Ambassador, and – with another pointed glance at Rozi's brother – Minister Jalali. He conceded heavy weapons were no longer necessary. The Taliban weren’t that tough. But his men had to be able to return fire.
Bobcat 6, in turn, reported his new guidance. He could release the captured AKs, grenades, launchers, and light machine guns as soon as he got a complete roster and weapons inventory.
The Governor looked at his militia commmander, who had been feigning indifference to cover what I took to be disdain. Name Matiollah, cousin to the Governor, rangy of build, and a man much feared in the province, he said it would be ready tomorrow.
The Governor liked that enough to repeat it.
The roster, Matiollah explained. He crossed his arms as he struggled to overcome a tendency, suggested by his body language, to sulk and bear grudges. Maybe it was his beard, not full like the others. A bushy version might have slowed him down. His had a week’s growth, like the Palestinians you saw on TV. He said the inventory would take longer. Weapons were all over the place.
We need locations, Bobcat 6 said. For weapons and militia.
The Governor responded. If the 2/5 covered traveling expenses, as the Marines had done, he would send his best troops. He glanced back at Matiollah, who gave the slightest of nods.
They had families to feed, the Governor continued. A man in his position had to look out for their welfare. The 2/5 should give him the per diem. He’d see the men got it. He didn't mention that many of the JEMB guards were moonlighting from his militia.
Bobcat 6 said the 2/5 would stand up its own reaction force. Two Chinook transports, two smaller Blackhawks, two Apache gunships, and medevac helicopters would base at Ripley for the election as components of Operation Bobcat Resolve. Our outposts in the districts would also be on alert. And consistent with new guidance from Bagram, the PRT commander placed his force-protection unit under the 2/5’s operational control for the election. With the 2/5’s three maneuver companies out in the far districts, the PRT unit would cover Tarin Kot and possibly Chora. It was already doing “route recon” to the polling sites. They discovered, as the 2/5 had in other districts, that coordinates didn’t always align with the sites. By asking around, they could usually track down the listed site. Not every time, and not at first. Sometimes the people just looked at them like what are you doing here?
TO BE CONTINUED
R.J. Fox is the award-winning writer of several short stories, plays, poems, a memoir, and 15 feature length screenplays. Two of his screenplays have been optioned to Hollywood. His most recent publication is a travel memoir entitled Love & Vodka, published through Fish Out of Water Books.
His work has been published in over 30 literary magazines.
He is also the writer/director/editor of several award-winning short films. His recent stage directing debut led to an Audience Choice Award at the Canton One-Acts Festival.
Fox graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English and a minor in Communications and received a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI.
In addition to moonlighting as a writer, independent filmmaker and saxophonist, Fox teaches English and video production in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, where he uses his own dream of making movies to inspire his students to follow their own dreams. He has also worked in public relations at Ford Motor Company and as a newspaper reporter. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI.
His website is www.foxplots.com. Or follow him on Twitter @foxwriter7.
My Funny Valentine by R.J. Fox
As Charlie Baker drifted off to sleep, his last waking thought was how at peace he was with the direction his life was finally taking.
So naturally, the next morning, when his boss/friend Brian called him into his office, Charlie didn’t think anything of it. He naturally assumed it had to do with their weekly lunch plans.
“Wherever we go, it better involve burgers,” Charlie began.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” Brian said, fidgeting at his desk.
“Well, I’m open to other suggestions,” Charlie said, oblivious.
Brian covered his face with his hands.
“Are you okay?” Charlie asked.
“No,” Brian began. “No, I’m not. I have to fucking fire you, dude.”
“You’re bullshitting me …”
“Wish it were so. You gotta believe me when I say it’s nothing personal – this is all coming from HR.”
“When did you find out?” Charlie asked.
“A week ago.”
“Fuck, indeed. I’m so sorry, man. I tried everything I could.”
“I don’t hold it against you. I understand how these things work.”
“Now, about that burger … it’s the least I can do.”
“As long as there’s a bar.”
“I am so fucking sorry.”
“On second thought, I think I just need to be alone. So how much time do I have?”
“You need to have your stuff packed by close of business.”
“I’ll be out of here at two.”
“Take your time.”
The last thing he wanted to do was take his time.
At 1:51 p.m., he was escorted out the door of the agency.
“Company protocol,” Brian assured him.
The same company where he busted his ass – slaved – for the last five years, making peanuts for a living.
He never once complained.
When he got into his car, he blasted some Charlie Parker and drove down the street to his favorite watering hole, hoping that he wouldn’t run into any of his co-workers.
Fuck them all.
He ordered his usual: a 7 & 7, knowing well enough not to exceed his personal limit of two and was holding up very well. He attempted to process his lay-off and realized that he shouldn’t really be surprised. Advertising was cut-throat enough during the best of times and especially not too kind to low-to-mid-level ad people. Charlie was stuck between a no man’s land of the two levels with no real hope for further advancement – at least not in this job market.
As he sipped his first drink, his stress and shock began to dissolve, looking through strained vision for the silver lining. He could still hang his hat on the impending publication of his book. Though not a source of income, it was his greatest source of pride. He suddenly began to see his firing as a blessing in disguise. Being out of a job meant he could now devote more time to writing his next book. Writing full time was something he always dreamed of. Now, he had his chance. Halfway through his second drink, he pulled out his phone and noticed a text from his publisher: “CALL ME ASAP.”
Under ordinary circumstances, he wouldn’t have thought much of it, but considering how his day had already transpired, his doom and gloom radar was on full alert.
He stepped outside and dialed his publisher.
“Hey, Charlie …” Henry began. Charlie could tell by his tone that this wasn’t good news.
“Please don’t tell me there’s more notes,” Charlie interjected. “I don’t know if I could handle any more notes.”
“No notes. In fact, there will never be notes again.”
“It’s finally done?”
“We’ve gone belly-up.”
“But you haven’t even started!”
“Trust me, we’re just as shocked as you are. Just know that we put our all into this. But unlike us, you can still live to see another day. You realize this means your book is free again. You deserve better.”
“You were my only hope. You know that.”
“We are devastated by this, too. You were depending on us for one book. We were depending on us for our livelihood. Now, we’re stuck in fucking academia from here to eternity.”
“Well, at least you got something,” Charlie said, unable to control his sarcasm.
“I’m certain advertising is far more interesting than academia.”
“I got fired …”
There was a long pause, before Henry summed it all up:
“Is there anything we can do?”
“Well, aside from that …”
“Please, no hard feelings.”
“It’s very hard.”
“Trust me. I know.”
“Any chance for any sort of Hail Mary here?”
“Trust me. We’ve used every last one.”
“Okay, well thanks for everything you’ve done. Especially for believing in me.” His words felt empty; his voice detached from reality.
“You wrote a kick ass book. Your dream is still alive.”
Charlie hung up the phone, and looked up into the starless, night sky, stunned and hopeful that it was all a dream – a nightmare. It was the only thing that made sense.
He headed back inside the bar and promptly ordered another 7 & 7. He had reached the point of no return. Halfway to his 7th, he decided he was drunk enough to deal with returning home. It was close enough to the end of his usual 10-hr. workday to stave off any suspicion. But when – and more importantly – what would he tell Jenny? He hoped that the answer would reveal itself on his drive home. Instead, all he could focus on was losing his contract, which was even more shocking and painful than the loss of his job. Losing his job felt like losing a bit of his soul. Losing his contract felt like having his soul ripped through his asshole.
The signing of his contract was the biggest accomplishment of Charlie’s life. Despite the contract, he wasn’t naïve about the publishing business. He knew the pitfalls that came along with it more than anyone, as the hundreds of rejections could attest. However, the moment the ink dried on his contract, he felt like his time had finally arrived. His dues were paid in full.
Now he was bankrupt.
In reality, he should have known better. Signing with a husband-wife start-up who had hoped to launch their entire business on his travel memoir was a risky proposition to say the least. Signing with them wouldn’t have been his first choice … if he had other options. But he didn’t. He was rejected by everyone else. He realized now that he would have rather never signed a contract, rather than getting this far, only to fall flat on his face. The only positive he could hang his hat on was knowing that the book was better than ever due to the endless revisions his publisher put him through. It still had a shot.
Charlie paid his tab, which had a semi-sobering effect when he realized how every cent he spent was now on borrowed time. As he headed out to his car, he realized he might have been too drunk to drive, but was too drunk and exhausted to give a shit. He tried to imagine Jenny’s likely reaction, before realizing he was in too fragile of a state of mind to come clean. Her wrath was the last thing he could stomach. She nagged at him during the best of times. This was certainly not the best of times. So he made up his mind: he would keep his dirty little secret to himself for at least another day.
He realized his firing now meant he could write “full-time” – something he always wanted. This was quickly overshadowed by a sobering thought: Could I ever write again? It was one thing when he wrote under the false auspices of a wafer-thin publishing contract that his writing finally had a purpose. However, signing with a publisher was a game changer in how he approached the craft. Prior to the contract, at least he had the illusion of hope on his side. Now, he had nothing.
While driving home, he shut the music off and let the silence take over, hoping that it would somehow clear his head and find the right frame of mind to enter into the house in order to create the illusion that all was fine and dandy. He had to do everything in his power to maintain a poker face – which was never a natural skill for him. Typically, trying to cover up stress and anxiety segued into cheating accusations from his wife. In truth, he never once came close to cheating during their eight years of marriage. Yet, it wasn’t enough to ward off unprovoked accusations, which he always suspected said a whole lot more about her, than him.
After what felt like the longest ride home, he finally pulled into his driveway, took a deep breath, and entered. His wife was sitting on the couch, crying. A box of tissue sat by her side.
How does she already know?
“What’s wrong?” Charlie asked, trying to feign both innocence and ignorance.
“I’m fine,” she said, failing miserably at showing it.
“You are sitting on the couch crying. How is this fine?”
She refused to tell him and quickly regained her composure. He debated if he should just come right out with his news, figuring that her vulnerable state would soften the blow against him.
“Jenny, I …,” he began.
“I’m leaving you,” Jenny said, before he completed his statement.
“Excuse me?” Charlie said in response.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, followed by a torrential downpour of tears.
“Is this some sort of joke?” Charlie asked,
“Do you really think I’d joke about something like this?”
She shook her head.
“I don’t understand …” Charlie said.
“It’s so complicated. I don’t even know where to begin …”
“You can start with why.”
“Please, don’t …” Jenny pleaded, as though she were the victim.
“I don’t think you have much of a choice here.”
“I met somebody.”
“Who?” Charlie finally asked after the shock passed.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters!”
“Please don’t make this more difficult.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Over a year. Almost two.”
He was too stunned to speak. He never felt more like a fool in his life. He considered dropping his bomb on her now, but what difference would that have made at this point? He decided not to waste his breath.
Frustrated by his lack of response, she headed upstairs. He considered chasing after her in an attempt to make things right. Despite everything else being so wrong.
In fact, he was certain that she would be expecting it. Instead, he stared out the window into the void that had become his life.
A minute later, she came down with a suitcase.
“Were you already packed?”
“Does it matter?”
“I’ll be back for the rest when you’re at work.”
“That’s mighty courteous of you,” he said, surprised at his ability to muster snark at a time like this.
She headed out the door. As he watched helplessly from the window as she pulled out of the driveway, the blinding headlights only adding insult to injury. He was surprised he wasn’t fighting for her – for them. But he felt so damn defeated.
In comparison to the dual dissolution of his job and contract, when it came to his wife’s decision, the writing was certainly on the wall – he just had his back turned toward it.
In fact, his writing – specifically the failure that came along with it – played a tremendous part in the evaporation of his marriage. He certainly couldn’t blame her. How many times did he turn down sex because he was in a “writing groove”? How many times did he choose his writing over going out to a movie? Or, staying in for one?
When the writing wasn’t holding their relationship hostage, his job was. She was frustrated with his long hours and even longer hours spent writing. If there was anything she wanted more than for him to find a better job, it was to go cold turkey and quit writing. In order to keep the peace, he kept his writing hidden from her, creating the illusion that he was submitting to her selfish demands. His writing became his mistress. He committed fully to her during his lunch hour. It was the only substantial time he got.
Now, none of it mattered.
He headed straight to his king-sized bed – which felt empty enough when he wasn’t alone. He lay down, staring at his dust-covered saxophone propped up on a stand in a dark corner of the room, eerily bathed in moonlight. It was a golden relic of his past – a part of his life that he set aside to focus on his writing career. Now, it felt so far from reality, he wondered if he could even play it anymore. There would be only one way to find out, but it would have to be for another day. On that thought, he drifted off to sleep, before awakening minutes later with a jolt, as his new reality hit him like a brick wall. As he tossed and turned throughout the night, he tried to vacate his mind of all thought, but managed to only add to the load.
The next day was a complete blur, as were the next several weeks. A few months later, he finally unlocked the secret of his wife’s “mystery man” when he ran into her at a restaurant sitting in a corner two-top with one of her co-workers – a man he knew all-too-well. In fact, so well, it should have been no surprise that they were fucking right under his nose. He rather it would have been a complete stranger. She pretended not to notice him, but he knew otherwise.
He downed his drink, left enough money to cover his tab, and headed straight home. Sleep continued to elude him, so he tried straight shots of whiskey. When that didn’t work, he gave sleeping pills a shot. When that didn’t work, he made a cocktail out of the two, which helped him sleep, but left him with a raging headache. It wasn’t until he stopped sleeping in the king-sized bed he had shared with his wife that sleep finally came to him, despite the guest bed being far more uncomfortable.
In the immediate aftermath of her walking out on him, he was confident that she would come home after a day or two. But even if she came back, how long would she stay once she found out that he was unemployed? As far as his book contract was concerned, she probably would have been relieved that he fell flat on his face. After a couple of weeks of ignored texts and phone calls, mild acceptance began to settle in. She did eventually reply back to a text begging her to at least tell him she was okay. She replied: “Please stop texting/calling me.” At least he knew she was okay.
It was time to move on.
Writing had a therapeutic effect on him, which he now needed more than ever, but he quickly realized the well had run dry. For once in his life, he finally had ample time to write, he couldn’t.
For the first time in his life, he was dealing with writer’s block.
He decided to put writing on the backburner for awhile, optimistic that it could stew into something later. In the meantime, he would turn his attention to accumulating a collection of one-night stands. If all else failed, he would resort to strip clubs. Or Asian massage parlors.
On a wintry Valentine’s night, Charlie headed downtown for some much-needed soul-searching. He cabbed it – a $45 dollar ride. He knew he shouldn’t spend the money, but didn’t want to take any chances. Not only was heavy snow in the forecast, but he was going to get shit-faced.
“So how you doing tonight?” the driver asked in a heavy, middle-eastern accent as Charlie took a sip out of his flask.
“Huh?” Charlie said.
“How are you doing?”
“Just fine,” Charlie said, staring out the window into the darkness, as static-infused lounge music played on an out-of-range AM channel.
As the cab entered downtown, a light snowfall punctuated illuminated the otherwise dark lonely Detroit streets. Despite its beauty, the snow made everything feel even more lonely.
“You can drop me off here,” Charlie said as the cab approached the center of downtown.
“Okay, my friend,” the driver said. “Have a good night.”
Charlie paid his fare.
“God bless,” the driver said.
“If only …” Charlie shut the door. The cab drove off, leaving Charlie feeling even more alone, as well as completely defenseless, which in this town, was never a good thing.
He looked around every which way to both get his bearings straight and to make sure he wasn’t being snuck up upon. He had no idea where he was going. He just knew that wherever it was would involve copious amounts of whiskey.
It began to snow harder, as the temp continued to fall toward zero. He didn’t have to walk very far to hear the faint, warm sound of booze-soaked jazz emanating from some unknown destination. He headed toward it, drawn toward it like a moth to light, until he reached the doors of Cliff Bells – an old school jazz joint that first opened in the 30’s, before closing its doors in the 80’s. It had re-opened its doors a couple of years back, rising out of the ashes.
Relieved that his search was over, Charlie entered the half-packed joint. He surveyed the round two-tops for a place to plop himself down for the remainder of the evening, as a jazz combo jammed on stage. He found the perfect spot in a darkened corner. A vintage, Jazz Age waitress approached. He ordered a vintage 7 & 7. As much as he longed for his whiskey straight, he knew he had to stretch himself thin lest he bring the evening to a premature end.
As Charlie waited for his drink, he sat back and grooved to the music that had been his lifeblood ever since he joined his middle school jazz band. It was Band-Aid over from his bullies – a muse when he wrote and the elixir he needed when he couldn’t. As the music soaked into his soul, mingling with the drinks he already consumed, he was hopeful his soul would catch a glimpse of salvation, despite the fact that writing never felt more distant and foreign. In fact, he felt no more qualified to write than to perform brain surgery. He was already accepting the reality that he wouldn’t.
As the band finished their set to take a short break, Charlie ordered his second 7 & 7, halfway between buzzed and loaded. He felt happy. Content. Rejuvenated.
When the band returned from their set, the trio introduced a singer – a curvy, redhead in a matching, red cocktail dress. She had a retro, throwback look that Charlie was instantly attracted to – not to mention a voice to match, which magnified her physical beauty on a deeper ethereal level. She was a vessel for the spirits of Ella, Billie, Bessie, and Sarah. Her voice filled his soul like whiskey filled his veins, hearkening him back to a much more glorious past.
As Charlie watched her perform one jazz standard after another, his initial curiosity morphed into a crush, which was quickly becoming an obsession.
Was he falling in love? And if not, then what in the hell was it?
He was well aware that she likely took no notice of him. As she sang, her eyes closed, making her even more tender, beautiful, and vulnerable to him. When she opened them again – though he couldn’t be sure – she looked his way, if only for a fleeting moment. However, he soon realized that that she seemed to be doing so to every customer. But even so, it still felt like she lingered on him longer than the others. He knew it was probably wishful thinking on his part.
Not wanting to appear like the stalker that he was certain he was becoming, Charlie looked down, honing in on a stack of white cocktail napkins, wielding the lounge’s art deco-embossed logo. He felt the square stack taunting him, daring him to fill their void with his words. And then, his attention was diverted as the band broke into his favorite jazz standard of them all: the seeping-with-melancholy “My Funny Valentine.” Her interpretation was the most haunting rendition he had ever heard, making Chet Baker’s version downright chipper by comparison. After the first verse, he returned his gaze to the cocktail napkins. They were no longer taunting him. They were beckoning him. Calling to him. He reached for one, removed a pen from his pocket – a habit he never shook, despite the fact that he was no longer writing. In fact, he had recently stopped taking a pen all together, having all but given up on ever writing again. Yet, something compelled him to take one along this time.
As the song reached its regret-soaked finale, Charlie looked up, making genuine eye contact with the chanteuse performing in front of him. A hint of a smile appeared on her luscious lips, before closing her eyes from the world as the song came to a close. He turned his eyes away from her before he could open them, for fear that when she re-opened them, she would no longer know he existed. He turned his attention back to the napkins, seeking in them traces of the former mistress who – until recently – had never let him down.
As he stared into the snow-white canvas of a solitary napkin, the equally snow-white chanteuse broke into yet another one of his favorite chestnuts: “At Last.”
At last indeed, he thought, as his pen dropped to the napkin right on cue like a needle to a record, freely moving on its own accord. He was simply the conduit. A vessel from which his words would flow, painting an all-too-familiar story about love and regret, loss and redemption, of love and regret. Never was he more in sync with both plot and theme, intertwined in such a way that they became one. In less than five minutes, every square inch of the napkin was filled, inside and out. He reached for another. Five minutes later and his pile quadrupled. He couldn’t remember the last time he wrote with such efficiency and precision. And he owed it all to his new muse in the red dress.
He wrote in perfect rhythm to the music, tune after tune, accompanied by jazz as hot as his pen. He had no idea what he was really writing about, or whether it was any good. But it didn’t matter. Nor did it matter if his scrawls would be legible, which was often not the case during explosive, drunken handwriting sessions. He didn’t give a shit if it were the worse writing of his life. All that mattered was that he was writing again, which in turn made him feel alive again. An hour or so later, he realized he had lost track of time, as happens when soaring through the wild, un-patrolled universe of creativity. He was also out of napkins and asked the waiter for more, pausing a moment to shake the numbing cramps from his hand. The waiter seemed a tad annoyed at this whole napkin business, but Charlie didn’t give a shit. His train was back on the tracks and nothing could stop him from finishing his journey.
As he continued to write, he would come up for air on occasion to catch a glimpse of his new muse, sharing a smattering of fleeting, but no doubt meaningful glances before turning their attention back to their art.
Following the next, gem-filled set, the band took another break and Charlie realized he needed a break of his own, following four 7 & 7’s spread out over a two-hour period. The band’s break was a good excuse to take a breather himself. After guzzling down a glass of water, he headed down a hallway toward the restroom, feeling as though he were floating on air, thanks in part to the whiskey, but mostly due to the natural high of an artist working at the peak of his ability. These moments are rare for any artist – let alone one whose writing had come to a standstill.
On his way out, Charlie spotted his new muse sitting at the bar, sipping on an Old-Fashioned. His instinct was to immediately bee-line back to his table, but realized he had just enough confidence to attempt conversation. Just as he took his first step toward the bar, she got up and headed toward the stage. Charlie headed back to his seat like a limp, deflated balloon, before finally taking solace in his attempt and the prospect that he would have another shot after the show. The band started their final set and Charlie decided it was just as well. Writing sessions such as this were rare, even during the best of times. He wanted to milk it for as long as possible. In fact, his next set – like the music that accompanied it – was even hotter than before.
The waiter interrupted him to ask if he wanted another drink. Charlie gave it some thought, but realized it was time to put on the brakes and asked for more water instead. The high he was experiencing from his writing was far more intoxicating than any booze could ever wish to be. And he knew damn well enough that too much booze put his inner muse to sleep.
Toward the end of the band’s final set, he felt the writing well was beginning to run dry. He didn’t fret, because he knew that even the greatest writing sessions eventually come to an end. Besides, his blistered fingers needed a break, but like any good workout, it was a good kind of hurt. He gathered up his napkins and stuffed them into his pocket, before sitting back to let the music take over for the remaining half hour.
The band finished their last set with an effervescent rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon” – another one of Charlie’s all-time favorites. When the song was over, the houselights came on and the band began to pack up.
Charlie was overcome by another unexpected wave of confidence. Just as he made his way toward her, his waiter intercepted him.
“Time to head out, bud.”
For the second time that night, an attempt to talk to the person who unknowingly resurrected his creative soul was thwarted. Though disappointed, he was proud of the strides he made tonight – on many fronts.
He threw on his coat and headed back into the empty night. A heavy snowfall greeted him. Not a cab was in sight. He should have asked the bartender to call him for one, but cast his fate to the wind to wait it out. After he waited five minutes in the white, lonely night, a sudden gust of wind ripped through his soul and sucked the napkins out of his pocket like over-sized snowflakes, dispersing in every possible direction. He desperately chased them down, realizing it was a futile effort, despite managing to salvage a few of them. Hopefully, he would have enough to cobble everything back together when his mind was clear and he returned to what was sure to be a new reality.
As he continued to gather his lost art, he saw a peripheral vision of red and white joining the night. He stopped mid-pursuit of a napkin, as she stood there, with a warm, inviting smile threatened to melt the snowflakes into rain. She then helped him gather a couple of stray napkins and brought them over to him as her band loaded up a van.
“You shouldn’t litter, you know,” she said with a seductive smile.
“Trying to quit,” Charlie said. “You guys sounded great, by the way.”
“Thank you,” she said, a tad embarrassed.
They gazed at one another through the falling snow.
Words weren’t necessary.
“Let’s roll!” the bassist said, as he climbed into his rusted-out utility van and cranked up some be-bop. The white angel continued to hold her gaze with Charlie, as she slowly walked backwards, before finally turning around and joining the rest of her crew.
The van disappeared into the dark vacuum of night, leaving Charlie waiting for a cab, as the snow fell around him.
He never felt so wonderfully, utterly, and equally alone.
J. Lee Strickland is a freelance writer living in upstate New York. In addition to fiction and poetry, he has written on the subjects of rural living, modern homesteading and voluntary simplicity for various publications. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sixfold, Latchkey Tales, Atticus Review, Icarus Down Review, Garlic Press, Countryside, Small Farm Journal, and others. He is a member of the Mohawk Valley Writers' Group and The Hudson Valley Writers Guild, and served as a judge for the 2015 storySouth Million Writers Award. He is at work on a collection of connected short stories vaguely similar in format to the long-defunct American television series, 'Naked City,' but without the salacious title.
SACRAMENT by J. Lee Strickland
“Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages.”
“In peace let us pray to the Lord.”
“Lord, have mercy.”
For Father Joseph the ritual wore the polish of countless repetitions, yet sometimes, as today, it could feel fresh and new.
“For the peace of God and the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.”
“Lord, have mercy.”
“For the peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.”
“Lord, have mercy.”
He looked out over the congregation. They, like he, were old hands at this. He judged their engagement and commitment week by week by this participatory act. Sometimes the enthusiasm of one or two would infect the others, and the muddy murmur would rise to a crisp bark. He liked that, and his own call gained passion from it. His voice would deepen and his words, no longer slips of sound from the top of his throat, would rise like blossoms from within his chest, gathering deeper meanings as they rose, gaining in the rare instance, he thought, the true power of the Word.
In the response today he didn't hear the infectious enthusiasm that would draw others to its pole. It was another sound, a feminine voice, that commanded his attention. He had heard that voice the week before, and now, as then, his eyes scanned the congregation for its source. He found her toward the back, near the south wall, separate from the other congregants. A woman with her daughter, bathed in light from the tall stained-glass windows, they were new faces in a neighborhood where novelty was a rarity.
There was a time when Joseph had seen himself being sent to a backwater town in the midst of the godforsaken flatlands as a form of punishment; punishment for nothing more than a lack of the exceptional qualities that make for greatness. But he had come to see that ‘backwater’ was an imperial and dismissive concept; a place not in my mainstream. This place had its own stream and it ran strong and true. The flatlands were not godforsaken. Their very flatness likely was God's gift to the place, their seeming boundless fertility, the people’s source of wealth and well-being. A rich loam of honest self-reliance ran deeper even than the layer of pungent black soil that capped the land. It resonated with what some might have perceived in Joseph as a lack of ambition, but which he now recognized as inner contentment. In short, he now lived willingly in this undeclared exile. Even the petty bigotries of the few fell short of offensive. They were the necessary blemish on a beautiful face that makes it truly human. His was a flock of real people, willing lambs to his ministrations sometimes, stubborn goats at others, especially in the realm of charity and forgiveness.
"You can call me Joe," he had said from the very beginning, wanting closeness and familiarity, but they clung to ‘Father Joseph’ and it was a lonely while before he realized that they did not distance themselves by that term of respect. In fact, their respect was a special kind of intimacy because it was based on faith. That faith, the unfounded giving over of oneself, was from them, a deep and precious compliment. Even though he understood the great respect these people held for him, Joe still felt the tug, like a stream lapping persistently at a root, the desire for a moment of companionship uncluttered with public roles or expectations. He felt that estrangement as his eyes scanned the congregation.
Joe waited at the door of the church greeting congregants, murmuring pleasantries and grasping hands. When the woman appeared he reached out to touch her on the sleeve. "Hello. I'm Father Joseph." He extended his hand and the woman took it in hers. "I'm pleased to see you back a second time."
"You saw us last week?" She spoke with a pronounced accent Joseph could not place. Mediterranean or Eastern European, he thought.
"A new face stands out here," Joe said.
"We just moved to your city. I was hoping to find…" she paused. "Your church is nice."
"Thank you. May I ask your name?"
I'm sorry, yes. I'm Magda Romanescu. This is my son. He likes to be called Jesse."
Joe suffered a moment of confusion and embarrassment, but as he looked at the boy he thought it was no great error to mistake him for a girl. His features were soft and fine. His eyes were deep brown almost black. His eyelashes were long, and his eyebrows penciled slim arches above them, accenting the smoothness of his brow. His hair fell in lustrous black curls that covered his ears and the nape of his neck. He was beautiful in a way that transcended gender. Joe offered his hand and said, "I'm very pleased to meet you, Jesse. I like to be called Joe."
"I'm pleased to meet you too, Sir," Jesse said shaking Joe's hand.
"How old are you?" Joe asked.
"I'll be fourteen soon." Jesse beamed.
"Jesse might be interested in our Saturday Bible study." Joe addressed the woman. "It's mostly kids from about twelve to sixteen or so. They get together about five o'clock. They have dinner together. They do most of the cooking themselves. The church provides the food. Brandon, my altar boy, comes every week. He's about Jesse's age. Mrs. Amory, our Bible scholar, helps out as chaperone, discussion leader, whatever. It's very informal. If you're interested, call the church during the week. I'm usually in my office."
"Thank you very much. Jesse and I will talk about that." She put her arm around Jesse and pulled him to her affectionately.
"I'm pleased to have met you Mrs. Romanescu. I look forward to seeing you again next week."
"Oh, please. Call me Magda. I know in your country it is first names. I like that. You like to be called Joe? I like that." She turned and waved as they moved away. Then Jesse said, "Bye, Joe."
"Bye, Jesse," Joe replied. He felt strangely elated by their exchange.
Magda didn't call that week, but on Sunday she and Jesse returned for the service. They had moved one row closer but still sat a little apart from the others. That was to be expected. Joe knew his congregation. They did not invite novelty. They tolerated it in its place. They didn't glad-hand the stranger, and one earned a place among them only with great patience. Joe had thought, too, that novelty held no attraction for him, that his contentment lay in routine, yet the appearance of Jesse and Magda was invigorating. He found himself excited by the thought of the Sunday service, and during the service he became aware of each step of ritual as he tried to imagine what they heard and what they saw.
Joe was in his office struggling to refine a difficult part in his sermon when the phone rang.
A woman's voice said, "Hello, Joe?"
Joe was taken aback. No one called him that. After a moment he realized it must be Magda. "This is Joe. Is that you, Magda?"
"Yes. It is Magda. I am sorry to bother you. Jesse will like to come to the Saturday, the Bible study. You know he likes the Bible very much."
"Oh, that's great, Magda. Why don't you tell him to come to my office about five o'clock on Saturday. I’ll take him around and introduce him to the others. I'm sure he’ll enjoy himself. It's a great group of kids."
"I will tell him. Thank you very much, Joe. I think this will be very good for Jesse. He likes you very much, you know."
"Well, I like him too," Joe replied. "I look forward to seeing him on Saturday."
Jesse arrived promptly at the office and Joe walked him over to the community room where the others had already gathered. After brief introductions, Joe returned to his office. He was still struggling with his sermon, one which, when he first conceived it, seemed a simple one. The topic had started as idolatry and consumerism. Joe had thought to point out that the current social addiction to material things was precisely the impediment to salvation that Jesus spoke of in the parable of the eye of the needle. Instead his sermon had come out sounding like an attack on the members of the congregation.
By and large they were well-off. Many had large, beautiful homes, and they enjoyed the amenities of modern society. But they were hard-working honest folk. By their standards at least, they had earned their comfort. The culture of consumerism was certainly a form of idolatry, and it blocked the path to God, but the victims of consumerism were not the enemy. His task was not to punish or condemn, but to lead them beyond that. That was the point, wasn’t it? The Kingdom of God lies beyond the Earth. That was the real subject. But how could he communicate to them what he knew in his heart? That all that they saw and all that they knew and felt, that all that is now in the world and ever has been, was less than a dust mote against the splendor of the Kingdom of Heaven; less even than that, it all was meaningless. In the grip of that ultimate glory it would be forgotten more quickly than one forgets the face behind the ticket booth window or last week's back page news story. The things of this world were useless there, as useless as a shopping list in an earthquake. Earthly things were just that, their compass no greater than the dirt from which they rose. They served for that brief eye blink called a life, then were shed as easily as the reptile sheds its skin.
Tears filled Joe’s eyes as he felt the poignancy of that loss that everyone must experience once; a loss that would someday be his; the loss of everything earthly to gain eternal bliss. It was difficult from the mortal side to see that there was no loss. In his heart he knew it was so, but his mind rebelled. With a tightly clenched fist it gripped the pleasures of the senses and feared their loss. His parishioners, too, clung to their stuff, to their objects, to their appetites. He could see it in their faces when he spoke of charity and sacrifice. He was, in part, the source of their awe when he spoke powerfully of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
And that sacrifice, that was another story, too. His mind raced. Wasn’t Jesus God himself? And what was death on the cross to omniscient, omnipotent God? Less, certainly, in the infinitude of His being, than a pin-prick to some mortal. And yet Joe’s parishioners reveled in the horror of Jesus’ last day. His blood spilled was their own; his scourging brought to them the fear of their own terrible punishment. His innocence was theirs and the suffering more terrible for that. Each of them realized that even the greatest goodness could not shield them from horrible suffering. In their minds they knew Jesus was God. In their hearts he was a man, wounded, beaten, scorned, humiliated and killed, yet somehow carried beyond that to something better. This was the story they clung to. Not some grandiose scheme of everlasting life, but just a respite, a promise beyond nothingness. Joe’s head ached with the circularity of it. His mission was to bring them to God. Their demand, the job they really paid him for, was to carry them, one by one, over the hill of their fears, over the mountain of their suffering.
A knock on the office door interrupted Joe’s musings. “Come in,” he called. It was Ms. Amory with Jesse. “Is there a problem? Is something wrong?” Joe suddenly felt anxious.
“No, no, not a problem, not at all.” Linda Amory was a small woman whose self-confidence enlarged her stature. She was young and related well to the youth in her group, never spoiling the connection with any authoritarian bent. Now it seemed, she needed help. “Jesse has a question for you, one I thought you could answer better than I. Go ahead, Jesse. Ask Father Joseph what you asked me.”
Jesse hesitated a moment before speaking. “I just want to know, if Satan is God’s enemy, why does he help God?”
“Satan helps God?” This was not a question Joe had heard before. “How does Satan help God?”
“Well,” Jesse said, “he gives God a place to send sinners and he keeps them there and punishes them just like God wants.”
“Satan doesn’t do that to help God, Jesse.” He looked into the child’s face, touched by the innocence, the expectation, the remarkable beauty that he saw. It made him hesitate, the realization that this child was prepared to believe whatever he said. It was not surrender in those eyes but a faith that came very near to it. “Have you ever seen Old Pete around the neighborhood?”
Jesse nodded. “He talks to everybody. Momma told me not to talk to him ever.”
“Well, Pete, you see, has an addiction. He’s an alcoholic. He can never get enough of the whiskey. Satan is like that in a way. He lusts for human souls. He never gets enough and he won’t let them loose once he gets them.”
Jesse’s eyebrows pulled together in concentration. “Mom said the bartender at Tony’s Tavern shouldn’t let Old Pete in there; that it’s his fault that Old Pete sleeps on the sidewalk and always bothers people. Is God like Satan’s bartender?”
“Maybe that wasn’t such a good example. The Bible says a lot about what it takes to achieve salvation, and a lot about why some people are condemned. People really decide for themselves, by how they live, whether they’re going to heaven or to hell. God instructs us to do good works. We need to follow that instruction. You see, Jesse, it’s not what Satan’s doing that matters. We have to live our lives, not in fear of Satan, but for love of God. Does that make sense to you?”
Jesse nodded. His face was grave. His look did not waver from Joe’s face.
Joe came from behind his desk. He placed his hand behind Jesse’s head. He was surprised by the softness as his fingers tangled in Jesse’s hair. “I want you to know, my door is always open. If you have questions or just want to talk, I’m here.”
“Thanks, Joe,” Jesse said quietly. A look of surprise crossed Linda’s face, but she said nothing.
After they left, Joe felt shaken. Was he really so unprepared to answer the questions of a child? Wasn’t it his scholarship that qualified him to lead people out of the maze of these popular misconceptions? Yet, the question had come from Jesse. He had reasoned to the point on his own, and Joe felt somehow Jesse had uncovered something Joe had never seen before.
He pushed his thoughts aside and returned to the frustrations of his sermon.
Jesse came back regularly. On Saturdays he would come early before the Bible study-group meetings. One or two days during the week he would stop on his way home from school. Sometimes he asked questions. Often he answered Joe’s and in that way Joe learned a little of their former lives, of their time in Romania, of the death of Jesse’s father during the overthrow of the dictatorship. When they arrived in the United States, they had lived in Boston until Magda’s desire to find a haven away from the chaos of the metropolis led them to move again.
“We like it here,” Jesse had said once, “but Mama’s a little afraid of the flatlands. They’re so different from the mountains of her country.” Hearing that, Joe was struck with how quickly the child embraced the new and how easily he separated himself from Magda.
The compass of Joe’s life began to revolve around those visits. It was as if light flowed through a window he had never noticed. He became interested in things that before he had shunned. Where once he kept to his office, his private sanctuary, now he took to walking about the neighborhood. He discovered a park, several acres of green space a short walk from the rectory. It was beautifully kept, and when he penetrated to its interior it was possible to forget that he was surrounded by a sea of pavement, bricks and mortar. Even the otherwise ubiquitous brown noise of urban bustle, noise he had learned to ignore in his office, did not reach here. A few people strolled the tree-lined paths. Squirrels scurried through the grass, and birds sang from their perches in the trees. Joe found a bench and sat.
A voice, just above a whisper, called him.
Startled, he looked around. No one looked familiar. The few people walking by ignored him. The voice came again.
“Joe. Don’t look back too quickly. I’m right behind you, in the bushes.” It was Jesse’s voice drawn to a horse whisper. “If you stand up and turn around, you’ll see where I am.”
Joe stood slowly, casually, feeling partner to some indecipherable intrigue. He turned and saw a palisade of dense vegetation a few feet beyond the bench. There was no sign of Jesse.
“Don’t say anything,” Jesse’s voice instructed. “Just go around to the left, away from the path. There’s an opening, like a big rabbit hole. I’m inside.”
Joe tried for nonchalance, skirted the wall of vegetation. It curved around until, out of sight of the gravel path, he found the opening. Feeling foolish, he gingerly stooped, trying not to kneel in the dirt as he entered the hole. It was too low and branches grabbed at his clothes and hair. He dropped to his hands and knees and squirmed through. Inside the packed dirt floor was devoid of vegetation. At intervals, branchless trunks rose like pillars in a miniature cathedral, and Joe’s eye imposed upon them the symmetries of nave and choir. The impenetrable ceiling of intertwining branches and leaves was too low for standing, and Joe relaxed onto his haunches looking about with fascination.
Jesse beamed at him from the cool darkness at the far end of the space as Joe crawled toward him. It felt strange pressing his hands against the earth. He could not remember ever doing such a thing. He felt the fabric of his pants rubbing his knees and, through it, the unfamiliar texture of the ground. He thought of his housekeeper, imagined her puzzling over his dirty clothes. I’ll tell her I was playing in the dirt, he thought, smiling to himself. He was still smiling when he reached Jesse. He rolled over and rested his back against a trunk. He was about to speak when two of Jesse’s fingers pressed on his lips.
“You need to speak quietly,” Jesse said. “People can hear us if they listen.” As he spoke, Jesse’s fingers remained against Joe’s lips. Joe thought he could taste them… a hint of salt… perhaps the dirt from the ground of their sanctuary. He felt their weight tugging at his lower lip, the palm brushing his chin. Then the hand withdrew.
“What is this place?” he whispered.
“It’s my fort… my hideout.”
“But…” Joe looked about him gesturing. Jesse interrupted.
“I know. It’s really cool. It never gets wet in here and nothing grows underneath. We learned in school about how plants are sometimes shaped because of their water needs. You know how cactuses are fat because they have to store a lot of water?”
“Did you ever notice how some ferns grow so they look like funnels?”
Joe nodded again. He hadn’t remarked it, but in his mind’s eye he could picture what Jesse described.
“They funnel the water to the center of their root-mass when it rains. Well, other plants are shaped like domes so that the water runs off them like an umbrella. This puts the water out at the ends of the roots where the youngest parts, the tiny root hairs, can take it up. This shrub is like that. All these trunks are part of a single root system. As the plant grows, the lower branches get shaded by the new top growth. Once they stop getting sunlight they stop producing leaves so the middle gets hollowed out. It makes a great shelter.” Jesse rolled over on his stomach, chin on his hands. “I can lie here looking out and nobody knows I’m here.”
Joe settled next to him and peered out at the passers-by.
Finally Jesse broke the silence. “Do you think this is how God feels when he looks down at us from heaven?”
Jesse looked at Joe from the depths of his favorite chair. Like most of the furniture in Joe’s office, it was a luxurious, over-stuffed relic from another era surviving in near-pristine condition because it had been so rarely used. It was tucked into a corner between two bookshelves, and Jesse would sit in it cross-legged with a book on his lap, sometimes for hours.
“Why did God create evil?” Jesse asked.
Joe looked up from his desk. “Why do you ask that?”
“It says in the Bible. In Isaiah.”
“It says something about that… chapter 44?”
“Isaiah 45, verse 7!” Jesse said gleefully. He loved to master the trivia of Biblical reference, and Joe did not discourage it.
“Why do you think God would create evil?” Joe asked carefully.
“Well, I asked Brandon what he thought and he said God created evil so we could have some fun in life. He said all the good stuff is boring, and all the exciting stuff is bad.”
“What did you think of that?”
“I thought it was silly.” Jesse squirmed in his seat then settled down expectantly.
“Well some people think that in that verse when God says ‘evil’ he’s not talking about sin… the fun stuff, as Brandon calls it. They think he means calamities, disasters. You know, earthquakes, hurricanes and the like.” Jesse listened intently. “They think God created those things because it is through difficulties, trials, tribulations, that we become our best. The Latin goes, per aspera ad astra… through adversity to the stars. Other people say that God means he created the category of evil. They say that before God gave the commandments to Moses, before he spoke to the great prophets, Isaiah, Elijah, Ezekiel and the like, people didn’t know the difference between good and evil. In their freedom humans are capable of doing anything. All God can do is advise them of the good things and bad things.” Jesse looked confused.
“Look, if I tell you it’s a bad thing to break your neighbor’s windows and then you go and throw rocks through them, who did a bad thing?”
“If I threw the rocks then I did a bad thing,” Jesse said simply.
“Right,” Joe agreed. “I didn’t do anything bad. All I did was tell you it was bad. You could choose to do it or not. It’s the same way God could create the category of evil and not do anything bad himself.”
Jesse was silent awhile, then said, “What do you think, Joe?”
“What do I think?” Joe looked out the window. He could see, at the end of a branch of the horse chestnut tree, the green prickly fruits, not quite mature. As he watched, a catbird landed on the limb, its long tail pumping as it balanced on its sinking perch. “God is a great mystery, Jesse. The world is what it is. I think we spend our lives trying to imagine the God who made the things we know.”
As soon as Jesse left, Joe called Magda.
“Hi Magda. It’s Joe.” The familiarity still felt strange to his mouth. “Jesse was just by for a visit. I’d like to ask him to become an altar boy, but I want to ask you first.”
“Jesse? An altar boy? But aren’t there others already?”
“Just Brandon. He and Jesse seem to be pretty good friends. I think it would be a good thing. What do you think?”
“Oh, Joe. It is such an honor…” Magda was silent.
“So it’s ok to ask him? He might say no.”
Oh, no Joe, he won’t… I mean, yes, please, ask him.”
Jesse came by every day. He and Joe spent their time in enthusiastic discussions of each piece of the ritual from vestments to relics to the paraphernalia of the sacraments. Brandon, a boisterous and cheery boy, welcomed the companionship and the help. Even he sometimes fell silent and still in the face of Jesse’s intense reverence for the rituals of the altar.
One day Joe came in to find Jesse already in the vestry. This was not unusual except that he was still in his street clothes. Usually he put on his robe as soon as he could. Jesse sat without moving, facing the outer door. Joe sensed that something was wrong.
“Jesse, how’s it going?” he said.
There was no answer, but Jesse turned slowly. There were tears in his eyes.
”What happened?” Joe moved to him. “What’s the matter?”
Jesse opened his mouth and sobbed. Joe put a hand on his shoulder.
“They chased me,” he said shaking. “They called me a girl. They said I wore dresses in church. They threw things. I had to run away.”
Joe pulled the quaking body to his breast.
"I wish I was like Elisha," Jesse said between sharp, labored intakes of breath. "I wish I could curse them and have them mangled by bears."
Joe's fingers tangled in the soft dark curls. His other hand stroked Jesse’s heaving back, feeling the shape of each in-drawn breath. "Oh no, Jesse. They're just ignorant. They don't know. Don't curse them for that."
Joe's heart beat wildly as Jesse’s hot tears soaked his skin and hot, expelled breath washed his neck. Jesse responded to the stroking by clinging more tightly, desperately molding himself to Joe’s form. Joe murmured meaningless syllables, sounds that matched the inchoate whirl of his mind. A vision of Magda, somehow indistinguishable from her son, entered his mind and then was gone. Jesse had calmed some, and Joe shifted so he could see the boy’s face.
“I have an idea,” he said. “How about if Sunday you take over communion from Brandon?” Joe watched Jesse’s face transform from grief to excitement.
“You mean it?”
Everything else was forgotten.
Joe awoke, bathed in sweat, the bedding twisted around his body. He'd had a dream and now he lingered at the dream's edge. He tried to reach back beyond the one fragment that played in his mind. Magda's face approached his and he experienced again the fear and desire that accompanied the anticipation of her kiss, except it was Jesse's hand that stroked his arm. In the dream it was Jesse's hand that slid up his neck drawing his head toward that kiss. How did he know? It was a dream, and you just knew things in dreams. The most unknowable became patent certainty in dreams, but it was a certainty that rarely carried over to the waking world. There were times when Joe had cried for that moment of clarity, the revelation he knew had been there, suddenly and irretrievably lost. Now he reached again, futile reaching. Fear and desire still warred within him, their physical evidence, trembling and arousal. Jesse's and Magda's faces mixed together in his mind, and he fought the temptation to touch himself as he tried to banish them both.
The church seemed unusually full, the atmosphere thick with anticipation. Joe felt its echo deep within himself.
“The Lord be with you.”
“And also with you.”
“Lift up your hearts.”
“We lift them up to the Lord.”
“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”
“It is right to give our thanks and praise.”
Joe turned to face the communion table. Jesse was there, as still as the chalice, his eyes on Joe’s face.
“On the night in which he gave himself up for us, Our Lord Jesus took bread, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said: Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
"Likewise, when the supper was over, he took the cup, gave it to his disciples, and said: Drink from this, all of you, this is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Do this also in remembrance of me."
Joe approached the table, Jesse at his right side.
“Christ has died.”
He made the sign of the cross above the host.
“Christ has risen.”
He made the sign above the chalice as he and the congregation together intoned, “Christ will come again.”
There was conviction in that chorus. Joe felt it. He looked at Jesse, who stared up at him rapt. His face was beautiful, glowing amidst its halo of black curls. Joe felt himself sinking into its softness, like he was perched on the edge of a kaleidoscopic pinwheel. He looked away scanning the congregation for a life line and found Magda, a mirror of the face he had just left. He raised his hands in ritual gesture.
“Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine.”
He lowered his hands.
“Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”
He turned to Jesse who held before him the wafer on its porcelain saucer.
“Body of Christ,” Jesse said, his young boy’s voice like a forgotten song.
“Body of Christ,” Joe repeated and closed his eyes. He accepted the wafer on his tongue. He waited for its thin, crisp blandness to dissolve in his mouth.
Something was wrong. It felt as if a finger lay between his tongue and the roof of his mouth. His tongue shifted the lump toward his teeth and an image of a strip of raw chicken flesh swam into his mind. He felt a spasm in his diaphragm, a clenching gut, and he fought the reflex to gag. Tears sprang into his eyes. His throat burned. He looked across the bowed heads of the congregation as he struggled not to vomit. A few heads were raised. A few pairs of eyes looked his way, but they were eyes that saw only what they believed. His private drama played behind the opaque screen of their expectations.
Jesse was on his knees now. “Blood of Christ.” He held up the chalice. Joe forced himself to swallow the foul lump that still blocked his esophagus. He saw that Jesse was crying.
“Blood of Christ,” he croaked taking the chalice. He resisted the temptation to press the goblet to his lips, to wash away the nausea. Instead he raised it above his head in a theatrical gesture he had not employed before. He paused searching for composure. He looked again at Jesse. Jesse's tear-stained face was suffused with joy, his eyes unfocused, gleaming. Whatever vision he contemplated it was not of this world. Joe was suddenly afraid of the goblet in his hands. What would be in it? Yet he had to put it to his lips, had to drink of it. He had to empty it and wipe it clean with the linen that lay on the table. It was the ritual performed countless times; what those who sat before him expected, and what they would see.
His hands shook as he lowered the chalice and brought it to his lips. The liquid oozed into his mouth, viscous, metallic, salty. He suppressed a sob, but even as he did, the familiar oaky bitterness of the sacramental wine began to fill his mouth. He drank gratefully, feeling tears again filling his eyes.
He could not say with clarity how the rest of the service went. Jesse remained kneeling and Brandon gathered up the remnants of routine. Joe moved numbly through the last steps of ceremony, each word, each gesture, a supreme act of will.
After the service Joe made his way to his usual station outside the doors of the church. There was electricity in the air, a strange restlessness and lack of order to the crowd as they exited. An attractive, impeccably dressed woman approached him, her eyes liquid, as if about to spill over her mascara-brushed lashes. She grasped his hand in both of hers. "Father Joseph, what a wonderful service. So..." she pumped his arm convulsively, "I felt..." unable to continue, she began crying freely. She bent and kissed his hand as he tried gently to pull away. He felt fear and nausea knotting his stomach again. He looked around and saw other faces on the brink of that ecstasy, a barely suppressed wildness coursing beneath the surface, so uncharacteristic of his quiet flock.
He went back into the church, and though he felt fingers plucking at his sleeves as he passed, he did not acknowledge them. His one thought was to get to the safety and solitude of his office. Beyond the altar he entered the narrow hall that led through the vestry to his office. Jesse and Brandon were in the vestry. He couldn't face them. Another door, never used in Joe's memory, led into the garden that he could see from his office windows. He pushed on it and it yielded to his touch. He ducked through the opening, not looking back.
He felt guilty for avoiding the boys, guilty for abandoning the people outside the church, guilty for this furtive escape, and guilty for this anxiety that nearly paralyzed him. He looked around in sudden amazement. The garden was beautiful. Cobbled paths wound around manicured beds of flowering plants, taller shrubs and small trees, and there to one side, the enormous horse chestnut tree, the one thing he recognized. How many times had he looked into this garden, never seeing the slightest detail of its beauty? How was it that he had never set foot in this place? And what had happened to bring him here?
He felt again the nauseating texture of the lump in his mouth. So many times he had petitioned the Lord to make of the wine and bread, the body and blood of Christ, never grasping the absurdity of the request. Modern magicians made rabbits and doves, and even fishes, appear, made elephants disappear, unearthed lost relatives of audience members, and surely turned water into wine, all in the name of entertainment, acts that counted as miracles in the foundational text of Christianity. Were people so weak that they needed carnival tricks to compel their belief? How would his congregation feel if they were confronted, as he was today, with some crude demonstration of seeming hidden power?
Vague disgust darkened his mood and shored up his will. He turned back to the door, but it was locked. Some mechanism permitted it to open from inside but prevented entering from the outside. Anxiety boiled up again inside him, and with it, the nausea that had dogged him since the moment with the Host at the altar. He headed for the horse chestnut tree, the one familiar object in the garden. Beyond it he could see what he guessed were the windows of his office, a magic refuge just beyond his grasp.
Near the base of the tree was a small statue of a woman, and before her, a stone slab and low wooden rail. Joe examined the statue, a fanciful evocation of the Virgin Mary. It was exquisitely detailed, hand-painted, almost life-like. Looking at it, he saw again Jesse's face, the tears flowing, not like drops from an eye, but like blood from a wound. The beauty of that face, that was a miracle. He fell to his knees on the stone, clasped his hands before him, collapsing against the rail, and closed his eyes, but there was nothing. He was alone, kneeling on a rock in front of a painted lump of plaster, empty of everything except desire.
The next afternoon Joe called Magda and asked her to meet him for coffee. He had slept little, but he felt lucid, on the verge of some revelation, and at the same time anxious, remembering the events of the day before. When she answered Joe talked quickly. “Magda, it’s Joe. I’d like to see you. I need to talk…”
“Oh, hello, Joe!” The delight in her voice communicated itself across the wires, pressing against Joe’s anxiety. He drew in his breath, willed himself to relax.
“Do you have time to get a cup of coffee? I’d like to talk.”
At the café Magda seemed to Joe like a different person. Her lustrous black hair hung loose about her shoulders, making her look young and accentuating her resemblance to Jesse. She made disarming small-talk as they made their way to a table, moving close to him, matching his step, her arm brushing his, as she recounted the events of her day. They sat and Joe looked across the table at her, drinking her radiance. She laughed and tossed her head.
“You say you want to talk and I do all the talking. Please, Joe, tell me what you are doing.”
“Magda, I want you to know that Jesse,” he hesitated, then started again. “Jesse and you have been a godsend for me.” He stopped and sipped his coffee. “I can’t tell you how much I enjoy Jesse’s company.” He paused again, gathering strength for the next step.”About yesterday…”
“Jesse told me,” she stopped him. “It was the most wonderful moment of his life. To hold in his hand the host… the chalice. The blood of Christ.” Her eyes glistened. Her face radiated joy. It was there in her face, that ecstasy he had seen in the others.
Joe shrank from the force of it. What had he wanted to tell her? What did he think she had seen? He felt alone again as he had at the altar and in the garden. Whatever had happened to him during the service, whatever cruel trick, had happened to him alone, and it had diminished his world. He reached out, a gesture meant to slow Magda’s rush to a place he could not follow, and her hand covered his. He fought the impulse to pull away. Heat passed in a wave up his arm. A vibration coursed through his body bringing each nerve ending to his awareness. He looked at her face and she returned his gaze without wavering. He needed to speak, to break the carnal spell.
“Magda, all my life I have felt that I was working toward something. I didn’t know what, but I thought that eventually I would step back and see that the bricks of my effort had formed a great building, that the chisel of my time had carved out some beautiful statue. In that moment, I thought, everything would become clear.” She listened with intensity and her fingers moved in a slow caress of encouragement on his hand. Joe wondered that no one had ever touched him with that honesty, with that intensity. He willed himself to continue. “It seems things are going in the opposite direction; the bricks are a jumble, the chiseling a pile of dust."
Magda interrupted him. "But, Joe, look what you've done for Jesse. Look what you've done for us."
"Jesse has been my teacher," Joe replied. "Jesse's insight has shown me my ignorance. In his beauty I see my own..." he looked away. "I see my own flaws." Magda had his hand in both of hers now, her look intense, mouth open as if she was about to speak, but Joe continued. "It's not Jesse, or you. It’s as if all my beliefs were just a decorative invention. In retrospect it seems my whole life, all our lives as human beings have been driven by guilt, fear, regret. The whole, great fairy tale of punishment and rewards doesn't make any sense. God doesn't make any sense. Not the one that would run the universe like some carnival side show." Magda’s fingers had stopped their movement. Joe was in dangerous waters.
" I don't know, Magda. God, our God, can't just be God for some people. Maybe there is no damnation. Maybe there is no hell. Maybe God just welcomes everybody into blissful eternity, clutches everyone to his bosom.” He watched Magda’s hands withdraw, as if from a stream of scalding water. Her elbows pressed her sides and her arms crossed tightly against her chest.
“Everybody?” she asked. “Child rapists? Murderers? Hitler?” She was tossing her head with each word. “Ceaucescu, who killed my husband and drove me from my country?”
“Everyone. Everyone. No exceptions.” Joe suddenly felt tired, overwhelmed with his own revelation.
“But… but why?” Magda was pleading now.
“Because this moment… this thing… this time we call a life. It’s absurd. It’s an absurdity. No one’s to blame for that.” He reached to take her hand again, but she pulled away.
“How can you say that? You are supposed to be God’s servant, his hand on earth.”
“Don’t you see?” It was his turn to plead. “It’s what God would want.” Magda was mute, staring at him. Her hands clutched her elbows. Her face was a rigid mask.
“Do you know what hell is?” he asked
She answered bravely, defiantly. “I know what hell is.” She paused and flame leaped in her eyes. “And I know what you are.” She pushed away from the table. “A blasphemer…” She stood. “A blasphemer… Stay away from my Jesse. Stay away from my boy.” She was gone.
Joe sat dazed. What had happened? What had he done? For the first time he’d said what he believed. Not some rote platitudes, but a thing that had grown in the private fertility of his own heart, something that he wanted passionately to be true. And like a club, his honesty had destroyed the one other thing that he wanted.
He wandered the darkening streets aimlessly. He couldn’t return to the rectory. Back-stage at the circus, he thought, and disgust hunched his shoulders. A light rain began to fall, and he found himself at the entrance to the park. He ignored the signs that warned that the park closed at dusk. He passed between the stone pillars. Jesse was his only connection to this place. His hand clenched spasmodically as if it still tried to grasp Magda’s. The rain fell more heavily. He thought of the copse where he had found Jesse, and how Jesse had said it stayed dry inside when it rained. He had no recollection of the place or the day, just the sound of Jesse’s voice, the packed earth floor, the stick-fortress walls, the passers-by oblivious to their presence. The closing canopy of trees deepened the darkness and the gray gravel path seemed to glow in the twilight.
He was deep in the park when he heard voices ahead. He slowed his pace, and the sounds coalesced into fragments of intelligible speech; obscenities, laughter, shouts, interspersed with loud reports, solid blows against hard objects, the rattle of wood against iron fence, the clang of yielding metal and the billiard-ball clack of stone against stone. A cry of pain, more curses and scuffling, and Joe moved from the path. He didn’t want to confront other people; not now. A few feet from the path he came up against impenetrable undergrowth. The approaching voices grew louder and Joseph thought he could see shapes lumbering up the path toward him. He pushed against the unyielding vegetation. His sleeve caught and tore as he struggled. He tried to run, tripped and fell into soft, moist earth, darkness all around, voices no longer decipherable blending with the thumping and stomping. What had Jesse said that day? He strained to remember.
“Go around to your left, away from the path.”
Joe pulled himself up and moved against the wall of vegetation. He felt but could not see it curving away from the path. He fell to his knees, remembering, and there was the opening, like a burrow, into the dry, embracing interior of the copse.
From the deep darkness of his lair the world beyond looked light, and Joseph could see the group of youths draw abreast of his position. Seeming unbothered by the rain, they moved, like a clump of gnats, to some random law with no discernible vector. Some carried long sticks. Others swung their arms and spun their bodies; packets of frenetic, pointless activity. Their speech was a near-incoherent stream of profanities.
“Jesus fuck, asshole. Whatcha fuckin’ hit me witcha stick!”
“I dint fuckin’ hitcha with my fuckin’ stick! You fuckin’ run right into it!”
Bodies spun and hoots muddied any sense of the exchanges. Joe watched the complex dynamics of the swirling group. There were seven or eight or perhaps more, impossible to count. Sticks banged against trees, lamp posts, a bench. Rocks flew into the darkness and landed with a thump. In spite of the unaccustomed rawness of the scene Joe felt a kinship with the group. He felt their dark, untamed power and a last kernel of faith withered in his breast. They were damned. He was damned. The indifferent universe gave back nothing. It sucked up desire and supplication and spit back the void.
The storm of noise drifted away. Lying on the ground, Joe closed his eyes and tried to quiet the pounding of his heart as he attempted to capture the sense of the fading epithets, the muffled thumps. Finally he could hear only the whisper of light rain on the leafy canopy above his head. When he opened his eyes, Jesse was looking down at him. He groaned and turned his head to the side. More carnival tricks, apparitions now. Obviously he was coming unhinged. He turned back, but Jesse was still there.
"Your mother told me to stay away from you. She called me a blasphemer."
Jesse reclined next to Joe, supporting himself with one hand, the other resting on his thigh. The pose reminded Joe of a painting he had seen in a museum, or on the cover of a book, he couldn't quite remember. Jesse pushed a lock of hair away from his face.
"My mother is a woman of great faith. She is a believer. But she also believes she might be wrong. That's why she's afraid. When you know, as you do, Joe, and as I do, then you know there is nothing to fear." He reached out and touched Joe's face. Joe felt the stubble of his unshaved cheek rake against the softness of Jesse's palm, and he thought of the texture of Jesse's hair when his own fingers had tangled in it. He could grow a beard, and perhaps it would be soft and a delight to touch, like Jesse's hair. Jesse's hand withdrew, and Joe wanted to grab it and place it against his cheek, to nuzzle it and kiss it and feel its warmth against his nose, but he did not. Instead he closed his eyes again.
"You should go to my mother, Joe. She loves you, and so do I."
When Joe opened his eyes again Jesse was gone. There had been no sound, but Joe sensed the emptiness, his solitude.
The damp had penetrated to his bones, and now Joe crawled with difficulty out through the rabbit-hole entrance of the copse. The grass beneath his hands was soaked, but the rain had abated to a mist, more fog than rain, that clung to his eyebrows and settled about him like a cloak. The darkness seemed nearly impenetrable, and Joe wondered how long he had lain inside. Was it minutes? Hours? He didn't know. He stood and walked slowly in the thick grass, feeling the moisture soaking the cuffs of his pants, his socks, seeping into his shoes. Each physical sensation was sharp, new, a kind of prod that made him feel awake. Ahead he could make out the dim outline of the bench where once he had sat, and beyond that the gravel path. Above the trees, the mist glowed as it refracted the lights of the city, and tendrils of light seemed to meander through the branches. He was surprised at how quickly he returned to the park's entrance. Twin beacons of light shone beyond the pillars marking the path's intersection with the boulevard.
Across the street from the park was a small market, its facade gaily lit in the wet dimness of the evening. Joe crossed the street and went inside. At the counter just inside the door was a familiar face, one of his parishioners.
"Oh, my God, Father Joseph, what happened to you?" The man came from behind the counter and stopped a few feet from Joe, hands out as if he didn't know what to do next. "Did you get mugged or something? Attacked?"
Joe laughed. "Jonathan, I'm fine. Nothing like that. I was in the park, got caught in the rain."
"At this hour? You're soaked. Your sleeve is torn. Let me get you a towel. Loretta!" He shouted, and a woman appeared from the rear of the store. "Father Joseph is here. I need a towel." Loretta came up the center aisle, stopped when she saw Joe, and disappeared again into the back. She reappeared with an armload of towels. Joe was protesting to Jonathan as she bustled toward the front of the store.
"Please, I'm fine. Just a little damp. Don't go to any trouble." But he accepted a towel and dried his hair and face. He looked down at his muddied knees, at his tattered shirt and said, "I guess I am quite the sight, but, really, I'm fine. But I'm wondering, do you have any bread?"
"Do we have any bread?" Jonathan's look was incredulous. "We have the best bread in the whole city. Your housekeeper buys it here all the time."
Once again Joe was amazed by his own ignorance. He had never thought to ask where the bread, or any other part of his daily fare, came from, nor how. He had never been in the store where Jonathan and Loretta spent their lives. He felt, as he had in the garden, that a new world was unfolding before his eyes, one that had been there all the time, hidden by his own blindness. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize I've never been in your store."
Jonathan laughed and touched Joe's shoulder. "Why would you come here? You have important work to do. Your housekeeper is a wonderful woman. She takes care of those things."
"I'll get you a nice loaf of bread," Loretta said. She took the towel from his hands and knelt before him to brush the mud from his knees. She wiped his shoes. Joe, surprised and embarrassed, could not move.
"Lorretta, please," he said, but she was already gone. Joe looked around the brightly lit store, at all the gaudy items that crowded the shelves. It was difficult to make sense of it. "Do you sell wine, Jonathan?" he asked.
No, Father, the law doesn't allow us to sell wine here, but I have some nice wine for you." Before Joe could object, Jonathan was again shouting to Loretta. "Loretta, get a bottle of wine from the pantry for Father Joseph. The good red." Loretta appeared a moment later with bread and wine.
Joe dug in his pocket for the money that the housekeeper had insisted he carry. "How much...?"
Jonathan cut him off. "These are gifts." Loretta held them out.
"But I want to pay you."
"Father, you can't," Jonathan explained. "If you pay me, then I sell you the wine, which is against the law. A kind of sin, you see?" He smiled and his eyes glistened in the fluorescent light.
Outside, the rain had stopped and the air had cleared. Joe cradled the loaf of bread in his arm like a child. The wine dangled from his other hand. He didn't know if he could find his way to Magda's home in this strange, new world, but he was ready to try.
Annis Cassells is a writer, poet, teacher, and life coach. A writer of memoirs and "poemoirs”, she re-visualizes the past but looks forward to the future and its infinite possibilities. She teaches a memoir writing class, Legacy in Life Stories, for senior adults who are writing their life stories for their families. Annis is a member of Writers of Kern, a branch of the California Writers Club. Read her blog at www.thedaymaker.blogspot.com.
THE BLESSING by Annis Cassells
“See that design painted above the stained glass windows?” I whispered, gesturing with my head. I winced at the carpet fibers pressing into my knees. I buttoned my blouse and straightened my skirt. “It’s from the Aztecs. The early padres knew they needed to incorporate the Indians’ art and symbols. To bind them to the church.”
Benoit, dear boy, turned his youthful, clean-shaven face and squinted upward in the direction I’d nodded. He fastened his silver belt buckle. I continued, “The windows are new, a remodel done a few years ago.” Struggling to regain my composure, I brushed imagined lint off my sleeves with a flick of my wrists. Then I threaded an arm through the braided leather handles of my red straw purse.
It was not my habit to become intimate with clients, especially those half my age. But meeting this young man the day before awakened feelings I thought long dead. After my husband walked out five years ago. The contrast of Benoit’s sensitive deep-blue eyes shining out of that rich butterscotch face stopped my breath the first time I laid eyes on him. It still makes me pause. I have to admit to flirting with him. Just a little.
A 22-year-old French-Canadian, Benoit was enrolled in a photojournalism summer workshop at la Universidad de Emilio Carlos. He chose my name from a list of professional guides and hired me for a two-day excursion. It was my job to take him to a series of area churches for photos and historical background. Our final destination, la Parroquia, a neighborhood parish in the colonial village of San Martín, was the most impressive.
Benoit was curious, asking numerous questions, and showed a genuine interest in the same things I admired about my culture. I loved that. Besides, his soulful gaze stirred me, made me feel understood.
We’d surveyed the front of the church, me reciting its history, both of us inspecting and admiring each artifact and icon. When our bodies brushed against each other, I couldn’t ignore the electricity between us. Benoit leaned into me, his voice low, “Sonia,” he whispered, instead of addressing me with his usual “Senora.” Both of us hesitated, allowed our bodies to linger.
After a sweeping glance around the empty church, I grasped his hand. “Come. Rapido.” Eyes still searching, I guided him up the single gold-carpeted step and past the rail. Soon we were entwined on the plush flooring behind the eight-foot-long cement base of the marble-topped altar. It was a miracle we could remain silent.
Afterward, all was quiet in the church as we prepared ourselves to return to conventional guide-client behavior. Benoit stood first, extending his hand to help me up. “Allow me.” Like one would to an aunt or an older cousin I thought, sucking in my breath but opting to reach up to him. Another chance to feel the current when our skin touches.
I watched, admiring his economy of movement. He scooped up his camera, eased its strap over his head and around his neck, and picked up his black leather equipment bag, graceful as a dancer. He slung the bag over his left shoulder. Holding hands, we turned around to face the pews.
Two boys, maybe ten years old, knelt in the second row. They wore their school uniforms, black pants, white shirts, and black-watch plaid vests. When they noticed us, they both clapped their hands over their mouths, but their giggles still escaped. Grabbing their backpacks, they bolted upward and ran, laughing as they careened through the side door. My face flushed. I imagined what they might have seen or heard and shivered, trying to shake the image.
Benoit stifled a grin as we continued exploring, strolling among the statues that lined the church walls. He took time and care while he framed and shot dozens of photos. Intent, he would ask, “And this is which saint?” or “What is the significance of that?” as he aimed his camera. Then he would listen as I explained and write a word or two on his small unlined notepad. When our heads bent together over an artifact, I would inhale his unmistakable scent and almost lose focus.
The church bells boomed again, with no discernible pattern for the number and frequency of sonorous gongs. We ambled toward the main entrance, me wondering what would happen once we were outside, our contract finished. After our tryst behind the altar, my heart pulsated in a combination of hope and fear. Would it be a business-like handshake and awkward parting on la Parroquia’s worn cement steps? A quick embrace? Or more? I was just beginning to feel again. I wanted more.
Before we reached the high wooden, center door, a commanding voice called out. “Wait! Wait, my children!” We turned around to see an old priest hurrying toward us. As he hustled along, he nodded to the few parishioners who had entered and scattered themselves throughout the pews while Benoit and I were completing our tour.
Standing before us a bit winded, the slender, slightly-stooped man said in a softer voice, “I am Father Eduardo. Blessings upon you for the generous gifts you are about to share with our poor church.”
Benoit and I caught each others’ eyes. I saw a surprised expression on his face and then a frown as he dropped his gaze. Oh, damn! I thought. Did this priest know we were behind the altar? “I - I’m not sure what you mean, Father,” I said.
Father Eduardo turned and pointed, it appeared, at the polished wooden column that stood near the altar. What’s this about? I wondered, following the column’s ascension. When I spotted the surveillance camera mounted about ten feet up, my heart froze. I saw Benoit’s face twist into a pained expression, his blue eyes squeezed shut. “No. No,” he mumbled, shaking his head.
My face and neck flamed. How could I have been such an idiot? How could I have let this happen?
I fished for my wallet in the straw handbag, hoping cash would satisfy the priest and relieve my feelings of embarrassment and guilt. Father Eduardo raised both hands, palms out, as I offered the money. “It’s for the church. Put it in the donation box. Please.” He nodded toward an ornate marble stand that held a locked acrylic box. I deposited the money and turned back to face him. “And may God bless you,” he said. Then eyeing Benoit, “Both of you.”
Benoit emerged from his trance. He dug into his pants pocket and pulled out a handful of pesos. Not bothering to count it, he stuffed the wad through the slot in the lid.
In a strained voice, nearly unrecognizable to me, I confronted the priest “Well, I’m shocked that you would run a video camera inside the church, Father.” I stretched my hand out toward the offensive thing. “It’s an intrusion on parishioners’ privacy. The church is supposed to be a sanctuary.”
“Video camera?” He interrupted, then looked backward, over his shoulder. “Oh, that. It doesn’t come on until el diez de la noche, ten o’clock at night. We installed it last month after vandals had struck us several times -- at night.” He faced us again, “Truth is, half the time we forget to start it.”
Benoit’s head jerked. His eyes narrowed, and he stared at the priest. “So you weren’t watching us? Why, then, did you point us to the camera?”
“Oh, I didn’t. I only meant to direct you to the poster about our Feed the Poor program. I was sure if you knew about it you’d want to help,” the old priest said, his eyes unreadable.
Then I focused on the large sign that stood on the table in front of the column. And there it was: “Alimentar a los Pobres de San Martín.” I chastised myself. So stupid! How could I have missed that?
The corners of Father Eduardo’s lips edged upward. His weathered face became serene, almost angelic. “Good day, my children. God’s blessings upon you,” he said, tucking his smooth hands into his cassock sleeves. Then backing away, he made a half bow. “Bless you.”