Soap and Water - 001
Download an audio version at (www.joshuamalbin.com/soap-and-water).
“They could turn ugly, you know,” Meg said. “You’ve got way more people here than food.” The plaza between the capitol and City Hall was half full and she’d seen only one distribution truck. The handouts still hadn’t begun and people in the crowd were beginning to jostle for position farther away from the capitol steps, back where the queue lost its neat shape. Up here, at the front of the line, they had an interest in keeping steady. But the late arrivers seemed to have an inkling already that if they waited their turn patiently they’d get nothing.
“Not my department, ma’am,” the GI told her. “We’re just here to maintain order.”
“Come on. It’s a political gesture, staging a federal food handout at the state capitol,” she persisted. “I thought the military tried to stay out of politics.”
The boy stared over her head at the sky and said nothing. That much was her own fault, she supposed. She’d made a beeline for him because of his sky-stare, the surest sign of a kid in the first stage of an Interior West deployment. Before they came out here they all thought they were prepared. They all thought they’d seen vast skies from the tops of mountains or at the seashore. They were always wrong; they’d never seen anything like the cloudless, endless Western sky, of a blue so thin that at its roof they could almost see through it to the black of space.
Because they were all boys from the East and Pacific and Gulf Coasts, the Great Lakes states or those along the Mississippi system, they all arrived with a basic assumption buried so deep they weren’t even aware of it: people lived where they did for a reason. Cities grew up because people were attracted to some unique natural feature, usually something to do with water. New York: the mouth of the Hudson. San Francisco: the Golden Gate. Miami: Biscayne Bay. Pittsburgh: the Three Rivers. New Orleans. Chicago. Cleveland. St. Louis. The Twin Cities. Seattle. All submitted to the rule of water.
Out West, though, people lived where they did because long ago someone with money and power had decided that here rail lines or highways would cross, and because someone had had enough money and power to make water run far out of its channels. When a GI came out West and saw people living in defiance of the land like that, it set him back. Before he saw the West’s loneliness and desolation he could imagine that peace was near.
Once he’d seen it, though… you got boys like this one, staring at the sky scared to death, because for the first time he truly understood that the West was premised on a kind of insanity, that he really might have to kill and he really might die. After a few weeks he might stop being so aware of the sky, but it would continue to exert a constant pressure on his peripheral vision and mind, mounting every rainless day.
At this disoriented stage, though, they were often a good bet for quotes, especially if Meg could come at them sideways, make them think she was pressing them on one subject before switching abruptly to another.
“Well,” she said, “I hope they at least gave you the full hour training in crowd control.”
“Actually, ma’am, it was a whole half day.” The GI smirked a little, proud to have shown her up.
That was what she’d wanted to know. A riot happened here every few weeks, she’d been told. The official statement claimed that “personnel detailed to food distribution points have all passed training in crowd control and prevention.” But of course no official Army spokesman would ever have admitted they were throwing kids out here with only half a day’s training.
“Oh!” She tried to make it sound like she couldn’t believe it was so much. “You must have had time for all the nonlethal methods, then.”
“Fuck that.” This came from the green GI’s partner, a boy who’d obviously descended to the intermediate stage of Western madness, when they started to become like Possemen, refusing to shave or wash, growing pimply, matted, and gritty. It was something like the Jerusalem syndrome, where travelers to the Holy Land found themselves affected by messianic delusions, something like what the British, under their Empire, had called “going native.” The GIs, in their sensitive way, called it simply “Injun.” “The only way to stop a riot is to scare the shit out of them, and nothing is scarier than live rounds.”
The people waiting on line within easy earshot all turned their faces to him, a collective flinch, but apart from that they gave no sign that he’d just offered to shoot them all, without hesitation or shame. None wanted to risk his place on line. To be sent away, back to the increasingly unruly crowd at the middle of the plaza, that meant hunger.
The final stage for a soldier like that was when they brought him back to base dead. Every so often one would run away to live like a Posseman on the plains, in the desert, or on a mountaintop, and typically they were found shot within days. Actual Posses were presumed to have killed them. Even in the filthiest civilian clothes they couldn’t pass. While they might have to hold their tongues now, at least some of the civilians on line here today were memorizing this GI’s face. They wouldn’t forget him.
It was the last of these dead boys, in fact, that had cost her her encamped status. The soldier had only gotten two miles from base, and the GIs who’d found him returned for a body bag instead of carrying him uncovered so as to hide from the press—Meg—that he’d been scalped. One of her sources had tipped her off, though. She’d bribed her way into the morgue to confirm it and written a very good article that her publisher squelched. Her editor had even made her come home from Wyoming. Apparently the publisher didn’t want her near that base anymore. In defiance she’d posted the article online and nearly gotten fired.
There were two reasons she’d not only kept her job but gotten another trip out West even though no Army press officer would allow her in his division: First, she was talented. Not amazing by her own standards but high up the list of what passed for journalists today, and far better than the more reliably “patriotic” reporter who took her encampment credentials. Second, her editor happened also to be her ex-husband, which meant that she didn’t have to restrain herself when she wanted to yell at him, and that he understood that when she threatened something, she meant it.
A scuffle broke out where the crowd met the end of the breadline, and as soldiers converged to break it up Meg decided to head back to the hotel, just to be safe. They’d posted her to Denver this time, the Easterner’s gateway to the war. Soldiers around here, staring at the Rockies, called them “the Wall”—as in, “I just got my orders to go over the Wall”—even though fighting was by no means limited to lands west of the Continental Divide.
Specifically she was in the reporter’s hotel in Denver, waiting for a driver. You couldn’t get a rental car in the West anymore—their popularity as bombs had made them impossible to insure—but she could have hired someone local and been on the road already had not David, her ex-husband editor, insisted she use some college friend of his younger brother’s. “Be realistic, Meg, you’re Eastern and a woman,” he’d said. “I won’t let you go with someone I don’t know.” So she had to wait for a guy she didn’t know to drive all the way from Montana. Interviewing the GIs at the state capitol had merely been an attempt to make something useful of the downtime.
She reached her hotel’s block and the beggar-woman who haunted the place saw her. The woman roused her daughter, who’d been huddled on the sidewalk beside her, and the girl sprang to her feet, trotted to the glass front door, and leaned all of her tiny, malnourished body against it to break the suction holding the portal to its frame.
The woman was probably in her late twenties, the girl about nine. Both were ugly, with long, narrow faces and small eyes of no intelligence. Meg imagined she could see their shoulders too sharp beneath clothes too thin for the weather. According to the desk clerk, the woman’s husband took all the money the two made, giving them as little as possible to eat so as to keep them pathetic.
Their pathos didn’t inspire pity in Meg, only disgust, as much for the girl (whom she supposed she should have held innocent) as for the mother. If she gave them money she rewarded the father for exploiting them, the mother for submitting herself and her daughter to exploitation. If she ignored them they might be beaten or go hungry. They were a moral problem without an acceptable solution and she despised them for it.
She gave the girl a dollar and went upstairs for a drink.
The bar was in the middle of the second-floor lobby, under the stare of the desk clerk, saving the hotel the expense of a bartender. Guests who wanted to drink paid a ridiculously high flat fee and downed as much as they could of whatever the hotel had managed to get. Between that and the thin air Meg was soon drunk—too drunk to frost properly the Hartford Courant hack who showed up and started hitting on her. He’d been here a month, he said, and she was the loveliest thing he’d seen in all that time. That was how she knew his hackiness: “loveliest thing”, and “in all that time.” Everyone used hackneyed phrases now and then, but two phrases in a row, six words in sixteen, revealed a lack of respect for language. He probably wrote about “the mood on the ground,” made clunky metaphors to the effect that blood flowed more freely here than water, and advised his readers repeatedly that “the next six months will likely prove critical.” He was also fifteen years older than Meg, and she wasn’t so young.
She was drinking bathtub whiskey from an unmarked bottle, like in a real Old West saloon, and when she finished her glass the Hack poured her another. She didn’t stop him.
One of the few things still working in the hotel was unfortunately the bar’s karaoke machine, and after he’d poured himself a fresh drink to match hers the Hack toddled to it, turned it on, punched in a selection on the keypad, and began to sing. The old Merle Haggard tune “Carolyn,” really belting it, filling his lungs after each few words. He didn’t seem to mind what he did to the phrasing as long as he was somewhere near the right key and loud. He also sang through his teeth, his lips pulled wide to let in air.
Meg looked resolutely at the bottle-wall. In its mirror she saw another reporter, the one whom in her mind she had nicknamed Riefenstahl, come up the stairs from the first floor entrance. She seemed to have the idea of coming to the bar too, but when she saw and heard the Hack (or saw Meg herself, maybe—she didn’t like Meg any more than Meg liked her), she detoured the long way around and continued upstairs. In the mirror Meg watched her cross the lobby, until her line of sight passed the Hack and was arrested by his broad gestures, timed to the breath-pauses in the song.
Yes Carolyn a man will do that
sometimes on his own
And sometimes when he’s lonely
And I believe a man will do that
sometimes out of spite
But Carolyn, a man will do that always
When he’s treated bad at home.
Another fifteen seconds, as he repeated the chorus, and she realized he was singing to her, or at least to her back, and her ears filled with the sound of rushing blood in a surge of embarrassment for him. A smart man didn’t sing a woman a song about blaming one’s infidelity on one’s wife. She laughed and the Hack took it as encouragement, bounding off the mike platform to take the stool next to hers, although he was far too old to bound.
“You should do one,” he said.
“Oh yeah?” Meg said. “Why?”
“Because it’s fun.” He put his hand on her upper arm to tug her from her stool, higher than he needed so that the back of his hand touched the side of her breast. Meg was drunk enough to notice this only dully, and allowed herself to be pulled.
The machine consisted of a screen on a pole, a wire running from it to an amplifier, and a microphone. Sometime in the past the amplifier had been wrapped in a remnant of the hotel’s floor carpet. Meg chose “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” a nice man-hating song, and as the words appeared and changed colors across the screen she sang with as much venom as it could fit. Not that she was really so angry at the Hack. He just made a convenient target. It was therapeutic, a little, pouring onto him her frustration at the past weeks of impasse, stress, and injustice. But then she realized he was enjoying it, tapping his foot on his barstool and smiling.
She remembered a scene from one of the many Jack London books about dogs she had loved as a girl, a fight between a half-wolf and a bulldog. The half-wolf is all speed, built to slash out his opponent’s throat with his teeth and then dance away. The bulldog is much slower, but the half-wolf discovers that although he can shred its sides and ears easily and escape, he can’t get under the stout neck for a killing bite. The bulldog waits, and then somehow, when the half-wolf comes in for yet another ineffectual bite, clamps his throat and begins to chew, each contraction of its jaws working through another loose, protective fold of neck skin, drawing its teeth nearer the carotid and jugular. That was how Meg imagined the seduction technique of men like the Hack. Unappealing and slow, they suffered all the punishment a woman could deliver and kept coming. Smiling. Waiting for a vulnerable moment. She could see it in his stupid, affable expression, in the way his falsely warm reactions came a moment late. The only way to keep safe was to get the hell out of the way.
She’d stopped singing and the Hack was already off his stool, on his way toward her, his face sliding into an expression of concern. She held up her hand to halt him but he didn’t stop. He thought he’d found her throat. No point trying to save either of them embarrassment now; he was incapable of feeling it and as far as Meg could tell her only two choices were to suffer it or sleep with him.
She turned her back on him and walked away.
“Wait,” he said behind her, and the distance of his voice told her he was following. She walked faster. If she didn’t run it was only because if she fell he’d want to help her up, and she was dizzy enough she’d surely fall.
“Are you okay?” he said. Still following. She permitted herself a look back. Half-trotting, gaining on her.
Fuck it. She ran up the stopped escalator and past the conference rooms on the third floor. The elevators worked but the clerk had said it was a bad idea to take them in case of power outage, so it was up the fire stairs, which smelled like rotten cardboard from the mildewy puddle in the bottom of the drained fourth-floor pool. Her room, like all the others the hotel still rented, was on the fifth, and three flights turned out to be too much for the Hack even at a quick walk. Meg struggled for breath herself in the thin Denver air but had enough composure, through the black spots in her eyes, to find her door (propped ajar, since the key-card system didn’t work if the electricity died), push it open, and put on the privacy chain.
Hack knocked after about ten minutes. “Meg? You alright?”
“I’m fine,” she said.
“You sure?” She smiled at the disappointment he wasn’t able to suppress.
She didn’t answer, and eventually assumed he’d gone away.
This had been a luxury hotel once. Her room had plenty of furniture to have gone threadbare and too many fixtures that required electricity or regular maintenance. Today the electricity was working but the motorized curtains were stuck a quarter of the way open, making Meg’s room gloomy at midday despite Denver’s perpetual sun. The lamps were meant to turn on and off at the touch of a metal plate but they didn’t work either, because of a bad plate, bad circuit, bad fluorescent bulbs, or bad luck. It was too dark to read and the TV didn’t work. She looked out the window and checked the plaza—now nearly three-quarters full, people working their way around each other like a squirming pile of worms, the line all but swallowed by the disorder pressing toward the capitol—and then flopped down on her face on the bed with her arms spread wide.
Three days, she thought, spinning down into the mattress like sinking into mud. Three days and she hadn’t had a decent conversation with anyone. In most reporters’ hotels there was some camaraderie, but she and the Hack were two of only ten or so guests here; two of perhaps a few dozen unencamped reporters in the entire West. There had been no catastrophes in the last year, just a steady mutter of low-level violence, one or two soldiers killed a week. Most papers had reduced their coverage.
That was part of why she’d been so desperate to come straight back here, desperate enough to tell David she’d put all her old unprintable stories online if he didn’t find a way to send her. She’d realized a while ago that the Feds would never win this war or find a graceful way out of it, and she wanted more than ever to show her readers its dumb, brutal reality—as Joseph Conrad had once written of another occupation, in a line she copied onto the first page each time she started a fresh notebook, the “flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly”—even if they’d seen it a hundred times already and didn’t seem to care. Someone had to keep forcing it in their faces.
Another part was that at home she had even less, an empty apartment in a depressed suburb and no story to redeem it. If she wasn’t out West she wasn’t useful to anyone. She’d had an unsettlingly high-numbered birthday while in Wyomingand gotten no congratulatory phone calls, not even from David, and had realized that in all likelihood she would not be having children after all. She no longer had any excuse for compromising her professional instincts. She wouldn’t need a job waiting for her after a maternity leave, and she wouldn’t need promotions to handle future tuition.
Later Meg, still tipsy, went down to the dining room, a former two-star “American fusion” restaurant on the ground floor. It was supposed to feel opulent, but the green carpet was stained and frayed and everything stank of cigarettes. The windows had been boarded up with sheets of plywood.
Riefenstahl was alone in there. Meg sat with her and the woman frowned and looked pointedly at all the empty tables. She was a patriotic writer, and knew about Meg’s scalping story. But she was also a very precise writer, even a finicky one. According to the Hack she’d once spent half an hour castigating his usage, and he was afraid of her. Riefenstahl was Hack-repellant, in other words. Disdain from her was better than any kind of meal with the Hack.
It went quickly but not quickly enough. People started yelling “Fuck the Mips!” in the street outside the hotel, followed by the rainfall sound of dozens of feet running at once, followed by a bullhorn giving indecipherable orders. It was spillover from the food riot she’d been anticipating. Something thudded against the plywood; somewhere on another street, not this one, gunfire. Meg glanced involuntarily from her plate to Riefenstahl’s face and found her staring right back. That launched a silent battle of nerves, because Meg refused to flee before Riefenstahl and Riefenstahl seemed to feel the same about her. Some obscure defiance, related to professional pride but nowhere near as legitimate, kept them there as stones and bottles crashed against the wood.