026. Hazard Maps
I started with FEMA maps.
“This is how they cost out earthquake damage.”
I laid one on the drafting table so Jules could see.
“Sometimes people call them ground failure maps or hazard maps. They show you where the land is unstable and prone to liquefaction.”
He leaned over. I traced a river gorge.
“Check that out.”
Jules brought the arm light closer.
“And if you think that’s bad, look at this.”
I unfolded a second map.
“That’s the city.”
Jules shook his head.
“I can’t believe you can just get these.”
“Everybody has them. It’s how they sell insurance.”
But it’s not like we were going to blow up a volcano or anything. Toppling a transmission tower was really a civil engineering problem. My job was just to figure out whether soil improvement techniques could be crudely adapted to destabilize land on a slope.
The transmission line inter-tie between where we were and all states south was only a few hours from Breaker’s Rise. I began to map the lines running into it because they would be the ones to take out.
My initial research had to be done online so we needed to find a computer. There was an old desktop with dial-up at the Farm, which Tamara kept for guests—“Weather reports and porn only,” she said. It was her idea of hospitality. Not that I would have used it anyway. If I’d looked up charge density specs on something like that Grace would have disowned me. And she was everywhere in my thoughts.
The land here reminds me of old summers. I have nothing safe to say. Aren’t you proud?
Sending back the black dress,
But we still needed a computer so we settled on the library one in Breaker’s Rise. Mostly I would be looking at civil engineering websites and links off the Geological Society of America homepage, which was all pretty tame. As a precaution, on my first day there I spent forty-five minutes at the circulation desk talking to the librarian about sedimentary structures and grain size. After that she immediately went to shelve books when she saw me coming.
The library itself was an early 60s box of tan brick with a flag that specialized in books on tape and citizenship classes. Hey Juan, when you’re done with those apples, remember to brush up on the Monroe Doctrine. It was also the turnaround spot for seniors on their daily walk and when I was working I’d take breaks and watch them make painstaking u-turns in the parking lot. I almost never saw anyone there that was under fifty who wasn’t an immigrant or a visitor. They kept the computer in an alcove near an unused conference room and when I told them I was doing my thesis on a local radiation of paleo-bivalves, they practically wrote my name on the desk.
I found some Power Point presentations online that described how some engineers had tried to use underground explosives to resettle the soil. There were maps of an industrial park with notes all over them. I showed them to Jules.
“Those are blast patterns. That line is about sixty feet from the center of the park. The triangles represent the first round of charges and the circles the second. The squares are settlement platforms. Of course, we wouldn’t be able to do it like that, but it’s worth exploring. This one caused liquefaction down to forty meters. ”
I ate cheese sandwiches for lunch, usually in the car with Jules in the parking lot. Between bites I gave him a tour of the regional seismic record, mostly because I like reminding people that they live on the cusp of a geological catastrophe capable of changing worldwide weather patterns.
Jules reminded me of Credence, so convinced he was smarter than everyone that whatever he said came out like he was teaching you how to tie your shoes. Watching that habit slip, I saw how similar he and I really were. Only I had stopped trying to communicate with anyone at all, patronizingly or otherwise. My attitude was fuck you and your myopic mental laziness, tie your own fucking shoes. Under examination it wasn’t a more enlightened stance.
Twice I used the payphone at the gas station. The first call I made was to Annette. She was worried about the air quality with the fires. Grace and Miro wanted them to go out there when the babies were born, just in case. Credence said he didn’t want to take advantage of a privilege that other people didn’t have, including anyone in Annette’s family. Annette agreed, but not really. I could hear it her voice. She changed the subject.
I called Rise Up Singing to get Mirror to deposit my paycheck. I made sure to call during lunchtime so she would answer because she likes having relaxed, non-essential conversations when the restaurant is packed.
“Franklin says if you are on vacation, he needs to know. I told him since he doesn’t really own the place after tomorrow it’s none of his business. The new owners asked about you and I said you broke your foot at work and they should expect an L&I claim. I told them you tripped on the barista bar they’re building. I thought that was pretty genius. They turned totally white, dude. Not that they could really be any whiter. What else…”
I heard the din of the restaurant in the background. Someone was saying excuse me over and over.
“Do you need to go?” I asked.
“No. It’s just some fucking neon spandex biker who wants a medal for not driving his Porsche on the weekend. I hate those stupid helmets. Completely phallic. Hey! I’m a dick, get me a sandwich.”
I could hear the kitchen bell dinging. Some glass broke behind her.
“Well, I should probably go,” she said.
It all seemed very normal, talking to a coworker about bank hours and schedules, catching up on people we knew in common, but as I hung up the receiver it hit me, there would soon come a time when I could no longer call anyone at all, or write them for any reason.
The sky is white like in your apartment. The geological map of Honduras shows landmasses like fallen confetti. I would come but you are already in the Cloud Forest. I will burn this letter and think of you
The New Land Trust action in the city was still a week away and every few hours some new group came through, picked up friends or supplies and left. I bought a lot of stuff for it—chain, PVC pipes, long underwear, wheat paste and groceries—I put it all on my GSA Grand Canyon credit card. It wasn’t like I was going to pay it off anyway. I thought of it as my contribution to the collapse of corporate serfdom.
Most of the time I was too busy to be part of the preparation because there are always two levels to any organization, the one you see and the one you don’t. I was now in the latter. Everything went on as before, people worked, cooked, loaded cars, but there was a pane of glass between most of the guests and me. I knew there were other people involved too but I didn’t know who they were. Every now and then I thought I did and would get confused. Sometime it was as simple as a look. Or the way someone was suddenly interested in all my thoughts. But nobody ever said anything outright. Half the time it was like being on acid and talking to someone not knowing what level the conversation really operating on. Are we actually talking about this stupid band? Or that dumb girl? Or are we having the real conversation? The one that never stops in the Subterranea.
I didn’t see much of Tamara that week. Somebody had to maintain the public face of the host collective and Jules was with me. So she got stuck packing papier-mâché hands and bibles into cars, which she loved. Fucking waste of time and energy, she said. On her knees in the cold by a tarp helping to label and dismantle the ten-foot spine that was to be ceremoniously given to the mayor by the Puppet of Abused Labor.
“Hey Salome! You got anything you want to put in this run?”
I saw her across the muddy driveway, her lavender hair violet against the snow sky, and her expression reminded me of something I couldn’t quite place but whenever I saw it I felt like anything could happen. A surprise victory? A terrible defeat? I didn’t know what it would be but it was going to be different and that was enough. It was like a homecoming.
Jules and I drove the countryside in the afternoons looking at towers. There was an airbase just over the state border and it turned out what they really wanted was a power outage there, not in the city. Jules said there was an affinity group willing to sabotage a plane if given a chance. He thought that even trashing one would dramatically change things.
“We have to change what people think they’re capable of,” he said.
And I knew too, that movements could catch spontaneously, like Cuba, Elvis, the Velvet Revolution, or Tiananmen Square, without an observable precursor. My own training showed me this. Punctuated equilibrium. Or even more so, the flipping of poles when compasses suddenly spin off from the demagnetized north and point somewhere else entirely. The rock record is full of it and it happens all the time. A threshold is reached and they flip. I could see that we were at a threshold too, or close, and after all, what had I come out hoping to find but a brilliant insurgency?
Tamara said we needed to do it before the planes were mobilized.
“You know it’s coming,” she said. “Do you have a problem with that?”
Those ugly fucking birds that sound like the end of the world? Let’s see…nope. The idea that I could stop one was thrilling. Way better than Wal-Mart or KGOD or talking to rats.
It was clear that we weren’t going to be able to use a by-the-book version of the soil improvement methods. We needed to modify them and just get as close as we could. With dynamite and glorified shovels we couldn’t drill to the water table or set charges deep enough with a camera or guard around—Excuse me, wage slave, I have to core the earth where you’re standing—whatever we did was going to be a hack job.
Britta wanted to try to turn a guard. Tamara thought it was idiotic.
“What are you going to do? Buy him beer and tell him about Kropotkin?”
I envisioned the conversation:
Vanguard: Wage Slave, are you aware that you are but a wire nail in the toolbox of capitalism?
Wage Slave: I thought I was a chisel.
Vanguard: No, the petit bourgeois are the chisels.
Wage Slave: What about a washer set? Can I be a washer set?
Vanguard: No, my ferret, run free! For I have unlocked your collar with knowledge!
Wage Slave: I want to be a chisel.
Vanguard pushes screaming ferret through hole in fence cut by the clippers of noblesse oblige.
“Well, maybe we could bribe him,” said Britta.
Tamara laughed. “With what? Health insurance?”
My scientific opinion was that it was going to come down to finding the right target on the right kind of land and blasting the shit out of it.
“It’s going to have to be a tower with a camera not a guard,” I said.
“We’re going to have to work with what we’ve got,” Tamara said.
She poured a pot of boiling water into the sink for the dishes, the little Ulrike. I stood, which I do when I want to get a point across. In high school I had more fouls than anyone else on the basketball team.
Tamara stared up at me and retied a little purple braid.
“What?” she said. “You want an ends or means death match? Pick a side. I can argue both.”
And so could I. I let it drop.
Tamara never talked directly about what happened in town with the bombs and fires. But several times in public she mentioned that the search for MANIFESTATION was getting more comprehensive. I said it’s always like that. She laughed.
“Well, I’m just saying, whoever made those calls should be careful.”
When the SWAT teams come over the hill I’ll throw deer teeth at them. What did she expect me to do with that information? She certainly didn’t want me to stop surveying transmission lines.
“Causes and conditions are the near enemy of capitalism,” I told her.
“Right, let’s just hope that last phone doesn’t show up.”
I heard the Rat Queen squeal, trapped as she was by the mountain range, penned by the great river.
“How close are you?”
Her children scurrying through the brambles.
Burning monks and art students line the path to the sea but I didn’t feel the same way about it. Working on something tangible was a relief after all those years watching Grace and Miro leave rice on the altar… Oh Great Movement Icons!— each grain a carefully constructed insoluble conflict—Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair! No wait… Presente! But of course they’re not. Chavez, Debs, Huey and Bobby, the George Jackson naptime reading group. Compared with that, blowing up a plane, taking down a transmission line and having sex in a warehouse full of strangers was a fucking joy. A perfect expression of sentiment. Unmediated and sharp as a dart.
“That’s right. Fuck creating the crisis,” Tamara said.
She threw an orange peel into the compost.
“Take the opportunity and the crisis creates itself. All that shady bullshit about being ready to step in and lead when the time comes—we shouldn’t be stepping in at all.”
Her blue glitter fingernails on an orange wedge held before her mouth. “Party politics is all about having the same three people on twenty committees. It doesn’t foster proletariat ‘ownership of the process,’ it’s elitist and self-defeating. Nobody should be protecting anyone from the results of their actions.”
I twitched at the hardness of the stance but deep down I agreed. Anyway, there weren’t enough feathers in the world to soften the landing we were all going to have. Steep curve? Nope. Sheer cliff.
I mapped every transmission line that crossed the river, how they were built and on what. I worked backwards. I studied everything I could about how to avoid harming “nearby structures during explosive compaction of saturated cohesionless soils,” then planned the opposite. Pore water pressures, decks of horizontal blast dispersion, cyclic loading and shock wave statistics by grain size, but after several hours of soil mechanics I had to get out. Rolling through the back roads on two-lane highways cresting without vision and taking blind curves I could almost remember what it was like to feel like something good was coming. I fell asleep sometimes and dreamed of the war like a sea vine dragging me down then woke up and remembered that we weren’t there yet, not quite.
Jules and I killed time when driving talking about ex-boyfriends and girlfriends and what kind of music we were into in high school. We agreed on collegiate communists and disagreed on the squatters’ movement. He said it was a proto-revolutionary act and I said it was shock troops for real estate speculation. Scouts for the New Honduran army. Regarding food politics, we both thought that you should only eat meat if you thought you could kill it yourself and that the argument over honey was monastic and not organizational. When we talked about our families we both tended to get a little shakier in our opinions and didn’t stay on the subject for too long.
Jules’ parents were back-to-the-land hippies and his grandparents were Slovenian anarchists that escaped to Hungary after the First World War. I told him I knew a Hungarian prince.
“Great. I’m sure my family probably worked for his.”
“I think they’ve been out of power for a while. He spends all his time listening to the Beach Boys and playing guitar through effects pedals.”
“Maybe not. But it’s beautiful.”
I could see him on an unlit stage, one arm raised the other resting on a laptop. Dark blue light around him.
Jules didn’t say anything for a while. We drove along a ridge of short dried grass. I could see the wildfire line where it had come down the mountain and crossed the valley all the way up to the road. On the other side the land ran, tea green towards a wide and braided stream that sunk like a handprint into the reeds. I lay my head back on the seat. The towers passed, silver lattices casting shadows on the half burnt fields.
We found three potential sites, two by the river and one running along a cliff above it. The one on the cliff had a guard shack so we took it off the list. Tamara put it back on.
“We’ll just get him out of there,” she said, “tell him there’s a sale on elk whistles down the street.”
I didn’t bother to argue. Further surveying showed it to be untenable.
“Now how did I know that was going to be the case?” Tamara said, smiling.
’Cause you’re a psychic who should do road shows?
That left two towers, one on a mud cliff and another on a debris flow that had been converted into a ramshackle jetty. At first I liked the mud cliff because it seemed like it would take so little to cause a collapse and the cameras couldn’t see over the edge so there was lots of cover, but the points where we would need to set charges were too high up and I couldn’t figure out a way to get to them, which meant we were going to go after the tower on the jetty. It was a more critical line but carrying almost too much energy. I didn’t want the high voltage fuses to close too quickly. I wanted the load carried as far as it could be and there was a substation across the river not far from the airbase that fed into the larger southbound lines.
Jules was very excited about it.
“It’s like a sand trap surrounded by water. There’s an eight-foot cement wall and three cameras but it looks like they can’t see anything at the water level that’s within twenty yards of the jetty wall.”
The idea was to come up to the jetty by boat, drill whatever holes we could with small equipment, jam a ton of explosives into the rock and hope we could just blow enough chunks out of it to matter.
“Della, what do you think?”
Tamara and Astrid both looked at me. I noticed each of them had yellow plastic barrettes shaped like ears of corn in their hair and I wondered if they coordinated or it was just synchronicity. It made Tamara look like the Goddess of the Underworld and Astrid like a sullen three-year-old. I remember thinking then, as now, that it’s funny how symbols work. They’re just empty vessels. Swastikas and sun wheels. Broken up bits of thought.
“I think it will go in.”
Later that night I looked at a Mercator map I’d printed it out at the library. It was fuzzy where the ink saturated the thin paper. I remember as an undergrad reading that what Mercator was after was a “new and augmented description of Earth corrected for the use of navigation." I was after that too. I told Tamara I was glad I hadn’t left with Jimmy, or gone into seclusion with Grace and Miro, and that for the first time my education made sense and I was grateful because it hadn’t for so long, except as an excuse, well, whole populations have died before, and that I wanted her to know how much it meant to be there. Halfway through my speech she started to cry. I was totally unprepared for that. Do terrorists give each other friendship rings? Whatever remaining distance there was closed.
On my way to bed that night everything I touched was cold, the faucet, the ceramic sink, the bedpost, all like ice. To keep warm, I slept with my head under the covers and it seemed like there were three of us there, whispering about the net of possible futures that spanned between us.
25—La Rue des Oiseaux
We drove past the air base and Jules pointed to a line of gray planes.
“You can see some of them there. When we come around you’ll see the rest.”
The road arced as we climbed out of the rain-shadow-channeled scablands. From a distance I could see that the whole compound was in a depressed basin. I imagined it, a bowl of fire lighting the desert. Pink skies. Black smoke. It was getting dark and we turned around. The moon rose through the front windshield.
“There’s not much more to do,” said Jules.
He rolled the window down. The cold air was shrill in my ears.
When we walked into the farmhouse Tamara, Black Francis, Astrid and Britta were there. Everyone seemed to be waiting for me to say something. I got some water from the kitchen and drank it by the woodstove, listening to the embers crack inside.
“That’s pretty much it,” I said, “We’re as ready as we’re going to be.”
Tamara was thrilled that it was finally moving forward. I wasn’t. I saw the power grid, currents flowing in all directions, televisions and respirators, barracks and airstrips, all inseparable.
The New Land Trust action was only three days away. We decided to blow up the transmission tower at the same time to increase the level of distraction. We also wanted to associate the sabotaged tower with the New Land Trust demonstrations so that it would form a big arrow pointing toward the city and away from the airbase.
There was nothing left for me to do and I needed to get my things in order so Jules arranged a ride for me into the city. I would leave the night before the action and come back out the following week. When I got back we were going to prepare the Farm for winter and then figure out any future plans. Tamara thought it would be a good idea if we did something harmless and highly visible.
“Like host an underground film festival. You know, something with bad animation and comments on the postmodern body.”
“I know a woman who does porn flicks in infrared,” I said.
Britta got excited.
“I totally know that chick too! She’s like the best grant writer on the planet.”
“Great,” said Tamara, “let’s get her to curate. Maybe we can shoot video of a deer hunt and intercut it with an underage sex scene.”
Britta laughed. “We should get Astrid to do it. She looks like she’s fucking twelve anyway.”
“Oh, god yes!” said Tamara. “Put her in a training bra and some cotton underwear. Surefire boycott. That would be fucking perfect.”
From there, the conversation spun off into storyboarding tales of animal porn.
“No, no, wait!” yelped Tamara, her face red from laughing and tears running down her cheeks. “And after the goat scene, we have the subplot: he’s a vegan. She’s a Native American whale hunter. Can their love survive? I can see the final scene now: clashing communities brought together by a violent white trucker who shoots a kid.”
Her blue eyes glittered and the feeling of familiarity was so strong I felt it in my body, an electromagnetic field between us.
We planned a whole six-month calendar of events. The film festival, a pie party, tutorials on butchering and canning—Tamara’s idea was that we make the Farm famous for irrelevant and controversial happenings. It was a pretty smart tactic. Over the course of the night, she told me about two hundred times how glad she was we met and how cool it was going to be to work together. Any regrets I had vanished.
The next morning Tamara and I were driving around and she wanted me to survey the land by Wal-Mart that was out a little ways from Breaker’s Rise.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could wait until they close and sink that thing about five feet into the ground?”
We were driving back from the hardware store. She had her feet up on the dash.
“I would fucking love that,” she said, tapping the window in cadence, “it would be perfect.”
“It’s stupid, it wouldn’t work. Those things are single-story flat-bottom boats.”
I was in scientist mode and a little more dismissive than usual.
“Besides, it would take a zillion charges and wouldn’t do nearly as much a trashcan fire inside. They’re just like big tents. And even if you could figure out some way of doing it wouldn’t be worth it. It’s just a symbolic target.”
“Oh, you’re one to talk about symbolic targets,” she said sharply, “fucking yoga studios and bubble tea?”
“Fuck you! I drew a picture. I pointed out the features of the problem as I saw it. I wasn’t planning to blow anything up for real. You did that. I didn’t ask you to and you didn’t have to.”
“Yeah, well, you didn’t mind claiming our bombs.”
I pulled over on the snowy shoulder.
“Oh my fucking god!” I laughed. “You did not blow up the dog track! Did you? That’s so fucking unbelievably stupid. And the bathroom? What was that? A strike against plumbing?”
“What do you care?” she screamed. “You were talking about leaving the country. And if you didn’t want anyone to blow up stuff on your precious map then you shouldn’t have left it around everywhere. You wanted someone to do it for you. That’s why you’re here. You want someone to do what you’re too fucking chicken to do and then you want to pretend it wasn’t your idea.”
“Oh fuck this! I’m walking.”
I opened the door and Tamara backhanded me in the ribs. I probably should have figured it out then, what really connected me to her, that invisible string. My sister, my torturer, my hero at Pine Ridge. But I didn’t. I was distracted by what she said because it was true and I knew it. I did want someone to do something, and I didn’t want it to be my fault. I wanted everything to be okay, everything to change, and no one to get hurt. I was ashamed of myself. I got out of the car and slammed the door. Tamara slid into the driver’s seat and rolled down the window.
“You’re such a friggin’ pussy, Della.”
She turned over the engine and pulled up beside me, idling.
“I don’t care if you walk. I won’t blame myself at all.”
I kicked the driver’s side door. She rolled her eyes.
“Oh why don’t you just get in and stop being an ass?”
“You want to race?” she revved the engine. “Come on, John Henry, you can do it. Want to race?”
“Why are you so fucking stupid?” I screamed.
“Why are you so fucking sure you’re the only one having a hard time?”
Kimba eats glass. Tears of hate fall. I glared at the frozen fields. Steam from the tailpipe billowed around the car. The road was empty for miles in either direction. I felt my pride like a prison.
Tamara killed the engine.
“Really,” she said, “why do you think you’re the only one who hates it? Do you think I want to spend the winter eating canned fruit and deer jerky on a fucking farm waiting every night to see what bad thing is going to happen next?”
She blew into her hands and squinted at me. It had never really occurred to me that she had a problem with any of this.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said.
Those were words I don’t ever remember having said.
“None of us do and we’re all trying to figure it out together because there’s no other option.”
I let my new feeling of ignorance radiate. It was a quiet and gentle freedom, utterly foreign.
Tamara opened the passenger door. “It’s going to snow. Get in.”
Right then, I think I would have gone anywhere with her.
We got back just after lunch and the snow started. It was light and blew in swirls. Everyone was napping or reading or packing. The silence was so complete that when someone dropped a knife in the kitchen, even though I was outside, I heard it ring like a shot. I didn’t feel like sitting down or sleeping so I went to the garage to find something to do. The green Mercedes Jules had been working on was in there and he’d left the hood up so I closed it. I turned the heater on and the light and sat down at the bench. Bags of salvaged nails, screws and washers sat unsorted on the worktable and I went through them.
While I was doing that, I remembered Jules had been looking for registration paperwork on the yellow Mercedes. I thought it might have accidentally gotten put in with the slips on the green so I went through the glove box to see. Everything was in an envelope and I pulled it all out to look at it under the lamp. Old maintenance records, a receipt for an alternator, a mileage tracker, the registration for the green Mercedes, I put them on the worktable. There was a sheet of folded paper. I opened it up and the other registration fell out. I was about to fold it back up when I saw the letterhead. It was a receipt from a travel agency for two tickets to Paris leaving in four days. Jules Kraka and Tamara Byrne. Direct to Heathrow and then continuing on to Charles de Gaulle. I read the date again and again. They had been planning to leave all along.
I sat there for a while, then put the papers back and shut the glove box. When I stepped outside, snow powdered the driveway. The daylight hurt my eyes and I had to blink before they could focus. Astrid opened the kitchen door and saw me.
“Hey, we’re making pizza. Come get some.”
Blonde hair in tight pigtails. Britta was right. She did look twelve.
I nodded. She closed the door. Smoke curled from the chimney.
Credence says I jump to conclusions. He says I never wait to find out the whole story. Maybe that’s what Tamara meant once when she said that we’d all made hard decisions. Maybe she’d given up her escape and that’s why she was so hard on other people about it. I could understand that. I don’t know why she wouldn’t have told me, but I could understand that. I looked at the transaction date. They had bought the tickets only the week before. Right when we were choosing between the transmission towers.
I went to find Tamara.
Astrid was pulling two homemade pizzas out of the oven when I walked into the kitchen, which was warm and crowded.
“There’s a vegan and a cheese,” Astrid said and set the pizzas to cool on the stovetop.
I sat down to eat with everyone else. Tamara was telling the story of how she met Black Francis. He’d been hitchhiking around, living off pharmaceutical studies. He’d gotten kicked out of a big study for taking acid and was stranded in Arizona. Tamara ran into him at an all-ages punk show that he was trying to scam his way into.
“So Francis was whining to the guy, telling him he should get in free because he had been using his body for drug tests as a profound act of social giving. ‘I’m fucking helping to cure cancer!’ It was so incredibly pathetic that I had to pay his way.”
Francis’s cheeks were red but he didn’t seem to mind. I looked at Tamara. She seemed relaxed. You can’t be relaxed when you’re lying to everyone and on the verge of fucking over all your friends.
After dinner Tamara stayed in the kitchen to do dishes. I stayed too. When they were done, she sat down.
“I wanted to talk to you about something,” she said.
My hope rose.
“It’s about this winter.”
My eyes stung.
“We’re going to have to work to frame the events so that people can take something real from them. There’s no real point if we just let it feed a media storm unquestioned. Maybe we could train others on the methods we used, if it works. You and I could do it together. People know me.”
Tamara reached across and grabbed the last pizza crust off my plate and ate it. The way she did it, like she didn’t have to ask, was just like Cady. And that’s when I got it, that buried wire. There were a million reasons why I was there, but only one I had never seen. I had been drugged by my own longing.
She picked up my plate and took it to the sink. I felt nauseous.
“Tamara, what’s the hardest decision you ever made?”
“I don’t know,” she said with her back turned, “I haven’t made it yet.”
She poured some coffee and sat back down. I couldn’t read anything in her expression.
“Well, did you ever think about leaving?”
She looked right at me, “No. I never did. I don’t believe there’s anywhere to go.”
She stirred sugar into her coffee.
Tamara looked through a newspaper on the table. I felt like there was no air left in the room. Everything around me sharpened. I could see the bevels inside the wooden sashes of the kitchen windows and the coffee grounds on the floor across the room by the compost bucket.
“Well,” she said, closing the paper, “I better get back to it.”
I watched her stand and finish her coffee by the sink.
Credence says I don’t give anyone a real chance. He says I act like people are either good or bad and there’s nothing in between and no point where they could take a turn. What I loved about Tamara was the way she would take anyone on. It didn’t matter who or how many. She was fearless. Sit there twisting a hank of lavender of hair around her finger or painting her toes and suddenly say the smartest thing you ever heard. She had a brilliant natural mind. Just like my sister. But Cady was pitifully honest. A black rock in a bay. With her, you saw everything. Anyone could make her cry, but no one could get her to stop whatever she was doing. She’d tell you about it the whole way too, no matter how it cost her or what names she got called. That’s how I knew her from all the others. A charcoal statue in the harbor. I guess we each have someone we don’t see coming. Someone shaped like someone else we miss. I felt so stupid.
“I should go,” she said.
She and Jules were driving Astrid and Britta to the bus station in Breaker’s Rise. On the way back they were going to pick up some stuff we forgot earlier. I told her I wanted to take a walk and followed her out the kitchen door, heading out over the field, the flurries thickening around me.
I came to the slaughterhouse, the oldest structure still standing, and bent to tighten my bootlaces. My fingers were red and I was crying. I couldn’t untie the knot. My nose got stuffed up and I sat. The car started in the driveway. I clawed at the knot and tore my thumbnail. Tiny red droplets speckled the snow as I shook my hand. I sat down on a rock next to the slaughterhouse door. Old red bricks littered the ground by my feet where part of the wall had collapsed a while back. That’s where I was when they left. Tamara waved. I saw her get in the car smiling and almost threw a brick at her.
As I watched them drive away, I nearly threw up. They weren’t about making things better at all. They fucking knew that blowing up planes was a game changer and they were going to Paris. I grabbed the biggest brick I could find and threw it. It landed twenty yards away and disappeared in the snow. I grabbed another and threw that one too. Fucking dog tracks and film festivals. Transmission lines and air bases. It wasn’t about building anything. It was about getting away with it and proving you were smarter than everyone else. I got up and kicked the slaughterhouse door. They’d be in France in watching the fallout. I kicked the door again and the latch broke. I might be a coward for thinking about leaving but at least I wouldn’t take down the few weight-bearing walls on my way out, frail shims, matted grassroots swollen and floating in the water. I would at least have left behind something to cling to, even if it wouldn’t have kept me afloat, I wouldn’t take it from someone else. Not if I wasn’t staying.
I threw up on the snow and wiped my mouth on a frozen rag left on the ground. It tasted like blood and I threw up again. There was no way that Britta or Astrid or the others knew. Tamara didn’t like Astrid and she didn’t trust Britta. I’ll tell them, I thought. But what was I going to say? So there’s this action that you may or may not know about and I really hope neither of you are cops or that you aren’t friends with anyone who might be because I’m going to put a whole bunch of other people at risk by telling you this but…when I didn’t really even know what was going on. I had to calm down and figure it out. I had to come up with a plan.
Or maybe I didn’t.
I put snow on my face to cool it. While I was there a small yellow car started coming down the long driveway toward the farmhouse. I watched it without thinking. It was old with shot suspension, shaking on the dirt road and jerking in the potholes. I started walking back. I didn’t give a fuck who was coming. Fucking puppeteers, bloggers and future law students. I passed a goat and hissed at it like a cat. Tawny eyes with thick black strikes. That’s what Tamara should fucking have.
I was almost to the kitchen door when the yellow car stopped by the garage and a young man got out. I could see his brown shoulder length hair but didn’t recognize him at first. I pulled on the kitchen door.
“Della,” he called, “wait.”
He loped toward me. I remembered him, some friend of Britta’s from college named Bradley. He’d come through a few days earlier with some of the bike brigade organizers.
“Yeah?” I said.
“I left some textbooks and a pair of jeans drying by the fire. Have you seen them?”
“Whatever. I don’t know. Go look around.”
I let him go ahead of me and walked into the house, which was quiet.
“Is Black Francis here?” he asked. “I think I left the books in his room.”
I vaguely remembered Tamara saying she’d sent Francis out to cut a new trail between his yurt and a different part of the creek.
“No. It’s just me. Go look through his room.”
He got his things and was on the way out when the idea hit me.
“Hold on,” I said.
I gave him fifty dollars for gas and asked him to wait. I ran upstairs, grabbed my GPS, my rock hammer and my notes. I wrapped them in my red corduroy dress and jammed them into my messenger bag and whatever didn’t fit I left. In the side pocket was the Pluto phone. I pulled it out, turned it on for thirty seconds and then back off. Next, I went to Jules’s room and looked through every drawer until I found his passport. It was in an envelope with his birth certificate and I took them both. I went to Tamara’s room and did the same.
My last sight of the farm was through the back window of Bradley’s yellow 1981 Toyota as it crested Breaker’s Rise.
28—Road to Laos
I put the two passports and the birth certificate in a double sealed plastic bag with the last Hive phone, Pluto, and threw them in the river. I admit I blew a little air into the bag a little before I sealed it. Not enough to make it balloon, just enough to let fate take it one way or another. Then I called Star Bank Plaza One Visa and told them my card was stolen.
“How long ago?”
“Maybe a month,” I said, “I don’t use it much and didn’t realize it until I called to check the balance. I got some cash out when I first got the card but I haven’t used it since. The last time I remember seeing it for sure was when I stopped for gas in a town called Breaker’s Rise.”
“Did you use it there?”
“No ma’am, the machine was down. I paid cash.”
They said they would cancel the card, send me another and have a company investigator contact me. I destroyed my notes and maps. Shredded them to spaghetti at the brand new Fed Ex/Kinkos/KFC. Then I pulled the SIM card out of my personal cell phone and donated the phone to a women’s shelter.
Maybe Cady would have turned out just like Tamara and maybe not. There’s no way of knowing. I like to think she wouldn’t have. I like to think she would have been there that day in the car with me heading away from Breaker’s Rise. I almost pretended she was but I knew I couldn’t do that because she wasn’t and that kind of fantasy leads nowhere.
When Credence saw me, he said I looked a little feral but otherwise okay. “Healthier, maybe even. Not bad.”
But he didn’t mean it.
“Like when you first came back from Davis.”
Right after they blew up a building full of school kids and I lost my mind?
“There’s a blush,” he touched my cheek, “why do you think that is?”
“Must be that combination of science and emotional torment.”
“No. Just a bunch of hippy drama.”
The Czarina of Saturniidae flutters upward in a spiral of painted wings.
“Oh well, I guess that’s unavoidable,” he said and finished his coffee.
Hey, well, everybody, I got to go. They’re having a sandpainting contest down the street and I think I got a chance. Wish me luck! And, oh, by the way, say hi to Grace and Miro if they ever come down from the mountain. I’d sure like to know what they think about all this. Maybe have them leave a note.
I stood. I didn’t owe any of them anything. Not even an explanation. I went to my bank, fucking temple of predation that it was, and withdrew all my money. Since I had been living on the cash from the credit card, I had several paychecks in there and some savings. I caught a bus down to the travel agency in Redbird Square. They were having a sale on getting the hell out.
The window of the agency been redecorated with American eagles enjoying the wonders of Southeast Asia. White sand. Straw huts. Indonesian Sex Trade Barbie waits attentively on two birds of prey in festive shirts. PARADISE…IS ONLY AN OCEAN AWAY.
“You know, we’re providing a list of realtors now with every ticket to Bali.”
The travel agent with the coral skin was standing behind me with a red, white and blue slush puppie in hand and digging for her keys.
“We have a very popular package right now where local realtors actually meet you at the airport.”
“I need a ticket to Laos.”
In Laos there’s a Plain of Jars where a race of giants kept their rice wine. The vats are carved of stone, some weigh over two tons and the land around them is pocked with bomb craters, trench systems, urns and shrapnel. I thought it might be comforting to be surrounded by the ruins of another civilization.
“I’ll have to let the computer warm up,” the agent said once we were inside.
I noticed one of the desks had several eagles in Hawaiian shirts lying on their backs with talons clawing the air. She set the slush puppie on the other desk.
“That’s my next little project. It’s for our Hawaiian packages. I already have the slogan.”
A FOREIGN LAND…RIGHT HERE AT HOME.
I had a vision of little dark-skinned people getting sprayed by police gunfire, miniature sweatshops and border patrol, but that’s not what they meant.
“What about Guam?” I said. “It’s almost a state. Best of both worlds.”
“We did Guam for Fourth of July. I wanted to do a military base, like a cute flyboy World War II theme, but we’d just done that for Japan.”
The travel agent handed me a Lao tourist map of famous Buddhas, each one a gold triangle in a tangles of farm routes.
“These are good if you’re interested in culture.”
She handed another, Rivers: The Interstate of Laos, which was much better. She tried to hand me some city maps but I told her I’d make those myself.
“Aren’t you the little adventurer,” she said when I signed the paperwork.
I stopped in at work to get a free meal. Mirror was in the kitchen eating raw tofu out of a five-gallon tub with her hands. She asked me what I thought of the Farm, wrist-deep in milky water. I told her it was a lot like what I grew up around. I looked into the gulf for minute and thought about whether to tell her what I really thought. I wanted to explain to someone why I was leaving. Why I couldn’t be a part of it anymore, or a part of anything. I considered just showing her a newspaper. We just sent in tanks and swept some foreign valley until it was soundless and still. A spokesman called it a clear victory for local democracies. I saw a picture. It looked like empty grassland when we were done. I closed my eyes. I saw thousands of baby rats run weaving through the rye and clover. Would I start there? Or at the box-mall-church, or the Farm or France?
Mirror said Mr. Tofu Scramble was gone. I sat at the counter across from his empty seat making my packing list. At lunch, Ed, Logic’s Only Son came in and sat in Mr. Tofu Scramble’s chair. He made a big show out of it, leaned back in the seat and ordered coffee. BLT on rye. Extra bacon. I thought about telling him the chair was a goddamned deathtrap and that the co-pays for the pain meds alone would kill him. But I just I let him lean against the creaking Hellmouth and after a while he slunk back into his old seat and wiped the counter clean where he had been.
Mitch set his the BLT down in front of him.
“So I guess he really left, eh?” he said, looking over at me.
“Yup. Bali. Or Thailand, I don’t remember.”
“Bali,” He pulled a mint toothpick out of his pocket. “Didn’t think he’d actually do it,” he said and tore the paper from his toothpick.
He looked like he was about to cry.
“Oh, Della,” Mitch said through the kitchen window, “I almost forgot. Tamara called looking for you. She said she’d call back.”
“Cool,” I said, “I want to talk to her too. I have a new cell, let me write it down.”
I looked up the number for the regional offices of the FBI then passed it through the window to Mitch.
“Here, be sure to tell her to call me. I’ll definitely be around.”
On my way home I passed Devadatta. She was looking at an advertisement for a cruise line.
“Be a Part of It All” was written in pink script on an azure sky. A bald eagle circled the “a.” The cruise ship was as white as a glacier and salmon jumped metallic and frisky around the prow.
“Those things are awful,” she said.
“Floating zone of faunal annihilation,” I pointed to the rippling currents behind the ship, “if you look closely you can see a skull on fire.” I outlined a shape on the surface of the water. “I knew a clown who worked a cruise once. None of his clown friends would talk to him afterwards.”
“I can’t understand why anyone would go on one of those. I’m trying to practice opening my heart. It’s probably pretty hard to be human if you haven’t been before.”
Devadatta shifted the strap of her shoulder bag. The spine of a biochemistry textbook showed inside.
“Would you go?” I asked. “Not on a cruise, I mean, but leave for real?”
“I’ve got another year of school. I’d want to be able to work. I hear they need nurses everywhere,” she said. “So I’d wait.”
I thought I heard her voice waver but it might have been my imagination.
My plane left the next day. I didn’t see any reason to tell Credence and Annette beforehand. It was like with Mirror, there was no starting point for that conversation. I’d be gone before the argument took hold.
I walked into the house at dinnertime. They were in the kitchen. Credence had his cheek pressed against Annette’s belly. She was sitting at the table with her chair turned sideways and he was on his knees. Violet and blue dusklight from the western window crossed them. Credence’s face and hands, one on Annette’s shoulder and another on her knee, looked like they were carved of sandalwood.
Dear Fellow Travelers and Attending Bellyfish,
While in earlier communiqués I hinted that the time had come to sever myself from your guidance, I must now make good and leave.
May we all meet one day on the banks of a river that flows through a country, which is neither Old nor New Honduras and celebrate our reemergence as citizens, lovers and family.
Until then, I will try to find a cheap cell phone plan with international coverage and no roaming charges.
Friend of the Tiny Liver Hearts
Daughter of the Rat Queen
Nothing encouraging was said about the resiliency of life as it re-colonizes a wasteland—the sprig amidst the pumice; the independent coffee shop between outlet stores. I wanted something hopeful like that but I couldn’t really think of anything I could stand behind. Goodbye. I love you. Get out while you can. I am. Della.
The next morning the sun shone down on the progressive micro-economy of New Honduras. It glinted off the environmentally sound building materials and played on the gutters and disconnected downspouts of Colony of the Elect. I walked down the wide wooden steps of Credence and Annette’s house dragging a duffle bag behind me. I counted the leaves that blew across my path until there were too many to keep track of.
On the bus out to the airport I passed the new supermarket. All mud and sparkling windows. And Jimmy’s apartment, which was probably already rented out for three times as much as she paid for it. They were stringing razor wire along the roofs of several buildings and it flashed in white ribbons as we drove by.
Two miles from the airport we hit a checkpoint. Crickets everywhere. Fluttering and jumpy, they made us all get off the bus. They wanted to know about our travel plans. I told them I was going to look at rocks. And then briefly described the fascinating process of marine sediment deposition, lithification and the general tendencies of limestone erosion. I was in the middle of explaining the intricacies of stochastic modeling for background extinction and why I wanted to see the metamorphic rocks of the Sop Phan Formation—which are considered Neoproterozoic–Early Cambrian in age—when they stopped me.
“Purpose of your trip?”
“Fun,” I said.
They stamped my hand and moved me on.
Those final miles all I could think of was the Bellyfish and how I hadn’t finished the bathroom tile mosaic and as we came into the terminal I felt like a fish myself, near the water at last.
The airport was packed. Some people were leaving the country but many, many more were fleeing inward, away from the urban centers, scrambling up onto the continental plate. I walked up to a wall of airline agents ticking away at their computers. Looming behind them were Pan-Asian girls with welcoming lips, Navaho sunsets and Maori whale hunters poised to strike. E-ticket kiosks were in rows to my left and I picked one near a poster of Tlingit Shaman and printed my boarding pass. Della Mylinek. Flight #222 to Bangkok. Continuing on to wherever.
After clearing security, I still had hours to kill. I mapped the public art (treating it as a permineralization of outdated thought and culturally relating it to the nearest food court) and I shopped online at the business center. I got Devadatta a molecular model set with glow in the dark carbon atoms and ordered a case of Rice Krispies for Annette. For Mirror, I got a rock-climbing manual with a lot of good tips on stable rigging.
I was starting to feel a little better. Like it was all a normal thing. Leaving the country after a long stint at school. Sending presents to friends. Missing a devastated homeland, which had been crushed to filaments under the wheels of unchecked hyper-mobile Imperial capital.
I ate caramel corn and watched TV because there was nowhere to sit where one wasn’t on. The bomb threats were getting out of hand. They were getting called in everywhere. People who had a court date called them into the courthouse; people who didn’t want to go to work called them in at their jobs. School kids called the schools. It was the best goodbye I could think of. One guy who had had an intervention done on him actually called in one to the rehab he had agreed to go to.
Sales were falling and they were running profiles on patriotic shoppers. Trotting out the last three independent business owners, each a black rhinoceros of the Serengeti, grazing numbly in the hinterlands, they put them in front of the cameras crying. Small businesses, they mewled, small businesses—but they kept getting cut off by ads for Wal-Mart’s demi-anniversary sale so it was hard to hear them.
Somewhere about hour three they ran a promo for a show on the school bombing from the previous year, the one that happened when I was at Davis. Something in my mind flickered but I couldn’t touch it. My heart started to beat faster. And it missed, which felt like swallowing but it wasn’t swallowing. They said something about my flight over the PA but I couldn’t hear it because I was at a different gate so I walked out into the terminal mall.
All persons traveling to Bangkok on flight 222, all persons traveling to Bangkok. Flight 222 is delayed. Please stay near your gate for further updates, all persons traveling on flight 222 to Bangkok.
I tried to focus on the color of the carpet and the sound of the jets taking off in the distance but something was pulling at me, something Tamara said about how symbols matter more than anything because it’s the only real language we have left. How it’s the only thing with any poetry in it and how history is really just a map of the destruction and creation of symbols. And I was thinking about it when they showed that promo for the special on the anniversary of the school bombing because that’s the day I picked when the war started and I thought about how she was right, even though I told her she was wrong she was right. I picked that day because it was a symbol. Something awful, uncontrollable and random, and then I remember she said people would rather fund an empire than pay two cents more for plastic bags and she was right about that too because I saw it on the Wal-Mart campaign when we were standing out there with our leaflets and free coffee that tasted like water. I saw it then and that’s why I left. Tamara said it. Nothing would ever change until they saw what the real price was, right when they ran their cards.
I walked between the terminals, getting on and off the conveyors and counting the replicas of clustered businesses at the end of each spur. But it wasn’t until I was sitting back at the gate watching my sixth hour of television that I realized what was going to happen. Tamara and Jules were going to blow up the Wal-Mart near Superland™. They were going to do it on the day of the sale when all those kids were there. Just like that school and how it all happened last year. They were going to do it like I said, a trashcan fire in a tent, a bomb in the center because you’d never outrun the smoke with forty aisles of junk in every direction. It was a deathtrap. And more than that, it was a symbol. One you could even see from the golden valleys of France.
I ran to the payphones and called the Farm. Black Francis answered. He said everyone had gone back to town to prepare for the action. I called Tamara’s cell phone but it had been disconnected. I called Mirror. She answered with her mouth full and I had to tell who it was twice.
“They’re saying you’re a cop, dude,” she said and swallowed.
“Listen, I need to find Tamara or Britta or Jules or any of them. Are they staying with you?”
“Seriously, dude, are you a cop?”
“Are they staying with you? Do you know where they are? Would you please just tell me?”
I hung up.
I looked around for crickets. They were everywhere, chirping and eating their young. I ran up to one and told him that I knew someone who was going to blow up the Wal-Mart.
“What? You need a day off too?” he laughed, licking decayed plant matter off his forewing. “You should just be glad you have a job.”
The police operator said the same. I called the cable news desk too but I knew they wouldn’t report it. For the past several days they had been following two immigrant families around while they shopped at threatened stores. The head of the Church of Enlightened Capital had been on every station preaching about the fearlessness of the American consumer. They weren’t going to do anything.
I took one last look at the gate and ran. Down the center of the terminal mall, down the escalators and through the shiny phone bank rings by baggage claim I went, out the doors and onto the street. Where I caught a taxi back to town as planes arced above me flying pools of light over the Black Ocean.
It was night when I left the airport. The stars were clear and sharp through the taxi window and the terminal glowed behind, a swimming pool in the dark. We climbed out of the valley, angling through the traffic, and broke free for several miles before hitting the next checkpoint where we waited, with Bhangra rhythms pattering in the dashboard while the crickets asked us questions before careening again along the old rural highways and arterials past Pretty Little Hopes and toward the South Mall Hills.
I didn’t try to stop my thoughts from racing. Instead, I directed them into the commercial intertidal zone where Wal-Mart was and tried to come up with a plan.
I had some cash, an old credit card, a field journal and an English-Lao dictionary. Everything else was in my luggage. The cab driver said he knew a cheap motel near Superland™ and I asked him to take me there. It was called the Welcome Home. It was about half a mile from Wal-Mart in the center of the Blackberry Massacre. Opposite the motel was a Holiday Inn Business Express and at the last minute the cabbie tried to get me to stay there but I assured him I much preferred the independently owned meth lab across the street and that’s where he dropped me.
The woman who checked me in was flat-faced and part Samoan. She asked where my luggage was and I said the airline lost it. She smiled and pulled out a white plastic tub full of toiletries for sale and let me pick through for my favorite color of toothbrush. She didn’t have any knives or duct tape though which was a shame cause it meant I’d have to buy them at Wal-Mart.
“What time’s the curfew?” I asked. “Eight PM unless you’re shopping. Then you got to show a receipt.”
It was 8:30.
Value Town Outlet Parkway was quiet. A strange wind seemed to come from passing cars and the regularity of the architecture, like it was a box canyon with its own weather. I pushed my hair out of my face several times but it kept blowing forward and I gave up, letting it whip my cheeks or float down over my shoulders in the suddenly still and silent air.
Ahead lay the Batholith, Wal-Mart. Cars dotted the parking lot and security cruised the lanes. I hadn’t been there since the final days of the campaign when everything tanked and we were just hanging out for the ribbon cutting, watching it like a traffic accident. The last thing Credence had us do was to try to get future shoppers to sign onto a petition to “hold the company accountable to fair community standards.” Credence loved that, “fair community standards,” it was like some kind of organizer porn to him. As if everyone was going to sign that thing and suddenly discover their place in the constellation of class oppression. Little stars! Little stars! Blanched and atremble; unpattern yourselves—and each petition a prairie fire and all the signatures precious birds fallen and feeble rescued from the threadbare nest and carried gently home. Holding the hand of the dying. That’s what we were doing.
I came to it. Crowning failure with more failure. Wal-Mart. In front of me, made of fake rock, unremarkable and low to the ground. I tried to focus only the physical appearance. Observe it as I would a trace fossil, a burrow. The white block letters, the teal background and a main entrance in front with a door on either side. It was constructed by a method in which the walls were poured then raised (by Egyptians) and structurally bound together by the roof. I heard that the fire department hates that kind of building but it’s cheap and fast. Inside, there are five acres of retail space. The ceilings are about fifteen feet high and in the case of a moderate blast I imagined that smoke would race along the flame retardant panels until it hit the walls and moved down in a convective pattern to the floor and back up, making the exits the most deadly place to be in an explosion. Outside of the initial blast zone, that is.
I went through the main door and was confused by the brightness. I pulled out my notebook while my eyes adjusted and drew a box on the page with parallel scratches for the doors I had just come through. Then I meticulously walked up one aisle and down another making notes. In the middle of the household chemical / infant-toddler aisle a manager approached me. He was skinny with tan hair, acne scars and cornflower blue eyes.
“Can I help you?” he asked. “What is it you’re looking for?”
A Candyland ride through the slaughterhouse?
“A knife and some duct tape.”
He pointed me down a row and I went, counting the aisles and adjusting my sense of the floor plan. The center of the store was an intersection of accessories, electronics, small appliances and ladies’ wear. A bomb in a backpack would do it. Especially if the ceilings were dropped and there was a strong supply of oxygen through the duct system.
I could easily see it on fire. The wicker dogs, the prom dresses, the camouflage strollers burning. It was beautiful and I couldn’t remember why I wanted to stop it. I think that if I had a bag full of explosives, I might have let it slip, or forgotten it by the greeting cards and silver balloons with the superheroes on them and the ribbons trailing down to tie the fat baby hands to a generation of merchandising. I might have left it there. But I didn’t have a backpack with a bomb in it and if anybody was going to blow up the Superland™ Wal-Mart, it was going to be me. Not some fucking crusty punk.
I grabbed the duct tape and a decent pocketknife and left. There wasn’t much I could do that night anyway. Glance at the outside. Think. Everything else would have to wait until morning.
I slept with the sound of Vietnamese television coming through the walls and someone crying on the phone outside. Twice, I woke up thinking I was in Laos. When the sun did finally rise, I opened my eyes as if I had just shut them during a moment of uninterrupted thought. I washed with cold water, brushed and braided my hair and crossed the street for a continental breakfast at the Holiday Inn Business Express. There, I drank reconstituted orange juice with some low-level drug company reps and tried to clear my mind.
The New Land Trust Action was that day but I felt pretty certain that without the power outage at the airbase, not much would happen. And if it did, it wouldn’t be on me. That whole thing may never have been real at all. I didn’t know. There was also the possibility that Tamara and Jules might not even know yet that I’d stolen the passports, especially if they hadn’t packed and were planning one final trip back through the Farm. They might still think they were leaving and going to land, exiles, fresh upon the Boulevard and that thought filled me with bliss but it had its dangers too because if they still thought they were getting out, they might act more viciously. Either way, I needed to prevent them from entering the Wal-Mart or get it evacuated if they did. My plan was to stay near the two main store entrances and look for anyone from the Farm going in or out. I was sure Tamara would be there. She couldn’t help herself.
Steam rose from the Wal-Mart as the dew on the perforated metal siding evaporated in the morning sun. It was two hours before the store opened and the employees were already gathered outside. They shivered a little and some jumped up and down to keep warm while the manager, a tall man bald and shiny, read off the sales numbers from the previous day. Then he shouted out the national daily target and they got in a team huddle, did an Indian dance for greater poverty and went in.
I was standing near an embankment on the west side of the parking lot about a hundred feet from the doors. Ugly tight shrubs grew behind me, dense and tangled with beer cans. I sat down on the curb and waited. I killed twenty minutes wrapping my hands in duct tape like a boxer, for no reason at all.
The shoppers started coming. A huge SUV blocked my vision and I had to move a little farther back up the embankment to see. There were carloads of Mexicans with teenage children in sparkling t-shirts, pink and turquoise, laughing and swatting at each other and swinging mesh shopping bags. There were Ukrainian women wearing scarves pushing white-haired boys and black kids in close packs. There were metal chicks with tiny purses smoking cigarettes, guys just out of the army, and everywhere snarling siblings and strollers dragged by dazed white women, fat and depleted, to the front entrances of the store like it was a boat that could save them if they could only get on. They spilled out of the cars so fast my eye couldn’t track them.
The doors were still locked. The manager I’d seen earlier was beaming on the other side and pointing to his watch. People pressed up against the glass as he began to unlock the first door. I walked along a lane of parked cars trying to keep an eye on both entrances. The manager unlocked the second door. The crowd split in two and moved forward. More people were coming every minute, like it was a hanging or something. More and more and more people and I couldn’t keep my eye on all of them. Watching the whole crowd was now impossible so I decided to get closer to the doors.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a pink-skinned girl with red hair. I moved toward her but she turned away. I crossed in front of a line of trucks and saw her ahead of me. She was working her way into the crowd. I pushed through into the center but couldn’t catch up. Someone bumped me from behind and I tripped and people just flowed around me as if I were a rock in a river. When I got up, the crowd had shifted and she was by the door. I could see her face, her clear gray eyes.
It was Britta.
A few seconds later, I saw Astrid. She was in another part of the crowd heading toward the second door. An icy feeling came over my chest and ran down my arms. The skin on my head tingled like I was on speed. My eyelids were on fire. They were really going to do it.
Britta moved toward to the door on the right and Astrid to the one on the left. I was still about forty feet back, stuck in the crowd. I would never make it to the doors in time to stop them. I started yelling. It was all I could think of, to try to scare them off somehow.
“Britta!” I screamed. “Britta!”
Britta turned, her skin red and her jaw clenched. She looked right at me.
“Britta!” I yelled and the person next to me told me to shut up.
She looked around quickly then began moving sideways through the crowd towards Astrid. I had never really let it in, what it would feel like to watch something like that, a real bomb exploding around real people. As Britta got nearer to Astrid and the crowd pushed them closer to the doors my hope dissolved.
I elbowed my way in and cut to the right.
“Astrid!” I screeched and someone shoved me.
They threatened to call security and I told them to do it.
“Astrid! Astrid! Britta! Astrid!”
Astrid stopped moving, her blonde hair lank, and scanned the parking lot. She saw me and she saw Britta coming towards her. I could see her lips whiten. She stood still and waited. They reached each other long before I got to where they were. And by then they were out of the crowd walking fast toward the far right corner of the lot. I could see the green Mercedes parked by a lamppost. I finally got through the crowd and ran after them but they were in the car and pulling out before I even got close. I yelled their names one last time as they drove away but they never looked back.
I was shaking and coughing, mostly from fear. I leaned over with my palms on my thighs and tried to catch my breath. The air felt like glass knives. I swallowed a couple of times to wet my throat then stood up. I had been crying and didn’t know it. My nose was stuffed up and my face was hot and wet.
I turned back to the store. The front of it was swarmed and security was making people form lines but there too were so many of them so the knots at the doors just tightened. I started walking the perimeter in a semicircle to where I was before. I didn’t think Britta or Astrid would come back but I had to stay for a while to make sure. After that it was somebody else’s problem.
I pulled a muffin from the Holiday Inn out of my bag thinking I could eat it but I couldn’t and put it back. Not until the adrenaline left my body, which would take a while. I could feel it beginning though. Someone passed me with a cart full of disposable electronics, steaks and diapers. That’s when I remembered that it was the great maggot feast day and I didn’t want to be there anymore. I was so pissed off I started to cry again.
People were acting like idiots. I pushed one of them from behind, a big old jock. I told him he stepped on my foot. It wasn’t true but I felt better. It helped me turn the corner. Ten minutes later I was almost okay. I reminded myself I was beholden to nothing. I didn’t live anywhere. I walked faster, skirting the heart of the crowd. I might even be on a plane that night.
There was a loud noise by the front entrance. Someone knocked over a barbeque grill and someone else was freaking out about it. I glanced up just in time to see Tamara slip in through the glass doors. She had a red backpack and her lavender hair was in pigtails. She was chatting with the security guard while she waited for the line to move.
I just stood there. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t breathe.
She looked right at me and smiled before disappeared into the store.
BITCH! FUCKING BITCH! FUCKING VANGUARD BULLSHIT POSER MOTHERFUCKING BITCH!
I ran as fast as I could for the doors but security stopped me. I told them there was a girl with a backpack, 5’ 5”, purple hair and that she had a bomb but they didn’t believe me. Told me to wait in line. I pushed my way through to the other side and they grabbed me before I got there.
“Get a manager!” I said. “That tall guy I saw earlier. Or a cop, something!”
And they dragged out an assistant manager but he said they expected bomb threats on big sale days. I tried to tell them that this was different but they wouldn’t listen. They just thought I was a meth-head or something and the silver tape on my hands didn’t help.
I turned around and went back into the crowd and started telling the people in line. There’s a bomb in there, I said, a big one, and I saw the girl take it in and she’ll do it, I know her—but the right then the manager got on a bullhorn and announced that the store was filling up and they were going to have to start turning people away and, hearing that, people just blew past me with their eyes on the door and there was nothing I could say to stop them. Up front, the security guards were breaking out the liability waivers and people were signing them as fast as they could. Can one count for my whole family? Sure.
And I got in line too and forced my way closer to the front. A guy behind me started shouting, calling me names, but I kept moving until I was about ten feet from the doors. A guard handed me a white sheet of paper saying it wasn’t their problem if the store blew up and I put an “X” on it and threw it back at them and was about to go through the glass doors when the tall manager came out. He said the store was full and that no one could go in until other shoppers left.
I told him he had to let me in, that my friend was inside and I didn’t want to get separated. I said she had my asthma medication and I was having trouble breathing but he didn’t believe me because I was shouting and people said they’d seen me running and that I was cutting in line. So I said please, please, I’m not lying, but a security guard came over and told him I was making bomb threats earlier and the tall manager put his hand on my shoulder. It smelled like baby powder and he told me to calm down or they were going to have to ask me to leave. Then I said the real reason was that the girl in the store was my sister and that she was a junkie and had just gotten out of jail for theft and that I didn’t want to see her go back and that I saw her go in with a backpack and that I knew it was empty and that I was sure she was going to steal a whole bunch of stuff because she was good at it and they almost let me in but then they said no. And I said please, please, please let me in, and the tall manager put his hand on my shoulder again and someone behind me said I was probably trying to get to get at the kids’ clothes before they ran out and I said I didn’t have any kids and I told the manager I would leave them my bag and my ID if they’d just let me find her and that I would be quiet as a mouse because I was screaming then, and that I would buy diamonds and detergent and that it would only take a minute if they let me and they told me to step back. The guard’s hand was on my chest and he said to calm down and I said I would and walked away apologizing, with my eyes darting through the crowd. I tried to make myself breathe evenly even though I was terrified and no one would do anything.
A white bus pulled up with New Life Community Church stenciled on the side. Kids poured out. They were just handing out those waivers left and right, passing them up and down the line. Little white papers, little doves, fluttering over the crowd of children, and everyone laughing and excited like it was their birthday or something. Another bus pulled up behind that one and I thought, I should leave. I should leave before it happens because no one’s going to do anything and I don’t have to watch.
I paced back and forth on the edge of the lot while I tried to think of something. I had to because it was my fault. If I hadn’t let Tamara take the map, if I hadn’t put the Wal-Mart right there in the center of it like it was the mountain at the heart of the world I wouldn’t be there. I wiped my face on my shirt. Shopping carts piled high with the debris of nations rolled past and they let a few more people inside. Tamara wasn’t out yet so there was still time. I knew she’d never blow herself up. Self-preservation was a religion with her. I started walking down towards the parking lot but as soon as I got too far away to see the doors I ran back up to where I was. I tried to take a long breath but couldn’t hold it and coughed, gagging on the air.
More busses came with more children. They were bringing them in from all over the city. An hour must have passed while I was walking in small circles and Tamara still hadn’t come out. I know because I was looking for her so hard my eyes ached. I knew she’d have to come back through those doors. And when she did I’d know it was about to happen and I could prepare myself. Because I wasn’t prepared before. An undergrad told me, a pudgy girl with thick blonde hair walking back to her dorm. She said some people took over a grade school thousands of miles away. That there were hundreds of kids in it and that they were going to blow it up. It was like some sort of holiday or birthday. They were all waiting for something to start when it happened. And I didn’t think they’d do it. I didn’t think they’d actually blow up that school with all those babies in it. All on their birthdays, dressed for a party, I didn’t think they would but they did.
I tried to map the cultural trends leading up to it but as I did they grew, interconnecting and weaving backwards and sideways out to everything. Next to the megalithic institutionalized shredding of people’s humanity, marked by tombstone malls and scabby hills, the Styrofoam gullets and flag-waving god-chatterers casting their votes for eternal paternity on the lap rapists—next to all of that, the intimacy between a terrorist and his target was almost a beautiful thing but I still couldn’t solve that moment when they did it anyway so I grabbed more paper and widened my field of vision. I was mapping a basaltic flow of sub-cultural conflicts on individuality and Marxism when a large bomb went off in the courtyard outside my window. It shook the building and left my windows rattling. I ran out. Someone screamed and I flew down the stairs with the blood in my ears pounding and everything sounding like it does on when you’re on nitric oxide and I burst through the heavy front doors onto a quiet autumn quad. The sun was everywhere and the leaves were just turning gold and red and falling like open palms to the waving grass.
I stood in front of the Wal-Mart with the banners waving and the white papers flapping and the lines swelling all the time and I knew what I was going to see. People were honking by the front of the store and security was trying to get some of the cars out and I was crying and hitting my hips with my fists.
Then I saw Tamara. She was coming out of the store with her arms full of bags. The red backpack was gone. I knew it was just a matter of time.
I could have screamed but it wouldn’t have done anything and I could have tried to get them to evacuate the building but if they hadn’t let me in before they wouldn’t now and she was just walking away and there was nothing to do but watch and I didn’t want to because I had already seen it, last year when they said it was far away over the Black Sea and past pools of green light but it wasn’t. It was my neighborhood. I think the school kids were black and that’s why it didn’t get covered here and that’s why they were all speaking a different language. It was slang. And now they are celebrating it with a sale to commemorate the ribbon cutting with fifty percent off for school kids but it’s only today because it’s their birthday and they’re singing songs to little African birds and I have to do something. I stopped pacing and moved toward the crowd again. I wanted to say goodbye because someone should and you can’t expect the parents to be there and I want to see their faces and sing happy birthday for them, all those sweet little liver hearts, as they march into the store the second it’s unlocked by the regional manager smiling bald and shiny because he opened late because the district manager told him Jesus was gonna be there and he believed him but he wasn’t so he waited while the kids pressed their sweet black faces against the glass and passed notes (I wish I knew what they said but I can’t read Cyrillic and they wouldn’t show them to me anyway) I’m going to wait by where the carts are and I’m going to sing happy birthday to each and every one of them with their name and not just a verse for all of them together but one for each even though I can’t pronounce some of their names like Prichnikovaya and don’t know how to spell the made-up ones like Levonda. Lavonda? And I want to say it right because it’s the last time they’re going to hear it and I want them to know I did my best.
And I ran at the crowd but they grabbed me again and said to leave or they were calling the cops but I didn’t want to leave the little liver hearts because you shouldn’t be afraid like that, not when someone needs you, you should be able to look them in the eye, even if they’re dying and you’re scared and you can’t do anything, you shouldn’t run even if they’re howling and bleeding, you should stay and sit with them while they go because someone should and you just shouldn’t be afraid like that, enough to leave them alone like that when they only have a few minutes left, you should be there.
So I ran back up to where I was and sat down with the fear like acid inside me, on fire with tears streaming down my face and duct tape wrapped so tight around my hands they were numb. I sat there because there was nowhere left to go. I was at the spine of the world. Turning away was as bad as leaving, or hiding in a college, or a restaurant, or clutching the torn shred of a failed movement or pretending to build one out of spectacle. It was all the same. I turned to the store, fixed my eyes on a patch of cement that ran along the front and waited. I knew what was coming. I saw it every night. People filled their carts and packed their trunks and every time a bus pulled up and kids ran out I made myself stay because even though I knew there was a timer on the bomb, I didn’t know when it was set to go off and I didn’t want to look away.
The sky changed color and the variegated tones of the cars in the parking lot shifted every few hours. I sat there all day, burning. I saw Tamara across the lot. She was watching too but I didn’t care anymore and she went away. She was just there to see if I still was. I know her. She’s like that.
It got dark and the crowds thinned. The streetlights turned off and the emergency lamps came on and the Wal-Mart was still lit, bright and white, as the employees walked out to their cars and drove away. The tall manager came out last and locked the doors and left and I sat there listening to the quiet. I thought I heard the trickle of water in a culvert but I don’t know.
28—The Skateboard Sutta
I’m not sure how long I was there before I realized nothing was going to happen. Nor do I know how many times that thought came to me before it stayed. It would hit me, suddenly; Tamara’s not going to do it. She never was. She wouldn’t. And then that thought would get replaced by slivers of her speech glued into a new constructed meaning and I could see that we had only seconds, that she would do it, and then I would know beyond any doubt that the Wal-Mart was about to explode with all those kids inside. I’d wait with every muscle tense, my heart splayed helpless, a jellyfish on the sand. And then nothing would happen and I had no idea why.
Tamara might have planned to bomb the Wal-Mart and run into a technical snag. Or she might have changed her mind. Maybe she was just buying rope and forgot her bag inside. Maybe it was all going to happen tomorrow—I sat through every possibility, each a wild universe, a bomb threat? A Buzz Lightyear? O my monks, all is burning… The fear dissipated and the shame rose then it went the other way. Countless times, when I was on the verge of leaving, my thoughts would take a new form, new sight or sound or feeling or just a desire for it all to be true and the whole thing to blow up so that I wouldn’t have to wait like that anymore. And all of it would come back, the terrible conviction, and I’d run after it until it vanished again and I fell clutching, and what was the all that was burning? I saw a thousand specters and grabbed at 999 of them.
Hours after the store closed, a station wagon drove out onto the empty lot. It slowed to a stop in the middle and a man got out of it. He was in his forties, stout with thin hair. He came around the other side of the car and waited. A young girl climbed out and he handed her the keys. She got in the driver’s seat and he looked around, probably because it was past curfew. Then he got in beside her. She tried to start the car but it stalled. She tried it again and it went a few feet and stalled. Finally she got it going and lurched forward. She drove in a shaky line, then slammed on the breaks and stalled it again. I watched her like there was nothing between us, like we were inside each other.
At the end of an hour she could keep the car going. She drew lazy circles on the grid of the lot before pulling into a parking space and getting out.
After they left I was alone. I heard bullets and felt deep tremors in the earth but I didn’t move. Cady sat beside me and I was afraid that if I stirred for even a second, she would be gone. I stayed that way all night and let her leave on her own. Some things are so sad that they have no name. I have tried to name them and I can’t. I sat there and watched those things dissolve into that wasted land.
People will do anything. Smash a kid’s head against a rock. Maim silverbacks and drag them across a square. Run through landmines to protect someone they’ve never met. Waste their bodies on grace. A high wire, a hurdle, a diving plane. It’s chemistry and people are shifting compounds, not elements like I thought. Sitting up all night, watching the Wal-Mart fail to blow up, I saw an endless spectrum. I don’t mean some soft sell about life on the banks or shades of gray. What I saw was a spectacle. A death chamber. A chandelier. A thousand rooms. By the edge of an industrial park with my face burnt and my swollen duct-taped hands, I finally joined the human race. I became a tenant in that house.
I was not afraid of horror, I was afraid of beauty, of what it could do to me if I let it. I felt like a sun, expanding and brighter than anything. My fingertips burned and my red eyes looked over the emptiness. I cut the tape off my hands and watched the skin turn from white blue to pale pink as blood flowed back into them.
The parking lot glistened, a black frozen lake. There was light atop the subdivisions. I stood up and fell over, scratching my face and neck on the clipped branches of the tangled shrubs. When I got back up my legs were on fire. I stamped my foot and millions of nails went through my sole fast enough to shatter my clay femur and I fell again.
There was a trickle of water. I hadn’t imagined it. It was quiet enough for me to hear it and I followed the sound. I climbed over a mound of bark chip landscaping. On the other side was a drainage pipe through which clear water ran. It was a culvert under some kind of utility road. But the road had moved, curving now to the left and wider. The old cement was torn away and the ribs of the pipe left exposed, oxidizing in the open air.
I limped over to it and knelt down to get some water on my forehead. I was in a land between, not over the Black Ocean, not on the shores of New Honduras, not in the forests of Grace Mountain. A ghost on the site of the Blackberry Massacre.
I unbraided my hair and combed it with my fingers then washed my face for real. My sweatshirt was filthy so I took it off and held it in the icy water until it was soaked then used it as a rag to clean my calves and arms and to wipe my boots. Then I left it there at the mouth of the drainage pipe and walked, bare-armed, out onto a side road that fed into Value Town Outlet Parkway.
There were a few cars on the road and some busses. People were going to work. I stood around at a bus stop for a while listening to people talk. Some kind of Southeast Asian language, Cambodian maybe. They were dressed like Mexicans and had hard plastic names tags. Señor Chankrisna. Señor Nath. Señoritas Boupha and Thirith with their lemon and cherry striped ponchos, their black pants and passing around a pack of Cambodian cigarettes with a white hawk on it. I watched the bus doors open and fold shut behind them. I didn’t get on. I waited as groups came and went.
I saw men in satin union jackets, hungover and red. I saw bleached blonde Latinas with fake violet nails embedded with rhinestones tapping their fingers, clicking them against hard vinyl purses. I saw black, white and Filipino nursing assistants in Hawaiian scrubs, tall and wide with bent backs and thin gold crosses laying like silk over their clavicles. I can’t say what I saw. I saw mean children and scared men and disoriented women in wigs from costume stores and pressed and shaven Arabic men with wedding rings and polished shoes and groups of teenagers swinging themselves into place, throwing back their heads with their mouths open, their arms along the seat backs as they passed, stuttering out of sight.
I got on the bus at noon and rode it into the older part of the city. I walked down the street with all the pawnshops, looking in the windows. I saw a whole wall of burning TVs. Fire on every screen. And I saw my own face flash by, a person of interest. But that was just another storyline too so I kept walking.
I ate lunch at burrito cart on the south side of town near the water. That’s where I saw the paper with my face on it. In the picture I was blonde and my hair was tied back. It was my ID photo from Davis. It didn’t say much, just that they wanted to talk to me in connection with the bombings. I thought that made a lot of sense. I would want to talk to me too if I were them. But I wasn’t and sat on a bench near the water and thought about other things.
I walked further south along the new promenade under the sweet gum and crape myrtle trees until it dead-ended by a convenience store. A boy with a skateboard was hanging around by the dumpster talking to people when they came out. He had on a plastic trench coat and a t-shirt with a big white skull on it. I went over to him and asked him what he was doing.
“You want to buy me some beer?”
“Sure,” I said and he started to hand me money but I said I’d pay for it.
He shrugged and inclined his head toward the store. He was maybe fourteen. His face was bony and his hair was dyed black and growing out strawberry blond at the roots.
I got the beer and we went down by the river.
“Do you like The Misfits?” I said, pointing to his shirt.
“I just like the shirt,” he said and opened his beer, “don’t really know the band.”
His skateboard was tipped up, pivoting gently beneath his two forefingers.
I pulled out a beer and opened it.
“What are you going to do tonight? I don’t mean it in a weird way. I’m just curious.”
“Get drunk. Skate around.”
“Will you go home?”
“Why? Do you like being there?”
“My dad sucks.”
“Does your dad suck worse than all this?”
I waved my arm across the water and the city and everything I saw.
“Maybe,” he said, “I don’t know.”
I took one more beer and let him have the rest. The sun was setting and I wanted to say something helpful but I knew he wouldn’t understand so I said something stupid that made no sense because I had been thinking things all day and there was no way I could explain them and I shouldn’t even have tried.
“Everything’s on fire,” I said. “The guy who won’t sell you the beer, your dad, the Ravage all around us, your feelings about the music you like, it’s all on fire.”
“Well, I wish it was on fire for real,” he said and kicked his board down, “because this all sucks.”
“Yeah, well, me too. I wish it had all burned away so I wouldn’t have to watch.”
He put the beer under his arm and headed off in one direction toward an apartment complex that I’d passed on my way down. I headed off in another.
It took me an hour to find a pack of crickets imaginative enough to believe that I should be taken in to custody. It wasn’t penitence. It was just a lack of options.
By the time I turned myself in I was pretty run down. No electrolytes at all. My hands and face were chapped and I had a lot of scratches but I was as lucid as I have ever been, clear and attentive. I watched each person who came and talked to me and could almost see the flames licking up around them.
I was held as a possible terrorism suspect. Grace and Miro were so proud they could barely stand it. Like it was lefty Christmas just for them. Viva North Pole Libre.
There was a lot of debate about the timeline of events and my whereabouts. Some of which could have been solved earlier if anybody in my family talked to cops. But they don’t. Years of training. They said Grace wouldn’t even tell them my middle name.
“It’s Rachael,” the FBI guy kept saying, “we know it’s Rachael. It’s a matter of public record. You’re not keeping anything from us. Della Rachael Mylinek. I’m holding her ID right here. Public record.”
Credence said she made him cry but he probably just said that to cheer me up. He said every time they’d ask Miro a question, he’d get that look like he was watching snowflakes fall. Credence gets that look too sometimes.
I saw Grace for a few minutes. My mother is beautiful. Her hair was the color of late fall when all the red and brown leaves are turning black but haven’t yet, should have and haven’t. I bet she did make those crickets cry.
The papers said I was a scientist, which was media code for Nuclear Secrets so everyone had to watch computerized models of mushroom clouds on TV for days. There was even a site where you could type in your zip code and see a model of your local fallout patterns under the current weather conditions. Which were changing.
“I’m wanted in connection with a series of terrorist attacks,” I told the guy who brought me my Gatorade. “You should be scared of me. I’m a geologist.”
Grace always said I was good at entertaining myself.
They put me in alone so that I didn’t convert the masses.
I didn’t ask why they thought I was a terrorist. And I didn’t answer when they asked why I didn’t ask. In one particularly intense interrogation I decided to give them a brief history of the planet. Starting at about 4.6 billion years ago and sweeping gracefully up to the present. My favorite part is the 2 billion years between the prokaryotic and eukaryotic cell. It’s riveting, really. I get excited. I did it once when I was drunk at Davis and nobody talked to me for a week. But the FBI loved it. I could tell.
What became clear after several meetings with the agents was that they didn’t really have anything. It was mostly the panic I caused in the airport when I failed to board at the gate. Apparently, they pulled my bag off the plane to Laos and blew it up on the Tarmac to just make sure there wasn’t a bomb in it. Then the terminal went into a security shutdown and the cameras went live and my face was everywhere.
Over the next two weeks a lot of people came to my defense. Coworker Franklin said I always showed up to work on time. My professor from Davis flew up with copies of the Journal of Paleobiology for everyone and talked about the rigors of academia and the immense pressure on doctoral students. Mirror denied that I was antisocial and went into elaborate detail about my behavior at the party. She even dragged the Russian guy to sign an affidavit saying I was with him that night. They asked if anyone else had seen us together, which I thought was pretty funny.
In the end they didn’t release me because of any of that. Some apartment manager caught Jules and Tamara rifling through people’s mail and they got busted for identity theft. They were awaiting arraignment at the county when the bag I threw in the river washed ashore south of the city. Finding the last of the Hive phones sent the crickets into a chirping frenzy. The wireless company’s records showed that the phone had been used near Breaker’s Rise, which matched with my stolen credit card report. Tamara’s face was on security camera footage from the dog track and that, along with the lack of alibis for the time of the bombings, pretty much sealed it.
I suppose I could have jumped up and down and claimed to be the art director of the consumer apocalypse. Gone down with ship and all. But I wasn’t the one who bombed those places. I just thought they looked pretty on fire. Sort of. Now that everything is it means less.
When I got out I spent a few days with Grace and Miro up on the mountain. They never asked me what my role was in the bombings or about Jules or Tamara. That way they could pass a lie detector test. They’re still secretly hoping I am a terrorist with a more far-reaching plan. Something vast, tied to a huge underground of new Internationalists. Mostly though, we talked about Credence and Annette and the soon-to-be-here Bellyfish. And about Southeast Asia because of my ticket to Laos. There was a substantive discussion about the transition of former colonial provinces to fledgling communist governments without a stable economy or adequate cultural reference points to sustain them.
“You can’t expect a thousand years of oppression not to result in rage when the power dynamic shifts,” said Grace.
“I don’t,” I said. “If it shifted now I’d probably want to blow up a small star.”
She kissed me on the forehead like I was ten.
Coworker Franklin said I could have my job back. He’d cut some deal with the new owners to keep on any employee who could get it together enough to get a food handler’s card and I already had one. So, despite being recently held as a terrorist, I was a model employee.
My first day back in town and out of jail, I went down to Rise Up Singing to see what it was like. The sign over the door said RISE in fatigued metal and there was a new mural, a big social realism piece with a remodeled house in the center and a thick red line over the top that turns into dashes then disappears into an endless sunlight. But it was all one big ember so I started working there again. I didn’t care which little piece of orange carbon popped out and cracked at my feet. Hello! Imbue me with meaning! I’m a little piece of gender identification. Crack! I’m a down in the gutter art intellectual. Thwizzz… (the tiniest of voices) I’m a nineteenth century neo-classical vagabond. Phit. I’m a spaceship. It just didn’t matter.
Mirror quit outright.
“Fuck Franklin. That fucking fish killer. And fuck the new owners. If I wanted to have a food handler’s card, pull micro beer and listen to Enya, I’d go to fucking college.”
Mirror didn’t seem too broken up about Tamara going to jail either.
“Whatever,” she said, “she’s always been a little faggot. I’m just glad she’s not as much of a hippy as I thought, you know, with that farm and the goats and all.”
I don’t know for sure why Tamara and Jules didn’t take me down too except that “whoever did it” was getting a lot of credit in the subculture, mostly for the urban targets and names of the terrorist groups, my tattered little flag. I don’t think they wanted to share the attention. When Tamara and Jules actually got charged, it was Bastille Day in the squats. Better than a police riot. I personally know of at least three vegetarian restaurants and a record store where they were gods. I even heard a coffee shop in the Midwest. The Breaker’s Rise Two. Free vegan cornmeal blueberry muffins for life. Credence says there are even t-shirts with them looking all punk rock on the front with the bombing sites listed like tour dates on the back. I haven’t seen them. It’s the kind of thing I would normally wear. Not in this case, but in general.
I told Credence that and got a lecture on the difference between strategies for political change and merchandising.
“I’d still wear it, if I didn’t know them. I’d wear it.”
“It’s the purest form of communication.”
The t-shirt, the bumper sticker, the bomb. The undifferentiated ocean of brutality I had been drowning in had undergone a change. It was as violent as it had ever been but it wasn’t personal. The waves were not random. They were simply the rocking back and forth of actions and reactions. The slogan, the talking point and the bullet were all elements, atoms, leaving behind banded marks. It ebbs and crashes, pulling grass, sand and small animals into the sea. I know shouldn’t care, that it’s just erosion and happens to everything. But I do, I still care, I still cling to the shore.
Credence and Annette painted my room pale gold for the Bellyfish and hung mobiles, stars and birds that circle across the skylight. I lie in bed and I watch them for hours. I still stay awake and listen to the world at night.
Mirror suggested I try cranial sacral therapy.
“You should totally do it. I also know this dude who did it after a really bad head injury. He said it made him dream in magenta.”
Instead of retributional geology?
Mirror said when she first met me she thought I was a little out of my mind. I told her it was true. I hadn’t watched a school full of children get blown up a thousand times. I was less settled than I am now.
As a local celebrity, I was asked by a teacher at an alternative high school to come speak to his class about the history of the earth. About how we think the moon was made. About comets and asteroids and extinctions and how the sea was filled with ammonites and how there wasn’t any grassland and that planets die like everything else—babies, continents, solar systems. I don’t have the part after that. Just like with the skateboard-goth boy down by the river, I don’t have a god or a country hiding in my hands. I don’t even have a saying or some kind of joke. Consider the lilies…(voiceover to be drowned in howling winds of the holocaust). So I decided to bring in a bunch of concretions and some rock hammers and let the kids bash the hell out of them. It seemed like as good a finale as anything else.
The principal stopped us in the hall. Behind her were construction paper flowers and soccer trophies in a glass case under a banner that said “Welcome Home, Birds of Prey.” I was momentarily sorry the school had not been on my target list.
The teacher introduced me as Professor Mylinek, eminent geologist and former terrorism suspect, which she didn’t think was funny. They wanted to see my notes and have me sign a waiver so they could videotape the class in case they needed to turn it over the FBI. They also confiscated the rock hammers so we had to have the kids take the concretions outside and smash them on the sidewalk. They looked like a bunch of angry seagulls. Which was pretty great too. Any fossils inside those rocks were destroyed but it felt good and the principal got it all on camera through the window of the science lab. The teacher said that’s what the kids liked best, feeling dangerous. But I still saw the gulf between us, a short lifetime of thoughts. Future soldiers and tiny liver hearts, universes. Atoms.
32—Tiny Liver Hearts
The day before the war started, Annette accidentally knocked over a metal bookshelf in the basement. She was trying to kick some heavy boxes across the room because she couldn’t lift them and one of them got stuck. She got mad and shoved with her foot and the whole shelf came down. I heard the noise from upstairs and ran.
“Annette!” I yelled. “Annette!”
When I opened the basement door, she was crying. The bookshelf was on its side and medical reference books were everywhere. She was back up against the wall in the corner with her arms crossed trying to hold still. She was okay, but as I moved closer she shivered.
That morning I’d gone with her to the doctor to look at the Bellyfish. They put us in a dark room and the radiologist coated her belly with clear jelly.
“It helps get better pictures,” she said.
I sat down and looked at the monitor. It looked gray and pixilated like an old TV.
“Well that’s one of their heads,” the radiologist said. “They’re big babies.”
Annette’s face looked blue in the monitor light as she watched the Bellyfish.
“See that, Della?” her voice was soft and crackly. “That’s her little arm.”
A little starfish arm moving like every direction was forward.
Annette took the bus home and I walked. I looked back at her standing at the bus stop. She’s like one of those women on the posters in the Ethiopian restaurants, the ones the North African tourist bureau puts out. Noble and frightening. I could see her throat and fingers wrapped with gold raising her arms. Teff blowing like sand from her clenched fists.
The light changed and I crossed the street, cutting through Redbird Square down to the river. It was Friday and the beginning of a three-day weekend. Normally it would have been busy but it wasn’t and busses passed half full. Taxis waited in line.
All week they had been showing maps on TV. Newscaster Ken was finally learning how to pronounce the names of smaller nation states that had long been on the periphery. The stores sold out of water and the city was emptying. I walked to work and counted the vacant houses, all with kitchen lights on, all with the original trim restored.
Mr. Tofu Scramble said when they took the bars off the windows in Old Honduras there was a big party. They roasted a soy pig and the first 100 through the door got a house. He did, anyway. Told me he could live for ten years in Bali off the sale. I told him I hoped he wouldn’t have to. He was right about the time to get out, though. It had passed. You could feel it.
When I heard the bookshelf crash, I thought it had finally started. So did Annette. She couldn’t stop crying. The impact of the encyclopedias and reference books and that heavy metal shelf, all hitting the cement floor at the same time, made the house shake. I thought it was a car bomb going off somewhere nearby. Annette didn’t say what she thought it was.
When the shelf went over it hit a hanging lamp that I’d rigged up to make it seem less like an interrogation chamber down there, mostly because that’s where I would be living. The lamp was still swinging back and forth when I opened the basement door, which was another reason I thought something else had happened. Annette stared at it, transfixed. I couldn’t get her to look at me.
I remember telling Jimmy about how it was when I first met Annette. How she’d scared me because I didn’t really know any black people. I only knew how I was supposed to feel about them—Now, Della, when you meet a Person of Color, make sure you look them in the eye and open your palm so they can see that it’s only a sugar cube.
“It’s like that everywhere in one way or another,” she’d said. “It was the same for me. You can live in one valley and think the people in the next are a totally different species.”
Annette constructed of tiny mirrors.
Miro told me when he was a boy he had a pet rabbit. They moved into a neighborhood where it was all Slovenians and the first week he was there some boys ripped open its chicken wire cage in the yard and killed it.
“My parents told me it was a dog.”
“What did you do when you found out?”
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s not really any different, people, dogs, when the thinking is that way. It’s the same isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but how can you even sit there knowing people are like that?”
“They were kids too. I’m sure they’re different now.”
“Yes, but how can you fucking stand to live in this world?”
I was at work the next day when the war officially started. There were planes and sirens and traffic jams. It was just after the lunch rush, which was mostly tempeh reubens and carrot-ginger soup. The new owners were falling all over themselves trying to make friends with the staff, who were working like they’d been pressed. The restaurant was busy because carrot-ginger is the only soup of the day we have that isn’t gross and everyone gets real excited about it. One guy calls every day at 11 AM when the soup goes up to see what it is. When I told him it was carrot ginger, he acted like I had found him a kidney match.
The construction on the patio was almost complete. Broken bricks and recycled concrete glued into green resin so that in the rain it would look like river rocks. Chains of colored lanterns dipped across the courtyard and crisscrossed high and off center over where the shed had been.
The siren went off about 3 PM and no one knew what to do. There wasn’t a basement. Someone said to get under the tables and stay away from the windows but no one did, not even the person who said it. When the first blast hit, everyone ran. Mitch was standing in the street looking up at something and pointing. I could see her green eyes staring straight into the sun when the second blast hit. Then I saw her running too.
I ran out the side door and made it into the doorway of a brick building across the street. A bus trying to veer away from a collapsed wall of an apartment complex hit a telephone pole and it went down. Sparks shot into the sky as cables snapped and whipped around etching electric meanders in the sky. Some hit water and blue light shot up the poles and across the sidewalks that were wet from an earlier rain.
I crouched in the doorway, pressing myself back into the corner, but I could still see the street. There was a large crack as a bolt of white current shot laterally through the air and contacted the metal streetlight on the other end of the block, blowing it to pieces and engulfing a car underneath in lavender flame. Particles oscillated faster and faster as the heat rose and I thought for a second I could see the real shape of things, the radiating blackbodies incandescent and brilliant, the seamless stream. The Rat Queen shook her fur free of beads and pennies and the Saint with the Black Tears lifted her robe. Thousands of new planets spun out from underneath, filling the sky like clouds of fireflies.
Annette says I’m too hard on the world, that I only see one side.
Grace says I’m afraid of my own longing.
I looked around at the smoke and people. I couldn’t find any hate in me anywhere. The world is a violent child none of us will get to see grow up.
I decided to love it anyway.