Sheer exhaustion likely simply took over as he stood leaning on the axe handle, leaning the direction towards his cabin down the hill, towards his pregnant wife preparing some meager something for supper as she sat on a chair out front, towards the open ground leaning towards the river a quarter mile beyond. A light breeze lovely with autumn scents ruffled his hair and cooled the sweat dripping over his body. Six months since he spied this section of ground. He’d cleared trees to add to the open ground that he could cultivate in the spring. Four months since he’d completed the tiny 10x10 foot cabin that would protect them through the winter. Three months since they’d exhausted the last of the dried beans and cornmeal they’d brought with them. Two months since he completed the small smokehouse in which he could cure enough meat to see them through the winter. Two weeks since he’d seen his nearest neighbor who worked a farm a couple miles distance, and that only close enough to wave. Six hours since he’d climbed this slight rise, intent on felling and chopping up one more tree, adding one more tiny bit to what he might one day call a farm. One more tiny bit to his world. And two hours since he’d swallowed the last of the water he’d carried up with him.
He gazed at the scene in front of him and he tried mightily to see in it the pastoral scene his sister had painted to hang over the mantel of their father’s home back in Connecticut. A beautiful scene of a neat farmhouse and barn, straight rows of healthy crops and fat livestock, all happy under a blue sky and a yellow sun. It had captured his imagination as a young man; he’d felt drawn into it. He could see himself as part of the artwork, contentedly nurturing its little world. It had so enraptured him he’d felt compelled to bring his young wife west to coax from the wilderness just such a paradise. He’d stood near to this spot many times over the past six months and thought of that painting and projected it onto his little farmstead, and he tried now to do it again.
But he couldn’t.
The world before him seemed only roughly hacked out of the earth, ragged and torn, a propagation of toil and poverty. He felt lightheaded, dizzy; he felt as though he were somehow above himself, floating like a spirit, trying to grab a vision of present and future perfection that refused to achieve focus. He felt so tired; so worn out. He let his head drop. He wanted more than anything to simply lay down, close his eyes, and let the world go dark.
He walked slowly back to his wife, instead. Plopped down on the ground next to her. “You worked yourself too hard and didn’t drink enough water, didn’t you?” she asked him, and he just nodded and reached for the water jug next to her. “I told you, more clearing can wait. You needs spend your days foragin’ and huntin’ and fishin’ and adding to our food stocks. Trappin’ a pelt or two might also bring a few dollars we could surely use.” He shrugged. “Darlin’,” she asked, “Wouldn’t you like to spend a couple days down at the river just fishin’? Just fishin’ and sittin’. Look how tired out you are.”
He took another swig of water. “D'ya ever wonder if I’ve brought you to ruin? If this was the right thing to be doin'?”
She gave him that look of hers; that look that strongly suggested foolishness on his part. “You’ve seen me getting’ sick many a morning of late?” she asked. He nodded, slowly, because he always proceeded cautiously when foolishness on his part was being suggested. “Well, that’s what all this is right now,” she said and swung her head in such a way as to indict the land around them. “Just a little morning sickness.”
Five thousand drones were looking for him. They hovered over the city in a persistent hum, sniffing the twilight for a particular electronic signature they were programmed to read as his, no idea who or where he was or what he looked like. They were programmed to detect what he was thinking.
They could read every signal from every device. Everything was connected. Every computer, keypad, monitor, SSD, appliance, lightbulb, plumbing fixture, door lock, garage door, thermostat, security camera, etc.; by rigid and harsh laws, everything every human being touched was connected, every action communicated to the immense databases that categorized, analyzed, and judged. Every word or brushstroke from every artist was in particular noted. The Authoritarians brokered no deviance. Their databases programmed the drones to look for specific signals that had been targeted as indicators of inappropriate thought – in particular, words as they were being written, images as they were being created – and then to move rapidly in. Anything tagged to his writings were tops on the list.
But he had a way to hide.
The device was so illegal its detection would result in his disappearance into a permanent quarantine facility first established during the pandemics of half a century earlier; “unhealthy thinking” being the Authoritarians current version of a pandemic. He had determined the best time to use the device was between 6:30 and 10:30 PM – that was when residential sections emitted the greatest electronic signatures, the density of which could help hide him. Every apartment in his building and every building around him was crackling with activity. He took the 1 inch by 2 inch by .35-inch device out at 6:50PM and placed it on his keypad, effectively blocking electronic impulses from getting through and storing them. He moved his fingers rapidly across his keypad; each position represented a letter, each series of strokes represented words. Every sentence added to his newest paper. He’d been working on it for several weeks, no more than 30 minutes a night in case the block turned out not to be perfect. Tonight, he finished the paper and prepared to upload it.
He was not a writer by profession; he was a social scientist. Almost a year ago, he had become an outlaw by publishing a 10,000-word thesis with the following title and synopsis:
Factors Contributing To Homo Sapiens Evolutionary Failure
It broke the status quo in several ways. First, it suggested that diversity, which The Authoritarians discouraged, was actually good. Second, that acquiescence to change and adaptation was actually good. Third, that ideas of inferior peoples were a superstition. And lastly, it suggested that human beings under the leadership of The Authoritarians would one day be supplanted by The New Ones.
The New Ones, who had begun emerging with the pandemics would replace Homo Sapiens, just as Homo Sapiens had replaced Neandertals.
He had written three more papers after the first; this would be the fourth. Each reinforced and documented the premise. Each paper had rapidly gained support, including many other scientists who wrote their own papers confirming the premise. Increasingly, people were coming to believe that human’s maladaptive behavior could be changed; they could coexist with The New Ones. Just not under The Authoritarians.
This, of course, put The Authoritarians right out of their water.
He effected the ‘send’ command; the new paper began attaching itself in tiny snippets to every electronic signal it could find. Every time a light switched on, a channel changed, a toilet flushed, every keypad stroke, refrigerator opening, toaster popping. Every signal had a bit of the paper hiding in it. Even if a drone sniffed it, it couldn’t track it, and certainly couldn’t track it to him.
Took about five minutes to upload. He hid the device once more. He wanted to peak out the blinds covering the windows to see if drones were moving towards him but knew such an act would look suspicious. He sat, quietly, and listened. He could hear their hum in the background. There was no change in them. After a while he got a beer from the fridge. He wondered if The New Ones drank beer. He wondered if there would be any cross breeding, like there was with Homo Sapiens and Neandertal. He wondered if The New Ones, so unaffected by any Authoritarians malfeasance, knew of his papers. But he also knew, from their point of view, that it wouldn’t matter.
He had opened a canvas in his mind many miles back, sheer luck he’d been pushed against the side of the railcar where the gaps between its wooden planks gave him a narrow view outside, albeit a freezing one. How many hours now? Six? Eight? Maybe not that long? Maybe even longer? Men packed standing up like frozen fish in a box, shoved in tight until only half of them could inhale at any one time, then the door slammed closed. And locked.
No escape but to ride the train along the Volga to wherever it was going.
He was just a timid 15-year-old taken from his father’s farm near Ural’sk, given a uniform (but no rifle) (or heavy coat) and drilled with thousands of other young men to run at something; essentially, to charge. Their training lasted no more than a week before the train came for them. He was not athletic. He was not strong. He enjoyed drawing, was often in trouble with his father for doing just that instead of his farm chores. His father chided his mother for “coddling” him. The train would go for a time, then stop for a bit. Then go a while more, then stop for a bit. He knew other young men were being loaded into other railcars. His own car stank from sweat and flatulence and piss and he could guess what else.
He drew, in his mind, as the train jerked along, profiles of the men around him. When that got boring he drew landscapes or the occasional dilapidated buildings he could see between the planks. He was glad for the fresh air, but shivered from the cold, cold bite of it. One side of him was frozen as the other sweated against the men next to him. He would close his eyes and let his mental palette create his newest art. When it was finished, he’d file it and peer again between the planks for his next subject. Over and over and over.
And he saw her when the train stopped again. No older than he, the loveliest bronze hair leaking out from under her scarf. Huge blue eyes and red lips. She was there with an older woman and a younger boy; who knew why. She looked hungry, and yet peaceful, contented even. Like an angel. She looked over his railcar and he wondered if she could see him gaping at her. It lasted no more than thirty, maybe forty-five seconds before the train shook forward again, gradually gaining speed.
He closed his eyes and this time, this time he created a different art. This time, he created a life. He saw himself emerge from the railcar and walk towards her. She smiled, so glad to see him. They took each other’s hands and gazed so warmly at each other. Page after page rolled off in his mind. He saw them walk together towards a neat and tidy cottage surrounded by wildflowers on a summer day. He worked land and tended goats and she mended his clothes and caressed him each night. They never argued. They had no worries. They grew more deeply enamored with each other with every passing moment, and more affectionate. He could feel her warm face on his and felt them surround each other like blankets tangled together. They lived, oh goodness they lived in a most glorious world with the sun always shining warmly and bountiful harvests and no winter and undying love for each other. Page after page after page of the most wonderful colors drew themselves in his mind. An entire portfolio of life.
Then he heard thunder, not far in the distance, and the train lurched several times before stopping, and the door of the railcar was thrown open, and the freezing air was like ice water dousing his creation. And he emerged in Stalingrad.
From his table just outside the café on the Rue de la Tour, the agent could see across the busy Rue de la Pompe as the plan unfolded. He could also see that the plan was in trouble.
He calmly sipped coffee from its small cup and added the variables. The writer, his wife and their 20-year-old daughter had emerged from the Le Chalet following lunch and were now strolling with their handlers up the narrow and crowded Parisian street, cloudy with encroaching rain in the air. But there was not a single handler as was expected, there were three, plus the driver waiting at the double-parked Citroen. Two of the handlers he recognized as specialists of the security service; tough nuts to crack, but he doubted they would recognize him, giving him a small advantage. The writer’s family moved slowly, happily gawking, as might be expected having been shut away under house arrest for a decade-plus. Reviled by his country’s authoritarian government for his criticisms, the writer was internationally recognized and respected – that’s why he was still alive. Allowed, after international outcry, to attend a literary symposium, it was the job of the handlers to make sure he and his family were returned to their country, and to house arrest, without incident.
The agent’s job, as he placed his coffee cup on the table and dabbed a napkin to his lips, was to facilitate their escape.
He folded his newspaper under his arm and strolled towards the scene, suavely stepping around pedestrians, nonchalantly reaching quickly into his jacket to hit the safety on his Walther. Right on cue the writer’s wife seemed to spy something in the window of a small art gallery just past the Franprix Paris and backtracked towards it. The writer and daughter followed. The handlers tried to discourage them and move them into the double-parked Citroen. A minor argument ensued. The wife dismissed the handlers with a wave of her hand and entered the gallery. The writer and daughter followed. The handlers shrugged. They indicated to the double-parked driver he should circle the block, then the two specialists he recognized followed them inside leaving the third handler to stand guard outside.
By now, the agent had reached the gallery. The handler raised a hand to slow his entry; the last thing they wanted was a crowded gallery. He gave the handler an angry look, barked at him in his most annoyed Parisian accent that he had business inside, and the handler eased back. He entered. The extremely attractive gallery attendant, who was not really a gallery attendant, was already attempting to distract the two agents. His other colleague – if there had only been one handler he could have taken care of this himself – was nervous off to the side, trying to signal to the family towards the little side room. He’d be spotted in another few seconds. The walls of the gallery were crowded with modern art hung almost on top of each other; the window facing the street likewise mostly obscured. One of the specialists seemed to be scanning the art, his back turned to the second as the attendant flirted with him – that was the one about a half second from figuring this out, he thought. He pulled his Walther and smashed its butt behind the right ear of first specialist, knocking him cold to the floor, then quickly turned the barrel against the temple of the second. “No”, he told him, and the specialist’s initial muscle twitches towards the gun in his own coat froze. The attendant gasped, her eyes fixed on the specialist whose own eyes were moving rapidly back and forth. “Go”, he told her as he reached into the specialist’s coat and disarmed him. She did. In back, he knew she’d be slipping through and then closing the panel that had been cut in the back wall which, hopefully, the writer and family had already been escorted through by his colleague – it would be difficult but not impossible to find the panel later. They would exit the building, cross a courtyard, and meet their escape car waiting on the Avenue Henri Martin. “Look at the painting,” he told the specialist, who had seemed to calm after his initial shock. The agent knew the specialist would be calculating a counterattack. It would take the family roughly two minutes to cross the courtyard and find the escape car; perhaps longer if they were addled. He doubted he had two minutes before this unraveled. “Some people”, he said to the specialist, “Get a headache looking at modern art,” and with that he smashed his Walther against the back of his skull, sending him unconscious on the floor as well. Handler outside the window still hadn’t noticed the activity behind the obstructions. The agent pulled the weapon from the coat of the first specialist, put both their weapons in his coat as well as his own.
A painting was already wrapped against the counter, and he took it and left the gallery. He gave another angry frown to the handler. “Pig,” he called him in Parisian, then turned his back and waked back up the Rue de la Tour. He reached the corner with the Rue de la Pompe as the Citroen returned. He looked towards the intersection with the Avenue Henri Martin and saw the escape car move through it. He’d been supposed to be in it. He’d have to make his own way back.
Figured he had another several minutes. He ditched the painting, crossed the Rue de la Pompe and entered the Café de la mairie, and was at a window table with a vodka martini, ordering the foie gras de canard maison as the handlers, one with blood dripping down his neck, began a frantic search along the streets.
The bear ambled along an old game trail 200 yards upwind from the hunter lying prone and hidden in a tree stand on a rise. It did not appear to be threatening anything, least of all the hunter, who was more interested in the elk herd grazing peacefully another 800 yards further down the trail. But if it were offered, the hunter would take the bear, not that he needed it. He’d shot plenty of bear but found it didn’t bring much. Too many people were shooting bear. Elk, shot exactly right, was finding a better market. All those hunters who go home and want a trophy of the elk they think they shot or thought they were chasing on their annual hunt with their drinking buddies.
The rise gave the hunter a perfect position over an expansive meadow, the eastern slope of the Sierra Madre mountains in the background and sunlight brilliantly illuminating the peaks. The late-summer air was sweet and warm; conditions were perfect, simply perfect, but the clock was ticking. The calendar was rolling. The Earth was spinning. In another 45 minutes, tops, the sun would rise high enough that the mountain peaks would no longer be illuminated in the right way. The hunter needed the elk to be roughly where the bear was.
This was the third day the hunter had arrived at this position before dawn, set up his tripod low to the ground, just above the grass, and attached his Nikon D5600 with the 200-500 f/5.6 lens. He looked now through the viewfinder towards the elk herd – it made for an attractive landscape with the perfect lighting on the mountains in the background, but he just wasn’t close enough for the striking individual portraits he wanted. Besides, he had taken pretty much exactly the same shot the day before, and the day before that. He clicked the shutter a couple times anyway. He scanned to the bear, the tripod rotating the camera smooth as silk. He adjusted the zoom a bit – man, it was perfect. Snap, snap. But the bear wasn’t doing anything but schlepping along with its head down displaying all the enthusiasm of a government employee on a Monday morning. He took his eye from the camera and scanned the meadow; possibly he could establish a blind further up, spend the night there and be better positioned. But better positioned only if the elk returned to the same spot, which was unlikely. No, he thought, this little tree stand is the best spot.
Eye back to the viewfinder, he began scanning the meadow itself, looking for possibilities, moving between the bear and the herd, and held his breath as his camera framed…
Just grass. He eyeballed the far mountains, looked to the series of boulders running towards, if not close, to the meadow; zoomed in maximum, and there he beheld…
Wouldn’t it be cool, he thought, if a creature of some sort came charging out of the boulders towards the elk? Something with creepy orange hair on its head that looked straight from the gates of hell. What a series of shots that would be! He eyeballed the blue sky thinking maybe an eagle or a hawk soaring above. Nope. He remembered a time in the Ozarks he was surprised by a formation of half-a-dozen B52’s out of Whiteman flying at just a few thousand feet that came out of nowhere, likely on a training run. Got some great shots out of that! Man! Man, he thought, scanning the entire horizon, the meadow, everything around him, open to another fantasy. Only reality existed. By now, the good sunlight, its golden morning beams, and the little bit of pink in the sky, was gone. The bear was ambling from view. The elk herd was actually starting to move further away.
Staying low he pulled his gear back into the tree stand until he was better hidden, then picked everything up, tripod and camera on his shoulder like a rifle, and began the trek back to his camp a half mile away. He knew the creek where the bear was likely going; no chance it was coming back towards him. He’d spend the rest of the day shooting wildflowers and birds, mainly just killing time. He had another location scouted closer to the Sierra Madre he wanted to hit, but it also provided a narrower range of targets. Give this one a couple more days, he thought, as his boots swished through the tall, bronze colored grass, thousands of dollars of camera gear pressing down on him. Contemplating deeply on finding the money shot in the golden light.
His wife sent him to the store on a bright Sunday afternoon in November to buy a can of “Spicy Corn”, which, as he understood it, was just corn with peppers that she intended to use in the chili she was making for dinner. She’d been given the recipe by a friend who’d won a local chili contest and swore it was due to the corn. Football was on, but he hadn’t really watched for years after being turned off by the constant domestic violence and aggravated assault charges the players seemed to collect, and he was just basically putzing around, so he didn’t mind. Slow drive on a sunny day through the sleepy town sounded like a thing.
He loitered in the bakery section of the store for a bit just ‘cause he felt like it, and picked up a box of cupcakes, all brightly frosted in oranges and yellows and reds to mimic the Autumn colors. Kids would love it, he thought, unaware that his wife was already working on cherry turnovers. She always got annoyed when he did something dinner-wise without checking, and as it happened he’d end up eating most of the cupcakes himself in a day or two after they’d gone stale. But at that moment, he thought he was doing a good thing.
He’d rounded the corner into the canned vegetables aisle when he saw him: his old high school American history teacher. He slowed, checking up and down to assure himself it was him, and it was, what, twenty years older now? He had to add up the years. The teacher had been a robust guy, but the skin sagged, and he stooped a little – seemed to be trying to decipher the label on a can of something as he held a can of something else in his other hand. Memories came flooding back; this had been one of the cool teachers, always with a story to tell, always laid back and empathetic. This was the teacher, he believed, who had instilled in him a love of history. He’d minored in it in college and still avidly read histories and biographies. He remembered how wise the teacher had seemed; how he could recite details and knew trivia that brought history alive and made it an adventure. He’d always felt a bit in awe of the man.
Turned out, though, that about ninety percent of what he’d been taught by him was wrong.
He’d had to completely relearn everything once he got to college. Facts and especially context the teacher had utterly misconstrued; why the electoral college came about, the nature of conflict with native peoples, the premise of the Confederacy and the Civil War, why Prohibition failed, why we went into Vietnam. On and on. Worse, he knew friends from high school who still took everything the teacher had said as gospel, trapped in the old fables. Yeah, he still respected the guy and remembered him fondly, but, c’mon, as a knowledge base it was crap!
Should he say ‘hello’? The teacher noticed him gaping at him but didn’t offer a sign of recognition, looking instead back at the label. Then eye contact again with a bit of a frown, waiting for him to say something. “Hi,” he blurted out and called his teacher by name and said how good it was to see him. “I had American history classes with you in high school” he said and told him the years.
The teacher still offered no recognition, looked a little vacant as though searching through years that blurred before him. “It’s good to see you again,” he said finally with a slight hint of pleasantry if still not the least bit of familiarity. “I don’t think much about those days; it was long ago.”
Pretty much the end of the conversation.
Later that night, after the kids had gone to bed and he was trying hard to digest the corn in the chili, he thought at length about the old teacher. Did he know, now, how flawed his lessons had been? Did the phrase “long ago” apply to the years or to vastly evolved perspectives now becoming more a matter of common knowledge? Did he not “think much about those days” because he saw his life’s purpose as having been fundamentally flawed? Or did he believe those evolutions were lies and resent their implications?
His old teacher was himself, he decided, a victim, spoon fed a mixture of prejudices and superstitions that had been passed along as legitimate history for generations. A kind of systemic insanity wherein history merely rationalized the reigning status quo until it unraveled. It always seemed, eventually, to unravel. And he wondered, despite feeling a bit superior, if he himself were somehow insane.
We’re walking in a group, about 25 of us, in orderly columns. We’re supposed to be marching, but none of us have the strength for that anymore, and as far as that goes our columns are none too neat as we shuffle along in our cardboard shoes or bare feet. It seems they’re anxiously organizing more of these little “marches” of late, as though they’re hurrying to finish something and can’t possibly get it done. As though there’s someplace else they’d like to be getting too. As though none of us want to be here, are just forced to be.
What others are able watch our progress are slumped against the sides of the huts or sitting on the ground, offering what sincerities they can. There; I see my friend, sallow-eyed and somber, but with such a look of love in his eyes it seems to embrace me. He is holding the gift I have given him, scrawled onto what used the be a piece of the cardboard sole of my right shoe (I’m still wearing the left one) no more than an irregular 20 square centimeters. He had been in such despair over his wife, pulled from his grasp and supposedly sent on to the next camp so many months ago. I asked him to describe her to me in detail; not just her appearance but her spirit. So many conversations over the months until I could close my eyes and see her clearly in my mind. She became a living being, as familiar to me as the back of my hand. And then I took what was left of my shoe and used it as a canvas. I’d sharpened a small piece of char I’d found into something like a point. As I scrunched close to the cardboard it was like I was back in my studio, standing in front of the big bay window bathed in northern light, creating a new portrait, self-absorbed, the rest of the world blocked from existence. Slowly, because my hands tremble so now, I created life on my tiny canvas. I brought my friend’s wife from a place of dark dread to a brilliant vision he could hold in his hands. His eyes lit up and he sunk back as he beheld the image, overcome by the emotion flooding over him. “It is her”, he gasps in a whisper, “Her very essence!” and just as I had felt the last of my strength flowing into the portrait I can see it returning to my friend like a wave of sunlight. “How did you know?” he gapped wide eyed, unable to look away from the image. “I knew”, I told him. “I am an artist.”
We move past, we weather-beaten pajama-wearing scarecrows, and I am so happy as I think of my friend. So thrilled! I lift my head higher and I do lapse into something resembling a march. I know, no matter what happens, my friend will persevere. My friend will have the power to side-step these little walks and carry on because I have shown him ‘possibility; I have reignited ‘hope’. Decades from now he will still carry the vision with him. And in an instant I realize, I have won! I have beaten them all, despite everything! I have emerged on the highest plane of humanity! And I am beaming like a madman as they use the muzzles of their rifles to direct us into the showers.
I watched you crawl into bed last night (the way you fold your feet under the blanket would be cute if you weren’t so human). You rolled to your side as you always do with a hand tucked under your pillow and sighed. Your breathing slowed as you lay and let your mind wander, explicit fantasies, mostly, and after ten minutes or so you drifted to sleep. And I watched you dream.
There’s a sadistic element to the power I have over you, I admit it. I let my fingertips stroke your hair, just so ever gently that you would not feel it. A little extra pressure, a little flick and I’d have you up all night fitfully staring into the dark, wondering why you felt such apprehension. Yet, in the back of your mind, knowing exactly why.
I know you. I know what you are and what you’ve done.
I have followed you to work. I have surveilled your movements. I have listened to your whispered conversations and read your emails and texts; seen you when no one has. I know where you’ve gone and what you’ve done there and who you’ve done it with. Or done it to. I’ve listened to the way you talk to people. I know how you tip. I know what you buy. I know your favorite toothpaste and deodorant and shampoo. I’ve inventoried the contents of your refrigerator and your pantry. I’ve seen what you’ve hidden in the corners of your garage. I know how much you drink and what drugs you take. I know how you’ve organized your wardrobe and your clothes drawers and which underwear is your favorite for those occasion you may be revealing such, and I am watching as you do, just as I am watching when you slide the soap across your body when you shower. And I may come at you with any of it, any time I want.
I’ve given up just enough that you sense that I am there, even if you don’t quite know that I am there or what to do about it. Every move you make just gives me more power, so every move you make brings even more anxiety. You are consumed by an ever-increasing feeling of having no control over your life, and, indeed, you don’t. I hold all the control. You can’t tell anybody; certainly can’t confide in anybody. No counselor can help you. No agent of God can save you. You can’t call the police because it would only lead them to … you.
Tonight … tonight I let you dream. But you will never be rid of me because you can never be rid of yourself.
Jacques LaRocque, nickname Jockey Rocky, left fielder for the Providence Phantoms of the Northeastern League of Major League Baseball and last year’s recipient of the Most Valuable Player award, is about to commit murder.
LaRocque was drafted in the first round by the Phantoms out of the University of Arkansas, where he broke every standing NCAA batting record, and had subsequently won every batting and home run title in his three years in the Majors. He’s a big young man, lean and strong, supremely confident in his abilities and arrogantly so. But the Phantoms have never, since coming into the league in 1887, won a World Series title. In all that time the Phantoms have only appeared in three series, not counting this one.
In this, the seventh game against the mighty Stockton Condors who were heavily favored to win, LaRocque had tallied five RBI’s, including a one-run homer in the top-of-the-ninth to give the Phantoms an 8-6 lead. The Stockton home crowd groaned in anxious disbelief as the second out in the bottom of the ninth was recorded, reducing the Condors to a single remaining out. LaRocque’s body was taught in anticipation and he could feel his brain tingling and bubbling like champaign. He knew he would become a World Champion.
Then the Condor’s number seven hitter fouled the ball off six times and eventually drew a walk, and the number eight hitter was nicked by a pitch at the thigh on a 3-1 count to put two men on with two out, and the number nine hitter, the left handed, great fielding but light hitting second baseman Carmelo Pizarro coming to the plate. There was a palatable shift in the Earth’s polarity, the moans of the crowd transposed into electric shrieks of 45,000-plus standing room human beings deliberately trying to scream themselves hoarse. Only problem being that Pizarro had only one scratch single in the entire series and had never had one against the Phantoms reliever currently on the mound. LaRocque salivated in anticipation.
It could be that the murder was ordered by the Phantoms’ manager who did not pull LaRocque, not known for his defensive prowess, for a defensive replacement. But the manager felt Jockey Rocky deserved to be on the field at the end. Or it could be the word came from the bench coach, who ordered the players on the field into an extreme right-side shift, because the left-handed Pizarro hit the ball in that direction every time. That shift meant LaRocque was positioned so far to the right he was almost in center field, with a huge amount of ground uncovered in left field. Or the guilty party could be the pitcher, who on the first pitch tossed Pizzaro what was supposed to be a hard breaking slider that would start inside then break over the right corner of the plate, but instead started belt-high in the middle of the plate and broke only a little towards the outside, which Pizzaro, having already choked up, sliced into left field.
LaRocque was convinced he could get to it and sprang after it. Just a slow little blooper, slicing towards the line with just enough height he could almost feel it landing safely, basket style, into his glove, even though the smart play would be to lay up, let it land and then corral it to hold Pizzaro to a little single and protect a run from scoring. He raced after it, knew, knew with absolute certainty he would get to it, ran faster than he’d ever run in his life, ran so hard his legs felt like they might explode, ran so fast his hat flew off his head, reached his glove out as far he could stretch and dove for the ball now falling in a perfect trajectory into his grasp.
And missed. The ball barely nicked a piece of the glove and went scooting back into the left field corner, all the way to the wall, the deepest part of the field.
The shot went right into the heart of a man named Eddie Malinski, sitting on his couch in front of his TV 2,800 miles away.
LaRocque quickly gathered himself off the ground and chased after the ball, utterly confused by what was happening. The Condors’ baserunners racing like falcons towards home, the ball ricocheting around the left field corner. It took LaRocque three attempts to finally gather it in and heave it towards the cutoff man, who turned to fire it home just as Pizzaro crossed the plate. The Condors were champions on an inside the park home run hit by their least threatening hitter, past the outstretched glove of the Phantoms marquee star, who stood befuddled and disbelieving with his mouth agape as the Condors celebrated around home plate and the crowd convulsed in raucous joy.
Eddie Malinski slumped off the couch to the floor, hand to his chest, eyes unable to look away. He had been a Phantoms fan all his life. When he was in his early teens it looked one year like the Phantoms would finally win it all and Eddie expected them too because, after all, wasn’t it their turn? Wasn’t it his turn? Everybody gets a turn, right? But the Phantoms collapsed down the stretch and Eddie realized that he didn’t get a turn. And the certainty he would never get a turn dogged him, affected his self confidence in everything he did for the rest of his life. A World Series win now, even at this later stage, would have put all that to bed and given him a certain contentment with his life, but no. Just no.
That, however, was only the shot. The bullet came from the person on the couch next to him, his wife of 34 years, who’d been watching absently while reading a gossip magazine, who said, “Oh, for pete’s sake, Eddie, it’s just a stupid game, who cares! Chill out! Besides, everybody knows the Phantoms will never win.”
Every bit of hope still beating in Eddie’s chest died. Rubbed out. Murdered.
The liner was the size of a city block. Massive metal hull cradling a dozen decks packed with 15,000 sweaty, profane troops, propelled by four steam turbines cranking up over 200,000 shaft horsepower which shoved over 80,000 tons through the North Atlantic. A monument of human engineering, and at present, a bobbing, discombobulated child’s toy tossed by the infinite, rampaging dark green ocean under the boiling clouds of its nearly indistinguishable collaborative sky. Most of its 15,000 men on board hurling into their helmets because the ship’s buckets were already full and the toilets were overflowing. It’s crew straining, and usually failing, to discern what in the hell was in front of them, where were the five destroyers that were supposed to be surrounding them, what direction they were even heading. Those five destroyers in even worse shape. If the liner was a toy they were barely peanut shells. No one could stand up without holding on. No one had slept for days. Only two had working radars, and their crews could barely read what they said. One was struggling to catch up to the convoy after what its captain felt was a useless depth charge run yielding nothing.
Two men experienced the scene in serenity.
The first was a newspaper correspondent attached to an infantry unit lying on a top bunk with a sketchpad. In his bags was a portable typewriter and a camera, but he was also an artist. He preferred making drawings when he could. He could capture intent and, he felt, more completely capture the emotions of the men through sketches than photographs because their faces couldn’t hide in shadows; their faces communicating so thoroughly the horrors of war. His seasickness had pretty much settled down, if not completely. He mostly kept his eyes closed, because if his eyes followed his pencil across the page his stomach would begin to roll like the ocean again. He drew from memory, and in his mind he knew he drew the most wonderful images, filled with humor and irony and bitter sadness. Average men sucked into war for a noble cause. A generation of Christ symbols.
The second was a German seaman seated at his post on the bridge of the U-Boat stalking the convoy. Its captain had a glimpse from miles off of the big liner coming right at them before the storm obscured his view and the convoy, unbeknownst to the captain, zigged in a different direction. The captain made assumptions as to the new direction; a correct assumption as it happened, followed then by an incorrect one, followed finally by another correct one, though the U-boat was now badly out of position and had to reveal more of itself than the captain would have preferred to fix that, a tactic which might arguably be considered a mistake.
Three hours earlier the German seaman had been in the narrow bunk into which he rotated with two other equally smelly men, each on a different shift. He clutched a pencil and a notepad in which he was composing the gist of a story he’d hoped might begin to incubate before he went on duty. He was a writer, or at least saw himself as such. He had written long stories about life on a farm not far from the Austrian border and about the disruption wrought, first by economics and then by politics. He wrote passionate odes about friends who had “disappeared” from his small town and then from the ranks of fellow sailors. He was a devout Lutheran, and he imbued his stories with a sense of hope and sacrifice and the inevitability of time eroding human evils the way a stream would eventually correct an offending bend and put itself back on a correct course. He had finished such a story just before they sailed and placed in in the hands of a friend he knew was going on leave and would deliver it home. He was immensely satisfied, even content, with what he had written. He knew if anything happened to him at such a young age he had still contributed something to make the world a better place.
He wondered, as he watched his captain groping for a correct course, if it was always like that in times of human delusion. If small human beings, like drops of water in the stream, gradually effected course corrections away from tyranny. If there were entire generations of Christ symbols. And he was still serenely contemplating this in the split second between the depth charge from the oblivious destroyer cracking the U-boat’s hull and the explosion of the icy ocean that engulfed him in darkness.
The well rehearsed and coordinated schedule called for entering the gallery at twenty minutes past the hour. He wore a fedora he’d not worn before, and glasses he didn’t need, and a beard he’d learned how to put on in a theater class.
“We close in ten minutes,” the guard at the door told him as he passed through the metal detector which failed to expose the plastic handgun jammed in his pants; that detail had also been previously tested.
“Just need one quick thing at the gift shop,” he smiled broadly.
“Fine, hurry,” the guard told him, not really looking at him because his attention was on people leaving.
He turned at the bright hallway towards the giftshop and, instead, entered the bathroom. Hidden in a stall, he removed the hat, glasses, beard, reversed his reversible jacket to the black side, put on his gloves, ski mask, removed a small roll of duct tape and his gun. Ran out, down the other way towards the room set aside for special exhibits, rounded that corner, and held his gun five feet in front of another guard’s face. “Down,” he ordered, stern, but not too loud. The guard’s mind had been on a date he had that night with a mail carrier purported to be easy; he held his hands up and did exactly what he was told, face down on the ground, not noticing that the gun, designed to shoot plastic darts with little suction cups at the ends, had been purchased at Walmart and painted to resemble the real thing. The thief quicky pulled the guard’s hands behind his back, bound them with a zip tie and stretched a piece of duct tape over his mouth. “You move and I’ll blow your brains out,” he lied to him. By then he’d heard gasps from the exhibits room. “Down,” he told the few patrons still there, and except for a nerd sitting on a bench across from the Warhol he wanted, everybody did. The Warhol was the reason for the special exhibit. Crossing quickly to it he took a razor knife from his pocket and in a few rapid strokes he’d removed it from its restraints, rolled it up as he moved back towards the entry, noticed the nerdy guy still sitting on the bench, watching, stepped over the bound and silent guard, out and down the hallway towards an emergency exit. Wait, was the nerdy guy smirking at him? No time to think about that. Pushing through the exit, alarms sounded but he was through and into the waiting car, stolen just a few minutes before. His partner hit the gas; in five minutes they’d be in the alley where the second hidden car was waiting, twenty minutes after that at the farmhouse where a third car waited in the barn. In less than an hour he would unroll the Warhol to his Organization’s bosses, safely waiting in their townhouse, only a few blocks from the gallery itself. He would be paid handsomely, encouraged to stay in his apartment for a week and then to leave town for a while. And reminded of the consequences of opening his mouth.
The nerd sitting at the gallery tried to wipe the smirk off his face; people were in shock. Frivolity would not do. He looked back to the missing Warhol. The Warhol he knew was a fake. Knew it because he’d created it and substituted it two nights before.
I sees clear as day what new life awaits should I climb to it. Sees it, do I, on my knees with the holystone upon the deck, scrubbing as I have each day since the press gang found me toper and tosses me on board. Standin’ out to sea was we before the score of us pressed gained our wits and the first lieutenant in his tricorn hat looks down his crooked nose at us and rates us landsmen, lubbers all, sentenced to the din of the lower decks. “See if ye can make yeselves more ‘n fodder for Boney’s guns,” says he.
Sick for most of those first days until my sea legs came to me, and still in despair for the loss of my former life on land, I was befriended by an able seamen who began patiently teaching me the ship’s ways, pickin’ oakum first, then caulkin’ and payin’. As he was an experienced topman he began teaching me about the rigging and showed me how to manage the ratlines, at first hardly as high as the top platforms, which even that seemed stretched near to heaven. “You’ll find this fits ye fine, what but you’re a wisp of a young man and with but strengthening those arms a might you’ll pull yourself up and around with ease”, he told me.
As time passed I found myself growing accustomed, even likin’, my cozy surroundin’s and my mates, the merry nightly song and dance what followed the rum ration, the movement of the deck both gentle and hazard, the fresh morning breeze and sunshine accompanying the daily holystoning which kept the decks white and clean. I watched the topmen climb the rigging as if born to it, into the tops and crosstrees, and felt a longing to know the joy of their freedom. My teacher helped me grow comfortable with the heights; taught me to balance me weight and pull myself from line to line and up the futtock shrouds, forwards and backwards, slow and careful at first as a fall could prove fatal. He showed me the clewlines and the beginnings of how to furl the fore course.
The holystoning finished, the day so perfect with a light breeze and bright airs, no new task yet given, I sees a chance to reach for something higher than a lubbers berth. I resolved to take hold of that chance and jumped to the fore stays and then to the futtock shrouds, my mind fixed on the light clouds I see floating as like angels above. Past the top platform to the fore topsail, higher and higher to the cross-trees, my heart beating wild and excited like a newborn foal. Below me I hears exited cheers and exaltations and I feel a surge of pride and determination. I hang backwards instead of using the lubbers’ hole and the cheers grow louder, then I’m up to the fore topgallant and finally up standing upon the fore royal, the ship a tiny thing far below, surrounded by endless grey sea. I feels my chest pounding triumphantly and the wind, much stronger up here, embrace me almost as though I am part of the blue sky itself. I realize the toper the press gang found lying in the gutter that once was I has grown to become a new man; a creature of greater being that I ever imagined I could be.
“Didn’t I says,” I heard from just below and realized my teacher was climbing to join me, “Didn’t I says ye had it in ye.” We stood there together on the fore royal with grins as wide as the sky, feeling the great roll of the frigate and exalting in the feeling of conquering heroes.
When then did my teacher’s smile vanish and his eyes grew wide as if perceiving a devil on the wind. With his free hand he pointed towards the horizon rushing to meet us. I followed his gaze and there just breaching the horizon had appeared a tiny smudge, portent like a grey cloud. “Sail!” my teacher shouted to the decks beneath, “On the larboard tack!”
The car radio was tuned to a station playing Rock ‘n Roll ‘standards’, familiar tunes that had ‘made it’, that anybody, more or less, could sing along with. Nothing too hard, too edgy, too old or certainly not too new. Memories straining from the car’s two small speakers in the dash, pushed at her from the station in the city behind her that was slowly fading as she drove towards the last gold line on the darkening horizon. She drove with her windows half down to compensate the faulty air conditioner, five miles-an-hour below the speed limit to alleviate worry that the old engine might pop at any time. Music, memories, distorted by speakers turned up loud to compete with the road noise generated by the interstate she plodded through.
When the song came it took her a few seconds to recognize it through the din. As she began to understand what she was hearing, as the lyrics seduced her, the world changed. The gold on the horizon became brighter, broader, more luminance. The clatter of the highway faded, seemed to nearly mute and become inconsequential. She was no longer trudging along in an old clunker; she was gliding at high speed in luxury and class. She left behind her parents’ constant arguing and sniping at each other. Her dad’s constant coughing of the disease slowing killing him silenced. She no longer remembered the husband that had divorced her or the shitty job waiting for her or her money issues. The lyrics reminded her of him.
He was unrequited. Decades after they’d met, he’d never left her, but also never quite touched her. Amidst all her boyfriends, her marriage, her jobs, her angst, her awareness of him had always been less than what she now perceived he might have been. Actually, maybe, still was. Submerged in the music and the lyrics she felt an affection from him that had never been sustained from anyone else. Never an affection he’d pushed or pursued; never overt, as though he wanted her to perceive it for herself. She could recognize that now as she stretched towards a dark horizon in traffic, the radio station turning to static.
The artist adjusted the position of his easel, blocking the covered works leaning in the dark shadows against the wall behind it just a bit more, the room illuminated by a single candle, obstensively to guide his hand as he painted. His brush strokes came hurried, careless, nearly chaotic, giving the Madonna an almost devilish appearance. He caught himself, breathed deeply, slowed, went back and corrected mistakes, smoothed the Virgin’s face towards the angelic. All a lie. The painting, a lie. It’s production, a lie, albeit a lie he might later sell. There was a fair market for lies.
A shuffled footstep behind him announced his shrouded visitor. “You are indeed difficult to find, as you said,” the voice came from within the dark hood. The visitor pulled it back to reveal its scared face, eyes focused tightly by years of practiced subterfuge.
“It is a quiet place to work,” the artist replied, his own face creased by the weight of conscious.
“And to hide,” the visitor noted. He looked back to the alley behind him, listening intently for even the slightest hint of human intervention and hearing none.
“I keep a stall near the market,” The artist said, “To sell my works, like this one.”
The visitor stepped forward and examined the painting on the easel, noting its muted tones, its adherence to proper form, subject, perspective, message; suited to any merchant, politician, priest who wanted the world to see his acquiescence. Perfect for any office or hall or chapel frequented by subservience. “And this place for those who have their eyes open.” The visitor noted. The artist looked away shyly, nervously. “Show me,” the visitor commanded.
The artist shifted the easel away from the wall, stepped towards the half dozen works covered there and removed the one second from the back. On lifting its cover the little room seemed to explode in color. The paint itself seemed on fire with vibrancy and saturation, unnatural and at the same time compelling as if it revealed a window to another world. And within its frame startling characters revealed by sharp lines and contrasting shapes whirling together, seeming to writher and writhe in each other’s presence.
None of it, in subservience, at all proper. “This is it,” the visitor said. ‘This is real. This is an idea.”
The visitor reached into his cloak and brought out a small coin purse, which he passed to the artist. The work was covered again and placed into a larger cloth cover which the visitor tied tightly.
“Where will it be seen,” the artist wanted to know.
“Everywhere, and nowhere, my friend,” the visitor told him. “A few minutes here, a half hour there; anyplace an idea can take hold.” Then he stepped closer to the artist and gently kissed him before gathering the bundle under his arm and stepping towards the door. He paused just a moment and said, “I will see you again,” then was gone into the darkness.
The artist moved his easel to again hide the works against the wall. He removed the Madonna painting, so dull and inane in comparison, and placed another canvas, just begun, showing a few strokes of the same luminesce colors already applied to it. “I will remain in the shadows,” he said to himself, “And create light.”
Things moving fast enough for you, yet?
I recently read a quote attributed to Lenin that basically went, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”. It must be quoted often lately, because when I hit the Google to get it correct it flew right to the top of the list. For many, 2020 in general has felt this way; too much, too fast. Of course, as I’ve alluded to here before, 2020 was set up by populist lamentations it’s been too much too fast for years.
History happens because people get used to certain things, and then something happens that changes those things. Something in society, or economics, or technology. And then everything shifts, often violently. We have all of that happening at the same time.
Chill, baby. It’s been obvious for some time, and nobody is stoppin’ it, no matter how reactive, luddite, or xenophobic anyone behaves. Cultivate mellow; go with it.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.