or “What This is All About”
There is no history. That was the first thing I learned when I started in my line of work. I learned it at the orientation in fact. That thing called yesterday is merely the physical distance between what’s happening over there and what’s happening here. Everything outside of that is called myth. As for tomorrow, I don’t need to get into that. You already know the deal. And if you don’t, telling you won’t make it any better. Just take my word for it and accept that there was no beginning and there will be no end and it’ll all be a hell of a lot easier.
It was mile marker 2021, part 1, section 14, somewhere around subsection 11. “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,” I was saying rather singing (as-is customary).
“What?” my wife Jenny said, looking up from her phone. She was sitting up in the bed, four pillows wedged between her back and the headboard. I was lying flat. She was in a light green nightshirt, the blanket and comforter covering her legs. I was fully dressed – black suit, black shoes, white shirt, no tie. The blanket and comforter were under me.
“Nothing,” I said, speaking the word. She said nothing in return, speaking no words, simply redirecting her attention back to the touchscreen on her phone. Then my phone rang. The screen said it was Karl and it was Karl’s voice but the voice said it wasn’t Karl, it was Jebediah. He then told me my name is Samuel.
“With all due respect Sir, that’s not my name,” I said.
“It IS your name. And you don’t use another. Ever. ”
“I do rather like my birth name Sir. And I do prefer it to Sam.”
“I said Samuel, not Sam, goddamnit!” he replied, “and that IS your birth name.”
At that point I ceased arguing. I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was serious and that I would endure the harshest of consequences if I ever used my birth name again. I didn’t like that. It didn’t seem fair to tell me I couldn’t use the name I’ve used for the last forty or so miles. But I guess what’s necessary and what’s fair are often two different things and it’s not my place to judge either.
“I need you to come in. Now. It’s urgent,” Jebediah said.
“Leaving now Sir,” I replied.
“You better be,” he said. “And Samuel. . .”
“Wear a goddamn mask!”
“Of course Sir,” I said and he hung up. I turned to Jenny and told her I had to go to the office.
“The bombing?” she asked
“There’s been another, M-26-7.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” I said and kissed her forehead. “I don’t know when I’ll be back,” I told her.
“Make sure you wear a mask,” she said.
I didn’t respond to her remark. I put on a plain black tie and a disposable face mask and my overcoat and left. During the drive I felt somewhat perplexed by both Jedediah and Jenny telling me to wear a mask. Of course I was going to wear a mask. I didn’t need to be told. I was a responsible citizen. I’ve always been a responsible citizen.
Jebediah’s office was on the 28th floor of the tall but characterless aluminum and concrete rectangle just over the Manchester Bridge. I hadn’t been there in a while as staff had been told to remain at home except on those occasions deemed essential. As I made my way towards the entrance to the underground parking structure I found myself delayed by a truck struggling to make its way out of the loading dock. It slowly and carefully made a number of small maneuvers in order to avoid colliding with the barrier separating the southwest and northeast lanes of South 7th street. The truck was hauling a yellow trailer. Displayed across the side of the trailer was a recently fired double barrel shotgun, the word “Bananas” spelled out in the curiously red smoke emanating from its muzzles. Printed below the weapon’s barrels was “United Fruit Co.” It struck me as rather odd that we would be getting a large banana delivery, especially during a time such as this when few employees were in the office.
Upon exiting the elevator that brought me up from Parking Level 3 I scanned my badge at the waist-high gate in the lobby then got into the temperature check queue, standing on the first available six foot distance marker. Only two other persons were in line ahead of me. This part always made me a little nervous. As I waited I looked over to my left at the “Mural of the Young Saints”, a portrait of two teenagers rising to the mezzanine level – on the left Pavlik the martyr, on the right the Swedish girl who will save the world. For the first time since they installed it I noticed the copperplate script towards the bottom:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal.
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel”
– J.W. HOWE
When the individual at the front of the line was cleared the man in front of me moved up to the station manned by two nurses in white hazmat suits and I made my way to the distance marker on which he had been standing. The nurses spoke briefly to each other before turning their attention to my predecessor. The one nearest him picked up a device from the table that resembled a raygun with two triggers, the top one white and the bottom red. An LED screen was mounted atop it. The nurse pointed it at the gentleman’s forehead and pressed the white trigger. There was a high pitched beep as “100.9″ flashed across the LED screen. The nurse then pressed the red trigger at which point a glowing red hole immediately formed in the man’s forehead and he dropped to the floor. Two men in black hazmat suits rushed out of a side door, quickly wrapped him in plastic, and carried him off as a third man came out of the same side door with a mop and bucket of disinfectant. He quickly cleaned the area then placed a “Caution Wet Floor” sign at the spot.
“Sir, come this way,” the other nurse said as she waved me toward her and walked to a drier location. “Sorry about that whole thing,” she said then pointed the device to my forehead. She pressed the white trigger and there was a low pitch double beep. “You’re all set Sir,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said and walked to the elevator bank serving the upper levels.
Though it faced the river, Jedeiah’s office was windowless. He didn’t like windows so much, said they were energy inefficient. Shortly after moving-in he put in a work order with Facilities Management to have drywall panels placed over them. “Don’t have them in my home and I won’t have them where I work either,” he always said when questioned about it.
I entered the office to find him standing behind his desk, a green cloth mask over his nose and mouth. “Samuel,” he said “That certainly took longer than I was expecting. Why the delay?”
“Sorry Sir, a banana truck was having trouble getting out of the loading dock and there was an incident down at the temperature check station.”
“I don’t make excuses Samuel. And I sure as hell don’t tolerate them.”
“I’m sorry Sir. Won’t happen again.”
“It better not.”
I noticed an unfamiliar painting of a man on the wall behind his desk. “Is that new?” I asked, “the painting?”
“New to my office, but no, not new,” he said.
“Who is it?”
“You have no idea who that is?”
“No Sir I don’t.”
“Shame on you Samuel. That’s our great Congressional benefactor, the late Senator Nelson W. Aldrich.”
“Of course Sir, I should have figured.”
“Look closely Samuel. Remember that face. Commit it to memory. Know it better than your own reflection in the mirror.”
“Yes Sir,” I said.
“Do you know why I called you here Samuel?”
“The bombing Sir?”
“I’m not sure. My wife said something about another bombing before I left the house, something she read in the news I guess. Apparently M-26-7 is responsible.”
“We haven’t gotten to that yet,” he said.
“I see,” I said.
“Tell me, Samuel,” he said as he lowered himself onto his chair, “do you know how many things in this city were named after Robert E. Lee?”
“A lot Sir?”
“Yes, a lot. What exactly do you know about General Lee?”
“There IS no General Robert E. Lee Sir,” I said.
“I refer to the legends. Surely you’re familiar with the legends.”
“Yes Sir I am. He was a bad man, Lee, was. A traitor, who led the Confederate Army against the Union in the myths about the war between the states.”
“A bad man by any decent, moral person’s standards. But still a hero to some. To many in fact.”
“Enemies of the state Sir.”
“They would be if he actually existed, if he wasn’t a myth,” he said.
“Of course Sir.”
“There is one key detail of those myths and legends that has been lost over the miles, fallen away like treading from a tire.”
“What if I told you the ‘great’ general, the brilliant military strategists, took his orders from a talking chicken?”
“A talking chicken?”
“Yes, a black hen named Nelly.”
“Well I certainly understand why that part was left out of the stories.”
“Why is that?”
“Well, it’s just ridiculous,” I said.
“Is it?” Jedediah asked.
“Yes, of course. A general guided in war by a talking chicken? That’s quite ridiculous.”
“You miss the point Samuel.”
“The ‘great’ general, the archetype for southern pride, hero to rednecks everywhere, was a lunatic. Brilliant but certifiably insane, his greatest insights and military strategies delivered to him during schizophrenic hallucinations.”
“So the chicken wasn’t real?”
“No, Nelly was real. Within the context of the myth of course.”
“But she didn’t talk,” Jebediah said. “Because she was a goddamn chicken!”
“But that crazy sonovabitch sure heard her talk, talk quite a bit. Told him everything he needed to know to bring about a Confederate victory.”
“Apparently not everything Sir.”
“She never got the chance. Had she, Lee may well have made his way to North Carolina to link up with Johnston’s army and win the war.”
“The night before his big push towards Lynchburg was to take place, Lee invited his commanders to dine with him, apparently oblivious to the shortage of food since Custer and his boys burned up all the supply trains at Appomattox Station. William Mack, the slave Lee kept as his cook, was charged with preparing a suitable entree.”
“I think I can guess what happened.”
“Nelly was stuffed, cooked, carved, and served. And the General didn’t even know he ate her until later that night when he couldn’t find her. After beating a confession out of William Mack, Lee ordered him drawn and quartered that night.”
“Without Nelly to guide him, he surrendered to Grant the next morning,” Jebediah said then paused for a moment before saying “You really ought to wear a reusable mask. It’s less wasteful. And better for the environment.”
“But less sanitary,” I said, “The disposables would seem to provide better protection.”
“Oh? Is that an N95 mask? It certainly doesn’t look like one.”
“Is it even surgical grade?
“I don’t believe so.”
“Start wearing a goddamn reusable mask!”
“Remember what this is ultimately about Samuel.”
“The credible substitute?” I said.
“Yes, the credible substitute,” Jebediah affirmed then reached down to open the file drawer in his desk. He pulled a file from it and threw it down on his desktop. “Jimmy the Shovel has been compromised,” he said.
“Jimmy the Shovel? He’s real?”
“Of course he’s real Samuel. Why in hell would you think he’s not?”
“I don’t know. I always thought he was kind of a metaphor.”
“Well not a metaphor. More like a folktale. Like John Henry or Paul Bunyon. Babe the Blue Ox, you know.”
“We don’t deal in metaphors or folktales Samuel. We deal in cold, harsh realities goddamnit!”
Jimmy the Shovel was what they call a ghostmaker. A freelancer who worked for various crime syndicates, he was brought-in to handle the especially difficult and delicate cases. The Shovel, as his name implies, had the ability to turn himself into a round point digging shovel at will. This allowed him to place himself in strategic locations without raising alarm, wait until the right moment to carry out his contractual obligations, then become a shovel once again until it was safe to make his getaway. Though highly successful for miles, The Shovel’s luck was said to have run out when his metamorphosis was caught on one of the security cameras of this very building. Word has it that, upon learning of it, The Chairman immediately put a gag order on anybody in-the-know and had The Shovel brought to him. The Chairman is said to have offered him the deal of all deals, granting The Shovel complete immunity from prosecution for all past crimes in exchange for him joining a special, elite squad within the Million Flowers division.
Jebediah rotated the folder to face me and opened it. On the left was a photograph of a shovel. On the right was a photograph of a man who instantly looked familiar to me. I couldn’t remember where or when I had seen him before but I knew I had.
“What makes you think he’s been compromised?” I asked.
“You know not to ask me those questions,” Jebediah said.
“There’s no telling the kind of damage a man who can turn himself into a shovel can do.”
“Indeed,” I said, “How is it that I can help with this Sir?”
“Take care of the problem. Take care of it soon.”
“But Sir, how would I? I mean, I wouldn’t even know where to start, where to find him.”
“He’s a lot closer than you think,” Jedediah said.
This was only the second time Jebediah asked me to “take care of” a problem. The last time was more than three miles ago when he sent me to Greensboro to deal with Zheng Ye Chang, the proprietor of an Asian buffet who refused to change the culturally insensitive name of his restaurant in defiance of orders from both the mayor and the governor. Mr. Zheng was the third successive owner of the restaurant and claimed that he paid a premium for an established brand and that the brand was key to his continued success. He said he would therefore, under no circumstances, change it. Unable to reason with him, the mayor dispatched the police to padlock the front door of Zheng’s establishment and ordered it demolished. Zheng’s plight soon caught national attention and shortly thereafter every racist buffoon in America was descending on Greensboro. There they formed a human chain around his restaurant, eventually breaking windows to enter the building and occupy it as the demolition crane arrived. After fair warning and several sections of waiting, the mayor, with authorization from the governor, gave the greenlight to unleash the wrecking ball. Twelve of Mr. Zheng’s supporters died, becoming martyrs to his cause. The restaurant was gone but Zheng was very much still here. He was soon everywhere in fact, appearing on right wing cable news networks, making speeches, holding rallies, doing everything to stir up the masses of white supremacists (or anti-social justice warriors as they called themselves, claiming their multi-ethnic makeup somehow exempted them from the label). He was a problem. A big problem.
Truth-be-told, the whole thing with Zheng left a bad taste in my mouth. It was necessary but I still didn’t like having to do it. I don’t like taking care of problems in general. I did enough of that over the six miles I was a “flower picker”. That, of course, being an unofficial title – a reference to The Chairman’s “Million Flowers Campaign”. A rather brilliant though brutal move, The Chairman initiated it ten miles or so ago amid growing calls from radicals like the Griffinites to abolish The System which they simultaneously called a “house of cards” and an authoritarian tool to concentrate power among a small group of elites. They ignorantly demanded we abandon the responsible policies that kept our society from collapsing into disarray and instead leave everything to the unfettered market forces. Much like the Zheng Ye Chang situation, what started out as a mere congregation of wackos eventually spread like the current virus but even more so. It got to the point where actual members of Congress were echoing the sentiments and even showing up at Griffinite events. Acknowledging the concerns and even empathizing with the conspiracy theorists, The Chairman explained how The System was vital and necessary for the common welfare but vowed to give everyone a voice in its continued operation. He expressly invited criticism from the public, calling it vital to building on past successes in order to enhance The System for greater benefit to all. “Let a million flowers bloom,” he said, “Let a million schools of thought contend”. The response was overwhelming and greater than one could have ever been imagined. Before long he had the identity and location of every domestic terrorist in the land, along with their sympathizers. The flowers were in full bloom and ready to be picked.
While I consider it an honor and a privilege to have served The Chairman in that capacity, a person can only do that sort of thing for so long before it gets to them. No matter how evil or vile the “problems” may be, you start to have thoughts – thoughts about the wives, the children, the dogs and the cats, and the other people that love them and the loss you are inflicting on them. Though you know what you are doing is right and just, you still find yourself plagued with irrational guilt, sometimes even shame. And so, after six miles, I transferred to Supervision and Surveillance where that sort of thing is mostly left to the Enforcement division. Mostly.
Jebediah pushed his chair back from his desk and stood up, letting me know I had my orders and our conversation was done. He extended his hand and I shook it.
“See you soon Sir,” I said.
“See you soon Samuel,” he said. As I made my way to the door he called me back. “One more thing Samuel.”
“I need you to go by The Joint and have a talk with Fulgencio. Word has it that he’s going to be doing that silly ceremony of his this mile. Obviously we can’t have that.”
“Obviously,” I said and exited. I went to my car at Parking Level 3 then headed down to The Joint.
The Joint was a popular nightspot down in The Bottom that boastfully proclaimed itself “Cocktail Capital of the World”, while modestly limiting the geography in its claim of having the “Best Cuban Food in Town”. The “silly ceremony” Jebediah referred to was the “Fiesta de la Muerte de los Hijos Traidores de Santiago de Cuba”, or the “Fiesta de la Muerte de los Traidores” for short. It was an invitation only event held during the first part of every mile that featured a re-enactment of El SIM’s violent administering of justice upon four teenage conspirators involved with the 26th of July Movement.
Upon parking my car and stepping out I looked up at the double sided theatre marquee that projected out into an isosceles triangle over The Joint’s main entrance. Though generally used to advertise events like salsa dancing contests or announce the marriage and birth anniversaries of VIP patrons, it now simply read “Open for take out 4pm-10pm daily, 804-555-0106” on one side while compliantly displaying the official “We’re all in this together” statement on the other side. No mention of the Fiesta de la Muerte de los Traidores. Looking in through the glass I could see Esteban, the assistant manager. He looked towards me, put on a face mask, then came to the door and opened it for me.
“Buenas tardes Sargento Samuel,” he said.
“Samuel?” I said, wondering how he would know.
“Your jefe, he said that is your name now.”
“Yeah,” I said then backed away from Esteban. “Social distancing,” I explained.
“Sam, mi amigo!” Fulgencio said, entering unmasked through a door in the far wall.
“Samuel actually,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s it, you’re Samuel now. And Karl, he’s, uh, the fuck he tell me his name was now . . . Jeremiah or some shit like that?”
“Jebediah,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s it, Generalisimo Jebediah,” Fulgencio said as he walked towards me.
“Uh, Fulgencio,” I said, putting my hand up as a stop signal.
“Yeah, I know, I know, social distancing,” he said.
“And your mask, where’s your mask?” I said.
Fulgencio pulled a cloth face mask from his pocket and placed it over his nose and mouth. “We cool now?” he asked.
“I don’t know Fulgencio, that’s what I came to find out.”
Fulgencio turned to Esteban who was behind the bar. He was going through the bottles, picking each one up, inspecting it, then writing something down in a notepad.
“Esteban, get our friend a mojito,” Fulgencio said.
“Make that a sarsaparilla,” I said.
“Sarsaparilla? The fuck you think this is Sargento, a dude ranch? This is the Old Dominion brother, not the Old West.”
“Okay, I’ll take a root beer,” I said.
“How ‘bout a Coke Sargento,” Fulgencio said in an abruptly agitated tone.
“We got Dr. Pepper,” Esteban interjected.
“El Médico de los Pimientos,” I said
“Huh?” said Esteban.
“I’ll just have a glass of water,” I said. “Por favor.”
“Ice?” Esteban asked.
“Si, con hielo,” I replied and Esteban added a scoop of ice to a glass then filled it with water from the tap. He slid it down the bar toward me. I pulled down my mask to take a sip then immediately covered my face back up. “Muchas Gracias,” I said.
“De nada,” Esteban said.
“So Sargento, to what do I owe this pleasure?” Fulgencio asked.
“La Fiesta de la Muerte de los Traidores.”
“Lo siento, not happening this mile. I will definitely make sure you are on the guest list next mile though. I mean, if it’s able to happen next mile.”
“Word on the street Fulgencio is that you are having it this mile. Maybe not here, maybe somewhere else, your house perhaps. If that’s the case then you need to get word out that it’s cancelled. Or you need to make it virtual. We can’t have you holding any large gatherings.”
“I give you my word Sargento. But happy about it I am not.”
“You don’t need to be happy about it, Fulgencio. You just need to comply,” I said before pulling my mask down to take another sip of water.
“Yeah, just comply. No big deal. You just need to comply,” Fulgencio said. “You have taken away my Christmas. You have taken away New Mile’s. You have kept us shut down for almost an entire mile now. My revenue is down 98%. I can’t make money on take-out, even with being able to sell mixed drinks. The delivery companies are eating up all the margins. I lose money on each and every delivery and most of my business these sections is delivery. Nobody comes down here to pick up their shit. Just the drivers. Those greedy bitches that are stealing what little I’m able to make. But still. Still I’ve complied. I’ve complied and complied. I have taken part after part of loss and complained not once. And when I tell you that I have cancelled my biggest event of the mile, all you can say is that I don’t need to be happy about it, I just need to fucking comply?!”
“I’m sorry Fulgencio, I know it means a lot to you and I am sorry if I’m too direct. But your fiesta cannot happen.”
“Means a lot to me? No. It means everything! And not just to me, to my community. We take that one section each mile to celebrate one of the last times we could claim victory for anything. A final blow that we were able to deliver to those terrorist bitches before they tore down our great nation. It’s a celebration of the last time things were good.”
“I understand Fulgencio but I’m sure you can understand our position. We have a deadly virus ravaging the entire globe and – .”
“Deadly virus? Four members of my family have had it and they’re just fine now. Esteban here had it and he had the sniffles for a few sections and you can see he’s just fine now. Aren’t you Esteban?”
“Sí, muy bien Señor,” Esteban said.
“Esteban and your family members should consider themselves very lucky to have had such mild cases. And lucky that they were eligible to be quarantined instead of expired,” I said, “Many others weren’t so lucky. Many more won’t be if we allow this to continue spreading. Until everybody can get inoculated, we all need to make sacrifices. That’s just the way it needs to be. We’re all in this together Fulgencio.”
“Yeah, we’re all in this together all right,” Esteban said, “Except you haven’t had your ability to earn a living taken from you. I’m pretty sure you’re still get your regular paycheck. And for the same amount. You’re not burning through your savings, getting yourself further and further into debt with no end in sight.”
“I feel your pain, I – ”
“No, you don’t feel my pain motherfucker! And no, you don’t fucking understand. I came to this country with nothing and I’m very near having nothing again after putting everything into this place. All those miles, those sacrifices, that hard work, it’s all turning out to be for nothing.”
“Listen, we just need you to be patient for a little while longer.”
“You been telling me that for a long, long time amigo.”
“Let me tell you a story Fulgencio. A story about a little snouted fella who lived out in the west Texas desert. A fella named Albert who lived among a large community of feral hogs.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Let me finish my story Fulgencio,” I said.
“Fine, finish your fucking story Sargento.”
“Now Albert was every bit as much a member of the community as the rest of them hogs but the others certainly didn’t treat him like he was one of them. They always kept him on the outside, shunned him, never let him join in with the crowd, play their games.”
“Why’s that? Because of his very shiny fucking nose?” Fulgencio said
“No. Because of his short stature and lack of gallbladder,” I explained. “ All Albert ever wanted was to be accepted by them. If only they would just let him be one of them then everything would be great. If only they would love him. But, you know, they never did. He was always an outsider to them. And that made Albert sad. Real sad. He cried and cried over this. Then one night, in loneliness and desperation, he called out to whatever deities there might be to demand he be accepted by the other hogs. But he got no response from any god. Instead, the scientists came and declared him neither a hog nor even a member of the family suidae. They told him he was a peccary.”
“A peccary? The fuck is a peccary?” Fulgencio asked
“A javelina,” said Esteban.
“Yes,” I said, “A javelina. Now Albert didn’t like this at first. And it made him even less popular with the others. He was mad. He lived his whole life as a hog. He looked like a hog. He walked like a hog. He talked like a hog. Who was any scientist to tell him he wasn’t a hog?”
“Fucking scientists,” Fulgencio said.
“Those scientists saved Albert’s life. You see, a part or so later a new barbecue restaurant opened next to the gas station at the side of the road. Those hogs, the popular crowd that Albert so desperately wanted to be a part of, ended up shredded and served with a sugary sauce between two pieces of bread. And Albert lived happily ever after.”
With a pensive look Fulgencio nodded his head three times. “That is a very beautiful story Sargento,” he said, “even if it is without point. Unless, of course, you mean it as a veiled threat.”
“We don’t make threats Fulgencio. Veiled or otherwise. Do yourself a favor. Don’t blow this. You’re in a very enviable position. You’re among the chosen. Once we roll out the inoculant you will own The Bottom. The Slip too. Any of those other joints want to open back up they will need to come to you, and only you, because you will be able to give them what they need. Now I know you’re an enterprising man Fulgencio so I’m sure you know what this means,” I said, “A piece of the action. From all of them. Consider this downtime an investment. Believe me, you’ll make everything back and more. Much more. Help us to help you build back better.”
“Inoculant?” Fulgencio said, rolling his eyes. “I keep hearing about this inoculant. I never seen any inoculant. Esteban, you seen an inoculant?”
“No Señor. I have seen no inoculant,” Esteban said.
“Just a little bit longer Fulgencio. It will pay off, I promise. Do this for yourself. Do it for your business. Your staff. Your family. Do it for Cuba.”
“La Fiesta de la Muerte de los Traidores has been cancelled this mile,” Fulgencio said with an expressionless face, “And my door has been locked to the public since the third part of the last mile. Next time you come by I expect it will be to tell me I can open again.”
“A little bit longer Fulencio. That’s all we ask. A little bit longer,” I said. I pulled down my mask to take another sip of water, placed it back over my nose and mouth, then nodded my head to bid adieu.
“Esteban, show the Sargento to the door,” Fulgencio said. As I followed Esteban to the exit Fulgencio called my name. “Sargento Samuel,” he said.
Turning back towards him I said, “Yes Fulgencio.”
“May I ask a favor of you?
“What it is Fulgencio?”
He reached into his back pocket to retrieve his wallet which he then opened and pulled out a piece of paper. “Might you stop by Powhatan Cleaners and pick up my dry cleaning? They close at subsection 18 and I am afraid I will be unable to get over there by then,” he said holding out the paper which turned out to be a claim check.
I paused a moment before saying, “Sure Fulgencio”, and walking briefly within arm’s reach of him to fetch the claim ticket. Looking at it I saw that his clothes were at the far west-end location, quite a distance from The Bottom or my home.
“Muchas gracias,” Fulgencio said with a smile. “We’re all in this together, eh Sargento.”
“Indeed,” I said and Esteban let me out the door.
Sitting in my car in the lot I turned my thoughts to Jimmy The Shovel, remembering that Jebediah told me he was a lot closer than I thought. Where did I see that face before? I began frantically searching my neocortex for someone who matched the man in that photograph on Jebediah’s desk but I came up empty. The idea suddenly occurred to me that the answer may be in my phone. I picked it up off the console and began searching through old texts Jenny had sent me. And then there he was. “Call Jenny,” I told my Bluetooth receiver as I shifted into gear and pulled out of the parking lot. The phone rang multiple times before Jenny answered, just as I turned onto the Interstate.
“Whatchya need?” she asked without saying hello.
“You texted me a picture at mile marker 2019, part 8, section 4, subsection 14.53.”
“I did?” Jenny said.
“Yes. The man with you in that picture, I need to know who he is.”
She was silent for a bit then said, “You want to know about the man in the picture I texted you at mile marker 2019, part 8, section 4, subsection 14.53?”
“Yes Jenny, it’s very important.”
She was silent for another bit then said “Have you gone mad?”
“I need to know his name and any other information you have.”
“Yes Jenny. I assume you know at least that much about him.”
“Where are you?” she asked.
“I’m about to get on 64 and head out to the west-end to pick up Fulgencio’s dry cleaning.”
“Fulgencio? You mean Rubén?”
“Why are you picking up his laundry Samuel?”
“Samuel?” I said wondering how she knew.
“I need you to pull over to the side of the road Samuel and I need you to tell me exactly where you are. And I need you to stay there. Can you do that?”
“Pull over to the side of the road? What are you talking about? I can’t pull over to the side of the road. I’m on the highway. Can you just tell me who that man is in the picture with you?”
“Mile marker 2019, part 8, section 4, subsection 14.53?”
“Yes, that’s what I said.”
“We haven’t gotten to mile marker 2019, part 8, section 4 yet!” she exclaimed and we were disconnected.
Entering Powhatan Cleaners I was greeted by a pale redheaded woman standing at the counter behind a plexiglass shield. She wore a green cloth mask, not unlike the one that Jebediah had been wearing. “Good afternoon, welcome to Powhatan Cleaners. Picking up?” she asked in a most pleasant voice.
“Yes,” I said and pulled the claim ticket from my jacket pocket then slid it through the slot in the protective shield separating us. It was then that I noticed her name tag read “Mariposa”. This struck me as somewhat incongruent with a pale, green eyed, red-haired girl who looked to be of Irish or Scottish stock.
Mariposa looked down at the ticket then back up at me. “You should tell Rubén to pick-up his own dry cleaning,” she said.
“Fulgencio. His real name is Rubén. Rubén Zaldívar.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Well he should be picking-up his own laundry.”
“I was doing him a favor.”
“You must be a very good friend,” she said and turned away from me to press a button in the wall which activated the conveyor rack behind her. After a few moments she pressed the button again and the conveyor stopped. Noticing slot 106 was empty she said, “Hmm,” then looked back at the claim ticket lying on the counter then back at the empty slot then back at me.
“Not ready?” I asked.
“No, it’s definitely ready. Let me see what’s going on,” she said then reached down under the counter and pulled out a red rotary dial phone which she placed on the counter. She dialed a number and, after a brief pause, said “This is Mariposa at 10246 West Broad. I’m calling about ticket number 882314906-13, Customer 50106.Yes. That’s right. Uh-huh. Okay. Okay, I understand. We’re all in this together. Yes. Yes. Uh-huh. There is no Motherland without you.” She hung-up and looked up at me. “I need you to come with me out back,” she said and gestured for me to come around to her side of the counter. I did my best to maintain sufficient social distancing space between us as I followed her into the back. Her soft, silky, red hair looked very pretty pulled back in a ponytail. We turned to the right and went down a corridor, at the end of which was a door with a numeric keypad on it. She typed in a six digit code and then there was a click. She held the door open for me and said “Please step-in.” I did so and immediately found myself enveloped in darkness. I could feel she was behind me. In her soft, sweet voice Mariposa spoke rather than sang (as-is customary) the words, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . .”
That was the last thing I remembered before opening my eyes and finding myself laying on the dirt in an empty lot off of Boulevard. It was night. Something burned on the ground a few yards in front of me. In the distance was The Diamond, it’s parking lot occupied by police vehicles, fire trucks, and at least three ambulances. Behind where I had been laying was a bulldozer, an office trailer, and assorted piles of construction materials. In the glow of the moon, the flames in front of me, and the flashes of red and blue light, I noticed a sign reading “Future Site of the United Fruit Company – Mid-Atlantic Distribution Center.”
“That man, he just appeared out of nowhere!” a child’s voice cried out. I looked toward it and there were three children (two boys and a girl) and two adults (a man and a woman) standing there, all with cloth face coverings.
“Stay away from him, he not wearing a mask,” the adult male said
“Listen to your father,” the adult female said.
The adult male took a photograph of me with his smartphone then typed something on his touchscreen. A short time later a police car was at the scene and an officer of the law was shining a light in my face.
“Sir, do you have a mask?” he asked.
I searched my pocket and the ground around me but couldn’t find one. “I must have lost it,” I said.
“Do you have i.d. Sir?”.
“Yes, in my wallet,” I said, “Is it okay if I take my wallet out?”
Following his direction I slowly retrieved my wallet, removed my driver’s license, and threw it towards him. He picked it up and inspected it in the beam of his flashlight.
“Sir, I’m gonna need you to come with me.”
“I understand,” I said.
He removed a disposable mask from a pouch on his belt and threw it towards me. “Put that on,” he said and I did.
As he cuffed me I noticed the man and the woman and three children were still there, watching. After placing me in the backseat of his car the officer told them “Thank you folks for your good citizenship”
“We’re all in this together Officer,” the adult male said.
“Yes Sir, indeed we are” the officer said.
The flaming material on the ground continued to burn. No one mentioned it or tried to put it out or even looked at it. It was as-if they couldn’t see it.
Sitting in the back of the police car as we pulled onto the road, I asked “What’s going on over there?”
“A bomb was set off at The Diamond”.
“I don’t know Sir.”
“Why would they set off a bomb in a baseball stadium?” I asked.
“I don’t know that Sir.”
“I mean now. Why now? It’s not baseball season,” I said.
“It IS baseball season,” the officer said and I immediately realized the charges weren’t going to be limited to failure to wear a face covering in a public space.
I started to wonder about Fulgencio’s dry cleaning and whether I had ever brought it back to him. I still don’t know that. But I know he hadn’t lied to me. There was no Fiesta de la Muerte de los Traidores. That much was true. As we turned onto the Avenue where the monuments to the men who never existed once stood I began to remember what transpired before I ended up in that lot across the road from The Diamond. I was on a riverboat. Lincoln was there. And his wife Mary Todd. And Grant too. And Seward. And, for some reason, the Marquis de Chambrun. There were many other people as well who seemed to be military officers and government officials. The U.S. Navy Band was on stage playing.
“No, this isn’t real,” I said but no one so much as looked in my direction. “You’re not real,” I said in a louder voice, “You never existed! This never happened!” Still, no response from anyone. It was as if they couldn’t see or hear me.
When the Band finished playing “La Marseillaise” Lincoln took to the stage to ask them to play a song they apparently discussed earlier. “This tune is now Federal property, It’ll be good to show the rebels that, with us in power, they will be free to hear it again!” he said and the band began to play. The crowd clapped along as they did. And they sang.
Oh, I wish I were in the land of cotton
Old times there are not forgotten
Look away, look away, look away
“Stop! Stop!” I shouted, “You can’t play that song! It’s against the Law!” But no one acknowledged me. And there my memory ended.
Looking out the right side window of the police car I noticed bloated cadavers hanging from the trees that lined the Avenue. Looking straight ahead through the windshield I could see the beams of distant search lights dancing in the night sky. I could also hear the faint cheers of a crowd and music that I first mistook for mambo. But as we got closer I could hear that it was not. It was something much, much different.
“You do know what this is all about Officer,” I said.
“Yes Sir, I know,” the officer said then began to sing (as-is customary) rather than speak the words.
John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave
John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave
John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave
But his soul goes marching on . . .