If the changes that we fear be thus irresistible, what remains but to acquiesce with silence, as in the other insurmountable distresses of humanity? It remains that we retard what we cannot repel, that we palliate what we cannot cure.
—Samuel Johnson, Dictionary of the English Language, Preface
The Argentine Delegation, as they came to be known, comes up the River Merrimack not much more than three years after the destruction of the world. They come up the river flashing and noisy and much to the confusion of those responsible for guarding La Maison, and much to the wonder of everyone, even those who had heard the rumors from the southeastern part of Massachusetts, that something like this was in the works.
The first sighting of each of the two LCAC comes long after the sounds the hybrid hovercraft carried up the river, high-pitched buzzing that modulates from rumble to roar. The two medium-sized craft come to rest just past where the Concord meets its end at the Merrimack, just up from this confluence, at the long broken down mill outbuilding that had once been an active part of the Boott Mill complex, when textile was king in Lowell, but only recently put back into use as part of the main perimeter defense for the downtown area, and where a make-shift dock had been created out of the old granite shore barrier that runs alongside the river. The brick structure runs parallel to one of the bigger Boott Mill buildings, but it had always remained beyond the renovation plans of the National Park project that had started in the 1970s. This structure, left largely to molder, ignored over the decades and long-considered well beyond redemption, has survived, isolated up against the river bank and lucky enough to have somehow escaped the clouds of sparks and floating embers that had caused so much destruction in many parts of the city.
And now two military craft slowly collapse with a drowning, lowering pitch on deflating iron black skirts, the sound buzzing down while the clouds of spray drift downwind, glittering mists that hold, for a moment, quickly vanishing rainbows.
A small group of guards have been gathering to watch the approach, and now they simply stand, each and every one, in the echoing silence, staring down from their crude rooftop perches at the two craft and the five people on the decks.
And then, five men climbing up from the boats. The first is dressed spectacularly, a black jumpsuit, gloves, rubber boots with pant legs cuffs tucked in, and the others are outfitted like him, but plainer, without the blue and white and blue sash that sports a shining sun in the middle white field. The first man is large, and he wears a headpiece that is a square shape, nearly a foot to each side. This hat, like the others in the group, is peaked like a squat pyramid and is made up of aluminum or thin tin, with wide plastic head straps securing the tin square to the head, like those found in hard hats.
Unlike the others, the metal covering the largest man’s headpiece is decorated with hammered patterns and dyes. The shining hats reflect the bright sun and sky, scattering the light out onto the crowd of guards, but it keeps the owner’s face in shadow, until an upward tilt shows the shaded face possesses a spectral glow, plastered with white sunscreen ointment, even on the lips, like mountain climbers, the dark glasses he wears stands out sharply dark even under the shadow of the wide brim.
The big man, who boasts a big mustache that leaps off his shaded, whited face, is the first who speaks. Raising his hand, he shouts a greeting in heavily accented English.
And then floating out through the gathering people further up on the granite quay comes a call, and the five men now standing off the boats follow the sound to where the crowd is moving, a shifting mix of people in hoods and umbrellas or dressed with sheet coverings and an odd assortment of jackets and coats, the milling revealing a small white café table umbrella being carried for a man dressed in a suit and tie and a large straw hat. This man, together with the small group around him, makes his way through the crowd with the help of the guards of his retinue. It is he who is shouting, and gesturing, as if trying to shoo away the people. When he is finally through the crowd, he turns back around and shouts again. “Allez, allez toi!” he says, before he turns back toward the Argentines.
The guards behind him start to push gently against the people, stiffening against them, even as they start to disperse.
Marcos looks around, again, and again is struck by the strangeness of it all. He stands with the others behind Fernando, as Fernando introduces himself to the men sitting on a raised platform, in a wood paneled room of some size, the council room, Marcos guessing, having seen the heavy bronze letters above the granite building, Lowell City Hall. Behind a continuous surface of the dais centered toward the back of this large room, and flanked on each side by two men sitting very closely, is the man who had come to them at the landing, and there are also three men and one woman sitting behind the curving dais, and a number of empty chairs. The light in this room is dimmed by venetian blinds pulled shut against large windows.
“Embajador Fernando Mementas de la Carras,” Fernando is saying, his name rolling from him with a dramatic flourish, his shade tin off and on a seat behind him, but Marcos can’t help imagine the shade hat in Fernando’s hand, flourished in a the midst of a grand bow, “of the Partido de Cristano Camunidao Pueblo, and I bring the good wishes of my government.”
The white sunscreen had been hastily wiped away, mostly, but a bit still lingers under one end of Fernando’s dark moustache.
Marcos manages to keep from rolling his eyes but can’t stop himself from thinking that Fernando is one pompous ass. The nearly two months on board the Argentine frigate, and the several other meetings like the one Marcos must endure again here does nothing to weaken his distaste.
Which is something of a problem, as Fernando is his boss, and Fernando carries high regard from some very important and powerful people.
There are an assortment of people filling the wood folding seats behind the chairs in front where Marcos and the other members of the party now sit, except, of course, Fernando remains standing, expectently.
Marcos notes that there are a few guards who stand around the back and sides of the room with rifles at rest. He notes, too, that two of the guards are murmuring, and he notes the creak and pops of the folding chairs, the slight shifts and scrapes on chair legs on the wood flooring, the audience astir.
“Bien venu ici,” the suited man who had met them at the river edge says to the five. He is sitting in a high-backed leather upholstered office chair, right in the middle of the curving dais. “Je m’appelle Gerard,” he says with what might be a hint of a small bow. “Bien venu ici a la Maison.”
“Jesus,” Marcos whispers to André, in Spanish. “It’s another Fernando.” Another of the Argentines, the one who also sits back with the two younger men, looks toward Marcos and manages to communicate a quite definitive glare. This man’s name is Luis. He is middle-aged, like Fernando. The fifth man, a short and flabby man by the name of José, the oldest among them, now stands up just behind Fernando, a bit to the side of him.
Marcos is in this rather incredible circumstance because he speaks English well, and even knows the area, having gone to university in Boston, from before. From another time. He knows that he should be grateful for the opportunity, grateful for his uncle’s connections, but the prospect for a career in the Foreign Office seems a dim preference to his being in the arms of Maria, his beautiful wife, his newlywed. Not for the first time he wonders what the fuck he was thinking.
Fernando steps half forward to speak, but instead he turns back to look to his party and sees José at his arm, and he nods to him. José steps forward.
“Merci bien,” says José. “Il y a un grand honneur pour fait cette visite. Je m’appelle José Viedma,” he says, pointing first to himself, “et je vous presenté le chef de l’expidition, Monsier Fernando de la Carras, et aussi—” but José is interrupted before he can introduce the other three.
“—You’re not the head?” Gerard asks him, in English.
“I am,” Fernando says in his heavily accented English. “It is very well to meet you.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Gerard says to Fernando.
Fernando starts, in his loud voice, “I have the pleasure of requiring the—”
“—‘Requesting’,” Marcos pipes up from the back, confusing Fernando for a moment.
“Ah, si, ‘requesting’,” Fernando agrees, without glancing backward. “The pleasure of requesting the honor to meet with the, ah… Governor, of this—”
“—I am the Board Head,” Gerard says, waving his hand, cutting Fernando off. “Please let me show you to your quarters,” he says, “let you rest. And then we will convene the full Board.”
“You mean to say that if we had harmed you, say shot at you because we thought you were raiders…whatever,” says a man called Arnold who sits at the far right of the long dais at the front of council chamber, where, after being settled in rooms, close by, in a brown sandstone and granite building known as the Yorrick Club, and now the five Argentines are now meeting the full Board of La Maison.
“Say, a guard got surprised, whatever, your government would retaliate?” Arnold continues. Arnold’s lips are cracked and seem to have some old sores that spread out, radiating from his lips. He seems to be trying to glare at Fernando and catch the other Board members’ eyes all at the same time, but ends up mostly blinking in the still bright light that shifts down into the room through the yellowed slats.
Fernando looks stunned by the man’s comments and seems unable to understand how his presentation has turned so suddenly. He casts a quick glance at his fellow countrymen sitting behind him. Marcos wants to laugh at the panic running through Fernando’s eyes, and forces himself not to look at André who sits beside him, between him and Luis. André might roll his eyes in exasperation or blurt out a joke. It doesn’t feel to Marcos like a good time for joking.
And then Marcos stands up.
“No, no, no,” he is saying, smiling, and then grinning when he catches the relief washing over Fernando’s face. “Fernando,” and here Marcos throws a nod toward him before focusing back to the men and woman who now fill every seat on the raised structure in front. “It’s just a language thing,” he says, with the suggestion of a chuckle. And this is why I’m here, instead of… but he focuses back from his thoughts of Maria to the task before him. The nature of which task, Marcos thinks, and not for the first time, seems mostly to be pulling Fernando’s blundering attempts of speechmaking back on track.
“No,” Marcos continues, shaking his head a bit, a slight smile still playing over his features. “We are simply checking to see if you acknowledge a, uh, our diplomatic status, and all the rights and protections such status traditionally entails.” Marcos sits back down.
José stands up by Fernando, trying to ease Fernando’s embarrassed moment. “Yes, yes, yes,” José begins, effervescently, in English, but a stilting way. “You must forgive us our clumsiness with your language. When you asked us about the safety of our passage, my Chief,” here José nods at Fernando, who is nodding and smiling at the fourteen men and woman before him, “we meant we rely on the concept of safe passage, your good intentions.” José starts to sit down but changes his mind. “Of course there is no suggestion of violence in our presence, we are in your hands, and,” he says, looking at the man dressed in a black cassock and roman collar sitting nearer the middle, two seats to the left of Gerard, “it is a great comfort to be among men who look to God.” The priest nods once at him as José sits back.
“Yes, of course,” Fernando says, smiling. “I was just saying with, how do you say? Teorico—”
“—‘Theoretical’,” comments Marcos, from his seat behind Fernando and José.
“Yes, theory, thank you,” Fernando says, not looking at Marcos. He almost never looks at Marcos.
“It is a dangerous time and here I get taken away on such thinking to lose track of what is here,” Fernando stumbles on. “what is here, we are coming to know how things, to learn of the world, to, um,” Fernando says, but his smile slips as he realizes that he has managed to confuse things again.
Marcos is pretty sure he isn’t rolling his eyes. He knows he’s making an effort not to smile.
“Explorers?” someone up front says, amid a rumble of talk among the Board members. Marcos thinks he hears, he’d swear, another person up front quoting an old Firesign Theater bit. Domini domini domini, you’re all Catholics now Marcos thinks the man, all the way on the left of the dais, might have said. Their eyes meet and Marcos see the fellow, who can’t be that much older than him, grinning.
Marcos feels like he’s tripping, hallucinating.
“Order,” says Gerard, loudly enough to quiet the room.
José, who had sat back down, tugs at Fernando’s sleeve and Fernando sits down. José rises again.
“If I may,” he says, one hand gripping his other. “There is much to learn from each here, and perhaps a summary for you of how we are here will answer many questions.” He looks to Gerard who makes a motion for him to go on. Someone says Hear, hear.
José turns back toward Marcos, and Marcos knows it is time for the dog and pony show. He nods back to José, and stands, and begins to explain that, as part of their assignment, the Argentine naval ship initially intended only a pass-by survey of the New England seaboard, and that the main purpose of the ship on which they traveled was to follow up on negotiations that had been started with the Canadian government by radio.
“What kind of ship were you traveling on?” asks one of the Board members.
“Let him finish, will you Edmund,” says Gerard, nodding first to José and then to Marcos. Edmund, a good looking blond man with wispy blond hair and very pale eyebrows, seems perfectly fine with Gerald’s admonition.
“I don’t know these names in English,” Fernando says, from his chair. “It is big ship.”
“Is it a warship?” asks Edmund. His manner is easy, and he ignores Gerard’s look.
“Well, yes,” says José, “I guess that it is,” he says, looking over at Marcos, handing back the floor to him with his eyes.
“She is now called the San Salvador, in service from the Falkland War,” Marcos says, and behind him Luis hisses Malvinas!, but Marcos pretends not to hear him, but wanting to kick him, knowing that Falkland is more likely what his audience is bound to know. “It is a frigate-class vessel, light armament.”
Marcos decides to pause.
“Thank you,” says Edmund.
“Can we go on now?” asks Gerard, looking at Edmund, “Or do you want to keep asking whatever questions you want?” Before the Argentines can respond to another of Gerard’s motions for them to continue, another man stands up. He is wiry and dark.
“I have a question,” he says, in French, glaring at Gerard. “How come we’re not speaking French?”
“Je parle un’petit francais,” says José, but Gerard is standing to glare back at the man.
“Don’t be an ass, Paul-George,” Gerard says, speaking the man’s name in French, exaggeratedly. “Not all of our guests speak French, for one thing, and as you well know, not all the Board members speak French too well.”
There’s some snickering around the table, and as Paul-George sits down, red faced and muttering in French, the man near him pushes at him with a rough but friendly motion, briefly squeezing his shoulder and saying something to him with a low laugh.
Gerard sits back too, again waving to José to go on, but now Marcos, who has stayed standing, asks, “Why do you speak French?”
“Let’s try to keep this orderly,” José is saying to him, in Spanish, low, with a look that says Be quiet!
“What’s the story?” Marcos continues, ignoring José’s glance. “I thought everyone spoke English in America. Certainly when I was in college here. Here in the land where the great white fathers, ate turkey. Mayflower Rock. I’m just asking.” Someone at the table laughs, and someone else shouts out, “That’s Plymouth!”, which confuses Marcos, until he realizes his mistake.
“Excuse our young friend,” says André, who isn’t any older than Marcos, smiling as he stands, and then slapping Marcos on the back of the head lightly. “We brought him along for his strong back to carry our luggage.”
Edmund barks out a laugh, and the tension in the room bursts. Marcos sinks in his chair, a blush blossoming across his face. Fernando reaches to tap Marcos’s leg and says something sharp and long to him in Spanish, and then he turns back and looks more brightly at the Board, a smile broadening on his face. “I am sure you all have sons,” he says.
“This young man is your son?” asks Gerard.
José answers. “No. no, Fernando means it, an expression.” José tries on a smile of his own as he looks to Gerard to see if he should continue. Gerard nods to him again.
“Yes, thank you,” says José as the room quiets down. “Where were we? Yes, well, on to Canada we were all going, but trying to survey things, for information, how things are all different, yes?” José goes on to describe how the ship had encountered fishing boats out of the southeastern part of Massachusetts, and had learned from the people there that a city still stood to the north, and it was then decided to send a small crew to speak with the people.
The way José had pronounced Massachusetts strikes Marcos as truly wondrous and it was bizarre.
“What do you hope to get out of it?” asks Edmund.
José looks puzzled. “I am sure we do not yet know,” he replies.
“Fair enough,” says Edmund.
“Perhaps the question you want to ask,” José, looking to Edmund and then to Gerard, “is what you might get from it?”
“You’re on a mission of mercy,” says Edmund, flatly.
José either doesn’t hear Edmund’s tone, or ignores it, looking at Gerard and the priest to his left. “We do consider this our mission, to help the suffering where we can, we take our Christian duties—”
“—So where’s the flour?” one of the men who sits second from the end of the dais calls out. “Where’s medicine? Where’s—” but someone else is asking if the Canadians had mentioned Lowell, and demanding reasons why they hadn’t, and someone else seems to be humming, or singing in a low, deep voice. Two other members are starting to argue, voices straining into each other.
“—Hold on, hold on!” Gerard says with a slap of his hand on the table, but everyone is speaking.
“—We did not even know—”José is saying.
“—For Christ sake,” says someone from the other side of the dais, “we didn’t know they were—”
“—How come our radio didn’t—” shouts out another over the noise, before being drowned out.
Gerard is shouting for quiet, clapping a small piece of wood flat against the dais top. “Everyone just shut UP!” he screams. The room falls quiet. Then everyone in the room jumps when something from the back of the room clatters. The five Argentines turn to the sound, and see a guard, flustered, stooping to pick up his rifle from where it had fallen to the floor.
“Ah,” says the guard, aware of all the eyes in the room on him. He starts to shuffle but seems to think better of it, and stands still, pulling himself up to into what someone could think was an At attention.
“Okay,” says Gerard after a moment of silence in the room. “We hear why you have come to be here, I’m sure you would like us to contact your ship for you, if you will give us the channel—”
“—The frequency,” someone says. “Assuming the atmospherics—”
“—Thank you Peterson,” says Gerard impatiently, to the man who had spoken.
“And,” Peterson continues, “assuming that we can get the FRED to work, the track record’s not promising.”
“Fred?” Fernando, puzzled, asks of the man Peterson. Peterson has remained slouched down in his chair, off to the right, and Fernando strains his neck up to look past a man, who, with his head propped up on elbows, mostly blocks Fernando’s view of the slouching Peterson.
“A vulgarity,” says the priest to Fernando, from the other side of the table. “He means the radio.”
“We have our own radio,” says Marcos.
“Je sais ca,” says Paul-George, and then, as if in pain, he grimaces and continues in slightly accented English, “We will want to look at it.”
Marcos looks at André. André’s head is turned to Luis and Luis is shaking his head, almost unperceptively, at André.
“Such details don’t need the Board to attend to them, do they Gerard?” comments Edmund. “Why don’t we hear from our guests about the rest of their world?” It is a popular suggestion.
Marcos sees that Gerard is glaring at Edmund once again, but he turns, finally, to look toward Fernando.
Fernando nods at José and turns back to Gerard. “If you wish,” says Fernando, “Senor Viedma has a much better control of your language.” José, having taken his seat again, is starting to stand up again, as Marcos is saying, from behind Fernando, “Command of the language,” and Fernando keeps his smile but Marcos sees his back go stiff. André winks at Marcos.
“Well, of course you must be interested,” starts José, grasping his hands together, settling into a sonorous voice of a lecturer as he lists the problems his own country has been struggling with. The growing season, with colder weather, crop yields have diminished, but it is the ozone that has been the worse for crops and the large beef herds.
“Tell us about it,” someone says, and someone else tells whoever made the crack to shut up.
José doesn’t hear the sarcasm in the anonymously offered comment. “We have been taking readings as we move north,” he continues. “At our grain latitudes we have somewhere between a 20 or 30 percent rise in ground…” he turns to Marcos.
“U.V.,” Marcos says. “Ultra violet.”
José nods, turning back to the front. “Here, you are about at 70 percent, yes?”
“So your tanning salon business is bust too,” the same someone cracks again, making another member laugh, high and nervous, but Gerard is standing, screaming toward the man who has spoken. “GET OUT! GET OUT!” he is shouting, and he moves, with a jerk, toward the man. The room falls silent, watching Gerard trying to control himself. “Get out,” Gerard says again, quietly, sitting down.
“I’m sorry,” the man says, sounding embarrassed.
“Now,” says Gerard. Marcos looks over the men on the platform, and then focuses back on Gerard. He sees Gerard point to one of the guards in the back and then flick his finger toward the man.
“Hey,” says the man. “I was a jerk, okay. I’m sorry.”
“Louie,” says Edmund to the man, “call it a day.”
“Yeah,” says Louie. When he stands up, Marcos can see that his face, black from sun, has a vivid pink scar that runs across his cheek and temple from his eye, up into his black curly hair. The scar doesn’t seem too fresh, but it isn’t old either, Marcos thinks. As the man steps from behind the table he turns to José to apologize, and then he leaves, unaccompanied, through one of the doors on the side of the high-ceilinged room.
Alone, Marcos sits on his bed, his eyes closed, his back against the wall of the room he’s been given, sharing it with André.
The bedroom is small in proportion to its tall ceiling, but it is beautifully appointed with old Victorian furnishings and dark oak woodwork in original condition that frames the trim of the one large window and the passage door and closet door. An oriental rug that is worn in spots covers much of the wood of the floor and the walls are finished with elegant wallpaper. The rug is folded under itself to fit beneath the heaviest of the two dressers at one end of the room. An upholstered arm chair and matching side chair sit on either side of a small mahogany table topped with beige marble, along a small stretch of wall between the room’s door and closet. The light in the room comes from a brass lamp that sits on this table, the lamp has a bulb that seems a bit too big for the cloth shade. A ceiling fixture, with its triple tulip glass shades, is dark. The window, behind heavy curtains, is covered on the outside by wrought iron grill work.
Marcos grunts a bit as he slides himself down the wall to lie fully flat on the bed, wiggling at the end to achieve the blessed pose. One arm moves over his face, the other, on his chest, still holding a hard cover journal book and a grasped pen. His travel bag is open on the rug by his bed, with clothes, books, and the corner of a small tape recorder visible through the opened zipper.
Marcos feels exhausted. The small glass of wine he had drunk at the dinner held for them earlier in the evening feels like it is moving through his every cell like a drug specially designed to find fatigue and amplify it. His bowels are carrying on a low growl contest. He groans, and swings his feet up off the bed, and sits up, squinting the former weight of his arm out of his eyes.
The building they are being housed in seems quiet, but Marcos, with effort, hears something that sounds like laughter from the floor beneath him. He stands and goes to the door, opening it to listen. From the open door, past the carpeted hallway and around the corner where he knows the broad stairway leads down to the sitting rooms on the first floor, Marcos makes out André’s laughter, and other rumblings of talk. It is still going on, he thinks, somewhat amazed.
He retreats and shuts the door.
After the dinner, which had been presented with a surprising formality and elegance in the large dining room on the first floor below, Marcos had needed to slip away from the more informal talking that continued. Although Marcos is supposed to be chronicling this trip—a duty which makes him feel that he probably should have stayed with the group downstairs—he has instead given into the desire to get to his writing while the flood of the day’s impressions are still fresh.
He goes back to his bed and sits, picking up the journal.
My Dear Maria, he begins writing. It is the way all his personal journal entries start. From the start he has first written his personal journal, and then, later, he’d take the things noted that would be of relevance to his assignment, boiling these down to where they were barely bullet points.
Even those bullet points were likely to add up as a pretty big daily report while they’re here, he thinks.
Marcos puts the pen to his lips, closing his eyes for a moment. He thinks of all the journal pages, the filled notebooks he has left on the ship, how they sit, bundled, waiting for the ship’s return before Maria will read them.
And where am I now? It has often been very hard to describe for you what we have seen. The shattered, scattered time we went through as a nation, the killings no one is allowed to speak of, the times of hunger, the sick, all seems like nothing compared to what our ship has glimpsed, even if these impressions come at a distance, the signs and shrines of the Great Stupidity have been terrible to behold, the cluster of pleasure boats we came across off well north of Hatteras, jumbled and crushed together and turtled over, the once bright paints of the hulls mocked by the trash and debris caught among the boats, the weeds, trees and boards, and the plastic buoys, a wash out of some abandoned marina by one of the giant storms, some on board thought. Or the storm of ash that rained down the ship from out of a clear sky as we steamed past Chesapeake, its black mass swirling on us like a ghost, fouling the decks with flake and soot like some insane devil’s blizzard, and then gone, as quickly, like a hallucination.
He knows that he’s written about these things, and more, but he likes repeating, tweaking, these more favored bits of writing.
But this is the first entry I write you from solid ground. Huh! a curious phrase, considering. On shore, I should say.
We left the ship, days ago it seems, but I trust myself enough still to know it was just this morning, as the first light of morning broke. The sea was beautifully smooth, thank god, for our group of five was packed among the supplies and equipment in two boats, or whatever one best calls those vessels, a hovercraft assault carrier, I think, or a recon something, but small, very small against the side of the ship.
Of course, we had no river maps, only an old road map Luis got somehow by someone in Fall River, that curious town that seemed to me all granite mills but few souls, but I know how distant I was, through the glasses, on the ship.
The mouth of the river called Merrimack is bay-like, but the wide mouth is all but closed where it meets the sea. A large neck of land swings up as if intent to close the river in, a great break of stone in a rush from the south side of the mouth. As we passed by the rocks of this neck, in those awful screaming boats—no ear protection other than the wadded chewed paper I pressed in to my ears—we had our last glimpse of the ship, the ship already underway, what a feeling of desolation.
He wants to work on screaming boats, having been struck by the experience, the assault of the noise, which had sounded to him as animal-like at times, but this focus on the craft of writing, while sometimes comforting, can often horrify him, some weird mix, anyway.
Our first glances of the land took in what once must have been residences, but now it is only scraggly plants and char, steps and foundations. I had been up to Newburyport at some time or another while in school, and I remember well enough that it was a beautiful enough place.
As we pushed forward there was only more of destruction, more burnt houses and the dead ghost trunks of trees, larger structures and cars now only shells, and we believe that the bombs over the towns we passed up river had burned even to the coast. I am inadequate in describing it, weak are such words for what surrounded us as we moved into the river. No one, not even André, spoke for some time.
Going up the river was easy, physically, mostly. The craft were made for many conditions, and the briefest of training given Luis and André soon had them settling each vessel to move more like regular boats, much quieter, thankfully, at least until we had to transverse obstacles further up the river. We were approaching what I believe was the city of Haverhill, and as we got close to this place, only a few spots of green could be seen in a plain of twisted rubble, simply that, shifting for reasons well beyond my ability to identify recognizable structures, only some metal frames of likely buildings, except for the smokestacks and bridge abutments that seemed hardly affected, seeing smokestacks throughout, like guideposts to what was once here.
It was one of the bridges’ abutments that caused us our biggest trouble with the boat, but once we got past Haverhill, there were buildings and houses that looked almost sound.
But mostly these plains of white gray rubble.
He knows that he’ll have to work on this description. He is not happy with plains of white gray rubble.
We had already passed several bridges, or rather the remains of them, columns rising from the black water of the river mostly, although the first two bridges toward the mouth of the river still had all their structure, and some others up river looked intact. But in the middle of what I think was Haverhill, the several abutments of a bridge had caught and held great quantities of material, creating a jam. We searched for a passage. There was one that was deep but only four or five feet wide, the water jetting through like a fierce mountain gorge swelled with spring runoff, but instead of boulders and rick there was the hulks of cars amid other debris far harder to identify.
We idled below this garbage dam, while Luis and André consulted the manuals, and discussed approaches, which turned out to be to fly toward one part of the obstruction that seemed best, widest, with a relatively mild spilling of water, the hover fans to full scream, and the first vessel bounced through, but the second one, the one I was on with Luis, lost momentum, or hit at a less advantageous angle, and somehow got hung up in the spilling water. We would have floundered, I’m sure, if we hadn’t instead gotten stuck on the debris, the water spilling around us. André tossed us a tow line and with engines of both boats full out we made it through.
In a funny way this trouble was good for us. I am sure the others were feeling the weight of the surroundings as much as me, and it gave us something to focus on, to work together.
Marcos stops writing, putting his head back and gently tapping it against the wall, his eyes closed. He stops that and brings his hands up to rub his eyes.
André walks in.
“You’re like an old man, old man,” André says to Marcos as he closes the door. He speaks in heavily-accented English, attempting to mimic a high brow British accent. He seems happy.
“Party over?” Marcos replies, back to Spanish.
“Sure,” André says, jumping on his bed with enough force to make the headboard bang the wall. André doesn’t seem tired.
“You look tipsy,” say Marcos, his hands back in his lap, across the still-open journal.
“Unfortunately, only a glass or two,” comments André, now down and turned on his side, his head propped up on his arm, looking at Marcos. ” Johnny Walker Black,” he adds. “Edmund was nice enough to share it with me and Luis,” he says, batting his eyelashes, grinning. “After the others left.”
“A conspiracy,” Marcos says.
“Sure,” says André. “What are you doing?”
Marcos gets up and tosses the journal and pen on to the bureau top. “Guess,” he says, after he lies back down on his bed.
“Being a dutiful writer or pining for your wife,” André says, still up on his elbow, looking at Marcos’s again closed eyes.
“Both,” says Marcos.
Marcos is crashing, and it seems almost impossible to undress, but he manages and slips into his bed. “Now be a good boy and shut off the light,” Marcos is telling André, but Marcos is already falling asleep.
The early morning sun is already starting to show its strength as the five Argentines and a man named Armand, who has come to collect them, step out into the street. The street is busy with people, most of whom are bundled against the sun one way or another, lots of wide brim hats, but also many baseball caps, with sweatshirt hoods pulled up and over. Marcos looks at the passing faces and his group gets a lot of looks right back, which makes Marcos wonder how everyone seems to know who they are, and then he realizes the tin hats of the Argentines are, of course, distinctive. A surprising number of those pushing hand carts and wheelbarrows seem to have scars visible under the hats, what look like old burn scars to Marcos.
Guards wearing dark arm bands move among the groups and individuals in the street and sidewalks, but only a few of these carry a pistol or rifle.
The two guards walking with the group carry shotguns, one a different kind than the other.
The building they come to reminds Marcos of the Trinity Church in Boston, because its stone work is ornate and mixes dark and light stone, another brownstone and granite building, a public library. The curb in front is empty, but for the parking meters and a handicapped parking sign. The group climbs the steps and pass through the heavy wood and brass doors that are held open by a pair of guards.
“These guys here for us?” André says to Armand as they move beyond the doors. Armand, a short, squat man with heavy black framed glasses, stops and turns to look at his questioner.
“What?” Armand asks. Everyone comes to a stumbling stop behind him, in the front area of the building where the check out desk looms, vacant.
“The guards,” Marcos says. “Are they here for us?” Marcos ignores Fernando’s sharp glance. If Fernando has a problem, he should take it up with André. Marcos is just interpreting André’s rather thick English.
“Of course not,” Armand says, puzzled. He waves his hand at the two guards in their group. “These guys, Dale, Greg, are your guards.”
“Craig,” the guard who Armand mis-named, says, but Armand ignores him, or can’t be bothered to say anything, since he’s back to leading the group across the front area into a large room lined with books.
It’s the reference room, Marcos notes.
There is one large cleared library table in the very center of the room and Armand has already pulled back a chair at this table. The other large tables in the room are covered with stacks of books and directories. The light is not bad, Marcos thinks, given the lamps are off. But the light through the stained glass windows at the back is enough.
“There’s a lot to go over this morning,” Armand says in passable Spanish, as the others settle into chairs. “Edmund will be joining us in a moment,” he adds, nodding in the direction of the wall behind them. “He’s probably still at the Hall.”
“One certainty protects what is all valuable,” comments Fernando, in his loud, poor English. His comment fills the silence of the room. “Let’s try to be polite, as guests,” he adds, in Spanish, to André and Marcos.
“The Hall?” José inquires, staying with Spanish.
“The City Hall. The building next to us,” Armand replies, in Spanish.
“Where we met everybody,” says Luis, to José.
“It’s our first time in Lowell,” André says to Armand with a grin.
Armand takes him seriously, but has no reply, and instead he looks down at the clip board before him. “Okay,” he says, after a moment, staying with his Spanish, “let’s get started if we can. Overall, this will be an information session. We have plenty of questions for you about your country.” Luis grunts at this, and Armand glances up at him for a moment, his eyes magnified in the lens of his glasses. “There is a lot you would like to know here, I’m sure. If we can get to it today.” He clears his throat and fidgets with the clipboard. “If not, we can meet again tomorrow or however long you need.” He looks back up at them. “For the sake of time, let me go through the questions we’ve prepared. We can come back to any for more later.” Armand glances down again and reads, in English, “What is the state of government in Argentina?”
“I am sorry,” Fernando says, “mean what government?”
Jesus, Marcos thinks. This is going to take a lot of time if Fernando insists on being Answer Man.
“Sure,” says Armand, looking at him, owl-eyed. “But I mean first, is, well,” he hesitates, looking at his question as if more specification will appear on the paper. “Well, you know, whole? I mean, a federal or national thing, power?” He snaps his finger at the guard he thinks is Greg, and Craig steps forward, leaning.
“Atlas,” Armand tells him, low, pointing to an adjacent table
“Ah,” says Fernando. “Si. Yes. Nacion, yes?”
“Same borders, all area in control?” Armand asks. He takes the atlas from Craig, settling it in front of him, opened randomly to what Marcos thinks may be Europe, if his restricted view of the upside-down pages serves.
José takes over for Fernando. “We have a little more now, defensive how do you say?” says José. “Territory.” José has answered in English.
“Zona de amortiguamiento, zona tampón de seguridad, zona parachoques,” Marcos says to José and Fernando, and then, to Armand, “Buffer zones.”
Armand’s face is titled up in such a way that the dim light manages to glint off his glasses.
José continues, back in Spanish. “There were changes, our government,” here José is gesturing with his hand, waving at everything, “many changes, of course, but the military, the armed forces held together, helped hold us together. We hold some of Paraguay as a buffer, that is all. There are some troubles from our neighbors and we moved only to protect ourselves of course.”
Marcos starts in on translating, but Armand waves him of, and then Armand is back to looking down at his clipboard, writing. “That was my third question,” he says, using English, looking a bit embarrassed, almost smiling. “Okay, so…” Armand starts, but then there is Edmund, walking through the doors into the reference room. “Here’s Edmund,” Armand says, although everyone is already looking at Edmund as he moves toward the chair one of the guards is placing next to Armand.
“Buenos dias, folks,” Edmund calls out cheerfully, before he sits.
“We just started,” says Armand, as the others greet or nod at Edmund.
“Have you got to the tourism trade bit yet?” Edmund asks, winking. Armand and Fernando look confused, but several others at the table smile at his joke as Marcos translates it for them.
“They say they have a national government. Some border conflict,” Armand says, who then says this again, in Spanish.
“But since when haven’t we had border conflict?” remarks Luis, smiling, after Armand finishes.
Armand is sticking with translating to Spanish, which Marcos thinks is wise, although more work for him, helping with translation. Edmund is looking at Luis and asks, “So who’s running the show down there these days?”
“It is Partido de Cristano Camunidao Pueblo,” Fernando answers. He says it with pride.
“Meaning the People’s Christian Community Party,” explains José, using English, but then he switches back to Spanish. “It started as a coalition of the Church, army, and mostly the Social Christian Democrats, although others, its aim to reviving our economy and institutions for the benefit of our people, with the goal of carrying this aid to those less fortunate, as a Christian responsibility and duty.”
Well,” says Edmund, “that’s grand,” after Marcos translates
“Thank you,” says José, not sure how to react to Edmund. “Under the leadership of Alberto Gregores, Presidente.”
“Of course,” Luis is saying, “we must tend to the needs of our people before we can start much in the way of helping others, although we will do as much as we can.” Marcos translates.
“You’re helping other countries there now,” asks Edmund, focused on Luis.
“Well,” replies Luis, with a smile. “You can guess that these things are never as simple as they should be. Much of our present aid is food and material for supporters of our efforts in other countries, we have, in these times, some problems to address for our protection. Things can be unstable with the…” he stops for a moment to think. “Bandits, I think, is the time-honored term for those who would grab advantage by force, who work for themselves. Or terrorists. We have many such pressures on our borders—”
Marcos hasn’t finished with the translation, because Edmund interrupts.
“—From other neighbors?” Edmund asks, saying neighbors with a hint of sarcasm, or so Marcos thinks seems to be the tone.
“Yes, you understand, I think,” says Luis, after Marcos scrambles to keep up. “It is sometimes called a war by some of the so-called nations who wish to fight our own success, but in many cases, it is more a matter described by bandit.”
Marcos finishes translating.
“So you help those who make it hard for those who would make it hard for you?” asks Edmund. Armand translates and then sits quietly, occasionally glancing at his clipboard. “Sounds sort of American,” Edmund adds, with his typical half-grin.
“Well no—” José is saying, trying to cut into the conversation, while Marcos is still translating Edmund’s last remark.
“—Si,” Luis then answers, smiling back at Edmund. “You understand that at this point things are still trouble enough that we must look to our own defense, and this means helping those who help us.”
Marcos is still translating when José jumps back in.
“Well this makes it sound much worse than it is,” José says as Marcos finishes up Luis’ comment. “It is a basic tenant for the Party to follow Christ’s teachings,” he is saying, shadowing toward Luis with annoyance, Marcos thinks. “To do Christ’s work we must be strong, that is all.”
After Marcos catches up, Edmund looks from José to Luis.
Luis smiles. “Of course,” Luis says. “It is just more sense to keep those who would weaken us from growing too strong. And better their back yard than ours, eh?”
“What of the other countries?” asks Edmund, after Armand has translated Luis’s comment.
Luis begins to explain that except for Brazil and Chile the other countries of the continent are more or less broken up into smaller structures even to the point where many areas are wild contests for control. Marcos decides to use the word fragments.
“Brazil is always a worry for us,” Marcos continues with translating. “They look to themselves to sort out their troubles, for now.” This strikes Marcos as a rather inaccurate thing to say, even as he is translating Luis.
Armand coughs for the group’s attention. “Yes,” he says, “perhaps you will give us a clearer picture. Of the state of things down there.”
“Down there,” Marcos repeats. “You mean South America.”
Edmund nods, smiling. “Armand’s right, let’s get a better idea of direct damage, conditions, and all.”
Marcos is again feeling exhausted.
“There’s not a lot we know, eh?” Edmund, looking, without expression, to Marcos. “We’re all kind of curious about what the hell the world is like, and what the hell we can expect.”
Edmund’s comment hang is a sudden silence, but then Armand says, plaintively, “I have a report to write you know.” Everyone turns to him and sees his distress over it and Edmund, and then the others, start to laugh.
“All right, all right,” says Edmund, swallowing his laughter, wiping at his eyes, after the burst wanes.
The discussion picks up momentum through the rest of the morning, falling into a wearying pace of questions and answers, Marcos settling into translating Luis, who takes lead, and as Luis talks and Marcos translates, Marcos more and more wants to use different words: when Luis talks about food production, Marcos wants to use the word famine; when Luis talks about medicine and health, Marcos thinks, epidemics; when Luis describes the relation with other countries, Marcos wants to say war.
But Marcos keeps himself on track, despite feeling like he’s translating both Luis’s conversation and a fevered conversation Marcos is having with himself.
Fortunately, around noon, a man comes in with food. The box he sets down is covered by a sheet of plastic that is beaded with water from the heavy rain that had started to fall an hour or two earlier.
“The tour is cancelled for today,” the man says, looking at Edmund.
Edmund nods and the man leaves without saying anything else.
“Let’s break for lunch, shall we?” Edmund says, getting up and going over to the wet cardboard box. As he pulls hard-used plastic tubs from it, his back to the table where the others sit, he says, “I’m sorry about the weather, but that’s New England.”
“Can we go today still if it stops raining?” asks Luis, after hearing Marcos’s translation. “It looks like the rain may be becoming less already.”
“Not that simple,” Edmund says. “Even if it lets up, stops, it will take us some time to run the checks.”
“Checks?” asks Luis.
“Hot spots,” Edmund says simply, bringing food to the table. When he sees the puzzled looks in the faces of Argentines, he snorts, and explains that some rains still come down hot, washing out fine particles of radioactive dust from the higher air. “I don’t know the scientific terms, but as it’s been explained to me,” he continues, “some places got pretty heavy ground hits and there are apparently some kinds of radiation that can accumulate in downpours.”
“Yes,” says Marcos. “We experienced that once badly on the way up the coast. It is not really much of a problem in our country.”
“We get readings,” Marcos continues, “but not high enough to be a problem.”
“Well, since the snow this past winter, it is going better,” says Edmund, sitting down and passing utensils around the table. “Still, it makes sense to let the crews check and mark any hot spots, in case a little bit of Kansas or Moscow comes calling.”
“Moscow?” Fernando asks, confused. “Kansas?”
Edmund smiles at him, waving his hand. “A joke.”
“Oh,” Fernando says, at a loss.
“What about around here?” asks Luis, after Marcos is finished translating.
“You mean ground bursts?” Edmund asks. Luis nods.
“Most of the hits in New England were air bursts,” he answers. He turns to Armand. “What’s the name of our guy who headed the survey? McKanzie?”
“Right. We know that Portsmouth, in New Hampshire, was ground, that’s to the east, so no footprint.”
“Footprint?” asks Fernando.
“Fallout pattern,” answers Luis, for Edmund, for Marcos to translate, “where the radiation falls downwind from where it exploded.”
“Oh, the shadow, el sombra,” remarks Fernando.
Luis nods and turns back to look at Edmund, who is already starting to eat, spooning out a porridge from what looks to Marcos to be a plastic quart container that was once from a Chinese take-out place.
“You list other spots?” Edmund says to Armand, between a mouthful.
“Fort Devens and Hanscom Air Field, to the southwest of us is the closest. We think the Cape was—”
“—Cape?” asks André.
“Cape Cod,” Armand says. “There was an Army or Air Force thing there, not for a long time, but…” he shrugs.
“Plus some radar, probably,” Armand continues. “There’s Westover—an Air Force Base—in the western part of the state. Boston, all around,” he says, with a kind of fluttering of his hands, until he stops to push up of his glasses. “Heavy air, but at least one, a small one, we’re guessing—”
“—You’ve checked all these?” Marcos asks, but his interruption ends when Luis tells him to just stick to translation, although then Luis asks the same question.
“Some of the local area,” says Edmund. “A lot from reports from people coming in over time gives us a pretty good picture by now.”
“Framingham got it big—” Armand is saying, but Marcos again interrupts.
“—Framingham? Up route 9?”
Everyone around the table looks at Marcos with surprise. “Shoppers World,” he adds, not knowing why he says such an absurd thing.
“Huh!” Edmund snorts.
“I went to university in Boston.”
“Huh!” Edmund says again, and then asks, “What school?”
“No shit,” he says, with a grunt or laugh. “I’m a BC guy, myself.”
Now it’s Marcos’s turn to say huh, and into the silence that falls around the table he says, “I don’t mean to be impolite, but why did they attack Framingham, and with a ground-burst?” and before anyone answers, he adds, “One of the ugliest places in the state from what I remember, big malls and hamburger places and carpet stores.”
“Consumer jealousy,” quips André, in English, and despite his accent, the joke seems surprisingly colloquial to Marcos.
“I keep thinking….” Marcos says, to no one in particular, but his comment tapers off. Another one of his attacks sweeps in, a feeling that has become almost as regular as breathing to him since leaving the ship. It is a sensation that feels as if his chest and guts are filling with sand.
“There was a Federal Emergency place. A big bunker thing. An armory too,” says Armand. “Got de-activated years back, but…”
But old target lists, Marcos thinks, trying to breath.
“That’s thought to be one of the few other ground things, right?” Edmund says to Armand, who shrugs.
Marcos hears someone at the table say “Jesus,” and then he realizes he’s the one who says it.
Armand goes on. “Air bursts were Worcester, Springfield. Holyoke, Pittsfield. Leominster, Fitchburg. Haverhill and Lawrence, both just northeast of us. New Bedford, but off target.”
“Off target?” Luis asks.
“Yeah, off to the west, still mostly gone.” says Edmund. “Like us, Fall River didn’t take a hit, but it seems that Providence had a couple, Newport took a ground burst, so they got it pretty bad with the radiation, and worse with the fires and shit.”
“It is bad, a lot of it looks as if it was hit,” says Luis, speaking about Fall River, which Marcos adds to the translation, to avoid confusing anyone. Marcos remembers that Luis was among those who went into shore at Fall River, after the ship had come across the fishing boats. Marcos looks at the others at the table and thinks that only Luis and André seem to be unaffected by the litany of cities crushed, even to the point that André, incredibly, seems animated. As he turns to looking at him, André even winks. Shocked, Marcos glances around the table and notices Edmund looking back at him, with a ghost of a smile that breaks into a grin.
“Come on guys,” Edmund announces, holding up his spoon. “Lunch time! Bon appétit!”
By the fourth day in the library where the Argentines continue to meet with individuals and groups who come and go under the glassy stares of Armand, Marcos is discovering new depths of boredom with his note taking responsibilities. Fernando and José, who have been his companions over these meeting days, seem anything but bored.
Only the boring get bored, Marcos says to himself, another attempt at self-amusement.
At the moment the speaker is a doctor—Probably is, wonders Marcos, but he already knows he isn’t going to ask. The man has been droning on and on, reciting lists of pharmaceuticals, spelling each item out slowly for the benefit of Marcos, who dutifully writes them down. Much to Marcos’s chagrin, Luis and André are working in the library’s main catalog room, and Marcos finds himself feeling even more envious when he notices Luis and André have gone into the stacks. Even though the morning is only half over he feels that he can’t stand it anymore.
“Excuse me,” Marcos says, but Armand ignores him, rephrasing his question about medical supply capacity for Fernando and José for the third time. Marcos rises from the table.
“Yes, yes,” says Fernando, looking both annoyed and confused, glancing at Marcos and waving his hand slightly about. “Fine.”
Marcos slides his paper over in front of José, who glances at the scribbled handwriting and frowns but says nothing.
Marcos walks slowly around the catalog room, stretching his stiff back.
He moves into the big stack room behind the desk, and then starts to hop up the metal grille stairway that leads to another stack level filled with metal shelves and books. He spots Luis.
“Ah, here you are,” says Luis, not unpleasantly. “I am just putting together your reading list.” He pats a tall stack of books that rests atop a library book cart.
“I’m not that quick a read,” replies Marcos, eying the pile of books.
“Don’t worry, these are for all of us. I have them marked by initials, for the assigned reader.”
“Ah, so you’re the boss,” quips Marcos.
Luis hunches down in mock alarm, placing the book in his hands over his head like a tent. “Don’t say that!” he says in a stage whisper, eyes popping wide in a pantomime of shock. Marcos snorts.
“You’re a strange guy, Luis,” Marcos says.
“Well, what explains why you are here?” says Luis. He flips the book he’s still holding on to the cart, still looking at Marcos. “How are you doing, anyway?”
A moment passes with the two just looking at each other.
“Well, I miss my wife,” Marcos says. “I feel like I’m dreaming half the time. It is all so strange.”
“Of course,” says Luis.
“Plus, I’d like to get out more, see more.”
“Things take time,” says Luis.
“I guess we all have someone behind,” Marcos says, to say something.
“Ah,” Luis says, sympathetically. “But a newlywed like you, that’s tough.”
“Well, it was this trip or the pig farm,” jokes Marcos, but Marcos sees that he’s only confused Luis. “Not really,” Marcos says, smiling. “But it was this or a desk job with Interior, actually, and we thought that this would be better than fourteen-hour days facing paper cuts and boredom.”
“As a vacation, you are telling me, you came on this duty?” Luis chides.
“No. As a chance to do what I must, to write.”
“You know, I am sorry, but I never read any of your work,” Luis says. “I was never much of a reader.”
Marcos shrugs. “My work is of little consequence now.” Luis looks puzzled.
“Nice little stories,” says Marcos.
“Hmm, yes, that must be true.”
“Of course,” Marcos says, with another snort, “it is likely just some form of craziness to think I can write something now, but,” he pauses, “perhaps we still must have dreams to live.”
It is Luis’s turn to shrug.
“We both decided that this would be a good chance,” Marcos continues, “Not to be missed. I hope my wife feels as badly about that choice now as I do.”
“Still, a hard choice for a new husband,” Luis says.
“She is wonderful, but we are hardly newlyweds. We were living together here in the States for a couple of years.”
“You young people,” Luis says, with a wink. “So modern.”
Marcos smiles at Luis’s teasing. “Speaking of young pups, where is André? I could use some of his wisecracks to ease the burden of having listened all morning to our two serious and painfully dull great leaders.”
“He’s chasing down some books for me.”
Marcos shrugs. And then he nods to the library cart of books. “What is all this?” he asks.
“What does that mean?”
“Histories, for one thing. That’s going to be your area. There are books on the Franco-Americans in New England, some things to help us figure what is this place.”
“Yeah,” says Marcos. “La Maison. Seems strange.” He purses his lips. “People turn to their own, I guess.” He looks at Luis. “It’s really not much different from us, except that our institutions survived whole.”
“Well, here’s one for you. Why the French, not Greeks? Lowell was more a Greek ethnic in recent years. And also, more recently, Asian, I think Southeast Asia, Vietnamese, Laotian, Tagalog.”
Marcos is impressed, but wonders how this is important, so he asks Luis.
“You should know better that anything can be important.”
“Important for what?” Marcos asks. “There is a plan, isn’t there?” he adds, catching Luis’s eye. “What is it?” he continues, feeling a dawning of excitement and fear. “Okay,” he says, “so what are we doing here? Tell me.”
“Don’t be stupid, little one,” Luis responds, taking his arm and looking straight at him. Luis lets go of his arm and laughs. “Writers,” he says. “You like things neat, eh? All plots and characters in a row?” His speech suddenly turns serious. “We don’t know what’s going on, and we have to find out. You don’t think the party line of Christian charity is what underwrote this little side trip, do you?”
Of course not, Marcos thinks. He is feeling suddenly very stupid for not giving such matters much thought. “Information,” says Marcos, as if to himself. “Are you checking on an angle concerning the Canadians?”
“You’re bright,” says Luis, with his small smile back playing on his face.
“It’s more than that,” Marcos declares.
“I hope so, but mainly that.” Luis’s smile widens. “Business too if there’s any worth it.”
Marcos feels more stunned. “Like what?” he says after a moment.
“Think, my little one. What was America?”
“`The land of opportunity…no, riches,” Marcos answers. “You think there’s riches left? Jesus.”
“I believe the phrase the Americans used was ‘durable goods’?” says Luis.
“Jesus,” says Marcos again.
“Steel, iron, metals, machines. Washing machines? Refrigerators? How many such things are still good? Cars? The cost only the collection. Things that we need, that will make our own people happy, that means power and wealth,” says Luis.
“You’re here for business.”
“Well, let’s say to find out about business. Maybe a more pedestrian dream, but one that can help our people become stronger.”
“And you richer?”
“I’m just an errand boy perhaps,” says Luis, “but one with a more practical bent than books.” He looks around the stack room and laughs again. “Not that books don’t have their value.”
“Old census,” Marcos says, glancing at the cart. “Directories. Finding ways to guess where the precious treasures of bulk material and sofas and bicycles are.”
“You see how bright you are?”
Marcos feels dizzy with his flooding realizations. He puts a hand out toward a shelf, as if he needs the contact, the grounding. “And Fernando is not too bright. He must be perfect.”
“In that he firmly believes in his officiousness, that he sees himself as a diplomat. This makes him the front everyone looks to, leaving me to real work.”
“And José too, caught up in the Succession of Peter. Perfect.”
“Yes,” answers Luis, with a calm smile. “I couldn’t wish for better. A perfect appeal for those who take themselves too seriously.”
“And me?” Marcos manages to look directly at Luis.
“No need to get anyone excited, eh?” answers Luis, and then André comes around the end of the stack, grinning.
“Welcome to the Chamber of Commerce,” Marcos says, whispering, as if to himself, and André laughs.
Armand tells them that they will get the tour today. It is the sixth day since their arrival. They are alone with Armand, in the main front room of the Yorrick Club, waiting for Gerard and Edmund and the others who will accompany them.
“Any questions before we start?” asks Armand.
“Armand,” André says quietly. He holds his cape in his hand, watching Armand climb into a heavy brown coverall. “How came no one told us about the Canadian?”
There is silence, and then the screeach of Armand’s coverall’s front zipper as he yanks it up tight to his throat. “Ask Edmund,” is all he says, and he spins around and walks toward the front doors.
“What Canadians?” asks Fernando, in Spanish, watching Armand step outside. He looks at Luis, and then, as he is placing Marcos’s loaned tin shade on his head, he asks, “What is that about?”
Marcos has opted for a soft-brimmed hat, somewhat soiled canvas, round, with a cloth pinned at the back brim, hanging down to his back and shoulders
“We’re not sure ourselves,” answers Luis. “Apparently, there is a Canadian or Canadians here, may be regular, there might be more communication with Canada than we expected.”
“Well, we meet them, that would be a coup, yes?” comments Fernando, and the front doors push open, attracting the attention of each Argentine. They start for the doors.
Out on the street there is a small crowd and the light is bright and the sky clear. From the top of the stairway Fernando greets Gerard, and then he is stepping down and ducking under the café parasol held with some effort by a guard. José follows him in under the benediction of the parasol, crowding the two others. Edmund, who is standing by Armand, who is now down on the street, waves to Luis and André and Marcos, and they climb down the stairs step to join him. Altogether there are sixteen people in the party, and an almost equal number of guards who are carrying an assortment of rifles and shotguns. Marcos recognizes some of the Board members in the party.
“Why all the guards?” asks André, speaking to Edmund, or at least Marcos thinks that’s who he addresses, but it is hard to tell because André’s face is lost under the new straw hat and cheesecloth veil he now wears.
Edmund answers him. “Show, of course, maybe safety.” Then he reaches over and yanks down André’s hat by the front brim. “And we have to protect our women folk from Latin lovers.”
André is bowing. Gerard is turning back toward them.
“More than your questions,” he is saying, “are the answers you will see for yourselves. I’ve asked Dick Strathmore here…” motioning to a thin-looking nervous man to his right, who is wrapped in a piece of canvas, his head poking out of a slit cut like a poncho, with a shapeless piece of some sort of cloth attached to a baseball cap, with what Marcos realizes are pin studs, the same sort of symbol or logo on each of them. “…to organize our little walk around. Please feel free to ask him any questions.” He pauses. Someone behind the cluster of Argentines says “All right Richie!” and Strathmore clears his throat.
“Well, yes, if you just bear with us,” Strathmore says, “we’ll try to move fast. It is a bright day and we’ll try not to stay in the sun too long.” But he stays in his spot near the front of the group and gives a short introduction speech in a droning voice, which elicits some whispering and an occasional snort from some of the men in the back of the group. Finally, he ends with a quite formal “Please follow me,” and starts leading the group down the street.
They are walking up past the City Hall and library, and Strathmore is clipping off facts and dates about these and other particular buildings as they turn into a downtown mall. “Most of these,” Strathmore is saying, gesturing to the storefronts, of which some still have abandoned retail displays behind glass, “most of these are used now as residences and workshops. You will note that there is little damage, except some broken glass toward the east part of the town, although there are some structural problems, anomalies that nobody can figure why, um…” he pauses, trying to get back on track. What Marcos notices is that one of the storefronts that has a bleached and tattered awning is a Jordan Marsh store, or, was, and beyond it a sign that sticks out from a lower building reads “Kent Jewelers” and beyond and above that, painted on the top of the adjacent building, a banner for Cherry & Webb.
Strathmore is still talking. “That is to say there was no particular direct damage, uh, sustained.” He halts completely. Someone toward the back steps on the hem of another man’s cloak that looks made up from a bed comforter, and that man stumbles, the cloth ripping. “Hey, watch it!” the man grumbles. The man, when Marcos glances back, is holding on to a metal signpost, trying to inspect his back hem. Marcos looks down the pedestrian mall again and sees that the high windows of the tall buildings lining the right side of the street have broken glass.
Strathmore begins to speak again. “Well, it’s not true entirely, about damage, we had some pretty bad fires loose in some parts, but that wasn’t from, it was just from not being able to get to them with all the confusion and all.”
“What sort of confusion?” asks André.
“Well, a lot of people were trying to get out of the city, you know, I mean….”
Marcos in quietly translating for Luis.
“Yes, well. We’ll see some sections later on, uh, there’s one place that really burned, blocks and blocks, and some smaller areas, uh, yes….” Strathmore, even behind sunglasses, looks to Marcos like he wished he had notes. “Um, it, that is, they did play havoc with our electrical lines….”
“We didn’t have to rewire,” says Gerard, “it was mainly transformers and connection work.”
“That took us a while to get back up,” continues Strathmore.
Marcos is taking liberties with translating, since people are talking over each other.
“How much of the place is back with electrical, electricity?” asks José. André elbows Marcos and gives a nod toward José.
“How much is on line? Good question. Let’s turn down here,” says Strathmore, indicating what seems little more than an alley, and the Argentines and the others pass through and find themselves behind the mall area and back at another part of the canal where a large paved bridge crosses over it.
“I want to draw your attention to the buildings we are approaching, to your left. This is the Boott Mill,” Strathmore says, pointing out a series of old brick buildings that rise up three and four stories in places, and go on in long sections. “The finest surviving,” he says, and pauses, and emits what might be some kind of laugh, or wheeze, “the finest surviving example of mill architecture in Lowell. It was named for Kirk Boott, a founding father as it were, being the agent of Lowell’s first cotton mill.” He starts in on a talk about the canal system of Lowell and the early industrial history of the city, walking slower and slower, until he stops, with the group all around him, near one of the big mill’s entrances.
“Please,” says Gerard, to Strathmore, and then turning around to look at two of the men who are talking and laughing quietly in the back. The whispering man stops.
“Sorry,” the man who had been whispering says. “We was just talking my bet that Richie would go back into his old nickel tour.” Several of the other men, including Edmund, laugh.
“Richard used to be with the Lowell National Historic Park,” Edmund explains, and seeing the Argentines’ confusion, he makes an attempt to explain further. “You know, a park ranger, it was a national thing, an urban, historical park, Richie here,” Edmund points to him, “he used to give tours like this….” Edmund trails off.
Gerard nods at him and then tells Strathmore to continue.
The canvas-clad Strathmore launches into how the mill and others like it are being used today for storage, workshops, food processing, and even some guard dorms.
They enter the building, umbrellas, parasols, folding in unison, although some of the group keep their hats on.
Strathmore is explaining, as everyone shuffles down wide wood and iron stairs from which a growing rushing sound drifts up, that electricity is now generated from this mill. Marcos thinks he can here Strathmore shout out something about trying to put more generators from another mill in service, but as they move further into the generator room , the high keening hum of the machines overpowers talking, but then Strathmore is waving the group up and out of the generating room by way of another passage. This stairway brings everyone into what looks like a machine shop. Only a few people are working in the room, and these ignore the group as it moves past them and into a very long, much dimmer room that seems full of assorted metal stock, but otherwise empty and abandoned. The empty sound of it is welcomed by Marcos, with the generator now more felt than heard in a vibration through the planks of the floor.
Another set of stairs brings them into a room with thick wood floors and tall windows that let in the strong light of the day. Everyone stops past the big doorway to fumble for sunglasses or to squint against the light that seems extra bright after the dim passage deeper inside.
There are other people at the other end of this huge, almost empty space. One of these men notices the group and sprints the length of the cavernous space, almost skidding to a stop in front of Gerard, who has moved to meet him. The man begins speaking to him in excited whispering tones and with gestures that point off to one direction and then cut to another, and then a large number of guards are pouring through another doorway on the far side of the mill floor. Marcos realizes, as he watches, that these men, and some women, are being handed weapons through a window that is set in an interior wall.
Boott Mill is, also an armory, Marcos sees.
“What is going off?” Fernando asks Gerard. Fernando has to almost run to catch up to Gerard who is now walking quickly toward the other end with the gesturing man. Gerard ignores Fernando, except to hold a hand up toward him, which stops his advance. Two members of their group start to walk and then break into a trot toward the end of the large area, moving to where the weapons are being issued. A person who has come through the far doorway stops just inside it to shout something back. The sound carries over the growing noise and across the room like one long fit of barking. Eight or nine more men and women run through the doorway past the still barking man and start taking weapons from another man in front of the window, who is meanwhile shouting with the two men who have run up from the group. One of these men walks over to the doorway beside the now silent barker, and turns and claps his hands, shouting what Marcos thinks is “Come on! Come on!” again and again, but the growing number of men and women in the room, the noise they make, makes it hard for Marcos to hear clearly. As Marcos watches, even more come through the doorway, and then he starts when someone—it is Luis—pulls at his arm and he looks over to where Gerard is now talking with Edmund and the first man, and then another member of the tour group—one of the Board members that Marcos recognizes because the man has a broad pug nose—this man who has moved past Marcos and Luis and André and José toward Gerald, but then the rest of them have caught up with the people around Gerald, and Pug-Nose is shouting “Where? Where?” but Gerard, and all the others, are talking too, and then Gerard holds his hands up to shut everybody up.
Gerard waves Fernando to join him, but he speaks to all the remaining group. “There seems to be a raid in progress,” he says against all the clatter.
“So, what do we know yet?” asks Pug-Nose, looking at the other man. Gerard nods at the man.
“Down by Ayers City area, looks like a small party, probably waiting for night and planning on following up the rails, but sentry caught some movement and looks like the whole party spooked,” the man reports.
“Ayers?” says Edmund. “What side of the line?”
The man, dark faced and short, looks at Gerard before answering. “Inside, right by the junction.”
“Jesus!” shouts Edmund. Armand looks quickly to Gerard, then Edmund. Marcos sees that a number of the men at the other end have formed a sloppy line, passing through the big archway at the very end of the room. In a moment he sees the tops of the first of these men outside, fast-timing past the jambs of the tall windows. The sunglasses and sheet hoods and ski masks the soldiers wear, the guns held high, flash into a memory of the death squads Marcos has seen all too often back home.
“Take it easy,” says Gerard, sharply, speaking over the continuing clatter in the room. Gerard’s voice jolts Marcos.
“That’s almost South Common!” Edmund is shouting, turning from looking at Gerard, to the short man. This man says nothing.
“Let’s go see,” says Edmund. The man looks back to Gerard, who looks first to Edmund and then back to the Argentines who are now standing around this group.
“There’s a raid on,” Edmund says to them. “Want to go?” He smiles at them when what sounds like small arms fire comes drifting inside the mill building, the shots are almost too far away to hear. Fernando, without looking to the others, nods once, and the now-reduced group and guards start off past some stragglers who are still grabbing for weapons at the window, and Marcos and the others move out into the full stunning daylight. Marcos wonders, in an instance that feels giddy, and which stretches into a powerful disorientation, if they will all move off in double-time, but then one of the stragglers bumps into him as the man rushes past, and the image of the stumbling man clutching at a tape wrapped pistol shifts Marcos’s feelings to dead, cold fear.
Marcos is writing up his notes of the day, and he’s trying to figure out how much about the raid he includes, in terms of details.
We were finally getting to the “big tour” but during it there was a raid of some sort. Apparently at times people—in groups or even singly—try to come into Lowell for food (I’m assuming, but what else?), and in the middle of the tour, standing in the very middle of what turned out to be one of their armories, a great confusion whirled around us. We set off with our guides to where the shooting was reported, but it was over by the time we got there.
Still, it was a disturbing enough sight. The “raiders,” as they were are called, were few, really, and they didn’t look as if they must be much a threat, caked with filth and thin and so weak looking that Marcos had found himself wondering how they could carry, never mind use the one gun and few tools he assumed were supposed to be weapons they had between them.
But then dead people always seem diminished.
Marcos had wondered why anyone would even try to take things from this place by force, especially since they’d been told that refugees were welcomed, would be put to work for food.
Maybe many do not know this, Marcos thinks.
The walk over to where the action was eye-opening. We walked past old mills and past canals, into a section of the city where there were many more people in evidence, where the city is tenements and apartment buildings and small factories and older office buildings, which now seem used as residences, mostly, and some work areas, some storehouses. People kept their distance from us. But then, turning one street corner we saw something that really stopped me. The area before us was level of houses, not like a fire razes a town, not like some sections of the city we saw later which had burned, but all cleaned up, the streets clear and with block after block of foundations, one square hole in the ground after another, capped with windows and plastic and out of which chimneys or stove pipes stood. This stretched on for many blocks, acres maybe.
“Our gardens, one of our little greenhouse areas,” is what the head man of this place said. It was amazing. This is how they grow much of their food: in old cellars, capped like greenhouses, this is how they try to beat the cold.
We moved through a part of this to where the shooting had taken place, and things became quite a bit less impressive, even pathetic, the image of the dead girl, could not have been more than twelve or fourteen and covered with sores and gunshot wounds and literally dressed in rags, propped up against the curb, with her tiny white breasts exposed by some of the guards who were collecting the bodies of the dead.
And then our tour continued. We walked west into another greenhouse area and crossed another part of a canal which threads through the mill section, walking steadily for fifteen, twenty minutes, down one street after another into another active area, more and more people.
Finally, we come to a great wall.
It is a wall that will stretch for almost three miles, we are told, connecting buildings or running on its own, a massive wall. Stone and brick and dirt, shipping containers, rubble, ruined cars.
And then Marcos puts down his pen, hearing Luis outside the door greeting the guard who sits in the hallway on a stiff-backed chair, and then the door opens, and Luis stands in the doorway, with a tin of yerba maté and a silver pot, and then he walks over to the side table and placing the ray of fixings carefully down. He takes the pot back with him through the doorway and speaks to the guard again.
“Good evening,” Marcos can hear him say, in not-bad English, and looking through the doorway, Marcos watches Luis, sees the greeting accompanied by a strangely formal nod, and something elsec gets said, but Marcos can’t make this out. The guard’s chair squeaks, and Luis steps back into the doorway.
“Timothy, isn’t it?” says Luis, back to Spanish, holding the maté pot in one hand. His other hand runs through his gray hair, fingering it down back over his head.
“Hello,” returns the young man.
“Timmy, yeah,” says Timmy. “Si,” Timmy grins, who then starts speaking in Spanish, a bit haltingly, but pretty well.
Marcos now sees Timmy, since Luis has stepped further into the room, and Timmy now in the doorframe. Timmy is a thin good-looking boy who might be all of twenty or twenty-one years old, although Marcos later learns that he is actually closer to twenty-five, with teeth that look like an old man’s.
“Are the others still up?” Luis asks Marcos, in Spanish, and then, without waiting for an answer, he turns back to Timmy and asks if he could get hot water for the pot Luis is holding,” and Luis then hands over the shiny, spouted pot.
“Uh, sure,” Timmy says, back to English, and he’s gone from the doorway, moving down the hall.
Luis steps back into Marcos and André’s room and grabs the yerba maté and utensils and cups, arranging them.
André comes through the door and sees Luis at work.
“This looks like fun,” André says. Marcos sits completely upright on his bed, a small breeze to his left moving the curtains of the dark window which he’d opened some.
“You brought some maté,” André says to Luis’ back, flopping down on his own bed, but he’s looking at Marcos, with a mock grimace on his face.
“Yeah, great,” Marcos says.
André sits up. Marcos rises off his bed and stretches across to the bureau top to switch on the light there which now has a working bulb, and then he stretches, unsteadily, to slap off the overhead light switch by the door. The room’s light becomes warmer and dimmer.
Timmy is back.
“It’s the water,” Luis says, maybe to André, and, “Come on in,” to Timmy, and as Timmy steps in, Luis takes the silver pot from him, steam rises from its spout. Luis places the pot on the marble table top and sets to work scooping dried leaves into it.
“You know Marcos and André,” he says in Spanish as he fusses with the pot, with his back to Timmy.
“Si,” Timmy replies, a little nervously, but he nods to André to his left and to Marcos who is back sitting on the bed, across from him.
“This is Timmy,” Luis says, speaking Spanish.
“Seen you around,” says André, in Spanish.
“Hi,” says Marcos, with a nod of his own.
“Would you like to join us for some maté?” Luis asks Timmy, as he crosses from the table to the bureau that has the lamp. He leans on the bureau. “Please.”
Marcos is curious about the use of Spanish, but then he hears Timmy respond in kind.
“Uh, no, that’s okay,” Timmy replies, standing with one foot turned back toward the door. He looks at the silver pot on the small table, “So that’s what that is, maté,” he says.
“You have heard of it,” says Luis, straightening up off the bureau. “Huh! Even in my country there is less and less drinking of it, but I am a traditionalist.”
“Not to mention he doesn’t have any taste,” says André over to Marcos, as he sits back on his bed, back against the wall.
“How do you know of it?” Marcos asks Timmy, in Spanish. From where Marcos sits on his bed, with Luis standing against the bureau and blocking the lamp’s light, his own face is in shadow, but Luis pushes off from the bureau, past Timmy, toward the small table. He starts pouring the maté into matched silver cups.
“I used to read,” says Timmy, in solid Spanish.
“Latin American?” asks Marcos.
“Sure, Marquez, Marquez Gabriel something, or maybe the guy that wrote The Green House, a couple of others.”
“Who are those guys?” asks André, from his bed.
“Even I know that,” says Luis, with a laugh. “You an Argentine, huh!” Luis steps toward André and makes as if to slap him on the head, with another laugh.
Marcos says, “Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
“Yeah, right,” says Timmy, who seems to be relaxing, at least slightly, and then he smiles. “I remember that one.”
“Ever read any Cortazar? Hopscotch, or Blow-up, or 62: A Model Kit?”
“Yeah, yeah,” says Timmy. “I loved that guy.” Marcos grins at him. 62: A Model Kit had never been published in English, and that means this Timmy fellow really knows his Spanish. Marcos is impressed.
“Spanish major, Latin literature minor,” Timmy says to Marcos, and apparently, it strikes Marcos, that Timmy reads minds.
“Sit down, sit down, sit down,” Luis says, waving him down toward the foot of André’s bed with one hand as he steps out of the way, holding out a maté cup with its silver straw clinking the cup’s side with the other. Timmy drops onto André’s bed.
“Cigarette?” André asks him from his slouch on the bed. Casually, André pulls a pack from his shirt pocket.
“Um, sure,” says Timmy, wondrously, reverting to English, in shock, taking the pack, balancing the maté cup from Luis on his knee. “Jeez,” he says, as he pulls one from the package, and then he is back to Spanish. “Cigarettes. Do you know how much these are worth?” He looks up at Marcos and catches a box of matches thrown by him. “Thanks,” he says. He lights the cigarette.
Luis turns back to the maté pot and the remaining cups on the marble-topped table.
“You’ve read a lot of Latin American writers?” asks Marcos. Timmy nods yes with a shrug, exhaling the tobacco smoke slowly through his nose. Marcos watches him smoke for a moment.
“Yes, some,” Timmy says. “Mostly when I was in college. I liked to read, Latin American lit to build my language.”
“Sorry,” Timmy says after another drag of the cigarette. “I don’t get to talk books so much these days.” He looks down at the cigarette, see the long ash. “Got an ashtray?” he says, although he struggles with finding the word, but his gesture works, and then he makes a noise that might be a laugh. “Huh! It’s been a while since I asked for that.” André slips a brown glass ashtray that he’s fished out from under his bed, placing it under the cigarette and then lowers it on to Timmy’s thigh, where it balances, mirroring the silver maté cup on Timmy’s other thigh.
Luis hands other cups to Marcos and André.
Marcos had been wondering about the smoke seall he’d sensed, when he had come into the room, but he hadn’t thought much about it. André, as far as he knew, didn’t use tobacco, although the same couldn’t be said for marijuana, as Marcos learned, on the ship, smoking some dope that André had somehow managed to bring with him.
That had surprised Marcos. Almost as much as his smoking with André, furtively, a couple of times on the ship.
André points to Marcos. “Marcos here is a writer,” he says. Timmy is nodding his head, looking at Marcos.
Luis turns from the small table, holding the fourth cup and its silver straw. “Here it is, all ready,” he is saying, holding up the cup as if toasting the room. “`To health and many children!'” he says. André winks at Marcos, who starts to sip the bitter and sweet drink. Timothy is looking at something in the ashtray, staring instead of drinking.
“Go ahead, try it,” Luis says, down to him.
But instead of drinking, Timmy now looks up, saying, “Is this what I think it is?” He is holding a twisted, skinny, half-smoked joint he has fished from the ashtray debris. His voice is incredulous, and as quiet as though it has been spoken from a great distance.
“Yes!” says André, with a laugh, jumping up, making Timmy grab for the hot slipping cup. André plucks the marijuana roach from Timmy’s hand, holding it up against his own half-spilled cup and smirking. “It is herba and yerba!”
“Oh wow,” says Timmy, in English, slacked mouthed, looking at Marcos, then to Luis, and then to André and the roach. “Esto es genial! ¡Excelente!”
He had joked, in his daily letter to Maria, that today he had been a nutritionist, at least close enough, having taken notes upon notes in meetings with various people from La Maison, those who seemed in charge of food production, or at least procurement, or at least would-be production or would-be procurement, since mostly what he had heard about is all the things they didn’t have. He had noted that many residents seemed thin, but none cachectic, despite the challenges people had been telling him about, the various problems with their farms and greenhouses, until Armand had insisted that they go on to other topics, claiming the work load ahead. Marcos had glimpsed something, he thought, a certain hesitancy, for example, to specify the overall number of people, which had seemed to him to be a pretty basic data point when it came to estimating the supplies and what this strange place would likely need in the coming months.
Armand had insisted, after Marcos tried pressing the point, that the population numbers changed, and tended to increase, as more people were getting involved with La Maison, the name Armand faithfully used, even while many of the others Marcos ended up speaking with, on some point or another, tended to use Lowell, or, simply, this place.
Just another weirdness, Marcos tells himself, not knowing what to make of it.
Marcos finally began to see some fundamental differences between what had happened—and continued to happen—in his Argentina, and what it was like here in this surreal remake of an old New England ex-mill town, and he realized that the biggest difference was of kind, not degree. His Argentina, although greatly changed, even in terms of borders, and certainly harshly affected by disease, and hunger, and violence, was still recognizable, the country’s institutions still intact, more or less, despite all the economic, social, and political stress the madness has produced. But here was a different world, the country he had come to know in his student days was no longer here, the people now more like tribes, fragmented, diminished, unrecognizable.
No shit, Shirley, he tells himself.
Which makes him think even more about his years in the States, how he had always been thrilled by that particular idiomatic expression, and so many other odd ones.
No shit, Shirley, he silently repeats to himself, and sighs.
Today, he had finally allowed himself to think about the changes in any sort of considered manner, a surprisingly difficult undertaking, as he had realized earlier in the day, in a rare break from the meetings and interviews and recording of needs, of problems, when he had walked into the stacks, had sat against shelves, hoping for a quick nap, but his mind had been too active, something still half-hidden in his thoughts finally breaking through the tangle of realizations and wonderments that had him second-guessing himself, like when, just in that morning’s assignment meeting, he had understood the list surveys he had been given by Luis, the ones he’d been chewing through, the endless parade of need, were iterations of the forms that had guided his government’s assessments of the state of his own country in the first year.
Why it had taken him so long to see this puzzles him, since he had been part, in a small way, of the collation of those surveys that first year, although he guessed it was some combination of the translation into English and the fact that he had been on the data entry side back then, seeing aggregated results, doing his bit as the information was assembled and sent on its way to someone else, some other department, for assessment. Here, he was at the front of the process, officiously facing across the table the odd and varied specimens.
It had been the question about baby formula, he now sees, that had triggered his realization, itself triggering the memory from his student days in Boston, the protests against Nestle and its long-standing market push into South America and other still-developing nations, which Marcos at the time thought had more to do with the La Leche League and other precious progressive causes that could so easily capture the interest of his fellow students.
Including that red-headed girl, Marcos thinks, the one in his economics class, who had seemed inordinately incensed that indigenous Ecuadorian infants or some such were increasingly receiving formula instead of suckling, which may have helped, Marcos now wonders, focus on the beauty of her swaying breasts, outlines visible, in the light of the afternoon sun through the classroom’s west-facing windows, the light cloth of the peasant blouse near-transparent from the right angle.
He still thinks himself fortunate that he had somehow failed some test of opinion, and his efforts to chat the young woman up had been abruptly and robustly rebuffed early in the conversation, whether because he had said something political incorrect, or simply had paid too much attention to those breasts, he’d never know. The days of trying to bed American women was long past, both in terms of the years themselves, and because he was happy to love but one woman, his Maria.
Ah, Maria, Marcos thinks, yet again, Why the fuck did I leave you for this.
Increasingly, he has been aware of a strangeness within himself, a growing flippancy in his attitude to his efforts, and the people, but he made an effort to suppress this, of course, feeling guilty about it in face of the situation here.
Having André as roommate doesn’t help, he thinks, although he knows he was greedily grateful for getting high the previous night, and Tim, or Timmy, had seemed almost normal, the situation almost like nothing had ever changed, but Marcos always feels the darkness of the place he’s in, the broken world he travels through, the ever-present despair he tries so hard to keep at bay.
No shit, Shirley.
Marcos has been meeting with so many different people, about medicine, about food, about fuel, about so many basic things now absent. It is hard for him to see among them their dissonant struggle to piece together what they once were and the place in which they now exist, the special sort of curse for these people who once had had everything imaginable, stores full of everything imaginable, or available at the click of a mouse.
In fact, his use of the laptop that Luis had provided him for note-taking was often a trigger for them, some making jokes about the laptop, about going to Amazon to get what was needed, or talking about cell phones or whatnot, while others often simply stared, expressions hard to identify, but nothing good, Marcos could sense.
Not that his own family, his people, hadn’t experienced much of the same, but the scale was different. A percentage of electronics had survived in the south despite the high-altitude detonations, although the damage that had occurred was bad enough. Cell service had been restored in a rudimental way in Buenos Aires, although not for private use. Laptops and other computers still worked, in limited number, although hiding these remained a serious crime, and all such devices were now to be only for official assignment.
The previous night with Timmy is still bothering Marcos, even as it had felt such a welcomed break, but now it was making it hard for Marcos to ignore his constantly threatening suspicion that little help for this place was ever likely to come from his country, not as far as he could figure it.
Or maybe that was the consequence of his role developing the details of need that was driving his sense of doom, his barely suppressed hopelessness for this odd thing, here, in this old New England mill town. Marcos knew he’d never be the sort of big-picture thinker that he sensed Luis is, although he wonders what that big picture might be. Who knows? was pretty much the best Marcos could come up with, in the way of self-comforting.
Marcos is well aware that he is depressed.
He also remains shocked at the apparent ease of André and Luis, perplexed by their positive affect, although Marcos knows, too, that people can manifest distress in odd or unlikely ways, he’s seen more than enough examples of that.
And the mission is not without humor. José continues to entertain him, with his fixation on the question of Apostolic Succession, and his hope to find the like-minded here where the Church is clearly involved in organization, in what came about, helping, it seems, especially the Franco-Americans.
The lord works in mysterious ways, I guess.
Marcos is surprised about the priests’ power, having the sense from his school years that religious institutions were nothing like this, then.
But he’s been doing some reading—yet another Luis assignment—and has come across a sociological explanation that seemed relevant, the research on ethnic assimilation from decades back, that the culture of the French in New England and Quebec had a long history of assimilation resistance, an artifact, some of the speculation had concluded, of the language and religion differences that had existed from the days of New France, and the collapse of French civic structures from the treaty ending the Seven Year War—The French and Indian War, Jesus, it always comes back to cowboys and Indians in America, Marcos jokes to himself, even while disquieted by his thinking such a joke.
But he considers that maybe it is nothing so different than what happened in his own country.
When the end of the world comes, everybody loves religion.
And José going around speaking to anyone who will listen about Cardinal Martinez’s claim on the Seat of Peter, but fortunately no one seems particularly interested.
Luis, André, and he had talked with Tim through much of last night, and the young guard had proved personable and eloquent, in his own rough way, and often in pretty good Spanish, although it was easy enough to see the anger within him, unavoidable, breaking out now and then from under the surface.
Or maybe I was just really high, Marcos has to wonder.
But Marcos knows that anger well enough, even as he knows he’s been fortunate, losing few, especially compared to many of his countrymen, he’s been lucky, and, certainly, compared to what these people feel—Those that do, he has to wonder—surrounded by their vast acres of burned cities, surrendered plans, love as dust.
Timmy is once again sitting on the foot of André’s bed, although this night it is Luis who is lying on it, with his head and back propped up partly with pillows. Luis looks tired, his face looking as gray as his hair in the soft light in the room. Marcos is sprawled on his own bed, stretched out on its length, an arm thrown over his eyes. André sits straddling the wood side chair, his arms crossed over the back of the chair, chin resting on his forearms. André is looking at Timmy.
“So that’s how you became a guard,” says André, his head rising and falling with the movement of his chin as he speaks.
“Yes,” Timmy says, staring at the floor, or at some spot toward the bottom drawer of the bureau, against the wall opposite the beds. He is blinking slowly. “Well,” he says after a moment of silence. “After I proved myself at the battle of Marathon.”
“Is that another self-quote,” asks Marcos in a somewhat muffled voice from beneath his arm, “or from the classics?”
“Huh,” says Timmy, glancing at Marcos. “Probably both. Jesus.” Timmy’s eyes move back to the spot he had been staring at. “Has it dawned on anyone that everyone must be insane? God. It really is all insane.” No one says anything.
“There really was, ha, really was a battle of Marathon here, you know,” Timmy says. Marcos grunts for an explanation.
“That’s how I got to be a guard, really, I’m sure, really, right from the start,” Timmy says. “You can bet that the wheel of fortune is making a comeback in followers here. It’s all just luck.” He looks up again at Marcos, or his arm, then at André, and then looks back at Marcos’s arm. “Really,” he says.
“`What luck. What blood’,” says Marcos’s arm. “That’s one of my lines.”
“Huh,” says Timmy. “That’s good.”
“From way before, a poem, undergraduate, hoping I’d get laid.”
“Come on,” says André, from his chair. “Come on, you got me. What’s the story?”
“Didn’t work,” Marcos adds.
“Really, it’s all luck, you know,” starts Timmy. “I mean, I was living in Boston, you know, working, thinking of going back to grad school, I was just up here visiting my folks.” Timmy pauses for another moment. “This is where I grew up. And now, here I am, in the army of le grande republique.”
“Marathon,” André says.
“Marathon Gas,” answers Timmy. “There really was a fight—my battle—at the Marathon gas station, but it takes you guys to get me to think of the joke.” He looks at André, quickly, and then rises, stretches, arching his back. “Three fucking years,” he says, after settling back down on the bed’s foot. He looks sideways at Luis who is looking at him silently. “I don’t think I’ve ever even talked about this,” he says, closing his eyes, his hands up rubbing the back of his neck, his head moving slowly around on his shoulders. André, smiling, clears his throat theatrically and urges Timmy to go on.
“So, I’m here visiting my folks, we’re not French, right? but the neighborhood is, more or less, at lot, with the parish and—” Timmy stops, interrupting himself. “Anyone tell you what it was like here?”
“Some,” Luis says, almost a whisper. “More from inference, we have an idea.”
“Well, it was all very strange, I mean, it was really weird how it all broke down, how different people, groups, reacted, I mean. A lot of the town just ran. For New Hampshire. There was a plan, evacuation, I think, goes back to ‘81 or something, a big deal about it back then with Reagan and all and stuff had actually got printed and distributed and stuff, Jesus, before I was born.” Timmy stops. “Yeah,” he says after a moment.
“Anyway, that stuff was back in the news when the shit in Germany started going on, even redistributing it, websites, apps, a lot of people must have been on it, when the sirens started to blow, boy, man, a lot of people were going for the roads out of here—”
“—People were ordered to evacuate?—” asks Luis.
“—No orders, shit, I mean, I don’t know, I don’t think so, a lot of people just must have had it their heads.” Timmy stops again for a moment. “You know, a lot of people that were out of here got it up near Nashua, we found that out later, the first trip up there out of here after things settled down a bit. Huh! Cars and shit were recognized up along this stretch of interstate, Route 3, there’s the story about a whole stretch of cars jammed and just like, burned, like, zap,” Timmy says, before stopping again. He starts rubbing his neck again and moving his head around again.
“It’s such a fucking joke,” he says, quietly, after a while. Marcos sits up to look at him. Timmy stands up and goes to the marble top table behind André and takes a paper bag from it and starts rolling another joint. He finishes rolling and lights it, drawing in deeply. He hands the joint to André and sits back down on the bed.
André offers the joint to Marcos, who waves it away. Timmy takes it.
“Anyway, anyway,” Timmy is saying, then he takes another large hit from the joint and is silent, holding the smoke in. “Anyway,” he says, finally, letting the smoke leak out as he speaks, “most of our neighborhood sat tight, most of the French places, whole areas, neighborhoods, they just stayed, it was like if you were Greek or Polish, shit, some whole blocks just joined the stream, but the fucking Franc-Os here were hunking down their cellars, don’t ask me why.” He shrugs his shoulders. “And no one else got organized so fast.
“I mean, like I’m with my mom and dad, the Fortiers and the Reynolds from the third floor, we’re down in the basement, we’re hustling food, whatever, jugs of water, the missiles over fucking Boston have just gone off, like really, who knows, not even a fucking half hour before, I’d guess, we’re in there, this guy and some others come by like they’re making house calls, I swear this guy had a clipboard, organization, like right away. No shit.”
Timmy sits on the bed, almost on Luis’ foot, but Luis moves it in time.
“What were these people doing?” asks Luis as André takes the joint back from Timmy.
“I don’t even remember,” Timmy replies. “You’d have to put me under hypnosis, it’s such a blur that night.”
“You stayed in the basement with your parents?” asks Luis.
“Huh?” says Timmy, and then he turns to look at Luis. “Oh, no. I went off with them. My parents went to their parish—St. Mary’s.”
Timmy is back up.
“You went with the people that came in?” asks Luis.
“Yeah. My father seemed to know him, I think from the parish, I’m not sure, I went with him because it seemed like the thing to do. I don’t know, like this was nothing like I’d even been in before.”
“Of course,” Luis says gently, watching Timmy turn away from him.
“Boy, am I stoned,” says Timmy to no one in particular. “This is great. We need a lot more of this, good dope. Rumor has it some homegrown around, but no doubt it sucks.” He reaches over and taps André’s shoulder. “Cigarette?” he says.
André, still draped over his chair, fumbles into his shirt pocket and pulls out a pack, snapping up a cigarette for Timmy.
Timmy lights it.
“Thanks,” he says.
“You were saying,” says Marcos.
“Oh,” says Timmy. “Sure. The first couple of days are kind of a mess, but I remember going around a lot, taking orders and helping people. Jesus, I wasn’t even twenty-one.” He pauses. “Jesus, I wasn’t even nineteen. No, twenty.”
Timmy starts to pace about. “Those first days were pretty wild,” he says. “I got radiation sickness, loose shit and bleeding gums, the whole business,” he says, tugging at his hair. “A lot of us were sick, running around those first couple of days. Hundreds,” he says, “Jesus, thousands, who knows? There was a lot of dead from fighting, a lot more from the fires. There was a lot of fighting going on, at least the first month, fuck, that first day, but thank the good lord above I got too busy puking my guts shortly after, to be out to see a lot of it, they took good care of their boys, though, I’ll give them that, their little t’gars. Soft shelter life for me for a while.”
“You really got sick from it, the radiation?” asks Marcos, following the pacing Timmy with his eyes.
“Anyone outside for anytime the first day, two picked it up,” says Timmy, and then he stops pacing. “You know, there wasn’t much radiation around here, really, mostly air bursts is what they say, that’s how lucky we are, could have been Kansas.” Timmy laughs harshly.
Marcos remembers hearing the crack about Kansas from somewhere.
“I should set up to market this dope,” Tim says after a moment, after finishing rolling another joint from the bag on the table. “There’s the cancer crowd to think of, a growth industry, you might say.” André snickers.
“The streets were a mess, a real mess, I was part of a group that was stationed, huh, no pun, we were at the Marathon gas station that’s up on Columbus and Wilder, we had a couple of guns, we shot some people, and then there’s this fucking horde comes at us…” Timmy pauses, and shudders, and draws on the cigarette.
Timmy sits back on the bed again.
He says to André, after quite a while, looking right at him, “Ever crush someone’s head with a pipe?” “Really,” he says, breaking his gaze, looking down toward the floor near the bureau, “really, it is just like a melon, if you swing hard.” He lowers his head and shuts his eyes.
Everything is silent in the room, except for André lighting a cigarette. Timmy raises his head.
“I proved myself at the battle of Marathon,” he says, quietly, and then he jumps up fast, stepping past André and his chair, and is through the door and gone.
Another night, another party, Marcos tells himself, not sure what to think of it all. According to André, when Marcos asked in a quiet moment earlier that day on a break from the work, the dope was from Luis. Some of the mate stores on the ship were actually only labeled mate, apparently.
Marcos can’t figure Luis out. Often he seems, well, a stiff, a company man, and then other times Marcos can’t believe what Luis might do, might say.
Like now. Luis is basically interrogating Timmy, not that Timmy seems to be minding.
“What can you tell us about the wall?” says Luis.
“The refugees build a lot of it,” Timmy answers, rolling more joints. “A subject that is not encouraged.” He looks up at Luis. “What’s the official line from the big wigs?” he asks Luis.
“The Board? La Maison takes in refugees, trades food, shelter, for labor, there’s some sort of Canadian connection with transfers of refugees to Canada or Canadian displacement camps. Lowell is some sort of control mechanism for it, if I understand correctly. Does that sound right?”
Timmy laughs without sound. “Depends what you mean by right, but, yeah, that’s the rap.”
“I talked with one of the Canadians here,” Luis continues, “he pretty much said the same thing, tried to make it sound like, like, what is it, Sister Teresa? Food shipments, medicines.”
“Mother Teresa,” says Marcos.
“You bet,” Timmy says, his face grim. “Their fucking saints, our great northern neighbors.”
“So, what are you saying?” Luis asks.
“I’m not saying anything” Timmy says, and then, moving slowly, he settles into a squatting position by the bed Luis lies on, which brings his face near Luis’s. He says, quietly, “You haven’t been to see the refugee places, right?”
“Yes, but how did you know?” answers Luis, puzzled.
“Guess what. Hardly anyone does. It is not even part of the guard rotation, there are guys that pull that duty permanent.”
“Quarantine problems, epidemics?” Luis asks, thinking out loud.
“Starvation?” says Timmy, quietly.
The room falls silent.
“What are you saying?” asks Luis again.
“Nothing, of course,” says Timmy, glancing over at Marcos and André. Standing up, looking back to Luis, he says, “Have you been told you will tour the refugees?”
“No, not so definitively,” answers Luis.
“Huh,” says Timmy. He turns and steps to the side table again and starts rolling yet another joint.
Marcos wonders where all the dope is going.
“What can you tell us about this?” asks Luis, speaking to Timmy’s back.
After licking the gum on the cigarette paper, Timmy says, “Rumors, rumors.” He picks up the small pile of joints and places them in his shirt pocket. “I’ve never been in, like I said. I can tell you this much though, I’ve pulled duty on shipments from our great white brothers of the north and they don’t send a hell of a lot, and they don’t send often and from what I see what gets sent doesn’t go where we say it does. My opinion is we don’t have enough to feed them and us. Something is fucked.”
The three men are staring at Timmy.
“Them and us?” asks Luis.
“Huh!” says Timmy, shaking his head. “What’s fucked is me shooting my mouth off to you guys.”
“We are sincerely interested,” says Luis. Timmy just looks at him for several moments.
“Okay,” Timmy says, finally, letting out his breath as if he was smoking a joint. “Refugees and us, outside and our people, them and us.”
Then he is stepping toward the door of the room. He stops and says, after another moment of silence with all three of the men looking at him, “I can, I can maybe get someone who knows more to talk to you.” The three continue to look at him. “Would that be okay?”
“When?” asks André, standing up from his chair.
Timmy has his hand on the door knob. “It’s getting late,” he says, and then he laughs. It is a very shaky laugh. “Or early.” He stretches and yawns.
“When?” asks Luis.
“André,” says Timmy, opening the door a crack, “I want to show you something.” Luis nods at André to go. André walks through the door that Timmy holds open, and Timmy exits the room too, shutting the door.
The door opens again. Timmy leans in.
“Remember,” he says into the room, “Frenchie ba-boo/ shit in a shoe/ didn’t get home/ till half past two,” and then he is gone again behind the closing door.
Marcos looks at Luis and starts to laugh at what sounds a lot like something someone really stoned would say, but Luis just shakes his head, eyebrows up and then falling into a frown.
A few minutes later André slips back into the room. Luis gets up off the bed.
“Well, what did he show you?” asks Luis.
“It’s great,” says André, with a grin. “In a utility room, pantry, downstairs next to the kitchen where he gets the water. He says we should get in the habit of getting our own hot water for maté.”
Luis is puzzled, frowning. “What?” he says.
André’s grin grows wider.
“What?!” Luis asks, annoyed.
“He showed me a dumbwaiter there and complained about the lack of security. It seems that this thing goes into a basement room where there’s a door that lets out on an alley….” André holds a finger up to his lips, wagging his eyebrows comically.
Luis shakes his head, his lips pursed slightly. Marcos rolls his eyes and flops back down on his bed, pulling a pillow over his head.
“God,” says Marcos, muffled, from underneath the pillow. “God, I’m in the movies!”
“What else did he say?” asks Luis, ignoring Marcos.
“He said, `Save the seeds’,” answers André, fishing through the ashtray, and then lighting up a roach.
It is the next evening and the three of them have been talking.
Marcos says, “Come on, this is a joke. This stuff I might write, for god’s sake.” He is looking for Luis to smile, but he doesn’t. Marcos looks to André, expecting a grin. Marcos fights an impulse to laugh.
Marcos tries again. “If I was a hack writer, pulp.”
Luis and André, standing close together, just look at him.
“I’m not sneaking out some fucking dumbwaiter,” Marcos says. “You guys are kidding me.”
André grins at him, but Marcos knows, with a lurching heart, that they are not kidding him. “Secret rendezvous, for chrissake,” he says, still hoping it’s a put-on, but knowing it is not.
Luis starts in on the plan, the steps, the reasons why it is up to Marcos, that Luis is meeting with Edmund later this night, it has to be tonight, André is doing something else, and then Luis is back to describing the plan, the steps, the bike, the timing, and back to the reasons why Marcos has to go, why they need to check it out, the steps, the sequences, the passcode, who to look for, the where and when, the plan, the steps, the sequence.
Marcos finds it all both confusing and exhausting. He is trying to listen, but he seems to be talking to himself, too.
“Why me?” Marcos asks, so quietly he asks only himself. He starts half way off his bed at the knock at the door.
It is Timmy at the door. He pops his head in, looking past the jamb to where Marcos sits on the bed. They look at each other like that for a moment, and then in a low rough cartoon voice Timmy says, “Frenchie ba-boo!”
Marcos stares at him stupidly.
“Frenchie ba-boo,” says Timmy again, without the voice, his arm snaking past the door, his hand flipping, gesturing Go on. “Da-da-da-dah,” he adds.
“Yes,” says Marcos, and then, “Oh. Shit in a shoe.”
“Didn’t get home,” says Timmy, nodding at him, repeating it, “Didn’t get home, till….”
“Till half past two,” Marcos responds.
Timmy comes through the door into the room.
“All this is your fault,” Marcos says to Timmy, who is at the table getting a cigarette from a pack there.
“So, you are all set,” Timmy says, after lighting the cigarette and turning back to face Marcos.
“Shit,” is what Marcos says. André laughs and goes over to his own bed to sit.
“Just who am I going to meet?” Marcos asks Timmy.
“A guy that wants to meet you,” he answers. “A guy from the Works.”
“Refugees. Where they are,” Timmy answers.
“Why is this so secret?” asks Marcos. André has gotten back off his bed and picks up a cigarette from the table, lights it.
“Hey,” says Timmy, staring at Marcos, any presence of humor, of joking is gone from him. “Like I don’t want to scare you, but this scares me, like there’s a chance of getting shot you know, if you run across the wrong people, like it can be my own ass too if you play it wrong. Like this guy isn’t too fond of that idea either.”
Marcos lets out a long sign. “Reassuring,” he mumbles. Everyone is quiet. He adds, “What about guards?”
“They are pretty light inside, most of the night shifts are on watch around the walls right now.”
“Most,” says Marcos.
Timmy looks to Luis and then turns back to Marcos, shrugging. “I figure if you’re scared enough you won’t be tempted to do things wrong. I give you the route, you pick up a bike and its maybe six minutes, just keep your eyes open. I’ll explain the route you take. Chances are no problem with the bridge guards looking the other way, on cue.”
“How many people know?” asks André.
Now Luis is answering with a shrug. “As few as possible.”
“The bridge guards tonight are friends,” Timmy tells Marcos.
Luis looks at Marcos. “You have to go,” he says, a simple statement
Marcos stands up, already feeling shaky from adrenalin. “Okay,” he says. He tries to stretch and yawn his nervousness away, but it only makes him feel nauseous. He looks at Luis.
“Why me?” he asks Luis, yet again. “Why not André, what you say is bullshit.”
“You’re the one they want,” Luis says. “Ask Timmy.”
Timmy answers. “You’re the writer.”
“So, just tell me,” says Marcos, but he knows that’s not getting him out of this.
“I don’t get there,” says Timmy, quietly, but looking at Marcos with a steady gaze. “It would be a lot of rumor. It is something you must see.” And then Timmy starts quizzing Marcos about the route, the plan, again and again.
He is three blocks west of the Yorrick Club in the middle of the night.
I can’t believe I’m doing this, thinks Marcos, backed into the corner in a deep blackness where two buildings meet. A stairwell is to his right. A fucking comedy, he thinks, the thought sullen and with the edge of panic. He considers the efficacy of relieving himself before setting further out, fighting a nagging worry that his bowels are growing loose. He strains his eyes into the darkness. There are lights off a way, thin sparse street lamps past some other buildings, beyond great open lots filled with neat looking piles of things, some covered with plastic or tarps.
He flexes the muscle of his anus tight, thinking, I’m regular for the mornings, and, Jesus, what if I’m lost already, and, What a joke, more or less at the same time. Marcos tries on a smile in the dark, but feels his face pull into a grimace. “What a joke,” he says, softly, to himself. “Don’t shit in my shoes,” Marcos whispers, repeatedly, like a chant, in the dark, trying to feel okay about being outside.
He starts going over his instructions again, and then again, and he keeps reaching over repeatedly, like a twitch, to touch the bike he has retrieved from the stairwell to his right.
The stars are brilliant overhead, above the roofs of the buildings forming the alley where he stands. It is cold. Another surge of panic hits Marcos and he screams inside his head, Where’s the bike?! and his hand flits out against the handlebars. Calm down calm down, he chants inside himself, putting his hands into his pockets, shivering. In the distance he sees someone walk across the open lots and turn away.
Marcos is now leaning his head against the brick of the wall behind him, looking at the stars, and slowly growing calmer in his black corner. He comforts himself that no one will come upon him by accident.
Marcos goes over his instructions more calmly: Right, two blocks; left, three blocks; right; left; over the bridge; second right; dog left; first right; first alley. Six-seven minutes by bicycle. He takes a huge breath. Shit-in-a-shoe, he thinks.
The bicycle ride is smooth enough, almost dreamlike over the empty black streets. Marcos is counting off the turns and feeling an alertness that extends past the shadows. And then, almost surprised, he reaches the final alley. Marcos places himself slowly off the bicycle and into the shadow, amazed at how knotted his leg muscles are. Marcos’s kneecaps slow their shaking. His breath starts growing quiet after some minutes pass.
And then a man is coming toward him. Marcos sinks down, sinking fully against his legs still half tight from his ride. The man, his outline faint in the starlight, steps toward Marcos’s corner. The man says, “Shit in a shoe.” Marcos rises from his crouch.
“Till half past two,” Marcos says, surprising himself with the loudness of his voice, the slap of it against the stone walls before him. The man follows his voice into the corner.
“Hiya,” the man says.
Marcos just nods in the darkness, but catches the absurdity of it and says, “Yes.” The man grabs Marcos’s arm, pulls it softly, and breathes into his face.
“So you’re the man, eh? Well,” he says, “I finally get to meet one of the Tinnies.” In the near darkness the man seems to loom over him.
“Your name?” asks Marcos, wanting to pull away, to stand apart from this dark shadow of a man.
“Not for you, brother,” the man replies, with a grunt.
The man asks, “Any guard on your bridge?”
“Good,” the man says. He pulls Marcos’s arm again. “Let’s get inside,” he says. The man moves them to what Marcos had thought was the dead end of the alley, but Marcos sees now that there is a narrow corner there as the man slips past it, pulling Marcos along in the darkness. Marcos counts the steps they take, hearing an echo of his ride through the streets, one step, two steps, three steps, corner…, until he shakes himself from it. The man and Marcos reach a stairwell that goes down to a basement door, and for a moment Marcos feels a new surge of panic and confusion.
The man releases him. Marcos can’t see the man in the blackness of the stairwell. “Come on,” the man calls softly, from below, and Marcos feels his way down the stone steps toward the voice and the sound of a door being pushed open.
Once they are both inside, the man lights a hurricane lamp, then begins to walk without pausing to see if Marcos follows. Beyond the dim light of the lamp, Marcos is still pulled by shadow. The man’s back is to him, a large man, covered by a rough flannel shirt above dark pants. Marcos asks where they are and the man turns to face him. His face is surprisingly dark and shaggy, with a black curly beard and a halo of hair above his face, his eyes, glinting in the sparse light of the lamp held before him, seem bright with fever.
“This is part of an old felting mill,” he says, adding nothing more before turning back and walking further into the long, dark basement. Marcos can hear the dampness of the place, in drippings and gurgles or murmurs, and the smell of it is mixed in with an old oil scent and old dirt. He looks around him and then hurries to catch the man, the two moving in silence. The man stops.
“We have to go up to the second floor,” he says. “There’s a walkway between the buildings. We go it quietly, there might be guards near, got it?”
“It is an iron catwalk, it picks up the sounds, and it’s a place where guards can sometimes take a little air. Near it, underneath. Think you can manage it?”
Marcos nods again.
They pass into a stairway that leads up into a long floor that holds giant, old machines that sway and shift in the shadows of the lamp. They enter another flight of stairs, another, shorter floor that seems to be empty except for dust.
And then they turn into a small, short corridor, paint on brick, at least where it hasn’t popped off crumbly patches, another door at the end. The man extinguishes the lamp. The smell of the wick smolder burns Marcos’s nostrils. They wait for a few moments in the darkness. The man reaches out in the blackness and touches Marcos’s arm.
“Very quiet,” the man says, softly and clearly, and then he is opening the door slowly, opening it to the starlit night bright against the frame.
Quick, careful steps, the swift flash of the night sky, and over to another door, not locked, barely a squeak as it opens, then is closed, the plunge back into full darkness. The quiet sputter of the hurricane lamp resumes, and they walk from the corridor-like small room into a larger room that contains many metal drums, one of which the man sets himself down on.
“Sit,” he says, gesturing to another drum. Marcos moves to a wooden box by some of the barrels and lets himself down.
“Welcome to Death Camp,” the man says, evenly.
“Jesus,” Marcos says, his heart bolting. “Please don’t fuck around,” he says, “No shit, just stop it.”
The man is silent, but his eyes are jumping in the light.
“What?” Marcos tries to ask.
“I don’t see how you can give me guarantees,” Edmund is telling Luis, downstairs in a parlor of the Yorrick Club. He is handing Luis a glass of whiskey. Luis, taking the drink, starts to say something, but Edmund holds up his hand to stop him. Armand, sitting to the side in an overstuffed chair finishes his translating. “And,” Edmund says, patiently, after sitting back down in his chair, keeping his eyes on Luis, “and, I don’t see how I can give you one.”
“Mutual benefit,” André says from the doorway, surprising the three men. He has been standing there, for a few moments, watching and listening, unnoticed, until he speaks.
The men in the room nod to him.
“Business never has guarantees, really, does it?” André continues, entering the room and sitting down. “What supports deals is the mutual need. Of each of the parties.”
“No kidding,” Edmund says with a laugh, once Armand is done.
“How’s your friend Marcos feeling?” asks Edmund, with Armand not bothering to translate.
“Do not know,” André answers, in Spanish. “I’m sure that he’s fine, he has a tendency to think he is getting ill.” André turns to Luis. “I did not want to go in, so he could keep asleep.” Armand translates for Edmund.
André looks around the room and turns back to Luis. “How is it going?”
“Really,” says Edmund, with a smile, “we’re all too cagey.” Armand, behind him, grunts or laughs.
“Reservado,” Armand says to Luis, then adds, “Cauteloso.”
Luis seems confused.
Armand hold up a finger. “Uh, um, “Desconifiado.”
Luis gets it. “If I had gone to Canada like I planned, you would not get this chance,” says Luis.
“And that makes me confident,” says Edmund, sarcastically, still smiling.
“What a life,” André says, in his heavy accent, reaching for the whiskey bottle, grinning. “What a life.”
The man laughs again, or maybe it is a gasp, a sob. The silence after his words settles in the room like dust.
Jesus,” says Marcos, into the silence.
The lamp has grown dimmer as the man has spoken of the arrangements they carried with the refugees, but now the man turns to it and does something to it that makes it brighter again.
“The mortality, it is really that much?” Marcos asks into the new silence, not expecting an answer. The man is now pacing around the room, settling his hands on the drums, moving around from one to another.
“Well,” Marcos says, quietly, “I can see that it is rough.”
“That’s beautiful,” the man says. “Rough. That’s great, that’s exactly what it is, you’ll appreciate this.”
The man paces more, falling silent. A dozen feet away from Marcos, standing by a wall, the man is a dim blur in the light of the lamp. “Rough, that’s rich,” the man says, turning to face Marcos. “Do you know what we feed them, the sick ones, the second group?”
“The segregated ones?” Marcos asks, quietly.
Marcos waits. He sees the man straighten out, tilt his head back. “Look,” Marcos says, gently. “Please, please calm down.” The man nods and walks back to a drum and sits back up on it, crossing his arms.
“Sorry,” the man says after a moment, his voice flat, he falls back into silence.
Marcos is quiet.
“The worst of it is that I think this all is something…” the man waving his hand, gesturing, “…all of this, something we have to do.”
“I understand,” Marcos says, starting slowly, gently, trying to keep the man from bursting in anger against him. “I think I can understand that. People get sick.”
The man is staring at him in the weak lamp light.
“Only so much food, you people are trying to help them, there’s…” Marcos stops talking.
The man remains silent, staring at Marcos.
“Well,” says Marcos, feeling annoyed, maybe the start of anger. “Where would they go? I’m trying to understand.”
It has been an odd tour, the man first taking him to a small overlook, back in shadows, the lamp left behind, the few dim scattered lights below showing a large room, an immense factory floor, probably, crowded with cots and pallet bedding, a hundred people sleeping, or two hundred, some stirring, a mist of coughs and snoring, and from one corner or another, some quiet weeping, a shout in a dream, there close below them, out of sight. A dorm, closed smelling, people close in, crowded, unwashed, but nothing different from some homeless shelters Marcos had found himself searching through, back home, for a cousin, for a friend.
An then on, down long corridors, down and down again, to another dorm-like place, Marcos would have guessed, but the cries, the smell of shit and despair seeping as they approached in the dark, and then they are jumping, pressing into the wall when a door further down opens, two people, wearing masks, rags, tied over their noses and mouths, disappearing through another door, but the stench of sick and the moans of multitudes is rolling toward the man and Marcos like a crashing wall.
And now, back in the drum room, Marcos is trying to understand.
“You’re catching on,” says the man, very softly. “That’s what this is all fucking about, it’s all a matter of where they’d go.”
“What do you mean?”
“And,” the man says, ignoring Marcos’s question, “it’s all a matter of what we do with them and why.” The man hops off the drum again.
“More riddle,” Marcos says. He is definitely feeling angry, but then panic when the man shouts.
“Goddammit!” the man explodes, then stops and puts a finger up to his own lips. He shakes his shoulders and after a moment, collects himself.
“I have to draw you a picture?” he says, almost gently. “Do you know what we feed them, those so-called hospital group? Those sick ones, the ones used up first, the weaker, the sorry assholes who manage to make it here after their own best gives out, those who become worthless?”
Marcos sits very still, still perched on his own drum, looking at the man.
“The sick, the surplus?” the man continues, the sibilant sounds of his voice cold in the dark room. The man laughs or grunts again.
“Paper,” he says, softly, after a while, and then he grunts again. “Sawdust. A high fiber diet.”
“What the fuck are you saying?!” Marcos hisses back. The blackness in the corners of the room seems to ebb around him.
“It rips right through you, it’s a real art, I’ve seen it done, and plenty. Some, some corn meal, flour — not enough real food to feed a third the number,” he says, in a kind of hoarse whispering. “You should see their happy faces when they find a piece of carrot…. ”
Marcos sits still.
“Me!” the man says, looking over at Marcos, a thick sadness containing his voice. “I’ve done it, I’ve killed those assholes.” Marcos sits as still as stone.
The silence lingers.
“I was out there, did okay, Hubbardston, a group of us, lucky supplies, the first summer showed crops, enough. The second killed us, more or less.” The man’s eyes are closed. “We saw the signs, the postings, refuge, a godsend, right?” He is looking at Marcos.
“So you understand this, what is here,” the man says after a time. “We have people here, we welcome them, we have them work, build the wall, they run material, all kinds of things, we give them food.” The man jumps down from this barrel perch, moving slowly toward the door they had originally come through.
“Not enough, never enough, and then we feed them shit.”
He moves to the door they had come in, disappearing in the darkness, then, re-emerging, a wraith, he walks back toward Marcos.
“When they get too sick, too weak to work, they go to the other group, they get less food, less real food, they, a couple of weeks, a month.”
The man is standing right in front of Marcos. “It is run all very strict, health rules, we keep families together, anyone that asks too much after people they know who have been sent down, those bastards are brought in, it’s straight segregation, it’s all control.”
“But,” Marcos says, stopping.
“All that shit about us being a control emigration point for the Canadians.” The man stops for a moment.
“The Canadians don’t give us shit, really, and most of what we get, fuel, some foodstock, goes to the town, just enough here, not enough.”
“Why?” Marcos manages to ask.
“They don’t want people heading north, they don’t want more mouths, I guess, things out of control.”
The man looks at Marcos. “Let’s go,” he tells Marcos, and he turns and heads toward the door.
“There’s a bunch of these centers, I have no idea how many, but I’ve heard of Lebanon, Killington, Claremont, but it figures more, the big border,” the man is saying, like a regular conversation.
“They have teams here,” the man continues, as they pass from the corridor, into another. “The choosers, I call them, but I guess, what, emigration officers?” The man looks back and sees Marcos falling behind.
“Huh,” is all he can say, walking on.
“I was one of them,” the man says, busying himself, getting ready to open the door that Marcos thinks must be the catwalk. “A refugee.”
Marcos is a dozen feet back behind the man. Marcos wants to stay in shadow. Marcos feels that the lamp light burns him.
“Don’t worry about guards here, now,” the man says after the lamp extinguished, the door creaking open, the starlight. “It’s my roster turn tonight for this part.”
Edmund has been describing how the Canadians are maintaining border control, “Or, at least tying to,” he says, and he is telling Luis, with Armand translating, that that had been what the Canadians had complained about, after initial contact. “They came here, what, the start the first fall?” he asks Armand, who nods, “Telling us, and some other areas,” Edmund says, “which, early on, the Worcester people, Leominster, Gardner, Greenfield, right?” he asks Armand, who nods. “We actually got a lot of good information from those assholes,” Edmund says. Stopping.
Luis and André glance at each other.
“I mean, we’re scrambling, there’s people sick, dead, we’re completely fucked, trying to keep here moving, what? Twelve weeks, maybe, we’re trying to keep from being overrun, scrambling to round up as much as we can for our people, as you can imagine, this fucking convoy, Bradleys, but the weird British ones, armored up Humvees, trucks, comes rolling in,” Edmund stops, and snorts. “Well, not rolling in, really, things were still such a wreck, it took ‘em almost two weeks, idiots.”
“Well, anyway,” Edmund says, after an unusually long pause for him, “We got more, a better picture, they seemed happy enough to discuss their fucking travelogue with us, at least when they weren’t too busy telling us what we had to do.” Edmund looks to Luis, waiting for Armand to finish, holding up his hand to stop Luis’s question.
“Yeah,” says Edmund, “hold your horses. I’ll tell you what they told us, in fact, it is somewhere around, I’m sure, the fucking directive, but it boils down to a closed border, no unsolicited, no, no unauthorized refugees, no-go areas, we’re still burning piles of bodies for crissake, we’re still running around like stupid assholes, the fucking Canadians are passing around Directive 14, or whatever the fuck it’s called.”
“Ottawa, Montreal had been hit,” says Luis, “and they’ve told us about a number of other targets, Halifax, New Brunswick, the bases there, and Toronto, Hamilton, the Niagara Falls.”
“Yeah, no shit, I’m sure. We figured a lot of that after, after things settled down, later in the summer, the first summer, fall, piecing it together, why the federals were in Kingston, after a more regular system of contact got in place,” says Edmund. “When Beaufort signed the agreement, the refugee control, containment, it was mostly fuel, some weapons, ammo, some medicine, not much else, but the fuel, especially is the big item, they’ve been getting the oil and refineries, getting the shipping east together.”
“And that’s the small group of Canadians here, the ones you are keeping us away from, they are, what, supervising, monitoring the agreement?” Luis asks, an eyebrow up, looking straight to Edmund.
Armand finishes translating Luis question, but Edmund seems to know what Luis is asking. “Monitors is what they call themselves, and yes, basically what you said, plus immigration, first picks basically, engineers, doctors, high value skill sets, the obvious.”
“In effect,” Edmund continues, “a small garrison, some at the centers, some always out, sniffing around, our own survey crews run into them sometimes, but they keep to themselves with that stuff, no coordination.”
“Surveys?” asks André in his accent.
“Inventories, who is where, what is where, safe, dangerous, shit, good,” Edmund says, his attention toward André, and he seems annoyed by the question. He waves his hands, around.
“So, you don’t want us to meet them, yet we’re talking to Kingston, already,” Luis points out.
Edmund simply looks at Luis for several moments.
“Like you’d want us to meet the Brazilians?” he asks.
“Huh,” says André. “Good inventory taking,” he says, turning and grinning at Luis.
It is still dark but the shadow in the alley has shifted from above the corner where the brick walls meet, so that now it is falling, slants left, falls down like a tent flap over into the stairwell, the shadow in the well and up one wall.
Marcos looks up at the stars. He is standing on the steps so that his head is above the top of the well and the level of the alley. The light is a little brighter, from the stars and the crescent of moon that has appeared low over the edge of the building’s roof. The light is silver and he hears sounds off a ways.
The light is silvery. Marcos ducks back into the well, the black. The door behind him is still open.
“Go!” the man, still inside, hisses. Marcos can sense that the man has stepped back further into the building. “I wanted you to see it,” the man says, quietly, from within, but his voice carries a note that cuts through Marcos’s shock, a fury that seems to glaze past him, into the silvery light.
Marcos climbs the stairwell. He starts to walk, stiff, shifting into a sort of speed walk, then he is running.
He runs along the wall, and toward the narrow outside corner of the building, into the alley. He slips and falls, and then is up again, his feet slapping the stone pavement of the alley, clattering to where the bike is. He stops and starts to heave.
In a minute, shaking, he picks up the bike.
“We find ourselves caught in a rather troublesome balance,” Luis is explaining to Edmund. He speaks with an occasional glance at André, who is to his left but back a bit from the circle formed by the four men in the Yorrick parlor, so that Luis has to turn a little bit too much for comfort when he looks at him.
“The Canadians have things we want, we have things they need, but Brazil does too,” Luis is saying, turning back to Edmund, translated through André.
“And that’s a problem,” says Edmund.
Luis shrugs, nods.
“And the Canadians,” says Luis, and it seems like looking back to André is an irresistible urge somehow, signaling uncertainty, or caution. “For you, the Canadians are a problem.”
“It’s been only by concessions and because we’re probably too southern that we are out of it,” says Edmund, “but between what we hear about north in Maine, and more so, the Canadians coming in from the west of us, the Ohio, mid-New York pushes, they are coming.”
André leans forward. “So what?” he asks. “They are organized, structure, why a problem?”
Edmund looks to André, he’s nodding his head, slight nodding as he looks at André, and then to Luis, staying silent.
“What?” says André, in Spanish, but Edmund gets the question.
Edmund finally starts to answer. “Well, they are heavy-handed,” he tells them, “They take too much, we’d be fucking vassals, for starters,” he stops.
“What?” It is André, again, again in Spanish.
“What do you know about Quebec, about the fighting there,” Edmund is asking the two of them, looking back and forth between them, trying to see their reactions.
Their reaction is puzzlement, and then Luis starts asking a question, struggling for a word, a name, until Armand gets it.
“Quebecois,” Armand tells him.
“Yes, right, thank you,” he says to Armand, who doesn’t bother to translate.
“The Independence,” Luis starts in. “There hasn’t been trouble since the seventies,” he says, frowning.
“The end of the fucking world does strange things to people,” Edmund says.
Luis and André are trying to understand.
“So,” says Edmund, “can we talk about guns?”
He’s being pursued.
Marcos knows he’s being pursued.
Marcos knows he’s not being pursued.
The whirl of the bicycle, its cranking gears spin out sounds, sounds of men crying in the distance, dogs growling, a child singing behind a wall, the click of knifes. He tries to keep his mind still, to listen in the black rushing night streets, but his ears are full of roaring. He hears nothing but that roar, pushing the bike faster, he hears no one about, no attacks, no shouts. He pushes the bike into high gear and pedals hard, flitting past darker shadows and the glint of stars and moon and distant lights reflecting off storefront windows, he hears nothing, straining, nothing but the bike and its growling. He is humming grrrrww, grraww with the tires, his head tight above the handlebars. In the silver light he counts one more of his corners and takes it fast and then he is screaming out loud his hum, “GRRAuhhh!,” one burst of sound even before the fear, before the heart slamming jolt of what is happening hits him, the bicycle already steady through the swerve before the man’s face he blurs past registers as surprise. He listens, keeping moving, but he hears nothing but the echo of his own barking burst of breath, he hits another turn, heart skidding like the hard thin tires on the asphalt beneath him, he is pushing the pedals strong and hard and with renewed desperation, shifting up to another gear, coming fast. He concentrates on the burning of his legs, feeling the muscles growing hard.
Head up, with his body low over the handlebars and pedals, he glimpses the beauty of the street within his thundering fear, almost laughing at its shoulder black in shadow, he sees the lights two streets over, at an angle, their weak light tumbling past a building’s edge into the street, a pothole jars the bike, then another, but he keeps his speed on a downward slope, coasting down toward his safety and release, listening to sounds as he pauses in his pedaling, to gauge the distances.
He takes another of his corners fast, sees a man with a lantern standing at his dogleg, the man’s back is to Marcos, the man is turning, slowly, the man has a rifle in his arms. Marcos keeps his glide, fast, and in blank panic he is heading right at him, at ten feet Marcos sees the puzzled rising face, the rifle come to arms, Marcos’s fingers are on the brakes, his heart slams in his panic, he grabs the front brake hard, Marcos is going over, he sees the man drop the gun as if to catch him, and Marcos and the bike are crushing into the man’s chest, and Marcos is twisting through the air, half tangled in the bike as the body, the street, rush up under him, spinning and hard.
Only for a moment does Marcos lie still, as if basking in the new sensation of stillness, as if he has just been born again, waking from a changing dream, but then the speed and his fear is again rushing through him with an insistence that brings him rising, shaking, up from the tar. Marcos hears heavy wheezing and realizes, with some effort, that he is not the source of the sound. The guard is on the street, beneath him. One of Marcos’s feet, as he stands, shaking, trembling, is in the frame of the ten-speed bike. One of the tires is spinning. It makes a clicking noise.
No pain, Marcos thinks, in shock. His other foot, trembling, jumping, is resting lightly on the guard’s upper arm. The man below him convulses.
“It seems that you are hardly completely out?” asks Luis, speaking over his steepled fingers, slouched deep in his armchair.
“Well, not direct, I mean,” answers Edmund. “They don’t cross the burned areas of Concord and Nashua, Portsmouth, too. Too dirty.”
“You have them here,” Luis says.
“They come and go with the shipments, and those are pretty rare,” Edmund says, dismissing it.
“Maine is theirs?” asks André.
“Some,” answers Armand, from behind Edmund’s left side.
“For the potatoes,” says André.
“You’re funny,” says Edmund, his glance at André doesn’t seem to think so, though. When Luis questions Edmund with his eyes, Edmund answers, “Potatoes don’t do U.V.”
It takes André a moment to figure out what Edmund means, and when he does, he explains it to Luis.
“We got a relocation thing with them, that’s it,” states Edmund, trying to get back on track.
“Maine?” asks Luis.
“No, no. Canada, I just said.” Edmund frowns, but then continues. “But they’ve been sticking pretty close,” Edmund goes on, “their control is shaky, too many people, they don’t have enough and they’re doing too much, there is something of a shooting war around St. Lawrence, the seaway, Quebec City is in pretty good shape, think they should have a say, Kingston doesn’t, they sent in troops, and it’s Je me souviens, baby.”
“Remember?” Luis says out loud, after Armand does the double translation. Luis and André are at a loss.
“Okay,” says Edmund. “Some of us here don’t like their ways, they’ve moved – the Federals, to some extent, anyway — into parts of New England, some Mid-West, and not by being sugar daddy about it.”
“I though I spoke English pretty okay,” says André, in Spanish, glancing at Luis, who simply shrugs.
Armand tries a different translation, but stops.
“Fuck it, sorry, it’s late,” says Edmund. “I mean, the Canadians are taking, not giving, and some of us would rather avoid the possibility of having to be generous. Get it?”
“You have your own plans,” says Luis.
“We have our own plans,” says Edmund.
André gets up, leans forward and grabs a bottle from the coffee table in front of the four. He holds it up his face. It is empty, but he places the tip of the bottle to his lips and sucks air and several drops of whisky from it.
“Quebec wants to go,” says Edmund, looking at André’s antics, then turning back to Luis. “We’d like that, feel that it would be better all around.”
The room is silent.
“Get some paper,” Edmund says to Armand. Armand gets up and leaves the room.
“We got shit lying around these states you want,” Edmund says, staring at Luis. Armand returns with a pad of paper, placing it down on the coffee table between Edmund and Luis. “You have shit we want, need. Let’s make a deal.”
“But why with you?” Luis says.
“You want to help us,” says Edmund. Edmund ignores Luis’s grunt.
“You think we don’t know about you and Brazil?” Edmund asks, and then it is his turn to laugh when Luis’s face goes blank. Edmund’s laugh is unpleasant.
“We’re not stupid,” he says into the silence. “We hear things. We’ve had the fucking Japs here.”
“With cameras,” Armand says, surprising everyone with his speaking up. His eyes are closed behind his glasses. “Just like always.” Edmund snorts at the joke.
“The only thing you want in Canada is trouble,” replies Edmund. “Keep the Brazilians off, worried, spread out.”
“How are you going to collect everything, in quantities?” asks Luis. Armand translates the question, and is puzzled, but Edmund isn’t.
“I still don’t see that there’s much to build on here,” continues Luis, and waits for Armand to translate.
“We get food, we have people,” Edmund replies. “We know the territory, we get some medicines and guns, we can start the clean out. We keep the Canadians busy with themselves, that’s good for both of us. Quebec needs to abandon the north, those farms are gone, that’s farmers, here, that people, but they’ll keep the city, the seaway, your access.”
“Assuming the Canadians don’t keep it, don’t press too hard,” Luis says, shrugging slightly in his chair.
“When you get back to the ship,” Edmund says, “when you meet up, you’ll see it or you won’t.”
Luis stays silent.
“The next year, two, either a lot of people die, or fewer people die. Either there is a working structure here, or…” but Edmund lets his comment trail off.
André comes into the room, mid-morning., carrying a tray of food and some water. He sees that Marcos is sitting up in his bed, loosely holding one of his journals on his lap with one hand.
The pages are blank.
Marcos’s other hand is laid stiffly by his side, above the covers. This hand is swollen and scraped, with the fingers curled and puffy like the hand of a corpse. Marcos turns his head slowly to watch as André steps further into the room.
“Where have you been?” Marcos asks him, in Spanish, with a voice empty, flat.
“There is a big stir this morning, we were meeting with Edmund, and then Gerald came by.” André puts the tray down on his own bed and then sits by it. “How are you feeling?” he says, with a grin. “You really know how to fake it, put on a show.”
“Fuck you,” says Marcos, quietly.
André looks at the still hand by Marcos’s side. “What the hell happened to you, get in a fight?” he says, trying to put his grin back on.
Marcos brings his hand up in front of his face, turning it slowly back and forth, flexing the fingers in slow, brief movements. “Kind of,” Marcos says, quietly, and then, with his other hand, he tosses the journal onto the foot of the bed, where it slowly slides off the side to the floor. With his good hand, Marcos slowly starts to move the bed covers back. He is in his underwear. He continues to push the blankets back until they are at the end of his reach.
André sees a long and bloody scrape along the left knee.
With his right leg, Marcos manages to push the blankets completely off himself. There are more bruises lower on his left leg, and his left ankle is sharply swollen.
“Christ,” says André.
“I am pretty sure that my hand is broken,” says Marcos, with his quavering voice. André reaches for it, but Marcos pulls it away.
“What’s going on with Edmund, Gerard?” Marcos asks.
André is staring at the bloody knee and bruises. “There’s been some sort of trouble in the night,” André says, looking up at Marcos. “Something about a guard getting killed inside, he was not very clear, something inside, not an attack or anything.”
Marcos nods his head slightly.
“So what happened last night?” André asks quietly. “Did you meet Timmy’s mystery man?”
Marcos is looking down at the crumpled blankets that lay half fallen off the foot of the bed.
“Hello, hello,” says André, waving his hand in front of Marcos.
Marcos looks up at André. “The refugees,” he begins to say, but then he stops and goes back to staring at the bed clothes at his feet.
“Yuh?” André says after a short while.
“Most of the people,” Marcos begins again, but then he stops again. André sighs, but is otherwise still.
“They take very few inside,” Marcos finally says, still staring at the bed clothes.
André half laughs. “Yes, yes,” he says. “Edmund was talking about that last night.”
Marcos looks up again. “He said that,” Marcos is saying, but André is waving him off.
“To that effect,” is what André says. “I got vocabulary too.”
Marcos is staring at him.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” André says, almost smiling. Marcos looks at him steadily.
“Fuck off,” Marcos finally says into the quiet. “They work the refugees—”
“—We know that,” André says.
“Fuck you!” growls Marcos, low. He swings his bare legs off the bed. His scraped knee starts bleeding. He brings his hands up to rub his face and then winces. He looks at his swollen left hand.
“They get fed some a gruel that, that….” Marcos starts again. He waves his right hand around. “Shit,” he says. André just looks at him.
Marcos is staring off again, toward the end of the room. Marcos tries standing up, grimacing as he puts weight on his left leg. He falls back on the bed.
Marcos twists to reach for the tray. André hands it to him. He watches Marcos as Marcos sponges his knee with his good hand, using a napkin and the water.
“Why were you so interested yesterday?” Marcos says, low, still focused on his leg.
“Well,” André replies, trying on a smile. “We have to know who we are dealing with.”
“Edmund,” says Marcos. He rests both his feet flat down on the floor.
“They were being really cagey about refugees, we are going to need some manpower up here,” André says. “We had to know.” He stands up from the foot of his bed. “Can you get dressed? This guard shit is making everyone nervous. Fernando and José will be coming back here in a little while.” Marcos continues to stare at him. André ignores him.
“You already know about it, the deaths,” says Marcos, flatly.
“Edmund explained the situation last night,” replies André. He laughs a small laugh. “He calls it `population easement’.”
“But not Fernando, José.”
“Of course not,” André says, looking at Marcos. “Luis and I feel that is for the best,” André adds.
Marcos is feeling like he is about to cry again.
“I can’t believe you fell down those steps,” André says to him.
Marcos is confused, and then he understands.
But he is falling down, still falling down, falling down, in panic.