This Great Society - Writing

 

 
Illustration: Jim Boraas


A.C. Wells: All Animals on Earth; and I Alone
Illustration: Jim Boraas

 
 

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“The banners of Hell’s Monarch do come forth
Towards us; therefore look,” so spake my guide,
“If thou discern him.” As, when breathes a cloud
Heavy and dense, or when the shades of night
Fall on our hemisphere, seems view’d from far
A windmill, which the blast stirs briskly round,
Such was the fabric then methought I saw,

To shield me from the wind, forthwith I drew
Behind my guide: no covert else was there. *

Canto XXXIV, The Divine Comedy, Volume 1, by Dante Alighieri

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                 The car came at 8:57am. Only three minutes early today, so it didn’t happen until 9:11am. The mornings there always felt the same to her: gray, hard-boiled light, as if that sun was much too old and hot to birth out anything fresh. Their Driver was the very best part of the morning. The only one of the locals she saw every day, and the only one who didn’t know a word of English. The skin on his face always crinkled up at her in the same tidy, strong curves as he swung open her door. She liked his movements: nothing wasted, nothing too quick. He polished the rusty handles and cranked the gear shift as if he had been in the chariot business when his bones were softer. The three of them usually had to sit for a minute at the little guard station: Kate, Their Driver, and her, waiting.
                 Today, he laughed suddenly—a low, wheezy, belly sound—and pointed. Two grubby, skinny boys were crossing the street, each with a fistful of lacy, black cicada. At this height of summer, the massive insects squealed out constant electronic vibrations at a painful pitch. The boys were playing them like a violin, squeezing and releasing to hear the sound when they wanted.
                 What a life, Kate said. Fuck like crazy for two weeks and then die.
                 Two weeks? Is that it?
                 Yeah, but the whole cocoony-hatching thing takes way longer.
                 They always flipped and scribbled through lesson plans for the 15 minutes it took to get there—sighing and shifting into the morning and away from each other. Every morning meant a different something that she especially watched. Today, she watched the walking faces especially much. There were never this many walking faces anywhere back home. She liked to imagine them, all these not-back-home faces, riding on a criss-cross of moving escalators, with strips lain over and back across the streets, making up for the no traffic lights or crosswalks, making for a little easier go of it. Maybe this was because they all had the same quick march escalator rhythm already, the same hungry, forward leaning bend. The old women had the heaviest bend—like a corner, like the handle of a cane—leathery heads held up, and hands behind back. She thought that if their hands swung forward accidentally they would crumple down from the imbalance, in a dusty gray and brown pile.
                 One of the white vans blared past them, the funnel-shaped loudspeakers emitting the tinny, operatic strains of patriotism. The pitch was remarkably close to the cicadas’.


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                 I just figured it out this week, he said. Before, I could hear the crying and thumping at night, but I didn’t know... they kill them in the building behind us. They tie ropes around their necks and hang them from the balconies. The dogs, they try to get free, so they struggle and beat themselves against the bars of the balcony. The meat gets—how do you say?—tenderized? Tenderized by the beating before they choke to death.
                 She twitched and burrowed her face farther into his lap. It’s horrible.
                 Yes. It’s wrong. It’s very wrong.
                 Everyone’s saying they’re going to try some. To be adventurous, to be—I was thinking of trying some. I didn’t know—
                 Yes.
                 He started at her hipbone, and ran one finger very slowly down to the side of her knee. Dead-on centre, she thought. All the way down, perfect halves. The neatness of it was satisfying. She imagined his finger a black sharpie, drawing out arrows and angles for precise plastic surgery all over her skin. Marking and mapping before the big slice.
                 He curled his toes between the tassels of the coffee table’s place mat. The Nazis, when they trained their youth—they started them with torturing the animals first. Because it was easier then... to hurt the people.... I think anyone who tortures the animals... once you start with that... it is very bad for the soul.
                 This was the third time he’d said something about the war. The collective consciousness about all that happened—of course it clung on much more heavily in his country than hers.
                 He shifted another pillow in behind her back. Are you comfortable?
                 Mmm-hmm.
                 It’s funny, she thought. We’re funny. What was it, 12 hours ago when she’d seen him at the embassy? The big iron bars rolling back, the side shift of the soldier’s eyes, her sandalled feet swaying over the dappled sun spots on the tiles. The secretary buzzing him and his collared shirt down to where she was standing by the eagle coat of arms. (But you can give it to him yourself—it will be no trouble. Really.) The formal smiles, the hand clasp. Her very best at seeming full of breath.
                 He pulled her hair back from her eyes, tipping his head down and sideways: I think you are not telling the truth.
                 She twisted around to face up at him, smiling, sliding her knuckles along the inside of his arm, the inside of his shirt. What do you hate more: your ugly cushions or your very, very hard couch?
                 I knew it. Let’s take you to my bed.
                 She laughed her laugh. The throaty one. No. And it’ll be light so soon. I should’ve gone hours ago.

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                 They took the bridge at 9:03am. Untidy rows of uniformed children were rippling their way up and over the side, throwing their voices up and out at each other. One girl, the one with the orange flower barrette, dropped another’s arm and stomped her feet—a happy, convulsive stomp that shook her spine all the way up.
                 The sewer was at the end of the tunnel. Time now for the perverse gawking, the little game that had silently become theirs by gradual degrees. (This morning’s line-up, folks, for your viewing pleasure, with no further ado....) Four women with headed laundry bundles moving in on it from the right, two workmen slapping themselves dry, and just one lucky prominently-elbowed fellow already squatting and splashing.

                 Their Driver never played. Not even one little look. Never ever ever.

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                 They’d taken her, and all the other teachers, to the circus. It was after the trapeze artists and before the bicycles when they brought out the dancing bears. They were much too small for their faces, and their fur was so patchy and discoloured, that, at first, she thought they were just people dressed in old skins. Two of them, one in a frilly pink skirt and one in shiny purple shorts. Elizabethan frills around their necks. Their handlers, a lady handler and a man handler, jerked them about with the chains around their necks. It was when she heard the one in the purple skirt make the first grunting, moaning after a hard jerk that she realized they were real. The real bears spun and shook hands and went through hoops after the dogs and waltzed with their handlers—up on their back legs, always on their back legs. The handlers cracked out short, black whips if they tried to let their front paws down.
                 This part, the standing up part, was the funniest.
                 Ha, ha, ha, laughed the crowd. Ha, ha, ha, laughed everyone she came with. They look just like they’re us. But they’re not us. They’re just pretending to be us. Ha, ha, ha. Inside her ribs started to feel cold and sick. The one in the shorts wet himself—the wet spreading out to make the purple darker.
                 She was crying. And because the crying felt so ridiculous, she started pressing all her camera’s buttons.

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                 At 9:06am, they passed the painting painters, painters painting with red paint. The letters were the same as they had always been, up and down across the wooden banner. But new paint, new, very red paint tracing over the letters again.
                 Kate snapped the string that wrapped around her folder. Do you think Paulo’s fucking Tina?
                 What—Tina and Stephen?
                 No, remember? Tony said he’s not fucking Stephen. He asked him.
                 He so has to be—I mean, why would they...?
                 I know. Look—it’s the second day those stalls haven’t been set up. They must be cracking down.
                 Maybe they just made them move.
                 No I bet they’re gone. Can’t let that get out of hand.
                 Still can’t believe that whole Juan and Bridget story. Grade A filthbag.
                 Grade A creeper filthbag. Now was she walking to the toilet or was he in the toilet.
                 In the toilet. The ladies’. Just hanging outside the stalls, waiting for her. (She could picture his fingers spread out between the peeled-paint door frames, his boots sticking to the urine that kept up a constant drool toward the floor drain.)
                 So he basically just said, do you want to have a go at it?
                 Yeah, and she said what, right here in the toilet? I mean, classy. And she said, you’re married and you have a two-year-old kid. And he said well that’s my problem, isn’t it. And that’s when she was pretty much like well, what a lovely offer but I think I might just pass thanks very much anyway.
                 Creeper.

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                 It was the usual cluster around the white plastic tables out back. Paulo’s long, white cigarettes making the rounds, and Mathieu’s vulgarity just getting cranked.
                 How do you get a Moroccan woman pregnant?
                 Anders picked at the label on his Heineken. How?
                 Jerk off on the wall and let the flies do the work.
                 That’s sick. Even for you, that’s sick.
                 She pushed the ash tray towards the middle. Have you guys ever heard of Girls Aloud?
                 Should we have, now?
                 They’re Nicholas’s new favourite. He was playing them when he drove us to the restaurant. Very fine musical acquisition, there. They do come from Newcastle, though, don’t they—so I think there’s a bit of loyalty going on.
                 Paulo tipped his head: What kinds of musics do they sing, Nick?
                 A rather fine, strong blend between the Spice Girls and Bewitched, I’d say. Quality lyrics. The real deep stirring soul kind. Now that’s what the two of you should play for your teachers next time.
                 Kate took a sip. Our teachers—did we tell you they want to take us to the dog restaurant on Thursday?
                 You going to do it?
                 Totally. You have to try it while you’re here, right?
                 Mathieu pushed his lips out and shook his head: I could never. The dogs—man’s friends, right? They save us from the avalanches and they walk us when we’re blind—for years and years and years. You can’t just eat them.
                 The newest arrival in the Unicef crowd—Irene?—said, But I don’t think they see it like that. I think it’s just culture, you know?
               She thought about her teachers, at break time, angling the fans closer against her damp back, pressing a banana in her one hand and a can of syrupy peach juice in the other—round, soft cheeks bobbing eagerly at her as they explained: But we don’t eat the pet dogs. We eat the farm dogs. They raise them on farms. It is very good for helping you bear the heat in the summer. Just try just a little—for the heat.
               We tried all sorts of things at my last posting, Stuart said. Monkey, crocodile—the monkey was a bit of a hard one for some of the girls.
               She pushed her head into Tony’s shoulder. Oh dear, she said, smiling vaguely. I didn’t think that last one would make me so dizzy. I never get dizzy.
               Tony patted her hair. Did you eat? No? Well, it’s because you didn’t eat. You need to eat.
               I’ll eat soon. I’m heading back to my flat soon.
               Sophie pushed back her chair. You should have something now. Will you eat a samosa? I’ll find you a samosa. He has some behind the bar.
               No, no, I’m good—it’s ok, Sophie. But thank you.
               Sophie had the red hair, and the sad, gray eyes. Tonight she was wearing silver cuffs. She was already walking back inside.
               Irene said, Now, which of them is it who’s with the WFP? Her or Juan?
               She is. Juan and their kid are just accompanying her.
               Sophie had two of the samosas on a plate, the corner of one balanced carefully against the other. She leaned over her for just a second when she set them down, skimming a hand against her arm. Sophie’s eyes up close were much too much to look at very long.
               Well, that’s my problem, isn’t it.

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               Their Driver, he couldn’t have done anything else. He jolted and screamed the brakes in time with the scream in her head. The man skidded underneath them like rip tide was sucking him, like rope was pulling him, like he was floating sideways on a too-fast cloud.
               There were two thuds when they drove over him. One. Two. And a crunching. She remembers thinking, at the time, that the crunch must have been the motorbike.
               (Two of them. One, two.) The limbs and heads of the bodies were arranged in the most inhuman of angles—flung and crumpled in ways they never were in life. The woman, she seemed young and pretty under the paste of blood coming out and widening around her head. The little girl leaned and shook against her mother’s middle with everything but one extended hand and her face—her begging face up at them all—wailing her horror out at them all.
               People were gathering, slowly, solemnly, blocking her view of the bloody faces and bringing their faces closer to hers behind the glass. There were so many, and they filled in the holes until they were solid lines all around the car. They just looked in and looked in, all flint and probe.
               A whispering, whimpering sound was coming out of Kate’s mouth.
               The school’s white van was there by 9:21am. Their teachers, all warm and sturdy, pulled them out of the cracked chariot, through the standing bodies, into the white doors, the school doors, the 47 unbloodied smiles of her upturned students—hungry and soft and wide wide open.
               Are you sure you are alright? Can you teach now? Do you need more time? Do you need some water? Here is some water. It is very awful for you. Yes, I’m sure she is alright. Someone took her in a car. Someone will take care of her, yes.
               The children are waiting, if you are ready.

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               It was in her flat that night that she read about Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett dying too. How strange, she thought, those four keeping company. Those four—all today—the world’s ration to death. But, silly, silly. Of course there are so many more empty fleshes than these.
               But she could only picture them, two plus two, floating up in a little circle together, with wisps where their feet should be—like those old comics of Casper.
               (Two coins for the boatman and honeycakes for the dog Cerberus sniffing and wagging along beside him.
               They say there is a displaced mountain, always in the south sunrise, and then nine circles. And you get closer and closer until you get to nine. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine.)
**

 

* Dante, Alghieri. The Divine Comedy, Volume 1. Trans. Cary, Henry Francis. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1914.
** Ibid.

 
This Great Society - Contents

 

This Great Society - Contents