Monday, December 5, 2016

Over the Gate

There was the briefest flicker of sleep, as brief as the intervals between the shafts of light passing through the barred windows of the boxcar as it rumbled along the tracks.  For a moment, the space was open around me and there was no one else in the boxcar except for an old man squatting down in the far corner, huddling close to himself and glaring up at me with one eye from under the brim of his dirty brown cap.  There was a glint of gold as he bared his teeth in the dark.  Then I was jolted awake by a sudden bump on the track, and again there was the tight crowd of bodies crammed into the boxcar all around me with barely room to stand, everyone dressed in rags and smelling of oil and diesel and sweat.

The train came to a stop with a screech and a scrape as the guards tore the doors open and everyone began to pour out.  We unloaded onto an open muddy field beside the tracks, and the ground rose to the gate of the camp far across the field.  The inscription over the gate was wrought in black iron against the grey sky, and my eyes rose to it like a beacon.  Work would keep me free.  Work would keep me alive.  I had to find work in this place.  The guards flanking the doors of the boxcar fired their guns into the air as a warning to urge us all to make our way up the hill.  People were crying and confused; a few slipped and fell into the mud never to rise again.  The guards hollered inarticulate noises at us, but we understood well enough that the next shots wouldn't be fired into the air.

We gathered together into a loose group and struggled through the mud up towards the gate.  A woman next to me was fiercely gripping a handful of the back of her husband's coat, trying to drag him up the hill with her.  He coughed and groaned, trying to keep up.  One of the guards fired a bullet squarely into his back.  He grunted and dropped to his knees and spit a mouthful of blood into his white beard.  The guard yelled at the woman to let go of the coat and keep moving.  In shock, she let go of her husband and his body dropped and everyone scurried over him, the soles of their shoes and boots smashing his face into the mud, until he was left in a heap behind us.  I kept my eyes on the gate and tried to stay focused.

There was a big open yard inside the gate.  I passed a cluster of sick inmates.  They were extremely emaciated and they were pale to the point of being white and they had purplish rings around their eyes and bloody gums and lips and teeth.  I covered my mouth with my hand and steered clear of them.  I wouldn't be able to work if I got sick.  Across the yard there was smoke from something burning, and as I came closer, I saw that it was a pile of burning bodies and there were inmates shoveling body parts back onto the pile that had fallen loose from it, severed arms and feet still wearing tattered shoes.  The smoke hung low over the yard, creating a fog that obscured its edges, and everywhere loose groups of guards and dejected inmates wandered in and out of the vapors.

Only a few feet from the burning pile, there was a long table that had been brought out and set up in the yard.  There were a number of young ladies sitting around this table attending to the camp's paperwork.  They all wore dark skirts and grey sweaters and they had short bobbed hair.  They looked like they were young students, perhaps.  They seemed indifferent, or maybe even unaware, of the burning pile of bodies or any of the general misery surrounding them only a few feet from where they sat, as though they were untouched by it, as though there was a wall between their lives and ours, as though it was all happening to creatures of an entirely different species than their own and they could simply look at it and shrug.

I approached this table with my hat in my hand and I asked about work.  A girl at the head of the table was filing index cards into a metal box.  She glanced up at me briefly with contempt and she called out to someone and then she went back to filing her cards without looking up again.  Another girl came out of a small barracks hut nearby, and she told the girl at the table to show me where the living quarters were at.  The girl flung the cards down on the table and yelled, "Come on!" at me as she got up and started away without looking to see if I was following.  I fixed my hat back onto my head and shuffled after her.

She led me down a gravel road to a large brick building near the fence line at the back of the camp.  It was getting dark now, and the yellow arc lights had turned on.  I could see the loops of barbed wire along the top of the fence.  The gravel road descended down a sharp slope as we came around the back of the building, and here the girl stopped and flipped her hand at the building and said, "Over there."  I hesitated for a moment, glancing between the girl and the brick wall before me.  I wondered if I should say something to her, reach out to her in some way, ask her for help, make some sort of human appeal to her.  She waited for a second, I suppose to see if I could manage the rest of the way, and then she grunted and rolled her eyes and turned and trudged back up the road away from me.

I circled around the back of the building and climbed up the hill on the other side.  There were two old men in rags sitting at the top.  They barely noticed me as I passed them.  They just stared at the grass and rocked back and forth clutching their stomachs.  There was a dark alleyway along the side of the building and I could see the stone steps that led up to the door down at the far end.  As I was crossing down the alley, I heard noises from within the building, things being knocked over and someone screaming and whimpering in pain.  I stopped with my hand on the door.  I didn't want to go in there, but I didn't know what else to do.

I cowered there in dark alley, not wanting to be seen, and listened to the beating going on inside.  The sound was moving from room to room, and I followed it back down to the other end of the alley.  There was a metal vent protruding from the corner of the wall there, and I came close to it to hear.  There was a sharp crack and a thump and this horrible wet hacking sound, and a sudden gush of blood and vomit dumped out of the vent and went all over me.  The two men from the hill rushed over and started ripping my coat off of me.  Once they had it off of me, they each took an end of it, and they started licking and sucking the vomit off of it, eagerly tugging the coat back and forth between them.

I backed away from them and ran back down the alley to the steps and the door to the building, no longer caring what was waiting for me in there.  Inside I found myself in a small dim room.  There were guards sitting around a table.  There was no light in the room aside from the arc lights outside shining through the window beside the door.  I froze for a second.  They all stared at me.  I felt like I might have gone through the wrong door, but there was no question of turning back and leaving.  So I told them that I wanted work.  They laughed, as though I had made a joke, but they consulted among themselves, and finally one of them told me to follow him up the stairs.

The stairs spiraled around and led to a door at the top.  The guard opened the door and put his hand on my back and pushed me roughly ahead of him into the room.  Inside there was a dark, low-ceilinged chamber, softly lit by a yellow night light plugged in near the floor.  There was a man sitting on the edge of the far side of the bed, getting dressed in a uniform.  He glanced back over his shoulder at us.  The yellow light gleamed at two small points in his eyes.  The guard who had pushed me into the room addressed the man as "Commandant", and he told him that I was there to be his new aide.

The Commandant indicated an armchair near the window and told me to sit and then paid no more attention to me.  He finished buttoning his sleeves and straightening his uniform and then he rushed out of the room with the guard and locked the door behind him.  I could hear them descending the spiral stairs.  I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do now.  They hadn't left me any instructions.  It was a nice room, though, comfortable and warm, high above the misery below.  There was a canopy around the bed decorated with moons and stars and there was a spiral rug on the floor with a discarded pair of slippers on it.  Down in the yard, music suddenly started pouring from the loudspeakers, faintly covering the crack of gunfire and scattered sounds of people screaming.  I came away from the window and started poking around the room.  The closet was stuffed with different suits and uniforms, and tucked away in the back was an old cigar box filled with discarded medals and other mementos.  I sat down cross-legged and laid each piece out on the floor.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Bird Show

On a bright cool morning I went down to the city park with a small wooden table and a wooden chair under my arm.  There were already a few curious onlookers watching as I set up the table and chair at a spot where a couple of the foot paths came together, where I knew that a lot of people would pass by throughout the day.  I placed an old cracked coffee cup at the head of the table as I sat down in the chair.  There was a little show that I would put on here at the park every day.  The coffee cup was filled with black flower petals and I would dump them out and scatter them across the table.  Before long, a bird would land on the table and set to work picking up the petals one by one in its beak and dropping them back into the coffee cup until it was filled again.  Then it would turn to me, dancing back and both from one foot to the other, until I gave it a little piece of cracker from the inside pocket of my coat, and then it would fly back to the trees holding the cracker in its beak.  Then I would dump the coffee cup back out onto the table and go through the whole thing again.

People stopped throughout the day to watch.  They weren't expecting to see anything like this.  They would slow down and be drawn in as they went by.  Some of them would give me a few dollars.  Some would give me the change from their pockets.  Some just watched and nodded and moved on.  People with kids would always stop.  They would hold the kid back by the shoulder and they knew they all had to stay perfectly still so that they wouldn't spook the bird.  The kids would watch without blinking, holding their breath, peeking out from the tails of their mothers' coats.  The only real trick on my part was that I had developed a rapport with the birds here at the park.  I was always gentle with them and they had learned that I would never hurt them and possibly they had passed the word around to all the other birds.  It was always different birds that came and went.  I hadn't trained any of them, but they all somehow seemed to know.  The news had gotten around.

In the afternoon an older woman, passing by alone, stopped to watch.  She waited until the show was done and the bird had flown, and then she shook her head and said that that was amazing and that it reminded her of how she had met her husband.  When she was a child she had seen a bird outside her window picking up petals and fallen leaflets, just as my bird had done, and somehow she knew that this was an omen.  She knew that someday her future husband would be as careful and industrious as this bird had been at its work.  Years later, when she was a young woman, a violent storm had blown through her town.  She went to the house of some friends to take shelter, and the man she was dating was supposed to meet her there, but the hours went by and he never showed up.  She was worried about him, but she was angry too.  She stayed at the rain lashed window, watching for him, feeling her throat tighten as she saw the broken branches of a tree blow down the street. Finally, the storm began to subside and a few of her friends ventured from the house, and one of them came back telling her that they'd found her boyfriend.  He knew she was mad and he was afraid to come into the house.  She found him in the yard, standing sheepishly under a tree.  She started tearfully yelling at him, asking him where he had been, asking him how he could do this to her.  Suddenly, in this middle of her tirade, she noticed that he had perked up and he seemed to be looking at something just past her.  She turned and noticed that there was black bird on her shoulder, pecking at her sweater trying to get her attention.  It had stayed there all the while that she had been yelling.  She knew that this was the sign, and that this man was her future husband.

She was a bit teary eyed as she finished her story.  She gave me five dollars and patted me on the head and moved on.  I took up the coffee cup of petals again, gave it a little shake and then poured it out on the table.  It wasn't long before another bird came.  Sometimes the birds would even let me pet them, and I gave this one a little scratch on the back.  He was a tad smaller than some of the other birds and he had to perch on the handle of the cup to reach over the lip of it and drop the petals in.  As I watched as him hop on and off the handle and gather the petals one by one, a cloud passed overhead and the day dimmed for a moment and brightened again as the cloud passed by.  A breeze blew through.  There was no one around.  The bird paused and jerked his head and turned his dark eye on me, regarding me as I watched him.

Just as he had hopped back onto the handle of the cup, a piercing squeal rang out behind me.  Two girls had come down the path, and when they saw the bird perched on the cup, one of them had let out the squeal because of how cute the bird looked.  The squeal threw the bird completely off balance.  He teetered a little bit on the handle, and as he flew off, he tipped the cup over and off the edge of the table.  The cup shattered into pieces as it hit the ground.  There were petals scattered among the broken pieces.  There were petals still scattered on the table.  There was a great deal of commotion and tweeting in the trees.  The news was getting around.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

View from a New World

The Earth had exploded, and a new, smaller planet had formed in the solar system.  A small group of children and I were the only survivors, and we had managed to somehow migrate to this new planet.  We lived simply, in tents and around campfires.  All the skills of humanity would have to be relearned.  The oldest child was named Adam.  He had a bright smile and a dark face and curly hair.  I called him aside from the rest of the camp to show him the cosmos and our new place in it.  We could see it all laid out at our feet.  The sun was more distant than before, and the broken remnants of the Earth had formed into a halo of debris around it.  It was like an obscurely glowing bulb shaded in a cloud of dust.  

But the orbit of this new planet was more elliptical, almost like that of a comet, and as we gazed at the cosmos, we watched ourselves fall in towards the sun.  It brightened as we approached, and the sky lightened to blue and then almost white, and the trees around us shot suddenly into full bloom, ranging through the seasons in moments.  We could almost feel the planet shift under our feet, and the sun tilted in the sky, and then we were flung back out away into the darkness of the solar system.  The planet rolled on its axis and the dimming sun fell below the horizon.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Store Policy

My wife and I were in a store in the mall where you could have you own custom jewelry made.  I decided that it would be nice to have a necklace made for my wife.  She picked out several roughly cut jewels and crystals from bins scattered around the store, turquoise stones and jade and amber, as well as a couple of engraved metal pendants.  I took them to the counter where they made the jewelry, and I explained to the man and woman working there how I wanted the pieces strung onto the necklace.  I wanted them arranged so that there would be a metal pendant between each different jewel, separating them.

I handed the man all the jewels and pendants, and he cupped them carefully in the palm of his hand.  He put on a visor and an eyepiece and he fed the jewels and pendants into some greasy old contraption and bent intently over his work.  I figured that it would be a while, so I told him that we'd be out shopping at the other stores. He just shook his head without lifting it from his work.  He said that the necklace would be ready in only a minute or two.  He said that by the time we got up to the front counter, the necklace would be done and waiting for us.

The woman working with him escorted us up to the front.  She handed us a large shopping bag filled with pine cones.  This was apparently some complimentary gift that they gave to all of their customers with their purchases.  We weren't sure what we were supposed to do with a bag full of pine cones, and we were even a little embarrassed by our own confusion, caught in that intimidating moment of uncertainty you feel in a store that's above your class.  But we thanked the woman and I tucked the bag of pine cones under my arm and carried it awkwardly to the front.  Just as the man had promised, the cashier already had our necklace ready and bagged at the front counter.

We paid the cashier and went to leave, but my wife wanted to see the finished necklace and she was already opening the bag before we were even out of the store.  A confused wrinkle formed between her eyes as she pulled out a coat hanger that had a tiny pink sweater and a red scarf and bow combination arranged on it.  This wasn't a necklace.  We were about to take it back up to the counter to complain, when it occurred to me that the necklace may be concealed under the sweater and scarf, that maybe it had been packaged this way to give the customer some sense of what the necklace would look like when they were wearing it.  Like the pine cones, this was just another bewildering anomaly in foreign territory.  We didn't want to look like complete fools.

My wife rummaged around under the neckline of the sweater until she felt the loose edges of the jewels and pendants.  She pulled the necklace up and out over the scarf, and the dark stones gleamed in the store's soft lighting.  But she still wasn't sure that this cleared things up.  Maybe she had been given the sweater and scarf by mistake.  I suggested going back up to the counter and asking the cashier about it.  My wife nodded and agreed.  But when she got to the counter, instead of just asking the cashier outright, she proceeded on the assumption that the sweater and scarf were part of the packaging, and she framed her question as a complaint, saying, "I don't think that this is the right outfit to go with this necklace."

The cashier stared impassively at my wife until she was finished and then he picked up a radio that he had on the counter.  He held eye contact with her the whole time he spoke.  "I have a customer here requesting the urban presentation rather than the floral presentation."  He waited a beat for their response, which we couldn't hear, then he formed an acidic smile and told my wife, "It'll be just a moment."  We turned as a tall man from store security approached us.  The cashier explained that we were being taken into custody temporarily because we were suspected of stealing store merchandise.  By this, he meant the scarf and sweater.  Since we had just established that it wasn't the packaging that we preferred, by some strange logic this meant that we had just confessed to trying to steal it.

We protested vehemently, of course.  Loudly.  Passionately.  The cashier expressed every sympathy he could for our plight, but he told us that we would have to go to their holding area until the matter could be cleared up.  The tall man from store security took us to a room in the back where there were a number of mattresses laid out on the floor with people sitting on them or laying on them in clusters, their faces despondent and glum.  They didn't even look up as we came in.  They had given up any hope that anyone had come to retrieve them, that there had been any new progress in their cases.  The tall man walked us down to an empty mattress at the far end of the room.  He pointed to it and told us to wait there.

When he had left us, I took a seat on the mattress, but my wife stayed standing, ready to start pacing like a caged animal.  I asked her why she had handled things that way, why she had gotten us into this mess, why she hadn't tried to just clarify the facts instead of using them like blunt instruments from a psychological toolbox.  She had nothing to really say in her defense beyond the obvious point that she had no way of knowing that things were going to end up like this.  Fair enough.  I couldn't really argue with that.  I shook my head and sighed deeply and settled back on the mattress for the long, long wait.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Off the Runway

I had to catch a flight back home in the morning.  I stayed up all night the night before with some old friends of mine at their small cottage house.  We sat around the table in the kitchen drinking coffee and playing cards and telling all the old stories from childhood.  When the morning came, the rooms of the house led directly to the airport terminal.  I passed through a doorway and I was in the waiting area outside the gate.  There was a bank of chairs along the wall with a tall lamp beside them.  The last chair was open and I flopped down and opened a paperback book that I had with me.  But I had no real interest in the book, so I put it aside and reached over and clicked off the lamp and stretched out my legs and waited.

I had almost dozed off by the time they announced the boarding call.  I yawned and got up on stiff legs.  I was almost too tired to feel nervous about the flight.  That was why I had purposely stayed up all night anyway, really.  There was a moment, though, when I was seized with a sudden panic that rushed through me like a burst of flame.  I broke out in a sweat and I was suddenly wide awake.  My legs went rubbery and almost gave out beneath me.  The moment passed quickly, though.  I had to get home.  I had to take the plane and I knew I'd be fine.  I showed my ticket at the gate and made my way up the ramp into the plane.

I buckled myself into my seat, feeling tired again and ready to sleep through the whole flight.  I looked down the aisle and I realized that I could see all the way up to the cockpit from my seat.  There was a woman there at the controls with a headset on.  She was wearing a light blue uniform shirt with wings on the sleeves.  I didn't like that.  I didn't like being able to see the pilot in all of their human uncertainty.  I decided that this must be some second rate airline to put me on a plane where you could see the pilot.  I didn't like this at all.

But we were already starting away from the gate and moving towards the runway.  I checked my seatbelt again and squirmed a little in my seat.  When we got over to the runway, I braced myself and held on tight to the armrest.  That moment of takeoff, when the plane is picking up speed down the runway, is always the most anxious part of the flight for me.  That hard feeling of the ground.  That rush of acceleration.  But this was surprisingly mild.  The wheels felt fairly gentle rushing along the pavement.  There was even a second where we slowed down a little, like pumping the brakes.  There was a square, man-made pond just beyond the runway and we lifted up and soared out over the blue water.

But the pilot wasn't happy with the takeoff.  Even though we were in the air and clear, she wasn't satisfied with it.  I could see her up there shaking her head.  She came over the loudspeaker and told us that we had to turn back.  "We got to do that again.  We didn't get enough speed," she explained.  We were in the air, but we wouldn't be able to gain altitude.  She banked hard and circled back over the pond, back towards the runway.  Everyone groaned and grunted throughout the cabin.

As the wheels touched back down on the pavement, there was a sharp stutter as they made contact.  This sent us into a skid.  The plane slid sideways and the wheels gave out beneath it and it began to flip end over end.  People were tossed all over the cabin, and I heard a hard crunch as someone's head slammed against a wall.  When we finally came to a stop, people and seats were piled everywhere.  I was completely unhurt, though, as were most of the people around me.  Mostly there were just sighs of aggravation and exclamations of relief.  "Whew!  What a landing!", someone yelled.  The plane had broken up into pieces all around us.

It turned out that the all the trouble had been caused by a couple of people who had boarded the plane at the last minute.  That was that brief second of braking that I had felt on the runway.  The pilot had slowed down to let them on board, and the whole thing had completely thrown her off.  These last minute passengers had been arguing from the moment they got on board.  They were strangers who had gotten into a fight in the terminal over something and they had made each other late for the plane.  They argued as they got on the plane.  They yelled through the takeoff.  The bickered through the landing.  They complained through the crash.  They were even griping with each other now in the wreckage.  Somewhere across the cabin, someone climbed out from under a chair, dragging a broken leg, and they hollered down, "How about you just shut up already?"