“What Are You Afraid Will Happen to You?” by David Bassano

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The waiting room at Batavia looked like that of a business suite except for the walk-through metal detector next to the front desk. It was obviously a new building and very clean. Lena and I signed in at the desk and passed through the metal detector after handing the guard our keys; then we sat and waited. This was my third visit to the federal detention center and Lena’s first. She usually went to Marcy, a state prison a few hours to the east, but today we had a request for a Russian speaker at Batavia. Since I was already going to do another interview, we shared the ride.

A guard entered and called my name. He said he had a face-to-face meeting room available if I preferred it to the Plexiglas window and intercom and I told him I did. Lena waited for her interview while the guard led me down a hallway through two doors that he locked behind us. He unlocked another door into a small interview room, barely large enough for the table and two plastic chairs. On the other side of the table was a door with a window and I could see guards and prisoners in the room beyond.

The guard pointed to an unlabeled button on the wall. “If he starts gettin’ stupid with ya, hit this alarm,” he said, then stepped out and locked me in the room.

I sat at the table with my notebook in front of me and waited for the prisoner. I knew his name, his Alien Number, and that he was an Egyptian citizen. What little I knew about the situation in Egypt came from the country report my organization provided and from The CIA Factbook.

Another guard unlocked and opened the door across from the table. I stood and Khalid entered, wearing the blue jumpsuit designating an immigration offender. Those in blue were lucky to be separated, at this facility anyway, from orange-suited felons. He was shorter than I was and quite thin, with short jet-black hair and a well-trimmed beard. The guard locked him in.

“Mr. Qandeel?” I asked, hoping I pronounced it correctly.

“Yes.”

“Pleased to meet you, sir,” I said. We shook hands. I told him my name and that of the refugee advocacy NGO I was representing, and that I was neither police nor government.

“You contacted our organization, yes?”

“Yes,” he said with a bright smile.

“We’d like some information about your case so we can provide documentation for when you go before the judge to request asylum.” We sat and I asked, “Are you comfortable using English?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Do you mind if I take notes? Everything will be kept confidential within the organization.”

“Yes, that is fine.”

I opened the notebook. “Let’s talk about how you got here.”

“How far back?”

“What happened in Egypt?”

“I was a journalist in Cairo,” he said. “Working for the newspaper al-‘Araby. My editor was killed by the police because he wrote stories that criticized the government.”

“When was this?”

“Last May. The fifteenth, I think. His name was Muhammad Agiza.”

“Was his murder reported in the papers?”

“Oh yes. It was in all the major newspapers.”

I made a note to find the article. “What did your editor say in his story?”

“He criticized the death penalty and other things. He said the government was committing abuses in the name of fighting Islamist terrorists.”

“Do you remember the date of the story?” I asked.

“Um…no.”

“How long after the story was he killed?”
“A couple of weeks. He had written things like that before, you know. And it was not the first time he had trouble with the police.”

“What else happened?”

“One time they came to his house and took him to jail for a week. They said they were looking for connections with the Islamists. Another time they shut down the newspaper because he wrote about police abuse.”

“Do you remember if the editor ever reported these problems to a human rights organization?”

“Oh yes. He was friends with a lot of people in them in Egypt.”

“Which ones?”

“Uh…how do you say it in English…the Egyptian Association Against Torture was one. And there was one that helped victims of violence. I think it was called Nadim.”

“How do you know your editor was killed by police?” I asked.

“Police came to the office one day. They took him away. They didn’t say why. The next day someone driving to work found him along the road. They had stripped him and beat him to death. His hands were tied,” he said, putting his hands behind his back to demonstrate. “Beaten all over his head. They left him to die.”

“Did anyone complain to the police?”

“His family did. The police said they questioned him and then let him go. They said they never beat him. They said well maybe he was robbed or something.”

“Why did you leave Egypt?”

“I started getting phone calls. Sometimes at the office and sometimes at home. They said that if I didn’t quit the newspaper I would be killed.”

“They didn’t identify themselves?”

“No.”

“You felt the threats were serious?”

“Oh yes. I wrote the same kind of stories as my editor. I worked with him on a few stories, too.”

“Did you report this to anyone?”

“I made a report to the police. Just for…um…formality. And I told one of the human rights organizations. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. We filed a complaint with the government.”

“Then what happened?”

“They kept calling. They said they knew I called the police. That’s how I knew they were the police. They said they would kill me in a week. So I left.”

“Where did you go?”

“First Rome, then Paris. I got a tourist visa for the U.S. there. Then I flew to New York.”

“What happened in New York?”

“When I was in customs, they asked me the reason for my visit. I said I was seeking political asylum in the United States. They arrested me and put me in here.”

“How long have you been here?”

“About two months.”

“Did you commit any serious crimes when you were in Egypt?”

“Just criticizing the government.”

The next question always seemed stupid after such a story but it was one that the immigration judge would want answered.

“What are you afraid will happen to you if you return to Egypt?”

He looked a little surprised. “I’m afraid the police will kill me. Like they killed my boss.”

I looked back on my notes and asked more questions to fill in missing information – dates, places, and names. Details came back to him as we talked. They hadn’t given us a time limit and it wasn’t a difficult interview. Sometimes, if they’ve actually been tortured, they’d rather not discuss the particulars with strangers.

“You’ve had your Master Calendar Hearing, right?”

“What’s that?”

“You went before a judge?”

“Yes,” he said. “I told him I’m seeking political asylum.”

“Did he give you one of these?” I held up a blank Form I-589.

“Yes, I have that.”

“Have you submitted it yet?”

“No, not yet.”

“Okay. When you do, make sure you apply for asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the Convention Against Torture. You can apply for all three at the same time.”

“Okay.”

“Did they give you a date for your Merits Hearing?”

“I can’t remember the exact date. It’s about three months from now.”

“Good. We have plenty of time to prepare your case. Usually people don’t call us until it’s very late and we have only a few days to find information. Have you retained a lawyer?”

“No. The judge gave me a list of lawyers to call. The ones who might work for free. None of them would take my case. One of them said that nobody ever wins asylum cases from inside prison.”

I made a note of it though it was no surprise. “Keep trying to find a lawyer. It really helps your chances if you have representation.”

“Why doesn’t the court provide a lawyer for me?”

“You’re a foreigner.”

“Can your organization represent me?”

“I’m afraid not. We’re not lawyers.”

“Okay.”

“Here’s what I’m gonna do. I’ll submit all this information to my organization. A researcher will get supporting evidence to help you when you go before the judge. They’ll get general information about the human rights situation in Egypt, particularly about persecution of opposition journalists. And they’ll try to get any newspaper reports of your editor’s death and get them translated for the judge. They’ll try to get confirmation that you worked for the paper so that you have facts to back up your story. I’m also going to photocopy these notes so you have the details for your hearing. It’s all about details. You have to tell the judge exactly what happened, with dates and places. You have to tell him that you’re afraid you’ll be killed if you’re returned to Egypt and why.”

“I understand. Do you think I should have a translator?”

“No. Your English is excellent.”

He smiled at that.

“I’ve been asking you a lot of questions,” I said. “Do you have any questions for me?”
“Yes. Why am I in prison?”

“Well…it’s like this. If they let you into the country after you told them you want political asylum, and you aren’t granted asylum, they’re afraid you won’t report for deportation.”

“But there are people in this country legally who are applying for asylum from outside prison. I had a legal visa and passport. Why do they let some people apply for asylum from outside prison and not others?”

“Those people told the Immigration officers at the airport that they were here for tourism or school. They never mentioned asylum so ICE missed its chance to detain them. They filed for asylum from their hotel room or someplace.”

“So I’m in prison because I told the truth. They lied and they’re free.”

“Yes. I’m sorry you have to be here.”

He looked at the tabletop and nodded.

“Are the guards treating you well here?”

“Oh yes, they’re okay to us.”

“They keep you separated from the criminals, right?”

“Yes. We’re never with them.”

“Good.”

I checked my notes once more to make sure I hadn’t missed anything and told him he’d hear from the organization soon and to make sure he filed all documents and supporting evidence at least ten days before his hearing. We shook hands and he thanked me. I knocked on the window for the guards to put him back.

Lena was another fifteen minutes with her interview, having started later. I looked over my notes in the waiting room until she arrived; then we drove to downtown Batavia for lunch. We found a pub on Ellicott Street.

“How was yours?” she asked.

“Went very well. Journalist from Egypt. The police threatened to kill him.”

“He must’ve done something right.”

“Yours?”

“Trade unionist in Russia,” she said. “Making trouble for one of the new energy companies.”

The young woman brought our food.

“Batavia’s not a bad place,” said Lena between bites.

“No. They could be in Krome.”

“I hear that place is a nightmare.”

“Yeah.”

“How long before his hearing?”

“He has time,” I said.

“Hope they both get good judges.”

I laughed. “A good immigration judge?”

“I know,” she said.

“Did I tell you about the hearing I went to when I was in training? Here’s this Guatemalan campesino in front of the judge, smiling because he’s nervous and has no clue what’s going on. So the immigration judge says to the translator, ‘Why is he smirking in my court? Is he smirking at me?’ And she throws him back into prison for another six months until another date comes up.”

“You don’t need much education to be one of those judges.”

“No wonder the lawyers won’t represent these guys pro bono,” I said.

“They know what their chances are. Why do they wanna waste their time losing?”

“I know.”

“You’re not eating.”

“Not really hungry.”

“Eat,” she said. “You’re not the one in prison.”

That night in bed I thought about Khalid waiting for his hearing with his prison food and furniture bolted to the floor so the inmates couldn’t use them as weapons. I wondered if he was awake too, thinking about being deported to Egypt, handcuffed to his seat between two escorting ICE officers on a commercial flight and wondering if his family could guess what had happened to him and whether or not the police kept a list at Cairo International. I do not know whether he played it all out in his imagination. He had time on his hands so I think he did. Did he see himself being seized at the airport and driven to that building on Lazoghly Square, the one that people cross the street before passing? Did his sense of humor show him the ICE officers subsequently sitting down to dinner at the Cairo Sheraton?

Once you get to know people it changes things for you although you might wish it didn’t. You couldn’t view them from the safe, intellectual distance of their labels; they became real to you, became people who feel pain like you do. Of course, if you’re involved in such things, you can always quit if you don’t like it, and if you think it would do any good.

 

David Bassano gives history lectures for fun and rent money. He likes bike trails, Paris along the river, and Glenmorangie on the rocks. He wrote a novel called “Trevelyan’s Wager”. Any complaints should be addressed to https://www.facebook.com/davidbassanoauthor/

“The Boy and the Whale” by David Bassano

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“It’s okay to carry metal into the building,” said Father. “Just make sure you leave every last bit in the locker room.”

“Okay,” said Trevor.

Mother finished packing their lunches into cylindrical metal canisters in the kitchen, her morning ritual for many years. She came out to the parlor and placed the canisters, one new and one old and dented, on the end table by the stairs. The news was playing on the screen but the sound was turned down.

Mother stepped in front of her son and examined him minutely. He looked like a young, strong version of her husband, like when they’d met. She was trying not to cry.

“I’m so proud of you!” she said.

Trevor’s father, standing just behind him, smiled and suppressed his own tears.

Trevor squirmed uncomfortably as his mother adjusted his shirt, pulling his collar straight. He didn’t want to stomp on her happiness, so he endured it. I wonder how old a woman needs to be, he thought, before she dotes like this. The younger women didn’t seem to do it very much.

“Thanks, Ma.”

“Now, do your best,” she said. “Don’t let your family down.”

“I won’t, Ma.”

“He’ll be fine,” said Father, looking at his old watch.

The men took up the lunch canisters, slung them over their shoulders by the canvas straps, opened the front door, and fearlessly stepped into the mid-21st century.

“I’ll have a pot roast waiting for you when you get home!” Mother called out the front door.

“Thanks, Ma!” said two generations of men over their shoulders.

###

The men walked silently through the city streets, lunches a-swing at their sides. Their tiny neighborhood, only a few blocks deep, was an old-fashioned suburb, with front and back yards and garages alongside two-story homes. Walk a kilometer in any direction, however, and the landscape changed drastically. To the west lay the gated communities of the chipheads, and to the east sprawled the choking downtown.

The two men continued three blocks to a bus stop, caught the next intracity bus by seconds, and rode just a few minutes to the subway, where already the buildings and streets grew ragged like old clothes or untended gardens, and they took the subway east to the industrial district on the river. The subway was packed, as it was every morning.

After a lurching ride they ascended into the tepid light of downtown. The sidewalks were eroding and fringed with trash, the streets full of rush hour traffic and a haze of poison hanging over the cars. The men walked single-file through the crowd. Everyone stared straight ahead silently, or spoke quietly into the air in mobile conversations, many of them wearing gas masks if they could afford them. The buildings blocked the sunlight except at intersections. The concrete seemed to be slowly melting, falling in small pieces onto the sidewalks like ancient ruins decaying, softening the hard edges.

They saw a limousine go by at the intersection as a corporate helicopter beat the air overhead, streaking downtown.

Bastards, thought Trevor. Well, screw ‘em. They can’t touch me anymore. He pulled his posture straight and strode with greater energy.

The chipheads called all the rest “cavemen” — those who didn’t have implants, who couldn’t afford them, who were frozen at an earlier stage of evolution. The microchips implanted under the skull, hardwired to the frontal lobes, converted a person into a superbeing, claimed the advertisements. Engineers had, thirty years hence, cracked nature’s code by creating a seamless interface between the brain’s neurological communication and the microprocessor, permitting perfect brain-computer interaction. It allowed for recording and recall of experiences, instant complex calculations, and sat-link access to databases, spreadsheets, and even the Internet — all the information experienced as pure knowledge, as if the user had always known these things. It produced workers who were able to mesh with mainframes, with each other, with the entire organization, at the speed of thought and with perfect accuracy. And those who could not afford the expensive procedure quickly learned that the world quietly, guiltlessly, discarded them. Of course the corporations only wanted the most efficient worker in this highly-competitive world. Efficiency is the driver of progress; who would dare to argue? HR departments wanted to know what RAM was under your skull and what OS your brain was running. There were court cases over employment discrimination, about what you could ask, but everyone knew it was obvious. What is twenty-two thousand, four hundred forty-seven point oh-two times four to the twenty-seventh power and one-third? Anyone who couldn’t answer immediately was out, CV and dreams deleted.

The line between the large lower and shrinking middle classes was indelibly set by technology. Without the money for the implant, one could never make the money to get the implant. The division between chipheads and cavemen was practically permanent. And to be a caveman in the mid-21st century was a difficult and monotonous sentence to bear. Nature was angry at man and reminded him daily. The summers grew unbearably hot, killing the weak and poor, and the storms angrier, lashing the coasts like elemental demons. Crops failed, forests were devoured by pests. Food and rent steadily grew more expensive, and the cavemen saw their employment options whither as they were replaced by machines or chipheads. You were either in or out, and it was bad to be out.

Father and son went through the factory gates and Trevor presented his security ID for the first time. A few chipheads came through in their suits, but most drove through a different gate in expensive cars. None of them entered the double doors that Trevor and his father now used. Other people in street clothes joined them. They walked together through the gray halls, company notices and labor laws adorning the walls, to a crowded locker room. Trevor found his locker, his name label pristine on the metal door; he removed his crisp new uniform while dozens of other men did the same with a lot of chatter. The uniform was cobalt blue, with gold stripes down the arms and legs, and Trevor’s name on the chest above the golden, sun-like corporate logo. The black work boots had plastic eyelets and a thick plastic toe cap, his belt a plastic buckle. He left everything else in the locker.

“You Gottlieb’s son?” asked the man next to him. “Welcome aboard. I’m Copland.”

“Pleased ta meetcha. I’m Trevor.” They shook hands.

“Me and your dad go way back. Lemme know if you need anything.”

“Thanks.”

Trevor met his father by the older man’s locker. Father introduced him to those who passed by. Trevor had never shaken hands with so many people.

“He carryin’ metal?” asked one man.

“‘Course not,” grumbled Father.

A short, balding, roly-poly man walked up to Trevor and wordlessly waved a handheld device over Trevor’s body. Trevor held still.

“That’s Mr. Sagget, the shift supervisor,” said Father.

“Oh.”

Sagget slapped Trevor on the shoulder. “Welcome, son.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Father introduced a few more men to Trevor, and then Sagget called out in a singsong, like a conductor on a platform:

“Here we go, here we go!”

The chatter quieted down, dozens of locker doors slammed shut, and the men assembled in a line at the exit. Sagget led the column through the hallways, where at a junction they were joined by the women coming from their own locker room, but in uniforms identical to the men’s. The column stepped onto a people-mover that took them eighty or ninety meters to a corridor ending in large black double doors. On the right-hand wall by the doors was a timeclock and a rack of timecards.

Soon Sagget, who was watching the clock, called out, “Go, go!” as if he was commanding parachutists at a plane door. The workers filed up to the card rack, found theirs in alphabetical order, and stabbed it into the clock as Sagget watched. Trevor noticed that the clock was analog, like his father’s prized watch, and that it made a loud chunk when he dipped his card into it.

The workers opened the black doors and walked through. Trevor entered the room but stopped in his tracks at the sight. He would have stood there, gawking, had the man behind not walked into him.

It was a large room, at least twenty-five meters high; it was not lit like a factory, with harsh light, but softly, like a theater or cathedral. There was a catwalk halfway up the walls with scattered elevated booths that looked like clubhouses in a stadium.

The floor was taken up by what Trevor knew could only be The Whale. No photograph existed of this machine, as it was the greatest trade secret in the world; in any case, no camera, film or digital, could work in this room.

The Whale was about sixty-five meters long, and Trevor could see where it got its nickname. It looked very much like a beached whale — a baleen, specifically — with its long curves and striations. The gray surface glowed slickly under the diffuse light. It looked to Trevor more like a gray marble sculpture than a machine, and seemed strangely alive.

Trevor knew the basics of The Whale and its purpose; everyone did. The effects of climate change had turned everyone into true believers — better late than never — and this in turn drove a political movement to end fossil fuel use and freeze greenhouse gas emissions. That led to a vast global investment in all forms of renewable energy. Geothermal was among them, but the methods of converting the earth’s heat into electricity were only half as efficient as wind power. A new system of advanced thermopiles was developed to exponentially improve geothermal efficiency, but it required a next-generation semiconductor that was not produced in sufficient quantities to fill the demand.

Mass-producing these semiconductors required a machine that could generate an extremely powerful magnetic field, one strong enough to “turn atoms into a liquid,” as Trevor had once read. The result was a semiconductor composed of an exotic material that was impossible in nature. It subsequently allowed for the efficient thermopiles that the world now wanted so badly.

The Whale was the only device in the world that could create these advanced semiconductors in bulk, and New Sun Corporation the only supplier. Mankind needed this machine, this room, and the people who worked in it, a fact not lost on the unionized workers.

Trevor noticed a line of workers exiting through another set of double doors like a religious procession.

“That’s the night shift,” said a middle-aged man from behind Trevor. “The Whale works twenty-four hours a day, except for breaks. That’s when we do maintenance on it.”

Trevor turned to face him. “I’m Bill Hiram, your new supervisor,” said the man with a smile. He held out a broom. “Welcome to the bottom, where everyone starts.”

Trevor took the broom with a grin. He already knew what his job would be.

He joined five other young men in sweeping and mopping the vast floor space and dusting the racks of inscrutable electronics along the walls. Panels lined the bottom of The Whale, where more experienced workers tended the controls. As he swept around the operators’ feet, he noticed that the gauges and meters on the panels were all analog; there were no digital displays. Instead of touch screens, the controls featured glowing buttons that flashed in many colors, reminding Trevor of a Christmas tree. It was all dust-free and polished.

The cleaning crew climbed a narrow staircase that went up The Whale, allowing them to wash and wax the entire machine, which they did with the care of a fire company cleaning their engine. Trevor looked down and saw the production teams feeding long trays of “raw” semiconductors onto a conveyor belt that drew them into The Whale to be converted into a considerable profit.

Trevor saw his father having a quick word with Hiram before calling up to him.

“C’mon, son, I’ll show you the control room for The Whale.”

Trevor climbed down to the floor, then followed his father to the flight of steps that went up the wall to the “clubhouse” hanging fifteen meters above the floor.

The control panels in the small space were vastly more complex than those on The Whale itself, but were still entirely analog. Three men, close to retirement age, and two graying women sat in leather chairs before the controls. The broad windows gave a perfect view of the room, and The Whale looked particularly majestic to Trevor from up here.

“This is where it all happens,” said Father quietly. “Sixty teslas — strongest magnet in the world. It’s shielded, and our brains are safe, but it’ll still scramble any chip within seventy-five meters, even the hardened military ones. It melts atoms, that’s how strong it is.”

“Only the electron orbits,” corrected a stately man at the controls. “Not the nuclei, of course.”

“Mr. Wells is one of the three Master Control Officers,” said Father. “He oversees all The Whale’s operations on our shift. He has a Master’s degree in Physics.”

Mr. Wells serenely ignored all of this.

“You have a degree?” asked Trevor. Few people bothered with them anymore, now that all knowledge was a sat-link away for the people who mattered.

“Oh, I’m from the old days,” said Wells. “Pre-chip, when you had to know things. Which just goes to show that you don’t need a chip in your head at all.”

“Well . . .” said Trevor.

“The union has a deal with the corporation,” said Father. “When it’s time for us to hire another Operator, the union picks one of our own to attend the training program at the state university. The corporation pays for the training. They have to accept whoever we send.”

“Hmm.”

“Mr. Wells is in complete control of operations here,” continued Father. “Those chipheads in Production have to do whatever he says.”

Again, Wells merely gazed at the kaleidoscopic displays, but the Operator beside him nodded solemnly.

They left the control booth after taking Wells’ leave. Father stopped on the catwalk to gaze at The Whale.

“That machine could make you rich, son,” he said quietly. “First you move up to Production; you work with the semiconductors, moving them in and out. Then you become a Secondary Operator. Then, when there’s an opening, you can become a Primary Operator in the control room. You could become the Master Control Officer.”

“I’ve gotta beat the others to get that position,” said Trevor, uncomfortably aware of the broom in his hands.

“Yeah, but you’re smart, son. You can do it. You’ve made it into this room. All you gotta do is work hard, right here. Wells makes more than almost anyone else in the corporation, way more than most chipheads. He’s got more money than God. That could be yours someday.”

Trevor went back to his duties, instructed here and there by Hiram, until lunchtime. When the clock struck noon, Sagget again called out, “Break, break!” and all the workers exited in procession. Trevor noted a crew of maintenance technicians entering the room and tending to The Whale as they left.

The lunchroom was large enough to seat all ten-dozen people on the shift, and no one was absent, from Wells down to Trevor. The free coffee was quite good. But Trevor noticed — you couldn’t help but notice, that was the point — a large portrait on the wall, lit by a small spotlight. The brass plaque on the frame read “John Brogan II” with his dates. He was an elderly man in the portrait, with a friendly, paternal gaze, but with a glint of mischievousness in his eyes, Trevor thought. Trevor figured he must be the founder of the company, but forgot to ask when he returned to his seat, instead becoming embroiled in a debate over football. Then, exactly an hour later, Sagget led them all back to the main hall for the afternoon, and the maintenance crew was already gone.

In the afternoon, Trevor cleaned the locker room and the lunchroom minutely, not daring to miss a single crumb. He was dreaming of Mr. Wells’ leather chair and all that it signified.

At the end of the workday, Sagget called out the “End of shift, we’re going!” that everyone awaited. Production was paused, cleaning implements stowed, and everyone left together through the rear doors, where the shift’s timecards had been moved to the rack in the exit hallway so that they could punch out. Over his shoulder, Trevor saw the next shift filing in.

Most of the workers, after changing in the locker room, did not return to the subway or bus stop, but walked up the street to where Father was now leading Trevor, lunch canisters across their backs. The streets were crowded during rush hour, almost entirely with cavemen. Trevor knew where they were going.

The pub was called The Harpoon and the union almost owned it; at least half of every shift passed through it daily, which was why Trevor had heard of it through his father and his father’s friends. This was his first time through the heavy, engraved oaken doors.

Inside, the pub was paneled with dark, polished wood, and the walls lined with screens, dartboards, and gambling machines. There were booths of carved chestnut that reminded Trevor of church pews, and three billiard tables. The dimly-lit bar was marble-topped mahogany and polished brass; behind it was a huge brass-framed mirror and a vast shelf of every liquor Trevor knew and twice as many more that he didn’t. The hidden speakers were playing a song from his father’s era. Father was immediately engaged in boisterous conversations with his coworkers.

Trevor sat at the bar and was about to order a soda.

“Want a beer?” asked the bartender.

“I’m not twenty-one,” said Trevor quietly.

“You union?”

“Yeah. This is my first day.”

The bartender pulled a pint of strong IPA and slid it in front of Trevor.

“Welcome aboard,” he said. “This one’s on the house.”

“Hey, thanks!”

Trevor took his beer and joined his father, who was in a circle of friends.

“Look at this kid — one of us already!” bellowed Father when he saw the beer in Trevor’s hand. Father’s friends took turns regaling Trevor with embarrassing anecdotes about his father, some of which Father denied.

Trevor noticed, over Father’s shoulder, a large portrait on the wall. It was the same as in the lunchroom at the factory. He walked over to it.

Under Brogan’s portrait was a shelf crowded with small items — lit votives, shot glasses of brown liquor, stacks of coins, small statuettes of Christ or saints, and small lacquered prayer sheets.

“Know who that is?” asked Father.

“Is he the founder of the company?” Trevor didn’t see why the workers would be quite so enamored of him.

“No. Well, I guess not, really.”

“Who was he?”

A small crowd gathered behind Trevor and his father, beers in hand. “Well, he’s one of us now,” said one man. “Guess we can tell him.”

“We oughta tell him.”

“Everyone else here knows.”

“You tell him, Louise,” said Father. “I’m no good at tellin’ stories.”

“My ass you ain’t! It’s all yer good for!”

“I mean true ones. Real ones.”

“Mr. Wells?”

All eyes turned to Wells, who sat alone with his scotch at the end of the bar. The room went silent.

Wells smiled but didn’t turn. Trevor could see Wells’ face in the mirror, and discovered that the elder statesman had a fine baritone for storytelling.

“John Brogan invented The Whale. He was organic, like us. No chips. He didn’t need them. His mind was already very fine. But he wasn’t just an inventor, not just a genius.”

Wells turned to look at Trevor while Brogan watched from the other side.

“The Whale doesn’t have to work by magnetism. There are other methods of tuning the semiconductors. Could use lasers. But Brogan created The Whale with the magnet so that only organics could go near it. Because it’s unique, it gives us an edge – our only edge. The chipheads have to deal with us. John Brogan created The Whale to give three hundred and sixty organics a chance to make a good living in this world, no matter how hard the chipheads try to take it all away. They need us. We have healthcare and pensions and decent places to live — all because John Brogan took pity on us and used his genius to save us from poverty. We owe it all to him.” The others nodded approvingly of this rendition of the myth.

Is it true? wondered Trevor. Sounds thin. The corporation doesn’t realize that The Whale is unnecessary? That the unionized cavemen, whom the chipheads doubtlessly regarded as haughty, weren’t leveraging their power? How did anyone know if compassion was Brogan’s true motive?

Trevor looked at Brogan’s face. The old man in the portrait looked like a kindly father, providing for his children. For a caveman in this bare-knuckle world of few winners and many more losers, the idea of an influential protector and provider felt as warm as an heirloom quilt.

He took a few bills out of his pocket and placed them on the shelf. It felt good to give something back.

 

David Bassano gives history lectures for fun and rent money. He likes bike trails, Paris along the river, and Glenmorangie on the rocks. He wrote a novel called “Trevelyan’s Wager”. Any complaints should be addressed to https://www.facebook.com/davidbassanoauthor/

“Seeing Trails” by David Bassano

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“We got any apples?” Logan called over the shelf.

“Up here,” said Leff, owner of the general store for the past forty years.

Logan brought his heavy basket to the counter, where Leff was nearly hidden by cans and boxes stacked high by the register. Logan emptied the crackers, cheese, and soup cans onto the counter and selected a few apples from the wooden crate.

“And the small bottle of Black Label,” he said. Leff slowly found it on the shelf behind him.

“Ready for the storm?” asked Leff.

“Hell yeah. I’m hikin’ up to the cabin.”

Leff’s face darkened.

“You’re goin’ out in this?”

“Yeah. I hate that road to the cabin.” The gravel drive to his uncle’s hunting cabin was narrow, steep, and rutted, dug into the side of a considerable notch. Logan disliked driving it even in good weather. “I’m gonna park at the state forest and hike in. I cut a trail to the cabin from the park. I’ll make it before there’s too much snow. Stay there a week and get some good photos. Then hike out when the snow’s melted.” It was late March.

“How far?” asked Leff.

“Three hours in, I guess.”

“Why not park at the bottom of the driveway?”

“There’s no place to park,” said Logan. “No shoulder.”

“You might end up coming back down that way. It’s gonna be at least twenty-seven inches.”

“It’ll melt soon. It’s gonna be forty-five, fifty next week.”

“Okay, well. . . be careful. It’s gonna get dark early.”

Logan took the groceries out to his car and it was already snowing.

When he arrived at the trailhead just after noon he already knew he was in for an unpleasant day. The snow had been falling for an hour in small flakes. The wind was strong and variable, whipping the snow in furious circles. It wasn’t a whiteout yet, but Logan knew it would be when the larger flakes started. He’d be far down the trail by then. The trails were well-maintained on state land and marked with paint blazes. He’d done this hike dozens of times. Still, he was very tired, because he’d been out all night drinking at Rudigan’s with Paul and had only gotten three hours of sleep. He hadn’t eaten very much that morning either, just coffee, bread, and cheese, because he’d been so busy packing. Now he was hungry and his pack, as always, was too heavy. He carried a lot of food; the cabin was already stocked, but he was always careful to replace what he ate. Besides the food and warm clothing, he also carried his camera and snowshoes. As he parked the car at the trailhead, he made up his mind to just get the hike done, uncomfortable though he’d be, and it would be worth it. He’d get to the cabin well before nightfall, have a good dinner by lantern light, drink some Black Label with cold water from the creek in an enameled tin cup, and be asleep by nine. Then he’d get plenty of sleep and be up by six to shoot the snow-covered forest at sunrise, snowshoeing around the cabin with crackers, cheese, and a thermos of coffee in his pack. He’d have a whole week with the camera in the woods and the books he kept in the cabin and a little whiskey. A few hours of hard hiking wasn’t much to pay. Anyway, he thought, it’s your own fault that you’re tired and hungry before you’ve even started.

He lifted his gear from the hatchback and locked the car. There were already two inches of snow on the ground, but he decided to lash the snowshoes to the pack and hike in his boots until the snow was deeper. He was wearing UnderArmor leggings under his North Face hiking pants, a long-sleeve breathable running shirt with a fleece jacket over it, a lined Hely Hanson windbreaker, and fleece hat and gloves. He wore two pairs of socks, one thin and one thick, inside his Gortex boots.

He struggled the pack onto his back, noticed its weight, and started at a brisk pace up the red-blazed trail into the woods. The trail ran flat here, exiting a wide valley before climbing alongside a stream into a notch between low mountains. Soon it was snowing hard, windy, and well below freezing. The exercise kept Logan warm.

Only forty minutes later, the whiteout almost entirely obscured the trail, which began to climb between the mountains. He knew approximately where he was, but had not seen a blaze in a long time because the wet snow stuck to the sides of the trees and covered the paint when he could see the trees at all. I’ll have to watch carefully for the turns, he thought. I have to make two turns before I reach the path to the cabin.

The snow crusted over his boots and the cuffs of this pants, and he was slipping in the snow on the uphill grade. I’ll get to the top of the rise and put the snowshoes on, he thought. Goddamn but I wish I’d slept last night. This is gonna hurt. I’m usually way past this point by now, usually up to the first turn if not past it. As he slowly pulled himself uphill, he heard a quick cracking underfoot, and suddenly felt his right foot drop and a burst of cold around his ankle.

A stream that crossed the trail had iced over, and the snow drifted over the ice so that it was completely invisible. He knew about the stream but hadn’t remembered exactly where it was. He lifted himself out with some difficulty, the heavy pack pulling him over one way and the other.

Well, I shouldn’t hike with a wet foot, he thought. My feet were getting cold anyway, covered in snow. He swore at the delay and slipped off the pack. He took off his wet boot and socks, dug out a hand towel and dry socks from the pack, dried his foot, and put on a dry sock. Then, to keep his foot dry in the wet boot, he took the plastic bag that had held the dry socks and put it over his foot before beating the snow from the boot and putting it back on. He also took a Grab the Gold energy bar from his pack and slipped it into his pocket. He put on the snowshoes and grunted as he lifted the pack to his shoulders and carefully picked his way over the stream. At least I know where I am now, he thought with a grin. And where I am isn’t as far as I should be. I need to cross the blue trail and then turn right with the red. Those are both well past this point and uphill of me.

He went up the hill slowly in the snowshoes, although it was more stable than in the boots alone. He opened and ate the Gold bar quickly, now realizing just how hungry he was. He also noticed how thick the wet snow was on the branches of the trees and how deeply he was sinking into the snow in the heavy pack.

The trees changed from oak and maple to various evergreens as he climbed, and the snow on the forest was very pretty and it was very quiet; when he stood still, he could hear the thin patter of the thick flakes and the wind in the branches. The fatigue and pain in his legs were ruining his enjoyment. It’ll be better tomorrow, he thought. I’ll get plenty of rest and hot food tonight and tomorrow will be beautiful, leisurely wandering around and photographing the forest.

He came to the top of the hill and pushed himself downhill without pause. He thought to eat another Gold bar but didn’t want to pause to dig it out of the pack. I just have to keep going and not miss the turn, he reminded himself.

Finally, on his right he noticed a gap in the trees, indicating an intersection. He could see neither the trail nor the blazes, both having been erased by the snow. It was clearly a trail since there were no fire cuts out here. This was the first turn; now he’d hike to the second and turn right. It should be thirty minutes to the next turn, he thought, but he knew that in the deep snow it would be much longer. He stopped and rested, leaning over with his hands on his knees. It felt good to stretch his back that way, though the pack wanted to pull him over in this position.

He continued on flat ground for a while, and here the sun did not reach above the shoulder of the steep hill to his left, and it was darker and much colder. When he rested, his body quickly chilled and he forced himself onward. In the dim light, with snow covering all the rocks and undergrowth, the path ahead of him was just a blue-gray gap between the trees. He had no sense of how far the ground was from him, since there were no shadows or other features, just the uniform surface; he put one foot in front of the other automatically, and it seemed like he was walking in a void. It was not an unpleasant experience, but he was very tired and his legs ached. The deep snow is taking a lot out of me, he thought. It’s difficult with the snowshoes, but post holing would be much worse. No, don’t stop again, just keep going. Bed is going to feel damn good tonight.

He checked his watch at increments and noticed the diminishing sky glow. This is taking too long. Well, you’re going very slowly in the snow. Yeah, but even so, I shoulda hit the turn by now. Did I miss it? Maybe I should turn back. But if I didn’t miss it, and I turn back, I’ll be even farther from the cabin. I don’t wanna hike any more than I have to. But what if I did miss it? I don’t have my tent with me. The stove’s in the cabin and it’s probably too windy to keep a fire going out here. Well, just keep going. If you hit the green trail, then you know you went too far. Yeah, but that’s a long way off. Would you see that, either? Suppose you hit that and then come back; would you see the right turn the next time, or go past it again?

No sense in worrying, he thought, since there’s nothing I can do about it. He drank a little water, which was very cold in the bottle, and continued. I should keep that bottle under my windbreaker, he thought.

The ache in his legs intensified. He had been hiking hard for hours and was doubtful about how much he had left in him. A strange anger descended on him – he was angry at the trail for taking so long to get to the turn, angry at the snow for slowing him down. He plodded with his head lowered, staring at the blank gray space ahead of him. At least I’m going downhill now, he thought. After several minutes he realized that there was no downhill grade before the turn. He knew that he must have overshot.

He stopped and looked around. The sun was so low now that he would no longer climb high enough to be in direct sunlight. It was only going to get darker and colder. He was shivering when standing still. It occurred to him that he now had a problem.

Just be cool, he thought. Yeah, that shouldn’t be a problem. I need to go back, but how far? What if I miss the turn from this direction too? You’ll have to take your chances, he thought. You can’t stay here. He turned and went back uphill at a quicker pace than he could maintain for long. He could no longer feel the emptiness in his stomach but his legs felt weak. By the time he got to the top of the climb his legs were shaking and unsteady under him. He kept going with his head down.

He looked up to check for the turn and thought he saw something moving among the trees. When he looked around, the trees tracked smears across his eyes, like in an old TV image. He blinked hard and looked again. He still saw the trails when he turned his head, so he knew it was in his brain and not his eyes. Shit, is this hypothermia? No, it’s exhaustion, he thought. People see things when they’re overtired.

I’m not gonna make it carrying this pack, he thought. I’ll leave it here and come back for it in a couple days, when the snow melts. There’s plenty of food in the cabin. Shame, all this food in my pack, but I need to warm it up, and I don’t think I could make a fire out here in this wind. Maybe I could, but I only have a little daylight left. If I’m missing turns by daylight, I’ll definitely miss them in the dark. I’ll just drop the pack and take the flashlight with me.

He slipped off the pack and leaned it against a tree so that he’d see it later, and was very happy to have the weight off his body. He took the flashlight from the side pocket of the pack and started down the trail again. Although the hiking was much easier without the pack, he still saw the trails in his eyes. I’ve never been this tired before, he thought. I can’t freeze out here, though. No one dies hiking in New Hampshire; they all die out West. People would shake their heads and laugh if they heard I died out here. Uncle Harry and old Leff would wonder how I could be so stupid. So I can’t die out here. Just keep going.

He saw that his footprints, which he was now retracing, were quickly disappearing under the new snow. Twenty minutes later they were gone entirely and he had no idea of his direction. You’re going the way you came, he told himself, where else could you be going? But he suddenly stopped and looked around. Nothing looked familiar. You’ve never been out here in snow. Of course you don’t recognize it. Keep walking.

On his left he noticed a gap in the trees. Okay, that’s the trail, he thought. But he didn’t see any blazes because the trees, which were still smearing in his vision, were covered in windblown snow. That’s got to be it, he thought. He considered brushing the snow off the trees to find the blazes, but he was too exhausted. This must be it. It better be.

He turned down the trail and saw, in the failing light, that it went uphill. Is it supposed to go uphill? I don’t wanna go uphill. Fucking uphill trail. He thought to check the topo map, and remembered that the map and compass were both in the pack. So were the warm clothes he meant to wear this week. I could have layered them to keep warm, he thought. I left it all in the pack. He was shivering now. There’s no way I can hike back to the pack and then come back. Now I have to look for the right turn marked with pink ribbon. That was the marker he had left to indicate the narrow path he’d cut to the cabin.

He walked as if underwater. Each step hurt, even without the pack. He looked up at a landscape of pain, trees and snow of pain and exhaustion. The uphill grade rolled towards him unceasingly, like a treadmill he couldn’t afford to switch off. Soon it was too dim to see clearly, so he switched on the flashlight and scanned the trees to his right for the loop of ribbon he needed to see. The light trailed like a comet in his brain. Is it on the right or left? It’s the left. No, it’s the right, you idiot. You cut that trail yourself. Get your shit together.

He stopped and leaned against a tree. Just rest a second. Just a minute. You can spare a minute. His body quickly cooled. He couldn’t feel his toes nor, soon, his fingertips. What if I just laid here and slept for two hours? It’s not so cold here, in the lee of the wind. I laid in the snow a lot when I was a kid and never got frostbite. Why not do it now? I’ll just get a couple of hours of sleep and then I’ll be good to go. Just sleep a while.

He looked for a spot under an evergreen to stretch out, then stopped. His mind was suddenly very quiet and sober. You can’t sleep here. You’re not dressed heavily enough. You don’t feel cold because you’re going numb. If you sleep out here, you won’t wake up. Start walking again and don’t stop. He started walking again, the pain a familiar companion which kept him awake. He was very serious now. His mind did not wander and the forest was no longer beautiful at all.

Now the treadmill had no sense of distance or duration. His only thought was to put one foot in front of the other and lift his head every few steps to shine the flashlight on the trees to his right, looking for the turn. The pink ribbon, look for the ribbon. He tried to remember how far it was to the turn but his mind kept sliding off the thought as if he was drunk. I can’t make it. I’m too tired and I can’t think straight anymore. I have to stop. No, you’ll die if you stop. Keep walking. He paused to rest every hundred feet, leaning on the trees.

He couldn’t tell how long it was until he saw the ribbon around the tree, partially covered in snow. He had tied it in a big bow when he cut the trail, high up the tree so that kids could not pull it down. The sight woke him up somewhat. It’s only half a mile to the cabin now, he thought. You can make it.

The trail was narrow and now invisible under the drifts; he only noted a small gap in the snow-covered underbrush. He had marked the trail so that each ribbon was visible from the last one, but he could no longer see them. He was constantly stumbling. He reached out to each tree, lurching from one to the next, almost crashing into them, leaning on them for support. He found the next ribbon in the flashlight but could not see the one after that. He knew the trail was practically a straight line, but without his compass he couldn’t stay on the line. If I had the compass I could make it, he thought. You have to keep moving anyway. Just find the next ribbon. You’re right on top of the cabin. He noticed that he was no longer shivering. He dimly realized that this was hypothermia and that, if he didn’t warm up soon, he would die. You could try to make a fire, he thought. No, the matches are in the pack. There was nothing to do but walk, the last thing he wanted to do.

He went from one tree to the next in what he thought was a straight line but did not see ribbons. He tried to walk very carefully to feel the underbrush under the deep snow, which would indicate that he had gone off-trail. He couldn’t tell the difference anymore. In the dying light of the flashlight he saw a ribbon on the back side of a tree and tried to align himself with it. It’s only a few hundred feet now, he thought. But the clearing isn’t very big. If I miss the clearing, I’ll overshoot the cabin.

And then it was completely dark, the clouds blotting out the moonlight, and the wind rose and it was dangerously cold. The flashlight was nearly dead and gave just enough tepid, yellow light to avoid trees. He turned it off and walked with his eyes closed, no longer able to keep them open, his hands in front of him in the dark. In the dark he stumbled and fell into deep snow. He lay in complete darkness, barely noticing the cold on his face. It was very quiet and all he wanted to do was just lie there and sleep. He started to doze.

A faraway voice said: Get up now.

He slowly rose, covered in snow, and stumbled along. He did not consider if it was in the right direction or how far it was or even where he was going. He just walked with his eyes closed, not certain if he was really awake or had even gotten up.

Suddenly he noticed that there were no trees to hold on to, and he dimly realized that he must be in the clearing. The cabin was at the edge of the clearing to the left of the trail. But was he on the trail? Should he go left or right? The clearing wasn’t very big. Just go left and eventually you’ll go all the way around and find it. This is the last thing you have to do.

He almost walked into the side of the dark green cabin on snow-encrusted concrete blocks with the wooden steps up to the door. He leaned against the wall. The steps were covered in snow and were too narrow for snowshoes. He took off the snowshoes and left them in the snow. He went up the steps and saw the padlock on the door.

Where’s the key? The what? The key, where did you put the key? The key to what? To the cabin. Is it in the pack? In his mind’s eye he saw his pack leaning against a tree.

You left the key in the pack.

Isn’t it on your keyring? Where? It’s on the keyring in your pocket. He felt in his pockets and took out the keys. Which key is it? He looked at all of them in the tiny light of the flashlight and slowly remembered which it was.

Unlock the door. I can’t. I need two hands to do that and I have a flashlight in one. Then put the flashlight in your pocket. He slowly pocketed the flashlight and put the key in the lock and turned it. The lock opened and he removed it and opened the heavy plywood door.

It was cold inside but he was out of the wind. He closed the door and beat the snow off himself. The flashlight barely showed him the kerosene lanterns in the dark. With deliberate movements he took the lanterns from the shelf and slowly, one by one, lit them after finding the lighter. He hung them from the hooks around the room. In the new light he saw the bunks, the iron stove next to them, the card table, the shelves of food, and a propane stove. The room smelled of kerosene and charred wood.

He thought to lie down and sleep, but decided to warm the room and eat first. He took the newspaper and kindling from the crates next to the stove, opened the flue, and got a fire going. While it burned he opened a can of soup, poured it into a pot, lit the propane stove and put the pot on it. Then he filled the teapot from the jug of water and put it on another burner.

The soup heated quickly and he ate it slowly from the pot. He added larger wood to the fire and left the stove door open so it would catch quickly. He noticed he was no longer seeing trails. The feeling had come back in his fingers, toes, and nose. In the lamplight he studied his fingertips as he pushed down on them until they were white, and saw the color flood back when he released them. He repeated the test on his toes with the same result. He knew he’d been lucky.

The teapot whistled and he poured the water into an enameled tin cup with a cheap tea bag. He could no longer see his breath in the lantern light. The haze was lifting and he could think clearly again, as if his brain was warming back up, and he realized that was actually the truth.

He unrolled a heavy sleeping bag onto the lower bunk and put large logs on the fire. He leaned too close to the open door of the stove and the hot, sulfurous air stung his eyes. He shut the door and closed the damper almost entirely so it would burn all night. Then with tearing eyes he put out the lanterns, undressed, and slipped into the sleeping bag.

He lay in the absolute silence and darkness but the tears wouldn’t stop. What’s the problem? he wondered. I made it alright. I can rest tomorrow and go back for the pack the next day. Then I can even get the photography done and sip the whisky at night. He wished he had it now. He was perfectly safe, but the tears didn’t stop. No one ever has to know what happened, he thought. And he never told anyone about getting lost during a winter hike, nor about the tears.

 

David Bassano gives history lectures for fun and rent money. He likes bike trails, Paris along the river, and Glenmorangie on the rocks. He wrote a novel called “Trevelyan’s Wager”. Any complaints should be addressed to https://www.facebook.com/davidbassanoauthor/

“Meriden Arms” by David Bassano

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Papa Jack paused and looked at the backs of the buildings through leafless trees. He didn’t want to go into town. It wasn’t his home, and the people and the cops didn’t like him, but he was out of food. It was winter, when Murielle would offer him hot meals or even clothes and a floor to sleep on. Now his stomach was empty, a day and a half, and the nausea and headache were beginning. He turned left off the asphalt-paved trail, walked along the creek, and entered town through the back of a parking lot.

Papa Jack’s home was the trail along the river that ran from the city, through the towns, and then farther north than Papa Jack had ever walked. When he was younger, he dreamed of walking all the way up north to the hills, but it was years since he took that seriously. He lived along the trail wherever he wanted, sleeping in the woods, wastes, and abandoned places. In the warm months it didn’t matter where he slept, wrapped in a sheet to keep the mosquitoes off him. There was a wooded strip between the river and the trail, between fifty feet and half a mile wide, along the entire length. Papa saw deer, possums, geese, and raccoons in the woods close to the river, but it was usually muddy near the water, with too many mosquitoes, so he didn’t sleep there. At least he could fill his plastic jug for free along the riverbank, though someone once told him he shouldn’t drink it, even though he first let it sit to allow the sediment to settle to the bottom.

The more interesting places were on the other side of the trail: city parks, cemeteries, woods, farms, houses, train tracks, and high-tension lines. In summer and fall, Papa Jack got his food from the farms north of town, picking corn, peppers, and cabbages at night if they hadn’t been sprayed that day. And in an old stand of trees, on the far side of an electrical substation, was his winter shelter. It was a large, hollow concrete block that Papa thought was somehow related to sewers or drainage, because it had holes for pipes. It was surrounded by briars and clearly forgotten, so he put his blankets and sofa cushions inside it. There was enough room to sleep and still make a fire in the corner. The smoke went out through a hole in the top, though he covered that with a piece of plywood when it rained. He was warm enough inside in the winter, and was hidden from passersby on the trail.

While he liked the trail, sooner or later he had to return to town. There was hot food there and people to talk to. He could go days without talking to anyone, not even himself, and most times he preferred it that way, but eventually he couldn’t take it anymore and had to go back to town. He knew it well. There were churches and government places where he might get cans of soup he could heat in his shelter. Murielle gave him bowls of homemade stew, the best thing he’d ever tasted, even better than Christmas dinner in the church basement, but she’d want to pray first. He’d take off his hat like she’d told him and stand very still and quiet, head bowed, while she recited the prayer. He didn’t dare move or speak because he couldn’t afford to upset her. Anyway the prayers were fairly interesting, full of grandiose phrases, provided she didn’t rattle them off so quickly that they lost all their feeling.

Papa Jack also knew a part of town hidden from most, or maybe just ignored. When it passed between the river and the town, the trail showed Papa the backs of the buildings, the secret and forgotten places no one cared about. There were storage yards full of trailers, surrounded by rusted fences and tall weeds; stands of gnarled old trees and nettles, and piles of trash where people had pitched everything they didn’t want into a place where they never went. Papa Jack had found a lot of useful things there, like seat cushions, plywood, unbroken glass jars, rope, and even bicycles, and he made a life from what other people discarded. The fronts of the buildings were all fresh paint and neon signs, parking lots and traffic lights. The people in their new clothes walked quickly from the shops to their cars. They always looked like they were on their way to something more important. But behind the buildings, along the trail, was the back of the world, with bare concrete walls, barrels of grease, and rotting pallets on gravel, tangled with weeds. Papa wondered if one of the reasons why he liked the back of the world so much was that no one cared about it.

Sometimes the people from the front of the world came back to the trail, mostly on bicycles. Papa, walking down the trail, could hear the hiss of tires on the asphalt behind him and would step aside. The ones who rode alone were the worst. They wore special clothes and sunglasses and helmets, bent low over the handlebars and going very fast, stony-faced, never looking around, just as when they were in the parking lots. When they rode in pairs they usually talked to each other a little breathlessly. When he heard them talking, Papa was sometimes surprised to hear female voices because, in their cycling clothes, they looked exactly like men, except a little smaller. Mickey told him that a lot of those people came from Meriden Arms.  Papa found that hard to believe. The people in the advertising posters for Meriden Arms looked so happy and satisfied that Papa couldn’t believe that the cyclists he saw really lived there. Sometimes he saw a mother on a bike with a child in a seat on the back, or else the child rode alongside on a small bike, wearing a colorful helmet. That looked more like Meriden Arms.

Papa couldn’t remember when Meriden Arms was built. It must have been some years ago, but he hadn’t noticed it at the time. He first saw it in winter, when the leaves didn’t hide it. He was walking down the trail one evening at twilight, looked up at the hillside above the river, and saw it. The face of the townhouse was lit by street lamps and looked like a castle above him.  Papa Jack stopped, turned his body squarely towards the townhouse, and stared. There was a golden light coming from the windows, some dressed with lace curtains. He could see inside a few, and maybe a shadow moved across the ceiling. It was the most beautiful building Papa had ever seen. City Hall in town was imposing, but it was cold. People lived in Meriden Arms. Somebody actually lived there.

Papa soon saw more of Meriden Arms on posters in the train station in town. He couldn’t read all of the writing but he recognized the buildings in the ads. The pictures showed young families, white and Latino and black, engaged in various activities, bicycling and kayaking, or just eating together at the table. They were always smiling in the photos like they were having the best day of their lives. The photos also showed Papa the inside of the townhouses. No one he knew lived in a place like that. The furniture and décor were luxurious and the parlors sported the biggest TVs he’d ever seen. The people in the photos all looked so happy that Papa smiled, but also felt a little sad. They seemed very far away.

He then walked across town to find Meriden Arms, and discovered it on a county road to the north, just east of the trail. The front of Meriden Arms had a big sign with gold letters, and two driveways for the cars coming and going. From here, Papa could see that the complex was composed of many townhouses, all identical. It wasn’t just the one he could see from the trail. The thick grass was green as a crayon and perfectly manicured, with poplars and Japanese maples here and there. But there was a high stone wall around it, and the only way through was the gate, and at the gate was a guardhouse with a man who looked like a cop. Papa stood across the street and looked at Meriden Arms – looked at it piece-by-piece and looked at it all at once. It was beautiful, perfect, but somehow unreal, like he was looking at a painting. It was the finest thing he’d ever seen, the front of the front of the world.

A black Mercedes pulled off the highway and stopped at the gate. The car was shiny, even the tires, without any dents or rust. At the guardhouse, the driver spoke with the cop, and the iron gate opened smoothly, closing again after the car passed. Papa Jack looked hard at the gate and the guardhouse that stood between him and Meriden Arms. And then the cop was looking hard back at him, unmoving and unblinking, and Papa knew that soon someone would come and tell him to move along, like they always did, so he turned and walked back to town.

Sometimes Papa walked to the bar at the corner of Lexington and Mercer because Happy Mickey would be sitting alone at the empty bar. Mickey was the one person who could provide something better than Murielle’s cooking. Sometimes he gave Papa a bottle of booze, booze that smelled like cough syrup but quickly took him where it was going. Papa was never clear about why Mickey helped him or even talked to him. Mickey swore and complained more than anyone Papa knew. Papa figured he must get lonely sitting on that stool all day and just wanted to talk to someone, and the words he said really had nothing to do with it. And Happy Mickey would call Papa a half-wit, bum, and good-for-nothing, then give Papa a bottle of something or a five-dollar bill. Papa was already used to the language and didn’t complain. It was like standing still for Murielle.

Two days before Christmas, after looking at the posters in the train station, Papa asked Happy Mickey about Meriden Arms.

“What you wanna know ‘bout that for?” mumbled Mickey, staring straight ahead.

“Saw some pictures of it at the train station,” said Papa.

“That for rich people.”

“There rich people in this town?”

“Are now,” said Mickey. “They live there and take the train to the city for work.”

“I wanna see it,” said Papa.

Mickey laughed. “You retard!”

“Don’t wanna do no harm,” said Papa. “Just wanna see.”

“They won’t let you in there.”

“I can climb the hill out backada place. Up from the trail. Ain’t no fence there.”

“Damn, you dumb! The cops whup you good for that. Throw yer ass in jail!”

“Cops don’t bother me,” said Papa. “Don’t wanna throw me in jail. Said I smell too bad.”

“Well, they beat you bad you go up there,” warned Mickey. “They’ll beat you like a dawg.”

And Mickey gave Papa a bottle of Night Train and Papa forgot the idea.

That evening, Papa Jack was walking back to his shelter on the trail. It had been just above freezing during the day and would be well below at night. A dusting of powdery snow lingered in the shadows and ice drifted down the river towards the city. Papa was warm enough in his shelter at night.

He stopped at the bottom of the hill below Meriden Arms as he had planned and sat down in the leaves, leaning back against a tree, facing the townhouse above. He took out the bottle Happy Mickey had given him, twisted off the red plastic cap with a crack, and took a sip. It burned all the way down and he could feel it smoldering in his empty stomach. The ground was hard and cold beneath him.

He looked up at the townhouse. There was a warm glow in the windows and he could see the blinking colored lights of Christmas trees reflected on white ceilings through some of the higher windows. Some of the windows had twinkling lights along the borders, or an evergreen wreath with a large red ribbon turning grey in the fading light.

He sipped the liquor, closed his eyes, and relaxed. He knew it would make him sick if he drank it too quickly so he took his time. Soon it began to warm or at least numb him, until he might as well be laying in a bed. In twenty minutes he could barely feel the cold. Now freed from his body, his imagination penetrated the walls of Meriden Arms and he was finally inside. What he saw was similar to the posters he’d seen in the train station. A family gathered in a dining room for Christmas dinner. A huge TV was on in the parlor but the sound was turned down, replaced by Christmas music. Parents and grandparents chatted happily, wine glasses in hand, well-dressed as if just back from church. Their children played with new toys, laughing and swapping toys for candy canes. The table was covered in hors d’oeuvre that Papa had seen at Christmas dinner at the church, or at Murielle’s, or on TV: slices of ham and cheese on crackers, fresh vegetables and dips, bowls of colorful salads, and plates of marinated ribs and shrimp cocktails.

Now he had a china plate loaded with roast chicken and potato salad which he could taste as he slowly chewed and followed with good wine. The adults talked with him in confidence, as an intimate, and the children laughed and played with him, calling him Papa and bringing him chocolates. He was dressed in the clean and tasteful clothes he saw in the front of the world, clothes that were not made to fend off the cold, and his hair and fingernails were clean like when he was young.

Then everyone sat down to dinner, the table full of marvelous things that Papa imagined with great clarity: a huge turkey with stuffing and gravy, cranberries, mashed potatoes, roast vegetables, and hot bread and butter. He couldn’t feel his body but he could smell the food, especially the bread. In his mind he ate slowly and deliberately, enjoying the moment with everyone as the music swelled. As his mind became too cloudy for images, he could still hear the music and smell the bread, and finally he could only feel, and he felt good. Papa Jack fell asleep and dreamt of the other side of everything. Two cross-country skiers from Meriden Arms found him the next morning and called the police. The paramedics drove Papa’s cold bones to the morgue. It was ironic that he’d died, one of the skiers told the police, so close to the warmth and safety of Meriden Arms.

 

 

“Tough” by David Bassano

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When I was twenty years old I worked for the city road department. Tony and I drove around all day in a dump truck full of asphalt, looking for potholes to fill. Tony was a chain-smoking dropout with a buzz cut. He was a hard bastard, mean, poor, living alone off our crap pay. He knew how to get by with almost nothing, renting the cheap apartments with crooked landlords and eating lousy food. He always had money for cigarettes and beer, though. And he laughed at me when I said I wanted to go to college. He didn’t need that, he said; he’d been to the School of Hard Knocks. I thought about it but I couldn’t see the use. Tony gritted his teeth and bitched a lot but he never talked about leaving the Road Department. He just sat there and took it and called himself tough. And I thought, hell, if that’s tough, you can have it.

David Bassano is a History professor at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. He is a human rights activist, an author of academic and literary works, and an avid hiker and cyclist. Trevelyan’s Wager, published by Harvard Square Editions, is his first novel. You may learn more about him and his work at: https://www.facebook.com/davidbassanoauthor/

“Vibration” and “Peace” by David Bassano

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“Vibration”

Caitlyn used to say that the entire universe was nothing but vibration. She read it in a book. Everything, everywhere, was just music, a cosmic symphony of harmonic resonances. Therefore, she said, there was nothing to worry about. Since everything was nothing but vibration, there was no need to fear death or change. There was no you and no universe; there was only vibration. And I had to talk her into using the morning-after pill on a couple of occasions when she told me what had happened the night before. She cried and complained about the men she dated. She hated her job and went to the local community college to learn a trade, but then dropped out. All that studying unbalanced her life, she told me over coffee. And she said that the one-night stands were good for her confidence, but then complained that the guys were just using her. But I didn’t see why it would matter if everything, everywhere, was just vibration.

“Peace”

That July, when Jen and I lived at the beach, we watched the sunrise over the water after a long night out in the bars. It was so peaceful and quiet I could barely believe it was Florida in the summer. The soft light was beautiful on the waves and the sand cool underneath.

“You should write about this,” Jen said.

“About what?”

“This.”

“Oh, I couldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“No conflict.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“No one would be interested.”

She thought about it. “No one’s interested in peace?”

“Hell no!” I laughed. “Who would wanna read about that?”

David Bassano is a History professor at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. He is a human rights activist, an author of academic and literary works, and an avid hiker and cyclist. Trevelyan’s Wager, published by Harvard Square Editions, is his first novel. You may learn more about him and his work at: https://www.facebook.com/davidbassanoauthor/

“Empty” by David Bassano

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You have a photograph of your ex before you were married, when you were still in love, of your first Easter together in the old miller’s house you rented in the country. In the photograph, your friends are laughing together in the kitchen while your ex makes scrambled eggs and kielbasa on the stove. That life is gone now, and you live in another state with another spouse. Everything in the photograph ended. Your ex probably doesn’t remember that morning; without the photograph, you’d have forgotten it, too.  It all felt so true and happy at the time, and now feels unreal, like someone else’s story. And it might occur to you in vulnerable moments, when you’re alone at twilight, that the present day can’t be any more real than the one in the photograph, and will become as unreal as that Easter morning, and eventually there will be no one left who remembers it, no matter how much you try to believe in it.

David Bassano is a History professor at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. He is a human rights activist, an author of academic and literary works, and an avid hiker and cyclist. Trevelyan’s Wager, published by Harvard Square Editions, is his first novel. You may learn more about him and his work at: https://www.facebook.com/davidbassanoauthor/