Thursday, November 8, 2018

Schrobear #75, traveler in strange realms



Schrobear #75 traveler in strange realms


 

 
He was a tardigrade (water bear) of the species Mopsechiniscus franciscae about .01 inches in length. His body was rust-colored, comprised of a hard, horny substance and he had eight legs, four on each side of his segmented barrel-shaped carapace. His eyes were red-brown specks, easy enough to see under low magnification, and, when he was feeding, his gut shone like an emerald green ray from within his transparent chitinous shell. As the pronoun denotes, he was male, with a sperm-producing gonad mid-torso, and, in the microscope, his body looked molded, bulbous segments fused together at joints that did not bend. If you watched him moving in the magnified field under your eyepiece, you would see that he walked deliberately on his stubby, stiff legs – there was neither knee nor ankle nor hip in those members which were rather like the limbs supporting a piece of tiny furniture. His rear-most legs were clawed so that he could cling to the substrate over which he crawled, resisting the micro-currents in the droplet of water, a pale, translucent dome, in which he dwelt. Little sensors in the form of greyish whiskers protruded from his carapace, particularly in the places where his torso-segments were fused. He ambled through his world with his head down, snuffling at the debris under foot, for all the world like a bear crossing a meadow replete with earthworms and juicy grubs in the high mountains.

Schrobear #75, as he was named, came from a distinguished lineage. When his mother (or grandmother) molted, an impulse excited her to defecate as well and eggs emerged from her cloaca intermixed with excreta and cocooned by her discarded carapace. Tardigrades are binary: they are either open to the world or tightly sealed monads. # 75's father (or grandfather or great-grandfather – the number of generations is a matter of conjecture) was on the prowl when his mother writhed out of her skin and he expelled an oily plume of sperm into the female’s abandoned hull, coating the eggs and the rest of the detritus as well. In a couple weeks, baby tardigrades exactly identical to their parents, although much smaller, wriggled from within the battered shelter of carapace. Outside of that amber-colored quonset-hut shaped dwelling, it was green in all dimensions, liquid at a temperature that was viable for motion and feeding.

The tardigrades lived amidst moss wreathing a smooth pebble under three centimeters of water on the edge of the Ross Sea in Antartica. A brown mountain, deeply furrowed with avalanche chutes, dipped its knees into the ocean and, on the horizon, there was a volcano smoking like an old, half-extinguished cigar. A researcher studying phyto-plankton sampled the sea water and pebbles at the water’s edge and bottled Schrobear’s progenitors in a sealed flask. When the sea water was decanted in the laboratory examined under X50 magnification, the tardigrades hovering among the moss tendrils came into focus, little rust-colored zeppelins tethered to baroque-looking bright green arabesques – some people call tardigrades "moss piglets."

The scientists let the droplet of sea-water dry. The tardigrades shut all ducts to the outside, withered into themselves, and dessicated – they shrunk into inert skeletal forms, featureless and immobile. In this form, Schrobear’s clan proved to be even more resilient than others of their genus. Not only water but air was sucked out of the hypobaric chambers where they were tested and the inert tardigrade mummies were alternately roasted and, then, frozen – between minus 200 degrees and plus 800 centigrade, the tardigrade mummies endured and, then, when hydrated, cheerfully ambled back to life. Some of Schrobear’s cousins were irradiated by an Alektra AB gamma knife beam. The beam from this instrument, generated to destroy cancer cells, had no effect on the tardigrades. Schrobear’s species, in particular, resisted almost all attempts to destroy them – it was not that the little creatures thrived in hostile conditions, but, rather, that they seemed indifferent to them. In a waterless, crystal vacuum chamber, baked and, then, frozen to within a few degrees of absolute zero, blasted by deadly rays created by nuclear fission, the moss piglets simply withdrew into themselves, shrinking as they dried, the lymph in their coelums inhaled into their carapace, darkening into specks of matter dried from 80% fluid to less than 2 %, blackened germs that effloresced and, then, returned enthusiastically to life when drizzled by pipette into a droplet of water. One of Schrobear 75's cousins was shot into space on the Challenger, exposed to the void, where he orbited the earth 90 times before the capsule fell like a meteorite through layers of fire. The waterbear ensconced in the rocket’s sample chamber was dormant. But in a film of water, under the microscope, the creature rehydrated and came back to life, pooping enthusiastically as he shed his carapace in a full molt before knuckle-walking off in search of something to eat.

Schrobear #75 lived with others of his kind in a petri dish at the University of Technology in Delft. Once a month, crustose lichen scraped from trees in a nearby park was drizzled into the dish, mixed with distilled water to make a dilute tea. Periodically, a girl wearing ear-buds and listening to an I-Pod, made a census of the waterbears in the lichen suspension. Flattened out by the optical qualities of the 50X binocular microscope, the tardigrades looked a bit like greyish-brown crushed caterpillars, semi-translucent with tiny legs like spikes protruding from them, the tips of those appendages decorated with festive-looking short tentacles. They grazed on the lichen like indistinct cows, moving only imperceptibly. The light from the microscope warmed them and Schrobear #75 rolled over on his back to enjoy the radiance suffusing his world. There was neither up nor down and his insides felt pleasantly open, extending to the edges of the existence that he could sense, all ducts and spiracles dilated to enjoy the sweetness of things, his rhabdomeric eyes injecting a cloud of images into his brain, impressions that mingled with the sensations at his bristles to create a vaporous sense of a warm, well-lit interior expanding outward to all horizons.

This interior tilted and directions changed, the orbits spiraling slightly, and, then, there was a dislocation that turned the fields inside out – the corridors and doors began to slowly shut and Schrobear #75 felt himself darkening, a sensation we might experience as falling, albeit very, very slowly. Then, he slept. Then, he dreamed. His dream was bilaterally symmetrical – he dreamt it in both sides of the bundle of neurons that was his brain. To recount the dream properly, I would have to repeat its elements twice and array them in a symmetrical pattern about Schrobear #75's axis, but this would be repetitive and so I will provide his dream in this single version.

In his dream, Schrobear #75 was given a name and spoken about in Dutch, a gutteral language that seems to be almost all vowels. Because he had no ears, he could not hear clearly, but the sound waves in which his name was embedded were caught in the harrow of hairs on his body and he heard the words, albeit indistinctly. Schrobear’s name came from a famous fiction in quantum physics, Schroedinger’s cat. The cat posited by the Austrian physicist, Erwin Schroedinger, is a paradox that illustrates quantum superposition. In the world with which we are familiar, macroscopic objects occupy distinct spaces and can be relied upon to remain where placed except when compelled into motion. Motion, itself, is subject to Newtonian laws and the moving object, a cat, for instance, can be reliably tracked in space on the basis of the forces to which it is subject. But in realm of extremely tiny things, the notion of "object" undergoes a strange metamorphosis. Very small things, for instance, atomic particles, don’t occupy a single location – instead, their presence is defined by statistical equations that tell us where they might be located, but acknowledge a range of other locations extending throughout the entire universe where they also could be lurking. And, indeed, before certain types of measurements are taken, the particle’s existence is superposed – that is, the particle is conceived as existing in all such locations simultaneously. Measurement induces what is called decoherence – that is, collapses the probability function into a single location in space-time where the object can be located. Macroscopic systems, not subject to quantum effects, are thought to be always decoherent because of the multitude of factors impinging upon the object and binding it to a cartesian location, a place that can be graphed in terms of dimensional space and time. Schroedinger’s cat describes a mythical animal that remains in superposition –that is, in an infinite number of places and conditions – until it is observed by human eyes. According to the paradox, the famous cat is both dead and alive until someone sees it – once, the cat is measured by the human eye, that is, said to be in specific place, the animal ceases to be both dead and alive as the system collapses into either one of the two existential possibilities – the cat having been simultaneously dead and alive before we look at it, now is either dead or alive.

Schrobear #75 was nourished to act as a actual, living surrogate for Schroedinger’s famous cat. He had been selected for his resilience the way astronauts are chosen for their adventures – his role was to ride a quantum oscillator and, thereby, be in two places at one time. Scientists had constructed a tiny membrane of silicon nitride, a film only eight times the width of a DNA molecule. A silica crystal polished as a mirror was placed as a target in the center of the microscopic fleck of silicon nitride and the assemblage itself was fused into a quadrangle of flexible supporting fibers. This structure, cradling the membrane with its mirror target at its center, was built to oscillate. When set in motion, the membrane wiggled like gelatine, a tremor that could be induced by a laser-coherent stream of photons. If the membrane were set in motion, oscillating like a tiny trampoline, by photons of one wave-length, a subsequent burst of different wave-length photons, shot against the silicon mirror, would send the silicon nitride platform into superposition – in other words, nudged by two jets of photons at different wave-lengths (that is having different energy) the membrane could be made to oscillate at two separate superposed frequencies. In this state, the membrane is a quantum oscillator, demonstrating superposition. The experiment, although relatively easy to describe in principle, is difficult to perform – the quantum oscillator has to kept from decoherent factors that would collapse the system and destroy its superposition. Practically, this meant that the quantum oscillator had to be isolated in a chamber without impinging air or gas molecules and kept at a fixed temperature very close to absolute zero. The only impulse allowed to act upon the oscillator would be the variable wave-length photon streams emitted by a laser. Ordinary light, which is decoherent (that is, a melange of wave-lengths) would also have to be excluded from the vacuum chamber where the oscillator was mounted. The plan, therefore, was to load Schrobear #75 onto the oscillator’s membrane, evacuate air and exclude light from the experimental chamber and, then, cool the system to a few degrees above absolute zero. Then, the membrane would be nudged into superposition by coherent beams of photons from a laser aimed at the mirror on the oscillator. Schrobear #75 was perfect for the experiment – the conditions in the experimental chamber that would be lethal to almost all other forms of life would not affect him in the short term.

Schrobear #75 felt the signals impinging upon him lessening. His vents and ducts closed. He was no longer hungry even in his dreams. Blackness funneled into him through the columns of his eyes. Duration ceased. Then, a word was spoken. The word was like thunder: LET THERE BE LIGHT! He trembled at the command. Again lightning flashed and the words of thunder rumbled again. His bristles quivered and he was suddenly hungry but not only inside but also outside. He was hungry both within and without and his hunger was beyond him extending to the edge of existence and, also, concentrated at his center. He felt that the dispersal of his hunger threatened to tear him apart but there was really nothing to rend because he was already everywhere and nowhere. Then, everything flattened. He fell through layers of himself into himself.

Schrobear #75 was in wetness. He felt the locks of his carapace come apart and he was free from constraint. In the microscope, the technician noted that Schrobear #75 evacuated particles in his rectum while shedding his skin. He left the little heap of debris behind him, a heap of discarded garments, and ambled along on his little rigid legs, eating nematodes like popcorn.

Sugito, killed by a crocodile



Sugito, killed by a crocodile


 

 
He was born in a highlands village and given a name that people in the city could not pronounce. His grandfather was a warrior and had taken many heads. His grandfather’s father was also a "big man", famous for killing many enemies in feuds and hanging the skulls like gourds in his long-house. Several times, the Dutch put his great-grandfather in jail for homicide, although he was never imprisoned for very long – black fellows killed black fellows, revenge-murder was the law of nature. The skulls of enemies that his grandfather had taken were from Japanese soldiers. When Sugito was little, several times a year the old man decked himself in a headdress resplendent with the tail-feathers of bower birds and showed his grandson his trophy-skulls, hidden in hut deep in the jungle and made from canvas and metal peeled from crashed war planes.

His mother was Chinese and very gentle. She worked as a nurse in the clinic near the highlands village where her husband farmed and raised pigs. People were poor in highlands’ villages and the forests around them had been devastated by logging. Mines tore off the tops of mountains and the streams were red with poisons leached from the slag from the open pits. After awhile, no one could live in the hills anymore and, so, most of the people came down from the highlands to seek work in Sarong City. It was in the slums of that town that his boss, a fat Malaysian fishmonger, named the slender boy, Sugito and that was how he was called when the crocodile killed him.

Sugito was baptized Lutheran and he was married in a church in Sarong City. The wages paid by the fishmonger were insufficient to support his wife and family and, so, he took a job in a factory that made tofu. The factory was owned by a Japanese corporation but the supervisors were all men from Papua Barat. At first, Sugito worked in the granary unloading trucks laden with sacks heavy with soybeans. After a couple years, he hurt his back and couldn’t lift the 100 kilo bean sacks and, so, he was assigned lighter duty inside the steamy factory where the beans were boiled and the curds separated from the milk used to make tofu. The tofu curds or paste was pressed into blocks that a conveyor nudged into a stainless steel trough filled with cold water. Sugito’s job was to score the pressed cream-colored blocks of tofu with a cutting device, making a forty cubes of soybean curd from each block. He worked ten hours a day and made enough money to buy for himself a small, used motorbike. Sugito used the motorbike to travel to and from work. He lived in a tin-roofed house on the outskirts of a small village separated from Sarong City by a few miles of rice-paddies and some small palm-shaded pastures where cattle and swine were raised.

Sugito’s wife was sickly. She died after her second child, a son, was born. Sugito sent his two sons to Sarong City to a Lutheran boarding school. He wanted them to learn English and Chinese. If you could speak English, tourists bound for the World War Two wrecks in the harbor and, beyond, that the great coral reef required guides. People came to Sarong City from America and Europe where everyone spoke English and, of course, Australia. The garbage and mud in the City appalled the tourists but it was merely a way-station for the beaches on the archipelago beyond the harbor with its shoals of half-submerged destroyers and troop transports. The City fathers hoped to develop tourist attractions in Sarong – there was an unique pagoda downtown and some crocodile farming operations that allowed visitors to tour their breeding ponds, but the city was poor and chaotic and most Western visitors didn’t stay long. An ability to speak some Mandarin Chinese was a prerequisite to working at the big storage container facility located behind high barbed wire fences out on the cape. The place paid good wages and Sugito hoped that his sons might find employment there. All his life, he had struggled to find work and didn’t want his two boys to experience the poverty that he had suffered.

Except for holidays when his boys came back to the village, Sugito lived alone. He was too shy to be successful with women and his cheeks were pockmarked from a disease that had almost killed him when he was a baby and, so, he didn’t consider himself to be attractive in any way. He earned enough money to visit a prostitute with whom he was friendly a few times a month. At work, he was well-liked. He went to church every Sunday in the village by the tofu factory and served as a lay-pastor delivering the sacraments to people who were too sick to leave their homes.

In 2013, after much dispute in the city council, an Indian company opened a crocodile farm near the village. Sugito had never seen a live crocodile although, like everyone in Papua Barat, he had heard tales about monstrous reptiles gliding through the harbor shallows where people built their homes on stilts and snatching dogs and, even, full-grown pigs from their cages. When he was a little boy, Sugito’s grandfather showed him the ruin of a canoe that his clan had once owned – a long vessel hacked from a huge tree trunk with its prow carved like the fanged snout of a crocodile. The people in Sugito’s village didn’t want the crocodiles to live next to them, but the Indian businessman said that the animals would be confined behind a wall and that no one in town would ever see them. Further, the Indian businessman said that the crocodiles, raised for their skins that could be fashioned into handbags, would provide a source of revenue and employment for people in the village. When Sugito heard this, he shrugged: "I’m not interested in herding crocodiles." The village council licensed the operation and some earthmovers arrived to gouge-out some shallow pits where the reptiles could wallow. A stout wall of bricks more than six feet high was built around the crocodile farm. The wall was equipped with a mechanized gate and a sentry-house where an old man dressed in an army surplus soldier’s uniform drowsed away his days and nights, his AK-47 automatic rifle resting across his desk like a paper-weight. True to what the Indian businessman had said, no one could see the reptiles inside the enclosed acre of land, but people said that they could smell them – a thick, metallic odor that was veined with the stench of rotting carrion.

A truckdriver’s strike in Sarong City disabled the tofu factory. There was fighting in the streets and checkpoints halted traffic and the trucks that delivered soybeans to the factory were detained in the city. For a day or two, the workers at the factory cleaned the place, polishing the machines until they shined, and, then, there was nothing to do so the laborers were furloughed. The plant’s temporary closing was doubly inconvenient to Sugito. He lost wages, of course, but, also, was deprived of feed for his cattle – it was his custom to buy bags of soybean husks, a byproduct of producing tofu, as a feed-supplement to the grass on which his cattle grazed. It had been dry for several months and the trees were mostly denuded by hungry deer and the grass was mummy-brown and shriveled as if the nutrients had been roasted out of it. Sugito’s cows and his calf were gaunt and they bawled like hungry babies in the dusty pasture near his home.

Sugito sometimes drank in a local tavern with the security guard at the crocodile farm. The man told him that there was high green grass, bearded with seed, around the ponds where the reptiles lounged. He said that if Sugito bought him four or five rounds of drinks, he would look the other way when his friend slipped through the access gate to the crocodile breeding station. "Just be careful," the drunk and red-faced guard told Sugito. He added that at midday the crocodiles were lethargic, wallowing motionlessly on their pale bellies in the stinking mud, jaws wide-open to ventilate bellies full of chicken carcasses and frozen rats. "You can easily outrun them," he said.

The next day, a little after noon, Sugito took three burlap sacks and a box-cutter and went to the gate in the brick wall. He nodded to the security guard and, then, strolled into the enclosure. It was as the guard had described – the big reptiles looked sunstruck, resting like half-submerged logs in the shallow, algae-encrusted ponds. Small crocodiles, most of them the length of man’s thigh, crowded together, paving the mud with their corrugated, scaly backs. Sugito saw the man-made marshes fringed with chest-high stands of reeds and swamp-grass. The air was filthy with the stink of the beasts.

Sugito crouched in the high grass, slashing the reeds to make sheaves that he thrust into his burlap sacks. In a shallow, watery trench a couple yards away, a ten-foot crocodile was lounging in the ooze. The reptile smelled Sugito, shifted slightly sideways, and, then, rolled over thrashing its huge tail like a flyswatter against the man poaching the grass. Sugito was flung from the grass toward the lagoon where smaller crocodiles twisted and lunged toward him. The big crocodile scuttled toward Sugito and bit him in two. Several small crocodiles took his hands and feet in their jaws, and, corkscrewing, yanked his joints apart. Two men in a golf cart saw the reptiles tearing Sugito apart and drove to the place where the creatures were writhing around him. They beat the crocodiles with metal rods equipped with big sharp hooks and drove the animals back into the deeper water where they opened their jaws and hissed like snakes.

The authorities were called and the fragments of Sugito were collected in a khaki-green body bag. A couple days later, a Lutheran pastor said some words over the urn holding his cremated remains. The church was thronged with people and it was very hot and sticky in the sanctuary. Someone suggested that the crocodiles should be made to suffer for murdering Sugito. Others took up a chant denouncing the reptile farm. The church ladies had made some sandwiches and there were pies and brownies in the fellowship hall, but, when the service was over, no one went to partake of that food. Instead, the crowd surged out of the church and rampaged through the village streets, more and more people joining the parade to the crocodile breeding station. By the time the mob reached the reptile farm, the throng of young men at the head of the procession were all armed with hammers or baseball bats or iron bars and pipe sections. The guard who had admitted Sugito to the lagoons a few days earlier saw the throng approaching and ran from his station to where his Vespa was parked and, then, zoomed away. The mob smashed down the guard-house and broke the gate and, then, lassoed the crocodiles, yanking them out of the slimy water and clubbing them to death. The baby crocodiles were easy to kill: people picked them up by the tail and simply swung them overhead, smashing out their brains on the brick wall enclosing the reptile farm. The larger crocodiles, several of them as long as 12 feet, had to be muzzled by wrapping rope around their jaws. Then, crowds of men dragged the reptiles to a pit half-full of garbage, hacking at them with big machetes and claw-hammers. When the crocodiles died, they rolled onto their backs kicking their legs in spasms in the air. The bellies of the crocodiles were pale green, segmented and the color of early morning mist on the river.

The mob killed 292 crocodiles. The insurance claim submitted by the Indian businessman to his insuring underwriters at Lloyds of London was for than more $300,000 in American dollars. The police stood by idly and did nothing to stop the crocodile massacre. "We were outnumbered," they later said. The mob poured gasoline over the heap of mutilated crocodiles and lit them on fire. Many of the creatures were not yet dead and they writhed as the flames bit into them.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Tattoos




 

 

Some years ago, when I was a young lawyer, my firm represented a medium-sized corporation headquartered in our town. While reading death notices in the paper, I learned of the death of the mother of the privately-held corporation. A few hours later, the owner of the business called me and asked if I could do him a favor. Of course, I was eager to please.



The big boss told me that his daughter and her husband were addicted to methamphetamine. As a consequence, the boss was caring for his two grandchildren, a boy and a girl – the two little kids were about 4 and 6 years old. He said that during his mother’s funeral, it would be difficult for him to baby-sit the two small children and, so, he wondered if I could do this for him. I thought it an odd assignment, but agreed to help.



The two children were very small and blonde and cute. I lost track of the boy early on and don’t recall what happened to him. But I kept the little girl close to my side. She played on the floor in my office, coloring on a legal pad, while I waited for the time to leave for the funeral. My instructions were that she should attend the funeral and sit next to me in the pew. The little boy was supposed to come as well but I seemed to have lost him.



The funeral was held at a big mortuary with a large L-shaped room in which people were gathered for the obsequies. The mortuary had a white colonial-style exterior with pale steeple. Parking was to the side and behind. There were many cars and it was hard to find a place. The parking lot, a very large expanse of asphalt, was also (as I remember it) L-shaped. A large Methodist church rose over one of the legs of the L-shaped lot – probably the funeral home and the church shared that lot. The church was square and heavy-looking with great masonry walls and it was set upon a platform above tiers of grey, granite steps.
 

I led the little girl by hand into the funeral home. Her cousins and aunts and uncles were all gathered near the door and they cried out her name when she entered. She was very happy to see her relatives – I remember her little face beaming with joy. (She didn’t understand that her grandma had died or, if this had been told to her, she didn’t know what death meant.) Because of the crowd, we were given little tickets marked with numbers. Apparently, the seats in the big room were somehow numbered.

After greeting some people that I knew, I walked with the little girl into the big room. The casket was at the front of the room, next to the door through which we entered. It stood on structure of rails covered in spotless white cloth. A paradise of flowers stood behind the casket. Nearby, there was a pulpit. All of the seats in the room facing the casket were occupied. I saw the corporate executive in the front row with his wife and nodded to him.


Because there were no seats in the part of the room in which the casket and pulpit were located, I took the little girl into the other part of the room. In that area, people were lounging around less focused, of course, because the casket and preacher were not in front of them. I searched the chairs for numbers correlating to the ticket stubs I held. But, if there were numbers, they were invisible to me. It took me a long time to find a place to sit and, while we were looking for chairs, the service began. I could hear organ music and, then, a liturgy conducted in the part of the room with the casket and flowers and pulpit. Finally, I sat down. The little girl had vanished. I assumed that she had seen one of her uncles or aunts and was sitting on that person’s lap in the room with the casket.
 

Just as I sat down, the service ended and everyone stood up and formed a line to shake hands with the grieving corporate executive. I was a little concerned that I had lost sight of the small girl. But I wasn’t worried – everyone here was a friend and I was sure that she had simply slipped into the custody of one of her relatives. The line moved slowly and, then, it dispersed and by the time I reached the next room, several men in dark suits were removing the casket and carefully disassembling the flowers. The whole thing was over.



I went outside and looked for my car. I had a red Honda and, although I couldn’t remember the exact number and letters on license plate, I was confident that when I saw the car I would recognize it. It was wintry afternoon and the sun was setting and a cold wind blew against my face. I hoped that the little girl wasn’t wandering around the parking lot alone, but I didn’t see her. Some kind member of her family had undoubtedly taken her into their care.



My car was not located in the part of the lot facing the white Colonial building and spire of the mortuary. I went around the corner into the larger lot under the steps leading up to the big Methodist church. A few beggars were sitting on the steps, shivering in the cold and, at the corner of the parking lot, a burning barrel was shrugging some orange flames into the sky – people were huddled around the fire. It became dark. A playing field of some sort was on one side of the parking lot and I saw a couple people stumbling around in the snow. At the burning barrel, people were talking about client’s mother and what a rough and tough and exemplary person she had been. Someone said that she ate potato chips in bed. Someone else remembered going to a hunting cabin with her. "She sure loved her potato chips," the man said.



The cars were all parked haphazardly and it was suddenly too dark to see them clearly. A voice sounded near me: "I hate to mention this, but it’s the end of the world." A cackle of laughter came through the darkness. I went back into the mortuary. It wasn’t clear whether I was searching for the girl or my car or both. Somehow, I found myself in the crematorium in the mortuary – there were stainless steel rails and a big arched masonry opening from which flames were lurching upward to stain the bricks with soot. I didn’t want to see what was burning and so turned away my face. A slogan in cursive handwriting was displayed on the wall.
 

The slogan was on the inside forearm of a heavily tattooed skin-head. Everything about the little girl and the missing car and the dead woman who loved potato chips was tattooed on the man’s arms and throat and calves – the skin-head was wearing shorts. The skin-head looked sleepy and he had a bristly beard. His bare skull was covered with inscrutable emblems.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Tight Squeeze



 



 


There are certain themes of which the interest is all-aborbing, but which are too entirely horrible for legitimate fiction. These the mere romanticist must eschew if he do not wish to offend or disgust...
"The Premature Burial" – Edgar Alan Poe (1850)

 

 

 

1.

The dog strained at her leash. She felt a disturbance in the atmosphere, pressure dropping, wind rousing itself sullenly as if resentful of the heaviness in the air opposing its motion. The streets were shadowless because the sun was hidden, gloomy with the dark, fragmentary clouds thrasing about in the sky.

I was eight blocks from my house when the first drops fell, cold and electric against my face. The dog shook her head as if besieged by mosquitos. Puddles already slumped along the gutter dimpled with the drizzle. Then, there was a crash and the sky opened and the deluge began. Ankle-deep torrents poured along the sides of the cambered residential streets and air was opaque with falling rain.

There was no point in hurrying. We were soaked in a minute and I felt my clothing hanging heavily from my body, sodden and chilly. Low places on the sidewalk were lakes through which we waded.

In 1979, British songwriter living on Long Island wrote "Escape" more popularly known as the Pina Colada song. Everyone seems to know this tune. In the song, a man who is bored with his relationship with his wife reads a personal ad in the newspaper. The personal lists the adventurous attributes that the correspondent desires in a romantic partner. A man answers the ad and arranges to meet the woman at O’Malley’s Bar. She turns out to be his wife and the two of them reaffirm their love, promising to "escape" together. (The author of the song, Rupert Holmes, describes the use of pina coladas in the first line of the personal as a fortuitous accident – he originally wrote "if you like Humphrey Bogart" but the name didn’t exactly match the song’s rhythm and so he used the name of the drink. Holmes doesn’t like pina coladas and has publicly said that they taste like kaopectate.)

The song is clever and has a catchy hook. It’s the kind pop song that bores into your brain. Once you hear it, the words and melody won’t leave you alone. The lyrics began: If you like pina coladas/ And getting caught in the rain/ If you’re not into yoga/ And have half a brain. The song continues with a daringly extended phrase: If you like making love at midnight/ In the dunes on the cape –the rush in the prosody of the line approximating the risk that the writer is taking and her increasing excitement. Needless to say, "cape" is used to rhyme with "escape" – then, we’ll make our escape.

The song celebrates a certain kind of freedom, lyric spontaneity, a willingness to take risks. Wet to the bone, I went into the back of my house, the little mud-room where there are washers and dryers and hanging coats and tennis shoes. With the force of revelation, I realized that I didn’t like getting "caught in the rain." In fact, I was shivering and my soaked clothing clung to me in an embrace that I found repulsive and the downpour outside wasn’t an exciting thing – it was just a loud and furious nuisance.

Later, my muscles all ached. I felt very low. I was disappointed with myself and a great door, it seemed, had slammed shut on me.



2.

Omodt’s family had come from the Sudan and escaped murder by the "skin of their teeth." When Omodt was eight or nine, he heard someone use that phrase at a Mission dinner at the Church that sponsored his family. He was puzzled and wondered at the words – after all, your teeth, if properly brushed, don’t have a skin at all.

In the Sudan, men came with jeeps and pickup trucks to villages. Sometimes, the men killed people where they lived, slaughtering everything that moved or breathed, including the cattle and goats. They burned up the huts and left the bodies lying where they fell. At other times, the men selected their victims, loading people into the pickup trucks until their vehicles rested heavy on their axles. They drove the villagers into the woods where there were ravines or eroded gulches and shot the people so they pitched down into those places. Omodt didn’t remember anything about this – he had been a babe at his mother’s breast when his family walked across the desert and sought refuge in Ethiopia.

Omodt’s father worked killing chickens in a factory on the prairie outside the small town where the Church that sponsored them was located. Although he had learned a little English in the Sudan, he never acquired much proficiency with the language. He was often very frustrated and told his children that he wished he could return to Africa. He told Omodt that when the killings began, he and his wife went into the brush a dozen yards from their home and, after pushing their way twenty or thirty meters through the undergrowth, cut a trail that led through the thickets to the river. People in the village customarily walked to the river by a wide, dusty path. The ancient trail was used by women carrying water and it made a clear, straight way to the river. Omodt’s father and mother hacked their path through the bush a couple hundred meters to the side of the old trail and it was a very narrow way, just wide enough for one person to flee along. The new trail was concealed by dense shrubbery near the house, but the way to the path was marked by a nondescript pail, rusted-out and useless except as a guidepost. After a thousand meters, the new trail descended to a marsh full of sucking mud and green and blue crabs. Omodt’s parents dismantled some of plywood sheets comprising the ceiling in their house and, by the light of the moon, dragged those wood planks to the swamp to make walkways. The planks ended on the shore of the river where a tiny boat, a raft with empty jerry-cans as floats, was hidden in the tall marshes.

When the men wearing red bandanas and stolen watches like ringlets on their forearms came in their jeeps and pickup trucks, Omodt’ parents took their children and plunged into the brush behind their house, kicking over the pail in their haste. They darted along the secret trail and, then, hopped over the planks in the marsh to reach the little raft hidden in the marshes. Night was falling and they heard the rattle of automatic rifle fire in the village and, then, saw little conical orange flames rising above the trees where the village was located. Omodt heard this story many times and he, often, thought of the tiny trail machete-cut through the thicket.

Omodt’s father had a stroke and died before he was fifty. Omodt’s mother had trouble with her boys. Omodt listened to rap and fancied himself a gangster. He was invulnerable. After all, hadn’t he survived near death in the Sudan? Before he was ten, Omodt had memorized the system of alleyways behind the houses in his town. The alleyways mostly cut through the blocks, lined by backyards full of lunging, frustrated dogs and little detached garages. The alleys formed a regular grid except that there were exceptions, a half-dozen or so. Several alleys simply dead-ended at fences guarding people’s back yards. In four of the alleys, there were intersections. For some reason, a few blocks were much longer than others and the alleys passing through those tracts of homes formed intersections with other alleys that turned in one direction or the other to the street. Omodt had a small bicycle – the alleys were too rough with big pot holes and alligator-scaled broken asphalt for his skateboard – and he rode along them, imagining that they were avenues for escape, ways to get away from his house and flee through the night and, even, elude pursuers. When he was little, Omodt imagined the pursuers as the men in the battered jeeps and old pickup trucks, but, later, after he had been in some trouble, he thought of the people chasing him as cops in their blue uniforms in cars with police dogs and spinning red lights. On the TV, he saw that the police often shot Black boys and, of course, he couldn’t help but think of himself as gunned-down lying in his blood on a sidewalk or a driveway. He never imagined himself shot to death in the alleys because he knew that they could be used to engineer an escape from any place in town where he might be in jeopardy: all you had to do was reach an alley and, then, hurry along to one of those idiosyncratic intersections and flee in that direction leaving the authorities to roar down one of the dead-ends and crash against the backyard fence, maybe, even knocking it down so that the front of the car would plow into the gazebo behind the house or the small trampoline.

A Somali man ran a little Halal grocery. Omodt sometimes went to the grocery and sat with the man watching soccer matches on TV. The man had cases of Tusker beer in a cooler hidden below the shop but he couldn’t sell the stuff openly because he didn’t have a liquor license. When Omodt was 14, the man sometimes gave him a beer in exchange for making deliveries on his bicycle or lugging distressed produce out to the dumpster behind the store. The Tusker beer was very strong, more like a malt liquor than most American brews, and, when he drank it, Omodt became quite drunk.

Omodt knew where the cases of Tusker were kept and, sometimes, he helped himself to a bottle. The Ethiopian sent money home by wire and, often, went down the block to the Mexican bakery and grocery where there was an Envios de dinero. When he was away from the cash register, Omodt sat behind the counter and managed the till and, sometimes, even took for himself some of the cigarettes that the Ethiopian kept in a box. The Ethiopian sold cigarettes individually and not by the carton. He also sold aspirin and tylenol by the pill – this was how these medications were sold in his home country.

One afternoon, Omodt was drunk and he fell off his bike and scuffed both knees. He blamed the Ethiopian for his injuries which were minor but painful. As he was walking his bicycle along the sidewalk, it began to rain. At first, Omodt shrugged off the cold drops of water bombarding his head and shoulders but, then, he heard the hiss of the oncoming deluge and looked around for a place to wait out the storm. The Elk’s club didn’t exactly abut the old bank building, now a shop selling second-hand clothes for bigger ladies. A gap opened between the buildings. The space between the facades was about a yard wide and, above, someone had placed some plywood boards spanning the gap between the structures. Omodt left his bike at the curb and entered the opening between the store-fronts. It was dry under the plywood although water was merrily splashing down on both sides of where he was standing. Behind him, the gap narrowed and, in fact, came to an inaccessible point, a dead end too tight to enter, the vertex of the elongated pie-shaped space between the buildings. The space behind him was floored with raw, greyish gravel littered with broken glass and, at the place where the opening constricted and was too narrow to enter there was a stack of shingles set against the wall, probably asbestos-bearing and, therefore, impossible to trash, and a scabrous-looking pair of underpants. The rain pouring down on either side of the plywood boards overhead splashed his ankles and calves. The cavernous fissure between the buildings, coming to a point forty feet from the sidewalk, fascinated Omodt. Here was a wonderful place to hide, an inexplicable opening in the downtown where a bandit or outlaw could conceal himself, lurking in the shadows as the pursuers ran back and forth on the sidewalk only a few feet away.

A couple months passed. Omodt was arrested on the street for minor consumption and found with pockets full of cigarettes. The police raided the Halal grocery and fined the owner several thousand dollars. The next time Omodt came around to watch soccer with owner of the store, the man threatened him, shouting in Arabic, a language that was offensive to Omodt, and, even, brandishing a small pistol at him. Omodt waited until nightfall and, then, walked downtown. It was a couple hours before the bars closed but after the downtown cafes had shut their doors and so the streets were empty. Some drunks were hooting in the parking lot behind the bars. A Laotian cook sat on the stoop of his restaurant smoking a cigarette. Kids were cruising the downtown drag playing bumper-tag but there was no one on the sidewalk except a teenage girl every two or three blocks, all of them walking furiously as if on a mission. Most of the upper windows over the storefronts were dark and hooded but a few of them shone with yellow light. In the former hobby shop, old men sat around a couple of tables playing cards under lights that gave their cheeks and white whiskers a greenish tint.

Omodt found a brick fallen from a facade crumbling after a fire. The brick had been scorched and was marked with soot and char. He carried the brick to the front of the Halal grocery. The windows above the grocery were covered with thick tapestries – Omodt knew this from having been in the owner’s apartment – and only a little honey-colored light oozed around the edges of the window-frame. The air smelled faintly of turmeric.

Omodt pitched the brick underhand against the big window at the front of the store. The brick bounced off the window and fell at his feet. He reached down and threw the brick overhead. This time, it pierced the window and sailed far into the store and the glass fell in a satisfying way, sheets of it descending to explode on the pavement. Someone shouted and Omodt ran away. He dashed through an alley to the street on which second-hand clothes emporium was located. In the distance, he saw the sign announcing the Elk’s Lodge. A couple blocks behind him, a siren shrieked. The sidewalk in front of the Elk’s Lodge was empty. Some big old Buicks and Lincoln Continentals like boats were drawn up in front of the Lodge. A mannequin in the second-hand shop for big ladies beckoned blankly at him.

Omodt dived into the gap between the buildings and plunged back into the darkness, passing by the stack of asbestos shingles, and, then, leaned back until the walls on both sides of him gripped tight. A police cruiser with its light swirling red against sidewalk and walls sluiced by. Omodt backed deeper into the crevasse and, then, his foot caught on a beer bottle pitched deep into the recess and he lost his balance. He started to fall backward and, indeed, one of his legs came off the ground, but the tight vertex between the Bank and the Elk’s Lodge caught him. His shoulders were now constricted so that he couldn’t raise his arms and he felt as if the walls were now tightening to crush him. The vise gripping him half-upright compressed his chest and he couldn’t breathe properly.

The walls constricting his shoulders and chest were solid and utterly immoveable. Omodt felt his whole world, everything that he knew and believed, and all of his memories converging in those impenetrable walls. He gasped and cried-out and, then, a flashlight probed the darkness, its beams alighting on his face.

"He’s here," a cop cried. "Come out of there, you motherfucker!"

Omodt shouted that he was trapped.

"Trapped, my ass," the cop said. Again he blinded Omodt with the beams of his flashlight. "If I have to come in there and haul out your ass, I’m gonna tase you."

"I’m stuck," Omodt said.

More cops gathered. The slit in the wall was only a couple blocks from the Law Enforcement Center.

A dog barked.

"Send in the police dog officer," one of the cops cried.

"No dog!" Omodt cried. He was afraid of dogs.

The dog was big as a mule. It pranced into the fissure between the buildings. Omodt howled and the dog lunged forward to seize his left calf in its jaws.

"Don’t you hurt my dog," the cop screamed.

The dog yanked and yanked at Omodt and he felt his pants tear first and, then, the flesh in his leg.

"It’s killing me," Omodt cried.

"Here Gunther," the cop said. Gunther was the name of the police dog officer. Reluctantly, Gunther backed out of the crevasse. Omodt felt blood pooling in the tennis shoe on his left foot.

"Good dog," the cop said.

Someone else said: "He’s jammed in there." Another voice said: "Get Lieutenant Nguyen."

Lieutenant Nguyen was Vietnamese and very slender. Omodt began to scream for help.

After awhile, Lieutenant Nguyen appeared. "What’s the racket?" he asked.

Four or five flashlight beams skittered over the broken glass and the heap of old asbestos tiles.

"We’ve got to the pull this shithead out of the crack," the cop with the dog said.

"He’s bleeding like a stuck pig," Lieutenant Nguyen said.

"The asshole tried to hurt Gunther," the dog-cop said.

Omodt could see the shadow of the big hound with his tail wagging frantically. The dog hunched up to deposit a big coil of shit on the sidewalk.

"He’s excited," the dog-cop said apologetically.

Lieutenant Nguyen stepped sideways into the crevasse and edged toward Omodt.

"Please get me out," Omodt said.

Lieutenant Nguyen reached out his hand and said: "Grab a hold, buddy, and I’ll pull you out."

"I can’t move my arms," Omodt replied. Nguyen shook his head in disgust and backed away.

On the sidewalk, Lieutenant Nguyen asked: " How’d he get jammed in there?"

A chorus of voices from other cops said: "It’s not our fault."

Someone said: "We’re gonna have to get a wedge of some kind and winch the buildings apart."

"What?"

"We have to separate the buildings, use a big pry-bar to pry them apart," one of the cops said.

"How will that work?" Lieutenant Nguyen said.

"Maybe, use the ‘Jaws of Life’, you know, the car-crash extraction device."

"I don’t think so," Lieutenant Nguyen said. The police dog officer barked merrily.

Omodt knew that he was trapped forever. His world had narrowed to this dark slit that seemed to press ever more tightly against him with each breath that he took. He groaned and tears coursed down his cheek.

 

3.

I have always been interested in caves. When I moved to this part of the world, I learned that the land just beyond the county-line was karst formation riddled with deep and intricate caves. Sometimes, I spent weekends driving the gravel roads in the next county, studying from my car the hundreds of sinkholes dotting the terrain. The sinkholes were funnel-shaped and their sloping sides were covered with old trees and dense sumac underbrush and there were yellowish limestone boulders at the base of the pit, half-covered with rusted-out augers and other farm equipment. There were a couple commercial show-caves that I toured. In one of them, a high slippery dome was pierced by a tiny stream and a ribbon of water, about the width of the flow from a garden hose, plummeted down into the muddy darkness.

I found an old map, printed in the late sixties, and it was marked with a red dot showing the location of something called Coldwater Cavern. I searched along the county roads for some sign of the cavern but there were no markers. At the church-school nearby, an expensive Lutheran college famous for its choirs and orchestras and bands, I saw an exhibit of pictures showing Coldwater Cavern. The images were glistening with light reflected off flowstone formations and the slick walls of the huge cave seemed to be decorated with rock shapes that looked like dolphins and the humped backs of whales. The black and white photographs were lustrous with cave-ooze glistening on stone but there was nothing that explained where the cavern was located or how to enter it.

I looked at some plat maps and found several tracts of land that didn’t seem owned by local farmer but, rather, an enigmatic nature conservancy. One of these acreages was at the side of a winding country lane, at the bottom of a long ravine leading to a narrow valley where a creek braided itself across a meadow and, then, slid over a bed of bright pebbles next to a grey, striated and overhanging cliff. I found a path mowed across the meadow and, even, a stile that crossed a barbed wire fence. The mowed path led to the creek side where the water made a deep puddle under the frowning cliff face and vanished. I supposed that this was the siphon that led under the rock to Coldwater Cavern, but I was never able to verify this one way or the other.

Katherine worked for me as a paralegal. She was from the bluff country where the sinkholes and caves were located. Katherine said that she knew of an old show-cave, closed now for many years, but still accessible. The local kids explored the cave and, if I wished, she and her husband, Nick, would show me the place. Of course, I was excited at this opportunity.

Today, an interstate freeway courses across the hilly, green country, deep valleys with slopes too steep to plow covered by old trees, tiny serpentine creeks gushing from narrow ravines, and small outcroppings of limestone, slate-grey or chalk-colored among the groves. We met at a bar at a crossroads on one of the last exits before the state-line. A church and some mobile homes were scattered around the intersection and the bar had a long porch and a kind of hitching rail where people could tether their motorcycles. Katherine and Nick were in a battered pick-up and there was a local man, someone with access to the land riding between them in the cab. I followed them along the old state highway down a steep hill to the bottom of the nearby valley. Then, we got out and hiked up the slope, opening several stock-gates and passing some troughs for the cattle. The big animals were resting in the shade of the trees on the hillside. A zigzag path, once covered with wood chips but now mostly overgrown climbed toward the bluff-top. The cave was accessed through a big metal door set in a concrete block retaining wall.

The door was covered with red rust and it was both tightly shut and chained. The local man clawed at the door until it was open about 10 inches and, then, slid the chain down so that it lay on the ground at the threshold. He was slender and sunburned and, without any difficulty, he slid through the opening. It was a hot day and a fine mist gathered around the opening into the cave.

Katherine and Nick slipped through the opening. Then, it was my turn.

"I don’t think, I’ll fit," I said.

"Just suck in your gut and push through," Nick said.

I inhaled and put one leg through the slit. Then, I turned my head to the side and pressed my belly against the heavy metal door. I was caught for a moment and tried to turn my head to look down. My nose and cheek hit the cold metal hard enough to make me feel that my nose was bleeding.

"Come on!" someone shouted. I leaned to the side to let gravity pull me down and, then, my shirt ripped, buttons spraying off into the darkness and I was inside. It felt as if I had gouged my stomach badly. I ran my fingers up and down my midsection. Except for the torn shirt, I seemed more or less intact.

The air in the cave was musty and smelled of earthworms and mud. I could see flashlight beams prodding caramel-colored thighs of flowstone, slick and wet and rising to cracked groin overhead. I turned on my flashlight and saw some old electrical wire dangling down from an eroded panel spiked into the cave wall. Flows of mud had buried most of the concrete sidewalk, but bits of it were visible, between ankle-deep tongues of slushy-looking dirt. I stumbled ahead and caught up with the group. They were standing about a hundred feet beyond the door in a bulb-shaped room. Some big tablet-shaped rocks had fallen from the dome overhead and, when the flashlights were turned upward, we could see a fissure lined with little white stalactites, all of them soaking wet, and, then, higher, a rock vault through which spidery roots of trees penetrated. I had a strong sense of trespass, that we had entered a place where we were not supposed to be. Everyone was whispering as if to avoid alarming the spirits in the place. Several crawl-spaces radiated away from the room and there was a corkscrew-like hole in the floor. We edged around the hole and saw that the room was rimmed with fragile terraces of pale flowstone, some of them cupping pools of cold water. At the far end of the room, the walls and ceiling came to a kind of point, a vertex barricaded by fat, greasy boulders fallen from the ceiling.

"It goes on past those rocks," the local man said. Droplets of water decorated his forehead like gems. "But you have to crawl," he added.

The cave was really just a cramped tunnel leading to this room. Big shadowy holes opened up to the side, sockets in a black skull. "You can go down those side passages," the local man said. "They don’t really go anywhere."

A forest of six-inch white stalactites caught our flashlight beams and raked them into serrated shadow and light.

We went back to the metal door. The door was still partly open and the warmth and humidity of the outside was palpable near that threshold. I could smell the grass outside and moist trees and, even, the warm mushroom-smell of the shadowy places under the sumac thickets.

One by one, the members of our group turned silhouettes and, then, inserted themselves through the opening. I was the last. The door frightened me. It’s edges felt cold and sharp. I pressed myself into the gap and was caught half-in and half-out of the opening. This time I panicked and exhaled and, then, was held fast in grip of the door. I pushed as hard as I could against the door but there was no give. In fact, the door seemed to fall back against me even more tightly and I was trapped.

On the grassy slope below the cave, my friends were laughing and pointing at the shit-colored smears of mud on their pants and shirts and their feet were all encased in the stuff. I saw them kick at the sod to knock the mud off their shoes and, then, begin slipping and sliding down the hill.

They were leaving me behind.

I had been practicing law for five or six years at that time and I fancied that I was a good lawyer, trustworthy and aggressive and clever. But where were all my briefs now, where my motions in limine because this moment was, indeed, in limine – that is, on the threshold, as it were? Where had my arguments and my pleadings and my statements of fact gone? Where were my summations, my client conferences, my letters dictated by the hundred, by the thousand even? Where was my easy facility with words, my glib self-assurance, my confidence and my expertise? I was helpless.

The door had slammed shut on me and I was caught half-inside and half-outside and my friends turned their back to me.

Katherine and Nick stood in a sunny spot on the hill, between two big, old oak trees. Cows dotted the valley. The local man took off his feed cap and waved it in the air and said something about wanting a beer. Then, they continued downhill, the green slopes exhaling with relief around them.

 

4.

The soil of Cappadocia is thin, a scalp six inches deep atop a brittle skull of compacted volcanic ash. The tufa ash is readily excavated – it is an excellent medium for tunneling.

I was on a bus tour of Turkey and we had come from the badlands, a territory of spiky pumice pillars and columns, many of them hollowed out to form caves where Christian hermits had once lived. In some of the caves there were pictures of God as a majestic emperor spreading his arms like the wings of a condor over the gloomy domes of crumbling volcanic ash. The Turks were Muslims and when they seized these grottoes and monastic cells, they went into the caves and pounded out the faces of Christ and his saints in the wall frescoes. The figures wore togas like Roman emperors and had long sensitive fingers and intelligent-looking toes but they were faceless.

We came down from the ridge all incised with dusty ravines and narrow portals between the chalk- and salmon-colored spires. My mother, traveling with us on this trip, had paid a man with a red fez to take her picture on a camel. The camel bowed to my mother but she was afraid to climb the rickety ladder necessary to mount the beast. The man with the fez was coaxing my mother up the wooden steps as if she were a balky camel herself.

We were traveling during the week that Australians remember their World War One dead at Gallipoli. About half of the tour group were boisterous Australians and quieter, more circumspect Kiwis from New Zealand. The bus crossed a desolate plain with eroded badlands around the edges of the high mesas with cypresses outlining their rims.

We came to an underground city. A small, poor-looking village occupied a hillside and there were some tractors plowing in a field, a few pickups parked around the edge of the hamlet and a couple of small cafes near the entrance to the hidden city, little lunch counters selling olives and felafel and shish-kabob doner on styrofoam plates. Red Coca-cola signs marked the cafes.

The tour guide told us that the underground city had been excavated in the 13th century when the Tartars, the Golden Horde had overrun this part of Turkey. The city was a place of refuge, a hiding place from the Mongols. Because of that history, the opening into the underground city was inconspicuous, a kind of shallow quarry, with a narrow, dusty passageway sloping down and away from the crater cut in the volcanic ash. There were slits in the pit wall on either side of the entry and a big, granite millstone round as the full moon, leaned against the grey pumice wall.

"This is not mandatory," the guide said. He was a Turk living in South Africa where he led safaris when it was winter in Turkey. It snows a lot in Turkey and can be very cold – the climate is, as they say, continental. During the winter in Turkey, when the roads were buried in snow and ice, the guide led wildlife tours in the veldt near his home in Johannisberg. He was a great admirer of Ataturk but opposed to Erdogan and said that he was happy that he had emigrated from his homeland.

"How bad is it?" a couple of the Australian women said. "Oh, not bad at all," the guide said. "It’s actually quite roomy down there. We will see a Christian church. But there’s a tight spot – you have to crawl on hands and knees about four meters – the roof is only a meter above the ground."

I did the calculations in my mind. My brother, Christopher, who is a big man, shook his head. He took my mother by the hand and said: "We’ll go to the café and have a beer."

This part of Anatolia was riddled with underground cities. Every village had a hole and a narrow passageway, readily defended by only a few men, slanting down into a warren of hollowed-out chambers. Battles had been fought at these places. The Mongols came upon deserted towns and searched for the people and, in most cases, they could hear them – sheep and lambs and goats bleating in secret corrals under the ground. Then, they attacked the entrances, but complex pulley-systems yanked the huge round granite slabs over the round portals leading underground. Those approaches were impenetrable and so the Mongols went over the dusty and stony hillsides, seeking places where they could sink shafts down into the caverns below. Generally, there was a funnel hidden somewhere over the city, access for rain-water filling a cistern underground. The Mongols tried to widen those shafts so that they could descend into the network of chambers below. They searched-out airshafts and melted lead over great fires, ladling the molten metal down the airshafts to seal them and burn out the defenders. Sieges like this lasted for weeks, even months, until the Mongols’ provisions failed – they lived off foraging on the land and, so, they departed.

The guide explained this to us, while handing out tickets. We waited in a line outside the shadowy, oval opening. You had to squat to enter and, then, walk with bent knees for about fifty feet on a steep trail that went downward, reversing itself on several small, gloomy landings for defensive purposes. The air was thick and pungent with rotting roots and, then, cooler as the darkness increased.

We stood in a little basilica, an inverted cup of crumbling ash-grey stone. Several shadowy angels with wings like dragonflies were faintly discernible in the vault above – they were faceless; the Mussulmen had erected some kind of scaffolding to hammer off their eyes and noses and mouths and the craters where their heads once had been gave them a sepulchral and macabre aspect. An eroded stone goblet, chiseled for a giant, rested in the middle of the floor – it was a baptismal font. Dark niches of uncertain depth crowded the walls like hooded monks.

We went down again. The underground city was comprised of featureless chamber extending to the right and left of the low corridor. An Ariadne’s thread of wire-and-post electrical cord linked bulbs, beams vibrating in the heavy, still air. Our feet tramped up clouds of powder and the hallway was so narrow that he had to walk through the gloom in single-file.

Every couple hundred feet, the corridor widened and there were round rooms with arched ceilings eight or nine feet all and niches as well benches carved into the wall – the burrow was all alike, one room like another, small cell-like chambers linked by low stoops extending indefinitely to the right and left of the hall. More small rooms, each about the size of a little car radiated away from the larger chambers. "There’s four levels like this," the tour guide for the underground city said over her shoulder.

"Over ten-thousand people could take refuge here," the guide told us. This tour-guide was a slender woman who seemed to shiver in the cold and was wearing a rubbery-looking windbreaker. This number seemed doubtful to me.

We walked some more and came to the squeeze. You had to kneel and crawl forward with your head down facing the dusty, pebble strewn floor. If you lifted your head, it would crack against the low-slung ceiling. At the narrowest point, shoulders and hips touched the walls on both sides.

Every one giggled nervously and the first couple tourists, more lithe and young than the rest of us scrambled through the keyhole with ease. I was behind an older man from Australia, a big broad, square-shaped fellow with shoulders like the horns of a bull. He looked fit and powerful. Everyone from Australia and New Zealand looked very fit and healthy, faces flushed with sun burn.

The man dropped to his knees and shoved ahead and I followed crawling after him with my face turned down over the backs of his tennis shoes. He reached the tightest part of the squeeze. Then, suddenly he stopped. I crawled forward and almost collided with the broad beam of his buttocks. "Nope," he said. He made a choking sound and his legs thrashed a little and I was afraid that his heels would kick me in the eye. Perhaps, he had inhaled some of the dust in the crawl space.

"Nope," he said again. His wife was ahead of him. "I told you so," she said. "Mate," he said to me, "can you back up a little?" I tried but my feet collided with someone jammed tightly against my buttocks. We were all crouched nose to ass in the narrow corridor.

"I got people tight on me behind," I said. The man moaned: "Nope." "Come forward," his wife called. With an effort and groaned, the man fell forward onto his chest and belly and, then, slowly writhed through the squeeze, twisting his hips sideways flopping like a fish out of water. "Oh, oh, oh," he said.  

I waited until he had cleared the tightest part of the crawlspace and, then, hustled through myself, head cocked downward. The walls clutched at me for a second and I was hyper ventilating, inhaling more of the pumice dust than was healthy and so coughing, but I came through on the other side. I had trouble getting off my bruised knees. The tiny tour guide was standing on the other side of the squeeze and she helped to pull me to my feet. The Australian ahead of me looked pale and his hands were shaking. "Is there anything more like that?" he asked. "No, nothing at all like that," the woman said. "That’s the worst of it."

The Australian shook his head and tried to get his breath, but, at first, seemed to have trouble inhaling and exhaling.

"You see," he said. "I was in Vietnam when I was 21 and I was assigned a platoon that had to clear out Viet Cong tunnels. They had whole armies hidden underground and you’d go down there and follow the stench and sometimes you’d find dead ones face to face with you in hole. Other times, they’d be alive and there’d be a bit of a grapple you might expect. I have nightmares about it."

The man’s wife was apologetic. "I should never have let you come down here," she said.

"It reminded me of the spider-holes in Vietnam," the big Australian said. Most of the things in the world, you can escape but not memories. They hunt you down.

Later, we stood blinking in the sun. The Australians were convivial. My brother and mother were sitting on steel chairs under a awning at the café down the street eating baklava. Later, the Australians demanded that the tour guide take us to liquor store in the next big town. Turkey is a Muslim city and liquor stores are rare as hen’s teeth. The bus maneuvered down some shady side-streets and found the store. The tour-guide and a couple Australians went into the bar and came out with several cases of Fosters – they treated everyone on the bus who wanted a beer to a cold one.

 

5.

A baby is born. The birth canal is tight. The child is lubricated with blood and amniotic fluid. Emerging from the womb, the infant shakes his clenched fists in the air like a tiny boxer.

 

6.

The flood found a slope that was otherwise imperceptible and magnified it. The torrent of water ran white with rapids along the edge of the plowed field, next to long wooden fence shielding the acres of wrecked cars from view. The cars were shattered and leaking fluids and the flood bore on its shoulders slicks of blood-red transmission fluid and brake fluid and iridescent shimmers of oil. The drainage ditch surged with water from the snow-melt and hissed as the cold drizzle fell into the bristling waves and across the stubble of the farm-land and the distant shelter belts bare and bony with winter and the old farmhouses standing by their old barns with white mud-slathered chickens in their yards.

Someone had left a red wheelbarrow on the slope tilting down to the furious drainage ditch. Hector thought something depended upon the red wheelbarrow. He lived with his parents and a half-dozen immigrants from El Salvador in the farmhouse across the State Highway from the auto salvage place. It was convenient: the immigrants cars were old and ruinous and, when they failed, the men could go across the State Highway to the salvage lots’ office, show the desk-man there the broken part on a picture on a cell-phone and, then, buy a replacement. The refugees’ small children played in the old outbuildings and cavernous empty barn on the farmstead, dive-bombed their by doves and swallows that nested in the rafters of the big building. This drainage ditch pierced the right-of-way under the State Highway. The white water was constricted by silver, corrugated culvert big enough for a man to walk through when the stream was low. On the side of the road where the immigrants lived, the water fanned out across the field deeper than the ditch and sent peacock-tail whorls of pale frothy water, some of it decorated with the discharge from the wrecked cars, across the open fields. The water looked dangerous and the mothers living in the farmhouse told their kids to stay away from it. The State Highway was always busy with cars speeding to and fro and it was a danger too. Hector knew that he wasn’t allowed to play in the water or, for that matter, cross the state highway. But, then, he saw the red wheelbarrow slick with rain and so much depended upon that wheelbarrow poised on the other side of the highway. Hector took a deep breath and looked right and left, hurrying across the asphalt and trying to make himself small so that his mama would not see him breaking her commandments.

The wheelbarrow cupped some brownish water pricked by the drizzle and there was a muddy tennis shoe dipped in the puddle there. The mud on the shoe was all clotted, brown, like a kind of glistening clay. Hector slid down the bank toward the white water slamming through the culvert. The water was fascinating, bearing white apparitions on its back. It was something you could watch for a long time.

A couple cars passed on the State Highway. Hector had a Tootsie Roll in his pocket and so he took off one of his mittens to reach for the candy. The mitten flopped down the steep embankment, it’s thumb prodded by the flood. Hector knew that his mother would be angry if he lost the mitten and, so, he put the candy still unwrapped back in his pocket and gingerly inched down the slope toward the mitten. When he was within arm’s reach, he extended his arm, lost his balance and plopped into the water. For a moment, his face was underwater, but, then, he turned over and could breathe. Hector put his feet down but couldn’t find the bottom and, already, his legs and arms felt numb.

The water propelled him toward the flooded culvert. He raised his hands to take hold of the culvert, but, then, the water sucked him under.

Hector surfaced once inside the culvert. There was an air-space big enough for him to look up to see the curved metal above him, clotted with parts of dead animals and thick bouquets of rotting leaves. The current was irresistable and it shot him toward the other side of the tunnel. He could see brightness there and white foam.

Some barbed wire was caught on a submerged tree braced diagonally in culvert’s outlet. The water forced Hector into the barbed wire and he was held fast. He kicked the tree and it shifted dragging him under.

At the farmhouse, a woman stood on the porch. She shouted a name. The stream overflowing the ditch fanned out over a muddy field. A truck passed on the highway above the culvert. Then, a mini-van hurried past, a woman at the driver’s wheel and two children buckled in behind her with a sloppy-looking reddish dog.

A half mile from the culvert, two deer came from a shelter belt to drink from a big puddle that reflected the sky and some high clouds overhead. A crow stood on a clod of mud watching the deer.

 

8.

My friend was a bit older and had many interests. He was the most vibrant lively man I ever knew. He thought that I was prone to melancholy and, so, often, he would walk down the street from his home, rouse me from my torpor, and take me for a walk. "Cheer up," he said. Then, he quoted Edmund Lear or, possibly, Lewis Carroll: "The world is so full of a number of things. It’s a wonder we’re not all as happy as kings." Then, we would walk for many blocks talking with one another. The way is short when you share it with a friend.

My friend knew a lot about jazz and he, sometimes, invited me into his house to listen to his records. He could read in several different languages and tried to teach me Greek and Latin grammar. (I couldn’t get the hang of it.) He traveled in Europe every Spring and, sometimes, brought back German books that he thought I would enjoy. He taught science classes at the Community College and was particularly admired for his lectures on geology and earth science. He had finagled his way into many mines deep in the earth and taken pictures of the underground workings that he could show as slides in his classes. When he was younger and more agile, he had explored some caves over in the bluff country above the Mississippi. He wrote a humorous column for the local newspaper and was an Elder at his Church. Sometimes, he was even invited to preach. I think he read two or three books a week and several magazines, although he was too frugal to subscribe to the periodicals – he read them in college library. He sang in a men’s ensemble, played tennis, and was writing a book about a famous mine rescue that had occurred in Montana. His working title for the book was A Tight Squeeze and told the story how brave men from several neighboring towns rushed to the mine calamity and rescued the men trapped underground.

One evening, I was watching TV and, it occurred to me, that I had not gone on a stroll for several months with my friend. This thought disturbed me a little and so I put on my shoes and walked down to his house six or seven blocks away. My friend’s wife met me at the door. She told me that my friend was napping but that he would be very glad for my company. I sat in the living room. It was gloomy and the walls and plaster ceiling had a greenish cast. My friend appeared and seemed happy to see me waiting for him. We went outside. A bat flew by.

My friend said: "The owl of Minerva flies only in the twilight."

"But that was a bat," I said.

"Just so," he replied.

The trees and lawns were shadowy. The streets were deserted.

My friend said that he was thinking of retiring from instruction at the Community College. He was entitled to a pension and said that he thought that he had better begin enjoying that money.

"Will you go to Paris this coming Spring?" I asked. My friend loved to visit Paris.

"No," he said. "It’s too much of a hassle. The flight just about cripples you."

I knew that my friend had fallen on the tennis court and twisted his knee. He no longer played tennis.

I asked him about jazz. He said that he hadn’t heard anything that interested him recently. "But I haven’t made much of attempt to hear new music," he told. In the past, he often traveled to Minneapolis where he enjoyed hearing musicians play in clubs. "We should go up there for some music," I said. "The traffic is awful," he replied.

A couple weeks later, I had lunch with him. He seemed distracted and told me that he had relinquished his newspaper column. "I don’t feel that I have much to say anymore," he explained. My friend told me that he no longer sang in the gospel ensemble.

"I don’t like the way my voice sounds," he said.

At the end of the semester, he retired from teaching. He stopped going to church. "I can’t pray anymore," he told me.

A month passed and I walked by his house and saw him sitting on his front porch. His eyes looked red.

He had a book on his lap. "What are you reading?" I asked.

It was the New Testament in Greek. "My eyes don’t work right," he said. "I can’t make out the letters."

I didn’t hear from him for several weeks and was alarmed. I went to his house and knocked on the door. "He’s napping," his wife said when she answered. "I’m afraid to bother him."

"I thought we could listen to some of his jazz records," I said. "He has given those away, all of them," his wife told me.

I said that I would take the chance of angering him and went to his bedroom. He was on his back without his glasses and looked old and frail.

He nodded slightly to me when I came into the darkened room.

"How is your book going?" I asked.

"I stopped writing it a year ago," he said. "It just seemed pointless."

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"I’m fine," he said. And, then, he turned his face to the wall.

Justice



 

 

 

The dreams were part of the program. As it turned out, everything was part of the program.

The congressman had been driven to a dinner with several important donors. All went well: pledges were made. "You can count on me," the congressman said. Things became confused. The congressman had to go to the toilet but couldn’t find the rest-room. It was embarrassing and inconvenient. A speaker droned on and on about undesirable criminal elements in certain parts of the city. The constituents were angry. The congressman looked for the toilet in an alleyway and, then, on the public street. The limousine was nowhere to be seen and he had an important vote to attend in the early afternoon. It’s hard to vote intelligently when you have to find a toilet.

Someone kicked his bare feet and the former congressman opened his eyes. He was lying on the desert and it was hard as concrete and very cold. An almost weightless mylar sheet covered him. There was another kick and a thump to his back when he sat up.

The foreman had a red face with a smashed nose and his hands were missing fingers. He shouted in the former congressman’s face and used his mutilated hand to punch him in the ear. The congressman stood up slowly, rolling onto his old knees and, then, rising slowly. His blood frothed in his ears and he was dizzy and almost lost his balance.

The sky was already hot and empty. The heat came down from above and lit the desert pavement on fire and, then, that hardpan reflected the heat back up into the vast blue sky. A range of bare mountains cut into ribs where flashfloods had scored the rock and gravel cut off the horizon. A vast number of people were huddled under mesquite, trembling and murmuring among themselves. Gradually, the ex-congressmen formed lines, slumped figures hunched under the pitiless light that poured down from above.

The former congressman tried to relieve himself behind a saguaro cactus, but a supervisor saw him there and came toward him waving a truncheon like cheerleader’s baton. The congressman covered his face, waiting for the man to strike him, but there was no blow. He thought it odd that the saguaro did not cast a shadow. He wet his pants and, then, went to stand in a line, expecting that food would be served in the tent at the end of the queue.

The sun was now erupting with full fury over the administrators and policy-makers and the former congressmen. Some of them were overcome by heat and fell to the side, twitching on the hard-baked desert floor. The former congressman was very thirsty and hungry as well. At the end of the line, a foreman handed him an eight-pound long-handled sledge hammer. There was no food and no water and the white canvas tent seemed to act as a magnifier to the heat.

"We can’t work without food and water," the ex-congressman said.

"You will be able to work just fine," the foreman said. The foreman was missing an eye and so sunburnt that his skin was blistered. He kept feeling between his buttocks, working to rearrange what was there.

Carrying the sledgehammer, the former congressman walked toward the job-site. One of the supervisors put him in a sort of yoke and had him work with three other politicians to pull a sledge loaded with a dozen concrete blocks. The construction work was above, on a low, sun-blasted hogback. The ex-congressman was barefoot and his feet left bloody prints on the slippery gravel comprising the hillside. Other people were bleeding as well and the paths up the slope were black and slick with gore.

They say that you build a wall by using a foundation pit twice as wide as the height of the structure you intend to build. If that rule was true, this wall would be more than 40 feet high, a sloping pyramidal structure one-course across at the top, but sixty-feet wide at the base. Huge heaps of hearting pebbles were piled around the pit. Some congressmen were sorting the heart stones. Their backs were bare and lacerated. There was no top to the ridge: when the former congressman reached the crest, the land gave way under him, opening to the excavation where they were building the foundations for the wall. It would be a mighty edifice, impossible to scale, as bulky as the pyramids or the Great Wall of China. The sledge with the dozen concrete blocks, toppled forward. The former congressman leaped aside but one of the senators was unable to elude the heavy pallet as it skidded down the steep gravel slope. The sledge cut across the senator’s lower leg and crushed it. He shrieked. It didn’t matter: many others were screaming as well. A foreman with warts all over his forehead approached. He had a long metal rod with a big hook on the end. The foreman put his hook in the senator’s lip and, then, pulled him away from the foundation pit, dragging him up the hill to a place where a number of disabled congressmen and -women were stacked. Some of them clawed at the desert pavement with what remained of their hands.

A couple lobbyists that the former congressman recognized dragged huge bales of re-rod down toward the courses of masonry embedded in the concrete. Concrete mixers churned and lime fumes burnt the congressman’s eyes and nose and made the back of his throat feel raw. The former congressman bear-hugged one of the concrete blocks and staggered forward with it. He fell and split open his knee. But he didn’t drop the block – that was very fortunate for him – and he was able to wrestle it into place in the wall. The lobbyist held the re-rod and the former congressman tried to pound the spikes into the concrete blocks swinging his eight-pound hammer. His aim was bad and he missed, smashing the lobbyist’s thumb and pointer finger into pulp. "I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry," the former congressman said. But, of course, he wasn’t sorry at all. The lobbyist cried out and put his smashed fingers under his armpit. This angered one of the foremen, a red, filthy looking fellow, who picked up a piece of sharp re-rod and stabbed it through the lobbyist’s thigh. The lobbyist fell down and another foreman, patting down something between his buttocks, used a hook on a steel pole to skewer the man’s lip and drag him up out of the hole.

They worked in this way until the sun knocked them down. Then, the foremen came and tried to encourage them to work some more by lighting small charcoal fires on their bellies and backs. This caused the politicians to sit up and crawl toward the place where they were building the wall, course upon course, a very great and majestic structure.

The former congressman wriggled on his belly to the edge of the pit. He saw a senator that he knew.

"I never thought such a place existed," the former congressman said.

"Nor did I," the senator replied.

"I guess it’s some form of justice," the former congressman said.

"I suppose," the senator answered, recognizing this dialogue was part of the program and would reoccur forever. But, then, everything was part of the program.

A foreman came up behind them, not bothering to conceal in his baggy trousers, the long, red and forked tail that came from his coccyx. The foreman had a pole with a big sharp hook on its end.

The ex-congressman dreamed that he had just ordered a fine wine with several of his donors. After sipping the wine, he felt that he needed to use a restroom. But the toilet was out of order. The congressman wondered if he could make use of a potted plant sitting in a big vase in the corner of the restaurant. Then, he felt a thump on the side of his body and opened his eyes and saw the mylar sheet covering him already glowing with pitiless sunlight.


Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Down in the Mexican Part of Town



 

 

Down in the Mexican part of town, Rolly walked his dog, Buddy. They walked in the gutter, avoiding broken glass that might cut Buddy’s paws, and, on old irregular sidewalks, raised and tilted by the roots of sycamore trees. Buddy was a yellow lab and, when he met people, he grinned at them and wagged his tail. In Washington, President Trump was inveighing against immigrants and his decrees separated children from their parents at the Border and, so, the older men that Rolly met in that part of town were aloof and avoided his eyes even when he spoke to them directly. The boys and teenage girls were equally impassive and didn’t return his greeting when he said hello. But the women generally smiled shyly and said something to Rolly and his dog although he couldn’t always understand what their words.

The neighborhood was residential with small, neatly groomed houses and alleyways where there were garages and sheds, some of them lathe frames wrapped with plastic to incubate tomatoes and flowers during the colder months. A tiny treeless park with scuffed lawns was located among the houses. Some playground equipment, swings and a slide and a wheel-shaped merry-go-round occupied a corner of the park. Beyond a narrow field with soccer goals at both ends, there was a corral made from cracked and splintered wood panels enclosing a weedy patch used as a hockey rink in the winter. It was very hot in the late afternoon when Rolly walked his dog and the park was without shade and deserted.

Rolly decided to cut through the empty park. This was an infraction: a sign warned in English and Spanish that dogs were not allowed. But no one was around and Rolly was already carrying in his right hand a plastic grocery sack wrapped around a coil of dog poop. At the corner of the park, near the playground, a big black pick-up was pulled along the curb facing in the wrong direction. A Latino woman with a pig-tail held a cell-phone to her ear. As Rolly watched, a little boy, about three years old, pushed open the back door and ran as quickly as he could toward the playground equipment. The child looked over his shoulder mischievously as if daring the woman to follow him. He was a small brown boy with huge eyes.

The woman in the truck put down her cell-phone and shouted something to the little boy. He did a defiant dance kicking up the pinkish pea-stones near the slide. The woman shouted again, but the child ignored her, trotting to and fro as if unsure whether to swing or slide or ride on the merry-go-round. It was clear that the boy’s mother was calling him back to the pick-up, but he wanted to play and pretended not to hear her. Buddy tugged at the leash and wagged his tail to show that he was interested in the child. Perhaps, Rolly thought, I should drop the leash and let the dog prance over to the little boy. Buddy was very gentle but Rolly was sure that this would frighten the child and, probably, drive him back toward his mother waiting in the pick-up. Black and brown people are afraid of dogs, Rolly thought – it’s an instinct in them. But the dog was already an illegal entrant in the park and Rolly didn’t want to unduly frighten the child and Buddy was big and rambunctious and if he jumped on the little boy, he would surely knock him over and, then, what?

The mother revved her engine and honked the horn once. The little boy scampered around in circles still pretending to ignore her. So she, then, put the pick-up in gear and slid forward about a half car-length. The child’s response was immediate. He threw up his arms in horror and opened his eyes as wide as he could wailing in a shrill voice. Then, he spun on his heel and ran with a stagger toward the big black pick-up. Of course, he caught the tip of his shoe in the gravel and fell forward in a scatter of stones. Then, he sat in the rock shrieking at the top of his lungs and flapping his arms like wings around his head.

– That was irresponsible, Rolly thought, but Mexican parents often took risks with their kids that White people wouldn’t dare. He remembered a Mexican father cutting grass with a riding lawn mower, a small toddler bouncing up and down on his knees as the whirling blade flung grass and pebbles in all directions.

Rolly sighed. Buddy leaned forward against the taut leash. – Live and let live, that was best, Rolly thought.

The mother opened the door of her wrong-way parked pick-up truck and hurried toward the child. She was obviously irritated. The truck’s engine purred – no one was around. The only visitors to this silent neighborhood were the wind and the seasons. The howling little boy sat next to the slide. The tall slide cast a long shadow in the late afternoon light and, towering above the child, the slanting channel in its aluminum flange looked lofty and very steep. The slide’s old polished metal reflected the bright sun and shone like a scimitar glistening in the heat.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

My Air BnB Review




 

 

Recently, my wife and I had the pleasure of traveling to Elcinor. We are avid travelers and, always, excited to use Air BnB for the intimate glimpses of local culture that this service provides. Although our experience with hosts Alpay and Oglor in Elcinor was not optimum, I hope that no one will construe this review as hostile to that country and its wonderful, hardworking inhabitants.

The occasion of our trip to Elcinor was a happy one. Several years ago, we had the pleasure of hosting an exchange student from that nation. We have kept in touch with this wonderful young man and he invited us, as his American foster parents, to attend his graduation of the University of Elcinor. Those ceremonies happened to coincide with the Dragonfly Festival, a notable local fiesta (celebration) in Elcinor. So, after the requisite vaccinations and doses of prophylactic antibiotics, my wife and I flew to Elcinor, landing at Elcinor International Airport. (As AirBnB readers will know, the capital city and the country bear the same name.)

Public transportation in Elcinor is iffy. All car rental agencies are controlled by the ruling junta and transactions with them, particularly those involving credit cards, are discouraged. My wife and I elected to take a taxi from the airport for the 50 km ride to the University District (about $750 American). Depending on traffic and road conditions, the trip takes two to two-and-a-half hours. Elcinorians speak creole English and it will take you a few hours and several conversations to pick up the accent and diction. The ride to the University District passed through picturesque wetlands, many of them extending to the horizon and we were able to glimpse vast flocks of dragonflies with iridescent wings and other insects swarming over the oozy terrain.

Alpay and Oglor are instructors at the University and their dwelling is conveniently located. Our hosts resided in a small, very neat and pleasantly decorated bungalow to which was attached a tin-roofed student dormitory (the so-called Ostelhay). Set near, but apart from the dormitory was our lodging, an old but perfectly serviceable mobile home. The Air BnB listing assured us that the mobile home afforded privacy and seclusion from the student revels in the dormitory with the added benefit of a semi-private bathroom. Strictly speaking neither of these representations were true. I should also note that upon our arrival, we were both issued complimentary fly-swatters, but asked to provide a credit card number (complete with security code) as a guarantee that we would return these swatters to our hosts.

Alpay and Oglar greeted us with a buffet of roasted small, local mammals, washed down with El Dictator beer. Then, fatigued, to bed! The students in the dormitory were a rambunctious lot and spent the evening consuming the local, fiery aguardiente. Some of them, I’m afraid, indulged to excess and our midnight was enlivened by the sound of brawling and couples making love in the shrubbery near our lodging. Many of the students were proficient at playing flutophones and pan-pipes and they regaled one another with simple country tunes, a pleasant enough evening concert but rather disconcerting to hear after midnight and at the crack of dawn. (I don’t wish to be judgmental; we later learned that half of the so-called students were, in fact, refugees from the fighting in the Sierra.)

After a sleepless night, my wife and I were more than a little peckish. However, we were looking forward to the Dragonfly Festival at the campus a couple kilometers away. It was difficult to prepare for the day’s events because the students (and displaced persons) in the dormitory occupied to our exclusion the single rest-room available for use in the Ostelhay. (There was another privy outside the trailer house but it was occupied by large and aggressive jumping spiders and, even, the locals were not willing to make use of that facility.) A night of drinking fiery aguardiente is deleterious to the bowels and the students stood in nervous queues waiting to make use of the small closet-like toilet. Needless to say, my wife and I had to make due with toilet facilities that were grossly inadequate.

Our hosts served us with a tasty breakfast of Orpsekay fruit, so named for its distinctive odor and texture, and steaming cups of hot coffee. Alpay, then, announced that he would drive those who desired an excursion to the campus for the Dragonfly Festival. Of course, my wife and I were glad to accept his offer.

Oglor, unfortunately on house-arrest, was not able to accompany us on this trip. Our conveyance to the University was memorable. Alpay hooked a flat-bed trailer to the rear of her small and elderly John Deere tractor and bade us hop aboard. We stood on the trailer as she put the tractor in gear and drove us through the citrus groves to the Moorish pavilions and ornate baroque buildings on campus. About half-way along our trip, Alpay urged one of the refugees, a man blessed with a beautiful baritone voice, to entertain us with an old and popular ballad, Elvetway Onelinesslay. The man sang beautifully, although we were distracted by the fact that, during his serenade, he perched precariously on the hitch between tractor and trailer, balancing between the two moving implements.

At the campus, the commander of the local regiment inspected our passports and the student’s identification cards and, then, granted us admission. The splendid buildings at the university are an artifact of the last century’s rubber boom in the country and they are wonderful edifices, although much in disrepair these days. We toured the ruins of the library, very majestic and still occupied by great stacked towers of books moldering in the humid, sub-tropical weather, and, further, were shown the spanking brand-new modernist eugenics laboratories and registry, quite a contrast to the faux-Baroque of the older structures. Alpay summoned us together for the mandatory salute to the colors commencing the celebrations of the Dragonfly Festival. As I was standing on the flatbed trailer, I felt inconvenienced – my bowels were churning and I was in some need of a rest room. (I believe it was the combination of coffee and the unfamiliar tastes and textures of the Orpsekay fruit that I had consumed.)

I asked Alpay where I could find a toilet. He obligingly directed me across the bramble-covered quadrangle to the field house. The field house was a large, cavernous structure in which big bats patrolled the upper air. The military firing range was adjacent and local students, the equivalent of ROTC scholars, were discharging their weapons at life-sized targets depicting various imperialists as well as the presidents of the adjacent regimes. A neatly groomed officer met me at the threshold to the facility, checked my passport, and politely told me that I could enter the building, but had to remove my shoes because the floors were antique and could be damaged by my footware. I was given a plastic sack and a cubby-hole in which to deposit my shoes.

Oddly enough, I didn’t detect any unusually beautiful or ancient wooden flooring in the building. Everywhere that I went, the floor was wet concrete, the surface drenched with water from the adjacent showers where naked men were bathing. Several times, I inquired as to the "WC" but had difficulty making myself understood. In most cases, the students simply ignored me. At last, a young man with a badly damaged eye, directed me to corner in the big open hall where there was a drain in the floor. This was manifestly unsuited to my needs, which were becoming ever more urgent, and so I politely declined the use of that facility.

I repeated my request to the soldier at the door. He seemed bemused but walked with me to the building next to the Field House. I was becoming increasingly concerned that my wife, alone with the students at the tractor-trailer, would be distressed by my long absence. (It’s always very embarrassing when on a tour with others to be the last person returning to the means of conveyance.) But there was nothing that could be done for this problem. I was, indeed, a man with a mission!

The building adjacent to the campus Field House was a sort of natural history museum. The military officer asked me to show my passport to the attendant and, then, I was admitted to a display on volcanism in Elcinor. I asked the guard at the exhibit about a restroom, but he only shrugged. He was apparently one of Elcinor’s indigenous tribal people and purported to not understand my version of local creole parlance. The exhibit was a darkened space with groove-like walkways set in a fiberglass facsimile of mountainous terrain. Beyond the upper ramp, there was a simulated caldera filled with some sort of viscous syrupy substance bubbling and spurting in the intense red cast by an overhead light covered with a red filter lens. I asked a guard protecting the caldera about a toilet, sniffing at the strong odor of sulphur in this part of the museum. He suggested that I simply approach the caldera and use that as a receptacle for this call of nature. Obviously, this was unacceptable to me. Then, the guard, grasping my discomfiture, suggested that I enter a corridor ending at a long descending stairway. At the base of the stairway, I found a squat toilet comprised of filthy bars opening into a cavity below. I lowered my trousers and was about to use the facility when I heard a low groaning sound directly below me. Peering into the darkness of the pit, I dimly descried several prisoners, entirely blackened with filth, sprawled in the ordure. I assume that they were political prisoners. But, by this time, my need had grown so insistent that there was nothing to do but avail myself of this unpleasant facility. (When traveling in Elcinore, tourists are advised to equip themselves with their own toilet paper since this amenity is almost never available in public restrooms – fortunately, I was cognizant of that minor inconvenience and properly supplied for this occasion.)

When I returned to the surface, a pleasant guard hustled me out of the building. Only, then, did I discover that I was missing both my wallet and passport, apparently fallen into the noisome pit that I had used as a toilet. And encountering brambles in the quadrangle, I looked down to see that my feet were quite bare.