Before they got us, when we were on the streets still, no one had even heard of them. The sound of their bus woke me as it pulled up. It was night in the culvert. I slept in the cave it made when it wasn’t raining, and when it was raining I set for the underpass. There the psychos would really swarm, and you couldn’t get much sleep if you didn’t have a partner to take shifts with. Sometimes I’d partner with Bad Lou or Michael Joseph Rankin, but even then you had to be careful. I kept a knife in my ankle wraps and one under my belt, nearly everyone did, and when times got really bad I had a .22 pistol with three shells. A bunch of teenagers dumped it after one of them shot Bob Suitcase because he called them pretty. Bob lived because they were terrible shots, and because a .22 is mostly meant for vermin.
The bus that pulled up was a Greyhound kind with metal sides, and the guys who got off wore matching tracksuits. Black. I thought it was a band maybe, got turned around trying to get on 95 after a concert at one of the stadiums. Looking back, they must’ve done some research. They knew where to look. When I got on, there were already a half-dozen bums dipping out, chattering, sleeping across the seats. The black suit guys sat near the front, gave us bottled water. Michael Joseph Rankin thought it was a shelter when they said the name of it. It didn’t sound like anything much. A place in the suburbs maybe. Some new age church and their food kitchen. The bus stopped another couple times. More guys like us got on. Only one had to get off because he started smashing his head against the window and screaming about paint fumes. The bus left the city. The roads got darker. We were warm and blanketed and free. They handed out sandwiches in plastic wrap. We didn’t know what to say. They told us we would work for it. We nodded our heads. We wanted jobs we said. Nobody understood us. They nodded back. They understood. Michael Joseph Rankin fell asleep on my shoulder. I hadn’t been on a bus in a while. It was quiet, that sound of the wheel wells, the rolling, macadam.
In the pavilion, some of them were weeping. They clung together and bopped to the subwoofers’ pulse, a beat so heavy our chests buzzed. I was letting one of them pour me another beer from the taps that lined the wooden bar. I hadn’t had so much, so quick in a long time, and I was holding the counter so that they couldn’t tell. Sweat was pouring down my face from the dancing. I know I must’ve been smiling. But I wasn’t shaking. And what I saw was truly there, as far as I could tell. There were at least two dozen of us among the hundred or so of them. You could’ve seen right away who was who, even if they weren’t wearing their night-black tracksuits, even if we weren’t wooly and unshaved.
After the music went, and everyone was hugging and cuddling their goodbyes, we went to the bunkhouse. In the morning we showered and some of us got our hair cut. They gave us better clothes to wear. We ate in the big cafeteria. They showed us the community. We mixed with them freely on the lawns and by the streams. These were the gates to keep the locals from snooping. This building was for school, this was for gift shopping, in this compound the leader lived. No one saw him much because he was very old, but his lieutenant made an appearance, a real scarecrow of a guy. White hair, dark beard. This lieutenant came around after our tour and asked if everything was going well so far.
Bad Lou asked what we were doing.
The lieutenant asked if he meant with our lives.
Bad Lou said, I’ll hear that too.
The lieutenant smiled and waggled his head so his hair would fall behind his shoulders. You’ve seen the world out there, he said.
You damn right I have, said Bad Lou.
The world in here is equal to the world out there, in opposite proportion. The priorities out there are controverted to the priorities in here and vice versa.
So what’s that mean about what we’ll be doing? Bad Lou asked.
The lieutenant nodded his head. Yes, yes, doing, exactly. You’re in the right place, my friends. Do we think the future’s going to roll in on a coal barge? Or come dragged by a team of horses?
No one could decide if that was what we thought.
Out there, it’s the jungle all over again, the lieutenant crooned. Backwards, backwards, backwards. They don’t even know what potential there is to be wasted. Do they?
No, Bad Lou said.
No! the lieutenant said. He was very pleased.
Tomorrow you’ll get your assignments.
After the dance that second night and after returning to our beds, Michael Joseph Rankin woke me climbing down from the top bunk. When I asked where he was going, he giggled, and a higher giggle answered from the window he was moving for. I saw her out there. One of them. Black jacket zipped down, blonde hair blowing. Apparently people just partnered up like this. On the green, in the gazebos, by starlight or the candles in their huts. They were very progressive. I wasn’t jealous, even as I watched him go. Mike held up a finger then hiked his leg, let it out the window and was gone. I wish I had gotten a better look at which one he was going with, though it wouldn’t have done much good. There were hundreds of them all dressed the same, coming and going, doing jobs, varied shifts. They didn’t even use real names. But this was their land, their game, and soon after anyway, I started shaking for the first time since arriving. I held the sheet, I pressed my head, and I shook, shook, shook.
I asked about Mike at breakfast.
Who? the street people asked.
Mike. Michael Joseph Rankin. That was always how he introduced himself, so it’s how I asked after him.
Bad Lou rapped his knuckles on my arm and said he got picked up for a crew, maybe. We were still trying to understand what we were going to do on our assignments.
One guy called Steven, with a V, he always said, like we were going to be pen-pals, I’d seen him at Market East Station in the 10th Street stairwell, Steven said the group brought us in because they were excavating into the hills farther up the creek and needed muckers. Normal mining or a doomsday bunker, who cares as long as they keep treating us good.
No, another guy named Apple said. Apple slept in the alley behind St. Paul’s. No one knew why they called him Apple. Apple said they brought us in to vote one of the group members onto the county commission. Now that their community was officially incorporated, it was the next logical step—to protect their interests against the surly locals. More buses of homeless were arriving every day, so we couldn’t deny the possibility.
One of the new guys, we couldn’t say where he came from, he had a face like the side of the moon, acne scars or junkie scars, not even his ugly beard could grow through, Scarface said they were only keeping us around so they could harvest our organs. All these black tracksuit- wearing freaks were terminally ill, hence the dancing and partying all the time. They bussed us in, so they could cut out a kidney or two, then drop us back in whatever hellhole we came from.
So if you believe that, what are you sticking around for? we asked him.
Jokes on them, Scarface said. All this is full of cancer. He punched himself in the chest.
We watched him, waiting for the next thing.
After breakfast most of us went up to the ridge that followed the creek and dug a trench. For drainage, they said. We did it ok. Didn’t feel like a chain gain. Some of us had actually done that before. The blacksuits we worked with were gentle. They sang softly while they dug, asked where we were from. No, they said when we muttered the different cities’ names, Originally. I only shook a little towards midday, but then we ate. Lunch in the shade. Sandwiches in cellophane. Same as the bus. Bottled water. Little packets of mayo, pouches of salt. I asked if all of us were at this one jobsite. A blacksuit with a mustache asked why I wanted to know. I told him I was looking for the guy I came in with. Michael Joseph Rankin.
Oh yes, Mustache replied, there are many things to do, thus many separate crews. You’ll see him tonight, he said, and put a hand on my shoulder. The heat of it startled me.
We worked farther along. The creek was more of a river. From the ridge we could see the roofs of the cabins they’d built, the footpaths. They had already begun assembling a bridge farther downstream. I watched the yellow Cats chug along like kids’ toys. The little black foremen wore matching black hats.
I asked one of the guys next to me if he saw the bridge. And the guy said, Well what am I supposed to see? I thought he’d come in from Richmond that morning. He had an accent.
When the day was done, the blacksuit with the mustache stopped and played his pickaxe like a guitar. The other blacksuits laughed and clapped. One or two of our guys joined in. A rock song from the 70s. Top 40.
At dinner, no Mike. At the dance, the same. I hadn’t had the full shakes since the night Mike slipped off, and I didn’t want to risk it by getting hammered again. I only drank one beer and left after the first couple numbers. The pavilion still put off light and the sound echoed for miles, but I bumbled about, on and off paths until it was dark. Real dark, not city dark. Machines bucked and rumbled in different pockets of night. But I went past their work lights and tremors. And there, the grass to my knees, wet with cooling, I saw a little fire’s glow. I waited. It was there still. Normally something like a fire would tentacle and blur and people I knew from my childhood would stem out, distort from their fire bodies, bend with antelope necks. Playmates, cousins, the neighbor’s dog. The heads yap yap yapping. But this was just a fire. And around it were our guys. Steven, Apple, Bad Lou, some others from Baltimore or DC maybe. Standing before them was Scarface.
That’s how, Scarface said, that’s how they got it done. How else could they have? The group turned to me and Scarface asked, Found your friend?
I said I hadn’t and Scarface looked at the others and paused. See?
How you been man? Bad Lou asked.
With all the Mike shit I mean? Bad Lou said, dipping his head.
I shook my head. Still haven’t seen him, I said.
You might be right, Bad Lou said to Scarface.
About what? I asked.
The food. The beer, Bad Lou said.
What about it?
What about it?! Scarface said. Antipsychotics, antidepressants, tranquilizers, performance enhancers, growth hormones, you name it.
In the food? I asked.
I looked straight into the fire but no figures were dog-heading out.
I asked about Mike again next day.
Who? they said. A guy wearing a big green ski mask was chewing on a ketchup packet. He’d come in the night before. Mike bike trike kike, he said.
He was my friend, I said.
A guy with a cleft lip stood up and said, What kind of amperage you think these bigass fans pull? He pointed to the turbine-sized fans twirling at the cafeteria’s ceiling.
The man in the ski mask did not reply.
The leader’s lieutenant called an assembly after breakfast. Buses continued to arrive from the south, the midwest. At least two hundred homeless guys sat around the front of the stage. They sucked on the water bottles they’d been given. The lieutenant stood on the platform and held up his hand. It was the same story as when he told us about our work assignments except this time instead of him stepping down and us going to work, he introduced the leader. Then there he was, this old old guy, the leader, the guy, hobbling like he needed a cane, white beard down to his belly, waving his bony bone-colored hands and smiling. The blacksuits were just screaming. Some of the new guys at the front were jumping up and down, holding their hands to their ears like, I can’t hear you. After the leader sat on a big purple chair, and the blacksuits finally shut up, he talked about the future—of this place, the nation, the human race. Of possibility, limitlessness, deterioration and reconstruction, of tigers in cages, and lemon trees, communication and community and communion, of many hands upon the loom, and broken seals and a tower, a great golden tower with the sun come up behind it.
They don’t understaaand, he said. They don’t understaaand! So what! The chariot rolls undaunted! And it is grappled—To. The. Stars!
The blacksuits were foaming at the mouth, holding hands, swaying. The new street people thought they had won the lottery, some of them. They got up too and bobbed a bit as the leader’s exit music played. It was a catchy melody, nothing we hadn’t heard before. We sang along the words.
Work that day was different. We climbed into caverns, wore headlamps on black helmets, the plastic unscuffed. We carried in crates, followed a string of light bulbs, set them down, went back for more. I didn’t see cave monsters, piles of limbs, shadow squids sending trails of sludge up my leg. The light bulbs didn’t become spider abdomens. There were no bats in my hair with the faces of unborn infants. I didn’t have the shakes.
We were high up, well above the ridge we’d worked before. Lunch was the same, the sandwich variety only slightly different. Below we could see that the bridge from the previous day was completed. A jeep drove across every couple minutes. A new patch of buildings had appeared, not slant-roofed like the old cabins but domical, mostly made of glass. They glittered like crystals from where we sat, the mouth of the cave behind us. I didn’t ask if anyone saw these buildings. Every time I looked, there they were.
I kept eating the food even though Scarface’s group told us not to. Maybe what was bad for them was good for me? I hadn’t been shakeless in so long. I hadn’t seen things since that night at the Market Street McDonald’s. Buying dollar menu burgers, eating them at the table like a taxpayer. But why would a little satan position itself above the lady’s restroom ledge? Why would it slap its bare red asscheeks, flap them really, like wings ready to take off, straight into my face? While I ate? Did it want to see the handcuffs? Did it want to smell the mace?
I didn’t tell the others I was still eating the cafeteria food, the lunch break sandwiches. I accepted the small roots and berries they’d begun foraging but only out of politeness. I alternated between the dance and the fire. One night, the sonic bump of the speaker against my chest, the next night, the heat of the flames on my face. The crowd at the fire continued to grow. I even saw a blacksuit or two listening at the edges of the light. If Scarface cared about being spied on, he didn’t show it. He just talked about how conscription never really went away, and weren’t we all proof? The coming violence. The little slaves. Someone asked about the construction going up, and he scoffed. Then he just started listing all the things humans couldn’t have possibly done: building the pyramids, creating a battery, curing disease by picking apart a cell.
Work, progress, advancement, work, progress, advancement, he said. Plugch! There are litters of arrowheads, he said. Litters. Hidden in these hills. Will they snare a skyscraper? You people really still trust the stuff?
Work details shifted, buildings grew, like the leader said they would. More men came on buses from San Antonio, Albuquerque, Mesa, Carson City, Anaheim, Bakersfield, St. George. Just as the blacksuits began visiting the fire, some of the homeless began wearing black suits. They never said we had to, but it was happening anyway. Apple took over running one of the shifts I worked, spraying some kind of metal paint on the inside of a hangar. The hangar had long planes in it a couple days later. Then we loaded the planes with big shiny cases, stacked them, folded in their wheels. Apple was a pretty good boss. He told jokes on the breaks. Wouldn’t tattle if you smoked some.
At night Scarface stood by the fire. More and more blacksuits came. No spies, but converts. Those who flocked to him started shaving their heads. Each night, the followers of Scarface assembled, a patch of bald pates shining. Then you’d see them during the day doing their normal thing. Like all the blacksuits baldies who served food or drove busses were inconspicuous with their knowing nods. Like revolution, like counter-revolution was just a pastime. Gatherings at lunch break spent chewing sorrel, burdock, field mustard, chicory. Hunting parties at twilight darting around, descending the hills with pelts, cooking skewers of venison, rabbit haunches. I preferred the sandwiches.
The work pushed on. Turbines were lowered into the creek. Tunnels were connected to the hub. We ran cables to the hilltops. We erected the towers. We polished and quarried and schlepped. But for all the street people who began donning the black outfits, just as many blacksuits were creeping towards the fire. Shaved heads in the orange light. Big beards in the track suits.
Then Scarface talked about war. War as the only solution. To the mass suicide the blacksuits were surely plotting. Whether with pills or juice, earbuds or screens, tomorrow or twenty years hence, war was salvation from the stuff. He preached redemption from quackery, apathy, the hollow gods of technology, false, false, false. Copper vanished from workshops. Forges winked across the forest. I didn’t know about their plans for an attack. They understood I wasn’t full-fledged.
On the morning of the assault, the baldies showed up with spears and claw hammers hanging from leather thongs. But an assembly had already been called in the compound. A blacksuit security detail greeted them, assault rifles slung from their shoulders with black pleather shoulder straps. They had known. They were ready. The sides were so mutually enmeshed, the face-off seemed predestined. Some of these guards were men who had vomited on loafers while panhandling, lined their trash bags with newspapers, scrawled messages on cardboard: Godbless, Have blessed day, GBA. I fondled the .22 still tucked within my waist wraps, eyeing both sides.
Scarface in war paint laughed at the blacksuits when they pointed their rifles at his faction.
Terr-ors! He called them. Terr-ors! What’re you pro-tect-ing?
A blacksuit with a blonde ponytail and an orange beard said, This is private property.
Oh prop-erty! I forgot that’s all you care about!
Backwards! Came a call from within the cluster. More complaint than taunt.
What did you say?!
The leader’s lieutenant emerged then from the mass of blacksuits. His white hair was pulled back in a tight bun. He wore a bandoleer. The eye guard protruding from his helmet was tinted cobalt. A wire ran from his ear to a device clipped to his shoulder pad.
Backwards, backwards, backwards, he shouted. If you can resist hurling your own dung for a few moments, the leader has an announcement to make.
One of the bald savages swung his sling and loosed a bit of scrap metal. The shiny projectile ponged off the eye guard of the lieutenant and sent him tumbling. The surrounding blacksuits lifted the lieutenant and led him to the medical cloister.
We’ll fuckin’ gas you motherfucks! One of the blacksuits shouted as they applied re- lubricating drops amidst their retreat.
Then the loudspeakers crackled on. The claxons bayed. A voice buzzed through. Hear him. Hear him. Hear him.
The blacksuits lowered their guns, murmuring, and set off for the stage.
See? See what I mean? Scarface scoffed.
The baldies watched the blacksuits go.
On the stage, roughly 100 yards away, the leader entered to subdued applause. He looked like he had aged decades and now leaned on a white cane. His voice was papery and his speech short: Defeat. The progress was tremendous but not enough. Funding was depleted. The global community’s efforts could not sustain their great work. The building would need to continue internally. The journey would need to continue separately. They played no song as he tottered to a helicopter and disappeared. Scarface’s bald militia clanked their weapons and ululated, but the chieftain himself had disappeared.
For many days after, the baldies wondered if the leader’s admission of defeat and his helicopter withdrawal was all a ruse. A distraction to disrupt the truth. What if the blacksuits had managed to gas him? Who then might they gas next?
Meanwhile, the blacksuits hugged one another, sang a few sad songs while they packed, then boarded their busses and left. The same busses that brought us here. By sunset the compound was largely abandoned. I took the .22 out of my shirt and threw it into the creek.
I continued living there along with several other street people. The baldies stripped the buildings of metals and glass and swept away into the hills. At nights you could hear a faint hooting and small arms fire. We dozen or so who remained sustained ourselves off the food stores. We could not continue the work as the large equipment had been moved off and sold. We contented ourselves to walk the trails, swim, scatter. I carved Michael Joseph Rankin’s name on the underside of the bridge built that first day of work. I slept under it occasionally, tracing the letters. Gifts of deer shanks and baskets of morels would appear from time to time, and we would smile. I did what I had done for years before: survive.
I haven’t had the shakes for ages now. I see no demons, no wall-smeared secrets written by disembodied heads with crayons as tongue tips. I sleep and wake freely, eat and drink as needed, though this can be hard in the wild. Tracking is tough, but I can scavenge ok. I’m beyond the bounds of the baldies now, seeking abandoned hunting shacks, campsites with coin- operated showers, dumpsters of dive bars cradled in the boonies. I find myself drawn towards the cities. Their leavings are freer, their shelters pre-carved in metal and concrete. It was nice to be taken care of, but I think someday I’ll make my way back, now that I know, now that I’m clean.
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