Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Extortionist

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I sat at the edge of a long metal table, noise-cancelling headphones over my ears, khaki blouse neatly pressed, sleeves rolled with perfect cuffs, khaki slacks knife-pleated, briefcase with laptop at my side, iPod in my hand, pda and smartphone in my pocket.

The metal building was quiet except for the clang and roar of air conditioning and the deafening yet reassuring sound of the AH-64 Apache helicopters zipping in and out of the desert locales referenced by coordinates rather than their gutteral and sometimes unpronounceable names.

I had locked the doors, although it was possibly against regulations. No one had informed me of regulations since, strictly speaking, I was a visitor. I had no actual reason to be here, except that a few individuals in positions in authority had told me they needed my perspective. They needed it quickly, desperately, without hesitation.

It was time for me to leave. Unfortunately, I would be relaying some awkward news back to my friends. I was trying to decide the best way to do it. Usually, the best approach was to empixelate it in a jpeg file, usually an image of flowers or mountains, or better, a smiling family, a graduation, a wedding, or something equally innocuous.

Alternatively, I could simply let the bad news reveal itself. By that time, I would be long gone.

The door rattled. The lock clicked open. A small, compactly built man entered. He was wearing a navy blue knit polo shirt, olive drab canvas pants. His hair was gray, his eyes dirty ice cubes. Either he was an officer in civilian clothing, or a contractor with clearance. Even though I was across the room, I could tell the whites of his eyes were dingy and gray. As he approached, I was aware that he exuded a scent highly evocative of mothballs. Hair sprouted from his ears. Despite the fact that he was, on the whole, an inutterably unattractive man, it was clear that he did not think so. He thought he was hot.

His bearing was smug, self-satisfied. As he approached me, his lips rolled involuntarily, like the lips of a large and unhealthy koi. I was reminded of half-dead ornamental foot-long goldfish I saw in a Nairobi office pond. Like them, his skin seemed slippery and vaguely fungal.

"Why was the door locked?" he asked. "That's strange."

He looked at me.

"Not so strange," I said. "After all, this is supposed to be secure."

"Have we met?" he asked.

He did not know I knew he had no business being in the air-conditioned metal building in the middle of a small desert forward operating base, next to a small airstrip and row of hardened tents containing spare parts.

I knew what was stored at this location. I also knew that his presence here in the prefabricated metal building meant that he suspected something and had come in to sneak around, to forage for information.

"I don't think we've met," I told him. "I'm leaving tonight. I'm getting out - we had to make an emergency landing. They said they'd have the repairs done by tonight."

"What are doing?" he asked.

"Nothing. Well. Something. I'm listening to my iPod and trying to sleep." He could see my old iPod mini propped up on the desk. It was the old pink brushed aluminum model. In my mind, it looked frivolous against my khakis.

He sat down. "I'm looking for Lt. Col. Branderwine. Someone said he was in here."

It was a lie. Lt. Col Branderwine had left two days ago.

He did not know I knew someone had been sending Branderwine threatening notes and that the notes had not yet demanded anything, but hinted that someone knew what had been going on, and what was stored here besides helicopter parts.

In my opinion, it was a zero-sum game. Contrary to popular belief, knowing people's secrets was not money in the bank. Instead, having too much information made one vulnerable and at risk of making fatal mistakes.

He gave me a fat-lipped self-satisfied smile. Then, he folded his arms across his flabby chest and smiled again with "cat who ate the canary" satisfaction on his face. I felt my energy drain away. He sucked away all the life force in the room.

I looked at the floor. Then I lifted my eyes and looked him straight in the eyes. He had no way of knowing who I was. And, he had no way of knowing I knew who he was and what he was up to.

He was the Extortionist.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Enter the Angel

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The evening breeze held a hint of autumn although it was mid-July and the afternoon thunderstorms that growled through central Florida had already drenched us as we ran across the parking lot to the Nike Factory Store.

“This is why you can’t run outside here,” he said. “You’ll get struck by lightning.”

The sky was impossibly dark and yet the curls that framed his head glimmered as though illuminated by a ray of pure sunlight. The coppery shine made him seem cherubic in the way of Botticelli or early Caravaggio.

Then, as suddenly as it had burst onto the scene, the storm was over. By that time, we were in the car and were slowly approaching Eula Park. Young couples happily paddled across the lake in shiny white boats the shape of swans.

We did not tarry in the more commercialized side of the lake. I needed to show him something before I had to return to the location in the desert ten time zones away.

“Do you detect anything unusual about these swans?” I asked him. We stood on a small bridge that crossed to a shady memorial to freedom fighters and philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Mohatmas Gandhi, Jose Marti, Simon Bolivar – all were represented by a bust mounted on a pedestal and bronzed descriptions.

“These guys make me sick,” I commented. “I realize the world recognizes them as liberators who threw off the tyranny of a colonial oppressor. To me, they simply introduced a new kind of tyranny – the need to sacrifice the young for the aspirations of the old and the rich.”

He was not listening. He was gazing upon the black swans that were paddling upon the surface of the water, their orange-red beaks exactly the same shade as a south Florida sunset.

Or, alternatively, their beaks reflected the blood-red moon of impending apocalypse.

But, it was not worth thinking along those lines.

I looked at him – his gray-green eyes were filled with tears.

“They are not alive. There are no brain waves coming from the swans.” He looked at me. He was absolutely cherubic, although his face exhibited the hewn planes of a Lincoln (albeit beardless and wartless) or a Mother Theresa (albeit a different gender).

“Yes. I wanted to know if you could tell.” I looked at the black swan couple, rapt in each other’s presence. This was utter devotion. Of course they were dead. It was what I had suspected. It was the Medic's work. He had rotated here between desert deployments. He had been thinking and experimenting. Now I knew. I knew it all too well.

Could living, sentient beings with the power of choice, of unrestrained volition, be capable of such steadfast devotion?

Of course not.

When synapses fire correctly, there is as much negative energy as positive. Eventually, the charges balance each other. But, the balance is achieved over time, and is detectable only when the measurements are arithmetically smoothed.

Neural networks could create models of balance and they could begin to depict in graphical form what it means. But, without almost infinite iterations, it was hard to imagine what else could with quite the same elegance.

But, I digress.

The Angel’s eyes were filled to an impossible depth with tears.

“You understand, then, why I need your help,” I said to him.

A couple clearly in love, holding hands, smiling serenely churned by us in their large swan-shaped paddleboat.

The black swans disappeared under the bridge.

At that instant, the sun reappeared and illuminated the Angel’s curls, resulting in a soft halo. I felt uncomfortable, unclean, unforgiven.

“I don’t know if I can,” he said slowly, softly, as he took my hand.

And then I was the one with an infinitely deep lake of tears in her eyes.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Medic Dreams

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I knew, within my heart of hearts, that there was nothing I could do. So, I would continue to run. Run and run and run.

Funny, I am lying flat on the ground, unable to move.

Last night, the full moon had hard edges like strange chocolates gone ashy with age and oxidation. A puff of smoke. A cotton ball floating over the horizon. The sweetness drizzled into my eyes. Abjection, always sovereign, when melancholy is the reigning aesthetic.

Under the smile, hyacinths bloom and goldfish swim in circles. Logic. The radio song becomes an anthem after it reverberates relentlessly even when one tries to forget.

Three weeks ago, small brass chimes moved as the breeze took identity and reversed it. Nothing was as I thought it would be. I could not begin to tell you how and why I got here. And now that I'm here, I'm helpless. Phrases, snippets. Language tiresome Venetian blinds, the slats intercalate the dark with something else. The delusional call it illumination.

Daylight should be a simple concept. A blue or brown hue, like solitude, like memorizing the trivial, letting the larger go.

The small things remembered will save your life.

At least that's what they say.

My nostrils are filled with the fresh thick odor of dirt, dry oak, rain, fresh-cut grass. It's something else. Savage simulacrum of unity.

In the blink of an eye, time moved forward. After spending so much time alone, I realized I had been hiding, not running. I was sleepwalking through life.

Funny, I am lying flat on the ground, unable to move.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Medic's Old Neighborhood

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Hardship is only purifying if it is temporary.

The people who lived in the Medic's old neighborhood reminded me of plastic army men. Not healthy, fighting ones, but something else. I thought of the time my brother put two dozen green plastic army action figures in a pan, and then positioned the pan squarely over a low gas flame on my grandmother's old stove, just to see what might happen. It was a low flame, and the action figures did not ignite with a flash, or start smoking. Instead, they became soft, twisted, doubled over. Some even bubbled a bit. All changed colors. Some became dark olive, others oozed pure pigment, which left the heads as white as death, but the hands dripping thick charcoal muck. I could not stand to watch.

Today, the Medic told me of the dog who was left chained in the back yard during the heat of the day, a hard, hot day in July. A big dog, brought low by suffering, he whimpered, whined. Even though the neighbors heard him, they did nothing. The dog died in the middle of a scorched field; his water bowl contained water, but it was too hot to drink. When I heard the story, my stomach hurt. I did not know whether to cry, be sick, or simply attempt to steel my nerves and make my face a mask.

The Medic's father was a Marine. What he learned in the jungles of 'Nam served him very well in this ragged patch of urban sprawl that never quite shows up on anyone's map. Sneak through the jungle. Hit the vill'. Trust no one. Take what you want, but destroy half of it, just to test it to make sure it does not have a live grenade in it or ground-up glass. Laugh when they die. They tried to kill you, but they failed. Of course they failed. You're an armor-plated mother. You're armor-plated. You're armor.

That's what you say when you're hit. That's what you say when you're down.

That's what the Medic was trying to teach the dog.

Unfortunately, death set in before the lesson was fully learned.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

I Met the Medic on a Dark, Strange Night

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I met the Medic on a dark, strange night in late June. We were flying through a thunderstorm as we approached the airport in the last few moments of our flight from Chicago to Albany, New York.

He was seated in the same row but across the aisle. For some reason, I had captured his attention. He looked at me, and he seemed surprised to have been distracted by another passenger.

I lost myself in the music I was listening to. Listening to my favorite chill-out tunes I could remain passive as the plane lurched, dropped, dipped, and pulled my stomach into knots. We were on a 51-passenger Embraer regional jet. It was a little powerhouse, which was some relief. It was still a rough ride.

He had looked at me again. Something in his eyes drew me in. There were dark whirlpools in the night. The downward pull had no ending point, nor did it have a beginning. This was the apotheosis of raw fear, despair, and desire. I felt myself starting to crave.

He spoke Spanish. Don’t ask me how I knew. No words were exchanged.

Once on the ground, I followed him as he disembarked. Walking quickly, I approached him, came within a few feet. Sensing me, he turned. His eyes burned. Dark charcoal with glowing red pinpoints of light in the center. It was looking into a laser-site on an automatic weapon. My stomach lurched again, my knees trembled.

His pupils could not be red. That was impossible.

“Que vuelo. Que suerte que llegamos vivos. What a flight. Lucky we got here alive.”

“Y asi somos? Are we?” His lips parted in a smile. Lips full. His hips were narrow. Slender face. A haunted shadow crossed his face, and with flash-knowledge I realized he suffered from tremendous nightmares. He leaned toward me. My heart raced in response.

Walking wordlessly, we made our way toward the baggage claim area.

“I’m staying at the Hilton in Saratoga Springs. Would you have time to join me? For coffee? A drink?”

It is far. Saratoga Springs is a good 40 miles away. I live in the other direction. I don’t know him. It is stormy. Horse races. High-tech and nano-tech. Mafia. Horse breeders. Genetic engineering.

“The storm,” I said. I gestured toward the glass windows through which we could see droplets cascading against the glass. Lightning flashed blue-white illumination. Signs flapped in the gale-force winds.

“Come with me.”

Changing the subject was not a very skillful way to mask my emotions, but I tried it anyway.

“I can’t believe we made it through that storm.”

“How do you know that we actually made it? Do you know without a shadow of a doubt that we did?”

My bag circled on the carousel and glided toward me.

“Here is my card,” I said. I was trying to deflect the searing, sizzling heat. “My phone. Work.”

We walked toward the automatic doors to the covered sidewalk and walkway to the parking garage. We parted. He ran toward a taxi and I bolted down the walkway as the slashing rain soaked me nonetheless.

The night was not kind to me. Still on time stuck somewhere between the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean, I awakened at 3 a.m. There was nothing to do but go to the office at 4:45 a.m. Pale light. Steam, fog rising from the river, with moisture and condensate gripping the car before it lost the battle and slid down the metal door.

Mid-morning. Phone rings. Come with me to Cincinnati.

I can’t. But I can meet you for dinner.

Good. We can talk about it.

Storms rolled in again that afternoon. His flight was delayed yet again.

“Come with me.”

We were in a small bar on the side of a new chain hotel popular with business travelers needing free high-speed internet and a shuttle to the airport.

“Buy a ticket. Come with me.”


He ordered a pinot grigio. I order the same. The owner of the establishment looked over at us. The skin of her face was crumpled crepe paper.

He passed his hand over mine, but did not touch my skin. I could see sparks flare gently like fireflies on a clear, hot summer night.

Thunder growled.

Beads of condensate formed on the side of the chilled glass of wine. The pinot grigio was pale like sunlight in winter. I tried not to think of winter in this place – the darkness, the cold, the sense of being buried alive, not in comforting dirt, but in a chill, dank vault.

“The rivers are over their banks,” said a woman somewhere in the bar.

We finished our glasses of wine. He held his hand over mine, and I felt the electricity that stuns like contact with a force field or an electric fence.

“Come with me.”

“I can’t.”

From the bar, we made our way down a dark corridor. Doors clicked behind us and were on a landing.

“I want you. I’ve never felt this way about a woman. I want you. Now.”

My chest was pounding.

My head, shattering as though electrodes are on my temples. Conducting gel liquefying, streaming, sizzling.

I blinked my eyes.


The memory will come back when it is time.

The medic touches my lips with his. They are dry, cool, strangely elastic, like an IV bag or medical tubing. I feel a shiver. I wonder what the origin could be. I can’t believe that something could affect me like this. What could it be?

I know. I know very well. It is The Medic.