In a mute world, the violence implicit in an assembled crowd transpires without much passion. Fists rise into sky in an unwitting gesture of repetition, any new signal swallowed by social and historical patterns too vast to be seen; not a shout cracks from the nearest burning building, and the spirit of the riot is eeriness. Even more so it is lack of faith. Collective aphasia, which always arises on a local, contained level, spreading across certain districts of a city but rarely crossing state lines, is a symptom, not a disease itself. A community may find its thoughts reduced to lesser and lesser units of language; first, coherent thoughts articulated on the sentence level “boil down” to a single, memorable phrase, and often all that remains of a society’s gesture after a public debate is a single word, the catchword, which can of course be stripped to phonemes, grunts, gasps of surprise and awe. A brute sign language of fists and boots erupts. Even the words “words fail” fail. Silence is seen as socially preferable; those who do not conform are perceived as victims of an even more alarming malady. What is often called Collective Aphasia is in reality a Collective Dysphasia, as isolated language users inevitably remain among the seething, quiet hordes, often hiding in shadowy alleys or abandoned buildings and rapidly whispering to themselves, as though possessed. After a while it is these—those who cannot bear the silence of city glass, who must voice every wounded thought into their ragged beards—who are regarded as diseased.
I could understand keeping some icon upon which to anchor one’s sentiments and yearnings, some charm as an underthing evoking ages of contentment and pleasure past, as our projections evoked an increasingly dangerous and unstable public, ridden with the maladies we could hardly imagine.
The Eschatologist peered over the cubicle wall and presented me a Rorschach. One of my many daily tests. I knew this one. An elephant flipping out, but you weren’t supposed to say that.
“Are you in good health?” The Eschatologist asked, as he always asked in the morning.
There was no right answer, no cheery nod. From his perspective, we were already infected with something dormant and incurable, just waiting to metastasize. Everything was considered. Our diet was pseudoscientific, strictly controlled. Every once in a while he’d teach us a new way to breathe, including emergency styles.
“I enjoyed the Aphasia report,” The Eschatologist said. “Very entertaining.”
“Oh, thanks,” I said. “Well, that was mostly Mort, but thanks.”
“Hmm. It is always a collaborative effort. You are keeping this country safe. I’m going to the surface for some treated air and the view.”
I ducked my head around the corner to Mort’s desk to see if he’d overheard, but found it empty. An exposed pipe emerged from the wall just to the right and slithered out the door, down the hallway, and into the bowels of one of the huge boiler rooms I kept discovering at the ends of the mazelike hallways.
I studied the report on Collective Aphasia and thought about what the Eschatologist had said: very entertaining. I kept no illusions that our reports were anything but entertainments, especially in the legal sense, but I wasn’t sure what Mort thought, as he took our assignments so seriously, and every time The Eschatologist commended our work with this phrase—very entertaining—I thought of the degree to which entertainment could incorporate terror, deception, and conditions of emotional vulnerability, and I thought that it might be nice, someday, to be a scientist again.
Each morning I awakened early in the suite I shared with Mort and took a brisk jog across the building to the secretary’s place, where my daughter would still be sleeping. She’d be sleeping next to the Center’s most recent secretary, my daughter’s fleeting surrogate mother. Just as my daughter got to know one young woman from Alpine or Marfa she’d have to get to know another from Fort Davis or Marathon. The Eschatologist hired a new secretary every few weeks, citing confidentiality issues. All agreed he was a paranoid man, raised—the rumor went—by modern prophets who lived anxious for an ending.
Each morning the secretary would wake long enough to help me coax my daughter out of bed. Then sleepily she’d slink back to her pillow as I led my daughter into the cold hallway, the fluorescence through the doorway shivering against her hair, her eyes, against anything soft and dark. I walked my daughter down the hall to her tutor’s classroom. I made sure she washed her hands before breakfast, but I tried not to take it too far: I didn’t want her to fear the air we’d be breathing for the rest of our lives.
When technology alters sleep patterns over a certain duration, it is speculated that Bellicose Parasomnia may become general at the borders of failing states and among city gangs who must, though it leave them vulnerable, doze. Bellicose Parasomnia may not affect only those groups or individuals already predisposed to violence—the nature of the epidemic could expand the predisposition to wider demographics of sleepers, breaching the borders of personality, of belief and value system. Early symptoms of Bellicose Parasomnia include increased mobility during sleep, lack of bodily paralysis during REM sleep, and grandiose, jingoistic, or war-mongering speech observed in a sleeper. As the disorder progresses, terroristic or counterterroristic behavior is observed in the sleeper, depending on the dream’s disposition. While the condition is not known to be contagious, it is thought to be highly suggestive. It arises according to the technological alteration of such variables as light, time, and perceived mental stamina, as well as the shifting consideration of values—particularly, it is thought by some sleep scientists that widespread insomnia will at some point evolve into a condition similar to Bellicose Parasomnia in the more prosperous and late-to-dine territories, such as Spain, just as sleepwalkers will likely soon engineer coups and sieges against each other in the tropics, only to resume an edgy civil peace diurnally. Bellicose Parasomnia is curable with behavior modification on a mass scale and is treated generally with the redistricting of political boundaries so that each bed is an island unto itself, and the sleeper must choose: forced peaceful sleep, or self-harm, nightmarish. Audio therapy and neural massage also recommended.
And once the tutor anchored my daughter in her tutelage, I padded back to the cold cramped narrow room of the secretary-mother and got in bed with her, two adults wearing corporate-regulation pajamas in one of the least population-dense counties in our nation. What could we do but lie down. I let her hold me for a while, and I spoke to her as I could speak to no else in The Bunkers, certainly not Mort or The Eschatologist or the indifferent men and women in the marketing department, whose job it was to discern what wealthy worried people might pay for a subscription service whose contents should, if proven legitimate, be offered free of charge by the state (standard answer: find out who subscribes to catalogs for gas masks, home fortifications).
We celebrated a few holidays, some the Eschatologist had invented just for the hell of it, and months passed and Mort’s wife never showed. Mort said she worked long years as a missionary in the South Pacific, on an atoll off the old Captain Clark scenic route, and then he stopped mentioning her completely. He referred to the panties as his thinking cap and wore them at the office now, when the Eschatologist was out of view. Days later a delivery man brought Mort a parrot from Congo.
“Why a parrot?” I asked. “To help you remember things?”
“You have your daughter. The Eschatologist has his mother.”
“I need something living, too. This group rescues parrots from war-torn eastern Congo.”
“That seems reasonable in someone’s way of thinking about it, maybe.”
“What do you mean? These are damn good quality birds.”
The Eschatologist permitted this fancy, for he denied the hypothesis of his fellow paranoiacs that our civilization would end in birds and their corpses scattered like viral mines across the sidewalks of hushed cities. I decided that Mort and I direly needed a trip to the surface, whether Mort knew it yet. A night in the desert, in a town or between towns. I submitted an application. It was denied. I submitted another. Mort and I were granted one Saturday night, one dose of enhanced audio therapy. The audio was an old radio variety hour that gently disintegrated into static as you let its host’s worn but easygoing gags rock you to sleep in a cadence and timbre no longer heard in this America.
The sufferer of Institutional Flux is often a young male who moves or is propelled across the landscape while he describes his grievances. His manner is alternately lethargic and agitated. After the long sinew of childhood unravels him from the family , the sufferer may experience jobbing, a sudden complication of the Institutional Flux accompanied by labor, routine, and a misunderstanding of time, whose nature may take on a physical aspect in the hallucinations of the sufferer. The disease is not fatal, however, and is generally asymptomatic. A sufferer may live his natural life without any idea that he is fluxing. It’s present but benign in most bodies and departments. The urge toward religious ecstasies is contained by the rituals of weekly services. The worst affliction may simply be the anticipation of an unfurnished off-white room in an unfamiliar building, an anxious beginning or a solemn cleaning out.
I dropped my daughter off with her secretary-mother for a night of old movies and old, military-issue popcorn the Eschatologist bought in bulk, and Mort and I threw on our white suits—half Zoot, half Hazmat—and rode the elevators up to Clearance. After scrub-down it was out to the wildness and the surge in our chests; of the desert surface I, a burrowing animal, can’t say much more beyond the surge in my chest, and the bright shock of the high plains air as I held its darkness deep within my lungs. It’s a cliché to talk about how many stars you can see out here, but it’s one of the few clichés the Eschatologist allows (he believes these clichés to be the early symptoms of an infectious lingual disorder).
We found an establishment that catered to our limited expectations. The punched tin roof of the place had gone concave, now a deep basin for lunar shadows. Most of the chili pepper lights on the string were shot, but the woman Mort danced with had real seeds on her hands, under her fingernails as Mort reported, or more likely she wore essences in her skin—some conduit for capsaicin that burned Mort’s face when she gently brushed her hand against his face under the fake moonlight, dipping him in her arms with each brass flourish of the mariachi band.
I helped Mort wash the burning love from his eyes. He had his face wedged snug under the faucet. When we returned his girl was gone. We sat at the bar under the A/C vent—the heat I’d first embraced outside the perpetual chill of the Bunkers now felt worn and repetitious.
When Mort ordered a drink he called it a libation and the waiter frowned at him. Mort and I played dominoes for a while with the amiable members of an out-of-work street gang. They’d been edged from their territory. They weren’t tough enough for the international drug trade, and these were hard times, there was nothing else. Mort and I left: there was nothing left. We rode the van’s stutter over the caliche road back to The Bunkers. I felt disappointed but mostly for Mort, who’d briefly and almost known a surface-dweller. My entry code bounced, so we tried Mort’s and Mort’s bounced too, no surprise. After some confusion over the intercom, The Eschatologist personally woke up to express his skepticism that we were who we said we were.
“Who?” he said.
We offered our identity numbers.
“Hang on a second, I’ll check,” The Eschatologist said. “This is a private place of business, by the way. We hold all the relevant licenses.”
“Who is this guy, anyway?” Mort said.
“I’ve been here two years and he’s still a mystery to me,” I said, “but I think he got his start in paranoia radio. He’s got a PhD in Eschatology from a university none of us know.”
The Eschatologist returned to the intercom. “Those numbers have been decommissioned,” he said. “While back. I would have hoped you would have moved on, whoever you are. Good night.”
“We just checked out this afternoon. Our applications were processed.”
No response. A while later, porters emerged from the elevators and began carting out our stuff. The rumor they gave was that The Eschatologist was going algorithmic. Computer-generated conceptualizations. He’d been looking to get rid of us, but he didn’t really fire people. The Eschatologist had a real passive-aggressive streak, for such a semi-successful entrepreneur.
Mort was so young, younger than I’d previously thought. He was a teenager. He’d probably dropped out of high school, but he was clever. He could go anywhere, do anything, and it hardly mattered where or what, because what—that is, what he wanted—wasn’t much. He had a little money, and I knew for a fact that he could live on almost nothing, a little air and grain, the moisture gathered by an office air conditioner. He was thin and limber and he could slide into the ducts and he could fit in any disused space he needed to inhabit. And that was his freedom, though it wasn’t the freedom the rest of us most often imagined. It was possibly the freest freedom. I watched Mort as he took the panties out and cut three holes into the fabric, presumably for his eyes and mouth.
In contrast, I wouldn’t get the chance to masquerade. I would need to secure stable employment in an environment where my daughter could thrive, should she wish to inherit what remained of a conventional life, which is what I’d planned for her. I couldn’t go back to Disease Control, either. Conceptualization: a bust.
I shivered in a high plains wind, in the creosote. Mort looked pleased and ready to be passively windblown.
I hugged my daughter and her secretary-mother close. The secretary-mother had been sent up with my daughter, locked out of The Bunkers too. Confidentiality issues.
It was almost midnight by the time we reached the bus stop. The late bus pulled in almost silently—with the brakes’ sigh—a desert apparition, headlights coolly blue. We said goodbye to Mort. He was bound to the cantinas, to find his love among the chili camps.
The few travelers slouched in the battered seats hacked and coughed in greeting. I’d forgotten the sound newspapers made. News only travels out of The Bunkers, real, imagined, or interstitial. The next stop was El Paso. I did not shy away. I’d forgotten about city life, and I felt like I was headed for summer camp. My daughter coughed gently, like the report of a BB gun, and I led the family back to the dream of a civic life, however damaged.
|Jack Boettcher is the author of Theater-State, forthcoming from Blue Square Press in 2011. His poems and stories have recently appeared in Fence, Kill Author, Pleiades, Puerto del Sol, Pure Francis and elsewhere. He lives in Austin.|
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