Things began, as they usually do, at a party. Everyone had been working hard, and after hours they were cutting loose pretty quickly. We were indoors. The place was semi-dark and not so much smoke-filled, but everything smelled like, or perhaps looked like, it had a tinge of leftover smoke from years and years of such gatherings. And it had the look of a place that was no stranger to a deep fat fryer too.
Our colleagues from the Embarras River Basin Agency were the life of the party. Every one of them was smart, skilled and an excellent dancer with issues arising from low self-esteem. “You sure know how to pick ’em, Harry,” I thought to myself. Rest in Peace.
I was working in the Southcoast Cosmos of Bendiego. Our most serious and accomplished investigator, portrayed by Saundra Santiago, was frantically reviewing some old case files, trying to vindicate herself in one of the most frustrating débâcles of the agency’s history. The entire case turned on the testimony of a dog, and whether or not the dog was genuine, or merely a VR creation of the perpetrators, meant to throw people off the track by telling the truth. The fact that the jury had been required to wear special googles during the dog’s appearance might have been a clue, but everyone missed this at the time.
Now the Feds were breathing down our necks, and we were at it around the clock in an effort to prove our competence and good faith. Saundra was viewing the video of the dog again, frame-by-frame, and studying the defense expert’s testimony for inconsistencies. It was then that I noticed the map on the desk.
It looked like something cut out from a child’s coloring book, with a three-by-three grid of some sort laid out over the drawings. The edges of the map outside the grid were sticky, and at that very moment a flash of insight came to me. The dog didn’t matter. We didn’t have to prove that the dog’s testimony was valid. We only had to test the glue on the edges of the map to see if it matched that surrounding a corresponding rectangular hole on the back side of a crumpled piece of construction paper nearby that had been an early clue but discarded as unimportant. Forensic science is sometimes like this.
The old man in the blue suit had entered the room without us noticing, and nodded as I revealed the discovery. I could tell, without him saying a word, that he had hoped that we wouldn’t get to the bottom of things. The Feds, as always, just want to come in and take over, and this dog and paste business was the only thing standing between him and his ambitions. The sonofabitch knew all along, but was just toying with us.
He and I were facing each other in an office with lots of windows on the southeast corner of the building. I felt underdressed. I was wearing a black suit, but was disheveled feeling. I told him I needed to grab my trench coat before we could go to lunch, which I was dreading anyway.
When I went to get my coat from the refrigerator next to the pizza, it had disappeared. I can see it, right there, folded neatly, the size of the pizza box. But it is gone. Maybe it’s on the floor somewhere. There were other things I meant to take along, books or electronic devices or something, but going through the desk was no help.
I remembered that I had had trouble parking that morning because the lot was covered with ice, and cars were parked all askew. I crawled up on the ice, which was several inches thick encasing the tall mound of earth between two parts of the lot, and as I looked down, there were several trucks or vans or some other sort of large vehicles. Busses. They were full of people in festive garb, headed to some kind of competition or celebration. One bussload started waving and yelling at me, trying to get my attention, or trying to make fun of me or something. It was all good natured, but I was uncomfortable, and yelled down that they shouldn’t be wasting their time with me when Kent Wade was right there on the bus with them.
A man in a gold mohair long coat approached me and said something, smiling. I couldn’t understand what he had said. Then he said something else, and all I could make out was “Oxley Chamberlain.” I wanted to ask him to speak more clearly, but then he was starting to get angry and suspicious, so I explained that since I’ve gotten older the thick hair that has grown inside my ears sometimes makes it difficult for me to hear people correctly. It had nothing to do with his slurred brogue, or that I thought I was better than him or anything like that. I didn’t really say those things, but I thought that he was thinking them. You wouldn’t want to make that conversation explicit.
I decided to put some distance between myself and the people in the icy parking lot, and the best way to do that was to cross the street in front of one of the floats that were coming along for the Mardi Gras parade or whatever it was. I wasn’t quick enough and actually had to put my hand on the front of the float to hold it back from running over me as I crossed the street. Looking back, most of the ice had melted in the lot and I noticed that there weren’t really that many cars and they were actually parked fairly straight.
Then I remembered that I hadn’t parked in the lot after all, but had parked on the street a couple blocks away from the building. So I headed east down the parade route, and turned south on the next side street, which must have been the one I had parked on. I saw the car parked across the street down the block. Then when I got there it was gone, so I looked up the block again remembering how I had driven in that day, trying to think of what landmarks I saw as I was driving and pulling over to park. This spot looks good, and it’s only two blocks from the office. Where the hell is that car?
I walked a little further, and was surrounded now by menacing, seedy characters in a menacing, seedy neighborhood. I felt like I stood out. Everyone was inebriated on who knows what. I was aware not to reach for my wallet in the back pocket of my baggy jeans, because it would draw attention to my self consciousness. Several unpleasant encounters occurred where I was trying to signal to people that I understood their plight and was not an asshole. But the last thing menacing, seedy characters want is for well intentioned assholes to understand their plight.
I was walking along a high wall, trying to get back to the place where the car should be. It was shiny and seemed a little slick, and there were occasional folks walking the other direction toward me and it was hard to negotiate walking by each other without falling. I finally came to a spot where there was an intersecting wall and I couldn’t go any further. I sat down, and realized that it was really only about six feet, maybe ten? Maybe only four feet from where I was sitting to the sidewalk below. I decided to go for it, and slid down from my perch. As I dropped, a woman who was laying beside where I had been sitting grabbed my hand to try to help slow my descent so I wouldn’t be injured. We looked back up at her from the sidewalk, and I wanted to say thanks, and she was about fifteen or twenty feet up, so it was a little hard to communicate. She had dropped a flower or trinket or something down to me. It’s hard to get these details right, because the orange and blueish I Dream Of Jeannie outfit that she wore was distracting. Although I had more or less learned to expect this type of unexpected attire from the seedy but for some reason suddenly not so menacing (after all, I was down on the sidewalk below now) folks.
I said “What about the other item?” She played dumb. I said “Come on now,” and looked straight into her eyes. She dropped something else down to me. Again, I don’t have details. I was trying to decide whether to pursue the matter. I said “Don’t you have something else for me?” She finally tossed down my wallet. I remembered that I had maybe thirty dollars, and I started looking through the bills to find something to give her. After all, she had been honest, when push came to shove, and she probably needed the money. There are so many crumpled notes and receipts and junk here that it’s just a mess. What is all this stuff? There are even notes and claim tickets and things BETWEEN THE BILLS! Fives and ones and tens all turned every which way, and half hanging out of the wallet. I can’t stand here in the middle of the sidewalk, holding up foot traffic, organizing all of this. Just fold the damned thing and put it in your pocket, for Christ’s sake.
The way back to the office was two blocks directly north. Tall, old buildings blocked the view, but I have an excellent sense of direction so I knew. Even though I had walked across the street to the east for the car and not returned, I was still where I needed to be. Just a short walk back.
I walked cater-corner to the northwest, which would put me to the west of the office eventually, but seemed like the correct move. Crossing a huge empty lot, I was accosted by what looked like a cross between a Swiss Guard or Beefeater and a garden gnome, about five feet tall, all dressed in a red and white and yellow uniform, with a neatly trimmed painted on white beard. It was sort of square shouldered. Not like when you say someone is square shouldered meaning good posture, but his whole body was the shape of a cigarette package.
His voice was kind of like a Dalek, or like the Knights Who Say “NI!” And I couldn’t really make it out. He was to my right, and there was another one in front of me and to my left, and they were trying to impede my progress. I realized that they wanted to take me prisoner. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of them in the lot, trying to stop all of us from moving any further. I still couldn’t make out what they were saying, but we were their prisoners, and they were all delivering the same message.
Then I realized that they couldn’t really stop me from just leaving the lot. As I started to move past them, the leader (the first one I’d encountered) announced that any prisoner who chooses to leave is accepting the injustice of the apartheid state. He kept repeating this, and the entire group of cigarette pack shaped Santa robot gnome nutcracker people joined in. I understand now that this is performance art, and the only way to be truly free is to participate. I begin screaming “FREE, FREE PALESTINE!” But I wasn’t heard over the din of the little gnome guys. I remembered that I had the chant wrong, and I should have started with “LONG LIVE PALESTINE!” I tried again, and some of the nutcracker performance artists began to get confused. They stopped with the announcement to the prisoners, and looked at each other, trying to make sense of things and figure out what to do. They clearly hadn’t trained for this, and the signal between them and their leader wasn’t strong enough for them to receive their marching orders. I thought that if I could only make my voice work, and get the chant right, that we could all join in together. Although this would have screwed up what was probably the original idea of the performance art piece, which, as I get it, is that people shouldn’t just walk on across the parking lot going on with their lives as usual and ignoring the suffering of others.
I felt conflicted, as one does.