[LAST in a series about my 120 days in an African prison. Huzzah! — Fractal Bob]
It was raining as they slung Jerry Dorsey’s dead body onto a stretcher and took him away, and they dragged me to the warden’s office, where I stood for hours handcuffed to a vertical steam pipe. Eventually, a rather meek guard brought me a chair and a cup of hot red tea.
The tea was gone, I had stopped trembling, and my clothes were nearly dry when I finally met with the warden. “What do you know about this? Who is this man Jerry Dorsey and how were you going to escape?” said the warden, in a crisp brown uniform and black beret.
I looked into his stern, beady eyes. “I don’t know, sir.”
I fully expected to be beaten, at least about the head and shoulders, but instead I was allowed to return unmolested to Cell #3. The bright sun had dried out the yard, and I found young Legson waiting for me under the eaves.
“All right, Father Bob?”
“All right, Legson.”
One-Eyed Paul and the rest of the prisoners gathered to hear the tale of my dawn encounter at the east fence with the goons and the bloody passing of the brave Texas satirist, Faux Fractal Bob. I produced Faux Fractal’s spectacles from my shirt pocket and the men passed them around, noting the spatter on the left lens, droplets of blood aspirated from Faux’s torn lungs as he spoke his dying words.
“And who is this Echo?” they asked.
“A beautiful woman,” I said, “who waits for him overseas in Texas, USA.”
“Oh,” they said rapt and wistful, “that is both lovely and tragic. Who will take his place with her?”
“Me, of course,” I said.
That made them chuckle. “You, you threadbare ghost? You skinny mirage of a man?”
But I went to sleep feeling strangely comforted and thinking about the cup of tea I had had that morning, served in a blue ceramic cup, a deep blue, the color of the ocean, the color of freedom. And when I closed my eyes that night, I had no idea how prescient it had been, a signal, a harbinger of things to come.
The next morning, I was chasing Maria the milk goat when Chrome Yellow ventured into our yard and, catching sight of me, strode up. By now I had the goat, no easy feat since she wasn’t wearing a collar, and was leading my lactating friend to the milking stand.
“Where did you get a milk goat?” said the Chrome as Maria’s kid Kenny began munching the tail of his shirt.
“Watch out,” I said right before Kenny munched his way to Chrome’s left ass cheek. Chrome whirled around, bellowed and flapped his arms, and the little kid ran away.
“I hate it when they look you right in the eye,” he said.
“Yeah, those amber irises with the satanically slit pupils,” I said.
Chrome shuddered. “Like my sister.”
I was pretty good at milking, believe it or not, and Chrome watched me until I stopped to massage Maria’s tired udder.
“We’re leaving,” he said. “You and me. They’re coming for us at noon. The.”
The Rhodesian Light Infantry? This made me laugh, but I didn’t bother to answer, and Chromium stood there until I finished milking. He looked into the pail of goat’s milk as I lifted it. “Well, that’s disgusting. You didn’t even wash those udders — ”
“Teats,” I said.
“—with anything before you milked her.”
“A little dirt is the least of my worries,” I said, walking away.
“They’re coming at noon,” Chrome called after me. “The RLI.”
“So you said.”
But at noon, just as Legson and I were filling our bowls with corn mush mixed with fresh goat’s milk, the prison guards arrived and asked me nicely to come with them. “Your friends are here,” they said.
“I don’t have any friends.”
“Your friends are here,” they said.
“You’re going to shoot me.”
“No, your friends are here,” they said.
“Oh, my friends are here. Then let’s go. But I’m taking the boy with me,” I said.
“He stays here,” they said. “He is RUF.”
The Revolutionary United Front, blood-thirsty rebels who kidnapped little boys and trained them to commit unspeakable acts of terror.
“It’s a lie,” Legson said, wrapping his arms around my waist, but the guards peeled him off me as the child sobbed, and I was forced to leave poor Legson in the yard.
At the entrance, the guards gave us back our passports and wallets, and then they threw open the gate.
“But no one is here,” I said.
“Go,” they said.
So we went, and that was it. The savannah spread before us, and the desolate expanse of tall grass was terrifying. We walked as if into a hot, dry, and blinding dream.
“What just happened?” I said.
“They’ll be here soon,” Chrome said. “Keep walking.”
“What happens if they don’t?”
“I’ll kill you and eat you,” Chrome said and he smiled to show me his teeth.
Then I could make out something coming toward us. It was a beat-up Land Rover with South African plates. Inside there was just one infantryman, the driver, wearing rumpled camos and a bush hat. He rolled down the window. “You,” he said to me. “Get in. Quick.”
I hadn’t even gotten the door closed before the driver took off, leaving the Chrominator behind to curse us as we sped away.
“Col. Reginald E. Lighthouse, I presume?” I said, buckling my seat belt.
The driver extended his hand for me to shake as the Land Rover lurched over the ruts in the road. “Bob Sablatura,” he said. “It’s the middle of the day. Col. Lighthouse is nocturnal.”
I started to introduce myself, but Sablatura cut me off. “I know who you are.”
We had a 24-hour drive south by southwest through Mozambique and Zimbabwe to the airport in Johannesburg, and Sablatura was determined to take it in one stretch. “Eat something,” he said, and I reached into a paper sack full of protein bars on the floor board. “Just a bite or two or you’ll get sick.”
His name sounded familiar, and I seemed to recall a by-line from a rival Huntsville rag, The Observer, which my father would pick up out of the yard and throw straight in the trash, along with the Item, which he read only for the sports.
“It’s a good thing you’re headed home, because once again, Huntsville is headed for Hell in a hand basket,” Sablatura said.
Amy Lee, the Item’s free press publisher, has been run off by the medical mafia, James Fitch will have to vacate his city council seat if he can’t find a new job in town, a county constable has been indicted on a Class C misdemeanor for calling a pencil dick a pencil dick. The city hired an $80,000 consultant to rebrand Huntsville as something more than a small college town with a lot of prison guards living in mobile homes and a $60,000 firm to check people’s credit card receipts to see where they spend their money—a little noticed but real invasion of privacy in the quixotic quest of significant outside retail development.
The city council tried once again to punish free speech, this time targeting a couple of its own members who had publicly challenged the will of Don “the Don” Johnson. And now, the school district has enlisted people like bond brokers and the owners of construction companies to help come up with a 65 million dollar bond package, including 50 million for a new school in a town with a school population that hasn’t grown in five years.
“I might as well stay here,” I said.
“Buck up,” Sablatura said. “I don’t have any fight left in me, but you do.”
What if Huntsville is already too far gone? What if we can’t even have a civil dialogue on simple and fundamental questions, like which do we go after first, retail development or light industry? Or which do we fund first — new ball fields or teacher raises?
“We have some smart and independent elected leaders, but are there enough of them to save us? I’m afraid it’s all but over, and the outcome of this bond election, no matter which way it goes, will only make things worse,” I said.
You can look at Facebook and letters to the editor to see the escalation of finger-pointing and hate speech. With every election comes vandalism, like campaign signs stolen or defaced with obscenities or racist slogans. Each is a rung on the ladder of oppression, the last of which is social genocide — since wholesale slaughter is still illegal. “And in Huntsville, we’re already there,” I said. “You’ll lose all your friends if you get spotted having lunch with someone on the wrong side of their side. You can lose your job. You can lose your reputation, your dignity, your privacy, your peace of mind. In Huntsville, politics is a zero sum game. And we’re all at fault. I’m at fault. But you can’t stand around holding your johnson if the other side won’t agree to a cease-fire.”
“You’ve given me the best reason of any why you can’t get people who work in Huntsville to live there,” Sablatura said.
But here’s a modest proposal, he said, based on the premise that democracy is damaged goods in Huntsville—our voters just can’t be trusted—along with the democratic experiment in diversity.
1.) Eliminate unnecessary taxing entities and government bodies. Unincorporate Huntsville, abolish the city and school districts but maintain county precincts. Keep commissioners court and a county judge. Elections will be held once every decade to fill expired terms with voters to come from a class of property owners.
2.) Relocate everyone in Huntsville into homogeneous zones within geographic precincts. Assign residence according to explicit criteria such as race, religion, socio-economic class, occupation, sexual preference, political party, taste in bourbon or what have you. Those living in each zone will be expected to set up an association of residents, build their own schools, houses of worship and medical centers, and support their own retail and business sectors. It might also be nice if they started up their own community newspapers. I mean newsletters.
3.) Create a bureaucracy to issue passports for travel between zones where permitted by law. Otherwise, make everyone observe zone boundaries and STAY HOME. The only social intercourse permitted between zones will be—you guessed it—trade.
“I foresee some practical issues,” I said. “Like some Elkins Lake Democrat might be pretty stubborn about selling his 3,500 square foot home to move into a two-bedroom in Precinct 3.”
“Nothing is perfect,” Sablatura said.
The sun had gone down and come up again, and at nearly noon on the next day, Sablatura parked the Land Rover in a sugar cane field about ten miles from the airport.
“End of the line,” he said.
I thanked Sablatura again for having rescued me, even though my future seemed even more uncertain. I got out and watched him drive away until the Land Rover melted into a wavering mirage. And then I stood there all alone, the wind whipping my shirt against my ribs, as a jumbo jet flew overhead, just a couple of miles above the cane field. Under its roaring engine, I began walking in the direction of the airport.
And then I saw her, a long-legged woman in a flowing dress standing beside a shiny black SUV. And I knew instantly who she must be. I began to run and when I reached her, I almost threw my arms around her, and I might have if she hadn’t taken a big step back.
“Bob?” she said.
“Echo?” I said, my heart convulsing with gratitude and desire because she was oh so lovely.
“Get in,” she said, so I reached eagerly for the handle of the shotgun seat. “Back seat,” she said as her nose wrinkled. “You smell bad.”