The Country/The Country

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18. 'Places for the Soldiers'

That night he found Kevin again. The younger man’s dark sedan was only a little larger, he realized, than his own car. That made it easier to park, but it also made the vehicle stand out from almost all the larger vehicles clogging the narrow streets around the Dormands’ house. He had parked it a block farther away than the last time, so far from the house that Keel wondered how he could persuade himself that he was monitoring anything.

Kevin was watching him, he knew. Keel didn’t have to see him to know it; he knew it from inside. He walked past the car, proceed to the end of the block, then lingered there, as far from any street or house light as he could be.

His presence, Keel felt, would draw the younger man out of his car.

Two minutes later Kevin got out of the car, betraying no concern, and walked a brisk, cold-weather pace up to Keel. He wore a light brown waterproof coat and looked tired.

“Here again, Jake?” Kevin said. “Hanging around street corners now.”

Keel felt an odd excitement, nerves probably, as if he’d prepared the wrong talk for the class he was supposed to teach and was now compelled to wing it. Would he be up for the task?“I have something to tell you,” Keel spoke.

“Really.”

Kevin hunched his shoulders slightly forward to look the older man straight in his face. Or maybe the stoop came from the burden those shoulders were carrying. The weight of the world?

“They’re preparing something,” Keel said bluntly. “That’s why there’s so many meetings here, so many cars.”

The younger man did not respond, as if waiting for something more.

“The woman, the dog officer, told me.”

“You talked to their daughter-in-law?” The watcher for some an unstated ‘us’ did not sound happy.

Daughter-in-law? Keel hadn’t considered that possibility. He thought her connection was blood.

“She’s the dog officer. I was a citizen with a complaint.”

Kevin sighed. His face looked damp as if it were raining in his world, though it wasn’t in Keel’s.

“You and those dogs,” he said.

“It gave me a reason to talk to her.”

“And she talked to you about the meetings?” He sounded skeptical.

“That’s what I’m telling you. She said the Dormands couldn’t tell her when the meetings would stop and the cars go away because they had ‘to get ready.’”

Kevin groaned softly.

“Of course they have to get ready.” He paused, then spoke again. “Pig’s coming here. So, yeah, they’re preparing a big, warm welcome.”

“He’s coming here?" He felt confused. “You mean he’s coming to the district for the Voting Day.”

"Here. Monro.”

A shock. “How do you know that? It hasn’t been announced.”

Kevin’s raincoat clad shoulders lifted slightly. “We know.”

He felt an urge to walk up to the Dormands’ big house, knock on the front door, and tell them he wanted to apologize for throwing the rock. Maybe they would invite him in; everything forgiven.

“They need bases. Places for their ‘soldiers’ to stay.”

Soldiers?

Apologize and offer to pay for the damages. He forgot there weren’t any actual damages.

“Maybe in that house.”

Dazed, Keel took a step toward Kevin’s car. As if seeking a place to hide.

Kevin seemed to sense this desire. “I don’t want you inside my car again,” he said, bluntly. “I don’t want any sign of you at all around here.”

Did he fear being stopped, searched? Questioned?

“I don’t smoke,” Keel objected. “Pieces of me don’t flake off.”

“Still. You never know.”

“What are you afraid of?”

Kevin groaned, the sound muffled this time, barely audible. “I’m thinking of you, man.”

Maybe he was.

“How can I find you then?” Keel said without thinking. He felt a sudden desire -- a stab of fear; longing, maybe -- not to be alone.

“We’ll be in touch,” Kevin said quietly. As if the stars could hear.

This made no sense. “You don’t know how to reach me.”

“Oh, yes.” A nod. “Yes, we do.”

Kevin was not the watcher’s real name, he knew. It was his nom de guerre, chosen (he suspected) because it was the name of the former Chief Xec, Kevin O’Rhule, who had retired, gracefully, earlier that year, looking so much older than when he had taken office so long ago, walking tiredly off stage with a backward glance at a world, and a place in it, he would miss.

Those who believed in his world, reasoned, modest, seeking always for balance, fairness, were sorry to see him go. An outpouring of public affection greeted his departure. His goodbye tour was mobbed by large, grateful, peaceful, mannerly crowds at every stop of the line, as he crossed the continent on his way to retirement, beside another ocean. In their hearts they wished to summon him back, presume on his generosity, persuade him to stay. But he couldn’t; it was against the rules. A country was governed by rules. A society lived by them. Keel, like millions of others, tens of millions, respected O’Rhule’s decision. He had the make-up of a wise leader; modest, self-questioning, forbearing.

Now, however, in view of what has followed, he wished the honorable outgoing Xec possessed a dash of the ax murderer in his make-up.

The Pigglies represented the unleashing of the demons, who chafed under the balanced rule of a careful man, a thoughtful leader. They did not desire restraint. They wanted action, however ill judged; passion, however ugly; emotion, anger, victims -- and a bigger piece of the pie. They wanted a pig-caller, who roused them in voice that woke their appetites and summoned them to slop at the feast. Or partake in the slaughter.

In their heart, Keen feared, what they wanted was slaughter.

Politics, under Kevin O’Rhule, was thin gruel. A slim and self-regulated man, he modeled what he preached. He avoided gluttony, sugar, alcohol, tobacco, drugs. He drank diet soft drinks. He left the Executive Chef’s special confections on the table. He kept his hands off the servants. He kept his voice under control.

Was it this model leadership, so consistently choosing reason over unreason that filled to overflowing the subterranean tanks of rage powering the new, irrational movement?

“The people want change!” Pegasso boomed. “They must have it!”

You can’t always not-have what you want, Keel pondered. You must have it sometimes, however; or else appetite preys upon you.

Was that why so many of his fellow citizens grew stout as they aged?

They gluttoned in private. In the privacy of their own homes, at their own tables. They surrendered to appetite; excess over moderation. Desire over restraint. They puffed themselves to death. Or they drank to delusion.

They lived peaceful, ordinary, outwardly friendly, apparently satisfied existences: good citizens, paid their taxes, went to work as long as they had to, decade after decade, while cultivating some private vice, or vices. Little stashes of dirty pics. Splurges at the race track; or, these days, at the casinos. Or, more simply, on their machines. No limits there. Others bet legally, but obsessively, on the markets: trading trading trading. Adults worried about the virtual violence depicted on the screens their children played on. Their children grew up without becoming murderers, but they watched a steady diet of contact sports, action-adventure videos, film violence, war movies. Screenporn.

The devil had to dance somewhere.

Now it danced with Mister Pig.

And yet it was not the Pigglies who initiated the surveillance that Keel so anxious, it was the Kevvens who planted the lenses.

If he had sensed, rather than purely hallucinated a watching presence at the Dormands’ house and up and down those two or three blocks where the cars parked at night, it was because such a presence actually existed. But it was not as he feared and believed possible, given what he felt about the Dormands, a surveillance by the other side. It was the eye of the cameras hidden in the shrubbery or in the branches of bare trees, secreted by ‘his’ side, those whom he privately christened the ‘Kevvens,’ because each member of their fellowship had taken the code name of the former leader: the good guys. Eyes intended to capture the identity, at least the license plate numbers, of the individuals who parked their cars on these blocks to conspire inside the Dormands’ manse.

Maybe these people, the city’s key Pegasso supporters if Kevin’s information was correct, should have been more circumspect. They behaved as if they had nothing to hide.

But why should they be discreet? Voting Day was coming shortly to the state of Platow. If there was a conspiracy -- to do what, exactly? -- it was hiding under the flag of a perfectly legal ‘campaign.’ Why should not the followers of Pig be ‘preparing’ to get out the vote? If anyone needed to know, they were (plausibly, legally) organizing a canvas of the neighborhood, the lower Broad Street ward.

They were getting out the vote.

But that was not his dreams -- or his paranoia -- told him. The people parking those cars outside the Dormand house were not the local party hacks divvying up voter lists and organizing bell-ringing teams. These were the Pig’s gang. Advance men, tacticians, planners. But what were they planning? What else -- a voice stabbed the answer somewhere in the back of his consciousness -- but the arrival of boss, the mighty Pig himself? Here. But why, of all the cities in the district of Platow, was the campaign preparing to plant its banner in Monro?

Keel walked to the square in the late afternoon, avoiding Pike Street and the Dormands, the light lingering a few minutes longer each week these late winter days, determined to inspect once again the message board outside the Universal Church.

He had come to a new understanding of the blunt, dangerous message: “Kill Mr. Pig.”

‘Mr. Pig’ was not simply a reference to candidate Karol Pegasso. The message meant ’Stop the Pig movement!′ But ‘movement’ was not a strong enough word. Not precise enough. It was an illness, a disease, an outbreak of hysteria. A national malaise -- but no, something stronger than that. A fever. Spread openly before across entire society, a significant portion of which was under its spell. Like some tribe of ancient people, first peoples, dancing before their ritual totems and sacred paraphernalia, the campaign’s followers stared at their screens, at the images on their screens, as if spellbound by some power. As their ancestors had danced around some sacred effigy compounded of blood and longing, they found release now in the mediated image of the raving, darkly liberating Pig: spellbound, brain-washed.

Keel waited anxiously to see if the graffiti agitator had struck again through the medium of church’s message board. But what he saw as he walked past the church and glanced swiftly at the board puzzled him more than any of the possible meanings of the previous message:

“Your Help is in Your Own Hands.”

What did that mean? Do the members of the Universal Church speak in a code closed to others?

He did not believe it. He believed the message, veiled though it might be, was intended for a wider audience. And he believed it was meant for him.

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