The Country/The Country

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23. It Was Already Sunday

His daughter’s age, he thought. If he had a daughter. If he had ever married.

He thought, as he occasionally did, of the attractive, dark-haired student at the college, his first one, where he worked on a three-year contract as a young man, understanding that he would probably be asked to leave at its expiration. A woman, a girl really. Who stood very close to him when she came to see him in his office to talk about the paper she was planning to write for his class.

It was about subliminal advertising, she told him.

He knew what subliminal meant. At least he thought it did: The brain saw something that the memory could not recall them. So the viewer was not ‘aware’ of having seen it.

“What sort of images do these advertisements use?” he asked.

“Images?” She looked at him with surprise. Had she not made the point clear? “Sexual,” she replied, calmly.

“For ordinary products? Cars, beer, shoes?”

“Yes. You bet. Everything.”

“And so the images they show are...?”

“Body parts.”

He was suddenly more deeply aware of the girl’s presence, sitting down and moving her chair closer to him than student-conference conversation typically called for. He could smell the shampoo in her hair. Maybe, he thought, they should go for a walk.

He sat behind a little desk in a cramped room. The student-chair was placed on the side of the little desk, and both parties turned their heads so they could look at one another while they discussed ‘the paper.’ Or ‘the idea.’ Neither one of them took their eyes off the other.

They stayed in their places, and he let her talk. He noticed her shirt was not buttoned all the way up, and once having noticed this could not really pay attention to anything else. His body turned into a machine. He tried to ignore it.

“So,” she said, pausing. “What do you think?”

He did not say what he was thinking.

The line was preserved between them. He never learned if she was trying to attract his attention in the way he suspected -- his body, at least, suspected -- she was.

The ‘encounter,’ so to speak, was unfinished. But he was the one who had chosen not to finish it.

He stopped holding office hours that semester. The semester was nearly over, and he suffered no repercussions for this evasion of ordinary duties.

A year or so later he left that college and found a place in the second one, the one where he stayed for a long time until they told him they no longer had a need for what he taught.

One day the college president called him into his office and informed him, in a quiet businesslike manner, that he would have to stop teaching because his classes were not drawing enough students. The college, the president said, was moving in another direction. More technical; more professional. More cutting edge. Keel did not know what was being cut by that edge, except for him.

They give him a ‘package,’ not the kind you need scissors to open, and he moved back to the city where his grandmother had continued to live out her life and where, occasionally, he continued to visit her. When she died, he learned that she had left him her house. To save money, he moved in.

Tuesday, the girl with the earring told him. He had until Tuesday to figure out what to do. And now it was Sunday.

He could get in his car, which appeared to be functioning properly, and had carried him without trouble to Mrs. Nathan’s ‘hideout,’ and drive it to the ends of the earth; or to the end of the continental land mass of the Commonhope of UZ, at least. And hope nobody would notice, or care, that he had disappeared. And seek to endure there, whichever end of the earth he ended up in, the reign of Pig, in the country of Pig, the country that the Commonhope became under the domination of a ruler elected by his mystifying power to induce a kind of mass hysteria in a significant portion of the country’s citizens.

Would the sun shine at night?

Would the earth reverse its direction and spin back in time, perhaps settling into some simpler age when the lord of the manor set the rules and was obeyed without question?

Would the tides cease to recede and flow in alteration, and either spill endlessly forward over the land, challenging the coastal mountains for the primacy of earth, or withdraw mutely off the continental shelves to loiter for eons in the deeper trenches of the sea?

The waters had once done just that; in fact they had accomplished both of these great geological tricks some time in the deep past. So urth science told him. Each of these cataclysmic advances or withdrawals, however, took thousands or even millions of years.

Could Pig bring them about in the first hundred days or so?

And would these alterations satisfy the people’s desire, that overwhelming hunger for change, that Pig relentlessly affirmed as the basis for his campaign?

Or did they long for something more truly revolutionary?

The gift of speech in the mouths of beasts?

Would Pig make the birds talk social theory? Or politics and business? Report the greed-market closing prices? Predict tomorrow’s winners and losers?

Share that deep, speechless knowledge of weather and climate that sent their various species hurtling in one direction or another in massive numbers, with inexplicably brilliant flight plans, in faultless anticipation of the seasons?

What did ‘the people’ mean (Keel now asked himself) when they called for ‘change’? Did they wish to walk on their hands, eat grass, cavort in trees like primates of a so-called ‘lower’ order? Mate all day in certain weathers, phases of the moon, or directly upon emergence from the chrysalis like certain lepidoptera pupae in a picture of nature driven by instinct so rigid, heartless and brainless it caused a nausea to rise in Keel’s gorge merely to contemplate it...?

Was that what anyone wanted?

Or did they wish to be planted in the ground to bloom each spring and shine like the flowers of the earth for their brief, appointed, heart-breakingly beautiful moment before being released to subside back into the earth and return to that dreamless nullity... in which it was conceivable to exist, but not to be, stripped of all choice, or urge, or power to rise or fall? And therefore removed equally from all fear of failure, or injury, or sickness, or surcease.

Die now, he brooded, and end all worries. Make a quietus with a spare cod-skinner.

Who, he asked, reasonably enough, would fardels bear?

Let us all put our fardels down, once and for all. And good riddance to them!

Vote for Pig!

In fact (Keel brooded), so many of his countrymen have already voted for Pig that the result was a done steal.

The Pegasso Campaign, Monday’s nooz-sheets proclaimed, was planning an extra-special celebration in Monro to party after what it expected to be the victorious conclusion of the Voting Days when the Platow District results were announced and the Supreme Electors of the Sacred Commission declared Karol Pegasso to be the country’s next leader.

“Pulling Out All the Stops!” the headlines pronounced.

“Big Party Announced for Capitol Green”

“Hold On To Your Hats!”

“Are You Ready for Some Noise?”

Or.

He could try to do something.

To stop it.

In his dream Pig wears a wig.

It was nothing extraordinary. It had a look of ordinary male hair. Medium length, somewhat coarse, plywood brown. A thick pile of it, magically suspended in the air. What was holding it up?

When the man turns, Keel sees something impossible. Something he has never seen on the body of a human being. Something out of a painting, some ancient mural, some pagan scene in a woodland glen where a mythical being is mildly frolicking, or perhaps merely resting, while displaying an aspect of muscular, rosy, molded torso to the painter’s eye...

What he sees is not merely the tips of the ears, as Keel first suspected. But something harder, boney. Something holding up that upland bog of phony hair. Something not to be seen; not by him or by anyone.

That’s why you can’t ever see him clearly on a screen, Keel murmured, waking.

Not all of him. No pictures up close. The ground rule already established before the dreaming Keel was admitted to the presence: no cameras. Those who carried the sort of hand-held devices that took photographs almost constantly, almost on their own initiative; constantly worming their way out of pocket or the bag in which they were stashed, regretfully, by their owners to snip-and-snap away at their surroundings... creep, creep, an inch at a time... until a sufficiency of light woke them and they began convulsively snapping their ocular jaws at whoever or whatever was within sight of the aperture... These devious little machines were absolutely banned from the environs of Pig.

And if one of those burly protecting presences caught sight of such a thingy-device creeping out of its hideaway on the person it ostensibly belonged to, that person was hustled unceremoniously out of the room.

No one may capture in entirety the mighty presence of Pig. No one may see him whole and unguarded. Exposed.

The dream left him feeling tense, and the tension did not release him all day.

He hunched his shoulders and took the dog, now called ‘Survy’ for his own personal use, for her morning walk, having fortified his pockets with a supply of plastic baggies and twisties, like some anxious preschool Mommy loaded with treats and inducements when she accompanied her little princess, or dashing buccaneer, to the public or private institution that would lock up her precious cargo for three or four whole hours a day among the little terrorists of the neighborhood.

He repeated the exercise in the late afternoon, sneaking briefly into the little market on Gandalf Street to take a peek at the bold type lead of the evening nooz-sheets. The storeowner, a foreigner named Pepys, Keel recalled, cast his usual baleful eye on man and dog, as if he suspected one or the other of them was about to do something noxious rather than make a purchase. Survy, sensitive to mood, stuck close to her master, eventually resting a flank against his upper ankle to remind him of her own needs.

Keel felt no relief in the headlines, full of vague, held-breath noozlessness. A Nation Awaits. Expectations Rise. Pig Rumored Close to City. Mayor Says All In Readiness.

The dog got her way. The storekeeper fumed over his omission of custom as Keel led the attentive animal back outdoors, like a closely kept secret.

He guided their way to the downslope edge of a town cemetery where, he noticed, other pet owners deposed their four-legged “member of the family,” aiming querying looks to divine the animal’s intentions. Everybody knew what the business was being taken care of and made a show of looking in the other direction. Keel assumed that animals were self-conscious about their eliminations just as humans were, but then again that couldn’t be quite true or we wouldn’t be asking them to do it in public. Still, he tried to look politely away, and then seamlessly slip back into the picture to master the plastic-handed pick-up.

Home, Keel found nothing to occupy his thoughts but his poorly formed plan to bluff his way into the Dormands’ (the house of mine enemies) high-octane gathering of Pigglies and then somehow steal a moment with the great Pegasso himself. And -- do what? Tell him a joke? Keel was the joke.

He waited for the evening news. But as day ended and the sun went wintry down, cranky and unappreciated, the long-awaited arrival of the leading candidate and his notorious entourage screeched into town.

The noise was deafening.

Keel heard it with a shiver, from a long way off. A mile; maybe longer. Of course he had no way to estimate the distance, but the sound felt like a mountain falling.

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