The Country/The Country

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26. It Was Tuesday

He woke the next morning with the blood-chilling realization that the day was Tuesday.

He had dreaded certain dates, occasionally, in the past. A test he had not studied for. A medical procedure that threatened some discomfort. The first day of a new semester at the college where he taught: all those unfamiliar faces. Names to remember. Personalities -- with which he might be called upon, in some way, to deal.

It seemed, those years standing in front of a class, almost a dream. He had lost touch with his few friends at the college after he had accepted the institution’s severance agreement and promised, in turn, not to sue them, or talk to the news media, or publish anything critical of the college.

If they had in fact been ‘friends.’ Colleagues, at least.

But after he left the college town and moved to Monro to cut expenses, it was no longer easy or convenient to see his colleagues, or even possible to ‘bump into’ someone. Most of his social life, he realized, had consisted of bumping into these colleagues at the pub or the theater or the few favorite dining places that most of the college faculty patronized. And the greater part of their conversation consisted in his listening to their stories. Keel never told his. Did he have a story?

Life happened.

Or, for the most part, at least in the conventional sense, didn’t.

Keel walked the dog, absently, hurriedly, keeping to a narrow rectangle of streets around his own home.

He sought to hurry Survy into providing content for his plastic bag, but impatience only made the dog nervous. This was not a proper walk.

The big animal was anxious as well. He looked for signs of the campaign arrival’s brutalization of the atmosphere. But the smell of smoke was gone. The noise was gone. It was only when he approached Broad Street and the square that it was clear that his part of town was quieter than usual. Fewer cars on the streets. And absolutely no other pedestrians.

People had not hear the nooz, the real nooz, on their TVs, yet word of the events that had followed the campaign’s arrival had spread. Fear has been communicated.

Regardless of the reassurances on the networks that civic life was running smoothly in their city, that today was Voting Day in Monro, and that an imminent announcement of Leading Candidate Karol Pegasso’s triumph was likely, word of mouth had apparently passed a darker story.

Don’t drive to work if you want to keep that new car of yours.

Keep the girls at home today.

Don’t do any business that requires going downtown.

Maybe better not to answer that phone call if you don’t recognize the number.

Keel contemplated walking through the Square just to see what new underground advisory might have appeared on the church message board: ‘Have you at least seen the light?’ ‘Where is they rod and thy staff? For only your own hands will protect you.’

Or, possibly, “I have told you what to do. Now do it.”

The fear of surveillance returned then. He had seen a fearful thing the day before; now its shadows spread everywhere. Under the sensory assault of the previous day, when he was lured by an irresistible impulse to go look at ‘them,’ the conquering others, he did not worry that they might be looking at him also. When he was gazing in paralyzed horror at the human figure hanging from the flagpole, was there a hidden surveillance-eye taking in his fear-fixed image?

Terror and pity. The old catharsis.

Survi lifted her head and gave him an unmistakably unhappy look, as if she were guessing what was on his mind.

Keel gave up with a start and yanked the animal homeward.

Moments later, walking the familiar sidewalks home, he heard her call.

The summons was indistinct, but only because it was everywhere. Mixed with the late winter wind, the shivering leafless branches, the mediated voices he recalled from screen, his own sub-vocalized commentary on the world of appearances. The call fell like rain, but left no trace on surfaces. It pooled inside him, clogged his senses, shut down all other thoughts. He could not deny what he heard, felt, thought: some other mind was gathering wool, making itself at home, and finding a comfortable chair in which to sit.

He could not ‘hear’ what the other mind was saying, but he knew why she was reaching out for him, looking out for him, today.

He knew what was expected of him. He knew what he was supposed to do. It terrified him.

The place itself was a surprise.

The ‘parking issue’ neighbors complained of was one thing, a modest thing; this was an event of an entirely different magnitude. Not a drift of snow, an avalanche.

The vehicles were everywhere. Double parked on Pike Street so that only the smallest cars could sneak through. Double parked on both sides of Kent Road; a de facto blockade.

A single man, presumably a driver, sat in one the double-parked vehicles. Inspecting Keel as, presumably, he inspected anyone else who approached on foot.

But no one would be complaining now. Word had got out here as well. Nothing stirred in the neighboring houses. No activity, aside from his own approach, could be seen anywhere. That was not necessarily unusual. But the silence was unusual -- because the dogs were not outdoors. He would have preferred even their hateful company to the naked solitude in which he felt, by inward senses, the eyes of surveillance upon him.

The solitary driver took no notice of his approach to the house. He expected to be challenged before he reached the door, and found it more unsettling to be ignored.

One of those big, imposing doors of a style grandly adapted from the social memory of the country’s ancient great houses and rather ludicrously scaled back to fit the doorways of ordinary houses in ordinary neighborhoods such as his own ‘South of Broad.’

The Dormands’ door was bigger than that of any of its neighbors. It boasted a brass knocker inspired by the heraldic signature of some genealogical line of oppressors from across the sea. Ignoring the knocker, he pressed a humble button instead.

The door opened almost before his finger left the buzzer.

The face, and person, that encountered his apparently anticipated presence was known to him. She looked upon him with neither surprise nor pleasure.

“Mr. Keel,” she said, with false courtesy. “What a surprise. Where’s the dog?”

“Just Keel,” he said, automatically. “No mister. The dog’s where she’s supposed to be. Probably on my bed. You don’t think,” he added, “I’d bring her here, do you?”

He was yapping, like his own little Survy. It was nerves.

Marga Dormand’s forehead, weighted with an unfamiliar burden of braids, tilted slightly to the universe behind her. The mini-mansion of her in-laws. The business ahead.

“So you’re still afraid of the dogs?”

“I not ‘afraid’ of them. I’m offended by them.”

She gave him a look that seemed, to his raw nerves, to ask, ‘then what are you afraid of?’

His tension should not be so obvious. He willed himself not to be afraid.

“I’ve come to speak to Mr. Dormand. Or Mrs. Dormand. It’s about the cars.”

“Oh right. The cars.”

He nodded; playing his part.

“Anyway. They’ve been expecting you.”

He was not happy to hear this. “Why are you here?”

“Oh well.” She tossed her head. The braids, under some chemical arrest, stayed in place. “It’s the big day, isn’t it?”

At this she opened the door wide and he entered reluctantly.

Lord Randall, or whatever the fool’s name was supposed to be, riding into the foe’s castle.

He wondered whether Marga Dormand would open to him the door of her thoughts.

The house’s entryway was a little piece of nothing, No great corridor of power outfaced him. He was confronted, instead, by a good-sized stairway to his right; no people sound from up there. A large sitting room to his left must be the ‘formal’ drawing room. You would expect the guests to be gathered there. But no, the room was perhaps thought too exposed for today’s great gathering, too close to the street door.

If an intruder forced his way in, there would be no second line of defense. The Dormands’ house was a big one, but it was not big enough to be a true fortress, or stockade.

He should be hearing voices somewhere, though. Where were they? In the ‘family room’? The kitchen? Hard to believe anyone, however confident of their community standing,

entertained the leading-candidate in the kitchen.

“The guests are downstairs,” Magda said, guessing his question.

Downstairs?′ A basement?

“In my father’s house,” she added, “there are many rooms.”

“You mean your inlaws’ house?”

“Don’t be so formal.” She smiled, grimly. “They’re ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’? That’s what I’m supposed to call them.”

“You’re too old to need Mom and Dad.”

The words spilled out on their own. Nerves, he told himself again. Get a grip. He knew what the job was. Exactly. Get close to Pegasso. Get his attention. But how was he going to do it, short of some desperate rush?

“Thanks,” Magda said. “I’m not sure it was a compliment.”

Shut up. This time he obeyed.

“So, you want to go down and meet everyone, right?”

“Yes, thanks.” The last thing in the world he wanted, actually. “Which way?”

She gave him an appraising glance. “C’mon.”

Through the formal room, then a dining room, then the kitchen. It was here, he realized, the spacious kitchen with its comfy, family-sized breakfast table, that the Dormands looked out at the side yard and watched the dogs harass passersby. ‘Oh, look, darling, they’re raging at the school kids.’ Pretty easy to see someone, Keel for instance, bang on their fence. Shout at their dogs. Fling a stone at their house and wait for the near-instantaneous contact with the window offering a view of that yard.

How had they waited, he asked himself, in what frame of mind?

Did they know that the glass would not break?

How could they, unless someone had installed bullet-proof glass? And yet was that so unreasonable if you were planning on entertaining Mr. Pig?

At the far wall of the palatial kitchen, Marga reached for a door and announced, “It’s down here.”

But the door flew open, nearly hitting her in the face, and a large man he knew was Master Dormand stepped through.

“Dad,” Marga said. A greeting meant to put Keel in the picture.

“Gerald Dormand,” said a big-boned, stocky man, with overly fleshed features on a block-shaped head, fringed with brush-cut silvery hair.

Big social smile and hand extended.

“Keel.” He took the man’s hand.

“Welcome, Mr. Keel. We’ve been having a little get-together down in the conference room.”

Keel felt the meaty fingers. “We’re neighbors,” he said.

It was a prepared line; he could not think of anything better.

“You chose the right day to drop by.”

He smiled. A knowing smile that said ‘we share some secrets, don’t we?’ But his pale eyes failed to go along with the performance. They were icy.

Keel knew in that instant he had made the wrong sort of enemy, the sort who would never forget.

“First thing,” he said, desperately, “I have to apologize for that shameful act of mine last week. I have no excuse. A temporary madness. I wish to pay for the damage.”

Though, or course, there appeared to be no damage.

“Oh, we’ve forgotten all about that.” Dormand waved a hand, brushing away the reality of what, for some reason, was inconvenient to the moment. “Those dogs can be annoying. No harm done.”

Not the material sort, at least.

“It’s kind of you to say so.”

“Forget about it.”

OK, he thought. Let’s pretend.

They were standing in front of that basement door.

“This must be a big day for you,” Keel offered.

“It only takes one big man,” Dormand smiled, the proud host, “to make a big day.”

Keel tried to mirror his smile. His manner. The delighted guest.

He had hoped to simply blunder into a crowd of people, the local honchos enjoying the honor of meeting their hero, getting close to the great man. He would slip into the cluster around Pig. He was good at wedging through crowds as Mr. Inconspicuous.

The eyes of the large man gazed on him with a practiced show of pleasure. “Do you want to meet him?”

“This is -- unexpected.” He nodded eagerly; lying. “Who wouldn’t?”

Dormand nodded unpleasantly. “Follow me down, Mr. Keel.”

Keel followed him down the stairwell. He heard Marga’s steps behind him.

At first inhalation the atmosphere changed. The air itself breathed differently down here. It was flat, indifferent. He would panic, Keel feared, if he thought too much -- about anything. The lower level was sound-proofed, he thought. A bunker, but hellishly downstairs, as opposed to Mrs. Nathan’s hideaway up in the hills. You could make no impression down here.

You could whine, or cry, or suffer audibly, but no one would hear. Every man adores a tyrant, he thought; the big shod foot in the face.

His host leads him to what he names, over his shoulder, the ‘conference room.’ They pass through a corridor of sturdy boxes, piled against a wall, survivalist supplies in a star-storm shelter.

“Many rooms,” Marga murmured.

The door at the end appears hermetically sealed. Dormand pressed a tiny button and a panel slid sideways into itself, soundlessly. In the next chamber people waited.

He has seen these people, Keel thought, but whether in ordinary wakefulness or one of his dreams -- diurnal or the nocturnal sort -- he could not say. A few of the men, slouching against a wall or sitting on plain, hard chairs, had unkempt beards, facial hair of the untamed sort. One of them, blue-eyed with the distant look of someone entranced, might have been among those he spied the day before at the sack of City Hall. The men shifted slightly, herd-like,

in a silent dance of acknowledgment of the home-owner’s approach.

When he followed his host’s determined progress through the herd to the seating area, he realized that he had penetrated to the heart of the gathering, the Court of Pig. Here the people whose vehicles clogged up the street were gathered. A considerably larger, though still windowless space. Of course; still underground. The ninety percent of the iceberg hidden beneath the sea. Was this the sacred space protected by a couple of irritable dogs of hell on Pike Street, barking at all who approached.

Yet, on the surface, only a sit-around. A kids’ clubhouse, but blander, undecorated. A couple of conference tables at the center, aligned like a cross, couches and armchairs along the perimeter.

The people, still mostly men, suited, mid-level fellows, all but a few white-skinned and none so wildly bearded as the those who waited outside in the bedazzled recollection of a personal purgatory, stood between the chairs and couches in little conversational groups, as if at any reception.

Awaiting their chance, perhaps, for a personal encounter with the Man of the Moment? And where was he?

No one paid particular attention to their entrance. Protecting their flanks, wary, honoring their alliances, waiting their opportunities, deciding when to give an inch. Gladiators, he thought, something old and strange seizing his mind. He saw the whole crew of them locked in combat, heavy swords and shields pressed against those of an opponent, rotating in agonistic encounters with men as heavily armed as themselves. Were some already down? Theirs? Or our? Lying on the floor, in the dust of the arena (or, now, between the armchair and the couch), awaiting the death blow, the agony of violent, bloody expiration?

He blinked, to clear away the vision.

On the other side of the room, which seemed to fade into a shadowy, disappearing tunnel of further possibilities, he caught a glimpse of the bull-horned minotaur chewing on severed limbs.

Hurling one away, picking up another. Was that Pig?

When the vision finally cleared, he was still trailing his bulky host and underworld guide, toward the possessor of the voice booming his desires and commands. What lay between, he realized, was largely entourage. Suited bodies of a certain height and girth who stood between the leading candidate and the close-edging guests, townspeople, representatives of a happy populace overjoyed at the prospect of meeting their man of the hour, the conquering hero. To congratulate, bask in his presence, share an inspiration, or press a suit -- careful, of course, not to overstep. Not to monopolize the great man’s attention. Not to ask for too much.

Or appear to demand. Or beg.

For most, a glance at ‘his’ face, followed, hopefully, by a returning glance, would be enough. He saw me; they would think later. I know he did. He was looking at me.

The men of the entourage glanced Dormand and he glanced back. They knew him by now. All there was to know had been examined in advance. He was hosting the boss’s ‘Tuesday among the people.’ This was the schedule; the customary

Triumphantly shattering arrival on Monday. Glad-hand the locals Tuesday, now that everybody is clear on who’s the boss. Citywide victory party the next day, only this occasion could very well be the victory: following the proclamation by the Sacred Commission that Karol Pegasso had been chosen by voters as the country’s new leader.

No problem, their glances said to host. Come take a whack at the big boy.

They made a passage for him; and for Keel to follow as well. Turning a hip and shoulder, closing up some other gap, making a human of flesh, two bodies here, two bodies there, so that Dormand could approach and murmur into a hiatus between the words of others. Verbal exchanges, personal currency.

Keel, still behind, felt his host’s heavy form hesitate, close to the goal.

The candidate was speaking.

He heard the voice before he saw the body that produced it. A rumble, penetrating rather than loud. A wave of sound. A tremor in the air, like the sensation people feel before the earthquake. No earthquake came, but other voices fell silent, as Keel felt the tremor of the candidate’s speech go through him.

“The old ways are passing,” the voice said. “We’re forgetting who we are.”

A silence was permitted. No one filled it.

“Too many women are going to college, but not enough to church.”

A pause; a subtle murmur of agreement.

“Have you been inside the old churches?”

No one felt confident of a reply.

“Empty.”

Keel glimpsed the nimbus of large head, but his view was obstructed.

“Too many foreigners in the top positions. Doctors, scientists, mayors even. Everywhere you go. Where do these people come from?”

A silence it was clear no one would fill.

“How can a man move into a city where he has never lived and proclaim that he intends to be the mayor?”

In Monro? Keel could not think of no candidate was guilty of this crime.

“The ministers are black,” the voice resumed, now preacherly. “The market owners are brown.”

Is this why people vote for this man? a voice inside of Keel demanded. His voice? They are afraid, the voice answered.

The people do not ‘want change,’ he heard himself think. They fear it. Unless ‘change’ means to go backwards...

We all want to go backwards (the voice told him), back to being babes in our loving parents’ protective arms. Keel tried to summon an image of his parents -- but he couldn’t. He had no images. They had disappeared too soon. In the space cleared by their absence, he saw the people of the Country coming out to vote for Pig, who would scare away their fears, caress their weakness. Spank them when they were bad, reassure them in the night’s darker watches.

But not all the citizens of the Commonhope of UZ wished to give up their lives to the barnyard security of Pig and Animal Firm: a roll in the mud before a trip to the slaughterhouse.

Others, including the despised ‘leets’ (as Pig’s followers called them), those who read books, studied the past as the erstwhile ‘professor of ancients’ Keel did, accepted the complexity of existence, acknowledged that there was no certainty to be found either on earth or beyond it, had no desire to live in the pater-land of Pig the Father. No desire to go backwards. They were -- it was argued against them, with some justice -- egotistical and vain. They did not wish to surrender their ego, their will, their freedom of choice to a ‘fadder’ who knew what was best for them. To the cleric pounding his book on the street corner, certain of what God wanted of them, who knew all the answers, all the cosmic gibberish that was spake by the prophets.

Or to the Big Daddy who was, because he demanded to be, all powerful.

Foreigners and ‘flexibles,’ as well as the leets refused his heavy embrace. The foreign-born kept their heads down when they walked the streets of the cities; welcomed in when labor was needed, resented when the old-fields where they worked dried up, the gas-lands pooped, and new futures were concocted in laboratories, in test-tubes and thinking machines, without need of many laboring hands. What should be done with those who were born elsewhere? Sent back North? Or over the sea? Pig railed, but he offered no practical solutions.

The flexibles, those who lived sometimes as male, sometimes as female, sometime settling into one or the other identity (more likely, as age set in), kept their faces turned. You would see one side of them, or the other. They showed full face only among others of their kind.

And so followers of Pig said, sotto voce, if not aloud, that you could not trust those who refused to bare their face to you.

Those who chose not to follow Pig voted for anyone-but-Pig. Keel called them ‘the anyone-butters.’ Often they would fail to show up on Voting Days and vote for anyone at all. In ever increasing numbers they stayed home.

Why was this?

Headlines Nooz could not (or would not) tell him.

But the voice began, once again, to murmur inside. Because -- the swell of nasty truth spilled like some noxious overflow in a long- abandoned building -- Pig’s opponents were growing increasingly uncomfortable about turning up at the Voting Places. The numbers of voters, as anyone who could see who looked at the numbers, which nobody on the networks appeared to be doing, were declining at Voting Days as the campaign proceeded from district to district. Voters set out in the morning for their Place of Voting, but many of them do not arrive, or stay long enough to cast a ballot.

They begin to feel eyes upon them.

If you wish to vote in the Commonhope of UZ you must get out of your vehicle and walk the last quarter-mile -- that is the law -- or be pushed, wheeled or carried as the case required to your destination.

And this year Voting Days are different from all the other Voting Days in the collective memory of UZ because the closer you come to the Sacred Booth the more you feel the pressure of eyes upon you.

You remember the stories, the rumors, you have heard, that have circulated in your place of business, or among your friends.

Intimidating presences. Clusters of large men, arms folded across beefy chests.

Eyes boring into yours. Or into your back if you carry onward to the Place where the once-smiling, now-frowning impersonation of your Friendly Neighbor, keeps the List.

Rumored tales of intimidating encounters. Women asked why they are wearing the clothes of a man. Does your husband know you are out here alone? Unprotected? Does the man of your family not care what might happen?

Has he not heard about the attacks? Have you not?

In the District of Braxton, the story circulated, voters had their glasses broken. Slapped off their faces, stepped on. Taken as a sign of a class of voters likely to be against ‘them.’

Have you heard about them? Do you think it’s wise to go down there and face them alone?

“Oh, look at that, old man. Too bad. You can’t go in there now, man, can you?”

“I’ll bet he can’t see well enough to fill out the ballot now, can he?”

“Better go home, old man. You might end up voting for the wrong candidate! Now wouldn’t that be too bad?”

Catcalls.

“Hey, buddy! Where you think y’re goin’? You got the wrong day!”

“What day do you think this is?”

“Voting Day? Wrong! It’s Pig’s Day! Come back tomorrow! You can vote for whoever you want tomorrow.“′

“Hey, you! Not you, pal -- the skinny one! Who you voting for?”

“You’re not walkin’ past me, fella, till you tell me who y’re votin for!”

“Hey sweetheart where do you think you’re going?... Nah! No votin’ today! Why don’t you come along and have a little drink with me and the boys instead?”

People who endure these attentions -- or hear about them -- turn around before getting too close to the people known to be offering them. They wonder whether people who look as they do-- who dress a certain way, speak a certain way, possess a certain skin tone -- will be harassed, ridiculed, insulted. They decide they don’t wish to find out.

Where are the police?

The Vote Watchers?

The city officials?

Why are the police never around when you need them?

They realize they are late for work. They discover they have left something important at home. They decide against bothering about it, after all.

Who knows who the best candidate is, really? I mean, how can you be sure?

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