The Country/The Country

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6. 'We Were Targeted'

In the morning news-sheets, Keel read, leaning on the round kitchen table where he took his meals, city authorities appeared reluctant to draw any connection between the vandalism done to the church message board and the window broken a handful of blocks away. The mayor’s spokesman acknowledged that the Dormand family was known to support the leading candidate, Karol Pegasso, in the Voting Days for Chief Xec, but cautioned against any conclusion from that fact alone.

“It could be a random act of vandalism,” the spokesman said.

Asked how often residents of the city experienced rocks thrown through their windows, the spokesman replied (according to the news-sheet) that he had no figures to answer that question.

A local news-sheet, however, Indie Nooz, quoted the ‘victim’ of the window-breaking, a Mr. Gerald Dormand, as insisting that his home was intentionally vandalized. “We were targeted,” the paper quoted him. “I’m sure of it.”

When asked why he was sure, the response was less definite. Mr. Dormand, the sheet reported, declined to discuss the incident any further.

Local TV, however, was keeping the story alive. Having switched the machine on at a much earlier hour than usual, Keel watched with some emotion as the face of a man described as Mr. Gerald Dormand appeared on his screen while the reporter posed the same question to him.

“You don’t think this was a random act, Mr. Dormand?”

Keel had caught a look at the man once or twice, a bulky figure with his back to the dogs, but always at a distance. He saw a white-haired man with a rectangular face about the size of a shoebox. His features did not look angry, or threatening; but rather glib. Keel sensed an aura of superiority, someone not intimidated by a TV camera, or a microphone. Some men, he knew, have hair that turns white early. The ‘gray eminence’ was a sign not of age or weakness, he reflected, but of status, authority.

“We know who did it,” Dormand told the reporter. “But we’re not saying, publicly.”

“It’s a private matter,” he continued, with the mild confidence of someone putting a matter to rest when asked the obvious question.

“It should be addressed privately.” His tone was conclusive.

Did he really know? Keel asked himself. How? Or was he bluffing, to discourage a second attack? It would be no surprise if the Dormands had connected the thrown rock with the ferocious barking that signaled a passerby. Did they know that the passerby was Keel? Had his passing already become a feature of idle conversation in the Dormand manse.

It was certainly possibly, he reflected with some embarrassment -- the unease of the chastened -- given that he had shouted angrily at the house. Something about the sidewalk. But had they seen him? He had certainly not seen them.

Once answer, of course, was surveillance.

But even that did not explain the unbreakable window. And, last night, the false claim of broken glass... But it should have broken, Keel thought, remembering the panic that filled him the moment he saw the stone hit glass.

Keel left the house earlier than usual, having decided on an errand.

The word ‘errand’ came from an old word meaning to “go out” into the world. That was what was meant by the phrase “knights errant,” dispatched into the world by (in the famous example) the legendary good King Windlesauce in order to confront injustice and put things right. So he gave himself an errand. If Dormand, he reasoned, knew the attack on his house related to his dogs, why did he persist in telling reporters that their house was “targeted” and imply they were being singled out because of their support for the popular candidate Karol Pegasso? He wasn’t shy about putting that big campaign poster in the front yard. Was he not clearly suggesting to the world (because that’s who watched their screens: the world) that supporters of ‘Mister Pig’ were under attack.

Or was it to divert attention away from the behavior of their unrestrained, aggressive dogs?

A universal perspective? Or a very small one? Maybe the real explanation was simply that annoying, day-after-day ‘private’ matter.

Not many public phones, Keel knew, remained the in the city.

These days people carried their own phones around with them. Much of the time they stared at them, even while crossing a busy street. Keel knew that he stood out by not owning a hand-held phone. His only phone connected to a wall. So what if that made him different? No helping it. Even if he owned one, he would not use it now.

Nor would he use his own ‘private’ home phone, long reduced in public parlance to the sub-normal generic ‘land line,’ as if the mobile, wireless phones other people carried on their persons had no connection to earth whatsoever, but merely floated around in the stratosphere. Perhaps they did. (Keel was not technically minded.) Perhaps their users floated around in the higher reaches of the firmament as well.

Perhaps, to continue the speculation once known as “idealism,” what the senses perceived was only a skin-deep apparition of their true selves floating about in the lower regions.

Nevertheless, assuming that some reality remained in the material world, where Keel’s body and mind spent most of their own time, he required the anonymity of a pay phone because he did not wish anyone to know who was making this call.

Last time he looked there was a pay phone or two outside the bus station downtown. A lot of buses came there, a big transfer spot, so it was a useful place to put a public facility. He wasn’t sure how many people rode the buses any more, every year more cars clogged the streets, but the public phone might still be there. He liked that phrase: ‘public’ phone.

A public phone in a public place for the use of the public. To which he now walked on public ways.

Keel was standing up for the rights of the public.

This way of thinking was exactly opposite to the vision of the soon to be elected Pegasso and his band of oligarch gangsters, who wanted to privatize the country. They would own it. It would become the wholly owned entity of Pegasso Enterprises. His cronies would take their share. Between them all, their share would be all there was, he thought. We will all owe them money for walking down the street.

What else did Pig stand for? Cracking down on the ‘flexibles.’ Why did the public, or that part of the public roused by Pig, care so much about what people did in their private lives? The flexibles went one way one day, then perhaps went the other way the next day. Who cared? Men lived with men. Women with women. Why not? Some men managed, through processes Keel never spent any time seeking to understand, to turn themselves into women; and then, sometimes, back into men. And the reverse was true as well, he believed. But it was really none of his business. Some of the flexibles, he had read, signified who they were (at present moment) by painting one side of their face and leaving the other side in a natural skin tone.

Lighter skin tones still dominated his society, of course, a preference Keel failed to understand. In fact, if he were honest, persons of a very dark skin tone often stimulated in him a profound urge to weep with joy and desire. Emotions he automatically repressed, because Keel was a wholly undemonstrative person.

But while skin tone was rarely mentioned, the behavior of the flexibles was a continual source of discussion in the media. The same flexible individual, he read, would unpaint one side and paint the other side instead. Color choices could be involved as well. Keel did not see how anyone like himself could be expected to keep these possibilities ‘straight,’ but maybe the point was if you were not a member of that psycho-sexual universe you never would know what was going on.

That was fine with him. He had no desire to know. It was none of his business!

Leading Candidate Pig wanted to put a stop to all of this.

It would be illegal to paint your face, he vowed, when he was in charge. Processes leading to transformational gender would all be banned. Instead government policies would promote traditional inter-sexual pair bondings, including bonuses for producing children within these bonds. One of his key supporters’ proposals, in fact, called for requiring couples seeking legal recognition of their bonding to sign agreements committing themselves to producing the national average family size. The average bonded family included 2.4 children, Keel knew. Who was going to be responsible for that .4?

The campaign’s bad ideas bedeviled his walk-a-day thought stream even when he tried to stop thinking of them. Keel was day-dreamer, and his regime of daily walks generally launched flights of musing fantasy. This day, however, he had business to do, and the business weighed on his mind, causing his thought balloons to plummet.

The public phones, two of them, were still there, bolted into the concrete outer walls of the bus station. No pretense of privacy was afforded their users any longer. No ‘booth.’ (A booth afforded privacy; did human beings no longer seek privacy?) No plastic roofing shell. Only a thin shelf made of what appeared to be a mottled aluminum, or some such alloy, installed directly beneath the wall-mounted push-button phone, furnished the user with a surface to put a piece of paper on and read or write a number. Or an address book, perhaps; a folded newspaper. Any of the paper-based products of a pre-digital world. Only holdouts like himself made use of so old-fashioned a utility as a public phone.

Keel put a coin, five times larger than what the calls used to cost, into the slot. Then, as people still said, he ‘dialed a number.’ How odd; how quaint. People used to say “drop a dime.” Do they still say that?

He called the city police department and asked the dispatcher (another old term? did police still use radios to ‘dispatch’ patrol cars?) if he could find out whether any complaints had been lodged about the behavior of dogs at a certain address.

The dispatcher’s voice, suppressing a sigh, told him that question would have to go to the department’s animal control officer. Keel, prepared for something like this, promptly told the man that he was at a public phone -- the dispatcher appeared to be surprised: “a what?” he asked -- and requested the dispatcher to make the transfer to the animal controller for him. He suspected that the police, like most arms of government, preferred you to make the second call yourself.

It made them appear busier than they actually were on a Wednesday afternoon.

Keel kept his voice humble: poor old guy needing a little help. The dispatcher agreed to transfer his call.

“I don’t know if they’ll answer,” he cautioned.

The call was answered.

A woman, by her voice. It was interesting, a fleeting thought registered to be scraped for meaning later, that Keen could almost always correctly identify a female voice. If people merely “texted” each all day, instead of actually using their voices, did that make them less adept at identifying the gender, age, status, and role of unfamiliar voices?

When he posed his question

-- “Can you tell me if there have been complaints about the behavior of the dogs at 228 Kent Road?” --

the officer, or assistant, who hadn’t self-identified beyond a rapid mutter, replied that she didn’t know.

“Can you find out?”

There was a pause, then something like a mumbled expletive, and then the voice confided to him that she was busy doing her job.

“The police told me, when I asked them, that I had to bring this matter to the animal control officer.” He was careful to keep his voice plausible, matter-of-factual.

“That’s not me.”

“But this is the animal control department, isn’t it?”

“Yes. But she’s not here.”

The animal officer was a ‘she.’ It surprised him, for some reason.

“When will she be back?”

He could wait around. Get a coffee somewhere, then return and call again.

A sigh, wholly audible this time. “Who knows?”

He was a little shocked. Did underlings routinely share their frustrations with their bosses to the general public?

“Ah. Then when should I call back?”

The voice volunteered, in the tone of someone offering a rare favor, to take his number.

“No thanks,” he replied. “Can you just tell ‘her’ what my question was? You took down the address I asked you about, didn’t you?” When she did not reply at once, he gave it to her again. “228 Kent Road.”

The Dormands’ corner property bordered Pike Street, where they kept their dogs, but fronted Kent Road. He had looked up the street number.

“My question is ‘any complaints about the dogs there?’”

The assistant murmured. Hmmed. He was tempted to offer to help with the spelling.

She breathed.

Keel reiterated his intention to call back, and thanked her.

Then he ‘rang off.’ Where did that expression come from, since nothing ‘rang’ when you hung up the phone, did it?

As he walked away, a bus pulled in thirty feet away, and two or three people stepped down and scurried into the station, where it was warm. It was winter, Keel reminded himself, though not that cold. He made a casual scan of his surroundings. The backs of a block of shops that fronted on the avenue. Side roads on either side of the station.

No one around.

A second bus, a thing of grimy metal from another part of the city, pulled slowly into the drop-off circle.

But he could spy no one who was merely standing around, waiting or appearing to, with a view of the public phones.

What, he asked himself, was he worried about? Surveillance? A camera?

It was the graffiti. The feeling he had of being watched when he walked through the square. Or the window that didn’t break.

He shook his head and walked off toward a dismal looking coffee spot on the other side of the parking lot. It was Dormands, he decided, their claim of being “targeted,” and the tenor of the times that was getting to him.

After a few minutes sitting over coffee in a largely deserted shop, one of the dying BuckStir franchises (the coffee was two bucks now; their day was over), he walked back to the public phone and fished another five-dimer piece from his pocket, dialed a different number, and took a deep breath.

A recorded message answered his call, offered a menu of options. Keel chose one and punched the numbers. He was not sure it was the right one, but it would get him into the nooz-room.

A human voice answered, female once more. He asked if he could speak to the reporter (he remembered the byline) who had written the story about the vandalism to a house on Kent Road.

The woman asked him to wait a moment. Fifteen or twenty seconds later her voice came back and told him that Mr. Ross was not at his desk.

He asked her to take message.

“All right. If it’s short.”

It was. “Tell him to look into the dogs at the Dormands’ house.”

But he declined to leave his name or number because he did not wish to be connected to any inquiry into Dormands’ dogs. Was he afraid? Or just being cautious?

Nor did he mention -- to anyone -- seeing the tampered message on the church message board.

Anyway, who would he tell?

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