White square flickers on the wall in the dark and empty, humming and clicking, numbers call for liftoff and the film begins—space studded with stars, white stars flickering fine and fragile. Anaximander said the sky was thick, a dark mist, beyond which burned a wall of fire, and stars holes punched in heaven opening on the inferno.
No one sits in the scratchy seats, headrests greasy from leaned-back heads, no feet pick up with a suck from the grime-sticky floor. No eyes flicker and gleam in the Exit sign’s red glow. Say it’s a matinee. Say there’s popcorn.
The projector’s blast blinds with light and shadows tremble in the rolling reels.
The full-bodied weight of harvest wheat, summer dusk fading into the land, combines growling in the distance. The smooth oak of his mother’s table, his mother’s mother’s table, the table in the kitchen laid with porcelain shakers and cloth as if for museum display: This is what a table looks like. Beatriz chiding him for having let the fruit rot in the bowl again.
I try to eat it, Bea, he shrugs with a helpless grin. I don’t eat so much fruit, you know.
She clucks at him like at a wayward child. No good, Mr. Lehman.
Later he lifted the cloth and ran his fingers along the grain of the family table and thought, weight like this pull you into the sea. Then he’s back, shutting the computers down after the students have gone. Spreadsheets all this week. They’re good kids. He wishes he knew more Spanish. He would like a stronger focus on Christ. But good work, anyway, being done.
Good work, being done. Not quite what he expected, but good work. Maybe it was the shock of Managua, still strange now, all the traffic and stores, palm trees and semi trucks, smoggy air, giant bugs. Somehow no matter what he’d been told it stayed in his mind something tribal, a jungle village, all sombreros and bows and arrows, firepits and savage dancing. He felt foolish for his ignorance and ashamed of his foolishness.
Wow, he’d said as they came in from the airport, it’s a real city.
Yeah, she’s moving alright, Jay said, Jay the man from the mission who picked him up from his flight. You’re lucky, you’ll get to work in the new ed center. The old one was pretty run down, but we’ve been blessed by our brothers in Christ. At least one computer in every room, and the labs have twelve each. Pretty good, huh?
He chuckled at himself. Pretty good, he said, but what he was thinking about was Kathy arguing with him, telling him he needed to go to church more, telling him she was worried. We need you to be with us, she said. The kids need you to witness your faith, Jim. Jamie’s been talking about Hinduism, for Pete’s sake! He says they have a god with an elephant head. Where do they learn these things?
He thought then his faith was strong. He thought then the work he had to do was more important than the social obligations of church. He thought these were separate things, different things, life, church, work, family, God. He thought he knew about things. But when he came home to an empty house and all their handled things filled the rooms with silence, and all that was missing was them and Kathy’s Toyota, them and their voices, them and the hands they used for things, he found out how little knowing was good for.
He kept looking out the window thinking she’d come back in the driveway. Every day he looked out and thought she’d come back, her face turning toward him as the Toyota rolled to a stop in the gravel, Mandy in the front seat and Jamie in the back, and he’d say, let’s order a pizza. He’d say something. What’d he used to say? Why does the emptiness now make all those things feel like they were empty then? Because they weren’t, they were full, he knows it—he was there, but how does the blank space today fill the past too with its blankness? Isn’t it enough to take my present and my future, but you have to take my past, too? And if it’s buried with them why’s it keep coming back, like a late frost that won’t let winter go?
He looked out the window of the car at the city of Managua, the many cars, many faces, strange new shops and buildings. All the signs in Spanish. The hairpin turns that bring you to the present, twisted metal and sudden silence.
Maybe a phone call.
He looked out the window at the courtyard between the classrooms and saw Miguel look up at the gray sky and hunch his shoulders at the first drops of rain.
He looked down at the screen and moved the mouse to click shut down. He thought ahead to his reading, Letters to the Ephesians, and thought of Paul on his many missions. Help me, God, he thought, on my many missions.
I went to the Solitary Confinement on the XXXXXXXXXX. I was there for 67 days of suffering and little to eat and the torture I saw myself. When I asked the guard XXXXX about the time and he cuffed my hand to the door and when his duty ended the second guard came, his name is XXXXX, he released my hand from the door and he cuffed my hand in the back. Then I told him I did not do anything to get punished this way so when I said that he hit me hard on my chest and he cuffed me to the window of the room about five hours and did not give me any food that day and I stayed without food for twenty-four hours. I saw lots of people getting naked for a few days getting punished in the first days of Ramadan. They came with two boys naked and they were cuffed together face to face and XXXXX was beating them and a group of guards were watching and taking pictures from top and bottom and there was three female soldiers laughing at the prisoners. The prisoners, two of them, were young. I don’t know their names.
Fish spasms, silver arcing on the bank, wet with life and dying. That’s food in your belly. Shadows cupped out of green veils, black bend of water, root, branch, dirt, stone.
And a fish had an eye more alien, what you looking at? What’s a fish see when it goes to god? Choke on it, whatever it is, you little bastard.
Who said horses had a horse god and cows a cow god? So fish got a fish god.
Gold leaks against bark, leaves dazzled like a curtain of white scales, the rod whips back and out and the line dances over the hollow. Knobby, pink-chapped hands work the levers and reel.
How can you be so old and not dead yet? Not even feel dead. Not even think dead. Like my whole life waits for me, and maybe it does, until the cellphone buzzes in his pocket like a trapped bee. He pulls it out and checks the number, it’s Naomi and she knows he’s fishing but he flips it open anyways.
Pete, where you at?
Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry to bother your fishing, but I was just trying to work this camera program cause I wanted to send our pictures from the bake-off to the kids—you remember how Tricia always put in her orange-chocolate nutcake, and then she won that year? So I was trying to send ’em but I can’t find ’em on the computer. I mean the camera. I mean, they’re on the camera but I can’t…you know what I mean.
You plug the camera in?
I used the cable you showed me.
And a window pop up?
No, no windows pop up.
Usually a window pop up.
No. No window.
You look in “my computer”?
I did, and I can’t find the camera.
It’s an external thing.
I know sweetie. I can’t find it.
You try unplugging it?
On? It doesn’t have to be on, right, it comes on when you plug it in.
Can you turn it on?
Oh no, the battery’s dead. That must be it. You think that’s it?
Well, silly me. Alright then. Thanks honey. Sorry to bother you while you’re fishing.
When you think you’ll be home?
Couple more hours.
Listen, would you do me a favor and stop by Wyman’s on the way home and pick up some milk and a package of paper towels? Remember skim.
And if you stop at the Silver Dollar don’t go picking any fights with Bud.
If he keep his mouth shut I ain’t have to tell him how he’s full of shit.
Well, that’s fine but then I have to hear about it, so don’t even get him started.
I don’t start nothing.
I know you better than that, Pete Lehman, don’t you think I don’t. Look, if I hadn’t seen you go down—
I’m fishin, sweetie.
Well I’ll see you when you’re done.
One more thing, Pete. Your brother called from Managua.
Yes. He said he’d email you for a good time to talk.
He say it’s important?
No. He just said he wanted to say hi.
Don’t forget the milk.
Love you, sugar.
Then he flipped the phone closed and put the ringer on silent. The river seemed strange to him now, the trees just trees. His line hung off the end of his rod like something broken dangling from a rafter. He reeled in and set down the rod. He took the fish from the bank and dropped it in the bucket, pulled another beer from the ice chest, lit a cigarette.
He pulled the smoke deep into him then let it out slow, aspirating gray ribbons curling over the water. With his phone on silent, he missed the call from Naomi about their son, Mike. It wasn’t until later that he heard.
One day while in the prison the guard came and found a broken toothbrush, and they said that I was going to attack the American Police; I said that the toothbrush wasn’t mine. They said we are taking away your clothes and mattress for six days and we are not going to beat you. But the next day the guard came and cuffed me to the cell door for two hours, after that they took me to a closed room and more than five guards poured cold water on me and forced me to put my head in someone’s urine that was already in that room. After that they beat me with a broom and stepped on my head with their feet while it was still in the urine. They pressed my ass with a broom and spit on it. Also a female soldier, whom I don’t know the name, was standing on my legs. They used a loudspeaker to shout at me for three hours; it was cold. But to tell the truth in daytime XXXXX gave me my clothes and at night XXXXX took them away. The truth is they gave me my clothes after three days, they didn’t finish the six days and thank you.
Grab it, the boy shouts. The girl reaches and recoils, curling her fingers to her chin, her eyes flat and gleaming with fear at the vicious black line in the grass, curving and fluid, tail like an awl punching into her belly.
The boy hunches after and grabs it by the end, lifting it into the air as it writhes and curls, pale underside and slate gray back, yellow racing stripes. He grabs the snake behind its head like he saw on TV and grinning shoves it at her. She’s shock-still afraid and knows to screech but doesn’t, because the shape of the snake’s head seems so perfect, so beautiful, a little diamond-box with a flat nose, black eyes like tiny buttons, and his wicked, flipping tongue tasting the air. He’s supposed to be evil but instead seems wise, stoic in his captor’s hands, calmly facing his fate.
He’s pretty, she says, so the boy says whyn’t you kiss him then, and pushes the snake right at her. This time she screeches like she’s supposed to and backs up, wailing don’t.
You want to hold him? he asks.
No, she says, when she means yes.
Should we take him back to give to Emory?
No, she says, Emory don’t want a snake.
Cats eat snakes, he says.
No they don’t, she says. They just play with them and kill them. I never seen a cat eat a snake. Not even Emory and he eats everything.
I saw one time.
You did not.
Flt. Flt, flt.
Well I’m gonna cut its head off then.
Yeah, he said. I heard snakes’ll live without their head and I wanna see.
The boy pulls out his pocket knife and thumbs the blade open like a silver leaf. He squats and puts the snake on the ground, pressing it in the dirt. The girl shakes her head and thinks of Jesus.
You’ll go to hell if you kill him, she says.
I will not. You don’t go to hell for killing animals, just people.
You do too.
What about cows and pigs? We kill them. Or fish. You don’t go to hell for killing fish.
We need to kill them to eat, she said. You don’t need to kill a snake. You’re not gonna eat it.
We don’t need to eat cows. We could just eat, I don’t know, carrots and cheese. Animals don’t count. God said we’re shepherds and they’re given us for a bounty.
Besides, he says, it was a snake brought sin to the world.
The snake is calm, held fast, and the boy brings his knife down slow and presses the blade into the skin behind its head. The thing’s tail writhes, whipping dust, and the boy presses harder. The girl wants to cry. The skin bends around the blade, the dusty scales, taut flesh, then the knife cuts through and the snake’s body flips free, bleeding in the dust, awful red. The boy jerks back, wipes his knife on his jeans. He folds the blade in and admires his work.
Was it pain the creature felt or just a jolt? Did it have a snakey soul now loosed and on way to be judged? Suddenly the boy’s afraid, wondering if she’s right, if now he’s going to hell. He feels watched, now, and knows what he’d be told, knows it’s wrong to kill for no reason. But it’s a snake, he thinks, as he hears his father’s reply. He can see them taking his knife away. He can even see a spanking, maybe grounding. It’s no small business to kill a thing, he hears his father saying. It’s no game for kids.
Don’t tell, he says.
But she’s ignoring him. She’s herself now squatting in the dust, her hand reaching and brushing the snake’s disbodied head. She looks into its blank eye and doesn’t even think, but rather moves enveloped in a feeling of wonder and sadness that seems as endless as it does profound. Here it was alive and now it’s dead, and one of them did it, and it will never live again. Even the blood no longer seems awful but merely a sign, a symbol of some thing within that comes from God.
Promise you won’t tell, Trish. Promise.
She looks up at him like she didn’t even hear him. Then she picks up the bloody head and stands. I won’t tell if you won’t, and I’m gonna keep the head, she says. You gotta help me sneak it into the house cuz I don’t have a bag or nothing.
He nods. She turns to home, across the field back to the gravel driveway and the two-story white house, and he picks up the snake body by the tippy tail and flings it high, deep into the grass. He thinks ahead to the sneaks and lies they’ll need, what they were doing.
Nothing. They weren’t doing nothing.
Bathed in light. Bathed in reality, kaleidoscope of flesh and color. We came to be bathed, ritually washed. We came to fill our heads with nonsense.
I was never more alone than when sitting in a crowded theater, waiting for the film to start. Only then could I see how separate we all were, how dumb and lonely, how misguided we all were to come and sit here in the dark and wait to be shown moving pictures, hoping for the release into ourselves that we mistook for common oneness. As if we even saw the same show.
Later Tricia cornered him, taking up the mantle of nag. Where’d you go? We were all looking for you.
I went down to The Oriental, he said, knowing as he spoke he should’ve lied.
I had to get outta here.
Mike came in then, wearing his Army T-shirt.
You really shouldn’t have done that Eddie, Tricia said so Mike could hear. We were all looking for you and you can’t just leave like that at a time like this.
Shouldn’t have done what? Mike asked.
He went to The Oriental. That’s where he was all day.
Tell him he shouldn’t have gone. It was irresponsible of him. Think what Uncle Jim would feel like if he knew Eddie was out watching movies at a time like this.
I didn’t say anything back, just swung out through the kitchen door. Back with the family, my mind resumed the compulsive imagination of my aunt’s car sliding sideways across the interstate, the truck’s deep blast of horn, the crunch and smear of metal.
How when it rains after a dry spell the oils in the road rise to the surface.
He went to The Oriental again that night, the next day, the day after. Never more alone than sitting in the empty theater. The crowded theater. I was never more alone and that’s why I came. Sitting alone, all of us pointed at the same big screen, waiting for our promised thrill, none of us facing each other, none of us needing each other, none of us sorry or sympathetic or in pain for each other, our lives subsumed in this other life, this magic imagined, and that was why we came: our secret agreement to drown in pools of light and shadows gleaming with stars.
Before Ramadan, Grainer started covering all the rooms with bed sheets. Then I heard screams coming from Room #1, at that time I was in Room #50, and it’s right below me so I looked in the room. I saw XXXXX in Room #1, who was naked and Grainer was putting the phosphoric light up his ass. XXXX was screaming for help. There was another tall white man who was with Grainer, he was helping him. There was also a white female soldier, short, she was taking pictures of XXXXX.
You can’t possibly know that, he said. You’ve only known me for, what, six months? I could be deeply flawed.
That’s just post-Christian guilt. You still can’t shake off original sin.
I looked at her, squinting. I mean I think there could be something wrong in the way I relate to people.
You relate to me just fine. She grinned at him from the rock she sat on.
I looked out into the trees. The cut of the land falling away below showed in the lit treetops, a swath of bronze gleaming in a ribbon over the shadowed forest. I drank some water. My body felt warm and full of life. I looked over at Heather, her flushed cheeks framing the serious look she gave me. I wanted to put his hands all over her legs and liked knowing that later I would. I thought ahead to them then, huddled by the fire, skin on skin. I imagined the fire reflecting in her eyes, the shadows dancing off the trees, the heat and glow spreading between them.
Maybe it is too much church, I said.
On their way up the highway into the mountains, Heather had explained the basic tenets of Buddhism and the differences between Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, just like she’d written about in her term paper, and I told her about when I went to Bible camp in middle school. That was when I thought I had the calling. It was a long drive, beginning from Seattle in the dark of the spring morning and crossing east into wilderness, and she told me about her parents’ divorce, and what it was like to have her dad dating new women. I tried to explain what he’d learned about the Pre-Socratics, and how Plato believed that virtue was knowledge of the highest good, which was the pure ideal and the birth of Christian metaphysics. She told me the story of her senior-year debate field trip when everybody got in trouble for drinking and smoking weed. I told her how my brother Mike was a soldier in Iraq, how he worked in a prison. We talked about where we’d been on 9/11.
You gonna sleep all day, pilgrim, or should we go? she said, flicking water at me.
I smiled at her and waved my hand. She stuck out her tongue.
We clambered up and pulled on our packs, tightening straps and adjusting buckles, helping each other with the weight. The air was thick with the scent of pine and calm and cool and quiet. The echo of life in the calls of birds and the rattle of pinecones falling, rustling brush, didn’t break the silence of the mountain but somehow rather thickened it.
My brother says he wants to visit when he comes back. So you’ll get to meet him then.
I’d like that.
He’s kind of a jerk but… I mean, he was always the tough one, you know, played football and everything, and he picked on me for not being athletic as him. But he was good, too. We used to go out shooting. Sometimes my sister would get really bossy with me and he would make her shut up.
I was bossy with my little brother.
Yeah, maybe Mike’ll beat you up.
Oh, Mikey, protect me from my girlfriend! She’s so big and strong!
Bring it, I said, putting up my fists.
She smiled back at me over her shoulder. Maybe we can wrestle later, she said. After we get the tent up.
The trail wound up the mountain, making a slow ascent. Soon again even in the coolness of the day we were sweating, our packs weighing us down. We fell into the easy rhythm of walking and talking, pushing upwards, scrambling up the steep parts, hiking break and switchback, following meandering curves. The underbrush thinned as we went higher, and jagged rocks and stone flats began to show exposed among the pines.
When first I went to the hard site, the American soldiers took me, there were two soldiers, a translator named Abu Hamed. We stood in the hallway before the hard site and they started taking off our clothes one after another. After they took off my clothes the American soldier removed who was wearing glasses, night guard, and I saw an American female soldier which they call her Ms. XXXXX, in front of me they told me to stroke my penis in front of her. And then they covered my head again, and as I was doing whatever they asked me to do, they told me to sit on the floor facing the wall. They brought another prisoner on my back and he was also naked. Then they ordered me to bend onto my knees and hands on the ground. And then they placed three others on our backs, naked. And after that they order me to sleep on my stomach and they ordered the other guy to sleep on top of me in the same position and the same way to all of us. And there were six of us. They were laughing, taking pictures, and they were stepping on our hands with their feet. And they started taking pictures after that. Then, after that they forced us to walk like dogs on our hands and knees. And we had to bark like a dog and if we didn’t do that, they start hitting us hard on our face and chest with no mercy. After that, they took us to our cells, took the mattresses out and dropped water on the floor and made us sleep on our stomachs on the floor with the bags on our head and they took pictures of everything. Mr. XXXXX shows up in the morning and give us our mattresses, blankets and food, but the second guy who wears glasses was the opposite; he takes the mattresses, tie our hands, hit us and don’t give us food. All that lasted for 10 days and the translator Abu Hamed was there. I only saw him when I arrived, but after that I knew he was there because I heard his voice during all of that.
Now no one sits in the scratchy wool seats, headrests greasy from so many leaned-back heads, no feet pick up with a suck from the grime-sticky floor. No hungry eyes flicker and gleam in the Exit sign’s red glow. Heraclitus said the world was fire, all fire, ever-changing fire at war with itself.
I leave and take my ticket stubs with me.
Come out of The Oriental into the light again and the smell of prairie summer, grass dust and long-blown wind. Church is just getting out down the street and I can see people chatting on the sidewalk, families making way to their cars.
I’m supposed to drive out to the airport later to pick up my uncle Jim. He’s coming home for my brother’s funeral.
I check my phone for messages.