"This is Califohnia. Of cahrse we have some crasee people who ah going to have conspiracy theeries. They want to blame America fahst! To them I say, vaccinate yahselves! Und stop ahkting like girlymen and fight for your country!"
-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; Emergency TV/Radio Address to All California Civilians; September 10th, 2008; 9PM PST.
In Auschwitz, as Eliott used to say, the only escape was the crematorium. He spoke of brave prisoners who had stolen SS uniforms, forged passes, tried to dig tunnels or simply torn themselves to pieces dragging what was left of their swiss-cheese bodies over the lines of barbed wire, as the Nazis gleefully took target practice on them. A few had escaped, even made it as far as Krakow, only to be returned and marched through the camp, beaten publicly, made to hold signs saying "Hurra! Ich bin zur¸ck!" (Hooray! I'm Back!), and then hung in front of all the prisoners. This approach was excellent at keeping escape to a minimum; combined with the sheer turnover of the camp -- the number of people executed and replaced on any given day -- the draconian policy quashed any hope of a mass riot and for most people, any hope of absconding at all.
But in Auschwitz the prisoners had their heads shaved; they were starving and many could barely walk, let alone run; their gaunt faces and ribs would mark them wherever they went. What's more, most of the prisoners had been brought in from other countires. They had no hope whatsoever of finding refuge in the surrounding Polish countryside where Jews were wholly unwelcome and many of them didn't even speak the language. They were easy for the SS guards to ridicule, torture and kill because they had been so cartoonishly dehumanized already; and the guards understood that their own primary mission was to kill the prisoners anyhow, not to keep them alive.
So several things, as of the night of September 10th, are not yet fully up to speed in the Bakersfield/Kern concentration camp. The prisoners aren't yet starving or dehumanized; most of them are hoping for a speedy deliverance; the guards are still uneasy keeping watch over a bunch of white, black, asian and latino English-speaking civilians, even if they are enemy combatants, even if they are trying to overthrow the government. Plenty of the guardsmen have mixed feelings about the government themselves; though for these assholes to go around trying to start a revolution while people out there are dying of smallpox is obviously extremely reprehensible. For the moment, the situation in camp remains relatively fluid.
There's a small population of children here, too, kids who were brought to the protest with their parents. The ones over 13 have been put to work; meanwhile half a dozen women have been recruited from the ranks of prisoners to serve as day-camp counselors for the younger set. As Chevy and the rest of the men leave the fluorescent glare of the camo-net factory, step out into the dusty orange stench of the central valley twilight, they can hear the kids singing happy songs out behind the old gingerbread house at the far end of camp. The laughing voices raise the mens' spirits; all are cocking their heads to listen.
Chevy sticks by Saul as they make their way to the open-air mess, where a table has been set up with styrofoam bowls, plastic spoons, and a number of large steaming kettles. Chevy likes the old man immensely, respects his grit, wants to hear more of what he's got to say. Saul's been silent since he was knocked down this morning. He's gone into POW mode and nary a grumble has passed his lips. But from his eyes Chevy can tell he's weighing his options even now, sorting and cataloguing all possible routes of escape. Chevy is glad of this, trusts the old soldier in it more than he ever would himself.
Once everyone got down to work, twiddling the steel wires mindlessly around the other steel wires, Chevy began to think more and more about Katie. This was in part triggered by the intensely uncomfortable reminder of the package in his rectum; in part because he hadn't been laid in a few weeks; in part because there was just nothing else positive or hopeful for him to think about. He realized how wretched and futile this hope was but in this and only this his mind seemed able to trick itself into sustaining a lengthy fantasy. Because he knows he falls in love too easily with any pretty girl who'll give him the time of day. Because if she gives him her phone number he'll walk on water for three days, imagining road trips and nights on the beach and what their children will look like while he plays it cool and tries not to call her. But he's never been able to turn off that longing for true, unabashed romance that blooms and bounces like a wound spring in his chest every time a lovely girl smiles at him. It's the most closely guarded, most secret of all his silent convictions that his life is supposed to be like a John Cusack movie.
He wonders where Katie is and whether she's okay. He doesn't think she's in the same camp as he is, but he's not completely sure, there are so many people here and it's so large. Now that he's outside he keeps a steady watch for her in the crowd.
A large clique of twenty-somethings, having formed at several of the production tables nearest the door of the factory, is glomming together again in the yard. They're mostly typical-looking Echo Park/Williamsburg types with stringy, lopsided haircuts and a great many indecipherable tattoos. They're tall and heroin-thin and mostly they'd only show contempt for one another in their natural habitat, which is standing by the stage at Spaceland or Warsaw with their arms crossed in obtusely melodramatic dismay at the valiant efforts of one local band or another that's desperately trying to impress them. But here they've latched onto each other as their sole means of survival. The kid who used to be wearing a rasta beanie -- now with dreadlocks dangling wildly -- is hovering around the edge of the clique, not quite hip enough to really mix, too hip to hang out with the scraggly band of old beatniks from tables six and twelve.
Felix has shown up again; Chevy sees his weirdly-shaped head bobbing towards them through the crowd. He comes up and stands beside Chevy and Saul, kind of remote, glancing around sullenly like he just realized he's got a dick up his ass.
"How you doin' man?" Chevy asks.
Felix just shakes his head, shakes his head again. He's got no visible scars.
"What'd they do?"
Felix keeps shaking his head in silence.
Chevy, Saul and Felix shuffle up to the slop table around the same time as the hipster crowd. The soldiers are mostly hanging back, leaving the several thousand prisoners to do their prisoner thing in the center of the yard. Several women culled from the garment factory are in charge of the slop-ladling. Somehow they're all obese, and Chevy wonders what strange fancy struck the guards to choose the fattest women for this job. Who can say; maybe it was a subconscious thing from watching too many prison movies.
Chevy lets the rasta kid slide in line ahead of him. They approach the table; a ladleful of gray looking garbage is plopped into the kid's bowl.
"Hey," the kid asks, "is this shit vegan?"
For the first time since morning, Saul makes a sound -- a slight, disgusted snort. It's all Chevy needs.
"Y'know," says Chevy, "I bet all you people supported gun control."
Two dozen horrified hipsters stop talking and gape at him.
"Well you sure look like a bunch of assholes now, don't you?" he goes on. "It wasn't the gun nuts you should've been worried about; it was -- and I say this to you," he's addressing the older beatnik convention now, as well, "because these kids never even bothered to vote -- you got old and fat and content to hand over little bits and pieces of your freedom in exchange for safety from these people they said you had to be afraid of. So you're protesting now? What were you doing from 1972 to 2000, raising kids and getting rich is what. Y'know if anyone in this country had a pair of balls we'd have had an armed revolution forty-five years ago to take out Nixon. But you assholes got a little prosperity and safety in exchange for giving up your shot at a revolution, and now your time's up and they've stolen your kids, turned them into a bunch of fucking maniacs -- dragged from war to war, driving around in tanks blasting fake Limp Bizkit cockrock supposed to give them an adrenaline rush, learning to kill people like it's a fucking videogame. Media's real good at making them feel unique and special and fucking powerful. You wanna know what's wrong with this country all you gotta do is look at what happened to fucking Rock and Roll."
A few shouts go up in offended protest but other heads nod. Chevy is on his most incoherent soap box now; he glances around; the guards at the edges of the yard have begun to notice the disturbance and are standing by, fingering their rifles. Not about to shoot quite yet. Chevy, now in total possession of the floor, is in one of those rare states where he's completely in thrall to his own unexpectedly forceful articulation.
"Rock and Roll," he announces, uncertain how this came to be his main thesis, "started out as the dynamo that drove and was driven by your failed revolution in the 60s. It went beyond political music; it was politics. It was politics because it was so real and raw it made people feel things. It let all kinds of emotions loose and it made people stronger. And they made it stronger.
"And then came the Monkees. Then came the death of the revolution; its corporatization into nothing more than a fashion statement. Che on a fucking t-shirt. And we got a new kind of rock; just like we got a new kind of journalism and a new kind of democracy. We got soft rock, corporate rock, jazz rock, rock operas and fucking pop rock that wasn't Rock at all. We got bands like Kansas and Milli Vanilli and Hootie and the fucking Blowfish and N'Sync and all the dumb cunts that looked like Britney. And it was music written by computer simulations and focus groups and producers with business degrees, designed to hit all the right notes and say over and over the right combinations of the same 300 words that they know evoke these automatic emotional responses in people, and hearing it over and over gave everyone the fucking illusion that this was meaningful and important music that spoke to you when really it was just a bunch of posers and all it was saying was "you're not special because you think you get this." Because the point of Rock wasn't that the words or the music hit the right combination of codes in your brain; it was that it did that because it was made by a bunch of people who felt the way you did, only louder, and who weren't afraid to get up on stage and fucking scream that shit out at the fucking Man!
"So if you wanna know how we got in this position, where the fucking Man is treating us like livestock and -- don't kid yourself -- probably gonna kill us or keep us locked up here forever, just look at what you let happen to our music, how they got into our brains, and how they made us believe we were free when really we were being turned into fucking slaves motherfucker!"
The crowd, for a moment, remains standing there in stunned silence, staring at the ground. Saul is nodding, watching Chevy with a definite look of respect in his eyes. Then all at once, Felix, who hasn't said a word all this time, starts screaming "FUCKING A!!! FUCKING A MAN!!!" and body-checks the nearest ladle-lady across the table, sending a steaming kettle spewing through the air, spoons and bowls erupting everywhere. Chevy, Saul and all the hipsters join in, crashing the other tables to the ground.
The guards are already rushing into the crowd from the perimeter, waving their guns at people, scattering them. As yet they haven't fired any shots. Elements of the older beatniks are choosing to remain standing against them now in a show of solidarity, allowing themselves to be brutally butted by the guards' rifles, holding their ground in passive resistance as long as they can. Two trucks that had been parked just outside the gate rumble to life and are putting on speed, angling themselves at the thick of the crowd, sending people diving out of their way. They're trying to get in to where Chevy and Saul and Felix are standing while incurring as few casualties as possible.
"Listen to me!" Saul tells Chevy hoarsely, "punch me in the face!"
"Punch me in the face!" says Saul, "break my nose! Don't ask questions..."
Dutifully, and with many reservations, Chevy hauls back and lays a glancing blow off the old man's cheek.
"Not hard enough..." Saul grumbles, and socks Chevy in the eye. Chevy reels backwards for a second, a hand coming up to cover his wounded socket. "Come on," yells Saul for the benefit of the onrushing soldiers, "that all you got you little shit?"
Chevy lunges forward and whams him across the bridge of his nose with the butt of his palm.
Saul hits the floor, bleeding.
"Hey what the hell you do that for?" Felix yells. "The fuck was that?"
Chevy feels a fist hit him hard in the side of the head; Felix must have aimed for the ear and missed; things tunnel down for an instant and he loses his footing. He stumbles sideways and lands comfortably against the generous bosom of one of the soup ladies, who shrieks and shoves him back into the throng. Felix and rasta guy are exchanging blows now with several of the hipsters. Now the beatniks, driven backwards by advancing soldiers, begin catching some badly thrown punches from behind. Some of them abandon their passive conditioning and hit back. The melee that ensues begins to split along generational lines as more hipsters and beatniks join the fray. The trucks and soldiers stop advancing. Surrounded by brawling prisoners, they seem uncertain of what to do next. A wildly swinging arm crashes down on Chevy's shoulder, buckling his knees and sending him to the ground with a jolt.
It's right then that the soldiers begin firing up into the air, but this seems to have little effect on the pitch of the civil war now taking place between the orange-suited prisoners.
A foot crunches hard into the small of Chevy's back, shooting pain to the tips of his fingers. A thousand pairs of legs all around him are thrashing in wild motion, rendered even more chaotic by the quickly sweeping shadows of numerous spotlights swinging over the scene. He sees a dark shape on the ground a few yards away and moving; it's Saul, belly-crawling toward one of those trucks. Chevy follows him on elbows and knees, right through the thick of it, trying his best to avoid more pain. A steel-toed boot kicks him hard in the ribs; it was an accident; the soldier flies headlong over him into more pummeling fists.
The gunshots slacken for a moment and then renew themselves fiercely; the retreating edge of the crowd now starts stampeding eastward into the thickest part of the fight. The entire struggle is moving itself further into the camp, toward the factory buildings. Chevy can see where the civilian bodies end, halfway between himself and the truck. The forest of legs clears Saul first, leaving him in a four-foot dead zone directly in front of a row of advancing soldiers. Saul isn't crawling anymore; he's lying frozen, facedown in the dirt in a mangled position with a bloody arm wrenched backwards behind him. Chevy sees Saul and instantly follows suit, shutting his eyes tightly and throwing his face into the dust. Frozen, he becomes aware that he's sweating obscenely, feels the exposed side of his face completely soaking wet. As it trickles into his mouth he tastes that it's blood. He tries not to pass out just from the thought of how profusely he must be bleeding from the head. He lays in the thick dust, trying not to breathe.
Everything becomes silent and strange. Katie is leaning over him. She kisses his forehead gently, he can feel her breath tickling his ear. Then she rests her cheek against his so softly that when she blinks he can feel the butterfly-kiss of her lashes. She covers him, wrapping him in her arms, holding him like a child. He tries to catch her hand as she melts away. The sound of gunshots fades back up as his wavering consciousness slowly returns.
A spotlight flares the view from under his lids a bright orange as it passes. He can hear the crunch of soldiers' boots close by. The boots stop and he steels himself. A bayonette pokes him hard in the ribs, tries to roll him over. He uses dead weight to resist it. Then the boots move away toward the retreating beatniks who have now broken into a run back towards the factory.
Chevy waits a span of six heartbeats before he dares to look up. Saul has already doubled his pace toward the nearer of the trucks. Chevy crawls as fast as he can behind the old man. Momentarily they're lying side by side beneath the truck itself.
"Should we steal it?" Chevy whispers.
"Might be a soldier in it...or he mighta took the keys...up here...better this way..." Saul grapples in the blackness for a moment, using the transaxle to lift himself, hooks his feet up onto a rod and not finding anything to grab onto with his hands, lets his rangy torso thump back down onto the ground. "Push ups..." he grins, a row of white dentures sparkling in the darkness. Chevy imitates him.
"This might hurt...getting dragged..." Chevy considers. Soon as he says it he's aware that his inflection is parodying Saul's. This happens very rarely, subconsciously, and only when he's around someone he really likes. He's suddenly embarrassed; he hopes Saul didn't notice. They lay there in silence for what seems like a very long time as the sounds of the struggle fade into the distance.
Chevy lies there trying to consider all the angles.
"Don't you think they might inventory people before they move the trucks?" he whispers. Saul looks at him blankly. "The bar codes," says Chevy.
"Shit," says Saul, and silent as a ninja he drops his legs from the rail, spider-walks out from under the truck and stretches his legs out to peer through the window.
"No shit...the key..." Chevy hears him whisper, "come on!"
Quick as a flash Chevy is out and up and in the passenger side and Saul's in the driver's seat.
"Duck..." Saul advises. Lowering his own head, he trips the ignition. A spotlight blazes through the windshield, blinding them, as Saul pounces on the gas. He sends the truck into a jacknifing skid through the dust, aims for the shoddy wood and barbed-wire gate and guns it. Bullets ring like hail off the truck's roof, smash out the windows; Chevy is down on the rubberized floor mat crunched into a ball and Saul is almost down there with him, gripping the wheel with one hand and not bothering to look where he's driving. The diesel leaps into high gear, stutters and bounces sickeningly over what could only be a human body. The truck hammers through the fence like an elephant through a rattan hut, ripping out a whole section of tangled steel and wood that drags and sparks under their thick tires.
Saul has opted not to turn the headlights on and they're driving blind now, barely able to distinguish the ashen-black road from the darker, charcoal-black herds of cattle on either side. Those freakish halogens are snapping themselves on and off all over the feedlots around them; Chevy has the impression of being in a 737 that's just missed its runway and landed on the grass. Each bump slams their heads into the cab's ceiling but Saul gives it no slack. The second truck is in hot pursuit already, followed aggressively by two swerving, honking jeeps that are having trouble getting around it. Occasional shots go plinking against the back of the cab; a bullet shatters the driver's-side mirror.
"The mirror...Bad luck..." Saul grumbles, holding the wheel straight. "If I don't make it..." he's saying, "...Bohemian Grove...they'll all be there, Bush, Cheney...it's on the Georgia Stones...they want to kill five billion people! Thomas More's Orwellian nightmare! Sartre warned us! Called the book L'’ge de Raison! Hats off to Tom Paine!" Chevy returns to a sitting position, uncertain what the hell Saul is off babbling about. As he gets his first look out the windshield, it's hard to make heads or tails out of what he sees; there's the road, and it looks like there's a hole, a black abyss, about a hundred feet ahead of them and closing fast; then the hole looks like a ditch filled with black water; then at the last moment it's a big black steer, standing in the middle of the road about ten feet away. Saul hits the lights even as he slams on the brake and swerves instinctively toward the fence -- but it's far too late. In the flash of illumination Chevy receives a very, very brief impression of the unfortunate ruminant's face expressing a certain surrealistically mellow, bovine sort of curiosity at this large noisy machine which has just materialized in front of it. At which point there is an incredibly loud, organic BANG. The cow explodes against the front of the truck, demolishing the vehicle, laying down hamburger for a hundred yards in every direction.
Saul, who was wearing his seatbelt, simply buckles at the waist like a rag doll and takes the steering wheel through his frontal lobes at about seventy miles an hour. Chevy however, who never wears safety belts, catapults headfirst through the shot-up window, over the cyclone fence, cracks a rib as he clips a large, extremely unhappy mammal and plows face-first into about three feet of cold, soothing cow shit. Things become very dark then as he sinks slowly in.