"Should we go with the dirty bomb or the smallpox? Dirty bomb -- smallpox? Man this is a tough decision."
-President George W. Bush; Meeting with the Joint Chiefs; September 9th, 2008; 1:33 PM EST.
"Those who support Terror will pay. And those who support, uh, the ones who support Terror: They will also pay. If you help or hide a jihadist, then you are on their side, not our side."
-President George W. Bush; Televised Response to Bin Laden's message; September 9th, 2008; 5:30 PM.
A cold terror runs up Chevy's spine as he realizes it's his own phone that's ringing. He can feel it vibrating in his pocket. It's vibrating between his own thigh and the buttocks of a short indian man in a yellow t-shirt who is squished uncomfortably against him. It's sweaty back here. He can barely move. He doesn't dare to pull the phone out. He tries to reach down and silence it.
The back of the truck is dimly lit by a single bulb at its entrance. Two guards frame the wide opening at the end of the canopy. They hold their rifles ready and strain over the crowd to see where the sound is coming from. For an instant of wild panic, he wonders what they'll do if they find out it's his phone. But at last he manages to turn it off, and the guards go back to eying the prisoners with their trademark stone-cold incuriosity.
Funny, he thinks, that they didn't take our phones away. I suppose they will when they process us. Maybe they secretly want us to be able to tell our families. To scare them. Maybe when our families find out about this, they'll take to the streets. That would be a lot of people.
But with a sinking feeling, he realizes he knows better. He's part Argentine, after all. And he knows that when the leftists and all those associated with them were "disappeared" in that country - taken into the bowels of the military academies, tortured and killed -- the victims' own fathers and sisters and brothers were too scared to say a word. Stigmatized for their very association with a disappeared person (who in the eyes of the broader society "must have done something wrong"), those families kept their mouths sewn shut. Because a single word would get them tortured and killed, too.
Yeah. And the only ones who marched in protest were the old ladies. The mothers and the grandmothers. Why? Because they had nothing to lose. And what would the militars do, they reasoned, kill a bunch of middle-aged, middle-class ladies in the middle of the Plaza de Mayo? That they could never get away with.
Chevy wonders bleakly who's gonna march for him, now that all the marchers have been arrested. At any rate, he thinks, it's lucky that Nick and Chaz didn't come. Who knows what they would have done to Chaz, once they realized he'd dodged the draft.
The truck is moving fast now. Chevy's been keeping track of the turns, straining to see over the standing bodies and through the open rear of the canopy. They took the most direct route away from LA sprawl, which was certainly not the quickest way to get where they're apparently going now. First they turned down the California Incline and north on PCH, across the mountains at one of the long canyons that meets the ocean in Malibu, not sure which one...utter darkness up in these hills, try not to think it, they could dump us all up here...then back down the winding switchbacks into the far West Valley. Shortly they climbed over another row of hills into the Santa Clarita and took a two-lane across the sparsely spread outer 'burbs there, identical rows of desolate stucco townhouses, the final sputters and hiccups of the American Dream...over the hill and down into the pass where they met Interstate 5, headed North. Long way to go around just to avoid city traffic.
Now they're travelling in two parallel convoys, trucks as far back as he can see, just an anonymous line of military vehicles clipping along in the middle lanes.
"Hell I don't know," says the gruff-looking passenger of passing F-150, pulling his Raiders cap down over his eyes, "just step on the gas honey, get past 'em, they ain't the highway patrol, keep it at 80, that's right, be in Fresno by three AM four latest."
Fucking shit, Chevy thinks. Mom and Dad are gonna be pissed.
For the first time it goes through his head that he's got some options here. Maybe it was just the shock and awe of it all -- maybe the pot's worn off -- man what a wack time to smoke a spliff to the head, huh? -- his thoughts are still scattered -- post-traumatic stress, he calculates.
Chevy's dad was a lawyer. He's old and retired now, but he's still a lawyer. He had his own practice back in the day, did traffic accidents and divorces. Okay, that's one hookup. Chevy's much older half-brother Jeff is also a lawyer. He works for a big law firm in downtown LA and handles environmental cases for such eco-friendly companies as Boeing, Waste Management and Arco. He'd probably be even more helpful than Dad. He's a big shot. He can get me out of this, Chevy thinks.
And that's what I want, right?
Suddenly he feels ashamed.
Well what else can I do?
He starts thinking escape again. That whole moral quandry aside, here's the real good stuff. Chevy has another big brother, Ford, who is also a lawyer. And he works in Washington, D.C.. For the FBI.
Now that's an ace in the hole.
All I have to do is get in touch with him. Sure. All I have to do is get in touch. The truck hits a big fat pothole and bounces on its axles, sending a wave staggering through the people. Their legs are tired. Someone has anonymously pissed his or her pants; you can smell it as the wind whips in momentarily through the back. It mixes with the cowshit smell of the San Juaquin Valley, which is where they've come down into. Just now they're passing the big CHP station at the base of the Grapevine, where the road helixes out into a long straight shot up the table-flat basin towards Sacramento, where Governor Schwarzenegger, son of a Nazi, lies on micro-woven sheets in a clean king-sized bed, and sleeps the peaceful sleep of a living god.
Funny, Chevy thinks. Grandpa was always worried they'd come for the Jews in this country like they did in Germany. But you don't need an ethnic group to blame shit on anymore, ideological groups work just fine -- Stalin figured that out, right?
The rows of orange halogens lining the highway, ticking past the truck at regular intervals, come to a sudden end out here in the middle of the plain. The last visible lights are closing themselves to a fine point on the horizon beyond the two soldiers, like an old TV suddenly unplugged. Now they're in the deep blackness of the valley. The air is thirty degrees warmer out here than at the coast, sooty-rich with carbon and humid with organic phosphates. Chevy knows a little about these from his eldest brother, the environmentalist.
I never put it together before how evil my brothers are. And I go out trying to do something good for the world, and look what happens.
Okay, not totally true. Ford isn't a totally evil Fed. He's just a lawyer for the FBI. He does whatever government lawyers do, going after criminals and shit like that. Chevy thinks that's what Ford does, anyway. Ford's never really allowed to talk about it.
Anyway, Chevy has long had a feeling that Ford didn't much like Ashcroft. Ever since the Bushies came into power, Ford hasn't been promoted. And he seems to be working longer and harder than ever.
But a memory of something is tickling at the back of Chevy's mind -- oh yeah. Once, when he was sixteen, after a minor traffic accident coming through Downtown -- after he couldn't get in touch with Dad or Jeff and needed some immediate, on-the-spot legal advice about what to say to a cop who was about to arrive on the scene -- he got ahold of Ford in DC. And Ford said something like, "I'm not allowed to give you any advice at all. I'm only allowed to work for the government."
Which means shit as far as Chevy's concerned right now. If Ford won't help him out, well, he's lost himself a brother.
He hears the firey words he might have to unleash on Ford, plays them through in his mind, gets ready for the worst. If, that is, he can reach his brother at all from wherever they're taking him.
Eventually the truck leaves the freeway and turns onto a long, ruler-straight farm road that runs off across the valley. For an instant, through the smell of all these people, Chevy catches a gentle scent off the open fields, the warm buzzing blackness all around them. It's a smell familiar from long night drives in the past, when he would careen through the night from LA all the way to San Francisco, chasing the stars as they wheeled overhead ...projecting himself onward through the endless artichoke fields and apple orchards to that city of twinkling white lights and jellybean taxis, perched high on its hills, where Victoria would be waiting up reading in bed, warm under the comforter, the light burning on her little porch. He could see her still, like an old strip of film caught on loop, catching her breath time to time in anticipation of a knock on her door that would never come again. He's got to try and forget all that now, it's not going to help him.
It's dark, real dark out on this road. The soldiers have turned the lights off and the trucks are running totally black now. The people back here are all kinds of huddled together on their feet, not allowed to sit down, packed in too tightly anyway; swaying this way and that in utter, creepy silence; leaning together to keep from falling down; some of them are trying to sleep standing up. Back here against the wall isn't such a bad spot.
Chevy turns his head and looks across the nearest row of faces in the darkness. Looking for some kind of insight he studies what he can see of the rasta kid's face next to him in the few blue rays seeping back here. Kid doesn't look like a bad guy. His eyes are open but they're glossy and unfocused; he isn't seeing anything. His lower lip is hanging slightly limp.
These fuckers won't shut me up, Chevy grinds his teeth.
"Hey," he says softly, just barely audible to those around him over the sound of wind and the creaking axles, "hey."
The kid looks at him slowly, suspiciously, like, yeah?
"Where you from?" Chevy presses on.
The kid turns away.
"Come on motherfucker," Chevy hisses, "I'm trying to have a conversation like normal people."
"I think he's trying not to be shot," the little indian guy whispers into his yellow t-shirt sleeve.
All of a sudden Chevy is filled with an anger, a terrifying fury beyond anything he's ever felt before. He feels it welling from his spleen like a dangerous drug, rising up into a barbarous scream. I will not go quietly. He feels that if he were up front he could overpower both guards barehanded right now, throw them off the truck, comandeer it, drive it to fucking Mexico. I WILL NOT GO QUIETLY. All he wants to do right now is shove his way through these FUCKING SHEEP and get to that guard on the left and tackle him even if he fucking dies trying. This is how my grandfather's family went. Silently.
But he puts all his bile and anger into a hoarse, choked whisper, and says through barred teeth to everyone in limited earshot, "you fucking sheep, look how scared and silent and compliant you are you sons of bitches. What are you scared of? These fuckers can't shoot you..."
The rasta kid, awakened now to the danger of his previously silent neighbor, tries awkwardly to put as much distance between himself and Chevy as possible.
Sensing the movement in back, perhaps, or hearing the hushed argument, one of the soldiers at the door cocks his gun; the sound reverberates under the canopy. "Silence!" he commands over the whine of the highway.
"Bullshit," Chevy mutters. But he miscalculates. The soldiers are too on-edge. Something's different tonight -- this isn't the usual arrest of protesters, and they obviously aren't being taken to County right now. With a shocking boom-boom-boom the soldier sends three shells over their heads, tearing quarter-sized holes into the fluttering canopy. Several of the women scream piercingly. The men only cringe.
"Next one to speak gets shot," the other soldier announces almost casually, like a stern coach threatening push-ups.
Chevy closes his eyes with a dizzy feeling and leans back into the wall. He secures his hands in his pockets to keep them from punching anyone. Then he opens his eyes, fixes his stare on the long, dull stretch of highway beyond the multitude of hung heads, and waits for what's next.