”C’mon boy.” He is talking again. The throb from my lip where his knuckles ground the meat into the bottom row of my teeth is becoming more intense with each passing moment. At first it didn’t hurt after he hit me. Now I am left with a split lip, my own burning embarassment after having been hit quite so hard in front of his friends, and a mouth full of coppery liquid. “C’mon you pussy. Fight back.”
“I can't.” Trailing off, I try to surrender by dejectedly looking toward the floor and pawing at my mouth with the back of my hand. We are standing in the garage 'game room,' soundproofed for the occasional imitation of Iron Butterfly that he and his friends would occasionally tear off on cheap guitars bought from the Harold’s Pawn Today-Cash Tomorrow. That is when they were even sober enough to play.
“You fucking pussy. Fight.” His breath is mixed half and half with alcohol vapor and the dank smell of the chewing tobacco jammed into a tight knot in his lower lip. Spittle dances at the corners of his mouth and flecks outwards in vile emphasis of the message he is trying to communicate. He isn’t having any capitulation today and raising my head with his left hand I can feel the tension radiate through his body as the right arm winds up.
“Don’t.” I know what is coming and close my eyes to wait it out as I have every other time that this has happened. “Please. Don’t.”
“Pussy. Fucker.” With the last expletives he releases the energy that had been building in his right arm into a single fluid motion. Just like they’d taught him. The punch catches me just below the sternum, forcing the air out of the diaphragm and crumpling empty to the floor.
Standing above me he releases one more barrage for effect, his friends guffawing in the background over bitching about spilled beer. The language used is a crude characature of human speech, filled to capacity with nothing but hate mixed two parts to one with contempt. “I just don’t know how any son of mine can be such a goddamn pansy faggot. Just like your cunt mother. Worthless shit, both of you.”
That’s the way it went until I turned eighteen and left.
Pushing the memory away, I open my eyes and snap suddenly to the present. Back to now where I am watching the frequency scroll by on the display and waiting to hear the voice through the tiny speaker planted in my ear.
The speaker is connected to a thin wire, which in turn runs the length of my arm to a small gunmetal appliance nestled gently in my right hand. I think about the days when he would be drinking or smoking junk in the garage with his buddies every now and again. Doing what I do now provides me distance from the past violence, grants me a sense of perspective that I could otherwise not have.
The radio is an Icom IC-R3, not the best but it has the right frequency sets for what I am after right now. The others are downstairs and logging far more activity than I care to relate at the moment.
The cozy ambiance and darkness in the closet is permiated by white noise washing from the scrolling displays and soft hum of fans. If I am quiet while standing there I can hear the crash of static on an electronic shore, punctuated only by the occasional clicking of the drives installed in the computers logging the recorded traffic. Everything is mine.
I am listening to you as you drive from work to the cheap hotel.
I am listening to you as you cast into the jade green waters of the bay, patiently waiting for the first strike.
I am listening to you when you throw cigarette butts from the window of your shitty car six inches from the bay’s fetid edge.
I am listening to you as you embrace an anonymous man in your front yard while another looks on, shifting and embarrassed by the sudden outpouring of emotion.
I listen to your telephone calls because it is amusing. I find it funny that the significant other in your life can’t seem to make up their mind to either fuck you or go back to masturbating on the toilet in the middle of the night.
I listen to your baby monitors, your bank modems, and your wireless networks.
I listen to your FRS transmitters.
I listen to your police, fire departments and ambulances.
I listen to you because I am able to realize for at least a few brief moments that everything or everyone in the world can be distilled down to taking out the trash and dropping the kids off at school. Domesticity.
In time everything becomes mine.
The first time that I heard the voice was by accident. She had moved into the apartment above mine shortly after I had decided to move here myself. I was on the roof listening to the sounds that no one else can hear and the signal suddenly burst loud and bright into my ear. Looking at the strength of the transmission I realized that I had to be close, it took me several minutes of concentration to figure out that I was literally sitting on the roof over her head.
The building was built in the 1930’s when space was at significantly less of a premium than now. Four floors of Art Deco apartments wrapped in white stucco. Narrow rectangular louvered windows face a fantastic view of the bay. The inside of the apartment is shielded from below by the leafy fronds of well maintained palm trees planted next to the building. When I first began to move in I realized that in addtion to having an excellent perch from which to listen I also had something more than that. Peace, quiet and knowledge that can only be had through hours of careful study.
Even the rain does not interfere with reception now as it did in the place where I used to live.
My apartment has become a lot like work. I am not sure if I am disappointed or excited by this particular revelation.
If I had to choose a color I suppose it would have to be cobalt blue. The color of RF, the color of the medium through which they travel a sticky indigo blue.
Occasionally I look at people with cellular phones or handheld radios and imagine them emitting bright blue toroids of energy or teardrop lobes coursing skyward at the speed of light.
This vision of the spectra comforts me, helps me to concentrate on the patterns of shifting frequency.
As I drive into the gate late at night I begin to feel this overwhelming sense of calm pour through my body. Through the locked doors, through the six layers of security protecting all of those who listen from the ills of the outside world. Past the electronic cipher lock and the biometric scanners.
Beyond the two stone faced guards with the M249 SAWs and orders to shoot first and question later.
Into a 40'x40' Faraday cage where we all sit at racks of machinery tricking out the intelligence to which no one really listens. At my bay (as they call it,) I keep a picture of her. She watches as I do, forever smiling at something that I will never know as she climbs the stairs from parking at the curb.
We sit together in the frozen air of the radio center and tease out the details from other, more alien lives. We package and coordinate, alert and disseminate.
All of this in a carefully buried vault on no map, near no landmark and metaphysically on the dark side of the moon. This is as close as you can get to leaving the planet behind and becoming trace energy.
Down here none of us exist any longer.
I have always wondered what would happen if I was to smile at one of the guards. I keep meaning to do it but I can never quite screw my courage down enough to muster anything beyond a smudged grin.
My supervisor says that if the Minders find out that I have been collecting in my spare time that they could become somewhat upset. She wonders about what would happen if we were to smile at the guards as well.
I have told her about the problems that she has, about my dark angel.
“Damn John, if they find out you’re doing this” she said. “You’ll lose your clearance for sure.”
“Emily, he’s abusing her.”
“That doesn’t mitigate the fact that you know we can’t intercede in domestic issues.” Her face screws up when she says this to give the chapter and verse regurgitation of the regulations no real weight.
“But still.” Carlo weighs in on the argument from the next bench. There are only eight of us that work down here, five on days and three on the night shift. “Morally speaking?”
“Morally speaking we shouldn’t even be doing what we are now,” I add.
“True.” Emily shifts in the chair and absent-mindedly runs a hand through the brown hair framing her face. “Greatest good for the greatest number.”
“It’s the closest I’ve come to anything outside of work in years.” I have been working in this cave for twelve years. Twelve years of occasionally explaining to an alcoholic father and messianic mother that I lay tile for the government and nothing more.
“My last marriage ended because of this shit.” I wave over my shoulder at the cramped space and scores of cycling displays in the room. “Which is not to say that what is going on now is any more functional than that little affair.”
“You weren’t exactly the stay-at-home husband either, John,” Emily observes wryly.
“So what am I supposed to do now?” Extending one foot to the floor I stare up to the ceiling and push the chair in slow circles. “I mean really. I can’t just call the cops.”
“Why not?” Emily inquires, by doing so implying that this may be an easy way out. “It’s their job to do something about that.”
“I think they’ve already been there. Something happened, there were cop cars out front a few weeks ago but they didn’t take the guy outside. Probably, she dropped the charges as soon as they showed up.” For my own part I can remember this happening, I carefully put that aside and go back to the conversation at hand.
“If she won’t talk to the cops then something else might need to happen.” The way that Emily says this doesn’t exactly help my case or aid me in figuring out what to do here.
“Great. So what do I do now?” Plaintively, meant more to help me think than anything else. “I just wish that I could do something.”
“I don’t know. Forget that now, man. Work itself out, you know?” Carlo smiles through the piss poor imitation of Ricky Ricardo. It used to make me laugh.
It is four in the morning again and they are fighting upstairs. I came home from work about an hour ago, sick and wound up with stomach cramps. This is what you get for ordering the extra spicy ramen knowing full well it is going to fuck you right up. The conversation that I had with Carlo and Emily was nearly two weeks ago.
He has been screaming at her almost every night before I go to work.
“Hey.” There is a certain nervous quality to the voice behind me that is usually not present in the recordings. Then again I am not used to hearing it in full stereo, this close. Plaster does a wonderful job of muffling all but the loudest of her sobs after he slams the door on the way out. “Excuse me?”
“Err.” I spin lightly on one foot and find her standing behind me in the basement laundry room. Lightly tanned arms strain against the load of a full basket. I note with some disappointment that there is a pair of men’s boxer shorts on top of the pile. “John actually. Can I help you with that?”
“Sorry ‘bout startling you. No, I’m okay.” Pulling hard, she arches her back and manages to hoist the wicker laundry basket onto the top of the neighboring industrial washing machine. “Actually, could I borrow some soap? I kinda forgot mine.”
“Sure. It’s Tide.” Flushing with embarrassment, I push the box toward her while mentally kicking myself for being so stupid. I try to regain my footing and find myself at a total loss for anything intelligent to say. “Your name’s Mary, right?”
“Yup.” She beams that thousand-watt smile at me, for a moment I can almost swear that her voice has an echo. “How’d you know?”
“Lucky guess.” I smile back and find it answered with a slightly quizzical look. “Actually, I got some of your mail by accident once.”
“Oh. I see, I see.” The sounds are almost childish muttering as if a mental metronome to pace the careful distribution of laundry. As she begins to work rattling quarters from her pocket, I take the moment to close the box of detergent again and place it at the bottom of the olive drab military-issue gear bag I use for laundry. I try to ignore the coverup applied to her thigh over the well-developed bruise as well as methodical way she is moving at the moment. The overcompensating and attempt to force a normal demeanor. She exudes pain with each passing breath and these are both things that fit like old gloves.
“You’re in the military?” She inquires while thumbing more coins into the second machine’s hopper.
“No. I work for a contractor, fairly strange hours in the middle of the night. Probably why there’s music coming through your floor right now and the rest of the building is dead.”
“Huh?” Something, a little something creeping into her voice that I do not like. Maybe some invisible line that I should not have crossed this quickly. “Music?”
“Yeah. I live right beneath you, probably why the mailman put your stuff in my box.”
“You, uh.” Stammering, she claws at an image that brings a sudden pale to the skin of her face. The room is strangely muted as she has stopped rattling coins into the machines. “It’s not what you think.”
“What isn’t?” I smile and both of us know we’re lying.
There is a subtle knock at the front door. Normally I would be at work at this hour, my schedule altered this week to cover the upcoming three-day weekend. Someone has to be in the office (as it were) twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Carlo lost the draw for Christmas and New Years so I get all of the remaining holidays. I’ve been in bed for three hours now, listening to the occasional nocturnal breeze push through the palm trees outside the windows in the bedroom.
Sliding out of bed to answer the door I wonder if the Gun would be a good idea. The Gun was forced on me by the Powers That Be as one of Those Good Ideas where One Cannot Be Too Careful.
I don’t care for the Gun. I try a pair of shorts instead thus leaving my thin legs to broadcast that sickly pallor of flesh too long out of the sun. If they’re bearing a flashlight I can use the reflection from my skin to momentarily distract them, then hopefully make a swift escape in the interim.
The knock comes again, this time more insistent as I am halfway through the living room toward the door. A catalogue of faces is flashing through memory, Carlo or Emily to drag me off to work like that one horrible day, the apartment manager Vince come to tell me that the gas is on the fritz again. My gay neighbor from across the hall Drew. If it is Drew he will be ranting about the price of electricity and wondering if I am still firm about our not smoking dope together.
One through the peephole causes me to recoil almost halfway across the living room. I throw open the door and she streams through it along with the sudden flash flood of emotion resulting from violence. Coming with her in a sudden rush of debris are Kleenex, tears, bathrobe, and blood spattered tank top.
“Holy shit.” This is probably not a very good reaction.
“He did this?” We have been sitting in the rather well lit and warm kitchen for the last half hour. The only things breaking the silence are occasional short gasps for breath when I clean the drying blood from around her eye with some gauze from the First Aid Kit. The Kit was another of Those Good Ideas should some sort of Uprising or Significant Disturbance, Civil occur. That way we could presumably use the Gun to incapacitate the rioting civilians and then patch them back up a bit. There is something wholly bizarre about shooting people only to be expected to administer first aid. “We’re going to need to call the cops.”
“No cops.” She sniffles and then pulls back, head lolling over the back of the kitchen chair allowing her to stare blankly at the ceiling. After several seconds she comments off-hand, “you have cobwebs. Shame, shame.”
“Mary.” I say with renewed firmness, as if she is just being silly and in need of correction. “You need to call the cops. Again. This is going nowhere.”
“You don’t understand,” her head snaps back forward, pinning me under a pair of bloodshot and tearful eyes.
“What is there to not understand?” I ask furiously before seizing the phone from the middle of the table. It of course is plugged into the wall and is not possessed of any form of antenna. No sense in making oneself a target. “If you’re not going to then I will.”
“Mark’s a fucking cop.” She hisses and then collapses into a ball on the chair, wracked by waves of sorrow. “The last time I called his friends showed up. They drank coffee and then left. Nothing happened, they buried it all.”
“Holy shit.” This is yet another not very good reaction.
“I can’t call them.” Whispering, desperate and trapped. “I’m not doing that again.”
“Look, I’ll make you some soup.” I manage to say this far more cheerily than I thought possible, at least far more cheerily than is appropriate for the situation. “Tomato. Then you’re going to do me a favor.”
“Tell me why you even think I should listen to you.” She asks.
“You came here. Which means to me that you want my help.” I try to say this earnestly as possible, I succeed. “Will you please listen?”
“I don’t know.” It isn’t the shining endorsement that I was hoping for but it will do for now. “Maybe.”
“Go to a hospital with me.”
This takes her some time to answer, finally she produces a timid agreement and I rise from the table to sort out the microwave and a thermos. It is my turn for overcompensation, to fight back the rising tide of memory.
“John?” Her voice again is behind me. The apartment is laid out as a giant rectangle occasionally interrupted by boxes attached to the side that serve other purposes. The front door is at one end of the long sides of the rectangle. The kitchen and front room are separated by the bathroom and large walk-in closet on opposite sides of a short hallway. A doorway in line with the hall to the front room then in turn connects the bedroom and kitchen. I am leaning over to check the large bowl of tomato soup in the microwave when I hear Mary’s uncertain voice somewhere near the bathroom door.
“John, what is all this?” By proxy of the nature of her question and position I can tell without looking that I have left the closet door open.
“I’m an amateur radio operator. You know, a ham.” I spit nervously after we have been driving for a few minutes. At four in the morning the streets are almost deserted.
“My dad did that stuff when I was a kid.”
“You must be really into it because he only had the one radio.” She says while blankly staring out of the windshield of my small green Toyota pickup. Pointing at a massive device nearly the size of a small television mounted under the dash she adds, “You’ve even got radios in here?”
“Yeah.” I fear what I know for certain to be coming next.
“Why so many?” Inquisitive.
“Just a hobby.”
“Yeah, but your closet...” she trails off and then laughs for a minute. “I mean, I looked in there and I’d think you were spying on people or something.”
“Oh, now that’s hilarious.” I laugh in what I hope sounds like something a normal person would laugh like in a situation as weird as this one. To my own ears I come off as a cross between a pervert and Ming the Merciless.
“You are a spy aren’t you?”
“Now, don’t be like that,” I laugh in a jovial way.
“Don’t fucking patronize me. You sit in there.” She stops, the anger rising in her voice with each passing moment. “You sit in your apartment and listen to people’s...shit. Don’t you?”
“Mary.” Grinding my teeth has no effect. This conversation has gained way too much momentum to be stopped.
“What if I tell you I can’t?” Meekly retreating probably does more damage for me at this point than anything else.
“You’ve known this whole time haven’t you?” She demands suddenly, the rage and frustration almost to the point of spilling into tears. “You’ve known.”
“You knew what’s been going on.”
“Between you and Mark.” I state flatly.
“Yes.” Her voice has gone silent, husky with more pain and regret than I can imagine. In some odd reflex she pulls her legs close on the bench seat, curling into a ball beneath a fatigue jacket from my closet.
“Yes I have been aware,” I try to be as clinical as possible, to distance myself from the immorality of inaction. To deny the failure that has again led to violence against the innocent, “of certain domestic problems.”
“And you did nothing.” With each word she smacks the door with her fist to emphasize the point. “You goddamn sat there.”
“What did you expect me to do? Call the fucking cops?” Exploding I vent the frustration of doing nothing for this woman for so long, only to be confronted with my own cowardice. There is no way that I can communicate the paralysis I feel every time I tried to confont him about the beatings. My father taught me that lesson particularly well, shut up or someone else will. “You said yourself that he’s a fucking cop. Then what, so I call. What do I do, tell them 'gee whiz officer, I’ve been listening to you and stuff downstairs and you’re about as fucked up as a football bat.'”
“I don’t know.” Again whispering, Mary’s face has become a concrete mask reflected in the curve of the passenger window. “Maybe told your little spy buddies about it, maybe get some black helicopters and guns and some shit like that. Break down the door, kick his ass good.”
“I tried that.”
“I said I tried that.”
"So you were listening the entire time."
"It depends on how you want to think of listening." I'm feeling good and the truth rolls on out easily. "I recorded some of it."
"You're joking right?" It is a bizarre experience to be confronted with exactly how fucked up you really are in so few words.
"No. I intended to send the tapes to the police to help you."
“Stop the car. Stop the car now.” Mary abruptly begins to yank at the door handle, repeating the words over and over again as some sort of mantra. This is unbelievable to me, this has gone from ridiculous to sublime in moments. “STOP THIS GODDAMN CAR.”
"No." This comes from somewhere I am not sure of, something that I did not know I had. In an instant the decision is made that she will not be allowed to do this, not this time out of the gate. Someone will be brought to justice, by god.
Finally Mary manages to get the door unlocked and open to expose a yellow wedge of damp tarmac moving past the outside of the truck. This is one of those things where you look over and you realize that something is not right, that the whole of reality has gone completely bezerk. I quickly jam on the brakes to produce an altogether satisfying slide across the wet pavement, tires singing on the stones as we come to an abrubt halt. Tension reels in the seat belts lock with the tires, snapping Mary back in her seat as she tries again to escape from the truck. Her hands begin to paw at the release mechanism as soon as we are stopped, clawing at the belt like an animal.
"Where DO YOU THINK you're GOING?" By grabbing her roughly by the arm and shaking I manage to force her face toward mine, eyes darting around the points of my face like a rabbit dying in a hunter's trap.
"LET GO." Wrestling and trying to break free. Not this time. No. You will not escape. There is no leaving here. "LEMME GO."
"YOU." The words form without my knowing, my father finally manifesting himself after all these years. So well I learned the lessons, Daddy I promise to grow up just like you.
"LET ME GO."
"YOUMOTHERFUCKINGWHORE. I spent MONTHS listening. DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT I HAVE DONE FOR YOU?." Shaking her I can hear the sounds of someone yelling, someone far away is raging just like him. The voice is mine, the fury mine, the echoes of the distant storm from nearby buildings serve to remind me of what has just been said.
"Don't." Begging and limp, some strange tension draining from my arms. I recoil across the truck and sit staring dead out of the front of the truck, barely aware of the sound of the motor idling and her whispering. "Just stop."
"Mary." Everything has changed. Everything is broken. I have butchered her, slaughtered her trust.
"You're just like him."
"No, I'm not." I try to smile and say this in a way that will make what I have done all go away, I will make everything okay again. Almost before I finish speaking I know that I am a fool for pulling this stunt. We sit in silence for a moment, both acknowledging the lie. "Yes, I am like him. My father was like him. I am my father."
"Take me to..." Mary lapses again into silence, presumably considering whether or not she is going to just simply leave. "Just drive."
"Just go." Pulling the door shut, she points through the windshield. "Run away from here. It's what you're good at, running away and hiding right?"
"Yeah. You could say that."
“Thank you.” I have been standing in the open door for several seconds staring into the open bag. Inside is a five-dollar bill taped to a single can of tomato soup. “What is this for again?”
“Mary said it was to cover the cost of postage.” He says, the hallway unusually bright with the reflection from the moving van outside. I know that she is down there, I know that he is no more. I cannot bring myself to watch the furniture going down the stairs or to see her face staring expectantly toward the windows of my apartment. After today, I will never see her again.
“Postage?” Inquisitive, I am not sure what the point is here. “What postage are you talking about Drew?”
“Oh come on honey, Mary said you mailed the cops a tape that got that asshole locked up for good.” Drew rolls his eyes toward the ceiling and then thrusts a hip to one side under the pressure of a wrist about to snap backwards. “You wanna get high later?”
“Jesus wept Drew,” I say in exasperation.
“I love it when you say that.” Drew sparkles and then pivots to walk down the hall and toward the stairs. “Have a nice day Johnny.”
“She asked me to leave her at the hospital. I did so and have not spoken to the subject since.” I finish filling Emily and one of the minders in on the rest of the story, laying bear the lies told at the hospital and what I never expected. With the cop in jail they came asking almost immediately where the tape had come from. We are sitting in one of the brightly lit and windowless offices near the darkened equipment bays.
“You didn’t mail the tape though.” The Minder asks. He wears a fairly expensive suit, which marks him as a somewhat important person. If this were a movie his name would be listed in the credits as ‘Random Government Investigator Number Two.’ Number One left a few minutes ago after having us all sign non-disclosure agreements. “We grant you people certain degrees of freedom, this situation as it were is by no means covered anywhere in that realm."
"You understand that it is well within our purview to blow you straight into orbit without so much as a second thought?”
“Yes sir.” I say earnestly.
”What are they going to do?” I ask Emily. The two investigators are outside the door, conferring. They finished with the questions for now and have gone to decide what it is that they are going to do with me, or more to the point what they are going to do to me. From where I am sitting I can see the part of an arm and a disembodied left torso through the small rectangular window.
“Anything. Nothing. Something.” She says noncommittally while issuing a limp shrug. “John?”
“Did you think you did the right thing?” The question comes in an innocent voice, one backed by far more serious intent.
“Yes.” The fist slams into my face again, this time I am seventeen.
“You’re sure?” She asks, testing the waters of conviction.
“Positive. This is the end to our means.” I say this with far more bravado than I had intended, making the words sound pedantic.
“Don’t quote the same moral crap at me. I mean are you sure enough to go to jail for this?”
“The scar on my lip. The one that I told you and Carlo had come from a car accident.” Almost as soon as I finish the sentence the knot begins to form in my chin, tears I swear I will not spill begin to coalesce at the corners of my eyes.
“My father did that two days before I graduated from high school. So yeah, I think I did the right fucking thing.” The words come from some long ago slaughtered part of me to hang in the air and shut the conversation down forever.
“In this instance I am going to forget that the tape that was provided to the internal affairs investigators was a piece of government property. Furthermore I do not intend to mention that a fifty-eight cent can of tomato soup and five fucking dollars do not cover the cost of a digital audio tape cartridge. Also, you had damn well understand that you are to immediately cease and desist all of your,” he pauses for dramatic effect to let the words sink in completely. I really hate people that do this sort of thing while they are speaking. “All of your unauthorized activities.”
“Yes sir.” I answer smartly.
“Good. I am not revoking your clearance, for now. This decision is mainly based on your evaluations and a very strong recommendation on the part of your supervisor. If something like this comes up again you will spend time in prison for espionage. I don’t think I need to remind you what would happen if we placed you in a less comfortable penal institution and put the word on the street that you were affiliated with the other side?” The threat is one that is well founded, I have seen Them do this sort of thing in the past.
“No sir.” There are times when you forget yourself and forget where you are, the mind runs and you speak without thinking. I am millions of miles from this room, I am orbiting Europa while watching the sun dance through the crystalline ice, I am nothing but energy. There is no office, no garage, no stinking monster with my blood on his hands.
“You are going back to work. Only this time try to remember that the information you collect is for the good of the people of the United States of America, not for your personal gain.”
“Yes sir.” I answer before quickly departing the office.
Within five minutes I am again collecting.
As the digits wind up slowly and then stop, then start again as the logging software tracks contacts of interest I begin to realize the depths of my own failure. Staring naked into the face of my own hypocrisy I pick out the now clearly marked path of what should have been done. When you really get down to it there is no end to the chain of collection, analysis, failure and recrimination. Every action has a negating reaction.
Watching the frequency scroll by on the display I am waiting to hear the voice through the headphones arcing over my head and terminating at either ear.
Just like I told you.
In time everything becomes mine.
Except forgiveness. That I have lost to the waves forever.