Sunday, December 16, 2012

Ferrets in the Field

his face in shadow
mine yellowed by the moon
we loaded
the ox cart at dusk

he popped an ox-hide whip
and the cart creaked forward
burdened by a cage
framed in wood
and enclosed by wire

stepping in worn tracks
watching our way
avoiding turning an ankle
we reached hours later
the wheat field

embarrassed by the mayhem 
to come once I loosed the latch
and the door swung free
he rolled up his whip
and waited in an oak's silent shadow

alone I opened the cage

squealing inside
spitting and scratching
fearful of their fate
they emerged 
hesitating  for a moment
on the lip of the cart
then sprang head first
onto the moon-soaked grain

with a final look over their shoulder
they gamboled and gyrated
their treacherous way
through dry stalks
below the moon's jaundiced glare
gleefully devouring  the rodents--
rabbits and mice--that hid there

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Saturn's Day

on Saturday
Saturn's day

the body
without organs

its theory
of masks

my task
it said
is to discern
our disguise

why perform
a Noh play
and tomorrow
the Cisco

what message
is hid

the stainless
the iron
and the copper

stage lights
to bright

erase gray

and display
tarnished brass

with patina
from rain

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

First Chapter of Untitled Urban Fantasy

The lightning didn’t wake him; nor did the thunder. Hail bouncing around him like candy in a gumball machine finally nudged him from his stupor. Sitting up slowly, he reached for the headstone on the grave of Malachi Hojah, his grandfather; and, grasping it firmly in his left hand he pulled himself up from the wet grass. He was a mess: his clothes, a pair of khaki pants and a white long-sleeved cotton shirt, were soaked and plastered against his body; his long black hair had come untied and hung limply down his back; and his Wellington boots, full of water, squeaked and belched, as he took a few awkward steps. He sneezed and then ran his right hand over his face, wiping his eyes. Stretching his aching body, he tried to remember how he came to be unconscious in Greenwood Cemetery in Dallas’ Up-Town in the middle of the night. But all he could remember was a call from Anna Gregson, a detective with the Dallas Police Department, asking him to help her on a case. That was on Friday night. Was it still Friday? He didn’t know.
Scratching his head and running his hands through his hair was his mechanical attempt to nudge his memory. The first thought returned was a question: where were his tools--the small drum, the eagle feather, the crystal from Mexico, his flute,  pouch of corn pollen, and his silver bells. He surveyed the soggy earth around the grave and found nothing. This can’t be good, he thought, knowing the only reason he would be in the cemetery in the middle of the night was to contact his grandfather, and the only reason he would try to contact him was that someone was ill and needed his help; someone’s spirit was lost in the land of the dead and needed a guide to either escort to them to oblivion or back to ordinary reality; to life. The second thing that popped into his mind was fear for his motorcycle. Hail smacked against his head and his shoulders and he worried about his bike: a red 1952 Indian Chief. Where was it? Suddenly, he felt bile in his throat and he threw up onto the long grass around the cement border of the grave, as a wave of vertigo passed through him. Where did I park it? He wondered. Usually, he parked on the second floor of the parking garage on the corner of Oak Grove and Bowen, across the street from the cemetery. Habit probably controlled this time as well because he never liked to park the Indian outside, especially in the rain and cold. He was nothing, if not consistent. The hail stopped and then it rained hard and cold. He set off toward the entrance of the cemetery; his head and his shoulders bowed, as he followed the worn and ragged cobblestone drive to the entrance that faced McKinney. He stepped over a rusted chain stretched across the entrance to the cemetery to prevent cars from entering and crossed the deserted and flooded street. Lights on in the parking garage illuminated the edges of the building and cast long shadows. The handlebars of the Indian were visible on the second floor. He entered the garage and counted fifteen cars scattered on the ground floor. The bars must still be open, he thought.
He staggered up the ramp to the second floor because he did not want to enter the stairwell this late at night and have his head bashed in by a meth addict or a schizoid self-medicating on cheap wine.  The garage owner had a deal with the restaurants and bars in the area but he had never seen a security guard. Homeless people sometimes took shelter in the stairwells, especially on nights like this one.
As he approached his cycle he heard the soft plaintive notes of a flute; his flute most likely. Sitting on his rug spread out next to his bike was an old Indian; an Apache he knew by sight; an Indian, who had migrated to Texas from the Four Corners several years ago. He called himself, Coyote, and he was usually accompanied by a Navajo girl, named Snake. Snake and Coyote were grifters, who popped up over and over again, as suspects in petty crimes, usually scams involving Indian artifacts. He wiped water from his face and tried to dry his hand on his soaked trousers, as he said: “Evening, Coyote. I see you found my flute.”
The man stopped playing and smiled. Placing the flute on the rug next to his left leg, he answered with a smirk: “Beastly night, Hojah.”
“Indeed, my friend.” He stopped about twenty feet from the Apache and waited, suspecting Snake was somewhere nearby, maybe with a gun aimed at his back. “So where’s Snake tonight?”
The man smiled and waved his right hand vaguely and said: “Oh, she’s about my friend.”
“You wouldn’t know what day it is, would you?” asked Hojah.
Coyote picked up the flute and licked the mouthpiece. “Day?” he asked and then blew several notes.
“I seem to be a bit confused,” answered Hojah. “Did we have an appointment to meet?”
Coyote stopped playing and lowered the flute, saying: “Fated, perhaps to meet, but no appointment.” He scratched under his left eye. “It’s early Monday morning, almost two.”
Hojah cleared his throat. He had lost two days. Gregson had called on Friday afternoon. He now remembered that. Someone was sick. A young Cherokee girl was attacked Thursday night in downtown near the bus station. She was unconscious and Gregson wanted to know if he could reach her; maybe bring her back from the spirit world. She was from Oklahoma on the bus on her way to Houston. Someone attacked her and left her for dead near the Kennedy Memorial early in the morning on Thursday. Similar to two previous cases involving young girls near the bus station, Gregson thought she had a serial murderer on her hands. But this one lived; the other two died. If he could reach her and bring her back maybe she could describe her assailant. But that was all he could remember. Then Coyote played a few more bars on his flute and he recalled some more. She called his office at 4:00 and he invited Gregson to come to him because he didn’t close until 7:00 on Friday nights and he couldn’t get away because Josefina Alonso, his receptionist, was off and he was alone.
He sat on the concrete and the water dripped off him and drained down the garage’s angled ramp toward the street. “You are remembering now, aren’t you?” asked Coyote. And Hojah nodded and said: “You play my pipe well, old man.” The Indian smiled around the mouthpiece and played a mournful tune. “Not so old, my friend,” he grumbled with the pipe still in his mouth. Gregson showed up around eight, he remembered, carrying a manila folder with her. He was in his waiting reading the newspaper; his last patient had canceled.
“Be gentle with the door Gregson, I can’t afford a new pane of glass.”
She stopped suddenly and looked a little sheepish. “Sorry, Asa; I’m in a hurry.”
He stood up and walked to the front door and locked it. Turning off the lights, he said, “Let’s go to the back and have a cup of coffee in the kitchen.” He poured distilled water in the coffee maker’s reservoir and retrieved some German coffee he bought at Kuby’s, a local German grocery story and butcher shop in Snyder Plaza, from the freezer. He had lived ten years in Zurich and Munich and he had become quite partial to the way they roasted their coffee.
She pulled out one of the heavy wooden chairs, hand-made by a young artist from West Virginia, who lived and worked in Santa Fe, from the rough-hewn table and leaned forward. Although her blonde hair was pulled back tightly in a bun, a few strands fell forward over her brow. “We’ve had another attack.” She paused and stretched her hands flat across the wood of the table, as if she were caressing it. He liked her hands; she had long narrow fingers and short unpainted nails. His mother would have said they were hands made for the piano. Browned by the sun with wisps of pale blonde hairs on their backs, her hands were always in motion. It was if she couldn’t quite control them; as if they had a life of their own. 
“When,” he asked, sitting down across from her, watching her eyes now. They were light blue like corn flowers and they were open wide. She was pumped up with adrenalin, ready to roll into action. Her hands were already moving.
“Last night near the bus station,” she answered. “She came in on a bus from Oklahoma City; on her way to Houston.”
“Did he kill her like the last two?”
She stared at him and whispered: “She’s alive; in a coma but alive. I need you to go get her. Retrieve her soul and bring her back.”
The Apache stopped playing and stood, holding the pipe in his extended right hand. Even in the poor lighting of the garage, his long black hair glistened. “Take your pipe, little brother; I have to meet Snake for a glass of tequila before the bars close. I can’t help you remember any more tonight.” He shook his head because as soon as the Coyote’s song ended, he could not remember what happened next. He took the pipe, as the Apache passed him, walking down the ramp. As he passed, Hojah smelled tobacco, sweat and jicama, and he felt a cold breeze slide cross his wet back and he shivered. He shook his head a second time, trying to free the memories. But nothing came. A crash of thunder and more rain fell. He walked to the wall of the garage and looked over into the night, watching Coyote walking down the street; south toward downtown. Several blocks further south a thin woman waited under a street light for him; he recognized Snake.
He wasn’t going to ride the Chief out into the rain, so he sat down; his back against the rough concrete wall of the garage and tried to remember. But he couldn’t pull up a single memory before the meeting with Gregson. He listened to the steady drone of the rain and began to finger the flute, hearing in his mind the song of the crow; a tune his grandfather taught him thirty years ago when he was eight years old and living on the Rez in Oklahoma. He wiped the flute off with the sleeve of his soaked shirt and began to play the song slowly. As he played his conscious mind relaxed and he allowed himself to descend to a lower level of consciousness. He imagined he was in a cornfield in Eastern Oklahoma, near the Arkansas border; it was the beginning of fall and the corn was ready for harvest. Crows circled the fields; their black feathers mixed with the green of the stalks and the yellow corn. He could hear his grandfather’s drum and then his voice chanting the song of the crow. Someone was sick; someone was dying and the shaman was preparing himself to enter the underworld or at least accompany them to their meeting with death. And as he played the song of the crow, he began to remember Friday night. He was in the kitchen of his office and Detective Gregson was at the table and she was telling him about the girl. And her hands were moving nervously over the wood.
“Where is the girl now,” he asked, handing her a cup of coffee, which she held in two hands, as if she were cold.
“Parkland” she said, sipping the coffee. “She’s in Parkland.”
“Do you have any pictures?” He knew she did and he didn’t particularly want to look at them but he picked up the folder she slid across the table and opened it. Shaking out the digital prints, he saw a young girl, maybe fifteen or sixteen with long black hair, brown eyes, brown skin. Her mouth was swollen and her lip cut. Both eyes were swollen and bruised; the left one was completely shut. Her blouse was ripped, her bra cut, and her skirt pushed up high on her thighs. There was bruising on the inside of the thighs. She wore one black flat shoe; her right foot was bare. Other prints showed she lay behind the Kennedy monument. Bits of trash—drink cans, paper containers—littered the ground around her.
“This similar to the other girls?” he asked, stacking the prints and slipping them back into the envelope. Gregson nodded.
“Well, let’s go see her.” Gregson nodded and asked: “You want to ride with me?”
He shook his head. “No, I’ll follow you on the Chief.”
He stopped playing and the memories faded. He had never experienced such total amnesia.
The rain stopped and he heard water rushing down the street into the drains. He leaned over the wall of the parking garage and watched the clouds break and a yellow harvest moon emerge.
He shook out his rug and folded it carefully before stowing it away in the leather saddlebags over the rear fenders of the bike. The rest of his equipment was there, stored away. Either he had never unpacked it or the Coyote had returned all his items to the bags.
Hojah lived in Oak Cliff, an old neighborhood across the Trinity from downtown. The quickest way home was through the town’s center and that’s the way he went: down McKenney to Griffin and then right on Elm past the School Book Depositary and through Dealey Park, where they found the girl.
As he drove through Dealey Park, he slowed and surveyed the area. No one was around, except for a few homeless men gathered underneath the underpass, and one or two cars. Why would a young girl come to the Park at this time in the morning? Why didn’t she stay at the Bus Station that was only a few blocks away? Did he have the answers already and he just couldn’t remember them? He shook his head in frustration and shifted gears, speeding up, heading home: underneath the overpass, past the police station and up the hill, left on Syvain, then down to Thomasson.
He lived on the corner in a small brown brick house built in the 20s. A detached single car garage on the corner of his property had to be open manually; a large stainless steel lock secured it. He parked the bike and motion sensors activated two flood lights; one on each corner of the garage. He had been attacked twice at night opening his garage and he didn’t want that to happen again.
He wrestled his keys out of his pocket and unlocked the door. A light flipped on when the door opened and he pushed the bike inside the garage and parked it next to a baby blue 1968 GMC pick-up. Before closing up he wiped off any mud or water that he picked up on the ride home from the bike and emptied the saddlebags, storing the ritual items in a large double-door safe that dominated the back wall of the garage.
He didn’t go through the back gate; instead he walked around the house on the sidewalk to the front door, taking advantage of the streetlight on the corner. The house looked safe. The usual lights were on; his wicker furniture was still on the wide, covered front porch; no alarms were blaring, waking the neighborhood. He unlocked the front door and rushed through the living room to disarm the alarm.
The first thing he noticed once he had locked the front door was that the answering machine was flashing. The machine registered five un-played messages. The first two were from Gregson, wondering if he had performed the ritual yet. The second one was from his ex-wife, Maria Sanchez, wondering where he was; he had custody of his daughter on Sunday. She was mad as usual. All subsequent calls were from his mother, worried now, because he had not shown up for dinner with Alicia his eight year-old daughter. After erasing the messages, he stripped off his clothes and marched naked through the house to the utility room to wash his clothes. Halfway there the phone rang and he knew it would be his mother, Dr. Alice Rothberg, PhD, M.D. He dropped his clothes on the hardwood floor and returned to the living room, where his one, antiquated, rotary phone was.
“Hojah,” he said softly, waiting for his mother to speak.
“Where the hell have you been?” she asked; her voice strident and strained.
“Greenwood Cemetery,” he answered, scratching an insect bite on his right buttocks.
“Asa, we have been looking for you all day.” He could feel her calming down.
“I’m sorry, mother, but something happened.” He paused, letting his message sink in. He knew his mother, a Jungian-trained psychiatrist, would now be thinking and waiting for him to fill in the details. In her world, every physical phenomenon had a psychological connection or cause. “I woke up at the cemetery and I could not remember the last two days.”
“Were you in a fight? Did you suffer a blow to the head?”
“I don’t have any injuries that I know of,” he answered; unconsciously rubbing his head.
“Has this ever happened to you before,” she asked, “on one of your journeys?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
After several minutes of silence, she said: “It happened once to your father.”
It was now his turn to wait. Being raised by her, he had learned that silence creates a space that the analysand feels an overwhelming compunction to fill; and, as a practicing shaman and psychologist, he knew the talking cure worked. Few people could sit in silence for long periods of time. They usually felt the need to talk after only a few minutes and often the psyche would produce unexpected results. His mother had now volunteered to talk about his father; something she rarely did. After they divorced, she moved to Dallas and started a medical practice, giving up her social work on the reservation, while his father stayed and continued his work as shaman and medicine man.
She cleared her throat and he heard her sip something, probably a Pinot Noir, her favorite beverage after seven in the evening. “I had just arrived on the Rez, setting up my practice with Doctor Carpenter, when your father came in, distraught and disoriented. He had been on a spirit quest and he was in bad shape, mal-nourished and dehydrated. He couldn’t remember anything and he wanted our help. He was frantic because he felt that something had happened; something he had to remember.”
“What did you do?” asked Hojah.
“We examined him and fed him fluids but we could find no physical reason why he would have suffered a memory loss. He spent the night with us and then left the next morning.”
“Did he ever remember what had happened?”
“I think he did but he would not talk about it. All he would say is that there are some things in the spirit world that we should never disturb.”
“So you think I went on a journey and encountered one of those things.”
“I have no idea but I know that we never forget anything. Whatever happened to you is there but it was so traumatic you do not want to remember it.
“What do you suggest?” he asked, knowing she already had a plan.
“First thing you do is get some sleep and call me in the morning.”
He laughed and said: “Yes, mother.” Then he hung up and picked up his clothes and marched to the utility room.
The clock in his bedroom said it was three. He yawned and entered the bathroom. Shower then sleep, he thought.
Later as he lay on his bed, waiting for sleep, he saw in his mind’s eye, just on the cusp of unconsciousness, a figure emerging. A man’s body with the head of a jackal strode into his conscious mind and barked, waking him suddenly. Rain drummed against the roof and thunder rumbled in the distance. He was lying naked on top of the covers but it was now cold in the room. A cold front had passed through while he slept. From outside, he could hear a dog barking. It sounded as if the hound were on his front porch. He rolled out of bed and pulled on a cotton robe and walked through the dark house. The closer he drew to the front door the louder the bark. He paused in the living room and rubbed the dark stubble on his chin. On the other side of the wall, the dog stopped barking and growled.
Aware the dog knew he was near, he moved slowly to an end table next to his leather reading chair and removed a four-barrel COP derringer then approached the front door.
The closer he got the deeper the dog’s growl. When he pulled the door open he knew it would pounce. He also suspected the dog was not a dog. He sensed it was a creature from the spirit world, probably a barghest, sent to warn him. But by whom, he wondered, as he unlocked the door and pulled it open suddenly.
The hound was the size of a Great Dane, similar in shape, but solid black. It didn’t pounce as he guessed it would; instead, its head was turned toward the street, watching a woman climb out of a black Ford.
Gregson came around the car slowly, holding her 9mm in both hands, ready to fire.
The hound growled and moved to the edge of the porch, saliva roiling off its teeth, watching the woman.
Hojah stepped out on the porch so that Gregson could see him, aiming the COP at the dog’s head.
“What the hell is it?” yelled Gregson, stopping twenty feet from the steps.
“A barghest,” answered Hojah.
“What is a bar guest?” asked Gregson.
“It’s from the lower world,” stated Hojah. “Wait a second; it’s here to tell me something.”
“Are you sure? He doesn’t look in a talkative mood.”
“I’m sure,” said Hojah, as the dog turned toward him and then moved down the stairs toward Gregson.
“Damn,” she cried, as the dog descended the stairs.
“Don’t shoot. It has stopped growling; its tail is wagging.”
“If it comes within ten feet of me, I’m emptying the clip.”
As soon as the beast stepped onto the sidewalk, he moved to the edge of the porch. “Tell me what you want?” he demanded.
The dog moaned, turning its head, and then trotted across the yard. They both followed its trajectory with their gun barrels, ready to blast away.
When the hound reached the street, it bounded off down Thomasson, galloping toward Syvain.
Gregson holstered her gun and hurried toward the steps and onto the porch. Passing Hojah she entered the house and called over her should. “Come inside, quickly, and lock the door.
Hojah backed into the house, holding the gun in his right hand, ready to aim and shoot if necessary. As he was about to past trough the door he saw his crystal on the cement porch, underneath his white wicker rocker. It was illuminated from within, glowing a bright pink, awake and pulsating, as it did when he was traveling in the underworld. Forgetting about the barghest, he rushed to the chair, bent down, and scooped up the mineral and then entered the house and closed the front door.
Gregson was standing across the room, leaning against the fireplace; her gun now holstered on her right hip. Her hair had come loose and hung to her shoulders. She was wearing the same pants and shirt she was wearing on Friday. Her blue eyes were flashing and her hands were shaking.
She looked up at him and then said: “Where have you been? I have been worried sick?”
He pushed the crystal into the pocket of his robe and said: “I’m not sure. I woke up in the cemetery at two this morning and I can’t remember a thing.”
Her eyes narrowed and then her mouth opened slightly. “Jesus, Asa, you got any coffee?”
He smiled and moved toward the kitchen. “Sit down Anna and make yourself at home. It will just be a minute.”
He heard her sit on the long leather couch that faced the fireplace. When he returned ten minutes later with coffee, she was asleep. He removed her boots and gently pulled her legs up. Barely conscious she turned onto her left side, facing away from the back of the couch, and he covered her with a Navajo blanket and turned off the light. It was five o’clock and his first patient was scheduled for 7:00 a.m. He walked back into the kitchen and sat at the table. Sipping his coffee, he pulled the crystal from his pocket and held it in the palm of his left hand. It was warm and produced a pale pink light. “Where have you been?” he asked the crystal and he felt it grow warmer, as its light pulsated brighter.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

at 60

six decades

walls of white static

with graffiti

scratched and smeared

seeking an ear
from the spring

to suss

its signal

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Pine Bluff

ALTHOUGH SHE HAD NEVER READ it, Aileen Eckhart sometimes imagined she was a character in that Beckett play, the one with characters buried up to their waists. In her fantasy, she was encased in white sand on a tropical beach, smoking a Digem cigarette, drinking Jameson’s whiskey through a straw, and wearing a wide-brim hat to protect her strawberry-blonde hair from the sun.
     After Mack died somewhere on the Korean peninsula in 2035, trying to stop the North Koreans from reaching Seoul, she thought about that play a great deal. Mack was an ornithopter pilot with the Royal Air Cavalry on the DMZ; he and his robot co-pilot engaged the Koreans on the first day of battle and disappeared in a ball of flame. Now, late at night, with Mack’s pillow between her legs, she would remember him and cry at her benighted plight, left alone at twenty-six in government housing at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
     Six months after his death she received a check for fifty thousand pounds from the Anglo-American Alliance’s Military Insurance Bureau in Quebec City, along with a notice in English and French to vacate her house on the base. The letter stated another army family needed her house immediately. The implication, she decided, was she was no longer army. Several days later, when the two MPs arrived, one a human and the other a cyborg, and nailed a notice of eviction on her door, she bought a used Brazilian-built trailer for twenty thousand pounds, loaded it with her worldly goods, and hauled it behind Mack’s Japanese half-ton truck to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where she rented a slot in a trailer park carved from the thick woods outside the city. For the next three months she sat in front of her trailer in a plastic folding chair, smoked Digem cigarettes, watched bats fly at dusk, and drank Jameson’s whiskey.
On a cold rainy afternoon in October 2036, she received another letter from the Anglo-American Alliance informing her Pine Bluff would be re-cycled in six months by the government’s licensed contractor for the Midwest, AN Reclamation Ltd, and she had one hundred and twenty days to move. There was a claim form included for her to record any losses caused by the inconvenience. The next day the local paper ran an article, stating every citizen of Pine Bluff had received an eviction notice. There was also a rumor circulating that Pine Bluff had been selected as the site for two new bio-rejuvenation plants: one for the manufacture of medical nano-bots and the other for AN Bio-Chemical’s patented living-skin and bio-bone.
     Long-time residents, property owners, slowly responded to the notices, choosing to file lawsuits to contest the amount of money paid for the reclamation of their property; whereas most of the renters in the trailer park cleared out immediately.  Many of the tenants had already lost homes to the Reclamation Project of 2030 and were drifting west in front of the giant steam shovels and the legion of robot workers that followed in their wake, planting trees, building wind farms and dams, creating artificial lakes and hydro-electric projects. All the renters had to do was back their trucks up to their trailers and drive away. Aileen, however, hesitated. She had nowhere to go. She canvassed her neighbors and learned that most of them were heading south into Texas. She could go there, she thought; she still had most of the loss-benefit money left from Mack’s death but she could not summon the energy to pack her things.
     Trey McAllister, the owner of the trailer park and a convenience store on the highway, asked her to help him. Just a few hangers-on like her were staying in Pine Bluff and most of the stores had closed. He intended to raise his prices and stay until the robot commandoes forced him to move. She started the next day. It had been five years since she had a job; and, at first, she found the routine troublesome. It was easier to lie in bed until mid-day, then smoke and drink until it was time to fall back into the un-made bed with the soiled sheets. But, to her surprise, getting up and going to work pleased her. She enjoyed talking with the few remaining customers and tried to forget the reclamation force would soon arrive to recycle the town.
     Six months passed and nothing happened. Aileen thought they had received a reprieve; however, on a beautiful spring day in late May, she was standing behind her cash register when a cyborg commando on a black Czech motorcycle sped past the store, heading toward the center of town, followed by twelve six-ton Chinese trucks, each carrying twenty robot commandoes. The advance force of the Reclamation Corps had arrived. She, like all the rest of the remaining inhabitants, ran out into the street and followed the trucks into the town square, where they slowed and parked. Engines switched off and the robot troops dismounted and assembled in a four-column formation in front of the cyborg, a man more machine than human, who stood in the middle of the square with his arms akimbo. Curious to know their fate, most of Pine Bluff’s citizens, including Aileen, gathered on the crumbling cement sidewalks to gawk at the silent copper-colored robots; their metallic surface gleaming in the sunlight.
     “What are they going to do?” An elderly woman asked.
Roscoe Jackson, a man in his sixties and a Royal marine veteran, stood next to Aileen and rubbed his nose. ”I was in Nashville when the robots arrived. There’ll be a commissar coming soon to take control of them and us.”
Jed Ramey spat tobacco juice on the cement and said: “We best be on our way then, while we are still free. My car’s packed and I’m leaving tonight.”
     “What will the commissar do to us if we don’t leave?” asked Aileen.
     “He’ll sort you and move you, maybe somewhere you don’t want to be,” answered Roscoe. “It doesn’t really matter though because once they roll up the infra-structure and re-plant the trees there will be nothing for you here, except critters and vandals.”
     Aileen ran her hand through her hair and realized it was happening to her again. They ran her out of her house in Fort Leonard Wood and now they were pushing her out of Pine Bluff. A middle-aged woman with a young boy by her side said: “They want us to either move to the hive-cities or to go to work for one of the agri-corps or bio-firms.”  Roscoe nodded in agreement. “There’s no way I’m moving into one of those hives. I would rather work in an egg factory than live in a cell underneath some filthy city.”
     “Egg farm,” repeated Aileen.
     “My brother works in a giant egg farm up north,” answered Roscoe. “They house his family in corporate apartments, send his kids to corporate schools, and feed them in corporate cafeterias. It’s like being in the army but taking your whole family with you.”
     An egg farm didn’t sound interesting to Aileen. “Is there anywhere you can just be free?”
     Jackson waved vaguely in a southerly direction. “I heard if you can get to Texas there is a possibility of immigrating further south into Mexico. They say Mexico’s like we were in the twentieth century. Chaotic but free.”
     Trey McAllister called for Aileen and she slipped away from Roscoe and joined him. “We need to get back to the store. People will be pulling out tonight and they will want supplies, lots of supplies.”
     She and Trey worked throughout the day. By nine that night the shelves were almost bare and a caravan of vehicles moved from the city onto the freeway heading south and west. When they finally closed, she was so tired she barely made it back to her trailer before she fell asleep in her clothes on top of the wrinkled sheets. When she awoke at seven the next morning, the park was silent and deserted. The store was closed; its inventory almost gone. On its door Trey had hand-painted a message to his few remaining customers: GONE to TEXAS. Aileen went to the store’s back door and used her key. As agreed, last night, Trey had left her four boxes of food, four five-gallon cans of gas, a forty-five caliber Colt automatic, a leather holster and western belt, one hundred rounds of ammunition, and a note: “I’m headed to my sister’s place in Dripping Springs, Texas. I’ve bought another trailer park and, as I said, you have a job if you want it.”
     She loaded the trailer with her supplies and for the first time in weeks she washed her clothes and cleaned the trailer, securing everything that wasn’t bolted down already. By five in the afternoon, she was ready to leave.
Just as she climbed into the elevated cab of her truck four men in a beat-up green Chevrolet sedan blocked her from leaving her space. The engine idled, as she watched them slowly unfold from the car. Bearded and dirty, they stretched and then divided into two pairs, like wolves, two men for each side of her truck. She fingered the handle of the pistol that lay on the seat, slid it out of its holster, released its safety, and racked it. She had expected trouble on the road. That was why the gun was on the seat. Mack had taught her to shoot and she was thinking about him as she waited for the driver’s door to be yanked open.
     She had seen these men before. They lived up North in the woods; drug dealers mostly and pimps for their sisters and wives. They worked with biker gangs that roamed up and down the interstate, supplying them with manufactured drugs, distilled in the deep woods, just like their ancestors had cooked moonshine and slipped it past the revenuers in muscle cars. They were lean, inbred predators and she intended to take one or two with her. She saw the glint of a knife blade flicking open in the hand of the man nearest her door and she sucked in her breath ready to squeeze a round into his slack jaw.
     As the man reached the latch and pulled up she remembered the name of that Irish play. He yanked the door open and she fired two rounds directly into his face. The bullets made two small red pinpricks: one under the left eye and the other in the center of his nose. The bullets escaped his skull in an explosive rush, blasting out handfuls of brain and bone. The force of the rounds propelled him backwards onto the ground; the other men gasped and stopped at the sound of the gun. A moment passed in silence and then they reached for weapons, knives mostly, but a gun appeared in the hand of one of the men on the right. He raised it with one hand, turning it on its side like some new-age punk on a retro-tele show. Mack had told her a man who held a gun like that couldn’t hit the side of a tank. She raised her weapon, gripping it with two hands, like Mack had instructed her, and fired four rounds that puckered then shattered the glass of the truck’s windshield. Shards and bullets hit the man with the gun in the chest and arms. He ducked his head, covering his eyes, falling back away from the spray, and fired his whole clip into the truck. Bullets chewed the inside of the cab and struck Aileen in the shoulder twice and creased her scalp above her left ear. Stunned, she forced herself up, not yet aware of the pain, and pumped another four rounds at the men on the right, while the lone man on the left sprinted back to his car to retrieve his gun.
     As he staggered from the Chevrolet with an automatic sub-machine, an Argentinean LOCK 25, a land rover painted dark green sped into the park and stopped under an oak tree about thirty yards from the fire fight. Aileen saw a tall man, wearing a light tan rain coat, opened in the front, over a gray suit, and a dark brown hat, stepping from the vehicle. But she pushed him out of her mind; instead, she fired another burst, the last of the ammo in her clip, at the man carrying the LOCK. Missing him she lay down in the seat and flipped open the glove box searching for the other clip. She heard the LOCK bark and then felt its rounds slamming into the truck, rocking it on its springs. Then a magnum thumped once and someone screamed. Several seconds passed and the magnum sounded again, twice, thump, thump. Then it was silent. She lay still, now aware of the pain in her shoulder and head.
     “You in the truck, are you wounded?”
     She cleared her throat and shouted, “Yes.”
     “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m with the Reclamation Corps. Can you exit the vehicle?”
     “I think so.”
     “Leave your gun and step out of the truck. Help is on the way.”
     Aileen passed out in the cab of her truck and woke in a bed on the fourth floor of the Methodist Hospital in downtown Pine Bluff. When she awoke for the first time, the man in the rain coat was sitting in a chair reading an electronic pad; his raincoat was now draped over the back of his seat, his tie loosened at his neck and the top button of his shirt opened. She cleared her throat and struggled to lift her head, as he asked: “How are you?”
     She thought for a moment, letting her head fall back on the pillow. “I feel sore.”
     He stood up, placed the electronic reader on the seat and said, as he walked toward the bed: “I imagine you are. Your clavicle was shattered; they bio-rigged it with living bone and pumped you full of nano-bots. That always hurts.”
     She tried to move her left arm but nothing happened. She turned her head as far to the left as possible and discovered they had harnessed her to the bed with some sort of yellow plastic sleeve and attached four IV drips to her arm.
     Giving up trying to sit up, she lay flat, staring up at the ceiling. “How long have I been here?”
     “Two days,” he answered, moving close to her so she could see him.
     “And you, how long have you been sitting there?”
     “Not long, the medic had orders to call me when you showed signs of waking.” He touched her right arm. “I have to ask you a few questions and then I’ll leave you to mend.”
     She nodded.
“Did you know those men that attacked you?”
“I don’t know their names. I’ve seen them in the store. They usually come into town once a week with some women and load up with supplies.”
“Do you have any idea why they attacked you?”
“I thought they planned to rape and rob me.”
“What made you think that?”
“The look on their faces and the knives they carried seemed to be a clue.”
He smiled and touched the tip of his nose with the index finger of his right hand.
“Where did you learn to shoot like that?”
Tears ran from her eyes. “My husband, Mack, taught me.”
The man wiped her eyes with a cotton handkerchief he dug from an inside pocket of his suit jacket. When he leaned forward, she saw the magnum revolver holstered under his left arm.
Returning to his chair, he said: “You have a problem, Aileen. You killed a man with an unlicensed handgun.”
“It was in self-defense.”
“I know that but the gun was illegal and a man is dead.”
“What is the penalty?”
“It could be severe if the tribunal decides it is manslaughter.”
She didn’t respond. Her head swam, as she thought of Mack.
“But I might have a solution, if you are willing to join me,” he said after several seconds. She coughed, her throat filled with phlegm and her cheeks covered with tears. “What can I do?” She paused before saying, “Like this?”
He leaned forward in his chair and placed his hands on his knees. “Aileen, my job is to remove people from the areas marked for reclamation. Most of the time things proceed smoothly but in rural areas like Eastern Tennessee, West Virginia, Quebec and here we have problems. The hill people refuse to move. They burrow into their holes and caves and fight.” He cleared his throat, leaned back in the chair, and crossed his legs, relaxing into his story. “I can send in the robot commandoes but they are indiscriminate in their purging. Once the command is given, they only have one mode: exterminate. I like to employ more subtle methods and that is where you can help. I intend keeping your store open. The hill people will come in and we will follow them back to their cabins in the woods and round them up. But to pull this off I need local people to help me. That’s how you will win your pardon; you’ll work for me.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Commissar Tecumseh Marshall,” he answered, picking at his lower lip, “of his Majesty’s Reclamation Corps.”
“Ah,” she said, falling asleep.
Two weeks later, Aileen stood at the cash register of the store, her left arm in a nylon sling. The shelves were fully stocked and two young boys, the Reuther twins, were her assistants. Jan and Dan had signed up for the Reclamation Corps but before sending them to Saint Louis for training, the Commissar put them to work assisting Aileen.
Late one Wednesday, a teenage boy, wearing a pale blue short-sleeve shirt, coveralls, and work boots entered and looked around nervously. Aileen suspected he was casing the store and a robbery was in the offing. Eventually, the boy approached her and she gritted her teeth; she had been shot once and she did not relish a second time.
“Miss,” he said, “That Chevrolet next to the building is my father’s.”
Surprised, she paused for a moment to collect her thoughts and then responded as the Commissar had instructed her. “I was wondering when someone would show up and pick it up.” She pulled open a drawer in the kiosk and removed the keys for the Chevrolet. “Your father said someone would be along to pick it up.” He looked at her askance, his pale blue eyes shining, nervous and now suspicious. “You talked with him?” he asked. She nodded and handed him the keys, which he took and slipped into the pocket of his coveralls. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know. A black town car pulled up outside and he climbed in.”
The boy eyed her for several seconds and then turned and exited the store. She waited patiently for fifteen minutes and then went outside to see if the car was gone. It was. She then called the Commissar’s cell and reported a young boy picked up the car.
An hour later two ornthopters flew low over the store, heading in a north by northwest trajectory, followed a few minutes later by a black helicopter gunship that thundered over the premises, shaking the shelves and rattling the windows.
No more customers came in the rest of the day. The city was almost empty, only a few wealthy individuals remained, battling over a proper price for their property. At six she locked the doors and walked to her trailer. A green land rover was parked next to her slot and a young man with bright blue eyes, wearing a green uniform, sat in her lawn chair, smoking a Digem cigarette. He stood as she approached and dusted off loose tobacco from his tunic.
“Ma’am,” he said, half saluting her, “The Commissar has ordered you to accompany me to Saint Louis.”
“Saint Louis?” she asked vaguely. “Yes, ma’am, I am to deliver you to the Reclamation Corps Academy for training.”
“Trained to do what?”
“Couldn’t say ma’am but Saint Louis is where the officer training school is. I’m going with you. The Commissar thinks I’m officer material.” He smiled, flashing a mouth of white teeth.
“Let me pack a bag,” she said as the ornithopters returned. One of them was on fire, smoking and sputtering. The human pilot slumped over while his robot co-pilot strained at the controls.
“Maybe, I’ll learn to fly like Mack,” she said, entering the trailer.