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Authors: David Shafer

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BOOK: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
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A big Mitsubishi pulled up to the checkpoint. The tire-hungry teeth of the drive-over plate were retracted posthaste, and the Mitsubishi clanked across. Two men debouched from the rear of the car. Leila thought they were a strange pair: one looked Burmese and about fifty; the other looked like a hipster in a Starbucks—T-shirt, square glasses, big headphones, a laptop satchel. They both walked quickly into the container-fort-office thing, the older man holding the door for the younger. Leila was roused from her mild meditation by the event. Then two more white dudes got out of the front of the Mitsubishi and each man started—digging something from his teeth? No, they were both installing plugs of chewing tobacco in their lips. Leila had tried that once; puked. The men were fifty feet away. They were talking, but she couldn’t hear what they said. Leila tried to lull herself back into the fugue. She was getting better at recognizing situations over which she had no control.

The two men were leaving their vehicle and walking nearer to hers. They made it to the shade tree she had been coveting. Once they reached it, they didn’t so much stand under it as lurk beneath it. They had the hunch of security men but wore no insignia or uniform. They were fifteen feet beyond her open window. They both wore black, wraparound glasses, from behind which, she was sure, they were scanning the perimeter. One, the younger man, clocked her, and then Two, but they both seemed to look right past her. Through the sheer fabric of her wrap she could see them plainly, but they were talking as if they were alone. They spoke English in American accents.


…little prick thinks we’re butlers?” said One. He spit a brown splat on the dirt at his feet.

“Doesn’t matter what he thinks we are,” said Two.

“I mean, he’s fucking tech support. He’s here to install software. You know that?”

Two snapped: “No, I do not know that. You don’t either. You know he’s the package. You get him in, you get him out. That is all you know.”

“I know that little shit sent me back for his suitcase, for face cream or whatever. I know that,” said One. “This whole shit is bullshit, is all I’m saying.”

Two said nothing to this last critique. But he spit, better than One had, a glob missiled at the ground. A tiny shake of his head told Leila he was rolling his eyes behind the viperous shades.

One hadn’t finished. “We’re not allowed to carry. That’s bullshit. These eight-week rotations are bullshit. And the food is definitely bullshit. If that was chicken, I’m Pat Sajak.”

“You getting paid?” Two asked One. Veins stood out on his arms, his neck.

One was indeed getting paid, apparently, for the line quieted him. But he was still mad, Leila could tell, watching from behind her veil. He was standing in a tough-guy pose, and when he spit, he squinted like he was pissed at the tobacco. “That job with the Pakis—now,
that
was a job.”

“Boy,” said Two—they both looked like hammers, but Two was older—“if you just want to be muscle, you got about five years left in this business.”

“Nothing wrong with being muscle.” One sounded hurt. “Better than being a fucking taxi driver.”

At that, Two shot a quick glance at Leila. He was appraising her. Had she looked listen-y? She needed to appear oblivious. From her fancy knapsack, which was out of the men’s sight, she took the sunflower seeds that she’d brought from Mandalay. Noisily, she rustled them out of the newspaper envelope they were wrapped in, but she brought them to her mouth delicately, one by one, in the slightly feral way she had seen women eat seeds here. It seemed to work—Two quit looking at her and plucked flecks of tobacco from his lip. Leila dialed her ears up to ten.

“I’m just sayin’,” said One, sulkily. “I didn’t sign on to be a bellhop in Burma.”

“We’re in China,” said Two.

“Yeah, right. China,” said One.

Aung-Hla came out of the office, down the metal steps. He was effusively thanking the man in the office. The security men tracked him to the car.
Don’t speak English to me,
Leila was thinking hard at Aung-Hla as he opened his door.

“We are hunky-dory,” he said to her loudly, smiling because he had just accomplished something rather complicated. The security men stiffened at the English. Two looked at Leila again, harder now.

“No more English, Aung-Hla,” she snapped at her driver, in Burmese. She pitched her voice high and nasal, in a way she hoped sounded convincing. Burmese was a tonal language, but Leila, like most Indo-European speakers, was reluctant to attempt the tonal part, because she thought it made her sound like an aggrieved crow. “Those men no good,” she cawed quickly at Aung-Hla. “Talk Burmese to me. Now.” And he did. He understood her meaning and spoke a rapid Burmese paragraph, which she did not understand.

“Leave now. Us both,” she said. And they did; Aung-Hla executed a quick three-point turn and they headed back down the road they’d come up. Leila found her fancy running watch in her knapsack and pressed the
MARK POINT
button.

She tried to explain to Aung-Hla what had happened. It was difficult. She didn’t know how to say
contractors
in Burmese, or
mercenaries.
She managed
soldiers who don’t work for the government
. And when she told Aung-Hla that Americans were not allowed to work in Myanmar, he said, “But you work here.”

That night, after they got back to Mandalay and Aung-Hla had dropped Leila off, she filled out the Helping Hand paperwork that would allow her to pay Aung-Hla as not just a taximan but a “required national.” She put the equivalent of three hundred dollars in an envelope, managed to copy Aung-Hla’s name in Burmese script on the front of it, and put the envelope in her knapsack. She looked forward to giving him the money and tried to think only of the benefit it would bring him, not of the stark difference in power between them that it would make plain.

T
urning his head to look at the Fremont Bridge sparkling in the sharp light of the November morning, Leo felt his chin rasp across the collars of his two woolen shirts and his canvas work coat. The outfit thickened the upper half of his tall thin frame, which even at rest had a teetering quality. Hunched into the wind, proud over the handlebars of his bicycle, he looked like a heavy kettle on a high shelf, and most in his path gave him wide berth. But it was early yet, just light and still cold; there weren’t many in his path.

As he did most every day now, Leo wished that he were biking over the Fremont Bridge instead of the bridge he
was
biking over, the Broadway Bridge, which was a more workmanlike affair, maroon and million-riveted; a bascule bridge with chunky block piers like galoshes. The Fremont Bridge was so beautiful, massive and graceful at once, a marvel of engineering. A brisk wind in the seagullosphere snapped the flags at the apex of its arc. The river below was a deep, churning green.

One morning six months back, Leo had found his car skewed and curb-jumped before his house.
So it was no dream,
he’d thought, filled with shame and dread and panic. It was easier to quit driving than drinking, so Leo had transformed himself into a committed cyclist. But now, the fact that there was no pedestrian or bike path on the Fremont Bridge was an affront to him. Leo knew well that driving over the top deck of that bridge, especially at speed, was a real zooter. A state-subsidized roller coaster for the auto-addicted, he thought to himself as he looked at the Fremont’s graceful trajectory, which lay along a much shorter path between his home and workplace—another affront, to be denied not only the most glamorous but also the most direct route to his destination. Why should so much of the might of the state go to flinging out these ribbons of concrete so that citizens can zoom around in their private metal zoom-arounders?

He was getting indignant. Leo was good at indignant. Also burdened; he could do a good burdened. But indignant was one of the few aggressive postures he could strike convincingly—something having to do with the mix of blue-blood Yankee yeoman farmer and
Mayflower
screwball and tough prairie Protestant in his pedigree. A crackpot uncle of his, in Maine, had twice handcuffed himself to heavy equipment to obstruct the construction of cell phone towers. There was a gene Leo wouldn’t mind expressing.

Yes,
he thought as he passed too close to a shuffle-jogging man upholstered in a damp terry tracksuit,
pedaling over the Fremont Bridge in the morning would be an excellent start to the day
. Maybe he should lead a political campaign to get a pedestrian and bicycle right-of-way added to the bridge. Maybe by his efforts the bridge would become a century-defining nonmotorized boulevard and, upon his death, from kiteboarding or something, would be named after him. A man who looked like a teddy bear was cursing at him. Why?

Now a gust came up off the water and flung the tassel-terminated strings of his woolen hat behind his head. He biked faster. The gust brought him news—yeast and pine gum and benzene and bleach and fir and mud and pulp and slurry. Atop the Fremont Bridge, you could probably smell for miles, thought Leo as he coasted across the humbler bridge, filling his lungs with air and his eyes with light.

Then a cloud scudded before the sun and the bridge quit humming beneath him and the wind ceased to carry meaning and in countless other ways the grandeur fled, like shining back into shook foil. The strange brew of neurotransmitters that had encouraged the bike-activist fantasy sloshed up against some limiting mechanism and began to recede; the recipe was tweaked, and chemicals brushed past one another, exchanging glances, methyl groups. Leo started the process, which would increase in period and intensity throughout the day, of telling himself that he was a loser and a failure.

Where to begin? People who get bike lanes added to bridges are committed people, five-year-plan people. Tireless campaigners who probably cared more about ideas than they did about themselves. How do you care about something more than yourself? Leo wondered. Daydreaming about bridges bearing his name? Please. He hadn’t voted in years, he wasn’t wearing a helmet, he had only one brake, he was late for work, and he worked at a preschool.

“Fuck. I hate myself,” he whispered, spit drying on his chin.

Leo waited at the traffic light at the end of the bridge. He marveled at the vast post office—was that Soviet architecture? Brutalist? The place seemed big enough to hide a mining operation. The light turned green and he went right, dropping down into a neighborhood sprung full from a salesman’s case. A dry-cleaner, a dog boutique, a sandwich shop, and an optician were the only businesses along one block. In front of the dog boutique, a FedEx truck chugged at idle, its hazard lights bleating carmine auras into the morning mist. He ghosted over silky new pavement through an empty public square that featured a sunken, dry fountain and pebbly planters full of exotic grasses and reeds. On four sides rose new apartment buildings, the kind with exposed structural elements and balconies at dramatic angles and valuable parking and panoptical security systems. These were condominiums for the creative class, or for any taxpaying and easily policed types of citizens: potentate drifters, wealthy retirees, and leisure merchants. But the whole thing was about a minute old, and only a few souls had moved in.

Leo’s preschool, Brand-New Day, was on the far side of all of this new development, but he had never tried to bike through it. The way around wasn’t much longer, it had a wide bike lane, and it took him past a favorite coffee shop.

But a late arrival to work today would put him in even hotter water than he was in already with his fake-smiling supervisor, Sharon. Just yesterday, she had tried to impress upon him that it would be a Brand-New Day for him employment-wise if he didn’t start attending to the areas that she had earlier mentioned were areas he might want to look into improving around.

“I think that, instead of lateness, you could be aiming for on-time-ness” was one of her points.

And Leo, who more and more these days was overcoming his natural restraint, had said, “Or punctuality. I could aim for that instead of on-time-ness.”

A route through the pretend neighborhood could save him the five minutes he needed. The danger was dead-ending against a freeway sound wall and having to circle back. He briefly considered the stakes, then cycled deeper down the quiet streets of terra condominia.

Yeah.
Too
quiet,
thought Leo. In a year or two, the facades of these buildings would no longer enjoy that blush of blank beauty. Soon each window would instead emit its own signal—here, probably the flaccid ficus trees and stereos of the urban professional, exercise machines and transfixed house cats—semaphoring to passersby some information about the lives stacked up behind the glass. But maybe one day, thought Leo, these buildings would be re-tasked—laundry might be hanging from those balconies, Caracas-style, or more buildings could be warrened atop these, like in Hong Kong. For that matter, the sunken civic Zen patch back there could become a Byzantine souk, tent-poled haphazardly and covered in rugs looted from the surrounding design stores. Maybe we’ll all be living a lot closer together in the future, in a sort of pleasant, Burning Man–ish kind of way, Leo thought. Or maybe in a totally
un
pleasant, refugee-camp sort of way, with viruses we haven’t seen the speck of yet, viruses that make your face fall straight off, and our drinking water brought in by tanker trucks. If it were like tha—

There was no one even near Leo when he flew from his bike. His mind cast about for a culprit, for someone to blame other than himself. The bike just ceased its forward motion and he did not. How surprising, how nifty physics was. And as he trebucheted toward a four-inch curb, aware at once that his meeting with it would be physically calamitous, he remembered that he was wearing no helmet, and his surprise turned to fear. A month ago, at a party to which his friend Louis had brought him, Leo had heard (well, overheard) the host claiming that he wasn’t afraid of death. That particular claim seemed to Leo to be demonstrably false. So, costumed as Jesus (for this was a Halloween party), Leo had decided to explore the man’s reasoning.
Not afraid of death, huh? My, that must make you a real psychopath.
But he had seen almost immediately that he should not have told the man that he was like a Holocaust denier. “I said
like
a Holocaust denier.
Like,
” he protested lamely when Louis escorted him out of the party and told him to enjoy the bracing walk home, dressed as Jesus.

No
,
thought Leo, as he landed his right hand, fingertips first, on the cold nubbly of the curb,
I am definitely more than a body, but I believe I am less than a soul
.

Then, with a fluid agility that hadn’t been his in years, Leo tucked his head and vertical body behind the leading edge of his rounded arm. Some latent muscle memory from five months of jujitsu at the McBurney YMCA on West Sixty-Third Street when he was ten? Leo seemed to recall that this YMCA had in fact served the adventurous class of men described in the song. Now, he felt a point beneath his stomach become the axis of his spinning mass, and he knew to use that dragony breath to take the hit when, after about 120 degrees, his trunk met the sidewalk, hard. Next was his hip and ass, which rolled over not just the concrete but also a busted padlock on the scene by chance. Then came his knees and feet, with a thwack. That was followed by his trailing left arm, which lay down gently, and his gloved palm, which landed and sprang back, the way a
conguero
lands a hand on the taut hide of his drum.

Leo stood up. He was fine. Just fine. Right as rain.

Leo stood up again, this time more carefully. Okay, maybe
fine
was an overstatement. But ambulatory and intact. A bit exhilarated, actually.

His bike lay twisted in the street behind him, its front tire still clamped in the groove of the new light-rail system tracks they were laying all over town. Only now did he notice the yellow-and-black warning signs that would have made him aware of the hazard his bike had to cross. The graphics depicted pretty much what had just happened: a bicycle with its front wheel caught in the maw of the track, the blockish pictogram rider hurtling over the handlebars. An honest piece of graphic art; a tiny, two-line picture poem, thought Leo, and he started to upbraid himself for his carelessness and lack of attention.

But wait. On one corner—the direction from which he’d come—the warning sign was there, but it was swathed in black plastic, taped up tight.

The thought came like a revelation:
This was no accident. They obscured that sign because they want me eliminated.

Some part of him said,
No, don’t be ridiculous
. But then why was only one sign shrouded?

The dips and swoops, the rapid-cyclings, had been with him for a while now, but these revelatory thoughts were new. They arrived at the peaks of the swoops. That’s when things really started ringing, when it seemed that he was at the center of things, that the very planet was pulsing with connectivity, and he was one of Tesla’s bulbs.

Was it really so far-fetched? That there would be some agency tasked with keeping tabs on wayward members of the intellectual elite? No, it was actually quite reasonable, Leo thought. Big Data and all. So, yes, it was possible that he was being singled out, being watched, being followed. It was probably connected to his blog, on which he’d lately been considering what exactly a shadow government would look like, how it might work. Maybe he’d been getting too close.

On the dips, he saw that such notions were perhaps paranoid delusions and that he might need psychiatric help. But he was unwilling to submit his mental processes to the purported care of professionals who might have all sorts of limitations and biases and, yes, agendas. And the swoops outnumbered the dips, so why complain? Shimmering on the bright edge of every day was the possibility that he was going to discover a grand unifying theory. That was not a condition to be treated; that was something to hold on to.

He started again toward work, wheeling his injured bicycle beside him. There was no way he could avoid being late. But he hardly cared now. He had been granted grace and had avoided death. Life was not a dense thicket of pain and scrabbling; it was a wild and godly fable in which he figured prominently. This news spread through his body like a flush. He was reconnected with the great river of life that flowed all around us all the time. The sky domed huge and gray-blue, and the trees, shaken by a gust, rattled a tattoo to him.

  

Brand-New Day was in a building that had once been a genuine warehouse. You could still make out
SCHMIDT’S SPOOL AND SPINDLE
in huge, ghosty letters across its facade. Five years ago the warehouse had been converted into the offices of a briefly white-hot Internet business that turned out to be a bellwether of the dot-com bust. Brand-New Day had inherited the late-bubble furnishings and appointments of the previous tenants, and so it resembled a start-up run by toddlers. Chop the legs off a couple of poured-concrete conference tables and you get some deluxe arts-and-crafts zones for little Mirós. Why not give every child a cubicle instead of a cubby? (Because children crapped in their cubicles was why not, it turned out.) The skateboard ramp in the foyer was filled with sofa cushions and called the romper zone. Employees sailed across the polished concrete floors on Aeron chairs while their charges crawled over and drooled on and beat with sticks black-leather benches and cubes and sectionals.

The Aeron chairs were nice. Leo was the author of a game called Rolling Death, staged in the outdoor play zone, in which a staffer, “restrained” in an Aeron chair by the kids, would zoom maniacally around the OPZ yelling, ideally, “I am Death. I touch you, you die,” while the kids screeched and careened, addled with joy and running with snot, and dodged the caroming desk chair. Leo wasn’t the only one who played it now either. Another staffer named Lisa did a great Rolling Death, as did a tiny Dominican lady named Cecilie, who laughed more wildly than the children as she zoomed—they raced from her as if from a plague. The game was a desperate favorite of just about all the children at Brand-New Day, though when he played with the twos-and-threes, Leo zoomed more slowly. Just the whisper of maybe playing it could get fourteen five-year-olds to collect from the floor a morning’s worth of paper scraps and gluey cotton balls.

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