“One more tomorrow, yes?” His English was heavily accented, almost Russian. And we all smiled the smiled of the stoned and the preoccupied. It was almost like speed, but it wasn’t quite that way either. No grinding of teeth. A nice mellow, highly tested chemical that dissolves rapidly and had no need to measure weight or blood pressure, or even pulse rate. You’d swear at the end you’d had a religious experience and maybe you had. Everyone’s kid bragged about it over the school lunch table the next day.
And amid thermos and lunch boxes, the talk was the same the next day. One more day of the mystical pill. Whatever will they think of next? We didn’t much talk about what they wanted from us. It gave us a break from the hunger and the Russians and the Iranians and the fifty minutes if we wanted gasoline. You could skim it off the line if you got desperate and some of us did, but the behavior was discouraged. The poorest among us had no such reservation. Ever tried to use mineral spirits to get petrol out of a grey flannel shirt?
And then the military brass started walking all slow-like around 2 pm. We weren’t supposed to be on the premises at school, but we knew that. We were adults and few of us had work. And all the time, they kept walking lazily with a plastic bag full of those same little blue pills. Round two, said some widow, and so we prepared for round two. It was our last go-round with the U.S. Army and nobody was afraid to look a gift horse in the mouth, two days where we weren’t worried about being poached across the river to the next grist mill by some foreigner.
They started knocking on doors like before; pouring pills into cupped hands into small circular paper containing containers of water. Plastic cups from all over creation. Free. We drank them down with haste, ready to begin, to learn the meaning of life, even ordinary people who never had no book learnin’ like James Franklin Jamison, the town mentally challenged individual, who you used to call the village idiot.
He was rubbing out answers and blue boxes with his elbows, which soon grew blue. I wonder what his answers said. Could they be what we were looking for all along? As it turs out, there was nowhere to go before the Minnesota border and here were in northern Michigan. Not close to nothin’ as the neighbors would say.
The bullhorns let us know they were leaving soon and for us to dose or forget about it. So I opened up the gate to the bridge and off they sped. As for me, I walked back to the campsite to see what everyone was doing. They kept drawing boxes and talking frantically to each other. I wish I knew that universe they inhabited.
That same man who looked cowed kept collecting everyone’s piece of paper, assuming, of course, that they weren’t quite done with it yet. He’d stayed behind for some reason. The army guys weren’t done there yet.
Jane Mansun wasn’t ready yet. She’d decided on a two-color effect and after first applying blue ballpoint pen was adding shading with a school pencil, a number two. She sucked on the end of it like a student at a multiple choice test.
Now just remember, ma’am, there are no right or wrong answers.
She ignored him and briefly stopped sucking on the graphite only to add a brief, wild mark across the page only she was capable of understanding.
There, she said. I’m done now.
You sure? he said. Yep, she said, and folded her arms. Folding her arms underneath her was always a sign she was done with whatever task at hand, but it made her look like a petulant eight-year-old.
She shot me a dirty look. Even the lesbos get to participate. Even those dykes. No one could confuse my short hair or professional sports team jersey. I’ve been out of work, too. Even my partner is unemployed, my wife, really, which just enrages the natives even more. I don’t care anymore. I’m so used to being despised that I’m reminded of that corrupt Latin American dictator in the Woody Allen film who has been poisoned so many times he has developed an immunity.
$500 buys a lot of groceries. Our home is full of none of them with three weeks to go before new food stamps. I have a half-sister working on marriage number three with two preteen kids from marriage number one, desperate to escape like the rest of us. They make google eyes at every rescuer with a car and gas no matter how old he might be. I doubt their mother would care. It would be one less mouth to feed, nobody to clothe anymore. It’s news story waiting to happen, one more Amber Alert to interrupt everyone’s telecast or cellphone conversation.