Under the Influence

The last two hours in bed before I was to leave were spent thrashing the sheets, sunk in cares for the future. The future; the forward time; the tide, into whose stream we must forever march, of things to come. The thought that gnawed was whether, knowing that the future was as inscrutable today as the face of this day had been when today was yet future, it was reasonable to believe that the decisions I would now make would be any better than the ones I’d made before.

No one had foresight into the foretime – some just had better hardwired decision-making circuits, or were blessed with an intercessor who pulled them string unseen along anodyne and admired routes from this world to the next. I’d never felt its gracious pull, only the dark magnetism of duty bounded by the shoals of fear and the bluff face of impossibility.

I didn’t want to go that morning, but thought better go than stay. There was no telling whom I might encounter out on the roads, but I was fairly certain who might come knocking if I stayed. Everyone said travel was no longer a safe proposition, but there was little in the way of reliable information. My fear that the window was closing shaped my course as much as the grudging conviction that ‘up there’ would be a good place to be. My leg was bad and in no hurry to get better. It would be a bigger handicap in a city haunted by the rampant sum of its resentments than out in the sticks or on the road thither – such was my notion.

The time was upon me. I hobbled to a corner of the side of the room that gave onto the street and lit a candle. Next I packed a duffel bag with the handful of effects that represented the material sum of my transit through this world. It wasn’t much, but it was right that the sum should accrue to me and no one else.

Just then a shape drew past the garden-level window. I pinched out the flame and waited. It did not linger. Once I’d poured a can of string beans down my throat and had a cup of tea, I lubricated the hinges and locks on the front door. I put my ear to the leaf and listened. A bird. The skitter of leaves. A siren’s wail.

The city I stepped out into was changed. I’d not been out the door in a week or more. Many cars had been overturned, still more burned. The ones most recently reduced to streetside firepits flickered softly, joining their notes of flame to the greater orange glow of my burning city. I pressed myself back against the brickwork and shot looks down the street in both directions. Somewhere out there were voices fading from hearing. I patted my pockets to make sure of my meager arsenal – a section of pipe, a pepper shaker, zip ties. Already my legs ached with the cold.

The garage was a block down. I advanced one building at a time, stopping between each to strain my ears and let the pain subside. I reached the garage without incident. The door was secured by a series of hooded locks. Many of the steel hoods had been battered, but none had caved. I took a breath and reached for my keys, slowly. In the east a streak of morning obtruded on the night’s phosphorescent ink.

Long ago I’d mapped and memorized a way out of the city. Lights off, side streets, giving a wide berth to residential areas, making no distinction between affluent and afflicted. The light industrial belts I bent my course through had already been gutted of anything that could be hauled off. At odd intervals I could see mixed groups of men and women huddled around barrel fires. Of the prowling bands on which my fears were bent there were none.

The road opened up. The sun rose. My leg picked up the soft thrum of the engine like a tuning fork. How long it would it be, I wondered, until someone thought to stop by and loot the paltry effects I’d left behind. An academic concern, to be sure, now that the compass of my life had been reduced to a motorized compartment. The car carried all I had and was taking me as far as I would go. I guessed my cabin up there would still be standing, but no assumptions concerning its possession were warranted. Not when so much had changed. Pressed hard enough, the people up there were no less capable than the ones down here of stripping out the copper piping or making it their homestead on the contracting frontier. Every time I saw lights in the road ahead I would pray it wasn’t a roadblock. I shaped my breathing to a trickle and let the words flow out soundlessly: For the love of God not a roadblock. As I am your faithful servant, Lord, in your wisdom, make it anything but a roadblock, for I could not continue along what I believe to be my appointed course if it were.

None were.

I allowed my breathing to resume its normal periodicity as the buildout of light industry and the garrisons of conspicuous consumption gave way to the fallow fields and burned-out housing stock of the exurban mortgage grid. Morning bloomed and began to gnaw at the lattice of frost on the windscreen. It was Thanksgiving Day. If all went well I had four hours to go.

I’d just finished popping in an old CD and leaning back in the bucket seat to give comfort to my leg when the running lights came on behind me. The speedometer said I’d been doing five over. I spat in disgust before easing the car onto the shoulder. The road was a causeway. There was an overturned delivery truck on the floodplain where the shoulder dropped off. The near panel of the cargo hold had ruptured to reveal a payload of flatscreen televisions, many of which had snapped in half on impact, as if in mockery of the images they had been built to carry.

The officer exited the prowler and approached. I lowered my window and heard the tap of his tread bridging the growl of our two engines. He had a small mouth shaped like a slit in a piecrust that looked ill-suited to contain the teeth bristling from his outthrust jaw. It produced these words:

“Urban refugee eh?”

“I guess you could say that, officer.”

“And here I was thinking everyone who was getting out already had.”

“The Lord is always giving us things to be thankful for, officer.”

“I take a wait-and-see approach, personally. Where were you headed.”

“I’ve got a cabin up north. Headed there to hunker down.”

“Vague answers help you even less than they help me. Now where were you headed.”

“Officer, what is this about? I mean I know I may have been doing five over, but under the circumstances I don’t think…”

Just then the officer’s head drooped and his eyes turned up in their sockets. Yessir, yessir, he muttered in a voice labored like that of an epileptic or medium. When his head snapped back up his eyes were glazed and his jaw had wallowed into a loose grin contained within the drawn purse of his lips. “Sir, you will mind your tongue! The palace of order wobbles under the slightest chink. You are correct that you were doing five over. You were also weaving erratically, in a manner suggestive of an impaired driver. I’ll ask again. Where were you headed?”

“I’m headed to a cabin I own in Vandenberg County, officer. Figured it would be a safe place to hole up.”

“Sure,” he chuckled, “over the cities? I’d favor that. First you’ve got to get there though.”

“Which is where you come in, officer. I’d like to thank you for keeping the roads safe for those in transit.”

“Have you been drinking sir?”

“I have not. It’s 6:30 in the morning. Why do you ask?”

“Never you mind why I ask. Kindly step out of the car.”

“Officer, I’m in a bit of pain here with my leg. I’m hoping that won’t be necessary.”

“Pain in your leg huh. I guess your victims gave as good as they got.”

“Officer?”

“Now you know as well as I do that the tide of honest folk coming up this road was no more than a trickle a month ago. These days it’s just looters and thugs looking to make off with their scores. You don’t have to tell me there’s no law down there, but I’m telling you there sure as hell is here, and I am duty bound to enforce it.”

“Officer, I’m plainly not drunk, and if you judge me on the merits I think you’ll discern that I’m not of a piece with the criminal tide you describe.”

I saw his mouth working under the pressures building up behind it. “Sir, I’ve about had it up to here with you. As the only party authorized to exercise judgment in this interaction, I will brook no comment on how. Now you will get out of that car and submit to a field sobriety test or so help me God.”

In allegiance to lifelong habit, I complied. I pivoted about my hip and planted my right foot on the roadway, using the steering wheel for support. Getting the left foot down was a struggle. Rising fear and driver’s inertia combined to make me wobble as I rose.

The officer’s eyes shot back in his head again and he muttered Yessir, oh yes before snapping back: “Sir, I can already see that you’re impaired. Now unless you can ace this thing, I’m going to be issuing a DUI.”

“Then I suggest you do so without further ado, ociffer. As you can see, I’m injured. I’m limping for God’s sake. I refuse to be put through this charade.”

“That’s your prerogative, sir. By God this is a great country, is it not? One that extends such exorbitant privilege to the humblest of its citizens. Of course, I’m bound to tell you that the driving under the influence charge substantiates a further increment in my path of action whereby I search your vehicle for contraband and unlicensed monetary instruments.”

He had slapped a cuff on my wrist and chained me to the door handle before I knew what was happening. As he paced around to the rear of the vehicle I felt myself abstracted and disembodied, a suddenly distant observer of mhy own trajectory. Once a passably middle-class citizen of the Republic, here I was at the periphery of the reeking shell of a once great city, being held up by an officer cum roadagent. My exorbitant privilege was to be dragged through the farce of the old forms.

Other vehicles came down the causeway at long intervals as the scene played out. Members of my assailant’s fraternal order to a man, their operators all drove by leering.

I was shivering uncontrollably by the time he found the Krugerrands. There was a muffled and melancholy clatter as the officer snatched the cigar tray that housed them out of the duffel bag, muttering yessir oh yessir of course in the mongoloid stupor that came drowned him again. Before addressing me he held the tray aloft and seemed to listen for something, his eyes vacant, conquered. Sir yessir, his words carried on the dull wing of erotic subservience. Opening the tray at last, he wheeled to face me with an accusatory air that he let stand as its own argument.

“What are you going to do?” I stammered. In that box lay the accumulated energy and surplus I’d managed to lay away in 20 years of struggle, 20 years of scrounging to stem the tide of indigence that seemed to be coming for us all in the long, seemingly eventless years leading up to the rupture. And so here it was, the implacable storm surge, come at last to swallow me in the person of a mandatory of I knew not what agency. In the afterlight it gives me solace, slender as it may be, to reflect that this encounter and the forfeits I suffered had nothing to do with me – with my condition, my speech, my appearance, my reasoned decisions – but was the determinate outcome of my passage through that decommissioned mortgage grid at that particular hour; just as an ear of corn does not tempt the locust or prompt reprisal by giving offense, but is consumed as the inevitable result of its position along the sweep of the swarm.

At length the man’s verbal mechanism lurched into motion. These were the words that issued from his lips: “And what might this be?”

“Obviously it’s whatever you want it to be, ociffer.” His stare was blank as he processed my reply – as if the words were being patched through for third-party consideration.

“Quite so,” he said finally, the voice coming out thick and labored. “This is loot ill-gotten in the tumult of a city become ungovernable. As such it will be seized and remanded into the custody of the agency which refuses to become accessory to the transport of contraband and unlicensed monetary instruments, and which I have the honor to serve.”

“I know, I know. Everything not held by the right honorable criminals who pull your strings is ill-gotten. Why don’t you just steal the coins already and be done with it?”

The officer’s eyes twitched in dim recognition. “Hey,” he said, his breathing and voice back to normal, “that’s contempt of cop. I really shouldn’t stand for that.” There ensued a moment of consideration. “On the other hand that’s just you giving me respect, since it means you acknowledge the reality of your position. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’ll write you up for the DUI and fill out the forfeiture paperwork. Then you can be on your merry way. No menacing an officer charges or anything like that. That way I won’t have to take you down to the station. Sound good?”

I’ve since learned that there was no longer an operating police station in that sector.

“A golden plan, ociffer.” Again the eyes rolled back in their sockets. Oh yessir, he hissed, it shall be as you say.

A grin of dumbest pleasure had spread across his face when his head came level. He pulled out pen and clipboard and set about completing the paperwork. The citation and the seizure acknowledgment he handed me had their I’s dotted and T’s crossed. All the proper forms were observed. Yet I knew for a certainty that the Department of Motor Vehicles in my state had ceased to exist. Nor was there any functioning courthouse in the county where I could challenge the seizure. The world was and remains much reduced. What are we now but ears of corn caught up in the sweep of the locust swarm?

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Under the Influence

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