Monday, August 08, 2005

Savage Peace

Listen to the podcast (downloadable mp3 file)

It was a bit surprising to have that kind of insight into each other’s heart of darkness. After all, we had only known each other a few hours. Nevertheless, we knew exactly where we stood with each other as we walked away from the snake charmer and down the sidewalk jammed with women in tall platform sandals, spandex dresses, darkly tanned bodies. Men were wearing Hawaiian shirts, loose pants, sandals. It was another world, and I wasn't sure I wanted to go back to the "real" one. Ever.

Stanton noticed my sudden silence but made no remark. We hadn't talked about it yet, but I could sense we already knew we were in the same business, and that could make things either very difficult or very easy. It just depended on how we wanted to play it.

In an open-air bar, chilled humid air poured out like boiling, tornadic clouds as a flamenco guitarist with Dimarzio pickups on his classical guitar burned the night with tanguillos and arpeggios, reminding me not so much of the Gipsy Kings as Al DiMeola or Paco de Lucia -- especially after a slim, sinewy dancer mounted the small stage. She was next to him, somewhere between two ceiling fans and the humid south Florida air, redolent with flamenco, joyous cacophonies of heel stomps, castanets, and other assorted juxtapositions to bring to mind life bursting out into the phenomenal world like blood on sand "a las cinco de la tarde."

Stanton leaned toward me, looked deep into my eyes. Others never got past my camouflage – the squarish glasses, the ultra-conservative dress, the tendency to speak obliquely. Stanton saw through my protective carapace. My shell crumbled at my feet. At five in the afternoon. Garcia Lorca's bullfighter was dead. The Spanish Civil War began at five in the afternoon as well, with planes bombing Granada.

A sculpted python was wrapped around the portal over the entrance of the bar. It was the classic Garden of Eden motif promising temptation and eventual seduction. The night was fetid with histories of those who had fallen before us.

I could tell the small of my back was damp. I desperately wanted to feel a hand on it.

"I can see why Italian designers take up residence here in South Beach. All you have to do is step outside your door and it’s all here. The carnivalesque, the sublime, the grotesque," I said. "It’s straight out of film noir.”

"It’s interesting how darkness is appealing in the tropics, even romantic. It’s not at all romantic in the north. In fact, “white nights” are considered romantic near the Arctic Circle,” said Stanton.

We were pretending to have a conversation.

Across the street, tourists were having their pictures taken with boa constrictors around their shoulders, necks. I looked at Stanton. Something was tightening around my body, squeezing the breath out of me, crushing my feeble efforts to preserve my dignity.

I felt my hands sweating, my knees trembling. Stanton at my side, and the thick South Beach air was getting more difficult to inhale as the night wore on. This was a land of con artists and people with pasts they needed to erase. His mask was a bit too firmly in place, and I could feel the vulnerability underneath.

"Feels pretty good once they finally get the boa constrictors away, doesn’t it?" said Stanton. He was looking at the tourists. His face was oddly grim. His words should have been said with a sense of irony, but they weren't. He wasn't really joking. Then he said something that made me startle.

"Sort of like being 'God's hostage,' isn't it?" he asked. I inhaled sharply. The words burned me to the core. I was not sure why.

“Imagine a god that would you force you to stay in a motel room for years, without letting you go,” he said, rather cryptically.

“Are you talking about a kidnapping? Like the “pesca milagrosa” in Colombia?”

“No. It is someone who will tell you that God would not let him leave the motel room for 8 years. And, who will say that when he tried to disobey God, God re-arranged his teeth.”

I looked at Stanton. I tried to keep my face a mask.

"This is a real person?” I asked.

“What do you think?” he asked. “But here’s the point. What would you do if you really believed that? You think that if you resist, He'll crush you. But, you know He'll crush you eventually anyway, so your choice is simple. Struggle, and die quickly. Don't struggle, and die slowly," said Stanton. He took a drink of his Dos Equis and looked off toward the Italianate mansion across the street.

"Sounds about right." I couldn't tell if he knew what an impact the notion of “God’s Hostage” had on me.

"Yeah, I've seen the film. I've punched Bobo the Clown," I said, thoughtfully. I was referring to Albert Bandura's experiments at Stanford University, where children were shown movies of kids punching a life-size Bobo the Clown knock-down dummy doll. Not surprisingly, when they had a chance, they, too, threw punches at Bobo.

"Are you saying we're all hostages of our conditioning?" asked Stanton.

"I don't know what I'm saying." I dug inside my pink faux crocodile bag for my lipstick. "I've met a couple of people who might fit your definition of a God's Hostage. It was frightening and tragic. That’s really all I can say. But, well, no doubt about it. I'd rather be beaten up by a child programmed by Bandura to think I'm Bobo the Clown than to be a “God’s Hostage”."

This was not a good place for us to be. South Miami Beach was a place that two people like us should, with any sense at all, avoid. There were dangers, real danger, only partially cloaked by the art deco, the neon, the drinks with touristy names, the women kissing each other in the shadows, the clerks in gift stores giving clients back their counterfeit $20, $50, or $100 bills with a mildly embarrassed "it didn't pass the test."

I had a simple question. Why reject the fake bills? Won't they pass? And, even if they don't, so what? Isn't everything, to a certain degree, counterfeit?

I was living in a state of existential fraudulence. This much I knew. The life I defined by all the subtle and not-so-subtle connections, coincidences, and karma-driven awakenings was not so easily positioned in the "authentic" realm. I was too fragile and I knew it. If you manipulate my perceptions, you manipulate my reality. Change my reality and you change my life.

Sometimes it felt like the only thing real were bruises. Adrenaline surges meant you could tell when something was putting you in danger. Only things that were real could be harmed. Isn't that right?

All that glisters is not gold. You can't test for "real" with your eyes. I thought of my dad and his equipment for running radiometric surveys to detect the presence of gold, silver, and rare earth elements. He had been spending time in the Nevada desert for years now. Winnemucca, Carlin, Tonopah, Elko, Goldfield -- all were familiar names to me. They were the boa constrictors I was trying to be released from.

It seemed like a good time to change the subject.

"Why are you here?" I asked Stanton. His attitude subtly changed when I asked him. He took another drink of his Dos Equis. His polo shirt clung to his biceps. I didn't quite like it.

But, the truth was, such thinking made it easier to do the work I did in South America in an attempt to prove myself to Dad. I was thinking about both the red herring activities that made it into the newspapers and television, and the things I didn't tell anyone about except Dad and the Ambassador. I had a copy of the Ambassador's latest book on my nightstand -- Savage Peace -- and I had been reading a few pages each day. It was better for me to do what I did without thinking, without contemplating the ramifications.

Dad was still working on the inventions in the lab. Farley Kritzoff's map and all the others were still filed away somewhere. They had been there for years, and I still wasn't sure what to do.

"You have to know when a show of force is necessary. Sometimes you have to let people know you mean business in the only language they understand."

It sounded like a passage out of Savage Peace. Did Stanton have an Ambassador (more precisely, former ambassador) he reported to as well?

The coils would constrict. All knowledge and maps were locked away, inaccessible, for all practical purposes.

Earlier, the psychic outside Mango's Caribbean Grill told me the thing I always heard from psychics and I was getting tired of it. Stanton laughed when he saw my expression.

"Yeah. You think it's funny. You're not having to hear this," I said to him under my breath. That just made him laugh harder.

"You will have a long life," she said. Her hair was bleached yellow blonde, but she had dark black roots. She spoke with a Cuban accent. She had no way of knowing I was completely indifferent to the idea of a long life. Long, painful, filled with loss. Who would want that? "But you will be lucky in your career,” she said. “People see you as a success."

"Great. Sounds good. Anything else?" I regretted it, and hoped she would not say anything that would embarrass me in front of Stanton. After all, we had just met each other.

"Someone has blocked you and has put a terrible curse on you. You will not be able to break free and you will never have a happy love life as long as this curse is on you. Someone out there cares about you very much but he's afraid to tell you."

I thought of Dad in Nevada, alone in his Suburban, running radiometric surveys from dawn to dusk, never talking to anyone. Absolutely alone. Was that good for a geologist in his 70s? What kind of daughter was I, caught up in the things I had committed to ...

The whole thing was making me feel pretty depressed. Maybe psychics said this to everyone. Who knows. But, I had heard the same thing from psychics in New York, Houston, Tucson, and Oklahoma City. I had thrown away quite a bit of cash, it seemed --- obviously nothing they said significantly changed my life. The only thing that had really helped was travel and adrenaline.

Danger made me aware of the real. Without it, reality faded into old Polaroids and echoes of my dad, Marcus, my ex, his dad -- the assorted people and who had come and gone from my life.

The night before, I had awakened in the middle of a deep, vivid dream, and I was crying in my sleep. I was sobbing. Abjectly, with despair so profound I could hardly breathe. I was riding a horse toward Palm Canyon, and it wouldn't follow the trail. Instead, it took me to cholla cactus and scrub mesquite, so I'd be scratched. The horse was trying to knock me out of the saddle, but with a minimum of exertion. Then, the dream switched. I was in a Walgreen's drugstore, but it reminded me of Kresge's in Ardmore, Oklahoma, where my memories were still all too vivid. Ardmore, Oklahoma. South, south, south – halfway to Dallas, more than midway to oblivion. That, at least was where I was born. I may feel sadness in my sleep, but by day, I feel nothing.

But I could not afford to remember. I could not afford to feel. Feeling was counterproductive to my ultimate goals - I knew when I had to face a certain kind of warm, oozing fear.

I knew it, and I would go on.

“Let’s go to Fat Tuesday’s. Have one of the drinks, maybe dance?” asked Stanton. My knees were still shaking from something that I dared not reveal. But, maybe it was just from being on the hotel Stairmaster for an hour, without eating dinner. Perhaps not everything was as melodramatic as I liked to think.

Savage Peace.” We could talk all we wanted about death squads, training grounds, and small airports that appeared on no one’s maps, except in the occasional classified one, based on satellite photos and infrared reconnaissance. The ground-truthing with GPS was what mattered. That was the stuff you had to take your malaria medicine for.

Savage peace, indeed. No one seemed to know until after that the bloodshed was quite immediate. It was hard to understand the concept of “show of force,” especially when it was done for no other reason than a kind of ontological insecurity, fear of one’s own identity wavering, fading, distorting – quickly, out-of-control, toxic like mercury.

"Still thinking about God's Hostages?" I asked. I wanted to see if Stanton knew anything about the work I was doing for the Ambassador. It was a long shot, but I wanted to make sure.

"Not in this oasis," he said. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. The code word the Ambassador and I had used for the silly drop points for maps was called "The Oasis." It was perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not.

I lost my nerve. It would be easier to go dancing.

“Great idea – let’s do it. I was wearing basic black pants, a white blouse I had bought in Paraguay, basic black shoes. Nothing spandex, no platform sandals, but perhaps it was just as well. My hair was dyed dark auburn-red, my body felt shaky for being about ten pounds over my normal weight, and I knew I was nothing like my normal self. Identity wavering, on the verge of going into another phase. Self-creation, self-fashioning, constructivist moves beginning with obliteration.

Stanton was a good way to start.