Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself?
Do you have an arm like God’s,
and can your voice thunder like his?
This is fiction. So we’re clear.
The Chef’s got the day off – mowing the lawn, the kind of shit people with houses and families not only do but seem to look forward to – so the sous chef (let’s call him Ben) is cooking sans jacket and apron, just shorts and a black t-shirt, music loud, half-way into his second beer after having finished the lunch rush. He’s a little hungover but in otherwise good spirits. You can tell because the stove-top is a crowded skyline of stocks and soups, a cast-iron of garlic slowly spitting and browning, and a pot of dried chilies re-hydrating, anchos and guajillos, a few cascabel for that rattlesnake bite. There’s a bowl of warm dumpling dough proofing in the radiant heat of the panini grill and a pork shoulder, pulled from a long, slow overnight braise, resting on a cutting board. Ben’s rushing around in his typical way, washing dishes, playing a drum break on the counter top with metal tongs, slowly nudging a half-dozen projects along. Though this look like madness, yet there is method in’t. Slowly and steadily food – pretty good food – is coming out of the kitchen.
All is right with the world.
One of the counter-service girls comes back in the kitchen:
“What’s your last name?”
Ben tells her.
“Oh. Okay. I didn’t know. But these guys are here for you…so…”
Ben peaks over the counter: two guys, office manager types – sweater over dress shirt, sports-coat with no tie, comfortable shoes – wave politely at them. They look too relaxed to be health-inspectors (who travel alone, like giant squid, and kill for fun, also like giant squid), so Ben figures they’re product reps.
Coming around the counter he greets them:
“Hey boys, what can I do for y’all?”
The greeting – ‘boys,’ and ‘ya’ll’ – sounds almost natural, after ten years on and off in the south, Ben’s shaken any trace of south Jersey ‘kwoifee’ accent. But the bigger of the men draws back his lips over his teeth when he hears it. He’s not a food-rep, he’s under no obligation to make or take small-talk bullshittery. The man is not fooled. He extends his hand, a domineering almost vertical grip that pinions Ben’s hand. Ben doesn’t catch his name – no, he’s distracted by the top of a photo clipped inside a binder under the man’s arm, a ten-year-old photo of himself – but he does catch the agent, and treasury department, and he does not miss the pistol holstered under the man’s arm.
“Do you know what this is about?”
The man asks, but it’s not a question. Not really. Ben knows what this is about.
“Fucking Twitter,” he says.
“Is there someplace, quiet,” the shorter man says, in softening good-cop tones, almost pitying, as he gestures to the office door in the back, “somewhere we can do this?”
Three days prior, on Friday night, Ben and his wife get drunk to blow-off steam: working opposite shifts they’ve seen far too little of each other and – unlike the proverbial couples of yore – absence makes their hearts grow chapped and raw. But now they’ve got the night off and they celebrate, happy just to be around each other, and then they accidentally watch the news.
Things are bad – as a man once said – everybody knows things are bad.
They watch the news and drink too many bottles of wine and then Ben’s wife is crying. She has a heart, after all, and what sane person – their defenses already strained just making it through a week – takes a look at the world stage today and does not take it for a tragedy? Which is to say, bawl their eyes out?
Ben, for one. He has a heart – he doesn’t not have a heart, to be cagey and litotal about it – and he’s not a complete monster. But he does have a bad Russian habit, like Chekov, of misreading tragedy as comedy. If you squint, drunkenly, those drama masks look awfully fucking similar.
And so Ben, feeling six or seven fingers of whisky-clever, takes to social media to crack wise about the political circus slowly burning the country to the ground. He facetiously offers his assistance to candidate Marco Polo, flailing in the polls and getting ineloquently but effectively thrashed by the circus’s latest ringmaster, Donald Duck. Something along the lines of hit me up, assassination is the only way you’ll make it in the primaries. Or close to the that, 140 words or less. Not his best joke – three fingers is whisky-clever, six is whisky-daft – and likely disappear into the clamorous chatter of Twitter, like a pea-shooter fired into a hurricane.
But that is not what happens.
In the conference room of the office, the short agent is congenial – he complements the joint, mentions he’s glad to visit someone at an actual place of business, says he appreciates Ben taking the time, etc. – and the big agent is laconic but mellow.
“The last guy, oh, he was one of the sign twirlers, you know, like a tax-season guy, dressed up as Lady Liberty, he was at his mother’s house, still, um, in uniform, as it were…”
Then the questions. Ben’s married, coming up on ten years. The big agent warms, slightly. They talk about the different ways they’ve lost their wedding rings. Ben, twice when pulling of gloves, once in a batch of pizza dough. The shorter agent starts, “we’ve seen some fucked up…er, some situations, with rings, that wouldn’t come off, you just wouldn’t…” He glances at his partner, trails off, without explaining why the treasury department would need to remove someone’s wedding ring.
Car, make and model. Home address. Phone number. Parents residence. Last employer, reason for leaving. Level of education. They ask, Ben answers.
Don’t be mistaken, these are not questions. It is not a question – not truly, not an honest question – if you already know the answer. And the answers are arranged in a long list on the agent’s clipboard. They ask, Ben answers, and they put a check-mark if he tells the truth.
“Okay,” says the short agent,”So, why don’t you tell us about what you posted.”
Ben considers lying, someone hacked my account, or I left it in the office and someone kid was playing with it, but he decides lying to federal agents is a bad idea. So he tells them what happened: a bad and drunken joke.
“Just a joke,” he says, shaking his head, “and I get that, you know, you have to come out here, and I’m sorry for that, but it was absolutely a joke. A bad joke. I’m sorry.”
The agents look at each other, then back at Ben.
The short agent says, “Yeah, look, we get that. And we appreciate how cooperative you’ve been, you seem like a normal guy. But, uh, the thing is, it’s still against the law.”
The big agent chimes in, arms crossed, “Let’s be clear, you’ve committed a federal felony.”
The short agent shoots him a look, then glances back at Ben, saying, “Well, yes, it is a felony. And we do have to, now, of course, contact the district Attorney. And we have to ask you some more questions.”
You imagine your life a certain way. You have hopes – of course, foolish or realistic, you’ve got plans – and more than that you have a rhythm, what you do today, what you did yesterday, what you’ll do tomorrow. With whom you’ll spend your time. That rhythm is the bedrock of your life, and it’s difficult to disturb, hard to shake.
Death: that can shake it. When someone you love dies, you get a feeling, like you’ve been knocked loose of your foundation. It can be freeing – a horrible thing to admit, but true just the same – and oddly exhilarating feeling. The death of a loved one frees you from social protocol: you don’t have to make small-talk, don’t have to pretend to like doing things you don’t like, you can get shitfaced at 9 a.m., you can skip work, run naked into the ocean. Whatever you like. For a short period of time. Then the rhythm returns.
This, for Ben, sitting in a small conference room, florescent lights flickering, a pair of handcuffs glinting under the flap of the agent’s jacket, this is something similar, but more. A loved one dies, you’re thrown off course, but you recover. Now the threat is imprisonment, the long arm of the law reaching out, like God’s own grizzled paw careening down from the heavens to swat him into oblivion. Prison. Like a living death. No more nights with his wife, no more writing or music, no more cooking, no more anything.
“Have you committed suicide?”
Ben looks up, blinking. The agents glance at each other. Ben glances at his own wrists, tattooed but otherwise un-scarified.
“Um,” he says, venturing a faint grin, “have I what?”
The agent glances down at his checklist.
“Oh. Sorry. Have you attempted suicide?”
“Oh,” Ben smiles, “no, no I haven’t.”
“Have you thought about it?”
Ben pauses, just for a moment. Is now the time for a joke about Camus? And didn’t he say, anyway, that the only really serious problem left is the consideration of suicide? What intelligent person doesn’t consider it, at least academically. And what sane person, whose heart is not cinders, does not look around this world and – at least once – say, ‘okay, I am through here.’ Beam me up, Scotty, I’m fucking done.
But Ben smiles and lies, “no, God. Who’d run the kitchen?”
The agents nod, smiling back. The Protestant work ethic, still earning hot’n’melty brownie points.
The shorter agent asks, “Are you ever depressed? Anxious?”
“Are you political?”
Is it an option not to be? Is this the time for a conversation about imperialism, or capitalism, a chat about white privilege or the patriarchy… is this the time for anything, anything at all, anything but shit-eating lies, desperate like a man caught trash-talking God himself, now slapping a bloodied palm over his own mouth and dropping to his knees?
No. Ben lies.
“Do you ever consider violence against the government, or any political candidate? Do you have any interest in guns, or weapons, or political revolutions? Do you use drugs? Do you drink heavily? Do you have any eccentric religious beliefs?”
The answer to these questions – which, again, are nothing like questions, nothing at all – is to say, ‘no,’ and ‘Jeez, not really,’ and to laugh nervously and honestly. To fucking lie your ass off. This Ben does, and the agents wrap things up.
Near the end, the agents hold a 8.5’x11′ piece of paper, with a low-rez printout picture of Ben. He’s sweaty drunk, playing a bass guitar in some dive-bar, wearing a t-shirt that reads “Fuck You You Fucking Fuck.” The agents show it to Ben.
“Needs a comma,” Ben says.
“You look like a pretty angry guy here,” the big agent says, arms crossed, “turns out, you played in a pretty angry punk rock band.”
“Post-punk,” Ben says.
The big agent furrows his brow, the shorter agent starts to say something, but gets cut off.
“You said you weren’t political.”
“Punk isn’t…and we weren’t…look, that was, what, ten years ago? I was a kid. Angry, sure, but what kid isn’t angry. Right?”
“Lot’s of kids aren’t angry,” says the big agent, “you come from a nice family, went to a fancy school…”
“It was a state school.”
The agent glares, then continues, “A pretty fancy school. Lots of kids who had those opportunities wouldn’t be angry. And lot’s of people aren’t. Wouldn’t be here, sitting here, having committed a federal felony.”
“I was selfish, you know, narcissistic. I didn’t think about anyone else. It’s easy to be mad when you do that. I was angry, just about personal things. I didn’t see any bigger picture.”
He surprises himself. He’s told the truth. The short agent, sensing an opportunity, says, “And now?”
“And now I do. Now I just worry about local stuff, things I can help with, like working here.”
The shorter agent nods at his colleague, satisfied. They fill out a few more forms. Ben signs away his privacy rights: medical records – to see if he’s been on prescription drugs or treated for mental illness – and the rights to search his house and car. Ben figures, what’s the point? They aren’t Vampires. They don’t really need permission to come in. The forms – like the questions – aren’t real. They’re tests. To see if you’ll behave. To see if you’ve learned your lesson.
Ben signs them.
Now Ben sits alone in his apartment – still unsearched, unraided by black-clad, armored government forces – and drinks a beer, strumming a strange chord on the guitar.
The gods are all quiet, hushed. When the old Volcano god of the desert shows up, all hellfire and whirlwind, even those brash Nordic types slink off. It’s just the trickster gods, who stick around. Loki. Dolos. Coyote. Even they’re pretty rattled.
Coyote, who is doing his best cat imitation to keep his profile low, scratches behind his ear. Ben looks at him.
“You’re really chickenshit. You should have given them what-for. You didn’t break the law.”
“I kind of did.”
“Horseshit on toast! You didn’t threaten anyone.”
“I offered -“
“Right, well, they only way your threat was real, would be if someone took you up on it, and I think he’d be in a bigger tub of hot shit than you.”
“You’re a lawyer now?”
“Hey. When you’ve been on the receiving end of as many treaties as I have, you start feeling your way around the legal tongue, you know?”
Ben sips his beer.
“Well, you’re hiding in a cat suit, so, there’s that.”
Coyote cocks his head at him.
“You’ve got to be smarter. Or at least less literal. That’s the thing about the big G. Super fucking literal, that one.”
“What, so now I’ve got to be a magical realist?”
“God I hate that term. That term is fucking racist, did you know that? And reductive. No. I’m saying, be smarter, okay, smart guy. After all, you went to a pretty fancy school.”
Ben sips his beer and smiles.
“Next time be smarter.”
“Next time I’ll be smarter.”
Coyote smiles, and then – distracted by the glint of a Christmas ornament under the couch, bolts across the room and disappears.