The 1983 Advisor
By Susan Daitch.
Seen from a helicopter, the volcano looked dormant, though according to volcanologists, earthquakes may be simmering under the surface, creating the potential for a fantastic combination of super violent lava flow and an end-of-days earth shaking that no man-made or natural structure could possibly resist. When shifting tectonic plates meet massive eruption, the whole twist of an isthmus will be reshaped so drastically, all present maps will look like Magellan’s semi-accurate projections. I mentioned this to my traveling companion, a man who flies down regularly. He introduced himself as Norton. Apocalyptic forecasts, it turns out, are something he has a keen interest in. The president attends his services, and he stays at the palace where he is served steak au poivre and glasses of iced tea. No alcohol for him, and always be sure, he said, when you get to the city, any ice you consume is made from bottled water. His organization has bibles translated into native languages and dialects. It is someone’s job to translate English into Berber or Omani or Tzotzil or Quiché, and someone else’s job to oversee the translation, to be certain, for example, that Ixtil, goddess of the moon in her jade ear plugs and jaguar skins, isn’t substituted for whichever saint comes to mind. Speaking of world leaders, he went on, he had been particularly taken with our own president’s speech in Orlando about what he called the focus of evil in the modern world. He tapped out Ina Gadda da Vida against the window with an empty soda can. Norton treated the pilot as if the man were a cab driver, bantering about never eating fruit on the street because you don’t know where the knife has been, all the while the pilot steering towards the mountain. As we banked, for a few minutes we were so low, you could see trees occupied by troops of scrappy spider monkeys, or an ocelot stalking a macaw, then we ascended again. I didn’t tell Norton I’ve visited the volcano before, and have in my pocket a piece of basalt shaped like a profile of a man’s head that I found in the foothills. I like to imagine, from time to time, that it’s a greatly compressed fossil, something rare and inexplicable. How did this shrunken head wash up here, as out of place as an oceanic trilobite uncovered by a rockslide in the Sierra Nevada? No one knows.
The hotel in the city has the same orange logo as its counterparts in cities to the north. Cheap Viceroys are sold in the lobby. The porter brought in my bags and turned on the television. I turned it off. Out the window I have a view of a billboard advertising a Dodge Dart though some panels were missing, still, it lit up at night, and the blinds don’t close, so it’s impossible to sleep. The hotel is not far from a coffee processing plant, and at night I can hear sounds of grinding, and my room is filled with a dense coffee smell, so I turned on the television.
The President was in the middle of a speech when someone with a deep but feminine voice cut in, jamming the broadcast. Naturally I couldn’t hear him, but he gesticulated wildly, so I suppose he must have been told what was happening. The woman’s voice, pitted against his theatrical seizures, revealed that insurgents had taken over a northern province. He couldn’t have known it, but the president, as he flapped around, sort of cross-eyed, he looked like Jerry Lewis standing before a hedge of sugar cane, an image of hysteria and daffiness, frustration and just-wait-till-I-get-my-hands-on-you sadism. I made a note about pieces imported and grafted on, an idiosyncratic hybrid which throws a peculiar light on the original recombinant parts. I fell asleep with my clothes on, and when I woke there was a glass of a pale red liquid at the foot of the bed along with a plate of half-eaten eggs. I inhaled the unidentified drink and took a sip: watery Cinzano, ice melted. I have no memory of how any of this got into my room.
The next day a driver came to pick me up to take me to one of the houses of detention. A small package of tacos made of multi-colored bubble gum dangled from the mirror along with a pine tree air freshener. The man spoke excellent English, and he told me that since we were running a bit late, we would take a short cut. At first it was, I admit, a pleasant drive. As we drove uphill, the views of the bay were spectacular. The city is surrounded by another, a shantytown, houses made of cardboard and flattened metal drums. I read the lexiconical stacks as I was driven through: a Coke crate house, the refrigerator box estate, one on top of the next. Then we encountered a large crowd, filling what passed for streets here, more like dirt roads. The driver apologized. It was a shorter route, this way, he insisted. At first I thought we had entered a parade, not aware of the funeral inside, within the procession. Finally we reached paved streets again and orderly blocks, but the crowd had only increased. The marchers or mourners cut across in front of us. Drivers and soldiers jumped out of vehicles, yelling and firing shots into the air, shouting threats. Pallbearers tripped. The coffin only turned upward slightly, but through its glass window, head nearly severed, a brown-red sutured smile under the jawbone was visible. Women carrying clay figures, candles and saints resting on bases made of tin cans and license plates, ran towards our car. Figures and candles toppled, and I thought we would pitch over. But there was no riot, but I knew if pulled from the car and trampled so close to the perimeters of the paper city, I’d never be heard from again. In the chaos, the president would tell the news cameras we had been ambushed by guerillas in the mountains, no trace of our bodies, sorry. A few more coppersmiths or roadside orange merchants would be picked up and sent to houses of detention. Perhaps he would say we were swallowed by lava from a volcano long considered extinct.
We arrived at the house of detention even later than anticipated. I examined cells and through a two-way mirror watched an interrogation. The man was semi-conscious, and his speech was a combination of lucidity and baloney. He kept repeating Baldwin, Parker, McEnroe, Evert. A sports fan. The interrogator was heavy-handed, lost his nerve in his anger, and obtained nothing. I would have given him a failing grade. With my students I use the example of a creaking door at night. You can imagine all kinds of possibilities, but in fact, a door is just a door. Some of the interrogators, if not properly trained, think there’s something oracular in this kind of speech, they get spooked or overreact. Others say to themselves: this isn’t actually happening, it’s a splatter movie, a snuff film based on the Chilean model. Professional distance is the desirable norm.
When asked how I demonstrate for my students, I was happy to respond. I stand in front of the classroom, do not straighten my tie, do not check my zipper, do not scratch or touch any of my own body parts. I ask for a volunteer. I look into the group, at each of them, but at no one in particular, and I wait. Someone always steps forward. No matter how many minutes pass. There is always a volunteer to do the job.
We took a lunch break. The prison warden has a male cook who made hamburgers. I poured too much ketchup on mine and sent it back. A radio, turned low, played as we ate. I could make out Tutti Frutti by Little Richard and I’m a Girl Watcher, followed by a man and woman who, much to my surprise, identified themselves as associates of Norton’s sponsoring organization. It’s as if they are in the room, giving advice and reassurance. I spun an empty beer bottle on the table. I’ve heard it all before. The warden offered me a Viceroy, and though I don’t smoke, I accepted. He said he advised guards not to use the captives as ashtrays. He keeps a doctor present during interrogations to insure that the prisoner doesn’t die prematurely. From time to time a particular kind of interrogator will cut off the inmate’s ears and tongue to prevent them from speaking in this world or any other. This is an ancient native practice found far to the south, as well, and it suggests, when the body is dumped, that the insurgents, not the army, wielded the knife. He tries to impress upon the outgoing squads the value of taking prisoners who, under duress, will provide information. I would like to photograph or videotape these sessions for instructional purposes, insisting I will mask faces to conceal identities, and was courteously informed I could do anything I wanted to. The warden, a man with an artificial tan and a waxed head, is very keen to be seen as accommodating.
Imagine this blue Formica tabletop, embedded with flecks of glitter and the outline of a Sinusoidal orange peel map of the world, a leftover from UN salvage, maybe, well, imagine it is a representation of a vast ocean, a topographical set up – islands and continents rising from its depths. The coffee pot is a fortress for an evil empire of fat and lazy mosquitoes, a cluster of handcuffs are their arsenal, their uranium enrichments plants. The ashtray, butts stubbed out, a few still smoking, that’s their quarrelsome, but by and large, useless parliament. I shifted my plate with the ridge of coagulating meat juice, near the cuffs. It functions as a Star Wars style shield to fend off incoming missiles. The warden and one of the guards joined in the game, moving calipers (futuristic submarines) and electric cables (the intelligence center). Forks, spoons, knives, when heaped together are designated the locus of a primitive, yet effective proxy aggressor, covert with excellent dissimulation skills. We laughed and parried, but in the end it wasn’t much of a game because, after all, we’re very much on the same side, and it’s difficult to suspend disbelief, even in games, and take on the role of adversaries. The warden spent time attending a training program outside of Atlanta, and he stores a stack of newspapers close by which he reads to keep up his English. I scanned the headlines, visible at the fold line of the stack: Baldwin, Parker, McEnroe, Evert, the opening of Tokyo’s Disneyland, launch of the Soyuz T-8, the discovery of the Hitler diaries, nuclear testing, the French in the Muruora Island, USA and England in Nevada, a suicide bomber killed sixty-three at the American embassy in Lebanon. That is where I am to be sent next.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Daitch is the author of five books, most recently, Paper Conspiracies (City Lights) and Fall Out (Madras Press). Most information about her work can be found at: www.susandaitch.com
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 3rd, 2013.