Sam and Alison have landed. Sam said everything is fine there, but that there was a lot of talk on the plane about war. She asked me about it, if that was why the soldiers were at the airport. I told her probably, but that there’s nothing to worry about. I think that’s the truth, as I plan to be out of here before hell breaks loose.
Sam and Alison are on a plane bound for Kalamazoo. Lucky them. I would have been sitting next to them except for my clients.
I’m here tapping at my keyboard because I’ve got so much to say that I don’t know where to start. I’m not even sure I’ve got the words, but let’s give it a shot.
The airport was littered with military. They were everywhere. It was like the fucking president was flying in. It was that kind of tight. And their eyes were on everybody, especially Hispanics, like Sam.
Security all but stripped my wife naked. (She looked at me like she was scared, something I never see in that woman; she holds her shit tight.) From behind the chains, I silently told her that it was going to be okay. She smiled, but not like she believed it. The guards noticed the connection and glared at me like I was interfering with their work. Fuck them. When they were done with her, she disappeared into the terminal. Her tiny soft hand waved as she passed behind the wall.
I waited and watched until her plane left the ground. I always do that, always stay to make sure. Tradition. I’ve done it since her first flight down fifteen years ago. But tonight was different. Tonight felt like I had to be there, like she needed protection. I’m not going to relax until she calls from Kalamazoo.
By the time I left the airport, half the flights on the Departures board had been cancelled. They were ticking off like clockwork. The place was a madhouse.
I texted Sam after she boarded. I want her going straight home from the airport. I texted Jason, too. I asked him to keep an eye on the house. Sam’s a thousand miles from the border, but I don’t care. She’s my wife and I’m not there. And when hell starts coming down, you’ve gotta make sure your bases are covered.
I’ve called Jesse and verified. We’re still on for our client tomorrow in Austin. Business as usual. If the lid doesn’t blow on this place (read that: if the ISA doesn’t invade Mexico), we’ll knock out the Thursday meeting in Houston, too, then I’m forever done with the Independent States of America.
I hate funerals. I hate the feeling of solitude within a crowd. I hate the duty I feel to feel even sadder than I am. I hate how the minister reads words that are supposed to comfort but instead bore. I hate standing within the mourners while people off to the side laugh as if they’re above our responsibility to grieve – or maybe I’m envious of their nonchalant disregard of the moment. Most of all, I hate that I couldn’t share a beer with Ramiro as I endured this day in his honor.
At the cemetery, his brothers flanked their mother as she looked down at her son’s casket. She’s sobbing as the minister says “Amen.” She’s sobbing that she doesn’t want to leave her boy. The brothers fight to hold her back as she drags them toward the grave. The minister could have left his printed list of relatives stashed inside his Bible, because through her grief, Ramiro’s mother said all that needed to be said:
A woman buried her baby today. He might have been thirty-five. He might have weighed more than two of her. He might have drunk like a fish and made love like a war criminal, but he was the infant she held and nursed and then taught his ABCs. No minister can comfort that. No minister can lend more profundity than that. 99.99% of the planet might not give a damn that Ramiro Garza is dead. But one person does. And she feels enough pain for all of them.
We’ve landed in San Antonio, are at the hotel preparing to leave for the funeral home. But first, about our arrival:
Passing through customs, I was greeted by a fat dude who scanned my passport and checked his screen. These were his words, verbatim, “How’s your blog? I hope you like us better this visit.” They know who I am? Sam said they looked at her strangely, too, like she was a suspect.
I assume Tall Ernie or Freckles filed some type of report. But why? I’m a nobody web developer! This is seriously fucked up.
We’re checked-in at AZO waiting for the boarding call. We fly to San Antonio in 55 minutes.
Sam and Alison are coming back to Michigan Tuesday night. I’m staying in Texas into the weekend, as Jesse and I wrap my final two southern contracts and I take care of the grunt work required of USA citizens closing their ISA businesses. I’ll drive to Mother’s Thursday night. I fly home Saturday.
I’m not sure what to say about this next 24 hours except that it’s gonna blow. A great guy and a good friend was knifed in an Oklahoma parking lot. We look at his dead body tonight. We throw dirt on his corpse tomorrow. Then we walk away.
The police say they don’t have any leads in Ramiro’s murder, but that it looks like a botched robbery. Two carloads of Mexicans, either foreign nationals or ISA citizens, depending on which news source you believe, were gunned down within twenty miles of the WalMart where Ram was knifed. And then there’s the racist epitaph carved into his forehead that I won’t repeat here. The cops think a bored thief stuck around to practice his calligraphy?
No, the people who killed Ram were lowlifes searching for Latinos to murder. And in a country where citizens are so frequently and effectively manipulated by its conservative media, one wonders how much more pervasive is that prejudice, how many good people who would never physically harm anyone have been ushered into that same bigotry (like they believed Obama was a Muslim, wasn’t an American, was a Socialist)?
Textbook brainwashing: 1) Convince your hostage that outsiders can’t be trusted. 2) Convince them only you can be trusted. 3) Convince them that you have unique insights. 4) Fill them with lies. 5) Repeat.
The media tells the country its problems aren’t due to slave wages, are not from the lack of an effective safety net, were not caused by a taxation rate that gives the wealthy a relative free ride and crushes the middle class. No, the cause of their woe are the people who cut their lawns and babysit their children. It’s eerily reminiscent of 1939.
That’s why Sam and I left. For no matter how much they talk about Jesus and patriotism and the sanctity of human life, the leaders of the ISA are narcissists with a survival of the fittest agenda and a propaganda machine that rivals the Third Reich. And as far as we were concerned, it was better to flee to London and lose our life than stay in Berlin and lose our soul.
We land in the ISA in 4.25 hours.
Ram’s mother emailed me. He’ll be buried Tuesday in San Antonio. Visitation will be from three to seven on Monday.
Alison is inconsolable. Sam is quiet, in her room reading. I don’t know how I am. The three of us will fly out tomorrow morning.
Loss isolates. It’s something you have to process. Mortality is a difficult equation.
On the other side of this screened porch, people are skiing and laughing on the lake. The sounds carry across the water. I can hear Jason and his dad working on his boat at his father’s dock. The neighbors on the other side – I think their name is Fox – are discussing their kid’s birthday present. It’s unsettling how life continues unencumbered when one of us falls.
Ram was one person out of seven billion. I did the rough math: If 100 people are impacted by his death, 0.0000014 percent of the population cares that he’s dead. Fewer will truly miss him, maybe twenty. 0.00000028%. And if he’s lucky, ten will cry a year from now on the anniversary of this death. 0.00000014%. 150,000 people will die today. How many did you know? Do you care that they’re dead? Like a grain of sand being carried into the ocean, Ramiro’s existence was for all practical purposes unnoticed. To 99.9999986% of the population, he never existed, never took a breath, was never loved, dead long before this. Less than dead.
For those of us who know someone who died today, we will go eat tonight, tell some stories about our friend, and that will lead to conversations about other things. Then, in a week or two, we will be focused on the road ahead not the body that lays in our tracks. And soon, very soon, that gash from today will heal, and life will be like it was, almost like it was.
I feel guilty that I won’t feel this pain next month nor maybe in two weeks. Possibly not even on Friday.
With Ramiro’s death, I’m not in the right head space for this. Questions next week. Take care.
I received a phone call. Ramiro is dead.
I’m assuming Two-Hundred Pounds of Fun is drunk and/or getting laid or buried deep within a dark Indian casino somewhere. But old boy needs to answer his phone, and now.
Sam and Alison are in the lake bitching about how cold the water is. It’s 63 degrees outside, they didn’t think the water would be cold?
With the weight of the new hire off my back and the house coming together, I’ve spent a couple hours pouring over blogs that aggregate ISA underground media.
I never really saw myself as the type who would go searching for alternative news, but with Mom and my friends still south, FOX in the ISA’s back pocket, and CNN disallowed from veering too far from the party line without risking its license, it’s like the only “truth” you can get, anymore, comes from sites like these (and the deep web, when I’m feeling adventurous). It’s not like the ISA’s China, but neither is it the USA. Actually, their ethic reminds me a little of the lockstep culture of A&M. (That settled atmosphere was one of the things I loved about the school.) But when you take that to a national scale, it strikes me that authoritarianism is a single “lockstep” away. Anyway, three stories stood out today from the aggregators:
The build-up along the Mexican border. Everything I read said the build-up has slowed, but that the border is so saturated with weapons that no more are needed. Texas could strike tomorrow, if it wants to, yet I’m getting extremely nervous about the alternative. I think everybody up here is. That defense treaty binds us to the ISA like a bad lover, and it could land us in the middle of that fiasco if Mexico gets nervous and pulls the trigger first or the ISA successfully pulls a Gulf of Tonkin. Either of those scenarios, and the USA is in the ISA’s mess. (The way it’s looking, the best we can hope for is that the ISA strikes first so we’re off the hook.)
More Mexicans killed. I would have passed over this post a couple weeks ago. A blog called Flatlands Anarchy reported that another group of Mexicans was killed near Tulsa. The locals said the dead were ISA citizens. FOX, meanwhile, claims they were illegals. The picture on the blog showed a bullet hole-ridden car eerily reminiscent of the Chevy that Sam and I saw. One photo showed a small Mexican flag decal on this old Impala’s back window. And ISA plates.
Abortion. Arizona closed the ISA’s last abortion clinic yesterday. I’m a dude and married, so abortion will probably never play into my existence. But there’s something creepy about a government comprised primarily of men telling women they have to remain pregnant for nine months. I can see begging a woman to carry it if it was mine, but a government telling her she has to makes me uneasy.
Enough regurgitating. I have to mow the lawn. (Unlike in parched Austin, we actually have a lawn here – and it’s green! How effing cool is that?)
It took seven interviews, but I found my coder: mid-twenties, small (looks like a seventh grader) and smart. This chick is a rock star: a computer science grad from Notre Dame with a concentration in media computing, she graduated with a 4.0 and a skill set that dovetails with our goal of increasing our delivery of online video. And with deep family connections in the region’s business community, she’s a coder with benefits. Her name is Tallah.
With our programmer on-board, it’s amped up my realization of how behind we are. We have too much hardware to hook-up, too many cables to run, too much crap sitting around boxed up to wait until next week to get on it. So I’ve told Alison to find her work clothes and prep for a weekend of manual labor. I’ve texted Ram, too, and suggested that he move his schedule up a day, “Stash the Jack Daniels in your fucking suitcase and hit the road. Please?” (That was pleasant enough, yes?) I have yet to hear back.
Alison crashed at our place last night, and we’ll probably have her for at least one more night; she’s loving the lake.
She followed me up to Kalamazoo this morning to check out the new digs. She said she liked them. She should, they’re sweet: fifth floor, 800 SF, two-sides windows, a good view of downtown Kalamazoo. It “feels” right. After the tour, she took off to go look at the apartment she reserved online and I gave Ram a shout. He said he was already in Oklahoma, the land of the Native Americans. And casinos. (Yep, definitely Sunday.)
The first interview was at ten. I’ve followed the recent trend and placed Rowlandville’s city and state of origin in my help wanted ad. The concept makes sense: Employees from the same region keep the corporate culture intact. With that in mind, I’ve interviewed two UT grads, one Tech Raider, and one self-taught coder from Houston. One made my final three, but no one yet has had that “spark.” Next up, some local talent. (That did not come out like I intended.)
Allison’s plane was early, and we’ve made our way to the Kalamazoo MAD lot. Now here we sit because while her car arrived yesterday, it hasn’t been processed. (Yes, it belongs to a USA citizen. No, it isn’t filled with contraband. Yes, it will be paid off before September 15, 2015.) While we wait, she’s calling family and I’m writing this post.
Tonight begins the process of restarting my business, but this is more than a move. It’s an entirely new economy that we have to learn, adapt to, and service. The Divide has changed everything, and there’s going to be a lot to process. The goal is survival while we learn the new terrain.
In America before The Divide, and in Texas, specifically, relatively little was regulated. It was a free for all. Yeah, there was a minimum wage, but what does seven bucks an hour get you but a second job? Even in my line of work, website development, you could get inexpensive help because employees could live cheaply. And because they’ve ridded themselves of a minimum wage, that’s especially true in the ISA. But that’s not the case here. In the USA, people are paid a living wage. And that means every labor intensive business is going to be cutting back on non-labor expenses, looking for deals from the businesses that service them – like mine. Meanwhile, my employees have to be paid more because everything, every fucking thing, is going to cost them more. The apartment Alison found is twice what her rent was in Austin for a third less space. That requires me to pay her $15,000 more a year. Add the increase in her other living expenses, and I’m out $25,000 additional per year for each of my three employees – $75,000 out of my pocket in an environment where every client is going to be trying to jack my prices down. It’s going to be brutal until September 15th of next year, when it’s going to get worse. That’s when collective bargaining begins easing into law. Expect strikes, further wage increases, and higher prices, plus more squeezing blood from turnips like me as my clients try to cut their costs and save their bottom line. The next 5-10 years is going to be a roller coaster while the USA tries to crank up the middle class. For me, that ride starts in twelve days. Between now and then, baby steps.
Step One: Have the office bare bones operational by Monday. To that end, I’ve put off my trip to Austin. Flying down this week had been a dumb idea. Too much to do here.
Alison’s car is processed. We’re ready to roll.
Sam and I are living in a universe of U-Haul boxes. It’s like the Rocky Mountains of cardboard. At best, we have enough cookware to eat and enough bedding to sleep (indoors). Anything beyond that is scattershot. There’s work to do.
Alison sent me a text that she’s in Atlanta. After a massive layover, she’ll be landing in Kalamazoo at nine. Meanwhile, Ramiro emailed that he’s driving out tomorrow with an ETA of Friday. “Unless the casinos beckon.” So I expect him on Sunday.
With only two of my crew of three coming to my company’s new home base, I’ve got a slot to fill. I interview web programmers tomorrow and Friday to fill that slot. If I’m lucky, I’ll have him/her hired by the weekend, and will fly out Monday to close my old business’s doors.
I mentioned a few months back that Jesse was staying in Austin. Now that we’re officially parting company, I want to send him off with the respect he deserves:
And now back to boxes…
It’s midnight. And despite plans to the contrary, we just spent the entire evening rummaging through boxes. It’s strange how compelled you feel to start unpacking the second the boxes arrive.
With that behind us, Sam is giving me one more night on the lawn; this time, though, there will be no performance for the old plumber next door – except for the small swimsuit she bought for our trip to Padre last year. (There are suits that make a man want to rip them off his wife the second she puts them on. This is one of those suits. You’re welcomed, Mr. Vanderwier.) But while she said she wanted a midnight swim, I was thinking she over committed when she got into the water, “Shit, that’s cold!” I asked if she was wimping out on me, and that was all it took. She braced up, submerged, and came up so far from shore that she was almost out of sight. I asked if she was doing all right. “Why wouldn’t I be?” And then the sound of another splash. There’s no one easier to manipulate than a competitive woman.
Sam is brilliant in so many ways. She has an IQ that would embarrass most college professors. Her pedigree includes a stint on Jeopardy! And she’s beautiful, too, with the looks and bright demeanor that had every (literally every) guy at the party I hosted for her asking how in the hell I snagged her. To their question, I still don’t know.
She lived 2,036 miles away the first time we emailed. She had responded to an online personals profile I placed on a dating site and subsequently forgot. In it, I mentioned Al Franken, Woody Allen, and P-Funk, and how I wanted to meet a woman who made my toes curl. Three weeks after her letter, a long-haired brunette disembarked at Austin’s then-small airport, and my ten toes turned under as if on cue. I had met my wife. We moved in together four months later.
It’s been fifteen years since that first email, yet as I watch her in that small suit swimming in that cold water, it feels like the first day all over again. We still have moments like that. And while I have my foibles and she has hers, we love each other’s company, which seems to bridge the gap during even the worst times.
As I type these words, she’s quietly calling me into the water. But not tonight. Tonight I want to watch and remember.
The doorbell rang at half past seven. In front of me a guy my age with broad shoulders and a barrel chest. I had six inches on him if I had a centimeter. I’ve always been taller than him, but he’s always had more bulk. That bulk is how the little fucker used to take me down; not once during our childhood had I beaten Jason Vanderwier in a wrestling match, and I still couldn’t now.
Michigan personalities have grit. It’s that blue collar GM line worker kind of grit that will buy you a beer or punch you in the face, whichever you need. And for as long as I’ve known Jason, he’s had that sort of hardscrabble soul. Even as a seven-year-old, he looked at the world like he wasn’t going to take its shit. “What do you need a hand with?” he asked when he recognized my recognition of the friend I hadn’t seen since high school.
The guy with the thick calloused hands and buzz cut came from a long line of plumbers, but he took a detour into machinery, and he was a natural. (He once put a 1966 Dodge pickup body on a duck, one of those military amphibious vehicles. He was fourteen at the time.) A guy like that might just come in handy to a pair of new owners of an old home. I asked him if he wanted a beer.
On the porch over bottles of Milwaukee’s finest, Jason said he lived three houses down and heard a couple weeks back that Sam and I would be moving in. “I wanted to give you time to get your feet planted before I showed up unannounced. Then this afternoon my parents told me that it looked like you two had settled in. They live next door.” He nodded to his left, “The gray house.” He took a swig from his bottle and let that sink in.
He went on to tell me that he married, too, right out of high school to Amy Wallace, the head cheerleader. A less likely pair you’ve never met: She was a small town princess and he hadn’t enjoyed a day without 10W30 under his nails since elementary school. Yet somehow they’d made it work. Five kids. Two in college. Funny how matches are made and turns taken that you never see coming. He asked again what he could do to help.
I told him that his skill with tools would no doubt come in handy, but that we were still at the box stage and that Sam wouldn’t be thrilled at me bringing in outside help before she’d located all her bras. He said he understood, that Amy would be the same way.
We ended the night with a handshake. He said to give him a call and that they wanted to have us down for supper. I’m looking forward to that, but I’m kind of hoping his parents aren’t there.
Sam and I spent the night on the back lawn to the sound of small waves washing up from the lake. Both sets of neighbors could have seen us, I’m sure, if they’d wanted to, while we played in the lake and slept near the shore.
My dad worked as a right-of-way agent for pipeline companies. That meant that he dealt with landowners before and sometimes during construction, and then he moved on to the next line. It’s a transitory business, and the men are often lonely. But until I hit kindergarten, my father wasn’t one of those men. Mother was raised Baptist, and Baptist women like my mother are a loyal lot. Where Daddy went, Mother went. And once I was born, I went, too.
In the fourteen years before my birth, they lived in something like twenty states. After my birth, we lived in another six. Then I hit school age.
I began kindergarten in Muncie, Indiana. I finished it in Three Rivers, Michigan. Mother and I didn’t move again until I was sixteen, and the only reason we did was because Daddy had almost died in Iowa when his ulcers ruptured and he came close to bleeding out in Tipton. One doctor said he thought the cause was loneliness, although I’m sure Daddy’s drinking didn’t help. Either way, Mother swore she would never again let him go off and work a job alone. So when he got the gig in Nebraska, she and I moved.
Now Sam and I have moved, too, for the first time as a couple, and boxes are everywhere. But we’ve agreed: We take it light tonight, maybe do a little dancing (I’ve hooked up the stereo), and then head to sleep. As far as sleep, if I can talk her into it, we’re spending one last night by the water before we put our bed to use. Eat your heart out people who stared at us while we got busy in the water. Yeah, old man in the gray house, I’m talking to you.
Mayflower’s here, and not a minute too soon. I’m out of underwear.
The house was built in 1934 for a Chicago attorney and his family as a vacation home. It has two stories plus a walkout basement. It sits on one lot, lakeside of a narrow residential road five miles from town, one mile from orchards, a vineyard, a strawberry field. Its backyard opens to a bright green lawn that connects to a six hundred acre sport lake. The lake is spring fed. Inside, there are three small bedrooms and one slightly larger. It has two bathrooms. All the rooms have the scent of mothballs and aged wood; the bedrooms, cedar. Soon, that scent will be less obvious as it will have become familiar. In the basement, there is an open shower and the dock, which sits stacked upon itself, yet to be placed in the water for the season. Between the home and the small one bedroom cottage across the street, the road angles easily upward. It rises to other old homes, like this one surrounded by old trees, primarily maple. On that road was where I first learned to ride a two-wheel bicycle. I was six. My father, now deceased but then big and strong, ran alongside me as I learned to ride like a big boy. In that cottage, then white but now a light moss green in color, he and I traded nights sleeping with my mother and on the glassed-in back porch. The door to that porch is the one I broke when my parents were out of town for the day and rumors of the dogcatcher spread along the road. That beagle, her name Mitzi, would die come winter when a snow plow wouldn’t see her. It left blood in the snow that I was forbidden to see. She was only one of two dogs we owned in a series of loved and pampered animals that we were not sorry was gone. Her barking was incessant, without cause, and wound my high-strung father into a man no one liked being around. No matter how much she irritated us, though, she was my dog, and my job at six-years-old was to keep her from the pound and certain death. And so I shattered that glass door with a mop handle but was tattled on by my younger accomplice, and his mother forced me to sit for three hours until my parents got home on her porch, this very porch which now belongs to Sam and me.
Gas. Pee. Tampons. Chocolate.
Garry gave us the news over breakfast. He and Dutch are moving west to Colorado, to the ISA. I thought it was a joke, until I looked to Dutch, who was nodding.
My first response was the obvious: Why in the hell would two gay men move to a country that permits people to commit homosexual family members to 3o-day “treatment” against their will? “We’ll be okay, our families live here,” Garry laughed. Dutch grinned. Garry saw that his joke wasn’t enough. I wanted a serious answer. “Because homophobes have gay kids, too. They need advocates.”
I reminded him that while it wasn’t illegal there yet, with their right wing Christian congress, it could be. He said he knew, but that when you’re a kid, legal is sometimes worse that illegal, “If it’s illegal, you know that’s bullshit. But when it’s legal and socially condemned, that’s when it fucks with you. That’s when you stop questioning the law and start questioning yourself. They need us.”
I kept arguing. I don’t remember what I said, exactly, only that it was aggressive. I was mid-rant when he put his hand on mine and reminded me that the deadline had passed. They’re citizens of the ISA.
I was sixteen when my father took the job in Kearney, Nebraska. A 36″ oil pipeline was being laid across the southern half of the state, and he was going to be the land man, the guy who bought rights-of-way from landowners. He moved in April. Mom and I followed from Michigan at the end of the school year. I met Garry within 24-hours of my arrival.
Garry’s and mine was an arranged introduction. Daddy wanted to make sure I had a friend, and Garry was the kid who mowed our lawn. Match made. We became best buds.
My tall new friend was ridiculously good looking and the quarterback. He would also become the valedictorian. Garry was that guy.
His female counterpart was a blonde named Lori. Lori was 5’4ish with generous curves and some of the brightest blue eyes I’ve ever seen. Her hushed voice – God-given, not affected – drove us boys crazy. She was nice, too, like Mormon kind of nice.
After high school, I followed my parents to my dad’s next gig in Texas, where we were originally from, and Garry went off to the University of Nebraska. It’s been rare that we’ve seen each other since then, but the connection is still there. It will always be there.
Making up for lost time, he and I were sitting on his third floor balcony looking out across the river at Omaha. (You ever notice how gay men have the best views? Weird.) Sam and Dutch were at Costco, and I was trying to get all our new electronics up to speed when this annoyingly handsome guy uttered four words. It feels like he says them every time we see each other, and they fuck me up every time. “Lori asked about you.” Shit.
Lori and I became friends our senior year, and developed that rare male-female connection that let us brush skin without blinking and hug without her feeling threatened. Her scent gave me comfort and she said she felt safe when I was around. It was that kind of relationship. Then one day, her scent wasn’t enough, and the dominoes toppled. One month later, my family moved to Texas.
The world was bigger back then. Email was still new. There was no texting, no Facebook, no Twitter. Far away was farther than now, so there was no remedy: Lori and I were friends, and then I broke us.
Letters followed my move. She wrote that she cried herself to sleep. She said she missed me. But she never said she felt the same as me. I was young, my heart was youthfully resilient, but not in that way. The letters stopped. Then came my mother’s birthday four years later.
I was at my parents place when Garry called and wished Mom happy birthday. When they were done talking, I went outside to smoke a cigarette (a guilty pleasure back then, if not an addiction) and to talk with Garry. He told me he had seen Lori. “Yeah?” I said it like news of their meeting didn’t affect me, but I swore I could smell her skin again. He told me that she asked about me and that she confided something to him that she had never told anyone: She had loved me, too, but never said anything because she had been afraid. “I was scared we would lose our friendship,” she said. Then she told him that she longed for me after I left. Longed. That was the word she used. Good God! About then, my girlfriend opened the kitchen door and told me that Mom’s cake was ready. By the time that girlfriend and I broke up, Lori had met the man she would marry.
My discovery that this feminine ideal whom I loved also loved me has proven insidious. It rears its head when Sam and I have bad days. When we’re having great days, it unrepentedly asks, “Could it be better?” And those nights after an argument as she storms away in her ugly faded sweatpants and pink Crocs, I am presented with a barrage of “what ifs” regarding the petite blonde with the perfect skin who’s never been hormonal or worn Crocs and who will always be my flawless eighteen-year-old best pal with the remarkable butt. As those thoughts consume me, my wife will invariably walk back into the room in her ugly sweats and shoes, as if the universe is making a point: This is reality, Buster. Deal with it.
On the balcony, I tell Garry that he knows it fucks with me when he tells me about Lori, “So quit fucking with me.” Then he smiles and tells me not to let it get me down, that her butt cheeks have grown to the size of yoga balls. “Really?” I ask. And then he laughs at me and says no, that she’s had three gorgeous children and is still a perfect size 4.
Sam and Dutch arrived home a few minutes later. She was wearing sweatpants and Crocs as she kissed me on the cheek and told me that she wished I had gone with them, “It’s more fun when you’re around.”
It was then I realized that I couldn’t recall Lori’s last name.
It’s time for Sunday questions. We’ve got two. Let’s go.
Jamie, Austin, TX
What do you think are the 3 best things the USA and ISA have done?
I’m not necessarily the best qualified to name the top 3 USA achievements first-hand. I’ve been there a total of three months over two years. But I’ll give it a shot.
1. Replacing welfare with workfare. No work, no check. Its value in free daycare for working moms is alone worth the price of admission, as is the self-respect it gives to its recipients. (Dollars to doughnuts the ISA runs with this within two years.)
2. The 5% contributions cap. Your total political contributions cannot exceed 5% of the median wage? This should have been done decades ago. No one should have ever have had more “free speech” than their less affluent peers. Maybe we’ll get our country back?
3. Re-instituting union protections and tariffs. By far, the riskiest thing we’re doing. Could bring the economy down around us by closing markets to our goods. On the other hand, how much worse is it than what China does, and it’s doing okay. Crossing my fingers that it works and brings the wages up for blue collar guys.
1. Allowing religion back into public life. We’re all spiritual on some level, even atheists. So it’s not a bad thing to free that up a bit as long as it’s not abused.
2. Moving regulatory agencies to the state level. It makes sense to have the agencies that are supposed to serve people closer to their constituents.
3. Returning nuclear power to the mix. Whether this is a clandestine move by the governmental folks who believe in global warming or for some other reason, it was time somebody recognized the value of modern nuclear tech.
Kate, Cleveland, OH
I’m 13. I read your blog all the time because I miss the south. (We’re from Louisiana.) You always say that the ISA wants a war with Mexico. Why?
Hi, Kate. First, I’m embarrassed because I use words in my posts that a thirteen-year-old probably shouldn’t read. Tell your parents I’m sorry about that. I’ve got a potty mouth.
To answer your question, I think the ISA wants a war with Mexico because it needs a war with Mexico. Why? Because tumbling wages are beginning to cause deflation, and that will destroy the ISA economy. The only way to fix that is to create an economic stimulus. You normally do that by borrowing money to create jobs. But the ISA is constitutionally prohibited from deficit spending except in time of war. Therefore, it needs a long protracted war in order to deficit spend their way out of the economic hole.
On a more cynical note, the way you take a population’s mind off internal issues is to create an external enemy.
And that’s the Q&A for this week. Send in your questions and I’ll give it another shot next week.
Sam and I arrived full-Amish (no phones, no tablets, no computers) at Garry and Dutch’s condo Friday morning. They took us in without warning and without question – and are letting me use one of their computers to write this post.
This is a stop that hadn’t been on our itinerary, but it should have been; Garry and I go way back. This visit should have been a no-brainer.
How We Got Here
Over lunch Thursday, Jake told me the wait at the St. Louis crossing had been pegging at 24 hours (too many people migrating to the Rust Belt), but that the crossing at the 40th parallel was taking a fraction of that. So from Joplin, MO, the four of us caravanned due north on I-49, bypassing the more direct St. Louis Exchange. In Kansas City, the Youngbloods called and told us they were stopping to fuel up. The big gold bus peeled off near Nashua, and Sam and I headed north to the parallel.
Jake had been right about the time. The wait at the ISA checkpoint was short, less than eight hours, enough time for me to pour over some client artwork and write my last blog post, for Sam to read a book, for both of us to stretch our legs on the dog walk alongside the highway and take a brief a nap.
Inbreeding’s a Bitch.
I’ve had a day or so to calm down, think Thursday through, put it into perspective. So I’m going to take a moment to admit that I know the USA has its share of pricks. Both sides have border guards that think too highly of their new country and want to make sure us expats grasp the paradise we’re leaving behind. But, frankly, I don’t give a fuck which country a badge has imprinted on it, shit is shit:
At the checkpoint, we were guided into the departure lane. A tall black guard (“Ernie”) took our IDs and scanned them, scanned our license plate, briefly inspected the vehicle. It was standard protocol that most of us have come to know far too well, the process of making sure all of us children sleep where we promised to.
Then Tall Ernie looked at Sam and asked her something in Spanish. (The curse of having a Mexican mom when you’re in Texas: You look like the people FOX has convinced the populace are ruining the country.) She didn’t answer his question, and he asks her the same thing again, something about where she was from. I think. I don’t speak it, either. In her direct New England tone that can come across as condescending to those of us not raised in the northeast, she tells him that she doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. He thinks she’s fucking with him, and we’re guided to the red lane and told to get out of the car.
1AM: Tall Ernie takes our keys and ushers us into a windowless room. He asks us to wait while they inspect our car; it wasn’t a request. He locked us in with 39 adults, seven children, and 34 chairs. At our arrival, people had been sitting or standing from ten minutes to two hours. Nobody seemed to know why, except for one of the college kids, who told Ernie to fuck off when he asked him to stop playing on his phone. Ernie had taken our phones, too.
The room was weirdly silent, especially considering none of us had our electronic babysitters. Maybe that’s why we had nothing to say, we couldn’t tweet it.
My main concern was Sam; her mind goes at a thousand miles an hour and doesn’t do well without something to keep it occupied. Without her apps, she withdrew into herself like a woman receiving last rites. She didn’t want to talk.
2AM: At the changing of the guard, a tall redhead with a face full of freckles starts pulling us out one carload at time. At 3:15, he called Sam and me into a room with a small table and a window – thank God, a window, air – and asked me what I’ve been saying about the ISA. He pushed my phone across the table. My blog was on the screen. I told him I was writing the truth. “Whose truth?” he asks. “The truth,” I told him. He asked if I knew the ISA law about news reporting and asked if I had a license. We both knew I didn’t, so I didn’t bother to answer. He stared at me like he saw some dark truth behind my silence, and that his keen observation was enough to put me away with the other infidels. (I’d like to tell you that I wasn’t terrified of him, but I’d be lying. The arrogance behind those blue eyes scared the shit out of me.)
Freckles told us that he was letting us go, then assured us that we made a “lousy” choice choosing the USA, that the ISA was going to win this war. (What war?) He gave me our keys and told us we could leave. He said he was keeping our phones, computers, and tablets “for security reasons,” but informed us we could file a request and they would be returned to us; somebody also snagged from Sam’s overnight bag the pearl necklace her grandmother brought to Newfoundland when she and her husband left their Mexican fishing village so he could fish the Atlantic.
At 4:30, the ISA simultaneously released all 48 of us into USA customs. Staffed down to three guys for the night shift, it took them three hours to get to Sam and me. (Don’t think for an instant it was a coincidence the ISA held us until the USA was short-staffed. It wasn’t.)
I’ll write more tomorrow after I buy new hardware. It’s good to be back in the USA.
Interstate 44. Traffic slowed to a stop an hour north of Tulsa. The freeway became a parking lot, not even a creep. Oklahoma Highway Patrol cruisers shot by on the shoulder; three within a span of ten minutes. Two helicopters – I assume life flight – were off in the far distance. It was obvious we were going to be there a while.
As we were waiting, Sam reminded me that we were taking off at the next exit so she could pee. “It’s not any better,” she said. I glanced around the cab for a solution and she shook her head, “Not that.” It was an interesting statement considering we hadn’t discussed what that was.
One of those million dollar motorhome buses was parked in front of us. A Provost. I studied it, then looked at her and grinned. She said no, but that she still had to pee. I hopped out of the truck, and she chided me for stepping into traffic. I yelled back that the accepted definition of “traffic” had been temporarily suspended, and then sprinted to the motorhome’s front door.
The couple in the motorhome was named Youngblood, Jake and Lucy. They were in their seventies, retired Air Force, based out of Florida but spending most of their time on the road, although they were partial to Minnesota. That was because Jake liked to fish, and he had a fascination with walleye – they apparently put up a good fight and are “damned fine to eat.” He asked me if I fished. I told him I was a little too restless for that. “USA or ISA?” I told him USA. He said he thought so. “Beer?” I looked to Sam, who’d peed and was sitting chatty with Lucy. She shrugged, and I told him yeah.
We spent the next hour talking politics. Jake was ISA but cool about it, said everybody had their flavor and every country needed at least two sides of an argument. “This divorce won’t last,” he said. “You guys need us and we need you the same way men need women and women need men. What good’s a pussy without a dick or a dick without a pussy?” I’m going to have to share that insight with our friends, Garry and Dutch, who’ve been happily pussy-free for fifteen years.
Traffic started rolling an hour after we ate lunch with the Youngbloods, and Sam and I saw the reason for the parking lot. At the side of the road, a tow truck was rolling an old small Chevy, the Mexican kind that has factory tags that read Chevy instead of Chevrolet, onto its bed. It was riddled with bullet holes, and blood was on the highway.
We’ve connected with I-20 in Cisco. Fueling up. Sam seems to be in a better place. We love car rides. I swear our marriage would be perfect if we lived in the truck. Maybe that’s the trick to a great marriage, always have wheels underneath you.
We’re going to try to make Ft. Worth by one. I want to stop and check out the new ISA capital building, but Sam says, “Hell, no!” She wants nothing to do with these guys.
Right now! A series of rapid fire cracks in the sky! I know that sound like the back of my hand from summers in Rochelle. Sonic booms. I look up, and five jets disappear south toward that Mexican border. Any day now. Hell, maybe today!
The Hams shared breakfast with us. It was great, except for that brown gravy on the biscuits. Not to be ungrateful, but gravy’s supposed to be white. That’s the Texas way, the right way. I’m gonna have to hook-up with some Texans in Michigan. I can’t be missing my Texas white gravy, and I’m too lazy (and unskilled in the kitchen) to make it right myself, while Sam, being a Yankee, refuses to make it on principle.
She’s still quiet this morning. She put on a good show for the Hams: bright-eyed, witty, a joy. But inside, she’s still hurting, and is hardly saying a word as we pack up to go.
The Ham’s are asleep, I think. Sam’s in the bedroom, silent. Some people talk shit out (me). Some withdraw into themselves (her). She’s curled up with a pillow on the bed. I came outside to give her some room.
This old porch is deep and spans half the width of the house and all the years of my life. God only knows how many evenings I spent here shelling peas listening to stories about people long dead who shared my mother’s maiden name: her wonderful grandmother, her mentally challenged cousin, her uncles younger than her father trying to find their footing like their older brother had, a grandfather who was as bad with money as my grandfather was skilled with it. And at some point during this past century, most of them lived under this roof, then lived here a second time as the stories of their virtues and vices became fodder for me to learn from. It’s weird how places take on memories. This place took on mine. These aren’t just wooden slats, anymore.
Now, tonight, there is one last memory, that of Sam and me dealing with this passing. She’s not from Texas. She’s from Maine. And added to my recollections will be how in some ways our flight is hitting this woman not from here harder than it’s hitting me. Texas was her new home. She chose it. This was where her stories would be told. And then it was ripped from underneath her by people she never knew and never harmed. I’ll move on. I’m a guy. We do that. But I think this will pain her forever.
The skies at night, are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas. (Yeah, I was singing that out loud as I typed it! Between keystrokes, clapping, too.)
The view from our tent was incredible. Above us, millions of suns millions of miles away lit up the matte purple sky. It was the kind of thing that makes you a believer in God and a total atheist both at the same time: The majesty of the physical universe, how small we are, how perfect it is without a deity, yet how surely it must mean there is one. I could spend the next year sleeping on that hard ground if you promised me the sense of perfect nothingness I felt last night.
Charles and Maggie welcomed us into their home today, asked us if we wanted to stay another night, this time inside. I don’t want to impose, but we’re taking them up on it. I have too many fond memories of my grandparents house not to spend one more night under its roof.
Charles surprised me as we were talking over lunch. He told me he was a lifelong Democrat. At his age, that means he chose to come die in the land of Republicans. I asked him why.
He snickered and asked how it would be any worse for him and Maggie than the past five chaotic years have been. I stayed quiet and let him answer his own question, and he told me that the ISA or USA didn’t matter to them one way or the other, “We’re in our sixties. We live in a town with less than fifty people. And I run sheep. How are those assholes in Ft. Worth going to impact me?” It made me wonder if our decision to move was too reactionary. My conservative friends are good people, and I’ve lived in a conservative state since I was eighteen, dealing with its politics like everyone has, like Charles says he’s going to, by living my life. So was moving really necessary? Should we have stayed? The question breaks my heart; the choice should never have had to been made.
But it was made, and it’s too late to change course now. We’ve signed on the dotted line. Our destination is in stone just like it is for everybody else. But it’s going to be one of those decisions I look back on and debate the merits of for a lifetime. Would it have been better if…?
Maybe we’ll have some inkling of the answer to that in twenty years when the repatriation ban is lifted. We’ll be older then, like Charles and Maggie, and able to come to Texas to finish our own days. But that’s then. Tonight, I sleep under this Texas roof one last time.
Sam and I pulled into Rochelle a few hours ago and met Charles and Maggie Ham. (We had only known them through documents before, the ones that sold them this property last summer.) These two folks are the ones who will carry on the ranch that belonged to my family for the past one hundred years, strangers whom I had feared I would resent for possessing this piece of my blood. My apprehension was unfounded.
Charles and Maggie are like Hallmark’s version of grandparents. Smallish and stocky, they have nice faces and are extraordinarily welcoming. My concern that I would resent them has been vanquished. Instead, I’m developing an affinity for them. These are exactly the kind of people I want safeguarding this thing that is so much more to me than land.
Sam’s in the tent. I’m in the truck. Looking out from the cab, you should see what I see: the hard caliche, the jagged limestone pushing up from below, the windblown trees that have withstood nature at some of its most desolate. There’s nothing like this place with its dusting of dry white earth. On everything. Like manna. Its arid scent. No matter which side you chose, if you’ve never been to west Texas, you should remedy that. It’s perfection.
Here for one night courtesy of our hosts, we have already claimed our small piece of land. It’s in the southwest corner of the yard next to the fence that separates it from the pasture. All of seven feet square, this plot feels like it goes on for miles. Welcome to Rochelle.
Sam just tapped on the window of the truck. She wants to go for a walk. It’s a few miles down the road to our family. Generations sleep beneath this white clay. It’s time to tell them goodbye.
With a breakfast taco and two aspirin at my side, welcome to another Sunday bull session. Let’s get to it. Three questions this week, one from England. Let’s start with that.
Roger, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, UK:
Is it true that the religious right has been defanged in America(s)?
Friends of mine who’ve moved north over the past few years say the religious right isn’t a factor – probably because most of them moved to the ISA. (25% of the population down here is conservative Evangelical.)
As for here, there are more secular political parties than you can count. Conversely, almost before the Constitution was ratified, Evangelicals coalesced around just two Christian parties, concentrating their power. The result has been that both elections have skewed favorably toward the religious lawmakers – probably half the Congress holds tightly to conservative Christian beliefs. That may change over time as the number of secular parties is winnowed down. But for now in the ISA, the seventy-five percent is effectively being governed by the twenty-five percent.
Travis, Minneapolis, MN
We left Dallas two years ago. (I’m an Aggie, too. Class of ’10. Whoop!) In your opinion, what’s been the biggest change since we left?
Gig Em, Travis! Frozen your ass off yet?!
The biggest change is the anger. I can’t explain it. Old Red has what it wanted. But it’s like every day closer we get to Sep ’15, the more belligerent they get. People are getting assaulted just for being USA. And while arrests are being made (mainly younger guys who are unemployed and angry), it makes you wonder what’s going through their heads. They won! What else do they want?
Mark, Cincinnati, OH
How bad is the poverty thing? The refugees are pouring over the border here. Immigration can barely keep up.
Because Ft. Worth has left the social safety nets to the states to deal with, and because each of them is doing their damnedest to “discourage” the poor from migrating there (Texas is only giving out around $1.50 for every dollar religious groups spend on the poor, which doesn’t come close to covering the expense*), the situation is beyond bad. Lines at church pantries wrap around the block, low income workers (not to mention the unemployed) can’t afford rent, and there are more hungry and homeless people standing on street corners than you can believe – probably praying to God they’re arrested so they have a roof over their head.
This belief that the absence of a minimum wage will result in broader employment is nuts, and wages for low skill workers have plummetted like hell (or maybe to hell). It’s like a third of the population is fine, twenty percent is great, and half are varying degrees of fucked. (And FOX isn’t giving politicians any room to maneuver, blaming the low wages on Mexican immigrants.) It makes you wonder how long Ft. Worth can hold out before they admit this approach is a failure.
* In Mississippi, the state’s not giving anything toward helping the poor, and so a lot of them have made their way to neighboring states. Needless to say, the Magnolia State isn’t popular in the ISA right now.
That’s all for this week, y’all. Peace.
It was like old times last night. Drank until three. Laughed. Remembered Cindy and Devin and all the women we never had. We shouldn’t be on different sides; this is bullshit.
Breakfast tacos are helping kill the pain in my head. Remember those, my northern compadres, the real kind made by illegals that make everything better? (I think the one thing besides my friends that I fear leaving the most is Texas food.)
You’ve got to be shitting me… He’s standing across the room grinning ear-to-ear. Apparently, like rock trumps scissors, Patron trumps Cuervo. Here we go. Round two. The best weekend I’ll never fucking remember.
Later, my brethren.
I’m too old for tequila. That is all.
We arrived at Michael and Sheila’s last night. Despite the long road that still lies ahead of us, it felt like the weights fell off when we pulled into the driveway. It always feels that way when I’m around Michael.
Michael and I have been best friends since our sophomore year at A&M. Because of that plus the way things have gone, how The Divide has split so many families and friendships, how it’s even caused some small fractures in our relationship from misunderstandings and judgment, I wanted to share our memories before Sam and I leave. Thanks to all those drunk drivers who scared me into taking a few more days with my only real family.
Despite how deep our friendship runs and how right it feels being here, there’s been an unspoken thing going on since we arrived. It’s like somehow Michael and I know we might not be friends like this a year from now, maybe not friends at all in five. I hate that I’m thinking this and that it feels like he’s thinking it, too. But my gut tells me I’m right, that we’re on different trajectories, like we’re each rockets, each angled a few degrees off center, so that we’re close now but in time will be miles apart. Those of you reading this know what I’m talking about. This shit has torn us all apart.
Sheila showed us her new gun last night. She’s never owned one before and took pride in following her moron governor’s admonition to arm herself. She’s a smart enough girl, but a follower. Has been since the day I met her. And she says that she needs the Glock to protect them from Mexicans coming across the border. As she was telling us this, I looked to Michael, and he smiled like he knew it was unnecessary. But he’s not one to interfere with the motion of others, so he let her go on about their need to stay safe from illegals.
I had a run in with some Old Red at the liquor store this morning when I was in buying the Cuervo for Michael’s and my last hurrah. One of them saw my ID, asked me why I was still here, then shoved me and told me to get the fuck out. It’s Texas, there’s a lot of Old Red here. Most are cool, don’t give a damn what your politics are as long as they get their way. But a few are like this. I’ll miss our old Texas oaks and Austin’s dry as hell air that nobody thinks much about until they consider leaving, but I won’t miss the kind of attitude that makes you want to drop your bags and then drop the asshole in front of you. People are called to be better than that.
It’s 2:00pm on the 4th of July. Both sides still celebrate it, and so do I. It’s time to grab the tequila and get drunk with Michael.
Mayflower drove away with our moving pod this morning. The driver said he’ll have it in Michigan by Sunday. They’ll store it until we get there, which is going to take longer than we planned.
Sam and I are heading west to Rochelle after we leave Michael’s. We’d planned to leave straight for Dallas and I-35, but I want to see Granddad and Grandmother’s ranch before we go. It might be my last chance. Charles Ham, the new owner (from Montana, I think), said we are welcome to camp in the pasture if we want. That sounds good to me, sleeping on the ground where my mother grew up. We leave for Michael’s tomorrow.
We woke at Tony and Tara’s this morning. It was good spending the evening with friends and waking in their home. It’s the kind of thing that reminds you that you’re loved, that your universe is bigger than you and your spouse.
Looking out the window at the heat burning off the morning haze, I realized this is going to be the hardest part, leaving home. So many friends of ours are staying and had begged us to stay. But we didn’t, and the die has been cast: We’re United States citizens, not Independent States citizens, and that’s the way it has to be. The ISA’s not for us. We don’t belong here.
Tony and I spent this morning with Joe. A smart boy, he’s the reason Tony said they’re staying ’til next summer and the treaty deadline: September ’15! He said he wants Joe to graduate elementary school with his friends before they go. I get his desire to keep the boy’s universe stable, but I still think they should leave now while the California money is flowing in and home prices are high. Plus, with that shit going on down on the border, it’s just a matter of time. The National Guard’s staged like the military was before Bush went into Iraq. Better to go now before the ISA starts something with the Mexicans.
About our departure: Sam and I talked last night. The 4th is on a Friday, and that means it’s going to be a four-day drink fest with Texas celebrating its first Independence Day in the Independent States of America. Not a good time to be on the roads. So we’re staying at Tony’s two more nights, then heading to Michael and Sheila’s on Thursday. It may be the last time I ever see him. WTF?
We passed the house keys to the new owners today and prepared for the migration. Our migration, that is. Others have been migrating for a while, both to Austin and from, and the difference in the city is palpable. It’s time for us to go.
While this place that I’ve called home since my college graduation still looks the same, it’s not the same, and it hasn’t been for months. You can feel it in the grocery store, Walgreen’s, at the park along the hiking trails. It’s hard to explain the changes. It’s subtle, like the way they look at you, both the newcomers and the Old Red, as they call themselves, when you have to show your ID, and it says you don’t belong here, anymore. You see the arrogance in their eyes, like “We won.” And I guess they did. Goodbye, America. Hello, “The Divide,” as the rest of the world calls it.
We’ll be rolling out day after tomorrow after one last goodbye to our friends. We’ve talked about it, and we don’t want to stick around any longer than we have to. It hurts too much, like watching a loved one die – although it’s already dead, killed by assholes who bred division for personal fortunes.
For those of us on the outside, we saw this coming long before the divisions became intractable, and talked among ourselves about where the fear mongering could lead, what it could result in. But for the believers who had waited their entire lives for someone to tell them that they were right and that those of us who disagreed with them were wrong, for them it was the truth, as much religion as politics. For them, it was like they saw God, if God was the reflection in the mirror that validated all they believed.
But now talk radio and conservative cable have had their say, have expressed their first amendment right, and the result has been The Divide. Maybe it’s better this way. Maybe a fresh start is what we all need and what we’ve needed for a while. Maybe. But on a personal note, all I know is that by this weekend we’ll be on the road north to the new border. Funny how much more hollow this feels than if it was simply a move.