Volume 30, Number 2

Casa Padre

Daniel C. Smith

Three and a half hours—I added it all up once, and it’s three and a half hours on average, per piece. In chess, two players have sixteen pieces each, for a total of thirty-two. I carved each piece out of soap, using a straightened paper-clip and a penny with a sharpened edge, working in the late hours of the night between the guards making their rounds, with only a thin sliver of moonbeam sneaking in through one of the upper windows where the duct tape has peeled back. So—thirty-two times three-and a half—it comes out to a hundred and twelve hours. Not that I ever got to work continuously—ten minutes here, five minutes there, until I reached six thousand, seven hundred and twenty minutes, or a hundred and twelve hours. Some pieces took more time of course—that’s why I said ‘average.’ Queens, maybe six hours. Kings, even longer. I take a lot of pride in my work. Pawns only took about an hour and a half, still, it pissed me off watching the professor pinching its poor head, shaping it into a bishop so he could cheat. The old boy had never cheated before, so I knew something wasn’t right. I hoped he wasn’t starting to lose it—that somehow he’d be able to keep it together. That’s the worst part about sharing a cage with someone—whatever shit they’re going through, they’re going to drag you right along. I said cage instead of cell for a reason; we’re prisoners all right, just not in a regular prison. There’s too many of us for those—the government eminent domained almost every empty super-store and hollowed-out factory and run-down school building in the country (there were certainly plenty of each of those by then). And then they filled them up with us, keeping us separated in dog pens, just like the one my parents had bought for our border collie and never used because we didn’t have the heart to keep her outside, locked up like an—

“I blame the Mexicans, Jason,” the old man uttered.

I bit. “Pretty racist statement for such an educated man, professor. Besides, take a look around—how many Mexicans have you seen in here lately?”

“Four rows over, three pens up…”

“I thought so too, Doc, but I asked around and turns out they’re from the Reservation in North Dakota—so how do you like them apples?”

Yeah—how long since I’ve seen any Mexicans?

He moved his bishop across an imaginary line that divided his side and mine—like all boundaries and borders, they only really exist in our heads—on our imaginary board and said, “Hmmphh.”

I decided to let his third bishop on the board slide. Last thing I wanted was him getting the guards’ attention. That never ends well for anyone ’cept the guards. I kept playing, but I was really trying to figure out once and for all what the old man had done to wind up in here, in Father’s House.

Me? Jason Clarke? I couldn’t keep myself steadily employed—not much work for a carpenter these days; no one’s building much of anything—and then the drinking. I hardly ever drank when I worked full-time, but when the work dried up I started soaking up the booze like a sponge. And like the Court’s shrink testified, I have a problem with authority. My being here was inevitable. But the Doc was a real professor at a state university—hell, even I had head of Dr. Ian McGreevy back in the real world before our paths crossed in here. The old boy was famous, or infamous, I suppose, in assisting minority student groups to organize. A real thorn in the side of the administration and the establishment.

But what the hell did he teach?

Doc moved his phony bishop again and whispered, “Do you ever wonder what their long-term plans are for us, my boy?”

“I’ll be released when I have a job to be released to,” I whispered back.

He chuckled, “You don’t really believe that do you, Jason?”

When Doc reached three hundred and sixty-five days two days ago, he made a big deal out of it. How long have I been here? Let’s just say the professor wasn’t my first roommate. And no, I don’t really believe it anymore. I talked to two job counselors my first month; since then, nothing. Once in a while they take a busload of us out for some good old manual labor—but I haven’t been picked for one of those for a long time. All I know is, they can’t keep us in here forever. Everybody’s got rights; this is still the U-S of A. More or less. Eventually they’ll let us go. They let all the Mexicans go, didn’t they? They got to go home—we’ll get to go home—they can’t keep us in here forever. They built these places because of the immigration crisis—we were under attack, for God’s sake. And that’s all behind us. Like the addiction crisis—they rounded up all the addicts and held ’em in places like this, then sent ’em all to rehab for their own good. They got cured, and they went home. It was for society’s own good. The junkies were destroying our culture, just like the dis-loyalists that had to be rooted out. Our country, our culture, our very lives, we been dancing on the edge of a cliff for decades and the immigrants and the dopers and the anti-American crowds were about to push us off—steps had to be taken. They can’t keep us here forever. The president promised: all this is temporary. This is all for our own good, for everyone’s good.

“It’s Tuesday,” he mumbled.

“I can smell it, Doc” I snapped. “Smells like burned almonds, same as last week.”

Every Tuesday at this time the same odor creeps in through the air vents, winding its way through the compound, faint at first but soon enough you can’t ignore it, and every Tuesday Doc reminds me it’s Tuesday, and I always tell him the smell reminds me of burnt almonds. And he winces every time, like I’m twisting a knife in his belly when I mention almonds. Only today he doesn’t wince, he starts to cry, rocking back and forth, humming. And getting louder. And more agitated. I almost shit when I looked up and saw a guard staring us down from the security station. It was only for a few seconds but it sure as hell seemed like it was forever before he went back to other business. I was too relieved to feel sorry for whoever that business was—all the guards had stuffed themselves into the office—everyone was taking a turn.

Taking care of business.

Through his mania and spittle Doc whispered, “Era inevitable el olor a almendras amargas. Siemper e recordaba el amor no correspondido.* (It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.)

Judas Priest! My heart started racing—Number One Rule in Father’s House—you speak English or you don’t speak at all.

But somehow the world around us kept spinning like nothing happened. No one heard.

“What did you teach up at the university, Doc?”

He shrugged, “Spanish literature.”

“Seriously?” I couldn’t believe it. “Spanish literature? With a name like McGreevy?”

“My mother’s side… like too many students I allowed my studies to be directed by my passions—and not by practical employment prospects. You seemed to recognize that line—do you speak Spanish?”

Now I was shitting myself—someone had to have heard us.

“For Christ’s sake Doc, not anymore. Not anymore.”

So that was his crime—being obsolete.

Is this what it all comes down to? We deported everyone that didn’t belong here, so almost everything is a crime now? And what about the family from the Reservation? What the hell did they do—try and vote or something? Where in Christ’s name are they going to deport all the Indians to?

America. I always figured we’d go out with a bang, you know? A really big one. But we’re not even going out with a whimper. We allowed ourselves to be undone by the soft parade of technocrats and technical baubles that promised to make our lives easier. One post at a time, one like at a time, one tweet at a time, feeding us garbage, agitating our worst instincts. We grew complacent in our gilded cages with our cheap beer and cheaper weed and TV and sports and following the petty lives of pettier celebrities and… and anything that didn’t really matter so we could ignore the things that did matter.

Born free—distracted to death. But we’re not so much the land of the free and the brave anymore—more like the fenced in and the walled off, the surveilled and the monitored, the terminally connected and the permanently interfaced.

What’s next? Microchips?

Me and Doc never finished our conversation. A command came shouting from a very distorted speaker. The only word I really understood was ‘leaving.’ Guards were coming down the rows, rattling our cages with the nightsticks. They were shouting: “LEAVE EVERYTHING!”

Good enough. We’re going home—we won’t need it anymore, I thought.

They weren’t very nice about getting us lined up but I didn’t let it bother me. They were about to open the big garage type doors on the front of the building—the place was about to be flooded with sunlight. The doors were only half-way up when they started pushing us out. We marched slowly, as one, uncertain of our steps, almost blinded by the sun. And then I was outside, at the halfway point between whatever this was and whatever comes next. But I was outside, out of that damned dog pen. It’d been over two hundred days since I seen daylight. They herded us all out into the parking lot, a fleet of buses lined up to take us… home, I hope. The sky overhead is pure blue, a soft breeze blows. The sunlight hurts my eyes but the warmth feels good on my skin. No sign of smoke anywhere, but ashes dance on the wind. Everywhere ashes are falling like snow from a clear summer sky, and the smell of burnt almonds has never been stronger, and I’ve never felt sicker to my stomach.

I’m starting to think maybe we went over the cliff already—maybe a long time ago. I’m also thinking Doc maybe was a little bit right, but really the only thing you can blame the Mexicans for is being at the top of the list.

I’m too scared to admit it, but I know somewhere a fire is raging.


          *Opening line from Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez.