Out of the Cave and Down the Slope

by D.M. Kerr

 

The narrator ponders the source of creative output, and whether the act of mining that source has any value.

1. I WRITE BASED on emotional experience that has been inside me a long time and am surprised that others are willing to consider listening.

I have often come down here for the flames. Here is deep, a murky cavern. It has not tasted fresh air in many years. The flames spurt and die, casting strange shadows in the gloom. Each time I come, I gather a flame in my arms and nurse it with my breath as I return to the surface. There, it is less precious, for the light makes it difficult to see, but I offer it up anyway. I do not know if it is accepted, for once offered, it vanishes into the blank faces of my listeners. But still I offer it.

I will not keep these flames, no matter how precious they have been in years past. When I was troubled by the world, I used to bring them down here, and watch them sputter in the sickly air, but there was something sweet about each one, and from the one I had brought I would proceed like a priest from flame to flame, until the cave felt hollow and my tears flowed. But I will keep these flames no more.

“This is the cave,” Fredrick said. The gas mask added a mechanical wheeziness to his voice, but it could not hide the reverence in it.

I stooped to enter. Ahead of me, I saw pinpoints of light, a votive of tiny flames, maybe two dozen or more. Each flame sat in its own pool of blackness—the murky tar that sustained it. A few of the fields, the ones closest to us, were empty.

“I used to come here all the time,” Fredrick said. “This was my sanctuary. My     private place.”

“Why?” I asked. “Why remove them?”

Fredrick just tugged gently at the pipe of his gas mask, as if it were a beard. He knelt over the nearest flame and gazed at it for a long time. We heard nothing but the rasp of our breaths through the oxygen tanks, the faint crackle of the flames, and the occasional rumbling of the deep toxic gas that underpinned this floor.

“I think we’ll take this one.” He carefully scooped the flame and a bit of the pitch into his insulated rubber gloves. He held it as if it were an offering. The flame continued to burn, thought it seemed less confident now.

“Wouldn’t it be better to leave them here? You can always come and look at them when you want.”

“No,” Fredrick said. The ancient military green of his facemask and the attending oxygen hose gave his chin a look of firmness it lacked in real life. “There’s no joy in keeping things that others never see.”

I considered the irony of his statement when, back on the surface, and freed from our encumbrances, we lowered the small flame, practically invisible in the summer sunlight, onto a small leave and set it afloat down the stream. Would anyone even see even one? I could not imagine how.

 

 

2. I FIND THAT, even after writing about the experience, it still replays in my mind; it   never seems to shrink.

A blast of light around me. We are near, but not near enough. I rage against something inside of me, some silly decisions that have cost me. But what cost? It is nothing. There is nothing lost. Yet I rage against it. What am I seeking? What old dead dog am I trying to jab with my foot? I don’t know: It all sits beneath me, only every time and again something little floats up to the surface and I let it go.

“Damn! Damn and double damn!”

“What is it?” I ran over to where Fredrick knelt, beside one of the small flames. We had been carting flames for days now, and only a few small flickering ones remained.

Fredrick’s hands were screwed tight, not in pain but in rage. Even as I approached, he slackened them. His mask, as always,   revealed no emotion.

“Nothing,” he said, and glanced down at the flame in front of his knees. “Nothing was lost, that cannot be recovered. I tend to forget that.”

Once more I worried about that seething bubble of gas beneath the floor of this cave.

“It’s gone now.” His hands now hung uselessly by his side. “I don’t know about this one. Maybe we shouldn’t be taking any more. It won’t grow, and it won’t die. It will always be a weak flame. They’ll never be worth anything.”

“Whatever,” I said. He had no right to put this on to me. I was only the paid help. “We brought twenty to the surface. They’re all floating now. That’s enough.”

Just as I said that, something burbled in the gloop beneath our cavern, and some gas escaped. The flame flickered bright now, its yellow and ochre light reflecting on the mask’s eye outlets.

“Just wait for them. No need to get angry. We’ll take this one up and let it go. You don’t have to take any more if you don’t want to.”

 

 

3. I FEEL BOUND to move forward, even if there is no emotional reward.

Yesterday was hard, tomorrow will be hard again. This sitting on scraping noises is not going anywhere that I can see. I play rough against the handle and hold my jests to myself. No turning, held on side by side by big tuft-coated blocks.

What seemed like ages later, when all the flames had been set afloat, Fredrick took me down the old railway track. We rode a small mining trolley that must have come with the original deed. Fredrick sat in front and I sat behind of the trolley, and we said nothing for hours on end.

We followed the track through a small cutting in the grey landscape, growing ever deeper in the cut until the land fell off and we were on a berm again. The cuttings were the worse part: we could see nothing, and the walls, grey, rough shale, closed in on us unmercifully. The walls echoed the scraping sound made by the cart’s iron wheels.

“It seems like we always are trying to get back into a mine but the land won’t let us!” I yelled, over the sound.

Fredrick did not acknowledge my words, even with a shrug of his shoulders. He continued to push against the turning rod of the cart, causing us to rock back and forth against the tracks. I couldn’t tell if it were a deliberate attempt to slow us down, or if he were trying to temper his despair and anger.

 

 

4. I FEEL BOUND up by banality that permeates my writing.

How can the singers feel, I ask, when the words are so far from anything I understand? Their words are common, not turning fresh nor bleating like old tired sheep I understand them. Let me break out! Let me go! I turn from side to side but there is no turning here, only a straight scraping track that takes my time from old to new without a change: yesterday it was hard, tomorrow it is dull.

That evening we spent in a small inn that bordered the track. I had been looking forward to some good food, wine and company after the three weeks with this dour man, but I was disappointed.

Fredrick and I sat at a tipsy wooden table after the meal while a group of men near the fire sang the country’s folk songs. I don’t know if it was because of Fredrick sitting stone-faced beside me, or because of the singers themselves, but I found the songs banal and lifeless. They sang of losing love, of bright flowers, of market fairs but I found I could not connect with anything they said.

Losing love is not like this, I thought. This is window-dressing. Losing love is the dying look in Fredrick’s eyes as he sets the flames afloat on the river. How can people not know what the feeling is?

“Tomorrow?” I asked Fredrick.

“We go.” Fredrick said. “After here it is not so steep. We will both have to push.”

“Will there be fields and streams?”

“No. Only slag.”

 

 

5. I TRY TO convince myself that I should ignore this sense of fruitlessness, because somewhere in the past is the key to who I am.

But I still hope. This is a long journey. It doesn’t matter if I’m late. There are answers in the past; there are things there that, if I let the burlap open, would tell me what to tell myself. I don’t mind the fire, I don’t like it, but I don’t mind the scraping away little by little. There is a wall, I’m told. I’m told it has to come down. It will come down, I promise. And it’s a long journey.

“You didn’t appreciate the lodgings last night,” Fredrick said.

We were pushing the cart—the incline was not steep but   deceptive. The morning sun burned hot, and perspiration had formed on his ridged forehead.

“I felt unmoved. As if the landscape itself had entered through the mouths of the singers and had removed their souls.”

Fredrick grunted. “Poetic.”

“Aren’t there any trees at all? For the rest of our journey?”

“It’s a long journey.” Fredrick smiled wistfully—the first sign of hope I had seen on his face in a long while. “I don’t mind the   scraping away.”

He stopped, and the cart kept moving. Apparently we had reached a crest, although there was no sign in the landscape to confirm it.

An hour later, unannounced, a black stream appeared beside the tracks. I wondered at the debris floating on the calm water, and realized with a shock I was staring at the lights we had set afloat, at the entrance to the mine.

“There are answers in the past,” Fredrick said, when I touched him on the shoulder. “It hurts to look, but there are answers in those flames.”

I contemplated that for a moment. What answers? The flames here, in the fierce sunlight, were only barely alive. We had a long journey, I reminded myself. Something will come up.

“Fredrick, why is the water so still? It’s not as fast as our cart.”

Fredrick motioned languidly with his hand. “There’s a wall up ahead. A dam. It will have to come down.”

 

 

6. WHEN I’M NOT pushing so hard for an answer, I suddenly realize the past starts to flake off more easily.

When you believe, you can accept. When you can accept, you don’t push so hard. When you don’t push, little flakes come off one by one. Going this slow will take a long time but I am committed.

“It’s stuck,” Fredrick said.

We had reached a cutting, one of the few left in this nearly level plane. Fredrick and I had been pushing from behind the kart, arms held straight in front of us, heads facing the rails. We had heard scraping.

I glanced around the side of the cart. The walls were too close to the rails here, and the rust-red edge of our cart had left marks along the black, wet slate of the cutting’s walls.

“Don’t!” Fredrick had been about to stand up when I warned him. “It’s not stuck, just scraping.” I pushed at the cart with the back of my shoulders. “If you let go, it will just roll back on us.”

“Then what?” Fredrick asked.

“I’m holding it. Check your side. It’s just scraping, right?”

“Yeah. But it will stick more. Let the cart go back a bit and I’ll get around and dig away the walls.”

“No need. This is really loose shale. All we need to do is push slowly, and let it flake itself.”

“We’ll get stuck. And then we won’t be able to go backwards or forwards.”

“Trust me. It will work. We just need to give the shale a chance to crumble. See? Like that.”

“This will take forever.”

“Stay on it. Slow and steady. Like that. Let it scrape away.”

 

7. I CONSTANTLY REMIND myself I need to expose my journey to others.

Each little scraping step, each jolt from side to side, reminds me to ask for help. I ask, not knowing if the asker has heard, but I don’t care. In the asking is the help granted. Even if there is no change, even if the next jolt just goes back to the other side, I will wear away this wall flake by flake until it is just an old sodden mound and I won’t be crazy any more.

Our track now led us into an inhabited area. On either side of the cuttings, now, small houses squatted, decorated with knee-height white fences and small, green lawns. Through the windows of the houses, on occasion, we could see people watching, their hands holding cups or plates and drying cloths.

Fredrick did a curious thing: this man that I had come to know as silent and reticent, who had found happiness in a dark cave, his face obscured in a breathing mask, began to ask for help.

The gully in which we travelled was exceedingly narrow. Sharp, dark scale hung from each side, and our cart often got stuck.

“Please, if you can, we’d like a push. We’re on our way to the market.”

“They don’t want to help you,” I said, when another figure turned from its window.

“Helping is not the point. Asking is the point.”

I was about to question that logic when the sadness in Fredrick’s face caught my eye. He knew the danger of his ways and, timidly, was trying to battle it. Even asking for my help had been, I now realized, a struggle for him.

 

 

8. I REALIZE WHAT I have written is no longer attached to my self.

When I step into the cold, it seems different. It seems now like I am walking a little higher. The flakes are crunching under my feet, those fires and fears I offered up. Now they just lie about on the ground, no longer part of me. They no longer have any life. They no longer can hold back my soul.

We had finally escaped from the trenches. The plain lay on all sides of us, grey shale stretching into the distance. Our faces were smudged and our clothes torn from the constant pushing and scraping.

Fredrick’s cart ran freely now, although it still squeaked and jolted sluggishly. Fredrick sat a little taller on his seat. A certain pride enveloped him like a cloak and I realized all these past years he had never had a feeling of self-worth. It had been so constant, that lack, that I had just assumed it was part of his personality.

“Look,” I said, pointing at the now blackened concrete gully that ran parallel to our path. “Your baubles have made it this far. Perhaps they will even find fame.”

Fredrick turned away haughtily. “They aren’t mine. Look at them more closely. The life has gone out.”

He was right. In my haste to connect them to Fredrick, I hadn’t noticed the change between these ones and the ones I had set floating near the top of the spring. Those ones had glowed with that strange subterranean flame. Now the oil had congealed over them and the only light they gave was that reflected from the stars.

 

9. EVEN THOUGH I don’t see an end to this process, I gain a feeling; this is the way out.

So each step forward and back is still a step forward in my mind. I continue to trust, even though if I turned to look back I think I would see only caverns, the same that are in front of me. I don’t mind. I’m on my way out.

Finally, on the third day, it happened. The gully seemed like every other gully,   ragged black shale walls, a bleak flat plain beyond, but as we pushed the cart over the cusp, I could see, faint in the distance, the lights of the city.

Although we had been under the impression we were going downhill, we in fact had been making our way further and further up. From this point we could see that the plain before us was indeed falling away, and beyond it, about five miles distance, the rock was subsumed completely in verdant grass and farms. It was perhaps a trick of the clouds, but it really did appear that the sun shown only on the city, bathing it in a soft, amber glow.

“It’s like your lights,” I said, “but so much larger. It’s the image your lights were trying to capture.”

Fredrick said nothing. He did not even acknowledge that he had seen the city, as he loaded our backpacks onto the cart. But I did see him glancing back. His face was   taciturn as always, but he seemed to have in it now an underlying glow—not of hope, but, perhaps, of faith.

“Give us a push,” he said. “It’s still a long way forward. But we’re on our way out.”

 

 


“D. M. Kerr” is the writing name of a Canadian writer living and working in Singapore, where he teaches IT and game design. His stories have been published in Linden Avenue Literary Review and Beyond Imagination Magazine, among others. He is a founding member of Singapore’s Writing the City project. Even so, he is pleasantly surprised you are willing to consider reading his work.

 

 

 

 

R.J. Fox: FBI’s Least Wanted

FBI’s Least Wanted

A couple of years ago, I ventured into Detroit for a scouting expedition for what I thought was going to be my first feature film – a gritty, crime drama using Detroit as a backdrop. We were in search of the most run-down, decrepit locations imaginable – which is something Detroit has an unfortunate abundance of. Accompanying me on our mission was an international crew of immigrants and fellow Americans – a Polish storyboard artist, a British director, an American location scout and my fellow American producing partner.

It was a dangerous undertaking for four white suburbanites, venturing deep into inner city Detroit and into abandoned structures in various degrees of decay, ranging from neglect, to arson. Many were clearly currently being used as halfway houses and crack dens. Although it may have looked like we were traversing on a grand-scale, post-apocalyptic movie set, we know full-too-well that we were miles away from a Hollywood ending.

Well past midnight, we ventured into the infamous, virtually desolate Delray “neighborhood” of southwest Detroit, running concurrently along the Detroit River. We approached the entranceway to the man-made, industrial wasteland of Zug Island, which resembles the skyline of Gotham City (which Detroit later was used for in Batman vs. Superman. Although I was vaguely familiar with the island, I had no clue what actually happened there. I was naturally curious and rolling in the safety of my “crew”, I decided to take the plunge and see for myself.

“Let’s go check this out,” I chirped, turning onto the gravel driveway leading to a one-way bridge leading to the island.

“What is it?” my director asked.

“Not really sure,” I said. “But just look at it. We have to have this in our movie!”

“Yeah, but it says no trespassing,” said the storyboard artist, referring to the enormous “NO TRESPASSING” sign posted on the bridge.

“Guys, think about it,” I began. “What do you think we’ve been doing in all the other places we went to tonight?”

“Well, this isn’t abandoned,” said the director. “And they didn’t have ‘no trespassing’ signs on them.

“But it was still trespassing,” I said, holding serve. This point seemed to do the trick, as everyone finally agreed to “Fuck it” in the name of art. And when it was all said and done, in the face in of stupidity.

We traversed onto what resembled a post-apocalyptic, industrial wasteland of an island, we observed what was at least 100 cars in the massive parking lot wrapping around the endless Habitrail system of a factory. Despite the cars, there wasn’t a single human soul in sight. It seemed unfathomable that any human life could possibly survive – let alone work – on such a God-forsaken property. For those fortunate few who somehow managed to escape from the island had one possible outcome: death by cancer. This, theory, of course, assumed that there was any human life on the island at all. It was becoming increasingly apparent that we were in the human-less domain of robots – soulless cyborgs – hell-bent on destruction, programmed to wipe out any sign of life.

As we drove deeper into the abyss, none of us said a word, as though in mutual fear of voice-activated robot snipers. Or, as was more likely the case, we were paralyzed with the realization that robot snipers were already targeting our car.

From a distance, the flaming towers of Zug Island resembled an enormous, scrambled pipe organ. Up close, the island resembled the gateway to hell, as enormous flames gushed out of industrial smokestacks, accompanied by the cacophony of various clicks and clanks, bleeps and bloops of whirligigs, gremlins and what-not overlooking an industrial wasteland devoid of human existence.

“Welcome to Cyberdyne Systems,” my co-producer said.

“Cyberdyne?” I asked.

“You know … where Terminator and its ilk are manufactured. Skynet and shit.”

“Oh, yeah!” I said, realizing, as flashing lights approached us from behind, seemingly out of nowhere. I couldn’t help but think of mind the driverless police cars in a Ray Bradbury story. A human voice (or something programmed to sound human) commanded: “Pull over at once. I repeat, pull over at once.”

Since it was clear we were the only humans in sight (clearly, the police were robots), we had no doubt that the command was intended for us. Since we were traversing across a parking lot, there was really nowhere to “pull over” so I just stopped the car, awaiting my final moments on earth.

The cop car’s spotlight was blinding and nobody was coming out of the vehicle.

“What the fuck is happening?” the Polish storyboard artist said with genuine panic in his voice.

“Great idea, Bob,” my producing partner said. “If we go to jail because of this…” His voice trailed off.

“I’m sure we’ll just be asked to leave,” I said, trying to remain calm as any captain of a ship should, simultaneously shitting my pants.

“What is this place?” the British director said.

“Zug Island,” I said. “That’s all I know.”

“But I mean, what goes on here?”

“I honestly don’t know,” I said. “But I have a feeling we’re about to find out.”   The fact that we didn’t find out only deepened the mystery and intrigue of our trespass.

After five excruciating minutes, a figure finally emerged from the vehicle, swallowed by shadows. If it weren’t the cop from Terminator 2, it would be Robocop. This was Detroit after all.

Finally, a grim-faced, human-looking security officer approached my window, draped in a jet black security uniform, adorned in a red shield on his shoulder that read “Zug Island Authority Patrol”.

“May I ask why you are trespassing on the premises of Zug Island?” the officer asked, with a steely gaze and eyes that seemed incapable of blinking and emotion.

“We’re scouting locations for a feature film. We come in peace.”

“IDs please,” the soulless officer said, not buying what its programmer downloaded into his memory as a bullshit excuse.

We produced our IDs and Officer Android disappeared back into the blinding light of his vehicle. We waited 10 minutes for him – it – to process our data.

Once again, nobody said a word. We were frozen with fear.

While we waited, it dawned on me that in my car was a Polish national and a UK national. On the surface, nothing overtly suspicious, but just off-kilter enough to alert at least some suspicion.

The droid officer finally returned.

“Do you have any cameras on your person?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“How many?”

“Two, I think. Right guys?”

‘Yes, two.”

“Please hand them over.

We turned our cameras in and I felt deep despair in the pit of my stomach, as I thought about that hundreds of personal photos from various vacations and family events that I would probably never see again. This was before the days of the Cloud and Dropbox.

The cop pocketed out cameras, before handing us back our IDs and issuing a stern warning.

“If you come back onto the premises of Zug Island again, you will be arrested. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes,” we all replied in unison.

“Now go. Leave the premises of Zug Island at once,” leaving me fully convinced that we were communicating with an automaton.

“Can we get our cameras back?”

“No. Your cameras are now the property of Zug Island.”

“Just curious,” I began. “What exactly goes on here … on the premises of Zug Island?”

The cop simply glared at me with his beady, soulless robot eyes, before heading back to his car. It was clear to me that he wasn’t programmed with a response to this particular question, which made perfect sense. He then proceeded to follow us right off of the island until we were safely back on the mainland of inner city, abandoned Detroit.

“Well, that was fucked up,” the British director said.

“Yeah, probably a dumb idea on my part.”

“You think?” said my producing partner.

“But so worth it!”

“Was it?” the director said.

“I think so.”

I would later change my tune on this assertion. At that moment, however, I assumed that this ordeal was over at that point. I also knew sure as hell that I would not be returning to the premises of Zug Island … ever … again.

When I returned to the safe confines of my domicile, I immediately Googled Zug Island in an attempt to uncover just what exactly was so top secret about it. The only thing I could find was a vague reference to “top-secret government projects”, which – in its ambiguity – clearly explained the tight security and confiscated cameras. The lack of specific details was even more confounding.

A few days later, my theory that it was all over was proven bunk when I received a phone call from my mom, which served as yet another reminder why being named after your father has its disadvantages.

“The FBI left Dad a message on his work phone,” my mom began, filling me with dread. “They want to interview him about his trespassing incident on the premises of Zig Zag Island … or something like that. Do you know anything about this?”

“As a matter of fact,” I told my mom. “Yes.”

“What did you do?” she asked.

I explained to her what happed. She questioned my judgment, then gave me the number to the FBI Special Agent awaiting my phone call.

I’m not quite sure why they contacted my father to begin with. Sure, we shared the same name, but not the same address. Yet somehow, they tracked him down at his workplace.

Shaking in fear, I called the number, already envisioning my future life on Guantanamo Bay.

“Hello, this is Robert Fox. I’m calling about trespassing on the premises of Zug Island. You guys called my father, but it was actually me.”

“Oh, yes. Mr. Fox. We need to talk.”

“Am I in some sort of trouble?” I asked.

“We would like to question you regarding your involvement trespassing on the premises of Zug Island. Can we come to your place of residence at your earliest convenience?”

My convenience? Are actual terrorists given such courtesy? I definitely hoped not, while simultaneously grateful in this particular instance. Realizing I really had no choice, we arranged a meeting for the following afternoon, imagining myself slowly turning into a character out of a Kafka story.

The FBI had me pegged me as a terrorist suspect. This was my new reality.

Fuck.

I immediately called my international “crew” to see if they, too, were contacted. They were not. I was sure that it was only a matter of time.

“What do you mean by the FBI?” my co-producer asked.

“What do you mean, what do I mean?” I asked. “The F-B-I. The one and only.”

“This is the last thing I have time to deal with.”

“Well, hopefully, I can clear the air and everyone else will be off the hook. “

“Just like you said we wouldn’t get in trouble for trespassing to being with?”

“Yeah, well ..”

He had a point.

“Right now, it’s only my fish to fry.”

“It better be.” Click.

Subsequent conversations with the rest of my crew followed a similar script. I scratched my head over this, asking myself repeatedly … why just me?

And then it dawned on me. I lived in Dearborn, Michigan. Dearborn is home to the largest Muslim population outside of the Middle East. Not only did I live in Dearborn. I lived in east Dearborn, where over 90% of the largest Muslim population outside of the Middle East called home.

Having a (now ex) wife from the former Soviet Union certainly added to the suspected international espionage. However, if that was the case, then why weren’t my international crewmembers also being spoken to? The only explanation I could discern was that I was the driver. My passengers, on the other hand, could have been held captive, against their will, for all the FBI was concerned.

I decided it was probably a good idea to let my wife know that the FBI was planning on stopping by.

“What?” she asked, flabbergasted.

“The FBI. They’re coming to talk to me.”

“Why? What the fuck did you do?”

“I trespassed.”

“Where?”

“On the premises of Zug Island.”

“Where’s Zug Island?”

“In Detroit. I’ll explain later.”

“Why does this type of shit always happen to you?”

I had no clue what she meant. Nothing even remotely close to this had ever happened before. But I didn’t have the time, nor the energy to inquire further.

“Everything is going to be fine,” I said, suddenly realizing that his conversation was in all likelihood wiretapped. It was only a matter of time before I would hear the whirring of a helicopter.

“I have to get back to work,” I finally said to my wife, realizing that I was now more afraid to tell her about our confiscated camera more than I was the FBI.

I continued to feel a growing sense of paranoia, despite my rational self being fully aware that I had absolutely nothing to incriminate myself with, aside from a simple trespassing violation. Yet, somehow, I couldn’t help but feel that I was a marked man. That my top-secret life as a terrorist was so top-secret, that not even I knew that I was a terrorist. These are the overriding thoughts one has when the FBI IS COMING OVER TO INVESTIGATE YOU!

After work, I rushed home and prepared to meet my maker. I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I somehow guilty beyond a simple act of trespassing – that I was truly a terror suspect. It was similar to the irrational feeling I get in airport security lines. I am overcome with the paranoid sense that security is on to me and therefore, I start looking guilty, which only makes me look even more suspicious, giving them an actual reason to suspect me, rather than the imagined one in my mind which kicked off the whole thing. It’s a vicious cycle.

As I was straightening up my flat, I reminded myself that acting nervous and jittery wouldn’t help my cause, but this thought was only making me more nervous. No amount of deep breaths or medication could help me now. And then it dawned on me that it probably didn’t help my cause that my walls were all bare in preparation of a paint job we were about to do, creating a sense that my living space was simply temporary, a terrorist cell awaiting activation. So I did the only thing I could think of to neutralize the situation: I put a nail into an empty hole and grabbed my crucifix from my bedroom. It was my only defense.

With over an hour to spare, I sat down in my La-Z-Boy and turned on Fox News to appear as patriotic as possible when the SWAT team arrived. I tried to take a nap, but it was no use. Time continued to trudge on in a slow drip.

My hour of reckoning finally arrived when the doorbell rang, alleviating my fear that their entrance would be heralded with the abrupt, crashing of windows. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, after all. Maybe I would live to see another day – that I wouldn’t be stripped of both my freedom and my dignity.

I let the two agents in, trying with all my might to appear as calm as possible, despite my rattling nerves. I politely offered them a seat, as well as something to drink. They sat down, and politely declined my drink offer, likely fearing a ricin attack, or an apartment full of explosives.

The two agents seemed nice enough and far more “human” – not to mention humane – than the emotionless, droid officer from Zug Island. Agent #1 was tall and thin, with an almost scholarly demeanor. Agent #2 was short and stocky like a prototypical blue collar beat cop and probably reported to Agent #1. Neither agent fit the profile of the stereotypical FBI agent that I envisioned, nor did I resemble the stereotypical profile of a terrorist. Then again, my olive skin tone from my half-Italian heritage might lead one to suspect that I was of middle-eastern descent.

Once we were settled, the interrogation process began. I tried to remain as calm as humanly possible. Other than the uncontrollable, repeated wiping of sweaty palms on my pants, I think I did okay, considering the surreal, nerve-wrecking circumstances. If I was this nervous being an innocent man, how does an actual suspect keep it together?

Agent #1 did all the questioning, as agent #2 scribbled down notes.

“So, what were you doing on the premises of Zug Island?”

“Scouting locations for a feature film.”

“A future film?”

“A feature film. And, I suppose, future film.”

“About what?”

“A gritty crime story set in Detroit.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“Thanks.”

“Have you ever been involved in terrorist activity?”

“No.”

“Are you affiliated with a terrorist organization?”

“No.”

“Are you aiding or abetting a terrorist organization?”

“Have you ever conspired with a recognized enemy of the United States?”

“No.”

“Okay, I guess our work here is done. Thank you for your time.”

The agents stood up, in perfect, synchronized unison.

“Wait, that’s it?” I asked, realizing that I sounded disappointment that my interrogation was over so quickly.

“Yes. We had to interview you as a formality, but we weren’t really worried,” Agent #1 said, as he handed me his business card. And then he threw me for an even bigger loop:

“By the way, since you live here in east Dearborn,” Agent #2 began. “We’d appreciate it if you could be our eyes and ears around here.”

And just like that, I was no longer a terror suspect…I was a quasi-FBI informant. God bless America.

“If you see anything suspicious,” Agent #1 began “Let us know immediately. And whatever you do, stay off of the premises of Zug Island.”

“I can assure you of that,” I said. “But what exactly goes on those premises?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know…” Agent #1 said.

Yeah, no shit. I do want to know.

“Any chance I can get my camera back?”

“We’re afraid not,” Agent #2 said.

And he meant it.

As I led the agents to the door, I still couldn’t believe how easy I was let off the hook. I was never more relieved, despite the lingering paranoia the whole experience left behind.

I never saw anything suspicious lurking in my neighborhood, so never had the need to call. But it sure felt pretty cool to have a direct connection to the FBI. I still have the business card till this day. Despite the unfortunate misunderstanding, I continue to experience minor inconveniences at the airport, but nothing that leaving early doesn’t rectify. Call me paranoid, but I’m pretty sure my brush with the FBI has at least a little bit something to do with this.

Regarding the future, feature film that was indirectly the catalyst for this experience, it is still yet to be produced, but I remain as determined to get it made, as I am to get off of the FBI watch list. Of course, if I had my druthers and had to choose one outcome versus the other, my dream takes the cake.


 

Brandon Benevento: Back at the DuPont Plaza Hotel (essay)

Back at the DuPont Plaza Hotel

The hotel looms. Over the beach, it hangs brute uniformity over tourists and staff, people playing volleyball, lounging on chaise, bringing drinks, raising umbrellas, calling to children in the water, and here I sit picturing my mother on this same spot of sand picturing her children burning— have they got in an elevator? she has told me she was thinking, have they passed out from smoke? And the hotel is literally on the beach, like sprung from the sand, sand right up against it. How can these things not lean like Pisa after so much time? Twenty-one stories—no, there’s no thirteen, so twenty—and I count and it’s just tall enough for that disorienting thing where you lose count somehow even though you’re looking straight on; twenty stories plus that pillbox sign-cum-A/C-unit thing on top which made landing helicopters so difficult, almost thirty years ago. This is when it looms from for me, though with what we know about memory, the refraction of this moment though VHS in the form of an episode of William Shatner’s Rescue 911, plus my family’s retold stories, and newspaper clippings saved in a box marked FIRE, not to mention my way-too-many attempts to write about it (the best from first grade, when I drew myself behind the grid of the hotel, flames at the base, helicopters in the air, with a brief descriptive paragraph below)—all this seems active in the loom effect as well. But it’s the physical loom of this bulking box I’m struck by, lounging—a bit tensely, it turns out—under it on the beach. The Marriot, previously the DuPont Plaza, seems too big, while all the space around it feels sucked away, making everything tight and close and charged with energy, the insects in the air and voices against an inconsistent meter of surf.

So it looms, this hotel. Large in rectiline mid-century mod—why, I wonder, did the era of square buildings overlap the age of such frivolous, baubbly cars? And really, how great a Batwing Impala must have looked parked out front, or down at the still gorgeous Caribbe Hilton, disposing suitcases from a huge trunk and a nuclear family in Bermuda shorts, waited on, as we are still, by uniformed people probably wishing they were somewhere else, or that we were. I think of the woman cleaning my room, maybe at this very moment I hunch writing on the mesh of a not-new lounge chair, waiting for a waiter to bring me my second Presidente. The era the hotel looms from, originally, when conceived and raised from the rich port sand, is gone, leaving leisure ideals spaced out all along the Candado, and just shit tons of poverty. This mid-century idyll is not the moment the hotel looms from for me, though as a story of connectivity, the middle of the last century can’t really be over-emphasized here as background for first my parents’ and now my own luxie dreams. I would frankly love to pull some rented big-finned gas-guzzler up to the deco fluorescence of cool, like in the picture.

Anyway, the fucker looms, and, under it, I think of my mom on the beach, letting her children run on up to the room for cartoons 28 years ago. Perhaps a few moments of peace, with John at the casino and a New Years Evening ahead, a few minutes of sun… and then a smell she thinks, at first, is barbeque. I never heard an explosion, she said, just things starting to be not right, the tones of voices altering, a very different moment emerging from where she’d been, facing that blue water. So she turned and God smoke had surrounded the bulk, the bottom half gone, and her children gone, and the top sticking out, looking like it might be carried off, out to that very blue sea. This is the moment from which it looms for me. But I’m struck, just shocked, at this moment writing on the beach, by the material loom of the thing. It doesn’t pretend, like newer buildings with curves and glass, that inside it isn’t all steel, straight and unyeilding, infallible apparently, as that very steel met flame hot enough to bring Joey Cal flying down with Bob and Al’s dental records, and seems to have not sagged an inch. It is now painted the color of sand as envisioned by Florida mall-designers, a bit pinker and more orange than real sand ever is. The balcony rails—from which actual people actually dropped tied-together sheets with big cartoon knots—are a color or teal reminiscent of 1993. In 1986, the year of the fire, they were black, against which the previous white of the then-DuPont seems so classy compared to the current scheme, a color-combo admitting, I think, the not-first-rate status of the now-a-Marriot, though my father in a New Haven Register interview remembers it even at the time of the fire as not quite on par with the other destinations of his poker group’s junkets, which for the first time that year had decided to allow families. It was kind of an older hotel, he says from the past, in the black ink of newsprint. The picture of its opening in ’64, as a Sheridan—it’s like a cat, this hotel—show a horseshoe-shaped entry flanked on each side by an arc of flags, frozen in diplomatic snap, a residue of steamship luxury-liner pomp; this entry would keep San Juan’s hook-and- ladders from getting close enough to bring people out, and is, far as I could tell this morning, standing on the street, holding the picture on my phone up to the hotel, still here, though the flags are gone. Other tourists were also holding their phones up to the structure, presumably not comparing it to old photos from before the fire, so I looked, I guess, to be capturing the present like the rest, which I suppose I am. Anyway, the hotel is now Pink-Orange and Teal, which makes the loom more repulsive, like a dictator in Mickey shades.

What have I come here for? My wife told me my mother said I hope he finds what he’s looking for, which is exactly what the towel kid said this morning—as we stood where I’m fairly sure my father landed after jumping from the casino—after he asked, quite politely, why we were taking pictures of windows and patio pavers. I hope you find what you’re looking for. Which is extremely annoying, but as yet he’s the only one even remotely interested in my story, which I’ve been introducing with something like: the last time I was here this place was on fire, which is also extremely annoying. The best response by far came last night from the baseball trophy sellers’ convention guy at the bar, who said Hell-Yeah! When we first started coming this place was on Fire!… Now it sucks. The towel kid pointed out, when I asked what he knew about the fire, that he’d not been born in 1986. He, my wife, and I, standing by the pool, surrounded by palms lit in midmorning sunlight, looked up at the underside of the big spiral staircase, leading down from the lobby. On my phone, I have a grainy newsprint image of two men walking on these stairs the day after the fire, between them a sheeted body on a stretcher; seeing the staircase was the moment I realized how little had changed. I’ve been watching people flip-flop up and down it with books and beach gear, and have avoided using it. The hotel has no plaque to memorialize the 98 people who died here, which I hadn’t expected, but which gets weirder as it becomes clear this really is the same place; I pretend the stairs are a memorial, and when I do take them, I take them slow. After checking-in yesterday I asked the concierge—definitely born by 1986—about the fire, and if anyone who worked here then might still. No, she said, pissed off behind her desk, a few feet from the window I think my dad jumped from, it’s a completely different hotel. These words set me comparing old pictures with current structure, and the only major change I’ve seen is the casino now occupies a larger windowless side area, no longer overlooking the water of pool and sea. The window’s same Cartesian frame can be seen in another picture I can’t stop looking at, stored in the phone next to me on the lounge: a cindered body behind the aluminum bars, cinder legs hung over the ledge; it appears he or she almost made it out.

So I sit and soak the sun, a tourist on vacation, thinking of my mother, here, looking up at this same structure, knowing her kids are in it, her husband nearby, having been dragged off the patio, placed on a lounge chair, bones broken, disks slipped, just besides himself she has said, just beside himself, in pain and fear for my sister and I, refusing to go to a hospital, screaming God, Please don’t take my children, God, please don’t take my children, which He didn’t, which we reconstruct as both luck and love of God—as in: we were so lucky and as in God was looking out for us—not accounting for the 98 people who were, by logical extension, both unlucky and un-looked-out-for by God, let alone of course the just endless numbers of people subject to the hotel’s now fifty-years of labor and resource expropriation—a group that includes the men who started the fire, who never meant to kill, who were angry at management—people I see all around me, here, at home, everywhere, always close to wealth, the Bridgeport-in-Fairfield County effect we always think is an accident—people making my bed and worse; here, I sit and write where helicopters landed the groups of tourists my mother kept looking for us among, but no children, who would have come first, she knew, as that afternoon wore into darkness—the children would have come down first—and then no more people coming out, despair unlike anything I’ve known, so unlike this other moment, this so-called “now” with my wife next to me on a lounge chair, and all of it, suddenly, poised to slip away as well (and I think, God, please don’t take my wife) even though life and death seem so absent as I wait for a dark-skinned person to bring me beer #3; here where despair illuminated in helicopter spotlights scouring the grid finally, after four hours, yielded the happy resolution she narrates from the taped past, posed by Rescue 911 producers against the floral print of one of her many terrible sofas: when I just had no other places to turn, I thought I saw some movement up in the balconies and as I got a little closer, I could see that someone was carrying someone, a little closer still and that person was a little person, and then the dark hair and then I saw that it was Brandon, who was me.

 


Brandon Benevento works as a PhD student in UConn’s English Department. His dissertation project is titled “Upkeep: The Celebration and Erasure of Maintenance in Twentieth-Century American Literature.” In his spare time he cares lovingly for an aging strip mall in the New Haven area, a job in which he excels at picking up lots of trash. He lives with his wife, Amy, and daughter, Hypatia, in Branford, CT.