Would you give up your throne to sit by the fire? Would you hold a baby over it? Would you empty the chamber pots of heaven when you hold rightful claim over the highest throne in the room, as the eldest child? There’s prideful power in that: in claiming to be too righteous to sit among kings.
Big city’s growing. Chomping up them small towns like hungry, hungry hippos. Used to be this was one small town. Now it’s three the way we’ve grown into our neighbors, entwining with them, and it isn’t hardly separated at all from Atlanta. City folks pushing out from the center like they’re crawling out of the ground below Five Points, pushing everything up, out, and away, and everyone in the city is rolling over like the little bear said, until the crowd of us presses into the ocean and then everyone is tumbling into boats, and the waves will catch us, then catch the mole men climbing up out of the ground, and everything spreads all over everywhere. The towers rising up and up and up and the city climbing up alongside like a forest canopy clambering after the most light.
I’m getting my oil changed in the suburbs and a homeless guy with the shakes asked me if I have spare change. Can’t buy nothing with change anymore. Everything costs a dollar or more. Anyway if I give him the money, he’ll keep begging instead of tumbling into the Salvation Army after clean clothes and hot food and counseling services to get off the street, employed somewhere, renting a place in town, and joining society. He looks like a mole man. I wonder where he came from. I’d ask him, but all he would do is lie about it, if he even spoke enough English to respond through all those crooked, missing teeth.
He comes up to me like I owe him something. I don’t owe him anything, personally, but I guess society has let this man down. He’s surrounded by advertisements, and he finds them in the trash dirty and broken where the advert is beautiful and new. He’s talking to me. What’s he saying? It doesn’t matter.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t have anything for you,” I say, with a very firm voice. I’m upper management. I can talk to scare dogs away.
He nods, never looking at me in the face. He is still proud enough to feel shame for begging.
Prostitution is supposed to be the oldest profession, but I think begging came first. Dogs beg. They do not prostitute themselves. Monkeys beg, too, without trading anything. Begging was first. Also, it seems less honorable, somehow. At the very least a prostitute is working for a living, sacrificing her dignity in a very real way.
He’s still talking. I’m not listening to him, but I should. It’s hard to hear anyone who looks like he does.
I’m getting my oil changed in my car. I’m standing in front of the place to get the oil changed, waiting for the mechanics to finish checking things. One of them, a tall Hispanic man that looks so straight-edge, so clean-shaven, it’s almost hard to look at his face. His hands are even clean. How does a mechanic keep his hands clean? He’s holding my air filter.
“Hey, why don’t you move on, dude?” says the mechanic.
The mole man hunches into his own shadow, and stumbles off. I’m almost sad to see him go.
“He bothering you?”
“Oh, no… I wasn’t really listening to him. I don’t think he spoke English. If he did, I didn’t recognize his accent.”
The mechanic nodded at me like I had said something rude. I guess I was being rude. The least thing to do for someone is to listen to them, not to ignore them like I had done. I watched the mechanic working, and wondered if he had come from the underground, too. Was he Hispanic, or was his skin just darkened by the shadows and the mud of the underground world below the old parts of the city.
When my car was done, I paid and drove away.
I had a Lexus.
I wore designer clothes.
I smelled better than food.
I had showered twice in the last twenty-four hours at two different locations: my health club, and my hotel room.
I was overseeing construction of a restaurant downtown for my brother’s company, even though I knew nothing about restaurants or construction.
I passed a bus and slowed down to crane my neck and see inside. The back of the bus was full of them: the mole men and women, each looking like they crawled out of the underground, too. Dockworkers chased them off if they got too close to the animal shipments. I think the mole men were the sort of men we should have been hiring for the slaughterhouses, too. They needed to go through the social workers, first, and get cleaned up. They need to learn the basics of life, like showing up for work on time and wearing clean clothes. Only then could they work the docks, and the meat yards, where my brother’s employees unload tigers to shoot them in the back of the head, skin them, and slice up their meat.
Breeding endangered species for food seems to be the only way to save them. My brother, when he’s drunk, says he’s saving the animals by making them poo, and if only Greenpeace could have figured that one out. It’s a tragedy to believe the only way to make a creature valued among humans is to turn them into a commodity, a product, a marketing campaign, a meal after meal, and finally poop, but it seems to be working so there it is.
Tiger’s been the most successful business model to date. The tiger meat, though quite gamey in my opinion, is popular among hip-hop stars who seem to really like the idea of eating tigers, and get paid to write lyrics about the meat to convince all their fans to eat tiger, too. Fried strips of tiger meat wrapped in bacon have practically replaced shrimp in the decadent side of African-American culture. Frogs were a harder sell to the general public, but have struck a chord with a niche in fine-dining circles in Europe and Japan. Poison Arrow Frogs aren’t really the sort of thing one eats casually. Too much poison. But, when properly prepared by master chefs, the effect is hallucinogenic. Fried poison arrow frog is making inroads in the Hamptons and Los Angeles. We have managed to keep the drug-like frogs legal by sending half the profits directly to the FDA director’s house in shoe boxes with a tax donation form. It’s only bribery if he hides the money in his freezer instead of reporting it into his office as a donation. If he takes it as a bribe, instead, we still have our frogs. The endangered insects aren’t as popular in the Western nations, but the various fried sampler packs of rainforest beetles are more popular than potato chips on trains in Asia. The Dalai Lama himself supports the product line because he can see it might be the only thing keeping the rainforest intact.
(This is a trade secret, but we only ever eat the male beetles. At harvest time, we place traps laced with female pheromones to lure just the males. They’re intoxicated by the scent. Maybe even completely overwhelmed. They throw themselves into our traps with such reckless abandon that many injure themselves to get in. We don’t need to worry about any escaping as long as we keep that odor around. Men. The tigers are more respectable by far. We keep them in cages, feed them soy and elephant meat until they grow fat like kings. The sleek, murderous tigers in the commercial isn’t true. The tigers look like fat kittens, reclining in the sun as royalty, purring and engorged.)
I’m supposed to be overseeing construction of our first independent restaurant. Our company is trying them out in major, upscale urban centers. I’m supposed to be promoting the restaurant in the local media, which means I’m getting my oil changed while my assistant e-mails local media in my name. I’ve never opened a restaurant before, and I don’t know what I’m doing. When I tell that to my brother, he says that I’m doing great and my numbers are great.
At the construction site of the restaurant, I wasn’t really overseeing anything. I’m not really made for this sort of thing. I’m a pastry chef, by training. After school, I worked at Starbucks, asking people if they wanted a scone with their latte. When my brother’s business took off, I was invited into the business with a cushy salary and a promise that I’d be in charge of distribution to cafes. I don’t really run anything. I receive e-mails from my brother telling me exactly what to tell people to do. I arrange his e-mails into memos. I pass them to a secretary. When I hear anything from them, I re-arrange it into an e-mail for my brother. I’m buying and reading all these business books, but it all seems so silly to me that I can’t make sense of it, yet. Maybe I should get an MBA.
At the new restaurant, the interior has already been built out, mostly. The walls are solid mahogany, and will be covered with tiger pelts, and heads. Wildebeests, African crocodiles, cloned panda bears, and tiger pelts all arranged on the floor below where they were supposed to be mounted this afternoon. The ones that still had eyes, fake ones made of glass, looked stiff and forlorn. The skins were mounted under glass like paintings. None of these taxidermied animal parts were fake. That was part of our restaurant’s credo: None of this stuff is faked.
When the workers come, I slip into the back area to stay out of the way. The interior designer has matters fully in hand. I’m only going to be in the way. When the workers move to the back to start painting the kitchen, I go behind the building.
I wasn’t alone, there. One of the beggars was squatting on the curb behind the building eating fast food. He was obviously one of the mole people, maybe even a leader among them, as filthy as he was. Perhaps he was an alien.
“Hey,” I said.
He looked up nervously, then back down at his burger.
“It’s all right,” I said. “I’m not trying to run you off, okay? You’re just trying to eat. I get that. Look, I just had a question for you.”
He tried to ignore me.
“Do you speak English? Hello?”
He stood up to leave. He was trying to leave. He gathered up his dirty grocery bags to leave.
I decided to follow him. Where was he going to go? The bus stop? Where would the bus take him? I took a few steps towards him. He sped up, and took off.
A few steps towards him, and I slowed down. Wherever he was going, I wasn’t part of his world. I would never get the answer to the question I wanted to ask him.
Not like I was, clean and refined in designer clothes.
Behind me, my brother’s restaurant was full of the sound of drills. They were hanging the heads and pelts on the walls, now. Soon, they’d be asking for my opinion on things, whether the people would like it or not, in my opinion, for I was exactly the sort of person that should be coming to the restaurant: affluent, clean, polite, and stylish.
The only way to save the world from successful people like me is to cycle the things we want to save through our large intestines. Make it into poop, or the living things have no place in our world’s future. It makes me feel like poop to believe it. I don’t know how my brother does it.
I throw my wallet and my keys in the dumpster and walk away. I don’t even have enough change in my pocket for the bus, much less food. I walked for four miles, at least, until I reached a park with some wooded areas. I hid among the trees that night. It was so cold at night, so dark.
The question in my heart for the homeless man: If someone wanted to keep you in a cage for two years in doped-up bliss and luxury before they killed you and ate you, would you let them do it?
The second day, I was dirty enough to beg, and hungry enough. I raided a trash bin behind a grocery store for discarded cabbage, and used the box top as a sign with the help of a gas station attendant that let me use his marker.
By nightfall, I had found a shelter. I slept in a cot in a large room full of cots. Women and children slept here, the men in another room. There were more children than I could ever imagine. They ran like monsters among us, undisciplined, uncaring, uneducated. They had climbed up from the ground and found themselves here, blinking in the light, and they had no experience in nuclear families to pull from to keep their children from acting like animals. I wanted to adopt all of them, loners and mothers and children.
People think I am an abused spouse, running from my husband. I wasn’t running from anyone. These were the transitioning ones, speaking in English, not in tongues, turning themselves slowly into suburbanites. They had already forgotten where they came from, trying to escape the drugs, the booze, the dirty ground, find work, a house in the suburbs, a refrigerator packed with tiger meat and bacon, and clean children on their way to school in the morning, coming home to big, empty houses while their parents work, becoming more than this, always pushing out deeper into the suburbs until we all fall into the sea.
I was looking for the king of all mole men, the biggest vulture, the mouse among rats who would seep into the corners of landscaping to feed off the scraps of the pooping kings and queens of the suburbs, who recycle the world through our large intestines to reflect our own desires, and these scavengers emulating us from the dumpsters behind the grocery stores.
Who rules the mole men, if they have a king? Who speaks for all of them? Who can tell me where I might find the one who drives them up from the ground below Five Points like springing a leak?
The next day, I begged for bus fare from the people in the shelter. Battered women can beg among the beggars and receive coins and dollar bills. I rode the buses into downtown Atlanta. The city drew these lost men and lost women, and cast them out into the world. I rode the buses from stop to stop, asking the drivers where the worst of the homeless people were.
The bus drivers said the druggies are the worst.
That’s where I went, then.
I got off the bus south of downtown, near an overpass. I said one thing to everyone I met: Take me to your leader.
Everyone I met, with trembling hands, dazed eyes, more dirt than skin, all skin and bone, trembling and ruined men, angry men and crazy men, all of them, tried to answer my polite demand with misdirections.
Take me to your leader.
The government, the c-beams, the banks own everything, the drug gangs and foreigners and black people and white people and mafias and Christian mafias and and Jewish mafias and presidents and dead presidents.
Take me to your leader.
All that talk from the lost men and I notice their words mean nothing. They’re too new to the daylight world. Their pointing, though, might be something.
I followed their hands and eyes. Through parks and empty buildings and past drug dealers that told me in no uncertain terms to fuck off.
I slept that night with two women who both asked me if I had any money for food. I gave them what I had left, which was only about a dollar in change. They complemented my teeth.
Of course I was an outsider: I still had straight, white teeth.
Take me to your leader.
All the next day, again, following their hands and eyes as they point, not listening to them say anything with their mouths.
There’s a park south of downtown and I don’t think anyone goes there anymore but the beggars. Not even drug dealers go there. Too many beggars, on every bench and table. Too many shopping carts. They don’t do anything, either. They just sit. Some of them are high; some of them aren’t. They sit and watch the sun like seals on a beach, but filthy. The smell of the place is enough to drive anyone underground.
I see them climbing into the playground’s architecture, beneath the fake plastic trains, where the ground gives way like a tunnel, hidden from the street by the crowd and the trees and the angles of things. I look down into the gap and wonder if it’s safe. It’s all needles and crack vials down into the black, with broken bottles in paper bags and fallen leaves, insects, and a smell worse than shit: like vomit and shit and piss and all of it mixed up into a soup to be cooked and left to rot in the sun.
Yeah, I’m going down there. This is what I came to find.
In Atlanta, there was a railroad underground leading to freedom before the war came. There’s still an underground, where tourists wander in the dark and blink into the flashing lights of history, and even when Sherman came so long ago, he burned the city into the underground. After Sherman, real trains came and carried the city up from the ruins of the war. This park I’m in has a tunnel that leads into a small hill. People had been pointing me here for days. Their leader must be here.
Underground, then, where the people line the cave drinking from paper bags and leaning against the walls, smoking joints and cigarettes and menthols.
Take me to your leader.
I keep on going underground. I know I look like a mole man now, except maybe my teeth so I keep my mouth closed. My eyes are watering because of the smell. It’s so dark. I have to hold my hands out and keep my feet gliding low over the shattered glass and needles and leaves, walking real careful not to put weight on anything that might stab me. I brush people’s legs with my feet. They pull up their feet and mumble a little. They’re sleeping here, lined up against the shit walls. I think it’s an open pipe, now. I think it’s one big, open pipe into the sewers, or an abandoned part of it. The ground beneath my feet curves like a cracked open pipeline. I keep climbing down into the darkness there, blinded by the stench.
Someone grabs my hand by the wrist, hard as hard as hard.
Take me to your leader.
Someone drags me behind him.
I am placed in a chair. A match is lit. A candle is lit.
I have found him, I think.
“What you want, lady?” he says. He is beautiful, and so black he could have been the Cheshire cat with yellow corn teeth. He isn’t smiling. “Lady, what you doing down here? This ain’t your place.”
It is a pipe. I’m in a sewer pipe. Where else would they have gone underground for the train? How else could they walk through the city without being killed? Where else would they hide from Sherman’s fire? Where else would they be when it comes time to re-emerge, all sense of daylight lost, all sense of time and self forgotten? Whole generations were buried in the ground, shat upon when the pipes came. Tiger meat’s flowing into the sewers. Everybody must poop. It’s the only way to save the world: recycling.
“It should be,” I say. “I have a couple questions to ask you. Just one, really, but it has a lead in.”
“All these people, these drug addicts and beggars and all of them, they need to be saved, right?”
“Shit, lady, you here to save us?”
“That’s exactly right: Shit. The only way to save anyone in this world is to turn them into shit. They eat tigers and pandas and elephants and tree frogs and…”
“Lady, you crazy. You best head home. You ain’t from around here. You don’t talk like you from around here. Go home. Go find your people. Look at you. This ain’t your world.”
“Think about it, though. Think about how much money you could make selling them. Think about how they’d live like kings before they died, gorged on tiger meat and bacon, given the best medical care in the world and encouraged to breed and be happy and die blissfully unaware of the face of the devil. Think about it.”
He pounded his fist on the table. “Look at my skin when you talk to me like that. Your kind was eating us once. Called it cotton gins. Called it rice and cane sugar. Eating our sweat and blood and fingernails. Wearing it in your fancy clothes.”
“I know that,” I said. “I’m sorry about that, but that was a long time ago, and it wasn’t me. This isn’t really about race. It never was. We don’t care what color the tigers are. We don’t measure their stripes. We don’t care what kind of bugs crawl into our pheromone traps, as long as they’re edible.”
“You crazy. Always about race. Always about some people having and some people not having. Someone’s gotta hold the mudsill.”
“Shit. It’s the mudsill, all right. It’s all about shit. The only way to save the poor people is to eat them. Turn them into a product to sell. Volunteers only. Sign waivers and maybe your family gets paid something for it. Doesn’t matter what skin color you are if you’re poor. Shit only comes in one color: blood color. Dead red blood cells color.”
He snorted at that. “You lucky I don’t keep a gun around,” he said, thoughtfully. “Yeah, maybe. Not in this country, though. Might get back to me.”
“We have global operations. Think of the opportunities in Mauritania, New Zealand, Zimbabwe…”
“I’ll think about it,” he said. “I’ll ask around and see if anyone wants in on your shitty deal. Now you go on home. I’ll find you. We good at finding folk around here. We good at finding our opportunities.”
Cities growing up from the ground, I bet he is. Buses running and men on the busses wandering the city before the shelter wraps them up in towels, scrubs them clean, explains the way of the daylight world. I should go home. The opportunity is there, whenever he wants it.
Where was that? Some suburban townhouse with an environmental footprint the size of a whole village in rural Mexico? My brother’s company with all that blood and meat? My office? My restaurant? My hotel room?
No. You know what I did, next? I went back to the homeless shelter. One of the mothers had a baby that was crying, there. I offered to hold the child a while, see if I could calm it down or at least let her rest her arms a while. The mother gave it to me like she was ceding it to me, like I had just adopted this little child.
I held the boy in my arms.
I held him, and thought of holding him over a fire until his skin bubbled and peeled. I thought it might be good for us both to try it a while and see what happens.
Thoughts like these are enough to keep anyone away a long time. Even when I came back to the corporate office, I asked my brother if I could just be an office manager somewhere, keep the lights on, and distribute checks. It was enough.