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A PRISON SHIP; the resurgence of slavery; life after economic collapse.
The former American prison ship Rosalita has been at sea for six years, and wears its history on its skin. The hull is weak with patches and dents, long streaks of rust that eat the ship's name off the metal; near the prow is a wide, eye- shaped wrinkle from collision, some of the inmates say, with another ship, a derelict clipper. No. A dead mine from World War I. No. The jutting mast of a sunken galleon hanging off a spur of rock at the edge of an abyss, filled with the corpses of slaves, rum and sugar, the stuff that drove the world mad. A narwhal, say others, or no, no, a creature the size of an island that rose beneath the ship one night and dove again, leaving the Rosalita wounded and the ocean churning and swirling around her. All they have to go on are bangs and shudders, screeches across the metal, the sounds of invisible catastrophe.
The ship rises and falls under the glaring subarctic sun; the bow tilts forward and back, growing a pelt of salt and ice that glistens the rails, slicks the deck. Stiffens the American flag above the tower. Two of the flag's stripes are missing; they're part of the patchwork umbrella stabbed into the snow on the deck, cocked away from the sun to part the wind around Maggot Boy Johnson, who lies in his pants and boots on a lawn chair bolted down in front of the bridge, sunglasses over his closed eyes. His shirt is in the snow next to him, folded over three times so he can put the radio on it. Only one speaker works, and it plays nothing but early Frank Zappa. Maggot Boy Johnson hated it at first, but he and Uncle Meat have come to an understanding. He tans into burning while the opening fanfare to "Peaches en Regalia" flows over him, the bugle call for a hippie army that marched at the peak of the American parabola, that moment when physics held its breath to allow levitation, a small reward before the descent. The hippies knew it then, Maggot Boy Johnson thinks; they couldn't build it into words but they could feel it; a floating in the stomach as history shifted direction. They stopped, hey, what's that sound, and knew that the spiny skyscrapers reflected in the river, the chasms of concrete, the wide streets and sidewalks, the power lines cutting into the hills and mountains above missile silos, the highways drawing lines across the blank plains under enormous skies, the pupil of God's eye, would be the ruins that their grandchildren wandered among, the reminders that once there was always water in the faucet, there was electricity all the time, and America was prying off the shackles of its past. The vision opened up to them and winked out again, and those it blinded staggered through their lives unable to see anything else, while the rest of them wondered if they had only dreamed it.
For the first twenty minutes of Maggot Boy Johnson's stay in the sun, there is only the snow melting on the metal, the water sliding underneath the ice to trickle down the stairs, through the hallways and bunks, the galley. But then he can see the water pooling in the hold, nourishing the seeds of vines that strayed onto the ship in Malaysia. In twelve years, when the ship runs aground on the coast of Mozambique, the stones will put a hole in the hull, sun will stream into the dank air, and the vines will crawl out to spill across the sand, fingers joining ship to earth. Hello, Africa; it's Malaysia. With the help of the Vibe, Maggot Boy Johnson can see that the Rosalita will be covered in graffiti by then. He wonders how that paint will get all over the ship; wonders if he'll be around to find out.
Marco Angelo Oliveira jumps out of the sky, lands on the deck without a sound, spear in one hand; he runs his free hand over his slicked- back hair. At first, Maggot Boy Johnson doesn't even know he's there. Marco surveys the gray ocean with a hand angled across his brow, hoping for the first peak of an island, a sliver of shore, but the ocean does not comply. He sighs.
"Are we going home?" Marco says.
"Yes," Maggot Boy Johnson says, without opening his eyes
"Then why isn't it getting any warmer?"
"It is. You just can't feel it yet. What do you call that thing you're holding?" "An assegai."
"Ass a what?" "
Are those the warden's sunglasses?" Marco says. "
Yep. But that's nothing. These are Malloy's pants."
Most of the warden-his name is James Patrick Callahan, though the inmates never knew that-is now southwest of Reykjavik at a depth of 4,002 meters, his bones snagged in the rigging of a fishing boat listing to starboard, strands of skin and clothes unfurling into the current. The first amphipods found him by smell, but when they started eating, the sound of the chewing drew more for leagues around; it took the crustaceans weeks to eat the annoyance off his face. He was annoyed going into the water, annoyed even as he drowned. It wasn't that he should die before he had a chance to retire, or see America again, that he shouldn't have gone pulling brine into his lungs. He understood that the sea was a lethal thing; if it couldn't get down your throat, it would take your heat away. They were sailing on mercury, liquid nitrogen, hydrochloric acid, the warden thought, and he accepted it, forgave the ocean, which hadn't asked for it. He would have forgiven the inmates, too, if they were the ones who had tied him to a broken generator, then heaved it over the rail and let him slide along the deck after it, swing through the air, tumble into the water. They were like the sea to him, fatal and unreadable, a surface of changing faces, their calmness roiling into sudden storms, the eye of their fury turned on him.
No, he was annoyed because it was his guards who had tied his ankles, pushed the generator over, as if what was happening on the mainland could excuse it. There were riots in Los Angeles, riots in New York. Mexicans fleeing back across the border. The big factories-the ones with high walls and wired windows that you could drive by at seventy miles an hour, car windows rolled down and a Dead bootleg from 1974 on the stereo, and still be driving by it when Jerry finished his solo-the factories were going under, the workers sitting in their cars in the gigantic parking lots, smoking bad cigarettes, wondering what they were going to do now, while eight miles away on the other side of the compound, a man was clipping a door into the cyclone fence, peeling back the wires to let his family squat in the derelict buildings while he stationed himself on the roof with a rifle and sixty- two bags of salt-and-vinegar potato chips. There were killings out on the Midwestern farms, criminals roaring from town to town, borne on a caravan of rusted cars, a trail of food and gasoline, burning houses, leaving corpses chewed by shotguns in ditches. It was like that for a year, and first they could see it on the television, a newscaster in a yellow jacket standing in the rain, holding a gray microphone under the camera's glare, barking out what he was seeing when the flames behind him were plain enough. Speeches from a nervous president, sitting against the backdrop of a flag in an undisclosed location that the inmates joked was really in Canada. Then, one by one, the television stations stopped working. No news out of Washington at all, as if its mouth had been filled with dirt. The letters stopped coming, the paychecks stopped coming, and the Office of Maritime Penitentiaries couldn't be raised. Another month passed; they hailed other ships asking what was going down. One of the guards said he heard something about how there was no such thing as a dollar anymore. He opened his wallet, pulled out a five, waved it above his dinner in the fluorescence of the mess hall. If this isn't money, then what is it?
"Don't you get it?" the warden said. "America's gone."
"Sure it is, Chief," said Club Malloy. He wasn't the highest- ranking guard, but they all took orders from him anyway. It was the blear in his right eye, his hints that he had the same kind of history that the inmates did; he talked about his wife all the time, but never in the present tense.
"I'm telling you the truth," the warden said. "
The only thing that tells the truth is the dollar," said Club Malloy.
"The dollar doesn't mean anything anymore." "
Well that's too bad for you, then, isn't it."
So the inmates stood in a cluster on the deck while the warden slid off it; they heard him shout when the generator hit the waves, a small, bovine yelp when the water took him in. Then Club Malloy smiled wider and wider; just when it seemed his face couldn't make a bigger grin, the lips stretched a little farther.
We're in huge trouble, Maggot Boy Johnson thought.
That was four years ago. The guards declared martial law, shot the oldest prisoner, seventy- two- year- old Amos Straw, in the back of his head while he was reaching across the table in the mess hall for a salt shaker. Just making a point, Malloy said, though nobody knew what he was trying to say. In almost ten years on the Rosalita-he'd been put away for forgery fifteen years before, sent to Leavenworth, and then, when all the prisons got too crowded, sent out to sea on the new prison ships-Amos had never lost a card game. You could almost beat him at hearts, but at gin rummy he pummeled your ass. Poker was a filthy slaughter.
Four months later, thirty- nine inmates charged the guards' quarters, garroted one of them with a radio antenna before Club Malloy put the revolt down himself with a machine gun he kept next to his bed. He ran into the blocks, sweet and stinking with fresh blood, and shot the first two inmates he saw, strung up the bodies on steel cables on the deck. A warning, he said. We have thousands of bullets. The bodies hung in the sun until the next storm, when a gigantic wave, an exploding mountain of brine and ice, took them down.
The food on the ship dwindled, was traded for knives, cigarettes. Then food was currency. The guards locked the inmates in the hull and talked on deck amongst themselves. They hailed more passing ships, traded off spare parts, fan belts, electric switches, rubber seals. Then they stopped selling things; the inmates could hear one of the guards at the radio trying to hail the same ship a few times, one ship in particular. A conversation about the cargo still being alive. A week went by when everyone started starving. Then at sunrise another ship approached them, a black- and- green freighter flying a flag of a Roman warrior with sword and spear, his foot on the chest of a man sprawled at his feet. A broken crown. Something in crap Latin: Labos te liberat. The inmates read the faces of the crew, knew that look; they'd all had it themselves once, the nervous elation that comes with doing something you've never done before. Committing a new crime.
The guards picked out the five biggest inmates and lined them up in a row while the freighter captain, who had the name DIAMOND SAM stitched in rude letters on the back of his coat, paced in front of them, his eyes moving over the lengths of their bodies. He stopped in front of Piston Beauvoir, car thief, cardsharp, occasional bookie, who until the televisions died still took bets on games, fights, elections, whether it would rain in San Antonio, whether there'd be anchovies with dinner. Even made money on the flash floods in Tennessee.
"Open your mouth."
He did; Diamond Sam jammed two fingers into it, raked his nails against the gums. "This one's rotten," he said.
But he found the other four whole. James Szspanski, who'd opened his brother's head with a sledgehammer when he found out the man had been sleeping with his wife. He'd played third base for six different teams in the minor leagues, eight years, before a torn ligament put him out. Alan Green, who'd stolen ten thousand in cash from a wire service, shot a security guard who tried to stop him. He said later it was for his daughter. Nobody knew what Henry Holloway had done to be put on board; in seven years, he'd never said a word to anyone, spent his days on the deck doing handstands, eyes closed, legs at a perfect vertical, even as the boat moved beneath him. Carlos Rivera had always said he was innocent, and everyone believed him after he lost a toe in a fight and didn't fight back. Diamond Sam took them all, shook hands with the guards, nodded to his crew, who hauled thirteen crates of potatoes and salted fish onto the deck. And history swung in front of Maggot Boy Johnson, lashed him to its pendulum. There were noises to port, a bell, creaking wood, murmuring voices; then a spectral ship sailed through theirs, the crew in the transparent hold throwing dice against casks of deep brown rum. It ate its own wake back to Massachusetts, sailed back along the malarial coast of the South to Barbados, where the rum turned to molasses, the molasses into sugar, the sugar into cane that men replanted with upward strokes of machetes in hazy green fields. Some of the men were walked backward, stripped naked, lain on dirt floors among corpses. Then all were forced to their feet. Racked by fever, covered in offal, they shuffled backward onto a fat, splintery boat, lay down again in tight rows among flies; then all was dark, dark and screaming until the doors opened again, and they were on Gorée Island off the coast of Dakar, looking out of a stone doorway to the greasy slave ship tilting on the ravenous water, and beyond, the ocean burning blue under a bleaching sky, with no land in sight.
That was when talk began of mutiny aboard the Rosalita, of orchestrating a coup. Inmates approached Maggot Boy Johnson at the ends of dark hallways, in corners of the hull. You better mean what you say about knowing how to drive a ship, they said. At first the strategy was a general uprising, of beating the guards down with the butts of their own rifles. There would be bullet holes and drownings, a man brained against the oven in the galley. They'd torture Club Malloy on the deck, sell the rest of the guards into slavery. "The uprising is a bad idea," Marco said. "Too many of you will die." "
Better death than slavery," Big Mother said.
Marco just shook his head. "Make some noise tomorrow night. Then let me take care of it."
At midnight everyone rattled the bars of their cells, howled at the ceiling, a gorgeous choir of dissonance in the blackness of the block. They didn't even hear the guards come in. The lamps flashed on for three seconds, flashed off, and in the interval of brightness the inmates could see four guards dead in the middle of the floor, a fifth standing at the light switch in shock, Marco dropping from the ceiling on top of him. Seven minutes later a buzzer the inmates had never heard before screamed across the ship, the locks on their cells shunted open all at once, and they were free. They found the guards holding keys, headphones, toothbrushes, pants half on, shirts half off, lying on their beds, liberated from their lives. Marco wasn't even sweating. So the inmates knew the rumors were true, that Marco really was one of the Slick Six-the ones who pulled off impossible crimes, who stole houses from those who lived in them, drew millions upon millions out of the margin of error in the currency market, spirited jewels and paintings out of vaults and museums and into the black market, where money flew huge and invisible through the ether. They were wanted in over a hundred countries but partied in public in all of them: There was never enough evidence to put them away; their lawyer was too good. But Marco was the one who'd really gotten things done. The man who could hide in your shadow, in a coffee cup. The bringer of violence, who strung a chain of ghosts-men, women, and children-across five continents. The one who'd been sent away so the rest of the Slick Six could go free.
The inmates convened on the deck under a drizzling Antarctic sky, shifted from foot to foot to keep warm.
"What do we do now?" Helga Ramstead said.
"Go back to America," Sylvester Sylvester said.
"There's nothing there anymore," Ramstead said.
"There's just nothing on TV. Don't confuse the two."
"Shut the fuck up."
"I'm just saying there's got to be something there."
"No there doesn't."
They still couldn't see it; it was too much at once. They tried to use the dollars that some of the guards had stowed away in pots and pans after the food ran out, but the traders on other boats put up their hands and frowned. Haven't you heard? they said. Keep it. Show your grandkids. Tell them you remember the states united, and they'll shake their heads and laugh, tell you to stop lying. Then they started listening harder to the news that strained through the radio, crackled on computer screens, seeped out of the casual talk of the crews of other ships. More riots in Chicago and Los Angeles, big ones, over food. A hole in the roof of the Capitol. Millions of people missing. Dying cities, drying prairies. Slaves in the south again. Slaves all over. The Federation of New England.
"I think we should go back," said Big Mother. "Do you hear what they're saying? No more government. Which means there's no such thing as criminals anymore."
"That means no right and wrong either," said Piston Beauvoir. "Which means chaos."
"The law's got nothing to do with right and wrong," Big Mother said. "They're two separate things. Take away the law, it doesn't mean everyone burns everything down, does it?"
"You tell me."
They fought about it for three years. Maggot Boy Johnson walloped the Rosalita around Cape Horn in a shrieking thunderstorm that sank nine other ships; he smiled every time he saw lightning lance into the ocean, every time a wall of water jumped off the bow. They got into shipping off Eurasia, hid from pirates armed with machine guns piloting dented boats of tin and balsa on the windward side of a flock of rocks jutting off Indonesia. They sailed to Pulau Tengah, nine miles off the Malay coast, to drop off thirty crates of Sandeman port and several hundred pounds of Guatemalan coffee beans, and wound up staying for fourteen months. The island had been uninhabited for de cades, until seven former oil executives and their Malay wives built a tiny town there in the ruins of the old Vietnamese refugee camp. They called it New Elysia, said they'd live there until the polar ice caps were gone, then let their wives and children go while they stayed to meet the tide; they deserved it, they said, for what they'd done. Every morning the seven men walked down to the beach, along the lacy line of foam where the waves drew lines in the sand, and there they lay down and let the waves surround them, fill their clothes, flow into their ears. They were listening for news, they said. Someday the sea will tell us when it's coming for us.
New Elysia grew to a hundred people who made their living running a resort for the lords of global commerce who vacationed on the western side of the island; everyone else partied on the eastern side. There were roads to be cleared, trees to fell. But it was days of shrimp and mangoes, nights of zapin, while the lights of the fishing village on the Malay shore painted wavering orange ribbons over the blue water. Four of the inmates married local girls in one ceremony, and the party lasted a week, until all the port was gone and the road to the resort needed clearing again. It wouldn't be so bad to die here, Marco thought, wavering through the forest at dawn. Not so bad to trip and fall into the ground, arms out, mouth open, let the planet swallow me whole. But then the Vibe, invisible, tugged on him, and he brought his assegai out from underneath his bed when he got home, began to sharpen its edges. The Vibe studied Marco's face, its eyes turning darker in concentration, then moved through New Elysia and found Maggot Boy Johnson still in slumber, walked into his head. Maggot Boy Johnson was dreaming that he was in an infinite supermarket, surrounded by vegetables as far as he could see, weighing a piece of broccoli on a tin scale, when the influence of the Vibe set in; the fluorescent lights bent down from the ceiling, formed a set of neon lips, and spoke with the voice of history. This Marco, the Vibe said. See how I will make him my servant, him and the rest of you. Please don't, Maggot Boy Johnson said. We've been through enough already. The fluorescent lights tried to laugh, but shattered instead; and the next day, they all found themselves standing in front of the Rosalita, looking at the rusting hull, at each other. They boarded one by one without even having to talk to each other, explain why they were going back, Malaysian seeds stowed away on the soles of their shoes.
Months later they are at the edge of the Arctic Ocean, moving away from Lithuania. It has been almost five years since America winked out of existence, but now news is escaping again, and the inmates want to know. Where's the girl I was with in the days before they put me away? She had pink plastic sandals, a gap between her front teeth. We posted bail, climbed into a 1976 Gremlin with the top sawed off, bought some fake IDs, and turned onto the first curve of a two- week bender through the motels, roadside bars, and convenience stores between Dickson, Tennessee, and Monroeville, Alabama. When there were storms on the highway, she wrapped her head in plastic so she could drive through the rain while I leaned back, spread my arms along the backseat, and closed my eyes, soaking up every drop I could. In front of the court house, she got up on her toes and kissed me, her hands on my back, and said she'd wait for me. No you won't, I said, thinking I was tough when I was just being stupid. The memory of it has only sharpened; it cuts me when I get too close. Where are my parents? Are they still ashamed of me? Where is my dog? I gave him a collar of red leather, and somehow he chewed it off. He chased the bus when it drove off from the jail; when the ship angled away from the shore, I kept watching the pier, thinking he would show up, legs in a blur, mouth open, tongue hanging to the side, his new blue collar already half gone. I was going to tell him not to swim, because we'd just have to turn him back again.
They know they've turned south when the water gets warmer. They can feel it through the hull, a glow of heat rising around them, slow tendrils of warmth twining between the bunks and chairs, the chipped tables. The water sloshing on the floor grows plankton. Ice breaks off the deck, drops into the ocean in deep splashes that sound like animals barking. One night, on Piston Beauvoir's watch, the black North Atlantic brine turns phosphorescent, and a pod of dolphins surrounds the ship, dark outlines in the glowing water; then they leap ahead of the prow, rise and dive, sending out fans of light with every splash, liquid fire in the air. The inmates start a betting pool on what America will be like when they get back. It'll all be destroyed, some say, black ruins, unburied bodies lying in broken glass in the street, the countryside all ravaged crops and abandoned towns, kids shooting themselves under rotting bridges. Naw, man, others say. It'll be like nothing ever happened. The lights'll still be on, the plumbing'll still work. Hot cups of coffee and toast with margarine, baked beans and bacon. Your girl in nothing but a tank top and underwear, watching a color television under the shadow of power lines, heaven in your living room. No way, the hippies say. Everything'll be green now, you'll see. Skyscrapers covered in vines with white flowers, sidewalks of velvety grass, rows of corn on the tops of buildings. Mountain lions sunning themselves on rooftops above streets turned to streams swarming with trout, and we'll take off our shoes on the moss at their banks, sit on the curb, and dip our feet in the water. The end of industry, the end of the rush, and as the last lightbulbs burn out and the kerosene runs dry, the universe will return to the North American sky; the stars we haven't seen since there were cities, when we thought they were sparks scattered by the gods.
A dark stripe of land climbs over the horizon, separating the gray sea from its cloudy twin. At the helm, Maggot Boy Johnson takes the Rosalita through a series of long sweeps in the water; he is the victim of an explosive chain of collective memories, of Norsemen in salt- crusted furs and leathers heading toward the distant shore, spied on by natives with bone earrings and arrows; of squat Basque ships rocking in an ocean boiling with fish, throwing out their nets and pulling them in again and again until the deck riots with cod; of fisherman out from the Bay of Fundy in those same waters, bobbing on silent seas, the last fish far below; and Maggot Boy Johnson doesn't know whether they're there in the water, or only there, in his head. As they follow the coast down, against the flow of the current, real ships join the phantasms. A fishing boat with five men on it who look like they've been at sea for eight months, their laundry strung out in tan- and- plaid flags from pi lothouse to stern. Freighters parade away from the shore, another herd bearing down.
Near New York they're swarmed by a flock of scrap metal junks that parts around the Rosalita. A few sail up close enough that four men from the smaller ships can lean over the rail, touch the prison boat's hull, appraising it; they nod to each other, and a woman in pigtails runs to a siren mounted under the sail, cranks it up until it sends a caterwaul across the water, back into New York Harbor, where a curtain of brown- and- white smoke has been pulled over the buildings, over all of them save for a craggy spire that none of the inmates can remember being there. The sun is a raging fire over the hills by the time they reach the city. Maggot Boy Johnson pushes the prow through the tangled town of house boats that rings Manhattan, a colony of barges, motorboats, and sailboats gutted and built up again with salvaged timber and corrugated metal, hooked to the harbor floor by cinderblocks on chains, lashed to each other by walkways of pallets, inner tubes, and ropes, detached to let the Rosalita pass. The boats teem with people moving among the rails and rigging; there are wraiths of music, the rubbery plunk and smack of homemade instruments under ululating voices, fires in charcoal pits on the roofs, plucked and spitted animals roasting over them, fattening the sky. The boats get so thick near the island that they hide the shoreline. Sixteen men and woman jump from boat to boat, holler and point, guiding Maggot Boy Johnson to a rickety pier bowing in four places under the weight of the throng upon it, aflame with oily light and noise. The dark blocks of the buildings rise behind them, serene monoliths, and it's then that the inmates see that all of the lights are out but one: a piercing searchlight slices down from the top of that tower, which everyone knows wasn't there before. The building's a tall tapered thing, hairy around the edges, its walls a jumble of brick and plastic, concrete and glass, jutting I-beams, as if the tower were built by the horde of birds that swarm around it, as if the birds were following humans in their quest for heaven, tearing down the buildings all around it and rearing the tower from their ruins.
The Rosalita ties to the pier, and the crowd's white noise begins to resolve into a polyrhythmic, atonal frenzy. In the setting sun's violent orange light, a dark- haired boy swathed in scarves of many- colored rags runs up the swaying ramp to meet Piston Beauvoir at the top, shouting at him in a language he doesn't recognize. The boy has a plastic bottle that's been cut in half, and he dances with it, rattling out insistent syllables. He mimes drinking, then being drunk; then Piston Beauvoir gets it. It can be a cup, this bottle, the boy is saying. A bowl. A shovel. A cage for insects, pet or invasive. A cover for candles when the roof leaks. Piston Beauvoir plays along, offers the boy his shoes, his belt, his government- issue shirt. But for the boy it's serious business; he stops talking, looks the convict over, from his overgrown hair to his worn soles, frowns, and spits. Piston Beauvoir has nothing he wants. He turns and flies back down the ramp, yelling and waving the bottle over his head, the sunlight setting him on fire while three dozen men and women rush to the edge of the pier with long ladders of metal and bamboo, angle them toward the ship; the ladders clatter against the Rosalita's rails, and people climb over the kerosene water of the harbor, shout as they leap aboard, eviscerate the pi lot house, taking compass, radio, the leather chair bolted to the floor, navigation equipment dangling entrails of cut wires. Within seconds they've popped out windows and portholes with crowbars, collected the bent rivets in bags, hammered doors off their hinges and dissected the hinges with screwdrivers, whistling. They take every other step in the stairwells, seventeen chairs, four tables, a pile of guards' uniforms, three washing machines; eight men rip the stove and oven out of the galley, drag it to the deck, hoist it over their heads and soft- shoe back down the ladder to the pier with it. The ship is stripped in seven minutes, and a portly man wearing nine layers of clothes, three hats, one inside the other, approaches Marco Oliveira smiling, flings a brown envelope that Marco catches in two fingers.
"Fair is fair," the man says. Inside the envelope is a thicket of money in multiple denominations, but Marco has never seen the currency. He gets lost in the symbols, birds and Victrolas, buildings drawn at dizzying angles, as if by someone falling from a balloon, but recognizes the man framed in the middle at once; turns the bill over, sees how the silhouette on the paper matches the spire with its light sweeping over the city, the all- seeing eye, already brighter than the dying sun. His face changes, and the portly man laughs.
"Nerve thought you might react that way," the man says. "He says he wants to talk to you."
"Feeling's mutual," Marco says. Maggot Boy Johnson watches Marco's gaze rise to the tower, and the Vibe leans on Maggot Boy's shoulder. See what I told you?
Don't, says Maggot Boy Johnson.
Too late, the Vibe says. It's already started.
The streets around the docks are mobbed with people and stalls, lit by lamps of oil and animal fat, bonfires of old window frames and newspapers; people with electric signs wired to their heads and stores on their backs: locksmiths, jewelers, cell phone salesmen, shoemakers calling out for customers in a mash of English, Spanish, and Chinese, the new language of money. A band in factory uniforms tears through "La Morena" on banjo, requinto, harp, and washtub, rocking out on a muscular three, all sharp turns between frenzied runs and singing curling high with passion, a man next to them selling cured pig haunches covered with flies, smelling of salt and decay. Less than fifty feet away, somewhere in the alley between the mosque and the club, a duo ofoud and djembe slide along a loping, driving beat; he's not selling any alibis, they sing, and five swaying couples stomp their feet to rattle the hardware shack next to them in time with the music. In the shack, a woman selling colanders and metal files, long twisted pieces of steel salvaged from car wrecks, while a man next to her with severe burns on his face sells stereo equipment and satellite dishes. There's a fight in front of the empty slave market, two men waving pistols at each other; maybe this baby'll do my talking for me, each of them keeps trying to say, but they're too drunk to enunciate, too gone to hear. A smoking aisle of rickety stalls is walled with calls for laundry, noodles, organ doning, trips to China, a tiny man with an erhu jamming with a large woman on an upright bass on the changes to "Babylon System," both of them singing in piercing, fl at harmony. They're a couple, but she looks like she could eat him. A truck howls and backfires, blares an air horn. Four men are standing around an unconscious woman, arguing about motor lubrication while blood seeps out of her ear. A currency trader barks from the back of a van surrounded by roasting meat and rotting vegetables, spices and lighter fluid; the bills of a dozen countries are in his hands. On the broken sidewalk behind a slaughter house that used to be a church a woman saws into a dead dog's stomach, reaches in and pulls out a watch, her husband's. She's got his name etched into her front teeth, fl ashes it wherever she goes, though he died in the mass starvations four years ago. A circus has taken down a stoplight, raised a striped tent that hunches between the buildings; they have animals and trapeze artists, bleachers filling with people eating fried tripe and popcorn, an organ player blasting out music of deafening cheer while two women on stationary bicycles power the bellows. The crowd is tidal, swaying and fl owing back and forth, until a huge freighter, solar panels hanging off of it, blasts its entrance into the harbor, and there is a rush forward toward the water, shouts and cackles, waving arms, ladders swinging toward the rails again. The money is already changing hands, a rattle of coins, a rustle of bills, as children dart across the space hanging high above the pier with hammers and blowtorches, welcoming the ship to the new America. The inmates stand frozen in the whirling market. Sometime in the last six years, early in the morning, picking burnt gristle off a pan, or alone in a hallway, seawater raging on the other side of the steel under their hand, each of them accepted that the Rosalita, the ocean's simmering chaos, the other aging inmates, would be everything they'd have for de cades. Now, here, amid the commerce and carnival, the yelps of numbers and sea lions, the buzz of bad wiring, girls skipping bottle caps off gasoline cans, eight of the inmates realize they don't want anything else. They turn toward the Rosalita and its rust, its creaks and its shudders, the new holes in the walls, and see themselves again in its halls and stairways, the wide riveted courtyards of the blocks, stewing fish on the deck over the coals from burning broken furniture. They could be citizens of their own country now, sovereigns of the rest of their years. They look at each other then, and because they've lived with each other for so long, they just nod, stride as one through the crowds, up the gangplank, and back to the Rosalita, as free as they have ever been in their lives. But Marco Angelo Oliveira is shocked by the feeling of his years on the ship sliding off him, flowing out and away from him, filtering into the ether to join the history circling the world. He has been sleeping, and his dream self has been busy, reading the words in the northern lights, listening to the whispers in the water, writing down the signals that appeared in the guts of fish, the scattering of teeth across the cell block floor, the sunlight bending through the portholes. Now that he's waking up, the Vibe taps him and he rises, a slow ascent into the air, between the buildings near the teeming market, above the city, the people below him fl owing into a shimmer of movement on the shores of the half- dead city. Then the tops of the buildings are below him, even the spire spiked into the city's heart with its angry eye, and Marco can see the planet curve away beneath him, the Atlantic a rippling sheet of silk, the land a cresting sea of concrete breaking against forests and hills that have come to reclaim it. He follows the veins and vines of highways and train tracks, the speed made solid on thousands of miles of rail and pavement shooting lines across Appalachia, the deserts of Texas and Arizona, the fields of California, the blank plains of Kansas, and he knows with the clarity of childhood that the sound of a bell that was struck in his head the day he boarded the Rosalita will not stop ringing; and if he ever wants to be happy again, he must find the Slick Six, his family, his home.
Excerpted from Liberation: Being The Adventures Of The Slick Six After The Collapse of The United States of America by Brian Francis Lattery.
Copyright © 2008 by Brian Francis Lattery.
Published in 2008 by A Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.