Joseph Houlihan

1. ELLEN BURSTYN lies in a hospital bed. She’s unconscious, rocking back and forth under a tangle of sensors. Rubber wires run from diodes to a wall of screens. Dials click. Fans whir. The screens light up with bright washes of color. The infrasonic roar of the machines almost overpowers the bot voice interpreting the biofeeds. Technicians bend over the readouts. One technician interrogates the sleeping woman.

2a. Session: What is your last memory before the accident?

2b. (ELLEN BURSTYN in a bot voice) Prairie grass, violets, I walked down the dirt road at the edge of town, I knew that at the end of the road was our farm, our barn with brick red slats, and a giraffe for a weather vane, we put that up the year I was a circus acrobat for Halloween, and the year before that I was Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, and before that I was a Pumpkin, and before that I was a Witch, and before that I was a Bunny, I’d eat the seeds from the oven, seeds bought from a general store in a paper cone, besides a cone for sugar and a cone for flour, we cut the cones for dolls clothes, and cut our dolls from the Sears and Roebuck.

3a. Session: What is your connection to the terrorist organization VNOW?

3b. Chicago can be too lonely, eating egg sandwiches by myself, rushing away from the Santa Fe building with a cardboard cup of bad coffee, and waiting by myself on the elevated platforms, I’d grown jealous of the happy couples with big wool coats, one night I had a dream about Alain Delon, and he was making a passionate plea to me on a boat in a floating garden, he told me that the foolishness of the agency would cost us the future of the republic, and he kissed me deeply, but then a group of hooligans started berating us from the shore, and we hurried from the gates of the garden down into the street, and the toughs started running after us, throwing bottles, Alain ran ahead, dragging me by the arm, down serpentine alleys, until we reached a canal and crossed onto a taconite barge, and over the canal onto a quiet street, we ducked into a pharmacy, past teenage lovers with their drinks, sodas, phosphates, and we hid inside the telephone booth as the toughs ran up and down the streets outside.

4a. Session: When did you first make contact with the terrorist organization VNOW?

4b. I came up from the typing pool, and that’s where I made my first close friends, Glenn approached me at the end of my shift, and complimented my jacket, which I thought was darling, because it was a terribly out of fashion jacket, the next day, she found me at lunch and brought me to her favorite spot in the compound, a dilapidated peace garden. “We had a victory garden. Lettuce and peppers and tomatoes, but we don’t need those anymore, now that the whole city is a victory garden.” “I lost my brother in the war.” “Oh.” “But you’re probably too young to even remember. 37?” “33.” “You’re still a baby.” “I’m old enough to know a peace garden from a victory garden.”

5a. Session: What can you tell us about the painting?

5b. Her lips were crimson, and she laughed nervously, sipping her tea rotating the chair around, and scooted a cookie back and forth along the plate, I hadn’t seen Glenn enter, she came in through an alley entrance, the concierge stopped her, “I’m not picking up a valence reading,” but then I stood up, and the concierge stood down, we kissed, “Darling it always feels like a lifetime,” and she settled into the chair, and ordered her Earl Gray, on the next table a wrinkled newspaper tucked under a plate with egg yolks, and ceramic teacups described the collector’s decision to finally sell out his treasure, the famous Flemish master’s only winter scene, the Holstein pastures, alfalfa fields, rabbit tracks in the snow, but that day Glenn talked about her decision to forego motherhood, and spread butter on a scone’s steaming pith, outside the wind knocked tree branches against the iron railing on the second storey. Glenn looked out the sliding doors, and stirred her spoon, “Darling, I can’t make the decision for you, my own mother passed on five years ago, and we buried her beside her brothers, on a little bluff, along a river. The thing is, her generation is the last to remember life before the agencies. When we lose them, we lose part of ourselves, and our children, could we promise them a life worth living under consensus?” “Had she lived a full life?” “Far too full. Now, I wear her perfumes and silks, and wander her apartment, trying to find anything that’s left.”

6a. Session: When did the terrorist GLENN CLOSE recruit you for the VNOW?

6b. The rainy streets were thick with car smoke, and kitchen steam, and smoke from water pipes, slim East Africans sat along the tables on the street, I loved Glenn, I realized, in a way, when someone smells like rain and wool, you want to reach out and touch them, I felt she became the Hungry Tiger from Ozma of Oz, and I wanted to be eaten up all the way, my life became fuller when she was around, teasing me, toasting wine and chomping little langoustines, Chicago can be an obscure city, of hedges, and brambles, and swamplands, when I first visited her apartment, she said “I’ll ring you in,” and it was a terrible mess, clothes were piled up on chairs besides rotting fruit, crumpled out clementines, and squash, and a pair of her red tights were drying in the bath, “It’s lovely,” I said “Can I offer you a sandwich, or a cut from my supper?” “No, not at all.” “Here I have chocolates. Miss Schrader left these in her desk when she was relocated.” “But when was that?” “Months ago, but the chocolate is good.”

7a. Session: Where did you first see the painting?

7b. Azulejas, a fine white powder that settled on the window sill, big red chrysanthemums splotched ads, and dirt, and scuffs smeared the walls, and the train clattered away from the center city, commuters stood serialized in the car, buzzing with glowing LEDs, I looked down at the rails, and they glinted in the sun, I skipped down the stairs from the elevated platform, at the conservatory, they had already roped off the palm house, I walked down the crushed red gravel path, and looked in on the event, I didn’t realize it, but the canvas the workmen unrolled was painted by the great Flemish master, his only winter scene, they hung the piece to be auctioned, and I slid further into the big wet palm fronds in the steamy house. One gardener passed out clippings from the Amazon, unthinking I stuck a leaf into my mouth. That night I dreamed about a parade of angry agricultural laborers, they marched down Logan Boulevard, I dreamed I walked along a beach, and a double-decker bus sped off a pier into the crashing ocean waves, I dreamed I could see the other worlds that float among us.

8a. Session: When did you begin harboring animosity against Consensus?

8b. My grocery list bled out in the laundry, 33 and I was still just writing notes to myself, I wouldn’t hear from Glenn for a week or two, I’d stand on line with Campbell’s soup cans to fill a casserole dish, with noodles and ziti, my lunch for a week, every morning the councilors had breakfast in some gilt room, then affected their studied look, covered in hardware, dangling monocles, flashy smart optics, optics on prayer chains, optics on tortoise shell glasses, they’d stand outside the meeting room, and shudder and quake and speak in low-tones as if they were stuffed with secrets instead of bran and coffee and egg mcmuffins and ginger zingers, I took minutes for the meeting, and served on a few committees, it was no big surprise when they invited me to the fundraiser at Garfield Park, of course I declined at first, and then reluctantly accepted, because I was curious.

9a. Session: Tell me about the auction.

9b. Patrons wore black and sat in red folding chairs, and bid, with slow palsy arms, no hurry, lot 232, palms draped over the lots, shefalera, and an ochre sun glinted through a leaded row of windows along the wall of the adjacent orchid room. The tinkle of water, Jens Jensen’s tears trickled through the black loam. The painting sold for a huge sum.

10a. Session: Did you see who bought the painting?

10b. That night I dreamed about Steve McQueen. He was forty, but still a high school senior. I wore his letter jacket and we drove down a dirt road, and then walked out further with a blanket into a clearing. Later, when he tried to convince my father, the town sheriff, he’d overheard a conversation of assassins no one believed him. My father played correspondence chess with a cousin in East Germany.

11a. Session: What was your relationship with the terrorist GLENN CLOSE?

11b. The first time I fell in love, I was twelve, and he was sixteen. He lived in one of those cabins the farms keep for seasonal workers, and I don’t know how he managed to live, picking cherries, and strawberries, and blueberries, and never making more than two dollars a day, beside his mother and his sister, sweat streaming down their beautiful Crow faces.

12a. Session: How did you become active in VNOW?

12b. Glenn invited me to a party. And it had been years since I’d been to a party, not since school. So I was nervous. When we arrived there were all of these beautiful students. Dark skinned boys with curly hair. One student played sad Spanish music on a guitar. Glenn said, “I’ll get us a drink.” And then introduced me to her friends. Sammy was an engineering student, and a refugee from the Balkan conflag. One boy, PR, leaned in very close to me, and flashed his very white teeth, and asked me how I could stand to work for the Consensus. I said I didn’t know. But then I just wanted him to ask me more about myself. My interests. My favorite nutritionist. Almost all the students wore black pants and black shirts. Or black shirts and denim. P.R. poured me a prosecco in a mug, and said he’d like to do to me what my bosses were doing to his valency. And I swooned. “What do you miss most? From life before consensus.” “Well I was a kid. So kid stuff. Saturday cartoons. Do you remember how many flavors of jelly beans there used to be?” Glenn drank a shandie and then wrapped me up in her arms, they put on a Sam Cook record and I danced with PR, and he had very strong arms. I was hot and sat alone in a folding chair. Some of the students argued and pushed fingers in excited speeches. Then she was behind me. She played with my hair. She leaned over me in the doorway, and I stood abruptly and moved very close to her body, my face breathing on her neck, and our middles touching. “I think it might be time for me to take you home to bed.” And I nodded. And we fell into a new ocean.

13a. Session: What was your first assignment for VNOW?

13b. Dhoruba. Councilor Dhoruba had not arrived, and no one had heard from him, so they sent me to find him, uptown, in ragged connections, bus to train to cab, and the autumn wind was already sharp, when I knocked on the door, a young West African asked me, “Who the fuck are you supposed to be?” and she didn’t know where Dhoruba was either, but she’d like to know, motherfucker, and when my locket suddenly started to buzz, outside a dive bar, I found the councilor in the depths of a drunk, “I can’t believe he’s gone now, my brother, I have three brothers: Abdi, Khaled, and me, and now I only have Khaled.” His eyes were like fisheries in a hurricane. I left him there alone.

14a. Session: Why did you decide to become an accomplice to terrorism?

14b. It happened as the guests were leaving, starting a line to claim their purchases, the first two that walked out into the lights of waiting town cars were knocked over by an explosive burst, and so the next guests shielded their eyes and turn to ran, and, as in a movement of a great wave, the crowd spilled back into the conservatory, the auction officials blinked, confused and stopped in mid-transaction, Glenn, settling-up for her modest purchase, leaned in and grabbed an auctioneer, breathing heavily, she put his hand on her breast, “I’m so frightened, what’s happening? Help me.” He stuttered, “Miss, calm yourself,” he turned to his superiors for guidance, and as he looked away Glenn slid the prized canvas by the Flemish master into her valise, and walked calmly out a side door.

15a. Session: What kind of remuneration were you given for your participation in the terrorist attack?

15b. She didn’t call. I didn’t hear anything. I was scum. One day I ran into PR and he promised me the cell was intact and Glenn would contact me when it was safe, with information on our rendezvous, but I just returned to my shithole life.

16a. Session: How did the VNOW network contact you after your initiation?

16b. All of the sudden I was shit. Benedict Arnold and Major Andre and the miserable cowardly Princess Langwidere. If I put my hand in the fire, would it consume me more? More than my Hungry Tiger? Shit. Cunt-licker. The blood that ran on the tiles of the reception, the slashes across innocent faces that wept, those stigmata were my stigmata. Glenn, Glenn, you hidden bolus of shame, you secret fire, you thumbscrew. I burned for you.

17a. Session: When did the VNOW network contact you?

17b. Until she did call, and scheduled our meeting, our escape materialized, and I found myself standing on a bridge over a wide railyard, coughing in the autumn air, hugging myself, and dreaming of her opening up at least one more time again to me, below the trains shuddered on the tracks, some abandoned and rusted and lived in, all dun and unending, at a shed a heat light buzzed, even as I wheedled on the bridge uncertain I wanted to see her, I knew I wanted her, eat me up, I’m Grrrrrreat!, I’m part of this balanced breakfast, in the distance smoke billowed away from the heating plant at another apartment bloc filled with immigrants, filling out another tri-star sunset, brilliant and devastating, far above the swamp muck of alleys that oxbow in this swamp city, above the wino demiurge eviscerating cats behind dumpsters, above the fungus that goes on for miles, above the trays of steaming fish at council meetings, above the clatter of the street, taxis, shopping carts tipping, mist, black nylon umbrellas, above the river, above the corner groceries with 1880s cupolas, above the used car dealers, construction zones, deserted streets, boxy offices, diaphanous galleys, huddled muddied grain silos, tangle of spikes and hawser chains, and factories for hats, and plates, and blankets, above drugstores, strip malls, electronic shops, firestone, jewelry, penneys, busstops, kids passed a green punk mouth to mouth, scratched out monikers on the sidewalk, busses, trains rolled through the depot, and exhaled more smokestack clouds and sunset, and I descended the old metal stairs into the railyard, and passed through the Yves Laloy maze, some linemen smoked and jogged between cars and I walked further on to a blinking dot on my gps, in the heart of a savage industrial thrumming, my heart thrummed too.

Glenn was waiting for me at the car. Her lips were crimson, and crooked in a smile. She held her arms out. And we embraced. “Darling it’s been a lifetime.” I realized I was crying, and she led me up the metal stairs into the train car, outfitted in grays and greens and blues, it was, I realized, an old military train. Heavy armor plates glinted in the setting sun. We sat in a baggage car, surrounded by duffle bags. She told me: “You’ll have to tell me everything you know.” And I said: “Whatever do you mean? I know what you’ve told me.” Then she stood and paced in the baggage car. “Sammy and PR are dead.” She said. “And three others had to evade police.” I swallowed. She said: “What is your real connection to the terrorist Consensus government?” I wept and she pulled a tire iron from the wall.

I remember the blow like a charge of electricity. A whoosh. A peal of thunder. At age eight, I climbed a tall tree out in the forest, and on the other side of the valley lightning struck a pine and started a blaze. When she swung again, I realized my life would never be the same. I realized I was part of the forest fire. I could see a thick red veil over my eyes. Harbor lights fizzle and the night sentry goes under, lost in a terrible storm, fish eyes, a watery grave, bury me on a hillside, above nettles and ferns and honey bees on a fudgesicle, where the kestrels roost, and the cinders settle, as she swung my life turned into a fruit carton in the gutter, blood pudding on a silver tureen, and I passed on, her face became a death mask, floating out beyond the stars, I kissed that death mask, and collapsed in a shuddering leather tourniquet.

Joseph Houlihan lives and writes in Minneapolis, MN.