The Good Sentinel
The State is the coldest of all cold monsters- and this lie creeps from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people” – Nietzsche
Many years later, as he stepped up to the gallows, before a gathered few official spectators in the drafty subterranean parking garage of the Intercontinental Hotel, Damian Meier would feel nostalgic for the days before the revolution. In addition, he would feel remorse for all the things that he had committed to accomplish in his life but had yet remained to be discharged. And myopically, he would feel contrite for the several appointments that were to be abandoned in light of his sudden fate, one of which was a meeting with an attractive woman in the office of a purged Central Committee member to discuss the installation of a wall dividing the grounds of the Athenaeum Opera House from the street. But he would not feel like a worthless animal waiting for his neck to be broken in order that its fur be used for a winter hat. No. That was the kind of thinking for a romantic or a poet. Damian Meier, in the moments he had before he was to be hanged, would simply feel unresolved.
The truth is Damian Meier did not have clear memories of his childhood. He remembered his father and his mother, and sometimes he remembered thunderstorms and dirty potatoes gathering mildew in a sack that emanated a foul stench. But the potatoes had been somewhere else he’d lived. Or maybe nowhere at all. He’d had the superstition since childhood that he would die by electrocution and he did remember that at least part of the fear was founded by the one unfortunate incident in his boyhood during which he reached for a light switch that was illicitly and inefficiently wired to a washing machine in a neighbor’s flat, and the current that flowed from the open circuit through his body in an irregular pattern felt like sharp cogs grinding his insides causing extreme pain, but also making him itch badly.
For Damian Meier, elementary education, up to the fourth year, took the usual route of every developing student in the system, that is: nothing spectacular or indicating any early inclination of mastery in a discipline either way. In the fifth year, Damian Meier was felled by Mathematics, in particular quadratic equations and the circumference of objects, and was promptly told by an elderly despotic instructor with flabby underarms and the propensity to use the edge of a ruler on pupils’ knuckles that, although he would never pass the baccalaureate exam in a few years, he would make an efficient ditch-digger in the army.
The Private First Class designation that Damian Meier received in the army after he, indeed, proved he could not pass the baccalaureate exam but instead did make an efficient ditch-digger was the first time he was bestowed anything with the words “First” in the title, and he looked upon the status with great pride. Not long after showing various sergeants (and sometimes even colonels who liked to inspect such unimportant things) that he could excavate an outhouse hole within a few hours with no help, Damian Meier was moved to the motor pool as an assistant mechanic in charge of keeping full the diesel supply, properly working sparkplugs, and updating inventory in a notebook. Accounting, it seems, was also a strong skill of Damian Meier’s, despite his failed academic career. There was no need to find the area of circular objects in accounting, only keep track of their numbers.
From time to time, he would send crates of grapes and homemade plum brandy to a vague address in the capital where he was somewhat unsure that his mother and father resided. The goods were never returned to his post, thus leaving Damian Meier satisfied he was executing his filial duties despite the absence of any communication or a simple word of thanks from the parents at the address.
The revolution began at Easter and spread from the northwest of the country quickly. As with nearly every revolution, massive protests by dissatisfied university undergraduates swelled in city plazas, demanding the resignation of the president and his government and instituting free elections. As with every revolution, the government mobilized not just the army, but also a large, expeditionary force of miners and other workers and armed them with clubs and batons in order that they be set upon the demonstrators, indicating that the working class was not to be upended by intellectuals with obtuse ideals and eyeglasses.
Damian Meier was not one of those assigned by the government to play the role of a miner or a worker. He was already a trained soldier (Private First Class), and his skills were better exploited firing a rifle, into the soft flesh covering the cranium of a dissenter, not swinging a club in the manner of a corrupt Cro-Magnon. Bureaucracy decreed that Damian Meier could be more effective in his efforts to stifle the revolution from a long distance, for example as a sniper in an empty room with the windows removed high up in a housing tenement overlooking the goings-on, thus conserving energy as well as time. But bureaucracy was trumped by higher-up bureaucracy with a different goal.
The colonel, who explained the strange assignment, was bony and tall with pink skin and had an unusual name like Haas or Foos. It wasn’t ultimately important to Damian Meier, who imagined there was a double letter in the surname and then simply forgot about it. The officer was adamant about the importance of the mission and often, as he was explaining the rudiments at a much closer distance to his face than Damian Meier was comfortable with, he slapped his own arms as if he were squashing mosquitoes. During the briefing, Damian Meier felt he was going to pull out his knife and cut off the colonel’s earlobe for no reason. He was surprised by how unmoved he felt thinking about the colonel’s sudden misfortune. After all, they were attempting to quell a revolution and many different inequities occurred within the context of such conflicts; a missing earlobe would not invite inquiries. No one pushed too hard to extract responsibility for anything during trying times.
The street that Damian Meier was assigned to guard by Colonel Haas or Foos divided the city almost exactly in half. It was comprised of large, black cobblestones that had been quarried nearly six hundred years before by Ottoman Empire slaves (kuls) and brought to the city on the backs of donkeys and the kuls themselves. The crux of the assignment was simple: the street was to be held and kept at all costs by the forces of the government. Damian Meier did not ask why. One, because a Private First Class in the army never questioned orders given by a colonel, and two, because he assumed a thoroughfare that divides in half a city under siege must be of great strategic importance to one side or another.
The first twelve hours at the post were passed in a strange kind of guarded boredom for Damian Meier. From both sides surrounding the street he could hear clearly that bullets belonging to the army were being answered with Molotov cocktails and other homemade incendiary devices thrown by the revolutionaries in a kind of turbulent, aggressive argument. The bullets, he assumed, were more accurate in their intent and thus winning the quarrel.
A ghastly howl, that of a woman’s, reverberated through his territory at one point. It bounced off the cobblestones and around the centuries-old edifices that had been hastily abandoned at the time the unrest came to the city. The screams exited out like knives above the roofs and swirled in with clouds of blue and black smoke floating above. Damian Meier was aware that a woman was being raped before her probable slaughter, likely by several army soldiers. Despite his allegiance to the government forces, at that moment he felt he could turn on his violating comrades and execute murder, but not to exact justice for the woman. For another reason, which he couldn’t explain. Instead, he just watched the clouds of smoke from the nearby fighting and burning assemble themselves into weird shapes above his street: human limbs, a sausage, cauliflower, alien submarines.
But Damian Meier had an assignment.
Atrocities, discrimination, partisanship, bias, prejudice, and genocide were all interrelated components of the maelstrom that aimed to topple that comfortable permanence in the world of governments and hierarchy. The street, Colonel Haas or Foos decreed, must be held and the post never abandoned.
Fighting stretched into the night but never once were the boundaries of the street breached by anyone, as if an alliance had been formed by the warring sides to designate the thoroughfare a demilitarized zone, one which Damian Meier was to protect and maintain. This baffled and enraged him. And so he remained somewhat pointlessly in his guardhouse at attention with the rifle loaded and extra magazines filling a large bucket at his feet. From time to time a Molotov cocktail or makeshift incendiary weapon would be hurled from one side to the other, safely passing through the airspace of the street, never landing in it. Through the screaming and cursing from both sides, Damian Meier dreamed of rolling a cigarette with good tobacco from another country and longing to take part in the conflict.
At dawn the sun burned through the stench of charred bodies and the smoke, and a somewhat drowsy Damian Meier wished very much he could shoot someone. He put his hand on the holster of his pistol and although he didn’t draw it, this calmed him.
The army must have moved equipment and artillery overnight, because right at the time a person would be taking a coffee, dissolving the cobwebs of a difficult slumber, Damian Meier counted six consecutive shells flying supersonically above his street heading toward the other side. The projectiles screamed oddly, like pigs being slaughtered with hunting knives. The concussion of the shells landing a short distance away knocked his cup of cold cabbage soup into the bucket of bullets and the murderous rage inside Damian Meier’s guts grew at this simple injustice. He decided that he was going to stab the colonel with his bayonet the next time the officer came.
Four days after he was assigned to guard the street, Damian Meier longed for things in school to have turned out differently. He wished he understood quadratic equations. He wished he passed the baccalaureate. He coveted time at a university without realizing the laborious, rigorous curricula. Had he gone on to higher education, his allegiance would likely have belonged with the revolutionaries, and he would have been throwing Molotov cocktails instead of guarding an empty street that was conspicuously not important enough to take by either side. His life would not have been futile. It would have ended at the gallows resolved and complete.
Inside his guardhouse he sliced off a circular piece of head cheese and attempted to solve its radius using 2(pi)r = c, but he could not. Instead, he longed for mustard.
In order to coax the fighting into spilling across his street and thus plunge him into the conflict, Damian Meier started fires, whistled, screamed, and marched incessantly up and down stomping his boots on the cobblestones so violently that the tibia pushed up and nearly dislocated one of his knees.
On the sixth night the fighting around him suddenly ceased. Not one sound came from the warring parties. The noise of revolution was instead replaced by chirping birds, a melodious singing that reverberated throughout the entire street, bouncing off the buildings in a continuous, reflected pattern that multiplied or doubled and tripled over itself until a cacophony of music enveloped the entire space. Perplexed, Damian Meier left his post and walked to the middle of the thoroughfare. At that moment he knew he was going to swallow a bullet that would enter through his jaw and lodge itself in the back of the throat. In his larynx, he felt the strange tickle of grinding electrical current he had once experienced as a boy, as if the cylindrical projectile generated its own power.
And then, in the midst of incessant bird song he began to scream obscure phrases and dubious mathematical formulas, all the while wishing he would grow taller.
The intruder came suddenly from behind the guardhouse, nearly seventy meters away. It was clueless, walking without purpose toward Damian Meier who quickly raised his weapon to the shoulder and aimed. Not noticing the impending doom or even smelling Damian Meier’s acrid odor from having stood guard and not washed in nearly a week, the trespasser turned his head sideways momentarily, pricking his ears at a peculiar sweeping-like sound coming from an alley perpendicular to the street. Could someone, a cleaning woman who had stayed behind from some sort of obtuse allegiance, actually be scouring the front steps of her home with a broom? Damian Meier shot. It was clean and acceptable: into the head through the right eye. The pop of the rifle funneled out vertically with a short echo.
The animal was thrown back from the violence discharged to its skull. And then it collapsed like a deflated set of bagpipes, making a slight gasp-like sound from the oxygen forced out of its mouth.
It was a muscular dog, maybe a husky, but an old dog who had strayed. Damian Meier thought he had gray wolf in him. He walked up to the animal and placed his boot on the dog’s neck, pressing hard. Blood squeezed out of his mouth and gathered in a puddle first, before slowly flooding into the channels of the cobblestones and advancing toward an undefined destination. In his left eye, the one organ that was not mutilated by the bullet, the dog had formed a tear but the secretion had not yet had the chance to flow down, and so it gathered into a miniature pool in the conjunctiva.
Damian Meier did not notice it.
At the awards ceremony, the Colonel General who pinned the medal for courageous combat service on Damian Meier’s left breast leaned in and whispered: “The line between not killing and killing is quite faint…almost indistinguishable. That is what you are receiving this medal for.” The officer’s breath smelled of onions and bile. “In fact, the officer said, killing nowadays doesn’t even require a weapon, only a pen. That is also why you are receiving this medal. From here on, you’ll merely be required to use a pen—a much simpler assignment, don’t you agree? And much more civilized.”
Official pictures were taken of the recipients. They stood erect—proud men adorned by golden epaulets like sticks in mud with sparkling garlands wrapped around. In time, these photos would be altered accordingly to stay consistent with the People’s dictated changes in the historical events of the particular day. A revolution thwarted always carried with it purges. Purges were a natural consequence of change or fickle orders given by men with pockmarked faces from offices with plush carpeting. Damian Meier would come to understand this not long after the medal was pinned to his uniform and subsequently given an office in the Central Committee building presiding over Revolution Plaza and becoming part of the bureaucracy of the People.
There were two telephones on his desk. The one with the red receiver had no dial or any means whatsoever of redirecting the line away from the permanent destination to which it was connected: the secret security force that served as the information as well as punitive organ of the People. During the three years that Damian Meier worked in the spacious, brightly lit Victorian room surveilling Revolution Plaza, he never once received communication on or had to dispatch orders using the red receiver. But the telephone was always there, looming. Finality rested on his desk every day with a blank, nonplussed demeanor. It concerned itself with the personal affairs of every functionary. The red telephone was where and how everything ended for everyone.
Ivanov walked into the room with a manilla folder under his arm. He placed it on Damian Meier’s desk and quickly passed a look over the red receiver. To what? To make sure all was well? To look for a secret signal? Ivanov was a survivor from the previous revolution. He was the rat living inside the pipes that swam to the air pocket whenever the conduits were flooded. Damian Meier knew that from the day Ivanov was assigned to him. There were men like Ivanov who outlasted everything: revolutions, death, history. These men were bridges reaching backwards and forward in ideology. They allowed for everything to happen or not happen, including time. Men like Ivanov were always assigned to men like Damian Meier and most always severely outranked their assignees. Ivanov was probably a general.
“Do you have a working pen,” Ivanov asked. He wore a brown suit that was frayed at the cuffs of the trousers and jacket sleeves. He stank of sweat and kitchen. It was hard to see down to the ruthlessness of the man through his modest clothes. The suit evoked pity and charity, not terror. It was a disorienting layer of humanity that, on Ivanov’s part, was either intended or accidental. Damian Meier patted himself and looked at the man’s veins pulsating on top of his hands. Ivanov left a writing instrument next to the folder and made a strange gesture. Damian Meier thought he heard Ivanov’s heels click and expected a bow. But the man merely tapped on the paperwork inside the folder. “By two o’clock,” he said. And then he let himself out.
From the window, Damian Meier had a clear look at the row of old mulberry trees delineating the edge of the asphalt pedestrian path that undulated around the plaza and flowed out along Boulevard Magyar. A functionary, an ordinary looking man with a shameful piece of hand luggage used as a briefcase, crossed the plaza and walked perpendicularly across the path into the shadow of the mulberry trees. Damian Meier craned his neck but the glass prevented him from switching to a good angle. The man could only be seen from the chest down now, his half torso swallowed by the tree and its shadows. The pitiful briefcase was dropped to the ground. Both his arms thrust up into the lower crown folds of the fruit tree, shaking the branches. It was a curious scene and Damian Meier expected to see a policeman at the location immediately, investigating and making an arrest for defacing public space. A few pedestrians walked by, all of whom purposefully fixed their eyes away from the infraction the functionary was committing. How curious, Damian Meier thought. The man is cutting down branches, surely. But with what? He hadn’t noticed any type of saw or tool. He must be ripping the tree limbs with his own hands. Why?
When the man finished his deed, he picked up the briefcase and emerged from the shadow chewing. His trouser pockets as well as the small pouch on the left breast of his shirt bulged with what Damian Meier assumed were the tree’s fruit. The functionary looked across the plaza quickly, scanning the area as if hoping to spot a waiting accomplice. Then he wiped his lips clean of trickling juice with his sleeve and took the pedestrian path out toward Boulevard Magyar. Across from the tree which had been violated, standing firmly in the plaza in front of the bronze statue of Michael the Brave, a student pioneer—a child of no more than nine years—took out a small, inadequately bound notepad and wrote forcefully and frenetically the infraction by the hungry functionary that she had witnessed.
“The People aren’t interested in individual cases,” Ivanov said. His voice sent a twitch to the left cheek of Damian Meier. It was a sharp stab with the blade of a pen knife. A direct, violent strike that reached in a short line deep into the muscle of the face. Ivanov had stealthily come back with more paperwork. How long had he been standing there? Could he have seen what Damian Meier had spied outside? Was he addressing the infraction of that poor functionary who merely helped himself to a few handfuls of the People’s fruit? “No, the People are not interested in names on a list, comrade,” Ivanov said. “What’s more important in our situation is that the names themselves realize that retaliation has been triggered and that the earthquake has arrived under their feet. The People understand that. They are in accord with that,” Ivanov said. He placed the bulging manilla folder on the desk next to the other paperwork. “And these by three o’clock, comrade,” he said.
Damian Meier sat at the desk and slid over the first pile of paperwork. He looked briefly through the first dozen pages. They were the usual confessions extracted by security agents in the basement, four floors below his office: violation of the People’s discipline, enemy of the People who sows discord into society, intent to conspire against the People, conduct immoral to the well-being of the People, treason against the People. Very few confessions listed any more details. The ones that did were such outrageous tales that, instead of preposterous and comical, they became chilling.
The documents were written in longhand by the confessors themselves. Damian Meier’s duty was to transcribe and sign them, making them official documents by stamping the People’s insignia in the lower left hand corner of the paper. He rolled in a segment of carbon sandwiched by two blank sheets into the .xo typewriter issued and registered specifically to him by the Office of Information and Communications. The machine worked well. Its only flaw was the non-functioning letter “I,” an annoying situation which Damian Meier always circumvented by substituting the letter with the number “1.”
At two o’clock, Ivanov entered the office and removed the typewritten, signed and stamped paperwork brought in earlier. He asked Damian Meier if he needed anything and announced he would come back in an hour.
“You should take part in the morning exercises,” Ivanov said and pushed the cup and saucer toward Damian Meier. The tea was weak, probably strained a fourth or fifth time through the filter. “It would help with your precarious condition,” Ivanov smiled. Damian Meier held his left hand. The last three fingers had been numb for several months, a condition he attributed to excessive typing and relentless use of longhand, signing not just the daily quota of confessions but dozens of additional permits and decrees in the name of the People. But, as Ivanov removed the second folder with official paperwork from his desk, Damian Meier realized he hadn’t mentioned his affliction to anyone. Ivanov tapped the file with his fingers, turned, and quietly shut the door behind him.
Damian Meier remained standing. What did Ivanov mean, precarious? What was precarious about his numb fingers, if he even knew about them? And which condition? The numbness? His own private convictions about the People? Ivanov was an intelligent rat. He would never just be making idle conversation. Certainly another office kept track of who took part in recreational activities. There was always another typewriter, a signature, and a seal on paperwork.
Damian Meier sat and clicked the pen. With its point he pressed into the bottom fleshy area of the ring finger on his left hand. He felt nothing. And then he decided that next morning he was going to join the others in the half hour of arm circles, jumping jacks, and stretching out in the yard. Ivanov was right. The People were right; all he needed was consistent exercise.
The flat issued to him was not small; it was comprised of two medium-sized rooms, a modest bathroom with enough space for tub, sink, and toilet, and a separate kitchen—the largest room in the dwelling. The previous tenant must have had a child; there was a wire mesh rigged on the outside of the kitchen window, presumably to keep the child from falling nine stories down to the alley that delineated the shorter side of the rectangular, concrete apartment building.
Damian Meier hung his coat on the hook in the vestibule. He took off his shoes and slid them neatly under the modest side table against the wall. He placed his key on the table, underneath his handkerchief, and walked to the washroom where he urinated while sitting on the porcelain vessel. At that moment, a wave of hatred slammed across his chest and he wished Ivanov to be purged. With the flush of the toilet he could be sent back to the sewer pipes, from where he came.
In the kitchen, Damian Meier had a yoghurt for dinner and listened to the gargantuan People-issued radio until its tubes began to overheat and pop, finally drowning out the banal analytical program. He stood, looked up, tracing the strange geometric corners of the walls up to the ceiling, hoping to spot something. And then he heated water in the pot on the kitchen stove. He filled the tub a third of the way, enough to cover his thighs when he sat in it, and then he climbed in.
The telephone in the vestibule buzzed. From the tub, Damian Meier counted thirty-six rings before it fell silent again. On the other end of the line, the case officer assigned to debrief Damian Meier was aware of his presence in the flat and would call back in ten minutes. An excuse would have to be given: a severely upset stomach that required more time spent in the washroom than the average. The unpleasant condition would be attributed to the spoiled state of the yoghurt eaten for dinner earlier. Everything connected safely and logically.
The case officer identified himself by his last name and a number. It was always the same name and number, but every new conversation had to be documented for the Office of Information and Communications. The monthly debriefing usually lasted no longer than fifteen minutes and included standard questions about work productivity and personal details regarding every aspect of daily life. When asked about missing the call ten minutes earlier, Damian Meier told the officer on the other end of the crackling, tapped line about his stomach misfortune. Immediately he thought it wise to leave the yoghurt jar unwashed on the kitchen table for the agents who would enter his flat the next day in order to search for evidence corroborating the story.
“What of the woman in 8A who beats her rugs free of dust in the courtyard alongside the other widow in 8C?” the case officer asked Damian Meier. “Are they speaking to one another under the loud cover of their chores?” Damian Meier reported that he hadn’t seen either of them talking. “But they are out there together, always,” the case officer said. “They must be saying something to one another. There is always a reason two comrades are consistently together. And that reason isn’t to be silent. Would you disagree?” said the case officer. The line crackled when Damian Meier spoke.
Ivanov came in with paperwork. “These by four, and these by tomorrow afternoon or sooner,” he said. “Better sooner. This pile has been typed already and contains approvals of permits for building walls. Take care how you sign comrade, because space is severely limited and the sheets are thin. If you press too hard, the ink will go through.” Damian Meier’s handwritten signature was elaborate and pompous, Ivanov thought. It was the fancy inscription of a man holding vanity inside, or secret dreams. It was the signature of an artist not a worker or a functionary of the People.
He pushed the paperwork across the desk toward the typewriter without taking his eyes off Damian Meier who was staring at the red telephone, his face contorted. “All is well, comrade?” Ivanov asked. “It looks like you are guarding the line. Are you expecting something?” Damian Meier offered an excuse for his aloofness, citing the upset stomach he mentioned to his case officer on the telephone the week before. “Many others can perform when even under the greatest discomfort or stress,” Ivanov said patronizingly. He tugged at a fingernail, trying to dislodge something from underneath. “Those are the virtues of the People. Would you disagree, comrade?”
In the early evening, Damian Meier walked across Revolution Plaza toward the mulberry trees, tracing the steps of the interloper he had seen from his office window. The swollen fruit hung from the branches begging to be collected. A great amount had fallen on the path just below the corona of the trees and had been squashed under the feet of passers-by. The deep-red and purple fruit left stains on the asphalt that resembled dried pools of blood, as if a massive amount of people had been executed underneath the trees, their bodies removed. Damian Meier paused and looked around for informers. No one he could observe was idling and watching. There were no pioneers or students with notepads lurking around the statue of Michael the Brave. He doubled back toward the Central Committee building, walked around the massive edifice, and headed out on the People’s Boulevard toward his flat.
In the kitchen, he listened to the radio program while he ate potato soup and two thick slices of bread. And then he scooped cottage cheese into a bowl on top of which he placed a dollop of sour cream. There was no water running this day, so he placed the dishes into the sink and walked to the washroom to urinate.
Before he retired, Damian Meier quietly walked down one floor in bare feet. He approached 8A and put his ear on the door. He could hear nothing. He listened for quite some time until the cables of the elevator suddenly groaned, pulling up the weight of the car. The lift stopped short of the eighth floor and deposited its cargo below. Metal doors slammed and the cables again strained to lower the car to the ground floor.
Damian Meier’s next intention was to walk softly across to 8C and listen in, but when he turned toward the door he noticed that there was a slight change in the level of light coming through the peephole, a quick flicker. There was quiet movement in the flat.
Someone in 8C had been watching him.
That night Damian Meier dressed himself fully, put on his shoes, packed a small suitcase with a change of underclothes and a half piece of soap, and then went to bed. Lying on his back trying to fall asleep, he thought about adding a toothbrush to his bag but decided against it. After the debriefing and interrogation that he expected, he would likely not have teeth left.
They didn’t come for him like they came for most others. They afforded him the prestige of his position within the People’s party and took into account his loyal service in the army during the quelling of the revolution so many years ago. Damian Meier had underestimated his worth. He didn’t have to sleep in his shoes, fully dressed, and packed for those seven months.
When the time for his arrest came, his handler showed up at a civilized time in the evening after supper. Even the intensity of the knock at the door carried with it a certain amount of melancholy and respect. The rap was that of a friend coming to pay a social visit, not of a security agent serving an order for arrest.
Damian Meier opened the door and stepped aside so that the man could walk unmolested into the small vestibule. “You may hang your scarf on the hook,” Damian Meier said. The man raised his hand and declined. “Would you like some tea first? I have fresh bags,” Damian Meier said and lifted his chin toward the kitchen. “That would be fine comrade,” Ivanov said. He let Damian Meier walk ahead.
“We’re lucky this evening we have water. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays this section of the building is allowed running water.”
“Yes, quite fortunate,” Ivanov said. “And by the luck of the draw, as well: water on Sundays, no less. What a great luxury.”
“May I assume you’ll have sugar in your tea?” Ivanov nodded: always grateful to feel warm during these frigid days. Ivanov realized how strange his declaration for desire of comfort might have sounded to the man who was being arrested and who would soon know none of that.
Damian Meier dropped two cubes into both cups and slowly poured boiling water over the small pouches. This would be the last time for tea. He took care to pour water a little slower. He took care to observe the change in water color from the infusion of the tea bag. Everything became more vivid and purposeful, even the nonessential details of the moment, like making tea. Like the minute bounce of the sugar cube against the porcelain bottom of the cup. Like the intermittent ding of the teaspoon as it stirs.
“I have a radio if you wish to hear something,” Damian Meier said. “It just needs a minute for the tubes to warm up.” “We shouldn’t be too long, comrade,” Ivanov said. He sipped carefully, taking care not to burn his lips and tongue. “I asked for special concessions on the timeframe because of your esteemed position comrade, but we shouldn’t take advantage.” “Of course not,” Damian Meier said. He slurped the tea from his cup with urgency. The men sat in silence for a few minutes. Outside it had started to rain ice pellets, and the wind sometimes drove them obliquely, almost horizontally, into the kitchen window like tiny fingers rapping on the glass desiring to be let in from the misery.
“Was it the widow in 8C that betrayed me?” Damian Meier asked. “Or 8A?” Ivanov gently placed his tea on the saucer. “My darling comrade, we all betray our own selves eventually. There is no need for anyone else to do the deed. We are all made in the same way. We are born predisposed like that. Consider it a fail-safe within the heart of all comrades. And when that time comes…when we cannot be useful in any other way because of all of that rotting and spoiling inside of us, the People are owed a fresh change. Wouldn’t you agree? The old, cancerous dog must not be let to suffer. He must be shot. You comrade, of all people, know that to be truer than true. You have been part of it. You have seen that first hand.” “But the People aren’t interested in individual cases,” Damian Meier said and watched his handler’s face closely. Ivanov knew Damian Meier wasn’t afraid or stalling for time. There was no time anyway. Ivanov knew that the question was meant to expose the weakness of hypocrisy and flaws of the People. He knew that Damian Meier was attempting to assert a position of individuality and freedom within, in these final minutes. The question was meant for Damian Meier himself. He was moving toward clarity and Ivanov knew it. “But you see, comrade, you are not an individual case,” Ivanov said. “If you think of yourself as that, you are a failure and have been rotten from the very beginning and you should have been hanged long ago. You have never been an individual case, comrade. Not even from before you were born. Not even from when you didn’t exist.”
The men finished their tea. Ivanov stood and walked to the window. He looked down at the van waiting. The driver had opened the window and was smoking, despite the weather. Ivanov looked at his elbow resting on the door frame. “We shouldn’t be too long, comrade.” “Of course,” Damian Meier said. They stepped out into the hallway and called up the elevator. Damian Meier left the flat door unlocked for the next tenant. The elevator cables moaned under their weight when they entered the tight cabin, and Damian Meier had a brief strange feeling in his stomach of plunging down nine floors. It was going to be easy, all of it.
The first two floors of Damian Meier’s apartment building were occupied by the offices of an Agro-Tourism branch of the Interior Department. Here, the walls came within centimeters of the elevator car moving up or down. There weren’t any residential hallways, just the plain brown walls that had always made Damian Meier feel as if he was locked alive into a coffin. Slowly descending now, staring through the thin rectangular glass slats of the elevator, Ivanov’s eyes caught suddenly the crude, strange type of graffiti that had been carved by a blade or a screwdriver into the otherwise bare wall: Isus Hristos.
“In your heart,” Ivanov said, “you know that this is best for the People. There can only be this way, and you know truly that this is best. Do you trust the judgment of the People to do what’s best for them, comrade? Do you trust that this has to be?” “Yes,” Damian Meier said.
Alex Pruteanu is author of novella Short Lean Cuts, available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books, and So & So Books in Raleigh, NC. He is also author of Gears, a collection of stories from Independent Talent Group also available at the aforementioned retailers. He has published fiction in Guernica, [PANK], Specter Literary Magazine, The Prague Revue, The Stockholm Review of Literature, and others. His first novel The Sun Eaters is currently looking for a home with a publisher.