Politically Inspired Fiction: Perpetual Check

Politically Inspired is fiction inspired by current events. A new short story will appear weekly on AlterNet.

At night the world is a sandstorm. Like a light brown gauze over your face blocking the black velvet sky. We call it the edge, Anterim, Jordan, the Angor hotel. Here is where boats cross in the desert. Rusted buses bring troops and Shields to the border of Mesopotamia, heading into Iraq two days after the fighting has already started. These square dark hulls with their Argonauts, their windows cracked, their crazed cargo of idealists and warriors. A month ago the buses were clean, British double-deckers, like the kind you tour London in. We watch them now and shake our heads, our feet heavy on the earth, our clothing soaked in dull clay.

Our boats pass the other way. We're going back to wherever we came from, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa. Some of us, like myself, have already been inside the country, Human Shields for Saddam's Baghdad and the civilians there. Others never got over the border. For me going back means San Francisco, 7,500 miles away. But I might take a few more days. I've gotten used to the smell of sulphur and gas as the retreating Iraqis light another oil well on fire or the Americans send more missiles into the lightly strafed western edge of the country.

"You know what's here?" I asked my girlfriend when I finally got through to her. C-130 troop transports were crossing the sky like claws. There are only supposed to be 2,000 American troops in Jordan for defense purposes, but they take off from secret airbases near Ar'ar. Miles south they say hundreds of tanks are rolling from Jordan toward Baghdad. I was hoping Christy would say something along the lines of "Thank God you're alive." But she didn't. It was like I was calling from my own apartment a couple of blocks away from her, just with more static.

"What's there?" she asked. "What are you seeing?"

"Nothing," I told her, ignoring the swarm of warplanes, the helicopters like bees. "There's a little village here and a hotel. It's a stopping point for people entering and leaving the country. There are more people in the air than on the ground."

"Are there any demonstrations?" she asked.

"You don't get me. This is just a road stop. There can't be more than five hundred people here and a half a dozen mules."

"Fifteen-hundred people were arrested in San Francisco today," she said. I thought I heard another voice behind hers. "My affinity group blocked traffic from Powell to Polk."

"Affinity," I said. "Is another word for cheat."

"Yeah, well, always nice talking to you."

I've been at this lonely outpost 10 days now. Two days ago the missiles started falling on their "targets of opportunity." There are no newspapers here. We get our news from Al-Jazeera, which is just a series of pictures to me as I don't speak Arabic.

"There's 80,000 protestors in the street yesterday in Athens," Mahfouz says. Mahfouz runs the coffee shop here. We play chess together. We're about evenly matched. I've caught him cheating twice. "Cairo, Islamabad, of course. You know how many protestors in your own country? A thousand in Chicago, two thousand, three thousand New York. Nothing. Not even in San Francisco where you say you're from."

Mahfouz's daughter places another cup of mint tea near my fingers and I shear her off 800 fils from my small stack of fils and dinars without taking my eyes from the board.

"That's because Americans are apathetic," I say. "Even during war. The Republicans are pumping horse tranquilizers into our water supply. 'Joe Millionaire' does the rest." I mean it as a joke. But when Mahfouz looks at me with a strange smile I think for a second it could be true.

Ten days ago they kicked me out of Iraq. I had been sleeping in a power plant on the southern edge of Baghdad. They either decided I was a spy or they worried that my death would only cause them more trouble when the war was over. When I get home Ashcroft may try me as a traitor, but probably not. Still, I'm not ready to go yet.

My girlfriend is a real revolutionary. She belongs to a group of anarchists known as the Black Bloc. For as long as we've been together she's been preaching violent revolution and I've been ignoring her, because she teaches at Berkeley and everybody at Berkeley talks that way. "Take your violence out on me," I'd say, when times were good, tucking my hands beneath the pillow. And she would reach for the pile of rope she kept on top of her dresser and say something smart like, "Maybe I will."

All of that ended when the clouds of war settled down to stay. Affinity groups are cells of three to 20 friends, ready for direct action. They exist in every city. She started going out with her affinity group every night, planning their uprising for after the war broke out. She'd come home manic and stinking of whiskey and sex, furious over something she'd heard John Ashcroft or Donald Rumsfeld say. As if they were talking to her. And if I tried to get some affection from her, if I tried to say something cute like, "Who's my old European?" she'd ask me if I knew how many people were going to die on the first day of war. I said I didn't and she didn't either. I said it was all speculation. She said, "Fuck you and your speculation. You're a coward."

So I signed up to be a Human Shield, to prove my love.

"So," Mahfouz says, slipping my bishop beneath his index finger. Our game is going to end soon. "So, so, so." He pulls a small silver flask from his cabinet and pours us each a measure. "You came out here to swallow a missile launched by your own country. When you come back the Kurds will have Holiday Inns presuming the Turks haven't killed them all."

The liquor burns in a good way. I haven't had a drop since I arrived in the Middle East.

The little children in the schools near the refinery were Christian and Muslim. They played soccer in the streets and were taught to chant, "Down down America." They'll all be dead soon. "I'm no different from any other civilian that dies in a war."

"When you make a choice, you are different. Don't fool yourself. I believe you're in check." I slide my remaining knight in front of the beam cast by his queen. I see perpetual check. He's staring at the board, his brow creased together. Back across the desert, 14 hours by bus, there are still Human Shields at the Daura refinery, their minders squirreled away in a bomb shelter somewhere. Perpetual check is a draw. He should have won this one.

"To tell you the truth, I came out here to impress a girl."

Mahfouz smiles slightly, still perplexed by the board. If he moves his rook I go king two. If he moves his queen I go to bishop three. It never ends.

"So you came out here for a girl and she is of course back home with someone else." He rubs his finger over his own thick stubble. His wife passed away six years ago. It was one of the first things he told me about himself. "Then you are crazier than I thought. You are as crazy as your own president."

"No," I say, tapping the glass rim. "I'm an atheist and I drink. I don't have his conviction and I haven't harmed anybody."

An orange flash of light and a bang sounds off in the distance. From here, it's like fireworks. But still, it shouldn't be this close to the Jordanian border.

"They weren't supposed to go from Jordan. There will be a lot of bombing tonight." Mahfouz sweeps the pieces into his satchel and tightens it with the strings. "We can play again in the morning."

Author's Note: This story, like much of my recent writing, owes a debt to John Ross, a Human Shield and magnificent poet.

Stephen Elliott is the author of the novels "A Life Without Consequences" and "What It Means To Love You." Peruse the Politically Inspired archives, or subscribe to receive Politically Inspired each week, inspired@stephenelliott.com.

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