Politically Inspired Fiction: The Patriot Actor

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

Any right of privacy possessed by library and bookstore patrons in such information is necessarily and inherently limited since, by the nature of these transactions, the patron is reposing that information in the library or bookstore and assumes the risk that the entity may disclose it to another.
-- Daniel J. Bryant, Assistant Attorney General

I'm talking to Apple Computer when I first hear it. My phone clicks, then a wave of static crushes through the receiver, then passes. I was talking about my printer, about how my computer wasn't printing.

"Did you hear that?" I ask the technician on the other end.

"I didn't hear anything," he says. Then he tells me to insert my re-install disc, hold down the C key, and reboot. "We're going to start from scratch."

When the first PATRIOT Act was signed by President George W. Bush on Oct. 26, 2001, I read the entire text as posted on the New York Times website. There was a photograph of Attorney General John Ashcroft, standing in front of a curtain that had been draped across a naked statue. He looked like an angry, unforgiving father. Sixty-six Congress members voted against the PATRIOT Act; 357 voted for it. It passed the Senate overwhelmingly. The government was going to listen in and watch anyone they wanted.

I had just broken up with my girlfriend. My father was calling constantly, insisting on giving me his opinion of the current crisis. The administration asked me to take a cut in pay from the university where I teach. They said they wanted to bring in some new talent. I realized that I was nobody's best friend. And it felt as if in all the world nobody was listening to me. And why would they? There were bombs destroying entire mountains in the Middle East.

"When you shaved my head it really fucked me up," I say to my father. I'm lying on my wood floor, my head against the end of my mattress. I'm staring at the pigeons outside perched on the roof of the chocolate factory.

"I didn't shave your head. I gave you a haircut. Why are we talking about this? That was twenty years ago."

"You were hitting me while I was sleeping. I woke up and you were punching me and then you dragged me into the kitchen and shaved my head. I looked like a mental patient. You told the pharmacy on Pratt and California not to sell me any razors blades so I went to the Walgreen's."

"This isn't like you to rehash all of this old shit. I was an imperfect parent. Look, I said I was sorry. What more do you want? Isn't that enough?"

"No," I say. "It isn't."

When my father hangs up the phone I whisper into the headset. "Did you hear that? Are you listening?"

When Sami Al-Arian was arrested for supporting Islamic Jihad I sent $20 to the department of engineering at the University of Florida where he teaches. I checked out Fahrenheit 451, The Bomb, and the Journal of Irreproducible Results from the San Francisco Public Library, where I was informed by a sign that the federal government has access to my library records. I joined the Free Palestine mailing list and hung anti-war posters from my windows. I went to rallies sponsored by Global Exchange and cheered for Medea Benjamin as she brushed her straight golden hair from in front of her eyes and told the crowd, "Regime change begins at home." When the Workers World Party asked me if I wanted to volunteer I said yes.

On Feb. 16, 2003 at the Civic Center they estimate 200,000 people show up to protest the impending war. I help build the stage. The volunteers organize behind the shell and then pass out flyers. The flyers state that when war starts people should walk off their jobs and meet at Fifth and Powell in a giant uprising.

Five days after the protest the San Francisco Chronicle runs an article using aerial photography to prove there were only 65,000 marchers at the protest. I tape the newspaper photographs to the wall of my apartment, the people, tiny dots filling up the streets, the airplanes watching, documenting the evidence. Soon it comes out that it wasn't just the newspapers. The police had spies in the crowd with tape recorders; they were filming everything. They want to use the film in court to prove an officer's innocence. The officer has been accused of brutality. The ACLU is demanding the police department destroy the tapes. The chief of police resigns. Everything is starting to make sense.

"Hello? Hello?" I've wrapped the telephone cord around my ankles and my knees, up over my waist. I'm wrapped in it like a present. "Are you there?"

The clear phone cord cuts into my skin. The dial tone vanished hours ago and I speak into an empty line. The cleaning vans wash the streets; I hear their slow beeps as the sweepers drive by. In the darkness I can make out the headlights of cars driving to the top of Twin Peaks and then disappearing behind the back of the hills. "Hello?"

"I'm here."

I catch my breath. I feel my chest swell, and a wave of nausea pass through my throat. I roll on my side, facing the wall. "I knew it," I say. "I knew you were listening."

"Umm hmm. I can't talk," he says. "My partner's asleep. You should be too. Meet me in Dolores Park tomorrow, the bench on 20th Street, near the statue and the tracks."

"What time?" The phone clicks twice. The dial tone returns. "Thank you."

I don't go to work. It's a wet, dewy day. I lay newspapers over the bench. I sit and I watch as people bring their dogs out to run in the grass. It's too cold and gray for sunbathers, just the dog owners, throwing their tennis balls out, the dogs scampering after them and returning, a repetition of a menial task.

A man with a potbelly and a long beard sits down next to me. He bites on his lip and mutters things to himself and makes cradles from his whiskers. He stands, scratching his stomach. "Don't forget. Don't. Don't forget. Look out," he says. "Wouldn't do that." He looks me dead in the face. "I was the first person to smoke pot with Bob Dylan." Then he walks away.

As night falls it gets colder, then colder still. I wrap my arms around my chest. I lay down on the bench. I start to shiver. I drift in and out of sleep. He's not going to come. The day is over. The clouds clear. The stars come out. I sit up when I feel the pressure of someone's leg against the bench. It's a long, thin man in a grey suit. He's smoking a cigarette and smiling at me. His legs are like sticks.

"You came." I wonder if I am sleeping. He doesn't answer, just exhales a plume of smoke. "How long have you been here? How long was I gone for?"

"Not long," he says. "Maybe twenty minutes."

I rub my fists in my eyes. He pushes his hand against my forehead then wipes his hand on his pants.

"You've been listening. I hear the clicks on the phone."

He shrugs his shoulders. "It's my job."

"So you know everything."

He finishes his cigarette and flicks it toward the Muni tracks. "I know that you're trying to get attention. I know that you didn't read those books you took out of the library. I know that you want to get caught and I know that there are laws against intentionally misleading the government. Those are the things I know."

I nod my head vigorously. "Yes. Yes." I keep nodding. "I've been so lonely. It's overwhelming."

He swings his long leg over the other. His jacket falls open and I see the gun there, the black metal against his belt. "We're at war, Paul. Do you understand that?"

"I do. I do." I slowly, carefully, duck my head toward his lap. I lay against his leg, looking out into the empty park. I can make out homeless people camping under the trees. "I know all about the war."

"Do you love your country?" he asks. "You need to be ready to make some sacrifices. Those sacrifices might include the loss of certain freedoms. Things like privacy don't seem all that important when Saddam's bottlenecking our oil supply and American citizens are building dirty bombs. Now do they?"

"No," I say. I realize I'm crying. "I don't care about privacy at all."

I feel the soft skin of his palm covering my cheek. His pant leg soaking beneath me. I wonder if I am still sleeping and where it all went wrong.

"OK, Paul, OK. I know you didn't mean it." His hand runs back and forth over my face until his two fingers are pinching shut my nose. "OK, Paul. Relax. Close your eyes. Uncle Sam is going to keep you safe."

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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