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BlazeVOX [books]
Cleaning the Mirror
by Joel Chace
(BlazeVOX , 2008)



A man is dunked under water with the express purpose of having his secrets unfurled out from inside. I have seen how it happens, I have witnessed what we call the net effect of the summons, the waiting room, the meal or delicious food, the bright light which warms and shines and rouses the vital forces to be cleansed once, or more, depending on stamina, command of his or her native syllabary, forgetfulness, ability to entertain notions of being fucked, connection between him or her and water qua water, lung control, lawyerly features, eyes red and wormful, giddy from touch, soaked through and through by the rich tapestry of our duty log, our overtime, our hasty court.

The formative moments of my career rang with compliments like for example in one night I’d recover seven grenades, a cylinder of AK-47s, and the names of twelve top commanders and in the process earn praise from my docket chief specifically for building beautiful bridges between cultures once at odds with one another but now that I’ve been enlisted in this grand scheme of munificence I may ask for the guest to stand on the floor or sit on the chair and I do. I preferred my night duties as a ventriloquist, whispering blindfolded melodies to underwater cousins and cousines who at three o’clock in the morning are alone and unable to pick out soft sounds of pins dropping or lilacs blooming, particularly when these second-degree enemies are at their most rankled, sad sights to watch, like listening to a circus-ending tune. As my work became more important to lather the undergirdings of my field brethren’s efforts, I was able to achieve rhythm: the thing which makes a man grow humble.

* * *

Man did the things he did and then accepted the consequences. I understood this better than most people from the many men’s eyes I’ve seen the moment before they tell me what it is they came to say. I kept a blue stopwatch, a souvenir-type brand which kept time inaccurately. It was like the unsalted variety of timekeepers you could say and yet it kept the kind of time very useful to me. At the first hint of the watch rolling over into the next phase of the moon I’d hastily show to whoever’s case we were championing. He’d look at it, nod a bit, ask the obvious questions about family, friends, nobody we’d ever heard of, anyone except for: now focus, concentrate, you can do it, atta boy. I had the stopwatch waterproofed at one of those cheap Chinese shops during my day off even though the project was technically a professional matter I happened to be out for a stroll in the old city and will admit it was in my mind before I left for the walk to find a Chinese man more enterprising than the manufacturer who might apply an augmentative coat or agent to the timepiece. It worked wonders and hardly cost me a nickel, and I could hang the stopwatch around necks now without worry of foggy displays or lap timers skipping which fit well with my technique of answering questions and asking them at the same time.

Days would turn into nights and become days again. I slept on the premises itself thought I could have gone back to base for a shave or a tuck. The estate used to be a summer house for high-ranking politicians or warlords or bigwigs or whoever was taking vacations up here in the safe green hills so there were plenty of rooms available besides the ones where we worked out back. That annex had been a horse stable, or something: a long house with warped doors and I’d bet they’d been stables once. Sheets we had hoisted as dividers inside so they could hear well but couldn’t make signals to one another. Who knows where our men found the tools but we had the wind-up telephones by day three. Bit by bit they put things in order with the hooks in the beams—good sturdy wood to crank them up and hold them steady, rope procured from the PX instead of the local shitty twine which cut off circulation too quickly and never tied right. I like to pick them out myself though not everyone else did. I had the files and the doctors reports and bit by bit I became accustomed to the funny names.

I worried about the bleeding cheek before I could stop myself from worrying. There were only a couple of choices but I didn’t like either. It happened when we were putting and putting the questions to the young man. He had a different idea of geography than we did and although he’d clearly cut a deal with himself to talk about somewhere and somewhen and somewho, as for us, we couldn’t get past the where without dragging out maps and then bugging our interpreter about place names and in the meantime we were shaving and shaving and there wasn’t much hair left to offer the kid as incentive not that there weren’t other incentives we could offer but first the electric shears jammed so we sent out one of the local guards to the market and of course he gave one of those looks like he was excited for the special task but really he was wondering why we wanted the razor so he came back with a pack of straight blades which gave me an excuse to strop with the belt which I regretted soon enough because the kid squirmed around and that’s how second his cheek got cut, at the worst possible angle, not a shaving nick but a bad gash. I stood back and thought about scar tissue forming and whether the beard would grow over the wound and I remembered the time I’d tried to grow a beard but my girlfriend didn’t like the way it itched around her pussy so I had to shave mine off just when it started to really get going and here I was now with this kid who won’t let out the who and where and whatever and since we’re running short of supplies we’ll have to move quickly otherwise it’s call in the doctor who might say ease up so maybe we can get it all over with let’s have the chili powder.

* * *

I grew callous in my use of marigolds. I can’t understand how I let those flowers get the best of me, but they did, and the whole business suffered. I used to put a dark red glass vase with a diminutive bouquet of bright orange marigolds on the table across from our guest. Flowers appeal to everyone involved in the session because they can be beautiful or smell delightful or the opposite. I liked marigolds, the very silky ones in particular, because they can be seen through hazy, sleepy, watery eyes and dried out quickly under the glare of a brilliant lamp placed in close proximity. Then I might decorate, asking one of the guards if he would kindly fasten a marigold or two into the hair of the candidate in the fashion of a Balinese bride. I began to order garlands of the flowers and strung them around the necks of the above-mentioned person as if he were a VIP arriving to cut a ribbon. I saw a film once where a herd of angry goats stormed a garden of marigolds and began to have their way, gobbling up rows and rows of the flower crop. I decided to eat the marigolds too as part of the demonstration of care and consideration for the above-mentioned person. Later I fed him a flower or two in order to strengthen the bond we would share for life. I understand this to be callous behavior with the flower, and I do not ask you to disagree.

I say the very words duty and respect each time someone asks me if they can use the bathroom, to which I answer yes knowing their only real pain is their fear of me, like a different fear which was embedded in the words “if only, if only,” words my father used to say and words he held so tightly that I see how much clearer everything could be for them if they cast away this fear, something they are unable to do, like in the joke that has sunk roots into my brain which starts, “Did you hear about the guy who walks into the bar so scared he pees his pants?” which I don’t find funny because I know if the guy walked into the bar and hadn’t been afraid, he wouldn’t have wet his pants, there’d be no joke, and we’d only have this guy standing around a bar with everyone staring at him even though he hasn’t uttered a peep so it’s up to someone else to come up with a new joke and then I’m out of business because my business only works if the guy is afraid of me, and if he’s not, then what remains is a civil and productive chat and everyone is let out early from class without learning a fucking thing so I tell all of the guys, hey, the funny part? It’s this: don’t be afraid of me, it’s only your fear which causes you pain. Let go of the fear and there won’t be any pain and I’ll have no control over you, but no one laughs at this, and no one takes my advice.

There once lived a girl on Sycamore street, and her name was, I think, Katarina, and I asked that Katarina out on a series of dates and she said yes each time. They were the usual taco & tease kind of nights and I considered letting it be or letting it go and we talked on the phone in various pitches of yawns and I still didn’t know whether she wanted to entertain our affair or what until the night the phone rang and it was her behind a trembling voice and she says she needs to tell me something but we had better meet in person. Where? Her Uncle’s got a farm on the other side of the hill and there’s a carriage house on the property that still has running water and could we meet there? Cheaply made dead pine was falling to bits on the outside which looked much worse than the inside where a couple of smooth oak rocking chairs glided on the floor and a light bulb hung in the middle of the room, which made me say it was a nice place, a comment which in truth grew more out of the agreeable sensation that we were alone, a fact which allowed her to open a picnic basket she had inside her mind out of which she offered a reason why she hadn’t been more forthcoming on our dates, a surprise for me since I thought here comes an explanation for something I didn’t think needed one, but I still went ahead and listened, and she told me that her father was a mean man who sometimes touched her where he shouldn’t but there wasn’t anything she could do precisely because of his awful left hand and she liked me even though our dates had been few in number but she wanted to tell me it would take time for her to feel right and trust me and would I mind waiting?

There doesn’t need to be a Darwinian justification for eating or drinking or planning ahead to the next big blow out. Several of my colleagues and I gathered around the white table with good service and an excellent reputation for serving boiled noodles. To my left was the senior superintendent of the special task force and to my right was the district superintendent of the special operations group and the guest of honor was the director general of the additional regional security force, all of whom had come, like me, with a straight face to celebrate the landing of one of the biggest fish by enjoying the communal pleasure of an Oriental hot pot, a delicacy for me, at least, and probably for the rest, too, since I can’t say that any of us in our daily food intake favored edibles which needed to be cracked (lobster claws) or deboned (the red snapper) or simmered (strips of raw meat) or sauced (duck) and you can probably guess how most of our food looked by the end of the meal. But for just such a special occasion that had put all of our names in most of the papers we would put aside our culinary provincialism and make a feast out of it, starting with the toasts, the first of them raised by Mr. Wu, the proprietor of the restaurant, who had insisted on bowing and bestowing his own attention on our table, and who made a brief speech lauding us individually by name and rank and underlined his pleasure for being able to host a gathering of such qualified realists and the dinner would be on him full stop. My protests were not the only ones heard, but the Chinaman prevailed, and what followed was like a lifetime of great meals in one meal since not only was the food first rate with the particular logic of the group hotpot creating its own techniques of invention and bowls of surprise, but also the conversation among us was like an inter-course sorbet in its freshness and candor which opened the doors of admission that until that moment I hadn’t understood how my life in the interrogation room had been so fraught with misunderstandings, meaning the game we are forced to play with the detainees is a lachrymose game for all of us but my hand is forced from every side. It’s expected, so some expect it, some really do, and would feel cheated if we didn’t oblige them since they practice their screams in order to simulate pain when in fact they’ve been preparing for this moment with their own colleagues through exercise and role-plays and leg-stretching repetitions and arm extending windmills to keep their shoulders very flexible so when we insist on gymnastics they can quickly adjust without any muscle strain, it’s been said, to us, they tell us, these stories we hear from the detainees themselves, particularly the ones who want to distance themselves from their own colleagues. I once sat smoking in a corner for nearly two hours while a young man demonstrated an entire routine for me, calisthenics and yoga and what-all that accounted for positions and treatments I had never thought to use. It was funny until the young man was cornered in his misconception that this corporal exhibit would count as a confession.




the chinese feast


jason grunebaum