Harold Jaffe

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I am of the race that sang under torture


I was about to exit when I felt the heavy hand on my left shoulder.

I knew it would be the left shoulder.

I’d been caught shoplifting the electric razor from WAL* MART.

I was handcuffed then maneuvered through the dazzlingly illuminated aisles, a burly plainclothes security guard on either side.

Shoppers turned to look, perfunctorily.

I caught the eye of a shopper’s child, a small dark-skinned girl.

She gazed at me, alarmed at what she took to be my plight.

Not wanting her to see my manacles, I didn’t wave but winked at her.

She looked uncertain.

I was led into the vast warehouse-like back area.

Seated on the straight-backed aluminum chair with my hands cuffed behind me under the glaring fluorescent light.

The security guard who’d put his heavy hand on my left shoulder wore a large heart-shaped orange nametag on his chest which said WAL* MART.

His head was shaved and he wore a musk-based cologne.

He turned his back to me and spoke into his cellphone.

I heard him say the word “shoplift.”

He slipped the cell in his pants pocket, turned toward me and held out a wide palm.


I shook my head.

“Driver’s license, social security card, credit card, something with your contact information?”

I shook my head.

“US citizen?”

I nodded.

“Born in the US or green card?”

I nodded.

“Which is it?” he said.

“Your call,” I said.

He shrugged his heavy shoulders.

“You have a salt and pepper beard.

“That’s what it’s called, right?

“Salt and pepper?

“It’s all over your damned face.

“That’s green card, okay?

“What I want to know is what’s a salt and pepper bearded green card planning to do with a WAL* MART-brand electric razor?”

He took out a toothpick from his shirt pocket and picked at a tooth.

He put the toothpick back in the same pocket.

He said, “You’re not a salt and pepper terrorist, are you?”

I looked up at the sardonic flat face.

“I’ll tell you,” I said.

“If you tell me.”

He rubbed his thick palm on his beardless face, grinning.

“No salt and pepper here, bro.

“Smooth all over like a baby’s ass.”

“I can see that.

“What I want to know is: are you a baby’s ass who carries a sidearm?”

He glared at me then raised his right pants leg just high enough for me to see the ankle holster and semi-automatic.

It looked like a new-model Glock.

I said, “If I tell you I was planning to transform the stolen electric razor into a smart bomb and blow up WAL* MART would you shoot me with your Glock semi?”

He narrowed his gaze.

“Even a green card shit-eater would know not to even think of stealing from WAL* MART.

“Our security is flat-out number one in the free world.”

“I understood that Target’s security was flat-out number one in the free world,” I said.

“With Costco firmly in the number two slot.”

“Okay. Enough jerking off,” he said.

“You’re in deep shit, green card.

“I don’t think you realize how deep the shit you’re in is.”

“You married?” the other plainclothes security guard asked me unex-pectedly, in a loud voice.

He wore a close-to-the-scalp crewcut and WAL* MART nametag and stood behind and to the left of the first guard.

“You have a wife and shit?” he said loudly.

“You look spooky with that beard sticking out your face but you don’t look gay.”

“Are you saying I look gay?” I said.

“I’m saying you look like a freak,” he said.

“A little crazy.

“My guess is you’re married with kids.”

I nodded vaguely.

“Well, congratulations, you just fucked your life up,” the first security guard said.

“How does it feel?”

“You want to know how it feels to fuck my life up?” I said.

They both glared at me.

“Give me your cellphone number and I’ll get back to you.”

“There won’t be any getting back, freak,” the first security guard said.

“Not where your green card ass is going.”

They separated me from the chair and marched me, still cuffed, through the back area and outside to one of a series of unmarked orange customized SUVs parked abreast.

It was raining lightly, which for some reason surprised me.

I smelled the ozone.

With one hand on the top of my head I was pushed into the rear of a vehicle.

That was how it was always done on cop TV programs; I never understood why.

The rear was un-windowed and barred with low wooden benches on either side.

They sat me on a bench with my hands cuffed to a steel pole that ran above the bench from front to back.

Whichever WAL* MART security male drove, drove very fast.

I could hear them talking on their cells or listening to talk radio and wisecracking.

After about an hour the SUV stopped and they got out.

Ten minutes later they were back with fast food; I smelled the burgers and fries and heard them eat.

Even eating they drove recklessly fast, veering from lane to lane on the freeway.

After some time the driving changed and it felt like we were out of the city.

After another hour or so they stopped.

One of them separated me from the steel pole, relocked my cuffs and pushed me outside.

It was dusk, raining harder.

We were in front of a bunker-like concrete structure, in what looked like a deserted lot with tall weeds and rocks.

I couldn’t see clearly in the rain, but the structure looked as if it was built into the ground

Two burly males in uniform grey shirts, pants and caps emerged from the structure.

They weren’t wearing nametags.

No words were exchanged between them and the WAL* MART males, who drove off immediately.

The two uniform males said nothing as they transported me in a freight elevator underground.

The elevator traveled slowly and I felt the air changing.

When the elevator opened, they put leg-irons around my ankles.

“Aren’t you going to remove my shoelaces?” I said.

“I tried to shoplift an electric razor from WAL* MART.

“I might want to hang myself.”

They ignored me.

They pushed me through a narrow corridor of cave-like cells which may or may not have been occupied.

They locked me in a small, low-ceilinged cell at the end of the corridor.

All around was the damp sweet-sour stench of earth.

“Have to pee,” I said as they were leaving.

“Your prob,” one of them said over his shoulder.

I shuffled to a corner of the cell and peed.

Then I removed my shoes and sat semi-cross-legged (the leg-irons impeded me) on the dirt floor against the wall in the opposite corner.

After a time I slept.

I dreamed of eight bighorned sheep-like animals cropping—or trying to crop—the hardscrabble grass.

The horned sheep moved with extreme caution even though no hunters were in sight.

Close-up, the animals’ faces were bruised, even torn, with caked blood and what looked like rough sutures.

I was thinking—in the dream—about the number eight.

Why were there precisely eight of the gentle beasts?

I was awakened by a female voice haranguing me through the bars of the cell.

It was my wife; I wondered how she knew I was here.

I opened my eyes partially and rattled my leg irons but otherwise didn’t move.

She demanded why I would try to steal an electric razor from WAL* MART.

She said the cell stank of piss.

She demanded again why I would try to shoplift a razor from WAL* MART.

She seemed more chagrined than angry.

She said despite my “background” and education I’d always been a loser, but this was the last straw.

This was the lowest I could sink without being in hell.

She’d consulted an attorney and now she would sue me for divorce and custody of our daughter.

She said I’d dug my own grave and as far as she was concerned I could rot in it.

A grey-uniformed guard looked on expressionless.

After she left I closed my eyes.

I slept.

I dreamed of eight large pelagic, albatross-like birds with their majestic wingspan flying in formation, not over ocean but desert.

Moreover the desert seemed to be on fire, or blazing fires were scattered over the desert.

The birds would gaze down occasionally but kept flying because there was no habitable place to land.

From where I was located below I could see the great birds’ faces which weren’t the faces of pelagic birds but rather the round faces of infants such as barn owls resemble.

I was awakened by someone rattling the bars of my cell.

He spoke my name.

I opened then closed my eyes.

He was an administrator from the company where I worked.

A small, pale male, vaguely rat-like: I didn’t remember his name.

I remembered that he always seemed to be sweating.

As with my wife, I had no idea how he knew of my whereabouts.

The message he delivered was brief: the company would not employ thieves who attempted to steal from WAL* MART and so I was thereby terminated.

Whatever salary was owed to me would be transferred to my wife.

Then he left along with the expressionless guard.

I shouted after the guard: “Toilet.”

He didn’t respond.

I struggled to my feet and peed again in the far corner, though in truth there was no far corner since the cell was cramped.

I had to squat so that my head didn’t hit the ceiling.

Because the floor was earthen the pee soaked into the hardened dirt.

I noticed a soiled straw mat rolled up against the wall.

I unrolled it and lay down on my back gazing up at the low ceiling.

From every side the damp earth was palpable.

Occasionally a sliver or even small clod of earth would fall from the ceiling.

Moreover there was vermin, and why shouldn’t there be?

Neither the wrist nor the leg manacles hindered me overmuch.

I was having a small problem drawing breath.

I thought I could hear cell doors clanging open and shut down the corridor and on the floor above.

Maybe it was the floor below.

I think it was below.

Which would make it Hades.

Where Orpheus descended.

I will miss my daughter.

Harold Jaffe is the author of thirteen books of fiction and “docufiction.” His most recent volume is a collection of creative nonfiction: Beyond the Techno-Cave: A Guerilla Writer’s Guide to Post-Millennial Culture.

This story is included in issue #40: Animals. Copyright © 2007 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.

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