Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
There’s a thing in this writing game called a “maggot.” It’s an old-fashioned, even archaic, term for an idea that gets into a writer’s head and won’t leave until it’s been turned into a story. I got bitten by one – or infiltrated or penetrated or whatever verb you like – as I was watching the unfolding (collapsing?) shambles of the Republican primary process in February. So I sat down and wrote “Loser” in a few days, just to get rid of it.
I tried to place it with two of the magazines I normally sell to, but they work on long lead times and there was every chance this story would move out of the category of “what if” and into that of “alternate universe” in a matter of weeks.
So I thought, what the hell, I’ll put it up and give it away. So here it is. Make of it what you will.
Added, January 2017: “Loser” has been accepted for an upcoming anthology from OR Books — WELCOME TO THE DYSTOPIA — but I’m leaving it up for anyone who comes by.
I am on block-hauling detail when I hear my number called.
I straighten to attention immediately and shout, “Yes, Apprentice-Private!”
He looks me over, flat-eyed, in a way that reminds me that if I am not useful I should be dead. Then he spits on my bare feet and says, “Report to App-First Carmody!”
“Yes, Apprentice-Sergeant!” I am already moving as I speak, wanting to get past him before it occurs to him to send me on my way with a kick. I’ve already had one of those today and my tailbone is sore. I mostly make it, receiving only a glancing blow from the side of his boot as I speed by.
My destination is the admin block just inside the main gate. As I approach the ramp that leads up to the door the guards in the towers flanking the barbed-wire barrier train their M-16s on me, only standing down when I start to climb the incline. I come to attention outside the door, and knock the regulation three times.
Someone in the orderly room pushes a button and the door slides open. I step smartly inside, come to attention again, with my eyes fixed on portrait of Our President on the back wall and announce, “Loser One-Fourteen reporting to Apprentice-First Sergeant Carmody, as ordered!”
From my peripheral vision I see an Apprentice-Corporal on the other side of the long counter gesture with a piece of paper he is holding. “Go stand by the wall,” he says.
“Yes, Apprentice-Corporal!” I go and stand, keeping my gaze blank and unfocused. It is a routine day in Camp 17’s admin center, the staff hunched over their keyboards, typing laboriously with two fingers, or staring into their monitor screens or at pieces of paper. I see a lot of knitted brows, some lips being chewed, one protruding tongue-tip.
And I see it all without focusing on any individual Apprentice. I never want to hear again the words: What are you lookin’ at, loser?
Something buzzes, the Apprentice-Corporal speaks into a phone, then looks up at me as if I am a turd that refuses to flush. “All right, asshole,” he says, “see the First.” He gestures to a door at the end of the counter.
“Yes, Apprentice-Corporal!” I double-time across the few yards, come to attention before the door, and deliver the three knocks with the required timing.
I open the door, step within, close it without turning my back on the man seated at the desk, come to attention again, my eyes on the wall above his head, where a different portrait of Our President hangs. This one shows him looking up and out of the frame, in visionary mode.
“Loser One-Fourteen–” I begin.
“Shut up,” says Carmody.
I know better than to say, “Yes, Apprentice-First Sergeant!” Shut up means shut up and I have the bruises to prove it.
The App-First has a round face that ends in a blue-stubbled lantern jaw. His eyes are small – “porcine” is the word I would have used, all those months ago, when I was well paid for my columns in the National Commentator magazine.
I stand with my eyes on Our President, trying to keep the tremble out of my limbs. Though we are all at the mercy of these merciless men, it is always a mistake to show overt fear. Weakness often triggers a beating.
So I wait while Carmody studies me. Finally, he leans back in his chair – I hear it creak under his considerable weight – and says, “You used to work for that National Commie rag, dincha?”
Time to speak again. “Yes, Apprentice-First–”
“And that asshole Wedley was your boss.”
“Shut the loser mouth! I already know he was.”
I say nothing, but my mind is racing. Charlie Wedley saw it coming, packed a suitcase, transferred his accounts to the Bank of Montreal, and made it over the line well before the bus loads of black-uniformed bruisers from the Corps of Apprentices arrived to replace Homeland Security at all the airports and border crossings. Only the day before he had told me I should get ready to run, too, but I hadn’t seen it as clearly as he did. Besides Arthur was in school and Sharon had just been promoted to a senior post at the Andrew Jackson Institute.
Carmody has leaned forward and is reading from a paper in a file spread open on his desk. “Says here you two were real close.” He looked up and made a noise of contempt. “Couple of fudge-packers.”
I say nothing. It hasn’t been a question, and I know better than to contradict an Apprentice’s judgment.
He studies me again for a long moment. I know he’ll be wanting an excuse to knock me down and kick me and I am beginning to wonder why he hadn’t. Usually, a call to the admin center involves at least some stains on fists and boots, which the recipient of the attentions are often required to wipe away – if they are still conscious.
Now he closed the file. “You make me sick, loser,” he says. “Was up to me, none of you pussies would be building the Wall. You’d be under it.”
I say nothing, think nothing, let Our President fill my vision. The chair creaks again. Carmody is closing the file. Now he says, “Somebody is interested in you, loser. Somebody upstairs, way upstairs.”
He picks up the phone and pushes a button. A moment later, he says, “Is the car here?” then grunts a response to whatever he’s heard and hangs up. He looks at me and says, “You’re going for a ride, faggot.”
The car is a shiny black Cadillac Escalade with opaqued windows and doors emblazoned with Our President’s one-letter monogram in gold. An Apprentice wearing a tailored uniform and the shoulder bars of a captain stands waiting by a rear door. He favors me with a cold-eyed stare as he opens the door and moves his head minimally in a gesture that says: Get in.
I get in and the door closes silently behind me. For a moment I can see nothing, then my eyes adjusts to the gloom and I see that the passenger compartment is self-contained. A pull-down folding seat faces the vehicle’s wide rear bench where a man in civilian clothes sits silently. Like his aide, who is now climbing behind the wheel and starting the engine, he says nothing – just uses one pale finger to indicate that I should sit on the jump seat.
I sit and reach down to grip the sides of my perch, which becomes precarious as the Escalade accelerates through the gate and turns sharply onto the road outside. I can hardly see the man opposite me, though I can smell him: cologne and powder. For the first time in months, I become conscious of the rank, sour smell that rises from my own body. I feel a louse move in my armpit but resist the automatic urge to pinch it dead with my long, broken-edged fingernails.
The road parallels the Wall and we drive past the segments that Camp 17 has built in the half-year since we were bused down here from wherever we had been arrested. Twenty feet high, its top festooned with sharp steel spikes, razor wire, and broken glass, it stretches on, mile after mile, running roughly east-west on this part of the border. A segment is one hundred and fifty feet wide, and as each is built and capped, the camp is uprooted and moved to the next piece of desert.
The admin block, the Apprentices’ barracks, and the kitchens are on wheels, towed by trucks. The razor-wire fences are lifted and carried by us, the three hundred losers of Camp 17. There is no need to move our barracks because we have none; we sleep in our rags on the bare desert floor, huddled together for warmth. Our latrines are slit trenches dug in one corner of the compound.
It is possible to get under the razor wire and escape into the desert. Some have done it. But the constantly circling drones that look for illegals soon spot them: their body heat shines against the dark cold of the night time desert floor. But no one wastes a missile on them; soon enough, the temperature differential equalizes. And no one bothers to collect the corpses.
The Wall-building project began in late January, just days after Our President took office and signed the executive orders that allowed him to rule by emergency decree. The nature and extent of the “emergency” was never detailed; The Corps of Apprentices had been quietly forming even before the voting in November. While the bunting and confetti from Our President’s inaugural balls were still settling on the ballroom floors, the truck-borne squads were already rolling out to collect the losers who had failed to support his history-making campaign. As a staff columnist on what used to be considered an influential mainstream conservative magazine, I was a natural target.
In the pre-dawn, doors were kicked in, people hustled from their beds, wrists pinioned by plastic slip-on restraints. A few shots were fired, but the Apprentices brought overwhelming fire-power. Besides, most of us couldn’t believe it was happening until it was too late. We climbed out of the boxcars in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to stand, stiff and blinking, hungry and dehydrated. The razor wire was already in place and the club-wielding Apprentices were more than ready to teach us the camp rules. Most of us learned quickly; those who didn’t were thrown into the latrine trenches we left behind when the camp moved.
As the months wore on and the Wall grew, more losers were captured and brought in, usually a dozen at a time. Some had been hidden in basements and attics by friends and relatives who weren’t on the lists – though their names certainly got added once their lack of devotion to Our President was discovered. Others had been caught making a wilderness run for the Canadian border; Washington State to British Columbia was the usual venue. And a few had tried to hide out in remote cabins, but even the remotest places were known to somebody and the rewards for turning in losers were attractive.
But in all the time I have spent in Camp 17, no one has ever been taken away in an Apprentice staff car.
I hear a rustle of paper then a discreet click. A small cone of light falls from a fixture beside the Escalade’s rear door onto a manila folder on the lap of the man opposite me. When he opens the file, enough light reflects from the white paper within for me to get a vague impression of his face: clean-shaven, lean, hollow-cheeked, high-browed, and white – almost a fleshless skull. He glances down at whatever is written there and when he looks up at me the skull impression is reinforced by the eyes remaining in shadow.
Now he closes the folder and turns off the light. He retreats back into obscurity. The voice that speaks to me from the darkness is cultured, intelligent.
“Your October fifteenth piece in the Comment,” he says, as I hear the sound of a finger tapping the file. “Good insight.” When I say nothing, he adds, “You may speak.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“Good thing the mass of the punditry didn’t come to the same conclusions,” he says. “Or we might not have won.”
I say, “I think by then . . .” and stop myself from saying it would have been too late to opt for a more neutral phrase: “. . . the die was cast.”
He makes a neutral sound. “Perhaps.” Then he lapses into silence.
The article he referred to advanced an argument I’d been thinking about as I watched the presidential primary go from strange to bizarre and then seen Our President emerge as the most unlikely candidate in the nation’s history. Other commentators were focusing on demographics – older white males, evangelicals, libertarians, Tea Party activists – as well as economic and social shifts, but all of those factors taken together were not enough to account for the fundamental paradigm shift that was revolutionizing American politics.
And then, in mid-October, I was walking back to the office from lunch and passed a sportswear store. The window display was full of sweatshirts, and every one of them was adorned with a corporate logo of some kind. For some reason, I flashed on a sweatshirt I’d had in college: it bore a line-drawn portrait of Ludwig Van Beethoven on the front. I wondered for a moment what had happened to it.
And that’s when I noticed the obvious. Thirty-four years ago, when I’d been that college boy, we might wear sweatshirts with “Yale” or “Princeton” on them, because we were students at those schools, or pictures of Alfred E. Neuman if we were smart-asses. But we didn’t turn ourselves into walking billboards for commercial products.
Over the decades, something had changed, and as I walked back to my office and sat behind my desk, the nature of that change emerged, full-blown, into my consciousness. I turned on my computer, powered up MS Word, and put my fingers on the keyboard.
We used to be citizens of a society, I wrote, but now we are just consumers in an economy. I thought a moment, then typed again. The society was ours; we had rights and responsibilities. The economy is everybody’s and nobody’s, and all we have is “likes.”
And as I sat there, following my train of thought, it led me onward. Our mental operating systems have been reset by the increasingly sophisticated, ever more powerful, and all-pervasive force called marketing. We have been conditioned to think – no, not to think, only to feel – only in terms of our own individual wants and needs – “You deserve a break today” instead of what’s good or bad for the whole.
I thought about the candidate who was to become Our President – the polls had him surging, three weeks before voting day. And it came to me. I typed, He is not a politician; he is a celebrity. His supporters do not follow him – he does not lead, but simply exists as a brand they can like. He does not have policies; he has marketable qualities that lead consumers to “like” his brand: it makes them feel good about themselves.
Pundits like me were prisoners of the old political system, the one created and sustained by our citizen ancestors. But their society was gone. It had been gradually washed away by the power of marketing, leaving only the economy with its different rules and mechanisms.
The man who would become Our President had recognized the paradigm shift. And he had done so years, even decades, ago. He had spent those years marketing himself as a celebrity brand, creating for himself a platform from which he could leap from the sinking society onto the command deck of the still accelerating economy.
The article poured out of me as if it had been gestating in the back of my head for ages. And perhaps, I thought, it had. I’d noticed, as a young man, when reporters had stopped asking the people they interviewed what they thought and began asking, “How do you feel?” I remembered the slight sense of disconnect I’d experienced the first time I saw a clothing label on the outside of a collar instead of the inside, and when I’d first realized that my conservative shoes had the brand name stamped on the heel, so that anyone walking behind me would see it flashing at them with my every step.
Marketing, I wrote, is now our complete environment. We are marketed to thousands of times a day, and we no more notice it than a fish notices the water that surrounds it.
But the candidate had noticed it. He had seen the new age rising around him and had made full use of his vision. As I finished the article, I complimented him. I said the rest of us were like a passel of ape-men huddled in night’s darkness while one of us – a genius – rubbed two sticks together and made fire.
I polished a few phrases and sent the copy to my editor, Charlie Wedley. It ran in the next edition. Two weeks later, the election came and then the months of interregnum while we wrote speculative analyses and profiles of the strange collection of folks with which Our President intended to fill his Cabinet. And we waited to see what a celebrity brand would do if granted the leadership of the free world.
The day after the inauguration, we found out.
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