Joseph A. Domino
The court psychologist argued in my favor. I’m a smart kid. Very high verbal scores, the judge said but we have a chronic delinquency problem here, not to mention an underachiever, except in matters of vandalism, petty theft, truancy, although the last was hardly illegal. The psychologist, a Mrs. Mafino, reminded the court that school attendance had not been enforced for years. At least not since the School Purge Act of ’32. School was no longer compulsory. Although if you were under age (17), out of school and in trouble, it meant a ticket to the Reservation. A city of barracks in the middle of the wind-blown desert in what used to be northern Arizona. Fenced-in, guarded. Menial tasks to get by. Just enough food and clothing. They had some old movies, for entertainment at night. Then there were the digital wall screens. Thousands of channels. Live sex from Amsterdam. That’s what I was watching at home when all this started, when the cops came. The police are here. My boner deflated like a hot air balloon. I popped some kid in the nose at the basketball courts. Busted it up pretty good. Blood all over. The witnesses, friends of the kid, set the cops on me like hounds on a fox. Why’d I hit him? He called Oscar a faggot.
My parents sat there in the courtroom, staring at nothing, certainly not at me. First Oscar, my big brother (15 at the time) gets sent to the compound (the Reservation, the psychologist corrected). The dimwit, rolling in fat, is standing outside a fucking convenience store eating an ice cream pop, chocolate all over his face, when a gang of younger kids comes running out with cartons of cigarettes. When they hear sirens, they hand the stash to Oscar who stands there, dumb as a tree. The testimony hung on the storeowner who admitted that Oscar bought the ice cream and went out before these kids grabbed the loot. But, then the shit-for-brains says he ‘surmises’ that Oscar must have been in on it. As a decoy or something.
When I told the Mafino lady this, she shook her head, telling me that it was unfortunate lawyers were not used in these juvenile cases any more. The judge simply decided. Off to the Reservation. Which was popular with folks, especially in the big cities. Safer streets, less crime. You didn’t leave the Reservation until you were mature, rehabilitated. But you know what? I knew lots of kids got sent there, and not one ever came back, least not here. Problem with Oscar was that he was never right in the head to begin with. After the first arrest, he was put on probation, and he kind of flipped out, gradually after that.
Oscar went to school though, which helped his status. But then they’d find him in alleyways with his pants down, talking to himself. Once at school he tossed his desk upside down, making these wailing sounds like a wounded animal. He’d do that at home and Pops would club him on the side of his head with his fist. Mom and Pops were kind of glad to see him go. His last offense was dropping his pants again in an alleyway, where some little girls were playing. Of course, he was not a bad kid. He needed medical help, but seeing a shrink was out of the question since psychiatry was no longer covered by any health plan. Guess they figured one out of every two people would be in therapy or on psychotropic drugs. Interesting. Fifty percent. Heads or Tails. Either me or you. One of us must be crazy. At least that’s what the statistics said.
Mom jumped up as they were leading me out. “Will, you find Oscar! Watch out for him,” she shouted, kind of shrilly, almost hysterical. Pops just looked out the window. He had pretty much checked out on the family responsibility thing.
The train passed through deserted towns, now that we were west of Texas. Soon, the towns became ugly, stench-filled garbage heaps, overstuffed landfills, rigs and construction vehicles so rusted, we could barely tell what they had been. Smelly, like the sulfur in chemistry class. The whole southwest was pretty much uninhabitable since terrorists set off some nukes in L.A. When the radiation dropped to acceptable levels, they decided to use northern Arizona as one big relocation camp. At least they weren’t taking us to California. Some said the radiation there was still so bad that if you spent a year there, your dick would fall off. There had been a lot of quakes, too.
We were basically comfortable, had enough to eat. The cars were clean, if run down. I scoped the aisles and noticed mostly guys. Maybe two or three girls, who looked too tough and hardened to mess with. Someone sitting behind me mentioned a history class which briefly discussed some big war around the middle of last century where some old Nazi storm troopers carted off millions of people to be exterminated in open rail cars through freezing weather to places called death camps. I remember that, the teacher talking about revisionist theories claiming it never happened or that it had been greatly exaggerated. It made me wonder if that’s how people thought of the relocation camps. It would be like we never existed. Sometimes it was like Oscar never existed, so I could understand how people might feel that way.
I’m no genius, but it was pretty clear we were all being sent here because society saw us as problems, which couldn’t be fixed. Out of sight, out of mind, like Dad used to say. Dad used to beat Oscar when he was younger. I was little, but I remember. Oscar’s cornered look of fear, his confused expression. It was hard to read Oscar then, but it seemed when Dad beat him, his eyes turned inward, as he wondered just what he had done to fuck up.
The train began to slow and we could see a perimeter ahead with towers and barbed wires and spotlights, but no guards. About that time, our designated honcho entered the car and without waiting for anyone’s attention, like he was thinking about something else, said,
“The rules are pretty simple–“
“SUCK MY DICK!” yelled some pimply kid, who seemed to have a sizable ripe boil on his cheek.
“YEAH, JERK ME OFF,” added another.
The honcho showed no emotion, his mind definitely elsewhere. A former inmate? Maybe some screw-up artist, who had pulled duty here because he wasn’t good for anything else. He just let out a deep breath, like bored, and walked over to Pimples, quick on his feet, and grabbed his hair. He yanked his head down sideways, so his face hit the metal bar on the seat in front of him. The boil on his cheek exploded and there was dead silence, just the sound of the slowing wheels on the rails, the car swaying just slightly. Except one of the girls began a high-pitched cackling laugh. The honcho ignored it.
No one could take their eyes off the pus and blood, pooling and dripping from the metal bar. Pimples didn’t cry out, but sort of huddled back in his seat, shaking, sniffling, but not touching his cheek.
“Any questions before I continue?” said the honcho.
I don’t know why, but I raised my hand. He just stared at me. “My brother was taken here. About a year or so ago. I was hoping to look for him. His name is–“
“Sure,” said the honcho, “you look for him.” I couldn’t tell if he was being straight or taunting me. “Now, as I was saying, the rules are simple. You get a warm room and bed. You work a full day. Nothing too awful. Just need to stay busy. What you do in your off time is your business. We provide no entertainment except the canteen. Movies, video games. You will meet others who smuggle all kinds of shit in. Work your own deals and don’t get caught. You do as you like as long as it’s not destructive, harmful to others, or involves breaking out.” I was curious about punishments, but he said nothing and I figured I had exhausted my question quota for the month. Not that I intended to break any rules, although as all of us knew, things don’t often work out as planned.
The train pulled into a station where a bunch of older guys, like the honcho, were standing around, checking flapping pages on clipboards like manifests of a cattle shipment. That’s when I got a closer look. The prefab-housing reminded me of portable units they used to throw together to ease school overcrowding. I guess being here is another way of accomplishing that. So many rows of barracks, all painted tan and brown. Some scrub grass growing between them, but mostly sand, which the wind would occasionally whip around. In the distance I saw fields, inmates working at who knows what kind of crops in this climate, mechanically striking the ground with hoes. Other groups of workers putting up more pre-fab housing. The honcho was pointing at a mess hall and the canteen, the latter available from 7-9 p.m. I noticed as I looked around that no one was idle; everyone had some task or at least movement to perform. Those in between assigned tasks stepped lively or shifted their feet, like, if you stopped, a honcho would come down on you, like the one on the train. Honchos started calling out last names. My bunk was in barrack number 9. I approached it, half-expecting to see Oscar and his big sloppy grin.
A routine settled in pretty quickly. I didn’t notice many inmates having conversations, something that seemed to me a loss of hope. After a day of dusty tasks, including digging small irrigation ditches, leveling off hard packed earth with a spade and hoe and, for some reason, planting string beans, a ‘hearty’ meal followed. This consisted of mystery meatloaf and boiled potatoes. At seven sharp everyone swarmed to the canteen. I thought there might be a few donated books around but saw none and wondered it were a good idea to ask for any. It was during the first mass gathering I began to slowly scan for signs of Oscar. Of course some talked in low tones, short grunting sentences, but groups rarely congregated long. I took long hard looks and, just as my gaze settled on a pair of girls, maybe my age, watching a lezbo pornscreen, I felt a heavy hand clasp me on the shoulder. Oscar?
I turned and looked up at a hulking oaf, maybe 17 or 18, well over 200 pounds, with flaming red hair and a whitish scar running down the left side of his pink face. As if this wasn’t enough of a gross out, his breath smelled like the putrid meatloaf. In fact I could see pieces of it between his teeth. He wore black jeans and a t-shirt.
“Whatcha lookin’ at dick-wad?”
It didn’t seem smart to tell him the real reason, as if might endanger my chances of finding Oscar. “I’m new here. Jus’ lookin’ around.”
“Yeah,” he said, sounding like he didn’t believe me or didn’t care. “Well, I belong to the clan that makes the real rules around here.”
“And what clan is that?” I made it a point to look him right in eye and show no fear, hoping a challenging tone would surprise him and throw him off guard. Not exactly.
“I belong to the Nukers. We get stuff for people. Soap, beer, smokes, socks, tins with cakes in them, all from the outside. We run the deals through some of the honchos. We exchange scrip, swap duty, pull extra duty. Enough scrip or enough to trade we can get you laid. Or,” he paused looking me up and down, “we can take someone like you in an alley after hours, gag you and let you take it up the ass.”
I knew how this should be handled. Blow it right back at him. If he was the head Nuke, I’d kick him in the balls. Rule: always take down the main honcho first. I somehow figured he wasn’t with that low, sloping forehead and general dumb looks. “You try that and I’ll cut it off.”
He could have crushed me into desert sand right there, but after initial confusion, he sneered, “you just might do okay here. Name’s Landrew.” A grudging compliment? I could barely hold in my urine from running down my leg.
Each barrack housed approximately two dozen beds. Lights out at ten. The single bed smelled of mold and had creaky mattress springs. I listened to the wind as I calculated that the entire compound was made of smaller groups, which did not interact. Not having seen Oscar, I had to assume he was assigned elsewhere. Landrew later informed me that the Nukes got special treatment and generally had the run of the entire Reservation. I got still and listened some more. People whispering. Beds creaking, the errant fart. Distant whimpering, crying, weeping into pillows. Muted moans of those pleasuring themselves, often in pairs. One night, someone crept close to me.
“I’ll give you some scrip if you’ll—“
“Get the fuck away from me,” I shouted a little too loudly.
A dim light came on at the front of the barracks. The honcho had detected the illicit proposal and swooped in, grabbing the offender by the hair dragging him back to his bed, but not before striking him across the back of his thighs with a nightstick. Poor kid screamed bloody murder. I fully expected similar punishment, but the honcho completely ignored me. The honcho was suddenly gone and all lights extinguished, now so quiet, you couldn’t hear anyone breathing. Feeling mischievous, I let out an extended explosive fart, daring anyone to comment, laugh, or snicker. No one did except Landrew the following morning.
“You should have taken the scrip.”
“I don’t do stuff like that with guys.”
Landrew smiled and put his hand on my shoulder, more friendly this time. “No problem. You want girls? We can arrange that, but you have to have something to trade.”
“And how does that work?”
“You can be a runner, goods and scrip across the compound. Just don’t get caught. The Honchos will fuck you up first, then the Nukes. You screw up and you wind up like that dick-wad that crawled over to your bed.”
“Okay, there’s just one thing I want.” Landrew smiled again. “No, I mean besides getting out of here. My brother Oscar was sent here a couple years back, and I’m trying to find him.”
“I know everybody here practically and I don’t remember no Oscar. Listen, you come to tonight’s Nuke meeting. Number 10 barracks in the back, 8:00, when it’s dark.”
A little before eight I made my way from the canteen across a small courtyard to Barracks #10, but came in through a back door. Of course, it was permissible to stay in the barracks before lights-out, but most preferred what little entertainment they could get elsewhere, as long as there was no outside loitering.
Landrew grabbed me by the collar as soon as I cracked the door open. I felt other hands grab me and someone threw a hood over me and I was scared. And what was the point anyway? Either they’d let me become a Nuke or not. They hustled me into what felt like some back storage room and then I was thrown to my knees and the hood removed. There were dark hulking shapes crowded around the walls of the small enclosure. The room was dimly lit. I couldn’t make out any faces until some one nudged my elbow. Damn, if it wasn’t the honcho from the train. Social caste didn’t apply in this arrangement. It was free trade system across barriers of authority. He smiled not unkindly and then spoke.
“I can tell you’re a smart kid. I’ll look out for you. Just follow the Nukes and we can all come out of this a little better.”
“Okay,” I croaked. I was still on my knees.
“Time to meet the head Nuke.”
The shadows parted way to admit a figure of average height but of considerable girth. He bore a ridiculous turban-like headdress and had draped himself with some kind of gaudy afghan, like some old grandmother’s dusty rug, a coronation dress, that dragged the floor in his wake. He stood there, holding a large jar of peanut butter in the crook of his arm as if it were a king’s scepter, the head Nuke. My eyes adjusted to the dimness. Finally I looked up at him as he stood there, impassive. And there was the unwashed, hound dog face, pronounced jowls, pursed lips, mouth hanging open, even the halting gait. A glimmer of recognition in those unfocused eyes passed and then nothing. After a fleeting moment of hope, I realized that Oscar could never be the same again. Cut off from the only world he knew, he adopted a new persona, one, which excluded the past, incorporating a new identity of inscrutable substance, its mystery somehow holding the inmates spellbound. The moment I had to reconnect with my brother passed, with the suddenness of the sand kicking up outside in a mournful wind, ever present, but detached from and uncaring of living things.
Joseph A. Domino was a college instructor (composition and literature) from 2007 to 2017 before retiring. Prior to that he spent 30 years in the technical publications field. During that period, he has produced three full-length novels: A Reign of Peace, Downtime, and Principalities of Darkness, all available at Amazon, as well as a novella and dozens of short stories, articles, book reviews, and blogs, which have appeared in a variety of print and online publications. Read more about his work here.