Shadow State : Chapter Three
Tucson Amtrak Station // Tucson, AZ
lose the spark
and justify the dream;
but also worthy of remark
will be the color scheme
— New Yorker, 194x*
Benno waited on the platform with his hands in his pockets, watching the crowds gather. He’d driven a little over four hours of desert highway to be there on that wide strip of concrete amidst the throng. He felt the spark of it, the interest rising around him in a vortex of hot breath. But he was struck, too, by a different emotion altogether — a quick but heavy wash of wistfulness, and nostalgia. Trains had always worked powerfully upon his imagination, it was true, but even that couldn’t explain the unexpected clench in his chest as a cheer went up — one of many rushes of sound to sweep over the assembled people in expectation of what was to come. But like many of the other cheers, this one was a false alarm.
The train was late. Nobody was particularly surprised, but that didn’t keep the already disaffected college students, the older men in cheap colorful shirts — sweating under their polyester collars in the pre-noon heat — and the women in sun hats and long swanky cotton-weave dresses from manifesting their nervous energy as a series of tics, shifts, and jolts up against their neighbors. It was a shoulder-to-shoulder business, this combination exhibition and inventory.
The train was carrying part of the Wall. The “pretty bits,” as he liked to think of them, the portions carrying bas-relief carvings of American history and inscriptions courtesy of right-wing leaders the world over. Notably absent were quotations from Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin — but the President had managed to worm several of his own favorite sayings into the mix, so the collection as a whole resembled a pastiche of declarative statements vaguely related to the twin notions of strength and beauty as related to national identity.
Benno’ favorite carving pictured a four-by-four-foot relief of former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s head looming over the inscription: “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.” The fact that this arrangement had not merely been approved but actually selected by the man currently walking the storied halls of the White House gave Benno no end of sharp, visceral joy. That it had been ratified by any number of other tastemakers and brought into being by countless designers, sculptors, and other artists who had been willing to attach their names and reputations to the project was nothing short of mortifying for any country with taste — but then, Benno reflected, no one was saying their country had that anymore.
He’d seen the sketches because he was himself to be responsible for installing no fewer than thirteen of the carved panels. No one had, apparently, informed the Powers that his work was likely to be seen only from the blurred windows of passing vehicles on Mexico’s Federal Highway 2, which ran within spitting distance of the border for much of the length of the BMGR as well as the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, where visitors were warned not to touch any unexploded bombs they might find while visiting the final resting place of Edward Abbey, author, activist, and anarchist. Benno had tried reading some of his stuff, but hadn’t been able to get into it after Argo spoiled everything (as she always did) by telling him a little too much about Abbey’s background. It wasn’t the links to eco-terrorist groups like Earth First! that put him off so much as the author’s evident — to Argo, at least — sexism and archaic understanding of science in its relationship to industry.
But that was a thought for another time, thought Benno as the white noise around him resolved into a single collective cry:
God, no. Not him again.
And in an instant, the crowd became a seething mass of unrest, cell phones scraping the bare blue vault of sky. Over the chaos came the sound of engines, and the beat of a helicopter. A half-dozen black sedans approached the security fence on the opposite side of the track and slowed, tires skidding in the gravel as the helicopter dipped into sight and circled. It would have made for quite the signature grand entrance had there not been countless power lines and telephone poles and elevated lights cluttering up the area; the helicopter lifted and slid across the sky before settling some distance away in a slow, careful landing. No flourishes here, thought Benno with some satisfaction as the mass of people behind him began pushing forward, towards the edge of the platform.
A man emerged from the helicopter, pale and blue and orange all at once, just a vague bundle of importance flanked by larger bodies in flat black suits. They bowed their heads under the fierce draft of the slowing rotors and came towards the platform, just as some other voice pitched a quick “It’s coming!” into the mix.
Suddenly, everyone was moving — pushing, shoving, beating at the wall of human bodies before them. All while that one voice was drowned out under the weight of “The President! The President! It’s him!”
A cry. Someone had fallen from their elevated slip of concrete, and others were now leaping down as well, jumping the tracks and sprinting towards an audience with the man himself, the ultimate Power. For a moment it looked as through the entire crowd might spill over and drown him right there on the tracks, but the President stilled, fell back, was surrounded immediately by Secret Service. On the platform, station staff and a small contingent of local police were pushing back at the margins, shouting, unheard, over the din.
But then the train was coming for real, looming practically the instant it was visible, ballooning into being as it came down over the bridge crossing E Broadway. And people were on the tracks, unsure of which way to go — back towards the station? Or over and beyond, to bask in the immediate presence of the President, now invisible behind his own private wall of humanity. The train’s horns blasted — all four of the lead engines blaring seemingly at once — and brakes screamed. Clearly, the train had been prepped for a grand entrance of its own. It came to a stop well short of the crowd, and the people coalesced in a fan before it. The train’s driver was waving wildly, gesturing people to move, but to no effect.
Then he began inching forward, pulling the slow ponderous mass of tarped objects along with him, until it became clear he intended to pull the train up to the platform and nowhere else. Most of those who had willingly gone down on the tracks might have gotten back up again, only the powerful draw of the President on the other side kept many of them there, and the platform was now full to the edge and getting more packed very second that passed. The crowd split, and the train came slowly up, and as the engines passed Benno looked up just in time to see the crew lean out, faces broad with heat and frustration. It gave one final shuddering lurch and fell back on its brakes with a grating sigh, and the elderly men on the platform suddenly realized they were separated from the President. They began to cry out, and rushed the train, beating on it with their bare fists and kicking at it with sandaled feet.
Benno caught himself on a bench and stayed there. He looked across the roil of inspired — and angered — people with resignation. This was what all surprise visits turned out like, he figured. Absolute chaos. No doubt someone had thought it would be good PR to send the big man down here to inspect the result of his work, but like always they were going to have to explain away a couple of broken legs and flayed reputations.
Out of the noise came the beat of rotors again, and consternation — was he leaving already? — and the helicopter dropped into view just overhead, the sight and sound and wind of it pushing the crowd back. The police locked arms with Secret Service in some poor parody of riot control and blocked out a rough twenty feet of concrete. The President was escorted in between carriages, leaving the crowd on the other side blind and furious at their miscalculation. They could hear the thunder of their hands and feet on the train’s open beds as they climbed up for a view. Meanwhile, the President was attempting to speak, only no one could hear him or see him over the din. Someone came through the crowd carrying a chair from inside the station, and he was helped up onto it with the fumbling assistance of two Secret Service agents who clearly didn’t like the situation. But he waved them off, and they went back to eying the crowd from behind impenetrable glasses. Benno could even spot the little silver tags denoting them as smartware. Everyone’s faces were being scanned and cross-checked against databases, he supposed. He felt a rush of adrenaline to his face, the same rush as when, looking up into his rear-view mirror, he spotted the telltale blue-and-red of Highway Patrol.
The President was speaking again. The helicopter beat its way off again, and the world became the province of human voicAt first those hissing for silence actually raised the noise level to a new peak, but at long last the widespread hush and the gesticulating hands of their Commander in Chief brought the crowd to stillness. He could at last be heard.
“ — beautiful, very very beautiful. A lot people tell me this will be the, ah, the absolute most beautiful piece of architecture they’ve ever seen, and I have a lot of very smart people tell me this, and I think, you know, they’re right. They’re absolutely right. And I wanted to be here, I really did, to see this wall go up, to see the Troia become reality, and to thank the good people of Tucson, some of my favorite people really, for making this wall a reality the way it is going to be very soon — ”
The good people of Tucson were practically glowing. Nevermind that they’d neither been involved in the design nor the execution of the Wall’s long-delayed completion. They were touched by the President’s approbation. They basked in it. They — god help them — saw themselves in the bas-relief busts and in the quotations too, having cake and eating it with abandon. They were Trump’s very favorite people, really, and they were good strong Americans with barely a brown hair or inch of dark skin between them. They saw themselves in everything the President unfolded before them as the tarps were laboriously taken down and let fall in ripples of heavy plastic around the wheels. They saw themselves and they loved what they saw. They were alive with pleasure, pleased even with the bruised elbows and scraped shins that marked their survival of this crazed, hectic morning.
Trump raised a hand against the sun, squinting out at nothing while the sweat beaded on his forehead. He rocked briefly on the chair, its feet clearly unevenly placed on the platform. He fell silent for a moment. Benno could see it from fifty or more feet away, a soft glitter of skin paling under the unblinking sun. If the Secret Service wasn’t careful with him, thought Benno, the President might collapse with heatstroke right then and there.
But it was not to be. The President rallied after a long pause, and finished with a flourish:
“Now let’s go kick some immigrant ass!”
And the crowd went wild. They would have gone wild anyway, no matter what the man actually said, but truthfully there were quite a few on the platform sharing that same sunshine who had voted for the Wall, not just the President himself, and who had been waiting to see this particular promise fulfilled for years. They were the same sort of people, Benno sensed, who were likely to take their airsoft rifles — or god forbid, their regular ones — out to border ranch land and sit there of an afternoon in their air-conditioned vehicles taking pot shots at illegal immigrants crossing someone else’s land. It wasn’t an uncommon thing, this practice. And if they weren’t going after the immigrants directly, they liked to go after the water tanks Border Patrol as well as certain concerned citizens kept stocked for the crossing on the theory that a live and captured immigrant was less expensive to deport than repatriating a corpse.
The Wall wasn’t doing much to keep them out, these immigrants, in its current incomplete state. But it hadn’t done much good even back when it was a fairly-complete security fence. Benno had seen the pictures — a pickup truck with a long flexible ramp that could be thrown up against the wall and taken down in minutes that allowed folks on the Mexican side to simply drive up and down a steep slope into the United States; tunnels dug under and holes blasted through for a temporary quick fix. His team had found a few disused tunnels themselves in the course of their work, but these days so many parts of the fence had been disassembled and were still awaiting their concrete replacements that the border was more permeous than ever.
And the bodies were piling up, as they always did. Survey teams and construction crews and coyote-guided packs of immigrants alike lost their lives to the Devil’s Highway. Some of them were gathered up and shipped home — east to Tucson and then south, for the desperate dead, or north for the unlucky — but many were just left where they fell, if leaving them could be justified. Kind Sonora took them where they needed to go.
At least, thought Benno as he stood in the midst of a maelstrom of flesh, watching as the President tottered and half-fell from his perch to be swept back through the train’s burdens and out to his convoy — at least the desert’s desperate dead would wash up at the foot of Mighty Art, under the shadow of figures fit for a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The crowd began to disperse, still wreathed in the afterglow of their own pure, fierce joy — the kind of joy only they could lay claim to, as good people of Tucson, the good, cruel, deeply American people of Tucson. Benno reached for the papers in his back pants pocket and showed them to the cop standing at the far end of the station, who looked as dazed by the morning’s events as everyone else. He clambered over a low barrier and then continued along the tracks toward the front of the train, where the driver and crew stood in heated conversation with someone else — a woman in an expensive-looking outfit, the back of her silk shirt marked by a long dark tongue of sweat.
“Next time you want to pull a stunt like that, Ms. Mercer — ” the driver was saying, only to be interrupted by the woman.
“Next time? Next time, you don’t goddamn stop until we tell you,” she said, spinning on her heel to confront Benno, approaching soft-footed and unhappily across the gravel. “What do you want?”
“I’m here to take custody,” he replied, swallowing heavily, “of units 47 through — ”
“Never mind,” she cut him off, turning back to the driver and stabbing a finger into the air. “Just do your god-damned jobs, everyone, and don’t bother to fuck up, okay?”
The driver folded his arms, shielded almost entirely by the inscrutability of his weatherbeaten face. Benno had the distinct impression he’d dealt with more colorful characters even than Rebekah Mercer, heir to empires and super PAC heavyweight in her own right. She didn’t wait around to see what effect her words had, if any, but blew right on past Benno and into a phalanx of her own bodyguards, reporters, and assorted hangers-on. He watched her go in astonishment, papers still in hand.
One of the engine crew leaned out of the foremost engine. “Which units did you say?”
“47 through 59,” Benno replied.
“I thought we were dropping those off in W — ”
Benno broke in. “Wellton, that’s right. Someone screwed up, though, and the crews are expecting everything in Yuma for the southwestern sector. Our supervisor’s out on medical so I’m here to make sure everything lines up.” He didn’t add that he’d gotten up at four in the morning to do so, after a night of little sleep coordinating the supervisor’s emergency trip to Fortuna Foothills. Nothing worked as it should. Nothing ever worked as it should. This was the lay of the land, only the desert didn’t forgive mistakes, and turned delays into disasters.
Luckily, thought Benno, I’m beginning to have a handle on those.
* = Originally written to comment on the ornamentation of the Hoover Dam, this poem’s exact date and author are unknown to me at this point; I have made inquiries to the New Yorker for details. I believe in full attribution so I will get that for ya’all, dear readers, as soon as possible.