THE TRAITOROUS PATRIOT, THE COSMIC BUS RIDE
Jason N. Kamalie
At first—only the darkness, deep and blue. That, and the washing machine whir of rubber tires rumbling softly over the Utah interstate. The calm is occasionally rattled by the outbursts of pothole-tire fights—the only sounds reverberating through the icy plains and hills of the night-clad state. But then inside the bus, there is the hand—only a shadow upon a shadow in the darkness—reaching up, seeming never to arrive at its destination. Like a bird in eerie flight, the hand thins to an index finger that presses a button on the ceiling of the bus.
Instantly, soft light drops down upon a few seats near the rear of the Greyhound coach rumbling towards California. Chris (and his hand) occupies one of these seats. I sit in one behind him. The dim light bathing him, the jostled vibration of travel, and his nervous grin masking the question I know he’s going to ask all bring my world back into existence. "Let there be light," it is said—and so there is, from the ceiling of a lonely bus. And while sitting here among the scattered, motley crew of late-night passengers, it’s with surprised dread I realize, again, where I am and what this all means. It’s the cosmic bus ride. But this isn’t the beginning of the story. I hope it’s not the end either.
It all begins with the execution I’m watching on a floor-model television. As a six-year-old boy living in Shiraz, Iran, I’ve never seen anything quite like the televised spectacle. When my mother, four years earlier, married an Iranian man who moved us from Akron, Ohio to ancient Persia, I don’t think she could anticipate all those small, troublesome differences in culture which might affect American children freshly transplanted to third-world countries. Differences like the execution of state prisoners on public television, for instance. So, while Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird were hamming it up along Sesame Street on television back in the states, it was Hassad the Executioner and (his) Big Gun keeping all the Iranian kids in stitches. Truthfully, Iran is a country of vast, ancient beauty and contemporary ideas clashing with the rigors of fundamentalism. The people there are some of the best on the planet.
But the beginning ends with me watching a shaking, bearded, blindfolded man tied to a metal post outside some government building in Tehran, with his hands fixed behind his back as he waited to die. He tilts his head as far back as the death pole behind him will allow in trying to view the last few moments of light and life from underneath his black blindfold. The television image pans to the left to show an arm that ends in a gloved hand holding a shiny, semi-automatic pistol. The executioner guides the pistol into place at the condemned man’s temple and, when this is done, he immediately pulls the trigger; the gun registers a pop while recoiling. At almost the same time, a spectacular, horizontal eruption of red and dark purple sprays across victim and killer alike in a sort of macabre fireworks show as the victim’s head lurches away from the discharged weapon. Shocked at these images, I ask my adoptive father what the criminal did to die like this. He looks from the show to me, seeming to carefully consider my question before answering.
"He is a traitor. He betrayed his country and people. And, under the law, people who do this are put to death," he says to me in his slow way while his dark eyes look for understanding in mine. So I nod and shift my gaze to the red Persian carpet with the geometric patterns covering the tiled floor.
"So what are you going to do?" It’s Chris, sitting in front of me, asking me the question I knew he was going to ask eventually. It comes back to me slowly . . .the bus ride, frozen Utah, fear. It has been all countryside, in fact, since our skeleton crew of riders stumbled out of the Cheyenne station at four A.M. earlier in the day to board for the next leg of our trip. With bloodshot, heavy-lidded eyes and wrinkled clothes, we took turns shivering, coughing, and yawning in our crooked line leading up to the entrance of the bus where the neatly-uniformed (but very unpleasant) driver checked our tickets and allowed us to board with a nod of his white head.
Shuffling up the steps and into the coach, our group of five passengers felt lifeless, undesired, and worried because of our circumstances. There was the woman from Laramie with the wind-burned cheeks, plump body, and hippie-straight hair. Her eyes seemed like they shined best when regarding anything containing alcohol. Following her up the steps was the young blond with the nice smile and small mole over her lip. She was going to study massage therapy at an "exclusive" school in Utah as a consequence of having been laid off from her factory job. Wearing oversized, holey jeans and a ridiculous rainbow kerchief, she would later ask me at one of the terminals if I could "fucking believe" that Greyhound wanted to charge her extra because her luggage exceeded the maximum size and weight allowances. After briefly surveying the two massive arks upon which her sandaled feet rested, I would tell her that, in fact, I could believe it.
The small, Latino man following massage girl up into the bus had short hair that was dyed bright red and pink. This contrasted sharply with his black goatee, eyebrows, and dark skin. He, too, was laid off—from an electronics outfit of some sort near Chicago—which prompted him to take the bus out to Nevada to live with relatives while he looked for work. His attention rarely wavered from the pocket video game consuming him. He imparted how desperate things had become for him in the last year or so, though it was clear he didn’t want to talk about it. He had no problem getting a job outside Chicago before—he had some college and that seemed to help. But, now. . . Chris followed him up the Greyhound steps and into the bus, and then me. Five trampled souls in the uncertain dark.
Pulling away from the deserted Greyhound station in Wyoming’s capital under the shivering, shimmering moon, it’s with some anger I remember the likes of Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and so many other visible freedom-haters in the media. While most of them never served in the military, I served in the army as an interrogator with a top-secret clearance during the first Gulf War. I was awarded the National Defense Ribbon for that service, in fact. But by the time the second Iraq war came around many of us veterans couldn’t abide the lies and the senseless killing anymore.
Like so many, we see the transparency of this war and the administration waging it. Unsurprisingly, there has been a concerted, unprecedented attempt in mainstream media loyal to this administration to discredit and vilify everyone opposed to the war, going so far as to regard us as traitors. Ann Coulter, the popular, hateful Christian fundamentalist author, insists that those Americans not supportive of Bush and our occupation of Iraq should be tried for treason and summarily executed. She feels half the nation should be put to death because we don’t agree with the other half’s desire to kill and suppress Muslims abroad.
If these sensational media figures had only sat in the bleachers of my parade fields and army posts, they might have heard the brass occasionally speak of things and circumstances "cosmic." They might have learned that events, outcomes, and activities don’t manifest on their own. They are fated to occur in the cosmos, or, if you like, by divine design—occurring regardless of human motivation or intention. I think of the "manifest destiny" of our own nation, the providence of that foundational political philosophy of this country. Each thing that happened or will ever happen has, in a sense, been destined to occur long ago and fits into a mosaic of human becoming. Don’t these hateful media figures realize that this was the doctrine of so many of our nation’s founding fathers? Rumbling toward California and an uncertain, frightening future, I thought it was tragic that the individuals driving the massive vehicles of our government and media have forgotten this. History is the future if left unaltered.
But when nutcase conservative figures like Ann Coulter and her ilk traitorize liberal thinkers, veterans, patriots, and so many others who don’t share her chaotic ideas, I feel it’s just a matter of time before the universe wakes up and rights itself. When our government kills thousands of people (including our own soldiers) to wage war for oil profit, suspends whole provisions of the Bill of Rights, seeks to make the wealthy as wealthy as possible while trampling the oppressed and poor among us, and ensures that the uninsured stay that way—all while making the world as unsafe and inhospitable as it’s ever been—the cosmos awakens and swiftly shakes off all this madness and disorder. I think it’s only a matter of time.
All these thoughts came to me in flashing images and emotions like some colorful locomotive, like a series of mental train cars, as my eyes grew heavy on the Greyhound. That rare bus travel commodity, sleep, was finding its way to my part of the coach as I watched Dick "Leave No Oil Company Behind" Cheney’s frozen Wyoming roll past me in mottled greens and snowy whites outside the window. I fell asleep, just after crossing into Utah, wishing that every time Ann Coulter suggested invading foreign nations, killing their respective leaders, and converting their populations to Christianity, she’d develop a painful spattering of hemorrhoids which would audibly burst like bubble-wrap when she took communion.
"So, what are you going to do?" Chris. And his question again—the one I knew he was going to ask. His smile has diminished some and his eyes take on that guarded, searching quality eyes do when their owner attempts to ascertain whether he’s been heard or understood. But, I’m lost in the type of trance-like contemplation that makes responsive articulation impossible. At least for the moment. I look around the bus briefly, caught in the space between seconds where I toss this idea here and that idea there.
The wind-burned lady from Laramie sitting several rows ahead of us is telling our very uninterested bus driver how nearly everyone in her town works at the local prison. How the prison brought so many jobs to her area. How there are so many social clubs and community events relating to the prison. How wonderful the prison is . . . and on and on. Her monotone, penal yammering is maddening.
I can’t see the bus driver’s face, but the stillness of his shoulders and neck seems to foreshadow a moment when he might, in a sudden lapse of sanity, swing a wild backhand at the chattering head—neatly splitting Ms. Laramie’s lip and ending the prison dissertation. Meanwhile, across the aisle in front of us, the chubby, bubbly massage blonde is loudly snoring against the window upon which her head is resting. Each time she noisily exhales, her breath steams a cloudy swathe across the portion of the window nearest her mouth, illumined by the expressway lights.
The young Latino guy with the dyed red hair still zealously thumbs the controls of his video game while it chirps and sings in the dark. I focus on Chris who is still turned around in the seat in front of me waiting for an answer. Like all of us, his eyelids are a little droopy—the trademark of a cross-country trip taken on a vehicle seemingly designed for discomfort.
Laid off from work. It strikes me that, on this cosmic bus ride, the commonality we five passengers share is being laid off from work. It was the time of great layoffs, when the slick executives at my ex-company raked in record salaries, bonuses, perks (like second homes and cars), and a myriad of other amenities. People like Chris and me were fighting tooth and nail just to hang on to the homes we had.
Sometime earlier, Chris told me he couldn’t understand why our government was forking out mad cash to finance that brutal mess they’re making in Iraq. Four billion dollars a month to kill and suppress innocent Iraqis. More war, while, here at home, people like us—the trampled poor looking for work—can’t find jobs, or medical coverage. Chris said he hated this government for what it was doing to so many Americans. For what it was doing to him and his wife.
Then I told him about Iran—its shiny, copper-colored fields, its fiery-red pomegranates hanging from the twisting branches of leafy trees. I told him about the breathtaking gardens that would occasionally spring up from the earth along thick, lush grass, greener than the souls of butterflies. But I told him he does not want to be a traitor in Iran. It’s so easy to be a traitor there. And here, in the country I love so much—is it easy to be a traitor here? So many among us have felt it personally.
I told Chris we’re faced with the same dilemma as those trampled, Orwellian, barnyard animals of the familiar classic—the inability to distinguish the (starry, striped) pigs from the men. In a time of great disconcert and deception, a time of prevailing ignorance and empathy by our people toward murder and torture, we are called traitors by America’s proletariat at the urge of dark-minded politicians and media cohorts. No place or time for dissent when there are so few jobs for which to scramble. Maybe the next stop our bus would make would be in Tehran instead of someplace in Utah. If not our bus, some bus in America’s future.
Later in the evening, after our bus rolled into snowy Utah from Wyoming, I thought I heard the faint sound of muffled weeping and saw Chris’s shoulders heaving slightly in the darkness in front of me. How many were there like Chris and me? He was a defeated, desperate man stifling the tears of futility and failure on the long ride back to his wife and home.
"So, what are you going to do?" It’s Chris asking, for the third time. The searching quality of his eyes has evolved into that prompting, irritated look people give when they wave a hand in front of their unresponsive listeners to snap them out of thought. Yet, it’s only now that I realize the importance of his question, its relevance to Chris. It’s a question asked as much of himself as of me—a tool by which to gauge all things suicidal. But, it’s really a question within a question. What he really means when he asks it is, "How are we going to make it?" Since I don’t know the answer to this question, I answer the one he voiced as the dimpled mountains and white foothills of nighttime Utah rush by outside my window.
"I’m going to get off the bus, Chris," is what I tell him as the ceiling light above him momentarily flickers while we rumble over a patch of rough interstate. He doesn’t understand, so I continue.
"I’m going to get off the bus in San Francisco and start from there. I don’t have any money. No contacts, no family, not a single job prospect. If I don’t find work soon, I’ll be homeless in days." Chris’s eyes fall a little and his half-nod betrays his expectation of such an answer. He knew I left Ohio for California much the same way he left California for Canada . . . out of protracted desperation. He didn’t get the job in Canada, so now he’s coming home to his wife in San Jose. Another brief stretch of holey interstate causes us to rock and sway while his ceiling light flickers again as I tell him more.
"But I’m not going to quit. It’s just the beginning of the story—it’s where I’ll start. I’ll write about all of this and hope that somebody, somewhere will care. You should do the same Chris—don’t give up. We’re due for a break." He studies my face to determine if I’m being flippant. When he sees I’m not, he says he won’t quit trying. That he, too, thinks things are due to change, to get better for people like us. He turns back around in his seat and extends his hand upward to turn off the ceiling light. The bus bearing its traitorous patriots rumbles softly over the Utah interstate on to California.