Where the Wheel Meets the Road

The war, so they say, ended a half century and more ago, but the Ladies keep to the old habits, of want and privation, of solitude in the afternoons, of cold coffee on the balcony. These habits kept them alive, kept them canny, and have not lost their utility with the coming of a notional peace. The front has shifted, not dissolved, and if there are fewer mortars crashing between the buildings, fewer young men carried silently back through the quiet streets, even so: the siege continues.

They have lost the streets, the bars, and the factories, driven inside and underground. They drift among the new society, unseen aqueducts half-buried beneath newly green hills, trenches choked with poppies. In the labs and offices, they stand in circles, laughing humorlessly at a joke told by someone schooled in forgetting, avoiding eye contact, swallowing rage. They know each other in these moments by a tightness around the eyes, a blanch of white knuckles on a sudden fist, a twist of the mouth revealing the pinch of an ulcer.

Evenings they go to ground in windowless bars or drive through the country on surplus motorbikes, mouths wide and laughing to catch the air, eyes bright with whiskey, cheap cigarettes, country music, blues. They carry the war within them, pass it down in silence to their adopted children, who will use it in the war yet to come.

Headless Horsemen

No one signs first, no one signs last, their names ring the letter of protest like a herd of cattle turning their back to the wolves. There is no least element in the set, no weakest member, no place for induction to gain a toothhold and start whittling down to methodical emptiness.

It will not work — power is not so fastidious as logic. When no member is first, all are first; when each trailers another, all lag behind. They are picked off regardless, arbitrarily, universally, all scheduled for reprisal, if not later, then now. The firings never end and the office empties out, the lights are shut down row by row to conserve energy, until no one remains, neither worker nor manager, just the shape of a company left pressed into the world like the echo of a body in a well-worn mattress.

But if there is no logic to their winnowing, there is no certainty of their removal, either. Like mushrooms after a rain, they rise again, fruiting bodies reaching toward the air from a sprawling underground network that neither the hunter nor the pig can reach. Burn the forest down and they will rise from the ashes, first to burn, first to return, an unbroken circle where spirits dance.

A movement without a leader cannot be slowed by assassination.

Alternating Currents

Like cats, the Gentlemen have a multiplicity of names that they trade between themselves as necessity or inclination demands. Public names, private names, true names; names for the stage, the page, and the war; preferred names and passing names, work names and screen names. They have an endless supply of official-seeming documentation to support these names, cards, badges, passports, library cards, utility bills, job applications, you name it.

These names are real, in the way that a suit of clothes is real, or haircut or beard is real, but they are fluid, labile, suitable to a moment or a mood. They learn each other’s name like collecting quarters, spend them as easily. They hydra out with each introduction, forking again and again, a tangle of identities that scorns the idea of a solid, stable center. Like fish, like coral, like a man o war breaking the surface before descending to feed, they exist only in aggregate, each one a nation in himself.

Roaring Camp

Off base and in the bars, or crowding the rails in the opera house, the Gentlemen are on the hunt for somewhere to sleep. War is come, but not—quite—yet, and they are flash in their uniforms, the clever, the canny, the old hands among them camouflaged in civvies, wary of the tigers that prowl the streets, that slink in through the kitchen door just long enough for the word to spread and the less wise to scatter.

They pass messages through the jukebox, sometimes through titles, sometimes through lyrics: heaven for two, why don’t you do right, jolene, jolene. They are scrutinized by the other patrons, the locals, the townies: what do they know, and when do they know it? None of them are from this town, all of them are suspect.

Later, scattered to the winds, they send letters through the military post, always one step ahead or behind the censors. Change the names, change the dates, change the places; nothing as formal and as breakable as a code, but all sly allusions, sidelong slang. If you know, you know. Meanwhile, the Army, off on completely the wrong track, prohibited soldiers from using any Xs at the end of their letters because ‘the number and arrangement of kisses might constitute a code.’

Handkerchiefs On A Washing Line

One is a puddle on the floor, and has been for some time; that fleeting glance was all too much. Not a talker, the other has been silent now for long minutes without occasioning comment, lost in his drink and his mortification, the red rim of the solo cup white where he’s flexed it. Nerves.

The Gentlemen run conversations in their heads, dream of humming some song as they pass in the street and seeing some stranger head prick up and swivel knowingly toward them. Beyond speaking, what they imagine is that moment of knowing, of being known, of passing a code openly and without possibility of interception.

The Gentlemen ever meet thus, in crowded rooms, in restaurants during the busy time, without speaking, without acknowledgement. They circle around each other nonetheless, tethered together like planets, like stars, like galaxies and black holes, carving through space as a single unbreakable system.