The water never came to a boil. Claire cut the blue flame as soon as the first wisp of steam materialized wraith-like above the whistle hole. She poured the heated water into a cup, lowered a damp tea bag into it, and watched the water coax the liquor from the leaves. After a minute, pale brown curls diffused across the bottom of the cup. The water at the top stayed clear. Claire suspended the spoon above the rim, hesitant to commit to the irrevocable act of stirring. She wondered, why can things not be unstirred?
She let a bit of granulated sugar fall from the tip. The dun-colored water at the bottom of the cup billowed outward and up the sides.
Entropy. That was the term for the irreversible transformation from order to disorder, she remembered now, a curiously euphonic word for a phenomenon so destructive. The molecules of the tea, having been released into the water, could never be put back into the leaves. Yet there was a kind of order to the infusion, too, as it progressed. The billows manifested the laws of physics in their extravagant folds and blossoms, at first rapid, now languid to the point of imperceptibility. They were the singular product of this precise amount of water held in the dimensions of this particular cylinder at this exact temperature, pelted by a specific number of crystals, each of which had a mass and an individual shape, all piercing the surface in a particular sequence at definite angles and infinitesimally varied speeds. But they were not unique. This cup of tepid tea, waiting to be stirred, was like any other made with a once-used bag.
She plunged the spoon in.
The image of her son Joshua reclaimed her. It had been almost a year since he had moved from her bare condominium. She had seen him maybe ten times since. Each time, he wore that ridiculous uniform, a hybrid of Boy Scout and mailman. Dark blue pants—Uxbridge blue, according to Joshua, a revival of the color that the Air Force had discontinued at the end of the last century—with red piping at the outer seams, a sky-blue blouse, and a garrison cap. But it was the insignia, medals, and badges that got under her skin: the outline of a metal fish above the left breast pocket, which he received for passing his Bible study course; the red pin shaped like a flame for having recruited three new cadets; the embroidered, four-armed silver star that resembled Christ’s cross on the cap; the red bull’s eye sewn above the right breast pocket for marksmanship and gun safety; the silver Alpha and Omega, one on each collar tip; and of course, the Eagle and Cross belt buckle. The troop—those who were full, adult members, as Joshua had recently become—had lately been issued Uxbridge blue blazers to match the pants, and a heavy black belt that cinched high on the waist. Then there was the armband. Sky blue, about four inches wide, with a big white circle and inside it the stylized open wings of a red eagle in silhouette, its chest emblazoned with a white cross.
“You look like a brownshirt,” she had said to him.
“Don’t call me that. Pastor Morton said people would say that. That’s a slander. We’re nothing like that. We don’t beat people for no reason. We don’t break windows. We feed people. We give them a place to stay. We help the police. The brassard identifies us, that’s all, like the Red Cross,” he said.
“Brassard,” another rare and mellifluous word, this one emanating exclusivity and aggression. She nursed the tea, cradling the mug in her hands to absorb the bit of warmth that radiated through the sides. A chill hung about the condominium. She had closed all the interior doors and sat in the open greatroom that combined the kitchen, living room, and dining area. She kept the heavy drapes pulled in winter to conserve heat, even in the day, unless the sun pushed through the persistent cloud cover, which was uncommon these past winters. When the sun did shine, she threw the curtains wide and turned her face toward the warm light. But in the dim stillness of her present solitude, all that came through the curtained window was the muffled whisper of rain.
“I’ve heard otherwise,” she had said to Josh.
She was careful not to drive him away. He was her only son and she missed him. More than that, she was frightened for him, and felt the sick panic of maternal failure.
“Who are you going to believe, me or some godless traitor?” Josh said.
“Listen to yourself,” she said.
She looked into his eyes, wanting to connect with the twelve-year-old she had encouraged nine years ago to join this organization that had metastasized into something she could not recognize as Christian. He had left her condo shortly after their exchange without so much as a hug.
She tried to comfort herself by thinking she had only heard of gang actions by word of mouth and through blogs. The news media—if it could be called that anymore—unstintingly praised the good and noble works of the Order of the Eagle and Cross. What had happened at CNN a few years ago was not lost on other journalists. In response to an investigative piece on the American Homeland Party’s alleged diversion of federal funds to the OEC to develop an elite, covert force like the Israeli Mossad, the House of Representatives had accused CNN of giving aid and comfort to the enemy and brought sedition charges against the head of its news division.
The government-sponsored television network, which had been known as PBS when she was young, had been under the management of the AHP for some time. It was now known as the Homeland Broadcast Service. HBS focused extensively on the wars in the Middle East and on the pursuit and dispatch—sometimes by capture, more often by killing—of terrorists. Such interdictions were a daily event among the nostalgia shows, World War II histories, recountings of terrorist perfidy (from the bombing of the Marines in Beirut in 1983 to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 to the detonation of the dirty bomb in Long Beach Harbor in 2016 to the destruction of the oil export facilities in Saudi Arabia in 2018 to the coordinated transit bombings of 2021), and the endless panel discussions of the government’s plan to pull the country out of recession. That was the word they used, recession, even though unemployment was above thirty percent. They had to admit to that number. It was simply too obvious.
Nature shows were still a staple. They portrayed the heroic efforts to save this charismatic species or that—lions, lemurs, elephants, gorillas—through the expansion and redrawing of preserve boundaries as the animals migrated toward the poles and the mountain peaks. They had stopped showing polar bears. They were doomed in the wild, and reminders were very bad for the citizens’ morale. But polar bear DNA, like the DNA of many species, was preserved and cataloged in labs all over the country. It seemed to Claire that not a single nature program on HBS failed to mention DNA preservation.
Watching television was a temptation that Claire could not resist and it bothered her. It was more than a frivolous and indulgent waste of energy; it was an acquiescence to what had happened in America over the past ten years. No, worse, it was a capitulation. Watching the extinction-denying shows by herself, alone on the loveseat, wrapped in the afghan that her grandmother had knitted and her mother passed on when she married John, Claire would sink into a maudlin longing and project the world of her youth around herself like a soap bubble. Though she knew it was neurotic, even wrong, to immerse herself in these bouts of magical thinking, to wish herself a child again running with her brother Hammond through the pines to the tent where her father fussed with fishing lures and her mother fried bacon, she couldn’t help it.
She sipped her lukewarm tea, then rose and woke the computer on the counter. The screen glowed. She sent a message to John: “About our son. Come by tonight.”
That was innocuous enough, she thought. That shouldn’t bother him. She worried it didn’t carry enough urgency, but more detail might cause trouble if it were detected. How did she end up married to a man like John, who accepted that kind of intrusion in his private life, who gave over his private life, really, to the service of what—shareholders? He would argue, had argued, that he sacrificed his privacy for the good of the public.
“It’s not just the money,” he had said. “If you think things are bad now, imagine if we had even less energy. Would the country be better off, Claire?”
“But why you? Why do you have to do it?” she had said.
“Why me? What about you? You’re the do-gooder.”
That was twelve years ago. She had become enraged, despite his immediate apology, but now she could see that he had a point. They were compelled by different issues. She just couldn’t understand his for the life of her.
Before she turned the computer off, she checked for messages from Hector’s campaign. There was nothing except the rote exhortations for all volunteers to keep up the good fight, so she pressed the switch and waited for John to arrive. Tomorrow, she would go to Hector’s headquarters in Oakland. It was five days before the primary.
[Image courtesy of Weather Underground, photographer LarrySmit.]